2017 - Will Rogers Silver Medallion Award Second Place Winner, Western Romance
Autumn 1880 in the Rocky Mountains brings frost, snow, and the return of Silver Queen Saloon owner Inez Stannert to Leadville, Colorado.
In this silver rush boomtown, those who are hungry for material riches seek their fortunes in precious metals. Others, hungry for spiritual relief, seek to pierce the veil between life and death with the help of fortunetellers, mediums, and occultists. Deep in the twisted byways of Leadville's Stillborn Alley, soothsayer Drina Gizzi awaits the promised arrival of her benefactor, the mysterious Mr. Brown. When she is found murdered, strangled with a set of silver and gold corset laces, no one seems to care except the three who find her body - Inez, her lover Reverend Sands, and Drina's young daughter, Antonia. The mystery surrounding Drina's death deepens when her body vanishes without a trace.
As Inez and Antonia band together to seek out Drina's killer, they unearth disturbing evidence of underground resurrectionists, long-held grievances, and white-hot revenge. Meanwhile, Inez's husband, Mark Stannert, true to his word that he only "plays to win," contrives to drive Inez and Sands apart, gambling that he can convince her to abandon her plans for divorce. But what can gold buy, after all? A new life? Freedom from the past? Truth and justice for those murdered and unmourned? Or a final passage for Inez and Antonia into an unmarked grave and the world of the dead?
And what of Mr. Brown, whose missing presence hovers over all, like a spirit from beyond?
About the Author
Ann Parker is the author of the awardwinning Silver Rush historical mystery series set in 1880s Colorado, featuring saloon owner Inez Stannert. A science writer by day, Ann lives in the San Francisco Bay Area and is a member of Mystery Writers of America and Women Writing the West.
Read an Excerpt
What Gold Buys
A Silver Rush Mystery
By Ann Parker
Poisoned Pen PressCopyright © 2016 Ann Parker
All rights reserved.
It was hard to find somewhere close by the crowded silver mining boomtown to practice killing a man, but Antonia was nothing if not determined.
After trudging up hills and skittering down slopes, the dusty smell of broken sage chasing her all the way, she'd arrived at her place — her place — where no one would find her. Here, Antonia felt safe. She had the targets. She had the gun. She had the rounds. Now, to practice, so that she'd be ready. Ready when the time came.
Three cherished glass bottles stood side by side on tree stumps in the clearing. Antonia knew them all: one was a soda bottle she'd pulled out of the trash behind Schmidt and Aldinger's soda water manufacturing on East Chestnut Street, one was a cracked whiskey flask given to her by Mr. Jackson from the Silver Queen, and the last was her mother's tonic bottle snitched from under the bed.
One, two, three. Like soldiers lined up on the firing line.
Or maybe like her maman's clients, who came to the one-room shack with the sign FUTURES AND FORTUNES TOLD nailed to the eaves, hoping for a glimpse of a brighter tomorrow. The first ones to arrive each day were the women, many of them hungover, misused, abused, who crept out of their tiny shanties or out the back doors of the bigger brothels when the sun was high. Clutching pennies, they often came in twos or threes, crowded around her mother, the fortuneteller, squeezing young Antonia back into the corner back behind the curtain that hid the single bed she shared with her maman. They all wanted the well-worn cards or tea leaves to yield up promises of future husbands — tall, handsome, but most importantly, rich. Men who would love them and never leave them.
Later, when dusk fell and candles were lit, the men showed up. Most had clothes bleached colorless from endless prospecting, or powdered red from hard-rock mining, and faces gnarled and creased as old pieces of wood. The men never asked about love. What they wanted was for maman to take their hands, first left, then right, trace the lines across their callused palms, measure the fleshy hills and valleys across the span, calculate the shape of their fingers, and from this swear to them that they'd make it rich, if not today, then tomorrow, or maybe next week, but no later.
They all waited calmly enough, but weren't so calm when maman didn't tell them what they wanted to hear.
Antonia's fingers curled tight around the pistol. She clicked the cylinder from chamber to chamber, timing the small snap, snap, to the distant pounding of the stamp mills. Mind inward, she thought about the mysterious Mr. Brown and her mother.
Antonia had never met Mr. Brown. In fact, if it weren't for the hard reality of the gun, she'd have doubted his existence.
When Antonia and maman had lived in Denver, Mr. Brown had been a regular client. While Antonia was learning her sums at school, he'd slip into the hotel where they lived to have his fortune told. When maman talked about his visits to Antonia, her eyes would shine and the small lines between her straight dark eyebrows would smooth out. And she always smiled. "He's kind, Antonia, always polite, wears a top hat and fine clothes. A beautiful voice — he comes from over the sea, same as we did. Ah, but you were so young, a baby, you would not remember before we came to America. He listens and takes care of us. You know he pays for us to stay here, in this nice hotel? Some day, I believe, we will be a family. How can it be otherwise? He wants to meet you, soon. Then, you will see what I say is true."
Antonia didn't want to meet Mr. Brown. She and mother were already a family. They didn't need a stranger in a top hat. They had each other. But Antonia couldn't say this to maman's shining face. She could only swallow hard and nod, hoping that, Mr. Brown or no Mr. Brown, they could stay in Denver forever so she could keep going to school.
