Home > Dreadful Skin(15)

Dreadful Skin(15)
Author: Cherie Priest

As she gathered her clothes and pulled them on a piece at a time, she debated bringing the gun. It was a good gun, a Colt six-shooter she'd purchased to replace the one lost on a riverboat, a long time ago. But it wasn't good enough. Nothing was good enough, yet—not even with the special silver bullets. She didn't bother to have them made anymore, not since that night when the riverboat burned.

On second thought, better to have it and not need it, than need it and not have it.

A glance into the gravy-boat mirror almost made her smile, but not quite.

It wasn't a fair trade off, not by far. The monster's gift was not eternal youth but eternal slavery. It would keep her from aging only so it could continue to use her, so passing for forty was small consolation.

Besides, her true age found ways to show. It glared out from her eyes, and it spoke out with the uncanny measure and confidence of her voice. She was not growing older and weaker, but stronger and clearer in her resolves—though they were many.

I will control this thing. I will find some way to reign it in, and hold it back. I will cure this thing. I will banish it forever, in myself and in the others who may carry it. I will seek out the others. I know they exist, and I will learn from them, and I will kill them if I have to, if I can not help them—if we cannot help each other.

I will find him.

I will find Jack, for this began with him—or I believe it did, I believe it must have. I will find Jack and I will kill him, because I do not believe he wishes to be helped. The thing has eaten his soul already, and there is nothing else to be done for him except give him back to God.

She took breakfast with Annie in the madam's dining room—where they ate fried eggs with toasted bread, and drank fresh milk from a frequent customer's cow.

"He can't afford to pay much, you must understand what it's like around here—with most folks passing through, not stopping. The people who live here don't earn much, so we try to make it easier for them."

Eileen nodded and sipped at the milk. "Bartering is as old as—"

"Older than the oldest profession?" Annie grinned. She was a pretty, black-haired woman who'd slipped from appealingly curvy to somewhat fat from years of leisure. Eileen hadn't asked, but Annie had been fast to admit that she almost never took customers anymore, and she hadn't for nearly a decade. The real money was in management, after all.

"And I'd assume that's why there's butter, too?"

"Butter, milk—cheese when it's available. I think dear old Martin is excessively sweet on Tabitha, but he's a nice fellow. Wife died awhile back. No children, just the cows and some pigs, too." She waved a hand at the table. "The eggs came from Mr. Hammonds, who keeps chickens; the preserves were generously contributed by Jim Tanner, and the bread, oh my—and this is true, I tell you—the bread was made by Doc Arnold's wife, she's so delighted to be rid of him."

"From his own wife?"

"Oh yes—on the condition we don't let him know she's aware of what he's up to. If he thought she knew, he'd be embarrassed to death and then stay home. She'd rather avoid that if she can help it, so she bakes extra loaves on Monday afternoons as a gesture of goodwill."

Eileen cackled happily, as there was no sense in feigning shock. "And I suppose this fine establishment of yours is a veritable repository of local gossip."

The madam lifted an eyebrow, a corner of her lip, and another bite of toast. "It's a small place. We all know each other's business, if that's what you mean. Why?"

Eileen pressed her lips together, but she couldn't prevent them from creeping up at the edges. "Oh, it's not gossip I'm after, exactly. I'm interested in those camp meetings, the ones with the announcements everywhere."

"The camp meetings? Are you going to see about catching some extra religion out here?"

"No, no. I'm content enough with the state of my soul," she lied, and she thought hard about how best to phrase the rest.

"Then go on," Annie prompted her. "You've got a willing sinner with loose lips at your ready disposal. What would you care to know?"

Eileen settled back into her chair and folded her hands. "I've heard rumors of problems—maybe problems with the Reverend Aarons, isn't that his name?"

Annie made a small "mm" sound and bobbed her chin.

She continued. "This reverend has gathered an unusual reputation, as he travels from place to place, conducting his meetings. Starting with the very first one, in Cane Ridge—"

"That was the big one in Kentucky, wasn't it?"

"Yes," Eileen said. "Several years ago. You heard about it?"

