Authors: Cherie Priest
Tags: #Fantasy - General, #Science Fiction, #Action & Adventure, #Science Fiction & Fantasy, #Fiction - Espionage, #Mystery & Detective, #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Fugitive slaves, #Spy stories, #Thrillers, #Steampunk fiction, #General, #Thriller, #American Science Fiction And Fantasy
Maria wanted to know, “What do you think she’s really carrying?”
“I asked about that,” he said. He unfolded the telegram again, scanned it, and read the important parts aloud. “Humanitarian cargo bound for Louisville, Kentucky, Sanatorium.”
“And you believe that?”
“I believe it if I’m told to,” he said gruffly, but not with any enthusiasm. “And you’re welcome to believe what you like, but this is the official story and they’re sticking to it like a fly on a shit-wagon.”
She sat in silence; and much to her surprise, Allan Pinkerton did likewise.
Finally, she said, “You’re right. This stinks.”
“I’d like to refer once again to the aforementioned shit-wagon, yes. But it’s not your job to sort out the particulars. It’s not your job to find out what the
really carries, and it’s not even your job to apprehend and detain Croggon Beauregard Hainey or bring him to justice. Your job is to make sure that nothing bothers the
and that she delivers her cargo to Louisville without incident.”
“How am I to do that without apprehending and detaining Croggon Hainey?”
“Ah,” he said with a wide, honest, nearly sinister smile. “That is entirely up to you. I don’t care how you do it. I don’t care who you shoot, who you seduce, or who you drive to madness—and I don’t care what you learn or how you learn it.”
He leaned forward, setting the slip of telegram paper aside and folding his hands into that roof-top point that aimed at his grizzled chin. “And here’s one more thing, Miss Boyd. Should you apprehend or detain the captain of this pestering vessel, and should he turn out to be, in fact, the notorious Croggon Beauregard Hainey,
I don’t care what you do with him
She stammered, “I…I beg your pardon?”
“Listen, the Union wants him, but they don’t want him badly. Mostly they want him to go away. The Rebs want him, and they want him badly as a matter of principle—in order to make an example out of him, if nothing else.”
“You’re telling me I should send him back to Georgia, if I catch him.”
“No,” he shook his head. “I’m saying that if you want to, you
. Whatever’s riding aboard the
is more important to the Yanks than catching and clobbering a bank robber—”
“More like a pirate, I thought we agreed.”
“So much the stranger,” Pinkerton said. “He’s a bad man, and he ought to be strung up someplace, but that’s not part of our assignment. And if you think you can score a few points with your old pals down in Danville, then if you can catch him, you’re welcome to him.”
Again she fell into quiet, uncertain of how much to take at face value, and how she ought to respond. When she spoke again she said, “I’m not often rendered speechless, sir, but you’ve nearly made it happen today.”
“Why? I’m only giving you the same permissions I give all my men. Do what’s convenient and what’s successful. And if you find yourself in a position where you can nick a little extra for yourself, I’m not looking too close and I won’t stop you. If it makes you happy and if it’s easy, score back some of the credibility you’ve lost with the Rebs. The more friendly connections you have under your belt, the more useful you’ll be to me in the future.”
“That’s very kind of you to consider,” she said carefully.
And he said in return, “It’s not remotely kind. It’s practical and selfish, and I won’t apologize for a bit of it.”
“Nor should you. And I appreciate the vote of confidence, if that’s what this is.”
He waved his hand dismissively and said, “I appreciate your appreciation, and all that back-and-forth politeness that people feel compelled to exchange. But for now, you’ll find a folder on the last desk on the left—and inside that folder, you’ll find everything you need to know about the
, the ship that chases it, and everyone within them both.”
“Really?” she asked.
“No, not really. The folder will barely tell you anything more than I’ve told you in here, but it’ll tell you how the money works, and it’ll give you some footing to get started. You’ll report every development to me, and you’ll report it promptly, and you won’t go more than seventy-two hours without reporting anything or else I’ll assume you’ve gotten yourself killed. Kindly refrain from getting yourself killed, lest you cause me deep aggravation and distress. Breaking in a new operative is expensive and annoying. It’ll gripe my soul if I have to replace you before you’ve done me any good. Be ready to hit the road in forty-five minutes.”
