|"Hold still, Jim."
Colonel Dean Richmond was smiling as he pushed open the door to the private car's small galley. He had reason: his best agents had successfully completed another highly dangerous mission, and emerged relatively unscathed. He enjoyed hearing the bantering tones, for it meant neither of them was badly hurt.
There was barely room in the tiny space for two men, let alone three, and Richmond didn't try to enter. Artemus glanced up briefly and saw him standing in the doorway.
"Everything go okay, Colonel?"
"Fine, Artie. Elgin and his gang are all locked up tight, thanks to you two." He tossed his hat onto the sideboard, leaned against the doorframe, and watched Artemus dab at a cut over Jim's eye with a damp cloth. For lack of space, Jim was perched on the table while Artie saw to his injuries. Richmond had arrived late in the proceedings; Jim's bare chest was already swathed in tight bandages. A red-stained cloth in one hand, Artie grabbed Jim's chin and turned his face more into the light, holding him there while he cleaned the cut. Jim winced theatrically, and Richmond carefully swallowed his laughter.
"You've got to learn to duck faster, Jim," Artie insisted as he wielded the cloth with finesse. "You keep letting these guys make a mess of your face, and you won't have anything left to charm the pretty girls."
"It's not that easy to duck three plug-uglies, Artie." Jim winced again, and grabbed Artie's wrist, holding the cloth away. Artemus simply waited.
"Six," Richmond corrected, "We put six in that cell today, Jim."
"Really? I could have sworn there were only three."
Richmond knew it was no joke. Jim could take on six as easily as three; it honestly made no difference to him. He looked on as Jim met Artie's eyes and slowly slackened his grip on his partner's wrist until he let go entirely. Artemus calmly went back to cleaning the cut.
"Well--" Richmond pushed off the doorframe and stepped back. "I hate to run, gentlemen, but Washington calls. Paperwork doesn't do itself, you know. Speaking of which..."
"You'll have our report in the morning. Ouch!" Jim glared at Artemus, and Richmond, well knowing who invariably wrote the duo's reports, thought it best to beat a hasty retreat.
"Good day, gentlemen. Oh, and you're officially off-duty until further notice." It was a pleasure to be able to offer West and Gordon a vacation; he sincerely hoped their services wouldn't be needed any too soon.
Richmond had already traversed the parlor and opened the outer door before he remembered his hat. He winced as the door crashed shut -- he'd forgotten train was parked on a slight incline -- and headed back for the galley.
"Damn it, Artie! That hurts."
"You want me to kiss it better?"
Richmond's pace slowed and, obeying some instinct, he turned aside from the hall door, choosing instead to walk softly up to the door which opened from the parlor. The incline of the siding held it slightly ajar.
The tableau in the galley was much the same: Jim still sat on the table with Artie standing before him. Only both of Artie's hands were pressed flat on the table, and Jim's were spread on Artie's back. Artemus Gordon was kissing James West. And West was cooperating enthusiastically.
Richmond forgot his hat. He forgot his dignity. Thankfully, he didn't forget to catch the door before it slammed. He'd once been an effective agent himself, and old habits died hard. He didn't start thinking again, in fact, until he was on his horse, the private car well out of sight behind him.
His best agents were-- James West and Artemus Gordon were-- They were inverts, deviants, sexual perverts. Pariahs to society. Their behavior was unacceptable by any standard. He ought to strip them of their commissions. He should jail them, denounce them to society. He should...
They were the best. His best agents. The United States needed them. He needed them. Still... something must be done.
He had found James West in the White House.
The doors to Lincoln's White House had been always open. The soldiers called him Father Abraham and felt free to avail themselves of their father's house. Soldiers came and went at all hours: to tender a petition, write a letter, or just get in out of the heat. The most loved and hated president in history made them all welcome. It was a wonder there had been no earlier attempt to take his life.
Richmond had not been responsible for that life. Grant was another matter, and Grant's White House of necessity followed suit.
Grant didn't cavil, not too much. With Lincoln's death ever before him -- and the certainty that if he had gone with Lincoln to the theater that night, his bodyguard would surely have prevented assassination -- he bowed to Richmond's dictates of safety. But you could never take the army away from Grant, and his generals and colonels and aides de camp were always welcome on the strength of memory and shared hell.
One particular aide de camp was lounging in the entryway an afternoon only a month after Grant took office when a shout went up from outside. The young man dashed out and took in the scene at a glance. Passers-by gabbled like so many geese, and pointed at an armed man on the balcony. Before any of Richmond's hand-picked guards even took the situation in, the young soldier threw himself at the balcony, surmounting it by shear bull-headed strength. The would-be assassin made a precipitous descent seconds later, with neither gun nor volition.
And Richmond had been introduced to James West. Tough, loyal, smart, brave and so stubborn as to put death itself at bay. And, as it turned out, sick with an illness Richmond could neither understand nor condone. Had West always been so, he wondered, or had working so closely with an actor tainted him?
"Begging your pardon, Colonel Richmond. Sir."
With an effort, Richmond focused on the young agent in the train seat opposite. The boy squirmed under Richmond's gaze. "You, ah, I, ah... d'I do something wrong?" he blurted suddenly. "Sir!"
Richmond blinked. "What could you have done wrong, Harrison?"
The boy threw his gaze out the window, then dragged it back with a visible effort to a spot about an inch below Richmond's chin. "You been looking at me for hours. Sir. An' you don't look so happy. Sir."
No, he didn't, did he? He ought to. He had Elgin and his cronies locked in the baggage car under the watchful eye of a U.S. Marshall. The train was making good speed; they should reach Washington in a matter of hours. And all Richmond could think of was another train, on a siding just outside a certain small town, and what exactly the two men on board were getting up to. And what the country would think if it got out. And get out, it surely would, with Senator Simmons dragging a new Morals Committee around by the nose. Simmons was very good at finding things other people wanted kept secret, and if he found out about West and Gordon... The very thought made the bile rise in Richmond's throat.
"You ain't, you ain't goin' to send me to Dakota, are you, sir?" The boy was still staring at Richmond's chest with a fixity of purpose unique to the very young and the very frightened. His hands were clasped neatly in his lap, his knuckles bloodless.
Richmond managed a chuckle. The young man relaxed visibly. "First, Harrison, you haven't done anything wrong. And second, why would I send you to the Dakotas?"
Harrison blinked, a flicker of sandy lashes over enormous pale eyes. "Ain't that what you do with agents that displease you, sir? Send'em to Dakota, where there's no 'menities and nothing ever happens, and it's colder than a witch's--"
The boy blushed fiercely. "Sorry, sir."
Richmond tried not to grin. "Who told you that?"
"Oh, ah... just, just someone, sir."
Well, he couldn't fault the loyalty, anyway. And he could make a pretty good guess anyway, given the language improperly remembered by the boy. Gordon just couldn't resist teasing Richmond's fledgling agents. Usually they didn't take it so much to heart.
Gordon. Richmond made certain to turn his gaze to the window, so as not to further terrify the young agent. The boy would take some training to make a good agent, but there was time. No amount of training in the world would make him into the best.
And there was the rub, as Gordon would put it. Richmond couldn't afford to give up his best agents. If he did nothing, however, he'd almost certainly lose them to a scandal. And Grant's presidency sure as hell didn't need another scandal.
