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Wednesday, 18 May 2016

Coffin for Cash - excerpt

As promised yesterday, here are the first few pages of the 12th book in the Cash Laramie & Gideon Miles series of noir westerns:


Nik Morton

Prologue: Premature burial

Head pounding as though a dozen demented blacksmiths had taken a dislike to their anvils, Cash Laramie opened his eyes. He blinked. He couldn’t see anything, only darkness. Complete, overwhelming darkness. His heart lurched as he realised he was blind. He raised his right hand, intent on rubbing his eyes, but his knuckles hit hard against something solid that was covered in silken material. And his broad shoulders were barely able to shift. He blinked again and licked his parched lips, tasted the metallic flavour of dried blood.
            Trying again, he was able to slide his hand to his temple and felt the dried crust of a bloody wound, which might account for the persistent throbbing headache.
            He steadied his breathing.
            Don’t panic, he told himself.
            He raised a leg, but his knee too met with an obstruction after the slightest movement.
            As he couldn’t see, he must rely on his other senses.
            Touch told him that he was confined in a dark narrow place.
            His ears detected no sound: absolute silence. No birds singing, no wagons, horses or people nearby.
            He sniffed the air: it was musty, a mixture of earthiness with a hint of incense. He didn’t like what that knowledge suggested.
            Tamping down that bleak idea, he fumbled in his vest pocket, found his box of matches. He could move both hands together over his chest, and managed to remove a match and scratched it against the friction board.
            He blinked at the buttery brightness of light, welcome light. Thank God! He wasn’t blind, after all. In this confined space the smell of the burnt red phosphorus was very strong.
            He was lying in a coffin lined with white silk.
            And although he wondered how he’d gotten into this mess, he was convinced it all began no more than a couple of days ago…

