We are delighted to welcome back author Cathy Pegau to Omnimystery News.
Earlier this week we spoke with Cathy about her new Charlotte Brody mystery Borrowing Death (Kensington; June 2016 trade paperback and ebook formats) and we asked if we might have an excerpt from it to share with our readers … and she generously agreed! Here is the first chapter …
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HOW CAN WE, AS AMERICANS, CLAIM to support individual freedoms while advocating for such a restrictive amendment? Not to say overindulging isn't an issue, but even with current prohibition laws in some States and here in the Alaska Territory we have seen a rise in the illegal production and sale of alcohol and associated criminal behavior. There has also been an increase in wood alcohol deaths as the common man attempts to slake his thirst with his own poisonous concoctions. Is this the price we're willing to pay in what can only be a futile attempt at national sobriety?"
Charlotte Brody typed the final lines of her editorial for the next day's edition of the Cordova Daily Times. She grinned as she swiped an errant strand of hair out of her eyes. "That'll give the ladies of the local Women's Temperance League something to grouse about."
She just hoped Andrew Toliver, the Times's owner and publisher, liked it. Since Charlotte started working for him, Toliver had relinquished the roles of chief reporter and typesetter to her and was able to concentrate on his neglected executive duties, as well as edit and run the printing press itself. He was neutral on most major topics, at least as far as what he put in the paper, and it delighted him to have the town talking about what they found within its pages. This would get some tongues wagging, for better or worse.
With the twist of one of the Linotype's several levers, Charlotte sent the sequence of steel mats to the molding mechanism. The machine clattered and whirred, the small motor by her left knee buzzing. In a minute or so, the new lead slug would be molded, dropped into place, and cool enough to handle.
How would Cordovans react to her take on National Prohibition? A fairly even split, she reckoned. No matter what side they supported, she hoped it sold papers. Then again, as the only news source in a town full of folks who enjoyed a good debate, she was more than certain it would.
But that's not why she wrote the article. Increasing sales, while financially beneficial, wasn't her goal as a journalist. Seeking justice, informing the public, and getting them to talk about issues was what she loved about her calling.
Despite President Wilson's attempts to veto it — though not for the reasons she espoused — the Eighteenth Amendment would take effect in less than two months. Perhaps if enough people considered how ridiculous it was, and called for its repeal, this waste of time and energy would be a mere footnote in future history books.
Charlotte slid the stool away from the massive Linotype's keyboard and bent down to flick off the electric motor that ran the gears and chains of the machine. The buzz in her ears subsided. After three months as Mr. Toliver's assistant, she hardly noticed the tang of hot lead from the crucible any more, but silencing the motor was always a relief. She felt her head clear, like cobwebs swept from rafters.
Now, the Nineteenth Amendment, that was a change that truly mattered and would have positive lasting effects. Nearly twenty states had ratified the voting amendment so far, and it looked like more were poised to join in. All the marching, protesting, and arrests of good women and men had made for a long, often painful journey, but it was worth it. Charlotte would never forget the stories of sacrifice and bravery that had paved the way, and couldn't wait to celebrate national suffrage someday soon.
Would she still be in Alaska when that happened? Hard to say. Charlotte's original plan had been to stay over the winter, then she pushed her unofficial scheduled departure back to later in spring. Perhaps she'd spend the summer in the Great Land before returning to New York. She was looking forward to seeing the territory in more pleasant weather. Why not experience all the seasons while she had the chance?
The late November wind rattled a loose panel of the metal roof of the Times office, reminding her pleasant weather was a long way away. It was probably snowing again.
Anxious to finish and get home before the streets were too messy, Charlotte picked up the cooled lead slugs and aligned them in the frame on the proofing table. Seeing no obvious defects in the dull gray reliefs, she rolled ink onto the raised letters, then laid a fresh piece of newspaper over the frame. She used a second, clean roller to create a proof and lifted it carefully. With the eye of an editor, she searched for errors that would require retyping a corrected slug.
Satisfied, Charlotte put the rollers and ink away. Mr. Toliver would be in soon to run the large printing press across the room. First, they'd go over the next day's issue, making changes as necessary, then she'd go home while he stayed overnight to mind the machinery. He preferred working at night, he'd said when he hired her, listening to the rhythm of the press as he perused articles or created special advertisement pages.
The shared tasks suited Charlotte. She was able to write local stories, gather the social notices, tidbits, and comings and goings endemic to a small town paper during the day, and still work on her serialized account of women in Alaska for The Modern Woman Review in the evenings. What made for news in a remote Alaska town wasn't usually as exciting as back in New York, but you learned who threw the most popular dinner parties.
