Excerpt for Vulnerable: A Prequel to the Red Dog Conspiracy by , available in its entirety at Smashwords





VULNERABLE

Patricia Loofbourrow



Copyright © 2017 Patricia Loofbourrow

All rights reserved.

This is a work of fiction.

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given to others. If you would like to share this book please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please visit a legitimate book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the author’s work.



Published by Red Dog Press, LLC



Find more clues at

http://www.jacqofspades.com




VULNERABLE

Eleanora Bryce walked into her bedroom to find her husband dead.

He had excused himself an hour earlier, claiming he wished to read and pray in solitude before dinner. But he lay on the bed dressed in his best gray suit, the formerly full bottle of laudanum lying uncapped in his lax hand.

He must have taken it just after he left me, Eleanora thought. Why?

Later, she would berate herself for her lack of grief at his passing. But now, it was a detached mystery, points of interest which needed to be learned, studied.

A pile of papers, dry and unmarred, lay on the floor beside him. They told the story of debt, debt, and the impending ruin of his household.

The coward! For him to leave this for her to handle sent Eleanora into a fury. “May you find only Fire,” she whispered. What were they to do?

“Mother?”

Herbert stood at the door, his thin face — so close to manhood — curious, concerned. “Is Father well?”

Eleanora let out a breath. “Your father’s dead.”

For a moment, the way her son turned to the doorpost and wept moved her. His brother David rushed in, throwing himself upon his father’s body to howl in grief.

The empty bottle fell to the floor, rolled under the bed.

But no tears came.

Was she an unnatural woman, not to mourn this man?

She gazed at his lined face, his graying hair. He shared her bed these many years, gave her three children, brought her from impoverished whoredom to this comfortable home. If anyone would have asked before this moment, she would have said she loved him.

Yet no tears came.

Perhaps I’ll mourn him later, she thought. He was a good man. “Herbert, call for the constable.”

Herbert raised reddened eyes to hers, nodded, and left.

The sounds of David’s weeping filled the room.

Eleanora’s gaze fell upon the papers beside the bed. One had fallen away from the others. She picked it up, sat on the chair to read.

Insurance papers. Void if death by their own hand.

A sudden chill came over her. Did her husband mean to leave them with nothing? Or in his anguish, did he forget what his actions would do?

Footsteps: she let the paper drop to the floor, rising as several policemen came in. Their leader, a man her age with black hair, said, “I’m Constable Trey Highcard. What’s happened here?”

Eleanora felt as lost as Herbert looked. “I found him like this not five minutes ago.”

His men trod on her husband’s papers as they handed David to her. She sat, holding her son, his sobs subsiding as they rocked.

The constable said, “Dead, about an hour.”

After they left, she held her sons as they wept. They’d lived through so much already. “We’ll get through this,” she told them. “Never fear. We’ll find a way to survive.”

* * *

Men in and out of the house for hours. The police took her husband’s body away for a day, then brought it back. His good suit — the one he wished to die in — was ruined.

Neighbors weeping, bringing food, standing around her, his body laid out in the living room.

Candles and flowers and questions she couldn’t answer.

Reading her husband’s documents until the lamp burned low.

Mr. Wheel Bryce had been a fabric importer. He opened the shop to bring in additional revenue, but that barely broke even. A few years past, he took a loan from the Royal Straight Company to keep his business afloat, a loan with a large balloon payment. A few days before his death, the company had inexplicably demanded he pay the balance — a full year before the note came due.

His bank account lay empty. Numerous attempts to secure another loan had been turned down.

He had no way out, she thought. Why would the company do this to him?

Why did he not come to me?

* * *

A Mr. Chip Draw from the insurance agency came to call, clipboard in hand. “I’m here to investigate the death. Can you tell me how it happened?”

She told the same story she’d told everyone.

“And you’re sure he had no inclination to take his life.”

Eleanora shook her head. “He seemed content. He loved his children and spoke of our future. Everyone was shocked at his death.” Eleanora pictured the bottle of laudanum and the insurance paper. They’d been left with barely enough money for food. “Do you think it was his heart?”

