This short story is part of the Kings of Hell MC series, but doesn’t need to be read in any particular order. It’s a tiny gothic horror story that stands on it’s own. It’s set in the Fane household in 1790.
There was little worse than incompetent staff. Their neglectful ways meant Mrs. Ludlow had to get her own hands dirty, even though tasks such as dusting were well beneath her station.
Eric, the footman, was supposed to help her move the cupboard holding precious porcelain, and yet, he’d been missing since yesterday. Unlike the others working at the Fane estate, Eric could be trusted with handling of expensive goods, so his disappearance was doubly infuriating.
For months now, Mrs. Ludlow had had her suspicions about Eric’s unnatural proclivities, since a man of his good looks would have otherwise seduced a scullery maid or two by now. Mrs. Ludlow could turn a blind eye to all that as long as Eric did his duties.
Which he didn’t.
He was missing.
Which meant he’d ran off with someone, leaving her to rely on less competent staff on the day of Mr. Fane’s arrival after his long stay in Boston. She’d taken utmost care of the house while he was gone, of course, but how could she make sure every single surface was spotless without reviewing the maids’ efforts herself? If it were possible, she would dismiss them all and employ a whole new set of girls, old-fashioned and dedicated to nothing but order and service, just like she used to be in her younger years.
But times had changed, and people of service seemed to have regressed in their skills and morals, which left Mrs. Ludlow to tweak the effect of neglectfully done chores on her own. She’d once even walked in on Eric playing cards with young Master William. The audacity of such a thing!
Her back ached more than usual–another reminder of impending age–but she would grit her teeth and do what needed to be done to keep Mr. Fane and his guests in awe of the household in her care. She hadn’t done backbreaking work all those years to be now considered a sloppy housekeeper.
Whenever she went to church, all of Brecon knew who she was. She had the master’s ear, so sometimes people would approach her about the possibility of employment within the Fane household.
She would never dare say it out loud, but at times like that, she imagined herself being Mrs. Fane, a respected lady of means, who ran the house as if she were a ship’s captain. After the actual Mrs. Fane passed away a few years back, it really did feel as if the mansion belonged to Mrs. Ludlow. And in all honesty, she would prefer Mr. Fane to never remarry.
As she walked down the long hallway upstairs, she opened each door, so that the rooms would air. She usually didn’t enter Master William’s bedroom, but it was the time of day when he would usually be out horse riding anyway.
She blinked, surprised that the curtains were still drawn over the windows, as if none of the maids had bothered to enter and get rid of the stuffy air that choked her with the thick aroma of Master William’s perfume. A different kind of smell slowly wormed its way into Mrs. Ludlow’s nostrils, assaulting her senses with the sickly quality of rot.
Could it be that the young master had small meals here, and none of the staff cleared the plates afterward? It was outrageous! The meat would be only starting to smell, of course, but just knowing that this kind of thing happened and she had not been made aware of it, made Mrs. Ludlow shake with anger.
But as she stormed through the dim room to let in some light, her gaze was drawn to a man seated with his back to her in one of the chairs close to the fireplace.
He was still, and didn’t even turn his head when she pulled open the curtains. His long black hair hung loose, but by the livery, she instantly knew who he was. She rushed to Eric and slapped the back of his head.
“You lazy wastrel. Playing cards again with Master William while we all toil to prepare the house?” she hissed, but the last word died on her lips when Eric’s head just tipped forward lifelessly.
Her heart thumped in her chest, aching so badly it felt as if it were sucking in the blood from all over her body. Someone groaned behind her, and the rustling of fabric that followed made her slowly turn around to look at the bed where Master William stretched in the thick pillows as if he’d just had the best sleep of his life.
His eyes went wide as soon as their gazes met.
“What happened here, Master William?” Mrs. Ludlow whispered, but her eyes followed the trail of red on the front of Eric’s open waistcoat, all the way to the bloodied knife on the floor. The stench of death was now so obvious it choked her with its cold, bony fingers, reminding her of the dead rabbit she’d once found under Master William’s bed.
Master William opened and closed his mouth, staring at her like a child who’d been caught at something forbidden. But he was a child no more. The young Mr. Fane was a man of seventeen, taller and broader in the shoulders than Mrs. Ludlow, and she could no longer scold him.
She stepped back when he rolled out of bed in a wolf-like leap. He was still in the clothes he’d worn to last night’s dinner, and the sight of crumpled silks made Mrs. Ludlow angrier than it ought to, all things considered. The clock chimed, and she cast a quick glance at it, feeling cold sweat bead on her back. Mr. Fane was scheduled to arrive within two hours, and he couldn’t see any of this, or he’d surely blame her for such an unfortunate accident.
She swallowed, watching the young man approach her in lazy strides that betrayed sleepiness. “Master William, thank God none of the maids entered your rooms before me. They’d have made a racket, and soon enough everyone would have known of this, all the way in Brecon!”
