Ladies and Gents, welcome back to Misery, where magic tangles with card sharks, gunslingers, and ladies of questionable virtues. CONJURING MISERY, brought to you by the combined talents of Camille Douglass, Dave Benneman and Jami Gray. If you missed previous installments, feel free to go back and retrace our steps.
The assortment of dead creatures adorning the hill staggered me. We’d only been in Jim’s shack a quarter of an hour. How could so many animals have been skinned alive in such a short time? Most of them lay still, while flies convened on their corpses. A few twitched, in the final throes of what had to an agonizing death. They looked to me for release, but they were on their own. I didn’t have the stomach for it. I mounted up.
The hypnotic gait of Daisy Bell lulled me into a trance. The sisters were ahead chatting away, while I did a little soul searching. I rehashed our supposed deal. The stakes had gotten rich for my blood. These two could have left me out there for those things. An understanding came to me. I know what they mean when folks say something dawned on them. My moment was like a sunrise. The night sky lightened imperceptibly at first. Then predawn arrived with a show of light at the horizon, then before you know it, the sun revealed itself blinding me as it inched upward.
Either one these women could skin me and hang my hide over the hitching post in front of the livery. I believe the lucrative reward slowed my cogitator. Now I could see it. These ladies wanted The Yaqui Blood Star for some higher purpose. The stranger who offered me a large some of money to track it down had his own agenda. In my line of work, we call this gambling with your heart. When a man gambles with his heart two things are possible. He either comes up shirtless. The most probable outcome. The exception being for the man, or in this case ladies, who are willing to risk everything to get what they want, there is no down side. These are dangerous people to gamble against because winning is the only acceptable end. My cogitator rolled that fact around for a bit. I gave serious consideration to cashing out of the game. With no skin in the game, if you’ll pardon the pun, I held the disadvantage.
As a simple businessman who played the odds, I had some special talents that helped me stay successful, but I lacked zeal. My willingness to fold and wait for better cards was my strength. Truth was I had passion for nothing, except breathing. I enjoyed the niceties in life, but not when the asking price became too steep.
The asking price here was getting to that point. Yet, I was reluctant to quit. The next stage wasn’t due through town for a few more days. A part of me intended to be on it. Let Mendez and the mad sisters fight it out to the death. They didn’t need me. The idea of remaining vertical appealed to the coward in me. Another voice in my head whispered in favor of seeing this through. My life had become mundane. I could stand a little adventure. At what cost the smart voice asked. It urged to head on to California. The gold rush was on. Gold made a man stupid. When money and stupid go hand and hand a gambler can make a good living for himself. That’s adventure enough.
Our shadows stretched long in front of us as we approached Misery. These two crazy women intoxicated me. For all I knew Smoke, or Traveler or whatever her name was, skinned those animals herself with all that nonsense she moaned. My attraction for these two hit me like a smithy’s hammer. My talents allowed me to read people. Sometimes I could see their cards through their eyes. Even knew their wager before they made it. Nevertheless, Snake startled me right away. She was a blank slate when I looked at her. Smoke was worse in some ways. Her thoughts were immersed in a murky soup, impossible to navigate.
“You going to perch up there all night or you coming down to Tilley’s for a drink with us?” Snake spit.
“Sorry, I was gathering wool as my pa used to say.” I swung my leg over Daisy Bell and hit the ground with a jolt. My pa also said I’d never amount to much cause of my unwillingness to see a thing through.
Smoke snapped her fingers in front of my face. “Must be a lot of wool in that fat head of yours.”
“You need a sweater?” I forced a chuckle.
She dismissed me with one hand and strode across the dusty street toward Tilley’s. I found myself traveling in their wake for the third time that day. There’s always another stagecoach, right? The women from Mademoiselle Angelique’s Boarding House waved and tittered from across the street. A hot bath and a pretty young thing to wash my back might be what I need tonight. There’s no harm in having a little fun when you’re seeing a thing through, is there Pa?
Tilley’s was unusually quiet. Charlie half-heartedly wiped down the rough bar. A handful of patrons were scattered around keeping their own council. Even the gaming table sat empty. The sisters had a table near the bar with a bottle and two of three glasses already in use.