“That’s for the coroner to determine.” He brought out a check. “But this sounds like a straight-forward enough case. We can give you something to help you through this time. The rest will come once the authorities have confirmed his cause of death.”

The money helped, but people kept asking for it: for mourning clothes, for the coffin. The plot was bought years ago, and one of the Dealers stood praying the rites as her husband was laid beside their oldest son, who’d died long before.

This felt like a bad dream. When would she wake up?

Then she did wake up, alone in an empty bed. That was when the tears came.

* * *

Soon the money Mr. Draw brought neared its end. When people came in the store, they saw her dressed in black and left. “I’m sorry for your loss,” they’d sometimes say. But they left nevertheless.

Eleanora spent a sleepless night at her tea-table weeping, the mourning garb she’d paid so much for spread out on her bed. She knew people would think she didn’t love her husband, and it tore at her.

But if she didn’t act, they’d end up in the poorhouse. So she spent the last of her money on widow’s brown. She reasoned perhaps now people would stay in her shop and buy something.

When he saw her wear widow’s brown for the first time, Herbert screamed at her. “I don’t believe this! How can you give off mourning so soon?”

Gods, it hurt to hear her child say that.

But she had to be strong for her son, help him understand the cruel life they’d been forced into. So she explained what was happening. “I loved your father so much. But he’s gone, and we can’t go on like this any longer. We have to live now. Your father would want us to live.” She held her boy, and he lay his head on her shoulder there in the store. “Don’t fret, my love. We always have each other. Whatever happens, we’ll survive.”

A couple came in, glanced at her holding her son, and left. She cradled Herbert’s face in her hands. “You’re taller than I am now.”

He smiled at her, proud of it. “But you’re not so tall,” he said, and they shared a bit of laughter to ease their pain.



Then the police arrived. “We found evidence of poison,” Constable Highcard said. “You gave off mourning so soon. And we have witnesses who saw you embracing a man.”

Eleanora was so shocked that for a moment, she couldn’t speak. “A man? No! There’s been no man here since my husband died.”

Then she realized: that couple saw me with Herbert.

The boy wasn’t yet sixteen. Was he a man now?

“And I’ve never seen you shed a tear for your husband. Did you kill him?”

“No! Of course not! What kind of woman do you take me for? I found him like that.”

The constable frowned. “Either he killed himself or someone poisoned him. Which is it?”

Eleanora remembered the bottle under the bed. If I say he took his life, the insurance man will make me return the money. My children will starve. If I don’t, the police’ll think I killed him. “I don’t know.”

“We’ll be back,” the constable said, “with a search warrant.”

* * *

Eleanora walked to the grocery to buy food for dinner with the pittance she’d earned that day.

Twilight had fallen, and the lamplighters were at work. White clouds scudded high above the faint sheen of the dome. Yet here, the evening air was cool and calm.

Why didn’t Wheel come to me with his troubles? Why did he take his own life?

Why will no one help us?

Eleanora blinked away tears and kept going.

Crowds strolled the streets: shop maids and mill workers wearily returning home, night watchmen and factory workers briskly off to their labors. Young couples arm in arm, gazing in lamp-lit shop windows.

How I wish I would have valued that time more, Eleanora thought, when Wheel and I walked arm in arm, dreaming of the future.

A ten-year-old boy with red hair stood on the corner across the street, paper in hand, yelling, “Extra! Extra! Read all about it! Slavery ring broken up in Hoyle!”

Slavery, Eleanora thought. How horrid.

Hoyle was the most disreputable part of Dickens to be sure, but such things hadn’t happened here before — at least, she’d never heard of it. People here valued the law above all things, it seemed, even above compassion.

I’ve been sheltered from this city’s cruelty by this comfortable life, she thought.

She and her sons had lived nine good years in Dickens. But their life was bought by her husband’s standing, a thin pretension of wealth now ripped away. What would their future hold with her husband gone?

She passed a blond little boy, perhaps eight, who handed her a flyer:

Tired of living in Dickens?

Own your own business!

Shops for rent

Contact Pike and Associates

Eleanora stopped on the sidewalk, staring at the flyer in her hand. A man cursed under his breath as he sidestepped and went past. But she paid him no mind.

