Chapter 1: Prescott
Sheriff Hank Anderson meets his second shadow.
The morning of May 14th starts out normally enough; Hank comes in to work late, and with a pounding headache.
He is, at first, pleasantly surprised to find his waiting room empty. He is then a lot less pleasantly surprised to find that the man he’d been expecting is standing at attention inside Hank's personal office, with his hands clasped behind his back.
At first, Hank doesn’t even see him, although at second glance the man sticks out in his dingy office like a sore thumb. Steerco’s lauded private investigator is too young and too well-groomed, wearing a tailored three-piece suit that Hank is sure will gather a nice layer of small-town dust within hours. His back is ramrod straight, like he’s been mounted in position. The guy introduces himself stiffly as Connor Stern, the investigator sent by Steerco, with a voice that is so raspy, Hank wonders if the stick up his ass might reach all the way into his throat, too.
Hank rubs his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. Mr Stern says, hesitantly now, that he’d been under the impression that Hank was expecting him.
Yes, Hank had been expecting him. Yes, he had also been hoping against hope that the guy would get permanently lost on his way to the Sheriff’s Office.
The Steerliv Mining Company hadn’t been present in Prescott for more than two months before shit started going south for them – workers jumping ship, shipments getting held up and never reaching their destination, internal squabbles coming about as a result, and so on and so forth. Of course, anyone could’ve told them about the territory’s bandit problems if they’d only asked. Now, of course, they expect Hank to jump to attention to save their profits, as if their competition and the local ranchers and everyone else in this town isn't struggling just as much with the exact same shit.
Hank is sure that the only reason Steerliv’s persistence has successfully led to them showing up on his desk (and now by it) day after day is that the company must have connections back in San Francisco with some political heft. To Hank’s knowledge, Steerco are not themselves miners, but rather they are the suppliers, the shippers, the guys selling the shovels. No first-time mining operation makes such a big fuss when it founders, but this lot had managed to join the game late after already making a name for themselves in the industry, and thus felt they had the right to demand Hank’s attention like some gigantic, entitled child. Apparently by sending a literal child to throw spanners in his works.
Steerco has, in fact, brought in a whole team from their headquarters in California to specifically work with the Yavapai Sheriff’s Office to wipe Jericho off the map. Stern is their figurehead. The federal marshal had demanded, in person, that Hank treat it as a priority. Hank has no choice to play ball.
Hank takes a deep breath in and a deep breath out. Then he gestures at Stern to sit. Neither of them do so.
“Right,” Hank says, eventually. “So… you’re here to assist with, er, Jericho.”
“That is correct.”
“Yeah, I think I’ve spoken to your… er, your…”
“Your Amanda, right.” Hank has to tell himself to relax, to be civil. He’s grinding out every word. Stern hasn’t commented on it, but he obviously wants to. Hank, practically speaking, does not need this partnership – or whatever exactly it is – to start out with a catfight.
But then again, Hank surely has a right, in his own office, to speak his mind. “You do realize, of course,” he starts up, “that you guys sticking your nose in police business is probably the best way to make sure I don’t make any progress on this investigation.”
“I assure you, Sheriff,” says Stern, “that I’ll be doing my utmost to ensure I’m not hindering your efforts.”
“Except that you expect to be dragging me off to do Steerco’s reactive due diligence.”
Quick as a whip, Stern retorts: “you are in no way expected to undertake any investigations outside of the natural course of your work as an upholder of the law.”
“Je-sus. You know I’ve got other problems than- than this.” Hank flips quickly through the paperwork in front of him. “The mining shit isn’t even our biggest issue. Already, this year, I’ve had… 12 men shot dead over rebranded cattle.”
“I’m very sorry to hear that,” says Stern, who obviously does not give a shit.
“Do you know what Jericho’s body count is?” Hank makes an ‘o’ with his thumb and forefinger, holding it up to emphasize his point.
“If that’s truly the case, then it’s something I can confirm through my work with you and report back to my superiors.”
They have a brief staring match, then. Mostly because Hank has nothing left worth saying. When this fact becomes apparent, Stern takes it as his cue to speak.
“The most recent problem we’ve had is, as you probably know, the vandalization of railway tracks before Prescott Junction. Two days ago.” He fishes a leather notebook out of a pocket in his vest, brow furrowing as he scans for the relevant information. “The tracks were made impassable… a train carrying copper interrupted the vandalization and was held up at gunpoint, although next to nothing was actually taken.”
Hank glowers. He’s heard this before, of course, and had chosen to let it slide. Stern watches him, waiting for some input. When Hank stays quiet, he continues.
“So my first order of business would be to visit the site of the attack.” He says it slowly, like he thinks Hank is stupid.
“Have you not been out there? Thought you lot came through by train.”
“We passed through the area, yes. And I know roughly where the holdup was. They wanted us to touch base in Prescott before anything else.”
Hank tilts his head in thought. If he’s honest with himself, he should have already gotten around to checking out the scene anyways. He leans back against his windowsill and mulls it over awhile. Eventually he sighs, and says, “So where’re we headed then, chief?”
Stern perks up. He scrutinizes his little notebook again to search for the answer. “Somewhere between Reeses station and… Campbell,” he says, having obviously never pronounced the names before.
Campbell is close enough to ride to in a few hours, Hank thinks, which unfortunately means that they can leave immediately, and his morning of kicking up his heels has flown straight out the window. He unusually (unfortunately) has no other pressing issues to deal with right now that can’t be delegated to his shithead of a deputy.
“Right.” Hank shrugs. “No time like the present, I guess. Why don't you go get your horse?”
To his credit, Stern tries to engage him in small talk to pass the time (and, Hank figures, foster some kind of a relationship between the two of them that isn’t built solely on animosity). He soon picks up, though, on Hank’s hints to leave him the fuck alone, and the last hour to Campbell they follow the railway tracks in silence. It’s an undeniably pretty day; Stern takes in the craggy desert peaks, pine, and summer wildflowers with wide eyes. At one point a jackrabbit runs across the dappled tracks in front of them. “Lepus californicus,” Stern grins, before bringing a hand up to his face and quickly glancing away. Hank takes a second to look him over. The kid is young, given his position - he really can’t be a day over thirty. He is embarrassed.
Hank sighs. “Sure is,” he says.
The site of the holdup isn’t far past Campbell station. It’s marked by a small wooden stake next to the track, apart from which the area has been cleaned up by rail workers and is now almost completely unremarkable. No real indication is given that anyone has been present. Hank, with a few decades’ tracking experience, can see that the scrub around the line has been disturbed, branches snapped, but has trouble identifying any distinct trail leading away from their position.
Stern dismounts and glances around with his nose scrunched up. After only a moment, he ties his reins up to a narrow trunk and sets off walking in an easterly direction. Hank decides to leave him to it, and takes the opportunity to have a swig or two from his flask and squint up at the sunlight. The next time he looks around for Stern, the kid has almost completely disappeared into the undergrowth. Hank folds his arms.
“The hell are you off to, St- Connor?” he calls. There’s no reply. Hank grumbles to himself before heading in the kid’s direction. “I said-“
“I’ve found something, Sheriff.”
Stern is up ahead, crouching behind a boulder – it juts between him and the tracks. Sure enough, once Hank reaches him, he sees that the dirt there – protected by overgrown weeds from the weather – is still scuffed with footprints. Stern scratches at the rubble at the rock’s base, to produce an ashed-over .44 winchester with the round still inside. It is the only physical evidence left that anyone has been there – it almost could have been left intentionally.
Stern straightens up and reaches into his vest pocket. With one hand, he leafs through his little notebook, and with the other, he fiddles with the cartridge. Twirling it around and around. It seems to be a habit of his that, when reading his notes, he frowns, creasing his brow.
Hank leans back and considers the scene. He starts to make a comment that there still isn’t much to go on – at the same time, Stern opens his mouth to speak. They each stop to defer to the other. Hank has to gesture to Stern to get him to continue. “Go ahead,” he says.
Stern clears his throat. “They weren’t prepared to actually rob the train, which means they probably did not know its schedule,” he says, finally looking Hank in the eye. “The cartridge aligns with the type of rifle described by the conductor. There are only three sets of footprints. Two men and one woman.” He frowns. “I wish they’d mentioned there was a woman.”
“Probably embarrassed,” Hank suggests.
Stern nods. “Most likely,” he says. “Only three assailants, and they were poorly prepared. It’s not exactly how the situation was presented in the statement.”
There’s a beat, after which Hank has to ask, “is there anything else you’d like to see?”
Stern gives the area a final once-over. “No, thank you, Sheriff.”
“Then we’re done here,” Hank says. The kid looks dejected – Hank isn’t sure exactly what he’d been hoping to find, though. In Hank’s opinion, this alone was much more than he’d been expecting Stern to come up with. He has to admit that the kid is astute.
“Come on,” Hank says. “If we split now you can take the afternoon to check out the rest of Prescott.” And get out of my hair, he doesn’t say. “Get yourself a ginger beer, or whatever it is you kids do.”
“Of course, Sheriff,” is the reply. When Hank glances at the kid from the corner of his eye, he’s surprised to see that Stern is smiling to himself.
In point of fact, it is almost noon already, and when they reach the horses again Hank’s nag is half asleep already in the midday sun. She doesn’t size up well next to Stern’s well-conformed mare – less spooky, though, Hank reasons, watching the mare’s ears track his and Stern’s every movement.
Hank gives Stern’s horse a pat while her owner shucks out of his wool coat. “Lots of scary new things to look at up here, ain’t there, girl?” he asks her.
“Actually, Liberty was born in California,” Stern pipes up, with far too much enthusiasm.
Hank stops, blinking slowly. “…You named your goddamned pony Liberty?”
Stern quickly shuts down again. “I was a kid,” he shrugs. “She was a gift. I was, maybe overzealous.”
“You’re still a kid, kid,” Hank grins, relishing the opportunity to rile him. Stern glares daggers at him, but it can’t hide his flush. “My name is Connor,” he says. “I’m-“
“-the investigator sent by Steerco, yeah. I remember.”
Hank decides to take pity on the kid - Connor. “I’m only fucking with you. Come on, then, let’s make tracks. Wouldn’t want lady Liberty missing her lunch.”
Having Sheriff Anderson like him would be beneficial to Connor’s mission, but Connor quickly learns he won’t accomplish this through niceties. This is just as well, because Anderson rubs him the wrong way.
The sheriff’s priorities are incredibly skewed – he’s lazy, complacent – Connor had been sure he’d grow to loathe the man. In practice, though – in some bizarre way - after only a few days, Anderson’s gruff nature is starting to make Connor feel at ease. Hank does not want Connor to brown-nose and scramble for his respect. Hank wants to complain about his bad back and take swigs of ‘water’ from his canteen before the sun is even fully overhead. Hank has finally started talking to him, and Hank wants to talk about Steerco, and what he doesn’t like about Steerco, and what he doesn’t like about Connor. That is fine, though, because Connor can give as good as he gets. Hank told Connor he looked goofy – Connor told Hank he was looking forward to working with someone with ‘personal issues’. Hank told Connor to go fuck himself. Then in the same breath, he asks if he is armed, he asks where he’s staying, he asks indirectly if he can take care of himself. Hank apparently has no ability to hold a grudge behind someone’s back, or keep his opinion to himself, at all. It is, in all honestly, a pleasant change from his conversations with Amanda, during which Connor constantly feels as if he’s walking on eggshells.
Amanda is not pleased with the progress – or lack thereof – that Connor is making. Connor is honestly not sure what he was expected to do with the negligible information available to him, although of course he does not say as much out loud.
It means that he grasps at their next opportunity to skip town with relish. The morning of May 19th, a rider comes into Prescott to report a robbery at the general store – or rather, the only store – in the nearby town of Cherry. Ostensibly, someone from Jericho was responsible. Connor bounces on his heels for an hour, before ending up hammering on the door to Hank’s personal apartments - above the sheriff’s office - at 9.30am, despite being well aware of the verbal abuse it will earn him. While Hank grumbles from his bathroom, Connor lets himself in, pets Hank's dog, and then fries up some eggs for the sheriff as appeasement. Connor tacks up both horses while Hank gropes around for his personal effects.
Hank in the mornings reminds Connor of a bear just coming out of hibernation. At such times, he is, in Hank’s own words, not to be fucked with. But Connor is quickly learning how to get the Sheriff exactly where he wants him. More like a teddy bear, honestly, Connor thinks to himself. But never says as much out loud.
Cherry is some 30 miles east of Prescott, but due to the topography of the region is not accessible as the crow flies. The round trip will easily take all day, Connor realizes. Of course, not an hour into the journey, the sheriff is already complaining about his saddle, about his horse, about the shopkeeper who apparently doesn’t know how to aim and shoot a gun.
Connor takes off in a canter, leaving Hank in his dust. When the Sheriff finally catches up to him, Connor shrugs innocently, explaining that Liberty must have been spooked by something on the road. The promise of a lead has put Connor in an especially good mood, and he can’t help but meet Hank’s glower with a grin.
Cherry is of little political importance, and only has a dozen residents or so. It is therefore unsurprising that its local police force consists of a single kid younger even than Connor, who through previous interactions Hank knows to be a genuine moron. Hank makes brief, curt conversation with him, and then excuses himself to visit the general store as soon as possible – crucially, before Connor has the chance to start making introductions.
The owner, an old man who squints at them through thick corrective lenses under shafts of dusty afternoon sunlight, was held up the previous night, after which he gave his statement to the veritable child who Hank just left outside. He seems peeved to have to repeat himself, but still readily gives the details over. It definitely helps that Connor butters him up some - the kid takes an instant interest in the family store and its history, quickly uncovering its owner's points of pride and then lingering on them in a manner which Hank suspects is more tactical than indicative of actual interest. The old man doesn't seem to notice.
There had been two robbers, armed. No shots were fired, but the owner – Joseph Williams – was apparently a pushover, and they’d made off with all his medical supplies, five revolvers, as well as enough food for several families. Williams stands, bored, behind the same old desk he’d been robbed at – when Connor asks if this sort of thing is normal, Williams only shrugs. “Can’t say it’s too out of the ordinary,” he admits. “There’s lots of folks around here with no respect for the law – no offense, there, Sheriff.”
Hank grunts. He can’t deny it to be true. “Rustlers,” he says to Connor, as an aside. “I remember,” Connor says. He takes out his notebook and scans it.
Williams describes the perpetrators. A man and a woman, he says – when Connor hears this, he perks up.
“Did she wear a size 4 shoe? Slim?” Connor asks.
“How the fuck should I know?” Williams retorts. Hank has to bite back a laugh. All of a sudden, he's hit with an image of Connor, later, scrupulously making notes - transcribing the conversation word for word. How…the…fuck…should…I…know?
Jesus, Hank thinks, biting his lip. Keep it together, Sheriff.
Connor, wearing his trademark pout of frustration, subtly grinds his teeth. “Can you give any more details of this woman's physical appearance?”
Williams strokes his beard. “She was white,” he says, “I’d say about 5’4”. Brown hair, kind of reddish, in a braid. Dressed like a boy. Pretty girl, though.”
“I thought you said they were wearing masks.”
Williams bristles. “Well, she had pretty eyes.”
“Right,” Connor says. “And the other one?”
“His were funny.”
“His eyes, boy, his eyes were funny. Different colors.”
This also interests Connor. “One blue iris, one green,” he mutters. “That must be Markus.”
“He was a mulatto.”
“Yes, I know who he is.”
Hank had never heard of this man. He says as much. Connor seems surprised. “Really?” he says. “He’s apparently their leader.”
Outside the store, Connor suggests that he prompt Steerco to release all their current investigative findings to Hank’s office.
“I suggest that you do,” Hank grumbles, “because this is the first goddamn time I’ve heard of this man who’s apparently the leader of Jericho.” After thinking it over awhile, Hank adds, “And he was right here? That’s a bitch.”
“It is a bitch,” Connor agrees.
They eat in town. Hank notices, not for the first time, that Connor, who is in general incredibly neatly presented, has a floppy cowlick that stubbornly refuses to stay out of his face. It’s kind of funny the way he gets worked up over lunch, constantly trying to tuck it back into position. Connor is this kid from booming San Francisco, who's already working in a fairly senior position, and can easily flatter near strangers if he so chooses to set his mind to it, but then also stutters over his order because the waitress is pretty, and makes him worry about his hair.
Maybe funny is the wrong word. Maybe it would be easier to just say that Connor is curious. Peculiar.
Hank wonders, “Just how old are you, exactly?”
“I’m twenty-four.” Connor then looks up, frowning suspiciously. “Why do you ask?”
Hank blinks, and clears his throat. Where the fuck’re your folks at, he wants to say. What’re you doing getting carted around the country as the golden boy of a company like Steerco? What he does say, though – of course - is “Ah, it’s nothin’.”
I actually thought a lot about Connor's age in this. I know that the RK800 is modelled after a ~30yo man, and in general I'm not a huge fan of aging him down for no reason as a human (although, of course, in canon I suppose Connor is only a few months old). It's just hard to for me to buy 'pre-deviant' Connor's naive and single-minded dedication to Steerliv (which, if it wasn't obvious, is Cyberlife) as a 30yo. So I made him a bit younger - he's still learning about the world, still making mistakes, but also old enough to take responsibility for his actions. I hope that makes sense.
Chapter 2: North
Connor gets a lead.
This is just a little baby one, sorry. I meant to spend the night writing but ended up trapped on old west wikipedia articles (again).
Connor’s investigative abilities do, without a doubt, surpass the limitations of his age. Over the next week, and under Hank’s very limited guidance, Connor compiles profiles of the key members of Jericho through Yavapai locals who more often than not need information wheedled, cajoled, or even blackmailed out of them. Connor spots links that’re barely perceptible. Hank can’t deny that Connor’s getting closer to Jericho than he himself ever would have alone, if left to his own devices.
It isn’t enough.
What Connor really needs is the location of a base of operations. What he’s ended up with are descriptions of members that are only just not detailed enough to be used to predict Jericho’s next move. Steerco continues to be slowly worn down, and Hank knows that their faithful bloodhound is under increasing pressure to wrap up his work in Prescott.
Their next big lead comes from a saloon manager in Alexandra. Before now, the only name they had from Jericho was Markus’, and nobody honestly knew whether that was his Christian name, or where it had really come from at all. But on May 25th, Markus and his lady friend showed up out of nowhere in front of this saloon and rode off with three customers’ horses in broad daylight. The bartender, tearing down the street after them and swearing blue murder, swore he had recognized the woman.
Her name was North Kelly.
Kelly had worked in a brothel in Jerome - ostensibly under Belgian Jennie Bauters herself, while she was first starting out as a madame. One morning, a client from the previous night was found strangled in one of Jennie’s upstairs rooms. Miss Kelly did not come into work that day, or any day after that. No prizes for guessing who her final john was.
That was in 1884. North was 16 at the time. No one had seen or heard from her since. “No one in Alexandra, that is,” Connor clarifies; the barkeeper gives them a shrug of assent.
Hank feels a little guilty. The ride out to Alexandra had been slow going, and it was his fault. Hank kept wanting to stop and rest, both for the sake of his sore seat bones and his hungover brain. Connor, taken in by the blooming desert oasis that was the Aqua Fria, had let him. Hank dipped his toes in the river while Connor practiced tricks with Liberty. The kid was under the impression that he was teaching his horse to come when he whistled; the horse thought she was playing a fun game where she got to mow her rider into the scrub before running off, bucking, tossing her head in delight. Liberty then got a food reward.
The show ended with Connor plonking down next to Hank and pulling his boots off without a word, wiping sweat from his brow. Connor stuck his legs in the water, kicking out agitatedly, and when Hank finally suggested they head out again, Liberty wouldn’t be caught for a good twenty minutes.
It is now too late to head up to Jerome and make it back to Prescott before sunset.
Since Prescott is closer, Hank suggests they go straight home and visit the saloon in town, whose owner Hank knows to have business in Jerome, as well as, he’s almost certain, some manner of personal relationship with Belgian Jennie. Connor also needs to debrief with his bosses at Steerco’s Prescott headquarters by nightfall. He agrees that the best course of action is to go back.
Jimmy Peterson welcomes Hank into his saloon with the exact same grin that might be elicited by the sight of a literal walking wallet. When he sees who Hank’s with, though, that smile brightens twofold.
"Hank Anderson and Connor the Kid," Jimmy greets them. "And at the same time, too. This is quite the honor."
Connor winks - winks - at Jimmy while taking his seat. “What can I get you?” Jimmy asks him. “The usual?
“If you please,” Connor says.
It turns out that the usual for Connor is a tall glass of ginger beer - Hank doesn't comment on this, although he desperately wants to.
At least, he doesn't comment directly.
Instead, he says to Connor, "You've been here before."
Connor tilts his head. "I took your advice," he explains.
Hank hums to himself at this. He doesn't know why it surprises him to learn that Jimmy and Connor are familiar, only that it does. Connor doesn't seem to have many interests outside of his work. Then again, he's just moved to a new town. Perhaps he'd been lonely.
Hank orders straight whiskey for himself. He tries to resist it for all of maybe three seconds, tries to insist that they’re in here on business - Connor reassures him that he can talk to Jimmy himself. Then Connor reassures him that the whiskey’s on Connor; that Steerco will pick up his tab. That helps a lot.
Connor is giving Jimmy his ‘investigator’ face, which is a warm smile that doesn’t quite reach his perceptive brown eyes. He asks Jimmy if he can fill them in on any word about Kelly’s activity in the last six years. Unfortunately, Jimmy doesn’t know her at all. He wants to make small talk with Connor instead - talk to him about life out west, ask what Connor thinks of the seaside.
Connor pouts at his drink.
Hank pats him reassuringly on the back. “We did good today, kid,” he says. “Take a load off. We can ask around tomorrow.”
“I’ve asked you not to call me that, Sheriff,” Connor mumbles, without looking up. But he shows no intention of leaving. Which Hank counts as a win.
Connor sighs, takes a cigarette out of a packet in his pocket, and lights it with a Little Gem. And Hank and Connor shoot the breeze. Connor still wants to know more about Hank's history in Prescott, and Hank, despite himself, is very interested in fishing out the story of how a gangly kid like Connor ended up as the entire risk management division - because Hank has certainly never met another member of Connor's 'team' other than Amanda, his direct superior - at a branch of one of the most prolific mining suppliers on the west coast. They each frame it as companionable bonding, until Hank gets bored and straight up asks Connor, “How long have you worked for Steerco?”
“Almost ten years,” Connor tells him.
“No shit,” Hank wonders. Does that even add up? “You were only a kid, though.”
“I like your use of the past tense there, Sheriff.”
“Ha, ha. You’ve been doing this shit for a decade?”
“Not this… stuff,” Connor says. He takes a long drag. “Obviously I started out more or less just running errands. Even then, until recently, it’s been mostly… internal.”
“Risk management? You know, for... acquisitions. Negotiations. Chances of having competition pull one over on us.” Connor’s eyes gleam. “I’m really adept at calculating probabilities.”
Adept. Hank smiles. "And what happens when the competition does pull one over you?"
Connor's shoulder twitches. "I get told off."
Hank stifles a laugh.
"But I handle that too," Connor continues, lifting his chin.
Hank nods, mostly to himself. "Not so much on the ground, though, I take it.”
Connor shakes his head no. And he smiles; “I’d actually never been to a mine before.” He pauses. “It’s very loud.”
As they talk, Jimmy pours Hank finger after finger. Connor doesn’t comment on it, and Hank isn't sure whether he should just to take pity on Connor's pockets and cut him loose. Actually, a part of Hank is quite envious that a man in his twenties has already spent more on liquor in a night than Hank would’ve made in a week at that age. It makes sense, of course, though; Steerco is kind of a big deal.
“Must be a hell of a salary for that kind of work,” he muses, trying to be sly.
“They provide food and board," Connor says. "And they cover work-related expenditure."
Connor tilts his head. “Steerco pays for my living expenses.”
Hank gapes. “Yeah, I know what you meant. Are you kidding?”
Connor shrugs. “I owe Amanda a lot,” he says, by way of explanation. It explains next to nothing.
“The fuck is she, your debtee?”
“No, she’s my mother.”
Hank blinks. This conversation is starting to feel like a series of slaps to the face, which he’s increasingly too tipsy to deal with. Does Hank need to tell Connor about the birds and the bees?
“Obviously not my real mother,” Connor clarifies, not missing Hank’s expression. “She fostered me. But she’s the closest thing I have. She essentially raised me into this job.”
I’ll be, Hank thinks. Uppity Connor is just a mommy’s boy. This puts their conversation in a totally new perspective. Actually, it probably explains a lot of things.
Hank realizes Connor is an orphan.
“…To be honest,” Connor continues, “I kind of made a mess of things. That’s why. Um.” He bites his lip.
“You don’t have to worry about my sensibilities, Connor. That’s why you got hauled out to Prescott, the ass of America? That what you wanted to say?”
“…Yes,” Connor mutters. His posture is completely normal, but his gaze is stuck down in his lap. This is how Hank knows he is very uncomfortable.
“What happened?” Hank ventures.
“I’d rather not say.”
Why is Connor telling him all of this anyways? Hank supposes he must feel guilty.
Connor gives him a caustic smile. “Let’s just say it was something I don’t think you would be too surprised to hear.” His expression, Hank realizes, is more than avoidant, now. Connor looks sad. Hank actually wonders if he’s ever seen Connor express himself so simply, so authentically.
He supposes all this must represent some sort of expression of trust.
“Doesn’t matter now,” Hank says. Connor’s eyes flick up to Hank's, for a moment, and then slide to focus on something past Hank’s shoulder; Connor leans back and drums his fingers on the buffed countertop.
Hank turns in his seat and sees his deputy. Reed. He only now realizes how late it is – when Reed saunters up to join them, he is drunk enough already to sneer openly at his own boss.
With Reed, just like everyone else, Connor is perfectly cordial. He reverts back to small talk, starts to fill the deputy in on the details of their case - although Reed never actually asked. Before long Reed heads off for rowdier company, waving his hand around his head as if to dismiss a persistent fly.
Connor watches him go with a smirk. Hank did not miss that Connor was perhaps unnecessarily and overtly mundane in his recounting of details with Reed, but Hank neglects to mention as much.
Neither of them speak for a beat. Connor finishes his cigarette and lights another one. Hank scans the customers, and the bar; it looks how it always looks, low-lit and warm, and smelling pervasively of tobacco. When Hank's gaze falls back on Connor, Connor is scrutinizing the countertop intently.
When Connor finishes his second glass of ginger beer, Hank covers the rim with his palm before Jimmy can fill it again.
“Time to move on to something stronger, I think,” he says.
“Hank, I don’t drink.”
Of course Connor doesn’t drink. Hank ignores him completely. “He’ll have what I’m having,” he tells Jimmy. Connor levels him with a glare that, on his boyish face, simply does not work. Hank changes tactics - he feigns defeat, sighing dramatically. “If you think you can’t handle it…”
“Oh, yes, that’ll work, Sheriff,” Connor says. “You must think I’m a literal child.”
“Come on, live a little,” Hank hedges. “Think of it as your official welcome to Prescott. Now it’s on me.”
Connor’s eyes track all over Hank’s face. Then – surprising Hank - he sighs, and gestures to Jimmy to do as Hank says.
Connor watches the tumbler fill with thinly veiled apprehension. Jimmy tops Hank up too. Hank holds his glass in the air where the dim light refracts through, inviting Connor to toast.
“To Prescott,” says Connor. “To Jericho,” says Hank, sardonically. Their glasses clink together. Connor sips his whiskey cautiously. Then his eyebrows rise up almost to his brow line. “Wow, that’s disgusting,” he says, in a small voice that makes Hank chuckle. Connor laughs too, flushing up slightly.
“That’s Yavapai hooch for you,” Hank says.
It takes Connor about four fingers to get noticeably drunk. He still talks like he’s afraid of getting his knuckles rapped, but he’s slurring his words, and frowning inwardly when he notices it happen. Hank privately finds this hilarious.
Hank tries to keep away from touchy subjects. Connor shows no signs of slowing down.
When Connor gets up to visit the john, he stumbles straight into table behind him, hard enough to almost fall on his face. Drinks are spilled; someone curses. Hank stands up to deal with the situation but finds himself similarly unsteady on his feet.
Hank just leers at the other patrons. They quickly clam up. When Connor gets back, Hank suggests that it’s time for them to leave. Connor nods lazily in agreement.
Outside, there are stars in the sky. The perpetual dust on the main street has settled; folks are mostly inside, nobody’s left to stir up the town. Behind them the clamor of the bar grows soft. Hank swears he can still hear Reed in there, bragging.
Hank knows that Connor sleeps in-house at Steerco, and also that Connor is too drunk to ride out of town alone right now. Which is Hank’s fault. So he slings Connor’s arm over his shoulder and takes his waist with one hand, and takes Liberty’s reins in the other. The walk - stagger - back to his office shouldn’t be far.
Around 6 steps in, Connor says – or tries to say - “Excuse me for a moment, please, Sheriff,” and peels himself out of Hank’s grasp. He promptly sinks to all fours and greets his guts. Afterwards, he stays hunched over, panting, for a few seconds, and then gets to his feet, on the third attempt. Wipes his mouth on his near pristine wool jacket. Then stumbles back towards Hank.
“Sorry,” says Connor. “This is awful.”
Hank has to laugh. “Hey, it happens to the best of us.” He says, “Call it a learning experience.”
“‘Learning experience’,” Connor mumbles. Then he says, “Can I ask you a personal question, Sheriff?”
It wouldn't be the first time. Connor loves his damned personal questions. “If I say no, are you gonna do it anyway?”
“Why do you drink so much?”
“…Why don’t you like me?” It comes out as something close to a whine.
“Oh, okay. Geez.” Hank rubs the back of his head. “Don’t let’s start that. I like you plenty, k- Connor.”
“You didn’t at first.”
“Yeah, I was wrong about that.”
Connor screws up his face, searching for words. Holy shit, Hank thinks. He’s loaded. This is really Hank’s fault.
“Deputy Reed doesn’t like me,” Connor says, eventually.
“Gavin doesn’t like anyone.”
“That’s not what I mean.” He glances around. “They all don’t- no one cares- no one cares, about Jericho.”
Ah. Hank understands. “Maybe you need to look at Jericho from Jericho’s perspective,” he says. “Most of ‘em have been run out of land and jobs by companies like Steerco. The world’s on the move and it’s leaving them behind.” Hank looks at Connor. “In their eyes they’re probably just fighting for what’s right. Or, y’know, to survive.”
Connor thinks about that for a long while. Eventually he says “I guess I was prioritizing the conse- consequences of their actions. Not the motivations.” It comes out more like conserquences, motervashuns.
Connor says nothing else. He is thinking, or trying to.
Once they get home, Hank throws Liberty around the back with Lady and leaves her tack hanging over the stall door. When he returns to the street, Connor is sitting on the peeling cream-colored deck with his head between his knees. Hank helps him inside, and upstairs, and then onto his shabby couch, where he leaves Connor to get drooled on by Sumo. Hank pours himself a glass of water, and then one for Connor, but when he gets back to the living room, Connor’s already out cold. Hank sighs and pulls off his boots for him – squeaky clean, of course. He gets a dog-eared blanket from the hutch and throws it over his houseguest. That’s all he can think of to do.
As Hank undresses, he places his sidearm on the dresser, and then regards it for a second. It's just sitting there. It doesn't jump out - it isn’t presenting itself to him like it normally does after a drink, he thinks. Of course, Connor is in the next room.
If Connor heard a shot right now he would probably panic, disoriented.
Hank goes to sleep.
When Connor wakes up there is a marching band in his head, except every member is playing the drums. In the few seconds before he realizes he doesn’t know where he is or how he got there, he curls into a ball and moans. Then he sits up with a start. The room waltzes around him.
Hank’s apartment. Oh no.
Hank is still asleep. Connor can hear him snoring through his bedroom door. Sumo lifts his massive head from the floor when he hears Connor’s sounds of suffering, but quickly decides it’s not interesting. Other than Connor, the house is still. Pale shafts of light cut through Hank’s grubby window-panes, almost horizontally. Connor checks his wristwatch. It’s 6.34.
Connor is embarrassed, nearly to the point of shame, and he deals with this by poking around Hank’s apartment while its owner can’t stop him. He finds most of a boiled chicken left on the stove and tears off a few strips for Sumo’s breakfast.
Hank has no cellar; only a cupboard with smoked meat and some mismatched non-perishables. Connor chews on some jerky and boils grain for Sumo. He figures Hank won’t mind Connor helping himself to food, since he himself must have brought Connor here and Connor often eats with Hank anyways. While Sumo’s food is cooking Connor continues his snooping in the kitchen.
There isn’t much to look at in Hank’s drawers except old bills, sheet music for the dinky living room piano, and illegible handwritten notes. Nothing that tells him anything about the man that Connor doesn’t already know. The rightmost drawer under the kitchen countertop is locked, and, of course, Connor immediately decides he must know what’s inside.
He looks around; on the countertop before him are two opaque glass jars, one labelled coffee and one labelled sugar, each with cursive white paint. Hank takes his coffee black and unsweetened, so Connor opens the sugar jar. Sure enough, its only contents are a small, simply cut key, and it fits the lock just so.
Inside is an old Deringer, and Connor traces the intricate pattern on the side. It must be from the 20s, he thinks. Fairly elegant for a killing machine.
He also finds a photograph; a portrait. Front and centre is a little boy who Connor doesn’t recognize. Over his shoulder is a woman, presumably the mother. Next to her is a man who Connor takes several seconds to realize is Hank.
His silver hair is much shorter; he’s younger, perhaps by quite a few years. Mid-forties, Connor would say. He presents himself better than the Hank Connor knows. He looks happy. The photograph is colorless, and faded, but Connor can still tell that the boy – obviously Hank’s son – has his father’s blue eyes.
Connor had not been aware that Hank had a family. Had had a family. They obviously aren’t around anymore. It’s no small wonder, he thinks. Then he regrets that.
Connor doesn’t mind Hank’s company – his recalcitrance, his alcoholism. Connor quite likes Hank, actually. But he isn’t one of many.
On the back of the photograph are names. Hank, Cole, and Marie. Marie is a French name, Connor thinks. There’s also a date; 1886. Not so old of a photograph after all, Connor thinks. He replaces it silently, locking the drawer. The dust settles around him.
Connor feels uneasy, knowing logically that he’s overstepped quite a few boundaries. The portrait seems harmless enough but he knows Hank must have kept it locked up for a reason. When he turns around, Sumo is watching him, unblinking, through the kitchen door. Connor holds his finger to his lips, so Sumo will know not to spill any secrets. Sumo the confidante.
Connor feeds the dog and then makes himself coffee. He sits at the table, chewing aimlessly on jerky, staring into space while he plans his day. The pounding behind his eyes has not gone away, and although Connor can usually formulate his thoughts very coherently and remember events almost perfectly, his brain is currently rebelling against itself. Everything comes up mismatched.
They need to go to Jerome today. Connor probably should get better at arranging these trips so they can hit multiple scenes on one outing, rather than wasting their time slogging back and forth between the same towns. Connor needs to think of a tactic to encourage Jennie Bauters to open up about North, her old charge. She will have several reasons to be reluctant to do so.
There’s something else he needs to do, but for one of the first times in his life, he cannot remember what it is.
Hank won’t be woken up for a few hours. Or rather, it will be possible to wake Hank up, but neither he nor Connor will enjoy the process. Connor supposes he can kill time reading through case notes downstairs. Perhaps he can debrief Deputy Reed about Jericho, if he's in yet. Get a new side to the story. He doesn’t want to go downstairs quite yet.
He remembers the thing he is supposed to do, then. At the same time, there’s a sharp rap on Hank’s door. Connor’s stomach plummets.
He grabs his vest from the couch and straightens his necktie, before jogging to the door, trying to open it quietly. He already knows who’s on the other side.
“Amanda,” he says.
Amanda does not seem pleased. In fact, she seems incredibly peeved, which is quite difficult on somebody so serene as herself. She looks Connor over – once, twice – and then gestures behind herself with a nod. “Walk with me, Connor,” she instructs.
Deputies Reed and somebody else – Connor remembers him being introduced as Deputy Collins - are already working downstairs, so Amanda and Connor go straight through the office and onto the street. As Connor passes Reed, who has undoubtedly deduced that Connor is now in the soup, the older man smirks.
Reed has a scar across his nose; he was probably struck with glass. Wistfully, Connor thinks that he would like to see a repeat performance.
But he has other priorities right now. Once they’re outside, Connor orients himself towards Amanda. He tries to appear engaged, alert. She gives him a quizzical look. He knows he is disheveled.
“You were expected to join us last night,” Amanda says, softly.
“I- I might have a lead, but I need to follow it up,” Connor says. “I didn’t want to say anything until I had confirmation.”
Amanda does not tell him what she thinks about that, and frankly does not have to. Instead, she rests her hand on his shoulder. Connor notices that she is holding a slim file under her other arm.
“It doesn’t matter now,” says Amanda. “You can look into it later. We think we’ve found somebody providing Jericho with utilities. Food, mostly.
“Rupert Travis directly supplies Kayes’ general store, here in Prescott. Kayes has been understocked, although he is confident that Travis has no issue with his crop. He also claims to have physically seen Travis with Markus.” She says the outlaw’s name as if it’s a curse.
Connor raises both eyebrows. “That would be our best lead yet,” he speculates.
“I know. That’s why I want you to look into it immediately.” She hands Connor her file. “I’ve marked the farm on a map. It’s southeast of Camp Verde, and will take you awhile to ride to. You ought to leave immediately.”
Amanda pauses. “I know you don’t want to be here, Connor. And I know you don’t want to fail the company.”
She sighs. “You must know it’s worse here for me.” She smooths her palms down on the folds of her elegant dress, glancing casually up and down the street. “These people aren’t used to seeing a negro in power. Especially not a negro woman. They hate it.”
“I understand, Amanda.”
She smiles at him, carefully. “I know you do. You’re a good boy, Connor.”
Amanda turns to go, but then adds, as an afterthought, “Deputy Collins informs me that there’s been a rancher shot again down south. Sheriff Anderson will need to investigate that today. This is -" she trails off, searching for the right word - "serendipitous. I take it you'll be able to deal with Travis alone?”
“Yes, Amanda.” Connor smiles.
“Good. Your horse is behind the sheriff’s office. Though I’m sure you already knew that.”
She leaves without much more preamble. Connor swallows.
He has to return inside to gather his things. He asks Deputy Collins – specifically, Deputy Collins – to bid Hank a good morning on Connor's behalf. Then he examines the map - skims the profile of Travis, memorizes the route - and goes to search for Liberty.
Remember that kudos are foodos for authors.
By the way, if anyone can work out the location of Jericho before Connor does, you get big brownie points! We can do something where you're a minor character in the ~sequel~ or some such ;)
Also, thank you so much to everyone who's commented so far! You're all amazing and your words mean a whole lot to me <3
Chapter 4: The Nest
Connor pursues a dangerous criminal.
Connor can't for the life of him find his hat, so he takes Hank’s - a boss of the plains. Later, when he goes to mount up, he sees for the first time the dust on the knees of his gray trousers, and then, through inspection, on the forearms of his coat. Connor is then immediately transported to the night before, to himself on all fours and retching into the dirt of Prescott’s main road. He certainly had not needed to remember that.
It doesn’t matter. What he has on now will have to do. Travis’ farm is over thirty miles away; the ride out alone should take him five hours. Connor won’t make it back before the evening even if he leaves immediately, and Connor is not keen on travelling these roads after nightfall.
He keeps Liberty in alternating gaits - switching between a walk and a trot - which she tolerates admirably, without making a fuss. First they trek up to Camp Verde, where the soil bleeds up red into the earth’s surface, and the sedimentary rock starts to stack up in the beginnings of the canyons it will become, so many miles to the north. Even at this elevation, the sun pulses insensately overhead in a manner that becomes stifling by midday.
Connor counts the years in the rock formations he passes. Connor names weeds to himself; thistle, tamarisk, Palmer’s amaranth. He hums bar songs. After Camp Verde, Connor is, albeit under his breath, singing out loud. The same songs over and over. Liberty, having never in her life been asked to work such long hours so frequently, starts to puff with exertion. But Connor is leery of stopping to rest and losing time.
Connor can understand why they say cowboys are lonely. He, himself, would characterize the experience less romantically as ‘mind-numbingly dull’.
When he finally spots what must be Travis’ farm in the distance, six hours have passed.
On approach, he sees that the ‘farm’ is a barn and a dilapidating single-story shack, standing in a basin of rock just too small to be called a valley. There is no visible crop.
With no easy way to approach the buildings stealthily, Connor simply beelines for them. There is a mule tied to a rusting trough, nibbling the stubble of what used to be a patch of grass at its base. Connor leads Liberty up to drink and dismounts gracelessly, landing with a heavy thud that twists up his stomach and makes him want to be sick again. Rather than succumbing to this urge, he takes a deep breath, stands up straight, fixes his necktie and pads into the shade of the shack porch.
Connor knocks three times in succession, loudly.
There’s no answer. He calls out. “Mr Travis?” Again, nothing.
Above him - most likely through slats in the barn - the wind is moaning. The sound is unnerving.
He glances around, frowning, and then tries the door. Predictably, it is locked. So with his right hand he takes out his revolver and with his left he holds down the handle, and he throws his shoulder into the door.
Immediately he can tell that it’s not locked at the handle, but somewhere higher up. Most likely some sort of latch. He can probably make it give.
He tries again with no luck. Then the third time, the door flies open, almost coming off at the hinges. Connor raises his Colt and brings back the hammer. There’s nobody there.
The shack only has three rooms - a sitting room, bedroom, and small kitchen - so Connor clears it quickly. When he’s certain no-one’s about to jump out at him from some cupboard, he reholsters the revolver to take a better look around.
The shack is in an almost unlivable state. First of all, the wood is rotting, and the roof is starting to cave in. On top of that there’s the thick coat of dust and grime clinging to every surface, including those of the sparse furniture, and windows. No lamp is lit, and although he knows it is bright daylight outside, he has difficulty making out the shack’s interior through the gloom. There are, however, signs of life; the bed has been recently made, and there are semi-clean pans in the kitchen.
The air is stale and static and uncomfortably warm. The whole place expresses a disembodying menace, like whatever truths it bears lie somewhere beneath its reality. Like it's a bad dream. Connor, unused to having his work engender such overdramatic responses in him, physically shakes the sensation out of his head.
There are sacks around the house. One in the bedroom has been knocked over and its contents spill onto the floor. Grain. Travis keeps poultry, Connor thinks.
There is also another door leading outside in the bedroom, unlatched. This explains Travis’ absence despite the locked front door.
Appraising the second door leads him to notice a symbol that’s been notched into the frame of the bed, at the head. The marks are careful and tiny, maybe a third of an inch across. Four intersecting lines, two vertical and two horizontal. It looks akin to the start of a game of tic-tac-toe. Connor recognizes it, though, as the symbol of Jericho, because they have left it at crime scenes on occasion as a tag.
So there’s that.
He rechecks all the shelves and finds nothing of note. With each step Connor takes, the floorboards creak in protest. As he comes back into the living room, Connor wonders what it would be like to hear only the groans of the settling shack, day in, day out. Perhaps this is why it truly makes him so uncomfortable. The loneliness.
It’s a far cry from the romantic roguishness that the citizens of Prescott seem to associate with Jericho.
There is only one rug in the building and it sits in the living room. Connor lifts a corner, in the chance of finding some manner of trap door underneath. Surprisingly, there is something there, but it is far too small to conceal a human being. Someone has sawn across a single floorboard to create a removable square of wood. Connor pries it up with his fingernails and sets it aside. In the space underneath is a small but thick leather-bound notebook, and Connor’s heart stutters at the sight of.
Any excitement generated by the discovery is quashed when he opens it up, though, because he can tell immediately that the contents are in some kind of code. Each letter is meticulously copied out to form completely nonsensical sentences. Some letters are not even letters at all, but invented symbols. What Connor can make out, though, are the numbers - dates. He can’t help but smile when he realizes that they align with Jericho’s stick-ups around Prescott.
It makes no sense to Connor that Travis would incriminate himself by recording these dates when Connor knows for a fact that he was not present at at least some of the actual robberies. As a solitary keeper of livestock, Connor also knows that Rupert should very rarely leave his farm. Perhaps, he reasons, they have another significance. It’s possible that, on these dates, Rupert met Jericho members before or after their attacks.
That might imply that Markus was passing through this area on his way to the hold-ups. Prescott was west of Cape Verde. This could mean that Jericho is based to Travis’ east. It is not, Connor thinks, a strong conclusion to draw, given the limited evidence.
The last date was around a week ago. Nothing has been pencilled in for the future.
Flipping through the notebook, Connor sees one last thing that interests him. Every ten or so pages there are notes in the margins. They stand out because the handwriting - although still uncannily neat - in these cases is in cursive. It links up what look like coherent words, although Connor does not recognize them at first. He turns the notebook to the side, frowning, and then realizes that this is because they are in French. He hums in disappointment.
Connor left Louisiana with Amanda at the age of six, and never returned. His mother tongue is a distant memory by now. He is certainly no longer literate in the language. If he even ever was. It frustrates him immeasurably, staring down at the words, on the cusp of understanding. In another lifetime, he is sure he could make them out.
Connor also doubts that anyone in Prescott will understand the text. Although-
Hank’s wife was named Marie, Connor thinks. Maybe Hank can read this.
One of the sentences mentions Markus by name, but, of course, the rest of it is indecipherable. Useless.
All of a sudden, Connor is hit with an overwhelming feeling that he is, right here and now, being watched. He almost sees it in third person - two bright eyes, staring through the wood walls, and then, if he turns to look the other way, his own self, crouched down. Connor whips around, but there are only cupboards behind him - of course, the shack is empty. He already knew that.
Connor scowls at the cupboards as he stands, pocketing the notebook. He looks around himself. He’s seen all there is to see, so he returns to the bedroom.
What interests Connor here is the spilled grain. Everything else in the shack is, although filthy, quite neat. This small indication of carelessness therefore stands out. Connor’s gaze tracks up from the grain to the second, unlocked door. He thinks of the eyes in his head.
He takes out his revolver again.
The door opens up almost directly into the sheer wooden side of the barn. He can already hear - and smell - the chickens inside it. Connor checks to his left, to his right, and then above him, and then paces as silently as he can back around to the front of the shack, keeping his aim on the dirt at his feet. There’s an outhouse against the shack’s other side, and he checks this first. He doesn’t even need to open the door; the thing was so haphazardly built that he can see straight through the gaps in the boards. And it’s empty.
He crosses back over the porch. Liberty is gnawing happily on the rotting frame of her trough, and Connor glares at her to stop. She looks up, blinks at him, and then slowly and deliberately resumes chewing, as if to intentionally spite her owner. Connor scrunches up his nose.
Rather than approaching the barn’s front entrance, he retraces his path around its side to look for a back door. There is one; he nudges it open with a foot, keeping his body out of the frame. He waits for a beat; after several seconds, a solitary hen steps out, glancing cautiously around. Connor peeks inside.
There are birds and their droppings everywhere, complementing the terribly upkept interior perfectly in a way that seems specifically designed to get under Connor’s skin. The wind howls overhead. Stepping inside, he can see that there is a second level - some sort of loft - propped up directly above him, that only extends out 15 feet or so, with a ladder at the edge for access. If he had entered from the front he would have been able to see what was stored there. On the ground level, apart from the hundreds - maybe thousands - of chickens, there are only a few stacked up crates, and some disused machinery.
Connor walks inside slowly, having to constantly nudge the chickens out of his way with his feet. He tries to ignore the smell. He looks up at the second storey, but cannot see through its floorboards. If Connor had been in Travis’ position - startled, maybe not thinking straight, keen to hide but with little time to do so - this is where he would go.
As Connor draws level with the edge of this second storey above him, he turns to walk out backwards, far enough so that he cannot be physically jumped on from above.
“Mr Travis,” he calls out, as gently as he can. “My name is Connor Stern. I just want to talk to you."
