Excerpt for Christiana

Chapter 1

Eight Years Later

Council Bluffs, Iowa

Holt Maddock swirled the whiskey in his glass before finishing it off in one gulp. The burn in his throat tugged a faint grimace from him, and he set the glass onto the bar with a thump.

Pinkerton Agent Ben Newsome gulped his down, too, and the crystal tumblers made for a matched set on the gleaming mahogany top.

“They always serve good booze around here,” Holt muttered, his narrowed gaze taking in the restaurant and the long bar, both crowded with travelers soon to board the Union Pacific train heading west.

“Finest bar between Chicago and Denver.”

Holt grunted. He’d been a patron too often for too long. If he never set foot inside this Union Pacific Transfer Station again, he’d be a happy man.

It was time to move on with his life. Being a rifleman with the railroad company had paid the bills for a while, but it was time to put down roots. Follow his one-and-only dream—to build a hotel in his hometown of North Platte, Nebraska. He already had a name for it. The Hotel Maddock, and it’d be the biggest and finest around.

That hotel wouldn’t get built if he was riding the rails most days of every week.

“Train’s going to be leaving soon. Let’s go over the information one more time, shall we?” Ben pulled a pair of tattered photographs from inside his jacket pocket and slid one toward Holt. “Take this.”

Holt slid it back. “I’ve already seen it.”

“Might help recognize her if she shows up.” Ben pushed the small, rectangular paper back toward Holt, closer this time.

A strange pull to look at the young girl in the picture overcame his reluctance. Again. A colorless image of her staring patiently into the camera lens. Slender. Long, thick hair pulled back from her face. Striking eyes that must have charmed the photographer. She was dressed in the same drab dress every other girl in the Missouri State Industrial School would have worn.

On the back, scrawled in pencil was her name. Christiana Turcotte.

But he gave in and tucked the photograph into his jacket pocket. He refused to argue with the detective, who would only reject Holt’s logic that she would look differently now, a good seven or eight years later.

“Seems to me, it’s been a waste of time trying to find a girl who doesn’t want to be found,” Holt said.

Woman, he corrected mentally. Christiana Turcotte would be a full-grown woman by now. Probably a real beauty, too, since word was she took after her mother in the looks department.

“A real shame we lost track of her,” Ben said. “No one expected her to leave the country as soon as she aged out of reform school. Cost us valuable time, and the trail has gone cold. But the passenger liner she used gave us one solid lead to go on, and that’s that she’s returned to the States.”

“She’s got to be traveling the country under an alias.”

“Seems so, since we can’t find her on any manifests.” The detective heaved a disappointed sigh. “Only makes sense she might head this way to visit her mother. The superintendent at Olivia Turcotte’s jailhouse claims her incarceration is about up. No telling what either of them will do when they reunite, and before they do, we have to find her. We think she’s the only one who knows where those diamonds are.” He tapped a finger on the second photograph. “Take another good look, Holt. Commit it to memory. It’s the only photograph we have of the ring. Came in a black velvet box, for what it’s worth.”

Holt eyed the image, given to the Pinkerton Agency by Tiffany & Company, desperate to recover a ring with more diamonds than most folks could comprehend.

“She’s our last hope.” Ben shook his head as if he was ready to give even that up.

“You’re taking the word of an outlaw as truth. Gil Yancy is a yellow-bellied lowlife who lied about his crimes and was quick to point the finger at the men in his gang, including the woman he professed to love.”

Ben shrugged and returned the photograph to his coat pocket. “His word is all we have to go on. Olivia denied knowing the ring existed.”

“Can’t see her daughter saying anything different. Those two were as close as a mother and daughter could be. Leastways, they were.”

Hence her determination to keep from being found. But Ben would already know that.

His smile tight, he clasped Holt’s shoulder. “You’ve been fighting the bit on this case, lately. Just think of the reward money. Isn’t that good enough incentive for you to help us solve this case?”

Oh, yeah. The money. It had kept him going, for sure. But the prospect, which had long fired up his hopes to build his hotel, had cooled. Finding the ring, and Christiana Turcotte, seemed as unlikely as catching a bull with a butterfly net.

Now was the time to pull away from the investigation. Let someone else keep a watch out for her. The country was too big, the modes of transportation too varied, their suspect too elusive, to encourage any prospect of success.

And Holt had plans. Plans that didn’t include traveling on a Union Pacific train ever again.

Once this ride was done, he was done.

“Look, Ben. I—”

“All aboard!”

The train conductor’s voice boomed through the open windows, and chairs scraped the floor. Passengers gathered up bags and satchels and small children. The whole room headed toward the doors en masse, and since he had to board that train, Holt stood, too.

A woman dressed in an emerald-green gown approached and then passed him, so closely the skirt hems brushed against his pant leg. He might not have noticed her amongst all those people except for the faint cloud of perfume that lingered in her wake. Fine-smelling perfume, too, that made a man appreciate. No one appeared to accompany her, and that was strange. Wasn’t often that a woman traveled alone, especially a beautiful one.

“Best of luck to you, Holt.” The Pinkerton agent held out his hand. Changing his attention, Holt gave him a firm clasp. “I’ll be heading back to Chicago. You know to wire me with any news.”

Ben appeared so hopeful, Holt didn’t have the heart to discourage him by predicting he wouldn’t have any news. In all the years consumed by their hunt for Christiana Turcotte, not once had Holt wired him of progress.

If only he had the same positive outlook as the agent did.

Holt couldn’t see his outlook changing anytime soon.

Ben headed through the restaurant to return to his hotel room. Bringing up the tail end of the crowd, Holt strolled toward the door and the waiting train, but a sign on the wall slowed his steps.

The West Begins Here.

A corner of his mouth lifted. Wrong. The true west began in the next state. Nebraska. Three hundred miles away, in the sandhills, with a hotel waiting to be built.