Unbeknownst to the trailblazers, cowboys or outlaws that kicked dust through the Badlands; on a stage of clouds a muddled waltz commenced as airships docked with The Colorado.
Each of the four smaller airships in the Aces High Fleet was spacious and comfortable in their own right. With quarters for ten people and servants, a living room and a kitchen, Airships Hearts, Diamonds, Spades and Clubs were a heavy burden of luxury held aloft by a titanic balloon that stretched far beyond the girth of their attached gondolas.
The Colorado, however, was Missouri Class.
Biggest of the fleet, the dreadnaught of the skies had been purchased lock, stock and canvas; and while their new owners had removed much of the weapons to accommodate luxurious, and weighty, improvements, The Colorado could still repel the most dogged of sky bandit. The balloon was made up of a steel-reinforced skeletal super-structure, over which the material was pulled and stretched. Inside the cavernous framework, smaller balloons were inflated with helium, partitioning the airship and ensuring that it would not send its passengers to their deaths through accident or design.
The width of the balloons made the prospect of docking a delicate endeavour. Pulling up alongside was unfeasible as there was a yawning gap unable to be bridged by anything capable of supporting a passenger’s weight. Sailing too close risked tearing the canvas as each airship forced itself upon the other. That left a diagonal approach to shuttle the winners of the tournament aboard the larger airship. The smaller vessel would dock at a fifty-degree angle below The Colorado and a stout gangplank was deployed from both zeppelins to meet at the centre.
It was a risky endeavour, even with the steel-woven mooring lines anchoring the two ships together as strong winds could rip the airships apart and send anyone disembarking to a swift death. Precautions – to the extent that each passenger was harnessed to the stairway as well as provided with a parachute – were in place before anyone made their ascent up the stairway to heaven.
It was a climb that Jac Lightning, winner of the Airship Clubs Poker Elimination Round, was not planning on undertaking alone.
“Miss Grimwheel?” She called out at the flustered and blushing industrial heiress who was fumbling with the lock to her cabin door. The key dropped from her hand with a start and she whirled around to see her former opponent, Bethany Cartwright, catching up to her.
“Ms Cartwright,” she said between tight pursed lips, indignation evident even to the Lightning Marshal.
“Please forgive my manservant’s boorish behaviour,” Jac said, drawing her lace fan across her eyes in a gesture that Wilhem had assured her was code for an apology. “He is new to my service.”
“I should hope that he won’t be long in your service,” she replied as she retrieved her key.
“You can be assured that once we’re back on the ground he will be no longer,” Jac smiled. Not entirely a lie. “Is there any way I can make this up to you?”
“It has been a disappointing day, Ms Cartwright and I doubt you have the power to change that.”
“Even if I invited you aboard The Colorado as my guest?” Jac whispered.
The small fortune Constance Grimwheel lost trying to buy her way aboard The Colorado indicated that there was a lot more at stake than the prize money. Watching Constance Grimwheel’s reaction now, as she had during the game, Jac looked for a sign that signified the industrialist had just been dealt a winning card.
Constance hid her expression now with the same control that had lost her the game as relief washed across her face. “You would do this for me?”
“Of course,” Jac replied. “I’m told it will be only men aboard and I would not be starved of decent conversation.”
Constance Grimwheel gave a giggle– less at the joke and more at the notion of going to the final airship. Jac wondered if she were to search her cabins if she wouldn’t find two-hundred-thousand-dollars or more.
“I would be delighted,” Constance beamed and her hands shot out to clasp Jac. “Thank you, thank you, thank you!”
“You’re welcome,” Jac replied, fighting the instinct to dodge out of the embrace. After all, it was good to keep all their suspects in one zeppelin.
The entourage of the James Lovelace and Jack Lightning taxed even the refurbished comforts of The Colorado:
William Henry Baker, who didn’t stay long by his bodyguard before swanning off to talk business with the tournament organisers; men of wealth and industry who were pulled toward a desire to risk all over a hand of cards. The kind of people Baker wanted to deal with.
Major Henry Klondike had made fast friends with Lovelace as each debated the merits of the U.S. Army versus the British. In an effort to explore all avenues of the Major’s character, Lovelace had spoken on a career level, on a personal level and, in one awkward moment, on a very personal level:
“Were you a member of the British army?” Klondike asked as the Pinkerton had been trying to defend the innovative tactic of beating spear-wielding natives by gunfire.
“No, I didn’t have much interest in that. In the British Army, one’s only in it for the drinking or the buggery, and I’m only half-interested in that.
Major Klondike’s face turned a very dark crimson as Lovelace raised his tea cup for a toast.
“Let me buy you a proper drink then,” he snorted.
Hans Octavius Wilhem, masquerading as the Baronette Von Wilhem, in addition to Bethany Cartwright’s financial advisor, was Jac Lightning’s other guest along with Constance Grimwheel– leaving Wendel Caine stuck with the role of manservant in order to be allowed aboard.
This had meant that Annie – provided by Madame Ether to aide the Lightning Marshal in her disguise – had to be left behind for space and weight considerations. Considerations which had left the petite escort in a venomous state as the Lightning Marshal explained it to her in those exact, and regrettable, choice of words.
“Baronette Von Wilhem?”
The Iron Marshal looked over his shoulder. “Ja?”
Standing before him was Constance Grimwheel, a stunning figure of powdered blue satin and silk as she had changed from her playing attire into elegant and, one hoped, luckier gown.
“Or should that be Lord Von Wilhem?” She asked.
“Octavius, please,” Wilhem replied. “It is a pleasure to meet you Ms Grimwheel.”
“You are familiar with me, Octavius?”
“Vis your company,” Wilhem replied. “Grimwheel Industries have been innovators in ze field of hydraulic machinery for decades.”
