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Authors: Cherie Priest

Tags: #Fantasy, #Horror, #Fiction, #Historical, #General

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BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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I will tell you how it happened.

It fell apart.


She was my boat, and she was always meant to be my last. After our last run, down that little leg from Knoxville to Chattanooga—hardly a hundred miles—I was going home. My wife was waiting for me there, at her sister’s place on Lookout Mountain. I was to lean hard on the whistle treadle three times when I passed between the hills. She would know to look outside and see me coming. The smoke from the big black stacks would show my progress even at a very great distance.

Her sister would bring her down to the landing.

We might stay in the valley for a while; the weather was good and there was no rush to head back home.

But we hadn’t talked about that, yet—whether or not we’d really go home. We weren’t certain anything was left of it. Last we heard, the Yankees hadn’t burned it; but however Bellehurst was standing, word had it, the place wasn’t doing so well.

Maybe we’d heard wrong. The news coming up was spotty and unreliable, or that’s how we liked to think.

In Chattanooga, the war hadn’t treated the city too bad. It was too important, with the river and the rails. Everyone needed to use it. It took some beating, sure—but nothing like what they got down in Georgia. Nothing like Chickamauga, maybe ten or twelve miles south.

I hear the mountains took the worst of it, but I don’t know if it’s true. I know soldiers and generals always try to take the highest ground, and there’s nothing higher around there than Lookout and Signal.

But after it was over…after Appomattox, there was no going back to the way things were. Not in Tennessee, not in Georgia, and not anywhere else.

I did say they left the house standing, though, didn’t I? Sherman went another way, and burned another stretched-out scar on someone else’s land. But they didn’t take our place—even though we left it for them.

I went into the service. They made me a major, because they couldn’t expect a man with stature to enlist in the infantry. I pray I did them proud.

Nancy went to go stay with family. I’d say that between us, she sure got the better part of the deal. My wife had cousins down in Florida—on an indigo plantation, if I remember right. When the war came, these cousins of hers didn’t just leave the state or the Confederacy, they left the continent altogether. They went to the Caribbean and waited out the conflict there on the sandy islands to the south and east.

In my private thoughts, I felt they were being disloyal. They should have stayed and fought with the rest of us. But if they were determined to leave, then it was just as well they took Nancy with them. I don’t know how well she would have handled it, staying there. She could’ve been killed, or worse.

But when the war ended and the homestead was gone—or out of commission, anyway, since everyone who worked it was scattered or free, I didn’t know what to do. Fortune hadn’t favored us, to say the least. I was out of money, though Nancy was spared that trouble, being in the islands like she was. I am glad for that. I should speak better of her cousins. I don’t know what would have happened if they hadn’t taken her with them.

After my discharge, I sat down and wrote a very painful letter to my wife. I didn’t go into any more detail than necessary; but I told her the truth about our money situation—and I told her that she should stay with her family as long as it was necessary, since I couldn’t provide for her the way I did before. I told her, in short, that I’d made my fortune on the Mississippi, and I lost it to the Union.

I did not tell her how, exactly. It would not have mattered and it would have bothered her something awful. She didn’t need to know about the camp. She didn’t need to know about the drinking, the wandering, and the smuggling.

But I told her I loved her, and I meant to repair the rest.

For two years, I’d been rebuilding my reputation—transporting goods and people up and down the Tennessee River. I taught the roof captains how to watch and guide, and I helped apprentice the mud clerks until they could dock a boat without scraping bottom. I’d done it all before, and I believe that my advice and guidance proved invaluable. I was paid for it, anyway. They needed people like me on the rivers.

The south was being “reconstructed,” as the politicians liked to say it. I had another word for it, but it was not a polite one that I would have used in front of my wife.

But any construction needs ready supply, and a man with my experience could make a fair living off a river. Granted, a man might need to make a few deals he couldn’t share with his family—but I was accumulating a stash of such secrets, and I was getting better by the day at keeping them covered.

I might say, if anyone asked, that all it took was a stash of good scotch.

My wife would have objected, though. That’s why I brought her a nice bottle of wine—a glorious green bottle with a foil-trimmed label, straight from France. I bought it from a dealer who was wending his own way down to New Orleans, or so he said.

