Excerpt: “No stars. Sky’s Still Pretty, Though.”

Spoiler alert: This is a character death scene from my National Novel Writing Month 2020 project. I cried twice — once while writing it, once while editing it for this post — which is either a sign of good writing or total exhaustion.

They stepped out into the spring night, the breeze pulling the sound of piano through the saloon’s closed windows to where they stood across the street. It must have drizzled — the ground had that smell of barely-wet dirt that made Lucky think of green leaves and damp socks. Far-off lightening lit up the sky with a soft glow accompanied by low rumbles of thunder. 

To the right of the hotel’s opulent porch, Trent had the horses, but there was still no sign of Elton coming out of the saloon. Squinting into the distance, Lucky couldn’t even make his figure out in the window, and hadn’t Job said he was keeping watch from across the street?

“Something’s wrong,” she said, pulling away from the group and marching across the street toward the saloon. A gunshot cracked, and a small stone five feet to her right jumped ten feet ahead: with no one else on the street at this early morning hour, there was no doubt who the shot was meant for, and from the way the rock moved, the gunman was shooting from behind and above her.

She turned at the moment another streak of lightening crossed the sky. The flash in the clouds and the lamplight illuminating the hotel’s sign glared off a wide-brimmed white hat perched atop Jeremiah Bose, Jr.’s, head. One of the guests had probably cut him free, and he now stood in a dark second-floor room with a rifle aimed straight at Lucky’s feet.

“You’re going to shoot me now?” she yelled up at the pointed gun. “You can’t save me, so you’d rather kill me?” 

Back toward the hotel, Job had stepped out from under the awning of the porch to see where the shot had come from. Wade still stood there, arms crossed, staring daggers at Lucky. If she didn’t know any better, she’d have thought he was enjoying watching her get what he thought she deserved. Trent’s hand was still clutching the reins of three of their horses, but his gun hand was at his belt, ready to draw.

She raised a hand to them to signal for them to stay where they were. Jeremiah wouldn’t kill her, she knew, but he was likely hungry to sink a bullet into one of the Higgs Boys who had (in his rendition of the story) likely defiled her.

“Fine,” Lucky said. “I’ll come back, if that’s what you want.”

She turned and began to walk toward the hotel, but another shot landed at her feet, just a foot from her toes. She leapt back, tripped on a jagged stone, and the ground came up to meet her as she landed on her back.

She picked herself up quickly and took another step toward the hotel but was met with a fourth bullet, this time just two feet to her left. She turned back to Jeremiah at the window, threw a rude hand gesture his way, and turned back to the saloon. He’d shot twice — she’d have some time while he reloaded. She’d get there to warn Elton, even if it took a bullet in the leg. Her foot didn’t land its next step before another shot rang out and hit another rock just feet from where Lucky stood.

“What kind of gun is that?” she yelled. From this distance, she couldn’t see Jeremiah’s face, but she could imagine that he was smiling that mischievous grin he’d unironically flash when explaining some new technique he had learned in one of the new books on undertaking. Another crack of lightening and thunder answered her, spaced closer together as the storm moved closer and closer. To hell with what he wants, she thought. If he thought she’d walk closer to his fire, he had gone madder than she thought.

Another step, and another bullet landed next to her. This time Jeremiah was either not as precise with his aim, or was growing impatient. The bullet grazed Lucky’s shoulder, ripping through the tan leather sleeve of her jacket and white linen shirt underneath. It was a mere flesh wound, but the pain and shock at Jeremiah’s persistence made her stumble. She looked behind her and saw Job had stepped out a few more feet from the awning, aiming his gun upward and inching backward until he just had Jeremiah in his sights. Two more steps, and he was ready to shoot.

Jeremiah saw him first and pulled the trigger. The bullet missed, but it was enough to send Job scrambling back under the protection of the awning. Meanwhile, Lucky saw Squirrel starting to slide down the hotel drainpipe, his own gun lifted. If he could get level with Jeremiah, he could surprise him. Lucky turned back as to not give away Squirrel’s position and refocused on her target.

Another step, another crack. This one hit the wooden hitching post next to the saloon’s porch, splintering the wood. Any minute now someone should step out of the saloon, Lucky thought. The piano would stop playing; Jeremiah would shoot; and everyone inside would hear the crack of the bullet and come out looking for what all the fuss was about — unless they assumed it was thunder from the approaching storm.

This close, Lucky could see in the windows. The bartender was cleaning glasses, though he kept eying her suspiciously through the glass. The tables in the window were empty, though one still had a beer glass on it and a gray coat slung over the chair. If Elton was in there, he wasn’t by the window anymore. 

She knew that she couldn’t put a foot on the saloon porch stairs without Jeremiah potentially taking off the other one, so she stopped inches from the steps. 

“Elton!” she yelled just as another clap of sharp thunder rattled the saloon windows. The piano kept playing inside. She yelled his name again.

It all happened in a second. Elton appeared in the window, slung his jacket over his shoulder, and turned out of view as he neared the door. Lucky was sent back to Roachie’s saloon in Clarkstown — how she had snatched Trent’s jacket from the chair before heading out to meet him before the marshal could catch them, just as he vowed he would, if one of them stepped foot in his path.

Jeremiah hadn’t been shooting at her to make her stand still or come back to the hotel. He was shooting at her to make her walk toward the saloon, where she would coax out Elton into the open and he’d have a clear shot.

The saloon doors swung open, and time slowed. Elton stood with his arms spread wide as they pushed the panels wide. He turned back to shout his good nights to whatever barkeeps and barmaids he had commiserate with throughout the evening, then turned back to Lucky.

“Fine night, isn’t it, m’lady?” he asked, taking a step onto the porch, beer tripping his tongue and sending it sprawling over the syllables. 

