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.

5 quotes from John Logan on screenwriting

This week is the (virtual) Chicago International Film Festival, and as an associate boardmember, I’ve been diving deep into the events, screenings and activities from the safety and comfort of my couch. Yesterday I sat in a masterclass conversation on screenwriting with John Logan, who wrote films like Any Given Sunday, Gladiator, The Aviator and Skyfall, created/produced the Penny Dreadful TV series, penned lots of plays, and just yesterday received a Tony nomination for the book for Broadway’s adaptation of Moulin Rouge! (which I was supposed to see at the end of March in New York…thanks, COVID).

In alliteration, Logan is a legend.

I took a ton of notes, but here are the top five quotes I feverishly jotted down during the hour spent listening to him describe process, research and the filmmaking business in general:

1. “Our lives aren’t interesting, but the characters we write can be.” Rather than writing what you know, write what you feel, what you think, and what’s important to you. This is good news to me, a Midwesterner for Life who’s trying to craft a novel set on the Western frontier. Logan also warned that we check preciousness and over-fondness at the door. You’ve heard “kill your darlings” when it comes to paragraphs you like — this is “kill your darlings” when it comes to the memories and autobiographical elements we try to preserve through fiction.

2. “Pitching (a movie) is not an audition; it’s a negotiation.” When approaching a director, producer, or (in my world) agent or publisher, don’t perform the entire work for them and hope they like it as-is. Instead, approach it as “I have something to offer you. What about it interests you?” and go from there. Note that Logan’s first feature film was Any Given Sunday, which was one of 10 pitches he brought an agent in LA. He sold the film by calling it “King Lear in the NFL.”

3. “Remember you’re a dramatist, not a historian. You’re just painting a base-layer with research.” Logan has written a number of historical fiction films and warned against the “siren’s song of research” — he spent five years studying Howard Hughes and all the industries touched by his octopus-like reach before having to actually sit down and write The Aviator. Currently I’m working on a Western, which means I’ve fallen down rabbit holes about clothing, food and weaponry during the Western migration; how a quarter of cowboys were Black; and how Jesse James was actually an asshole. It’s my first historically-set book, so I’m learning just how appealing that siren’s song can be, especially when procrastinating on putting pen to paper.

4. “Truth of the character is all that matters.” This really hit a nerve. When I wrote Nobody’s Hero, it was a cry for help as I sank under the waves of having a successful corporate job I wasn’t (at the time) sure I wanted or deserved. I poured my imposter syndrome and jaded perspective into the main character. From what my former agent told me, publishers and editors weren’t too enamored, and I think Logan made it clear why with this final quote:

5. “It’s not about my voice. It’s about my character’s voice.This is something I struggle with sometimes more than writing action scenes (which, I was surprised but comforted to know, are also a sore spot for Logan, who wrote two freakin’ James Bond movies). All my characters either sound like Kate in Life, Kate on Paper, or Evil Villain in the Show Kate Just Watched. Logan said he tries several voices and approaches for his characters, and eventually one clicks: This is a new practice I’ll be implementing for books moving forward.

BONUS: “Writers are great weeping masses of emotion and need.” No comment. Pass the Kleenex.

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.

Vignette: “Sure, why not?”

They got married because he was afraid of dying alone and because she was the girl who always said “Sure, why not?”

“Chinese takeout tonight?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Vacation to the Adirondacks?”

“Sure, why not?”

“Marry me?”

“Sure, why not?”

Jump off that cliff for me?

Sure, why not?

But deep down, she actually loved him. It was a strange situation, having to keep you love for you husband a secret from him, so as to preserve the very easy-going mystique that had attracted him to you and landed a diamond ring on your finger while vacationing in the Adirondacks. It was the price she had paid all along to be the “Sure, why not?” Girl — the girl everyone wants to be friends with. Lovers with.

Let me finger you in the back of a cab?

Sure, why not?

The wedding had been delightfully laid-back. No one, not even the bride and groom, really took it seriously. She wore a $15 dress from Macys’ Juniors department, and he wore dark jeans and the button-down from his graduation photos. Their first dance was a poor attempt to recreate the twist scene in Pulp Fiction, but of course he ws no John Travolta, and the Chuck Berry record they were using skipped every 17 seconds.

Five months later they were right where they thought they’d be: Arguing, making up over macaroni and cheese, and picking up her birth control pills at the pharmacy every month. Until one day he couldn’t take it anymore, this informal marriage where he’d come up with all the ideas and she apathetically agreed with them. So he came up with a solution and presented it at the dinner table over leftovers.

“Want to have a baby?”

He sat there, waiting for her answer.

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.”

Axiom Thorne: Waking up on the Reiver

The Reiver. Morning’s first light.

Captain Whatshisname — Everwick, as it turns out, now that the wine fog clouding my brain has dissipated — is far from the first man I’ve fucked, but he is the first one I’ve shared a bed with. Darvin always retired to his own pallet inside the closet, and Ansel and I spent nights out in the woods, curling into each other on top of soft mud or leaves rather than sheets and a down mattress. Everyone else has been a passing thrust in the dark corners of bars or alleys, and that’s how I like it. It gets the job done without any risk of attachment.

I probably wouldn’t have stayed all night on the Reiver if it hadn’t been for Everwick’s blunt warning as he stood from his chair, wrapping his own colorful striped scarf around his neck, all debonair-like. It’s a scarf just like mine, given to him by a figure who sounds suspiciously similar to the Man with the Colorful Scarf and Diamond Shoes.

