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Authors: Cherie Priest

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

Dreadful Skin (8 page)

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
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Part Two:

Halfway to Holiness

In 1879 the Reverend Benjamin Aarons cuts a holy swath across the western plains—taking his traveling revivalist camp from town to town, spreading the word of God and selling salvation.

But beneath the tent, all is not as it seems. The throes of religious ecstasy hide a more sinister kind of violence, and a series of vicious, unexplained murders have followed the itinerant minister from Cane Ridge, Kentucky all the way to Holiness, Texas.

There, Eileen Callaghan joins the audience to pray and watch.

The nun with the hidden Colt pays careful attention to the thrashing of the Christian mystics—for while these people speak in tongues and writhe with the Holy Spirit, Eileen sees signs of an unnatural change.

But is the reverend a calculating fiend, using his position in the church to mask a thirst for blood? Or is he a desperate, frightened man, fighting to control an affliction he can’t explain?

Shudder, dear reader—for the necessary course is grim but clear: if Eileen cannot help this anguished man, she must surely slay the monster he’s becoming.


“COME and WORSHIP WITH US,” read the sign.     Eileen Callaghan peered at it closely. She scanned the print from top to bottom, examining it as if there might be a hidden message, some acrostic clue buried in the call to prayer. The black print at the bottom said, “Friday, September 2—Sundown in CARTER’S FIELD, just outside HOLINESS, TEXAS.”

The small, red-haired woman murmured a ladylike grunt of interest.

She folded her hands and took a step back. She shrugged beneath her bonnet and adjusted it with a frown, because she did not care for it. But the day was too hot for her old black habit, and too warm likewise to let her head go uncovered.

She’d grown up believing in hell in an abstract nightmare way; but west Texas had given her something more concrete upon which to dread the afterlife.

With the back of her hand, she wiped her forehead.

Behind her, a man approached—or she guessed he must be a man by the weight of his feet in the dirt, and the lack of audible petticoats. He kept a polite distance. He waited until he was sure she must have absorbed the announcement, and he said with an invitation in his voice, “Will you be attending the camp meeting tomorrow night?”

Eileen smiled in a way that reached her eyes, even though her lips were pressed together. Then she turned around to face him. “I think I might,” she said. “Why? Would you recommend it?”

“I…I would,” he stammered. “I would recommend it very much.” He retreated a step and acted as though he’d like to put three or four paces more between them, but his manners prohibited it.

“It’s all right. There’s no need to be alarmed.” She gave him a little wink, and added with a conspiratorial whisper, “We don’t

“I didn’t mean to be rude,” he said. “It’s only, I didn’t realize.”

She reached for the cross, on a chain at her throat—for that was where his eyes were locked. “Realize what? That I was a Christian too?”

“I only meant—”

know what you meant, dear. It’s strange, the way people recognize it, even when I don’t wear the uniform. I left the convent years ago, and besides, I’m not sure I could bear to wear black in this desert of a place.”

She was careful when she talked to make her accent heard. It was a trick she’d learned through trial and error—how nervous American Protestants were less troubled by foreign Papists than the homegrown kind. And in that part of the country, most of the homegrown Catholics were converts from the Spanish missions; so a white, English-speaking Catholic was a real oddity.

“I hope I haven’t offended you,” he said. He fiddled with his collar, running a knuckle around its rim and withdrawing a finger that was slick with sweat.

“Why would I be offended? You haven’t been the least bit rude. You recognized me as a fellow believer, and you’ve shown great concern for my sensibilities, as you understand they may differ from your own.”

The young man glanced over at the announcement, then back at Eileen. “I feel a bit ridiculous now, since I don’t suppose you’d be very interested in our camp meeting. I don’t mean to imply you shouldn’t come…except,” he ran a hand across his hair. “Except now it sounds like I wish to discourage you, and that’s not the case either.”

She almost laughed, and she might have—except that he seemed so fragile and so prepared to run away. “I’m not so easily discouraged, I assure you. And I certainly didn’t mean to make you ill at ease. I was only curious about these meetings, and I’m very glad you happened along.”

