6. Chapter 6

THE VAULT OF THE MERCHANTS’ NATIONAL BANK – THURSDAY NIGHT

Heyes stared, disgruntled, at the safe confronting him. Admittedly her beauty, surely unequalled even by Helen on the ramparts, met his most demanding expectations. Silk smooth, her metal skin shimmered softly in the romantic glow of his safety lamps. Her handle, polished mirror-bright, beckoned. He saw his own eyes reflected back, their dark depths yearning in anticipation. His tapered fingers felt the familiar – itch, as an exquisitely curved dial whispered seductively, ‘stroke me, Heyes – you know you want to’. The long-missed siren voice sang to him – ‘let me open to you, beloved!’ The only thing amiss with his inamorata was the flourishing paintwork gleaming in scarlet and gold on her front. She quite clearly boasted of being an “808”, NOT the expected and pre-studied “606”.

Still – Heyes comforted himself. This upgrade was bound to be a variation on a theme and, he checked his watch, he did have time.

“Now gorgeous,” he murmured, snuggling up close and tenderly taking the dial, “…let’s be gentle with each other. I’d hate to use the nitro on a real lady like you.” Time stood still as Heyes felt the infinitesimal tremors and heard the tiny sounds indicating the safe would yield up her secrets to his masterly touch.

Some hours later – though it seemed a flash to the absorbed Heyes – the ex-outlaw realised, not for the first time, the absolute reliance he placed on Kid acting as lookout. Because, suddenly the ex-safecracker… No. Let us use language with accuracy. The safe-cracker, became aware – he was not alone. He had no idea how long the aquiline featured young man, with eyes dark as his own, had stood watching. Whip-quick Heyes was on his feet, his gun drawn.

His eyes flicked to the door. He listened hard. Was this observer alone?

“Pardon me, Sir,” came a surprisingly calm tone, “…are you Hannibal Heyes? I’m right am I not?” The young man took a pace forward. Heyes gestured with the gun, indicating his unwanted companion should stay back. The other man halted his advance, but did not halt his speech. “May I take this opportunity, Mr. Heyes, of saying I have studied – and admired – your work for years.” A qualm crossed the dark eyes facing Heyes. “I disapprove too – naturally,” the young man said tentatively. In a much more spontaneous burst of feeling, he carried on,

“But the reprehensible nature of your calling does not alter the consummate skill and ingenuity with which you carry it out.” He beamed, “I am so – so delighted to finally meet you face to face!”

“Uh huh,” grunted Heyes. “Drop your gun – real slow. Use your left hand – two fingers only. No need for anyone to get hurt.”

“I don’t own a gun,” came the answer. Another pace forward, “Mr. Heyes,” a boyish smile wreathed the lean intelligent face, “…would you allow me the very great pleasure of shaking your hand?”

Again Heyes’ weapon waved him back.

“My hand’s kinda busy at the moment,” he said. “And – if you don’t own a gun – what’s that in your trouser pocket?” He considered adding, “…Please don’t tell me you’re THAT pleased to see me?” but decided not to lower the tone.

The younger man glanced down at the bulge indicated by Heyes.

“It’s a drill. With a cobalt-vanadium alloy shaft and a special-purpose tungsten-carbide tip. I have a couple of alternative sized diamond grit bits too.” He thought for a moment, “Oh – and a slide rule.” Heyes blinked. The interloper smiled at Heyes, “I can put THEM on the floor using two fingers of my left hand if you like, Mr. Heyes. BUT – I feel it only fair to point out I am, in fact, ambidextrous.”

“In that case – either hand’ll do!” retorted Heyes. “Just – just keep it real slow!” As the young man complied, he added, “AND – stop callin’ me Heyes!”

“Do you prefer Hannibal?”

“NO!” snapped Heyes. He looked at the objects on the floor. They were as reported, an extremely expensive looking drill and a slide rule. Heyes met the, frankly fascinated brown eyes, watching him. “Who the Sam Hill are you?” he demanded, “And – what are you doing here?”

