By the time I stepped outside, the leaves were on fire. The setting sun picked out the brilliant autumn colors, which rapidly dimmed as the light faded. Despite the illusion of fiery radiance from the oranges, reds and yellows of the leaves, the air was crisp and cold. I cautiously opened the glass doors which led onto the terrace. I could say I was watching the sunset if anyone asked. As the night crept closer, the trees became lacy black silhouettes against the sapphire blue sky, punctuated by glittering specks of stars. The world merged into shades of gray, leaching the color from the chrysanthemums in the elegant urns. The moon appeared, illuminating the scene with icy white light. I had not bargained for that. I pondered whether to cross the expanse of lawn, where I’d be clearly visible, or to creep around the edge to the woods where I’d be out of sight but likely to stumble in the darkness. I couldn’t miss the opportunity to escape. The woods it would be.
I crept down the shallow stone steps, pausing at the bottom, clutching my bag. I turned to glance back at the bulk of the house, trying to stop my teeth from chattering. No lights or movement in the blank, dark rectangles of the windows. I ducked to stay in the shadows of the balustrades and hurried in a semi-crouch towards the woods. The crunching of the driveway gravel under my feet seemed to echo off the house. I took a deep breath, ran around the building and plunged into the dark shadows of the wood. Things rustled around me. My breathing sounded loud. It had rained not long before and the leaf litter was slippery. At least that muffled my footsteps. My vision gradually adjusted so I could avoid bumping into tree trunks, though not the occasional low-hanging branches which raked my hair and threatened to poke me in the eye. Periodic cascades of rain fell on me from the foliage. I was out of breath and soaked, my shoes squelching and muddy by the time I reached the back gate with a sigh of relief. The rusty metal of the hinges creaked as I pushed it, screeching as I gave it a final, hard shove. I froze, my heart hammering as the sound echoed and died. The silence seemed overwhelming, but then the small nighttime woodland sounds resumed. I found myself on the back road behind the mansion.
I rested against the wall for a moment to regain my breath. Creeping forward to the road, I glanced at my watch before retreating to the shadows again. I had made it at the time we had arranged. I hadn’t been off the grounds of the house alone since I arrived and hadn’t known how much time to allow to get this far. I shuddered to think of the consequences if this attempt failed. I waited for what seemed like forever. My watch recorded two minutes for every ten minutes that had surely passed. After the umpteenth time of glancing at it, I shoved it in my pocket.
Finally, I heard a car. I leapt up, clutching the bag to my chest. I was afraid to leave my hiding place, but it had to be him. Vehicles were rare around here anytime, especially at night. The car slowed as I waved, leaping about like a maniac at the side of the road. The car pulled to a halt on the verge, the driver grinning at me. His smile faded as I yanked open the passenger door and collapsed on the seat. I must have looked half-deranged, bedraggled, wet and muddy. The driver looked at me in concern. It took me a moment to catch my breath and stop shaking. I turned on him.
“Are you alright? You look like something the cat dragged in,” he said. “What’s going on?”
“What the hell took you so long? I’m half frozen.”
“Hey, I came as soon as I could, alright? Here, have some of this.”
He passed me a flask. I took a big gulp, choking and coughing as the fiery heat burned down my throat.
“What is that? Paint stripper?” I said, my eyes watering.
He laughed and rumpled my hair.
“It’ll cure what ails you. What’ve you got?”
I passed him my bag. He opened it and shook it upside down, whistling appreciatively at the clinking as watches and jewelry cascaded onto his lap.
“Nice. How’d you get out?”
“I slipped a little something into his drink. I hope he’s okay. I felt kind of bad for doing it. He’s a nice old guy, lonely since his wife died.”
“Serves him right for thinking a girl who could be his granddaughter was interested in him. Randy old fool.”
“That’s mean. He never even tried anything, not that I think he could, at his age. He just wanted company. He’s alone in that mansion except for the housekeeper.”
He looked closely at me. His smile was gone. I shivered at his narrow-eyed glance.
“I hope you’re not getting sentimental on me. It’s a business, okay? Nothing personal. I find them, you hook them. He’s so rich that he’s not going to miss any of this. Anyway, we’d best get going. Ditch the wig. They’ll be looking for a blonde, not a brunette. I know the back roads. We’ll be long gone by the time they raise the alarm.”
I pulled the bedraggled blonde wig off and smoothed my own hair. He nodded as I obeyed, smiling again. As the car moved off, I glanced back at the mansion, sitting in splendid isolation in its moon-drenched grounds, and thought for a moment of that lonely old man in his drugged sleep. He was as close as I’d ever have to a grandfather, or any kind of family, for that matter. I looked at the driver. He winked and tossed the flask back to me. I sighed and took another long drink. No chance of escape now.