The Adventure Begins
On a quiet evening, just before dark, Christie broke the fourth rule.
She eased open her door and checked the long hallway. A shadow, lonely and silent, glided away and vanished into a distant corner.
Christie shook her head. Even shadows wanted to hide on this night. Without their help, she’d have to hurry before anyone saw her. Her footsteps whispered on the carpet when she started out along the passage. All the anger and despair in the mansion seemed to follow at her heels.
Walking faster, she made a point of looking forward, never checking over her shoulder. Christie didn’t know if she wanted to prove something to herself or the old mansion. She only knew she’d face this dim hallway—and break a hundred more rules—if it meant setting things right. She had the edgy feeling she’d put her best friend in danger.
At the end of the passage, she drew close to a pale blue door. She stopped cold.
In a mansion filled with closed doors, this one stood open a crack. She raised her hand and pushed the blue wood. As the door swung open, she tried to see more of the upstairs parlor.
“Melina?” Christie lowered her voice. “Are you here?”
A scraping noise came and went, so faint she might have imagined it. Christie waited and strained to listen until her ears hurt. The sound came again—something had moved on the balcony.
She stepped deeper into the parlor. The drifting light reminded her of water, and she pushed through it like a swimmer, pulling up at the far wall. Beyond the balcony curtains, she felt for the door handles. Her fingers plunged into a spongy softness thicker than a spider’s web. She jerked back, hesitated, and then dragged one of the heavy curtains to the side.
A gray scarf twisted around the handles, binding the double doors together. She grasped one end of the scarf and unwound it, choking back a cough when sweet perfume filled the air.
Her fingers flew open and the scarf dropped to the floor. Fumbling with the twin doors, she opened them enough to slip through the gap. She almost stumbled into Melina. Silhouetted against the fiery red sunset, her friend stood frozen on the tiny balcony. Melina's gaze stayed fixed on the street far below them.
“Are you all right?” She touched Melina’s arm, reassuring herself they were no longer alone.
Melina startled, but remained silent.
“Why are you…?” Jasmine scent lingered and told Christie the answer. “My aunt locked you out here.”
Melina glanced up and nodded, her black curls pushing against the stiff maid’s cap she wore.
“I started washing the windows inside the parlor, trying to catch up on the work...”
Melina tucked a curl back inside the mobcap. Her hand shook, and Christie glimpsed red cuts making patterns across her friend’s palm. Every day, Aunt Rachel dismissed more of the servants until Melina did almost all the hard work.
Christie choked down the raw anger building inside her. She focused on Melina’s soft voice.
“…your aunt slipped into the parlor and stood there staring at me. I don’t think she even blinked. Just when I couldn’t stand it anymore, she ordered me to come out here and sweep. She tied the doors shut then. I couldn’t stop her.”
“I don't understand any of this.”
“She said something through the crack…” Melina’s voice faltered. She took a sharp breath and continued. “She told me when the balcony doors opened again, I’d see a stranger standing there.”
What does Aunt Rachel plan to do? Christie knew Uncle Victor had to be involved too.
“How did you know to look for me?” Melina asked. "Did you find out anything new?"
“No, but the mansion feels even more unfriendly tonight, and then my aunt and uncle...” Christie gathered what she had to say and began again. “That drawing I told you about—I wanted to show it to you."
In her sketchbook, Christie had tried to capture the "large place" she'd read about in the Psalms that morning. A place where she and Melina could find open doors and windows and real air to breathe. She'd drawn two birds flying over the mountains, but the image failed to capture the feeling she wanted.
Now even her drawing found itself a prisoner somewhere in the mansion. Her hands felt empty without her sketchbook.
Christie wanted to hold back from frightening her friend, but she had to tell her. "I wanted to find you and help clean. The first time I started to leave my room tonight, Aunt Rachel and Uncle Victor were right outside my door, blocking my way out.”
For a fleeting moment, she'd caught an odd, calculating expression on Aunt Rachel’s face. Then her aunt turned her back in a whirl of silken skirts, but Uncle Victor seemed to grow taller until Christie thought his head would touch the ceiling. He began speaking with a peculiar calmness that made her want to take a step back.
“Keep quiet tonight,” he'd told her. “Do not light any candles or look out your window.” His voice pushed hard against every word. “And, no matter what you hear, do not try to help her.”
