I just learned that I placed first in my group for a flash fiction challenge. We’re starting with around 60 groups and weeding down to one winner in December. Each group is given a random genre, location and prop to include in their story. A round begins at midnight Friday and ends at midnight Sunday.
My assignment: Ghost Story/Tuxedo Rental Store/Wrench
Early Morning Jazz
“Where’d I put that strap wrench?” Jazz didn’t take her head from beneath the sink.
“Sorry, I was sitting on it.”
Jazz gave the man the eye. She let her gaze linger on the wedge of hairy chest showing at his shirt collar. Damn, he was a looker.
She collected her wrench and got back to work. Mr. Hotness was paying her to fix his leaky sink, after all. She checked the time. 7:52. She’d only been twenty minutes on the job. Not going to pull in a huge paycheck, not even with the after-hours bonus. “Looks like you got a good clog under here. Just take a few more minutes to clear it.”
“I appreciate you coming out. Don’t want to close the washroom during business hours.”
She shot him a look. “Lot of men needing tuxedos lately?”
He grinned wryly. “Just don’t like putting up a ‘closed’ sign. Gives the customers the wrong idea.”
“Well, you got about ten years worth of coffee grounds in this trap.”
“Bob always puts too much in the filter.”
“Tell them to wipe out the grounds before they rinse the pot, then. Surprised you haven’t had to call before now.”
“You know how it is. Just a drip at first. Shove a bucket under it and make do.”
She knew. Nobody wanted to pay the plumber. “Then you’re ankle deep in water when the pipe breaks.”
He laughed again. “Didn’t figure I should wait quite that long. And I liked your ad.”
“Designed it myself.”
“I like the way you shopped that old Billy Holiday video. Looks like she’s really saying the line.” He put a hand on his hip, mimicking the singer’s pose. “‘Plumbing giving you the blues? You need Jazz.’ I’ll bet you could write for an advertisement company.”
“There’s an idea if the work slacks off.” She held up the pipe. “You can’t just dump everything down the sink without rinsing. Let the water run for two or three minutes.”
He crossed his arms across that brawny chest, eyed her up and down. “You really like doing this? Must be a filthy job sometimes.”
She fought the heat that gaze left behind. They always asked. “I like figuring out what’s wrong and fixing it. Can’t do that behind a desk in some office.”
She returned his look. “You like renting tuxedos?”
“It’s a business. I like finding the right suit for a man, seeing him look his best. And most men don’t really need a tux more than once or twice.”
“Proms and weddings.”
“Mostly. But folks aren’t going to quit having either one any time soon. You had both yet?”
She cut a glance at him. Was that a convoluted way of asking if she was available? He wasn’t wearing a ring either, though he had a pale strip on the right-hand finger, like he’d worn something recently. “Went to the prom. You?”
“Same.” He leaned toward her. “You about finished?”
She banged the pipe against the side of the bucket. The coffee grounds glopped into the bottom — and something clinked.
“Is this a college ring?” She fished it out, wiped the grounds away with her rag. “Somebody’s going to be happy to see this.”
His face lit up, a dimple seamed his cheek. “I never knew what happened to it.”
She set the ring on the counter. “You got time for coffee before you open up? I’ll be done in under five minutes.”
He stared at the ring without picking it up. “I’d really like that. I’m not sure I –”
“Tell you what: I’ll finish up, walk over to Starbucks and get my latte. If you show, great. If not, I’m a big girl. I can deal.”
“It’s not that. I –”
A key turned in the front door. The lights in the main room buzzed, then lit up. Jazz finished the job and rose. Mr. Hotness was nowhere to be seen. Who knew beefcake could move that silently?
A balding fellow shuffled along the hallway, a glass coffeepot in one hand. He took one look at Jazz and screamed. Literally. Like the proverbial girl. He dropped the pot, screamed again when it shattered on the tile floor.
Jazz hefted her tool bag. “I guess you didn’t know the boss called a plumber.”
His jaw dropped. “Somebody called you?”
Jazz put a hand on her hip. “No, I used my ouija board.”
The man stumbled backwards, caught himself on the edge of the washroom door. “That is in poor taste, young woman. You never met Mr. Kersting.”
“I most certainly did. And if you’re Bob, he’s got a few things to say about your coffee.”
His face paled. “You couldn’t know about the coffee. And how did you get in here?”
