Authors: Holly Messinger
Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical
was why he didn’t like being in town too long. Too many old houses, too many buried secrets that wouldn’t stay down. Even the harmless ones, like this slave girl, made the hair stand up on his arms and neck, as if the devil were breathing down his collar.
He touched the crucifix that hung against his breastbone, through his shirt, and muttered under his breath
“Ecce Crucem Domini, fugite partes adversae…”
She didn’t seem to hear, but they often didn’t. She stood there smiling, hands twisted in her apron, becoming more transparent with every thud of Trace’s heart, until she was gone.
He took a deep, slow breath, and worked his shoulders to ease the tension of fear up his neck. His burned wrist scraped against oilcloth. “Damn it,” he hissed, more in embarrassment than pain.
Miss Fairweather’s silk skirts rustled in the hall. She came into the room carrying a small jar and a bit of white cloth. “I hope you will trust my nursing skills. I make my own salve and I find this to be quite beneficial … Why, Mr. Tracy, whatever is the matter? Are you unwell?”
He flinched at the sound of her voice, which was far too bright, as if she’d walked in on a tea party instead of a surly would-be employee.
“I’m fine,” he said shortly. “I’d be appreciative of that salve, though.”
She came closer, pale eyes keen on his face, her whole frame intent on some devilry. “You weren’t disturbed at all, while I was gone?”
Trace stared at her. For half a heartbeat he wondered if she’d
him to see … but no, she couldn’t have known about his curse. Everybody who’d had that knowledge was long dead.
But then, everybody knew
who’d seen a ghost or visited a haunted place. The Spiritualist craze only encouraged that kind of nonsense. She might well know her library was home to something unearthly, but that didn’t mean she knew about
“No,” he said. “Didn’t see a living soul.”
* * *
HANKS FOR PASSIN
my name along to Miss Fairweather, Johnny.” Trace slapped a quarter on Jameson’s countertop and helped himself to a bottle of flavored soda from the barrel in front.
“My pleasure,” Jameson said, “but it wasn’t me referred her. She sent that Chinese of hers in here to ask for you.”
“Asked for me by name?”
“Not Jacob Tracy, but he wanted to find the man called ‘Trace.’ She sniffed you out from somewhere else.” Jameson handed him two dimes with a twinkle in his eye. “What’s she look like? Old maid? Crotch-faced old boot?”
“No. Young. Leastways, not older than me.” Trace sometimes had to remind himself he was almost thirty-eight. “Thin and pale, though, like she’s sickly.” He took a thoughtful pull of sarsaparilla. “Boz out back?”
“Yeah, he’s just moving those bags of seed I got in.”
“Gimme another of those sodas. Can you do without him for a few days? Just for the week it takes us to get to Sikeston and back.”
“No, no, s’fine with me. Work’ll still be here when you get back.”
Trace thanked the shopkeep and took the open bottle of soda out through the stockroom and down the back steps, out to the yard where Boz was lugging bags of wheat and seed potatoes off a wagon.
Boz was a hard, rangy colored man, tall except when he was standing next to Trace. He’d been a supplies sergeant in the Tenth Cavalry after the war, and he had outfitted every wagon party Trace had bossed for the last five years. Trace had hired him because he could figure better than Trace could, and grew to like him because Boz had a handle on reality like no one else. Boz thought about how things looked, tasted, weighed, and packed. He planned ahead, was rarely caught unprepared, and knew how to fix things when they broke. He worried about nothing more abstract than how long the coffee would last, and his attitude toward religion was strictly live and let live.
Also, he made the best corncakes Trace had ever eaten.
“Take a breather,” Trace said, holding out the soda bottle. “Hear the news.”
Boz wiped the back of his wrist under the brim of his hat and took the bottle. “Got the job from the Englishwoman?”
“Yep. She’s payin us two hundred dollars to ride down to Sikeston and back.”
Boz coughed as soda fizz went up his throat instead of down. “You’re lyin.”
“Hell I am. She gave me half in advance.” Trace pulled back his coat lapel to show the wad in his vest pocket.
“Maybe. But I took the job, so what’s that make me?”
“What’d you do to yourself?” Boz gestured at the fresh bandage on Trace’s wrist.
“She burned me tryin to light me a cigar.”
“Usually takes women a week or two to come after you with a fire iron.”
