Starbuck checked the loads in his old Colt. Then he lowered the hammer on an empty chamber and stuffed the sixgun into a crossdraw holster. His suit jacket concealed the rig with no telltale bulge.
On the way out the door, he jammed a Stetson on his head and paused to inspect himself in the foyer mirror. His suit was conservative, as befitted a man in his profession, and he wore a four-in-hand tie that was equally sober. His appointment today at the Denver Club required that he look the part, create a certain impression. He thought he would pass muster.
In the hallway, he bypassed the newly installed elevator. His suite in the Brown Palace was located on the top floor, but he still preferred the stairs. Along with a daily regimen of exercise, the hike up and down four flights of stairs kept him in reasonable shape. He emerged into the lobby some minutes later and walked directly to the street door. Outside, he turned uptown beneath a warm noonday sun.
Springtime was to Starbuck the best of all seasons. Off in the distance, the Rockies were still blanketed with snow, towering skyward into the clouds. Yet by late May the city itself was slowly recovering from the onslaughts of winter. The air was clear and exhilarating, and with the mud season at an end, the streets were baked hard as stone. Passersby seemed somehow uplifted in spirit, and even the clang of trolley cars took on a merry ring. Starbuck’s mood was no less buoyant. The weather, combined with one of his swift-felt hunches, gave him a sense of promise. It looked to be a good day.
Once through the business district, Starbuck continued along Larimer Street. His immediate destination was the Tenderloin. There, within a few square blocks, every vice known to man was available for a price. Saloons and gaming dives catered to the sporting crowd, and variety theaters featured headline acts from the vaudeville circuit. The racy blend of fun and games attracted high rollers from all across the West.
One block over, on Holladay Street, was Denver’s infamous red-light district. Known locally as the Row, it was a lusty fleshpot, with a veritable crush of dollar cribs. Girls waited in doorways, soliciting customers, available by the trick or by the hour. Yet, while these hook shops dominated, there was no scarcity of parlor houses on the Row. Essentially a high-class bagnio, the parlor house offered younger girls and a greater variety, all at steeper prices. Something over a thousand soiled doves plied their trade on Holladay Street, and each in her own way was a civic benefactress. The revenues generated by their license fees were the only thing that kept the city treasury afloat.
For those with a taste for the bizarre, there was Hop Alley. A narrow passageway running between Larimer and Holladay, it was Denver’s version of Lotus Land. Chinese fan-tan parlors vied with the faint, sweet odor of opium dens, and those addicted to the Orient’s heady delights beat a steady path to this back-street world of pipe dreams. To a select clientele, young China dolls were for sale as well.
Still, it was not gambling or girls that brought Starbuck to the Tenderloin. Whenever he was in town, he made a practice of dropping by Murphy’s Exchange, otherwise known as the Slaughterhouse. A watering hole for the underworld, it was home away from home to thimbleriggers, bunco artists, and a wide assortment of shady characters. Moreover, it was the chief source of gossip, not to mention a message drop, for those who lived on the fringes of the law. To a private detective, that made it a lode of hard intelligence. One to be mined at regular intervals.
Starbuck was known to those who frequented Murphy’s Exchange. His reputation as a manhunter—some called him a mankiller—was widely celebrated throughout the West. Only last month he had been instrumental in the death of Jesse James, and previous cases had pitted him against such notorious gunmen as Wyatt Earp and Billy the Kid. Over the years he’d been retained by banks and train companies, and he was reputed to have killed at least twenty outlaws. Yet, for all his renown with a gun, it was his skill as a detective that kept his services in constant demand. He always got results, and it was no secret that he enjoyed his work. He was a hunter of men who seemed born to the job.
Upon entering the saloon, Starbuck walked to a vacant spot at the end of the bar. The noontime crowd, after a quick glance in his direction, suddenly got busy minding their own business. Apart from his reputation with a gun, he was also noted as a man who brooked no familiarity. A strapping six-footer, he was lean and tough, full-spanned through the shoulders. His features were ruggedly forceful, with a square jaw and wide brow, and a thatch of light chestnut hair. But it was his eyes—smoky blue and impersonal—that gave other men pause. His gaze was detached, not so much cold as stoic. A look of one who makes alliances but not friends. The look of a loner, and someone best left alone.
Jack Murphy, the proprietor, moved forward to greet him. Their relationship was one of quid pro quo—a favor here for a favor there—and it had proved mutually profitable in the past. A squat fat man, with a greasy moonlike face and a larcenous disposition, Murphy had only one redeeming quality. He was Starbuck’s principal informant in the Denver underworld.
