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Peacemakers

 

Peacemakers

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Sean Michael O’Dea

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters (including historical ones), and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to any persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental. This book should not be confused with, or mistaken for, true historical events. Really, I can’t stress this enough—it is fiction.

PEACEMAKERS (Peacemaker Origins Book 1)

All rights reserved.

Copyright © 2015

Edited by Lindsay Ross-Hazel

Cover Illustration by Kelly O’Dea

Peacemaker Logo by Sean M. Powers

This book is protected under the copyright laws of the United States of America. Any reproduction or other unauthorized use of this material or artwork herein is prohibited without the express written permission of the author.

First Edition e-book: March, 2015.

For my friend, Donny.

[] Contents[
**][[++
++]The Derelict][++
++][[++
++]Detective Simon Porter[++
++]The Bandit[++
++]Wage W. Pascal[++
++]Detective Simon Porter[++
++]The Baron[++
++]Mink Callahan[++
++][Detective Simon Porter
++][Detective Simon Porter
++][The Baron
++][Mink Callahan
++][Mr. Vault, Mr. Black, & Mr. Steel
++]Part II: Heroes & Has-Beens]

Wage W. Pascal[[++
++]][John Hum
++]Michael Callahan[[++
++]]The Baron

Wage W. Pascal

John Hum

Wage W. Pascal

John Hum

Wage W. Pascal

Michael Callahan

Wage W. Pascal

Detective Simon Hum

The Baron

Mr. Vault, Mr. Black, & Mr. Steel

Part III: Sinners & Scientists

Wage W. Pascal

Detective Simon Hum

The Baron

Mink Callahan

The Baron

Wage W. Pascal

The Baron

Wage W. Pascal

Mink Callahan

Detective Simon Hum

The Baron

Thomas Alva Edison

The Bull Moose

Detective Simon Hum

Wage W. Pascal

Mink Callahan

Epilogue

The Council

PART I

Adventurers & Acolytes

The Derelict

May 11, 1914

Smythwyck Estate

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

“I wouldn’t plan on any quick escapes,” Bill yelled over the sputtering engine.

“Nonsense, William,” Wage replied, patting the side of their 1908 Model T. “This here machine is Apollo’s new chariot, and it will whisk us away from danger as needed. Perhaps, though, we should park down the street and walk the remainder.”

Bill parked the smoking car on the side of the muddy road and cut the engine. “Hope the damn thing starts again,” he muttered. After shutting the squeaky door, Wage checked his teeth in the polished brass surrounding the headlight with what little sunlight was left before adjusting his uniform. “How do I look, William?”

“Like you’re ready to charge up another hill,” Bill replied. “Although, I am surprised you still fit in it.” Wage responded with a disapproving look. He wore his old Rough Rider uniform, complete with a slouch hat, blue flannel shirt, brown trousers, polished boots, and a pale yellow handkerchief loosely tied around his neck. The two former cavalrymen had been discharged from Theodore Roosevelt’s famous unit more than fifteen years ago but still held on to the uniforms—for, when donned, they conveyed a certain heroic mythos. The uniforms could afford them instant respect and bestow on them privileges they could not earn with their words alone. Equally important, however, is that they also served as a conversation starter.

“You’re sure this will work?” Bill asked. “You’re sure we shouldn’t have forged one o’ them invitations? Maybe we could club someone and take theirs instead?”

“Forgery and violence are no match for charm, dear William. Now, let us commence with this evening’s activities.”

The large plantation estate was blindingly white, with fluted columns and recently painted black shutters. Gaslights about the grounds were all aglow, illuminating the latest-model automobiles parked in front: Coupes, Torpedo Runabouts, Roadsters, and even a few Touring Cars. All of them were freshly waxed, and a few were adorned with the standing gold lions of Reynolds Tobacco. The picturesque early summer scene, coupled with the hint of flowering dogwoods and brightleaf tobacco in the air, made it the perfect evening for an engagement party.

A pale and impossibly tall porter with bushy sideburns stood atop the stairs by the front door. The young attendant bowed politely in his coattail jacket. “Good evening, Captain,” he said, eyeing Wage’s rank. “Your invitation, if you please.”

“Ah! Well done, friend. Were you in the service?” Wage asked.

“No, sir. The recruiter said I was too tall.”

“Nonsense. I could have used the likes of you in my company. Reconnaissance would have been immensely easier with your rather unobstructed view of the world,” Wage proclaimed.

“Thank you, sir. May I see your invitation now?”

“Well, friend, if you must know, I do not have the invitation on me currently. I am afraid it got lost during our travels. Allow me to introduce myself,” Wage said, tipping his hat. “I am Captain Wage Pascal, 1st U.S. Volunteer Calvary. This here is my former sergeant and loyal attendant, William MacDonough.” Wage leaned in and whispered, “The boys called him Black Vomit Bill, on account of he got yellow fever on our Cuban expedition and vomited bile while charging up San Juan Hill. Despite his ill condition, however, Ol’ Bill killed more Spaniards than anyone else in the outfit. Ain’t that about right, William?”

Bill tipped his flat gray cap and smiled through a curly black beard, which should have been gray now that he was in his fifties.

“Well, then,” Wage continued, “allow me to enter and pay my respects to the Old Widow Smythwyck and her newly engaged granddaughter.”

“I am sorry, sir, but this party is invitation only. No invitation, no admittance,” the servant replied.

“Dammit, boy! You would disrespect a war hero?” Bill yelled from the bottom of the steps.

“Now, now, calm down, William. The young man is just confused. You see, friend, I am here at the behest of the Old Widow herself, and it would be a pity for her to find out that you barred me from her home. I hear she isn’t the kindest to incompetent servants. You’re not incompetent, are you, friend?”

The young man closed his eyes and flinched, probably recalling a recent tongue-lashing the immobilized Widow Smythwyck. “You may enter, but your attendant must reside in the servants’ quarters around the side,” he uttered.

“Excellent decision! I will ensure the Old Widow knows of your reasonable judgment.” Wage turned to Bill. “William, do not wait up, and tend to Apollo’s Chariot for me when you get a chance.” Bill growled in response, as he had always loathed playing the role of attendant.

Wage relinquished his hat to a servant on the other side of the door. “Would the gentlemen prefer to leave your sidearm as well?” the older black servant insisted.

“I’m afraid not,” Wage replied, thumbing the ivory handle of Ol’ Snapper, his Colt Peacemaker. “Very well, sir. May I announce your presence to the rest of the party?”

“Well, that would be magnificent. I am Captain Wage Winchester Pascal, 1st U.S. Volunteer Cavalry.”

The servant announced his name to the partygoers, and at once everyone seemed to look upon the clean-shaven officer with puzzlement. Even the string quartet missed a quarter-note. Wage patted his pomaded, side-parted black hair and greeted the room with ice-blue eyes and a bayou-charm smile, which shined even through the haze of cigar smoke. He waded through the crowd to find a server, from whose tray he plucked a glass of neat Kentucky bourbon. “Merci,” he said. Wage took a long sip of the corn-mash nectar, all the while observing all the aristocrats, tobacco executives, military officers, and trust-fund children. By the crowning windows sat the Old Widow, confined to a curved and intricately carved wheeled chair, and surrounded by servants and sycophants alike. Wage navigated through waves of people eager to meet his acquaintance, no doubt interested in his curious uniform.

“The lovely Madame Smythwyck,” he announced before delicately taking her hand, “allow me to introduce myself. My name is Captain Wage Pascal, and I—”

The Old Widow jerked her hand away. “I am confined to this chair, Captain, which makes it impossible for you to kiss my ass.”

The large wheeled chair rose almost two feet above the Old Widow’s head, delicately carved with the Smythwyck Plantation crest. Her thinning silver hair was made up in a tight bun and her high, stiff black collar surrounded by white lace looked asphyxiating. A tartan blanket covered her legs.

“Why, Madame, this is no wheeled chair at all. It is a mobile throne fit for the delicate derrière of someone as regal as yourself.”

“Do you know the beauty of my derriere being stuck here?” the Old Widow sneered. “It means I can never talk out of it, like the rest of you.”

“Excuse me, Smythwyck,” a formally dressed elderly man interrupted. “I do not believe I have met your friend.”

“Stop pretending he’s not one of yours, Richard,” the Old Widow replied.

“I am quite certain he is not in my employ. What was it? Wage? Winchester? Pascal? Tell me now, how does one come about such an interesting name?” he asked as he stroked his long gray goatee that matched his thinning hair.

“My father named me. He was something of a gambler. He wagered his dear friend that I was to be a girl at birth. And as it turns out, he lost.” Wage smiled.

“And what was the wager?” Richard asked.

“His prized Winchester Model 1873 rifle,” Wage said. “Perhaps I should clarify. My father loved gambling, guns, girls—and occasionally, God—but only when the first three let him down.”

“Outstanding story!” Richard cried. “My name is R.J. Reynolds, and I am pleased to make your acquaintance. Now, do tell me there is also a story behind this rather curious military uniform?” R.J. tugged one of the ribbons on Wage’s uniform and smiled.

“I earned my keep with the 1st U.S. Volunteer Calvary during the War with Spain. We were deployed to Cuba,” Wage answered.

“Outrageous! You are a Rough Rider! Tell me, did you know Teddy?” R.J. inquired.

“I fought with Colonel Roosevelt on both Kettle and San Juan Hills, yes,” Wage said. “We called him ‘Colonel Lazarus’ on account of any man who was struck down seemed to magically rise up again after the Colonel rode by on his horse. Truth be told, we lost more men to yellow fever and heat stroke than to Spanish bullets.”

“So you must be able to tell me this, then: Is it true our former president wrestled a bear after the battle?”

“I am afraid that is incorrect, sir,” Wage replied.

“Hah! I knew it all along!” R.J. cried.

“He boxed him, actually,” Wage said. “It was a sad spectacle, to say the least. You see, the Spanish commander kept a live bear with their garrison to inspire his troops, named in honor of Saint Ursula, if I recall.”

“I simply cannot believe this,” R.J. replied.

“You wouldn’t have believed it, but the bear went down in the first round. A whole lot a men lost a great deal of money that day. Never bet against Teddy—a bear in his own right, if I do say so.”

“Incredible! Do you still hold command?” R.J. asked.

“I am afraid not. I have recently retired, as it happens. I am now looking for more profitable work. Speaking of which, I hear business is well for you, Mr. Reynolds, is it not?”

“Most profitable tobacco operation in the country, I am proud to say. Although it would be better if the old bag here would sell her outfit to me.” R.J. nodded his head in the Old Widow’s direction. “Isn’t that right, Smythwyck?”

“Blow it out your ass, Richard,” she snapped.

“Charming, isn’t she?” R.J. asked. “God forbid I have to court, marry, and bed her to get the rights to her land. I mean, really now, who turns down double what their plantation is worth? What do I do—wait till she dies and deal with Hamilton, that hot-headed son-in-law of hers?” R.J. nodded in Jonathan Hamilton III’s direction this time. From across the room, it looked as though the manager and heir to Smythwyck Tobacco was performing a mime routine for a young military officer and other wealthy gentlemen.

“Well, if you would excuse me. Madame Smythwyck, the pleasure was all mine,” Wage said as he bowed. “Mr. Reynolds, sir, it was also a pleasure. And good luck on the courting and bedding.” Wage left the tobacco executive with a hearty pat on the shoulder and made his way to find the bride-to-be.

The newly engaged Cynthia Hamilton stood by the large staircase, politely fielding questions from the line of party guests anxious to see her in her beautiful ivory gown with a slightly lowered neckline and bright red trimming. At the age of twenty, she was the only daughter of the widower Jonathan Hamilton III, and she covered her current boredom with feigned enthusiasm and southern etiquette. Even if her insincerity had been detected, her smooth white skin and curly blonde tendrils that fell just below her chin would have given her immediate forgiveness.

“Good evening, mon chéri,” Wage said as he kissed her hand. “My name is—”

“Captain Wage Winchester Pascal,” she finished. “I heard your introduction.”

“Well, I am touched you remember,” Wage replied. “Someone as busy as yourself has no need to take note of such things.”

“That is an interesting accent, Captain. Are you from bayou country?” Cynthia asked.

“A terrific memory and astute—is there anything else I should know about you before I steal you away? The only thing that could make the bayou more beautiful is your presence, I assure you.”

“You flatter me, Captain,” Cynthia replied.

Mon chéri, if you were my Rapunzel, no tower could be high enough.”

Cynthia smiled. “There is one thing you should know, Captain.”

“And what might that be?” Wage asked.

“My future husband is coming up behind you.”

Wage turned and saw a tall, strapping young army officer with blonde hair and a rigid, Nordic look. The man gripped Wage’s hand tightly. “Lieutenant Alexander Beckett,” he announced.

Wage was slightly shorter, but looked just as youthful, even at the age of 33. “Captain Wage Pascal. Congratulations on your engagement. I just met your fiancée, and may I say, you are a lucky man.”

“You may not say,” the lieutenant replied.

“Lucky and possessive—mighty fine qualities in a man,” Wage replied with eyes locked on the young officer.

“Ah, Alex, I see you have caught up with our guest,” Jonathan Hamilton III interrupted. Hamilton carried himself as if he were the heir to a world-spanning empire. His long black hair was streaked with a distinguished gray that matched his suit. Clearly, he was strapping as a youth, but unmistakably shrewd in his middle age. “Now tell me, sir, some other gentlemen and I were inquiring as to the . . . uniqueness of your uniform.”

“Yes,” said the lieutenant in his dark blue dress uniform, “do tell us about your costume?”

“Why, these fine threads were designed by my commanding officer, former president Theodore Roosevelt himself; they are as unique as the men asked to join the unit,” Wage replied.

“I was under the impression the Rough Riders were disbanded a number of years ago. When was the last time you were even deployed, Captain?” Alexander asked.

