2. Chapter 2

WITHIN THE LUXURIOUS WALLS OF THE HOTEL DEL MONTE

By the time he fetched his gear from Palmer’s and spent a relaxing half hour savouring a tub of the Hotel del Monte’s piping hot water, any lingering doubts Kid had over switching to the best hotel in town had soaked away. Levering himself out, he wrapped a snowy white towel around his waist and padded over to the mirror. Rubbing away the steam, the ex-outlaw began to lather up to shave. He wanted to look his best for dinner with Alice. The memory of her transformation from blushing violet to demanding snapdragon in the lobby, momentarily creased his brow. Meeting his own blue eyes in the glass, Kid shrugged and shook his head. She had just been riled by the snooty receptionist – probably trying to hide her embarrassment and overdoing it a trifle.

A far more pleasant image took over. Kid smiled as he flicked the first swipe of stubble and foam from his jaw. He was picturing candlelight, wine and the loveliest forget-me-not gaze he had ever seen, full of admiration. He paused. Of course – it would never do to let a sweet, innocent girl get TOO fond of him. He swept the razor over the other side of his chin and then smiled again. One romantic evening, maybe a few gentle goodnight kisses – how much harm could that do? By this time tomorrow, she would be back in the bosom of her – grateful – with a slightly shamefaced glance at himself Kid added – RICH and grateful – family.

Thirty minutes later, smoothing down his curls and with a final satisfied smile in the mirror, Kid set off to enjoy a tender evening spent in the company of a beautiful, starry-eyed, adoring maiden. He knocked on the door of Alice’s suite.

“Come in, Thaddeus,” she trilled.

He went in. Alice looked at him. A silvery peal of girlish laughter rang out. She covered her mouth with her hand, eyes crinkled with amusement above it. Her shoulders shook. Kid blinked. He looked behind him for what was so funny. With a nervous glance down, he checked his fly. Everything seemed in order.

Alice saw the beginning of an annoyed expression on his face and swallowed down her giggles with an effort.

“Are you really going to wear that?” she managed, controlling herself, “I’m so sorry – I thought you’d put it on for a joke.”

“What’s wrong with it?” frowned Kid.

“Apart from the heinous cut, the execrable style, the egregious lapels and that gaudy braid trim –?” Alice blurted, “- Apart from that – nothing!” She grinned at his chagrined expression, with unfeigned cheerfulness. “Since it only fits where it touches – it’s just as well you’ve an excellent figure, Thaddeus!” Straightening one of the – apparently egregious – lapels, she glanced up roguishly, “Before you leave San Francisco, I’m taking you to Daddy’s tailor.” She looked at him, appraisingly, “You look handsome even in,” a snicker, ” –THAT. In a decent suit – you’ll be breathtaking!”

With that, she bounced out of the room, leaving a bemused Kid to follow in her wake. There had been such an amalgam of insult and compliment in the last thirty seconds, he was unsure how to react. At the same time, Alice was remembering her stepmother’s words, ‘grateful and admiring; stay with that’. Realising she had strayed from her script, Alice fluttered a worshipful look up at Kid and tucked her arm confidingly through his.

With a wry grin to himself, he looked down into that glowing, beautiful face, as the appealing smile trembled on those rose leaf lips. How naïve she was! How sweet! Like an innocent child, she just said whatever came into her head. Kid decided to dwell on the words ‘excellent figure’, ‘handsome’, and ‘breathtaking’. After all – even after his stay here and dinner for two – he would have plenty left to change the suit.

“Oh, Thaddeus – I’m so looking forward to this evening,” breathed Alice, lashes quivering. In a more natural tone, she asked, “Where shall we eat?” With a little skip of healthy appetite, she added with complete honesty, “I’m starving!”

This particular unfeminine admission did her no disservice whatsoever in Kid’s eyes. “I’m sure the food’s fine here,” smiled Kid, “- Afterwards, I thought we’d walk down to the bay. See how pretty the moonlight looks on the water. Course –” the smile widened, “- won’t be near as pretty as you!”

“Oh no!” protested Alice. Seeing him blink, she hurried on, “- That is – I’d love the moonlit stroll! But let’s dine at Chez Jules. Charles told me they’ve the most marvellous chef who actually trained under Jules Gouffé in France. And the wine cellar is reputed to be as fine as any you would find in the city.”

“Uh huh?” said Kid, wondering who the Sam Hill ‘Charles’ was. “How’s the steak?”

A fresh peal of silvery laughter floated in the air as they walked through the lobby.

“Oh Thaddeus! You are funny!”

-oooOOOooo-

A QUIET CORNER, OF A QUIET BAR, IN A NOISY CITY

“Don’t know ’bout you, Heyes, but I need to get the dust of the last week outta my throat,” said Harry, pouring the erstwhile leader of the Devil’s Hole gang, a shot of the finest straight Kentucky corn whiskey. “You see, I set out from San Francisco ’bout six or seven days ago. Went back to Hadleyburg. I’ve trailed through Arizona and Nevada since then.” He scowled at his companion, as he took a swallow of his own drink. “Then I find you less’n five hours from where I started!” Fixing an accusatory gaze on Heyes, he added, “Coulda saved myself a whole heap of trouble, if I’d known you were so close Heyes!”

“It was inconsiderate, Harry,” Heyes shook his head with mock apology. “How about Kid an’ I mail you a regular update on our itinerary?” he sipped his own drink, “If we send it – care of the Bannerman Office, Denver – that suit you?”

Harry drew his brows together for a few seconds considering this.

“Think that’d be a mite risky, Heyes…” Catching Heyes’ eye, the Bannerman realised he was being laughed at and subsided. He shifted in his seat. “How would you like to earn some big money, Heyes?”

“Kinda depends, Harry. How big – and doing what?”

“$2,500 maybe $5,000.”

“Doing what?”

“Something you’ll enjoy, Heyes. Be like – revisiting your days of glory.”

“Doing what, Harry?”

