Guns for the DeadMelissa Marr
Guns for the Dead
A GRAVEMINDER STORY
BY MELISSA MARR
Melissa Marr is the author of the New York Times bestselling Wicked Lovely series (a film of which is in development by Universal Pictures) and the forthcoming adult novel Graveminder. Currently, she lives in the Washington, D.C., area with one spouse, two children, two Rott-Labs, and one Rottweiler. You can find her online at www.melissa-marr.com.
At the sound of boots on the plank walkway outside her shop, Alicia closed the cash box and lifted the sawed-off shotgun from a modified undercounter rack. She’d hoped that the boys would be back by now, but they weren’t daft enough to be walking in the front door of General Supplies without calling out.
She swung the shotgun up as the door opened.
The owner of the boots stopped just inside the shop. He was new enough that she didn’t recognize him. To his credit, though, he didn’t flinch at the sight of her particular brand of customer service. His gaze slipped briefly over the shop with curiosity. The interior of the frontier-town general goods store seemed a little out of time to new arrivals. Over there, more than a century had passed. She thought about updating the look, but the comforting familiarity of the dry-goods shop outweighed her discomfort over revealing her age. Screw ’em. With its tins and barrels, glass cases, and the wood floorboards, it was home, but clearly not what his home looked like.
The newcomer put his arms out to the sides, demonstrating that he was either trustworthy or idiotic. “Ma’am.”
She took in his frayed jeans, faded black T-shirt, combat boots, and a relatively new revolver in a belt holster. Most of those items were commonplace here now; she’d even acquired shirts and boots much like his in recent years. The holster he wore could be purchased in a dozen spots around the city, but post-1880 weapons came from one shop only—hers. She pursed her lips. Since she didn’t recognize him, he’d either taken it from a customer or bought it at significant upsale.
“Boyd sent me,” he said.
“And?” She didn’t lower her weapon. There was something decidedly awkward about aiming a shotgun one-armed for any time at all, but a businesswoman didn’t greet strangers unarmed. She stepped back and—using her free hand for leverage—hopped up on the counter.
The newcomer raised his brows, but his posture remained unchanged. “He said to tell you that ‘the old bastard started trouble’ and that ‘he’ll be out for a day.’”
“Huh.” Alicia lowered the shotgun so it was aimed at the floor in front of her. “And where is Boyd, that you’re delivering this message?”
She tensed. “By?”
“See, that’s the thing—”
“No,” she interrupted. She slid off the counter and stepped forward. “Simple question, shug. Shot by whom?”
“Me, but there were circumst—” The rest of his words were lost under the shotgun blast.
She threw herself to the side as she fired, hoping to dodge a return shot that didn’t come. When she realized that he hadn’t even reached for his piece, Alicia rolled to her feet.
Definitely a newcomer.
She stood and looked down at him. His blood was leaking all over her floorboards. And that’s why we don’t have carpet. She sighed. Sometimes, she had misplaced urges for finery that had no place in the shop. Maybe if it was a dark carpet. She walked around the counter but not close enough that he could pull her to the ground. Injured or not, he had a size advantage.
He looked up at her. “Least it was a slug, not scattershot.”
“You want to see what’s in the second barrel?” She extended her arm and took aim, but didn’t fire. “Why’d you shoot Boyd?”
“Had to,” the man said.
“Why?” She motioned with the gun.
The bleeder on her floor had his hands pressed over his leg wound. If he was still alive, he’d be in a sorry state, but being dead tended to change things in unpredictable ways. From the way he pressed his hands down, he was even newer than she thought: Getting used to living in the land of the dead took a little time.
“I came looking for him to ask about you, and things took a turn,” he said slowly.
Alicia sighed. “I think you’re going to need to start at the beginning … after”—she looked pointedly at his belt—“you slide that over here.”
“If I didn’t reach for it when you shot me, I’m not going to now,” he muttered, but he still pulled the pistol out of the holster and held it out toward her butt-first.
* * *
Francis Lee Lemons stared at the woman who, according to everyone he’d met since he died, ran the guns for the land of the dead.
And shot me.
He wanted a job. Straight up, plain and simple, he wanted to work for her. He’d never been on what one might call the “right” side of the law, and he didn’t see any need to change that now that he was in this odd afterlife. Getting along over here was a mite more brutal than in the living world, but he figured that a familiarity with a less-than-upstanding lifestyle would be an asset.
Alicia glanced at him, but she didn’t say anything.
“Would it offend you overmuch if I either took off my shirt to staunch this or asked for a bandage of some sort?” he asked as respectfully as he could.
“You got any funds?”
“Not yet.” He looked directly at her. “I’m in the middle of what I hope to be a promising interview though.”
She snorted. “You’re bleeding on my floorboards. That’s promising?” She walked over to a basket of rags that sat alongside the front counter and pulled out an obviously stained one. She tossed it to him. “It’s not the cleanest, but we don’t get infections over here.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He tied it around his thigh, arranging it so as to cover both the entrance and exit wounds.
“Alicia,” she said.
He looked up, mid-knot.
“If you know enough to apply for a job, you already know my name.” She walked over and slid a bolt on the door and then proceeded to do the same at the shutters that covered the inside of the windows.