Chapter One: Berenice

Only this morning, as he dressed in front of the cheval glass mirror and Lenora lounged on the bed, she had commented on his six-foot tall broad shouldered physique. “You may be almost thirty, Cash, but you could pass for a half-dozen years younger.”
            He’d combed a hand through his dark hair, his vibrant blue eyes lancing hers in the reflection. “Thanks, but I’m happy to be older than twenty-four, you know.” He rubbed the stubble on his square jaw, noting the lines around his eyes and deeply etching from his nose to his mouth. “With age comes experience. And experience saves lives.”
            “You can save my life any day, lover,” she’d joked.
            Now, he smiled fondly at the memory as he extinguished his cheroot, pocketed it and stepped into Cheyenne’s federal building.
            He made his way to the office of Chief US Marshal Devon Penn and knocked on the door.
            “Enter!” his boss barked. So he entered.
            Penn’s bulk sat behind his imposing desk.
            Occupying one of the two Windsor armchairs was a woman – an attractive redhead.
            “Glad you made it!” Penn waved him in and Cash shut the door behind him.
            He removed his black Stetson as Penn stood. “Cash, let me introduce you! This is Miss Berenice Rohmer – a family friend who needs my – our – help.”
            “Hello, Marshal Laramie,” Berenice Rohmer said as he approached. She looked at him, her golden brown eyes shining brightly, appraising. Boldly, he returned her scrutiny. She was probably in her mid-twenties, buxom, curves pressing alluringly against the green velvet jacket; a matching hat sat askew atop her long red hair that was done up and tamed by jewelled pins. Beneath the skirt, her legs were crossed; she wore black lace-up boots with a high heel. Thin pale red lips parted slightly and then finally formed into a smile.
            He returned her smile, holding out his hand. “Pleased to make your acquaintance, ma’am.”
            Her hand was warm, the handshake firm. “Do call me Berenice.”
            “Take a seat, Cash,” Penn said, gesturing at the second Windsor.
            As he ensconced himself in the leathery upholstery, Cash asked, “What is the nature of the help you need, ma… Berenice?”
            She fumbled in her reticule and withdrew a lace handkerchief, dabbed at her retroussé nose, and then glanced at Penn, eyes pleading.
            “I’ll explain, my dear,” Penn said, solicitously, double chin wobbling. He steepled his pudgy fingers, and then eyed Cash. “Berenice’s brother – he’s some three years her senior – well, he’s a financier, and he has gone missing in the region of Rock Springs and Green River.”
            “What business did he have in Dakota territory?” Cash wondered.
            “You’ve heard of the new casino there?” Penn said.
            “Yes, of course. Owned by a German count… Can’t remember his name.”
            “A baron, actually. Hans Von Kempelen.”
            “Yes, that’s him.”
            “The baron thought he’d establish a town, as you do when you have money to spare, and decided the best way to lure buyers for lots was to build a pleasure palace. And that’s what he did, calling it the Lenore Casino. Named it after his late wife.”
            Cash was struck by the similarity of name, very similar to his Lenora’s. It must be nice, to build a place for your loved one: though it was in memory of the baron’s wife. Happily, Lenora was very much alive, as she ably proved only last night.
            Berenice’s soft gentle voice intruded on his pleasant warm thoughts. “It seemed attractive to my brother, though I argued against getting involved.” She sniffed. “He withdrew cash for a down-payment and took the train–”