“Cracking the Brooker 606 in the Merchants’ National Bank!” Seeing Heyes’ expression, Harry rushed on, “Or, if you prefer – the Pierce and Hamilton 1880, Guardian B. In the Wells Fargo Building.” He leaned forward, eagerly, “You choose. Whichever you think you can manage Heyes. Course – if you crack the pair – we – I mean you – collect the full five thousand.” A beat. “Which one you gonna pick first, Heyes?”

The dark eyes met his.

“I’m not gonna pick either one, Harry. Aren’t you forgetting – I’m straight. I don’t steal for myself any more. I’m not real likely to start stealin’ to order.”

“Heyes – you don’t hafta steal so much as a cent! Just open ’em.” He thought for a moment, “‘Course you might wanna muss the contents. Show the owners you COULD rob ’em if you cared to.” Still staring at the ex-outlaw, he brought his face closer. Heyes drew back a touch. “If you manage it without dynamite, I don’t think it’s even a crime. Not breaking and entering if’n ya don’t break nothin’ – is it? Suppose it might be trespass – but ain’t that only a misdemeanour?”

Heyes blinked.

“Appreciate your faith in my knowledge of legal niceties, Harry. But –– the problems Kid and I had with the law tended to be kinda – clear cut.” Seeing Harry about to launch into fresh speech, the ex-outlaw forestalled him. “What’s the point of crackin’ a safe and leavin’ everything in place?”

“$2,500 apiece, Heyes. Ain’t that a point? Not to mention the – well, the personal satisfaction.” Harry gave a would-be persuasive smile, “You’re not telling me, part of you isn’t itchin’ to take a shot at it!” He laid a hand on Heyes’ shoulder, “Unless you think you haven’t so much as a chance – lost your touch – an’ you’d rather not try?”

He received a flash of anger from those dark eyes, before Heyes realised the ploy being used and the anger was replaced with a grin.

“Nice try, Harry! But still – no!” A remembrance of Harry’s words back at the station, made him frown. “You said you weren’t here on Bannerman business. You’re doing a private favour – for a friend?” Harry nodded, “This – friend – is he paying you to find me?” Harry shifted in his seat. “HARRY!” protested Heyes.

“He’s not after the bounty,” exclaimed Harry, “I SWEAR! An’ I never told him nothing. Not your alias. Not the amnesty deal. Nothing. Besides – he’s not interested. Be small change to him. I just said – I might be able to make you listen to his proposition. I have his word – it’s not a trap.” He met Heyes’ eyes, “I wouldn’t lead you into a trap – you know that Heyes. Besides if it was a trap – why not ask for both of you?”

Heyes considered that last question. It was a valid point. But still.

Sighing with impatience, he said, “I don’t believe you’d deliberately lead us into a trap Harry,” for a moment there was a shadow of the dangerous outlaw in his eyes, “think you know better than that. But – I’m not so sure you’d SEE a trap.” He glanced around at the few customers, clustered in small groups, at the distant bar. “What if you were followed?”

“Pfffttt!” scoffed Harry, “I’d like to see someone follow a Bannerman man without being spotted! We’re trained by experts, ya know Heyes!”

“Uh huh,” said Heyes, allowing the scepticism to show in his face.

“I’m sure, Heyes. I thought of that. Kept alert. No men followed me.”

This was true enough. No MEN had trailed Harry Briscoe at any stage.

“Besides, if it were a trap – and they were followin’ me – why not pick you up sooner? At the station. They know you ain’t likely to start any shootin’ – not with women and children around. Could have had you in jail by now.”

Heyes mused. Another valid point.

“No reason for the Governor ever to know!” wheedled Harry. Heyes gave him a questioning look. “Think – if you crack the Merchant’s National Bank – but take nothing – are they likely to shout it around they ain’t – safe?” Harry gave a grin. Heyes winced at the pun. “No!” exclaimed a delighted Harry, “They won’t want their customers knowin’ their security’s been blown. Won’t want them switchin’ banks.” He could see Heyes considering this. “Same goes for the Wells Fargo safe,” crowed Harry. “Long as nothing’s taken – think they’ll wanna make it public?”

Heyes pursed his lips and shrugged. He was not completely convinced – but perhaps Harry had made yet a third valid point.

“What do you think they would do?” asked Harry, smugly, “C’mon Heyes – you’re smart?”

Heyes searched. Warily he offered, “Maybe – get a better safe?”

“Exactly!” gloated Harry. “That’s what HE figured!”

“Who figured?”

“Theodore Pierce!” blurted Harry. He pressed shut his lips with a chagrined expression. It was clear his client was supposed to remain anonymous.

“Ever discrete, Harry,” grinned Heyes. “Who the Sam Hill is …” he tailed off. Light dawned. “As in – Pierce an’ Hamilton?” Still annoyed with himself, Harry nodded. “He wants to pay me – to crack his own safe?” went on Heyes, in disbelief.

“Well, no!” temporised Harry, “He wants to pay you to crack the Brooker 606. Ya see Heyes,” he leaned forward, “- before you reformed, there was a nice – even – pattern. You’d crack a Brooker. Brooker customers would upgrade to the latest Pierce and Hamilton. You’d crack that – they’d switch back to an improved Brooker model. Nice steady business all round. Your goin’ straight – has kinda had repercussions on the security equipment trade.”

Heyes blinked at the reproachful look.

“Guess Kid an’ I were just thoughtless, huh?”

“Can’t be helped,” forgave Harry, “Even you can’t think of everythin’ Heyes.”

“If this – Theodore Pierce – is funding a, strictly not-for-profit, break in at the Merchant’s National,” asked Heyes, “- how come I get $2,500 for the Wells Fargo safe too?” Harry looked sheepish. He said nothing. “Harry,” said Heyes, “- have you got TWO new friends?” The sheepishness increased. Harry looked positively – ovine. “Barnabas Benjamin Beauregard Brooker?” hazarded Heyes.

“Just – Henry!” bleated Harry, “- but I didn’t tell you that one!”

“And does either of ’em know you’ve taken the other’s money?” pressed Heyes. Harry hung his head. “That was a mistake, Harry,” sniffed Heyes. “I mean – even if you’d talked me into this – which you haven’t – that would have been a mistake. Always a mistake to be too greedy.”

