Sometimes, wishing someone dead is not enough.
Sometimes, you need to make it happen.
Always, there’s someone there to make you pay.
From one of the best mystery short story writers of her generation comes this sparkling collection of ten chillers and thrillers, where justice takes many forms. Whether you’re a witch (“A Taste for Burning”), a soldier in the trenches (“Michelle”) or a demure churchgoer (“The Wickedest Town in the West”), you will always know that justice is served.
Heavens, Mary, there is so much to tell you, I don’t know where to begin!
Yesterday I saw a man killed.
It was awful.
After five weeks, I have almost grown accustomed to the brawls that are such a feature of this Godforsaken town. I cannot criticize the men, Mary. They work hard down the mines, in the most appalling conditions, or else sweat their guts—hearts out in the factories and workshops, while yet others spend weeks at a time in the hills scraping, digging, panning and hoping, living off wild rabbits and quail. When they want to let off steam, there are many—too many!—unscrupulous folk looking to separate them from their hard-earned nuggets and cash. Consequently tempers run high. There are fights over cheating, fights over women, fights over nothing at all. Something as trivial as having tobacco spat on their boots can flare into a feud in which arms then get broken, shots fired and knives are pulled, and frequently used.
‘Why don’t soldiers patrol the streets and keep order?’ I asked Jacob (Mr. Fuller), the day Rotgut Rogers was stretchered off on a tabletop, his neck and side streaming with blood. ‘Fort Verde is only thirty miles distant.’
‘The soldiers are tasked with keeping a lid on any Indian uprisings and protecting the settlers, though we did have a frontier marshal here once. Lasted two or three weeks, maybe even a month, before he ran off and married one of Butter Brown’s whores. Keeps a pig farm in Kansas, I hear.’
He makes these things up to annoy me. ‘So who keeps the peace?’
‘These.’ He patted the guns at his hip. ‘These keep the peace, Lizzie, and mighty effective they are.’
Faster than lightning, he emptied both barrels into the sign that read Palace Saloon. Or rather ace loon after he’d finished.
‘Long overdue a new sign,’ he said, holstering his weapons. ‘What do you reckon? Red, white and blue, all patriotic? Or black and gold, to look classy?’
‘What I reckon, Mr. Fuller, is that you do not call me Lizzie again, unless you wish to walk with a limp.’
My point, Mary, is that the absence of peace-keepers allows the brutishness to go unchecked, for without doubt this is a dangerous town. Liquored-up miners run on very short fuses. Steep streets and sharp corners make a perfect ambush for robbery. The town still talks of a woman called Jane, who had acid thrown in her face by a fellow prostitute, who accused her of stealing her clients. But as disturbing as they are, most outbreaks of violence stem from hot-headedness rather than malice. However, there is a man, a Frenchman, by the name of Lacasse, who is as mean as a rattlesnake and vicious, to boot. He sells liquor to the Apaches and then, when they’re drunk, plays on their fears of the white man. With their hunting lands displaced by the mines, they already make a nuisance of themselves, raiding the farmlands for food. But the Frenchman’s poison dripping into their ears incites them to commit far worse crimes. That in itself is despicable enough, but it is not how Lacasse makes his living. After the settlers leave, either having been driven out or butchered, Lacasse puts in a claim for their land. Many, including several Government officials, consider him the prime source of the current Indian troubles, but either way he is not popular in these parts.
Yesterday, he happened to be passing through on his way south to Phoenix, when he was recognized by the son of one of the farmers. The boy—sixteen at most—called him a murderer, a coward, a thief and a cheat, and challenged him to a duel. Gunfights are not unheard of here, either. Happily, most of the protagonists are too drunk to aim true, and the bullets end up splintering the blacksmith’s, spraying the wheelwright’s, or else peppering the General Store. On one occasion, they even lodged in Moondog Kelly’s saddlebag. This had a different feel.
Lacasse stood up. Stretched. ‘Why not?’ he said, as though he found the challenge amusing. ‘Why the hell not, mon ami?’
Then he followed the boy out of the Silver Nugget Saloon, and shot him four times in the back.
How often have you and I comforted the sick and the dying with Papa? Reading to his parishioners from the Bible, holding their hands and stroking their hair? None of that, Mary, compares with cold-blooded murder. Lacasse returned to the saloon, finished his drink, then rode out of town as though nothing had happened. Leaving the boy with his liver, kidneys and backbone blown out, bleeding to death on the street.
For obvious reasons, the horror of this episode has eclipsed my news regarding Edward’s disappearance, but on this I am pleased to report a certain progress. Jake—Jacob Fuller that is—accompanied me to the undertaker’s workshop next morning as promised, and I won’t deny my nerves were in tatters. Could he, like the frontier marshal, have run away with one of Butter Brown’s whores, to raise pigs up in Kansas? Worse, suppose the workshop was wide open and remained full of his tools, where he’d been robbed and murdered in his bed?
My imagination ran wild. My fears worse. Yet none of these scenarios had taken place, if the padlock on the door was anything to go by.
‘Looks like our undertaker left with every intention of coming back,’ Jacob said, upon prising the lock. ‘There’s half a dozen coffins out back, which smacks of a stockpile to me, while his tools are as neatly laid out as his customers. Every bit as well-oiled, as well.’
I was in no mood for humour.
‘Then where is he? Three months passed in England without my receiving a letter, and this from a man who wrote every week. When you add on the length of my journey, the time I’ve been here—’
‘Look around, Sheridan, what do you see?’
‘I see dust.’
Lots of dust, but then in a community that revolves around stripping every mineral it can find out of these mountains, that is exactly what I’d expect.
‘All right then. What don’t you see?’
Sometimes, Mary, I think Jim Beam and Jake Fuller see rather too much of each other. ‘What are you driving at?’
‘We’ve had a good old poke around the place, right? Do you see any money?Cooking utensils? Blankets? There isn’t even the bundle of letters you wrote him.’
‘He could have burned them.’
‘Indeed.’ He paused. ‘Though it doesn’t explain why he took his writing equipment with him.’
I had hoped to find answers inside the workshop, instead I found more and more questions.