Xiong “Wendy” Cheng rode her horse out to the Blake Ranch as the sun descended in the late afternoon sky. In the distance, a ranch hand wrangled cattle back to their corrals, circling his horse around and cracking his whip. In the open air, she could almost forget all of the troubles that ailed Gomorra. Out here it was peaceful, open land for miles with no sign of the devastation that lay beyond in the Maze.
Philip Swinford had been gone two days now. It wasn’t like him not to report in. The Law Dogs had split up to search the area to the east of town – the last direction anyone had seen Philip go. Dave had questioned just about everyone, but in all the confusion after the debate, the details weren’t entirely forthcoming. Wylie had gone off with his hounds, hoping that their keen noses would turn up something of Swinford’s scent, but to no avail.
Wendy’s search had taken her down the dirt road past a crooked fading sign that read “Placerville”, where soon she found herself riding by Jarrett Blake’s pastures. Tall grasses surrounded each side of the road, with a herd of cattle in the distance taking advantage of the wealth of food. She took her horse through those grasses, hoping to find anything — Swinford’s hat, long coat, even bootprints. Still, after more than an hour of peering across the pasture, she was no closer to finding him.
Three ranch hands in the distance herded the cattle back toward their corrals, one winding a rope around a stray heifer to tug and guide her back toward the herd.
“They work hard. This is a good company,” a voice came from behind.
Wendy glanced back over her shoulder to see Morgan company-man Max Baine standing a few paces behind her horse, out of kicking distance. He must have come out of the large Blake Barn while she had been pondering the scenery. She swung her leg over the saddle and dismounted, sliding gracefully down to the grass below. Her horse whinnied, and Wendy patted the beast on the neck before turning to Max. “Max,” Wendy said. “Don’t suppose you’ve seen Deputy Phillip Swinford around these parts?”
“Haven’t seen a thing,” the redheaded man said with the shake of his head. He thought for a moment, before continuing cautiously. “The Morgan Cattle Company isn’t suspected of any wrongdoings, are we?”
Wendy laughed. “No, nothing like that. Just turning over stones.”
“Well, we’ll be certain to keep an eye out.”
Wind blew Wendy’s hair across her face, which she brushed back softly. “By the way, I met your new boss a few days back. She came in with a mind to hiring us all for private security detail. I told her that’s not exactly what we do. Seemed like a nice enough lady.”
Max raised a brow with a quizzical expression on his face. “No offense intended, but are you sure you have the right person? First of all, you know we already have our own security.”
“I figured she was just paranoid and excessive.”
“At times, perhaps … which is why I’ve hardly heard her described as a ‘nice lady’.”
Wendy shrugged. “She had the name Morgan. Lula, right?”
Now it was Max’s turn to laugh, echoing across the range and startling Wendy’s horse. “Oh, my. Please forgive me. I hadn’t expected that. Though I do wonder what she’s doing asking after security. I’ll have to keep an eye on her. Anything else I can do for you, Wendy?”
Shadows fell across the plains and Wendy’s horse began to graze next to her. Wendy stared off into the distance, back toward the small town she’d called her home for so long. “Maybe. I’ve been doing a lot of thinking the past couple of days, Max. You and I are of a different breed than a lot of the newcomers. They don’t know what it’s like to really settle down in a place like Gomorra. Like the election. As strange as it sounds, folks like us probably would have been surprised if someone didn’t get shot that day.”
Max started to stare off into the distance himself. “Yeah, I know what you mean.” His expression shifted back to Wendy. “I mean nothing untoward by this offer, but why don’t we continue this conversation at my home? Share a drink?”
Wendy hesitated. She needed to keep looking for Philip, but the sun would be setting soon and there wouldn’t be much point to looking for him after dark. “Why not?” She quickly mounted her horse and spun it round, motioning back into town with her head. “Lead the way.”
Max waved toward the barn and called out, “Jarrett! I’m headed back to town. I’ll be back in the morning and we can talk more about that drive!”
“Night, Max!” The evening shadowed figure of Jarrett waved back.
“C’mon,” Max said, motioning westward.
Wendy took the reins of her horse and followed. She couldn’t bring herself to strike up idle conversation. What good would it do anyway?
After a short ride, they arrived at a modest home surrounded by a wooden fence. Max swung the gate to let her through. Wendy wrapped the reins around the fence three times and followed Max inside. The interior appeared as humble as outside, with less refined adornments than she would have expected – a wooden table, a chair, bookshelf, and a small bar. Max lit a small oil lamp. He set it on the table and took a dusty bottle from the bar. “Whiskey drinker?”
“Small glass for me,” Wendy said. Truth was she didn’t drink much. Ever since she’d lost her father, she’d vowed to stay alert and vigilant. It’d be so easy to slip away like Clyde or Prescott, forget all of the evils of Gomorra. But she’d come to talk to Max to ensure just the opposite. One drink couldn’t hurt.
