In light of the contest I’m currently running, the one in which, if you enter, you may win 1 of 3 free eBook copies of Stolen Prey, I decided to post excerpts of the first few chapters of Stolen Prey over the next little bit. If you like what you’re reading, enter the contest. It’s easy. All you have to do is follow my blog and then comment on a scary dream you’ve had.
To read more, go to Smashwords (click here) and click to read a 20% preview in any format you choose.
May 7, 1692
My dearest beloved,
It has been past two months without the sight, smell, sound, or touch of your being. Sometimes I wonder if you are still alive! From your mother, I have heard news that, as one would be you are most delighted in your new post as lady in waiting to Queen Mary. However, it would be my greatest joy if you were to return a letter to me. I long to read what adventures and wonderful stories you have to tell me. I hope to see you soon. In little more than a month, I assure you, I will have acquired the funds to repurchase a horse and carriage, as my paintings have been in high demand of late. I will visit you, and, if it is your wish, we can marry then, with or without a grand ceremony. I love you, and I would do all against God’s wishes to make you happy. I miss you.
Love your eagerly awaiting fiancé, Leonard
June 1, 1692
Although the short letter you sent to me in the week past gave me wonderful amounts of joy, I have heard strange news that cannot be ignored. I overheard your mother informing a friend that you had met a nobleman, one that you are now courting. At once, I believed this information to be untrue, as your past letter spoke of how dearly you wished to see me. Of course, it would make my evenings less restless if you were to correct me on this matter. I am one painting short of visiting you, my love. Adieu.
June 25, 1692
My Dearest Victoria,
In five days’ time I will be making my way to London, following this letter. I long to feel the softness of your delicate skin, hear the sound of your heavenly voice. After all, it has been far too long since we last set eyes on each other. I look forward to seeing you, my love.
I miss you, Leonard.
July 14, 1692
It is still a shock to me that you have married another. Yet more shocked were you that I had come to visit you. Did you not receive my letters? You have broken my already fragile heart, Victoria.
August 5, 1692
You will find that I have returned the letters you sent to me. My husband nearly caught me reading your latest. I am sorry for telling Henry that you were my childhood friend, however, you can understand why I did so. Returning these letters will close our relationship, as is my greatest hope, for it would be improper of me to continue such communication with you.
Good luck on future endeavours, Victoria
August 21, 1692
This is the last letter you will ever receive from me, as tonight I will no longer exist as the Leonard you once loved. By the time you have received this, I will have taken my life. I leave to you all of my possessions. I will always love you.
ETHAN STARED for a few moments longer at the parchment coated in fluent font, a letter produced by the shaky hand of a suicidal seventeenth-century man. Though the subject of the communications was rather tragic, something fascinating about these relics of the past ensnared his attention. For a short while, the letters whisked him away into another time, away from the chaos of today’s fast-paced world. It was a time without automobiles, cell phones, television; a time when one considered fast food a rabbit or a deer, not the burger joint down on the corner.
He took a deep breath and folded the paper along its creases, placing it back within the bundle of letters he had found with the care of one tending to a wound.
He wheeled around, his shoes causing a grey cloud of dust to billow around his legs. Martin plodded into the room, his heavy footsteps echoing on the antique hardwood floor. He sneezed as sediment drifted into his nose.
“What are you doing down there, mate?” Martin asked, rubbing his nose in repugnance.
With an irrational concern that he would face reprimanding for snooping through someone else’s possessions, Ethan stuffed the bundle of letters back into the hole, before which the baseboard had come loose from the wall. He stood, dusted his knees and said, “Just found some… old letters, that’s all.”
“Well, let’s remember this is a crime scene, not a museum,” Martin replied. “I’d like to get home before dinner time if that’s all right with you.” He trudged towards the window, opaque from years of dirt, grime, and dust build-up, attempting to view the rural English surroundings, where the air, without question, would feel appreciably fresher.
“Right, of course,” Ethan said. “Sorry. Let’s get back to work.” He stole one last inquisitive glance at the cubbyhole in the wall and turned towards the tainted ensuite bathroom.
“So, what have we got so far?” Martin demanded. He held his arm out before him to allow Ethan to enter the room first.
“Well, I am guessing she slit her wrists,” Ethan said, reluctant to make a mistake. He turned his glance from the body lying in the bathtub to his boss, searching for a welcome sign of approval.
Instead, revolt overwhelmed the man’s face. Martin cleared his throat, an ineffective attempt to conceal his discomfort. “So, ah, what information can you give me about this Miss Pennington? I mean, from what you’ve dug up so far.”
Ethan nodded and hurried towards the bathtub. Goose bumps plastered the skin of his arms, his hair standing on end in their follicles. This was the first time in five years that a body had tweaked his nerves in quite this way.
“Well—hey, watch here.” Ethan snapped his fingers to bring Martin’s attention back to the body. The sooner they could breathe fresh air, the better. “The body is so badly decomposed that there’s really no way to determine the cause of death or that it really is Pennington until the coroner—Graham’s on duty today—takes a closer look. I can deduce, though, that it is a possible suicide because of the straight razor there in the soap dish, which has what appears to be blood residue on it.