Trace grinned. “For another hundred I may bend over and let her brand me.” He quaffed the last of his soda. “Easiest money we’ll make this year, that’s for sure.”
Sikeston, Missouri, was about a hundred and fifty miles south of St. Louis. It could be reached in three days of easy riding on horseback, in a day or so via riverboat, or in an afternoon train ride.
Speed wasn’t everything, as Trace explained to potential customers. Yes, rail travel had gotten cheaper in the last few years. But that was only the cost of a seat—an uncomfortable, bare wooden seat in most cases—packed into a dirty, airless, noisy car with dozens of strangers. And forty dollars one-way across the country didn’t cover the cost of transporting animals, or household goods, or basic foodstuffs—all of which would be needed at the end of the line. Traveling west by rail might get you to one of the jumping-off points faster, but outfitting a homestead or a wagon in Missouri or Utah could cost twice as much as it did in St. Louis, because goods were more scarce and vendors stood to make higher profit off unprepared emigrants.
It was a matter of time versus money, Trace always told those wide-eyed homesteaders, implying that his own fee was well-earned in keeping them safe from the unscrupulous.
As for himself and Boz, it made no sense to buy train tickets to Sikeston when they had two perfectly sound horses in need of exercise, and little else to their names this spring other than time to spend.
Unfortunately it rained, from the moment they left St. Louis. A chill, miserable March rain—not cold enough to freeze, just enough to make the roads treacherous to the horses’ legs and drag out the trip twice as long as natural. They camped on the road, in the rain—Trace steadfastly refused to sleep in any unfamiliar barn or outbuilding, no matter how deserted it appeared to be, much to Boz’s ongoing annoyance.
By the time they got to Sikeston they were both tired and irritable. They found a place to board the horses and then asked the stable manager for the nearest lawyer’s office. He sent them to the printer’s, and although there was in fact a shyster working out of that business, he had never heard of a man named McGillicuddy. The printer had a city directory, but there was no McGillicuddy in it, either, at least not in a professional capacity.
So Trace asked for the sheriff’s office, figuring if anyone knew the whereabouts of a lawyer, it would be another lawman. But once they’d waded through the semi-flooded streets and the washes of mud, they found the sheriff’s office dark and vacant.
“Well, hell,” Trace said, peering at the sign propped inside the glass.
“What’s it say?” Boz asked, scraping mud from his boot on the top edge of the porch steps.
“Sheriff’s out of town for a trial. Won’t be back til Tuesday.”
Miz Fairweather said McGillicuddy?”
“Didn’t just say, I saw it printed on the letter. Here! Mister! Father, I mean,” Trace amended as the man on the street tilted his black umbrella to reveal a round hat and clerical collar. Trace took off his own hat. “Pardon me, Father…” The older man stopped in the mud, on the other side of the moat running in the street, and looked up at him calmly. “We’re lookin for a man named McGillicuddy, supposed to be practicin law in this town.”
“I assume you mean the business aspect of law,” the priest said. “The only lawyer in Sikeston keeps his offices at the printer’s.”
“We’ve been there, Father. They never heard of him. It’s about the estate of a lady by name of Lisette DuPres—”
“DuPres?” The priest cracked a smile. “She was hardly a lady, but if you’re looking for her estate, it’s over there.” He raised one dripping black wing to point across the street at the saloon, brightly lit and inviting in the misty gloom.
“I don’t think I catch your drift, Father,” Trace said.
“Son, Madame DuPres was not only a practitioner but a purveyor of the world’s oldest profession. Any assets she left behind would most likely be found in there. I believe the current proprietor is named McGillicuddy, though I’ve never met him personally. And while I don’t mind standing and chatting with you lads, if I don’t move soon I shall be permanently mired in this spot, so if you wish to continue this conversation—”
“No, no, Father.” Trace tipped his hat. “Sorry to keep you.”
“Not at all,” the priest said, and splashed along his way.
Trace looked at Boz, who shrugged, but there was a gleam of mischief in his eyes. “Maybe Miz Fairweather heard about your former callin and feared you wouldn’t take the job.”
“If that’s the case, she was mistaken,” Trace said.
