Full disclaimers with the Prologue. In short, not mine. This is for fun and not profit.

- ACT ONE: "A Burning Question" -

- Chapter 3 -

There cable car creaked and groaned its way up Powell Street to the top of Nob Hill.

The car was empty, so Brisco took a seat in the interior. Besides being sheltered from the wind, it allowed him to keep an eye on the two men on horseback following at a distance they assumed kept them out of sight.

He watched as the city fanned out behind them in a sea of lights that twinkled all the way to the inky black expanse of the San Francisco Bay. One hundred years from now, he idly wondered what the city would look like. Judging by the way high-rise office buildings were springing up in the financial district to the east, there wouldn't be a view and the stars would be blotted out by the bright, electric lights. Even Brisco County, Jr., had to admit that there was a downside to the 'coming thing.'

Beatrice fidgeted on the bench next to him.

"You're really going to help me?" she asked. "You're going to find Alice's killer?"

"I'm certainly gonna try." And by that, he meant he would look into it, ask a few questions, rattle a few cages. There were certain things about the story that didn't quite make sense. If a wrong had been committed, if a woman had been murdered, Brisco would fight to see that justice was served against her killer. But if not, if the woman had simply eloped with her fiancé...

Brisco thumbed through the diary as the trolley chugged steadily upward. If he could get a glimpse into the young woman's mind, perhaps that would help him solve her disappearance.

Alice was a faithful diarist; the small leather book was nearly filled and the dates indicated she wrote every day without fail. She wrote in a way that conveyed intelligence, independence, and a keen resourcefulness. Her diary revealed a spirit hardened but not broken by the cruel city. She was devoted to her friends and successful at her job as a bookkeeper in the pharmacy.

By all accounts, Alice Russell seemed like a sensible girl. But sensible people could do foolish things in the name of love.

"E.C." made his first appearance in an entry dated May 10th, 1894. By her account, she rejected his advances at first but was gradually won over by his attention. It seemed that the wealthy playboy really had fallen in love with the common girl. He wooed her with gifts, moved her into a new apartment, and eventually proposed to her.

His father didn't approve, of course, and the couple kept their relationship a secret. Alice wrote that E.C. wanted to marry without his father's blessing, an act that would surely cut the junior Atterbury out of the will. But...

"...E.C. says we will elope at Christmas time, smuggle ourselves aboard one of his ships and sail for London, where we will be wedded and live penniless but happy..." Alice had written back in September. "I told him it was a foolish plan and I would have no part of it. We do it right, or not at all."

The words of a practical girl. Or...one who wanted nothing less than an extravagant wedding in Saint Mary's Cathedral, the kind that had San Francisco's finest on the guest list and left tongues wagging in the society page of the major newspapers for days.

Brisco realized he was ill-equipped to make that particular distinction. He glanced out the window, checking to see if the cable car was still being trailed - it was - and then flipped ahead.

The last entry was dated December 18th.

"B. will arrive soon. I can scarcely contain my excitement as I've missed her so much. We shall share my apartment, E.C. approves, and I'll bring her to work at the apoth."

An innocuous entry, one written by someone who didn't appear to be under duress. It declared nothing was out of the ordinary in the life of young Alice Russell. It did not seem that she was planning to run off without telling her best friend.

Her disappearance was, in the very least, out of character.

Besides the photographs, the diary contained other items as well. Several sheets of paper had stuffed between the blank pages in the back. Brisco unfolded them carefully. They were lined green-and-cream colored ledger paper, the kind used for accounting and bookkeeping. The items were listed in the same hand as the diary; numbers, dates, names of what he assumed to be customers and items sold. The edge of one side was torn and ragged, as if the pages had been ripped forcefully from their binder.

The streetcar slowed and stopped. Brisco refolded the pages and stuffed them back into the diary, making a mental note to go over them later. The most intimate details of Alice's life were contained between the leather covers of the journal; if she put the pages there, she had done so for a reason.

Beatrice had been silent for several minutes. Finally, she asked, "Where are we going?"

"I need to leave you somewhere safe while I poke around," he explained. He didn't mention that if her suspicions had any merit, he was going to need all the help he could get to take down the son of one of wealthiest men in not only the city, but also the whole United States.

Beatrice slumped her shoulders, obviously not pleased with being stashed away somewhere.

They disembarked at Poplar Street, one stop earlier than planned, and walked north along the deserted street. Brisco doubled back twice, slipping down the strips of cobblestone that separated some properties instead of cutting across manicured lawns - it was far easier to follow tracks left in the wet grass than those on stone. After leaving the streetcar, he didn't see their pursuers.

Two blocks later and due east of where they left the trolley, Brisco and Beatrice paused in front of a modest brick mansion with ornate iron railings.

Beatrice gaped open-mouthed at the mansions that lined up on either side, but she remained silent as Brisco lead her up the steps to the recessed porch. He reached for the brass and knocked three times on the massive white oak doors. They waited.

