The Devil's Revolver Sample

by V. S. McGrath

Ten long, miserable days went by. She never told Uncle about the letter she’d sent—he was too busy drowning his sorrows in the saloon. She’d nearly given up hearing back until finally, a thick envelop with a bright foil flourish stamped with the letter P arrived. She tore the envelope open, and a small, flat stone etched with markings fell out of the pouch. She read the enclosed letter.

Dear Miss Hettie Alabama,

My sincerest condolences regarding your loss. It is always unbearably tragic when we hear about the deaths of good and innocent folk at the hands of uncivilized brutes. We here at the Pinkerton Agency will do whatever we can to track down these bandits and bring them to justice. While we normally charge a finder’s fee for missing persons, I am making an exception due to the outrageous nature of this terrible crime. I am giving you my full, personal support, pro bono, in this mission.

We will be dispatching an agent right away via remote Zoom tunnel. Attached, you’ll find an amulet beacon that will link the two ends of the tunnel. A drop of your blood pressed into the center will notify us that you are ready to receive us. Time is of the essence: please use the amulet as soon as you receive this letter.

Sincerely,

Detective Thomas Stubbs

Hettie broke into a smile for the first time since she’d awoken from death. She couldn’t believe her good fortune. Sending people through remote Zoom tunnels was expensive and dangerous for the sorcerers who controlled the portals. She couldn’t believe the Pinkerton Agency’s generosity. She quickly found a pin and pricked her finger, then pressed the bead of bright red blood into the center of the amulet. A fizzle went through her veins.

Her heart beat hard. Soon, they’d find Abby and put the Crowe gang behind bars.

The heavy thud of boots clomped up the stairs, and Uncle burst through the door. His eyes were cloudy, his nose red. He muttered, “I need to sleep.”

“Uncle, look.” She brought him the letter and amulet. “An agent is coming. He’s going to help me find Abby.”

“A what now?” He blinked down at the letter.

“I wrote the Pinkerton Agency and offered them money to bring Abby home. I know it wasn’t a lot, but they’re going to do it for free—”

“Pinkerton?” Jeremiah glared down at her. “You wrote to that bunch of amoral black hats?”

“Everyone’s vouched for them—” But she didn’t get any further as Uncle grabbed his hat off his head and started slapping her with it.

“You stupid, foolish cow!” He chased her to the other end of the room, stumbling and tripping over furniture. “Don’t you know what that outfit is?”

“Quit it!” She grabbed his hat and flung it across the room. “They’re private investigators and soldiers. We’re going to need all the help we can get if we’re going to find Abby. What’s so wrong about them?”

“What did you tell them? All of it, girl, quickly. What did you write them about?”

“I told them about Pa and Ma and Abby. I told them I survived and that Butch Crowe might have my sister.”

“And did you say anything about Diablo?”

“Of course not. I don’t want them to think Pa was some kind of outlaw.”

“Well, that’s something,” he muttered.

“I don’t see what all the fuss is about, unless you’re a wanted criminal.” She eyed him and waited for him to give away his secret, but even inebriated, his grizzled features revealed nothing. “Anyways, they’ll be here soon.”

“What do you mean soon?”

She held out the amulet. “They’re sending the agent by remote Zoom tunnel.”

Uncle wheeled around and hauled out her empty bags from under the bed. “Pack. Now.”

She shook her head. “I’m not going anywhere.” She crossed her arms over her chest. “You’re drunk. Go lie down.”

“Don’t you read the newspaper? The Pinks are nothing but a bunch of thugs for hire. They’re no better than the Crowe gang, only they have a license to operate.” Jeremiah got right into her face. The whiskey on his breath was strong, but his eyes were focused and lit with menace. “Listen to me. When that agent gets here, he’ll suck every last truth out of you, and when he finds out we had Diablo, he’ll kill us.” He snatched the amulet out of her hand, held it before him, and started muttering in a language she didn’t recognize. Slowly, the light gray stone turned dark, and the drying drop of blood reformed into a wet blob that he wiped off with his sleeve. “That’s not going to buy us a lot of time.”

She stared wide-eyed. “How did you do that?”

He didn’t answer as he stuffed clothes into her bag. He drew his revolver and checked it. “Get your money and your gun.”

“Why—”

“Will you stop asking questions and just obey me for once?” He snapped the wheel of his revolver back. “Just think for a minute, you half-witted ninny. Why would the Pinkerton Agency send someone all the way out here to investigate a missing child using a remote Zoom tunnel, much less do it for free? You had to have tipped them off somehow. Crowe and his gang are growing larger and more dangerous by the week. The Pinks will wonder why they’d target your family. They’ll search the area, and they’ll find traces of strong magics. They’ll know I was there. They’ll know your pa was there. And they’ll go after you until you can give them Diablo.” He holstered his weapon. “I can’t let them have it, you hear? And I’d let your ma and pa die a thousand times over to make sure they don’t get it.”

Her lungs shrank, and her heart turned to lead. She watched, rapt, as he yanked out a long bit of braided twine from around the windowsill, then searched the armoire, removing some smooth river stones and tiny bones. From beneath a loose floorboard under the chamber pot, he pulled out a hank of hair and used it to sweep the top of the door frame off. A bunch of ceramic and glass beads rained down.

“What is all that?” she asked.

“Protection.” He collected them hastily and stuffed them into his already bulging pockets.

All the time she’d lain in bed, she hadn’t noticed a single one of those talismans. When had Uncle accumulated so many wards? How could he even afford them? Slowly, a hazy picture was forming in her mind, but she still had no idea of what—or who—she was looking at. “You and Pa wanted that box off the ranch after Mr. Woodroffe came.” She’d seen how his arrival had scared Uncle sober. “But I thought you told Pa he wasn’t a Pinkerton agent.”

