There was something about San Francisco's Chinatown that always made the blood hum in Artie's veins. There was an energy in the place that you couldn't help but respond to, whether for good or ill. The clicking of mah jong tiles from countless gambling dens drifted down as they strode through the throngs on the crowded streets, dodging food vendors, small children and mangy dogs.
He only wished they were in this city for a more pleasant reason.
Colonel Richmond had received vague rumblings that a threat was building in the city. A threat that encompassed the whole country, though none of his sources was certain what it was. All of their sources, however, were frightened.
Which had brought Jim and Artie here, to Chinatown, chasing down shadow and rumour in the hopes of avoiding a catastrophe.
Artie threaded his way through the crowds, turning off the main thoroughfare into one of the smaller streets, Jim following in his wake. He led them to the building that his contact had hinted might house the answers to their questions. It was a ramshackle building, with stairs going both up and down from street level. They descended a narrow, crumbling stone staircase and were confronted by an imposing door of dark wood at the bottom.
Jim looked at the door with what could only be called speculation. "Are we expecting opposition?"
Artie shrugged. "I honestly don't know what to expect. The information from my source was a vague as Richmond's reasons for sending us here."
"How comforting," Jim said, then gave the door a firm knock. The sound seemed to echo in the enclosed space, but there was no response: no voices, no footsteps, only a resounding silence.
They waited for a long minute before Jim put a hand on the door's knob. He twisted it strongly, only to have it turn easily in his grasp.
"Seems our mysterious friends don't believe in locks," Jim said as he eased the door open.
The door opened directly onto a large, open room, into which they moved cautiously. Silk brocade pillows and opium pipes were scattered on raised sleeping platforms. Richly patterned carpets lay in a multi-coloured patchwork on the floor, while heavy velvet curtains partitioned off the back of the room, no doubt so that the more exotic vices could be enjoyed privately by the better class of customer. It was a perfect example of a San Francisco opium den.
Too perfect. Most such places that Artie had infrequently been called upon to visit were dark, tatty places, walls begrimed with years of smoke and soot, and no silk to be found anywhere. He put a finger in the bowl of an opium pipe and brought it tentatively to his nose. Instead of the pungent smell of the poppy's crop, he found the odour of regular tobacco.
He chuckled quietly. "I've heard about these places, but I've never actually seen one."
"It's an opium den, Artie. We've seen enough of them before."
"It's a sheltered debutante's idea of an opium den," Artie said. "Something you'd find in a theatrical spectacle about white slavers and the yellow peril."
Jim re-evaluated the room and nodded in agreement. "You're right. But who would bother creating this place?"
"Believe it or not, tour guides."
"Tour guides?" If Jim had been willing to accept that this room was not the bona fide article, he was less ready to believe the perpetrator of the subterfuge.
"Tour guides," Artie repeated, stooping to pick up a pipe. "Well-bred ladies and gentlemen visiting San Francisco are eager to visit the demimonde for which the city is so famous. A number of the more enterprising tour companies, wanting to satisfy their clients' appetites for the exotic without exposing them to the grubby realities of a real opium den, set up these frauds." He waved the pipe in the direction of the unoccupied sleeping platforms. "Pay a few beggars to populate the den of iniquity, burn incense to produce just the right atmosphere and voila: an instant sordid experience ready to be related to friends and relations back home in delicious detail." Artie grinned. "Takes a real actor to carry off a scheme like this."
"Planning for your retirement, Artie?"
"If I were to take up acting again, I'd want a much larger audience for my talents." He threw the pipe down with a theatrical sweep. "What I want to know is, why did our informant send us here?"
"Because I paid him to, Mr. Gordon."
The all-too familiar voice came from behind one of the velvet curtains. Before either of them could react, a giant emerged from behind a second curtain and had Jim in a headlock, a wickedly serrated blade held to his throat.
In seconds, Artie had his gun out and aimed at Voltaire, for of course it was Miguelito Loveless' henchman who now held his partner in such a deadly embrace.
"Now, now, Mr. Gordon, is that any way to treat my hospitality?" Loveless appeared from his own hiding place. He turned an indulgent look on Artie, as though he were a schoolteacher chastising a recalcitrant student.
"A true host doesn't threaten his guests with edged weapons."
"I won't quibble with you, Mr. Gordon, but I will point out that Voltaire could rip Mr. West's throat open before you even finished pulling the trigger. You might live, but you would see your partner die."
"Don't listen to him, Artie," Jim said, holding his partner's gaze with eyes gone grey with anger and fear.
Artie swallowed hard, his mouth parched, but otherwise did not move. The four men were frozen in a tableau of threatened violence. It was Loveless who broke the deadlock.
"A demonstration seems to be in order. Voltaire."
The giant moved his hand only slightly, and a single bead of blood formed on Jim's skin.
"Stop," Artie said, with quiet deliberation. Then to make sure that there were no further demonstrations, he tossed his gun across the room, out of reach of everyone.
"Artie," Jim said.
"Shut up, Jim." Artie was trying to think of a way for them both to survive the next minute and he couldn't afford a distraction. Not even from Jim.
"Language, Mr. Gordon," Loveless said, a beatific look on his face. "Defeat is no excuse for bad manners."
"What do you want, Loveless?" Artie was in no mood to trade barbs with the diminutive criminal, not with Jim in such a precarious position.
"Right down to business, aren't you, Mr. Gordon?" Loveless seemed almost disappointed. "Very well," he sighed and took something out of his pocket. "I have a gift for you." He held out his hand to reveal a plump white steamed bun.
