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Authors: Ed Gorman

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BOOK: The Killing Machine
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“Over a year ago.”

“Rapes? Major robberies?”

“About the same.”

“Why would the blackmail have to be local?”

“James rarely left town. All the people he blackmailed were local.”

There wasn't much left to cross swords over.

“Besides, the gun's gone, Ford. Whoever did the
killing took the gun. And whoever took the gun would have to be somebody who knew how to unload a piece of stolen merchandise that a whole bunch of powerful people were looking for.”

“Meaning one of the four men who came here to see my brother David?”

“Can you figure it any other way?”

I started to say that, no, I couldn't. Mrs. Andrews's story hadn't struck me as particularly sound to begin with. Now it sounded even less so.

I was about to say that when Frank knocked on the door. “Curly Holmes fell off the wagon again and he's shootin' up his house. His wife's afraid he'll shoot out all their windows again. Says she can't afford to buy new ones. Says she don't want me to go with her 'cause Curly gets mad every time he sees me. So she wants you to go with her.”

Suddenly, with gunshot clarity, a woman began sobbing in the outer office.

“That fuckin' Curly,” Marshal Wickham said, standing up. “I guess you'll have to excuse me, Ford.”

We shook hands briefly. I went out the back door. I never know what to do around weeping women.

 

The hotel clerk remembered me from earlier in the day.

“Mr. Fairbain and Mr. Brinkley came in about an hour ago. But you might like to wet your whistle first. In fact, I think you may find Mr. Brinkley in there now.”

Helpful fellow. Managed to hook me up with the two men I wanted to see and shill for the hotel's saloon at the same time.

“I've never met him,” I said. “You happen to remember what he's wearing?”

The clerk leaned forward, glanced around and then tapped his cheek. “Small birthmark on his right cheek. You'll see it right away.”

The saloon strove hard for dignity. The two men behind the bar had slicked-down hair, fancy mustaches, and starched white shirts with snappy red arm garters. The clientele looked to be free of ruffians: mostly businessmen, local and passing through. The serving woman was older and therefore not the kind to get pinched. And the bug-eyed man on the high stool in the corner used his fiddle to soothe rather than excite. In other words, the place looked boring as hell.

Only one man bore a birthmark on his cheek. He looked New England rather than Western. One of those stern, thin-lipped men who disapproved of just about everything that passed in front of him.

“Mr. Brinkley?”

He sat by himself, tucked into a corner beneath a small painting of an elegant ballet dancer with a pretty, wan face.

He just stared at me. No hello.

“The name's Noah Ford, Mr. Brinkley.”

“I was afraid of that.” His celluloid collar looked sharp enough to be a weapon.

I smiled. “They warned you about me.”

No offer to sit down.

“I didn't care for your brother. You won't get any sympathy here.”

“I don't want any sympathy, Mr. Brinkley. I just want to know where you were the night he was murdered.”

Uninvited, I sat down.

“I'm not in the habit of murdering people, if that's what you mean.” He still showed signs of youthful acne, though he had to be fifty. There was a dead quality to the gray eyes that could scare the hell out of kids on a Halloween night.

“That doesn't answer my question.”

“I don't intend to answer your question. It's ridiculous.”

The serving woman came. I ordered coffee.

“I'd prefer it if you'd drink that somewhere else.”

“Well, I'd prefer it if you'd tell me where you were the night my brother was murdered.”

“There weren't many people who liked him.”

“I'll bet there aren't a whole lot of people who like you, either, Mr. Brinkley. I don't know why, but I kind of have that feeling.”

The dead, gray eyes were on me full force now. Not anger; disapproval. “I might as well tell you, we had an argument that afternoon. He went back on his word and I didn't like it.”

“His word about what?”

Skeletal fingers wrapped around his schooner. “He told me that if I gave him a thousand dollars—a bribe—he'd let me know what the other bids were in advance.”

“I thought they were sealed bids. How could he know in advance?”

He smiled with tobacco-stained teeth. It wasn't pretty. “You mustn't have known your brother very well.”

