It is better to exist unknown to the law: Gaelic Proverb
Deep, dark, foreboding shadows lurked their way across the sunny streets of the small town of Everlasting as groups of men started to gather and make their way to the bank with as little fanfare as possible.
One gangly, young man took up a place out front, the casual manner in which he chewed the straw in his curled lips betraying the activity behind his eyes. Another two drifted round to the back, trying to make their loitering look like a game of dice.
The youngest stood outside making sure they could make good their escape, his bag of oats giving the appearance of a young lad paid to tend a couple of horses for their owners, while a tall man with a pair of startlingly blue eyes casually kicked at the earth, dry and hard in its summer armour.
“It’s time,” he hissed as the blinds were pulled down in preparation for closing.
The men streamed forward, the closing door caught by the black booted foot of the dark-haired man. The eyes smiling over the bandanna were audaciously juxtaposed against the gun barrel he levelled at the teller trying to shut the door.
"You aren’t closed yet. Hands up, stay quiet and nobody'll get hurt.”
The startled man stepped back raising his hands and four men piled into the bank and held guns on the staff.
"Hands up!" barked the blond man as his sapphire eyes scanned the room for risks and pitfalls. “We’re The Devil's Hole Gang. Everyone do exactly as they're told and we’ll be out of here before you know it, folks."
The man in the black hat spoke with authority and the adamantine eyes spoke loudly of a man who would brook no opposition, not that anyone considered mounting any. Not against the formidable fire power aimed at the two tellers and the manager who lined up against the counter with their hands raised.
One of the outlaws chewed tobacco, spitting unhealthily on the floor as he pulled down the blinds to obstruct the scene from casual passersby and the bank staff were corralled into a corner after being patted down for concealed weapons.
The blond man spotted the heightened nerves of the manager whose colour rose as he repeatedly glanced anxiously towards the office. He didn't like nervous people. They were likely to make rash decisions in the heat of the moment and end up doing something stupid. The manager seemed inextricably drawn to the door of the office and despite his best efforts to look elsewhere his grey eyes continually darted towards the room.
Kid Curry strode over to the office door as he raised his gun and aimed at the manager.
"Is there somethin' I should know?" He spoke almost casually the steel-edged voice made the manager start to tremble.
"Please. No. My fiancé is in there. Don't hurt her. I’m begging you."
"A woman? Of course we ain't gonna hurt her," barked Heyes indignantly. "What kind of men do you think we are?"
"Ma'am?" The Kid knocked gently at the door. "Come out with your hands up. This is a hold up. Ain’t no one gonna hurt you. We're just gonna take the money and leave."
"Ma'am," he spoke more insistently, "either you come out or we come in and get you. Move. Now!"
There was the sound of a scuffling movement on the floorboards before the doorknob started to turn and the door opened very slowly.
Heyes and the Kid stared at the petite, dark, curly haired figure emerging from the office.
"Well," The Kid sucked in a breath as Heyes strode forward trying to head off any gasps of recognition he might make.
"Ma'am? What's your name?" His eyes narrowed as he examined her, drinking in the wide eyes and enticingly generous mouth he knew so well. What name was she going to give?
"Abigail." She sounded uncertain as she spoke with a clear American accent. Was she nervous of them or the bank staff?
He nodded, a sardonic smile playing around his lips. "Well, Abigail. Why don't you go over there and join your fiancé and keep your hands where we can see them?"
She raised her hands under direction from his guiding gun barrel and walked tentatively over to join the bank staff who stood in a tight knot in the corner while Heyes noted the extravagant diamond cluster on the third finger of her left hand. That ring was real; too real and too big to be simply part of a cover story.
The certainty that the bank manager had no idea of his fiancé’s real identity firmed in his mind as he watched the man fret over her welfare at the hands of the outlaws. If he had known more about her he would have known that The Devil's Hole Gang had more to worry about from her than she did from them, but why would she lead a man on like that? Did she care for him? Had she been drawn in whilst working undercover? He felt a stab of...what? Jealousy? Regret? Anger? Heyes arched a brow and addressed her directly. "Quite a ring you got there, ma'am."
Abigail glowered at him as real anger flared. "Don’t touch it. I’ll hunt you down myself if you dare to even try."
There was a ripple of laughter from the robbers before Wheat smirked at the manager. "That’s a wildcat you got there, mister. She looks like butter wouldn't melt but…,” he dissolved in laughter.
"No. It would sizzle," snorted Heyes. "Keep your ring, lady. That isn't what we came for."
"Don’t be afraid, darling. Stand behind me. I’ll look after you," the manager whispered.
"I think the lady’ll be just fine, sir, as long as no one does anything stupid," The Kid stated simply.
Heyes looked over to the safe at the back of the office before striding over behind the counter, each stride full of bustling purpose.
The Kid’s blue eyes sparkled with humour, watching the manager’s nerves jangle while the woman observed with a cool detachment. She noted every detail of the robbery unfolding in front of her.