After a brief moment, the doors parted on well-oiled hinges. An elderly butler in a tuxedo appeared in the doorway and smiled pleasantly. "Ah, Mr. County, sir. Do come in."

Reginald stepped aside and ushered the guests inside.

Beatrice gazed around, her eyes wide. Brisco knew exactly how she felt. It wasn't the most lavish mansion, but it was tastefully appointed and impressive to someone who lived in a rented room above a nightclub or in a tenement apartment.

The dining set and end tables were hewn from the same dark wood, cherry perhaps. The walls were covered with a dusky rose-colored wallpaper that matched the drapes. The bookcases were full of books with spines neatly aligned; a few volumes were scattered on the tables for good measure. Light came from a few well-placed lamps. A tall glass display cabinet rested against the far wall, housing an impressive collection of crystal. Lalique? No, Baccarat. Brisco couldn't help but notice the cabinet was anchored to the wall with a heavy length of chain.

A fire blazed in the green marble fireplace. Brisco took a seat in one of the armchairs before it and motioned for Beatrice to do the same.

Beatrice primly sat on the white upholstered settee. She rested her hands in the ample folds of fabric at her lap. The dress she wore had been donated by one of the nightclub dancers. It was designed for a woman of more generous proportions. It made Beatrice look like a child playing dress-up with her mother's clothes.

"His Lordship will be right down," the butler said, gave a slight bow, and then smartly disappeared.

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

In a much larger, more splendid mansion just two streets away, Edward Charles Atterbury waited outside a bedroom door. He alternated between pacing worriedly and leaning fretfully against the banister.

After a moment, the door opened and out stepped a short, bespectacled man with a white beard.

"News, Doctor?" Charles - as he preferred to be called - asked, his voice cracking just a bit.

"It's not good, I'm afraid," Amos Spickelmier, M.D., said with a shake of his head. "He doesn't seem to be responding to treatment. There's not much more I can do."

They descended the marble-and-gold staircase side-by-side.

"Perhaps a trip to the hot springs would help?" Charles suggested, brow knitted.

"Perhaps," Spickelmier replied, "But moving him in this condition wouldn't be wise. My advice, dear boy," and he paused, placing a hand on the junior Atterbury's shoulder and smiling kindly, "would be to see to it that your father's affairs are in order and reconcile any differences you have in the time remaining."

Charles smiled grimly, putting on a brave face. "Yes, sir. Thank you for...for doing all that you could." Again, his voice cracked. He was the perfect image of a dutiful, sorrowful son.

Spickelmier reached up and placed a hand on the other man's shoulder, giving it a soft pat. "Be strong. Every man in your father's employ, his business partners, his clients - they will all be looking to you lead them soon. You must set the example."

Agnes, one of the house staff, emerged from one of the mansion's many inner rooms. Her crisp black-and-white uniform rustled, announcing her presence.

"Please show Dr. Spickelmier out, Agnes," Charles said, his brilliant blue eyes crinkling ever so slightly, as though it pained him to keep up the brave facade. "I'll be downstairs. See that I'm not disturbed." He gave a curt nod, dismissing them both before turning and heading for the staircase at the rear of the mansion that led to the basement.

Once he was out of eyesight, he paused to smooth out his suit jacket, as if the doctor's touch had soiled it in some way. He continued down the stairs; by the time he had reached the bottom, he was smiling his customary half smile.

La Gioconda had nothing on Edward Charles Atterbury.

The rooms on the lowest level of the home were his and his alone. The four rooms housed his sleeping quarters, a private bath, a combination library/study, and a massive parlor that featured a fully stocked bar and carambole billiards table.

Two men waited for him in the parlor. One was lining up the billiard balls; the other was attempting to pour a drink at the bar while protectively cradling a hand that was swollen to the size of a baseball catcher's glove. His attempts were largely unsuccessful; more of the caramel-colored liquid sloshed out of the glass than into it.

"Careful, please. That bourbon would cost you two dollars a shot in the finest saloon in San Francisco," Charles said as crossed the room and reached for the bottle. Nodding to the man's injured hand, he added, "Spickelmier just left. You should have asked him to look at that. I'm sure it's broken. The bones need to be set or they'll never heal properly."

"The old man asks too many questions. He would want to know what happened," the dark-haired man muttered." He was queasy from the pain and the thought of having his broken bones manipulated by the German physician only exacerbated the feeling.

Charles reclined in an armchair of butter-soft leather. "Tell him..." he took a drink, smiled, enjoying the warmth of the liquid, "Tell him that you were sparring with John."

The blonde man at the billiards table looked up at the mention of his name, nodding as if he'd validate any such claim.

"So," Charles said, deftly moving the conversation forward. "News?"