This might be the answer, she thought. We can start over.

The next day, she went to the address on the flyer. The shop for rent was in the city of Bridges.



Bridges.

The place she grew up. The place her children were born.

The place her son was murdered.

The wrenching image of her child’s body crumpled on the tile floor flashed through her eyes.

If only she’d believed her Mr. Bryce when he said he’d return for them. If only she’d stayed home, this might never have happened.

But then maybe we’d not be here, she thought. We’d still be in that wretched Pot, forced to sell our bodies just to survive.

Her husband had spent his entire savings to get them out of Bridges. His finances had never recovered. Could she make his sacrifice mean nothing by going back?



It’ll be different, Eleanora thought. I’ll be an owner. I can make something of myself at last.

“I’ll take it,” she said. “Will you help us move there?”

“We’ll ship your belongings, but you’ll have to pay for your ticket.” The man handed her papers to fill out and sign. “Let me give you the shipping address and an inventory form.” He checked a list, wrote her name and address on it. “You’re on the schedule.”

She sat with her boys that night and told them of her plan.

David became enthusiastic. “Will we ride on the zeppelin?”

When she nodded, he threw his arms in the air and cheered. “We’re going on the zeppelin!”

Scrambling to his feet, David rushed around the house. “I’ll get all the boxes from the storage room, and I can get some more from the grocery, and ...” His voice trailed away as he went into his room, closing the door.

Herbert shook his head. “How can we possibly go back, after everything that’s happened? Why would you agree to this? Where will we get the money?”

Eleanora smiled. “We’ll figure this out. Don’t fret about a thing.”

* * *

The banner screamed above her shop door:

SALE — TODAY ONLY!

Crowds of customers came and went, and business was brisk.

In the middle of the sale, men representing the Royal Straight Company led by a Mr. Deuce Kiga approached her. A man in his seventies, Mr. Kiga at first was polite. “May I speak with Mr. Wheel Bryce?”

“May I ask what this is about?”

Herbert, helping a customer, glanced at her, his face concerned.

“We’re here on business, madam,” Mr. Kiga said. “Is Mr. Bryce available? Where might we find him?”

“Bryce Cemetery,” Eleanora said.

Mr. Kiga’s face fell. “I’m so sorry for your loss, madam.” He handed a paper to her. “Your husband owes a great deal of money. I’m here to collect.”

Eleanora scanned the page. “This sum is greater than was mentioned in the contract.”

Mr. Kiga said, “Good. So you’re aware of the situation. Since your husband’s account is in arrears, the company was forced to charge interest.”

“Why, this is unjust!” Eleanora said. “He’s only just died, yet you come to collect?”

“I understand your predicament,” Mr. Kiga said. “To help you, I’m willing to take a tenth payment now, then return for the rest later.”

Eleanora opened her till and gave him everything in it.

“I’m afraid that’s far from sufficient,” Mr. Kiga said. He pointed to her husband’s large fabric press standing along one wall. “That will do.” He gestured to his men. “Take it away.”

A spike of fear: this didn’t seem right.

Eleanora grabbed Herbert’s arm. “Bertie,” she said quietly, “run for the police.”

Herbert nodded, going out the back way.

Eleanora cried out, “Help! These men are thieves!”

Instantly, customers came to her aid.

But Mr. Kiga and his men produced guns, and many of her customers fled. The others, being unarmed, stood raging and helpless as her husband’s machine was carted away.



When Herbert returned with the police, they had a warrant.

Eleanora said, “I’ve been robbed at gunpoint, and you bring me a warrant?”

Constable Highcard hesitated a moment. “Madam, I’m truly sorry. Your son met us on the way here. We’re bound by law to search the premises.” He gestured to his men, who began opening drawers and moving furniture. He took out a notepad. “Now tell me what happened.”

So she told him of the men who took her husband’s equipment, and produced the contract her husband had signed. “It says nothing about stealing his equipment.”

“It does say they can charge interest if the debt isn’t paid,” the constable said. “I’m sorry they upset you.”

“Upset me! I was in the midst of business! They pointed guns at my customers!”

David ran in. “Mom! Why are police ruining the house?”

