By Richard Paolinelli
© 2019 RICHARD PAOLINELLI . ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. NO COPYING OR ANY OTHER REPRODUCTION OF THIS STORY IS PERMITTED WITHOUT WRITTEN PERMISSION.
Aspinwall took stock of his lodgings, finding a clean, comfortable-looking bed to sleep on, a nice chest of drawers, and a small closet in which to hang his clothes. Near the lone window was a reading table, chair, and an oil lamp. A pleasant view of a forest of sugar maples lay beyond the window. But as he unpacked, his mind was on much more than this simple room.
Against the opposite wall was a small table with a washbasin and a large pitcher of water. A medium-sized mirror with an ornate wood frame was affixed to the wall above the basin. Taking a moment to freshen up, Aspinwall regarded the face looking back.
It was the face of a thirty-two-year-old man, considered roguishly handsome by many. It was said back in Montpelier that he could charm any woman in the room. The more cynical voices noted that the wealthier the woman, the more he seemed to turn on his charms. But despite his reputation, Aspinwall had somehow managed to avoid being ensnared in marriage. This was by choice. He loved women. He loved their money. He did not love limiting his options when it came to either pursuit.
“Well, well, William,” he said to his reflection, flicking at some dust on his jacket. “Perhaps there is no need to go to Montreal after all. There might be something much more profitable for us right here.”
The truth was, his trip north was purely speculative, with some risk of failure, and he was only going in order to get away from Montpelier long enough to allow some unpleasantness to settle down.
But he smelled money here—lots of it—and no need to travel out of the country to get it. There had to be a large amount of wealth to keep an estate like this in order, especially when there was only one lone woman running it. Include the manor and the land it was on, and there had to be enough money here to last five lifetimes.
The best part of his equation was it would take a minimal amount of effort to cash in. A lonely, unmarried young woman would easily fall sway to his legendary charm. A brief courtship, a marriage and—after an appropriate amount of time had passed so as not to arouse suspicion—well, stairways were treacherous to navigate for a person of any age, after all. After the lady of the house had been dispatched, the oversized rodents would soon join her in the afterlife.
Within a year, after the estate had been liquidated, he could return to Montpelier as one of the city’s wealthiest men—surely the richest eligible bachelor by far.
After one last inspection in the mirror, Aspinwall made his way downstairs—taking care to make sure the door was tightly shut to keep out the cats—and found his way into the study. Clearly, Father Palmquist had conducted most of his affairs from this room, and a few minutes of rummaging through papers and drawers confirmed his assessment of the financial situation he’d stumbled upon.
Satisfied with what he’d discovered, he left the study and headed for the kitchen, passing through the dining room dominated by a large oak table. The aroma from the room was quite pleasant. He would not starve to death during his brief matrimony, at least. A pot of some type of stew boiled on the stove, but Tessa was on the other side of the kitchen.
She held a live chicken, and as Aspinwall stepped closer to see what she was going to do with the fowl, Tessa suddenly snapped the creature’s neck with a deft twist of her wrist, placed the carcass on a slanted cutting board next to the sink, then raised her other hand high above her head. Only then did Aspinwall take notice of what she clutched—a rather formidable butcher knife that she quickly swung downward. The severed head of the victim dropped into a small pail in the sink and was followed by the blood draining from the neck.
“Is dinner delayed?” Aspinwall asked.
“Oh, Mr. Aspinwall, you startled me!” Tessa exclaimed, jumping back slightly in surprise. “No. This is for tomorrow’s Thanksgiving feast. As I wasn’t expecting company, all I have for tonight is stew, bread, and cheese. I hope that’ll suffice.”
“It sounds as wonderful as it smells,” Aspinwall said, turning on the charm. “And please, you simply must call me Will, as all of my friends back home do.”
They did no such thing of course—he had no friends, at home or anywhere else for that matter, which suited him just fine.
“I’m not sure that I could . . .”
“Please, I insist. And your Christian name is?”
“Tessa,” he repeated, with a slight bow. “A beautiful name for a beautiful young lady.”
“Oh, Mr. Aspin . . . Will,” Tessa said demurely. “You are quite the flatterer. Why don’t you go sit down and I’ll bring your dinner out to you.”
The meal was quite fine: the girl could cook, which would make the next few months endurable before wrapping up his plans. Her cooking acumen wouldn’t change her fate, of course, he thought as he finished his meal. He’d confirmed his suspicions about how much money was available for the taking here and had laid the groundwork to add young Miss Palmquist to his list of conquests. He was well on his way toward his goal.
The evening’s work was nearly spoiled by one of her wretched beasts, a large orange and white tabby that suddenly leapt onto the table and stared ominously at Aspinwall. It was almost as if the monster was reading his thoughts. He jerked back guiltily as Tessa admonished the cat.
“Mortimer!” she exclaimed. “You’re being a very naughty boy. Get down, now.”
The cat flicked an annoyed look at its mistress, cast one last long glare at Aspinwall, then leapt to the floor and trotted out of the room.
“I’m terribly sorry about that,” Tessa said. “He sometimes seems to think he rules this house.”
“No harm done.” Aspinwall made a mental note as to which cat would be the first to share in its mistress’s fate when the time came. “It’s been quite an exhausting day—if you’ll excuse me, I believe I’ll retire to my room for the night.”
“Certainly. Good night, Mr.—Will.”
“And a very good night to you as well, Miss Tessa.”
Aspinwall made his way up the stairs, pausing at the second-floor landing when he felt as if he were being watched. Turning to look behind him, he spotted that damned orange and white menace about halfway up the stairs, as if it were stalking him.
“Vile beast,” Aspinwall muttered, quickly making his way up the next flight where he closed the door, double-checking to make sure it was firmly latched shut. He did the same with the door to his own room. Shaking off the eerie feeling from the cats, Aspinwall dressed for bed, and fell asleep dreaming of the wealth that would soon be his.
NEXT WEEK: Exactly as planned.
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