Only Whores can be Heroes.
August Ambrose comes to Liberty Station.
It was small when August Ambrose brought it to Liberty Station. Hardly more than an idea, brought all the way from New York City to civilise the frontier. But it could grow.
August started off by pawn-broking to ranchers from the back of a general store. It was difficult to begin with. Some said impossible. But this was the golden dusk of the 19th Century, where anything could be possible for a man of ambition. So August changed. He made some difficult choices; compromised, made loss leading investments in local business, private deals with individuals of flexible morality, arrangements he would later come to regret.
But soon most everyone owed August something. And the concessions he required were so reasonable. National notes were still a new thing, eastern regulation that wouldn’t quite take hold, and it seemed perfectly natural that the locals would start exchanging the little yellow notes you got from Ambrose’s store amongst themselves.
One day he changed the sign on the door, but it was only saying what everyone already knew. Liberty had its first bank.
Then the railroad came and it was ready, arms open and waiting,
Charlotte Coal and the Sheriff of Liberty County
“The reward’s the same, dead or alive.”
The sheriff had feigned disinterest when the hogtied prisoner had been brought in, but got to his feet when he saw who was collecting.
“I reckon Liberty Station has the right to see him hanged.”
Nobody could mistake Charlotte Coal for a man, but the context made it confusing; leather trousers dusty from the trail, a pistol housed in a holster worn with use, hair shorn beneath a hat taken from a dead man, and a mouth that didn’t move much when she spoke.
“He give you much trouble?” Asked the Sheriff.
“And the rest of his boys?”
It was her associate, the big man she called Seb with one of those funny Easterner moustaches and an unfeasibly large shotgun, who had carried in the bounty and ditched him on the floor of the office. But there was no doubting which of the two of them was here to claim, or which of them did the lion’s share of the killing. She had that look about her. The Sheriff was pretty certain that Coal didn’t give a damn one way or the other about the rights of the people of Liberty Station.
“Fair enough. But the bounty’s the same. Would have been easier for us dead.” The sheriff sighed. “You could just take him round back and …”
The prisoner squealed in protest. Nobody paid much attention. The Sheriff was watching the bounty hunter. Yep, definitely a woman, but just to make sure he kept his eyes firmly on her chest. The Sheriff didn’t like using local whores, no matter how glowing the reputation of the town’s establishment, and his wife was a week’s ride away back at county headquarters. Coal looked like she could kill a man much easier than she could love him. The Sheriff wondered what it would be like to have a woman like that.
“Will you be staying ‘til morning to see him hanged? The constable can take care of the details and I’d be happy to offer you my hospitality, if you’re so inclined?”
“I have somewhere to stay.” Said Coal. “I’ll take that bounty now.”
Bargains in the Brothel
“A whorehouse run by whores. What’s next?”
Seb had had to learn to distinguish from Coal’s different silences when he had said something wrong. He smoothed his moustached outwards and adjusted the shotgun over his shoulder while Coal, saying nothing, stepped up onto the veranda and pushed open the swinging door. A woman’s faked laughter floated out through the doorway.
“We come to see someone you know?” Guessed Seb.
“Stop fidgeting with my gun,” said Coal.
Seb snatched his hand away from the shotgun before he could stop himself. He wanted to point out that she was too small to use it anyway, whether she technically owned it or not, but like always he bit his tongue and said “You got it boss.” His free hand, still fidgeting, strayed to the medallion he kept hidden beneath his shirt.
He looked over her shoulder as he followed her into the brothel. It was larger than he had expected, a fine open space with a long wooden staircase sweeping up around what might have been a dance floor before it was covered in round tables and cavorting patrons. A long bar stocked with a plethora of brown and green bottles swept across one side of the room and one of those fancy piano’s that played itself at the other. There was plenty of custom. Seb recognised some railroad men and pulled his hat down a little closer over his face, but the ruckus and the noise made for good cover and he doubted many noticed as they let the door swing closed behind them.
Coal walked straight up and rapped her knuckles twice on the bar.
“Why if it isn’t little Charlotte. What can I get for you?” Asked the barmaid.
“Tell Mother Superior that I’m ready to see her.”
“Why don’t you take a seat and have a drink?
“I’d like to see her now.”
