Read The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel Online

Authors: Holly Messinger

Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical

The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel (10 page)

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
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“How do you know it wasn’t your pa?” Trace asked.

“It wasn’t
any
of them,” Anna wailed. “They were all beating each other, but not as if they were angry. They might’ve been cutting down grass, they were so…” She groped for a word. “They didn’t even
say
anything—except for Papa crying out at the first they hardly made any sound. They just beat each other down, and the whole time Papa wore this grin … as if the thing inside him enjoyed the sight.” She held out her hands in supplication. “How could it get us? My papa was a good man—he attended prayers every week … we kept a kosher house…”

Trace cupped her hands gently together. “There’s evil things in this world, Anna. Some of them set out to destroy good people who’d stand in their way. In a manner of speakin, your Pa was a soldier, went down in battle.”

Miss Fairweather’s lips pressed together skeptically. “Is there anything else you can tell us about the intruder? Did you notice any unusual sounds in the place? Or smells?”

“There was a stink—like rotten eggs.” Anna’s nostrils flared. “It was there when I came back from the kitchen. I was almost sick … and then—” She recoiled, hands raising like claws to ward off the memory.

“Easy,” Trace murmured, capturing her hands and holding them tight.

“I pushed it into the well,” she said, her voice cracking. “It tried to throw Leah in … she woke up. She looked scared for a second. She caught at him and he lost his balance and I—I pushed him. Leah fell, but he caught on the edge. And then it laughed at me. Its eyes were all black, it was spitting black out its mouth, and it started saying all these things it would do to me. I chopped off its fingers, but it clawed up out of the well on bloody stumps.” She began to sob. “I had to do it. I didn’t have a choice. I swung the ax up and it saw what I meant to do and the black thing went away—but I couldn’t stop—it was too heavy. It was Papa’s eyes…” She put a hand over her mouth as if to hold back the awful truth. “It was Papa I hit with the ax.
I couldn’t stop it.

She folded over, sobbing. Miss Fairweather stood and went to the table where she had left her satchel. She withdrew a small packet of paper and picked up the tin cup of water from the supper tray.

“Miss Herschel, I’m going to give you a preparation.” She handed the cup to Trace, wedged a hand under the girl’s chin, and forced her head back. “It will taste bitter, but it will help you sleep. You won’t dream, and nothing will be able to harm you in your sleep. Do you understand?”

Anna didn’t answer, but she didn’t fight, either. Miss Fairweather poured a small measure of powder onto her tongue, and then followed it with a generous drink of water. Anna made a terrible face and swallowed as if it hurt her, but afterward she blinked back tears and gave her thanks.

“Do you have a Seal of Solomon—that is, a Star of David pendant?” Miss Fairweather asked. “No? Well, I want you to wear this one.” Again she rummaged in the satchel, then draped a silver chain over the girl’s neck. “It will keep evil spirits away. Never take it off while you are in here. Do you understand?”

Anna nodded.

“Good girl. Now go to sleep.”

Anna lay down obediently. Miss Fairweather pinned her hat on her head, gathered up the satchel, and indicated Trace should follow her.

She took Trace’s arm as they left the building, and not merely for form’s sake; she was staggering with fatigue. He supported her as they descended the steps to the sidewalk, feeling through the heavy cashmere dress how frail her arm and shoulder were. Min Chan met them at the curb and helped her into the rickshaw. Once underneath its roof she revived enough to flare her nostrils and inform Trace that she had a theory, and if he would call on her tomorrow morning, she would discuss it with him.

“I must return home,” she said, “and I have research to do. I do, however, have a question for you: Was the newspaper you brought to my house this morning recovered from the Herschels’ house?”

“No, I got it from Jameson’s store this morning.”

“And it was today’s edition? Not an extra?”

“No, it was today’s regular weekly, as best I could tell. And there’s more—when I first saw that story in the paper this mornin, the letters turned to blood and started to run down the page.”

“Ye gods!” Miss Fairweather’s voice cracked in indignation. “And you did not think to mention it?”

Trace’s brows snapped down. “Lady, if I told you every strange thing I see in a day, you’d never get me out of your library!”