Eleanora hugged David to her side. “They’re looking for something.” She sighed. “I can’t imagine what.”

She looked up to see Constable Highcard watching her.

A clattering sound came from her bedroom, and she rushed in, fearful of what they might find. And her fears were realized: when they moved the bed, the bottle of laudanum lay there. She stared at it in horror.

“Suicide.” Constable Highcard nodded. “A pity. I’m so sorry for your loss.”

They never moved the bed back, or straightened the room, or even apologized for the mess.



Her regular customers never returned. Others did come in, but only to look and whisper to each other. “Did she drive him to it?”

Now Eleanora wasn’t just a widow who took off mourning too soon, she was a suicide’s wife.

The insurance man Mr. Draw returned a few days later. “When did you realize your husband took his own life?”

What should she say?

“Mrs. Bryce, we want to help you. But if you knew he took his life before you accepted our money, you can be prosecuted for fraud. We don’t want things to go that far. The police said the bottle was under the bed — surely you didn’t know what he’d done. But even if you did, if you tell us the truth, perhaps we can come to an arrangement.”

Ashamed, she began to weep. An arrangement? More debt? On top of everything else?

Somehow, that was the right thing to do. He left.

But the next day, a summons came: in one month’s time, she must face an investigation.

* * *

Eleanora ran another sale, but few people came in.

One of those who did attend was Constable Highcard, which surprised her. “To what do I owe the honor of your visit, Constable?”

The constable smiled. “I’m not on duty. So please call me Trey.”

This seemed a bit too familiar for Eleanora. So she asked, “Why do you wear your uniform then, sir, if you’re not on duty?”

“I wished to appear here in case you should have further problems with your sale.”

“That’s very kind of you,” Eleanora said.

Constable Highcard smiled, and his cheeks colored.

Ah, Eleanora thought.

Sure enough, when she was about to close the shop, the constable asked if she might like to promenade.

“I must feed my sons and put them to bed,” she said. “Perhaps tomorrow?”

“I would be honored.”

* * *

The next day, Eleanora spent a half hour dissuading Herbert from following her.

“Please don’t go with this man,” Herbert said. “What if this is some trick to lure you away then arrest you? Is he even really a policeman? What if he’s some sort of scoundrel? What would we do? We’re lost without you.”

Eleanora patted his hand. “Don’t worry so — I know how to handle one man. You help Davey clean up here, then make a list of ways we might raise more money.”

When Constable Highcard came to her door, he wore regular clothes and a tweed cap.

“I almost didn’t recognize you,” she said.

He grinned at that and offered his arm.

The day was pleasant. Birds sang, and a light breeze gave a fine cooling effect under her parasol. As they walked, Eleanora wondered what the man’s intentions really were.

“I’m sure you’re wondering why I’m here,” he said.

Eleanora laughed. “I was.”

“It was something you said: about what sort of woman I thought you were. And I didn’t know — so I did some investigations.”

She smiled. “Did you now.”

“I was quite certain you killed your husband.”

This disturbed Eleanora no end. Was Herbert right? Was this man only here to arrest her out of sight of her children?

“But then when I saw the bottle, I realized I was wrong.” He stopped then. “I’ve wronged you. I’ve made things more difficult — the lack of customers yesterday was just one sign of it. I feel responsible for your situation, and I want to help.”

Eleanora surveyed him. The man seemed sincere. “Why should a stranger feel compelled to help me?”

Constable Highcard began walking, and she went along with him. “I’m an agent of the law, not a man who normally feels much compassion for those he investigates. But when I learned of your arrival here almost ten years ago with two boys aged six and two, along with a coffin —”

Eleanora swallowed a lump in her throat. “Our eldest son.”

“— yet your husband born and raised in Dickens, it didn’t take an Inventor to see the meaning of it. You and your children were his secret family.”

Eleanora laughed. “That seems an odd way to put it.” The term “secret family” generally referred to a married man keeping — and providing for — a family in another city. What was he saying?

“In any case,” the constable said, “I believe you to have been wrongly used. And this ‘Royal Straight’ company has charged unfair, nay, usury rates.”

Anger surged inside her at the thought. “What do you suggest I do?”

