The parlor into which she’d been invited by that charming butler was decorated in dismal jewel tones and dark stained wood. The only part of the room that might leave one mistaken that someone lived here were the small flourishes allowed within she knew touched the sentimental in her brother. The small area rug that adorned the floor between the large chairs that were seated before the cold fireplace. The brief hints of color in the limited trinkets lining the mantle. The books with faded gold titles that made up their collective memories when they were young. Otherwise, the chairs were dark and even the dull light that crept in through the lace curtains could not brighten them. The soft light found a glint upon the embroidered designs embedded in the cloth but it was a halo that seemed to suggest a life on the verge of expiring. Indeed, with the heavy deep red velvet curtains partially drawn, it would take so little to snuff out that light completely. Truly, this room was the embodiment of ghastly, cloaked as it was in memory and loss. Though the rest of the house was no better, to be sure. Seeing only the foyer upon her entrance, she could tell that it was a perfect monument to his mourning. The marble floors were dark with ripples of white swirled about them like wisps of snow gathering upon black pools. The furniture was all stained dark chestnut and exuded no warmth even from the muted dark red velvet that covered the seats and backs. The walls were barren still and even though she could tell they were new, there was a kind of ancient feel to them. The whole of this place, including the entrance was simply waiting for the dust to cover it. For the foyer to echo with the lack of footsteps. Leave it to her brooding sibling to build himself a ghost house that only he might haunt.
And such staff as well. Clearly Victor had managed to make enough connections with whomever that he was able to hire almost a full staff. There were a few here and there that might have performed double duties but for the most part, he had a place for everyone. Truly, she was puzzled by the child that had greeted her to take her coat and offer her refreshments. The girl was young, possibly only twelve though she may yet be younger. Clearly malnourished and from her gait, there was something of a story behind her hiring. Ah, Victor was always one of the softer heart on such matters but he was also no fool and she knew him too well to pretend that he had not taken into account everyone’s usefulness within this house. Dismal and dark as this manor might be, it ran well with an efficiency that created the feeling of an invisible presence among them. The staff were only available as they were summoned from the corners but otherwise they toiled in near silence out of sight.
She felt her heart quicken as she heard the tell-tale steps of an enraged brother coming down the hall, his footfalls coming hard on the marble. Closer still, she shivered at the proximity, knowing that she would see his snarling face soon enough. When he burst into the room, the look of anger was replaced by shock and quickly flooded back to a seething kind of hatred that she was charmed by. She couldn’t help but smile when he spat out her name like a poison. Why it was almost endearing.
“And here I had all but imagined that you forgot about me, Victor,” she mused as he stepped closer. He approached the same way a man might come closer to a viper. “You must have since you invited that pathetic snit into your home before me.”
“And look where it has gotten me?” he replied, sharply. “I’ve let one stray in and another comes begging at the door not a week later. Is there nothing that will keep you vile lot from invading my home?”
“There’s the brother I know,” she beamed. “I have missed your cruelty. You’ve no idea how boring life can become when I’m forced to surround myself with the inane. Another month away and I might have gone mad for lack of decent company.”
“Oh I doubt that very much,” Victor said, standing before her now. “Haven’t you a husband to pester into the grave with your greedy nagging?”
“Richard, sadly, could not make it here,” she laughed. “Seems that his sea legs were a might bit too clumsy and the poor wretch fell to his death.”
“And I’m sure that you were far too engrossed with your dreams of his money to hear his cries from the water,” Victor said, sitting in one of the chairs. His eyes never left her as she paced about the room.
“He had no time for such pleas when his head smashed upon the floor of the lower deck. Poor dear really should’ve known better than to drink so much,” Charlotte replied, absently picking at her long, red nails. “You’ve no idea the kind of treatment a widow gets on those large boats. If you were of a fairer temperament, I might suggest you try it some time. But you were always the more sentimental of us.”
“What is it that you want?” he said, curtly.
“I might settle for a new husband with a flush bank account and a face handsome enough for me to regret his loss,” she sighed. “However, I’ve come here for you, my darling brother. Seems we have a common enemy in our midst and I would stand to benefit from your position at present time.”
“Cut to the heart of the matter, Charlotte,” he snapped. “You’re trying my patience.”
