“Well Doctor? What is to be done about the High Marshal?” Thomas Edeson demanded.
Doctor Burson Carpathian looked around the polished mahogany table he was seated at. Across from him were a handful of his current allies and agents, each eager to hear what solution Carpathian proposed to their collective difficulty. The Lawman Wyatt Earp.
Carpathian finally spoke.
“How many of you have been having the same difficulties as Thomas has with the Lawmen in the territory?”
Jedediah Smith and Annabelle Hamilton nodded in agreement. The others did not signal dissent. Everyone in the room had cause to venture into the wider territories on a fairly regular basis to further the cause of the Enlightened. Each of them had suffered setbacks at the hands of High Marshal Wyatt Earp and his Lawmen. Often, when a town was ripe for influencing, a sheriff, Infernal Investigator or even one of the legendary Earp clan, would descend upon the burg and wreak havoc with the Enlightened’s plans. Even the Countess and Eiffel had suffered setbacks in their forays beyond the Tonto Forest.
Carpathian nodded in sympathy to their looks of frustrated agreement.
“I know, my friends. We had not anticipated, back when we first began our hallowed struggle to bring enlightenment to humanity, that such a force for ignorance and inflexibility would arise amidst the benighted Union to foil us.”
His smile returned, and his hands spread out before him, as if presenting some great offering.
“However, I believe our relationship with the Lawmen might well evolve, solving more than one of our issues with a single blow.”
The doctor pulled his watch from his vest pocket and consulted the red-glowing face.
“In fact,” he muttered around his smile. “I believe someone who could shed further light on that very subject is due to arrive at any moment now.”
He twisted around, addressing the woman beside him.
“Miss Ratchet, if you would be so kind?”
Without a word, Harmony Ratchet moved from her station beside Carpathian’s chair and went to the door, opening it silently.
On the other side, revealed as the heavy slab of dark wood slid open, stood the dusty and battered figure of Virgil Earp.
* * *
Virgil’s skin crawled as the door swung silently open before him. He had almost managed to convince himself this inevitable moment would never come. But from the moment he had fled Tombstone and turned his back on his brother to beg Carpathian to repair his devastated arm, something in the shadows of his heart knew that he would return to Payson one day, as just another creature of the damned European.
He could only hope the price he would be called upon to pay would not undo all the good Wyatt and the rest of the Lawmen had accomplished.
As he stepped into the room, Virgil kept his back straight and his gaze steady. He recognized all of those present as antagonists from down through the grim years, and it became easier to maintain the slight sneer he decided was the most fitting expression for this darkest moment of his life. He had to maintain as much dignity as he could.
Edeson, in particular, looked like someone had pissed into his beer. Smith looked nervous and distracted, as always. And the bloated form of Kyle Tanner, now called ‘Kyle the Black’, was almost comically wedged behind the table with grotesque mechanical claws waving over his head. Lady Hamilton, a Southern rich girl often was seen playing mad scientist in these parts and standing around the room he could spot all manner of Enlightened blowhards and sycophants, a wide range of expressions passing across their faces.
The only faces that gave him pause were the Kauffman twins, violent Bavarian scum who had caused untold havoc as they rampaged across the territories. He knew they were each wanted for more murders than you could count on both hands... If it came to shooting, he would make sure he took those two out if nothing else.
As the thought came through his mind, Virgil looked down at his right hand. The crude iron arm Carpathian had given him had served him well, despite the tension it had created between him and his brother. But it was not his, and a day never passed without a keen reminder of what he had lost, and what he had given up to replace it.
“Marshal Earp, thank you for joining us.”
The words snapped Virgil back to the dark present, and he looked to the head of the table, his gut twisting behind his gun belt.
Carpathian was sitting in a chair that could easily have been confused for a throne. Given how grand the rest of the room was appointed, it was obviously the effect he was striking for. The self-styled Father of the Enlightened was sitting back casually, master of all he surveyed, chin propped on one metal-braced hand, elbow on the carved arm of the chair. His smile was almost enough for Virgil to draw his blaster and end the charade right there. If they hadn’t taken his grenade launcher at the front door, the massive weapon that Wyatt had laughingly named The Gift, he might have turned his back on this Faustian bargain then and there and blasted them all back to Hell.
But more than his own pride was at stake. His family name, and the legacy Wyatt, Martha, Morgan, Warren and the rest had worked so hard to build, was on the line. Virgil could not afford to indulge himself in a suicidal purge, no matter how good it would have felt.
“Marshal Earp, if you would care to take a seat?”
Carpathian once again dragged Virgil’s mind back to the dark moment at hand, and he reluctantly dropped down between Lady Hamilton and Carpathian at the head of the table. The Lawman took his hat off as he sat, resting it on the gleaming wood of the table before him.
“I came, Doctor. Say yer piece.”