“I told you. Your boss let me in. And now we’re going out for Starbucks.”
She stepped gingerly around the broken glass, halted at the trembling hand that plucked her sleeve.
“Mr. Kersting,” the man said. “He died last year.”
Jazz glanced back at the washroom. The ring no longer sat on the counter. Didn’t it just figure? All the good ones were married or gay … or, it appeared, dead. She freed her arm from Bob’s grasp, patted his shoulder. “I don’t think you need to worry about it. He must have been looking for that ring.”
“His college ring? He never took it off, but we couldn’t find it anywhere.”
“He’s got it now.” She turned toward the front door. You never knew. Maybe a ghost could stop for a latte on the way back to the afterlife.
So I have a couple of projects cooking at the moment, and I thought you’d be interested in what’s going on.
First, Western Fictioneers like my story for Luck of the Draw and have asked that I create a character for the shared-universe setting of Wolf Creek. This is very exciting – I love the series and am fascinated with working in a shared world.
I’m working on a character that is basically Chance if he’d grown up in a different sort of world. Dublin is a mixed-race street kid from New York City who gets caught in a police raid and sent to the orphanage, where he is promptly shoved onto one of the Orphan Trains that operated back then, carrying orphans West (presumably to happy homes, but more often to families that just wanted extra labor for the farm). Dublin’s having no part of that, so he manages to escape when the train stops for fuel and water at Wolf Creek, Kansas.
Dublin is convinced he will have no trouble surviving in the country, though his ultimate goal is to get back to his home in New York. He’s going to learn that surviving in the street of a big city takes totally different skills than surviving in a small town on the middle of the prairie. I envision Dublin as a go-between for the town, shuttling information back and forth between the “good” side of town and the “bad” side – his fingers in every pie, feelers out for all secrets and gossip, willing to sell his knowledge to the highest bidder. He’s not above an honest day’s work, but he’d much rather earn his money quasi-legally without what he thinks of as actual labor.
The second project is another Kye and the Kid story. My agent sent me a link to the latest Malice Domestic anthology, “Mystery Most Historical.” I’ve got until July 31 to send in a 3,500-5,000 word mystery story set in the past.
Kye and Chance are in San Francisco for this story, still in their teens and new to the city. They visit a carnival and Kye talks Chance into seeing a Gypsy fortuneteller. The story revolves around a mysterious stranger, nefarious doings (that weren’t orchestrated by Chance), and a cryptic warning about ravens. I think it’s going to be pretty good.
Keep an eye peeled for these two projects – I’ll post links once the Wolf Creek story is published, and I’ll let you know what happens to the Malice Domestic entry.
Here are a few scenes from the new book for your amusement!
Our heroes have reached New York City and are taking an afternoon walk:
There is nothing quite so certain to attract the attention as a promenade in the proper section of town. Music filled the air as street musicians plied their trade along the sidewalks. Sidewalk vendors hawked their wares: hot chestnuts, neckties, jewelry, newspapers and magazines, and, of course, toys. Many of the department stores were already decorating for Christmas, and we stopped to admire their windows in the gaslight. We were forced to skip and dodge around the masses of children, all struggling for a glimpse of a mannequin dressed as Santa Claus, his trusty spyglass in hand, with which he keeps a sharp lookout for good little boys and girls.
“We shall have to purchase some token gifts for our friends back home,” Emily mused as a trio of women hustled past us, their servants close behind, laden with boxes and bags.
“Let’s make a day of it once we’ve solved this case of ours,” I said, leading the way into a nearby restaurant. Snow, in my opinion, is far better viewed from behind a thick glass window. “We can buy up the town if you want.”
Chance decides to infiltrate a gentleman’s club:
At the door of what looked like a fairly typical mansion, I was examined minutely for evidence of substandard dress, and eventually allowed to set foot in the foyer. The man didn’t even take my coat and hat, but asked my business in a voice that would have made the stuffiest English butler proud.
“I’ll be in town for a few weeks,” I replied, putting on my best Old Money Face and ignoring the marble staircase and velvet curtains. I was fairly certain that the hat stand had cost more than our parlor sofa. I proffered my own gentleman’s club card, printed on the finest ivory paper and gilt-edged. “I’ve been told the Knickerbocker Club is a fine establishment.”