She glanced back.
“I’m Frank. Well, Francis Lee Lemons, but—”
“I don’t care who you are yet, shug.” She leaned against one of the large wooden casks in the corner. “Talk.”
So Frank told her: “I took the revolver off a man in a game of darts. Too stupid to realize he could even be hustled at darts and … I’m mostly honest, but it seemed a wise plan to be armed around here, you know?”
“Found out who supplied it, started asking about you, and ended up at a weird bar with Boyd.”
“What bar?” she prompted.
“Mr. D’s.” He paused, but she didn’t say anything, so he kept going. “Boyd was explaining that you were particular about who you took on. Lots of dead folks want a position on your team, and not just anyone could meet up to make his case.” Nervously, Frank looked at Alicia, but her expression was unreadable, so he added the damning part: “But we were talking, and then Boyd suddenly says, ‘Shoot me.’ I didn’t think I heard right. He repeated it again. ‘Shoot me right here.’ He pointed right at his forehead. ‘Now, then go find Alicia.’ He told me to tell you what I did when I walked in.”
Quietly, Alicia asked, “What did you do?”
Frank had a fleeting wish that he’d kept his gun then, but he answered her in a steady voice, “Exactly what he said.”
“Instinct?” Frank shrugged. “I don’t know, really. He seemed sober, sane as anyone else here, and … I know he’s you
r right-hand man, and I want this job, and I didn’t know what else to do, so I did what he said I should.”
“Good enough.” Alicia reached behind a tin on one of the shelves next to her and grabbed a revolver. She tossed it at him. “Let’s go.”
He caught it and checked the chamber. “You in the habit of throwing loaded guns?”
“You expected to do me any good with an unloaded piece?” Alicia cocked her head.
Frank glanced at his leg before answering. “If I had to, but not right this minute.”
“Call it part of the interview.” Alicia held up a hand and started ticking things off on her fingers. “Assuming you’re telling the truth, I know you listened to Boyd, and you reacted well to stress. That’s two. Since you got here, you’re not bitching over that scrape.” She gestured at his bloody thigh. “Now, you caught and flipped the gun in your hand like you’re comfortable.”
She held her hand out to him and helped him to his feet. “Tells me you have potential.”
Frank swallowed against the sting of putting weight on his leg. He knew he was dead now, but he wasn’t sure what happened when the dead were shot. Can I die more? He looked at his blood on their clasped hands. Obviously, the dead bled. He asked, “Did I kill Boyd?”
“Boyd’s been dead almost a century.” She pulled her hand free of his and wiped it on another rag she grabbed out of the basket. “Not real sure on that whole reincarnation thing.”
She tossed the rag to Frank.
Frank stared at her for several moments before saying, “Here. Did I kill him here?”
Alicia reached up and patted his cheek. “Sweetie, only one man around here can kill the dead.”
“The man who we’re going to see—the old bastard, Mr. D.” She tucked his revolver in her own holster, slung her shotgun over her shoulder, and walked to the door.
* * *
As they walked through the city, Alicia slowed her pace a little for him. Getting shot wasn’t fatal here, but it still hurt like a bitch. Frankie Lee. She hadn’t heard that anyone was asking about her, but he’d found Boyd, knew she was the one that ran the black market, and managed to get a meeting with Boyd. That meant that Frankie Lee was stealthy. She glanced at him. His lips were pursed, and he was limping a bit, but all things considered, he was holding up fairly well for having a hole in his thigh.
“How long you been dead?”
Frankie Lee frowned. “I don’t know. Week or two, I guess.”
“Well, here’s your newcomer welcome information, Frankie Lee.”
“Frank,” he interjected.
Alicia ignored him. “The grand pain in everyone’s ass around here is Charles. The old bastard and I have a regular conflict.” She reached into one of her trouser pockets and pulled out a couple pills. “Take these.”
Frankie Lee obediently swallowed them. He didn’t ask what they were, and she didn’t tell him. He’d figure it out soon enough when his leg stopped hurting.
As they walked through the ever-shifting city, a few people glanced their way. They were in one of the sections that remained steadfastly not modern. It was a bit cleaner than the way her experience of live-world equivalent was, but it was comforting all the same. Alicia had adjusted to the appearance of new sections in the city, blocks that belonged to eras that happened after she was already dead, but she felt ill at ease around flappers or—worse still—those cookie-baking, always-smiling women.
Not as sweet as they act, either, else they’d have moved past here.
Mr. Waverly tipped his hat to her. One of the Tadlock sisters tilted her ridiculous parasol so she couldn’t see them.
“Millicent!” Alicia called out to her, and predictably, the woman had a sudden urge to dart into a milliner’s shop. She was from Alicia’s own era and clung to the notion that ladies shouldn’t acknowledge ruffians. It didn’t stop her from buying the Derringer she no doubt had in her handbag.
Alicia and Frankie Lee crossed a street separating the 1800s and early 1900s shops, and one of the young newshounds came scurrying into their path. “Who shot you, mister? Are you going to go settle up with them, Alicia?”
“Is he?” the boy pestered.
