Summary: Word Count: 9900
The Night Of The Careening Carriage
The Secret Service agent gave a quiet moan and forced himself into a more vertical position. Given the pain in his head and mid-section, standing would not be advisable for quite a while. James West opened his eyes and his world continued to swim before him. His focus eventually locked on a titian beauty and he gave a faint smile, more from habit than emotion. “Ma’am,” he mumbled.
“Well, Mr. West. We were beginning to doubt that you would come back to us. And then what would we have done? Look, husband! Mr. West isn’t dead after all. I win!” The statuesque red head turned her last comment towards to the gray haired man seated in a wheel chair. The room in which the three were gathered spoke of broken wealth. The furnishing, though of high quality were now worn and faded. The once brilliantly colored Persian rug showed the wear and tear of many years neglect, and the hardwood floor it covered was equally damaged and dull. Jim found himself facing two characters that seemed as time- worn and out of fashion as the room.
“Indeed you have, Leticia. And here is your prize.” Wheeling his chair over to the woman, he handed her a silver dollar. “Good evening Mr. West, I have to say I doubted we would see your…. grey eyes open again in this world. My friends do get a bit overzealous sometimes, especially that Enoch fellow. I had hoped they would have brought you back in a less damaged state. Ah well, you are with us now and that is what matters.”
“Care to tell me what this is all about?” Jim demanded with more bravado than he felt. “Where am I?” The exertion of speaking and moving caused the sharp pounding in his head to resume with a vengeance. His world began to gray out once more and he gave into the dark vortex that swirled before him.
This time when Jim awoke, he found himself face down on a foul smelling straw pallet. James’ cell was a claustrophobic’s nightmare. No window to let in air or light breached the walls. The low ceiling trapped the heat of the day and made it impossible to stand. The only way in or out was a tiny trap door cut into the rough-hewn floorboards.
As West’s eyes tried to adjust to his India ink surroundings, he did a quick self-evaluation to determine his injuries. Besides a head that alternated between mind numbing and excruciating pain, he determined the presence of several bruised or cracked ribs and a badly split lip. Who ever these people may be, he thought to himself, they sure were thorough. It was during this check-up he noticed his usually dapper clothing replaced with ill- fitting jeans and a tattered flannel shirt. His boots, which could have proved his salvation for escape, were missing as well.
The scuffling sounds behind the wall caught his attention. “Perfect!” the agent muttered. “All this, and I have to share my space with four legged vermin as well. What have I gotten myself into this time?” He maneuvered back to a more comfortable position on the straw palette and closed his eyes. Trying to stay conscious, he set his mind to recalling the circumstances leading to this latest incarceration. The last thing he remembered clearly, before awakening to the voices of the woman and her chair-bound husband, was the sickening lurch of a carriage overturning. His carriage. But, when was that? How long had he been unconscious? How long had he been among the missing?
“Two weeks! Jim is missing for two weeks and this is how I find out about it?” Artemus Gordon thundered. A well-creased telegraph message was thrown down on Colonel Richmond’s desk, like a gauntlet before a duel. The message, all the more chilling in its brevity, read, West Missing. “What the hell happened while I was away?” The normally unflappable Secret Service agent was quickly losing control of the composure he had fought so hard to maintain since receiving the message several days past.
I am sorry, Gordon,” a calmer Colonel Richmond responded, handing Artemus a glass of scotch. “You were out of the country. We had no way to contact you until your ship docked in New York.”
“I am here now,” Artemus said shortly. “What happened?” Artie gratefully accepted the drink and sank wearily into the chair closest to him.
“Simply put, Jim was on an assignment and we lost him.” The Colonel looked with sympathy at the exhausted agent. The loss of one of his best agents was devastating to him personally and professionally. However, it went much deeper than just a partner to Artemus. He and West were the closest of friends; almost like brothers. “We haven’t heard from him in over two weeks. That’s too long, even for West.”
“Yes sir, that is,” muttered Gordon, staring blankly at the floral design in the carpet. “Do you have any leads?”
The somber conversation between the two men was interrupted by a knock at the office door. The Colonel shot an apologetic look at Gordon and answered the door. A young fresh-faced lieutenant snapped to attention and handed the Colonel an envelope. “This was just delivered sir. It’s for Mr. Gordon. Hmm, wonder how she knew he was here?”
“That’s all, Lieutenant, thank you.”
The young man saluted, turned and was gone.
“Gordon, this is for you. The Lieutenant said a woman delivered it. Did anyone know you were coming here?”
Rising from the chair, Artemus took the envelope and stared vaguely at the handwriting. “No, sir, I didn’t talk to anyone. That is odd.” The message stopped him in his tracks. With shaking hands, he gave the sheet of perfumed stationary back to Richmond.
“Good God man, what is it?” the Colonel demanded. “Sit down before you fall down.” Artie’s reaction became clear when he read the note.
My dear Mr. Gordon,
You may claim your friend’s body at the Good Samaritan Hospital. Hope you had a most enjoyable holiday. Mr. West’s last few days were quite memorable as well. I am sure we will be seeing each other again soon.
Richmond swallowed hard and stood in support at his best agent’s side,
“It could be a hoax, you know. Come on, I’ll go with you.”
“It could be. But who…why?” Gordon sighed. He rose slowly from the chair and followed the Colonel out of the office. The two grim-faced men hailed a carriage and settled in for the long ride to the hospital.
“How could you lose him?” Artie asked with a catch in his quiet voice. “I mean, I know Jim disappears from time to time in the heat of the hunt, but to lose him altogether? Was he working alone?” A sense of guilt was seeping into Artie’s conscience that he was powerless to fight.
Richmond winced, “Well, um, no, not exactly. He was with agent Whiting, Cooper Whiting.” Seeing the quizzical look on Artie’s face, he added, “He’s fairly new to undercover work; I doubt you would know him.”
