"You are one of the prettiest things I've ever seen."
Louise Carson twirled around before Hannibal Heyes' appreciative eyes. She pulled up the voluminous folds of her long skirt to display the shoes she wore.
"Aren't these a perfect match for the dress, Han?" She pointed one foot at him.
"Sure are," he agreed. "You are a vision, Louise. You will definitely be the most beautiful woman at this soiree."
She laughed. She felt wonderful. New clothes, new shoes, and the admiration of a handsome man. What more could a girl want?
"There's one thing missing, though," Heyes said.
"Missing?" She twisted around to look at her reflection in the full-length mirror. What could she have forgotten?
"Only one little thing," Heyes told her, rising from his chair. "Be right back." He left her dressing room and returned seconds later with a velvet- covered box.
"Here's the missing piece." He held the box while she reached over to touch it. She recognized the company name inscribed on the top. Her mouth opened in a wide, soundless "oh" of anticipation.
He snapped the lid open, revealing a necklace thick with rows of sparkling rubies. "You can't be seen at the best party in New Orleans without proper jewels."
"Oh Han. Oh. Oh thank you." She flung her arms around him briefly, almost squeezing the breath out of him. "You shouldn't have. It's too much."
"Nothing's too good for my poor sister, the widow with shares in a silver mine and a scoundrel for a brother," Heyes said. She laughed again as she took the necklace from the box and held it high to examine it. The deep color glittered in the gaslight, sending reflected shafts of red light onto her trembling hands.
"Ain't this better than running a restaurant in Yuma?" he asked.
"So much better. I'm beginning to think that the day I first saw you in Yuma, all dirty and smelly, was one of the best days of my life."
He laughed at that, his deep, baritone rumble that made her shiver "Lots of better days than that still to come, Louise. Stick with me, and you'll see."
"I admit I was nervous at first, Han, about working a confidence game, but now – well, I never thought I'd enjoy it as much as I do. It's more fun than I ever imagined. And the rewards" – she held up the necklace again – "I'm afraid you're stuck with me now."
"You're a natural, Louise. I told Jed you were, and you proved me right. There's nothing better than separating a rich fool from some of his money. Some, not all."
"I know," she said, nodding. "That's what Soapy said. Leave them some dignity and some money."
"And pick your marks wisely," he reminded her.
"Yes, I remember that, too. Should I ask how you got this?"
"Louise! I actually paid for it. Don't you worry none." His innocent look didn't fool her.
"With stolen money?" she asked.
"What other kind would I have?"
"I never thought this is how my life would be, Han," she said, so quietly that he had to strain to hear her. "Not ever." He felt his chest tighten with anxiety.
"Do you regret coming with me, Louise? Us, I mean?"
"No. No, I don't." Sometimes he looked like a lost little boy. She put both hands on his shoulders to reassure him.
"I don't regret it, Han. I don't. It's just – it's funny how things turn out, that's all. When I was a girl, and my family left Brooklyn, we thought we'd get rich as soon as we got to the west. The Golden West, land of opportunity." Her laugh was bitter now. "But it was just like the east. The rich get richer by running down the poor but honest. We were broke and starving, just like we were in never had a chance."
"Now you do, Louise. Now you got more than a chance. Not through the courts or the law, because a poor man's got no hope there. The whole system's set up to take care of the bosses and use the rest of us like we were slaves."
"Alright, Han," she said. "You don't need to unleash your silver tongue to convince me; I'm already convinced. I'm here now, and I'm staying here."
Heyes tried not to let his relief show.
"Yes, you are, Louise. And me and Jed will help you learn the business. We'll do some serious Robin Hooding, except we'll take from the rich and keep the money. That necklace is only part of what's coming to you now that you're working with us."
Smiling, she turned back to the mirror and held the glittering strand around her slender neck.
"Let me help you with that." He stood behind her. "The clasp can be a little tricky." She turned her head and pulled her long hair to one side. His fingers seemed to tickle the back of her neck.
"Can you get it?" she asked.
"I can get it." The clasp clicked shut, and he adjusted the heavy necklace to rest comfortably on her pale skin. His fingers strayed to grasp her shoulders, and he pulled her closer, brushing her neck with his soft kisses, from shoulder to ear. She watched his progress in the mirror, almost holding her breath. He bit her earlobe gently, and she closed her eyes and leaned back against him. Slowly, he turned her around to face him, and she moved her hands lower to hold him around his waist. He bent to kiss her lips, and she didn't resist. When he straightened again, his eyes locked with hers for a brief second before he stepped back.
"Louise, I'm so sorry. I shouldn't have done that. I don't know what came over me."
"Don't you? I do."
He almost stumbled in his hurry towards the door. "That was wrong of me to do. I'm supposed to be your brother. That's not brotherly behavior. I'm so sorry, Louise."