"What is that?" Jim asked.
"A bao," Artie replied. "A Chinese bun."
"How knowledgeable of you, Mr. Gordon. Yes, a bao. Though this one does not contain the usual red bean or lotus paste. Its filling is something a bit more appropriate to this environment." Loveless' eye fell to the opium pipe that Artie had thrown down.
"Opium?" Artie asked.
"In its raw state," Loveless replied.
"And if I don't accept your gift?"
"Then I conduct an experiment in how long it takes a man of Mr. West's size to bleed to death—I estimate two minutes—and you have the privilege of seeing your partner die, knowing you could have saved him."
"He'll kill us anyway, Artie," Jim protested.
Artie knew that. Knew that no matter what he did, Loveless had no doubt planned their deaths. But he also knew that the longer they stayed alive, the better their chances of escaping and bringing Loveless to justice.
He also knew one more thing, something that was always on his mind but was now clearer than ever. He did not want to see Jim die. Would do anything to prevent it. Might even betray his country, for without Jim West in it, his country meant less than nothing to him.
He reached for the bao.
"No, Artie." Jim assumed the voice of command.
"I've no choice, Jim. No choice at all." Artie's own voice was quiet, and he honestly wasn't sure if he was talking to his partner or Loveless or only himself.
He took the bao in his hand and bit into it. At first, he could taste only the dough, glutinous and chewy and slightly sweet. Then the bitter taste of the opium struck his tongue and he had to struggle not to spit it out. Two more bites, and the bun was gone.
Loveless looked at him expectantly, Jim with concern. As was his wont, Voltaire had absolutely no expression at all.
At first, Artie felt nothing. Minutes passed, and he was beginning to think it all a hoax, when he felt a flush flow from the bottom of his feet to the top of his head. He swayed slightly, struggling to stop himself from collapsing as the drug at last rushed through his system.
"I believe Mr. Gordon is beginning to succumb," Loveless said, glee evident in his voice. Artie was surprised the little man didn't rub his hands together with pleasure.
Artie tried to construct a response, but it was as if his brain had been stuffed with sodden cotton. Time seemed to slow and his vision began to blur, the faces of those around him flowing together, swirling like a child's pinwheel.
At last, his legs collapsed beneath him and he landed on his knees. He knew the impact should have caused him pain, but the drug stood between him and the sensation.
"Artie," he heard Jim yell, seemingly from a great distance. As he toppled over, he tried to answer. Jim, he said, but only in his mind. His eyes drifted closed. There was shouting and loud noises and something that sounded remarkably like a gunshot.
"Artie. Don't believe what you see. Don't believe what they tell you. Trust in me. Trust..."The shadows closed around Artemus Gordon in a murky tide.
The first thing Artie became aware of was how hard the floor was. Hard and cold and digging into his cheekbone in a most irritating manner. He rolled onto his side as his stomach gave an alarming heave. He clenched his jaw, trying to stave off the inevitable, but his body wouldn't be denied. The next thing he knew, he was on his hands and knees, vomiting the meagre contents of his stomach onto the floor.
After his stomach stopped heaving, he rolled onto his back and opened his eyes, but he wasn't entirely sure that was a good idea. The room he found himself in was gloomy, but still far too bright for his current state. His head began to throb.
Sitting up, he blinked, trying to clear his eyes and focus on the chamber around him, the hardwood and carpets, the cushions and curtains. His memory began to return to him in flashes: the opium den; Loveless; Jim.
"Jim," he said, the name emerging as a hollow croak from his dry throat. He swallowed, grimacing at the sour taste of vomit, and tried again. "Jim, where are you?"
There was no answer, only a slight rustling from the curtains as a draft caught them. He pushed himself up slowly until he was finally standing uneasily, nauseous, aching, but beginning to feel more himself.
"Jim." He walked toward the back of the room until a flash of colour that did not belong in this room of red and black caught his eye. It was the emerald of Jim's jacket, glimpsed behind a sleeping pallet.
"Jim, thank God." Artie rushed to his partner's side to find him sprawled on his stomach, much as Artie had been, still unconscious after whatever it was Loveless had done to him. Afterwards, he wondered how he had not seen the blood.
Concerned for Jim, he rolled him onto his side. And found himself vomiting in earnest, heaving all the remaining contents from his stomach, retching long after there was nothing left to throw up but a thin trickle of bile.
The thing on the floor—he could no longer think of it as Jim—had no face. A gunshot at close range had taken the life that had been housed in this compact frame and left only a horrid gaping wound.
Artie had to look away. He shut his eyes tightly, but that brought no relief; the image of the faceless thing that had been Jim West was burned into his mind's eye. He collapsed onto a sleeping pallet and clutched his head in his hands, all his training and experience stripped away by this horror. He sat for several long minutes, wracked by long shuddering breaths that did not quite dissolve into sobs.
He drew in a deep breath and opened his eyes, damning the opium that still swam in his system. He couldn't afford not to be at his best. He had to find Loveless. Find him and hurt him and kill him.
He looked around the room, avoiding the sight of the corpse. Loveless must have left something, some hint as to what he was up to, a rumour of where he might be found.
A glint in the gaslight caught Artie's eye and he reached under the pallet in front of him, pulling out a Colt .45 revolver. The weapon smelt of gunpowder. Clearly it was the weapon that had killed Jim. Artie wanted to throw it across the room, but he forced himself to carefully examine it, to look for any clue that would lead him to Jim's killer. But however hard he looked, the gun had no secrets to divulge. It was an utterly ordinary gun, one of thousands of similar weapons that could no doubt be found in this city.
