Authors: Suzann Ledbetter
“Good afternoon, ma’am,” I said, “I have a matter of importance to discuss with Mrs. Penelope LeBruton.”
“Is she expecting you?”
Proper etiquette required a note requesting an appointment, which could easily fall into the wrong hands. Even if it didn’t, depending on the status the receiver strove to maintain, a response might take a week or more.
As I reckoned the birdlike crone knew what color drawers her ladyship had donned that morning, I said, “No, there simply wasn’t time to—”
“Then whatever you’re selling, young lady, the missus doesn’t need it.”
My palm held the oak door at bay. “J. Fulton Shulteis hired me this morning to act on Mrs. LeBruton’s behalf. I think if you tell her that, she’ll agree to see me.”
The door swung wide. Bony fingers clamped my upper arm and yanked me inside. “Lord above, why didn’t you say so before the whole neighborhood got a look at you?”
“From her sharp descriptions to her crisp dialogue, Ledbetter tickles the jaded palate of any reader.”
Praise for Suzann Ledbetter’s
North of Clever
“The colorful prose and farcical action in this cozy keep the pace moving at the speed of a magician’s hand.”
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
Publication of POCKET BOOKS
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Copyright © 2003 by Suzann Ledbetter
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Writing a novel is purported to be an isolated occupation. Au contraire. I’m blessed with a whole herd of literary Lamaze coaches, without whom this book wouldn’t have been birthed.
My thanks in a huge way to: Judy Sieger; Paul W. Johns, who believes in me no matter how much I snivel; Ellen Wade, R.N., Saint of Hopelessly Kiboshed Bank Accounts and superb emergency collator; Ellen Recknor, my twin separated at birth by a few years and six hundred miles or so; Susan Fawcett, who keeps my rear in gear, more than she realizes; the fantastic crew who helped me move across the street from myself in the midst of perpetrating the enclosed murder and mayhem; and especially to Christina Boys, my smart, ever-patient and supportive editor; and to Robin Rue, agent extraordinaire and then some.
For Judy Sieger, for who you are and all you do.
he explosion hurled me backward a good five yards. It was surely a new record, though I’d never kept track of such things.
Pure luck landed me in the vegetable garden instead of the rose bed. The last time I experimented with nitrostarch, Won Li, my Chinese patron, had to fetch a ladder and pluck me from the leafy arms of an elm tree.
Splinters fell like rain from the mare’s tail clouds drifting above. I was just noticing how closely the embers resembled fireflies when an explosion of a different nature erupted.
“Josephine Beckworth Sawyer!” Won Li screeched my full name in practiced, perfect English. A singsong litany of Chinese obscenities commenced forthwith.
If God were merciful, He’d have allowed Rose Mary Sawyer to live long enough to properly christen her newborn daughter. Since Mama took her last breath at the same instant I drew my first, Papa was left to his own devices. To be sure, and no pun intended, Deputy Marshal Joseph Beckworth Sawyer hadn’t conceived of fathering a baby girl.
After all, from the night he and Mama wed, they’d followed to the letter the granny-woman’s advice for fetching a boy. My mother had slept with a knife under the mattress and was careful not to store any skillets under the bed. For his part, Papa had sat on the roof near the chimney for seven hours, which was believed to ensure the birth of a son.
The granny-woman later blamed the hammer he’d taken with him to pretend he was fixing the roof for ruining her augery and said he was lucky I hadn’t been twins. Lord only knows what poor Papa would have done had there been two of me.
Although stretching Joseph to derive Josephine made a certain kind of sense, it unfortunately brought forth images of dairy cows and vapid twits enamored of sausage curls and hair ribbons. A schoolmarm once suggested shortening the Beckworth at center to Becky, which might be fine for a sunny dispositioned, freckle-faced lass but didn’t append well to a black-haired, olive-complexioned child who learned to shoot, skin, and cook her own supper by the age of eight and wouldn’t have played with dolls had a dagger been held at her throat.
In the manner of counted blessings, I was told Papa would have tacked on the preordained “Junior” had the granny-woman not intervened. Truth be told, I wouldn’t have minded that as much as being called Josephine, until my mouthful of a name got whittled down to the plainer, more palatable Joby.
Won Li was still chattering in Chinese when I gained my feet. “I may not savvy your lingo, old friend,” I said, “but cussing is cussing and no proper way to address a lady.”
I shook clumps of tomato pulp and mud from my faded calico skirt. My white cotton waist was already scorched and chemical-stained from previous mishaps. Peeking between my lashes at Won Li discouraged further comment—from me, anyway.
Agitation inflamed the scar that welted his scrimshaw face from temple to jawbone. The disfiguring souvenir of our first meeting measured his mood like a barometer: the redder it became, the nearer he was to apoplexy. Or homicide.
