Finch fumed most of the way back to the marshal's office. Marshal Stone obviously thought he was easy to manipulate--oh yes, just drop a few overblown words about an unsolved murder near his ear, and he'd change all his plans at a moment's notice. He had nothing better to do than stay on in this damp, muddy little town and put his training to work on what was probably nothing much. Maybe this Simon Le Dieux had simply tired of the idyllic surroundings over in...Gunnison, was it? No doubt it was just as delightful a spot as Silver City.
He scraped his boots and pushed his way into the office. Maybe that did have something to do with it, he thought. Stone had said Le Dieux was from New Orleans, which was in the south... Snatch a man from the warm, civilized coast and strand him somewhere in the godforsaken Colorado Territory, and who wouldn't be tempted to take a swallow of poisoned liquor? He absently opened one of the desk drawers, looking for the glass and bottle.
"Here, let me," said the marshal's gruff voice, and a big, sun-brown hand pushed the drawer firmly closed. Finch blinked up at him. He might almost have been smiling, damn the man.
Unhurried--the way he did everything, as solid and slow as the rocks they mined around here--Stone went to a cabinet and withdrew a cloth bag. He reached inside it.
"Fingerprints," Finch said at once. He'd meant to say it more commandingly--the people out here surely would respond better to a strong hand on the rein--but his mind was already beginning to work the puzzle, and he heard it come out quietly, like a reminder.
Stone handed him the whole bag. "Bottle with whiskey inside. Glass from beside the bottle. I thought they'd also sent over the contents of Le Dieux's pockets and his card-case, but it looks like they didn't."
"Of course they didn't," Finch sighed. He peered into the bag, carefully inhaling the stale odors inside. Definitely a mixture of chemicals, strong and bitter. "Orientation at the crime scene?"
"Hmm?" Stone said, settling into his desk chair.
"Where was the evidence found?" Finch said. "Where in the room, and where in relation to the body." He felt in his pocket for a handkerchief, wishing he had brought his kit in from the wagon.
"Well, they tell me Le Dieux was tucked up in bed, and the bottle and glass were on the nighttable."
"They tell you?" Finch replied irritably, lifting the glass from the bag with the handkerchief. "Preserve me from hearsay. Hasn't anyone in this wilderness ever heard of photographing a crime scene?"
"I reckon now we've got you for that," came the drawled reply, and Finch glanced up with narrowed eyes. Something lay beneath those words, but what? Stone had his hands interlaced at his belt and was watching him inscrutably. How could you tell what went on behind carven features like those?
"I reckon," Finch said stiffly. "For now. Even if it's already too late, and so much evidence is irretrievably ruined. Now if you'll excuse me, Marshal, I must go and see to my equipment."
With that, he turned on his heel and left. Damn the man, anyway. But the odors from the bag were interestingly unfamiliar, and would undoubtedly reward a more detailed examination. Once he had his laboratory set up again, he would feel better.
Miss Owen was already there, directing the placement of his trunks. She smiled at him. "Well? What's your guess?"
"I do not intend to guess." He spoke more forcefully than he had intended, and had to make himself relax his grip on the bag. "I intend to analyze. If you wouldn't mind getting out of my light."
He felt like a cad the moment he said it, but her smile didn't fade, only curled up further on one side. "Mm-hmm," she said, infuriatingly, and left in no hurry.
When he found himself squinting hard at the solution in the test tube and unable to tell the color of the reaction, he turned to adjust the windowshades and found that the sun was already setting. He looked around the surprisingly-spacious room. It was going to need more lamps. Or a better one, with a reflector. He could put cupboards over there, and shelves, and a stand for his bigger reference books. More workbenches, too, of course.
He added one more note to his report and carefully set the tube in its rack. He wasn't sure what the marshal did with his evenings, although he could guess--the saloon was close, and clearly labeled. Not to mention boisterous. He wondered if many men were killed in there, as measured against the larger scheme of things. They certainly were in all the stories of the wild west, although Finch thought that perhaps before his visit here, he hadn't believed such scenes truly happened. Those showdowns. But in the stories, the combatants were face-to-face, and had fair warning. Fair and clean, like a duel.
The rifle's blasts had been so loud. Louder than thunder, louder than a passing locomotive. He hadn't known he was diving forward until he heard the sound of the man's last gurgling breath. Finch's hand was still poised in the air, as if it were invisibly tethered to the knife in the man's chest, drawing his standing corpse down to the dirty floor in a heap. Had Stone told him the man's name? If he had, Finch couldn't remember. And why should he?