He let the hand holding the gun fall limply to his side, a feeling of utter hopelessness flooding through him.
He stood like that for several long minutes, unsure of what he should do, what his next move should be. His mood was only broken by a clattering on the stairs behind him. He turned his head in time to see several members of San Francisco's budding law enforcement community burst into the room.
In spite of the drug in his system, in spite of the grief that flooded his mind, Artie was suddenly stuck by how he must look, standing over a corpse, the murder weapon in his hand. And just as quickly, he recognized Loveless' plan: frame Artemus Gordon for the murder of James West; eliminate two enemies at once.
He wanted to howl with rage, to strike out at everyone in this room. But he didn't. That would only ensure that the policemen, who even now had their guns aimed at his chest, would kill him out of hand, and Artie did not want to die. Not yet. He wanted to live long enough to see Miguelito Loveless pay for his crimes. And the only way to do that right now was to yield.
He let the gun in his hand clatter to the floor and raised his hands in surrender.
Jim had watched, horrified, as Artie was overcome by Loveless' opium, half-convinced that the bun contained not the promised raw opium but poison. But that would have been too blatant a way of removing Artemus Gordon from the earth for Loveless' subtle mind. Jim saw the full form of Loveless' madness when a young man wearing an exact duplicate of his own suit entered the room. It was then that Jim began to struggle in earnest.
He might as well have tried to pull down the Sierra Nevadas or stop Niagara from flowing as compete with Voltaire's strength. He watched helplessly as Loveless shot the young man, leaving a bloody, faceless corpse that was a convincing doppelganger for himself. He shouted at Artie, hoping to rouse him from his drugged stupor, to warn him of Loveless' scheme. Finally, Voltaire stopped his cries, gagging, binding and blindfolding him. Helpless, he was slung over Voltaire's shoulder and carried out of the basement. He was dumped in the bed of a roughly planked wagon, and then heard movement beside his head.
"I'm afraid we need to take a ferry ride, Mr. West, and we can't have you bumping about and causing a commotion," Loveless said. "I'd really prefer not to do this, but I'm sure you understand."
Jim tensed, all too certain he knew what was coming. And seconds later, it did. He was struck behind the ear with what could only have been the butt of a gun. The darkness behind the blindfold exploded in a shower of red and he struggled with pain and nausea before the red overwhelmed him and he knew no more.
He came to as the wagon was rolling to a stop, unsure if he'd been unconscious for minutes or hours or days. As he was struggling to understand where he was, Voltaire roughly hauled him out of the wagon and into a building. Voltaire descended a set of what sounded like stone stairs before throwing Jim roughly on a stone floor. With clumsy fingers, Voltaire removed the blindfold and gag and untied his feet. He left Jim's hands tied.
Jim blinked furiously, trying to adjust to the dim light and shake the pain from his head. He found himself in a large, stone room lined with casks. Several large worktables sat at each end of the chamber. Craning his neck, he could see the stairs they had descended. At the foot of those stairs stood both Miguelito Loveless and his faithful servant.
"What do you think you're doing, Loveless?" Jim channelled all the anger he felt coursing through his body into his voice.
"Oh, I think you've guessed," the little man said with some glee. "By now, Artemus Gordon will have been charged with your murder. I have no doubt that he'll be tried, convicted and hanged." He deliberately checked his watch. "All in very short order."
"Grant won't allow it," Jim spat back.
"Grant won't have any say in the matter. By the time he's heard that one of his pet Secret Service agents has been charged with the murder of another, Mr. Gordon will already be hanging from the end of a rope." He rubbed a thumb and forefinger together in the universal sign for money. "I've greased enough palms in this town to ensure not only that the trial will be held without delay, but that the verdict and sentence will be to my liking."
Jim could not respond; his rage was inarticulate and total. Instead, he clenched his fists and worked at calming his breathing. Only when he was calm, did he allow himself to speak.
"Why, Loveless? Why frame Artie? What will it gain you?"
Loveless didn't hesitate an instant before offering an answer.
"Satisfaction, Mr. West. Pure and simple, satisfaction." He took a single step closer to his captive, though he was careful to keep some distance between them. "You and Mr. Gordon have been very inconvenient over the years. Foiling my plans, causing my unjust incarceration on more than one occasion. I have decided it is time to liquidate the two of you, in the most painful way possible for you both." Loveless smiled, but there was absolutely no humour in the expression. "Mr. Gordon will die believing you dead and convicted of your murder. And you will die, knowing that Mr. Gordon has been disgraced, executed and buried in a pauper's grave, no family or friends to claim his body."
Jim could no more have prevented what he did next that he could have reproduced one of Artie's chemical experiments. His vision went red with rage and he leapt to his feet and lunged at Loveless. Even with his hands tied, he would have found a way to injure this little man who mocked him with Artie's death. Such was the explosiveness of his attack that he nearly succeeded, nearly managed to kick Loveless to the floor, to crush his windpipe with a booted foot.
Nearly succeeded, but not quite. He was within inches of his prey when Voltaire seized his master from behind and pulled him to safety. Then the giant moved forward, meeting Jim's rage with his own implacable strength. He cuffed Jim on the head, sending him flying with an effortless gesture. Unable to break his fall with his hands bound behind him, Jim landed in a crumpled heap ten feet from where he'd started.
He lay there for a minute, rage replaced by pain and frustration.
It took Loveless an equally long minute to recover. When he did, there was an unfamiliar fear in his voice, though it was a fear shot through with anger. "Now, now, Mr. West, there will be none of that. You will be a prisoner and you will die, and that is the final role you will play on this earth."
