-- July 1931 --
Cities always looked better in his rear-view mirror; growing smaller and smaller on the horizon until they were lost from his line of sight. As they should be.
Arthur hated Blackwater. Its high buildings that shot out of the earth and concealed the beauty of the sky. The way its hoards of unemployed searched for work that wasn’t there while the rich strolled by indifferent to the plight of their fellow man. How like a disease it was continuing to spread, killing the rolling plains one house at a time. Most of all he hated how after five years of living there, the city had seeped into his skin and was every bit a part of Arthur as the scars on his face or the blood on his hands that no amount of water could wash away.
He pressed the gas pedal harder. Tall grass and roaming horses flashed by as the wind whipped around them. Albert’s straw hat was nearly a casualty of Arthur’s desperation to put some much needed distance between himself and the city, but his hands flew up in time.
“I understand you’re upset but if you’re going to drive like a mad man, pull over and I’ll hop out. There are cougars lurking about, but those majestic creatures are endangered so quite frankly my chance of survival on foot is arguably higher than with you behind the wheel.”
“Sorry, Al, it’s just—” Arthur broke off and slowed down the car.
“I could help you more if you’d just talk to me and explain why the devil—”
“Nothin’ to talk ‘bout. Just need some time away, is all.”
“Oh really? The bruises all over your face and hands. Your broken nose. That bullet wound near your shoulder that you are trying but failing to conceal. None of these are topics worthy of conversation?”
As much as he cherished Albert, sometimes he wished the man wasn’t so skilled at cutting through his bullshit. This is what happens when you make friends with journalists. Can’t leave shit be.
“Let’s not forget the fact that you showed up at my apartment after hours just dying to explore the great outdoors. I enjoy spontaneity as much as the next fellow and share your love of leaving city life behind to bask in the countryside, but really, this is a bit much. Where are we even going?”
“Thank heavens I was home. Given the state you’re in, I wouldn’t be surprised if you had just stolen my car and vanished forever into the ether.”
“Hey, now. I’d never do that. I’d at least leave a note.” Albert gave him a flat look that returned Arthur’s eyes to the dirt road ahead. “Look, I appreciate your concern but you can’t help me with this. Talkin’ won’t fix nothin’ and if I’m being honest, you’re far more involved than I like.”
“You never struck me as the sort to run away from your problems.”
The car was brought to a screeching halt that startled a hidden murder of crows, sending them flying and cawing into the night air. Arthur turned to him. “Now you listen, I ain’t running away. I just need a few days to sort things out.”
Time. Arthur just needed time. To think. To breathe. To forget. He was all washed up. Rung out and hung up to dry like some well-worn rag. What a fool he had been. All because he had been too close to see what lay before his eyes. Now everything was such a goddamn mess and Arthur could barely keep his head above the water. He slumped against the driver’s seat and dug around in his pocket for his cigarettes. A search undertaken in vain. He had already smoked through the whole pack.
While he was a fool, Arthur wasn’t stupid enough to sit there and curse the heavens that yet another misfortune had befallen him. He had walked right into this one. Eagerly.
There had been a woman. There was always a woman in these stories, wasn’t there? Not her fault though seeing as the poor girl was dead. Her murder had sparked this whole rotten affair. Some private detective he was. Hadn’t caught her killer yet and wasn’t even sure he still wanted to.
There had been a man too. If Arthur had known then what he knew now, he would have shot John Marston the moment he first laid eyes on that bastard. Would have saved himself a world of trouble.
Albert spoke up. “If you’re still in danger I beg you to reconsider this brief sojourn and—”
“And what? Contact the police? You know as well as I do the clubhouse is full of rats. They’re all in on it and the ones who ain’t will be killed if they don’t fall in line.”
“Then perhaps Mr. Matthews? You’re like a son to him. Surely he would protect you.”
“It’s not me that needs protectin’. It’s everyone else and from each other, no less. This war between Dutch and Hosea. It’s coming to an end and no one will leave unscathed. It’s gonna be a bloodbath.”