He picked up his notes and his hat, and left the laboratory. He could leave a written report in the marshal's office, for him to get to whenever he was finished with his evening's entertainment. And possibly Finch should look into getting something to eat, if there were anything edible to be had.
He approached the office, his attention on the darkened window. Could he fit his notes under the door? There was a big enough gap, but he'd probably slide them right into a patch of mud. Leaving them anywhere outside the door was unthinkable; as he had tried so hard to demonstrate, murder investigations were not an ad hoc business, and Larimer Finch was a professional. Perhaps there was a back door, or a slot for the post.
As he followed the outer wall of the office building around the corner, peering forward in the last of the reflected sunset, he was startled to hear the sound of a throat being cleared, rough and low. The twitch that went through his shoulders and hands was almost painful, and reminded him for a moment of the saloon.
"Who is it," he said, rather than asked.
A figure stepped forward, and Finch could see Stone there, in the shadows behind the open, partly-built frame for a wall.
"What are you doing here?" Perhaps Finch's tone could have been more even. He smoothed one hand down his waistcoat.
"I work here." Stone shrugged, the shadows of his broad shoulders shifting in the dim light. "Live here. Uh, kind of both."
It was Finch's turn to clear his throat,and he held out the report. Stone stepped to the framed doorway in the skeletal wall and leaned against the jamb, reaching to take it.
"What's the story?" Stone asked. "Poison?"
Finch put one hand on a crosspiece, the wood cool and smooth to his touch. "If so, it's the oddest poisoning I've ever seen. I found chemicals in the whiskey, certainly, and nothing you'd care to drink. Ammonia. Turpentine. What seems to be nicotine."
"Nicotine," Stone said. He held the report out at arm's length, squinted at it, then lowered it and looked at Finch expressionlessly.
"All poisonous, of course, but only in certain amounts. And even if Le Dieux had drunk the bottle down in one sitting, none of them would have been enough to kill him." Finch made a face. "To be honest, I can't actually imagine him drinking any of it. It would have tasted horrible. The whiskey would not have disguised it."
The shadows of Stone's face flickered in what might have been a smile. "You're not a drinking man, I take it?"
"Of course I am!" Finch said. He felt this disdain was earned, and he let it show. "A well-aged brandy is a balm to the soul. Or a proper scotch. I don't know what it is you may have to drink out here, but I don't see how you can call it whiskey."
Stone shrugged. "We're a little too far from Scotland," he said. "Some of the rotgut you find in this territory has been...let's say...doctored up."
"Ammonia?" Finch said, appalled.
"'Fraid so, sometimes. I've heard of turpentine, too. And tobacco."
"Hence the nicotine."
Finch crossed his arms. The sun had gone, now, leaving just a faint blue-gray cast over the darkening sky, and the air felt cold. "So Le Dieux's bottle was just another example of your wonderful local refreshments. Then what killed him? I don't suppose there was an autopsy?"
"No," Stone said. "And if you have some crazy idea about rushing off to Gunnison with Katie to drag Le Dieux into the nearest ice house and have at him with your tools, you can stop it right now. He's already buried, and I know the folks in Gunnison too well. You'd never get him dug up. Not if you wanted to stay out of prison."
"Damn it!" Finch kicked at the bottom of the empty doorframe. "I only wish I could have seen the contents of his pockets! But I suppose your colleagues in Gunnison have already safely burned those." He knew his voice was chilly and brusque, but he didn't care.
"Well," Stone said, "I sent a telegram over there before they closed up shop for the night. They'll be sending the stuff over when they can. So you'll get your wish."
Stone's face was in darkness, but Finch knew that even if it weren't, he wouldn't necessarily be able to see quite where he stood. "Ah." He swallowed. "Thank you, Marshal."
"You're welcome. Detective."
They stood a few moments in a blank, searching silence, and it was as if the empty frame had all at once become the promised wall, Stone ensconced stolidly behind it and Finch outside. At last Finch nodded, adjusted his hat, and went back the way he had come. There was dinner to consider.