“May I ask which of our members was so indiscreet as to mention this fact?”
and Chance’s opinions on his home city:
San Francisco never ceases to enthrall me. We passed through her streets, busy even in the middle of the afternoon, and between her grand buildings. The horses strained at the steep hills, and I could hear them blowing as they hauled us upward at a steady walk. The tang of smoke filled the air, and fine ash drifted down from the chimneys of the houses and offices. I couldn’t imagine living anywhere else.
Stone was still sulking when we alit at the Old Poodle Dog. We’d be lunching in the restaurant, not in the second-floor banquet halls, so we strolled in via the front door. The waiters knew us, of course, and whisked us quickly to a table near one of the windows. I pretended not to know that this was more to show off who was dining with them than to provide me an uninterrupted view of the never-ending parade on the city streets.
Kye and I ate at the Old Poodle Dog fairly often, and had even made use of the private suites upstairs, along with Emily. Somehow, the owners avoided scandal, though the suites included a bed and bathroom along with the dining area. Stone admitted that this was his first visit, so Kye proceeded to educate the man on the intricacies of the menu, recommending this fish and that meat. I left them to their culinary discussion and resumed my favorite activity: people-watching. At this hour of the day, most of the folks bustling along were deliverymen or servants, sprinkled with the odd businessman on a late lunch hour. I amused myself by figuring out which was which without looking at their hands, which would provide a dead giveaway.
This is another interesting tidbit from Light and Shadows of New York Life, 1875 – all about how to throw a good party.
New York has long been celebrated for its magnificent social entertainments. Its balls, dinner parties, receptions, private theatricals, picnics, croquet parties, and similar gatherings are unsurpassed in respect to show in any city in the world. Every year some new species of entertainment is devised by some leader in society, and repeated throughout the season by every one who can raise the money to pay for it. The variety, however, is chiefly in the name, for all parties, breakfasts, dinners, suppers, or receptions are alike.
Of late years it is becoming common not to give entertainments at one’s residence, but to hire public rooms set apart for that purpose. There is a large house in the upper part of Fifth avenue, which is fitted up exclusively for the use of persons giving balls, suppers, or receptions. It is so large that several entertainments can be held at the same time on its different floors, without either annoying or inconveniencing the others. The proprietor of the establishment provides everything down to the minutest detail, the wishes and tastes of the giver of the entertainment being scrupulously respected in everything. The host and hostess, in consequence, have no trouble, but have simply to be on hand at the proper time to receive their guests. This is a very expensive mode of entertaining, and costs from 5000 to 15,000 dollars, for the caterer expects a liberal profit on everything he provides; but to those who can afford it, it is a very sensible plan. It saves an immense amount of trouble at home, and preserves one’s carpets and furniture from the damage invariably done to them on such occasions, and averts all possibility of robbery by the strange servants one is forced to employ. Still, many who possess large and elegant mansions of their own prefer to entertain at their own homes.
Upon the evening appointed a carpet is spread from the curbstone to the front door, and over this is placed a temporary awning. A policeman is engaged to keep off the crowd and regulate the movements of the carriages. About nine o’clock magnificent equipages, with drivers and footmen in livery, commence to arrive, and from these gorgeous vehicles richly dressed ladies and gentlemen alight, and pass up the carpeted steps to the entrance door. On such occasions gentlemen are excluded from the carriage if possible, as all the space within the vehicle is needed for the lady’s skirts. The lady is accompanied by a maid whose business it is to adjust her toilette in the dressing room, and see that everything is in its proper place.
At the door stands some one to receive the cards of invitation. Once admitted, the ladies and gentlemen pass into the dressing rooms set apart for them. Here they put the last touches to their dress and hair, and, the ladies having joined their escorts, enter the drawing room and pay their respects to the host and hostess. When from one to two thousand guests are to be received, the reader may imagine that the labors of the host and hostess are not slight.
Every arrangement is made for dancing. A fine orchestra is provided, and is placed so that it may consume as little space as possible. A row of chairs placed around the room, and tied in couples with pocket-handkerchiefs, denotes that “The German” is to be danced during the course of the evening. There is very little dancing, however, of any kind, before midnight, the intervening time being taken up with the arrivals of guests and promenading.