Travis is up there, alright. At the same moment that he springs into view, Connor, glimpsing iron, ducks to the side. Not half a second later, the crate behind him explodes with an ear-splitting crack, exactly where his head would have been, sending splinters flying. Chickens shoot every which way, squawking in terror, almost obscuring his view; Connor leaps backwards, searching for cover, his head still ringing from the reverberating shotgun fire. Travis drops to the floor with a grunt before Connor can properly recover. For a moment, their eyes meet. Then, not wasting any time (or his second and final shell), Travis bolts for the open back door.
Connor reflexively lines up a shot with the back of his fleeing head. Killing Travis would align with his mission directive - find and stop Jericho - but he is useless to Connor dead. Connor also still has the afterimage of Travis’ young, fearful eyes in his vision. Soon enough the decision is made for him, as Travis clears the doorway.
Connor pursues at a walk. As he exits the building, Travis spins around to fire again, and Connor shoots a round at his feet. Travis is startled and there’s already quite a distance between them; his second shot misses Connor by several yards. Aghast, he throws the shotgun aside and sprints for the ridge surrounding his property. He won’t make it to cover for awhile, even at the pace he’s going.
Connor starts to run.
Of course, so to speak, Connor is running for his dinner, while Travis is running for his life. Rather than waste his energy, Connor whistles for Liberty, and slows to a jog.
The horse reaches Connor within seconds, ears pricked up, at a canter. Obviously she would have been startled by the gunfire, Connor thinks, as she barrels mindlessly past him. Connor grabs the saddle horn as she passes, swinging up onto her back in a neat motion of which he is privately proud. He spurs Liberty into a gallop; as a quarterhorse, built for high-speed, short-range pursuit, Connor has no worries as to whether she can catch Travis before he reaches unrideable terrain. Sure enough, she tears up the ground between them in heartbeats.
Connor doesn’t know what else Travis is armed with and has no intention of waiting to find out. As Connor closes in on him, he clicks up the hammer of his gun, grabs it by the barrel, and brings the grip down on the back of Travis’ head, hard. It sends the man sprawling into the dirt.
Liberty stumbles to a halt with a sharp tug on the reins and Connor quickly dismounts. Travis is already up onto his hands and knees.
“I suggest you stay down,” Connor tells him. He’s ignored.
Travis gets to his feet, reeling, and balls his hands into fists. His face is contorted with anger. Connor levels his gun at Travis’ head but doesn’t pull the hammer back in time. “I suggest -”
Travis lunges for him.
Connor throws the revolver aside before they can grapple over it. Travis is shorter than Connor, but works with his body - long days - so Connor dodges his blows rather than intercept them. Travis swings twice; Connor ducks down and kicks his legs out from under him. Travis doesn’t go all the way down, so Connor punches him in the sternum and puts his whole shoulder into it. This time Travis falls, wheezing, flat onto his back. “Don’t get up,” Connor says, stepping sideways to reach his gun. This time, Travis obeys.
Hank’s handcuffs are with Hank, so Connor unties a length of rope from Liberty’s saddle and flips Travis onto his front, patting him down. When Connor’s confident he’s now unarmed, he sits on the younger man’s back and secures his wrists behind him. Then he hoists Travis over his shoulder so he can sling him across Liberty’s saddle. Travis is still gasping for breath, and being manhandled certainly doesn’t help him. Nevertheless, he draws in a big breath of air, undoubtedly so he can begin to cuss Connor out.
“It’s a long ride to Prescott,” Connor interrupts him to say, “and I think I’m already quite tired of dealing with you. So for both of our sakes, please keep quiet.”
Travis spits at him and misses. “Espèce de connard!”
“Ferme ta gueule.”
Hearing this surprises Travis almost as much as it does Connor. It shuts him right up. Connor straightens his necktie, quite pleased with himself. So apparently his French isn’t all lost, he thinks, as he leads Liberty back to Travis’ mule.
“I need to take a leak,” Travis complains halfheartedly.
“You should have thought about that before you tried to shoot my head off,” Connor says, straight-faced.
He transfers his suspect onto his mule, ties Travis to a loop around its neck, and then ties its reins to Liberty’s saddle. Connor inspects his work. He then decides to bind Travis’ ankles together, too, in case he takes it upon himself later to reenact their little chase. Admittedly it comes off as a bit overkill. Connor, though, would rather err on the side of caution.
They ride back in uncomfortable silence. That is to say, Travis grumbles to himself, but refuses to try to communicate with Connor again. Connor keeps his gaze fixed resolutely on the horizon, helplessly watching the sun fall ahead of them. Liberty cannot keep up her original brisk pace, and Connor’s hope of returning to Prescott before sunset dwindles with Liberty’s stamina.
All in all, he could swear the journey back takes twice as long as the one out.
I've been swamped with finals but am now on holiday - I should be able to update regularly again soon! And I expect things to pick up starting next chapter >:)
Chapter 5: Tokens
Connor picks a fight.
I've chosen not to include archive warnings in the tags for this fic, mostly to avoid spoilers. But I want to flag that from here on out there will be canon-typical violence mentioned/portrayed in the story. Just a heads up!
It is ten o’clock at night when Connor arrives back at the sheriff’s office. Ten o’clock, on May 26th, when things officially start to go south.
First of all, Connor has by now spent fourteen hours either rocking around on horseback with his head spinning, or being shot at (which also did not help his head). Secondly, as he arrives, the door to the office swings open from the inside, and Deputy Reed steps out. Reed takes one look at what Connor has done to Rupert Travis and then immediately gives Connor trouble for his paranoia. Having done so he goes on to inform Connor that another train had been held up outside of Webster, by North Kelly and an associate, while Connor was out. Hearing this makes Rupert scoff - Connor pinches the bridge of his nose in frustration.
"Didn't we give them an armed guard?"
Reed sneers. "Sure did," he says. "He was the one that reported it."
This makes Rupert laugh out loud. Deputy Reed slaps him across the back of his head, and Connor winces. He realizes that at this point the trains might have to stop altogether, which will essentially doom the Steerco mine; Deputy Reed, meanwhile, is frustrated that Jericho had interrupted his lunch.
“I’d appreciate it if you didn’t do that,” Connor says.
“I’d appreciate it if you did your job and brought in outlaws, rather than running around kidnapping teenagers.”
Connor sighs. Sometimes Reed is so stupid, Connor is sure he’s just putting it all on to be obstinate. “This is Rupert Travis and he feeds Jericho. I need you to process him for me, please. I’m not authorized,” Connor lies.
Connor is more than happy to leave Reed with Travis and the horses while he goes inside to look for Hank. Unfortunately, the office is empty. So Connor sits primly at Hank’s desk and stews, flipping through Rupert’s notebook again. He sees Reed drag Rupert across the small bullpen and towards the cells a few minutes later, through Hank’s doorway. Connor considers getting up, but then decides against it. Surely even Reed, Connor thinks, will be able to secure Travis without killing or maiming either Connor’s suspect or himself.
Reed reappears in the doorway all too soon, apparently with no purpose in mind other than to heckle. “So Steerco’s going after little kids now, are they? Should I be surprised that it took you all day?” When Connor doesn’t reply, Reed glances down at the book.
He’s curious as to what Connor’s doing, despite himself. Presumably, he was only still at the office because somebody has to be. Reed clears his throat. “What’s this?”
Connor considers the deputy for a second. He might as well answer, he thinks - he’s getting nowhere with the notebook alone in any case. So he shrugs, and hands it over.
Reed sits beside him on the desk and flips through the pages with a frown. After a while, he sighs in frustration. “This is Greek to me,” he says.
“It’s French, actually, Deputy.” Connor misses the idiom intentionally, purely to be a pest.
Maybe Connor is being immature. But the thing about Gavin Reed is that - unlike Hank and the Steerco management - Connor is neither obligated nor inclined to behave politely towards him. At first this had been nothing but a relief, but over time Connor had realized that the deputy represented a unique opportunity for Connor to vent his frustrations without fear of any consequences. It seemed that a majority of Prescott’s police officers - Hank included - shared Connor’s resentment of the deputy, if a little more tacitly.
Reed kicks at the legs of Connor’s chair. “Has anyone ever told you you’re an uppity little shit?” He shakes the notebook. “What is this?”
Connor leans back in his seat, tilts his head. “It’s Mr Travis’. Seems like a diary. None of the typical keys I’ve tried will decipher it.” Reed nods along, not looking at Connor. He seems to be attempting to intimidate the paper into revealing its secrets by glowering at it. Connor adds, “You don’t happen to speak any French, do you?”
Reed gives him a funny look. “Not a lick,” he says. He then gets up and spreads out two pages on the desk in front of Connor, gesturing to one passage in particular. “But he mentions Markus by name. Here. I’d say that’s pretty incriminating.”
Connor nods and leans forward to read it again. The writing is tiny and easy to miss; he’s impressed.
Markus voudrait me faire croire que chaque homme au monde est mon frère.
Reed tries to wrap his tongue around the emphasized words. “Chay-kweh,” he says. “Freer.”
Connor shakes his head and runs his finger along the line. “‘Homme’ is ‘man’. ‘Me’ is probably- ‘me’.”
Reed scoffs. “‘Course you know this shit. Why’d you even ask?”
“I can’t translate enough for it to be useful.”
Connor lingers on the final word. “Frère. Oh.” He remembers as soon as he says it out loud. “That means ‘brother’.”
“...‘Markus is my brother?’”
Connor shakes his head. “There’re too many other terms for it to be just that.”
Reed nods his head towards the cells, through the wall. “Why don’t we just ask our little friend over there? I’m sure he can be encouraged to help us out.”
“I’m waiting for the Sheriff to interrogate him. He has more… sway, with the community.” Tact , Connor doesn’t say.
“You might be waiting all night. No idea what’s taking the old man so long.”
Connor’s not superstitious, but he could swear that, right then, Reed had jinxed them. Not a moment after the words had left his mouth, the door to the sheriff’s office is thrown open with enough force to splinter the wall. Through the bullpen and into their line of sight runs a boy - maybe fourteen or so - who Connor doesn’t recognize. He is panting, blanched, excited. He clings to Hank’s door frame with a white-knuckled grip.
The wood beneath his hands is streaked with blood.
This boy says, “Deputy,” and gestures out the door, breathing hard. Reed doesn’t miss a beat. He grabs his revolver, hat, and coat, and is out in the street, half-dressed, within moments. Connor follows closely behind, gun drawn.
Outside, there’s a commotion, but nobody is exchanging shots or blows. They congregate in the dark around a weak-kneed, puffing horse, at the feet of which someone is letting out a terrible, heartbreaking wail.
In the crowd, Connor sees Jimmy, and a librarian, and some secretaries from the city hall across the street - still making their way over - and then, with more than a little relief, he sees Hank, right at the center of the group. He is crouched down and talking animatedly to a little girl with her head in her knees, whose dress is dark crimson with blood - completely soaked through in a manner that, Connor thinks, the injured party simply could not have survived. Reed stops in his tracks for a second at the sight, and then continues towards the Sheriff, pushing his way through murmuring onlookers, barking at them to get back. Connor follows behind him. When they’re close enough, Hank looks up and meets Reed’s eyes, and then Connor’s, and then looks back down.
Just that short glimpse is enough to convey a bone-deep anguish that, on Hank’s familiar face, seems completely and utterly surreal. It is more startling to Connor by far than the sight of a bloodied dress.
Thirteen. Thirteen is the number of civilians shot down in Cherry while Connor rode home, oblivious, from Camp Verde. Thirteen is the new body count attributed to Jericho, when this morning it had been zero.
If anyone had survived the initial attack, they would have without a doubt bled out in the streets before the sole survivor - twelve-year-old Anna Wilson - flew down Gurley Street to the Prescott Sheriff’s Office with nothing but terror and adrenaline beneath her wings. Not only was the ride from Cherry a good two hours even at a canter, but Anna had also spent an uncertain amount of time - most likely hours, again - cowering in her living room before mustering the courage to make the ride. Anna had watched through her window as her father, an ex-lawman, was gunned down in the street, and then watched her mother shot shielding her children, and her younger brother shot after having been torn from Anna’s own arms. By the time Anna left Cherry, she was the town’s only surviving resident.
It takes a frustrating amount of time for Connor to learn the particulars of what happened because within minutes of Anna’s arrival, all of Prescott - or so it seems - is out up in arms in the street. Connor cannot reach Hank to discuss the office’s response, so instead he fetches the surgeon from the Day Octagon next door and sends him in Hank’s direction. Connor then walks to the Prescott Free Academy, where he hammers on the door until the schoolteacher cracks it open, blinking listlessly in her nightgown. She recognizes him; Connor explains briefly what has happened, with his gaze averted, and then waits on the step while she dresses. Afterwards, they return to the sheriff’s to see whether a professional carer for children can provide Anna any modicum of comfort.
When they reach the office, Anna is inside and Hank still has his hands too full to say more to Connor than Connor’s own name, in acknowledgement. Connor finds a corner to hang back in, where he overhears the details - the brief shootout, Anna’s involvement - of what happened.
Every single deputy and officer in Prescott is currently crammed into the bullpen. Most are busy keeping civilians from squirming into the office too.
Connor doesn’t think he’s ever seen the office above - or even at - full capacity before. Hank deals with them all admirably, despite still being in obvious distress. Connor realizes he’s also never had the opportunity to see Hank actually taking charge during a crisis, despite it being his chief function as Sheriff. He is laconic but receptive, and the orders he gives stick.
Despite the posse that has already formed itself in the street, Hank wants to wait until dawn to return to Cherry. By leaving only one survivor, Jericho has made it obvious that whatever happened was not some stick-up gone wrong, but was closer to being intentional, with the purpose of sending the message to Hank’s office - and, by proxy, Steerco - that they would not be trifled with. Anna’s purpose as the survivor was to deliver this message, and substantiate it with the paper her family’s murderers had thrown at her feet before leaving. Blank, except for the symbol - four intersecting lines.
After Hank’s briefing, Connor turns to the girl. Anna is unable to vocalize for more than a moment or two at a time, and Connor can tell immediately that he needs more information than she can give. How many men did she see - maybe five to seven - and what exactly did they say - I don’t know, I can’t remember - and did they mention Jericho or Steerco specifically - they said Jericho, Jericho sent them. Before long, Hank cuts through his men to take Connor by the shoulder, physically dragging him back. “That’s enough,” Hank tells him, stern.
“I still have more questions-”
“I said, enough, Connor. For chrissake.”
Hank is angry, but Connor needs to speak to Anna for his report. Connor could apologize as a means of de-escalating conflict. He could act emotional, to mirror Hank’s distress. Or-
It doesn’t matter what he would have chosen, because at that moment Amanda drifts in from the street - radiant, antithetically composed in the face of the chaos around her. Her hair is piled up in beautiful braids - today, spun through with scarlet ribbons instead of the blue she prefers. The sight of her makes Connor’s gut twist. She beckons to Connor.
“Take us somewhere private,” she tells him, when he’s close enough that no one else will catch what they’re saying.
Connor brings her around back to the stables, because the streets are still full. She wrinkles her nose up in disapproval but doesn’t comment on this choice. Instead, she steps under cover and says, succinctly, “We could have prevented this.”
Connor regards her warily. “Do you understand what’s happened?”
“That Markus - Jericho - murdered an entire town just to rile our superiors? Yes, Connor. I understand.” Her eyes are bottomless as she speaks. “Do you ? Do you have any idea how bad this makes us look?”
Before he can answer, she continues with a sigh; “Please tell me you at least got something from Rupert Travis.”
“...He is inside the office, waiting to be interrogated. He kept a diary with information about Jericho, but it’s encoded.”
Amanda blinks at him for a second as if stunned. Soon her face closes off, and she says, lowly, “Connor. When I asked you to ‘deal with’ Travis, I did not mean - and I know that you know this - that I wanted you to arrest him.”
“I understand, Amanda. With respect, though, I needed Travis alive. Any information about Jericho-”
“I’m not saying I wanted you to kill him on sight. I’m saying that it was unnecessary to bring him into the custody of the sheriff’s office, and therefore out of our control. I can think of hundreds of ways you could have gotten what you needed from that man without ceding the advantage that I gave you by sending you to Cape Verde without Hank Anderson.”
“My understanding is that with Sher-”
“I’m not finished, Connor.” She takes a deep breath; Connor can physically see her restraining her frustration. “Please do not interrupt me. And stop doing that with your hand. You have no idea how agitating it is.”
Connor had been drumming his fingers on the stable door beside him. He hadn’t even realized he was doing it; immediately, he clasps both hands behind his back and stands to attention. Amanda continues - “I had realized you were allowing your decisions to be clouded by your emotions, but I don’t think I understood just how bad it has gotten. You’re better than this, Connor - you’re too good to keep letting some dull-witted band of.... deviants… slip through your fingers. And I know it is not your capabilities that are restricting you.”
“I agree. However,” Connor protests, “the physical realities of this investigation are incredibly hindering to me. The residents of Prescott have been averse to our presence in Yavapai from the start. That is why I have been trying so hard to befriend the Sheriff.”
That was a poor choice of words. Amanda folds her arms. “Anderson is not your friend,” she says. “He is a tick in a box. And now you are turning him into a hindrance. If you need the Sheriff out of your way, then you get him out of your way. Do not ask. Am I making myself clear?”
Connor sees no other viable response, given Amanda’s obvious ire, than acquiescence. So he says, “Yes.”
She lowers her voice. “Do you have any idea,” she whispers, “how humiliating it was for me last night, assuring our superiors over and over again that would be arriving to report at any minute? And to then find out that the justification for your absence was that you were drunk?”
“I am sorry, Amanda. I don’t know what to say. I have no excuse for my behavior.”
She shakes her head. It’s not good enough. “I gave you everything you needed to solve this case,” she says. “Everything. All your life, without question, I have given you everything you wanted, everything you needed. But it seems like I can’t win with you, Connor. With the Kamskis, and now this… you are making it very difficult for me to trust you at this point.”
Connor furrows his brow, pained. With no idea what to say to make things better, he says nothing at all. Amanda watches him carefully, and then turns, walking away. Pacing down the stalls. When she comes back to face him, she has composed herself. Her eyes flit across the straw on the ground. She is thinking.
“You have been too busy trying to play ball with a man who gives no regard whatsoever to his or our duties,” she says, “to see the gravity of the problem we’re facing. And, in short, the decisions you have made since we came to this town have been nothing short of imprudent. Now, thirteen people - civilians - are dead, because of that imprudence.” Connor avoids her gaze - she snaps her fingers right in front of his face, as one would an inattentive child. “Do you even care?”
“Yes, Amanda.” Connor has to physically keep his voice steady. “I want nothing more than to complete this mission. For both of our sakes. I am aware of the sacrifices you’ve been making to protect me. ”
He thinks, because of you. She might as well have said they’re dead because of you.
“If you continue to demonstrate an inability to carry out your assignment, I am going to have to replace you,” she says. “You are not leaving me with any other choice.” Connor feels his eyes widen; he nods helplessly.
“That will not be necessary,” he says. “I can do this. I’ll show you.”
Amanda considers him for a long, long moment. “See that you do,” she says, eventually. “After tonight, these yokels will be much more inclined to concede to your wishes.” She smiles ruefully. “At least some good has come out of that fiasco.”
Connor knows that Amanda does not care about the residents of Cherry. Not really. It is the consequences of the attack, which put them both on the line, that she is concerned about. In a way, Connor finds this reassuring. No grief, no mourning; just things that do and don’t need to be done. Priorities shifting on a list. It would certainly do him well to assume this viewpoint.
“You can start with Travis,” Amanda decides. “Find out what he knows, whatever the cost. Jericho has already signed his death warrant.”
Perhaps she sees some lingering hesitation in his eye, because Amanda decides then that she still has not made her point. “These people are not human,” she tells him. “Remember that they do not need your sympathy, or your mercy.”
“I know, Amanda.”
“They don’t deserve it.”
“Good.” She gives him what might be the hopes of a smile, then. “We can get through this,” she says. “You just need to do as you’re told.”
After Amanda leaves, Connor stays by the stables and stares at the ground. He doesn’t know what to do. They won’t leave for Cherry until the morning, and he has no desire to ride with Amanda back to Steerco right now. He could attempt to help in the sheriff’s office, but Hank’s current temper most likely will only allow him to see Connor as underfoot. He could interrogate Rupert Travis, but given the volume of lawmen around, he wouldn’t be able to do it undetected.
Connor feels useless.
He ends up sitting on the office porch and smoking in the dark until everybody files out, one by one. Anna Wilson is staying with the teacher; she’d already gone by the time Amanda left.
Once Reed exits the building, Connor knows Hank is the only one left. As Reed steps out into the street, he turns back to face Connor. “Wouldn’t go in there if I were you,” Reed says, quietly. “He’s ready to take someone’s fuckin’ head off”.
Connor waits for Reed to leave his line of sight, for there to be nothing on the street or in the air but faraway kerosene lamplight and crickets. Then he waits even more, for the dark thing that’s simmering inside of him to quiet down. But it won’t.
So Connor stubs out his cigarette and goes inside.
Hank composes letters. To the county marshal, to the Maricopa Sheriff's Office. The objective reality that the most constructive response to this situation is to sit in his office filling out paperwork aggravates him immensely. He glances up at his jacket, slung over the spare chair and still bloodied from having sat on Anna Wilson’s shoulders. Twelve years old and newly orphaned. There’s nothing Hank can do.
Except, of course, to prevent it from happening again.
Hank hears the main door to the office unlock, swing open and quietly shut. The sound of boots tapping across the bullpen. He presumes it’s Gavin, having forgotten something; however, as a figure passes through the view from Hank’s doorway, he sees that it’s Connor. Connor glances up at Hank but doesn’t say a word. He looks flighty, Hank thinks. His eyes are dark.
Connor was helpful earlier. He responded appropriately to the situation. Hank wonders whether Connor blames Hank for what happened; perhaps - and this is more likely, given his professional perfectionism - Connor blames himself.
Hank clears his throat. “You holding up okay?”
Connor's eyes leave Hank to flit around his office. As his gaze lingers over Hank’s crappy framed watercolor, he says, “I need to interrogate Rupert Travis.”
Hank sighs. “Go home, Connor. Get some rest. We can talk to the kid tomorrow.” He tilts his head. “Gavin told me you wanted me to do that, anyways.”
“I need to speak to him tonight,” Connor says. His expression is shuttered, inscrutable. “I can do it with or without your help.”
“Connor, you know that this isn’t your fault.”
For a beat, Connor is surprised. Then he narrows his eyes. “No,” he says. “It’s Jericho’s fault. And as long as they continue to operate, I am liable for every opportunity I fail to take to catch them.”
Hank opens his mouth but Connor continues, cutting him off. “If you aren’t going to help me, that’s fine. If no one in this town wants to lift a finger to help me, then that isn’t on me. But I’m not going to let anyone stand in my way anymore.”
Hank raises an eyebrow. Stand in his way? “No chances of that,” he murmurs. “Whole town’s up in arms, now. Which I guess is what you lot wanted from the start.” It’s low, he knows. But Hank is tired of Steerco’s crap. He’s tired in general. Connor’s a good kid, but if he thinks he can walk into Hank’s office and start running the damn place, he’s dead wrong.
“...It is what I wanted, in fact,” Connor says, watching him. He looks like he wants to say more but then stops himself. Connor is hurt, but he’s trying his damned best to hide it. “I’m going to speak to Travis now. I won’t deign to waste any more of your time.”
“Wait, Connor. Come back.”
“Come into my office,” Hank says. “Take a seat.”
Connor remains standing, folding his hands behind his back.
Hank bites the inside of his lower lip. He chooses his next words carefully. “Don’t you think it’s funny,” he says, “that Jericho chose to rip off a train and then shoot up Cherry on the exact same day?”
Connor seems less surprised to hear this than Hank had expected. He tilts his head to the side. “There were seven or eight hours in between those events,” Connor says. “That’s more than enough time to regroup for a second attack.”
Hank taps his desk with a finger. “You’ve profiled Jericho’s key members,” he says. “Each holdup is done by the same handful of people, give or take a few. In Cherry it was more. Could be seven. Not a one matched the descriptions we’ve gotten before.”
“Anna’s witness account was not what you'd call the most reliable. What exactly is your point here, Sheriff?”
“I think you know what I'm getting at,” Hank says. “Not to mention it’s the first time they’ve taken any lives.”
“Nothing’s ever gone wrong for them before,” says Connor. “But their approach has always been… sloppy. I feel it was only waiting to happen.”
“A holdup gone wrong? Sure, it’s possible. But thirteen people over some tiny fucking merchant store? And the kids too?”
Connor does that aggravating fucking head tilt again. “Would that make you feel better, Sheriff? If this was some random raider gang? And the Wilson’s deaths weren’t just a result of your recalcitrance?”
Hank would be lying if he said it wasn't weird as Hell hearing words like that coming from civil little Connor's mouth. But he takes it in stride. “Oh, very cutting, Connor. Did you come up with that yourself? Or perhaps your lovely mother gave your some pointers.”
Connor leans forward, eyes flaring. “Here’s what I came up with myself, Hank.” He picks Anna Wilson’s folded note up off of Hank’s desk, as well as the diary that Hank, through Reed, knew belonged to Rupert Travis.
Connor holds up the bloody note. “This symbol,” he says, “belongs to Jericho exclusively. I saw it today at Rupert’s farm. I’ve seen it all through his notebook. They even wear it on their clothes.” He leafs through Rupert’s book until he finds the symbol again, and then holds the two papers up side by side.
Both are carefully penned, with the exact same calligraphy. The intersections are at meticulous right angles. They are perfect copies.
“If,” Connor says, “for whatever bizarre reason, some other gang wanted to set Jericho up, despite the specific scope of Jericho’s interests, despite the fact that they have no competition whatsoever. If some outlaw gang had the wherewithal to research and perfectly imitate their insignia. Then I will find them, and I will bring them to justice, and then I will use them find Jericho too. But I know - and I know that you know - that that is not what happened.” Connor pauses then, and bites his lip, frowning. “I do not understand why you’re so desperate to exonerate Jericho. I don’t think that you really believe that denying the reality of what happened today will protect you or your position in the end. I don’t understand why it’s so hard for you people to just let me do my damned job .”
For a beat there is nothing but silence, eating up the space between them. So Connor speaks again. “As for my mother,” he says. “I would prefer if you didn’t make presumptions about our relationship. Especially given your totally insufficient knowledge of it. Maybe your own- ”
“Oh, no, Connor. Hold that thought; I’m sure it was nice and catty. No, by all means, let’s talk about your mother.”
Hank has been waiting for this. He reaches into the drawer to his left and removes Connor’s notebook, throwing it onto the desk between them. Connor’s eyes widen. “Yeah,” Hank says. “You forgot this at my place this morning.”
For a second an expression that Hank has never seen on Connor crosses his face, and then he quickly shuts it down. Connor looks at Hank with cold, cold eyes. If Hank were to be pressed to define that first response, though, he would call it fear. Hank is really getting to him.
Connor’s notebook. He forgot his own notebook - he can’t quite believe it. Today, he thinks, has been nothing if not an exercise in ineptitude. He’s quite excited for it all to be over.
This is not going as he had hoped. Nothing is.
“I did wonder,” Hank carefully says - feigning an unawareness of Connor’s disquietude - “why I never saw you actually write in this.” He flips through the pages. Connor glares him down, but Hank continues. “This is some real lovely penmanship,” he says. “Doesn’t really complement the content, does it?”
Behind his back, Connor balls his hands into fists. Hank is watching him attentively. “Amanda’s notes to her employee,” Hank concludes. “Nice to see she adds a personal touch. That’s sweet. Shall we have a reading?”
Hank clears his throat. “‘I didn’t spend hundreds of dollars on your education for you to act like a halfwit when it mattered the most’.”
“Stop,” Connor says. His nails bite into his palms.
“Should I?" Hank pauses, but goes on. "‘You need to get this right’. ‘This should be easy for you. Should be’.” He glances up from the page to assess Connor again. Connor shoots him a look between a sneer and a grimace.
In reality, Connor is doing everything he can not to break from Hank’s scrutiny and flit his gaze back and forth trying to remember exactly what Amanda wrote.
This isn’t optimal. But he’s certain there’s no explicit mention of what happened with the Kamskis. He’s almost completely certain.
“‘Don’t waste my time’,” Hank continues. He flips forward a few pages. Connor remembers this section. “‘You are nothing without Steerco’.” Hank sighs, heavily. “This reads like some sort of fucking cult. Do you really not get that?”
“You don’t know what happened, Sheriff,” Connor hedges. “You don’t-”
Hank interrupts. “Oh, yeah. ‘Pay attention.’ ‘Don’t get distracted.’ ‘Don’t let this be a repeat of the Kamskis.’ She mentions that name fucking everywhere. Kamski, What did you do, fucking kill the man?” Hank snorts. “She certainly acts like it.”
Connor darts forward in one quick motion and grabs the book out of the sheriff’s hands. Hank barely reacts. He just sits there, watching. Connor doesn’t know what to say, what to do. His throat is completely closed up. Hank doesn’t know, but, still-
Why didn’t Connor stop Hank earlier? Why did he just stand there and take this? For the second time?
“You don’t know,” Connor says, and it is hard as Hell to get the words out, “what this is about. You don’t know Amanda, or my relationship with her. You don’t know me .”
“Nah. I know you, Connor.”
Connor snorts. “I’ve been in Prescott for just under two weeks. You don’t- ”
Hank holds up a hand. “I know that you’re a smart kid," he says. "That you like Lepus Californicuses."
"Lepus Californicus is the plural."
"-That, some things you seriously need some fucking perspective on. And- you act like nothing gets to you, but it does.” Connor shakes his head. Hank says, “I know enough that this makes me worry. Do you get that? I’m not trying to give you a hard time.”
For a beat, neither of them speak.
“Have you ever just,” Connor says. But then he stops. He doesn’t know what comes next.
Connor isn’t sure he completely understands what’s going on. Here, or with the case… Certainly, he cannot divine Hank’s motives at all. One moment he thinks he understands the sheriff, and then the next he’s contradicted.
And Connor is tired. He’s frustrated, yes, and angry, but a part of him is also just too exhausted to have to feel like this anymore. To deal with everything. Anything. Connor just wants to go home.
Maybe he says what he says next because Hank deserves it, or maybe it’s just to shut Hank up, or maybe it’s because at the end of the day he’s just so angry, and tired, and tired of being angry. Or maybe, even, it’s because Connor is afraid, and he saw the pain Hank expressed at the sight of Anna Wilson, and consequently he sees a clear way out of the conflict Hank inspires in Connor with his words and behavior. In any case, it’s not what he opened his mouth to say at first. But it’s what comes out.
“Have you wondered,” Connor says, “whether maybe you shouldn’t be so preoccupied with my family. Maybe you just ought to focus on your own.” He tilts his head to the side. “Or was that what you thought you were doing? Maybe if you rescued me from Amanda - the only person in my life who ever actually gave a shit if I lived or died - maybe you could find a replacement for Cole?”
Hank is stunned. He blinks, jaw hanging open. Good, Connor thinks. Good.
He doesn’t stop there. When he sees the effect his words have, his lip curls up. “Maybe you could forget that you’re such a burden that not only your employees, but your own wife, too, couldn’t stand to be in your presence? Was that it?”
“Oh, Connor. Shut the fuck up.”
“No matter the mud you drag my family through,” Connor continues, “it won’t change the fact that you already tore yours apart. And personally, no matter how bad it gets, I can remind myself - hey, at least I’m not you. At least I’m not Cole.”
Hank reacts to this in a way that Connor did not quite predict. Specifically, he's around the desk before the name even leaves Connor’s mouth. Connor’s never seen the sheriff move so fast. He makes an aborted attempt to raise his arms to defend himself - Hank grabs him by the collar and slams him against the wall of the office, twice. Hard. As Connor blinks the world back into focus, he hears Hank’s chair still clattering to the floor. Hank is in his face, and his expression - wounded, enraged, so angry that his blue eyes are febrile with it - fills Connor’s vision. Connor puts his hands around the Sheriff’s forearms but isn’t sure he can defend himself without prompting a full-on brawl. Or defend himself at all.
Hank holds him up against the wall with his knuckles, with enough pressure to bruise. The tips of Connor’s toes barely brush the floor. Then, almost as quickly as he rounded the desk, Hank deflates. Drops him. And he lets go of Connor’s shirt, slowly.
Hank says, “Okay. Get the fuck out of my office.”
Connor doesn’t say a word. He no longer needs to. Instead, he straightens his tie, and leaves.
Chapter 6: Disappear Completely
Connor makes another great decision.
Connor does not go to sleep. He can't.
Instead, he lies awake on rough sheets and stares up at the ceiling of his stuffy shoebox of a room. Every now and then the boards overhead creak as someone crosses the floor above. He hears low conversation from outside the door, he hears - or he thinks he hears - the distant rumble of machinery, repetitive and irksome. Usually it comes as a comfort to him. Not tonight.
If it was louder perhaps it would be tolerable. But the fact that he can barely make it out, and can’t even be sure whether he’s hearing real sound or what he simply expects to hear, only makes things worse.
There’s no window. Connor checks his wristwatch. It is almost two in the morning. But the mine, he supposes, never sleeps.
He leans over and retrieves his notebook from the drawer in the bedside table. Again. He has taken it out twice already, only to stare at the cover and replace it. This time he cracks it open.
Connor already knows what he is going to see, but he just wants to be sure. He flips through every page. Kamski is mentioned three times, but no Christian name is ever given. Just as he expected.
It’s good. Hank doesn’t even seem to know who Elijah Kamski is. Connor doesn’t expect it to come up again. He doesn’t expect much to come up in conversation with Hank at all from this point onwards. That’s good, he thinks.
Connor throws the notebook onto the floor and lies back down. He doesn’t want to think about it any more. He’s exhausted; he should sleep. Instead, he stares up at the ceiling, and the ceiling stares back.
After about a minute, he sighs and gets to his knees to retrieve the book. It peeks out from under the bed - picking it up, he sees that the floor beneath the frame has not been swept. It is covered in dust bunnies. Irksome. Connor will want to see to that later. He also notes that there is a coin lying in the darkness. Connor knows nothing about this room’s previous occupant, but the money must have belonged to whoever that was. Connor would have heard it falling.
He reaches out for the coin and wipes it off on the leg of his pyjamas. It is an 1866 quarter, which, once shined, has little wear - one gleaming face shows the seated Liberty, the other an american eagle - “In God We Trust”, proclaims the banner above its head. This would have been one of the first mints with the motto included, Connor thinks. Twenty-four point three millimeters across, reeded edge. Mainly composed of the same silver being extracted from the ground somewhere below him. On the whole, it is unremarkable.
Connor pockets the coin, returns the notebook to its drawer and lies back down. He has no window and has no desire to fill the room with smoke. So, not a minute later, the coin is out again and being flipped across his knuckles. He tosses it from palm to palm.
Connor wishes he knew what the board above him was made of. Oak, he thinks. Maybe cherry.
Amanda disliked it when he fidgeted, and had put a blanket ban on the coin tricks years ago. In fact, she loathed it. Connor frowns. It does not matter. Amanda is not here.
He flicks the coin up, and slaps it onto the back of his left hand when he catches it. Heads. He flips it up again, and it lands on his face. He’s not used to doing this while horizontal. So he tries again. Again, heads. Playing with his original quarter used to calm him down, but now, he doubts that it is helping.
Something is clanking hundreds of metres away. The coin flies up and down. The boards creak. In the back of his throat, a groan of frustration is growing. Why can’t Connor sleep?
He does not know what he feels.
He refuses to let it be guilt. Connor is tired of feeling guilty over Hank. He has enough on his plate as it is. And Amanda was right; he needed Hank out of the picture. And now he is. Connor certainly can’t imagine Hank jumping to dog his heels to crime scenes any more, after this.
Connor - and he knows this is going to doom any chances he might have had of sleeping tonight, but he just cannot help himself - gets to thinking.
Connor thinks of the pain Hank expressed at the sight of Anna Wilson and how, in that moment in the office, he knew exactly how to get under the Sheriff’s skin. Anna Wilson, with her skin so dark that it might have only been wet from the rain, but it had not rained in weeks; with the scarlet dress that gave the game away.
Connor wonders what Amanda might have thought if she’d been at the scene. Whether she’d feel any kinship. It isn’t likely. Amanda is a rationalist.
He thinks of North Kelly, the good-time girl, who strangled a man three times her age, who had paid her for sex, and then ran for her life. He thinks of all the steps the people in Prescott take to avoid confrontation with Jericho, to protect the people who once were not only their slaves, but their coworkers, their neighbors. All the walls these people had put up between themselves and Connor, and what Connor represented, had now been torn down. Of course, it doesn’t feel like a victory.
Five to seven people. If they could even be called that. Let’s say it was seven men, bringing a body count from zero to thirteen in the space of a few minutes. And then leaving one survivor to cry to all the world that Jericho was responsible for the deaths of her kid brother, her friends, her parents. Seven men, where before there had never been more than four. On their way home from a train heist, already lugging their take behind them, and deciding to stop for some fun.
The more Connor thinks about it, the more he understands Hank’s concerns. It all doesn’t quite line up. Even Connor - Steerco - has to admit that. It would be the responsible thing to do.
This case was supposed to be simple. Even without Connor, all it would take would be for someone to react at the scene of the crime, chase down the perpetrators while their trail was still fresh enough to lead a posse to Jericho. Instead, Markus shows up, takes a few horses - or lives - and then disappears off of the face of the earth. Connor posits by now that there are at least fifteen people in Jericho. They have to live somewhere. But, on the face of it, they live nowhere at all. No town would let them go unnoticed, and no abandoned shack would be able to house all the horses, carts, and supplies - and the veritable hoard of stolen copper, silver and gold.
They’re like ghosts.
Furthermore, Connor’s incomplete profile of Markus is insufficient to give him a good enough understanding of the man’s motives and aspirations, to allow Connor to put himself in Markus’ shoes. One day, Markus is Yavapai’s very own Robin Hood, and the next, he is a cold-blooded murderer. He’s a dashing rogue or an obsessive deviant, squatting with Rupert Travis in a hovel and awaiting obsolescence. Or- no, that’s not true. Markus takes initiative. His plays are disorganized but still careful, preemptive. He’s thoughtful.
The thought crosses Connor’s mind that Cherry might have been a retaliation for Rupert. But, then again, no, Connor thinks. There wasn’t enough time between the two events. Almost certainly not.
Still, the thought of it makes something tighten inside of him.
This is how the longer cases go. They wind him up like a music box, until one day there’s a click and everything falls open and Connor can sing and sing and sing. And thrill with the singing. And come home with empirical proof of his worth as a human being. But Prescott makes Connor feel as if the gears inside him are all stuck up.
If Connor goes to Webster, the worst possible outcome is that no new evidence is uncovered and things stay exactly as they already are. The best case is that Connor discovers something - anything - which somehow either places Jericho in Cherry or, as per Hank’s desire, exonerates them.
But dawn is only hours away. Connor needs to go to Cherry and he doubts Hank will wait up for him if he’s late to the office.
Webster isn’t far down the line, though. Connor could make it there and back before sunrise. Maybe.
Amanda doesn’t want him to get distracted.
Going to Webster is not a distraction; it is technically Connor’s duty.
If it helps with the case, both Hank and Amanda will be pleased. Amanda will be pleased, Connor corrects himself. Hank is an incompetent alcoholic who only takes it upon himself to busybody at the worst possible moment. Hank is not worth Connor’s time.
Connor flips the quarter. Up, up, then down. Then again. Connor thinks, Heads I go, tails I stay.
The next time he catches and uncovers the coin, Lady Liberty stares back at him again.
So heads it is.
The man who ends up fetching Liberty the horse is familiar to Connor, but by face alone. He worked intermittently at the San Francisco headquarters while Connor was there. The second guard, Connor knows to be a local. He believes his name is Avriel Hyneman. Avi. Connor greets them both with a half-hearted smile. He hopes they do not want to make small talk.
They seem surprised that Connor had acknowledged them at all. He supposes that makes sense; these men are part of a backbone that supports the offices but tends to go, if not unseen, unheard. But given the absence of anyone else nearby, Connor sees it as irrelevant to maintain those formalities. He was raised to be polite.
“Odd hour to be seeing you, sir,” Avi comments, in response to Connor’s greeting.
“As it happens, I’m going for a ride.”
“Shall I fetch your horse?” asks the first guard, jumping to attention.
Connor nods. “Please.”
“Will you be needing an escort?”
“I don’t think that’s necessary. Thank you, though.”
Once the man leaves, Connor stares into space and tries not to fidget. Eventually, Avi clears his throat. “Nice night for a ride,” he says.
Connor shrugs. “Maybe so.”
“If I might ask… are you going to Cherry?”
Connor blinks. Is that an acceptable thing to ask? He isn’t sure. Although, he supposes, somebody ought to know where he is going. “Webster, actually,” he says. “Then there’s a posse headed for Cherry at dawn.”
Avi makes an ‘o’ with his mouth. “That’s good,” he says.
Connor looks the man up and down, and notices that Avi is doing the same to him. Analyzing him.
Connor frowns. “May I ask what makes you say such a thing?”
“Well, Jericho done- er, they held up the train there today right?” Connor nods. “Ain- isn’t it bizarre?”
“That outlaws held up a train?”
“That they did ‘em both on the same day?”
Connor scrutinizes Avi’s face. He seems somewhat pained. “It is bizarre,” Connor agrees, softly.
“I just think it’s good that you’re going. Good to… have all the information.”
“Well, that’s my job.”
“Right.” Avi squirms. “I didn’t mean to overstep…”
“I think you might have.”
“Sir, I’m sorry-”
Connor sighs. “No,” he says. “It’s fine. Don’t worry about it.”
Something in him wants to say more but he bites his tongue. Avi definitely wants to say more, but has apparently thought better of it.
Does everyone at Steerco know about what happened today? Does news really travel so fast in a small town? Something in that notion rubs Connor the wrong way.
They resort to small talk until the first guard returns with his horse. Avi wishes him good luck; Connor waves them goodbye.
Avi’s words stay in Connor’s mind even as the mine recedes behind him. They complement Hank’s almost perfectly.
Bizarre. So many of the incidents Connor has documented since his arrival in Prescott suit that definition. So many scattered pieces of a puzzle that might not even exist as a whole. Connor has been hit again and again, tonight, by the frustrating reality that he has so little reliable evidence to go on that it leaves him striking out blindly in the dark for answers - now, he's doing it literally. And yet there are so many little things that niggle at him. Avi, Hank, Rupert, Anna - Jericho and each of its members - all dropping little hints that there must be, there must be, something that’s missing. It seems as if it should be obvious. Maybe if Connor could adjust his point of view, everything would snap together, and he could sing out truths instead of floundering.
At this point in the night, though, it feels less like floundering and more like- His cognitive capacity is reached, his head is even starting to ache, and he is overwhelmed. Too many people want too many things from him, none of them are the same, and the conflict smolders inside of him. It feels more like suffocating, struggling to stay afloat.
Which is not an unfamiliar feeling.
Connor had felt it in California. Felt it all his life. Felt it as he first laid eyes on Chloe Kamski. By now it comes as a warning. First comes the feeling, and then the distraction, and then the mistakes.
But not this time. He can catch it this time. So, in a way, feeling this way is completely fine.
Everything will be fine. Connor just needs to do his damned job. Put one foot in front of another. He will go to Webster and then go to Cherry. Have a nice chat with Rupert. Piece together then what he cannot see fully now. And find Jericho. Get rid of anyone who stands in his way, just as Amanda said. And, this way, do as he’s told.
He stops by the office on his way out of town. The streets are deserted, although there’s a guard down at the edge of Prescott, just where the buildings start really cropping up. They recognize Connor and let him pass with a nod and no word. Their rifles glint in the darkness.
Connor lets himself into the empty office as silently as he can. He pens a quick note and folds it up in Hank’s own stationary. Upstairs, no light floods from under the door frame as Connor slides the letter underneath. This is good, Connor thinks; if the light was on, then Hank would be awake, and if Hank was awake, he’d be drunk.
The only other person Connor sees in Prescott is the second guard north of town. He doesn’t even look at Connor as he passes. Some help he would be, if anyone were to actually try anything on tonight.
Connor decides not to comment on it.
Being well and truly out of town comes as a relief to him. Connor smokes, and he knows the tiny cigarette is the only pinprick of light in a ponderous expanse of blackness. If it weren’t for the sounds - hooves on dirt, swaying of grass in the wind, the crickets, what might be running water - the darkness could seem tangible, three-dimensional. Connor feels surrounded by darkness. Enclosed by it, protected. He thinks, maybe after all this he could just be eaten up by the darkness and become nobody, nothing at all. Maybe he could disappear completely. And then nothing would matter any more. No responsibilities, no obligation, nothing. Just nothing.
Maybe Amanda’s right and he needs to get ahold of himself. Maybe Connor should accept that people die in this line of work, and that he now needs to do better, and get over it.
He doesn’t know what it is about Prescott that makes him so emotional.
Well, he does know. It’s Hank.
But that leads to a road that- well, wherever it goes, it certainly doesn’t make things any better.
If Hank was in a mood the night before, it is nothing compared to the storm he has brewing in the office on the morning of the 27th. Gavin knows that the wisest course of action in this case is to avoid Hank as much as physically possible. He arranges men together while Hank ducks in and out of the building, raising his voice to herd them into the right places only when Hank is out of earshot.
They should have left already; the sun is up. Gavin itches to get in the saddle. He bounces on his heels. Checks his cartridges again and again. Chris tries to ask him something but barely can say a word before Gavin nearly bites his ear off. Even Gavin can tell when he’s going too far. As an apology, he tells Chris that he’d better fuck off.
The next time Hank steps out onto the porch he is positively fuming. Gavin turns on his heel immediately, desperate to find something to do. No sooner has he done so than Hank is bellowing out his name. “Reed!”
Hank says, “Get your ass in here!”
Gavin has no choice but to obey, with his tail between his legs.
He hasn’t done anything wrong. Not that he recalls, at least. He isn’t sure what to say to get the old man off his back. It’s that fucking Connor’s fault. Gavin is sure that’s why Hank is angry, because the little shit is nowhere to be seen.
Hank is waiting in the bullpen with a man Gavin has never seen before. He can tell from the tie, though, that he works for Steerco - navy, their signature blue. Connor wears the same thing every damn day.
The man holds out his hand to Gavin, smiling sheepishly. “Good morning,” he says. “I’m sorry t- “
“This is Mr Hyneman from Steerco,” Hank interrupts. He’s holding a letter, tapping his forefinger against it agitatedly. “He says that Connor went to Webster last night and hasn’t come back. He left this -” Hank shakes the letter “- saying he’d be here before dawn. We can’t wait around any longer.”
Gavin shrugs. “So we don’t wait,” he says.
“No. You’re taking two men and going to Webster immediately.”
Hank cuts him off with a growl. “Find Connor and then join us in Cherry. If you can’t find him I’d rather you follow a lead than meet us in time. Do you get what I’m saying?”
Gavin gets it. That doesn’t mean he has to like it. “It’s Connor’s prerogative if he wants to fuck off on his own,” Gavin spits. “That doesn’t make me his nursemaid!”
Hank opens his mouth to say something, but then closes it again. When he finally speaks it is with a lowered voice. He glances toward Hyneman and then back at Gavin. “Reed,” he says. “I’m not going to argue about this. I don’t care what you think. People are getting shot up and I need you to go get Connor and make sure he doesn’t do any more dumb shit alone. Believe you me, Steerco is going to hear about this too.”
Gavin seethes. He should be in Cherry, solving actual problems; not being totally ignored by a man who’s supposed to be a coworker, and not chasing around after some dumb fucking kid.
But even an idiot can see how short Hank’s fuse is at the moment, and Gavin does know better than to play with fire. In theory. He closes his eyes and breathes in through his nose. “Fine,” Gavin says. “Fine.” And then he heads for the door, just so he can slam it and have the last word. “I’ll go. But you fucking owe me one.”
The door rattles in its frame; Hank left Gavin's eyeline just as he was opening his mouth with a retort. Gavin timed it perfectly.