The thought seemed to arrest her for a moment, but then she shook it away. “Never mind. Tomorrow, I think it would be well if you looked into Judd Herschel’s business of the past few days. Especially find out if he paid a visit to the
Carondelet Citizen
newspaper office.”

*   *   *

“B
UT THAT’S WHERE
I ran into him last week,” Boz said, breaking into Trace’s recounting.

“It was?”

“Yeah, I was comin out of the barber shop there, and he came out of the printer’s. I said hello, asked what he was up to, and he said he was puttin an ad in the paper for somebody to cut his timber. That’s when I said we’d do it.”

Trace pulled his suspenders over his shoulders.

“You think somebody at the printer’s did this?” Boz asked.

“Well, I don’t know anything about printing, but you gotta admit it looks funny that the story was on the street before the bodies were found. Hell, it had to have been printed the night
before,
if Jameson was to have a copy of it in his store this morning.”

“What does
she
think did it?”

“She ain’t told me yet.”

“She tell you anything useful, or just parade you round town like a prize rooster?”

Trace cocked an eyebrow at him. “You got somethin to get off your chest?”

“I dunno … You spent two weeks tellin me you weren’t ever havin nothin more to do with that woman, and now you come back in a new suit squawkin bout women’s rights and Miz Fairweather said this, that, and t’other—”

“Uh,
you’re
the one said she might know something about these deaths, and I’m tellin you what she said.”

“She say anything about payin you for this job? Cuz you might recall we lost out on two weeks’ pay, now that Herschel’s dead.”

Trace started to argue he wasn’t working for Miss Fairweather, this time, but then she
had
asked him to consult with her, and she
was
taking up his time to escort her places. And
he
had been so caught up in the novelty of being able to talk to someone about his curse he had forgotten about practical matters like paying the rent and eating occasionally. “I’ll make mention of it next time I go up there.
After
we go to the printer’s tomorrow.”

 

CHAPTER TEN

Like many small papers, the
Citizen
was kept afloat by its proprietors taking in job printing: calling cards, handbills, and other small items the public might require. Upon entering the shop, Trace and Boz were confronted with a long wooden counter and a rail, separating the reception area from the pressroom. Beyond the rail squatted a number of heavy, sinister-looking machines, long low tables, and rough-edged clutter. Everything had a coating of black over it.

At the back of the room, a young man labored over a job press the size of a small bison. He pumped a treadle with one foot, driving a large iron wheel, which in turn drove the cast-iron elbows to flex and straighten. Rollers licked red ink across a wide circular platen, then darted back inside before the jaws closed with a clang. The pressman’s hands swiped in and out of the machine with casual daring, left hand snatching a freshly printed handbill from the gaping maw while the right laid a blank sheet of paper on its tongue. His movements were easy and unhurried, despite the apparent danger of losing an arm in the thing.

“C’n I help you?” A tall, balding man in spectacles got up from the bench at the corner, wiping his hands on a rag already black with ink.

“You the owner?” Trace asked.

The man jerked a nod. “Bob Avery, owner and editor.”

“I’m Jacob Tracy, this is my partner. We were hopin to get some information about Judd Herschel, who I hear came in your shop last week.”

“Is that right? Herschel, you say?”

“Yessir. The one who was murdered yesterday.”

“Murdered! Well, I don’t know anything about
that.

Trace stared at the man for a moment, trying to gauge whether this was genuine denial or a poor joke. “Er … there was a story about it in your paper yesterday, if I recall correctly.”

The editor gave him an odd look over his spectacles, and reached under the counter, to come up with a copy of the paper. “Tuesday, March twenty-third,” he read, looking at the masthead. He scanned the front page carefully, turned to the second page and scanned some more. “Nope. Doesn’t look as though we did…”

“May I?” Trace said, and the editor handed over the paper. Trace thought he remembered where it was, but in that space was merely a column of advertisements. One caught his eye:

Two or three able-bodied fellows wanted to clear timber lot. Daily wages plus dinner. Contact news office or see Judd Herschel, Seminole Lane, Carondelet.

As Trace read it, the ink began to blur and turn rusty. The paper buzzed in his hands, like a wasp’s nest that wasn’t quite empty.

He dropped it on the counter. “Must be my mistake. Though I see here, Herschel did put in this ad for work.”

