Dawson City, Yukon, during the Klondike
Macassar Oil snorted and locked those mannequin eyes with Albin’s. Not an ounce of life, Lord help me! “You smell like a horse’s ass. You’re not getting back there.”
Unable to liberate himself from the optical bear trap, Albin’s jaw mimicked a fish out of water. The proper words had scattered to the constellations. Get a grip, Albin. Lord, I need this! He took a deep breath and exhaled the fear. An unseen army of angels had just been sent and no harm could befall him. “I think Mr. Jackson will agree to see me.”
Snickers coursed throughout the place, for every part of the exchange was audible now that music and conversation had fallen silent as the grave.
“I am afraid he’s not here . . . Mister?” Scar face declared.
“Stromgren . . . Albin Stromgren. And he is here, because you would not be guarding this door if it were not so.”
The collective gasp seemed to form a vacuum that tugged at Albin’s jacket. Obviously, nobody spoke to Karl’s men this way. Nobody above ground, at least. But Albin Stromgren was far from a nobody.
The smaller man ripped his pistol from the holster and aimed the muzzle between Albin’s eyes.
“You’ll be cold as a wagon’s tire in a second, and the worms will starve on your pea-sized brain.” He blew at a greasy strand that had fallen over his deadwood face.
“Easy there, Utah, we don’t want the horsemen in here.”
A magnesium flash of reason lit the uppermost levels of those bottomless pits. The Smith & Wesson was reluctantly slid back into the holster. “I already told you, horse’s ass, he ain’t here.”
Shaken, but certain that divine power had prompted the intervention, Albin replied calmly, “I’m going to reach into my coat pocket. There’s something of interest.”
“I’m sure your life might be of interest to you. Be real slow, if anything that cuts, shoots, or explodes comes out, you’re dead. Understand?”
“Utah, what did I just say? Besides, this old codger is too slow for a killer.” He gave Albin a derisive look and tapped his head. “I think he’s just daft. Let’s just see what he’s got. It could be fun.”
“Of course, Longhorn, he’s crazy! The fool comes barging in like he owns the place. Exactly why we can’t trust him. What say you, crazy old loon?” He sneered. “What do you have for us? A piece of crusty earwax that you think is gold?” He wiggled his trigger finger. “It’s gotta real bad twitch.”
Would the archangel Michael drop a speeding bullet? Albin’s fingers fumbled in the pocket and retrieved the handkerchief. He fought the squeak in his voice as he opened his palm. “I have this.”
Utah grimaced. “A filthy muck ender? You’re crazy and disgusting. Come on, Longhorn, let me feed him to the grizzlies.”
“Wait till I open it,” Albin said irritably. He gently unfurled the cloth to reveal the gold.
“Well then,” Longhorn rubbed his hands together. “That changes things a mite.” He pointed to Albin’s coat. “Why don’t you go home, toss that horse’s blanket and come back.”
Albin shrugged. “I’m afraid this is the only coat, and if I go, I take my offer to a competitor. I’m sure Mister Jackson will be pleased.”
Longhorn jerked his head towards his partner. “Search him.”
Utah growled and bared his teeth like an angry badger. “Leave that stinkin’ thing out here. I ain’t touching it.”
Albin removed his mackinaw and dropped it in a corner.
“Empty your pockets. Any funny business and you’re dead. Understand?”
“Of course. I have nothing in my pockets, other than my hotel key.”
Rough hands searched Albin, when they reached his shoulders, they slid to his neck and squeezed hard enough to choke. Fortunately, it was only brief, and the second he was released, Albin coughed as he sucked in a lungful of smokey air.
“He’s clean. Well, no weapons, at least.”
Longhorn knocked on the oak door. A hidden slot snapped open, just below the peephole. He bent down and spoke to someone inside. “We have a guest who would like to speak to the boss. He’s got some color.”
A muffled voice responded, and the slot slammed shut. The moments crawled at a glacial pace before the panel reopened. There was another indecipherable verbal exchange, before a loud clunk as the deadbolt shifted. A wall-thick door opened on medieval style hinges that could have supported a draw bridge.
Longhorn jerked a thumb towards the doorway. “Ace will take you to the Boss. Be respectful and keep your hands where they can be seen. You got it?”
Albin nodded as he tried to swallow the hedgehog lodged in his throat. He measured every step on legs about to fold like deck chairs and entered a narrow hallway. If the walls had been adorned with art instead of grey paint, Albin’s shoulders would have knocked them off.
