The trolley car stopped at Seventeenth and Larimer. Starbuck swung down, waiting for a carriage to pass. Then he crossed to the corner occupied by the Windsor Hotel. His office was on Seventeenth Street, halfway down the block. He strolled along at a leisurely pace.
Denver basked under a bright August sun. To the west, the Rockies jutted skyward, still capped with snow. The air was crystal clear and the afternoon moderately warm. Starbuck’s attire was casual, suitable to the weather. He wore a light corduroy jacket, a linen shirt open at the neck, and a low-crowned Stetson. Under the jacket, snugged tight in a crossdraw holster, he carried a Colt .45 at waist level. Even in Denver, he always went armed.
The office building was directly behind the hotel, across the alley. He mounted the stairs to the second floor and proceeded along a hallway. Several years ago he had established headquarters in Denver. As his business expanded, his office had grown from a modest cubbyhole to a two-room suite. His caseload generally kept him on the move, and his visits to the office, even when he was in town, were sporadic. He turned into a doorway marked by a simple brass placard:
Verna Phelps, his secretary, was seated behind a desk in the outer room. She was a spinster, pushing forty, and seemingly resigned to the life of an old maid. Her hair was pulled back in a severe chignon, and pince-nez glasses dangled from a black ribbon around her neck. She greeted him with a perfunctory nod.
“Afternoon, Verna.” Starbuck nailed his hat on a halltree. “What’s on for today?”
“Where shall I start?”
“That bad, huh?”
“You have a full schedule.”
“Well, like they say . . . no rest for the weary.”
Verna clamped her pince-nez on the tip of her nose. She took great pride in his work as a detective. She even derived a certain vicarious satisfaction from his notoriety as a mankiller. Yet she viewed his personal life with prim disapproval. Between cases, he devoted his nights to Denver’s sporting district and seldom rose from bed before noon. His general attitude was that a man who worked hard was entitled to play hard. The upshot was what Verna considered a mild form of debauchery. She thought it scandalous behavior for a man in his position.
“Perhaps a decent night’s sleep”—Verna gave him a vinegary glance—“would leave you less weary.”
Starbuck yawned. “I like the indecent kind lots better.”
“No doubt!” Verna flushed and handed him a stack of papers. “Here’s your correspondence and the monthly report from your banker.”
“You have a two o’clock appointment with Horace Griffin of Wells Fargo.”
“He sent a note over this morning.”
“What’s it about?”
“I have no idea,” Verna replied. “His note simply requested an appointment.”
“Here or there?”
“Here.” Verna squinted over her glasses. “I thought it safe to reply you would be available—by two o’clock.”
“Ouch!” Starbuck met her frosty look with a grin. “No need to draw blood.”
“I merely deliver messages, nothing more.”
Starbuck laughed and moved through the door to his private office. Nothing fancy, the room contained a desk and several wooden armchairs. On the far wall was a large double-door safe where confidential records were stored. He seated himself in a swivel chair behind the desk and lit a cigarette. Then, with no great enthusiasm, he began riffling through the correspondence.
The letters were routine requests for his services. So far, 1882 had proved to be a banner year. He had played an active part in the death of Jesse James, and he’d broken a criminal conspiracy in Deadwood, Dakota Territory. The cases garnered national attention, and the resulting publicity had boosted his already formidable reputation as a private detective. The volume of mail increased accordingly, and he was now being offered work from every corner of the West. Several firms had even proposed placing him on a yearly retainer. Those letters were the first to hit the wastebasket.
One thing Starbuck prized above all else was independence. His list of clients included railroads and stagelines, mining companies and banks. Yet he was extremely choosy, and money alone was never the determining factor. He accepted an assignment principally for the challenge involved; a run-of-the-mill case was simply passed over without consideration. He could afford to pick and choose by virtue of a sizable investment portfolio. The monthly statement from his banker indicated diversity and sound judgment. He owned substantial blocks of stock in railroads and mining companies, along with municipal bonds and select parcels of real estate. His total worth was approaching three hundred thousand dollars, and dividends alone provided a comfortable income. He enjoyed his work and he took pride in his craft. But he accepted an assignment only when it intrigued him. The wastebasket was constantly full.
Today was no exception. One letter out of the entire stack was set aside for reply. Then, with that bothersome chore completed, he leaned back in the swivel chair. His mind turned to Horace Griffin and the upcoming appointment. He quickly sifted through his mental catalogue on the Wells Fargo division superintendent.
Griffin had first hired him the fall of ’81. The assignment had taken him to Tombstone and pitted him against Wyatt Earp. In the course of his investigation, he had established that Earp was a coldblooded murderer and the ringleader of a gang of stage robbers. The outcome, in his view, was the one black mark on his record. Try as he might—and he’d tried very hard—he had failed to kill Earp. A slippery character, Earp had refused to fight, and therefore escaped Arizona alive. His present whereabouts was unknown, and of no interest to anyone.