“You sent Jim out with a rookie?” Gordon spat in anger and disbelief. “Of all the idiotic, harebrained….” It was all he could do to keep from pummeling the colonel for this careless act that, in all probability, cost his partner his life. Choking on the emotion, Gordon growled, “Where can I find this Cooper Whiting?”
“Just hold it, Gordon, I can appreciate how you feel, but Whiting isn’t to blame. So just simmer down. I didn’t consider it to be a particularly dangerous assignment, more of a training mission than anything else. Mr. Whiting had approached me a few months back. He told me how much he admired both you and James, and, if the opportunity ever should arise, he would like to be assigned temporarily to your team. Well, the opportunity did present itself, and Jim agreed to take Cooper on as a partner until your return. He’s a bright, very likeable young man who is very good at what he does.”
Drawing a deep breath, Artemus Gordon settled uncomfortably back against the carriage seat, “Perhaps I could understand this better if you start from the beginning. The last time I talked with Jim was in New York right before I set sail for London. He told me he was taking some time off as well.”
Colonel Richmond looked nervously around the carriage and out the window. He was wishing he was anywhere else but here, trying to explain to his top agent why his partner was missing or worse. After a few awkward moments, he spoke, “You are right, of course; Jim did take five weeks leave. As far as we know, he traveled extensively around the country in the Wanderer. He, of course, didn’t send in regular reports, but we were able to keep fairly good tabs on him through train maintenance reports and such. Anyway, about three weeks ago, Jim showed up here, in Washington. He declared he was tired of twiddling his thumbs and was ready to get back to work. I didn’t have an assignment for him at that time, but you know West. He insisted that nothing was too small or trivial, so that is what I found for him. Or so I thought. President Grant requested an escort for a visiting dignitary. There was a gala being held in his honor at the Georgetown home of Senator Halsford. I assigned West to the ambassador as escort and bodyguard, and Whiting was assigned to West. There was nothing to indicate it would be anything but an ordinary escort. West was on full alert as always. Whiting had served as an escort several times previously as well. We had no reason to anticipate what happened.”
“Just what did happen, Colonel?” Gordon questioned impatiently.
“According to Whiting’s report, several blocks from the hotel, a farm wagon sideswiped the ambassador’s carriage causing it to overturn. The driver of the wagon, a woman oddly enough, then slowed the team and three men piled out of the back of the wagon. Cooper was able to hustle the ambassador away to safety, but that left Jim alone to handle the men. Whiting hated to leave him, but it was his job to insure the safety of the ambassador, not Jim. He fully expected to find Jim dusting off his jacket at the end of the row and escorting the men to the police station. And be honest, that is just what you would have expected as well.”
“Yeah, I suppose,” Artie said grudgingly. “So it seems Jim was the target, and not the Ambassador.”
“Twenty-twenty hindsight, Artemus. We had no way to know that at the time or any reason to anticipate it. What we have to figure out is the why and the where. ”
Staring blankly at the Colonel, Artemus mused aloud, “A hundred different people have a hundred different reasons to want to get their hands on either of us, you know that.” Artemus nodded towards the window. “We’re here.” Before the carriage came to a standstill, Artemus was on the sidewalk. He gave the hospital a cursory glance. It was just like any of the dozens of hospitals he had visited over the last six or so years, but it held the potential to change his life forever. “This never gets easier, you know, Colonel. I mean, it sounds ridiculous, but its not the first time I have had to face the fact that Jim could be dead.” The word stuck in his throat and made it hard to continue. “My hands are ice, I’m sick to my stomach and my legs feel as though they are made of rubber. Sometimes I think I am getting to old for this line of work. While I was on holiday in Europe, I seriously considered not coming back. It’s a different kind of life there, you know?” Artie’s voice trailed off.
“Come on, Artemus,” the Colonel said kindly. “Let’s just get this over with, one way or another. It’s better than not knowing.” He put his arm around Artie’s shoulder and guided him through the lobby of the hospital. Then, addressing the young woman at the desk, he said, “I am Colonel Richmond, Secret Service, and this is Artemus Gordon. We are here to see Dr. Gibbons.”
“Yes sir,” the woman replied. “Let me show you the way.”
A distracted Artemus Gordon looked up as if he were surprised to find himself inside the hospital. “Excuse me, miss? What did you say?”
“Just follow me. Are you all right sir? If you don’t mind me saying, you don’t look well at all.”
“No, I am fine, but I could use a glass of water if you have one handy,” Artie replied somewhat vaguely.
Producing a glass and pitcher from behind the desk, the young woman poured some water for Mr. Gordon. “Here you are, now just follow me and I will tell the doctor you are here.” The two men followed the girl down the stairs. At the bottom of the stairs, they turned right and were left standing in the hallway as the girl disappeared behind the door marked “MORGUE.” Footsteps from beyond the door alerted the Colonel and Artemus to the Doctor’s arrival.
“Good afternoon, gentleman, may I help you?” Dr. Gibbons reached out to shake the men’s hands before realizing he still had on his surgeon’s gloves. “Oh dear, excuse me. Hazard of the trade, I guess. Have you come about one of my patients?”
“Maybe. We have received word that someone answering the description of a Mr. Jim West could be found here. My name is Artemus Gordon and Mr. West is my partner.”
The doctor’s face fell, “Oh, Mr. Gordon, I am sorry. Only members of the immediate family are allowed to claim the body. Are you a member of the deceased family?”
”Well, no doctor, I am not. Like I said, he is my partner.” Artie could feel his blood pressure rising.
Colonel Richmond stepped forward to diffuse the situation by producing his credentials, “Excuse me, Doctor. We are representatives of the United States Secret Service. I know it is customary to turn the body of the deceased over to a family member, but this could be a matter of national security. It is imperative that we be allowed to view the remains.”
“It is irregular, but since you seem to have the proper authority… Right then, follow me.”
