John Connolly 

The Sisters Strange

A  web exclusive Charlie Parker novella

 

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41

It was growing darker, so Eleanor Towle lit a lamp on the kitchen table. The ancient heating system had rumbled into action, gurgling and hissing, and now the house sounded as though it was suffering from indigestion. I felt my phone vibrate in my pocket, but didn’t look at the number. Whoever it was, they could wait.
    “So the markings on the coins were unusual,” I said.  “Did that give them a rarity value?”
    Eleanor rested her chin on her hands.  
    “You ask a lot of questions,” she said.
    “It’s why I’m here.”
    “Hardly seems fair. You ask, I answer. It’s like an interrogation.”
    “Ms. Towle, I don’t believe you’re sharing anything that you don’t want to share.”
    “And why would that be?”
    “Because you’re worried.”
    “About what?”
    “Your safety,” I said, “and possibly Egon’s, too. You can’t call the police because of what he’s done, and I don’t think it would ever have struck you to hire a private investigator, because what is there to investigate but your brother’s crime? You’ve taken a calculated gamble that my involvement is more likely to help than hinder, but each time I ask a question, I can see you thinking for a second or two before you reply.”
    “That’s because I’m putting a lot of trust in you.”
    “And holding just as much back.”
    “You’re very cynical. Are you married?”
    “No.”
    “I’m surprised. I thought only married people were so cynical about the opposite sex. Were you ever married?”    
    “Yes.”
    “What happened?”
    “She died.”
    “I’m sorry. Do you have children?”
    “One.” 
    Two, but that was none of her concern.
    “A boy or a girl?”
    “A girl. You were telling me about the coin.”
    “Yes, I was, wasn’t it?” She lifted her head, and rubbed the palm of her right hand with her thumb. “I held it, you know, but not for very long. I didn’t care to.”
    “Why was that?”
    She raised her right hand, displaying the palm. Even in the lamplight, I could see the tiny white blisters on her skin.
    “I can’t get rid of them,” she said, “and they itch like crazy. I think I’ll have to see a doctor, but what will I tell him: that I held an old coin for a couple of seconds before dropping it on the floor? That I saw something in those seconds, something that resembled the image on the coin, and afterward my skin began to blister? That now I have nightmares about infection and disease, of the pustules bursting and white worms emerging from the wounds?”
    She closed her hand, and placed it on her lap.
    “What is the coin, Ms. Towle? Why is it so important?”
    “It might not always have been a coin,” she said.  “Egon thinks it might have had another form at some point – a small effigy, perhaps – but it ended up as potin before being turned into a coin. It doesn’t matter, really. The shape may change, but its nature never does. It’s both the disease and the remedy. It’s a toxin and an antitoxin, all in one. It’s not the coin that matters so much as what it’s supposed to buy.”
    “And what’s that?”
    “Life,” she said, “an extension of your years. Because the coin wards off death.”
    “Eternal life?”
    “You sound skeptical.”
    “Shouldn’t I be?”
    “Certainly. Nothing is eternal. Even God will vanish when no one is left to speak His name. Call it longer life, then: years, decades. That would be enough for some. I know people who’d sell their souls for just an extra day.” She paused. “My mother wouldn’t have, but I’d have sold my soul for one more day with her.”
    She kept her stare fixed on the table, like a woman peering into a still, dark pool to gauge the depths of her own regret.
    “I sense a ‘but’ coming,” I said.
    “Isn’t there always? I thought I’d be married by now, but I’m not. I hoped to be a mother, but it didn’t happen. I wanted my mother to keep on living, but she died.  Life is written after the ‘but.’ The rest is just what might have been.”  
    She wiped her eyes, even though they’d betrayed her only slightly.  
    “I’m a fool,” she said. “Raum Buker rolls up here, and I take him to my bed. You arrive at my door, and I spill my guts to you. Damn all you men. I’m better off alone.”
    I wasn’t about to disagree, and any straw poll of women would also probably have come down on her side. In general, men could be poor adverts for their sex, but Raum Buker more than most.
    “The coin is its own price,” said Eleanor, “or so Egon says, because that’s the myth surrounding it. The coin infects, but it also staves off the consequences of the infection. It corrupts, but as long as you hold onto it, you’ll live. Lose it, and you’re in trouble. Your time starts ticking away, and the contamination begins to make itself felt. Meanwhile, a new infection begins, so whatever rests in that piece of metal can find another host. If the coin isn’t taken up again, the presence sleeps, and waits to be rediscovered.
    “That’s why Raum and my brother targeted Kepler, because even if it’s all a myth, or just so much baloney, there are still men who will pay a lot of money for the coin because of its history. Oh, don’t get me wrong: Egon and Raum stole other pieces from Kepler, and they’ve already offloaded some of them, but that chunk of potin is the real prize. The problem is that nobody is going to want to buy it as long as Kepler is still looking for it. I mean, who wants to die for a coin?”
    She tapped a finger on the table, and the lamplight caught the gleam in her eye.
    “But as soon as Kepler breathes his last,” she said, “the auction starts.”