Sunday, May 16, 2021

Curious Weather Chapter One



St. Louis, Missouri
August 1880


The mulish expression on Mr. Tracy’s face told me he was about to bolt again.

He still did not look well—he’d lost weight over the summer, which his rawboned frame could ill-afford to lose, and his skin still had the bloodless tinge of fever and exhaustion. But he was dressed and his “plunder,” as his roughneck brethren call it, was packed and piled on the Turkish rug of my library. It had been a scant two days since he’d appeared on my doorstep, pale and harried as if Mereck’s wolves were literally nipping at his heels, and he had accepted my hospitality then with such grace I knew his reserves must be low indeed, to prevent his masculine pride—and general dislike of me—from refusing.

But after twenty hours of sleep and enough food to choke a horse, the pride was again in ascendance.

“Min Chan tells me you secured a boarding room this morning,” I said without preamble, and Mr. Tracy’s eyes shifted accusingly beyond me to where Min Chan himself stood, silent and disapproving. My cohort had indeed followed Mr. Tracy from the house when he slipped out at daybreak (Min Chan does not sleep, or at least not all of him does at one time) and followed my erstwhile employee down into the working-class neighbourhoods of St. Louis, from whence I had plucked him.

“I must insist you continue to reside here,” I said, cool and high-handed though my heart was threatening to pound out of my chest. I could not afford to lose him and we both knew why: I observed Mr. Tracy remembering those reasons, and felt my own frisson of fear as I recalled his account of Mereck’s abominations yipping and howling outside the ranch-house door, and Mereck’s voice speaking through the latch-hole, silky and reasonable as the Devil wheedling a child.

Mr. Tracy is an intelligent man, but stubborn, and still under the yoke of a bourgeois moral code. He ducked his head, so that a shock of sun-lightened, overgrown hair fell into his eyes, obscuring his thoughts from me. He scratched at his right palm through the bandage, absently, so I knew the wound must be itching as it healed. I still was not convinced the werewolf bite would not prove troublesome, but we could worry about that complication when and if it arose.

“I don’t want to put you to any trouble, ma’am,” Mr. Tracy began, in his throaty American drawl, because he was too polite to tell me to go to blazes.

“Do not be absurd,” I snapped, too anxious to be diplomatic. “You are being hunted, Mr. Tracy. Mereck already tracked you to Wyoming only to have you slip through his grasp. It will not take a great leap of logic for him to suppose you would return here.”

“I appreciate that, ma’am, but I don’t see how I have to live here to learn from you—”

“When you were a young man, you went away to seminary, did you not? In cloister with like-minded students, with access to the necessary texts and under supervision of your tutors?”

“Ma’am, I take the point, but I’m not a boy anymore and I’m used to comin and goin as I please—”

“And I will not attempt to curtail your movements beyond sense and safety.” I had managed him badly in the past, and now had to contend with it. “But you must have realised, there is no place on this continent where you will be more safe than this house— at least until I teach you how to conceal yourself. Clearly you have been cultivating your psychic power while you were away, and at the moment you are blazoning your whereabouts like a baboon in oestrus.”

Mr. Tracy’s neck turned visibly red with embarrassment. My words were intended to shock, but I have never known a grown man who blushed so readily. He really was an overgrown schoolboy.

But he knew I was telling the truth. When he first came to me in the spring—following the lure of easy work, in the off-season of his regular employment as trail-guide—he had been as jumpy as a cat, his power ruthlessly but inadequately suppressed. He’d believed his seeing ghosts was some divine curse laid on him—the consequence of defying his Abolitionist father and leaving Seminary to fight for the Confederacy. It took me months, and no little blood, sweat, and tears, to convince him his powers were a fluke, a random combination of hereditary gifts no more sinister than his height or his blue eyes… except that his gifts were exceptionally potent and rare, like mathematical genius or the musical ability of a young Mozart, which made him dangerously attractive to a predator like Mereck. I had provided him with opportunities to test and explore his powers—risky, I will admit, but in my defence he insisted on taking that ridiculous rescue-mission to Idaho—but he performed with flying colours, and came back eagerly for more, and would not listen when I told him he was pushing too far, too fast. I put him in contact with one of Mereck’s former minions, thinking the man would be an object lesson, but Herr Kieler proved to be more devious and more powerful than I anticipated, and Mr. Tracy blamed me for his own failure to take sensible advice.

But at least he’d been practicing what I’d taught him, during the summer. Min Chan told me, and I could perceive for myself, how Mr. Tracy had gotten full rein on his power while he was away. He didn’t yet know how to steer it nor half what it could do, and was still a little afraid of it—I could see that in his face when he looked at me, half defiant and half imploring. It was why he had come back to St. Louis in the first place. He certainly had no fondness for me personally.