“Elton, go back inside,” Lucky said, but he couldn’t hear her over the thunder overhead. He took another step out from under the awning and into the line of fire.

“I was hoping you’d stop for a drink with me,” he smiled. “Guess we’ll have to try again tomorr–”

The bullet hit him in the chest. Bright red blossomed like a carnation in his buttonhole. He staggered on the steps, gripping the railing to keep himself standing. The gray jacket landed on the stair and slid off its edge into the dirt, but he paid no mind. On his face was the look of a man who’s known exactly what has happened to him, but who refuses to believe its seriousness. 

“Dear god,” he said, looking at Lucky with half a laugh stuck in his throat. “I do believe I’ve been shot, Lucky.”

Another crack, and a second carnation bloomed on the left side of his stomach. A third, a fourth — he was a garden of red flowers blossoming before her eyes. She caught him in her open arms as he tumbled down the step, coughing a spray of blood that she felt hit her face. Now that she had wrapped him in her arms, she hoped Jeremiah would stop shooting long enough so she could get Elton back to the horses. 

“I thought I heard shots,” Elton sputtered into her ear. The heat of his breath and his blood seared more than the bullet to her arm. “But the barkeep said it was just the thunder.”

“We’ll get out of here,” Lucky said, starting to pull him forward, her back still to the hotel. She counted one, two, three steps without a shot. “We’ll get you taken care of.”

“Who’s going to do that, Lucky?” he asked, feet starting to lag behind. “I’m the only one who knows a single iota about the human body. Can’t very much operate on myself.”

“We’ll find a way,” Lucky said, feeling another burning. Her vision was getting blurry as her eyes began to fill with tears. Elton was growing heavier as the life was starting to leave his body. She recognized the signs from when she had to help her father up the stairs of their ranch house the night before she left: Every step seemed to shake a bit more consciousness out of him.

“Lucky,” Elton said her name quietly. “We’re not going to make it.”

Like hell, they wouldn’t. wouldn’t. She didn’t care if her ankles snapped — she was going to get Elton back to the cover of the hotel where his cousins could at least say goodbye. The shooting had continued behind her, filling the quiet night air with pops and explosions, but no one had screamed in pain yet: It was as if they were doing it all for show, like bucks beating against each other with their horns. Everyone was shooting, but no one was aiming to kill.

If only someone would just get Jeremiah already so she could lie Elton down on a soft feather bed in the hotel, where he’d pass in peace.

“Lucky,” Elton said again. “You need to stop.”

“I won’t,” she cried, a bubble of phlegm catching the words as they fought from her throat. 

“You have to,” he said. “Just lie me down so I can see the stars one last time.”

One last time. Lucky stopped pulling him toward the hotel. Her knees buckled, and down along with her came Elton, crashing to the ground with a thud. The wind knocked out of his lungs and took a blood clot with it, spraying Lucky again. She felt the warmth trickle down her face but wasn’t sure if was Elton’s blood or her tears.

To Lucky, and Lucky only, the shooting had stopped. The hotel and saloon disappeared. The horses stopped bucking and whinnying, and the thunder above dulled. The burn in her arm from where Jeremiah’s bullet grazed her cooled, and the only sensation she had anymore was the tight grip Elton had of her hand in his as he stared up at the sky.

“No stars,” he sighed as lightning illuminated the edges of the clouds roiling above. “Sky’s still pretty, though.”

“I’ll get you back to your family,” Lucky said.

“Don’t bother,” he wheezed. “What good will it do for Aunt Mary to have something else to bury in her field?”

“I’ll get your cousins,” Lucky said, twisting around. In this blank slate of space, she could still make out Job, Trent and Wade standing outside the hotel, little flashes and pops glinting off their guns as they shot away at the man who had wounded their cousin. Squirrel was hanging by one arm off the drainpipe, trying to get good aim. No one seemed to notice that their friend was bleeding out in the street.

Lucky called their names, hoping to get at least one of them to sit with Elton as he passed. Later on she would have many quiet nights to wonder if this was because she thought it was right, or if it was because she didn’t want to be alone with him when he died. Her own father had asked her to close the door on her way to bed that night: He knew she had no interest in being witness to death. 

“They’re not coming,” she cried to Elton.

“No matter,” he said, his voice even hoarser now. “You should go to them so you can get out of here alive.” 

“Not without you,” Lucky said.

“You won’t make it any other way,” Elton said. “Thank you, Lucky.”

“For what?”

“For finally cooking us a decent meal,” he smiled. “And for being a friend. All of them have to be friendly because I’m kin. It’s been that way since I landed on their doorstep as a kid with two dead parents and too soft a heart for their nefarious games. You always made me feel like you liked me for me. And I appreciate that. Don’t think anyone ever made me feel that way before.”

“Truth be told,” she said, bending inward. “You’re my favorite Higgs Boy, Elton Walters.”

Elton’s face broke into a broad smile that showed his bloody teeth. 

“Now that is a nice thing,” he said, and grew still.

Excerpt: One-and-a-half robberies

“Not bad for my second robbery, eh boys?” Lucinda said, shaking out her skirts of the dirt, leaves and pine needles that had collected when she rolled down the hill from the tracks.

“Second?” Wade scoffed.

“Yeah,” Lucinda said. “The one when we first met. That was my first.”

“You didn’t do anything to stop the Rosewood train,” Wade said. “You got on as a passenger and decided you liked the ring on the finger of the lady next to you. Doesn’t count.”

“I got on the train with an empty bag. You pulled us over, and I did my own looting of the first-class car,” Lucinda countered. “And I got off the train with quite a full bag, Mr. Higgs.”

“That’s only half the work,” Wade said, waving her away.

“Then fine,” Lucinda said. “Let’s call it this my one-and-a-half robbery.”

