Silver Lies (Silver Rush Mystery Series #1)by Ann Parker
As 1879 draws to a close, a Rocky Mountain boomtown has infected the world with silver fever. Unfortunately for Joe Rose, a precious-metals assayer, death stakes its own claim, and his body is found trampled into the muck behind Inez Stannerts saloon. Most townsfolk dismiss Joes death as an accident. But Inez wonders. See more details below
As 1879 draws to a close, a Rocky Mountain boomtown has infected the world with silver fever. Unfortunately for Joe Rose, a precious-metals assayer, death stakes its own claim, and his body is found trampled into the muck behind Inez Stannerts saloon. Most townsfolk dismiss Joes death as an accident. But Inez wonders.
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By Ann Parker
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2003 Ann Parker
All right reserved.
Chapter One"Sweet Jesus," Inez Stannert muttered, surveying the ruins of her drinking establishment. "Looks like the North and South settled their differences right here on the floor."
Inez stood at the rear of the Silver Queen Saloon, hands on her hips. She eyed the splintered remains of what had once been a twenty-foot mirror gracing the mahogany back-bar. Shards of glass lay about the sawdust like so many stars fallen to earth. She sighed. Her stays pinched beneath her green cashmere dress, a reminder not to inhale too deeply. A new mirror would run a thousand dollars. Freighting fees, another five hundred. At least.
Inez shook her head and turned her attention to the rest of the room. Busted chairs mixed it up with overturned tables. Her husband's favorite lithograph, a depiction of boxing champions Heenan and Sayers, bare-knuckled fists raised and ready, lay ripped and crumpled in one corner. The gilt frame looked as if it had been used to batter someone's head. Cold December air swept through the saloon's wide-open front door, doing little to alleviate the stale smell of tobacco and the heavy scent of whiskey, brandy, and beer leaking from broken bottles. She thought of the imported Scotch whisky, soaking the floorboards, worth its weight in gold. And groaned.
Abe Jackson, dark and silent as a shadow, emerged from the kitchen with two porcelain mugs of steaming coffee and stood beside Inez. They began walking the length of the room, wordlessly examining the damage. When they reached the front door, Abe handed Inez a mug and closed the door on the early morning light, extinguishing the stars on the floor.
"Looks worse than five hours ago," he ventured, scratching one end of his coarse black mustache.
Inez twisted the two rings on her finger—one gold, one silver—while she did a quick mental calculation. "We've lost several hundred in liquor alone, never mind the furniture. As for the mirror, it'll be spring before we can afford to order another from Chicago. Unless the house gets lucky at the poker table."
Turning away from the door, the two walked toward the staircase, passing a dusty upright piano. Inez lifted her long skirts to climb the steps. "Let's go to the office and you can tell me what happened."
On the second floor, Inez unlocked a door and the two entered a sitting room flooded with light from a large, west-facing window. A fire in the pot-bellied stove battled the cold, while a rag rug captured what warmth the winter sun offered. Inez waved one hand at a calico cat dozing on a russet-colored horsehair couch. "Shoo. Go chase those rats I heard in the storeroom last night. Earn your keep, you lazy thing." The cat scooted under the couch, tail flicking.
Inez sipped her coffee before balancing the steaming mug on a stack of payables. She sat, banged up the rolltop to her desk, and pulled out a ledger. The window beside the desk overlooked the false-fronted saloons, dancing halls, and brothels of State Street to the distant snow-covered peaks of Massive and Elbert.
Abe sank onto the couch, knees cracking as he stretched his long legs. The calico, sensing a friendly and familiar lap, leaped to the sofa. Abe picked her up, his fingers disappearing in the thick winter coat.
Inez hooked half-glasses over her ears and opened the ledger. "Let's hear the story. Was it the liquor? The cards? Or some combination?"
Abe scratched the cat between her half-closed eyes while she worked her claws on his pant leg. "I think folks were spoilin' for a fight last night. Take Joe Rose, bustin' up your Saturday night game and callin' Harry Gallagher a liar to his face. Seems cussin' out his best client wouldn't be in Joe's best interests. Especially Harry, bein' that he and the other silver barons run the town. But Joe'd calmed down by the time he set up Harrison."
