“Oh John,” she whimpered, holding out her chubby hand to him as he closed the parlor doors behind him and hurried to sit beside her on the ornate settee. Gently, he forced himself to take her hand and brush his lips across her chubby fingers.
“I came as soon as I could,” he lied, settling his face into a look her hoped would pass for concern. “What is it, Dear Lady?”
“Oh, John,” she repeated, practically breaking into tears, “Harry Wendel was here this morning. He…he told me George Dorn resigned as president of the bank. Showed me a very short, curt note saying he was resigning immediately because of ‘personal reasons.’”
Wilson felt his stomach clench. The one thing he’d counted on was Dorn handling the opium money in and out of the bank. It was another nail in the coffin.
“Of course,” she continued in that whiny voice, “Harry went to Dorn’s office to try and talk to him. He was already cleaning out his office when Harry arrived. He said Dorn told him, and I quote, ‘you can tell Mrs. Ashby I’m finished being afraid of her and her friends.’ He also said he’d already given his statement to the sheriff and that if anything happened to him or his family, especially his daughter, Sheriff Madden would be on my doorstep asking ‘embarrassing questions.'
“What does all this mean, John?” she pleaded.
The drowning feeling he’d had with the sheriff returned ten-fold, but he couldn’t let the old biddy see. He had to have time to think, to put her off until he could straighten things out.
Patting her hand, he tried to look thoughtful and sympathetic.
“I’m sure I don’t know, Dear Lady,” he soothed. “Not knowing Mr. Dorn personally or his obviously agitated state of mind, I can’t speculate on his words or his actions.
“Perhaps Mr. Wendel misunderstood the situation.”
She shook her head emphatically. “No. Harry Wendel told me exactly what Dorn said and did. He said Dorn was furious but certainly in control of himself.” Tears appeared in those little piggy eyes.
“You…you don’t think Dorn meant he’d told Sheriff Madden about my…my request that Harry…Nick and his daughter’s engagement…his position…” The tears spilled over and her fat little body began to shake.
“There, there,” Wilson cooed, taking out his handkerchief and pressing it into her hand. “It’s all right, Clara. I’m sure Mr. Dorn was just speaking in anger and that he hasn’t said anything to the sheriff or anyone else.
“Most probably, Mr. Dorn found he was incompetent to such an important position and rather than wait to be fired, he decided to resign and save face.”
“But what other sort of statement could he have possibly made to the sheriff,” she snorted through her tears.
What indeed, Wilson wondered anxiously. Dorn had seen Huff, talked to him. Been threatened by him. Huff had all but told him he’d beaten Nick Barkley almost to death to break up the engagement and to make sure Dorn knew even the Barkleys weren’t beyond his reach.
But whatever Dorn might have told the sheriff, if anything, was useless now because Huff was dead and there was nothing to tie them together. There was no proof of any kind and while Dorn’s departure from the bank was yet another small setback, it paled in comparison to his problem with the Barkleys. After all, Dorn wasn’t the only bank official in the world with a secret or a greedy nature. He’d find someone else to handle the opium profits.
“I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about,” he consoled her, helping to dry her tears and pouring her another cup of tea. “Even if Mr. Dorn did make some sort of outrageous claims against you and Mr. Wendel, it would be your word against his. With no proof of your…request to Mr. Wendel and his denial, the whole thing will be quickly disposed of.
“Now, dry your tears and drink your tea.”
“Oh John,” she breathed, a smile appearing like sun after a rain storm, “I feel so much better now. As always, you’ve made everything all right again.
“I insist you stay for lunch. I have some ideas about how to spend the charity fund Horace’s business associates are setting up and I want your opinion. After all, with you settling permanently in the Valley, I hope we can become…well, closer.”
“Of course, Clara,” he forced himself to smile. “I should be very interested in what you have to say.”
Damn you, Huff, he thought cynically. I should have taken you up on your offer to add this old crone to your hit list when I had the chance.
Mrs. Ashby rose and he followed suit.
Ah well, he consoled himself as they moved out of the room, once he was secure in his position as head of the opium distribution network, he could always rectify that error too.
That pleasant thought brightened him somewhat and with his phony smile still in place, he took her elbow and they headed for the dining room.
Perhaps the day wouldn’t be a total loss. Mrs. Ashby might be an old biddy, but she did set a fine table.
& & & & &
Having had a delicious lunch, two glasses of excellent wine, a dessert port and a drop of brandy in his coffee, Wilson’s afternoon was going decidedly better than his morning. Even having to pretend to listen to his luncheon host's endless prattle had not dimmed the meal and now, as he walked slowly back to his hotel, he considered his situation.
First, he must get in contact with the professional killers he would need and see who was available to take the assignment the quickest. While they were all excellent choices, they were not in Huff’s class and it would take a few days to bring them here, explain the situation and for them to make whatever arrangements they would need to carry out the assignment.
The words sounded in his head as clearly as they had this morning but with a determined effort, he pushed them away.
Pierce, in Denver, was probably the closest. Nelson had been in Cheyenne the last he’d heard but who knew where he might be. Brenner would be in Philadelphia if he wasn’t on a job. He would send coded wires this afternoon and hope for quick replies.
He’d seen Huff, could identify him. And as
soon as he’d learned Huff was dead, had bolted from his job at the bank. With
Huff dead, he no doubt felt he was free of the situation. Nick Barkley was dead
and his job gone; there was no reason for the family to stay in the Valley so,
being no threat, he would allow them to leave. He could not afford three more murders, especially in light of his other deadline. Better to let them run and be done with it.
Mrs. Ashby was securely in his pocket and as long as she had her “charity” to occupy her, she would continue fat, dumb and happy, the perfect front for their operation. If he couldn’t disengage himself from her, tactfully using his growing business to distance himself, he could always arrange for her to have an unfortunate and very fatal accident.
The Sheriff and District Attorney would have no trouble discovering who and what Huff was and the investigation would end with the killer buried in Potter’s Field and promptly forgotten.
Things could still work out for him.
With a sigh, Wilson went into the hotel and up to his suite. He’d just settled in, the luncheon and walk making him drowsy when there came a knock on his door.
“Damn!” he muttered as he roused himself enough to cross the floor and open the door slightly.
He didn’t recognize the face. “Yes?” he growled.
“My name is George Dorn,” the man answered simply, glancing up and down the empty hall.
A tremor of dread slithered down his spine but he held himself in check.
“Mr. Dorn," he said noncommittally.
Dorn put his hand on the door, stopping it.
“I think we need to talk. Seriously.”
“Oh,” Wilson replied, his curiosity piqued. “About what?”
"About your associate, Mr. Huff’s plan for killing the Barkleys.”