Everyone inside the room could hear the stomping.
Three sets of booted feet thumped up the stairs as if they were being chased by tribes of Apache. The thunderous march dulled to a cautious tread as the footsteps neared the door, replaced by a short and unintelligible exchange. The door opened and those waiting inside were treated to a scowling William Henry Baker storming through the passage, his two guards stopped by the anonymous and fearsome members of the Secret Service.
The co-chairman of the Ithaca Rifle company turned his red face across the room, frowning at the inclusion of two US Marshals – Hans Octavius Wilhem and Jack Lightning, as well as the new arrival of James Lovelace – and Samuel Colt who beamed back at the tardy businessman. Baker then contorted his face toward the unfamiliar expression of contrite apology.
“Distinguished gentlemen, I can only offer my sincerest apologies for the delay. I was–,”
“Not about to keep us waiting with excuses,” Bradley Crankshaft, the representative from Montana, drawled over him.
Baker clamped his mouth shut.
“I’m afraid that I must apologise as well,” Raymond Coppersmith, the dapper Congressman of New York said as he stood and steered the silenced industrialist to a corner of the room. “Urgent business with Mr Baker that I hope you’ll forgive.”
The other delegates sighed but waved him off. Samuel Colt turned in his chair and leant toward the whispering men as did the marshals but the exchange was too low for any of them to make out, except for Pinkerton Detective, James Lovelace – who had already demonstrated keen perceptive abilities during the fracas with the Chinese – tuned his hearing toward the conversation and heard everything.
Baker gasped as Coppersmith reached the part of the tale involving the Chinese saboteurs’’ plans to fill the hijacked airship with hydrogen and crash it into the gas well located below Ithaca’s Space Gun prototype. The representative from New York was merciless in oration; describing through hissed words, the cataclysmic damage that the site and everyone on it would have suffered and Baker’s face swept from red to stark white as he realised that the lawmen had saved his life as sure as they had saved the Congressmen.
Coppersmith left the stunned industrialist, smug satisfaction peeking from behind a mask of stoicism and rejoined the group. “Again, my apologies,” Coppersmith said as he sat down. The room paused and then Coppersmith added “Bill, are you joining us?”
Wrenched from loud and fiery thoughts, Baker shuffled to the group, taking a chair and with that, the business of launching Americans to the moon commenced.
Jack Lightning could not remember a worse time in her life and she’d just recently been shot with a flamethrower. Both Colt and Baker filled the room with engineering jargon that made as much sense as Wilhem whenever he was getting into whatever new device or improvement he had made. The Lightning Marshal was spared on occasion as each industrialist took the opportunity to comment on the opposition’s ideas; Baker mentioning that Samuel Colt and Nicola Telsa should be renamed ‘The Brother’s Grimm’ for their fairytale notions of the Colt Apollo, while Colt declared that the not even the hot air generated by Baker could fire a man into space.
Lightning glanced at her companions. Wilhem had a wry smile when Baker was talking about the tested and proven results of explosive propulsion, but seemed to go distant, nodding sometimes, when Colt was talking about electricity and magnets. Lovelace seemed to be following the conversation – no surprise for the educated Limey – but appeared more interested in the reactions of the Congressmen.
Insults notwithstanding, the Lightning Marshal was desperate enough to escape that Caine, Smokey and Alfonse seemed like a kinder fate, even if they had been stuffed full of beans.
Meanwhile, at the Marshal’s office, the Secret Service beneath – their automaton appearance – were very glad of their regulation-issue gasmasks. The Chinese prisoner, Sun Shang Xiang, couldn’t even lift her remaining arm to block her nose and had buried herself under a threadbare blanket in the corner of her cell.
