Part 7 of The Lazarus Tremaine Saga
What happens when a specter from the past confronts a long-lived warlock intent on wooing a young lady to corruption? Can El Diablo redeem this warlock, just as he had been redeemed from his former life, or will it take the six-guns of Jonah Hex’s ghost to stop this villain?
Vandy Millen hummed the song her brother sang to himself as she walked to the apartment she shared with him. He had a natural gift for music, and it was something they enjoyed at night while she helped him with his schoolwork.
Vandy, Vandy, I’ve come to court you
Be you rich, or be you poor.
And if you’ll kindly entertain me,
I will love you forevermore.
Vandy unlocked the door, waving at her brother Calder as she placed her case on the floor next to the door. She had brought some work home with her, but first she had to help get dinner ready before her father came home from his store.
Calder smiled as he finished singing. “What are we having for dinner?” Calder Millen asked as his sister walked into the kitchen. His schoolwork was spread out over the kitchen table in a stack of books and papers.
“Tonight’s the poker game,” Vandy reminded her brother. “Simple sandwiches should be good enough. Then I have to get my own work done.”
Calder nodded. Their father Tewk Millen and his friends would play a few hours of cards and then break up, like they always did. Calder would be able to cut his trumpet practice short if he could play well before the game started.
Tewk Millen came home an hour later. A small group was with him, as was customary on Poker Night. Vandy knew all of them except one. He stood at the back of the group, looking around with a placid expression. He didn’t take part in the usual pre-game banter that went on.
“I’ve got dinner tonight, Vandy,” Tewk said as he walked into the kitchen.
“I already have a sandwich tray done, Dad,” Vandy said. “I’m going to be out of town next week. That’s when you can you can cook.”
Tewk smiled cheerfully. “What about drinks?” he asked.
“Soda and tea are in the refrigerator.”
The men gathered around the card table, grabbing the sandwiches and the assorted drinks and settling down to play cards for a few hours. Vandy smiled to herself as the stranger seemed to listen to her father gossip with his friends but said nothing.
She went to get ready for work in the morning. The doorbell rang as the men put up the ante for the first hand. She went and answered it, stepping back. A look of disgust flitted across her face as she saw the visitor standing there.
“Hello, Mr. Lowden,” Vandy said, being polite but trying to think of a way to send the man away without hurting his feelings.
“I have some flowers for you,” said Mr. Lowden, producing some roses from behind his back.
Vandy took the flowers and placed them a vase to throw them away later.
“Staying or going, Lowden?” asked Tewk Millen, seemingly disturbed by the visitor as he bet.
Mr. Lowden settled in a seat beside the stranger. He gazed at the hostess as the other men played out the hand, and Randy Hodges raked in the pot.
“I don’t believe we’ve met,” Lowden said, turning his piercing gaze, beak-like nose, and hatchet face to examine the newcomer. “My name is Lowden.”
“Lazarus Tremaine,” said the stranger, meeting the gaze with the bland blue of his own eyes. “Do you play cards often?”
“Not really,” said the man, loosening his black jacket but not taking it off. “I don’t remember seeing you here before.”
“First time,” admitted Tremaine. “I have only been in Star City for a couple of weeks, and am still looking around for something I like.”
“Really?” said Lowden. “Are you staying here long?”
“As long as he wants,” said Tewk, dealing five cards to everyone.
“Do you have any family in Arizona?” Tremaine asked Lowden.
“I did have, but that was a long time ago,” said Lowden, peering at the stranger. “Why?”
“I knew a man named Lowden,” said Tremaine, filling out his hand and placing the cards down on the table. “He got killed in a gunfight in the street outside of Condor Saloon.”
Lowden stood up with a squeal of his chair. “What did you say?” demanded the thin man in black. One hand went to his chest spasmodically.
“Sure,” said Tremaine, throwing chips into the pot. The shadow from Lowden standing seemed to place a mask across the stranger’s face. “He ran into a bounty hunter and went for his gun.”
Lowden stormed from the apartment without another word.
“What was that about?” Calder whispered to his sister as he gnawed on a sandwich.
“Looks like Dad’s new friend struck a nerve,” the young woman said, smiling. “At least he won’t be making passes at me all night while I’m trying to work.”
“Is what you said true?” asked Kyle Cantor, upping the ante.
“About the gunfight?” said Tremaine, smiling. “Yep. Of course, that was almost a hundred years ago.”
Tremaine looked around to see if anyone else was betting. They showed their cards, and he pulled in the pot with a simple sweep of his hand.
The group all laughed, except for Tremaine. He had stumbled onto something wrong and wondered what it was.
The poker party broke up on schedule. Tremaine took his winnings and bade farewell to his hosts as he walked to his hotel. His thoughts were on the mysterious Mr. Lowden. It couldn’t be the same man, could it?
That incident had happened before Lazarus Tremaine had undergone his change, the one that had led him to becoming the new El Diablo. That was had prompted him to run instead of facing his pursuer.
