The Wages of Sin, by Alex Beecroft

Alex has a new short story, “The Wages of Sin”, coming out in The Mysterious, an anthology from MLR Press, scheduled for Autumn 2009.

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.


EXCERPT

“What is he doing here?”  The clock on the mantle struck
quarter past six as Elizabeth gestured with her loaded fork.  No doubt,
Charles thought, his head throbbing, and the side of his face stinging
in counterpoint, her advanced state of pregnancy excused the fact that
she was still capable of eating.  He wished she would do it somewhere
else.

Dragging his eyes from the drop of brown grease that trembled on the
end of the bacon, he looked where she pointed.  The vague sense he had
had all night that there were too many presences in the house – a pair
of shoes outside a normally unoccupied door, an unexpected number of
plates on the sideboard for this impromptu family breakfast, coalesced
into a stranger at their table.

He wore the bob wig of a clergyman and a clergyman’s black woollen
coat.  The jet buttons of his cuff glittered, and beneath the stark
white powder of his wig, his wing-like brows were just as black.  The
fan of black eyelashes hiding downcast eyes, and the diffident bend of
his neck, could not disguise an angular, almost Spanish beauty; bold
high cheekbones and a sullen, dangerous mouth.

“He’s here as my guest.”  George was once more the picture of manly
perfection in a suit of emerald silk, but the stick pin in his cravat
clashed with his waistcoat, and the lines of strain in his face scored
deeper by the hour.  Charles swallowed, looked away, conscious that for
the first time, George had begun to resemble their father.

“He’s father’s enemy.  Always has been.”  Elizabeth’s white makeup
showed cracks and streaks in a dozen places, her handsome face puffy
from weeping and her eyes bloodshot.  Close to her confinement and with
her husband absent at the head of his regiment in Scotland, she had
returned home to be coddled with all the attentiveness an expectant
grandfather could bestow.  And she had always been Clitheroe’s
favourite.

Charles honoured her for her grief.  Despised himself for being unable to echo it.

Outside the tall windows, dawn had barely begun to break.  Autumnal
rain lashed the panes, rolled in silver beads down each black lozenge. 
Within the house a melancholy procession of servants passed the door of
the morning room; Geoffreys, his father’s valet, with an arm full of
neatly folded sheets, Cook with jug, basin and towel, and her two
daughters following, a can of hot water carried between them.  He took
another cup of coffee, for the hangover, and looked back.

The stranger’s head still bent over the table.  He dipped his spoon,
ate a mouthful of porridge and the gesture brought his face even
further into shadow.

“Melodramatic nonsense!”  George speared a devilled kidney and thrust it onto his plate.  “Father doesn’t have any enemies.”

Elizabeth gave a harsh laugh, honey-blonde ringlets bobbing with
incongruous cheer beside her jaw.  “In case you haven’t noticed,
brother, our father is lying dead upstairs.  He must have had
one enemy, don’t you think?  And now we’re eating breakfast with the
prime candidate?  That’s taking politeness a little too far.”

The scrape of a chair.  The stranger made to rise and George caught
him by the wrist, pressed his arm to the table, restraining him.

At the sight of the stranger’s hand, lying as if cut off by the
black cuff, the picture of his father’s dead face flashed before
Charles’ inner eye.  He too recoiled, struggling to his feet, running
to the window, trying to escape it.

“This is not the time for unfounded, hysterical accusations. 
Really, Elizabeth if your condition did not excuse you I should have to
accuse you of running mad.  Now please keep your voice down.  This is the last thing Emma needs!”

By some dint of magic, the stranger had continued his retreat,
withdrawing his presence, leaving his body like an old table that sits
unnoticed in the corner of a room.  But Charles was tired of trying to
see his face, being thwarted.  “Won’t someone introduce us?”

George laughed with surprise.  “Don’t be a goose!  You remember Jasper.  Admiral Vane’s ward.  We grew up together.”

Since it was impossible to say ‘no’, Charles leaned back against the
window and let the chill of the rain seep across his shoulders.  “By
reputation only,” he said, and watched as Jasper’s stubborn chin raised
half an inch and his mouth curved in a little bitter smile.  “You
forget, George; my earliest memory is of waving goodbye as you left for
Cambridge.  I’m afraid I have no recollection of you at all, Mr Marin. 
Except, as I say, by anecdote.”

At last, with slow grace like the turn of a minuet, Jasper looked
up.  His eyes, in the broadening light, were sherry coloured – a light,
clear brown almost with a tint of red.  Had there been room, Charles
might have stepped backwards.  A jolt of something very like fear went
through him.  How could he have mistaken the man’s invisibility for
meekness?  It had been all along the quiet of a tiger lying in wait in
the long grass.  Elizabeth’s accusation no longer seemed so laughable.

“Then I wish we could have met again in happier circumstances.”

Two heartbeats.  Charles had time to wonder if this was some new
manner of the same paralysis that had come on him last night; time’s
normal flow suspended.  Then the morning room door swung open and Dr.
Floyd came in.  The scene moved and flowed once more as George rose to
pull out a seat for him, and Elizabeth called for fresh coffee.

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About Alex Beecroft

I write M/M Romance, Historical and Fantasy novels . You can find out more about my novels at my website: http://alexbeecroft.com
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