Wanted Excerpt

Wanted!

Chapter 1

coverFive Years Later

Lark Renault pushed the ‘Total’ key on her shiny new Victor adding machine, pulled the crank, and compared the number which printed on the paper tape to the sum on her ledger page. She smiled and sat back in satisfaction.

Balanced to the penny.

She closed the ledger. The last of the quarterly reports Mr. Templeton, the Ida Grove Bank’s president, asked her to compile was finished. She took great pride in that he trusted her with the responsibility, especially since she’d only arrived in this western Iowa town barely six months ago and was his newest employee.

Not that the institution had a large number of people on the payroll. Still, he’d expanded her duties beyond that of a teller, even trusting her with managing the place by herself every day while the rest of the employees went to lunch.

Lark supposed it was her gift with numbers. She was amazingly accurate with them. Sums came quickly to her, even without the aid of the latest Victor Mr. Templeton ordered just for her. Addition, subtraction, multiplication and division– numbers fascinated her, any which way she could figure them.

“Miss Renault. Come in here, please.”

Mr. Templeton called her from his office at the rear of the small bank and sent her thoughts scattering. She rose quickly from her desk to obey.

Glass enclosed the crisp, efficient room where he conducted the most important financial transactions. Here, he could see each customer as they walked in and the tellers who assisted them. Here, too, was where the vault had been placed, and under Mr. Templeton’s watchful eye, no one could enter the steel-enclosed chamber without his notice.

“My wife and son will be arriving soon,” he said. Silver streaked the hair at his temples, though he was only a decade or so older than Lark’s twenty-two years. His well-tailored suit showed not a speck of lint or unnecessary wrinkle. He was always fastidious about his appearance, from his meticulously trimmed fingernails to the shine on his leather shoes. “Show them in when they get here, won’t you?”

“Certainly, Mr. Templeton.”

“We’ll be going to Omaha for the weekend, so I’ll be leaving the bank early this afternoon. I’d like you to close up for me in my absence.”

Pride swelled through her at this new responsibility. “I can do that, Mr. Templeton. Of course.”

He smiled, gave her a brisk nod of dismissal and immersed himself in his work again. Upon leaving his office to return to her desk, she nearly collided with Mrs. Pankonin, the head cashier.

“So you’ll be locking the doors today,” she sniffed in a voice their employer couldn’t hear. She held a stack of bank notes in each hand and was on her way into the vault to store them.

“Yes, I will.” Lark refused to let the older woman’s antagonism deflate her pride. Perhaps if she wasn’t so crotchety all the time, Mr. Templeton would be more inclined to depend on her more. As it was, most days he tended to avoid her. “Excuse me, won’t you?”

Lark sashayed past her. From Mrs. Pankonin’s perspective, she guessed, it wasn’t fair that Mr. Templeton depended on Lark so much, not when Mrs. Pankonin had been employed longer than any of them, including Mr. Templeton himself. The woman knew the workings of the bank, inside and out. She was certainly capable of any task given to her.

Lark closed her mind to the woman’s jealousy. She loved her job too much to let the pinch-nosed, whiny-voiced widow bother her unduly.

She had just finished figuring the interest due upon a draft and recording a customer’s payment when Amelia Templeton arrived with her six-year-old son, Phillip. A cloud of expensive perfume alerted Lark to her presence, and before she could direct the pair into the president’s office, Phillip pulled his hand from his mother’s and darted toward Lark.

“I sit here, Mama,” he said and crawled onto the chair closest to Lark’s desk.

“But Phillip,” Amelia said with a doting smile. “Don’t you want to see Papa? He has peppermint candy in his drawer for you.”

“Don’t want peppermint.” The little boy shook his head emphatically. “I sit here with Lark.”

“You must address her properly.” Amelia’s tone was much too gentle to convince the child to obey. She glanced apologetically at Lark. “I’m sorry. What is your name?”

“Renault,” Lark said, trying not to feel inferior that a six-year-old knew who she was but the bank president’s wife didn’t. “Miss Lark Renault.”

“Oh, that’s right. I’d forgotten.” She turned back to her son. “Did you hear, darling? You must address her as Miss Ree-no.”

“No, no,” Lark corrected quickly. “It’s French. Ray-nau.”

Amelia blinked. Clearly, the woman didn’t understand the differences in pronunciation, nor did she care about them either way. “Do you mind watching him while I see my husband?”

“Not at all.” Lark forced a smile. What else could she say? Amelia was the bank president’s wife. Lark had no choice but to be gracious and add child-caring to her duties for the time-being.

Petticoats rustling, Amelia swept into the president’s office. Lark busied herself double-checking her figures on the draft she’d just completed and found them accurate as usual. With no customers to assist at the moment, she turned to her young charge and found him staring at her in blatant curiosity.

