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Authors: Ed Gorman

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BOOK: The Killing Machine
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I concentrated on the method of David's death rather than his death itself. I'd be working through my regrets about his passing the rest of my life.

For now, I wanted to know who had cut his throat and why. The automatic assumption was that one of the men he had working with him had killed him to take the gun and sell it. Maybe two or three of them together had done it.

The next assumption was that one of the four men who'd come to buy the gun had done it, one of the men the marshal had told to stay in town.

The smell of hot food was welcome, even if it turned out to be only the usual broth and bland slice of white bread, served with a small cup of vegetable soup. What I'd been picturing was something more along the lines of a slab of beef and boiled potatoes and some kind of vegetable with a slice of cherry pie and hot black coffee, chicory flavor, if you have it, ma'am, for dessert.

The hefty night nurse must have caught my ex
pression. “You'll be eating regular tomorrow. The doctor told me to tell you that. Man like you wants food. Now you lay back there.”

She fed me. I dribbled a lot. I supposed it was undignified, but I didn't give a damn. I'd seen too much in the war to care about dignity. I'd seen men—mostly young men who could have been my sons or nephews—puking, shitting, sobbing, begging, screaming when they died to believe anymore in dignity. Dignity wouldn't have helped those kids, anyway, and I mean both sides. I'm not one of those braying winners. Both sides suffered far too much to brag about anything.

When I'd sufficiently fouled my chin and the bib the nurse had wisely slung around my neck, I said, “There was a nurse this afternoon…”

And that was as far as I got.

“Jane Churchill.”

“How'd you know the one I meant?”

“All the men ask about her.”

“Ah.”

“She's a pretty one, isn't she?”

“Very.”

The woman laughed. She had a round, wise, pleasant face. “They're always sending her birthday cards and things like that. Christmas cards, too.” She took my bib away and then started wiping my face with a damp, soapy cloth. “But I'm surprised she didn't tell you.”

“Tell me what?”

“Who she is. She used to spend time with your brother. He was quite the dancer, you know.”

“David?”

“Um-hm. You'd see them together out to the barn
dances. People loved to watch them dance. And they figured that they were right for each other—she keeps to herself just the way that brother of yours kept to himself.”

Back when we were kids, David would never dance at any of the local festivities. He always said that dancing was for girls. I smiled at the picture of him leading a pretty girl around on the floor. And in the case of Nurse Jane…she was quite the pretty girl.

“You didn't know that, huh?”

She was getting everything ready for tonight. Plumping pillows, straightening sheets, setting a fresh pitcher of water on my nightstand.

“They went out and everything?” I said. Had she known he had a wife?

“If you mean courted, I guess you'd call it that. She visited him a lot at the ranch he rented, anyway. People talked, both of them being unmarried and everything. But then you know how people do. They make something dirty out of everything, just so they'll have something to talk about. Live and let live, I say.”

“Well, I'm with you,” I said in a stout, half-kidding voice. “If people want to defile each other in the middle of the road, I say, durn well let 'em.”

She poured me a glass of water.

“Now you're making fun of me.”

“No, I'm not. Just fooling around a little.”

“I don't mind admitting that I wish men treated me the way they treat her.”

“You mean Jane?”

She nodded. “Just to go through life one day the
way she does. Having all these men treat her so special and everything.”

Her voice was genuinely wistful. A middle-aged woman and a fond daydream. I liked her and felt sorry for her. Life is an awfully random process when you come right down to it, and the nice people don't always get the reward they deserve. A lot of ugly folks are awfully nice, and a lot of beautiful ones aren't. Then again, some ugly ones are pretty vile and some beautiful ones are gentle and kind and good. Figuring out life tends to give me a headache sometimes.

“But I'm just jealous.”

“Nothing wrong with that. You're just human, is all.”

“I suppose. But I always feel that I should grow up someday and not let things like that bother me.”

I took her wrist, gently. “An old priest in the war told me something. He said that after hearing a couple thousand confessions, he'd figured out that nobody ever really grows up.”

Her whoop of a laugh was almost like the note of a song perfectly sung. “Now, that one I'll have to remember.”

