Wheat spit into his hands and rubbed them briskly together. Removing his hat, he used his hands to neatly slick back his hair. Once he was sure he looked okay, he firmly rapped on Soapy's backdoor. This was the first time he'd been invited into the house as a guest and he wanted to look his best. Waiting for the door to open, he glanced at Kyle and gestured to him to remove his hat.
Kyle took his hat off and tucked it under his arm. Emulating Wheat, he spit into his hands and rubbed them together. Pulling them apart, he was dismayed to find his palms stained brown and sticky with tobacco juice. He wiped his hands on his trouser legs and left dark smudges on the fabric. Wheat frowned at him as the door opened and Jordan ushered them in. "Good morning, sirs. Mr. Saunders and his guests are waiting for you in the dining room. Follow me, please." Jordan was going to keep an eye on these two. He didn't want to have to count the silver after they left.
The Kid was seated at the dining table waiting breakfast. It pained him to watch the food cooling and he was getting irritated that Wheat and Kyle were late. Everyone else at the table was chatting amiably, unconcerned about waiting. Heyes and Soapy had their heads together, speaking softly about their plan. That irritated the Kid, too. Finally, Jordan showed the two gang members into the elegant dining room. Kyle openly gawked at the opulence. "Damn, this is fancier than a rich man's whorehouse." Wheat harshly elbowed him to shut up and hurried away to take his seat.
Allie laughed aloud at Kyle's comment and shot a glance at her mother. Ruth was fighting a smile and even Aunt Esther found her napkin highly interesting. Soapy, however, was not amused and he wondered how Heyes had managed to talk him into inviting these two ruffians into his home. He frowned at Wheat.
"Sorry, we overslept," mumbled Wheat, "We didn't get in until real late." The fine surroundings and Soapy's presence intimidated him and he was feeling very uncomfortable.
"What did you find out?" asked Heyes.
"Nothin'. Nobody knew nothin', Heyes," Kyle bowed grandly to the ladies before taking his seat and grinning at the sight of all that good food laid out in front of him. Picking up his napkin, and pulling a corner of it through a buttonhole, he smoothed his bib and seized his knife and fork. Kyle was already having a wonderful time.
"And it took you all night to figure that out?" growled Kid, still put out at waiting breakfast on these two. If his eggs were cold….
Wheat bristled at the Kid's tone, "Well, we couldn't give up until the bars closed, now could we?"
"Kid, pass the eggs, will you?" Heyes knew the Kid needed to eat and fast before Wheat got his head bitten off.
"That little weasel sure has a stubborn streak," said Monty, rubbing his raw knuckles. "I don't buy his story, do you?" Stafford was busy throwing several deadbolts to the room where they held Corky captive. They were in an old, unused warehouse the detective owned not far from his apartment building. It had solid walls, and sound didn't carry through them. Monty had worked on getting answers long after Stafford's stomach had turned at the damage being done to the young man. Tougher than he looked, Corky held out for hours until, finally, he had babbled out through his ruined mouth that he was working undercover for the newspaper. He claimed that he was selling his story about the search for Miss Harcourt to a freelance reporter. It was possible, thought Monty, but now that he knew the man was a liar, he wasn't about to trust him again. It would be easy enough to check out and, either way, Corky would be his prisoner until this job was done. The man had lied to him and he deserved what he got.
"What would he have to gain by lying? Surely he knows you won't just take his word for it," said Stafford. Violence never appealed to him and when the blood began to fly, he had prayed it would be over quickly. He was grateful that Northrup drew the line at murder, but it had still been hard to watch.
Breakfast was nearly over when Jordan entered the dining room and whispered in Heyes's ear. Standing up, the outlaw leader excused himself, and followed the butler out. He returned a short time later and sat down, smoothly picking up the thread of conversation, but the Kid could tell that something had upset his partner. Heyes leaned over to Soapy, whispered something to him, and a moment or two later, Soapy rose from the table signaling the end of the meal. "Ladies, I do hope you will excuse me today. I am afraid that Heyes and I have work to do, but please enjoy my humble abode. Jordan will see to your needs."
"Are you going after Jack Slade?" asked Ruth bluntly, stopping Soapy on his way out.
Heyes stood up, too. "Not yet. We need more information before we go after Slade. We're just going to do a little more nosing around today. Ruth, you can put the word out that Allie's back. Kid will escort you and make sure you aren't being watched. Jordan will stay here with Allie and Esther. Wheat and Kyle, you're coming with me."
