Authors: John Dechancie
“Yes. You're visiting, I take it? Wait half a minute. Thaxton. Didn't you just buy Durwick Farm?”
“Well, actually . . .”
“I'd heard Throckmorton. Thaxton, is it?”
“Thaxton's the name.”
“Pleased to meet you, Thaxton. Well, we're neighbors, then. I'm just up the road from Durwick.”
“Uh, seems so,” Thaxton said.
Petheridge swung his gun barrel toward the manor house. “Yes, that's Hawkingsmere, the Festleton place. George Huddersmarch, Eighth Earl of Festleton. The resident pukka sahib, don't you know. I do believe those were his shots you heard. In fact, I was just going out to tell him . . .”
A woman's scream rent the chill air.
“What the deuce!” the colonel exclaimed, whirling about.
“We'd better see about that,” Thaxton said.
The three men ran off into the woods, Petheridge leading the way. They wound through brambles and thickets. Dalton's sweater caught on a branch, and he fell behind. Thaxton evened up with Petheridge, but held back. Petheridge seemed to know where he was going.
They came out into a clearing, and there in the middle sprawled a prone figure, a man in a green-tweed hunting suit, his face hidden in the loam. Near him stood a woman in a strange outfit, ostensibly Oriental. She had her hands clutched together and both pressed against her mouth, as if to stifle any further screams.
Petheridge walked unsteadily toward the fallen man, breathing hard. “By Jove!”
Thaxton reached the unmoving figure and squatted to inspect. He felt for a pulse.
“I'm afraid . . .”
“Good God, is he dead?”
“Yes, Colonel, he seems to be. I think we should turn him over. Don't think it will disturb anything.”
“By all means, Thaxton.”
Thaxton turned the body over. A shotgun was exposed, as was an extensive bloody wound in the dead man's chest.
“Tripped,” Colonel Petheridge said. “Tripped up and fell, and the gun discharged. What bloody luck!”
“I doubt it,” Thaxton said.
“Eh? You doubt it? Good Lord, man. Why?”
Thaxton bent to peer at the wound. “No powder burns to the suit, none on the shirt. None at all. Shot pattern's too scattered for point-blank range, I'm afraid.”
“That can't be. Must be some explanation. Good heavens, Lady Festletonâ”
Petheridge went to the woman, who looked about to faint. He put down his gun and gathered her into his arms. She began to cry.
“What on earth were you doing out here, Honoria dear?”
“IâI . . .”
“There now, don't speak, there's a good girl. Let's go back to the house. Come along.”
“George . . . somebody's killed George . . . Oh . . . oh . . . oh . . .”
“There, there. Come along, my lady. Come right along.”
Dalton, after having lost his way in the underbrush, finally arrived at the scene on the run. He skidded to a stop at the edge of the clearing, then walked warily toward Thaxton, who was still examining the body.
“Oh, no,” Dalton said.
“Murder,” Thaxton said.
“This is getting to be a habit.”
“âFraid so, old man.”
“Look, we'd better not get involved in this.”
Thaxton looked about. Other people, hunters all, were entering the clearing. “A bit late for that. Do you think we'd get far if we ran?”
“You have a point. But let's duck out at the earliest opportunity. After all, we were just passing byâ”
“You there!” called one of the approaching men, brandishing his hunting weapon in a not-so-friendly manner. “What the devil is going on?”
“Bit late for duckin'out,” Thaxton said.
“Here we go again,” Dalton muttered.
he climbed out of the valley and sought the hills.
Bedraggled, starved, he had five days'walk between him and home.
The town was real: it looked too dismal to be anything phantasmagorical. The innkeeper looked him up and down.
“What disaster did you escape from?”
“Caught in a man trap in the valley of the Zinites.”
“What in the world did you expect to find mucking about down there?”
The innkeeper grunted. “And I suppose that's what you want from me.”
“I lost everything, even my sword, Bruce. Do you have any work I can do around the place?”