“Why, thank you. Your client, Ms Cartwright, spoke highly of your business acumen.”
That wasn’t all ‘Ms Cartwright’ had spoken of. The brief conversation between the Iron and Lightning Marshals had focused on Ms Grimwheel’s fervent desire to get aboard the Colorado.
“Zhough I’ve not seen much from your illustrious company of late,” Wilhem continued.
The Iron Marshal noticed Constance Grimwheel eyes flicker off his for a moment, searching, with trepidation, for a suitable response.
“The direction of my company has been under discussion,” she replied, almost concealing the bitterness in her voice.
Before Wilhem could press further, the young industrialist’s eyes glanced off him again and toward an approaching Wendel Caine. This time the sour feelings were displayed as she turned away from the Mountain Marshal and sought conversation elsewhere.
“I got this from some fella’s room we thought was cheatin’,” Caine said, producing the small tin of powder. “Thought you might make somethin’ of it.”
Wilhem stared back at him.
“What’d I do?” Caine shrugged.
“Vhat did you do?” Wilhem frowned.
As she had done earlier, and now becoming quite accomplished in the task, Jac Lightning mingled with the other contestants and guests to find out if there was anyone aboard familiar with Bethany Cartwright. It wasn’t long before she found someone.
Bethany Cartwright turned and found her hand taken in a rough and swarthy grasp as Jacque Sanchez’s lips brushed her knuckles. Jac Lightning fought down the instinct to send those knuckles down his throat.
“Mr Sanchez,” she replied instead, taking her hand back behind her before years of muscle memory won over days of etiquette lessons.
“A pleasure to see you made it this far, chere.”
“Likewise, I’m sure.”
“I admit, I wasn’t sure you had it in you to enter the tournament, let alone get here.” Sanchez remarked while ordering her one of those fancy drinks the ladies seemed to like.
Jac Lightning thought about this for a moment. Just how much did this ex-gun smugger know about her? Not enough to identify her, though Bethany Cartwright had masqueraded as Spokey Sampson with none being the wiser, but whatever the reason, she’d been willing to risk printing counterfeit notes, as well as her anonymity, by involving herself with Jacque Sanchez…
“I’m a woman of my word,” Jac ventured.
“Indeed,” Sanchez smiled, passing the drink to a stoic, though relieved, Jac Lightning. “You’ll have to excuse me as it would not do well to be seen being too familiar with a client.”
“Of course,” the Lightning Marshal replied, ignoring her first instinct of grabbing the Frexican by the collar, slamming him down on the bar and interrogating him on the spot.”
“Hasta Manyana, mademoiselle,” he said, leaving her with too few an answer and a drink with too many olives.
Seeking answers himself, but to questions much more dangerous, James Lovelace ordered his own martini, turned away from the bar and, with an action uncharacteristic of British refinement, let the glass slip through his fingers to shatter across the floor.
People whirled about at the crash – that much was expected – the Pinkerton Detective though wanted to know how else everyone reacted to surprise.
His employer, William Henry Baker, scowled at the interruption to his negotiations with Constance Grimwheel– the industrial heir herself raised a lace fan to her face to cover her shock.
Edward Stokes’s mouth hung open, the corpulent antiquities owner not in the possession of a fan, or manners, to conceal it.
Major Henry Klondike’s hand flew to his hip in a reaction cultivated from years of military service rather than going for a gun. No such weapon was permitted aboard and there was none at his belt.
And the most Jacque Sanchez moved was his eyes to take in the damage; much the same as Jac Lightning did; as cool a customer then.
“My apologies,” Lovelace demurred as servants scurried to the scene, cleaning implements at the ready. “The altitude appears to have gone right to my head.”
All of his suspects offered a shrug or a smile before returning to their business, none the wiser that they had revealed more of themselves than the Pinkerton would have gained after an hour’s conversation; and none the wiser that it hadn’t been just the Pinkerton paying attention.
Hans Octavius Wilhem had seen the ploy for what it was and, spared the embarrassment of creating the incident, took the opportunity to study the assembled guests with anonymity. Reaching the same conclusions that Lovelace had, something else piqued the German Marshal’s suspicions. The shock of Constance, Wesley and Klondike’s reaction was because each of them had been paying rapt attention to Bethany Cartwright and Jacque Sanchez when they’d been talking.
With neither Klondike nor Constance in the final round, what other interest would they have in that conversation?
Ordering another drink, with assurances that he’d keep a surer grip on it, James Lovelace’s scan of the crowd was interrupted as his eyes were drawn to Jac Lightning. She stared at him across the room, her eyes flickering to the promenade that jutted outside the gondola, before returning her gaze back to him.
Lovelace’s eyes flickered to the promenade and returned as the Lightning Marshal swanned her way toward the deck. Grabbing the martini out of the bartender’s hand before it could be set on the bar, the Pinkerton wasted no time joining her.
Jac was waiting for him leaning out against the rail that separated her from the sea of clouds that roiled below. The rushing wind accentuated the Lightning Marshal’s figure as skirts and petticoats fluttered behind her and both of them were bathed under the sapphire light of a full moon. It was a picture of perfect beauty marred solely by Jac Lightning frowning and fidgeting within the tight confines of her garments.
“Nice to know that I’m not the only one on this deck who wants you out of that dress, Jacqueline,” Lovelace smiled.
There was a choking sound from behind the Pinkerton. Lovelace turned to see Hans Octavius Wilhem closing the door behind them.
“Perhaps here iz not zhe opportune moment,” he commented.
“So,” Lovelace sighed, “it’s to be business then.”
“What else did ya expect,” the Lightning Marshal said, graces lost to the air.