Jim didn't immediately respond. Instead, he slowly got to his feet and stared down his enemy. He would not lose dignity before this man. "If I may ask, who was the man who died in my place?"
"Oh, no one. An unemployed sailor who was unlucky enough to share your build and all-too willing to take my money to become the double of a man he hadn't met. And he was your double, you know. Down to the last scar. I made sure of that, though it took some time to manage."
Jim commented on neither Loveless' ruthlessness nor his cleverness. He couldn't afford to either infuriate or flatter his captor now. He needed information and some means of escaping this prison before Artie's doom was sealed.
"And this place?" Jim gestured at the room around them. "I assume it's a winery."
"In the Napa Valley, yes, Mr. West. I congratulate you on your local knowledge."
"It is now. The original owner was looking for a silent partner, and I obliged. Though I wasn't, I fear, quite as silent as he hoped."
"No doubt you've run him off the land?"
"Or under it." Loveless laughed. "He became tiresome. Now he's of some use fertilizing the vines on the western slope."
Jim was always astounded how Loveless could talk of murder in so cold-blooded a manner. Astounded, but not surprised. Not after so many years of pursuing the man.
"If you'll excuse me, Mr. West, I must attend to my business. I trust you won't attempt anything so foolish as escape. It would prove quite fruitless, and Voltaire might be forced to damage you before your time. This room is quite impregnable."
"You'll forgive me if I don't take your word for that."
"As you wish. Voltaire," Loveless commanded and turned on his heel. Master and man disappeared up the stairs. Jim heard the bolting of a solid-sounding door from above.
He sank to the floor, still feeling the effects of Voltaire's blow. He needed to recover, needed to think. Needed to find a way out of this cellar.
Most of all, he needed a way to save Artemus Gordon from the hangman.
Everything was coming to him in flashes. Flashes of smells, of colour, of sound. Red brocade merged with the clicking of mah jong tiles. The smell of an opium pipe swirled with the green-tinged blue of Jim's eyes. The iron scent of blood lingered over everything and he couldn't stop hearing Jim's voice: Trust me. Don't believe what you see. Don't believe what they tell you. Don't believe...
Artie sat up with a start, his own breath sounding harsh in his ears. He blinked hard to focus his eyes and found himself in the same place as the last time he'd awoken: a grimy cell in the San Francisco city jail.
At first the place had seemed as bereft of hope as any he'd ever seen.
He had been charged with the murder of James West, Secret Service agent, almost as soon as he'd been brought to this cell. The D.A. had informed him that the trial would be held in three days' time. The guards had gleefully hinted that the hanging would be the day after that. He had asked that a telegram be sent to Colonel Richmond, but wasn't sure his request had been honoured. After an extremely cursory questioning by a bored policeman and the distracted D.A., he had been mostly left to himself. Only a twice-daily visit from a guard to deliver food and empty the slops bucket relieved the tedium.
Alone, he had nothing to do but examine the cell for weaknesses, count the passing of the hours. And think.
He couldn't stop thinking. Couldn't stop thinking about what had happened in that basement, what he'd seen, what he'd felt. What he'd heard.
Jim's voice drifted back to him every time he slept. Don't believe what you see. At first he was convinced it was just wishful thinking. Don't believe what they tell you. He thought it was only his heart talking to him. Trust me. But he was beginning to believe otherwise.
With the drug now well out of his system, he was convinced that Jim really had said those things. What's more, he was certain Jim had shouted at him after the sound of that gunshot.
Jim was alive.
Loveless had created a double of Jim before. He could have done it again. And such a Byzantine plan would perfectly suit the workings of the little doctor's mind.
Jim was alive, but he may not remain so for much longer. Artie suspected that as soon as he was executed, as he no doubt would be given the evidence against him, evidence that he was certain Loveless had arranged to have augmented, Loveless would tire of his game and kill Jim, with no one the wiser. The world already believed Jim dead. He would be buried in an unmarked grave, unmourned and unregarded.
Artie could not let that happen. He had to rescue Jim from the clutches of Loveless. He had to escape from this blasted cell. And he had no earthly idea how he was going to make that happen.
The San Francisco police might be a new organization, but they were efficient enough; they'd confiscated any item he had that might be used either for attack or escape. Knife, lock pick, tiny explosive charge, all had been found and removed from him when he was taken in custody. With his trial set to take place tomorrow—and the hanging the day after, a voice whispered in his ear—he could see no way out of here.
And then fate intervened.
There was a clattering at the door of the cell as keys were inserted in the lock. It was far too early for his evening meal and he could think of no reason for the guards to seek his presence that didn't smack of mischief. Artie stood, his muscles tense with anticipation. At best, he feared a beating. At worst, he wondered if the trial was to be foregone in favour of an all-American lynching.
The door swung open and he found not his worst fears, but his best hope staring at him: Colonel Richmond.
"Mr. Gordon, I wish we were meeting under better circumstances." Richmond's face was as grim as his voice.
"As do I, sir."
"Sit down, man, you look like you're about to fall over." Richmond's order was gruff, but not without concern.
Artie sat and waited as the colonel ordered a chair for himself and then shooed the guard out of the cell, assuring him that he would be safe with the prisoner.
Richmond's next words demonstrated how effective Loveless' plan was.
"Tell me you didn't do it, Artemus."
"No, sir." Artie tried to remain impassive, but even his acting abilities only extended so far. He could not keep the affront out of his voice. "It was Loveless. He drugged me."