But it was not to be.
In fact, it was Mr. Brown who sent them to Leadville. He made them leave Denver. Her mother said Mr. Brown had provided the gun for protection until he could join them, just as he'd provided the train tickets to Leadville, and the money for staying in the hotel until he could come for them. The hotel had been expensive, and so had the food. It wasn't long before the money was gone and no more came. After that, all they had left of Mr. Brown was the gun, a carpetbag of his clothes, kept under the bed, and her mother's unshaken belief that he would come for them ... someday.
When Antonia had pressed her mother, maman had only caressed the gold and silver engraving on the revolver and gently touched the initials WPB carved into the ivory grips. "Why would he gift us with such a powerful means of protection, and so valuable, if he was not going to follow? Besides, I have seen it. I have seen you, ma fille, in a blue dress, so pretty, so rich, stepping from the train, and the men bowing to you like a queen. It will be so, because of Mr. Brown."
Antonia couldn't stand it when her mother said, "I have seen it." She always said the words as if there was nothing more to say, as if those were the final words, words that sealed the future. She hated her mother's faith in her second sight. That faith never wavered, even as they starved and lived in filth and even when the men hit her maman when she said things they didn't like and when some of the women shunned her — she's a witch, she's a fake, she's a Gypsy.
She hated it most when her mother talked about her own, Antonia's, future as if it was sealed and done, and there was nothing she could do about it. So, when one of the men, smelly and dirty, had come into their one room shack while Antonia was there, and said, "Such a purty girl you got there, got such purty hair, all growed up, I'll bet, and eyes jest like your'n," and grabbed Antonia's long black hair with one dirty hand while he'd tried to grab the top of her dress with the other, she'd kicked him. Maman had leaped up, screaming, and the candle on the table had leaped as well, almost toppling to the dirt floor. The sudden tallow flare had flashed on the knife in her mother's hand.
And Antonia ran.
Pushed her way through the startled men waiting outside the shack and kept going, into the warren of shanties and cribs that clustered hodge-podge in the State Street alley. She kept running even when she heard her mother's screams change in pitch and volume. Later, when she crept back and saw her mother, face beginning to bruise and swell, Antonia burned with guilt for not running back to the shanty and beating the dirty man with her fists. Her mother had not scolded, but hugged her. "What could you have done, little girl that you are? You were right to run from danger. The other men, they came in and beat him, then took him away."
Always the men, that was who Antonia's mother turned to for help. Well, it would be different now.
That terrible night, while her mother slept deep under the spell of something from a bottle, Antonia had slid the worn carpetbag out from under the bed. Her mother didn't stir when Antonia extracted the shears and chopped off her own long, dark hair. Nor did she stir when Antonia dug deeper into the bag and pulled out Mr. Brown's togs.
Antonia could hear her mother's voice in her head as she undid the buttons and set them on the small table in the dark: "He gave us his money, his clothes, his gun. He will come. I have seen it." Her mother's voice ceased when Antonia ripped off her own bedraggled sweat-stained dress, and donned Mr. Brown's clothes: three shirts, no collars or cuffs, two pairs of trousers, one pair of suspenders, a belt she had to wrap twice around her waist, and a thick grey wool jacket, warm, soft, long enough to be a coat. She rolled the sleeves and trousers up, but the pant cuffs still dragged in the dust. Later that night, she stole a hat and boots from a drunk passed out behind the Silver Queen.
Or maybe he was dead?
Antonia didn't know or care.
He was a small man, but she still had to stuff the toes of the boots with paper and rags. There were always dead or dead drunk fellows in Stillborn and Tiger alleys, behind the saloons, dance halls, and houses. And, if you were sneaky and fast — she was both — you could snitch a pair of gloves, a copper penny, even a pocket watch, if you were careful.
She'd traded the pocket watch for a cap and a nickel from one of the newsboys, Ace, that little thief, who really should have paid her more. She'd taught him a lesson, though, by going to the newspaperman he worked for and getting herself hired as a newsie. Still, being a newsie didn't pay as well as emptying the spittoons at the State Street saloons, so she did both, and swept up the floors too, if asked. That was always good for finding coins in the sawdust, dropped and overlooked. Antonia wanted to buy a carpet for maman to cover the shanty's bare floor. And then, someday, she'd buy them both train tickets back to Denver, and buy a nice house, too, and they wouldn't need Mr. Brown or anyone, because they'd have each other.
A bird screeched from a tree, shattering her daydream. Antonia shook her head. She hadn't taken this precious time, when she could have been hanging around the newspaper office with the other newsies, or selling newspapers at the train station, or tipping buckets of spit into the alley behind the Silver Queen, to go off woolgathering about the future. Nope. She was here to practice on how best to kill a man with one shot.
She brought up the gun, sighting on the first bottle. The raised initials on the grip pushed against her palms: WPB. "Worthless Pisspot Brown," she whispered. "You ruined our lives. You made us leave Denver — for nothing. If you ever show up, I will kill you."