His gaze slid back over to Harrison. Though the young man's eyes were directed out the window, a slight flinch showed he knew Richmond was looking at him again. Richmond shook his head. The boy should be in the back car playing mumblety-peg with one of the young brakemen, not sitting opposite his boss worrying about being packed off for making a nuisance of himself.
Packed off... Slowly, Richmond smiled.
Richmond walked briskly up Pennsylvania Avenue, navigating the heavy traffic with ease. He sidestepped a burgeoning brawl and dashed across the street, narrowly avoiding being knocked down by two cabs, one from each direction, and a tiny curricle driven by a gaudily bedecked woman. He stopped for a moment to catch his breath in the shadow of the Willard Hotel.
The Willard was the hotel of choice for politicians and those seeking political favor, both for its bar and its location close to the White House. It was also the meeting, and drinking, place for those, gentlemen and rowdies alike, who frequented the brothels along Pennsylvania Avenue.
If West had joined the Secret Service after saving Grant's life -- a typically backwards way of going about the thing -- Gordon had taken one step further afield and saved Richmond's own life.
Yarbrough wasn't a happy man. An agent doubly-disgraced and turned out in favor of the rising star, he had strode into the Willard one day with a double-barreled shotgun in his hand and murder in his heart. He had eyes only for the table at which Richmond and West were dining, and didn't see the foot which sent him sprawling.
By all accounts, the man who tripped Yarbrough calmly rose, folded his napkin, paid his bill, and departed while all was still in turmoil. James West's first assignment had been to find the helpful stranger. He'd done it in record time. Artemus Gordon was the leading light of a small theater company playing in a run-down theater not two miles from the White House. The production: "The Secret Service."
Richmond smiled reflexively and turned his footsteps to the White House. The white-gloved doorman passed him unchallenged into the president's residence, a familiar and long-suffered guest.
West and Gordon had been inseparable ever since. Whatever
skills they had separately, it was nothing to their successes together.
Richmond's smile vanished utterly. Together was the one place he could
no longer allow them to be.
"You want to what?"
"It's necessary, Mr. President," Richmond said to the broad back turned to him. Grant looked out at Pennsylvania Avenue and chewed vigorously on his cigar. "There's a situation brewing in Arizona territory -- we need a good man to keep an eye on things and intervene if necessary. We need Jim West."
Grant gestured with his cigar. "I see that. Send 'em both -- that's what they're for."
Richmond shook his head, feeling his heart start to pound. Here's the jump, best not balk. "I need Gordon here. These threats on your life, sir..." He tapped the rough-edged pages he'd dropped on Grant's cluttered desk only moments before.
"Bother these threats." Grant swung his chair around and sat down. "There are always threats."
"Not like these, sir. I want Gordon here to protect you."
"I have bodyguards enough."
"Not like Artemus Gordon."
Grant put his cigar down on the side of the desk and ran his hand through his hair. Richmond picked up the cigar and put it in a pristine tray placed by the maids on the desk for that very purpose. Ash on the carpets was a constant complaint, though Richmond thought it much preferable to chewing tobacco-soaked rugs.
"If you mean to have Gordon impersonate me again, I won't have it. A man's got to take his own risks, Richmond."
"Yes, sir. And no, I don't intent Gordon to practice his excellent impersonation of you any further. I intend for him to shadow you."
Grant sat back in his chair, one fist curled on his thigh, and stared. Richmond was hard-pressed not to make some betraying move. Grant's eyes were piercing. He wasn't much with people, most of the time, which got him into a great deal of trouble in high office, but the wheels of his mind hummed strategy. Very little of that sort escaped him.
"What's this, Dean?" he asked after several silent moments. The unprecedented use of his given name came close to unnerving Richmond.
"I need West in Arizona and Gordon here," he said doggedly.
Grant watched him in silence for another few minutes, then
gave a sharp nod. "You're the head of the Secret Service -- you don't
need my approval. Do as you see fit." He picked up his cigar and blew
lightly on the end until the ember flared to life again. "I must admit,
it will be a relief to have Gordon as a bodyguard for a while, instead
of the usual gorilla."
"I don't think I understand, Colonel. When will I be joining Jim in Arizona?"
"You won't be." Richmond busied himself with the papers on his desk. For a minute, there was silence.
The only emotion in Gordon's voice when he spoke was professional curiosity. "I apologize; I assumed I was brought back to Washington to pick up equipment or information which would assist in dealing with the situation out there. What task did you have for me?"
Suppressing a relieved sigh at how quietly Gordon was taking the separation -- just what did you expect, Dean, tears and pleading? -- Richmond passed the packet of letters across to the agent. Gordon put his hat down on the corner of the desk to take them. "One of these has arrived every other day for the last week. So far, we have been unable to identify the sender."
Gordon's expression became grave as he read. When he finished and looked up, a spark of rage danced in his normally soft brown eyes. "You want me to find this... person."
"No. I have men on that," Richmond lied. He turned away from the desk and stood, going to look out the window. He half wished he smoked, so as to have something to do with his hands.
"I want you to watch the president. With his daughter's wedding approaching, the White House will be unsettled, just the opening an assassin needs. I want you at Grant's side at all times."
Gordon stood also. He cocked his head to one side. "The president has bodyguards."
"None as good as you."
For a moment, Gordon was silent. "Except Jim."
Richmond turned from the window. "I need him in Arizona. I need you here." He made himself look at his agent and was oddly surprised to find him unchanged. Same old Artie. It was hard to believe he'd witnessed this very man kissing-- "Well?"
Gordon picked up his hat. "I'll be at the White House if you need me."
A cold wave of relief flooded Richmond's chest. He sank into his chair as cautiously as an old man, and looked up to find Gordon still at the door.
"If the situation in Arizona should become... volatile..."
"If this situation is resolved," and Richmond would see that it wasn't, "I'll send you out to join him. If not, I'll send someone else."
Gordon nodded once, and left.
Richmond nodded and smiled thinly, preserving the mask of polite reserve so necessary to society. He was a diplomat as well as a spymaster, and did not give in easily to either frustration or anger, even safely closeted in his office.
The man across the desk had no idea how annoyed his commanding officer was becoming. Richmond tried very hard not to catch every word in the continuing tirade.
"... man's a complete lunatic... walked straight up to the militia commander and told him he was under arrest... trying to get both of us killed..."
"I understand completely," Richmond responded soothingly when an opportunity presented itself, "I'll speak to him about the matter." But he knew it was futile; Douglass had not come all the way from Arizona territory just to air grievances.
"Never mind, Colonel!" Douglass flushed, remembering who he was talking to. "I mean... thank you, Colonel, but that really won't do. I just can't work with Jim West. I know he's the best, but..." he shook his head, "I just wouldn't survive it, sir."
"Very well." Richmond nodded and stood. "I'll have you reassigned immediately. Thank you for coming in." He politely shook the man's hand, and politely walked him to the door, and politely wondered if he was ever going to find anyone who could work with West for more than a week at a time. Only one of the new partners he'd tried out on West lasted for more than a single assignment.
West was difficult, dangerous, demanding, cold, and entirely too willing to risk his and his partner's lives. And what was worse, Richmond knew that Jim wasn't deliberately trying to break up these attempts at partnering him. He didn't even suspect Richmond of such motives. God help him if West ever did figure it out. Or Gordon.
