"So what are you going to do about this?"
Sheriff Nate Hunter looked up from the paperwork on his desk. He and Olson had been going over the records, and now there was a new one tossed on his desk. A deed, by the look of it.
It had been several weeks since the . . . uproar in Gomorra. The man who had barged into his office was one of those that he considered responsible for much of the chaos.
To look at him, the newcomer wasnt much. An older man, perhaps in his late 50's. He was dressed in somber black clothing, with a stovepipe hat pulled down to his ears. He was balding, with a fringe of gray hair and beard. His most distinctive features were a large, hooked nose and piercing hazel eyes that blazed out from a craggy brow.
"Jebediah Whateley, as I live and breathe!" William Olson exclaimed. "I didnt think wed be seein your face around these parts."
Jebediah gave the bailiff a contemptuous glare, but Olson showed no signs of looking away.
"Am I under arrest, Sheriff? Do you have any warrants against me?"
Olson started to reply, but Hunter held up a hand. "Thereve been no crimes . . . charged against you, Mr. Whateley."
"Or my family?"
Hunter frowned at this. "No," he admitted eventually, as if the word had been ripped from him.
"Then, as one of Gomorras leading citizens, I would hope you could spare me a few minutes of your valuable time." Jebediah glared at Olson. "Alone."
Olson looked ready to bite off a retort, but Nate cleared his throat. The bailiff gave him a brief glance, then nodded reluctantly. "Think Ill be moseyin on then, Sheriff. Darren owes me a drink, and if we can find a bar the Unions left open, maybe Ill see about collectin."
William got up and, giving Jebediah a wide berth, strolled out of the office.
"Care to take a seat, Mr. Whateley?" Nate asked.
"I will remain standing, thank you very much." Jebediah replied. "I would call your attention to that deed before you. It proves beyond a shadow of the doubt that my family has full and legitimate claim upon the Spirit of Kentucky shaft."
"I dont recall ever disputing the matter," Nate replied.
"No. But there are others who would. The sort you Westerners call . . . claim jumpers, as I recall."
"And what exactly is that to me?"
Jebediah began to pace the room. "I would have thought that enforcement of the law would be of some small concern to you, Sheriff Hunter. That is why the good people of Gomorra appointed you to your position after the death of your predecessor, is it not?"
The elder Whateley paused before a small plaque mounted on the wall. On it was a simple metal star. Gently, Jebediah traced its outline with one finger, closing his eyes as if savoring a fine cigar or a good meal.
"So they tell me, Whateley," Nate acknowledged, interrupting the mans reverie.
Jebediah shook his head as if to clear his thoughts. "So it is, Sheriff Hunter. Do you feel my family is any less deserving of protection than anyone else in this town?"
"Your family?!?" snarled Nate, rising partially from his chair. "Its your brood that caused all of Gomorras problems in the first place, Whateley. What makes you think Id lift a hand to help you?"
Jebediah turned to the sheriff, leaning over and bracing himself on the table with both arms. Nate could see the muscles under the Whateleys face . . . writhe, like worms squirming under cover of flesh.
Then the moment passed, and Jebediah gained a semblance of control. "You really cant blame us for all of Gomorras problems. Tell me, who was it that killed Sheriff Coleman? Surely youre not blaming me or my family, are you?"
Nate looked somewhat taken aback. "Well, no . . ."
"In fact, to the best of my recollection, youve never really done anything to bring in your predecessors killer. No suspects, no arrests. A more suspicious man than I might think that you werent trying very hard."
"And what exactly are you accusing me of?"
Jebediah moved back, his eyes wide in surprise. "Me? Why, nothing. You and I, we are men accustomed to holding power and wealth. Head and shoulders above the common riffraff that seemed to have survived Gomorras troubles. Rats and cockroaches always come out ahead when disaster strikes, it seems."
The elder Whateley began pacing again. "We are men of the world, Sheriff Hunter. I am sure it is mere coincidence that the two men, both Sweetrock operatives, most likely to have killed Sheriff Coleman were found viciously murdered. And again, you are not accusing the Whateleys of such crimes, are you?" Jebediah made a small moue of distaste. "Byron St. James rather tasteless . . . execution was, I assure you, not something we Whateleys would ever stand for."
Because it was so crudely done, Jebediah amended mentally. But while he was here to speak truth, there was no reason to speak every truth.
"And what about Miss Hendricks death? Again, a crime of which we much-maligned Whateleys are blameless, correct? Not only that, but the person who murdered her still runs free. I even understand that in the recent . . . troubles you joined forces with Mr. Jackson. Practically deputized him, is what I mean to say."
"And Judge Warwick also dead. A fine upstanding member of our community, shot down in his golden years by a female outlaw, an operative of the very man you so freely served with."
Jebediah paused in his pacing. "I know of your fine, fine background, Sheriff Hunter. A respected and acclaimed lawyer, you are, quite frankly, without peer in Gomorra. And with all of that training, you must realize there are no crimes you can charge my family with."
Nate had settled back in his chair by now. "Theres the little matter of that riot at the theater . . ."