“Don’t know. Are you, Frankie Lee?” She glanced at him.
He frowned at her. “No, and no one calls me that.”
“It’s that or Francis.” She smiled. “Your choice.”
After a pause, he nodded. “Not Francis.”
“Frankie Lee isn’t going to settle up with the one that shot him. That’s all you get for now.” She shooed the newshound out of the street. Once the boy was gone, she resumed her version of a newcomer’s talk: “Charles thinks my organization is crude. He’s a despot. Dictator, really. No free trade, no modernizing the city. If he had his way, women would all be relegated to arm candy or other foolishness. He builds what he wants when he wants, makes the laws he wants, and we’re just to be content with whatever he creates.”
“I’m not content.” She scowled at one of the more-modern dead men soliciting a couple of the silly flapper girls who liked to linger near the century line. One of Charles’s people stepped in, so she kept going. Grudgingly she told Frankie Lee, “Charles maintains some parts of the city well, but he’s stuck on the idea of empires. I don’t agree.”
“So it’s political differences?” Frankie Lee’s tone did little to hide his surprise.
Alicia laughed. “Not entirely. I’m here. I’m staying here, and I’m not his subject.… I didn’t fare well when I was under his authority.”
Memories of her life, of a time when she trusted Charles, flooded her. A long time ago, she lived for Charles. Here, well, she might still exist because of him—except now it was to thwart him, not to help him.
“I have a financial interest in my politics.” She walked a little faster, and thanks to her medicinal aid, Frankie Lee kept pace. “Guns in the land of the dead are the main source of my livelihood. The more modern, the better. Because of a loophole, there’s a man and a woman from the living world who can come over here. I got myself in the habit of bartering with the Undertaker, so he buys my help with the things he brings in. The old bastard can’t stop the Undertaker from supplying my prototypes, and once I get models of new gear, I can replicate some of it.”
“Which I’m guessing he dislikes.”
“Got it in one.” Alicia didn’t like taking on new people very often. Her business required a particular skill set that lots of folks thought they had, but there was a significant difference between wearing bad-ass as a costume and being the real deal. Any man—or woman—could throw on the right clothes, whichever era they preferred, and posture. No amount of leather or sharp suits equaled true grit.
“Yes’m.” He kept a rolling pace now, but his attention was on the side streets rather than on her. Whether she’d ordered it or not, he was standing guard.
“What did you do when you were alive?” She held up a hand, signaling him to wait for the 12:12 train. The conductor took pleasure at running silent in hopes of plowing over newcomers.
Frankie Lee shrugged. “I did work for hire last few years. Grew up around guns. No explosives skills or anything fancy, but I’m a quick study. I do alright in close situations, decent trigger man if you need it, seemed to fare well enough at observation.”
“They pay well for that topside these days?”
“Sometimes, if you’re good enough. I was good enough most of the time, but”—Frankie Lee gave her a wry smile—“not the last time.”
Alicia closed her eyes against the gust of air as the train passed in front of them. It used be the 12:00 train, but the conductor moved it up one minute each month. As far as calendars went, she’d heard of worse. It certainly proved incentive to keep track of the month.
“How’d you end up qualified?” she asked.
“My mama enlisted out of high sc
hool, and she got sore over the things she wasn’t allowed to do. So she taught me and my sisters all that she did learn, and then we all four learned what she wasn’t taught.” Frankie Lee’s up-until-then calm faltered. He was good at what she needed, but he wasn’t unnecessarily cold—which was an asset in her book. A coldhearted employee was a different sort of problem than one that was all sass and no ass. The right sort of associate was neither too cocky nor too cruel.
“Your mama sounds like a smart woman.” Alicia stepped into the street, and Frankie Lee followed.
“She was, but my sisters’ll look out for her well enough. She’s not big time, but she has connections enough that she does alright for herself.”
Alicia figured the sideways scowls that more than a few of the upstanding citizens sent her way were clue enough—well, that, and the fact that he was limping because she’d shot him—but she figured it was only proper to fill him in. “You do get that I’m not exactly on the right side of the law here?”
“No disrespect, Alicia, but I doubt you could be any less law-abiding than my mama was, and I don’t think the law here is necessarily one I’m after following.” He motioned toward a glass door with MR. D’S TIP-TOP TAVERN painted on it. “This is where we were.”
Alicia grabbed the brass bar that served as a door handle and yanked the door open before he could open it for her. “Let’s see how well you follow orders, Frankie Lee.”
* * *
Frank walked into the shadowed interior of the tavern twice in almost as many hours. He already knew that it was a wide-open club: exposed pipes ran the length of the ceiling, no alcoves to hide in. Round tables with varying numbers of high-backed chairs were spread throughout the room, far enough apart at places that a private conversation was possible. The biggest risk was the curtained doorway beside the bar. It would allow cover to sight down on any of the customers with either a rifle or a handgun, depending on who minded whatever space was on the far side of that curtain.
Without asking, he knew that Alicia was well aware of the same threat. She’d paused, swept the room, seeking someone or maybe just assessing threats. Then she swung her shotgun from where she’d carried it over her shoulder and held it barrel-down as they walked into the room.