“I’m sure you would.”
Seb had never seen Coal back down to anybody. This time she just took a seat and refused the whiskey that was poured for her. The barmaid left it on the bar for her, mockery made thick brown liquid.
“I’m serious though,” he said, when he saw she wasn’t talking. “How comes there isn’t a man in charge?”
“You’ve come all the way from the East, but you’ve still not travelled much, have you?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Look, I owe the proprietor. And that’s why we’re here.”
“So this is for a job? Not paying for services already rendered, are we?”
He thought that was pretty funny but none of the girls were close enough to be obviously listening in, and Coal didn’t have much of a sense of humour anyway. She didn’t look up, but with the outside of her left hand pushed the whisky glass until it stopped in front of him.
“You saw the building next to this one?”
Seb answered by drinking the whiskey. It was surprisingly good (or perhaps he was just getting used to the watered down shit they served out west). He held up his finger for another and it was poured, without question, before the barmaid went back to another patron. Coal seemed happy to sit and wait for him to think things through. When he had, he looked back up at her.
“There’s a back way in, through the basement here. We go while everyone is at the hanging.”
That explained why they’d done all that work to bring a not particularly valuable bounty back alive. But it didn’t explain much more than that.
“Why else? Money.”
“No, I mean, when did you get comfortable being on the wrong side of the law? I mean, asides from killing people. Robbery just ‘aint like you.”
“Who says this is the wrong side of the law? Just ‘cause he’s got a sign over the door, don’t mean he’s in the right.”
He had wanted to ask ‘how much do you owe this ‘Mother Superior’ – and how much trouble are you in?’, but there didn’t seem a point, and she could see he wasn’t getting to the point.
“Is it going to be a problem for you, Seb, or do I need to find someone else?” said Coal, in a way that made it sound potentially fatal.
“It’s not a problem.” He looked round the room again. “Why does a bank have a back way into a brothel?”
“Why do you think?”
Seb doubted that was all there was too it.
“Won’t everyone know who’s responsible?”
“Not if everybody keeps their mouths shut. Besides, I don’t think she cares.” Coal looked back up the stairway. “This is an old score between them.”
As if the patron had heard them talking, a voice slid down from balcony on the first floor the like honey on graphite.
“Mother Superior will see you now,” said the voice.
Coal got up immediately and walked up the stairs, without looking behind her. Her silence this time made it clear that she did not want Seb to follow.
“You got scripts to pay with?” It was the barmaid. She had a pretty face. Seb started paying attention.
“Scripts? You don’t take dollars?”
“Sure, but it’s more expensive. Local currency is better.”
He glanced back up the stairs. Coal had disappeared in to a back room. “Better not then,” he said.
The barmaid laughed and poured him the drink anyway.
“She’s got you pretty whipped, huh? Tell you what, this one’s on Charlotte. Her tab’s good for it. How long you been riding together?”
“Six weeks now.”
“Thought as much. Seventh week’s when she gets you killed.”
An Appointment at the Bank
It was the following morning. The bank manager held both his hands flat on the desk until the perspiration impregnated the grains of wood and made his hands stick like giant, wet suckers. He felt the familiar tug around the ankle of his right leg but kept his place and listened to the people moving about his bank.
On his desk was a metal sign with the name “August Ambrose” written upon it. It had seemed like a good idea when he had bought it. Now it felt like a target, an unnecessary risk. But there was nothing else to do. Two of the boys he normally kept for security were at the hanging. As he hadn’t come running when the noises had started, that probably meant the third one was dead. The whore had made her move, and now he just had to wait. No amount of force could change that he was in service to a larger truth.
It was a big Easterner with a stupid moustache, the sort that takes a womanly amount of care and attention to keep maintained. The manager didn’t bother to hide his contempt.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“Best talk to the boss about that.” The Easterner slung the shotgun over his shoulder, and nodded his head towards the woman who had entered the room as quiet as a mountain lion. She was wiping a hunting knife with a rag. On her way past she looked at the Easterner
“Put that thing away, Seb. We’re doing this quiet. Go watch the door.”
Of course the manager knew who she was. The beautiful bounty-hunting killer whore who the ranchers bragged they would bed, but in reality prayed wouldn’t notice them. But he had known her a lot longer than that. He knew who she really was, even if she didn’t.