Smoke waved me over. “You’ve been a might quiet.”
“Nothing to say.”
“In the short time I’ve known you, I have to say that’s out of character.” Snake lit another one of those prairie dog turds she smokes. “Cause that’s a first since I met you.”
“Let me ask you a question?” I tossed back my drink and winced. “God that’s awful.” I lowered my voice. “What could have done that up on the hill?”
Snake rolled her eyes. “Tell him, again.”
Smoke took a moment. “We told you, revenants”
“Yes, you told me. What the hell is a revenant?”
“One who has returned.”
“From the dead,” Snake hissed through clenched teeth. “Were you born under a rock?”
I laughed for the first time since Diamond Jim departed this here existence. “I get it now. You’re a couple of grifters.” I helped myself to another splash. “You had me, until just then.” I lifted my glass, tipping it towards them. “The build-up was good. However, you skipped the payoff to lock me in. You have to convince your mark it’s legit.” I threw back another swallow.
Red tipped nails drummed on the table as Smoke watched with a disconcerting stare. “What are you talking about?”
My eyes watered from the whiskey’s sting and it took a moment for my voice to even out, “You’re running a con, the old flimflam, a scam. But I’m no gull.”
The dark haired beauty shook her head. “We should have left him to keep Diamond Jim company.”
I saw the confusion in their eyes, but I wanted to be right about this because any other explanation took me back down that dark road. “Come on. It’s over. Who is the sick bastard who skinned all those animals for you?”
Snake laid one of her shoot’n irons on the table. “If you don’t keep your voice down, I’ll poke a hole in you.”
Smoke leaned in. “A remnant is a thing, usually a person, who died and has returned in the form of a demon. They assume different forms depending on how much power they wield. In many ways the less you know about them the better. Someone in this town will die of an attack by a coyote or a wild dog tonight, all because we denied them. The people will mourn and maybe go hunting the thing down. They’ll never see it for what it really is. And it won’t really die the way they understand death.”
Charlie came over and Smoke sat back in her chair and sipped her whiskey.
“Hey Sam, there’s a game gathering in the back room.” Charlie proffered half of a two-eyed jack. “Big shot said to give you this.”
“Thank you, Charlie. When did they get started?”
“Probably ain’t got started yet. I carted my best booze back there along with a handful of Miss Angelique’s gals. My guess is the festivities is barely underway. Mr. Fancy Britches ordered food for later. They must be plan’n on going all night.”
“Thanks Charlie.” I fished around in my vest pocket until I found it. “Booze, I forgot the booze. Miss Snake, would you be so kind as to rescue my booze from Daisy Bell?” I pushed back my chair and searched my pockets.
She narrowed her gaze. “Where you going?”
I matched up the half card Charlie give me with the one from my pocket. “It appears I’ve been summoned to the back room for a game of chance.”
“Who gave you your half?”
Smoke snatched the card halves from my hand and matched them up. Then she laid them on the table and held her hands above them. With her fingers spread wide and her eyes closed she hummed. I started to reach for them, but Snake waved me off and put a finger to her lips. I watched in fascination. When Smoke opened her eyes she smiled at her sister, the way I might smile at an easy mark. Then she turned her attention to me. “You better go. He’s waiting.”
I got up slowly and picked up the two-eyed jack. “Miss Smoke.” I tipped my hat. “Miss Snake, you won’t forget my whiskey?”
“I won’t forget.”
“You be careful back there.” Smoke rose to look me in the eye. “And keep your eyes open.”
Watching Sam disappear into the back room, I played with my half-empty glass. Without looking at Smoke, I asked, “Wanna share?”
“Don’t worry, sister mine, we’ll be joining in soon enough.”
Sometimes Smoke took the whole mystic shtick too far. I grabbed the glass, and threw back the remaining liquid. The whiskey burned a familiar path to my stomach, easing the knots that gathered with the arrival of the revenants. Damn demons were a nuisance. Unfortunately their arrival meant Mendes was dabbling in magic better left alone. Not good news. Granted we had family that dabbled in darker things, but it wasn’t our hides I was worried about, it was Gambling Man’s. Not sure why his continued existence mattered to me, but strangely it did. “Fool’s going to get himself killed.”
