If there was one good thing about dying in Arizona, it’s that you’ll never be cleaner.
The caravan of travelling entertainers – Legwrench’s Mechanical Marvels – was nothing but cinders, scorched timbers, charcoal and anything else that wasn’t edible. The flesh had been burned from the bodies, picked at by the vultures and buffeted by scouring desert sun and sands. The result was bone that was either ash black or bleached white.
“Know what’s a damn shame?” marshal Jack Lightning remarked, her eyes examined the grisly display with a remorseless intensity that matched the midday sun.
Marshal Wendel Caine glanced over to her.
“I missed out on the circus,” she finished as she strode down the sandy dune after her two companions – the iron encased and steam-powered marshal, Hans Octavius Wilhem and their new acquaintance, the dapper-dressed and discerning detective from the Pinkerton Agency, James Lovelace. Both educated men, they held little hope that the macabre scene would yield much in clues but at this point, not much was better than nothing they had.
Lovelace moved around the wreckage and bones, eyes scanning the black timbers for a touch of surviving colour, a couple of letters, anything that might yield a clue as to the whereabouts of the late William Tapping Junior; current assignment being to locate and inform him of Tapping Senior’s passing and to inform the younger man of his inheritance.
Hopefully the grim news had been delivered at the Pearly Gates.
Wendel Caine kept his eyes on the ground, searching with little hope that some tracks of the caravan’s killers might have survived the two weeks of desert weather. Said tracks had fared as well as the killer’s victims.
With Lovelace focused on his assignment, Wilhem examined the rest of the caravan. The circus had boasted many machines of marvelous design and ingenuity, as well as performers and animals. There was even an elephant in the entourage, it’s flesh the only kind that had weathered the onslaught of sand and scavengers. What concerned the Iron Marshal was that it had been decapitated. In one blow. Similar strikes of such power were evident in the reamins. And there was something else…
“Zhere is evidence zhat ze perpetrators’ weapons vere ov a explosive or incindiary nature,” Wilhem spoke. Lovelace looked up from his investigations and nodded.
The Iron Marshal continued. “Some sort of bladed veapon, likely aflame, sundered most things here vith prodigious strength.”
Lovelace toed aside some of the debris and unearthed one of the posters that had sruvived the carnage. It advertised the suspect of the another murder that had taken place at an iron mine not far from here and the reason why the lawmen were out here at all. A gorilla capable of basic math, the ritual of serving tea and a propensity for firearms that had seen a Chinese Miner cut down in a hail of bullets. The poster called it The Six-Gun Gorilla.
Beyond the poster and shattered timbers lay the remains of another circus performer. This one, though, was in possession of trinkets that identified him as the Lovelace’s quarry. William Tapping Junior either resided in this caravan or had sought futile refuge from whatever had destroyed the carnival. Each of the marshals believed that comrades of the murdered miner had been responsible, but it was no act of revenge. Their companion had been murdered two days– the circus, two weeks. So what had happened and why?
Jack Lightning had learnt the business of lawmaking from his family and it pretty much consisted of two techniques. Be quick enough to catch em in the act and be quicker than that when shooting them. Neither applied here and, with Lovelace and Wilhem pooling investigative techniques, as well as several hundred-dollar-words from years of fancy schooling, the Lightning Marshal decided to spare herself the headache. Striding up the tallest sand dune she could find, Lightning scanned the horizon, relying on blind luck that the culprits would be looking back at her.
They were not, but something else was. Arizona was largely made of dust and dirt with scatterings of rock that landed as nature dictated. Not so for the small cairn of stones about half kilometre away. Someone had deliberately placed these stones around or on top of something and the Arizona desert was just too big for a burial and the circus graveyard to be a coincidence.
“Think I got somethin'” Jack called out as she descended down the dune. Wendel Caine and Smokey the Bear skidded down after her and she could hear the whir and clank of brass hydraulics propelling Octavius Wilhem. All of them convened at the stonework by the time Jack had unearthed something that lay beneath. It was an elaborately decorated lacquer box, a little over a metre wide, half that long and deep. The exterior was covered in engravings and while Jack could barely read English as it was, she at least knew it was Chinese.
“Some sort ov burial container,” Wilhem translated while one of his four mechanical arms positioned a magnifying glass over a complex locking mechanism at the mouth of the box. “Ze box is trapped as well.”
There was a shuffling behind the Iron Marshal and by the time he turned around, Caine had positioned himself behind the iron bulk of the German Marshal, while Lovelace and Lightning employed the Mountain Marshal and Smokey as a very furry shield.
“I believe it iz meant to destroy ze contents inside, not us,” Wilhem replied in tone as dry as the desert.
“Given their propensity for incendiary tools, one would assume it is still a threat,” Lovelace called over the grizzly bear’s haunches.
“I’ll say,” Caine added. “Milk never did sit right.” The rest of the lawmen frowned at him.
“Y’know, dairy stuff.”
“‘Incendiary’, my good chap,” Lovelace offered. “Flammable, combusible…”
“Explosive,” Wilhem translated, his skills in dialects also included the part of West Virginia where Caine had received his ‘schooling’.
“Why didn’t y’all just say that then?”
“Educated folk…” Jack said, her spurs jingling as she tapped her boot on the ground. “And now we got two of em.”
“Don’t seem right to me,” Caine stated. “All dem fancy learnin’ stuff seems to just obfuscate the truth.”
There was another pause as the other three marvelled at the odds that Caine used ‘obfuscate’ correctly, that quickly ended with a click from the box.
“Zhere, finished.” Wilhem lifted the lid.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2