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Authors: Holly Messinger

Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical

The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel (13 page)

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
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“Bullshit. That is pure-thee-well bullshit, partner. Ever since we got back from Sikeston you been mopin around, checkin in at Jameson’s every day, hopin to get a note from uptown—”

“Now hang on. We got
three
notes from uptown, and I didn’t answer
one
of ’em.”

“No, but you sure did like to talk about ’em, and how you weren’t ever goin back there, til somethin strange happened, and up-a-daisy—”


You
told me I should go ask her. We both agreed she might know something. And she did. And this is what she said to do about it. So you got any better ideas, let’s hear ’em.”

Boz put a hand on his hip, scratched his nose. “Y’know, I grew up around hoodoo women, and witches. Before the war we had this neighbor lady was a Voudou queen. And she told me right out, folks had no call messin with demons. Said that anyone who did was a fool or a proud fool.”

“The priests taught me the same thing,” Trace shot back. “And they taught me anybody who saw ghosts and demons was devil-spawn and not fit to live among righteous folk. So I spent the last eighteen years stayin away from righteous folk and keepin my head down and tryin not to see ’em, and it hasn’t done me a lick of good. Not one. I lost everybody I ever loved, soon as they found out about my curse. So now I meet this woman—maybe not a Voudou queen, but a witch, I bet—who not only wants to help me with this power but wants to pay me for it—” He paused for breath, and saw by the way Boz’s head went back, his brow smoothed out, that he understood, finally. “I gotta do this, Boz. You and Emma are all I got left in the world. If somethin happened to you cause of my curse—” He locked his jaw up tight, shook his head. Looked out the window.

“Well,” Boz said at length. “I don’t reckon anything’s gonna happen to
me,
cuz I don’t believe in curses. But so long as you do it for
you,
Trace. Don’t let that woman jerk you around just cuz she bats her lashes.”

“Believe me, that ain’t her manner
at all.
She’s like a … a nun. No nonsense.”

“Well, that explains the appeal.” Trace shot him a foul look and Boz half-grinned, holding up his palms in surrender. “All right, I’m done … You want some supper? Or you gotta starve yourself before your holy mission?”

“Sandwich,” Trace said dangerously.

Boz left the room. Trace sat where he was for a while, chewing over his own words. Yes, he admitted, he had been looking for an excuse to visit Miss Fairweather again. But he certainly wasn’t pursuing this exorcism for her sake. Nor because it was the right thing to do, although he believed it was. He was, he realized, feeling a bit fatalistic. Either the demon would kill him or he would exorcise it. Either way, he’d be done wondering why this power had been laid on him.

With a sigh, he began to empty his pockets, preparatory to stripping off this tight black coat and getting back into his own clothes. He put down the leather pouch full of exorcism supplies, some change, some matches, and the embarrassing sheaf of notes addressed to “Mr. Tracy, Psychic.”

He stripped down to his drawers and decided he could do with a wash—he
did
smell like Miss Fairweather’s house. It wasn’t unpleasant—books and coffee, overlain with something musky-sweet, like herbs or perfume. Strange that he knew her scent without ever having noted it on the woman herself. Disturbing, as if she had laid some kind of claim on him along with the new suit. He took off his crucifix and laid it alongside the letters.

At last, scrubbed and dressed more like himself, he sat down to sort through the mail. Another few handwritten notes had been shoved under the door of their room. There was also a printed notice from the boarding-house, reminding everyone that prostitution and gambling were forbidden on the premises, extra guests had to be cleared with management, and room 24 would shortly be available for rent, since its occupant, Jacob Tracy, had shot his Negro companion and then himself, leaving the room vacant.

Trace stiffened. “
No,
” he whispered, and then found he could not inhale. A band of power was closing around his chest and throat, holding him immobile. He grabbed for the crucifix near his right hand, but his hand only strained, the tendons standing taut with effort.

The ink on the boarding-house notice began to run down the page, pooled at the edge of the paper, and then spilled over. It ran in a trickle to where his hand lay glued with sweat to the tabletop. The cold that spread through his hand and arm was indescribable. His heart clenched at the stabbing ache of it, but he was powerless to stop its climb up his arm, around his throat, and into his brain.

