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The funeral service was over, the mourners dispersed. A light breeze carried the faint scent of spring hyacinths, and the sound of the church bell, tolling its doleful message. Six blocks away, Neala Shaw followed her brother Adrian up the front steps, into a house devoid of light and life. Silently they hung coat and cloak on the hall tree, then just as silently wandered into the parlor. Unable to bear the shadowed gloom, Neala made her way to the windows to pull back the curtains before confronting her brother.
"Adrian what you said, about leaving?" The silken threads of the tassels holding the curtains were tangled; she concentrated on combing through each strand with her fingers. "Tell me you didn't mean it."
"I did mean it. Every word." He tugged at his tie, yanking it off with quick, jerky movements. The stiff shirt collar followed. "Mother and Father are gone. Even if I wanted to, there's no reason to stay here."
Neala dropped the tassel and turned to stare blindly out the window, wishing just once her temperament would allow her the satisfaction of retaliating with equally hurtful words. How could Adrian behave so, when less than an hour earlier they had buried both parents?
She could still hear the sound of the shovels, still see the clumps of dirt pouring onto the coffins, signaling with brutal finality that, while Edward and Cora Shaw's souls were with God, their lifeless bodies were forever consigned to the earth. Until she herself died, Neala would never see them again, never hear their voices, never inhale the scent of Mother's honeysuckle toilet water or Father's sandalwood hair tonic. Never feel thewarmth of their hugs.
All because of an accident. A tragic, deadly accident that shocked the community and devastated the few members left in the Neal Shaw family.
"Adrian, this is our home. I don't"
"Was our home. The house and all its contents go on the auction block tomorrow, remember? Father may have been a respected university professor, but he knew as much about providing for his family as a squirrel finding nuts in a snowstorm."
Neala winced. "Where will you go?"
He shrugged, abruptly looking much younger than his twenty years. "I bought a train ticket for Newport News yesterday. Always wanted to see the ocean."
Curiosity overpowered caution. "Adrian, how on earth did you pay for the ticket?"
He avoided her gaze. "Sold Father's watch," he muttered after a minute. "I didn't have anything else." His voice rose in the face of Neala's silence. "It's not as though Father's here to care one way or the other. Besides, it's his fault we're in this mess.You could always sell Grandfather's legacy. I doubt if it's worth more than a few dollars, but that's more than Father left."
He could have slapped her face and not wounded her so deeply. "I will never part with the clan crest badge. Perhaps that's why Grandfather left it to me, instead of you." Neala watched her brother's face close up, but she was beyond placating him. "That crest has been part of the Shaw family for over three hundred years. Now it's the only legacy we have left. It's a shame I'm the only one who appreciates it."
"What did you expect? They named you after him, not me. He left the crest badge to you, not me. Not his only surviving grandson."
Silence gathered in the room, hanging like a damp fog. "I need to finish packing," Adrian finally muttered. "You'll be all right, won't you, sis? With the auction, I mean?"
"I'll manage just fine, Adrian."
"Um do you know what you're going to do? Where will you live? The Johnsons'?"
"No, they don't really have room, especially with Hannah in the family way."
"Oh. What about the Marsdens?"
"Mr. Marsden suffers from sciatica. They're moving to Thomasville, Georgia, this fall."
Adrian hunched his shoulders, his expression sheepish but defiant. "Well, what about one of the boardinghouses where some of the teachers live?"
Neala folded her handkerchief into a neat square to give herself time to collect her sluggish thoughts. "Too expensive, I'm afraid, my dear." She managed with Herculean effort to produce a matter-of-fact smile. "Mrs. Hobbs told me about a school for women," she shared, the words dragging. "It's farther north, somewhere up in the Blue Ridge Mountains, I believe. She suggested I apply for residency there. I hadn't considered it because you were here, and this school is apparently only for women who have lost all their family connections. Mrs. Hobbs says tuition is paid through donations or trusts or something, since the only applicants accepted are those who find themselves without any resources." Carefully she kept her voice stripped of any hint of censure, but Adrian's cheeks turned a dusky red.
"Then you have nothing to worry about," he snapped. "This time tomorrow I'll be long gone. Tell everyone I'm dead, too. The way things have gone over the past few years in our family, I may as well be."
He stormed out of the parlor, and a moment later Neala heard the front door slam.
The odors in the squalid alley would suffocate a buffalo. How could a human being survive, much less breathe here, Grayson Faulkner wondered as he and his partner picked their way down what seemed like a tunnel into perdition. A pack of snarling, slobbering dogs fought over the bloody carcass of another animal; Gray averted his gaze and breathed shallowly to keep his gorge at the low end of his throat. Rotting garbage, putrid food scraps and rusted tins formed piles higher than their heads. If he'd known what teaming up with a bounty hunter entailed, he'd never have let Marty Scruggs talk him into it.
When this job was finished, his old friend would have to hornswoggle a new partner. Seeking adventure all over the earth had been a satisfying way to explore life. But even Gray's years as a deputy marshal out in Wyoming Territory, where he'd seen plenty of depravity in the wild cattle towns, hadn't prepared him for the likes of a city slum.
