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JAILBIRD—GREASING PALMS—A PIECE OF THE PAST—THE WRONG KIND OF GOOSE BUMPS
When you’re a detective, certain things come with the job. Getting shot at, for example, or tossing a man twice your size over your shoulder. From time to time, there might be a little light burglary. If you’re with the special branch of the Pinkerton National Detective Agency, you can add to the list the occasional tussle with a ghost or a shade, or a person endowed with the sorts of uncanny powers that people in my line of work refer to as luck. These things come with the territory. You expect them.
One thing you do not expect is to spend the night in jail, and I can’t say that I much care for it.
I’d never set foot in the Tombs before that night, not even for work. Even though I grew up a stone’s throw away, in the heart of Five Points, I harbored a slum dweller’s natural suspicion of the law, and I’d always given the place a wide berth. I’m not sure what I expected it to be like, but as it turns out, the name says it all. That’s not its real name, of course—officially, it’s the New York City Halls of Justice—but I’ve never heard a soul refer to it that way. Even the coppers call it the Tombs, and a more dismal place you’d be hard-pressed to find, at least on the island of Manhattan.
As to how I ended up there, I blamed Thomas.
My partner was a brilliant investigator, but he had a peculiar affection for breaking and entering—or, more precisely, for getting me to sneak onto premises where my presence was not strictly legal. This time, it was the home of a certain prominent businessman whose name was often in the papers. Like many of New York’s elite, this gentleman was lucky, though of course that particular detail never made it into print. The existence of the paranormal was a closely guarded secret, known only to a few thousand New Yorkers, most of whom were lucky themselves. That exclusive list did not include the coppers who arrested me, or the chief matron who came by every so often to shine a lantern between the bars of my cell and scowl at my degenerate ways. How could I explain to them that my theft—or rather, my attempted theft, since I’d been caught before I could finish the job—was for the public good? The thing is, ma’am, that artifact is magic. Powerful magic that shouldn’t be in the hands of a ruthless shark like Edmund Drake. The Pinkertons will take good care of it and see that it can’t do any harm.
No, that sort of speech would land me straight back in the cranky-hutch, and one visit to the Lunatic Pavilion at Bellevue Hospital was quite enough for me. (That, dear reader, is a whole other story, one I would rather forget.)
I might have tried to plead my case by pointing out that the artifact in question didn’t belong to Edmund Drake, either, having been stolen earlier that week from Wang’s General Store. But the odds of a pair of immigrants like Mr. Wang and me being believed over a man as powerful as Edmund Drake were slim to none. So there I sat, huddled on the damp floor as far away from the flea-riddled mattress as I could get, scratching myself raw and thinking very dark thoughts about my partner, Mr. Thomas Wiltshire, whose grand scheme had landed me in this horrible place.
Thankfully, I wouldn’t have to endure it much longer. An echoing boom sounded at the far end of the corridor, followed by approaching footsteps. I sat up a little straighter, listening. No jingle of keys, which meant it wasn’t the matron. I felt a flicker of hope, followed by a flood of relief as I recognized the familiar rhythm of the footfalls coming down the corridor. A moment later, Thomas appeared on the other side of the bars, looking very sheepish indeed.
I stayed where I was, scowling up at him and trying very hard not to show how glad I was to see him. He looked wildly out of place in that grim dungeon, trimmed in his usual elegant tailoring, silk hat on head and griffin-headed walking stick in hand, dark-haired, pale-eyed, and irritatingly handsome. I wasn’t the only one who thought so, apparently: a wolf whistle sounded from one of the nearby cells, followed by peals of feminine laughter up and down the cellblock. Thomas lifted an eyebrow but didn’t turn his head.
“Good morning,” I said. “At least, I assume it’s morning. It’s hard to be sure, what with the lack of windows in this cell.”
He sighed. “I can’t tell you how sorry—”
“You can and you shall, but right now I’d quite like to leave.”
“Yes, of course.” He fidgeted with his jacket in his very English way, casting an awkward glance down the corridor. “The matron is coming just now.”