“There are a few of us who are still around, I assure you. Now, tell me, lieutenant, what was the last hill you charged?” Wage reached over and dusted the lieutenant’s uniform where there was an absence of metals.

“Why, Alexander here just graduated West Point to be deployed as an artillery officer in the near future,” Jonathan Hamilton said.

“A shame to leave someone so lovely so soon, I reckon,” Wage said. Cynthia blushed slightly.

“Nonsense,” Jonathan Hamilton replied. “Cynthia will learn the family trade here at the plantation while he is away. She comes from a long line of headstrong women, don’t you, sweet pea?”

“Yes, father,” Cynthia responded.

“Just like her mother, God rest her soul,” Jonathan Hamilton proclaimed as he superstitiously turned the gold wedding band on his left hand. “Smart as she is beautiful.”

The string quartet started playing a Viennese Waltz.

“Well, perhaps the smart and beautiful lady may have some time in her busy schedule to allow me the honor of a dance?” Wage stuck out his elbow to escort. Alexander pushed it down and extended his own.

“I’m sorry, Captain. Her schedule is full.”

“Of course.” Wage bowed to Cynthia with a wink. “Perhaps you could pencil me in another time.”

“Yes, some other time, Captain,” Cynthia said as she smiled and secretly winked back.

The happy couple proceeded to the dance floor to the amusement and clapping of the other guests. Once on the dance floor, Alexander Beckett moved about it like he was receiving a grade for stiffness from a superior officer.

“Tell me, Captain Pascal,” Jonathan Hamilton inquired, “what brings you here this evening? For the life of me, I cannot recall seeing your name on the guest list.”

“A last-minute addition by your dearest mother-in-law,” Wage replied, keeping his eyes on the couple.

“Do you like cognac, Captain?” Hamilton asked.

“It would be downright sacrilegious not to, monsieur.”

“Excellent,” Hamilton continued. “I have a rare bottle upstairs in my study, crafted for Napoleon himself. Perhaps you would join me.”

“I would be delighted,” Wage said.

The two men ascended the large staircase to the second floor. Hamilton’s study was in the corner at the end of the hall, which gave Wage the opportunity to observe the floor plan of the house. Through a slightly ajar door, third from the right, he could see a four-post bed and princess canopy, which must have been Cynthia’s. At the end of the hall, they came to a locked door. Hamilton pulled a key ring from his jacket pocket and meticulously fingered through them. He unlocked the door and adjusted the gas lights, revealing a room that, Wage assumed, revealed Hamilton’s true nature.

An enormous desk faced the door, flanked on both sides by full crowned windows overlooking the front of the estate. Trophy animals surrounded the entire room—some native, some exotic. Directly behind the desk and between the windows was a large map of the Carolinas with different color pins tacked throughout it.

Hamilton grabbed a decanter and two glasses from his wooden liquor cabinet and sat behind his desk before pouring. After quickly cataloging a large gun collection displayed on the right-hand wall, Wage had a seat in one of the two chairs in front of the desk and reached for his drink. “Merci,” he said.

“What do you think of my personal study, Captain?” Hamilton asked.

“It is certainly befitting of a man of your fine status,” Wage replied. “If I didn’t know better, I’d swear I was at the Smithsonian with all these fine creatures staring at us.”

“It’s taken me many years and many travels to accumulate them. I am particularly fond of that one behind you.” Hamilton proclaimed.

Wage turned in his chair to see an alligator’s head mounted high on the wall, its mouth partially open. “They say the lion is the king of the jungle, but where I come from, the gator is king,” he said, still staring at the now-harmless specimen. Wage turned back around to see a revolver pointed at his head from across the desk.

“I have killed many a creature in my life; it will not stress me to kill one more,” Hamilton said.

Wage leaned back in his chair. “You know what I find interesting? All the animals in here are predators. Not one prey.”

“You seem strangely comfortable with a revolver pointed in your direction, Captain.”

“Let’s just say this ain’t my first engagement party, Mr. Hamilton,” Wage replied.

“Who are you working for? Reynolds? My dear, sweet mother-in-law? Why are you here?” Hamilton demanded.

“I am recently retired, Mr. Hamilton, and I thought this would be a fine opportunity to find employment, is all,” Wage said. “I am sincerely sorry to have caused you any distress.”

“Don’t play games with me, Captain. You may have charged a hill or two in your day, but I won my first duel at 19 and have been undefeated ever since. Wrong answers will get you killed.”

“I’m afraid I only have the one answer. Just a retired soldier looking for some … mostly honest work,” Wage said.

“Nothing about you conveys honesty, Captain. That is why I’m afraid I have to ask you to leave my daughter’s engagement party, leave Winston-Salem, and leave North Carolina,” Hamilton ordered.

“And if I do not oblige?” Wage countered.

“Then I will kill you where you sit and mount one more animal on my wall.”

“Well, I best get going, then. Thank you for a lovely evening. Give my best to the happy couple,” Wage said, rising from the chair.

Wage returned downstairs, retrieved his hat and walked out into the warm, humid North Carolina evening. Fireflies glowed as he walked down the dirt road back to the car, where he found Bill working on the engine with a lantern hanging from the hood.

“Did you get it?” Bill asked.

“Not yet, but I was formally introduced to Jonathan Hamilton.”

“You shoulda just clubbed him and took it, then. We coulda been halfway to Charleston by now.”

“I’m afraid our client insists that this whole ordeal look somewhat random. We can’t make Mr. Hamilton look targeted.”

“He could be randomly clubbed,” Bill insisted.

Don’t worry, William. All is going according to plan. You just make sure Apollo’s Chariot is ready to go.” Wage hopped inside the car and pulled his hat down low to take a nap. “Do me a favor, and wake me up when you are positive all the guests have left.”

Hours later, Wage felt the shove from his former sergeant. “I think all the guests are gone,” Bill announced, sitting in the driver’s seat. “I just did a bit o’ reconnaissance. It seems clear.”

“Excellent,” Wage replied, rubbing his eyes. “Wish me luck.”

“Luck only works once charm has failed,” Bill said in his best Cajun-mocking accent.

Wage sneaked around the back of the estate and calculated which window was Cynthia’s. After selecting the right pebbles from the garden, he threw them at the window. An alerted Cynthia finally unlatched and swung open her window. Wage took off his hat and addressed her, “Good evening, Madame.”

“Captain Pascal! What are you doing here? My father said you were leaving town posthaste.”

“I’m afraid I’ve lost my map. I was wondering if I might borrow yours,” Wage replied. “Allow me to come and retrieve it.” Cynthia put her hands over her mouth to stifle her response as Wage began climbing the vines up to her window. “Oh, the towers I would climb,” he whispered to himself before nearly slipping off. He finally made it through her window to see the breathtaking Cynthia, her supple breasts draped in her knee-length white nightgown.

“My father will kill you if he finds you here,” she said. Wage grabbed her around the waist and kissed her passionately. She broke away for air. “If he doesn’t kill you, my fiancé undoubtedly will.”

“For one night with you, mon chéri, it’s worth it. Now, about that map …” Wage said before kissing her again.

After sunrise, Wage heard footsteps in the hallway. He quickly put on his brown trousers, holster, and boots and threw the rest of his clothes out the window. He blew a kiss to his perfectly sculpted, sleeping Rapunzel before he scurried down the vine to the garden below, where he waited, shirtless. His presence became known quickly. A fuming Jonathan Hamilton III in an undershirt with suspenders raced out the back door. “YOU!” he screamed.

Wage waved politely. “Good morning, Mr. Hamilton, sir.”

“WHAT IN THE HELL ARE YOU DOING?”

Wage looked about. “Just admiring your garden, sir. Very lovely. Are those azaleas?”

“Mr. Humpries!” Hamilton yelled for his servant, “BRING ME MY SHOTGUN!”

“No need to get upset, now,” Wage said.

“How dare you, sir. Defile my only daughter and act so coy about it!” Hamilton cried.

“Now hold on a minute. Nobody said anything about defiling.”

“You insolent bastard! You are nothing more than a common rogue!”

“Well, how dare you, sir,” Wage countered. “You are making an assumption again that I’m a completely dishonest man! I am afraid I must defend my honor against the likes of you. I, sir, challenge you to a duel.”

A moment of awkward silence ensued. “I accept,” Hamilton said. “Tomorrow. Sunrise. At the apple orchard just east of here. Bring your second, and your revolver.” Hamilton smiled ear to ear like a python about to swallow its prey.

Wage put his hat on, and with his shirt still in hand, winked at Hamilton. “See you then,” Wage said, as Mr. Humphries hurriedly ran outside with a shotgun.

Wage finally returned to the car to find Bill asleep at the wheel. “Good news, William!” Wage proclaimed. “We shall be on our way tomorrow morning. Now, let us return to our lodging; we have much to discuss.” Bill started the car after the third try and drove them back to town.

Wage and Bill walked down the embankment toward the apple orchard where Jonathan Hamilton III and Lieutenant Alexander Beckett were already waiting, and steaming.

“Good morning, all,” Wage said.

“You are late, Captain,” Alexander barked. “Sunrise was an hour ago.”

“Do forgive me. I was just finishing a love letter. And while we’re here, do respect a superior officer, Lieutenant.”

“Is this mongrel your second?” Alexander asked.

Bill and Wage looked at each other. “Mongrel?” Wage said. “Why, this is Sergeant 1st Class William MacDonough, hero of San Juan Hill. He’s killed more Spaniards in one day than syphilis. Ain’t that about right, William?”

“Get on with it then!” Hamilton yelled.

The overweight, plainly dressed Bill walked down the orchard with the lieutenant, who was in full uniform, and discussed the terms of the duel. All the while, Wage stood, whistling and tracing the snapping alligator etched in gold on the ivory grip of his Colt Peacemaker.

A few yards away, Hamilton scowled and sneered. The seconds returned, and the two opposing groups split up to express the terms agreed upon.

“What do you say, William?” Wage inquired. “Will it be 15 paces or 20?”

“Eight,” Bill replied.

“Eight? Then we turn and draw?”

“No turning. You will face each other.”

“No turning? Only one bullet then, right?”

“Two bullets.”

Wage took a deep breath. “Well, OK. Plan B then, huh, William?”

“Plan B was at 15 paces.”

“Right! Plan C!”

“Plan C was with one bullet.”

“Did you remember anything we talked about?”

Bill remained silent.

Wage sighed. “So … the catastrophic emergency plan, then?”

“It is my personal favorite,” Bill replied.

“Very well,” Wage said. “Let us commence with this morning’s activities.”

Both Hamilton and Wage gave up their revolvers for inspection. The seconds diligently checked them over and ensured that only two bullets remained in each gun before returning them. Both men took up their locations at eight paces, faced each other, and awaited further instructions.

“On my count, duelers will draw and fire,” Alexander commanded. “You may only fire after one, but before three. Are there any final questions?” Neither dueler spoke. “Duelers, take your marks.” Wage adjusted his stance and gave a brief nod to Bill, who stood next to the lieutenant. Bill subtly nodded back.

“ONE!” the lieutenant shouted.

Wage’s fingers barely grazed the ivory grip of Ol’ Snapper. Both men glared at each other like two famished hawks over the last kill on earth. Winds stopped blowing, birds stopped chirping, insects stopped crawling—time itself seemed to stop.

“TW . . .”

Alexander barely started the word when Bill struck him over the head with a small wooden club permanently concealed in his pocket. The lieutenant fell over holding his head. Hamilton lost his focus and stared at the downed lieutenant. Wage took the opportunity to draw and fire two quick shots at Hamilton’s gun-side hip. Hamilton dropped where he was and screamed in agony. Wage ran up to him before he had a chance to draw the .38 caliber revolver he collapsed on. Bill gave the lieutenant a few more licks to ensure he stayed down.

Hamilton screamed again when Wage adjusted him and removed the gun from his holster. Out of curiosity, he inspected the gun and found an extra two rounds. “William, you’re officially fired as my second. Kindly observe Mr. Hamilton’s revolver.”

Bill inspected the revolver, noticing it almost fully loaded. “Lieutenant must have slipped ‘em in when he gave the gun back. Sorry.”

“Now, now, Mr. Hamilton. I am very disappointed in you,” Wage said, kneeling over his fallen opponent.

Hamilton could barely speak as he winced in pain. “You bastard. You gutless bastard,” he muttered.

Wage looked closely at the blood pooling on the dirt from Hamilton’s hip. “I’m no field medic, but I would say your hip is shattered. That’s a painful one; a very long recovery, too.” Hamilton was on the brink of consciousness from the pain when Wage started combing through his pockets. “But seeing as you meant to cheat me at this here duel, I suppose I am entitled to some … compensation.” Wage took Hamilton’s pocket watch and pocket book. “It ain’t here!” he announced after further searching.

“Check around his neck,” Bill said. Unbuttoning Hamilton’s shirt, Wage felt something unusual underneath. He opened the shirt to reveal an odd sight. Hamilton had a large medallion sewn to his left breast. The round stone had a hollow center and a curious script carved about it. The thread connecting it to his chest traversed smaller holes around the edges. “God, Almighty,” Bill exclaimed. “What in the hell is that thing?”

“Precisely what we are looking for, William,” Wage replied.

The Baron

May 23, 1914

Château de Peluda

La Ferté-Bernard, Normandy, France

Grease ran down his cheeks as he devoured a Cornish hen topped with a poached egg. At first, it seemed as though he might wipe his face with his sleeve ungraciously, but instead he chose the more aristocratic option—his hand-stitched silk napkin. He dotted his face like a blood-soaked lion suddenly refined after killing a gazelle. He elegantly sipped his typical morning stimulant: black tea steeped with South American coca leaves.

“Warwick. My smoking jacket,” he demanded.