About midnight the supper room is thrown open, and there is a rush for the tables, which are loaded with every delicacy that money can buy. The New York physicians ought to be devoutly thankful for these suppers. They bring them many a fee. The servants are all French, and are clad in black swallow-tail coats and pants, with immaculate white vests, cravats and gloves. They are as active as a set of monkeys, and are capital hands at anticipating your wants. Sometimes the refreshments are served in the parlors, and are handed to the guests by the servants.
The richest and costliest of wines flow freely. At a certain entertainment given not long since, 500 bottles of champagne, worth over four dollars each, were drunk. Some young men make a habit of abstaining carefully during the day, in order to be the better prepared to drink at night. The ladies drink almost as heavily as the men, and some of them could easily drink their partners under the table.
After supper the dancing begins in earnest. If The German is danced it generally consumes the greater part of the evening. I shall not undertake to describe it here. It is a great mystery, and those who understand it appear to have exhausted in mastering it their capacity for understanding anything else. It is a dance in which the greatest freedom is permitted, and in which liberties are taken and encouraged, which would be resented under other circumstances. The figures really depend upon the leader of the dance, who can set such as he chooses, or devise them, if he has wit enough. All the rest are compelled to follow his example. The dance is thoroughly suited to the society we are considering, and owes its popularity to the liberties, to use no stronger term, it permits.
The toilettes of the persons present are magnificent. The ladies are very queens in their gorgeousness. They make their trails so long that half the men are in mortal dread of breaking their necks over them; and having gone to such expense for dry goods in this quarter, they display the greatest economy about the neck and bust. They may be in “full dress” as to the lower parts of their bodies, but they are fearfully undressed from the head to the waist.
Towards morning the ball breaks up. The guests, worn out with fatigue, and not unfrequently confused with liquor, take leave of their hosts and go home. Many of them repeat the same performance almost nightly during the season. No wonder that when the summer comes they are so much in need of recuperation.
In the latest book, the lads (and friends) must travel across the country by train. Here’s an excerpt from that chapter for your enjoyment:
Half the car had been arranged almost like a pair of parlor sitting rooms, with large cushioned chairs facing one another and a small table between. I spotted the curtains that would be pulled around to form our “bedrooms.” We even had a sofa large enough for Kye to nearly stretch out on, in the back of the “parlor.” There was a coal-burning stove at one end of the car, which did wonders toward dissipating the damp chill in the air. I left Kye examining the chairs, which would fold out into our beds for the night. The table folded away into the wall as well. Our trunks and dressing cases were settled neatly in the back corner of the car, where we could easily get at whatever outfit we desired. One side of the car was to be mine and my “wife’s,” while Kye would take the other side.
The forward end of the car contained a dining table and chairs. Kye set the picnic basket on the table, with a longing backward glance. We had our own kitchen at this end, with a cook and two waiters.
“Once we cross the Rocky Mountains,” I told the ladies, “we will have a dining car on the train, like a moving restaurant.”
Emily clapped her hands. “I cannot imagine why I have not traveled more, if it is this comfortable.”
“Hardly as comfortable for the masses,” I replied. “Second class consists of hard benches arranged in rows. Even the ordinary first class passenger must share a compartment with others.”
“I remember the train to San Diego. It was not so bad, sharing a car, and I did not think that there were so many other people.”
More than I like on a journey, and I’m a man who enjoys company. “We weren’t on that train for 10 days, my dear.”
I also enjoy my privacy when it’s time to retire for the evening, and I like a bit more than just a curtain between me and my fellow passengers. I rang for a porter, gratified at the speed with which the man appeared. We might even have our own porter on this journey.
The porter — they all answered to “George,” after George Pullman, who invented the cars in which we rode — was a tall, thin, black fellow in a spotless white uniform. He flashed a grin at the coin I slipped into his palm, and brought a nice bottle of brandy and a box of cigars. The smoking car, he informed me, was only two cars in front of us, just past the first class compartments. Kye and I would be spending a good bit of time there, or on the platform at the rear of our car.
Barbara had been busy unpacking all the things that a lady needs to entertain herself: a selection of magazines, a basket of sewing, a writing kit, and even a sketching book. The car looked practically like a real parlor. I poured a brandy and took a seat opposite Emily’s. Kye and Barbara would have the chairs beside ours, at the opposite windows, until it was time to retire. Then, Barbara would remove herself to the servant’s area beside the kitchen, where she had a small but comfortable-looking compartment.
