Tess Mercury and her posse of bounty hunters set out to catch Ezekiel “Angel” Cooper, a Pinkerton wanted for murder, but wind up tangled in an even greater conspiracy involving infamous robber baron, Sterling Rush.
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In the years after the American Civil War, the West is wild and the East is run by the robber barons battling each other for power and money. The range is untamed and blood-soaked, and the cities are dazzling tributes to culture and questionable scientific development. Outlaws roam free on the frontiers, and crooked lawmen and Pinkertons compete with lawless bounty hunters for the prices on their heads. Tess Mercury and her posse are the best damn bounty hunters in the West. When Tess and her posse, trick shooter "Bonny" Quimby Burton, mad scientist "Lightning" Hazel Harley and Vaughn, a former slave, are run out of town after brawling with some card players who don't take kindly to being swindled by Quimby, Tess decides a life of leisure just doesn't suit them. They go in search of a new bounty to hunt and discover the case of Ezekiel "Angel" Cooper, a Pinkerton wanted for murder in Boston. The hunt for Angel leads them through the untamed frontier where Indians lie in wait, young men fighting for honor are shot dead in the streets, Che Chucho and his posse of peculiar bounty hunters are hunting them, and savvy, sophisticated Madam Ester Star courts the big bugs from D.C. at her famous brothel, the Governer's Mansion. When Tess and her posse finally run into Angel, they're tangled up in an even greater mystery involving faulty death rays, crooked lawmen, missing secretaries, murdered government agents, bribery, corrupt Congressman, clockwork horses, Tess' long lost husband, and Sterling Rush, the technology robber baron who might be a more dangerous enemy than any of them have ever encountered.
We stayed off the main roads and stuck to the frontier land on our way to Fortune City, New Mexico. The Pinkerton didn’t seem to mind. He was a quiet, patient travel companion. Hazel on the other hand, was so hopped up she might have been a Mexican jumping bean. The hotter the weather became and the closer we drew to Fortune City, New Mexico, Hazel got wound tighter and tighter.
She was bouncing in her saddle upon her long-suffering steed Tesla the afternoon we drew towards the small, desert town. It was so blazing hot, a haze rose up from the ground and blurred the edges of the town ahead. I wiped at my forehead, but it was so bone dry, the sweat evaporated off my brow before it rolled into my eyes. I reached down to sip from the cantina on my belt. The water was as hot as a sulfur spring.
No one accosted us as we rode toward town. The Indians in these parts were used to the white folk and travelers coming through here, and they didn’t seem to mind too much or it was just too damn hot for them to come out of their hidey-holes this late in the sweltering afternoon. I hated the desert, but Hazel was as happy as a savage with a new scalp.
In the center of Fortune City was a huge, bronze statue of a black bear. From its angry, toothy maw water shot serenely into a small pool at its clawed feet. I couldn’t even see the bear, affectionately referred to as Old Dusty, despite its frequent buffing and polishing by the local townsfolk. They were sure proud of that bear. Old Dusty was surrounded with noisy, excited people spread out on blankets on the stone roundabout around the fountain or settling in rickety wooden chairs they’d brought from home or the saloons and restaurants nearby.
“What is going on?” Zeke asked with a wary expression. I reckoned he wasn’t exactly keen to be thrust in the apex of a large, teeming crowd of laughing, shrieking and singing folks who might recognize him as a very, very wanted man, even this far southwest.
Hazel gasped in excitement, pointing toward a large, hand-lettered banner strung from one side of the storefronts on the main thoroughfare to the other. 10th Annual Silver Festival Fortune City, New Mexico. I lifted my eyebrows and looked around at my posse. Hazel was beside herself with glee. “Fortune City’s made most of its money on silver mining,” she explained. “Every year, the miners take a couple days off with their families and celebrate in the center of town.” She clapped her hands together. “Oh, boy, I forgot about this. Three years ago at the festival, there was this huge fireworks display in the town square right over Old Dusty. Well, the city didn’t exactly know about it until it happened, and it took me forever to sneak in all those incendiaries and sparklers...”
“So you mean, you put on a fireworks display.”
“You think I have time to do it again this year? I still have some materials buried out in the desert on the edge of town--”
“No, Hazel,” I told her firmly. “We’re on the job. Just ’cause the festival is going on don’t mean we get to run wild. We still got to do what we came here to do.”