Sighting carefully, deliberately, from one bottle to the next, Antonia cocked the hammer and pulled the trigger, three times. One by one, the bottles exploded in a rain of sparkling glass.CHAPTER 2
Inez Stannert paused in the process of disembarking from the passenger car at Leadville's Denver & Rio Grande station, one gloved hand gripping the hold bar, one foot planted on the step, and surveyed the scene. A tide of people poured out of the depot toward the train, pushing and jostling against a river of arrivals who pushed in the other direction.
Beyond them, the haze from coal- and wood-fired commerce blanketed the town. The miasma thickened to the east, shrouding the mining district that covered the rolling terrain below the Mosquito Range. A faint smell of new-hewn timber, still seeping from the station hastily erected the previous month, tickled her nose and mixed with the dust churned up from rutted thoroughfares by thousands of wheels, boots, and hooves. The noise of the train station — the sighs and clanks of the engine at rest, the rumble of carts full and empty rolling this way and that, passengers shouting to be heard above the racket, and the laughter of "well met!" greetings.
The familiar sights, smells, and sounds of the silver rush boomtown that was Leadville enveloped her. It was a place of constant movement, shifting dreams, and phantom schemes. Of silver wealth, pulled from underground by backbreaking work and tenacity, wealth that poured easily into the pockets of the silver barons, and squeezed to a grudging trickle for those whose hands brought it to the surface, to the stamp mills, and to the railroad for transport. The profits pulled from that mineral river also fed the businesses of the town, much of it finding its way to State Street businesses of entertainment, ease, and ill-repute.
This was Leadville.
A home where fortunes were made and lost, often at dizzying speed. Where dreams were created and destroyed, sometimes in a toss of the dice or an assay of a claim. Where life could be snuffed out with cruel suddenness, in the dark of an alley, in the depth of a shaft, in the dusk of opium, morphine, or alcohol ... or in the pain of childbirth. Leadville. It pulsed with energy, with drive, with purpose.
It was a mountain metropolis. Colorado's City in the Clouds.
It was — Inez took a deep breath, and filled her eyes and ears yet again — it was home.
As she allowed the familiar symphony of sights and sounds to settle over her, she detected a faint, discordant note. She cocked her head, still, listening intently. That sounded like ...
A shot. Distant. Not a rifle, most likely a revolver ...
Well spaced. Deliberate.
She looked down at her husband, Mark Stannert, who had stepped off first, and was holding out his hand, patiently, waiting to help her descend.
"Did you hear that?"
"Hear what, darlin'?"
Mark glanced around the chaos of the station, giving the cacophony of people, animals, and machinery time to sink in.
A volley of shots boomed out, punctured by energetic hoots and hollers from the far end of the platform. People scattered away from the vicinity, leaving a clear view of a clutch of men, guns being reholstered, slapping one of their own on the back, then hoisting him into the air and bearing him away, with raucous cheers. "Sounds like someone's train's come in, in more ways than one," observed Mark. "Let's hope they stop by the saloon to celebrate."
"I know what I heard, and that wasn't it. Three shots. Deliberately spaced." She looked down at Mark, who had removed his sober-as-a-judge black bowler and was knocking the travel dust from it. "Whatever happened to that ordinance forbidding the discharge of pistols within town limits?"
He shrugged. "It's not as if someone shootin' a gun is an unusual happenstance, even in town."
Inez shook her head, annoyed at herself, annoyed that the three even shots lingered inside her mind like a forgotten echo.
Letting her gaze wander the forward length of the train, she saw that the outward flow of disembarking travellers had slowed to a trickle and that there was an increasing push in the other direction, as those impatient to board for the outward journey maneuvered onto the train. In the opposite direction, toward the back of the train, the baggage porters who had just finished emptying the cars were now busy dealing with an inward flux of boxes, trunks, crates, and mail bags.
A carriage, draped all in black and pulled by two black horses topped with black head-plumes advanced slowly toward a baggage car hitched two cars down from the one Inez lingered upon. A pathway opened up as if by magic as the funeral coach moved up alongside the sliding doors. Two somber-faced black-coated men, black crepe armbands visible over the sleeves of their coats, clambered out of the back. Up front, another man, dressed in a formal frock coat of similar midnight hue, looked around briefly, his eyeglasses catching a brief flash from the sun. He removed his bowler to dab at his high square forehead with a handkerchief, before replacing his hat. He climbed down from the funeral coach and walked to the baggage car to talk to the handlers, who had whipped off their peaked caps, in deference to the departed. The driver remained in place, holding the horses steady as the handlers jumped out of the car and began sliding the coffin from the back of the carriage under the direction of the man in charge, who Inez surmised was the undertaker.
Inez lingered on the top step, mesmerized by the sight of some soul departing for the last time from Leadville. "No more dreams and schemes for that one," she said half to herself. As if in agreement with Inez's assessment, the sun flashed off the sides and top of the coffin, just as it had from the undertaker's spectacles. It was, she realized, a metal coffin, polished to a high, mirror-like shine, with gleaming gold fittings.
Excerpted from What Gold Buys by Ann Parker. Copyright © 2016 Ann Parker. Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
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