Next of Kin Ch. 01

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Amateur

When my father passed, he left me everything, every cent, every property, the whole empire of gold that he had built for us. That was all read out in the public viewing of his will, we all got to hear that part: me, my sisters, every disappointed aunt and rumbled cousin, who had shown up to see if they had been left anything, only to discover that only one of us had been so lucky. I could feel a lot of unfriendly eyes that day, not the sort of thing you really needed at a funeral, especially not as the outsider child, the one deemed least worthy of the name, according to the internecine family politicking that went on behind the scenes. To them, I was the interloper who had somehow swooped in and taken what was rightfully theirs.

But dad had left the stick that went along with that carrot for me to discover privately. Along with the family fortune had come a sealed letter and strict instructions that it be read by me alone, within the confines of his study only. Any deviation from this would lead to the dissolution of the entire inheritance, the money shunted away into a variety of charities, or other enterprises unconnected to the family in any meaningful way.

Which, honestly, I wouldn’t have minded so much. But the man was clearly very serious about this, and I wanted to at least see what had spurred him to such secrecy.

And this is how I ended up in my father’s study, empty and cavernous, sitting behind the desk I had so often stood in front of as a youth. It did feel different without dad scowling in it, the stacks of books seeming altogether lifeless now, without someone to read them; I doubted I ever could, their sheer volume enough to turn me away even if my father had not been notoriously protective of them all in life.

Now they were mine, I supposed, but I had neither the heart to throw them away, nor the will to investigate them. I was just… tired, the funeral and the wake both full of folk that had only barely tolerated my presence to begin with, and had graduated to full on hostility once dad’s last will and testament had been revealed. My sisters, as always, had been bright spots in the gloom, steadfast supporters even after it had come to light that they had been cut out of the inheritance in totality. They were people I was never going to leave hanging, though, and I’m sure they knew that.

Perhaps there were other things they knew, that I was about to find out. Our shared father had always had a manifestly different kind of relationship with the three of them than he had had to me, something I had always assumed was down to the way my mother had left him, before he had settled down once more and had his daughters. It wasn’t impossible that whatever machinations had compelled him to leave his mortal wealth to his black sheep son also included the girls in some way, possibly one they were aware of.

The letter contained the answer, but for a moment I was reluctant to open it and find out. There would be a catch, there always was where my father was concerned, and having nothing left to lose I presumed (correctly, it turned out) that the hook on this one would be particularly sharp, the bait being as voluminous as it had been. The seal on it was one of those old wax ones, an impression of the family’s coat of arms on it; I made a mental note to take all that stuff down, now that it was mine. The iconography meant something to the old bloods who had watched my father make their money for decades, but all it was to me was pomp and circumstance to which I no longer felt a connection.

Things would need to change. Assuming, that was, that my father’s post-mortem hand would allow me to change them.

I broke the seal, after what seemed like not enough time at all to me. Inside there was a single piece of paper, and a key with an ornately wrought handle. I had half been expecting a treasure map, or perhaps a gemstone the size of my fist that belonged in some socket somewhere, but this was all appropriately cloak and dagger for me. Turning the key over in my hand and finding no tiny carved mouth with which it could speak, I left it on the table and turned my attention to the letter.

My father’s handwriting, close together and looping, filled only a portion of the page. Just looking at it gave me a vivid mental image of the man at this very desk, hunched over, scribbling with a fountain pen because of course my father would not use a ballpoint. Someone who didn’t often write by hand anymore, because it was the year 2021, but who, when they did, wished to infuse the missive with precisely this level of drama. A modern man of commerce with some of the sensibilities of a wizard in a tower.

His letter to me read:

“My son,

First of all, I’m sorry to have to do this this way. It would have been better to explain it all to you myself, but I’m under certain agreements not to divulge the information at hand, agreements that expire… pinbahis yeni giriş well, when I do. With that in mind, I’ve prepared things at the estate for you to figure out what needs to be done, without breaking the compacts I’m under.

Things are not what they seem in the Ashford family, and for that I am not sorry in the slightest. I kept you out of the family business for your own good, but the bounds of that secret have provided me with three wonderful daughters, and a life’s work that has kept me occupied all my days. And now these fall into your care, kiddo.