Lovelace had indeed been studying the Congressmen and had reached some simple conclusions: Charles Toothbit was simply pleased to have so much money being thrown about in his state of Arizona. Bradley Crankshaft likewise, appeared sold on the idea of an era of exploration to remove the bitter taste of war. Raymond Coppersmith, though, had gone to great pains to appear vague and neutral, both in regard to the proposals outlined by each industrialists – who appeared to be bending over backward to gain support from the representative from New York – and to the Space Gun project in general. The Pinkerton Detective might have been interested to study him further, but that would mean remaining in this dustbowl dung-heap of a town longer than his assignment, and his own lofty standards of comfort, would permit.
The round Congressman of Arizona, Charles Toothbit, spoke up as Colt and Baker finished. “Gentlemen, despite the pressures both foreign and domestic, I’m pleased at the progress you’ve made and look forward to the test firing in the next couple of months.” Both of them looked satisfied at that.
“However, one piece of business remains before I can say that I’m fully satisfied, and that,” he said, turning to the marshals Wilhem and Lightning, “concerns the appointment of a mayor to Ascension.”
Both of the lawmen leaned forward at this. The notion of an authority figure in Ascension hadn’t occurred to either of them, due to the urgency of events and the speed they’d been forced to take charge of the town.
“Mr Colt has expressed, on numerous occasions, the folly of instituting a governing body in Ascension—“
“With respect, Congressman, It was the folly of painting a target on some poor fool while malcontents walked Ascension’s streets,” Colt declared.
“Yes, well. Given what I’ve heard, Ascension’s streets have been cleared, thanks to our diligent lawmen.” Toothbit returned his gaze to the Marshals. “What have you to say on the matter?”
Wilhem spoke first, his mind working hard to gild his expectations and concerns over some civilian giving him, and the other marshals, orders.
“Naturally ve vould welcome an elected offical. Ov course, ve vould require a judge to officiate zee election, und vone haz yet to visit zee town.”
“I’ll get somebody on that when I get back,” Toothbit grinned. “Ascension is primed to be a very important piece of this state and, the country and maybe even the world. It requires a government worthy of this potential.”
‘If the guns work’ Wilhem, Lovelace and Lightning thought together. “If there’s nothing further, I believe that our business is concluded,” Crankshaft announced and with that, Baker, the Congressmen, the Marshals and Lovelace left Colt’s apartments to ponder.
“A Mayor!” Caine exclaimed when Wilhem and Lightning returned to the office. “What the hell we need somethin’ like that fer?”
“Somebody to run zee town,” Wilhem replied.
“You mean, like we’ve pretty much been doin’?” Lightning stated.
“True. I von’t deny zee results und it vould have been pointless having a Mayor while Spokey and Vinsome vere about. But it iz required, more so if zhis project vorks.
Caine and Lightning appeared unconvinced, both of a Mayor and of the success of either Space Gun.
“You vish to approve maintenance und upkeep of zee town?” Wilhem asked. “Hear requests from zee citizens und conduct town meeting und zee like?”
“Hell no!” They both shouted.
“Zhen zee matter iz simple. Ve just ensure zhis Mayor vill be more help zhen hinderance.” Wilhem replied.
“Who do you think it’d be?” Lighting asked.
“Hard to say,” The Iron Marshal mused. “Zhere aren’t a lot of people in zee town to begin vith…”
“What if Colt and Ithaca put forward their own volunteers? We get all kinds of trouble then.” Caine suggested.
“True, but I believe anyvone from eizher camp vould be invalidated. “Neizher workers are part of zhe town itself. Zhey only appear vhen zhey have money to spend.”
“That puts anyone from the iron mine out of the race as well.” Lightning said.
“Candidates vill have to be nominated from zhe town’s citizenry.” Wilhem declared. “Vhich still makes zhem susceptible to eizher Colt or Ithaca…”
“Or Spokey,” Caine said as he folded his arms and frowned.
“True. Ve could prevent eizher company from interfering, but ve are going to hav to do somezhing about zhat schveinhound und soon.”
