Months had passed since he’d been called by his name—the last time coming as he stood with his hands covered in blood. To him, it was a remainder of what he left behind and the darkness that hunted him nightly.
“No,” he whispered.
The girl’s face drew closer. In the firelight of the lantern, Galen could see the paleness of death in her skin.
“No,” he pleaded. The chill desert night began to envelop him—much like it had back in Kansas City, fleeing through the streets.
He had gone to visit the Gypsy and things had quickly turned wrong—very badly wrong.
It was a week getting there—by coach, horse, and foot. He came as a hired courier, bearing a small package to be “hand-delivered,” as him employer specified, to a banker in town. Galen was, at this point, going by the assumed name of Tom Holt.
When his employer, an aging rancher, asked him to go Kansas City, he began, “Tom, the only thing about a man I hold any coin in is whether or not that man can be trusted.”
Galen glanced at the door and then the window, imagining a posse waiting outside to take him away; he had not said a word about his past since be started on the ranch.
From a bookshelf the rancher produced a small rectangular box—no larger than a book—wrapped in brown paper and tied with packing twine. He held it out.
“Since I can’t go, I’d like you to deliver this to Kansas City for me,” the rancher told him.
Upon his arrival in Kansas City, Galen pulled his overcoat tight as an irregular mid-February snow had begun to fall. In the streets, dozens of people passed him; he was fascinated by the impersonal bustle of the city. Galen listened to his boot-steps crunch in the powder as he continued toward his destination.
He strode up along the riverfront watching the steamboats motor up the Mississippi, passing a docked riverboat from which raucous music and laughter could be heard. He knew he could have no part of such sociality. As he arrived, the realization suddenly hit him he had travelled all this way only to wait until the next morning, for the address he’d been given was a bank. He peeked in through the darkened windows, wondering if the intended recipient would be waiting for him after-hours. He tapped on the glass, seeing only his reflection. There was no answer.
There had been no shortage of places to stay in town; he had passed at least a half dozen different signs offering lodging. The rancher had, generously, given him enough traveling money to afford one of the finer hotels. Although he approached the front door of one, the Carthaginian, spending a single dollar for a room didn’t sit right with Galen—especially when he knew that in a town like this he could find a bunkhouse for just a dime a night.
He turned back to look for one of the boarding houses he’d passed eventually making his way off the beaten path. He saw a storefront window, behind which a woman in a black shawl sat in an ornate rocker. All of the other storefronts were closed, all windows darkened but this one. Across the pane, in large uneven letters, was painted one word.
As he crossed the street, he couldn’t make out much of her face; her long, silken, raven black hair hid her down-turned face. From this angle Galen thought the woman beautiful and his gaze lingered—until she lifted her own gaze—matching hers with his—and revealed the weathered, tan face of an old Gypsy crone.
Something in her gaze snagged at him like hooked barbs sunk into his skin, forcing Galen to fight to tear his eyes away from hers. As he continued down the street, he shuddered and pushed the thought of the crone’s stare out of his mind.
After checking into a simple but clean boarding house, Galen found himself restless—unable to lie down for the night just yet. An itch had started—first in his toes, then slowly traveling up into his body, ultimately leaching to his mind: the need for a drink. It had been weeks—since before he had arrived at the ranch. Finally, he decided it was madness to let this desire eat into his brain this way. He put on his duster and headed back into the cold.
The place he chose had no sign—or any indication of a name—but offered an open space at the bar seen through the double doors. The bartender, a mustachioed sort with a farm boy’s body, poured Galen a shot. Oh, that magnificent burn as it greedily went down. Grinning, Galen ordered another.
He hadn’t been at the bar longer than five minutes when he spotted her—a frill-laced, powder blue dress clinging to her voluptuous figure—as she sat at a nearby table, laughing along with a noisy cadre of gentlemen showing off in black suits. Momentarily, she gazed his way momentarily before turning back. She was the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen—her face, that of an angel.
He must have been staring for quite a while, because at some point he finally felt a poke at his shoulder. He caught the bartender grinning at him.
“That’s Sally,” the bartender said. “Best piece of tail in three states.”
“How much?” asked Galen.
“If you have to ask—”
“I asked how much?”
“A hundred!” jumped Galen, saying it loudly enough that plenty of people around him heard.
With his hands, the bartender signaled for Galen to keep it down.
“For five bucks you can have Daisy,” the bartender said, nodding his head toward the staircase rail. Standing there, chewing her nails, leaned a dumpy and fairly unattractive whore. Her wide moon-face bore thin lips and a large nose. As Galen watched, she pulled her hand back from her mouth, checking her nails to examine her latest efforts.
