Read The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel Online

Authors: Holly Messinger

Tags: #Fantasy, #Western, #Historical

The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel (9 page)

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
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The floor, he noticed then, was chalked with an elaborate diagram, full of esoteric symbols—alchemical, some of them, and a few Hebrew characters he recognized from his seminary days. He felt a lurch of excitement, and wrongness, as he realized that yes, the woman was working in magic, and yes, she wanted him to know it. She wasn’t just granting him audience, she was … enticing him. Offering him a glimpse of things he’d always suspected existed, and been afraid to find.

A throat cleared gently behind him, and Trace turned guiltily, as if she had caught him peeping in her window.

She looked more like a schoolmarm today than a fashionable society lady. Her cornsilk hair was scraped back in a ruthless chignon that did nothing to soften the gaunt bones of her face. She wore a sensible nurselike apron, and her hands were in the pockets of it.

“What a pleasant surprise, Mr. Tracy.” Her voice was lower than he remembered, and there was a hint of mockery in her cool blue gaze. “I was beginning to think you had taken a dislike to me.”

Trace bit his tongue. It wasn’t in him to insult a lady to her face, whatever he might think of her in his mind. “This is a … uh, interesting place you got here.”

“I find it so,” she agreed. “Are you interested in the study of natural science?”

Oh, is that what you call it?
he thought, but he considered the question at face value. “Can’t say I ever studied the sciences much. In seminary they were more concerned with preparin us for the next world than studyin this one. But I don’t suppose I’d be much of a trail guide if I didn’t know a bit about the beasts of the field.”

“Well put, Mr. Tracy. Very sensible of you.”

The civilities thus acknowledged, they regarded each other with curiosity, and a certain caution.

“So I guess you—” he began.

“May I ask—?” she said at the same time. They both broke off, and Trace yielded the floor to her with a nod.

“What made you change your mind about calling on me?” Miss Fairweather said. “Has it something to do with that newspaper you are clutching?”

“Matter of fact, it does.” Trace moved to the nearest table, and laid the
Carondelet Citizen
on it so it faced her. He stabbed a finger down into the appropriate headline. “What do you know about that?”

“‘Three Murdered at Local Homestead.’” Her fine brows lifted in surprise. “This is
today’s
paper?”

“Well it wouldn’t be last week’s,” Trace said, not sure what she was getting at.

“But the murders only occurred last night.” Miss Fairweather circled the table to the writing-desk, which was piled high with books and papers. “I shouldn’t have thought the bodies would be discovered yet.”

“So you
did
know about this.”

“It is why I sent Min Chan to fetch you this morning.” She teased out a sheet of foolscap and held it out to him. Trace declined to take it. She rattled it at him impatiently. “I had been seeing an increasing concentration of spirit activity around you for the past few days, and—”

“Hang on—you been
watching
me?”

Miss Fairweather lowered the paper and gave him a patronizing look. “Mr. Tracy, I monitor spirit activity in and around this city for my own purposes.
You
are an unfortunately bright and distracting beacon in the area. It is quite impossible that I should
not
notice your whereabouts. However, I gather from your reaction that you were unaware of the menace in your proximity—”

“You might’ve warned me if there was!”

“I tried,” she said crisply. “I sent you a card four days ago and you chose to ignore it.”

That indictment was hardly calculated to increase his charity toward her. But his ire was held in check by the guilty fear that had been clinging to him all morning. “Are you sayin … you think
I
brought this down on them—?”

“Not in the least.” Miss Fairweather’s brows drew together. “Why would
you
suspect that to be the case?”

“Because it’s happened before!”

“Under what circumstances?”

“I
told
you, everyone I’ve told about my—about this thing in me, tends to die from it, and not long after.”

“Did you unburden yourself to these latest victims?”

“No, but…” It sounded like madness, spoken aloud. “That job I did for you, down to Sikeston—my partner Boz found out I could see things. And I been fearful ever since…” He made an embarrassed gesture. “I just thought, if not him, maybe somebody else.”

“Have you any idea what precipitates these deaths? Do you notice an increase of spirit activity around the person in question?
Have
you noticed an increase, these past—?”