“Doesn’t matter who he was. I knew what he was after.” He reached into his pockets. “Put this on.” He shoved a braided necklace of hair and small, irregular stones into her hand.

“What is it?”

“A talisman against the Eye.”

Heat suffused her. The Eye let a sorcerer watch a subject continuously, even at her most vulnerable and private moments. It was blood magic, too. Gingerly, she pulled the necklace on, feeling a slight tingle along her arms as the magic cloaked her. “How could the Pinkerton Agency Eye me? I didn’t send them bits of me they could use…” She glanced around nervously.

“The Pinks have an army of sorcerers working for them. Careful you might be, but you never know what you leave behind—an eyelash, a hair, a bit of skin … And they don’t much care if a spell’s taboo, so long as it gets the job done. If they want to find you, they will, and they can do a whole bunch of nasty things to you without ever looking you in the face.” He picked up her bag and shoved it into her arms. “Out the back. Better if no one knows when we left or where we’re going.”

She stalled in the doorway, reeling, feeling a sense of déjà vu, same as the night Pa had told them all to pack and flee the ranch. “Why’re you just standing there?” Jeremiah barked.

Hettie gestured helplessly. “We haven’t paid the bill.”

Uncle gripped her arms. “Listen, Hettie.” His voice was cold and hard. “The Pinks are out to hurt you. They will find you and make you give them everything. They don’t care about anything except getting the job done. The last thing you need to worry about is skipping out on a hotel bill.”

Uncle’s proclamation clung to her, and suddenly it felt as if the Pinkertons were breathing down her neck. Her heart rate doubled. He gave her a firm push, and she stumbled into the alleyway. Her skin erupted in goose bumps. The air was as cold and crisp as a December morning, even though it was midsummer. Jeremiah sniffed the wind and swore. “C’mon!” He yanked her toward the far end of the street. Hettie stumbled after him, a mixture of bewilderment and terror scraping across her senses like a straight razor on a leather strop.

A shadow blotted out the main thoroughfare as inky clouds gathered directly above. Men shouted, dogs barked, and the people of Newhaven scooped up their children and drew them away from the pinprick of darkness growing in the middle of the road. Crowds gathered in the street to watch.

Uncle swore, “Damnation!” and drew his gun as he crashed against the side of a building. Hettie crouched down next to him, out of breath.

“Uncle, what—”

“You stay here,” he said. “Hide and don’t make a sound, y’hear? Soon as you get my signal, you take the first horse you find and run. Don’t look back. Just run.” He pushed up from his crouch and streaked away faster than she’d ever seen him move.

Frozen to the spot, Hettie didn’t know what to do, and realized too late she had no idea what signal Uncle could possibly mean. The darkness gathering in the thoroughfare had resolved into a small, cloudy vortex about the size of a large dog and was growing bigger. She could see its edges in between the buildings, ribbons of opaque fog swirling around a pancake of blue-black hovering midair. A fistful of light punched through the center and blossomed open. The townsfolk eased back but watched, rapt. For most people in Newhaven, including Hettie, this was their first time seeing a remote Zoom. Everyone stayed far back: getting caught in the path of a Zoom tunnel aperture in the midst of opening or closing could sever a man’s limbs like a cigar cutter.

The blinding light grew with the portal. As if someone had opened a door, a harsh, chill wind gusted from the opening, turning the moisture in the damp air into a blanket of mist that rolled out over the dirt. A carpet of delicate crystals formed across the hard-packed earth. The portal was now as big as a horse. And from it stepped a man.

Hettie went cold inside. He was dressed immaculately in black with a spotless bowler hat and a pearly white cravat. A shining silver badge in the shape of an eye was pinned to his breast pocket. He radiated power—even the ungifted could sense it. His gaze slowly swept the thoroughfare but stopped dead when he caught her stare from the narrow alley.

Her heart seized and her limbs turned to jelly as the man turned toward her with the deliberation of a Mechanik’s automaton. His unblinking gaze never left hers as he advanced, menace in every step—

His face exploded in a shower of red before she registered the gunshot.

Screams erupted, and the townfolk scattered. Hettie gripped the corner of the building, tasting bile. In the next moment, Uncle was at her side again, sweating and red-faced.

“We gotta go!” he rasped, towing on her stiff form.

“What…” Her mouth worked, but no words came. She finally got past the tight lump in her throat. “What happened?”

“Nothing you need to worry about.” The gray mustang awaited them around the corner. Jeremiah mounted and glared down at her, nearly breathless. “Are you going to get on, or are you going to jog behind me?”

She climbed onto the nervous gray’s back. Hettie whistled for Cymon.

“We can’t take that damn mutt with us,” Uncle said as the dog bounded toward them.

“I can’t leave Cy alone.”

“He’s too conspicuous. Anyone who knows you knows that dog. Better he’s left here so that people think we’re still around town.” Cymon trotted happily alongside the horse, tongue hanging out. Jeremiah waved him away, tried to maneuver the mustang into the dog’s path, but Cymon was not deterred.

“Tell that dog to scram.” Uncle spurred the mustang into a brisk canter. “Or I swear I’ll shoot him where he stands.”

Hettie glared, then turned in the saddle. “Shoo, Cy. Stay. Go find Will. You’re safer with him. I can’t take you with me.”

Cymon slowed, his happy grin falling. “Stay!” Hettie warned again, hot tears gathering in her throat.

He sat down in the dirt, watching them go, and whined as Uncle whipped the mustang into a full gallop.

Uncle wouldn’t tell her anything about what had happened to the Pinkerton agent as they sped away from Newhaven. She suspected he’d been the cause and simply didn’t want to scare her, but she was plenty frightened right now.