Max turned for the bar, grabbing a green bottle. He blew on it, and the dust flying from its surface made him cough slightly before he popped the top. He poured two glasses, one half as full as the other, which he handed to her. “My first boss gave this to me back in The Old States, just before I came out here to work for Sweetrock. Never had company out here to share it with before, but it seemed a shame to waste on drinkin’ alone.”
Wendy took the glass and stared at it for a long moment. She brought the glass to her lips, the alcohol tingling as it touched her tongue. A warm, almost burning sensation coated her throat, causing her to gag a bit and set the glass down on the table. “I’m sorry. It’s good. It’s just I –”
Max shook his head as he swallowed, motioning that he wasn’t offended. “Don’t worry about it. Whiskey’s not for everyone. To business then?” His brow furrowed in the dim light of the oil lamp, making him look much older, worn.
Just like I am, Wendy thought to herself. “Right, the debate,” she said.
“Ahh, yes. I was there. Look, the sheriff, all of you did everything you could to stop those murderers. You can’t fault yourself over that. And you got one, didn’t you? Least that’s the gossip these last couple days.”
Wendy bit her lip, twisting the glass on the table. “Thank you, but that’s not what I meant. What’s done is done, but we have a much bigger problem now. An evil so great it makes the Sloane Gang look like children playing.”
“That Ivor Hawley fellow is an odd bird, but isn’t ‘evil’ overselling it?” Max’s lip twitched upward.
“Max, this is serious.”
“I know. Everything’s always so serious in this town. Deadly serious.” He sipped his whiskey and let out a sigh of relaxation. “Go on though, I’m listening.”
“I’m talking about the mayor. I’m talking about Nicodemus Whateley.”
“Ahh,” Max said, nodding grim-faced as he set his own glass down.
“The man is a monster. What he and his family nearly did to this town, what I saw with my own eyes …” she trailed off. Her hand started to shake despite herself.
A look of concern contracted Max’s face. “Shouldn’t you be talking to the sheriff about this?”
“He’s wary and knows that Whateley’s no good. Dave’s a good man, a great man really. But he’s by the book, and besides, we’re strapped for both people and money. Dave’ll need solid evidence of wrongdoing before he’ll make a move.”
“Whateley isn’t my first choice or even my last choice either,” Max said. “But he came about the position legitimately, which is saying something, even for him.” He stopped and swallowed hard before continuing. “Wendy, there aren’t many who knew this, even less who are still alive, but Nicodemus was in the Storm too. Even tried to help as near as I can tell.”
Wendy was shocked. “You’re defending him?!”
“Not one bit. No matter what side of the Storm he rested on, I’m sure he had only himself in mind in doing so. I’ve no doubt that’s all he sees right now as well. But until he makes his play, there isn’t much we can do. I’ve got my own problems to deal within the company, and some belonging to others already. This company –”
“Max, how can you talk about cattle like they matter so much when our lives, everyone’s lives are in danger as long as that man is in power. He’s up to something, and you know it just as well as I do.”
Max tapped his foot on the floor. “You’re right. I need to look out for myself too though. This company puts a lot on my shoulders and at the slightest push it all comes tumbling down. I go wandering into the doings of someone like Nicodemus Whateley, I’m likely to find myself up at Boot Hill. And where will guys like Blake and the others on the range be then?” He contemplated the situation for a moment. “How’s about a little deal? I’ll do some digging and see what turns up. If I find something, I’ll let you know. On our end, we’ve been having a lot of trouble with vandals and bandits down at the Circle M. We could use some more badges around there until things get sorted out. Lane Healey can only be so many places at once.”
Wendy held out her hand for him to shake. “You have a deal.”
* * *
“Thank you, Mr. Hamid. Not much time for celebration, though. We have a great deal of work ahead of us,” Nicodemus Whateley said. The poor fools of this town had made him mayor. He barely had to lift a finger to guarantee his ascension into public office. Well, that wasn’t exactly true. He had to procure a coin purse or two to produce the necessary funds.
If only Wilhelmina could see him now … Mayor Whateley. They were true first family of Gomorra, and this office was his rightful place. He sat at the top as always, but the rest of his kin were long gone. A pity, the follies of youth.
He clasped Rafi Hamid’s extended hand. The other man had a strong grip, as forceful as Nicodemus’s own, but neither clasped too hard, neither needing to assert their dominance. Both men knew exactly who was in charge here.
“So then, the office?” Nicodemus asked.
The door opened to a large room that had an oak desk and matching bookshelf. Nicodemus walked behind the desk and leaned over it, stretching out his hands. “If I haven’t said it yet, Mr. Hamid,” Nicodemus said, “allow me to now. I like you. You’re someone who gets things done, doesn’t let other people’s whining or nagging get in your way, and none of this would have happened without you.”
Hamid smirked. “As I told our esteemed sheriff, when I set my mind to something, I will see it done, ‘whining or nagging’ aside. I said I would put someone behind that desk, and that’s exactly what I did.”
