It took me a second to fully process what I’d just heard. Strickland was right; I was interested, mostly out of morbid curiosity. For a moment, I forgot I was talking to the very type of man I despised most in the world. But his money spent like everyone else’s, not to mention he had plenty of it. Enough to make me consider playing the role of ranger one more time.
Based on my experience with vampires, I ranked them as the most dangerous extramundane beings you could encounter. They were sly and cunning monsters, controlling folks from the shadows. When push came to shove, they were unrivaled in feats of speed and strength. Their skills represented a deadly combination that should be regarded with the same caution as a lit stick of dynamite glued to your hand.
The only peaceful encounter I’ve ever had with a vampire happened at Clem’s on my first night in town. Clem described him as a popular philanthropist who represented all the old money and influence in Hexed Springs. His family was richer than anyone could fathom. Rumor had it they stashed heaping mounds of cash deep underground in vaults carved by humans brainwashed into do their bidding. Some of the currencies belonged to civilizations that didn’t exist any longer. Even though they were extramundanes, they weren’t afraid of hobnobbing in public.
Everyone in the saloon that night treated him kindly, perhaps out of both fear and respect. The beautiful woman hanging on his arm was drunk on his charm, not from liquor. He was of a light complexion, almost pale as the elves, and had a long, handsome face. His black hair cascaded down his shoulders, which the saloon gals couldn’t help but twirl a finger through. He was dressed in accordance with his station, wearing a tailored suit accented with a pocket square the same color as his blood-red silk undershirt.
A tinge of fear wormed in my gut when we accidentally met eyes. His eyebrows shot up in surprise, like my presence there was serendipitous. Clem shot me a look of caution and slipped away to help another customer as he wandered over next to me. His arm slid around my shoulders and he extended a bejeweled hand. “Cal Cooper, I presume? Welcome to Hexed Springs.”
I hesitated before taking his hand. It was ice cold. “How the hell do you know who I am?”
An exaggerated, apologetic look crossed his face. “Forgive me, sir. That was too direct, especially in a land where most men prefer to remain anonymous. Do not worry, though, your identity is safe with me. Consider me a friend.”
“Does my new friend have a name?” I asked.
“Lucius Montague. I’m quite pleased to make your acquaintance,” he said, dipping his head low.
“You going to tell me how you know me?”
Lucius looked at the man seated next to me and smiled. The man promptly offered up his seat and the vampire gingerly slid onto the open stool and smoothed his untucked shirt.
“Please, Mr. Cooper, it’s nothing overly devious, I assure you. I’m simply a well-informed man. I understand you’re on the run from the army,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“Word of your deeds has reached all the way out here,” he continued. “Some folks aren’t sure if they can trust you. A man trained to be an inquisitor is a threat to the extramundane here.”
“If you’re so well-informed, you’ll know I’m not like them. I’ve never hurt anybody who didn’t already have it coming.”
“Of course, of course. The Inquisition is extreme at times, yes, but as a higher being of the extramundane world, I understand the need to cull lesser magical beings, particularly wild beasts. I do not hold your experience against you.”
I furrowed my brow and pulled away. “I appreciate your leniency.”
“I believe you’re a man with good judgment, which is why I’ve come to speak with you. Should the need ever arise, I trust you’ll be considerate of my family in any future work you may undertake. I do so hate to see mundanes become mixed up with those around here who don’t know their place.”
I enjoyed the last drop of whiskey in my glass and calmly set it aside. “Is that some kind of warning?”
“Just some friendly advice. Hexed Springs isn’t like other towns. Mundanes have conquered most of this country, but No Man’s Land should always be a realm of cooperation between our peoples. It’s no secret my family has much influence in the region, and personally, I’d much prefer to have a man of your talents working for me rather than against me.”
I squared my shoulders to the vamp, staring straight into his dark eyes. “Frankly, Lucius, I don’t care too much for veiled threats. Next time, save your breath and make me an offer. I go where the money leads me. You should already know that.”
Lucius returned my stare with a face of stone, his brow revealing only the slightest crease of discontent with my direct approach. After a moment, he lightened up, clapping me on the shoulder. “I will remember, sir, and I do so appreciate your time.” He knocked his obsidian ring on the bartop. “Pardon me, but I must return to my … date.”