In the morning, having tidied up the remnants of the night's tests, Finch stood looking at his laboratory arrangements. He'd been standing there for some time, hands in his pockets, his tie around his neck but still untied. The town had gradually woken up outside his windows, rumbling to life in a mixture of voices, hooves, and wheels, and still he didn't know whether to go in search of that new lamp and reflector, or to repack his trunks and cases altogether.
Slowly, he tied his tie, pulling the knot tight and smooth. Then he bent over his workbench and wrote out a bill for the night's services, taking care not to smudge the ink. The town could pay him now or send the money along. Stone would file the report, and Le Dieux would rot underground in his stew of ammonia and nicotine. And Finch would be back in the Pinkerton offices, hoping against hope for an actual case, something that he could throw himself into. Something new.
He headed for the marshal's office with his bill and saw that the shades were down. It felt much like the night before, except for the clear daylight overhead and the bustle of the town all around him. Around the same corner he'd been last night stood the same empty patch of board flooring with its scant framing, an invisible window, a nonexistent door.
Stone emerged from the office's side door out into the open space, his hat pulled down and a paper in one hand, and stopped short.
"Detective Finch," he said. His voice was subdued.
"Marshal," said Finch, in his best businesslike tone. "I have one more thing for you."
"Me too." Stone pulled off his hat, and after a moment he sort of flapped it at Finch. "Um. Walk into my parlor."
Finch could easily have stepped over the low sill through the window frame, but he found himself going over to the doorway and walking through properly.
"Listen," Stone said, "I'm sorry about this." Finch was waiting patiently for the usual continuation of that line of talk, We're going to be sorry to lose you, when he realized that he hadn't yet handed over the bill or said he was leaving.
"What?" he asked. His voice felt too loud. Surely this man couldn't be firing him.
Stone awkwardly proffered his slip of paper, and Finch took it automatically. It was a telegram.
NO SIGN LEDUX POCKETBOOK STOP MAY HAVE GONE ON DIFFERENT TRAIN OR IN OTHER DISPATCH STOP ENQUIRING COUNTY SEAT STOP WILL SEND IF FOUND STOP
"They misspelled Le Dieux," was all Finch could say at first, staring at the telegram. He looked up and saw a discomfort on Stone's face that might have been embarrassment. They regarded each other ruefully.
"Will send if found," Stone said. "Isn't that good of 'em."
"Very thoughtful." Finch handed the telegram back and rubbed the paper of his bill thoughtfully between the fingers of his other hand.
"So. There's, uh... I hear tell there was a little trouble last night out by a few of the miners' shacks," Stone said with careful courtesy.
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"Might've been a burglary."
Finch tilted his head. "Any tracks?"
"Maybe," Stone said. "It'll need some sorting out. Expert eyes."
"I see." Finch slipped the bill into his pocket. "Perhaps I could get my kit."
Stone shrugged nonchalantly. "If you want." But as he ushered Finch out of the doorway, it looked like his eyes, at least, carried the promise of a smile.
Time passed, and what with one thing and another, Finch never did submit that bill. He ended up using it as kindling one night when the laboratory was particularly chilly, before he added the extra blanket to his bed in the corner. His name went officially onto the town books, and he worked the cases as they came.
Eventually, he noticed that no further framing was going up around Stone's odd outdoor room. It became a sort of de facto veranda, and when Finch passed by of a morning, Stone began to be there, buttoning up his shirt, drinking his coffee, taking the early light. Finch brought his latest hypotheses and experiments, and Stone told him the latest gossip about the townspeople under his watch. They took to playing chess there; to Finch's initial surprise, they were clearly evenly matched. Sometimes, if it were particularly early, Stone would stand casually by his little mirror and shave, stroking the glinting blade up through the film of soap along his throat, trickles of water meandering down into the open neck of his shirt.
Once, Finch brought over a packet an old colleague from Scotland Yard had sent him, all the way across from London.
"He says there's a character in the story who reminds him of me," he told Stone, who was sitting in a chair in his stocking feet, sunlight striping down through the framing and glinting in his hair.
"Is that so?"
"A detective, apparently," said Finch, thumbing through the magazine. "Ah! Here we are."
"Lemme see." Stone expertly filched it from him and dug his spectacles out of his pocket. "Hmm." He read on a bit further, the glasses low on his nose. "Mmm-hmm."
"What?" Finch said. He came to Stone's side and leaned on the back of the chair, peering at the page. The scent of Stone's pipe-tobacco and his fresh, sun-warmed shirt rose to him as he bent down.