She grunted when she arrived at my cell, shaking her head as though she considered it a terrible mistake to set me loose on the world. “Got yourself a real fancy lawyer here, Miss Gallagher,” she said, indicating Thomas with a jerk of her chin. “Can’t imagine why he’d have truck with the likes of you.” She took her displeasure out on the door, clanging and banging her way through the business until the bolt shot aside and the squeal of rusting hinges signaled my freedom. “You should look to a more savory breed of client, sir,” she opined. “Thieving Irish are surely beneath you.”
“Reckon she’s making it worth his while,” a voice called from the cell above me, to more laughter. “Hey, mister, I’d be happy to trade too, if you get me outta here.”
Thomas pretended not to hear, but I could tell he was annoyed. I wondered if he’d ever been catcalled before. I don’t suppose most men have had the pleasure, especially not wealthy Fifth Avenue swells like Thomas. The laughter followed us all the way out of the women’s prison and into the courtyard, only to be drowned out by the grim clatter of timber hitting the flagstones as workers took down the gallows from the morning’s hanging. Thomas and I hurried past, and we didn’t slow until we’d reached the entrance, where I paused in the shadow of the faux-Egyptian columns to let my eyes adjust to the sunlight. Morning was well under way, from the look of things. Centre Street was crowded with pedestrians, and the streetcar that rumbled past was full of New Yorkers on their way to work. That meant I’d spent at least ten hours in that wretched place.
“We’re over here.” Thomas gestured at a carriage parked across the street. Not our usual battered hack, I saw, but a shiny new brougham—an awfully fancy way of getting around in this neighborhood. He must have been feeling very guilty indeed. A clutch of ragamuffins had already gathered around the vehicle, waiting for its presumably rich owner to return; I shooed them away gently before accepting a hand up from the coachman. Thomas climbed in beside me, and we were off. “I presume you wish to head home?”
“Yes, please. Mam will be worried sick.” My mother was still in the dark about my new life as a Pinkerton agent. As far as she knew, I was still Thomas Wiltshire’s maid, and for now at least, I saw no good reason for that to change. My mother’s health was fragile, mentally and physically, and it wouldn’t do her any good to know that her only child was breaking into homes or spending nights in jail. “I have no idea how I’m going to explain not coming home last night.”
“You needn’t be concerned about that. As soon as I left Drake’s, I sent a note to your mother explaining that I was giving a last-minute soiree and needed you to work overtime.”
“Thank you. That was thoughtful of you.” I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye, already feeling my anger drain away. Try as I might, I never managed to stay cross with Thomas Wiltshire for long. It’s terribly hard to argue with perfection, and though no one is actually perfect, Thomas did a credible impression of it. He didn’t just look the part—impeccable taste, meticulous grooming, fine, aristocratic features—he insisted on being so eminently reasonable all the time, delivering his carefully framed thoughts in the poshest English this side of Buckingham Palace. The combined effect of it all was to make you feel as if any fault you found must surely be your own.
Also, he had an annoying habit of apologizing before you could even work up a proper head of steam. “I really am frightfully sorry, Rose. I had no idea there was so much involved in getting someone released on a relatively minor charge.”
He snorted softly. “I believe the vernacular term is greasing palms. A great many palms, as it turns out.”
“Maybe if you’d showed up looking a little less”—I gestured at his obviously expensive attire—“a little less like you, there wouldn’t have been so many palms to grease. You might as well wear a sign around your neck that says free money.”
“You’re right, of course. An amateur mistake. I was in a hurry, believe it or not.”
“I take it you couldn’t reach Sergeant Chapman?” My favorite copper would have come for me straightaway, I had no doubt. And instead of greasing palms, he’d have banged some heads.
“I telephoned him at the station, but he’d most likely gone home for the night.”
“Well, it’s over now, anyway.” Weary to the bone, I slumped against the carriage window, watching idly as we turned up Broadway—and promptly became bogged down in traffic. At this time of day, New York’s busiest street was a jostling river of hacks and horsecars, with the occasional brave pedestrian darting through the gaps between them. I’d have to wait a little longer for the hot bath I was craving.
I could feel Thomas’s eyes on me. “Rose…”
“It’s all right. I’m a grown woman. I could have said no if I’d wanted to. I just wish it hadn’t all been for nothing.”
“Nothing? Why, on the contrary, it was a cracking success.”
I turned to find him wearing a sly smile. Reaching into his jacket pocket, he produced an unassuming chunk of rock.