The Secret Service agents followed the doctor into the morgue. Several tables of hard, cold marble filled the center of the room while laboratory equipment lined the walls of the eerie gasjet-lit space. “There really isn’t an easy way to do this, but if you would like to be alone…” the doctor added awkwardly.
Drawing a ragged breath, Artemus replied that it would not be necessary for the doctor to leave the room. “Just show me the body, please.”
The doctor led the men to the table at the far end of the room. Artie steeled his nerve and slowly pulled back the covering. The build was right, but the face was so badly battered it was impossible to make a definite identification. Looking at Colonel Richmond, Artie said, “I don’t know…from all appearances it could be Jim, but something just isn’t right.”
”I know how you feel, Gordon, but that is Jim. The poor man was beat to a pulp, but that is he. We never thought it could happen; however, there is no choice but to accept the fact. Artemus, I am so sorry. I promise you, we will find who did this.”
Artemus just kept looking at the body. He examined it closely from every angle, then fairly shouted. “I know Jim better than his own mother and that’s not him. Doctor, bring me a light. I can prove this poor man isn’t Jim. Colonel, look!” Allowing hope to creep in around the edge of his voice, Gordon directed the Colonel to look at the victim’s right hand. “See? Look close. Look as closely as you wish, there is no scar at the base of his thumb! Jim had a small scar, right there” – he was pointing at the victim’s hand – “I know Jim had a scar there, because I gave it to him. We were on our way to the assignment in Crater, Oklahoma. You remember Colonel, the one on the Pawnee reservation! We were on the train, practicing some fighting techniques and I whacked him across the thumb with a training sword. Heat of the battle and all. Anyway this gentleman has no scar and therefore can’t be Jim!”
The doctor looked very confused by Artie’s jubilant explanation, “So this isn’t the man you were looking for? Your partner?”
“No, my good doctor, it is not. He could be his twin brother, and that fact cost the poor man his life, but this man is not James West.” Then, turning suddenly very sober, he added, “But that means Jim is still out there somewhere in trouble and I am no closer to finding him than you were two weeks ago. Doctor, can you tell us anything about this man? When he was brought in; where he was found; how long he’s been dead? Anything at all?”
“Let me find his file; that kind of information is usually noted.” Dr. Gibbons walked to the bank of filing cabinets on the north wall of the laboratory. It took a few minutes before he extracted the correct chart, “The John Doe files can be a little vague sometimes, but let’s see what we have. Says here that he was found at around 4:30 am yesterday morning. From the looks of things, he died sometime that night. My guess is he was dumped and left to die. Several of the cuts and bruises show signs of healing, so it appears this beating went on for several days. It was probably exposure to the elements and a severe head trauma that finished the poor man off.”
“Is there anything else Doctor?” the Colonel inquired. “If we can find the murderer of this man, we can hopefully save another life.”
Flipping through the file the doctor paused, “Hmmm, that’s kind of odd.”
“What is?” Artie inquired while conducting his own examination of the man on the table.
“Says here the body was found by a woman, but no name is given. Police reports generally give the complete name in these cases. But that is it, gentleman. In a nutshell, the man before us was beat unmercifully over a period of several days and left to die like a dog in the streets. This particular street was… Wait, didn’t you gentlemen say you were with the Secret Service? The body was found in the alley behind the Treasury Building.”
Artemus looked at Colonel Richmond, “Sir, someone is playing cat and mouse with us. Doctor Gibbons, was anything found on or with the body?”
”Nothing besides his clothing, Mr. Gordon. But if you think they could be of use, I’ll get them for you.” The doctor left the room and returned with a small bundle. It consisted of a pair torn and muddy dark blue pants and jacket, bloodied white shirt and a pair of expensive, but badly scuffed, black leather boots. “I know I am repeating myself here gentlemen, but this is odd. The heel of his right boot is missing. It looks like some sort of concealed compartment inside the boot.”
Artie carefully looked through the clothing but could find nothing that would bring him any closer to finding his partner. “Colonel, whoever murdered this gentleman has to be associated with our mystery mail delivery woman. They have Jim! Let me do a little more nosing around today on my own. I will check in with you first thing tomorrow, and make sure you save that note. I left it on your desk. Thank you, doctor, you have been a great help.” Artemus bolted from the morgue and ran up the stairs two at a time. Dashing through the lobby and out the door, he failed to see the tall, slender red-haired woman talking to the young receptionist.
The sunlight was beginning to fade when Artemus wearily climbed aboard the Wanderer. “Home Sweet Home,” he muttered as he crossed the varnish car’s threshold for the first time in months. But, it didn’t feel like home. Something was different, something was wrong. It soon became clear to him that the car had been thoroughly, though discreetly, searched. His keen senses were on full alert until it dawned on him that this search had all the earmarks of a Secret Service investigation. “Of course they would initiate a search of the premises. Where else better to start an investigation than right here,” he chided himself. “Artemus, my boy, you have to pull yourself together. Get something to eat and call it a day. You are no good to any one half dead.” He made his way to the galley and managed to rustle up a pot of tea and a humble dinner of beans. Making his way to the parlor, Artie collapsed in his armchair and hungrily finished off his plate of food. The warmth of the train, combined with a full belly and very comfortable chair soon worked their ways with the exhausted agent. He was asleep with in a matter of minutes.
“Oh boy. Artie, where are you?” Jim had acquired the habit of talking to himself over the course of the last two weeks. Fourteen days (according to the hash marks he scratched on the wall) of isolation was starting to take its toll on him. He didn’t know what was worse – the unanswerable questions that constantly stormed through his brain, the physical inactivity that plagued his atrophying muscles, or the inability to help himself out of this situation. The oppressiveness of his captivity had worn away his usual optimism and left, in its place, the beginnings of despair.
