Authors: Ed Gorman
I skipped the manly protestations. It was fun to play strong man but I figured my face was blanched again from the workout with the wheelchair. A weariness had set in, too. The poison might be out of me, but my full strength hadn't returned.
I dozed off so quickly I didn't even hear her leave. Next thing I was aware of was the tray being set down on my bed stand. The smells of beef, a potato, and beets got my eyes open. This was the first real food I'd had since they'd put me in this room. Real food. I sat up.
The nurse's assistant who'd delivered the food
smiled at me. “You need any help cutting that slice of beef?”
“No,” I said, “because I'll just eat it like this.”
I held up the delicious-looking cut of beef and proceeded to eat it with my fingers. Right then I didn't give much of a damn about table manners.
The nurse's assistant laughed. “Good to see a man your size put the food away. Used to see my dad eat like that, God rest him.”
I would have said something sentimental about her old man, but I was too busy cramming food into my face.
ou're Mr. Ford.”
“That I am.”
“My name's Gwendolyn Andrews.”
I judged her to be a very comely prairie-hardened thirty years old. Dark, gray-streaked hair; tanned, skinny, farm-girl body. Would be able to handle herself in most situations. Which was probably why she didn't seem intimidated at all right now.
“There are some things I'd like to tell you. We both had loved ones die. So we both want to find out the truth.”
“Please pull the chair up.”
Once she was seated, she used her long, tanned hands to smooth out the simple brown dress she wore. She spoke softly, purposefully, intelligently.
“I'm sorry I dragged him into it, Gwendolyn.”
“You didn't drag him into it. He wanted to go. He was excited to go. So was Tib. That's why they were killed. Your brother, too.”
“You're confusing me here, Gwendolyn.”
“All right, Gwen. My brother was killed because of the gun he was trying to sell.”
“You sure of that?”
“Well, you might be surprised. I think it was because of James.”
“What's he got to do with it?”
“Somebody's been wanting to kill James for several months now. You hired Tib and James, and the man saw a way to kill him and blame it on somebody else. And he was right. Everybody thinks it was because of your brother and his gun. But it wasn't.”
“You have a name for this man?”
“No. But in the past half year or so, James has been shot at twice, and once when he was sleeping alone in our new house, somebody set a rabid dog on him. James was lucky because he always slept with a gun underneath his pillow. He heard the dog snarling in the other room. He woke up in time.”
I'd been lying down. I must've winced when I sat up because she said, “I should wait till you feel better.”
“You can't walk out on me now. You've got a lot more to tell me and I want to hear it.”
“But you made a faceâ¦”
“A little pain. Nothing much. I'd be most appreciative if you'd pour me some coffee out of that pot there, and I'll get a smoke going.” Jane had rolled me half a dozen smokes.
Gwen touched the pot. “It's cold.”
“I got used to drinking it cold in the war. Had a friend named Daniel Port who preferred it that way.”
I sat up straight, struck the lucifer with my thumbnail, took a nice, deep drag, and then said, “So why
don't you fill in everything for me. I got in at the end of this thing.”
She hesitated, the large, savvy, brown eyes reflecting sorrow. “A lot of this will make me feel as if I'm dishonoring my husband's memory. But I want to find out what really happened out there at your brother's ranch.”
I let her take her time. And finally she spoke.
Gwen's story went this way: David Ford, my brother, hired James to be a kind of night watchman. This was right after David moved here and began refining the gun he'd stolen. David was impressed by how James presented himself.
What David didn't know, but a lot of townspeople did, was that James usually found a way to double his money no matter what kind of job he took. If you hired him to move furniture for you, you had to be careful that he didn't steal something from your house while he was in there. If he worked in your stable for a month, you often found that one or two of your horses had been rustled. If you hired him to work on your farm, you could just about bet that he'd swipe as much produce as he could, and then hide it along the edge of your property so that he could sneak back at night and get it. He was the same with his own people. He stole from them every chance he got, which was why Indians didn't trust him any more than white people did. But he was such a hard and careful worker that folks put up with his indiscretions.
