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A record New York Powerball. A psychotic IRS agent. A closet genius and his beloved Painted Lady. What could go wrong? When Gus Fludd wins the lottery, his dream of restoring the ancestral Victorian--set deep in the Adirondacks--seems at hand. But then a hellish tax man appears on his tumbledown porch, and a series of unfortunate and shocking events ensue.

Thriller / Mystery
Age Rating:

Chapter 1

March 17, 1999

In a sprawling wasteland that might’ve been called a parlor a hundred years ago, a closet genius sat calculating the last few digits of a winning lottery ticket.

Much like his current surroundings, Gus Fludd’s body showed signs of long-term neglect. And bills were piling up. To win the Powerball meant a chance to resurrect his beloved and once glorious Painted Lady, and in the process save himself from a severe case of ennui. He shifted in the tattered yellow wingback chair, seeking a more comfortable position as he checked his formula.

It was a simple matter of taking into account the numbers of previous winners, the dates, and the interval between wins, feeding all that into a Montaigne Algorithm, and then factoring in the numerical odds for the day of the drawing.

This he was good at. Numbers were neat and clean and they never betrayed you.

Squealing brakes pierced his reverie, shattering his focus.

After setting aside the yellow legal pad containing his formula, Gus rose ponderously to his feet and ambled over to a busted window overlooking the driveway. Through jagged sections of glass he spotted an unfamiliar red sedan parked out front. It lent color to a drab yard. Its path up to the house was evidenced by the twin ruts of Timothy grass lying crushed and murdered among the paving stones. Those stalks had remained mostly undisturbed since the vanishing of his wife three months ago.

Wind whistled through the broken front window, sounding like a scream.

Gus shivered and strode across a field of rubbish: remnants of TV dinners, teetering piles of books. At a brick fireplace scorched to ashy blackness, he lit a fire that soon grew to a blazing inferno. This was peace, the calm before company. As he warmed his backside there was a subtle shift in air pressure, telling him that someone had entered the foyer at the other end of the hall, out in the parlor, and because it was a damp day he was able to deduce the identity of this interloper.

The entire house sang to him of the visitor. On these wet spring mornings, doors stuck and floorboards released a pungent musty stench with every step. In his mind Gus saw slimy black fungus growing in the primordial sections of his darling Victorian, and felt her foundation stones settling into soft earth. Yes, the house in Vanderwhacker Wild Forest was rotten to its core. But its owner loved her all the same—perhaps because she sang to him. Just now, as the visitor approached, her floorboards doled out a particular lament. He knew their tune.

It was the sound his brother made. Gus sighed.

Few people in the world could get under his skin like the man now approaching.

“Ah, there you are,” Marcus declared on entering the parlor ahead of a stranger.

Firelight glinted off the high shiny forehead of Gus’s younger brother. The man, lean and tone, wore a gray t-shirt one size too small to emphasize his muscles. It had the opposite effect, Gus mused, making him appear small and wiry and desperate for approval.

“Gus,” Marcus continued, leading a small woman of classic vintage deeper into the room, “say hello to Mrs. Hardgrave.”

“It is Hargreave,” the woman said in a voice just hinting at Cajun origins. “Har-greave.”

“Ah,” Marcus said. “She keeps doing that.” He led the woman over to Gus, guiding her in small detours around broken pieces of table, skeletons of chairs, and those heaps of books.

She nodded at Gus.

Respectfully he nodded back. “Good to meet you.”

“Mr. Fludd,” Mrs. Hargreave replied.

He looked over her head at his brother (for she was a stunningly short woman, though stout), and waited for an explanation. None came. Gus begged Mrs. Hargreave to make herself at home—which she most definitely did not seem inclined to do, judging by the look she was giving the house—and he took his brother aside.

In a low accusatory voice he said, “Who’s that?”

Marcus wrinkled his nose. “I told you, Mrs. Hardgrave.” He did the nose thing again, sniffing at the air for the source of the odor.

“Yes, but what is she doing here?” Gus pursued.

Marcus waved this question aside. “What do you think? Mom needs someone to tend to her now that Jessica has split.” He made it sound like an accusation, as if Gus’s wife leaving had been entirely Gus’s fault.

Marcus picked up the yellow legal pad with the equations. Indignant, Gus leaned close and tapped his chest. “I do that now. I tend to Mother.”

