Jac Lightning gasped!
There wasn’t anything of woman-born that got the Lightning Marshal to do more than raise an eyebrow or narrow a stare – being that the Lightning clan were possessed of a confidence that meant any surprise could, at worst, be shot dead – but for Hans Octavius Wilhem and Wendell Caine, the prospect of racing to their partner’s aid was outdone by the fact that she’d be fixing to shoot somebody and what had caused her to gasp was, in part, their fault.
There were even fewer things got Jac Lightning into petticoats, dresses and corsetry.
One knee braced against her back, two hands pulling back on string that would make any beast of burden, no matter how mistreated, thank its rider for their kindness; the Lightning Marshal swore things to Annie, one of the girls of Etheric Delighs, that would turn the most vicious desperado into a whipped cur.
Annie kept tugging, Jac’s epithet lost as air bolted out of her lungs like a stallion near a wasp nest. The girl had something on her side that trumped a Lightning’s curse:
A Lightning’s pride; and Jac Lightning was going to be a lady, dammit!
It was the other side of Pay Day in the small town of Ascension. The workers of Colt Industries and Ithaca Rifling Company had, once again, descended on the town like cash-laden hurricane and had cleared it of almost every bottle and woman bearing a price tag. Despite the frivolity, no laws were broke and people made sure to tip their hat or shake the hands of the marshals when they saw them patrol. The lawmen, as well as Pinkerton Detective James Lovelace, had saved the town from fiery ruin while dooming perpetual menace ‘Spokey Sampon’ to that very fate.
With the town safe, though shy a marshal’s office resulting from the battle, the town hadn’t been this quiet since the death of Harry Winsome. Spokey’s criminal empire in tatters made the job of upholding the law a lot easier in Ascension. The most contentious affair to occur was the growing battle between Buckshot Buchannan of the Ignit-Inn and James Brasshorn of Brasshorn’s Tavern as each campaigned for the office of Mayor of Ascension. The town was inundated with posters, banners and ribbons that proclaimed the virtues of one and extolling the vices of the other. It affected the town insofar as it meant each drink seemed to come with a campaign pledge, which hadn’t done each business very well until it was announced by each bartender that their first act of office would be a free round for whoever voted for them.
Other than slower whiskey and some name-calling, it was a war that, in light of everything that had happened to Ascension since their arrival, the marshals were content to let lie.
Jac Lightning and Wendell Caine lazed on the porch while Hans Octavius Wilhem was busy finishing the new office around them.
“…as in person ov ill vill, or a chicken,” Octavius was explaining in between hammering nails into the shingles on the roof.
“Why don’t you just call them a chicken?” Jac Lightning asked, a pen in her hand staining an already ink-blot heavy piece of paper addressed to Ma Lightning.
“It’s a family name zhat’s spelled differently: F-O-W-L,” Octavius continued, as did the hammering. “Like tigers and cats.”
“Tigers and cats are of the same family?” Jac asked agog at the revelation.
Octavius sighed. “Surely even you can tell zhe similarities between zhem.”
“Well yeah,” Jac retorted, a little indignant at being treated like a fool. “I just figured cats grew into tigers,”
“What, while you weren’t looking,” Caine shot back. Above them the hammering continued which, to both marshals, sounded louder than before.
Deciding to pick it up later, the Lightning Marshal abandoned the letter and went to the stables, mounting her horse Thunder and riding out, once more, to the former house of Bethany Cartwright and hideout of Spokey Sampson.
