Read A Wicked Way to Burn Online

Authors: Margaret Miles

A Wicked Way to Burn

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rimstone and

,” little Jack Pennywort went on, working sweeping gestures into the retelling of the amazing story, “as I followed along, there was a pale sort of flickering just up around his shoulders. Just before I saw the yellow gleam … and then I tripped over a stone, and fell down in the road.

“As I looked again, the flames came right up out of him—all around! They rose with a
, they did—rose up and danced like Satan himself, all around the old man right where he stood, waving his arms up in the air before he disappeared! Black smoke, first, black as night … and when the wind took it off, all I saw was a white mist rise up, and a spot of blue fire,
if I didn’t! There was heat enough to water my eyes, and the Devil’s stink of hellfire and brimstone!”

“Sulphur, most likely,” Longfellow commented from one side of the crowd.

“And after that he was gone,” Jack continued, raising his voice to be heard by all,
, from what I could see!”



Title Page


Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

About the Author


or Richard, with love.

earch me, O God, and know my heart:
Try me, and know my thoughts:
And see if there be any wicked way in me
and lead me in the way everlasting.

139: 23–24

Chapter 1


!” cackled the merchant, not for the first time. Then his smile broadened as he glimpsed, through autumn leaves, the upper arm of Narragansett Bay.

Duncan Middleton had ridden out from Boston early, taking the post road whose windings had carried him inland for many wearisome hours. Far from streets full of people and fine carriages, he had lately seen only villages, tedious stretches of woodland, and empty stubble fields left to the crows that cawed from the treetops, well above the rustling, slithering, hopping life that foraged below.

Carefully, he uncurled gnarled fingers and reached beneath the scarlet cloak that covered his bent and withered form. It should be said that his curious shape was due to a gouty disposition of the joints: the merchant was barely fifty. But he had already acquired the
face of an old man who cultivated a wintry soul. Certain acquaintances had been heard to comment, in private, that both face and twisted skeleton served to warn men of the merchant’s undernourished and corrupt spirit … as Jehovah had probably intended when he made him that way.

But now, on this mild October evening, the wizened rider felt almost kindly as he gently stroked something held against his chest. Satisfied, he breathed deeply of the brisk salt air. Was it a love of the sea that made Middleton’s small, sunken eyes lift and sparkle briefly? Unhappily, no—the merchant’s pleased expression was born of his belief that what he smelled on the air was profit. He already had a hoard of money—enough to buy courtesies from others whose manners and breeding were far better than his own. But, as he often said, more money never hurt … and everyone knew that a shipping fortune was never entirely safe. With a few fierce storms, or an unseen reef or two, one could be ruined. And who would shed a tear?

Well, at the next milestone, he would see. The next milestone … one of those set up by order of the Great Man, Middleton sneered to his mount in lieu of anyone else to complain to. He’d always said the stones were a waste of money, erected only to mark Franklin’s own advancement on Fortune’s road. But on this evening, in a rare burst of good humor, the merchant decided to excuse “Poor Richard.” At the next milestone, Middleton intended to do a quiet bit of business himself.

The thin, tired nag that carried him stumbled over the deeply rutted soil, occasionally lifting its head to the whine of gulls above. Ill-fed and rarely rested, the horse had again grown used to shivering under the cut of its owner’s whip. Now, although it had no way of knowing, its troubles were nearly over.

Middleton continued to strain his eyes across the glinting waters ahead. He entertained mixed feelings about what he saw. Like many others who took their living from the ocean, he rarely allowed his own body to brave her rolling green waves. In fact, the death of his last brother by shipwreck three years before had hardened his suspicion of the sea, however much that event had pleased him. Oh, young Lionel had been a worthless relation—shunned by a family who disapproved of his gambling and lusting after things he was unable to pay for—forced to become a sailor. When he eventually sank to his final reward, Lionel followed the lead of the merchant’s pious brother Chester, a truly tedious soul, and was followed in turn by a spinster sister, Veracity, who had been “as chaste” (and as cold) “as unsunn’d snow.”

Middleton didn’t miss any of his siblings at all. With the pack of them gone, none were left to try to steal from his corpse, with the help of their lawyers, what he’d managed to pull together into a considerable fortune even by Boston standards. His own death would simply be the end of the line. And the ornate tombstone he planned would be a fitting memorial to the last and best fruit of a dead branch of the family tree. Where the
of the money would go would be Duncan Middleton’s final surprise for the good people of Boston.

Curiously, there were still several gentlemen living in that city, entirely unrelated to him, who believed they might receive a piece of his fortune when Middleton went to meet his Maker. These birds of prey (who nested in law firms and merchandise warehouses) had lately given him far more entertainment, as he watched and baited them, than Lionel, Chester, and Veracity together had ever managed to do. The crooked man looked forward to keeping the vultures guessing. He would continue to enjoy seeing them squabble among themselves,
making flattering, unctuous bids for his favor. Just let them try to gain from his death—it was years away, at any rate. Recently, he even thought some of them had secretly followed him about Boston … probably trying to glean details of his holdings, or to find something in his activities that might be held over his head.

Damn them all!

The purpose of this particular trip might have surprised even those who thought they knew the worst about the merchant’s ways. Middleton had started out after receiving an answer to a letter of his own on the previous evening. The missive had made his lips curl with its promises.

I foresee no trouble in transporting the commodities you require, and selling same, regardless of their eventual use….”

The merchant had wisely burned that letter to keep it from Mrs. Bledsoe’s notice. The old biddy only knew that he would be gone for at least two days. She would be free to gossip and pry where she might, as she went about her housekeeping duties. Still, she would never guess what he was up to, nor see the end of the lucrative plan he was about to set in motion.

Abruptly, the traveler’s thoughts of home were interrupted by the hurrying approach of another horse and rider. After a few moments, they overtook him and passed by, probably making for shelter before night fell. Duncan Middleton averted his face, giving the passing stranger only the back of his wig and an edge of his tricornered hat, until the other had gone.

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