Still, even though Starbuck considered the job only half done, Wells Fargo had been appreciative. After Earp’s departure, stage robbery had all but ceased in the Tombstone district. Griffin had put through a request for a bonus, and the head office in San Francisco had approved it without hesitation. Since then, Wells Fargo had been instrumental in steering several clients to Starbuck’s doorstep. One assignment had taken him to San Francisco itself, and another had put him on the trail of Jesse James. The cases, in both instances, were unusual and challenging. So far as Starbuck was concerned, Wells Fargo was a regular tapspring of interesting work. He liked the brand of trouble they sent his way.
Some while later, Verna ushered Horace Griffin through the door. The Wells Fargo superintendent was accompanied by two men, and they trooped into the office like a trio of gravediggers. Their expressions were curiously somber, and Starbuck sensed an undercurrent of tension. Griffin made short work of the introductions.
“Luke, I’d like you to meet Munro Salisbury and John Duggan.” While a round of handshakes was under way, Griffin went on. “Mr. Salisbury is senior partner of the Gilmer and Salisbury Stage Line. Mr. Duggan is president of the Virginia City Mining Association.”
“Nevada?” Starbuck inquired. “Or Montana?”
“Montana,” Duggan responded with a marled stare. “So far as we’re concerned, it’s the only Virginia City!”
“I admire your civic spirit, Mr. Duggan.”
At Starbuck’s invitation, the men took chairs in front of the desk. He was unaccustomed to dealing with committees, and he warned himself to proceed with caution. The nature of his work, which was largely undercover, demanded the utmost secrecy. For all their sepulchral mood, the delegation before him was an unknown quantity. He nodded and smiled.
“What can I do for you gentlemen?”
Griffin took the lead. “Before we get down to cases, let me fill you in on the details. Several years ago Gilmer and Salisbury bought out Wells Fargo’s interests in Montana. We have an express contract with them—primarily gold shipments—but that’s it. We don’t actually operate the stageline ourselves.”
“Sounds like a profitable arrangement.”
“It was,” Griffin remarked stiffly. “Up until a year or so ago. Then the holdups started, and things have gone downhill ever since.”
“Oh?” Starbuck said evenly. “How many holdups?”
“Three or four a month, and that’s just the stagecoaches! Some miners transport their bullion themselves, and they’ve been hit even harder. We’re talking about an epidemic, Luke. Wholesale robbery!”
“And murder,” Salisbury interjected gravely. “At last count fifty-six men had been killed. Twelve were stage employees or passengers, and the rest were miners.”
“I’ll be damned!” Starbuck suddenly looked interested. “What about the law? Why hasn’t your sheriff cracked down?”
“He has!” Salisbury said hastily. “We couldn’t ask for a better sheriff than Henry Palmer. In the last year alone, he’s captured eleven bandits and killed four more. I might add we tried and hanged ten of those he captured. But, as Mr. Griffin told you, it’s an epidemic! No peace officer can be everywhere at once.”
John Duggan cleared his throat. “Are you familiar with that part of Montana, Mr. Starbuck?”
“No,” Starbuck admitted. “I’ve only been through there once, and that was by train.”
“It’s rough country,” Duggan explained. “Only two roads in and out of Virginia City. One to the railroad at Dillon, and the other to Butte. All of it’s mountainous and heavily wooded. Perfect for outlaws—and a nightmare for lawmen.”
“Offhand”—Starbuck paused, an odd smile at the corners of his mouth—“I’d say it’s a matter of the wrong people getting killed.”
The words were spoken in a pleasant voice. Yet none of the men missed the quiet deadliness underlying the statement. Starbuck stared back at them with eyes that were uncommonly blue and deceptively tranquil. He was tall and wide through the shoulders, and his features were ruggedly forceful under a thatch of sandy chestnut hair. Over one eyebrow was a jagged scar, and his nose was crooked a hair off center. He looked like a blooded veteran, cold and dangerous. His moderate tone somehow underscored the impression.
Horace Griffin thought the statement revealed much about the detective. Starbuck was as deadly as the outlaws he hunted—a mankiller—the very attribute needed if ever law was to be brought to Virginia City. At length, the Wells Fargo superintendent shifted in his chair. He looked Starbuck straight in the eye.
“We’d like to retain your services, Luke.”
“Why?” Starbuck asked deliberately. “From what you say, you’re up against a regular army of robbers. What makes you think I’d do any better than your sheriff?”
“The sheriff’s too well known for what we have in mind.” Griffin hesitated, took a deep breath, and let it out slowly. “We have reason to believe the stagecoach robbers are an organized gang.”
“The holdups appear to be planned. We think that would require someone with inside information—a Judas.”
“Any idea who’s behind it?”
“None whatever.” Griffin frowned, shook his head. “But if we’re right, then what we need is an undercover operative. Someone who can get to the bottom of it—and stop it.”
Starbuck understood the message. He was being asked to infiltrate the gang and dispense summary justice. The gang leader—and the Judas—were to be killed. He mulled it over a moment, intrigued primarily by one aspect. He wondered why the robbers murdered their victims so casually, and so often. Then, abruptly, he turned to Duggan.
“What’s your part in all this?”
“I don’t follow you.”
“It’s simple enough,” Starbuck said bluntly. “Griffin and Salisbury want the stage holdups stopped. What’re you after?”