Kyle was preparing to spear the last sausage and stopped in mid-air. "Uh, sure, Heyes." He put his fork back down. Wheat's hand snaked out and grabbed the sausage, pulling it onto his plate with no one, except Kyle, the wiser. The small outlaw frowned at his partner.
"Yes, I know just who to speak to. Agatha Crane is as fast with her tongue as you are with your gun, Mr. Curry," said Ruth. "I, too, will excuse myself so that I may change. Shall we meet down here in, say, thirty minutes?"
"Make it an hour, Ruth. Kid, if you're up to it, you can ride over to the newspaper while she's getting ready. I want the news that Allie's back to spread as fast as possible," Heyes was unaware that he had begun behaving like the outlaw leader he was.
Ruth smiled tightly at being ordered about, but she had to admire his commanding personality. He was certainly taking charge. She swept past Soapy and left the room. Their host followed her out.
"Well, I suppose I should change for the day, too," said Esther.
"No, Aunt Esther, you and I are long overdue for a chat." If Allie had to stay cooped up, she was going to put the time to good use.
Heyes walked towards the door, "Ladies, we should be back by suppertime. Go easy on her, Allie. Wheat, Kyle, I'll meet you out front."
The Kid followed him out, pulled the door shut behind him, and stopped his partner in the hallway. "What happened, Heyes?"
"That was Sy at the door. Corky's missing; he never showed up for his night job. Sy said the big Texan tried to tail him here last night. He shook him easily enough, but, after he left us, Sy started to worry about how the man got onto him. He spent all night looking for Corky and he's sure the man's got him. Corky was down on Larimer looking for Wheat and Kyle, like he was supposed to be, until last call. Sy thinks he disappeared somewhere between Larimer and the newspaper office. The Texan and Stafford would've known right where to find him," growled Heyes. He was protective of his people and angry to think that his man was in danger. "Kid, I need answers from those two. Soapy and I are going through with the Bannerman plan."
Kid didn't like it at all, but Corky's disappearance was ominous, "Okay, Heyes, just be careful, will you?"
"I will, Kid. You, too."
The Kid dismounted in front of the building housing the newspaper. He could see through the front windows that the office was in an uproar. Opening the door, he stepped inside a beehive of activity. A frazzled, balding man hurried over to him.
"I'm sorry, sir, we're not open yet. This morning's issue has been delayed. We're terribly short-handed, but we should have it out within the hour, so if you could come back then." The man looked expectantly at the Kid.
"I'm not looking for a newspaper. I wanted to give you some news. From the Harcourt family," the Kid added quickly.
"The Harcourts? Well, what is it, man? I'm the editor, you can tell me," the man wiped his forehead with a handkerchief. "Has the young woman been found? Is she alive?
"Well, uh, yes sir, to all your questions. Miss Harcourt's been back with her family since yesterday," said the Kid.
Smiling, the man yelled over his shoulder, "Stop the presses!" Seizing the Kid's arm, the editor swept off a paper-laden chair and nearly pushed the outlaw down into it. "Young man, have a seat and give me the details about Miss Harcourt's miraculous return to the bosom of her distraught family!" Yes, he quite liked the sound of that.
Esther got up from the dining table after Wheat and Kyle left and began nervously prowling about the dining room, picking up objects and pretending to examine each one intently, while Allie sat at the table and watched her. Finally, unable to deliberate any longer, Esther turned and eyed Allie like she was a rattler waiting to strike.
"Do I really make you that nervous, Aunt Esther?" Allie smiled coldly, "'Aunt' Esther sounds ridiculous now, doesn't it? Would you mind very much if I simply call you Esther?"
Esther shook her head slowly.
"Good. It will be so much easier for me. I apologize if it hurts you, but I believe I will still address Mother as I always have. It's different with you and me; we've spent so little time together; it should be easy to become accustomed to addressing you by your given name." Allie saw Esther wince. "Please relax. I simply wish to talk to you. Sit." A small, mean part of her was enjoying her 'mother's' discomfort.
Esther was waiting for the storm she was sure was coming. "Alyssa…"
"No, Esther, you need to address me as Allie. I'm Allie Golden now. I've decided that Alyssa Harcourt has never really existed."