They waded across Main Street to the saloon. The place was handsome and prosperous-looking on the outside—brightly painted with gold-leaf lettering on the windows, offering meals, liquor, and rooms at a nightly rate. The lights inside were burning bright and from the porch they could hear the din of voices and music. It was suppertime and falling dark, and in weather like this, Trace knew, the place would be packed.
This was the sticky bit—although he and Boz knew which places in St. Louis would serve them both without fuss, walking into a new establishment in a strange town was always a bit of a gamble. Trace tried not to patronize his partner, but he also didn’t like watching Boz get harassed by men who had half his class.
“You comin?” Trace said, their customary code.
Boz snorted. “I ain’t lettin an innocent like you in there alone.”
Trace allowed a grin and pushed through the gilt-painted doors.
It was lucky Boz was behind him. As soon as he crossed the threshold, something cold and vicious and distinctly feminine sank its claws into him and shoved.
the voice sounded distinctly in his head.
Non, non, vous n’êtes pas le bienvenu!
He grabbed for the swinging door but it scraped past his fingernails. He would have gone down flat if Boz hadn’t caught him and wheel-barrowed him forward into the saloon. It was like being pushed through a briar hedge, but as soon as both feet were through the door he was loose of it. His lungs were left chilled and aching like the time he had slipped in a Colorado river and swallowed half of it.
“You all right?” Boz said.
“Yeah,” he said gruffly, trying to catch his breath. “Just hit a slick spot, there.” He had a stitch in his side, a pain where the old scar was. Some of the faces near the door turned toward him with varying degrees of curiosity and ridicule, but beneath the bright gas lamps and the beaming drunken faces he glimpsed something feral and mad, twisting in the shadows under their eyes and between the chair legs.
“Stay close,” he muttered to Boz.
They made their way to the bar, careful not to step on any toes. Their quarry wasn’t hard to spot: a short, ugly, Irish fellow in a striped vest stood at the corner of the bar, watching over the room and swinging a black-lacquered cane. He was surrounded by river hands, all drinking whiskey and laughing at his jokes.
Trace worked his way through the crowd until he could commandeer a spot near the Irishman. Boz took up a space at his back, not crowding anyone, keeping his own face to the room.
“Evenin,” Trace said, when the proprietor broke from his posturing to notice their intrusion. “I’m lookin for a man name of McGillicuddy. Heard I might find him here.”
The Irishman’s piggy little eyes slid over them both. “I’m McGillicuddy. What can I do for yez?”
“It’s a bit of private business,” Trace said. “Don’t suppose we could step into a corner somewhere?”
“Private?” McGillicuddy repeated. “Can’t be anything shameful. I have no secrets, have I, lads?” This last was delivered over his shoulder, with a grin for the river hands, who lifted their glasses and declared their support for good ol’ Gill.
“Suits me.” Trace shrugged. “Has to do with the estate of Lisette DuPres—”
“Miss DuPres died more’n a year ago, boyo, and the sheriff’s inquest ruled it a suicide, so if yer nursin a grudge or a broken heart…”
“I was sent here to retrieve some property of hers,” Trace said. “I was given to understand you were in possession of it.”
“And so I am. Left me the whole damn place, bless her little poxy heart.” McGillicuddy swept his arm toward the ceiling of the saloon, buoyed by a fresh gale of laughter. His sleeve pulled free from the white starched cuff, baring a few inches of wrist and a glimpse of puckered scar, like a brand.
Trace felt an ugly jolt at the sight of it. He was still wearing a bandage on his own wrist. Miss Fairweather’s salve had kept the wound from festering, but it also kept it from crusting over. “It’s a rosewood box. Bout the size of a fist. Was told you had the whereabouts of it.”
McGillicuddy’s hand spilled the drink he was pouring, although Trace was probably the only one who noticed. The river hands were still jeering and joshing each other, but McGillicuddy set the bottle down and stared at Trace, the flush of drink standing out against his pallor. “I don’t believe I caught yer name, friend.”
“Sure you didn’t. It’s Jacob Tracy. And this is John Bosley.”
McGillicuddy looked over Boz with the same strained curiosity. “Well then. We’re all in the service of the Master, ain’t we?” His left hand strayed to the opposite forearm and clenched around it. “Of course I’ll fetch it for ye. Ain’t I kept it safe all this time? It’s just I’ll have to make the proper preparations, being the time of the moon an’ all.”