He let out a breath. “I’m not a wealthy man, Mrs. Bryce. But if there’s a way I can help, please let me do so.”

Eleanora nodded, not sure she wanted the truth about her husband just yet. “Let me consider this. When may we meet again?”

He shrugged. “I’m available next week at this time.”

She smiled, patting his hand. “It sounds as if we have set a date.”

* * *

When Mr. Kiga again came asking for money, Eleanora confronted him, standing directly in his way. “Why did you close my husband’s loan balance a year early?”

“I don’t inquire about these things, madam. My guess is that the company re-evaluated his financial situation and felt he was in danger of default. If you’ll examine the contract, it does state that they can recall the loan at any time.”

How was such injustice possible?

“Wait,” Eleanora said. “What do you mean, you don’t inquire about what ‘they’ do? Don’t you know your own company’s reasoning?”

Mr. Kiga spoke as if to a child. “Madam, I’m a bill collector. I’ve purchased your debt and now I must collect the proceeds. I’ll be happy to explain this matter in greater detail at my next visit if you need help understanding the situation. But I have many stops to make today. So if you don’t mind?”

Eleanora stared at Mr. Kiga in shock as his men took the best part of the cloth her husband had spent his life collecting. She didn’t bother calling for the police: the value of what Mr. Kiga had taken so far didn’t add up to the original amount her husband owed.

But that evening, she got all of her paper and ink together. She made flyers selling her clothes, her jewels, and her furniture, which the boys put up the next day.

Even if she sold everything she owned, it wouldn’t even be enough to repay the insurance man, much less Mr. Kiga.

On her next stroll with the constable, she said, “There may be a way you might help. My boys and I would like to visit relatives in Bridges. We’ve purchased the tickets for the trip back, but if you might assist us in purchasing the tickets there ...?”

He nodded. “I’ll see what I can do.”



Eleanora’s days were filled with selling. As the furnishings, clothes, and jewels she’d spent the past ten years with were moved out of her home, she thought: how little we truly need to be happy!

They had food, clothing, a roof over their heads, and even — perhaps — a friend.

This thought made her smile. She had been taught from childhood to distrust and fear the police, even to kill them. But this constable seemed so different from those dishonest, vile men in Bridges. Could she truly trust him?

I will observe his actions, she thought, to see his character. Yet she hoped he was a true friend. They needed one, at least for the short time they remained here.

* * *

The next time Mr. Kiga visited, he took all the money she had raised, but it wasn’t enough. So he took her customer lists too. “You need to have the rest the next time we return or it won’t go so well for you.”

“My husband is dead. He never told me of this loan. And here you’ve bullied and harassed me when I’ve done nothing wrong.”

“The law’s the law,” Mr. Kiga said. “I’m sorry you feel bullied and harassed, but I have bills of my own. You best prepare, madam, because I’ll get my money, one way or the other.”

Eleanora stood by the window after he and his men left. She’d lived in Dickens long enough to know what came next. Eviction. Auction sale. And if that wasn’t enough to pay what her husband owed, debtor’s prison.

On her next stroll with the Constable, he said, “I wasn’t able to get your tickets, Mrs. Bryce. You’re on the debtor’s list.” He sounded shocked and upset by the thought.

Blocked by law from leaving Dickens until her debts were paid. “Don’t fret,” she said. “I expected as much.”

The constable peered at her. “You weren’t going to visit relatives.”

“No,” Eleanora said. “I wasn’t.”

He gave her a disarming grin, yet something vulnerable lay beneath the surface. “And you were just going to leave me?”

Her eyes stung. “I — your regard is very flattering, sir, especially at this time. But —”

“It’s too soon. Forgive me. It’s just —”

“I took off mourning.” She nodded to herself. “I understand.” She took a deep breath. “But it’s not that. I must leave the city.”

He nodded.

“And,” she said, “I won’t presume to ask you to come with me.”

They walked for a while in silence.

Constable Highcard said, “How did you meet your husband?”

“Mr. Bryce traveled extensively. Which is how we met.”

One night, he took a drunken turn through the brothel she’d been born in. The next morning, he told her he loved her, insisting she take no others. And he helped her move when the owner of her house refused to keep her for him alone.