She closed the door of the press room behind her and entered the main office. It was much cooler away from the Linotype, despite the coal stove in the corner. Quieter too, with only the ticktock of the cuckoo clock to challenge the periodic howl of the wind. She checked the time as she sat at Toliver's messy desk. After eight already? He should be here soon.
Charlotte slid a piece of scratch paper under the circle of light made by the desk lamp and jotted a note about the thunking she'd heard earlier within the Linotype. Toliver had instilled in her the need to keep the intricate machine in tip-top shape, as it was their bread and butter.
Setting the note where he'd see it, or at least eventually find it, Charlotte was drawn to an article that had come in over the Associated Press Teletype on coal miners threatening to strike down in the States. Though she'd seen the articles hours ago, she often only scanned pieces as she organized them for printing.
Goodness, what sort of things are happening to those poor people? She started to read, frowning at their plight. A triple knock on the front door jerked Charlotte's eyes open. She'd meant only to rest them for a moment. Late nights and early mornings were starting to catch up with her.
All she could see through the frosted glass was a vague, dark figure. The streetlight must have gone out again. Who would be out on a night such as this? Toliver wouldn't have knocked, as he had his own key.
"Michael or James," she answered herself as she rose, her voice rough in her own ears. Her brother or the deputy marshal occasionally checked in on her at the office. Chances were good it was one of them.
Back in New York, she would have ignored a nighttime visitor. Or taken one of Michael's old baseball bats with her. Here, she was fairly confident the person outside wasn't going to hurt her. Besides, she'd left the bat at her parents' house.
She opened the door. A gust of cold, wet wind blew in, making her shiver.
Deputy Marshal James Eddington stood at the threshold, melting slush dripping off the brim of his hat. "You shouldn't be opening the door without asking who it is."
"Are you saying you're unable to keep the streets of Cordova safe enough for a woman to be at her own place of employment without worry?" Charlotte smiled as she said it, letting him know she was just teasing. James was a very good deputy, committed to his job, and most everyone in town knew he and Marshal Blaine weren't to be trifled with when it came to breaking the laws of the territory.
James's black eyebrows met in a scowl, but there was a glimmer of amusement in his eyes. "Common sense should come into play, even here. There are some unsavory elements about."
She'd certainly learned that in her three months in town.
"I'll be more careful from now on," she promised. "Come in and warm up. I'm almost done."
James slipped in when Charlotte stepped aside. She closed the door after him. He swept his hat from his head, shook off the excess water carefully to avoid wetting her, and hung it on a peg screwed into the wall alongside her own hat and coat.
"More snow since early evening. Cold and slick out there," he said as he unbuttoned his coat. "Wanted to make sure you get home okay."
Though warmed by his concern, Charlotte rubbed her chilled bare arms, her sleeves held up by an old pair of garters so they wouldn't get dirtied by the Linotype. "That's very kind of you. Sit for a minute while I finish a few things. Mr. Toliver should be here soon. Would you like some tea? I think the water's still hot."
"Toliver doesn't have anything stronger stashed in his desk?" James asked with a sly smile.
He did, but friend or not, Charlotte wasn't about to admit it to a deputy who enforced Alaska's dry laws. "Just tea."
"Then tea'd be great, thanks." He sat on the straight-back chair on the other side of the desk while she went to the stove to check the kettle. Still hot enough to make a decent cup.
Charlotte prepared their tea and brought the cups to the desk. She sat in Toliver's padded chair, suddenly at a loss for what to say to James. They'd been friendly enough since she'd arrived in Cordova in August, and he was easy to talk to. They'd even gone to dinner, and another time a show at the Empress Theater with her brother and her friend Brigit. And they'd shared a kiss. That was as far as she'd allowed herself to take their relationship in a physical sense. Charlotte was pleased that they engaged in enjoyable conversations on all manner of topics most of the time they were together.
So why was she unable to come up with small talk now, as they sat in a dimly lit office while the wind blew outside?
"Anything exciting in tomorrow's paper?" He watched her over the rim of the cup as he sipped.
Relieved to break the silence and have something to focus upon, Charlotte passed him the originals of the articles she'd transcribed. "Mostly the usual, though there are a few that should get some attention."
How would Deputy Eddington and Marshal Blaine take her editorial? They already knew her personal stance on Prohibition, and Blaine had more or less agreed with her that enforcement was difficult. Putting it in print for all of Cordova to see was another matter.