Since the revelation of the outlaw’s true identity, only Jac Lightning had taken some time to investigate the cottage on the far outskirts of town. Wilhem being occupied with resurrecting the office as well as mollifying the workers of Colt and Ithaca about their inability to vote in the elections by suggesting the formation of a town council that would accept applicants of either camps, while Caine had no interest in either pursuit and had settled for lifting or holding things that aided construction efforts. There wasn’t much to find though as the Mountain Marshal had thoroughly destroyed the shed where spare airship parts, explosives and who knew what else were kept. The house had revealed little about Cartwright herself or the occupants she’d, no doubt, stolen it from, until Lightning had searched the basement. Something that would have been a cursory glance for the Wilhem, had taken most of the day in investigation from Lightning but had, nonetheless, revealed letters between Cartwright and her former husband; shedding a little more light on the recently deceased crime-boss:
Bethany Cartwright had been Bethany Sampson, once upon a time. Her husband, Samuel, had been an inventor, engineer and ruthless head of outlaw activity across the new frontier until, being caught cheating in a poker game, had died under gunfire from a disgruntled player. With no means of supporting herself or her son, Bethany had covered up the death of her husband and masqueraded as him as she took over the criminal activities for ten years. Harry Winsome, who changed his surname to protect his mother’s identity, ensured the secret by acting as liaison and enforcer to Spokey Sampson and the rest was history and, now, obituarary.
It was back in the basement that Jac Lightning found herself, poking around with the toe of her boot and more pleased about getting out of town and doing something, rather than listen to Wilhem go on about ‘gee-net-tics’ again. Other than the letters, the basement had been a workshop for Cartwright, who was the equal of her former husband as far as cog-wrangling went. Plans and half-finished designs had been shipped lock-stock to the new office for Wilhem to study when time permitted. All that was left was shelves and benches.
The Lightning Marshal finished a circuit of the basement as the sun descended on another day and rays of golden light streamed through the small window overhead, spotlighting the dancing dust motes and drawing Jac’s eye to a heavy shelf placed against a wall. It might have been a trick of the light but she could swear that the light continued past the shelf and the brick wall behind it.
With a heave, Jac Lightning pushed at the shelf, discovering that it was, in fact, bolted to the wall and that both wall and shelf hadn’t budged an inch under her shoulder. Regardless of the wall’s stubbornness, she could see that there was something behind it that swallowed up the sunlight. Unable to do anything about it, the Lightning Marshal decided she needed either brains or brawn to do the work and was back atop Thunder and racing back to Ascension in no time.
Tired of listening to the sounds of either Wilhem’s yammering or hammering, Wendell Caine decided to patrol Ascension; the focus of his patrol being a loop between any place still offering him free whiskey, making the streets between the Ignit-Inn and Brasshorn’s the safest place in town. There had been one other place only too happy to provide anything he desired, but it weren’t proper for him to be visiting Etheric Delights or Wilhemina Ether who had extended him the offer.
The ‘patrol’ came to a halt as Jac reined Thunder up next to him.
“Howdy Jac,” Caine drawled.
“Howdy Caine. Something strange goin’ on out by the old Cartwright place. Wanna check it out?”
“Yeah, pretty quiet here.”
The two marshals gathered Wilhem along the way, catching his interest at the mention of a secret door, and arrived back at the basement.
There was a click and a whirr as Wilhem’s magnificent armor lowered a spidery collection of magnifying lenses over his eyes and the Iron Marshal studied both wall and shelf intently.
“Y’know if we just grabbed it and pulled, that should get it open,” Caine suggested.
“Und likely our heads blown off,” Wilhem replied, not looking up as each knot of wood was brought under his intense scrutiny.
“Seems like Spokey was a big fan of explosives,” Jac added. Caine let Wilhem go about his work. A short minute later, the combination keen perception and intuitive engineering prowess revealed the mechanism and the door swung on greased rails, revealing the room beyond.
Thee marshals stood at the doorway, sunlight now pouring in and revealing a very large and complex-looking machine, possessed of two large rollers and a conveyor belt dominating the centre and four heavy wooden crates stacked against the wall.
“It’s a printing press…” Wilhem said, frowning at the machine’s very presence, “how odd.”