Coal tipped her hat in his direction.
“How much is she paying you to kill me?” He asked.
“It’s not so much the killing, that’s what you might call a beneficial side effect. Where’s the key to the vault?”
“You know what I’m talking about. Where’s the key?”
The bank manager smiled. “She’s not paying you at all, is she? You know you’re being used.”
“And she’s lying to you.”
Well, that made things difficult. The manager couldn’t be sure they were talking about the same thing, and couldn’t ask without losing any initiative he had hoped to gain.
“I can pay you,” said the manager, which felt weak even as he said it.
“I can take everything you have,” said Coal.
He felt the thing tightening around his right ankle.
“Hey Coal,” called the Easterner, “Can we hurry it up in there? This hanging ‘aint going to take forever.”
Both the manager and Coal ignored him
“I can tell you the things she won’t tell you. Don’t you want to be free of her? I can help you,” said the Manager.
“Just give me the damned key. You’re going to tell me everything I want to know anyway.”
Now he shrugged, a little sad that things were working out this way. Some people just won’t allow themselves to be protected.
“They’re in this drawer. You want to get it out yourself?”
“That’s ok, toss it on the table.” Smooth and easy she drew a pistol in her left hand and pointed it at his chest. She kept the knife in her right hand. He opened the drawer steadily and reached inside. He didn’t look down – he knew where everything was – but she noticed him fiddling with something in the drawer and clicked back the hammer on the gun, slightly straightening her arm and watching for what the bank manager now had in his hand. He threw the key on the table and slipped the ring on his finger, then held up his hand to show it off.
“Do you know what this is?” He asked.
“Nope. Don’t care either. You’re a deal-breaker. No reason to trust anything you say. Now get out of the chair and head back over to the wall or I’ll put a bullet in your gut.”
But he hadn’t been talking to her.
“I can’t let you do that, Coal.”
Coal kept her gun on the bank manager but swivelled her hips so she could look at the Easterner at the same time. She raised an eyebrow, and dropped the knife. Its point stuck in the wooden floor.
“Now what are you pointing my own gun at me for, Seb?”
“I’m sorry Coal, I can’t let you shoot Mr Ambrose.”
Seb was pointing his shotgun at Coal, but his eyes kept flicking to the gold signet ring the bank manager had put onto his finger. Trying to keep the gun on Coal with only one hand, he reached inside his shirt and withdrew a gold medallion before quickly moving his hand back to the grip.
“The company didn’t realise, Mr Ambrose, sir. Let me take care of this. We can work something out.”
The bank manager recognised the symbol on the medallion was the same as the one on his ring and wondered who had given it to the boy. It must have been the railroad company, although it was obvious the Easterner didn’t know the secret. Games within games. He decided to tell the Easterner to shoot the girl and go fetch the Sheriff, but Coal didn’t give him the chance:
“This isn’t August Ambrose,” she said. “And you can’t shoot me with my own gun Seb. It don’t work like that.”
Then she shot the bank manager in the chest.
The Railroad Man and the Vault
There’s only so long you can go on being pissed at everything, someone had once told a younger Charlotte Coal, but Coal hadn’t tapped out yet and she was feeling pretty damned angry. She turned the still smoking revolver on Seb.
“So you’re a railroad man? Working for the Company?”
He didn’t answer. He looked pretty shocked.
“You joined up with me because you knew where I came from, and your employers wanted the inside on Mother Superior and the Liberty Station Bank. Have you found what you were looking for?”
Seb’s eyes flashed wider, angry, snapping up away from the dead bank manager to look Coal in the face: “You have no idea what you’ve done.”
From behind her, where the bankers body lay, now out of sight as she had turned to face Seb, she heard a sound, a skitter, claws on wooden floorboards. She had thought she had seen something moving beneath the desk, when the manager was sitting down, a flash of something on his trouser leg. Coal wasn’t often scared. She kept her eyes forward.
“I should kill you where you damned well stand,” said Seb.
“Maybe so, but we’ve not got a lot of time, and you’re going to have a much harder time explaining two bodies than one.”
“I’ll cope,” he said, and pulled the trigger.
