Wages of Sin
By Penelope Williamson
Published by Warner Books 
March 2003; 0-446-52841-2; 432 pages

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Wages of Sin by Penelope Williamson

Chapter One

New Orleans, 1927

Tonight, he would write to her with his own blood. He'd been planning the letter for some time now, ever since this one movie that he'd seen: a spectacle film where a Russian peasant girl lay dying and they brought in the doctor to bleed her. The director had shot a decent close-up of the lancing blade piercing flesh, opening up a vein into a bowl, and then the optical effects guy had doused the camera lens with blood. They'd probably used pig's blood, but on the par speed film it had looked like ink and that was when the idea first came to him. About how he could warn her by writing to her with his blood.

Not that he had bothered with giving much of a warning to the others, hadn't really given them a chance to save themselves. Fuck 'em. They wouldn't have listened anyway. Always, when a new one was first chosen, he'd feel some hope that this time it would be different. But after he had watched them for a while, after he'd looked into their hearts and seen the real them, he always came around to accepting the inevitable: that even death couldn't redeem the hopelessly lost.

And yeah, okay, okay, sometimes he did go ahead and fuck them. . . anyway before he killed them. It was only sex, after all, and he was never selfish about it. He always tried to make it good for them, too. To give them a few moments of sweet pleasure, however fleeting, before that big postcoital sleep.

Anyway, the others . . . call them small sacrifices of appeasement, if you will, because ultimately she was the only one truly worthy of salvation. She wasn't a chosen one, she was the chosen one, but she was also his one. She was his love, his destiny, the only reason he had for drawing breath. So it followed, ipso frigging facto, that if killing her was the only way to save her, then he'd have to kill himself as well. They'd have to die together, just like Juliet and her Romeo.

"Romeo," he said aloud and tried to laugh, but the noise he made sounded too much like a sob. "Yeah, that's what I am to you, baby. I'm your fuckin' Romeo, so don't you make me do it. What do you say, huh? Don't you make me do it . . ."

 

Christ, but he hated sad endings. He was always the poor sap sitting way in the back, in the dark, holding out hope until the bitter end that Juliet would wake up before Romeo swallowed the poison and died.


When the idea had first come to Romeo -- to sacrifice a little of his own blood in the pursuit of his true love's salvation -- he had tried pricking himself with a pocketknife and writing to her with his bleeding fingertip. The letters came out all smudgy and smeared, though, and he'd snatched up the paper, crumpling it in his fist, and thrown it against the wall.

The walls were plastered with her face: glossy publicity stills and pages torn from fan magazines. Grainy tabloid shots and candid ones he'd taken himself. He'd surrounded himself with her image because she was beautiful and she was his, but the special keepsake, the one that mattered, he'd put into a silver frame next to their bed. In it her head is tilted back and her wide, scornful mouth is laughing, and she is pushing her fingers through her dark, shingled hair. The whole world had seen her do that a thousand times, but only he knew what it meant.

"Hey, never mind, baby," he had said to her that day, kissing her, and the glass that covered her face was cool against his lips. "We don't want to rush into this anyway, 'cause when we do it, we want it to be right."

What he needed, he had told her, was a set of bleeding knives. You couldn't just walk on down to the drugstore, though, and ask the guy behind the counter for such a thing, and maybe the truth was he hadn't even been looking so hard. Then this morning he'd been strolling along Rampart Street and not even thinking about her for a change, when his eye had been caught by something in the window of a curiosity shop. It had a thick tortoiseshell handle and its three knives were spread out in a fan for display, and he recognized it instantly as the instrument that the doctor had used on the Russian peasant girl.

The shop owner was wrinkled like a dried seed pod and had eyeglasses the size of thumbprints perched on the end of his nose. He peered at Romeo through those funny little glasses as if he knew all and he approved. "These are lovely knives," he said, as he polished the blades with an oily rag. "Lovely, lovely. In our modern day we think of bloodletting as barbaric, but in truth it often did more good than harm. Lowering the patient's temperature and inducing a calm state of mind. And in some ancient societies bloodletting was a rite of purification."

"No kidding?" Romeo smiled. He didn't give a shit about ancient societies, but the love he felt for her was so rare and beautiful and pure that surely it deserved its own ritual.

He walked home slowly with the knives in his pocket. He relished their weight, anticipating what he would do with them. He rounded the corner onto Canal Street and walked into the back of a crowd that had gathered to watch a couple of paper hangers glue sheets to an enormous billboard on the roof of the new Saenger Theatre. He stopped to watch the men at work, as first her eyes appeared and her mouth and then her neck. Eventually all of her was spread out on the board, and he saw that she was lying crossways on a bed like a spent lover -- her head hanging down over the side, her arms flung out wide -- to advertise her latest flick, Lost Souls. It was a wildly innovative and truly scary movie about a dead woman whose haunted, restless soul leaves her grave at night and takes the form of a vampire bat to suck the blood out of the living, and only a star like her could ever have pulled it off.

