The blood drained from my face as I stared down the barrel of the gun. At the other end of that barrel sat a small iron ball. Only the twitch of a finger separated me from life and death.
Two days ago, I’d been faced with this same dilemma. The difference was that two days ago, I didn’t have a chance to recognize the true danger for what it was. Between the screams, the terror, the flying bodies, and my desperation to escape, there simply wasn’t time for me to stare my own mortality down. It was only afterward that I realized how close I’d come.
Now, however, it felt like I had all the time in the world to contemplate life and death, to look back on my years with eyes wide open. There was so much I regretted. So much I wish I had done differently. At least I’d told John and Henry I loved them. If I was to leave this world today, that was one regret I wouldn’t be taking with me.
The words my father had spoken still rang in my ears, demanding attention, but it was difficult to focus on them over the roar of my pulse. Shock threatened, but shock was a luxury I couldn’t afford right now. Later – if there was a later – I could break down. John and Henry were bound to their chairs, and I neededto be present in this moment with them. To help them in whatever way I could.
I forced my gaze away from the pistol. Father met my eyes with a look that dared me to ignore his order. He looked at me as though he might truly shoot me for disobeying it. He looked like he wanted to shoot me.
Unable to tear my eyes from his, I turned my body just enough to reach out and fumble blindly for the latch. It rattled as I secured it with trembling fingers.
“I was hoping you’d join us,” Father said, conversationally, as if he wasn’t holding me at gunpoint.
“Lower your weapon,” John said. “It’s not like you’re actually going to shoot her.” His tone was as calm as my father’s.
Nothing to see here. Nothing to worry about. Just four individuals engaging in some light, idle chatter.
I almost laughed, but I choked it down, knowing it would come out hysterical.
My father continued to point the gun at me, unwavering, and my brief bout of humor fled as fear took hold. Just last month I’d read an article in The Times that had gone into great detail about murder statistics. Specifically, the murders of women within the city. Most of those killed weren’t stabbed in the night by some unknown assailant, like I’d assumed, but beaten to death or strangled by their husbands, or an older brother, or a former lover. Or a father.
They weren’t killed by strangers; they were murdered by the men they knew.
Only afterward did the investigating constables learn of the years of abuse that had preceded the deaths of those women, discovered that the violence against them had steadily increased until finally, one day, their abusers went too far.
Was I about to join their ranks? Another faceless, nameless woman fallen victim to the rage of men?
“Fine, then. Shoot her,” John said, somehow managing a gallic shrug even while tied up.
I went utterly still, terror clawing at my throat. What game was he playing by saying something like that? Did he mean to make my father think that he cared nothing for me in the hopes that it would somehow make him less likely to shoot me? Or did he say it because he thought my father would ignore the order just to spite him? Either way, risking my life on it? I was going to kill him if we all survived this. And no, the irony of that wasn’t lost on me.
“John,” Henry ground out, putting more disapproval in that one word than I had ever heard him speak.
For one breathless moment, it looked like Father was considering whether or not to pull the trigger. But then he glanced away from me, toward my husband, and his expression shifted into stubborn refusal as he lowered the gun.
I remained near the doorway and took a few moments to relearn how to breathe. My mind was a chaos of terror, relief, and confusion. Now that the imminent threat of death had retreated, other thoughts crowded in to fill the gap.
Where had my father gotten the caricature? It hadn’t been printed in the papers yet. We’d checked them all again this morning. Was I right earlier? Had our enemy found a way to get to him and he was here to deliver their threats in person? Or had they simply handed the caricature to him and then stepped back to watch what he would do? As far as idle threats went, this was the most impactful one they could have made, though it was akin to lobbing a stick of dynamite into a crowded room while blindfolded and hoping you hit your target.
A subtle motion caught my eye. I glanced at Henry’s back. He sat ramrod straight in his chair, hands turning white from strain as he worked at the ropes that bound him. His wrists were raw and red, evidence of how long he’d been at it.
I moved forward, hoping to keep my father’s focus on me and off of Henry’s attempts at escape. As I neared the men, Henry’s profile came into view. Something about it was…off. I took another step and looked at his face.
His eyes. My God, his eyes.
They burned black and brutal with animalistic rage. That leviathan had rumbled awake again and swam to the surface, and now it roared with a fury I’d never thought him capable of. John, on his other side, stole a worried glance in his direction. God help my father if Henry broke free.
“Sit there,” Father said, motioning me toward the other armchair with his gun.
Be careful with that thing! I wanted to shout at him. Instead, I took my seat and desperately sought a way out of this mess that didn’t end in death.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“I want to restore our family’s good name.”