The attendant standing on the outskirts of the garden ran through a servant’s door directly to the kitchen. Moments later, he returned with a red velvet smoking jacket embroidered with a pearl-topped coronet above the breast pocket. The Baron, an imposing figure with the left lens of his eye glasses tinted an obsidian black, sipped the last of his tea and stood to be dressed. Warwick slid the jacket around his twin-pocketed shirt and leather suspenders before he produced a cigarette much like a soldier might present his arms at a parade. The Baron took the cigarette from his hand and smelled it slowly, while his gray-clad servant struck a match. After another approving and curt smell, the Baron watched with his only good eye as the flame burned down to Warwick’s fingers. The personal attendant, who had a soft and fair complexion, winced in pain before dropping the match. The Baron smiled and produced his own match like a magician, lit his cigarette, and smiled with a puff of smoke.

“Warwick,” he said, “tend to the roses.”

The servant dallied around the garden, pruning and plucking the rose bushes with crimson buds already swelling. As he did so, Warwick constantly stroked, as he always did, his unruly dark mustache. In his three years of employment, he never removed his modest top hat, even when indoors; a reminder to himself and his employer that he was always on duty.

On the garden terrace, Warwick sculpted a horticultural sanctuary in the bright morning sun. The Baron stood near the edge of the terrace and stared out like one of the many statues on the grounds, evaluating the sprawling green acres still wet from yesterday’s rains. Only a quarter mile down the hill side, great balloons tethered to ornate baskets began to fill with hot air.

Two more servants, portly and identical, spilled out into the garden entrance through double French doors from the château.

“My lord, Mr. Otto van Donderbus at your request,” one servant said. “Mr. van Donderbus, his lordship William Hardwin FitzOsbern DeLacy, the Baron of Pontefract,” the other servant said.

Otto van Donderbus was a thin man approaching fifty, whose long travels and rampant opium use etched deep lines into his clean-shaven, squirrely face. His tiny dark eyes, magnified by gold wire-rim glasses, looked almost inhuman. His hunting apparel was a deep navy blue, as though he preferred nocturnal stalking. He smoothed his cropped brown hair and joined the Baron in looking over the land and the nearly assembled hot air balloons.

“Good morning, Baron,” he said with a Dutch accent. “A marvelous day for ballooning, no?” Donderbus lifted his shiny brown cane underneath his arm and pulled out a cigarette case from his inner jacket pocket. “Do you like my balloon? I had it custom made in Paris by the Blanchard Brothers. I also hired one of the greatest pilots in all of France. I am excited to finally see it.”

“A better day for hunting,” Baron DeLacy replied before snapping at Warwick for another cigarette.

“Yes,” Donderbus replied. “I have never hunted boar before. I pray we land in a well-populated area.”

Baron DeLacy wiped the sweat beads beginning to form on his shiny bald head with a kerchief. “There will be no need for landing. The pilots will get us low enough where we can shoot from our baskets. Boars are clever beasts—they have a keen sense of smell and approaching them from the ground is difficult. Approaching from the sky gives us the element of surprise.”

“Speaking of beasts, I hear the townspeople talk of a beast that haunts the countryside. Will we be hunting it as well?” Donderbus chuckled, and smoke came out of his nostrils.

“The Peluda, yes; it is my estate’s namesake” the Baron replied. “It is local folklore. A horned beast, hairy and dragon-like, it is both fire-breathing and poisonous, according to myth. I assure you, though, if any such a beast existed, he would be above my mantle at Pontefract.” Donderbus looked back at the château and noticed the surrounding gargoyles sculpted in the likeness of the Peluda; only they spit water instead of fire. “The people here,” the Baron continued, “after generations of hearing this fairytale, are naturally fearful and distant. It is why I prefer it to my estate in England at times.”

“Well, Baron, it is indeed lovely. I do appreciate the invitation. However, did you call me back from the United States solely for some folklore and hunting?”

“To be quite frank, I am concerned about the productivity of your enterprise, Otto,” the Baron replied. “Your revenues are consistently falling, and yet every communication I get from Wardenclyffe is that this is a minor setback, and profits will return.”

“The opium market has become more complicated. Bloated politicians have outlawed its recreational use. Regulatory agents have sprung up in every major city, closing my dens. But rest assured, opium moving to the black market will make it more taboo, alluring, and curious. All these will serve to raise prices and our profits. I simply need more time.”

“How are you moving it now with so many regulatory agents?” the Baron asked.

“I have contracted German merchants to move it through Mexico. They are already running guns and ammunition there to capitalize on the revolution. It is that revolution that allows my shipments to go unnoticed across the border. I have also found the resistance fighters are becoming consumers.”

“The organization has big plans, Otto. Very big. Now is not the time to be losing money. There are those who are losing faith in you,” the Baron said.

“Is it my fault you don’t control the number of politicians that you used to? Their legislation is hindering. Perhaps you should infiltrate deeper into their ranks!”

“We are comfortable with the pieces we have in place, Otto.”

“I am doing the best I can, Baron. What else would you have me do? I just need more time.”

“You were recruited specifically for this operation because of your adaptability and knowledge of the industry.” The Baron paused. “So adapt. You have three months to get your profits back on track.”

“Or what? You will have me disposed of?” van Donderbus asked, fuming.

“Or you will be relieved, Otto. It is that simple. I have the utmost faith in your ability to accomplish this task. Prove yourself on this, and perhaps The Council will even see the value in promoting you.”

Otto van Donderbus nervously lit another cigarette and scratched his chest. “A promotion?” he asked.

“I will recommend it to The Council personally, Otto,” the Baron replied.

“You will? Thank you, Baron. You are most gracious.”

“Come, the balloons are almost full.” The Baron removed his smoking jacket and patted van Donderbus on the back, jarring him slightly. “I did not call you out here simply for ultimatums. There is great hunting ahead of us. Warwick! Prepare our things.”

The Baron and the businessman approached the balloons while Warwick walked behind them with cases in each hand. Warwick unloaded the luggage into the respective baskets while the hunters met with their pilots individually. The Baron’s personal balloon pilot was also his chauffeur, mechanic, and when called upon, his bodyguard.

His name was Khalid Francois Deschamps, and he was the bastard son of a French army officer who had an unhealthy desire for the women in Algiers. When he was 10, it was discovered that his mother had an illegitimate child, which is when the local authority condemned her to be publicly stoned. Khalid’s new home became an orphanage run by militant French nuns, and at the age of 17, he ran off to join the French Foreign Legion. Admittedly, the Foreign Legion felt like a vacation compared to Benedictine nuns. After heroically serving in the Mandingo War in 1898, Khalid received full French citizenship and went to Normandy by way of Paris, where the strapping, olive-skinned, square-jawed man with jet black hair and piercing blue eyes left a wake of heartbroken women in his trail. Comparable, of course, to his own father’s philandering.

“If my calculations are correct, the winds should take us just south of the hunting grounds, Baron,” Khalid said as he adjusted the goggles on his leather aviator cap.

“Does Mr. van Donderbus’ pilot have the coordinates?” the Baron asked.

“Yes, I gave them to him. I told him I would signal when we reached the site, but I am not sure he is happy about it. He said he does not take orders from an Arab,” Khalid said.

“Ludicrous,” the Baron replied.

“I know. I told him I was a Berber, but he did not believe me.” Khalid smiled, revealing teeth as white as the clouds, save for one that was polished gold.

“Happy hunting, Baron,” van Donderbus yelled before getting into the dark brown wicker basket tethered to a midnight-blue balloon with gold stitching. “I will see you in the air.”

“And to you, Otto,” the Baron replied before entering his own maple-colored basket tethered to a pale yellow balloon. Khalid Francois waved at the other pilot, who made an obscene gesture in return. Warwick untied the lines of both balloons and quickly climbed into the Baron’s basket. Moments later, both balloons began to rise into the sunny Normandy sky. Like unbridled heavenly bodies, the two balloons bobbed and soared over the hills and forests. All the while, the Baron stared at van Donderbus’ basket. The head of America’s opium empire looked squeamish, sweaty, and unwell. He smoked constantly, and his hacking could be heard across the province.

“The hunting grounds are about two kilometers out,” Khalid called out in his native French.

“Excellent work. Signal the other pilot and increase your altitude,” the Baron replied.

The pilot looked confused, but he knew better than to question his employer and fired up his burners. Warwick saw the reflection of the flame in the Baron’s tinted lens. Khalid began making grand hand gestures to the other pilot, who floated roughly 50 yards away. “Warwick,” the Baron said. “Hand me my shotgun.” Warwick bent over and opened the case he had stowed earlier. Inside was an intricately engraved double-barreled shotgun with a heavy oak stock. Warwick loaded the shotgun and handed it to the Baron.

“I am afraid Mr. van Donderbus has outlived his usefulness. He has more opium in his veins now than blood, and opium clouds your judgment—makes you weak. I am afraid our organization has no room for such weakness,” the Baron said before taking aim at the other balloon with his one good eye. He waited a moment and then fired. The deafening blast caused countless birds to fly away from the treetops. The Baron reloaded the shotgun quickly in choreographed fashion. He fired again, and again.

Seconds after the third shot, van Donderbus’ balloon began to descend rapidly as hot air poured out of numerous gaping holes. The other pilot fired up his burners in a futile attempt to keep the vessel airborne, but to no avail. After all hope was lost, the pilot yelled at the top of his lungs and shook his fist at the skyward onlookers. Khalid couldn’t help but smirk. The balloon continued to descend faster and faster before hitting the ground at breakneck speed. The Baron watched as the basket tumbled end over end, ejecting both passengers who, afterward, lay limp and lifeless on the ground.

“Warwick. A cigarette,” the Baron said.

“Yes, my lord,” Warwick replied.

The Baron inhaled deeply a few times. “Warwick. Send word to The Council that Mr. van Donderbus will not receive his promotion and instead has died in an unfortunate ballooning accident.”

“Yes, my lord,” Warwick said, pulling out a pencil and notepad from his inner pocket.

“Also, send word to Grand Vizier Delacroix. Tell him I am passing off our opium operation in the States to him, and he is to find a suitable replacement for van Donderbus as soon as possible.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied Warwick.

“And inform Holstrom and Grand Vizier Bannerman of the new appointment and subsequent vacancy.”

“Yes, my lord.”

“Very soon, France will no longer be safe. Make arrangements to return to England by way of Vienna. I have some business to conclude there.”

“Yes, my lord,” replied Warwick again.

Baron DeLacy turned to his pilot. “Bring us down, Khalid. I need you to retrieve something off Mr. van Donderbus.”

Detective Simon Porter

May 25, 1914

Smythwyck Estate

Winston-Salem, North Carolina

“Detective Simon Porter from Pinkerton Detective Agency is here to see you, Mr. Hamilton,” Mr. Humphries said from the door to the study.

“Send him in,” Hamilton snapped, sitting behind his desk in his high-backed wooden wheeled chair with the Smythwyck crest etched over his head. His dark hair was pomaded tightly against his head, and he wore a perfectly tailored charcoal wool suit and black tie.

The detective’s black suit, vest, and matching tie had no trace of lint or dust.  His perfectly angled bowler hat hiding dirty blond hair refused to shift as he slowly walked to the chair in front of Jonathan Hamilton’s desk.  After he sat down, the ebony grip of his revolver handle became slightly visible in a cross-draw holster on his belt.  The only things of contrast on his suit were his bright silver watch chain perfectly festooned across his vest and a small golden broach attached to his lapel – the all-seeing Pinkerton eye, the infamous symbol of the nation’s largest private detective agency. At first glance, Detective Simon C. Porter may have looked youthful and inexperienced. A more careful analysis, however, would reveal a man almost 40 with finely etched wrinkles around his eyes—the result of constantly focusing them, spying and recording the minutiae of human existence. He folded his hands across his lap. He quickly catalogued the number of game animals that surrounded them and then recorded Mr. Hamilton.

“I asked your Washington bureau for the best. Are you the best, detective?” Jonathan Hamilton III asked.

“I am,” he replied.

“I also asked for someone who understands discretion. Do you understand discretion, detective?”

“I do,” he replied.

Hamilton slid a large envelope across the desk in Detective Porter’s direction. “In here, you will find a recounting of the incident, as well as witness statements from all those who encountered the gentlemen you are looking for, Captain Wage Winchester Pascal.” The stolid detective took the envelope and peered through the contents as Mr. Hamilton recalled the story about the mysterious, Cajun-sounding man claiming to be a Rough Rider and looking for work from the wealthiest families in tobacco country.

“In addition to crippling me, this Pascal took something very dear to me,” Hamilton continued. “A medallion of great value that I wore about me. It is that medallion I need returned. Find this man, find my medallion.”

“Your report says there were more items taken from you.”

“Yes,” Hamilton said. “This criminal took my pocket book containing thirteen dollars cash and a silver pocket watch, much like yours.”

“Do you suspect him a petty thief?” the detective asked.

“Truth be told, I cannot be certain. What I do know is, I need that medallion back,” Hamilton replied.

Detective Porter put Hamilton’s report on the desk and pulled out a small sketchbook and pencil from his interior pocket. “Could you describe the medallion?”

“About a quarter inch thick, round stone, roughly the size of your palm with a small hollow center, and an ancient script written about it.”

“What kind of script?” the detective asked, furiously sketching.

“It’s nothing. Artistic. Made to look like script with no real meaning.”

“What is its significance?” the detective asked as he continued to draw

“It is a family heirloom, one that I am embarrassed to have lost, which is why I require your . . . utmost discretion.” Hamilton replied.

“Would Captain Pascal know the value of the medallion to you?”

“No.”

“Forgive me for asking, but what exactly is so concerning about a stone?”

“Discretion, Detective. All you need to know is that it is priceless to me, and I do not want anyone, anyone, to know it’s gone.”

“Does this look accurate, Mr. Hamilton?” the detective asked as he turned his sketch around.

“Accurate enough, yes.”

