The Disappearance of Anna Popov; Chapter 14; Bleak House, 23 February

Jack arrived ten minutes early. He parked his MG, pulled the Tarot card out of his pocket and checked the street address again, just to make sure. Number 13 – Bleak House – turned out to be an old Victorian mansion. Neglected and in desperate need of repair,

the once stately residence had been converted into a cheap boarding house, frequented by vagrants and homeless alcoholics. Fingers of ivy yearning for light reached up to the broken gutters, the grounds were overgrown with weeds, and most of the pathways impassable.

The fountain in front of the entry was dry, with Neptune and his sea creatures searching in vain for water that had stopped flowing years ago. Jack decided to wait outside.A few minutes later, a taxi pulled up at the front gate. Cassandra got out, holding a bike helmet in one hand and her walking stick in the other.

Mumbling ‘Follow me’ as she limped past Jack, she hurried inside. Jack followed her up the wooden stairs to the first floor.At the top of the landing Cassandra stopped. ‘Please wait here,’ she said.Jack looked around: naked light globes dangled from the ceiling

the light fittings a distant memory. Most of the ornate cornices had fallen off long ago and the wallpaper was barely recognisable under the rising damp and grime of neglect. But worst of all was the stench: a nauseating mixture of urine and cleaning fluids.
‘Quick, Jack. In here,’ said Cassandra, opening one of the doors.

Cassandra sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for the boy’s limp hand.
‘This is my son, Tristan. He’s been in a coma for three years.’
‘What happened?’
‘I’ll tell you another time – there are more urgent things we have to discuss right now.’

A woman in a nurse’s uniform stood up and left the room. Cassandra closed the door, walked over to the boy and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
‘Thank you for coming, Jack. I owe you an explanation. We must talk, but there isn’t much time. My escort will arrive shortly and no one must know that we’ve met here. Do you understand?’
‘Your what?’
‘I come here once a week, but never alone. One of the Wizard’s lieutenants brings me. I sabotaged his bike and jumped into a cab to come here.’
Recollections of the perplexed bikie tinkering with his engine on the footpath brought a fleeting smile to Cassandra’s troubled face. ‘I’m sure he’ll turn up soon though – we have to be quick.’

A woman in a nurse’s uniform stood up and left the room. Cassandra closed the door, walked over to the boy and kissed him tenderly on the forehead.
‘Thank you for coming, Jack. I owe you an explanation. We must talk, but there isn’t much time. 

My escort will arrive shortly and no one must know that we’ve met here. Do you Do you understand?’
‘Your what?’
‘I come here once a week, but never alone. One of the Wizard’s lieutenants brings me. I sabotaged his bike and jumped into a cab to come here.’
Recollections of the perplexed bikie tinkering with his engine on the footpath brought a fleeting smile to Cassandra’s troubled face. ‘I’m sure he’ll turn up soon though – we have to be quick.’

Cassandra sat down on the edge of the bed and reached for the boy’s limp hand.
‘This is my son, Tristan. He’s been in a coma for three years.’
‘What happened?’
‘I’ll tell you another time – there are more urgent things we have to discuss right now.’ Cassandra looked at Jack. ‘As you’ve probably guessed, what I told you about the cards last night wasn’t the truth. Our entire meeting was recorded. The Wizard was watching everything. You’ve seen the cameras, they’re everywhere. He’s obsessed with security and very suspicious. I’m not even allowed access to a phone.’
‘But why?’

‘Jack, I know what you seek and I can help you find it … I know why you’re really interested in the Wizards of AUS …’
‘Oh?’
‘You made a promise to a mother …’
Jack’s mouth went dry. He bit his lip, but said nothing.
‘You want to find out what happened to Anna …’

‘How do you know this?’ Jack almost shouted.
‘Not so loud – please! The Wizards own this place. Everyone here works for them.’
Kissing Tristan again on the forehead, Cassandra stood up and walked to the window. She parted the curtain and looked down into the street. ‘I know because yesterday, you and I met in an eternity moment. Our fate-lines touched.’

Cassandra dropped the curtain, turned around and looked at Jack with eyes like burning coals.
‘We must hurry. He won’t come up here. I’ll go down in a moment and you will stay here until you see me leave with him. Understood?’
Jack nodded.
‘You are a man who follows his instincts. You will have to decide right now what to do. There is a karmic window of opportunity. A small one. It will remain open for only the blink of an eye. If you accept, there’s no turning back. If you can’t, you walk away – clear?’
‘Go on.’
‘I have to warn you. There’s danger – great danger.’
‘Alright.’
‘Okay. Listen carefully. This is what you have to do for me before I can help you …’
‘I’m listening.’

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