“You got it?” I jerked upright, snatching the rock from his hands and turning it over in amazement. “How?”
“You did such a masterful job of creating a diversion that I was able to slip inside during the confusion. I daresay they still haven’t noticed anything amiss. Of course, it would have been a different matter had Drake not been out of town. He’d have known who you were and what you’d come for, and he’d have secured the stone straightaway. Happily, his servants were none the wiser, and it didn’t occur to anyone that you might have an accomplice.”
I examined the object in my hands. To all appearances, it was an ordinary stone, smooth on one side and jagged everywhere else, as though it had recently been broken. Which it had. This was a fragment of Flood Rock, a tiny island in the East River that had been blown to bits by the Army Corps of Engineers a year and a half ago, in the fall of 1885. What the army hadn’t known—what no one, not even in the paranormal community, had realized—was that Flood Rock was also a seal guarding a portal to the otherworld, the place where ghosts and shades and fae roam free. Blowing it open might have cleared the way for ships, but it also set loose a tide of spirits to wreak havoc on the city. Happily, the Pinkertons had managed to restore the seal before things got too out of hand, with most of New York none the wiser. We’d thought the matter settled until a piece of Flood Rock turned up on the black market a few weeks ago.
It was about the size of a fist and smelled a little like the sea, but if it had any power, I couldn’t sense it. “Do you suppose it’s even true, what they say about it?”
“We’ll have to conduct the proper tests, but I expect so. It’s well known that proximity to a portal greatly enhances supernatural attributes. It stands to reason that a piece of the seal would act as a sort of amplifier, magnifying the luck and magic around it. Imagine what a man like Edmund Drake could do with something like that in his pocket.”
I shivered at the thought. Thomas and I had seen firsthand what Drake was capable of last year, when he’d used his luck to hypnotize us into revealing the details of our investigation. If those powers were even stronger … “He’d be President of the United States by this time next year.”
Thomas wrapped the stone in a handkerchief and stowed it away. “I’ll take this to the Astor Library as soon as I drop you off. They’ll keep it safe in the special vaults until someone from the Agency arrives to secure it more permanently.”
“What about Mr. Wang? Won’t he be upset after all the work he put into tracking it down?”
Thomas arched a dark eyebrow. “And what about all the work we put into tracking down the thief, not to mention recovering the artifact? Besides, Wang must have known the Agency wouldn’t allow the stone to be sold to the highest bidder. It’s far too dangerous for that. I’m sure he’ll be content with a finder’s fee.”
“Let’s hope you’re right. I’d hate for him to be angry with us.”
“As would I. We cannot afford to alienate him. He’s the best there is.”
Aside from being a gifted apothecary, Mr. Wang presided over the most comprehensive stock of rare magical items in America. That, and his unrivaled network in the paranormal community, made him an invaluable ally.
But there was more to it than that. “He also happens to be our friend,” I said pointedly. “One who’s saved both our lives.”
“Of course. I didn’t mean to sound transactional. Perhaps it will soften the blow if we speak with him together. We can pay him a visit once you’ve had a chance to rest. You must be exhausted.”
“I am,” I admitted, fading back against the window. “But at least we got the stone. The only thing worse than spending the night in that place was thinking that it was all for nothing.”
Thomas reached over and took my hand, giving it a gentle tug until I slid a little closer. There wasn’t a lot of seat to slide along, and the move left us tucked snugly into one corner of the brougham. “I really am so sorry, Rose,” he murmured.
His eyes searched mine, and I felt the familiar flutter in my belly. He rarely took such liberties, especially after. By which I mean after that night in the parlor six months ago, when we’d shared our first and only kiss. Ever since, I’d thought of our relationship in terms of before and after. I suspected Thomas did too, but I couldn’t be sure, because of course we never, ever talked about it. What would be the point? We both knew there was no future for us, romantically speaking. Consorting with the likes of me would ruin Thomas socially, and get him fired in the bargain. As for me, I’d forever be known as the girl who got her job because she was involved with the boss. We weren’t prepared to ask that of ourselves or each other, at least not for now. And so we pretended the kiss never happened.