“Jòzef Kowalski,” said Jòzef, holding out his hand, before again dropping it as Heyes’ hand was indeed – busy – at the moment. “I’m here to…”

A frown creased the ex-outlaw leader’s brow. He interrupted, “That name rings a bell!” Jòzef opened his mouth, but Heyes shook his head, “Don’t tell me! You’re – you’re…” A beat. A satisfied look of recall removed the frown. With a dimpled grin Heyes proclaimed, “You’re the fella who designed near silent tumblers for the Pierce and Hamilton ’78! Your name was on…”

“On the drawings held in the Patent Applications Office. AND – you saw them. Before you worked out the vacuum method of safe blowing?” Heyes just managed to prevent himself nodding. Jòzef smiled, “I am – extremely flattered – that you remember the name Mr…er…Sir.”

“You – YOU designed that BEAST of a safe! I thought…!” Heyes stopped. Then, “Open your jacket so I can check you’re telling the truth about not having a gun.” Jòzef did. “And – the back waistband.” Nothing. Heyes returned his own gun to its holster. “Mr. Kowalski. It would be an HONOUR to shake your hand.” They shook hands. “Not that I’m admitting to being Hannibal Heyes you understand!”

“Oh – of course not…”

“But if, just hypothetically, I were that notorious outlaw – your safes would have been one of the reasons I went straight!”

“You – I mean HEYES – inspired me,” enthused Jòzef, “At one time it seemed we were locked in a distant, faceless, but none the less symbiotic relationship…”

“Uh huh?”

“A battle of wits in which – the very limits of my ingenuity were stretched and challenged by – if I may so term it – my nemesis…”

“Uh huh?”

“What greater gift can an engineer wish for than an ever receding technical specification? The more one yearns and hungers towards the solution – the more the problems twists, turns – changes…”

“Uh huh?”

“Could a mere mechanical solution ever resolve the indescribably Gordian complexity – the labyrinthine convolutions of the – however culpable – still soaringly inventive mind, of my worthy adversary – Hannibal Heyes? Like Tantalus I was…”

“Er – Mr. Kowalski,” interrupted Heyes. Sheesh! Was this how Kid sometimes felt when he was talking up a storm?

“Yes?”

“I get the gist.”

Jòzef subsided. For a moment. Then he said, “Mr. …er… I mean, Sir?”

“You can call me Joshu…” Heyes stopped. He ran through the aliases of the past twenty-four hours. “You can’t call ME anything!” he said, firmly. “No offence,” he added, “‘Hey, you’ will do just fine.”

“Er…” Jòzef gave a smile where he would have put a name, “Did you say Heyes has gone straight?”

“Uh huh,” admitted Heyes. Almost immediately he changed this to, “That is – hypothetically – yes.”

Jòzef’s eyes drifted from the safe, to the carefully placed bottle of nitro at a distance, to the edge of a Bryant pump, peeping provocatively from Heyes’ equipment bag. Heyes had to admit the man had an excuse for his unspoken scepticism.

“I’m not plannin’ on stealin’ anything!” he protested. “I just – want to OPEN it! Maybe – muss things up. Leave a calling card.”

“Oh yes?” said Jòzef, with polite interest.

“A – a demonstration!” stated Heyes, firmly. He added, “AND – if you had a hand in this safe’s design…?”

“I added a few features to the previous 606 model,” admitted Jòzef, with a modest smile. “This particular unit is just on loan. Mr. Brooker thought a week’s use prior to the exhibition might tempt the bank to buy.”

“I hafta say,” said Heyes, “…you’re losin’ your touch! This safe’s a piece of cake compared to the Pierce & Hamilton ’78!”

“Oh yes?” repeated Jòzef, still with polite interest. His eyes moved past Heyes.

Heyes bridled at the undeclared observation.

“You’re thinkin’ – it’s still shut, huh?” Jòzef twitched an affirmative eyebrow. “Yeah, but I’ve only been workin’ on it…” Heyes fished out his watch. His mouth fell open. He shut it firmly and shot a quick look at Jòzef, to see if he had given away his horror that over two hours had passed. “Well – the point is – it’s not even silent. I can hear the tumblers clear as day. Cracking it is only a matter of time!” he finished.