Lovelace gave a wan smile to both marshals.
“Right,” Jac began, “I hate this dress and I want my guns back. Let’s get this thing done so that can happen. Whatever’s goin’ on here, we know it involves Cartwright and The Frexican.”
“Indeed,” Wilhem agreed and Lovelace nodded. “und it haz zhe attention of zhe Major, Mr Stokes und Ms Grimvheel.”
“If it were just Cartwright and the Frexican, it’d be simple,” Jac drawled. “He’s a weapon smuggler, she’d be wantin’ weapons…”
“Perhaps ve should ve get Caine out here?” Wilhem interrupted.
“Suspicious enough with just us, I think,” Lovelace answered.
“We’ll catch him up later,” Jac said. “Back to the point; Constance seems to be here for business. Might be she and the Frexican’s got some kinda deal.”
“That doesn’t explain the Major or Stoke’s antiquities interest,” Lovelace frowned.
“Vhatever it is, I doubt it’s for zhe money,” Wilhem added. “Vith zhe exception of zhe Major, two-hundred zhousand is hardly vorth zhe trouble.”
“Perhaps it was an opportunity for Ms Cartwright to exchange her counterfeit notes with the real deal,” Lovelace suggested.
“Might be,” Wilhem mumbled. “But zhat hardly explains vhat zhe others have to do vith it. Zhis business is of interest to everyone aboard und I hardly zhink it is money or simple guns und knives.
“Then it may be for one weapon,” Jac said. “Somethin’ unique and very expensive.”
“That rules out the Major,” Lovelace replied. “I hardly doubt he’s carrying the kind of coin to compete with Grimwheel, Stokes or the late Ms Cartwright.
“Perhaps the Major’s here in a more lawmakin’ kinda way,” Jac shrugged.
Lovelace nodded. “I had considered that too.”
“Ve need to learn more information!” declared Wilhem. “His story iz zhe only vone that does not add up.” He turned toward Lovelace.
“Ov all of us, I believe you to have zhe best chance of finding out about zhe contestants. If you can get into zheir rooms, ve might find gain some clue as to vhat zhis is about.”
“I’d sneak in myself if it weren’t for this damned dress,” Jac scowled. “I can see why the ladies keep faintin’ all the time.”
“Because of my ravishing personality,” Lovelace smiled.
“Cause of how tight everythin’ is,” Jac snapped. “And since when did you have a personality?”
Before Lovelace could reply, Wilhem stepped in.
“Get Caine to go along vith you. Have him act as a lookout und inform him ov vhat we suspect.”
“Well that’s great and all but I seem to have left my lockpicks behind,” Lovelace smirked, denied his opportunity to retort. “I don’t suppose you’ve got some on your person?”
The German Marshal’s response was to reach into the lap of his tweed jacket and produce a palm-sized leather satchel that he passed to the Pinkerton, returning the smirk.
“I’ll keep talkin’ with Grimwheel,” Jac suggested. “Might be she’s willin’ to confide in me now that we’re all close and whatnot.”
“Do nozhing to arouse her suspicions,” Wilhem warned. “If zhis is a veapon, zhen zhis may be our only chance to find it. But if you can confirm it, zhen ask Sanchez for proof of its existence. Ve might yet be able to deal vith zhis quietly.”
“I’ll put my lady-face back on,” Jac scowled before the affectation of Bethany Cartwright returned to her voice.
“The rain in Spain falls mainly on the stupid plain,” she said, following Wilhem back inside.
Lovelace stepped in from the promenade and scanned the sitting room. All of the guests appeared to be present and were engaged in business or sizing up the competition for the next day’s game; a perfect time for breaking and entering.
“Wendell, my good man,” the Pinkerton whispered as he drew up next to the Mountain Marshal. “Your fellow marshals wanted you to accompany me on a search of the rooms. Feel up for a bit of a foray?”
“Sure,” Caine replied, not at all sure, in fact, what it was they were doing.
Lovelace filled Caine in on what had been discussed on the promenade as they sneaked out of the sitting room.
“Whatever this all about, it’s somethin’ big,” Caine agreed as they arrived at the door of Jacque Sanchez’s cabin.
“Well, let’s give this the old college try,” Lovelace said, unzipping the satchel to reveal a collection of well-maintained tools. Caine positioned himself between the Pinkerton and the entrance to the sitting room, shielding Lovelace from anyone looking to get an early night.
The tools made short work of the door and with a soft click, it swung open.
“Slump down on the floor and pretend you’re drunk,” Lovelace said. “If anyone comes along, start blustering and make a racket.”
“Sounds fine,” Caine said as he produced a hip flask. Taking a swig, he wiped his mouth with the back of his massive hand. “May as well smell right.”
“You’re a credit to your job,” Lovelace smiled.
“I’m what you call a ‘method actor’,” Caine replied, getting comfortable in the hallway as Lovelace disappeared inside.
Jacque Sanchez’s cabin was meticulous. Nothing was out of place, no item left out and even the bed was so well made that it could bounce a sprocket of the sheets to the satisfaction of most cog-wranglers. Investigating the room would be challenge enough but the Pinkerton would have to be just as meticulous to ensure he was undetected.
With so much wealth aboard, a safe would have to be included in the luxurious cabin but, between socialising and investigating the guests, Lovelace hadn’t had the chance to locate it in his own quarters, let alone another’s. Still, the Pinkerton was prized by his agency for his deductive skills and it wasn’t long before he uncovered the safe, secured behind one of the paintings.
Reaching into his jacket, the Pinkerton produced a small tin box of snuff and, taking a pinch, he applied it to the dial of the safe, scrutinising it for any sign of fingerprints or oil to ascertain the combination. Confident of the combination, he spun the dial, listening to the soft ticking of gears until he heard a louder click.
