Chapter Twelve: Hollow
Forrest had been right about Blythe’s absence from the dinner party. When Penny had arrived at the Mason residence at eight o’ clock the following evening, Blythe had marched down the winding staircase looking at neither Penny nor Archer by the entrance, slipped into his office and slammed the mahogany door behind him. Archer shrugged at Penny and beckoned for her to follow him to the basement, where the uniforms were.
“Uniforms?” said Penny lightly. “Uniforms for whom?”
Archer turned to look at her, his bottomless eye sockets searching her face.
“You are officially a Mason housemaid now, Penny Dido. You need to wear a uniform.”
Penny stopped dead at the top of the stairs.
“Archer, I am not wearing a uniform! Who do you think I am?”
“A child who needs to know her place in the world,” said Archer. “Penny, don’t you want to show Blythe and Mrs Mason that you can do this? You don’t need me to tell you how lowly they think of you. Try to prove them wrong; set some standards for yourself.”
She was too tired to argue anyway; going to bed at four a.m. that morning had taken its toll on her.
Archer waited outside the room whilst she changed into her black ruffle dress, burgundy pinafore and leather dolly shoes. The silly headdress was mandatory, as was the silver pocket watch. She couldn’t see what purpose the pocket watch served, or the little ‘M’ cufflinks, or even the filigree stitching on the black tights.
“Mr Mason made a request,” said Archer once Penny had changed. “He would like you to escort the guests through the special walkway to the ball room when they arrive. I will show you how it’s done.”
Archer guided her through the rules: say “welcome to the Mason residence” to the guests at the front door, lead them to the doorway opposite and then take them on a tour through the special walkway, which was a long, white corridor adorned with important photographs.
“Now, make sure you walk through here very slowly,” said Archer. “The guests need to see the photographs.”
Penny glanced at the wall blankly, and at all the opulence encased in black-and-white. And then she did a double take. There was a photograph of a well-dressed wraith (his eyes looked very bright, even without the colour), standing haughtily beside a woman on a throne. The woman was none other than Queen Victoria.
“I don’t understand,” said Penny, scanning the other photographs to see more members of the Mason family with the Royals.
“Kit Mason founded The Cave,” said Archer, pointing to the Queen Victoria photograph. “He signed the Concealment Act; an agreement between the Royal Family and the Creeps to coexist in the United Kingdom. As you can guess, the Royals are not happy with Tarquinius Bloodbane’s latest ventures.”
“So they know,” whispered Penny.
“The Queen’s overnight sentries are vampires,” said Archer. “But that isn’t important at the moment. Make sure you look at your pocket watch hourly from nine p.m.; that is when Mrs Mason changes outfits. She will expect you to accompany her to the changing room on time.”
“How many outfits does she plan to wear?” asked Penny.
“The last outfit change is five a.m. You must be on time for that one especially; no room for error.”
“I wonder what would happen if they went bankrupt?” said Penny.
Maids and housekeepers ran to and fro throughout the night. Penny wished that she had been given something better to do; standing by the door and being poked and prodded by wealthy spectators wasn’t the most enjoyable thing in the world, and they kept asking her for the gory details of her attack, as if it had been an exciting action film she had watched. The guests oohed and aahed at the photographs in the special walkway, and thanked Penny, rather patronisingly, once she had guided them to the ball room. One mage even handed her a Werther’s Original, looking rather pleased with himself as he did so.
At three minutes to nine, she rushed to the dining room. Madeline Mason glanced in her direction, carried on talking to Gideon Gecko, and took a deliberate sip from her rose wine glass before getting to her feet.
“I must leave you all for a few minutes,” she said, “no, no – I will only be a minute, Charlene. Tobias,” she gestured to her husband, “Entertain the guests, won’t you?”
Her sickly sweet smile dropped as soon as Penny shut the door.
“Lead me to my room, spinead. And be quick, I am needed at the party.”
