Excerpt: For All the Gold in the Vault
The scent of burlap and his own exhalation stifled Arturo’s breath, filling his lungs with heat and dust. Rough hands grasping either arm guided him toward his destination, and he was clever enough not to resist, regardless of what awaited him. He was somewhere cool and quiet, was all he knew—indoors, transported there after a bumpy but brief carriage ride.
They had found him out in the woods, his captors—two burly men in plain but clean coats. They were after the bounty, he was sure. Arturo had seen the wanted posters back in Eastwood. His face, his name, and beneath it, a number high enough to feed a family of seven for a good year. That was what the constables had decided was the combined price of his life and the life he had taken.
The slap of thick leather soles against hardwood echoed in the space around him, but soon the rough hands pulled him to a stop and shoved him down. He flinched as his backside collided unexpectedly with an upholstered chair seat, and it distracted him from the rush of fresh air that hit his face as one of his captors removed the burlap hood. Light did not flood his eyes, as the oak-paneled room was dim, but he suffered through a moment of disorientation until his brain began to register what his sight picked up.
A man stood before him, too slender and well-tailored to be one of the ruffians that had dragged him there. Dressed all in black clothes too heavy for the frontier heat and too fine for the dust, he was a man just shy of thirty. Skin dark umber and hair cut close to his scalp, he stood with his spine straight and his head held high, the very image of steady surety and authority. Only the angular cut of his cheekbones and jawline offset his intimidating stance, giving him a look of delicacy and elegance.
The well-dressed man—refined in a way that matched the oak study he and Arturo occupied—took a half-step forward and held out a parchment, passing it off to one of the ruffians. His muscleman took the object, a rolled parchment, and unfurled it to hold up beside Arturo’s face. Bending forward to look Arturo level in the eye, the dark gentlemen glanced between him and the parchment. Arturo did not turn his head—he knew what was printed on the sheet.
The gentleman reached forward to grab Arturo by the jaw, tilting his head side to side as he compared the two visages. His grip did not hurt, but Arturo was being treated like a show horse. He had thought that fear for facing the consequences of his crime would outweigh any other human emotion in what remained of his time on that mortal earth, but humiliation seared through him, burning all the more for how unprepared he was for it.
“Hard to see under the grime,” the gentleman said, his face close enough that Arturo could see his irises were as saturated as his skin, nearly a charcoal grey, “but this is the man. The same boyish cheekbones.” He released Arturo’s face and stood upright. “You’ve been on the run for a while, yes?”
Arturo’s own question was obvious, but he was not a subtle or witty man. If his death—or, at best, a life of imprisonment—loomed, he had to know how imminent it was. “You intend to turn me in for the bounty?”
The gentleman hung his hands, folding them in front of him. “I could, though I hardly need the spare change.” Arturo took a quick glance at the study around them, furnished with lacquered chairs and decorated with old-timey tapestries. He had only ever read of houses so fine. “I have other wants,” his captor continued, pacing two slow steps to the right before turning and pacing the same distance left. “Wants that might be fulfilled by a scoundrel hunted for—” he paused and made a show of squinting at the wanted poster, “—robbery and murder. My. What I have in mind should fit nicely with your past experience.”
Arturo sat silent and still, not even pushing away a lock of his matted brown hair that fell over one eye.
“I would be willing to pay.” The gentleman spoke with a smooth and even voice, but that he brought up the topic at all told Arturo that his silence was somewhat successful in unnerving the other man. “The expense of your bounty. The constabulary will pardon your crimes for that price. Complete the task and you can walk away with the gold to buy back your freedom in lawful society.” There was a sneer on that penultimate word.
Arturo withered at the implications of this man’s suggestions. He was in enough trouble for killing that woman. But he was not ready to be returned to the constables and face the decree of the law. Maybe that made him a coward, but his desire not to face down a firing squad outweighed his pride.
What choice did he have? “What is this job?”
The gentleman stared down at him, a mild crease in his brow giving him the look of an old grandmother working on a puzzle. After a moment of examining Arturo in this manner, the man waved off his hired muscle, leaving the two of them alone in the study. The gentleman even dared to turn his back to Arturo long enough to fetch another chair from the far side of the room, dragging it over to set opposite of him. Settling in, the dark man crossed one leg over the other and rested his finger-laced hands on the highest knee.
He was elegant and deliberate, his mannerism and appearance cultivated to evoke a sense of inferiority in others. That Arturo could recognize this did not make it any less effective, and he found himself shrinking against the other man’s steady gaze. Alone and separated by only an arm’s length, Arturo could pick up the man’s scent, a fragrance that was both clean and savory, like lemon pepper.