Jack Lightning, who had removed herself from the boring topic of elections, and was instead focused on scrawling a letter to her Ma about Bradley Crankshaft’s account of her Pa’s actions during the war, shot up from the desk as if one of her guns had gone off into her leg.
“What about Buckshot?” she grinned.
“Buchannan Coalstorm?” Wilhem frowned at the image of the affable, though somewhat deluded proprietor of the Ignit-Inn, who had made Ascension his home to better his chances at being one of the fools fired into space.
“He is qualified.” Caine said.
“Good chilli and whiskey,” Caine shrugged. Wilhem shook his head.
“He’s a good guy and he likes us,” Lightning suggested. “And I reckon he’d have sense enough to keep out of our business.”
Wilhem kept shaking his head though not as fast as before. “Vould he even vant zee job?”
“If someone were to suggest it,” Lightning smiled.
Wilhem stopped shaking his head alltogether and looked up at the Lightning Marshal. “Vell, best do zhat zhen.”
“Not right now, we got more important matters.” Lightning stated.
“Such as?” Wilhem frowned again.
“Helpin’ me write this dang letter to Ma ‘bout what my Pa did,” Lightning said as she clutched the pencil back in her fist and started scratching words into paper.
Meanwhile, inside Etheric Delights, James Lovelace was doing some writing of his own, though it was done using a typewriter that Madam Ether had been kind enough to provide, and wasn’t as heartfelt or proud as Jack Lightning’s letter, though it made up for it in neatness and legibility. With his assignment over, the Pinkerton Agency had no business being in this town and neither did Lovelace– a time he was looking forward to as he hurried the report recommending his immediate return to New York.
He paused, mid-sentence, as there was a knock on the door.
“One moment,” he called as he finished the sentence, got up from his desk and unlocked the door. On the other side stood Congressman Raymond Coppersmith, absently adjusting an already immaculate black cravat.
“May I come in?”
Lovelace hid the frown from his face with the skill of a cardsharp. “Certainly, Congressman,” he replied, showing the man in and directing him to one of the plush chairs in his richly-appointment room.
Fixing the Congressman and himself a drink, Lovelace sat in the chair opposite and each studied the other with practised indifference while sipping scotch. Lovelace broke the silence. “What can I do for you, sir?”
“Mr Baker appeared most concerned today, wouldn’t you agree?”
Lovelace sipped his scotch, searching for clues that the man opposite knew he had heard their whispered conversation. Seeing none but cautious nevertheless, Lovelace nodded.
“It can be shocking for anyone to know how close to death they came today. It can cause one to reflect on the state of his affairs.” Coppersmith continued.
“Certainly,” Lovelace agreed and left it at that.
“I presume Mr Colt had similar thoughts after the imbroglio that left him infirmed and seeking the protection of your agency. I believe that this is one of those rare times where Baker and Colt might see eye-to-eye on such matters.”
Lovelace sipped his scotch again. The Congressman was circling the point but he’d get to the heart of the matter with or without the Pinkerton’s participation.
“After the meeting, I confided in Mr Baker of your own distinguished actions and affiliation in the same agency as Colt’s man. I am certain that Mr Baker is, even now, making arrangements to have your stay extended with a new assignment.”
There was a pause, and then “Something the matter, Mr Lovelace?”
The Pinkerton was still stuck on the words ‘stay extended’ and it showed. He shook his head sharply to clear his expression. “Scotch doesn’t seem to agree with me.”
Coppersmith put his glass down as well and leant forward, resting his chin on his folded hands. “I’ve made some inquiries as to your abilities. I’m pleased with the responses as your new assignment has you well placed for a task of mine.
Lovelace sank into his chair and clasped his hands, keeping as neutral as possible. “Something you’ve cleared with the agency?”
“Somewhat. Officially you’ll be providing security for Mr Baker who, as I understand it, believes he would be much better placed here in Ascension than ‘mucking about in the final stages’ and, coincidentally, being safely removed from further action against his project.” Coppersmith paused to clear his throat, sipped more scotch and then leant closer and whispered at a tone he knew Lovelace would be able hear.