Virgil knew he had no room to negotiate or manoeuvre, but that did not mean that he would meekly bow down before the black destiny of the moment.
Carpathian seemed amused by Virgil’s response, but a chill prickled down his old back, as he realized just how vulnerable he was here.
The smile warmed, but Virgil was not fooled. Carpathian could afford to appear magnanimous in the centre of his power. It carried no reassurance. If it came time to shoot or drop iron, Virgil knew he was done for.
“I have asked you here so that I could thank you for your most recent services.”
Virgil looked away. He had been passing along harmless-seeming information on Union movements and the attitudes of townsfolk ever since the doctor had replaced his arm. The Union had denied him the medical help he needed despite all the work his family had done for them. He felt no guilt, passing along that information. But at some level, Virgil knew the information about the townsfolk, about their attitude toward the Union and Carpathian’s branch of the Enlightened, and their own plights here at the back end of nowhere, was more of a betrayal of his family’s legacy than all the rest combined.
“I would like to take this opportunity to reaffirm that you have been asked to do nothing that worked against your family’s best interests?”
The doctor’s hand waved before him, as if granting some boon upon a peasant. Virgil’s jaw tightened, but he nodded. There was nothing else he could do. Carpathian’s smile widened.
The man nodded to the rest of the table, and the assembly nodded mechanically in turn.
Carpathian looked back to Virgil, leaning forward, his face realigning itself into a more reassuring configuration, his eyes softening.
“Marshal, it is important that you believe what I am about to tell you. The future of the entire continent depends upon it.”
Virgil’s stomach gave another sickening heave. He swallowed the sour bile down, and jerked his head in a single, violent nod. Out of the corner of his eye he could see that the monsters around the table were staring at the doctor, clearly eager to hear what the man had to say. Whatever was happening, Carpathian was being true to form, indulging in high drama, and his posse of twisted flannel mouths were learning about this scheme at the same time as Virgil himself.
“You must understand our ultimate goal, Marshal, to understand why we do what we do.”
The man’s face was severe, his hands splayed on the table before him.
“We are concerned first and foremost, with the freedom and well-being of the common people of the land.”
Virgil snorted before he could stop himself. The Enlightened, Carpathian and his minions especially, had killed just as many innocents as any of the other outfits tearing the territories apart between them. And none of the rest of the factions bothered to offer the devil’s bargain and enslave the poor pie-eaters on their deathbeds. Fixing them up and converting them into all manner of miserable looking henchmen and menials to then serve those same Lords and Ladies of the Enlightened that near murdered them to begin with.
Carpathian raised a placating hand, nodding in rueful agreement.
“I know, I know. Our work has often redounded to the detriment of the common people.”
The man seemed genuinely sorry, and Virgil had to force himself to remember all the crimes that were laid at the doctor’s feet. There seemed to be less than universal agreement with the sentiment around the table. Some, like the strange, dark-skinned woman in white, smiled in genuine amusement.
“Often, in our pursuit of the most enlightened path for humanity, we lose sight of the cost upon the common man.”
“It is a fault not uncommon within the scientific community throughout history, I’m afraid. And yet, I assure you, our ultimate goal should not be doubted.”
Virgil managed to repress his reaction this time, but he made no attempt to hide his scepticism.
“Marshal, let me approach this from another angle, perhaps.”
Carpathian looked up at the ceiling, his fingers drumming on the fine wood of the table.
“Has the Union of Federated States been a good steward to the men and women of the territories?”
The churning in his gut hardened to an icy anger. Even though he knew he was being manipulated, Virgil refused to deny his own convictions regarding the leadership in Washington.
“You know it ain’t.”
“And do you truly believe that the men of the Union, specifically men like Odysseus Grant and President-in-perpetuity Johnson, have the best interests of the common people in their hearts?”
Virgil had never met Grant or the president, but he had seen the results of their policies within the territories. They pursued their vicious, selfish agendas throughout the west, and spent no effort to help those wronged in that pursuit. Hell, it was like pulling hen’s teeth to get them to cough up a red cent for the Marshal’s Service.
“You know I don’t.”
Virgil’s anger with the Union government, raw and bloody in the aftermath of his maiming, had made him vulnerable to Carpathian’s manipulation during their negotiations for his replacement limb.
“Do you believe that another party, perhaps outside of the traditional leadership of the Union, might better serve the common folk?”
Virgil started to nod, and then stopped, caught by surprise by the laugh that rose up in his throat.
“You mean ya’ll?”
He gestured to the mismatched crew around the long table, each face a mixture of confusion and irritation.
“Ya’ll are gonna be the new lords of creation? Rulin’ the rest of us poor sods from your mansion?”
Carpathian was quick to shake his head, a look of annoyance flashing beneath the calm, kindly facade.
“No. It is important for you to know that we do not seek to rule. We seek a stable environment from which to assist the growth and wellbeing of the people.”