Lucius gestured to a woman sitting in a booth in a secluded, darkened corner of the saloon. She hadn’t moved an inch since he’d approached me. I noticed she had a birthmark, a small splotch of brown that crawled up the side of her neck. She tried to hide a pair of fang marks in the middle of it, covering herself with a lace collar that wrapped around her like a Victorian princess. Hard to forget their extravagance, let alone the lady’s elegant beauty.
“Lovely gal,” I said.
“Yes, she certainly is. She’s captivated with me. And I with her. We share an uncommon bond, you might say,” he said, his gaze brimming with lust. After a moment, he cleared his throat and nodded back to me. “I’ll let you return to your conversation with Miss Clementine. I do hope you’ll consider working alongside us someday. No offense, but mundanes have such a way of mucking things up. Man’s greed corrupts like no other.”
I reckoned I should have felt honored. My first full day in the territory and a prominent paranormal was already lining up for my services. Seven months later, the most powerful of the mortal folks around here would be standing on my front porch doing the same.
I reluctantly lit the lamp and pulled open the door, inviting Strickland inside. He was tailed by an associate, a man unlike any other I’d seen. Nearly as wide as he was tall, he had to stoop to get inside my doorway.
His knuckles bulged in his metallic gloves, at least as thick as two of mine. He wore a sickly green cloak over a bronze suit of armor and carried a long, blunted executioner’s sword. His helmet was reminiscent of a Bronze Age warrior and peeked out from underneath a pointed hood. I could only see black where his eyes should have been. Without a doubt, he was the one trying to break down my door.
“Why don’t you have a seat, Ross?” I said, playing host and gesturing to my half-eaten chair. Strickland sneered. The man had probably never sat on anything so poor. I imagine he preferred the comfort of a goose-down cushion or, hell, maybe even a gold throne. I’m sure he found my home to be downright offensive.
“I’ll stand. And, please, I insist that you address me as Mr. Strickland.”
I chuffed at that. I reckoned Strickland was a pompous ass based on the rumors I’d heard about him. Anyone demanding to be called ‘mister’ only wanted their ass kissed, or was so high and mighty they thought they’d naturally inherited the right to command others. Strickland was probably both.
I played along, intoxicated with the thought of how much money I could squeeze out of him. “Forgive me, Mr. Strickland. Can I offer you something to drink? You and your eager associate—”
“Never mind him,” Strickland interrupted. “I’m ready to get down to business. I do not wish to linger here and attract unwanted attention.” He wandered through my parlor and scanned my meager belongings, settling at my bookshelf, and swiped a gloved finger across the top. He sneered at the thick layer of dust that came off.
“Like I said, my only child has been kidnapped by a vampiric abomination, and I shouldn’t have to tell you how dire that sort of situation is,” he said. He wiped the dust on my one nice chair. “I’m prepared to negotiate a handsome contract for you, including a down payment for your services, if you agree to find my daughter and eradicate whatever infestation of these vile creatures exists in the area immediately.”
Got down to business. Prepared to negotiate. All this man knows is how to talk money.
“Hold on,” I said, brushing off the chair. “Just how sure are you that it was, in fact, a vampire that took your little girl? Pretty brazen of a being known to work from the shadows to abduct someone of such a high profile.”
“Indeed, it is, but I’m sure of it. I have four eyewitnesses who can corroborate a description of the creature. The men who patrol my estate’s grounds at night, as well as my daughter’s nanny, each encountered the vampire.”
“All right, then, tell me what they told you.”
Strickland stopped pacing and continued. “In the early hours of the morning, approximately twenty hours ago, my men noticed a disturbance in the hedge maze outside my mansion. They reported witnessing the topiary rattling as if something was muddling through it. One man assumed it was a raccoon and went to scare it off. When he held up his lantern to investigate, something charged at him. He believes the flame in his lamp frightened it and caused it to leap over his head onto the eastern side of the property. If you had ever seen my mansion grounds, you would know that distance is quite impossible for a human to manage in one jump. In the moments it took for my security team to run from the hedge maze to the main house, the creature had broken into my daughter’s second-floor window, plundered her room, and stolen her from her bed. My servants caught a glimpse of the horrible thing just before it departed with her.”