James Lovelace froze. That hadn’t come from the safe. It had sounded just behind his head.
“Reach for the sky, pilgrim,” came a low growl.
There were many thoughts that raced through the Pinkerton’s mind but there was one that beat the rest.
“As far as lookouts go, I’ve had better.”
Hans Octavius Wilhem and Jac Lightning moved about the room, drawing people into conversation the moment it looked as if one of the guests was leaving. The marshals were buying the Pinkerton time, unaware that somebody had already left the party.
“You vould not zhink zhat any drink made from charcoal und potato vould have such a smooth und inoffensive taste und yet, zhat is zhe craft behind Russian vodka.”
Wilhem’s audience nodded, murmuring their remarks at the charming and informative Baronette who entranced everyone with tales of the old country. Nobody aboard The Colorado had ventured beyond the borders of the United States and so the stories of gypsies and royalty and strange cuisines kept most of the guests in their seats.
Jac Lightning, even with her recent schooling etiquette, couldn’t do so grand a job, but she was able to keep those guests looking to leave corralled in the sitting room like an Irish sheepdog. Any time that a guest moved to stand up, there was Ms Cartwright, ready with a smile, a breathless excitement to return them to Wilhem’s stories and a presence that made it clear to any of the more persistent guests whatever they were about to do, could wait.
Not making any sudden moves, James Lovelace raised his hands and turned to meet his assailant. He was a short man, face unkempt with greasy brown whiskers and wearing the clothes of one of The Colorado’s guards, doubtless the way he got aboard. The Pinkerton hadn’t had any dealings with him; he matched the face to a number of posters back at the agency. This was the gambler, gunslinger and suspected murderer, Wiley Pete.
Lovelace glanced down at the sawn-off double-barrelled shotgun – a weapon the outlaw was notorious for loading with phosphorous buckshot – levelled at his stomach.
He smiled. “Why Mr Pete, is that for me?”
Lovelace’s smile was met by the outlaw’s squinty glare. “That and everything in it,” he hissed between yellow teeth.
“I don’t think you’re meant to be here,” Lovelace remarked, maintaining composure at the business end of a gun that would doom him to agonizing death.
“Don’t reckon you’re meant to be here either,” Pete shot back.
“Ah, but I’m not the one who’s armed. If one of us screams, you’ll be the one in the most trouble.”
“You could scream and you’ll be dead shortly after. I’m pretty sure I can get myself out of this predicament. And I’m pretty sure you can’t.”
Unbeknownst to Wiley Pete, the cabin door opened as Wendell Caine crept inside, stalking the outlaw with a silent stride unnerving a man his size.
“I reckon you’re here for the same reason I am,” Pete accused.
“And what might that be,” Lovelace replied, his poker face unreadable by the outlaw.
“Or maybe not,” Pete smiled, not willing to show any cards. “I ain’t been big on sharin’,”
Lovelace shrugged as a mountainous shadow fell over Wiley Pete, who had just enough time to realise someone was behind him before Caine felled him in one punch.
“Where’d he come from?” Caine asked.
“I have no idea, but I find your American notion of ‘look-out’ very interesting indeed!” Lovelace replied.
“Well he didn’t come through the door,” Caine shrugged.
Lovelace noticed the bathroom door was, unlike before, now ajar.
“Never mind,” he said. “Ransack his clothes, I’ve got the safe.”
The Pinkerton finished his work as Caine took the outlaw’s shotgun.
“Not like this thing worked anyway.”
“Hmm?” Lovelace said, still engrossed with cracking the safe.
“I threw the firing pin overboard earlier. You had nothing to worry about.”
“Well, sure, I know that now.” Lovelace sighed before throwing open the door.
Both Pinkerton and Marshal peered inside and were confronted by an empty safe.
“Well, guess all that’s left is to take Wiley Pete back to our cabin, tie him up and smack him around some.” Caine shrugged.
“Brilliant idea, Mr Caine, I haven’t interrogated someone in years!” Lovelace said as Caine crossed Sanchez’s quarters to the door.
The Mountain Marshal checked the coast was clear while Lovelace closed the safe and cleared any evidence that any of them had been in the room at all. Using Caine’s flask, they doused the outlaw in whiskey and, disguising their intent as helping a drunken friend back to his cabin, Lovelace and Caine, with Wiley Pete slung between them, marched down the hall and into the Pinkerton’s cabin.
Wiley Pete’s eyes fluttered open and he let out a groan as Caine tightened the last knot binding the outlaw to a chair.
“Wha… What’s goin’ on? Who are y*,” he mumbled. “Wait, you’re that damn bellhop that weren’t watchin’ where he was goin’!” he yelled.
The Mountain Marshal loomed over him. “Why don’t you tell me what you thought was gonna be in that there safe.”
The outlaw shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts. Realising the predicament he’s woken up to, Wiley Pete lowered his voice.
“Very well, I’m a reasonable man and don’t want no more trouble,” he said. “I’ll tell you what I know and then I can be on my way.”
“Oh yes, absolutely,” Lovelace said nodding; again his poker face was unreadable.
“I’m here representin’ a number of interested parties who have business with Sanchez. They trusted me with a large sum of money in order to secure a purchase. Word has it the Frexican’s got a line on a salvageable wreck of a Steam Man.”
Both lawmen looked to each other. The weapon that ended the Civil War had a reputation mired in death and destruction. So catastrophic a weapon ever devised that the US government had forbad its use in any future conflict and had destroyed every one of the metal titans. Or so they thought.
“And where did Sanchez get it from; Father Christmas?” Lovelace scoffed.