He paused to take a breath. She took the opportunity to stand, and say, “Thank you sir, and I’ll take that under consideration. You have my word that I’ll do my very best to prevent myself from getting killed, even though my very first assignment will throw me into the path of a hardened criminal and his crew of bloodthirsty air pirates.”
Pinkerton’s face fashioned an expression halfway between a grin and a sneer. He said, “I hope you didn’t think I was asking you here to sit still and look pretty.”
She was poised to leave the office but she hesitated, one hand resting on the back of the chair. She turned to the door, then changed her mind. She said, “Mr. Pinkerton, over the last twenty-five years I’ve risked my life to pass information across battlefields. I’ve broken things, stolen things, and been to prison more times than I’ve been married. I’ve shot and killed six men, and only three of those events could lawfully be called self-defense. I’ve been asked to do a great number of unsavory, dangerous, morally indefensible things in my time, and I’ve done them all without complaint because I do what needs to be done, whenever it needs to be done. But there’s one thing I’ve never been asked to do, and it’s just as well because I’d be guaranteed to fail.”
He asked, “And what’s that?”
Without blinking she said, “I’ve never been asked to sit still and look pretty.”
And before he could form a response, she swished out of the office, turning sideways to send her skirts through the doorway.
Outside the office door, the company operated in measured chaos. A man at a typewriter glanced up and didn’t glance away until Maria stared him down on her way past him. Two other men chattered quietly over a fistful of papers, then stopped to watch the lady go by. She gave them a quick, curt smile that didn’t show any teeth, and one of them tipped his hat.
The other did not.
She made a note of it, guessed at what she might expect from all three of them in the future, and found her way to the spot Allan Pinkerton had designated as hers.
The last desk on the left was empty and naked except for the promised folder on top. The folder was reassuringly fat until Maria opened it and realized that most of the bulk came from an envelope stuffed with crisp Union bills. Accompanying the envelope was a note explaining how to record her expenses and how to report them, as well as a small sheaf of telegrams that added up to a clipped, brief synopsis of what Allan Pinkerton had told her. And then, typed neatly on a separate page, she found the rest of what was known about the details of her first assignment.
She withdrew the wooden chair and sat down to read, momentarily ignoring Pinkerton’s initial order that she be on the road within forty-five minutes. She’d rather be fully prepared and a little bit late than overeager and uninformed.
In drips and drabs, Maria extracted the remaining facts from the small sheaf of paperwork. The
was coming from San Francisco, where it underwent a hull reconstruction following battle damage—for it was a retired war dirigible. On the ship’s voyage back east she was moving medicine, bedding, and canned goods to a sanatorium outside Louisville; and there, she would be assigned to a Lieutenant Colonel (presumably of the Union persuasion) by the name of Ossian Steen. Upon the
’s safe and formal arrival into this man’s hands, Maria would be recalled to Chicago.
Little was known about the ship in pursuit. It was described as a smaller craft, lightly loaded and perhaps lightly armed. This unknown vessel had made at least two attempts upon the
. The most recent had resulted in a crash outside of Topeka, Kansas, but wreckage of the unnamed ship had not been located. It was suspected that the ship was once again airborne, and once again hot on
At the bottom of the folder, Maria found a ticket that guaranteed passage aboard an airship called the
. It would take her from Chicago to Topeka, where the pirate Croggon Beauregard Hainey and his crew had been spotted by a Pinkerton informant. The fugitive had been seen bartering in a gasworks camp for parts and fuel.
Just as Maria was on the verge of closing the folder, Allan Pinkerton approached her desk with a second slip of telegram.
“Incoming,” he announced. He dropped the paper into her hand and said, “Your lift leaves in thirty minutes. There’s a coach outside to take you to the docks. You’ll have to change the ticket when you get there.”
“Yes sir,” she said. Her eyes dipped to scan the paper but then she swiftly asked, “Wait, sir? Change the ticket?” But he’d already whisked himself back to some other department, and was gone.
She looked down at the new telegram. It read:
HAINEY NEARING KANSAS CITY STOP CRAFT DAMAGED BUT STILL FLYING EAST ROUGHLY ALONG COACH ROUTES STOP INTERCEPT AT JEFFERSON CITY STOP ADVISE GREAT CAUTION BEWARE OF RATTLER STOP SEE ALGERNON RICE 7855 CHERRY ST STOP
Maria gathered up her folder, her papers, and she tucked the money into her skirt’s deepest pockets. She gathered up the large carpeted bag she almost always toted (a lady needed to be prepared, and anyway, one never knew what trouble might lurk around a bend); and she palmed a smaller handbag for essentials.