The daily routine of Jim’s captivity never varied. Food, laced with some sort of sedative he suspected, and water was shoved unceremoniously through the trap door at regular intervals. He was at a loss to determine if the food was meant to be breakfast or supper, as neither sunlight nor moonlight could penetrate the dark recesses of his cell. His jailer made no verbal contact, but dutifully delivered the food and locked the door behind him. Jim tried every trick at his disposal to break the deafening silence, to no avail. Then unexpectedly, he was summoned. A man Jim recognized as one of the ruffians involved in his ambush, stuck his head through the hatch, “Mr. and Mrs. Chalmer want to see you now. Get down here and no funny business. I’ll drop you again without thinking twice.”
Two weeks of limited movement along with the pain of his injured ribs left Jim feeling sore and sluggish. He crawled to the door and slowly lowered himself down the ladder. The bright sunlight filling the room temporarily blinded him, causing him to lose his balance and crash to the floor.
“Oh look who dropped in to see us, Leticia. It’s our little attic rat, Mr. West,” cooed the man Jim surmised to be Mr. Chalmer.
“Thank you for dropping in so promptly, James.” Leticia Chalmer stared down at the crumpled Secret Service operative and nudged him with her foot. “My, you do look a bit disreputable lying there like that. I have always heard that you cut quite the dashing figure but…tsk tsk. You have made no effort to keep up appearances at all. Perhaps Enoch should introduce you to a razor.”
“What a splendid idea, Leticia. We wouldn’t want Mr. Gordon to think we neglected our hospitality. And that brings us to just why you find yourself our guest, Mr. West.” The man in the wheel chair rolled over to Jim and peered at the injured man on the floor. “Now, get up,” he demanded. “And be quick about it.”
Jim tried collecting his senses to stand, but his body refused to cooperate. He staggered to one knee then crashed against the wheel chair. “Enoch,” Mr. Chalmer commanded, “Assist our guest to his feet.” The henchman yanked Jim up from the floor and flung him onto a nearby sofa.
“What does Mr. Gordon have to do with this?” Jim gasped. “What have you done to him?”
“My, we are full of questions, aren’t we, Mr. West? All in good time, all in good time,” teased Leticia. “Tea?” she inquired. “Our manservant does brew an exceptional cup of Earl Gray. I always say you can tell a civilized man by the tea he keeps. Isn’t that right, Enoch?”
The brutish servant blushed, “Yes you do, ma’am. Thank you.”
As Jim stared open-mouthed at this ridiculous exchange, he recognized the room as the same he had found himself in weeks before. “Just tell me where I am,” he demanded. “What do you want from me and what does my partner have to do with any of this?” He motioned around the room and settled his glare on the Chalmer.
“Alright, Mr. West, if you want to dispense with all civilities. You are our guest until such a time that Artemus Gordon sees fit to appear on our humble doorstep and trade places with you. We have some unfinished business with him,” stated Leticia Chalmer as if her cryptic answer explained everything.
“Until then, you will remain. How do you find your accommodations? Your sense of irony should appreciate this…the room in which you find yourself imprisoned was once a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Mr. Chalmer rambled pleasantly. “I doubt the amenities are up to your usual standards, but no one can say they aren’t cozy.”
“No, no one could say that,” West said dryly. “However, the view from my balcony is somewhat obstructed, so maybe you could tell me where I am.”
“Well,” drawled Mr. Chalmer “You are in the lovely town of Arlington, Virginia. So near, and yet so far, from that charming train of yours in Washington. Never fear, my beautiful wife has left another clue for Mr. Gordon. He should be finding it very shortly. I always thought he was a clever man; now I guess we’ll see how smart he truly is.”
“What is that annoying sound?” Artie groaned in his sleep. The insistent rapping had filtered through the agent’s consciousness and into his dream. The sound was incongruous enough to confuse Gordon and slowly bring him around to a state of sluggish wakefulness. Shifting in the armchair brought a spasm of pain to his neck and finished the job of waking him. The knocking continued as Artemus tried to clear his head and work out more than a few cricks in his neck and back. As the haze lifted, he reasoned someone was at the door of the train. “Coming. I’m coming!” he shuffled through the car and opened the door.”
“Gordon!” It was Colonel Richmond with another younger man. “You promised to be at the office early this morning. It is after ten o’clock and… well… I was worried. With Jim’s disappearance and all, I couldn’t afford to lose both of you. Besides, I want you to meet Agent Whiting, the agent that was with Jim when he disappeared.”
Artemus was fully awake by this time and regretting he should have taken today, of all days, to oversleep. “I am so sorry, Colonel. Oh? And you too Mr. Whiting. I fell asleep in the chair last night and just now awoke. I guess the strain of the last few days finally knocked me off my feet. Any news?” he asked hopefully.
Whiting and Richmond responded with a forlorn shake of their heads. Looking around the train, Agent Whiting’s keen and observant eyes came to rest on an envelope. Pointing to the mantle, he asked the Colonel, “Isn’t that like the note you showed me in your office this morning? The one Mr. Gordon received yesterday. When did that arrive, Mr. Gordon?”
“What? That wasn’t there last night when I came in.” Artemus examined the envelope and found it to be identical to the one he received in the Colonel’s office. Ripping it open, he encountered the same feminine handwriting with an equally dark and threatening message.
Hope you enjoyed your trip to the morgue. I bet even you were fooled for a minute or two. You always have been a smart one.
To show you that my heart is in the right place, I did not have you killed last night as you slept. It was quite the temptation, though. Your time will come soon enough; I just hope Mr. West does not have to perish as well. He is quite the charming gentleman but beginning to weary us with his never-ending loyalty to you. Let’s hope, for his sake, that loyalty is not over stated.
We will meet again soon, I am sure.