“Sanchez wouldn’t lie to any o’ my customers. The amount of cash he wants, if he were pullin’ wool over their eyes, there ain’t no place he’d be safe,” Pete responded.
Even if Sanchez was lying, it was clear to Lovelace that Wiley Pete wasn’t.
“Sanchez got himself a reputation,” Caine said to Lovelace. “I reckon he’d have one rather than lie about it.”
Lovelace pursed his lips, not yet convinced. “So what were you hoping to find in his safe, a twenty-foot steam man?”
“Well thanks to my luck in not gettin’ board The Colorado legit, I figured so long as I was sneakin’ that I’d save my clients some money and find out where it was. But that damn Frexican’s got nothin’ save for shirts and socks.”
Lovelace mulled it over. The story fit. Even if Sanchez were lying, it was a prize worthy of attention from Constance Grimwheel and Major Klondike. Wesley Stokes didn’t strike the Pinkerton as having grand designs for the Steam Man but such a piece of history was priceless as it was deadly.
Returning his attention to Wiley Pete, Lovelace continued the interrogation. “Those clients of yours; I don’t suppose you’re inclined to tell us who they are?”
Pete jutted out his jaw in a sneer. “Don’t reckon I am if I mean to be living.”
“Of course, you’re not meant to be aboard so you’re in just as much risk either way.”
The outlaw nodded. “That may be, but taking the long walk would be quicker and painless than squealin’ on those folk.”
“That’s true,” Lovelace replied. “Let’s do you a favour.”
The Pinkerton turned to the Marshal. “Wendell, kill him.”
Caine blinked a couple of times at how sudden things had come to such a grizzly end. It wasn’t that he had a problem with administering justice, but there was a difference between that and what the Pinkerton was asking.
Then Caine caught the waggling eyebrows of James Lovelace. “Oh right, it’s a bluff,” he exclaimed.
Lovelace rubbed his temples realising he had the wrong marshal for this kind of game. Maybe it wasn’t too late to send him to get Jac Lightning.
“What about you?” Wiley Pete frowned, somewhat surer that he was going to survive this. “I’ve seen you hangin’ around that Baker fella. What’s his interest in this?”
Lovelace managed to keep the sudden brilliance of an idea off his face. “Gee, let me think: The head of Ithaca Rifling company, one of the biggest seller of weapons in the country, is shopping around for something that’ll make everything in his catalogue obsolete.”
“Ithaca Rifling Company wants the Steam Man?” Pete exclaimed, not believing it.
“Baker wants his guns to keep selling. How’s that going to happen with something like the Steam Man on the market?” Lovelace shot back, smiling to himself as Wiley Pete bought the lie.
“Now that I’ve given a little, I should get a little. What else do you know?” the Pinkerton continued.
“You know everythin’ I do,” Pete shrugged as much his ropes allowed. “What more are you after?”
“How about who the other buyers are,” Caine suggested.
“Constance Grimwheel’s got wind of this and got herself invited to the bidding. Word got back to my buyers about it.” Pete replied. “Apparently there’s still some advanced technology on the Steam Man that’ll keep her company on top of everyone else in the hydraulics business.”
“Anyone else?” Caine asked.
“That fat fella, Stokes,” Pete continued. “He’s been after somethin’ like this for a while. Been goin’ about sayin’ he’d pay top dollar for word about a Steam Man. Ain’t the first time he’s looked outside the law for somethin’ collectable.”
“Is there anybody here to play cards?” Lovelace exclaimed.
“Not that Cartwright gal,” Pete said and again Lovelace had to keep his face stoic. “Not sure what her business is but anyone askin’ ain’t around long enough for an answer.”
Lovelace and Caine looked to each other and shrugged. There was just one question left:
“So when does this auction take place?” Lovelace asked.
“Tonight, at one o’clock,” Pete growled.
“I guess you’re pretty unhappy you won’t be attending,” Lovelace smiled.
The look on Pete’s face was poisonous. “Is it that obvious?”
“It could be worse,” Lovelace said, as he and the Mountain Marshal grinned.
“Wendel, show him how much worse it could be.”
James Lovelace and Wendell Caine strode out of their cabin and down the hall toward the sitting room; the Pinkerton Detective just making out Wiley Pete’s tirade as he hung suspended out the porthole and over several thousand feet.
Say what you would about Caine, he did know how to tie a good knot.
“We’ve got just under forty-five minutes,” Lovelace said.
Caine grunted and both of them entered the sitting room and into hour two of Hans Octavius Wilhem’s recitation of German culture and humour.
The guests were on the edge of their seats in part because the Iron Marshal was a compelling orator and in part because they were eager to get back to their cabins for ablutions and a few hours rest. Coiled like springs, they waited for a lull, a lapse, a moment where Wilhem would take a breath to offer apologies and hurl themselves to bed.
It didn’t help. Any time somebody tried to get up from the chair, Jac Lightning covered the ground to them in a blink and turned their attention back Wilhem. At the beginning of the night, her lessons of polite behaviour had been sufficient to compel people back to the chairs; now it just took a look– a tacit understanding between wolf and deer that if you left the herd, it would not end well.
One person remained unperturbed to being held hostage to conversation; Jacque Sanchez had stretched his lanky form out and listened with a half-interested ear. His clients, Constance Grimwheel, Wesley Stokes and Major Klondike fidgeted, nodded so to hurry things along or would, on occasion, risk making a break for it with no success; but for the Frexican, it was if he would be content for Wilhem to expand his lecture to the rest of Europe before showing a flicker of impatience.
Splitting up, Wendell Caine strode toward the assembled passengers, up next to Wilhem and, in keeping with his role as a manservant – as well as contrary to every mannerism Wilhem thought he knew about the Mountain Marshal – leant toward his ear.
