Victor seldom found himself behind the wheel of a car these days but it was freeing when he did. The sun was setting upon the hills that cradled Courtland County and the harvest gold of the end of summer was everywhere. To anyone else, this image should have been the picture of beauty that this landscape had to offer but to Victor, it was a cold reminder of the task at hand. The cooling embers of day would give way to a punishing twilight and the weight of what lie ahead would play upon him. It would be mere minutes before the rolling hills were plunged into shadow and he would be cutting through it alone to get to the house of the black widow. The trees of the area would seem to grow taller and the limbs impossibly tangled as they twisted rotten fingers as if anticipating his arrival. He knew that she was.
Traveling alone, he could not help thinking of the first meeting with this woman. He’d had certain expectations when the man who identified himself only as “Jim” hired Victor to escort her to American soil. Victor knew the name he used was fake but the opportunity was too simple and lucrative to pass up despite the undertones of what this man was dabbling in. It was, after all, only a certain stroke of luck that had gotten him the job in the first place. He’d been chosen because of the darker color of his eyes and hair and because he was good at keeping to himself when necessary. The widow had long grey tresses that were peppered with streaks of raven black. It was more than evident almost immediately that their prior choice was not going to pass for her escort. He was well younger than Victor, his blond hair still almost white with the buttery color only recently threading its way through, but he was jovial in a kind of charming way. By contrast, memère was a woman who had a kind of intensity that would suffer no such foolishness. Taller than most women, she walked with a cane though she showed no perceivable limp. There was a cruelty to her features and the way her lean body moved, she seemed to slither about with a grace that made the skin crawl. Though he never laid eyes on her before he arrived to bring her to the ocean liner, once they linked arms, it was as though they had been family at once for the similarities that they shared. Victor was proud and silent. The widow was haughty and wickedly quick to send a stinging barb to anyone who dared oppose her.
When he accepted the job, he knew nothing of what the widow meant to Jim. He was no fool and well aware that the money he was being paid would be dirty. All of this mattered little in the face of what he was hoping to accomplish and the man who had met him in London knew this. Victor was ambitious with plans of his own beyond his chore and it was this determination to move forward that had impressed the man the most. It was his ticket to begin his journey away from everything he had been tied to and though he had made some profitable enough contacts in England, it was still too close to the world he left. A world that was too easy for someone to snatch him out of and drag him back to the one that he’d been a pawn in. A bargaining piece for a man with a ruthless heart and a chain weighted with shame hanging from his neck. A chain that Victor was to inherit. No, he would not allow such things. To hell with that world and all its ease and traps for him to sink into. The world of old money and names that meant something because of a lost history that could too easily be pulled to the surface to tarnish. He could not escape his heritage necessarily but he could come to a place where will was stronger than history because America had none to speak of yet. He’d been dreaming of such a world when he’d been introduced to the woman he called memère. Perhaps it had been Jim who paid him in the end but it had been memère who had been the one to facilitate such dreams.
The density of the trees surrounded him as he let the car wind around the roads that led out of Courtland County. He could still hear her voice ringing in his ears when she had told him of this place. The land of ashes and blood, she had called it. The widow was intrigued but swore that she would not set foot within its borders. She had seen only a postcard of Courtland County and felt the sharp pangs of something that was left in the ink. The words alone, she refused to speak. Still she had told him that fortune would find him there. That trails to the house that built would be fostered where great winds of wealth would sustain him for his whole life. He did not know then if he’d believed her but he had followed her instructions and found that a year later, her visions had been correct. His name, though clean as he could keep it, became whispered among company that he thought unavailable to him. And once again, his silent manner and his isolation from the world around him had paid off, as the widow had told him. He was well on his way to the life that he had craved so badly in London that it was like a stain on his heart that pained him to think of. Pain that was sharp enough to sometimes conflict with the pain he felt when he remembered her name or her voice with such clarity that he felt as though she were right beside him again. As the township sank into darkness behind him, he quickened his speed to his destination. It had been too long and he knew memère waited. She would tell him what manner of darkness had come to him now and how his mistake could be undone. He would pay for it, naturally, but he cared little for what payment meant. He would do what needed to be done.