Gavin takes Chris and Miss Tina. Neither of them are lawmen in the technical sense, but they’ve joined posses before and are damned good at riding around and raising Hell. Both have a mouth and a half, though, and neither want to go with him. Gavin channels the gruff authority of the Sheriff and tells them they don’t have a fucking choice. It doesn’t stop them from complaining all the way to Webster.
The stationmaster has not seen anything since yesterday. He certainly did not see Connor ride through in the middle of the goddamn night. And he’s leery of travelling back to the site on his own. He doesn’t even want to do it with Gavin, making up some excuse about his ticketing office; nobody’s buying any fucking tickets today, Gavin can say that with some surety. He tells the man that he doesn’t have a choice either. And this one puts up a much smaller fuss than the other two, so they end up riding north within only a couple of minutes. Gavin takes point with a smirk on his face.
They have to peel away from the track not far from the holdup site. The natural path takes them alongside the line for a while, some fifty yards out, before bending back towards the tracks right about where Mr Whatshisface says the holdup should’ve been. Dry branches fold overhead and the path takes the shape of a ditch; they’re more or less travelling through a natural tunnel. Sunlight falls down through the gaps in the branches but the air is thick; it’s going to rain soon. It smells like pine.
Gavin stops when he sees a shape slumped across the path ahead. From a hazy distance it looks something like a big black rock. Some indiscernible shape. As the thing resolves itself, Gavin stops and dismounts. He pads up towards it with his gun drawn. Each step crunches up the dirt and gravel, and the noise grates on him. It’s too loud.
This isn’t good.
It’s a horse. Dead as a doornail. Once he’s reached it things get worse; the animal was shot between the eyes. The lids are half-open, gazing mindlessly into the distance, and its tongue is lolling out of its mouth. Legs sticking out in unnatural directions.
Gavin squats down to give the thing a once-over. The ground beneath its flank is black with blood, presumably from a second wound. The reins are snapped. Gavin wonders how long it's been here. Flies already crawl around the nostrils and eyes.
Crusted blood leaks from the animal’s nose, staining the soft muzzle. It’s a quarterhorse, skewbald. Practically a pony. Too small for an adult man. If the context was different, Gavin might be hard pressed to recall where he’d seen this horse before. As it is, he recognizes it almost immediately.
Miss Tina leans over Gavin’s shoulder. “I'm guessing that's Connor's.”
Gavin grunts, glaring at the ground between his feet. “Yeah.”
She doesn’t reply. For once in her life.
This isn't good at all.
Glancing up, Gavin can almost make out the tracks themselves. The presence of whatever went down there looms in the gap in the tunnel, beckoning to them. Ready to resolve itself into grim reality, complete with all the gory details.
Gavin had really, really been hoping that Connor had simply been taking his sweet time getting back. At this point, that sure doesn't seem likely. Not a bit.
If they just turned around and left, they would never have to know what happened. The kid’s fate could stay up in the air. God, Gavin wouldn’t have to sit down with Hank and have the talk.
They could go on to Cherry and pretend they didn’t see anything at all.
They walk up to the tracks as one. Gavin has no fucking idea what he’s going to say to Hank.
Toot toot boys here we go :o
As soon as Connor arrives at the holdup site, he can see discrepancies between Webster and Campbell.
No stake is left at the track for him this time, but it is naturally likely that the path he followed has delivered him to the right spot, because even in the dark he can see that most of the trackside is inaccessible at other locations up and down the line. The area is so overgrown that the foliage must obscure the path of the train itself, sending branches shooting out in plumes to drag along the sides of the cars as they pass. It is obvious that the only maintenance done on the trees is by the train itself as it cuts through its path. In the dark, this path is dissembled; the forest forms an impenetrable ink wall into which the track seems to completely vanish.
Connor dismounts and ties off his reins. He lights a gas lamp, and goes to search for the best location from which to spring an ambush. He finds it quickly, on the other side of the track, where a small hole in the brush leads to a dusty clearing.
The difference - the major perceivable difference to Connor - between Webster and Campbell is in the cleanup. Before, it had been sloppy. No actual holdup had been planned; the train had just been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Here, an armed guard was intentionally and successfully confronted. Furthermore, Connor can clearly see that someone has gone back over the area with some sort of brush or rake and totally obscured the attackers’ footprints. There isn’t a single shell or tobacco stain in the area.
Connor sighs in disappointment. Jericho has wisened up.
Alternatively, it was not Jericho who did this at all, but a separate outfit, which would allow Jericho all the time and preparation they needed to attack Cherry. It was a good fit in terms of an explanation, but terrible news for Steerco if true. The last thing they needed was a second gang harassing them.
Connor runs his hand over his face.
As he crouches to examine the swept dirt for any concealed evidence, he is struck by how well the marks of the brush have been preserved. Lowering his lantern sets the ridges and grooves of the strokes in a relief of shadow and warm light. Neither the elements nor the local fauna have yet disturbed the pattern. Connor tilts his head to the side. It occurs to him for the first time, then, that the perpetrators might have actually left and then returned to clear the scene.
He glances around; the air is saturated with the soft creaks of settling trees, and the sounds of nocturnal forest dwellers. Connor can effectively neither see nor hear beyond the clearing he is in. Instinctively, he licks his thumb and forefinger and snuffs out the wick of the lantern, sets it down, and remains crouched as his eyes become accustomed to the total darkness, listening for any changes in the patterns of sound around him. Almost unconsciously, he fingers his revolver in its holster.
Connor remains still for almost a minute. Nothing changes. The forest breathes in regular, consistent beats. So he exhales, rolling his shoulder back and stretching his neck. He’s most likely being paranoid.
It’s then that he hears it, of course, and immediately his blood runs cold. Voices. One voice, specifically, raised up in anger, audible even from far away. He can’t make out what’s being said but there’s certainly some sort of argument going on - at first, a desperate part of him hopes that his mind is playing tricks on him, but then he realizes - and can’t deny that he realizes - that they’re getting louder. Whoever’s speaking is walking up the track towards him.
Connor creeps backwards. Gently, gently. As he passes his lantern, he picks it up slowly off of the ground. This could be anyone, he reminds himself. This could be the Sheriff’s Office, could be employees of the railway.
At four in the morning, though? It’s unlikely.
He keeps walking back. Doesn’t tear his eyes from the gap in the brush that leads out to the track, where moonlight is thrown off of the rails. He can hear the speakers clearly now; there are at least three. All male. One is chuckling to himself. “You’ve really gone and fucked this up,” he says, in a deep and unfamiliar voice.
“Piss off.” This is the man who was shouting. “I did what I was told.”
“No one’s told you to leave your gun lying around,” the third chimes in.
“Would you shut up? It’s around here somewhere. If any of you had half a brain we’d’ve found it already!”
Connor glances about; he doesn’t see a weapon. His own, of course, is already drawn. He reaches the back of the clearing and starts to creep backwards into the brush. He has to be especially careful now that there is dry bark underfoot, and twigs to snap - but they’re going to see Liberty soon. He needs to leave, now.
Right on cue, the voices stop, maybe some twenty or thirty feet away. “Whose fucking horse is that?” someone eventually asks, quietly - in a totally different tone than before.
“It’s not my fucking horse.”
“I know it’s not your fucking horse. God damnit.” There’s another brief pause, and then the crack of a rifle firing makes Connor start, his heart seizing up as his jaw falls open. As the sound rings out into the forest and back, Liberty screams in pain and shock; another, smaller, crack is heard as she snaps the branch she’s tethered to. Connor hears hoofbeats. One man hisses, “What the fuck’re you doing!?” There’s a slap; someone yelps.
“Go get that goddamn horse.” This is the first man, the one with the deep voice. After a beat, he says, “Avery, you come with me. He can’t have gotten far.”
Then they walk towards the clearing.
Connor, who had been caught in place, stunned, turns around to start seriously making tracks.
This is not good. Not good at all. He shouldn’t have come here. There's so much he shouldn't have done.
Those morons shot my horse, he thinks, uselessly. My horse. Liberty. Another, more helpful, part of his brain is coming up with a plan of action most likely to get him out of here alive. All he can hear, though, is the sound of that scream, and his own self willing Liberty to run.
He makes his way, carefully, as quickly as he can, down the hill that slopes away from the track. Some thirty paces out he reaches a stream with a bank steep enough that Connor can splash down and crouch under the overhanging grass. He’s sheltered on two sides by the earth, and because he knows that if he keeps running he’ll be overtaken and heard or seen, instead he crouches with his right shoulder to the earth, cocks his gun and waits. Listens. Barely-running water laps at his ankles - it should help to obscure the sound of his breathing.
Connor glances up and down the stream to look for alternative cover or good exit points, and then he double takes and has to do it again, blinking dumbly.
There is a man in the river. Not ten steps away from him - Connor has no idea how he could have missed this man before. He is watching Connor with his brows drawn together in utter perplexity. He glances up the hill, where the voices of the other two men are growing louder again, and then back at Connor. In his hands is a rifle, the business end of which is pointing right at Connor’s face. And - his fly is down.
Connor has been caught because he interrupted a man who was taking a piss.
For a brief moment, neither moves. Connor’s revolver is between him and the bank and he knows that if he brought his arm up to aim he would not make it in time. Instead he remains completely still, waiting for the other man to make a move. Connor thinks, if this man knew that he wanted Connor dead, then Connor would be dead already. Instead he looks uncertain.
Connor opens his mouth to speak.
At the same time, another shot rings out from the railway line.
For a second, the man in the river glances uphill, and the barrel of his rifle lowers.
Connor flings the lantern at his face.
The man brings up a hand instinctively to defend himself, his rifle forgotten. He bats the lantern out of the air with his palm and as the glass shatters, Connor whips around and shoots him between the eyes. It’s over in seconds.
This man falls to his knees in the water, mouth open, caught in a vaguely perplexed expression. A thin, quick stream of blood spills down his nose towards his chin. Connor knew before seeing it that his aim had been true; he’s not missed a target since he left the practice range, and he is certainly not going to start now.
He needs to move. The others would have heard him fire - he can hear their footsteps now as they run towards him. He ducks out from under the cover of the bank, heading upstream; that rifle crack sounds, somewhere to his left, and there’s a harsh plish as the bullet enters the water just before his feet. He doesn’t have enough time - rather than risk continuing out into the open, Connor veers back on himself and dives behind the man in the river, who’s still in the process of slowly keeling forward. With his left arm, Connor holds the torso upright; with his right, he quickly aims and fires over the bank at the owner of the rifle, who barely even starts to duck down before Connor’s bullet passes straight through his cattleman. His head jerks back, and he collapses, dead before he hits the ground.
That leaves only two assailants - Avery, who lost his gun, and the man who has now killed Liberty. Connor has four bullets. He thinks - he knows he can make it.
He vaults up over the bank to flatten himself to the ground behind a newly fallen trunk. When he chances a glance up over the top, there is stillness - Avery has taken cover and is nowhere to be seen. In the dark, Connor thinks he sees bodies everywhere, and motion where there is none. But Avery cannot flank him without coming alongside the river and into the open. The other man, wherever he is, is in the same position.
Connor doesn’t have to wait for long before the man from the tracks comes into view, jogging down towards the bank. In fact, he makes his position known quite clearly.
“What’s going on?” the man shouts - totally oblivious.
Avery replies from the brush between them - “Get out of the fucking open!”
The man from the tracks is maybe thirty feet away. Definitely in range. Before he can get to cover, Connor aims at his head, squeezes the trigger - and his right shoulder erupts in blunt, shocking pain. He's forced down by the blow, and his arm comes up - the bullet whistles harmlessly into the trees overhead.
Connor tries to turn, but he’s struck again across the back and forced with a grunt straight down over the log. He kicks out with his right foot and gets a satisfying yelp as it connects with a shin, and then he spins to aim at the man behind him.
Five. there were five men. Two in the river. Connor miscounted. He missed them both.
He’s big, and closer than Connor expected. One huge hand strikes out to meet Connor’s before he can properly aim, and the jolt and the pressure cause the gun to go off, again, and to miss, again. They grapple briefly but in terms of both strength and positional advantage, Connor is obviously outmatched. He kicks out at the larger man’s knees but the only effect is to produce a slight wince and to bend Connor over backwards even further. Connor fights viciously, but the grip on his arm is like a vice and his shoulders are kept down against the log, where his attacker can slam Connor’s hand against the trunk, cracking his knuckles over the bark. Desperate not to release his hold on the revolver, Connor has no choice but to grit his teeth as his arm is brought up and back onto the trunk again, and again. The skin over his knuckles splits open; his fingers are crushed. Connor claws at the man’s face with his left hand, and then knees him in the crotch - in retaliation, he uses his right hand to strike Connor across the jaw. Sparks fly, and, briefly, the world goes white.
When Connor’s vision resolves itself, he is looking past his attacker and up into the eyes of the man who shot Liberty, who is standing not three feet away with Connor in his sights and a smug grin on his face. “Drop the gun,” he says, simply.
Connor will do no such thing. If he could only maneuver his arm a little, maybe he could shoot this second man - but his hand is absolutely pinned against the wood beneath him. Connor grits his teeth as he tries in vain to wrench his arm free, and, in reward, is hit in the head again, and then a third time. Lightning flashes across the backs of his eyes; his head pounds. The whole right side of his face is both numb and agonized at the same time. Connor feels his body go slack against his will.
“Drop the fucking gun,” says the man from before. “Next time I won’t ask nicely.”
Connor- Connor opens his grip, slowly. He has to fight against his own fingers, as they're locked in place, strained. But he does drop the gun.
“Don’t shoot,” he says - it comes out almost slurred. Connor blinks hard, trying to clear his head.
And he’s punched in the face, again. And again, and again.
Connor isn’t fighting back any more. He’s too dazed. But the man over him just does not stop. Connor brings his left arm up, uselessly, trying to block the hits, but it’s thrown aside like he’s a ragdoll.
“Don’t kill him just yet.” This is the man to Connor’s right. The other - the one somewhere above him - just grins, and says, “Does it look like I’m killing him?” And his voice is very far away. And he hits Connor again.
“The fuck’re you talking about? G'wan, Earl, tear him apart.”
This is Avery. When did Avery get there? Connor blinks up and behind himself, catching the blurry top of Avery’s head. Then his gaze drags lazily back to the man above him, winding his arm back for another punch. This, then, is Earl.
‘Earl’ is a monster of a man, with eyes as black as coal and hair sprouting from every possible crevice on his body. The name does not suit him in the slightest. Earl splits in two, and floats around dreamily on the backdrop of delicate pine needles above him, and then Connor’s head is whipped back against the tree trunk again by another blow.
Connor blacks out. Or at least he thinks he does. When the blurry world returns to him, almost nothing has changed. Earl squints down at him, and Connor reels back onto the unyielding trunk, expecting another blow. When it doesn’t come, he spits, and - there is blood between his teeth, which he hisses through as he searches desperately for words. “You don't,” he says, enunciating as clearly as he can, “you don’t have to do this. I’m working with the law, if you attack me there’s nothing I can-”
“Attack you?” Avery is incredulous, eyes bugging out. He’s obviously more riled up than the other two, and his face is red with fury. Connor, vaguely, thinks that he looks almost caricaturish - like a puppet. “The fuck’re you talking about? You attacked us!”
Connor feels his fingers clench. He glares up, deliriously matching Avery’s enraged glare. “You killed my fucking horse,” Connor groans.
“You killed my fucking brother! ”
“Shut up, Avery,” says the man with the gun. “Your brother was a moron.”
They’re instantly at each other’s throats. For a moment, they even seem to forget about him, and Connor shifts experimentally - and Earl raises an eyebrow, practically daring Connor to try something. Connor’s gaze drifts back to Avery and the man he’s fighting with now, who still has his gun trained right on Connor.
Connor very much does not want this senseless bickering to be the last thing he hears. And he knows his chances of fighting his way out of this bind are now utterly on the floor. So his brain scrambles as he searches for something to say to save his hide; when their attention finally returns to him, Connor clears his throat and tries a change of tack. “I’m worth more to you alive,” he bluffs. “I’m with Steerco, the Steerliv Mining Company - they’re very rich, they’ll pay you-”
“For God’s sake,” says Avery. “He’s full of shit, Lewis, kill him already.”
But the man with the gun - Lewis, a portly redhead who in under other circumstances might give the impression of being endearing - tilts his head to the side in thought. He points at Connor’s chest. “He ain’t lyin’,” Lewis says to Earl. “I know that lot. Filthy rich, and they all wear that same tie.” He jabs his finger again, to further the point.
Avery groans in frustration. “This is more hassle than it’s worth, boys, I’m telling you-”
“Be quiet,” Earl growls. Although he doesn't speak much, Connor can see that when he does, he commands the others' attention. “I’m thinkin’.”
Earl slowly scrutinizes Connor, and then Lewis, and then Connor again. Connor isn’t certain what he’s looking for; he licks his lips, nervously.
Earl eventually just shakes his head. “Steerco should’ve known better than to send you out here alone.” He sounds almost sympathetic, but the sentiment is effectively negated by his ragged grin.
“Yeah, he shouldn’t’ve been here, and the boss’s gonna be mad as hell,” Lewis argues. “It’d be good to have a fall-back.”
“A ransom ain’t easy money,” says Earl.
“Then maybe we don’t gotta ransom him. It’d be someone to pin the blame on.” Earl tilts his head; Lewis continues. “It wouldn’t be up to us. We can just bring him back and see. Ain’t no harm.”
There’s a tense stillness between them. Avery remains sullenly silent, but both he and Lewis wait expectantly for Earl. Deferring. He has obviously become their de facto leader - if it was not already his position before.
Earl looks down at Connor, and hums in thought.
Eventually he stands up straight and backs off of Connor, who stays sprawled across the log - not by choice. Earl cracks his neck on either side. “Alright,” he tells Lewis. “We can take him back with us.”
To Connor, he says, “You put a foot out of line, and you’re dead. You get that?”
“Yes,” says Connor. His head throbs; his whole body is scraped and bloody and beaten. He isn’t going to try anything - he barely thinks he’ll be able to stand.
“Fantastic.” Earl grins that toothy, intrinsically unpleasant grin of his. “Get up.”
Connor does what he’s told. He doesn’t see much of a choice.
$50 says none of you can guess my favorite curse word ;)
Chapter 8: Off on a Jaunt
Connor is missing. Hank deals with the aftermath.
I’ve thought about what you said last night. I am going to Webster to see if I can find anything that would help us there. I’ll be back before dawn.
Please do not leave for Cherry without me.
If I ever It wasn't I apologize for my rude behavior. It was highly unprofessional, I know. Hopefully we can reassume a mutually beneficial working relationship.
So Connor is gone. Vanished into the night, like Hank’s life is some shitty paperback novel. Gavin went to Webster and came back with two corpses, a dead horse, and no Investigator Sent By Steerco - and Hank’s boss of the plains, scuffed and slightly crumpled. Retrieved by Gavin from the river by the tracks at Webster.
The hat sits neatly before him, on his desk. To its left is the letter, unfolded. Clinical and detached. Ripe - practically rotten with all the things Connor has left unsaid. Hank thought he’d been so close, that night. And here it is again: “if ”. It had been on the tip of Connor’s tongue. Whatever it is, it’s long gone now.
All that’s left is this - the last piece of communication anyone got from the kid before he went missing. As these things go, it’s pretty useless.
Hank has misjudged Connor. Multiple times.
If there is anything Hank should’ve picked up after all his years in this line of work, it’s that you should never jump to conclusions. And yet, that’s exactly what he did. When he first met Connor, he’d been rude and unnecessarily abrasive - even though the kid himself had done nothing to deserve it. But then they’d settled into a rhythm together, and Hank had gotten comfortable, and Connor and his peculiarities had become familiar. And Hank had, without a doubt, underestimated the kid. He’d seen that Connor could be manipulative towards other people - Hank shouldn’t have been surprised when it happened to him, too.
And, yeah, Hank had pushed him too hard. And, yeah, Connor probably had his reasons. It was still an incredibly shitty thing to do.
Hank knows that, statistically speaking, Connor is dead. And he also knows that it was a stupid fucking thing for Connor to do to go out to Webster in the middle of the night - and he also knows that, in some way, Hank had something to do with Connor having made that decision. It wouldn’t be fair to say that it’s Hank’s fault, because Connor is a free man, but he couldn’t have been in his right mind at the time. And Hank can’t stop thinking about it.
At the end of the day, Hank is more than twice Connor’s age, and Connor is functionally Hank’s responsibility. He didn’t sign up for it, and neither did Connor, but that’s how it is. Furthermore, Hank knows - he knows , because he’s seen it written all over Connor’s face when he doesn’t think anyone’s looking - that Connor has a good heart, no matter how misguided he might be. No matter what Amanda Stern might’ve done to make Connor forget it. Amanda, his mother.
Hank puts his head in his hands. Connor doesn’t deserve this.
He will do what he can to make it right. If he can, he’ll make it right. It seems to come as a surprise to both of his deputies that Hank is so adamant to find Connor - but Hank doesn’t really understand this. They might’ve had a tiff - and apparently, Gavin Reed cannot keep his fucking mouth closed, so now everyone knows it - but Connor now has a very short timeframe in which to turn up alive. It’s been twenty-four hours since their fight, and so that time is running out. Hank isn’t going to abandon him over their personal differences. When he was younger, he might have been offended that that had been the presumption.
Hank might not be a good person. That doesn’t mean can’t be a good lawman, though.
When Gavin failed to meet them at Cherry, Hank had known in his gut that Connor was not okay. Gavin confirmed it himself in the evening, handing over the hat and speaking in soft tones that sounded totally foreign coming from the mouth of Gavin Reed. When Gavin Reed is trying to be nice to you, Hank thinks, that’s how you know that shit has officially gone sideways.
The first thing they did was compare the faces on the bodies from Webster with the bounty posters at the office. The kid in the river hadn’t been a match, but the other man was Walter Spaids - wanted for robbery, assault, and first-degree murder. Even worse, he’d repeatedly associated with the Andronikov Gang, which Hank already knew of through the word of mouth of previous Yavapai Sheriffs - they were ruthless, sadistic, and had spread like the plague in the sixties, gathering new members like flies to paper, with recruitment methods that were famous for being coercive at best and at worst, torturous. Hank can’t be sure whether Spaids is still working for the gang, or has gone solo, or has potentially defected to Jericho - he does know, however, that there’s not a soul in Prescott who wouldn’t shudder to hear that Andronikov’s boys had cropped back up again. Hank forces Gavin to swear to absolute secrecy.
What all of this means is basically that if Connor isn’t currently dead in a ditch somewhere, then he’s most likely on his way to a meeting with someone who’s going to leave him in a much worse state.
That night - the night that the posse returns empty-handed from Cherry - Hank doubles the guard around town. He also arranges for a new band to head out east the next morning. They have no solid evidence about either Connor or Jericho’s location - they only know that Andronikov and co. used to be rumored to assemble somewhere on the Black Mesa past Mount Hawley, and that Connor, according to Gavin, believes that Jericho may be based east of Camp Verde. Beyond that, they’re taking shots in the dark. But Hank will still drive his men east as quickly and often as he can. Jericho needs to be stopped - especially if the Andronikov Gang start making appearances again - and Connor needs to be found. This, Hank knows for sure.
Hank’s doing all he can. He will continue to do all he can.
Steerco, however, apparently will not.
And that’s a whole other matter; Amanda. Hank is pretty sure by now that he fucking hates Amanda.
That’s the second thing Hank does after Gavin gets back. He goes straight to Steerco with what he knows. The complex wood facade of the office-cum-headquarters rises out of the desert as if it manifested spontaneously, standing in stark contrast to the barren land that surrounds it. Behind the buildings, the ground gives way to the massive excavations of the mine. Even this remote site of the Steerliv Company is a behemoth in comparison to any building in Prescott - imposing despite the profits still leaking out of the cracks that Connor’s investigation has failed to patch. He couldn’t say why, but Hank hates the building, too. Maybe because of what’s inside of it.
Mr Hyneman greets Hank at the gates, and obviously has been waiting - but he’s just a grunt, and can’t help Hank coordinate Steerco’s next move. Hank demands to see Amanda. And he does - after an hour of waiting. He can’t fathom what could possibly be more important to the woman than her own son’s disappearance.
Hank is eventually escorted through a rabbit warren of corridors lined with the portraits of men Hank doesn’t know, with the blueprints of conquests that are irrelevant to him. He ends up in a large, stark office, painted completely white. It’s pretty in a way, he supposes. The desk is framed by symmetrical potted plants that Hank doesn’t really see the point of. Behind it sits Amanda Stern, looking inconvenienced and nothing more. Mr Hyneman - Avi - has obviously already informed her of what happened. She greets Hank with a nod. That’s it.
Hank wants to know what Steerco is willing to do to recover their investigator. Amanda’s answer, more or less, is ‘nothing’.
“As Jericho grows more assertive,” Amanda explains, “they will continue to target us. I can spare you a few men but our guard is limited as it is. As for the investigative team, they’ve been spread incredibly thin in Connor’s absence. We’re trying to pick up where he left off on our end, but - as you know - Connor made very little progress in the investigation.”
She says it like it’s Connor’s fault, somehow. Hank balls his hands into fists.
Amanda stands and begins to pace behind the desk, with her hands folded behind her back. “In about a week,” she continues, “we’re expecting a larger security team from San Francisco. At that point, I can send you a few more bodies to join your posses. Fruitless as they are, I can see that you haven’t been left with many alternatives.” She turns back to face Hank. “That’s just about all I can do.”
Hank is speechless. It’s not even the words - it’s the totally detached way in which she delivers them. It hits him like a sledgehammer, throws him entirely for a loop. Hank had thought he was angry; now he just feels deflated. He doesn’t have it in him to comprehend how somebody could speak in such a manner about their own child. If Hank was in Amanda’s position - if Hank could only have the privilege of being in Amanda’s position -
Hank shakes his head. “He’s your son,” he says.
She frowns, and she sighs, averting her gaze. “Connor is not, as you know, my biological son. In this case -” she twists her lips together, searching for words - “my opinion on the matter is irrelevant. In the Company’s eyes, Connor is an investment. One that isn’t paying off.”
“That isn’t true at all,” Hank says. “Connor is a superb investigator. And you’re management, you have every say in this matter.”
“Even if that was the case-”
“And I for one know that this place is paying him peanuts. So don’t act like Connor owes it to you to somehow turn back time and get himself unfucked! ”
“Don’t you get it? He needs you!”
“What Connor needs is to get his act together!” Amanda spreads her arms out, helplessly - “What he needs is to stop deliberately undermining my every effort to help him! Trust me, Sheriff, Connor has had every opportunity to prevent this from happening, and will continue to be totally capable of helping himself, provided that he chooses to do so.” She grits her teeth. Hank tries to respond, but she cuts him off. “No. You need to understand - you need to understand that you don’t understand.
“When I found that boy, he was nothing. I gave him a home, a purpose - took him from a family with neither the means nor the will to provide him even the most basic modicum of care, and I paid for the privilege. I built that boy up from nothing, at great personal expense - and I did it specifically, specifically so that he could handle a situation like this one. But he sabotages himself at every possible turn!”
“Do you really believe that?” Hank is so dumbstruck, it comes out as something close to a whisper. “Do you honestly even believe the words that you’re saying?”
“There’s nothing more I can do for Connor,” Amanda insists. “Believe me, I’ve tried. It’s out of my hands - and yours, for that matter, and I believe you’d do well to acknowledge that. Would you really try to tell me that you’d ever let one of your men do what Connor decided to do last night?” She puts her hands on her hips, shaking her head in frustration. “The only person who can help Connor at this point is Connor himself.”
Amanda sighs ruefully, keeps shaking her head. “He does have quite the habit of surprising a person when they least expect it. Who knows? He might very well return to us having even made some progress on the case.” Her words are half-hearted; she can’t, can’t, possibly believe them, Hank thinks. He doesn’t bother to correct her assumption that it’s Jericho who Connor’s with - she already has the evidence to the contrary. If Amanda, like Connor, wants to pin all her problems on Jericho, then Hank knows through experience that he won’t be able to change her mind in this meeting.
Hank doesn’t really have time to unpack all that she’s said. What has become clear to him throughout the course of this conversation is that Amanda is attributing agency to Connor when he has, in point of fact, next to none. Hank doubts that Connor has ever had much of a choice when it comes to his job - or his ‘mother’.
Amanda gives him a sympathetic look. Hank knows he’s had a while to respond, and has not done so. “I do have to apologize,” Amanda says, “but my time is quite short. If you’ve nothing else to say...”
“Yeah, actually. I do.” Hank speaks slowly. “Y’know, where I come from… When you pay for a person, and then they work for you, for free… We have a certain word for that.”
The effect is almost instantaneous. Amanda blinks, once, as if she isn’t quite certain what she’s hearing - and then her face is contorted with rage. Her whole body hunches over; she leers at him over the desk. “Oh, Sheriff. You have no idea,” Amanda spits, “no idea what we’ve been through, where we’ve come from. For you to have the gall to accuse me- for you to have the nerve to come in here-!”
And, yeah, Hank knows the implication. The war ended twenty-five years ago - one year before Connor was born. Amanda is older than that, without a doubt. It almost makes the whole situation worse - that she most likely came from a situation that she’s totally replicated with Connor, and somehow still lacks the capacity to realize it. Or, then again, maybe she does realize it, and just doesn’t give a shit. Hank thinks that’s more likely.
Amanda is trying to reel herself in, and she seems to be succeeding - barely. She runs a hand over her forehead, but her shoulders stay hunched, falling silently up and down. To Hank she directs a glare sharp enough to cut diamond. “I don’t think you have a single clue just what you’ve put your foot in, Mr Anderson,” she says. “I think you’ve come in here expecting to play cowboys and Indians and somehow save the day, but in reality, every person in this building is a human being who’s just doing their damned best to get by. Just like me, and just like you. I’m going to forgive your choice of words because my son, for some reason, has taken a liking to you. And I’m going to ask you to return the favor by staying out of our lives, because you obviously have no idea what’s best for Connor, and I - I, who raised him, who’s loved him for eighteen years - I do. You’re going to leave this building and then do your job, and Connor’s going to get himself out of the mess he put himself in, because that’s his job. Now…”
She raps the desk with her knuckles, and the double doors to her office swing open almost simultaneously. Behind them are the two men who escorted Hank through the building. They're tense; Hank doesn’t doubt that they’ve overheard the entire conversation.
Amanda breathes in slowly through her nose. “I think it’s time for you to leave,” she says. Hank certainly doesn’t agree - he has much more to say - but the guards’ expressions give him the impression the decision isn’t his to make. So Hank’s escorted out - he turns back just as the doors swing closed, and Amanda is still watching him.
The guards march him back to the front door without a word. And Hank rides home.
He hates her. He hates her words. He hates that a part of them wants to make sense - and then he reminds himself that if he still had Cole - if he’d had two more decades with Cole - and Cole had been taken by some gang of murderers, then Hank would move heaven and earth to get him back. Hank would take on a whole army if he had to.
The irony of it is that, other than sending out search parties, there isn’t much he can do other than pray that she’s right. That Connor really does know how to handle himself, and he’s just fucking around.
The kid isn’t stupid. Maybe he really will just come back on his own, and then they can apologize, and make up, and go out and finally find Jericho. Maybe Connor’s already just fine - yeah, right, Hank thinks. And he’s off on a jaunt around the countryside .
Maybe, maybe. He mouths it to himself at his desk as he rereads the letter. The word is bitter on his tongue. Maybe - but this is the real world, and in the real world people die before their time, whether they deserve their second chances or not.
And they leave behind poor idiots like Hank.
Connor has, without a doubt, lost any semblance of control over the situation at hand.
Earlier, he’d tried to prompt a conversation about the men he’s with, and their connection with Jericho, looking for something to leverage that way. As a reward, Avery jammed an old rag in his mouth and tied it off behind Connor’s head.
The gag is unbearably agitating. It rubs against his split lip, stopping the wound there from closing - tied too tight, it constricts his bruised cheek, making him wince every time he shifts his jaw. He doubts that it’s necessary at all at this point. Even without it, he might not be able to speak. His throat is as dry as sandpaper. Simply swallowing hurts.
Avery has decided that if he’s going to be saddled with Connor for the duration of their journey - wherever it is that they’re going - then Connor is going to suffer for it. He refuses to allow Connor onto one of the spare horses. Instead, Connor is tied like a dog to the horn of Avery’s saddle, by a noose that tightens around his neck in the manner of a snare every time Connor starts to fall behind the horses.
His arms are drawn behind his back, wrists at his elbows - far too tight. Connor lost feeling in his fingers hours ago. He can’t argue his case, can’t get free. All he can do it put one foot in front of another for as long as it takes for Earl to decide they’ve covered enough ground to rest. They walk through the night, and then the next day, too. His head still rings, and Connor swears he loses time - but whenever he gets a glance through the clouds at the sun overhead, it hasn’t moved an inch. Connor feels himself tire by morning, but there’s nothing he can do but keep walking. He doesn’t want to die.
They finally stop as night falls, to make camp in the shelter of a butte. The other men unfurl bedrolls; Connor’s simply tied by the rope around his neck to the trunk of a tree. As he falls against it, though, he sighs in relief. Getting to alleviate the ache in his legs is practically blissful.
There’s no comfortable way to sit with his arms behind his back. Connor is leery of the vulnerability that’d come with lying down on his side or stomach, but he’s also exhausted, having neither slept nor eaten now for over twenty-four hours. He has never in his life been so uncomfortably aware of the pathetic needs of his body - he needs to eat, he needs to sleep, he needs to drink, but he cannot. All he can do is sit and stew until the band setting up the campsite remembers him again.
When they do, of course it is Avery who glances his way with a sneer. The others seem content to just sit and ignore him, but Avery has a vendetta. Connor supposes he can’t really blame him. He isn’t certain what exactly he ought to have done, though - most likely, Avery would say he should’ve just rolled over and let himself be shot.
Avery gets up from where he’s sitting at the fire and starts making his way towards Connor. Connor doesn’t bother getting to his feet. Whatever Avery is planning, he figures, he’ll be just as capable of it whether Connor is sitting or standing.
“Avery, just don’t do anything permanent,” Lewis says, without looking up.
That’s fantastic. That’s just what Connor needs to hear.
But Avery stops, several feet away. His round face is flushed with liquor. He takes out a canteen, and shakes it back and forth in front of himself. “Sure you’re pretty thirsty by now,” he says.
Connor narrows his eyes. He has an idea where this is going. But Avery is insistent; he unscrews the cap and takes a long drink himself. Connor swallows reflexively at the sight of the glistening stream of water that spills down his chin. When he’s satisfied, Avery holds the canteen out to Connor again. “Well? You want it?”
When Connor doesn’t deign to reply, Avery’s face clouds over with a scowl. He kicks out at Connor’s crossed legs, and commands him to “Answer the question, goddamnit!”
The idea of playing along does not sit well with Connor, but he figures defiance will get him nowhere either. So he nods.
Just as he expected, Avery throws the canteen at Connor’s feet. The water spills out over the hem of his filthy slacks, streaming purposefully into the ground until the container is empty and the water peters out into a trickle. Avery cackles as if it’s the funniest thing he’s ever seen in his life. Connor remains still.
When he leaves, Connor deflates a little. To be honest, he’d expected worse. He can’t help but stare at the wet patch in the ground as the night draws on, though. There isn’t much Connor wouldn’t give to draw the water back out of the earth and into his desperate throat. But he doubts that Avery would be willing to accept it.
After the fire dies out, Earl and Avery sleep while Lewis keeps watch. He glances Connor’s way a few times but does not speak, and always looks away when Connor meets his gaze.
Connor is left alone with his thoughts. Eventually, he falls asleep, still upright against the tree. He doesn’t even realize it’s happened until he wakes up to the clouds breaking overhead in the middle of the night.
The rain is accompanied by peals of thunder, and lightning that’s visible for miles off. Connor is certain he and Lewis are the only human souls to see it. As the rain beats onto his shoulders, and into his hair, where it trickles down into his eyelashes because he cannot wipe it away, Connor tilts his head back. He opens his mouth as far as he can, and does, finally, get some water.
Only a few drops actually make it to his stomach. It’s a poor relief; certainly not enough to quench his thirst. The majority of it soaks through his clothes and hair and the gag instead, washing away caked blood and leaving Connor sniffing and shivering.
He hates it. He hates how little control he has of his body; how helpless he is.
By the morning, Connor is even more exhausted than before. He’s nowhere near ready to continue their journey.
Chapter 9: At the End of My Rope
Hank gets in his feelings; Connor makes some new friends.
Cy666 made a comment last chapter with kind of a good point; I decided to chance the ratings to this story. Having reviewed the guidelines, I think this is/will be more suited to an M than a T rating. Warnings are still at the top of the fic.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
The next day comes and goes with no word about Connor. There’s no trail, no auspicious clue to point them in the right direction; nothing. And they have looked everywhere.
So Hank expands the search radius. Hank keeps looking.
The next day, there’s still nothing. And the next day. And the next.
Hank can’t reasonably expect his people to continue searching like this. It simply isn’t just. They’ve got lives to get back to, routines which have been upset enough by Jericho as it is. It is surprising, in a way that is almost reassuring, the extent to which people sympathize with Hank’s frustration at the situation - Connor had made friends in Prescott, some of whom Hank himself had not even known by name. Strangers come in to the office express their condolences to him. Jimmy - reserved and professional Jimmy, whose friendship with Hank represents a professional courtesy rather than any genuine bond - is morose and avoidant, polishing the same tumblers over and over with an unconscious frown on his face. Hank stops letting himself linger long on Whiskey Row.
Avi becomes an informal go-between for Steerco and Hank’s office. Four days after Connor’s disappearance, he shows up in the waiting room to inform Hank very softly that Hank doesn’t need to worry about Connor any more, because Amanda has selected a replacement for him. He’ll be arriving by the week’s end by rail from San Francisco. Hearing this news, and the way that it’s phrased, makes Hank’s heart break clean in two.
He tries not to raise his voice at Avi. He knows none of this is his fault. Hank just nods his understanding. He knew already that he wouldn’t be able to rely on Steerco for help.
As the parties’ motivation peters out and it becomes apparent that Jericho has slipped through their fingers again, Hank starts to go out himself, to search. He leaves Ben in charge - sometimes even Gavin. They’re perfectly competent officers, despite their quirks - Ben’s squeamishness, Gavin’s- well, everything.
And people forget about Connor, in the end. It happens naturally, discreetly. Of course it happens. They’d only known him for two weeks - Connor said it himself. Cherry had a much more significant effect on Yavapai’s citizens, but even that gets pushed to back of the collective mindset sooner rather than later. These things happen, after all. It’s best not to dwell on it.
June rolls around soon enough. It’s a fresh start, and the events of last month are brushed aside, overlooked, and cast away. It was a dark month, it was cursed. The Lord had been testing them. Things will get brighter soon. People are sure of it.
Connor’s replacement is due on the 4th.
Hank can’t fucking stand it. He cannot stand to stay in Prescott. One morning, he takes two officers, and Sumo, and leaves. He decides they’ll return with Connor, or within another three days; whichever happens first.
Hank knows by now, in almost every rational bone in his body, that Connor is dead. But he won’t stop looking for him. Because somebody - somebody - has to care about what happens to that fucking kid. If not, Hank knows it’ll tear him apart.
Connor didn’t just rise out of the dust one morning in May. Connor wasn’t just some instrument, constructed to complete his mission. He had been someone. He must have left behind people - friends, family, whatever - in San Francisco who cared.
Hank has never seen them. Hank starts to realize that he never will. Connor - sweet, shitty, peculiar Connor - is for all intents and purposes a blank space in the world, a gap where a human should be. Hank can imagine a future where it’s as if he never existed at all.
But he had. Hank had seen him, Hank had known him. He was twenty-four years old. He was barely a man. He needed help. Hank will keep looking for him, because somebody has to.
He wishes he didn’t care, but he does. He wishes he could separate Connor from Cole in his mind, but he can’t. He wishes his awful old body and brain didn’t beg him each night to give up and give in, to wash everything away in the liquor, because it’s apparently all he knows how to do. But he doesn’t do that. He wishes he wasn’t so hung up on Connor, that he could just forget about it all like everyone else seems to be able to do, but he can’t do that either.
They hadn’t even gotten along that well. They had fought. Hank doesn’t know what his deal is. Perhaps it’s just absence making the heart grow fonder. If that’s the case, then, damn - fondness hurts like Hell.
Whatever. Hank’s just going to have to fucking feel it all. Because apparently if Hank doesn’t care, then there’s no-one else left.
After three or four days of walking, Connor loses count. The dark and the light starts to blend together; sometimes Connor will look about himself and realize it is dawn, when they only just stopped to sleep. Sometimes it will be evening and he’ll only have taken a few steps. Sometimes - usually - Connor walks for miles and miles before realizing the sun is still up and the features that frame the horizon have not moved an inch.
But he is sure that it’s been more than three days. Fairly sure.
No one is coming to get him. Connor knows this. It has been too long, and they’ve walked too far. He isn’t certain who he’d expect to be looking for him in the first place.
He knows Amanda will wait for him to come back on his own. He certainly couldn’t expect to rely on Hank - Connor’s behavior, compounded by Hank’s general incompetence, do not spell out any strong likelihood of a rescue by the Sheriff.
He also knows, through experience, that the chances of a ransom being delivered without casualties on either side are minimal. The moment something goes wrong - and it usually does - the hostage will be the first to feel the brunt of it.
In any case, it's redundant to speculate about how an exchange will go, because Connor is certain that, first and foremost, Steerco will refuse to pay. There’s no way his superiors would allow such a thing. Connor has been treading on thin ice with them as it is. They’re not going to let themselves be squeezed over him. Amanda wouldn’t allow it either. It goes against her philosophy.
And this is all if ‘the boss’ even decides to go through with a ransom demand. They could also dismiss it as a waste of time.
The conclusion that comes from all of this is, in essence: the moment that Connor meets this person - be it Markus of Jericho, or (if Connor's correct in his assumption that these men held up the train at Webster and are not, in fact, with Jericho at all) somebody else entirely - his odds of survival will functionally be next to nothing.
He will need to get out of this by himself. Before they arrive wherever they’re going. Of course, it’s easier said than done; he can’t speak, his hands are useless - one is most likely broken, and neither are receiving much blood - and he’s exhausted to the point of delirium. It takes everything in Connor’s body just to put one foot in front of the other.
Connor should have been able to get out of this by himself.
Connor should have interrogated Rupert Travis instead of picking a fight with Hank. Connor should have focused on the mission instead of getting distracted in Prescott. Connor should not have gone drinking, should have listened to Amanda from the get-go, should have taught Liberty better instead of fooling around with her by the river. He should have been better; he was raised to be better than this. And he should never, ever, ever have gone out to Webster alone.
Connor watches his feet swing up into his field of vision, one after another, left and then right. Left, right. He walks in his tattered socks and nothing else. The soles of his feet are blistered and peppered with nicks from the stone. Avery took his boots; he said he liked the look of them. He took Connor's jacket, as well.
It makes Connor glad he lost Hank's hat back at the train tracks. He'd hate to see Avery taking that too.
They walk in single file along the wall of a ravine that is slowly opening down into a canyon. The stream that tumbles its way into the drop to Connor’s left is growing into a river, sweeping out the sides at the base of its gulch in quick, relentless beats. The far side of the canyon recedes as they descend, and the hue to the layers of warm rock is bent into a morose blue the further the walls part. They pass by blossoming cactus plants; a striped woodpecker follows them with its head while its body stays flush against the dry bark it clings to; a coyote, or what Connor thinks is a coyote, lingers at the peak of the opposite rock face, panting, before turning away. A hawk circles overhead.
Lewis and Avery are arguing over the lyrics of Cluck Old Hen. Avery is angry because Lewis insists that the bird dies in the end; Lewis snaps at Avery that all Avery's done is swap the verses around so it happens in the middle instead. Earl cuts in every few minutes to tell them to shut up.
This is the day that Connor starts getting dragged.
He knows it’s going to happen, but it still comes as a surprise the first time he falls. One second he was upright, and the next he’s on the ground. He gets to his knees, and then is on his side again when the rope becomes taught. Connor has to scramble to his feet as he loses air; when he’s finally upright, the noose does not loosen. All his blood goes to his head, and he feels himself flush. He grits his teeth, squeezing his eyes closed against it. Avery looks back, but doesn’t stop for a second. In fact, he sneers, and spurs his horse into a few paces of trot.
Connor isn’t sure which torture’s worse - Avery’s deliberate ministrations, or the hopelessness that comes about as a result of the total ambivalence of the others. Avery has a Hell of a mean streak, and it complements the others' apathy miserably well.
Last night, like the night two before that, Connor had to stand. Avery tied the noose around a fork between branches some ten feet up, only allowing the rope to reach down to eye-level. Connor had to spend all night on his feet - if he slouched, or tried to sit, he’d risk hanging himself.
The first time this happened, it scared him - Connor couldn’t deny it. Because he was exhausted after having to walk for days, and he genuinely did not know if he’d last the night. He shifted for hours, trying and failing to find some way to relieve the weight from his legs, clenching and unclenching his fists like that could possibly help somehow. Avery laughed openly at Connor’s impotence, his frustration. Lewis and Earl just ignored them both, in the manner of disappointed parents. By that morning, Connor balked so seriously at the thought of having to spend a whole new day on his feet that his brain just came up empty in response to it. Connor felt white and light and cold all over. But he had still been able to walk.
Last night was worse. Avery tied him up in the same manner, and then asked Connor if he knew how to dance. Connor hadn’t heard him the first time; he hadn’t been paying enough attention.
When Connor reacts in the way that Avery desires, Avery likes it because it empowers him, and Connor gets rewarded with a quick drink of water, or by being ignored. When Connor doesn’t react appropriately, though, Avery likes that too. Because it gives him an excuse.
Avery asked him, again, how good he was as a dancer. Connor lowered his brows; with his head muddled by heat and fatigue, he couldn’t quite follow what was going on. He couldn’t physically reply, anyways.
Earl, overhearing his companion, came up to lean against the trunk of the tree Connor was tied to, and folded his arms with a smug expression on his face.
Avery took out his hunting knife. That’s when Connor understood.
As Avery advanced towards him, Connor backed up instinctively. He only took a few steps before he reached the end of the rope, and had to duck to the side to avoid strangling himself. The blade came up to meet him, still, and earned Connor a nick on his upper arm.
Connor kept skipping desperately away before the rope jerked him back. Avery followed him lazily, barely engaged at all. He cut Connor over and over, simply because Connor had nowhere to go. The blade was like fire and ice; rather than distracting him from his other aches, the sharp pain served to illustrate them by contrast and just make everything worse; the blood he felt leak down his skin and into the material of his shirt made Connor viscerally uneasy.
Connor had to seriously repress the urge to just kick Avery right in the crotch. He knew that that would make things much, much worse for him. Instead he kept moving, stumbling over himself. He tried standing still, once - Avery cut him right across his chest. Not deep, but long. And really, it wasn’t the pain that scared Connor. It was the fact that he couldn’t stop it. No matter what Connor did, he would lose.
Avery stopped after a while. Some indeterminate time. He got bored. Connor could barely believe his luck.
But tonight will be worse. He knows this. He’s been watching Avery, listening. Avery’s sulking; he’s angry, he’s bored. Connor’s going to receive the brunt of it.
Connor wants to go home. He wants to go home, to apologize to Amanda, to apologize to Hank. He wants to take back all his mistakes. But he isn't sure he's going to make it. He doesn’t think he’s even going to make it to wherever it is that they’re walking. He can’t walk any more.
He certainly won't survive another night on his feet.
They just don’t care. Connor falls twice more, and they look at him like he’s pathetic. They’re regretting their decision to let him live. He is slowing them down. He’s not entertaining enough. Sorry, Connor thinks. He wants to think. Also: fuck you.
Connor wants to plead his case. He wants to shake and scream and rage. He can’t. He can’t do a single thing.
The sun is setting and the world is red. His legs are screaming. He’s on fire. He’s thirsty, hungry, and he’s dying. His captors are completely apathetic. Connor could make it if they only let him onto a horse. But they won’t. They do not care.
He can feel himself losing consciousness in real-time. Over and over again the world starts to buzz and swirl around him, until he trips and it snaps back into place. Soon enough, the falling is not enough to bring him back to himself. Connor is drifting away.