“For many years, we lived apart, as he saved the money to bring me here. But he visited as often as he could. Sons followed, as did the amount needed to bring us out of Bridges. After my oldest son was murdered, though, my husband feared losing us all.”

“Pardon me,” the constable said. “Murdered?”

“Yes,” she said, feeling bitter. “He was twelve. A cheap scrap of a girl he was besotted with had him roaming the streets in the middle of the night. An addict in the midst of some deal shot him.” She shook her head, enraged by the memory. When she returned to Bridges, she’d find that girl and beat her bloody.

The constable said nothing.

“Tell me true,” Eleanora said. “What did you mean, a secret family?”

Constable Highcard hesitated, then said, “Your Mr. Bryce had extensive lands. Yet his wife was barren. Ten years ago, she died, and he left the city at once. They’d been married almost twenty years, yet he didn’t even attend her funeral. Over the course of a month, his solicitors sold his entire holdings and purchased his current home. He returned from his trip with a wife, two children, and a small coffin.”

A sudden chill lay in the air. “What are you saying?”

“Saying? Nothing. They’re both dead.” He squeezed her arm in his. “And you need a way out of the city.”

“I won’t impoverish another man,” Eleanora said. “And I won’t have you endanger yourself on my account.”

He smiled fondly at her. “Never fear. I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but I believe that between the two of us, we can think of something.”

* * *

That night, after the boys were in bed, Eleanora couldn’t sleep. Had her husband deceived her? Had he murdered his barren, unloved wife to bring her and their sons here? What kind of man had he been?

Wheel Bryce seemed so kind, so generous. Could she have been married to a murderer?

He never said he was unmarried, Eleanora thought at last. And the rest ... did it matter now that he and his wife lay dead?

The family awoke to the sound of hammering. Eleanora ran to the door. A man she didn’t recognize walked away, hammer in hand, then got into his carriage and left.

Eleanora opened the door. On the front was a Notice of Eviction. Next week, they’d be taken from their home and placed in debtor’s prison until their home and belongings were sold. Once the proceeds were tallied, a judge would decide their fates.

If the judge took pity on David, her son might live out the rest of his days as an indentured servant for the Royal Straight Company. No, she thought, for Mr. Kiga. How many of Mr. Kiga’s young men with guns had he obtained in this way?

The idea of her child in that man’s custody sickened her, but at least David would be safe.

She and Herbert, though ... they faced hard labor in a debtor’s camp, until either the money was paid or they died.

“Mom,” Herbert said. “What’re we going to do?”

“Don’t worry.” She read the paper again, then handed it to him. “We’ve survived much worse, my love. We’ll survive this.”

Lady Luck was with them. The men from Pike and Associates were scheduled to move their things to Bridges tomorrow.

“Bertie,” she said, “go to the police station and ask for Constable Highcard. Tell him we need his help.”

Herbert came back an hour later. “They said he’s on assignment, but they’ll give him a message.”

It took several hours for the constable to arrive; several men were with him.

“You can send those men away,” Eleanora said.

The constable gestured to his men to stand back. “What happened?”

“Next week, we’re being evicted. But tomorrow, our things are being moved to Bridges. Do you see what I see?”

Across the street sat two large crates.

He said, “What time do the delivery men arrive?”

“Noon.”

Constable Highcard grinned. “Then tomorrow I shall have a sudden illness.”

“Thank you, Constable,” Eleanora said, loud enough for his men to hear. “You’ve been very helpful.”

After he left, she stood by the window gazing at the crates. Would her plan work?

Herbert came up beside her. “What’re you looking at, Mom?”

She gestured to the crates. “That’s how we’re going to leave Bridges.”

Herbert stared at her. “You’re not serious.”

Eleanora turned to him. “I am. And you need to help me with David. Which means no more arguing. And stop speaking against my plans in front of him. Do you hear? If he won’t go inside, or he cries out and we’re caught, we’ll all go to prison.”

Herbert paled. Then he nodded, glancing at the crates.

Eleanora hoped they’d be big enough.

It didn’t matter. They had to be.