Penny walked ahead of Mrs Mason, held the changing room door open for her, and followed the wraith inside. There was a silk-covered rack of ball gowns and shawls in the corner of the room. Reams of expensive silk and velvet and fishnet and lace adorned every dress. The colours were rich and royal, and each one had been finished by an expert hand. They were dresses that belonged in the palace of a queen of some exotic country, and Penny was worried to touch them, so delicate and expensive they were. She tried to hide her amazement, but Madeline Mason had already seen the wistful look in her eyes. She smiled at Penny, her eyes narrowing.
“The commoners always reveal themselves when they enter this room. One cannot help but gaze in amazement at my … collection. Creeps from Rome, Paris and New York have made these especially for me. They are one of a kind.”
“Mmhmm,” said Penny. “Nice.”
Mrs Mason held her arms out to the sides and Penny unzipped the back of her gown. She paused when the zip was halfway, and then, ever so carefully, used the sharp point of her ‘M’ cufflink to make a tear in the neckline of the fabric, about an inch long. Smiling to herself, Penny searched the rack for the Nine P.M. dress and helped Mrs Mason into it.
“Please do not breathe down my neck, spinead. I know that you’re beside yourself touching these clothes, but panting over them is just disgusting.”
“I apologise, my lady.”
The wraith flung herself onto the divan in the middle of the room and held out her feet, wiggling them expectantly.
“I know, bunions,” Penny said absently as she hung the used dress on the rack. Before she was able to finish the task, the world turned upside down and she found herself slumped against the far wall, dishevelled and confused. She looked up to see Mrs Mason looming over her, hand outstretched.
“I-wanted-my-shoes,” she said.
“How was I supposed to know that’s what you meant?” said Penny, scrambling to her feet. She rushed to the corner of the room and picked up the matching shoes, shoving them onto Mrs Mason’s unfortunate feet afterwards. She made to stand up afterwards, but Mrs Mason knocked her into a kneeling position with her leg.
“You do not know who I am,” Mrs Mason’s voice was deep and dangerous, the look in her eyes as cold and as frightening as her son’s. “Despite your own delusions on the matter, you are not a Creep. You are not one of us. You are a mutant, a freak, a thing that we do not want. As soon as that warlock is hung, drawn and quartered, they will find a cure for you and send you back to the Outside where you belong. The Mason family is the most respected in the entire Cave. We have more power than even the mayor. I will kick you out of this place and see to it that you do not return.”
The pair froze in a staring contest. Mrs Mason’s face became uglier as the seconds ticked past, but there was a cold knowing in her eyes, as if she was fully aware of the impact of her words. It was a look of triumph, which soon turned to heartless glee as Penny’s complexion grew paler. The spinead’s eyes widened and she touched a trembling hand to her wet face. She could not take her eyes from Mrs Mason’s, who grew blurry through the wall of water. Penny blinked and hated herself once she felt the tears splash into her lap. She sniffed pathetically.
“I can make my own way down, spinead,” she Mrs Mason. “I think you would ruin my outfit in that state.”
She got up and walked deliberately to the door before slamming it behind her.
The spell broken, Penny rubbed her face furiously and jumped to her feet. She had half a mind to burn all the gowns on the rack, but she was too shaken to operate properly. She flopped onto the divan and stayed there for a long time. In an instant, the joy she had felt for finally having somewhere to call home was gone, and, now that she knew her days were numbered in The Cave, she wasn’t sure if it would come back.
Mrs Mason used the services of Rebecca Hansworth, another maid on duty, for the rest of the evening. Archer, noticing Penny’s subdued manner, relieved her of her duties, but she still had to remain in the house in case she was needed. Penny sulked in the hallway overlooking the entrance hall, twisting the pocket watch in her hands. After a while, the sight of it made her want to vomit, so she tossed it over the banister.