Glancing away from the scrawls, Marcus looked up at his older brother. “You change her sheets? You feed her? You . . . bathe her?” A gust of chill wind whipped between them, attacking the legal pad and making the pages flutter as if they were alive and begging for attention. Marcus shook his head and smiled sadly.

“Don’t be absurd,” he continued. “Mrs. Hardgrave will do all that—and before you say anything, don’t worry, I’ll be paying her salary. What is this chicken scratch?”

Gus tore the pad from his hand. “It’s nothing. Something I’ve been working on.”

With the old inquisitive look he’d been using on Gus since childhood, Marcus gazed at his brother. Then, even worse than the questioning leer came the crooked knowing smile. “This is one of your schemes. What is it this time? Penny stocks? Start a lemonade empire?”

Gus clutched the pad so tightly his knuckles nearly cracked. He leaned close and snarled, “At least I’m not trying to win my way into Mother’s will by hiring some Cajun maid.”

They stared at each other for a beat. He knew his little brother prided himself on his intellect, but Marcus had never been able to pull a fast one on Gus. A flurry of wind buffeted the house; several chips of yellow plaster rained down between them. Neither man noticed.

Clearing his throat, Gus changed tact, wondering, “What are you even doing here? It’s Wednesday evening. You should be at the Shrimp House.”

Marcus waved this aside and dropped into an old wing back chair. “I got tired of that hole in the wall. I’ve moved on. Bigger and better things,” he said, waving his arms about.

Mrs. Hargreave yelped at the sight of something on the floor near the battered pool table.

“You mean you quit, again,” Gus said. “How many jobs is that in the past year now, five?”

“At least I have a job to quit.”

Had,” Gus corrected. “And framing houses in the Adirondacks is seasonal work, you know that.” He marched over to a built-in cabinet and deposited the pad on the highest shelf. It wouldn’t keep his brother from reaching it. Old habits. “How exactly are you going to pay for this maid?”

With a jolt of sudden energy Marcus sprang from the chair and steamed over to the fireplace. “Oh don’t worry yourself; I’ve got some money stashed away. And I’m not doing this to get into Mom’s will, thank you very much. Jerk. You’re not the only one who cares about her, you know. It must be nice to be all high and mighty, but it seems ironic coming from someone who keeps Mom hidden away in this rotting mausoleum.”

“Where would you put her, in a nursing home?”

There was nothing Marcus could say to that, so he bit his tongue and returned to Mrs. Hargreave. “It’s time for Mother’s dinner.”

Gus moved for the kitchen, but Marcus beat him to the door and stood in his way.

“We’ll take care of that, won’t we, Mrs. Hardgrave?”

“Har-greave,” the old woman corrected. “But yes, I am excellent cook.”

A screeching gust of wind sped through the parlor, frightening Mrs. Hargreave but not even inspiring so much as a blink in either brother. “Okay,” Gus said. “Mother likes butterscotch pudding and—”

“Yes, thank you, I know what Mom likes,” Marcus gestured for Mrs. Hargreave to follow him out into the passageway that would take them to the kitchen.

Back at the fire Gus added a fresh log and then stood warming himself. Marcus would pay Mrs. Hargreave’s first week. But there wasn’t a pigeon’s hope that the man would fork out another red cent after that. Gus knew this game. It was a bad game to play just now, as he didn’t have any savings to speak of. He already owed $2,046.52 in back taxes.

For a long time he listened intently to the sounds of his house. Finally he snatched up the pad from the shelf. A small cloud of dust fell with it, and he hacked twice. He tore the sheet from its binding, tossed the pad aside, and checked the formula for errors one last time.

It looked fool-proof.

It would work.

It had to—there were no other prospects on the horizon.

He folded the page twice and stuffed it in his back pocket before heading out into the hall. Tomorrow, he thought. Tomorrow I will change my life.

At the end of the passage out of the parlor, Gus took a left turn, making his way down the short corridor to the kitchen. Hugging the dark-paneled walls was the old grandfather clock Grandpa Fludd had build 70 years ago. It’s ticking kept time as the pulse of the house.

The kitchen was empty. Marcus had left clutter on the dull granite countertop. In addition to being the only room that hadn’t been allowed to fall into a deep state of disrepair by two generations of Fludd’s, the kitchen was always the warmest of the house’s 28 rooms, and Gus never liked to leave it a mess. Mother had always taken such pains to keep it clean, after all—back when she could get around, before her stroke.

From the hallway came the chiming of the clock, marking the seventh hour.