“Afternoon, Luke.” Murphy wiped the counter with a dirty bar rag. “Buy you a drink?”
Starbuck wagged his head. “Guess I’ll pass.”
“What can I do for you, then?”
“Wondered what you’ve heard on the grapevine.”
“Nothing special.” Murphy stared back at him with round, guileless eyes. “Things are pretty quiet.”
“Things are never that quiet,” Starbuck said pointedly. “Try me and see.”
“Well, lemme think.” Murphy furrowed his brow. “Couple of weeks ago Frank Loving got it down in Trinidad. A saloonkeeper by the name of Allen put his lights out.”
“Cockeyed Frank Loving?” Starbuck inquired. “The gambler?”
“Some folks said it wasn’t gambling, not the way he dealt.”
“You remember Jim Courtright?” When Starbuck nodded, he went on. “A pair of toughnuts tried to rob an ore shipment he was guarding. He shot ’em deader’n hell.”
“New Mexico Territory.”
“Nothing closer to home?”
“Like I said,” Murphy reminded him, “things are slow.”
Starbuck gave him a stony look. “I don’t suppose you’ve heard anything about William Dexter, the lawyer?”
“Not a peep.” Murphy fidgeted uncomfortably. “Why do you ask?”
“I’ve got my reasons.”
“Take some advice, Luke.” Murphy cleared his throat, leaned closer. “Don’t get crosswise of Dexter. He runs with the uptown crowd, and they play rough.”
“Yeah?” Starbuck’s eyebrows narrowed in a quick characteristic squint of mockery. “I always heard that bunch prided themselves on being upstanding Christians.”
“That’s what I mean!” Murphy grunted. “God’s on their side—leastways to hear them tell it—and that makes them double-damn dangerous.”
“I’ll keep it in mind.” Starbuck consulted his pocket watch. “Guess I’d better move along, Jack. Wouldn’t do to be late for an appointment.”
“Hope to hell it’s not with Dexter!”
“You really don’t want to know . . . do you?”
“Not me!” Murphy’s lips peeled back in a weak smile. “I just got a sudden case of deaf.”
Starbuck flipped him a salute. “See you around.”
“Take care, Luke.”
“I always do.”
Outside, Starbuck turned from the Tenderloin and headed back uptown. He thought to himself the saloonkeeper’s advice was worth the trip. He would indeed take care.
The Denver Club was the sanctum sanctorum of the city’s upper crust. Only recently constructed, it was an imposing stone building, four stories high and occupying nearly half a block. Like some medieval fortress, it commanded the intersection of Seventeenth Street and Glenarm.
Crossing the street, Starbuck was reminded that the club was a symbol of Denver’s power structure. Membership was restricted to those of wealth and position, the elite of the business world. Gentlemen met there to socialize and discuss deals, and the pacts they struck often produced a ripple effect throughout the whole of Colorado. Their numbers included bankers and merchant princes, railroad barons and mine owners, financiers and lawyers. As a group, their influence was incalculable, and their political connections extended to the state house itself. They were, in every sense of the word, the aristocracy of Denver’s social order.
For his part, Starbuck held the power brokers in mild contempt. His own origins were humble; but like many of Denver’s upper class, he too was a self-made man. A cowhand turned range detective, he’d grown and prospered, slowly developing a reputation as the leading private investigator in the West. His investment portfolio—which included municipal bonds, real estate, and various mining stocks—now exceeded a quarter million dollars. Yet success and personal wealth had not gone to his head. At bottom, he was still a man of simple tastes, no sophisticate. Nor was he under any great compulsion to curry favor with those who ruled Denver. His opinion of himself was what counted, nothing more.
A similar attitude extended to his professional life. He worked by choice—rather than necessity—for the simplest of reasons. He took pride in his craft, and derived a certain emotional sustenance from danger. High stakes were the lodestone, and in his view, a manhunt was the ultimate wager. Financal independence, of course, allowed him to pick and choose from the many assignments offered. He accepted a case because of the degree of risk entailed, the challenge. To win, there must exist a chance to lose. And each time out, he bet his life.
The interior of the Denver Club was scarcely less than Starbuck had expected. The ceilings were high, and the staircase facing the entrance rose upward like an aerial corridor. Dark paneling predominated, with a massive chandelier suspended overhead and lush Persian carpet underfoot. An attendant escorted him into a room immediately off the central hallway. The decor was opulent, with velvet drapes and damask wallpaper, all heightened by a black marble fireplace and luxuriant leather furniture. An immense oil painting of the Colorado Rockies hung resplendent over the fireplace.