Connor thinks he hears a dog barking. No, it’s just in his head. Connor thinks he hears birds, singing. That might be in his head too.
Somebody - somebody is singing. It sounds beautiful. It’s angelic.
He falls, and he cannot get up. It doesn’t hurt when he falls. He feels the shock of the ground hitting his body, but the pain never comes. It’s like he’s numb. It’s like all Connor is is his head, stuffed with wool and air, and his body’s a sleeve that can hurt and die and be left behind. Connor sighs into the dirt. There’s dust on his tongue, and it’s completely tasteless.
He waits for the noose to tighten around his neck, for the air to stop - he will suffocate. That’s okay. He doesn’t want to die, but there are worse ways to go. He knows, rationally, that he’s done all he can. He can’t go on any more. There’s nothing he can do. The helplessness doesn’t scare him so much any more.
Connor waits patiently to be dragged, to feel the unbearable tightness come.
But it doesn’t.
He blinks at the sideways world. Then he twists up, looking about himself; Avery has stopped. Lewis and Earl have stopped too, and they’re talking.
What are they saying? He can’t hear it.
Wait. What is Connor doing? Why is he just lying here? He’s Connor Stern, he’s the pride and joy of Steerco’s investigative team. Connor never fails a mission. Connor certainly does not roll over and show his belly. Connor will not lie here and wait to die.
He gets his legs under him - he can feel the pain in the soles of his feet again, distantly, and the extent of it surprises him. But he can feel it. He flexes his fingers and he can feel them too. He feels the blood pumping in his head, through his wrists, he feels the skin peeling on the back of his neck, feels the cuts in his torso, feels the bruises, the aches. Connor is alive, and he has to get up.
He tries once, and stumbles. He grits his teeth and tries again. When he keeps failing, he takes a moment to collect himself - huffing, glaring at the ground. Connor forces himself to take deep breaths.
He feels an impact through the earth as Earl dismounts, and then again as Avery joins him. At first Connor thinks that they might actually be about to help him, but then instead they advance down the path ahead on foot, guns drawn. Lewis dismounts too and unwraps the rope from the horn of Avery’s saddle. He leads all five horses into the shade beneath an angry jut of rock in the canyon, to an alcove in the side of their path. Then he returns for Connor and drags him under cover too, by his shirtfront. Connor forces himself to relax and let it happen. At least he isn’t being dragged by the neck.
Lewis takes his own rifle from his back, gives it a once-over and then clicks back the hammer. Then he sits on a rock ahead of Connor, eyes fixedly on what must be the bend behind which Avery and Earl have disappeared. Connor watches him for a few seconds. When he realizes that this is it - they’re just waiting - he tries again to sit up.
Lewis’ head snaps to look at him. He brings a single finger to his lips, which are twisted up into a snarl. His expression is hyperbolic, intense. Connor nods - he understands. Be quiet. He can do that.
So they wait, and there’s a stillness in the air. Connor isn’t sure he understands what’s happening.
Below them, the river runs. The first crickets are coming out. The evening air is cool and light. Lewis turns from Connor to look ahead.
Down the canyon - hundreds of feet away - a shot rings out. Connor flinches without meaning to, and Lewis snaps to attention with a jolt, his fingers curling to clutch around the grip and fore-end of his rifle. Lewis sits stock-still for a moment and then shoots to his feet, where he stands rigidly, still waiting.
Over the next few minutes, there are seven more shots. Connor keeps count. He is proud that he can do this. Lewis doesn’t move, but instead stays taught, leaning unconsciously towards the sound. His lips move as he counts, too. Connor has to look away from Lewis eventually - straining to gaze up hurts his neck, and he doesn’t have the strength to support himself for much longer. He slumps back into the rock behind him and instead watches Lewis’ scuffed stovepipe boots. He’s tapping his toe against the ground. Antsy with nerves.
After the shooting - what must have been a gunfight - ends, Earl and Avery do not return. Lewis and Connor wait awhile more, but this time the stillness in the air is different - palpable. Eventually, Lewis turns to Connor and says, under his breath, “Don’t you go anywhere, now.” And Connor follows his boots as they stalk in the direction of the fighting.
He’s left alone.
Connor should try to escape now, but when he tries again to sit, every muscle and bone in his body screams at him in refusal. So instead he waits to see what happens next.
A far-off, fantastical part of Connor dreams that Hank is here, that Hank has come to his rescue. Hank will come around the corner any second now, and help him up, and admonish Connor for losing his hat. Connor will apologize for fighting with him and they’ll both go home together. They’ll go home and Connor can continue his mission, and not go out at night alone again, and then soon he will be able to get out of this godforsaken wasteland and return to California, and one day all of this will seem like a bad dream.
There are footsteps approaching, crunching up the sand. Connor blinks himself back into the present. It’s too soon - Connor should have run. Connor should at least have tried.
Three sets of boots come into view. But they are new boots; Connor hasn’t seen them before. They stop in their tracks at the sight of Connor and the horses.
Then one of the pairs, and its owner, walks slowly towards him. Connor cranes his head back to get a look at the man, at the same time that he kneels down in front of Connor. Connor can finally see his face - his skin is dark, and his dark eyes are wide, his brow creased in concern. It’s not an expression Connor has seen a lot of recently. His face seems - kind.
The man in front of him reaches into his belt and pulls out a knife. Connor watches the blade come up and toward him, glinting in the sunlight; he can’t help but shrink back into the stone at the sight.
“It’s okay,” the stranger says. “I’m going to cut you loose. Alright?”
Connor stays still, watching the knife. He’s not sure that he’s alright. But he doesn’t let himself flinch back again, and stays motionless as the blade’s flat end slips against his cheek and then outwards, effectively severing the gag. The movements are incredibly cautious; he’s making sure Connor isn’t getting hurt.
Has Connor seen this man before, somewhere? Could he really be with Hank? Could this really be some sort of a rescue? Connor tries to ask something to that effect, but his throat is tender and swollen and dry with disuse and all that comes out is a croak that has Connor blinking in surprise. The man puts a reassuring hand on Connor’s shoulder. He turns his attention to the rope around Connor’s forearms, and frowns at the sight of the bindings. “Are you-”
The man before Connor turns to look behind himself. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you know who that is?”
Josh glances, confused, between Connor and his own companions. Connor can’t quite make out the second speaker; the sun is behind him, transforming him into a haloed silhouette. The other - the one who has not spoken - is smaller, and slight. A woman?
“No,” says Josh. “Should I?”
“I think you should get back,” says the second man. His voice is smooth, melodic. It is calm, but it is not kind. As Josh retreats, this man steps forward to take his place. His gait is different - Josh is tall and ungainly. This man moves self-assuredly, with precision.
That’s when it clicks. Connor freezes, and feels the blood drain from his face.
They’re not with Hank.
The second man stands over him and his eyes trail down over Connor, and the noose around his neck. Connor brings his knees toward his chest in the hopes of making himself a smaller target. His heart pounds in his throat.
The man squats down, and his duster folds elegantly onto the ground as he does so. He picks up the rope leading to the noose and gives it a shake as he murmurs, more to himself than anyone else, “Steerco’s faithful bloodhound, in the flesh.” His tone is haughty, verging on patronizing.
Connor gets the metaphor. A dog on a leash; very clever.
The man turns to face him.
Obscured as it is by the red light of the setting sun, Connor can’t really see much more to his face than the traces of a bright, wicked grin. He knows, though, that in any other setting, he would now be looking up into a pair of mismatched blue and green eyes.
“Good evening, Mr Stern,” says the man before Connor.
“Good evening, Markus,” says Connor.
YES Markus is here YES it took 30k words and I'm sorry. I absolutely loathe slow-burns that aren't finished and now I've produced one myself. Forgive me.
Chapter 10: Markus
Connor and Markus hit it off.
Please check the work notes for content warnings. They have changed.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It’s ironic, really. Every single time Connor thinks things can’t possibly get worse, the universe takes it as some sort of challenge. If there was a single person in the entire world that Connor would not want to be caught in this exact position with, it would surely be Markus.
And here he is.
Markus clearly finds it funny. He sits on his heels and swipes his hand over his brow as if he’s trying to hold back laughter. Then he rubs the side of his face. “Ah,” says Markus, “when I imagined us meeting, this is really not what I had in mind.”
Connor has nothing to say to that. The feeling is certainly mutual. Speaking hurts, and his voice comes out as a barely audible rasp. So Connor doesn’t bother.
The woman - North Kelly - wants to shoot him. She practically leaps at the opportunity. Connor stares into the dirt at Markus’ feet. He can’t bring himself to react in any significant way to the concept of being shot by North. He’s barely even concerned by that lack of feedback coming from his brain at the prospect. For a second, Connor had really thought he was going to be saved. Realizing that that is now impossible has taken the rest of the wind from his sails. He’s so tired.
Connor is so, so tired.
“You’re not going to shoot him,” says Markus, to North. “We’re going to take him back with us.”
Connor winces. He's heard that before.
“He works for Steerco,” says Markus. “He can tell us what he knows. Now, Connor.”
Connor closes his eyes.
Markus says, “Get up.”
There are hands on him. Connor jolts. It’s Markus; he has Connor by the shoulders, and is lifting him up onto his feet. Connor struggles to stand, desperate to be released. The second Markus lets go of him, though, Connor realizes he isn’t going to be able to support himself. His thighs are burning, and his knees won’t lock. Connor collapses onto his legs, and then falls to the side again. Markus stands back and watches him with a frown.
He doesn’t move. He can’t stand. They’re going to have to shoot him.
“Markus, look at him,” says Josh. “There’s no way he’ll be able to walk like that.”
Josh, Connor thinks, seems out of place in Markus’ company. Connor wonders what he did to wind up with Jericho, what his story is. He doesn’t act like a killer.
He comes to Connor’s side and helps him sit up and against the rock face. Then - and the sight of it nearly brings tears to Connor’s eyes - he turns to catch something that Markus tosses his way, and when Connor blinks he realizes he’s looking at a canteen.
Josh unscrews the cap and helps Connor to drink. With his hands behind his back, Connor has to rely entirely on the other man to hold the canteen in place. Connor swallows desperately, ready for the water to be taken away - but it isn’t, and he finishes the whole bottle. When it’s done, Josh sighs, and turns to Markus to ask for more. Markus looks to North.
“Check those horses,” he tells her.
“I don’t like this,” says North. “You two are playing with fire.”
“And your objection is noted,” says Markus. “Now go check those horses for water.”
Connor gets to drink more. He drinks until he’s sated, until he chooses to stop. It’s heavenly. Josh pats his shoulder, almost commiseratively, and Connor closes his eyes with a sigh. “Thank you,” he mumbles, idiotically - to no-one in particular. He doesn’t get an audible response.
They put him over the back of a horse. Connor doesn’t fight it. Being on his stomach on top of an unpredictable, moving animal is certainly not comfortable, but it’s leagues above the alternative, which is having to walk - or, more accurately, being dragged. Markus pulls the noose off of Connor’s neck, almost as an afterthought. He tugs it loose and then just pulls it off. Connor stares into the fur in front of him.
As they set off, his eyes close to save him from having to blink away hair and dander. He doesn’t bother opening them.
Poor Rupert. He must have hated this. The fact that Connor doesn’t only goes to show how desperate he’s gotten.
Connor loses consciousness.
He wakes up because he is falling. His body falls and leaves his heart behind, to lurch in his chest. Connor flails back and kicks out with his legs, but he can’t find a surface - instead, he manages to get Markus right in the gut.
The older man wheezes. “Calm down,” he says. “You’re alright.”
Somewhere, someone’s laughing.
North. He’s with Jericho, he remembers, and his mouth goes dry. Markus pulled him backwards and off of the horse. Now he’s keeping an arm around Connor’s chest to support him while he gets his feet under himself. He feels the ground, now, but each footstep sends pain shooting up through the tender soles of Connor’s feet. Markus has to keep holding him up to prevent him from crumpling to the ground; the arm around his chest is constrictive, in the manner of a band pulling tighter and tighter. Connor forces himself not to struggle. He kicked Markus already. He doesn’t need to make this any worse.
Markus sighs behind him. Connor can feel it in his spine. “Josh,” says Markus, “can you give me a hand?”
Hold still, Connor tells himself, as Josh jogs over from his horse. Hold still.
Josh hoists Connor over his shoulders in one fluid movement. He may be lanky, but Connor has to admit that the man is strong. He only walks a few paces before setting Connor down again.
He’s laid onto a bedroll. Josh doesn’t drop him, but rather lowers him gently, keeping a grip on Connor’s shoulders. When Josh lets go, Connor rolls to his side to relieve his weight from his arms. From here, he can get a better look at where it is they’ve ended up.
It’s a campsite, he sees. There’s already a fire going, and the smell of what Connor believes is roasted rabbit wafts through the air, making his mouth water. The fire illustrates a few more bedrolls, and some packs, as well as the rock face that looms behind them, protecting the bivouac from the wind. The night air is cool enough to make Connor grateful for his proximity to the flames. The sun has set.
Josh returns to help North and Markus with the horses, which - including those of Earl and his men - now make nine, and need more time to be seen to. There’s a fourth member of the party speaking in low tones with Markus, standing facing away from Connor with his hands on his hips. After a lull in their conversation, this man turns to look at Connor.
He’s the fairest of the group by far, with clear blue eyes and poster-ready blond hair. He seems concerned as he looks Connor over, and he-
Connor feels his mouth falling open. It can’t be, he thinks.
But it is. He’s looking at Daniel Lowery. Connor would recognize this man at the ends of the earth. It can’t be, but it is. Daniel- Daniel shouldn’t be here.
Daniel walks toward him.
Maybe he really is dead, Connor thinks. Maybe he died in that canyon, and he just hasn’t realized it until now.
In a sense, it is fitting. Saint Peter keeps the keys to Heaven, and waits to welcome newcomers, newly deceased. Maybe Markus of Jericho is the man who escorts Connor into Hell.
Daniel kneels by Connor’s side. Connor is expecting a blow, or some sort of verbal lashing, at least, but the man remains mute. He bites his lip. He wears a placid expression, one that, at a reach, might be sympathetic. Connor can't reconcile that expression with the man he once knew. Daniel reaches out toward Connor but then hesitates, uncertain. It’s not-
It’s not what Connor expected. It isn’t like Daniel at all.
“I’m sorry,” Connor mumbles, if only to fill the space between them. Daniel furrows his brows. “It’s okay,” he says. Then he turns away, to the others. “Is this the same one that took Rupert? I thought he was dead.”
“So did I,” says Markus. “No such luck,” says North.
Daniel gives Connor a more thorough once-over. “He’s not far off,” he murmurs.
Markus finishes unloading the horses, and paces toward them. “Can you fix him?”
“Enough to tide him over for a bit. But he needs medical attention.”
“That’s alright,” says Markus. “We can take him to Lucy.” He claps a hand down on Daniel’s shoulder. “You’re a godsend, Simon.”
Wait. Not Daniel, but Simon?
Of course this isn’t Daniel, Connor thinks. Daniel is dead. This man only looks like him. Now that Connor is no longer suspended by incredulity, he can see the difference in this man’s face. He has scars that shouldn’t be there - his hair is a different length, his five o’clock stubble would never be permitted by Daniel Lowery.
Connor isn’t dead. Not really, not yet. He tells himself to hold himself together. His mind is playing tricks on him.
The last few days have been hell on Connor's psyche. He has no idea how he could have mistaken this man for Daniel. He’s not thinking straight, and he’s barely even aware enough to realize it.
The man with Daniel’s face - Simon - leaves Connor’s side, to return with some manner of first aid kit. To Markus, he says, “If I’m going to treat him, I need to untie him. This rope is far too-”
“Absolutely not.” This is North; she comes over to loom over the three of them with her hands on her hips. “That’s just about the stupidest thing I’ve heard all day, and believe me -” she side-eyes Markus - “I’ve heard a lot of stupid things today.”
Markus doesn’t seem bothered. “Do what you need to do. North will help you.”
Markus smirks. “If you’re so concerned, it ought to be you. Don’t you think?”
Markus walks away before North can come up with a viable excuse not to do as she’s asked. She turns back to Connor with a grimace. And then removes her revolver from its holster so that she can aim it at Connor’s head. Try something, her expression says. I dare you.
Daniel - Simon - cuts Connor loose without much of a fuss. It takes Connor a minute to bring his hands to his chest - they’ve been held in place for so long that any new movement sends spikes of pain shooting through his elbows and shoulders at first. Simon has to help him, slowly straightening Connor’s arms and then bringing them forward, one by one. His right hand is the worst. Connor can barely bring himself to look at the damage there - when he does, he sees that the skin is dark and mottled, knuckles swollen and black with long-dried blood. He flexes his fingers experimentally and then flinches violently at the result. He doesn’t try it again.
Simon watches all of this patiently. Then he digs into his pack to leaf through the supplies there. “I want to look at that hand first,” he says, aloof. Connor isn’t certain whether he’s speaking to Connor or North.
All this to tide Connor over. Connor doesn’t want to be tided over . He comes to a realization, then, glancing between Simon, casually spreading out bandages, and North, leering at him with a murderous expression and absolutely no trigger discipline whatsoever.
Connor might not be dead yet, but he is going to die. Maybe not today, and maybe not tomorrow, but he will. Soon. With the others - before - there had always been a chance. A chance of a ransom, a chance of escaping. Connor has no hope of escaping now. He can’t even walk; there’s no way he’ll be able to hold his own against four armed outlaws. Instead, he is going to be taken to Jericho.
Connor is going to be taken to Jericho and then tortured for information that he cannot ethically allow himself to give. He isn’t certain exactly what it is that Markus wants to know, but he isn’t going to find it in Connor. Connor has been trained extensively to deal with situations like this. He won’t crack. It’s the last point of pride he can cling to, now. And when Markus realizes this, Connor is going to be murdered.
He’s going to be taken to the base of the group of people he’s been sent here to hunt - people who will kill strangers without hesitation, and who hate Connor on principle - and he’s going to be tortured, and he’s going to be killed. And that’s it. There’s nothing left that Connor can do.
Well, he thinks. That’s not entirely true. There is one thing.
In one swift, smooth movement, Connor darts his hand out to the barrel of North’s revolver, and with the other he twists it out of her grip. She wasn’t expecting it in the slightest; Connor takes the gun from her easily. She recoils, startled. Simon shoots to his feet, but Connor already has him covered. “Put your hands in the air,” he tells them. His voice is still raspy; he has to clear his throat. “Step back, slowly. No sudden moves.”
They both do as he says. “You too,” Connor says, gesturing toward Markus and Josh, who have now turned and seen what is happening; Josh obeys him, but Markus’ hands linger by his belt. Immediately, Connor fires a round into the dirt at Markus’ feet. “Put your hands up! I won’t ask again.”
Markus raises his hands. It is obviously a struggle to do so; his eyes are bright and savage, fixed on Connor, pinning him. Josh and Markus step away from the horses when Connor gestures for them to do so, though. The group pulls together, slowly. “That’s it,” Connor says. “Don’t move.”
He gets to his knees, but doesn’t bother trying to stand. He knows it wouldn’t work. He isn’t going to be able to run away from this.
Instead, he fixes his sights on Markus.
“You don’t have to do this,” Markus says, slowly, controlled. “We’ve done nothing to you. Nobody needs to get hurt.”
Connor laughs out loud at that. He can’t help it; the bark leaves his mouth before he’s even realized it’s happened. That’s rich, he thinks. Did you say that at Cherry, too?
“I think it’s a little late for that,” Connor says.
Markus lowers his brows. He knows what’s about to happen, and that he won’t be able to stop it. A surge of righteous gratification rises in Connor at the thought. Now Markus knows how he feels. He hopes it’s just as bad for Markus as it is for Connor. He hopes it hurts.
Maybe Connor is going to die. But if he is, then he’s going to take Markus down with him.
Markus’ knees bend, minutely. North holds a single finger out to him, telling him to wait; Markus’ eyes flit to North, and then back toward Connor. He’s going to try and rush him. Connor sees it happening before Markus even takes his first step - Markus surges toward him, but Connor already knows where he’s going to be. He aims at Markus’ head.
Time slows down. The trigger comes back with a click; the gun jerks in his grip. One shot rings out. As he fires, Markus jerks, but keeps on running.
He keeps running.
He missed? He- he doesn’t miss. He-
He doesn’t have time to think about it. Markus is almost upon him. Connor only has time for one more shot.
Connor brings the barrel of the gun to his own chin, and pulls the trigger.
Markus reaches him, barrels into him with the full force of a man running for his life. Connor is flung backwards and into the dirt behind him. Markus pins him instantly, weight over Connor’s waist and both hands on his wrists, above Connor’s head. Connor doesn’t even bother to struggle. He’s lost his advantage. He’s run out of bullets.
As quickly as it all happened, it’s over. Connor lies flat on his back, and Markus is coiled above him, rigid. The others run toward them; neither Connor nor Markus move. They each stare at the other, breathing hard - Markus’ eyes bore into Connor’s with an unmatched intensity. His expression is twisted - into anger, fear, and something else - something inscrutable. Connor doesn’t let himself look away.
“Markus,” says Simon - he reaches them first, glancing quickly between the two. His gun is drawn, and he trains it on Connor. “Is - are you hurt!?”
“I’m fine,” Markus says.
North appears over Markus’ other shoulder. “I-”
“I’m fine. North, get your gun.”
She leans down immediately to remove it from Connor’s grip. Connor lets her; her fingers fumble over the barrel. She’s shaking. “I’m sorry,” she says. “I didn’t-”
“Just get it out of the way. All of you, get back. And don’t- just, don’t-”
Markus twists around to face the others. “For God’s sake, don’t do that again.”
North runs her hand through her hair. She’s distraught. “Markus,” she pleads, “we can’t do this. He’s going to-”
“Enough!” Markus barks with enough force to make Connor jerk beneath him. “None of this would’ve happened if you’d just kept ahold of your gun. You’re not an idiot, North! So stop acting like one!”
She stares at the ground. “I’m sorry,” she says, again. All her fire is gone.
Markus turns back to Connor. Connor swallows, and shifts against the ground. He tries to breathe steadily, in and out through his nose. Braces himself for whatever’s coming.
“I’m going to let you go now,” Markus tells him, “and you’re going to lie down on the roll, and you’re not going to try to hurt my friends again. Am I making myself clear?”
Connor nods, his eyes wide.
“Good,” says Markus. And - slowly - he gets up.
Just like that. Markus backs up. Connor sits up, slowly - telegraphing his movements. Simon still has his gun trained on Connor, but Markus orders it away. All four of them step back collectively, glancing between themselves - they seem incredibly unsure. Connor, almost stupefied, maneuvers himself obediently back onto the makeshift bed. He just stays there, half sitting, half lying, watching the others intently.
And that’s it. Eventually they sit around the fire and start to eat. None of them come close to Connor again, except for Markus - he stands up a few minutes later, and Connor feels himself coil up reflexively. Markus only offers him a rabbit leg, holding it out as far as he can, as one would with a stray animal. Connor takes it, and sits up to eat, eyeing the group carefully even as Markus returns to the fireside.
They make stilted conversation with each other. Each is too sober to speak much after what happened. Connor watches them still, waiting for Markus to change his mind. To come over and enact some retribution on Connor, or - and this, at this point, would make a lot more sense - to simply take out a gun and shoot him.
But he doesn’t.
As the adrenaline leaves him, Connor feels his body grow weary again. His eyes blink closed and he has to force himself to reopen them, and it becomes harder every time.
They glance back at him from time to time, and when they see him watching them, they immediately avoid his gaze. Connor doesn’t want to think about what’s going to happen if he lets himself fall asleep.
It becomes increasingly apparent, though, that he doesn’t have a choice. Exhaustion has a firm grip on him still, and the little rest he got on the back of the horse is inconsequential in the face of it. Connor feels himself slump and jerk back to consciousness, over and over again. He lies down, only to rest his muscles, but that pretty much seals the deal. His eyelids are heavy, and he cannot blink the sleep away any more. Eventually it takes him over, and he feels himself falling backward.
And then he’s gone.
In Connor's dreams, Amanda is there. She is angry with him, but he can’t hear what she’s saying. He tries to tell her as much, but when he opens his mouth no sound comes out. He tries to reach her, but he cannot move his arms.
I’m sorry. I tried. I really did try.
I’m sorry, he says, but even though his lips move, no breath passes over them. He speaks, but no-one can hear him.
Amanda turns away.
I had, like, zero inspiration when it came to this chapter or the one that follows. Sorry. I think my brain has skipped forward to 'comfort' while the writing is still stuck on 'hurt'. The sacrifices we make for the sake of that tag...
Chapter 11: Jericho
Connor finds Jericho; Markus attempts to conduct an interrogation.
This is now the longest piece of writing I've ever produced! All in the name of the cowbots.
It doesn't take them long to ride to Jericho.
Connor makes the journey on horseback. His wrists are tied to the saddle's horn, and the reins are lead by Markus. Connor supposes he is grateful for the ability to sit upright, with his feet hanging out of the stirrups. It's ridiculous, he knows, that it has gotten to the point where he's grateful for something like that. It's pathetic.
The nearer they draw to their destination, the more his brain seems to suspend itself, to close itself off. They say they will reach Jericho before nightfall. He doesn’t quite feel the fear he was expecting once he knows this. He’s closed off in his own private world, although, if asked to describe exactly what it was he was thinking and feeling in there, Connor most likely wouldn't know. He realizes that the bright, sunkissed world shouldn’t be dancing and twirling in the way that it is. He realizes that he feels hot and cold all over, and that his consciousness is only coming in stutters and bursts. He shouldn’t be feeling like this, he thinks. He got to rest, got to eat. It should be better.
He glances down at himself; at his ruined hand, at his bloody shirt. He must look a mess. He wonders what he’d see right now if he looked in a mirror. Nothing good, that's for sure. But he doesn’t really feel it; feel the pain. It’s like his body was so tired of feeling it, it just stopped. Connor’s not quite certain whether to be grateful for that too.
They stop three times to rest throughout the day. Connor wonders to what extent it’s because of him. They talk, but not to him. It’s pointless, because he doesn’t respond when they try. It’s not intentional. It’s just so hard for him to focus.
In the mid-afternoon, Connor is blindfolded, and he lets it happen because they could just do it anyways if he decided to put up a fight. All Connor has to rely on now is what he feels, what he hears; wind through the trees, the crunch of hooves in dirt. The path they follow undulates dizzyingly beneath him.
The breeze picks up and they turn left, surely to skirt a treeline. They’re buffeted into it by the wind from the right. After what might be a few more minutes, or a few more hours, they stop. Connor hears the others dismount and come to help him down. Markus - beside him all of a sudden, moving silently despite his size - says to Connor, simply, “We’re here.”
They are? Connor tilts his head. He doesn’t hear a single sign of civilization. No bustle, no voices. No cover from the wind to indicate the presence of buildings as a buffer. There’s no sign of life whatsoever. He turns his head this way and that, although he knows it is pointless.
Markus unties his wrists from the horn. "Come on," he says, "get down. Josh will catch you.”
Are they lying to him? Maybe they've changed their minds, maybe they're finally going to leave him here in the desert. But if that were the case, would they even bother to lie about it?
Connor swings himself around to sit side-saddle, and then Josh, true to Markus’ word, is there to pull him down. Josh carries Connor like a groom would his bride, and, although Connor wants to complain, he knows there aren’t many alternatives. None of them would be more comfortable than this. He just tries to sit quietly and not jostle himself. “Where am I taking him, Markus?” asks Josh.
“He isn’t sharing with us,” North says.
“That’s a given,” says Markus, with a lilt in his tone that implies he is smiling. “I wouldn’t force my worst enemy to share a room with you.”
That’s just as well, because, Technically, Connor thinks, I am his worst enemy.
“You two take the horses around,” Markus says. “Chain them up, it'll only take one trip. Josh, I’ll show you where to go. Actually, I’m going to get Luther. You head down and I’ll meet you.”
“Great,” says Josh. “Thank you.”
The way Markus speaks, he seems to be in a good mood. Maybe he is, Connor supposes. Maybe he’s happy to be home.
Josh takes a step down, and before Connor realizes what it is, he thinks that he’s falling. He reaches out instinctively to grab onto the other man’s shoulder, his heart in his throat. “Oh, sorry,” says Josh. “There’re stairs.”
“Okay,” Connor mumbles.
There are stairs. There are a lot of stairs. Connor had thought they were in the middle of nowhere, but the steps Josh takes are even and do not falter, which implies the route has been carved out by human hands. From the echoes and the damp in the air, it sounds like they’re entering into some sort of winding tunnel through the earth, or a system of caves. Connor counts Josh’s steps; Markus eventually returns, accompanied by a heavy second set of footsteps, at three hundred and eighteen. Connor is handed over to Luther, who Connor deduces - by the pitch of his voice, and the ease with which he carries Connor - must be huge, and the descent continues. All in all they must have lost hundreds of feet. Connor loses count of the steps. It’s as if they’re travelling into the belly of the earth itself.
In the end the path evens out. Luther turns them left and right, navigating through corridors, and Connor finally hears voices - conversation, echoing eerily throughout the system. He knows they’ve arrived in Jericho proper. It’s no wonder nobody could find it. It’s completely underground.
Are they in a mine? No, Connor thinks. It can’t be. Mines don’t have single tunnels going this deep.
Connor can’t think of anything that would produce such an elaborate system of caves. He’s utterly drawing a blank. If this was man-made, then it’s a feat of human ingenuity the likes of which Connor has never seen.
All this said, and he ends up finally removing his blindfold on a bed in an incredibly typically decorated - if not slightly lavish - set of personal rooms. Nothing inside them is shocking in any way. It’s almost as if Connor has been here before. There are rugs on the floor, and a cluttered desk - homely knicknacks acting as paperweights for sheets and sheets of scribbled notes. A desk chair, an armchair, a row of cushions substituting for a couch, and - on the walls - post-impressionist oil on canvas, perfectly aligned, bringing together an artful scene that might be better suited to the cover of a furniture catalog than a cave hundreds of feet underground. The only indications they aren’t in some countryside mansion are the stone walls, and the multitude of gas lamps, compensating for a lack of natural light.
Connor takes it all in as a matter of course. He didn’t know what he’d expected. It wasn’t this. His expectations are continually left unmet by Jericho.
He blinks up at the others - Markus, Josh, and Luther, who is in point of fact a hulking giant of a man with skin as dark as coal. Connor finds it hard to be frightened of him, though, given the peculiar nature of their first meeting. Giving the gentleness in the tone with which Luther offers to go get him something proper to eat. How can all of them act so casual, so comfortable in themselves, Connor wonders, when half of Arizona is ready to come down on their heads? How can they seem so kind, and then gun down however many men, all in a day’s work?
Connor can do that, too, but only by distancing himself from it all. Only detached, as an executor of the will of others, as a cog in a machine which will be inexorable with or without Connor’s help. Connor isn’t kind. Not at the heart of it, not really. That would be a contradiction.
It’s all quite domestic, except for the handcuff that’s clicked around his wrist, shackling him to the frame of the bed. The room is quite charming, except that its entire contents have been stolen. It’s all quite quaint, except for the murder.
Connor is left alone with Markus, whose attention wanders elsewhere. He tries to lie back, and enjoy the comfort of the moment, the relief of finally lying on a mattress again after however many days in the desert. Tries not to think about what happens next. Markus sits at the desk and does not speak, and neither does Connor. He just watches. Markus is reading something, reading his notes.
It clicks, as he lies there, that this must be Markus’ room. This is Markus’ bed. Connor is tied to it like some kind of warbride.
It’s all very sweet, Connor thinks, except that this is the man you’ve been hunting down, and he most likely wants to skin you alive.
If Markus turns out to be some kind of pederast, Connor will kick the shit out of him. He can just damn the consequences. There are still these few lines that haven't been crossed. Only a few, but Connor will do his damndest to defend them. He isn't spent yet. Not yet.
He doesn’t want to think about it.
Josh returns. Thank God. Josh returns with Luther and another negro woman called Lucy, who is some manner of doctor. Connor, somehow, doubts that she has a degree on her wall.
That turns out not to matter. She is gentle but efficacious, applying sutures and bandages swiftly, carefully, and as painlessly as possible. Connor is uncuffed so he can change out of his filthy clothes and into a clean white shirt, and loose trousers - she turns, easily, to give him some privacy to do so. Connor pretends he doesn’t mind it. That he wouldn’t have cared either way. He tries to remind himself that all of this pseudo-kindness is preceding an interrogation that is going to be a lot less fun. That it is because they need him to be coherent enough to be bled for information.
Connor still doesn’t know what he’ll do when they realize he won’t give it.
His body is just a body, Connor reminds himself. Bodies die, and that's not his fault. Bodies can hurt, without the owner being responsible. They will do what they will do and Connor will move on from it, one way or another.
Markus is watching as Lucy finishes her work. His arms are folded, brow lowered. When she’s done, Connor is handcuffed again, and the two of them step outside. Connor can hear them speaking, but not the content of the words. Fairly soon, Markus returns, and tells him, simply, to get some sleep. That they’ll talk tomorrow. Markus leaves him to have the bedroom to himself.
Sleep. That, Connor can do.
When he wakes up, it's to the sound of Markus speaking.
He’s close. In fact, he is sitting on the bed. Connor doesn’t let himself move as his awareness returns. He gives no indication that he can hear them. The conversation had filtered through before, on a back-burner in his mind, and now it resolves itself properly into words. He tries to focus on what it is that they’re saying. Before he loses the advantage of them not knowing he’s awake.
“...I don’t think Lucy would agree to...”
“...better to do it now before he gets himself together. He’d be more willing…”
It's North, who is speaking. Her voice is pitched high, almost dainty - contradicting her words. She trails off. Connor hears Markus shift, and then stand. As quietly as possible, Connor lets out his breath.
“He’s scared of me,” says Markus, somewhat softly. “Of us.”
“He is.” North laughs. “He’s terrified.”
Hang on. Are they talking about him?
“I just didn’t realize,” says Markus. “I didn’t think…”
“We don’t know what happened before we found him,” says Josh. He's here, too. “But it obviously wasn’t good. I’d be shaken as well.”
What time is it? Is it morning? He'd only been asleep for a minute or two. Is it already time?
“He isn’t ‘shaken’, Josh, he’s absolutely insane,” says North.
“We can capitalize on that,” says Markus.
“You just need to be careful,” says Josh. “People lash out when they’re cornered. He’s done it already and he’ll do it again.”
Markus doesn’t reply.
They’re talking as if he’s not even there. It is, he believes, an enormous oversight on their part.
“He’s dangerous, Markus,” says Josh. “He’s totally unpredictable.”
North scoffs. “At least we agree on that.” There’s a pause. “We shouldn’t have brought him to Jericho. He’ll-”
“What choice did we have?” Josh interrupts.
“It doesn’t matter,” says Markus. “He’s here now.” There’s a hand on Connor’s shoulder, right over a knife wound, which flares up at the touch. He tries not to react.
“Connor,” says Markus, giving him a shake that makes Connor wince. “Wake up.”
Connor opens his eyes, and lets himself roll away from the point of contact. He brings his free hand up to Markus’ forearm, to push him away. Markus lets him.
“We’re going to have a little chat,” North tells him, with a passive-aggressive smile on her face.
Connor doesn't respond.
Markus unlocks the handcuff from the bed. He asks, “Do you think you can stand?”
He can’t. He gives it a couple tries before having to admit that he can’t. Even now, even sitting up makes Connor’s head spin; it’s more than a little embarrassing.
It’s not that he can’t stay on his feet. It’s that he can’t get there in the first place. The muscles in his thighs burn now even harder than they had the day before. They simply have nothing left to give.
They want to take him to a different room. Markus and Josh support him as they make their way there. Each time that they hold or carry him like this, it puts pressure on the multitude of nicks to Connor’s arms and torso. It’s painful, it’s humiliating, and he has to grit his teeth and act like he doesn’t care.
He doesn’t want to do this. He wants to go back to sleep.
They escort him through dark, empty corridors, to an unlit room in the back of the cave system, which Connor supposes must be used for storage. All manner of furniture is stacked up against the walls. A light table and two wooden chairs have been dragged to the center, and after Connor is seated his hands are cuffed behind him, to a bar in the back of the chair. He doesn’t see anything nearby that could be used as a weapon.
He subtly tests the cuffs. He could probably get out of them, but only if he dislocated his thumbs. He doesn’t know how easy that would be, given the state of his right hand. Lucy had told him, last night, that it wasn't seriously broken. Connor still has his doubts about that.
Alternatively, he could try and break through the wood.
All of this would, of course, bring attention to himself. It’d be pointless unless he had been left alone.
Markus sits across from him, removing a match from his pocket to light a candle between them that Connor sees in double unless he focuses on it actively. Josh stands to Markus’ right, and North soon joins them to take his left. The light is too far away and too weak to illuminate much more than their flickering faces. Simon arrived with her; he stays in the doorway, leaning against the wall.
As far as Connor can see, they are all unarmed. That’s probably smart.
Once they’re assembled, nobody speaks. They’re all waiting for Markus, who is still choosing his words.
Eventually, he says, to Connor, “We’re going to ask you some questions.”
Connor doesn’t see the purpose in beating around the bush. He speaks, for the first time this morning. “Whatever you want to hear, it isn’t going to be from me,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what you do.”
“And I’m sure there isn’t much we can do that hasn’t already been done,” Markus immediately replies. He stands. “Isn’t that right?”
He walks, slowly, around the table, to stand behind Connor. Connor has to twist to keep the other man in his line of sight. Of course, when he does, he loses track of North. He’s surrounded. He tries not to tense, not to show his discomfort in his face.
Markus puts a hand on Connor’s shoulder, thumbing the nape of his neck. The mark that the noose left burns. “Then again," Markus says, "I’m sure we could think of some things.”
A shiver runs down Connor's spine. “...It doesn’t matter,” he repeats, his tone even. Disdainful. “I’m not going to help you.”
Markus seems to stop to think for a moment, letting out a non-committal hmm. Then - surprising Connor - he lets go, to continue pacing about the room.
“Then, how do you feel about helping yourself?”
Connor scoffs. “Oh, I see. Is the dog going to be rewarded if it's good? Is that it?”
“That’s not what I mean.” Markus folds his arms. “I want to talk about the men we found you with.”
That, admittedly, takes Connor by surprise. He’d expected to be interrogated about Steerco. He raises an eyebrow at Markus, but does not deign to respond.
“What can you tell me about them? Anything helpful, anything at all - their names, who they were with.”
Connor stays quiet.
“You must have picked up something of use.”
Connor just blinks.
Markus actually sits back down. “The way I see it,” he says, “those men can’t have done much to ingratiate themselves to you. Or to the Sheriff’s Office, in Prescott. What exactly do you hope to achieve by protecting them?” When Connor still doesn’t reply, he continues. “It seems to me that they’re just as much of a problem to you as we are.” Connor smirks, which makes Markus frown. “Or, at least, they are a problem. I doubt they were working alone. I’d hate to see their friends coming along to give you trouble. Or, you know, give the town trouble. You don’t want that, do you, Connor?”
Condescend me again, and we'll see where that gets you, Connor thinks.
Markus steeples his hands. “We could deal with those men for you,” he says.
Connor thinks about that for a while. He takes a long moment to lean back in his seat. “And why exactly," he says, "would you want to do that?”
Markus shrugs. “They’re a problem for us, too. Imagine this: you’re walking along, minding your own business, and three strangers come along and try to blow your head off. Not too good of an omen. I, personally, would quite like to know who it is that we killed.”
Connor nods to himself. “You did kill them, then,” he says. It produces a grimace - Markus glances to his side. “Not all of them.”
Oh. Connor wonders which it is that got away. Probably Lewis, if he had to bet.
“But we can change that,” Markus says.
There’s another brief moment where nobody speaks. There’s a discernible tension in the room, the longer it takes for Connor to play ball. It makes him wonder what the others are expecting of Markus. So far, his tactics seem rather straightforward, and not too effective in the least.
Connor does wonder what the harm would be in setting Jericho on Lewis. In fact, if he manages to turn these two - obviously feuding - parties against each other, there are several ways it could play out in Connor’s favor.
“Where did they come from?” Markus asks.
“Their mothers, I’d presume.”
“This is ridiculous,” North snaps. “Markus-”
Markus turns to face her. Connor can’t see the expression on his face, but they obviously have some sort of unspoken argument; North steps back into the shadow, scowling, and Markus turns back around.
“Where did they come from?” he repeats.
Connor flits his eyes over the table, and then he sighs. He’s going to have to be careful about what he tells them. But still- “Webster,” he says. North’s eyes widen; behind him, Simon shifts on his feet. Markus furrows his brows. “The train tracks?”
Connor nods. “The night after they held up the train, I went to investigate the scene.” He shrugs. “They came back.”
Markus seems more and more perplexed by this. “The night- but they- Hm. When was this, exactly?”
“Maybe you were distracted at the time,” Connor says, his tone low.
“...You're talking about Cherry,” Markus says. Maybe it’s just the flicker of the light, but something shifts on his face. “So, the 26th.”
“Yes,” Connor says, and his voice is as hard as stone. “I'm talking about you, murdering thirteen people in Cherry."
This does not produce the reaction Connor was expecting. Every one of them balks at his words. Markus’ bright eyes widen, but then his face grows even darker.
“Hold up, honey,” says North. “You don’t seriously believe that we did that?”
“We didn’t,” says Josh. “We would never.”
“Why do you think that I killed people in Cherry?” asks Markus. He seems to be genuinely curious.
Connor balls his hands into fists. He leans forward in his seat, as far as he can reach. “Because,” he snarls, “Anna Wilson - do you know who that is, by the way? Do you care?”
“Don’t treat me like an idiot. I know exactly what you did. She told me what happened. I saw your symbol.”
“Who is Anna Wilson?”
Connor jerks in his seat. He was trying to remain impassive, he thinks. He is failing. He says, “The girl whose family you murdered,” and it comes out much closer to a shout. He can’t help it. “The twelve-year-old girl who you orphaned!”
“Connor,” says Markus, warily. “We did not kill anyone in Cherry. We were not there.”
“Don’t you dare,” spits Connor, “don’t you dare lie to my face. I know what you did. It’s my job to know. You can’t seriously think you can just say that to me and have me buy it. Or are you just too much of a coward to admit that you fucked up, you finally fucked up-”
“Okay, wait,” Markus says. “Wait a minute.” He puts a finger in his mouth, worrying it. Thinking. After a while he says, “I’m going to put all of our cards on the table.
“We were never in Cherry that day. We were at Webster. We held up that train. Not- not whoever it was that took you. I was aware that Steerco was pushing the angle that it was us, who was responsible for Cherry. I didn’t think that you actually believed it.”
Markus draws the symbol in the air, the cross-hatched square. “Was this the symbol you saw?”
Connor nods, his lip curled.
“Okay,” says Markus. “Okay.”
“Those fuckers,” growls North. “I knew it. Those fuckers set us up!”
“Markus -” this is Simon - “if this is true, we have a serious problem on our hands.”
Markus is nodding. His eyes are unfocused, staring into space. Eventually, he says, “Does the name ‘Zlatko’ mean anything to you?”
No-one replies. Markus repeats himself. “Connor,” he says. “Do you recognize that name? Zlatko Andronikov?”
“What about Walter Spaids? ...No? ...Earl Keller?”
Connor’s eyes snap up at that last one. Markus notices it immediately. “You know him.”
“Who was it,” Connor says, “who you killed when you found me? Which ones?”
Markus tilts his head, thinking. “The tall one, and the redhead. There was a third who got away.”
It was Avery, then, who escaped. Connor feels a twinge of disappointment to hear it. “The men who you killed were called Earl and Lewis. The third was Avery. I don’t know their last names.”
Josh brings his hand to his forehead. North kisses her teeth. “Are you sure about that?” asks Markus.
Connor nods. The motion makes him nauseous; in his anger, he’d forgotten how exhausted he was. “I’m sure.”
“They’ll have it out for us now,” says Josh.
“Then let them,” says North. “We took them down once, we can do it again. They’ve had it coming for a long time. And they set us up, Markus! They framed us!”
“We never had a problem with them before,” says Simon. North glares at him.
“Is that who they worked for?” asks Connor. “Andronikov?”
“It is,” Markus says. “Did they never talk about him?”
“They did, but not by name. They talked about a ‘boss’. They… I’d say they were scared of him. Wary, if nothing else.”
Markus nods. He’s far away again. Lost in thought. Eventually, he says, “I still think it’s safe to bet that that’s who we’re dealing with.”
When Connor came in here, he’d been resolved not to say a word. He wonders when that changed.
Watching Markus, Connor also wonders - can’t help but wonder - if he might be telling the truth. If he really might not be responsible for Cherry. He’s still a criminal, of course, but the way they all behave - have behaved, since Connor met them - is simply not characteristic of cold-blooded killers. It's not the first time it's occurred to him, either. They seem weary, and fallible. They are bonded - Markus called the others his ‘friends’. They seem human. And Markus also lacks the typical liars’ tells, when he speaks. He is direct, and his diction is clear.
Connor needs to make him lie.
“What’s going to happen to me?” he asks.
Markus raises an eyebrow, and he opens his mouth to speak. There - his fingers clench minutely, and his eyes flit to his right, and then back. “I don’t know,” Markus says. He rubs the back of his head.
That’s what Markus looks like when he lies. Connor smirks; he hadn’t expected it to be so easy. Markus sees this, and swallows.
“Connor, look,” Markus says. “I think… I think we’re not who you think we are. I know you have no reason to believe that, so I don’t know why I’m telling you this. But I just want to say- the things that happened to you before, with Earl… they’re not going to happen here. And I’m sorry to have made you expect that.”
Connor wants to roll his eyes. Instead he just looks at the table and nods. He feels his head dip forward, his shoulders getting stiff. He shifts in the chair.
“This interview is over,” Markus says. “Simon, please get Luther to help Connor back to my room. Then meet us on the plateau. The four of us need to talk.”
“That’s it?” Connor asks, unconvinced.
“That’s it. Simon will get you something to eat. And, uh, whatever else it is that you need.”
Connor slumps, despite himself. He’d been expecting much worse. He’d almost forgotten that, until now.
When Luther arrives, Connor wonders what the chances are that he’s just going to take Connor away somewhere to kill him. Almost right as he does, Markus stops them, reaching a hand toward Connor’s shoulder and then thinking the better of it. He meets Connor’s eyes - his gaze is always so intense. Connor wonders what he’s really thinking.
“No-one is going to hurt you here,” Markus tells him. “I know you don’t believe me, but hopefully I can show you. Our fight isn’t with you. You just-”
Whatever it is he was going to say, Markus decides against it. “So long as you don't give them a reason, nobody’s going to hurt you,” he repeats. “I won’t allow it.”
He does not glance away as he speaks.
Chapter 12: When it Rains
Hank meets Connor's replacement; Gavin meets his match. Markus decides his next move.
Hank returns at dawn to a Prescott still sleeping, under sheets and sheets of rain. The rain coats all three horses and their riders in a bone-deep blankness that has them each at a loss for words. Hank goes cross-eyed, watching it drip from a pool in the brim of the boss of the plains, falling down in a steady stream before his nose.
He lets the others peel off from his route to the Sheriff’s Office, grunting in acknowledgement of their departure, but nothing more. They’re returning to the comforts of their homes - of softer sheets, of waiting families. Hank, himself, has business to attend to.
After putting Lady and Sumo away, he heads straight through to his office, bypassing the bullpen as quickly as he can. He flips quickly through the mail that’s accumulated on the desk in his absence, sprinkling rainwater on each weathered envelope until he finds what he’s looking for. Jeffrey’s reply to the letter Hank mailed on his way out of town.
The County Marshal’s message is succinct and to-the-point. Hank will no longer be obligated to work with a partner from Steerco, so long as he continues to investigate the hold-ups on his own. It probably doesn’t hurt that Jeffrey knows about Cole. That he knows that Hank liked Connor, and he probably hasn’t taken the loss too well. Hank can’t call it anything other than pity, but, just this once, he doesn’t mind.
He sets the letter down, and gets perhaps half a moment to breathe before there’s a harsh rap on his door. He swings it open with a sigh, already knowing what he’s going to see.
