The story so far…
Tom Cain rescued sisters Nikki and Willow Keats from psychotic Draggers and a Mist infestation with the help of sharpshooter Agatha West. They fled Milton on the apparently deserted airship Hecate.
Hecate has a mysterious stowaway, a young woman named Ishara, who rarely comes out of hiding.
In the town of Havenvale they nearly lost Hecate to a crime-boss, Ponderoy Charkart, but a vertically-challenged mechanic named Shorty came to their rescue and joined the crew. They did lose what they thought was a near-worthless cargo of lead bars, only it turned out the ‘lead’ was actually gold, with a thin coating of lead to disguise it. Nikki, Shorty and Willow wait with Hecate for word from Tom, Dog and Agatha who are travelling the dangerous overland route to Havenvale.
“Bored… Boredboredbored. Bored!”
“Shut up Willow.” Nikki sat at Hecate’s controls on the bridge while her sister ranted on. It was Shorty’s turn to wait at the telegraph office.
Nikki rolled her eyes. “Really? You don’t say?”
“How come they get to go off and do exciting stuff while we sit around watching dust settle.”
“You could get a cloth and go do some cleaning.”
“You know what I mean.” Willow stamped her foot. “Life has been good since Tom’s been around, hasn’t it? I haven’t done anything to feel guilty over in weeks…. But the straight life is fucking boring sometimes!”
“Willow! You wash your mouth out! If father was here he’d thrash you somethin’ fierce.”
Willow stuck her tongue out. “He died in Milton with Mom, and good riddance I say.”
Nikki gaped at her sister. “Willow… How… how can you say that, they’re our parents, and we don’t know for sure they’re dead.”
“They’re bad folk, an’ they only ever treated us slightly better than the people they made us rob.”
There was a clang and a creak as one of Hecate’s exterior hatches opened.
Nikki put a finger to her lips. “Not a word of this Willow. If the rest of the crew finds out about our past they’ll kick us out.”
“Tom wouldn’t do that. He’d understand.”
Nikki grabbed her sister by the lapels. “Not a word, especially to Tom!” She released her grip as the wheel on the bridge’s hatch turned.
Shorty stepped on to the bridge. “Well, they’re closed for the day. I guess there’s no news from that end.”
Nikki’s heart jolted uncomfortably to the side. “They were supposed to check in.”
Shorty shrugged. “I’m sure they made it just fine, Nikki. They probably just got there too late for the telegraph office.”
“They should have been there hours ago.”
“We’ll check back in the morning. I’m sure they’ll report in then.”
The telegraph operator shook his head at Nikki the next morning. “No Ma’am, we ain’t got no messages today.”
“Can you check again, please?”
“No need, last message was late yesterday afternoon. Been quiet ever since.”
“Are you sure?”
“Ma’am I’m the only telegraph operator in Bedford, no message comes in that doesn’t go through me, and I ain’t heard no clickety-clack since yesterday afternoon.”
“It’s just that my….” what was Tom to her? Her parents had never let her get involved with boys unless there was some sort of payoff involved, Nikki didn’t have the experience to understand how she felt about Tom. “My friend… friends were with the caravan to Havenvale yesterday. They were supposed to check in.”
The telegraph operator smiled. “Oh, well I can help you there.” He pulled a slip of paper from a drawer behind the counter. “The last message I got was when the caravan checked in.” He cleared his throat and read, “Arrived Havenvale STOP Dragger trouble en-route STOP Three guards missing END MESSAGE” He glanced from the paper to Nikki’s face. “Oh… were your friends working as guards?”
Nikki swallowed, the room suddenly felt too hot. “Y-yes… three of them. P-please hold any messages for me.” She stumbled to the entrance of the telegraph office and leaned against the doorframe, taking great gulps of air.
They were gone. Missing, but missing was as good as dead if they were out overnight in Dragger territory with no refuge towers around.
“We should still man the telegraph office. Give them a week before we give up hope.” Shorty fidgeted with his shotgun and sighed. “I should have been with them.”