Maybe it was a ruse, and maybe he had some other plans. He didn’t owe me the truth, and I shouldn’t have bothered him for it. I do know this much: the first two bottles I drank alone, and they were as fine as the labels promised.

I saved the last, and assumed the best. But Nancy never got to try it.


Supper was held at the same time, every night, and if you wished to partake, you were welcome to appear. I went every night, in part because I was bored for company, and also because I was hungry. The other passengers always asked me to say Grace, and I didn’t mind. I was thankful for the food. The cook was uncommonly good; I would have ridden that boat another week to let him feed me.

I want to say he came from farther down the river. I thought I overheard—or maybe I just inferred—that he was from New Orleans.

There was always wine to go with the meals, but you had to be quick and beat the captain if he was there.

The poor man. I don’t know what happened to him. It must have been tragic. He said he was on his way home to his wife; and when he said it, there was a blink and a twitch of his neck that told me one or the other wasn’t true. He might have been going home, or he might have been going to his wife. I don’t know which.

At the end of the night—after the captain had drunk himself to bed, and after the others had turned in for the night as well, I was left with Christopher at the table.

There was a serving girl, I think her name was Laura. She was pretty and dark. I made a joke with her once, about how we both kept our hair covered all the time. She smiled politely and ducked herself away from me.

Laura came and took our plates and Christopher was mellow, itching to play.

“You could deal some cards, if you like,” I said.

His eyebrows went up.

“I know how to play,” I told him. “I haven’t got much money, but I can play for fun, if you like.”

He thought about it and then laughed. “Listen Sister, I don’t know if I’d feel right about that. But I do appreciate your offer. Would you like a little nip of brandy instead?”

“You’ll drink with a nun, but you won’t gamble with one, is that it?”

“I believe so, yes.” He rose to get a set of glasses. From under the bar, he retrieved a square glass decanter with a glass stopper that looked like a doorknob. He poured me a splash, and then poured a bigger one for himself—a big drink for a big man.

“It won’t be much longer now,” I told him, accepting the glass and taking a swallow of its contents. “It’s not much farther to Chattanooga. That’s where you’ll be leaving us, isn’t it?”

“It is,” he assured me. “I have some business to attend to there, and then in a few weeks, I’ll be off for Denver.”

“Big card game? That
how you make your living, isn’t it?”

“Nothing gets past you, eh?”

“Not much. Oh, that’s not true, really.” I had to amend myself, since the purpose of my little river trip occurred to me, reminding me that I was a long way from as sharp as I needed to be. “All the wrong things get past me, or so it seems sometimes.”

Christopher sat forward and took a big swallow from his glass. “Wrong things like what? Like missing a sermon about the evils of gambling?”

“Very much like that,” I fibbed outright. “It’s a pity, I must have slept late that day. I missed the ban on smoking too, though I maintain I can’t find a verse for it in the Bible.”

He gathered the hint and pulled a cigarette case out from the pocket just north of his watch. I accepted one, and leaned in for him to light it off a match. He held the flame steady in his palm and said, “I think there’s one about treating your body like the temple of God, isn’t there? Or did I dream that during Sunday school, too?”

“Very good, Mr. Cooper. Paul said so, in Corinthians.”

“A very fine observation, ma’am. I couldn’t have named a book for it if my life depended on it.”

“That’s a shame,” I told him. “‘Christopher’ is a good Christian name. You should have listened closer at your lessons.”

“Good Christian name, eh? Why, does it mean something?”

“It’s from the Greek. It means ‘Christ-bearer.’ You’re named for a Catholic saint, did you know that?”

He laughed again, for the wine always made him jolly like that. “I had no idea, and I assure you that my good protestant parents had no earthly idea either. It’s probably best they’re both passed on now, so I don’t get the chance to tell them. But a saint, eh? So I’m saintly? What’s in a name, after all? Roses and holiness for me, I suppose.”

“As you like, Christopher. He is the patron saint of travelers, and people like ourselves—on long trips—often wear a medallion to invoke him for assistance. I have one on me, in fact, if you’d like it.”

“You’d give it to me?”

“If you want it. I have others, you know how it is. It’s only a little pewter thing, but if it would mean something to you, I’d like for you to wear or carry it.”

