He could kill them all silently, but where was the challenge in that?
And if it was one thing he craved, one thing his demons craved, it was a challenge.
From where he crouched in the shadows of the porch, Jack Hoyle—known to the people of Black Aces, Montana as Jonathan Douglas—watched the night watchmen who patrolled King’s home.
Whoever was in charge had them on a tight leash; they rotated around the property at a precise schedule.
Which would make it all the easier to eliminate them.
It was hard to identify them all from this distance, but any moment now, the fourth and youngest—the kid barely looked old enough to shave—would be coming around the side of the house.
There he is.
His lips twitched in satisfaction, and he shifted a bit, making sure his cloak wasn’t impeding his reach for either weapon.
When he’d first entered the house, hours before, Jack had kept the big black cloak on to help mask his movements. When he’d determined the damn deed wasn’t anywhere available, he’d watched and noted the pattern of the guards, then slipped out to crouch on the porch.
From this spot, Jack was less than a stone’s throw from where they’d hung a large lantern on a pole, and was sitting in the very spot they were supposed to be protecting, but he might as well have been invisible.
Not twenty feet away, the kid paused in the light of the lantern and lit what might’ve been a cheroot. Old enough to smoke, at least, but then again, Jack knew age didn’t mean much around here. Hell, he’d stolen his first cigar from Father’s desk when he’d been only eight, and Daniel was--
No. No, he didn’t need to think about that now.
Instead, he watched the lad puff on the cheroot, then amble around toward the rear of the house. That meant Jack now had four minutes until the next of King’s henchmen crossed that same path. It was the perfect time to dart across the dark yard and duck into the stables, or slip around the rear and melt into the darkness of the surrounding night.
He’d come out here tonight looking for evidence to damn Augustus King. The deed to the Bicycle Mine, the silver mine Jim Hoyle had built with his own sweat, and which had eventually claimed Jim’s oldest son, Daniel. The same deed which was the key to King’s power. Jack needed it, needed to find it, to prove King had killed his father.
And barring proof, Jack would settle for his blade in King’s neck.
So he’d snuck out here along a dry creek bed and waited in the barn until darkness fell, and had then darted across the open yard and thrown himself at the porch overhang. It had been simple to roll up onto the roof, and when he’d found the windows locked, he’d simply backed up three paces and thrown himself at the chimney, hoisting himself up and wriggling through the opening. He’d ended up dirty and smiling, as memories of some of the shenanigans he’d gotten into with Daniel came to mind.
But King hadn’t been home, and Jack’s hands curled into fists as he held himself back.
Not yet, he whispered silently to his demon.
Fact: He needed to return to his carefree life of luxury and ease, but it would be impossible to enjoy himself if he was guilt-ridden about his mother’s state. He could endow her with enough money to easily pay King’s “rent,” but there was no guarantee the bastard wouldn’t continue to find ways to steal from the poor woman.
Fact: The only way to ensure his mother would be safe when he returned to Aegiria, would be to remove King’s source of power, the deed to the mine, which should’ve been Daniel’s. Or--God forbid—Jack’s.
Fact: The only way to remove the deed from King’s possession was to kill him. Or maybe not. Jack didn’t care if it was necessary or not; either way, he was determined to feel his blade sink into King’s flesh and steal back the lives King had stolen from so many.
Conclusion: In order to get close enough to kill King with impunity, Jack needed to eliminate the henchmen. King was down to only three men, plus the methodical Burton, and as far as Jack could tell from his careful observations, there were four men patrolling around the house tonight.
It would be easy to pick them off, one by one, slicing their throats the way he’d killed those two goons King had sent to rob Gomez’s store in December. They’d likely never know he was there, and wouldn’t stand a chance, one-on-one, against him. But again, where was the challange in that?
Counting under his breath, he was perversely pleased to see the mounted guard trot by right on time. It was hard to tell from this distance, but it appeared to be the leader of the guards—Burton—atop the horse. Jack knew he’d be easier to kill if the other man wasn’t up in the saddle. Under the annoying-but-necessary bandana, his slow grin caught him by surprise.