Caine, meanwhile, turned his attention to the crates. The boards were nailed shut, sealing its contents inside until the Mountain Marshal found his grip. With a wrench, the boards were pulled back and off the lid, revealing the largest sum of money Wendell Caine had seen in his life.
“Whooeee,” he whistled as the other marshals gathered around him. Reaching inside, Caine produced a thick wad of hundred dollars bills that was plucked out of his paw by the Iron Marshal as he fished around the machine with his other hand, producing two embossed and shiny plates of metal.
“Counterfeit, if I’m any judge,” Wilhem declared and the magnifying glasses crawled over his eyes again. Currency of the United States had certain identifiers both in the pattern and the paper that proved its authenticity and Wilhem was proficient enough to distinguish each of them. The paper was not authentic, but it was close enough. A casual handler might think the notes crisp or new but not suspicious. The patterns and designs were remarkable feats of replication and more than once, Wilhem had to check the plates to confirm they weren’t the real thing.
“Remarkable counterfeit though,” Wilhem concluded. “I daresay Spokey vas using this to bankroll her criminal activities. It vould be a serious concern, had ve not already dealt vith zhe perpetrator.”
“How much is in there?” Jac asked, keeping the breathlessness out her voice.
“If zhe rest are like zhis, perhaps two-hundred zhousand dollars.” Wilhem replied, the incredulity more than present in his.
“We can’t tell anyone about this,” Caine spoke up. Both marshals whipped around to him. “We take this thing apart and burn the rest.”
It was a while before Jac spoke. “You sayin’ we should burn the evidence.”
“Word gets out that Cartwright’s been passin’ around funny money and we’s got ourselves a riot.” Caine said with flat solemnity. To Jac’s right, she saw Wilhem carefully nodding.
The Lightning Marshal looked down at her boots, considering what this meant for her honor as a marshal versus what it would mean for the town and the hundreds of workers either side of it when something under the printing press caught her eye. Thinking it a discarded counterfeit bill, she picked it up and found it to be thicker, heavier and gold-inlaid. Not the product of this machine.
The other marshals gathered around her, eyes catching the sparkle of sunlight as it bounced of the golden gilt borders and caused the embossed zeppelins at each corner to shine. Reading the intricate and expensive calligraphy, Wilhem announced what it was.
“It’s an invitation. A tournament called Aces High.”
Wilhem and Caine had heard rumor of Aces High: a tournament for poker players who gambled vast sums of money. Jac Lightning knew more;
“Got me a brother who played in that tournament once; said it was held aboard a fleet of fancy airships. Winners get to go to the biggest airship of ‘em all: The Colarado. Aint’ nothin’ but two types of people who get close to playin’ in a tournament; real good or real rich.”
“Vich vone vas your brother?” Wilhem asked.
Jac fixed him with a look. Lightnings’ were known for being loaded, just not with cash.
“Jedidiah Lightning got hisself a big re-ward ‘bout the time them airships had docked. One of the better gamblers of us, he was able to use it for entry fee when he got invited. Ten thousand dollars it cost him. Told me it was fan-cy!”
“I vould hope so,” Wilhem replied. To the German Marshal, it was not an inconsiderable sum of money – him being of minor Prussian nobility and the benefactor of a healthy inheritance – but it wasn’t the kind of number you threw away on chance.
“Ma gave him hell for wastin’ it all but Jedidiah told me he’d do it all over again even with the whuppin’. Best game and time of his life though some shifty fellas up there. Heard tell cheaters get dropped off the side.”
Wilhem took it all in as Caine spoke up. “So all this is her stake in this here tournament?”
“Perhaps, but unlikely,” Wilhem said as much to himself as to the others. “Vhile zhe amounts of money for such a game vould be considerable, two crates vould easily bankroll such an event.
“Two participants then?” Caine suggested.
“But vone invitation,” Wilhem replied. “She vas a secret crime-boss who stashed zhis in a secret room vithin a secret hideout. She vas not a big spender. Zhere is a larger purpose to zhis.”