“What about John? Does he—”
The silence was instant. Albert subconsciously pressed his back against the door, trying to put some space between him and what Arthur knew was an enraged stare akin to those beastly predators his friend was usually so fond of. His fingers gripped the steering wheel, knuckles whitening and standing out among the purplish-blue bruises that marred his fingers. Bone-weary as a drifter walking for days without a lift, he rested his head between them. Albert placed a gentle hand on his broad back, as if Arthur was deserving of some sort of comfort.
He couldn’t think about John.
He just couldn’t.
Every time those brown eyes flashed through his mind, warm as the nights they had spent entwined, Arthur wanted to wrench open his skull and pluck out every last memory.
-- March 1931 --
A cigarette lazily perched between his chapped lips threatened to fall as Arthur peeked through the blinds at the messy streets below. Spring was dead on arrival. Winter still clinging on through the slush on their boots, through the bitter wind that had collars pulled high and hats tipped low. The line for the soup kitchen was getting so long it damn near wrapped around the block. Poor bastards. Some of them hadn’t been employed in over a year. If Arthur had the money, he’d go out there and start handing out bills so they could buy a real meal but work had been frustratingly light as of late. It was the nature of the job. Can’t really pay to have mysteries solved or the unsuspecting spied on when most could barely keep their families fed.
“Sir, you can’t just go in there!” Tilly said in that no-nonsense tone that always came out whenever her feathers got ruffled. Her heels clicked against the floor as she came after him. “Who do you think you are? You need an appointment.”
He shot at wary glance at the tall figure who loomed by his doorway, obscured by the frosted glass, trying to figure out if God or Satan was about to dole him out a favor. Not that he believed in any of that, but if he did, Arthur would place his chips on the latter. Probably some filthy rich tycoon looking to get his dirty work done or perhaps a rich Nancy boy with daddy’s money looking to get out of a jam. Two types of men Arthur strongly disliked, but money was money no matter whose hands it came from. He was always hard-pressed to turn down a potential client no matter how foul. Unless the gentleman gave his girl lip. That was different. Then Arthur would toss his ass out in the cold if Tilly didn’t do it first. Arthur walked to the front of his desk and leaned against it, hands resting lightly on the mahogany wood behind him.
“This can’t wait,” a hoarse voice rasped. Christ, there was someone out there who apparently smoked more than Arthur did.
He came into the office with all of the arrogance of a man used to getting what he wants; stride steady and gaze narrowing as it locked on Arthur, as if he was expecting more. His half-assed attempt at slicking back his black hair meant some of it still fell limply over his eyes. Dark and beguiling, they had a spark to them not unlike gunfire at night. An expensive suit, charcoal and pinstripes, hugged his lean frame. Something was off though. Maybe it was the way the fabric was a bit tight around his broad shoulders or maybe it was the thin, angry scars that tore across his young face, but Arthur recognized a fellow imposter when he saw one. Both of them too raw for the finer things in life. No silver spoon ever graced that mouth. Must be new to his wealth. Self-made.
“S’alright, Miss Jackson,” Arthur said as Tilly followed the gentleman in, ready to drag him out by the ear. She was wearing that yellow dress he always liked, added a bit of sunshine to their admittedly somber office. “I’ll take it from here.”
“If you say so,” Tilly replied, shooting the man a look that could cut through steel before shutting the door behind her.
“You oughta give that girl a raise. Ain’t ever seen a secretary so ready to go to bat for her boss.”
“Miss Jackson is a fine woman and I don’t deserve her.” Arthur turned his head to blow out a stream of smoke. “You got a name?”
“John,” he replied firmly, fiddling with his dark gray fedora before extending his hand for a firm, brisk shake. “John Marston.”
“Well, Mr. Marston.” Arthur stubbed the cigarette out in his glass ash tray and gestured towards the chair before his desk. “Unless you’re always this impatient you must have quite the story to share.”
“Don’t beat around the bush much, do you?”
“Not if I can help it.”
“Ain’t sure where to start.” John sat down. “Hell, I don’t even know if I should be here.”
Arthur crossed his arms and stared down his nose at him. “How ‘bout you just start from the beginning and I’ll be the judge of that, hm?”
