In 1940 Leland Langtry ran off with his redheaded secretary and $10,000 in company funds...
Forty years later, Langtry’s remains are found in a boarded-up silver mine tunnel. And as the knife still jammed between his ribs had belonged to his partner in Lang-Star Mining, Tom Starbuck—also long since dead—a jury decided that Tom had killed Langtry.
But Tom’s widow, Delia, resists that verdict and persuades that very private investigator Conan Flagg to find the real murderer—an impossible job made tougher by the curious reticence of nearly everyone in town whenever Leland Langtry is mentioned….
Ten miles east of Drewsey, the Oregon State Highway Department had thoughtfully put up a sign—white on green in this sienna and ochre landscape—to advise motorists that they were crossing from Pacific to mountain standard time and should set their clocks ahead one hour.
Conan Flagg held the steering wheel with his left hand while he adjusted his watch: 8:36 June 12. The Jaguar XK-E thrummed effortlessly along a lonely, sagebrush-lined highway under a sun that burned hot even this early in the day. His passage stirred the only wind, a miniature fifty-five-mile-an-hour gale that tossed his hair, black as the sleek Jaguar, black as his eyes behind the dark glasses. The Indian slant was emphasized by his reflexive squint; he was traveling straight into the sun’s glare.
Conan looked out at the arid, sage-velveted hills, rank on rank, the basalt mesas layered with blood-brown flows, millennia deep, and he experienced one of those moments when something within him roused to demand: what am I doing here?
Murder. That was the answer, and it seemed vaguely unreal as the erosion-razed landscape spun past him.
A murder had occurred on a chill autumn night forty years ago, and that was why he was driving into the sun on this warm summer morning and had spent most of the previous day behind this wheel.
Nearly four hundred miles behind him, across the breadth of the state of Oregon, the sun would be making mist in pine and spruce forests and glinting on silk and cream breakers, but he wasn’t there to look out the windows of his house to see them. Nor was he there to walk the two blocks to the ramshackle, shingled pile that he regarded as his one contribution to the continuity of civilization: the Holliday Beach Book Shop. He wasn’t there for Miss Beatrice Dobie’s inevitable “Good morning, Mr. Flagg,” nor for Meg’s hoarse, Siamese complaints about the tardiness of her breakfast.
Conan Flagg wasn’t there because in his billfold he carried a card that proclaimed him a licensed private investigator, and because forty years ago a man named Leland Langtry had died when a knife was driven into his heart.
Conan leaned into the wheel around a long curve and looked southeast over a tumble of arid hills. He couldn’t see the Owyhee Mountains, not yet; they were still two hours beyond the horizon and across the state line in Idaho. On the road map, the Owyhees lurked in the extreme southwest corner of Idaho, and there was little else in that corner: few roads, few rivers, and only a handful of tiny circles designating towns with populations of zero to five hundred.
One of those circles bore the name of Silver City.
That had once been a stellar name in the history of the West. The first gold was found in 1863, then the fabulous lodes of the metal that gave the town its name. In the following decades, a cornucopia of silver flowed from its mines and mills surpassed in quantity only by the Comstock lode of Nevada.
Conan had learned all that from history books in his library, which had also informed him that by 1942 Silver City was in its death throes, the mines deserted, the labyrinthine miles of tunnels left to drown in seeping groundwater or collapse with the rotting of their timbers; the huge stamp mills that once stair-stepped down the mountains, their pounding roar echoing along the valleys, were dismantled, carried off piece by piece, the solid tons of cast-iron machinery melted down to make howitzers and tanks. Now Silver City stood eroding on the high, dry shoulders of the Owyhees, and only its history kept it alive.
But in 1940 the town was still living by its silver, even if only a few mines and one mill showed vital signs and the end was in sight. And in that year Leland Langtry met his end, and his body was hidden in a deserted, boarded-up mine tunnel.
That didn’t come out of the histories, but from a letter that had reached Conan’s desk at the Holliday Beach Book Shop the day before yesterday. With the letter was a clipping dated June 3 from Boise’s Idaho Statesman headlined, “Verdict Reached on Ghost Town Murder.” The story behind the murder, as recounted by the Statesman, began in Silver City on the night of September 22, 1940, when Leland Langtry, a partner in the Lang-Star Mining Company, disappeared, and with him his car, his secretary, Amanda Count, and $10,000 in Lang-Star company funds. The police search continued for months, but neither Langtry, the car, Amanda Count, nor the money were found, and it was assumed at the time that Langtry had stolen the money and departed in the car with his secretary, with whom he had had a long-standing extramarital love affair. It was Langtry who was married; Amanda Count, less than half his age, was single.
Then on May 14 of this year, a Bureau of Land Management survey party had opened an old mine adit near Silver City and discovered the skeletal remains of a man subsequently identified as Leland Langtry. The cause of death was apparently stabbing: a knife was still wedged between the fifth and sixth ribs just left of the sternum, where it had without a doubt—according to the medical testimony at the Owyhee County coroner’s inquest—pierced the heart.
The consensus of the jury was that Langtry had indeed planned to abscond with the Lang-Star funds and his secretary, but had been discovered in process of the theft by his partner, Thomas Starbuck, who had been so outraged he responded by stabbing Langtry to death. The murder weapon, the knife, was known to belong to Starbuck and was marked with his initials. The subsequent fate of the money and the secretary remained a mystery, but the jury reached its verdict with scant delay: they expressed their sympathy for the motive by calling it second-degree manslaughter, but apparently had no reservations in pointing a collective finger at Thomas Starbuck as the perpetrator of the crime.
But Starbuck would never be convicted; he would never be tried. In 1955 Thomas Starbuck had died of cancer of the liver.