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The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft

by on Jan.31, 2010, under New Releases

The Wages of Sin by Alex Beecroft

Title The Wages of Sin
Author Alex Beecroft
ISBN# 978-1-60820-125-9 (ebook)
Release Date January 2010
Paperback: 230 pages
Available At: MlrBooks (ebook)

Charles Latham, wastrel younger son of the Earl of Clitheroe, returns home drunk from the theatre to find his father gruesomely dead. He suspects murder. But when the Latham ghosts turn nasty, and Charles finds himself falling in love with the priest brought in to calm them, he has to unearth the skeleton in the family closet before it ends up killing them all.

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Moonlight sucked the colour from damp grass and silvered rising wisps of dew. The deer-park lay dim and still to Charles’ left, receding to a black horizon. To his right, the Latham family chapel loomed dark against the lead-colored sky.

Sultan’s hooves whispered across the verge as Charles rode past the private graveyard’s wrought iron gate and averted his eyes from the white glimmer of Sir Henry’s mausoleum. It was one thing to laugh together over newspaper reports of vampires in Prussia while reclining in the comfortable lewdness of an actor’s garret—lamps blazing, the magic revealed as greasepaint, squalor and hard work—quite another to think of it here, beneath a slice of pewter moon, in a silence so huge it annihilated him.

A fox cried. Sultan snorted, ears flicking. His own heart racing, Charles gentled the horse over the gravel drive that swept up to the white Grecian pillars of the mansion. They turned towards the stable-yard—coach houses, stalls and groom’s quarters arranged about an enclosed square, entered by a short cobbled tunnel beneath the stable-master’s rooms. Both of them balked at the darkness beneath the arch, Sultan sidestepping as Charles dismounted. He wrenched his wrist, landed with a slap and slither loud enough to conceal the footsteps of a thousand walking corpses and stood propped against the horse’s strong shoulder, gathering himself. Sultan’s warm, straw-scented breath spiralled up comfortingly into the pre-dawn sky.

“Easy there, Sultan. Nothing to worry about.”

Thanking God that no one was watching his folly, Charles slung an arm about Sultan’s neck, took the hilt of his sword in the other hand. Emboldened by the feel of it, he urged Sultan forwards, towards his own stall and rest.

In the pitch black under the gatehouse the several pints of inferior porter he had drunk at the theatre made their presence known again. The night swayed about him and the world receded, until all his reality was the horse hair and leather beneath his hands. Falling asleep on my feet. Just the state of weakness most likely to attract the devil, or his minions… Or my father.

There was a more rational threat. As he took off Sultan’s tack, fumbled around in the dark making sure the weary animal was supplied with hay and water, the thought of Ambrose Latham drove away all other terrors. “You wastrel,” his father would bellow, loud enough to echo in the kitchens and make all the servants sit up in glee. “You mother’s milk-sop boy with your clever friends and your expensive women. Do you think I built up this family’s fortune only to have it squandered by you, sirrah? Do you?”

Having drunk, Sultan nudged his shoulder, leaving a smudge of dirty water and horse-snot on the jonquil silk of his jacket, pulling him up again from his reverie. He still had to get inside without being seen, and it was now less late at night than very early in the morning. If his luck was bad, those very servants might have already begun to wake. They could be standing, watching him as he rolled through the front door with his wig in his pocket and his blond hair singed and sooty from sitting too close to Theo Tidy’s spike of tallow candles.

What did you expect, sir, when you sent me to University? That I would slake my appetite for learning in a mere three years, and be content to rusticate thereafter, among a company whose highest pinnacle of wit is to describe their new carriage for four hours together? I honour you for opening my mind to a wider world, but I cannot now go back to the provincial concerns from which you raised me.

A small pain, dull and heavy as a shotgun pellet, caught him just below the breastbone at the thought. Truth was he didn’t want to be a disappointment to Ambrose Latham, Fourth Earl of Clitheroe. He didn’t want to be a drain on his family’s resources or a blot on their reputation. But, forbidden as he was to join army or church, in case George should crack his head hunting and a spare heir be required, what else was there? If he could find some subject on which to become an authority, perhaps? If he could get himself invited by the Royal Society to give talks, his erudition the toast of newspapers and coffee-houses all over London? But what subject interested both the learned gentlemen and himself? They had no taste for plays.

Annoyed by his own hopeless thoughts, Charles nudged Sultan’s nose towards the basket of hay, reeled out of the door. By God, did he only have a choice of pathos or fear? Was he to be a coward as well as an embarrassment?

Four steps out of the stables, away from the horses’ drowsy whickering, and the answer seemed to be “yes.” Silence arched over the world like a collector’s dome pressed over a doomed insect. The shift of pebbles beneath his feet sounded obscenely loud. Something snapped a twig as it walked beneath the distant oaks, and it might have been a pistol shot. He tried to think of Theo—actor manager, wit, raconteur. If he could only have some of Theo’s relentless cheer to armour him now. It was foolish, childish, to find himself with clammy hands, muffling his breath in case it made him miss the faint noise of the creature shambling behind him… Oh damn!