“Everyone I sleep with dies,” he had said. I expected him to smirk. Instead, he was stone-faced, the only movement on his face a wisp of hair caught in the sea breeze.

That makes two of us, I had thought, remembering Darvin’s screams as the dragon ground his body between its teeth. I didn’t know what had happened to the handful of others after they had slipped in and out. They were dead in those same bars and alleys, for all I knew. As for Ansel: His fate was worse than my own death. But I haven’t told you all of that yet.

“Everyone dies,” I had shrugged.

“Horrible, agonizing deaths,” Everwick countered.

Sounds fun, I had almost said, but he was walking away now, his scarf catching the wind and snapping like a sail. I wasn’t sure if I was meant to follow, but I did — it would be easy to blame it on my ego, as my shipmates were back at the Hydra, probably taking bets on how long I’d be, but I’ll admit that there was something about Everwick that was irresistible to me. Maybe it was the idea that he was a kindred spirit, a warlock locked in the same war with the same devious patron.

An open door awaited me; and an open door shut behind me as soon as I crossed the threshold into Captain Everwick’s chambers.

It did flit through my mind that if he hadn’t detected the obsidian trilliant hidden literally inside my chest as I stood before him in my armor, he might certainly notice it once I was lying flat on my back, undressed and unguarded. But as things had progressed, it became clear that finding the match to the black stone he had brandished before me on the deck was the furthest thing from his mind now that I was in his bed. And eventually it was just as far from mine, too.

I wake up to soft light filtering into the ship’s cabin. Everwick is still asleep, his arm draped over my waist. His hand is disturbingly close to where I inserted the trilliant into my chest, and I swear I feel it beating against my bones with longing to meet its companion, which I had last seen disappear into the captain’s fist. Or maybe it’s just my heart, fluttering through feelings of fear, dread, ecstasy and…no, just those three. Nothing more concrete, and certainly nothing to do with having any sort of feelings toward the man lying in bed with me.

Even without prior experience of sharing a bed with someone, I know I can’t move his arm without waking him up. So I shift and turn into him, smelling the salt on his skin. It’s different than Ansel’s dried leaves and spice scent — fresher, and metallic with Adrenalin. In some ways I like it better: It’s the scent of someone who’s trying to pretend he’s chasing something, rather than being chased. The trilliant in my chest beats harder.

I close my eyes, tempting sleep to come back to me. The window isn’t bright enough for it to be much later than first-light, and the crew of the Hydra is probably still sleeping off the drinks from the night before. They won’t miss me.

Just as I’m about to doze off, Everwick begins to stir. His arm tightens around me and pulls me closer as he murmurs, “Still alive?”

“As far as I know,” I say, my breath warming his cool skin. “Did you want to sleep with me just to see if I would survive?”

The logic makes sense — if it is indeed our shared patron killing off our lovers, it stands to reason the Man (or, in Everwick’s case, Woman) in the Diamond Shoes wouldn’t kill both his magical servants just because they fucked each other. It seems like a morbid form of forced matchmaking, but after experiencing Everwick’s prowess in bed, I won’t complain.

“What if I say yes?” Everwick asks, a mischievous grin cutting through his morning stubble.

“Then I’d say you’re smarter than I thought,” I say, pushing him over on his back so I can straddle him. “Or at least more pragmatic.”

“Thanks, I guess?” he says, pulling me in for a kiss. I oblige for as long as I feel like before getting off him, getting off the bed, and snatching my breeches from the floor.

His stare almost wills my clothes out of my hands, but I don’t capitulate. Once I’m back in my armor of snakeskin, metal, and colorfully striped wool, I’m at the door.

“Until next time?” He asks.

“Who says there’s a next time?”

“Your whip does. You left it on the chair.”

I didn’t do it intentionally, but protesting that fact would only convince him that it was a scheme to be invited back. Once I secure it to my hip, I go straight to the door. The creak of the bed indicates that Everwick is just a few steps behind me, and before I can open the door, his hand pushes it harder into the jamb.

“Don’t tell her, er, him — them — about this, will you?” Everwick asks. It’s a plea, not a threat. “I haven’t spoken to them in 30 years, and now isn’t a good time for a reunion.”

“I promise,” I say, and I mean it. I don’t feel like looking into the leering face of the Man with the Diamond Shoes today — or possibly any day after this.

I leave without a kiss goodbye, but I feel Everwick’s eyes on my back as I walk up to the deck. Out of his gaze, I smile into the wind while passing his gold-cloaked crewmates on my way off the ship, and it’s a grin that stays in place all the way back to the Hydra’s gangplank. In my private glee, I forget to take the tiny step up on the platform and find myself sprawled out on my belly, facedown on the walkway.

As I start to push myself up to my feet — face warm with the sting of embarrassment and palms warm with the sting of several splinters — my eyes catch on my own reflection, shining back at me hundreds of tiny times from a man’s jewel-encrusted boot planted just inches from my face.

“Have something to tell me, Axiom?” His gravel voice asks. I bring myself to my feet, pushing his helping hand away. My arm goes right through him, but he’s still standing there.

“Yeah,” I say. “Leave me alone.”

I walk through him and up toward the ship. The trilliant in my chest beats hard.

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.