Earp’s mood turned somber as he laid out his tale of woe.
“Four years ago I was the Marshal of Dodge City,” Earp said. “A woman came to see me. Rode in all the way from the Dakota Territory. Real ornery gal. I’d never seen anyone like her before. She drank, cussed, and wore trousers like a man. You ever meet a woman who never got the message that she doesn’t have a pecker?”
“I might have,” Slade said, which instantly earned him an elbow to the ribs from Miss Bonnie.
“Martha Jane Cannary was her name,” Earp said. “‘Calamity Jane’ they called her because she was one. A walking catastrophe. Spun me a yarn about people with pointy teeth who suck blood, hairy dog men and dead people who get up and walk around again.”
Earp removed a deck of playing cards from his pocket and shuffled them. “She was drunker than a skunk. Didn’t carry herself well. I thought she was insane though honestly, had a more reputable person told me the same story I doubt I would have believed him either.”
“I didn’t believe it at first,” Slade said.
“You ever hear the story about how Wild Bill Hickok died?” Earp asked.
“Everyone has,” Slade said. “Shot in the back by the coward Jack McCall.”
“True,” Earp said. “And yet, there was so much more to it. It was a hit. An assassination orchestrated by the Legion Corporation because he was onto their evil plans long before any of us were.”
“Shit,” Slade said.
“Shit indeed,” Earp replied. “And when Jane came to me as Hickok’s business partner and friend for my help, I laughed in her face. I’ll bear that shame forever.”
Earp sat the deck down on the table. “But at least I can spread her warning to others now. You ever hear about the hand Hickok was holding when he met his untimely demise?”
“Ooo!” Miss Bonnie said. “Aces over eights.”
“The dead man’s hand,” Earp said. “Said to be the most cursed hand in the game of poker because if you end up with it, you best avoid making Wild Bill’s mistake and start looking behind your back to see what evil is coming for you.”
Earp drew a card from the deck. “But those weren’t the most important cards that Bill was holding that day.”
The greatest lawmen in the history of the West laid the card he drew down on the table, face up. On it, there was the usual markings for the King of Hearts card, but instead of a King, there was a portrait of a vampire Slade knew.
“Recognize him?” Earp asked.
“Blythe,” Slade said.
“You sure he’s dead?” Earp asked.
“Burned to ash,” Slade answered.
Earp picked up the pencil he smacked out of Tobias’ hands and drew an X over Blythe’s face.
“Good,” Earp said. “Now this is no ordinary deck of cards. Hickock was a renowned gambler, as quick with an ace as he was on the draw. So when his investigation led him to identify the key players behind the Legion Corporation’s nefarious doings, he had their portraits printed on the face cards of a deck of his own. Figured that would help prevent the supernaturals from discovering that he was onto them. Had he ever been searched by a lawman on Legion’s take, a deck of cards in the pocket of a poker player wouldn’t have turned a head.”
“Might have if they looked at the cards,” Slade noted.
“A risk Hickok was willing to take, I suppose,” Earp said. “This deck was given to me by Jane. She had several copies printed based on Hickok’s design. Since the heinous events of last year, I’ve had even more printed and I have left them at every two-bit gin joint, saloon and whorehouse around in the hopes of robbing these criminal creatures of their ability to hide in plain sight.”
Earp drew another card. “Hickok and Jane got me started, and since your heroics, I have shaken down every source and called in every favor owed to me to build a cursory understanding of Legion’s power structure.”
The great lawman laid the card in his hand next to the X-ed out portrait of Blythe. This portrait was of an attractive blonde woman with an icy glare.
“Lady Beatrice Rutledge,” Earp said. “Some kind of British aristocrat. The Vice-Chairwoman of Legion Corporation’s Board of Directors. Word is that this bitch and Blythe were the brains of the operation. They may or may not have been fucking, I have no idea, but they had some sort of sneaky alliance going on. Scumbags have a tendency to turn on each other, you see, and they were working all the angles, getting ready to take the Corporation for themselves and cut out the rest of the board as soon as they took over the country.”
“Lucky they didn’t,” Slade said.
“Thanks to you,” Earp said. The great lawman stared off into space for a moment, then came around. “Shit.”