She’d learned from Mrs. Pankonin that Phillip Templeton had been sickly since the day he was born. Lark was certainly no expert on children, but even she could tell he was small-boned and frail for his age. She doubted he played much outside at all–his skin was too pale, too smooth, too clean. He wore a neat little suit–a replica of his father’s–and she couldn’t help wondering if he’d ever dressed in dungarees, gotten dirt under his fingernails or scraped up his knees. Tiny, gold-rimmed spectacles sat on the bridge of his nose; his hair was slicked down and parted in a perfect line down one side of his head.

He clutched a drawing pad to his chest and continued to stare at her through the lenses. He stared so intently Lark had to resist the urge to scold him for his rudeness.

She forced a smile. “So, Phillip. I understand you’re going to Omaha for the weekend.”

The boy nodded somberly, his little legs swinging.

A moment passed. “Well, what will you do when you get there?”

Slender shoulders lifted in a shrug. “Don’t know.”

“Perhaps you’ll go to a fine restaurant. Or attend a performance at the opera house.”

Again, he shrugged. Obviously, neither option excited him much.

She grappled for something else to talk about. Up to now, she’d had pitifully little experience making conversation with small children. She indicated the pad of paper he held like it was his best friend. “Do you like to draw?”

For the first time, his be-spectacled eyes lit up. He nodded vigorously.

“What’s your favorite thing to sketch?” she asked.

“Outlaws.”

Lark couldn’t help a small gasp. “Outlaws!”

“Robbers is my favorite.”

“Oh, Phillip. You shouldn’t–it’s hardly appropriate for a little boy to–”

“See?” He opened the sketch pad and thrust it at her.

She gaped at the penciled shapes on the paper, and though he was only six, the markings he’d drawn were appallingly precise.

Her heart began to pound.

“Here’s a train,” Phillip said. His small finger demanded that she look. “The outlaws are going to rob it. They got guns.”

Oh, God, Lark thought in dismay, her gaze riveted to the trio of thieves riding on horses with their weapons smoking. One of them looked like a woman, her hair trailing from beneath her hat . . ..

“And the train has a safe with lots of money in it, but I didn’t drawed it ‘cuz it’s inside the train and you can’t see it.”

She pressed her fingers to her mouth, watched in horrified fascination as he flipped another page on his sketch pad.

“But I drawed a safe in this picture. See? The money’s all gone. The outlaws shot the trainman, and he’s dead.”

Her eyes widened at the definite shape of a man, lying on the floor, the safe wide open. And empty.

“How can you know about such things?” she demanded, snapping his sketch pad closed. She was tempted to throw the thing in her waste receptacle, but thought better of it. Phillip was Mr. Templeton’s son, after all.

“‘Cuz Papa has a stereoscope.”

“He has pictures of outlaws, too?”

He nodded vigorously. “He lets me look at them sometimes.”

“He does, does he?” She clucked her tongue in disapproval. The newfangled viewer brought images on slides to life. The images were mostly created by actors posing as outlaws for a photographer, but sometimes the outlaws themselves posed, just for fun. Was it any wonder a little boy believed them as real?

The child held the drawings against his chest again. “Mama doesn’t like me looking at pictures of outlaws. She thinks I’ll get scared from ‘em.”

Lark’s mouth tightened. “They’re bad people, Phillip.”

“I’m not scared of outlaws, Lark. Are you?”

She gritted her teeth from the child’s incessant chattering. “Some, I suppose.”

“One of Papa’s slides has a lady outlaw in it. You ever hear of a lady outlaw?” He grinned, clearly amused.

Lark glared at him. She didn’t think the matter funny at all.

“Know what? Papa’s scared that outlaws is going to rob his bank some day.”

She rose abruptly. Enough was enough. She refused to listen to any more crazy talk about outlaws and bank robbers, and though Amelia expected her to watch over her son, Lark left him sitting in his chair while she headed to the vault to find something else to do. Mrs. Pankonin could keep an eye on him instead.

A small hand tugged at her skirts. Lark’s step faltered, but she didn’t stop. Phillip hung on, his shiny-shoed feet scampering to keep up with her.

“Where you going, Lark? Can I come with you?”

“I have work to do.” She halted, pried his fingers loose from her skirt, and resumed walking, right into Mr. Templeton’s office. It wasn’t long before the boy was hanging onto her again.

“You going into Papa’s vault, Lark? I’ve never been in the vault before.” His voice danced with excitement. He ignored his parents, who smiled indulgently at his enthusiasm. It was all Lark could do to keep from plopping the boy into his mother’s lap so she could take care of him.

