The Weeping Lore

By

Gregory Ashe

 

Prologue

Pearl Morecott had her hair brushed, a fresh pair of stockings, and the two derringers in her purse. She was out for a typical Friday night. Bundled in her heavy fur coat, hood pulled up, Pearl shivered and waited—but mostly shivered—in the alley. This close to the Mississippi, the wet river smell hung in the air, mixing with the trampled garbage of the alley. Her silvery breath played hide and seek with coal and wood smoke. A footstep sounded at the mouth of the street.

 

With a grin and a tip of his hat, Harry Witte moved into the alley. He smiled, a smile that hit the back of Pearl’s knees like a runaway horse, chafed his hands, and said, “Looking lovely, Pearl.”

 

“It’s freezing out, Harry. You’re sure?”

 

“Absolutely. Freddy?”

 

At the sound of his name, a second man stepped into the alley. Where Harry Witte was young and slender and heart-stoppingly handsome, Professor Friedrich von der Ehmke was old and short and vibrated like a cold, angry wire. He held a walking cane with a silver head in one hand. The dark wood and metal matched the salt and pepper in his hair and beard. With a gesture of the cane, he motioned Harry forward.

 

Harry slipped his hand into Pearl’s.

 

It meant nothing, of course, but a flush climbed Pearl’s cheeks, and for a moment she forgot the wind that snapped at the corner of the alley. He led her to down the cramped lane, cutting through a passage choked with the sooty remains of a garbage fire, and helping her over—strong hands around her waist, another flare of heat—a pool of slush. On the far side, Pearl removed Harry’s hands and buried her own hands in the pockets of her coat.

 

Harry flashed her the same sliver of a grin.

 

Behind them, Freddy splashed and swore, and that was enough to get them both moving again.

 

The alley joined a narrow street that ran along a three-story building. The city smoke had left a patina on the brick and darkened the windows. Behind the smeared glass, no light showed. The Breckenridge Institute was a small, privately funded anthropological society, and tonight, Pearl Morecott was a thief.

 

Freddy swallowed a cough, and buried under the sound, Pearl heard footsteps. She snagged Harry’s coat and flicked a finger at the street ahead. Harry pulled back into the shadows next to her. His breath smelled of mint and thyme and was warm on her cheek.

 

Freddy, close behind her, smelled of cabbage and onion and wet wool.

 

A minute later, a watchman trundled past the mouth of the alley. His hooded lantern swept light across the snow and slush. And then he was past, the cone of light narrowing like a train moving into the night, and then gone.

 

“Eyes sharp, my dear,” Harry whispered. He trotted towards the wall, moving swift and sure across the ice, and with a leap he closed his hands over the lip of the wall and pulled himself up and over. Freddy followed more slowly, tossing his walking cane over the wall and then dragging himself up the frost-rimed brick. And then both men were gone.

 

Darkness and cold settled in, and for a moment Pearl entertained herself with the image of Harry’s legs and backside as he ran, and then she huddled into the fur and wished for mulled wine and a fire.

 

Minutes ticked by slowly. Pearl eased her freezing feet in the soiled snow, trying to work warmth into her toes. Then she heard the sound. A wet, slobbery sound. She eased one hand into her purse, closed her fingers around the first derringer, and put her back to the wall of the alley.

 

Silence again, filled with the rush of blood in her ears.

 

Then, the slobber.

 

Pearl pulled the derringer from her purse.

 

St. Louis was a city like any other. It had its share of beggars and thieves, cutthroats and rapists. Pearl Morecott had spent most of her life with eyes closed to that side of the city. Now, though, the work she did with Harry and Freddy brought her into frequent contact with tramps and trash. Normally, Harry and Freddy were there to help. When they weren’t, she had the derringers.

 

A dog padded by in the snow, its feet making only the slightest crunch, and then disappeared. Then a burst of voices came from a nearby street, loud and bright with liquor, in spite of the laws that the bluenoses had cooked up. Pearl tried to relax, flexing her fingers on the derringer, taking slow breaths that eddied in trails of white. The voices faded down the street, stealing the last scraps of warmth and cheer from the air, and then Pearl was alone.

 

Pearl Morecott was a woman with a sensible head, a good eye, and a pair of derringers. She didn’t need to be afraid of a drunk or even a city thug.

 

But she’d learned with Harry Witte that there were worse things than drunks or thugs wandering the streets of St. Louis.

 

Especially at night.

 

Especially for silly women, foolish enough to be waiting alone in dark alleys.

 

Damn Harry Witte for this plan. And damn Tommy Morecott for dragging her into this mad world and then abandoning her.

 

A shadow had grown thicker along the wall of the Institute. A trick of the light? One of the Children? Pearl pulled the derringer from her purse. The wet, slapping sound of flesh on stone came again, louder now. Pearl stayed where she was. The dark bulk pressed against the wall, moving slowly down the street, still far enough from the light that Pearl could only guess at its form.