“That doesn’t make any sense,” Wade said. “You can’t commit half a robbery.”

Lucinda looked at him, then pulled from her bag one of the diamond bracelets she had taken off the old woman who had called her ugly. She jingled it in his face. “Maybe a little rounding is in order.”

He scowled at the swinging gemstones and snatched it from her hand.

“Fine,” he said. “Not bad for your second robbery.”

Excerpt from “Stet:” Agatha comes home

I walk back across the street to my apartment after two more beers. The summer days have started stretching into evening, so when I roll into bed I sink my face into the pillow against the orange sunlight streaking the wall through the slatted blinds.

A phone rings in the distance, getting louder. When I lift my face off the pillowcase in desperate need of a wash, I see that the orange has brightened into synthetic white as city lights replace the setting sun. Somehow I find my phone woven into my cocoon of sheets.

“This is Mary from Moundsville Mental Hospital,” says a voice on the other end, too happy with itself for conveniently holding a name alliterative with her place of employment. “We’ve got a Miss Agatha Lydecker here, and she needs to be taken home. You’re on her list of emergency contacts, so we thought you might be available to pick her up?”

We arrive back at my apartment in what seemed like no time at all, and I tuck her onto the couch in the living room. She falls asleep quickly, and I return to my room, this time flopping onto my back. I close my eyes and try to let my breathing drop into the same rhythm as the humming icemaker in the kitchen.

But I can’t fall into sync. I’m too busy listening to the silence coming from the living room, which screams that something’s not right. I get up and pad down the hall to the couch. Agatha hasn’t moved. I go back to my bed, assuring myself that she’ll be fine, at least until she wakes up in a stranger’s apartment in hospital scrubs, the only clothes they had for her. I don’t know why they couldn’t dress her in what she wore when she was admitted.

I’m finally an exhale away from icemaker meditation when I hear a creak in the living room. With a sigh I lift myself out of bed, but I don’t make it down the hall. Instead, I’m frozen at my bedroom door, looking down the ten feet of empty space at where the living room is, only to find that I’m not looking at empty space — I’m watching Agatha pirouetting on the other side.

Before I can call out to her, she stops spinning, facing the kitchen like a statue. She slowly pivots to face me, and a shaft of midnight city light slices across her face to illuminate her eyes, narrowed in concentration. Or is it anger? The pupils reflect the light like a cat’s, and there’s no other word for what I’m seeing:

Ghostly.

I back away, unsettled but refusing fear. Agatha continues to watch me, the light framing her scowling eyes before she starts to pirouette again, turning a few times, then stepping forward into another turn, slowly coming down the hall toward me. I hear panicked breathing and think it’s her. It’s me.

I inch backward into the bedroom, about to close the door, but decide to have one more peek. She’s just standing there, scrubs hanging off her slight frame like rags off a scarecrow’s frame.

I close the door anyway and get onto the bed, contemplating my options. My phone is on the kitchen table, where I left it after putting Agatha to bed. Below the window is a 30-foot drop. My walk-in closet is better defined as a gaze-in closet because it’s so full of boxes, clips and dirty laundry. As I sit among the sheets reeking from sweat spent on nightmares about what happened to Agatha, I realize that now that I’ve learned what happened to her, I’m terrified of her.

Then I hear her call my name. The voice is so faint that it must be coming from the couch. I hear it again. Part of me wants to answer — is sure that I must have just been seeing things, letting her recounts of ghost-hunting get to me, or letting guilt invade — but I can’t move. I try, but I can’t. This isn’t the sleep paralysis I usually have the night before going to press. This is being literally too scared to move.

She calls my name again. I can’t budge. Maybe she’ll roll over and go back to sleep, wiped out from her ballet interlude in the hallway. Maybe she’ll be confused and leave the apartment altogether. Either would be a win at this point, I think, but the Good Person inside slaps my conscience on the wrist. I’d answer her, but I can’t form words. My mouth is locked shut.

There’s my name again. It’s louder, but still a whisper. It’s right in my ear, and I feel breath on my face and eyelashes against my temple as I hear it. I gain the ability to blink, and I take the opportunity to crush my eyes shut against the sound, the feeling, the smell of sweat-rotted sheets steeped in insomnia. The knowledge that somehow, Agatha is right next to me, and I won’t be able to fight her off or even talk her down because I don’t know how I got this way. She got this way, I mean.

My fault, I whisper again in my head.

“Yes, it is,” I hear Agatha’s voice say, clear as day. My eyes explode open, and I see her illuminated by the light intruding through the windows, her face maniacal as she laughs at me, frozen on my bed. Dense smoke curls up the walls, creeping out from under her feet as it shrouds both of us but doesn’t stifle the sound of her laugh, which turns into angry screams, then just screams.

It’s me screaming. I’m screaming as I wake up in my apartment. The city lights illuminate stripes of the past tenant’s wallpaper dotted with wallflowers that refuse to dance to the icemaker’s hum. I’m drenched in sweat.

Telling myself it was a dream, I step into the hall. No pirouetting reporter at the end. I creep forward. No Agatha on the couch, either. My keys are still on the hook next to the door, and I take my phone from the kitchen table. Satisfied, I return to bed, trying to convince myself that I must have left the phone there when I walked in from the bar, even though I haven’t slept without it next to me in five years.

Why Wade Higgs decided to rob trains with his two brothers, his cousin and a man named Squirrel

When Wade Higgs was twelve years, four months and three days old, he made two discoveries that would change the course of his life for the coming two decades.

The first was that his family was poor. His new clothes, though clean and whole, were consistently handed down from his older brother, Trent, and his old clothes went to his younger brother, Job. Dinner, while hearty and tasty, was often a simple vegetable slop, as pork was pricey and deer was dear. Every season came with fewer cattle on the ranch, and every winter came with fewer logs for the fire. And when all of this came to his attention, he made the second discovery:

Whiskey tasted good and made him feel better.