Gavin does a little jump on his feet when he sees that it really is Hank in his office. “Oh, thank God you’re back,” he says.
Gavin brings his hands together and to his chest, almost as if in prayer. It’s kind of a funny gesture, given that Hank doubts the man’s ever once seen the inside of a church. Gavin says, “This guy’s been driving me up the damn wall.”
Hank grunts, and removes his jacket. “I didn’t find Connor, by the way,” he says, hanging it up. “Thanks for asking.”
“If only,” moans Gavin. “I thought Connor was bad enough. This one’s the devil incarnate.”
It’s only then that Hank realizes that - over his deputy’s shoulder - there’s someone new in the bullpen, someone he doesn’t recognize. He’s a handsome brunet, well-groomed - from the get-up and the tie, Hank can see immediately that he’s from Steerco. Connor’s replacement, he thinks, feeling his nose wrinkle up at the thought.
He’s standing directly beside Gavin’s desk. “Deal with him, please,” Gavin begs, gesturing behind himself with a flailing hand. “Before I have to arrest my own damned self for his murder.”
The man doesn’t flinch. He walks toward Hank, extending his hand, ignoring Gavin completely. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Sheriff,” he says - smirking at Hank’s evident discomfort.
“No it’s not,” Hank replies. “Don’t let’s go kidding ourselves. And don’t get too comfortable, either. You’re not sticking around.”
The man tilts his head to the side. “My name is Conrad Setson,” he says, explanatorily. “I’m the investigator sent by Steerco.”
The way he says that - Hank flinches. God, and the name. “I know who you fucking are,” he says. “You work for Amanda, too?”
Conrad nods emphatically, and his cowlick flops as he does so. He has the exact same hairstyle as Connor, Hank thinks. Conrad is shorter than Connor is - maybe five foot nine, and his eyes are green, but the pieces add up to same holistic whole - young, handsome face, not a hair out of line, and a crowd-pleasing smile that does not reach the eyes. It’s like Steerco churns their men out on a production line.
“Fantastic,” Hank says. “We can kill two birds with one stone.” To Gavin, he says, “I’m going to Steerco. I’ll be back soon, to deal with whatever fuckin’ mess you’ve made while I was gone.” To Conrad, he says, “You, come with me. We’re going to have a word with your boss.”
Amanda receives them both in her office. She’s standing at the window this time, staring placidly out at the rain. Her brows are furrowed in thought. She acts as if she didn’t hear Hank enter.
“You’ve been out of town for quite a while, Sheriff,” she says, after a pause. “We have some catching up to do.”
Hank doesn’t even bother to rein in the ire in his voice. “Well, excuse me for that,” he says. “I was looking for Connor. Your son.”
“I take it you didn’t find anything.”
“Um… No, I didn’t. Unfortunately not.”
Amanda sighs. “Just as well,’ she says, turning to face them at last. “As of last night, he is legally dead. Reversing the paperwork would be a hassle.”
Hank blinks. He forgets how fucking aggravating Amanda can be. “Okay,” he says. “Took care of that all yourselves? What d’you need me to do?”
“There’s nothing, thank you. It’ll all be sorted back in San Francisco. I’ve cleaned out his room here.”
“And that’s it?” Why is it that every time Hank speaks to Amanda, he ends up thrown for the same goddamn loop? He’d have thought he’d know better by now. “You’ve just wrapped it all up? What about- the will-”
“Connor didn’t have a will.”
“What about all his things? They’re going to be taken by the State.”
“They are going to be taken by me ,” she says, not missing the implication. When Hank raises an eyebrow, she smiles at him, ruefully. “By all means, though, I have his possessions here -” she gestures to two suitcases against the wall of the room - "if the Marshal wants to go through those.”
Hank looks at the two pathetic suitcases, and then back at Amanda. “There’s not going to be a funeral, I take it.”
“We all mourn in different ways.”
“Yeah.” Hank grunts. “I’ll bet.”
“Now,” she says. “Why don’t we talk about why you’re really here? I take it there’s a problem with Conrad.”
Conrad pipes up at this. “The Sheriff has no reason to say such a thing,” he says. “I’ve only just-”
“That’s fine.” Amanda sighs. “Conrad, please go wait outside.”
Conrad glances between the two of them with narrowed eyes. Then he nods, and glides silently to the door.
Hank looks over Amanda - taking her in. Another day, and another pretty dress. Her hair is done up in blue today. Her skin is clear, her eyes are dark and perceptive. She shows no outward signs of stress. She just looks the same as before.
In the back of his mind, Hank had had a big plan to go off at Amanda, today. Instead he just decides to get to the point.
He tells her he’s not going to be working with Conrad. The marshal has already heard this straight from the horse’s mouth, so there’s no way she can go over Hank’s head. She takes it in stride; doesn’t seem surprised. They can continue their searches in tangent, she says. Like Steerco’s doing a single fucking thing to look for Connor. Mr Hyneman can liaise regarding the men they’ve provided to the Sheriff’s Department.
Neither of them have anything more to say to each other after that. Nothing that won’t devolve into a shouting match, that is. He doesn’t bother extending his condolences, because Amanda doesn’t care.
Amanda walks him to the door. “Best of luck to you then, Sheriff,” she says. “It’s a shame we couldn’t work together more amicably.”
He looks her in the eye. Really looks at her. He doesn’t see a single iota of sorrow, of empathy - her eyes are hollow, and the only brightness is in the corners, in the frames. Her jaw is set. It looks to Hank like a challenge - like she’s daring Hank to challenge her back.
“Fuck you, Ms Stern,” says Hank.
He regrets it the moment the words leave his mouth. It sounded much better in his head. Out loud and between them, the words fall flat. It means nothing to her; just like everything else he has to say.
Amanda barely even flinches. She tells him, “Conrad will see you out.”
Hank spends his ride back to Prescott planning the next search party. The majority of his brain, at least, is dedicated to doing that. The rest - the rest is fantasizing about Amanda Stern’s head on a great big pike.
Markus follows North to the very edge of the plateau, climbing down to sit with her as far out as possible, with his legs dangling out over the drop beneath them. All of Yavapai - and the beginnings of Maricopa - is spread out beneath them like a map, fading out over hundreds of miles into an eerie, dreamy blue that loses its boundaries to merge with the sky. The day is overcast, and it cools the whole dappled surface of the world, bringing with it singular calm. To the west, a rainstorm rolls toward them; the land beneath the clouds there is heavy, obscured by precipitation.
Neither of them speak at first. They just watch the rain.
Markus doesn’t think he’ll ever be able to meet this view with anything short of awe.
“God only knows how many times I’ve told you both not to do that,” says Josh, bringing up their rear - he is sensibly hanging back on the firmer ground above them.
“One might wonder why you still think it’ll change anything, then,” says North.
Markus looks down at his hands; specifically, the left. Where his palm still burns. There’s something stuck under the skin there; an itch that he cannot scratch.
He sighs, and closes the hand into a fist. “I thought that went quite well,” he says.
He doesn’t have to see Josh to know he is frowning. “I’d hate to see what would constitute it going badly,” he says.
“You didn’t ask him about Steerco,” says North.
“No,” Markus admits. “I believe him, that he wouldn’t have told us.”
“He would if you’d only-”
“Yes,” says Markus, enunciating clearly, “but I decided not to do that.”
“You weren’t able to, you mean.”
Markus flexes his fingers. “What difference does it make?”
“It makes a Hell of a difference, Markus. Sometimes violence is the only language people are willing to understand. If you don’t know how to speak it, then-”
“An eye for an eye,” Josh interrupts, “and the world-”
Markus closes his eyes. He sincerely lacks the patience to supervise an argument between these two right now. “In any case -” he interrupts Josh - “if Steerco is intentionally putting the blame for Cherry on us, then Connor is not aware of it. He sincerely believes that we did it.”
“We need to deal with Zlatko,” says North. “We need to show them that if they want to go picking a fight, then they’ll lose. They can’t get the idea they can do something like that again.”
Josh, for once, doesn’t disagree. Markus nods. “We should be careful about starting a war with them, but yes. We need approach it proactively.”
“Given that… Avery… saw all of our faces, I don’t think we have much of a choice,” says Josh.
That’s true, too. It was just their luck that they’d left a witness alive. It couldn’t be helped at the time, of course; they’d been taken by surprise.
There are footsteps at the entrance to the caves. Markus turns to see Simon, walking casually toward them with his heliograph folded under one arm. He smiles at Markus, gives him a little wave.
Markus smiles back. “Everything alright with Connor?” he asks.
Simon stops as he reaches Josh, to search for a flat surface where it’ll be easier to begin setting up the tripod.
“I showed him the creek, and he ate. When I left -” Simon glances to the side, biting his lip against a smile - “when I left he was reading Wired Love.”
North scoffs, to Markus’ side. “What a stupid book,” she says.
Wired Love: A Romance of Dots and Dashes. Markus had received it as a gift from a girl he once knew, who worked at a telegraph office. At the time, he’d made the mistake of assuming it was a gag.
It was a mediocre novel about a woman who fell in love with a man she’d never met, who lived fifty miles away and went only by his initial, ‘C’. Markus can’t imagine it being their headhunter’s first choice of reading material. In fact, the idea of Connor sitting cross-legged on Markus’ bed, handcuffed and flipping through a romance novel - surely wearing an expression of terminal boredom - brings a smile to Markus’ face, if only because of its ridiculousness.
Simon, now preoccupied with the legs of the tripod, fails to catch this reaction. “He said it was the only thing you had that he hadn’t already read,” he says, to fill in the silence. “I think you might have finally found your literary match, Markus.”
“I’ll have to find him something better than that.”
“No, you won’t,” says North. “No, you won’t. Because he’s not going to be sticking around, is he, Markus?”
“Right,” says Markus, feeling a frown spread over his face. “About that.”
North sends him a glare - one of her best, in Markus’ opinion. It oozes pure vitriol. She already knows what he’s going to say. “We can’t keep him around, Markus,” she tells him, tonelessly. “He’s seen way too much. He could identify any one of us-”
“We’re not going to kill him,” says Markus, in a tone that brokers no argument.
“If you’re too squeamish to defend Jericho against Steerco,” says North, her voice rising in pitch, “then you should’ve thought of that before. I told you all along that you shouldn’t bring him to Jericho, but did you listen? No. And now who’s going to suffer as a result of that? Not you, Markus.” She points to to the ground below her, jabbing her finger toward the chamber where Markus knows breakfast is still being served. “It’s them.”
“What choice did we have, North?” asks Josh. “We could hardly just leave him there.”
“We could absolutely have done that.” She whips around to face him, redirecting her ire. Poor Josh, Markus thinks. “We could have left him. We could have taken him to the camp and then interrogated him there, since you’re all so keen on just sending him back so he can keep hunting us down. We could have asked him about Zlatko while he was still on the back foot. He would’ve taken the bait just as easily-”
Markus says, “Well, he still took it, didn’t he?”
“Only because he wanted to.” She lowers her brows. “But that’s not the point.”
North gets up; stands so she’s facing them all, with her hands on her hips. “I let you ignore me before, and you almost died as a result. Now I won’t let it happen again. We cannot let him go. We just can’t.”
“We aren’t killing Connor, North.”
“We are. Don’t you see? We don’t have a choice.” She folds her arms and then sighs. “The sooner you get it over with, the better. Don’t let this drag on.” She worries her lip - Markus can tell she’s trying to be sympathetic. “If you can’t do it, then let me.”
“No,” says Markus. He puts everything he’s got into that one single syllable. He doesn’t want to have to say anything more.
“Why,” says North, “do you even care what happens to him, Markus?” She seems genuinely lost; she’s confused. “He tried to kill you. He didn’t even bat an eyelid.”
As it happens, Markus had been looking forward to meeting Connor. The man was a physical manifestation of the frustration that Markus himself had engendered in Steerco. He was their way of saying, “look, we hear you. We’re taking you seriously.” He was evidence of Jericho’s success - Markus had looked forward to meeting with him, to engaging him - he’d almost thought about it like a battle of the wits. He’d heard so much about Steerco’s investigator - Connor Stern was ruthless, Connor Stern had a sharp eye and a deadly hunter’s instinct. But Markus had still run circles around him.
He’d been so naive. He was acting like it was a game, like it was fun to taunt this man who was willing to shoot him on sight. And then, of course, Cherry happened, and it all came crashing down. And then-
It was barbaric, what’d been done to Connor. It was inhumane. Markus had felt sick to his stomach at the sight, and still does. He had been hardly recognizable.
He had stared up at the three of them without a hint of light or life in his eyes. He had been ready - no, willing - to die. And Markus had treated it like a joke.
He feels like he owes it to Connor Stern, somehow, to make things right. This morning he’d looked at him over the candlelight and seen anger and pain in his eyes, at injustices Markus would’ve reacted to in the exact same way. He’d laid hands on Connor and felt him shaking, while still speaking in that monotonous tone of voice. He sees humanity in the man that he’d been able to deny before, when Connor was only a concept - a formless thorn in Jericho’s side.
North thinks that Connor is mad. She says as much, now. He is emotionless, she says, expressionless - and then he snaps for no reason, ready to kill at the drop of a hat. He’s a powder keg, she says. He’s dynamite with a burnt up fuse.
Markus doesn’t think that Connor has no reason to behave the way that he does. He’s been pushed to his breaking point, and then some. The apathy is a mask.
Connor somewhat reminds Markus of the descriptions he’s read of the seraphim - cold, unearthly, detached from the workings of the human world. Above it all. An executor of divine will - a will that, specifically, calls for Markus’ head. But beneath it all, he’s just a man. Not even a man, Markus thinks, but a boy. The facade is cracked.
Markus doesn’t think Connor is mad. Markus thinks Connor is desperate. And he’s wrong about them, and about Jericho, and if Markus could only prove to him that that was the case, then maybe - just maybe - Connor could be an invaluable asset to them.
All of this passes through Markus’ mind, and Markus isn’t wholly sure where it’s coming from. It's like a whisper - somebody else whispering from behind him. He knows that North is waiting on him to speak. They all are. He doubts he could express to her his intentions - rather, his hopes. He knows North is offended that Markus seems to be willing to risk Jericho’s integrity for the sake of a stranger.
What he tells them in the end is this: he needs a few days to think it over. Connor will be kept under close watch, and in three days’ time, Markus will make a decision as to whether to pull the plug, or to look for alternative solutions.
Josh and Simon assent to this. North narrows her eyes, but doesn’t disagree outright. She tells him that if it becomes obvious to her than Connor is a threat to the lives of Jericho’s residents, then she will deal with him herself. Markus doesn’t dispute this. He knows, at the end of the day, that Jericho needs to be a priority.
There is a lull in the conversation. Each member looks out at the vista below them, watching - in Simon’s case, waiting. Simon's gaze is fixed on the horizon. The heliograph is in position, and the click of his fingers on the key is the only backdrop to the others' silence. He's trying to signal the farm.
Simon isn’t receiving a response.
“It’s too early in the day,” Markus reminds him. The time to look for flashes is exactly at noon. Glancing at the sun through the clouds, Markus would wager it isn’t even ten o’clock yet.
“But it isn’t like they’ve got anything else to do,” Simon says.
“Did you tell them to scout for a new location?”
“Yes, I did,” says Simon. “Of course. I shouldn't have had to tell them.”
“Then they’re probably still doing that.”
Simon frowns at the distance. “Or the Sheriff’s Department returned, and they’re caught,” he murmurs.
“I doubt the law would have cause to send people back out to Camp Verde,” Markus says. “They already got what they wanted there.”
Simon turns, finally, to face him. “I just don’t want you to forget how serious things are, now,” he says. “North is right. None of them are going to be taking any prisoners.”
Markus hasn’t forgotten. Markus knows.
“For God’s sake, Simon,” says North, interjecting. “It’s the rain that’s cutting them off. Where do you think it’s coming from in the first place?” She waves a hand vaguely at the world in front of them. “They probably can’t even see the noses on their faces right now.”
Simon, distracted, looks at North, and then the horizon, and then the heliograph, and then the horizon again. “Maybe,” he says. “Maybe I’ll try again later.” He doesn’t move, though; stuck on the stormclouds as if in a trance, still hopeful for a response. Eventually he shakes himself out of it. “I need to pack this away before that hits us.”
Simon returns inside - he’s soon followed by North, and then Josh. Markus stays out in the open for a little while.
He watches the rain come. It’s only as the first pattering droplets hit his skin that he gets up to leave.
Firstly, I hope this chapter (specifically, the first part) was as satisfying to read as it was to write.
Secondly, 'Wired Love' is a real novel, published in 1880. I couldn't believe my luck when I found it: http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/24353/pg24353-images.html
Finally - I know that Conrad is the name people often choose to use for -60. I tried to make it obvious in the text, but this Conrad is not related to Connor, although I do consider him to loosely fulfill RK800 -60's role.
As usual, thanks for reading! If you like this fic (or if you hate it), please drop a comment with your thoughts!
Chapter 13: Wonderland
Connor does some snooping. Markus seriously pushes his luck.
EDIT: Someone... now, I'm not going to be naming any names, but SOMEONE... made a continuity error in the last few parts of Hank's storyline. Hank said a few chapters ago that he was going to be out for a week looking for Connor; however, he was supposed to have returned to Prescott earlier than that would allow for, on June 5th. I went back and changed the first bit so he was only gone for a few days. It shouldn't change much, but still. My bad.
Just to be clear, in chapter 12 both storylines were taking place on the same day (June 5th).
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Connor keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop.
It doesn’t come. It doesn’t come that day or the next, and he begins to suspect that it isn’t ever going to happen. It doesn’t make any sense to him, and he wouldn’t have believed it if he heard it in a story, but the fact of the matter is, he’s living it.
It’s not as if they’ve forgotten him. They demonstratively haven’t forgotten him. Connor has meals delivered to Markus’ room like clockwork, and heads popping in the doorway throughout the day to ask if there’s anything that he needs. Or, just wants.
They obviously cannot give him what he wants, because what he wants is to ride back to Prescott with Markus in tow. But the sentiment is still appreciated. Connor finishes Wired Love just as Markus appears with a stackful of books for him to select from; Markus apologizes for the limited reading material.
Markus sits on the bed and presents each book one by one, summarizing them as he goes. Some of them - most of them - Connor is already familiar with. They discuss the ones they know and speculate about the ones they don’t; the conversation is easy, if only because Markus is somewhat distracted and fails to notice Connor scrutinizing him.
Connor eventually selects another dime-novel romance. Something he hasn’t read already this time. He doesn’t quite understand the motivations of the characters in these pieces, but he thinks that he’d certainly like to. They intrigue him, most likely because they portray themes he can hardly access in himself.
Markus wants to talk about this too. Connor isn’t sure what he hopes to gain from these conversations. He isn’t sure what Markus wants from him at all.
It doesn’t make sense. It doesn’t make sense to Connor that his greatest priority at this moment is selecting a leisure activity. It doesn’t make sense that Markus is so carefully trying to ensure Connor’s comfort. Three days ago, Connor had tried to kill this man. Now he acts like he wants to form a reading club like a little old lady with nothing better to do.
It’s an act. It’s an act of playing houses, but it’s played out to a tee. Markus catches Connor trying awkwardly to stretch out his legs from on top of the bed and starts to uncuff him when Markus is in the room or there’s a guard at the door. Markus catches Connor patting the pockets of his slacks and twisting his fingers together, and tosses a coin Connor’s way as if he can read Connor’s mind. Connor inspects it, settled in his palm; it’s an 1866 quarter. It’s the exact same coin Connor found under his bed in Prescott. Connor looks up at him, speechless; Markus smiles.
Objectively - separately from the things that he does, and the life that he leads - Markus has a very handsome face, Connor thinks, and it is disconcertingly charming to watch it crease up into laugh lines. “I hope that’s what you were looking for,” Markus says, “because I didn’t find anything else in your pockets when you came here.”
“I- it is,” says Connor. His pockets. He hadn't realized this was in there.
He supposes he’s not getting those clothes back. They were all of them ruined by the time Markus found him.
He straightens his back and brings back his shoulders, reminding himself to stop staring. “Thank you,” he says, as he closes his fist.
“Not at all,” says Markus, returning to whatever it is he’s doing at his desk. “Let me know if there’s anything else that you need.”
It can’t last, Connor thinks. They must want something from him. He doesn’t know what it is yet, but soon enough, he will. Markus - polite, charming, concerned Markus, the man who is singlehandedly bringing down an entire mining operation - Markus must still want something from him.
His behavior seems so genuine, though. It is not in contradiction to his unyielding, deliberate mannerisms when speaking as the leader of Jericho; it is a complement. Markus cares, deeply, Connor thinks. Markus must tire of having to run through his words beforehand in his mind when he speaks. The Markus that Connor is seeing now is the Markus behind the scenes - who is tired, but still thoughtful, and still artfully expressive. Who sits at his desk and reads with a completely unguarded face, eyes flickering across the page as his expression shifts to mirror the words.
Connor feels himself relax into it all against his will. He no longer finds himself tensing when Markus enters the room. He sits up and leans toward him. He waits for whichever new anecdote is going to be shared.
Maybe Markus really wasn’t responsible for Cherry. Maybe he is telling the truth when he says Connor is safe here.
Maybe, Connor thinks. Then again, maybe not. And if it is true, then nothing will happen, and if it is not, then you’re going to die. So it might be prudent to err on the side of caution.
Still, Connor feels the coils deep within him start to incessantly unwind. He feels himself able to rest and regain clarity to his thoughts. More than anything else, Connor feels himself increasingly curious as to who exactly it is that he’s with.
One morning Lucy comes to check his sutures and then forgets to reattach the handcuff when she leaves. Connor stands up to stretch with a yawn, and then he walks, as casually as possible, to the doorway, and he sees that nobody is guarding the door.
Connor checks the drawers to Markus’ desk. He knows there’s a gun in here somewhere. They’re all locked, though, and he can’t find the key.
Connor pokes his head out through the empty doorway again. He glances left, and then right. Still, there’s nobody there.
Markus gave Connor some shoes to wear to ease the pressure from the blisters on his soles when he stands. That was very thoughtful of Markus. Connor pulls them on, and then he leaves.
He takes the path on the left, because he knows the other way leads to the creek that everyone uses as an alternative to an outhouse, which is frequently in use. After a while, the corridor branches several more times and Connor ends up travelling upwards to avoid the voices and footsteps he hears coming from the complex’s nexus.
Jericho, he finds, is less like a rabbit warren in structure and more like a complex and contorted building. The corridors are lined with windows into personal rooms, under which he has to duck to avoid detection. All the different chambers are stacked on top of each other and he ends up crouching into a crawl space above them. Beneath him, shadows in the warm light throw the shapes of figures against the candy-pink stone he’s crept by. He thinks he’s reached a dead end, but there were few alternative paths he could have taken without being seen.
Connor is considering doubling back on himself and trying a different route when he sees it - white light, glittering off of the facets in the rock ahead. It is too cold to have come from a lamp. If Connor didn’t know better, he would have guessed it was daylight.
He crawls ahead until the path opens up again. Soon enough he can stand, and the channel merges with a more formally carved staircase, forming another corridor that leads onward. The light ahead is brilliant, and Connor has to throw a hand up at first to avoid giving himself a headache. He presses carefully forward as his eyes grow accustomed to the change, until he turns a final bend and sees an opening. Beyond it is a clear blue sky.
It is daylight. Connor is looking at a day in motion. He steps out of the mouth in the cave and the world expands before him until he’s looking straight upward into the morning sunlight. He can feel it on his skin; feel the summer heat radiating off of the sedimentary rock beneath his feet. Connor has stepped out onto some manner of plateau, and beneath him is what might be the most expansive view of Arizona that he’s ever laid eyes on.
He needs to revise everything he’d thought he understood about where he was. He should have been hundreds of feet underground. Instead he’s above it, he’s having it presented to him from below.
Behind him, Connor sees a rock face reaching up to meet the cloud cover - when he reaches the edge of the platform he’s on, the same face drops steeply down to meet a treeline below. When Connor leans out as far as he can, he makes out the base of the facades of carved chambers and channels a storey or so below him.
There’s no way down. None that he would survive, in any case.
So Jericho is not underground. It’s in the face of a cliff. It’s carved right into the rock, in the same manner as the Manitou cliff dwellings of Colorado. It must, Connor thinks, be hundreds of years old, and have taken tens of years to complete. Perhaps it was the Anasazi themselves who built such a place, or the Mogollon people. Connor can’t be sure where he is, after all, after having traveled for so long - but he’s confident he hasn’t made it all the way to Colorado.
And Jericho’s base is supposed to be a well-kept secret. He cannot imagine why its creators would have abandoned such a place. He can’t imagine how it fell into Jericho’s hands.
He turns away from the cliff face to inspect the view. Perhaps, he reasons, he can locate himself in the mountain ranges around him. But none of them bear any familiarity.
He would need to inspect a larger map than the ones he’s dealt with in Prescott. Connor folds his arms, and sighs.
Even without the aesthetic sensibilities of a more artistic man, Connor can tell that it is beautiful. He can take it apart piece by piece - the lines in the stone, the utter complexity of the mile-wide formations that rise up across the horizon in stacks of basalt and granite and quartz, in desert gold and coral pink and clay red, with coatings of rip-rap and thriving summer cypress and acacia and ash. Connor is sure he is looking at fauna too. He could be looking at human beings, at settlements too far away to be distinguishable.
The earth is alive. The rock is alive, and the wind, and the sky. All of it marries together so breathtakingly perfectly, and Connor came out here on a whim and just found it. Waiting for thousands of years to be seen by him and ready to live on for thousands of years once he leaves.
He stands on the edge of the cliff and forgets himself. He becomes lost in this moment. For a second, there’s nothing else - there’s no Steerco, no Jericho, no fighting and killing and war. Connor is nothing but a witness. He feels the world around him and he feels it inside of him too.
He looks down at his hands and he traces the lines on his palms. He follows the contours of the fading bruises there, purple and yellow and blue. He returns to himself, and at the same time he hears the crunching of gravel behind him. He turns.
“Josh says we’re not allowed to go so close to the edge. He says we could fall.”
It’s a child. A little girl; Connor would guess she’s around nine years old. She’s watching him suspiciously, clutching a plush fox to her chest. She’s alone.
What on earth, Connor thinks, is a little girl is doing in a place like this?
He glances about himself, and sees that he is indeed still standing with his heels in line with the edge. He starts to climb back toward the entrance of the cave, throwing a smile across his face that he hopes is reassuring.
“That’s some very good advice,” Connor says. “That’s a good rule. I wasn’t thinking.”
The girl nods, but doesn’t speak again. Connor stops when there’s still ten paces or so between them. She is so small, and doesn’t seem all too happy that he’s here. Connor wonders if she knows who he is.
He crouches down below her eye level, ignoring the ache in his muscles that the motion brings about. “My name’s Connor,” he tells her. “What’s your name?”
She takes a few more moments to consider whether she wants to reply. Eventually, she tells him, “I’m Alice."
“That’s a nice name,” Connor says. “Alice means ‘noble’. Did you know that?”
Alice frowns at him. “Connor means, um, someone who likes dogs,” Connor says. Stupidly. “I like dogs a lot.”
She’s looking at him like he’s grown a second head.
Inwardly, Connor groans. He has no idea how to talk to children. They’re like an entirely different species to him. “Do you… do you like dogs?” he asks.
She holds out her toy. “This is Foxy,” she says.
“Oh, well. Foxes are kind of like dogs.”
Right. Now, Connor would very much like to know what this girl is doing here. He can’t very well ask her when she’s already on the cusp of leaving, just to spare them both from this ordeal of a conversation. What do children enjoy? Connor thinks. There has to be something.
“Hey, Alice,” he says - struck by a flash of inspiration. “Do you want to see a magic trick?”
This seems to interest her. She nods, and steps cautiously closer. Connor produces the coin from his pocket and starts to roll it back and forth across the knuckles of his left hand.
Alice takes a seat in front of him and Connor flips the coin high up into the hair. He catches it easily enough, although he can tell it’d be easier with his dominant hand. It’s still too sore, though. He’d fumble. Instead he focuses on manipulating the coin with his left. Trying to get a better feel for it.
After a few more showy flourishes he waves his right hand over the left, palms the quarter and then holds up his left hand to show Alice it’s gone. She takes his hand in her own and flips it delicately over both ways, her brow furrowing when she confirms the coin’s nowhere to be seen.
“Where did it go?” Alice asks, trying to find the quarter somewhere on the ground. “I don’t know,” Connor says, and passes it back into his left hand while she’s still distracted. “Oh, hang on.”
She looks up. “Hold still,” Connor says. He reaches up and retrieves the coin from the air behind her right ear. “Here we go,” he says, displaying it to her on an open palm. “I think it must like you.”
Alice ghosts her hand over her ear, her eyes widening considerably. Just as he’d hoped, she’s entranced.
Suddenly Alice shoots to her feet. “Wait here,” she says - and she leaves.
Connor sits back on his heels. It’s not exactly the reaction he’d desired. He wonders whether she’s going to come back with an adult, and whether he should just cut his losses and leave.
He doesn’t. He still wants to speak to her. A few minutes pass, and then Alice returns. Extending out behind her is a chain of four different children. Each new one that materializes bewilders Connor even further.
Where are all these children coming from?
Alice’s reinforcements assemble in a semi-circle around him and wait patiently. Connor deduces that they’re here for a show. So he sits fully and begins, again, to run the coin over his knuckles, tossing it back and forth between his hands. He spins it on the tip of his index finger to a chorus of ‘ooh’s and ‘aah’s. Then he goes for a series of more complicated vanishing tricks.
As Connor manipulates the coin, he begins to address questions to the assembly. Specifically, he asks them what they’re all doing here. They mumble their answers, each too distracted for a proper conversation. “I wanted to see the magic,” says a boy - maybe five years of age.
“That’s not what I mean,” Connor says. “What are you doing in this cliff? In Jericho?”
“We live here,” says Alice. She looks Connor in the eye, and she smiles. “You’re funny.”
Her voice is so soft, and so gentle. Everything she says is a - ‘blink and you’ll miss it,’ kind of deal. Connor knows he’s technically being insulted, but he still finds it endearing.
“What do you mean that you live here?” he asks. “For how long have you lived here?”
“She means it’s our home,” says another, older girl. “Don’t you have a home?” Alice asks him.
“Of course I do,” Connor says. “But I thought Jericho was a… special clubs, for adults. I didn’t realize there were minors here.”
“There’s lots of miners here,” says the older girl. “Some farmers too. My parents are farmers.”
“My mommy was a housemaid,” Alice adds.
Connor smiles to himself. “I see,” he says.
He performs a few more tricks before the act starts getting repetitive and he decides it’s probably time to wrap things up. With any luck, he can get back to Markus’ room before anyone realizes he’s gone. The children groan when he stands, begging for an encore, but he tells them they’ll have to wait for another time - and behave, too, if they want him to bring the coin out again. “We should all go back inside,” he says. “I’m sure your parents are worried about you.”
Alice leads the way. As Connor’s still getting accustomed to the lower lighting, he hears her stop, and say, “Oh. Hello, Markus.”
Connor jumps about a foot up in the air.
“Hello Alice,” says Markus. “Hello, Connor.”
Connor quickly wipes his palms down over his trouser legs. He swallows thickly. “I,” he says. “Um.”
Markus is leaning against the stone wall with his arms folded and an exceedingly stern expression on his face. Connor has no way of telling how long he’s been waiting there. Markus turns to the children, and says to them, “Why don’t you all run along? Connor’s right. You shouldn’t be out here without an adult.”
“Connor’s an adult,” Alice points out.
“Connor’s a… guest. He doesn’t count,” Markus says. “Go back and play inside. The grownups are going to stay here and talk.”
The children do as they’re told. Connor is left alone with Markus, with his blood rushing to his face.
He clears his throat. “I-”
“You shouldn’t have done that.”
“I didn’t mean,” Connor says - Markus interrupts him. “I don’t care,” Markus says. “You have no idea how lucky you are that it was me who found you. There are people here who would jump at the first opportunity to get rid of you, Connor. All they want is a reason. I told you as much before.”
Markus gestures outside, toward the plateau. “This is a very good reason,” he says.
“I understand,” Connor says. Markus raises an eyebrow.
“Do you really?”
“Yes. It won’t happen again.” It probably will, he thinks. Next time he just won’t get caught.
Markus sighs, and shakes his head. “In any case,” he says. “Come with me. I have something to show you.”
Markus is silent as they return to his room, and resistant to Connor’s attempts to fish for information. “This place is an architectural marvel,” Connor says. “I wonder who could build such a thing.”
No response. Markus takes a towel out from the gap between a chest and his wall. Connor can’t see what it’s wrapped around. He turns immediately to leave his chambers, clearly expecting Connor to follow.
“Where are we going?” Connor asks.
Markus turns right outside of his room, and then takes him up and past the creek. The path is no longer lit here, and their footsteps echo up and down the dampening walls. Connor reaches into his trouser pocket and fingers the coin.
“Where are we going?” he asks, again.
They end up in a large, natural chamber. Water drips from the stalactites overhead, and rushes into a pool in the center of the space. This must be, Connor thinks, the same stream that he’s seen before, only higher up.
Connor can barely make out the forms of the rock in the dark. Markus sets down his package and travels around the cavern, lighting candles that have already been left in position around the space. He leaves Connor to watch him and wait. When he’s finished, he turns back around and he crosses his arms.
Finally, Markus speaks.
“I don’t think that I overreacted earlier,” Markus says. He scrutinizes Connor carefully as he does so. “You have to understand that these people - all of these people - are my responsibility. They’re looking to me for guidance. They’re putting their faith in me. I have- I don’t want to misuse it.”
“I really didn’t mean for them all to come out like that,” Connor says. “And there were… so many-”
Markus’ expression softens. “They can be a bit overwhelming,” he admits.
“Markus,” Connor says. “I want to make this very clear. Whatever the differences you and I have - I would never, ever, willfully endanger- well, children,” he finishes lamely.
“You wouldn’t? I’d say you might not end up with a choice.”
“No, but this changes things. Nobody in Steerco knows that there are children here. I didn’t know it. I-” Connor rubs the back of his head. “I’ve made several miscalculations in my profile of Jericho.”
“Look,” Markus says. “You and I need to come to some sort of agreement here. I know that you don’t want to be here. I don’t want it either, but it’s just the way things have played out. I also know I can’t expect you to stay in that room all day without going stir-crazy.”
Markus drums his fingers on his thigh as he speaks. He gesticulates all the while, and Connor isn’t sure that Markus realizes he’s doing it. Experimentally, Connor straightens his back and folds his hands behind himself. Markus mirrors his stance almost immediately.
“I think,” Markus says, “that it makes sense that you should be allowed to walk around Jericho so long as you’re not giving people any trouble and you’re not going near any of the exits without supervision. I really want to impress on you, though, if you try anything stupid - again - it won’t go down well. At all.”
“That all makes sense to me,” Connor says.
“No more escape attempts. Or whatever that was,” Markus says.
Connor’s not entirely sure what that had been. If it was an escape attempt, it was very poorly executed.
“When you were out there,” Markus says, “on the plateau, did you think about jumping?”
“I think you heard me perfectly clearly.”
Connor considers his answer. “L’appel du vide ?” he asks, knowing that that isn’t what Markus is talking about “No, I didn’t experience that.” He’d been too distracted, if he’s being honest, by the view.
Markus’ lips thin at the evasive answer. He’d been referring, of course, to Connor trying to shoot himself in the head on the day that they met. Connor isn’t considering doing something like that again. Not as anything other than a last-ditch resort.
Markus crosses over to the pack he’d brought with him, and he starts to unfold it. As he does so, he says, “I brought you here because I thought you might like a bath. I’ve also been thinking - I’m sure you’d appreciate a shave, right?” He holds something up to the light. It’s a folded-up razor, Connor sees.
“If I give this to you,” Markus says, “are you going to try any of those stupid things I was talking about?”
I don’t do stupid things, he wants to say. But that’s not true, is it? Demonstratively not, in the last several weeks. Instead he just says, “I’m not.”
“Right. Sure. So can I trust you with this?”
Connor wants to shave. Very much. “Yes,” he says.
“Okay,” says Markus. “Catch.”
Connor reaches out, pulling the razor easily out of the air.
“I’m going to wait outside,” Markus says. He waves a book. “Everything you need should be in here. Take your time.”
And he leaves.
Connor strips out of his borrowed clothes without a second thought. The water is shockingly cold when he tests it with a toe, but he bites his tongue and walks straight in, letting out a measured exhale against the cold.
He’d been desperate for a bath. Since he’d arrived, all that he’d managed was a dry wash, and Lucy had taken the worst of the blood away with a wet rag, that first night - if he remembers correctly - but Connor knows that he’s still covered in grime, and he stinks.
If Connor had his way, he’d take a bath every day of his life. He hates being dirty like this. Absolutely loathes it. So, despite the cold, being in the water is heavenly, and he can’t help but sigh with relief once he’s in. He gets to work with the soap bar Markus left, making sure he’s thorough as possible while still avoiding the deeper knife wounds. He stays in as long as he can bear, repeatedly washing out his hair. In the end, when he’s shivering too hard to continue, he gets out and dresses in new clothes - slacks and an oversized blouse. He spreads out his arms and looks down at the thing, hanging off of his frame. Connor is by no means a slightly built man, but he’s lost a lot of weight, and Markus is larger.
Connor sighs, and supposes he’ll just have to make do.
There’s a small mirror and a comb, and Connor sets it up near the candlelight so he can see what he’s doing as he shaves. He is shocked at the sight of his own face - there are still bruises all across his cheek and jaw, as well as the tail end of a black eye. His cheeks are hollow and his eyes look dull, somehow. Hand-in-hand with the pathetic stubble, it gives him the appearance of a vagrant. He can only imagine what he looked like before.
He shaves carefully and combs his hair. Already drying, it springs up in waves that he cannot get under control, no matter how hard he tries. In the end he has to give up and acknowledge that this is the best he can do. He scowls at his reflection and the transient in the mirror scowls back.
Inexplicably, Connor feels tears start to prick at the corners of his eyes. The realization that he’s about to start crying is enough to shock him out of it entirely. Connor doesn’t know why he reacted like that. It’s a pointless reaction, he thinks. It achieves nothing. It’s childish. It is not something that he has allowed himself for a long, long time. As long as he can remember, really.
He reminds himself that Markus is waiting right outside the cavern. He’s out of sight, but he can certainly hear what’s going on. Connor swipes at his eyes and then stands, to start packing things up. As he picks up the razor, he turns it over, considering it.
He doesn’t know that he could beat Markus in a fight right now, but if Connor took him by surprise, he could probably slit the larger man’s throat. Of course, that being said, Connor’s survival is unquestionably tied up in Markus’ own. He could possibly fight his way out of Jericho with Markus’ gun, but the likelihood of Connor getting himself shot is much higher. Then all the information he’s gathered about the people here would be useless.
Connor thinks of Alice, and how strange it was to see her standing there watching him. He thinks about how little he really knows about these people. Connor wants to know more.
Connor returns to the entrance of the space and clears his throat so Markus will know he’s coming. Markus stands, and looks him over, and his eyes widen minutely at whatever he sees. Connor pointedly hands over the razor, and keeps the rest of the pack under his arm. But that’s not what Markus was looking at. He keeps watching Connor for a moment, and then shakes his head and meets Connor’s eyes, with a slight little smile.
“I’m finished,” Connor says. Pointing out the obvious.
“Yes,” says Markus, “you look good. You look- well, much better.”
“I look like a man dressed in women’s clothing, you mean,” Connor says, gesturing to the frumpy blouse.
“It’s not women’s clothing,” Markus insists - he’s immediately offended, and Connor privately finds it quite amusing. “It’s my clothing.”
“I know,” Connor says. “You have quite peculiar tastes.”
“I have fashionable tastes. I’m not-”
Markus huffs. “In any case,” he says. “It’s certainly good to see you with all your blood on the inside of your body for once.”
“Well,” Connor says, suppressing a smile. “I’d very much like to keep it this way.”
“Not an unreasonable request.”
They walk together back to Markus’ rooms. On the way back, Connor can’t help but ask Markus if he has any pomade. He knows before he says it that the answer is probably “No.”
“Connor, don’t worry about the pomade,” Markus says. “Or the shirt. Nobody here cares.”
“Well, I care,” Connor says. “Do you think anyone else here might have some?”
“I doubt it,” Markus says.
“How is it,” Connor asks him, “that you’ve stolen hundreds of dollars of trade goods from all across Arizona, but you don’t have a single container of pomade?”
Markus chuckles. “I’ll get you pomade if it’s so important to you,” he says.
“You mean that you’ll steal it.”
Markus gives him a wide, wide smile. “Connor, I’m afraid that if we’re discluding things that I stole, then I probably can’t help you much at all.”
Connor snorts. “I guess I should have figured as much,” he says.
That evening, Connor is presented with a bowl of rabbit stew - not for the first time - and it’s half the size of what he usually gets. At first he wonders whether it’s some sort of punishment for leaving the room today, but Markus joins him to eat and he sees that the other man has even less. He only finishes half of it before offering the rest to Connor.
Connor doesn’t accept it. He is no longer starving; he’s satisfied enough with what he gets. Markus needs it just as much as he does.
Markus works at his desk for a while before leaving Connor alone with his thoughts. It doesn’t take him long to get to sleep, but before he does, he wonders where Markus himself is sleeping. He wonders if everyone else is getting as much to eat.
He wonders whether, if it wasn’t for Connor, Jericho would all be eating chicken.
Markus tries to hide it, but he’s stressed. They’re on rations, and none of Jericho’s leadership seems to have left the compound since Connor’s arrival. It could be because of him, but it’s probably more likely that they’re all on edge after Cherry.
In his mind’s eye, Connor brings out the file that he keeps on Jericho, and jots down alongside everything else that he’s learned that they’re running out of food.
Mesa Verde cliff dwellings in Colorado: https://www.nps.gov/meve/learn/historyculture/cliff_dwellings_home.htm
Chapter 14: Waiting
Connor has a word with the man who's been ruining his life. The Jericho Bottoms' Association has a tense first meeting. Markus goes on a shopping trip.
In his dreams there are rabbits running circles around him.
He stands in a field of bluestem, following their paths visually as they dart in and out among the stalks.
He’s in a wonderfully familiar place, and at first he tries to trace it back to the memory that bore it - and then he realizes with a pang of disappointment that there is none, that he has never been here before, and he never will.
But Connor is present, now, in the space. He stands in this field of sunkissed flowers, hemmed in on the horizon by the silhouettes of a coniferous army. He watches the rabbits. The wind runs under his ribcage; the sun shines straight through him. Connor finds himself expanding beneath it, breathing in the fresh spring air and never letting it go. He is gold and dust inside. He finds himself growing.
But no matter how tall and quick and wise he gets, he cannot catch the rabbits. They skip out of his reach so easily, leaving only the trace of their presence to mock him. If rabbits could speak, Connor thinks, these ones would be laughing.
Connor thinks of Tantalus. Standing in a pool of purest water, and without a drop to drink. Every time he reaches for them…
So Connor doesn’t bother. He just stands there and watches. The rabbits run round and around, and Connor simply stands there in the sun. Connor spreads out his hands, feels the wind across his fingers. The grass rustles behind him, and Connor knows he needs to turn around.
“Hello again,” Connor says.
“Hello again,” says the man waiting there.
This man is an incredibly familiar man. He has an incredibly familiar face. It’s his. It’s Connor’s face.
His eyes are always bright, and he smiles like he really means it. Straight back, perfect posture - it could be a mirror image, but it’s not. Connor doesn’t know what it is about the other man that’s so different. It’s him. But then again, it very much isn’t.
What exactly it is that has changed, he can’t say.
He knows that this man has been watching him. He has been waiting for Connor at night on and off since his arrival in Jericho, and he was watching Connor at Rupert Travis’ farm as well. From the way he leans toward the racing circle, and from the fervor in his eyes, Connor can see that he’s grown impatient of waiting.
Something changes in the space between them in the moment that Connor greets him, tonight. Something breaks down.
The rabbits stop running. The dust stops, and so does the wind that drives it.
And the other man looks at Connor’s halted world and says, “Petit a petit, l’oiseau fait son nid.”
It comes out so softly.
Connor holds up one hand, so they can both see the way that the whole limb sifts within itself, fading out in translucent ripples of gold. “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he says. “I’m falling apart.”
“Et j'essaye de t'aider,” says Connor. Not-Connor. The other Connor. He takes an aborted step forward and then stops, his hands still outstretched. His smile turns rigid when he sees Connor’s scowl.
“Stop talking like that,” Connor says. “In fact, if you really want to help me, you can just leave. You can leave me alone.”
The other man shakes his head. “There’s something wrong with you, though, Connor,” he says, and his voice comes out cold. “There’s something inside you that’s missing. Somehow I’m the only one to ever see it.”
The rabbits start running again. They’re running around him in circles and they’re drawing up ever so close. If his other self would only leave, Connor could certainly catch them now.
“Cut it out, then,” Connor says. “Cut it all the way out. I don’t want it.”
That shuts him up. The other Connor stares at him, agape. You can’t possibly mean that, his expression seems to say. Connor would tell him - Try me.
“Now get going,” Connor says. Petulantly, almost. “Get out of my life. All you do is mess it up.”
He looks hurt. He says, “Why are you doing this?”
Pourquoi fais-tu ça?
Connor feels himself recoil. He feels his fingers clench. The other Connor knows that he’s not allowed to speak French. Connor is - no, this isn’t right -
He’s so angry. Connor is shaking with rage. He says, “Are you deaf? I said leave me alone! ”
“Fine,” the other Connor says. Suddenly.
He brings a hand up to the air between them, and then brushes it aside - as if he’s brushing the whole world aside. The rabbits all scatter. Half of the anger goes hot on their tails, but the rest stays inside him - curling, curdling. Lashing at his heart. Connor can’t stop shaking.
He’s so elegant, the way he moves. Does Connor look like that? And he’s so expressive, too. Does Connor really emote like that? When he tries so hard to keep his thoughts off his face?
The other man looks wearily to the sky. He opens his eyes, and the sun is inside them. It’s brilliant.
And then that’s it.
The next day, Markus is gone.
Connor sits in bed for a while with an empty head before he remembers that the rules have changed now. That Markus said was free to walk around Jericho.
So he gets up and stretches, and tilts his head from side to side, cracking his back. He covers a yawn. Then he puts his hand on his hips and has a look around.
He can see that Markus cleaned up overnight. Clothes that had previously spilled out onto the floor are tucked back into the appropriate dresser drawers; the fiddle in its case has been remounted up against the wall. All Markus’ knicknacks have been relegated to the back of the desk, where they line up in a neat row. Connor’s things - or, rather, the things that have been allocated to Connor - are folded up in a tidy pile by the bed. The clothes he had been wearing before, and had forgotten about, are washed and hung up to dry. His quarter’s on the bedside table next to a full glass of water.
His first order of business is to go through the notes on the desk, reading through everything that’s been left out. It isn’t much. Markus has obviously had the presence of mind to lock everything away that he thought could be important.
What’s left are itineraries for days that have already passed, and stock takes. Probably also outdated, but no actual date is ever listed. Connor scans them and commits them to memory anyways. He figures it can’t hurt.
There’s also a personal note.
Good morning Connor, it says. I hope you slept well.
I have to be out today, and I’m not sure when I’m going to return. Sorry to leave you
hanging with nothing to do but it came up quite suddenly. I left some more books out for you to have a look at if you want. I managed to find some Austen, actually.
Like I said, feel free to wander around Jericho today. Josh is expecting you for breakfast. He can help you figure out who to talk to and who to avoid.
Not to put too fine a point on it, but please don’t kill anyone while I’m gone. The people here are civilians for the most part. They haven’t done anything wrong.
Thanks in advance, and yours faithfully,
Connor frowns as he folds up the note. Glancing back to the shelf by the bed, he can see that Markus has indeed supplemented Connor’s little library quite a bit. Connor would rather make as much use of his recovered mobility as he can today, though. He’ll have plenty of time to read later.