He glanced through the drafts, stopping at a page and frowning. "This damn arsonist is driving us crazy."
"At least there hasn't been any serious damage or injury." Charlotte had written three pieces about fires set over the last month. Abandoned sheds and piles of brush seemed to be the arsonist's main source of entertainment.
"Not so far," James said, "but this is the third year he's done it. Sets a few fires, then stops. I'd rather not have this be an annual event."
"How unusual. Are you sure it's the same person?" There was no evidence pointing to anyone or any particular pattern other than the timing.
"Not really, but in a way, I hope so." He shook his head slowly. "We don't need a copycat — "
A muffled boom from somewhere not too distant cut him off, followed by three more smaller ones in quick succession. The explosions weren't loud, more like when she'd stood on the street in New York City for a parade and heard the bands' bass drums while they were still a couple of blocks away.
James set his teacup down quickly, sloshing liquid onto the pages on the desk, and bolted from his seat. Charlotte followed him. Throwing open the door, he stood on the walk looking up and down Main Street. His eyes widened as he faced west, toward the canneries.
"It looks like Fiske's. Call the firehouse," he said, already running in that direction.
Charlotte took a quick look. Though she didn't see flames, there was an unnatural glow coming from two streets away. She about-faced, dashed back to the desk, and snatched up the candlestick phone. Placing the earpiece against her ear, she flicked the bracket several times.
After a few long moments, a drowsy voice answered. "Operator."
"There's been an explosion and a fire," Charlotte said. "At Fiske's Hardware."
"I'll call it in," the operator replied, perkier now. "Anyone hurt?"
"I don't know. Deputy Eddington went down there. Hurry."
Charlotte hung up before the operator. She grabbed her notepad and a pencil from the desk and practically broke her neck hopping from one foot to the other as she pulled off her shoes. Thank goodness single buckles and slip-ons had replaced high-laced styles, but they weren't good in snow. She hurried to the door, shoved her feet into her heavy boots, on top of her wool socks stuffed inside, and yanked her hat and coat off their pegs.
Struggling to get her coat on while she slipped and slid in the slush, Charlotte made her way to the end of the street. By the time she turned toward Fiske's, fire licked at the side window of the building. Luckily, there was some distance between the hardware store and its nearest neighbor. The idea of a block-long inferno scared the hell out of her.
He was nowhere in sight. The door was open and black smoke poured out, dimming the streetlight on the far corner. The acrid stench of burning chemicals made Charlotte's eyes water. Her heart raced and her palms were clammy , despite the cold. She stepped back, rubbing the thin scar beneath her left eye. Not long ago, she'd been caught in a burning room, and the memory was too fresh to allow her to get any closer.
"James!" She called again, praying he hadn't gone inside.
The smoke was getting thicker, the flames growing larger and louder. The upper floor seemed untouched, for the moment, but that wouldn't last long.
Charlotte heard the bell clanging from the firehouse near the harbor. If any of the volunteers had spent the night there, they would be on the scene soon. But would it be soon enough?
She reached into her pocket for the notebook and pencil. Taking notes and focusing on the facts for the article she'd write kept her worry for James at bay, for the moment.
Several people joined her on the corner, some with coats pulled on over nightclothes.
"Anyone call the fire department?"
"I heard the bells going."
"What the hell happened? Anyone inside?"
Charlotte glanced up at the building as the flames snapped and flashed through the windows. God, she hoped the building had been empty. A shudder ran through her. She shoved her notebook into her pocket, buttoned her coat, and crossed her arms against the cold. Thank goodness she'd worn an old pair of long johns under her skirt.
By the time the sound of yelling and the clang of the fire engine bell came up the road, the fire had grown and smoke billowed out of the upper floor window. The two-horse-drawn pump cart with six men hanging on was followed by the three-horse tank cart. The firemen leaped off their carts before they came to a complete stop, boots squishing in the icy mud. Two men connected the tank hose to the pump. Others connected the fire hose to the other end of the pump and unrolled the rubberized canvas toward Fiske's.
Three men donned hard leather masks that covered their heads, the eyepieces giving them an insect-like appearance. Hopefully the air canisters attached to the back of the mask would sustain them long enough to extinguish the flames. When their equipment was secure, they hurried to the hose.
"Ready!" came the muffled cry of the man at the front as he waved an arm. He pointed the nozzle toward the open door. Four men operated the pump mechanism, two to a side. After a few pumps, water shot out of the nozzle. The man in the front slowly walked forward, the others behind keeping step.