“And? What did the creature look like?” I asked.
“It had a contorted face and large fangs, and it measured about the same size as the average person. My servants could not tell if it was male or female, but it was not at all human. The creature reeked of blood and left a trail of soot on my Persian rugs, presumably tracking it in from its filthy lair. It struggled to fly away but managed to do so with the assistance of a thin membrane attached to its wrist and connecting near its waist, similar to the wing of a bat.”
I knew just what Strickland had seen. He was describing a feral vampire. Truly the most dangerous kind. Feral vamps are unpredictable, caught in a state between an addled human and a bloodthirsty demon. They have all the powers of a vampire with none of the mental faculties.
I was going to charge a big fee for this sort of a job.
“That’s a vampire all right, but why would it want to attack your daughter? I mean, it could have assaulted anyone else in the house,” I said.
Strickland stood over my chair and gripped the back of it with his gloved hands. “I believe it is personal, ranger. Ever since I established myself in No Man’s Land, my extramundane counterparts here seem to be collaborating in their efforts to diminish me. This is why I must also ask for your discretion in handling this matter.”
“I don’t understand. Why the secrecy?”
“I have a substantial vested interest in the success of Hexed Springs. I don’t expect a man like yourself to understand, but I’d prefer my prestigious reputation remain untarnished and not become associated with rumors concerning the paranormal. My business partners, let alone the regional markets, would not react well to this series of events. I will not let anyone jeopardize my plans for this territory, nor will I allow anyone to interfere with what is mine. Certainly not those filthy abominations.” The lone oil lantern cast an ominous shadow across the spidery, purple veins in his cheeks.
I waited a moment for his anger to simmer before jabbing back at him for the personal insult he’d conveniently buried in his diatribe. “You’re right, I guess I don’t understand. I’m just a simple man who can’t comprehend the complicated subject of social stratification among the elite. Why did you come to this part of the world if you didn’t want to be near the extramundane?”
He snorted and turned his nose up before walking away from me, his hands clasped behind his back. “You don’t get to be a man of my status by being meek and simple. Seize what you can before someone else does or risk becoming a footnote in their biography.”
Strickland paused near the window and peered out over the town. The superiority drained from his voice, replaced with ambition and hope.
“I’ve been having dreams of a new and improved Hexed Springs, ranger. My vision for the town will affect every man and woman here, including the extramundane. Soon, mechanical marvels will revolutionize the way we live. The men of industry in my network tell me they are on the cusp of great transformation. Imagine, if you will, a cable car running through our town square alongside wagons that need no horse to pull them. Lanterns that burn without flame but are a hundred times brighter. Automatons that obey their master’s commands. A utopia, right here in the Wild West, within our grasp,” he said with a growing fervor.
Like a locomotive releasing its steam, he exhaled and turned from the window. He inspected his associate, who hadn’t moved since he’d walked in, his silent gaze focused straight ahead on nothing in particular. The blunted end of his sword pointed toward the floor and his weight rested on its hilt.
“I am neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic man, ranger,” he continued. “I am simply determined. I can make life better here. For everyone. I know I may come across as a raging bull sometimes, but I assure you, I have the best intentions for every soul in this future American state. As such, I cannot be too protective of my generous investments.”
I’m sure everyone sounds like the good guy in their own version of history. Ross P. Strickland was actually a hard-ass whose other ‘dreams’ for humanity included cheap labor wages, extended sentences in debtor’s prisons, and exempting the excessively wealthy from taxation—all things that made him richer and fatter than anybody else. As I looked at him from across the room, I could picture his face on a poster announcing his candidacy for governor.
One thing was missing from the long-winded job offer: the details on his daughter. Curious how he’d expounded more on his vision than his own flesh and blood who’d been stolen during the night.
“Whatever you say, Mr. Strickland. But I need to consider a few more details before I take on your contract. Do you have any idea where this thing took your daughter?”
Strickland begrudgingly shifted his priorities back from his dreams to reality. “My men followed it southwest as far as they could, but it was too difficult to track in the night with its speed.”