The shotgun didn’t fire.
“Told you,” said Coal.
He looked at the shotgun, astonished. He pointed it at her again and pulled the trigger. Nothing. She just stood there, not even wasting a smile.
“Got that out of your system?” Said Coal. “Get the key off the desk. We’ve got a vault to rob.”
“How did you do that?” He was still staring at the shotgun.
Her hand was trembling, just slightly. She wondered, briefly, if this meant that she was upset to be losing another assistant – but then she gritted her teeth, breathed in slowly through her nose, and steadied her hand.
“Listen carefully Seb. It don’t suit me to kill you right now because I don’t want to be the first one walking into that vault. But I don’t have long enough to persuade you that I mean it. So either you pick up the key and go open the vault, or I shoot and do it the hard way.”
“Alright.” He went over to pick up the key from the desk then he went round and knelt at the side of the manager’s corpse.
“Got no time for grieving, the sheriff will be on his way.”
She saw Seb palm the manager’s gold ring, but there was no point in making a fuss now – if it had any value she could just take it off his corpse later. He straightened his back, a little dignity under fire (she always liked that about him, even if it was what first made her suspect he wasn’t who he said he was), and walked out through the back of the bank. Through this way you could see that the bank had once been a store, the back room a parlour – cold, shelf-lined stone walls in the back of the wooden building. In the centre of the room was a large trapdoor, a way down to the cellar that had become the vault.
“You want me to open it?”
“What do you think? Quit stalling.”
The key turned easily in the lock, oiled, frequently used. The trapdoor looked heavy. Seb initially strained to lift it but as it gained momentum it swung open easily so that he only had to give it a light push and let go. The open trapdoor clicked solidly into place. There was a slight sucking sound from within the vault.
“Ok. That’s weird. Me first?”
Coal stayed at the mouth, briefly glancing back over her shoulder to check for the sheriff, then watching as Seb walked down the first few steps. He lifted a lantern from a holder on the wall and waited a little for the flame to illuminate the room. Coal couldn’t see further than the bottom of the stairs, but she watched as Seb’s eyes widened, and then narrowed again.
“Where’s the gold?” He said.
She came down after him. He moved further into the vault. It should have been cool, but the air felt like an oven that had been only recently been left to cool. The lantern Seb was holding cast light further and further back into the darkness, before being swallowed by the depths of the cellar. The room was huge, much bigger than the building above it, and almost completely empty.
“I knew it. I knew there wasn’t any gold. I told them!” Seb had apparently forgotten who was holding the gun. “I told them,” he said, a little quieter, when he remembered his predicament.
Coal’s attention had been caught elsewhere.
“Bring the light over here,” she said.
“Is this it? I mean, is this how you run a bank without any gold?”
Lining the wall were shelves of books; papers, ledgers, files and folders.
“This is it,” said Coal. “Hold the light higher. Don’t try anything funny.”
Seb came closer, staring intensely at the shelves as if they might unlock the mystery, then back at Coal as she holstered her pistol, sheathed her knife, and began searching through the books for something. There was a sucking sound again. This time it set the papers rustling, and they both looked back, over their shoulders.
“It goes back a long way,” said Coal.
“Are you sure? I can’t see shit.”
“Keep your eye out. I need a moment here.”
Seb turned his back, holding up the lantern and squinting into the darkness.
“You think there’s something back there?”
Coal didn’t answer.
“Hey, what did you do to the shotgun?” said Seb.
“I had Alice fix it.”
“Alice? The barmaid?”
“You should learn the name of the girls you sleep with. Leastways, if you don’t want them to rob you blind after.”
Seb wasn’t flustered. “I don’t think knowing her name would have made much difference, seeing as it’s you that set it up. I wondered why she was offering me drinks on your tab. What’s that?”
Coal had pulled a file of papers down from one of the shelves. She grinned in triumph as she stuffed it into her bag, but then a rustling sound caught her ear and she looked up, into the darkness. Rats? She drew her pistol again.
“Why don’t you go check that out?”
Seb grimaced. “Any way I can have a working gun this time?” He said, looking at the useless shotgun he was still carrying.
“Nope. But don’t worry, if anything moves that isn’t you, I’ll shoot it first.”