“You are?”

“Indeed I am. Why, just now I was standing here wondering about these meetings, and here you are, full of answers. It’s practically a sign, don’t you think?”

“You mean, from heaven?”

“From heaven, of course. From God—the same one we’ve both been known to pray to. Though my goodness, it’s awfully hot out here, wouldn’t you say? If it wouldn’t embarrass you too much to be seen with me, I’d like to step inside and bother you a bit further. This is all
interesting, Mr.…?”

“Leonard,” he said quickly. “I’m Leonard Dwyer, ma’am. And I would be honored for a chance to share my faith with you.” Leonard held out an elbow, crooked and prepared to take a lady’s hand.

Eileen placed her fingers on his arm and let him lead her away from the tree with its nailed-down notice. She walked with him along the main street of Holiness, Texas—past tall, flat-fronted clapboard stores, a barber shop with a red and white pole, a doctor’s office, and a pub.

, she reminded herself.
They’re called saloons out here

Leonard caught her gazing at the saloon and shook his head. “It’s a shame, but there’s nothing to be done about the place. Reverend Aarons tried to organize a temperance movement but the population was not…receptive.”

She glanced around, seeing mostly worn-looking men on horses. “I should think not. There aren’t many families, are there?”

“No. Most of the people passing through Holiness are on their way farther west, where they’ll look for gold. Some of them are Chinamen who’ve been working on the railroads, and a few others are ranchers. But this is no kind of place to raise children. Despite the name, ‘Holiness’ isn’t frequented by many virtuous women like yourself.”

“Ah. You’re speaking of Red Annie’s,” she said.

He blushed beneath his sunburn. “Yes ma’am, indirectly. Those aren’t the only women in town, but they might as well be.”

“Every place has them,” she said quietly.

“I beg your pardon?”

“No, I’m sorry. I beg
. I didn’t mean to let my mind wander; it’s only that I’m very far from home. But some things are the same everywhere, and did I mention that’s where I’m staying?”

“Where you’re…at Red Annie’s? But you can’t stay there!”

“Why not? The rooms are clean, the girls are kind—there are only four of them, did you know that? No, I guess you wouldn’t, and I didn’t mean to imply otherwise. But the place is well-kept and I’ve never met a more agreeable hostess than Mrs. Shannon. Her parents came from my own country, and we’ve found much to talk about.”

Leonard’s skin burned bright against the stained white of his collar. “It just seems—”

“You know, when I was still living in the church, there were ministries that helped women of their kind. There were the laundries, of course, but I never cared for those. I preferred to teach them to read, to find better employment. Honestly, dear—I am not uncomfortable at Red Annie’s. If anything, I’m strangely happy there—because in a place so foreign to me as this one, I’m relieved to observe that some things never change.”

She watched a series of dueling reactions battle on his face, and she was pleased when he finally resolved to be amused.

“Some things are the same everywhere,” he said weakly.

are the same everywhere. Human nature, I’m sure you’ll agree, is more constant than any other thing under the sun. People everywhere seek the divine; we know we’re sinful and imperfect, and we look to God when we wish to improve ourselves.”

Back again on solid moral and theological ground, Leonard nodded with vigor. “Sinful, yes.” He clung to the word for a few seconds before pushing forward. “And that’s what the camp meetings are for, and about. Of course.”

“Of course,” she nodded and let him continue. She listened to every word, weighing it against what she already knew; and later that night, over supper in Annie’s kitchen, she pensively mined the conversation for further details.

She hadn’t heard what she was hoping to hear, but she had a standing invitation from a respectable young deacon to investigate for herself.


In Eileen’s room there was a mirror—an elongated thing in the shape of a gravy dish, clouded and brown around the edges. Eileen stared into it not at her face, but at the small gold crucifix that hung below her throat.

It might serve her well to remove it.

In a plain dress and without the jewelry, she could pass easily enough so long as she didn’t speak. She reached for the clasp, lifting her hair and feeling underneath.


No, she’d rather leave it on. Let the citizens of Holiness, Texas, interpret it as they liked—she wasn’t afraid of them. The hell-hot plains hid stranger and more frightening things than Catholics, after all.


