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Tuolumne

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It had been a bad day for Intendent Myka Bering. Well, ex-Intendent now. Regular civilian Myka Bering. Fuck. She sat down heavily on a stool and the bartender came over right away, blue eyes full of sympathy. “The regular, patrón?”

“Thanks, Jinks. Not anybody’s patrón now.”

“Yeah, I heard. Want to talk about it?”

“Nothing to talk about. I fucked around, thought I could clean up this place. I found out.”

Jinks nodded, turned to wipe down the bar. Eventually he came back over, “Drinks on me tonight. You’ve always got a place at the Wunderbar, Myka.”

Myka raised her glass but didn’t say anything. She wasn’t sure she could stay in this town, but it was good to know she still had some friends. Even so, “Hey Steve?”

“Mande, patrón?” Down here in the valley, mostly no one used mountain slang anymore. Jinks rarely did; it only got you treated like shit by city people who thought they were too good for the provinces, despite having moved here. It was an intimacy he shared with people he trusted or those he’d clocked as being from the highlands too, or like Myka, both.

“My deputy, Abigail? Can you find a place for her?”

“She’s already got her old job back. Working the breakfast shift. I bet she’ll be by later though. Don’t expect she’ll want to sleep tonight.”

Myka let out a breath. That was a relief. Abigail would probably be safe here. She hadn’t been around long enough to make any enemies. “Thanks, friend.” She offered a small smile. Steve was reliably the only person in Tuolumne who could make her smile on days like this. Well, there hadn’t exactly been days like *this* before, but…

Steve’s steady kindness could make her smile, Abigail’s antics could stir her out of most funks, and then there was her brother in arms, Pete. But it was better not to think about Pete. He’d made his choice, moving up to the city force, leaving her behind and leaving behind the mess that they’d tried to fix together. Chasing some girl, or a promotion, or running from the mob, lord knows what. He hadn’t left a note, exactly.

There was a commotion at the door. Myka saw Steve snap to attention first, then heard the murmurs spread throughout the tables. She paused to take a sip of her second drink of the night before letting herself become one of the gawkers. Fucking MacPherson. She just knew it. And an entourage of smug-looking lackeys. Ok fine, one of the lackeys was a beautiful woman, striking eyes, long hair framing a face that pinged something in the back of her mind. Had Myka met her before? No, definitely not, Myka would have remembered the way she filled the space with her swagger, one hand casually tapping a table as she moved towards the bar, another tossing her hair back so she could get a better look at the surly fellow talking to her. Still, something nagged as familiar. This bothered Myka, not remembering was a rare and disconcerting thing, but she had bigger problems at the moment. She finished her drink and moved to stand against the bar, no one but Steve at her back.

MacPherson looked over once with a triumphant gleam in his eyes, but settled at a table far away. “Drinks, man! Drinks for all my friends here! We are celebrating a return to law and order in the town tonight.”

Myka could hear Jinks rolling his eyes, but he complied, with a tray full of the least drinkable bottom-shelf aguardiente. Myka stayed where she was, watching. More than once she caught the dark-eyed woman glancing towards her, expression curious. On a better night, Myka might have smiled back, inviting her over. Well, in a better world, perhaps, where Myka Bering had time for things like flirting and this woman wasn’t in the employ of the Chamber of Commerce, working for the man who had driven her out of office.

The woman approached anyway. First Steve, whose attention she hailed with a tentative, and heavily accented, “Excuse me, friend.” Steve’s eyes widened slightly, and he came over and inclined his head with a quiet, chilly, “What can I do for you, stranger?”

She nodded, as if expecting this response. She smiled apologetically. “I am, as you say, a stranger. But your establishment’s reputation is ample. I was hoping I might be able to purchase something a little more…” she placed the empty shot glass on the table, “friendly on the tongue. Something local, perhaps?”

“That depends on who is paying your tab, stranger.”

The woman’s smile grew, “I pay my own bills, friend.”

Steve held her gaze for a moment, and then nodded. He pulled out an unmarked bottle and tipped it into her glass, and she put money on the table. Taking a satisfied sip, she sidled over to where Myka hadn’t moved. With a sly smile, she came up close, “You’ve been watching me.”

“You’ve got a memorable face. I’ve been trying to place where I’ve seen it before.”

“And have you figured it out?”

“I have. I just can’t figure out what a fugitive from justice like HG Wells would be doing with a respectable member of society such as Mr. MacPherson over here.”

Wells’ smile only grew. “Can’t you? And please. It’s Helena among friends.”

“We aren’t friends.”

“We could be.”

“Really.” Myka put her drink down.

“They’re going to run you out of town, you know.”

“Is that a fact? Well, I should thank you for delivering his message.” Myka spat out the words, nodding towards MacPherson’s table.

Wells hadn’t moved away, but now she placed a hand on Myka’s arm. “I am not delivering his message. I am warning you, Intendent Bering. And I want to help, because after they run you out of town, MacPherson is going to hire some folks to find a terrible accident for you.”

“Why would you want to warn me?” Myka pulled Wells’ hand off her arm and pressed her gently back, ignoring the rush of warmth that suffused her body at the contact, “And why should I trust you?”

Wells moved away, but her eyes held Myka’s insistently. Damn pheromones. “Because I want to help you take him down.”

“Not my job anymore.”

“No, sadly. And yet, somehow I doubt that’s going to stop you.”

Myka narrowed her eyes at Wells. “What’s in it for you?”

“I will tell you, but not here. If you would be so kind as to follow me upstairs, we might be able to find a way to talk in private.” Wells raised an eyebrow and leaned over to murmur in Myka’s ear, “No doubt you’ve a room in this establishment you prefer to take women, Intendent Bering, to learn their secrets?”

Fighting a blush and the urge to look away, because while yes, she had done something of the kind before, but no, she did not blush when women came on to her these days, Myka put some bills on the table.

She called out softly, “Jinks, I’d like to settle my tab.”

Steve was at her side in an instant, looking between Myka and Wells. “Your money’s no good here, you know that.”

Now she turned, meeting his eyes in a question. Steve read people, and she wanted to know if Helena could be trusted. Well, not fully trusted, but for the length of a conversation. Or whatever.

“Do you have a room that we could use, where we are unlikely to be disturbed?”

Steve showed no surprise, and he gave a small nod of assent. “Third floor, all the way at the back, maid’s quarters. You know the one.”

“Thank you, friend.” Wells smiled graciously and began walking towards the wrought iron staircase that led up to the mezzanine. Myka lingered for just long enough for Steve to catch her arm. “Be careful, Myka. What she told you… she’s sincere, but… there might be more to the story. If anyone comes looking for you, I’ll ring the bell.”

Myka nodded, following Wells’ saunter towards the stairs and ignoring the wolf whistles from MacPherson’s table. Out of the corner of her eye, she saw that MacPherson was watching them both with an amused smirk.

Well, if she was going to hell tonight, might as well enjoy the road.