"Yes, Allie," nodded Esther timidly, sitting down again.
"You know, it really is so funny to see you again. It's been a long time since we've been together and I'm afraid that my memory of you is quite insubstantial. You seem so very different than I remember," mused Allie.
"I'm the same person I've always been, dear," said Esther.
"Well, then, perhaps I just saw you differently all those years ago. Mother seemed so ghostly and remote that, by comparison, you appeared so strong and self-assured. Do you know that I idolized you? I wanted to be just like you. You were such an independent woman, living the life you had chosen, while Mother seemed so miserable. Of course, now I know why she was so unhappy," Allie sighed, "She had given up everything for me; her hopes and dreams; her youth."
"We both gave up a lot," protested Esther.
Allie snapped, "All you gave up was your baby!" She saw tears spring to Esther's eyes and she rubbed her face, "I'm sorry, that was very cruel and unfair."
"I wanted to keep you, but I was so afraid that Jack would find us," confessed Esther. "Ruth has always been the strong one. I suppose that is why I agreed to her plan. You are more like her than you are me; you are brave, too. I was afraid of everything; Jack, having a baby, being on my own. I was frightened that someone would figure out who I really was and what I had done. Ruth was capable in so many ways I was not; so I gave you to her.
Al…Allie, it was the stupidest thing I have ever done. I regretted it immediately. I should have found another way. It was horrible to part with you. Ruth was kind and she wrote me weekly to tell me of your progress; your first tooth, your first steps. All those moments that should have been mine. She would send me photographs of you every year at Christmastime. It broke my heart anew every time I saw how much you had changed; how grown up you were becoming. When your mother got sick, I saw my chance to be with you. God forgive me, but I didn't come out of the kindness of my heart to nurse my sister, I came for you."
"I remember when you moved in with us. It was like a door to the world opened for me. Our house was so stifling, and you were a breath of fresh air. You took me to such exciting places and exposed me to so many new ideas," said Allie wistfully.
"Seeing you again was so hard. I loved you so much. It felt like I'd never given you up. I thought about running with you, but Albert saw what was going on. That's when he forced me to go. My politics had nothing to do with it. Albert knew I was only playing at being a liberated woman, he knew me for the weak person I was. That was just the excuse he gave Ruth," Esther was crying softly now. "I had no idea she knew what I was doing. I didn't mean to hurt her. She was so fragile and I took advantage of it. I told myself that a child was too much for her, that you would be better off with me. I am an awful person."
Allie stood up and walked over to Esther, dropping down next to her and hugging her. "No, you are not awful; you are just flawed like the rest of us. Heyes was right; it is time to move on and be grateful for the time we have left with the people we love."
"He told you that?" whispered Esther.
"Yes, he did and he's right. Give him a chance, Esther, he and Jed are remarkable men," said Allie.
Esther reached out and stroke Allie's face. "You care for them very much, don't you?"
"Yes, I do."
"So, Mr. Curry, tell me how you and your partner met Allie," said Ruth. She felt the young man beside her stiffen at her question, but he kept a steady hand on the reins.
The carriage was having some difficulty negotiating the icy, rutted roads and Kid was handling the team expertly. "It's kind of a long story, ma'am. Maybe I should let Allie tell you." How on earth could he explain Heyes's mad scheme to take down Bill Decker and everything it had set in motion?
"Nonsense, I want you to tell me," she smiled playfully at the handsome young man, "I can't be altogether sure that Allie will ever speak to me again."
His eyes widened at her comment. "Sure she will, ma'am. She loves you; you're her ma."
"Well, no, actually I'm not her ma, but I hope you are correct that she loves me," Ruth found it highly amusing that she could throw such a notorious gunman off-guard.
"You're her ma, and you'll work things out with her," Kid turned his head and smiled at her.
Ruth patted his knee, "Thank you, dear. Now, please keep your eyes on the road and tell me what my daughter has been up to since she left Denver."
Kyle pulled the carriage to a halt in front of the Bannerman Detective Agency. He was feeling a little nervous to be so close to a building full of fake lawmen, but he held the team steady. Wheat trotted up next to the street side of the carriage and pulled his horse up, resting a hand on his gun and keeping watch for trouble. Heyes slipped out of the carriage, lowered the steps, and waited as Soapy stepped down. His old friend and colleague straightened his tie and nodded to Heyes, who scurried to the double glass doors to hold one open for his 'employer'.