“We need to talk.”
Wilhem nodded and turned his attention back to his audience.
“Oh my, is zhat zhe time?”
He didn’t get to finish the rest as the passengers shot out off their chairs and went either for the bar or the bathroom, depending on if they’d had a drink before or during the dissertation on Germany.
James Lovelace was about to suggest the same to Jac Lightning but Constance Grimwheel managed to reach her first.
“Ms Cartwright, would you mind if we took a walk?’
The Lightning Marshal looked as Wilhem and Caine were headed for the Promenade. Lovelace shrugged and turned to join them.
“Normally I wouldn’t, but I did want to speak to Mr Von Wilhem about some things.”
“It was the Baronette I’d hoped to talk to you about,” Constance replied, raising her fan to her cheeks.
Her companions outside and already huddled together in discussion, Jac returned looked back to the Grimwheel heir.
“Certainly,” she replied. “I should warn you though, I hope you’re not planning on taking him from me.”
“Oh! Are you and he…”
“As my financial advisor,” Jac shot back with reflexes far from akin to Bethany Cartwright.
“No, not at all,” Constance smiled and she led the Lightning Marshal out of the sitting room and down the hall.
“Then what did you…” Jac frowned and then her eyes widened. “Oh! You mean*”
“He is an interesting and knowledgeable fellow, I’m sure you’ll agree,” Constance smiled, blushing behind her fan.
“Um, yes…” Jac said creeping her way through unfamiliar conversational territory. “He sure does know a lot.”
“And he is…” Constance searched for the word. “Available?”
“Oh yes! Yes. Uh huh, absolutely available.” Jac replied.
They walked the rest of the way to Constance Grimwheel’s cabin door in silence. As she fumbled about with the key, the heiress clasped her hands around the Lightning Marshal’s.
“Ms Cartwright. You have been a strange travelling companion, but a good friend. I thought I was cursed with bad fortune on this journey, but I feel lucky to have met you.”
“Why thank you, Ms Grimwheel,” Jac replied and her smile was genuine.
Leaving Constance to her cabin, that smile stayed with the Lightning Marshal all the way back to the promenade and her companions.
Lovelace had been briefing the German Marshal on what they had learnt from Wiley Pete while Wendel Caine became lost in the twisting words that Wilhem and the Pinkerton used. So when Jac closed the door to the promenade, he took the initiative in filling her in.
“The Frexican is selling a Steam Man in his room at one o’clock. You’re buying.”
“Well, yes. Anyone without a grasp of the subtle nuances of interrogation and deduction could say that…” the Pinkerton mumbled.
“Gotcha,” Jac replied as Lovelace produced the outlaw’s confiscated shotgun.
“Are you all armed?” he asked the marshals. Wilhem nodded, Caine cracked his knuckles and Jac Lightning scoffed.
“Good. Then make this work,” Lovelace said, thrusting the weapon into Wilhem’s hands. One improvised firing pin later and the shotgun was lethal once more.
“Of course, a shotgun full of buckshot has as much chance as wounding any of us as whomever I’m aiming at.” Lovelace muttered.
“Well we’re not killin’ a wealthy heiress, that’s for damn sure,” Caine replied.
“Reckon one of us needs to her warn her off,” Jack thought aloud. “Somebody she’d trust. Someone she thinks is smart. And funny. And handsome…”
With typical Lightning subtlety – enough that Wendel Caine shared in the huge grin Lovelace was sporting – her eyes locked with Wilhem’s.
“Really?” He said, taken aback.
“That’s what she said,” Jac grinned.
“Vell…” Wilhem said, chewing his bottom lip in thought. “Perhaps I should call on her before it’s too late.
After some bustling noises that could only be the sound of somebody scrabbling into clothes, Constance Grimwheel opened the door to find Hans Octavius Wilhem outside.
“Baronette Von Wilhem?”
“Ms Grimvheel,” the German Marshal punctuated it with a click of his heels. “I realise zhis is quite improper but may I talk vith you a moment?”
“Has Ms Cartwright been speaking with you?” she asked , a pink tinge rising to her cheeks.
“Only in part,” Wilhem replied.
“Oh… I was about to retire. Your talk, while very interesting, did tax my mind overmuch…” she said, circling the end of that sentence like a bird not sure where to land.
“But please, come in,” she finished.
Closing the door behind him, Wilhem came straight to the point.
“Ms Grimvheel, doubtless you’re avare of Mr Sanchez und zhat vhich he plans to auction. I presume your interest is in zhe technological innovations of zhe Steam Man.”
So taken aback Wilhem’s forthright deduction, the industrial heiress didn’t even try to lie.
“Yes,” she said as fell to her bed and hung her head. “Grimwheel Industries is uncertain about its future.”
“Particularly with a woman in charge,” she added between her teeth. “What could be salvaged from the wreckage could restore much of my company’s ailing confidence.”
“I understand,” Wilhem said, taking a seat next to her. “Your company has lead zhe vay in hydraulic manufacture und could do so again. But to enter into zhis auction risks your place at Grimvheel Industries. It risks your life!”
“There is nothing left that I can do!” Constance wailed. “It is either this or I place my father’s business in the hands of whoever would be my husband, and I would not see his work reduced to a dowry.”
“Perhaps…” Wilhem ventured. “Perhaps you would permit me to act as your agent in zhis. Zhere is much more to zhis auction zhan eizher of us know und to enter into it is a risk I vould take for you.”
Tears sparkled in the lamplight as Constance raised her head to meet eyes with Wilhem. “Why would you take such a risk, Baronette?”
Wilhem sighed and, pulling aside the lapel of his tweed jacket, revealed the shining star of the US Marshal’s office.