“No you can’t,” said Jòzef, simply.

“Can’t – what?” asked Heyes.

“Can’t hear the tumblers.”

“I think I know what tumblers sound like!” said an indignant Heyes.

“They are decoys. I designed it with audible decoy tumblers,” said Jòzef, apologetically. “The five operational tumblers are, as far as the human ear is concerned, silent. But, as they move, they randomly adjust decoys, creating the illusion of progress towards identifying the first numbers in the combination.”

Heyes slumped.

“You – you …” he braced his shoulders. “OK! I didn’t want to have to do it this way – but…” He reached for the tin of quick dry putty.

“Er…” put in Jòzef, even more apologetically, “That won’t work.” Heyes looked at him. “I designed a double layer skin. The outer layer has a couple of vents – only fifteen microns wide – imperceptible to eye or touch. Enough to prevent the creation of a vacuum.”

Heyes glowered at him.

“YOU’D know the placement though,” his mind worked, “- I could seal the whole area…once you tell me…” He allowed his eyes to take on the dark, threatening look of the outlaw leader.

Jòzef smiled.

“Really! You underestimate how highly I think of – Mr. Heyes’ – abilities!” Heyes blinked. “The vents are placed in fifty alternate locations and the vented sections allocated randomly to individual safes! Only AFTER allocation are tracking numbers assigned. So even we, the manufacturers, do NOT know the positioning. AND…” his chest swelled, with justifiable pride,

“…even if you seal all fifty positions the layering will mean only the outer skin will yield to the explosion. The inner skin will merely buckle inward.” He gave a cheerful smile. “The field trials were most satisfactory!” He saw Heyes look downcast. “You – I mean Mr. Heyes – should be flattered. I only thought of this AFTER he came up with the vacuum idea!”

“You – you…” Heyes stopped. Once again, he decided not to lower the tone.

“It’s my job,” said Jòzef. “And, bear in mind, Hannibal Heyes is NOT supposed to get into these safes. That’s rather the point.”

Heyes, at bottom a fair man, had to admit, there WAS a lot of truth in there.

“Heyes COULD crack it!” Heyes declared. “It would only need – a plan! He COULD crack it!” A beat. “Eventually,” he added.

“Eventually, sure!” soothed Jòzef. “Mind you,” he mused, with simple pride, “…He never cracked the Pierce and Hamilton 1880, Guardian B.”

“He went STRAIGHT!” insisted an indignant Heyes.

“Of course.”

Heyes glowered at the conciliatory kindness of the young man.

“He DID!” He decided to change the subject – slightly. “What are you doing here?”

Jòzef had the grace to blush.

“I’m – I’m here to crack the safe.” He met Heyes’ eyes, “IF I can.”

Heyes blinked.

“Why?”

Jòzef flushed still redder. A frown descended on his face.

“Don’t you know?” he asked brusquely. Heyes shrugged. “Your partner…” said Jòzef. He stopped, he looked up, hopefully, “Unless you are no longer associated with that – that…” he drew breath, “…with Jedediah Curry!”

“Er…” hesitated Heyes. He was beginning to lose track. “Without admitting I’m … you know – HIM. Let’s assume – hypothetically – Heyes does still see – that other fella!”

Jòzef, despite an ancestry devoid of Gallic blood managed a contemptuous sneer worthy of the maitre de of Chez Jules. “That lecherous, lascivious, libidinous, licentious, lewd, lubricous, lustful…” he searched, “…lawbreaker…” he located, “…has incurred my lasting enmity!”

“Uh huh?” said Heyes. “How?” he asked, with trepidation. The trepidation was raised not so much by Jòzef’s scowl and sneer, as by the choice of descriptors. These suggested, not only a gift for alliterative allocation of adjoining adjectives, but also a matter of – delicacy.

“At BEST, he has – dallied – with the affections of a lady!” explained Jòzef, contempt dripping from his lips.

“Uh huh?” grunted Heyes, tentatively. He resisted an impulsive urge to leap to Kid’s defence. He was not completely sure what Jòzef would consider encompassed in the verb – ‘dally’. He had an uncomfortable feeling that Kid might be guilty of – dallying. After all, a lot of ladies seemed to welcome a certain level of – dalliance.

