Authors: Holly Messinger
Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical
“Of course.” Trace matched McGillicuddy’s smooth, bullying tone. “We’re not in a rush.”
“In the meantime you lads’ll stay on as my guests, won’t yez?” The Irishman twisted his thumb and forefinger around his right wrist as if trying to unscrew the hand from his arm. “Course I’ll have to see the mark, ye ken, just to be sure…”
Trace hitched up the sleeve of his coat and held out his forearm. The sight of that grimy bandage made McGillicuddy shudder.
“It’s still healin,” Trace said.
“Hurts like a bastard, don’t it?” McGillicuddy managed a strangled grin. “Even now … Well, then. Ye’ll just have to stay the night, won’t yez? You and yer man, here.” He beckoned to a little red-haired whore near the stairs. “Sadie! Come here, girl. You lads’ll have to tarry a couple days, while I make the arrangements—”
“Just don’t let it take too long,” Trace said, wondering what on earth Miss Fairweather had sent him into.
“O’ course, o’ course! We mustn’t keep Mr. Mereck waitin, eh? Let me buy you lads a drink.”
“That’s mighty hospitable of you,” Trace said insincerely. The last thing he wanted was to get drunk in this place. Even stone sober he could feel hostility prowling the bar, sniffing along his boots and collar like a cold draft. There was something nasty in this bar, far worse than any dead parlormaid. Something bitter and vindictive.
Meanwhile McGillicuddy was putting away whiskey as if preparing to have something amputated. Whatever he was afraid of, it was making him pugnacious; by the third or fourth shot the Irishman had some of his color back and his tongue was sharpening. “Hafta say I’m surprised ta see ye so soon. Mr. Mereck gave me to understand our arrangement was for the long term.”
“I don’t question the Master’s orders,” Trace said.
“Quite so, quite so.” McGillicuddy eyed Trace shrewdly, though he seemed oblivious to the black tendrils of smoke coiling around his neck and limbs. “I’m not surprised he’d send
—he favors the ones with the Sight.”
Trace managed not to flinch. He pushed his glass toward McGillicuddy, holding the Irishman’s eye. “You must have a touch of it yourself, then.”
McGillicuddy shook his head. “Naw, me dear ol’ mother was the one with the gift. Me, I got just enough to make me lucky at cards.” Trace watched in repulsed fascination as a tendril of black smoke looped around the glass in McGillicuddy’s hand. “Can’t say I regret it, seeing as how it made both Ma and Miss Lisette mad as hatters—”
The glass was wrenched from his grasp. It shot five feet down the bar and smashed into a bottle the bartender had left sitting. Glass and alcohol exploded in a stinging patter. The men sitting close yelped in surprise and then laughed uneasily, pointing out the mess to their friends who had missed it.
“That happen a lot?” Trace asked.
McGillicuddy looked like he’d swallowed something the wrong way. “Barman’s trick!” he said, with ghastly false cheer. “Used to be able t’tip the bottle and make it pour, ha ha!”
“Think you’ve had enough, boss.” Boz’s hand landed heavy on Trace’s shoulder, and Trace took the cue, feigning more wobbliness than he felt as he pushed away from the bar. “We’ll take that room now, mister.”
“Surely, surely!” McGillicuddy summoned the red-haired Sadie again. “Take them up to Miss Lisette’s room. She don’t need it, and sure she won’t mind the company, eh?”
Trace thought. He had to lean on Boz more than pretense required, to go up the stairs: the black smoke twined around his legs, so he couldn’t see where his feet were landing. He looked up, through the darkness that swirled among the dancing and groping couples, and saw a little girl peering between the railings of the gallery. She was about five or six, with black curls and a full, pouting mouth. She was so solid Trace wouldn’t have known she was dead except she had no eyes.
Trace tripped onto the landing. “Careful, there,” Boz said.
Skinny little Sadie led them to the end of the gallery, where a corridor opened up and turned down the back of the building. “That’s your room.” She pointed at the door in the corner, then dropped her arm and scuttled back along the wall a few inches.
“It ain’t gonna bite us, is it?” Boz said.
“N-no. I don’t like goin by there, that’s all. Miss Lisette died in there.”
Better and better,
Trace thought sourly. He eased off Boz’s support, put a hand on the wall, and grabbed the doorknob. There was no feeling of cold, nothing pushing him away. The scrolled knob opened easily.