James came around from the back of the building, and Charlotte breathed a sigh of relief. He strode directly to Chief Parker, who wore a black, hardened leather helmet with a metal crest on the front, and began talking and gesturing. Charlotte couldn't hear what they were saying over the rush of water, the roar of flames, and the chatter of the men near her.
"Charlotte, are you all right?"
She turned toward her brother. Like some of the other men, Michael wore his mackinaw over a stripped pajama shirt and hastily donned trousers.
"I'm fine. Did you get a call? Is someone hurt?" Charlotte hadn't seen anyone come out of Fiske's with an injury. Maybe he'd been contacted as a precaution.
"No, I heard the commotion. But I have my bag, just in case." He held up his leather satchel, then turned his gaze to the building. "I pray I won't need it."
James nodded at something the chief said, then walked over to them. Melted snow plastered his hair to his head, but he didn't seem to be feeling the effects of the wet or cold. "Doc," he said, greeting Michael. "Shouldn't have been anyone inside, but if you'll stick around to make sure the firemen are okay, I'd be obliged."
"Of course," Michael replied. "Has anyone gotten word to Fiske?"
"One of Parker's sons was sent to the house. He's not back yet."
The men manning the hose hadn't gone far beyond the front door. One inside shouted something. The men stepped back several steps as a loud crash sounded within the building. Black smoke billowed out of the windows and over their heads.
The onlookers startled and stepped back. Though they were far enough away to be safe from the flames, the chemical smell burned Charlotte's nose and eyes. Several men wiped sleeves across their faces.
"There's the chief's son," James said, nodding toward a lanky youth jogging down the road as fast as the slick surface allowed. He joined Parker and his son. The young man was shaking his head as he spoke. James returned to Charlotte and Michael, his brow deeply furrowed. "Fiske wasn't at home. No one but the housekeeper was there."
"Caroline's out of town," Charlotte said. She recalled placing the travel announcement and Caroline Fiske's promise of a holiday party upon her return on the social page of the paper. "She gets back any day now."
"That's what the housekeeper told the kid. Helluva homecoming," James said.
All of them looked back at the building. Dread solidified in the pit of Charlotte's stomach.
"Maybe he's at one of the clubs or something," Michael suggested.
"I'll check around." James raked his fingers through his wet hair. "I need to catch that damn arsonist. This has gone too far."
It seemed like hours before the firemen trudged out of the building, smudged with soot and dripping water. The outer walls of the hardware store had scorched, but remained intact from what Charlotte could see. Thank goodness they lived in such a wet environment. The interior, however, was likely a total loss.
The chief met with one man as he and his companions helped each other remove their masks, taking care with the air canisters. Charlotte couldn't hear their conversation, but the man gestured back to the building, curving his hand as if giving direction. Parker's frown deepened. Even from where she stood, Charlotte heard his emphatic, "Son of a bitch."
He looked out toward the crowd, his gaze falling on James. "Deputy," he called, waving James over. "You too, Doc."
The three of them exchanged glances, and the dread in Charlotte's gut turned to a bilious cramping. There was only one reason to request Michael, the town's coroner as well as one of its doctors.
"Damnation," James muttered, heading to the chief.
Michael and Charlotte followed. Both men stopped and turned to her.
"No," James said, holding up a hand. "This is no place for you."
Irritation bristled at the back of her neck. "I beg to differ, deputy. As a journalist I have an obligation to report suspected crimes."
Michael rolled his eyes. "Here we go again."
She scowled at him.
"And as Deputy Marshal," James said, "my investigation into suspected crimes trumps your journalistic obligation. I'll relay any pertinent information to you, Miss Brody, but right now I'm ordering you to remain out here. If you don't, I'll handcuff you to the light post. Understood?"
He'd do it too. Charlotte resisted her natural inclination to argue with anyone who told her she couldn't do this or that and gave him a curt nod. James nodded back. They'd known each other only a few short months and had quickly come to respect each other's duties. When James felt it was time to disclose information for public consumption and safety, he'd do it. Pushing him too far, too fast, would likely land her in one of his jail cells. Or cuffed to a post.
Charlotte would comply, but she didn't have to like it.
James and Michael made their way to the door of the hardware store with the chief. Two firemen loaned them their masks. The fire may have been out, but smoldering embers and toxic fumes from whatever chemicals Fiske had in his inventory could prove dangerous, if not outright fatal. The three men disappeared into the blackened store. Charlotte caught a few glimpses of smoky light from Parker's flashlight.