Every now and then, though, I’d find myself staring into those pale eyes, heat washing over me as I remembered the feel of his mouth on mine. In those moments—moments like this—we were in danger of letting ourselves be swept away. Thomas’s color was up, and his gaze had taken on that glassy quality that made my heart beat faster. His fingertips drifted along the soft skin between my knuckles, gliding up the back of my hand in a slow caress. My breath grew shallow, and my bottom lip slid between my teeth.
A tiny crease appeared between Thomas’s dark eyebrows. He looked down. “What’s this?” His touch grew firmer, more clinical.
I followed his gaze to the tiny bumps dotting my arm. “Oh, that.” I sighed. “That would be fleas.”
HOME SWEET HOME—PUTTING DOWN ROOTS—HARD LUCK
Exhausted as I was, I couldn’t help smiling as I stepped out of the brougham in front of 123 Washington Place. I don’t know if every new homeowner feels such pride, but for me, the sight of my tidy little redbrick house never failed to make my soul feel lighter. Number 123 was a handsome example of the Federal style, a narrow two and a half stories with arched windows, crisp white dormers jutting out from a sloping roof, and fluted Roman detail around the entrance. Built in the 1830s, it was designed for a middle-class family, which meant that for my household of three, it was positively a mansion, especially compared to the tiny flat I grew up in.
Something was different today, I noticed. It took me a moment to place it—and then I realized that Mam had hung window boxes on the second floor, full of delicate blue pansies that stood out cheerfully against the white trim. My smile grew even wider, and not just because I loved flowers. After nearly two months, Mam was finally settling into her new home.
“Good morning,” I called as I walked through the door.
“Fiora!” Pietro came rushing out of the kitchen, looking equal parts relieved and annoyed. Unlike Mam, he knew the truth about what I did for a living—well, some of it, anyway—and he would have known Thomas’s message about a party had been pure flimflam. “Where have you—”
“Rose, dear, is that you?”
Pietro fell silent, and we shared a meaningful look. His questions would have to wait.
“Yes, Mam, it’s me. I’m coming just now.” Hanging my overcoat on the rack, I followed Pietro into the kitchen, where I was met by a heady smell of garlic. Something bubbled on the stove, and little piles of chopped herbs and vegetables covered one side of the table. On the other side stood my mother, chicken in one hand and cleaver in the other, a soiled apron tied around her tiny waist.
For a second I just stood there, too thunderstruck to speak.
“Mam, are you … cooking?”
Pietro arranged himself at the other end of the table and resumed chopping, casual as you please, as though the sight of my mother preparing a meal were nothing special.
“Well, what does it look like, you silly thing?” Mam waved her cleaver in an offhanded way.
It looked like my often-confused mother had a very large knife in her hand, but it wouldn’t do to say so. “I’m just … a bit surprised, is all.”
“You act as if you’ve never seen me cook before.”
I glanced at Pietro, but he was no help; he just winked at me and kept chopping. “Well, it has been a while, Mam.” By a while, I meant years, ever since her dementia had made the task too dangerous to contemplate. The main reason I’d found her a boarder three years ago was to take care of the cooking while I was away at work. Fortunately for Mam, Pietro had proved to be more than competent in the kitchen, and had even managed to coax her into trying something other than the bland cabbage-and-potatoes fare she’d grown up with. These days, Mam enjoyed garlic and tomatoes nearly as much as our boarder. “What are you making?”
“Pollo alla cacciatora,” Pietro replied. “I like to make this sauce with rabbit, but I couldn’t find it nowhere.”
“Couldn’t find it anywhere, Peter.” As a former schoolteacher, Mam never tired of correcting his grammar. It had been the same with me when I was a child, except Pietro handled it with a lot more grace than I ever had.
“Sorry, Mama,” he said affably. “One day I will learn.”
“Are these fresh tomatoes?” I picked up a juicy-looking specimen. “Where did you find hothouse tomatoes around here?” Plenty of posh grocers uptown carried them, but I couldn’t think of any place between Washington Square and … “Ah,” I said, spying a link of salami hanging from the ceiling. “I see you made a trip to Augusto’s.”
There must have been something in my tone, because Pietro looked up. “Sì, I wanted to buy some seeds for the garden. Actually…” Setting his knife down, he gestured at the door leading out to the courtyard. “Come, Fiora, I show you.”