Hazel looked deflated for a split second. Then she perked up again. “I can work with that.”
“Why is it so hot here?” Zeke asked, swiping a hand across the top of his head. His scalp was turning pink beneath the closely cropped pale hair on his head, and his glasses were foggy. He drew them off to wipe them with his dusty kerchief. It didn’t help much.
“It’s the desert. You ought to get yourself a hat.”
He frowned. “Vaughn doesn’t have a hat.”
Vaughn smirked slightly. “I don’t turn pink.”
Zeke eyed him a moment, then shrugged. “You know a place to get a hat, Lightning?”
“I prefer to win mine in battle.”
I rolled my eyes. “Hazel, we are going to attempt to avoid a bar brawl today if that’s at all possible.”
“Fine. Black Bear General Store a little ways down the road.”
“What’s the deal with black bears?”
“Folks around here are a little superstitious. They think they can ward them off by payin’ them respect.”
“That’s ridiculous. It‘s uncivilized nonsense.”
Hazel frowned at him. “Yeah, well, don’t tell folks ‘round here that. They’ll rear up their uncivilized heads and beat you down in the street.”
Zeke blinked at this, as though he weren’t sure whether or not she was joking. I wasn’t so sure myself. Lightning Hazel Harley was as unpredictable as Wyoming weather. As though to illustrate this point, she darted away from us and capered into the crowd surrounding Old Dusty.
I turned back to Zeke, Vaughn and Quimby. Quimby wasn’t there. I didn’t see him in the crowd, but I could guess he had found the prettiest young girl and was chatting her up. I sighed in frustration. “Well, I reckon the three of us can question this guy right enough. What’s his name?”
Quimby appeared beside me so quickly, the loose hairs on the back of my neck stirred. “Patrick Granger,” he announced. “I hear he’s a mine inspector.”
“They have those?” Hazel hadn’t stopped dancing, but at least she was dancing nearby. A crowd of tiny children at her feet mimicked her steps, kicking their heels up and pumping their arms at their sides.
“Is it going to be like this all day?” Zeke asked resignedly.
I rolled my eyes. “Yeah, probably.”
“’Course they have those,” Quimby answered Hazel. “They got to make sure conditions are reasonable, don’t they?”
“I don’t know. I ain’t never heard of such a thing in the west.”
“Yeah, well, it’s a new era of enlightenment and scientific advancement, Hazel,” I told her sternly. “That means folks got to be more civilized and care about safe working conditions.”
“Weird. I always just do it right the first time.”
“Not all folks are like you, Hazel. And you don’t always do it right. Remember that time you nearly lost your finger when that incendiary went off early--”
“Why you always got to bring that up, Tess?”
“Can we actually get to work on the case?” Zeke demanded. “Are you folks always this unprofessional?” We all looked at him in the same moment. He took a step back and held up his hands. “Shucks, I didn’t mean anything.”
“We ain’t professionals,” Vaughn told him mildly.
“Wouldn’t be any fun if we were,” Quimby added.
“We might actually have to put work first,” I put in thoughtfully. “So, are we headed to the mine, then, or should we hit the saloon first?”
“Saloon,” Hazel replied happily. “Wouldn’t do any good to go to the mine. Ain’t no one there. No one works during the Silver Festival. Wouldn’t be no point in celebrating if none of the silver miners were around, would there?”
“All right, so how do we find Patrick Granger?” Zeke asked doubtfully.
She smirked. “You leave that to me. Keep your head down, Angel. I’ve got this one.”
We followed her through the flood of people lingering on the wooden boardwalk outside the shop fronts of the main thoroughfare. She greeted a few of them like old friends, but she didn’t pause to speak to any of them for long. She made directly for the Tarnished Band Saloon at the end of the road. It was packed and noisy, and the patrons were drinking, singing and dancing along with the music from duel piano players on the center stage.
Saloon girls milled around the crowd, laughing, flirting and dancing with the men to the music. They were all finely dressed, very pretty and dripping with silver baubles. Quimby looked like a kid in a candy store. I didn’t try to stop him from darting into the crowd. Hazel held her head high and strode inside.
