Authors: Susannah Bamford
Tavish put his foot on the door. “Here's my card.”
“If you'll try his office, sir.”
“You don't have the accent right. If you ever run into a real Englishman, you'll be in trouble. This is how you say it:
If you'll try his office, sir
.” Tavish's accent was a perfect imitation of an English butler's; he'd known quite a few of them. “But I'm not going to try his office,” he continued mildly. “Because he's home.”
Hinkle's English butler, who was from Chicago, pushed the door against Tavish's obstinate foot.
Tavish put his shoulder on the door. He pushed. With only a little effort, the door opened wide enough for him to enter. He did.
“Tell him it concerns Mr. Dargent and the Pacific Improvement Company,” Tavish said easily. “Here's my hat. I'll wait.”
The butler ignored the hat. With a last glance at Tavish, just to let him know he hadn't been intimidated, not nearly, the butler left.
Tavish wasn't about to wait there like a supplicant. He ambled down the hall and opened the first door on the right. A young woman was reading a book. She looked up, and he saw that she was plain and there was a sulky set to her mouth. She was too plump for Tavish's taste, but she was beautifully dressed. Her one good feature was a head of shining auburn hair.
“Sorry to intrude, ma'am. I'm waiting for Mr. Hinkle.”
The girl nodded almost imperceptibly. It was obvious that Tavish was decidedly in her way. She rose without a word, gathered her green silk skirts around her, and rustled to another door in the Italian-paneled room.
“I didn't mean to chase you away,” Tavish said.
She stared at him, then raised an eyebrow which said eloquently that she knew very well he didn't care a bit for her comfort.
Tavish grinned. Oh, you had to admire a woman with an eyebrow like that. To his surprise she hesitated, then grinned back, a genuine grin, and he decided she was rather lovely, after all. She turned, there was the shimmer of the beautiful green, and the door closed.
“My daughter,” a voice said behind him.
Tavish turned. The man was stocky, whiskered, and obviously having difficulty concealing his anger under a veneer of gentlemanly conduct. “I didn't mean to intrude,” Tavish said.
“Business visitors usually wait in my study,” Artemis Hinkle said. He kept his distance, but his shrewd small eyes moved over Tavish, missing nothing. “If you'll follow me, please. I like to leave this room for my daughter's use at this time of day.”
Tavish bowed. “Of course.” How civilized we all are, he thought, following Hinkle's broad back across the hall. My friend has been murdered and perhaps this man is involved. Most likely, in fact. And I am talking to him and bowing to him and admiring the beauty of his daughter instead of wrapping my fingers around his beefy neck and choking the information I want out of him. Not before exacting a little revenge in the nether regions of course. Just in case he was thinking of having more eloquently eyebrowed daughters.
Hinkle closed the door of the study and went immediately to the middle of the room. He did not sit down and did not invite Tavish to do so. “State your business,” he said.
Tavish strolled to the rose marble fireplace. “This is a lovely room, Mr. Hinkle.” His voice was low, unhurried, and if Jamie had been there he would have recognized the tone and tried to hide a grin.
“State your business, sir.”
Tavish turned, surprised. There was genuine loathing in the man's tone.
“What is it that you want, Mr. Dargent?” Hinkle spit out. “You may think you and your friends have me under your thumb, by God, but I am losing my patience, sir. I am tempted to expose your dirty little scheme, and damn the consequences!”
Tavish raised his eyebrows. Hinkle's face grew mottled.
“Do not toy with me, sir. I warn you!”
This was too good to be true. So Hinkle hated Dargent. Interesting. Tavish held up a hand. “I am not toying with you, Mr. Hinkle. But you seem to be under a misapprehension as to my visit. I'm not Mr. Dargent. As a matter of fact, I'm looking for him. That's why I'm here.”
“And who are you then, damn you?” he sputtered.
“Ah, I assume that is a request for an introduction. Tavish Finn, at your service, sir, from Solace, California. You've met my partner, Jamie Alden, in San Francisco. My late partner.”
Hinkle blanched but only said, “You have my interest, Mr. Finn.”
“Good. Mr. Alden asked you a number of questions about the Pacific Improvement Company, which you refused to answer.”