As Richmond opened the door to let the latest hapless attempt out of his office, a familiar voice could be heard from the antechamber.
"So, there we were, right in the lion's den, if you'll excuse the expression, and all we could do was wait to see what that madman had in store for us."
"What did you do then, Mr. Gordon?"
Richmond rolled his eyes at the breathless question. Artemus Gordon was flanked by the pretty young daughters of a certain Alabama senator, who'd have been most annoyed to discover his offspring hanging around the Secret Service office. And downright apoplectic if he knew whose words they were hanging on, even not knowing what Richmond knew.
"Mr. Gordon, if you can spare me a minute or two?"
Gordon's head flew up, but his eyes held no surprise at seeing
Richmond in the doorway. "Of course, sir!" He stood and turned to the
ladies, bowing elegantly to each of them. "If you ladies will excuse
Richmond poured them both a drink, despite the early hour. Gordon might not need it, but he certainly did. Gordon took the glass without question and drained it in one swallow.
"Good," he said, his voice slightly hoarse from the burn of alcohol.
"What do you have to report?" Richmond turned to the window. He spent more time in front of it when Gordon was in his office than at any other time.
Gordon rolled the empty glass between his palms. Richmond shifted his eyes until he couldn't see the reflection any longer. He didn't want to look, didn't want to see a man who had been his friend. Gordon didn't look any different, and Richmond wasn't sure what was worse: to look at him and see the pervert he knew him to be, or to forget, and see only Artemus.
"The letters keep coming in, of course. At my request, the president now allows me to open the mail." Unseen by Gordon, Richmond's eyebrows rose. Grant wasn't one for letting other men at his correspondence. He barely tolerated the secretary Congress had foisted on him to avoid having to decipher any more of his handwriting. "So at least I can make certain that neither he nor any of his family sees any of that... dreck." Richmond could think of a number of better, if cruder, words for what was in those letters. No doubt, so could Gordon. He was glad no one but Gordon had to read them any longer. "But I'm not any closer to figuring out who's sending them."
A tiny shudder overtook Richmond at the idea of clever Artemus Gordon attempting to ferret out the man who penned those letters. However, he refrained from pointing out that discovering who sent them wasn't Gordon's job, and permitted himself only a brusque nod. "Anything out of the ordinary?" Same question every week.
Same answer, too. "Not if you don't count the preoccupation of Washington and the country with the wedding. I had to kick out three reporters yesterday."
It was only as Richmond expected. "Very well. Make your next report in four days." He varied Gordon's reporting schedule. Gordon would become suspicious if Richmond was too cavalier about drawing him from Grant's side.
"Yes, sir. Oh, Colonel?"
Richmond closed his eyes. Just when he thought the interview safely ended. "Yes."
"Was that Mitchell Douglass I saw leaving your office in a high snit?"
"I believe it was." Richmond turned when no further question was forthcoming.
Gordon smiled sweetly and left.
Without asking about Jim.
"Is there some problem, Artemus?" Richmond casually shifted the papers on his desk to cover the telegram from West.
"Hm?" Gordon's gaze returned from the middle distance to settle on Richmond's face. "Oh, sorry, Colonel, I was just thinking."
"I can see that. What was so important that you abandoned your post in the middle of the day?"
Gordon made a dismissive gesture. "The president is in the South grounds, playing baseball."
Forgetting himself, Richmond started to his feet. "And you left him out there?"
"With three generals, five colonels, and a major, yes sir." Gordon raised an eyebrow. "I don't think anyone is likely to bother him, sir. Unless, of course, Sherman hits a home run again."
"Yes. Yes, of course." Richmond sat, feeling slightly foolish. Thank heavens Gordon didn't know just how foolish it was to get worked up over his abandonment of his bodyguarding duties. Under normal circumstances, the president could walk around Washington unaccompanied at any hour -- he frequently took a stroll to the home of the Secretary of State in the evening. Threats, of course, changed things, and setting Gordon on Grant was one of those things. Nonetheless, Gordon was more right than he knew to be unconcerned.
Richmond recalled himself. "Yes?"
"The reason I came..."
"Yes, of course, man, out with it." That came out sharper than intended.
Gordon didn't even blink. He unfolded a letter from his pocket and placed it on Richmond's desk, touching it no more than was necessary. "This arrived in this morning's post. Luckily, I got to it before Jesse could cut it up for the stamp."
A smile tipped Richmond's mouth. "Grant's youngest is still working on his collection, is he?" He drew the page to him. The smile vanished.
"Yes," he vaguely heard Gordon say, "apparently he's missing some from the territories."
"This, this is--" Richmond put the letter from him with a jerk, resisting the impulse to wipe his hands on his handkerchief.
"Yes, it is." Gordon retrieved it from the floor, picking it up between thumb and forefinger. He cocked his head to one side and looked it over again. "I don't think it's from the same man as before."
"No," Richmond said. He swallowed and reigned himself in, before Gordon had reason to question his vehemence. "No, it definitely isn't the same man."
Gordon nodded. With those same two fingers, he laid the letter on Richmond's desk, the outside up this time. "No envelope, just the page folded with the text inside, the address and stamp outside. We used to do this during the War," he added inconsequentially. He tapped the stamp. "Arizona territory." Gordon leaned back in the chair and laced his fingers over his vest. "Have you heard from James lately, by any chance?"
"I believe I have a telegram from him here somewhere." Richmond shuffled the papers across his desk until he got to where he knew the telegram was. "He indicates that he may have found something of importance, but doesn't say what it is," Richmond related without offering the telegram to Artie. "I wired back approval to take whatever steps are necessary to track down his lead."
"Knowing Jim," Artie said easily, "you won't hear from him again until he's put that little problem to rest. There's a good chance it's the other end of the same stick--" He gestured at the letter. "--but we won't know until we hear from Jim again. Well." He used his hands to push himself up from the chair. "I guess we'll have to handle this from here. I don't suppose you'd give me leave to track this fellow back to Arizona?"
Richmond shook his head. "I need you here." And it was, for the first time since this whole mess started, the God's honest truth.
Gordon nodded. He paused on his way to the door and swung back. "I haven't shown this to Grant yet--"
"Don't. He and Mrs. Grant have enough worries about the wedding without..."
Gordon inclined his head. "Agreed."
"Artemus? Stay close. If anything happened to Nellie..."
Gordon smiled. "It's been a constant effort to keep myself from being drawn into the wedding arrangements. I shall simply stop resisting."
After Gordon left, Richmond sat for a long time looking at the
letter on his desk and wondering how an innocuous piece of paper could
look so much like a deadly snake.
Hat in hand, Richmond turned to find a gray-bearded clerk hurrying to catch him. The man was out of breath when he reached Richmond, and it required several patient minutes before he could speak.
"Are you by any chance headed to the White House, Colonel?"
"I beg your pardon, sir, but if you could be persuaded to take this telegram over there, I'd be most obliged." He proffered a folded and sealed packet.
Richmond tucked it into an inside pocket. "For the president, I assume." Though why telegrams for him should be sent to the Secret Service office, Richmond couldn't think.
"No, sir. To Mr. Gordon, if it wouldn't be too much trouble."
The papers in Richmond's pocket seemed suddenly to burn. "Oh," he asked casually, "where from?"
"Arizona, I believe." The clerk looked past Richmond to the gray rain beating against the window. "I'm most obliged, sir, most obliged. Days like this get my rheumatics up somethin' fierce."