He took a couple of steps forward and lifted his lantern higher, but all it did was make the gloom loom larger, as if the darkness itself could swell and the cellar grow immense all around them.
“Seb,” said Coal, “What did you mean when you said to the guy upstairs that the company didn’t know? Do you know what the hell is going on down here?”
“What did you mean that the manager wasn’t Mr Ambrose?” Countered Seb, but a shout from upstairs interrupted her before she could answer.
“Hey, is somebody back there?”
“Shit, the sheriff.” Said Coal, turning her to look back up towards the cellar trapdoor.
“Jesus Christ!” Screamed Seb.
A thick thing, like a rope, no, like the cable from a ship, slapped down on the stone floor besides Coal. Instinctively she jumped to one side and turned her pistol to fire, but she froze when she saw the thing – like a tree trunk made of leather – dragging back slowly
She followed it in her sights, back into the darkness, to see Seb raised by an ankle, tumbling back through the air as ropey strips of articulate flesh dragged him upwards. The lantern spiralled out of his hand, a strip of flame that struck the wall of books and smashed in a gust of fire that briefly illuminated the room. Then the darkness shifted and the grotesque thing she had thought had been the back wall emerged, a mass of tentacles, too large to be any sort of animal she had seen before, too large to be anything but impossible, and in the centre a fleshy mass that could be mistaken for a face, surrounded by spider like eyes and a beak that curved over a slavering mouth.
The beast lifted Seb up over its beak like it was savouring a delicious morsel to eat.
“Not me! Not me! Not me!” He screamed.
Coal just had no idea where to start shooting.
Slowly, awkwardly, it raised up one its larger tentacles. Within its armpits swarmed writhing families of creatures, each a curdled cream combination of leach and rat, nasty, crawling vermin that made Coal think of the thing she had heard running away after she had shot the bank manager, and the way he had kept glancing down at his ankle. As Seb was lifted closer one of the parasites looked up and leapt, more than six feet, onto Seb’s face then crawling, fast, beneath his shirt, over his trouser leg, before it latched like a shackle around his right ankle and bit deep into his flesh. He screamed, a last time, then the tentacles holding him sucked back, not to toss him into the beast’s mouth but instead folding him up beneath layers of flesh, as if for safe keeping. That task accomplished, the opulent head lurched forward, suspended on its mass of tentacles, until its beak came level with Coal. Behind her the burning books make the room sway and dance, the face of the great beast lifting over her and tilting hypnotically on the mass of heaving skin.
“Little Charlotte,” it said. “Little Charlotte, how we’ve missed you.”
“Yeah. Alright.” Said Coal. “Who the fuck are you claiming to be?”
The monster wasn’t given the opportunity to answer. Behind her Coal head the trapdoor swing open and heavy footsteps clattering down the stone stairway.
“My God!” Shouted the Sheriff, and for a moment Charlotte thought some sanity was returning. But then she saw the leech head poking from beneath the Sheriff’s right trouser leg, and he kept on shouting; “The Great One’s chamber is burning! Quick, sound the alarm! Get some water!”
Coal never needed much by way of a distraction to leg it. Keeping a tight hold on the bag, she shot the sheriff twice, the monster once for good measure, and was off up the stairs without looking to see how much damage she had done.
The Mother Superior
“You want to tell me about the thing you’re keeping in the vault?”
The Mother Superior looked up from the paper she was reading, the candlelight the only illumination with the windows blocked out. She told the girls that it was because she preferred the darkness, that the light hurt her eyes, and the girls told each other that it was her vanity, that she hated how she’d grown old. The truth was that the thing that lived on her ankle had grown over the years and it was hard not to notice it moving, even under the bustle of her robes. She had come to understand its voice, linking her back to the great beast that she had seen grow from a tiny little thing, and together they had achieved great things. If she could survive this meeting, then they would go on to achieve even greater.
“I have them,” said Coal, when the Mother Superior didn’t answer her. “The deeds to the building – and most everything else in the town.”
“Burning down the bank was a nice touch. Did you know the fire can’t hurt the Great One?”
“I don’t know shit about shit. Mind enlightening me?”
“Charlotte Coal stop your cussing. Now be a good girl and give me the deeds.”