Harry looked up, the truth of this written on his face.

“I just couldn’t believe it, Heyes!” he said. “Couldn’t believe it when I got a wire from Pierce, offering expenses and a fee just to come hear about a private job. Then – before I set out – I got more or less the same message from some clerk working for Brooker.” He took a rueful swallow of his drink and poured another, “You know I’m not a rich man, Heyes. Couldn’t bear to turn either one down.”

“Did you tell either of ’em you thought you’d found me?” snapped Heyes, his eyes searching Harry’s.

Harry shook his head.

“Didn’t even make contact on the return journey,” he said, “I didn’t want to count my chickens.”

After another searching glance, Heyes gave a satisfied nod. He believed him.

“Keep it that way, Harry,” he said, tersely, “- You’re real sorry, but you’ve not managed to track me down. Understand?”

Harry looked into the dark eyes that could so quickly glitter with danger, he gulped and nodded.

“Think it over, Heyes,” he urged, “- it’s not – stealing. An’ I saw your face when I mentioned the safes. You know you want to!”

Heyes shifted in his seat. There was more truth in there than he cared to admit.

“Tell you what Harry,” he said. “It’s still no!” Harry slumped, “But maybe there’s some other way to make your – generous friends – happy. Here’s what we’ll do – to help me – think it over …”

-oooOOOooo-

A CANDLELIT NOOK

Glancing around, Kid Curry mentally doubled what dinner was going to cost. As the waiter swept a snowy white napkin across Alice’s lap, with a Gallic shrug and a sigh of “Mam’zelle”, which managed to be both reverent and continentally louche, Kid tripled his estimate. Still – he had no complaints about the décor, nor the ambiance. As for the company, Kid was not blind to the envious glances from every other man in the room as he escorted Alice to their table. Her hair gleamed in the candlelight, the flickering shadows played across her damask cheek, her eyes danced with animation as they caught the glow.

“I could eat a horse!” she exclaimed, as she swept her gaze around the room, lingering for a moment on a neighbouring diner’s entrée.

“So could I!” agreed Kid. A sudden doubt assailed him, as he recalled one of the few facts he knew about French cuisine. He shook his head. It was just a figure of speech. A mental beat. He hoped it was just a figure of speech.

A second waiter, trained beyond the napkin flouncing stage, oozed up to the couple.

“Le menu, Mam’zelle, et – voila M’sieur,”

Kid looked at the fine calligraphy, he blinked.

“It’s all in Fre…” He stopped. He met two enquiring faces, beginning to crease into sneers of Gallic distain. Kid was perfectly capable of dealing with ordinary, home grown sneering. But Parisians have distain down to such a fine art! Both men facing him had practised their whole lives. From the first time they turned up their noses, with a contemptuous sniff, when offered carelessly presented bread and milk as infants in arms.

Kid had no desire to spoil the mood. Besides, standing up and letting his hand hover dangerously over his gun might – just – be considered an overreaction to haughty service in a restaurant. He looked over at Alice. She was giving her own menu undivided attention. The pink tip of her tongue emerged to lick those – delicious looking – lips.

“Tell you what,” smiled Kid, handing his own menu back. “I’ll have whatever the lady chooses.”

“D’accord, M’sieur.”

The waiter turned with a bow to Alice. Taking a breath, Alice began. Kid was pleased to see the disdain wiped off the faces. In fact – watching the waiters’ eyes open – Kid wondered what she was actually ordering. Senior waiter’s hands clapped. Junior waiter scurried away. He returned with a white-hatted figure, swelling with indignation. A sentence or two of fluent French, another basilisk stare; all indignation left the commis chef du poisson. He wrung his hands, bowing and nodding obsequiously, before returning, a chastened man, to his kitchen.

Alice fluttered the most angelic of sweet smiles at Kid.

“I love lobster – don’t you Thaddeus? But one has to be very firm. I insist on HEN-lobster, under 40 ounces in weight uncooked – to ensure I receive the sweetest flesh.”

“Uh huh,” Kid managed.

The senior of the two waiters gestured to a third, superior figure, who in turn floated gracefully up to the table. The sommelier, with a flourish, presented a leather bound tome.

“La carte du vins, M’sieur,” he breathed. His two colleagues bowed their heads, reverently.

Kid looked at it. He made what he thought an error proof decision.

“Why don’t we push the boat out?” he offered, “Have champagne.”

“Oooh, yes!” trilled Alice, “Don’t let me drink too much though, Thaddeus! The bubbles go straight to my head. I might need to hang on very tight during that moonlit stroll!”

Kid smiled at her, “Not a problem, Alice.”

“Champagne du maison, M’sieur? Or – per’aps M’sieur prefers – ze Moët?”

“Oh, I’m sure M’sieur prefers neither!” pouted Alice, “I like Krug best – don’t you agree, Thaddeus?”

“Er…” Kid met the sommelier’s eye, “Do you have any….”

“Krug,” supplied Alice.

“Krug?” finished Kid.

“Bien sur, M’sieur!” beamed the sommelier. The width of the beam caused Kid to revise upwards, yet again, the hole this evening would make in the remains of his share of Heyes’ winnings at Colorado Springs.

Left alone, the couple smiled at each other. Kid reached across and gently took Alice’s hand. She looked at him thoughtfully. She decided to make the best use she could of the evening.

“Thaddeus…” she began.

“Uh huh?”

“You must have known a lot of – girls?”

“Can’t recall a single one of ’em – now I’m here with you.”

“Suppose you were – in love – with a beautiful girl…”

“I can suppose that very easily, Alice!”

“And she – she loved you back.”

Kid smiled, and very gently squeezed the small hand held in his.

“But – you were worried you weren’t good enough for her. No – that’s the wrong word. You were worried because her family was rich – and you knew they’d want her to marry somebody who was also rich. Someone – with background – connections. You know?”

Kid looked at her tenderly. He thought he knew where this was going.