A man in his late forties turned from a sunlit window. He was attired in a black broadcloth coat and gray-striped trousers, with a pearl stickpin nestled in an elegant silk cravat. His voice was well modulated and his manners impeccable. He walked forward, extending his hand.
“How nice of you to come, Mr. Starbuck.”
“Pleasure’s all mine, Mr. Dexter.”
“Won’t you have a seat?” Dexter let go of his hand, motioned him into the room. “May I offer you something to drink?”
“No, thanks.” Starbuck settled into an overstuffed chair. “I never mix liquor with business.”
“An admirable trait.” Dexter dismissed the attendant with a faint nod. He took a chair opposite Starbuck and crossed his legs. “I do appreciate your promptness, Mr. Starbuck.”
“Your note indicated it was a matter of some urgency.”
“And so it is.”
William Dexter, like everyone else in Denver, was aware of Starbuck’s reputation. He knew the detective was admired for his cool judgment and nervy quickness in tight situations. So now, assessing the man and the moment, he wasted no time on preliminaries. He went straight to the point.
“I asked you here on behalf of a client, Mr. Starbuck. I have been empowered to offer you a . . . commission.”
“Commission.” Starbuck repeated the word without inflection. “Would you care to spell that out?”
“Of course,” Dexter replied genially. “My client owns a rather substantial copper mine in Butte, Montana. Day before yesterday, the paymaster was brutally beaten and robbed. My client wants the payroll returned.”
“How much money’s involved?”
“Forty-seven hundred dollars.”
“Hardly seems worth the effort.”
“On the contrary,” Dexter said with exaggerated gravity. “My client is willing to pay you five thousand dollars now and five thousand dollars upon completion.”
Starbuck’s mouth curled in a sardonic smile. “Why do I get the impression we just stopped talking about the payroll?”
“Very discerning, Mr. Starbuck.” Dexter examined him with a kind of bemused curiosity. “Actually, my client’s principal concern is justice. He wants an object lesson made of the robber. A warning, as it were, to anyone with similar ideas.”
The message was familiar. Couched in discreet terms, it was one Starbuck had heard many times before. He was being asked to dispense summary justice, kill an outlaw. His expression revealed nothing.
“Why not let the law handle it?”
Dexter slowly shook his head. “I regret to say that avenue has been foreclosed. The sheriff in Butte identified the robber—a ruffian by the name of Mike Cassidy—but he declined to carry it further. Valor, it seems, has its limits.”
Starbuck studied him with a thoughtful frown. “Are you saying the sheriff lost his nerve?”
“I am indeed!” Dexter announced. “Not without reason, however. Perhaps you’ve heard of a place called Hole-in-the-Wall?”
There was a long silence. Hole-in-the-Wall, located in the wilds of Wyoming, was considered an inaccessible outlaw sanctuary. To Starbuck’s knowledge, no lawman had ever ventured into the remote mountain fastness and returned alive. The assignment, until now a seemingly mundane affair, suddenly piqued his interest. At length, his tone matter-of-fact, he nodded.
“Let’s say I’ve heard of it. So what?”
“Quite simply,” Dexter observed, “the robber has taken refuge in Hole-in-the-Wall. So far as we can determine, no peace officer will go near the place. We thought you might be the man for the job.”
“In other words”—Starbuck kept his gaze level and cool—“you want me to locate Mike Cassidy and kill him. Is that the gist of it?”
“I didn’t say that,” Dexter remarked stiffly. “Of course, by entering Hole-in-the-Wall, I should imagine you’d have no choice. I understand those desperadoes refuse to be taken alive.”
Starbuck regarded him with great calmness. “Who’s your client?”
“Ira Lloyd,” Dexter informed him. “Owner of the Grubstake Mining Company. And, I hasten to add, one of the wealthiest men in Butte.”
“Why use a go-between? Why didn’t he contact me himself?”
“For one thing, he rarely travels to Denver. For another, a man in his position prefers anonymity in such matters. All things considered, an intermediary seems very much in order. Don’t you agree, Mr. Starbuck?”
A moment elapsed while the two men stared at each other. Then Starbuck’s mouth twisted in a gallows grin. “Well, it’s tidy, Mr. Dexter. And I do admire tidy arrangements.”
“Then you’ll take the case?”
Starbuck uncoiled from his chair and stood. “I’ll let you know.”
“Let me know?” Dexter echoed blankly. “When?”
“When I make up my mind.”
Starbuck turned and walked from the room. William Dexter watched him out the door, then eased back in his chair and gazed up at the panoramic painting over the fireplace. A slow, foxy smile creased the corners of his mouth.