Paper and Ink, Flesh and Blood by Rita Mace Walston
forthcoming from Hearthstone Press June 30th. Read an excerpt below and consider requesting an ARC.
I lowered the gun, fairly certain the shot had been heard by the mourners gathered in my home. I stepped over the dead horse and out of the stall, the hem of my black skirt skimming the once-strong neck. I felt the weight of the revolver in my hand, imagined I could still feel the reverberation of the gunshot running up my arm. August had been so proud of that damn horse—all seventeen hands and twelve hundred pounds of him. Proud that no one could handle him the way he could. That horse had nearly taken a chunk out of my shoulder two years before. Well, this time I’d handled him just fine.
I heard the other horses agitated in their stalls, though everything sounded muffled since I’d pulled the trigger. The smell of cordite was familiar to them, the explosion of sound that always preceded it, the scent of blood that frequently followed. These were horses ridden to the hunt, trained to stand placid as August and others brought down prey, bearing the carcasses back from the field. It wasn’t the sound and smell of death that was causing my mare and the others to whinny and kick against the heavy, scarred wood of the stalls, shifting restlessly over straw that would have been changed just earlier that morning. It was because the sound of the gun, the smell of the cordite that mingled in the air with the tang of fresh blood, was here, instead of out in the fields and woods and up the slopes of the ridge where it belonged. I didn’t comfort them, didn’t pause to stroke the deep brown velvet nose of my mare. I just didn’t have it in me to comfort anything, anyone at the moment. Besides, I had spatters of blood on my hands that might further spook the horses and I wanted to put the gun away. There were still five bullets in it and shooting the horse that had been an accessory to my husband’s death hadn’t given me the release I’d expected.
I took the gun to the tack room, locked it in the metal box that held petty cash, and pocketed the key. I’d clean it later; take it back to my bedroom after everyone was gone. If I walked into the house with it now, likely that fool on the other horse—what was his name? Pritchard? Packard?—would break the furniture or himself in his hurry to exit the premises. The man had been so damn apologetic when he approached me after the funeral to say how sorry, how very very sorry he was about August’s accident. He’d stressed the word accident. Repeated it several times as he noted how awful it was when these things happened, as they did, he said, from time to time. I had smiled at him—at least I think it was a smile; it seemed to startle him—and focused on keeping my eyes dry and steady. Idiot. It wasn’t his fault my husband was dead. Some might see it that way, but I knew better.
I watched the blood swirl and sluice away as I washed my hands in the stable’s deep work sink. I thought of Lady Macbeth as I washed, but didn’t fear any sort of haunting residue. Lady Macbeth had plotted murder; had spiraled later into madness. I had executed justice. There was a difference. And I knew she wouldn’t speak to me from the book in the library anyway. That’s not how it worked. Which usually disappointed me, but in this case . . . Well, let’s just say I didn’t want her opinion on the matter.
The water was cold and numbed my fingers. I thought of the day of the horse race. I remembered August had looked tired, but had he rubbed his left arm? Surely I’d recall if he had—would have done something other than kiss him before he mounted Rockefeller, the horse now sprawled with a sizable hole in its head. Riding—and especially riding in a point-to-point—was August’s escape from all the other pressures, he’d told me so often. So of course he hadn’t purposely let go of the reins. Of course not. I felt a sudden surge in my gut and leaned over the sink, coughing up bile, since there was nothing in my stomach.
Had it truly been just an accident? Had someone maybe meant August harm? If Aunt Vieve were here, she’d already have a mental list of half a dozen books that might have something to say on the matter. She would expect me to do the same. I turned off the water and dried my hands on the rough towel that hung next to the sink. I glanced across the room at the shelf above the desk where the petty cash box with the gun inside sat center stage. As ever, I could feel the presence of the books I kept there, although with no one in the stable other than me, they were silent. I checked again to make sure the petty cash box was locked, and left the stable. I heard a hoof bang impatiently against the wall as I shut the door behind me. My hearing was almost back to normal.
I walked through the middle set of French doors. I kept my head high, my eyes dry. I knew I likely looked cold and unsympathetic and I didn’t care. I had my hair pulled back into a tight chignon, was wearing little makeup and a Forties-era black dress August and I had found on an antiquing foray. About half of the people in the room had known August before we’d married almost a decade earlier. He had been nearly twenty years older than me, and more than a few of them thought he’d robbed the cradle, that I’d married him for his money. I felt most of the people in our home were there to honor August, rather than in support of his widow. Maybe that was unfair, a harsh assessment, I chided myself as I looked around the room, picking out familiar, concerned faces. But August had been the engaging, gregarious one. He’d been bigger than life, six foot three with a full head of hair even in his fifties. Blue eyes that crinkled at the corners when he smiled, which he did a lot. I, by comparison, was considered eccentric. Very pretty, charming in her own way, and a good horsewoman, I’d overhead at one party, “but she is very peculiar when it comes to books . . . ” The tone of the room was different than when I’d left, the conversation more of a buzz than a hum. Looks now darted my way, heads leaned toward one another. Trey Janus was across the room, standing, as he had been when I’d left, with the cluster of colleagues from the investment firm. He saw me, and a hint of smile touched his lips. He raised his glass slightly, a toast to the widow of his childhood friend and business partner. Looking at him, I was glad I’d left the Smith & Wesson locked away in the tack room.