“You are not a lady,” Won Li said. He pointed at a blackened, smoldering patch of yard. Beyond it, neighbors peered from behind their privies and woodpiles. “You are a menace.”
“A scientist,” I corrected. “A student of criminality, botany, and chemistry and the only female detective on this side of the Mississippi River.”
He smirked. “Then to solve the mystery of the missing toolshed, standing over there less than three minutes ago, should not tax your faculties unduly.”
I favored him with an engaging smile. “Don’t be silly. As you can plainly see, most of the walls are laying in the Matlocks’ pasture, and I’m almost certain the door came to rest beside Mrs. Flegle’s chicken coop.”
The roof may have accounted for the showering splinters, but a detective deals in facts, not idle speculation.
Won Li’s mouth flapped like a hooked trout. He was seldom at a loss for words, but my pyrotechnic experiments had silenced him on numerous occasions.
The simple truth is, I was born clever, and the passage of twenty-two years had not dulled my wits. To my everlasting chagrin, however, those of the male persuasion admire a more practical kind of genius. A gift for darning socks with no knots in the heels, for instance.
“Simmer down, Won Li.” I threaded my arm through his to steer him toward the house. “A pound of twopenny nails and some shingles will fix the shed as good as new. I’ll hire a carpenter after my morning appointment and pay Jimmy Matlock six bits to scavenge around the field for our tools.”
“His mother will never allow it. She has not forgotten your testing the sleeping powder on him.”
“Well, it isn’t as if I
it on the boy. The effect wore off after three or four hours—no harm done atall.”
I bunched my skirt to step over a shovel and the head of a pick, both divested of their handles. “Besides, Mrs. Matlock asked me a while back if she could buy some Morpheus powder to stir in her husband’s coffee at suppertime.”
Won Li glowered at me.
I laughed. “No, of course, I didn’t. For heaven’s sake, will you ever give me credit for the sense God gave a goose?”
He dodged the question in his usual fashion. “If I may be so bold, might I ask with whom you have an appointment this morning?”
“J. Fulton Shulteis.”
“Yes,” I confirmed, as though J. Fulton Shulteises ran the city streets in packs, like dogs.
Won Li disengaged his arm to reach for the screen door’s handle. “You cannot continue this charade forever.”
“I shouldn’t need to much longer. I am making quite a reputation for myself, you know.”
“Ah, yes, Joby,” he said. “You most assuredly are.”
Whether destiny or doom guided Won Li’s and my first encounter twelve years ago depended upon which of us was asked. My recollection of it is as vivid as the day it happened.
One dogwood-spring afternoon, a half dozen of the yahoos that Ft. Smith, Arkansas, drew like flies to fresh dung took exception to a Chinaman breathing the same air they did. They surrounded him, each in turn landing a wallop that sent him lurching into another fist.
I chanced upon the melee just as a thug bludgeoned the Chinaman with the butt of his revolver. In a tick, I was on the brute’s back like ugly on a hog. I kicked. I screamed. I bashed the miscreant’s ears with the heels of my hands.
When one of his cronies tried to pry me off, I cocked my knee and slammed a boot heel smack-center of his groin—the word, area, and essential components of which I was supposed to be ignorant. The blow not only rendered the bully unfit for a second intervention, it discouraged the others from having a go at me.
The sight of a ten-year-old, fifty-pound child—and a girl, at that—defending the defenseless shamed spectators into calling a halt to the fracas. While the thugs swaggered away to a saloon to wet their whistles, I helped their victim to his feet.
His eyes were nigh swollen shut. Blood pulsed from the gash on his cheek, his nose, and foamed his lips, yet he managed to stammer, “You ah vely blave.”
I shook my head. “I just can’t hash cheaters, bullies, or drunks. From what I saw, you flushed up a whole covey of them.”
I took him to our cabin to cleanse his wounds. In slurry, pidgin English, he introduced himself and said he owed me his life—a debt that must be repaid in kind or by forfeiting his own.
I didn’t understand much of what he said, or what was meant by it. To me, Won Li was like a wounded puppy to fuss over and talk to while my father was gallivanting around The Nations arresting killers, thieves, and bad Indians.
When Deputy Marshal Joe B. Sawyer returned to find a battered, thirty-year-old Chinaman living in our root cellar, Papa had what could only be described as a jumping cat fit. Months passed before he was convinced that Won Li’s intentions toward me were honorable to the extreme.
Providence hasn’t yet seen fit to thrust me into a life threatening situation from whence my guardian angel could rescue me. I’d often wondered if Won Li would leave when that day came; even more so this past year, since Papa’s heart gave out midway between Ft. Smith and the new life we’d planned for ourselves in Denver City.