The innkeeper looked away. “Sorry, no. Have all the help I need.” He did a take. “Bruce?”
“I have never begged in my lifeâ”
“Don't start with me, please. Times are hard.” He laughed. “When have times not been hard? I wonder. Anyway, I can't feed every sorry derelict who marches in here. Try down at Vinna's place. She's always a soft touch.”
“I will. Thank you.”
The innkeeper looked him over once again. “There's something familiar about you. Do I know you?”
“I have lodged here.”
“Your accent's noble, though you don't look the part. Your name?”
“Rance of Corcindor.”
The man sniffed. “Your Lordship. I . . .”
“It changes nothing. I cannot pay for a meal, much less a room.”
The man shrugged. “I wish there was something I could do. But I'm full up.”
Rance nodded and turned away.
“Landed nobility doesn't buy much these days,” the innkeeper said to his back.
“Neither does land,” he answered to no one.
The street was narrow and filthy. A gaggle of urchins ran past him, one child plucking at his sleeve. Manure was piled high in the gutter, and human waste littered the walkway. He picked his way through.
Vinna's tap room was large and smelled of ale and urine. He remembered the place, and its owner. She stood behind the bar, fat, sweaty, good-natured. She had once been pretty.
“You look a sight.” She frowned, half-recognizing. “Lord . . . Rance?”
“I am he.”
“I never forget a face. What brings you to Brisolarum?”
“Nothing brought me, and I will bring nothing back.”
She eyed him at the level. “They're taking your estate, aren't they?”
“If I don't come up with payment.”
“And you went tomb-robâ” She blushed and curtsied. “So sorry, milord.”
“That is what such activity is called. I won't deny it.”
“You took your life in your hands, milord.”
“Practically threw it away. But I was desperate, as I am now.”
She poured him a brew. “You can sleep out back in the loft. Feed and water the mounts, and there'll be dinner every night. Help me wait tables in here once in a while and you'll have breakfast every morning.”
“The gods be kind to you.”
The loft above the stable was filthy. He cleaned it out and made an acceptable bed for himself out of sackcloth and straw. He learned that the stable boy, a man of advanced years, had just succumbed to an ague. His luck that Vinna had a position open.
Bad luck, that night, that a killing occurred in the tap room. It was a particularly grisly one. Rance didn't see much. He heard a woman scream, and turned to see a headless corpse topple to the floor. This was particularly bad fortune for Vinna because it was the third incident in less than a month, and the constabulary had threatened to close her down after the second. This they did, for three days.
“I can't afford to close one day, let alone three,” she wailed. “I'll lose the place.”
Rance offered to hire himself out to other establishments and bring the proceeds home, but Vinna refused.
“We'll scrape by somehow. I owe the brewmaster, but him I can twirl around my finger.” She threw the bar rag into the air. “I can't believe the bad luck. First Graumer dies, and now this.” She paled. “Oh, dear. Things always happen in threes, don't they?”
The third thing was the fire in the stable, which started in a pile of dirty packed straw underneath some debris. Rance had been about to undertake a general cleaning of the placeâtoo late. The stable burned to the ground. The only luck was in saving the inn from irreparable damage.
“You can sleep in the attic,” Vinna told him. “Butâ”
“But I should move on.”
“Wouldn't hear of it, milord.”
“I have been nothing but trouble.”
She chewed her lip.
He said, “I'll find something else.”
“The next town. I'll be moving on.”
“Take this.” She held out three coins.
“I couldn't accept.”
“I thought you wouldn't. You're truly of noble blood.”
“Noble breeding, perhaps. The blood runs thin these days.”
The next town was worse, but Rance was tired after three days of travel on foot. On the way he passed several disasters: an accident in which a child was crushed to death beneath the wheels of a fully laden cart; a freak mishap in which a farmer drowned in his own well; a house fire; several maimings involving farm implements.
He was beginning to wonder.
The barkeep shoved a glass of ale at him.