“At WORST, he has debauched an innocent young girl and means to profit by her – her disgrace.” In a more normal matter of fact tone, Jòzef added, fairly, “The evidence is strong, but not completely conclusive. That is why I give a wide confidence interval of probabilities. In any case,” the contempt returned, “I intend to rip him limb from limb and make him swallow himself!”

“Uh huh?” said Heyes. As long as the threat did not involve calling in the law, he did not feel the need to switch on the dangerous look. Jòzef appeared wiry and lithe enough, but Heyes was reasonably sure Kid would emerge with his limbs intact. “Er…Mr. Kowalski,” he went on mildly, “…you do know what Kid Curry is famous for?”

“Certainly I do!” stated Jòzef. “But, surely a man cannot allow physical danger to turn him from

the requirement to – to protect a lady’s good name?” Heyes decided to treat this as a rhetorical question. “Besides,” sneered Jòzef, “…If he shoots an unarmed man – it’ll prove what a worthless skunk he is! Cornflower blue eyes and enchanting smile! Tchah!”

Heyes blinked at this sudden departure into physical description. He returned to his original question.

“Why does what’s-his-name – er – dallying – make you want to crack a Brooker 808?”

“Because his ransom note states I will find the location where he is holding Al… – the lady – deposited in the safe in the Merchants’ National Bank.”

“Ransom note!” exclaimed Heyes. “No way is Kid Curry holdin’ anyone – let alone a woman – to ransom.”

Jòzef reached inside his jacket. Heyes reached, again, for his gun.

“Just – keep it slow,” said Heyes.

“Perhaps it would be more accurate to call it a ransom ‘telegraph’,” amended Jòzef, handing the document over for Heyes’ scrutiny.

“What makes you think this is from Jed Curry?” asked Heyes, flipping to the second page for the sender’s name. “It says – Harry De Juiced…Oh!”

“Exactly! It’s an anagram!” confirmed Jòzef, “AND – a homonym with ‘deduced’! Besides, halfway down page one he says ‘three years ago he played an auxiliary but none the less vital role in a venture in Denver involving the breaching of a superbly engineered device not entirely unconnected with the family name’ – he means the blowing of the Pierce and Hamilton ’78′”

“Uh huh?” grunted Heyes, scanning through the rest. “He’s a wordy fella, huh? I always heard Curry was kinda on the taciturn side. Do you really think that larcenous rogue wrote…’I will beguile the heart of your beloved, not only with my cornflower blue eyes and enchanting smile – but with the ineffable air of glamour and danger clinging to my every graceful action. As the rabbit is fascinated by the sinuous serpent – believe me – her maidenly innocence will be drawn to the golden rakish charm I exude’?

“Of course he didn’t come up with the words!” snapped Jòzef. “Alice WROTE it! It sounds just like her!”

Heyes blinked. “Alice…?”

Jòzef flushed again.

“I shouldn’t have said that. One does not bandy a lady’s name. But – even though I can see this is a ploy by…” he paused, “Well – since I’ve said it once already. I can see this is a ploy by Alice to – to goad me into…THAT is beside the point! That doesn’t excuse Curry for – for playing along. She is so sweet and guileless – she doesn’t realise the risks of … Curry might not recognise that despite what she says, she is as innocent as …”

“As … ‘one’s whose lissom and exquisite curves would cause any man’s blood to surge, as insurmountable passion shakes his being’?” suggested Heyes, reading aloud.

“She doesn’t know what she’s saying,” snapped Jòzef. He took a calming breath. “I have a practical suggestion…”

“Uh huh?”

“You want to crack this safe. I want to crack this safe. Let’s pool our resources and argue about the culpability of Kid Curry after it’s open.”

Heyes thought for a moment.

“Suits me,” he said. “Any ideas?” His eye fell on the drill, “I take it this being made of – er…”

“Cobalt-vanadium alloy,” supplied Jòzef.

“Is capable of breaching a drill point?”

“Theoretically – yes,” temporised Jòzef. “It’d take a while. Maybe longer than we have.”