"I'll go down to the lobby and find Jed. That'll give you and me more time to get back into character. We're brother and sister, remember. Anyway, we'll just wait for you downstairs, alright? And then we can go to dinner and to the party like we planned." He reached behind him for the doorknob and slipped out into the hallway before Louise could respond. She looked at the closed door for a long moment. He was probably right. She wasn't feeling very sisterly at the moment.
The Hotel Montenegro was a mighty fine hotel, Jed Curry thought. Mighty fine. Everything top of the line, and as fancy as the big money men of New Orleans could make it. And the service! He had hardly sat down in the lobby before a young colored woman brought over a cart stocked with cigars and liquers. With a smooth Cuban cigar and an even smoother Spanish sherry, waiting for Heyes and Louise to come down was proving to be a pleasant experience. He realized he was smiling. This was the kind of life for him. No more riding from one dusty town to another, one step ahead of posses. No more cattle drives or ranch work, ever. An elegantly-dressed young woman walking by caught his attention, and he gave her his biggest, brightest smile. She modestly looked away, but not before blushing. Yes, life was good and getting better.
Relaxed as he was, he still kept a close watch on his surroundings. The chances of being recognized in Louisiana were a lot smaller than they were in Wyoming, but as long as there was a $20,000 reward on him and Heyes, they were in danger. Heyes seemed to think people would forget about them, but Curry had too much faith in human greed to believe that. He noticed a bellman standing in the lobby, looking around for someone. When he saw Curry, he walked quickly over.
"Mr. Mulcahy, I'm so glad I found you." Curry tried not to react to the name. Heyes always insisted he take an Irish alias. He didn't really care; anything was better than Smith and Jones. "I've been looking for you, sir. This special delivery letter just arrived for you."
"Thank you." Curry reached in his pocket for a coin. "That's for your trouble."
The bellman looked at the denomination, his surprise overcoming his professional demeanor.
"That's very generous, sir."
Curry waved him off. "You men work awful hard. It's the best way I know to show my thanks." The bellman bowed briefly and walked away. Curry made a point of tipping generously and treating the staff courteously. He never knew when he might need information or a favor.
He looked at the return envelope on the letter. It was from Soapy, postmarked San Francisco. Soapy only used the U.S. mail when he was worried that telegrams would be intercepted. This might be important. He opened the envelope carefully and withdrew the single page. Soapy's handwriting was as precise as his cons.
He read the letter three times before he folded it neatly and put it back in the envelope. He took out his pocket watch and checked the time. Heyes and Louise were due any minute. He took a drink of the sherry, his mind working furiously, his face calm. Nothing he could do now but wait, and worry.
Heyes came down the grand staircase to the lobby, straightening his cuffs and collar. He'd taken almost as much care with his appearance as Louise had with hers. He had to look the part of a wastrel younger brother, so it made perfect sense for him to wear the finest clothes and jewels. His custom-made Brooks Brothers suit fit his slender frame perfectly. The diamond stickpin in his tie was a modest size, but of the highest quality. A brief smile lit his mobile face as he remembered another time he'd run a con game with "diamonds of the highest quality." He planned for this job to be as successful as the previous one had been, with one big difference – this time, he and Jed and Louise would keep the money. No more handing their haul back to Lom Trevors, or any other lawman.
He found Curry seated against a far wall, almost hidden behind potted plants. He sat down on an overstuffed chair next to him.
"Where've you been? You're late."
"Just helping Louise get ready."
"Sheesh. She'll probably need another half hour then. What were you two doing up there anyway?"
"We weren't doing anything! What is this, twenty questions?"
"What're you getting so hot and bothered for? I just asked you a simple question."
"I'm not getting hot and bothered, unless it's because I have to spend all sorts of time hunting for you in this lobby. How come you're hiding out in this corner behind the bushes?" Heyes asked. "You didn't see anyone, did you?" Both men understand that "anyone" meant, "anyone who could identify Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry."
"No, I didn't. Better to see than be seen anyhow," Curry answered. "Besides, you found me just fine."
"Only because I know you so well."
"Nice and private here, even though we're still in public. We can be seen but not heard at all."
Heyes' eyes narrowed. "Do we need to be not heard at all?"
Curry looked at his friend carefully and whistled a long, slow whistle.
"Nice suit," he remarked. "How much did that cost us?"
"Now don't you worry none about money," Heyes replied. "My sister's taking good care of us."
"She is a very nice sister, and more. Did you want to talk about something before she got here?"
Curry leaned forward. "We might have a problem."
Heyes kept the genial smile on his face. "With our plan?"
"No." Curry took Soapy's letter from his jacket and handed it to Heyes. "With Lom." Heyes' smile slipped.
"Lom!" He hissed. "What's he got to do with anything?"
"Maybe nothing. Maybe everything. Read this."
Heyes withdrew the letter from the envelope and unfolded it to read. Curry watched him quickly scan the letter and then read it again. Finally, Heyes folded it and replaced it into the envelope, tapping the envelope against the arm of his chair several times.
