In the Old West, legends die hard--and so do witnesses. But that won't stop psychic-turned-detective Ophelia Wylde from finding fresh graves, digging up clues, and catching wanted criminals--with a little help from the dead. . .
Dead Men Tell No Lies
The Civil War is over, and many a young widow has turned to spiritualism to contact their husbands on "the other side." But Ophelia Wylde won't be fooled twice. After wasting her money on a phoney psychic, she decides if she can't beat 'em, join 'em. She leaves New Orleans and heads West, selling her services as a spiritual medium who speaks to the dead. By the time she reaches Dodge City, business is booming. Except for a handsome but skeptical bounty hunter named Jack Calder, no one suspects Ophelia of running a con game--until an unfortunate "reading" of a girl who's still living exposes her to a townfull of angry customers. As punishment, the mob drags Ophelia to Boot Hill and buries her alive in a fresh grave overnight. That's when the dead start speaking. To her. For real. And for dead people, they've got lots to say. . .
"An entertaining romp with quirky characters that would make Mark Twain proud. McCoy has a gift for capturing the Old West in all its colorful and outrageous glory. I couldn't put this imaginative page-turner down." --Margaret Coel, author of Buffalo Bill's Dead Now
"Tightly drawn characters, a vile villain. . .satisfying. . .a compelling read." --Publisher's Weekly on The Moon Pool
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OF GRAVE CONCERN
By Max McCoy
KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP.Copyright © 2013 Max McCoy
All rights reserved.
I saw the dead girl from the window of the train as we passed the Hundredth Meridian marker, but I didn't say anything.
She was lying atop the bronze tablet, turned on her right side with her knees drawn up, as if asleep. I knew she was dead because her throat had been cut. Her hair was straight and blond and riffled by the breeze, and the ends were stained claret where they had trailed in the blood. Her flower print calico dress was torn to the waist; her corset was popped open, and judging from her bare shoulders, she was young. The hem of her dress was bunched around her scuffed knees, her hose had fallen, and she wore only one lace shoe, her left. Her right arm was outstretched, with the hand clenched, blue fingers squeezed tightly over something.
Few things now surprise me, but I covered my mouth and uttered a bit of a gasp. Instinctively, my left hand went out to Eddie's cage on the seat beside me, seeking a familiar comfort. Then the train slid by a row of warehouses, cutting off my view of anything but unpainted lumber.
"Dodge City!" the conductor called, walking unsteadily through the coach, one hand on each chair back, as if pulling himself along. "Ten-minute stop for coal and water. Dodge City!"
I avoided his gaze.
There were more than two dozen passengers in the coach, all strangers, and they had been decidedly cool to me. Many were immigrants, rough men and ragged families, mostly German and Welsh, bound for the mining district in the San Juan country in Colorado. But others were businessmen, some with their wives, and the women in fine clothes. They avoided my eyes, but whispered to one another about me and stared when they thought I wasn't looking.
It would prove awkward to chat up any of the cold fish around me and casually ask if they, too, had seen the butchered girl in the calico dress. And I had not exactly been on speaking terms with the spirits in years, so I couldn't ask them for help.
In fact, I was beginning to doubt there was anything beyond the grave at all except, forever and eternally, more grave. Imagine all that time we've spent on our knees, feeling guilty, packed in uncomfortable pews, feeling righteous, reading dusty passages in old books, feeling nothing, and singing dreadful hymns of one sort or another. That would be the ultimate joke on all of us now, wouldn't it? And don't tell me the joke's not on you, that you were too smart to believe in any of that humbug anyway. We all say silent prayers when we're sick or we're scared. If you haven't said desperate prayers for yourself, then you've said them for someone you love, at one time or another.
We all do it.
I know I have.
Maybe yours were answered.
But if it was all just humbug, it meant the dead girl wasn't real and that I was ... well, crazy. Nobody else seemed to see her, and there were plenty of others glancing idly out the windows as the train pulled into the depot. If I made a fuss and there was no poor unfortunate on the longitudinal monument outside, my coach mates were likely to summon the helpful fellows in white from the local lunatic asylum (or whatever their equivalent was here on the prairie).
If there was indeed a dead girl, then there was no need to be in a rush over her. Someone once told me that the dead can wait; it's the living who have to hurry.
But then my mind flashed on the face of the dead girl and her cold blue lips.
Ten minutes was long enough to walk down the tracks a half a block or so and take a look. I had routinely raised the dead in half that time, with hands held and feet tied.