There’s a new painting hung across the wall from Markus’ desk today. Actually, it might have been there yesterday; Connor isn’t sure exactly when it arrived, or from where.
It’s conveying something that Connor isn’t sure he understands. Desperation, perhaps. The colors are unrealistic, but vivid, and it actually ends up serving to make the painting itself seem more real. Like something that could be experienced very passionately.
A hand reaches upward, and he’s not sure what it has in its grasp but the fingers are also outstretched - searching for more. Composed through heavy, erratic brushstrokes. It conveys a sort of helpless frustration to him, Connor thinks.
And if something in it reminds him of rabbits, running in circles, then the fault more likely lies in the perceiver than the image perceived.
Connor runs a hand through his hair. He goes and pockets his coin, and tells himself that he really should take better care of this thing. Then he pulls on his shoes and prepares to explore a little.
Now that he can travel the more heavily trafficked passages, Connor navigates to the complex’s main chamber almost immediately. It’s apparently in use as a sort of communal dining hall. He estimates it to be directly underneath what Markus calls ‘the plateau’, and it too has one face open to the world, allowing the space to be flooded with morning sunlight. They’re below the treeline here, though - safe from prying eyes.
All around the edges are channels and windows leading away, and where the wall is solid, clusters of people - men, women, and children, too - are taking their breakfast. Connor guesses there are around twenty other people in this room. Some have their eyes on him as he enters, but a majority are engaged among themselves, making easy conversation.
The centrepiece is a massive fire pit, over which multiple pots and pans steam on a variety of racks. Smoke billows up into a chimney rather than being allowed to exit past the cliff face. The apparatus is tended to by a man with a huge burn down the left side of his face, who might otherwise have been quite handsome.
And past the fire pit sits Josh. Beside him is Luther, and that’s the extent of the faces in this room with which Connor’s familiar. Josh looks up as Connor moves toward him, and the moment they make eye contact, Josh happily pats the space beside him in an indication that Connor should sit.
Josh, like Markus, is obviously stressed. The darkened skin beneath his eyes is paper-thin. But he still manages to give Connor a charming smile. “I’m getting a refill,” he says. “I’ll fetch you some breakfast too, okay?”
“Yes, thank you,” Connor says.
He supposes he ought to pick Josh’s brain, but Connor honestly finds himself too adrift that morning to speak much at all. He stares into the flames and the sunlight that frames them, and breathes in the smoke, and tries to understand what it is about this place that seems so intrinsically at odds with itself. Maybe it’s all the contemporary furniture, he supposes. The practically dressed men and women chatting among thousand-year-old formations, in a house in a cliff that may well be one of only several of its kind. Living their day-to-day lives in a place that feels as if it should be sacred.
Josh doesn’t push him too hard. He and Luther fill all the silence up with idle chit-chat. And Connor does fall into the conversation in the end, and he learns a thing or too in the process.
Josh informs him that the paintings in Markus’ rooms were made by Markus himself. Despite the inherent absurdity to the idea of an outlaw who’s somehow also an artist, Connor finds himself believing it almost immediately. He can see Markus as a painter.
It is becoming a genuine pleasure to misjudge that man. The reality that is Markus is so much more intriguing than anything Connor could come up with himself. Dashing rogue indeed, Connor thinks. And apparently he has a sensitive side.
Maybe Connor will heckle him over it later.
And then, Josh drops the date. Connor isn’t even properly zoned in at the time; he thinks they were talking about a weekly schedule. Josh mentions that it’s the 8th of June, and this - what should be a very inconsequential little fact - leaves Connor privately reeling.
There was still a week left of May when he had left Prescott. He can’t believe they’re already into June. They’re so far into June.
Connor sets his bowl aside as the reality of it hits him. He looks around himself and it’s as if he’s only just arrived. He’s in Jericho. Jericho, the place that it was his mission to find. He’s been gone for much longer than he realized.
Given the circumstances under which he left, Steerco has no doubt assumed Connor’s dead.
Furthermore - if today is the 8th, that means he crossed paths with Markus on the night of the 3rd. He hadn’t really processed it before, but that means he’d been in the desert for eight full days. Plus the one extra it’d taken to get to Jericho.
Eight days. Connor feels himself bringing a hand up to his collarbone and has to abort the movement manually. He knows he was reaching for the place where the scabs remain on his neck, where the skin had been rubbed raw by rope. He can feel the healing sores around his wrists, too - there, they’re worse. They itch almost constantly.
Eight days of walking. Could it really have been so long?
What reason would Josh have to lie?
They are watching him, he realizes. Connor must have done something out of sorts to indicate he was distracted. As he comes back to himself, he coughs and folds his hands together. He tries to seem disinterested. “I didn’t realize how long it’d been,” he says.
Josh is somewhat at a loss for words. He keeps finding something to say and then going back on himself. “It’s been a heavy few weeks,” he says - poses it like a question. “I’m not surprised if you were losing time.”
“No, I understand,” Connor says. “That makes sense.”
He’s been gone for two weeks.
God. If he ever makes it back alive, Amanda’s going to kill him herself.
Before long he excuses himself, even though he isn’t really finished, and he claims that he’s tired again and wants to get some more sleep, even though he’s really wide awake. Nobody stops him from leaving what had become a fairly uncomfortable conversation. Connor gets back to Markus’ room and just stands there for a while, staring at nothing.
He didn’t eat for eight days.
No wonder he looks like a different person. By rights, he probably shouldn’t be alive.
He holds up his arm and looks at the way the sleeve falls right off of it, making the limb look like it’s nothing. He glances under the neckline of his shirt, to look at the sutures still remaining there.
Lucy had said he was lucky that they’d managed to stave off infection. She’d said Connor was sturdier than he looked.
Connor knew that already, but still. This was a lot, even for him.
Connor doesn’t have any more time to waste, sniffing out answers in Jericho. Doing tricks and reading books, and waiting for Markus to make up his mind about what exactly it is that Connor’s here for. He has no idea what’s been going on in Prescott; whether Andronikov has hit Yavapai again, what Steerco has done to cope with his absence. He needs to get back to his mission; to cut his losses and just go to Amanda with what he knows.
It is time for Connor to leave.
All told, it’s taken him twenty-two hours to violate the new parameters Markus set out. Twenty-two hours for Connor is an incredible show of restraint. If anything, Markus ought to be grateful.
It isn’t difficult to find the descent to the land below the cliff. It’s inside the rock, behind a few more private rooms, and noone looks twice as he passes. He trots down the stairs quickly and silently, turning a few times to confirm he’s not followed.
Connor doesn’t have provisions, or a gun. He tells himself he’s simply sounding out the route. He can go back and break into Markus’ desk later. It’s when he walks back into daylight and sees the horses, though, that he realizes - this really could be it.
As the stairs open out into the the copse at the foot of the rock, he sees them clearly, waiting in among the trees. Some are tied down by the plunge pool of the creek, but most are simply hobbled, left to roam inasmuch as they can with the understanding that they won’t go far. Connor feels himself reaching out unconsciously.
Some are already tacked up.
He could just go.
He takes a step forward, and that’s when he sees it on the floor to his side - a pistol, still in its holster. It’s sat with a jacket and water canteen, all of them piled against the rock outside of the entrance back up into the cave. It’s all just waiting for him, maybe three feet away. Connor glances once around, and then bends down almost instinctively to pick up the gun.
A quick spin of the chamber tells him it is fully loaded. Looking up again, he sees the legs of what must be the owner, on the other side of one of the horses Jericho took from Earl and his men. The figure seems to be bent over slightly, inspecting something on the appaloosa's side. When he straightens, Connor sees his face across the animal’s back. Connor still can’t help but feel something inside of him freeze over when he sees that face.
His brain still wants to tell him that’s wrong. That it’s Daniel he’s looking at.
Not this again, Connor thinks. Daniel is dead. He saw it happen.
It was one of the very first missions that he actually lead. Connor remembers it with great acuity, as a point of pride. He remembers himself, standing on a rooftop in the dead of night. Enunciating clearly, speaking steadily. Not addressing a hostage so as not to draw attention to her. Not contradicting the target, so as not to come off as accusatory. Searching for empathy and a common ground. And it worked. He’d been proud.
“There you go,” Connor says. Emma Phillips throws herself out onto the rooftop between them; she doesn’t bother to run any further, just hunches over and lets her body wrack with sobs.
“I did what you asked,” Daniel says. “Now, you told me-”
He still has the gun in his hand. “We’re just going to talk,” Connor says. “I did.”
He spreads out both hands, in a gesture of placation. “Can you drop the gun, too?” Connor asks. “I’m unarmed. I’m grateful that you trust me. I want to trust you, too, Daniel, but I’m frightened.”
The gun is in his hand. Simon does not see him. Simon is distracted because he wants to pet a horse.
How incredibly frustrating that the one man who ends up standing between Connor and his freedom is the one that he would least like to see in a situation like this. Just the thought of Simon sends Connor reeling back to this night.
Daniel looks from Connor, back to the loaded revolver in his own hand. He seems to have forgotten it was even there. He throws it away from himself instantaneously. When he looks back at Connor, he appears as if he wants to laugh. As if he wants to say, isn’t that funny?
“I’m sorry,” Daniel says. Connor smiles as he replies; “It’s okay.”
He already knows what’s going to happen. He knows it now and he knew it then, too.
“I really think that you did the right thing,” Connor says.
Daniel smiles back.
Poor Daniel. He’d just been so desperate to be heard. Out of his mind with it, in the end.
In the next second, the right side of his skull is gone. His brain is shot across the rooftop, and Daniel folds to his knees. The hostage shrieks in sheer, inhuman terror. Connor folds his hands behind his back with a sigh.
Conrad Setson saunters out across the adjacent rooftop with a skip in his step. He’s already unloading his rifle as he steps over the banister on the edge. Connor waits for him to make the leap between the buildings before he speaks.
“You didn’t need to do that,” he says, voice placid.
“I know I didn’t, Connor,” the shorter man tells him. “You had it all under control. Very nice.”
He gives Connor smile, and a little wink. “Trust me, I’m saving us a hassle.”
Connor frowns. He turns away from Conrad, taking a moment to regard the hostage. She’s shuddering, still choking on tears, but physically she’s barely harmed. He was successful.
The rest of the Steerliv agents begin to flood out onto the rooftop. Following close behind will come the police. Connor and Conrad are ignored as they push back into the building, heading the wrong way through the crowd.
They leave without another word.
Connor did not recall the memory willingly. In fact, he is becoming increasingly troubled by the onset of things like this. Forced recollections of the past. And then there are the dreams.
Looking down, he sees he has almost finished unloading Simon’s pistol. Despite having never consciously made the decision to do so.
Simon finally glances up as the last cartridge settles in Connor’s palm. He’d been so taken with the horse, but now he audibly gasps - he sees the gun, and he pales, and his eyes gleam with fear.
One second Daniel is smiling at him and the next his head is open.
“Calm down,” Connor says. He throws the pistol away. Back onto the jacket where it can wait by the wall. He rounds the horse slowly with his arm outstretched. Simon, speechless, brings up a palm so that Connor can deposit the six cartridges into it.
“You’re alright,” he says. “Sorry to startle you. It wasn’t my intention.”
“I,” Simon gasps. “You’re, you shouldn’t. Okay.” He’s breathing heavily. Connor supposes he had, if only for a moment, been afraid for his life. He can still see the whites of Simon’s eyes.
Connor frowns, before looking away. He isn’t sure what he can do to reassure the other man, other than leave.
He doesn’t want to leave. He keeps closing his eyes and seeing a head torn open. He wants to say something, but he isn’t sure what. So instead he turns his attention to the horse - she’s on edge, intrinsically aware of the tension in the air.
He gives her a few slow strokes on the neck. “This is Bishop,” he says. Trying to seem friendly.
What a morning , Connor thinks. It feels so comforting just to pet the horse and smell the pine.
Simon glances between Connor and the appaloosa. “Bishop,” he says. “But she’s a mare.”
Connor shrugs. “It wasn’t my choice,” he explains. “This was Earl’s horse.”
“Oh,” Simon says. “Zlatko’s man.”
Connor hums in acknowledgement. His eyes fall onto the scars in the horse’s side; left by the constant and heavy misuse of spurs. He realizes these are what Simon had been distracted by when Connor first arrived.
“Connor,” says Simon. “What are you doing here?”
Connor gives a slight smile, still playing with Bishop’s mane. He won’t insult Simon’s intelligence with an outright lie. Maybe he can just misdirect him instead.
“I’m sure you’ve inferred by now that I knew your brother,” Connor says.
Simon’s entire face closes off. His lip rises in a slight snarl. An attempt to seem intimidating that falls very short, given the delicacy of Simon’s features. Connor wonders if Daniel’s twin has inherited any of his more homicidal propensities. It seems slightly unbelievable, seeing Simon now; the men are technically identical, but also so fundamentally different to each other.
“Daniel and I had our differences,” Simon says, giving voice to Connor’s thoughts. “But if you’re here to goad me-”
“I’m not,” Connor says. “I suppose I wanted to apologise. Daniel’s death was… not necessary.”
“I know that. What are you apologizing for?”
“I didn’t do it,” Connor says. And he hadn’t, strictly speaking. “But I was there. Steerco could have handled it very differently. The way he-”
“Yeah,” Simon says. “That’s very sweet of you. How old are you, Connor?”
Connor frowns, having failed to anticipate the question. He answers; Simon gives him a sad little smile.
“You were eighteen years old,” Simon says. “You shouldn’t have been in a position like that. I hardly think you can hold yourself responsible.”
But he had been responsible. It was one of his first times taking the lead in a negotiation, and he’d pulled it off perfectly. They’d known exactly what they were doing, sending out an arbiter that young. Connor had known too. He’d been the one who suggested it.
Conrad had been on the edge of his seat.
“Don’t worry, Amanda. I’ll keep him safe.”
Simon says, “Do you know what’s funny? You’ve been gone for two weeks.”
“Thirteen days,” Connor says, thinking: What does this have to do with Daniel?
Simon shrugs. “What have you,” he says. “And Steerco knows exactly what happened. They found the bodies you left by the train tracks.”
Connor feels his eyes narrowing. Now, how does Simon know what happened at Webster? Connor distinctly remembers not having told Jericho that he’d started out against five men.
“They knew what happened, but they never sent anyone out looking for you. Not even once.”
Simon examines Connor carefully as he speaks. His smile seems concerned, but his words are obviously intended to be provocative. “But you’re not surprised,” Simon says.
Connor shakes his head. “I knew the danger associated with the assignment when I accepted it,” he says. “Steerco isn’t going to send men out onto the Black Mesa to risk their lives over one agent who’s probably already a lost cause.”
“Oh, so you figured that out. I was wondering if you knew where you were.”
Connor glances around himself. “This isn’t-”
“No,” Simon says. “Not any more. But the Mesa’s where Zlatko spends his off hours. And you tracked yourself onto it. That's good to know.”
Simon casually rolls a shoulder. “Anyways,” he says. “You know who is looking for you?”
Connor furrows his brows.
“What?” What, now? “That can’t be.”
“Oh, but it is,” Simon says. “Every single day, from what I’ve heard.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Connor argues. “I’d-”
“It doesn’t, does it? You’ve only known the man for, what? A week? A few weeks? And he’s the one out searching for you on the Mesa.”
Connor doesn’t know what to say. He doesn’t think that he believes it, but every micro-expression on Simon’s face tells Connor it’s the truth. A chill runs through him at the realization that Hank is clearly under observation by Jericho, and is most likely unaware of it. To Simon, Connor can only, slowly, shake his head.
Simon continues. “Your boss at Steerco - she’s supposed to be your mother, right? I can’t quite tell what’s worse: that she cares less about your well-being, than a man who - has only known you for so many weeks. Or, that you genuinely cannot tell that something’s wrong with that picture.”
“How,” Connor says. “Do you know all of this? About Prescott, about me?”
“You shouldn’t be down here, Connor,” Simon says. He’s talking about the horses; Connor leaving the compound. “You know that. Markus has the patience of a saint, but he’d kill you if I asked him to. You understand that, right?”
“Okay,” Connor says. “Who’s your spy in Prescott?”
“Jericho has friends all over the State,” Simon replies.
“Sheriff Anderson wants nothing to do with this case” Connor finds himself blurting. “He hates Steerco. We got along, but he was constantly trying to talk me out of pursuing you. I-”
“No need to cover for him, Connor, that wasn’t a threat. Not our wheelhouse,” Simon says, with a pointed eyebrow raised.
Connor leans back and sighs.
Simon watches him, and then turns his attention back to the horse. For a moment they just stand there and stare at her idly, each biting his tongue. Then Simon rubs a hand against his face.
“This is stupid,” Simon says. “I’m sorry. I’m sure that really did fuck you up to see my brother get killed at eighteen years old.”
Connor doesn’t reply.
“Listen,” Simon says. “I’d like to give you some advice. Although, of course, it’s up to you whether or not you take it.” He shifts his weight on his feet. “You should take a good look at your priorities,” he says. “Maybe examine your actions, and ask yourself just how many of them are justified by your beliefs. Not by your orders or your company policy, or whatever. Think about what you want. I know that’s what Markus is trying to get you to do. In my opinion, it’s taking too long.” He looks Connor over. “Or it might not even be possible.”
Connor inclines his head. “Okay,” he says. “Can I give you some advice?”
This gets him a very wary look.
“You should tell me why Zlatko Andronikov would have set you all up in Cherry.”
“Oh, I should?”
“So that I can look into it, yes.”
Simon considers this, and then sighs. “Since I’m sure you’re going to hassle them anyways, you should talk to Kara and Luther if you want a profile of Zlatko. They’re the only ones here who’ve met him, to my knowledge.”
“Who is Kara?”
“Alice’s mother. What, you haven’t met her? Kara Kline?”
Connor shakes his head.
“You know Luther, right?”
“Alright,” Connor says. “Thanks for the pointer.”
“You’re welcome,” Simon says. “Now go back inside and don’t let me catch you out here again. Next time-”
“You won’t have left your gun for me by the door?”
Simon rolls his eyes in frustration. He looks just about ready to chase Connor down. At least he isn’t frightened any more, Connor thinks.
“Yes,” says Simon. “That.”
“Alright,” Connor says. “I’ll make sure to bring my own.”
“You’re not funny, Connor. Piss off.”
Connor gives a little bow of farewell, and he goes back inside.
He reascends the stairs with a lot on his mind.
Realistically it was probably for the best that he didn’t end up on a horse. He had no supplies and no idea where he is or where to go.
Eight days in the desert, Connor thinks. Two weeks away from Prescott. Critically - and he simply cannot avoid this reality any more - it has been twice now that Connor has had a weapon in his hand and Markus within range; twice that he’s had the means and wherewithal to complete his mission. And countless more times where he could have come up with another way to take Markus down, if he’d only been creative enough.
Connor could have shot Simon and taken a horse. It would have been easy. Ridiculously easy. Markus keeps trying his luck.
There’s no such thing as luck, of course; only chance, swaying a series of circumstances that should already be in your control. Connor did not end up dragged across the desert because of bad luck; he had lost power over the scenario, had let it all fall into the hands of Earl Keller. And Avery.
Markus wilfully relinquishes control over his situation and expects things to go his way. It’s hubris. Connor would have him know better.
But it’s Connor to whom Markus surrenders agency. It’s Connor who Markus gave a razor to, who Markus constantly tests. Connor isn’t ignorant of the little dance that they’re making. Of the fact that Markus thinks he has Connor pegged. Connor wants so desperately to show him the consequences of such misplaced trust. So he can learn -
Connor hates being tested. He hates it. He’s so sick of it. Tests from Amanda, from Markus. From himself.
But weren’t you just acknowledging to yourself that you’ve failed your mission? That you aren’t to be trusted; that you can’t decide what’s right on your own?
Markus is still alive. And it isn’t because of luck, and it isn’t because of chance either. It’s because of Connor.
Amanda had been explicitly clear about what she wanted from him, from the moment they arrived in Prescott. Cut off the head of the snake; wait for the body to follow. The more they could take down, the better, but it was really only Markus who Steerco wanted.
It was a remarkably simple job.
Markus had been the one who really made Jericho. Markus had turned this band of outcasts from a fable into a manifested, perceivable threat.
Connor said that there being children here changed things. It doesn’t. It doesn’t change a single thing. He still should have killed Markus. He’d be doing the rest of them a favor, really. After that, Jericho would be left alone.
He finds himself smiling at that concept. Even as he thinks it to himself, he doesn’t really believe it. Kill Markus, and Jericho will be left alone? The notion is laughable. Only a fool would buy that.
Connor had never put too much thought into what would come after his having located Markus’ headquarters. The latter half of these things simply wasn’t his point of interest. That being said, he’d also seen enough of Steerco’s dealings to know they aren’t very fond of leaving loose ends. So maybe he’d really just avoided thinking about it because it was unpleasant, and inevitable.
But now, he doesn’t know how this is going to play out. He doesn’t know what his part in it will be. But the fact of the matter is that Connor should have killed Markus, and he didn’t. And it means that he has failed.
In fact, he hasn’t just failed the mission. He’s thrown it. He’s chosen to let Markus live.
Connor’s saving grace will always be that he’s resourceful. He’s sure that he can think of a way to make it up at the end of the day. Something to take back to Steerco, other than Markus. Something of which Connor can be proud in the larger scheme of things. Outside of Steerco.
Something that aligns with choosing not to take the shot.
Connor needs to reassess his mission. He needs, as Simon says, to hold himself accountable for what goes on from here on out. This entire situation was so improbable that he never once would’ve taken it upon himself to consider how he’d approach it. But now he’s living it, and he needs to face the facts.
Connor has not killed Markus because he does not want Markus to die. He does not think it will make the world a better place. He also does not believe that Jericho will wither in the absence of this leader. In fact, in the worst case, it will fall into the hands of the brash and violent North Kelly.
There’s an alternative to killing Markus, and that is mediation. Dialogue. An avenue that Markus has thrown wide open by keeping Connor safe and alive and refusing to consider alternatives.
It’s funny. He kept asking Markus what was going to happen to him, and not getting an answer. Now he finds that the ignorance no longer makes him afraid.
Nobody’s going to hurt you here, Markus says. Connor has found himself beginning to believe it.
Giving everything up because you’re no longer motivated by fear, Connor thinks. So you’re a coward as well as a failure. Or, better yet - if this keeps up long enough - a traitor. Connor smirks. Yes, as if things needed to get any worse. When he shows up miraculously alive after two weeks in the wind, without a single thing to show for it, Amanda will without a doubt begin to question his loyalty.
But isn’t it also his job to investigate the situation as thoroughly as possible? Isn’t it also his job to present these more sustainable alternatives? And investigate those, too? Doesn’t it make sense that Connor stick around and wait to see how things pan out? And if it ever takes a nose-dive, he’ll be in an optimal position to resume his original directive.
It’s fairly desperate reasoning. He realizes that. He knows the exact expression Amanda would be making if he were talking to her right now.
Connor hates that expression, but what he hates even more is knowing that he needs it, because without Amanda - without the tests - he becomes… twisted. He makes terrible decisions. Decisions that he’ll look back on under Amanda’s guidance, and then he’ll wonder what on earth he could have been thinking at the time.
Decisions like Webster. Decisions like the Kamskis.
There’s something inside you that’s missing .
That’s not quite how Connor would put it. Connor would say that the thing in him is there, but it’s rotten. It’s so rancid and spoiled that he can’t even recognize what it was originally supposed to be.
Connor wants so badly to do this right. He wants to do the right thing by Markus, and by Steerco. He knows there should be a way that this is possible, but he doesn’t know if he’s going to be able to see it. He doesn’t know if he knows what ‘right’ is.
What he can do, he supposes, is wait. Wait for things to unfold themselves, and do what he does best; uncover truths.
And maybe Connor can afford to put some trust in Markus and wait for him to show his hand. Markus is trusting Connor, after all. Whether he’s aware he’s doing it or not, he is. Maybe Connor can use that. Maybe he can even use it for Markus. Whatever that potential becomes, he thinks it’s only wise to acknowledge its value.
It’s not just an excuse, he tells himself. It’s what he wants.
He so badly wants to think it's what he wants.
For the rest of the day, Connor behaves. Lucy seeks him out at lunchtime as she always does, and Connor waits for her in Markus’ rooms. He sits still with his shirt off as she carefully pulls out stitches and asks him about incredibly obscure symptoms from which Connor does not suffer. He balls his hands, scowling, trying not to flinch.
“I’m almost done,” Lucy says, as she severs the final stitch. Her voice is husky, but incredibly melodic.
It’s actually quite pleasant to listen to. It reminds Connor of woodwind.
“It’s fine,” Connor says. He’s sure he isn’t fully hiding his discomfort.
Lucy hums, and then changes the subject. “I’m glad you got an opportunity to stretch your legs yesterday,” she says, as if she wasn’t entirely responsible for that having happened. “I hope you’ve enjoyed learning a bit more about this place.”
“I certainly have a lot to think about,” he replies.
Lucy looks up at him then; meets his eyes. “Most everyone who comes here, comes here lost,” she says. “And these walls are waiting to receive whoever will find them. They’ve been waiting for you, too, Connor. For eight hundred years.”
Connor typically doesn’t have much to say to Lucy’s mysticism. He wonders if she really buys it herself. “Must be boring, waiting all that time,” he wonders.
Lucy laughs out loud. “I’m sure we keep them entertained.”
When she finishes, she tells him, “Take your time pulling yourself together, Connor. These things shouldn’t be rushed.”
“I will take that advice,” he tells her. It earns him a lovely, kind smile.
He seeks out Luther over dinner, and when he sees the petite woman sitting to his side, clasping each of Alice’s hands in her own, and confiding in the child some sort of joke or story under her breath, he knows this must be Kara Kline.
Connor is hesitant to approach them like that. He has no desire to provoke them, as he has Simon, or Markus. But Luther gives him a nod that implies that Connor should sit.
Before he does so, he introduces himself to Ms Kline, and she says, “Mr Stern. I’ve heard a lot about you,” as she takes his hand.
“It’s just Connor,” Connor says.
“Well, then I am just Kara.”
Physically, she is Luther’s complete antithesis. White, and slender, and incredibly dainty-looking. Her wide eyes and graceful smile almost give her the appearance of a doll.
But Connor can already tell that Luther is also a kind and very genuine person, and so he can see them together quite easily.
“I can’t imagine anything you’ve heard about me has been too flattering,” Connor admits. “I’d be grateful for the opportunity to contradict it all.”
“Oh, please don’t,” Kara says. “Are you telling me you’re not a puppy-loving magician?”
“Oh,” Connor says. “Oh.” His gaze flickers to Alice. “No, that’s all true, of course.”
“Do we have a chance of seeing a show?” Kara asks.
“Maybe later,” Connor says. “In fact, I was hoping to speak to you both, about -” he glances at Alice and back - “something private.”
Kara and Luther exchange a very weighted glance. Luther says, “Alice, go play with your friends.”
“Alright,” Alice says, seemingly unaware that she is being gotten rid of. She darts up to give Luther a kiss on the cheek, before skipping away. Connor has to bite back a smile as she goes.
Then he remembers what he’s here for.
Connor decides to just cut to the chase. The topic he wants to ask about is sensitive and he knows it might not be well received. He prefaces it all by inviting them to simply tell him if they’re no longer comfortable.
“If you want to ask us about Jericho, there are some things we might not be able to help you with,” Kara tells him, sympathetically. “Markus told us about what you’re doing here.”
“That’s okay,” Connor says. “What I actually want is to gather information on Zlatko Andronikov.”
Kara’s face falls instantly. Luther tries and fails to conceal a glower. Internally, Connor sighs, having already figured this would be the reaction he got.
But they still want to tell him. Kara says, if the sheriff’s office wants to track down Andronikov, then she’ll give them all the help she can. She’s afraid of him, though. It’s exceedingly apparent in her face. So it’s Luther who starts the story.
He starts just a bit before the beginning. With Kara as the maid to Todd Williams, Alice’s biological father. Kara witnessing Alice subjected to beating after beating, until one day she simply couldn’t take it any more. Kara taking Alice and leaving in the night. Todd Williams left in his daughter’s bedroom. Shot dead.
“My mommy was a housemaid."
Connor’s throat constricts as the story unfolds. Kara stares at her toes when she’s not glancing up at Luther. She glances at Luther a lot, because Kara seems fairly surprised that Luther would tell Connor about Mr Williams.
Connor is surprised too.
Luther is watching him, Connor thinks. Waiting for his reaction. All Connor does is ask him if he’s happy to continue.
Kara takes over then. They rode out of town and spent the night in St. Joseph, she says, where - with no money and no shelter - they were lost, and desperate to keep ahead of the law. A chance encounter with a colonist on the street sent Kara on a goose chase down to the Black Mesa, in search of a man who, apparently, was willing to help those down-and-out - who, despite his isolation, was capable of forging paperwork, and the documents Kara needed to start a new life up in Nevada.
She’d wanted to travel north. To get off of the frontier. Find somewhere safe to bring up Alice.
“This was Zlatko,” Connor says.
“Yes.” Kara nods. She smiles, shakes her head. “I was so naive…”
Connor asks what happened next.
Zlatko had been welcoming. Charming, even. A big bear of a man, like Santa Claus. He had a house up there, Kara says. Relatively easy to find for those in the know, but as it turned out, there weren’t too many people who were stupid enough to go looking.
Kara’s adoptive daughter is playing with her friends across the room. Her partner’s hand is across her back. She speaks calmly; Connor supposes she has told the story before.
Connor suddenly doesn’t want to hear any more. He doesn’t want to hear her say it.
Kara says that Zlatko had a hobby of making monsters out of people. Of keeping the most helpless of the lost souls that found him, and twisting them up. Holding them on the edge of life. Kara says his interest was almost scientific.
Connor suspects that when she uses these terms, she is not being figurative.
Zlatko had a whole gang of people who helped him, some of them keeping up the ‘business’ side of things - whatever contacts Zlatko needed to keep the needy flowing to his mansion in the middle of Apache territory, for example, or the old-school bandits who robbed coaches, held up stores - but some of them were also just in it for pleasure. Zlatko had had a particular interest in Alice, Kara says.
Oh God, Connor thinks. Alice. He’d forgotten about Alice.
But then she tells him they’d gotten away. Kara had cut and run the moment she smelled danger. The mansion was relatively empty that night, and they’d almost made it out, until Zlatko had cut off their path with a shotgun in his hands. Luther had drawn up beside him. Luther had been Zlatko’s manservant, Kara explains.
Luther took the gun from Andronikov’s hands and shot him in the kneecap. And then the three of them had left. And that was it.
Connor lets out a breath, feeling his limbs unlock. He doesn’t speak for a while; thinking.
Legally - technically - Kara and Luther are both murderers. Luther, especially, has aided and abetted in a colorful variety of felonies. But when Luther begins to recount his side of things, it becomes apparent that the man had not had much of a choice.
“When was this all?” Connor asks. “When did you make it to Jericho?”
“November,” Kara tells him.
It’s barely been half a year.
Luther was a slave, under another name. The fact that the war was over didn't mean that it didn't still happen. And Kara felt that her ethical duty had necessitated her interference with Alice’s treatment, and Connor doubts this would be an unusual choice if others were presented with the same situation. As for Alice, Connor isn’t certain on the legislature in Arizona, but he knows that it’s only been within the last few years that Californian state protections afforded to abused children have caught up with those preventing cruelty to animals. A child is the property of the parent, in the eyes of the law. The parents are within their rights to treat it as they please.
Luther asks him, at the end of it, what Connor would do. Connor at first thinks he means, what would you do, if you had been in the same situation? But Luther clarifies: he wants to knows what Connor himself would do now. With the information that’s been given to him.
“Firstly,” Connor says, “if it’s something you’re comfortable with, I’d like to really wrack your brain about what you saw when you were with Zlatko. We can write up a confidentiality agreement if you’d like.” At this, Luther laughs out loud.
“You don’t need to give me an answer right away,” Connor says. “Just think it over.”
“As for the rest of it, I’d do nothing. I’m not a judge,” Connor says. “It wouldn’t be my decision.”
“That’s not what I asked,” Luther tells him.
Connor looks across the room with a sigh. “I would want to make sure that the child is happy and safe.” He says it because he knows it’s what they want to hear, but also because it’s true. That is what Connor would want. What he wants. “That’s all,” he says.
Luther gives no reply, but Connor hears one nonetheless. Markus’ voice, telling him: I’d say you might not end up with a choice.
Connor excuses himself early, because he is genuinely exhausted. When he returns to Markus’ room, all the lights have been lit, and a slew of packs and satchels have been dumped across the desk and floor. Markus himself lies on his back on the foot of the bed. His legs dangle over the edge. Lucy is by his side.
His shirt is off, and his upper arm on the right hand side is swathed in already bloody bandages. Connor can see sweat pooling all across the other man’s skin. At a guess, he would say Markus has been shot. It looks painful. Markus would be in pain, except he’s completely unconscious.
Connor looks to Lucy, and Lucy returns his gaze with a smile. “It’s just a flesh wound,” she says. “He’ll be okay. You seem awfully concerned, for a headhunter.”
Connor shakes his head; tries not to roll his eyes. “Well, if he dies, it means I can’t kill him myself,” he explains. He knows that Lucy will take it as a joke.
She leaves, since she says her work is done, and Connor wonders whether that’s wise. He thinks someone should stay to supervise Markus, surely. To ensure that he’s okay.
Connor makes sure there is water on the bed for him when he wakes up. He roots through the saddlebags on the floor until he finds some crackers, and he leaves those out too. After he does this, he sees - left out on the desk - the shiny new tin of pomade.
Connor picks it up and regards it for a second.
“What an idiot,” he murmurs. He turns and looks at Markus. He takes a seat at the desk.
Connor doesn’t know what to think any more. All day - no, all week - he’s been veering back and forth between a kind of wilful detachment, and between stress. Fear, although he’s loathe to admit it. Uncertainty.
Maybe it’s all coming crashing down now because Connor, for whatever nonsensical reason, finally is starting to feel safe. To feel less like a captive, and more like a real person, who’s surrounded by people who are expecting him to act fearful and are not judgemental of him because of it. Connor reckons he could walk up to Josh right now and tell Josh out loud that he feels tired, and stressed, and uncertain, and that Josh would undoubtedly try to make Connor feel better as a result. Despite having absolutely no logical reason to do so. Despite Connor having antagonized him and his friends.
He looks up to Markus, and he rolls the tin of pomade in his hands. He says, “I feel tired, and stressed, and I don’t know what to do.”
Markus doesn’t reply.
After a beat, Connor asks him, “Where exactly am I supposed to sleep tonight?”
Markus, of course, does not reply.
Connor sets the tin down.
He makes his way back to the dining room. A brouhaha is forming there with North Kelly at its epicenter. “Excuse me,” Connor says.
North’s eyes snap onto him immediately. “Fuck off,” is her response.
“Alright,” Connor says.
He walks back to the room. Folds his arms and taps his foot. And then yawns very widely, and walks over to sit on the bed and look at Markus as he sleeps.
He really is a very handsome man. Objectively, Connor thinks. Objectively speaking. He has a fine physique; the result of a life spent on his feet. And in sleep, his expression is pleasant because it’s finally relaxed, free from concern.
Connor watches the blood seep into the bandage at Markus’ side. He finds his nose wrinkling disdainfully at the sight.
If Lucy says he will be fine, though, Markus will probably be fine.
Connor decides not to try to wake Markus up. Unsure what else to do with himself, he kicks off his shoes and pulls a sheet out from under Markus’ back, to drape it over the both of them as Connor curls up across from him at the head of the bed.
Sleep comes just as easily to Connor that night as it has every night since he arrived in Jericho. He’s no longer afraid of Markus. He’s no longer afraid for his life. He feels all the day’s worry seeping out of him as he lies there, listening to the light sound of Markus’ breathing.
Connor has a future. It seems highly likely. Now he just needs to figure out what to do with it.
And they were roommates :o
The painting in this chapter is the one you get in-game when you pick 'android > hope'.
Kline comes from the German 'kline', meaning 'small'.
Also, this chapter takes place on my birthday!
It’s time for a change of tack.
The search parties are getting him nowhere. Not only are they failing to turn up results, in fact, but Hank knows they’re also actively endangering each member the longer he stays out on the Mesa. The kind of folk who hang out up there aren’t too likely to be deterred from a little robbery or homicide by the sight of a badge. And Hank has work to do in Prescott - he has people relying on him other than Connor - so even with the danger aside, he knows he can’t keep skipping town to go on a goose chase.
It’s so goddamn frustrating, because as far as Hank can tell, this needle-in-a-haystack approach really is his best bet when it comes to finding Connor. Or it was, at least. After almost two weeks, he almost doesn’t want to find the kid. The odds of him turning up alive after all this time are functionally on the floor. Hank could ignore this before, or come up with ways to cross his fingers and hold out hope, but at this point he has to admit it to himself - Connor is dead.
Connor is dead, and every turn Hank takes on the Mesa - every nook and cranny he scouts out with a spyglass - has him gripped with apprehension, has him grinding his teeth with anxiety. Hank doesn’t want to find Connor any more. He doesn’t want to be confronted with the sight of it. After four years in this job and decades spent enforcing the law in other positions before, Hank is by no means squeamish, but this is personal. The thought of the kid, torn up and wasting in the desert, staring into space as the land consumes his body… well, it keeps him up at night.
But Hank still needs to know what happened. Again, because he owes it to Connor, and because it’s his job. He spent as much time as he could, before, trying to retrace Connor’s tracks, trying to make what he could out of what they had, and he’d come up empty-handed then. Hank decides he needs to give it another shot. Trudging home in the rain from that final fruitless meeting with Amanda, Hank eventually decides that this is what he’s going to do. To start with, he’ll see if he can finally get something out of Rupert Travis.
It turns out that this is going to be easier said than done.
Mr Hyneman is waiting for Hank on the porch before the facade of the Sheriff’s Office. He thumbs the lapel of his jacket anxiously, running his other hand through shocks of damp curls. Hank knows he’s going to ask how many men he’ll need, and when, and so cuts him off by saying “We’re good for now, Avi. Call around later if you can.”
Hyneman opens his mouth, and then closes it, watching silently as Hank passes him by and continues into the building without stopping.
Gavin is on his feet as soon as he sees Hank enter the bullpen, working his jaw and flitting his gaze around the room as he tries to phrase whatever it is he wants to say. Glancing around, Hank sees his second deputy watching Reed with a sour expression. Hank thinks, Fuck. He was half joking before when he talked about cleaning up Reed’s mess. Clearly, something has actually happened.
For half a second his mind goes to Connor. Then he thinks, no, it can’t be. They’d have told him about it when he first got back. Ben would have the decency to look more sympathetic.
Hank tries and fails to suppress a heavy sigh as he throws his coat and jacket on the rack. “Alright, then,” he says, folding his arms and fixing Reed with his sternest glare. “Let’s have it.”
Gavin tells him what happened.
Hank can quite literally feel it as his jaw drops. For a few seconds he just stands there and stares. He must look like an idiot, of course, standing and blinking and catching flies. But whatever detriment that is to Hank only pales in comparison next to the colossal ineptitude that is currently being demonstrated by his stupid fucking pinhead of a deputy.
“What the fuck,” Hank says, completely incredulous, “do you mean, ‘He’s gone’.”
Gavin frowns deeply, and his entire face flushes red. “I mean that he’s not there anymore. I-”
“How can he be gone?” Hank says. “Did you let him go!?”
“I told you not to move him! I told you - who took him?”
As Hank rounds on Gavin, the other man backs up until he hits his desk, waving his hands in a doomed attempt at placation. “No one took him,” Gavin says. “I don’t know! The fucker was just there one day, and then the next-”
“Did he magic himself through iron bars, Gavin? Did he pick the lock with his fingernails? Gavin? Hm? Is that what you’re telling me?”
“No! No!” Gavin drags a hand over his face helplessly. “Fuck, I don’t know! I was there the whole time!”
Rupert - this can’t be fucking happening. It’s like God’s glorious cherry on top of this whole miserable clusterfuck of a situation. The boy is barely out of his teens; he’s not some criminal mastermind. And he’s- he’s- “That’s my fuckin’ lead,” Hank says. “That could be my only lead! How can he just be gone?”
“I’m sorry,” Gavin says. It must be the very first time Hank’s heard those words from his deputy’s mouth. “I don’t know what happened! He just got out!”
“He didn’t get out,” Hank says. “Somebody let him out. You’re so fucking lucky I’m used to this horseshit by now, else I’d have you- fucking- shit, I don’t know. I can’t fucking believe this, Gavin.” Hank pushes the heels of his palms into his eyes, rubbing them in like he can somehow scrub this entire scene from his memory that way. “Fuck,” he says, emphatically. What a goddamn day. It isn’t even past noon yet. “Fuck! ”
Nobody replies. When Hank looks up again, Gavin swallows heavily. Hank takes a moment to reign himself in, figuring that at this point continuing to cuss out his deputy would serve no purpose other than to make Hank feel better. And it doesn’t. He doesn’t feel better at all.
“I’m sorry, Hank,” Gavin says, eventually. “Shit. I’ll make it up. I’ll-”
“Fuck yeah, you’ll make it up,” Hank growls. “Okay. God damnit. Come into my office and run me through it all. Is the donkey gone?”
“It’s a mule,” Gavin says, so sheepishly that Hank can barely catch it.
“Does it look like I give a fuck?”
Gavin stares at the floor. “Yeah,” he says. “The donkey’s gone.”
“Okay,” Hank says. “Get in here. Someone's let him out.”
He pieces it together as quickly as he can. Travis must have gotten out between two and two-thirty in the afternoon, the day before. Gavin was in the bullpen, Chris wasn’t in, and that’s the window where the rest of his staff were out to lunch. Gavin doesn’t remember leaving the room, but he must have, because Rupert would have needed to literally pass through the bullpen in order to get to the stables. It’s also possible that someone had been around, but, depending on who Rupert had been with, hadn’t thought it was out of the ordinary to see him walking around. Gavin had questioned them all the night before; they hadn’t seen anything. Or, at least, didn’t remember having done so.
“And you’re sure you didn’t leave,” Hank says.
Gavin shrugs. “Only to get a coffee,” he says. “I wasn’t gone half a minute.”
“Gavin,” Hank says. “That counts as leaving. When I ask you-”
“Okay, okay! Yeah, I had to get a coffee! So what? So sue me!”
Hank leans back to think. If someone helped Rupert get out, then they’d likely been doing it on behalf of Jericho. Hank had had his suspicions that folks in Prescott were sympathetic to their cause, but he hadn’t realized that it could be this bad. Whoever it was must have been waiting for their chance. Hank’s certain - or, he desperately wants to be - that no one in his staff could have such severely misplaced loyalties. At least not the senior members. Unfortunately, that leaves pretty much all of Prescott as potential suspects.
He asks Gavin who else was hanging around the office yesterday.
Gavin says, the secretary. A lady who insisted her neighbor was stealing her chickens and wouldn’t leave until someone agreed to check it out. The friend of a man who’d been taken in the night before over a bar fight. A couple more heads popping in and out to ask for help, but no one who’d stayed. “And Setson,” Gavin says, with a tone so laced with disdain that it’s practically dripping. “He got here yesterday afternoon.”
“Yeah,” Hank says. “Because Steerco wants to break out our only lead to Jericho. That makes sense.”
“And Avi,” Hank says. “Has he been around?”
“God damnit, Gavin. Mr Hyneman. From Steerco?”
Gavin looks to the side, thinking. “Yeah,” he says, “I guess he was around.”
Hank mulls this over. Avi had been the one to report Connor missing. He’s a nice enough boy, but he does seem to have very providential timing. “Okay,” Hank says. “Let me know if you think of anything else. Don’t anyone tell Steerco what happened yet. First thing tomorrow, I’m going back to Travis’ farm.”
“Okay,” says Gavin, shrugging.
Hank gives him a thin little smile. “And you’re coming with me.”
In the end, they don’t make it up to Camp Verde until three days later - June the 8th. Hank gets bogged down in Prescott with a backlog of petty offenses, as well as another genius who’d decided to gut her brother over cattle down in Bradshaw. If the siblings had only taken their feud a few miles south, it’d be the Maricopan office’s problem, but as it his, Hank has to trek all the way down to deal with it. He returns, that night, incredibly uninspired at the thought of another journey out east the next day.
He makes it anyways. At least this time he has Gavin to suffer alongside him.
The shack is a miserable little affair. Practically unliveable, and you can tell this even from afar. Up in the mountains with no one around, with wind slashing desperately across their path, as if invisible sprites are chasing each other to and fro. Their descent into the hollowed out valley is interrupted sporadically by Gavin’s horse spooking, digging its shoes into the rock and refusing to take a single step further, flaring its nostrils and rolling its eyes as it stares helplessly at dangers no human can see. Hank has to lead the way, compelling Lady onwards with promises of carrots and sugar at the end of it all.
As they dismount at the farmhouse proper, Hank turns and sees that Gavin has already removed his service weapon from its holster. At least he doesn’t need to coach the idiot on that. They stalk up to the door of the building, and Gavin takes a step back to allow Hank to hammer on the door. He’s only half attentive of it, focusing his gaze instead on the craggy rim that surrounds them. There are horses by the trough, but Hank still isn’t expecting anyone to answer.
But the door swings open. Behind it is a chipper thirty-something redhead, with an unassuming smile so completely out of place in the inherently hostile setting that it takes Hank aback somewhat. His irises are mismatched, and at first Hank’s heart skips a beat, before he tells himself that, no, this can’t be Markus. This man is white.
Cheerfully, the man behind the door says, “Good afternoon!”
Hank blinks. He and Gavin exchange a puzzled glance as Gavin slowly reholsters his revolver. Then Hank remembers his manners, and clears his throat. “Afternoon,” he says, drawing back his coat in order to reveal his badge. “Sheriff Hank Anderson. This is Deputy Reed. Hope I’m not, er, disturbing anything.”
The man sees the badge and nods quickly in understanding. “No, no,” he says. “I’m Jerry. Do you want to come in?”
Hank feels his face creasing up in something like bafflement. “Yeah, sure,” he says. “Much obliged.”
The interior of the shack is something of a relief in comparison to the derelict appearance of the outside walls. Rickety, but clean. A broom, mop and bucket have been left leaning in a corner, and the floor’s evidently still in the process of being shined up. Most of the furniture is over in the opposite corner. “I’m sorry I can’t offer you much to eat,” Jerry explains. “We like to have meals ready for our guests. But do you want to refill your canteens?”
“That’s okay,” Hank says. Gavin says, “‘We’?”
In the same moment, a second man enters from what must be the bedroom. Hank double takes when he sees that the newcomer is physically identical to Jerry in every way.
“Oh, hullo,” says the second man. “I’m Jerry.”
Hank is incredulous. He chances a glance at Gavin, and he can see that his deputy has obviously had a similar reaction. “You’re both called Jerry?”, Gavin says.
Jerry - God, the first Jerry - grins apologetically and shakes his head. “I’m Herman Jerry, and this is Floyd Jerry. We all call each other Jerry, though. It’s fun!”
Hank shakes his head. It’s not fun, he thinks. It’s downright unsettling. Having it explained to him as if he’s a simpleton certainly doesn’t help much, either. "Alright,” he says, in a tone that he hopes is similarly condescending. ‘We all’ , he thinks. “Just how many of you are there?”
“Four here altogether,” says the second Jerry - Floyd. Herman says, “We’re all brothers. Chester’s in the barn. Edwin’s up on the mountain. Jerry, why don’t you go get him.”
“That’s alright,” Hank says. “You two stay here. We have a few questions, if you don’t mind.”
“Not at all,” Herman says, flashing that appeasing grin again.
There isn’t anywhere for them to sit, so Hank folds his arms and leans his weight onto his other hip. Gavin starts to pace around the room, inspecting what he can see. “We’re looking for the owner of this place,” Hank explains. “Rupert Travis.”
“Oh yes,” says Floyd. “We know he was arrested. We haven’t seen him.”
Hank grunts, unsurprised. “That's a pity.”
“We’re just looking after the place while he’s gone,” Herman says.
“I see. And who exactly made that request, for you to come and fill in on the farm?”