He led me out into the small yard behind the house, where he’d already started removing some of the paving stones to plant a garden. The shade-loving plants would go here, he’d informed me, while he planned to try growing tomatoes and such on the roof. “I bought a few different kinds to try, and they also had these.” He pointed to some baby plants wrapped in burlap. “I will put them in a bucket for now.”
“What are they?”
“Melanzana. I’m not sure how you call them in English.” He made a shape with his hands. “Like a squash, but purple?”
“Aubergines. At least, that’s what we call them. Americans call them eggplant.” Folding my arms, I added, “And you can find them a lot closer than Augusto’s.”
He folded his arms right back at me. “Va bene. You tell me where you were last night, and I tell you why I went to Augusto’s.”
“I was…” Peering around his lanky frame, I checked that the door to the kitchen was firmly shut. “I had a spot of trouble, and…” Oh, just spit it out. “I spent the night in the Tombs.”
Pietro’s eyebrows flew up, and for a moment I thought he was going to scold me. Instead, he burst out laughing. “The Tombs! Non ci posso credere. Beautiful!” Leaning forward, he sniffed at me. “You don’t smell too bad for all that.”
“I’m glad you find it so amusing.”
“Sorry.” He didn’t look sorry. His dark eyes danced, and he didn’t even try to hide his smile. “But it is a little ironic, no? A detective spending the night in jail? I don’t remember things like this happening when you were a maid.”
“I don’t remember a lot of things happening when I was a maid. Being able to afford my own home, for example.”
“Careful. You don’t want Mama to hear.”
There was a hint of disapproval in his voice, and I knew why. Pietro didn’t like keeping secrets from my mother. I wasn’t very happy about it either, but I didn’t see much choice. Mam’s health was improving, but she certainly wasn’t back to her old self, and I doubted she ever would be. Part of her condition was down to the amount of time she’d spent communing with the ghost of her dead mother—a practice Thomas had thankfully convinced her to curb—but another part was what the doctors referred to as dementia, and it left her confused and forgetful. As it was, Pietro and I had to remind her regularly that she lived here now, instead of in the tiny flat on Mott Street where I’d grown up. Just last week, I’d come home to find her sobbing in Pietro’s arms. She’d woken up from her nap with no idea where she was or how she got there. What Mam needed right now was familiarity and routine, and that did not include finding out her daughter was a Pinkerton.
“Are you going to tell me why you were in jail?” Pietro asked.
“It’s a long story, and you probably don’t want the details.”
“You always say that.”
“I do, and we agreed it was for the best.” As far as I knew, Pietro wasn’t the superstitious sort. Though he humored Mam about her ghost, he didn’t really believe her, and I saw no need to burden him with the truth about the supernatural world. “Anyway, it’s your turn. What were you doing down in Five Points?”
“Just saying hello to some friends at the grocery.”
“Anyone I know?”
Pietro’s mouth took a wry turn. “Subtle. No, I didn’t speak to Augusto.”
“I don’t know what you mean. I was just curious, that’s all.”
“I’m not stupid, Fiora. I know that part of the reason you brought me here was to keep me away from Augusto and the Mulberry Street Gang.”
“I brought you here so Mam wouldn’t start asking questions about how I could afford a house on a servant’s salary.” We’d told her the place was rented, and that Pietro was contributing as a boarder, just as he’d done in Five Points.
“Sì, and as a nice coincidence, that means there is someone around to help her while you’re out. And, oh, by the way, another nice coincidence: it means your friend Pietro won’t have time to be hanging around that shady Italian grocery. It’s all very tidy, no?”
I couldn’t help laughing, even as I blushed. “Was it that obvious?”
He shrugged. “I know how you love your clever little schemes.”
Not as clever as all that, apparently. Sheepishly, I said, “I hope you don’t feel too manipulated.”
“I used to work for Augusto. Believe me, compared to that, you don’t even know what manipulating means.”
“Then why go back there?”
He sighed. “Please, Rose, you’re not my mama. If I want to see my friends, I will see my friends.”
“Since when is Augusto a friend?”
“He’s not. He’s one of the most important businessmen in Five Points—”
“Who also happens to be a ruthless criminal.”