The public portions of my will require that our estate remain in your custody with no options for sale, lease, or subletting. This is because the enclosed key will let you into my private rooms, where you will find the truth of my work, and with it the reasons why you cannot let the grounds out of immediate family hands. You will also discover information on your sisters that you’ll need to know.

Take care of them, Ren. They need you now, and you’ll need them too. But be careful, please be careful with what you tell them of what I’ve left you. Those girls have secrets, and it is a delicate time for them: I cannot predict what they might do to protect those secrets now. You will need to be cautious until you have your full understanding.

Watch your back, treat the girls with love, and you should be fine. I love you, kiddo.

Dad.”

I watched the words with some formless suspicion, feeling that there must be something I had missed. Not that there was some key piece of information I had skipped over (dad would unavoidably have made this some weird game, he would never be direct) but that I had failed to find some angle to the game. A key, and secrets held by other members of the Ashford family?

Gee dad, I could have told you that…

But the way he wrote about those secrets, that they were the sort of things my sisters would retaliate to protect… that was new. Say what you wanted about my father and the way he raised his kids, I certainly do, but I had never grown up under the impression that he, my stepmother, or my sisters would ever be as ruthless as I knew the extended family to be. When the far corners of the Ashford clan had tried their hardest to cut me off from the family fortune when my mom left, dad had fought for me, and the girls… well, they were their own can of worms, but certainly they were family to me.

And now there were things in play that might turn them against me? I hadn’t the foggiest idea what that could even be.

All this time I had been turning the key over in my palm, restless energy running through me. There was no clear direction about where to take it, and no visible keyholes from where I was sitting. But the office was large, shelves lining the side walls from floor to ceiling, laden with books and knick knacks; given that dad was involved, I couldn’t rule out the possibility of secret doors and hidden passages behind any of them. This was going to be a long process either way.

A knock at the door stopped me from thinking all this through any further, which was probably a good thing. Rubbing my eyes, I called out for the visitor to enter, and then shut up entirely when one of my sisters poked her head in. A face that I had known literally every day of her life, that I had grown up beside, now seemed to me strained, unfamiliar in ways it had not even just this morning.

Imogen, the eldest of the Ashford girls. My sister, and now apparently a secret keeper whose inscrutable new motives I had to navigate.

‘Hey,’ she said, without actually coming in. Only her head and shoulders were visible, the rest of her remaining behind the thick door. ‘Are… you okay? I know we were all told not to come in here while you’re doing whatever this is, but given the day we’ve all had, I wanted to check in. Feeling alright?’

‘I’m fine. I’m… fine,’ it was still only early afternoon, yet my eyelids were heavy, the act of simply keeping them open an onerous one. I wanted to shut myself up alone someplace dark, but there was so much still to be done. In a stroke of luck, the key I had been given remained in my hand, hanging low below the desk when Imogen had come by. She wouldn’t have seen it. ‘Thanks though, really. I’ll come out in a little while, okay? I think I’m almost done here for now.’

‘Is there-‘ Imogen cut herself off, shaking her head. She picked the thread back up quickly, but began from a different point along it: ‘Is it okay? What did dad say? If you’re allowed to tell me, of course.’

I took a moment, hoping I wasn’t staring too hard. Though she would obviously have reason enough to ask on her own, our father’s letter to me cast the question in a new light, one that I found difficult to step outside of. What was that eager tinge to her expression? Worry for her brother, or something else?

‘It’s fine, we’re pinbahis giriş all good,’ I answered. ‘Dad put everything in my name, but he doesn’t want me running the day-to-day stuff, thank god. Obviously I’ll be making sure you guys are taken care of too, I ain’t hoarding it.’

‘Everything?’ Imogen’s dark eyes gave nothing away.

‘Yes,’ I replied, after a moment. ‘I think so.’

That’s good,’ she nodded. ‘You’re the best fit for that, I think. Don’t stay cooped up in here alone too long, okay?’

