“I could kill you where you stand, Edgar.”
The voice came from behind him, and it was Roxie’s. Since it was Roxie talking, the words might be complete and utter lies, a bluff.
Then again, it was Roxie, and she probably could kill him where he stood.
Poe turned around slowly, grateful his pockets were empty.
“Shall I call you Reynolds?” he asked.
He had just put on his biggest overcoat, the one with all the pockets inside. He had put it on, as he had come to his cabin in the first place, to carry away in the coat’s pockets Hunley’s four canopic jars, designed to specification of the Madman Orson Pratt. For all his rumination on the subject, Poe had no idea what the jars did, and knew only that the designs had left Hunley’s smartest men scratching their heads and wondering.
But he had seen some of Hunley’s other Egyptiana at work, and if he was going to be shot in the body, he didn’t want some pestilential plague of death accidentally unleashed against his own flesh. Years of training and experience kept him from shuddering as his imagination was invaded by a vision of himself thrashing out death throes in the grip of a brass scarab swarm, or melting in a puddle of acid, or bursting into flame.
Roxie sat on Jed’s bunk. He hadn’t seen her because she’d been behind the door, and it had been dark. He kicked himself for moving so quickly. She held something in her hands that looked like a small glass globe, full of sizzling blue light.
“We both know that’s not my name,” she said quietly.
“You have an accomplice,” he inferred. If he was going to die, at least he’d know how. Besides, talking might buy him time.
Roxie nodded. “She replaced the hair you’d left in the door after I came in.”
“I was reckless.”
“You always were.”
“Not since Baltimore,” Poe said, and he meant it. “I learned my lesson, and I’ve been very careful.”
“It only takes one mistake.”
For years he had dreamed of this moment. He thought he had seen it in every possible configuration, the final confrontation between himself and Eliza Roxcy Snow. He had seen himself poisoned, stabbed, strangled and burned in acid, because that was an outcome he feared and half-expected on a daily basis. Mostly he had seen himself as the one doing the killing, by gun, by knife, by throwing her hated, beautiful body under the wheels of a train, by shoving her head into the clocksprung jaws of a cotton thresher, but always by some means that was satisfyingly physical and violent. And always he imagined himself first delivering a final oration, telling Roxie that she was evil, that she had a heart of stone, that whatever Satan there might be in whatever Hell he could muster would surely delight in adding her to the infinite ranks of his gibbering minions.
Now here he was, and he didn’t have the will for any of that. “You were my mistake,” he said simply.
“And you were mine.” She looked so sincere that he couldn’t laugh, no matter how outrageous her words were. He wondered what game she was playing.
He considered his weapons. They were virtually none. The Seth Beast was locked away in the hold of the Liahona. He didn’t carry a gun. He had the hypocephalus tucked into a pocket of his vest—he would have to try to get it out and use it on her. He doubted it would have any effect, though, not with her training and her iron will.
To set up his play, he hazarded a fake cough. It came out a little more forcefully than he meant it, and brought several more in its wake, involuntary, before he managed to stop it.
“Consumption?” Roxie asked. She did an excellent job of feigning an expression of heartfelt concern, the straight lines of her face melting into compassion. Poe wanted to applaud, and invite her to take a bow for her theatrics.
Instead he nodded. “It hardly matters now. I assume you’ll kill me with that device you’re holding.”
“You know me so well.”
“Poison? That would be appropriate, and typical. What is it, a gas?”
“I don’t want to kill you, Edgar,” she said.
“You’ve had a change of heart since Baltimore, then,” he quipped, and he faked another cough, smaller this time, and this time it didn’t trigger anything further. He wondered if she had seen him hypnotize Lee in the Shoshone stockade. She might not let him get a handkerchief. If he went for the hypocephalus and she attacked, he must be prepared to defend himself. He moved, relaxed, into a more centered and balanced position, a basic and inobtrusive defensive stance of baritsu. For the thousandth time, he thanked Robert in his heart for the years of training and discipline.
Roxie hesitated. “That wasn’t me,” she finally said.