“—who also happens to have a lot of influence in my community, even with respectable people. I’m Italian, Fiora. Family is important to us, and loyalty. I cannot just go away and expect them to welcome me back when I decide it’s time to make a life for myself. If I want a business of my own one day, and a family, I cannot afford to make an enemy of Augusto.”
I sighed. I might not like it, but I knew he was right. It was true of most immigrant communities to one degree or another. Italians shopped at Italian businesses and married Italian spouses and had Italian children. To them, it even mattered what region you came from, and which village. The fact that a Bolognese like Augusto wielded such influence even over southerners like Pietro was proof of the man’s reach. If Pietro wanted a life among his people, he’d have to stay in Augusto’s good graces. “Just promise me you won’t get mixed up with his business.”
“I’m not the one who spent the night in jail.”
“Maybe not this time, but I’ll bet you have.”
“Certo. And since I have some experience, you should take my advice and have a bath.”
I smiled wearily. “I thought you said I don’t smell too bad.”
“No,” he said, “but you probably have fleas.”
* * *
I took the longest bath of my life, after which I sat down to a nice meal, so I was feeling more or less right with the world by the time I struck out for the el. It wasn’t a long journey. My new house was just half a block from the Sixth Avenue line, which ran the length of the island from the Battery to Central Park. That nearness had its downsides: the only thing noisier than a steam train is an elevated steam train, and Pietro’s rooftop tomatoes would probably end up sporting a healthy dusting of ash. That didn’t bother me. I had thick windows, and besides, those little faults were part of the reason I could afford a house in such a nice neighborhood. You certainly couldn’t beat it for convenience: in no time at all, I was descending from the platform at 58th Street, from which it was a short walk to Thomas’s house.
I took my time, strolling along the edge of Central Park and enjoying the warm sun on my face. Last night’s events already seemed a distant memory, and I marveled at how easy it was to recover from life’s little hiccups when everything else was going smoothly. The worries that had plagued me for so long—about my mother’s health, our finances, my lack of real prospects—were gradually fading into memory. Mam was doing so much better, and now she had a proper place to live. I had money in my pockets and good friends to spend it with. I had a job with real purpose. I was, in other words, happy.
So naturally, when I spied an unfamiliar brougham parked outside 726 Fifth Avenue, I viewed it as nothing less than a harbinger of doom.
I hurried up the steps and let myself in after a cursory knock. Until recently, I’d lived here myself, first as a housemaid and then as a guest, so I didn’t feel the need to stand on ceremony. “Hello?” I called. “Thomas?”
“They’re up in the study.”
Clara appeared in the hallway, a ledger tucked under her arm. That, and the fact that she wasn’t wearing her usual cook’s apron, told me that she was on housekeeper duty at the moment. How she managed to juggle cooking with running a household, I never understood, but manage it she did, and without a lick of nonsense. “Who’s they?” I asked, giving her a quick hug.
“Mr. Burrows is with ’em, but I didn’t catch the other fella’s name. It was Louise answered the door, since I was busy doing the inventory. Did you know there’s four hundred bottles down in that cellar? What’s a bachelor need with that much booze, anyway? Ain’t like he’s throwing any parties.” Pausing, she looked me up and down. “Rose, honey, you feeling all right? You look like a fresh-scrubbed beet.”
I glanced down at my arms, which were indeed rather pink. “You’re not far off. I may have gotten a little carried away in the bath this morning.”
“I bet you did. Mr. Wiltshire told me all about your little adventure at the jail.”
“How thoughtful of him.”
She laughed. “Nobody ever said this Pinkerton business was gonna be ribbons and puppies.” Clara was my best friend, and one of only a handful of people who knew the truth about what I did for a living—ghosts and shades and all. She didn’t much like it, but she’d made her peace with it, and even lent a hand now and then. Especially when I needed stitches, which was more often than I would have liked.
“It was awful,” I said.
“And I wanna hear all about it, but you best get on up there with the others. Looked like business to me.”
I headed upstairs, pausing on the landing to check my reflection in the mirror. Rosy complexion aside, I looked fresh and presentable, my clothing crisp and my strawberry blond hair pinned neatly in place. Thus reassured, I made my way to the study. The door stood ajar, and just as I was about to knock, a high, hoarse laugh sounded from within.