“Or worse,” Smoke agreed without batting an eyelash. “But I think he’s going to prove useful in the long run.”
Charlie came over and dropped a couple of tin plates on the table. “Ladies.”
We nodded our thanks and watched him waddle back behind the bar. Using my fork, I poked at what purported to be chili.
Smoke’s fork tapped the edge of my plate drawing my attention. “So long as Sam sticks with us, he’ll be fine. Stop worrying, Snake.”
“Easier said than done,” I mumbled.
She sighed. “Just like you to go taking responsibility for the under dog.” She managed to fork up beans with an uncanny grace. Her fork paused halfway to her mouth. “Need I remind you, he made his choice of his own free will.”
“Maybe, maybe not. What if Mendes used glamour to get what he wanted. You know better than anybody how unpredictable he is.”
Smoke took her bite, chewing thoughtfully without batting an eyelash. When she finished, she said, “You and I both know whatever plan Mendes had for Sam wasn’t good. Sam’s chance of staying alive is better for being with us.”
I took a bite. It didn’t take long to realize someone had a heavy hand with the cayenne pepper. Hastily, I splashed more whiskey into the glass and gulped it down. After a minor bout of coughing, I managed to get out, “You going to warn me who’s back there before I head in with Sam’s alcoholic offering?”
Her grin was quick and bright with mischief. “Now where’s the fun in that?”
Obviously she was bound and determined to send me in blind. So be it. Heaving a put upon sigh I pushed back my rickety chair and stood up. “Enjoy it while you can, but remember-karma is a real bitch.”
Her laughter followed me out Tillie’s door. Our trio of asses—or would that make them assi?—watched me approach with a decided lack of concern. Squeezing between them, I managed to get into Sam’s saddlebags. A little digging and I found his precious bottle. Of course, being the curious sort, I also noticed the other items neatly tucked away. A ribbon tied stack of letters penned in an elegant hand, but no indication of the sender. A small velvet bag that rattled. Perhaps containing a favorite pair of die? Then there was a well-worn leather bound journal and my fingers itched to tuck it into my coat, but I gallantly refrained and left it alone.
A soft nose nudged my shoulder. Turning my head I stared into a pair of soulful brown eyes. Guess Sam’s little mule was a mite protective of her man. I patted her nose. “Pay me no mind, girl. I’m leavin’ it alone.”
Bottle in hand, I headed back into Tillie’s. Night was settling in and so far the dusty street was quiet. Here’s wishing our luck held, but I wasn’t holding out hope. Using my shoulder, I shoved the swinging door in and stepped inside the saloon. There was a hiccup in the conversation, but not much more. The patrons must be getting used to seeing me. The urge to shake things up a bit ran under my skin but I shook it off. No need to initiate chaos, Smoke was doing a bang-up job of it all on her own.
I touched the tip of my hat to her as I passed. She gave me a damn little finger wave, grinning like a loon. Gods, she was getting too big of a kick out this. The heels of my boots echoed as I crossed the wooden floor to the back room. Behind the bar, Charlie watched, a frown marring his face, but he didn’t try to stop me. Smart man.
Tension coiled through me as I drew closer to the half closed door. The sounds of poker chips dancing across a table mixed with the rumble of masculine voices and clinks of glass. Sounded like the game was well underway. Bracing, mentally and physically, I used the flat of my hand to set the door to swinging and walked in.
Conversation snapped off and five heads turned or lifted to lock on to me. Using the hand holding Sam’s offering, I touched the brim of my hat. “Evening, gents.” My greeting came out on a growl, but considering I was gritting my teeth so hard I was surprised my enamel wasn’t shattering, it was a minor miracle the words were recognizable to begin with. Now I know why Smoke was laughing her ass off.
Three cautious nods were given as Sam rose from his spot. “Ah, thank you, m’lady for being so kind as to retrieve my contribution to tonight’s gathering.”
