He tried his best not to notice the unsettling sense of anxiety that was slowly rising from the pit of his stomach. He didn’t like it when he didn’t understand what he was suppose to do. He didn’t like to deal with people he didn’t know. Even if it was a relative.
But it was a relative he had no memory of.
Katsuya Asano glanced over to the passenger seat of his car and looked at the corner of the tan envelope that had stuck out from a bundle of manila folder.
The letter had been delivered to his work five days ago, certified. The sender was a name that he had only heard his father mention twice in his lifetime. Katsuya’s grandfather. Until Katsuya was eight and overheard his father say that name – Katsuya had always assumed his grandfather had deceased. The second time he heard the name again, was when Katsuya casually broached the subject of his grandfather next day. He wanted to know why they’ve never met. The grimace that came over his father’s face then was troubling.
“You are not to ask about him again,” his father said. “And if someday…”
There was a pause - a reluctance to continue, as if his father knew if he said more, there would only be stirrings of curiosity to follow.
“If someday he tried to contact you, you are not to go to him, understand?”
Katsuya only nodded. It was an easy promise to make over a man he’d never known. That was 14 years ago and since, his father had passed.
Then the letter came and all the questions came to him again.
Katsuya’s hands tightened on the steering wheel.
What am I doing...?
That was a repeated thought and the flickers of guilt that came with disobeying his father’s wish, as he drove toward the address posted on the letter. There had been only a date he’s requested to appear at an address far Upstate New York and nothing more. Yet Katsuya was compelled to go to it. Perhaps driven by the hushed mystery of why his grandfather was someone no one spoke about. Why he hadn’t been in his life and suddenly, asked for him.
Why would you want to see me? I don’t know you…
He had contemplated showing his uncle the letter first. Katsuya had decided against it only because he knew he would be talked out of it. He needed to know. Even if it was peering into a Pandora’s box and he would be worse off for it – he needed to know so he could put this behind him. At least, that was what he reasoned.
An unfamiliar song came over the radio and he stabbed at the buttons and changed the station. He was hungry, thirsty and he missed his bed. He had been on the road for two days.
After a brief stop at a greasy diner half-filled with truck drivers, Katsuya felt a little better. Although he regretted having the burnt coffee. It kept him awake at least. By the time he felt the caffeine wear off, the sun had already set and the splashes of blue had replaced the glow of the horizon. He could see the outline of the mansion in the distance. A lone estate without neighboring housing for nearly 10 miles around.
Katsuya parked his car next to the immense iron-wrought gate. He wasn’t certain what to do next. He stood in front of the gate for awhile and stared at the span of the mansion that was about a quarter mile away. There were clusters of pine along the cobble stone driveway and not much else. Not much color to frame the house except the gray and the dull green.
He hadn’t even noticed the intercom until he heard the static came over it as it was switched on and a man’s voice asked if he wanted something.
“My name is Katsuya Asano,” he began. “I – "
The speaker hung up the speaker with a click and a metallic snap that disengaged the lock to the gates. The iron gates slowly opened inward, the low hum of the motor accompanying it.
“Nice to meet you too,” Katsuya said under his breath as he returned to his sedan. For no particular reason, he was annoyed with the cold, brisk way he was greeted. Then he quickly dismissed his annoyance with his fatigue.
As he coasted along the cobble stone road that rattled his ride – the view of the mansion became clearer. Most of the mansion windows were dark with its curtain drawn to the side. The estate felt lifeless and empty – and as cold as he was greeted. There was a sanitized display of wealth that lacked power, he thought. He regretted giving into the request from a man that he knew would be as frigid as this property.
When he reached the end of the driveway, the headlights panned to a man waiting. The man’s face was shrouded by the dark but Katsuya knew he was young. The white shirt the man wore was neatly tucked into the fitted pants; three top buttons undone with the sleeves rolled up to his elbows. The man came to his driver side window as Katsuya parked. His longish hair was a shade of brownish-red.
“Just leave the keys in the ignition,” the man said to him and gave him a smile. “I’ll take care of it.”
The man opened the door for Katsuya.
“Walter will show you to the dining room, Mr. Asano,” the man said. “Master has been waiting for you there for two hours now.”
“I didn’t know I had a timeline to meet.”
“Nothing like that,” the man said and pointed toward left of him. “That’s the main entrance. Walter is waiting for you inside. I’ll take your bags up to your room.”
“Thank you,” Katsuya said, returning the polite smile and extended his hand forward. “You are –“
The man’s smile grew and took Katsuya’s hand and shook it. The grip was firm and the warmth in it was gentle.
“No one important around here,” he said. “But I am Kenji Shinohara. Please go on along, I will see you soon again.”