Their wine arrived. The label was shown to Kid. It certainly said – ‘Krug’. He nodded. The cork whispered from the bottle. An inch of golden liquid was poured into Kid’s glass. The wine waiter stepped back and folded his hands respectfully. He waited. Kid tasted the wine. Sunlight and joy danced across his taste buds. Light skipped over his grateful tongue. Alice had taste! Expensive taste maybe – but taste! He drained his glass.

“M’sieur ees ‘appy?”

“Yup!” confirmed Kid. “M’sieur is!”

As both flutes were filled, the first course was delivered. For a minute their table was a flurry of activity and silverware.

Once they were left in quiet, Alice, making lavish use of the hollandaise ladle, asked, “What was I saying, Thaddeus?”

“You were talking about problems that might come up if you -” Kid gave a modest smile, “developed – feelings – for a man your family didn’t approve of.”

“So I was!” She puckered her brow, “No cutlery with asparagus, Thaddeus. Just fingers.”

Kid blinked. Most girls for whom he bought dinner did not issue ad-hoc etiquette lessons during the meal. However, he put down his knife and fork. He watched Alice pick up the first of her own spears, lift her chin and taking the tip and part of the stalk into her mouth, close her eyes in pleasure as she savoured it.

“Mmmm,” she purred, “This IS good, Thaddeus!” She licked the buttery sauce from her fingers, with quick little, feline darts of her tongue, before selecting a second plump, moist spear.

Kid forgot any momentary annoyance. He shifted in his seat and crossed his legs.

“Would you like mine, too?” he offered, hopefully, his voice gruff.

Taking a sucked clean thumb from between her lips, Alice widened her eyes.

“That’s very kind! But I couldn’t just let you watch, while I eat both portions!”

“My pleasure,” insisted Kid. Under his breath, he added, “- Trust me!”

He became aware that he was not alone in watching Alice. He directed a cold blue stare first at a pair of gawping, dandified customers at a nearby table; then at napkin waiter, who was wearing an expression full of all the dumb yearning possible in a grown man of twenty-two.

“What’s wrong, Thaddeus?” asked Alice, pouring sauce on Kid’s pushed over plate.

Having ensured all other male eyes were peeled off, Kid returned his own gaze to his dinner companion.

“Nothing,” he smiled. “Do go on.”

“You see, I’m Daddy’s only child. He wants me to make a good match,” another buttery tip was captured by the pink tongue. “He worries men might – you know – be interested in my expectations, because he will settle a lot of money on me when I marry. And when he dies, I’ll inherit most of the rest.” She sucked her fingers clean again, with a long drawn out ‘Mmm’ of pure pleasure. “Not that I want Daddy to die! I’m very, very fond of him, Thaddeus. But he does SO like having his own way!”

Kid smiled. The source of one inherited trait was cleared up.

“There is ONE man Daddy WOULD like me to marry – Charles…” she caught herself up, “… I won’t tell you his surname, because it’s not ladylike to talk about men you’ve refused. He is QUITE nice actually.”

“Uh huh?” Kid leaned back to allow a fresh flurry of plate clearing.

“Not that Daddy is trying to force me into marriage with anyone in particular. He’d be quite happy if I waited until I was older. AND there are – oh, five or six – out of the other gentlemen who have proposed, that Daddy would be more than pleased to welcome into the family.”

Kid blinked.

“Most men are so silly!” pronounced Alice, pityingly. “They think just because you smile at them, dance with them and let them pay a few compliments, you’re smitten! I don’t want a man who only knows how to talk. He has to be practical, self sufficient…”

The trace of a satisfied smile played across Kid’s face.

“I can’t see it matters if he’s from, well – from an ordinary background,” declared Alice.

Kid shook his head in agreement, struggling to crack a lobster claw. Alice whipped the implement from his hand and gave a deft flick of her dainty wrist. The shell yielded at once in the presence of authority. Kid’s hand received a friendly pat, as the silverware was handed back.

“Do you think -” asked Alice, confidingly, “- If I was rescued from dire peril, Daddy would be softened toward the man who saved me?”

“Could be,” smiled Kid. He looked with pleasure at Alice’s glowing eyes. How grateful she was for his service that afternoon. He hoped she would not be too disappointed when he had to say goodbye.

“OR -” went on Alice, musingly, “- Suppose Daddy thought I’d fallen for someone REALLY unsuitable. I mean – ridiculously unsuitable. Like an outl…” she stopped herself, “Like an out…rageously obvious debauchee?”

Kid blinked again. The scenario was taking a path he had not expected.

“THEN,” continued Alice, “- Do you think Daddy would be so relieved when I gave HIM up – he’d jump at the chance of an honest, decent, clever, hard-working son-in-law?”

Kid gave a wry smile at adjective ‘hard-working’, he was not sure he deserved that one. As for ‘honest’ – well, he had been straight for just over a year – so, perhaps. He gave a ‘maybe’ shrug in answer to Alice’s questioning look.

“Of course,” admitted Alice, “Daddy’s not the only problem.” She poked one of her own recalcitrant claws into submission with a sharp spike. “You see, if a man I cared for – you know – ruined me,” she gave Kid a meaning look, he cast an anxious glance round, to check no-one was listening, “- then Daddy would HAVE to let us be married. BUT…” she sighed, “…if he were too chivalrous and honourable, well – that’d never happen!”

Kid captured her hand and squeezed it very gently. Looking into her eyes, he said, with some regret, “I think it’s probably for the best, Alice.”

She sighed, “Maybe.” Her eyes widened in surprise, as Kid tenderly kissed her fingers, before releasing them. Taking her hand back to the important task of disposing of every last morsel of lobster, before the boeuf en croute arrived, Alice gave him a rather perfunctory smile.

“Suppose, Thaddeus, another man was holding your beloved captive. A man with a bad reputation – who might subject her to – to a fate worse than death. Would you rescue her? Scorning danger and the opinion of the world? Setting aside – everything else – as you thought of her fragile loveliness in peril?”

“I’d try and rescue – any woman in danger,” said Kid, a little confused again by the direction of the hypothetical questions.