I barely registered his words, my attention caught and held by the pair of laughing eyes under a head full of wild, red curls belonging to the fifth occupant of the room. Damn and blast it! I was going to kill Smoke. Obviously we didn’t we have enough to handle with Mendes and his minions. Nope, looked like family was doing what it did best—butting in where they weren’t wanted. A tug on the bottle in my bloodless grip reminded me to let Sam have his gift. I uncurled my fingers letting him have it, all without taking my eyes of the smiling jackass whose grin was spreading with each passing second. “Jinx, what the hell are you doing here?”
“Now, now, Snakey-poo, that’s Uncle Jinx to you.” He kicked back his chair until it was balanced on the back legs and folded his hands behind his head, stretching the stained, plaid material under his suspenders tight across his thick chest.
“I’m not claiming your sorry ass as family.” Instinct had my hands going to my waist where my girls waited with bated breath.
“Can’t deny blood, girl.”
“Maybe not, but I’d be happy to spill it, if you’d rather,” I snarled.
A throat being cleared next to me drew my attention to Sam, who was watching our exchange with undisguised curiosity. “Mind if I proffer introductions to the rest of our gathering?”
Knowing if I didn’t remove temptation, I might be explaining to dear Meemaw why her youngest, most pain-in-the-ass son was pushing daisies courtesy of my temper, I folded my arms across my chest. “Please do.”
Taking me at my word, Sam began the introductions. “Miss Snake, we’ll assume you know Jinx. To his left is Tomas Villalobos.” He indicated a slender Hispanic male in rather expensive duds. “To his right is Gunther.” The name belonged to a ruddy-face blond gussied up in an ill-fitting suit. “And this wise man, would be Two Crows.” The last player was an intimidating Navajo elder.
I exchanged solemn nods with each man, taking quick impressions as I went along. Tomas was probably in cahoots with Mendes based upon his shifty, yet slick demeanor and would warrant closer inspection. Gunther was a straight-up blustering fool, his puffed out chest and smarmy, know-it-all attitude easy to read. The last player, Two Crows, didn’t need to say or do a thing. The weight and power humming around his presence was more than enough to commend my respect. The gathered gamblers were more mismatched than Jinx’s unusual eyes—one brown and one green. Meemaw liked to blame the unusual quirk on granddad. Personally, I figured it was just a physical manifestation of his contrary nature.
Realizing I could stand there and uselessly glare at my uncle who drew trouble like a dousing rod, or I could wipe that damn grin off by emptying his pockets. The decision was easy. My lips curled up and Jinx’s grin dimmed. Motioning to the empty seat next to Two Crows, I asked, “Mind if I join in, gentlemen?”
With Snake safely ensconced in the poker room I turned to go about my own business. She’d be pissed when she saw me next but someone needed to keep Jinx occupied. What I said to Sam earlier was true. Snake and I had a lot of kin, but like most families there were a few less than savory characters amongst our flock. I could label us all as black sheep because we could not be labeled as normal, but if Jinx wasn’t her youngest I swear that Meemaw would have offed Jinx years ago just to be rid of his oily hide. As it was he could do no wrong in her eyes, so Snake and I needed to keep our eyes wide open. If not for ourselves, then for Sam. That fool was going to get himself killed. Luckily for him Snake decided to step up as his protector even if he didn’t realize it yet.
Walking away from the table, I sashayed over to the bar and waved Charlie down. His gaze left something to be desired. Most men flung themselves at me, but Charlie’s gaze was hard. He wasn’t fooled by any of my airs or theatrics. “Another bottle of whiskey, Miss?”
I wanted to shiver at the mention of the swill we’d been drinking, instead I leaned over the bar, my taffeta rustling delicately as I batted my lashes. “Uh no Charlie, but a little bird told me that you may have some Apple Pie Moonshine?”
His eyes remained cold even as he leaned in close, playing the game. “Now where’d you find this bird, lady?”