The Bannerman offices were housed in a large mansion. Heyes found the building plush and well-appointed with a thick carpet under foot and several fine, original oil paintings adorning the walls. An ornately carved desk stood in the center of the foyer. The receptionist seated there had taken note of the arrival of the carriage and the quality of the team that pulled it, and he had also noted the armed guard. This was someone important. He stood up and came forward.
"Good day, Sirs. I am Trevor Bowers of the Bannerman Detective Agency. How may I be of help to you?" he inquired.
Heyes removed his hat. "Good day, Mr. Bowers. My name is Charles Chauncey and my employer, Mr. Soapy Saunders, is here on a matter of some delicacy. We are interested in discussing your services." Soapy stood quietly, perusing the art. His secretary would handle the tedious process of dealing with the common folk.
The man's eyes widened at the mention of Soapy's name and he nearly vibrated with excitement. "Yes sir, very good, sir. We are delighted to be of service to Mr. Saunders, sir. Pardon me for one moment, and I will run upstairs for a senior associate."
Heyes cleared his throat, "The most senior associate, please."
"Yes sir. Of course, sir," Bowers bowed and scraped his way back to the foot of the stairs before turning and quickly trotting up the steps and out of sight.
It wasn't long before a heavy-set, officious-looking gentleman came hurrying down the stairs with Bowers behind him. "Gentlemen, Beaufort Colcannon, at your service," the man extended his hand to Soapy, shaking enthusiastically.
"Mr. Colcannon, I trust there is somewhere we might speak in private," prompted Heyes.
"Yes sir, quite right. Please follow me, gentlemen, to one of our conference rooms. Trevor, coffee and pastries for our guests in Conference Room C, please," Mr. Colcannon led them down a long hallway towards the rear of the house until it was intersected by another hallway that ran from either end of the sprawling building. He turned left and stopped before a door, ushering his two visitors into a spacious room. Mr. Colcannon saw his guests seated and served before he brokered the conversation, "Now, how might the Bannerman Detective Agency be of service to you, Mr. Saunders?"
"My good man, I have a matter of great concern that I would like to have the Agency investigate. It is a highly personal matter so I will require the utmost discretion," began Soapy. He stopped as though thinking better of going on, and said, "Perhaps, Mr. Chauncey could entertain himself with a tour of your offices?"
"Why, of course. Mr. Chauncey, would you like me to escort you back to the receptionist?" offered Mr. Colcannon, realizing that Mr. Saunders did not wish to speak in front of his employee.
Heyes smiled, "I believe I can find my way out, sir."
Mr. Saunders nodded, "Thank you, Charles, you may return here in fifteen minutes. I believe that will give me sufficient time." Soapy knew his lurid tale of a depraved young woman's attempt at blackmail would keep Mr. Colcannon's mind off the young Mr. Chauncey. If necessary, he was sure he could add enough embellishments to stretch it out longer.
"Yes sir, Mr. Saunders." Heyes stepped out into the hallway. Looking to his right and then to his left, Heyes crept along, quietly opening and closing each door in the hallway and keeping an ear out for the receptionist. He could hear the man typing and the sounds of footsteps overhead, but no one else was in this part of the building. At the intersection, he turned towards the rear of the house and, finally, he found what he was looking for; a locked room. Pulling out his picks, he paused and listened carefully to the hushed sounds of the office. He didn't hear anyone approaching, so he went to work. The lock was new and sturdy. It took him longer than he expected to open it and he enjoyed the satisfying click that indicated his success. Heyes pushed the door open carefully. It was the file room. Slipping inside and locking the door behind him, he crossed to the cabinets lined up across the far wall. Each cabinet had a handwritten card slipped into a bracket on the outside identifying the alphabetical order of the files to be found within. Working his way down the row, he stopped at a drawer marked H and pulled it open. Quickly fingering his way through the numerous files, he looked for Harrison, Carleton. There wasn't one. Disappointed, he softly slid the drawer shut and moved onto the S drawer. No file for Slade either.
After tapping on the door to Conference Room C, Heyes waited until Mr. Colcannon opened it and invited him back in. While the man was shutting the door, Heyes shot a glance at Soapy, and shook his head. Soapy nodded, and Heyes followed Colcannon back to his seat.