Worry gnawed around the edges of her irritation. What was inside the charred store? No amount of craning her neck allowed her to see past the front door.
"What's happening, Miss Brody?"
Charlotte gave Henry, one of her paper boys and a server at the café, a nod of greeting. What was he doing out so late? "The chief asked Deputy Eddington and Michael to look at something inside."
Under the wan electric streetlight, Henry's ruddy cheeks paled. "What would they need the doctor for? Someone inside get hurt?"
She wouldn't be the one to start rumors or set off wild speculation. James would never forgive her that transgression. "I couldn't say."
Henry stared at the front door and broken window leaking smoke, his expression the same as the few remaining gawkers who stayed to see what James and Michael might find. "It's not Mr. Fiske, is it? I mean, who else would be in his store at this hour?"
"We don't know what's what, Henry, so let's not jump to conclusions." She sounded a lot like James, but the words offered a small amount of hope that Lyle Fiske was all right.
"Even so," Henry said, "the store's a goner." He glanced at Charlotte. "Do they think the arsonist did it?"
Charlotte and others had entertained the same thought. "I'm sure the fire department and the marshal's office will investigate every possibility. But the three other fires were smaller, in places where no one was around. This seems like a significant increase in destructive intent to me."
Henry nodded, his attention back on the building and the firemen putting their equipment away.
Finally, Michael emerged from the hardware store. A fireman helped him with the mask. Michael took a deep breath of fresh air, but his face was drawn.
Charlotte started toward him. "Excuse me, Henry."
Her feet slid in the slushy road. It was particularly mucky where the water tank had been dripping, adding to the mess of the wet snow. As she reached Michael, James exited the building with the fire chief, the two of them talking in hushed tones, but their expressions were similar to Michael's. James held something heavy wrapped in cloth and under his jacket to protect it from the snow.
"It's bad, isn't it?" Charlotte kept her voice low and her back turned so the onlookers wouldn't pick up on their conversation. No need to get rumors started. "Lyle Fiske?"
Michael nodded. "It looks like it. They'll bring the body over to the basement of the hospital. The new morgue is up and running. Just wish we didn't need it so damn soon."
"You'll confirm who it is and manner of death for an article, won't you?" Charlotte had no desire to attend this autopsy. One was enough for her lifetime.
Images of Darcy Dugan's autopsy three months ago flashed through her mind like a jittery nickelodeon. Charlotte quickly pushed them aside. Insisting on attending that examination might have been a mistake, despite the fact that the results explained why the young prostitute had been murdered. She'd rely upon Michael's explanation alone this time.
"I don't want anything out about this yet," James said as he joined them. He looked cold and wet, his hair dripping. "There are circumstances that need clearing up."
"Like what?" she asked. "How the fire started? Do you think it was the arsonist?"
"Those questions, and who'd want Lyle Fiske dead."
"You're sure it was intentional?" What a terrible idea.
"The fire may not have been," James said, bringing the cloth-wrapped items out from under his coat, "but the knife and hammer near his body suggest his death was deliberate."
Charlotte shifted on the uncomfortable chair in Michael's outer office. Staying late at the Times's office the night before, she'd typed up a short piece for the morning edition, just a few lines of facts and observations of the fire department's activities. Mr. Toliver had arrived by the time the fire department was finishing up. He manned the Linotype, encouraging Charlotte to go home and get some rest.
Sleep had been nearly impossible. Speculation about how the fire had started, why, and the identity of the unfortunate victim were left out of the article, but not her thoughts. The discovery of a possible murder weapon contributed to theories about what had happened.
Poor Mr. Fiske. Charlotte hoped he was dead before the fire started. Awful as that sounded, she couldn't imagine the terror of being conscious while the building burned around him.
The outer door opened and Michael came into the office, quickly closing out the cold and wind. Charlotte caught a whiff of burnt flesh under the "hospital" smell of carbolic acid and cleanser. Probably just her imagination, but she rose and cracked open the window for some fresh air despite the winter chill.
"How'd it go, Michael?"
He hung up his hat and mackinaw, then sat in the chair behind his desk. In his usual manner of preparing to deliver bad news, Michael straightened his tie and smoothed back his hair before meeting her gaze.
"I do believe it's Lyle Fiske," he said. "Build and clothing — what's left of it — are consistent with Fiske. His features had been damaged by flames, but not completely burned away. Still, since no one's been able to find Fiske in town, I believe it's him."