“You were married once. Long ago,” the detective announced, replacing his sketchbook to his inner pocket.

“Yes. That’s correct.”

“The first room on the right from the staircase, a hobby room, containing a loom and studio camera coated in dust. These were your wife’s? She died during childbirth roughly 20 years ago, yet you still wear your wedding ring?”

“I don’t believe I mentioned that in the report, Detective. Nor do I see how that matters to this case,” Mr. Hamilton replied.

“Every photograph I observed on the way to your study was a picture of you, and you alone. They were all taken by your wife, who had a passion for photography as well as weaving, but the thick dust covering her equipment suggests it hasn’t been used for years. The fact that there were no photographs of your daughter Cynthia, the one you mentioned in your report, leads me to believe your wife died giving birth to her. A tragic event that you never recovered from. You never remarried, and you keep her memory alive by still wearing your wedding ring. A wedding ring that any fool can see is made of gold. A wedding ring that would fetch a rather handsome price if stolen. Yet it was not stolen. It was left behind. But your pocket book and watch were not. A pathetic attempt to conceal the real impetus of the crime: pilfering your seemingly worthless medallion. This Captain Pascal may be a mindless-idiot thief, but that would make it difficult to infiltrate your daughter’s engagement party. Furthermore, it is my experience that thieves generally don’t confront their victims as forwardly as this one did. It is more likely that he is a calculating middle-man who targeted you for your medallion. A medallion he may not know the worth of, but perhaps the man who hired him does.”

“Amazing,” Mr. Hamilton proclaimed.

“Seeing as you were targeted, and Captain Pascal was allegedly a military man, I am quite certain he spent a great deal of time gathering intelligence. Weeks. Perhaps a month. So tell me, Mr. Hamilton, where do the ne’er-do-wells find recreation in Winston-Salem?” the detective asked.

Jonathan Hamilton III reached into his inner coat pocket and pulled out a smaller, thick envelope and slid it across his desk. “Here is your advance,” he said. “Five thousand. And another 15 when the medallion is returned to me. Enough to retire for half a lifetime after Pinkerton gets its cut. As for the ne’er-do-wells, try the June Bug. Horas runs the place, though he may not be of any help on account of his blindness. But nevertheless, it is a start. I am quite certain someone with your impeccable deductive skills will find a few clues. Mr. Humphries can take you there.”

Detective Porter stood and took the cash advance and report before he tipped his hat. “Thank you, Mr. Hamilton. And rest assured, we at Pinkerton never sleep. I will find your man,” he said before abruptly turning around and walking toward the door.

“Detective,” Mr. Hamilton added, “If at all possible, ensure Captain Pascal does not survive, or at the very least, has difficulty walking for the rest of his natural life.”

The detective put his hand on the doorknob before he replied, “I am not an assassin, Mr. Hamilton, and nobody will get in my way of fetching your property. I will be in contact.”

The gray-haired Mr. Humphries stood upright and quiet in the hallway, awaiting a command. The droplets of sweat on his ebony skin reflected the faintest of light in the dark hallway. “Mr. Humphries, I shall require a ride into town,” the detective announced.

Detective Porter sat in the passenger seat of the Model-T Touring Car as Mr. Humphries sped down the dirt road, leaving the white mansion behind them. “Excuse me for asking, Detective, but you have a rather unique accent for a northerner,” he said, his eyes focused on the road.

“My father was from England; I spent nearly every summer there as a child,” the detective replied.

“And your mother?”

“New Jersey, where I grew up,” he answered.

“Well how’s-bout-that. That explains it, it sure does.”

“Mr. Humphries, pull over immediately,” the detective ordered. The hawk-eyed investigator hopped out of car and approached the side of the road. He knelt by tiny plots of dark soil surrounded by dried tire tracks. “Mr. Humphries, did anyone see if Captain Pascal drove an automobile to Miss Cynthia’s engagement party?” he yelled.

“Not that we know of, no sir. Seemed to appear right out of thin air, he did.” replied Mr. Humphries from the car.

The detective fingered the dark soil and smelled it. Oil. Plenty of it. An engine without proper amounts of oil smokes and sputters.

“Very good, Mr. Humphries. Let us continue to town,” the detective said, getting back into the car.

Two- and three-story buildings arose from the horizon as the dusty road turned to cobblestone streets that traversed the city. “The June Bug ain’t exactly a high-end establishment anymore, but you will find it about two blocks up 6 th Street,” Mr. Humphries said as the car came to a stop.

The detective thanked and dismissed Mr. Humphries and walked down a few secluded blocks off the main street. He found the June Bug, a tall dilapidated building shedding gray paint flakes, flanked by a boarded-up private residence on one side and on the other, a condemned monstrosity that seemed to be the source of whatever ailment spread to the June Bug. A round, orange painted bug graced the sign above the swinging shutter doors. The detective entered the building and noticed that the inside of the building was in much the same shape as the exterior. The few patrons, including the piano player asleep on his bench, did not seem to fare any better. Detective Porter approached the corner of the bar and called over the bartender, a heavier-set, balding man with pale eyes wearing a dirty white apron. The wad of tobacco in his rotted mouth was obscenely large.

“The name’s Horas, stranger. How’s about a whiskey to cure what plagues ya,” the bartender said as he spit tobacco a mile off from the brass spittoon at his feet. Suddenly the putrid smell of the establishment made more sense.

“I am looking for someone who may have frequented your establishment over the past few weeks,” the detective said. “A military man, perhaps, and charismatic.”

“Well, I don’t see much at all these days, but lucky me, the good lord blessed me with four other senses. Heroes and has-beens describe all my patrons, and unfortunately, they both sound the same to me.”

“He most likely spoke with a Cajun accent,” Detective Porter continued.

“AH! Captain Wage Pascal! Sure ‘nough,” Horas replied. “He kept this place boomin’ for a few weeks or so. Best profits we seen in months. Times been tough since that Temperance Movement started up. I am sorry to say I haven’t seen him in more than a week, though. I can’t say it wasn’t on account of our liquor, lodging or ladies though. If you find him, be sure and thank him for me.”

“Yes, I will. Tell me, did you inquire as to how he came about all the money he spent here?” the detective asked.

“Not really. ‘Ol’ French money’ is all he ever said. He did boast a few tales, though. Him and his companion, Black Vomit Bill I believe they called him. He was a kind fellow, too, by the sound of him, and from what I hear, quite the pugilist. He took a few fellas outside for some prize-fightin’. Don’t remember hearing him lose much, though,” Horas said.

Black vomit. Too much bile. Improper liver function, common in patients with Yellow Fever, a tropical disease. Tropics such as Cuba, San Juan Hill. Rough Riders.

“But he was always kind enough to buy ‘em a drink afterward. You may want to ask Amber Rose, though; she . . .” Horas cleared his throat, “spent more time with Captain Pascal than I did.” Horas flashed his rotted smile and, as if on cue, an enthusiastic scream came from upstairs. “Now, how’s bout a drink, partner?” he asked.

Detective Porter glanced about the bar again. Noting the piano player shifting on his bench, three unsavory characters sitting at a nearby table huddled around a near-empty bottle, snickering at the constant moaning upstairs. “Whiskey,” Detective Porter said.

He carried his warm tumbler of cheap whiskey to an empty table across from the three men, who immediately began staring and whispering. The detective sat down and began recording. Yellow-stained fingers. Rolling tobacco. Old clothes, lots of patchwork. Hand-me-downs. Second, possibly third-generation field workers. Uneducated. Unhappy. Poor. Drunks. Volatile.

The moaning and screaming finally subsided and a door opened upstairs. A younger gentleman with sweaty, straw-like hair came out adjusting his suspenders. He strutted downstairs and joined his friends. The young man took the last swig from the bottle and began his boasting. Another figure appeared in the open doorway upstairs. A disheveled beauty with strawberry-blonde hair, a sleeveless, low-cut blouse, and can-can skirt, pranced downstairs in dirty bare feet. A small curl of hair bounced in front of her left eye as she descended.

“How’s bout another tussle, Amber Rose?” one of the gentlemen said.

“How much they pay you in week, Jeb?” Amber Rose replied. “I reckon I won’t see you till next Friday. Now, why don’t you use what you got left and buy a lady a drink.” Amber Rose smiled and glanced at the detective. A perfect smile, more intoxicating than any liquor.

Horas knew every floorboard, table, and chair in his establishment, and delivered another bottle of cheap whiskey. The still-recording detective pulled out his sketchbook and began to sketch Amber Rose’s portrait. The derelict debutante’s perfect curves and angelic face would have given da Vinci a sublime moment. The detective sketched furiously. He drew her as she was: sitting seductively over her chair. Only he took the liberty of imagining and drawing her nude. The result was a rough but enticing picture. Two lashes.

Amber Rose entertained the gentlemen, all the while keeping an intermittent eye on the sketching man’s mysterious presence. After she fed the men some more whiskey, she finally jumped from her chair and headed toward the detective like a lean lioness stalking an injured prey.

She slapped the detective’s table and looked him in the eye, “Hey fella, what if I told ya I was a lonely little rose and you a hungry, handsome bee?” She smiled and sucked on her finger.

“I am afraid I’m here on business, not pleasure,” Detective Porter said.

“Well stranger . . . my business is pleasure,” Amber Rose replied.

“Yes. I’m sure it is,” he said.

“Whatcha drawing, stranger?” she grabbed his sketchbook and recognized the drawing of herself. “Not bad. But why draw me when you can have me?” she whispered in his ear. The detective grabbed his sketchbook and put it back in his jacket pocket. “Maybe if you drank that whiskey of yours, you might actually change your mind,” she continued.

“I’m afraid I don’t drink, miss, I merely wanted to blend into my surroundings,” the detective replied.

“Why? You one of them Temperance-pushers? All the wives ‘round here complain about drunken husbands, but drunken husbands are good business for me. If this county dries up, so do I . . .”

“Miss Amber Rose, your advances are flattering, but fruitless. I am wondering if you can tell me about Captain Wage Pascal. I believe he was a client of yours over the last few weeks,” Detective Porter said.

“Do I look like the kinda girl to kiss and tell?” Amber Rose asked. “I ain’t tellin’ you a goddamn thing.”

“Hey!” Jeb yelled, overhearing. “What in the hell is your problem, stranger?” All four men got up and approached the seated detective. Drunk. Volatile.

“Somethin’ wrong with you, mister?” the recently satiated one asked.

“Now, boys,” Amber Rose said, “I’m sure he don’t mean you no harm, no way. Why don’t you just excuse us and go back to your drinkin’. I’ll even buy you another round. What do ya say?” Her plea fell on deaf ears as another gentlemen pushed her aside.

“You not interested in Amber Rose? What’s a matter with you? You some kinda fairy boy? Maybe you like ol’ Matthew over there instead?” asked the balding one with a jack o’ lantern smile. “Matthew! Why don’t you play our friend some fairy music?” The piano player got up slowly off his bench, cracked his knuckles, and began playing an uplifting tune.

“Gentlemen,” the detective said, “I am not looking for any trouble. I am an investigator looking for a man. Perhaps you know him.”

“Hey! He don’t even drink his whiskey?” the young one said.

The burliest of the men grabbed the detective’s table and flung it across the room, sending his whiskey flying and leaving the detective sitting exposed in his chair. “Now how’s about we teach you a lesson in manners, fairy?”

“Stop,” Detective Porter said, opening his jacket to reveal his revolver. “Now, listen closely. I am a man of probability. Statistically speaking, if I am a fast draw, then I should be able to shoot down two of you before you get to me.” The seated detective patted the ebony handle of his revolver. “I am indeed fast. And I do suspect I can down two of you, possibly even three, but the remainder of you . . . well, you will probably beat me mercilessly, most likely until death. So before we get started, I must know—which one of you is going to die today?”

The drunken aggressors looked at each other and contemplated. “Miss Amber Rose,” the detective interjected, “does your room have a window?”

“It does,” she said, still trembling.

“Very well. May I take you upstairs with intent of full compensation?” the detective asked.

“Let me just go freshen up,” Amber Rose said before fleeing upstairs.

The gentlemen finally finished contemplating their foreseeable demise and returned to the table. They were silent, but their eyes were still fixated on the detective. “Horas,” the detective called, “Another bottle for my friends here. And one more for the piano player.”

The detective entered the upstairs room to find the midday sun lighting up Amber Rose’s pale naked form. Her milky smooth body lay on a bed of red velvet. The detective’s early sketch could hardly do her raw, physical form justice. He resisted, with every ounce of his being, the urge to pull out his sketchbook. Another lash. Instead, he beelined for the window overlooking the street. “Tell me, Amber Rose, do you ever hear a car sputtering or backfiring?”

“Well, I hear ol’ Jameson’s taxi all the time. Why do you ask?”

“Where does old Jameson live?”

“He and his brother own the grocery down the street,” she replied.

“Excellent,” Detective porter said, as he placed folded bills down on the nightstand. “This is enough money to last you more than a month, “Tell me everything you know about Captain Wage Pascal.”

Amber Rose sat up, opened her nightstand drawer and pulled out fresh tobacco and rolling papers. The sweet tobacco ousted the smell of perspiration and body odor. She crossed her legs and stared out the window. “Oh, Wage. Now, he was a sweet, sweet man. Not like my normal clients.”

“Did he say why he was in town? Or where he came from?” the detective asked.

“Said he was doing work for some of the plantations, but he didn’t look like most of the plantation workers; had more money than most plantation workers, too. Didn’t say much where he was from, but he did offer me fifty dollars to take up at some place, The Cat’s Curtain, maybe it was called? I don’t quite remember. I will tell you this, Mister . . .actually, I never did get your name.”

“Thank you, Amber Rose. You have been most helpful.” Detective Porter headed for the door, but stopped before leaving. “Miss Rose. Do you know a Mr. Jonathan Hamilton III?”

