Hezekiah Whateley was of the opinion that the banker before him had his tie on just a little too tight. Veins stood out on the mans fat neck, and his face was red with the bluster of telling the three people before him the types of collateral that the bank would consider. This did, however, make it easy to imagine what hed look like if someone were choking the life out of him.
He could do it himself, but it would be more enjoyable to watch another family member work. When you were up close and personal in a strangling, it consumed all your attention and Hezekiah liked watching other peoples expression. Cousin Ezekiel would have been a good candidate, if he hadnt been dead. A mountain of a man, Ezekiel had enough strength in his meaty hands to snap necks when the fit took him, and his faces childlike expressiveness more than made up for his lack of comprehensible words. But cousin Enoch . . . Cousin Enoch had been a champion strangler. It came from having no bones. Hezekiah settled into his seat a fraction, and imagining his departed cousins purple tentacles hoisting the windbag of a banker high into the air and whipping him back and forth like a flag. There was an image for him to enjoy.
As if sensing his gruesome demise in the other mans thoughts, the banker stopped his verbal torrent. Hezekiah glanced from Abigail DuPont, who was sitting on his left, and then to his manservant Branson, who stood quietly behind them. The three of them formed an impenetrably unified front the way only Family could. The banker was of course eager to do business with the DuPonts, the wealthiest family in Ghost Creek, but Hezekiah could see that the man listened to rumors, and that superstitious fear warred with his greed. Hezekiah was fairly certain that avarice would win. It usually did. What was bothering Hezekiah, aside from the interminably dull financial blabbering, was the fact that this glorified accountant had left his door open as they discussed terms. Hezekiah didnt much like sitting with his back to an open door, even though his man Willard Crogan stood watch in the lobby.
Taking advantage of the mans silence, Hezekiah turned around in his seat and looked behind him. Crogan lounged, just visible through the opened door of the managers office. Close enough for protection, but far enough away that he couldnt hear them unless they raised their voices. Hezekiah liked the Willard Crogans circumspection. Hed go far in Ghost Creek, for all that he styled himself a fearless monster hunter.
"Frankly, Miss DuPont, Im unsure our little town will support a curio emporium," the banker said, bringing Hezekiahs attention back to their negotiation.
"We got enough people that Roxys what just opened is doing bang up business," Abigail said with a coy flutter of her eyelashes.
The banker blushed. "You dont think the bank had anything to do with funding a " he lowered his voice, " house of ill repute, do you?"
"Well, course not," Abigail soothed him. "It was an example. Between cattle and ghost rock, Ghost Creek has got enough people that one little store of luxuries will do just fine. We already got that wretched little gutter-trash theater troupe, dont we?"
It didnt matter a cats whisker if the shop flourished or not, and they certainly didnt need the banks money. The Whateleys and DuPonts had enough money to build the largest store Ghost Creek had ever seen smack in the middle of this pissant boomtown and run it for a decade, customers or no. However, getting the bank to invest in a knicknack store would tie the banks interests to those of the DuPont family, and they wanted to have as much hold over the people of this town as possible. The Whateleys were not doing well using intimidation in Gomorra, and Hezekiah had gotten the idea of using their DuPont cousins as the Familys public presence in Ghost Creek. It had proved an effective strategy thus far, and Abigail DuPont was worth her weight in ghost rock.
This business venture was but another measure in keeping a more publically acceptable face on the Whateley interests in the area. A curiosity shop would be the perfect delivery place for odd packages from all corners of the globe. Ghost Creek was building its own post office, and delivery people always talked more than they should. The rumor of crates from such faraway places as Sumatra or the Congo could make the local simpletons uneasy. If they arrived at the DuPont Curiosity Shop, however, no one would raise an eyebrow. Abigail had brought the idea to Hezekiah after visiting Ignacios Exotics in Gomorra.
He tried to focus again on the jittery little bankers litany of compound interest, balloon payments, and hard assets, but it was simply the wrong kind of arcane to hold his attention. With luck, Abigail would be getting most of it.
A close shot rang through the bank, and Hezekiah whirled in his seat to see Willard Crogan gone from his post. Cursing under his breath, his hand went awkwardly to his pistol. He counted at least one of Nate Morgans ranch hands, two of Sweetrocks hired thugs, and one of those insane scientists that had recently begun to infest Ghost Creek; all had their hands on their weapons, and any of them could be taking an opportunity to eliminate a business rival.
Where was Crogan? Hezekiah tried to watch the entire bank at once, waiting for any sudden movements, only slightly encouraged by the presence of Branson behind him. His wiry servant was a knife man, and although the man could sprint like a jackrabbit, there were too many guns in the bank for him to clear the area, even with help from Hezekiah and Abigail. Nevertheless, there was a deck of cards concealed in Hezekiahs palm. No one ever sent a Whateley down without paying in blood.
A trickle of sweat slowly crawled down the side of Hezekiahs face. Everyone in the bank stood in a state of taut watchfulness, closely eyeing everyone else, standing still because any mov could be misinterpreted. Some of Sheriff Portmans dogs would be here right quick when they heard that shot near the bank, but somehow, he doubted that her presence would defuse the situation any.
In this tense stand-off, the bank door opened on well-oiled hinges and Willard Crogan strolled back in, rifle cradled in his arm, patting the little pouch that always hung across his shoulder.
"What do you think youre playing at, you idle-headed, pox-ridden, lily-livered catamite!" Hezekiah roared, shattering the strained silence.
"I saw a jackalope," Crogan mumbled, comprehension dawning as he looked at the tense faces of the banks other inhabitants. "Its bad luck to see a jackalope," he continued, barely loud enough for Hezekiah to hear.