Clark Roberson from two ranches over had come by on a new horse, newly sired by his father’s workhorse and another neighbor’s mare. He was 14 and mean as a horsefly, never leaving behind an opportunity to gloat in the face of those who worshipped the ground he walked on. Until this day, Wade was one of them: Convinced that Clark was the epitome of young manhood.

“Like it?” Clark asked as Wade’s eyes widened big enough to take in the horse. “Pa says he’s mine. Bet you’ve never seen one like this, Higgs.”

By this time Trent had come out of the house. Trent was the oldest and biggest, and yet somehow the good Lord hadn’t found the time or space to fill him with wisdom. As tall as he was, at nearly 6-foot-6, he was dreadfully short on temper, except when it came to animals. No one had seen such a skilled horse and cattle wrangler. Terms like “prodigy” didn’t get used often in Polk Canyon, but it was a common synonym for Trent Higgs and his ability to tame any mustang or drive any herd when he was just ten years old. Now cresting 16 years old, he dreamed of having the money to start his own ranch, but spent his days scrutinizing the ranchers and farmhands in the region who showed little respect, let alone skill, in their trade.

So naturally, Trent wasn’t impressed by the way Clark kept standing in his stirrups.

“Horse won’t like that,” he grumbled, glaring up at him.

“Horse doesn’t know what it likes,” Clark said. “Because I haven’t taught him yet. He’ll get used to it. That’s the nice thing about being able to afford a new horse — he can be anything I want him to be, not some ratty old hand-me-down.”

Trent must have decided arguing with someone two years younger and likely smarter wasn’t worth his time, because he turned back toward the barn. But Clark wasn’t done yet.

“All those mangy beasts you keep on this ranch, I’m surprised you haven’t all got fleas,” he shouted. “Especially considering you’re so poor you all wear the same clothes. Tell me, Wade, you wearing your brother’s old underwear?”

Wade’s cheeks grew hot. Until now, it never occurred to him that families didn’t normally pass everything among one another. He couldn’t remember the last new shirt or pair of trousers that had come into the house, and wondered if, indeed, any had since Trent had grown to his full size.

Sensing his work was done, Clark stood in the stirrups and kicked his horse in the sides, making it rear and charge away. Wade coughed in the dust they kicked up.

“Trent?” Wade asked, voice cracking. It was that time of his adolescence. “Are we poor?”

“Yeah,” Trent shrugged. “I guess.”

Wade didn’t know why it bothered him so much now. Nothing had changed about the way they lived since that morning when he woke up under a quilt that his mother had sewn from scraps of flour sacks and old shirts. The only difference was that now someone had given it a name, “poor,” and the shame of it all came crashing down on him.

Job came limping out of the house. He was nine, and the Biblical origins of his name seemed to determine his luck. Just six months before, he had tried to climb the large tree out back and fallen, breaking one of his legs. It hadn’t healed properly — it was now shorter than the other one — and Job was still getting used to walking around on uneven legs.

“Ma says Mr. Gilligan is coming for dinner,” he said. “She says we have to wash up.”

Mr. Gilligan was from the bank in town — a friend of the family and a quiet investor in the Higgs Ranch, even when it had its rough years. Whenever he came for dinner, there was sure to be a ham at the table. The promise of sweet, salty meat made Wade’s mouth water, even as his stomach churned at the thought that the only reason his family would be eating something so valuable was because someone else had given it to them.

That night, Mr. Gilligan did arrive with a ham, as well as a bottle of whiskey. Sitting around the table, he told funny stories from the town in Polk County, joked with the boys, and played checkers with Job until Mrs. Higgs announced that supper was ready. The bottle of whiskey stayed in the kitchen, incentivizing the diners to finish their meal quicker than usual. When the plates were cleared, Mrs. Higgs rose to take them into the kitchen and retrieve two glasses, one for her husband and one for her guest.

“Mary, get yourself a glass,” Mr. Gilligan admonished when she returned. “I want both of you to be in on this toast.” She did, and when she came back Mr. Kelly lifted his drink and proclaimed “To old friends, whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Trent had gone out back to put the horses away before the wolves came out. Job was playing checkers against himself — something he had become quite accustomed to during his recovery — in the corner. And Wade’s ear was pressed to the door. Something about the uncharacteristic gift Mr. Gilligan had brought to their home was weighing on him.

“Mary, that was one excellent meal,” he continued. “It breaks my heart that this could be my last one for a while.”

“What do you mean, Sam?”

“I mean to say that the bank is moving me on,” he confessed. “They’re concerned with the amount of train robbing going on in these parts, so they’re shutting down the Polk Canyon office and moving me out to Kodak City to open a new branch that’ll serve both areas. That area’s got a couple of marshals that’ve been keeping an eye on things. Only one robbery in the last two years, actually.”

Wade new his father was too proud to ask what would happen to the family with out Sam Gilligan’s monthly dinners, but not tonight.

“That’s the end of the money, isn’t it?” John Higgs said.

“I’m afraid that with the new branch, the bank’s going to be keeping a closer eye on my expenses.” Sam shrugged. “I know I wasn’t giving you much, but it was still more than I care to try to slip under their noses. I’m not saying this is the absolute end — just an intermission.”

“Winter’s almost here,” Wade’s mother said wearily. “What are we supposed to do for food?”

“I’ll send some goods down,” Mr. Gilligan said, his voice fading away behind the pumping of blood inside Wade’s ears. No money from the bank meant no food. No food meant they’d starve. If there was ever a time to try whiskey, now was it, he reasoned, and he took a full swig from the bottle.