Easy? If only Thordis could hear him now.
You’re getting soft, my American friend. Only four men and a horse?
Thordis was one of the younger princes hanging around the Aegirian royal palace, where Jack had—until recently—made his home, and the two of them had spent their days training their bodies and minds to do a series of more and more incredible tasks.
Like wriggling through chimneys in order to enter an enemy’s home…or tackling riders off stallions.
He took a deep breath and told himself to quit stalling. Meet the threat head-on, as Hito had taught them.
His fingers curled around the butt of his revolver, and he pushed himself upright.
When he stepped out of the shadows, Burton was already across the yard. Jack made it halfway to the porch, before he bothered to clear his throat, and the way the man whipped around in the saddle was a little gratifying.
Jack settled into an easy stance, his weight balanced on the balls of his good black boots, grateful not to have to wear those heavy monstrosities the cowhands around here favored.
Under the cover of his cloak, he flicked at the scabbard of his short sword, making certain it sat loose and ready.
The other man hadn’t drawn his gun yet—a mistake—but slowly urged his animal in a turn. As his face appeared in the lantern light, Jack saw it was, in fact, Burton.
“The Black Ace finally has the guts to bring the fight to us? Must be our lucky night,” he drawled.
Oh yes, the Black Ace.
When Jack had returned to his birthplace of Black Aces, he’d been surprised by—well, by many things. But the mysterious vigilante, who supposedly dressed all in black, including a black bandana to hide his identity, and who swooped down from the hills in the night to protect the innocents of town…?
Well, it was a preposterous legend, but one Jack Hoyle could absolutely make use of.
Tonight, he wore all black, from the hat he’d had Tavie scrounge for him, to his cloak and boots, and his face remained hidden by the bandana.
Childish, almost, but it was necessary for the appearance of the whole thing.
And if there was one thing Jack understood, it was appearances.
And how to kill.
His lips twitched. Apparently, he knew quite a lot of things.
So his bow, when he gave it—though he kept both eyes on the mounted man—was elaborate and mocking. “At your service, Mister…?” he prompted, feigning ignorance towards the man’s identity.
“You don’t need to know my name,” Burton growled, picking his way toward Jack. “You’re trespassing, and once I kill you, we’ll yank that stupid mask off and find out who you are, once and for all.”
One of Jack’s brows rose. “Goodness. All by yourself?”
The man stopped his horse, his hand hovering over the butt of his gun. “What?”
“I said, you’re planning on killing me all by yourself? When you have three men nearby?”
The light from the lantern was enough to see Burton frown as he considered Jack’s words.
Just my luck. An intellectual.
When the man’s piercing whistle cut through the night, Jack forced his heartbeat to slow. He’d been expecting this, after all. He’d asked for it.
To his surprise, while they waited for the others to arrive, Burton swung down from his horse. He’d given up a perfectly good advantage for what--
As Jack watched, Burton pulled his rifle from the boot and laid it across the saddle, training the sights on Jack, while simultaneously using the bulk of the animal to block his vitals.
An intellectual, indeed.
The first of his backup arrived running, one hand on his gun, and the other on his hat to keep it in place. “Where’s the fire, Burton?” he panted breathlessly, before skidding to a stop as he saw Jack standing, seemingly at ease, in the middle of the yard.
His mouth snapped closed with an audible click.
The last two had the same reaction as they arrived from different directions, and Jack heard the kid whisper a curse under his breath. The lit cheroot waggled between the lad’s lips, and Jack wondered if it was possible to smell fear.
Or maybe it was just piss.
He decided to take pity on the kid.
“Gentlemen,” he began smoothly, “I believe you know who I am. And you can guess why I’m here.”
“That’s the Black Ace!” the youngest hissed, nudging his partner. “He killed Ziggy and Earstwhile and O’Grady like they was nuthin, remember? Barely time to get off a shot!”
“Pimples!” Burton snapped from behind his horse. “If you’re so concerned, how come you haven’t drawn your gun?”
