“Circumspect? Nah, we ain’t doin’ that!”
“He means he wants us to be vigilant, Thaddeus.” Heyes gave his most charming smile. “So? What kind of work is this?”
Clear, blue eyes looked down an aquiline nose, as the man spoke in a clipped English accent. “I am Reginald Edgeworth, an artist of some repute. I have been commissioned to create a work for Alfred Humphries, for him to show in his boardroom. I need to paint without being disturbed.”
Heyes shook his head in bemusement. “Why do you need us?”
“Humphries owns the railroad, and most of the big hotels in the state.” A smile cut into Edgeworth’s chiselled face. “Humphries’ greatest competitor has just purchased a picture called ‘Nature’s Bounty,’ painted by a famous artist. It’s a still life, showing exotic fruits and wine. He’s already boasting about the classy investment to his company’s portfolio, much to Humphries’ chagrin,” Edgeworth adjusted his cravat in the mirror. “Humphries has commissioned me to create a far more ‘bountiful’ still life; one which will outshine the Whittington Corporation’s picture. I have promised him an outstanding receptacle for the fruit which will also be a matter of everlasting shame to his business rival.”
Heyes frowned. “I still don’t understand, sir.”
“My fruit will be artfully arranged on a woman, Mr. Smith. Nature’s bounty will indeed be on display in all its largesse, and the Whittington Corporation’s piece will look trivial in comparison. It will, of course, be a nod towards the classical. It won’t be salacious.”
“Yeah, I know the kind of thing,” the Kid scratched his head. “I saw one in a bar in
San Francisco, it wasn’t fruit though, it was a snake...” his brow wrinkled, “and a goat for some reason. Is this gonna have a goat?”
Edgeworth frowned. “Why would it have a goat?”
“My thoughts exactly,” the Kid agreed. “I always found it real distractin’.”
“So you want us to guard a naked woman draped in fruit?” Heyes asked, incredulously.
Dancing blue eyes glittered with disbelief. “And you’ll pay us for that? We’d normally expect to hand over hard cash for that kind of thing.”
“I wish you to guard my work whilst it’s in progress. Whittington already has wind of what’s going on, and is very displeased,” grinned Edgeworth. “I’ll pay fifteen each upfront, with seventy five more on completion. Room and board will also be provided in this hotel so you can stay with the picture at all times. I have assured Humphries that Whittington will not be allowed to disrupt the creation of this work or art, no matter what.”
Heyes bit pensively into his lip. “And just why would Whittington want to do that?”
Edgeworth’s eyes narrowed slyly. “Because the woman used to be Whittington’s mistress. There she’ll be; the beauty he used to enjoy in private, shown off for eternity by his greatest rival. Humphries will also make sure the world knows he stole her out from under Whittington’s nose. There’s nothing Humphries enjoys more than grinding a rival under his heel, so who am I to stand in his way?”
The Kid dragged his hat from his head. “Howdy, ma’am.”
A pair of bewitching, emerald eyes twinkled at him. “Well, ain’t you just the most fetchin’ fella, since... well... that one.” She arched her brows and glimmered hopefully at Heyes, who stood by the door of the hotel suite wrestling with a long-legged wooden contraption. “My name’s Ariadne Beaufort, sweetheart.” A lacquered fingernail trailed lazily across the Kid’s cheek before clutching at the satin robe which clung enticingly to her bountiful chest. “I can’t make up my mind which of you is the most handsome, but I’ve always been known for bein‘ indescisive.
That’s why I have the same shoes in so many colors. Why choose when you can have it all?” She slunk over to the chaise longue and poured herself over the cushions. “Which one off you polishes the apples?”
“Thaddeus,” Heyes called. “Can you help me with this?”
The Kid strode over and grabbed the legs of the recalcitrant easel, but kept his eyes fixed on the slim ankles emerging from the satin treasury. “I think I’m in love. Grandpa used to say there was a woman for every man.”
Heyes nodded. “Yup, and I think we just found her. Keep your mind on the job.”