The room was large, and richly furnished. The curtains at the window and bedposts were wine velvet. There was a large mahogany wardrobe, a breakfast table, and a gilt mirror over the dressing table. No blood dripping down the walls, no flying furniture, not even a tormented moan.
Boz flipped a coin at Sadie and closed the door in her face.
“What in blazes did you get us into?” he asked, in a tone that would have made a prairie wife proud.
“If I had to guess,” Trace said, “I’d suppose Miss Fairweather left a couple things out of her story.”
“All that business with the mark, and servin the Master—that’s talk I don’t like at
“Me either,” Trace said, but not for quite the same reasons. He unwrapped a corner of the bandage and peered at the weeping wound. There was nothing special about it, just a raw semi-triangular patch out of his hide. McGillicuddy’s scar had been curved, elaborate, but he hadn’t seen enough of it to make out the pattern. “I shoulda known this wasn’t an accident. Nobody’s that clumsy.”
“You’re thinkin she branded you, and sent you here, cuz that little potato bug is expecting a messenger from
“Appears to be the case, don’t it?” Trace fought his way out of the sodden oilcloth coat and went to work on his boots. The mud was half-dry and sticky, getting up his sleeves and pant legs despite his best efforts. “Wonder if the hospitality extends to a bath.”
“We passed a water closet, comin up.” Boz prowled the room, inspecting the large gilded mirror and the cluttered dressing table. “Miss DuPres must’ve had some money.” He opened a door of the wardrobe and ran a hand over the opulence of silk and ruffles inside. “They didn’t clean out her things.”
“Girls are afraid of this room. McGillicuddy, too. You saw that look he got. Sure bet she died bad, short odds he had something to do with it.”
“Probably haunted,” Boz said, with a sidelong glance Trace pretended not to notice.
A few years ago, during a campfire exchange of ghost stories with the drovers on the trail, Trace had told about the abandoned farmhouse he’d stayed at in Oklahoma, and how he’d heard screams in the gray dawn and woke to find a dead man standing over him, blood running down his face, shrieking and clasping his scalped head. Trace guessed he had told it with a little too much conviction, because the drovers’ laughter had been uneasy, and Boz had looked at him speculatively for some time after that.
“You believe in spirits, right?” Boz had asked once.
“Sure,” Trace said. “Scripture says they exist.”
“But you think you seen some yourself, right?”
Trace had learned the hard way not to answer that question. “Aw, hell, Boz, everybody’s had somethin happen they can’t explain. Most of the time folks forget it come sunup. I don’t try to explain it.”
That had shut him up, for a while. Boz knew he’d been wounded at Antietam and in hospital for a long time after—although Trace had never told him the exact nature of that hospital—and he probably thought Trace had a case of soldier’s melancholy. Or maybe he thought soft-headedness was the inevitable result of a Catholic education. Trace didn’t care, so long as Boz didn’t realize how often and intimately he saw the spirits.
“Flip you for the bed?” Boz offered.
“You can have it,” Trace said.
He dreamt of the battlefield.
Artillery rent the air and clawed up the dirt around him, but he lay naked on the bleeding earth, skin flayed off and nerves exposed to every scream and stab and bullet. Horses pawed the air and groaned, legs broken and lungs collapsing. He soaked it all up as the ground did the blood of the fallen; as his life seeped out of him the souls of others bled into him and he was powerless to stop it. His eyes fixed on the blackened sky, found an opening in the clouds and he tried to get to it, but his dead and dying comrades dragged at him, crying they couldn’t make it, they hurt too bad, they were missing limbs and heads and torsos and he had to carry them. They were pulling him down, he was skidding and sliding through loose earth into a mass grave, and he thrashed to break free.
The thrashing woke him to a strange bed—soft, perfumed—and a fire blazing on the hearth, which was fortunate because he had not a stitch of clothing on.
Hot, dry, smooth palms landed on his thighs. He jerked, tried to sit up, but he was just as immobilized as he had been on the battlefield. He could see only a silhouette against the firelight—a bright nimbus of sable curls, the slim line of a shoulder and hip. Soft laughter touched his ears. The hot, smooth fingers slid up his thighs to his groin, lingered a moment, and continued upward to the scar, above his hipbone on the right, which a bayonet had started and the surgeons had finished.
You were the lucky one, non?
the voice said, husky and sensual, but with a disturbing guttural quality in the laughter.