"Kyle, Wheat. Take the men into the office and tie them up. Gag them tight." His blue eyes crinkled at the corners, his smile concealed by the mask. "Leave her here for now." The manager started to bluster before he was quietened by the Kid’s gun in his face. "Sir, your lady’ll join you in there soon enough. Be a gent and save her from being tied up any longer than necessary. That's all we're doin'.”
"Go, Robert. I'll be fine." The woman spoke calmly. "The Devil's Hole Gang don't hurt people. Just do as he says."
The man’s eyes darted doubtfully between Abigail and the gunman, but stood his ground. "I can't." He raised his chin defiantly and glared at The Kid. "I'm staying with her."
The Kid nodded slightly. “I respect your courage, sir, but I gotta insist. We got work to do and we don't need you hangin’ around."
"Then she comes with us."
His eyes hardened. "No, sir. She doesn't, and I’ll remind you that you're in no position to give the orders."
"Robert, please. I'll be fine."
"What kind of a man would walk out of here and leave you with men like these?"
"The kind of a man who's smart enough to make sure that you all walk out of here in one piece.” The Kid nodded over to the outlaws standing behind the bank staff to step forward. “Now you got a choice. You walk in that room or two men drag you in there. Do you want to upset the lady or do you want it all to be as civilised as possible?"
"Why? Why keep her here?"
Abigail closed her eyes and sighed before she spoke. "Because I think he recognises me, Robert.”
All eyes turned to the woman who stood in the corner with her hands still raised as someone let out an audible gasp.
"My guess is that he’s suspicious of a familiar face and needs to question me about that. Go, Robert. Once he realises that I'm just a passenger from a train he robbed he’ll move on. I can tell he’s suspicious the way he’s been staring at me. He was a perfect gentleman last time, but I made a bit of a fuss about not wanting any criminals to touch me when I was being helped down from the train. I’m sure it’ll be fine."
"You didn’t tell me that," Robert exclaimed.
"No, Robert. I didn't. I don't like talking about it because it wasn’t very pleasant and I may have made a bit of a fool of myself. Please let him ask what he needs to so that I can join you. Just let him get it over with. Don’t make this worse."
The Kid darted her a look laden with meaning. Trust her to talk her way out of this.
"She's a smart lady, sir," he glanced at Abigail. "You guessed."
“I saw you looking at me. I knew that you couldn’t place me. Please Robert, do as he says?"
Robert glowered at The Kid defiantly. "If you hurt her I swear I'll find you and I'll kill you."
The Kid nodded. "Sir, if I hurt her, I'll deserve it. I'd do the same to a man who hurt anyone of mine. Now go with Wheat and Kyle. I won't ask again.”
He watched the staff get marched through to the manager’s office before he strode over to Abigail and pulled down his mask. “So? What the hell are you doin' here, Miss Abigail MacKinnon?" The Kid’s hot breath burned into her cheek as he spoke, inches from her face now that they were alone. "Are you here for us? Who else is with you?"
She dropped her facade along with her hands and reverted to her own Scottish brogue, the American accent now gone. "I'm on my own. How was I supposed to know you were coming here?"
A mirthless laugh slipped from his lips. "You got all kinds of ways of knowin’ things. What are you doin' here?"
Her full mouth firmed into an obstinate line. "You can go to hell, Mr. Curry. You know I'll never tell you any details about that."
He tilted his tousled head as his eyes narrowed. “Maybe we'll make you talk?"
She threw him a wide grin and leaned forward, propping herself up on her toes before she dropped a light kiss on his cheek. "We both know that you don't have that in you. Look I'm not here for you. Take the money then leave me in that office with the rest of them. Just let me get on with my job."
He shook his head in bemusement. "You're a Pinkerton. I can't trust you. You're the law."
She flicked up an eyebrow. "That's rich. So far I've been your prisoner for nearly two weeks and I was left handcuffed to a door. What have I ever done to you?"
"As much as I'm prepared to allow, darlin'."
"I'm not after you,” she shrugged. “You know me too well for me to try to bring you in. I'd be useless. I'm on another job; the least you can do is let me get on with it."
"I ain't sure about this. I need to speak to Heyes. We can't trust you, Abi. This could be a trap"
"I take it he's breaking into the safe.” She shook her head in reproach. "You need to take me into that office. Right now. I don't need any awkward questions from Robert."
"Questions like what’s your real name, why are you only pretendin’ to be engaged to me,” The Kid snickered. “Why have you got those handcuffs in your purse?" He threw her a wicked grin. "Or has he already enjoyed those?"
He laughed gently as she coloured from the neck up. I'm NOT that kind of woman," she hissed.
"I know, more’s the pity. You’d be no more than a sweet memory to Heyes if you were."
"Jed, please? This matters. They can't suspect."
"Then why didn't you disappear? You could get out that window. I've seen you. You can break into almost anywhere. Why not get out of here?"
"It's screwed shut. It's a bank. I'm good with locks but I can't shift screws with my bare fingers. I'm only human."
They turned as a now unmasked Heyes walked back into the room, beige sackcloth heavy with loot, thrown over his shoulder. His brown eyes burned over his chiselled cheekbones and his mouth firmed into an uncompromising line. “What are you doing here, Abi?”