Marcus and Mrs. Hargreave had been up there a long time now. He leaned back against the countertop, wiping his hands with a damp rag. Gus glanced up at the ceiling, as if he could penetrate its joists and floorboards simply by looking hard enough. A log in the kitchen fireplace broke apart, sending up a smattering of sparks that hissed and spat against the iron grate.

Something was wrong.

Taking the small staircase in the back of the kitchen—the one housekeeper’s had used back when the Fludd family could afford them—Gus headed up to the second floor. With skill born from a lifetime of experience, he avoided the creakiest steps, skipping one here and there with his long legs, hugging the edges. Unlike with the wall bordering the main staircase up front in the foyer, this one was devoid of family photos; in its place hung death-shots, pictures taken of former servants on the day of their death. Gus did not look at these. He pointedly avoided looking, in fact, as he had his entire life. As a child he’d been terrified of them and would close his eyes when he wandered this way to visit Sampson, a huge groundskeeper who always seemed to have time to teach little Augustus the ways of the world. Fortunately Sampson’s and all the other death photos were covered in a thick layer of dust and grime, so he wasn’t exposed to even a passing glimpse of their lifeless eyes.

At the landing he squeezed through a door frozen half-open. He cleared his throat.

Voices reached him, faint and garbled. No, that wasn’t quite right. There was only one voice, and it belonged to his brother. After crossing the hall, heady with the stink of mildew, beige paint peeling, Gus met the door separating the servant’s quarters from the other side of the house. With the corroded skeleton key he always kept on hand, he unlocked it. This door, rarely used, was just now swollen from the damp air; a little shoulder pressure and it opened.

Marcus’ voice grew louder and clearer the moment Gus shoved on the door. Remarkably, the voice originated from mere murmurs. The acoustics on the second story were truly extraordinary—a feature of the house Gus knew was no mere coincidence. The door to Mother’s room twenty feet ahead on the left was slightly askew. Gus crossed to it, narrow floorboards rebelling as they grinded against each other beneath his feet. He pushed on it and the door swung easily open, revealing the scene he had been picturing.

The master bedroom was deceptively larger than one might expect, with a bay window alcove on the far side, a master bath, and a walk in closet. Lying on the queen poster bed pushed up tight against the wall to the left, beneath a pair of electric sconces, was his Mother, Alma Fludd, her wispy white hair framing a face whose sight always made Gus’s jaw ache.

Sitting on the edge beside her was Marcus, murmuring into her ear.

Gus paused to clear his throat. It was a habit as much as a symptom now, and if there was one place he shouldn’t need to make the scratchy sound, it was here in this room, which he took great pains to maintain even while the rest of the house deteriorated around it. The brass sconces received weekly polishing, the wood trim and dressers occasional dusting, and the windows were newer Anderson inserts, professionally installed and sealed by Gus himself. The registers that fed heat into this room were cleaned bi-annually, their filters replaced monthly.

Where it concerned his Mother, Gus spared no expense.

“What are you doing?” he demanded of Marcus.

His brother stood and straightened out the wrinkles in his cheap clothes. “Nothing. What? I was just making sure mom understood who Mrs. Hardgrave was. You know how she gets confused sometimes.”

“It’s Mrs. Hargreave,” Mrs. Hargreave corrected quietly as she collected the dishes.

Gus took a few steps deeper into the room, until he was standing on the side opposite his brother and mother. “You mean you were leading her, manipulating her into putting you in her will.”

Marcus stood, swearing under his breath. “I’m getting tired of your gross insinuations. I’m not some slimy punk trying to worm my way into quick cash.” He paused before adding, “That’s your bit,” and he stared his brother down.

“You little prick,” Gus began to inch his way around the bed. Sweat beaded on his brow and underarms; it was as if the house had turned the heat up in this room. “You think I’ve been taking care of Mother all this time since her stroke because I’m greedy?”

Marcus also started moving around the mattress, nudging Mrs. Hargreave out of the way and grabbing the turned wood post. “Well? Tell me it’s not.”

“I’m not like you, Marcus. I’m not a leech. I don’t drain people. And what makes you think there’s still any money left? Don’t you think if Father had left us anything I would’ve used it to fix the house up by now?”

“Aha!” Marcus burst, punctuating it by aiming his right index finger at Gus’s chest. “You see? You just assume the money is yours, so you can fix up your precious rattrap, which by the way, you only got because you spent years sucking up to the old man.”