Daisy closed the door to her room behind them. Deftly, she unhooked her dress and let it fall to the floor. Galen looked around. At best the room was plain, with an iron bed, a padded chair, and table a by the window. At worst it was a dim and grungy rat-infested cheap billet surrounded by thin walls covered in torn and yellowed parlor paper. Following suit, Galen undid his pants, kicked them to the side, and reclined on the bed.
Daisy rung out a cloth from a bowl of water and washed him down. She undid her undergarment, revealing pendulous and misshapen breasts and an unruly thatch of pubic hair that began just below her belly.
She climbed on top of him, riding him until he climaxed with a stern grunt. After it was over, Daisy climbed down off the bed, turned her back, and wordlessly put her clothes back on. The whole process took less than five minutes.
Galen stood and put his pants back on. “Would you like to sit and talk for a spell?” he asked.
“Sure,” Daisy answered flatly, her voice devoid of emotion. He smoothed a spot on the blanket for her.
“Been here long?” he asked.
“Mebbe, tuh— tuh— two years.”
Galen suddenly realized why she barely spoke. Daisy turned her eyes downward, obviously ashamed of her stutter.
“Daisy, that’s a pretty name.”
She nodded sheepishly.
“My name’s Galen,” he said—then wondered why he’d done that. Not even the rancher knew his name. It had to have been the whisky talking.
“Guh— guh— Galen, that’s nuh— nuh— nice.”
“You always talked like that?”
“Yuh— yuh— yuh— yes.”
Galen scratched his head. It had been so long since he’d had a proper conversation with a woman that he had no idea what to say.
“I sh— should prolly get back downstairs,” she finally said.
Together they left the room, not speaking. As Daisy took her usual spot on the staircase rail, Galen went back to the bar to get another drink.
He had no idea what time it was when he stumbled out onto the street. He had watched another man—a dandy in a cheap suit—take Daisy to her room and decided he wanted to leave before she came back out.
Why did I even care? he wondered. A woman with a crippled voice like that was lucky to make a living selling herself, he figured.
The snow continued to fall lightly. As he crossed Washington Street heading back to the boarding house, he noticed the Gypsy’s window was still lit as the old crone sat in her rocking chair, unmoved since he last saw her. Her raven colored hair still shone in the firelight.
He had no intention of getting any closer, but before he realized it, his feet, which seemed to obey some external call, had brought his nose to within inches of the painted, gold-trimmed “Fortune”. As his feet entered through the front door a single bell jangled pleasantly above his head.
“Please sit,” mewed the crone, proffering a red cushioned seat across a table in front of her. Up close, Galen could see that the crone’s craggy face was older than he had first thought; her pale skin clung tightly to her skull and looked as thin as paper.
She slid a tin plate across the table. “Six bits,” she ordered.
It took Galen a moment to understand, but when he did he took the money from his pocket, then hesitated.
“If you want a reading from Madame Zenitska, you pay six bits.”
“And if I don’t want a reading?”
“Then you leave; but instead of an illuminated path, you choose to walk a darkened one,” the Gypsy told him. “And guessing from the looks of you, I’d say you’ve been treading a darkened path indeed.”
With a dismissive huff, Galen dropped six bits onto the tin plate. The Gypsy withdrew the money and pocketed it. “You are too curious to find out what your future holds, no?”
From her lap came a deck of cards, their red backs worn from constant use.
“You know what this is?”
“I gamble,” answered Galen.
“These are not what you think. These are tarot,” she said as she laid out seven cards in a diamond shaped pattern on the table.
“You’re not from around here,” the Gypsy told him.
“You say that because you’ve never seen me before.”
“You have a troubled past.”
“Every man has a troubled past.” He was becoming impatient.
“Wait, that’s not exactly right.” The Gypsy paused. “You have passed through much disruption and uncertainty. In the future you will come back into contact with a man you have known before—a mysterious man with a coldness shrouded under an exterior charm. He is highly intelligent and sometimes manipulative. This man has a very strong impact on you—”
The Gypsy woman stopped, her fingertips tracing the outline of the diamond shaped layout of the tarot.
“You must leave,” she said, her voice shaking as she gathered up her cards.
“No. No, you must leave here now.” She rose from her seat and began pushing Galen toward the door.
“You have to tell me what you saw.”
“Lady, you have to tell me!”
With a surprisingly firm hand, she pushed him out and tried to shut the door in his face.
Galen wedged his foot in the doorjamb before she could close it. “What is it? What did you see?”
The old Gypsy peered out past him, as if making sure nobody was around to see.
“You must go now!”
She pushed him from the entrance. “You watched them all die,” she said, shutting the door on him. “And now they’re hunting you.”