She didn’t come in any further, but the way her eyes darted around the space before Imogen closed the door once more was unmistakable. If she saw anything that I had not, she didn’t give it away, and in the silence that followed her departure I was left alone with the fact that my life had gotten substantially more complicated. All because of this damn key.

What did it even open? Before leaving the office I gave it a preliminary once over, peering into the nooks behind bookshelves and inspecting the skirting on the underside of dad’s old desk. Nothing leapt out at me as especially untoward, even if father’s taste in literature had turned out to be far more esoteric than I would have expected. Books on organic chemistry, technical manuals, and old philosophical texts stood side by side with novels, biographies, and a startling number of trashy fantasy books. Not what I would have answered with, had I been asked prior to this, but then few people had really been allowed in dad’s study for anything but a brief visit before today.

Obviously there was more to find, if I hadn’t discovered the lock the key went with yet, but I wasn’t willing to spend the entire afternoon searching for it. If nothing else I still had my sisters in mourning out there, and despite dad’s warnings, they were still family.

Besides, I’d never found it productive to be alone with complicated feelings like this.

Dad’s office opened out onto a little sitting room at the back of the house, a large window on the far wall letting in a pale, gray light from the overcast sky outside. An unruly tangle of ferns lived in an awkwardly placed garden bed there, wide brimmed leaves hanging pendulously from thick, stout trunks. As with every winter here, it turned the atmosphere in the room into something of a cozy tomb, a comfortable place that was rarely occupied, and had thus become stuffy and somehow brittle. I’d always felt that walking through here, across the stiff carpet that rarely saw any use, might soil the room in some way I could never properly describe.

Truly, it was the family’s fine china of rooms.

Today, though, it was occupied in a way it hadn’t been for literal years prior. My sisters had taken up positions, Imogen playing with her phone in the nearest armchair, middle sibling Catherine in the other, currently within the depths of a book, and our youngest, Veronica, napping on the couch. This was her superpower; when she desired a nap, she could obtain one pretty much anywhere if she had enough time to stay still.

‘Ren!’ It was Catherine who noticed me first, snapping her hardcover closed and climbing out of the deep confines of her chair. ‘How was it? Are you okay?’

‘I’m fine, really,’ I gestured in what I hoped was placation, painfully aware that Veronica didn’t enjoy being awoken suddenly, often to my detriment when she did. She was already stirring, but I didn’t want it to be me who dragged her back into the world of the living. Imogen and Cat had already come close, though, so I was able to continue in quieter tones: ‘Can we talk about this over food? Turns out wake canapes are not part of a nutritionally balanced breakfast.’

The girls nodded, and Cat even took my arm as we walked. I had trouble, even with dad’s warning, feeling that her affection, of any of them, was disingenuous. It was something I’d have to accustom myself to, I supposed.

‘Huh? What are we doing?’ Veronica slurred, rubbing her eyes. I gave her a wide berth, but Imogen tousled her silver hair fondly as we passed.

‘Come on, Vee. Ren’s gonna give us our marching orders.’

***

‘First of all: where do you all keep your mugs?’

I have never mastered the art of being in someone else’s kitchen. Of any place in a home, it is the one with the most alien geometries, the majority of hidden secrets. In an unfamiliar bedroom or living room, you can mostly intuit what is placed where; to be a newcomer in a kitchen is to not know anything but the most basics of operations therein. What are all those cupboards for? You can’t even begin to find out without intruding.

For all the sudden connections to it I had just been afforded, I had not actually spent a lot of time in the old house. Some, sure, but it wasn’t where I lived. When my mom had left, she had taken me with her, and my time amid the Ashford side of the family had been… curtailed. I knew where most pinbahis güvenilirmi things were, but the finer details, the points that made a place a home and not merely a visitation, still eluded me.

So standing in the middle of the kitchen, with everyone else in the room looking to me for guidance… well, I can’t say I was at my most comfortable there.

‘They’re in here,’ Imogen reached into one of the upper cabinets, withdrew a quartet of clinking cups in a uniform blue, slid them across the counter to me. The process of making coffee for everyone gave me something to do with my hands, the focus it lent me slowing the tremble in them. I let my eyes fix to the machine and the mugs, away from the conversation I had to now have.