It crowded him out, chased him down into a murky well in his mind, a place near sleep where he could still hear and see what was happening, but only at a great distance and without reaction. He saw his hands grasp the table’s edge, felt his knees flex and stand. He watched himself open the chest at the foot of the bed and take out his Colt. He dropped the holster to the floor.

It was not long to wait. Boz had only gone to the kitchen downstairs. The house’s cook was sweet on him and always dropped whatever she was doing to fix him a treat.

Boz’s bootheels sounded in the hall outside the door. From way down deep in the well, Trace thrashed and tried to cry out, but the blackness had hold of him, and raised his arm to train the gun on the doorway.

The doorknob turned. Trace’s thumb pulled back the hammer. He managed a low grunt from his throat, but he couldn’t move or even turn his eyes away. The door swung open, with Boz’s brown hand attached to the knob.

What happened next was very fast, but from his far-off vantage point, Trace saw it all at the measured pace of a waltz.

The gun went off just as Boz’s shoulders moved into the doorway. He had a tray in his hand, and a crockery pitcher on the tray, level with his chest. The bullet hit the pitcher and exploded it, spraying milk everywhere. Boz startled but leapt forward instead of back; in the time it took Trace to swing the gun after, Boz threw the tray at him.

It clipped Trace’s gun hand and blocked his vision for a second. In the next instant Boz caught his wrist and hit him hard in front of the ear. The pain was distant but the force knocked Trace down. He was glad of it. He struggled against the blackness just as the thing used his body to struggle with Boz. It didn’t seem to have a lot of fighting prowess but it was very strong and kept trying to bring the gun around. Boz knocked the gun hand against the ground but could not break Trace’s grip. Trace’s body tried to sit up and Boz punched him between the eyes. He put one boot on Trace’s wrist and a knee on his chest. He took a fistful of Trace’s hair and looked into his eyes. Whatever he saw there curled his mouth in disgust. He thrust his free hand into his vest pocket.

“Sorry about this, partner,” he said, and spilled a handful of stinging red powder into Trace’s face.

The blackness boiled under Trace’s skin and shrieked in his head, trying to get away from the burning in his eyes and nose. He choked and sneezed and gagged, and Boz lifted off his chest, snatching up the Colt as he went. Trace rolled on his elbows, hacking up black tadpoles that hit the floor and wriggled away between the boards. In another moment he was in full possession of his senses again, a mixed blessing given the pepper in his sinuses.

“Here.” Boz’s hand slipped a basin under his chin; it was full of milky water. Trace plunged his face into it, sucked some into his mouth and nose and blew it out again. It helped immensely.

He lifted his head with a gasp to find a towel dangled in his vision. He took it and wiped his eyes, blew his nose. At length he shook damp hair out of his face and peered at Boz, who dropped to his haunches.

“Gone?” Boz said.

Trace nodded. “How’d you know?”

“Your shootin at me kinda tipped it off.”

Trace snorted laughter, then had to work through another coughing fit.

“Far as the pepper goes,” Boz continued, “I been told since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, red pepper drives off evil spirits. Never had much reason to believe it, til I saw Miss Anna’s footprints in the paprika.
She
was the only one it didn’t get. So I figure it protected her. I asked Miss Lucille down in the kitchen for some yesterday, and she said cayenne was best. Said the hotter the pepper the better it works.”

“And you been carryin it around in your pocket?”

“Don’t thank me or anything.” Boz put out a hand and hoisted Trace to his feet.

“I mean, what made you think it would get
me
?” Trace went to the table, scooped up his crucifix, and dropped the chain over his neck, vowing to never take it off again.

“We went in the print shop this morning.” Boz’s tone was smug. “It knows we’re lookin for it. You gave ’em your name, not mine. And this thing gets into people when they read words on a page. I don’t read, so it had to be you.”

Trace stared at him. “Y’know, as much as you bellyache about this stuff, I sure as hell wouldn’t be alive now if you weren’t so damn clever about it.”

“Yeah, well.” Boz shrugged. “I led you cross this country, what—ten times? Ain’t let nothin kill you yet. How
did
it get you? One of those letters?”

“This.” Trace pointed to the boarding-house notice. Sure enough, the words had rearranged themselves again—now it said that room 23 was available to let. There was no mention of his name or anyone being shot.

Just then their elderly landlord, Mr. Laufer, knocked on the open door. “Everything all right in here, boys?”

