He’d grown to young manhood in the sultry swamps of Louisiana but, like so many others of his generation, had headed out West to find his fortune. The gold boom had, over the course of time, given way to the love of silver. Both of those commodities, however, required expenditure of effort and he was inherently lazy.
Not for him endless days of toil; of wandering the hills hoping to stake a claim on a seam of something that may or turn out to be valuable. No – he had discovered something far more appealing. Something that held a thrill greater than the simple, honest pursuit of precious metals. Those things paled in comparison to the many other opportunities that the Arizona Territories had to offer. Opportunities that a resourceful young man who discovered he had a remarkable and deadly skill with a gun could exploit to the full. And he had exploited them with great aplomb.
Of course, many of those opportunities were not necessarily considered to fall within the confines of the law, but Julien Lavolier was young enough, arrogant enough and – as it now transpired – fool enough to have believed that so long as he applied sense and caution to his misdeeds, he would evade capture.
It transpired that he was wrong in that assumption. Painfully wrong. He had completely underestimated the full might of the law when it finally turned its attention to the young Cajun.
The prison cell was, as one might expect, not a pleasant place to have spent upwards of a week. A six by six foot brick cube that slowly cooked him during the day but left him shivering into the night, with only a thin, prison-issued blanket to wrap his body in. The heat wasn’t like the humidity of the swamps back home. This was a cruel, relentless heat that burned with endless fury, only relinquishing its hold when the chill of night set in.
He had been given little more than the requisite bread and water for six days and his stomach was clenching painfully. He had started dreaming about his mama’s jambalaya. It hadn’t helped. Once he’d starting thinking about his mother, dead these last five years, he could hear her voice in his head.
I ain’t angry, chere petit. I am jus’ disappointed.
Lavolier sighed miserably, curling up into a foetal position. He lay on the rock-hard bunk that was his bed, staring at the opposite wall. There was a stain there that looked precisely like a bear and during his confinement, he had grown rather fond of it. He’d yet to reach the point of despair that saw him hold conversations with it, but it was not far off.
It was not a question, requiring his answer, but a statement of fact. He sat up at the voice and rubbed at sleep-deprived eyes to bring the speaker into clear focus. He was tall, this newcomer, and well-dressed in a dark grey suit with a crisp, white shirt. A long black coat hung from broad shoulders. To Lavolier’s untrained eye, the clothes seemed well cut and individually tailored. They also looked hot and stifling, made as they were from some expensive woollen based fabric.
By Lavolier’s estimation, the man should have been cooking alive. It was mid-July and the outside temperatures were well in excess of one hundred degrees; the inside of the jail definitely more than that. But the man did not seem to be suffering any discomfort at all. Not so much as a bead of sweat broke his brow. He bore the burden of his woollen-based fabric load with a stoicism that had Lavolier but known it, he brought to everything.
When Lavolier was sitting up fully, the man on what could best be described as the right side of the bars studied him closely. Lavolier attempted to return the scrutiny, observing a few important and several incidental ones at the same time. The first point was the star on the man’s lapel, denoting his status. He was perhaps in his mid to late forties, with sharp, pale blue eyes that did not miss a thing and a long and rather pointed nose. The expression on his finely chiselled features as he looked at the prisoner put Lavolier in mind of someone who had stepped into the street and discovered a freshly dropped pile of horse dung.
“My name is Judge Kingsley Stern,” said the newcomer and the words were enough to turn the blood in Lavolier’s veins to ice. He knew the man by reputation. No outlaw was oblivious to the name of Judge Stern. The vaguest quirk of his lips drew the man’s mouth upwards into a semi-sneer.
“You have heard of me, then.”
“Oui, I have.”
“Excellent. I do so dislike extended introductions. Well, then. Let’s have a little look, shall we? It would appear that your behaviour has been less than exemplary, Monsieur Lavolier,” said the lawman without a hint of sarcasm in his tone. His deference and politeness caught Lavolier off guard and he blinked. What little self-control he’d managed to maintain while in this firepit of misery slipped away from him and he heard the snivelling tone that crept, unbidden, into his voice.
“I have reasons for doin’ them things what I done did, Mister Stern…”
“Judge.” The cold eyes narrowed. “I will correct you once. Twice is an insult and anything more than that I will take to be a complete breach of decency. Judge. Henceforth, you will not address me by anything other than my given title again. Are we clear?” Every syllable was enunciated to perfection; not a consonant out of place and delivered in a tone devoid fully of emotion.
“Excellent.” Another expression that approximated a smile formed on the man’s mouth; thin-lipped and without humour. “I will be hearing your case later today and I very much look forward to these ‘reasons’ you have for…” He glanced down at the sheaf of papers in his hand. “Robbery, arson, two counts of murder, six counts of attempted murder and…” He looked up and clucked his tongue against the roof of his mouth as he shook his head. “Non-payment of a bar tab. Oh dear, Monsieur Lavolier. Oh dear indeed.”
Kingsley Stern raised a finger to his lips and silently shushed Lavolier. Steel, unrelenting, unsympathetic eyes bored into the Cajun’s soul and the unfortunate prisoner shuddered. “Well, very soon you will have the opportunity to divulge these wonderful ‘reasons’. As I have been appointed as your case judge, I shall listen with great intent to all you have to say.”
He smiled, again without humour, and Lavolier was reminded rather forcibly of a swamp gator coming out of the sludge to take down its kill.
He groaned inwardly as Stern turned on his booted heel and strode away; a man whose body language screamed infinite purpose. It would seem that Lavolier’s run as an outlaw was clearly coming to an end. That end, he had no doubt at all, would now take the form of a hangman’s noose.
Quick drop, sudden stop.
As the outer door of the jailhouse slammed shut, Lavolier dropped back onto his bunk and cradled his head in his hands.
Kingsley Stern would be all three. It was, after all, what he did best.