“The court-process clerk found a suicide note on the front hall table, which is why he bothered looking around the house in the first place to find her. I don’t think he knew if the note had been written today or twenty years ago, but it wasn’t addressed to anyone in particular. The neighbours say they believe she lived alone.”
Martin nodded and breathed into his hand, which he had cupped over his mouth. “Doesn’t look suspicious, then?” he asked. His face was crimson red, as though he had been choking on the putrid air, suffocating.
Ethan peered back at the bones. “I don’t expect so, but again, Graham will have the say.”
“How do you know it’s a woman?”
Ethan nodded towards the bedroom. “I don’t know for sure, obviously, but the house and bills are in her name and like I said, she apparently lived alone. This makes sense because only one bedroom is occupied.”
Martin nodded, a glimmer of a smirk forming on his face. Ethan ignored it. If he allowed his hopes to rise too high, only to be let down in the end, his world would be shattered.
“So,” Martin muttered, “why hasn’t anyone found her until now?”
“Well,” Ethan said, “the house has been passed on through her family for the last three hundred years, so she owed the banks nothing. She didn’t own a car, didn’t have a credit card. The body, national insurance, her bank account, and the previous owner’s will seem to be the only proof of her ever having existed, aside from the reason we’re here in the first place.
“She must have been a bit of a recluse. According to the elderly neighbours across the way who have lived here all their lives, they have never seen anyone enter or leave the house, aside from a delivery of groceries now and again. The neighbours knew nothing about her, and figured she had moved away years ago. I don’t think they’ll sleep tonight, now that they know. If not for that court-process clerk coming out to subpoena her for being overdue on her taxes, who knows how much longer she might lie here?”
Martin crossed his thick arms over his hefty chest and slid away from the doorframe to approach the tub. He leaned over it and grimaced. “How long has the poor lass been here, do you think?”
Ethan gazed at the unclothed body until it drifted out of focus. “I’d say about a year—year and a half. She hadn’t paid her taxes for six quarterly instalments… That gives you an idea, doesn’t it?”
“I can’t be positive, but from what I know,” Ethan said, “that’s my best guess.”
“Good. Well,” Martin said with a grim sigh, “that was fun. Let’s get the hell out of here so Graham can do his job.”
When they exited the washroom, Ethan sent a fleeting glance at the baseboard again. He wondered how long the letters would sit in that wall, waiting for someone to recover them. They had lain there, perhaps untouched, for hundreds of years. How many more would they endure? In a mere morsel of his body, he hoped that he was wrong about the suicide. Imagining that two suicides had taken place in the same home caused unsolicited chills to course his spine.
He seized his leather coat from the dusty bed and shook it with the grim awareness that a key component of household dust was skin particles. The idea of centuries-old skin cells lingering on his jacket was enough to drive him through the dark doorway, his sole means of escape. Martin was already waiting out in the hallway for him, appearing unable to spend another moment in the murky bedroom.
One last time, Ethan glanced at the spot where the letters remained hidden. Perhaps he could sneak them out, hide them in his coat and—
“So, what was that you found?” Martin asked, reading the obsession on his face.
Ethan peeked back once more and shrugged, knowing that obsession was never conducive to leading a stable lifestyle. “Just some old love letters is all. It’s nothing.”
Together they plodded down the wide oak staircase, which showed no signs of decay despite standing for hundreds of years, taking extra care not to miss a step in the hazy darkness. The little daylight that permeated the house illuminated the trillions of dust particles that encircled them. Ethan imagined that the house could be beautiful in the morning light. He looked above him. After checking with the electric company earlier, he discovered that the owner of this mansion had never had electricity in her name. There was no doubt in his mind that what wiring was here would be far outdated and need replacing. He wondered what such a task would cost. Up above the vast staircase hung a great chandelier, fastened teardrop-shaped crystals reflecting the last of the day’s light. Encircling the circumference of the fixture were twenty candles that appeared unused. It would have been quite the effort to light them each night.
His heart dropped as he missed a step. He grabbed for the oak railing, hoping this would save him from plummeting to the main floor below, but too late. He slipped onto his back and knocked his head on the corner of a stair. Miniature white dots whizzed around him in a furious frenzy as he began to slide down, step by step. Martin reached down just in time to clutch Ethan by the coat and hoist him back up onto unstable feet. His heart thundered behind his ribcage and he sat down on a dusty stair, gasping for air.
“Bloody hell, Callaway! What am I going to do with you? One minute you’re proving your colours and the next you’re tumbling down the steps like a bumbling idiot!” Martin exclaimed, bent over and panting.
“Sorry, I was distracted by the house,” Ethan said with a wheeze. “You startled me.” His breath returned to him at a steady pace, but he was sure to have a bruise on the back of his head. After a slight pause, Martin bellowed a hearty laugh, one that made Ethan smile at his own stupidity. Had his head not been attached to his neck, he would have lost it minutes after birth.
“Do I have to assign you a special watchdog?” Martin asked.
Ethan laughed and shook his head. “No, that won’t be necessary. So, can you tell me, do you think I’ll get the job?”
Martin peered down at Ethan and provided him with a weak smile. “After that display? Oh, I’m just playing. Let’s see what the coroner’s report shows. If you’ve solved this case single-handedly in one day and you’ve aced the exam, you’ve got yourself a position.”
© Lindsay Mawson 2010