“Wouldn’t call it luck,” Trace gasped. Sweet and soft and searing, skin against skin—
Mais vous avez le Vision, n’est ce pas? You speak with the lost souls. You can uncover tous les mystères de l’universe.
Stroking, stroking, the hot pointed fingers found the seam of his scar and pushed deep into it. He screamed. Scarlet lips peeled back from teeth, grinning while she twisted his guts.
Quel est le problème? Voulez-vous le boît, ou non?
Trace jolted awake, twisted in his bedroll on the floor, the old scar throbbing as it had not in years. “Jesus,” he muttered, half-prayer, turning on his side to relieve the crushing sensation on his chest.
It was bright morning. Late, by the look of the light. The bed was empty, Boz’s boots gone from the hearth. Trace rubbed the grit from his eyes. His mouth tasted like brine, the metallic tang of blood.
Someone was humming.
He turned his head, across the room to where the breakfast table sat beneath an eastern window. Pale sunlight slanted in, laying a golden halo on the sable curls of the little girl who sat there. She was playing tea party, with a doll and two shot glasses, humming happily to herself. She looked up at him with her empty eye sockets and then looked to the door as it opened.
“Bout time you woke up.” Boz sidled into the room with a covered plate in his hand. He crossed to the now-vacant breakfast table and set down the plate and two steaming mugs. “Sounded like you were bein gutted or rutted, couldn’t tell.”
“Some of both,” Trace grunted, getting his knees under him. His side still hurt, and his neck and shoulders felt kinked. So much for sleeping on the floor to keep the haunts away.
“I found out about our dead lady.” Boz flipped back the flour-sack towel over the plate and uncovered all sorts of good things: cornbread and ham and slices of fried grits.
Trace limped to the table in his longjohns and took up one of the mugs. Coffee could save a man’s life, sometimes. “What about her?”
“She owned this place, all right—had it passed down from her mama. Pair of ’em came up from N’Awleans when Miss Lisette was a girl. Miss Lisette run it by herself about three years after her mama died. Kitchen help says she was a good boss, paid fair, took care of her girls. Business was good. Then a year ago fall, this traveling carny comes through town, had one of those hocus-pocus men with it—what’re they called, when they put you to sleep, but they can still make you move around and stuff?”
“Yeah. Name o’ this one was Mereck. Foreigner. German, maybe.”
whispered a voice near Trace’s ear.
“Russian,” Trace said aloud, and reached for a slab of cornbread.
“Anyway, he moves in here with Miss Lisette and the pair of them start up a Spiritualist racket—tellin fortunes, callin up the dead and such. Got to doin regular performances—even the respectable people in town comin to see the show. Fore long, the town preacher comes to visit, objectin to the ghost-raisin, but Miss Lisette has Mereck throw him out. Couple weeks later, she turns up dead and he turns up gone. They say he left her and she killed herself.”
the voice whispered again, seductive and venomous.
Trace shrugged, as if nagged by a mosquito. “McGillicuddy said that name. Last night. ‘Mustn’t keep Mr. Mereck waitin,’ or somethin like that.”
“Reckon that’s the Master he was talkin about.”
“What I thought, too, but the girls downstairs say they didn’t have much to do with each other. McGillicuddy was the bartender here, before Miss Lisette died. She didn’t leave no will, or if she did they lost it. McGillicuddy just kind of took over the place.”
Trace tucked a piece of ham into his cheek and sucked the salt out of it. “Don’t like it. Don’t like any of it.”
“Hell no. McGillicuddy finds out you ain’t workin for his boss, he’s liable to send those roughs of his after us. I know you don’t like leavin a job unfinished, but this…”
“Don’t like bein lied to, either,” Trace said. “Even if McGillicuddy’s got this box, he don’t look willin to hand it over. Fellow acts like the devil’s lookin over his shoulder.”
Boz snorted. “White folks
the devil. Don’t need no red sombitch with a hayfork. No offense to you or your former callin.”
“None taken.” Trace cradled the coffee mug against his chest, pensive.
“You reckon that’s why she wanted you?” Boz said.
Trace looked at him. “How d’you mean?”
“Well she sent us here to fetch somethin don’t belong to her, but she don’t tell you somebody else won’t wanna give it up. If she just picked any two idjits to ride down here and get a knife in their guts, I’d say she was stupid or mean—but Jameson said she came lookin for you special, so there’s got to be a reason
Maybe cuz you’re Catholic? You reckon McGillicuddy’s got any respect for a former man of the cloth?”