“We shall all have excellent views,” Barbara said now, watching out her window as the baggage handlers hurried about, loading the baggage car. She had set a canvas bag at her side, most likely containing an assortment of the lurid dime novels she read. If Barbara Myers had been born a man, she would likely have been an even more flamboyant outlaw than yours truly.
Emily prowled the car with Kye, poking her nose into all of the ingenious contraptions that made a railroad car into a living space. She and Kye exclaimed over the lamps, set in such fashion that they swayed with the motion of the rail and remained upright, rather than pitching from side to side. I busied myself watching the passengers now boarding.
There were the usual assortment of Traveling Salesmen, of course, weary-looking men clutching their sample cases. They spent much of their lives on the road, and thought of the hours ahead as something to be endured rather than enjoyed. They’d probably be good for a card game when the ride grew too boring. I spotted a couple of Young Families, the wives herding their offspring onto the car, or sending an older child scampering after a straying younger brother or sister. An Elderly Widow ascended to first class, followed by her sour-looking maid. I felt sorry for whoever sat next to that pair.
A few last-minute arrivals bustled over, and were hurried on board. With a whoosh of steam and a series of great jerks, the double engines pulled us away from the station. A cloud of cinders flew past the windows, sparkling in the gloom, and the scent of wood smoke stung my nose. That ash would get everywhere if we opened the windows or left the car. Our clothing would require a good cleaning once we reached our destination. I had to remember that it was small price to pay for such a speedy journey. After all, it had taken our grandparents months to travel across the country. Just because I’d prefer to be relaxing within my own drawing room was no reason to disparage the wonders of modern technology.
This is part of the scene where the lads (and Emily) head off to New York for their new case:
A few last-minute arrivals bustled over, and were hurried on board. With a whoosh of steam and a series of great jerks, the double engines pulled us away from the station. A cloud of cinders flew past the windows, sparkling in the gloom, and the scent of wood smoke stung my nose. That ash would get everywhere if we opened the windows or left the car. Our clothing would require a good cleaning once we reached our destination. I had to remember that it was small price to pay for such a speedy journey. After all, it had taken our grandparents months to travel across the country. Just because I’d prefer to be relaxing within my own drawing room was no reason to disparage the wonders of modern technology[ Check etymology].
Emily and Barbara stared eagerly out the windows as we rode through the Sacramento Valley. This late in the year, the harvest was all gathered, but the valley was still green and lovely. The train swayed and jerked, and the constant rattle of the wheels lulled one into a daze. I pulled out The Mysterious Island, a new volume by Jules Verne. That, a couple more new books and a few old favorites should last the journey. I didn’t look up until the train began to climb the Sierras. The setting sun turned the rocks of the mountains golden. My appreciation of nature may be less than that of modern convenience, but I can recognize beauty when I see it.
We broke out the fried chicken dinner Mrs. Rowell had packed, and made use of the dining table. The porter, when summoned, was happy to fetch a coffee service and pour the wine, especially when I dropped another coin into his palm. These fellows made little or nothing from the big bugs of the railroad, and depended on their tips to make ends meet. A well-greased wheel moves easiest, and Chance Knight is all for greasing the wheels of society. “George” agreed to keep the coffee pot filled for us.
“If you like, sir,” he added, “I can provide an informative lecture when we reach the most interesting spots on the journey.”
“Oh, we should enjoy that very much,” cried Emily. “I’m certain you have seen every inch of the countryside by now.”
“George” smiled and nodded his curly head. “Yes’m, and I’ve got some mighty interesting stories, too. You’d be surprised what happens on a train.”
The landscape outside the windows changed from rolling fields to rugged cliffs and ravines and broken ridges, covered by dense stands of pine. The odor of the evergreens overpowered even the scent of the ash flying alongside the windows. I reached for my book.
“About our conversation the other day…” Emily said with a smile that raised the hackles on the back of my neck.
Kye had the audacity to chuckle.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” I said, opening the novel pointedly.
“Your memory is perfect, my dear. You are well aware that I am discussing Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid.”
This is what’s going on now – the lads have taken Emily out to the theater to avoid the hubbub over the “arrest” of Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid …
Emily leaned over as we took our seats in the box. “I am not certain that I quite agree with you, my dear.”
I was only half-listening, having caught a glimpse of the positively scandalous neckline on the dress Mrs. Scott flaunted in the box across the theater from us. That lady gave me a knowing smile and turned so that I could admire her silhouette. Emily slapped my arm with her fan.