“I realise this living arrangement is not ideal,” I said, conciliatory now. “The offer I made before still stands—you may take up residence in the carriage house, if you like, and tell people you are employed as my groom. But if you truly intend to avail yourself of my… protection and my teaching, it’s neither safe nor convenient to have you living off the grounds. We will probably be working late hours for the next several weeks and I do not want to send Min Chan halfway across town to fetch you when I need you.”

Mr. Tracy and Min Chan looked at each other with dislike. That Min Chan had once drawn a knife on Mr. Tracy, after the latter struck me, had something to do with it. But that was water under the bridge, I told Min Chan—if I could overlook it, he could too. Min Chan retorted that Mereck had conditioned me to be attracted to overbearing men, and I didn’t speak to him for two days.

“And what might you need me for, at late hours?” Mr. Tracy inquired, which caused me to throw my own glare of distaste in his direction. His face was a study in guilty pleasure. He had not meant the remark to be salacious, but he didn’t mind my being offended.

“As I said, you will need to learn control,” I said coldly, “and toward that end I mean to conduct a series of tests, to allow me to gauge the nature and extent of your psychic abilities.”

“What kinds of tests?”

“Clairvoyance and spirit-summonings to start. After that, apportments and telekinesis—“

“Tele-kinesis?” He repeated, like a semi-literate sounding out an unfamiliar word. I knew he had studied Greek at the Benedictine seminary, but I doubted he’d kept up with it. “Distance-movement?”

Of course, he kept surprising me. It was one of the reasons I’d settled on him as my agent for this sordid work. “Quite so, Mr. Tracy. I sometimes forget there is an educated mind behind that American drawl. I wish to test both methods, to determine whether your powers are dependent upon spirit familiars, or if they are self-generating.”

He huffed. “And it behooves us to do these tests, so we can learn how to kill Mereck?”

“That is our ultimate purpose, yes. I believe you will come to see the logic of my methods as we proceed.”

We eyed each other for a moment. He was no fool; he undoubtedly realised there was a great deal I had not yet told him and had no intention of doing so. But he had found enough reasons of his own to hate Mereck, and knew he needed my help to fight him.

“All right,” he said at last. “You been in this two-step with the Russian a lot longer than I have. I reckon I can follow your lead. But I’ll tell you one thing, lady—you ever again try a trick like that séance, drivin me into a nasty situation without tellin me first, I’m gone. You understand? I expect you to be straight with me from here on out, and I mean to keep askin questions til I get an answer I like.”

More masculine posturing. I was immune to it by now. I raised an eyebrow and inclined my head slightly, conveying skepticism and scorn without resorting to anything so vulgar as a shrug. “Are we in agreement, then?”

Mr. Tracy scratched at the stitches in his palm again. He had a way of looking at me as if he thought I might not be real—another one of the spirits that had plagued him for the last eighteen years. But I had seen that look before, on the faces of men—doctors, administrators, business opponents—who have never been addressed so strongly by a woman or run into a feminine force of will such as mine. Mr. Tracy looked as if he would like to pluck my head off my shoulders and search for the clockwork within.

“I reckon so,” he said eventually.

“Very well, then.” I swept up my skirts to leave, glanced at his bedroll and saddlebags on the floor. “Truthfully, there is no reason you ought not choose a room on the second floor, at the north end. This house is big enough we can each have our privacy, and you’ll be out of earshot of the laboratory down there…”

“It’s not my ears that pick up the racket,” he protested.

Min Chan and I exchanged a glance. He’d warned me that Mr. Tracy had already been exploring the ward-lines throughout the house, that served as both protection and telegraph between rooms. In fact before I came down to the library, Min Chan was helping me dress, as he often did after I’d been ill, and we’d both perceived a clumsy, masculine presence tiptoeing along the ward-lines outside my room, like a bull trying to be stealthy through the flower-garden. It had withdrawn hastily, and I did not doubt Mr. Tracy had drawn all kinds of salacious conclusions about the nature of my association with Min Chan.

Well, he was welcome to speculate. I couldn’t afford to lose him but I had no intention of letting him into my private affairs any more than necessary. Mereck had taught me the folly of that, more than once.

But back to the disturbances in the laboratory: Mr. Tracy’s psychic sense was strong and it was sensitive, to a greater degree than anyone I had met, and he seemed particularly tuned toward aethereal disturbances, whether ghosts or demons. Min Chan and I had been communing with a particularly fractious minion the night before, and Mr. Tracy must have been awoken by it. No wonder he was set to flee this morning—his poor Catholic sensibilities must be worn to rags.

“Yes. Well, I will try to minimise the disturbance for you,” I said. “At least until we begin our training in earnest. And I must ask you to refrain from entering the laboratory unless accompanied by me. You may make free with the rest of the house and grounds, but I have delicate experiments in progress which must not be disturbed.”

“Suits me,” Mr. Tracy said.

“In that case I will leave you to your own devices this afternoon. Shall we meet for an early supper—say, six o’clock? An informal repast, as I would like to begin your tutoring immediately.”

“Fine,” he said.

“Good.” I replied.

Though I did not, in truth, feel at all good about it.

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