“So I wonder, Rafi,” he said, returning Hamid’s smirk with one of his own. “Whatever shall you set your mind to next?”
“I’m not quite sure, Mr. Whateley. I thought I might remain in Gomorra a while and see what kinds of opportunities arise here.”
“I was hoping you’d say that. The truth is that I could use a man like you.” A pair of playing cards slipped out of Nicodemus’s sleeve, which he slid under his palm.
“What’re those?” Hamid asked, eyeing the cards.
“Nothing to worry about,” Nicodemus said. He flashed a grin.
“If you’re looking for a playing partner, I’m not much for gambling, sir,” Hamid persisted, stepping closer to Nicodemus’s new desk. “Games of chance have never appealed to me.”
In a quick movement, Nicodemus deftly slid the cards across the table. They flipped up in transit, revealing an ace and jack – a perfect twenty-one. Hamid was about to begin a new statement before his mouth went limp and lifeless. His eyes became vacant as he stared straight ahead.
“ ‘Chance’ has little to do with how I play, Rafi.” Nicodemus moved to the other side of the table, picking up his cards and tucking them back into his sleeve in the process. He slid over to the door, twisting the lock shut. One tug ensured that it was secure. “Now then, where were we?” Nicodemus asked.
No answer returned from the man frozen in front of him, but none was expected. Rafi Hamid stood there, lifeless, awaiting commands.
“I could have you licking my boots, perhaps degrade you further than that, do you know that?” Nicodemus circled around him.
“Yes, Mayor Whateley.” Hamid’s voice came out as a dull drone.
“No need for such formality, my good man,” Nicodemus said, circling back around the deputy before settling in, leaning back on the top of that new oak desk of his. “So tell me now, who in the Sheriff’s department has spoken ill of me?”
“Sheriff Dave, Abram Grothe, and Wendy Cheng have all expressed reservations,” Hamid said.
Nicodemus popped up off the edge of the desk and approached to stare inches away from Hamid’s near-lifeless eyes. “Two years ago I would have stuck a pistol in your hand and had you walk right into Sheriff Dave Montreal’s office and plug him one between the eyes. But two years ago, I was a fool. Why should I care what they say about me? They’re nothing but sore losers. I played their game, by their rules — or close enough to them — and I still beat them. What would grandmother think if she could see me now?” He paused for a moment, a sinister sneer crept across his lips. “Sure, I could make you silence them, turn you into my instrument of destruction. But I’m not going to. Do you know why?”
“Because I don’t need to,” Nicodemus said. He laughed as he returned to his side of the desk. “You will, however, forget ever having seen my cards in the first place and forget that this conversation took place. Awake!” As he said the final word, he slammed his hand on the table.
A loud thud returned Hamid’s eyes to normal. “I’m sorry, Mr. Whateley.” He shook his head slightly as if to ward off a persistent dream. “One of the perks of the office is its view of the square. You apparently have caught me daydreaming. What were we talking about?”
“A job for you, Mr. Hamid. I’m well aware of hostilities directed at me from the sheriff’s office. Dave Montreal, Wendy Cheng, and Abram Grothe are all not fond of me, correct?”
“Where did you hear –”
“Irrelevant. I’m certain they’ve all told you some colorful interpretations of my past. I need someone to assist me in ensuring our agenda for Gomorra is not interfered with because of petty grudges.” Nicodemus pointed out the window behind him. “Look out there. You believed that an election was important for this town, that these people need a strong leader to guide them through their …” Pitiful was the word he desired, but diplomacy won the day. “… uncertain lives. First the Great Quake, then the Storm and a whole mess of … other things in between. Frankly, it’s enough to drive anyone mad. Combine that with all the other pets lurking out there in the darkness, and it’s amazing this town even exists.”
He took a deep breath, meeting Hamid’s eyes with purpose. “What I’m asking, Rafi, is for you to stay on in Gomorra, act as a liaison between this office and the sheriff’s. I’ll need information and a way to ensure that they are properly serving this town on behalf of this office, and not their own whims.”
Hamid walked over to the window and looked outside. Nicodemus turned as well, in time to see a man carrying a pan and pickaxe strapped to his back. One of the few still trying to mine the precious ghost rock that made Gomorra a boomtown in the first place. The area had been dry for some time now, but some didn’t give up as easily as others. Just as I have not given up either, Nicodemus thought.
“I suppose we need to ensure that the citizens are properly represented. They have a new mayor, and the sheriff’s office should reflect that.”
“Yes,” Nicodemus said, trying to bite back the excitement in the word.
Hamid turned back to face him. “Count me in, Mr. Whateley. Where should we start?”
Nicodemus enthusiastically gripped the shoulders of his new lapd–, associate. “You won’t regret this friendship, Mr. Hamid. You’ve made the right choice.” Nicodemus turned to place his arm around he man as he continued. “Now to business. When’s the last time someone completed an accounting of the sheriff’s arsenal…”