Authors: Michael Meadows
The Soldier's Poisoned Heart
True Love and Deception
This book has been published by the Midnight Climax group.
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Colonel John Paul Foster had barely had time to lay down his head in the new estate before the days began to blur one into the next. In fact, he found it impossible to tell exactly how many days it had been since he had come in to his new life. It couldn't have been more than a week, but had it been four days, or five?
Not, he admitted, that it mattered. Each day he would ride into town. Each day he checked in at the telegraph office for word from his nephew. He took lunch at one of the many dining establishments sprinkled around downtown Derby.
What concerned him more than the tedium, though, was the lack of direction. In the military, even in positions of command, it had seemed always like there was something to reach for. His new life seemed to involve waiting for something to happen, and it was wearing him down.
That is why, when he found himself holding a little slip of paper in the telegraph office, it was with a surprising feeling of relief.
INTO DERBY TOM. 9A.
John Paul smiled. This was something he could do, after all. By tomorrow, he would have some sort of companion to keep his days somewhat fuller, and that was a wonderful start. Further, he had received notice that his employees might be available as soon as the end of the week. That news was almost as good as his nephew's arrival.
John Paul spent the day feeling accomplished. He had almost finished with the interior of the home, straightening up at least. He slept that night with visions of his nephew getting off the train in the morning. The two of them would become fast friends, he was sure. The thought gave him warmth that helped to offset the too-light blankets.
The next morning, John Paul Foster found himself outside sitting on a bench at the train station. John Paul was waiting on the platform thirty minutes before his nephew's train would arrive. He closed his pocket watch again, as he had done several times in the past few minutes. Then he opened it again as soon as the latch had closed. How much longer would he have to wait, after all? It seemed that time was waiting for him, and that whoever made the first move was to be the loser.
John Paul tapped his foot, listening to the sound his shoes made on the polished stone floors. He looked around at the others waiting for the trains. Were they not as incensed by the delay? He began to stamp again when, checking his watch again, the minute hand clicked over past the hour. It was nine o’clock and the train was nowhere to be found.
He looked down the track, which curled out of view only a few kilometers away, and saw nothing. The train could have arrived at any moment, but the longer he stared, the longer those moments lasted. John Paul felt as though he may go mad. It was only when he began to pace back and forth that he found any sort of relief at all. And then, at long last, he heard the sound of a shrill whistle from over the horizon.
The train that pulled into the station was massive. The Colonel was so stunned by its sheer size that he almost didn’t notice when a young man in his early twenties stepped off the train. He turned to look, though, when he heard a voice calling out.
John Paul stared at what might have been his own sister when he’d last seen her. The boy was only a few centimeters shorter than John Paul himself. He had a handsome face, with dark hair that did not match John Paul’s whatsoever. Even still, Grace’s hair had darkened, even as the Colonel's own had not.
“Henry Roche?” The youth nodded. “Have you got any luggage with you?”
“Ah, yes,” he said, gesturing. John Paul strode over and snatched it up. John Paul carried the luggage to the carriage, and then the two of them set off to explore Derby together.
It was plain that Henry was not used to cities, as he stopped to marvel at this and that, every little thing seeming to catch his eye. As the noontime sun hung over the sky after several hours' walking, John Paul suggested that they sit down and get something to eat. Henry blinked for a moment at the suggestion, until he realized how hungry he was and agreed.
As they sat, they spoke further. Henry asked constant curious questions about his uncle's service to Her Majesty. Had he killed anyone? What sort of postings had he held? Had he seen one of the black aboriginals? John Paul found himself answering all the questions with candor and ease.
John Paul had viewed his service, the past several years, as something that had happened to him. It felt unworthy of comment or discussion. When the word began to pass around that the English would be pulling out of Australia, he had decided the time was right to come home.
When he had left, it seemed quite a smart idea. When the time had come to gather his family, though, he found that they were all dead and gone. Only one had been found during the weeks leading up to his departure: a forgotten nephew he was reminded of by the detective he’d hired.
The child had only been a year or two old when John Paul had seen him last. All he remembered was a particularly attractive young governess watching over a carriage.
All the conversation about his service reminded him that it might not have been so uneventful as he recalled it. Henry treated every little morsel of each story as a juicy detail that needed to be enjoyed to its fullest.
How had they found that murderer, he would ask. What about such-and-such riot? Then John Paul would recount the story. It was difficult to keep details straight in his mind of what had happened in the decade since assuming a position of command. Even still, John Paul found himself enjoying the conversation.
The food on their plates was long-since eaten and their bill paid when John Paul finally stood, and he gestured that they should go. He began to think aloud about the other stories that might be of interest to Henry. So good was his mood, in fact, that without thinking he said something he immediately regretted:
“Ah, and then I haven't said about the gold, either…”
He didn’t look back at his nephew as they walked. If he had, he would have seen him standing agape for several seconds before he running to catch up.
On the carriage-ride home, Henry sat inside and dozed. Even for his willingness to walk around Derby and enthusiastic conversation, he must have been quite tired. When they arrived back at the estate, John Paul escorted his nephew to the bedroom—the only one with a bed worth discussing.
“I’ll wake you in a few hours; until then, rest here. You must be exhausted.”
“Ah…” Henry rubbed at his eyes, seeming oblivious to his nap. “Yes, I suppose I am.”