He was the same way with secrets. James knew a
lot of secrets. It was joked that, in fact, James knew more secrets than God. This was because you could never be sure where he was at any given moment. People had found him in their barns, closets, wagons, trees, root cellars. He never seemed to bother people. He just, he explained, liked to hear things. It was for this reason that certain people in town liked to bestow “favors” on him, usually in the form of money. A cynic might call this money blackmail. James preferred the term favors. It sounded a lot friendlier. He knew that he should never demand too much, because that would just lead to trouble. But he'd kind of sidle up to you and whisper a few sentences about what he'd overheard you say, and then soon enough you'd be giving him monthly “favors” like some of your friends.
He might hear you say something about the lady you saw on the side, or he might hear you say something about how you were cheating your business partner, or he might hear you say something about the arson fire you set because you were in dire need of insurance cash.
Tib, Gwen said, was fascinated by James. The way Gwen explained it, Tib had always wanted to be a rogue like the ones you read about in dime novels. Men who dazzled rich, beautiful women with their charms and then later broke into fancy boudoirs to steal jewels and diamonds. The trouble was, Tib was your basic plow jockey who didn't have the pluck or the imagination it took to steal a stick of licorice from Mr. Adler's candy counter over to the general store.
So he sort of lived through James. James was better than reading a book, according to Tib. Every day
of the week, James would do somethingânever anything big, except for the occasional horse stealing, because he didn't want to go to prisonâbut something interesting.
The one thing she resented about James was that he had secrets he wouldn't share with her. Even when she begged him sometimes he wouldn't tell her. He always said that if anything bad happened, she wouldn't be involved in any way.
One night, several months back, James got drunk and did tell her that he'd learned something important out to David Ford's ranch. That's all he would say. Soon after that he came into a lot of money. A lot by their standards, anyway. They bought the Sears house and put it up. This took all their money. James had to work as hard as ever to support them.
But it was about that time that somebody tried to kill him. Once, twice, three times. For the first time ever, she saw her husband afraid. But he wouldn't tell her anything more than he had that one drunken night.
Then the trouble at David's ranch, and James, Tib, and David were dead.
“Everybody thinks this was about the gun, but I'm not sure it was.”
The good ones take every path pointed out to them. I'm talking here about any kind of investigative man or woman you care to name. Unless it involves ghosties or goblins or spheres in the sky (all of which you hear about more frequently than you might imagine), the good investigator follows every
path pointed out to him. He does not, however, always hold out much hope that he'll find much on any given path.
You have a man, my own brother, with an experimental weapon much sought around the world. You have four men of varying reputations trying to possess that gun. There is a shootout. Brother is killed. Gun vanishes.
One of the men who died in the shootout came into some unexpected money a few months back. Tempting to think that this might have some bearing on the shootout. But here you have a man, James, who by all accounts was a thief and likely a blackmailer. There could be many other explanations than the gun as to how he came into the windfall.
But, if you're good, you don't dismiss it. Because there's just enough of a vague connection to making traveling that path worthwhileâif you are a serious investigator.
“How about this?” I said. “How about if I check out what I think happened and at the same time check out what you think happened?”
“You'd really do that?”
“Sure. Why not?”
“Well, Jamesâa Cree.”
“He died helping me. I owe him that much, at least.”
She took my hand. She was, as I'd guessed, strong and vital. The grip confirmed that. You take a pioneer woman, this being a theory I've had for years, and put her up against your average city man in a fightâand it's likely the pioneer woman will win. Fourteen-, fifteen-hour days of the kind of hard labor you rarely get even in most prisonsâshe may be slim,
she may look feminine as hell when she's gussied up for a barn dance, but underestimate her at your peril.
Then she was kissing me on the forehead and saying, “Thank you so much. I just want to learn the truth.”
“So do I.”
She turned and walked out of the room. For a moment my eyes watched her slender, but very female, backside. But then my gaze drifted up to the wheelchair. I wanted to see if I could improve on my top speed.