“What?” I hastily put on a Contrite Face. “I mean, do forgive me, my dear. I must be feeling my age tonight if my attention could wander from your radiant beauty.”
She snorted and slapped me harder. “Age be damned, Chance Knight. If you’re 25 I shall eat my hat, feathers and all. And I saw what Eudora Scott had the audacity to wear at her age.”
I ducked my head as sheepishly as I could. My blasted curls promptly flopped over my eyes. Kye chuckled and I reached behind Emily’s back to clout him one on the shoulder. His answering punch was immediate and painful. I readied my fist once more.
“Boys,” our companion murmured, swatting each of us with the fan. “While it might be amusing to watch the two of you wrestling, I do feel that it is something we should save for the privacy of your own home.”
Kye’s ears went red. I hiked an eyebrow at Miss Sharp. “I shall have to remember that sometime. I had no idea that your interests lay in that area.”
“That is not what I meant, and well you know it. We were discussing Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid.”
“We were not.” Ye gods, was there no escape?
“Do you really believe that all outlaws belong behind bars?”
My eyebrow rose once more. “I believe that I was merely asking a rhetorical question, my dear.”
An obstinate expression crossed her face. This was an expression I was familiar with, and I restrained a sigh. I was not going to be able to weasel my way out of an argument. And I knew from sad experience that even a sudden about-face to her side would not save me. I shoved my hair back out of my eyes and glanced upward in supplication. The ceiling had no answers for me, not that it ever had.
Emily crossed her arms. “You are prevaricating, my dear. Mr. Hamilton asked you a direct question, and you side-stepped the issue.”
Kye leaned forward, rubbing the bicep I had punched. “Chance don’t never give his opinion, Miss Emily. Ain’t you noticed?”
“I had noticed. And I am pinning the scoundrel down in this instance.” She turned to fix a glare upon me. “What is your true opinion of the outlaws in question?”
This was why I avoided such questions. I could hardly tell the woman the truth. I widened my eyes and tugged a half-smile onto my lips. “I cannot understand your interest in the subject, my dear. The question is moot at this point, as the law has caught up to them at last.”
This was the truth, though Emily would never know it. Having to give up our lives as Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid was nearly as bad as actually going to jail. Damn Kirkham and his Association. I’d had my eye on the Deweyburg bank for months. All that silver from the mine … and now my plans were foiled forever.
Emily kept up her glare. “The point, my dear, is that you are dancing around the subject. I should like a straight answer. My interest is irrelevant.”
Fortunately, at this point the orchestra increased their volume, signaling the beginning of the play. The lights in the house dimmed, and a spotlight focused all attention on the stage. I heard a sigh from my companion as I happily turned my attention to our evening’s entertainment. Perhaps by the intermission, the woman would have forgotten the entire incident.
No such luck. As soon as the gaslights came back up, Emily extended a hand, and as I helped her to her feet, leaned close to my ear. “Do not think that I have forgotten our conversation. I am going to get an honest answer out of you — one way or another.”
God forbid. The only time Chance Knight gave an honest answer was when there was nothing at stake. And even then, I have been known to bend the truth, just to keep my hand in. If only Emily weren’t so very sharp. She had an alarming tendency to see through many of my schemes. In fact, I had recently began to suspect the woman might actually be immune to my Faces. And a con-man without his Faces is … well, the thought just did not bear dwelling upon.
I managed to avoid the issue as we mingled. I also managed to get a close look at that scandalous dress. Emily thumped my shoulder as I angled towards the Scotts, but pasted on a smile as the lady turned to display her prodigious bosoms.
“Eudora,” she murmured, kissing the air beside Mrs. Scott’s cheek. “It is warm in here, isn’t it? So sensible of you to dress for the heat.”
Mrs. Scott, thankfully, was one of those women with more bosom than brains. She merely smiled happily and angled her best assets in my direction. Her husband took firm hold of her elbow and steered her toward the refreshment table. Kye, on his way back from the same area, stepped out of the way and hoisted his plate above the couple’s head. He glanced downward and his face went red. I elbowed him as he returned to our side.
“You need some air, partner?”
Kye’s elbow hit my ribs with a thump, nearly shoving me into a potted palm. He shoved half of a slice of cake into his mouth, probably to avoid answering me.
