Somewhere in a Wild West that never was…
He smiled and she felt a traitorous warmth in her chest.
That ride through the darkness was so like how it had been when she first met Cuchilo that Mir was hard put to know whether to embrace the joy of being with him or cry out loud for the pain of not being with him. Of course, she did neither. Instead she set her mind to the job in hand, crushing emotion under the weight of the necessary work.
“How much did they tell you?” she asked softly.
“About the job? Nothing except I was to meet an operative and help where I could. Not a dangerous job, they said. Usual rates. I was bored so I came along.”
Mir sighed. “That is about typical. They offer me a fortune for one last job. But they treat you like your life don’t matter.” She frowned. “First off. It is dangerous. So if you want out.”
She saw his teeth gleam briefly. “No. I’m in. Partner.”
“Thanks, Cuchilo. I’m not sure I can do this on my own. There’s girls going missing. Young ones. Some from the streets, more from poor families. They are supposed to be mail order brides. But. Something stinks.” She arranged her thoughts. “The only thing the girls have in common is they are all very young and all are effectively illiterate. Which means nobody is too surprised when they don’t hear from them. Apparently there has been a certain amount of disquiet in some places, but nobody with sufficient money or clout to start looking.” She fell silent.
“So what has changed?” his deep voice broke into her thoughts.
“A girl turned up in the flesh markets of New Amsterdam. A girl of Deutsch antecedents. Something about her seemed off-kilter enough to catch the interest of one of Redhill’s operatives, and he bought her. She was hugely traumatised and had been pretty badly treated. But once she recovered enough to talk it became plain that she was a girl from a poor family, whose ma and pa had let her go, believing she was off west to a better life as the wife of a dirt farmer called Joseph. So how the heck was she about to be sold to a knocking shop in NA?”
“Best guess seemed to be that the girls were being brought back east from Trail End. But how and by whom? The Church Army sent a girl. But she ain’t been heard of since. Then they sent an agent. He turned up dead. So they raised a bit of money and went to see Redhill. He took the case on. Lost Emma Bright. She got on the train two months since. And poof. Gone.”
“Emma? Gone? But next to you she’s the best female agent Redhill has.”
“Yeah. Well she was the best he had at the time. I resigned a while ago. Allen Redhill pissed me off so I told him to stick his job. He wasn’t best pleased.”
Mir felt, rather than saw, Cuchilo’s grin. “I’ll just bet he wasn’t. So why’d you take this on?”
“Two reasons. First of all, me and Emma used to be friends of sorts. Thought the least she deserved was somebody finding out what happened to her. And I went to see the rescued girl, just to make sure Redhill wasn’t razzing me. He wasn’t, but there seemed to me to be something they’d all missed. Why did none of the girls realise they were going east not west?”
“Why indeed? And why had nobody thought about that?”
“I think that all the men who went to see Gretel – that’s the Deutsch girl who got rescued – just assumed she was stupid. Because she is as placid as a milk cow, and because she has never been taught to read nor write, they wrote her off and nobody really talked to her. I did and I came to some interesting conclusions.”
“You did?” the smile in his voice was encouraging rather than the belittling smirk Allen Redhill had greeted her idea with.
“I did. Look. I’ll summarise what she had to say. See if it makes you think the same.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
“Gretel said they spent the first night in a big tent hard by the station, and they boarded wagons after breakfast next day. She said she’d some concerns about the direction they were taking, but the wagon master rode along the train explaining they had to make a detour so they could cut into the wagon trail west. Says she bought it because she had no reason not to. She described the place they camped in some detail and I am hoping it’s where we’re headed. After that, her recollection of the journey gets muddled. She says that sometimes at the end of the day she was convinced they were heading away from the sunset not into it, but she couldn’t bring herself to care too much.”
“So the girls were drugged?”
“That’s what I’m thinking. But neither Redhill nor none of his deputies could even see why that might be. They just fixated on the girls being as stupid as sheep.”
“They would, though, wouldn’t they?” Cuchilo was scathing. “Because if they admitted you were probably right, they’d have to accept that women can think. All women – not just rich ones, or educated ones. Even illiterate girls from the ghettos.”
“Precisely. And only by accusing Redhill himself of facilitating rape could I get any help at all out here.” She looked at Cuchilo’s profile before she carried on speaking. “I’m glad for whoever thought it would be funny to pair us up again. Beside you I have half a chance of success.”
He said nothing, but as they rode knee to knee Mir knew he had her back.