Chapter 24

~Charles~

I rode Drifter hard to the north to reach the oldest of my father's quarries about mid-day. This late in the season, it was deserted. All the workmen would be frantically at work sites trying to beat the inevitable tick of the clock. When the weather turned to winter, most of the crews halted work. Today, even the stone cutters hamlet was quiet. True, the children would be at school and many of the wives rode into the city with their husbands for either work or errands. None of this helped to sooth my nerves as I passed by the stone house Father had built here to escape the Bowery. For decades Grimaudo had used it as the quarry office.

I tied Drifter outside the office and peered in the first floor windows. Inside the rustic décor was nicely maintained. Everything tidy, the wood floor had a fresh dusting of sand to keep the boards splinter free. I tried the door and it was locked tight. The foreman likely on a site, the house was empty. And I was thankful for that. I did not wish to bloody what Father built.

Entering into the quarry I keep my eyes peeled for any movement. Only the drifting of crisp autumn leaves disturbed the wide jagged stone gully. Limestone shelves stretched on either side. Marble deposits, with large pieces cut away, interrupted them. I climbed onto a shelf and ran my fingers along the contours of a marble carving. Apollo and his muses. Father's work. What I would have given to have stood here and watched him carve it the day he had purchased the quarry. Of course, that would have been impossible.

Even after all these years, the marble preserved the fine details of his work. A tear stung my eye. Never again would he work stone as a gift to the world. Who ever this thief was, he had not only stolen stone chips from this quarry, but the cherished life of a true artist. All of the things Father might have shared with Viola and Alexander had been stripped away in a single pull of the trigger. My hand checked the gun at my hip. I knew it was loaded. I wanted nothing more than to hear the crack of the bullet against the skull bones of whoever was behind this.

Where were they? The only other thing with a heartbeat under this sun was a killdeer wheeling overhead. His peeping cries caught my attention before he dove off to the north. That's right, there was a river pass that way. A great place for shorebirds to congregate.

I had to be smart about this. Think like someone trying to ambush. There was no cover on the edges of the quarry. Just bare rock shelves cut back into a wide bowl. From here, I could see everything, even up onto the top edges.

After a long walk around the full circumference of the quarry, I found nothing but disappointment. My blood boiled in my veins. Had I come here for any true reason? Was it a ruse to get me out of the way? Had some cad decided to pull a heartless prank? This had to be the place—Father's foundation. This was the first quarry, the one where his stone workers were first paid in land. I spun in a circle at the entrance and kicked a stone into the gate.

"So close again, and nothing!" I snarled.

My pulse thundered in my ears. A dark figure shifted beside me. My hand drew the gun and aimed smack in the center of the chest. My finger shivered against the trigger.

Father. He stood before me now with his hands held wide and open. His eyes stared at me lined with worry through the holes of his mask. "Charles, put the gun away."

I forced the tip to point at the ground. Each breath I heaved as though I, and not Drifter, had run all the way to the quarry. "Why did you sneak up on me?"

"What if I had been Grimaudo?" He approached me slowly. "What if you had fired?"

"No. I would never have." I shook my head. "I know him."

"Do you? You leveled the muzzle at me and held it there overlong. Are you so sure?"

My fingers pressed against the wood grip of the gun. The weight in my hand reassured me. "Yes." I had to swallow before I could finish. "I know what I am doing!"

"And what is that?" He folded his arms across his chest. The edges of his cloak trailed out on either side of him.

"Ending this!"

"Ending what?"

I stuttered, my hand lifting the gun between us, muzzle to the sky. "This … avenging you … putting your spirit at rest."

His eyes drifted to the ground. "Then you do not know what you do, Charles. Not in any capacity."

Confound it! I squeezed my eyes shut against the tears. Coiled like a spring, everything in me wanted to lash out. "You have no right to tell me what to do! You're dead! The man behind it has to pay!"

"By your hand?"

I opened my eyes to discover he pressed closer to me. I backed away, hunched over, my grasp tight on the pistol. I could not let him stop me. I had to do this. Must do this.

"Charles, please. You must think this through. You have no idea what you are committing."