“You hear about the suicide aboard the Serendipity? During the New Year’s Eve party held there?”
Not only did he hear about but he knew the victim too. “Enlighten me.”
“Her name was Heidi McCourt. We were friends. I was at the party and ran into her not long before—” he broke off and sighed, “—before she shot herself in the head.”
“That’s bad business. Ain’t easy losing someone like that.”
“That’s the thing though. Miss McCourt wasn’t suicidal. At least from I could see. She was always so happy.”
“Sometimes the saddest people are the ones who always keep a smile on their face.”
John’s shoulders slouched as if the statement somehow punctured his body, deflating him like a balloon. He muttered in a bitter tone, “That’s true, I suppose.”
Hands balled into fists on his knees. Nostrils flared. Legs straight on the floor like he was ready to bounce up and leave. This was clearly hard for him but not because of the loss. John didn’t seem like someone who asked for help much not because he didn’t need it, but because he had long been forced to solve things on his own. Arthur knew anger. Knew it too well. But he prided himself on his self-control and no longer letting his baser instincts get the best of him. John didn’t seem like that though. He had a thinly-veiled rage about him, though what a successful and handsome businessman had to be mad about was anyone’s guess.
Hoping to settle his nerves, Arthur extended his cigarette case, engraved with a stag, towards John whose long fingers plucked one out. A slight nod of thanks accompanied the flash from his silver lighter. The tension coiled in his body seemed to unwind with every smoky exhale.
“She was tellin’ me all about this new acting gig she got. How she was finally gonna leave Blackwater. Don’t see why she’d kill herself when she had so much to look forward too.”
“If you suspect Miss McCourt was murdered, why you here and not the police?”
“I tried. Spoke with Detective Milton about it. He oversaw her case. Told me they found her alone in a locked room, gun still in hand, no signs of struggle. Claimed her diary detailed how devastated she was over her failed acting career.” John brought the cigarette to his lips and took a deep pull, brows creasing in annoyance.
“Apparently that’s as good as a suicide note.”
“Apparently,” John snorted. “I tried pointing out that someone could’ve held the gun to her head, used a key to get in and out. The coroner said she shot herself at midnight, but she wasn’t discovered for hours. Anything could’ve happened! But Milton told me my time would be better spent with a shrink to deal with my overwhelming grief. The prick.” Arthur grinned at that. No better word to describe Andrew Milton. John must have misinterpreted his response, for he bitterly added, “I’m not crazy though. I know there’s more to the story.”
“I don’t think you’re crazy.”
John blinked. “You don’t?”
“Well, I don’t know you,” Arthur teased, “you could have a few loose screws. But I knew Miss McCourt. Met her out west when she was tryin’ to make it big in Hollywood. Ran into her a couple of times here. Like you, she never struck me as the suicidal type and I saw her at her worst. Failure inspired her, made her want to work harder. That whole devastated actress angle Milton threw at you is nonsense.”
“So you’ll look into it?”
“For a price.”
John immediately dug into his wallet, fat and full of bills that Arthur would very much like to get his hands on. Where’d all that money come from? Maybe he was a vulture; one of the select few who benefited from the stock market crash.
“This enough?” John placed a crisp twenty dollar bill in his hands. “If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong, but I just feel like I owe it to her, y’know? She was one of the few nice people in this shit stain of a town and her death has been buggin’ me for months.”
“Ain’t a fan of Milton nor Blackwater?” Arthur pocketed the bill. “It’s like you’re tryin’ to get me to like you, Mr. Marston.”
“Maybe I am.” John replied, sweeping a hand over his clean-shaven face. If Arthur didn’t know any better, he’d think it was an attempt to cover up a bit of color in his cheeks.