“They’ll be fine, buck up you two! Them three can handle themselves if anyone can.” Willow hugged her quilted bear, Sir Furrybottom tightly, betraying her brave words.
“I’ll go back. I just thought you two should hear the news.”
Shorty put a hand on her shoulder. “You don’t have to go Nikki. I can do it.”
“No. I want to be there.”
Nikki left Hecate in a daze. She trudged through the dusty streets of Bedford, barely looking up.
“Hey now, there’s a familiar sight.” A seedy-looking man hopped down from his perch on a railing. He cocked his head to the side. “I know that pretty little face.”
Nikki kept her gaze fixed on the ground. “I’m sure you don’t.” She tried to keep walking, but the man stood in her way while his two companions flanked her from behind.
The seedy man reached out and forced her chin upwards. A great smile lit his face. “I know someone’s been looking for you. Where are your friends?”
Nikki’s mind raced. Did he know her parents or was it something else? “I’m alone.”
“’Scuse me Ma’am, is this piece of filth bothering you?” A tough looking old coot with a shiny silver badge, and a revolver at his side appeared from the shade of a nearby building.
“Ummm, yeah, I guess.” Nikki batted her lashes at the Sheriff.
The Sheriff placed his left hand on the grip of his revolver. “You heard the lady, clear off Wayne, and take your compadres with you!”
The seedy man – Wayne – tilted his head to the side and winked at Nikki. Under his breath he said, “You’ll be hearin’ from us again.” Then he tipped his hat in mock-politeness to the Sheriff and waved for his companions to follow him. The three men disappeared up a side-alley.
“I hope you’re all right Ma’am.” The Sheriff tipped his hat to Nikki. “Havenvale’s main export is scum like them. Entire town’s under Charkart’s thumb, and now he’s trying to move in on his neighbours.”
“I’m fine. Thank you Sheriff.” Nikki nodded politely then hurried on her path to the telegraph office.
She burst through the door. “Has anyone been in here to send a message?”
“No Ma’am, you’re the only customer of the day so far.”
“Good.” She gave the man her most winning smile. “Do you know a thug named Wayne?”
“One a Charkart’s men, ain’t he?”
“Yes, that’s the one,” Nikki purred. “Y’all could be a wonderful help to me if you could… mislead him into thinking the telegraph was broke when he comes in.”
“I can’t do that Ma’am, it’s my job to send messages for people. And besides, I don’t want to run afoul of Charkart and his men.”
“Just for a few hours, please? Tell him you’ll have it working by noon. I’ll make sure to take care of Wayne and his friends so nobody bothers you.”
The operator heaved a great sigh. “All right Ma’am, but only because I like you, and I don’t like them, but I don’t want no trouble from this. He presses the issue and it’ll get ‘fixed’ right quick.”
“Thank you, thank you.” Nikki took the man’s hand between hers. “I’ll take care of it.” She rushed out of the office and ran back to Hecate.
When Nikki burst on to the bridge, Willow was alone there, playing a game of poker with Sir Furrybottom. She’d strategically placed a mirror behind her bear so she could see his cards.
“Willow, where’s Shorty?”
“He went for a little walk ‘round town, why?”
“I was spotted by some of Charkart’s men. Sure as shootin’ they’re gonna tell Charkart we’re in the area. If Tom and the others are alive, it’ll mean every man in Havenvale will be on the alert for them.”
Willow put her bear aside. “What are we going to do?”
“I bought us a few hours at the telegraph office, but the three of us ain’t enough to take these guys alone. We need help.”
“You know it’s our only choice Willow.”
“The minute we contact the local Dodger it means we’re gettin’ dragged back into that life. No Nikki.”
“What if it means Tom’s life?”
“Oh, Nikki, don’t say that…. I don’t wanna go back to bein’ bait. I was just startin’ to feel clean.”
“Me too, but what choice do we have?”
The local Dodger, a burly, sweaty man named Harry Rees, greeted them warmly in a smoky back-room full of rough-looking men. Nikki and Willow showed him the rat in a triangle tattoos on their hips.