But firstâ¦a nap.
wo days later, I left the hospital. My gun arm remained in the sling, my knees trembled sometimes, and I had a vague headache.
I put on a pretty good show for the townspeople who saw me make my uncertain way down the hospital steps and onto the sidewalk. A few people walked very wide of me, as if whatever I had just might be contagious. A few of them politely stepped aside to let me dodder my way past them. The hospital had urged me to let one of their people accompany me. But pride wouldn't let me. Who the hell couldn't survive a minor gunshot wound? Apparently, I couldn't, not with any stamina or grace, anyway. I stumbled once, falling to my knee as if I were proposing marriage to a ravishing ghost woman nobody but I could see. Another time, drained, I fell against a hitching rack and stayed there for a good three or four minutes. But finally, and for no reason I could figure out, I got some serious strength back. I didn't wobble nearly as much, the cloudiness of my vision cleared up, and I even managed to get a few smiles from passing pretty women as I doffed my hat.
The first thing I did was go to the cafÃ© where I'd had the good steak the other night. I ate a slab of meat as close to raw as I could get without making the cook sick. I'm a believer in the curative powers of animal blood.
The serving woman started smiling at me as I kept asking her for more bread and then a few more potatoes and then just a wee bit more beef. She was ahead of me in the dessert department. She brought forth a slice of chocolate cake that had to exhaust her just to carry. She set it down in front of me, along with a clean fork, and watched me begin to attack that cake with a passion I usually saved for the bedroom.
She laughed. “You been lost in the mountains, have you?”
“Pretty close. Lost in a hospital.”
“Well, you're makin' up for lost time today.”
The second thing I did was stop in a store and buy myself a shirt. I traveled with three. But the one with the bullet holes needed replacing. The clerk said that I should try and buy a shirt that went with my sling, but I said that that didn't matter to me. I hoped to have the shirt a whole lot longer than I had the sling.
“You have some kind of hunting accident, did you?” he said. “I mean that's a gunshot wound, isn't it?”
Wasn't any of his damned business. “Bear.”
“Uh-huh. Took a big bite out of my shoulder.”
“My Lord, that musta hurt.”
“Well, it did a little bit. But the bear was worse off than I was.”
“You shoot him, did you?” He was eager for the whole story.
“Nope. Bit him right back. Right on the same spot on his shoulder that he bit me on mine.” I smiled big and wide and crazy. You know how bullshitters smile. “I guess I surprised him so much he just skedaddled out of the camp I'd made and never bothered me again.”
The clerk didn't have much to say after that. He wrote up my order and seemed mighty relieved when I left. Maybe he was afraid I'd take a big bite out of his shoulder.
The third thing I did was go back to my hotel. Not to my room, but to the front. I wanted to know which rooms Dennis Wayland and Lee Spenser were staying in. It was convenient that two of the men on the list were staying in my hotel.
The clerk gave me the room numbers, then said, “But they're not in their rooms. They're in having coffee.” He nodded a shining, bald head in the direction of the hotel restaurant. “Those slings are a nuisance, aren't they? I had to wear one for a month one time. And wait till you take it off. You won't have any real feeling in your arm for a day or two.”
I thanked him with a nod and then went into the restaurant. It was Victorian in the heaviness of its furnishings and the lack of sunlight. There was an almost funereal sense to the large room. All the workers wore clothes of dark brown and black. Cheery.
Wayland and Spenser made it easy for me. They were the only two people in the place except for a thin woman with twitching nervous eyes, sipping tea.
Wayland and Spenser both watched me walk toward them. When I was about halfway there they glanced at each other.
I moved the discussion along right away. I set my
inspector's badge down and pulled out a chair with my good hand and sat down.
The heavy red-haired man in the dark suit said, “You must be working with the marshal.”
“Are you Wayland?” I asked him.