 

A bullet might kill it. Or it might not. The Children were tricky like that. If it tried to go over the wall, though, Pearl would have to stop it. Keeping her back to the bricks, Pearl edged down the alley. Freezing water slid into her shoe. The smell of offal and something rotting exploded when she broke an icy casing. The shadow that pressed itself against the wall of the Institute, suckling at the brick, seemed oblivious to her.

 

The shape bent, gathering itself like folds of velvet. Pearl brought up the derringer.

Her hand was steady. Tommy would have been proud.

 

Harry would be proud.

 

Then a silver-handled walking stick flew over the wall and landed with a clatter on the pavement. The shadow rippled and fled, and with a shaky breath, Pearl moved into the street. Freddy’s face, flushed and sweating, inched above the bricks.

 

Yellow light dusted the bricks beneath Pearl’s feet, and she turned. The watchman raised his lantern.

 

“Officer,” Pearl shouted, waving a hand and shuffling towards him. “Officer, thank goodness.”

 

A little sob in her voice. That was what it needed.

 

“Officer, thank heavens.”

 

Yes, that was better.

 

The man lowered his lantern as she drew closer. She caught enough of his face to see lines from cold and sun, a bushy beard, and eyes that were red and watery. When Pearl scented the whiskey on his breath, she smiled a little wider. Even watchmen needed help with the cold.

 

“Not an officer, ma’am,” the man said.

 

Pearl stumbled on purpose, arms going wide. The man reacted. The lantern dropped, the flame waved wildly, and he caught her before she hit the ground. Behind her, Pearl heard the sound of boots striking the pavement.

 

“Thank you, Officer. I’ve been wandering these streets for hours, lost and dying of the cold.”

 

“Not an officer, ma’am,” the man said again. He helped her to her feet, led her around to the front of the institute, and settled her in a chair. After a small glass of whiskey—“For the cold,” the man assured her, and Pearl agreed heartily—he flagged down a cab, and less than half an hour later, Pearl was stripping off wet shoes and stockings in her apartment, basking in the warmth of the room, and thinking of her bed. A rap at the door made her pause, pull on a pair of slippers, and draw her coat around her more tightly.

 

When she saw Harry Witte smiling at her, Pearl undid the chain and opened the door. Harry swept into the room, arms wide, and let out a laugh.

 

“Well done, Pearl. As always.”

 

She smiled in spite of herself.

 

Freddy came through the door next, stamping his feet and shaking slush across her rug. He coughed, radiating a steady aura of cabbage and onion and wet wool through the room.

 

Pearl shut the door and leaned against it.

 

“Did you get it?”

 

Darkness settled over Harry’s face. Then, in the light of the gas lamps, she noticed the purpling bruise across his cheek.

 

“What happened?”

 

“Some of the Children were there before us,” Harry said.

 

“Freddy?”

 

Distaste crossed the Hun’s face at his pet name, but some of the tension left him as he shook his head. “Fine, Pearl. Thank you for asking. I had gone into the Institute’s archives while Harry searched the exhibit. I thought I saw something—”

 

“A shadow,” Pearl said.

 

“Yes. How did you know?”

 

She told them about the alley and asked, “What about you, Harry?”

 

“Not a shadow,” Harry said. “The fellow who gave me this shiner was flesh and blood, sure enough. I only caught a glimpse of him.”

 

“And the book?”

 

“Gone. The glass all smashed in. By the time I was back on my feet, the fellow had cleared out.”

 

Freddy’s hands tightened on the walking stick. “This is the third time, Harry. Whoever they are, they are faster than us. We can’t allow this to keep happening.”

 

“I know,” Harry sighed. For a moment, he looked young and tired, and then his face smoothed. “We’ll do better. We have to do better. These things are too dangerous to be in the hands of the Children.”

 

Pearl let them out. Harry squeezed her arm through her coat, gave a weary smile, and disappeared down the stairs. When she had shut the door, Pearl said goodbye to Harry Witte for a second time, tasting his name on her lips, and shrugged out of her coat, and went to fix herself a drink.

 

She kept the gaslights on until dawn broke the horizon. She thought of shadows.

 

Chapter 1

 

At some point during the night, something had crawled into Cian Shea’s mouth and died. A dog, most likely. A muddy, mangy mutt. His head blared with a single, unending trumpet-note that had gotten trapped inside the night before, between rounds of the cheap, hard-hitting moonshine Patrick served. The small room he rented above the sausage shop was permeated with the smells of cheap spices used in abundance, cast-off meat, and the mixture of cleaner and decay that he had, before moving to this room, previously associated with butcher shops.