“And when you did – might you be – overcome with passion? Might you sweep her up in your arms, consume her with flaming kisses, press her against you – squeeze the breath from her heaving bosom? Might you determine to – to abandon all delay and hasten to make her yours forever, to protect her from the lures and entrapments of other men?”

Kid closed his mouth, which had begun to gape.

“Erm…” he floundered, “… I never really thought about it,” he managed, thinking about it now.

The entrée arrived. Watching a trickle of blood as it was carved, Alice’s eyes glittered.

“Yum,” she said, with relish, draining her glass, “- nice and pink. Just like I ordered.”

A patisserie trolley rolled past. Her eyes followed it. “Oooh … look at that mille-feuille … and those profiteroles … they look irresistible! But I WAS going to try one of the iced soufflés!” She grinned, mischievously at him, “The agony of choice, Thaddeus!”

“Why not some of each?” he asked, teasingly.

“Thaddeus – thank you!” she beamed, “Lovely – I shall barely have room for the petit fours!”

Kid was torn between admiration and bewilderment. As his eyes, once again, took in her elfin slenderness, he could not help but wonder – where was she putting it all?

“Oh, Thaddeus.”

He pulled his gaze back up to her face, which was wearing that familiar, enchanting look of appeal.

“Uh huh?”

She fluttered, “Don’t you need to order another bottle?”

-oooOOOooo-

BACK ON NOB HILL

In his study, Theodore Pierce mulled over the final plans for his stand at the Exhibition of Innovation. Poor sales figures danced though his mind. He sighed. His complaint to his wife that ‘he would be ruined’, had been a gross exaggeration. But still, there were two elements in his life that drove his living expenses well above the ordinary. He could not envisage his lovely helpmeet agreeing to forego a single one of the spacious rooms she had planned for their second home out at the Heights. Nor did he, for one second, imagine that when she spoke of ‘simple rustic charm’ for the furnishings, ‘simple’ meant cheap.

His head jerked up. Was that a stealthy footstep behind him? Soft hands reached round and covered his eyes.

“Guess who?” purred a familiar contralto voice.

He caught the hands in his.

“Grace!” he exclaimed, “I didn’t expect you and Alice back yet!”

“We ran into the Merediths. They are having a house party down at their place on the coast. I thought you wouldn’t mind if Alice joined it. She’s staying with them for a few days.” She smiled, “You don’t mind?”

Her husband looked surprised.

“I thought Alice called Mrs. Meredith strict, stuffy and her house-parties the dullest weekends she’s ever spent?”

“Ah – but THIS weekend, they are having a masked ball! You know how much she loves dressing up! AND they mean to have dancing on the lawns – to take advantage of the full moon. Alice is planning a costume as Artemis the moon Goddess.”

“How much is that going to cost me?” he asked.

“Not as much as you might think, darling. She is so happy with her Grecian knot hairstyle and how wonderful she looks in a simple white column, that she easily agreed the accoutrements would be fine in just papier mache with silver paint.”

“So – why are you here?” he asked.

“Darling!” she pouted, “- That’s not much of a welcome home!” She slid onto his lap, “Aren’t you pleased to see me?”

He gulped, reddening, as her finger slid down his spine.

“You know I am. BUT,” he said, reasonably, “You love new dresses, dancing and … well … being the belle of the ball, quite as much as Alice. Why not go to the Merediths’ too?”

“Perhaps I couldn’t stay away,” she murmured, close to his ear. Her mouth did not move away. Feeling a gentle nip to his earlobe, Theo Pierce blinked. He checked the calendar – no, not his birthday. “I brought you a present,” she continued, dove soft, pressing a tissue wrapped parcel into his hand.

“YOU bought ME a present?” he exclaimed. He pulled open the tissue. A nightgown made of layers of gauzy chiffon in every shade of sea green from palest aqua to deepest turquoise tumbled over his knees.

“I’m going to look pretty silly in this,” he smiled.

Grace smiled back.

“Do you think – maybe – it would suit me, instead?” she asked, raising one finely arched brow.

Her husband glanced down at the flimsy garment. Even under its multiple gossamer layers, he could see the back of his hand like – well, like the back of his hand. He looked up at his beautiful young wife. He nodded, hopefully.

“I thought it might be the perfect thing to wear, when we sit on the balcony of our room, out at the Heights – watching the waves,” she smiled. “Once it’s built,” she added.

Theodore Pierce’s face fell.

“Are you planning on saving – it – until then?”

“Wee..eell,” she said, lashes lowering, as she stroked a length of filmy insubstantiality across his hand, “Since it was a present for you – I thought you might like me to try it on tonight?” There was another gulp, followed by another eager nod.

“Give me fifteen minutes,” she smiled, standing up. At the door of the study, she turned. “Oh, Theo, darling,” she said, making a pretty moue.

“Yes?”

“You won’t mind if tomorrow, I disappear for a while – to choose some furniture – for the new house.”

A hasty shake of the head.

“And, I simply must find time for fittings with my dressmaker – my summer wardrobe needs updating – you understand?”

“Anything!” he said.

She smiled and swept out of the room.

-oooOOOooo-

THE HOTEL DEL MONTE – Sometime before 11pm

“Oh Thaddeus,” beamed Alice, at the door of her suite, “I had a wonderful evening, thank you!” She switched off the beam for a moment, “Except for the desk clerk saying they do not serve mixed berries with honey for breakfast. How DARE he argue with me?”

“He didn’t argue long!” ventured Kid, who had felt for the youth.

“I wouldn’t have said a WORD, if he had offered a reasonable alternative immediately!”

“Woulda been the first time all evenin’,” said Kid, under his breath.

“What was that, Thaddeus?”

“Nothing,” he answered, quickly.

He had thought Hannibal Heyes could talk. Now he was beginning to think, wistfully, of his partner as a relatively taciturn companion – with pauses. He was also now considering that if the governor never came through with amnesty; rather than learn Spanish and go south, he would learn French and open a fancy restaurant. It clearly combined the rewards of daylight robbery with the advantage of being – technically – honest. With a smile, Kid pushed away that thought. He had enjoyed every mouthful – so perhaps it was a shade – grudging – to dwell on the shock he had received unfolding the bill.