“Predators usually don’t tend to carry their prey over long distances. Can’t imagine your daughter would be far away from your grounds. What’s her name? What does she look like?”
Strickland grunted and dug through his coat pockets. “Her name is Abigail,” he said, holding up a photograph. “She’s aged since this was taken.”
I scanned the photo and frowned. Something was off. Abigail’s eyes telegraphed a sense of fear, and her smile was clearly forced. She was a dainty thing with a sweet face, chunky cheeks, and a bow in her hair, bobbed off just above her shoulders. Her hair appeared to be nearly white in the sepia image. She was surrounded by stuffed horses and wore a pretty dress with a floral pattern that complemented the canvas backdrop behind her. Her lace collar had no ruffles in it, and she sat straight and tall, like she would be punished for taking a bad photograph. On the back, it read Abigail Ames Strickland, age 8 handwritten in a lady’s cursive.
“And how old is she now?” I asked.
“She’s nine, maybe even as old as eleven, I forget,” Strickland said, shrugging his shoulders.
I arched an eyebrow. “You’re not sure how old your only daughter is?”
“Why should I be?” he said with a nonchalant laugh. “Youth is such an insignificant stage of life. A male minor cannot own land, cannot vote, and his earning potential is pitiful. For a girl, all these things are nonexistent. I would have preferred a son, as any father would. Girls her age despise their fathers. Although I seem to have very little in common with her, she is my blood and only heir, so I am willing to do whatever it takes to retrieve her.”
I shook my head in disbelief. The joy of rearing children was wasted on such an awful man. He didn’t deserve to be a father. I’m sure he sensed my seething disapproval.
“I heard you put an ad in the paper looking for security guards. Why not send one of them? Why not send this guy right here?” I asked, pointing to the quiet man near the door.
“Unfortunately, that is out of the question. I cannot divert their attention from protecting my assets. That is why I’m seeking outside help. And, as I mentioned earlier, this must be discreet, which is why I didn’t just advertise it in the newspaper as well.”
He couldn’t even spare a single man to save his only little girl? Strickland chimed in before I could fully express my judgment. “I hope you’re not insinuating that I’m a bad father. I can assure you the accusation would be false. Despite her being born the wrong sex, I provide Abigail with food, shelter, and all the toys she could ever want. Besides, I’m not paying you to judge me,” he said.
The anger continued to boil inside me. Just keep your trap shut and think of the payday, I thought. That’s the sort of attitude that would make Clem proud.
“Mr. Strickland, you’ve mistaken me for a man with empathy. I don’t care what kind of father you are, and, as of this moment, you’re not paying me at all. I haven’t agreed to go searching for your—”
Strickland’s hand shot up. “Two hundred dollars will be paid to you upon my daughter’s return alive. Twenty dollars will be offered as a down payment. I will also include an additional fifty dollars for proof of every vampire you exterminate.”
I had a great poker face, but even I couldn’t conceal my shock at that potential payday. Strickland saw the greed in my eyes. “I take it you’ll agree to these terms,” he said.
Two hundred dollars, plus at least an additional fifty dollars, was nothing to sneeze at. As of right now, my total earnings was zero—a big, fat goose egg. I’d earned bigger payouts pulling heists just as risky as what I assumed this vampire hunt would be, but, as they say, beggars can’t be choosers. I was simply trying to eat and live, all while improving my station, just like everybody else. Takes a lot of money to do that, and I had a long list of basic necessities I lacked, starting with coffee grounds and a better mattress.
Seconds ticked by as I thought over the offer, and I could feel Strickland’s patience wane. “I asked you a question,” he said.
“Hang on, I’ve still got questions of my own. What happens if I can’t return her alive? You can’t possibly expect me to guarantee her condition, especially not after she’s spent a day or two with a vampire.”
Strickland’s frustrated stare began to bore a hole in my head. I wasn’t going to take the chance of being conned out of payment due to an overlooked detail hidden in the language of a contract. I expected that from men like him.
“My terms assume you’ll spare no effort in slaying every single one of the creatures while rescuing her, even if that means putting yourself in the way of great harm. You may return her in any condition, as long as she is breathing,” he said.
Strickland’s terms felt designed to cheat me out of my pay. There were too many subjective variables up for interpretation.