"Mr. Colcannon, might I ask who will be handling my case? Your agent, Jonas Stafford, came highly recommended to me," said Soapy.
Mr. Colcannon guffawed loudly, "Someone's pulling your leg, Mr. Saunders. Jonas Stafford isn't an agent, he's an accountant. Furthermore, he was let go several weeks ago. The man failed to show up for work one day and no one's seen him since. However, I can assure you, Mr. Saunders, our agents are excellent and I will assign our very best to your case."
Heyes hid his surprise well, but it was time to get out of here. He spoke up, "Sir, how does the Bannerman Agency ensure the confidentiality of its clients' case?"
Mr. Colcannon smiled broadly, "Why, Mr. Chauncey, this building is crawling with the finest detectives in the state. Isn't that security enough?" Soapy frowned at the flippant answer and the man tried to cover his blunder, "Mr. Saunders, sir, I assure you that the Bannerman Detective Agency takes all necessary measures to see that our clients' cases are kept completely confidential. We have a steel-lined file room with a state of the art lock on it in the heart of this building. All our files are contained within it. No one can get into that room without a key and only our senior associates have one. There is absolutely no need for you to be concerned."
"I believe we are done here, Mr. Chauncey," said Soapy, rising. "Mr. Colcannon, I apologize for wasting your time."
"Mr. Saunders, please; I beg you to be reasonable," blustered Mr. Colcannon. He couldn't believe that he'd been foolish enough to risk joking with such an important client. If the other associates heard of this, he'd be demoted back to file clerk.
Heyes scowled at him and shook his head, stepping in front of the man, allowing Soapy to leave the room. He held his hand up, "Mr. Saunders is always reasonable, sir. I am afraid we will not require your services."
Monty approached the newspaper office as the door opened and a small boy stepped out carrying a stack of papers tucked under his arm. The boy pulled the top one out, began waving it, and yelling at the top of his lungs, "Missing heiress found. Get your newspaper here. Read all about it." A woman stopped, purchased a copy, and the boy pulled another one from his stack and resumed yelling. Monty stopped, stunned at the news, and then turned away. Corky must have been telling the truth after all. Someone else had been investigating, too. Monty and Stafford would have to go back to trying to find Carlson and Murtry. Stafford had gone home to try to get some sleep, but there was no time for that now. They'd have to find those two outlaws fast. Corky was a liability now. Sooner or later, the law would come looking for him.
Seated in the carriage, with Wheat trotting alongside, Soapy sighed. It had been a calculated risk to go the Bannerman Agency and, unfortunately, they had come away empty-handed. "What shall we do now?" he asked Heyes quietly.
"Stafford's an accountant; what is he doing looking for Allie? Why did he have a letter from Harrison? I was sure I'd find Harrison's file," murmured Heyes, thinking aloud.
"Well, you didn't. Do you have a plan B?" Soapy persisted.
Heyes's mind was racing with what he had just learned. Why wasn't there a file for Harrison? Corky saw the letter, because Stafford had it at his home, but if it was part of a case file, it should never have left the office. Was that why there was no file? There was no case? Stafford could've stolen the letter from the Bannermen. So who was he working for? Was it Slade or did he take the job for Harrison? How did Harrison fit in and what did he want with Allie?
"Heyes, what are you thinking?" Soapy was staring at his protégée.
"I'm going to give them what they're looking for," growled Heyes.
"Miss Allie?! Heyes, you can't do that," cried Kyle, alarmed.
Heyes glared at him, "No, of course I'm not giving them Allie! Look, they know she's with the Devil's Hole gang, and that's why they're looking for you two. They figure they can use you to get to Kid and me, and then to Allie. So, we're going to let them catch up with you two."
"What? You're turning us over?" Wheat scowled.
"No, you're going to set me up for a price," said Heyes, smiling broadly as he warmed to the idea. "You're going to give me up and they're going to pay you to do it."
Wheat stared at him like he'd lost his mind. "Are you kiddin'? I really hope you're kiddin' me, because you do know, don't you, that the Kid will kill us for goin' along with this?"
"Heyes, Wheat's correct. The Kid will never go along with this plan, it's too risky," said Soapy. He didn't like this idea at all and he couldn't imagine the Kid's reaction. Heyes was playing a dangerous game.
Heyes dropped his smile quickly, "I can talk the Kid into it; it's Allie I'm worried about."