In four furious strides, Hezekiah was out of the office, confronting his employee directly. "And worse to kill one, you pribbling, motley-minded, sack of pus," he snarled. He glared around the bank, daring any of the bank tellers or customers to take issue with his treatment of Crogan. No one was even willing to meet his gaze, and he returned his attention to Crogan.
"Well, I never got myself one before, and I reckon I can handle a little bad luck," the man with the rifle said indistinctly, glancing from Hezekiah to Abigail, his head bowed. "And itll look good mounted on my wall."
Out of the corner of his eye, Hezekiah caught Abigails approving nod, and mentally threw up his hands in disgust. Crogans loyalty was to the women; Abigail and Hezekiahs sister Cassandra. Rage at the man all he liked, a single nod from either of them was more reward than Hezekiah could offer. It was time to change that.
"Branson, you stay with Miss Abigail. Willard, you and I are going to have a private discussion about your manners." Unless Hezekiah changed his mind on the way, discussion was going to include the horsewhip that hung in the stables.
"Ill stay here and take care of the details," Abigail simpered, visibly wilting before Hezekiahs wrath.
Hezekiah scowled, but it was probably for the best. At least Crogan had given him an excuse to walk out of the interminably dull meeting. As a Whateley, Hezekiahs presence lent the interview an air of respectability, but he could always come back later and sign as guarantor of the loan.
Still furious, Hezekiah hauled Crogan onto the busy street by the ear, and as soon as they were clear of the bank, he sent the self-styled monster hunter sprawling in the dust. A public humiliation would help break the mans stupid, stubborn pride.
"Youd be lucky if all you have to worry about was that Jackalopes bad luck," he growled, advancing menacingly.
Before he could reach Crogan, the ground shook, and at first Hezekiah thought it was an earthquake, but then two dark tentacles, like snakes as thick as a mans leg, emerged from the dusty road and wrapped around Crogan. Startled, Hezekiah managed to dance away from more searching tentacles, and lost no time in retreating to the questionable safety of the boardwalk in front of the bank. As he did so, more of the creatures erupted from the road. In form, it was a gigantic, dark brown worm as big as a covered wagon and a head full of tentacles like the ones that had entangled Crogan. A full-sized Mojave rattler was erupting right in the middle of town.
An unholy reek rolled down the street, nearly choking Hezekiah. Horses shied and carried their riders away from the horrible thing as quickly as they could. The smarter humans did the same, scurrying to whatever safety occurred to their panic-stricken minds.
Safe for the moment, Hezekiah looked around at the chaos; no one seemed at all interested in saving Crogans life. The useless law of this town was never around when you needed a monster distracted.
Branson struggled and shrieked as more tentacles latched onto him, and began to drag him closer to the horrors noisome bulk. Hezekiah considered his approach for a moment, partially to let Crogan twist in the wind for his damn fool shooting of the jackalope. Hezekiahs gun was mostly ornamental, and he didnt carry a knife, but that was because he didnt need to. He didnt need to hear Abigail DuPont come up behind him, because he could feel the restlessness of the manitou increase with her presence. Time to light this party up.
The cards were in Hezekiahs hands without him even having to think about them, and the manitou crowded around him, looking for a wager. Three fives won Hezekiah the hand, and blue fire licked out at the monstrosity before them, burning into the thick, rubbery hide of the rattler. Its enormous bulk whipped around with unbelievable speed and roared like a bull castrated with hot irons.
Hezekiah dashed to the left, glancing over his shoulder as he tried to remember if Mojave rattlers had eyes. It apparently had more than enough to deal with holding Crogan. The now-hatless, balding man was bleeding from several wounds, but he was putting up more fight than Hezekiah would have guessed. Or, apparently, that the tentacled horror had counted on. The thing flung its tentacled front back and forth, trying to dislodge the irritant, but Crogan hung on. Between the thrashing tentacles, Hezekiah could see that Crogan had his Bowie knife out and was flailing away himself, and seemed to be making some progress.
He wasnt going to get far without help, through. Hezekiah filled his hand with cards again, and a manitou went laughing into the sky with two pair beating his ten high. Hellfire curse it, the rattler had recovered itself and more tentacles were wrapping themselves around Crogan, the sharp edges carving rents in the monster hunters body.
Unexpectedly, three pistol shots echoed down Ghost Creeks narrow main street, and, with a little whine like a pigs last gasp at the slaughterhouse, the abomination collapsed into shapeless, blubbery mass. Hezekiah was surreptitiously putting his cards away when he caught sight of Nathaniel Morgan himself lowering his pistol, a cloud of gun smoke fouling the clear afternoon air around him.
In the quiet that followed, the townsfolk began to timidly creep out of the woodwork, looking at each other in amazement and talking in hushed tones. Hezekiah wondered how much Nathaniel had seen, and what the cattle baron intended to do about it. The two of them eyed each other across the street, each man taking the measure of the other. Crogan was coughing and struggling to get out from under the heavy tentacles. Morgan had saved Crogans life, it seemed. Hezekiah tipped his hat to the cattleman, and went to help his man up.
"Thank you Mr. Whateley," Willard said in a more respectful tone than Hezekiah had ever heard from him. His pince-nez glasses were shattered, and the mans face ran with blood from more than one nasty scalp wound, and his torn clothing revealed at least half a dozen other areas that were bleeding freely. Hezekiah considered if the whipping was going to be altogether necessary. Well, he had all the way home to think about it.
Only then, far too late to be of any use whatsoever, did Sheriff Annie Portman come trotting up with a pack of gun-toting pups nipping at her heels.
"And what the Hell happened here?" Portman demanded with the anger of someone who is supposed to be in charge but doesnt know whats going on.
"My man ran into a patch of bad luck," Hezekiah said, giving a nearby tentacle a spiteful kick. "We did the hard part, now you lot can clean it up."
With that, he turned on his heel, and helped Crogan limp home.