“It wasn’t like that,” Gus stepped forward and slapped his brother’s accusatory finger aside. “You never wanted the house. What did you expect Father to do with it?”

“I wanted you to sell this heap and split it with me, what do you think!”

“Oh dear Jesus,” Mrs. Hargreave retreated to the safety of the hall.

Gus cleared his throat and wiped sweat from his eyes. Was it his imagination or was it getting even hotter in here?

“Father left the house to me,” he continued, trying valiantly to keep his voice even and calm. “He gave you the Lincoln. It’s not my fault you sold his prize car and blew the money on partying. That’s your problem; you never take responsibility. You’re a screw-up. Father knew it, that’s why he left the house to me, and that’s why you’re not in the will.”

For a second it looked as if Marcus might lash out, but when nothing happened, and as he needed to inspect the thermostat to see why it was blazing hot in here, Gus turned his back on his brother.

It was not a wise decision.

His head jerked back as he was slammed forward. The dresser broke his fall. Knickknacks and pill bottles and perfumes clattered and crashed to the carpet. Gus whipped around, threw his bulk forward, slamming into his brother. The smaller man stumbled backwards, flailed, and finally latched onto the bedpost. Momentum thrust him into a chaotic wobble.

Hands numb from catching himself on the dresser, body temp practically boiling, Gus stepped forward and socked Marcus in the stomach. Marcus gasped but recovered quickly, retaliating with an uppercut to Gus’s left cheek.

Though he was considerably larger, Gus suspected this would not be a one-sided fight, as their childhood brawls had been. While Gus had spent years working with wood, indulging in heavy lifting, he’d also developed a fairly sedentary lifestyle during the winters, spending all his free time puttering around at home, while Marcus had been in numerous scraps and bar fights over the years—the man knew how to take a beating and return tit-for-tat.

As they tussled, Gus’s pulse steadily climbed, and this, combined with the malevolent heat, soon made his movements sluggish until he was taking more of a beating than he was doling out.

Still, when Marcus threw him against the dresser again, a sudden surge of adrenaline fueled a return. With this burst of energy he turned and drove into Marcus, slamming him in the gut with his shoulder and hoisting the lighter man up and over the footboard. Both men came crashing down onto the mattress—onto fragile limbs.

Mother’s screams pierced Gus to the soul and instantly arrested all violence.

The brothers untangled themselves from each other, both hasty to climb down off of Mother’s legs. Marcus threw off the blanket and inspected her limbs, slapping Gus’s hand away when he tried to do the same. With a careful eye and gentle hands he examined his mother. “Does this hurt?” he asked every few seconds. A look of profound relief spread across his face as he finally declared a few moments later that “I don’t think they’re broken, just bruised.”

Then he moved over and knelt beside her at the head of the bed, taking her hand into his.

“Mom, I am so sorry. Please, please, please forgive us. We were stupid.” As he pleaded pathetically Marcus took his mother’s hand and placed it on his head. “Please, we lost control for a minute. You know how Gus is. Sometimes he just gets under your skin. Remember how he used to piss you off so badly you had to have a glass of sherry to calm down?”

“I-I d-d-d . . . I—” she stumbled over her words, only the left side of her face functioning.

“It’s okay mom, don’t speak. You’re okay now,” Marcus cooed. “I’ve got you. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying right here until you fall asleep.” He grabbed a couple of cold compress bags from the extensive emergency kit Gus kept on hand in the night stand, and after shaking them, applied them to her shins.

“Mother, I—”

“Get out of here!” Marcus spat.

Gus looked to his mother for a sign of support, some small indication that she was not falling for Marcus’s obvious and sleazy attempt to win her over. But she would not look at him.

In shock he slowly backed away. He paused at the thermostat. It read 68, though it felt thirty degrees higher, and he turned the dial counterclockwise one notch. Without looking back he left the room. He walked like a zombie down the hall, failed to notice Mrs. Hargreave trembling by the doorway. On the right, two doors down, he stopped. This was his room. Gus entered and closed the door behind him, making sure to slide the chain lock into place.

He’d lied about there not being any money left. That is, he didn’t know for sure if there were any remaining funds in the Fludd savings accounts; the family accountant wouldn’t let anyone but Mrs. Fludd see the statements. If his brother’s deplorable game somehow worked—and it certainly seemed to be heading that way—Gus would likely never see any of that money.

This was just one more reason to go ahead and use his lottery formula. If it worked, all his problems would vanish in the blink of an eye. $308,000,000 would see to that.

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