Night fell, and Eileen’s hands were shaking because of the moon.

She could feel it crawling up the sky, not too full and fat quite yet but swelling still and growing. Something else was growing too—something else was swelling still and itching under her skin, just below the surface, straining to be let out.

She was grateful for the room in the house of ill repute. She appreciated the privacy the women there offered her, and the freedom to peel her heavy, hot clothes away and kneel in her nightdress.

The light cotton shift reached from shoulder almost to floor, but indecent or not, it was more tolerable than proper clothing. And when the doors were closed and locked, and when the shades and curtains had been pulled down low, Eileen had bigger secrets to keep than the color of her nightgown.

She knelt beside the bed and closed her eyes, breathing slowly, breathing with forced but measured calm that counted the seconds between breaths.

From time to time, her lungs would catch—but she held the cough down, fighting back the growl. “It’s not time yet,” she said to herself, keeping her voice low. “It’s not time yet. Not tonight. And not tomorrow night, either. It’s not time yet.”

But time was looming close.

As the pulse of insistent pain began to ebb, she relaxed and unfolded her hands. She left them flat on the thin blanket that covered the bed. “Not time yet,” she repeated again, and this time there was less of a plea buried in the words. This time, she was certain. “No. Not tonight.”

When she climbed to her feet again, her face was covered in a light sheen of sweat, and she was steady. But the calm could be deceiving—she’d learned that much the hard way. Better by far to be safe and certain.

There was a man in Louisiana with a dog. There was a splash of pain and blood, and the night sky above was bright without clouds. Behind the church there was a woman, her back bent with age. There was a moment of clarity and a minute of mayhem. In the woods there was a creek that ran between the trees. I awoke naked and filthy beside it, and I tried to focus my eyes. I tried to bring the colors back, there in the black and white of night outside, and I was confused because I couldn’t tell without color for reference—
are these the wolf’s eyes, or mine?

I looked for the north star but the time of night was wrong or the forest was too tall, and I couldn’t find it.

She checked again to make sure the door was locked, and yes, the bolt was drawn. It would hold most unwanted visitors at bay, or at least delay them. Keep them out, keep her in. Keep them apart, in case of the worst.

A large tapestry bag sat open atop the chest of drawers.

From within it, Eileen retrieved a green glass bottle and set it on the nightstand; then from the bag she pulled a set of metal shackles. One cuff was raw, unfinished iron and the other had its rough edges softened by a winding silk ribbon. She clapped the softer cuff around her wrist, and slipped a chain with its key around her neck.

The bed’s headboard was shiny brass—or it might have been only gilded. The metal bars felt hollow; they pinged like wind chimes when she flicked her fingernail against them. They’d have to do.

When at last she was ready for bed, she checked the door a third time and shook the corked bottle on the nightstand to swish its contents. And then she turned down the light, and then she slipped the loose iron cuff around a bar on the headboard, where it jangled as she settled beneath the sheet.

It didn’t have to hold for long.

It only needed to give enough resistance to wake her if the monster crept up from the inside while she slept. It only needed to startle her, and bring her around until she could regain control of herself. It only needed to buy her time to open the bottle and breathe or swallow or cough.

Through the slits at the edges of the curtains, and at the seams of the nightshade behind them, the moon slipped higher past the clouds and framed the window with white.

Upstairs, a new client was being shown to his room by Tabitha, the small blonde girl who looked no older than fourteen. Annie was taking a bath and rubbing herself with a bar of soap that smelled like French lavender. All the way up on the roof, Marianne was writing a letter and crying quietly to herself. Outside, two men were riding slowly past on tired horses.

Eileen Callaghan could hear every clipping hoof, every slight sob. She could smell the perfumed soap as if it were lingering above her lip; she could feel the miniature earthquakes of each footstep, each bedspring coiling, recoiling.

She stretched herself out on the bed and pointed her toes at the ceiling. In the back of her throat something was pushing, fussing to be let out—but she had tethered the thing well and its leash would hold.

BOOK: Dreadful Skin
13.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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