That night the wind was vicious and deadly cold. It felt as though the ice in the air would chill her very blood and turn it to brittle glass beneath her skin. Caroline might have welcomed that fate if not for the task at hand. Her hatred had burnt too hot for the wind to chill her to a sweeping, merciful death. No, she had only wished for such a thing upon finding that gravesite and those dreadful names. She wished only to join her beloved Victor beyond the grave. Yet she could not rest. She could not allow this to pass. Each time she closed her eyes in hopes that the vile liquor might poison her for good or the fickle gas flame might sputter out and leave her to more pleasant eternal slumber, she was once again reminded of her last vivid nightmare. Her last dream wherein she saw those two angelic children, clearly the spitting image of their lost father. She saw their faces taunting her each time she tried to sleep and would not allow it. She could not rest until they were gone. Their seed already planted, she knew it. She could not let Vivian’s sins take away her family name. Those children were as good as stolen from their rightful house. They would not live to see daylight if it was the last thing she did.
Against the wicked winds she pressed into the night. She had been told of a place that might allow her to get to the forest. It was a boarding house that took in street workers and if one met the right people, there were rewards. Of course, most the rewards were simple and common. There was drinkable alcohol for those who desperately needed it. There were people who offered their bodies for those willing to work extra without the pay. There were also jobs in the offering, some of which were bigger money. Then there was the biggest pay off but also the biggest risk. For a few, there were coveted spots to make the trip out to the woods. There were others who lived in houses out there. They were beyond the road where the museum was and there were few but they were fussy. Caroline knew their type. She knew exactly what they were like, these people in the big houses in the woods. They wanted the privacy of the forest for their homes and their deviancy but they could not be so gauche as to live amid unpaved roads and other such luxuries. Their vanity was appalling but it was also rather convenient. The roads to these horrible houses full of those terrible old money families was difficult to travel. There were dangers that people did not dare speak of on the way. It was a risk that many dreamed of but few took up. It was also a prized route to take because the pay was good. The old families out there might be murder to work for but they knew the value of harder work if they were to enjoy the fruit of it. There was pain but there was also money. More than Caroline had, even. It was a gamble.
She had delayed in coming to this part of town. Caroline had known when she first heard rumors of it that this was a place that might yet be the real answer to her quest. She knew that she had to go but still, she hesitated. It was easier at first. The bitter cold had been a good enough excuse for a while but as she worked, her hands becoming raw and her skin becoming brittle and dry from the weather, she could no longer use that. She’d seen some horrible conditions and yet she toiled like a common street vendor. She couldn’t help also being slightly aware that she was no beauty to the likes of those around her. It tarnished her soul to be reduced to this but it also kept her hidden well enough that no one would find her. Initially, she had worried about her lapse into this common life, that it might detract from anyone who might be plied with more tender favors. This was of great concern in this place that she went to and she’d known this before. It wasn’t simply an exchange for a step above terrible, possibly poisonous alcohol. There was real money to be found here but there was also a long road to get there and some of it was unsavory, or so she’d been told. She knew that it would entail that she would be speaking to certain types of men and while she was no longer the respectable vision of a blue blood that might be of interest to some, they were surprisingly flexible in what they found desirable. While a part of her was disgusted by their lack of taste, she conceded that it was best to keep her contempt quiet until after this ordeal was over.
Caroline had to admit that this was the kind of behavior that would get her expelled from the house should her father ever find out. It was most amusing to her, secretly. Her father had all but forbidden everyone in the household, even their mother at one point, from having any faltering into sins of the flesh of any kind. He had been suffering from fever, assuming that their wicked ways had been to blame for their fall from societal grace. He was being punished for their horrible slights against the almighty. Strange, she thought, when she allowed the memory to surface in earnest. Her father had long been a godless man and if he’d been at all upset about the maturity of his daughters, he might well have died of a heart attack when he learned that they were all far from the image of purity even before they left the estate. Caroline had been the last hold out, of course, paying respect to her dear father’s wishes. She eventually slipped from her promises, however, as time continued to roll on and the financial woes that he complained of never seemed to cease. The promiscuity of her older and even her younger sisters seemed never to prevent dinner from being placed on the table, after all, so there was some reason to doubt that her father truly believed such things. It was at that point that she had began to find her enjoyment of life elsewhere outside the house. After Victor had gone and she had nothing to look to as a means to save them from the dread of the changing world. Why she should be cast out now of all times, in this case, made no sense. After all, she’d sold her virtue before and for far less than this. Her revenge was far more important this time. Her so-called morals had never been completely clean anyway, she justified to herself. It was something that she’d rarely had a chance to experience in the estate home but since coming here, she had found the fickle hearts of wicked men most convenient.