“Unofficially, you’ll investigate how the particulars of our travel arrangements fell into the hands of those Chinese bastards.”
Lovelace unclasped his hands and reached for the scotch regardless of the earlier pretence. After a long while, he placed the glass, empty, back on the table and spoke.
“Who knew of your plans?”
“Some in Washington. Small numbers that will be investigated by upon returning.”
“Samuel Colt, Leroy Smith and William Henry Baker. Your counterpart in the agency, Edward Parkes. That’s all as far as I’m aware.”
“Was this an unscheduled visit?”
“Scheduled as part of several to ensure that we aren’t wasting our time with this Space Gun nonsense. But regardless of my feelings, a breach of security like this is treason.”
“It being scheduled could be the means by which the Chinese came aware of your visit…” Lovelace mused.
“The schedule stays between those aforementioned names and the committee. Further, it doesn’t give any other details such as route or security compliment.”
Lovelace paused, turning the answers over in his head. “Why involve me and not the marshals. They appear capable?”
Coppersmith frowned. “Their duties have them busy enough and inquiries made by them may warn off whatever spy lurks in this town. No, I believe you are the man for this job.” Coppersmith paused for a moment, and then added “Besides, while Ithaca Rifle Company will be paying for your services to Mr Baker, the US Government will be paying for your services as a spyhunter. Essentially, you draw on two paychecks, Mr Lovelace.”
Lovelace smiled. Working for the Congressman would lift the reputation of the Pinkerton Detective Agency to even loftier benefits. And the money was better than good. There was just one more thing.
“Does the job have to be in this town?”
Coppersmith smiled, finished his scotch and walked to the door. “Good luck.”
Closing the door after him, Lovelace returned to the typewriter, eager to finish his report for new reasons.
“So what do you think of that James Lovelace fella?” Jack Lightning asked as she and the other two marshals patrolled the streets of Ascension as the workers filed in from Colt and Ithaca.
“I doubt he knows a sprocket from a socket,” Wilhem replied.
“I think he’s a whoopsie,” Caine stated.
“Regardless,” Wilhem continued. “He seems capable enough and it vould be good to have an eye of Herr Baker if he’s staying in town.”
“That’s true,” Lightning agreed as she and Wilhem turned toward the Ignit-Inn to speak with Buckshot about his political future in Ascension.
“I could be Mayor,” Caine said as they separated. “Got myself a speech and everythin’.”
“I doubt zee town vould be won over by zee campaign promise of ‘Look at me or zhe bear funny und you’re fuckin’ dead’. With that, the two Marshals entered the saloon.
Inside, the Ignit-In was doing a roaring trade as workers from Colt and Ithaca spent big after a week of back-breaking desert labour. Whiskey poured from one end of the bar to the other and girls were throwing themselves into high-stepping dance as the water-piano competed against the wash of gambling and guzzling. Ahead of them, James Lovelace had taken up a seat at one of the tables, a stack of chips in front of him that was larger than the other three workers. Hans Octvaius Wilhem decided to ensure that peace was kept at the Pinkerton’s table and took up a chair and some cards.
Jack Lightning sat at the bar just as Buckshot finished the latest lap of whiskey shots. “Evenin’ marshal,” the broad and beaming bartender was already pouring filling a glass. “What can I do you for?”
The glass barely touched the bar before Lightning downed the shot. Slamming it home, she leaned toward Buckshot before he was swept away for another round.
“Business is lookin’ good,” she started.
“Business is busy, marshal,” the bartender grinned. “But it’s what keeps us all here.”
“At the moment,” Jack continued, tapping the glass for another round which Buckshot started to pour. “But it’s likely to get even busier and this town needs some leadership if’n it wants to keep up.”
“Good thing we got you, then,” the bartender said, filling the glass and then blinked as it was empty again.