His eyes dwelt on Alice. Talkative certainly, but breathtakingly lovely; and she had – vitality. A girl who displayed a healthy enjoyment of food and wine; but could still bounce energetically, rather than stroll sedately across the beach. She had turned away, with a display of modest confusion, when he had lowered his face towards hers in the moonlight and Kid – not a man to press an unwelcome attention – had drawn back at once. But now, standing in her doorway, she beamed up at him, those enchantingly moulded lips a little parted – invitingly.

Gently pushing back a strand of that glorious golden hair, Kid leaned forward.

“Goodnight Thaddeus,” came Alice’s light-hearted voice.

Kid had cause to be thankful for his well-honed quick draw reflexes as he whipped his fingers away from the slamming door. He stared at the painted wood, two inches from his nose. Without in any way thinking she owed him a goodnight kiss – that had been a touch – abrupt!

Turning, he took a few steps towards the stairs to his own room. A sound behind him caused him to wheel around. Alice stood, once again in the doorway, a vision in her simple white dress.

“Oh Thaddeus,” she trilled.

Kid, smiling to himself, made his way back.

“Yes, Alice?”

“I forgot – I have no maid here. Could you possibly undo the hooks at the top of my dress. Just the first two – the rest are easy.” She presented her back.

“I think I can manage that,” smiled Kid, amused by the ruse. He allowed his hand to gently linger on the nape of that lily-white neck. “I’m glad you called me back, Alice.”

She turned around.

“Why?”

“Because I didn’t get a chance to say – goodnight – properly before.”

She smiled with unalloyed, friendliness, as he moved his face towards hers.

“Oh? Well – now you have. So that’s alright.”

This time the door did actually catch him, as it swung back into its frame. Rubbing tomorrow’s bruise and hearing the lock turn, Kid gave a resigned shrug. At least he knew for sure she was not trying to seduce him, then take advantage of – a vulnerable moment – to hand him over to the law. Every cloud has a silver lining.

-oooOOOooo-

MEANWHILE – BACK IN THE PIERCE RESIDENCE

Theodore Pierce watched five of his fifteen-minute wait tick by on the study clock, as he tidied away his plans, locking the polished walnut desk. About to head for bathroom, toothbrush and eau de cologne, he heard the sound of voices at the front door. The voices ceded to the measured tread of his butler. Before he had time to finish the thought, ‘Who the Sam Hill can that be, at this hour?’ Barrymore, appeared in the doorway.

“Mr…” the suggestion of a sneer in the voice, “…Briscoe, has called, Sir. With another…” the most delicate of insinuating pauses, “…gentleman. Are you at home?”

The manufacturer wavered, shooting a longing glance at the banister’s curving sweep upstairs. But – he was eager for any news. He nodded.

“Show them in.” Pierce wondered, as footsteps approached. ‘Another gentleman’ – it could not be? Surely not? HE would not come – here?

HE had not.

“This is a colleague of mine – Carl Grant,” declared Harry, his voice a shade overloud with would-be confidence, for the elegant surroundings. Wiping it first on his hip, Harry held out his hand a little too eagerly, smiling a little too obsequiously at his rich client. Theodore Pierce barely touched the proffered – still moist – palm, his eyes not leaving the dark-eyed stranger, standing by the study door, brown derby in hand.

Harry pressed on.

“Mr. Grant is also – interested – in taking private commissions when not fully engaged on Bannerman business.”

Pierce continued to look at the newcomer.

“Uh huh?” Not exactly hostile, but without enthusiasm.

“You see – Grant has spent most of his career at the Fort Worth office. He specialises in – security. He knows more about safety measures at the Bank of Fort Worth than any man living! He influenced the owners to put most of ’em in place,” enthused Harry. The slim young man by the door lowered his eyes, giving a modest, self-deprecating smile and shrug. “He could draw you a floor plan of that Bank, so exact – you’d find a dropped pin in the dark, wearing baseball gloves,” went on Harry.

“Uh huh?”

“Probably do it blindfold!” His companion shot Harry a look. No need to overdo it – even if it did happen to be true. Harry subsided.

“Uh huh?” said Theodore Pierce for the third time. A beat. He cleared his throat. “Well – that’s very interesting Mr. – er…?”

“Grant,” supplied Harry.

“Mr. Grant. Although I’m always delighted to help the Fort Worth Bank with any – equipment requirements – it is not really – relevant – to my business with Mr. Briscoe.” He turned his eyes back to Harry. “Have you managed to – recover the missing item?” he asked.

“Not yet, no,” said Harry, keeping his gaze firmly on his client and resisting the urge to glance at the man behind him. “Still looking of course – following leads.”

“In that case, gentlemen, if you’ll excuse me? It’s late – I must be getting…”

Harry did now take a quick look at his companion. Seeing a compelling ‘go on’ message, he interrupted Pierce.

“You don’t understand,” he blurted. “Mr. Grant’s knowledge could be just what you need. Amongst we Bannerman men – it’s generally understood Hannibal Heyes has a special fascination with the Bank at Fort Worth. Always kinda saw it as a special challenge. Grant here – he’s studied every safe job the Devil’s Hole Gang pulled. In particular, he’s studied Heyes’ methods – tryin’ to ensure the security at Fort Worth stayed one step ahead.” Harry drew breath, before continuing with his brief, “Grant’s been workin’ on second guessin’ what Heyes might pull for the last five or six years.”

Theodore Pierce frowned. “You mean,” he hazarded, again looking at the dark-eyed, modestly reticent young man, “- he thinks like Hannibal Heyes?”

The man introduced as Carl Grant cleared his throat.

“Let’s say, I know better than most – how that larcenous rogue’s mind works.”

“So… you might be able to find him?” hesitated Pierce, sitting down and gesturing for the others to do the same.