She watched Coal hesitate. It was hard not to obey once you have the habit. Mother Superior raised an eyebrow, a gesture that would be as familiar to Coal as looking in a mirrior.
“I think you owe me some answers,” said Coal.
“She don’t owe you anything Coal,” said a voice, and Mother Superior glanced up to see the Easterner who had been running with Coal enter through the side door. Mother Superior had a good idea how he had got in through that route, and what it meant; so the reason she showed no alarm at the sight of the shotgun he was carrying was that she felt no alarm.
“So you’re August Ambrose,” he said to Mother Superior.
“You company boys took your time to figure it out,” she replied. It had been a long time since someone had called her by her proper name. It felt good to own it again.
“There’s a lot of things I understand better now.”
“And who might you be?”
“I’m Seb. I was running with Coal on behalf of the Company, mostly to figure out what you were all about. You’re a woman.”
“Not by choice,” said August.
“And she’s your mother.”
“Not by choice,” said Coal. “Why aren’t you dead?”
“The great one doesn’t want to kill us. It just wants us to be everything that we can be. Through him I have been reborn, but then surely you must know how that feels.”
“I couldn’t care less what you think about what I feel.”
“Well, she’s definitely your daughter,” said Seb, looking back at August. “You could have just told us, the company would have cleaned up this problem for you.”
“I wasn’t sure you’d see it as a problem,” said Mother Superior. “The ranchers preferred dealing with a man, at least to begin with. So I found them a man. I did the work and he was the face. That worked well, for a while, until he got greedy, starting thinking he was what people called him. And a lot of people were happier dealing with a weak man than a strong woman. I thought maybe the company might feel the same way.”
“The railroad company don’t care about that sort of thing. Not if you know the secret.”
August nodded, and continued; “Well, my make-believe Mister Ambrose was getting to big for his boots, and I may have brought the Great One here but generally he helps those who help themselves. That’s when bringing up a trained killer for your own personal use can be real handy.”
Seb looked round at Coal. “So did you just kill your father? Back at the bank?”
Coal shrugged. “You going to tell me this secret, or am I going to have to shoot this one until he tells it?” She threatened Seb without great gusto. She was thinking of the town full of people she’d have to kill if she couldn’t find a way to talk herself out of here, and it showed on her face.
“You saw it, in the vault,” said Seb. “Right before you saw the Great One.”
Coal shook her head.
“You haven’t figured it out yet?” August sighed. “Look down at your ankle.”
“No,” said Coal.
“You really should,” said Seb.
“You going to shoot me with that shotgun or are you going to let me go?”
“I can’t shoot you with your own gun,” said Seb, and he tossed her the shotgun. She caught it in both hands, and cocked it to check if he had fixed it. He had. Then she caught the ring he threw after it, left hand up. “That’s yours as well now.”
She didn’t look at the ring. She slid the shotgun into a holster on her back. She looked about the room. August knew the look. Coal was searching for things hidden in the shadows. It had been like that for August as well, for a while, at least for the first few years.
“And you’re just going to let me go?” said Coal.
“If you like,” said August. “You know where we are, if you need us.”
“That ‘aint going to happen.”
Coal reached for the door. She hesitated. “What happens next?” She asked, looking at Seb.
“Well, as long as you’ve got the ring, the law won’t touch you. The company neither. That ring marks you as a member of an exclusive club, and even people who don’t know the secret will know to let you alone.”
“And you do know the secret. So what’s next is really up to you.” August leaned forward in her chair. “You can have anything you want.”
“I want to be free.”
“Then go. The door’s right there.”
Coal told herself that was right. She told herself that she was free, as she walked down the stairs in the whorehouse. She told herself she was free, as she walked past the whores turning tricks and the barmaid pouring drinks. She told herself she was free, even as she told herself she couldn’t feel the slight scratching, the tightening sensation around her right ankle.
Outside in Liberty Station the fire was still burning. But the things that lived beneath could never be touched.
I'm a doctor of law and economics, a qualified barrister, and a retired British naval officer. I have written for journals, collections of academic writing, and newspapers including The Economist. I also write scripts, short stories, and am finishing a novel just so I can throw it on a bloody bonfire. This blog charts my efforts to avoid fiction-related fire hazards.