“It is not just Baronette, Ms Grimvheel. Und it is not just my job eizher. It is because I vill not permit that you to come to harm.
With twenty minutes to go James Lovelace was not yet finished stacking the deck.
After being released from Wilhem’s presentation, Major Henry Klondike had went to the bar for a nightcap. As the lawmen returned to the sitting room, and Wilhem went to call on Constance Grimwheel, the Major had finished his brandy and left the sitting room to return to his cabin. But rather than turning in for the night, Klondike removed something from a secret compartment hidden within the lining of his suitcase.
“Going somewhere, Major?” came an Oxford-educated voice.
Standing behind him was the fellow responsible for getting him aboard The Colorado and that large manservant belonging to the German chap.
Klondike raised an eyebrow. “I was going off to bed, in fact.”
Lovelace stepped into the room as Caine closed the door.
“Major, there comes a time in every poker game when it’s time to put our cards on the table: You’re here to attend an auction hosted by Mr Sanchez.
“How the hell would you… What on earth are you talking about?” Klondike spluttered.
Wendel Caine glanced toward a clock. “Can we hurry it up here?”
“You’re involved in this too?” Klondike said aghast.
“I’m assisting several US Marshals to prevent the sale of the Steam Man,” Lovelace said but he was interrupted by Klondike reaching under his coat for that which he’d removed from his luggage.
The Pinkerton Detective was no Lightning when it came to the art of the quick draw, which is why he preferred to have his weapon out and ready before it came to that. Moving his coat revealed the double-barrelled shotgun level with Klondike’s stomach.
“Oh ho ho, I don’t think so,” Lovelace warned, thumbing the hammer back.
Klondike took his empty hand back out of his jacket and scowled.
“I want to know what your intentions with the Steam Man are.” Lovelace said.
“Even if you are working with Marshals as you claim, I can still have you arrested so fast, you’ll never see another part of America, let alone England, again!”
“So you’re here for the army, then?” Lovelace deduced.
“After a fashion.”
“Why the hell should I tell you. Who are you, really?”
The Pinkerton Detective grinned. “Lovelace. James Lovelace. Pinkerton.”
He gestured to the Mountain Marshal looming behind him.
“And this is Marshal Wendel Caine,” he continued as Caine flashed his badge.
“What does the Marshal’s office have to do with this?” Klondike asked.
“My questions first, my dear Major,” Lovelace interrupted. “Whom do you represent?”
Major Henry Klondike lowered his hands toward a collection of medals pinned to his lapel. “I’m not as retired as I had otherwise wanted you to believe.” Releasing a hidden catch on the medals, a secret compartment opened revealing Klondike’s credentials: Military Intelligence.
“I’m here to ensure that the Steam Man does not fall into the wrong hands; either by outbidding the secret out of Sanchez, or following the winner to wherever it’s located.”
“We was just goin’ to arrest Sanchez,” Caine shrugged.
“Leaving the Steam Man for someone else to find,” Klondike scoffed. “The retrieval of the weapon is paramount.”
“In that case, achieving both our objectives should be a simple matter,” Lovelace suggested. “The other Marshals aboard are ensuring that nobody else attends the auction. With just us present, bidding the secret out of Sanchez should be a simple affair and once we accomplish that, you get the weapon and we get the Frexican.
“Very well,” Klondike agreed. “How are we to do this?”
“You’ll bid just enough to make things appear legitimate, but you’ll let ‘Ms Bethany Cartwright’ win and claim the information about the Steam Man’s location. Once we’ve docked, we secure both the weapon and the smuggler,” Lovelace explained.
“So Cartwright’s a Marshal too?”
“She is indeed, so try to refrain from shooting her,” Lovelace continued.
“It’s the last mistake you’ll ever make,” Caine added.
“I remain a gentleman, sir,” Klondike frowned. “But I believe we have an agreement.”
Wesley Stokes had remained at the bar while everyone else had returned to their rooms or moved to the promenade. Mulling over a coffee, the antiquities collector was content to wait the time of the auction in the comforts of the sitting room.
This made the prospect of confronting Stokes an easy task for Jac Lightning, who sat down next to him.
“Mr Stokes, I’ll be brief,” Jac began, maintaining her refined affectation. “I know why you’re here and what you intend to do. I’m sure you mean nothing more than to add the Steam Man to your collection; but if you go to that auction, chances are you won’t leave alive.”
“What…” Stokes spluttered, red blotches crawling across his face.
“This ain’t a request or an debate,” Jac continued, her drawl talking over Stokes and her own disguise. “I’m Marshal Lightning and your dealer is a hardened criminal.”
“The Marshal Lightning?” Stokes exclaimed.
“Yup. And if this goes down the way I’m expectin’ it to, ain’t no way you’re gonna survive it.”
Stokes gulped and wrung his hands like laundry. “The Steam Man is piece of American history, however hard we may try to forget it. I just hoped to preserve some small part.”
“That may be, but I’d focus on preservin’ yersself first. Stay in your room and I won’t have to watch out for you,” the Lightning Marshal warned.
“Or arrest you”
Wesley Stokes nodded and, abandoning his coffee, shuffled off to his room faster than anything he’d done before.
The hour of the auction arrived with Marshals Lightning, Wilhem and Caine; Pinkerton Detective Lovelace; and Major Klondike in attendance. Not wanting to tip their hand, it was agreed Caine would represent Wesley Stokes and Lovelace would stay outside and guard the door.
The cabin’s furnishing had been cleared and a collection of chairs were arranged in a semi-circle, facing toward one set near the opposite wall. The chair was occupied by the languid form of Jacque Sanchez.
