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Theater of Illusion
By Kathy Steffen
Medallion Press, Inc. Copyright © 2010 Kathy Steffen
All right reserved.
Chapter One September 18, 1910 (ten years later)
This time he'd do it.
Tobias Perkins' legs dangled over the two hundred-foot drop of Lost Soul's Cliff. The night clung to him, the last vestiges before dawn. He felt a little fuzzy, and more than a little guilty in stealing the bottle of whiskey from the Spirit's bar. At least he'd grabbed it from the top shelf.
"Nothing but the best for the Spirit of the River." He lifted the bottle in a toast to the riverboat where he and his family worked and lived. His mother, Emma, shared ownership of the boat and she insisted everything aboard be top-notch. Which suited the event of a man's first drink. Ironically, also his last.
He had to jump. Jared Perkins, his father, had returned. He haunted Toby. Lived inside his son, looking for an opportunity-a moment of anger-to explode out and destroy. Toby clutched the bottle to the center of his chest where a burn flared, his father's anger. Every time he felt the burn, Toby knew his father wanted out.
He raised the bottle higher to the amused moon. "Here's to my last few moments on earth. Hey, what was the nursery rhyme about the cow jumping over the moon?"
The silver orb gazed back, no answer.
"Don't worry, I'm not planning to jump very far. I'm just looking for the nerve to drop off this edge." He lifted the bottle and hesitated. He'd never tried this before. He swallowed. Whiskey scorched all the way down. He gagged. Choked. No wonder they called it "liquid fire."
"Cripes, why does anybody drink this junk?" He knew his reason, hopefully he'd find courage with his first swig. His friend Charley insisted time and time again, a good, stiff shot was all he needed.
Just down one. Quick like. Then you'll be able to talk to the ladies without gettin' your tongue in a twist.
Charley always focused on chasing after girls. Toby needed courage for a different reason. He raised the bottle to the bright disk in the sky.
"Thank you for your rapt attention, Moon. I needed a witness." He wondered if anyone would find his body, or if he'd sink and wash downriver and out to sea forever.
Despite the hideous taste, he gulped another swig and belched. Lovely. And still, no sign of courage. All the whiskey accomplished, besides causing a burp, was to make him nauseous. He took another gulp. And another.
"Aack!" This stuff was really horrid.
After the next gulp, he saw them. In the black, two tiny, red dots glowed from far, far down. Watching. Calling.
He flung the bottle into the dark in their direction. In the time it took for his heart to thud several times, the bottle smashed on the rocks below. The delicate sound of shattering glass broke the soft rush of the river. The red dots watched. Didn't waver.
"Hey there, dear Father, we both know that's not you," Toby whispered.
Legend explained the occasional sight of glowing red eyes to Tobias' murderous father reborn. Once human, the stories told, Jared Perkins had come back. Legend grew as legends did, and stories circulated of an angry spirit stalking the banks. The shadow of an insane minister. A creature from hell. Passengers and boatmen alike glimpsed glowing red eyes in the dark. Warnings sounded along every town: stay away from the river, especially at night!
Tobias laughed. Must be another explanation for the red dots. And not because he didn't believe in ghosts and hauntings. He believed. Heck, he lived one every day. In fact, he knew exactly where Jared's demonic presence lived, and he planned to take it over the edge and into the river.
Toby spread a hand over his chest, willing the burn beneath his heart to quiet. "Not now," he whispered. He couldn't risk any distraction or he'd never do it. He listened to the river rushing below, watched moonlight glance off rippling water and shatter into a thousand glittering pieces.
He only needed to lean forward and push off. And fly. He'd finally be free.
In his left hand he clutched the small toy bear he'd cherished as a child. Felt its soft, plush body. Monkey Bear. He'd loved the thing, clung to it through many nights, cried as its snuggling comfort helped him through the worst days of his life. Only fitting a toy should plunge with him to his final destiny.
Darn. He needed another swig of whiskey.
"Shoulda thought of that before I threw it away," he said, regretting his grand gesture. He couldn't even get this right. God, he'd miss Sarah and his mom. The boat. Charley. Gage. Even the captain. He swiped something away, something wet and on his cheek. Tears? "Cripes, can I get any more pathetic?"
At least only the moon and the mysterious red dots watched his last, pitiful moments.
The burn roiled in his chest again. "You aren't out there on the river, are you, dear Father. Nope, we both know where you are." Toby had to end his life before the thing within him did something terrible, some harm he wouldn't be able to reverse and would regret forever. Time to mash them both on the rocks below. End the evil for good. The only answer.
Be a man. Do it. Jump.
"Courage?" he asked the night. "Just for a second? It's all I need."
Lean forward. A little more.
Wind came up and tickled through his hair, reminding him of the loving hand of his mother. She had no idea of the monster she raised. It fell to him to end the Perkins family legacy.
Jump. Jump now.