A chorus of “Lightning Hazel!” greeted her entry, and she was swallowed up by the crowd. I rolled my eyes. “Two down,” I remarked. “Either of you two next?”
“I think I’ll stick with you,” Zeke replied, glancing cagily around for lawmen. If there were any, they didn’t seem to notice us. Even Vaughn didn’t get more than a few glances and gasps in the jubilant crowd.
We ordered a round of beer at the bar and found one of the few empty tables. The crowd jostled us a bit, but it was better than trying to have a conversation near the poker game in the corner, which looked tense and dangerous. The players eyed each other so coldly and suspiciously, I was sure someone was about the draw and start shooting everyone in the room. I hoped Quimby stuck with the girls. I wasn’t in the mood to break up a bar brawl today.
Zeke looked warily around. His translucent eyes were alert, and he held his shoulders rigidly. I suspected he wasn’t in much danger here. Folks seemed much more interested in having a good time than hunting bounties, even if they did recognize him. I saw a man in the corner of the room with a U.S. Marshal badge taking shots of tequila out of a saloon girl’s shoe. I doubted he’d give us much trouble.
A crowd of dirt-encrusted wranglers lifted a giggling Hazel up onto the bar. I rolled my eyes and sipped my warm beer. It wasn’t bad, but it was a little flat. I didn’t mind so much. I glanced around the room with interest.
“I think there might be some kind of misunderstanding here,” Zeke said sullenly. “How are you people considered the best bounty hunters in the west?”
I lifted my eyebrows. “Who says that?”
He ignored this. “You people are complete amateurs.”
I frowned. “We might be amateurs by your way of thinking, but we get the job done. We got skills you never even seen before.”
Zeke glanced around for the other two members of our posse. Hazel whooped and hollered as she danced across the top of the bar, kicking glasses onto the floor. The patrons around her crowed with raucous laughter. Quimby was ensconced in a corner with a pretty dark-haired saloon girl. She was perched on his lap. I couldn’t tell what they were doing, but I doubted it was talking. I didn’t strain myself to find out. “Right,” Zeke muttered.
Vaughn’s mouth turned up slightly at the corner. “It’s underestimating us that gets most arrogant people caught,” he remarked quietly.
Zeke glanced at him sharply. He sipped his drink silently for a moment. “I guess I can see that.”
“Anyway, they’ll have already learned where your snitch is.”
He didn’t look as though he believed this. He rose abruptly from his seat and started toward Hazel with an irritable expression. I glanced at Vaughn. He flicked his fingers toward Zeke. I hopped up to follow the Pink through the crowd. He paused in front of Hazel with a scowl. She didn’t notice him for several moments. She shrieked with laughter at one of her own jokes in the center of a crowd.
Zeke pushed through them to reach her. The cowboys didn’t seem to mind. They stepped aside to allow him to pass. He frowned at her. “Hazel!”
“Hooooooooeeee! I love the Silver Festival!” she shouted, holding her empty glass in the air. Around her, the cowboys whooped.
“Hazel! You learn anything?”
She didn’t even glance at him. “Barkeep! Uno mas! Another tequila!”
Zeke sighed in frustration and turned away with a scowl. I glanced up at Hazel and snorted with laughter. “Amateurs,” Zeke muttered.
Hazel wiggled her hips in a funny little caper. “Patrick Granger’s been courting a saloon girl the past couple weeks,” she said to Zeke’s back as though there had been no pause. “He’s trying to take her out of the life.”
Zeke spun around. “That isn’t very respectable.”
“Saloon girls ain’t what you think,” I told him. “You ought to be more respectful, city boy, or you’ll find yourself in trouble.”
He glanced cagily around. A couple of the cowboys frowned at him as though he’d said something mortally offensive. He held up his hands. “Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean anything.”
“Well?” I asked Hazel.
“Granger’s girl ain’t here yet, but she’s comin’ in around six. He comes in whenever she’s workin’. We don’t even gotta go find him. He’ll come right to us.”
I smirked at Zeke. “How’s that for bein’ amateurs.”
His mouth quivered as though he were suppressing a smile. “When’s the girl coming in?”
“’Bout six,” Hazel told him. “Means we got about three hours. I know what I’m doing with that time. I reckon you ought to try to have a little fun yourself.”