“Perhaps, Mr. Finn,” Hinkle said, his face still slightly pale, “you will tell me now why you want this information.”
“Of course. This company,” Tavish said easily, walking over to a box that promised to contain cigars, and did, “had perpetuated a number of outrages against my town, familiar enough in these times, I suppose. But stillâ”
He lit the cigar, and took his time about it. Hinkle stirred restlessly. “We thought they went too far. There's the bribe, first of all. Very common, we weren't surprised. Pay us this money or our railroad will not pass through your town. We raised it. We're not a rich town, though a nice one. Northern Californiaâa little lumber, a little fishing. Both industries, you'll note, dependent on the railroad to survive. So we paid the bribe, and the company took it, and then the company pocketed the money and built the depot ten miles up the coast, which is now a burgeoning little company town. Of course, we might have let it rest thereâwho could fight such a company? But then the company went after our industries. They raised the rates on the railroad for our lumber, trying to drive the local companies out of business and considerately offering to buy them out. We like to own our own industries in Solace. So we thought that we should find out a bit about this company, which seemed to have only one representative, who promptly fell off the face of the earth. So,” Tavish said, puffing on his cigar, “Jamie Alden and I ended up in San Francisco, searching for Mr. Dargent, the man who we discovered was the company's agent. And we found ourselves chasing a phantom.”
“A phantom,” Hinkle repeated.
“There's a real man and a real company, I suppose, but it's not the Pacific Improvement Company, which is a dummy company with a board made up of clerks and accountants and flunkiesâexcuse me, sir, I know you're the chairman. But you seem to be the only respectable businessman on it. Now, isn't that strange? Strange, too, that you run to your house in New York right around the time Jamie Alden is murdered.”
Hinkle stared at him, and Tavish didn't drop his gaze. “Is that an accusation, sir?” Hinkle asked softly.
“To a house you haven't visited in two years' time,” Tavish continued, avoiding the challenge in Hinkle's voice. “Or is it that, like Mr. Huntington, you believe that if you move in, you'll die in the grand house you took years to build?”
For a moment, he thought Hinkle would throw him out. But the man wanted something, he could see it. Tavish squinted through the miasma of cigar smoke, trying to find the key in Artemis Hinkle's eyes. And then he found it. Fear.
A thrill shot through him. Tavish concealed it by studying the glowing end of his cigar. He kept running into it; it seemed to be the common thread that might lead him somewhere. Edward Snow, Darcy, Ned Van Cormandt. They were all afraid. Whatever, whoever, was frightening Hinkle, it meant that things would move somewhere.
“Mr. Hinkle.” Tavish kept his gaze as steady as his words. “Solace is already on the way to becoming just another ghost town the railroad created. It's a lost cause, I thinkâand I'm not fond of lost causes. I've fought too many of them. And I'm tired, and I don't like the East, and I want to go home. But know this: I
find the man who murdered my friend. This Mr. Dargent, whoever he is. I advise you to think about this. Because, Mr. Hinkle, right now you are looking at a man with nothing to lose.”
They stared at each other. Then Hinkle sat down heavily across from Tavish. “And you, Mr. Finn, are looking at a man who has everything to lose.”
“I am assuming that,” Tavish answered. “But I can help the odds, Mr. Hinkle.”
Tavish waited while Hinkle looked at him. He didn't drop his eyes. He had been in this situation a few times in his life, over a poker table or a barrel of a gun, often enough to recognize it: Hinkle was taking his measure. He was deciding whether to trust, and the decision was crucial. Sometimes it could be life or death. Should Hinkle decide to trust, just on the basis of a measured look and a short conversation, the two men would be bound in a bond more lasting than marriage.
It took awhile. But then, Tavish saw it, the slight relaxation in the shrewd hazel eyes. He had passed the test. He was inside the gate. Tavish felt his stomach muscles uncoil with relief.
Hinkle was a good businessman, Tavish would bet. Once the decision was made, he didn't hesitate. He crossed the room and reached for a cigar with the air of a man who was ready to get to work.
“I came to New York because I was told to,” Hinkle said, lighting his cigar. “And I am in a position to obey such orders, I'm afraid. I receive them by telegram. From the real board. From Mr. Dargent.”
