Read Dead Reckoning Online

Authors: Mercedes Lackey,Rosemary Edghill

Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Westerns

Dead Reckoning (20 page)

Just as she’d hoped, the “dooryard” was deserted. It was why she’d left Alsop before dawn; she suspected everyone was somewhere else, at least until the dinner bell rang at noon.
I’ll be gone by then
, she told herself hopefully.

She cut back behind one of the new bunkhouses—a dormitory, probably, considering how many people lived here—and followed White Fox’s careful instructions until she reached the old bunkhouse. The one with no bunks and a door in the floor it shouldn’t
rightly have. The one that had to hold secrets, because who locked a door that didn’t have anything behind it?

Her heart beat fast and her palms were wet as she walked up to its door. She’d stood in the middle of a street facing down a man who wanted her dead with more calm. But that had been different. Whoever died there wouldn’t have gotten up and walked away.

She took one last glance around herself and lifted down the bar. It was new; the wood had darkened to brown but not yet faded to silver. Who put a bar on the outside of a door? What was Brother Shepherd keeping
in
?

She felt better once she had the door shut behind her. At least she was out of sight, even though with the windows boarded up it was just about pitch-dark in here. A little light came in through the chinks between the boards, but not enough to see by. She groped among her petticoats until she found the pouch she’d tied around her waist.

Wellborn young ladies had servants to escort them and carry their things, butlers to open their doors, family names respected enough that they could shop on account. Ladies who had none of those things carried reticules to hold their money, their keys, and—sometimes—their gun. And because they had no one to protect them, they carried their reticules tied to
their petticoat strings, with a slit pocket in their skirts to reach them.

She hauled her skirt up enough to take the weight off the pouch’s drawstrings, then groped around inside it until she found the candle and one of the Lucifer matches. Gibbons was the one who’d thought of them. When they were planning this, it had slipped Jett’s mind that a shed with no windows would be pitch-dark even in the daytime.

She struck the match on the door and lit the candle. The bunkhouse smelled familiar. The smells of sweat, horse, tobacco, and wood-smoke were soaked deep into the wood, but they were all that was familiar. Just as White Fox had said, all the furniture was gone.

The doors in the floor looked like the entrance to a storm cellar. She’d seen one, once, when she and Philip had been sent east during yellowjack season. Its iron handles were bolted into the wood. A chain ran between them, secured in place with a lock. She walked over and knelt down in front of it, swearing softly under her breath at having to pull her skirts out of the way. She swore a little louder when she got a good look at it, and brought her candle close to make sure. White Fox was the only one who’d seen the lock, and that only very briefly. It wasn’t the usual “smokehouse” type—easy enough to get past—but one of the newfangled
“heart” locks, the kind the railroads used. Supposed to be burglar-proof.

He should have said something!
she thought. The shape was distinctive, and so was the spring plate over the keyhole. But somehow she doubted an Army Scout spent much time trying to force padlocks. He probably thought the shape was just for decoration.
But I’ve got the key
.

I hope
.

Gibbons had given her a selection of keys she’d found around the town. Maybe this was Jett’s lucky day. She spilled a little wax and stuck the candle against the floor, then poured the contents of her reticule into her lap. Some of the keys wouldn’t go into the lock at all. Others would fit the keyhole, but wouldn’t turn. Jett sighed in exasperation once she’d tried the last one.
If I didn’t have bad luck, I wouldn’t have any luck at all
.

Gibbons had given—loaned—her something to use if the keys didn’t work. She took a deep breath and unscrewed the little wooden case. Two heavy pieces of wire dropped out.
I guess we’re going to see just how “unpickable” this lock really is.
She’d picked a few locks in her time, but ones where a hairpin would do the trick. Jewelry boxes and medicine chests—there’d been a hundred different locks at Court Oak.

The silver chest in the pantry, Mama and Tante Mère shrieking in anger and fear as the Union soldier threw it to the ground and scooped the utensils out of the wreckage. …

She spent five minutes of poking and twisting at the hidden interior of the padlock. Each time she got started, the lockplate sprang back to jar the picks from her hands. Finally she gave up. The folks who’d made this lock weren’t bragging. The only way she was getting it open was with the key.