She’d met his gray eyes with a hard-won steadiness, hoping to conceal her growing fear for Melina. Her hands loosened and allowed her sketchbook to drop to the floor. Uncle Victor grabbed the sketchbook and tucked it firmly under his arm. He closed the door in her face, and she listened to their footsteps fading down the hallway. She forced herself to count off seven minutes before she'd started out to find Melina.
As the light slipped from the balcony, Christie told her friend, "I don't know what they're planning, but we have to stop it."
Melina's eyes looked even more troubled. "I don't want you to get hurt tonight. You should do what they say and not try to help me."
“We always face things together, and we're not going to stop now. They won't win against the two of us."
Christie tried to push down her uneasiness about keeping that promise and headed back inside the parlor. After crossing the room, she looked for watchers in the hallway. When all remained still, she signaled with her hand to let Melina know they could leave.
Aunt Rachel walked out from the main bedroom, smoothing down her skirts and tilting her head in an attitude of listening.
With her heart beating in her throat, Christie drew back inside the parlor. Why is she upstairs? To check on Melina?
After a few seconds, Christie looked through the opening again. Her aunt concentrated on lighting a candle. Appearing deep in thought, she made no move toward the parlor.
Christie took the chance to study Aunt Rachel from her smooth blond hair to the midnight-blue dress she wore. Her young aunt looked as icy and beautiful as usual, but candlelight revealed the strange excitement in her eyes. The candle shifted lower. In the hollow of her aunt’s neck, a heart-shaped birthmark stood out. No blue flame sparkled there to hide it.
Aunt Rachel placed a hand over the mark and turned away. Her silk dress rustled as she walked to the marble staircase. Footsteps rang out until she disappeared from view.
“It’s gone,” Christie said in her lowest whisper. “Her favorite sapphire necklace.”
Melina frowned. “She always uses that necklace to cover the heartmark. Why isn’t she wearing it tonight?”
Could it be...?
Unable to keep still, Christie ran into the hallway. “Aunt Rachel spoke the truth,” she whispered the words over her shoulder. “A stranger… I think I know. It must be a police officer. He’s coming after you tonight.”
“Why?” Melina’s voice, shocked and low, followed her. “I haven’t done anything wrong here.”
“No, but I have.”
Christie slowed her pace to keep anyone from hearing downstairs. More of the pieces came together.
“My aunt and uncle say I’m keeping a secret from them. About my father. I don’t know what they want, but they’re going to threaten you to get at me.”
Christie reached her room and slipped inside, crossing over to the window. She flicked aside the heavy shade and swept her gaze over the street below her. It stood empty except for a familiar man dressed in black. When he stretched to light a gas lamp, she let the shade drop back into place.
“This is all my fault. I’ll explain everything later, I promise, but we have to get out. Tonight." She took a deep breath. "Before the police start pounding on the door, we have to escape.”
When she turned around, Melina’s eyes were full of questions.
Christie glanced over at her pine wardrobe. “I have to pack some things. My father’s belongings are too dangerous to leave behind. They’d show where we’re headed.”
Melina seemed to hesitate. “I want to get something too. I’ll be quick.” She slipped into the hallway. “I’ll meet you at the bottom of the servants’ stairs.”
When Melina disappeared from sight, Christie’s chest tightened. What if she never saw her friend again?
We have to pack, she reminded herself. It’s the only way we’re going to survive on our own.
She hurried over to the tall wardrobe and pulled out the mysterious items left by her father. It took a breathless minute to get everything inside her traveling bag, along with her last drawing pencil, a penknife, and her few clothes. She took a leather pouch from its hiding place and swung the attached chain around her neck, concealing the pouch under her dress. The coins settled and stilled.
Darkness tightened its grip on the mansion, and she lit a candle, breaking the last of her uncle’s rules. When she left her room, she kept close to the side of the hallway. A sharp edge grazed her leg and caught at her skirt. Biting back a cry, she aimed her candle and found the sketchbook tossed against the wall. Drawings—her father's and her own—lay torn and battered around her. She picked up the broken sketchbook and tucked it inside her carpetbag. She closed the bag with a soft click.
Shadows raced beside her now as she darted along the hallway. The servants’ stairs loomed in front of her.
Why isn’t Melina waiting for me?
Had her aunt discovered the empty balcony? She climbed the first rough steps and prayed nothing had already happened to her friend. As she grasped the railing, light flashed. She looked up to see Melina clinging to the same rail high above her.