Shinohara squeezed Katsuya’s hand again before letting it go.
Shinohara’s warm handshake lingered in the hollow of his hand, even as he stepped through the doors of the mansion. The cold was instant. A wall of it. As he stood in the doorway, he felt small – staring up at the antique iron stairwell that spiraled up three floors. An immense chandelier made from diamond-shaped crystals dropped from the ceiling and hung down two floors. The gray and white marble that tiled the floor that felt naked without a rug. The sparse furniture that made the space even emptier and pulled the height of the room even taller. The walls were painted a shade of dark red. No pictures. Nothing.
“Hello Master Asano,” a voice, soft and gentle said beside him.
Katsuya looked to the speaker and found himself looking at an old man in a butler outfit.
“My name is Walter,” he said, bowing from the waist. “I will be guiding you to the dining room.”
“To see…my grandfather?” Katsuya said. “Please call me Katsuya… Master Asano makes me feel old.”
“Not your grandfather,” Walter said, fanning one arm out and gesturing with his gloved hand. “With the Master of the house.”
Walter lead the way and Katsuya followed. While the butler’s immaculately shined leather shoes made almost no sound on the polished stone floor – Katsuya’s heels echoed.
“He will introduce himself to you,” Walter said.
“I see,” was all Katsuya could think to say, as he walked steps behind the old man – surveying the curious surrounding as he did so.
The Master of the house wasn’t someone he knew. Not even in passing. And when he introduced himself, the name meant nothing to him. The man was handsome. Years older than him but considerably young for a Master of a vast estate. There was a tint of red in his eyes that made Katsuya stare.
“Oculocutaneous,” David Krause simply said. “A form of albinism that affected my eyes.”
Katsuya nodded and sat down where David had gestured for him to. Along the immense oak dining room table that seated thirty – there was only one plate and silverware on a white silk place mat to the right of David.
“I don’t mean to stare,” Katsuya said.
“It’s nothing,” David said. He sat back down in his seat. He had been there – waiting, as Kenji had said. There was a half glass of white wine beside a near empty crystal decanter.
Then there were silence. Walter had left. It was until David pulled Katsuya’s wine glass to him and emptied the decanter that Katsuya finally spoke.
“I am not sure what is going on,” he said. His voice was low but it was loud in the ample room. “But…am I to meet my grandfather here?”
“What do you know about your grandfather,” David asked, sliding the wine glass to Katsuya.
“Not very much. No one spoke about him in my family.”
“Yet you are here,” David said. He had a small smile on his face.
“He is…still family, I suppose,” Katsuya said. He kept his eyes on the wine glass. “I want to know what I was…”
When Katsuya didn’t continue, David said it for him.
“Not the words I’d use.”
David’s smile only grew. He said nothing more as he drained the wine from his glass.
“How are you connected to him?” Katsuya said. He had reached toward his wine glass but only stopped and tucked his hands back onto his lap when he realized he was shaking. David noticed.
“He was someone I knew,” he said. “Long time ago.”
Before he could muster enough courage for another question, Walter came back. This time, he pushed a silver service cart with domed plates of food. Two fresh bottles of wine were steeped in an ice bucket.
As they were served, no words were exchanged. And although he had been hungry earlier – Katsuya looked at the food without appetite. Suddenly he didn’t want to be there anymore and he didn’t know how to excuse himself. The only thing that made him remain seated there was Walter. Although the old man said nothing as he stood to the side, knowing there’s someone else there made Katsuya felt better.
But the dinner was awkward. Silent mostly, with only the slightest clatter of the silverware against the plate that echoed in dining hall. Katsuya kept his eyes on the slices of steak on his plate most of the time – raking the tips of his fork over the rareness of the flesh until jewels of fat and blood rose from it. He felt sick looking at it.
“Is there something wrong?”
David’ voice was thunder, although he spoke in an even tone. Katsuya looked up to see a disapproving stare.
“No, not…really,” Katsuya stammered, suddenly feeling like a child then. “I wasn’t feeling too well most of the day. Long drive. I don’t have much of an appetite right now.”
The furrowed eyebrows remain knitted, even though David nodded.
“What would you like instead?”
Katsuya shook his head.
“I think some sleep will do. I’m sorry for being such a poor dinner companion.”
David speared a piece of the steak and as it rose from the plate – droplets of red gathered and fell from the corner. Katsuya hoped the grimace he felt inside didn’t show.
“Walter will show you to your room,” David said, the sliver of bloody steak still forked and inches from his mouth. “I will see you at breakfast tomorrow.”
“Thank you,” Katsuya said and pushed himself away from the table. It was with some control that he didn’t display his eagerness as he followed Walter from the dining room. He walked slowly, careful not to out-pace the old butler who shuffled along unhurriedly.