"Then shot Mr. West."
"He shot someone, but I don't believe it was Jim."
Richmond looked at Artie with an expression that could only be identified as pitying. "I've seen the body, son. It's Jim West, all right."
"You can't be sure. The face..." He couldn't continue.
"The face may not be... intact, but every other identifying mark matches Mr. West. Down to the last scar."
"Loveless has crafted a double of Jim before. He could have done it again."
"Not to that level of detail." Richmond raised his voice in frustration.
"It never does to underestimate Miguelito Loveless, sir. He depends on such mistakes."
"But why would he bother?"
"He'd have gained that by killing Jim."
"But this way, both Jim and I are aware of the revenge. He probably knows that I'll reason out what his plan is, and he will no doubt tell Jim what my fate is." Artie paused for a moment. "What is to be my fate?"
From the way Richmond evaded his gaze, Artie knew the news could not be good.
"Well," Richmond finally began after a too long pause, "I've requested that you be placed in my custody for prosecution under federal law."
"And have been refused," Artie guessed.
"In a word, yes. The local authorities have claimed jurisdiction. They also say they want to see justice done as soon as possible. They've set the trial for tomorrow."
"So I've been told."
"I'm going through official challenges, lodging protests with anyone I can find. Unfortunately, I'm being blocked at every step."
"Loveless' doing, no doubt."
"No doubt," Richmond said with a frown. "I don't know what I can tell you."
Artie took a deep breath and released it, willing all the tension to leave his body. Then he spoke. "I have a plan."
"Well, speak up man. What is it?"
"It entails some illegalities. On your part, sir."
"This whole enterprise has been full of illegalities. We all do what we must, Gordon."
"I have a set of lock picks on the train. If you could bring them to me today, I could arrange for an early release tonight. Once I'm out, I'll set about tracking down Loveless. I don't think he'll have taken Jim very far, and I should have the advantage of at least a few hours' head start."
Richmond nodded grimly and clapped Artie on the shoulder. "Consider it done." Richmond moved toward the door, knocking on it loudly for the guard. He looked back once before leaving the cell. "Take care, Artemus. I'll be back soon."
Artie relaxed against the wall as the door slammed after Richmond. The cold clench of fear that had been gnawing at his gut began to ease for the first time since he had awoken in that basement and found the body.
He was sure of his own abilities. He would escape; he would find Jim; and he would make certain the Miguelito Loveless was brought to justice, once and for all.
Colonel Richmond was as good as his word. He was back within hours and managed to pass Artie not only his lock picks, but a box of safety matches, a small pen knife and a number of folded bank notes. Artie blessed Richmond's foresight in supplying what he had not thought to ask for, and thanked his guardian angel that the guards had not thought to search an officer of the Secret Service.
With the means to escape in his possession, he had only to exercise patience. Artie had paid attention to the routine of his prison, had noted that after midnight the guards were lax about checking the cells and seemed to disappear for hours at a time. Artie waited until after he heard a church clock strike one before setting to work. The lock picks easily opened the barred door. He locked it again behind him, making sure he first made a convincing Artie-sized mound on the bed with pillows and blankets. His luck held, and he encountered no one on his journey through the jail. He was thankful that, in spite of his shock, he'd paid attention to the layout of the place when he was incarcerated.
Once on the street, he kept to a measured pace, hoping not to call attention to himself while in sight of the jail. But there was no hue and cry, no thunder of running feet after him. As he turned a corner, he began to relax, if ever so slightly.
Keeping to the same considered speed, Artie began the hour's walk to Chinatown.
Chinatown was a much different place at two in the morning. During their previous visit it had bustled with life, but now the streets were virtually deserted, inhabited only by a furtive few who kept to the shadows.
Artie inhabited the shadows himself, ducking from doorway to alleyway in an attempt to avoid notice, especially by the police. He arrived at the door of the place where his nightmare had started and paused, his hand poised on the knob. Senses alert, he listened for sounds of pursuit, looked for signs that an ambush awaited him inside. He heard nothing more ominous than the yowl of a cat and the distant singing of a drunk.
Taking a deep breath, he opened the door, quickly disappearing inside. Total darkness greeted him, the lamps having been long since extinguished. He fumbled in his pockets for the safety matches Colonel Richmond had supplied and lit one. In the flickering light of a single match, he found a lamp on a nearby table, and spent another match lighting it. The lamp shed an eerie glow over the empty chamber, curtains and furniture casting ominous shadows around him.
An involuntary shudder passed through his body as he remembered sharing this room with a corpse that wore Jim West's clothing. But it hadn't been Jim, he reminded himself. It couldn't have been. Artie clung fast to that belief.
Pushing aside all doubt and fear, Artie began a methodical search. He checked every surface, every drawer, every item in the room, looking for some indication of where Loveless may have taken Jim. But there was nothing. No scrap of paper, no smudge of identifiable mud. Nothing.
In frustration, Artie started again, method becoming frenzy, and still there was nothing. He tore open pillows, smashed opium pipes and finally delivered a mighty kick to a discarded wine bottle lying in a corner. The wine bottle skittered madly across the floor and exploded into hundreds of glittering fragments against the opposite wall, wine dripping from the remains of the bottle onto the floor.
There had been wine in the bottle. Wine that hadn't yet evaporated. Wine that couldn't have been there more than a few days.
Hopefully, Artie crossed the room and delicately poked at the remains of the bottle. He found what he was looking for: a label, still intact and readable, though now attached only to shards of broken glass.