Once inside the small room, Phillip stared owlishly around him. “O-oh. Look at all the money, Lark. There must be a million dollars in here.”

His hushed voice gave her pause. The first time she stepped into this room, she, too, was taken aback at the amount of currency and gold coins the vault held. Theirs was only a small town bank; one in a large city would hold several hundred thousand dollars more. Still, to a little boy, the money would look like a fortune.

“No, Phillip. Not a million. Not even close,” she said thoughtfully, and upon realizing he no longer clung to her skirts, she busied herself counting a stack of dollar bills.

“Can I help, Lark? Can I?”

“No, you may not.”

“I can count good. One, two, three–.”

“I’m sure you can count just fine.” Exasperated, she stopped counting, her place lost. Now she’d have to start over again. “You can sit next to me and watch if you promise not to say another word.”

Again, his eyes lit up. “I’ll be real quiet.”

Not at all convinced, she found a wooden stool, placed it right beside her, and whisked Phillip into the seat. The child hardly weighed a thing, he was so frail, and some of her annoyance with him dissipated.

True to his word, he sat silently while she counted. He kept his drawings clutched to his chest, his fascinated gaze always upon her and the money she counted. She couldn’t help glancing over at him now and again, just to make sure he was still sitting there.

He was being so good, something melted inside her. Impulsively, she reached out and patted the top of his head. She couldn’t recall feeling affectionate toward a child before in her entire life.

“I’ll bet you’re going to be a banker when you grow up, just like your father, aren’t you?” she said, banding a stack of bills and recording the amount in the proper column of her ledger.

He shook his head. “Nope. I’m going to be an outlaw.”

The pencil lead veered past the ledger lines. She darted a quick glance into Mr. Templeton’s office. He was engrossed in conversation with his wife, and neither overhead their son’s declaration. Lark snatched a rubber eraser.

“That’s the silliest thing I’ve ever heard of,” she hissed. “What does your father have to say about it?”

“I didn’t tell him.”

“And if I were you, I wouldn’t. Ever. He’d have palpitations from it.”

Mr. Templeton was an upright and respected member of the community. All the tellers and cashiers at the Ida Grove Bank admired him. Lark knew he had high hopes his only son would receive a fine education and follow in his footsteps one day. What father wouldn’t?

“Can it be our secret, Lark? I never told nobody I want to be an outlaw ‘cept you.”

Her eye narrowed. Why he trusted her with his secret, she had no idea, but one thing was certain. She had no intention of telling a single soul.

“Well, look at you, darling! Are you helping Miss Ree-no count her money like a big boy?” Amelia cooed from the doorway.

“Ray-nau,” Lark corrected quickly, whirling toward her. “Remember? It’s French.”

“Naw. I’m not old enough,” Phillip said, wriggling off his chair. Fearful he’d fall, Lark hastily helped him down. “She just let me watch.”

His mother took his hand and smiled. “Some day, you’ll be president of Papa’s bank, and then you can count all the money you want.” She turned to Lark. “Thank you for watching him. He’s taken quite a liking to you, it seems.”

“Hmm.” Lark didn’t know what to make of it.

“Tell the nice lady good-bye, Phillip. We’re leaving for Omaha now.”

“‘Bye, Lark.” His be-spectacled gaze clung to her as his mother led him from the vault, as if he much preferred to spend the afternoon with her than with his parents in a carriage heading to Nebraska. Precise as always, Mr. Templeton gave Lark a list of instructions on how to close up the bank at the end of the day. Lark knew what to do, even without the list, but she nodded in all seriousness. Mr. Templeton’s trust in her was not to be taken lightly.

Finally, his coat donned and his desk tidied for the weekend, he was ready to leave with his family. Amelia slipped her arm into his, and he patted her hand in obvious affection. Together, the three of them left the Ida Grove Bank.

Lark sighed out loud. He was obviously in love with his wife. Did Amelia know how lucky she was to have a husband like Mr. Templeton? Handsome, talented, with a keen mind for business and financial matters, he had ‘perfect’ written all over him.

Sometimes, when she lay alone and pensive in her bed at night, Lark pretended Mr. Templeton wasn’t married. She liked to think if he wasn’t, he’d be infatuated with her instead. He would depend on her more than any of his other employees, not because of her skill with numbers, but because he liked her. Trusted her. And he found her attractive and feminine.

Feminine, most of all.

He visited a barber regularly and always looked like such a gentleman in his expensive suits. She loved to detect the faint smell of starch in his shirts when he happened to stand a little closer to her than he normally did, which wasn’t often. He was much too proper to do anything which could set the tongues of his employees to wagging. Mr. Templeton detested scandal.