He gazed closely at their faces and smiled. “That would make you Nikki and Willow, correct?”
The sisters nodded.
“Your parents have been lookin’ for you. They’d just about given up I understand.”
Nikki stared. “They alive?”
“Were a few weeks ago.” He sniffed. “Escaped that disaster at Milton on the last airship to get out.”
“Second to last,” Willow corrected. “We were the last. Why didn’t they come looking for us?”
Harry shrugged. “You’re askin’ the wrong fella.”
“We’ll sort that out later.” Nikki put her hands on the table and leaned forward. “What we need right now is some help.”
“What sort of help?”
“Umm, ten, maybe twelve tough guys to intercept a few of Charkart’s men and hold them for a few days.”
“And what might be your method of payment?”
Nikki swallowed hard, Dodgers never gave anything away for free. “We’re lookin’ at comin’ into some gold in the near future.”
Harry raised an eyebrow. “In other words you’ll pay me back later?”
“Uhh, yeah, on my word.”
“How much gold?”
Nikki bit her lip, hastily guessing how much a pound of gold might be worth. “Two pounds.”
The Dodger narrowed his eyes. “I might accept that, if you had it for me now… but you don’t.”
“Five pounds?” Nikki said. She felt a sharp kick from her sister under the table. Was she giving in too easily? She fidgeted nervously with a button on her coat.
“Make it ten.”
The man reached across the table to shake, but before his hand touched hers, he said, “Nine and you’ve got a deal.”
Nikki took his hand and shook before she could think it through. “Deal.”
Harry tilted his head to the side. “And if you don’t come through with the gold, will your parents consider this a favour owed?”
Nikki frowned, she couldn’t really speak for her parents, she never even wanted to see them again. “Yes,” she lied, “they’ll consider it their marker.”
Harry leaned back in his chair with a broad smile. “Anything you need darlin’.”
“As I said, I need a some of your men to intercept three of Charkart’s, hold them for a few days.”
Harry leaned back in his chair and rubbed his chin. “Then release ‘em?”
“Do what you want with ‘em.”
“You’re asking me to risk a heap-load of trouble little lady, but I’m sick of them Havenvale types musclin’ in on my business. You’re on, but if you don’t come through, your parents are gonna owe me big.”
Nikki reached over the table and shook hands with the man. “Pleasure doin’ business with you Harry.”
Harry laughed and winked at her. “Likewise. I almost hope you don’t come through with the gold. I’d enjoy having a marker over your parents, but not to worry, I’d find a use for their help soon enough.”
Nikki gave Harry the details of where to intercept Charkart’s men, then left with Willow in tow.
When they hit the street, Willow jabbed Nikki with her elbow. “You can’t make those sorts of promises!”
Nikki turned on her sister. “What was I supposed to do? Please wasn’t going to cut it!”
“Our parents are alive. They are going to track us down, you know it Nikki! When they do, they are not going to be happy.”
“We’ll deal with our parents when the time comes.”
Willow darted in front of her sister and stopped in the middle of the street. “Don’t you remember what happened to Uncle Billy?”
Nikki stopped. “Of course I remember Bill. That was just an accident, nobody knew that bank had an armed guard.”
“Our parents sent him in there, day after he lost a bundle at the poker table, and promised their marker to make good.”
Nikki frowned. “That was a coincidence.”
“Wake up Nikki! Stop being their mind slave. Dad got his own brother killed for doin’ what you just did. Make no mistake about it, they’ll find us, and when they do—”
Nikki pushed past her sister. “It’s different with us, Uncle Bill was always in one scrape or another. He probably got killed on that job due to his own bad planning, and besides, what choice do we have? We need help, and that was the only way to get it. Now go back to Hecate, or Shorty will begin to wonder where we are. I’ll go wait at the telegraph office. I’ll let you know what happened when I get back.”
“You’d better hope Tom comes up with the gold.”
“If he’s not dead.”
Nikki shoved her sister hard. “Get back to the ship!” She turned and brushed at the corners of her eyes with her coat sleeve as she walked toward the telegraph office.