The smile on his face told me that he felt like this was a furtive, naughty thing. “Sure, I’ll take a magic charm off your hands. It’s not like those beads you carry, is it? I’ve seen you sitting on the deck, praying with them. They’re very pretty.”

“No, this isn’t like the beads. And thank you. They were a gift from my father when I entered the convent.” And I’m not sure why, but I pulled them out from my pocket and handed them to him, just to show him.

He turned them over on his hands, stringing them through his fingers as if he might use them to make a cat’s cradle. “Ebony?” He guessed, and I nodded. “And this on the back of this space, here? What’s this? A wolf?”

“A wolf,” I confessed. I hadn’t expected the question. I wasn’t thinking about it—the small silver link that held the rosary in the shape of a “Y.” On the back was a tiny piece of art to remind me of home, and to remind me how the universe thinks in puns and patterns. “It’s for my family, the Callaghans. Our crest has a wolf on it.” I tried to say it with a gambler’s nonchalance. After all, it wasn’t important. It wasn’t something worth remarking.

It certainly wasn’t something to be nervous about.

But I was sitting across a supper table from a man who reads faces for a living, and I had a feeling he knew a liar when he spoke to one.

Christopher tensed, and I thought it must be because he was onto me. I was wrong. He shifted his eyes to the left and right like he was looking for something, or someone. Over his shoulder he cast a glance and, seeing nothing, called out, “Who’s there?”

“I’m sorry?” I asked.

“Don’t you ever get those feelings? Those prickly feelings like someone’s standing nearby and watching?”

“Of course I do,” I told him. I’d had those feelings ever since I got on board, when I deliberately trapped myself on that damned boat. I knew what I was doing; but that didn’t make the tingling at the back of my neck any less unsettling. After so many hours, I suppose I’d simply become numb to it.

“Who’s there?” he asked again, and I would have answered for him—had the fiend not stepped out into the light himself.

“I didn’t mean to intrude, or cause any alarm.” Jack Gabert slipped into the dining area. He slipped, I said—and I mean it that way. He moved like hot syrup pours across a plate; he glided and rolled. He filled the space he met.

I stiffened, I’m sure.

Christopher relaxed. What a fine primal sense he had! I’m sure it served him well in the gambling halls he frequented. Until he relaxed I almost thought—well, I almost thought that maybe I’d found some assistance. But no, he relaxed. He settled down into his chair and reached into a deep pocket for a cigar to join my smoldering cigarette.

And I’d almost thought…but it was just as well.

Here was a man in tune with the world around him. He heard small noises and took them to heart; he saw small details and filed them away in that part of the brain which quietly lies unless the body is threatened. I tried not to be too disappointed in him. He’d known he was being watched, but he didn’t know what was watching.

It wouldn’t be enough to save him, I didn’t think. It wouldn’t be enough to simply

“There you are—Jack, isn’t it?”

“John. Or Jack if you like, for it suits me fine.” I preferred ‘Jack.’ He looked me up and down and I let him. It was the first time he’d seen me close in quite some time. It might have been the first time he’d ever
at me at all.

Oh, he knew what I looked like. He’d gathered a description, I’m sure. He’d glanced me for a few moments here and there, at least. And he knew my scent.

And when he looked at me—when he laid eyes upon me and let them rest there for those pointed seconds, I knew that the information they gave him was scant compared to what his nose was free to gather. He might have thought I smelled like candles and linen, or wool. He might have gathered I smelled like nighttime blue and something red.

He was mentally marking me. What had previously been a faint trail through a crowd—mixed with the interfering smells of the masses—his nose was distilling it down to something more precise and perfectly mine.

I knew, in those seconds, that he would never lose or mistake me again.

“Mr. Cooper,” he nodded at Christopher. “And Sister.” He nodded at me.

“Mr. Gabert,” I called him.

Christopher waved his cigar and patted his chest pocket. “I might have another to share. Would you join us? I wouldn’t ordinarily indulge in front of a woman, but Eileen swears she doesn’t mind.”

“Indeed I don’t. I find the smell pleasing, if you want the truth.”

Jack smiled and it was a sinister thing—a stretching of that slitted mouth, and a narrowing of those copper-brown eyes. “I imagine the little lady there is quite full of surprises. And I must tell you, I have a
healthy imagination.”