The name of the vineyard was not one he recognized, but it was in the Napa Valley. He could be there in a matter of days on a horse rented with Richmond's money. Could have Jim released an hour or so after that.
If Loveless had brought this bottle. If it was from the place where Loveless was hiding. If he really had kidnapped Jim. If he hadn't killed Jim outright. If Artie could find the place and effect a rescue.
A lot of ifs, but Artie was willing to accept them, and many more, if they meant that he had a chance of finding Jim, alive and well.
Brushing his hands on his pant legs, he set off, clothing himself in his hope as in a knight's armour.
Time passed in a frustrating blur for Jim. Voltaire appeared after a few hours to untie his hands, then at irregular intervals to bring food and water, but otherwise he was left entirely on his own. Stuck in the windowless room, he began to lose track of how many days had passed, or even if it was day or night. After spending what must have been nearly a day fruitlessly searching for an escape route from his prison, he spent his time either pacing the stone floor or dozing fitfully on a makeshift bed of gunnysacks.
Of Miguelito Loveless, he saw absolutely nothing. After Jim's attack on his person, he seemed to have lost the taste for gloating over his captive, and for that Jim was heartily glad. His vexation at not being able to assist his partner and friend was matched only by his wrath at Loveless for what he had done to Artie.
It was therefore with some surprise that Jim found himself at last visited by the little man. Voltaire remained closer to his master than ever, ready to protect him from another attack. For his part, Loveless looked as nonchalant as ever, though Jim imagined he could see some signs of nervousness in the bearing of his nemesis.
Jim remained where he was, sitting on the floor, eyeing Loveless with barely contained fury and contempt.
"I trust you are enjoying my hospitality, Mr. West?"
Jim made not the slightest sign of acknowledgement, no longer willing to play Loveless' games. Loveless ignored the slight.
"I thought I would warn you that we will be moving you to a new location shortly. Voltaire is under orders to cut short your time on this Earth if you are foolish enough to attempt an escape."
And there it was: a hint of a tremor in Loveless' voice, a minute hint of fear. Jim tilted his head in interest.
"Has something gone wrong with your schemes, Loveless?"
Loveless laughed. "Everything is proceeding right on schedule Mr. West. The change in venue is merely one of my whims." Loveless' bearing was as insufferably smug as always, but Jim was becoming increasingly convinced that the smugness was hiding real concern. He wondered if someone was threatening Loveless' plans. Perhaps a very special someone.
"Has Artie escaped?"
"Mr. Gordon is firmly locked up and awaiting trial and execution," Loveless said with a smoothness that could only have been rehearsed. "By tomorrow night he will be well and truly dead." And with those words Jim finally saw the lies of his captor exposed. He knew without doubt that Artie had escaped, that he was searching for Jim even now. And he knew with absolute certainty that Artie would not stop until he had found his partner.
Confident of his knowledge, Jim smiled indulgently. "He has escaped, hasn't he." It was a statement, not a question. "Artie is free and looking for you. Looking for me. And when he finds this place, he'll capture you and have you locked up for the rest of your miserable life."
"I must insist that you cease voicing these fantasies," Loveless said, the panic now nakedly evident in his voice.
"You won't see daylight again. Ever." Jim took delight in saying each word.
"Voltaire. Be so good as to silence Mr. West."
Jim tried to put up a fight, but the giant ignored his struggles as though they were those of a small child. Voltaire pinned him, gagged him and then bound him firmly, hand and foot. Abandoned on the floor, Jim found he couldn't make a sound, could barely move.
Only when he was sure his victim was immobilized did Loveless dare to approach him. The little man leaned down so that his face was only inches from Jim's own.
"Mr. Gordon may have escaped from the law, but the two of you will not escape so easily from my revenge." Loveless was so close that Jim could feel the heat of his breath on his face, could see the madness in the other man's eyes. "You will remain in this cellar until I have detained Mr. Gordon. You will watch him die, and then you will die yourself. When I'm finished with you, you'll both be nothing more than so much butchered meat. Come, Voltaire."
Loveless turned on his heel and ascended the stairs, his servant trailing protectively behind him.
Jim jerked against the ropes, trying desperately to find give where there was none. He tried to yell, but Voltaire had done his job well and the gag muffled every sound he made. He could do nothing. Less than nothing.
The only thing he could do was wait and hope. Hope, above all, that Artie was free and safe and would never come under the power of Miguelito Loveless.
It took four days for Artie to arrive at his destination.
Precious hours had been spent obtaining a horse, weapons and the supplies that might prove useful in staging a rescue. Three days had been spent on the road. Since he was a wanted fugitive, he couldn't risk taking the ferry that would have taken him to Vallejo in a matter of hours. Instead, he took the long, overland route, begrudging every minute that he was not with Jim.Even once he had reached the Napa valley, he had forced himself not to rush immediately to the winery he suspected of harbouring Loveless. And Jim.
Instead, he had investigated the area. Though every nerve he possessed screamed at him to find Jim now, he took his time, asking neighbours if they had seen anything unusual, allaying their suspicions about him with his own practiced charm.
He was glad he'd been so thorough. It seemed that the owner of the winery had not been seen in nearly a month, soon after he'd acquired a mysterious, silent partner. Not only that, but rumour had it that a giant had been seen on the property, digging among the vines and working in the outbuildings. Some locals dismissed the tales of a giant as fantasy, but Artie knew better. It had to be Voltaire, and where the servant was, the master had led. If Loveless and Voltaire were here, then Jim must be as well. If he wasn't dead already, a traitorous voice whispered. If Voltaire hadn't been digging Jim's grave amongst the grapes.