“No. You asked me that in your note. The answer is no. I still see them, they just ain—they haven’t been comin close or makin such a nuisance. And I never saw
anything
out at the Herschels’ farm, not even today.”

“So the victims were known to you?”

Trace nodded, once. “Good man. Good family. Three of ’em chopped up with an ax and thrown in the well.”

“Ye gods.” Miss Fairweather actually looked shocked, which eased a suspicion in Trace’s mind he had not quite acknowledged. “By someone in the family? That is, did it
appear
to have been done by a family member?”

“They’re sayin the younger daughter did it. And
that’s
why I came up here today—not cause you sent for me, but because the detective and everybody else seems to think that poor girl’s a murderer.”

“Clearly you disagree.”

“I think it’s hogwash. Anna Herschel ain—she’s not much bigger than you. There’s no way she overpowered her father.”

“Where is the girl now? Have you seen her?”

“No, they said she’d already been taken to the jail. But they were still haulin the bodies out.”

“Then you have been to the scene of the crime.”

“Yes ma’am. Just came from there.” He drew a short, sharp breath, and so did she, as if they both knew what his next words would be.

“And you saw something sinister,” she finished for him. “And you came here seeking explanation for it.”

“Yes, ma’am. For Miss Anna’s sake.”

It was hard to read the look she gave him. There was recalibration in it, for sure. “Perhaps you would like to join me downstairs for tea, Mr. Tracy, and you may tell me what you saw there.”

The next hour was one of the strangest of Trace’s life. Not because there was anything peculiar about sitting in a lady’s library and drinking tea—he wasn’t
that
far lost to the refined side of life—but because he had never before related such strange events to such a receptive audience. Miss Fairweather listened avidly as he described the unnatural neatness of the Herschels’ living room, the paprika on the floor, the black tadpoles that swam out of the corpse and evaporated. She only interrupted once or twice, to request clarification, and she showed not a flicker of disbelief, either in the events themselves or in Trace’s perception of them. That alone was worth the tea he choked down. He despised tea, but talking was thirsty work.

“There are several points that interest me,” Miss Fairweather said, when the bulk of it was told. She pursed her lips, not quite touching the rim of her cup. “You are quite sure you saw no evidence of spirits at the farm?”

“None.”

“Only the black emanations from the corpse. And the stench in the house.”

“That’s right.”

“And the spilled pepper in the kitchen.”

“Yes, ma’am. Though I’d say one of the girls did that—there was a woman’s shoe-tracks through it.”

Miss Fairweather set her teacup down with a click. “Well. I do have some theories, but before I jump to conclusions, I believe we should speak to the girl.”

“I’ll be surprised if they’re lettin her have visitors.”

“Visitors, perhaps, but they cannot prevent her from conferring with her barrister. I believe the law of this country entitles her to legal representation?”

“I believe so, yes ma’am.”

“And dare I hope you have a more presentable coat than the one on your back?”

Trace looked down at himself. He was clean enough, though dressed in his usual coarse work clothes and boots. He had, he remembered distantly, expected to be cutting wood today. He had one frock coat left from his married days—it was several years old and too small for him now, but …

Miss Fairweather did not wait for his answer. She spoke a few sing-song words to the Chinese, who came forward and bowed to Trace.

“Go with Min Chan. I took the liberty of having some suits tailored for you, in preparation for such an occasion.”

“What occasion is that?” Trace asked, with a twinge of alarm.

“In case I needed you to look presentable,” she retorted. “Pray do not delay further, we may not have much time.”

*   *   *

“S
HE DID
WHAT
now?” Boz paused in his solitaire game, one hand poised on the card he’d just played, frowning at Trace as if he’d lapsed into Greek.

Trace plucked irritably at the stiff new collar and tie. “She waltzed into Four Courts, hollerin about women’s rights, and bullied the constable into lettin Miss Anna be visited by her
lawyer.

“Meanin you.”

“Meanin me.” He wriggled out of the tight wool coat and threw it on the bed. “She bought
suits
for me to wear, Boz, three of everything so one would be sure to fit. Just hangin there in an upstairs wardrobe, waitin for the time when she’d need me to parade around—”

“Hang on,” Boz interrupted. “She went
with
you to the jail? I thought she didn’t like to go outside.”