He’d expected a lavish office with fine furniture, but this had the feel of a mine. Disappointed, he followed the human coatrack. An ugly specimen, the man’s head was an oversized potato. His close-cropped blonde hair had retreated with the Redcoats of 1812 and exposed a mess of growths that matched those of spud eyes. Ghostly pale, his glow-in -the-dark complexion would’ve brought Ebenezer Scrooge to immediate repentance.
When they were halfway down, Ace turned his crater-face back towards Albin. The larger man was struck by the image of a deformed and furless rat eternally scurrying along this dimly lit alley.
Ace offered a twisted smile that exposed crooked and decayed tombstones. “Wait here, Mister Stromgren.”
The gangster turned away, walked over to another reinforced door. He worked a brass knocker shaped into a lion’s head. A gruff voice from behind it, ordered them inside.
The walls constricted around Albin and he swore he was about to be funneled into a meat grinder.
Ace put a claw on the doorknob, but then paused and looked at Albin’s boots. “Leave those in the hallway. Remember to do exactly what the Boss says.” Orbs of blued steel glared at Albin.
He patted his gun. “I’m always watching.” Ace pushed the door open.
Another silent prayer accompanied the fumbled boot removal. Sweat dripped from Albin’s nose as he bent over to place them carefully along the wall. Irritated at his cowardice, he wiped the moisture from his face, rose, and stepped through the doorway.
The level of opulence in that room stole his breath. The utilitarian hallway had been a façade. Probably built narrow to channel enemies into single file in the event of an attack.
The interior resembled the office of a bank president. Raised cherry wood panels clad the walls from floor to ceiling. Fiery tongues crackled in a white marble fireplace. Their rhythmic dance was reflected by the chevron parquet floor. A carved lion’s head, just below the mantle, bared its teeth at the moving shadows.
Albin cautiously divided his attention between the splendor and the smoke shrouded mahogany desk, behind which sat a thickset statue that must have been imported from Easter Island.
“Don’t take this the wrong way, Mister Stromgren,” the statue spoke in a congenial manner. A brief pause was followed by a red glow that marked the location of the mouth. A meaty paw materialized and gestured towards a leather armchair in front of the acre sized desk. “In your, ah, current state, I’d rather you stay off of the Louis XV.”
That value of the chair and desk alone, never mind the cost of shipping, would have fed Dawson for a year. Here was a man who’d baked his own bread, but with pilfered ingredients.
A beautiful mahogany roll top writing desk embossed with marquetry floral patterns, caught Albin’s peripheral. There was more to explore, but he dared not deviate his gaze.
The cigar was stubbed out and Jackson waved the haze away. A cleared line of sight exposed a bald and pudgy man with broad shoulders. Probably not physical specimen of his youth, but still capable of sending victims to the bone box.
Albin stood obediently and listened to the tick the Yorkshire Longcase clock. They were alone in the room, but there was no doubt that the proceedings were being observed.
“I was told you had something that might be of interest to me.”
Albin gingerly produced the handkerchief and displayed his treasure.
“Hmm,” Jackson squinted at gold. He chuckled. “I’ve swallowed more color in a glass of Goldwasser. Is that all you got? This is what you’ve stunk up my office for?”
Albin saw through the veneer. The greedy always revealed their true core. The gold in the handkerchief may have been outweighed by the amount contained in Jackson’s pen, but he’d scrape a flake from a pig’s rear, should the animal swallow it. There was one answer only . . . more.
Albin rewrapped the handkerchief and slowly turned towards the door. He took a few steps towards it, keeping an ear out for protest, but none came. A few more paces, his sized thirteen feet pounded on the floor for emphasis. Only the clock provided feedback and it seemed to applaud his exit. Another four strides and he’d be in the hall. Had he misjudged? Was the Klondike King wired differently?
Two more heavy steps and finally came the sound of a heavy body shifting on leather, followed by a deep sigh.
Albin walked to the door and rested a hand on the knob. He bit his cheek to suppress a grin. Now for the callback.
A loud cough came from behind. Choking on regret? Albin couldn’t remain on the spot because it would signal desperation. He turned the knob and began to open the door. Jackson cleared his throat.
Not good enough, Jackson, I need to hear you say it. Albin crossed the threshold, the man was stubborn, but soon, hopefully. One foot in the hall and Ace appeared, pistol in hand. Too far! He’d pushed this way too far!
…….Will Albin take a dirt nap? Find out in the conclusion tomorrow! . . .