The moon winked. He clutched Monkey Bear tight and leaned forward.
* * *
Sarah Perkins bolted upright in her bed and listened. In her cabin aboard the Spirit of the River she generally slept deeply, but something felt wrong. The night, usually hushed with nothing more than the sound of the river outside, sharpened with anticipation.
She pulled her blanket closer, fighting the chill in the night air. The heaviness of sleep melted away and she remembered. This day-soon to come-assaulted her with sour memory. Twisted her stomach. Wrong? Of course, something was wrong. No wonder she couldn't sleep.
She rose, mindful of Lilly, her roommate, sound asleep on the other bunk. Gloom wrapped through her room. She wondered about the time as she slipped a shift over her dressing gown. The shadows of night reminded her of watered-down coffee-weak and thin. Was it past midnight then?
Sarah made her way to the door and opened it with care despite the flicker of panic deep in her gut. She stopped and listened. Water lapped at the edges of the riverboat. A gentle, soothing resonance. Caressing. Beyond the sound, the quiet rush of the river. And Sterling City, a town built on the labor and money from steel, slept. Even the drunks were silenced for the night and the taverns closed.
Through the seeming tranquility, she sensed something watching. Eyes from the past. Her father, Jared Perkins, ten years dead on this day. A most terrible anniversary, indeed.
Or happy, depending on which way you looked at it.
September 18-the day Sarah and her family achieved freedom from Jared Perkins' oppressive wrath. No tears wasted on him, she was glad he was dead. He hadn't shown a shred of compassion for his family. Her father-the man who was supposed to protect them. All he protected was his own wrathful pride and warped view of the Bible. Both had been more important to him than her mother. Or her. Or Toby.
Realization hit her as warning again took hold. Her brother. Toby needed her. Now.
Damn it all anyway, why hadn't she figured out her brother needed her, today of all days, before now? The answer came back, accusing. Too involved in her own world, she'd been a selfish little ninny.
"Enough!" she said. Berating herself wouldn't help Toby.
Once outside, she struggled to shut the door slowly and not slam it closed. Moonlight spilled over the deck. Intruding through her worry over Tobias, a reminder bubbled to the front of her thoughts. Her test was today.
The riverboat pilot test before the River Board. Nine a.m. sharp. She'd practiced, she knew every part of the river, she was set to pass the damned thing this time around. If the River Board would approve of a woman pilot, she would finally realize her dream. Stand on her own. Pilot a riverboat.
One thing could conceivably get in the way. This year the board scheduled her test on the anniversary of Jared Perkins' death. On purpose, she suspected, to distract her from the task. The board had no use for a woman among them.
Well, she'd show them. She would not allow her dead bastard of a father to reach from the past and ruin her dreams. And she absolutely would not allow his memory to hurt her brother. Which circled her back to why she was out here in the dark. Toby.
She tiptoed down the corridor to his room. Toby shared quarters with Charley, a waiter onboard the Spirit. She pulled back her desire to kick the door in and rapped softly instead. A faint rumble came from inside. She creaked the door open. Moonlight glowed from behind her, illuminating Charley's bunk complete with his slumbering, snoring hulk. Toby's bunk stretched out, empty. Pristine. Blankets tucked, pillow smooth. Either he'd risen and made it, or not slept in it at all.
She shut the door, thoughts whirling through her mind. Where could he be?
"Oh, my God."
She flashed back to four years ago. Her brother, only thirteen, leaving a suicide note under her pillow apologizing for throwing himself off Lost Soul's Cliff. He had no choice, the note insisted, he owed it to their father's victims. She arrived barely in enough time to stop him.
That's where he'd be. Again. She knew it, without a doubt.
Wait. Chasing him down? Insane. A wild goose chase at best.
"Don't be silly," she whispered to herself. She always jumped to conclusions-the worst ones. Toby was fine, most likely down in the galley, getting something to eat. Or unable to sleep, perhaps wandering the boat. What if she went all the way to the cliff and he wasn't there? After all, the cliff towered over the other side of the river more than five miles away.
No use pretending. He'd be at Lost Soul's Cliff, she knew it inside, deep and sure. Sarah didn't want him to be there, because it meant he was in trouble of the worst kind. Again. Being perfectly honest with herself, she didn't want to chance missing her exam either. Well, damn it all, she'd manage both, save her brother and become the first woman pilot on the Ohio River. After all, she was Sarah Perkins. She could do anything, especially the impossible. Sarah Perkins, indomitable. Tenacious. Unstoppable.
"Idiotic," she said aloud. "At times, apparently delusional."
Could she make it to the cliff and back in time? It didn't matter. The hell with becoming a riverboat pilot. Reaching her dream. Toby needed her. She returned to her cabin to gather her shoes and a scarf.
Excerpted from Theater of Illusion by Kathy Steffen Copyright © 2010 by Kathy Steffen. Excerpted by permission.
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