This alone should have been a true reason that she stalled on coming to this area. To this small, unassuming hovel on the opposite edge of town. She did not always enjoy the trades that were made and truly, occasionally, she found that these transactions were regrettable and ended up humiliation where the means were hardly justified by the end they produced. Still, she was less concerned with that this time around and she was well aware of this now as she stood clutching her hood to keep the driving wind off her face. If it be trades of a less savory nature they wanted, she knew she would offer no matter how regrettable they might be. She was told that it might take a while to convince someone, especially given the time of year. With the holidays fast approaching, the show towards generosity would be great but so could the cruelty. The pageantry of the giving season would require perfection from those who paid for it and it was said that some workers were given no reprieve from their suffering of the cold while they toiled. The callous nature of their employer had been the death of a few last year and they suspected with this year’s dreadful storm, there would be a few more to add to the list. No one spoke the name but she knew who it was. A name that seized her heart with hatred that screamed so loud, it need not be spoken. She would find a way to make sure that their house was the picture of mourning soon. She would accept nothing less. Still, there was hesitation. There was a feeling like she could not make herself move without great effort. Caroline wondered if it was her body fighting what she knew would come. This was the end, after all.
Finally, she could stand it no longer. She had travelled most of the night, bringing only what she could with her as she’d trudged through the snow towards this one wicked place. Tonight, she would not rest until she heard the sound of a man tell her that she would travel with them up to the forest. There would be someone to finally give her the means to carry out her revenge and she knew that that man stood inside this wretched little shack.
Upon entering, she saw the way the eyes avoided her as she wandered in clumsily from the storm. The bluster of the snow trailed around her as she closed the ill-fitting door and looked about. All eyes were downturned and sunken. All waiting their turn, she thought to herself. A shudder moved through beneath her skin as she saw all these people. Some women but mostly men sat about, drinking in silence, their sorrows laid open. They looked as though they were being carted away to die like cattle. She could not allow this to be her fate. She would not. She moved slowly amid the crowd, looking for anyone who might meet her eye. Fiercely determined, she saw that most of them would only look away from her. They would not greet her with so much as a glance in hopes that she would pass them by. It was only when she reached the back of the room that she saw the glint of something in someone’s poisonous eyes. She knew that she had found the person that might be swayed. Someone who might yet hold the key to what she so desperately needed. Without hesitation or invitation of any kind, she made her way to the back of the room and the person seated there moved the chair to allow her to sit down.
“I come to find a way to work the streets of the forest homes,” she said bluntly as she sat. The man did not meet her eyes but laughed mirthlessly to himself.
“A tall order to be sure and one that will take time,” he shrugged. “Our next movement is not until after Christmas Morning. Perhaps not even until after the ringing of the New Year.”
“There are none sooner?”
“Are we so eager to give up the holiday season?” the man scolded lightly with a smile. He searched her face as he spoke. “There are those who might wish to find some cheer in these dreary days. Could you deny them such things?”
“If pleasure is what you seek, you’ll find it,” she offered, frustrated. He smiled and shook his head. “I can provide.”
“That I do not doubt, my lady,” he sighed, looking over the room. “As a means to save you the trouble of finding out the hard way, you may offer to anyone in the room. Goodness knows that their gloomy demeanor might yet be improved by it but that will be all you would end up with for your troubles. The roads are impossible to pass right now. The rich will have to fend for themselves for this time being.”
“There must be other roads,” she insisted. “Other ways to make our way there. Could there not be a vehicle, maybe even one provided by the wretched brutes that populate that area?”
“My we are impatient,” he tutted. He looked at her very serious and sternly now. His voice dropped and the warmth of his tone was gone. “There are but few roads there and all of them lead to death. There are others eager to spend this season in pursuit of cruel ends. We move when their deeds are done or we will not make it.”
“I will ride to the forest,” she demanded. “If another offer comes before this, I will ride with them to the forest.”
“There will be no other offer,” the man said, his casual demeanor returning. “If you truly wish to find your death with us, you will come on the first week of the year. Fortune may lie that way but be forewarned, there is more cruelty than you might expect. To accept is a deathwish.”
“I will ride,” Caroline said, rising.
“Very well,” the man smiled, looking her over. “Until next time, my lady.”