Ghost Town

“Wake up, Yules!” Abram said. Ulysses Marks’ eyes shot open and he rolled off the pew. His body struggled to correct when gravity took over, an unconscious mixture of groan and shout falling from his mouth. A rough start to another rough day.
Marks shuffled upright, cursing whoever awakened him. However, the throbbing in his skull cut him short, forcing him to clench his eyes shut. It didn’t get any better when he pried one open to see Abram Grothe, wearing both the silver star of Sheriff and the signature white-tabbed collar of a preacher.
“I’m happy to finally see you here on Sunday,” the lawman said as he helped Marks sit back down. “But I can’t say I’m not disappointed you’re here sleeping off a hangover.”
“Rained last night,” he moaned, closing his eyes and rubbing the bridge of his nose firmly. “The door was open.”
“Indeed.” Abram looked around at the inside of the Gomorra Parish, an old Spanish mission on the edge of town. Reverend Perry Inbody had chosen the abandoned building to plant his congregation shortly after arriving in town. Abram spent many Sundays here, but as he looked around this morning, he was struck by something unfamiliar. “Where is everyone?”
“Guess folks ain’t up for much churchin’ this mornin’.” Marks began to smirk. “Maybe today’s lookin’ up for me after all.” A light slap across the back of his head put an end to any further mockery as the throbbing increased.
“That’s enough heathenry for today, don’t you think? Perry lives in the basement. He’s usually up here just after dawn.”
“If he was, I imagine I’d have gotten the same treatment he gave Blackwood.” Abram shot him stern look, but it went unnoticed as he was still largely unable to open his eyes to see it.
“What about the other regulars? Mr. Schultz … The Blacks … old Miss Lily …”
“Hell, I heard them folks were sick.”
“Really?” Abram thought for a moment. “Numbers have been lower the past few weeks. Perry’s probably visiting them then. No matter.” Abram smiled. “It’s Sunday, Yules. So we’re gonna have church. Let’s go and round up the sheep. You do remember what herding is like through that fog, don’t you?”
“I only run beef.”
“And the Lord saith unto them, ‘Follow me, and I will make you fishers of men.’ Besides, the other option is a cell.”
Marks stiffened up and smiled through his discomfort. “Sheep it is! Lead the way.”
* * *
The two walked the streets of Gomorra’s north end, at one time the bastion of the Collegium, a group of would-be world-changer scientists and thinkers that made the town their home. The area suffered under many calamities through the years, mostly shambles by the time refugees from Ghost Creek and the other new settlers arrived. Rumors that the area was haunted kept the locals away, but the newcomers just cleared the way and started rebuilding, using what they could and scrapping the rest.
Upon leaving the Parish, they found the streets emptier than usual. But Abram’s inquiries all seemed to point to Marks’ conclusion; the regulars had all gotten sick with the fever. So the mission to gather the faithful turned into a humanitarian one instead, hoping to offer a friendly visit and a prayer for the suffering. Finding them proved to be difficult.
Every report was the same; whomever they sought was ordered by Doc Ashbel to the quarantine tents for treatment, but the tents offered no answers. “I’m sorry Abram,” Nurse Powell spoke compassionately. “We couldn’t do any more for them here, so Hawley’s men took them to the Sanatorium.”
The Sanatorium was one of the old Collegium buildings, acquired by Ivor Hawley and reopened as a hospital for the sick, like the tents, another of his humanitarian efforts on behalf of Gomorra’s people. The concern for his friends was beginning to show on Abram’s face as he knocked on the large white door. Ulysses shifted his weight from one foot to the other as he stood behind him, impatient for his sentence to be over.
After a few moments, the warden opened the door to greet them. He was a short, stocky man, wearing an old shirt and vest that looked a size or two too small, sweat-stained and struggling to contain his midsection. Thick auburn hair was slicked across his balding head and curled above his lip in a thick handlebar. A series of scars ran down the side of his face, a remnant from some past tragedy. “Sheriff,” he said cheerfully in his gravelly voice. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
He smiled grandly, exposing a mouthful of yellow, pointed teeth.
“It’s Odett, right?” Abram began. “We missed some friends in church today, so we were hoping a visit might brighten their spirits.”
Karl Odett’s face glowed with rehearsed joy. “How very thoughtful! What good Christian men we have here in Gomorra! Who exactly are you looking for?”
“There seem to be many actually. But I suppose we could start with a married couple … Nathaniel and Greta Black?”
“I’m sorry, Sheriff, but there’s no one here by that name. Not now, not ever.”
“Really?” Marks said, his interest in the search piquing suddenly.
Abram scrunched his brow in disbelief, as he asked, “Are you certain?”
“Completely,” Odett continued. “I make it a point to know our patients.”
“But that nurse said they were brought here,” Ulysses stepped forward slightly. “Along with the others.”
Abram held up his hand to silence Marks as he maintained control of the inquiry. “Yes … Ned Schultz? … Lily Callaghan?”
“Afraid not. Never heard those names until today, and I’ve been here since the beginning.”
“I thought the Sanatorium was opened to take patients who were too sick for the tents.”
“Oh, we are. Those poor souls need isolation from this poisonous air if they are to recover. But none you mentioned.”
“Where else would they have been taken?”
Odett wracked his brain before speaking. “Why if they didn’t get better, the only other place in town would be Elephant Hill, I imagine.” His rehearsed smile returned. “We’re the only facility in Gomorra capable of treating such severe cases.”
Abram’s concern grew as he puzzled over what this all meant. “Perhaps you were given the wrong names. Let me see if I recognize anyone,” he said as he quickly moved past the warden to the inner door of the entryway, only to find it securely locked.
“I’m afraid I can’t allow that, Sheriff. This is a quarantined facility. Patients here are highly contagious, and I won’t risk exposure to the public. Besides that, the purpose of this building is to keep them sequestered while they recover, safe from any outside sources of infection.”
“What about inside sources?” Marks was sobering up as the conversation continued.
Odett turned to him with a steeled glance while still wearing his pointy-toothed smile. “Even moreso. It’s for your protection as well as theirs. I’d hate to see you become our next admission.”
Abram considered his options as he stepped back once more, eyeing Odett suspiciously as he did. The drunk and the lawman found uneasily common ground as they both looked at the man before them, every bit as unnerving as he was trying to be respectable.
“Then I suppose I’ll leave you to your work, Mr. Odett,” he said. “But I’ll want to see a copy of your patient list.”
“Certainly. Just as soon as I see a warrant.”
Abram paused. “Of course.”
“Until then, Sheriff,” Odett grinned, bowing his head slightly as he closed the outer door and locked it again. Abram craned his neck to see past the portly man as he unlocked the inner door but was unable to see anything of significance.
“So that’s it?!” Marks was incredulous. “The big bad law man is just gonna let that go?! People are missin’ and that guy just smells of wrong. Put that ridiculous sword to use and bust down that door already.”
“He’s right, Yules. I’m not going to risk making things worse until I know more. I’ll get the warrant easy enough and get to the bottom of things then.” Abram considered his next words a moment before turning to look Marks in the eye. “Thank you for coming with me today. I shows a lot that you stuck with me through all of this. I suggest you head home and get some rest. I’ll know more in a day or two.” With that, Abram shook Marks’ hand firmly and turned to head back to the center of town.
Ulysses Marks stood there for several moments, watching Abram walk away, unsure of what to do next. He looked back to the Sanatorium, his eyes raising to some of the upper windows, all with curtains drawn. What happened to those people? What in the world is Odett hiding? Yesterday, he wouldn’t have cared one bit about any of this. But he had a rough start this morning.