Edgeworth strolled into the suite wearing a paint splattered smock and a velvet beret. He glanced around with a sigh. “I suppose it’ll have to do. The light isn’t great, but I can use the shadows to give some interesting interplay with the flesh tones.” He opened a chest and began pulling out copious quantities of wax fruit, dangling some green grapes towards Ariadne. “These should compliment your eyes beautifully.”
“If you say so, Reggie, where do you want them?”
“Let’s get you posed and take a photograph.”
“Photograph?” Heyes demanded. “I thought you were a painter?”
“I am,” grinned Edgeworth, “but I like to move with the times. Taking a photograph allows me to judge the composition and pose. It also saves poor
Ariadne’s aching muscles. I can paint the outline of the picture and merely have her pose so I can capture the skin tones.”
“Yeah, don’t want to miss those skin tones,” murmured the Kid. “They’re the best bit.”
Heyes opened the box of paints and stared down at the tubes, neatly arranged by color and shade. “Should we put these out for you?”
Edgeworth shook his head. “You stand outside the room, and prevent anyone other than Alfred Humphries from coming in here. You also keep the painting in your room at night, guarded at all times.”
The Kid’s face fell. “Outside?”
Edgeworth nodded firmly. “Outside; neither Ariadne, nor myself, work well with spectators.”
“Leave them to the daily grind, huh?” the Kid muttered under his breath on the way out. “Why can’t I find a job like that?”
Heyes leaned idly on the banisters, looking down at life in the hotel lobby; the woman being tugged by her unruly son towards the door, the stiff business man dropping his newspaper to watch the man who strode towards the staircase, and the nervous looking young couple signing the register. Heyes smiled, they were either newlyweds or lovers – they certainly didn’t look used to checking into a hotel together.
The stout man coming up the stairs on short, thick legs glanced at the watch he pulled from his waistcoat pocket before he replaced it and stared up at the door guarded by the smiling sentinels. The light glinted off the pate beneath the few downy hairs stretched ruthlessly across the tonsured scalp as he followed the numbers down the hallway and stopped at their doorway. “Room 16,” he paused, eyeing the partners cautiously.
“Can we help you?” the Kid queried.
“I wish to see Mr. Edgeworth,” he had the air of a man more used to demanding answers than providing them.
The Kid folded his arms. “Your name, sir?”
The jowls shook in irritation. “What’s it to you?”
Heyes stepped forward. “Mr. Edgeworth is busy and has employed us to ensure that he is not disturbed. We have been told that only Mr. Humphries is allowed to see him.”
“I am Alfred Humphries, and I commissioned this work.”
Heyes smiled sweetly. “I’ll be happy to let him know you’re here, if you can show me some identification.”
“He hired you as security?” Humphries demanded.
“Sure did,” the Kid replied, evenly, holding the shorter man’s gaze, “and we’ll be happy to let you in as soon as we know who you are.”
The flabby face parted in a smile as dumpy fingers rummaged in his breast pocket. “Excellent! My bank book. See? Alfred Humphries – good work, have you ever considered working on the railways?”
Heyes and Curry exchanged a look. “Yeah, we’ve considered it in the past.”
Humphries tapped on the door. “You must see me when this job is over. We need men like you two on our trains. There are a lot of criminals out there.”
“There sure are, Mr. Humphries,” Heyes held the door open, “and they seem to get everywhere. Thanks for the invitation. If I ever need to make some easy money I’ll get myself on one of your trains.”
Heyes stared at the packed-up painting. They carried it to their room each night, wrapped up in tarpaulin, with the knots covered in sealing wax to prevent prying eyes from seeing the work before it was completed. They had done this for a week now, and although they could order whatever they liked from room service, they were getting bored and restless by evenings filled with games of poker and books.
For the Kid it was like being locked up with a grumpy bear.
Heyes was staring at the package. “Does anything strike you about this job, Kid?”
