A Southern gambler hunts a killer in the thick of the first great battle of the Civil War
It’s July 1861, and both the Union and Confederate armies expect to win the war within 24 hours. For Harrison Raines, a southern dandy ensconced in DC society, it’s time to choose a side. Though Raines loves Virginia, he hates slavery with a passion. And joining either army would mean leaving Washington and deserting the beautiful Caitlin Howard, a British actress whose heart, sadly, lies with the eccentric thespian John Wilkes Booth. For Caitlin’s sake, Raines attempts to remain neutral in a time when neutrality means death.
On the morning of the battle, Raines escorts Caitlin to watch the carnage firsthand. When the First Battle of Bull Run turns into a rout, he sees 1 major fighting to rally his troops—a major who is later found dead far behind Union lines, branded a deserter. To clear the dead man’s reputation, Raines must solve a murder as bullets continue to fly.
Murder at Manassas is the 1st book in the Harrison Raines Civil War Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
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Murder at Manassas
A Harrison Raines Civil War Mystery
By Michael Kilian
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2000 Michael Kilian
All rights reserved.
"They say the war shall be won tomorrow," Caitlin Howard said, setting down her whiskey glass to take up the two cards Harrison Raines had dealt her.
"Dear lady, they've been saying the war's about to be won every day since Sumter," Raines replied, after pondering his own poker hand. "I don't think they know for certain there's even to be a battle tomorrow."
"Someone must be certain, Harry. Half of Washington City's going to be out there to see it."
"Finding sport in watching men die."
"Call it what you will, Sir. I should like to be with them."
He let that pass. They were alone in Caitlin's small, stuffy sitting room in the quarters she rented at Mrs. Fitzgerald's boarding house just off Pennsylvania Avenue, idling away the hours of another hot Washington July night. Harry preferred euchre or whist for pastime, considering poker serious business — in fact, his principal line of work. But it was Caitlin's game of choice. As always, he indulged her.
Caitlin had made a wise choice in her landlady. Mrs. Fitzgerald was wonderfully careless about her enforcement of the rules of proper conduct, and didn't object to these late night tête à têtes, which provided Harry some of his happiest moments. He didn't feel he was compromising Caitlin's reputation. As an actress, Caitlin had small reputation to worry about, man in her chambers or no.
Harry had drawn only one card and stared at it unhappily through his gold-rimmed spectacles. The Queen of Hearts he normally considered lucky, but it was a poor mate to the four spades he had kept in his hand.
He pulled a handkerchief from his sleeve and once again wiped the sweat from his brow. They had tried having the window open, but there was no breeze, and the smell of Washington in the summer was a worse thing to endure than the heat.
"If there is a battle tomorrow," he said, "I expect it's only going to aggravate the quarrel, not end it."
"No matter who should win?"
"These armies are so green, I'm not sure either one can win a fight."
There was a gleam in Caitlin's gray-green eyes from the gaslight, adding mischief to her famously lovely smile. "And which side would be yours, Harry? Have you at last decided upon a 'we'?"
It was a question with which she had regularly taunted him since Virginia had joined the Secession parade. Despite his protestations of neutrality, there were those in Washington City who thought Harry Raines a Confederate agent, with Lafayette Baker, chief inquisitor of the Provost Guard himself among the most highly suspicious.
Washington was acrawl with Southern sympathizers, and Harrison Grenville Raines had been born and raised on a Tidewater Virginia plantation that was home to more than one hundred owned Negroes. Upon coming of age, he'd moved away to Richmond, where he'd acquired the reputation of a wastrel and dandy. Here in the Federal City, he lived well with no apparent means of support other than gambling, occasional horse trading, and vague "investments."
Most suspicious of all, his father and brother were officers in General Longstreet's brigade of the Confederate Army. Despite his excellent horsemanship and potential as a cavalry officer, Harry had declined all offers and pointed suggestions to become part of the Union forces, refusing to bear arms against his home "country" of Virginia, much as his father's friend Robert Lee had done.
In their last encounter, Baker had threatened to have him arrested as a possible — which to Baker's mind meant "probable" — spy. He'd not yet made good on that threat, but Harry presumed he was serious.
The truth was, Harry detested the notion of a Confederacy as much as he bore affection for Virginia. Like Caitlin, who was English born and the child of fiercely liberal London actors, Harry openly hated slavery and had voted for Abraham Lincoln as the one politician he thought might have the moral fortitude and cleverness to uproot the "peculiar institution" for good. He had left home because he'd fallen out with his family over the issue. His exile to the Federal City was the eventual result.
Harry was sick at heart that it had now come to war, much as his kin in gray proclaimed it "the Second American Revolution." He saw little good or noble to come of such a conflict. Only death and devastation and no resolution of the problem.
"You know very well why I take no side," he said to Caitlin, still squinting at his poker hand. "Not while the one side is the United States and the other Virginia."
"But this is war, Harry. Over slavery."
"If you find me less than handsome without brass buttons, Madame, I would remind you that your magnificent Mr. Booth wore a borrowed uniform of the Richmond Grays just so he could attend the hanging of John Brown two years ago, but has not been seen in one since, and we've been three months at war."
