Downtown St. Louis, 10:25 a.m.
As usual, the Sunday streets were uncrowded save the occasional carriage leisurely rolling past, wheels creaking and horseshoes clopping on the worn bricks.
Alexis was climbing the steps of the Liberty Investigations Building when she heard someone shouting from the intersection to the east.
“Miss Free! Miss Free!” It was the manager from the Hotel Crawford. He gave the impression he had run the entire way, for his shirt all around the collar and his face were drenched with sweat. “Miss Free, I’m so glad I found you. I have some information about those fellows you were asking about.”
He was panting but beaming.
“Why, Mister . . .” She was embarrassed. “I’m so sorry, but it appears I have forgotten your name.”
“That’s quite alright, I don’t believe I actually had the chance to tell you: Cecil Rosewater.”
“My, Mister Rosewater, you seem to be out of breath—”
“Please, call me Cecil. I knew that timely information is quite important in your line of work and I aim to be timely where you are concerned.”
He gave her a giddy smile and she hoped he was light-headed after his jog, but his idiotic zeal persisted and she worried the fellow’s motivation went beyond the limits of a professional relationship.
He courted her with information like some men brought flowers.
“Please, Cecil, do come in and we shall discuss this.” She touched his arm lightly, regretting it immediately. He grew even more flushed, if it were possible. His round, red head resembled a beet shoved into a paper collar.
“Right, right,” he said, looking about the streets. “It wouldn’t do for a detective to be discussing a case out here.”
“No, it would not.”
She unlocked the front doors and led him up the stairs to the upper floors. Their footsteps echoed through the empty hallway as they passed the deserted offices. The shades were uniformly halfway drawn. They reached the end of the corridor and went into the library.
“Please, Cecil, make yourself comfortable.”
He waited for her to seat herself behind the desk before he drew one of the leather chairs closer to the desk.
He was looking around the room with awe when she brought him back at hand. “Now, what is this information you have gone out of your way to bring me?”
“Oh, it’s no trouble at all! I knew you would want to hear this and it also gives us a chance to—” He leaned on the edge of his seat, back straight, as Alexis worried he may pitch forward and smack his head on the desk.
“Cecil, I do apologize, but this information?”
“Yes,” he said, a bit deflated. “There was a fellow last night who came around asking after the men who worked for us—the ones who had the altercation with the young girl and her uncle yesterday?”
She straightened at this, interlacing her fingers before her, “Yes?”
“He was an older fellow and very scruffy-looking, thruth be told. Very scruffy. He was asking as to their whereabouts. He told us he was an old acquaintance of the two men. I wonder in what capacity they were friends . . .”
“You say, ‘we,’ was it you that this man talked to?”
“Well,” he said tilting his head slightly, “I was then on break, but when I learned of this, I spoke at length with the employees who actually spoke with him.”
She let out a sigh. “Did you at least get a description? And what did the other employees tell him?”
“He was of middle age, quite sickly looking and had ill-fitting clothing. He was told little, for the employees knew very little.”
“Did they get his name? Where he was going?” She plucked a pen from the well works, dipped it and was poised over a sheet of stationary.
“They did not get his name, no, or anything else for that matter. I have gone ahead and put a stop to the idle chatter; I told the employees if they are discovered speaking to non-employees about anything that goes on there, they will be let go.”
“Cecil, no.” She shook her head as she replaced the pen. “If you do that, they will no longer be able to supply any information to me—to us.”
He frowned at this rebuke, blinking rapidly.
Alexis thought he was about to cry and it made her uncomfortable—and mad. She softened her tone.
“You inform them that not only should they notify you if any other people are inquiring about this matter, but that if the information proves to be fruitful, they will be well compensated. I include you in this transaction, of course.”
He brightened. “Why, yes, Miss Free. I had not thought of that. I’ll see to it as soon as I return to the hotel. As for me, there is no need to pay me, as a matter of fact I was wondering if you might be free tonight and if I could be so bold as to ask you—”
The library door opened and Alexis’s father, Benjamin, looked inside. “I thought I heard voices. I should have known the only person here on a Sunday—besides me—had to be you. I see you’re with someone, so I shall be up in my office—” He slowly withdrew his curious face from the door.
“No, Father! Um, please come in. This is the fellow from the Hotel Crawford. The one I told you about last night?” She stood and nodded to Cecil.
The two men shook and exchanged pleasantries.
“I don’t want to interrupt . . .” Benjamin said as he once again backed away to the door.
“Actually, Father, you and I need to discuss this new information immediately. Mister Rosewater—I mean Cecil, I would like to thank you and remind you that anything new you discover, please feel free to contact my father here. I am afraid he and I need to be alone just now, but thank you again for coming down.”
“Your father? I’m afraid I do not understand. Are you not still investigating this? Is your father taking over the case?”