“No. Spenser.” There was something of the Viking about him. Maybe it was the red hair and the broken nose. Or maybe it was the simple, deep-blue ferocity of the pitiless eyes. “You'd think the government would have better ways of wasting money than to have people like you follow us around.” His size and attitude suggested strength.
“I'm Wayland, Mr. Ford.”
“We need to talk a little bit,” I said.
“I'm trying to have a goddamn drink and a goddamn meal if you don't goddamn mind it,” Spenser said.
They make a mistake, men like these two. They work for the rich and powerful and then slowly begin to believe that they're rich and powerful themselves. They're not. They're hired functionaries, the same as I am.
“Mind telling me why you're in town?” I said.
“None of your damned business,” Spenser snapped.
“Oh, hell, don't let him rile you, Spenser,” Wayland said. He was tall, slim, lawyerly, right down to the way he tucked his thumbs into the slant pockets of his vest. He had thinning brown hair and shrewd brown eyes. “He thinks he matters because he has a badge, and that's supposed to frighten people like us.”
Wayland talked like a lawyer, too, but there was a hurt, weak, quality to his eyes, and his voice was pitched higher than he probably liked.
But Spenser couldn't let go. “Some gunny with a badge thinks he's some big important man.” He glared up at me. He had a bubble of steak sauce hanging off his fierce red mustache. This probably wasn't a good time to mention it. “There's nothing illegal in what I'm doing. I work for the Brits, yes. The Brits are friends of ours, in case you hadn't heard. And they need to defend themselves the same way we do. That means keeping up with new weapons. I'm here by invitation ofâ¦” He hadn't made the connection before. “Ford. I was here at David Ford's invitation.” His rage cooled some. “Was he a relative?”
The two men looked at each other again.
Wayland said, “That's odd, isn't it? You investigating your own brother?”
They obviously didn't know that I'd used the gun as a pretext. Yes, the government wanted it. That had been their interest in David. Mine was in saving my brother's life. If another investigator had been sent, he likely would have killed David on the spot.
“I grew up with him,” I said. “I knew his patterns and how he thought. It made sense for the Army to send me down here.”
“This hayseed marshal seems to think one of us killed him and took the gun,” Spenser said.
“Why just one of you?” I said. “What if two of you got together? Or three or four?”
“Bad theory,” Wayland said. “We each represent a different party. We couldn't work together.” He'd eaten little. He'd left most of a steak on his plate, potatoes and applesauce untouched.
“Which party is it that you represent, Mr. Wayland?”
“I'm afraid that's none of your business.”
“I wouldn't say that, I'm afraid.”
“If I find out that you're representing a hostile government, then I can have you held until some other Federal boys get down here to ask you some questions.”
“If you think you scare us, you're wrong,” Spenser said. “You shouldn't try and intimidate anybody when you've got your arm in a sling.”
His right hand was resting flat on the pure-white tablecloth. I grabbed it with my left hand and squeezed it so tight I could feel the bones grinding against each other. His size and his cold stern face didn't help him much. He was all pain, helpless as hell right now.
“You sonofabitch,” he said when I let go his wide, long hand.
“I just wanted to make sure you didn't confuse me with some sort of invalid,” I said. “Because I'm not.”
As he rubbed his damaged hand, he glared at me.
“Neither of us killed your brother,” Wayland said.
“I suppose you can prove that?”
Spenser stood up. “I need to relieve myself, gentlemen. If you'd be so kind as to explain to this cretin about our alibi, Mr. Wayland, I'd be most grateful.”
I didn't see the jerking limp or the heavily built-up shoe until he'd taken two steps. His size, but most of all his arrogance, made his limp seem impossible. He kept his head tilted so that he could watch me watch him. Instinct made me want to pity him. But he didn't want my pity and he made sure he didn't get it. “Don't worry, Ford. Even with this foot, I'm twice the man you'll ever be.”
Wayland sipped coffee. “You didn't make any friends here, I'll tell you that.”
“What makes you think I'd want you two as friends, Wayland? You sell arms to the highest bidder.”
“We have alliances. We represent our clients' best interests.”