"Well?" Curry asked. "What should we do?"
The tapping stopped. "Nothing. We do nothing."
"Nothing!" Curry said, his voice rising. Both men looked around the room to see if anyone had noticed.
"Nothing!" Curry repeated, more quietly. "Lom's onto us."
"No, he isn't. He doesn't know where we are. He doesn't know what we're doing. Hell, he doesn't even know our names. All he knows is, we haven't checked in with him like we used to. He's suspicious, that's all."
"He's got a right to be. Soapy says he's threatening to hunt us down, and you think we should do nothing?"
Heyes just shrugged. "Yes. Think about it, Jed. The U.S. of A. is an awful big country. How's one sheriff from a nothing town in Wyoming going to find us? Even if he gets the Governor to send him some help, they'll be looking in the West, and we're in New Orleans. When we finish our business here, we'll be in Cuba. That's a whole different country. No, Lom's not a problem. Forget this" – he held up the letter – "and forget Lom. We've moved on and left Smith and Jones behind. When Lom gets tired of wasting his time on us, he'll move on, too."
"I don't know about that. You know how he is. Once Lom gets his mind fixed on something, he's like a dog with a bone. He never lets go."
"He can chew that bone for as long as he likes, but it won't do him no good. We're two people in an awful big country. He'll get frustrated sooner or later and go back to Porterville. Maybe he'll get off his behind and start courting Miss Porter."
"Miss Porter? Are you kidding me?"
"Well, maybe not Miss Porter," Heyes allowed. "But someone. Point I'm trying to make is, whatever he thinks he can do, it ain't going to be enough. We're gone already, and we'll be even more gone, once we head down to Cuba. He won't ever find us, try as hard as he might. We got nothing to worry about. Trust me."
"Forgive me if I don't trust you on this, partner. I am worried. That's my job, like you always tell me. Lom knows us, better than any lawman. He'll be harder to shake than the whole Apache nation."
"Apache skills won't help in this case. It ain't like we're leaving horse prints in mud or breaking twigs. We're like smoke, Jed. The wind came up, and we disappeared in it. Ain't nobody can track that."
"I don't know, Heyes. Soapy takes what he said real serious."
"As well he should, and us, too. We take it serious, but we don't over-react. We keep doing what we're doing, and we stay east of the Mississippi for a good long while. Maybe we can even take Louise to Europe for a while. Pretty good for a couple nobodies from nowhere in Kansas, ain't it?"
"That's the other part you're ignoring, partner. We ain't nobodies. We're known everywhere, even here. Those stupid dime novels are everywhere."
"I'm not ignoring that part. But remember, people are looking for Heyes and Curry to rob banks. They're not doing that anymore. Haven't done for more than three years. There's other young fools out there like they were, thinking a reputation is a good thing and doing everything they can to get famous. Heyes and Curry will fade away in the public's mind till they're like something out of the past. And that'll be the end of the story. We're free to live like we want to, Jed. Finally."
"Free, are we? Free enough to live under our own names?"
"No. And we won't ever be, so get that dream out of your head. That's all the amnesty ever was, a pipe dream. And we feel for it, like a couple of marks. No more."
"Lom believed in it," Curry said. "He believed in us, too, and now he thinks we lied to him from the get-go." Heyes' troubled expression matched his own.
"That's why I'm worried, Heyes. That's why I think Lom could be a big problem for us. He thinks we back-stabbed him; that we never intended to go straight for real. It's personal for him. We got to do something to get him off our trail."
"You got something in mind?" Heyes asked.
"Uh-uh, partner. That's your job. Me, I'm the security man. I keep an eye open for threats. You do the planning. I think Lom is a threat. And just in case you forgot, it ain't just you and me anymore. If we get caught, Louise will go to prison, too. We might survive prison, but she wouldn't. That'd kill her. We can't let that happen."
"Okay. I'll think on it. But I still don't think this problem's as big as you do."
"Problem? Is there a problem?" Both men rose politely when they heard Louise's voice.
"No problem, Gretchen," Heyes said, slipping into his role.
"I'd say there is a problem, Robert," Curry added. "With Gretchen looking so lovely, you and I will have to defend her from all the men fighting to fill her dance card tonight."
"Why thank you, Mr. Mulcahy," Louise said. "But I'll be sure to save two dances for you, if you like."
Curry bowed formally. "Gretchen, I would be honored. Shall we get a cab? We don't want to be late for our dinner reservation."
Both men took Louise's arms and walked towards the entrance.
Through her bright smile, Louise whispered to them. "What's the matter? You two look like you had a fight."
Curry patted her hand. "No fight. We were just talking about the past. Someone we used to know."
"Is there a problem I need to know about?"
Heyes and Curry exchanged a quick glance over Louise's head.
"No," Heyes said. "Nothing you need to know about."
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