The thought of this mysterious nemesis being so close sent chills down the agent’s spine. His carelessness could easily have cost him his life and he missed a prime opportunity to rescue his friend and partner. “Colonel, I don’t know what to say. I have no excuses for this neglect. I do have a few leads to run down, however, and it could be a start.” Holding the floral stationary up to the window, he found the watermark he was hoping to see. “Look here, all I have to do is track down this paper company. There are not that many in the Washington area that cater to the fairer sex. Surely, they will have a record of shops that carry their products. From there I can find the shop. They should know their own customers, especially with such a distinctive order as this.” He added sniffing the fragrant paper. “I’ll get started right away.”
“Alright, but make sure you keep me posted – and take Cooper with you. “
Artemus shot an angry look at Colonel Richmond, “With all due respect, I don’t need a partner or a babysitter.”
“That is enough, Gordon,” the Colonel shut him down. “Cooper can be a great deal of service to you, if you give him the opportunity.”
Artie’s first thought was “I bet that is what you told Jim, right before he turned up missing,” but reining in that impulse, he replied sheepishly, “Yes sir. Fix yourself a cup of coffee, Whiting. I’ll be ready to go in a few minutes.”
While he dressed, Artemus overheard bits and pieces of the conversation between Whiting and Richmond. He was sure the colonel was warning Whiting not to hamper the investigation and stay out of the senior agent’s way. Gordon had to smile. Whiting was scared to death of him already and they hadn’t even had their first conversation. “Rookies!” he snorted aloud. Before leaving the back of the train, Artemus took the opportunity to load his jacket with a few tricks of the trade he had perfected before his European tour. “Because you just never know…,” he mused. “Alright then, Mr. Whiting, are you ready?”
“Yes sir, Mister Gordon sir,” a nervous Cooper croaked. “Goodbye, Colonel Richmond, sir.”
“Where should we head first?” asked Artie, trying to sort the youngster out.
“May I see the envelope and note that was left here, if you don’t mind sir?” Whiting carefully examined both and handed them back to the older agent. “I think we should go to the bureau and investigate who owns that watermark. Then we should pay a visit to the shops that sell that paper. The scent, I believe, is lemon verbena. That is a pretty common fragrance so it might not prove too easy to track it down by scent alone,” Suddenly Whiting’s ears turned pink and his face flushed, “Oh, I am sorry, Mr. Gordon. You knew all of that already.”
“Very good, Cooper. I actually could not have done better myself. The part about the lemon verbena was especially astute. Maybe you have the makings of an agent after all.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you sir.” Whiting looked uncomfortable but continued, “Uh, Mr. Gordon? I just want to say how sorry I am about what happened. I mean with Mr. West and all. I…I…didn’t mean for this to happen. I really admire the both of you,” The younger man turned to look Artemus square in the eye. “Was there anything I could have done different?”
“I’m sorry too, Cooper,” Artie said softly. “This whole thing has knocked me for a loop. However, to answer your question, no. You did everything exactly right. Your job was to get the ambassador out of harm’s way. Jim usually has no trouble taking care of himself. We’ll get a break here soon, and hunt down that partner of mine. We will find him.” Clearing his throat, Gordon started a new line of conversation. “You were in the military before this job came up, weren’t you, son?”
“Not exactly. I was born and raised in the army but never actively served. My father was an army captain, stationed in forts all over the west. The army is all I have ever known. You probably noticed I was too young for service during the War Between the States, but I sure felt its anger. Lost a brother at the Appomattox Courthouse Battle, just a few hours before Lee surrendered. Anyway, after that Pa decided that the Army did not need another Whiting in its ranks. He sent me east to school just as soon as he and Ma could make the arrangements.” The young man stopped to get a breath.
“I am sorry about your brother. We all lost too many friends and family members during that time. How did you end up in the Secret Service?” Artemus asked.
“Pull, I am afraid. After I graduated, I couldn’t find a job that used my talents to their fullest, if you know what I mean. My first love is mechanical science. I have always taken things apart just to see what makes them work. I am also an aficionado of the theater, much to my rough and tumble father’s chagrin. Kind of a strange combination, I guess. Anyway, a friend of father’s heard of my odd talents and suggested I try using them to fight crime. So here I am. ”
A light came into Gordon’s eyes for the first time since his homecoming. “Cooper, my boy, what we have here is the beginning of a beautiful friendship. Let’s get tracking, shall we? I have partner to find.”
It took the duo two days to inquire their way through all the Washington shops that carried the lemon scented notepaper. At first, they were careful about not arousing any suspicions. All inquiries were discreet. This discretion did not get them the answers they needed, however, and by the second day, the investigation became more aggressive. Their change of tact paid off at the end of day two when a disgruntled shopkeeper divulged information that caught the agents’ attention.
“I don’t know what you are getting so pushy about here, Mister,” the shopkeeper grumbled. “Sure, this is a paper we sell. The scent is kind of out of fashion, so there aren’t many that buy it. Let’s see…,” he recalled as he ruffled through his account sheets, “there was an heiress from Chicago, who just loved this stationary. But she moved out of the country at the start of the year. So, I guess she hasn’t bought any in a while. Nope, not this one either,” he said checking off another name. “Mrs. Montague died a while ago. Oh wait, here’s one, and she just bought a box about three weeks back. A Mrs. Chalmer. I remember her now. She came in all the way from Arlington.”
Cooper Whiting’s eyes, lit up. “Arlington? Really? That is kind of a far piece just to buy some stationary.”
“Well, I doubt it was just for the paper,” the shopkeeper said. “Her sister is married to Senator Halsford. The sisters spend a lot of time in town here, I am sure.”
Artemus and Cooper shot each other a subtle look of excitement. “Mrs. Chalmer, eh?” Artie fought to control his emotions. “Can you tell us anything about her?”
“Well, not much. She is a comely woman to look at. Very tall, with beautiful red hair. She wears it short, I remember. She has a temper, though. I always try to keep on her good side. Maybe it’s the red hair,” the shopkeeper grinned.