Emily turned her back on the retreating couple. “I trust no more will be said about this unfortunate wardrobe choice. The woman does not have the sense of a ground squirrel, after all.”
I leaned close. “She’s got a couple of things no ground squirrel has, though.”
“A gentleman would not deign to notice.”
Good thing I never claimed to be a gentleman.
At one point in the manuscript, Emily was going to become a newspaper reporter! Here’s a little of that chapter.
The morning found me seated before a rather alarming desk. The surface was stacked with paper from every conceivable source: newsprint, cheap rag and fine linen, even the odd bound book balanced amid the flimsy towers. Editor Rollin Murray, the gentleman behind the desk, spoke in a decidedly Irish voice, though he lacked the traditional red hair and florid complexion. He was not much taller than Chance, and I could barely see the top of his head over the papers.
The man peered at me from between his towers, a bemused expression on his craggy face. He had already asked if I were certain I was in the right place, and if I were certain that I wished to write for his newspaper. I made up my mind that I would try his rival unless he were able to wrap his own mind around the idea of a female reporter.
“Mr. Murray, I cannot imagine that it is quite so shocking as all that,” I said with a sniff that would have done Barbara proud. “After all, women do write for newspapers, although it is not entirely commonplace as yet.”
His face crinkled into the sort of smile one might visualize for a leprechaun. “Sure, and that’s not what’s got me befuddled, Miss.” He leaned forward, nearly dislodging one of the paper mounds. I eyed the quivering stack with some trepidation, but it must have been better balanced than it appeared, for it did not topple into either my lap or that of the editor.
“What’s bemused me so,” the man continued, “is how the dev– er, I mean to say, how did you know I was after enlarging the social pages? I only made the decision yesterday.” What I could see of his face behind the papers showed suspicion. “And I know you weren’t in that pub listening to Mr. Bentley and myself discuss the matter, Miss.”
“Really, Mr. Murray, there is hardly any mystery in that. It is obvious that the social pages now lack a certain …” I cleared my throat. “That is, I have often wished for more than just the usual tales of who has attended which affair and who is wedding whom.”
“I can see that a meek and retiring disposition is not one of the qualities that you have to offer this establishment.” Mr. Murray waved away my admittedly token protest. “A good reporter speaks his – or her, in this case – mind, Miss. I should have sent you on your way without thought if you had seemed one of those retiring souls who are merely seeking some occupation for their afternoons.”
felt my cheeks redden. “I must confess that my afternoons have seemed dull of late. However, I believe that my desire to write is more than a passing fancy. I have been told that I possess something of a wit, and wit is what the social pages chiefly seem to lack.”
He stroked his stubbled chin and stared at me pensively for a few moments, during which time I wondered if I had perhaps spoken too much of my mind. I opened my mouth, but he waved away my placating remarks.
“I propose a trial period,” he said. “To see if we will … suit one another. Temperamentally, that is.”
My face grew even more heated. “I shall be glad of the opportunity. I will do my best to see that our temperaments do not clash.”
“Stuff and nonsense, Miss. If you’re going to work for me, you’re going to have to learn to put up with my own temperament. And I can assure you that I’m not an easy man to work for. Best you’re able to stand up to me when you need to. Now, what are you planning to offer me for the next issue?”
I must confess that I could only stare at the man like a frog goggling on a lily pad. I had been so concerned about actually getting the job that I had neglected to select a suitable topic for a newspaper article. Mr. Murray laughed at my discomfiture.
“Not entirely certain I’d agree to your suggestion, right? Well, a good editor nearly always has a list of assignments for his reporters.”
“I was thinking that I might provide some sort of humorous depiction of some of the social events,” I ventured. “And perhaps some more in-depth stories about my peers.”
He held up a finger, and I ceased musing aloud. “I’m more in the mood for a good people-watching tale myself. Why don’t you just wander about this week and write me an article about what you see. Then we’ll decide if your writing suits my purposes. I hope it does, Miss.”
As I made my way back to the carriage, I found myself hoping the same.
I set out the very next day, my notebook and pencil in hand, to seek out adventures worthy of a newspaper article.
This was one of the original chapters from Kirkham’s POV – ditched it because nothing exciting happens to poor Stone unless he’s with the lads.