            “And he’s gone missing, you say,” Cash interrupted. “When did he set out?”
            “Two weeks ago.” Berenice’s eyes glistened but she held his gaze. “I haven’t heard from him since he left. I was becoming frantic with worry so I wired Devon, in the hope that he could investigate.”
            “Two weeks is a long time,” Cash observed. “I don’t suppose we know if he even arrived in Rock Springs or Green River?” Both fledgling cities were stops on the U.P. railroad.
            Berenice’s lips trembled. “I do … I do believe he must have arrived. After I pressed him, our bank manager told me that Horace wired for an additional withdrawal of $50,000.”
            Inwardly, Cash groaned. “Was it sent?”
            “Yes. He supplied the agreed confirmation of identity.”
            “Do you know what that confirmation entails?”
            “No. Only Horace and the bank manager know. I have my own, as well. It is normal practice when dealing with large sums of money that are transmitted around the country or even abroad.”
            “Isn’t technology wonderful?” Cash mused. Not expecting an answer, he went on, “It seems to have come as a surprise to you; is there any reason why Horace didn’t let you know about this withdrawal?”
            She shook her head and the silver earrings glinted. “I can’t think of any reason. We’ve always been close. And of course since our inheritance we’ve both been involved in the business finances.”
            “Has Horace access to your share of the inheritance?”
            “That’s good to hear.”
            “What do you mean, Mr Laramie?”
            “It’s always possible that your brother has been coerced into withdrawing those extra funds.”
            She paled, her mouth opening in shock. “Oh, my God, no!”
            “My dear,” Penn said, “it is a possibility we must consider. There are many unscrupulous men in the world.”
            “I know, but… the baron…”
            Penn raised a hand. “It may have nothing to do with the baron. Indeed, it is unwise to speculate at this stage. Let Cash investigate and he can report back to me and I to you.”
            She turned in her chair, faced Cash, and said, her tone adamant, “No, Devon, that will not do at all. I must go with you, Mr Laramie.”
            Penn exchanged a pained look with Cash.
            “I insist,” Berenice added.
            Cash stood, passing the brim of his hat through his hands. “Have you travelled much, Berenice? Can you ride?”
            “My brother went by train.”
            “Yes, but Lenore Casino is quite a ways outside Rock Springs, about a day’s ride. I’ll be taking my horse. If you’re not up to it, I’d suggest…”
            Abruptly, Berenice stood, her cheeks flushed. “I can ride as well as any man, Marshal. In fact, I’m better than my brother in that regard!”
            “All right. Have you a horse?”
            “No, but I can get one soon enough.” She hefted her reticule. “I have the means.”
            Cash appraised her from head to toe and nodded. “You sure do, Berenice.”
            Chuckling, Penn stood. “I can see you both are going to get on nicely. You might even make a good team!”
            Cash darted a glare.
            “Just joking, Cash.” He added an aside to Berenice, “The only partner he seems comfortable working with is a fellow US marshal, Miles.”
            “Comfortable,” Cash retorted. “We’ve saved each other’s life more than once. Comfortable doesn’t cut it.”
            “Maybe so. Anyway, as it happens you might come across Miles out that way. He’s gone to Fort Bridger.”
            “Surely he’s not enlisting?”
            Penn grinned. “Hardly! No, he’s picking up a suspected murderer and bringing him here for trial.”