Where was it?

Not here. There’s nothing here but dust, doors, and a lock and chain.

Shepherd must have it. If he carried it on him she was sunk, but the key for this lock wasn’t small. He might keep it in his bedroom. Or his study. She was pretty sure he had a study where he could go to be alone, because she didn’t think he wanted to spend all his time being holy for his faithful followers. And he wouldn’t want to come out here to a hole in the ground every time he wanted to take a holiday from being the Fellowship’s “Blessed Founder.” If everyone else slept in the dormitories, there’d be plenty of room inside the house.

She tucked the lockpicks back into their tube, and the tube and the keys into her reticule, picked up the candle, and got to her feet.
I can still be on my way before
dinnertime.
She wanted to believe that. But thinking it was too much like whistling past the graveyard.

* * *

Gibbons tried not to watch the clock as she paced up and down the wooden floor of her laboratorium. She only succeeded part of the time. When the last of her distillations brought her no closer to the answer she was looking for, she was forced to return to her mental resources.

The problem was, it was very difficult to concentrate when she kept picturing Jett getting into trouble. What if none of the keys fit the lock? What if Jett couldn’t manage the lockpicks? Gibbons had learned the trade from an expert house-invader; picking a truly professional lock took more than a little expertise with a hairpin. What would she do then?

White Fox watched her pace. She noticed he stirred once or twice, as if to say something to her, then subsided again. He probably knew very well that nothing he could say would change her internal agitation, and having been trained in patience by Natives, he knew better than to flog
that
particular dead horse.

That’s a lesson most white men could stand to learn
, she thought, then added, with some wry irony,
including me.
Front door or back? That was an easy one. Sister Agatha had come to the front door only because Jett had rung the bell, and she’d seen for herself the women weren’t encouraged to stray from their drudgery. She eased the door open. The house was quieter than a church on Monday. She pushed her bonnet back off her hair as she called up a picture in her mind of all the rooms she’d been in the last time she was here, and turned left at the parlor instead of right.

She opened each door cautiously as she came to it. A couple of the rooms were bare to the walls; one of them had been the library, but the bookshelves were empty. A couple were still being used as bedrooms—the ones with boarded-over windows. All that was in those was a narrow iron bed and a couple of clothes pegs on the wall. By now, Jett knew, she would have been shaking like she had a fever if she hadn’t spent month after month training herself out of it. A doctor might practice his profession with shaking hands. A gambler and gunslinger couldn’t.

She realized she’d found what she was looking for the moment her feet touched carpet instead of tile. None of the floors so far had been carpeted, but most ranchos had carpet everywhere—Turkey carpets from back East for the wealthy, rag rugs or Navajo blankets for the regular folks. She didn’t know which Lamar Chapman had had back when Jerusalem’s Wall had
been the Lazy J, but the runner under her feet was as lush and thick, patterned with the same intricate weaving of shapes and flowers as the one she’d once had in her bedroom. Back when she was a girl. She clapped her hand over her mouth to stifle her panicked giggling. She was a girl
now
.

Again.

There were two doors with carpet in front of them. She opened the first and slipped inside. Bedroom, and obviously Brother Shepherd’s bedroom. It had a door that led through to the room next to it. She knew the bedroom was near the end of this wing. The room next door was probably his as well. Jett wondered how many of his “fellowship” had ever seen these rooms—and if they had, how they explained it to themselves. It had a thick Turkey carpet on the floor, and a cherry tester-bed plumped up high enough under its velvet cover she was willing to bet it contained a featherbed or two. There were night tables on both sides of the bed, carved with garlands and flowers to match the bed-frame and set with gilded knobs, and there was a highboy bureau, too. The windows were hung with heavy velvet curtains—pushed back—and the washing table with its inset bowl and china pitcher matched the bed. The shaving set beside the bowl—mug and brush and straight razor—were ivory and silver gilt and fine porcelain. There was an oval mirror hung on
the wall above it, too, the first mirror she’d seen anywhere at Jerusalem’s Wall.
Someone here
must
know about this
, Jett thought.
I’m going to bet Br’er Shepherd don’t fetch his own wash-water of a morning
.