“We had a difference of opinion about the war.” I couldn't resist: “But then as a leading Copperhead, you must know all about that.”

“The South had a right to make its own rules.”

“I'm not here to argue the war. I'm just saying that you went against your own government and so did I. That gives us something in common, I guess.”

“Yes, your brother said you were a spy for the North. I wouldn't be proud of that. And I resent your saying that we have anything in common. I'm a man of principle.” He took a long drink of beer. I realized that the birthmark was below a crusted area of acne. He was an ugly man, and you could almost feel sorry for him if the ugliness hadn't extended to his soul.

I leaned back and sighed. “He cheated you. He pulled a very old trick on all four of you. He told each of you that if you'd give him a thousand dollars, he'd tip you to the other bids. So he pockets four thousand dollars the easy way and then sells to the highest bidder, anyway.”

“He was a despicable man, your brother.”

My sudden anger surprised me as much as it did him. I reached over and grabbed him by his greasy hair and lifted him off his chair. I knocked over his beer in the process. The beer ran off the edges of the table. The serving woman hurried over. People began to watch. I shoved him back in his chair.

“Whatever he was, whatever I am, he was my brother. So keep your tongue off him. He wasn't perfect and neither am I. And neither are you, Brinkley. You're an arms dealer, which isn't exactly a higher calling in my book.”

I forced myself to calm down—long intakes of breath.

Brinkley gathered himself with a kind of funereal dignity, planted his gaze on the front door so that he
would have no eye contact with anybody, and proceeded to leave the saloon.

I was frozen in place for a while. Everybody staring at me, everybody speculating on what had happened. Embarrassing now that the fury had quieted in me. The nice thing about rage is that nothing embarrasses you. Then comes the aftermath when you begin to second-guess yourself. Maybe I didn't have to get quite so mad…There were times when somebody else took over my mind. Somebody who sounded like me and thought like me, at least for the most part, but somebody who…There were times I didn't like to remember or think about.

I waited till their attention went back to whatever they'd been talking about before. Then I got up and walked out just the way Brinkley had. No eye contact with the drinkers who'd had a few minutes of minor violence and major thrill. And they hadn't even had to buy tickets to see it.

I remembered that Fairbain's room number was 204. I nodded to the clerk, who was apparently still innocent of the little scene I'd caused in the saloon, and went on up the stairs, passing a couple of drummers and a pair of old men who wore some kind of red lodge caps I'd never seen before. Until I found a lodge that regularly served free women, I was not about to join up.

A narrow strip of new carpeting ran down the center of the hall. The flooring was some kind of blond wood, which seemed an odd choice for a hotel, with all the shoe marks, carpetbags being dropped, and winter mud. Not to mention spills and the occasional vomit-spewing drunk. But that was their problem.

I knocked on 204 twice before I saw it, and I probably wouldn't have seen it then if the smell hadn't stung my nostrils. There are some folks who'll tell you that it doesn't smell at all. These are people, take my word for it, who've never been around it much. To me it's the stench of wet metal. That's as close as I can come to a physical description of it. A somewhat tart smell.

I walked down the hallway.

I didn't knock on Brinkley's door. We'd do a little dance, and I was in no mood for a little dance. I'd tell him who it was, and he'd say go away, and I'd say I needed to talk to him, that this was urgent, and he'd still say go away, and so I'd end up using my burglar's pick anyway. So what the hell. I used the pick, swung the door inward, and went for my gun before he could even drop the newspaper he was reading.

I didn't want to take the chance of him having a Colt lying on his belly behind the newspaper.

“Get up.”

“You could be arrested for breaking in here like this.” He sat on the bed with his back to the wall. His suit coat and celluloid collar were off, as was his cravat. His right white sock had a hole. His big toe peeked through. He had a violently discolored toenail. Some kind of fungus.

“I said to get up. If you don't, I'll drag you.”

“What the hell's going on?”

I didn't tell him. I left the room. He followed in his stocking feet and caught up with me. When we reached the door, I said, “Watch where you step.”