If—when—it did, I knew there’d be no fanfare. No tearful good-byes, promises to write, or visitations. He’d just roll his meager possessions in a blanket and set out before dawn broke across his back.
It was pure selfish to pray that day never came. But I did.
At the stroke of ten, I strolled into the stark front office on Larimer, midblock between F and G Streets. The clerk, a bespectacled rabbit of a man, glanced up from a ledger, then attempted to cover the page with his forearms.
“Good morning, Percy.”
“It was, yes.” He wricked sideward to look past me, at the door.
“Would you be so kind as to announce me?” I said. “I don’t want to keep Mr. Shulteis waiting.”
“But the appointment was with—”
“I’m sure you have more important things to do than argue with me.” I tapped the edge of the ledger. “Such as posting that due bill to William F. Parker.”
Percy started, then slammed the book shut. In his haste to exit the chair, he barked a shin on an open drawer. Limping badly and wheezing through clenched teeth, he waved a command to follow him.
I hid a grin behind my hand. Poor Percy. My ability to read upside down had never set well with him. I sensed he was the type some mothers would dote on and fathers would try to interest in blood sport.
Percy rapped once on the thick oak door dividing management from labor. At the muffled Yes? from within, he wrenched the knob and motioned me past.
I nodded my thanks and glided onto a field of plush, Aubusson ivy vines and ferns; the carpet’s pattern was so lifelike a snake would feel quite at home.
“You again?” Lawyer Shulteis inquired from behind a mahogany desk as large as a buckboard’s bed.
“Always a pleasure to see you, too, Fulton.”
He steepled his fingers. “And what has detained your illustrious father this time? Surely he’s recovered from pneumonia by now. Or was it dyspepsia?”
I took a chair that hadn’t been offered. It aggrieved me the way Papa’s health had suffered since his demise, but it couldn’t be helped. Neither Shulteis nor anyone else in Denver City would knowingly hire a woman detective.
“Mr. Sawyer sends his most sincere apologies, but he’s investigating a train robbery for the Kansas Pacific.”
The attorney’s jowled face reflected skepticism. “I’ve done quite a bit of work for them myself. Odd, I haven’t heard of any holdups in the vicinity of late.”
My belly fluttered. I clenched wads of navy bombazine in my fists to compose myself.
When circumstances warrant, any female of Southern extraction—present company included—institutes one of the most potent weapons in her arsenal: the coquettish sigh. “Maybe that’s because Papa is in the wilds of southwest Kansas, although where, exactly, I have no idea.”
Which was as true as gospel. I simply declined to mention the grave with his name carved on a pair of crossed slats beside a wagon road. I couldn’t have if I’d wanted to, lest the grief rise up and devour me. Silly as it was, running the agency in Papa’s stead cheated death in an odd sort of way. A comfort, it was—particularly those nights when I cried myself to sleep.
“I can’t say I’m displeased with Mr. Sawyer’s results to date,” Shulteis said, “but to the best of my knowledge, no one in town has ever laid eyes on the man.”
“All the better for a private investigator, wouldn’t you say?” I forced a smile. “Especially for one with such an able assistant.”
Shulteis cleared his throat. “Yes, well…”
A folded sheet of foolscap sailed across the desk. “If you think your father would be interested, one Penelope LeBruton is seeking proof of her husband Rendal’s adulterous behavior before she proceeds with a bill of divorcement.”
I tried not to let disappointment show in my expression. So far, I’d hung out to dry three wayward spouses at Shulteis’s behest. I’d hoped he had something less tedious for me this time. Profitable as adultery could be for the wronged party, his or her lawyer, and a detective, I yearned for a kidnapping, or an embezzler to outwit.
“Mrs. LeBruton wants the evidence as quickly as possible,” Shulteis said.
I tucked the paper into my reticule. “She’ll have it.”
The attorney curried his muttonchop sideburns. “How can you be so sure, with your father, as you said, ‘…somewhere in the wilds of southwest Kansas’?”
“Now, Fulton. Sawyer Investigations hasn’t failed you yet, has it?”
August at the South Pole—much less the parched prairie where gold-fevered pioneers built Colorado’s first boomtown—would be too warm for a bombazine suit. I hadn’t a dry stitch on by the time I’d walked from Shulteis’s office to the agency’s headquarters at the corner of H and Champa.
Propping the door with a brick aired the stifling office a bit, but also let clouds of clay dust boil inside from horses, freight wagons, and buggies trafficking up and down Champa.
An hour’s worth of envying the attorney’s richly appointed workspace had reminded me that people admire Thoroughbreds for their beauty and mules for their character. As offices went, Sawyer Investigations was definitely a mule. The single room was about the size of a boxcar. Cracks in the dingy plaster walls resembled photographic negatives of an electrical storm. Bewhiskered snouts often poked through gaps in the warped floorboards.