Artemus spoke up, “Anything else about her you can remember? You have been a great help already.”
“No, that’s about it. Why does the gov’ment want to know about her anyway? Lots of people buy stationary. That ain’t no crime is it?”
“No sir, it’s not. “ Then, evading the rest of the shopkeeper’s questions, Whiting thanked the man and the agents left the store.
“Mr. Gordon? Did something the shopkeeper say strike a chord with you?” Whiting asked.
“Maybe, but I was just about ready to ask you the same thing. You looked like the cat that swallowed the canary. What was it?”
“That night—the night Mr. West disappeared? The woman that crashed her wagon into ours had red hair. She looked to be nearly as tall as I was. It has to be the same woman. Who else would have known that Mr. West was in that carriage? We were on our way to a party at her sister’s house.” The young agent was nearly hopping with enthusiasm at the thought of being able to deduce the identity of the West’s kidnapper.
Artie let Cooper have his few moments of excitement. He knew the younger agent was right in his deductions. But there was one piece of information the younger agent did not have: a piece that solidified, in Gordon’s mind, the identity of the kidnapper and the reason behind the act. “Cooper, you are right. It makes sense now. The taunting notes, the clues left right under our noses, the fact that she took Jim prisoner…it is all bait, and I am the fish. Thank you for all your help today, Cooper. I know I have not been the easiest person to get along with. It’s not likely to get any better until we find out what happened to Jim, so consider yourself warned,” Artie said with a tight smile. “Why don’t we get some dinner and call it a night. We’ll start again first thing tomorrow. It’s too late to start anything new now anyway.”
“Sure, anything you say,” answered Whiting. After a quick dinner, the two men started in separate directions.
“Excuse me sir, Mr. Gordon? Are you all right? Would you like me to see you back to the train?” A look of concern crossed Whiting’s face as he watched the exhausted agent head slowly into the night. “You kind of look like you have seen a ghost, if you don’t mind me saying so.”
Artie turned to reply that an escort would not be necessary. The boy’s concern was touching, but a little annoying as well. “Certainly I don’t look that bad,” he muttered. The several blocks back to Union Station did seem longer and darker than Gordon remembered. “Get a hold of yourself, old man,” he chided. “A few hours rest will fix you up in fine fashion. That, and finding Jim.”
Back aboard the Wanderer, Artemus began rummaging through a series of files. Each folder represented a time he and Jim had put their lives on the line for the safety of the United States. They were numerous and varied. The agent paused to relive an encounter with the crazed little person, Dr. Loveless. He was truly lucky to have escaped with his life in that mission. Jim had risked his own life to pull him to safety as the jolts of electricity coursed through his body.
Dusting off another folder, Artemus shuddered. The word “paradox” still sent shards of anguish slashing through his soul. What if his aim had been true that horrific day? Forcing these thoughts aside, he proceeded. The file he needed had to be on the train somewhere!
An hour later, the weary agent found the illusive folder. Its contents stirred a painful memory. Had it really been twelve years ago?
April 17th, 1865: Today I began an assignment at the O’Neal Munitions Factory in Bethesda, Maryland. I will be overseeing the dismantling of certain government commissioned ordinance. With Lee’s surrender and the death of the President, everyone feels the rest of the South will soon give up and there will be no further need for weapons of this magnitude. Halleluiah. I just want to go home.
April 20th, 1865: Had supper with the O’Neal family and was quite enchanted with the older daughter, Leticia. I am not sure I have ever met her kind before. She is my equal in quoting Shakespearean sonnets, is conversant in Latin, and translates Greek tragedies flawlessly. Yet, she is not above teasing her younger sister about her beau, or pouting to get her way. With her glorious mane of auburn hair, what kind of creature is she? Look out, Artie old boy, your world could be turned upside down by this one.
April 25th, 1865: The assignment grinds on. This tedious chore is draining the life from me. Thankfully, Leticia is here. Her tender attentions are my one ray of sunshine in this god-forsaken mission. We are to go on a picnic tomorrow afternoon.
April 26th, 1865: No picnic, no Leticia. She told her mother that it would be beneath her status to be seen out with a mere public servant. She accused me of lying and swore there was nothing going on between us.
May 2nd, 1865: A note was slipped under my door last night. She begged to meet me out in the gazebo and I could not find it in me to stay away. Her capricious nature intrigues me. I am drawn like a moth to a flame.
May 15th, 1865: One day we talk of love and lifetimes, the next day finds me in the depths of despair. She is aloof and inattentive, yet I follow her like a pup. I am a grown man, an agent of the government! What is this madness?
May 27th, 1865: Tomorrow I will ask Mr. O’Neal for his daughter’s hand. I have lost all sense of what is right and wrong in this matter, I only know that I must make her mine.
June 2nd, 1865: O’Neal assented and Leticia accepted my humble proposal. I am a happy man. My days as a confirmed bachelor are numbered. In less exciting news, the factory hired a new bookkeeper today. Mr. Chalmer has recently found himself displaced by the war and in need of employment. There is something about the man that rubs me the wrong way. Will wait to see what Washington has on him.
June 8th, 1865: Mr. Barton Chalmer wasted no time in working his way into the family circle. At dinner tonight, Leticia was up to her old tricks. She and Chalmer carried on as if I were merely a grease spot on the tablecloth.
June 9th, 1865: As I prepared for bed, another note was slid under my door. Our engagement is off. My heart is broken yet I have to put aside my feelings and carry out this loathsome assignment.