When he saw what I was talking about, he said, “My Lord. That's blood. From under the door.”

“Sure is.”

“Is he dead?”

“I don't know. I haven't been in his room. I knocked but there was no answer. So I thought we'd find out together.” I gave him my best harsh laugh. “Unless you killed him. Then I guess you'd know what we're going to find, wouldn't you?”

I used the pick again and we went into the room.

F
ifteen minutes later it got awfully crowded in Fairbain's little room. Two heavyset men with a stretcher came up and took Fairbain to the hospital. They weren't the gentlest of fellows. One of them banged the center of the stretcher against the door as they were going out. The scrawny doc with one brown glass eye rolled the good one and said, “He'll live, unless you two boys kill him on the way over.”

The thing with head and face wounds is that you can bleed a whole hell of a lot without being mortally wounded. Whoever had worked Fairbain over had worked him over with a sap of some kind, mistakenly assumed that he was dead, and then left. Fairbain had other ideas. He'd managed to walk or crawl across the room to the door. Unfortunately, he'd collapsed before he could get it open; collapsed in such a way that the blood from his head wounds drained between the bottom of the door and the floor.

Given the blood, I'd assumed that he'd had his throat cut, the way my brother had. The use of the sap, though, made more sense in this circumstance. No matter how deft you are with a knife, there's a
fair chance the victim will have time to scream at least once before your blade opens up his throat. But if you surprise him with a sap—you can render him unconscious before he can say a word, and then ease him to the bed or the floor where you can continue to work him over quietly.

You don't want anybody screaming in a respectable hotel at the dinner hour, not unless you want to attract a lot of attention.

“What's going on here?” Marshal Charley Wickham said after the room started emptying out.

“Looks like somebody tried to kill him.”

“That wouldn't be you, would it, Mr. Ford?”

I shrugged. “I don't like arms dealers, but I didn't kill this one.”

Wickham regarded me thoughtfully for a minute, then went over to the closet door.

“Man hides in here. Waits for Fairbain. Fairbain opens the closet door. Man hits him so hard, Fairbain's out. Then the man goes to work on him.”

“Sounds reasonable.”

Wickham turned back to me. “Or somebody knocks on the door. Fairbain knows him. Fairbain opens up, man saps him, knocks him out, drags him back inside the room and goes to work on him.”

“That also sounds reasonable.”

“I'm not finished yet.”

“Be my guest.”

“Man thinks Fairbain's dead. Leaves hotel believing his work's done.” Then: “Or.”

“I knew there'd be an ‘or.'”

“And this is pure speculation, I'm not saying it happened this way.”

“Of course not.”

“But just for the sake of argument, say it was you who attacked Fairbain and thought he was dead.”

“Just for the sake of argument.”

“You know what you'd do if you were smart, and you are smart, Ford, that's obvious to everybody.”

“If I was smart—and again, just for the sake of argument since we both know I'm innocent—if I was smart, I'd go down the hall and get Brinkley and tell him that I hadn't been in Fairbain's room but that I suspected something was wrong.”

“Took the words right out of my mouth.”

“And you know what, Wickham? That sounds reasonable, too. Everything you've said sounds reasonable. Except I didn't try to kill him. As he'll tell you when he's conscious again.”

“You know what the doc said. He said no guarantees. Fairbain might not ever recover.”

A gentle knock on the half-opened door. The desk clerk. “Marshal, you asked me to round up everybody who was in his room for the past hour or so. I've got them all in 212, at the west end of the hall.”

“Thanks. I appreciate it.”

The desk clerk went away.

“You're thorough, Wickham.”

“I'm glad you approve. A Federal man like you coming out to a Podunk town like this one and handing out compliments, wait'll I tell my deputies. They'll be proud of me.”

“Especially that nephew of yours.” I walked over to the door. “I'm told that a professional lawman always hires his relatives. Sure sign of somebody who knows what he's doing.”

A reluctant smile. “You know, Ford, if I didn't
know better, I'd say that you don't care for me any more than I care for you.”

