Doctor Harvey Cushing lit his pipe and nodded his thanks to Duncan Blood as the man handed him a cup of coffee. The farmer had added a fair amount of brandy to it, and Harvey, no stranger to strong drink, coughed.
“Damn, Duncan,” Harvey said after he cleared his throat several times. “I swear you must put some of the fires of hell in that brandy of yours.”
Duncan grinned and lit his own pipe. “More truth to that than you know, Harvey.”
“I’m sure.” Henry squinted, then leaned forward and let out a laugh as he clapped his knee.
“What is it?” Duncan asked, bemused.
“You, Duncan Blood,” Henry proclaimed as he reclined in his chair. “Have not one, but two white hairs in that beard of yours.”
Duncan reached up, ran his fingers through his beard and chuckled.
“I have known you since the battle of the Wilderness,” Harvey continued, “and in forty years, you’ve hardly aged.”
“Oh, I’ve aged,” Duncan disagreed. “And it’s our friendship that’s done it.”
“That, my friend, I highly doubt.” Harvey took a cautious sip of his coffee and managed to get it down without sounding like he was in the final stages of tuberculosis.
“So,” Duncan said, setting his own cup down, “what are your plans for this fine, October day?”
“To drink as much coffee as possible, and to stay indoors. At least after I see the new priest,” Harvey stated.
Duncan raised an eyebrow inquisitively, and Harvey released a dramatic sigh before he chuckled and continued.
“The Catholics sent a new priest in,” Harvey said, “and it seems as if the chill of New England does not agree with him. He’s from New Mexico Territory.”
Duncan straightened up in his chair, his look of mild curiosity quickly replaced by one of concern.
“Did they say where in the Territory?” Duncan’s voice had a hard edge to it.
Harvey frowned and considered what he knew of the priest. “San Miguel, I believe is what Mrs. Shea the man’s housekeeper said.”
Duncan frowned, glanced at his mantle clock and asked, “When are you going to see him?”
“Well, as soon as I’m done my coffee. Why?” Harvey felt confused.
A tight smile flickered across Duncan’s face as he said, “I’d like to accompany you if that would be alright.”
“Yes,” Harvey said, “I’d appreciate the company. I’m merely confused by your interest.”
“I’ve heard rumors,” Duncan replied, getting to his feet.
Harvey waited for more information, and when he realized that nothing else was forthcoming, he asked, “What rumors? And from whom?”
“A pair of ravens,” Duncan murmured. He walked to the corner hutch, removed a chestnut brown box and brought it to the sideboard. Harvey recognized the container and felt a wave of fear wash over him, leaving him with a cold and frightened feeling that no amount of brandy-laced coffee would chase away.
“When is the last time you had that out?” Harvey asked in a soft voice.
Duncan raised the lid and lifted out a long-barreled Colt Navy revolver.
“1876,” he replied, tucking the pistol away in his coat. “When I lent it to Thomas Leckie.”
“Almost forty years,” Harvey murmured.
“Almost,” Duncan agreed. “Are you ready?”
Harvey nodded and stood up. “I really wish you would tell me why you wish to accompany me, and why you’re bringing the Colt.”
“Harvey,” Duncan said, his voice even and smooth, “you would be worried for my sanity if I told you my reasons. Let me press upon our friendship and ask that you trust me.”
“I always trust you, Duncan,” Harvey said, “which is why I’m concerned.”
“If it’s not what I think it is,” Duncan said, “then I’ll tell you after your examination. And if it is, well, you’ll already know.”
“I suppose that is fair enough,” Harvey replied.
They knocked the ashes out of their pipes and Harvey placed the still warm briar into his pocket as they left the house. Soon they climbed into Harvey’s hack, his old mare, Lenore in the traces. In a short time, they were on their way, and the horse plodded along at a steady, comfortable pace that helped settle Harvey’s nerves.
Harvey held the reins loosely, and he and Duncan rode in silence. Soon the soft thump of Lenore’s hooves on the dirt road changed to a sharp ring as her iron shoes struck the cobblestones of Main Street.
Both he and Duncan greeted people they knew, but soon Harvey turned the hack onto Church Street. He guided Lenore toward St. Patrick’s and the rectory that was attached to it.
Both buildings were small, wooden structures and Harvey was always amazed that Catholicism had obtained a foothold in town. Cross wasn’t known for its religious or spiritual nature. The townspeople were old New England stock, and they kept their gods to themselves.
“Did you hear about Jepson’s land?” Duncan’s question interrupted Henry’s reflections on religion.
“I had heard mention of a possible sale,” Harvey replied after a moment.
“It sold,” Duncan stated. “A university from Essex County purchased the land. They’ll be building a library here. They might even put in a few buildings for lectures as well.”