Richmond managed some polite response and fled. Thankfully, he was already wearing his hat and coat, and could manage well enough without the forgotten cane. Shoulders raised against the rain, head tucked down into his collar like a turtle, he stomped toward the White House.
All the way there, the telegram burned in his pocket. From West to Gordon. No wonder Gordon wasn't in the habit of asking Richmond about West -- it wasn't circumspection; it was simple lack of necessity. He was getting messages from his partner. His lover -- a sour taste invaded Richmond's mouth. And no doubt sending messages back.
Richmond stopped in his tracks. Oh dear god. What were they saying to each other? Lovers separated by three-quarters of a continent and several months. What kind of gossip was even now making the rounds of the Secret Service offices? Telegraph officers were notorious gossips, even those employed by the Secret Service, though of course every effort was made to ascertain that no confidential communication was disclosed.
He didn't move until jostled several times. When he looked up, he found himself outside the Willard, and went in without thinking. It wasn't until he sat in a secluded table in the corner of the bar with a warm amber-filled glass in front of him that he knew what he'd come inside to do.
He swallowed half his drink and felt it burn a path down to his belly that was a welcome contrast to the imagined burning of the telegram in the pocket against his chest. Richmond drew out the telegram with careful fingers, and laid it on the table in front of him. He sat looking at it: a plain piece of paper with a red wax seal, the impression of the telegraph office sigil pressed deep.
Richmond still couldn't quite believe it, even with the evidence in front of him. He hadn't forbidden communication -- how could he without an explanation -- but he somehow hadn't thought that they would communicate. He couldn't understand how it was he'd never considered it. He had, he realized now, merely assumed that it would all somehow go away if he only separated them. How very simplistic.
And here they were, not sending the occasional sedate letter, but telegrams. Through the Secret Service office, no less. He brushed a finger along the edge of the packet. There were two pages: the one folded about the outside and an inner one. A long message. He ought to dock Jim's pay for sending it, the cost was-- He ought to suspend them both for using the telegraph for personal messages-- He ought... he ought to read it.
It was a delicate job to open it without breaking the wax seal. But Richmond could be a delicate man, when the occasion called for it. He smoothed the pages carefully out on the table and called for another drink before he dared look at them.
Ten minutes later, he'd read it four times. The hard knot of fear in his chest had loosened, replaced with something a great deal more confused. There was nothing exceptional here. Nothing for the telegraph operators to gossip about. Nothing at all that made any sense to Richmond. The tone was light and breezy -- hardly Jim West's usual style -- and more voluble than Richmond had thought Jim capable of being. A large section of several dozen lines in the middle was hopelessly garbled; the Secret Service telegrapher appended a note indicating that the text was taken down exactly as received. It was followed by a paragraph asking how Artie was faring and hoping he had received some package. And that was all.
Richmond puzzled over the garbled section for another quarter hour. If the message had been sent from a telegraph office in Arizona, he wouldn't think anything of it. Telegraphers had been known to fall asleep at the switch, and there were some who simply never learned Morse Code properly (most of those were working for the railroad, a decidedly uncomfortable thought). However, Jim had the train, which meant he had his own telegraph, and Jim was an experienced telegrapher. If he sent gibberish, he sent it on purpose. But damned if Richmond could determine the purpose.
He was, he realized, now that the concern over gossip was put to rest, rather less angry that West and Gordon were communicating behind his back, than that West had telegraphed his lover before his boss. Richmond had been waiting to hear from the man since that first grotesque letter arrived, and here West had telegraphed Gordon before sending in his report. It was now impossible to keep the situation from Grant any longer, and Richmond had nothing to tell him, not even the whereabouts of his best agent.
And, he realized with a glance at his watch, he was already thirty minutes late for his appointment with President Grant.
Richmond called for coffee, paper and a pencil, not having one on him. He carefully copied out the gibberish; might as well be hung for a sheep as a lamb. The red wax on the telegram yielded to the careful touch of a match and sealed the two sides of the page together again as if the packet had never been breached. He scalded his tongue on the coffee and cursed under his breath, and tossed money on the table as he rose to leave, hoping the bitter smell would cover the alcohol on his breath.
It was not the most propitious of preludes to an interview that was certain to prove difficult.
The doorman let him in without a word, a slight incline of his head toward the grand staircase his only response to Richmond's query about Grant's whereabouts.
The family living area was at the head of the stairs. It was late afternoon; Richmond had missed his appointment, and the end of Grant's usual workday, by nearly an hour. Though the president was usually somewhere about the grounds at this time of day, given the weather it wasn't impossible he should be still inside.
West's telegram was once again burning against Richmond's chest. He lightly touched the pocket. He could deliver it once he'd spoken with the president.
As Richmond reached the top of the stairs, he heard an odd sound from the family's parlor. A sort of growl, it brought an unwilling smile to Richmond's lips. Grant was never one for remembering his dignity while playing with his children. He'd once forgotten himself so far as to toss a tiny ball of bread at his daughter during a formal state dinner -- just to see her smile.
The door was not fully closed, and Richmond entered after a light knock which had apparently gone unheard. Though it was May, a fire burned in the hearth, cheerful antidote to the gray skies glowering through the large lunette windows. The boy, Jesse, tossed his head back and looked up, giggling, no doubt expecting his mother. His eyes widened on seeing Richmond, and he lost his grip. Instantly, his vanquished foe heaved himself valiantly up from the carpet, and Jesse had to scramble to land on his feet. Richmond blinked upon finding himself looking into the laughing face of Artemus Gordon.
Jesse wrapped his thirteen-year old dignity around himself and gave Richmond a stiff little bow. "Colonel. Captain," to Gordon, "if you'll excuse me..." He slipped around Richmond and out the door, and the only sound in the room, scarcely louder than the rain on the windows, was Gordon's laughter.
"I think you embarrassed him." Gordon drew himself to his feet and brushed carpet lint off his suit.
Richmond dismissed the first several things that came to mind as wretchedly inappropriate and instead asked, "Where's the president?"
Gordon straightened a cuff. A flash of crimson caught Richmond's eye. "I believe he's in the stables."
"In this weather?"
"In all weathers, Colonel."
"And you aren't with him, because..."
"Because he says I unsettle the horses. The obvious corollary, so he says, of the horses unsettling me."
To which Richmond had no ready answer. Trust Gordon to be completely unconcerned about admitting his unease with horses. Richmond would have thought that working with West would have cured him of either the unease or the willingness to admit to it. West shared Grant's rapport with the animals, and his contempt for those who lacked it. Obviously, however, West's emotions for his partner didn't include contempt; Richmond wondered how Gordon had overcome that.
"Oh, I almost forgot." Would prefer to forget, permanently, if possible. But Gordon was certain to find out about it, if not from the clerk, then from the telegraph operator. Richmond drew West's telegram from his pocket. "This arrived for you."
"Thank you, Colonel." As Gordon reached for the papers, a flash of red once again caught Richmond's eye: a ring, he saw now. Fashioned of heavy intricate gold, with a ruby of outstanding fire, it rode like an emperor on the smallest finger of Gordon's left hand. Gordon slid the telegram inside the breast of his coat without looking at it.
"New ring?" Richmond asked, thinking of packages recently received. "Your own design?"