“We have room and board paid for, and we have to babysit a picture we can’t look at,” he cast hopeful eyes to Heyes, “unless...? Can you? You can break into safes, knots must be real easy.”
“They’re covered in sealing wax, and Edgeworth’s seal is on it.” Heyes swung on the two back legs of his chair. “It’d be fairly easy if I broke into his suite and got the seal. I get the feeling Ariadne’s charms aren’t usually that well protected.”
“What’s eatin’ you? The money’s good, the work’s easy, and we have as much steak as we can eat. Maybe you should go and play a hand of poker, and I’ll look after the paintin’?”
Heyes wandered over to the bed and lay down with his hands behind his
head. “Humphries comes every day, and stays for over an hour.”
The Kid shrugged. “He’s payin’, I guess he wants to see how it’s goin’.”
“From what I’ve read most artists don’t like anyone to see their work until it’s finished – even if they’re painting royalty. They’re real strict about it.”
The Kid sighed. “What’s wrong?”
Heyes stared at the ceiling. “Maybe everything- maybe nothing. I don’t like this job, Kid. Not one little bit. Do you mind if I have a few words with Edgeworth tomorrow? It might be the end of this cushy number, but it might also get prevent us being caught up in something illegal.”
The Kid nodded slowly. “You know I’ll back you up. How serious is it? Should we just ride out of here?”
“Probably not. Let’ see if we can get paid first.”
The next morning Heyes stood outside the room, the painting packaged up watching the hotel lobby from his vantage point on the banisters. The clerk was busy checking out businessmen; a middle-aged couple laughed, their gentle touches indicating a loving happy, couple; and there was the man with the newspaper again. He was here every day, watching who came and went from behind his most simple of disguises, hidden in plain sight.
Edgeworth opened the door to the suite and allowed the partners to enter with the painting. “Still safe and well is she – my little pride and joy?” trilled Edgeworth, a little too effetely for either man’s comfort.
“Sure is,” Heyes replied. He sat the package against the easel. “Ariadne not up yet?”
As if on cue the woman appeared from a doorway, her naked shoulder emerging seductively from her silk dressing gown. She nursed a cup in both hands and sipped deeply. “Sure am, cowboy.” She arched an eyebrow. “You want me for somethin’?”
“Ariande!” Edgeworth threw her a look of admonishment. ”He’s not here for you.”
“What?” she sashayed into the room, “men look for me all the time, Reggie. It don’t mean nothin’. Just because a dog chases a wagon don’t mean it knows how to drive it.” She glimmered hopefully at the Heyes and Curry. “You good at drivin’, boys?”
The Kid gave a groan and gave Heyes a hard stare. “Did you have something to ask, Joshua?”
“Sure do.” He pulled out a knife and sliced through the rough string holding the tarpaulin in place.
“What are you doing?” gasped Edgeworth.
“Looking at your work,” Heyes replied. “You see, I got to wondering what kind of artist would wrap up his work in a tarpaulin every night. Wouldn’t that smudge the paint? I had a look, you use oils. They take longer to dry than water paints.” He pulled back the covers, his eyebrows arching at the blank canvas in his hands before he strode over to the chest and looked at the tubes of paint. “So, no paint used in the last week and we’ve been sitting guarding nothing. I suggest you explain, Mr. Edgeworth, before I go and fetch the sheriff.”
The Kid caught the movement out of the corner of his eye. “Don’t move, ma’am.
You come in here and sit down. No sneakin’ off to another room.”
Her green eyes widened in protest. “I wasn’t!”
“Sure, you weren’t. Sit down.”
She slumped down in an armchair, her bottom lip pouting in protest.
Heyes turned to Edgeworth. “What is this? The Badger Game?”
Ariadne gasped. “How do you know...?
Edgeworth gave a rueful chuckle. “You know the proper terms for confidence tricks? You’re a flim-flammer?”