As the kid and the third man fumbled for their holsters, Jack chuckled dryly. “And you think having your weapons drawn will help? After all, Mr. O’Grady’s gun proved useless, now didn’t it?”
“And he was damn good with it,” one of the other men volunteered.
Jack made sure they could hear his grin when he drawled, “Not good enough.”
The men were nervous now, shifting their weight, and at least one was muttering something.
Time to take control of the situation.
With his attention on the leader, in case he made his move sooner than expected, Jack spoke to the others. “I’ll offer you a chance, gentlemen. If you holster your weapons and leave, I’ll allow you the chance to reach your horses in the stable and run far away. The morning train to Helena is on time, or you could even go south.” His gaze flicked to the men, particularly the kid. “You don’t have to die tonight.”
Burton growled, but made no move. The five of them stood in a silent tableau for several long moments, until finally, the kid exhaled loudly and shoved his gun back in its holster.
“Sorry, Mr. Burton, but I didn’t sign on to this job just to die.” The kid lifted his hands to show Jack they were empty, and when one of the other men spat at his feet, he shrugged apologetically. “Ma needs me. I’m done here.”
“Good idea, son,” Jack drawled. “Mothers are important.”
His own mother was the most important reason he was standing here tonight. His mother, and a particularly feisty Pinkerton detective, who smiled like an angel and kissed like a demon.
As the kid shuffled around the perimeter of their group, heading toward the stables, Burton’s rifle wavered, as if he wanted to shoot the lad in the back. Figuring it was up to him to keep control of the situation, Jack took a half-step forward, and as he’d guessed would happen, the rifle swung back in his direction, once more.
“Stupid kid don’t know the meaning of a job,” one of the men spat.
“Stupid kid leaving means we get more from Mr. King when we kill this bastard,” the other man—a particularly fat one at that—corrected.
“And where is Mr. King?” Jack asked languidly, as if he had no real desire to know.
Burton snarled. “He ain’t here. He went into town to meet with the new hired gun.”
Shit. Not only was the man not home to hand over the damn deed, likely with a whole lot of persuasion from Jack, but he was off fetching another gunslinger.
However, Jack knew he couldn’t lose control of the situation. “Excellent,” he drawled.
“Not for you!”
There are ways to know when a man is about to shoot, even without being able to see his eyes in the darkness. The way the man shifted his weight, the way he sucked in his breath and held it, all told Jack Burton was about to fire, and he was already diving toward the other threats before the round exited the barrel.
The shot drilled into the ground just behind where he’d been standing only a moment before, and as Burton shifted his aim, Jack’s face split into a grin.
This is what he lived for. This feeling of uncertainty, as if he were balanced on the edge of a blade and could fall in either direction, this is why Jack pushed himself further and further. This thrill, this joy, this rush!
He had just enough time to suck in a breath, before the demon took control.
The familiar red haze crept from the edges of his vision, and he gave himself completely over to the mania.
His motions became…not his own. As always, the demon possessed him, controlling his body in a high neither opium nor spirits had ever been able to replicate.
From afar, from outside the red haze, a part of him watched and howled with delight as he landed on the first man, the one closest to the horse’s head. That man had been quick enough to pull his gun, but he was right-handed, which gave Jack the advantage, and his sword was already in his left hand by the time he fell upon King’s man, slashing first at the gun, then the man’s face, a move calculated to force him to fall back.
Though it had all worked just the way Jack had planned, it had taken too long, and the third man had had enough time to draw his weapon. Apparently not caring his colleague was in his sights as well, the fat man fired a shot, which scraped across Jack’s ribs.
But Jack felt nothing, thanks to the mania now controlling him.
A cross-draw was never the most convenient option, but there were times when a ranged weapon did better work. Before he’d hit the ground, Jack had pulled his revolver from his left hip, and as his shoulder slammed into the packed dirt, he fired. The shot tore through his own cloak--damn it!--then into the chest of the much larger man.
Jack didn’t bother to watch him fall, knowing Burton was the last, and worst, threat.
Between one heartbeat and the next, Jack had tucked his knees to his chin and used his momentum to roll beneath the horse.