Beside him, Marty gagged, then cheerfully cursed the dogs, the place, and the man they were looking for.
"I agree," Gray said. "So I hate to break it to you now, but after this job, my friend, I'm through."
"You and me both. But you lasted longer than I thought, seeing as unlike me, you're a gent born with a whole place setting of silver spoons in his mouth."
They passed a pile of steaming garbage, the stench so rank Gray's eyes watered. When he finished this job, he'd take a long-needed vacation, he promised himself. Somewhere green and fresh, where the air sparkled and he could hear birdsong. Somewhere nobody knew or cared about his prowess with a gun, or his family. Surely some little corner of this vast country could provide relief for a man on the verge of destroying whatever passed for his soul.
"Isn't this the one?" Marty hissed.
"Looks like it," Gray agreed after a moment.
They climbed several flights of creaking stairs lit only by a single bulb hanging from a long wire in the wretched foyer; the higher they climbed, the darker and more stale the air grew. Through thin, decrepit doors they heard voices arguing, babies wailing, smelled the stomach-turning odors of urine, sweat and mildew along with rancid food. Gray opened one flap of his shapeless sack coat, curling his fingers around the holstered Smith & Wesson revolver. It was a new hammerless model that had replaced his trusty Peacemaker; Gray was as proud of the New Departure model as a parent with a precocious child.
"I'm right glad you're along." Marty grinned slyly. "Still the best marksman east of the Mississippi, I hear."
Gray felt heat burn his ears and cheeks. "I don't know what you've heard, or read, but likely it's tommyrot."
They reached the top floor; in wordless accord they approached the door on the end, and Marty knocked twice. The churning in Gray's belly stilled, and an almost eerie calm descendedthe falcon, poised to swoop upon its prey.
The door opened a crack, just enough for the two men to see a woman's pitted face and suspicious eyes. "Don't know ye," she snapped. "Go 'way."
Marty planted his foot in the door. "We're here to collar Kevin Hackbone. Please step aside, ma'am. We know he's in here, and we know there's no way out except through this door."
Gray watched a multitude of expressions streak across her face, unable to completely divorce himself from an uprising of pity. If she'd had a chance, a decent place to live and a man who took care of her He stepped closer, crowding the doorway until reluctantly the woman stepped back. "He won't go easy," she said, jerking her chin toward a narrow hall.
"His choice," Gray returned quietly.
"If you help us, it'll be better for you," Marty added. He exchanged glances with Gray, then tugged out a pair of handcuffs and headed down the hall, to a closed door. "Come on out, Kevin," he called. "You're under arrest back in New York City, for robbery, assault and battery, and too many other crimes to waste more breath on."
"Come and get me, ya boot-kissing son of a sewer rat!" a nasal voice yelled through the flimsy panel.
"Now, Kevin, there's two of us out here." He shot Gray a quick glance, winked. "One of us is the Falcon himself. You've heard about him, right? Might wriggle away from me, but you know and I know you'll never make it past him."
"Got a knife, boyo. And I'll use it, I will."
"I've got a gun," Gray called back, glaring at his irrepressible friend. "And I'll use it."
The door opened. Looking like a mangy ferret, Kevin eyed the cuffs dangling from Marty's hand, then glanced down the hall where Gray waited by the door. After a long moment, Kevin heaved a sigh and held out his hands. "Knew it was just a matter of time," he muttered, all bluster gone.
Going too easy, Gray thought with a prickle of disquiet. He watched, every muscle tensed, waiting for Kevin to make a move as Marty proceeded to handcuff his hands behind his back.
"No!" the woman behind Gray suddenly shrieked, a demented scream ripping from her throat. She dashed down the hall before Gray could stop her, and there was a knife in her hands, a knife she lifted high above her head, a knife aimed for Marty's unprotected back.
It happened too fast. Even as he raced after her, shouting at her, Gray knew he was too late. Too late he screamed somewhere in the deepest recesses of his mind as he lifted the gun and fired but the knife had already plunged into Marty's back. Marty half turned, his eyes wide with disbelief. He shook his head, his gaze finding and holding Gray's even as his hands fell away from Kevin and he dropped to his knees, then crumpled on top of the dead womanthe first woman Gray had ever been forced to kill.
Gray scarcely noticed Kevin's escape. He gathered Marty in his arms, feeling the blood soaking his hands. "Hold on," he pleaded, pressing against the wound with all his might. "Hold on, Marty. You have to hold on ."
The friendly brown eyes, always so full of humor, full of life, were glazed now, staring vaguely up into Gray's face. Marty's mouth moved, and he coughed, blood trickling down his chin. "Gray " he whispered, one hand fumbling aimlessly until Gray grabbed it, gripped it tightly. "Glad it wasn't you, Falcon " The ghost of a smile flickered across his lips. "Would ruin your reputation."
His head lolled, and his body went slack.
His friend was gone.