“No,” was the simple reply. “If I could do that – I’d quit the agency and turn bounty hunter.” The safe manufacturer looked confused. “You see, Mr. Pierce, I’ve spent a lot of my time checking out the security of – safes, for the banks. Especially – the bank of Fort Worth. An’ as you know – it’s had a few over the years. Sometimes one of yours. Sometimes a Brooker.” A beat. Still lingering confusion. “You only want Hannibal Heyes as a means to an end, am I right? If someone else cracked – just hypothetically – the Brooker 606 in the Merchants’ National Bank, would you care?”

“No. Except – I might buy him a drink.” The dark young man grinned, flashing bright teeth and dimpling in amusement. “I’m sure it’d be the best whiskey in the house, Mr. Pierce. But a drink is not exactly what’s in my mind. Would you still be offerin’ the $2,500 you were offerin’ to Hannibal Heyes?”

“$5,000,” corrected Pierce. Two deep brown eyes flashed a reproach at a reddening Harry Briscoe. Theodore Pierce went on, “Are you sayin’ – you can crack the Brooker 606?”

“No,” came the answer, “I’m sayin’ – I’ll start thinkin’ hard how it might be done. Heyes isn’t the only safecracker around. There are places in this city where you might find a man – with skills.”

“Not like Heyes!” protested Pierce, “- He was the best.”

“Pfffttt! Most times – he was lucky. You don’t wanna believe all you read,” said the young man, “Not saying he wasn’t good – but, if I manage to come up with a method…” He let the idea linger. “Do you agree – the fee is for the task – not the man?” he checked.

Pierce nodded.

Heyes cleared his throat.

“This – Brooker 606,” he asked, with a mildly interested lift of the eyebrow, “I don’t suppose it has anything in common – with your own 1880 Guardian B model launched around the same time?”

Pierce began to fume.

“That skunk Brooker… always stealing all our best ideas … man’s nothing but a common thief!”

Heyes let the grumble die away to a low murmur. No need to labour the point. After a moment or two, a bright idea struck Theodore Pierce. “First thing tomorrow morning, come to the works,” he offered, “I’ll have our engineers take you through the shared features.”

Heyes gave an acquiescent smile.

“Whatever you suggest, Mr Pierce.”

“As a plan B -” the safe manufacturer turned to Harry Briscoe, “- Are you continuing to track Heyes?”

“Sure,” exclaimed Harry, “- And you know what, Mr. Pierce? I think I’m real close!”

Suddenly, light foot-steps sounded on the stairs.

“Darling!” exclaimed Theodore Pierce, rising to his feet, as the door opened.

Heyes thought the man was unlikely to appreciate the hungry-eyed, open-mouthed gawping from Harry, who was also facing the door, at what was obviously, from the greeting, Mrs. Pierce. He rose, politely, from his own chair and turned. Heyes’ mouth dropped open. He gawped. Oblivious to the glare directed at him by Theodore Pierce he stared, incredulous, at the vision in the doorway. She was wrapped in a dressing gown of vivid Chinese silk. Embroidered velvet slippers and just a whisper of sea-green chiffon peeped out at the ankle. Her glorious titian hair was loosed down her back. She was undeniably very lovely. This explained why Harry was doing an impression of a cod-fish. Heyes was gawping for the simple reason he recognised her – and worse – she recognised him. They knew each other. Knew each other – intimately!

Grace experienced her own moment of open-mouthed shock. Never for one moment had she expected Heyes to walk calmly into her home. Nor to see him face to face in the presence of her besotted meal ticket for life. Drawing on all her years of living by her wits, she recovered her poise and stepped forward.

“I’m so sorry, Darling,” she said, “I had no idea you were engaged with visitors.”

“This is Mr. Briscoe,” introduced Pierce, “- And Mr. Grant,” still wearing a glower, “Gentlemen – my WIFE!” The emphasis on the last word got through, even to Harry. He shut his mouth and did his best to wipe off the yearning expression. Heyes had already returned to a blandly smiling poker-face.

“Mr. Briscoe; Mr. – Grant,” repeated Grace, in response to two polite nods.

“You remember, darling,” went on Pierce, “I spoke about having a – a business commission for Mr. Briscoe?” She nodded. “Mr. Grant is going to assist Mr. Briscoe,” explained her husband, “He is an expert. Probably knows nearly as much about safes as –” he searched, “- as I do!”

“Surely not, Darling!” protested Grace, with a quick glance at Heyes.

Grace kept her face serene, but Heyes saw a shadow flicker in those bright eyes. Worries about possible revelations flitted behind that lovely face. Practically everything in what Alice referred to in capital letters as her – PAST – was secret from her husband. In particular the men. He confidently believed there were none, save for the respectable, deceased – (in truth, never living) – Mr. Turner.

“Famous for it!” put in Harry. Seeing one finely arched eyebrow raised, he temporised, “Well – famous amongst us at the Agency.”

“Well,” smiled Grace, “I hope, Darling, if he’s going to work on your – wonderful safes, I hope Mr. …”

“Grant,” supplied Harry.

“I hope Mr. Grant knows how to be – discrete,” she cast Heyes a look, with just a hint of entreaty.

“I’m always discrete, ma-am,” smiled Heyes, with a bow. “I consider it – one of the most important qualities in a gentleman.”

“In a lady, too,” answered Grace, with the smallest of return bows. She did not really fear Heyes would use a ‘kiss and tell’ threat unless pushed. But his answer was still most welcome. She looked from one man to the next, expectantly.

Heyes cleared his throat. To Theodore Pierce he said, “I was just about to say, Mr. Pierce. To carry out the task we discussed, Mr. Briscoe and I may have to make contact with the Brooker company. If we visit Mr. Brooker, you’ll know why. We’ll come up with some plausible ruse.”

Pierce shrugged. It sounded reasonable. Presumably, Grant meant to get a close look at a Brooker 606.

A mischievous look came over Grace’s face.

“Oh! But…” she covered her mouth with her hand, prettily.

“Go on, Darling,” encouraged her husband.

She fluttered her lashes at him and glanced at Heyes.

“If Mr. Grant is so well known as an expert in safes – especially at Fort Worth – where Brooker has done a lot of business recently – don’t you think…?”

“Don’t we think – what – ma-am?” said Heyes, giving her a warning look.