That night, Eleanora and Herbert got them.

* * *

The next morning, she said, “Here’s what we’ll do. When they come to pick up our belongings, we’ll be in these crates. The men will take us to our new home. Davey, you and Bertie will be together. But you must make no sound, or the men’ll catch us.”

David shrank back from the box. “I don’t want to go in there.”

“Hush,” Herbert said. “I’ll be there with you.”

“Try it out,” Eleanora said. “It’ll be fun.”

David stood inside the empty box. He was small for his age, and this was a tall, rectangular crate used for machinery. It came up to his chest. “I guess it’s not so bad.”

“We’re going to ride the zeppelin in these, Davey,” Herbert said. “You and me together, then Mama in the other one.”

“Will she be okay?”

Eleanora took her little boy in her arms. “I’ll be fine. Men will come to pick up these boxes. We might get jostled about. But they can’t know we’re inside. We have to hide. It’s like a game.”

“Mom,” David said. “I’m twelve years old. I’m not a baby. I know it’s not a game. Don’t worry — I’ll be good.”

“Very well,” Eleanora said, abashed. “But no matter what happens, you must be deadly silent. It’ll be dark, and maybe too warm. But the crates have lots of holes so you can breathe, and I’ve got jars of water and packs of food set up for you. After a few hours riding in trucks and the zeppelin, we’ll be at our new home.”

David nodded, face solemn.

At eleven, a sharp knock came at the door. Peering out of the curtains, she saw Constable Highcard outside, dressed in regular clothes.

“You gave me a fright!” Eleanora said.

He chuckled at that. “I don’t look so awful, do I?”

“You boys stay in here,” she said. “Get what you must have together and make sure it’s all in the boxes. Use the toilet. When we need to leave, we won’t have time to stop for anything.”

Herbert nodded, ushering David away.

Eleanora turned towards Constable Highcard, who still stood on her porch. “Let’s sit out here.”

The constable said, “Were the crates big enough?”

She smiled. “Indeed. We should be gone from here before anyone realizes it.”

“What do you want me to do?”

She undid her keys from her belt and handed them to him. “You’re our neighbor, here to unlock the door when the men arrive. We’re ... off getting fitted for new clothes.”

He let out a fond laugh. “It seems you’ve thought of everything.”

“Well, isn’t this touching,” Mr. Kiga said.

Eleanora and Constable Highcard sprang to their feet.

Mr. Kiga had a gun, which he pointed at them. “I heard rumors you had a man on the side.” He surveyed Eleanora, yet didn’t seem impressed. “Found a way to give me the slip, have you? Well, I’m here to make sure you don’t. I want my money, and I won’t have you sneaking off to Bridges.”

Eleanora said, “How did you learn of this?”

He came closer, until he was a few paces away. “You think I’m stupid? People facing eviction try to skip town all the time.” He laughed. “Shipping yourselves in crates. That’s a new one.” He tapped his temple. “You’ll fetch a pretty penny.”

Constable Highcard gasped. “You’d sell her into slavery? For shame, sir!”

“She wanted to go to Bridges. I’ll send her there, free of charge. I know a brothel that’d love a smart, experienced woman.” His smile became leering. “And you are experienced, or so I hear.”

Constable Highcard turned to Eleanora. “What does he mean?”

Mr. Kiga said, “I mean, sir — whoever you are — that your ‘friend’ here was a whore before she was Mrs. Bryce.”

Constable Highcard said calmly, “What makes you think I’d allow it?”

“I’m here speaking with my fiancée. If I should kill a ruffian who knocked out my betrothed while trying to rob us, I’d be a hero.”

“You’d dare?” Eleanora stared at Mr. Kiga, appalled. “I’d speak against you!”

“An injured, disoriented woman’s word against her future husband’s? They wouldn’t decide on the case until my doctor said you were well, and by that time, we’d be far from here.”

Eleanora grabbed her keys from the constable and threw them in Mr. Kiga’s face. “Run!”

Mr. Kiga batted the keys away, then grabbed her arm. “Now I’ve got you.”

But in doing so, he took his eyes from the constable, who rushed forward, disarming the man.