“AND – we’d need a manufacturer’s drill point diagram to stand a chance,” sighed Heyes. A smug look settled on Jòzef’s face. “So…” continued Heyes, smoothly, “…it’s just as well you brought one along, huh?”

“That’s only a back-up!” smiled Jòzef. “You remember I told you the operational tumblers randomly adjust the audible decoys?”

“Uh huh?”

“That was not ENTIRELY true. The adjustment would APPEAR random. But given a set of blueprints showing the exact interaction between the serrations…”

“Which I take it we have?” checked Heyes.

Jòzef grinned. “A set of log tables. A slide rule…

“Uh huh!” smiled Heyes.

“What has been described as a virtuoso faculty for working out mathematical algorithms!”

“Too kind,” blushed Heyes.

“I meant me!” deflated Jòzef. “AND – a gift for dial manipulation, the ears of a lynx and a touch worthy of a miniaturist.” A beat. “That one was for you,” he clarified.

“Too kind,” blushed Heyes. “By the way,” he added, settling back down before the dial, ” – how did you break into the building?”

“I didn’t!” smiled Jòzef, unfolding the blueprints and taking out a sharp pencil to begin calculations, “I did what I guess you did. I walked in openly before closing time – and hid in a fiendishly cunning spot, so ingenious it would never be suspected.”

“Uh huh? Which one?”

“Are you going to tell me yours?” asked Jòzef.

“If I did – you’d never believe it!”

-oooOOOooo-

THE SLIGHTLY SHADIER SIDE OF TOWN – SAN FRANCISCO

A few hours before dawn two slim, dark haired figures might have been seen scaling the back wall of a substantial looking house not a million miles from Montgomery Avenue. They MIGHT have been seen. But, they were not.

By supreme good fortune – well, supreme good fortune aided by comprehensive instructions left by the detail conscious Mrs. Theodore Pierce – they climbed, one at a time, into the room where Kid Curry was held captive.

Jòzef was first.

Kid awoke from a refreshing sleep on the excellently sprung bed, to which one arm was tethered. He was halfway through a startled, “Who the Sam Hill are you…?” to the young man glowering at him, while turning up the gaslight, when he changed this to a delighted, “Heye…I mean, Hey, Joshua!”

“You viper!” snarled Jòzef. “You… reptile. You serpent…Where’s Alice?”

“Huh? Oh – her!” grunted Kid, still foggy with sleep. “An’ who are you callin’ a reptile?”

“Where’s Alice?” repeated Jòzef.

The question was answered by the diminutive – but none the less lissom and luscious – ethereal, golden one bouncing through the connecting door. She was cocooned in a silk dressing gown a shade too big and more than a shade too long.

“Jòzef!” she squeaked, her lovely face lit by a smile so radiant that even the unsusceptible Heyes had a momentary urge to utter ‘Wow!’ “Jòzef…I KNEW you’d rescue me from a fate worse than death!” She forestalled his immediate answer by launching herself into his arms.

It would have been both ungentlemanly and ungrateful to refuse to return the embrace. Jòzef was neither.

“But,” protested a suddenly coy Alice, pushing her true love away, “I have to tell you – you have a rival!” She lifted her chin and threw out her arm in a dramatic gesture towards the bed. “The notorious – but undeniably handsome – outlaw Kid Curry has fallen violently, passionately, avidly in love with me!”

“No I ain’t!” protested Kid.

“Ignore his denials!” insisted Alice, her voice ringing out with the conviction of a Sarah Bernhardt. “He is simply too shy to admit the ardent, insurmountable fervour surging through his veins, as my beauty enflames his senses! He wishes to marry me – so I will be his forever – immediately!” Fixing Jòzef with a meaning look, she added, in case he was missing the crux,

“You understand – Kid Curry wants to marry me NOW! NOT in a hundred years time when I turn twenty-one!”

“I don’t!” yelped Kid. He was not sure what was happening, but on that point – he was clear.

Jòzef glowered contemptuously at Kid, “That – that blackguard hasn’t laid his foul hands on you, has he?”