Zeke sighed, but he followed me back to Vaughn at the table. Vaughn had three empty glasses in front of him, and he was sipping on another. Zeke looked surprised that he’d managed to get through so many in such a short amount of time. I wasn’t. I’d seen him put away more than that and shoot a fly off a wall fifteen feet away. ‘Course I’d been matching him drink for drink. My recollection of the night was a little hazy.
The music in the Tarnished Band was good, and the beer was hearty. I was enjoying the Silver Festival. I sang along to some of the popular songs I knew. Vaughn smiled and drank steadily. Even Zeke seemed to loosen up a bit after the first couple drinks. He even made some polite conversation, and we swapped thrilling stories about our most exciting cases. His was a train robber and his wife in Arkansas, who had knocked off six trains and killed eight people before he’d finally caught up to them in Montana. They’d gone down in a blaze of gunfire. Vaughn’s and mine involved a madam who was poisoning her rich clientele, several whores and a very well-placed explosive that had brought twenty dead bodies floating up to the surface of a small pond out back of the brothel. It had been pretty horrific, but we laughed all the same as Vaughn imitated the cat-soaked-with-water look on the madam’s face when she’d realized she’d been caught up.
A young, pretty oriental saloon girl glided up to our table. She smiled at Vaughn and dropped down into the seat beside him. She laid a hand on his knee. I lifted my eyebrows. Zeke smirked. “I reckon you ought to sit somewhere else,” Vaughn told the young girl gently.
She looked slightly hurt. “But I like it here.”
“I think it’s best for all of us if you sit somewhere else. Right now, you’re sittin’ with a table of outlaws.”
The saloon girl lifted her eyebrows and looked around at us in interest. “What you done?”
Zeke smirked. He tossed back the contents of his glass. “Murder.”
She blinked. “Oh.” She smiled, but the expression wavered slightly. She rose unsteadily to her feet. “Well. Enjoy the festival, folks.”
She was gone in a flash. I barked with laughter. “I reckon you aren’t so bad to have around, Pink.”
He sighed. “Don’t get used to it. I’m getting this over with, and I am going home to Boston. I’m not sure I’m ready to be back in the Wild West. It’s changed since I left Wyoming.”
“Yeah. We saw a nice kid get shot in the street in Cheyenne.”
He frowned. “What kid?”
“Jimmy Steele. Nice but dumb.”
Zeke thought about this. “I think I remember him from back when I was courting Lennie. He was just a pup then. He’s dead?”
“Who did it?”
“Big bug named Owen Spencer. Jimmy challenged him, and Owen was faster. That ain’t his real name, though. Owen’s really a bank robber from Texas called Donnie Rio.” I took a sip of my beer and glanced at Vaughn. “When we get done haulin’ you in, we’re goin’ after him next.”
Zeke thought about this. He nodded. “If you help me clear my name, I’ll help you. I liked Jimmy. He was dumb, but he was a sweet kid. He was real nice to Lennie. He used to help her carry her sundries from Howell’s General Store every Tuesday morning.”
Vaughn and I smirked at each other. “We don’t need help bringin’ in some bank robber,” I told him. “’Sides, we’ like divvyin’ the bounty four ways. I reckon one more hand split might be too much.”
He rolled his eyes. “I wouldn’t do it for the money. I’d do it for Jimmy.”
I shrugged. “Well, I reckon if we clear your name, you can do whatever you want. You’ll have to go back there to get your little wife, anyway. She seems like a good little woman. She‘s loyal to you.”
He stared somberly into his drink. “I reckon I did her a disservice, marrying her.”
Vaughn lifted his eyebrows. “Why do you say that, Angel?”
He sighed. “Look at the trouble I’m in.”
“Yeah, but that ain’t your fault. That’s on whoever set you up in Boston. You were just doin’ your job.”
“I chose a dangerous job. Even if my name is cleared, she’ll probably end up a widow someday.”
“Well, you could always retire when you’re a free man,” I suggested.
He seemed to consider this. “Yeah. I s’pose.”
“And it sounds like the local Marshal ‘round Cheyenne needs to grow a pair. They might need some new blood.”
Zeke waved his hand. “Nah. It’s not really my thing. I’m not interested in keeping law and order. I prefer to investigate things my own way.”