“Was. I’ve gone straight, and I don’t appreciate being drawn back in by you two. One of the oldest tricks in the book. Set men up in a compromising situations, and then blackmail them – except I suspect Humphries didn’t need too much pushing – these scams work by making the mark think they’re getting something they want.” Heyes’ eyes narrowed. “You told me you didn’t work with spectators, but let him in here for hours at a time. Your biggest mistake was wrapping the painting every night, no real artist would do that.” He put his hands on his hips. “Hiring security and keeping everyone out was all for his sake, nobody was going to disturb him, and he was taking Whittington’s mistress. Have you even met Whittington, Ariadne?” He shook his head. “I can’t keep calling you that. What’s your real name?”
“Annie,” she murmured with a shrug. “Humphries met me and didn’t much care.”
“I’ll bet you’re good at making men forget details, Annie.” Heyes turned to
Edgeworth. “You! What’s your real name?”
“Burke.” Edgeworth now spoke with a cockney accent. “I’ve been in the States for the last eight years.”
Heyes nodded thoughtfully. “Yup, cheap confidence tricksters. I take it you used that camera to make sure Humphries was well and truly caught in your trap? Nothing like a few compromising pictures to get money from a man, huh?”
The ‘artist’ now shook his head in denial. “No, he’d have seen us do that. He’d have to stay still.”
“Do I look like I came down in the last shower of rain? Do you want us to search?” Heyes glared at his former employers. “This is how it’s gonna be. You’ll pay us what you promised us for the whole job, and if you’re still in town at noon, I’m going to the sheriff. Got that?”
Heyes and Curry strolled through the lobby, taking a diversion towards the stiff man holding a newspaper in front of his face.
“Mr. Whittington?” The figure made no move, so Heyes cleared his throat and repeated the name, more loudly this time.
“What!?” the newspaper was lowered and a pair of steel-grey eyes glowered at them.
“I take it you don’t want your presence here publicized. Were you behind this little stunt?”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the man snapped. The newspaper was raised again only to be snatched away by an impatient hand. “Mr. Whittington, I have just found out exactly what was going on up there, and my friend and I don’t appreciate being drawn into your game. We were hired as innocent security men – we could have been seen as part of the gang.”
Kid’s ice-blue eyes cut through the businessman. “We ain’t happy – not at all.”
“Don’t insult me with a denial! You’ve hidden behind that newspaper and watched Humphries every day? I saw you.”
Whittington paused before gesturing them to sit. “His way of doing business is really dirty – you have no idea what some of these railroad men are like. I needed something on him, just to get him to back off.”
“He plays dirty?” spluttered Heyes. “What about you. Blackmail is about as low as it gets!”
Whittington leaned forward conspiratorially. “I built myself up from nothing, and just because I’ve been impertinent enough to bring my hotel chain into his state he’s doing what he can to ruin me.” He gave a mischievous twinkle. “His money comes from his wife. He can’t do anything without her say so. He’ll leave me alone now. Have you seen her? She’ll rip his head off.”
Heyes stood. “Look, you two can play whatever games you want, but don’t draw innocent folks into them .” He pointed up to the suite. “I take it that ‘Ariadne’ was never your mistress?”
Whittington shrugged. “I’ve known Annie Boggins for years. Her folks scratched a living in the same dirt as mine. Mistress is a bit strong – but she’ll sure make Mrs. Humphries sit up and take notice.” Whittington drew out his wallet. “Now, what’ll it take for you two boys to ride out of here and forget all about this?”
Heyes glowered down at the sitting man. “We were promised seventy five more dollars on top of what we were paid in advance. We want nothing more than we’re due.”
“Sure!” Notes were thrust into their hands. “Now just go.”
Kid gathered his reins in his hands. “Heyes, you do know that we were promised seventy five dollars between us and that Edgeworth already paid? Whittington just gave you seventy five more – apiece.”
Heyes kicked his mount into action, heading for the road out of town. “Sure I do. I reckon Whittington just gave us a bonus to get out of town fast, isn’t it nice to be paid to do that for a change? Now let’s get out of here before we have a bounty on our heads.”