"Sure. He's getting a name for himself, roaming from town to town, pushing Jesus for whole weekends at a time. And his is one of those shouting faiths, if you know what I speak of. Not Baptists or Methodists like folks around here—not like Catholics, that's for damn sure." She fell silent then, like there might be more to be said but she wasn't sure how much of it was important.

Eileen cocked her head and tapped her thumbs against one another. "They call it a Holiness Movement, and as part of their doctrine, they participate in a baptism of the Holy Spirit—but I've heard it called 'speaking in tongues.' I've never seen it for myself but I'm interested in having a look."

"You won't participate?"

"No," she said—and it came out more carefully than she would have liked. "I don't care for the sound of it. But I'm intrigued by spirituality in all its forms, and I would like to know more."

Annie took a long, fast swallow from her own glass of milk. She drained it and set it down on the round, wood table with a smack. "But that's not why you want to visit the camp meeting, though. Speaking in tongues isn't a problem, exactly. That's not what you were talking about, was it?"

"No," she admitted. "But I think it might be related to their problem."

"How?"

She stalled, trying to organize the words in a way that wouldn't say too much. "People have gone missing, and sometimes their families think they've left home to follow the meetings. But that doesn't seem to be the situation."

"They're dead." Annie said it matter-of-factly, as though she'd known all along.

"Er. . .yes. Not all of them, but some of them. I think there's a good chance some of the missing people have joined the meetings. But a few of them were found in a terrible condition. You don't want to use a nasty word like 'murder,' but it's difficult not to; and it's also difficult to ignore how the murders coincide with the meetings."

"By which you mean to say, they coincide with the good reverend's presence."

"I wouldn't single him out, except that when I hear about his fits, when he speaks in tongues—I wonder if there isn't something horribly wrong with him. A medical condition, perhaps."

The madam nodded, but didn't offer anything further, so Eileen continued.

"A dear old friend of mine is a wonderful doctor who specializes in diseases of the mind," she lied again—though this was more of a fib than an outright falsehood. "He's seen patients with the most unusual disorders, things like you wouldn't believe if you didn't know they were true. One of the more interesting sicknesses—oh, there's a name for it, but it escapes me now—afflicts people with terrible seizures. And these seizures, they predict a period of violent, uncontrollable delusion that might last for hours."

A light went on in Annie's eyes. "I see," she said. "And you think, perhaps, that the reverend may be a victim of such a condition?"

"I hate to put it that way. But people have been known before to address their afflictions with religion, and at times in my own faith's traditions the line between madness and sainthood has been perilously thin. Do you understand what I'm trying to say? I don't wish to trod upon his customs or their worship, but there are reasons to be suspicious."

"What a careful little woman you are!" Annie exclaimed with a laugh.

Eileen smiled back, still more cautious than her company. "It's something of a learned trait, I admit. It's this country, I think—not the citizens so much as the tremendous landscape of it, the uncommon size and incredible range of terrains. I admire people with such strength to come to a frontier so sparsely populated, and so far apart from more established civilization. Mind you, close living with other people comes with its own host of difficulties, but it must be harder out here. When people are isolated like this, they become so insular. . .I think they lose perspective when it comes to that which is ordinary, normal, or proper. After a while, when everyone is much the same, then anyone else becomes a threat, or a source of misgiving at any rate."

She took a deliberate swallow of milk to stop herself from rambling any further.

Annie thought about this, and shook her head. "I can see what you're getting at. I've witnessed it myself, in the travels I've made from here to there. People do make groups like that, from necessity and loneliness. They band together when the world is unfamiliar, and I guess it does limit one's perspective, as you're putting it. But there's a bigger point I think you're missing."

"What would that be?"

"It's as simple as pie—people are the same, everywhere. Even when they hide up together, and even when they set themselves apart on purpose, people are the same. They want the same things, need the same things, and lie about the same things, everywhere."

Eileen's glass was empty. She ran her thumb up and down its painted pattern and thought of what she'd said to Leonard, offering this precise sentiment just the day before. "Yes," she said. "I'm sure you're right. Perhaps I've been taking a narrow view, myself."

But there was more she couldn't say—didn't dare say.

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