“Don't you think it's true when you think of it? You look at people from the outside and they can look really old, but you listen to them and they're basically the same as they were when they were younger—the same anger and pleasure and fear. We're all kids hiding out in these adult bodies.”

“I'm going to quote you on that.”

“That's what the old priest said. Not me. I'm not smart enough to say things like that.”

“I'll just bet you're not,” she said.

Then she was gone and then it was night. She came in later and asked me if she should turn up my lantern. I said no. I wanted the darkness. David, dancing. David and the nurse named Jane. I found myself resenting him again. And without quite knowing why.

DENNIS WAYLAND—ASSOCIATED WITH GERMAN EMBASSY IN NEW YORK

THOMAS BRINKLEY—REPRESENTATIVE OF THE KRUGER ARMS COMPANY, BELEURS, KENTUCKY, PROMINENT COPPERHEAD

LEE SPENSER—FREELANCE ARMS DEALER

GILES FAIRBAIN—STAFF MEMBER, SENATOR LAWTON CAINE

I woke up much earlier than I wanted to. From the gray sky, I guessed it was an hour or so before dawn. There wasn't much to do except turn up the lantern and go over the files Marshal Wickham had left me.

I was glad he'd had them typed up. Wickham had scribbled a note to me on the corner of a page and it took me five minutes to decipher his handwriting. What it said was, “Be interesting to see your reaction to these fellas.”

I spent nearly two hours with the eight typed
pages. There was nothing remarkable about any of them as far as occupations went. The international arms cartel is made up of freelancers working for countries they won't name, men who work for a handful of foreign embassies in New York and Washington, and even for senators who are secretly working for one branch of service or the other. The competition between the Army and the Marines, for example, is almost equal to that between fighting countries. Senator Caine was a West Point graduate; there was no doubt about his sympathies. The rest of the information Wickham had given me was just as interesting and just as useless. At least on the surface.

You have to wonder about people who deal in arms, wonder if they've ever been in a war, ever seen what guns do to people. Big guns, small guns, it doesn't matter. There were battles on both sides where the dead had been piled up like cordwood. You never smelled anything like it before. Or saw anything like it, either, after the crows had bloodied their beaks with the eyes of the dead men.

Countries always claimed to detest war. If one somehow got started, they claimed it wasn't them who started it, it was that other country. And if they took the blame for starting it, why, they only did so because, they claimed, the other country would have invaded them anyhow at some point in the future.

Even the countries that claimed neutrality were rarely neutral. They made dirty secret money on wars, either banking millions for tyrants who planned to flee if the war went badly, or being middlemen for the arms merchants.

Jane came in just before six o'clock.

She'd been laying out pills on my nightstand. She
didn't look up. In the lamplight her features were soft and sentimental, like one of those idealized sweet women on magazine covers.

“I should've said something. About David and me.”

“Yeah. I guess you should've.”

“I just didn't know how to bring it up. Given—your relationship with him.”

When our glances met, she said, “Marshal Wickham told me that they went through his things and found that he was married.”

So she hadn't known.

“I don't like to think of myself that way.” Then: “As an adulteress.”

The word sounded pretty severe on her tongue.

“You weren't an adulteress. You didn't know he was married.”

She was near enough to touch my good shoulder. “I appreciate you saying that. But it still makes me feel dirty. He had a wife waiting for him.”

“Not much of a wife, from what he said.”

We went through the process of her changing my sheets again. “Your temperature's back to where it should be. The pills took care of the infection.”

“I feel better. Not great. But better.”

“We're going to try you in a wheelchair. This company wants to sell us two of them so they gave us one to try out.”

When we finished with the sheets, I lay back. She stood next to my bed and washed my face and hands with a damp cloth.

“He talked about you sometimes.”

My laugh was as harsh as my words had been. “I can imagine.”

“He cared about you, actually.”

For the first time—probably because I was getting stronger and more aware of things—I detected a faint British accent in her voice.

“How long have you been in the States?”

She smiled. “The accent? I came here when I was seven. I've still got traces of it. Now let's deal with the pills. You've got eight of them this morning.”