“I have no doubt,” I murmured, pretending that the obvious and untoward implications were all I observed.

“Now, Jack—that’s no way to—”

“I didn’t mean anything by it, Mr. Cooper. I was only teasing. Since the good sister here can take a bit of tobacco, then I imagine she can handle a bit of banter as well.”

“Whether or not she can—or chooses—to handle it, sir, it’s unseemly and I’d rather you watched your language.”

“Don’t,” I told Christopher. I put my hand out and placed it on his sleeve. “It means nothing, and no offense was taken. All is forgiven, as the Lord would have it.”

I tried to put some gentle warning into my protestations. Jack was on edge—he was glistening with something malicious and happy. I didn’t like the way he stayed on the fringe of the room, lingering at the doorway. The distance between us was surely meant to reassure us, but I knew how little it meant. I’d seen him clear greater spaces in less time than it takes to sneeze.

The gambler had no such frame of reference, though.

“I tell you, Mr. Gabert—ever since you joined us here, I’ve had some concerns. I’ve made gentlemanly efforts to be friendly but you rebuff me—and the other passengers, too—with a rudeness that is nearly intolerable.” He was warm from the alcohol, I think. Or maybe that quiet, nervous part of his mind was working after all, and feeling defensive. “If you aren’t interested in socializing with your fellow passengers, no one here would fault you for it. But there’s no need to be crass to a woman of God.”

I thought Christopher was going to stand, but he didn’t. I left my hand on his sleeve as if by force of will I could hold him down.

Jack leaned against the doorframe. “She’s no woman of

“Then what God do you serve, if any you serve at all?”

I braced myself for a bit of snappy blasphemy, but he hesitated and held his breath. The question shouldn’t have stalled him. I don’t know why it did.

He leaned his head around the wall and glanced into the corridor. “No God serves
,” he mumbled. “I suppose I could swear by my own true self, for I am the God of my own idolatry.”

When he turned himself away from us like that, I spied something on the side of his neck—beneath his beard, and on it. It was black in the low evening light of the lanterns, but if he were closer, it might have been red.

There was more, too. On his jacket—but his jacket was black and probably silk. It only looked wet, but I wondered—wet with

I would have felt bolder if we’d been alone, the monster and I. I would have been more inclined to rise and confront him if not for the slightly drunken chivalry which would surely get in the way.

“Jack,” I breathed.

He smiled at the light familiarity. Or maybe he smiled about something else. Upstairs, on another deck, I heard a fluttering commotion—like a large bird, dying. It was hard to sort out from the rain, though. The rain still pounded and poured, and all the sounds inside it were distorted.

“I wish it would stop raining,” Jack said as if he’d read my mind. He said it in a faraway voice that changed the mood of the room. There was a coldness in his words, and in his tone.

Such a simple sentence shouldn’t have made us shudder, but both Christopher and I did just that. “Yes,” Christopher agreed slowly. I think he preferred to let the tension slide. Again the primal mind was working for him, trying to quiet his offense and ease the moment. “It slows us down, and I think we’d all like to reach Chattanooga as soon as possible.”

“I wish it would stop raining,” he said again. “It makes me feel so trapped. I wish I could see the sky.”

With this passing thought, Jack turned on his heels and spilled back out into the hall.

A chill ran through me, from my feet up to my ears. Small hairs on the back of my neck and along my arms began to lift themselves like hackles on a threatened cat. It was the gold in his eyes, I think. It flashes brighter when he’s hungry—or more precisely, when the hunger comes for him.

I had wondered if the rain would matter. I didn’t know if it would dampen his needs, to use a comically appropriate word. I’d suspected it wouldn’t. The night works on faith—clouds may cover it, but the moon needs no evidence to shine.

In retrospect we see these things so clearly. The covered sky only pent him up—it made him harder to control, because he had no point of reference. He could not look up at the sky and tell himself, “Yes, there is the moon and it is almost full of light. This is why my head is clouded, my blood is bubbling in my veins. If I am not careful, I will reveal myself. I must make precautions if I want to remain undetected. In a few days it will be easier. I will be all right for a few more days.”

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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