John let out a low chuckle. “A bit late for that, don’t you think? What with the past twenty years you’ve spent raping and beating anyone you could get your hands on?”
In answer, Father rose from his seat and struck John across the face with his gun.
I winced as my husband’s head snapped to the side. He stayed there for a moment, Father looming over him, but when he slowly brought his gaze back around, blood oozing from a gash high on his cheek, his expression was still the picture image of calm.
He sighed. “Was that necessary?”
“I told you to shut up,” Father said. “Consider this your last warning.”
How long had they been up here, arguing? How long had John been goading him? Knowing my husband, he had started in on him the moment the three were sequestered in this room together.
I must have made some small, imperceptible movement, because quick as lightning I found myself under my father’s scrutiny again. He glanced at me, sneered, and then snatched the caricature from the table and threw it at me. The paper fluttered to the floor at my feet, landing face down.
“Pick it up.”
I did what he said. Unlike John, I wasn’t fool enough to taunt a man holding a gun.
“Look at it!”
I forced my expression to neutral and glanced down. The disgust I felt at seeing this monstrous cartoon again was buried deep below the surface. My fingers were sure and steady as I held it. The only emotion I let show in my expression was disdain.
“What do you have to say for yourself?” he demanded.
I attempted a gallic shrug of my own. “That it’s a horrible lie.” My voice came out smooth as silk. All those years of practice hiding my true feelings felt like they’d been leading me to this moment. “My husband has a lot of political enemies. It seems one of them has taken to slandering him in a most base manner.”
“Don’t you lie to me. I have someone’s word that this is real.” His mouth twisted into a grimace as he glanced between the three of us. “You let them share you between them like some common whore?”
His face turned scarlet at the perceived lie, and he closed the distance between us in three long strides.
I held myself still, my entire body rigid as I fought the urge to stab him. The feel of the brace weighed heavily on my arm, calling out to me. I wanted nothing more than to flick my wrist backward and bury the blade in his gullet, but he still held his gun, and I didn’t think I was strong or fast enough to keep him from shooting me even after being wounded. I would have to wait for a moment to take him by surprise when he set the gun down. He couldn’t hold the thing forever.
I turned my face to the side when his breath reached me. The smell of sour wine and pipe smoke brought back too many memories, of all the other times he’d come close enough to hit me.
“That black eye from the riot, or your husband?” Father asked. Even though he loathed John, I could tell from his tone that he hoped John had been the one to give it to me.
What a sick bastard.
“The riot,” I told him.
He leaned closer.
“Remember what I said would happen if you ever harmed her again,” John drawled.
Father turned toward him. “I haven’t touched her.”
“Actually, you have,” John said.
That gave Father pause. He straightened, away from me. I nearly collapsed with relief.
John wore a small, goading smile. “The other night, she came home with a bruise on her arm. A bruise that you put there.”
“That was nothing.”
John smiled wider. “Not to me.”
Father took a step toward him. “What did you do?”
“What I told you I would.”
“I didn’t hit her!”
“I never said you had to hit her, only harm her, which, arguably, you did. Didn’t he, Henry?”
Henry didn’t respond. He was too busy watching Father as if waiting for an opening. I prayed that he never found one. What could he even do, still tied to his chair?
“She’s my daughter,” Father spat. “I can do with her what I please. Even the law is on my side.”
John shook his head. “You’ll never be able to do what you please again.”
“I can if you’re dead. As her sole living male relative, she’d pass back to me.”
Fear snaked up my spine. Sole living male relative? He didn’t mean to see Marcus imprisoned; he meant to see him dead. And now he threatened the life of my husband too. All so he could repossess me like some sort of cow that had gone astray in a neighbor’s field.
I curled my hands into fists.
A small side table stood near the elbow of my chair. It was just wide enough to hold a tea service, but light enough to be easily carried from one spot in the room to another. Light enough for me to pick it up and swing it at my father’s head. I could yell first, prompting Adnan and Haydar to rush in. Maybe in his distraction he would drop the gun.
I had to get it out of his hands. Because I knew what John was doing.
My father had a single pistol on him, one that took minutes to reload. If John goaded Father into shooting him, that would give our guards time to act. Henry and I would be saved, which was all that really mattered to John. If it came at the cost of his own life, so be it.
“Stop it,” Henry ground out, coming to the same realization I had.
John ignored him. “I repeat, you will never be able to do what you please again. With my wife, with your son, or even with your lands. It’s over. I’ve already set the stones in motion. By this time next week, you’ll be utterly penniless.”
Father cocked the gun.
“What are you going to do?” I asked. “Shoot him in cold blood in front of two witnesses?”