“You probably expect me to believe that,” he rejected her claim of innocence.
She stood up. “I expect you to be shrewd enough to know that sometimes, in our business, the dagger doesn’t know that it’s the dagger.”
Well, that rang true, but then, verisimilitude was the strength of the best lies told by the best liars. And Roxie was the very best.
“And the dagger,” she added, “never wants to be the dagger.”
He coughed, reached for his vest—
and Roxie raised the glass ball over her head.
“Don’t move!” she snapped at him.
“You would deny a dying man a handkerchief into which to cough up fragments of his lung?”
“This is Wyoming; spit it on the floor,” she told him, her voice the perfect mixture of cold steel and warm-hearted empathy. She sounded tortured. “I don’t know which is worse, Edgar. That you might truly be dying, or that you might be faking your own death to take advantage of my feelings.”
So much for the hypocephalus. It was to be a desperate physical attack, then. Poe braced himself, looked at the way she stood and thought about how he would try to grab her and which direction he would throw her when he did. Would the gas kill both of them? Of course not. It would be something to which she had already taken the antidote, or to which she was immune. Or maybe the Madman had fitted her with a device in her mouth or her throat, which would filter out the toxins.
If Pratt could save her body, his mind lurched desperately and counter to its discipline, couldn’t he save mine? He wrenched his attention back to the moment.
“It’s worse than either of those, my dear,” he mocked her. “I am truly dying and I want to take advantage of your feelings. Sadly for me, you have none.”
Suddenly Roxie backed away, turning and retreating towards the door. “My associate is outside.”
“The pretty young dilettante,” Poe guessed. “The brunette with the freckles, who kicks so high.”
“Even if you survived this—” Roxie brandished the sparkling globe—“she’d kill you with her bare hands. She’s a kung fu champion and a stone-hearted killer.”
“She’s your protégée. How else could she be?”
Roxie opened the door with a hand behind her. “Remember this,” she told him.
Then she threw the globe down to the floor—
it shattered into a thousand pieces in a sparkle of light and a dying pfizzt!—
she disappeared into the hallway of the Liahona—
and shut the door behind her.
Poe took a gulp of air and jumped for the door. As he grabbed the knob, he heard a loud click outside. She’s locked the door, he thought. Don’t panic.
He didn’t have a gun. He needed something to smash the door with. He scrambled, fumbled with the combination, lungs bursting, opened his big steamer trunk and pulled out one of the four canopic jars. It was a little stone thing the size of a pickle jar, pinkish, and with a monkey’s head.
He spun and smashed it against the doorknob, using the monkey end like the head of a hammer.
No effect. His lungs were bursting.
Please, don’t let this jar burst open and spill out something evil. He imagined sprouting octopoid tentacles, a swarm of wasps, a cloud of burning acid.
He swung again.
The door and the jar held firm. His body trembled, he desperately needed to cough. She was a devil, to torture him this way, to force him to hold his breath.
Was it some kind of test, to see if he was really consumptive? No, that was both too diabolical and also idiotic. His head was beginning to spin and the room around him was bathed in unnatural white light.
He swung a third time.
The door stood steady. The canopic jar was unmarred.
His lungs betrayed him. Poe dropped the jar, thunk!, and sank to his knees in the puddle of glass fragments. He coughed violently, hacking up bloody phlegm onto the carpet, gasping and sucking in air between coughs. The air was canned and stale, was he being poisoned?
He spat blood, onto his own hands and the floor and the glass, blood and phlegm, and he expected to fall over and die.
But he coughed and spat again, drew in a deep breath…
The canned air was just the regular stale air of the interior of the big steam-trunk.
The poison hadn’t worked.
He looked at the glass fragments, at the little filament inside it, and realized that he’d been a fool. It wasn’t that the poison hadn’t worked.
The little bulb had never had poison inside it at all. It had been an electricks device, some sort of hand-held light.
He laughed, but only for a moment before sobering up.
What, then, had Roxie wanted?
Poe tore off his false nose and threw it into the corner of the room.