“I’m going to need more money. Call it hazard pay, if it makes you feel better, but no way am I risking my skin hunting vampiric beasts for a measly two hundred dollars, while I know you’re good for more. Make it five hundred. And I’ll take half of it right now,” I demanded.
Strickland threw his arms up. “Despicable. Bargaining with an anxious father whose only precious child has just been stolen away! By unholy monsters, no less. I’ll give you two hundred and nothing more. I’m not willing to entertain any other amount.”
“Then I’m not willing to entertain your contract.” I stood up and motioned toward the door. “Now, I believe it’s well past all of our bedtimes. If that’s all, gentlemen?”
Strickland turned and nodded to the armored man guarding my door. He gripped the doorknob as if to open for his boss, but instead he wrenched my door off its hinges, wood and metal creaking under his strength, and chucked it straight at me. I ducked and scrambled for my gun, barely missing being struck by the door. Before I could take two steps, the cloaked enforcer snatched me up by my throat and hoisted me up to his height. I kicked him in the chest as I swung back and forth in his grip, sinking my heel into his brass chest plate. He jolted me, which knocked loose the latch and caused it to swing open from beneath his robes.
He wasn’t a man at all.
A series of gears, tubes, and wires connected to a glowing pink crystal were hidden beneath his armor where one would expect a heart and lungs. I looked up into the automaton’s eyes. In lieu of pupils, a pair of glowing, violet orbs flickered deep inside the metal helmet.
I couldn’t shake the feeling that pieces of the metal man looked awfully familiar.
Without much effort, the automaton turned me out to face Strickland, who was grinning from ear to ear as I swayed back and forth, choking for air.
“Do you like him? He was constructed recently. I obtained his blueprints as collateral in a deal with a rather resourceful individual. My man has a convincing way of doing business, wouldn’t you agree?” Strickland suppressed a maniacal laugh. “Oh, ranger. You just had to go and force my hand, didn’t you? This is your fault, you know. You should have been thankful for the opportunity to work for Mr. Ross P. Strickland. Any offer I put on the table, you should have gobbled up like a starved rat in a larder. I suppose we’ll just have to try something else then.”
He reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a yellowed roll of parchment. He unfurled it and pushed it up to my face. “Read it,” he commanded.
In big bold letters, accompanied by a crude sketch of my handsome mug, the paper read:
WANTED: ‘DEADEYE’ CAL COOPER
Reward for the capture of one Cal Cooper, $20,000, paid upon delivery of his DEATH.
Age: 32. Height: 6 feet, 2 inches. Weight: 220 lb. Light complexion, dark hair, dark eyes, solid build. Wanted for felony MURDER of HUMAN SOLDIERS; DESERTION and TREACHERY; ROBBERY of $5,000 in GOLD BARS from a train near Albuquerque, NM; SILVER THEFT of $2,500 from a Federal depository in Silver City, NV; HORSE THEFT in Waco, TX; and numerous BANK and HIGHWAY ROBBERIES across the Southwest. Known associate and accomplice to violent acts committed by an Extramundane.
He is believed to be ARMED and VERY DANGEROUS. Do NOT approach alone.
Strickland came so close I could feel his spit and smell the garlic on his breath. “I know who you really are, Cal Cooper. You’re a wanted man who thinks he can cower in my town. But everything that happens in Hexed Springs does so with my permission,” Strickland whispered sharply into my ear. He rolled up the paper and slipped it back into his coat pocket.
I tried to croak out a response, but nothing came out. Strickland smiled as he took pleasure in watching the air trapped in my lungs go sour.
“I hear you’re a friend to Toussaint DuBois now. You could learn a lot from a man like him. Smart. Obedient. I’m financing his studies, you know. He gladly welcomed the opportunity to work for me. People who are loyal to me tend to do well in society. But men like you, you’re nothing but wastrel scum, always and forever. Only I can save you from your fate. And those who are disloyal to me?”
Strickland drew a line across his throat with his thumb and squelched.