Trace and Boz glanced at the spilled milk and broken crockery, then at the bullet hole in the door.

“Fine,” Trace said. “Why wouldn’t it be?”

“Folks are saying there was gunfire coming from this room,” Laufer said.

“One shot,” Trace said. “Just an accident. No harm done.”

Laufer put his finger through the hole in the door. “Look, lads, I can’t have bullet holes put in my walls.”

“Perfectly understandable.” Trace went to the envelope of cash he’d left on the table, teased out a couple of bills, and held them out to Laufer. “Look, that ought to cover the damage. Won’t happen again, my word on it.”

Laufer was a mealy-mouthed sort, and probably would have let it go, but at that moment his overbearing wife crowded into the hallway behind him, pushing a policeman in front of her. Mrs. Laufer was shrill and indignant, proclaiming to all within earshot that this wasn’t a cowtown in Kansas, and decent people didn’t shoot off guns in a crowded house. She wanted Trace and Boz both arrested, which the patrolman was reluctant to do, but when he heard their names he got more interested.

“Tracy, eh?” the cop repeated. “You wouldn’t be the Jacob Tracy who worked for Judd Herschel, would you?”

Something in the way he said it made Trace suspect there was no good answer, but he said, “That’d be me … why?”

“I think you’d better come along with me, lad,” the cop said. “The chief has some questions for you.”

 

CHAPTER TWELVE

“I understand you came to visit Miss Anna here at the jail yesterday,” Detective Whistler said.

“That’s right,” Trace said. “My regular employer is a Reformer. She heard about Miss Anna’s case and wanted to be sure she was fairly treated. I escorted her here.”

“Your regular employer?”

“Miss Sabine Fairweather. Englishwoman, lives up in Hyde Park.” If she insisted on employing him, she could damn well provide his alibi.

“And what work do you do for Miss Fairweather?”

“Fetch-and-carry,” Trace said carefully, having no idea what business Miss Fairweather advertised to the world at large. He thought of all the caged and preserved critters in her laboratory. “She’s a—uh, naturalist. I get specimens for her.”

“Specimens?”

“Animals. Beasts and insects, mostly.”

Whistler sat back in his chair. “You’re an educated man, aren’t you, Mr. Tracy?”

“I was at seminary before the war.”

“Did you study law?”

Trace felt a sinking sensation in his bowels. “No.”

“So neither you nor your employer are fit to represent Miss Herschel in court?”

“I’m not,” Trace said. “I can’t say for sure about Miss Fairweather. She’s an unusual woman.”

“The bailiff thought
you
were Miss Herschel’s lawyer.”

“He must’ve misheard. Miss Fairweather said the girl had the
right
to a lawyer, and said she would pay for one, but I don’t recall anyone saying
I
was the lawyer, because I’m not.”

“And what is Anna Herschel, to Miss Fairweather?”

“I couldn’t say they ever met, before the jail.”

The detective’s colorless eyebrows lifted. “She’s mighty concerned about the welfare of a stranger.”

“She’s interested in her
causes,
” Trace corrected. “She knows you don’t have matrons here at the prison and wanted to see the girl was well treated.”

“What about you? What is Miss Anna to you?”

“The daughter of a good man I knew.”

“Not, maybe, the daughter of the man you worked for? Who maybe thought you weren’t good enough for his daughter?”

Now Trace’s eyebrows went up. “You got the wrong idea, Detective. I scarce said more than how-de-do to Anna Herschel.”

“You must’ve said more than that, because she keeps telling me you’re the man to talk to about this case.” Whistler’s dead-eye gaze fixed on Trace. “She says you know what really happened.”

Trace looked at the man for a long moment, remembering Reynolds saying,
You’d be surprised who-all believes in Spiritualism.
“Lemme guess: she says a demon got into her pa and chopped up her mother and sister.”

Whistler’s face drew long in a non-expression that could’ve masked credulity or contempt.

“And of course you don’t believe her,” Trace said. “Who would?”

Whistler reached for a stack of papers at the edge of the table. “You happen to see the paper this morning?”

“Which one? They’re all talking about the murder.”

“But the
Times
is talking about
you,
Mr. Tracy.” Whistler folded over the newspaper and pushed the relevant page toward Trace. “Someone got the idea you were a psychic with valuable information for us.”

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
3.25Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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