“Mr. John Wilson?” the sheriff asked, glancing at a small notebook in his hand.
“Yes,” he replied, trying to keep his voice neutral. “Is there a problem sheriff?”
“Name’s Madden,” Fred told him, flashing what he hoped was a reassuring smile. “No problem. Just asking some routine questions.”
A noise came from next door and Wilson leaned forward a bit to see what was going on. A man was just emerging from the open door of Huff’s suite. Wilson felt his stomach tighten but made no outward sign of distress.
The other man stopped beside the sheriff and gave Wilson a cursory glance before speaking.
“Make sure, Sheriff Madden,” he said briskly, “that all the personal items, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, are noted and tagged before your men remove them.”
“Yes sir,” Madden replied simply. “Mr. Wilson, this is Mr. Archer, our District Attorney.”
Archer nodded. “Mr. Wilson.”
Wilson returned the nod, trying to remain calm.
“Good day,” Archer said and walked off toward the stairs.
“I’m sorry to trouble you, Mr. Wilson,” the sheriff began again, “but I’d like to come in and ask you a few questions.”
Taking a deep breath, Wilson smiled and started to open the door wider, when a young man emerged from the stairs and walked quickly toward them.
“Mr. Wilson,” he called out, almost skidding into the sheriff.
What now, Wilson wondered in frustration.
“Message came for you,” the young man continued. “Said it was real important and to get it to you as quick as possible.” He held out the small tray with the envelope on it.
Grabbing it with one hand and reaching in his pocket with the other, Wilson gave the boy a coin and then shoved the letter in his pocket. Not, however, before the sheriff recognized the large, ornate, gold capital “A” on the flap or the thin scrawl in India ink on the front.
“I’m sorry,” Wilson told him. “It’s been one of those mornings. Please come in.” He stepped aside and Fred entered.
“Can I get you something?” Wilson offered weakly.
“No, thank you. I just have a couple of questions.” He glanced at the small notebook again. “It’s about the gentleman in the next suite. A Mr. C. Mills.”
“Is…is there a problem?” he forced out, his stomach tightening again.
“Mr. Mills was involved in an…incident late last night. He’s dead.” Fred watched the other man’s reaction.
“Goodness,” was all he could manage but inside, Wilson felt like he was drowning.
“Did you know Mr. Mills?”
Wilson moved back toward the small table and took a drink of coffee. Fred noted there were two cups on the table and that the bedroom door was open just enough for someone to be listening.
“No, Sheriff Madden,” Wilson answered, struggling to keep his voice normal. “I’ve been very busy here in Stockton on business and except for eating and sleeping, I’ve spent very little time in the suite.”
Madden made a note in his book. “Did you see Mr. Mills? Talk to him perhaps?” Fred pressed.
“No, Sheriff. Except for a couple of times when we passed in the hall and nodded, I don’t remember seeing him at all.”Another note. “And you didn’t know him before Stockton?”
Wilson shook his head.. “I’m afraid not.” He waited a heartbeat while Fred made another notation.
“Does this, ‘incident’ you spoke of, Sheriff,” Wilson began carefully, trying not to sound too interested, “have anything to do with the funeral procession I saw earlier this morning? From the reaction of people on the street, it seemed very important.”
Madden closed his book and put it back in his vest pocket. “I’m afraid I’m not at liberty to discuss this matter,” he said simply. “Investigation is just getting underway.
"Yes," Wilson replied, "I understand."
“Thank you for your time, Mr. Wilson and if you should happen to think of anything else about Mr. Mills, no matter how small you may feel it is, please let me know.”
“I certainly will, Sheriff,” Wilson forced a smile.
“My men will be in Mr. Mills’ suite for a while but we’ll try to keep the noise down.”
“Thank you, Sheriff,” Wilson said as they moved back toward the door. He opened it and after handshakes and good byes, Madden left and Wilson closed and locked the door.The other man returned and they both sat down at the table once more.
“So,” Wilson’s guest commented as he raised his cup, “Huff is dead.”
Wilson finished his coffee and poured another cup. “It would seem so,” was all he could answer.
“Will this be another impediment to the project?”
“No. In fact, it may work to our advantage. Huff went to the doctor’s last night to finish off the brother he’d beaten and intended to kill the bastard brother this afternoon in a public gunfight. I’m assuming the bastard was sitting with his brother and fell asleep. Probably woke up to find Huff smothering him, there was a shootout and both of them were killed. But there’s nothing to tie me to Huff or the killings.”
He frowned and looked into the middle distance for several moments. “He told me he had a plan for disposing of the rest of the Barkley family before he left for Texas at the end of the week and that the road would be clear by then.”
“What plan?” the other man asked, leaning forward a bit.
“Unfortunately,” Wilson sighed, “he didn’t give me any details. Said he didn’t want me trying to cheat him out of his bonus by using his plan myself. All he said was that it would be simple, foolproof and no one would ever know the truth about their deaths.”
“Then the project is essentially in the same stalled condition,” the guest concluded.
“No. It’s simply a matter of getting someone to replace Huff,” Wilson said hurriedly. “I have several other professionals who can handle the job. We’re this close to having the project completed.”
“Mr. Wilson,” the other man said coldly, “this project is overdue and over budget. Considerably, on both counts. Colonel Ashby’s death left a major hole in our distribution pipeline. Our competitors, sensing an opportunity, are already circling, looking for a weakness, an opening into our market here in Central California. And while they seek a breach in our defenses, not an ounce of our product is reaching our customers. Desperate souls who are beginning to look elsewhere for product we are not supplying them. Customers who may be lost to us permanently unless we can re-establish our supply lines.
“In short, the Chairman has decreed that neither the organization’s patience or resources are inexhaustible. Unless there is concrete progress and a definite date for the fulfillment of your promises, a profitable resumption of our activities and the growth of our opium enterprise, the project and anything associated with it, will be terminated.“I trust you understand the gravity of the situation,” he finished.
Wilson nodded. “Yes sir,” he said quietly, trying not show his fear. “And you may tell the Chairman I will deliver in a timely manner. The project will be finished and product will move again promptly.”
“Then I shall take my leave,” he said, retrieving his hat and standing.
“Remember, Tuesday next.”
Starting to rise, the other man put up his hand. “Don’t bother, Mr. Wilson. I shall see myself out. Good day.”When the messenger was gone, Wilson put a good measure of whiskey in his coffee and slumped deeply in his chair to consider his situation.
“Damn you, Huff!” he snarled. “Damn you to Hell! If you’d only have told me your plan, I might have been able to carry it out and save my skin. But no! You were too suspicious, too greedy! Damn you!”
Reaching in his pocket for a cigar, he found the note he’d forgotten about. Taking it out, he considered it like a dead rat he’d discovered in his breakfast.
Great, he thought angrily as he ripped the envelope and scanned the note's few lines. Of all the things he didn’t need this morning, an urgent summons from the Ashby cow was at the top of his list.
Throwing the note on the table, he lit a cigar and savored his whiskey soaked coffee.
What else could possibly go wrong, he wondered acidly.