“Was thinkin’ about somethin’ else,” the Lightning Marshal said over the growing din, lips wet with whiskey. She tapped the glass again. “Was thinkin’ about a Mayor.”
Buckshot waved at one of the girls behind the bar to keep the other glasses filled. “Well, that’d be nice, I’m sure. Be a lot less dangerous than marshal’in.”
The Lightning Marshal blinked. Drumming her fingers on the bar, she cast a look over at Wilhem, who appeared to be ending Lovelace’s lucky streak at the table. Damn fool German was better at this sort of stuff and she was better at the gamblin’ so how did we end up here? Without thinking, or even looking, she slammed down another shot and grabbed the bartender before he could escape to the rest of his patrons.
“Or,” she said, matching her ice-blue eyes against his softer brown ones, using every nuance subtle or otherwise to ram the message home. “Somebody in this town could run. Hell, even someone at this bar.”
She dragged him up against the bar before he even had a chance to glance at anyone else and kept her gaze locked at him. Understanding bloomed behind his eyes like a rose in spring and, to the Lightning Marshal, was taking just about as long.
“You mean, I could run?” The bartender tried the sentence out. “Gee I dunno, marshal…”
“You get along with everyone, you make em happy and you’re a citizen o’ Ascension. Makes you more than qualified,” she said, verging on ordering him to either run for Mayor or for the door.
Buckshot turned the idea over, the gears ticking away as if somebody had kicked the brake off.
“If I was Mayor, you reckon that might get me a shot o’ landin’ on the moon?” He asked after a while.
“Don’t see why not,” Jack responded, not caring one way or the other.
“I could be the…” the smile growing on Buckshot’s face like the dawning sun. “I could be the first Mayor on the Moon. The Mayor of the Moon!”
“I’ll drink to that,” Jack sighed and did just that.
Over the month since the marshal’s arrival to Ascension, the problems of two rival camps of workers, who were liquored up in the space of a night, had gone from all-out violence, to edgy amicability. The patrolling figure of Wendell Caine, Smokey, and now, Alfonse, kept it there. The Mountain Marshal hadn’t even needed to use The Speech. Things were peaceful.
“Mr Caine!” a honeyed voice called as he strolled up the street. Turning around, the Mountain Marshal took in the statuesque beauty of Wilhelmina Ether, pale skin like marble under the moonlit night. A black shawl had been wrapped around her shoulders to conceal that which she’d normally advertise for all and sundry.
She stepped close to him, eyes wet with worry. “Mr Caine, please don’t think of me as a nuisance, but I am in need of your services most urgently.”
“No nuisance at all, ma’am,” the Mountain Marshal assured her as he followed the her to Etheric Delights, lengthening his stride to keep pace with the all but running Madam. He was lead inside and to the bar where one of the bordello’s girls was seated, nursing a stiff drink and mopping tears with a lace hankerchief.
“What happened, ma’am? Who did this to you?” Caine asked, ready to put his fist through anyone who maligned a woman, even a whore.
She sobbed and Ether placed a long-gloved arm around her shoulders. “Tell him, Annie” she whispered. “Tell him what you told me.” Annie dabbed her eyes but didn’t look up. Her voice squeaked through the lump in her throat. “I’m sorry. I’m so, so sorry.”
“Don’t worry ‘bout nothin’,” Caine said, knuckles cracking as he made a fist behind his back. “Just tell me what happened.”
She forced down the lump with the contents of the glass and spoke. “It’s my fault. I didn’t know he was going to sic them Chinese savages onto them. He said he wanted to know where and when those fella’s from Washington were flying in.” She drew in a ragged breath before going on. “He said he’d hurt my mum if I didn’t tell him.”
Caine tried to keep the growl out of his voice and almost succeeded. “Who?”
Annie looked up at him for the first time with red-stained eyes. “Spokey,” she said.
TO BE CONTINUED IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 2ND ROUND FOURTH SALVO.