Gordon smiled. "Not exactly." Absently, he patted his chest, and Richmond heard the telegram rustle.
"What does it do?" Richmond persisted.
Gordon's smile widened. "Nothing whatsoever." His fingers curled partway to his palm, and Richmond at first thought the smiling countenance a lie. Then he saw how Gordon rubbed the band with his thumb, and thought otherwise of the gesture.
"Come along, then," he said, surprising himself with the order. "We're late to see the president."
Gordon wisely made no comment, but simply joined Richmond. They turned their steps to the basement, and the passage that led from there to the stables. Grant was in the third stall, communing with a gorgeous black thoroughbred.
"You're late," he said to the white blaze on the horse's face.
"Yes, sir. I was unavoidably--"
"It was you who wanted to see me, Colonel. Skip the shilly-shallying and get to the point." Grant's voice was low and even; he picked up a brush and began to curry the already gleaming horse.
Richmond hazarded a glance at Gordon, who stood placidly leaning against a post. He wished he'd had Gordon break the news when the letters first started arriving.
"There have--" He cleared his throat. "Begging your pardon, Mr. President, but there have been letters. Threats."
"There are always threats," Grant said, his stock answer, without looking up from his work.
"Not like these."
Now Grant looked up, a flash of white teeth in the dim stables. "I believe we've had this conversation before, Colonel. Which is why Mr. Gordon is loitering near the door."
"Actually, the letters which prompted the need for Mr. Gordon's presence have since stopped." Indeed they had. In light of the other letters, Richmond had neither the need nor the stomach to write any more of the distasteful things.
"Then what the Sam Hill is he still doing here? Surely Mr. Gordon has more important things to do than sit around planning my daughter's wedding."
"I'm afraid I don't, sir," Gordon said. At the tone of his voice, Grant put down the brushes and turned his full attention on them.
"What is it?"
Richmond glanced at Gordon, then resolutely took the point. "There have been letters about the wedding. Unpleasant ones."
"I haven't seen any. Of course, the papers are in a dither of mindless hysterics, but society columnists haven't a brain in their collective heads. You'd think we were ushering in a new Jubilee."
"I've been intercepting them, sir."
Grant looked at Gordon for a moment. It was the commanding general, rather than the ineffectual president, who said, "I see. And your reason for interfering with my mail?" Either he'd forgotten he gave Gordon carte blanche to do so, or simply chose to ignore that point.
"The letters, sir, are... disturbing." Richmond answered for his agent. He had, after all, been the one to make the decision not to tell the president. He braced himself as the piercing eyes turned to him. "We felt it necessary to handle the situation without exposing you or your family to such filth."
"What sort of filth?" He looked from Richmond to Gordon, and apparently found his answer in their eyes. His expression hardened. "Have you found the man?"
"No." From Gordon such a terse answer spoke volumes.
"The wedding must be canceled." An extreme reaction, but Richmond was frankly disturbed by the content of the last few letters, and the fact that they were postmarked from increasingly closer locations.
Grant sagged back against the manger. "Don't you think Julia and I have been trying?" He scrubbed a hand across his face, leaving a trace of dust in his beard and a smudge on his nose. "Algernon Sartoris is a no-account fool and a sot. And he'll take our Nellie with him back to England." This, perhaps, their greatest objection. He shook his head on a rueful laugh. "But what Nellie wants, Nellie gets."
"Even if there is legitimate danger?"
Gordon's eyes met Grant's and the corner of his mouth quirked before he got it under control. "I'm afraid the president is right, Colonel. Miss Grant is quite... headstrong."
"She's as stubborn as an ox," Grant said, almost proudly. "And lately Julia has taken to reminding me how fearfully her own parents opposed her marriage to a certain penniless army officer."
"Against both Julia and Nellie Grant," Gordon said, almost as if he were declaiming the prologue to a Greek tragedy, "no man may prevail."
The horse nudged Grant's shoulder with his nose. One hand lifting automatically to stroke the velvet nose, Grant felt in his pocket with the other, producing a cigar. He looked at it, then at the abundance of straw around, then tucked it away unlit.
Richmond kept his eyes fixed on Grant. "Arizona someplace."
"Get him back here." Grant walked to the door of the stables and lit his cigar. "And find whoever's threatening my daughter. Before the wedding, gentlemen." He walked out into the rain, bareheaded and puffing like a straining engine on his cigar.
Gordon strolled over to the midnight horse and raised a hand to stroke the proud neck. The dim light in the stables sparked only the faintest flicker of red from the ring.
Richmond swallowed. There was nothing for it but to hope for the best. "Contact West and arrange for his return." He headed for the passage back to the house. "Put out the lamps; we don't want a fire."
When he looked back from the door, all Richmond could see in
the lowering lights was an ember of red, glowing steadily in the dark.
For the second time since this whole business began, Richmond found himself shuffling papers on his desk to hide something from Artemus Gordon. This time, it was the copy of the gibberish from West's telegram and several sheets filled with Richmond's efforts to puzzle it out. He had come upon the idea that it was a cipher, and a corresponding obsession with solving it.
The Secret Service had several official ciphers, of course, and quite a few people whose sole job was to solve the ciphers of other countries. This particular example, however, wasn't one that Richmond recognized, and he could hardly hand it over to someone to sort out. His lack of progress would have been embarrassing, if he wasn't morally certain that Gordon was the author of the cipher.
"Yes," he asked, hiding his disconcert behind a mask of impatience.
"I can't reach Jim," Gordon said without preamble.
Surprised, Richmond blurted inanely, "What do you mean?"
"I mean, he's not answering my telegrams. I've been trying since yesterday, with no luck."
"Perhaps West is merely on the move."
"Perhaps." Gordon dropped into the chair opposite Richmond's desk and worried his new ring with his thumb. "But in light of the letters, I'd much rather have him answering. I'd much rather have him here."
"As would I," Richmond found himself saying. And, for all the likelihood of scandal, he meant it. He glanced down at his desk and shifted another paper over to fully cover the cipher. "What about the telegram?"
"The telegram you received yesterday, wasn't it from West?" And what the hell was in that ciphered section?
"Yes." His hand lifted to touch his breast pocket, as it had yesterday when Richmond asked about the ring. Gordon shook his head. "Unfortunately, he doesn't say where he is."
"The telegraph office--"
"Originally said it came from Arizona, but when I spoke with Karl, he admitted that it was merely an assumption. He knew Jim was in Arizona, therefore... It could, actually, have been sent from anywhere. And... there was another letter this morning. Postmarked Washington."
"Damn." Finding it impossible to sit any longer, Richmond rose
and moved automatically to the window. "We need West here." And he
believed it, felt it, as deeply as he knew it would be disastrous to
have the two men together again. "Keep trying."
"Yes, what is it?" Richmond asked without looking up at his secretary.
"A gentleman of Congress, sir."
Oh hell. Once again, Richmond slipped the cipher and his attempts to work it out under other paperwork.
Richmond rose and plastered a smile on his face as his heart sank, extending his hand to be enveloped in a moist grip. "Senator Simmons. To what do I owe the pleasure?"
"Business, Colonel, business." The chair creaked as Simmons settled into it. He balanced his cane against the jaundice-yellow waistcoat that stretched over his paunch, pulling at the buttons. "You know of the good work done by the committee I head, of course."
"Of course, sir." Richmond sank into his chair, his legs suddenly without sinew.