"He's a detective, all right," said Stone, in that mild tone that Finch had learned to look out for. "Here's what his friend says: '"This fellow may be very clever," I said to myself, "but he is certainly very conceited."'" He cocked an eye up sideways at Finch, and grinned.
Finch snatched for the magazine. "See if I bring you anything else to read! Philistine." He got it out of Stone's grasp and gave him a self-satisfied smile, which underneath wanted to be a laugh.
They ended up trading the thing back and forth, reading bits of it aloud, and whenever Stone was preoccupied, Finch helped himself to sips from his coffee.
Finch sat behind the marshal's desk with his hands folded until Stone came back. As Stone stepped inside and took off his hat, Finch could see the shades of thought crossing his face: from attention, to curiosity, to a swift jolt of realization. The letter of resignation still lay on the desk between them.
Stone closed the door. "Let's just leave it," he said warningly. "Before we have to have a little talk about reading other peoples' letters."
"I'm a detective," Finch said without lightness. "That's what I do."
Stone, shaking his head tightly, went straight to the stove and poured a cup of coffee, undoubtedly long cold. He left through the other door, out onto the boards of that eternally-bare room.
"Detectives also follow people," Finch informed him, coming out right on his heels. "And sometimes they get people to talk about things they don't want to talk about."
"I wish you hadn't read that." Stone hunched over the cup as if winter had come and the coffee was keeping him warm.
"'I wish to be replaced'?" Finch quoted. He could have recited back the whole letter from memory. "Apparently you think there's someone else--anyone else in the world--who can do this job better than you can?"
Stone started to speak, pressed his lips together tightly for a moment, and then said, "Everyone's time comes sooner or later. You should know that. You're the one who's always showing me these new gadgets."
"And you," Finch said, "are the one who's always showing me that a man is not a gadget!"
"Am I?" Stone's smile, long absent, made a brief and weary appearance, and faded. "I'm glad to know it."
"This town needs you." Finch paced the boards of the room, back and forth. "I know they may not thank you for it, but they do need you. And the work needs you. And..." He trailed off, shaking his head. His stomach felt empty and ill; if Stone's coffee had been hot, he would have taken it.
"And what," said Stone, watching him.
"The work, the profession," Finch said desperately. "Only now is it coming into its own, finding out what it's meant to be, and you're an important part of that."
Stone looked down at his hands, clenched around the cup. "Finch--" he began, and his voice sounded so muted and awkward that Finch found himself somehow pulled over a precipice he hadn't known was there. Or if he had known it, he'd taken care to skirt the danger. But the sheer heaviness of his name in that voice was like a weight that took him to the edge and over.
"All right!" Finch said. He spoke fast and very low, far too aware of the framing planks that were not walls, the brisk air and the muddy street and the chance of passers-by. "I need you. It is in fact very possible that I... For--the work, and..." He clenched his fists. "If they do send a replacement-- Jared, if you leave, what am I supposed to--" He looked fixedly at Stone, feeling the sting of warmth rising in his face.
Stone suddenly turned, head low, disappearing back inside the office. The warmth in Finch's face built to painful heat. He stood, breathing in, waiting a moment for his body to catch up with his mind so that he might make a dignified exit through the empty door.
But then, Stone was back, holding the letter in front of him like a shield. "Here. Take it." When Finch didn't move--couldn't move--Stone came right up to him and pressed it into his hands. "Take it," he said, and his voice was husky.
Finch clenched his fingers around the letter. "You're not leaving it up to me," he said, horrified.
"No." Stone stayed there, close, one hand brushing against Finch's wrist. "I'd already been thinking it over. I guess I had a lot on my mind. I guess I..." His head tipped forward, and he was almost at Finch's ear, speaking low. "I guess there were some things I needed to know."
Finch nodded, dazed.
"And now maybe I do know a few more things than I did."
Finch nodded again.
"So tear the damn thing up already."
Finch crumpled it instead, and thrust it into his pocket. He'd use it for tinder back in the laboratory. Though first, maybe he'd give the typewritten letters a careful look through his magnifying glass, to catalog this particular machine's peculiarities. You never knew when that would come in handy.
The next morning came, and Jared Stone was still the marshal. All the light hadn't come back into his eyes after the recent hard times, but he was out in the open room when Finch passed by, and there was something new in his face that Finch was glad to see.