July 28th, 1865: My report to Major Richmond was short and to the point. No one will ever know the pain this assignment has caused me. While making my normal security rounds the night of June 21, I noticed a glow of light under the office door. I was able to gain entry into the office without Barton Chalmer noticing me. He and his lovely accomplice were too busy cleaning out the safe to notice my arrival. During the ensuing fight, Leticia, my beloved, shot me at point blank range. I should be grateful her aim was not better. Despite Chalmer’s obvious advantage, the fight continued. A surprising blow to the back of my head ended the match. As I regained consciousness, I saw Leticia and Chalmer head for the window. I suppose the plan was to climb down the trellis and escape in the waiting carriage. Leticia made the descent with no apparent problems, Chalmer wasn’t so lucky. The trellis broke under his weight and sent him crashing twenty feet to the hard earth below. The judge says he’ll spend the next seven years in prison and the rest of his life in a wheel chair. As for me… as soon as the hospital releases me, I will turn in my resignation. This line of work has cost me dearly. It is not worth it.
With a sigh, Artemus closed the file. “It could cost you a whole lot more, Artemus my boy. A whole lot more.”
The rattle of the lock caused Jim to look towards the hatch with dread. Enoch shoved his massive head through the opening and bellowed for West. “Chalmer wants to question you now! Get over here if you know what’s good for you.” The hired hand reached through the doorway and grabbed for Jim’s leg. With a kick that took all his strength, Jim delivered a savage blow to the henchman’s head and sent him reeling back down the ladder. Jim scrambled down after him. Enoch was just starting to recover his senses when Jim let loose with two and a half weeks of pent-up frustration and anger. But, it was not a fair fight and Jim soon found himself on the losing end. Panting from exhaustion, he looked up to see Leticia bearing down on him with a small but decidedly deadly derringer. Enoch took advantage of this situation and backhanded Jim across the room. Wiping a streak of blood from his face, Jim stared in open defiance at his captors.
“Mr. West, I do declare. That little episode is going to cost you dearly. And we have gone out of our way to make you feel welcome. Shame on you.”
“What’s all the commotion in here? Leticia, are you alright?” Barton entered the room and surveyed the destruction. “Is this your doing, West?”
“I can’t take all the credit,” Jim managed. “Your flunkey started it.”
“I can see you are a man of amazing talents, Mr. West. Not many people have taken on our very own Goliath here and lived to tell the tale. Well, done. It is a shame that your moral victory will be short lived, however.”
“If you are going to kill me here anyway, can you at least do me the favor of telling me why? I have spent days in that attic with nothing but my memory, and I tell you truthfully, you aren’t there. I have never seen either of you before. What do Artie and I have to do with you and your charming wife?”
“Leticia, darling would you care to enlighten Mr. West?”
“Absolutely, Barton. You see, Mr. West, it was your friend, my ex-fiancée, Mr. Gordon that put my love in that chair. Because of his bungling, our plans to run away together were met with disaster. Because of Gordon’s snooping, Barton spent seven years in prison. If it weren’t for him, we’d be in Paris now. Does that shed any light on your dire situation, Mr. West?”
“That Artie, he does have a knack of barging into the wrong situations at the right time, doesn’t he?” Jim smiled. “So you are waiting for him to do just that, correct?”
“We have tracked him since he arrived back in the states. Played a delicious game of cat and mouse actually. It has been quite enjoyable watching him squirm. At one point we even sent him to the morgue to claim your body. Yes, quite enjoyable,” beamed Mrs. Chalmer.
“I hope you don’t get too comfortable in your game. If Mr. Gordon is on to your tricks, you can bet the whole Secret Service isn’t too far behind.” Jim said with growing confidence. Just knowing Artie was in on the hunt ignited a spark of hope in his heart.
“We don’t need the whole Secret Service, just one Artemus Gordon.,” purred Leticia.
Sunrise caught Artemus Gordon still scouring his case files. Despite his best intentions, sleep refused to come once the memories of Leticia O’Neal Chalmer were brought to the surface. A knock on the varnish car’s door brought the agent back to reality.
“Mr. Gordon? It’s me, Cooper. Are you there?”
Squinting against the bright morning light streaming through the car’s window, Artemus got up and stiffly made his way to the door. “I have really got to start using a bed again,” he grumbled. “Coming Cooper, just a moment.”
As the door opened, the younger agent stared at the man before him. “Oh, Mr. Gordon. What the devil happened in here last night? Did you get a look at who ever did this?” He made a sweeping arm gesture that took in the whole of the car.
“Who did what?” Artie asked thoroughly confused. Had he missed another intruder while lost in his thoughts last night?
“Whoever ransacked the car? Did they take anything? Are you alright?” The young agent grabbed Artie and dragged him to the nearest chair. “Sit down, let me get you something.”
It finally dawned on Gordon why Cooper Whiting was so distressed. The inside of the train looked like a hurricane had raged through it. There were papers and files strewn everywhere. Several empty wine bottles lay on the table in testament to the previous night’s activity and dirty clothes were thrown haphazardly on the floor. Artie began to laugh, “My dear boy, I can assure you I met with no foul play last night. Your concern does my heart good though. The mess you see before you is all of my own doing. A little wine and a whole lot of memories caught me unawares last night and this is what resulted.
Cooper blushed. “I am sorry, sir. I have a knack of over dramatizing things, I guess.”
“No harm done, son. Now, let’s get down to cases. Breakfast?” Artemus made his way to the galley and soon emerged with a pot of strong black coffee and a platter of scrambled eggs. “I always think better on a full stomach.”
“Yes, sir. Did you come up with anything last night then?” Whiting asked.
“I believe did. I know who took Jim prisoner and I know why. We just need to find out where they have him. For that I will need your help…”
Donning the clothes of a westerner, Cooper entered the store they had visited the day before completely unrecognized. Even the gruff storekeeper couldn’t help but fall under the charms of the young man recently returned from the west. “You see sir, I remember my Aunt Letty bringing me here as a young’n. I used to spend my summers with her and her husband in Arlington, but it has been so long that I have forgotten her street. I remembered this store, though; she always said it was her favorite. Could you please give me her address, so I could surprise her?” Cooper was back out on the street in a matter of minutes. “Mr. Gordon! That was amazing. It was just like being in a play or something. I have the address. What do we do now?”