As the train made its final lurch and grumble up to the station, I began to gather my things. Most of the other passengers were doing the same. I was traveling light, but didn't trust to leave anything—especially Eddie—unattended. I retrieved my grip and secured Eddie's traveling cage, and as soon as the car had come to what generally could be regarded as a stop, I exited to the rough-hewn platform.
I was immediately assaulted by a right villainous stench, from a few hundred cattle penned nearby or packed into cars on the opposite track, awaiting passage east. This primary aroma was augmented by a heap of rotting fish, which had been spilled or perhaps dumped trackside, the putrefaction from the flesh clinging to a single bale of buffalo hides on the platform, and the usual mix of horse apples and cow patties ground into the river of mud around the depot. All of this was warmed to aromatic perfection by the sun, which was hideously bright and burning in an unnervingly blue and apparently limitless sky.
"Fils de salope," I muttered to Eddie, which means "sonuvabitch."
Pardon my French.
I was brought up in Memphis before the war by my loving Tanté Marie, who grew up in New Orleans and practiced Vodoun and swore like a Creole sailor. I was swearing by the time I could talk, and even though I didn't know then what the words meant, I loved the sound of those strange but powerful words, all authoritatively invoked by my Tanté Marie and mysteriously lacking, as pronounced by her, the letter R.
By the time I was old enough to know better, I couldn't stop.
Imagine the worst single curse word in English and you about have the meaning.
I opened my grip and fumbled for my smoke-colored glasses.
"This is the edge of the world! Be thankful that you are cloaked, Eddie, or you might be inclined to peck out your own eyes."
Now, there's a bit of nonsense for you—just try to imagine a bird pecking out its own eyes.
There were two sets of tracks and the platform and wooden depot were situated like an island between them, with, a bit to the west, a huge round water tank with a well and a windmill to fill it. Our green-and-black-and-brass locomotive was panting beneath the tank, and a long metal funnel had been lowered and water was slewing into the engine's tired boiler. Behind the locomotive and tender was the string of passenger and freight cars in Santa Fe yellow.
Something moving beneath one of the freight cars caught my eye.
I thought it was an animal at first, a dog perhaps, but then I realized the hunched figure emerging from beneath the railway car was a human being. He unlimbered his frame as he stepped away from the rails, and I was surprised to see that he was well over six feet tall. His derby hat was tilted low over his face, his jaw was covered in beard stubble, and a red silk scarf was knotted at his throat. He wore a jacket that was smudged but not frayed, and over his shoulder a blanket roll was slung by a leather strap.
He glanced up the track and could tell I was watching. He touched a finger to the brim of his derby in a little salute. Then a pair of railway bulls stepped from between the cars about thirty yards down, and my polite tramp slid back beneath the shadows of the boxcar and disappeared. As the bulls approached, I could see the heavy iron coupling pins held in their fat fists, and every so often one or the other would squat to peer beneath the cars, banging the coupling pins against the trucks to make a frightful sound, in hopes of flushing their quarry into the open.
I grimaced at the thought of how much damage one of those iron pins would do when swung against a rib cage or a skull, and hoped the tramp with the red silk scarf had gotten far away.
Like the rolling stock, the Santa Fe depot was rendered in faded yellow as well, with DODGE CITY in bold black letters painted under the eaves on each end. A workman balanced atop a ladder and was retouching the lettering; some jokester had sloppily brushed an SH over the C, in shockingly red paint. Beneath it, the artist had signed his work: MiKE McGLuE.
He had expressed my sentiments exactly.
I held my breath and hoped for the wind to shift while I crossed the platform, glancing as I did so at the low-slung depot, with its bay window facing the tracks, in which a pinched little man with a bald head and a green visor was bent over a telegraph key. He looked more than a bit reptilian, and his bald head serpentined to watch my progress.
"Fous le camps et morte," I told him under my breath.
It's a bad habit. I've embarrassed myself a thousand times, yet still I do it. Someday, perhaps, I will stop. For now, it's enough to say that this was one of my more powerful curses, meaning to "walk off and die"—if you change the word "walk" to that most common of Anglo-Saxon invectives.
I threaded my way through the passengers, trying to hide from the telegraph operator, and at the same time trying to keep Eddie's cage as level and stable as possible. A short run of wooden steps descended from the platform to street level, and at the bottom of the steps was a sleeping wreck of a cowboy.
Oh, about that word "cowboy."
I should explain that in Dodge City they have an arsenal of names for what we outsiders commonly call a "cowboy," and perhaps the most popular of these is "ranger." But for me, that calls up a notion of a Texas lawman, and that's just confusing. So, to make things clear, I'm going to call this group of itinerant workers "cowboys," unless there's some reason to put a finer point on things.