He continued to savor my struggle for air before speaking again. “Let me make myself clear, ranger. Either you cooperate with me or I will have you eliminated in the most painful way. You see, I’m very good friends with Roy Willoby. My friends in Washington welcomed my suggestion to appoint him as a federal judge. If you do not obey me and quietly return with my daughter within twenty-four hours, I will see that you are charged with her murder and then happily collect the bounty on your mutilated corpse.” He patted my cheeks and smirked in his crooked triumph. “Do we have an arrangement?”
I almost preferred death to submitting to him. Almost. I nodded as best as I could and squeaked out a ‘yes.’
“Good boy,” he said.
Stars popped in my vision and my face was hot and flushed. Before I could pass out, Strickland gestured for his lackey to drop me. With an obedient hum, the automaton tossed me across the room like a ragdoll.
“Thank you for your cooperation, ranger,” Strickland said as I rolled on the floor in pain. “It’s a shame it had to resort to this, though. You could have just done business like an honest man. Instead, you reverted to your criminal ways and tried to extort payment from me. I’ll still offer you a down payment for your services, since I am the better man, but your actions will not go unpunished.” Strickland withdrew a large wad of two-dollar bills from his pocket and tossed five of them at me. “Remember, ranger: Twenty-four hours. And tell no one of what you’re doing. Good night.”
The automaton picked up his sword and escorted his boss through what used to be my front door, then climbed aboard the rear of the stagecoach, nearly buckling its rear axle. The driver slapped the reins against the horses and the stagecoach disappeared into the night.
I rubbed my crushed windpipe and stood up after the blood returned to my extremities. The rumors were true—Strickland was no different from a gang boss who turned to blackmail and violence if money didn’t buy him his way. If he and I swapped places, and I were to blackmail him? You can imagine the swift response from the authorities. The rich were privileged that way, and laws are interpreted differently for those with enough money and influence. That little fact actually inspired most of me and Clem’s heists.
I’d been an idiot for inviting them inside. Not like I had a choice, though. Strickland would have let his mechanical pet bust in even if I’d declined to see them. No matter the outcome, that bastard came to me tonight knowing, one way or another, he was going to have his cake and eat it, too.
My mind was racing to catch up. The cold, metallic skin concealing cogs and pistons. The burning purple eyes. I suddenly recognized where I’d seen the metal man’s gadgetry before. Strickland said he got the schematics to build the automaton from a business deal, a deal that must have involved Toussaint for something that complex. And Toussaint had knowledge of the paranormal, including an extensive academic knowledge of vampirism. He also had access to the veiled city of the extramundane. Surely there must be a lead in there somewhere. What’s more, he trusted me, even though my faith in him had just been shaken for working with a man like Strickland, a category I now reluctantly belonged to. A parade of thoughts marched around my head. I could barely keep track of them all, and the ones I could led me down a rabbit hole of dead-ended questions. I paced around the room and scratched at my stubble. My first concern was with Strickland. Obviously, I was going to have to play his game or else my jig was up. He’d leak my identity to the territory, then sic his guards, bounty hunters, and the inquisitors on me until I was captured and hanged or brought in dead on arrival. Even if I did bring his daughter back, what if he forced me to do even more of his dirty work? I’d have to cross that bridge when the time came.
Running away from him wasn’t much of an option either. I had nowhere safe to go and now my attempt to lay low in No Man’s Land was in jeopardy. Even if I did tuck my tail and run, I wasn’t going to get very far, very fast without a horse. Plus, who knew where Marney was lurking. I couldn’t assume he’d forgotten me, even after all this time.
Now that I thought of it, being horseless was also going to complicate finding his daughter, too. I could steal one, I reckoned. After all, it was a crime already printed on my bounty poster. Damn that little voice in my conscience. It was telling me I couldn’t break my promise to Clem that I’d be good.
Plus, this job could be my chance to prove to people like Aldon and Colin that I was a peacekeeper eliminating a threat, and not another exterminator. Who’s ever heard of a good vampire? But I couldn’t let Lucius find out about this. I doubted the feral vamp would be related to the Montagues, and usually vampires take care of their own. I crossed my fingers and hoped there wouldn’t be any repercussions from all this.
Strickland’s deadline didn’t leave me much time. At first light, in less than five hours, I’d go see Toussaint and get what I could from him. Then I’d procure a horse and make my way to Strickland’s manor to begin my search.
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