Hearing about Jonah Hex was akin to hearing about a strange animal you had never seen but was regarded as a legendary beast. Seeing him in action was enough to convince you to run if you had a choice in the matter.
Tremaine had heard that the bounty hunter’s body had been stuffed and put on display in the Wild West shows of the early part of the century.
Did Lowden realize he had seen his ancestor shot because he had been there at the time, or would he think that Tremaine knowing of the duel was a fluke and leave the revenant alone?
Lazarus Tremaine stopped at a branch of the library. El Diablo used his special talent and opened the doors, then searched among the shelves. He admitted that he had never been a student, nor was he particularly observant of the passage of time. Still, others were and wrote their observations down.
He pulled out a book and took it to a table. He skimmed through it, memory filling in spots the writers didn’t know or got wrong. Everything else was there, like he thought.
Tremaine ripped two pages from the book and placed it back on the shelf where he got it. He wrote a note and left some money for the vandalism before leaving. The two pages went in the inside pocket of his jacket. He started for his hotel again. He would talk with Lowden in the morning. Maybe he could reason with the man. Surely he would listen to reason.
That night Tremaine lay on his rented bed, intending to shower and change to clean clothes in the morning. His boots went on the floor beside the bed. He closed his eyes and fell asleep. Something later awakened the adventurer. He tried to move but found himself locked in place on the bed.
“The sleeper awakens,” said the voice of Mr. Lowden. He stood by the cheap coffee table that came with the room. He had lit a small fire in an ashtray on the table.
“You are going to try to kill me now,” said Tremaine, calmly.
“I am going to kill you,” said Lowden. “How much do you know, Mr. Tremaine? I noticed you broke into a branch of the library.”
“How long have you been alive, Lowden?” El Diablo asked. “I noticed you were courting a Vandy Washington before your run-in with Hex.”
“Vandy Millen’s grandmother,” said Mr. Lowden, writing on a pad of paper in his hands. “First that stupid Millen, then that bounty hunter. They got in my way as I was trying to seduce Vandy to my way of doing things.”
“Now you want this Vandy?” Tremaine asked. He seemed relaxed in his paralysis.
“She’s the sweetest and the best,” said Lowden. “I won’t be denied by some tramp.”
“Lowden, you can always repent and live out the rest of your days helping others,” said El Diablo. “The world needs people to help others. A man of your talents would be welcome anywhere, I am sure.”
“Be quiet, you weakling,” said Lowden. “This is what is going to happen…” He ripped the top page off the pad of paper, then turned it around so that Tremaine could see that his likeness was drawn on the paper. “I am going to conjure some semblance of you into this drawing. Then I am going to stab it with this.” The hatchet-faced man twisted his walking stick and produced a hidden blade. “It will look like you died of a heart attack,” Lowden explained, placing the sword on the table next to the ashtray.
“You should have listened to Hex then,” El Diablo said. “You should listen to me now. Give up the dark, and get back some control of your soul.”
“Hex has killed so many, I doubt he remembers me where he is,” Lowden said, smiling evilly. He began to recite words in the air over the fire.
“I think he remembers you where he is,” Tremaine said, one hand reaching into his coat with a streak of light against his invisible bonds. El Diablo pulled out one of the folded papers and threw it on the flames.
Lowden froze in shock as a thick cloud of smoke billowed up from the flames. A figure in a gray jacket stepped from the smoke. A gray hat hid the hideous wound on one side of his face in shadow.
He was a hero to some, a villain to others. He had two constant companions everywhere he went. One was the smell of gun smoke, the other death itself. Jonah Hex looked on the scene in front of him with distaste in his mismatched eyes.
Lowden, fear on his face, went for his sword cane. He found himself looking down the barrel of an old Colt first. If he had not tried to carry through with his movement, the Colt might not have roared at point-blank range into his cheek.
El Diablo winced as he watched Lowden reel away from the discharged bullet. The warlock went down on the floor, scattering in a spray of dirt and fungus across the wooden veneer.
The shade turned, looking at El Diablo, leveling his pistol. Obviously he remembered Tremaine, too. He tucked the old dragoon back in his gun-belt and stepped back into the smoke with a tip of his hat and a not-quite-pleasant grin on his battered face.
El Diablo got to his feet as the smoke vanished. He regarded the remains of Mr. Lowden sadly. “I tried to give you a second chance,” he said softly.
Lazarus Tremaine smiled at the Christmas ornaments as he weaved through traffic on his motorcycle. He pulled the bike on the curb in front of the Millens’ building. He folded the second piece of paper, the one with the picture of Vandy Washington and her husband from the library book, in a sealed envelope and left it under the door.
He heard Vandy Millen singing as he walked away. He sang along softly as he headed downstairs.
Wake up, wake up! The dawn is breaking,
Wake up, wake up! It’s almost day.
Open up your doors and divers windows,
See my true love march away.
She sang as beautifully as her grandmother, Tremaine decided as he rode away.