Truth was I snooped around his back room one boring afternoon. Something warned my admission of snooping would be less appreciated than my farce of a flirtation. Made my decision to wing it easy. “I went on a ride the other day and met a gentleman by the name of Diamond Jim.” Stretching it a bit maybe as I met his corpse. Still even deader than a doornail he had the air of a gentleman who would enjoy a fancy moonshine.
Charlie blinked once, breaking eye contact, and nodded. “That old coot. Haven’t seen him in days. Well, I’ve got it, but it ain’t cheap, and I don’t advertise on account of it being limited quantity and all.”
I pushed back from the bar doing my best to nod sagely. “Supply and demand.”
“That’s exactly what it is, Miss. Bring me some coin and I might be willing to part with a bottle.”
Amusement rose. Dear Charlie was looking to fleece me. While it might be more fun to teach him a lesson, in these charades one must keep up appearances. “Why Charlie, I do believe you’ve offered quite a bargain. I’ll just head up to my room for a moment, to freshen up from my long, drawn out day. Maybe when I return, you might have a bottle ready, plus a few glasses for myself and my companions? I promise I can make it worth your while. I won’t be but a moment.”
Charlie was hot-footing it down the bar before I finished my sentence. Guess he was truly immune to my charms. Ah well, I shrugged and headed to the rickety staircase. While he busied himself in the back room and Snake kept the gamblers occupied, I needed to use my namesake to find out what Jinx and his compatriots were up to.
Unfortunately, I couldn’t actually turn into smoke which was why I sent Charlie to the back. The bar sat directly beneath the rooms he rented out and I didn’t want him to hear me rustling around where I wasn’t supposed to be. The moment I sensed Jinx I knew which room he rented, the high roller suite, if such an establishment could be said to have one. Didn’t matter how many times he was warned about routines, Jinx never listened. This time, it worked in my favor. My first night in Misery Charlie tried to sell me on the large room done up in reds, golds, and cheap velvet. Unlike my uncle, I prided myself on practicality and turned down the suite conveniently located near the bedrooms belonging to the working ladies of the house.
Once up the rickety steps I made my way past the door guarding my own sparsely furnished room and continued down the hall. Lady Luck took a shine to me. All the the action appeared to be confined behind the closed doors or limited to the drinking establishment below. At the suite’s door I placed my hand on it, trying to get a sense if Jinx put up any protections or alarms. Nothing caught my attention. I rolled my eyes, my idiot Uncle was a reckless fool. The decorative pick locks fashioned as hair pins and tucked into my hair made quick work of the cheap lock. In no time at all I stood in the dark room.
Closing the door behind me I spent a moment searching the shadowed interior. The heavy moon was kind enough to shine on the gas lamp atop the bedside table. With efficient strides I crossed the room and turned the lamp up enough to allow me to search, but not be obvious through the window. Jinx arrived a few hours earlier and the garish room was already trashed. Clothes were strewn this way and that, dirty plates sat on the small table in the room, along with a half empty liquor bottle resting on its side. My nose wrinkled at the odor of dirty clothes worn for weeks without washing.
Pushing the environment from my mind I began to carefully lift the soiled clothes and search the pockets. Jinx had a reputation for being cunning and ruthless, but as demonstrated by the door, the man had no sense when it came to protecting his personal belongings and privacy. In the third pair of soiled trousers I found something. It was a hand written receipt of a money wire. Two thousand dollars, and it was signed by Mendes. Son of a bitch. The blackguard was working against his own family. Perhaps if I buried him deep enough Meemaw wouldn’t realize he was gone.
With the receipt tucked safely back in the pocket and the clothes again in the proper disarrangement, I turned down the lamp. Quietly, I moved toward the door, my heart skipping a beat when I heard the heavy tread of boots in the hallway. When they kept on moving, I let out a silent sigh of relief. There was no way Jinx would give up torturing Snake after only a half hour. When silence reclaimed the hall I snuck out, locking the door behind me. A brief stop in my own room to smooth my hair and dress for appearances sake, and then I was drifting back down stairs. I stopped at the bar long enough to pay a king’s ransom for the moonshine, taking it and few glasses before heading to the poker room. Snake deserved a reward for putting up with our uncle. Sam probably just needed a drink in general.