He stopped, rejected the thought of returning to the stables to sleep. He was not a coward! Summoning up Theo’s filthiest anecdote, the one he didn’t fully understand, he put his head down and walked—walked mind you—out to the drive.

As he turned towards the house, Theo failed him. Charles’ imagination populated the lane behind him with horrors. What if they did exist? In this silence, anything that fed on blood should sense his heart speeding in his chest. Would they make a noise as they prowled? Would he hear anything before the creature’s hand came out of the darkness, dragged him to its insatiable mouth?

No, it was nonsense. Absolute tosh. No rational man could possibly believe… And yet, would the Prussians really send officials to dig up graves, make observations and write reports if there wasn’t something in it?

He swallowed, panting, and thought about what his father would have to say about this. But even that threat failed. Truth was he’d be glad if Clitheroe slammed open the door, lantern in hand, and gave him a piece of his mind. Please do, father. A nice long peroration to follow me up to bed and banish my own thoughts. Come down and shout at me. Please.

But the façade of the house remained shut. Did the marble portico and the sweep of stairs up to the entrance look gloomier than they had? Well, what of it? The moon must simply be going down.

Stopping again, he bit his lip until the blood flowed. Then turned. He clutched at his sword hilt, and slowly, shakily let it go. Yes, the moon had gone behind cloud. The trees of the park sighed in the wind, and that man-like pale shimmer beneath them… was only the statue of General Percival Latham attired in the robes of a Roman senator.

Leaning over to prop his hands on his knees in the weakness of relief, Charles gave a small spasm of laughter. As he did so the wind strengthened, the trees roared, and terror rose out of the ground around him like a fog. His breath hung white in the black air. Cold bit through alcoholic haze, jacket and flesh, piercing him to the bone. The skin across his shoulders and down his arms rippled as the hair stood up, and the little voice of reason within him blew out like a candle flame.

Chest heaving, his shallow breath scorching his throat, he turned again. There was something wrong with the house; darkness oozed over it like a coating of oil. A shadow sucked away from the stone and came flooding out towards him in a whispering tide. His legs locked. His bowels froze. He lifted an arm to push the black tide away, and so it touched his hand first. Burning cold. Faintly gritty. Sticky as cobwebs. It slid up his fingers, around his palm, burrowed beneath his cuff. Clammy strands touched the inside of his elbow, the pit of his arm, and then it flowed over his face.

No! Oh God! He pinched his eyes and mouth shut. Strands of it, like the tendrils of long filthy hair, brushed across his lips. Then something groaned by his ear. He heard the wet noise of an opened mouth. Shuddering, he let out a little ‘nnn!’ of terror, groping for his sword, his hand pushing through the cloud as if through sand. The thing by his face giggled, and dust pattered on his eyelids. He bit down hard on the mounting desire to scream. God forbid he should breathe it in!

Dimly, beyond the voice whispering with gleeful hatred in his ear, came a sound like racing hooves. Was it the wind or his own blood stoppered in his breathless body thundering in his ears? Dizziness swept through him and his locked knees gave way. He staggered forward, his lungs screaming for air, agony shooting along his ribs, and thought again of Theo; that half-joking, half-challenging offer of a kiss. Maybe he should have taken the man up on it after all. Sin aside, it seemed a shame to die, never having been kissed.

His fingertips grazed his sword hilt. A final push and he could close clumsy fingers around the hilt. He drew the blade, and as he did so something hit him in the back so hard it lifted him off his feet. For a moment he thought he would crack between the two forces like a louse between fingernails. Then the night air was clean again, and with a confused rush, a red pain in his cheek and shoulder, he was suddenly lying on the drive with a face full of gravel and two men pulling at his coat.

“What? What? Did you see it?” He batted their hands away, scrambled up and made a frantic circle, searching for the thing. Was it gone? Let it be gone!

Doctor Floyd’s landau stood with lanterns swinging and open doors, all glorious green leather and brass, just in front of him. Beside him, Dr. Floyd—almost a perfect sphere in his greatcoat—reached out a glacially cautious hand as if to restrain him. Charles turned, grabbed the man by his black velvet collar and shouted again, “Did you see it!”

A colourless, fat man, whose professional life seemed to have prematurely embalmed him, Floyd leaned away. He blinked, slowly as a torpid lizard, while propriety and self preservation warred behind his eyes.

“We almost run you over, Mr. Charles.” Floyd’s groom spoke with the reassuring tone he used to his horses. Protectively, he interposed his beaming red face between Charles and his master, put a gnarled but gentle hand on Charles’ wrist. “What you doing out here in the road in the dark anyway? Come to get us, was you? You’d’ve done better wait in the hall.”

Charles shook his head, tried to speak and could not force words past the chattering of his teeth. His grip on the Doctor’s coat gave way, and he would have fallen if the two men had not moved in and caught him in their practiced grip.