I clenched my teeth. "It's not murder to kill a murderer!"

He paused, his gaze lowered to the gun in my hand. "Then … by your words … you have nothing to avenge."

"How can you say that?" I screamed. "You were murdered! You were shot in the back by a coward who dared not face you. A coward hired by a thief who plays games in the shadows. That thief stole you from the lives of those who love you. Mother! Simonetta and the twins! … Me! This thief must pay." I flailed the gun in the air.

His hand caught my wrist in an iron grip. Burdened eyes stared into mine until I shuddered under their guilty weight. "Where would it stop? If you make this man pay, where will it stop? He has a family. A father, perhaps a child. After the chain lashes back at you, your life ends in a justified revenge. Then Alexander and Viola are left without a father. Left to avenge your death, and so on."

"No. I won't let it come to that." I tried to look away. He gripped my chin with his other hand and forced me to meet his eyes. The glare pierced me.

"That is not how this works! Once you pull the trigger, the whole world changes for you. You have read what I have written. How could you have possibly failed to comprehend?" His eyes narrowed, tears trembling in the corners. "Charles, my gentle son, do not take this weight on your heart! Everything changes after you have taken a life. There is no going back. You are not meant to bear this burden. It would destroy you."

"I am strong enough!" I tried to wrench free. He only moved with me in a staggered step, maintaining the grip on my wrist.

"No you are not! That is not an insult. Please, Charles. You must listen to me. This is not a path you want to choose. The chase never ends. Just a succession of blood and death." He gripped my shoulder and squeezed hard enough that I cried out. "Once that beast is awakened in you, he never ceases to whisper!"

I closed my eyes to shut out his stare. Those mismatched eyes wavered my resolve. I twisted in his grasp, trying to break free. Only when I couldn't see him, did I find the strength to fight. "No! I must end this!"

"Damn it, Boy! Listen to me! This ends nothing! It will only destroy you if you pull the trigger!"

I wrenched my shoulder free and blindly threw a hard punch at him.

His grip released, accompanied by a stunned cry.

I fell backwards, opening my eyes as I struck the ground.

Father huddled beneath his cloak. His mask lay on the ground between us.

There was no conceivable way I had struck hard enough to hurt him … physically. I took a series of deep breaths, waiting for him to move. But he remained shrouded in the refuge of his cloak. I was not prepared for the hollow pain in his voice.

"Once the beast has his claws in you, there is nowhere you can hide. It is impossible to run from yourself, Son. No matter what you try to do, you can never face yourself again the same way. The guilt weighs heavy on the heart, the chains shackle you over the years. The burden of those sins never abates." His trembling hand lifted the edge of his cloak. Father's malformed face grimaced from the shadows.

Still on the ground, I scrambled away from the haunted stare in his eyes. That was not the man I had known gazing at me. It was a monster! A savage creature wreathed in the dark cloak rose to loom over me. His hands reaching out like claws.

His voice turned my blood to ice. "You are far too weak to take the strain! Far too frail to withstand the aftermath! You will crumble when the world comes for you! You will die as a mewling whelp!"

I couldn't catch my breath as I dragged myself up the quarry wall. He continued to advance, a shade of his formal self. He threw his head back. Vile laughter echoed against the stones.

All I could do was clutch the gun in my trembling hand. Sweat rolled down into my eyes. My stomach churned at this manifestation. This was not my father. I deeply wished he would put the mask back on. Cover his shame, return to his sane self. But I stared in shock as he looked down at the mask and crushed it beneath his foot. With one finger he pointed at me and sneered. "You will destroy yourself all for a pathetic action that will heal nothing! Vengeance never brings peace, it only invites war with open arms."

A shower of pebbles rained down on me. I flung myself against the wall. Above me I saw the fleeting shadow of a figure. My heart thundered, thawing my blood. Heat roared into my limbs releasing them from the icy shock.

Without a thought I darted down the path out of the quarry, up to the rise. The old pole barn stood across the field. Its door slightly open.

I held the pistol out in front of me, ready to fire.

"At last." … I would face the man who had shattered my world.