Now, back to the cowboy who had lost his battle the night before with spirits.
He was in full livery, from his spurs to the very large hat beside his head. He favored the color red—he wore a red bib shirt, and there was a red bandana around his neck. Tucked into the leather band of his broad-brimmed hat was the jack of diamonds.
As I passed, one bloodshot eye flickered open.
"Katie?" he asked, holding his hand up to shield the sun.
"Afraid not," I said.
The cowboy grunted his disappointment. Tears sparkled in the corners of his swollen eyes.
"Thought you was a dream."
"'All that we see or seem!'" squawked Eddie from beneath the black cloth, and the cage rocked as he darted from swing to perch, claws skittering.
"Shush," I whispered.
"You have a talking bird?"
The drunk's other eye was open now, and he blinked in hard wonder.
"He does not talk," I said. "He 'quoth.'"
Mindful of the time, I moved on, while the lonesome cowboy pleaded for me to come back—or, at least, pleading loudly for Katie to come back. I heard other travelers grumble as they stepped over him, and a few declared that somebody should summon the law, which made the cowboy laugh and curse.
"You fetch Old Man Bassett or that fat yellow dog of a marshal, Larry Deger," the cowboy challenged. "I'll learn them a Buckeye song or two. Ain't that right, Katie? Katie!"
Now I had a good look at the town, not yet five years old, which the newspapers had proclaimed "the wickedest little city in America," a veritable and rustic Sodom and Gomorrah rolled into one. The city was small indeed, but on this Wednesday morning on the Ninth of May in 1877, it hardly seemed to belong to that biblical class of cities of the plain.
The community itself was a curious arrangement, and it did seem to be two cities bifurcated by the railway tracks. There were two broad Front Streets, one for each side of the tracks, and North Front Street seemed to be the more prosperous and respectable. Stretched before me were a full three blocks of rough-hewn businesses rising from the plain—the Dodge House, which was a hotel, saloons, restaurants, hardware stores, and one establishment that evidently dealt in firearms, judging from the enormous and crudely fashioned wooden rifle mounted on a pole in front. There were scattered homes and a few businesses to the sides and behind. Beyond the town, to the northwest, was a low hill. Near the summit was a lonely cemetery with many wooden markers and a few obviously fresh graves.
South Front Street was largely faced by otherwise empty lots where buffalo remains were piled. There was also a warehouse or two, and, located just yards from the south set of tracks, was a one-room city hall, with nearby jail. Another block south and there were a few commercial buildings, dominated by a hotel that proclaimed itself the Great Western, but nothing that rivaled the enterprise of the north side.
It had been a wet spring, and the dirt street had been churned into mud by the passage of uncounted wheels and hooves. I waded through the muck for a block or so, past the warehouses, and found the odd monument, about where I reckoned it would be.
The base of the low monument was made of limestone, about three feet square, and tilted in such a way as to be easily seen by railway travelers. Carved in the rough yellow stone, on the north and south sides, was HUNDREDTH MERIDIAN, in letters tall enough to be read from the train.
The bronze medallion on top was about the size of a manhole cover and was tinged green by weather. The bronze had the longitude inscribed on it: 100 degrees, 0 minutes, 0 seconds. Below this was Welcome to Dodge City, Ford County, Kansas! Then there was the usual blather that it had been erected by the Dodge City Committee of Vigilance—whatever that was—on such-and-such day the year before, surveyed by who's it and what's his name, and it was a wonder they didn't list the hat sizes of all the men involved.
These male forebears were so busy with civic pride and self-promotion that they failed to note the most important thing about the monument: here is where the West begins.
As any schoolgirl can tell you, the Hundredth Meridian bisects the country from the Dakota Territory to Texas; to one side is the moist and populated and civilized East; to the other, the arid and spacious and often bloody West.
But as with many human inventions, the line is an imaginary thing, and only a coincidence of weather and topography makes it such a seemingly perfect boundary. In that regard, it is not unlike our concept of life and what comes after—something that is at once imagined, intangible, and irrevocable.
I sat on the monument, carefully placing Eddie's cage on the ground beside me. I took off my glove and ran my hand over the surface of the bronze, then inspected my fingertips. Mixed with the greenish smudge were a few streaks of rusty brown. It might have been blood, but I thought it was probably just dirt. There was plenty of dirt in this town to go around.
It was a nice little monument, but there was no dead girl.
"Eddie," I whispered. "You have a fool for a mistress."