“Whoops,” said Penny. She leaned over the banister in haste, worried that she had injured one of the important guests, but only saw a casually dressed vampire with completely black eyes looking up at her with curiosity. Penny flitted down the stairs to meet the vampire, who was several inches taller than her. His black hair was longer than hers as well, reaching the small of his back.
“Sorry about that,” she said. “I was angry.”
“Well I’m sorry I upset you,” the vampire said. He smiled, putting his sharp canines on show. Penny returned the smile despite herself.
“I knew that. The spinead.”
Her smile fell. After Mrs Mason’s speech, being called The Spinead didn’t sound so cool anymore. If anything, it separated her from everyone else, marking her as the outsider.
“Was that the wrong thing to say?” the vampire asked.
“It was, actually,” said Penny. “‘Penny’ would be fine.”
“Okay, ‘Penny’ then. I’m Bartholomew Walker, but everyone calls me Hollow.”
“You’re not one of the guests for the party, are you?”
“Pfft! I’m what you would call a commoner, Penny. Or I guess that Mason woman would class me as a peasant. Er… is there any reason why you’re in a maid’s outfit?”
“I’m a commoner too,” said Penny. “So I have to tend on the Masons.”
“That can’t be right.” A dark look flashed across Hollow’s face. He eyed Penny’s dress sceptically. “Why are they making you do that?” he said.
“I can’t even remember the reason why.”
“You know who my dad is? Locke Walker,” he said at Penny’s confused expression. “As in, the editor for BloodType, the vampire gossip mag. If I told him about your … little job, the Masons would never be seen in the same light again. Power of the media and all that.”
“I’ll think about it,” said Penny, but Hollow still looked unsure. “Honestly, I’m fine. The Masons kind of think I’m a bit of a plonker. I want to beat them at their game, that’s all.”
“Well … all right then.”
“What are you doing here, anyway? You don’t seem to like the Masons that much.”
“Ah, I was just filling out all the paperwork – I’ve been enrolled into Gardien. My parents are just signing on the dotted lines.”
“R-really?” said Penny. “Are you strong, then? I hear Blythe wasn’t happy with the standard of applicants, so he turned the rest down.”
“Yeah, but Blythe isn’t happy with any standard is he? Except his own. I suppose I should be grateful and all, but I just wanted an adventure, really. Can you imagine how fun it will be? Catching bad guys? And too right! What Tarquin did to you was awful, same with all those other women.”
“Good luck with it,” Penny said kindly.
“Yeah, thanks. But I won’t be able to do any work yet; Gardien members work in twos, don’t they? So who knows how long it’ll be before Blythe finds the other half of my team.”
He yawned loudly and looked at his watch.
“I need to feed,” he said. “What’s taking them so long?”
At the word ‘feed’, Penny pricked up.
“Feed? As in, blood? Do you hunt on the Outside? Do you sleep in a coffin? What about garlic? Can stakes kill you? And crosses; are you scared of them?”
“Sorry … I just … well, I liked reading …”
“Oh, you were one of those humans: the ones who’re all into horror and that lot.”
“Is that really stupid?”
Hollow laughed. “No, not at all! But to answer your questions: yeah, I do hunt on the Outside. I sleep in a coffin, but that’s only for effect. See, we vampires don’t need to sleep, but after a while we get bored, don’t we? So we’ve developed this state of … mediation during daylight hours. It’s pretty fun. And ‘no’ to all the other answers. The only way to kill a vampire is to burn the heart, but if you stick a stake in us real good, in a certain way, we’ll die. Prolonged exposure to sunlight can do the trick, too.”
“And how do you turn a human into a vampire?”
“Drain the blood – but it has to be from a bite to the neck. Because of that, vampires usually feed from the wrist or the leg, but from what I hear, the neck is the best spot. My dad told me that – he turned my mum.”
“You guys are so amazing,” Penny said after an awe-stricken pause.
“Nah, not really; we can’t do any magic like the other major races. But we’re good fighters!”