“Hey!” protested Kid, indignantly. He saw no particular reason for this complete stranger to keep subjecting him to random insults. He also saw no reason for Heyes to push back his hat, lean against the wall, fold his arms and take on all the appearance of an interested spectator about to enjoy a good show.

“Betrayer! Oh – the fickleness of men!” Alice berated Kid, histrionically. She turned away, wiping a non-existent tear. “I – I am ruined!” she went on, in a tremulous little voice which would have wrung pity from Herod. Her limpid blue eyes gazed from Jòzef to Heyes, beseeching their sympathy. Their dewy azure depths would have wrung pity from a man whom Herod refused to invite to dinner parties on the grounds of excessive cruelty and callousness. “And,” continued our wronged and persecuted heroine, pointing at the bed, “…it’s all HIS fault!”

Meeting his partner’s outraged eyes, Heyes clicked his tongue in disapproval.

“I didn’t ruin no one!” protested Kid.

“Despite having robbed me of my most precious possession – my reputation,” continued the plaintive tone, “…You heard he has no intention of offering to marry me!”

“That bit’s true!” agreed Kid. “I’d rather marry a – a reptile!”

“Oh – who will come to my aid? Who will protect me?” wondered Alice, still in a tone fit to melt the stoniest heart. However, her eyes began to lose some of the appealing softness in favour of dangerous glitter, as they flicked from Jòzef to Kid

Jòzef did not see this at once. His attention was caught by an angry discolouration on the white arm emerging from the silk sleeve to clutch his own.

“She is bruised!” he exclaimed. “You brute!”

“I never laid a finger on her!” objected Kid. Struggling to sit up, while clutching his slippery satin sheets one-handed to cover his dignity, he added, “IF she’s bruised, it’s where I fended her off with a ten foot pole! ‘And – and,” he glowered at Alice, “…even that’d be too close! You couldn’t pay me to touch HER!”

Looking at the vision of loveliness darting blue fire at Kid, Heyes thought his partner did protest too much.

“Don’t believe a WORD he says! He DID lay hands upon me!” Alice continued, a triumphant look on her face, as she confronted her rescuer of yesterday.

“I…” started Kid.

“He plied me with drink!” declared Alice!

“Yeah – but…” attempted Kid.

“Then we stayed the night together in the Hotel Del Monte!”

“Yeah – but…”

“Under false names!”

“But…”

“He tried to kiss me!”

“Yeah – but…”

“He undid my dress…”

“But…”

“Next day – he wrestled me to the floor!”

“Huh? Oh – yeah, but…”

“He – he had me strip off my clothes!”

“Yeah… but…”

“I was subjected to a filthy ordeal!”

“Huh? Oh – that…”

“When I arrived here my underwear was in such a state nothing was salvageable!”

“But…”

“You can’t deny any of that, can you?” challenged an exultant Alice

Kid met first his partner’s amused, then Jòzef’s blazing eyes.

“No!” he admitted, “But – but she’s twistin’ it to sound bad! She’s makin’ it sound as if … as if …”

“She sure is!” agreed Heyes. He shook his head sadly. Again the tongue clicked in disapproval.

“Stand up like a man!” ordered Jòzef.

“Huh?” said the beleaguered Kid.

“Jòzef here…” began Heyes. “…intends to rip you limb from limb and make you swallow yourself!” He checked over with his new friend, “That’s right, huh?”

“For starters,” confirmed Jòzef.

Alice bounced on her toes. Her hands clapped approval. Her glorious eyes sparkled in innocent, girlish anticipation.

“And,” continued Heyes, “…I guess he wants you on your feet before he tries to flatten you. It’s kinda – traditional.”

“Stand up!” repeated Jòzef.

“SHE’S got me cuffed to the headboard here!” protested Kid! He tugged at his right wrist setting the brass frame of the bed rattling. “It’s kinda restrictin’ me in the standin’ up an’ throwin’ punches department! Besides – no way am I fightin’ over HER. YOU want her? YOU take her! Good riddance!”