Tilly’s fingers tapping away at her typewriter and cars sloshing through the damp streets filled the sudden silence. ‘Arthur Morgan Private Investigator,’ emblazoned on the window cast a shadow over John as his attention drifted from the faded wallpaper, to the disarray of his desk, to the half empty decanter of whiskey on the windowsill. Everything and anything that wasn’t Arthur’s unwavering stare. It was a hard one to be subjected to and from an unpleasant face too. Worn with lines and nicks carved out of his skin like crevices in the earth. Always rough with stubble even though he just shaved, damn it. Arthur fit right in with the criminals he brought to justice. Fit in right along side them on death row too, if he was being honest. Making John uncomfortable wasn’t his intention. A by-product of being in his line of sight as he got caught up in his head thinking about where to start. Heidi’s family and friends, of course. The police file. Witnesses.
The body can speak louder than words though and Arthur knew how to listen.
“There something you’re not telling me?”
John kept his head down but his gaze flashed up and lips pulled back, baring his teeth. A come-hither look but one that was less like a flirtatious dame and more like a wolf beckoning his prey. “You’re good at reading people, ain’t you?”
“Have to be in my line of work.”
It took him a couple more drags before he growled, “If it turns out she was murdered, I don’t want the killer coming after me or anyone I care about. You better keep my name a secret.”
“Of course, Mr. Marston.” Arthur raised his hands as if he was trying to ease an ornery stallion. “What’s got you spooked?”
John grimaced at his word choice. “When I spoke with Miss McCourt on the ferry, there was this blond feller hanging ‘round her. She didn’t introduce us, but I swear I’ve seen him in the papers before. If it’s who I think it is, his name is Micah Bell and he’s—”
“A career criminal, yeah, I’ve heard of him.” Arthur scratched the back of his head. Last he heard Bell had been magically pardoned for a triple homicide up in New Hanover. Not that he’d tell John that. He was right to be scared of him. “If my boyfriend was a thug like that, I don’t rightly blame Miss McCourt for withholdin’ introductions.”
That got a laugh out of John. Far more relaxed now that he knew his identity would remain a secret, his body grew less rigid, demeanor more playful. It was almost cute how he slipped an arm just past Arthur’s wide frame to crush his cigarette in the ashtray, rather than ask him to fetch it.
Arthur tilted his head. “How’d a pretty boy like you get those scars?”
“Fell down some stairs,” John said without missing a beat.
“Fell down some—boy, I heard some shit lies in my day, but that?” Arthur cracked up, shaking his head. “These stairs jagged? Run down the side of a mountain?”
“We ain’t even on a first name basis and already you’re poking into my life.” He gave him the kind of smile that if Arthur had a daughter and John came to his doorstep looking for her, he’d greet him with a shotgun. All trouble and not worth any of it. “I’m not the mystery you’re being paid to solve.”
Arthur shrugged. “I’m always open to extra work.”
John bit his lip as he dug into his pocket and pulled out a small packet of matches. When he handed it over, his index finger stretched to brush Arthur’s ever so slightly. It made the hairs on the back of his neck stand up in rebellion, not excitement. What the hell was he playing at?
“If you need to reach me, I’m the owner of Beecher’s Hope. The address and number are on there.”
“That fancy café? Didn’t take you for a coffee slinger.”
“We all gotta make a living somehow.” There was that smirk again. More of a slash than anything and hinted at another secret. John placed his hat back on his head. “Nice meeting you, Mr. Morgan. Let me know what you find out.”
After John strolled out as fast as he came in, Arthur poured himself a healthy shot of whiskey and returned to the window. The afternoon sunlight outlined the buildings blocking his view of the Upper Montana, gilding them and the rest of the city in gold. Pretty apt for, what did John call it? Oh yes, this shit stain of a town. Beautiful, but only on the outside. For a sweetheart like Heidi McCourt to be murdered here was more than plausible, though the act itself made little sense. Funny. Honest. The sort of woman who’d have your back if things went haywire. Pretty little thing too. How she hadn’t gotten snapped up by Hollywood, he’d never know—but then again, good looking dames were a dime a dozen out there. Crime doesn’t need logic though. If Heidi was murdered, Arthur would find out who did it and why.
“Don’t think you can hide in there!” Tilly called out. “Come on out and tell me what on earth he couldn’t wait to get you mixed up in.”
“Hell if I know,” Arthur muttered under his breath before throwing back the shot.