The candle Melina held spread a waving, golden beam across the red blanket under her arm. While her friend climbed down, Christie tried to think of the best plan to get out of the mansion.
“This way.” Melina dipped her candle toward another flight of rough stairs. “It’s the one place they might not see us.”
They kept their footsteps light as they climbed down to the kitchen. In the soft glow of a lantern, Christie halted beside the stove. Voices came from the other side of the kitchen’s swinging door. The familiar scent of jasmine floated around her.
Melina shielded her candle to keep the light from betraying them. Christie guarded her own candle, angling her feet away.
“It’s almost done,” Aunt Rachel’s words grew louder, “we can finish everything tonight.”
A swish of fabric pushed more jasmine scent under the door.
“Were there any problems about Jean Silver?” Uncle Victor asked. “And that man, DeWitt? Did he suspect anything about the necklace?”
Aunt Rachel made an impatient sound. “He suspected nothing. Everything went the way we planned, but will your niece tell you the truth now? Are you certain the maid is important enough to her?”
“You’re asking me to rate the value of a Greek servant? Someone who cleans out chamber pots?”
Christie clamped her lips shut while her fingers tightened around the candlestick’s hard metal.
“Once Officer Devlin arrests the maid for stealing the necklace,” Uncle Victor continued, “Christianna will tell the truth. That servant—I can never remember her name—will stay in prison for as long as it takes.”
Christie exchanged a look with Melina. What did Uncle Victor want so much he’d destroy her friend to get it?
“You have to be right about this.” Doubt colored Aunt Rachel’s words. “You promised me—”
“My brother knew he was dying,” Uncle Victor interrupted. “Would anyone let a treasure like that get away? He must have wanted his daughter to have it. Getting what her father brought back is the only way out for us.”
Christie willed him to say more. She needed to learn what he wanted and then find it. Impossible, but if she failed, Uncle Victor would keep after them until he caught Melina.
“When I lock Christianna on the balcony with her so-called friend,” Uncle Victor said, “it should scare her into telling the truth, now, tonight.”
Christie gave a sharp nod to Melina and started moving.
“Be careful.” Aunt Rachel’s tone held a challenge. “The balcony latch is broken.”
“Doors and windows are kept locked here. Always.” Uncle Victor’s voice rose. “How could you be so careless?”
Christie took the opportunity to hurry her footsteps.
“At least make sure everything is locked from the inside.” Uncle Victor’s words grew fainter. “Start with the kitchen.”
“Go,” she mouthed to Melina, fear prickling along her back.
Melina skidded around a corner beyond the stove. A golden handle jutted out from the wall. While Christie braced herself for a loud creak, Melina turned the handle.
Only a sigh of air came, and her friend scrambled into a dark opening.
Christie started to follow. Her leg slipped on the polished floor and she flung out an arm to keep from falling into space. Her hand slapped against the wall. She lost her grip on the candlestick, sending it clanking to the floor.
“Victor, come back here,” Aunt Rachel cried out.
“Christie?” Melina appeared out of the darkness. “We have to get to the basement.”
She picked herself up and fled through an opening like a cave’s mouth. Her feet connected with uneven stairs turning into packed dirt at the bottom. The smell of mold and rotting trash made her choke. She fought the sick feeling, running behind Melina in the faint light from her friend’s candle.
An old leather trunk blocked her way. She twisted around it and kept going. Large wooden crates, piled high, appeared ready to fall on her head.
Footsteps rang out above her. A pinpoint of light rushed down the stairs. Turning to run, Christie kept going until a hard surface blocked her path. Stumbling back from the damp wall, she searched for Melina. Her friend struggled with a thick door a few feet away.
Ragged breathing filled the air. She spun to look. Her uncle ran about ten paces away, leaning forward and eating up the space between them.
She rushed to join Melina and threw herself against the door. Pain shot through her shoulder. She hit it again. The iron door burst open, tumbling her into a dark alley.
Christie took off running between two high brick walls. Melina’s light steps sounded out close behind her.
Reaching the main avenue, she expected to see badges from a hundred policemen shine in her eyes. The hush surprised her. Under the gaslight, the street slept like a long golden cat.
Uncle Victor will hear us. She linked arms with Melina and ran into the night.
“I have to ask,” Melina whispered as their shoes rapped against the cobblestones, “where are we going?”
There's one chance.
“We have to find the edge of the world.”