Inez peered over the top of her glasses. "Could he walk?"
"He made a mighty attempt to stagger in a straight line."
Inez nodded once, a quill pen balanced between her long fingers. "Joe knows the house rules. No married men gambling. No drunks served a drink. He failed on both counts. I hope he was sober enough to appreciate the favor you did him, walking him away from Harry."
Abe's deep brown eyes creased briefly.
The cat wiggled, turning over to present a belly for rubbing. Abe obliged. "We probably should've closed for the night after you shut down the game. Anyhow, about an hour after you went home, the second fight broke out. I was in the storeroom and didn't see it. Useless was tendin' bar. He says Chet Donnelly was arguin' over a claim with the twins Zed and Zeke. Chet heaved one of them into the mirror and the place exploded. By the time we hauled everyone out into the street, the damage was done. I told Chet he'd be payin' for a new mirror. Probably won't remember, though."
Inez slammed down the rolltop. The cat bolted under the couch. "Damn Chet Donnelly! There's too many men like him in this town. Someone looks at them cross-eyed and they start swinging!"
Abe coaxed the cat out and settled her on his lap again. "Yep. Just like some women I know. Act first, think later."
Inez faced him, opening hands in mock defeat. "Point taken. Your game, Abe. You always know when to play the winning card." She glanced at the grandfather clock by the door. "I'll be late for church! Not a good impression to make on the new reverend." She hurried to the door, pulling her winter cloak off a nearby hook.
"Well, now, he's only there 'til June, isn't that what you told me? What do you care what he thinks?"
She adjusted her hat in the mirror by the door. "He's the interim minister, true, but I'd like to start off on the right foot. Who knows? Maybe he plays cards or takes a nip now and again." She winked at Abe's reflection in the mirror.
"If he's gettin' paid what most preachers do, he's not playin' any high-stakes games. Unless he's got stock in some high-flyin' mine like the Denver City or Silver Mountain." He sauntered out after her. "Besides, you walk in late, everyone can admire your Sunday-go-to-meetin' outfit."
"Oh, they gawk anyway," Inez grumbled. "They believe all the business women on State Street work on their backs."
She stopped and glanced apologetically at Abe. "Perhaps the new reverend will say a few words on the virtues of holding one's temper. See you after supper, Abe. And thank you for handling the trouble last night."
"What are partners for? Gotta back each other up, if San Francisco's ever gonna be more'n a dream."
For a moment, Inez could almost hear her husband, Mark: "Inez, meet Abe Jackson. Ablest Negro soldier in the Union Army. I should know, I ended up at the business end of his rifle back in '65. Only man I ever met who can best me in a straight game of poker. Abe—" Mark's hands had been warm on her shoulders. "Meet Mrs. Mark Stannert. Inez and I outran her family and got hitched a week ago while you were lollygagging up north. Pretty sudden, I know, but that's how love is. Besides, she'll be an asset to our partnership. Inez plays piano like no one you've ever heard. Mozart from the heart. If we can teach her to play poker like she does music, we'll retire to San Francisco before the decade's out!" Mark's laugh echoed in her memory.
It's been nearly ten years since that promise. And nearly eight months since Mark disappeared.
"We're not in California yet," she said. "And the decade's almost gone. As is Mark." Her bitter words hovered in the air.
"There are many things that can happen to a man in these mountains. Things that'd keep him from coming back." Abe's voice was gentle. "Mark loved you and the young'un, Inez. It wasn't his nature to pick up and leave."
"Well, he's long gone in any case." She started down the stairs again.
"Inez." Abe held up two wrapped candies. "Joey Rose'll be expecting these. Don't break the boy's heart."
The candies sailed through the air, landed in her outstretched hand, and disappeared into her pocket. "I won't disappoint him. And I'll inquire from Emma about Joe. He most likely won't be at church, given his inebriated condition last night. I do wonder what's going on between him and Harry."
Abe turned to lock the office door. "Didn't Harry say anything?"
She continued down to the ruined room below. "Harry said, 'He's drunk.' Nothing we didn't already know. But I'll tell you this. If looks could kill, Joe Rose'd be a dead man."