But he couldn't afford to think that, so Artie ignored his fears and concentrated on the property before him.
It was just past sunset. Artie had hidden himself in a copse of trees that overlooked the main house and outbuildings of the winery. His horse, he'd left half a mile away, hobbled in a hidden glade. In the wake of all his bad luck, fortune had at last smiled on him, supplying him with a nearly full moon. The silvery light of the earth's companion lit the scene as Artie kept a close eye on the winery's buildings. His greatest attention was saved for the low brick structure that he'd been told housed the wine cellar. Artie could think of no better place to hold a prisoner than a wine cellar.
He planned to wait until after midnight, when any guards were likely to be tired and lax, then make his way carefully inside the cellar and liberate his partner and friend. Artie was planning his route across the yard when he heard the slamming of a door. His eyes flicked to the big house, and he saw two shadows, one tall, one decidedly not, walk across the porch and head toward the low building that was his target. Artie's breath caught in his throat as he saw his enemies moving toward the place where he believed his partner to be. He had to force himself to breathe smoothly, to sit quietly and not reveal his position. He could hear his own heart pounding as Loveless disappeared into the building, could hear the air rasping in his throat for the interminable minutes before the two men reappeared and headed back to the main house.
Artie waited until the door slammed noisily behind Loveless and his man, and then he could wait no longer. Damn logic, damn planning and damn reason, but he would not leave Jim in that madman's clutches another instant. He hoped that he had not already waited too long, that he would not find another lifeless corpse in the cellar.
Breaking the cover of the bushes that had hidden him, he moved stealthily across the yard, seeking the cover that he had been planning for the past hour. He sighed in relief as the door proved unlocked, and slipped in as silently as possible, even happier to discover no guards to challenge him.
There was no light in the building, so he paused for a minute while his eyes adjusted to the dimness of the interior. Once they did, he saw a rough wooden door before him, a black padlock securing it. He knew without thinking that this was his goal. His lock picks made short work of the padlock, and then he gripped his pistol tightly in his hand and began the descent down the flight of stone stairs.
Golden light bathed the stairs, growing brighter as he descended. As he reached the bottom of the stairs, he saw the source of the light: several oil lamps illuminated the barrel-arched cellar. He was surrounded by casks of wine, but Artie's full attention was focussed on only one thing: Jim West.
Jim was gagged and bound so tightly that he could barely move, but he was alive. Very much alive.
Artie smiled as Jim's eyes widened in shock and relief.
"Jim!" he cried, unable for once to find a more eloquent way of expressing himself. Then he had his pen knife out and was cutting away the ropes that bound his friend. Bonds cut, he removed the cruel gag and then took Jim in his arms. He hugged Jim to him, enjoying the sensation of Jim's warm body in his arms, revelling in the best proof possible that Jim was alive, was not a corpse. Jim returned his embrace with strong arms and Artie could not say if they were both laughing or crying or if it even mattered. He moved his head so he could take a better look at his friend, and something extraordinary happened.
Artie didn't know who started the kiss; he only knew that it felt good, felt right. It felt like something that had been destined to happen.
But it had to end. Artie pulled reluctantly away from Jim's lips and looked wonderingly at his partner.
"Not now Artie. Not yet." Jim stood and pulled Artie to his feet. "We have to stop Loveless first."
Artie nodded, knowing that this was not the time for talking, but that they would find time later.
Instead, he gave his spare pistol to Jim and began walking up the stairs, knowing without a doubt that his partner would follow. Now, more than ever before, he knew he was certain of the connection between them.
After all that had happened, Loveless' capture was anti-climactic. Faced down by the two men he'd conspired to kill, the good doctor had collapsed, his will shattered. Voltaire had been a different story. The big man had reacted to his master's ruin with aggression, threatening his attackers with fists alone. Artie had been surprised to find that he did not really want to shoot Voltaire; his stomach for killing had evaporated at finding Jim alive. In the end, Voltaire had surrendered and Artie had been spared from pulling the trigger.
While Jim held them both at gunpoint, Artie tied up the two men who had nearly taken away his life and all he held dear. Though his blood lust was gone, Artie couldn't help but take a certain pleasure as he tightened the ropes that bound Loveless and Voltaire.
Their enemies secured, they set about restoring their lives.
First order of business had been sending a telegraph to Colonel Richmond. Since Jim wasn't an escaped prisoner, he left at first light for Napa, while Artie guarded their prisoners.
Mere hours after that message was sent and Jim had returned, the local sheriff arrived on their doorstep, called in by the colonel. The sheriff and his deputies took charge of Loveless and gave Artie a message from the colonel. Artie's name had been cleared and Richmond was investigating those who'd taken bribes from Loveless. Furthermore, Jim and Artie had been given a week's vacation by Grant himself, in appreciation for all they'd gone through.
They set about making their way back to San Francisco and the Wanderer, with Jim taking a mare they found in the winery's stable. Now that Artie was no longer a fugitive, they took the ferry from Vallejo to San Francisco, turning a trip that had taken Artie days into a few hours.
They arrived at the train in the golden hour, just as the sun was beginning its slow trip below the horizon. In spite of the fact that Jim was unwashed, unshaven and travel-weary, Artie thought that he had never looked quite so striking.
Jim must have seen something in his face, since he hesitated as he was about to dismount from his horse.
"What is it, Artie?"
Artie shook his head, unable to think of a response that would not make him sound like a besotted schoolgirl. "Nothing."