She giggled. “You mean Mr. Undershirt?”

“Mr. Undershirt?” the detective repeated.

“Always made love with his undershirt on. He preferred Colleen . . .”

“Who’s Colleen?”

“She was my counterpart here, but she disappeared. Gone and vanished about six months ago,” she said.

The detective left the room and paid Horas generously for the broken glass and table before walking down to Jameson’s grocery. Outside the grocery was a 1908 Model T leaking oil on the cobblestone street. The detective opened the squeaky car door and examined the inside. Underneath the driver’s seat was a crumpled white matchbox. On the outside of the box was a cat sitting in a window adorned with black curtains. Below it in cursive script it read, Le Maison des Rideaux Noirs, New Orleans.

The Bandit

June 3, 1914

Southern Railway Passenger Train

North of Meridian, Mississippi

The cattleman’s hat was custom made to fit someone with a lot of hair, and the bandit was careful to hide nearly all of it. The first detail law enforcement always releases is skin tone. The second is hair color. The bandit had plenty of time to dress after leaving the last station in Tuscaloosa; brown gloves, beige duster coat with turned up collar, black boots, and a scarlet red bandana. Both Steyr-Hahn Model 1912 Steyr-Hahn Model 1912 Steyr-Hahn Model 1912 pistols were loaded and tucked away in holsters inside the duster, along with a lengthy iron rod strapped to the inside lining of the coat. One last check of the mirror in the first-class cabin and the bandit was ready. This would be the 14th robbery, and despite 13 clean getaways, it was still a nerve-racking experience. Comfort was only found in two places—the rhythmic click clack of the speeding train, and the immanent payoff. The bandit closed the door to the cabin and hustled to the next car.

The first-class observation, completely drenched in sunlight that streamed in through enormously wide windows and sky lights, subtly swayed. Plush cotton booths lined either side of the car, occupied only by a few well-to-dos gossiping, networking, and indulging in some first-class elbow rubbing. The bandit passed through this car readily and unnoticed. Appetizing and deserving targets as they were, it was too risky. The screams from an earlier car might alert the later ones, and rich people always screamed despite the fact that their possessions are easily replaced.

The second-class passenger car was the next stop. It had smaller windows and no skylights. Wooden benches lined both sides and were packed with all matter of work-to-the-bones. The bandit shut the door without barring it. There was no need. Rich people never helped. After staring down the car and throwing an empty sack to the front row, the bandit readjusted the bandanna and finally spoke through it. “Money and valuables.” It was an unnaturally low voice. “Money and valuables!” the bandit repeated after taking out both pistols and aiming them down both sides of the car. The passengers gasped, but not one screamed. The passengers began to fill the bag with necklaces, broaches, pocket watches, wallets, and coin purses. The second-class passengers always filled the sack themselves, a much more efficient process than the first-class passengers, who merely threw their valuables to the ground.

The bandit stayed at the front of the car and waited for the bag to reach the back before briskly walking down and grabbing it, a technique that lessened the number of would-be heroes trying to spring up from behind. The bandit grabbed the bag before the last passenger could even empty her purse into it, and moved to the next car.

The lounge car was smoky and less crowded than expected. Nonetheless, the bandit dropped the sack of valuables and removed the heavier iron rod strapped to the coat and barred the door; an action that relieved tremendous weight, but gained all attention. The bandit turned around and threw the sack to the first set of patrons, who were huddled around the table smoking and having a tumbler full of the courage they needed. “Money and valuables,” the bandit demanded, lifting the pistols once more. The patrons filled and passed the bag around until it came to a passenger midway down.

The affluent-looking gentleman with a pointy, waxed mustache, wearing a tailored ivory suit dropped the bag. “How dare you, sir. Do you have any idea who I am?” huffed the monocle-wearing gentleman. The bandit strolled up to him and pointed a pistol at point-blank range. “You don’t frighten me,” the gentleman said, closing his book and grabbing the lapels of his jacket.

The bandit put the right-hand pistol back in its holster and clenched the newly freed hand. It was a first-class punch the gentleman never saw coming. His never-soiled hands gripped a now-bleeding nose. The bandit threw the sack at him, “Money and valuables.” The gentlemen whimpered as he put a wallet, pocket watch, and silver snuff case in the sack. After releasing the snuff case, he let out a whimpering scream. The bandit’s veiled smile was ear to ear.

The train robber took back the bag and threw it to the next group of patrons, who complied readily. After two more booths, the balding bartender filled up the sack with the day’s earnings and threw it to the booth across from him, which held the final patrons. A portly gentleman with a curly black beard was sleeping with his flat cap pulled down over his face. The other hid behind a newspaper throughout the entire ordeal. The newspaper did not so much as crinkle, despite the sack laying at his feet. “Money and valuables,” the bandit repeated. But the gentleman only turned the page of his newspaper. The bandit used the left-hand pistol to push down the paper, revealing the unnerved patron with his ice-blue eyes and chimney-soot hair pomaded to one side.

“Well now, this don’t exactly seem like a proper southern greeting,” the man replied with a Cajun accent.

“Money and . . .”

“Yes, yes valuables. I heard you, ma’am. And might I remind you that firearms are expressly prohibited on trains,” he said as he looked into the deepest of emerald whirlpools above the red bandana.

“I ain’t no lady,” the bandit replied, shaking the pistol at the patron’s head.

Mon chéri, if there is one thing I know on this great green earth of ours, it’s a lady. And you, sir, are a lady. Now, I suggest you put that rather stylish European pistol away and go about the rest of your robbin’ before I wake up my friend here.” The resistant patron kicked the sleeping one, but the hibernating bear of man only snored and shifted his position. “Believe me, when he wakes up, you are in a heap a trouble.”

“Money and valuables, now! Hand it over,” the bandit demanded.

“I apologize. I’m afraid I ain’t got anything,” he replied. The bandit’s free hand went toward the patron and grabbed a leather string about his neck and pulled it off. Out came a small stone disc with strange etchings. “Now, I’m afraid I can’t have you take that.”

“Hush up, Wage!” the bandit said in a much softer voice.

Captain Wage Pascal grabbed the bandit’s arm. “Apparently you know me and if you do, you know I ain’t gonna lay down and let you just take it. Now give it back!”

This time the barrel actually touched his forehead as the bandit put the pistol back in his face. “Nice seeing you again, Wage,” the bandit said before heading to the baggage car.

No one was in the train’s last car that was filled with passenger baggage. The bandit ran toward the rear and opened the door, letting the Mississippi humidity flow in. Jumping out was a simple—but potentially painful—insurance policy, just in case a quicker getaway was needed. The bandit finally took off the custom hat, and a lioness-like mane of curly red hair fell out. She shook off her bandana, gloves and jacket, revealing a long dark blue dress with periwinkle lace. She threw the bandit clothing the door and watched as it fluttered down to the tracks. Then she took off the inserts that surrounded her boot heels, instantly turning them into something more fashionable and lady-like. She scanned the luggage and found her floral-print suitcase with ease. She pulled it down and placed the sack of valuables and her pistols inside. Then she took out a beautiful lavender hat with peacock feathers and began adjusting it on top of her head. That’s when she heard the distinct sound of a hammer being cocked.

He stood over her in brown wool slacks, suspenders, and an outstandingly white button-up shirt. The only thing shinier than his smile was his sparkling revolver. “I figured we’d eventually end up pointing guns at each other. I’ll kindly take back what’s mine, please, but do feel free to keep the rest.”

“You ain’t gonna shoot me, Wage Pascal,” she replied as she stood up straight and dusted herself off.

“A lot’s changed, Mink, and I ain’t filled with the fondest of memories. The memory from the dining car being particularly vivid and unpleasant.”

She smiled and lifted her dress to reveal a leg the color and texture of a freshwater pearl. She had Wage’s disc in the top of her boot. She took it out and threw it back to him.

Merci, beacoup,” Wage said before placing the disc and Ol’ Snapper in his own boot. Mink buckled her suitcase and put it back on the shelf. “Where you been, Mink?” Wage asked. She delicately put on dark purple silk gloves and delivered a slap he never saw coming.

Two mustachioed men from the train authority busted into the baggage car with revolvers of their own. “Hold it right there! Hands up!” one of them yelled.

“Everything’s all right, gentlemen,” Wage replied with his hands in the air. “Just calm down, now.”

“Oh thank goodness you’re here!” Mink screamed. “That horrible man just accosted me. That wretched bandit, how dare he! He jumped off the train about a mile back.”

The other blue-clad official yelled at Wage, “Who are you? What are you doing back here?”

“Me!?” Wage said, “I was coming to her rescue. Bastard robbed me, too. Ask anyone.”

Both men went to the back of the car and looked out the open door. “All right,” one of them said, “head back to your seats. The train is secure. We’re gonna wire this in, tell ‘em he jumped off about 40 miles south of Tuscaloosa. We’ll need statements from you both at the next station.”

“Of course,” Mink replied.

“Thank you, ma’am,” the official said.

Wage adjusted his suspenders. “You are very welcome. Now, ma’am, how’s about a drink?” he asked Mink. “I’m quite certain you can afford it.”

The transformed bandit and the faux rescuer made their way back to the lounge car. Wage grabbed his wallet from Bill’s inside jacket pocket before walking up to the bartender and ordering three bourbons. The bartender looked at him curiously. “Lucky thing that no-good bandit didn’t search my sleeping friend over there.”

“Oh dear, that man is bleeding,” Mink said, pointing to the passenger with the broken nose. “I do hope he is all right.” She sat down in Wage’s booth next to the snoring bear. Wage put the three glasses of bourbon down on the table and returned to his seat directly across from Mink. “A votre santé,” he said before guzzling his drink and slamming the glass back down. Black Vomit Bill woke up at the sound and wiped the drool from his beard. He gave Mink a perplexed look. “Where’d you come from?” he asked.

“Nice of you to finally join us, William. May I introduce Mink Callahan—my former fiancée,” Wage announced.

Bill took off his hat and shook her hand. “Beg your pardon, ma’am. I’m William MacDonough. I never knew Wage was . . . engaged.”

“Actually, it’s Mink Thomason. I’m married now,” she replied.

“Imagine that! Mink Callahan actually made it to an altar,” Wage replied.

“I was fifteen, Wage Pascal! And an old, gnarled cypress tree in the swamp don’t exactly count as an altar, now does it!” Mink fired back before guzzling her bourbon and slamming it down. “What were we gonna do, Wage? We were young. Too young to get married. Stop being foolish!”

“A young heart may be foolish, but it beats the same as any other, Mink,” Wage replied before shouting for another round.

“I’m sorry for that night, Wage. I truly am. Many lives were changed that . . .”

“DON’T YOU TALK ABOUT THAT NIGHT, MINK CALLAHAN! DON’T YOU TALK!”

“Wage . . .Wage . . . I’m sorry,” Mink replied. “Mr. MacDonough, I apologize. Wage and I haven’t seen each other in more than fifteen years . . .”

“Yes, and wasn’t I surprised to see her pointing a gun in my face,” Wage said.

“Hush up, Wage!” she replied.

Bill finally took his bourbon and guzzled it all. Just in time for the bartender to deliver three more drinks.

“No, I apologize, William. Perhaps I should inform you, Mink and I grew up together in Baton Rouge. Her family moved there when after her father got transferred. He was a railroad engineer hired to figure out how to lay tracks through swampland. Ever since I met her, we were inseparable. Always getting in trouble and hiding out in the swamp, mixin’ ol’ voodoo recipes for Madame Sweet Tooth. Long story short, we were engaged to be married, but she left me at the altar without so much as a letter.” Wage took a swig from his new bourbon. “So tell me, Mink, who is this lucky husband of yours?”

“Ronald Thomason IV,” she replied.

“Ronald Thomason,” Wage repeated. “Ronald Thomason of Thomason Railway?”

“Yes, that’s my husband.”

“Ronald Thomason, the old railroad baron, is your husband? That Ronald Thomason?”

“Yes, that’s him.”

“So let me get this straight. You have a veritable fortune and your robbin’ trains? I think I need another drink,” Wage said.

Mink looked around cautiously. “Yes, Wage, I have money. I have money because people ride my husband’s trains. People ride my husband’s trains because they are too scared to ride anyone else’s— because everyone else’s is getting robbed.”

“And here I thought the old man just married you for your good looks,” Wage said. “So tell me, what are you gonna do with all the money you stole from these good people?”

“Orphans.” She looked around again. “I give it to orphans.”

“Ha! So now you some kinda millionaire lady Robin Hood, is that right?”

“I have a certain passion. A passion I can keep because my husband stays in business. And at the end of the day, I give generous . . . donations to the less fortunate,” she replied.

“Sounds like a healthy marriage,” Wage said. “Congratulations. I’m happy for the railroad industry.”

Mink finished her drink. “Well, this has been a most refreshing reunion, Wage Pascal. It’s good to see you are still the same ass you always were, but I am afraid I shall retire to my cabin. I will need to prepare a statement, of course, for the authorities when we reach Meridian.”

“Good to see you again, Mink. Tell Ronald Thomason I say hello; that is, if his hearing is still intact.”

“Good day, gentlemen,” Mink replied and stood up to leave. Bill also stood up and took off his hat again. “It was a pleasure to make your acquaintance ma’am,” he said. Mink elegantly strolled back to her cabin. Bill waited until she left the train car before sitting down. “Well. She seemed nice,” he said.

“William, you are officially fired as my companion,” replied Wage.

Wage W. Pascal

June 5, 1914

Pascal Family Manor

Baton Rouge, Louisiana

The stone Madonna cradled her child close to her. Her carved teardrop almost lost in the hard falling rain. Angels on either side pulled on her shoulders, their wings straight up, their faces strained, desperately trying to lift her away from the rich green clearing surrounded by ancient oaks and blooming magnolias. He stood there staring at the crypt. Motionless in a trench coat and slouch hat, he stood there long enough to sink into the wet earth.