Master William frowned, and his shoulders relaxed under the shirt. Only now did Mrs. Ludlow notice a spray of dark dots at the front of his clothes, as well as stains far less discreet on the sleeves. She would have to wash those herself, or dispose of the garments before anyone could see them.
“Did you… come to a disagreement? Did Eric do something unforgivable?” she asked. What was she to do with the corpse of a man Eric’s size? How would she explain his disappearance?
Master William seemed to weigh the question before answering. “He rejected me. And should I not be free to do as I please? Do I not deserve it?” The pout on his lips would have made his father angry, but to Mrs. Ludlow, all it meant was trouble.
And trouble for him meant catastrophe for her. If anyone found out about this, the Fane family name would be ruined, and the whole household would have to carry the weight of the disaster. No longer would the people of Brecon nod at her with respect, and she simply couldn’t let such a thing happen. This was, after all, where she chose to spend her gray years, and she would not be left wanting because of a young man’s reckless behavior and indecent desires.
She cleared her throat, trying not to look into the fish-like eyes staring at her from Eric’s face. She longed to close them, to not let Death stare at her, but she couldn’t bring herself to touch the cold body either, instead focused on Master William’s eyes. As inexplicable as it was, they were colder than Eric’s, even if lively with anger.
“Certainly, Master William. Eric has been a bitter disappointment to us all lately,” she lied to appease him. There was no time to waste.
Master William nodded with a frown. “Precisely. Who is he to deny me?” He walked up to the body and kicked the leg of the chair so hard it tipped over, spilling the body onto the floor. Master William’s handsome features were scrunched in fury, and his golden hair now seemed like a crown for a tyrant. If Mrs. Ludlow wished to keep her position, she had to appease him with offerings worthy of one.
“I couldn’t agree more, Master William, but your father will be here soon, and we cannot have him smell the body. Don’t you think taking him out of the house would be the sensible thing to do?”
Master William’s cool gaze settled on her like a chunk of ice. “That’s true. Father would not understand. Where… do we put him?” There seemed to be a tremble of hesitation in Master William’s voice, and Mrs. Ludlow latched onto that as hard as she could.
This was the opening she needed to tame the insolent monster in front of her. Master William was cruel, arrogant, and he’d cut Eric’s belly open as if he were a deer prepared for skinning, but he was also young, in need of guidance and not as confident as he’d tried to pretend.
“Empty your largest chest, Master William.” She shook her head at the gruesome sight at her feet. “We will put him in there. That way, he will also be much easier to carry.”
A sense of unexpected power thundered through her body when Master William carried out her order before she even finished talking. She had authority in this house, but never over anyone in the master’s family.
Despite the chest being so large, it was still a challenge to fit the body inside. It had stiffened throughout the night, and they were forced to use tools in order to bend it into the desired shape. The joints made the most horrid sounds when they cracked, but to Master William it was a game to play, and the process made him so content he didn’t complain about leaving his stained clothes with Eric’s body. A smile of excitement lit up his features as the two of them worked together, and it was almost as if he enjoyed this more than he could have ever enjoyed the companionship of a living man.
Having sent all the servants to a different part of the house, Mrs. Ludlow felt it was sufficiently safe for her and Master William to deal with the body. The chest was heavy, and it pulled on her aging joints and back with each passing moment, but she would prevail.
She always did.
They made their way down the meadow behind the house, and to the small man-made lake. She could almost hear the clock ticking in her head, but getting rid of Eric’s body was more important than making sure all the surfaces in the house were dusted.
They put the chest onto the small boat, and Mrs. Ludlow’s clothes got muddy when she helped push the boat into the water.
“I guess I’m happy he denied me,” Master William said with a deep sigh as they struggled to get the chest overboard after filling it with rocks. “He was all mine for the night. In ways he couldn’t have been otherwise.”
Mrs. Ludlow groaned with the exhaustion of it all, trying not to think about the devil that was Mr. Fane’s son. “At least it taught you a lesson, Master William. Can we please agree that it will never happen again?” Men of Master William’s standing were allowed their eccentricities, perversions even, unlike a common footman, but even they surely needed limits.
She knew she’d said the wrong thing the moment his blue eyes pierced her through the chest. He didn’t need to touch her. She still felt long fingers tightening around her throat.
“What I meant was that it is not sensible to do this to a footman in your own service. There are plenty of men who will not be missed. Orphans, newcomers who no one knows in the area, the Natives. As long as no one finds the body, you will not be bothered by suspicion.” And along with Master William, she too would have her peace.
Master William nodded slowly, a smile appearing on his lips. “I knew I could count on your understanding, Mrs. Ludlow. Were it up to me, I would raise your wages.”
Mrs. Ludlow’s heart skipped a beat at this thought. Could it really be that she would live out her days as a treasure of the Fane family? Master William’s unnatural proclivities be damned, didn’t she deserve a reward for her hard work?
She smiled, thinking back to the sense of power she felt when Master William did as she told him. “With all due respect, Master William, your father will not live forever.”