By Jeff Kazmierski, Copy Editor
The crowd at the Broken Branch Saloon had gone quiet; all eyes were on the game. Five card stud poker, straight up. We’d started with four at the table; two had dropped out earlier, leaving me, John Copper, facing a steely-eyed, sharp-witted gambler from New Orleans called Diamond Jim.
He was riding high, having cleaned up in three games already. It was his cane that had caught my eye, though; three feet of carved oak, topped with an amber sphere encasing a pair of dice showing three and four pips. I didn’t need my second sight to see the magic in it.
“Getting’ a bit rich,” he said, casually counting a stack of coins. His other hand caressed the head of the cane.
He was showing an ace and a ten; I had a six and a four up, with a seven and eight in my hand.
Unnoticed by Jim, one of the dice had begun to turn slowly.
“Maybe so,” I said as I counted my remaining cash. Fifteen left; barely enough for a serious raise. “Let me make you an offer.” I tossed my remaining cash on the pile. “There’s nearly two hundred dollars in that pot. You can call it, and we can play it out, or you can have it all for that cane.”
His gray eyes looked like the barrels of two pistols. “You’re crazy,” he said. He called. I watched his cane as he dealt the final cards, a five to me and a seven to him. The die that had been sitting on its edge flopped over and the globe showed two threes.
I showed my cards. Shocked noises rippled through the crowd. “Cards up, my friend.”
He tossed them angrily on the table. An ace and a ten.
“Oh, bad luck.”
“You cheated.” His right hand moved toward his left hip. I let my jacket fall to the side, revealing my own pistol.
“You dealt.” We stared at each other, neither moving. “But since you’re feelin’ so strongly about it, why don’t you keep half the winnings? I’ll take that cane off your hands, and we can call it even.” He glared at me through narrowed eyes. I gestured at the cane. “Your luck’s run out, friend.”
He looked at the amber globe, then tossed the cane on the table, pocketed most of the pot and stalked out. I took what was left and put a leather glove on before picking up the cane.
A tall, rangy man with a thick gray mustache and a silver star on his vest sat down in Diamond Jim’s recently vacated chair.
“John Copper. I thought you didn’t gamble.”
“Marshal Wallace, what an unexpected pleasure,” I replied. “I don’t, usually. Bad for the image. People make assumptions, and it’s a good way to come down with a severe case of lead poisoning. What do you want?”
“Business, Copper. I’m trying to track down a killer.”
My ears pricked up. Wallace was a U.S. Marshal. He was also one of the few non-wizards who wasn’t afraid of magic. He’d come to me for help once, years ago. If he needed me again… well, it couldn’t be good.
Wallace leaned toward me. “There’s been a string of murders out west,” he said. “Mostly small-time gamblers and hustlers. They all had one thing in common.” He looked tense. His upper lip twitched. “They were all found in hotel rooms, burned from the inside. Nothin’ else was damaged.”
He let me think about that. There was definitely magic involved. But there’s precious few wizards in the world, and no one I knew had the skill or subtlety to do that kind of black work. And no medicine man would have done it; their methods were less direct and lasted longer.
I had a bad feeling about where this was going.
“Anything else strange about the victims?” He’d know what I meant.
Wallace pulled a leather bag from his vest pocket. “Nope, all ordinary men. All but the last.” He tossed the bag onto the table. “This was found on the remains of a kid called Evan Hughes. He was one of you, wasn’t he?”
I glared up at him. “Hardly. Evan was a madman. Gave us all a bad name.”
“But you had dealings with him on occasion.”
“I bought some trinkets off him, yeah, but that’s as far as it went. What’s in the bag?”
He motioned for me to open it, which I did. A flat, charred chunk of stone fell out. I turned it over and saw a partially-blackened silver pentacle ringed with scrolling Arabic writing. The bad feeling I’d been having got worse.
“Thought you might have some ideas,” Wallace said. He stood up, fished in a pocket and tossed a star-shaped pin on the table. “As of today, you’re my deputy.”
Shit. Evan was causing problems even being dead.
“And if I refuse?” I knew the answer, but had to try.
He smiled humorlessly. “Then I’ll have no choice but to run you in as an accomplice,” he said. “And we don’t want that, do we?”
I studied the rock, feeling the residual magic pulsing from it. I shook my head. “No, sir.”
“Well, then, deputy,” he said, emphasizing the last word, “you got work to do. Find that killer.”
I stuffed the stone and star back in the bag. “How much time do I have?”
“Just get it done. Sorry, John. I wouldn’t have come to you if I’d had any choice. I’ve lost three good men already.”
There’s two kinds of wizard in the world. Those who get involved with demons, and those who clean up the messes left by the first kind. Evan had been one of the first kind, and now I had to clean up. I’d probably get killed in the process.
“I’ll do it.”
Wallace nodded, then left. As I headed back to the Desert Rose, my shop at the edge of town, I realized I’d forgotten to ask how much the job paid.