He let out a long breath when they had stepped out into the main hall and the heavy doors shut behind them.
“Are you all right, Master Asano?”
Katsuya nodded and managed a small smile.
“I’ll be fine. I was just not expecting…all this.”
Walter gave him an assuring nod, genuine concern on his face.
“Should I summon the house physician?”
“No, no…I really think I just need some sleep. I was on the road for too long, not enough sleep and bad coffee…” He made a circle with his index figure. “Everything.”
Another nod from Walter and he said nothing else. Katsuya continued follow him as they walked up the spiraled staircase. A different one from the main entrance. They were at another wing of the mansion and the side stairs didn’t seem as intimidating. The only decorations were the fresco on the ceiling – cracked and faded with age, of angels staring down at them.
The carpet that lined the staircase was a deep, bright red – the texture of it so soft that he can feel the gentleness of it through his shoes. The banister was craved from a dark wood that might have been cherry. There were four grand chandeliers that hung in the four corners – only the right most corner one was lit. And it was bright enough to fill the entire first floor and the length of the stairs with light.
They had turned two corners, ascended up three flights of stairs to the floor where Katsuya’s room was to be. The stairs continued upwards.
“Apologies for lack of elevator, Master Asano,” Walter said, snapping on the lights in the dimly lit hall with a press of a button on the wall. “The Master felt the presence of them would ruin the aesthetic of the house.”
“Yes,” was all Katsuya said.
His room was the fourth room of the eight on third floor. His suitcase had been brought up and the contents carefully sorted and hung up or put away. It annoyed him to have strangers rummage through his belongings but he decided he was too tired to care then. He’d have to have a talk with Kenji later.
“Breakfast is at 730, Master Asano,” Walter said as he pulled the curtain close. “I shall wake you?”
“I can set my cell phone to ring me at 7,” Katsuya said.
“If you like, Master Asano.”
“Please just call me Katsuya,” he said. “I understand you might have protocols to follow around here but when we are by ourselves, I’d rather not be called master…anything.”
A smile creased Walter’s mouth. He nodded once.
“If you like,” Walter said. “Anything else you would like for me to take care of before I leave you for the night? Of course, if you should need anything during the night, you may wake me. My room is on the first floor, to the left of the main entrance – there is another hall. All the servants are in that wing. My room is the first one on your right. Our apologies for the lack of house phone. We rarely have guests and so most rooms on this floor are not wired.”
Katsuya sat down on the Queen Anne armchair next to the bed.
“I’d like to know some things, Walter,” Katsuya said, his voice softened. “What happened to my grandfather? Is he still alive? Is he here?”
“I cannot answer your question,” Walter said. “Master had asked no one but himself speak to you about the matters concerning this house and himself.”
“I am not asking about his family. I am asking about mine. “
Walter held a gloved finger up to his lips and shook his head.
“I believe you will be told everything soon, when you have ample opportunity to speak to Master. For now, please rest.”
Katsuya let out a deep sigh and rolled his shoulders forward. The day didn’t make sense and the knot in his belly had tightened. He resigned to the fatigue. He was too drained to pursue any more questions.
“All right,” Katsuya said. “I’ll ask him tomorrow.”
Walter took a few steps forward and bent down slightly to take Katsuya’s hand into his. A key was pressed into it.
“For the lock in this room,” Walter said, straightening.
Katsuya closed his hand over and thanked the butler. With another bow, Walter told him good night and left.
It took Katsuya a few more minutes to will himself to move. He held up the room key to the light to study it.
It was a skeleton key made from pewter. A detailed carving of a snake wrapped itself along the length of it with its opened mouth, with its fangs forming the end. The teeth at the other end of the key were jagged and looked nothing like the keys he’d ever seen.
It’s almost as if I’ve stepped into a different world…
Katsuya dismissed the thoughts that followed. He gathered what was left of the strength in his legs and stood up. He pushed the key into the lock, turning it until he heard it engage and left it there.
It was a sudden awareness that came late. He was already shivering long before he registered the cold. He was shaking hard as he curled his body into a ball. Even with the heavy blanket pulled around him, the chill still crept through.
Then a heat came at one spot - on the side of his neck. It was so startling that it hurt. Then a warm sensation followed that went along the contour of his body. It was as if someone had slipped into the bed with him and cradled him. He was no longer shaking but the distinct pain by the side of his neck was still there. Two heated spokes that sank so deep in that he swore he could feel it on his tongue.
“You are safe. Stay still.”
The whispered words were said into his ear. It was soothing. It calmed him. Soon, he didn’t even feel the pain anymore. Just the comfortable numbness that washed over him as the warmth gathered him even tighter into its embrace.