She was as ready as she was going to get.
“Beware of rattler? What on earth does
mean?” she puzzled aloud, but no one was within earshot to answer her, and outside, a coach was waiting to take her to the passenger docks.
CAPTAIN CROGGON BEAUREGARD HAINEY
Croggon Hainey, first mate Simeon Powell, and engineer Lamar Bailey gave up on the unnamed ship somewhere over Bonner Springs, Missouri. Smoke had filled the cabin to such an extent that it could no longer be ignored; and maintaining altitude had become a losing struggle in the battered, broken, almost altogether unflyable craft. They’d set the vessel down hard west of Kansas City and abandoned her there to smolder and rust where she lay.
Fifteen miles across the bone-dry earth, as flat as if it’d been laid that way by a baker’s pin, the three men lugged their surviving valuables. Lamar was laden with ammunition, small arms, and two half-empty skins of water. Simeon toted a roll of maps and a large canteen, plus two canvas packs crammed with personal items including tobacco, clothes, a few dry provisions, and a letter he always carried but almost never read. The captain held his own satchel and his own favorite guns, a stash of bills on his money belt, and a white-hot stare that could’ve burned a hole through a horse.
The Rattler was in its crate, gripped and suspended by Hainey’s right arm and Simeon’s left. It swung heavily back and forth, knocking against the men’s calves and knees if they fell too far out of step.
Simeon asked, “How far out do you think we are?”
And Lamar replied, “Out of Bonner Springs? Another four or five miles.”
The captain added through clenched teeth. “We won’t make it by dark, but we ought to be able to scare up a cart, or a coach, or a wagon, or some goddamned thing or another.”
“And a drink,” Simeon suggested.
“No. No drinking. We get some transportation, and we get back on the road, and we make Kansas City, before we try any sleep,” Hainey swore. The pauses between his words kept time to the swinging of the Rattler. “And one way or another, we’ll get a new ship in Kansas City,” he vowed.
“Ol’ Barebones still owe you a favor?” Simeon grunted as the crate cracked against his kneecap.
“Barebones owes me a favor till he’s dead. Four or five miles, you think?” he asked the engineer without looking over at him.
“At least,” Lamar admitted, sounding no happier about it than anyone else. “But it’s a miracle we got this close before the bird gave up the ghost. I could’ve sworn she’d never make it back into the air, but man, she made a liar out of me.” He kicked at the dirt and shifted his load to strain the other shoulder for awhile. “I never thought she’d fly again,” he added.
The captain knew what Lamar was fishing for, but he was too distracted or too exhausted to humor anybody, and he didn’t say anything in response. He only ground his jaw and stared into the long, stretch-limbed shadow that stomped in front of him, and he wondered if his arm would fall off before they reached Bonner Springs.
But Simeon’s free arm swung out to clap the engineer on the back, and he said, “That’s why we keep you around.”
“Not five other folks of any shade, in any state or territory could’ve got her back up into the sky with only a set of wrenches and a hammer, but I made her work, didn’t I?”
“Yeah, you sure did,” Simeon said. “It was a nice job.”
Hainey grumbled, “Would’ve been nicer if the patches could’ve held another five miles.”
Lamar’s eyes narrowed, but he didn’t snap back except to say, “Would’ve been even nicer if nobody’d crashed our ride into Kansas in the first place.”
The captain’s nostrils flared, and even though the approaching evening had left the flatlands cool, a bead of sweat rolled down into the scar on his cheek. “Four or five miles,” he breathed.
Simeon said, “And then some food. If we don’t stop and eat, I’ll starve to death before we can grab a new bird anyhow.”
“Fine,” Hainey shook his face and slung more sweat down to the dust. “But we eat on the road. Once we hit Bonner, how much farther is it to the big town, do you think? I’ve flown over it, but never walked it like this. You think twenty miles, maybe?”
Lamar shook his head and said, “Not that far, even. Maybe fifteen or sixteen. We can do it easy in a couple of hours, if we get horses good enough to pull us. We play our cards smart, and we might be in bed by midnight.”
“Midnight,” the captain grunted. Then he said, “Hang on,” and stopped. “Other arm,” he suggested to Simeon, who nodded and complied.
They switched, and Simeon said, “I’d like that a lot. I could sleep a week, easy.”