Simmons held the cut glass knob of his cane up to the lamp on Richmond's desk, studying it critically. "The Committee for Moral Rectitude has been instrumental in setting a high moral tone, sorely needed by this government. The case of Congressman Boone, for example," he said, naming a man who had been driven from the capital in disgrace after certain midnight activities were brought to light. Activities which paled in comparison to the ones Richmond didn't want to think about taking place on the Wanderer.
"Yes, indeed." Richmond glanced at the sideboard and the decanter of brandy so temptingly disposed there. His mouth was abominably dry.
"Spirits," Simmons intoned, as from a pulpit, "are the Devil's handmaidens. As our president has found to his lamentable bad fortune."
Despite himself, Richmond bristled. "President Grant is no drunkard."
A raised eyebrow was Simmons' only response.
"Ben Butler had detectives following Mr. Grant the entire summer and fall before the 1868 election," Richmond said, knowing it would accomplish nothing, and yet unable to remain silent. "They found nothing and observed no excessive imbibing of alcohol."
"Is that so."
Richmond controlled himself by way of a hard bite to the inside of his cheek. "Senator Simmons, if we could come to the reason for your visit... I have many things yet to do tonight."
"Ah yes. We have received..." He rolled the words around his mouth, just as he rolled his cane between his hands, sending a reflected shower of sparks from the glass knob. "It seems that we have received intimations of ungodly activities arising from inside your very office."
Richmond forced back a shiver and glanced at the fire, which was burning merrily in despite of the cold of the room. "We're the Secret Service, Senator. Sometimes virtuous work must be done in an unvirtuous way."
"I fervently hope that you do not consider these activities virtuous work. Or work of any sort." The senator made a moue of distaste. "The things your agents get up to when out from under your eagle eye... For I am sure you would not countenance such things, were you aware of them."
Richmond gripped the underside of his desk. "To which agents do you refer?" It was an effort to unclench his jaw enough to speak.
"Bowler, for one. Cloyce, for another."
Richmond was hard-pressed not to show relief. "Oh? And of what are you accusing these men?"
"Immoral acts, man! Immoral acts!"
Richmond kneaded his hands together, rubbing out the reddened creases that matched the contours of the underside of his desk. "Specifically."
"Specifically--" Simmons leaned over his cane. "--that they consort with loose women, spend every night carousing at the Willard and other decidedly less savory places, that they drink to excess, smoke like chimneys, and have been seen stumbling into the dark with harlots on their arms."
Richmond put out a hand to flatten the papers ruffled up by Simmons' elephantine breath. "Is that all?"
"Is that all?"
"I distinctly remember ordering them to make the rounds of all the brothels in Washington. I do hope they haven't been shirking their duties." He sat back in his chair and laid himself a small wager as to how long it would take for Simmons' face to resume its usual overheated hue. When, after several minutes, it appeared, instead, of sufficiently angry heat to set fire to the drapery, he said, "I did tell you that sometimes virtuous ends are arrived at by unvirtuous means. Bowler and Cloyce are attempting, on my orders, to track down the author of certain threatening letters. As the writer of these letters is clearly a frequenter of such immoral haunts, it is there we must seek him." He rose and perforce the Senator did as well. "I thank you for your concern in such matters, but be certain that we are at all times working for the best for the country. Good day."
Richmond closed the door behind Simmons and put his back to it. After a minute, he heard the angry thump of a cane on carpeting and the wheeze that accompanied the Senator's footsteps. He closed his eyes and sagged against the door.
"My god," he said to himself, and went to pour a large brandy.
While he was drinking it, his secretary poked his head timidly through the door.
"Tell Bowler and Cloyce that I want to see them at their earliest convenience."
The man vanished again without a word, probably grateful not to come in for any of Richmond's temper himself. As for Bowler and Cloyce, they'd not be so relieved when they left the office; nor would they be so obvious in their personal amusements after tonight.
Richmond took his glass over to the hearth and tried unsuccessfully to warm the fear out of him. God, man, he thought, you've stood fast with a horde of screaming Rebels coming down at you, don't break at the first sortie by a moralizing hypocrite with no heart and little brains.
Simmons had got the wrong end of the stick this time, but how long before he stumbled onto the real immorality going on in the Secret Service? Then, it would take more than a glib lie to send the man from Richmond's office, the fires of his zeal dampened, but unquenched. Richmond dreaded that day. He dreaded far more, however, the consequences if they didn't stop the man who threatened Nellie Grant. He thought of that sweet fresh beauty, and the things the letters threatened, and shuddered.
Much as he wanted to, after Simmons' visit, he couldn't hope any less fervently that Gordon would reach West and get him back to Washington. He'd just have to hope they got the blackguard quickly, before Simmons could ferret out anything damaging.
"When I find the man who's writing those letters," he said to the fire, "I'm going to cut off his balls and feed them to him."
"The wedding is tomorrow."
"I know that, man. Stop pacing; you're wearing a hole in my carpet."
Gordon took Richmond's usual place at the window.
"How is it coming along?"
"Oh, just fine. The bridal gown came in under two thousand dollars, but only just; three of the bridesmaids are finally over the influenza, and only two more of them seem likely to get it, hopefully not before tomorrow; and the East Room is awash in flowers, which is playing the very devil with my hay fever." Gordon made an aborted gesture with his right hand. "The president is a basket case, the letters keep coming, and we still haven't heard from James."
"Shouldn't you be at the White House?"
"Nellie's not going to come out until the wedding -- she's closed up in her room with her mother, having a severe attack of the vapors. And the president is closeted with three tailors and two of his best bodyguards, all of whom are trying to convince him that a black armband is not appropriate attire for a wedding."
"He's not gotten any more sanguine about her marrying Sartoris, then."
Gordon shook his head. "I don't know. He seems to like the kid, or at least not to dislike him. I think he doesn't like the idea of his Nellie all the way across the Atlantic, though."
Richmond thought it unlikely that any man would be good enough for Grant's only daughter, but he had to admit that Sartoris fell short of the mark from any point of view. "And about the threats?"
Gordon lifted one shoulder. "I believe he's leaving it to us."
"Oh, excellent," Richmond said. He rubbed fretfully at his forehead, half wishing he was Catholic. Confession sounded good right about now. In fact, it was becoming a constant strain not to go to Grant and confess all. If he'd left his best team together, he wouldn't now be looking at the possibility of some maniac disrupting Nellie Grant's wedding, or worse. If he hadn't tried to separate West and Gordon, he'd have both of them at hand to resolve this mess. Even if he'd sent them both to Arizona, he would have recalled them at the first letter; they would have found the bastard writing them; and all would be well.
Except for Senator Simmons.
"It's nothing, Gordon." He kept his eyes closed and cast wildly for an excuse. "Just a touch of dyspepsia, that's all."
"Hot ginger tea's just the thing for dyspepsia." Gordon hadn't even turned from the window; he didn't see Richmond eyeing him.
"Wonderful," he said under his breath, "now he's turned into the witch woman from the end of the lane."
"What was that, sir?"
Richmond was saved from responding by a knock on the door. "Come!"
"Oh god." This time, his voice was low enough that even Gordon didn't hear him. The man at the door certainly didn't, and entered with the jaunty step of a man who knows his welcome. He was about Gordon's height, with short dark hair, and dark eyes that peered out from behind silver-rimmed glasses. "What is it, Hinson?"