Another customer strode in the bank doors and shattered her reverie. What a fool she was, standing here, staring after her employer like a lovesick fool. He was long gone. More important, he was happily married.

She had to stop thinking about him. She was smitten only because he was so kind to her when she first arrived in Ida Grove. She’d been desperate, hungry, almost penniless. He gave her her first real job. A job she treasured. A job that kept her respectable.

Lark hastened back to her duties and immersed herself in them without another thought of what could never be. The afternoon passed swiftly, and by the time the clock read the fifth hour of the afternoon, she’d completed the list of instructions Mr. Templeton had given her. Twice. The monies in the vault balanced exactly to the ledgers. She’d checked and re-checked all the locks on the doors. All lights had been extinguished. Adding machines were silent.

Before leaving the bank, she swept a final, inspecting glance around the darkened room, then locked the doors behind her. She wouldn’t be back until Monday morning. Two days stretched ahead of her with very little to do. While the rest of the Ida Grove Bank employees looked forward to weekends, Lark dreaded them. She’d work seven days a week if she could.

It’d be different if she had a family, she supposed, but she didn’t. Not anymore. Lark had only herself to take care of and entertain. At first, that suited her, but lately . . ..

“Howdy, Miss Lark. All done for the day?”

She smiled at Ollie Rand, owner and editor of Ida Grove’s only newspaper office, located on the corner opposite the bank. He always had a smoke about this time, before he closed up for the day. Lark met him, just like this, every night on her way home from work.

“All done, yes.”

“Mr. Templeton left early, I see.” There was little that escaped Ollie’s curiosity. His nosiness would be annoying if he wasn’t so likable.

“He took his family to Omaha for the weekend,” she said.

Ollie nodded at the news and kept puffing on his cigar. Lark knew the tidbit would find its way into a column of his weekly newspaper, the Ida County Pioneer, just in case anyone might be interested. And most everyone was. That’s the way it was in a small town, Lark learned six months ago. Thanks to Ollie, everyone knew about everyone else’s business, private or otherwise. Made for fascinating ruminating some days.

“Got any plans for the weekend?” he asked amiably.

“No.” Her answer was always the same. She wondered why he bothered to ask. “I might bake a few pies if Mrs. Kelley needs the help.”

“You’d make a fine wife, Miss Lark. You got to try a little harder to find yourself a husband.”

As usual, Lark simply smiled and kept walking. She chose Ida Grove to live in because the town was quaint and small. Peaceful and safe. Finding a husband here had never figured into her plans.

“We don’t have many men here needing a wife, but strangers ride in nigh every day,” Ollie called after her in a jovial tone. “I’ll keep my eye out for one needing marrying.”

Lark couldn’t help turning back to him with a laugh and a wave. He answered her with a broad wink, tossed aside his cigar and went back into his office.

By the time she arrived at Kelley’s Boardinghouse only a few blocks away, however, a melancholy mood descended upon her. She could find no reason for it. Perhaps it’d been triggered by her silly thoughts about being infatuated with Mr. Templeton. Or perhaps it was Ollie’s innocent comments about finding her a husband.

Regardless, the weekend loomed long and lonely. The night promised no better, and as she climbed the stairs, then unlocked the door to her room, she resolved to draw a hot bath and soak in it for a good long while. She could read a book after that. Maybe even order up a glass of wine or two.

A cool evening breeze fluttered the hems of the blue-flowered curtains hanging over the window. The room was unusually dark. Had she forgotten to part them?

She tossed her small handbag on the bed, added her hat after it. It wasn’t like her to forget. Her geraniums thrived in this window. The sun poured in and drenched the blossoms every day while she was at work.

She raised up on tiptoe and pulled the window coverings open. The breeze danced against her skin. Enjoying the feel of the clean air, she lingered to savor it.

If there was one thing that detracted from the perfection of her job, it was being inside four walls all day. Once, a lifetime ago, she’d had no job, no home. The outdoors was all she knew . . ..

A sound came from behind her, a sound so soft she might have imagined it. Had she? She kept perfectly still. Her muscles coiled. The fine hairs lifted on the back of her neck, her senses tuned–oh, God. She’d always trusted her senses. They saved her life more times than she cared to count.

Lark would sell her soul to have a pair of Colts in each hand. Instead, her fingers moved slowly, very slowly, to one of the geraniums on the window sill, but before she could lift it, before she could crash the pot against the intruder’s skull, he yanked her hard against him. His burly arm choked the air from her lungs. The other held a knife to her throat.

The stench of sweat and stale whiskey bit into her, throwing her backward in time.

Catfish Jack cackled in her ear. “Well, well, well. Damned if it ain’t Wild Red.”

 

   

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