“Not exactly chivalrous, is he?” remarked Heyes, conversationally to Jòzef, as he walked over to the bed. “Still – he does have a point on the standin’ up to fight like a man.” Heyes peered, with mild interest, at the handcuffs. “Lined with padded silk velvet,” he remarked, “Nice an’ comfortable, huh? Kinda – specialised. Lock looks simple enough, though.”

“Never mind admirin’ ’em!” glowered Kid at his partner. “Get the key off that…that…HER – an’ undo me!” He met Heyes’ eyes, “Else, just undo me without it – Joshua!”

“DO you have the key, Alice?” asked Jòzef, suspiciously, his anger against Kid abating, as evidence of who was the real victim here, gathered force. She reached into a pocket and dangled a ring holding a brightly polished key. A taunting look was thrown at Kid. “Hand it over,” said Jòzef, sternly. She set her lips, shook her head stubbornly. He advanced on her, purposefully. Alice pulled forward her wrappings and dropped the key – strategically – down her front.

“You’ll have to wrest it from me by force!” she declared in ringing tones. Defiant, ringing tones. Perhaps – defiant and hopeful ringing tones.

Jòzef halted. He glared at his beloved. “You!” he exclaimed, the words accompanied by an accusatory, pointing index finger, “…as soon as this is over, YOU are in big trouble!”

Alice pouted and shrugged a ‘don’t care’ shoulder. Jòzef again advanced toward her. Now, there was no ‘perhaps’ about it. The expression on her face was definitely hopeful as he reached out a hand… She closed her eyes in anticipation and slightly thrust forward her bosom, as his hand drew nearer. Then…

“OW!” protested Alice. A hairpin was whipped from her curls, still attached to a couple of golden strands.

She opened her eyes, chagrin sweeping across her lovely visage as she saw Jòzef now back over by Kid and about to apply the business end of the hairpin to the lock.

Jòzef met Heyes eyes.

“How long would this take you?”

Heyes shrugged.

“It’s nothin’ fancy. Say…eight, nine, seconds.”

“Time me!” requested Jòzef, boyishly.

The cuffs clicked open. Kid rubbed his – completely uninjured – wrist. He blinked at Jòzef.

“About ten seconds!” said Heyes. “Not bad.” He turned his attention to Kid. A beat. “What are you waitin’ for?” he asked. “On your feet. Get flattened!”

“I’m…” Kid flushed and jerked his head to bring his partner closer, “I’m kinda nekkid under here.”

“Wanted to make the most of the feel of these fancy satin sheets, huh?” said Heyes, deadpan.

“SHE stole my clothes! Said it cut down the chances of me makin’ an escape!”

Heyes looked at the dainty, silk wrapped figure still fuming over the failure of her key-hiding ruse.

“Overpowered you, huh?”

Kid bridled.

“Not just her! There were four of ’em altogether!”

“All girls?”

“Well – yeah!” admitted Kid.

“All as easy on the eye?”

“Well…all lookers, sure,” confirmed Kid, with an involuntary, wistful grin.

“You’ve really been sufferin’, huh?”

“They – they spiked my drink!” protested Kid.

“Of course,” soothed Heyes.

“Alice!” said Jòzef, severely, “No more games! Did you drug Mr. Curry and steal his clothes?”

The slender, elfin one met his eyes. She opened her mouth – shut it again.

“You see…”

“Yes or no, Alice!” demanded Jòzef.

“Er…it was…”

“Yes or no!” he repeated, firmly.

She hung her head. She looked up, from under honey coloured lashes. She fluttered them appealingly. She allowed her upper lip to lift in a look of entreaty that would persuade a hungry tiger to hand over his prey.

“Yes or no!” came the unmoved challenge.

A small foot emerged from the overlong robe. Its rosy toes drew a small semi-circle. A lily white, well turned ankle – turned. No effect. Well, no effect on Jòzef. She had the riveted attention of at least one ex-outlaw, but that was of no interest whatsoever to Alice. She sighed.

“Yes,” came a very small and chastened voice.

“Mr. Curry,” said Jòzef, “…There appears to be a greater than 99 probability I owe you an apology. Will you accept it?”

“Er…sure,” said Kid. Anyone who could chasten Alice was fine by him.