“So what do we do about it?” Jac asked.
“Vell, I suppose ve should contact zhe Aces High organizers und find out more about vhat is happening,” Wilhem shrugged.
Jac turned the invitation over in her hand, quick fingers made the sunlight dance across the gilt writing until it shone on the, as yet, unnoticed name.
“This ain’t addressed to Spokey Sampson,” Jac frowned. “This here’s for Bethany Cartwright. Why would she get an invitation?”
“Perhaps she meant to circulate her phony cash vith zhe real thing. But even zhen, zhere is vay too much money, including buy in and stakes zhat she could get avay vith that. Zhere is no profit in it,” Wilhem said, the problem needling at his considerable intellect.
“Too bad we can’t ask her,” Caine said with no remorse whatsoever.
Wilhem look up to the stone ceiling at that and then, as if propelled by one of his inventions, turned to regard Jac Lightning with a look.
It did not go unnoticed.
“I’ve seen that look before, Wilhem,” Jac said with wary caution.
“You’re only a small amount taller zhan her,” Wilhem muttered, thinking out loud rather than answering her.
“I’d keep thinkin’ if I were you,” Jac warned. Wilhem didn’t seem to hear her.
“You could possibly fit into her wardrobe,” he continued. Jac Lightning eyes got wide at that but before she could snap off her opinion of the addled German’s idea, she was interrupted.
“I don’t know, Wilhem,” Caine said glancing for one brief moment at the tense Lightning Marshal. “If anybody knew what Bethany Cartwright looked like, there’d be trouble; might be too risky.”
Jac Lightning always left consideration and thought for when the ozone cleared and the shooting stopped. Often it was that instinct and reaction which saved her. This time, though…
“Too risky for a Lightning!” she rounded on the Mountain Marshal. “Ain’t nothin’ too risky for a Lightning, I’ll have you know! What, you think I can’t pull off a dress?”
“I think you can’t put on a dress!” Caine snapped back and Jac not only swallowed the bait, she asked for seconds.
“I’ll have you know I am a lady, and what’s more, I can act like one too when I want,” she spat. Wilhem squeezed his eyes shut at that while it began to dawn on the Lightning Marshal what she just agreed to.
“I mean, if that’s what the situation calls for…”
“I zhink ve can assume zhat, given the sums of money, zhere is a situation here,” Wilhem sighed.
“A situation worth about $200,000.00,” Caine added.
“Might be she was looking transfer zhe cash.” Wilhem suggested.
“Or hold the place up,” Caine said.
“Not with the security on board,” Jac replied. “Cross these guys and you cease to be ballast.”
“Zhen zhe poker tournament is a front for something else,” Wilhem declared. “Perhaps she meant to meet more ov zhe criminal element and garner more power. If so, ve have an opportunity to bring zhose people down as vell.”
“Except it all depends on Jac wearin’ a dress,” Caine shrugged.
“I can wear a dress just fine!” Jac shouted, her dander up. “I am, after all, a fe-male!”
It did not go unnoticed to either of them that ‘fe’ was nailed on like a fifth wheel to a carriage. But it was clear that Jac’s pride was now on the line and whether she could or couldn’t masquerade as a lady, let alone Bethany Cartwright, the cards had been dealt.
“How long we got?” Caine asked
“According to zhe invitation, two days.” Wilhem replied.
“Only one person who can turn Jac into a lady in that kinda time.”
Madam Ether considered the request, her black lace fan approaching hummingbird speed.
“…does it come off?”
“Does what come off?” Jac drawled.
“…anything?” Ether stammered.
“Each curse is can bring that waist down another inch,” Madame Ether said as Annie continued to tug. After the trouble of getting the Lightning Marshal to give up her father’s hat, the Madame of Etheric Delights was wholly without mercy.
And so began the schooling in the one skillset avoided at large by the Lightning clan:
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART 2
Posted by Wordmobi