At the mention of Booth's name, Caitlin's smile vanished and her look turned hard.
"I would never think you a coward for not becoming a soldier," she said. "It cannot be an easy thing to kill another man, and I respect you for not wishing to do it. But I find no courage in your refusal to take a side."
"Booth is on what you hold to be the wrong side, yet ..."
"The bet, Sir, is ten cents," she said, coldly.
It was the price of a matinee theater ticket, or half a pound of butter. Harry looked once more at his failed hand. There were few things in life as unsatisfactory as two-handed poker, except perhaps for loving a woman who would have him only as a friend. A woman who loved another.
Raines was considered a man of most agreeable countenance — even handsome — among his circle of saloon, theater, and artist friends, with or without his spectacles. Nearly six feet tall, he had sandy hair worn long in the Southern fashion, and a long cavalier's moustache, though no whiskers. His eyes were an amiable brown. His manners were remarkably genteel, even for a member of Southern "chivalry."
But he was small match for John Wilkes Booth, whom the newspapers had proclaimed "the handsomest man in America." A look from that actor's coal-dark, burning eyes caused women to wilt by the regiment, even those like Caitlin, who knew at first hand Booth's callous disregard for their sex once his pleasures were taken.
Harry had hope, but it resided less in his own attractions than in the more loathsome aspects of Wilkes Booth's behavior. Some day Caitlin would tire of the actor, his maddening narcissism, and frequent absences. Or if not that, at least of her endless, pointless wait for some return of her affection. In the meantime, Harry would stay near. He could have escaped Lafayette Baker's threats and harassment simply by moving to Philadelphia or New York, which remained under civilian rule and were outside Baker's jurisdiction. He could support himself, even thrive in these cities — whose civilization appealed to him far more than that of the bumptious national capital, with its crude wooden sidewalks, muddy streets, and wandering pigs and livestock.
But no place was truly civilized without a Caitlin Howard in it.
She was not prospering in this season. She earned forty-five dollars a week or more as an actress in good times, but only one of the city's theaters was open for the summer months. That house was staging a new drama, Eily O'Connor, but Caitlin had not been cast in it. Until Grover's Theatre reopened, she'd be living on savings.
"I raise your bet ten cents more," he said.
"Done," she said, with a malicious grin, and laid down a hand with three jacks in it.
He tossed his own cards on the table facedown, but she took them up.
"A pair of sevens? You'd bluff me, Harry?"
"Not well, Ma'am."
"I thought you a better player, for you are a good actor. Yet I gain nearly four dollars from you tonight."
He shrugged. "Small loss. I've had your company for the evening. That's gain enough for me."
"The hour is late," she said.
Caitlin had unbuttoned the jacket of her green dress because of the heat. Rising, astounding Harry, she now removed it, revealing bare arms and shoulders, corset and camisole. This was without precedent in their relationship, but of course no invitation to amour, much as he might have wished it. Their friendship was as much a barrier to intimacy as was her still smouldering passion for Booth.
"You're a bold lady tonight, Kate," he said.
"No. Merely a hot one. You men love the corseted dresses we wear. These pesky hoop skirts and piles of petticoats. The more cloth on us, the grander possession we make. But you've no idea how much we women hate these clothes. In our own rooms, we commonly go about in undergarments — as I suppose you've amply discovered. I yearn for the Empire gowns of my mother's time. In summer, when she was abroad in sunny climes, she often wore nothing underneath."
"Then that's a yearning I'd share," he said.
"The yearning you may have, Harry, but nothing else."
Raines knew many actresses, but few surpassing Caitlin in beauty, despite her age, which was now thirty — two years beyond his own. Not the flirtatious and fetching Agnes Robertson or the regal Lucille Western. In Washington, only the young, raven-haired New Orleans born Louise Devereux was considered a greater beauty on the stage.
None surpassed Caitlin in talent. Maggie Mitchell was perhaps more a master of comedy and the aging Charlotte Cushman more varied in her range. But Caitlin could hold her own on stage with anyone, and thrill the audience with mere tilt of head and cast of eye. She was decidedly a better actress than the famous Laura Keene. Some compared her to the young Fanny Kemble.
A remarkably tall woman, some nine inches above five feet in height, Caitlin had large, beautiful eyes and perfectly groomed light brown hair worn with side curls in the still-lingering fashion. Her figure was not full, but her carriage was splendid, even now, when she seemed much fatigued.
Caitlin went to a low chest of drawers, atop which was a decanter of whiskey and a pitcher.
"Would you like more apple tea?" she asked, pouring herself a glass of liquor. "Or would you have stronger spirits now you've lost in our game?"
Harry had gone to the window, pulling the drape gently to the side. Caitlin's rooms overlooked 6th Street, but he could see to the corner and the Avenue.
No one was there. That had not been so earlier.
"Neither, Ma'am. I should be leaving."
Harry pulled forth his pocket watch, a gift from his now dead mother on his twenty-first birthday. The present his father had given him on that occasion he no longer possessed — a male slave named Caesar Augustus.