“Don’t you think – someone at the Brooker office might – recognise his name?” she finished, eyes appealingly feminine, as she gazed up at Pierce.

“Er… maybe,” hesitated Pierce.

“I think Mr. Grant should use an alias!” decided Grace, with a wide smile.

“Er… ma-am,” began Heyes.

“I insist, Darling!” she beamed. “I always want to help the business. You know that. This would make me…” she laid a hand softly on her husband’s shirtfront, “… happy. I couldn’t relax if Mr. Grant used his real name. It would bring on my headaches.” She pouted, “You don’t want that – do you, Darling?”

“Grant,” said Theodore Pierce, decisively, “You’re using an alias!”

“Uh huh?” said Heyes.

“Something very simple for the surname, I think,” mused Grace, “- And something from the bible for the Christian name, to inspire – trust!” Finger to her lips she pondered, “Maybe….”

“Josh…” began Heyes, grateful to Grace for simplifying Harry’s memory task.

“Thaddeus Jones!” she exclaimed, triumphantly. “What do you think, Darling?”

Theodore Pierce, determined NOTHING was giving Grace a headache tonight, spoke firmly to his dark-eyed young guest.

“From now on – you answer to Thaddeus Jones!”

“Huh?” bleated Harry, astonished at the co-incidence.

“Uh huh,” sighed Heyes, astonished he had not seen it coming.

“Well,” beamed Grace, “- I’ll leave you men to your business.” At the door, she flashed a last look over her shoulder, “Don’t be too long, Darling.”

There was a short pause.

Harry looked pole-axed. Heyes was almost sure he could hear the wheels turning as the Bannerman tried to figure out how Mrs. Pierce had plucked the name ‘Thaddeus Jones’ from thin air.

The ex-outlaw cleared his throat.

“I think we were about done, Mr. Pierce. Mr. Briscoe an’ I will leave you to enjoy what’s left of your evenin’. We’ll report back if and when there are any – developments.” To Harry, he said, “Let’s go back to the hotel.”

Heyes had no intention of putting the future hospitality of Soapy Saunders at risk, by introducing a Bannerman into his household.

Pierce nodded.

“Tomorrow – change hotels. This time, make sure YOU do it under the right name – Mr. Jones. Can’t do any harm – and it’s a small thing to ask if it makes a lady happy.”

Harry walked out into the hallway. He felt he could not get into the cool of the night air quickly enough. Heyes followed, to be called back by the safe manufacturer.

“Er…Gran… I mean Mr. Jones,”

“Uh huh?”

“Something you said earlier – is worrying me.”

“Uh huh?”

“You said – if YOU could find Hannibal Heyes, you’d turn bounty hunter.”

Heyes looked at him, meditatively and waited for more.

A faint flush showed on Theodore Pierce’s fleshy cheek.

“I gave my word – to Briscoe here. It’s what made him even listen to me. I told him he could assure Heyes, if he tracked him down – this isn’t a trap. There’s no question of me double crossing him. If he gets caught in the attempt – that’s a risk he’s used to running. His choice. But I’m not interested in the bounty. Hope that goes for you too?”

A long beat. Heyes flashed a glance at Harry. He decided he would not be too hard – after all – on the man for trying to swindle him out of half the fee.

He looked back at Pierce and gave a light laugh.

“I can appreciate if a man gives his word to an honest citizen – he should keep it. But giving your word to an outlaw – does that really mean a darn thing?”

The flush deepened a shade. Theodore Pierce looked as if he were ashamed of being thought – sentimental.

“I realise the commission I’ve given you gentleman is not – exactly – above board. But that’s business. If it goes right – no one gets hurt. And it’s nothing that skunk Brooker wouldn’t do himself, if he had the brains to think of it.”

Harry shifted his eyes to his boots and shuffled his feet at this.

Pierce went on, seriously, “But a man’s word – that’s different. Whoever it is given to – it has to count for something. Or else – he’s not a man at all. If Briscoe comes through and succeeds in tracking Heyes – this is not a trap. Do you understand me – Mr. …Jones?”

Heyes looked down for a moment, before meeting the man’s eyes, a warmth in his own gaze that had not been there before.

“Yes, Mr. Pierce. I think I do.”

-oooOOOooo-

Watching the two men depart, Theodore Pierce jotted a quick memorandum to himself, before heading upstairs.

“Pinker to make – discrete – check. Does Bannerman agency have a Carl Grant on staff – Fort Worth office?”

-oooOOOooo-

Heyes stepped out on to the street and glanced back at the imposing mansion behind him. Grace had not done too badly for herself. And he did not just mean – materially.

“Heyes,” breathed Harry, “How the Sam Hill did she come up with that name? That was – uncanny.” No answer. “Heyes, tell me it was a co-incidence. Please.” No answer. Harry scampered beside the striding Heyes. He stared at the ex-outlaw’s face as well as he could, moving at speed, below the yellow light of the street lamps. “Heyes – do you know her?” An annoyed glance was cast. A certain – dangerous edge – to the annoyance caused a sudden additional suspicion to sweep over Harry. He caught Heyes by the shoulder and pulled him round. “Heyes,” he gasped, wide-eyed, “- You’re not telling me you actually, y’know – KNEW her? I mean knew HER?”

Heyes kept his poker face as he first stared at the mixture of disbelief and sheer, unadulterated envy written all over the Bannerman’s face; then dropped his eyes wordlessly to the grip on his shoulder. Harry took the hint and snatched his hand away as though scorched.

Heyes met his eyes.

“I’ll tell you one thing Harry…”

“Yeah?” urged Harry, clearly hoping for something – juicy.

“If you don’t drop this subject now – an’ never bring it up again – you and I will be taking a walk to the docks – and you – will be taking a refreshing dip in the water. To quote the man we’ve just left – do you understand me?”

Harry gulped and nodded.

“Sure Heyes.”

“An’ – for Pete’s sake – will you try an’ get my name right?”

“Sure, Joshua. I mean – Grant. I mean…”

“Tell you what Harry. Would it make it easier, if – for the duration – you referred to me as, ‘that other fella’?”

-oooOOOooo-

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