Vaughn and I smirked at each other. “Yeah, we can feel that.”
He looked between us. “So how’d you two start running together?”
I grinned at Vaughn. We heard that question all the time. Vaughn never liked talking about it, but he didn’t seem to mind when I told the story. He didn’t pay attention to it, though. His coal black gaze wandered around the saloon. “We grew up together,” I explained. “My daddy owns a plantation in Georgia. I reckon you know what that meant for Vaughn.”
Zeke inclined his head, but his eyes slid to Vaughn with an awkward expression I’d seen before.
“The war ended, and all the slaves were freed, but my daddy didn’t want to give his up. So, Vaughn and I took off.”
The Pinkerton frowned slightly. “That doesn’t seem like a thing for a respectable lady to do.”
“You sure got a lot to say about what is and ain’t respectable, but I reckon you ain’t got any right to say it where I’m concerned.”
He looked slightly ashamed, but he lifted his chin. “I bet your daddy didn’t like you running off with a slave.”
“I reckon he didn’t. We ain’t spoken in five years.”
He lifted a shoulder. “I’m not surprised. Even in this enlightened era, it wouldn’t be the first time a bi-racial couple --”
Vaughn leaned forward abruptly, and I held up my hands. “Now you just hold up one minute,” I said. “It ain’t like that! There ain’t nothin’ wrong with Vaughn, no matter what color his skin is, but we ain’t a couple. Right, Vaughn?”
“The very idea is thoroughly revolting,” he agreed.
“Thanks a lot, Vaughn!”
He chuckled. Zeke’s pale cheeks colored slightly. He looked between us as though he was unsure what to say. I leaned back in my chair and sipped my beer. “How--uh--how did you become bounty hunters, then?”
I smiled. “Out on the road, you meet a lot of people. Some of them are bad people and some of them don’t seem to understand the South lost the war. We had a few scuffles. We lost some, we won some. One night we got into a brawl with a posse of guys who turned out to be wanted for horse theft in the next county.” I smirked at Vaughn. I knew he remembered the brawl as well as I did. We hadn’t won that one, but we’d had gone back for our revenge. “We trussed them up and dropped them off at the local Marshal duty station.”
“We got our bounty and moved on,” Vaughn added.
“We ran into some more outlaws here and there, and it seemed like a pretty interesting way to make some money. Later on, we met Quimby at a saloon in Amarillo. He was sharping cards at a poker game, like he does. He got into a fight with some wranglers from Fort Worth. He has a fast gun. Fastest I ever seen. He was traveling around with one of those Wild West rodeo shows, standing on the back of a horse and jumping through lassoes and shootin’ apples off girls’ heads.”
Zeke snorted with laughter.
“Yeah. I know. He can still do some amazing tricks, boy, but he was tired of the circus life. He wanted out. Me and Vaughn talked to him about hunting bounties, and he thought it sounded like a good way to make a living. We’ve been running with him ever since. Turns out he knows a lot of the country from his traveling days and has some friends in the Marshals.”
“And he seems to know a whole lot about outlaws,” Vaughn added. “He’s got an uncanny ability to memorize Wanted posters. We catch half our bounties by chance when he recognizes someone in a saloon out on the road.”
“Lightning Hazel, well...” I grinned and gestured around. “Would you believe we found her in this here city in a saloon across the street? About three years ago, it was. A loan shark out of Chicago named Rudy the Roll Ricone hired us to find her and bring her to him. He was claimin’ she was his wife who ran off on him, but what he was really after were her weapons and inventions. Quimby recognized him and knew he had a bounty on his head, so we got together with Hazel to lay a trap for him out back of a saloon in Kansas.“
Vaughn and I exchanged a grin. I tilted my chin at him, and he continued the story, “We had her trussed up in the back of the Dirty Dandy. When he came back to get her, she jumped up and knocked him out with a cattle prod.”
“We brought him in, cashed in his bounty, and that’s how Hazel joined the posse.”
Zeke narrowed his eyes at us. They glittered. “You sure that’s all true? You aren’t pulling my leg?”
“I don’t pull legs,” I told him sternly. “Ask Vaughn. He ain’t ever told a lie in his life.”
Vaughn snorted. “It’s all true.”
“It sounds a bit farfetched.”