 

Cian grabbed the basin and emptied his stomach. It was a matter-of-fact thing, business as usual for Cian Shea, and it was the proper way to start a morning. He poured himself a glass of water, pressed the chilled pitched against his forehead, and gave suicide a slow, friendly wink.

 

But not today.

 

Cian Shea was a survivor. Say what you fucking will about Cian Shea, and most everyone did, he was a survivor.

 

There wasn’t a drop of booze in the place, which meant Cian had to drink the water in the pitcher, dress, and then carry the basin downstairs to rinse it out in the freezing cold. He dropped the basin back in his room, near the bed, where it would doubtless be needed the next morning. And the morning after that. And the morning after that.

 

The rest of the room left little mystery about Cian: a battered dresser that held exactly one pair of trousers, two shirts, and two pairs of underclothes. A dressing table, its mirror broken and removed ages ago. And, sitting on top of the dressing table, the Colt M1911, which had seen Cian through the Great War, and then through murder, and then through desertion.

 

Which pretty much summed up his life.

 

He tucked the gun into the back of his trousers, shrugged on his coat, and headed for the door. He’d owned a hat, once, but that had been before the war. Since then, hats didn’t seem quite so important. He trotted down the stairs, his breath misting between the cracks that let in light and cold, and out onto the street. Cian had made it two steps down the street when tap-tap-tap came from the shuttered window of the sausage shop.

 

Burying hands in pockets, Cian went around back and let himself in. The rear half of the building held a small set of rooms—kitchen, bedroom, sitting room—used by the sausage-maker and his wife. Mrs. Molly Doyle stood at a cramped wooden table, which had one of its legs supported by the crumbling remains of a ceramic rabbit, kneading bread dough with a boxer’s arms. Her frizzy red hair was streaked with gray and stood out in a long, crinkled cloud. Flour smudged her chin, and it was the only spot of her face that wasn’t as red as her hair.

 

“Cian Shea,” Molly said. Thump went the dough as it slammed onto the table. The ceramic rabbit quivered.

 

“I know, Mrs. Doyle. I was just coming round to talk to you about the rent.”

 

“It’s late. There’s nothing to talk about.” Thump again, the ceramic rabbit shivering, and then another thump. Molly glanced up at Cian, puffed a breath that disturbed the flour on her chin, and then thump. “You look like a haystack. What’s wrong?”

 

Running a hand through his hair, Cian tried a smile. It felt like a borrowed suit. Once, before the war, Cian had been good at lots of things. That list had even included smiling. Now—

 

“Don’t make that face at me,” Molly said. “That’s two months now, Cian. Mr. Doyle wants you out by the end of the week.”

 

“Fair enough,” Cian said. He rubbed his thumb across the flour-dusted surface of the table, studied his finger, and then brushed his hands off. “If I can get some of the money before then?”

 

The next thump of the bread dough was softer. Molly nodded, or tried to nod.

 

“Don’t suppose you have anything that needs doing?” Cian asked. “Wood to chop? Coal bin filled? It’s hard days, Mrs. Doyle.”

 

She sniffed, and the dough resumed its ceramic-rabbit-shattering force. “Nothing today, Cian Shea. Now. Sit yourself down. I’ll fix you a bite to eat, and then I’m going to run a comb through that hair so that you don’t scare every respectable woman into hiding.”

 

“Thanks, Mrs. Doyle, but I’ve already eaten. I’ll be on my way. Day’s wasting.”

 

Watery blue eyes fixed him, eyes that didn’t believe a single word, but she didn’t argue. Cian let himself out the back door, crossed the neat yard with its vegetable patch buried under winter, and was on his way to the street when the tap-tap-tap from the window stopped him. This time, the shutters popped open, letting out a steamy burst of air smelling of yeast and the sausage works. Molly Doyle had somehow managed to work two streaks of flour into her hair, and she looked a bit mad as she stuck her head out the window.

 

“Cian Shea, if you need work that bad, go see Bobby Flynn at Seamus’s. He’s my godson’s cousin, and he’s a wastrel and a drunk, which means the two of you will be fast friends. And don’t you dare show your face down her until you’ve run a comb through that hair!”

 

She ended with a shout, slammed the shutters, and then Cian stood alone, shivering, and wondering if Molly Doyle thought she was his mother or his warden.

 

For a mick, he didn’t know if there was much of a difference.

 

When he reached the street, Cian let out a trail of frozen breath and started south. Now he could relax. Getting past the Doyles had been the biggest hurdle of the day. If Molly caught him, it was nothing more than a bit of mothering—or wardening—and a gentle reminder. If it were Mr. Doyle, well, Cian wouldn’t need to worry about running a comb through his hair. He’d be too busy trying to keep the old mick from wringing his neck.