“Oh, now, Marshal, I don't know where you'd get an idea like that.”

I left, making sure to step around the blood that had yet to be wiped up.

 

I went down to the hotel saloon for some coffee. New customers had replaced the ones who'd watched me and Brinkley argue. Even the barmen had changed shifts. I took my coffee to a corner table and sat down.

Sipped my coffee. One thing Wickham hadn't mentioned was the gun that I felt was obviously involved in my brother's murder. And it was also likely involved in the assault on Fairbain. Attempted murder on Fairbain, actually.

Or was it? If my brother had been killed for the weapon, then hadn't his killer taken the weapon with him when he left the barn that night? And if he had the weapon, why had he gone after Fairbain?

What if David had been killed by one person and Fairbain attacked by another? That would mean that something else was going on here in addition to the hunt for the weapon.

The place started getting noisy about half an hour later. I still had the remnants of my first coffee. The serving woman had twice asked me if I'd like more. I'd said no. They obviously wanted somebody in my chair who was planning on spending some money. I didn't blame them.

I was just getting up, ready to leave, when I saw
Deputy Frank Clarion and another man walking toward me.

Clarion did a lot of waving and nodding and smiling before he got within handshaking distance of me.

“Evening, Ford. Mind if we take your table?”

“It's all yours.”

“How's the shoulder?” He nodded at my sling.

“Feeling a little better, thanks.”

He introduced his friend and then I left.

 

The temperature outdoors was probably near fifty degrees. Bonfires burned in the streets. Jack-o'-lanterns grinned ghoulishly at me in front windows. Dogs and cats made their stealthy way through the night. I must have walked for better than half an hour. A few glimpses of families gathered together in parlors made me feel lonely and sorry for myself. Every once in a while I wondered if this was any sort of life, mine. The hell of it was I hadn't known any other sort. Nothing to compare it to.

By the time I got back to the business area, I was hungry.

I walked into the café where I'd had breakfast. Jane Churchill was sitting at a table by herself. She wore a simple, blue dress that flattered her far more than her nurse's uniform did. I walked over and said hello.

Jane said, “You could always sit down, Noah.”

I looked at the dinners scrawled on the blackboard.

I ordered Swiss steak and a boiled potato and
beets, and then started working on the coffee that had just been set before me.

Jane said, “Are you getting used to your sling?”

“Sort of.”

“Are you in a lot of pain?”

“I try not to notice it.”

She smiled. “Brave?”

“Hardly. Just practical. If you keep thinking about your pain, you have pain. If you keep busy, you don't notice it much.”

“I suppose that makes sense.” Then: “Oh, I found an old photograph of David this afternoon.”

This time the smile was wide and deep. Fondness chased the tired look from her eyes; she looked young and sweet there in the soft lamplight of the café. “He was right out of a storybook. Nobody had ever romanced me the way he had. He was so courtly—and so much fun. That's what I couldn't resist about him. His charm and how he liked to play at things. A part of him never grew up and I loved that. Sometimes I wanted him to be more mature and responsible—sometimes I got pretty mad at him—but the good times made up for all that.”

It made me jealous, hearing this kind of tribute. Not jealous of her or David in particular, but of any two people who could have a relationship like that. The even stranger thing was that eventually I'd suffocate in the setup she'd described. The fun would go gray; the nights would pall. But I'd never had a relationship like that and it was probably something I should try at least once before a bullet or time itself started making my tombstone.

Then she said, “Fairbain was hurt tonight or something?”

“Somebody tried to kill him.”

“You said ‘tried.'”

“He's at your hospital. I'm wondering if it had anything to do with David and the gun.”

“You think it doesn't?”

“What did David think of Fairbain?”

“He didn't like him. He didn't like any of them, in fact. The gun merchants. They were like spoiled children. They were always threatening him.”

“Threatening him with what?”