“Three copper pieces,” he snarled.
Rance stared him down while wiping the spillage away. “My good man, you seem to have some sort of problem.”
“I've had a bad day, and I have a jumpy feeling. Your pardon.”
The barkeep looked him up and down. “You don't look like you've had a good life.”
“It's been spotty.”
A crash of thunder punctuated his remark.
The barkeep looked over Rance's shoulder. “It's looked like rain all day. Now it looks like a bad storm.”
Rance was about to ask about employment possibilities when he was interrupted by a horrendous lightning display.
“Gods,” the barkeep breathed. “Did I say
Moments later the flash flood hit. Rance was halfway through his ale when a high wall of water swept through the town.
Later he recalled nothing much but the feeling of being carried away by an unstoppable force. He remembered a few screams, the swirling brownish-gray water, floating debris. There was not much else to remember, and almost nothing remained of the town.
He swam to high ground, sloshed out of the water, lay down, and sank six fathoms into sleep.
Someone was trying to undress him. He threw out his right hand and hit something soft.
He got up and looked at the man writhing on the ground, clutching his throat.
The man regained his voice and croaked, “Bastard! I thought you were dead!”
“Not yet,” he answered. “Not quite yet.”
max spent all night in the study, a cold anger frosting his insides.
Max 2 had needed a change, all right.
Many of the reasons for his crying need were piled in a heap on the desktop. Here was notice of an imminent IRS audit of his personal returns
his company's. There, stacks of overdue household bills. Legal documents informing of pending litigation. Two notices that a warrant for his arrest would be sworn out if payment of fines for a sheaf of traffic violations was not forthcoming . . .
There was more. Max saw the letterhead of a Las Vegas hotel and couldn't force himself to look at the amount of the marker or how long overdue the payoff was.
Something was rotten in Max 2's world.
Max 2 had himself a fine advertising agency, Dumbrowsky Taylor Burke. He was looking at a bank statement of the business account. Low cash flow, very low. A business with a balance sheet like this couldn't stay in business very long.
Taking everything into consideration, it looked as though Max 2 was completely broke. On the surface, he looked fine, but his actual net worth was probably a negative number. If so, where had the gold come from? Oh, here. Second mortgage on the house, to the tune of several hundred thousand dollars. The house was worth that much, all right. So, he'd converted the cash to gold. And the first payment on the new mortgage was already a week overdue.
Max was getting a distinct whiff of bamboozle on the wind.
All a scam. He had been hoodwinked. This life was in more of a mess than the one he'd left.
Dawn was coming through the window, and he heard movement upstairs.
Well, he had Andrea back. That much was an improvement. Maybe having her in his life would make up for this pot of trouble he was in.
Someone was coming down the stairs. He ducked into the powder room, wet his overlong hair, and slicked it down. Max 2's hair had been a lot shorter; he hoped the discrepancy wouldn't be glaring. Also, Max 2 had about fifteen pounds on him. Max loosened his robe.
After steeling himself for the shock of what he knew was outside, Max opened the study door and went into the foyer.
And there was Andrea, standing at the front door in an expensive coffee-colored fur stole and a maroon dress. She had aged not a whit, looking as Max had always remembered her: tall and beautiful. He drank in everything about her that he had cherished: the long legs, the long, wavy chocolate-brown hair, the high cheekbones, the high-fashion face of classic symmetry.
Max fell in love all over again. “Andrea,” he breathed.
She turned her pale blue eyes on him. “I'm leaving, Max.”
Max stopped dead in his tracks.
“Forget about the trial separation. I've decided to file.” She was pulling on long black leather gloves. Finished, she looked at him. “Up all night again?”
“Andrea . . . you can't . . . I justâ”
“There's nothing more to say, Max,” she told him coldly. “It's all been said. I'll have my lawyers call your lawyers.” One dark eyebrow drew up into a sarcastic arch. “Isn't that the way you've always handled everything?”