Hinson's eyes flicked to Gordon and back. His lip curled. "I'm afraid it's a matter of some secrecy, sir."
"Then get on with it, man." He watched Hinson eye Gordon and restrained a sigh. "Whatever it is, it can be said in front of my best agent."
"I thought West was that." Said in such a tone as to suggest that only a fool would think anyone but Mark Hinson was the best.
"I thought the matter was urgent," Richmond prompted. He felt Gordon shaking with laughter behind him, and could only hope that the actor had kept the emotion off his face.
"Well, if you must know, sir, I've come about the telegraph office."
Gordon went very still. Richmond rigorously controlled his face. "Yes?"
"Well, sir, not to put to fine a point on it, but I think the operators have been drinking on the job." If there was anything Hinson excelled at more than arrogance, it was outraged sensibilities.
"Why do you say that? I presume you have proof."
Completely missing the import of Richmond's softly voiced response, Hinson unearthed a telegram slip from his pocket and brandished it with a flourish. "It's complete gibberish. The second today!"
Artie's voice was very quiet. "What did you do with it?"
"The first message. What did you do with it."
"I tossed it on the fire."
Before either Hinson or Richmond could react, Artie had the young man by the throat. "You did what?"
For a moment, Richmond surveyed the scene. He never had liked Hinson, supercilious prick that he was. Perhaps the young man would learn a few manners, not to mention something of the agent's arts. To destroy any message without fully understanding it... Richmond shook his head.
He realized suddenly that the man's feet were off the ground. Like many, he tended to forget the strength that lay beneath Gordon's smooth exterior. The intricate folds of Hinson's necktie were something of a liability -- his face was turning an interesting shade of puce.
"Gordon..." Richmond frowned at the lack of response. He stepped forward to lay a hand on Artie's arm, the muscle iron under his palm. "Artemus."
Artie blinked and let the man down. Coughing, Hinson jerked away, his lips pulled into a snarl that was all show.
"Hinson," Richmond said oppressively before the man could further antagonize Gordon. "Take yourself off to the telegraph office and get a copy of the first message."
The young man possessed none of the sense of self-preservation necessary in those who would progress in the world. "What if they don't have a copy?" He blanched when Artie stepped toward him.
"The telegrapher will have a copy." Pray God, if the man had learned Morse Code out of interest rather than necessity. By and large, telegraphers were a curious sort, and they couldn't resist a puzzle. "Now, Hinson."
The young man left without another word, but with many a backward glance which hinted darkly of retribution to come. Richmond shook his head. He'd deal with it later.
Gordon bent to snatch the telegram from the floor and sat down at Richmond's desk without so much as a by your leave. He smoothed the telegram, ferreted a pencil out of the clutter, and began writing on the paper, marking a quick line of letters over each row of the original message. "Paper," he said.
Richmond pulled a clean sheet out of a drawer and handed it to him, only then remembering the cipher sheets still lying on his desk. While Gordon was occupied, Richmond quickly retrieved the papers and stuffed them into his pocket. Gordon didn't even look up from his writing. Under the pencil, a table took shape which Richmond recognized as the Vigenre tableau. He shook his head.
"But I tried that," he said under his breath. Tried and failed to decipher the gibberish in West's earlier message using such a system. Yet as he watched, he could see how it was.
With his table complete, Gordon went back to the original message, made a great number of additional notations on it, then began to write the clear under the Vigenre table, checking letters as he went. He worked faster than was possible, if he were checking every letter, and Richmond knew that he was so familiar with the cipher that he could have done it without the tableau, but wasn't willing to risk it on so important a communication.
Finally, Gordon sat back. "It says: 'Receiving no response, will undertake capture on my own, anticipating backup will arrive shortly. West.'"
"It must have said in the first telegram." He shoved himself up from the table. Richmond got between him and the door.
"Hinson is fetching it."
"He'd better. If that first telegram isn't found, I'm going to--"
Hinson picked that unenviable moment to return. Without breaking eye contact with Gordon, Richmond held out his hand for the paper. For once, Hinson showed some sense of self-preservation: he put the telegram in Richmond's hand and took himself off.
"I know, Gordon. Decipher the telegram."
This time it took longer, though the table was already created. Gordon muttered and shook his head over the papers.
"What is it?"
"Something wrong here," Gordon said, still bent over his work. "Either the telegrapher didn't take it all down right, or he didn't copy it exactly."
"Can you still work it out?"
"Most of it, I think." He scowled at it. "A reference to letters, to Washington, and the president."
"So he was working on the same problem we are."
"I thought that possible when the first letter came from Arizona territory." Gordon frowned at the clear and penciled something else in. "Other than that, the only identifiable words are Hull house."
"Simpson!" The immediacy with which Richmond's secretary opened the door at his call suggested he'd been eavesdropping. Richmond forebear comment. "Find me a place called Hull house in Washington. Immediately."
"And Simpson. Send someone to call up all agents in Washington not already on priority assignments."
"Where are you going, Gordon?" Once again, Richmond put himself between his agent and the door.
"To find Jim."
"Without a direction? Wait until Simpson finds Hull house." It was eminently reasonable, and Gordon sat down by the hearth with a thunderous face, but no objections.
If, Richmond thought, West had found the bastard who wrote the letters, then that situation was as good as resolved. Once it was over, he could send West out again -- there was a situation brewing in Dakota that might keep him busy for a while. It would be best if Richmond could do so immediately, and without West and Gordon meeting. The thought of them doing so in Washington, under the eagle eye of Senator Simmons, made Richmond cold. If he could keep Gordon from rushing off after West, then they need never meet, and Senator Simmons need never know just what sort of immorality the Secret Service was harboring in its breast.
"If you'll excuse me..." Richmond slipped out without waiting for a response, leaving Gordon brooding into the fire.
When Richmond returned, some minutes later, Gordon didn't immediately become aware of him. Richmond looked at his best man and wondered, for a moment, how this could possibly be the right thing. Gordon looked up finally, his bleak expression fading into neutrality. He stood and brushed his hands against his pants. "You've found the place," he said.
"Yes, and sent a team after West." He hoped it would be enough; the fact that West had obviously wanted backup to go in after the villain was disconcerting.
"Excellent. I'll get the direction from Simpson, then."
But Richmond was still standing before the door. "I want you to stay here."
"If something goes wrong. If something goes wrong," he repeated over Gordon's objections, "you're still the best man to guard Grant and his family during the wedding. It was you who arranged the system of guards and you are the only one Grant will have by him during the ceremony." He put a hand on Gordon's shoulder. "I need you here."
Gordon spun away from him with a noise Richmond couldn't name. He thought it was the sort of noise an animal might make. Again, he thought of West, of his team heading off to help the agent without the one man West looked to for backup. He thought of what he'd seen in that train car -- not just of the kiss, but the way Artemus jollied Jim along, taking care of him in more ways than any of Richmond's agents could possibly understand. And he opened his lips to send Artie off after his partner, and closed them again with the words unsaid. For, once again, he saw Senator Simmons, and feared the consequences.
Time passed. Artemus paced the office. Richmond had seen Jim in his more restless moods, and thought he looked like some sort of caged great cat. Now he saw how wrong he'd been -- here was the leashed predator, brooding, stalking the confines of the room.