He sent me a dark grin. “It’ll be a lord’s word versus that of a hysterical woman and a known sodomite. Who do you think the magistrates will believe?”
“I’m not just some hysterical woman. I’m a duchess.”
“Not for long,” he said. A spark of madness kindled in his eyes. He lifted the gun.
I sucked in a harsh breath. He would do it. He would shoot my husband, find some way to see Marcus dead, and then drag me back to our ancestral home.
Why? I wanted to ask.
Why did he want control over me so badly? Why would he go to such lengths just to get his hands on me again? Had his mind always been so broken? Or had it been infected with the kind of rot that had slowly eaten it way, year after year, until every last rational thought had been consumed?
Or was this something else? Had he been pushed to this?
“What do they have on you?” I asked.
For the first time in my entire life, I saw fear enter my father’s eyes. And desperation. He wore the caged look of an animal as he turned back to John.
He was going to shoot him. He had to shoot him.
I knew it, John knew it, and Henry knew it.
Everyone moved at once.
Father pointed the pistol at John’s head. Henry lurched in his chair, slamming into John. I grabbed the side table and hurled it at my father. He pulled the trigger just as it struck him.
Henry hit John hard enough to knock them both over sideways, and thanks to the side table, father flinched as he fired the gun. We’d done enough to keep John’s brain from being blown out, but not enough to get him clear of the bullet. The round tore through his shoulder as he fell.
Haydar barreled through the door, knocking it clear off its hinges. My father tried to reload his gun. Adnan appeared behind Haydar. A knife materialized in his fingers, and he threw it. It seemed I blinked and the blade blossomed in my father’s hand. He let out a belligerent roar and dropped the gun.
I ran to John, flicked my wrist back, and caught my own knife out of the air. I sawed through the ropes that bound him as fast as I could, careful not to jerk his arms as I freed him. He tumbled loose, groaning. I shoved the chair out of the way and used my skirts to staunch the blood that poured from his wound.
Beside us, Henry rolled to his feet. The chair had shattered beneath his weight, and as he stalked toward my father, he trailed ropes from his wrists with bits of wood still dangling from the other ends.
Father raised his arms in a block, but Henry struck before he could fully bring them to bear. His fist lashed out, fast as a viper, and shattered my father’s nose. Blood poured from Father’s face. He swung at Henry, but the larger man ducked the punch and tackled him around the waist. The men went down. Henry struggled up to his knees, landed two more punches that left my father dazed, and then he grabbed him by the lapels and hauled him toward the fire.
John’s blood coated my hands in warmth as I stared at the scene unfolding in front of me. Henry’s humanity had fled the room. What was left in its wake was a seething creature made of fury and bloodlust. His face was a rictus. Those soulful eyes had gone dark and dead. He dragged Father all the way to the hearth, kicked aside the fire screen, and then dumped him into the flames.
Father’s body jerked. Screams rent the air. He struggled to rise, but Henry put a heel to his chest and leaned forward, holding him in place. Father clawed desperately at Henry, but the large man ignored his scrabbling and only pushed down harder, careless of the flames licking up his boots.
“Oh, fuck,” Adnan said.
He leapt forward and tried to grab Henry’s shoulder, but Henry’s elbow pistoned back with such force that the smaller man crumpled beneath the blow.
The smell of burnt hair and cooking flesh filled the room. Father’s screams turned into garbled moans. His hands slowed and then fell away from Henry’s leg.
I wanted my father dead, but this…
“Do something!” I shrieked at Haydar.
He strode forward, blocked the next elbow Henry threw, and then tugged him backward, off balance. Henry stumbled away, and Haydar reached down, grabbed my father’s feet, and pulled him out of the fireplace.
I gagged at the sight of the nightmare that reemerged. Father’s hair and clothes had been consumed by the flames. Haydar patted his body down so the lingering sparks wouldn’t ignite the rug beneath them. Where had Father’s ears gone? Where was his nose? All of the fat in his face had…melted, and now a ruined, glistening lump of sizzling flesh was all that was left of it, the bone white of skull peeking through here and there.
His body still twitched. Just spasms, really, as if it hadn’t yet given up the fight to live.
Haydar came over to me, scooped up my discarded knife, and stabbed him through the heart, putting an end to it.
John sighed beneath my hands and went still.
The scream that had been building inside me finally tore free.
Copyright © 2020 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This book is a work of fiction. References to real people, establishments, locales, events, and organizations are used fictitiously and only with the intent to provide a sense of historical authenticity. All other characters, dialog, incidents, and settings are drawn from the author’s imagination and are not to be construed as real.