Chapter Two: Raven

Fort Bridger was unlike most forts Miles had been in; this one had no outer defensive wall, relying on the number of troops stationed here. The stone buildings had seen better days, he reckoned.
            “Well, I’ve seen everything now, a black marshal with his black prisoner!” snapped a bearded sergeant as Miles escorted the chained detainee to the Major’s office on the opposite side of the fort’s parade ground. “Trial’s too good for the bastard!”
            “Ignore him,” said Vincent Raven, shuffling with dignity despite the chains at his ankles.
            Miles ignored Raven and spun on his heel, rounded on the sergeant. “A man’s innocent until a court of law proves him guilty!”
            About to retort, the soldier must have thought better of it on seeing the depth of feeling in the lawman’s brown eyes. Muttering into his beard, he stalked off.
            Miles stepped onto the boardwalk, opened the door and the pair of them entered the building.
            An adjutant rose to his feet behind his desk. “Major Sanders is ready for you, Marshal.”
            Miles removed his hat. “Keep an eye on my prisoner, soldier.”
            “Sure, sir.”
            Miles rapped his knuckles on the door labelled Camp Commander, opened it and entered.
            Major Jonathan Harrison sat behind his desk; its surface was cluttered with papers. “You have your prisoner, Marshal?” He gestured at a chair.
            “Yes, Major.” Miles sat facing him. “I’ll leave with him first light tomorrow.”
            The bugler sounded Supper Call.
            The major leaned forward. “Yet you have him outside, I hear.”
            “I’d like to remove his shackles and share a meal with him.”
            “Isn’t that unorthodox?”
            “Mr Raven has given his word he won’t escape. Besides, once he has eaten, I’ll handcuff him for the night.”
            “And where will you stay tonight?”
            “In the stable.”
            “Why there? Your smart attire doesn’t seem appropriate for sleeping rough.”
            “I can soon shine my boots, if I need to, sir.”
            The major didn’t register the sarcasm. “We have an adequate guardhouse; it’s been Raven’s abode since he was brought in.”
            “The livery will be safer. There seems a lot of bad feeling about him in your fort, Major.”
            “I trust you’re not suggesting that anything fatal will befall Mr Raven.”
            “Not at all, sir. But I don’t want to break a few bigoted skulls unless I’m forced…”
            Major Harrison studied Miles, and then slowly smiled. “I take your meaning.”
            “Are you aware of Raven’s past, sir?”
            “A little. He’s ex-ninth cavalry. He’s knowledgeable about horse flesh and is now a horse-wrangler.”
            “That’s right. I checked on him before I left Cheyenne. The murder is out of character; he was a good soldier in the ninth. He served in D Troop under Capt. Francis Dodge and was mentioned in despatches after the end of the Milk River siege with renegade Utes.”
            “I heard about that… But the evidence seems damning, Marshal.”
            “Isn’t it a mite circumstantial?”
            “I thought your remit was to transport the prisoner for trial, not to investigate the crime.”
            Miles shrugged. “Just curious, is all.”
            “Well, sadly for Raven, he was found in the town’s post office standing over the slain postmaster, Mr Edgar Clemm. Packets of opium were strewn about. He denies it, naturally, but the postmaster was still warm, according to a lawyer, Rufus Wilmot, who entered moments later. Sheriff Arnold Royster brought Raven here for protective custody, before he could be lynched. There’s bad feeling about him in the town, as well; Mr Clemm was a greatly liked citizen of Green River.”
In the buttery light of the stable’s kerosene lantern, Miles fed a carrot to his pinto. Raven sat on a bale of hay to his right, a wrist handcuffed to a metal rail separating one stall from another. An empty food plate and a fork lay on another bale.
            “As I told you, I’m black, Marshal, so I’ll get no justice.”
            Miles turned. “Utter hogwash!” He stroked his stubble. “I certainly don’t judge a man by his colour, only by what he does with his life. Judge Benton’s the same. He makes his pronouncements according to the evidence.”
            Raven laughed mirthlessly. “Judges, lawyers! They’re all the same!”
            “You need to stop bundling folk into straitjacket categories, Mr Raven. We’re all individuals. The sooner you learn that, the better.”
            “But the lawyer as good as says I did it. It’s my word against his. A lawyer, for cryin’ out loud!”
            “Who’re they going to believe? There’s no definite evidence.”
            “Well, I knelt by Mr Clemm – he’d been stabbed – but I couldn’t help him, he was dead–”
            “And I suppose you got blood on your clothes while being all helpful and neighbourly?”
            “I don’t like your tone, Marshal.”
            “Wait till you get in court. The prosecutor’s tone will be a lot worse.”
            “Maybe so.” He pulled a pipe from his pocket and then chewed on the stem. “Yeah, to answer your question, I’d just got to my feet when the lawyer walked in. He let out a hue and cry and before I could explain anything I was arrested by the sheriff and brung here and put in the guardhouse.”
            “You’re also accused of a lesser crime, trading in opium – supplying the Chinese coal miners of Rock Springs.”
            “I don’t know why they bothered with that, untrue as it is. I’ll hang for the murder. They can’t hang me twice.”
            “They’ll use it to blacken your character, Mr Raven.”
            “Yeah, right. As if I ain’t black enough, eh?”
            Miles chuckled at that and then threw him a small pouch of Bull Durham.
            “You know, Marshal, I wouldn’t touch that stuff. I don’t even drink alcohol. I’ve seen what it can do to even the strongest of men.” He tamped tobacco into his pipe’s bowl. “And my wife Gwendolyn won’t think kindly if I imbibed.”
            Miles was intrigued. It shouldn’t be difficult to verify Raven’s statement of abstinence. “Where’s your wife now?”
            “Bryan, watching over twenty horses.”
            “The ghost town?”
            “Yeah.” Miles lit Raven’s pipe. Raven puffed for a while, then added, “I set up a corral and we’ve been trading from there. I was going to send a wire to a buyer in Laramie. He wanted eight mounts.”
            “Does your wife know you’ve been arrested?”
            Raven lowered his gaze to the floor. “I doubt it. She’s probably worried sick right now. You see, we keep to ourselves, only going into town for supplies; sometimes we go to Green River, sometimes to Rock Springs, so we’re not that well known.”
            “That’s unfortunate. I’ll think on that. Have you made a written statement?”
            “Sure. The fort commander has it.”
            “Okay, I’ll take it with us. I’ve brought a horse for you. We’ll travel by train to Green River and I’ll make enquiries there before going on. And I’ll also make a report on anything I learn.”
            “Should be a small report, then, Marshal.”
            “Stay positive, Mr Raven.”