John spoke. "Walter and I followed the bounty hunter to a mansion just off of Powell."

"Which one?" Charles moved only his eyes, flicking them between the two men.

John repeated the address and added, "He took the girl with him."

"The residence of one Lord Bowler," Atterbury snorted in disgust. "A rather crass fellow who made a middling fortune and now believes he has earned the right to live amongst us." He paused to drink, the luxurious bourbon erasing the unpleasant taste left by speaking the man's name.

"It complicates things," John said, sinking into another armchair. "Unnecessarily."

"On the contrary."

"Your father?"

"Doesn't suspect a thing, the old fool." Charles smiled the kind of smile that always made his associates uneasy. It was ice-cold, reptilian.

"That girl - " John began.

"You'll not speak of her," Charles cut him off, his voice sharp, his eyes flashing in anger for the briefest of moments. When he spoke again, his voice was even, cool, amicable. "She's my concern and mine alone. The two of you - " he gestured between the two men, "will take care of the bounty hunters, but you'll leave the girl alone." The cold smile again.

John swallowed almost imperceptibly. "You're the boss."

There was a groan from across the room. Walter wobbled on his barstool, his face turning a sickly green.

Charles sighed wearily. "Wally, if you're going to be ill, please do so outside and not on my Persian rug."

- - - - - - - - - - - - -

"...so that's the story." Brisco concluded his narrative of events for the past few hours. "Beatrice," he paused, jerked his head slightly towards the young woman sitting on the settee near the fire, "...said her friend wouldn't just disappear. I've gone through Alice's diary; I believe her. I told her I would look into it, see if I could get a trail that might lead to a body, alive or otherwise."

Brisco leaned against the bookshelf on the far side of the room, near the large window with its dusky rose-colored drapes. Bowler stood nearby, arms crossed. They both spoke in hushed tones.

"So you're a private detective, now?" Bowler said. "Bounty huntin' not fulfilling enough?" He sounded almost...amused.

"I've been looking for a challenge." Brisco shrugged. It wasn't far from the truth.

"How do you know this lady..." Bowler began.

"Alice. Alice Russell," Brisco prompted.

"...this Alice Russell didn't just elope with her fiancé?"

"I don't know for sure, but I read her diary and it seems out of character. Think about it. Alice spurns Atterbury or he grows tired of her. Either way..."

"Doesn't help his daddy is a millionaire," Bowler groused.

"A millionaire on his death bed. It's been in all the papers," Brisco countered.

"I do read," Bowler sniffed. "Occasionally."

"Maybe Junior decided he needed to grow up to take over the family business, and that meant tying up all the loose ends from his playboy days."

"Missing girl's a matter for the police, not a bounty hunter."

Brisco shook his head. "You know everyone is on the take. The police department's rife with corruption. Besides, who'd take her seriously?"

Bowler nodded once in agreement: the girl didn't make the most reliable witness. Still, it was clear he wasn't entirely convinced. After all, he didn't earn this mansion by going after untouchable quarry.

"How much she paying you?"

"Bowler! I'm shocked," Brisco said, feigning indignation. "It's not about the money..."

"That's what I thought," Bowler said with a knowing smirk. "See, Brisco, that's why you're always broke." He didn't say "and I'm not" aloud, but the mansion itself spoke volumes.

Point taken.

"The men who attacked me in the alley tonight were looking for Beatrice as well," Brisco reasoned. "At the very least, she saw a man tortured and murdered. There's one body out there, maybe two."

Bowler frowned, stared out the window, and even though he said nothing, Brisco knew he had gotten through.

"She can hide out here until you get things sorted out. Nobody can get in," Bowler finally relented, the latter part of the statement spoken almost like a dare.

Brisco smiled, feeling a rush of anticipation just like old times. It felt good to be working with his partner again, especially on such an unusual and difficult assignment.

Reginald the butler appeared, as if on cue. "The guest room has been prepared for Ms. Malone," he announced.

"Very well, Reginald," Bowler said. "Show her up." He gave the girl his most charming smile and added, "You'll be safe here."

"Thank you," Beatrice said softly, clutching at her oversized dress, her eyes on the floor.

"Follow me, madam," Reginald said and ushered the girl upstairs.

Once they had departed, Bowler turned back to his partner.

"I'll go check out the pharmacy. See if I can pick up a trail." he said, trying to sound inconvenienced but not quite succeeding. Whether he'd admit it or not, he was glad to be working with Brisco again, as well.

"Thanks." Brisco retrieved his hat and, opening the oak doors, stepped out on the porch. The night was still young.

"You seen Poole yet?"

"Next stop."

"When you do, tell'im I want my money." And then Bowler slammed the door.

A.N.: To put things in perspective, bourbon that costs $2 per shot in 1895 would cost roughly $45 for the same amount today.

The exposition is almost finished. Thanks for sticking with me. There will be action soon - I promise!