“Oh, you know how men talk. Fairbain said that if David didn't sell him the gun, he could always hire somebody to steal it from David. The others were always threatening to expose him to the government. Or to put the word out that the weapons David had didn't really work the way David claimed. Or that maybe they'd figured out how the gun functioned and they could get somebody to make a copy of the weapon for them and save themselves a lot of money.”

“David didn't believe it?”

“Of course not. I mean, it was obvious they knew that David had what they wanted, and that they were going to pay a lot of money for it. The only thing he was afraid of was that a gang would come in the middle of the night and steal it. He hid it somewhere. Even I didn't know where it was.”

“He didn't trust you?”

“He didn't want to see me get tortured. So he didn't tell me. Wherever it was, he'd set up a trap with nitroglycerin. If you went near the weapon, the nitro would explode and kill you. You had to know how to undo the trigger mechanism he'd set up. David told me he'd used a similar setup when he'd
been in Cincinnati and that it blew up a man so badly that he was just pieces of meat after the blast. And the gun was fine.”

“Then maybe it really wasn't for the gun.”

“What wasn't?”

I thought a long moment. My food had been brought to me and was setting there getting cold. “David's murder.”

“Why do you say that?”

“I'm assuming that David told all his potential customers about the nitro.”

“Of course. Fair warning.”

“Then they'd know better than to try and steal it. Unless they hired a nitro man who knew how to disarm the nitro trigger.”

We finished our coffee. I paid the bill. We went outside and walked.

“I wish it stayed fall forever,” she said. “David always said that it was his favorite season, too. He said he used to hide up in the treehouse and scare you.”

“Yeah. He loved Halloween when we were little. And he'd have lived in trees if my folks had let him.”

“He must've been so cute when he was young. He made such a good-looking man.”

“He was lucky to have an admirer like you.”

“Much more than an admirer. I loved him, Noah.”

This was the second time today I'd felt pretty isolated. I suppose David's death had gotten to me more than I'd thought at first. Whatever our differences, I'd loved him, even if I hadn't liked him much. He was blood. But even more was the sense of being alone. There was no way I could ever return home. For a few years after the war I'd thought that maybe David and I could find each other and become cau
tious friends again. But selling arms to anybody who had the money wasn't exactly my idea of an honorable calling. He was still the old cynical David. Fun counted for more than anything else. And if it was reckless fun, fun that even destroyed lives, he didn't care.

I glanced at Jane several times as we walked along in the starlight, an occasional wagon or rider passing us by. She was making me recall how jealous I'd been of David growing up. I'd always been the good one. Took school seriously, never got into any really bad trouble, tried to show my folks how appreciative I was of all they'd given me, even though the books I'd been reading had convinced me that slavery was wrong in every respect—meaning that my father's plantation didn't have any right to exist, that the entire South had been established on the backs of slaves and was therefore corrupt. Not everybody in it, of course. Rich whites exploited and used poor whites to their own ends. David and I used to argue about this to the point of bloody noses and even a busted nose—his. He was handsomer, cleverer, slicker, but I was tougher. The temper I had couldn't be controlled past a certain point, as David had found out many times.

The mystery to me was that all the girls who tried so hard to be respectable—the daughters of other plantations—seemed drawn to David the more he got into trouble. He once had to spend a night in jail for stealing a buckboard—and some of the prettiest girls in the county were there to greet him when my father's lawyer got him released on bail.

Same way with Jane. She was the good woman every man wanted—quiet, proper, intelligent, dutiful—
and yet she'd fallen in love with a man in one of the dirtiest callings you could be in. I didn't blame David for taking up with her. I just blamed her for not seeing that sooner rather than later he'd go on to the next one.

“Well,” she said, “here's my little house.”

Maybe it was the moonlight. Maybe it was the aromas of the autumn night. Maybe it was just her pretty face. Whatever it was, the house, which was really just a cottage, seemed like something out of a painting, with its thatched roof and mullioned windows. A swift, high creek ran behind it, starlit birch trees like silver sentries along the edge of the water. There was even a sweet, plump mama raccoon crouched in the long grass with her young ones. Mama's eyes glistened and gleamed the way only a raccoon's can.

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