It burned so bad his eyes watered, but he liked it. He liked the distraction the pain gave him from the even more searing reality that his family might not survive a winter without crawling to people like Clark Roberson’s family for help. Once it subsided, he took another swig. Then another.

By the time Mary Higgs went back into the house, her son had finished half the bottle and was sitting under the worktable, hiccuping. She eyed the remaining whiskey, understood immediately what had happened, and led him across the room to his bed tucked under the stairs to the upstairs loft. Wade’s mouth was too numb to tell her he was sorry.

The next morning, he picked up the newspaper that Mr. Gilligan had used to wrap the ham. Despite the haze of meat grease and a hangover, Wade made out the words of an article about a train that had been robbed by a small group of bandits just outside Fort Jerusalem and remembered what their so-called family friend had said about Kodak City being relatively safe from such nefarious activities.

And that’s when he decided he would change that.

He saw Mr. Gilligan one more time, twenty years later. He’d lost count of how many trains he’d robbed by then, but this was the first one he’d stopped on its way to Kodak City in which a bank employee was charged with sitting with the safe in the front. In this case, it was the man who had abandoned the Higgs family before the longest winter in history — who had sent a single box of goods before disappearing from their lives entirely. He hadn’t even shown up to bury his old friends John and Mary Higgs when they died just before spring broke that year.

Struggling under the weight of age and guilt, Mr. Gilligan’s slow hands and old gun were no match for Cousin Elton and The Squirrel, who subdued him easily. When Wade opened the safe, he emptied it into his bag and made sure to take the bottle of whiskey from Mr. Gilligan’s own satchel bag.

“Here’s to friends,” he said, uncorking it with his teeth and spitting the stopper into Mr. Gilligan’s lap. “Whose bonds can never be broken by hot words or acute adversity.”

Wade Higgs’ theme is “Old Number Seven” by The Devil Makes Three:

Axiom Thorne: The last time Ansel saw me

Five days before I boarded the ship that would lead me to The Tenacious Sea, Ansel saw me for the last time.

It’s important that you understand it like that, because Ive seen him several times — in my dreams, at pubs, working as a phantom member of our crew. I could have sworn that was him getting a lap dance on the brocade sofa at the brothel where we chased down Darvin.

And yet I can’t really remember all the details: The violet-blue eyes are there, but sometimes I line them with blond eyelashes, sometimes with brown. Sometimes his nose is broken so it bends left, other times right. On cloudy days my mind gives his stubble a reddish sheen, even though I don’t remember if that’s what I wish he’d had, or what was real. At this point, seeing him is like seeing myself, standing on the deck of the Hydra. The important parts are memories of my reflection, the details filled in with imagination.

Not just my imagination, as I’m learning. His imagination. The Man with the Colorful Scarf and the Diamond Shoes. My mind’s been at the mercy of his whims ever since he draped those colorful stripes around my shoulders and showed me I could kill the Baker’s Boy with just a careless thought. I know that because the last time he appeared to me as I boarded the Hydra after my night on the Reiver, I was able to walk right through him.

The last time Ansel saw me, I was already halfway down the pier. The sun was beating down that day, combusting with the magic my mother had woven into my hair so that it glowed like the white light at the center of a flame. Days like these I’d typically pin it up under a kerchief to keep anyone around me from going blind or, worse, wanting to know my secret. Mamma didn’t like people knowing we had magic.

But I was free now. Mamma was dead. Ansel — well, I still haven’t told you the circumstances of my leaving him. Snippets of the sob stories I’ve told others, sure, but not the real story. In any case, all you need to know is that Ansel was quite aware it was me twenty feet ahead of him at the docks, but if he was as wise as he always seemed, the last thing he was going to do was try to stop me. He knew what happened the last time he’d tried, and if he didn’t, all it would take was a walk through Crestbalm Cemetery and find his family’s plot covered in freshly planted grass.

Things got dark there, didn’t they? Well, they got dark that day, too. It was about two weeks before I left town. And I won’t get into it now, so you won’t know who’s recently buried in Ansel’s family plot, or even if there is someone buried there within the last year, or decade. Because I’m not really sure, either.

The Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes just laughed his rock-tumbler chuckle in my ear and told me to say all of that. He’s the only one who really knows what happened to Ansel, if anything.

I hope Ansel is safe.

I hope Ansel is alive.

Most of all, I hope Ansel is real.

The Davies family business

When Rhiannon Davies was 12 years old, it came to her attention that while her father mostly worked as a printer for the town, he was also a proficient train robber.

She learned this because she used to deliver the money he’d stolen to the townspeople, tucked underneath the fliers he’d printed them for church bazaars, wedding announcements, job openings, barn-raisings. Then, one day, the bottom of the box she was carrying to Glenwood’s General Dry Goods broke, and on the ground she saw not just flyers announcing a sale on tooth powder and brushes, but also four stacks of bills.

That night she forced herself to stay awake long enough for her mother and sister to go to bed. Girallt liked to sit by the fire while smoking his pipe, long after his wife had fallen asleep. Once she was sure he was alone, Rhiannon climbed out of bed and went to meet him in the parlor of their modest home.

“Pa,” she said. He jumped, not expecting to see her.

“Little Raven, you ought to be in bed,” he said, his Welsh accent rounding his words. He called her raven as a joke — she was blond as a canary.

“I dropped one of the boxes today,” she confessed. “It was the one for Glenwood’s. I didn’t mean to. The bottom just broke.”

“It was a rainy afternoon,” her father shrugged, but she could tell in his eyes that he knew she wasn’t worried about the broken box. “Did you lose any of the papers inside?”

“No,” she said. “I picked them all up. They were all bundled, so none of them blew away.”

“Good girl,” her father said. “So it’s my taking that you want to know why there was almost $500 in that box for Mr. Glenwood.”

She nodded.