"Did the fire kill him?" She knew that often people were overcome by smoke before burned by the flames of a fire. With so many chemicals in the hardware store, it wouldn't have surprised her if toxic fumes had rendered him unconscious first. But unless he'd been asleep in his office, how had he not been capable of escaping? The presence of the knife and hammer became more than a little suspicious.
Michael scrubbed his palms over his face, the whiskers on his cheeks just long enough to become disheveled. She'd gotten used to the mustache he sported, but a beard was something else. Though understandable, given the climate. "I think he was dead before the fire."
Thank goodness for small favors, Charlotte thought. "Why do you say that?"
"His clothes and skin were burned, and he smelled of chemicals as if he'd been doused with paint thinner or something. That obliterated any obvious wounds on his front. I think the debris that fell on him after the explosion smothered the flames, essentially preserving the rest of the body. The clothing and skin on his back was relatively unscathed. But when I opened him up — "
Her stomach flipped, but she quickly suppressed memories of Darcy's body. How Michael managed to distance himself from such gruesome elements astounded her. It must have been difficult to be detached, especially in a small town where he was often familiar with the victims. On the one hand, she knew he was sympathetic to his patients' conditions. On the other, he managed to dictate graphic details of injury and illness with nary a hitch in his voice.
" — blood in his chest cavity," Michael said.
"A slit in his heart's apex. There was an obvious cut on the inside of his thoracic cavity and into the heart muscle." Michael pointed at his own chest, just under his sternum. "The killer thrust upward. Not an easy task, but the knife we found was large enough to do the trick. Still, whoever killed Fiske was pretty strong, and either lucky or skilled."
A shudder ran through Charlotte. The idea of a "skilled" killer in Cordova brought to mind the terrors of a Jack the Ripper — type. Let's not blow this out of proportion.
"Why would someone kill him?"
"That's Eddington's job, not mine. All I can say is he was likely dead, or close to it, prior to the fire." Michael shrugged and slowly shook his head, looking weary. "Fiske was a decent sort, as far as I knew him. He and his wife were well-liked."
"Not by everyone, perhaps." Charlotte had met the couple only a few times. Caroline was ten or so years older than she, Lyle another ten years older than his wife. They were friendly enough, and Caroline seemed to enjoy being among Cordova's growing number of society matrons — wives of the more prominent and successful businessmen.
After checking back issues of the Times earlier, Charlotte had found the social page where Mrs. Fiske's travel plans had been mentioned. On a more practical note, the fact she was out of town meant she wasn't a suspect. Michael had said killing Fiske took some strength as well. That covered a number of men and women who lived in a place that required muscle and skill to survive.
"Eddington will be questioning the housekeeper and whoever else works for them to ask about any problems and her return plans. In the meantime, we'll have Fiske taken over to the funeral parlor. I don't envy them this preparation." Michael rose, stretched his back, and crossed to stand with her at the window. "I know that look in your eye, Charlotte. Keep your nose out of this and let Eddington do his job."
She held up her right hand in the Boy Scout salute. "I promise not to impede his investigation."
Michael squeezed her fingers. "That isn't the same thing as staying out of it."
Charlotte eased her hand out of his and rose up on her toes to peck him on the cheek. "I wouldn't want you to call me a liar. Let me know when you want me to type up your report for Juneau."
As his sometime secretary, Charlotte helped keep his patient files and official reports organized. Sending copies to the territorial capital was one of the tasks she helped with.
"About that," he said, cheeks pinkening under his new beard. "I'm getting someone to help me with paperwork and some interpretation issues."
Charlotte couldn't help the surprise widening her eyes. "You are? Since when?"
They saw each other every day, or just about, and he'd never mentioned getting help.
"Well, it's not official yet, but with more of the Natives coming into town for work and whatnot, I thought it would be a good idea to have someone with me who knew them better."
That made sense, but it didn't explain why he'd never mentioned it to her.
"And I've been busy with the newspaper and unavailable," she said.
Michael's mouth quirked into a crooked grin. "That too. But mostly because Mary can really help me communicate with her people. And she needs the job."
"Mary?" Charlotte wasn't nearly as familiar with the local Eyak population as he was, and there were a number of Marys around.
"Mary Weaver. You might have heard her called Old Creek Mary. She's worked at the grocer off and on."
"Oh, yes." Charlotte recalled a young Native woman stacking shelves or behind the counter at McGruder's. A lovely girl. Well, not a girl. She was probably the same age as Charlotte. "She has a couple of kids, doesn't she?"