Chapter TwoOnce downstairs, Inez passed by the wrecked card room, its oil lamps silent and dark, and entered the clattering furor of the kitchen. Bending over a cooking stove of enormous proportions, a sturdy figure in a long gray dress busied herself among the sounds and smells of breakfast.
"Good morning, Bridgette. Thank you for offering to help out today."
Bridgette stopped stirring a massive iron pot of beans to beam at her employer. "No trouble at all, ma'am. Gives me a jump on the week's cooking, it does."
"And how was Mass this morning?"
"Father Briggs was in rare form, truly."
"Hmmm." Inez lifted an eyebrow. "Sober, for a change."
Bridgette wiped the sweat from her round face with the hem of her white apron. "Now, that sounds like blasphemy, indeed! It's a miracle that he stays on at all. A wickeder place than Leadville I haven't seen in my forty years, and I've been laundering and cooking since Sutter's Mill. Now, didn't I hear that Leadville's evils were just too much for your minister ... Reverend Johnson, wasn't it?"
"Johnstone. And it wasn't the evils of Leadville. It was the winters."
"Well." She turned her attention back to the stove. "I hear your new reverend cuts a fine figure. The school-ma'ams are all a-twitter over him. He's unattached, they say."
"How do you know all this? He only arrived Tuesday."
Bridgette clunked the cover back on the iron pot and attacked a skillet of sausages. "I read the papers. And I hear things, I do."
Inez shook her head. "I'm in awe, Bridgette. And not just of your culinary skills. I hope your information travels one way. In, not out."
"Oh, ma'am. No need to worry about me blathering about who comes, who goes, and who says what. I couldn't keep my five boys in shoes and shirts if it weren't for you. Why, with the prices in this town, I couldn't take in enough laundry to pay for a tent! Not with the mister gone down the shaft of the New Discovery and on to a better place."
Her eyes misted for a moment, then cleared. She pointed her long-handled fork at Inez. "Along with you. And I want a report back as to whether the good Reverend J. B. Sands is as fine a gentleman as all are saying." She smiled, her anticipation not at all marred by a missing left incisor.
After locking the front door behind her, Inez walked to the corner and turned up Harrison Avenue. She pushed against a surging, restless tide of humanity, ninety-nine percent of it men. Even at this early hour, most were turning down State Street, searching for entertainment and liquor to numb the ever-present cold, lingering homesickness, and the pangs of silver fever. Long accustomed to the peculiar glitter of hope mixed with despair that branded nearly every face in the silver boom town, Inez lost herself in private ruminations even as her feet automatically adjusted their pace to the uneven elevations of Harrison's boardwalks.
Sunday. A day of rest, when the saloon was closed. She and Abe had stood together on that, united against Mark's initial enthusiasm to keep the establishment open around the clock, seven days a week.
She remembered when Mark had won the saloon from a Denver fellow with piggish eyes. During a break, and before the poker game in which he'd staked all their savings—hers, Mark's, and Abe's—against the business, Mark had pulled her aside.
"Now darlin'," he'd murmured into her ear. "I know when he's bluffing and when he's holding a good hand. I'm just waitin' for the right play. You remember that assayer, Joe Rose? He says this place is the next silver bonanza, the biggest yet. I figure we'll settle into business with this saloon and mine the miners. We'll celebrate tonight, sweet lady!" He'd kissed her hard, winked, and returned to the table, leaving her mouth tingling.
Mark had parted that fellow from his property, smooth and neat. Later that night, he'd twirled her in a wild polka across the empty saloon floor. Afterward ... ah yes. Celebrate they did.
Oh Mark. Why did you leave? Without a word?
The steeple of the small white church beckoned. Shaking off the memories like she shook the mud and ice from the hem of her dress, Inez mounted the church stairs. She slipped into place next to Joey and Emma Rose and smiled at Joey. The five-year-old was already losing the battle against the urge to wiggle and kick at the pew in front of him.
"Joey." She opened her hand, revealing the candies. Joey's twitching stilled. "One when the sermon starts. The second when it's done. Deal?"
With his dark blue eyes and slicked-down black hair, Joey looked like a miniature version of his father. "Deal, Auntie Inez." He snuggled between the two women, muffled by their wool cloaks.