“Good heavens, Burrows, what a rascal you are! Mr. Wiltshire and I are shocked, are we not, sir?”
I knew that voice. It was one of the most recognized in the city, and it belonged to Theodore Roosevelt.
“Miss Gallagher!” He propelled himself out of his chair with his usual vigor. “Good to see you again!” Seizing my hand in both of his, he gave it a hearty shake, sending a familiar buzz of energy up my arm. Most people who met Mr. Roosevelt put that strange tingle down to charisma, but I knew better. Theodore Roosevelt was lucky, and his powers were perfectly suited to a politician. Brilliant though he might be, it was the uncanny magnetism of his luck that drew people to him like moths to a flame. Though he’d lost the mayoral election a few months ago, there was little doubt he had a bright future in politics, and I was very proud to have saved his life. (Twice, not that I was counting.)
“You’re looking well, sir.”
“I suppose you mean well-stuffed,” he said amiably, patting his belly. “I blame the exquisite restaurants of Europe.”
If he’d put on weight, I didn’t see it; his stocky frame looked as powerful as ever. A lingering suntan and hints of red in his hair and mustache only added to the impression of vitality. “And what brings you to us this afternoon?” I asked, though I had a sinking feeling I knew the answer.
He flashed a toothy grin. “Why, have you forgotten? I did warn you back in October that I’d have some business for the two of you come spring.”
“In Dakota. I remember.” Forgetting something and putting it out of one’s mind are not quite the same. Taking a seat next to our other guest, I added, “I didn’t realize that business involved Mr. Burrows.”
“Does my presence offend you, Miss Gallagher?” The gentleman in question gave me a lazy smile, as though he didn’t much mind about my answer. Which he probably didn’t. Jonathan Burrows had the sort of good looks and careless charm that routinely sent Fifth Avenue princesses to the fainting couch, and he knew it. Add to that a fortune to rival the Rockefellers, and you had a man too pleased with himself by half. He was also brave and loyal and generous, but he could be thoroughly exasperating, and hardly a week went by that I didn’t want to break something over his pretty golden head.
I made sure my gaze said as much. “Don’t be silly, Mr. Burrows. I’m only thinking of our client.”
“We did discuss the need for discretion when we spoke last fall,” Thomas put in, shooting a warning glance of his own at his mischievous best friend.
“Much appreciated, both of you,” Mr. Roosevelt said. “But few gentlemen of my acquaintance are safer with a secret than my old college chum here.”
“There we cannot argue,” Thomas said. “Moreover, I gather from what you said before Miss Gallagher came in that the two of you have discussed the matter already.”
“A little, yes. It came up in a roundabout sort of way. Burrows and I were having luncheon earlier, and I mentioned that I’m completely ruined.” Mr. Roosevelt’s laugh was even higher-pitched than usual. “Then I recalled that the three of you were close confederates, so I felt free to unburden myself.”
“Ruined?” I exchanged a look with Thomas. “Do you mean financially?”
“That was my principal meaning, but at the risk of sounding sentimental, I will confess that I am also utterly heartbroken. We’ve had a terrible winter at the ranch, you see. I lost a great many of my backwoods babies. Cattle, that is.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I said. “Was it a very large herd?”
“Thirty-two thousand head,” he replied wistfully. “Plus more than a thousand calves. That was last fall, mind you. As of now, I couldn’t give you a number. We’re still rounding up the stragglers, but we estimate the losses at about sixty-five percent.”
Thomas jerked forward in his chair. “Sixty-five percent? Good heavens! I’d read in the papers that the industry had taken a blow, but this … why, it’s staggering!”
“I fared better than most, if you can believe it. And though perhaps ruined is a touch overstating the case, I am exceedingly strained, and I don’t know that I can sustain the investment.”
“It’s hard luck, Roosevelt,” Mr. Burrows said.
Our guest grunted. “What an interesting choice of words, old fellow. It’s some kind of luck, if I have any nose for it.”
Thomas narrowed his eyes. “Are we to understand that something more than nature was at work here?”
“I will not claim to master all the secrets of Mother Nature, Mr. Wiltshire, but one thing I know for certain: Something strange is going on in the Badlands. Something evil. And the way things are going, by this time next year, there will be no one left to stop it.”
Copyright © 2020 by Erin Lindsey