Chapter Three: An affray for Frey

Cash was surprised to find Berenice waiting for him at the agreed time outside her hotel. She was astride a handsome chestnut and wore a calico split riding skirt, matching jacket and a white linen blouse. Her broad-brimmed hat was also calico. He noticed that there was an 1873 Winchester snug in its boot and the saddle was well worn, complete with bulging saddle-bags. Beside her was a piebald loaded with her two carpetbags. “You acquired your horses and equipment without much delay, I see, Berenice.”
            She wafted a hand; her gloves were pristine kid leather. “I won it all in a poker game last night, actually.”
            He laughed. “Remind me not to risk a game of chance with you.”
            “I don’t gamble with friends – it’s one way to lose them.”
            He doffed his hat. “Glad you consider me your friend.” He nodded at the rifle. “Can you use that?”
            She jutted out her chin. “I surely can.”
            “Better than your brother, I take it?”
            Her cheeks dimpled in amusement. “We had a competitive childhood.”
            They set off down the broad main street to the rail station. She was a good rider and gave the impression of being quite comfortable in the saddle, and trailed the spare horse with ease. When he commented on the amount of luggage, she replied, “It’s stuff I might need for the journey.”
            He’d explained that the distance from Cheyenne to Rock Springs was almost three hundred miles and would have taken them about seven days by horse. “So, it makes sense to travel by train and take the horses.”
            “Well, of course it does, Marshal,” she responded. “It saves time as well. We need to find Horace before his trail goes cold.”
            He feared that any trail Horace Rohmer might have left would be exceedingly cold by now.
            She stood by while he led the horses up the ramp into the freight car. To one side in a locked cage he saw crates and baggage stacked up. About ten crates were labelled “slot machines”. He handed over Berenice’s bags to the freight man who exchanged them for a ticket.
            Once the horses were settled and tethered with a bag of feed each, Cash descended the ramp and re-joined Berenice.
            “Everything all right?” she asked.
            He showed her the luggage ticket. “Bags safely stowed and the horses are comfortable. Your chestnut was a mite nervous at first. Probably hasn’t travelled by train before.”
            “But he’s fine now, Marshal?”
            Cash nodded. “If I’m going to call you Berenice, you can call me Cash, okay?”
            Her golden brown eyes shone at him. “Yes, of course, Cash.”
            “I’m glad that’s resolved.” He took her arm and they walked along the platform.
            As they boarded the first class compartment, she raised an elegant eyebrow. “Claiming this on your expenses?”
            “Expenses? I should be so lucky. I normally wouldn’t travel first class but for your consideration, I thought it more appropriate.”
            “Don’t go out of your way on my account, Cash.”
            They settled into a double seat, their backs to the engine, “So I can see where we’ve been,” she stated. The seats were cramped, his broad shoulders pressing against her more delicate frame.
            A man on the other side of the aisle gave Cash a quizzical look, but said nothing. He was short, with dark brown eyes and thin hay-coloured hair with stray wisps over his prominent ears, a blond moustache and thick eyebrows.
            “Hey, are you a real US Marshal?” he said, more an exclamation than a question.
             “That’s what the badge says,” Cash remarked good-humouredly.
            The man wiped his palm on the chest of his checked jacket and then leaned over, offering his hand. “Name’s Willard Frey, purveyor of precision machines manufactured in Chicago!”
            Pointing towards the rear of the carriage, Cash said, “Those crates of slot machines are yours?”
            “That’s right, Marshal!” He persisted in exclaiming each sentence. Cash wondered how he’d express himself if in distress. “I’m taking my wares to Baron von Kempelen’s casino!”
            “Then you’re in the right carriage,” Cash observed, indicating further down the aisle an attractive woman at a table with three men. They were playing poker and she was dealing the cards.
            Berenice chuckled and covered her mouth with her gloved hand.
            Frey laughed. “That’s Poker Jane! I wouldn’t trust my luck against her!”
            “Or I against your slot machines?” Cash suggested.
            “Touché, sir!”
            Frey was still chuckling seconds later when two swarthy men entered the carriage, guns drawn.
            “This is a hold-up,” said the tall one with a patch over one eye. “Be generous, folks!”
            His bald companion, shorter with narrow eyes, chuckled, while passing his hat round for valuables. “We have a conscience. We only rob those in first class.”

How will they get out of this predicament? If Raven is innocent, what is Miles going to do about it? Will they find the missing Horace? Will Cash escape from the coffin before his air gives out? What is the significance of the oval portrait? Download the e-book (brilliant price!) to find out more!


Multi-region Amazon link is here

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