“I miss her, too, Wage,” said the voice from behind.

Wage turned to see his brother, who had sneaked up on him. “Little brother! How the hell are you?” Wage embraced the slightly smaller and chiseled Warren. “Now look how big you’ve gotten. You look like a grown man.”

The only thing shielding Warren from the rainfall was his brown fedora and shoulder-length brown hair, both of which matched his caramel eyes. “How long you been in town?” he asked.

“Just got in this morning,” replied Wage.

“Will you be staying long?”

“Unfortunately, no. I’ll be catching a paddle boat down to New Orleans in the morning. I have some business down there that requires my attention.”

“You seen father yet?”

“No. I thought I’d visit mother first,” he replied.

“Well if you’re done, why don’t you come on in? Everyone will be happy to see you,” Warren said. “We’ll get Miss Marie to cook us up something hot.” Warren and Wage began the quarter-mile walk back to the manor house.

“I’m sure the young girls love it, but does father approve of your long hair, little brother?” Wage asked, as they made their way to the covered porch of the French colonial home.

“Well, it won’t last long, don’t worry. I have been accepted to the Naval Academy,” Warren replied.

“Naval Academy? You kiddin’ me?” Wage said, as he hit his brother on the shoulder. “Someone actually thinks you got les coquilles to be a military officer? Drivin’ ships and sailors all around?”

“Someone does,” Warren replied.

“Well, so do I!” Wage said, embracing his brother again.

“Thanks, Wage. Father pulled some strings and got me a congressional nomination. I leave in a few weeks.”

“No-good-congressman good for something, I guess,” Wage said and laughed. “Come on, let’s celebrate. We’ll grab something from father’s personal stash.” Wage enthusiastically stormed inside the house.

“Uh, Wage . . . about no-good-congressmen . . . ”

Wage walked into the atrium, greeted by the scent of fresh lilac and the perspiration of two well-dressed gentlemen in top hats. One was short and fat, the other tall and skinny, but they were both the same height, as the short one’s top hat was long and the tall one’s short.

“Well, now” the fat one said, “You must be Captain Wage Pascal, correct? I’ve seen the pictures hanging about.”

“I am. Who the hell are you?” Wage replied, taking off his coat and hat.

“We are campaign managers in the employ of your brother, William. He has told us all about you,” the skinny one said.

“Has he now? Well, I tell you what. How about you two go . . .”

“Wage!” interrupted an equally well-dressed William, walking in from the living room. “It’s good to see you.” William shook his brother’s hand. “Please allow me to introduce Mr. Richard Donnell and Mr. Donald Dingle. They are running my campaign for me.” William Henri Pascal Jr. looked like a much older Warren, only taller with spotted gray in his chestnut hair and a chevron mustache. He wore a blue ascot tie with an embroidered fleur-de-lis in gold.

“What exactly you campaigning for, Will?” Wage asked.

“I am running for United States Congress. My election managers here tell me I even have a slight lead over the incumbent. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you the news sooner, Wage. You’ve been a difficult man to track down these days. When was the last time you were in Baton Rouge? How long has it been?”

“Three years,” Wage said.

“Three years is too long, brother. A lot has changed.”

“Yes it has, Will. Yes it has. Well, allow me the courtesy of indulging in something that hasn’t changed. Warren! Let’s have a drink.”

William dismissed his election-winning specialists and followed his younger brothers into the kitchen, where Miss Marie hugged Wage and belted out her trademark laugh. The older Haitian servant had been in the service of the Pascal family for almost 30 years and watched all the Pascal boys grow up, save for one. She even grew and raised her own family in the servant’s quarters only a stone’s throw from the house. The now-gray-haired Miss Marie was still spry at the age of fifty, and was one of the few well-springs of life left at Pascal Manor.

“Oh Mr. Wage, I will fix you up some o’ yo favorite crawdad gumbo, yes I will,” cried Miss Marie.

“Oh Miss Marie, how I’ve missed you and your delicious cookin’. How about we have some of father’s finest brandy as well?” Wage asked.

“He won’t be happy about it, but what he don’t know won’t hurt him. He don’t come downstairs much anymore, anyway,” she said, before going down to the cellar. Wage grabbed a yellow pear from a basket on the counter and sat down at the peeling table by the window.

“I have to confess, Wage, I really thought you would be happier for me. This is a very taxing process, and it would be comforting to have more family support,” William said.

“I’m thrilled for you, Will,” replied Wage, before biting into the pear.

“Still the same ol’ Wage, I see. Never caring for nothing but yourself,” William fired back.

“That ain’t true. I care about Warren. I care about Miss Marie.”

“You love that you’re Warren’s hero, and you love that Miss Marie cooks for you! Come on, Wage!” William met Miss Marie at the stairs to the cellar and took the bottle of brandy before filling up two glasses, keeping one and giving one to the still-soaked Warren. “Here, Warren,” he said, “this will warm you up.”

“You ain’t gonna pour me a glass?” Wage asked.

“Pour your own damn glass,” William replied. He took a long sip and continued, “The world is changing, brother. Technology has reached nearly all of us. We have telegraph cables that run across the Atlantic Ocean. A man can get from New York to California in a week. Hell, we’re even controlling the skies now! We need people in Washington that understand this and can face the challenges that come with it, head on. I can do that, Wage.” William Pascal beat his chest with clenched fist.

Wage walked to the counter and poured himself a glass of brandy. “Yes, Will, I believe you can.” Wage drank the entire glass in one gulp and poured another. “And you have my utmost support.”

“Dammit, Wage. Not all of us can run off and play cowboy. Comin’ and goin’ as we please. Some of us want something better for this nation!” William said.

“Politicians want to better themselves. They don’t give a muskrat’s ass about bettering the nation or the people in it. They’re all a bunch of stuffy, unintelligible morons talkin’ out both sides of their mouth and their ass. Believe me, William, I’ve met a few.”

“Well, now you’ve met one more. I’ll see you two at dinner. I have some work to attend to. Good seeing you again, Wage.”

“Always a pleasure, Will,” Wage yelled when his brother was halfway up the stairs.

“I’m sorry, Wage. I thought he’d be more excited to see you,” Warren said.

Wage finished his second brandy. “Only thing he’s excited about is kissing babies and the derrières of wealthy donors.”

“Wage Pascal!” Miss Marie yelled, “You watch your mouth. That’s your big brother and he loves you. He been talking ‘bout you since the moment you left. So you give him a little leeway . . . even if he is a no-good politician.” Wage and Warren’s laughter progressed from stifled to hysterical.

“Miss Marie, I knew there was a reason I came home—you are a ray of sunshine on a dismal day,” Wage said.

“Now Mr.Wage, you be a good boy and go see your father right this instant.”

“Well, now that the easy reunion is done, I suppose I will head upstairs and see father.”

“He’s right where you left him, Mr. Wage,” Miss Marie said.

Wage headed up the main staircase and conjured up a childhood memory for every step. Miss Marie yelling at him for swearing, little brother repeating it, father disciplining him, mother soothing him, big brother outshining him, little brother emulating him, father drinking, mother yelling, father yelling, mother stroking his hair, big brother stealing his toys, mother soothing him, father womanizing, mother crying, father drinking some more, mother soothing him.

The memories faded as he entered the bedroom.

Inside the master bedroom, his father lay motionless, staring out the window. After his stroke five years ago, he lost the efficient use of most of his body, save for his left arm. Facial expressions became nearly impossible as well. Ironically, facial expressions were scarce even before his stroke. Despite all that, Wage knew his father relished the storm outside, a reflection of his own tumultuous mind now imprisoned in his barely-functioning body. Near his father’s nightstand was Wage’s last parting gift to him, an invention of his own design: a left-handed glove with strings tied to each finger. Each string connected to a different bell on the first floor. Each bell, in turn, signaled a different request. The lowest bell was bedpan, other bells were food and water, another was curtains to be drawn, and the highest bell signified his craving to be pushed about the grounds in his wheeled chair. The last one required Warren to carry his own father downstairs. Wage knew that in reality, the bells represented whiskey, bourbon, gin, brandy, and red wine, respectively.

His father turned his head and talked out one side of his mouth, “Been awhile, Wage,” he said. “What brings the prodigal son home this time? You haven’t blown through your trust already, now, have you?”

“I‘m just passing through on my way to New Orleans. Thought I might see you, Will, and Warren. Thought I might visit with mom,” Wage replied.

“You’d be visiting with headstone, boy,” his father said.

“Yes, probably carved from your own heart, I imagine.”

“Clever, boy. Maybe you should’ve been the politician,” his father replied.

“If I had a soul like yours, I’d probably be a damn good one.”

“Full of aggravating wit, too, like your mother. It never was just her looks you got,” his father said. “Believe me, boy. Talking to stone ain’t gonna bring her back. Try facing reality instead of running from it.”

“If facing them meant becoming like you, I think I’ll pass,” Wage said.

“You wouldn’t last a day in my condition, boy. And try not to be so nonchalant about it. Don’t act as if I wasn’t there. I saw it happen, Wage! I was smoking a cigar, strolling through garden when I saw her climb out the window onto the spire with little Wyatt. I saw her, Wage! And where were you? Huh!? Exchanging vows with your little girlfriend and that swamp witch?”

Wage stayed silent. Even in his immobilized state, the great Major William Henri Pascal, survivor of Little Big Horn, descendant of the noblesse de robe, successful business magnate, and patriarch still commanded a room.

“Lost your tongue finally?” his white-haired father said.

“Not quite. I am just without the will to use it at the moment,” Wage replied.

“This family has moved on, Wage. Why haven’t you? Doctors said there wasn’t anything anyone could do about it. Blamed it on postpartum hysteria. And what did you do? You ran away! You still wanna run? Keep running! But believe, boy, it won’t help.”

“You’re right. I am still running, and perhaps I should continue,” Wage said.

There was a long, uncomfortable pause. “Well,” his father said, “spend time with Warren before you leave. The boy looks up to you. He’s even followin’ in your footsteps—wants to be a war hero—like every other young boy, before they realize that a war hero is either a fabrication, or more likely just a soldier who didn’t piss himself before he died.” His father stared again at the storm through the windows. “I even gave him the same option I gave you: an education at the Sorbonne. But he refused, the idiot, just like you.”

“Warren will make a fine officer, father. I am sure of it. And I have no doubt that Will serve the people of this nation. He has the makings of a fine politician.”

“Of course he does; that’s why I am financing his campaign,” his father said. “There are two types of people in this world, Wage. Those who serve others and those who serve themselves.”

“Acolytes and adventurers, I remember, father. Everyone is one or the other.”

“Oh, don’t everyone just wanna run off and be the adventurer, now, hmm? Just like Wage Pascal! Little do they know how fruitless and short it is. Just ask Wage Pascal,” his father said, drawing out the syllables of his name.

Well, if you will excuse me, there is something I must do,” Wage replied, turning for the door.

“Wage!” yelled his father, “As damn hard as it is . . . I do love you, son.”

“I opened up some of your finest brandy. I’ll have Miss Marie bring up the rest,” Wage said before leaving his father to watch the storm.

Wage made his way to the study down the hall where he found William deliberating over some papers with spectacles. “Will,” Wage said.

“Wage,” he replied. “Let me guess. Leaving already? Did they open a new whorehouse in Shreveport?”

“Why? You heard something?” Wage said, making William Jr. laugh. “I am leaving, Will. I have some business in New Orleans,” he continued, glad the tension left the room. “But I promise, I will come back in just a few days.”

“I’ve heard this before,” William said.

“I know, but this time I mean it. I’m gonna come home, Will. And I am determined to help you with your campaign. It’s about time I served a noble cause, and let’s be honest . . . you gonna need all the help you can get,” Wage said.

William stood up from his chair and hugged his brother. “Thank you, Wage.”

“Thank me after we’ve won the election, brother,” Wage replied.

“Good luck, Wage, and whatever it is you are doing in New Orleans, be safe.”

“I will.” Wage patted his brother on the back. “I’ll be back soon.”

Wage made his way back to the atrium, where he put on his trench coat and slouch hat.

“You leavin’ again, huh?” Warren said from the entry way to the kitchen.

Wage walked over and put his arm around his little brother. “Warren, I mean to come back in a few days to help Will and to give you a proper send off, of course. I even know just the place for a soon-to-be-sailor.”

“You promise?” Warren asked.

“I promise, little brother.”

Wage and Warren embraced one last time, and Wage walked out into the pouring rain. But before heading dockside, he stopped by his mother’s crypt again. This time he knelt by it and traced the inscription: Clementine Claire Cuomo Pascal and Wyatt Nathaniel Pascal. Together in life and death. In heaven, may they have their wings.

“I miss you,” Wage said. And then he did something he hadn’t done in 15 years. He cried.

Detective Simon Porter

June 5, 1914

The House of Black Curtains

New Orleans, Louisiana

It was five o’clock in the afternoon when the detective hopped from the streetcar onto the packed dirt at the center of Canal Street. Dodging horse-drawn buggies and motorcars, he made his way to the broadstone sidewalk. Canal Street itself seemed as wide as the nearby Mississippi River, roughly 120 feet across with currents of motley folk. Detective Simon Porter dropped his suitcase and recorded them like one of Edison’s motion cameras: parading ladies with impeccably dressed children in tow, copper Choctaw Indians, bronze Mexicans with slicked black hair, scurrying Chinese merchants and deliverymen, dark-eyed Spanish creoles, light-eyed Africans, French businessmen speaking a refined English to New Yorkers and Bostonians, British sailors in wrinkled uniforms taunting French sailors who whose uniforms were finely pressed, unattended children everywhere in ill-fitting corduroys loitering in alleys or shining shoes, muscular longshoremen who smelled like coal and catfish, and the occasional soft-spoken prostitutes who enticed everyone with a smile and overwhelming floral perfume.