Clicks came from all around. “Put your hands up. Now!”

Mr. Kiga did so, and uniformed constables appeared.

One of them addressed Constable Highcard. “You’ve never called in sick since I’ve known you, sir. I knew something was wrong, so we tracked you here. Thought you might need help.”

Constable Highcard, who stood gaping in astonishment, composed himself. “This does make matters more convenient; you can bring him to the station. You’ve heard his testimony.” He handed over Mr. Kiga’s weapon. “Defamation of character, threatening an officer of the law, attempted kidnapping, and intent to enslave. And ... whatever else I’ve missed.” He turned to Mr. Kiga, “You should be out of business for quite some time.”

“What!” Mr. Kiga looked shocked, then outraged. “You’re a constable? This is entrapment! You’ll regret this! I’ll have your badge!” His voice trailed off as the officers took him away.



Eleanora waited for Constable Highcard’s question.

“Is what he said true?”

“It is,” she said. “But that’s not important. Can he hurt you?”

Constable Highcard hesitated a long moment, and Eleanora watched him. Yes, she’d been a whore, long ago. Would he feel betrayed? Would he walk away? Would he shout at her?

She never thought he’d hurt her. He seemed a better man than that.

Finally, his face changed, as if he’d come to some decision. “Today, no. That’s all I care about. We can keep him occupied for long enough for you to get away safe. Once he gets the money from your home’s sale, I doubt he’ll have reason to bother you.”

Relief washed over her. Yet Eleanora felt a sudden sadness at the thought of Mr. Kiga taking the home Mr. Bryce bought for them.

But that was in the past: getting her children away from here was all that mattered.

The insurance man was sure to put a warrant out for her arrest once he’d learned she’d fled the city. But they’d have trouble getting Bridges to hand her over, especially since she was bound for Spadros quadrant. She grinned at the thought of Mr. Draw — or Mr. Kiga — trying.

The tower clock struck half past eleven. Eleanora said, “I must go.”

Constable Highcard took Eleanora’s hands in his. “Will I ever see you again?”

Amazed, she smiled at him. “If you’re ever in Bridges, Constable, you’re truly welcome to call.”

“I’m most grateful.” He took her in his arms and kissed her.

Wrapping her arms around him, Eleanora rested her head on his chest, thinking: how many women are fortunate enough to meet a good man who loves them?

And she knew that no matter what she faced in Bridges, she and her children would survive it, just as they’d survived everything else. “The men will arrive soon.”

“I know.” He took her hands and kissed them. “Be safe. Write when you can.”

“I will.” With that, Eleanora hurried inside to get her children ready for their next adventure.



The End



* * *



Read more about the Bryce family in

The Jacq of Spades: Part 1 of the Red Dog Conspiracy



GET THE JACQ OF SPADES FREE — AN EXCLUSIVE OFFER!

Click here to get your free copy of The Jacq of Spades



About the Author

Patricia Loofbourrow, MD, is a NY Times and USA Today best-selling SFF and non-fiction author, PC gamer, ornamental food gardener, fiber artist, and wildcrafter who loves power tools, dancing, genetics, and anything to do with outer space. She was born in southern California and has lived in Chicago and Tokyo. She currently lives in Oklahoma with her husband and three grown children.

Visit her website: JacqOfSpades.com



Books by Patricia Loofbourrow

RED DOG CONSPIRACY

The Jacq of Spades

The Queen of Diamonds

The Ace of Clubs

The King of Hearts

THE PREQUELS

Gutshot: The Catastrophe

The Alcatraz Coup

Vulnerable



Acknowledgments

In memory of Jackie Dill

Any story is a team effort. My thanks to Corwin Loofbourrow and Melissa Storm for their help with plot and characterization, and Erin Hartshorn for her editing and proofreading. Thank you so much.

I’d also like to thank The Commission street team for helping to get this story into your hands!



Special thanks to my Patrons:

Dave Kobrenski

Cristina

Nancy

Phoebe Darqueling

Eirlys Evans

Rachel Heslin

Your continued financial support means the world to me.

See what I’m doing on Patreon.


Download this book for your ebook reader.
(Pages 1-21 show above.)