Tavish eased himself into a chair. “And Mr. Dargent has threatened you in some way?”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it is true.”
The older man grimaced. He passed a thick-fingered hand over his brow. “I've never seen Mr. Dargent, obviouslyâsurely you know that, since I thought you were him today. I very much doubt that there is such a person. Or, at least, someone with that name.” He entwined his fingers and looked down. “I'm here in New York with my daughter from my first marriage. I built this house for my second wife, but she's never set foot in it. She never will. She stays in San Francisco. After this trip, I will as well.”
“I see,” Tavish said, though he didn't. But he thought it time to be polite.
Hinkle nodded, but Tavish didn't think he was listening anyway. “I first became acquainted with the Pacific Improvement Company when they placed an order for railroad ties with my lumber company. They asked for the cheapest woodâwhite pine.”
Tavish nodded. “And you saidâ”
“I said the pine would rot in a matter of yearsâmaybe less, in the damp Pacific Northwest. But they placed the order, and I filled it, and more. And I also made some investments they suggested, and I grew richer. Then I was approached by a man who offered me a business opportunity to sit on a board of directors of this company, and I would not have to do anything but sign a paper now and then and watch the stocks rise and do what I was told. So I did it.”
Hinkle's cigar had gone out. He sat erect in his chair, not moving. “And one day I came down to my morning newspaper and saw that a bridge had collapsed over the Coyote River. And it was because the ties had rotted, you see. Forty-one people were killed, including seventeen women and eight children.”
“I remember,” Tavish said quietly.
“But I told myself it wasn't my responsibility and I went on. They control much of the lumber business now in the north, some railroads that haven't been gobbled up by Huntington and his cohorts. And now they're moving into shipping. But you know that. I have no proof, but I believe that there is large capital behind âMr. Dargent,' perhaps a blind poolâthat's a guess.”
Tavish nodded. “I have guessed the same.”
“But I've had enough, Mr. Finn, for many reasons, not the least being that I am a pawn in a game too dangerous for me. I resigned a month ago. The next day I got a message.”
“Blackmail?” Tavish asked easily.
He nodded. “My second wife is from the East,” he said. “She was orphaned at fifteen. There was no family at all. She led a very hard life, Mr. Finn. I hardly need tell you what happens to young women with no one to go to for protection.”
Tavish nodded. Hinkle looked away at the fire. He relit his cigar, then stared at it without taking another puff. It went out.
“She was fired from her job and found herself on the streets. She found a protector, a woman who took her in. The woman was good, and kind, and she was a madam. My wife is very lovely, Mr. Finn, but she has a head for business. She did what she could to survive, and she saved her earnings. She came West to make a new life. My first wife died ten years ago. I met Anne, and when she agreed to marry me I thought I was the luckiest man on the earth. When they came and told me what she'd been I did not believe them, not until she confirmed it and offered to go away. She did not, however. I asked her to stay. For,” he said very quietly, with no defensiveness, no apology offered, only a quiet pride, “I am still the luckiest man on the earth, sir. No matter what she has been. I fought my way up through the gold fields, you see, and I have no right to cast stones.”
Tavish waited. He found himself liking Artemis Hinkle.
Hinkle shifted in his chair. “I don't know how they found out. None of the agents from the company has ever seen my wife, and she changed her last name. Nevertheless,” he said, clearing his throat, “they know. My wife has said she will leave me, let them do their worst, rather than allow me to be blackmailed, for us to live under this shadow. But how could I send her away? Even if she were to go, she knows it would only hurt someone else. My daughter, sir. My daughter is everything to me, and to my wife as well, though she did not bear her. And she is engaged to be married. To a man she loves, a man I like and respect, who happens to be from a socially prominent family here in New York. The scandal of my wife's departure might jeopardize that allianceâand my daughter's happiness. I withdrew my resignation.”
Tavish nodded. “I see.” He pictured the daughter; the intelligent face, the luxuriant hair, the creamy complexion. He'd like to know the girl was able to marry a man she loved. With that sardonic intelligent look in her eye, he'd bet she would have a hellish marriage any other way.