We didn't talk while she set one pill after another on my tongue. One of them gagged me and I had to sit up abruptly. All the pain came back. So did an instant headache.

I lay back. She put a cool, damp cloth on my head. “I imagine that hurt.”

I closed my eyes, rested a moment. “You know who killed him?”

“No. I'm afraid not. Marshal Wickham asked me the same thing.”

She looked sad and old in that moment. Even frail. “Now that I know that he was married—that he lied to me all this time—I don't know what to think. About him or myself.”

I reached out and took her hand. “You're being too rough on yourself. Like I said, you didn't know.” Then she did something that probably surprised both of us. She leaned down and kissed my forehead. It wasn't a romantic kiss. It was a fond kiss. But it made me feel idiotically happy. She was such a clean, fine woman; the kind of woman who'd never paid any attention to me at all; the kind of woman my brother had gone through with ease.

“Maybe I should've been curious. Should've asked.” Then: “I need to get to work. The chamber pot for one thing.”

“You get all the good jobs.”

“I don't mind. I like helping people.”

But she lingered there. Thankfully. “It makes me feel as if I'm doing something with my life. Helping people. David used to laugh when I said that. And I suppose it does sound a bit too noble. But it has to do with my background, I suppose.”

“In England?”

She nodded. “I spent my girlhood with servants. Then my father lost his money in some African diamond ruse and we were out on the street. My father had alienated everybody in his family while he was rich. He was a very arrogant man. I loved him without liking him, if you know what I mean by that. My sister, who got the looks, married a lord, and made the transition with no difficulty at all.” She laughed. “As near as I can figure it, Nanette was poor for about three hours. Father and I moved to London. He'd trained as a barrister but had never practiced in any serious way. My mother had died a few years before that. She was a very dear woman. I'm glad she didn't live to see us lose our money. I went to nursing school and studied hard so I could graduate early. Father ended up working in a men's clothing store in Carnaby Street. He had to wait on men he'd once been socially superior to. It wasn't easy for him. We had a gas stove in our little flat. He used it to kill himself one winter's night. I never even cried about it. I believe in an afterlife, so I believe he's in a better place now.” That melancholy half-smile again. “If there was one man who was not cut out to be poor, it was Father. Believe me. I lost myself in my nursing. When you help other people you tend to forget about your own problems. So I suppose David was right. It's not noble at
all. It's selfish. You help others so you can forget about yourself.”

“I guess that's true. But the point is, you help other people. It doesn't matter why you do it.” I reached up and touched her slender forearm. “There's one point in your story I had a little trouble with.”

“Oh? Which point was that?”

“That your sister got the looks.”

She laughed, sounding genuinely surprised. “That's very flattering. But believe me, if I was standing next to Nanette right now, you wouldn't even notice me. I'm attractive in my way, but she's beautiful. I was only half-joking when I said she was poor for only about three hours. Rich men were throwing themselves at her.”

Then she was straightening my sheet, tucking me in. “Take yourself a little nap, then we'll let you terrorize the hospital in that wheelchair.”

 

My people have always been crazed for contraptions. My father always had to be the first one to own just about any given contraption he heard about. We had the first player piano, the first typewriting machine, the first machine-made watch, the first safety lift, and the first internal combustion engine.

What Jane wheeled into my room was the first true wheelchair I'd ever seen. The last time I'd visited the vets' hospital in D.C., a couple of the docs were talking about a company that was experimenting with building a wicker chair and putting bicycle tires on the sides of it so that the chairbound person could wheel himself around. Previous chairs had been just
that—chairs with caster wheels on the bottom that could be pushed from behind by a nurse or friend.

What I was looking at gave the chair-sitter a whole lot of mobility. On a flat surface he could go where he wanted without any assistance.

“You should see yourself,” Jane said. “You look as excited as a little kid.”

“The family curse. Contraptions.”

“That's how David was about guns.” When she mentioned his name, her eyes got sad for a moment. She probably hadn't figured out which hurt more—his death or his deceit.

“You could have races in these things.”