"Wheat and Kyle are tyin’ up the men," The Kid said. “I’m gettin’ nowhere with her, but this could be a trap.”
Heyes nodded and indicated with his head towards the vault. "Abi, come with me. Now!"
Outrage spread over her face. "I will not. I won't be ordered around."
His eyes narrowed and he strode over and grasped her by the wrist. "I don't have time for this." He shouted through the door to the office as they passed. "Wheat, watch them. We'll be out of here in a minute."
Heyes dragged her into a back room by the wrist and thrust her up against the wall, his intense eyes burning into hers. "Abi, give me one good reason why I shouldn’t deal with you. Right now."
Indignation exploded over her expressive face. "You can't blame me because our paths cross innocently. You wouldn't look at me twice if you didn't know who I was. Anyway, what do you mean? Deal with me?"
"There ain't much innocent about you, lady."
“That’s rich coming from you. I don’t have a reward on my head.” Her brow creased in surprise at his genuine anger. "Mr. Heyes, you said it yourself. I'm useless around you, you know me too well. If this was a trap wouldn’t they get someone you could identify to signal, or whatever it is you think I’m here to do."
"You're damn good at disguising yourself."
"And don't you think I'd have done that if I'd known that you were about? You didn't answer me. What do you mean? Just how are you going to deal with me?"
Heyes paused, knowing that she was right. She could have made sure that she was either disguised or elsewhere. Either way it was unlikely that she would try to trap them this way. "What case are you working on?"
Determined anger flashed across her face. "You know I'll never tell you that. Just leave." Challenge flared up in her dark eyes. "Getting the truth about me isn't the same as information that will cost other people. Now back to that threat to deal with me. What exactly do you mean? I demand an explanation.”
He ignored her, sizing her up in her lavender silk dress with lustrous pearls decorating her neck and delicate ears. “You look beautiful.” He smiled and his face lit up with all those charm and portents of indulgent pleasure she remembered so well. He felt her involuntary response flicker and glow as her breathing changed. Part of him had almost forgotten the glorious fire in her spirit, especially the sparks which seemed to flash up his own bursts of exhilaration. He sighed. “Being a banker’s rich fiancé suits you better than a maid in a brothel. It's been a long time. Over a year."
She gulped down a knot of emotion as his deep voice filtered through her consciousness, firing off the synapses she had only just extinguished since their last meeting. “Please, take me into the office and leave me there with the men. I have important work to do here. You go your way and I’ll go mine.”
"Life or death. Please. I don't care about your arrest at the moment." Her large dark eyes darted up to his. "You know that I care more about crimes against the person than crimes to property. I'll never ask you for another favour, but I need to say here and I need to be credible. Please. It matters."
He looked down at the woman he had seen in every mood, every shade from raging fever to masterful intellect. She looked genuinely concerned, but then she was a very good actress. "Whose life or death?"
She paused, her eyes darkening. "I can't tell you that."
"Who was killed?"
"No one, yet. I’m here to try to prevent it."
His eyes bored into her as his concern grew. She was his flip side, but for one thing; she was foolhardy.
Abigail took risks that he would never countenance. "How dangerous is it?"
"Less than a night with you,” she grinned. “Shouldn’t you be making a break for freedom by now? You have just robbed the bank. Shouldn’t you be making hay while the sun still shines ”
His eyes glittered with worry. "I'll leave you, for now. We need to talk." His eyes drifted over the engagement ring. "About quite a few things. Where are you staying?”
"Mr. Heyes, I can't tell you that either."
The right side of his mouth slid up in an uneven smile. She always called him Mr. Heyes because she was determined not to get too close to him, but it never ceased to amuse him how much warmth leaked into such a formal address.
"Meet me or I'll come back. You’ll be easy to find now you're engaged. You’ve got ties." His eyebrows rose provocatively.
She knew he meant it and her stomach gave a flicker of... what? Excitement? Fear? Irritation? “I can't."
"I mean it, Abi."
"I could make sure you're pursued."
"I'll take my chances, but if you want to play it that way maybe you could come with me instead?"
She dropped her head, knowing just how determined he was when he put his mind to it. "Fine. Just one meeting, then you leave me to get on with my job. Now, for heaven’s sake take me to that office and tie me up."
His cheeks dimpled in feral delight. “If you insist, darlin’. If only I’d known that was your thing. Think of the fun we could have had.”
Her eyes narrowed. “You never give up, do you?”
His face dimpled. “I’ll go through any door that’s open, Abi. You know that. Nothing risqué, nothing gained.”
“You’re incorrigible. I’m in the Bentwood Inn on Oak Road. I’ll be in the garden at nine o’clock on my own.
There’s a summerhouse.” she walked over to the door. “I want a clean gag and don’t tie me too tight. I’ll see you at about ten after you’ve finished lurking about checking if I’m really alone.” She paused. “And be prepared to explain that ‘deal with you’ comment. You don’t get off that lightly.”
To be continued
Na sir 's na seachainn an cath - Neither seek nor shun the fight Old Scottish proverb