"That's right. A boy and a girl, five and around three. The grandmother watches them when Mary's working." Michael returned to his seat at the desk. "Her husband died last spring."
"It was. When she mentioned she was looking for something more challenging than stacking shelves, I sort of offered her a job." He winced. "You don't mind, do you?"
"Of course not. In fact, I'm looking forward to talking to her." Charlotte crossed the room and retrieved her coat and hat from the peg on the back of the door.
Just as she lifted the mackinaw, the door opened and she quickly stepped out of the way to avoid getting hit.
James came in and shut the door behind him. Removing his hat, he said, "Shoulda known you'd be here before me."
Charlotte grinned. "Early bird gets the worm." The deputy shot a questioning look at Michael. "Don't worry, James, I promise not to write or say anything until you give me the go-ahead. I won't compromise your investigation. But you'll inform me of any developments, right?"
James and Michael exchanged glances. After the terrible situation with Darcy Dugan, they knew Charlotte couldn't help but get herself involved. But they could also trust her to keep her word and not spoil the case.
"You've told her how Fiske died?" James asked Michael. There was a hint of irritation in his voice.
"She's my current secretary of record," Michael said. "I trust her with keeping pertinent evidence and case information to herself."
He'd just told her that a different person would be performing that task, yet here he was, covering for her, practically lying to James. Though it was possible Michael wouldn't want to frighten his soon-to-be assistant Mary with the horrible details of an autopsy.
Charlotte suppressed a grin of appreciation. Not only for him standing up for her, but for the renewed closeness they'd achieved since she arrived in Alaska. Terrible things had transpired for each of them, inspiring them to regain the relationship they'd shared as children. In a way, Charlotte was glad for the challenges and heartache they'd both endured. Without it, they may never have reconnected.
James shook his head, resigned for the moment. "Fine. Was there a stab wound, or was it the blow of the hammer?"
"Stab." Michael recapped his autopsy findings. "Any idea why someone would kill him?"
"Robbery. The till was open and empty."
Charlotte could see that scenario play out in her head. The thief broke into Fiske's store after hours, thinking it empty. Lyle happened to be there, working late while Caroline was out of town. Surprised, the thief killed Lyle, then set the fire to cover up the crime.
"Whoever did this is looking at a life sentence, if not worse," James said.
Robbery was bad enough, but compounding it with murder — intentional or not — was almost a surefire way for the culprit to get hanged or sent to the electric chair.
"Have you been able to contact Caroline?" Charlotte wasn't close to the woman, but couldn't imagine returning from holiday to such horrific news.
James rubbed the back of his neck. His eyes seemed sunken in with weariness. "Just talked to the housekeeper. She comes in on tomorrow's steamer. I'll get a message to the naval office outside town. They'll wire the ship to have everyone kept on board when they get in. Better she wonder about the delay than come down the gangplank to a dock full of gawkers."
Charlotte nodded, appreciating his sensitivity about the matter. "You may want to have a friend of hers or at least the housekeeper with you."
"Good idea." He eyed her warily. "And no, not you."
Indignation heated her face and neck. "I'm a journalist, not a ghoul, deputy. The woman deserves her privacy at a time like this."
"I'm glad we agree on that." James set his hat on his head and touched the brim in his standard salute. "Get me a copy of the autopsy report as soon as you can, Doc."
"I'll do that, but I think a nap is in order first." Michael covered a yawn, as if the very idea of sleep made him more weary.
Charlotte buttoned her coat and donned her hat. "I think that's a fine idea. Walk me home, deputy?"
James's eyes widened, but without pause he opened the door. "Of course, Miss Brody. See you later, Doc."
As she walked with James, Charlotte pulled on a pair of mittens she kept in her coat pocket. The colorful wool cheered her, and reminded her of her friend Kit, who'd sent them as an early Christmas present. The sun had supposedly risen an hour before, but thick, dark clouds that were low enough to obscure the tops of the surrounding mountains made it feel much later. Few people were out on the snowy street, though there was inviting light from within businesses.
So far, the cold and wet of Cordova, Alaska, in late November hadn't been any worse than what she'd experienced back East; it just felt colder and wetter because of the shorter days. Sunrise around nine or ten and near dark by four in the afternoon took some getting used to. Some people never got used to it. Add that to being cooped up when bad weather hit, further darkening the skies, and folks tended to get a little antsy. Maybe the bears had the right idea, to hibernate until warmth and light returned.