The detective dusted off his black pants, adjusted the all-seeing Pinkerton eye on his lapel, and bent over for his bag. Blast! It has torn open again! The detective walked a brisk pace east on Canal Street feeling a warm, sticky stream down his back. I will need a new shirt. He followed the unending light posts connected by a slightly buzzing electrical wire and a silent telegraph one. A few blocks later, he reached his destination. Wedged between two brick buildings near Chartres Street was The House of Black Curtains. It was an off-white, three-story French colonial establishment with wrought-iron balconies and, true to its name, windows strewn with jet-black velvet curtains. The only sign hung above the swinging doors of the entrance. It read simply, in script: Saloon & Entertainment. The all-to-eager gentleman at the railway station described it perfectly after the detective showed him the recovered matchbook. The gentleman even went on to describe the best types of entertainment.

Before going in, the detective called out to a young boy standing with his foot against the wall of the full-service saloon. His suspenders held up wool pants that were too big for him, and a flat brown cap covered hair that looked like trampled hay.

“Young man, may I have the privilege of knowing your name?” the detective asked.

“Leroy Jardin.”

Le Roi du Jardin? King of the Garden,” the detective said.

“Sure.”

“Well, Monsieur Jardin, my name is Porter. How would you like to earn a little money?” Detective Porter asked.

“Sure. I would like that just fine.”

“Excellent.” Detective Porter dropped his bag once more and pulled out his sketchbook from his inner jacket pocket. He flipped through his notes and a few drawings until he came to a blank page. He jotted down a few numbers, ripped out the page and handed it to the boy. “I require a white button-down shirt with a British-spread collar. Take these measurements to the local clothier and return here with my shirt. Leave it with the bartender if I am not here. Do you understand?”

“Sure.”

“Master Leroy, I have chosen you for this task because you have an honest demeanor about you. Can I trust that you are not morally scrupulous?”

“Morally what?”

“Can I trust you to discern right from wrong, Master Leroy?”

“What’s discernin’?”

“How about this.” The detective replaced his sketchbook and pulled out his pocket book. “Now, here is the money for the shirt. You are entitled to any change there might be, but to ensure your morals are firmly intact, I will pay you exactly what the shirt is worth plus another quarter when you return. And after your return successfully with my new shirt, I will promise you further profitable opportunities.”

“Hell yeah, mister. You got a deal.”

“A most wise choice.”

“Well, if you excuse me, I will get to discernin’ you a shirt,” Leroy said, tipping his hat.

“Yes, Master Leroy, very good, commence with your . . . discernment,” the detective replied.

He winced in pain again as he reached down for his bag. He entered through the swinging doors. The bar was no doubt an overflow for the currents of motley folk. On the first floor, The House of Black Curtains was a wood-paneled saloon covered in a thin film of Canal Street dust. It made an unpleasant sound when patrons shuffled across it. A noise that was most likely drowned out by the piano that stood along the wall closest to the entrance. Next to the piano was a tall, wooden, peephole kinetoscope. The detective looked around to see if there was a fee for its use but could not find an employee. Curious, he leaned over into the viewer and turned the metal crank on the side; 35 millimeter film flashed by, creating a black-and-white motion capture. It began with an ethereally white woman in a robe standing near a chaise lounge. She seductively removed her robe, revealing a completely bare and curvaceous figure. She then lay on the lounge chair, with one arm up in a rather inviting position, and smiled. Cruelly, black curtains then closed the scene off. After a few flashes of white, words appeared in playbill font: Welcome to The House of Black Curtains! Purveyors of Spirits and Sensuality! All Inquiries May be Made with your Server or Bartender. Thank you! Another lash. Damn.

The detective adjusted his clothing and made his way to the bar. A man popped up from behind the counter as though he had been cleaning something down below. “Good afternoon! What’ll it be?” he said.

“I am in need of some companionship,” Detective Porter replied.

“That we have. That we have. Anything specific you are looking for?” The bartender leaned in with a wink.

“I am afraid I have injured myself to a minor degree and require a companion who may be able to help with the mending process,” the detective said.

“Plenty of doctors in New Orleans, sir; perhaps you should try them instead.”

“Yes, but I would much prefer one of your more nurturing girls,” Detective Porter said.

“Well, to each his own. Gotta be honest . . . I have heard stranger requests. Listen, we got Edwina. Mulatto gal. Some find her bewitching, but she does tend to the girls who occasionally encounter a more . . . belligerent patron.”

“Excellent. May I schedule some time with her?” the detective asked.

“Sure.” The bartender turned around and toggled a small knob on the wall. A bell rang distantly upstairs. Moments later, a few girls came running onto the second floor mezzanine. One of them was stark naked and covered in white powder.

“I just need Edwina!” the bartender shouted.

Two of the girls ran off, including the naked one, and Edwina stood somewhat shyly at the top of the stairs. The detective thanked the bartender and informed him that a young man would be making a delivery for him later.

At the top of the stairs, the detective took off his hat and pushed stray hairs behind his ears. “Good evening, ma’am,” he said.

The dark-skinned girl looked youthful and slender, but her majestic mocha eyes conveyed an experience beyond her years. She wore a simple, slim black dress with an extremely low, rounded neck-line. Not as buxom as the other girls, but still a remarkably sketchable subject. She wore black stockings with holes in the feet.

“Good evening, sir.” She performed a slight courtesy. “How may I be of service?”

“May we adjourn to your quarters?” the detective asked.

“You don’t care for a drink first?”

“No,” he replied.

“Well, then . . .” She led him down to the end of the second floor hallway by the hand. Nervously, he held her hand back, but only enough to not break away. They entered her room together. It was neatly made, with an unmatching bed, dresser, and vanity. Her black curtains were tied back and her window cracked, allowing the hot, humid air to intermingle with the citrus and cinnamon perfume she wore.

Once in the room, the detective closed the door and hurried to put his bag down on the dresser. He dug through the bag and pulled out a small box before sitting down at Edwina’s vanity mirror. He shed his jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.

“I like a man who gets right down to business,” Edwina said. Being a purveyor of sensuality, she walked behind him to help remove his shirt. She screamed. “What in the Lord’s name happened to you?”

The detective’s bare back was a series of long, red, raised scars. Most were old and healed, others slightly more fresh and tender, but one was split open and bleeding. He opened the small box, revealing a tiny needle and some thread.

“Edwina, listen to me carefully. I need you to stitch this wound immediately. Can you do that?” Detective Porter asked.

“I . . . I can, yes . . . but wouldn’t you rather see a doctor?”

“I do not care for doctors much. I fear their oaths of confidentiality are taken with crossed fingers,” he said. “Now, it is my understanding that you mend other girls here. Would you be so kind as to work your curative powers on me, please?”

His wound continued to leak blood. Edwina sighed heavily and opened a drawer in the vanity. She pulled out a bottle of rye whiskey. “Here,” she said, “Drink this. It’s gonna hurt.”

“I’m afraid I abstain from alcohol,” he replied.

Ugh!” She uncorked the bottle with her teeth and poured it directly into the gaping wound. It was the detective who screamed this time.

Edwina picked up the needle already tied with fine black thread. She knelt on the floor and began to sew the wound back together. She worked quickly, meticulously, and hardly broke a sweat.

In between the detective’s grunts, Edwina tried to spark conversation. “Who did this to you?” she asked.

“It makes no difference,” the detective replied.

“My granddaddy had scars like this on his back. Got them working for the devil on his plantation. My momma said she used to help patch him up like I used to patch up my dolly when she lost her stuffin’.”

“Is that your experience, then? Patching up dolls?”

“That’s where it started,” she replied.

“What happened to your grandfather?” he asked.

“General Sherman came marching through and burned the whole damn thing down.”

“How ironic. The devil loses his plantation to fire.” The detective winced again.

“That’s what momma always said. After that, my family came to New Orleans.”

“If you do not mind me asking, how old are you?”

“Nineteen. Youngest of ten,” she replied, as she reached over to grab the detective’s discarded shirt. She poured some alcohol on it and dabbed away some blood that was interfering with her work. “So you gonna tell me how you got these, or do I have make it more painful?” She ended her sentence with a well-timed piercing.

“I do it to myself,” he said. “It is penance. It is . . . purification.”

Edwina’s eyes went big. “Well, I’d say you are pretty damned purified! This is madness, is what it is!” she cried.

“I do not expect you to understand,” he said.

“Who in the hell ever taught you this was how a man should go about his business?”

“My mother.”

Edwina looked closer at his back. She saw the tiniest of scars among the large ones. “Did she do this to you when you were a boy? What are these little ones here?” she asked.

“My mother said it was God’s will. She said the pain was necessary to purge ourselves of our sinful thoughts and deeds.”

“You still believe that now?”

“No. I don’t,” he replied.

“Then why do you—”

“Miss Edwina, do you know a Captain Wage Pascal?” Detective Porter interrupted.

“Who?”

“A handsome man, possessing great charm. A military man. He has dark hair and a thick Cajun accent.”

“You’ve just described half the men in Louisiana,” Edwina replied.

“He would be here intermittently. He spends a large sum of money. Probably hires a number of different prostitutes in a week, or an evening.”

“Startin’ to narrow it down …”

“He travels with a larger, bearded fellow, fond of boxing.”

“Oh yeah! I remember him, now. He comes around now and then. Always meeting with Mr. Jade, I think?”

“Mr. Jade? Tell me about him,” the detective said.

“I don’t even know your name, and here I am sewin’ you up! How’s about you tell me a little somethin’ about yourself first?

“My apologies. In my haste, I have forgotten formal introductions. I am Detective Simon Porter . . . Ouch!” She had poked him hard with the needle.

“Sorry,” she said. “I don’t care much for coppers in this parish.”

“I do not work for the parish, this municipality, or the state of Louisiana. I am sanctioned by Pinkerton.”

“You some kind of spymaster, then?” she asked, finishing another knot.

“Not quite. I have come from North Carolina to track down a dangerous criminal.”

“So, you a manhunter?”

“Sure,” the detective said, borrowing the phrase from the kid, Leroy. “This man, Mr. Jade—if he is an associate of Captain Pascal, I need to find him.

“Haven’t seen him in a while,” she said. “He delivers herbs when the girls get their sores. He also sells some of our patrons that Chinese tobacco. Madame Deborah don’t let her girls use it, though, on account of it diminishes our enthusiasm —and enthusiasm makes ‘em come back.” Although the detective couldn’t see Edwina, he was quite certain she winked. “You stick around long enough, though, I’m sure you’ll see him.”

“Yes, I suppose I will. I am afraid my stay will need to be discrete, however. I will gladly pay for your company for the week, possibly more. Would you be amenable to this?” Detective Porter asked.

“I suppose so . . . There! Finished!” Edwina leaned over and cut the remaining thread off with her teeth before grabbing the bottle of alcohol with bloodstained hands and swigging it.

The detective stood up and inspected Edwina’s handiwork in the mirror. It was better than most doctors. “There are some bandages in my bag; would you be so kind?” he asked. Edwina rinsed her hands in her wash bowl, which quickly turned red. She rifled through the bag to find the bandages and tossed them to the detective.

“You got any more shirts in here?” she asked.

“A few, but Master Leroy will hopefully be arriving soon with a replacement for this one.” The detective pointed to his discarded shirt on the floor. “And it seems I will have more profitable work for him after all. Perhaps he can help track down this Mr. Jade.”

“What do you want to do until then?” Edwina asked, putting her foot up on the bed. “I do more than just stitches, you know.”

“Yes. I suppose you do,” Detective Porter replied, retrieving his sketchbook.

The Baron

June 7, 1914

Schloss Schönbrunn

Vienna, Austria

The 1911 Gräf & Stift Bois de Boulogne touring car arrived at Schönbrunn Palace, the massive and majestic yellow summer seat of the Hapsburgs for more than 350 years. Khalid Francois parked the car and looked at the palace with awe. “If Allah winters in Versailles, then surely he must summer in Vienna,” he said. Immediately, the Baron, Warwick, and Khalid were greeted by a royal adjutant and five armed royal guards, who scurried out from the main entrance. Their rifles glimmered in the noonday sun.

“Greetings,” the adjutant said in German. “Please state your name and purpose here today.”

Warwick confronted the adjutant head on. “Good afternoon. This is his lordship, William Hardwin FitzOsbern DeLacy, the Baron of Pontefract,” he replied in German. “We have an appointment with the Archduke, his highness, Franz Ferdinand. Our request was accepted roughly a week ago.”

The adjutant thumbed through his papers and confirmed the appointment. “Ah, yes, here it is. Gentlemen, if you do not mind, please relinquish your weapons, and for precautionary measures you will need to be searched.”

“Not a problem,” Warwick replied. Khalid gave up his sidearm, while the rest of the party received the precautionary search for the good of Austria-Hungary.

“Is that a maze?” Khalid asked, with Warwick translating.

“Yes,” the adjutant replied. “The finest hedge maze in the entire world.”

“What the hell would you need a maze for?” Khalid said in French.

“It’s very lovely,” translated Warwick.

“Excellent,” the adjutant said. “Should I expect any more servants, your lordship?”

“I was told two servants only,” the Baron snapped in German. “This is my driver and personal attendant. Now stop wasting my time before you end up a castrato in Vienna’s Boys Choir.” The Baron wiped his bald head with a silk kerchief.

“Right this way,” the adjutant said.