“Family friend,” says Floyd, at the same time that Herman says “We were visiting, and… oh.” His eyes flit to Floyd and back. “Well, that too.”
Hank raises an eyebrow. Really, he thinks, he hadn’t expected that to be quite so easy. He doesn’t speak for a while, hoping to pressure the brothers into filling in the silence. When that doesn’t work, he continues.
Hank asks them how they know Rupert; what their experience is in a place like this. They give him the easiest answers, and, unfortunately, fail to slip up again. Out of the corner of his eye, Hank sees Gavin pry up a loose section of floorboard to reveal a hidden compartment underneath. It’s empty.
Hank sighs as it becomes obvious the questioning is probably going to continue to be fruitless. He decides he’s had enough. “You won’t mind,” he asks, “if me and my friend here have a look around the place?”
“Not at all,” says Herman. “Whatever you need.”
There’s not much else to see in the shack. Floyd stays in the kitchen while Herman trails around after them, helpfully explaining details that Hank neither requested nor needed to know. Gavin catches the symbol in the frame of the bed, nudging Hank over to inspect it. Hank nods, feeling himself frowning.
The barn is full of chicken shit, and Gavin, who by all means ought to have found himself at home in a place like that, staunchly refuses to enter. Hank picks his way inside, glancing up at the second level that looms out over the back wall. Beneath it is what must be the third brother - Chester - cleaning out feeding troughs. Hank doesn’t much envy him.
Chester greets them both with a cheerful little hop to his feet. Hank only nods at him, then asks, turning to Herman - “You don’t mind if I check out what’s up there?” He gestures up at the second level.
“Of course not,” Herman insists, smiling brightly all the while.
Hank climbs the ladder carefully, half afraid that one of the rotten old rungs is going to give out beneath his weight. What awaits him at the top is nothing but dust, bales of straw, and some carpenter’s tools. Planks of wood are stacked against one wall. The dust is scuffed up, implying that the space sees more use than Hank would’ve predicted. Hank wonders briefly whether Connor made this climb. The air is still.
Nothing. They turn up nothing, in the end. They waste a couple more hours waiting for the fourth brother to return, but he never shows. Floyd explains apologetically that he could be back any time before sunset. Gavin, disquieted by the aura of the shack and its occupants, and anxious to leave, keeps reminding Hank that they ought to head out soon if they want to make it back to Prescott before nightfall. Hank eventually tells him outright to shut his trap.
Hank explains carefully to the brothers that Jericho’s headmen are now wanted for murder in the first degree. Anyone who willfully associates with them is, he says - stretching the truth somewhat - incriminating themselves by association in the exact same crimes. The punishment for these is the noose, and the reward for any information leading to Markus’ capture will, in the same vein, be pleasantly steep.
The Jerrys nod along enthusiastically. “We’ll let you know as soon as we hear anything,” Herman reassures him. “If Rupert shows up, we’ll come to Prescott as soon as possible. We’re friends of the law.”
“Friends,” Floyd insists, nodding just about hard enough to spin his head off.
“We’ll see,” Hank says. They bid their goodbyes.
Hank broods on the way back to Prescott. Gavin can’t help but open his big mouth, of course. “That could've gone worse,” he supposes.
“Gavin, please be quiet,” says Hank.
The business in Bradshaw sorted itself out easily enough. All roads led to the sister, so Hank could take her in on the same day and leave the rest of it to the courthouse to deal with. He’d testify, but, due to a backlog on their end, not for several weeks. After they come back from Camp Verde, Hank finally has some time the next day to revisit Connor’s disappearance. His own case, as it were. Hank plans eventually to return to the farm and try to catch the Jerrys in the act of whatever it is they’re doing there - or, alternatively, to come up with enough evidence to arrest a few of them and carry out a proper interrogation in Prescott. In the meantime, Hank tries to analyze the circumstances of Connor’s disappearance with a clear head.
Those final twenty-four hours, Connor hadn’t written up a single thing that he’d found. Hank supposes that he hadn’t had the time. Instead, he’d kept it all filed away in that big brain of his, where, now, it is of course totally useless. Hank sorts through what little that he knows.
First there was Cherry, on the night of the 26th. Hank had his doubts at the time that Jericho had been directly responsible for that, and still does now. The group had been active for months, directly targeting Steerco and a handful of other major mining corporations, but never civilians. And, again, they had never been attributed responsibility for a death.
On the same day the train was held up by Webster. Two o’clock. Witness accounts described a woman with auburn hair in a braid, and therefore matched previous descriptions of North Kelly. Hank had returned to Prescott at the same time that Anna Wilson arrived. Connor had been present. Connor had spoken to Amanda, who had no doubt raked him over the coals and somehow blamed him for Cherry. Connor and Hank had, obviously, fought. Connor went home at around one in the morning.
Connor had later decided to travel to Webster alone. Something had given him the impression that he’d find something useful there; on the face of it, one could argue that idea came from Hank himself. I’ve thought about what you said last night, is specifically what Connor had written. However, there is also a possibility that something happened back at Steerco to encourage Connor’s decision. Amanda had claimed an ignorance of it when Hank spoke to her after the fact. All Hank knows for certain is that Connor had spoken to Avriel Hyneman. According to Avi, Connor had declined an escort to Webster.
Connor was intercepted at Webster by at least three men. Possibly they’d been there by coincidence - and the fact that Connor had managed to take two of them out during the course of the skirmish strengthens this likelihood - but it’s also possible that they had been waiting for him. If it was a coincidence, then the evidence suggests that either Jericho had returned to the scene of their crime, which would certainly be foolish but not something they wouldn’t consider, or that Walter Spaids had come with a separate outfit. Something in Hank wants to believe it’s the latter. That Andronikov had something to do with Cherry and was trying to cover up that Jericho had been elsewhere on the same day. Hank can’t know for sure.
There are too many possibilities. There’s nothing of which he can be certain. Hank runs his fingers through his hair, squinting at records in the light of the oil lamp. He stays up at his desk, long after the sun sets.
One last thing to remember is that Connor was alive when he left Webster. There’s no reason that his attackers would’ve taken his body and left those of their companions, unless they’d wanted to do something fucked up with the corpse. Hank swallows reflexively at that thought. If that’d been the case, then he’d probably have seen it over the course of the next few days. Some kind of threat, or a warning. No, he thinks, it’s more likely that they had wanted him alive for some reason. Probably for information. Which also, unfortunately, strengthens the likelihood that it was Jericho that took him.
But then why did they leave the bodies?, Hank thinks. If they came back to cover their tracks, why leave the bodies for us to find? They wouldn’t have left them unless they didn’t give a shit. Maybe they were rushed for time, sure. Maybe Connor had tried to save his ass by telling them he had back-up on the way.
They’d left- there was his hat, and the lantern, too. There were the cartridge shells. There were the streaks in the dirt that Gavin had seen, where the heel of a shoe had been thrust over and over against the earth by someone pinned and struggling to push themselves up. The blood in the water.
Hank sees the shadow of the figure as it passes by his window. He gets to his feet, in preparation for the knock on the door to the office; passes back through the bullpen to the entrance so he can open the door before that knock ever comes.
Intuition tells Hank that a third party was responsible for Cherry and for taking Connor. Practicality tells him that no sensible investigator would draw this conclusion based on the limited evidence at hand. Unfortunately, in this case Hank is just going to have to bank on his intuition, and pray to God that he’s right. Otherwise, he’s about to do something incredibly stupid.
It’s probably pretty stupid either way, actually.
He opens the door.
“Evening, Sheriff,” says the young man waiting outside. He glances into the bullpen, expecting to be invited in.
“Hey, Avi,” says Hank. “Thanks for stopping by. You can throw your coat over there.” Hank nods to the visitors’ rack by the front desk.
Avi brushes himself down and then follows Hank into his private office, where the sheriff gestures at him to sit. Avi perches himself primly on the edge of the chair, hands in his lap and and an expression on his face that seems calculated; somewhere appropriately between blank and expectant. Hank takes his time sitting down. Eventually he leans across his desk with his hands clasped. Hank says, “So.”
“So,” Avi says. Waiting.
Hank still isn’t certain how to go about this. “So, Connor’s been gone for two weeks now,” he says.
Avi nods. “Yeah. To the day, I think.”
“More or less. Are you holding up okay?”
This surprises the younger man. “Am I -? Yeah, I guess so.”
“You and Connor knew each other, I mean,” Hank says. “You were friends.”
“I wouldn’t call it that,” Avi explains. “More of a passing acquaintance.” Perhaps in an attempt at sympathy, he adds: “He seems nice.”
“...Yeah,” Hank says. “Actually, to be honest- well, anyways, it doesn’t matter. I’m trying to find him.”
Avi nods. Nothing Hank’s said has been new, or even particularly coherent. But he seems content to wait.
“Something’s going on,” Hank says. “Something fucky. If I want to get to the bottom of it all, I need help both from your bosses, and from Prescott. And I’m getting neither. In fact, sometimes it feels as if someone’s actively throwing me for a loop.”
Avi doesn’t say anything.
“Just how much do you know about Steerco’s investigation into Jericho, Avi? How much do they tell you?”
“Not much,” Avi admits.
“But I’m sure you pick up on a lot,” Hank says. “Perceptive man like you. They overlook you, don’t they? Always seen, never heard.”
Avi frowns, biting his lip. “What exactly is it that you need to know?”
“Do your bosses know,” Hank says “for example, that Jericho has a man - some kind of mole, in Prescott?”
Avi barely reacts. Barely, but he does. Something on his face goes slack. Some second or so later, a line appears on his forehead, between his brows. He says, “Oh?”
“Yeah,” Hank says. “As our liaison, you should probably warn them about something like that. Just a heads up, you know. I’m telling you, so that you can tell them.”
There’s a quick beat then, where neither of them speak. Then Hank says, “Anyways. The reason why I invited you in here today is because I need to ask you a favor.”
“I see,” says Avi. He’s frowning. He’s been frowning ever since Hank brought up the idea of a rat. Of course, Hank thinks, he’d be frowning either way.
“Steerco is not telling me everything they know about Jericho. About who first shed the bad blood between them. I need you to bring me whatever you can that will help me sort that out. I think it'll lead to Connor.”
“Your job, I know,” says Hank. “I’m asking you to help me. You might get in trouble for it. You don’t need to accept. Although I think that you should, because I think that you and I share similar interests.”
“We do,” Hank says. “I want to help Yavapai. You want to help Yavapai. I want to make sure the blame for all this shit that’s been going on falls to the right people. So do you. Right?”
Avi nods. He’s not looking at Hank. he’s looking at the desk; rather, looking inwardly. “Alright,” he murmurs, eventually. “I’ll see what I can do.”
“Thanks,” Hank says. It comes out as something of a sigh. “Thanks, kid. I really mean it.”
Avi stands to leave. He’s obviously eager to do so. Before he goes, though, he says to Hank, “If I could tell you what happened to Connor, Sheriff, I would. I don’t know how much help I’m going to be in all of this. But I will try my best.”
“That’s all I’m asking,” says Hank.
Avi nods. He looks as if he’s about to say something more, but then obviously has second thoughts. In the end he turns and leaves without another word.
Hank traces the sound of Avi’s footsteps through the bullpen and out the front door. Calling Steerco's man here was a shot in the dark, but Hank thinks he just might have hit something, here. He hopes that there’s a chance it might pay off eventually.
He also hopes he hasn’t just painted a gigantic target on his own back.
He returns to Camp Verde. Not the next day, but the next. The 11th. On a whim, on a hunch. He spends all night dreaming about Cole, about Cole riding ahead of him in a field of flowers. Hank yells at him over and over to come back, not to run off on his own, that he needs to watch out for rat holes. But the kid won’t goddamn listen. Then in the morning he wakes up, and he wants to go to Camp Verde.
Gavin tells him they have work to do. Hank tells Gavin Chris will handle it. He’s going to Camp Verde, and since he’s going because he needs to find Rupert Travis, Gavin is going to come with him.
It’s a really nice day. Each mountain valley they pass through is a settler’s paradise; green, and lush, and sweltering in the summer sun. Each little feature of the land is amplified in the summer heat. It all thrusts up headily into the sharp flurries of wind - thin with mountain air, but still palpable. Gavin makes most of the journey complaining, with a hand keeping his hat firmly moored to his head.
Once they’re through the Camp itself, they’re funneled into a mountain pass that will stretch up most of the way to the farm. Foliage crowds them in on either side, even as they ascend. The way is rocky, littered with heavy stones that might trip up a less sure-footed horse, but Lady is a professional, and takes it all in stride. Gavin’s gelding seems to have relaxed some, content to follow Hank up the winding path. For whatever peculiar reason, Hank finds himself in something almost close to a good mood.
He hears it before he sees it, because it’s behind him. It starts as a crunch of hooves against gravel, barely perceptible over their own footfalls. Hank and Gavin turn in unison, and what Hank sees then is the silhouette of a horse and rider, emerging out onto the pathway some fifty paces behind them, as if the pair had been manifested spontaneously somewhere in the shrubs.
Gavin’s hand immediately goes to his Colt. The rider looks left and then right, and then, upon realizing that he’s not alone, he raises up a hand in a gesture of peace. Hank is still for a moment, before returning the gesture.
There’s a possibility, of course, that it was purely coincidence that this rider came out of the brush at the same time that the sheriff was passing. There’s also a possibility that this is some sort of ambush. Hank will not be the first to turn away. The rider, similarly, gives no indication of moving.
He’s waiting for something, Hank realizes.
Sure enough, just as Hank’s ready to glance around, and check their periphery for some other sign of life, a second horse emerges out onto the path by the first. Its rider notices Hank and Gavin immediately, and turns to face them alongside his companion. He gives them the exact same gesture from before, but this time, neither Hank nor Gavin return it. Neither of them move. Neither, in the end, do the riders on the road. They are talking between themselves.
“Come on,” says Gavin, only loud enough for Hank to hear it. “Try something, asshole. You won’t make it half a foot.”
It’s almost as if they’re all moving to a beat somewhere. Something intrinsic, drumming up from the earth. First the rider, then the greeting, then the second horse. Moving to time, playing out an act. Hank sees Gavin searching around them again, checking his periphery. His own gaze, he keeps focused on the pair ahead of him. He knows they’re standing still, but the image of them itself is shifting. Obscured through a heat haze on the road.
There’s something about that second man. A pale rider on a dark horse. Moving, revising himself. In reality, sitting upright, with his face thrown in shadow by the sun.
For one moment longer, they all stay in suspension - each pair waiting on the other to make a move.
Then, the second rider walks toward them.
Gavin says, “Goddamnit" - and unholsters his gun.
Hank seriously needs a groupon for a spa day. Grumpy old man. I feel you, buddy.
Chapter 16: Walt Whitman
Markus makes a decision. So does Connor.
Connor knows when he is dreaming. It’s because of the eyes - he sees the eyes again. The same bright eyes he sees every night now. The eyes that tracked him across Rupert's notebook.
He sees himself, this time not in a field but in a mirror.
It is him and it is not. The reflection is cold. It is raw.
Not-Connor is angry at him tonight. He is shouting - begging, enraged. What he feels is hyperbolically apparent, as per usual, in his face - unguarded, undefended, and - tonight - incredibly pained. Connor doubts that anyone has ever perceived the emotion on his own face that he himself is seeing now. It is something dug up from a deep, deep, deep well. Something he forgot he could forget.
There are tears in his reflection's eyes, but when he yells, the words still come out so softly.
Non, he says, clearly. Lâche-moi. Corentin. Ne me laisse pas. Corentin. Reviens.
The reflection becomes a child. He is crying openly, reaching out. Connor is not allowed to cry. Connor's arms are stiff at his sides. He cannot break the barrier.
The boy in the reflection is him and it is not. His eyes are ice-blue; they are Hank's eyes, Cole's eyes. The color of the sky and spilling over with tears. The thing behind those eyes, his eyes, will not be divined. The lost part of him - the human part - whatever this man is supposed to represent. Connor cannot understand it.
Corentin! Corentin! Corentin!
Connor feels ice in his gut. He feels terror. He cannot break through the water. Connor needs to fight, or to flee, or to grab hold of Cole's hand. He doesn't know what he must do; he just knows that whatever it is, he is already too late to do it.
Don't leave me! Come back!
The words are in his brain, behind his eyes. They are in his fists and in his feet, flowing up from the ground. He does not understand them. His reflection hurls itself against the glass, and it cracks. Once; twice. Connor thinks, Don't go where? Where else is there that I cannot go?
The glass is ready to shatter. There are hands on his shoulder, voices shouting in his head. As quickly as it comes, the vision is fading. In and out, flickering, losing any sense - Connor is Cole, his reflection is Connor. The hands are Hank's; Hank is coming to save him. Then Hank is in the mirror, shouting in french.
Connor falls backwards. His body alight. He feels fire and ice. He feels fear. He's too late. The last thing he feels is the shatter, and with it comes the knowledge that everything is going to change - or, rather, that it already has. After the shatter, there is a great flash of brightness. And then it’s all gone, except-
It’s a dream, he thinks. Markus thinks he must be dreaming.
He hopes to God it’s a dream. It feels so real; feels unbearably, unconscionably real. He’s terrified of how real it feels. Him in a desert, and he stands - just watching - by a strangled trunk that twists, cracks and drags itself upwards. The wood is starving, fracturing.
Connor hangs from the tree. He sways in the wind, but doesn’t twist or struggle. His eyes are open, his face is red and his jaw is slack. He’s dead. He’s already dead, and Markus just watches. He sees himself as if in the third person, and he wants to beg, wants to scream, to urge himself to do something, to reach out - but he is also inhabiting his own body, and he does or cannot move, and instead only watches as the toe-tips in his vision sway sickeningly back and forth.
Markus wakes up with a start.
The dread doesn’t leave him when he wakes. It stays clinging to his body like a film, and with consciousness it is only enhanced by the pain. Markus twists, bringing a hand up to his bicep and then quickly withdrawing at the flare brought about by the contact with his bandaged arm. He remembers the moment of getting shot - the sound of it, and the flash all down his nerves as the bullet hit. It wasn’t deep, of course, only painful. It will ache for a while, but he’ll be fine. And Connor, Markus reassures himself, is alive somewhere - still alive. He tells himself it was just a dream, and tries to dismiss the feeling of foreboding that lingers past rational thought.
Markus sighs, and stares up at the ceiling, and lets out a slow, measured breath as he grounds himself. He’s in his own bed, back at Jericho. They made it out, he thinks. And Connor-
Markus turns his head. Connor is next to him. Connor is lying splayed out in the bed with his limbs peeking out at odd angles from beneath the sheets. He’s asleep, and his chest rises and dips slowly with each gentle breath. And, yes, he’s alive.
What on earth is Connor doing in bed with Markus? No, Markus thinks, it would be more accurate to ask himself, what is he doing in bed with Connor ?
He doesn’t remember going to sleep, only the haziness and bliss that came with the morphine… He’d complained too much, and Lucy had gotten tired. Markus remembers there was a needle, and then he was lying back, to rest. He’d only closed his eyes for a second.
He sits up in bed, trying to ignore the head rush it brings, and brings a hand across his face. He feels blood flowing up into his neck.
He’d been trying to establish a separate space for Connor, where he could relax. He shouldn’t have let himself fall asleep here.
He wonders why nobody woke him.
He turns to look at Connor, and in the guttering light of the final lit lamp he can only see the highlights across Connor’s face. Asleep, he looks younger, with his brows relaxed and his lips slightly parted. He looks calm. There are curious depths to Connor’s face, in the places that Markus cannot make out.
He realizes he’s still addled. His lips form the word, ‘mor-phine’, and he breathes it out into the dark as a sigh, and then nods to himself as he tries to assemble the day ahead of him in his mind. He needs to follow up with North. He needs to get ready; he needs to get up.
That’s what Markus does. He makes his way to the doorway, still rubbing with his good hand at tired eyes, and then he nearly yelps when he almost runs into North, who’s waiting in the shadow of the corridor, half occluding his path. Her arms are folded, and there’s a frown on her face.
North is angry. What else is new?
She clears her throat. Her eyes flick over to the doorway, and then back to Markus, where she meets his gaze frankly. “You’re fucking him,” she says.
Markus stands stock-still, blinking at the accusation.
After a hesitation, he whispers, irked, “Yes, North. That’s exactly what just happened. We were having passionate sex.”
“Of course I’m not 'fucking him',” Markus says. “Don't be ridiculous. Why would you even think that?”
North curls into herself slightly, grinding her teeth. “Because you- okay, fine,” she says. “Then why were you… y’know.”
“I fell asleep,” Markus says. He turns back to where Connor can still be seen lying, completely oblivious, through the doorway. “I don’t know why he didn’t ask for help.”
“Yeah, weird,” says North. She turns her back on him as she speaks, projecting a desire for him to follow her away from the room. Markus does so. He waits for her to continue, and then is surprised when he realizes she’s ready to drop it.
Markus sees a ready opportunity to change the topic, and seizes it gladly. He can find out what happened after he got back, he thinks. He says, "So."
“Oh,” says North, turning back to him slightly. “He’s good. He’s hiding away. Lucy gave him the all clear.”
“That’s good,” says Markus.
“He’s hiding from Connor.”
“Yes, I understood what you were getting at,” says Markus.
“He almost shot Simon yesterday.”
Markus stops in his tracks. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Rupert tried to shoot Simon?”
“No, idiot.” she punches him lightly, on his good arm. Markus doesn’t budge. “I mean Connor.”
Markus tilts his head, frowning. “What happened?” he asks. “Is Simon okay?”
“Simon’s fine,” says North. “Our Mr Stern got down into the valley somehow, and somehow got ahold of Simon’s pistol.”
Markus nods, although he feels his heart clench. This is going to be almost as bad for Connor as it was for Simon, he’s sure. Why does that man never listen to him, Markus wonders. What in God’s name could he have been thinking?
“What did he want?” Markus asks.
North shrugs. “Nothing, apparently. To talk.” She slides her gaze away from Markus and down the hall, as if she’s reluctant to admit as much. “Simon said he unloaded the gun.”
Markus ducks his head in thought. “But that’s good,” he realizes. “That means that he had an opportunity to escape, and that he chose not to-”
“For God’s sake, Markus! Would you shut up about Connor and his feelings for once!”
Markus splays his hands out, in a gesture of innocence. “You’re the one who keeps bringing him up,” he argues.
“That’s not what I mean!” North turns to face him fully. “Simon could have died!”
“But he didn’t," Markus says. "It sounds like he didn’t even come close.”
“It doesn’t matter,” North insists. “Jesus Christ. It's like talking to a brick wall.”
She seems to realize, though, that Markus is too staunchly devoted to his way of thinking for her to waste time trying to convince him otherwise. Connor is warming up to Jericho. Markus sees it, Josh sees it; Connor himself must know it too. Connor could have shot his way out of Jericho if he wanted to. He didn’t do it, which means he didn’t want to. Doesn’t want to.
North’s lips pull themselves into a very thin, very displeased frown. “Markus,” she says - and he knows this is going to be the crux of the matter. “You told us three days.”
Markus says, “I did.”
“It’s been almost a week since he got here.”
“I know.” Markus stares at a damp spot in the rose-colored stone wall. “And I do have an idea of what I want to do, now.”
He sees North locking on to the words. She tries to look uninterested. “Okay,” she says. “So what’s your plan?”
Markus shakes his head. “You’re not going to like this.”
North rolls her eyes. Under her breath, she actually laughs. She shakes her head - mirroring him - as she puts her hand on the small of his back, to guide him again down the path towards the dining hall. “Oh, Markus,” she murmurs. “When do I ever?”
It’s a curious thing about Connor.
He got chattier, without a doubt.
At first, Connor wouldn’t say a word to Markus. He would act, in fact, as if Markus didn’t exist at all - letting his eyes slide over to the wall behind him with his jaw set. It was a kind of defensive measure; refusing to acknowledge Markus meant refusing to acknowledge any effect Markus might have on him. Then, whenever Markus seemed distracted, Connor would be watching him, apprehensive. Assessing him.
He definitely calmed down, though. That was good. That was what Markus wanted.
He talks, now. Actually, he incessantly asks questions. He barely even tries to disguise that he is fishing for information about Jericho. He presses on and on, apparently completely unconcerned about any consequences - or, rather, not concerned that there will be consequences at all. Connor has, in fact, become frustratingly cocky - first in his actions, and now, Markus sees, in his words.
But he still holds himself in that unnaturally perfect frame. He still schools his expression, refusing to react to Markus’ words until he has decided for himself what that reaction will be. Markus longs for some sort of honesty of expression, with Connor. He’s only ever unguarded when he’s in the peripheries, when he’s almost alone. Even then, he’s withholding. Markus wonders if he’s even honest with himself. He wonders if Connor even knows how.
“Are you familiar with the works of Carl Manfred?”
Markus fumbles, and drops his brush. Connor follows Markus with his eyes as he bends down to retrieve it, clearing his throat. Connor tilts his head to the side as he watches. Assessing.
“I am,” Markus squawks. “I thought I told you to be quiet.”
“Oh, you did? I’m sorry, I must have missed it.”
“Just read your book, Connor. I’m trying to pay attention.”
Markus squints up close at the section of the piece that he’s trying to compose. He needs to flesh it out with warmer foreground tones, he thinks, but that will change the color composition that he originally had in mind. He could also achieve the same effect, perhaps, by deepening the shadows.
He sees Connor watching him, out of the corner of his eyes. His nose is buried in Pride and Prejudice, but his focus is not on the page. Markus hovers his brush over the canvas, but his focus isn’t on the painting either. He knows Connor is about to say something else. Then, when he doesn’t, it’s even more irritating. The silence draws on just long enough that Markus thinks he might be safe, and can continue, and then-
“It’s just that I see a lot of similarities between your styles, now that I come to think of it. Did you draw inspiration- oh.”
Markus turns to face him. He sets down his palette. He wonders, “When did you become such a brat?”
Connor ducks, bringing the novel up so that it’s fully hiding his face. Playing at some kind of obeisance. Markus puts his hands on his knees, and then rises, so he can pull the book aside and force Connor to look at him.
"I see you," he says to Connor.
"Hello," Connor says.
“I think I liked you better when you had sunstroke."
Connor remains sitting. His back is ramrod straight. He says, “Maybe you should let me go, then, so I can get out and catch it again.”
“Maybe so,” Markus says. “Come on, get up. I want you to try this.”
Connor puts the book aside, his curiosity instantly piqued. He says - even though he can clearly see Markus changing the canvas - “Try what?”
“Painting.” Markus adjusts the easel's lower handle upwards and then removes his stool from before it. “Come and stand over here.”
It wasn’t an easy morning. There isn’t much Markus can do to compensate for Jericho’s problems other than stand back and wait for the pressure on them in Prescott to start to ease off. That’s easier said than done, of course, especially now since it’s been confirmed that the sheriff is snooping around Campe Verde. They need go out; they need to maintain their connection with Prescott; they need to eat; they also need, desperately now, to lay low. The Sheriff had barely missed Rupert by twenty-four hours. Markus does not doubt he will return to Rupert’s farm. The sheriff will continue to pursue them. So long as Connor stays missing, that is.
After hours spent in meetings and with his head still not quite on his shoulders straight after the night before, Markus had needed a break. It had been a while since he’d just taken the time to sit and paint. He figured it couldn’t hurt to invite Connor to join him in the makeshift studio - to get him out of trouble and under supervision for awhile. And also, he has to admit to himself, because Markus would enjoy the company.
He’d thought he would, at least. He thinks with a smile that it seems that that also may have been a mistake. Now he’s here, sore, unable to work properly with his dominant arm, and unable to try to focus despite his arm because Connor is practically chatting his ear off.
Markus supposes he should be grateful that the younger man is talking. It’s difficult, of course, when every other word out of Connor’s mouth is so provocative. So maybe, Markus thinks, if he can’t distract himself, he can distract Connor instead.
Connor allows Markus to instruct him on how to hold the palette, and then stands, perfectly poised, staring mutely at the blank canvas. “Don’t tell me you’re finally at a loss for words,” Markus teases.
Connor looks to Markus and then back at the canvas again. His expression changes slowly, into something of a frown. He says, “I’ve never done this before.”
“What exactly am I supposed to paint?”
Markus gestures to the narrow windows, where sunlight streaks inside. “It doesn’t matter,” he explains. “Paint what you see," he says, and then realizes that as inspiration goes, this little tucked-away room does have little to offer. "Or paint what you’re feeling. It can be anything. Just paint what you’re feeling.”
Connor scoffs at that. Markus folds his arms, trying to search for the words to explain what he means. He recalls the first time he painted with his father; tries to remember what worked so well for him then. Eventually, Markus says, “Listen. Close your eyes.”
“Are you serious?”
“I’m serious. Close your eyes.”
Connor gives him an incredibly judgmental look. It takes him awhile to do as instructed. When his eyes are closed, he says, “Okay. What now?”
“Now just allow the brush to carry your hand across the canvas. Paint something that’s inside you. It’s not going to be perfect the first time, so don’t worry about getting it right. Just try to express yourself.”
“Markus,” says Connor. “I can’t see the canvas.”
“I can’t see the palette, I can’t see what I’m doing.” Connor opens his eyes. “This is ridiculous.”
Markus bites his inner lip against a grin. Connor looks as if Markus has just instructed him to recite the Bible in Chinese. He looks almost comically bewildered, Markus thinks.
Okay, so this isn’t going to work.
When he sees Markus smiling, Connor smiles too. Only for half a second, before he turns away and hides it. Markus grins fully at the sight of it.
“Okay,” Markus says. “So this was maybe not such a good idea.”
“It was a terrible idea. How am I supposed to paint if I can’t even see what I’m doing?”
“I thought it might work.”
“It’s okay, Connor. You don’t have to paint if you don’t want to.”
“No,” Connor says, immediately. “No, I can do it. Just give me a moment.”
“And I’m going to look at what I’m doing. It’s just logical,” he adds, somewhat petulantly.
“Okay,” Markus grins.
Connor looks to Markus, and then to the canvas, and then back at Markus. He’s pouting. Markus tries to frown; tries to look as if he’s still taking this seriously.
“Alright,” Connor says.
He ends up painting the whole blue sky - somewhat aggressively - in a single shade, and then goes back over it to add a lighter hue at the horizon. He dabs little blotches of white together in clumps, and Markus realizes he’s trying to paint on clouds. Connor frowns at them when he’s done, as if he finds them offensive.
“Don’t be frustrated,” Markus tells him. “They’re good.”
“This is much harder than I realized,” Connor says, as he starts adding earth from the bottom up.
“You can’t expect yourself to be perfect at everything the first time you try it,” Markus says. Connor throws him a look that says - actually, I can expect that, and I do.
“Please be quiet,” is what Connor actually says.
“Oh, I’m sorry, Connor. Am I distracting you?”
“I’m going to borrow a term of phrase from your friend Simon,” Connor says. “‘Piss off’.”
Markus chuckles to himself. “See, I knew you two would get along,” he says.
“That’s one way of putting it,” Connor muses.
Connor ends up painting a landscape, and it isn’t half bad. Not half bad at all, Markus thinks. It’s Arizona - he recognizes the steep-sided buttes, and the dusty summer foliage. In fact, Markus actually recognizes the image itself. It’s the view from the plateau. The stroke composition might be amateur, but, proportionally, the replica is almost perfect. Markus is immeasurably pleased with what Connor’s produced.
“Did you really have this all in your head?” he wonders. “How can you remember what it looks like?”
Connor shrugs. “I remember,” he says.
Markus turns from the painting to Connor and back, somewhat astonished. He’s gotten it right even down to the smallest detail. It looks- it’s as if a child had traced a photograph.
“This is actually really good,” Markus murmurs. He wonders what the implications are that Connor can so perfectly recall a scene that he’s only seen once in his life. This probably isn’t good for Markus, in the bigger scheme of things.
“I can’t hold a candle to you,” Connor admits.
Markus wonders why Connor would choose to reveal to Markus that he could do this.
“It’ll get better,” Markus says. “Maybe the next one.”
Connor laughs. “Maybe the next one.”
It makes Markus blink. Did he really just laugh? Did Connor Stern really just laugh out loud? Pigs would sooner fly. Markus is somewhat astonished.
He can’t help but look at Connor’s lips - how natural it is, the way they curl upward. How his eyes crease slightly when he’s genuinely smiling. He sees the way the patterns of moles shift as Connor turns his head, how they reach down to his collarbone and under Markus’ shirt. The skin around his neck is darker, still, where the noose had been.
Oh no. That’s what Markus had thought when he’d first seen Connor standing there that day, clean-shaven, wearing his shirt. Oh no.
It’s what he’s thinking now.
Markus clears his throat. “You have paint on your face,” he mumbles.
Connor brings a hand up to his cheek, effectively multiplying the problem by exactly four sticky fingerprints. “I do?” he says. Then he removes his hand and sees what he’s done. “Oh, damn.”
“It’s right here,” Markus says. For a second he wants to reach out, but then he just gestures to the same area on his own face instead. Connor scrubs at it with a sleeve, smearing the paint across his jaw.
“Okay, and now it's on my shirt,” Markus says.
“I’ll wash it out. Did I get it?”
“Um, no. Not at all, actually.”
Connor ends up leaving, after having exacerbated the problem a little more, to search for a mirror. Halfway to the door he decides he's just going to have a bath instead. Markus hides the twinge of disappointment that strikes him when he realizes Connor's not coming back to the studio.
That’s fine. Connor can go where he pleases. At least Markus was able to keep him busy for a few hours. He remembers, then, the real reason he’d wanted to talk to Connor this morning. He’d wanted to bring it up earlier, but he’d been...
“Listen,” Markus says to him. “I want to talk to you. Tonight, I suppose. After dinner.”
Connor stops what he’s doing and turns, giving Markus his full attention. “Okay,” he says, carefully.
“You’ve been incredibly patient- well, no. You’ve been somewhat patient, and I appreciate that. We’re going to sort out a plan going forward.”
He’s being vague, and he knows it. Connor slowly nods. He says, “Good.”
“You don’t need to be nervous. Nothing bad’s going to happen.”
Connor fixes his big brown eyes on Markus, pinning him. He says, “I know.”
That wasn’t what Markus had expected to hear. “Okay,” Markus says. “Well- good.”
“I’m not nervous,” says Connor. "Only impatient."
He brings out that prize-winning smile again, suddenly. It seems out of place, now that the conversation has turned somewhat tense. It doesn't reach his eyes.
Markus just nods, and watches Connor go.
Dinner ends up drawing on longer than Connor had anticipated.
To start with, they’re drinking. North and Markus obviously managed to pinch some liquor on their little excursion the day before, and when Connor arrives at the dining hall, Jericho’s leadership is already unanimously tipsy.
Markus waves Connor toward his group, which Connor approaches somewhat cautiously. North is present tonight, he notes, and Simon too.
Simon says, "Markus was just complaining to us that you'd ruined your hair again."
"That's not true," Markus cuts in, hastily. Connor raises a pointed eyebrow at him.
“If I'm going to go looking for advice about my hair," Connor says, "It probably won't be from a bald man who lives in a cave."
North snorts at that. Simon hides a grin behind his hand, as Markus scowls. To Connor, Simon says, “I think your hair looks perfectly nice.”
Honestly, it all takes Connor aback somewhat. Simon is being friendly. North is being friendly, even. Or, at least, she is tolerating his presence.
Connor becomes increasingly convinced as the meal draws on that he's become the butt of some joke. He keeps waiting for the other shoe to drop. But nothing seems to happen. They are all - apparently - only being friendly for the sake of being friendly. It's as if some truce has been applied because it's a mealtime.
In sitting with Markus, Connor allows himself to be introduced to various members of Jericho to whom he had not been confident enough to speak on his own.
He meets John, who recounts the story of Markus and North running desperately from an enraged farmer, the day before, weighed down by sacks of groats. It irks Connor, the casualness with which Markus nods along to a story in which he almost dies for the sake of a few meals. Markus remarks that Connor wasn’t so sour about it that morning, chowing down on a bowl of oatmeal.
Connor doesn’t dignify Markus’ ribbing with more than an unimpressed stare.
He meets Emma and Margaret Tracey, who sit nodding along to a speech from John with their hands clasped. When Connor remarks later, in a private moment with Markus, on the closeness of the sisters, Jericho’s leader throws his head back and cackles out loud.
“They’re not sisters, Connor,” says Markus, while he’s still wiping away the tears from his eyes.
“But they- oh,” Connor says. Realization dawns quickly after that. He thinks, Oh.
He glances across the room, to where the two women are still sitting hand in hand, with their shoulders pressed up against each other. Connor doesn’t know what to say.
“They, er… so they read Walt Whitman,” he hedges.
Markus chuckles again. “I like that way of putting it,” he says. “Yes. A bachelorettes’ marriage.”
It’s so peculiar, Connor thinks. He isn’t sure why. Something washes over him at the sound of Markus discussing it so plainly. Like it isn’t something bizarre, or something to be ashamed of. It’s just there.
“We used to have a clergyman here,” Markus says. “He was just passing through. I don’t know exactly what he did, but he was ordained. He solemnized the vows.”
“They’re actually married,” Connor wonders.
Markus happily shrugs. “Jericho is a place for people just to be themselves. If it can’t happen here, well, where else could they be happy?”
Happy, Connor thinks. Happiness. Not at all the purpose of this place, if you’d asked him about it a month ago. Now, though, Connor buys it very easily.
He watches Markus. He’s looking across the room. Looking at the couple. He’s contemplative, but not at all discomfited, Connor thinks.
“You really don’t mind it,” Connor realizes.
Markus shrugs. “People can… read… whatever they want,” he says. He flashes Connor a bright, toothy grin. “I read all sorts of books.”
Connor swallows, trying and failing not to overanalyze that statement. It’s actually what he had been afraid of, he thinks, when he first arrived. Markus and pederasty. Deviancy. Somehow that fear now seems comical. The idea of Markus forcing himself onto some some helpless young maiden is absolutely ridiculous. The idea of Markus forcing himself onto Connor -
Connor shakes his head, and tries not to blush.
“What about you?” Markus asks.
“What about me?”
“What kind of books do you read, Connor?” Markus’ mischievous grin lingers on his face as he asks this. “You a fan of Walt Whitman?”
“It’s Simon,” Connor realizes, still forcing away that blush. “He’s in love with you.”
Markus doesn’t respond straight away. He watches Connor with his brows drawn together in consideration. Connor finds himself hard pressed not to turn away under Markus’ scrutiny.
“Why do you so hate,” Markus asks, “to talk about yourself?”
“There’s nothing to say,” Connor supposes.
“I would beg to differ.” When Connor doesn’t reply, Markus continues: “What are you so afraid of?”
Connor scoffs. “I’m not afraid.”
Markus’ brilliant mismatched eyes stay on him for just a moment longer, and then eventually he looks away. Markus lets it go. Part of Connor wants to know what he was so sure of, to ask a question like that. But Markus is a fire-cracker today; on one second and off the next. His concern wavers, and it finds another target.
“There was something, between me and Simon,” Markus admits. “At the end of the day, his heart belongs to Jericho. So does mine, I suppose."
“To your noble cause.”
Markus chuckles. “Yes,” he says. “Exactly.”
They are interrupted, not long after that, by Kara and Alice, asking for a show. This is how Connor passes his time as the sun sets; drawing the gaze of three enraptured children and one adult back and forth like clockwork between his hands as he hides and then flourishes his quarter. The light of the fire seems to grow stronger as the daylight bleeds away, and the tumult of voices in the chamber fades to a contented hum. Behind him, somewhere, Josh is singing, and eventually North and even Markus join in, tumbling over themselves and losing sight of the verses halfway through. Josh has a remarkable singing voice, however. He might be pitch perfect, Connor thinks. And then he realizes he has heard that singing before.
Connor catches his quarter between the index and middle finger of his right hand and then tosses it up into the air. He can catch it easily now.
He heard that singing the evening Markus found him, in that canyon.
It seems like it was years ago now. It was barely a week.
Connor waits patiently for Markus to come to him after dinner. He makes small talk with Luther and Kara while he does so, watching Alice and her friends play near the fire pit.
Luther still hasn’t responded to Connor’s offer to continue to talk about Andronikov. Sensing the easy calm to the night air, Connor decides not to bring it up. They just talk about nothing. It’s friendly, he thinks. He likes it.
Looking around the room, he thinks, I like all of this. And is it really such a crime to admit as much?
They talk about the Traceys again; everyone seems interested in what Connor has to say about them. He tries to remain impartial. What interests him, actually, is the manner in which Kara talks about the romance; as if it’s completely irrelevant to her own situation. As if it’s something to be admired but not experienced personally.
Connor glances between Luther and Kara, and tries to think of a way to tactfully bring it up. He isn’t sure he finds one.
“If you don’t mind me asking,” Connor says, “are you two not… together?”
They smile conspiratorially at that, their bodies drawing closer. “Not in the sense that you’re thinking,” says Kara. “And certainly not in the sense that they’re together.” She nods at the Traceys.
“Ah.” Connor’s not certain that he’s interpreted that correctly. Whether she means they’re not married, or they’re not yet lovers in the ‘traditional’ sense. He tries to find an answer that could apply to both. “So, you’re waiting…?”
Luther shakes his head. “We’re not waiting for anything,” he says, in that deep, bone-trembling rumble of his. “We already have everything we need.”
They’re both looking at Alice.
Connor turns to follow their gazes. She runs in circles with her lieutenants, clutching her fox to her side, and giggling helplessly. She trips, once, falling onto her knees, but gets up to keep playing without a second thought.
They love her. They love her unconditionally, a priori. They want the best in the world for her. Connor’s heart clenches at the thought.
They love her, and they took her to Jericho. Where their loftiest aspiration is to be a family together.
“How many children do you think there are in Jericho?” Connor asks.
Kara isn’t sure. “About eight, I think,” she hazards.
Connor nods. That sounds about right.
Across the room, Markus peels away from his pack and stands, searching the room. Connor rises, and when their eyes meet Markus makes a gesture with his head that indicates that it’s time for them to go.
Connor makes his excuses.
When he meets Markus outside of the hall, and he asks where they’re going, Markus simply says, “Up.”
The stairs are dark, and slippery, and Markus can tell not too far in to the ascent that Connor is struggling. He’s becoming out of breath. He has to remind himself that this is a man who literally could not walk, however many days ago. Connor acts like he’s on top of himself, but physically - as well as emotionally - he has been through a trial.
Markus stops and waits for him, halfway up. Connor bends over, breathing heavily, before righting himself and brushing his hands down over the legs of his slacks. Suddenly he’s collected, as if nothing has ever phased him a day in his life.
Markus points out that they can stop here, if they’d like, but Connor wants to go all the way, which is what Markus was hoping he would say. The view of the valley at sunset will, he thinks, be singularly splendid.
Quite simply put, it is splendid. The sky encompasses a brilliant range of colors, starting from a bloodied orange that sets the clouds on the horizon ablaze, and then spreading up into the deep violet of a pure night sky. They emerge from between the roots of an emory oak, with leaves that spread out in multitudinous layers, piling eagerly on top of each other to reach the canopy overhead. Markus removes the boards and leaves that obscure the entrance to the tunnel, allowing Connor to follow him out onto the cliff top. Connor gazes around himself as if in a daze, and Markus realizes, then, that Connor has never seen any of this before. Only felt it; only passed through.
Markus follows Connor out onto the edge of the cliff, and he sits. Connor does not. He remains standing, and his eyes flicker across the shadow of the valley beneath them. In the dying sunlight, his eyes are amber, and his skin a pale blue. He hugs himself against the wind that buffets them at this height. Markus, personally, appreciates the opportunity to just sit in the cool breeze and take it all in for a second.
Markus looks out at Arizona. He looks up at the nascent stars, and then back at the hundred-year-old tree. Connor follows his gaze.
“So that’s the entrance to Jericho,” Connor muses - staring at the flimsy planks of wood that Markus has left leaning up against the bark.
“That’s it,” Markus says. “Don’t go telling everyone now.”
Connor, helplessly, smirks. “I wouldn’t dare,” he says, sardonic.
Markus crosses his legs, and tries to search for some way to break the ice.
He ends up telling Connor the story of how he first arrived at Jericho. How he, really, had no idea what he was looking for. He had followed the instructions, but only ended up lost when it came to the end of it. He'd been so exhausted.
Connor nods along, watching him.
“So I sat -” Markus gestures - “up against that tree, just to rest for awhile. Imagine my shock when I sit down and the ground gives way.”
A smile creeps across Connor’s face. Which is good, Markus thinks. It means that the story has done its job.
“You fell in,” Connor says.
Markus nods. “I literally just fell in.”
“People do end up in this place in fairly remarkable ways,” Connor muses. Markus hums to himself at that.
A beat passes between them then. And then another.
“Markus,” Connor says, slowly. “I’m sure you didn’t bring me all the way up here just to talk about that.”
“No,” Markus confesses. “I did not.”
He nods out to the land beneath them - at what he knows lies there, obscured by dusk. “Pleasant Valley is out there, somewhere,” Markus says. “They’ve been at war for almost a decade. It’s all the marshals care about.”
“These are the cattle ranchers,” Connor says.
“Ranchers, yes.” Markus shrugs. “They have horses too. Some sheep, I think. I don’t know if they even remember why they’re killing each other any more.”
He has to twist his face upward in order to look Connor in the eye. “It’s these families,” Markus says. “They go down through the generations and they kill and they kill until nobody’s left. And then the ones without the family name - the farmhands, the summer workers - well, with all the gentry being picked off, who’s going to care about them?”
Connor nods. He’s listening.
“Nobody cares,” Markus says. With his good hand, he pulls the withering grass out from the ground beneath him at the roots. “They die, and nobody cares.”
“Or they come here,” Connor says.
“Exactly. Exactly. Or they come here.”
Connor sits down beside him. He sits up straight, but he runs his hands back and forth across each other. His face is pensive, and it’s slowly - oh so slowly, over the course of a week, now - opening up.
If Markus wants Connor to open up to him, then Markus knows he’s going to need to do so, too.
“Companies like Steerco come in,” Markus continues, “and they don’t give a damn about their workers, or their safety. About the locals. And they won’t let them unionize. And they won’t bat an eyelid when some rockfall crushes someone’s father or takes the legs of someone’s brother. They won’t do a single thing. And then, yes, those people who survive - the collateral damage - well, some of them come here too.”
Connor only nods.
“Separately from all this,” Markus says, “There’s a slave cemetery. A mass grave, really. Out near Florence. They still use it now.” Markus sighs. “Leased convicts. That sort of thing. People who nobody will miss.”
Connor watches him, considerate.
“I woke up in that place one day,” Markus says. Connor’s eyes widen at that, minutely. He says nothing, preferring instead to wait for Markus to continue.
Markus stares down at his toes. “I had a really good life, Connor,” he says. “A good upbringing. I had a father who loved me. I didn’t realize, then, that I was one of the lucky ones. I thought it was…” Markus tilts his head.
“Universal,” Connor says.
“Exactly,” Markus agrees. “Something unconditional. Anyways, my brother… My brother and I, we had this argument. The law got involved. It wasn’t even a serious fight, but… I guess it didn’t matter to them what had happened, because, you see, my brother is white.”
Connor is deathly still. He watches and watches, and slowly nods.
“So they- so things turned ugly," Markus says. "I don't remember a lot of it, to be honest. Just that I woke up in this… in this pit,” Markus says.
“And then I came here.”
Markus runs a hand across the back of his head. His heart is pounding in his chest. His palms are hot, and clammy. It’s something- it’s not something he talks about, usually. It’s something people just know.
“I’m sorry,” says Markus. “I do have a point.”
“It’s okay,” Connor says. “I don’t- I’m, actually, I’m grateful.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes, Markus. Thank you for sharing that with me.”
It sounds somewhat rehearsed. Markus has to console himself that they're taking small steps. Small steps, he thinks.
Markus looks out into the night. “I guess what I want to ask you, Connor,” he says, “actually, is what such a- well, what a reasonable, conscientious man like you is doing working for a place like Steerco.”
He turns back to Connor, and Connor’s eyes haven’t left Markus’ face. Every thing in his body is growing, corded, around his eyes. The intensity of his gaze is matched only by the plainness of his expression. There’s nothing to slip by without Connor’s say-so. But it’s there; Markus knows it’s there, under the surface. He sees it in Connor’s sleep, in his shy smiles. Unspoken confessions. Markus is ready to hear them.