The office door opened and a pretty vampire couple stepped out from behind it. Both had long hair like Hollow’s, and his features were in every inch of their faces. The female of the pair looked none-too-pleased.
“Well I hope you’re happy, Hollow, she said. “I’ve just signed your life away. For what? A bit of adventure. Do you think it’s an adventure for me?”
“Ah, come on, Saff,” said the man.
“Penny, these are my folks, Locke and Saffire,” said Hollow.
Locke and Saffire blinked rapidly, as if noticing Penny for the first time.
“Whoa!” said Locke. “The spinead’s a maid! Ahhh, I left my notebook at home! And my camera! I told you, Saff, you never know when a story’s gonna fall in your lap!”
“See?” said Hollow, grinning at Penny.
“Nice to meet you, Penny Dido,” said Saffire. She curtseyed and turned to her son. “We really have to go; poor Tick-Tock will wake up soon. And you know how she gets when she wakes up.”
“Yeah, remember last time?” said Locke, looking worried. “Well, nice meeting you, Penny.”
“Bye, Penny,” said Hollow, patting her on the shoulder.
“See ya, said Penny.
She smiled as the Walkers left the house, but was left feeling a little lonely once they had closed the door.
Penny had been dusting the banisters when the doorbell rang. She ran down and opened the door, smiling at who was there. She had been expecting Forrest and Riider quite a while ago, but had a feeling that Forrest had taken Riider out for a meal.
“Hello, Penny,” he said. “How has the job been?”
“Where’s old boss guy?” said Riider.
“Office,” said Penny, leading them to the door. She knocked three times, waited for Blythe’s irritated response, and opened the door. His protuberant eyes narrowed when he saw her.
“What do you want?”
“Forrest and Riider are here to speak to you.”
Blythe waved the thick cigar clouds from his face and nodded for her to bring them in. Once they were inside, Penny knelt beside the keyhole to listen to the conversation. There was silence before,
“Erm, well, there is something important we have to tell you, Mr Mason. According to my older brother, a group of Blood sympathisers has emerged from the Academy—”
“—this has come to my attention. I was just looking through the different groups and societies at Greymalkin’s before you arrived. The commotion would most likely originate from one of them.”
There was a rustle of paper.
“Doubt it’ll come from kitting club, don’t you?” muttered Riider. “Ah! What about the Demolition Club?”
“No,” said Blythe. “The Demolition Club is a redundant thing; they organise demonstrations against brussel sprouts for school dinners. I have narrowed it down to four societies: the Arrow Club, Politics Society, Religion Union and Debate Club. Of course, the Arrow Club is the most obvious, but the others will most likely have members that express those particular … leanings.”
“I still say it’s coming from a teacher,” said Riider.
“You may say that, but we will most likely get information from a student. I personally believe it is coming from both sides,” said Blythe.
“So what are we going to do about this?” asked Forrest. “I know that the Gardien members have been more or less hidden from the Cave populace, but it’ll get out sooner or later, especially if random adults just started turning up at the school…”
“I will work on it,” said Blythe. “Josh and Ulrich are qualified teachers, but the Academy is very particular with who they employ, so it will take a long time to get them anywhere near. We will need a real insider…”
Penny had to clamp her hand over her mouth, for she had almost yelled out in excitement. She tried to listen to the rest of the conversation, but her head was spinning with ideas and plans. She rushed back up the stairs and slumped against the wall in the hallway, thinking hard. What would she rather do? Be a maid for the Masons, or become a spy at Greymalkin’s Academy? Out of everyone connected to Gardien, she had the best chance of keeping an eye on the societies – she was school age, and she was sure they would jump at the chance to admit her into the school – she was a commodity, after all.
Going to school had never sounded so desirable, and it was the best plan she had of prolonging her time in The Cave: if she worked for Gardien and pulled through for the rest of the Creeps, they would be reluctant to let her leave.
All she needed was a way to get Blythe to sign her on.