This was how Rhiannon learned her father’s business. Mr. Pincock at the telegraph office would listen into wires being transmitted to the nearby Derby & Crane Mine, alerting them to a shipment of currency being delivered by train. Once he had the exact time and date the train was supposed to arrive, he would do the math on when it would be passing through the woods near their little town called Polk. Then he’d deliver a message written on telegram paper to Girallt Davies’ print shop, and Davies would print and deliver flyers to his crew: Mr. Doberman, who played piano at the saloon; the Sheffield boys who owned the first ranch outside of town. They’d meet the train, rob it, and bring the cash back to Polk for distribution. Mr. Glenwood did most of the work, tracking in his ledger who had received their cut when they came in to make their purchases for the week. He didn’t mind doing this service for free, mind you: Most of the money he handed out came right back to his coffers.

“But what about the sheriff?” Rhiannon asked. She delivered printed Wanted posters to Sheriff Queen all the time, and she didn’t want to see her own father on one of them.

“He gets his cut, too,” Girallt assured her. “Usually hidden under Wanted posters for Jesse James and the Sundance Kid.”

Rhiannon’s head was spinning. Every Sunday her family attended church. Her father would sing the loudest, and he’d lead a discussion over dinner that night about the pastor’s sermon.

“But the Bible says ‘Thou shalt not steal,'” Rhiannon said. “And Pastor Simon says—”

“Rhiannon, we’re not stealing from individual people,” Girallt said, rubbing his temples they way he did to massage out the frustration. “Remember when the Derby & Crane Mining Company opened their mine up the river from us? They didn’t care whether they put dirt or silt in the river, even though that water comes right down to our town. We had to find other ways to get water that was clean enough to drink, and a lot of us spent all we had in digging wells — wells that might not last long, depending how much water is underground. And that mine didn’t help us at all, just watched as our ranchers’ cattle died and we struggled to get what little water we could that wasn’t tainted with the filth they send down it.

“That’s who we’re robbing, Little Raven. We’re taking from the company that took clean water from us, and we’re building lives out of it. Did you see Paulie Simpson’s new wheelchair? It just arrived from a fancy New England shop that shipped it special to him because he had enough money to pay for it, thanks to us.”

The logic was enough to help Rhiannon push out of her mind the image of her father burning in hell alongside all other unrepentant thieves and robbers. Girallt opened his arms for a hug, and she ran into them, breathing in the tobacco smoke. Her father stroked her head and whispered:

“Pastor Simon gets a cut, too, by the way. I hide them under his church bulletins.”

Excerpt: Lucinda Ellis meets the Higgs Boys

She opened her carpetbag and dumped it onto the dirt, shaking loose every pocketwatch, coin, ring, necklace, money clip, eyeglass, and paper money she had collected from the passengers on the second car. The Higgs Boys scrambled to stomp their foot on the bills before the wind could carry them away. Wade Higgs crouched down to inspect a delicate ruby ring Lucinda had taken from her talkative seatmate.

“Ma’am, I mean no offense,” he said, mesmerized by the light flashing off the red stone. “But we’re called the Higgs Boys for a reason. We don’t usually, er, have the pleasure of doing business with matrons such as yourself.”

“Not unless you count that old whore you bedded down in Ludslow last week,” one of the boys interjected.

“Mr. Higgs,” Lucinda said, ignoring the chuckles of the men around her. “I don’t believe you’re looking at the situation holistically. You might not have worked with a woman before, but doubt you’ve ever picked this much treasure off a train car before, either. So my question for you is, don’t you think it might be worth including me in future endeavors?”

Wade rubbed his mouth as he stared at the ruby he still clutched between pinched fingers, as if the answer was in the jewel. Lucinda certainly thought it was — of all the things she had read about the Higgs Boys, they never if rarely held up the first-class passengers on the trains they robbed. Looking at the tiny group of five men, she had a sense it was a lack of manpower, rather than will.

“She’s right, Wade,” said the man who had been wearing the paisley kerchief. Job was his name, if Lucinda remembered the Wanted posters well enough. “There wasn’t much in that safe today, and there wasn’t much in the one last week, either. If we can take a walk down those first-class cars, could be more than enough to tide us over.”

“Yeah, so why don’t we just do that ourselves?” Asked the Higgs Boy who had referred to Wade Higgs’ recent conquest. “Why’s she got to do it?”

Lucinda was prepared for this question because she had asked it herself when planning her escape. “Because they don’t expect a lady passenger to be carrying an empty carpetbag with a plan to fill it,” she said. “Or a Colt with the ability to use it, for that matter.”

She removed the gun from the lining of the bag where she kept it, spinning it around a finger as she drew it, just like her father had taught her.

In a reflex, the four standing Higgs Boys drew their own revolvers, poised to shoot. Lucinda’s whole body clenched in anticipation, but her mind didn’t lose focus. She spun her Dragoon back to her side, placing it in the carpetbag and raising her arms up in surrender.

“I said ability, not intention,” she said. The Higgs boys still refused to lower their weapons. Lucinda tried to cover up her fearful trembling by shrugging and returning her gaze to Wade, who was now counting a stash of bills secured in a brass money clip.

“The way I see it, Wade Higgs, you’ve got two enemies: Time and men,” she continued. “If you have me ride that train every week as a passenger, I can case the car — determine who’s got the best goods while we’re on our way out of town and know exactly who to stick the gun at once you and the Boys board. I can make quick work of it while you crack the safe, and we can both disembark together to split the goods.”

“You may have a point,” Wade said, finishing the count and tossing the clip back in the dirt with the rest of the loot. “Must be the wisdom of your years.” The Boys laughed. Lucinda joined in this time.

“Speaking of which,” he continued. “If you forgive me saying so, aren’t you a little old to start a career in train robbing?”