The Schönbrunn Palace had more than 1,400 rooms, each ornately decorated by the finest craftsmen in Europe. The Baron was given a small sitting room in the east wing, complete with chandlier, gilded wallpaper, red velvet seats, and a plush white sofa filled with down goose feathers. The large square windows overlooked the front of the estate. From this vantage point, the Baron eyed some of the finest gardens in the world, littered with fantastic statues, fountains, and fabricated Roman ruins. “Ironic,” he said, “that they pay tribute to the once-mighty and now-fallen empire of Rome. Warwick! Give us a cigarette.” The Baron took the finely rolled cigarette, lit it, and inhaled deeply. Khalid was across the room, staring at a life-size (and far too flattering) oil portrait of the Princess of Hohenberg, the Duchess Sophie Chotek, wife of the Archduke. She sparkled in a sheer white gown with pearls and a ruby choker necklace. On her perfect hair was a small glowing tiara, which gave her an almost angelic presence in the room. “Ironic,” Khalid said, “Austrian women look so heavenly, but between the sheets, I hear they are commanding devils.” Khalid now lit a cigarette. “What do you say, Warwick? Have you ever had a Viennese girl?” Warwick shook his head nervously.

The door opened and a servant yelled inside, “His highness, Franz Ferdinand, Archduke of Austria-Este, Royal Prince of Hungary and of Bohemia, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and Inspector General of Her Armies.” A short but robust man in a light blue military uniform with a high red collar entered. His various military medals swung as he walked to the largest chair in the room, in front of the portrait of his wife. He sat up straight, adjusted his uniform, and dismissed his servant. The Archduke was an uninspiring man in his late forties who radiated an almost palpable strangeness.

The three guests bowed. “Your highness,” the Baron said.

“Baron DeLacy, to what do I owe this visit?” the Archduke asked in English, forgoing any formal greeting.

The Baron took the seat across from him, Warwick stood behind him, and Khalid migrated to the window. “First, I would like to congratulate his highness on being promoted to Inspector General. It is quite a privilege to command one of the most formidable armies in Europe.”

“Did you come all this way to congratulate me, Baron? I assure you I have very pressing matters to attend to,” the Archduke asserted.

“Would one of those matters be the province of Bosnia? Or the general lack of sentiment the Hungarian people have for you?” the Baron asked. The Archduke was silent; void of all expression. “No, I’m afraid I am here to claim my favor. It is time for you to pay your debt,” Baron DeLacy said.

“Now is not the time, Baron. My repayment will have to wait,” the Archduke said, as he stroked his winged mustache.

“Warwick! Another cigarette, and be kind enough to offer one to his highness.” The Archduke refused the cigarette with a waving hand. “Tell me, highness, did you ever wonder how a man with no training and very little service becomes head of an Imperial Army? Do you even remember how you came to be Heir Presumptive? What was it—25 years ago now? Yes, I do believe the anniversary of the Crown Prince Rudolph’s death has just passed. It’s been a while, but I do remember his hunting lodge.” The Baron looked up in reminiscence. “A beautiful place right near the Schwechat River. The only thing more beautiful was young Mary Vetsera. Ah, Mary. She was only 17, but your cousin loved her dearly. Even more than his own wife, I’m afraid. Sweet, sweet, little Mary.”

The Baron inhaled his cigarette and continued. “It’s just too bad his father didn’t understand a man’s need for a mistress. Your uncle is a very rigid man, highness, and who could withstand the pressure he put on your dearest cousin to dismiss someone so lovely. It was the perfect recipe for a lovers’ suicide pact. And at last, Prince Rudolph shot his love as she lie in their bed and then himself in the very hunting lodge he had built, pulling the trigger of his Förster Gewehr with his big toe . . . at least that’s what I made it look like, anyway. Do you have any idea the lengths one must go to in order to make it look like the heir to a sprawling, glorious empire and vast fortune killed himself?” The Baron inhaled more dramatically this time. “No, I don’t suspect you do. As heartless as you are, you could never murder someone, which makes you enormously inept at ruling an empire. Do you recall the myth of Damocles, highness?”

“Baron DeLacy, I believe this conversation must be cut short—”

“Well, highness,” the Baron interrupted, “The Greek god Dionysus wanted King Damocles to understand the true meaning of kingship. What it really feels like to have the fate of all your subjects in mortal hands. What it feels like to have everyone want to kill you for the power you wield. So he hung a great sword above the King’s throne tied only by a horsetail thread. And King Damocles discerned and deliberated, never knowing when the sword that swung above him, so precariously, was going to fall.”

“I studied my myths as a child, Baron. I am in no need of a lesson,” the Archduke said coolly.

“Well, poor King Damocles eventually abdicated his throne to relieve himself of this burden, unable to withstand the true weight of being a ruler,” the Baron replied.

“What is your point, Baron?” the Archduke asked.

“My point is simple. Perhaps you need the same motivation, highness. Perhaps you should feel the true weight of all your titles. Perhaps it is time a sword hangs above you.”

“Is that your favor, then? You wish to hang a sword above me? You want to make me a more apt head of state?” the Archduke asked.

“As fortune would have it, the favor I require of you will benefit us both,” the Baron said. “It will make you the apt leader we hoped you would be, ensure all your subjects respect you. And it will, of course, make me and a few others very, very rich.”

“I am listening,” the Archduke replied.

“I need a war, highness. I need a war with the Balkans, and I want you, as head of the military, to declare one.”

“Preposterous! I will make no such action.”

“Do ponder it for a moment. You will have a chance to show your leadership, a chance to strike fear in the people who doubt you. A chance to show all of Europe you will be the next King of Austria-Hungry. And I will even sell you the weapons to ensure your victory,” the Baron said. “Besides, they are already weary from fighting the Ottomans. Now is the perfect time to strike.

“You want me to declare war? Are you mad!?”

“Well, it isn’t like you don’t have provocation; the Serbians have always undermined you. Tell me again how many assassination attempts you have foiled? A declaration of war is simple, bold, and effective.”

“And profitable as well. Right, Baron?” the Archduke snapped.

“The time for you repayment is now, highness,” the Baron said, extinguishing his cigarette.

“If I declare a war with the Serbs, Russia will bear down on me like a mother bear defending her cub,” the Archduke said. “Bismarck and the alliances he forged have made Europe a powder keg, Baron, and I will not be the one to light the fuse. My answer is simple, bold, and effective. No!”

“Do you recall the myth of Prometheus, highness?” the Baron asked, signaling for Khalid, who took out a round, black ball about the size of a grapefruit. Khalid walked over and dropped the heavy ball on the Archduke’s lap. He unraveled a fuse as he walked back to the window.

“What is the meaning of this? How did you get this past my guards?” the Archduke asked in a growl.

“You see, Prometheus stole fire from the gods—a crime he was punished for severely. But I always ask myself . . . why? What is it about fire that made them want to safeguard it so? Did the gods not want us to stay warm? Have hot food? Drive locomotives?” the Baron, as he once again signaled Khalid. The Algerian sparked a match and lit the fuse from across the room. A small flame hissed as it danced toward the bomb in the Archduke’s lap. “You see, Franz, the reason why the gods didn’t want us to have fire is because fire kills, maims, destroys. To put it plainly, fire wins wars.”

“YOU ARE A MADMAN!” the Archduke screamed.

“Take the little spark headed your way, for instance. By itself, quite harmless, but when it ignites the device in your lap—one my factory-manufactures, I might add—it will set off an explosion of shrapnel in all directions, killing everyone in this room.” The Archduke began sweating and tugging at his collar.

“Calling for your guards is useless, of course. They will either be too late, or arrive in time for the fireworks. You could throw it, but it does have an exceptionally wide blast radius. It seems we are at a rather unfortunate impasse.”

“No! No! NO!” the Archduke cried.

The Baron began laughing. “Are you ready to die, gentlemen?” he asked.

“I am ready to meet Allah, Baron!” Khalid yelled, joining in the laughter.

“It has been a pleasure serving you, my lord,” Warwick replied, promptly covering his ears.

As the Archduke saw the reflection of the spark in the Baron’s one tinted lens, he panicked and went to pull the fuse out, only to find it didn’t budge. The Baron continued laughing.

“Are you ready for the real power of fire, heir Ferdinand?” he yelled. The fuse dove inside the bomb, and the Archduke winced before falling to the ground at the Baron’s feet, screaming. The bomb let out a small puff of smoke.

“Warwick, another cigarette,” the Baron said. Warwick cautiously stepped over the groveling Archduke and gave the Baron one. The Baron leaned over in his chair and whispered, “You see, the real power of fire, the reason why the gods cherished it so, is because the smallest of sparks can bring the most powerful men to their knees.”

Baron DeLacy stood up and adjusted his jacket. “You have one year to the day to pay your debt. I want a war. And one way or the other, I shall have one. Good day, highness.”

The Baron and his loyal entourage left the Archduke cowering on the floor. After a long walk back to the main entrance, Khalid retrieved his pistol and started the car. Warwick sat in the passenger seat and the Baron in the back.

“Warwick, send word to Tsar Nicolas through our Russian channels,” the Baron said, as the car raced away from Schönbrunn palace. “Tell him the Austrian wolves are eyeing Serbia like a wounded cub.”

“Yes, my lord,” Warwick replied.

“There is a park not far down this road, Khalid, one with a beautiful garden promenade,” the Baron said. “Please stop there. I have some brief recruiting business to attend to.”

“Yes, Baron,” Khalid answered.

“Afterward, we will begin preparations for our return to England,” the Baron added.

“Yes, my lord,” Warwick replied.

Baron DeLacy eyed the Roman ruins at the front of the palace as Khalid drove past them. “All empires fall, gentlemen. Some in an instant, others over centuries, but eventually, even the mightiest fall,” he said.

Mink Callahan

June 9, 1914

Estate of Ronald Thomason IV

Chicago, Illinois

The sun drowned in Lake Michigan, turning it an eerie purple and making the city of Chicago look as though it were constructed entirely of shadows. Mink stood alone on her veranda in a green tea-length cocktail dress. With her red hair down and sparkling topaz jewelry on, she looked like a displaced mermaid pining for her home.

“Darling!” the familiar voice said behind her. “Sweetheart! How I have missed you.” Mink turned to embrace her husband. He grabbed her hands and kissed her delicately on the cheek instead. The whiskers from his white sideburns were as soft as conditioned goose feathers. The older, short pot-bellied man wore a three-piece navy-blue pinstripe suit with a bright red tie and matching red carnation on his lapel. “I am so sorry to have missed dinner,” he continued. “Tell me, how was your trip to the South? I want to hear all about it!”

“It is wonderful to see you again, husband” Mink replied. “My trip was productive to say the least. I even ran into an old acquaintance of mine—”

“Wonderful! I hope it was reposeful for you,” Ronald Thomason interrupted.

“Yes, well, will you be joining me for drink, then?” Mink asked. “I would very much like to catch up on all your goings-on.”

“I am terribly sorry, darling, but I’m playing cards with Marcus this evening. Perhaps tomorrow. Oh wait, I have a meeting tomorrow evening with Leiber Textiles. We are discussing the reupholstering of some of our first-class cabins. You will absolutely love their fabric. A daisy yellow and amethyst purple. Bright and uplifting to the weary passenger!”

“Understandable. Perhaps Sunday then?” Mink asked.

“Sweetheart, I am profoundly sorry, but I will be at the lodge on Sunday. How about this? I will clear my schedule for Monday and we will go sailing for the day. Doesn’t that sound wonderful? Plan for a two o’clock launch, and we shall return only when we have watched the sunset together, my darling. I will make sure James has the boat ready and looking marvelous. And speaking of marvelous, I did have James prepare something special for you this evening, assuming our ice house isn’t knee-deep with water yet.”

“Very well,” Mink said. “I shall look forward to our sailing adventure on Monday.”

“By the way, have you seen Reginald since your return?” Ronald asked.

“I have not,” Mink answered.

“Well, he and his college friends are downstairs in the parlor. If you don’t mind, ensure that he does not . . . “redecorate” the place again. The repairs were quite costly last time,” Ronald said. He grabbed her hands once more, smiled and kissed her other cheek this time. “Good evening, darling.” The mighty captain of industry, a man who built his fortune on iron and on the backs of those who hammered it, waddled back inside.

Ronald Thomason IV was the youngest of six siblings in the Thomason family, and the only one remaining. Ronald III, his only brother, was the eldest and was once heir to Thomason Railways. He died fighting for the Union in the Civil War. He was only 19 when gangrene consumed him after losing both arms. Of his four older sisters, two died in childbirth, another of tuberculosis, and sweet Camilla strangled in broad daylight on Michigan Boulevard by her abusive husband. She was only 20. That left Ronald IV; once the shy, awkward child who liked nothing more than playing with dolls and being dressed up by his sisters, to lead Thomason Railways into the next century. And lead he did, creating an empire and fortune his father could have only imagined. The curious socialites and his lack of an heir were his only problems; the solutions to which were an adopted son and Mink Callahan.

James Penny, the house butler, walked onto a veranda with a towel over his arm, holding a drink in an odd-shaped glass. His large hands gave the chilled glass to Mink. “Your drink, ma’am. Mr. Thomason insisted I make it for you.”

“How kind of you, Jimmy. What is it exactly?” Mink asked.

“It’s called a martini, ma’am. It is all the rage in New York,” James replied.

Mink took a sip. “A potent concoction, to be sure. It’s delicious, Jimmy, thank you.”

“You hate it, don’t you?”

***

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Peacemakers

A wandering hired gun. A mysterious train robber. A relentless private detective. An out-of-work prostitute. A knife-throwing feral woman. A genius scientist. And a former President of the United States. What do they all have in common? In 1914, they’ll all be founding members of America’s first covert operational unit. The Peacemakers. But first, they will all have to navigate a dangerous shadow world where secret societies and arcane orders have the ability to spark world wars, and strive for one thing. Total global domination. From Vienna to Baton Rouge. Normandy to New York. From the exquisite decks of the Lusitania to the eerie halls of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. Meet the men and women America never knew. The men and women omitted from the history books. Meet the Peacemakers …

  • Author: Sean Michael O'Dea
  • Published: 2017-03-04 22:35:12
  • Words: 113102
Peacemakers Peacemakers