“It’s the wild west. Everything’s farfetched here.”
Zeke laughed. “Yeah, all right. I reckon it doesn’t matter how you came to do what you do, so long as you do it well.”
I grinned. Then I sat up straight in my seat as Vaughn said in an aggravated voice, “Ah, hell.”
“What’s up, Vaughn?”
“Quimby.” He jerked his chin toward the corner of the room where I’d seen the rough-looking men around the poker table. I didn’t even have to follow his gaze. I could guess what he was seeing. I sighed.
“What is it?” Zeke asked.
“Quimby found himself a game.”
I rose abruptly to my feet. “He’s a bit of a problem gambler.”
“You said he was a card sharp.”
“Yeah. That’s a bit of the problem. He gets himself in trouble.”
Zeke drew a watch from the pocket of his dusty white button-up shirt. “We haven’t got time for a bar brawl right now. It’s six o’clock. Granger should be here any time.”
“You know which one he is?”
“No. I’m assuming your friends will point him out to me.”
“We are useful.” I glanced over at the poker table and sighed. “You boys stay here. I’ll deal with Quimby.”
He was kicked lazily back in a rickety wooden chair. His hat was tipped precariously back from his handsome features, and a stray lock of blonde hair fell over his forehead. When he rolled his brilliant blue eyes up to me and gave me a crooked smile, I felt a little jolt. It was irritation. “Quimby, what the hell?”
He dropped the front legs of the chair firmly on the floor and gave me an innocent look. He lifted his hands to indicate the other players around us, who looked up from their cards with various expressions of interest, irritation and impatience. “I’m just playin’ some poker, Tess.” He grinned at the pretty dark-haired saloon girl, who appeared at his side with two shots of whiskey. She sat down in his lap and handed him one of the glasses.
I looked at her then back at Quimby incredulously. “Nah, you ain’t. We have work to do, Quim. We ain’t got time for you to play poker.”
“Shucks, Tess, there’s always time for poker.”
A toothless cowboy in a huge-brimmed hat grinned at me. “Why don’t you sit down, little lady? We got room for one more. Join the game.”
I glanced at him in disapproval. “No thanks. I got things to do, and so do you, Quimby.”
He rolled his eyes and draped an arm around the saloon girl’s shoulders. “You can’t talk to the city boy on your own? You don’t need me.”
I scowled. “Quimby...” I said warningly.
He sighed. “Aw, come on, Tess.”
I leaned down to talk near his ear. “Quimby, I ain’t pulling you out if you get in over your head this time. We’re gettin’ what we need, and we’re walkin’ right out that door. You’ll have to catch up with us.”
He looked up at me with a hurt expression. “You’d leave me behind, Tess?”
“You know I would. Just like that time in Arizona.”
His full, sensual mouth pushed out in a pout. “I spent the night in jail until that saloon girl Jane finally bailed me out. It was the worst night of my life.”
I lifted an eyebrow and straightened up. “So? You comin’ with me or are you gonna have to catch up to us two states over again?”
He sighed deeply and tossed down his cards. “Fine.” He nudged the dark-haired girl gently. “Maybe later, honey. I got to work.” She looked disappointed, but she rose and flounced away into the crowd. Quimby brushed himself off and looked at me with a smirk. “You sure you ain’t just jealous of Betsy?”
I scoffed. “I ain’t jealous of your women.”
“You sure about that?”
“I’m pretty sure.”
He leaned closer to me. I could smell the whiskey on his breath.. “You keep tellin’ yourself that, Tess, but I know you think about it sometimes.”
I crossed my arms over my chest. “No, I don’t.”
He chuckled. “You should. I do.”
“Come on,” I said disgustedly. I spun away from him. “Let’s find out which one of these girls is Granger’s intended.”
Hazel was sitting on the bench beside one of the piano players, crooning My Wild Irish Rose in a wavering alto. She was actually pretty good, and the folks around her sang along and swayed to the melody. Quimby and I paused and waited for the song to end. When it did, she held up her hands. The audience cheered.
“They love me here!” she said, bounding up to us.
“I can see that,” I replied. “But we got things to do. Which one of the girls is ours?”