“The blanket, Sam, and less of your chatter. Here, Mr. Charles, take a drink of this.”

A heavy blanket around his shoulders and a long drink of brandy later, Charles let Sam tuck him into the corner of the carriage, concentrated on trying to stop trembling. As he did so, Floyd clambered in beside him.

“I’m most terribly sorry, Mr. Charles. Your brother’s message was so urgent. We weren’t expecting… And I must say I was looking towards the house. I saw nothing in the road until Jewel clipped you as she passed.”

Charles wrapped his arms around himself and chafed his biceps to get some warmth into them. Cold radiated out from the marrow of his bones. But the old felted blanket around him glowed in the lantern light with blue, yellow and red stripes, speckled with dog hair. He basked in wet dog smell, brass polish, leather wax, and Floyd’s orange-flower-water cologne. These things and the terror that had passed could not exist in the same world, surely?

“A cloud,” he said, in a reedy, shocked voice. “There was a cloud. A black cloud. It… rushed at me, and…”

“Most probably the dust cloud from the landau, sir.” Sam spoke over his shoulder as he flicked the whip encouragingly above Jewel’s ears.

“No it…”

“Yes, that would account for it. Undoubtedly why we neither of us saw the other coming.” Floyd nodded, fished out a handkerchief and wiped his cheeks and forehead with fingers only a little less unsteady than Charles’. “You, um. You fell upon your head, sir. And, mm, if my nose doesn’t guide me wrongly, have already imbibed a fair amount of… mm, conviviality. No doubt you are also distressed about your father. I think we need look no further for the cause of a temporary, understandable, overturning of the wits.”

“That’s not how it…” Charles clutched the blanket more closely, trapped a pawprint between his knee and the seat. The dried mud flaked off and scattered to the floor, and a convulsive choke of disgust forced its way out of him at the patter of falling soil. He smeared it underfoot, looked down blankly for a moment before the words finally penetrated his understanding.

The landau swept through the great curve before the marble steps of the portico. Lights now glimmered in the hall, and as they drew up George flung open the door. His candle showed a white, sickened face, its distinguished lines set in strain.

“My father?” Charles rose to his feet, holding tight to the calash of the landau as it sprayed gravel with the speed of its stop. A fist of dread tightened beneath his breastbone and the waves of shivering returned full force. “What’s wrong with…?”

George ran down the stairs. The light shone on his open shirt and bare feet as his scarlet silk banyan trailed behind him. His uncovered hair shone silver-gilt. It was the first time in years Charles had seen his brother so careless of his appearance, and his wild unconscious beauty added a new terror to the night.

Flinging down his candle, George caught Dr. Floyd as he bent to retrieve his bag and hauled him bodily out onto the grass. Floyd raised an eyebrow at the treatment, while George in turn gaped at the sight of Charles leaping down beside him.

“Oh I do have a brother then? No, say nothing, this isn’t the time. You’d best come too.”

Charles followed his brother’s impatient strides past the stone pineapples on the sweep of white stairs. Their footsteps echoed and re-echoed like a volley of rifle-fire against the chequered black and white marble of the entrance hall. A candelabrum set on a table within lit Doric pillars and the portraits of his ancestors with a bubble of amber light. The door up from the kitchen stood partially open. Blurs of white faces, above white shifts, showed ghostlike in the crack.

On the landing, George’s valet Sykes stood waiting with a candlestick in his hand, his cravat lopsided and his chin shadowed by an aggressive growth of black stubble. Another twist in the garrotte of fear about Charles’ throat. They were normally both of them so impeccable. “George! What’s…?”

“Just,” George flung up a hand, “be quiet.” He took the candle and whispered to Sykes. “Stand outside the door. Mrs. Latham’s rest is not to be disturbed under any circumstances. Should Mrs. Sheldrake awaken, you may inform her, but you will not permit her to come in.”

“I understand.”

They hurried down the passage, their feet silent now on the runner of blue and white carpet. Outside the windows at either end of the corridor, the night pressed inwards. As they stopped outside his father’s room, George dropped a hand to the doorknob and bent that exposed, vulnerable head. “I feel I ought to warn you. It isn’t… Ah. Well. See for yourself.”

Candlelight caught the cream and gold plastered walls, glittered like the ends of pins in the tassels of the bed-curtains and the gold embroidered comforter that lay in a kicked off crumple against the claw-footed legs of the bed. The fire had been made and burned clear yellow in the grate.

Soberly, imagination finally at bay, Charles did what his soldier ancestors would have expected of him. He walked forward into the line of fire, looked down.

Ambrose Latham, Earl of Clitheroe, lay on his back in his nightgown, his limbs fettered by the sheets, his swollen face purple. His open mouth brimmed with vomit. Across his nose, lips and chin the mark of a woman’s hand stood out in livid white. His nostrils were stopped with earth.

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