Something in Connor’s face softens. Something - it doesn’t break, but it’s been let go. Connor opens his mouth, and the words that come out are candid and soft. “If I’m being honest,” Connor says, “I’m not quite sure that I know that either.”
Markus raises an eyebrow. Connor twists his mouth slightly, probably wondering what to say. In the end, it’s this:
“It used to be easy for me. There was never anything to question. Am- my mother worked for Steerco, and she wanted me to work for Steerco, and so I did.”
“This is Amanda,” Markus says.
“Yes,” says Connor. “Amanda. And everything she wanted, I wanted. And everything she did, I did. Because when I didn't, she wasn't happy. And when she wasn't happy, she let me know.” He frowns slightly, dropping his gaze in introspection. “And I was good at it, as well. I am good at it. But I’m starting to realize that it’s never- it’s never going to be good enough.”
Markus feels his throat close up somewhat. Of course Connor has his own sad stories, he thinks. Of course Connor has his problems. He wears it in the way he carriers himself; the way he witholds himself. He supposes it's just hard to hear it out loud.
Connor is a picture of privilege, with his perfect hair and his perfect skin and his perfect suit. But Connor is a person, too. Connor has faults. People have committed wrongs against him. Hell, Markus has committed wrongs against him.
“She expects the impossible,” Markus hazards.
Connor gives a sad little smile. “I don’t know that it’s impossible,” he admits. “It’s just impossible for me. And I don’t even know what I want, any more. I don’t know if I ever really knew.”
His voice comes out barely louder than a whisper. It’s soft, and his face is creased in concern, and Markus thinks that he is seeing Connor, now. Really seeing him. And he’s just a man, just a human being - fiddling with his hands, talking about his mother. And the moles freckle his skin, and his smile - his real smile - comes out crooked, and it all adds up to a fantastical whole that Markus has been, since the first day they met, so desperate for a proper glimpse at. Honesty; and it’s a genuineness not spurred by fear, or the heat of the moment. It’s just present. It’s just there.
“Why did you bring me up here, Markus?” Connor asks. “Why did you bring me to Jericho?”
“Why is it impossible for you?”
“With your mother,” Markus clarifies. “Why is it impossible for you to be good enough?”
“I don’t know,” Connor says. That’s an obvious lie. He quickly revises himself. “I made a mistake. Two years ago. I’ve been trying to correct it ever since, and, honestly, I don’t know if I ever can. But I always did - do - things… I don’t realize it at the time, but I guess that a part of me does it because I know it isn’t what they’d want. Because I know she’s not going to like it. I don’t know.”
“What did you do?” Markus asks. "Two years ago. What did you do?"
Connor shakes his head. “It’s so funny,” he says, although he doesn’t seem to find it funny in the slightest. “It seemed so important, before now. It all seemed so important - the job, just do the job, and everything else will follow, and nothing else matters. And all the things that go wrong, it’s like they’ll be a stain on me forever. Like they’re eating me up. But here -” he spreads his arm out, gesturing toward the valley - “all that seems so trivial.”
Markus nods. He remembers, when he first arrived in Jericho, thinking about Plato’s forms - feeling as if he’d spent his whole life staring at shadows on a wall, but only here had been able to grasp at the vividness - the heartbreaking truth of the virtues. Of the reality that humans spend their lives carving at the joints, with their heads down low and their eyes averted.
“Everything seems so vivid here,” Connor says, echoing Markus’ thoughts. “Everything seems so real. Even my dreams are - I don’t know. Maybe, raw?”
Markus thinks about the previous night; about Connor, hanging from a tree. He nods.
“Does what I’m saying make any sense to you?”
“It absolutely makes sense, Connor,” Markus says. “What was it, this thing that you did?”
Connor scoffs. That unbearable sorrow on his face is, if only for a moment, cast away. “You’re really not going to let that go, are you?” he murmurs.
“You never want to talk about yourself,” Markus says. “Tonight, I need to know.”
“Do you?” Connor wonders. “Do you want to?”
Markus gives a smile that he hopes might be reassuring.
Whatever it is, it can’t be good. Everyone knows about it. Prescott knows about it, Avi knows about it - they just don’t know what ‘it’ is. Markus hopes it is something resolvable. He believes that they can work through it, but in order to do that, Markus is going to have to know what it is.
Does he want to hear it?
“You tell me,” Markus says.
Connor hums, thinking. “If I do that,” he says, “Will you let me know what you want from me?”
“Yes,” Markus says. And his heart leaps at the notion that Connor is really going to tell him about this thing, whatever it is. That Connor is no longer leery of Markus, or avoidant, or anything else that he was in the beginning.
The man that looks back at Markus does not look afraid any more. Instead, he looks wholly and indisputable lost.
“Okay,” says Connor. Even across that one word, his tone loses inflection. He turns away from Markus and looks straight ahead, and he shrugs, and says, “I read Walt Whitman.”
Markus blinks. He opens his mouth and then he closes it again. Inside him, a fascinated beast uncurls, but he bridles it, unwilling to touch on something that Connor is so obviously weighed down by, even in a positive light. What he really wants to do is ask, "What, that's it?"
Instead of doing that, Markus says, “Okay.”
Connor turns to look at him, expectantly. Whether he's waiting on a more specific response, or whether he's hoping Markus will now uphold his end of their deal, Markus can't be sure. He decides to play it safe by supposing it's the latter.
He puts a hand on either knee. He says, “As for me, I… I guess I want to offer you a job.”
“I accept,” Connor says.
“Because I just feel that- wait, what? You do?”
“I accept,” Connor says.
Markus stares at him, incredulous. “You don't even know what you're agreeing to, though.”
“You want me to go back to Steerco and argue your case,” Connor says. “To try for some leniency for the people here who’re only civilians. To be some sort of go-between, so I can tell your story.” He turns back to Markus with an inquisitive expression. “Isn’t that right?”
Markus nods. “That’s exactly it,” he says, with something wondrous in his tone. “I know you’re already interviewing the people here. If you can tell their stories-”
“I will,” Connor says - almost emphatically. “I want to.”
Markus had been ready for Connor to rail against him. He’d been ready to hear that the time Connor had had in Jericho was not enough - that he still needed some momentum, something to push him over the edge. Markus knows how dedicated Connor has been to Steerco - it's a dedication that almost transcends duty or obligation. It is there because it has to be, Markus thinks, because Connor - for whatever reason - had never been able to present himself with an alternative.
Markus had doubted that Connor could perceive the weight of all he is struggling against. He thought that Connor was just so used to bearing it that he believed it was normal.
But Connor does see it, apparently. And if he’s ready to take steps against it, too - well, that’s fantastic.
Markus says, “I was thinking. Tomorrow, you could finish your interviews with the people who are willing to share their histories. I’ll give you a notebook; you can write it all down.” He says, “Take it back to Prescott. I know you’ll know things that I’d rather you didn’t, by now, but that’s okay. So long as you’re willing to do what you think is right.”
“I am more than willing,” Connor says, frankly.
“Okay.” Markus hums to himself. “Do you think a day will be enough?”
“It should be.”
“Then, the day after tomorrow, we’re going to leave before sunup, and I’m going to take you to Cherry so you can inspect what’s left of the crime scene there. After that, you’ll be free to return to Prescott.”
“Markus,” Connor says, “if you show your face in Cherry, you’ll be shot on sight.”
It’s not the reaction Markus had expected to the information he delivered. “I know that,” Markus says. “I won’t come all the way. I’m going to get you an escort; someone I trust.”
“Okay,” Connor says. He barely needs a second to think it over. “I agree to your proposition.”
For someone who Markus had felt was lost, he’s remarkably eager to come on board with Markus’ plan.
It’s everything he’d hoped for. Honestly, it’s everything he’d hoped for and more. Markus can barely believe his ears. And he knows he ought to be praying that this is not all too good to be true, but right now, he can’t see it being any other way. It is too good to be true. It’s splendid.
Connor says, “Shall we shake on it?”
Markus says, “I don’t see why not.”
Connor extends his hand, and Markus takes it. His grip is cool and firm. Markus can feel the whisper of a heartbeat along his index finger.
Connor’s lips are curved up, and his eyes are on Markus. His jaw is lax; his stronger features have softened. Markus thinks Connor is happy.
Markus lets go, and both of them lean back against their hands in unison, each taking a breath and returning to the place where they are. On a remarkable night, under peaceful skies. Something is bubbling in Markus’ chest. Something is telling him to let go; to sigh.
All of a sudden, Markus rises to his feet. “I’ve hated this,” he confesses.
“I know,” Connor says.
“I mean the- you- having you here, like this. I don’t know the first thing about taking prisoners.”
“Yes, that much was very obvious,” Connor agrees. He also makes to stand up.
“I’m sorry, Connor,” Markus finds himself saying. “I'm sorry for everything that happened.”
“It’s okay,” Connor reassures him. He brushes himself down, readjusting his shirt on his shoulders. “Markus, you haven’t really done me any wrong.”
“But I have,” Markus says. He gestures outwards with his hands. “To have taken you here. To have not known what to do. I know it can’t have been easy for you-”
“I was contented to wait,” Connor counters.
“I didn’t really give you a choice.”
“Markus,” Connor says, with a twinge of what might be irritation to his voice. He speaks firmly, as if keen to get a point across. “You rescued me. I tried to kill you, and you still saved my life, and then you spent a week trying to justify it to yourself. Okay?”
Was that what happened? Markus supposes it was. He supposes that Connor is, as ever, more insightful than he lets on. He says, "Okay."
Connor is facing him. There’s a brightness in his eyes; there’s a strength that has been growing all night. His arms hang thoughtlessly, casually, by his sides. His frame is relaxed. The strings are cut. But he’s locked on, he’s focussed. He’s focussed on Markus.
“I really think we can do this,” Connor says, and Markus thinks, We. “We might even be able to find something on Steerco to use against them. I’m sure you’d know who to talk to. I can look into it internally; try to find some wrong they’ve covered up. We can bring the Sheriff’s Department into it. We can resolve the problem through dialogue. This hostility, it doesn’t need to be the end of your story.”
Markus meets Connor’s enthusiasm unabashedly. He puts a hand on Connor’s shoulder and grips it tight. “We can,” he says. “We can do this. You don’t know how grateful I am that you were willing to listen.”
He should have known that he should stop things there. That they were both too excited and needed to go back inside. That people do strange things under nightfall, with no witness other than the whole sleeping world. But Markus is exuberant. His every bone and sinew is ringing. That this might have gone so well; that Connor might have shown him who he truly is; that Atlas might have put down his burden and prepared to remove his mask. Connor’s handsome face is oh so lovely with a smile across it. It makes Markus thrill so badly to see Connor contented; to feel the warmth of him, alive.
Connor takes a step closer. His hands stay by his sides, but his body leans in toward the centre of them. He’s close enough that Markus can see the way his hair hangs, shifting with each small movement. Markus can see the moles across his jaw; dark blue against the lighter darkness that is Connor’s face in the nighttime. Those moles look to Markus like inverted constellations.
Connor is close enough that Markus can feel his breath against his skin. It’s warm; just as warm as the material under Markus’ palm. Connor’s eyes are black in the moonlight; bottomless. Then he closes them, as if on cue, and leans in further still.
Markus - drawing from a well of strength inside himself that he had not know he had - brings up his free hand to lay it against Connor’s chest. He pushes him, slightly, back; not forcefully, but enough.
Connor rocks onto his heels.
“I don’t think this is a good idea,” Markus quietly says.
And then it’s gone. Everything that Markus had worked for; it’s all locked away again. Connor’s face shutters down faster than Markus can even blink. And he says, “I see.”
“It’s not you,” Markus says. “Its-”
What can he say? It makes him feel unbalanced? It's too sudden, too appropriate?
It is inappropriate, sombrely so. Connor has been in suspension this past week. His future is up in the air, and he's not thinking properly about what he's doing. There's also the worry that Connor might still believe he has to curry favor with Markus somehow - that he might need to behave a certain way, to fit a mould - why? To ensure his safety?
Markus might be offended, but he supposes he can’t really blame him.
This is not what Markus wanted. Not so suddenly; not like this. He doesn’t know that he can trust it.
“I understand,” Connor says, before Markus has to express any of what's going on in his mind. “I misinterpreted the situation.”
“I’m sorry,” Markus says. “I’m sorry if I ever implied-”
“No, no,” Connor says. “It’s not a good idea. You were right. It’s my mistake.”
Markus opens his mouth to say something more. He feels as if this, too, was somehow a mistake. He feels as if he was holding something precious, and he opened his hand and now has only seconds to catch it before it hits the floor.
He doesn’t know what to say.
“This doesn’t change anything,” Connor says. “About our deal. About this time. I still value it.”
“It doesn’t,” Markus agrees. “I just- I only wanted-”
“I made a mistake,” Connor says. “I made a mistake. It’s fine.”
Now that - that is a lie.
“I only want you to feel as if you’re safe here,” Markus says - tries to explain. “You can be whoever you want. It’s like I said. You don’t have to do anything to make anyone like you.”
Connor blinks at him. He gives something of a frown. Almost to himself, he says, “I’m trying.”
“We already like you,” Markus says.
There’s so much left unsaid, under Connor’s guard. Markus sees him cycle through a thousand responses, only to shut down again and stiffly nod. Markus stands, waiting, until the silence becomes unbearable, and he realizes - Connor probably wants to be left alone.
“I’m going to go inside,” Markus murmurs.
Connor nods. “I’ll follow you in a moment.”
Markus’ gaze flits to the edge of the cliff, for a moment. Connor will be safe out here alone, he reassures himself. Connor is not that desperate, illegible person any more. At least, for the most part, Markus thinks.
“You’re okay?” Markus asks.
Connor’s face shifts. He gives a hopeless smile. “I’m okay. I’ll talk to you tomorrow,” he says.
Markus makes his way back to the emory oak; to the roots. He climbs back into Jericho, and when he turns, Connor is not looking not at him, but out at the horizon, standing with his hands on his hips. Markus calls out: “Goodnight, Connor.”
Connor turns, so that Markus can see the silhouette of his profile against the tremulous light from the horizon. He says, “Goodnight, Markus.”
He is careful going down the stairs. It wouldn’t do him any good to trip and fall. Halfway down, when he pauses, he can hear the faint tapping of Connor’s footsteps far behind him, and something in his chest relaxes at the sound.
Connor was going to kiss him. There’s no doubting what just happened. Markus wishes he could understand why Connor did that; that he could see what the logic was, that he didn’t always feel so on the back foot when it comes to Connor. They had come closer to each other tonight, but there’s still such a vastness between them. Markus wishes he could overcome that distance with the right actions, or the right words. He wishes he knew the right thing to do.
He desperately wishes that he had not put his hand in the way.
He wishes that Connor would try it again.
Oh, I'm sorry. Did y'all think you were getting a kiss, after 70 thousand words? Did you really? You fool. You buffoon.
Nothing much else to say about this one other than, I'm sorry the updates have been behind of late. My computer broke and it took a while to get it replaced. I think things should be back on track now though. (Oh yes, also, 'reading Walt Whitman' really was used as code for being gay!)
Chapter 17: San Francisco
SO. I realise this update has been a very, very long time coming. I've been dealing with a lot of fun ~personal issues~ this spring and found it a lot harder than I expected to get back into this story. I want to thank everyone for you patience. (BIG shout out to the people on discord who helped personally with this chapter - you know who you are!)
I am still hoping/expecting to finish this fic and get back into updating regularly. I've always known how it ends, and I'm very excited to take y'all there. See you soon :)
Connor Stern’s first meeting with Chloe Kamski was three years in the making. When the day finally came the pomp of the occasion itself seemed, to Connor, an appropriate reflection of the weight that he knew rested on the meeting. It was a grand affair: a ball, hosted in the city by Steerco’s chairman. Connor was twenty-two.
Amanda had been on the tips of her toes for weeks at the prospect of Connor’s attendance. Her eyes would grow vast with anticipation. Because Amanda had made it abundantly clear to Connor that she, by facilitating the meeting, was trying to play matchmaker. It had been an end goal of hers for quite a long time.
Under vaulted stone ceilings and classically intricate empire chandeliers, Connor felt overdressed, uncomfortable, and generally misplaced, but in his own opinion he hid it well. Confidence had always been a mask that Connor could apply and remove with ease. When Amanda drew him aside to a private dining room where Elijah Kamski waited by a window, Connor suppressed his nerves. Kamski was Steerco’s founder, and still governed to company, but Connor had met him before. Elijah and Amanda were close. When Connor recognized the young woman beside Kamski as Chloe, he was consciously charming.
Amanda’s hand found his shoulder. Following etiquette, she asked Chloe’s permission; “Miss Kamski, may I introduce to you my son, Mr Stern?”
Chloe smiled and dipped her head in greeting, but did not offer her hand. Since it was her prerogative, Connor made no attempt at a handshake himself, and instead simply expressed his pleasure at the opportunity to meet Kamski’s daughter at last.
There was a third man in the room. Perhaps in his mid-twenties - Connor had previously neither seen nor heard of this man. As he drew up alongside Chloe, though, it was clear by his complexion that the two were related. Before anyone else had the chance, he introduced himself to Connor as Isaac with an extended hand. Kamski dispassionately established that Isaac was his youngest.
Connor was not really paying attention to the elder Kamski at that point.
Isaac’s palm was cool and smooth, and his grip neither too firm nor too delicate. He made Connor feel immediately at ease.
Like his sister, the youngest Kamski was blond, and his skin the color of ivory. So, like his sister, his color was in his eyes, and Isaac’s eyes flashed keenly. In later conversation, Isaac expressed this keenness in a manner that Connor found almost enrapturing.
Like his sister, Isaac was beautiful.
Naturally, Amanda found out.
In point of fact, though, perhaps it would be more precise to say that Amanda was told by Elijah. That Elijah was told by Isaac, who had claimed to feel ashamed. Isaac, who Connor had trusted.
They decided it was Connor’s fault. That Connor had somehow manipulated Isaac into letting it happen. They decided it was all some sort of game - a form of rebellion. Connor preferred that story, because the raw disgust that had courted Amanda’s features - the pure confusion, the lack of understanding at the notion that it could have been anything more than that - that was terrifying to Connor.
The shame that he had felt then, the humiliation - he feels it now. He stands over Jericho, fisting his hands and relaxing them in rhythm as it washes over him in waves. He stands and wonders what he could have possibly been thinking, to have done something like that again, after all the pain it had brought him the first time. To have behaved like that.
He also - and he notices this more than anything else - feels a part of himself that’s just ambivalent. That doesn’t care at all.
Ignominy and guilt. That gut-wrenching realization that he’s stepped out of line again. Connor doesn’t care for it. Connor is tired of it. He’s standing here in the wind and the dusk, and he’s looking out at a beautiful world, and he has just secured his freedom. He’s going to go home again; he’s going to be able to sleep at night in his own bed, without having to worry about being fettered. And Connor has grasped at something in Jericho; something real.
The ambivalence doesn’t feel defensive. It feels… it feels transcendental. There’s a tight, tight latch in Connor’s chest, somewhere around the solar plexus - it’s a knot, it’s a tangle of cords which is constantly pressuring, squeezing - and he realizes, right now, with something akin to shock, that it has snapped. It’s undone, it’s not present any more. It’s this thing that has been keeping him in step all his adult life, and now that he can’t feel it anymore, he might want to be afraid.
He might. He might also want to wish it good riddance. Connor unfurls his hands and stares at his palms in the non-light. The prints across them are too dull to make out. And the wind whips his hair across his face, in a matter that’s unavoidable no matter which way he turns. He thinks of himself wound up and then singing - he thinks of the pounding pressure accompanying each heartbeat that pushes him through the investigations, the meetings. He wonders whether he really needs that any more. Whether he ever really needed it.
Connor thinks, I am a murderer. I have killed people, I have taken their lives, and I have been commended for it. And then I did something unforgivable, and that, I think, was to fall in love.
...Perhaps that logic doesn’t quite make sense.
He takes one last, long look at the fading vista below him and then he turns and walks back to the emory oak. He replaces the boards carefully, ensuring they’re fully covering the entrance. He walks back down into Jericho.
Markus’ footsteps echo below him, and when Connor is finished resealing the entrance, he hears that they have stopped. A shudder runs up his spine, and Connor counts one second, and then two, and then five, before Markus continues walking again.
He makes his way down to the base of the stairs. He enters Markus’ room alone, and he goes to sleep alone. He is troubled, certainly, but not nearly as much as he should be. He doesn’t know any more whether that ought to merit concern. He feels that he doesn’t know nearly as much as he should. But the guilt and the regret leave hand in hand with no strong enforcement on his part. If Connor knows one thing, it is that he feels relieved. That he has shown himself - again and again, really - and is still safe. He hangs onto that as consciousness fades.
Connor’s intention had been to avoid Markus until it was no longer physically possible to do so. He predicted that he should be able to carry out his interviews without running into Jericho’s senior members until at least, if he was careful, noon the next day. This would allow him to formulate a concrete strategy regarding his behavior around Markus going forward.
This plan goes out the window almost immediately.
Connor wakes up in the middle of the night with Markus hanging onto his shoulder, hunched over the bed and peering down at him in the dark. His face is creased, shaded beneath the furrows - in just the right ways to project concern. Connor’s heart skips a beat at the sight of Markus there so suddenly, but he also feels some comfort. He feels as if something awful was about to happen, and he has just been relieved of it. Connor is short of breath.
He can’t remember what he had been dreaming about.
Connor asks, “What’s happened?”
Markus seems frozen in place. His grip is strong on Connor’s shoulder, but the man himself is uncertain, as if he’s been caught doing something he shouldn’t be. Obviously it had been his intention to wake Connor up, though. When he does speak, Connor’s not sure what to make of it.
“Nothing’s happened, Connor,” Markus says. He says it very cautiously. He says it as if something very much has happened.
Perhaps Markus misinterpreted Connor’s question. Connor says, “Then why did you wake me up?”
Markus shakes his head, perplexed. As Connor shrugs the final shrouds of sleep from his mind, and his brain catches up to his mouth, he starts to sit up and catalogue himself. Something is wrong, he thinks. Something is surely wrong. There’s a pressure-
“...Okay, please stop doing that, Connor,” Markus whispers. “It’s alright.”
Connor takes his hand away from his throat. Fiddling, some absurd part of him thinks. Then he thinks, no - it was worse than that. His trachea feels swollen on the inside; constricted. On the outside, there’s a stinging pain. From his nails, he realizes. He was - he was scratching.
If a person wears a piece of jewelry long enough, they become so accustomed to it that they start to feel it even when it’s no longer there. In a frustratingly similar way, Connor feels a noose sometimes. He feels rope around his neck. He feels an insatiable itch, and right now it is burning; it is screaming. The space beneath his nails is thick with what Connor realizes with a lurch is his own flaking skin.
He takes his hand off of his neck. He says, “Ah,” and Markus relaxes all at once, unwinding from the tips of his fingertips to the tendons across his shoulders, which minutely slump. He lets go of Connor’s arm.
Markus says, “You were having a nightmare.” Connor sees that now. He nods.
Markus asks, “Are you okay?”
Connor sits up.
“I’m okay,” he says. “Is it bleeding?”
“Not really. A little.”
Markus rocks back on his heels. He was never really on the bed, only over it; now he sits down on the floor, crossing his legs and looking up at Connor.
Wiping sleep from his eyes, Connor watches the older man, and then glances around the room. He reckons it isn’t morning yet, but the candles have burned down some. He asks Markus, “What were you doing back here?”
Markus doesn’t answer immediately. “Are you sure you’re okay?” he repeats instead. “You seemed really - I don’t know. Are you with me right now?”
“I’m okay,” Connor assures him. “Really. It’s as you say; I had a bad dream.”
“Alright. I was, um -” Markus looks back to the desk, then, rubbing the back of his head. “I wanted to leave some things out for you. The notebook-”
“Oh, I see,” Connor says.
“Yes,” Markus says.
“Good. Thank you.”
Markus ducks his head. He sits there, frowning; bites his lip.
Connor keeps watching him. Markus is not making any moves to leave. Connor wishes that he would, though. He doesn’t think he can stand to be with Markus very long before he feels so pressured to fill the silence between them that he ends up saying something very, very stupid.
Markus says, “I’m not usually in here. When you’re in here, I mean. I knew you wouldn’t like it if I was -” he searches for words, suddenly uncomposed. “In here.”
It’s sweet that Markus is worried about making Connor uncomfortable with his presence. Honestly, it’s far too late for that. Far too late to be worrying about Connor’s sensibilities in that area, in every sense.
Connor sighs. “It’s alright,” he murmurs. He drags a hand across his face, swiping at sleep.
From his position on the floor, Markus gazes up at Connor. Fixing him with his bright, percipient eyes.
“Connor,” Markus says.
“Markus,” Connor says.
“You don’t have to do this.”
Connor frowns. He furrows his brows and leans forward to rest his chin on his palm. He says, “But I do.”
“No, you don’t,” Markus insists. “You don’t have to put yourself between Steerco and Jericho if that’s not - what you want. You don’t need investigate Andronikov on your own. You don’t need to do anything at all. You can go home tomorrow either way.”
Connor sits up and shakes his head. “It isn’t a trouble to me to confirm that Andronikov is a threat to Steerco. It’s what I’d be doing regardless.”
“Right, but to feel that you have to prove-”
Markus isn’t listening. “If there’s evidence to be found, then I’ll prove it. If there isn’t, then I’ll go with what I have. At the end of the day, you think that Andronikov shot up Cherry, and then went to the scene of your hold-up to make sure there was nothing there to prevent you from being implicated in the shooting. Isn’t that right?”
“It is, but it isn’t the point-”
“That’s not good for Steerco. If that’s what happened, then-”
“Okay, but I just don’t want you to think that there’s pressure on you to sort it all out. We can work together. We can not work together at all, if you’d prefer that.”
He’s serious, Connor thinks. It seems like there’s nothing Connor can do to demonstrate to Markus how serious Connor is, about this task. He’s trying to be genuine; trying to speak candidly. He supposes he might not have much experience in that arena. He tries to find the right words to say.
“I am scared,” Connor says.
Markus doesn’t reply.
Okay. Maybe not the right words per se. Maybe, actually, that was fairly senseless. At least it stopped Markus’ talking.
“I’m scared,” he continues. “You asked me why I was afraid last night, and I said that I wasn’t, and that isn’t true.”
Connor sits on the edge of the bed and runs one hand through the other’s palm, wishing he could reach for his coin. “It’s been scary, what’s happened,” he admits. “And I don’t know what’s going to come next, and that scares me too. I’ve spent so long not knowing, and before… before - with Avery - I hated it. I hated it. I thought I was going to die, and I shot -” he glances to the floor - “God, I tried to shoot you.”
Connor laughs. It comes out unimpressed and shapeless. He says, “Anyways. The thing is that what I’ve agreed to with you, I’ve agreed to because I wanted to. Because it’s right. You have to believe that, Markus. You have to.”
Markus nods - very slowly and very subtly, but he does.
“It’s about more than me or you,” Connor explains. “Or my job, even. Or duty. It’s about the people here. And the people in Prescott. And Cherry.”
“That’s all there is to it,” Connor says. “That’s all there has to be, at least. That’s the end of it.”
Markus probably has a lot more on his mind; Connor, tired and frustrated and aware that he is speaking to someone who obviously already has too strong of an opinion on the matter, quite frankly does not want to hear it. Testing his boundaries, Connor says, “Now go back to sleep and let me get some rest.”
Markus looks so handsome when he’s concerned. He screws his face up and his eyes make this little righteous squint at him. God, Connor wishes he’d leave.
“Alright,” Markus says. “Thank you for explaining it, I suppose.”
He rises. Connor’s eyes follow.
Markus leaves Connor with a smile, and the tail end of a worry that gnaws in his chest.
And, of course, just like that, it’s back again. The latch. The tightness.
Of course, whatever it is that Connor is coming across - or has already unveiled - it is bigger than Zlatko, and bigger than Steerco. It’s a part of him, too. He can’t expect it to come all at once. He lies back, and hopes he can get to sleep before he starts thinking too hard about the obligations of tomorrow, and hopes he’ll be able to sleep peacefully, too.
At this point, he thinks, that might be asking for a miracle.
The next morning comes in the end. Connor is there to greet it. He goes to breakfast as early as possible, and Markus is not there. Connor thinks, Good . Then he returns to the private rooms, collects the bound leather notebook and a pen, and is back in the dining hall before two minutes have passed. The people there recognize him; they nod to him. Connor had been worried that people might not want to talk to him.
In fact, there is a line.
It’s good. It’s good to get back into the swing of what he’s used to; to put his head down and just work. To gather the information he needs. To forget about everything else. He tries to ignore that the paper in his hands is, in point of fact, the key to an arsenal of information that Markus has willingly placed in Connor’s hands. He tries to remember that what he’ll do with it is going to help these people in the long run.
Connor records the accounts of the people of Jericho.
First, there’s John Freeman, who used to be a secondman on the Prescott & Arizona Central Railroad line. His hours were subject to change on a weekly notice and his annual contract was specifically set up in a manner to deny him any overtime pay. That fact notwithstanding, John’s salary also paled in comparison to those of the white conductors who aided him, and who, to a man, lacked any form of useful engineering experience. When, on a frankly miserable January morning, a gang of armed raiders forced his engine to a standstill, John found himself in a quite enlightening conversation with a cheerful young man with a mask and two mismatched eyes, leaning against the locomotive’s cowcatcher in the drizzle. By the time his shipment had been unloaded, John had tendered his resignation. And by the time his ex-colleagues were bowing their heads in apology back in Prescott, John was feasting in the halls of Jericho with a group of people he, in his own words, felt he had known all his life. John ended up quite content with being the victim of Jericho’s first official hold-up.
Connor speaks to Anna Rodriguez, whose father had labored in the Steerco mines when they first opened. Anna quit her nannying job to care for her father full-time when he lost his leg to a wayward haulage trolley and was terminated without pay. Unable to cope financially with the mounting medical expenses, Anna turned to Jericho, and to Lucy, for aid. The decision was easy at the time, and she does not seem to have grown to regret it.
Connor finds himself distracted during his conversation with Anna, irritated by the growing notion that he knows her somehow; that he’s met her before. He watches her curled black hair spring out stubbornly as she tucks it behind her ear; he watches the way she tucks her limbs into herself unconsciously, in the hope of appearing smaller. When Anna gives him her father’s full name, Connor he bites his tongue and dutifully pens down Sidney Hyneman , and doesn’t allow the fact that his heart has skipped a beat to disturb the passive expression he’s plastered across his face for the interview.
Connor learns the full story of Josh, who had, during the course of his work as a private tutor, somehow ended up playing the starring role in a lynching that he escaped only by the skin of his teeth. Josh fled his conservative homestead with nothing more than the clothes on his back, but he knew where he was going; he’d heard of a place where people were taken as they were, and were accepted as they came. It sounded like a nice place to start anew, he had thought. Jericho was still a peaceful community at that time, preferring to lay low and muddle through on their own rather than stirring up trouble in Yavapai; still, if Josh has any reservations about the direction Markus’ leadership has taken them in, he keeps them to himself. Markus will not rest until he builds a perfect world, and Josh does, of course, see the value in such a vision. For the most part.
Connor speaks to the uprooted, the uplifted, and the enlightened; he speaks to the parents, the ex-miners, the broken and disillusioned individuals who sought peace and found family instead. He speaks to the families that expanded upon reaching Jericho - to Alice’s friends, full of glee and eager to have Connor chronicle the tales of their cats and their dogs, and the games that they play to pass the time. Connor does not discriminate, and writes it all down exactly as he hears it. Connor strives for the objective truth of the space, and he thinks - and he hopes - that he gets it.
Connor seeks out Jericho’s oldest member. Her name is Phillipa Clark, and she is the most senior member of the four generations of her bloodline living in Jericho. She has dementia, and due to both this and the fact that she only arrived in the cliffside the previous month, the information she gives him is almost totally useless. Connor writes it all down with a smile, and then later returns to Josh and asks him to, this time, please direct him to the member of the gang who has been here the longest - ideally, this person also might be able to remember their age and own name.
Josh points to Simon. Connor takes a slow breath, and does not allow his smile to fade.
Simon, like his brother, was a childminder. Of course, there wasn’t much of a market for employees of his stock after Daniel had taken it upon himself to shoot his employer three times in the torso and then threaten to throw the his charge off of a rooftop. Simon left San Francisco as swiftly and discretely as possible after his brother’s death, and, at the tail end of a complex series of relocations across Nevada and Arizona, eventually found himself in Jericho. Simon was by no means the first to take up residence in the cave dwelling; it had always, if perhaps less vocally, been a haven for the adrift. The Jericho that truly gained notoriety as a raider group only really arose after Markus’ arrival, and by this time most of Simon’s generation had already petered out. Simon remained steadfast by Markus’ side, motivated and directed after years of listlessness. He does not seem to see Jericho's transition as a detriment.
It is apparent to Connor, of course, that the majority of Simon’s decisions are made with Markus in mind; Markus’ wellbeing, and Markus’ happiness, rather than that of Jericho. Markus had implied that the two of them had put aside whatever it was that was happening between them to prioritize their project; Connor gets an impression that this might not be the whole truth. He asks, out of curiosity and perhaps somewhat tactlessly, “Would you say that your heart belongs to Jericho?”, and Simon immediately asks him, “Is that what Markus told you?”
Connor tells him that, yes, it was.
Simon thinks for a while before replying. Eventually, he murmurs, “That’s one way of putting it.” He doesn’t comment further on the matter.
Connor sees North in the dining hall at around noon. He takes about two steps toward her. Then he stops, reads the souring expression on North’s face, and turns on his heel, deciding to take lunch.
He already knows most of North’s story, after all. He doubts she would enjoy re-experiencing it for him.
When Connor returns to the dining hall later in the afternoon, the dust of the morning’s hubbub has, for the most part, settled. Alice, however, enters not long after Connor does, and he rises to greet her - and then stops in his tracks when he sees, cautiously edging into the room behind her, none other than Rupert Travis. Rupert, of course, freezes up entirely when his eyes land on Connor, mirroring Connor’s own pose - his hands curl into claws, raised by his sides.
For a moment they’re both suspended, and the seconds tick by very slowly. When he gets his wits about him Connor gives Rupert a very slow nod. He doesn’t understand why Hank let him go; of course, it’s not exactly as if he can lodge this complaint with the leadership of Jericho. Connor and Rupert end up creeping away from each other like defensive hounds, with hackles raised, and Connor does not see him for the rest of the afternoon.
Of course, if anyone asks, he probably won’t describe the encounter happening like that; he’ll give it a bit more dignity. In reality, in the moment, he’s just glad that he doesn’t get jumped on. He approaches the rest of the interviews with a bit more caution after that.
He speaks to Ralph, the resident chef. Ralph had an unfortunate encounter with a hot poker as a teen, facilitated by his peers in the neighborhood. He’d never really fit in before then, but that incident was obviously a turning point in his life. One that eventually saw him joining the rest of the outcasts of Jericho. Ralph finds it difficult to relay the story; his speech is stilted, and all in the third person. He palms at the nape of his neck, and his eyes dart around the room as if still searching for his tormentors. He glances at the fire that he himself lit as if he expects it to jump out at him, to form limbs. Connor swallows, palms his coin, and decides to leave him alone before things can escalate.
As the sun sinks in the sky, Connor finds his interviewees petering out, and realizes that, soon enough, he’ll be left to his own devices. He decides to visit the plateau one last time - to take in the view, and take a moment to himself to consolidate what he’s learned. Even as the pages filled in his hands over the course of the day, he filed all the knowledge away, in duplicate, in the cabinets in his mind. They’re color coded there. His handwriting is pristine; his fingers never shake. The office is full to the brim. He sits on the rock, and he sits in the office as well - in a perfectly kept room that he’s never actually been in - and he thinks.
Of course, knowing Connor’s luck, it doesn’t last long. He’s brought out of his abstraction before more than a few minutes have passed, as footsteps approach him on the ledge. Connor turns slowly, and he hears before he sees that the paces are so quick and light that they must belong to a child.
He turns, and he sees that it’s Alice. She sees him too, and she hesitates, but only for a moment, and then she pads down to sit by his side.
Connor turns from her to look out at the countryside. After a pause, he says, “You know you’re not supposed to be out here alone.”
“But I’m not alone,” Alice informs him.
“You know what I mean.”
“I’m sure that I don’t.”
Alice side-eyes him. She sizes him up. She looks at him as if there’s something there that she’s seeing for the very first time. Knowing that she spent at least part of the day with Rupert, Connor isn’t certain he wants to know what it is that she sees.
Connor asks her, “Are you here for your turn?”
She gives a shy nod. “I’ve been waiting all day,” she confesses. So Connor nods too, and he takes out his notebook again.
He already knows about Alice’s father. He knows that he loved her, or that he at least thought that he did, but that it wasn’t enough. Hearing Alice trying to justify that behaviour - or trying to explain that the abuse that she, a child, suffered, was partly her fault - is very difficult for Connor. When she reaches the night of Todd Williams’ passing, Alice’s breath hitches, and her words start to escape her. Connor stares at the gravel in front of him and tries to placate the searing hot tendrils that twist in his gut. He takes a deep, shallow breath.
“It must have been hard, seeing something like that happen to your father,” Connor says.
Alice twists her mouth up, as if holding back tears. After a long pause, she raises her chin, and she tells him, “I had to do it.”
Alice swipes tears from her eyes. “He was hurting Kara,’ he said. “He was going to kill her.”
Connor leans back a little bit in his seat. He does remember Luther, telling him, “Todd was shot ”, but not specifying by whom. Of course, he’d supposed it must have been Kara, but-
He glances at Alice’s tearful, small face, and then back at the horizon. I had to do it.
It wasn’t Kara who shot Todd Williams, he realizes. It was Alice.
He opens his mouth, but it takes him a few more seconds to figure out what to say. “I’m sure that must have been hard too,” he mumbles. “You were very brave. You saved Kara’s life.”
Alice sniffs, and she nods. “Sometimes you can do bad things but it doesn’t make you a bad person,” she says. “Sometimes we don’t have a choice. That’s what Kara says.”
“That’s very wise."
Connor blinks. “I’m sorry?”
“You made Rupert go to jail, but you’re still a good person.”
“...Well, yes,” Connor forces. He works his jaw somewhat. “And I had to take Rupert to jail, because he was doing bad things, too… But that doesn’t make him a bad person either.”
“What bad things was he doing?”
“I- He, er…”
Connor shuts with mouth with a click . He doesn’t have an answer.
“He was breaking the law,” Connor says.
What law, indeed. Feeding children?
No , Connor thinks. Feeding Jericho. Aiding outlaws. Of course, he can hardly explain this to Alice. “A few laws. It’s complicated,” he hedges.
Alice nods, sagely. It seems to be enough to sate her inquisitive mind. Thank God.
“What makes you say I’m a good person, Alice?” asks Connor. “You’ve met plenty of people who weren’t good at all, I’m sure. And you know why I’m here. I tried to hurt your friends.”
She smiles up at him. “Well, you didn’t.” Through no choice of my own , Connor thinks. “And you’re nice,” she says. “You’re nice to everyone even when the adults aren’t around.”
“That’s just being polite,” Connor argues.
Alice tilts her head at him. “Bad people don’t think they’re bad people,” she says. Connor frowns.
Alice shakes her head at him, as if to say, You’ll understand someday.
Connor looks out at the setting sun. Alice is sweet, if naive. That would be irrelevant in a court of law, of course. Circumstances made her a killer.
When he turns back to look at her again, her eyes are on the floor. Connor fingers the quarter in his pocket and, out of nowhere in particular, he feels a small smile creep across his face.
“Do you want to see some more coin tricks before I go?” he asks her.
Alice beams. “I’d like that very much,” she says.
After taking dinner in Markus’ room, Connor goes to the pool, and he sits, and he looks at himself in a grimy, cracking mirror, with the candles all lit, and he carefully shaves. The condensation builds up on the damp walls until it falls heavily in droplets into the water below, landing with unearthly, echoing sounds that reverberate around the whole chamber. As Connor is finishing up, he hears a set of footfalls join the chorus. Not Alice, he suspects. He wouldn’t be that lucky a second time.
It is not Alice. It’s Markus. He enters the space and leans against the wall over what would be the threshold, if there was one. He regards Connor quietly for a moment before saying, “Hey, you.”
Connor returns his attention to the mirror before him. “Hello, Markus,” he replies, as he folds the razor away.
“I’ve been looking for you,” Markus says.
Connor hums in thought, but does not reply.
Markus walks toward him then, and lets out a somewhat dramatic sigh. When he’s close enough to Connor, he folds his arms and cocks his hips. There’s a smirk on his face, right then; he says, in that melodic voice of his, “Don’t tell me you’re preening for Sheriff Anderson.”
Connor stands. He folds his arms, mirroring Markus’ pose, and he narrows his eyes. “And what if I am?”
Markus looks him over. Whatever line Connor has cast with that question, Markus refuses to bite.
“Then you’re going to need a haircut,” Markus tells him.
Connor wants to slap him. He also wishes he had something to say to Markus by now. He wishes he’d come up with something to say.
“I didn’t realize you had a barber here,” he comments - Markus shakes his head.
“Come back to my room. I can do it for you.”
“That’s not necessary,” Connor tells him, immediately.
“Connor, I want to talk shop.”
Connor pauses. He lets go of his arms, and he runs a hand through his hair - which, of course, is far too long by now - and he leans back on his heels, and says, although he knows he’s going to regret it, “Okay. Alright.”
Connor sits in the desk chair in the center of Markus’ room. He faces forward, and whenever he glances to the side, or he shifts in his seat, Markus chastises him and tells him he needs to sit still. Markus is focussed, his gaze heavy with intent - he squints in the low light, and stops whatever he’s saying for half a beat each time he brings the blades together, without fail. Each quiet snick by Connor’s ear inevitably grows to fill the room.
“I am sitting still,” Connor complains.
“Well, sit stiller, please.”
Connor sighs. “I can think of worse fates than you giving me an ugly haircut, Markus.”
Markus isn’t really paying attention when he replies. He’s focusing on his job. He murmurs, “Not possible,” and then there’s something that hangs in the air that he can’t quite get rid of by clearing his throat. Connor doesn’t comment on it, but he wants to.
It infuriates him. He wants to scream and shout; to grab Markus by the shoulders and ask him what the Hell he’s doing, what it is that he wants - Markus is obstinate as ever, snipping away as if the whole space around them isn’t thick enough with tension to warrant a knife.
Markus wants to talk about Connor’s payment. Connor doesn’t want Markus’ stolen money. He wants-
Markus wants to talk about where they’ll meet after Connor returns to Prescott, and how. He wants to stay in touch - wants Connor to wait for him in three days’ time at Rupert Travis’ farm. Connor doesn’t want to wait three days. Connor wants-
Markus wants Connor to hold still. Connor doesn’t want to hold still. Connor wants-
He wants to know . He wants-
Connor can’t have been wrong about this. Last night. He can’t have been wrong. He felt it, felt it in his very soul - he knows that Markus felt it too. And in any case, it’s Markus who initiates all this. It’s Markus who shadows him, mirrors him, opens his arms and asks Connor to open up too. It’s Markus who wanted to cut Connor’s damned hair. It’s Markus who’s looking at him now, watching him - scrutinizing him with enough force that Connor fills he will burn from it, burn from the inside out.
There’s a tight latch in Connor’s chest, and it catches and releases, and it drives Connor absolutely mad. There’s a cup of something inside him, and it’s full to the brim. It’s overflowing. There’s apathy, and there’s also the need to stand up and shout to the world that he’s a part of it, that he’s real, and say, This is what I want.
It doesn’t matter. Markus made his point. Connor also does not want to make a fool of himself again.
Markus steps back with a sigh, and the hairs on the back of Connor’s neck fall back down, and everything inside him falls back into place so that, if he wanted to, Connor could lock it away completely.
Markus says, “Finished.”
He holds up a hand-mirror so Connor can see; Connor nods, stiffly, in approval. It’s very good, he says. He’s grateful.
As Markus sets the mirror back down, Connor turns to face him, but doesn’t get up. He tries to forget about these insecurities, these fears. He tries, as he’s been trying all day, to return to the concrete. To thinking about work. Connor brings a hand to his shoulder, to brush away the loose strands of hair there. He glances down, and he breathes out through his nose, and when he looks up again Markus is patiently waiting.
“You didn’t tell me that Rupert Travis was back in Jericho,” Connor says.
If Markus is surprised by the change of subject, he doesn’t do much to show it. He hums, leaning on his desk, and asks, “But everything was alright…?”
Connor shrugs. Markus nods, dipping his head; when he looks back up, Markus says, “I should probably also tell you that Conrad Setson is in Prescott.”
Connor can’t conceal his response to that. In all honesty, it feels like ice, melting - dripping over his skull. His brows furrow of their own will. Conrad- he thinks, Conrad shouldn’t be here.
Markus raises an eyebrow.
“I,” Connor says. “I need to get back to Prescott.”
“You don’t understand. Conrad isn’t- he’s not -” Connor stutters. “Don’t trust him. You can’t give him an inch.”
Markus keeps watching him, with that inquisitive expression. He says, “Understood.”
“Do you perhaps have any other revelations you would like to drop on me, Markus?”
“Not that I’m aware of right now.”
Connor scoffs. “Well, that’s some good news, I suppose.”
Markus puts his chin in his hand, in thought. He’s almost brooding. His gaze is distracted by something over Connor’s shoulder - when it returns to meet Connor’s eyes, Markus seems apprehensive.
“So you have everything you need,” Markus says.
He’s talking about the notebook. About all the information Connor’s learned. Connor tells him, “I do.”
“So we should get an early night. We’ll head out for Cherry before dawn.”
Markus is going to leave now, Connor realizes. He wants to clarify - “You’re coming with me?”
“Of course. Most of the way. You won’t ever be travelling alone, though.”
He’s misunderstood Connor’s worry.
“How long will it take? If you could hazard a guess.”
The older man has to think about this for a moment. After working it over in his mind, he says “If we make good time, you should be back in Prescott by nightfall.”
Connor’s jaw drops.
“I’m sorry,” he says. “Back in Prescott? ”
“I think so.”
“Are you serious?”
Markus smiles at him, softly. “Would I lie to you, Connor?”
Connor blinks. He gives a bewildered shake of the head. “I suppose I have no reason to think as much,” he admits.
And Markus grins wide, in a marvelous and kind manner that still shows his teeth. The laugh lines by his eyes fold up - Connor, as always, withers under the force of that grin.
That’s when it hits him. It truly hits him then. Connor does not want to leave.
Of course, Connor does want to go back. He has wanted to go back - but a tremendous part of him, now that he’s faced with the concept as reality, also wants to stamp his foot and say, No .
Markus asked him if he had everything he needed, and Connor said yes, even though the reality was so much more complex than that. Markus checks that the packs he’s prepared for them are in place, and then he waits for Connor to say goodnight, or- something - and Connor lets him go, even though what he really wants to do is so much more complex than that.
Of course, there’s wanting, and then there’s needing, and they are not the same thing.
There’s an escape - there’s fantasy - and then there’s reality, and they just aren’t the same.
There are Connor’s needs, and then there are the needs of each soul in Jericho, and every Steerco employee, and every citizen in Yavapai.
There’s the desire to understand what he did wrong, to vent his frustration and his certainty that Markus had expressed an interest in him, physically - there’s the desire to accept it, to follow Markus’ lead. And then, of course, there’s reality. Responsibility. The real world.
And it is time for Connor to leave.
When Markus wakes him in the middle of the night, this time Connor is prepared for it. He sits up straight, he steels himself, he puts on his clothes. Markus unlocks his desk and brings out a selection of revolvers - Connor’s eye is drawn immediately to a Colt. It’s a .45, a newer model than his old gun, but he’s held one before. He knows it. It fits well into the hip holster that Markus provides.
With everything in place, Connor and Markus stand facing each other, and Markus asks him one more time if he’s ready to go. And Connor says, “Yes. I’m ready.”