The editor peered at the page. “That’s right.”

“Did anyone contact the office here about the job?”

“Not that I talked to—Danny!” the editor hollered over the clanking of the press. “You talk to anybody about the Herschel ad?”

The press operator turned, and did a sharp double-take when he saw them. As well he might, Trace thought, hearing Boz suck his teeth meaningfully. The black-haired printer’s devil was the same young fellow who’d been photographing the Herschel crime scene.

He threw a lever at the side of the press and came over to them, warily. “What about the Herschel ad?”

The newspaper editor repeated his question. The pressman claimed not to recall anyone asking about the ad. He looked Trace in the eye and said, “I’ll take care of them, Mr. Avery, you go on back to the type.”

When the editor had turned the corner and sat down, the young man said in an undertone, “You here to make trouble?”

“Just want to ask you a few questions,” Trace said.

The pressman hesitated, then nodded. “Wait for me around back.” Then, louder, he added, “Sorry I couldn’t help you, sir.”

A few minutes later, Trace and Boz were standing in the alley behind the newspaper office, watching the streetcars go by. The printer’s devil came out the back door with a freshly rolled cigarette in his hand and a box of safety matches. He held his free hand out to Trace and then to Boz. “I’m Danny,” he said. “Danny Lewis, he calls me.” He jerked his head toward the interior of the building, and his boss. “My real name’s Daniel Levy.”

“The old man don’t take to Jews?” Trace said.

“Rather not take the chance,” Danny said. “And anyway, I got other reasons for changing my name. My brother was the assistant reporter and printer’s devil here three months ago—Isaac Levy. He said the old man was all right, never gave him any trouble. But then Isaac turns up dead. Hanged by the neck in the press room.”

“Hanged himself?” Trace asked.

The kid shrugged eloquently, hands cupped around his smoke.

“And you don’t want the old man knowin there’s a family connection,” Boz guessed, “til you figure out why your brother died.”

“Something like that.” Danny exhaled. “I also don’t want him knowing I was out at the Herschel farm yesterday. The
Citizen
doesn’t print pictures. We don’t have the money or manpower to make lithographs. So I moonlight. The photographic equipment’s my own—at least it was Isaac’s, and our father’s before that. I take pictures where there’s a story, and sell them to the big magazines when I can.”

“How’d you know about the Herschel murders?” Boz asked.

“I got a friend at the funeral home. He tips me off when they get called to a murder scene.” He cocked an ironic eyebrow at their expressions. “Hey, we all got to make a living.”

“That’s all well and fine,” Trace said, “but it don’t explain how the story got in your paper before the bodies were even out of the well.”

Danny’s eyes went wary. “A story in
my
paper? When was this?”

“Yesterday morning. Saw the new edition less than an hour after we left the Herschel farm. Best I can figure it had to have been printed up the night before—”

But Danny was shaking his head as the words were leaving Trace’s mouth. “I’m sorry, but you couldn’t have. I did the proofreading Sunday night. All we put in there about Herschel was his ad.”

“There must’ve been another edition. A special.”

Danny spread his hands. “Who would’ve run it?
I
sure didn’t. And anyway, there wasn’t
time.
Mr. Avery set the type, Friday and Saturday; I proofed it Sunday and printed it Monday. There was just time to wedge in Herschel’s ad at the last minute, and only space because Mr. Avery dropped a couple of ornaments. I’m telling you, a full-length article on a murder—what was it, six or seven inches long?”

Trace measured with his fingers to show what he remembered, and Danny nodded. “Yeah, that’s about six hours of work.” He dropped his cigarette and scuffed it out. “I’m sorry, fellas, but you must’ve seen it in another paper.”

“Must’ve,” Trace agreed. “Tell me somethin—you work here pretty late nights, sometimes?”

Danny’s eyes were on his shoe, making sure his cigarette was all the way out. “All ink-slingers do.”

“You ever see anything … weird after dark? Like your eyes are playin tricks on you?”

“Only if I get too strong a whiff of Mr. Avery’s breath,” Danny said. “By nightfall he’s pretty well corned.”

When he had gone back inside, Boz said, “He’s lyin.”

Trace nodded. “Yup.”

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
13.17Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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