“Oh. That one.” She lifted her hand to indicate a tall, voluptuous woman in an emerald green, low cut, bustled dress with long, curly red hair under a hat with a lacy veil that covered one of her stunning green eyes. Her lips and cheeks were ruby red. She was talking to a young man dressed in a white button-up shirt, baggy grey trousers with black suspenders and a tweed cap. She reached over and laid a hand on his arm, covering a coy smile with a black feathered fan.
“That Granger?” I asked in interest.
Hazel shook her head. “Nah. They said he’s a short feller with black hair down to his shoulders. That guy’s too tall, and he’s ginger.”
“A man with black hair down to his shoulders?” I demanded. I scoffed. “That might describe half the men here.”
“No, Granger’s a city boy. He stands out. Wears suits and things like a dandy. It should be easy enough to spot him. Can I go play some more now?”
Quimby scowled petulantly. “No, Hazel. Tess made me stop playing poker when I was about to win the pot.”
Hazel hopped down off the stage and pouted up at me. “Tess, you ain’t no fun when you’re on the job.”
“The job is fun,” I argued.
“Yeah, ‘cause we get to dance and drink and play poker while we‘re doing it. No other reason.”
I rolled my eyes, but Hazel and I turned to watch the door while Quimby kept an eye on Belle. It wasn’t long before a short young man with black, shoulder-length hair wearing a black bowler hat and brown pin-stripe suit walked into the bar. He swept the hat off his head and fingering it anxiously as he craned his neck to look around. I tilted my chin toward him. As he walked toward the bar, his posture grew rigid with anger. He strode swiftly toward Belle and the young man in the tweed hat.
The black-haired man seized Belle’s arm, drawing her away from the other man. The man in the tweed hat surged to his feet with a scowl. The men squared off against each other. I glanced interestedly at Belle. She looked irritated, but she stepped between the two men, pressing her palms to their chests to push them gently away from each other. She said something to the man in the tweed hat. He sat back down in his stool, scowling. Belle drew Granger aside.
She leaned close to him, speaking earnestly. He reared back, looking surprised and anxious. She laid a hand on his shoulder. He shook his head vehemently, but he finally sighed. Belle looked around. When she caught sight of us, she lifted her hand and pointed. I raised my eyebrows. “What’s that all about?” I asked.
Hazel smirked. “I figured he’d listen to Belle. She’s suggestin’ he have a word with us. I didn’t think he’d appreciate us ambushing him and springing questions about the guy who chased him out of Boston all the way to the other end of the country.”
I considered this. “Nice work, Hazel.”
“Can I go play now?”
Patrick Granger approached us with narrow, beady hazel eyes. He wasn’t wearing glasses on his long, hawk-like nose, but he looked as though he should have been. He looked like a regular bean counter. “Belle said you wanted to speak with me,” he said in a fussy sort of voice. He lifted his chin. “I’m Patrick Granger.”
“We’d sussed that. I’m Hazel Harley,” she told him, sticking out her hand to shake. “This is Quimby Burton and Tess Mercury.”
We nodded to him. He looked at me skeptically. “Tess Mercury? Is that a real name?”
I looked at him sharply. “So far as you need to know.”
He shrugged. He glanced pleadingly over his shoulder at Belle, who hovered just within earshot. She smiled at him and flicked her hand in a dismissive gesture. “Go on, Pat, honey. Talk to the folks. Lightning Hazel is a good friend of mine from years back.”
Patrick sighed. She stepped forward and kissed his cheek. She patted it gently and slipped away. He watched after her. Poor guy. Belle was a sweet girl, and she was fond of Patrick Granger, but he was barking up the wrong tree. I tilted my head at him. “Why don’t we head over to the table where we won’t be disturbed.”
He nodded and followed us back to Zeke and Vaughn. Granger barely blinked at the big black man. I reckoned he was a Yankee boy born and raised. He didn’t seem to recognize Zeke. He looked around at us warily. “You wanted to talk to me?”
I nodded. “I know this ain’t what you expected, Patrick, but we want to talk to you about Rush AI.”
He started. “I don’t know anything about that.” He rose half-way out of his chair.
Quimby began to rise beside him, but I laid a hand on Granger’s arm. “None of us work for Rush,” I told him earnestly. “We’re lookin’ to take him down. You might be able to help us.”
He looked between us warily.
“You want your life back?” Zeke asked, leaning forward. “So do I.”