“YOU!” Jòzef turned to Alice, taking her firmly by one elbow, “…Come with me!” He led her, head still hanging, through the connecting door.

“I’m sorry, Jòzef,” came a docile little whisper, before the pair disappeared.

Kid stared at the retreat of a meek and mild Alice, in disbelief. He turned to his partner.

“Who the Sam Hill is he?”

“Name’s Kowalski,” said Heyes. “If I ever finally get rid of you Kid AND, if I return to crime – think I’ve found me a new partner. You’ll never guess what he does for a living.”

Kid was still stunned by the transformation wrought on Alice.

“Lion tamer?” he hazarded. Another thought occurred, “He’s callin’ me Curry!” He shot an accusatory look at Heyes. “You DIDN’T tell him?”

“Course not!” came the offended reply. “YOU sent him a telegram tellin’ him everything about you and that utter peach you seem to have spent yesterday wrestlin’ with.” A beat. “Wrestlin’ with and – losin’.”

“I never sent no…” Light dawned. Kid scowled afresh at the recently closed door. “That – that…”

“Something else you need to know, Kid,” said Heyes, “In fact, a coupla things.”

“Uh huh?”

“I’m now Thaddeus Jones,” his partner told him, flatly, “So, you’d better be Joshua Smith!”

“Why the Sam Hill…?”

“Because,” continued Heyes, drowning out the protest, “Alice’s stepmother decided I needed a new alias.”

“HER stepmother. Who the Sam Hill is…?”

“Alice’s stepmother,” went on the ex-outlaw leader, still not allowing Kid to finish, “…happens to be an old, old friend.”

Once again, Kid’s cheeks reddened, as Heyes explained. Heyes gathered from the ‘Harry De Juiced’ telegram that the ‘Alice’ so easily besting his partner was either a ‘Hamilton’, or a ‘Pierce’. So, the brains, once again, bringing Kid Curry to captivity almost certainly belonged to a titian haired beauty named, ‘Grace’.

…oooOOOooo…

Less than two minutes later, a subdued Alice was led back into the room. She strode over, purposefully, to Kid. A pile of neatly ironed clothes, topped with a brown hat and gun belt, was in her hands

“Thaddeus…” she began.

“Joshua,” corrected Heyes, deadpan.

“Er – whatever,” decided Alice. “I sincerely and unreservedly beg your pardon. My entire behaviour towards you has been reprehensible, blameworthy and completely unfitted to a lady. By contrast, Jòzef says, you have acted like a perfect gentleman,” she gave a sniff, “…although in MY opinion gentlemen do not grunt over the breakfast table, nor scan hotel bills line by line as though…”

Jòzef cleared his throat warningly.

“…you have acted like a perfect gentleman throughout,” recapped Alice, meekly. In a more spontaneous burst of feeling, she added, “Actually, you were really sweet – and I’m sorry for tricking you. Although,” she went on without a breath, “…you made it so easy it’s a good thing most bounty hunters are men! Otherwise, you’d have been caught years ago!” Kid avoided his partner’s eye, he flushed. He remembered who Alice’s stepmother was. He flushed some more. A beat. “I’m sorry,” she summarised. “Here are your clothes back and the money I owe you is …er…”

Jòzef placed a thin pile of notes on top of the clothes.

“It’s short!” said Alice, apologetically. “It only just about covers my hotel bill and the telegrams. Jòzef will make the rest up next week when he gets paid. He hasn’t got enough on him for my dinner at Chez Jules and all that Krug and I NEVER have anything left out of my allowance.”

Taking the pile of clothes, one handed – still modestly clutching his sheet, Kid felt his cheeks again redden.

“Sheesh – Alice. There’s no need for that,” he protested. “I asked you out to dinner. I don’t expect payin’ back.”

“You can go now,” she said, kindly. “The safe in the Merchants’ National Bank has been cracked, that’s all I wanted.” A beat. “Aren’t you going to get dressed?”

“Not with you gawpin’ at me – no!” declared Kid.

“Pfffttt!” Alice scoffed, turning her back. “You wish!”

-oooOOOooo-

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