It hadn't taken five minutes to satisfy my curiosity at the monument. By the time I stepped back over the drunken cowboy and mounted the steps to the platform, that snake of a telegraph operator was talking to a man in a bowler hat, who was furiously scribbling in a notebook.
To bolt would have been a mistake.
So I walked with deliberation across the platform toward the train, passing within a yard of the pair. The telegrapher just stared at me agape, but the man with the notebook tipped his bowler. I gave a curt nod in return.
"Miss," he said.
I forced a smile before turning to address him over my shoulder.
Then he trotted up beside me and placed a hand on my grip.
"Here, let me help you with that."
Before I could evade him, he had relieved me of my luggage.
"Pardon, but would it be possible to have a word?"
"I've already given you one," I said. "Now, there's five more. Could I have my bag, please? I am in a hurry to take my seat aboard that train, as a gentleman would have noticed."
"You have plenty of time," the man said, and smiled. He had the self-satisfied smile of a schoolboy who doesn't know his lesson but cares not, because he's the teacher's pet. He was thirty-five or forty, with dark hair and a walrus mustache and soft hands. "The stops here are always twice as long as advertised. The train crew has a fondness for oysters and cold beer at the Alhambra."
"That would throw them off schedule."
"No, because they shave a few minutes or so from every stop west, until they reach Pueblo. Creative, really."
"I don't know if I should believe you," I said. "My grip, please."
I pulled the valise away from him.
"You must allow me."
"I am an independent woman and need no man to escort me or carry my things," I said. "Your attitude offends me nearly as much as the stench from this town. I can't imagine how anyone could stand to live here."
"Oh, the stink is just getting started," the man said. "The first herds from Texas arrived two days ago. There will be more. By the middle of June, all of this grassland you see around you will be full of beef grazing, a hundred thousand of them, waiting to be packed on cattle cars and shipped east. And we don't mind the smell so much—it smells like money."
Excerpted from OF GRAVE CONCERN by Max McCoy. Copyright © 2013 by Max McCoy. Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. The idea was very unique - an independent woman in the post Civil War West who is a spiritualist and a con artist that winds up actually seeing and speaking to the dead. The secondary characters were equally unusual. It was a light read and enjoyable. I enjoyed some of the insights on how some of her cons were perpetrated - very clever and you could tell some research went into the story. I think the way the characters spoke was a bit anachronistic for my taste but it didn't get in the way of the story too much.
I love the paranormal and this book really delivers. At first, I will be honest, I really wasn't sure I would like Ophelia. She is a con artist and I can't say that was really exciting for me. However, she is a great character, smart and tough. The book is very well edited too.
While I wished this hsd been a bit longer, I enjoyed the story. Characters were well developed for a short story, an the ending left it wide open for a series or a follow up story. God read.
Read both in the series and love the characters including the raven. Hoping for further development of the partnership of Ophelia and Jack. Good easy read.
“Fantastic Introduction to a Spellbinding New Series” Young widow, Ophelia Wylde has turned to spiritualism to contact her beloved husband, Jonathan, who was killed during the Civil War. On her way to Colorado (fleeing an unhappy client after her gifts are discovered to be somewhat false) the train stops at Dodge City, where she sees (but no one else on the train does) the blood-stained body of a young blond girl., She’s puzzled why the image has appeared to her, and her alone. But this is only the “tip of the iceberg” of the adventures awaiting Ophelia—especially when she is mistaken for the infamous, murderous Kate Bender! How can she prove her innocence when she has no one to vouch for her and “The Law” is going by a vague resemblance and a blurry photograph. It doesn’t help when someone overhears a drunken cowboy call her “Katie” . Will Ophelia be able to prove her innocence? Will she be able to contact Jonathan? And who is the young blond spirit and who took her life? Ophelia comes in contact with some mighty creepy characters who try to sway her judgment as well as her path, and that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Who can she trust? Michael Sutton, who marched her off to jail? Her sometimes sober attorney Bartholomew Potete? Rough and steady Jack Calder, who has his own secrets hidden away? If you have watched “Gunsmoke” like I have in years past, you’ll appreciate the Author’s colorful descriptions of Dodge City and surrounding areas. making the story come to life through my memories. If you’re expecting a subtle cozy, you won’t find it here—as the Author puts all the blood, guts and gore right up front. BUT, don’t let that keep you away or you’ll be kicking yourself for missing one really spell-binding introduction to an intriguing psychic detective series A Spiritualist in the old West—Who would have “thunk” it?? Thanks Max McCoy—I’m looking forward to the next adventure with Ophelia Wylde. By the way, my aura is light blue—what’s yours? Nancy Narma.