“Good job, boy. Now, we go after Jim. Remind me to put you up for a commendation when this is all over. You are quite good at this. But, from here on out, things will get dangerous. You will have to follow my lead and be ready for anything,” Gordon advised.
“I know sir. You won’t be sorry. I won’t let Mr. West down again.”
“None of that talk, Cooper, we both know you did your job. Risking capture or worse comes with the price of admission to our little club. Now, here’s my plan….
“Mr. West!” Mrs. Chalmer slapped the groggy agent across his bruised face. “Mr. West, you will answer me when I address you. I don’t want to have to turn you over to Enoch again. I am afraid he may kill you this time. What is taking Artemus so long in finding you? This gambit has run on way too long. I truly expected Mr. Gordon to have been here before now.”
“Sorry to have ruined your plans. You and your husband have put a crimp in my social calendar as well,” sneered Jim West. “I wouldn’t be so anxious to have Artemus break up this party if I were you.”
“Always the wisecrack from you. Always the easy answer. Well, I can protect you no longer. My husband is going to have his revenge on Artemus Gordon one way or another. If that means him having to live with the guilt of your death on his conscience, so be it. I wash my hands of you.” Leticia stormed out of the room, leaving Jim securely tied to a chair in the parlor.
“It’s a pity Mr. Gordon didn’t care enough to set up an exchange. I guess you trust in him was misplaced. Ah well, we just never know about our associates until a time of crisis,” Mr. Chalmer had entered the room just as his wife left. The wheels of his chair squeaked across the wooden floors as he approached West. “Take for instance, Enoch here. He follows me like a little dog and does my bidding. One word from me and he quite literally would tear you limb from limb. But would I trust him with my back turned? Never!…” A knock at the door diverted the master and his sidekick’s attention. “Excuse me. Enoch, answer the door.”
The large man lumbered to the door. He was just about to open it, when the door flew open and two strangers blew in. “Are you the man of the house my good fellow?” demanded the older of the two intruders. “Wyatt Rathbone’s the name! Rat-catching’s the game. Now where do you want us to start? Brantley, go get the traps off the wagon, be smart about it, boy!”
“Get out of here, mister” Enoch stammered. “No one called for no rat catcher around here.”
“Ridiculous! Here’s the order.” Artie pulled a paper from his pocket and flashed it at the ape-like servant. “235 Appleton Street, Arlington, Virginia. That’s this here place, says so right on the door.”
“Enoch?” questioned Chalmer from the next room. “What the devil is going on out there? Get rid of who ever it is.”
“Is that the man of the house? I must get this matter straightened out.” Artie tried unsuccessfully to push past Enoch. “Look, if you don’t need our services, then I must get the man or lady of the house to sign this release. It is standard procedure. You, my mountain of a man, are not going to cost me my job!”
“For goodness sake, Enoch, let the man get his paper signed, so he will leave us in peace,” intruded a voice from the dining room.
The feminine voice stopped Artie in his tracks. After a second, Cooper, disguised as Gordon’s partner, snatched the paper from his hands and proceeded to the dining room.
“Sorry for the mistake, ma’am. We’ll be on our way if you are sure you don’t need us. Won’t cost nothing to let us have a look around, though. Vermin can be kind of sneaky if you don’t know what to look for.”
“What my young partner means,” interrupted Artie, “is that vermin can hide anywhere. Brantley, you just take a look around this floor and give a holler if you see anything. Take care you keep a sharp eye out.”
“Now see here,” demanded Mr. Chalmers as he wheeled into the dining room. “I must insist that you and your partner leave these premises immediately. If not, I will have my servant throw you out. Is that understood? Enoch, see these men to the door.”
“No need for violence, sir, I am perfectly able to find the door on my own. Brantley, come boy,” Artie continued the charade.
A noise from behind a close door caught Cooper’s attention as he turned to leave, “Just a minute, boss. I think I heard something in this closed off room.”
Enoch and the Chalmers started towards the door. “You stay out of there,” Leticia demanded. “It’s just the cat. He is very nervous of strangers.”
“I’ll bet he is,” Artie answered. “Go on in, my boy, and let’s see just see what the cat’s dragged in.”
Pushing past the man in the wheel chair, Cooper entered the parlor and found Jim tied to the chair. “Mr…..Rathbone, sir! It’s just what we suspected,” he called triumphantly. “Mr. West, let’s get you out of here” he continued as he severed the ropes pinioning Jim’s arms.
“Whiting? Is that you? Is Artemus here?” A stunned Jim questioned.
“Not so fast,” drawled Barton Chalmer. Without missing a beat, West and Whiting rushed the gun-waving invalid and knocked him out of his wheel chair. Caught off guard, Chalmer was unable to offer any resistance to the two agents. They placed him back in the chair and tied his arms securely. “Enoch will finish you and Gordon off, West.”
It didn’t take long for Leticia to understand the situation. “Artemus Gordon, it is you,” she snarled. “After all these years. Prepare to pay for the pain you caused me and Barton. You could have just let us go that night, no one would have been any the wiser. We could have been on a ship to Paris before anyone knew we were gone. But instead, Barton spent seven long years in prison. Seven years! Look what that time cost me! My youth, my beauty, my fortune – all gone because of you!” Before Artie could blink, she pulled the derringer from the folds of her dress. “I waited and plotted and dreamed of your death for years,” she shrieked. “Now die!”
Artemus Gordon awoke and looked around. For a moment, he could not recollect what series of events had brought him to this place. Then he remembered her.
A familiar voice brought him back to reality, “Artie? Are you awake? You sure gave us a scare, partner. Doc says you’ll be good as new in a few weeks, though. Got me a new partner, while you’re on the mend. I think you’ll like him.”
“Hmmm,” Gordon said sleepily. “That Leticia never was much of a shot.”