Victor had been scrambling late into the night to find time to think. He’d contacted every person with whom he had financial dealings and to his annoyance, he’d received several replies that they were alarmed to hear from him again so quickly. The harlot had dipped her fingers in quite a few things. Thankfully the damage appeared to be minimal so far but it was still damage to be corrected. His nerves were frayed at the constant rise and fall of his temper as he discovered yet another turn for the worse. In the darkest hours of the night, he would sit alone, his teeth set on edge and his breathing ragged. He would never admit it in the light of day but in those precious, horrible moments when dawn seemed like it would never come and the setting sun was like a memory in the far distant past, he was secretly frightened of the truths that he would yet uncover. The ones he’d found were frightful enough for his liking. The fact that he had under estimated his sister was frustrating enough to get him angry all over again but it was what she had tried to do that had made him truly feel the cold stab of fear in his heart.
It was a clumsy attempt, for certain. It would probably have failed eventually but it was alarming to know how far along the line Caroline’s efforts to take away his home had progressed. She had gone so far as creating an account at the bank under his name and adding a joint account for a wife that had not yet been named. It had not yet allowed her the freedom to start to entangle his finances here but it may have started to corrupt other accounts elsewhere. It would have taken time but left unchecked, it may have been able to cripple him. Enough so that he would actually require the inheritance that Charlotte so desperately sought after. The thought of being at the mercy of that charlatan made his heart flicker with a kind of rage that left him feeling particularly cruel. He wished, in those cold moments, that he could make her suffer. That he could repay her attempts to rob him of his life with a fitting punishment. The desire, however strong, was always snuffed when he thought of how he might feel if she stood before him now. If he had his wish and she could be brought before him for his revenge, he could not go through with it. He could not stand the idea that he might touch her or even see her again. It left a vile stain in his memory to think of what she might say. The way that she might even attempt to excuse what she had tried to do. He had felt hatred before but never to this degree. Never at this level of heat that left him feeling the strain of its influence throughout his body. It was even more alarming for him that he had not felt this kind of intense hatred of anyone, even when he stood before the one person he reviled the most.
These fitful, sleepless nights were the first time since Caroline’s arrival that he thought seriously about his father. About what it would be like to see the bastard again. He vowed that it should never happen again. That his own eyes should never be tainted with the image of that man so long as he was still breathing. The sight of the sentimental letters written in the hand of his late lover had brought back pains that he never expected to be able to feel again. Distance in miles and years had left the edges of his broken heart blunted to the point where their pain was no longer as cruel. No longer so sharp that they robbed him of his sleep and left him too numb to eat. The thought of his perfectly repulsive father had managed to fade too. The memories of what his voice sounded like. How his temper might flash and how he would exact his cruelty later. He had abstained from that kind of malice with his own surroundings. Though he’d felt the lash burn of his own temper, he refused to allow that man to come here in his stead. To infiltrate his life with his presence unseen but felt in the flinches and fearful stammering of helpless servants. Of children who could not fight back. Of women who could not be allowed to say no lest they be punished. They were all punished. Servants left with little to no food for days until they were weak. Children who were given to nurses and nannies to tend to bruises and cuts. Women who were made to work later hours than everyone else. Left to hungry dogs who might yet make a meal of them. Left so bruised and broken that no man would look at her again. Or so the beastly clod had thought.
He’d never seen his mother’s body upon her death. He was told when he was younger that she had once been beautiful but her death had been so terrible that they refused to let anyone see into her coffin at the wake. He was too young to remember that or most other things surrounding her death. His father rarely mentioned her and other than the few items that Charlotte had hidden about the house, her memory was all but banished after she was gone. Their father tersely insisted that it was to erase the horrible last image for the elder children but it had been commanded rather than offered as a solution. Charlotte had never forgotten. It was only through his most deceitful sibling in one of her rare moments where she mourned anything that she confided in him what she saw. Victor cursed himself for thinking it anything but the truth. For believing that she was a liar when he could see very clearly that her tears were real. Charlotte had learned to love no one in this world but she once loved her mother. Idolized her for who she once was. Who she could have been if she had not been married to their brute of a father. She told him that though she never saw it, she heard it. She heard it when she would hide in the unused rooms where they kept their grandparents’ belongings. When she would silently find places to hide other treasures she’d found. She heard their terrible arguments. She’d heard him holler like he was speaking to a willful horse. She’d heard him threaten and then she heard the sound of glass shattering. Of a woman laid on the floorboards as the man she married destroyed her with his fists. He’d never seen it but he’d faced those cruel hands himself. He would not be that man he hated. As punishment for his refusal to become the image of the man he so despised, his father destroyed the only person he ever loved. Just like he’d done to Charlotte before him.
Of course, it was easy to fall into the thinking that his incredibly deceptive house guest was looking out for his best interest. She was so good at such things which was how so many foolish men had come to greet the grave so early. Victor knew that she was a killer though the term seemed so obscene when thinking of Charlotte. It was not, however, incorrect nor was it something to be ignored. So far, his sister had been telling him a version of the truth that had checked out but for the moment, he could not comfortably say that he’d been told everything. In fact, he knew the signs. Charlotte was hiding something and he knew that it was something to her advantage. He knew better than to trust her entirely. The problem was that in this moment, she was among his only allies.
In moments like this, Victor cursed himself for wishing that he could contact the widow. He knew very well that she was a puppet master, not unlike his own father. He knew that his own behavior may well land him in turmoil, if it had not already. She demanded a kind of respect that he granted to almost no one and it had been good to him so far. He felt the benevolence of her graciousness slipping from his life now and he knew better than to cling to it. It would only result in the viper sinking her teeth into him when he was at his most vulnerable. Still, he could also feel the sting of desperation quickly threatening to turn to panic.
In the silence of the dead of the night, Victor wandered around, his footsteps the only thing punctuating his thoughts as he allowed himself to be guided to the place where he’d hidden the object. The last thing that the widow had given him was that damned card and he had made a point to avoid it. To banish it and her from his memory until the moment that he was called forth again. With each week that passed since his last encounter with her, he felt more the release of her control but with it came the understanding that he may well be awaiting the cruelty of her punishments. He knew that the answer to this did not lie in the card that was hidden in his drawer in the study. Still, his tired mind had been convinced to come there anyway as he mechanically unlocked the door and made his way inside the dark room. The card was no longer in the drawer but awaiting him. Laid face down on the desk as though the widow herself had set it up for him to find, he carefully drew the curtains apart that he might see it only in the shameful moonlight. With trembling breath and slow, deliberate movements, he slowly turned the card over and felt his breath catch at the sight. The reaper stood before him with the word death written on a scroll at his feet. His heart started at the sound of a loud chime to mark the midnight hour.