"Indeed, it's past midnight," he said. "Not an hour for a gentleman to be seen leaving a lady's rooms."
"Nor an hour for a gentleman to be in 'em — but you would occasion no surprise in this house," Caitlin said. She turned toward him and sipped from the glass, leaning back against the chest of drawers. "What will you do tomorrow?"
He thought upon it. Rise at eight or nine o'clock. Breakfast at the hotel where he resided, the National. Perhaps take the train to Baltimore, an hour and three quarters away, where he owned some real estate and from time to time dealt in horse trading. Perhaps not.
"Nothing in particular," he said, returning his spectacles to their hard-backed case and slipping it into the breast pocket of his linen frock coat.
"You won't go to Centreville for the battle?"
"Kate, why do that?"
"Several of the folk in our little troupe plan to attend the show. Members of Congress are going — and taking their ladies! I think all the newspaper correspondents have left for there, or are about to. Have you not noticed how empty are the saloons?"
Indeed, McDowell's army, thirty-five thousand strong, seemed to have dragged along a large part of the city's one hundred thousand population with it, like a dog whose tail had become ensnared by a brambly vine.
"Hell, Kate, the fight may not be until next week. It may already have commenced. Instead of Centreville, it may be at Warrenton, or at the gates of Richmond. We've no idea."
She drained her glass and set it down hesitantly on the top of the chest, as though she might take it up again for yet another refilling. Wilkes Booth had been away from the city for days, and this depressed her.
"I'll offer you a reason," she said. "You're a gentleman. Would you allow a lady you've sworn always to defend make the journey to such a dangerous place unescorted?"
"You've no business there, Kate. You've always told me you hate to watch men fight — that you detest the sight of blood. Why drive thirty miles into Virginia in a hot July to watch them stick bayonets into each other?"
A smaller, more perfunctory smile now, as though she were blithely trying to make light of something she held serious.
"It's history. The thing could be decided right there, before our very eyes. But, I — Harry, there will be people in attendance about whom I have concern."
"What, you now have an army officer among your beaux?"
"No!" She turned in a whirl of skirts to pour herself another whiskey.
"A sergeant then?"
She ignored this. "I am going out there, Harry. Will you come with me?"
He still hoped to find a way to talk her from this — or somehow prevent their departure. But not at this moment. He bowed, with a theatrical flourish. "Of course, dear lady. Always. Anywhere."
"Can you hire a gig? I shouldn't want to sit a horse all that way."
There would be no gig nor carriage left in the city for hire. He doubted there was a night soil wagon still available. "You don't require a coach and pair? A barouche for the fairest lady in the Federal City?"
"As I must ask you to pay for it, Harry, I would wish something less dear. And nimbler. I'm told the country's rough."
"No great hills, but rough. Yes, very rough. And dangerous. Brigands, worse."
She sipped, thoughtfully. "You'll be armed, I trust. I had a pocket pistol among my things, but it seems to have gone astray."
"That pepperbox of yours would be about as useful as an apple out there," he said. "If I can't talk you out of this folly, I'll bring my Navy Colts." Reaching into his coat again, he stepped toward her. "Until you find the other, please take this."
He handed her, gently, his own gambler's pocket pistol — a singleshot percussion derringer. It was loaded, but better in her hands than his. As she had demonstrated on more than one country outing, she was a much better shot than he, particularly when he wasn't wearing his spectacles.
She examined it. "One shot. Mine fires two bullets."
"As memory serves, yours is .36 caliber. This is a .44, which should do the work of two. But let us hope you'll have no need for even one."
"You are a kind man, Harry. I'm happy to have your friendship."
He looked at his watch again. "It's so late, we'd do just as well to head for Virginia this very hour." She was exhausted, barely keeping her eyes open.
"No, Harry. I would sleep awhile. Let us depart at, say, half past four. Those damned army reveille drum rolls by the Capitol always wake me at four o'clock, no matter what. I'll be ready in time for us to be well across the Potomac by first light, and I'll bring refreshment for the journey." She extended her hand to be kissed, a habit of theirs. "A good night to you then. I would be out of these suffocating clothes this instant."
Harry left flushed and frustrated. He'd make an effort to acquire a conveyance. She'd be furious with him if he did not. He'd go to the best livery stable in Washington. But there wouldn't be anything available. He was sure of it. In the morning, he'd console her on the disappointment, she could return to her bed, he could go off to Baltimore, and that would be that. The soldiers could have their brawl without them.
There was a steamy mist to the air this hot night, and Harry ambled more than strode toward the stable, which lay many blocks away along Pennsylvania. On the other, disreputable side of this broad, tree-lined thoroughfare, which everyone in Washington called simply "the Avenue," were red clay brick rowhouses, saloons, bawdy houses, and gambling parlors. They ran past C Street down to the foul City Canal. As he walked, he could hear the assorted sounds of carouse and exuberant sin.
Excerpted from Murder at Manassas by Michael Kilian. Copyright © 2000 Michael Kilian. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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