"Ive been told that Shakespeare tends to have an . . . inflammatory effect on less civilized audiences. You know as well as I do that no one who saw the performance that night . . . "
". . . and survived," Nate interjected grimly.
Jebediah nodded at the correction. ". . . and survived could provide any kind of identification. Some even claimed the late Sir Whitmore caused the chaos."
"And then theres the matter of my dead deputy, Tao Cheng."
"Many people died in the riots that night, Sheriff. Again, I understand there were no eyewitnesses to your deputys death. Surely you are not going to blame me or my family for every strange death that occurred that night?"
Nate sighed. He was well aware of the problems with bringing any legal case against any member of the Whateleys. If there had been any chance of arresting any one of them, particular Nicodemus, he would have done so weeks ago.
"And besides," Jebediah continued, raising one finger admonishingly. "We Whateleys have been sympathetic to your problems. Why, when those bands of ruffians launched their attacks upon our home, did we come whining to you for aid? No! We defended our property, as the law entitles us to. In fact, one wonders why you havent pursued some of those individuals? Apparently your brand of law only applies if one is less than popular with the local populace, and lacks the support of the Union or Confederacy."
"You killed enough of them," Nate grumbled irritably.
Jebediah snarled, and there was a red fury in his eyes. "We paid the price of defending our home with our blood, Sheriff! Ezekial, Malrog, Enoch . . . poor crippled and disfigured individuals, reviled by your simple townfolk, hunted to their deaths."
"You can hardly claim Malrog was out and about inciting his prosecutors to kill him. We kept him confined to the Estate grounds, but did that stop them? No! They came to our very doorstep, and some pathetic pirate snapped his neck. Enoch was fed a stick of dynamite and blown into a million pieces by some Union operative. Ezekial was shot in the throat by a Texas Ranger, supposedly a representative of the law. And poor, scarred Basil . . . I say to you, sir, where was that law when we needed it?"
Jebediah shrugged, his fury spent. "Whatever grudges she and that Lakota chief had, they worked them out between themselves. Fatally so. I will admit, I was not privy to all of her plans. Perhaps she had some manner of alliance with that scoundrel Elijah and his unholy Flock. If so, she has paid the price for her crimes. I trust you will not penalize the rest of us for her alleged misdeeds."
Sighing, Nate wearily rubbed his brow with his hand. In truth, he wished he had been at the Whateley Estate. He had done little more than bear witness to the demons defeat at the hands of Austin Stoker and the Ghost. Maybe he should have been at the Whateley Estate, seeing what side the law, his law, needed to come down on.
Perhaps Jackson and Stoker had been in on things together. Not the demon - Nate was a realist at heart, and couldnt deny the evidence of his own eyes. That, and he had enough respect for Jackson to know that, whatever the mans crimes, he wouldnt countenance an alliance with such an abomination.
But Stoker sure hadnt seemed to need their help. And yet he had insisted on it. Maybe Jackson had cut a deal with Stoker. Stoker had said they "had" to ally, and maybe it was all a ploy to keep Hunter off the outlaws back by forcing the Sheriff to deal with Blackjack . . .
Jebediah smiled sympathetically as Hunter considered these issues. Nate was impressed: He didnt think such a look could ever cross those rough-hewn features.
"Please dont misunderstand, Sheriff Hunter. I dont blame you for failing to defend us against the murderers and vandals that have plagued my family since we arrived here."
"In fact, we are much alike." Jebediah raised a hand. "Dont scoff. We have both recently lost women near and dear to us. We both occupy positions of great power and responsibility in Gomorra. You as its sheriff, me as the surviving head of one of its leading families."
"And we both have to deal with those under us who are . . . perhaps less than obedient. Yes, young Nicodemus can be a bit of a handful. On the other hand, I wont trouble you with a reiteration of the allegations against Deputy Templeton. The accusations of rape and assault against Gomorras womenfolk, for instance . . ."
"Yes, I think we understand each other, Sheriff Hunter. All I can ask is that you give us all due benefit that your law provides."
The elder Whateley actually chuckled, a dry rasping noise like a crypt door closing. "And consider this. If we actually did all that we are accused of . . . well, it would seem that we failed. If, and what I mean to say is if we failed the demon and his dark masters . . . why, do you really think any punishment you could mete out would come anywhere close to matching theirs?"
Jebediah scooped up his deed from the table. Then, turning to go, he noted, "Whether you like it or not, Sheriff Hunter, we Whateleys are here to stay. We have much time and effort invested in this town, and we wish to see it survive and prosper as much as you. The danger is not yet over, and there are threats out there, amassing like dark storm clouds on the horizon. You may be surprised to find yourself needing our help . . . and pleased to see us offer it."
The elder Whateley reached the door. "Which reminds me . . . as a highly-placed citizen of Gomorra, I feel it is my duty to bring to your attention the fact that Brother Elijah did indeed escape the conflagration where his Flock did not. He left for the City of Lost Angels. And I am afraid that we have not seen the last of him."
"And with that pleasant thought, I bid you good day, Sheriff." Jebediah tipped his hat and departed, leaving Nate Hunter to his own dark thoughts.