They brought out the chess board, but this time Finch used it to set up some chess problems he'd brought along from another English magazine. They lounged across from each other and worked on the puzzles, drinking coffee, talking of different ways to approach the prevention and solution of train robberies.
"Marshal?" It was Chipper, poking his head through the door from the office. "Package came for you on the train."
"Bring it out here, Chip," Stone said, frowning at a knight fork on the board.
Inside the battered carton was a large canvas packet solidly sealed with wax. Breaking the seal revealed a litter of wrappers, twists of paper, several tiny glass vials, a few banknotes, and a small memorandum book. They poked through the detritus, and Finch thumbed slowly through the book.
"Simon Le Dieux," Finch said at last, reading from the flyleaf. "Le Dieux... The poisoning case?"
Stone picked up a piece of the embossed wax they had removed to get into the packet. "I'll be a son of a gun. And the original seal never even got broken! Is that enough evidence security for you?"
Finch smiled widely, feasting his eyes on some familiar labels among the scraps and bottles. "Even better than that... I think I know what might have happened." He scooped up a handful of the labels and handed them to Stone.
"Professor Cavalcanti's De-Worming Pills," Stone read, leaning back a bit to keep the labels in focus.
"That's right. And these bottles are a few different anthelmintic preparations--"
"For removing parasites."
"You might say so in the first place," Stone muttered.
Finch waved the memorandum book at him. "Le Dieux kept track of all the medicine he took--he must have thought he had a tapeworm."
"Can't help but doubt he did," Stone said, grimacing. "Given the amount of whiskey he drank, and rotgut at that, I wouldn't be surprised if his belly ached."
"So let's say we have a habitual dipsomaniac, who drinks to excess and wears out the lining of his stomach." Finch neatly picked through the wrappers, lining them up. "He starts to dose himself with worm pills, anti-parasite tonics--"
"But while he keeps on drinking rotgut, he never feels better, so he keeps upping the dose," Stone said.
"Exactly." Tearing open one of the untouched twists of paper, Finch rolled a pill out into his hand. "And do you know what the primary ingredient of these worm medicines are?" He handed the pill to Stone. "Turpentine."
Stone nodded slowly. "Turpentine in the pills, turpentine in the tonics...washed down with more and more turpentine in that damn cheap liquor."
"It's caustic," Finch said. "It would burn in his belly, but also in his mouth and his throat."
"That swollen tongue." Stone solemnly brushed the pill from his hand back into the canvas packet. "Never knew what hit him."
Finch's ebullience faded a bit, and he could see what Stone saw: a man in pain, who can't stop drinking to kill the griping in his gut but doesn't realize he's only making it worse. Who trusts in modern treatment to put him right, but dies gasping and choking with a pile of medicines all around his bed.
"There are some further questions I would want to ask the people who knew him," Finch said at last, "but I'm willing to put the case to the authorities in Gunnison."
"Yeah, that case has been open long enough." Stone folded the packet up and put it into its carton. "I'll send a wire and find out when we should go."
"Excuse me, Marshal." This time it was Isaac, looking in through the framed wall. He set down the bag he was carrying, which looked heavy. "Detective Finch."
"Morning, Isaac," Stone said, getting up. "You ready?"
"I am that. And Vic Simmons said he'd be along in a minute to put his back into it."
Finch looked from one to the other.
"You want to help?" Stone asked him.
"Do I want to know with what?" Finch replied; that innocent tone was never quite trustworthy.
"Well," Isaac said with satisfaction, "seems like the marshal finally decided he wanted the rest of this room built up. I swear, I never thought he'd settle on it."
Finch looked at Stone, who looked back at him, clearly abashed but just as clearly pleased. "Oh, yes?"
"He told me so last night," said Isaac. "He's finally gonna have himself a parlor." Hefting his bag over his shoulder again, Isaac waved and beckoned to a wagon swaying down the road with a pile of lumber in the back.
"We can keep the rain out of our coffee," Stone said mildly.
Finch delicately picked the chess pieces off the board, looking up at him. "You must admit, it won't get quite as much of our town's bracingly fresh air."
"There does come a time," Stone answered, "when a man would rather have a little warmth."
Finch could remember not being able to read the most fleeting look in Stone's eye and the barest tilt of his head, but it suddenly seemed like a very long time ago. He wondered what Stone saw in his face in turn, as he stood and rolled up his sleeves.
"Jared," he said, "I would be delighted."