“Well, you aren’t gonna.”
“We know,” Lamar said it like a complaint, but the look on the captain’s face made him to keep the rest to himself.
The sun set fast behind them, and the world went golden. The sky was rich and yellow, then pale maroon; and before it went a royal shade of navy, the captain stopped to pull a lantern out of his satchel. They lit it and took turns holding it by their teeth, and by the ends of their fingers. When the last of the rose-pink rays had finally slipped down past the horizon line, the lone lantern made a rickety bubble of white around the three dark men.
As they trudged, coyotes called back and forth across the grass.
Snakes rattled and scattered, winding their way into the night, away from the crushing boots of the heavily laden travelers; and while the crew staggered along the wheel ruts that passed for a rural road, sometimes overhead they could hear the mocking rumble of a dirigible passing through quickly, quietly, looking for a place to set down and spend the night.
By nine o’clock, they reached the town’s edge, and by ten they’d purchased a tiny, run-down stagecoach that was almost too old to roll, and they’d bartered two horses to pull it. The horses were only marginally younger and fresher than the coach itself, but they were well fed and rested, and they moved at a fast enough clip to bring the trio rolling into Kansas City by half past midnight.
Hainey drove the horses. Simeon sat beside him and smoked. Lamar stayed inside the cabin with the Rattler and the provisions, where he would’ve been happy to nap, except for the persistent, jerking bounce of the coach’s worn-out wheels.
Even though their backs and arms still ached from the loads, the crew was refreshed by the gas lamps and the late workers who manned stores, transported goods, and swore back and forth at the gamblers and drunks. The prairie was a lonely place for three men too exhausted to talk (or even to bicker); and the city might not mean welcome, but it would warm them and supply them.
They moved deeper into the heart of the place, keeping to themselves even as they drew the occasional curious eye. There were places in the west, as everywhere, where free black men could find no haven—but likewise, as everywhere, there were places where useful men of a certain sort could always find a reception.
In the central district, where the street lamps were fewer and farther between, the saloons were plentiful and the passersby became more varied. Indians walked shrouded in bright blankets; and through the window of the Hotel Oriental, Hainey saw a circle of Chinamen playing tiles on a poker table. On the corner a pair of women gossiped and hushed when the old coach drew near, but their business was an easy guess and even Simeon was too tired to give them more than a second glance.
Along the wheel-carved dirt streets, Hainey, Simeon, and Lamar guided the horses beyond the prostitutes, the card-players, the cowboys and the dance hall girls who were late for work.
And finally, when the road seemed ready to make a sudden end, they were at the block where Halliway Coxey Barebones ran a liquor wholesale establishment from the backside of a hotel. He also ran tobacco that the government had not yet seen and would never get a chance to tax, as well as the occasional wayward war weapon
to a country either blue or gray—wherever the offer was best. From time to time, he likewise traded in illicit substances, which was how he had made the acquaintance of Croggon Hainey in the first place.
The side door of the Halliway Hotel was opened by a squat white woman with a scarf on her head and a carving knife in her hand. She said, “What?” and wiped the knife on her apron.
Hainey answered with comparable brevity, “Barebones.”
She looked him up and down, then similarly examined the other two men. And she said, “No.”
The captain leaned forward and lowered his head to meet her height. He minded the knife but wasn’t much worried about it. “Go tell him Crog is here to ask about prompt and friendly repayment of an old favor. Tell him Crog will wait in the lobby with his friends.”
The woman thought about it for a second, and swung her head from side to side. “No. I’ll tell Barebones, but we don’t have no Negroes in here. You wait outside.”
He stuck his foot in the door before she could shut it, and he told her, “I know what your sign says, and I know what your boss says. And it don’t apply to me, or to my friends. You go ask him, you’ll see.”
“I’ll go ask him, and you’ll wait
,” she insisted. “Or you can make a stink and I can make a holler—and you won’t get anywhere tonight but into a jail cell, or maybe into a noose. And how would you like that, boys?” Her eyebrows made a hard little line across her forehead and she adjusted her grip on the carving knife.
Hainey did a full round of calculations in his head, estimating the value and cost of making a stand on the stoop of the side door at the Halliway Hotel. Under different circumstances, and in a different state, and with a night’s worth of rest under his belt he might have considered leaving his foot in the door; but he was tired, and hungry, and battered from a hard crash and hard travels. Furthermore he was not alone and he had two crewmen’s well-being to keep in mind.