His destination was not far and as the shadows of the trees engulfed the back roads, he felt a tug at his heart when he thought again of the curious incident that he had witnessed this morning. The child that was his spy had sobbed at the thought of him bringing roses with him this evening. She said that she knew things and this vexed him terribly all day. Victor could not take the ring of her voice from his head. It was almost uncanny how she was able to find out the goings on of his home and he had assumed this to be the work of a child who had grown used to having to be cautious around adults. A child who had been long trained to know the sound of a drunkard and ferreting clues out from his tone as to when he would sleep or when he would strike. But a child who could tell him of things he had told no one else in the house was perplexing to him and deeply unsettling. It begged the question of how much she knew. How she could know things that no one else did and how she managed to find them out. It was a thought he best put out of mind when approaching his current destination but he still felt the disturbing tap on his shoulder when he thought of the way she looked at him. The way that she was filled with fear but not in a way he had ever seen before. Living with his father, he had come to know the look of fear of a beating or worse at the hands of a master. To his shame, he had grown to feel that same fear when he was young. The look the child gave him was different. It chilled him to think of her face and see the utter despair and terror in her eyes.
Victor doused the flames of these thoughts as he rounded the corner of a small hill and saw the house in the distance. Opulent white marble pillars adorned the sides of the doors that would soon open to welcome him. The rest of the house was lavishly decorated with skyward turrets and decorative flourishes that framed every window. Upon each corner, there sat intricately carved statuary that Victor had scarcely seen in the daylight. The way the glow of the windows caught the curves and edges of the stone faces cast shadows that told expressions of mockery as he approached on the drive. The widow had been the downfall of a great many men in her time and as he exited the car, he looked up at the stone faces, wondering if their sneering expression was one of true mockery at the position he found himself in or of pity for their own lot. It seemed as thought it could be both this evening as he climbed the short stairway past those great columns. The door opened before he had managed to reach the top and a servant was awaiting him. It was a young man whom he had never seen before which made him shiver. If he knew anything about memère, it was that being in her employ was a dangerous occupation for anyone who dared to try to defy or cheat her. She rarely changed staff once she had trained someone the way of their position so he knew immediately as soon as he entered that the previous man that he’d come to see when he made his visits had likely met the same fate as Jim.
The young man made no attempt to make conversation but rather took Victor’s coat and escorted him down the hall. The marvellous exterior was an echo of what the interior of the house looked like. Once again, Victor was taken aback by the splendor of it all. The crystal chandeliers twinkled above him, casting shivering shadows upon the intricately woven tapestries the widow adorned her wall with. The illusion made it appear as though the coiled colors were alive, slowly moving and toiling about their lives in cloth. He ripped his attention away from their struggles and focused on the intricately carved double doors his silent escort had brought him to. Opening to a lush atrium filled with plants that he had never seen before, Victor felt his breath catch for a moment at the sight of it. As he entered, he was assaulted by the perfume that the collective blooms created in the humid environment. Above him a vast glass ceiling reflected the plants, giving the impression of the newly appeared stars being cradled by the delicate vines and branches of the greenery.
“My dearest Victor,” a voice came from the room.
“I apologize for my tardy appearance, memère,” he said, his voice void of the tenderness that would usually accompany such sentiments. The widow laughed.
“Such a cold prince you are,” she said, smiling wickedly as she emerged from behind the plants. She looked every bit as decorative as the house she lived in and her smile was radiant and vicious as he had come to know. She leaned on her cane with an emphasis that could be mistaken for a kind of lewd attention if she were a youth. “Come in, dear Victor. We’ve much to speak of and the night is very young yet.”