Jim didn't question him further, but only smiled, then led his horse to the boxcar that served as their stable. Artie followed. As they cared for their borrowed steeds in silence, Artie took comfort in the practiced routine that a horse demanded of its rider. He emphatically steered his thoughts away from the partner grooming his own animal beside him, deliberately did not think about the kiss they'd shared. Now that they were safe and free with no threat of death haunting them, Artie was unsure what to make of that kiss and the feelings it had awakened within him.
Their horses cared for, Jim led the way back to their living quarters. There, he started a fire in the stove and began to heat a kettle of water. Artie sat meekly as Jim pulled out washing flannels and towels, then brought their washbasin into the sitting room. Once the water was steaming, Jim filled the basin and gestured at Artie. "Get out of those things."
"What?" Artie said, startled by Jim's transformation into an efficient mother hen.
"You're asleep on your feet and your clothes are as filthy as you are." Jim crossed to where he sat then pulled off Artie's jacket and began unbuttoning his shirt.
"I can do that." Artie batted away Jim's hands and tackled the buttons with fingers gone clumsy from fatigue and confusion and sudden longing. Jim made an unconvinced sound and began soaping a flannel. As soon as Artie had his shirt off, Jim tackled him with the flannel, washing away the dirt of the jail and the grime of the road. When his partner was clean, Jim passed him a towel. He removed his own shirt as Artie dried off.
"My turn," Jim said, and threw Artie the flannel.
Artie took the flannel and set to work on Jim. He put from his mind both the pleasure that Jim seemed to take from his touch and his own enjoyment at so simple an act.
When every inch of Jim's exposed skin was clean, Artie threw the flannel into the basin. "Finished," he said.
Jim looked at him speculatively, studying him as if he were a book in an unknown language. "You look better," Jim said.
"So do you," Artie replied automatically. And Jim did. Some of the care and worry of the last few days had evaporated. In spite of the exhaustion in his eyes and the stubble that shadowed his cheeks, Jim looked more himself than he had since Artie had found him in the cellar.
As he stared at Jim, his friend cocked his head then took the two steps needed to close the distance between them. Artie nearly stepped back, but stopped himself. This was Jim West, the person he cared for most in the world. He trusted him with his life; he would trust him now.
Jim reached out a hand and laid it on Artie's shoulder. Jim's skin was warm and Artie sighed as the hand massaged his shoulder with slow easy strokes. Jim brought his other hand up and brushed his fingertips across Artie's chin, his lips. Unconsciously, Artie opened his mouth and hesitantly licked his lips. As if that were the sign for which he'd been waiting, Jim took one last step and claimed Artie's mouth in a kiss.
This kiss was not like the first one. That kiss had been one of relief, full of joy at finding each other alive. This kiss was borne of want and need. Artie had taken many lovers before, men and women, but this single kiss held a passion unmatched in his experience. This kiss seared his mouth and scorched his soul, burning away everything he thought he knew about himself and Jim West.
Artie threw his arms around Jim and felt his partner tighten his hold in return. He revelled in the feeling of Jim's bare chest against him and gasped as Jim's tongue traced a line up his throat, rasping on his beard.
Instinctively, they moved toward the settee, and Artie flailed briefly as Jim tipped him onto the too narrow piece of furniture. He considered suggesting they move to a bedroom, but his own need was too immediate, too raw.
Jim straddled him, and Artie felt his own cock engorge with blood as Jim ground the proof of his own arousal against him. Pulling away from Jim, Artie fumbled with the buttons of his trousers. Jim echoed his movements, and soon their swollen members stroked against each other. Artie moaned with liquid pleasure as Jim surrounded both cocks with his hand, then claimed possession of Artie's mouth with his tongue. Hips bucked together as Jim's hand drove them both to new heights. At last, Artie could hold back no longer. Sighing into Jim's mouth, he felt the longed for release, the proof of his pleasure flowing onto his belly and Jim's hand. A minute more and Jim followed him.
Their need sated, they lay together, legs and arms awkwardly entangled, their breath gradually slowing to normal. Artie would have stayed there all night, if the precariousness of their perch had not finally forced him to move.
"Jim, I hate to say this, but my leg is falling asleep."
Jim looked up and smiled. "Come to think of it, I'm not that comfortable myself." He stood, efficiently buttoned his trousers and offered Artie a hand. "Come on, bed time for all Secret Service agents."
Artie took the proffered hand and stood, fastening his own trousers. Jim took his arm and led him into Artie's own bedroom. There, Jim stripped efficiently while Artie watched in mute amazement. He continued to gape as a now fully naked Jim West stared at him sceptically.
"Those pants are filthy, Artie. They go, or I do."
Helpless before Jim's scorn, Artie meekly stripped off the offending clothing and followed Jim into the bed. In spite of what they'd just done in the sitting room, Artie was still amazed when Jim wrapped a strong arm around him and pillowed his head on Artie's chest. He lightly laid a hand on Jim's shoulder, enjoying the feeling of warm skin and muscle, even as he couldn't quite believe this was happening.
They knew each other too well. It was inevitable that Jim noticed the tension in his partner's body, and sooner rather than later.
"What is it, Artie?" Jim asked, looking up at him with a slight frown.
Questions bounded through Artie's mind. Serious questions, joking questions, questions that touched upon matters of his heart and his mind. But in the end, he settled for just one word.
Jim stared at him, the frown deepening the furrow in his brow as he considered his answer. Finally, the frown turned into a sly smile, and Jim leaned up and kissed Artie as thoroughly as he could manage.
"Because," Jim said, as if that summed up everything he could possibly say on the matter.
And somehow, it did.
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