It was good to see her smile. “I'm not sure that's what they have in mind for these. But yes, little boy, I'm sure you could race in these if you really wanted to. Why don't I help you out of bed so you can try it out?”

I surprised myself when I stood up. Not dizzy. Not weak. The shoulder hurt all the way down into my elbow. But it was pain at a tolerable level, not pain that distracted you or made you want to crawl back in bed.

“I think I'm on the mend.”

“Well, then, maybe you won't want to try this,” she said, mischief in her voice.

“Try and stop me.”

I walked over to it and sat down. It would be easy to operate when you had hands on both wheels. I had to make do with one, the one not in the sling. There was even a brake.

“Only thing it needs is a cushion for the seat.”

“Maybe we could find a model made out of solid gold for you.”

“Could you get one with some diamonds and rubies in it, too?”

“You want me to push you for a while, Your Majesty? There're handle grips on the back of it.”

“That'd be nice. Then I can wave at my subjects.”

I got to see the rest of the hospital. The first floor of it, anyway. Eight rooms, four to a side. Bright and white and clean in the autumn sunlight coming through the windows. Nurses in white, a pair of male helpers who wore street clothes and toted mops and buckets and brooms. Hospital filth was a scandal in the big cities. A good number of people died in hospitals from infections they picked up there. She explained that the surgery was on the second floor.

I was about to say that despite the fact that I enjoyed her company, I wouldn't mind getting around by myself in this chair. See what kinds of speed and turning skills I could impress myself with.

But I didn't need to. She was called to the second floor by a nurse who sounded as if she was about to give in to panic. The newspapers kept assuring us that surgical procedures were on the cusp of new breakthroughs that would save many, many more lives. Until then surgery was something of a coin toss. People spent a long time saying goodbye to their loved ones before entering surgery. And with good reason. A whole bunch of them would never see their loved ones again.

I got a good twenty minutes until my good arm gave out and I decided to roll back to my room. I parked the wheelchair next to my bed, climbed out of it and proceeded to lie down. I almost laid on top of the envelope. Nothing on the front of it. A letter inside.

I'll be back this afternoon to see you. There are things you should know about my husband.

Mrs. James Andrews

Pencil. On the back of a flier advertising a sale at the general store. I spent three minutes trying to figure out who Mrs. James Andrews might be.

When Jane came in to see how I was doing after setting speed records in the wheelchair, I said, “Know a Mrs. James Andrews?”

“Tib and James. James's wife. Gwen. A very nice woman. She stopped in to talk to you, but when I told her about the wheelchair she said not to bother you. I told her you were having fun. She's a very nice woman.”

“I thought James was Cree. Where'd he pick up ‘Andrews'?”

“The Indian agent who got James the scouting job with the Army. His name was Andrews. James figured that when he dealt with the white world it was easier to have a white name. So he took the James from James Fenimore Cooper, which one of the missionaries read to James's tribe, and Andrews from the Indian agent. She said she'd see you when you got out of here, which I told her would be soon.”

“She say what she wanted?”

She shook her pretty head. “Just that she needed to talk to you about James. She isn't doing very well. Understandably. They've got a little one. Luckily, James came into some money last spring. He ordered one of those houses you can get through the Sears catalog. He and Tib put it up in about four days.”

“How'd he come into money?”

“No idea. Maybe that's what she wants to talk to you about.”

“—she's white?”

“Daughter of a missionary. James had the reputation of being a pretty rough character, but she did a lot to calm him down. Having a kid helped, too. He was a very attentive father. It's too bad he could never find any real work that paid him much. He saw that Sears ad they run in magazines for those houses you can order—and that's all he thought of, she said. He was bound and determined to build one for them. It really became an obsession. The trouble was, he couldn't figure out where he'd get the money. Then this money just came in.” Then: “So how was the ride?”

“If I had both arms, I could double my speed.”

She took the letter from my fingers, set it on the stand next to my bed, then pressed me back against the mattress. She pulled up the covers and said, “You'll have some food in about half an hour. See if you can take a nap. You still need to build your strength back up.”

BOOK: The Killing Machine
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