“What?” Miss Bonnie asked.
“Aww Jane told me that this she-vamp worked some kind of magic to put Hickok under her control,” Earp said. “I didn’t believe it until I heard about the bullshit with your doctor friend’s so-called Miracle Cure-All. Now I don’t know. I hope it’s not true. Hickok deserves better than that.”
Earp threw down a third card. The portrait was of a muscular looking bald man.
“Oscar Cross. The Jack of Hearts.”
Slade did a double-take. “The Senator from Missouri?!”
“The same,” Earp said. “This shit runs deep, Slade. Politician. Banker.”
“I met him once,” Slade said. “He came through Highwater. Introduced himself. Hell, one of his banks was in Highwater.”
Earp picked up another card and laid it down. The portrait was of a handsome rogue with a curl that hanged down over his forehead.
“Like I said, they hide in plain sight,” Earp explained. “Don’t feel bad. I met this cocksucker on more than one occasion. The one and only Guy Oleander.”
Tobias perked up. “The author?”
“That’s him,” Earp said. “The King of Diamonds. Popular with the ladies. Frequenter of the card tables. Hell, the son of a bitch offered to write my biography for a tidy sum. I probably should have taken the deal.”
“I’ve read his books,” Tobias said. “Now I’ll have to throw them out.”
Earp plunked down another card. This one had the image of a man in his fifties. Dark hair. Beard. Widow’s peak.
“Lawrence Murphy,” Earp said. “Big time cattle rancher out of New Mexico. Controls the Lincoln County machine. Try to do business in their backyard without their blessing and they’ll chop your balls off and feed them to you.”
Next, Earp laid out two cards. One contained a portrait of a physically fit man with short hair and a neatly trimmed mustache and beard. The other featured an old man with white hair and spectacles that he looked down over the edge of his nose.
“A couple more Missourian vampires who operated right under your nose, Slade,” Earp said. “The Jack of Clubs. Cornelius Edgemont…”
Slade couldn’t help but interrupt. “Edgemont Security is in on this?”
“You better believe it,” Earp said. “Edgemont told the world he’d tame the West with his highly trained and thoroughly disciplined Edgemont men. There isn’t a banker or a socialite who hasn’t hired the services of an Edgemont man to protect their valuables. Now it’s become clear that Edgemont was building his own private army all along. And since the die has been cast, the Edgemont men will have to decide whether they’ll side with humans or vampires.”
“They’ll go with whoever pays them,” Miss Bonnie said.
“You got it, ma’am,” Earp said as he pointed to the second card. “And what about this old scoundrel? The King of Clubs.”
“Should I know him?” Slade asked.
“Maybe not his face,” Earp said. “But you know his name. “That’s the Right Honorable Judge Francis Sturtevant, the highest ranking judge in Missouri. You almost croaked when the bridge that was named after him was blown to smithereens.”
“Fuck,” Slade said.
“Fucking right,” Earp replied. “All roads lead to Missouri on this one, Slade. Through a system of corruption and graft, Blythe, Cross, Edgemont and Sturtevant conspired for years to get that bridge built not so that their Legion train line could move more smoothly, but to transport zombies across the Mississippi and all the way to Washington, D.C. Even got the bridge named after one of their own. It almost worked. The only hangup they never considered was you.”
Earp reviewed the cards he’d assembled thus far. “So we’ve got Blythe the counselor, never to rear his ugly head again. Then we have Rutledge, Cross, Oleander, Murphy, Edgemont and Sturtevant. Gentlemen and Lady, I give you the board of directors of the Legion Corporation. Prim and proper folk who held themselves out as respectable citizens all the while plotting to tear America asunder.”
“Motley looking crew,” Slade said. “But there’s six of them. What if there’s a tie?”
Earp held up a joker’s card but instead of a fool, it contained the face of a vicious looking ram with pointed teeth and long curly horns.
“There’s actually seven,” Earp said. “The Chairman breaks all ties. And you know who that is.”
“I do,” Slade said. “I was warned not to speak his name. Though a vampire gave me that advice…”
Earp finished Slade’s thought. “It’s still good advice. Now, let’s talk about the associates.”