She searched the room quickly, but all she found was that Brother Shepherd had a taste for fine things—and probably as much clothing as the entire rest of the fellowship put together. Soft flannel night shirts, and woolen ones; fine linen shirts and a taste for good whiskey, because there was a bottle and a glass in the bottom drawer beside the big gilt-paper box of chocolates.

She didn’t notice her fear giving way to anger until she had to stop herself from picking up the whiskey bottle and slamming it against the wall. She’d been afraid when the zombies had attacked Alsop. She’d been scared both times she’d come to Jerusalem’s Wall. But now …?

One Sunday after Mass, Philip had told her Catholics were raised on sin, and unfortunately for Philip, their brother Charlie heard him. Charlie went straight to Papa and ratted him out and Philip had to eat his meals standing up for a few days. Philip had said he was sorry, but he’d never said it wasn’t true. Then the War came, and Jett had always tried to keep the Commandments in her heart even after she knew she’d broken pretty near all of them. It had been an
actual heathen—the first Jew she’d ever met, and she’d thought they were all bible people and not real—who told her there was really only one Commandment for everybody.
Don’t lie
. There was lying with words, and lying with deeds, and lying with thoughts, and out of all of them, Jett had decided that telling folks one thing and doing another was probably the worst. It was
hypocrisy
, and even the Greeks about a thousand years ago had a word for it (they were pagans, not heathens, so she guessed the difference was whether you were dead or not). Black heart and Sunday manners, Tante Mère had called it. Jett couldn’t think of anything worse.

That was what Brother Shepherd was. Bad enough he was raising the dead and killing everyone for hundreds of miles around. She thought she could have maybe understood if he’d really thought he’d been Called to do it. But he preached about giving up worldly things and pretended he was too holy to even eat, and all along he slept in silk and velvet and gorged himself in secret. She would have walked out of his bedroom right this minute and called him out except for what Gibbons had said. If they didn’t figure out how he was making zombies—and made sure nobody else could get their hands on that recipe—they’d just be leaving a stack of gunpowder kegs around and waiting for someone to walk by and light the fuse.

She opened the door that led to the next room. The moment she stepped through it she was sure the key was here, because it had to be here if it was anywhere. The room was at least twice the size of the bedroom, and twice as fancy, too. It had a couple of carpets on the floor, and more heavy velvet draperies at the windows pulled back to show off the curtains underneath, so she could see the windows were more of those French doors. There were paintings with big gilt frames on the whitewashed walls, and glass-fronted bookcases under them, and a desk almost as big as the bed in the other room, carved all over except for the top. On the wall behind the desk there were about half a dozen crosses, and every last one of them looked as if it belonged in a church. The sight of them made Jett a little queasy. She couldn’t imagine anyone bad enough or crazy enough to loot a church, whether it was a real church or just a Protestant one.

The air smelled of dust and books, and there was a faint sweet scent beneath both. Incense. It made her more nervous than before, as if this room really was the holy place it worked so hard to resemble. She hesitated for a long moment, unable to step into that room. She told herself this was her best chance at the key, that if she
didn’t
find it she’d light out of here and not stop until she was back in Alsop. Maybe Gibbons could think of something else.

Only Jett knew Gibbons couldn’t, and that was what made her walk to the desk.

It had all the usual things on it—gilt writing set, humidor full up with good cigars, a couple of crystal paperweights, a lamp that was glass and brass instead of plain tin. There was a little silver box containing mysterious tarry black balls that smelled sick-sweet, and a bigger porcelain one that was full of incense.

The drawers were locked, and she was just reaching for Gibbons’s lock picks again when she heard the knob on the hallway door rattle and saw it begin to turn.

Jett moved instantly. Bad enough to be caught in here. Worse to look as if she’d been trying to steal something. She got herself around to the front side of the desk and had her hands clasped in front of her by the time the door opened. It wasn’t Brother Shepherd.

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