“Interesting,” Harvey mused, guiding Lenore to the rear of the rectory. “What’s the name of the university?”
“Miskatonic,” Duncan answered.
“Good Lord!” Harvey exclaimed, pulling Lenore up short by the hitching post. “I’ve not heard good things about that school, Duncan.”
“I would be surprised if you had, my friend,” he replied. “The professors there research and examine items of questionable morality. Most of the learned educators seek information. Some, however, are on a journey towards what they believe will be power.”
“And where will it truly lead them?” Harvey asked, taking up his black bag as they both climbed out of the hack.
“To madness and damnation,” Duncan said, giving the mare an affectionate pat on her neck. “And that is if they’re lucky.”
The conversation stopped as they climbed the back steps and Harvey stepped forward to knock on the door.
No sooner had he done so than the door opened. The small, compact and weathered housekeeper, Colleen Shea, stood in the kitchen. Her normally composed and sphinx-like expression was nowhere to be found.
Her eyes darted about, and in her hands, she twisted a red and white checkered dishtowel.
“Mrs. Shea,” Harvey said gently, “whatever is the matter?”
“It’s Father Pacheco, Doctor,” she answered her accent a curious mixture of Irish brogue and Boston roughneck. “He’s so strange! He’ll not let me into the room to change the bandage, and I can smell the rot!”
“Damn” Harvey muttered, then in a louder voice he asked, “Is he in Father Mackenzie’s old room?”
Mrs. Shea nodded vigorously.
“Get water boiling, please, Mrs. Shea,” Harvey said, leading the way through the clean and organized kitchen. “We’ll need boiled rags if I’m not mistaken.”
With Duncan close on his heels, Harvey hurried through the house to the stairs. Climbing them two at a time, Harvey reached the upper hall and recoiled at the stench of gangrenous flesh as it assailed his nose. A short distance away was the closed door of the bedroom.
“My God!” Harvey slapped a hand over his mouth and nose, causing his next words to be somewhat muffled. “Duncan, would you be so kind as to open the door?”
Duncan strode forward, grasped the knob and twisted, pushing the door open at the same time. The nauseating odor of rot struck Harvey with the force of a blow, and the terrible odor was incongruous with the bright and cheerful scene before them.
Sunlight filled the Priest’s bedroom, and photographs in beautiful dark wood frames hung on the walls. Father Pacheco reclined on his bed, propped up with an open book in his right hand. His left arm lay across his stomach, and that hand was swollen and discolored.
The priest set the book down on his lap, nodded to the black bag in Harvey’s grasp and said in a clear, strong voice, “You are the doctor, I presume?”
Harvey lowered his hand from his mouth, forced a smile and said. “I am. Dr. Harvey Cushing.”
Father Pacheco extended his right hand, and Harvey stepped forward and shook it. He was surprised at the strength of the priest’s grip. Harvey tried to let go and begin the examination, but the priest tightened his hold.
“I need your left arm, Dr. Cushing. The stitches came out in mine,” the priest’s eyes flickered over to Duncan. “Or your associate’s arm, I’m not particular about which –”
Father Pacheco was cut off by the painfully loud report of the pistol as Duncan fired a single shot. The bullet slammed into the priest’s temple and splattered blood, bones, brains, and black hair across the pillows and wall.
With his ears ringing, Harvey pulled his hand free and staggered back.
Duncan stepped forward, the revolver’s barrel fixed on the corpse of the priest. With his free hand, Duncan jerked back the blankets.
Father Pacheco was naked from the waist down.
And what Harvey saw was a patchwork man.
The priest had been cobbled together with the body parts of other men. A dark shin with a pale white foot joined by rows of stitches, and the combination was reversed on the opposite leg.
The sound of running feet broke through the fugue that had settle over him, and Harvey turned in time to see Mrs. Shea as she crossed the threshold.
She gazed upon the corpse, then her eyes rolled up to reveal the whites.
Harvey caught the woman as she pitched forward. He glanced up at Duncan, saw the man cock the revolver’s hammer back and fire a second shot into the dead creature’s skull.
Duncan picked up the book the creature had put down, turned it over and let out a dry chuckle.
“What?” Harvey asked, easing himself and Mrs. Shea to the floor. “What is it?”
“Appropriate reading, it would seem,” Duncan responded, and he handed the book to Harvey.
Bound in red leather and worn from use, the book’s title stood out in surprisingly bright gold lettering.
Dumbfounded, Harvey looked up at Duncan.
But the other man had removed a scalpel from Harvey’s bag. And as Harvey watched, Duncan began to cut away the stitches and disassemble the creature.
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