Before Burton could pull his rifle from across the top of the saddle and adjust his aim, Jack had already rolled past him, firing upward.
The shot caught Burton under his raised arm, then exited through his jaw, and the red haze within Jack howled with glee.
Jack then flipped to his feet, his heart pounding with a fierce joy, as he inhaled for what seemed like the first time in ages.
His cloak floating gracefully around him, Jack’s lips twitched as he heard Thordis' voice in his head, saying, There is a long history of great warriors who’ve seen red while in battle.
Jack was a warrior, and he was proud of that fact.
He noticed one man, the one he first attacked, was still upright, although roaring with anger, as he held his injured hand to his chest and tried to wipe the blood from his eyes with the other.
The euphoria sucked into his lungs, and Jack knew he wouldn’t be able to get enough of it. Lifting his right hand, he used his last two fingers—the ones not currently holding the revolver—and yanked down the bandana, so he could breathe even deeper.
“One more chance to run?” he offered, panting in anticipation, because he knew the foolish man would deny himself the opportunity to live, and the red haze would claim another life tonight. It was why he’d gambled and allowed the man to see his face.
Sure enough, the man spat out a curse, then reached his good hand, fingers curled into claws, toward Jack, who simply grinned and met the charge head-on. Jack twisted at the last second, ducked and whirled behind him, then sliced across the man’s unprotected nape with his sharp blade, severing his spinal cord.
Jack’s cloak floated around him, coming to a silent rest, as the man’s body finally gave way to gravity and toppled to the ground.
The blood—the red blood—had dulled Jack’s blade, and he missed the way it had gleamed in the lantern light just moments before. Squatting, he reached for the man’s jacket and wiped his sword, cleaning it more lovingly, and more carefully, than he’d tend to his own wounds.
Speaking of which…
The haze, the mania, was dissipating, and Jack’s tongue darted over dry lips as the pain from his side slowly registered. It was always like this, after he gave up control to the demon. He felt…deflated..
But just like opium, the rush, the thrill was worth it.
Crouching there beside the men he’d killed, Jack holstered his gun and pressed his hand to his side where the shot had scraped across his ribs. He felt blood seeping into his black waistcoat, but not too quickly, which was good.
Remembering the thrill of seeing his enemies’ blood bloom, Jack squeezed his eyes shut on a wince. His own blood was decidedly less thrilling.
He forced himself to stand and shuffle back a few steps, so he could lean against the porch rail as he returned his blade to the scabbard. Then he pulled his revolver once more and took time to reload it.
Just in case.
King wasn’t here, and neither was the deed, he was sure of it. He’d been methodical in his search, and had even found and successfully cracked King’s safe, although it had taken longer than he’d ever admit to Thordis.
There’d been a number of interesting papers inside, but the deed hadn’t been among them.
In his pocket was the one piece of paper he’d taken: a contract between King and a Mr. Dick Stevens, dated yesterday, hiring the latter as “protection.”
King had one goon left, and Jack needed to know everything he could find out about this new man he was now up against. Being out of the country for fifteen years meant he didn’t recognize the current gunslingers’ names as he and Daniel used to. But Tavie would know.
And she’d help him, by God.
It was bad enough the woman had dragged his arse home from Aegiria. It was bad enough she refused to kiss him again. But now she was masquerading as his mother’s companion, and that meant he had to see her every damn day.
There was a hotel in town, and even King himself had offered Jack housing when he’d come to town, but Mother wouldn’t hear of it. She’d not seen her “baby” in much too long, and he’d sleep at home where he belonged, by God! It would blow their subterfuge all to hell, if King or the people of Black Aces discovered who he really was, but he couldn’t deny his mother.
Not anymore. Jack swallowed and squeezed his eyes shut again, making sure his breaths were even and full. He remembered the expression on her face when he’d strolled through the door to his old home, right before Christmas. Even though she’d known he was coming, thanks to the indomitable Miss Tavie Smothers, her reaction had been…
Well, if he were being honest with himself, her reaction had been everything he’d ever imagined, and secretly longed for. In ten long years, he hadn’t bothered to write to her. Hell, he’d been out of prison for six of those years and living the high life in Aegiria, a friend to princes and courtesans alike. He hadn’t written to her, hadn’t let her know he was alive, because he assumed she was better off not knowing. She had Father, and she had Daniel, the perfect son, and Jack…
Jack had been happy to fade into memory.