“Unless some other âclient' offers you more money.”
He leaned back and looked at me, his eyes dark in the shadowy restaurant. I wanted to be outside. Away from the gloom. Away from these two. There were a lot of filthy ways to make money, but selling arms had to be one of the filthiest. “If one of us had killed your brother and taken the gun, the first thing we'd have done is get the hell out of here before the marshal could stop us.”
“That's the last thing you would've done. If you'd killed him and taken the gun, you would have had to stay here. Leaving would make you look guilty for sure.”
“We were here before,” he said. “This is the second time your brother invited us. We had a good relationship with him.”
This was something I hadn't known. Nobody'd mentioned it before. “When were you here?”
“Seven months ago. All four of us. Your brother wanted to whet our appetites. The gun still needed work, but it was well enough along that we could get a sense of its power. We saw it and we went back to our respective clients and told them about it. They then began figuring out what they were going to bid for the project. All the clients wanted to have a guarantee that it was an exclusive. Your brother promised he could deliver sixty of them three
months after the demonstration he gave us the day he died.”
“He wasn't set up for manufacturing.”
“He didn't have to be. There was a firm back East.”
“So you gave him sealed bids?”
“Of course. He couldn't afford to alienate us, so he acted honestly. Your brother was a very energetic man. He always had something to sell. Everything from guns to information. So he always took sealed bids and opened them in front of everybody placing bids. The highest bidder won. Simple as that.”
“Maybe one of you got greedy.”
“We didn't bring money, only the bids.”
“Of course. But you could tell your client that somebody else had the gun now and you needed to pay him.”
He smiled. “You have a devious mind, Mr. Ford. You could be one of us.”
Spenser came back. As he sat down, Wayland said, “I was just telling Mr. Ford that he was devious enough to be one of us.”
“He's too stupid to be one of us.”
“If I didn't know better,” Wayland said, “I'd say you two didn't like each other.”
“You never did get around to telling me about your alibi, Wayland.”
Spenser snapped, “Then I'll tell you. There's a whorehouse on Dodge Street. 33 is the address. The four of us rented it for the night. Middle of the week business is slow there. They gave us a special rate. We did everything you might expect.”
Wayland: “I dimly recall doing a few things I hadn't expected.”
“That's your alibi? A madam?”
“Tell me, Ford,” Spenser said, his entire body tense with anger at my simple presence in his world. “Do you only deal with people of high moral character?”
“Obviously not. I'm sitting here with you two, aren't I?”
Wayland laughed. “I have to admit, that's a good one.”
“He's an asshole.”
“Oh, c'mon, Spenser. We're probably just as bad as he says we are. We do sell to the highest bidder and sometimes they aren't exactly virgins.”
“You're agreeing with him?” Spenser snapped. “We work in a capitalist society. This bastard sounds like an anarchist.” He turned his angry gaze on me. “And anyway, I wonder if he has any idea how many people in the Department of the Army we've bribed over the years. You've probably taken a little graft yourself, Ford, you sanctimonious prick.”
“Shout a little louder, Spenser, she wasn't able to pick that last one up.” I nodded to the prim lady sipping tea several tables away. “Repeat the part about how you bribed people in the Department of the Army. I'll need a witness to get a warrant for your arrest.”
“Arrest?” Wayland said. “We were just having a little fun hereâ¦”
“Spenser here just admitted to a federal crime. The department's well aware that some of its employees take bribes for information. We're gradually getting rid of them. And once we do, we'll start on people like our friend Spenser here.”
“You're no friend of mine,” Spenser said. “Don't even joke about it.”
It was time to leave. “I'll no doubt want to talk to you again.”
“Fair warning?” Wayland smirked.
“Something like that, I suppose. In the meantime, tell Spenser here that he needs to relax a little. For the sake of his heart. Unless he killed my brother. Then he won't have to worry about his heart. I'll take care of that for him.”
Wayland still seemed amused by it all. Maybe he just liked to see a good fight. “I'd watch out for this fellow if I were you, Spenser.”