Granger stared at him. After several tense moments, he sat back down. He frowned. “I have a life here now. What if someone finds me?”
“No one’s going to find you,” Zeke told him firmly. “We just need to ask you a few questions.”
Granger sighed deeply. He looked around as though ensuring he knew the patrons around us. Finally, he leaned forward. His shoulders hunched, but he looked resigned. “All right, go ahead. I’ll answer.”
“You worked for the Department of Scientific Progress and Questionable Developments?”
Granger nodded stiffly. “Yes. I was in charge of inspecting the R&D labs at Rush AI. I was attached to the new hand held directed energy weapon project.”
“And it didn’t pass inspection?” I asked, leaning forward in interest.
“It shouldn’t have passed. The weapons are faulty. They explode unpredictably on discharge. They’ve taken off a few of the R&D guys’ hands.”
“They’ve taken off their hands?”
“Well, they won’t admit that’s what happened. They have--replacements.”
We all looked at each other. “Replacements? What do you mean?”
He grimaced. “Mechanical and clockwork replacements of various shapes and sizes and...unique abilities.”
“And somehow no one’s noticed?”
“It sounds neat,” Hazel put in.
“It’s not neat,” Granger told her. “It’s horrible. They claim the replacements were voluntary. No one would confirm anything. After the inspection, one of Rush’s guys showed up at the Department office with a briefcase of money. He suggested we return a positive inspection result.”
He lifted a shoulder. “I didn’t feel right about it. I knew the weapons were faulty, and I knew they shouldn’t be out on the market. I wasn’t the only one in the department who felt that way. We refused to doctor the results.”
“What happened then?”
“Our supervisor was under Rush’s thumb. The ones who dissented were asked to leave the department.”
“You were fired.”
“Yeah. I was fired. I didn’t want to work for a department that was rendered useless and ineffectual by corporations who can buy results.”
“Good for you, Pat,” Hazel told him bracingly.
“What happened to the others who dissented?” Zeke asked. “They disappeared?”
Granger nodded. “Yeah.”
“Dead?” I asked.
He shook his head. “I don’t know. Not for sure. Maybe. Maybe they took off like me.”
“Were any of you talking to the reporter?”
Granger blinked in surprise. “You know about that?”
“Not everything. Did you talk to him?”
“No, not me. He was asking questions, but most of us didn’t want to get involved any more than we already were.”
“Winston Smyth. He was one of my colleagues. He must have talked about the faulty weapons. I saw it in the paper a few days later. After that, I never saw or heard from Winston again. Then the rest of us decided to take off, too. It was safer.”
“Do you know who he was talking to? The reporter?”
He considered. “Sort of. I never talked to him, but I saw the story in the Boston Daily. I don’t remember his last name, but his first name was Jason.”
I snapped my mouth shut with an audible click. I met Vaughn’s eyes then looked away.
“Jason at the Boston Daily,” Zeke said, nodded thoughtfully. “Okay. That’ll do. There probably isn’t more than one. If there is, it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out which one Smyth was talking to.”
We all looked at each other. The conclusion of our business in Fortune City was a bit of a letdown. I felt like I’d been cheated.
“Is that all?” Granger asked, frowning.
“You know anything else that might help us take down Rush?”
He looked grim. “I know you’d have a better chance getting this guy elected president.” He jerked his thumb at Vaughn. “You’re better off not wasting your time.”
“I think we’ll decide how we prefer to waste our own time,” I told him.
He shrugged. “Suit yourself. Good luck.”
Hazel grinned at him. “Well. Thanks a lot, Pat.” She laid a hand on his arm. “You go on and get that girl. She’s a tease, but she’s worth the trouble.”
Granger smiled a tiny smile. His cheeks flushed pink. “Yeah. All right.” He rose and inclined his head to us.
When he was gone, I turned to Zeke. “Well? What now, boss?”
He leaned back in his chair and sighed. He didn’t say anything for a moment. Finally he said, “I guess we head to Boston.”
My posse and I looked at each other.
Zeke scrutinized us narrowly. “You’re going to need some new clothes.”
“Oh, come on now,” I complained.
“It’s a different world out there, Tess.”
I sighed. My posse looked back at me in alarm. “I don’t think we much like the sound of that.”