‘Good evening,’ the Baron’s voice boomed down at us from his illustrious staircase. ‘I suppose you are all wondering why I have invited you here on this most auspicious evening.’
I shivered slightly at his intonation, and – for the first time – wondered why exactly I had travelled halfway across the world on the invitation of an aristocrat who I had never met or corresponded with before. A few of my companions shifted uncomfortably around me, leading me to believe that they might be having similar misgivings.
‘See here,’ said the stern man with the bushy eyebrows (whose name I did not yet know). ‘What’s the meaning of summoning us here?’
‘I cancelled a fox hunt for this,’ grumbled the older woman at his side, balancing on her cane. The Baron laughed, taking a single step down the staircase. His ornate rings clinked against the beautifully designed glass balustrade – installed near Melbourne, if my practised eye could be believed.
‘My dear, distinguished guests,’ he said, each sentence punctuated by a step. ‘Truly, there is no need to feel out of sorts. I have invited you to my grounds for a very special, very rare opportunity.’
‘An opportunity?’ Hugh, the young nobleman next to me piped up. Oh, great, I sighed internally. An entrepreneur.
‘Indeed,’ the Baron nodded, cloaked in shadow as he descended. ‘I need your help, dear friends, in testing a new proposition of mine.’
‘What sort of proposition?’ asked Abigail, the blonde American woman who I’d encountered first on the driveway. I felt an unexpected rush of nervousness as she spoke up, surprised at both my protectiveness of her – a virtual stranger – and the unmistakable sense of impending doom that had settled over us like a heavy blanket.
‘I’m afraid all I know how to offer are commercial glazing services,’ I piped up, to get his attention away from Abigail. ‘And I’m retired, as of last winter, I’m afraid.’
The Baron laughed, though no humour penetrated his smile.
‘Mister Rennings,’ he said, softly. ‘You will be the most help of all. Now, I do believe that the hour is almost at hand…’
As if on cue, a deep, mournful howling began to ring through the halls.