Lucinda smirked and lowered her arms so she could unpin her hat. Through the veil she could see the four guns simultaneously lift higher, more threateningly, as their wielders tried to determine what she was going to do next.

Both hatpin and hairpin came out easily. Lucinda shook her head, a cloud of talcum powder catching on the wind as her dark locks freed themselves from their tight twists. Once her hair was loose, she chanced a glance at the four gunmen. Job’s mouth was agape, unlike his counterparts, who had all tried different methods of concealing their surprise to varying degrees of success. But Wade Higgs wasn’t coy.

“Well I’ll be damned,” he said, chuckling. “You’re a real pretty lady, you know.”

“So I’ve been told,” Lucinda said, cheeks warming. By her parents, yes, but never a man with the kind of smile and reputation bared by one Wade Higgs.

“What a waste of a pretty face,” Wade said. “And there’s no dress shops or sundry shops out in the woods where we camp. No real soap, either, come to think of it.”

“I think I’ll manage.”

Wade Higgs turned to his boys now.

“Well, gents? Oh for all that is green in God’s good wallet, put your guns down!”

All four guns were holstered immediately. As Job’s gun lowered, his voice rose.

“I don’t like it, Wade. We’ve got a good thing here. Inviting someone new — lady or not — is like adding too much salt to the soup. It’ll ruin it, and there’ll be no way of fixing it without throwing the whole thing out.”

“Was that a remark on dinner last night?” asked the broadest of the men. “I told you it was Elton who put the extra salt in the soup, not me.”

“And I said I didn’t know you’d already done that, Trent,” Elton, presumably, said, gripping the brown sack he had worn over his head on the train and shaking the burlap at his cousin.

“I take it the food could improve?” Lucinda asked Wade.

“Ma’am, you have no idea,” said Job. “We ate hearty last night, but we were up all night guzzling from the water skins.”

“And delayed this morning from pissing it all out,” said the final man who hadn’t spoken — the wiry, clean-shaven one with a scar cutting through the hair on the side of his head.

“I’m a decent cook,” Lucinda shrugged. “If you let me join your crew, I’ll make sure you never dine on salty soup again. Daddy always said I made the best venison stew this side of the Mississippi, with biscuits to match.”

“Biscuits?” Elton asked.

“Venison?” Job asked, subconsciously licking his lips.

“Whatever meat’s available, really,” Lucinda said. “Mushrooms, too, if meat isn’t an option.”

“Wade,” said the clean-shaven man. “I think we’d be fools to pass up at least this woman cooking us dinner tonight, don’t you? Because there’s no way I’m having one more spoonful of that salty slop Trent forced down our gullets last night.”

Trent looked ready to grab his gun, but stopped short when Wade barked, “Fine.”

He walked up close to Lucinda, so close that his coffee-tinged breath heated her face. She stood up straighter. He wasn’t much taller than her — maybe a few inches — and on the uneven ground, their eyes were level with each other. Wade shifted to the side a little so he’d be taller than her again.

“You’ll cook dinner starting tonight,” he said. “We usually take a week or two between robberies. See if you can last that long—”

He paused, and Lucinda realized he didn’t know her name.

“Lucinda,” she said. “Lucinda Ellis.”

“Wade Higgs,” he said. “That there is my brother Job, and the big fella is my brother Trent. The redhead is our cousin Elton Walters, and the baby faced bast— I mean, man — is Jimmy Clearwater, but we just call him The Squirrel on account of how fast he climbs trees.”

The Squirrel gave a mock salute.

“Well, don’t just stand there, boys,” Wade said with a sigh. “Let’s put this loot back in the bag and get back to camp. Lucinda here is going to cook us dinner.” He raised his eyebrows at her before turning on a heel and walking deeper into the forest.

Maybe the old adage her mother had spouted was true, after all: It certainly seemed like the way into mens’ train robbery gang was through their stomachs.

Excerpt: A stop at Sy’s dad’s place

Dad’s eyes look Raff up and down before nodding at him to sit on the couch. Behind the brown irises I can see him rereading his memories of the texts I sent him — both those written as I beamed in the back of a taxi after our dates, and those sloppily typed while crying over how this man broke my heart — and he’s trying to piece together exactly why I’ve brought him home for dinner.

“Should I be nice?” He asks me.

“Yeah, you can be nice,” I say, taking my usual seat in the overstuffed armchair that gives both him and Mom back pain.

“OK, then,” Dad says tepidly. “You’ve had a long day on the road. How does a drink sound?” 

“I’ll take the darkest beer you have in the fridge,” I say.

“Chewable brew for Sy,” Dad says, “And how about you, Raff? I’ve got beer, cider, wine, whiskey — actually, I just got this new 12-year scotch—“

“Not that nice, Dad,” I say.

“Beers all around, got it,” Dad nods, bending down into the small fridge hidden inside one of the entertainment center cabinets. If I had my way, it would be lukewarm tap water for the non-Harris in the room, but Dad’s kinder than me.

~

“I’m heading to bed,” I say. “Thanks for having us, Dad.” I give him a hug and make my way to the door, expecting Raff to rise and follow, presumably give Dad one of those hearty, endearing handshakes. 

But he doesn’t move.

“You going to bed, too, Raff?” I ask. It’s hard seeking clarity on this, as we’re not even staying on the same floor of the house.

“Yeah, in a minute.”

“We have another long drive tomorrow,” I say.

“I know. Don’t worry.” He smiles one of those disarming smirks that makes me do nothing but worry. “I just want to talk to Mr. Harris a bit longer.”

I shrug and walk out of the room, closing the French doors behind me and heading upstairs.