Inez took advantage of the general buzz to lean over Joey. "Emma?"
Emma Rose turned to Inez. The freckles across her nose stood out against her pale skin. Her red hair, wound up under a black velvet hat, still managed to wisp about her face, framing eyes close to tears.
"Emma?" Inez leaned over a fraction further, keeping her voice low. "What's wrong? Are you feeling ill?"
Emma turned to gaze straight ahead, her gloved hands clasping the small prayerbook in her lap.
Inez persisted. "Is Joe all right?"
Emma's hands twisted around the book, burrowing into the folds of her Sunday dress. "He didn't come home last night." She faltered. "He's never done this before."
As Reverend Sands strode to the pulpit amid anticipatory murmurs from the congregation, Inez heard a rustle of petticoats and felt a faint pressure to her right. Susan Carothers sank next to her, panting.
"Hello, Inez," she whispered, tucking a strand of shiny black hair behind her ear. "Sunday morning sittings are always a mistake. It takes forever to pose the clients and expose the plates."
Susan pulled her prayerbook out of her reticule and straightened her crooked hat, eyes darting around the church before settling on the man at the front. "Have you met Reverend Sands yet? He has the nicest smile. I was part of the welcoming committee that took him to tea at the Clairmont on Wednesday." She leaned sideways, gaze still fixed forward, and softened her voice another notch. "He's handsome, don't you think? I'm glad he doesn't have one of those ugly soup-strainer mustaches that all the men wear."
"Shhh! Susan, later, please. After the service." Inez scrutinized the reverend, standing at ease and waiting for the arpeggio of murmurs to die.
Her first impression was not of a man focused on the ethereal or spiritual side of life. Far from being an attenuated, pale cleric, Reverend Sands appeared physically fit and well acquainted with long days in the sun. He rather reminded her of the circuit riders who would snowshoe in sixty miles to preach to the lost in Leadville.
Other than that, Reverend Sands struck her as fairly ordinary looking: medium height, mid-thirties, light brown hair, clean-shaven face, a faint but pleasant smile. A mien designed to blend into the crowds. Nothing about him would have caused Inez to glance at him twice if he'd strolled through the Silver Queen's doors. Nothing, that is, until he spoke.
"Let's all stand." Reverend Sands' voice rolled over her. Warm, almost sensual in its invitation. "And turn to hymn sixty-three."
Something about his timbre reminded Inez of butter spread on one of Bridgette's just-baked biscuits. She stood, shaking off the spell of his voice. I should have had something besides coffee for breakfast.
Emma opened the hymn book but didn't sing. Joey shuffled, but not too much, obviously mindful of the promised treat. Inez's attention shifted from the music to the Roses.
Excerpted from Silver Lies by Ann Parker Copyright © 2003 by Ann Parker. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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I don't always like historical mysteries, but this one was great. You really get a sense of what life was like in a mining town 120 years ago. I especially like the way the author portrayed her characters as human and flawed. The relationships between the main characters are an important part of the story, but the plot doesn't suffer; there's plenty of action and it's a real page-turner at the end.
Leadville, Colorado is booming in 1879 as people arrive hoping to get rich by finding the silver mother lode. Inez Stennert is becoming rich as the owner of the Silver Queen Saloon but her personal life is very unsettled because her wandering man walked out one day and never came back. Inez doesn¿t know if her husband is alive or dead; she waits for him while her sister raises her sickly son back east. Fight and brawls are frequent occurrences but everyone is shocked when upright family man Joe Rose is found murdered behind Inez¿s saloon. Inez starts investigating the assayer¿s homicide because his widow and son are very dear to her and she would like to be one to bring his killer to justice. She learns that Joe was not as law abiding as she believed and her questions are making some people very uneasy, individuals who will not hesitate to kill her if she gets too close to the truth. Ann Parker captures the ambiance of a mid-nineteenth century western boomtown so colorfully that readers will imagine they are there. The heroine is an independent woman who lives by her own rules at a time when females were expected to stay in their place. Inez is bossy and stubborn but she is also the kind of person one wants to have in your corner when life turns rough. Let¿s hope there are more stories starring this one of a kind protagonist. Harriet Klausner