It was not a state of affairs that Veronica could allow, and I think I knew that.

‘So, what? You kicking us out, Ren?’ Arms folded over her chest, my gray-haired sister spoke in clipped tones, a far cry from the sleepy woman that had risen from the couch a few minutes ago. She always did wake up quick.

‘Of course he isn’t,’ Imogen clucked, shooting Vee a sharp glare. ‘Right?’

‘Right. I wouldn’t do that and I hope you knew it before you asked, Vee,’ I looked up, but only for a moment. ‘I’m your brother, not your landlord.’

‘He isn’t a vampire, in other words,’ Catherine smiled.

‘We can share the inheritance under the stipulations of dad’s will, so long as I authorize it. I don’t know why he specified that, given that obviously I’m going to, but there it is: be sensible with it, I’m going to be redistributing some of it to various causes, because honestly, if we’re not stripping the gears on the ol’ bank account every day, we really can afford to do that,’ I said, all at once, doing my best to plough through it all. Even without whatever hidden things my sisters were supposed to be thinking now, I really didn’t like being in a position like this. It wasn’t my place to have power over them, they were there own people.

What had dad been worried would happen?

‘All seems fair enough to me,’ Imogen shrugged, the lines of her collar tattoo flexing.

‘And I’ll be moving in,’ I added quickly. ‘There are some things I need to take care of on the estate, and besides, dad all but commanded I do so in the will.’

‘Yeah, I didn’t even know you could underline wording in a last will and testament like that,’ my eldest sister said.

‘And I don’t know why daddy gave our fortune away to him in the first place,’ Veronica sniffed. ‘His mom abandoned the family! And now we have to go through Ren for everything? It doesn’t make any sense!’

‘You’re just bitter,’ Imogen shrugged, after a moment of silence between the three girls into which my imagination dropped a great deal of unspoken things. I hoped the glance I saw them share was merely sisterly, not conspiratorial. Imogen drove on: ‘I know you were looking forward to seeing him get cut out of the inheritance so you could be his sugar mommy and take up all his time, dangling that over poor Ren’s head. But things are the way they are.’

‘W-what?! Imogen, that’s slanderous!’ Veronica pointed, all drama and fire. She scowled, but as was characteristic for her, she was blushing too.

‘Besides, he has the same dad we do. He’s got as much right to the family’s wealth as we do.’ Catherine cut in, pushing her glasses back up the bridge of her nose.

‘As much, not all of it!’ Veronica stamped her foot. ‘You two can’t think this is right, you can’t-‘

‘Vee.’ Imogen slapped her palm onto the counter top, hard enough to rattle the dishes in their cabinets. ‘We just got done with the funeral, I know emotions are high, but this is just as hard on Ren as it is on us, okay? He just lost his dad too, and then on top of that got all this dumped on him, so just… just cut the guy some slack.’

‘Y-yeah…’ Her voice softening, Veronica looked down at her feet. After a beat of silence she reached out, grabbed at my sleeve just as she used to do when she was just a kid and I a teenager. ‘Sorry, Ren. It’s not like you were engineering all this behind the scenes, is it?’

‘No!’ I shook my head, but let Vee hold onto me just as long as she wanted. ‘I’m just as in the dark as the rest of you.’

I really hoped that was true.

‘He came to visit us every summer, like clockwork,’ Catherine added into the slowly diminishing tension. ‘First day to last, every time, no skipping and no going home early. Including when you were just born, Veronica, and what kind of fifteen year old wants to deal with that? I’d say Ren’s more than proved himself as one of us, even if his mom wasn’t. It wouldn’t be fair of us to make him choose which family he belongs to, especially now.’

‘And it’ll be nice having him around more,’ Imogen slung an arm around my shoulder. ‘From the way you moped every time he went home I’d think you’d be happier about that, Vee.’

‘Stop it.’ Veronica hissed, slipping away from me. All at once she was inordinately interested in the workings of the coffee machine, snatching all four mugs out of my reach and busying herself preparing the contents. Imogen chuckled, and placed her mouth to my ear.

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