Romeo laughed out loud so that a few in the crowd left off staring at her to stare at him. He didn't care; they were fools, especially the women. They'd all be wearing bloodred lips and bat-wing capes by the end of the week. They tried so hard to look like her: bobbing their hair like hers, trying to paint her exotic face on top of their own, even trying to copy that smooth and languorous way she had of moving. Believing that their flattery and worship gave them ownership over her, when she would never belong to anyone but him.

He'd shot enough junk into himself to know how to apply a tourniquet and pump up a vein, but the oddity of the bleeding knives had him nervous. Each of the set's three knives had two blades, a long one on the bottom that ended in a hooked point and a smaller, triangular-shaped blade on top. He had no idea which to use and that worried him. He didn't want to butcher himself and end up bleeding to death. Christ, he thought, but wouldn't that be just too fucking much, if he ended up leaving this vale of tears without her.

He tested the edge of one of the hooked blades and he smiled. Sharp enough to cut through skin and flesh and bleeding veins. He hummed to himself as he brought his shooter's kit from out of its hiding place and took a soup bowl from out of the kitchen cupboard. He was flying high, but it was a pure high, coming from the moment. He wrapped a length of thin rubber tubing around his arm and tied it tight with one hand and his teeth. He made a fist. The veins in the crook of his elbow bulged blue against his skin.

He stared at the knife and his high trembled a little as it slid toward the edge of fear, then he thought, Fuck it, and he picked up the knife and pressed the point of the top blade into the pulsing vein.

He let out a little yelp of pain, and dropped the knife as blood spurted bright red jets into the air. His blood. The thought frightened and exhilarated him, and he stared at it, red and thick and pulsating out of his flesh in an arc, until he remembered to hold his arm over the bowl.

The blood was so beautiful. He almost left it until too late to release the tourniquet.

He pressed the heel of his hand into the cut he'd made. He blinked, swaying on his feet. His head felt thick, his body heavy, as if he was just coming down off a nod. He looked around, bemused, at the splatters of blood on the primrose yellow wallpaper, the pools of it on the brown linoleum floor, but his imagination was already leaping ahead to the moment when she would read his words and understand how she had to wise up and save herself, had to save them before it was too late. No more other men, no more other loves. Just Juliet and her Romeo.

He wouldn't make the mistake of sending the letter through the mail. She got twenty thousand letters a week from her fans, each one carefully answered by studio secretaries who typed out the same reply over and over and rubber-stamped her signature. He wanted her, and only her, to see these words, written in his blood, and so he would have to deliver it himself to a place where only she would find it.

He picked up the fountain pen that he'd bought for just this moment -- an automatic shading pen used, the young woman in the stationery store had told him, for fancy lettering and show card writing. He'd already spent hours planning what he would write: the single, perfect sentence that would make her understand how desperate the situation was, how she had to change things before it was too late.

He filled the pen's pearl barrel with his blood. He held the fat gold nib poised for a moment over the pristine sheet of paper, and then he wrote.

Are you scared yet, Remy?

Copyright 2003 Penelope Williamson
Reprinted with permission.
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Synopsis

In WAGES OF SIN, Penelope Williamson seamlessly blends two separate story lines-the horrifyingly brutal slaying of a beloved priest and an escalating series of murders of young girls devoted to a Hollywood star-and sets them against the backdrop of a city under siege over the execution of a young black man. The year is 1927 and New Orleans is a whirlwind of speakeasies, flappers, and bootleg champagne. Silent screen star Remy LeLourie is at the height of her fame and she basks in the adoration of her fans. But someone is stalking her. And after she receives a note with the words, "Are you scared yet, Remy?" written in blood, she fears not only for herself, but also for the remaining girls in a group of young fans that have been killed one by one over the past year.

When a highly respected priest is found brutally murdered by crucifixion in an abandoned factory, Detective Damon Rourke is thrust into the middle of a case that may-or may not-be connected to the girls' murders. Before his death, Father Patrick Walsh was one of the most popular priests in New Orleans. So why was he murdered? To find the answer, Damon must not only delve deep into the secrets surrounding the local Catholic church and its inner circle, but also the secrets held within the hearts of the people he loves most.

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Author

Penelope Williamson is an internationally renowned author of historical romances. She has more than 1.8 million books. She lives with her husband in Mill Valley, California.

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