Trace paused in the act of pulling off a boot. “I’d say for sure she doesn’t.”

He’d ridden his horse to the jailhouse; she’d ridden in a shiny black rickshaw pulled by the Chinaman. The rickshaw had deep black curtains that hid her completely from view, but Trace had gotten a glimpse of the inside: it had arcane-looking symbols painted in red all over the walls and curtains.

She’d seemed hearty enough at first, as she marched into the courthouse adjoining the jail, and demanded to know who had seen to Miss Anna Herschel’s rights and well-being. None of the answers satisfied her, and Trace had to admit they were pretty flimsy—there were no matrons in the jail to tend to women prisoners, and no separate holding cell for women. On account of the girl’s hysterical condition she’d been put in a sickroom and left there, without food or clean clothes, since seven o’clock that morning.

“The funny thing was, I think she actually
cared
how Miss Anna was treated,” Trace said. “She spent almost an hour getting her set to rights before she let me come in.”

“And they just let
her
in?”

“She knew just who to talk to, and just what to say. She threw down the names of the police commissioner and the jail trustees and some judge she said was a friend of hers. I don’t think she was lyin, either.”

“Rich folks tend to know each other,” Boz allowed.

By the time Trace was admitted to the infirmary, Anna was dressed in a plain, clean dress—also provided by her benefactress—her face washed, her hair brushed, and a little beef broth put into her. Miss Fairweather was busily packing away the things in her satchel, but Trace thought she looked whiter than usual, and her hands were shaking.

“You all right?” he asked her.

“I am not the one you should be concerned with,” she said, through a jaw held stiff with control. “Please proceed with your questioning.”

Miss Anna sat on the edge of the rough plank bunk, staring at nothing. She gave no reaction when Trace pulled up a folding chair and sat in front of her. She was wringing her hands in her lap, rubbing them over and over each other. There were terrible bruises developing on her wrists, the marks of a man’s hard grip.

“Anna?” he said. “My name’s Jake Tracy. You remember me? I been out to your house cuttin timber this week.”

She stirred, and made a slurping sound as she breathed in. “Papa’s dead…”

“I know, button. I’m sorry for that. Do you wanna tell me what happened?”

She looked away.

Trace touched a gentle finger to the puffy bruises on her wrist. “Who grabbed your arm, Anna?”

She clutched the hands closer to her body, shuddering. “That
thing
did.”

“What thing was that?”

“… in Papa…” Her voice was very small.

“Tell me about that thing, Anna.”

“It killed Mama and Leah. It killed
him
. But it wasn’t him. It wasn’t!”

Miss Fairweather stepped around Trace and took the girl by the shoulders. The embrace was brisk, not maternal, but it had the desired bracing result. “We believe you, Miss Herschel. We want to find this thing and stop it.”

Anna looked at her, then slowly around at Trace for the first time. It was impossible to know if she recognized him, or cared.

Trace folded his hands, summoning up the manner of every kindly-but-stern priest he had known. “Tell me what it looked like, Anna.”

“Dead,” she said listlessly. “Like he was sleepwalking.”

“Was he behaving strangely?” Miss Fairweather asked. “Did he perhaps speak in an unfamiliar language? Or behave in a … an immodest manner toward you or your mother or sister?”

“No … he read the paper after supper, as always.”

Miss Fairweather glanced at Trace and lifted an eyebrow. “What paper was that?”

“He took the
Carondelet Citizen.

Trace remembered the words on the page turning to blood, in Jameson’s store. He had attributed the vision to his curse, rather than the rag the story was printed in, but perhaps the two factors were dependent on each other.

“What were the rest of you doing after supper?” Miss Fairweather asked.

Anna shook her head wearily. “Leah and I were playing checkers. Mother was sewing. I got up to get some paprika from the kitchen. I like paprika on my popcorn. Then I heard something crash out in the living room, and Papa yelling—O Lord, it was an awful sound—like he was being ripped apart and strangled at the same time. I ran back to the living room and Papa was beating Mama. I saw Leah catch up the fireplace poker and start hitting him with it. But then he turned to strike Leah and I saw it wasn’t him at all.”

BOOK: The Curse of Jacob Tracy: A Novel
13.26Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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