“Hmph. Would that be such a bad thing, my good man? I am the founder of this company and though I am no longer in the field . . .” his bruised ego radiated. He rocked back and forth on his heels, thumbs behind his lapels.
“No, Cecil, I am sorry for the confusion,” Alexis said. “I am still investigating this, but the case has now expanded to the point where I have to follow its progress outside the city limits, so my father will be your contact until I return.”
Obvious disappointment washed over him. His deeds had put him in her good graces, but that did not matter if she left town.
He pouted his good byes and departed.
“What in the world was that about?” her father asked.
“You just saved me a dinner date with that man,” she replied, collapsing back into the chair.
“Oh, my.” Benjamin looked at the door, readjusting his judgment of the man.
” ‘Oh, my,’ indeed. Father, there is something he related to me that I would like you to look into. Can you call your friends on the board at the Asylum and ask them for all the information they have on the man who escaped last night, a Kemper Bidwell?”
“Certainly, Dear,” he said as approached the desk, picking up the pen and taking notes. “Does this man figure into the scheme ? An accomplice, perhaps?”
“No, father, I think it may be worse than that. I believe it is time to call in a favor or two from your military cronies and see what you can unearth about this Bidwell man, and Silas McDonough and Hercules Bennet.”
“Are you going to explain this knot to me, or am I just to be your secretary?” He smiled lightly as he picked up the paper and waved the ink dry.
“Oh, Father, don’t be so dramatic. I will explain it tonight whilst I pack.”
“Pack? I was under the impression your comments to that irritating fellow were a ruse to derail his amorous intentions. Where in the world are you off to?”
“Arizona. I am hoping to travel Union Pacific and pick along their trail.”
“You’re sure these men took her by train?”
“No, but it is one possibility and if I find out different along the way, there are many opportunities to alter my course.”
Benjamin Free folded the note and placed it in his breast pocket. “You’re packing tonight…when are you leaving? Hopefully you will wait to say goodbye to your mother; she’s out with Kendall’s parents for the day . . .”
“No doubt trying to wed me off. It is a shame she’s married to you. I think she would wed him herself if she were available. No, I will be home later to see her. Now I need to find out where exactly this Arizona grandfather lives. If I can gather enough information, I hope to leave on the late train tonight to Kansas City.” She turned to a stack of mining registry books and dug in. “If he has a mining claim. I’m sure there is record of it here.”
He watched her for but a moment. A moment he locked away in his mind to treasure forever. Benjamin and his wife had only one child blessed upon them. He chided himself for the selfish feelings he had when she was born. He had wanted a boy and was silently disappointed. Looking at her working away at a fresh lead, taking the legacy of his agency into the future, he would not have had it any other way.
The person she grew into was so much more than he ever hoped for in any child—male or female. He was amazed by the way she related to their clients and cases on a more human level than he was capable of. What warmed him the most was the way she stepped away from the money involved to look right to the safety of this girl, this Emma Colson, to see the help she needed.
Alexis made his heart swell. He knew there was no way to express it to her though he tried feebly at times like this.
He pulled himself away from her, anchored his hand on the door knob and asked, “You know how much I love you and how proud I am of you, don’t you, Alexis? One day, this will all be yours and I couldn’t be happier that it will be left in your hands.”
“I’m sorry? What was that?” Alexis said absently as she poured over the pages, her face buried.
“Nothing, dear. We will discuss it later—after this case.”
“Oh, Father? I wanted to ask,” not looking up from the research, “Do you still have the Buntline? The one with the detachable rifle stock?”
“Yes. Yes, I do.” Concern overtook his moment of pride and contentment. “Are you planning gunplay? I’m not so sure I feel comfortable with this—”
“No, father, I do not anticipate ‘gunplay,’ but I do think being prepared for any eventuality is not uncalled for . . .”
“Yes, dear, of course. I will have Henry clean and pack it.”
“That will not be necessary; I will clean and pack it myself. You always said, ‘never let another tend to your weapons for you. You’re the one it will be most important to.’ ”
He raised his brows high and nodded. “I said that? Hmm. Good advice, that. Well, until tonight, my dear.”
He smiled as she ignored his departure, for she was already about fourteen hundred miles away in research.
As Benjamin opened the door, he was surprised to find a nervous-looking Cecil Rosewater standing near the door.
“Ah, Mister Rosewater,” Benjamin said. “I thought you had left.”
Alexis looked up only long enough to roll her eyes.
Cecil fidgeted with the brim of his hat, looking up and down the hallway. “Yes, yes, I had left but I got a little turned around and couldn’t find the stairs.”
“Ah. Let me show you out,” Benjamin said, closing the door behind him.
Alexis flipped the pages of the registry and muttered, “Yes, please show him out. Out of my life, if you don’t mind.”