It was cruel to keep him, and yet Richmond couldn't seem to let him go.
He didn't notice Grant's presence until Artie twitched and whirled to face him.
"Mr. Gordon, please go get your partner."
"Sir." He was gone almost before Grant was finished, and certainly before his own response, which seemed to have dropped into the room from empty air.
"Mr. President, you can't..."
Grant smiled. "Can't I?"
"Sir, you don't understand..." God, where were the words? How could he possibly say them to Grant, even if he could find them. "It's not... safe to have West and Gordon together anymore."
"It's not safe to have them apart. Look what's happened." He lit a match from the fire and touched it to the end of his cigar. "My Nellie in danger..." He shook his head. "I can't have that, Colonel."
Richmond came to stand next to Grant before the fire. He warmed himself at it and thought. "Have you seen Gordon's new ring?"
"The ruby? Very nice."
"West sent it to him."
"I know." His eyes twinkled. "I was there when the package arrived."
"Then, sir, you know we can't--"
"What I know, Colonel, is that they're my best. Separately, they're the best we have. Together... something astounding."
"Sir, together they're--"
"Incandescent." The cool gray eyes which met Richmond's weren't those of the president who, as much as Richmond loved the man, had made less than stellar choices. It was the general who looked out of those eyes -- the cunning man who proved himself capable of outfoxing even the Gray Fox, General Lee himself.
There was really only one response. "Yes, sir."
Grant clapped him on the shoulder. "You worry too much, Dean."
Richmond snorted softly and shook his head. "It's a dangerous secret to keep."
"You run the Secret Service, Dean -- what's one more?"
He laughed in spite of himself. Senator Simmons' fat florid face swam into view and he snorted at it. Every man had secrets, especially a hypocritical prig like Simmons. He'd set someone on it, and if Simmons should ever be a problem...
Grant went to the door and Richmond moved back to his desk. With an effort, he sank into the chair and pick up the pencil. His fingers shook slightly. If it weren't for him, West wouldn't be in this trouble. He stared down at the pages strewn across the desk. Artie's neat hand was frayed, the writing fearful and disjointed. Richmond felt that fear, as he hadn't when Artemus was in the office, as if his writing conveyed all the emotion his face wouldn't show.
There was no sound of a closing door. Richmond looked up. Grant was still in the doorway, his back to Richmond. An oblique turn of the head brought one granite eye to bear on Richmond.
"I'm very fond of those young men, Dean. And Mrs. Grant would be devastated if they were unable to attend the wedding."
Richmond couldn't help the smile that spread over his face. "Yes, sir."
He snatched up his hat and cane and, as an afterthought,
stuffed the two telegrams and the sheets of Artie's writing in his coat
Night had fallen by the time Richmond reached Hull house. It wasn't difficult to find, not with half the Washington office casting around the grounds with lanterns. The sight was both reassuring and frightening.
"Lost something, Cloyce?"
The man drew himself up to a brisk salute. "No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. The bastard is injured, sir, and ran off into the grounds." His gesture took in the fiercely overgrown garden.
"Do we know his name yet?"
"Hull, sir," Cloyce said with a look. "Josiah Hull. Went west to make his fortune. Can't imagine why he'd want to leave here," he added with ungentle sarcasm, kicking the head off a malignant mushroom.
"West said he lost everything and his girl left him," Cloyce said with a disinterested shrug.
"Upstairs, sir. With Gordon." He dared a smile at Richmond. "Don't worry, sir, the bastard won't go far."
"Best you find him before he does," Richmond threw over his shoulder as he headed for the house.
It was a dark building, redolent of rats and mold, and the railing Richmond touched as he climbed the creaking staircase was damp and unpleasant to the touch. "Breeding ground for treason," he said to himself as he climbed. Or madness. Not to mention consumption.
As he came to the second landing, he heard voices. He moved silently to the door and listened without opening it.
"Hold still, Jim."
"Damn it, Artie!"
"I know it hurts. But Jesus, boy, when are you going to learn not to attack armed men?"
"He only had a knife."
"And you only had your bare hands. Damn. This is going to need stitches."
"Just let me have some whiskey before you start sewing me up."
Richmond frowned at the following silence. Surely Artemus wasn't trying to do anything more than get Jim bandaged up and out of this rank place. It was hardly the place he'd have picked to doctor a wound. Slowly, and remembering exactly what had happened last time he'd done this, he pushed the door slightly ajar.
He shook his head at what he saw, and reflected that it was no more than he deserved. At least they weren't kissing this time. Artemus had his arms around Jim, Jim's head tucked into the curve of his shoulder. Both men had their eyes closed, and in the mold-blackened room, fitful moonlight and a sputtering lamp their only illumination, they seemed to make their own light.
Silently, Richmond pulled the door shut. He walked soundlessly back to the landing and sat at the head of the stairs, careless of his pants. He pulled the cipher papers out of his right hand pocket and looked at Artie's frantic writing. Then he dredged his own attempted decipherment out of the left pocket and stared at it for a while. Now that he had the key, the cipher in Jim's telegram would no longer be a mystery. Whatever he'd said so privately to Artie could be made clear.
Richmond felt, suddenly, all too like Josiah Hull -- determined to destroy what he couldn't have. Hull's own marriage lost, he turned on Nellie Grant, whipped on by the effusions of the society gossips. Was Richmond any better, risking two men's lives, and through them who knew how many others, just because he feared what he could not understand?
Richmond dug a match out of his vest pocket and finally succeeded in striking it against the slimy banister. He set the flame to each paper in turn, and watched the last fragments flutter to the stair before rubbing each one out with the heel of his boot.
Then he wrapped his arms around his knees and waited until the
men in the room behind him found the wherewithal to break their embrace
and come out to him.
The wedding went off without a hitch. There were no further worries about malign interference, not once the body of the poor mad bastard who had penned so many vicious letters was discovered not a hundred feet from where Cloyce and Richmond had stood talking.
The only concern, then, was Grant himself. However, he gave in, as he always would, to the will of his daughter and walked down the aisle with her on his arm with only the slightest hint of reluctance. And when all was said and done, and the match was irretrievably made, he made the very best of it that he could.
The wedding party was, of course, a success. Especially, Richmond thought, in the eyes of the young ladies who would go home flattered by youthful blue eyes, or rich brown ones.
Yet, as Richmond watched them, he could see it. Now that he knew, it was in every look, every touch that lingered just the slightest moment too long. He watched a courtship as clear as those en promenade on the garden paths, and carried out in the leafy bowers. Certainly, it seemed to him, they matched the bride and groom for that glow of love returned -- matched and surpassed.
He was no longer worried, certain that Artemus and James had kept this secret successfully for years. They had practice -- why should it come out now, when it didn't before? It was a relief to see them as friends again, instead of something perverted and ugly. Somehow, though what he thought was wrong, and what he knew was right hadn't changed, he now saw only the love when he looked at them. And, he thought as he looked around the room, not a soul but him saw it.
His eyes met the piercing gray gaze of his president. Not a soul but one. Grant glanced at Jim and Artie, then back at Richmond, a smile growing on his face.
Richmond smiled back automatically, and was still smiling when he turned his gaze on his best team. Artie's hand lay on Jim's shoulder -- a lighter touch than most would have thought, over bandages no one suspected. The ruby on his finger flickered with the licking of candlelight, the throb like the beat of a heart.
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