“Bonsoir, amigos,” he smiled as they each took their seats. “I am already familiar with Senor Klondike and Senorita Cartwright, but not with you, monsieurs…”
“Wilhem,” The German Marshal explained. “I am Ms Cartwright’s financial advisor.”
“And I’m here for Mr Stokes,” Caine added.
“I was not informed of this,” The Frexican frowned. “Why would Senor Stokes not be here himself?”
“He was concerned for his safety, but he’s got the money.” Caine replied.
“I see,” Sanchez murmured.
“Apparently, I’m expendable,” Caine shrugged.
“How good for you,” Sanchez sneered.
“Well, with the absence of Senorita Grimwheel, let us not delay proceedings,” Sanchez continued, his French and Mexican accents grinding together. “You know that which you are bidding for. The winner shall receive the location of the prize and I shall guide them there to claim it.”
Everyone nodded in agreement, not noticing that the smuggler’s long thin fingers had snaked around the underside of the armrests of his chair.
“The bidding begins at a $100,000!” he said.
As discussed amongst the assembled lawmen, the bidding would be staged with Caine dropping out when it reached $180,000 and Klondike at $190,000, leaving the Lightning Marshal with the winning bid. Sanchez’s eyes darted from bidder to bidder, caught up in the fervour of such large sums of money to see the auction as a farce.
“Two-hundred thousand; uno! Deux! Tres! Sold!”
And with that, the wall behind the Frexican exploded.
A deafening boom faded and a cold whistle filled the room from a gaping hole left in the wall. Moonlight poured in and almost everyone was afforded a spectacular look at the night sky.
All, that is, except The Frexican.
Triggering the explosive he’d set earlier that created an opening out into the night, the weapon smuggler coiled his legs and launched himself backward in the chair, causing it to rock and sending Jacque Sanchez tumbling out the hole at thirty-thousand feet.
Except that Jac Lightning was already moving.
Details flashed in her mind as she dived for the Frexican: The position of the chair, the trigger under its arms, the explosion designed to face away from the room. This was a precaution in case someone, much like they themselves, tried something at the auction.
To everyone else, it was a blur of skirts and lace before the Lightning Marshal’s hand latched onto the Frexican’s belt and slammed the chair back on the floor.
“Goin’ somewhere?” she drawled.
Hands went to weapons as the last second caught up with everyone. Jac Lightning saw Sanchez doing the same and her hand moved from where she kept her derringer to snatch up what the Frexican had.
There was a loud twang and Sanchez produced a gun.
The Lightning Marshal was stunned. Her hand wouldn’t reach, trapped within the confines of her damned clothing.
“I hate this dress!”
Sanchez shot from the hip as Jac hurled herself to the side; the bullet punching through layers of petticoats before lodging itself near the door as James Lovelace rushed in. The Pinkerton wouldn’t have a chance though as Wendel Caine charged toward the Frexican, spared the chore of drawing a weapon.
A meaty hand latched around the Frexican’s head and drove it through a side table, slamming the weapon smuggler into the floor with such force he almost bounced to his feet. It would have done him no good though as Jacque Sanchez wouldn’t be waking up for a while.
Major Klondike sat stunned at what happened. “I have to say I’m–,”
There was a loud long rip as Jac Lightning freed herself of her skirts.
“Finally, I am done with this dress!”
Major Klondike spluttered and turned away. “Madam, some propriety, please!”
The Colorado returned to its dock in Phoenix, Arizona, where Military Intelligence awaited. They took custody of Jacque Sanchez – divested of his gun and a small parachute found on his person – leaving Major Henry Klondike on the docking platform with the lawmen.
“I am truly grateful for your assistance,” Klondike said, shaking each one by the hand.
“Just wished they hadn’t cancelled the dang tournament,” Jac Lightning grumbled. “I was enjoying that.”
“I vould have settled for a look at zhe remains of the Steam Man,” Wilhem said with equal disappointment.
“For reasons of national security, you know I can’t allow that.” Klondike said, arriving at James Lovelace and taking his hand.
“Of course if you were interested,” he whispered in the Pinkerton’s ear, “I might be able to arrange something.”
The handshake lingered longer with him than it had with the marshals.
Lovelace gave the Major a wink as he left with the military police. “Don’t worry, Wilhem,” he muttered. “I’ll be sure to send you a postcard.”
“I believe it can vait,” Wilhem replied as he spied Constance Grimwheel waiting for him. “Zhere is a dinner’s vorth of engineering to discuss.”
Jac turned to see Wesley Stokes approach her. He carried a large suitcase with him.
“I’d like to thank you properly for your warning and for the risk you took on my behalf.”
“T’weren’t nothin’, Mr Stokes,” Jac shrugged.
“Nevertheless, I hope this will suffice,” the antiquarian continued as he opened the suitcase.
Inside, enclosed with velvet lining was the prized steam pistol awarded to officers who had won the day during the Mexican-American war.
Jac Lightning’s stoic composure slipped a little as she let out a low whistle.
“It’s yours with my compliments. Only seems fair you should win something from the tournament.”
“It’s a very expensive gift,” Jac breathed.
“True. But I’m pretty sure I got more than one,” Stokes replied as he left the suitcase with her and ambled off the platform.
The lawmen, as one, followed after him, Constance Grimwheel locking arms with Hans Octavius Wilhem.
“I can’t help but feel we’ve forgotten someone…” Lovelace frowned.
Still suspended in the air, anchored by a web of mooring ropes, The Colorado was disgorging its collection of supplies and passengers; all except one. Gagged, bound and still dangling from the porthole the muffled curses of Wiley Pete went unheard.
THE STORY CONTINUES (EVENTUALLY) IN THE ADVENTURES OF THE COLT APOLLO: 3RD SALVO!