Those who could stick it out loved it in the Great Land. She enjoyed interviewing those people and sharing their stories with Modern Woman readers. It was a matter of keeping busy, she'd been told more than once. That explained the frequent changeover of shows at the Empress Theater and the weekly community dance or two. Keeping entertained and social was a good prescription for fending off cabin fever.
"I didn't mean to imply you'd harass Mrs. Fiske as soon as she got off the boat," James said as he took her arm and guided her around a large, slushy puddle. "If you weren't a journalist, I'd have asked you to come with me. I just don't want her to feel overwhelmed."
"Apology accepted," she said. "Did you get much information from the Fiskes' housekeeper or employees? Was Fiske having trouble with anyone?"
James shook his head. "I spoke to Mrs. Munson, but she's only been working there a month and didn't see Mr. Fiske all that often. Fiske had two men working with him at the store. I'll interview them later this morning."
"Michael said Fiske seemed like a decent sort." Charlotte watched him for a reaction. James tended to have a spot-on opinion of most people in town. They both knew a person's public life could conceal unpleasant private activity.
He flicked a glance her way and shrugged. "Nothing reported to us."
"But you have your suspicions." What could James think Fiske was up to?
"I'm suspicious of just about everyone, Charlotte. It's my job."
She grinned. "Mine too."
In about ten minutes, they'd navigated the slippery incline of a side street — most everyone lived uphill of Main Street — and stopped in front of the little green house where Charlotte was staying. The owners, Harold and Viola Gibbins, were in the States for the winter. Having Charlotte live there gave them peace of mind that their home would be cared for while they were away. And since the first place Charlotte had lived in had burned down in August, she now had a roof over her head.
The house, with its footings set to compensate for the angle of the road, was large enough to provide plenty of room, but small enough to feel cozy. The wood stove heated the place quickly, which Charlotte had appreciated each and every morning since late September.
James held her elbow as they ascended the stairs. The staircase wobbled a bit, and Charlotte made a mental note to have it looked at. Standing in front of the black door, James said, "All settled, are you?"
"I didn't have much to move in, thankfully, but yes." Her parents were shipping more of her things, but storms had delayed arrivals from Seattle.
She glanced up at the quaint little home and the neighbors' similar houses. She'd only briefly met the folks on either side, but felt comfortable here, like she belonged. "I'll need to find another place before Mr. and Mrs. Gibbins return in March. It'll have to be bigger than a room at a boarding house, though. I rather like having the space to move about."
She tended to pace and putter about while mulling her writing, a challenge in a single room.
"So you're staying past spring."
Charlotte eyed him curiously. Was he asking or concluding? "That's my current plan."
James nodded. "Good. That's good."
"I'm glad you approve." She poured as much sarcasm into the words as she could while grinning.
He started at her tone. "I'm not approving anything." She laughed, and his face pinkened beneath his dark beard. "What I mean is, you don't need my approval or anyone else's. I'm glad you're staying. If you are."
The urge to tease him diminished, but only a little. "Even if I'm bothersome?"
"I'm hoping you'll grow out of that," he said with a mock scowl.
Charlotte laughed again. "Don't count on it." She unlocked the door and glanced over her shoulder. "Thank you for walking me home."
James put his hand on the door frame, leaning slightly toward her. "Why did you ask me to, Charlotte?"
She turned and stared at him, her body suddenly tense, aware of his proximity. Why had she asked? Honesty seemed the best course with James Eddington. "Because I enjoy your company."
Even if he did seem to tie her tongue at times.
The smile he gave her brought out the dimple in his cheek. "The feeling's mutual, Miss Brody." He tugged the brim of his hat. "Good morning."
"Good morning, deputy," she said, more breathlessly than intended.
He made his way down the stairs and strode back toward Main Street. As she watched him turn the corner, Charlotte wondered for the umpteenth time if she'd ever be able to let herself truly relax around him.
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Photo provided courtesy of
Cathy Pegau cut her writing teeth on sword and sorcery fantasy and science fiction romance, but also loves the challenge of trying new things. While researching local history for an Alaska-based post-apocalyptic pirate tale, she learned of some real life events that spurred the creation of a historical mystery. No speculative fiction, no aliens, no magic. It's funny where research will lead. She lives in a small fishing town in Alaska with her family, pets, and the occasional black bear wandering through the yard.
For more information about the author, please visit her website at CathyPegau.com and her author page on Goodreads, or find her on Facebook and Twitter.
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