 

The street Cian followed was a street only in the most general meaning of that word, like most of the streets in Kerry Patch. A muddy rut was probably a better label. Ramshackle buildings lined the rut, some plastered and painted, but most exposed to the icy December air. Occasionally, brick foundations blushed through the snow, embarrassed reminders of once-lofty plans. Brick was a luxury few in Kerry Patch could afford. With more and more families piling into Kerry Patch every day, even lumber was becoming a sign of stability—many of the immigrants made do with lean-tos and shanties.

 

Over this clutch of hovels rose the spires of St. Patrick and St. Michael the Archangel and St. Bridget of Erin. They stood like needles ready to pierce the scruffy gray clouds, ready to bind earth and heaven. Cian was fairly sure that heaven would need a bit more binding, though, than whatever cheap thread those churches could work up. Even God didn’t want to be too close to Kerry Patch.

 

Being a mick himself, born and bred in St. Louis, Cian was a part of Kerry Patch. Knowing which streets to take, which boys to make a joke with, which girls to steer clear of—those things helped keep him out of trouble. For the most part. Someone who wandered into the Patch by mistake, or came looking for trouble, would be lucky to get out with his life.

 

As though conjured by the thought, a pair of teenage boys emerged to stand at the mouth of an alley, watching Cian. One of the boys was smoking. The other had a knife he was twirling, in spite of the cold. Cian locked eyes with them, waited for them to make a move. It was morning, it was light out, but it was also Kerry Patch.

 

Deterred, perhaps, by Cian’s size, or by the glower on his face that was mostly due to a hangover, or maybe simply by the wild hair Molly Doyle had called a haystack, the two boys turned away, watching for another, easier mark to pass.

 

Cian felt a flicker of something. Disappointment.

 

It would have felt good to break something.

 

He kept on his way. Somewhere in the world, there was probably someone who liked St. Louis. It was, by any report, one of the great cities in the world, and one of the largest in the United States. But Cian, although born and bred in the Patch, had no taste for it. In summer, the air was wet and hot and heavy, and the smoke so bad that day turned to night. In winter, ice and snow pummeled the streets, murdering the homeless by the score—although there were plenty more where they came from. The smoke didn’t abate, and there were days when it filled the streets like fog and clung to the layers of snow in a sooty cape.

 

Today promised to be a day much like any other. The sky was bright blue, the sun a copper disc, and the wind from the northwest cut through Cian’s coat and shirt and skin. He hurried south. There were places a man could get work in St. Louis. Even a man like Cian. So he went to David Fitzgerald, who had a dry goods store on the edge of Kerry Patch. Already the corner outside the store was crowded with men, and a few women, looking for David Fitzgerald’s most valuable stock: jobs. The men gave Cian dirty looks. Some of the men knew him, and some of the looks were justified. The rest were simply the looks of men who feared competition. The women, on the other hand, ignored him. Cian preferred it that way. One of them—a girl who couldn’t have been more than sixteen—wore a dress so thin that it couldn’t have done anything to stop the cold. She coughed into the corner of her arm as Cian passed. Her hands were bare, red and chapped from the cold.

 

When she looked up, her dark eyes reminded Cian of Corinne.

 

Cian stepped into the store and pushed Corinne and the dark haired girl to the back of his mind. He passed the bins of flour and the sacks of sugar, passed the jugs of molasses and oil and a thousand other things. David sat behind the counter, a short man with his hair clipped above the ears and eyes that had seen too much of Kerry Patch. He looked up, saw Cian, and said, “Nothing today, Cian.”

 

“Lot of folks outside waiting, David.”

 

“I told them the same thing.”

 

“Nothing? Not even for me?”

 

David snorted.

 

Cian turned back to leave the store, but stopped when he saw the girl again. A slender little thing, like a twig wrapped up in a sheet of cotton. Corinne hadn’t been thin like that. She’d had all the right curves, all the right lines, and dark eyes. She had spoken with a lisp, and he’d only understood one word in ten, and once they had made love in a patch of strawberries, and the smell of it had followed Cian all the way back to winter in St. Louis. Mostly, though, he remembered the screams from the last night he had seen her.

 

“David.”

 

The short man glanced up, not willing to meet Cian’s eyes.

 

“Got a coat?”

 

David disappeared into the back and came out with a bulky wool coat.

 

“How much?”

 

“Two dollars.”

 

Cian pulled the handful of coins from his pocket and spilled them onto the counter. David sorted them.

 

“Dollar seventy three.”

 

“I’ll owe you the rest.”

 

David nodded and passed over the coat.

 

The cold hit Cian when he stepped out onto the street. He walked over to the girl, tapped her on the shoulder, and said, “Here you are, doll.” He dropped the coat into her lap.

 

Then he started walking. The girl shouted something after him. Cian didn’t look back.

 

He’d learned—he’d learned it in France, in fucking France—that it was better to keep walking.

 

But that didn’t mean he didn’t still hear her screams.

 

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