“I’ll bring your luggage in, no need to worry about that. Just rest now. I’ll be here when you wake.”
Then John Paul left the room. He sat down in the parlor and began to read a book he’d bought back in London. It had seemed such a strange sort of luxury, the time to read books, and it had taken him several days to even get into the mood to read at all.
Now he was sitting there, reading some a novel by some Irishman who he hadn’t heard of before. It was not particularly bad, he decided. He had hardly been able to resist the thing in his idle hours since he had begun in the days before.
Eventually, though, his mind too excited from what was to come, he put the book down and stretched. The only thing for him now would be to find something else to pass the time. He looked around the home once more, with fresh eyes.
There were twelve rooms on the ground floor, he counted; of them, four were empty. Into one of those he had pushed the new bed, now with a young man sleeping in it. Outside was a shack that more than likely housed gardening equipment. It looked surprisingly unlike it would fall down compared to the rest of the home.
They would need to make a full list of what needed doing now that he had exhausted the problems he could solve on elbow grease alone. They would need to buy supplies if they were to make any sort of chore of the thing. Still, it was preferable to letting the entire place collapse in on itself over the next generations.
John Paul had no such intention; this was going to be a home for his family for years to come. He had decided that even before he'd bought the place, even if he had to do some extra work to keep it in good condition for future generations.
He walked over to his own trunk, which he had pushed up against a wall until he had a room truly prepared to move into. He opened it up and started to search for a slate and a bit of chalk. As he dug through it, though, he heard the noise of someone walking up behind him.
He resisted his natural instinct to turn and look; it must have been Henry, he decided. It wasn’t worth stopping in his efforts to check and make certain. His suspicions were confirmed soon enough when the young man walked into view and bent down to inspect the trunk himself.
“What are you looking for, there?”
“You’ll have seen the state of house when you came inside, of course.”
“Well…” The young man said sheepishly. “I wasn’t paying too close attention, but there did seem to be some sort of disarray, certainly, if you don’t mind my saying.”
“Not at all,” John Paul replied, shifting around photographs and ledgers and clothing. “But if we’re to return this place to its former glory, then we’ll need to know what has gone awry, don’t you agree?”
Henry nodded without saying anything.
“And so I am looking for a slate to write on, you see,” the elder continued, “So that we might make an inventory.”
At last he found it, pulling the slate free, and beside it a box that he pulled alongside it. When he demonstratively opened the top, it showed inside several long bits of chalk. He grabbed one and placed the box back inside the trunk before closing the lid on the whole thing.
“Now,” John Paul said as he stood, “Would you care to join me?”
“Of course,” his nephew said plainly, and the pair of them stepped out through the front door.
John Paul was already scrawling the first things to on the list as Henry opened the door to the front porch:
Door repair, Unkempt lawn
. John Paul looked out at the grass and sniffed in disappointed annoyance.
There was a gravel path, he saw now, from the street to the front door. The grass had grown up through it over the years, leaving it almost invisible under any but the closest inspection. He wrote that down, as well:
. Then the uncle and nephew stepped away from the house and began to study its front. Henry pointed up at a window.
“There, the glass is broken, you see?”
“Good eyes, lad,” John Paul said, scrawling that as well. He wrote down
The pair strolled around the side of the house, and then behind. Between them, they found several more problems before they went to retire back inside. The list was updated to reflect them:
, one item read, and
Finally, John Paul turned toward the yard, which stretched out nearly as far as the eye could see. It was filled with exotic trees and rows upon rows of hedges. He looked down and added to the list:
, and then looked up once more, making one last accounting of his surroundings.
Then he bid his nephew follow him back inside to discuss what to do next. The two of them had only a couple hours more until dinner time. John Paul had business in town, as well. A chair he'd ordered arriving with a huge crack running through one leg and he would need to return it.
They would need to pick up supplies when they went to fetch something to eat, as well. If they were to do any last bit of work before waiting for lumber and supplies to arrive, then it would have to be done quickly.
When they finally did make town and find a place to leave the carriage, John Paul put his chores mentally in order. There was the lumber yard, and then the furniture store, and finally dinner. That seemed about right, and there was only just enough time to do it.
The lumber as well, he put in order. The thought seemed to occur to him out of nowhere that he had no real idea how a balcony was constructed. He tried to form the image in his mind of what it had looked like and what sort of problems there had been.
The frame itself, the outside bits, all seemed quite properly fitted. The rot had taken the floor, and so they had pulled that up. It had measured perhaps a centimeter thick, and perhaps ten wide; the entire balcony had perhaps the depth of a meter.
After some rough figuring, he nodded to himself. He decided he was happy enough with his figuring and that it would likely work out. The worst case was that he would have a good deal of kindling when winter finally came, so it was no real concern in the end.
Henry followed behind as he walked around town. John Paul thought it a little bit silly that he was the one guiding his nephew around by the nose as if he knew where there was a hardware store. He had only been there for a week or so himself, and the entire place was still awfully new to him.
He found a policeman on the side of the road who directed them to one Rhett’s Hardware a kilometer to the east. The man behind the counter was certainly helpful, offering his advice on what sort of materials would be suited to the task. Pine, it seemed, was the preferred material, and the cheapest as well. The sizes John Paul supplied, along with his explanation, seemed all suitable enough.