Or this is what he told himself as he wrapped a muffling leash around the insult and his anger, and he slipped his foot out of the door jamb so that the toad-shaped woman in the scarf could slam it shut. He said aloud, “We shouldn’t have to stand for it,” and it came out furious, lacking the control he wanted to show. So he followed this with, “It only adds to his debt, I think. If he can’t tell the kitchen witch to respect his guests, it ought to cost him. I’ll tack it to what he owes me, one way or another.”
But neither of his crewmen made any reply, even to point out that Barebones already owed the captain his life.
For another five minutes they stood on the stoop, rubbing at their aching shoulders and tightening their jackets around their chests. Simeon fiddled with the tobacco pouch in his pocket and had nearly withdrawn it to roll up a smoke when the side door opened again. The chill-swollen wood stuck in the frame and released with a loud pop, startling the men on the stoop and announcing the man behind it.
Halliway Coxey Barebones was a short man, but a wide one. What remained of his hair was white, and the texture of wet cotton; and what remained of his eyesight was filtered through a pair of square, metal-rimmed spectacles. His hands and feet were large for a man of his understated size, his nose was lumpy and permanently blushed, and his waistcoat was stretched to its very breaking point.
He opened his arms and threw them up in greeting; but the effect somehow implied that he was being threatened. He said, “Hainey, you old son of a gun! What brings you and your boys to Missouri?”
Hainey mustered a smile as genuine as Halliway’s warm greeting and said, “A beat-up, crashed-down, worthless piece of tin and gas we never bothered to name.”
They shook hands and Barebones stepped sideways to let them pass, a gesture which only barely lightened the blockage of the doorway and the kitchen corridor. The three men sidled inside and followed their host beyond the meat-stained countertops and past the surly kitchen woman who gave them a scowl, and Hainey fought the urge to return it.
Barebones led them into a wood-paneled hallway with a cheap rug that ran its length, and back into the hotel’s depths where an unmarked doorway led to a cellar crammed with barrels, boxes, and the steamy, metallic stink of a still. He chattered the whole time, in a transparent and failing attempt to appear comfortable.
“It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Good Lord Almighty, our paths haven’t crossed since…well, almost a whole year now, anyway. Not since Reno, and that was, yes. Last Thanksgiving. We’ll be coming up on the holiday again, won’t we? Before very long, I mean. Another few weeks. I swear and be damned, I thought Jake Ganny was going to blow the bunch of us up to high heaven. If ever there was a man with a weaker grasp on science, or fire, or why you don’t shoot live ammunition anyplace near good grain alcohol and a set of steel hydrogen tanks, I never heard of ’im.”
“It was a hell of a pickle,” Hainey agreed politely, and a little impatiently as he watched the fat man walk in his shuffling, side-to-side hustle.
“Hell of a pickle indeed. But you and me, we’ve been in worse, ain’t we? Worse by a mile or more, it’s true. It’s true,” he repeated himself and only partially stifled a wheeze. “And it’s a right pleasure to see you here, even if I must confess, I don’t remember everybody’s name but yours, Crog.” He pointed a finger around his side and said, “You’re Simon, isn’t that right? And Lamar?”
“You got Lamar right,” Hainey answered for the lot of them. “The other’s Simeon. Looks like your operation’s grown a bit since last I was here to see it.”
Barebones said, “Oh! Oh yes, it’s been longer than a year since you last came through Kansas City. Closer to half a dozen, I guess.”
“Yes, things have been going well. Business is booming like business always is, in wartime and sorrow. The grain liquor is moving like lightning, no pun intended, and we can hardly keep the tobacco in the storehouses long enough to age a smidge. Between Virginia and Kentucky going back and forth, the fields are getting tight and the crops are being squeezed. We have to import from farther down south, these days—as far south as they’ll grow it. And the sweets,” he said. “Tell me how the business goes for the sweets you bring me from back up north, in the western corners.”
Hainey shrugged and said, “The gas is moving fine,” because that’s what Barebones was really asking after—a heavy, poisonous gas found in the walled port town of Seattle. The gas was deadly on its own, but when converted into a paste or powder, it became a heady and heavily addictive drug. “It’s easy to collect, but it’s hard to process. That’s the big problem with it. There aren’t enough chemists to cook it down to sap fast enough.”