When I was 15 and got my first potion book from Mom, I concocted an amplifying polish that I then applied to the doorframe of those very same French doors, which allowed me to hear whatever was going on inside all the way up in my room, where I kept the jar containing the other half of the polish. Once the doors shut behind me, I race up the stairs to the back of my old closet where, embedded in a box of magazine clippings meant for some decoupage project that never got finished, I find the polish and dipped an ear close to the contents.

“—but I didn’t mean to hurt her,” Raff is saying. “I need you to hear that, because I think you might be the only one who could possibly believe it.”

“Why, because I also fell in love with a witch?” Dad asks calmly, understandingly. The way he’d listen to my excuses about failing a math test because Jason Werth was trying to copy me and got us both in trouble.

“How did you know you were actually in love with her and not under some kind of hex or something?” Raff blurts out. 

“I believe it’s a little thing called trust,” Dad says. “And faith. It seems you need a little of both.”

“Raff, I am very happy with my wife. We’ve been in love with each other for three decades. We have a beautiful, smart daughter. I have never tasted anything weird in my food or felt any strange pricks in my sleep — not that I ever expected to.

“I’m not saying that you and my daughter are meant to be and your suspicions and paranoia have deprived you of true happiness. In fact, I believe she could be a lot happier with someone who has more faith in her integrity as a person. But take this advice from one grisled old man to a young one: Stop thinking you’re such hot shit that a woman like Sy would need use an ounce of her power to bewitch you, let alone elect to.”

Raff mumbled a “Yes, sir,” thanked Dad for the hospitality, and the French doors creaked open as he left the room and his footsteps faded in the direction of the first floor guest room. 

I put the lid back on the jar and hid it away in the box again. As I stepped out of my room and into the hallway to wash up before bed, Dad came up the stairs. He passed me without a word — just a wink.

Axiom Thorne: Invitation to board the Reiver

The folded piece of parchment is heavy as a stone in my pocket and twice as conspicuous. Standing on the deck, swaying as much from drink as from the swells of the waves under our feet, I feel everyone staring at it, thinking about the three-word invitation scrawled across it: “The Reiver. Midnight.”

How Captain Whatshisname found time to procure a quill, ink and piece of parchment in the short seconds following Scarlet and my intrusion upon his table was still baffling, and in turn it made the entire situation feel even more suspicious. Everyone’s acting like this is some coy invite to an amorous tryst, and while I’ll be the first to admit that nights on the Hydra have been lonely — particularly since Darvin’s betrayal and subsequent death in the jaws of a dragon — I’ll be the last to walk my horny ass into a honey trap.

That said, Captain Blonde-Beard was enough to make me forget Darvin. He was almost enough to make me forget Ansel, had it not been for the fact he has the same eyes: The color of forget-me-nots, as poetically trite as it sounds.

The first night I spent with Ansel was in the same woods where I killed the Baker’s Son — not that Ansel would ever know that. The muddy bank squelched under us, but it was as soft as any mattress, and it wasn’t like we had come there to sleep, anyway. As we watched the sun rise over the trees the next morning, Ansel jumped into the river to wash off. I would have followed, if not for the tight grip of a hand around my wrist.

“You can play with him, but your still mine,” growled a voice like gravel tumbling in a barrel. “And we have work to do.”

The Man with the Diamond Shoes didn’t leave a footprint in the mud as he left, and Ansel didn’t notice anything strange when he pulled himself halfway onto shore so he could tug on my ankle to invite me into the water with him.

“Five minutes to midnight,” Yalma squawks above me, circling and landing on her captain’s shoulder.

If I plan on making the rendezvous, I should disembark and walk across the docks to Captain Whoknows’ ship. From here I can see The Reiver, two stories taller than ours and draped in sails of regal purple, bobbing on the light waves. The rhythmic motion of it riding up and down, up and down, conjures thoughts in my head that make my toes curl inside my boots and fingers tighten around the whip coiled at my waist.

The wariness of what awaits across the docks hasn’t left me, but I can’t let the crew know that. So I turn, give an impish smirk as I pat the whip at my hip, and take my first step off the boat, knowing that even if my crew mates stay on the Hydra, there’ll be someone keeping an eye on me.

Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” Meet Constance Lin, reporter

There are many kinds of journalists, but none more diametrically opposite than the Conference Room Reporter and the War Zone Reporter. Their stories are just as critical to a functioning democratic society, but their tolerances are different.

A War Zone Reporter doesn’t flinch at the sound of an F-15 screaming overhead or run for cover when a bomb detonates three blocks over, but will shriek with boredom sitting across a table from a source and their three lawyers. A Conference Room Reporter can weather the monotonous monsoon of picked-and-polished information that talking heads regurgitate from a talking points briefing sheet, but has no stomach for personal peril other than a potential cease and desist from an annoyed source.

That’s why the Federal Vigilante Agency’s press room — located on the second floor and shrouded from the city with automated, retractable window screens when the occasion called for discretion — had broken into chaos. All of these local news crews and writers whose worst fears were a dying phone battery during an exclusive interview were facing certain death at the hands of a madman who had just made his presence known by splashing his logo in dripping neon green light along the wall behind the podium.

At least, that was Constance Lin’s take on things from where she stood in the back of the room. Being six feet tall helped her see over the melee, but the extra four inches added by her high heels meant a less stable base as the room swarmed with panicked people.

The dark momentarily dissipated with an abrupt bolt of light that seared itself into everyone’s eyes as it vanished. Up on the wall, down on the floor, pasted to the back of heads, no matter where Constance looked, there it was: the sun-bright outline of a flaming, falling meteor that made up infamous villain Flashbang’s calling card.

Suddenly the heat of embarrassment at mentioning the threatening memo left her cheeks. Instead, her brain buzzed with the reminder that she needed to survive. She had come too far — all those years embedded with troops in Syria, mountain climbers on Everest, villagers in Sudan — to be brought down by some asshole with a fancy light show.