Lieutenant Johnson kept up a solid stream of curses for the entire time it took the Pacific Express to clear the rock cut. His squad had dismantled the barricade in only fifteen minutes, but it took another fifteen to thread the train through the side of the mountain. The boom of the trestle exploding behind them didn’t improve the lieutenant’s mood any.
Agent Reginald Kirkham paid no attention to Johnson, except to frown when the volume grew annoying. An educated man had no need to resort to such language, and he thought it spoke poorly of the man’s self control. Kirkham busied himself readying the gelding for travel. He had to catch up with those two reprobates before they disappeared again. The Bureau still hadn’t managed to figure out how they did it, but following each robbery, Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid just faded into the background. Obviously, they either had either an impenetrable hideout, or alter egos that could stand scrutiny. He planned to find out which.
The army squad had complained at the presence of the horse within their boxcar. They’d changed their tune now that the payroll was likely halfway across the mountain range. Suddenly, every man wanted a horse, and every man wanted to go haring off after the outlaws. Kirkham had bought the mustang before they loaded the train. The animal was purported to be an excellent trail horse. He’d need a sure-footed horse if those two had taken to the mountains — and if they were half as good as they were supposed to be, they’d taken to the mountains.
His assignment was to trail the outlaws to whatever hideout they were using, and to approach them if possible. Kirkham thought little of the latter idea. Some desk-bound bureaucrat back at the Capitol figured one special agent could easily overpower two of the worst the West had to offer, even somewhere back of beyond with two to one odds. Kirkham had no great hankering to get shot, so he planned a lengthy period of observation instead.
The train had pulled clear of the cut and stopped, per Kirkham’s orders. He slid the door to the boxcar open. Lieutenant Johnson slammed a fist against the wall of the car.
“Blast it, Kirkham! I ought to appropriate that animal in the name of the army. We can track down those two hooligans faster than any Washington city slicker.” His scowl darkened as Kirkham pretended he’d heard nothing and led the horse down the ramp to the tracks.
Johnson leaped down in front of the horse, causing it to shy back against the boxcar. That was entirely too much! Kirkham took two steps and shoved a finger underneath the man’s nose. He had a difficult time making it a finger instead of a fist.
“You had this entire plan explained to you by the governor himself, Johnson. I don’t care what you think, but you’ll get out of my way or you’ll find yourself in irons.”
The lieutenant did raise a fist, and then thought better of it, and stepped back. Kirkham didn’t spare him a second glance, but mounted up and urged the horse into a canter. It’d be useless back-tracking to the trestle — or what was left of it. He knew pretty much where the outlaws had lain in wait. What he needed to figure out was where they were headed. To that end, he needed to pick up their trail on the dry riverbed.
He took a deep breath as he left the train behind. The crisp mountain air cooled off his temper some. Sure, he could have used a few extra riflemen as backup, but he’d prefer men who were better at creative thinking than at following orders. Maybe he’d gotten spoiled working in Washington, surrounded by the cream of the Bureau. It had taken them nearly a year to track the outlaws this far. He’d hate to imagine how long it would have taken if he’d had Johnson and his squad helping instead of his pick of the Bureau statistics team.
Perhaps his boss had been right; perhaps he did need to get out in the field and see how the world really worked. Although if that army squad was any indication, most people in the “real world” were about as observant as a lump of coal. If any one of those men had paid attention during the robbery, instead of shouting empty threats and useless curses, they’d have been able to successfully creep up on whichever one of the two had holed up in the rocks. Kirkham had figured out early on that the other outlaw was actually underneath the trestle: the bottle of nitroglycerin so pointedly mentioned had been positioned at the bottom of the explosive bundle, not at the top. Once he’d noticed that, he’d watched the shadows at the bottom of the ravine. He’d spotted the arm reaching out to haul the payroll box between a couple of crossbars, and felt a grudging respect for their ingenuity.
Kirkham thought about it as the horse picked its way down the side of the mountain. He’d requested this assignment because of that grudging respect, and he was about to learn whether he was as good an agent as he actually thought he was. Devon Day and the Sweetwater Kid were the best at what they did. Even though Kirkham abhorred the idea of breaking the law, he admitted that fact, and admitted that they had to possess significant intelligence to be the best. The two outlaws had managed to outwit banks, trains, and stage lines for over ten years. Bankers who bragged of their impenetrable defenses unlocked their doors to find the safe emptied. Railroad presidents who’d plotted supposedly top-secret deliveries found their trains diverted and robbed.