But when she saw him for the first time after all these years, she’d risen from her chair, her build a bit plumper and her face a bit more wrinkled than he’d remembered. Her hands had shaken as she’d raised them to her lips, and her tears had been silent. When he’d taken her in his arms, she’d whispered a shaky, “I knew you’d come back, my boy. I knew you’d help us.”
In that moment, he’d mentally cursed his selfishness, which he knew was what had kept him away for so long.
He’d cursed himself, and cursed his brother for dying so nobly, and his father for getting himself murdered by a useless waste of air like King. And he’d cursed Tavie, who’d found him and dragged his sorry arse back home.
Tavie, who’d given him just one delicious, tantalizing taste, before closing herself off for what seems to be forever.
Exhaling, he dropped his head back on the porch rail.
He’d found her in his rooms at the palace, dressed in the same drab smock his fire-tender always wore. She’d kept her head down, just as his regular maid always did, but he’d been drunk and left uncomfortably aroused by a courtesan at a state dinner, so when Tavie had scurried past him, he’d reached out and snagged her arm. When she tumbled into his lap, he’d wrapped his arms around her and dragged her lips to his.
She froze, and he’d thought her to be in shock. But when she melted against him, returning his kiss with a passion he hadn’t expected, it had literally taken his breath away.
The mania and his demons…they were nothing compared to the thrill of her lips against his skin.
It had been shocking, stimulating, and more than a little confusing, and Jack had loved every bit of it.
But then she pulled away, and he’d finally seen she wasn’t the mousy little downstairs maid who always tended his fire, but was actually the sexy barmaid who’d served him too much vodka the week before.
And then, she’d blinked and straightened, pushing away from him with a deep breath, and he’d realized she wasn’t really either of the roles she had played.
She delivered him a lecture on responsibility and honor, then handed him the letter from his mother, and a ticket to New York, leaving on the next steamer out of Copenhagen.
She’d been a Pinkerton, and she’d taken on the roles of those other women in order to track him down and get close to him. Once she had, once she’d watched him, she’d given him the most magnificent kiss of his life, but refused to even touch him again. God help me.
He swallowed and pushed himself upright, the pain in his side enough to make him growl in frustration, and caused his stomach to churn.
But was it really the pain, or was it the memory of Tavie’s kiss affecting him like this?
He’d returned to Black Aces to find Tavie firmly ensconced with his mother, playing the drab little mouse once more as Ruth Hoyle’s devoted companion.
He missed the barmaid.
He wondered who the true Tavie really was.
Telling himself it didn’t matter, he pushed aside thoughts of the elusive agent, and forced his mind to focus on his current predicament, which was what to do about the damn deed.
King had obviously hidden the deed well, and King wasn’t here. Jack’s night had been saved from being a complete failure by his success in removing most of King’s henchmen from the picture.
He glanced down at the body of the last man he’d killed, the lack of red haze allowing him to see the husk at his feet as a recently breathing man, and Jack swallowed again.
He told himself the wooziness and confusion he was feeling was because of his wound and the loss of blood.
With a groan, he pushed himself toward Burton’s horse, which was still standing placidly in the yard. Feeling as he did, Jack had no choice but to borrow one of King’s mounts in order to return to town. Return home.
But his head was spinning by the time he pulled himself up into the saddle. It was always like this when the demon left him; he always felt so drained and tired.
He placed his damp forehead against the horse’s neck, pressed his hand against his wound, and nudged the animal into motion. Home.
Tender hands. He’d feel better tomorrow.
What is Tavie going to say when Jack drags himself--wounded!--back to the house with no deed to show for it? And why did she kiss him all those months ago in Aegiria? Find out in the LAST installment of the Black Aces trilogy, Wild Card!