“Our dear Caroline, it seems, has left some of us with a rather predictable, if large, dilemma,” she replied, coldly. “And before you ask, allow me to bring you the joyful news that the man we call father is now cold and lying in a pauper’s grave on the edge of the estate, lest anyone find out about his death. The others have been hiding him for nearly a month, almost a week after Caroline’s departure.”
“And I’m sure that the creditors are circling like vultures now,” Victor replied.
“Funny, that,” she replied. “There are only two who carry the Fevrier name who would not at the mercy of such vultures. You’ve managed to escape the dreadful state that Father placed that barren patch of land in and here the name means nothing to anyone. There are means to find out such secrets but with such an isolated house in such a boring community, no one ever need get that curious. And you are free of debt, a fact that most would find surprising considering that you had been cast out of the estate.”
“A fact that I need not hide at all which is why you’ve been able to track me this far,” he said. “And what might concern you about this, considering that you’ve not carried that wretched name in at least six years?”
“It is the other who concerns me,” Charlotte said, her tone darkening. “Perhaps you believe that you’ve managed to escape the clutches of that vile bunch that we call family but our little rogue has designs on bringing you back to them and has secured financial means to do so.”
“And just how might she have managed this feat?” Victor scoffed. “Our family has long been in debt and by now it is surely no secret to anyone. Caroline’s means can only be finite and wherever she has roamed, I care not so long as it does not take her back here.”
“Oh but this is not true,” Charlotte said, seating herself across from him. The flicker of her tone from disgust to vicious excitement was executed with a kind of cruel elegance. “Father, the dullard that he was, had indeed managed to acquire a significant amount of debt but that never meant that he was honest about his deeds. There is money yet in that family but you left before you could discover exactly what kind of dirty secrets the bastard has been keeping. Such terrible secrets, Victor. Why it might make even you blush to think of such things. What makes me pale, however, is that dear, sweet Caroline has fallen upon at least one such secret and her delusions make her a danger with such money at her disposal.”
“You don’t fool me, Charlotte,” he sighed. “Whatever Caroline is hiding, I did not discover it before she fled and I doubt this tale of hidden treasure that you speak of. I know your greed too well, my sister. You care nothing for me and it is more likely that you’ve come either to find a wealthy vein to tap with your charms or you’ve come to kill me for a sum. Which one is it?”
“Father’s will is protected by his lawyers until the day that a body can be produced,” Charlotte smiled. “On that day, an heir will be named. It will not be me, naturally, but it might yet be someone else. Someone who stands to inherit both his debt and his secrets.”
“And with his death so imminent due to an illness, the vultures are likely already knocking to find out the second his heart stopped,” Victor said with impatience. “I do believe, my sister, that your greed has made you delusional. I have been written out of the will and I have no need to concern myself with a dying or dead man.”
“Oh but he was not dying, Victor, dear,” Charlotte smiled wickedly. “Our terrible father was at the peak of health before darling Caroline left. The vultures had no need to circle anyone and yet he has been missing socially for some time. Suspicious, they may be thinking by now and when their thoughts turn to action, they will be looking towards the heir for their pint of blood. An heir which may be the one on the paper that the lawyer holds or the one that has managed to swindle her way here to put him back at the head of the household. You are the only listed heir, Victor, and Caroline will pull you back into the Fevrier web unless she is stopped.”
“And what might motivate you to stop her?”
“Oh my dear brother,” Charlotte laughed. “Think of this as a union of convenience. You have means to thwart her efforts in ways that I do not. I have want of the money reserves that she has stumbled upon and the constitution to make this mutual problem of ours disappear.”
“And just how will this union of ours deal with the vultures that you speak of?” Victor said, standing up. She knew from his pacing that he felt the gravity of the situation. “If I am still the heir as you claim, they will not cease to search for me.”
“Ah but papers can be changed and blame is so much easier to be laid upon those who can be exposed for their treachery,” Charlotte said, soothingly. “Trust me, Victor. Caroline knows where the reserves are and if she can carry the blame for Father’s idiocy, I will find a way to get my money and you will be freed of this burden. Ignore my warning, however, and the vultures may find you yet my dearest brother.”