Virgil did not miss the looks of misgiving and rejection that flashed across several of the faces around the table. Not everyone, it seemed, was completely convinced that they did not want to lead in this brave new world the doctor was conjuring up.
“We seek only to usher in an age where our work can best benefit the innocents most adversely affected by Washington’s careless disregard and draconian, imperialist policies.”
The doctor’s face was so sincere, Virgil forced himself to stifle the laughter again rising in his throat.
“And you do this by pervertin’ the bodies of folks’ loved ones, slappin’ guns ‘n knives on ‘em, an’ drivin’ ‘em into fights to get shot up and burned down by anyone who don’t agree with you?”
Carpathian’s eyes hardened.
“Nothing we do is illegal, I assure you, Marshal. And would you rather the forces of chaos that run rampant through the territories, from the savage, to the road agents, to the minions of Washington, be allowed to do so with only the Federated States Marshal Service to stand between them and the innocents that call these dry, inhospitable lands their home?”
Virgil stared at the doctor in silence, and then turned his eyes upon each of the scientists sitting across from him. Each of them looked as if they had swallowed something bitter. He sensed where this was going, and he thought they must as well. Their expressions, more than any words of Carpathians’, made him think there might be some truth to what the madman was spouting.
“You saying you want to work with the Marshal Service?”
The words were heavy with scorn and disbelief, but he was brought up short when Carpathian shook his head in sharp, immediate denial.
“No, Marshal. We will not work directly with the Law, any more than I believe Wyatt Earp would be willing to stand shoulder to shoulder with me.”
He tilted his head down as he continued.
“But I suggest something of an alliance of convenience. You will assure your brothers that we mean no harm to the lawful status quo within the territories, that we work toward a stable nation where laws, the laws your brother is so enamoured of, will truly be upheld and affirmed; not the laws of Washington, but the laws civilized men have agreed to abide by for thousands of years. We will work in our way, and you shall work in yours.”
Carpathian’s heavy gaze fell upon Virgil with the force of a sledgehammer.
“You will convince High Marshal Wyatt Earp that we are not his enemy; that our agents moving through the western territories work with the same overall goals as the marshals themselves. You will convince your brothers and sister to stay out of our way.”
Something within Virgil’s chest snapped, and a flood of ice melt rushed through his veins. There was no negotiation or compromise in those dark eyes. Virgil Earp had arrived, at long last, at the final destination of his ill-fated choice to accept the doctor’s assistance in that dark moment long ago.
“They won’t listen.”
The words sounded dead in his own ears.
“Wyatt’ll disown me if I push it too hard. I can’t.”
“You have no choice, Virgil.”
The iron in the tone was clear. The faces across the table had settled into surprised, delighted excitement as the doctor’s intention became clear.
“You will see to it that your brother and his deputies stay well clear of my forces from now on. I assure you, I have been nothing but honest with you today. But whether you believe my intentions to be pure or not, you have no choice. You will do everything in your power to further those intentions.”
A cold, stony smile formed on the doctor’s face.
“Unless you would like to relinquish your arm and languish in the mines of The Warcradle for the rest of your short, miserable life?”
Virgil looked down at the clenched metal fingers of his right hand. The fine mechanisms of the joints squeaked slightly at the tension. He had been made whole again by Carpathian, but at what price? A sudden, stabbing pain flashed through his numb mind, and the arm twitched as he watched.
“In addition, Marshal, I would greatly appreciate your further assistance in another endeavour.”
The doctor’s voice was casual, but a certain roughness caught his attention, and Virgil cocked one bushy eyebrow at the madman.
“A certain well-known person of interest is currently at large within the territories. A well-known outlaw of no small reputation...?”
The old man shrugged.
“Perhaps, if you could see that the Marshal Service Rangers made more than a casual effort in finding and apprehending Jesse James...”
Virgil barked a quick, bitter laugh.
“You lost your tame killer, doc?”
He enjoyed the flash of annoyance that crossed the old man’s face.
“You want we should do your dirty work for you?”
Carpathian’s flat eyes turned cold.
“Keep your eyes open, Marshal Earp. If you should find the man, bring him to me.”
There was no soft negotiation or cajolery in the voice now.
“And should thoughts of betrayal cross your mind Marshal, remember, please, that by accepting that shiny limb, you accepted my intrusion into your body and mind.”
His dark eyes were burning over a cruel smile.
“Any act of treachery will be met with the most terrible pain you have ever imagined.”
Virgil’s eyes lost their focus, the arm and table blurring before him. The pain had subsided, but he would never forget its cold invasion, nor the man who had caused it. Deep within the frozen chill settling into his heart, a burning anger began to smoulder.
He was Carpathian’s creature now, as surely as Wyatt had told him he would be. But nothing lasts forever...