“Law and order,” Duggan informed him. “At this very moment, Virginia City is on the edge of anarchy. Too many miners have been murdered, and there’s no end in sight. It has to stop!”
“What do you mean . . . anarchy?”
“Vigilantes,” Duggan said grimly. “One of our local hotheads is beating the drum for a vigilance committee. Unless you put a halt to these murders, he’ll get his way.”
“What’s his name?”
“Lott,” Duggan said with a grimace. “Wilbur X. Lott. He’s politically ambitious, and he’s using the vigilante issue as a soapbox. People are starting to listen—and that’s dangerous.”
Starbuck fixed him with a speculative gaze. “Do you think there’s some connection between the stage robbers and whoever’s robbing the miners?”
“God, I hope so!” Duggan said vehemently. “If there’s not, then there’s no stopping the vigilante movement!”
Starbuck was thoughtful for a time. His expression was abstracted, and he appeared to be debating something within himself. Then, at last, he looked at Griffin.
“Does anyone know you’ve approached me? Any of your associates, the sheriff, anyone at all?”
“No one,” Griffin assured him. “These gentlemen arrived in Denver only last night. They asked my advice, and I recommended you as the man for the job. That’s as far as it’s gone.”
Starbuck regarded him with great calmness. “I’ll take the assignment on two conditions. First—I do it my own way, no questions asked. Second—all three of you button your lip till the job’s done. Anybody talks out of school and I’ll know where to look.”
Duggan stiffened. “That sounds like a threat!”
“Take it any way you want,” Starbuck said flatly. “It’s good advice . . . the best you’ll ever get.”
“Indeed it is,” Griffin broke in smoothly. “Now, what about your fee, Luke?”
“Same as last time,” Starbuck said without inflection. “Five thousand down and five thousand on delivery.”
“One question, Mr. Starbuck.” Salisbury cocked his head with a quizzical look. “How will we contact you, once you’ve undertaken the job?”
“You won’t.” Starbuck’s eyes were hard, impersonal. “You’ll get a report when the assignment’s completed, not before. That’s the way I work.”
Griffin smiled and rose to his feet. “We’ll wait to hear from you, Luke.”
“Depend on it, Horace.”
When they were gone, Starbuck walked directly to the safe. He spun the combination knob and swung open one of the doors. On an inside shelf were four leather-bound ledgers. He took out the ledger stenciled G-L and returned to his desk. After lighting a cigarette, he opened the ledger to the section flagged with the letter L. He began thumbing through the pages.
The ledgers were a rogues’ gallery of western outlaws. Almost a year ago, he’d begun collecting information on the Who’s Who of the criminal element. Correspondence with peace officers and U.S. marshals across the frontier provided him with hard intelligence. Added to newspaper clippings and material gleaned from wanted dodgers, it gave him a quick and ready reference whenever he undertook a new case. He now had dossiers on more than three hundred gunmen and desperados.
A few moments later he stubbed out his cigarette. There was no page on Wilbur X. Lott, the aspiring vigilante leader. Nor was there any cross-reference indicating an alias. He’d thought it a long shot, but nonetheless worth a try. All things considered, though, it was no great loss. He was accustomed to working in the blind.
Lost in thought, he replaced the ledger and locked the safe. Then he wandered into the outer office. Verna looked up, and he stopped beside her desk.
“I took the assignment.”
“So I heard.”
“Eavesdropper.” Starbuck smiled, nodding absently. “Check out the train schedule. I want to connect with the stageline at Dillon. That’s somewhere in western Montana.”
“When will you leave?”
“Couple of days ought to be soon enough.”
“I’ll see to it right away.”
“Good.” Starbuck turned toward the door. “Guess I’ll call it a day. All that paperwork tuckered me out.”
Verna sniffed. “Don’t forget your theater tickets. A messenger brought them from Mr. Rothacker while you were in conference.”
“Hell’s bells!” Starbuck grumbled. “I forgot all about that!”
“No doubt you wanted to forget.”
Verna extended an envelope, and he stared at it a moment. Orville Rothacker, publisher of the morning Tribune, was one of his few friends in Denver’s society circles. He had accepted the invitation more than a week ago, and there was no way out of it now. With some reluctance, he took the envelope. There were two tickets inside.
“Who’s playing, anyway?” He suddenly remembered, and frowned. “It’s whatzizname—the Irish poet?”
“Oscar Wilde,” Verna said sharply. “And it’s neither a play nor poetry! Mr. Wilde will deliver a lecture on interior house decoration.”
“No kidding?” Starbuck watched her with an indulgent smile. “A poet and a house decorator! What’s he do for an encore?”
“Really!” Verna said with feisty outrage. “Some people consider Oscar Wilde a genius. You might very well be surprised!”
“Nothing surprises me.” Starbuck’s features mirrored cynical amusement. “Course, lots of things surprise Lola. She’ll probably enjoy it.”
“You’re taking her?” Verna asked querulously. “To see Oscar Wilde?”
“What the hell!” Starbuck gave her a satiric look. “They’re both in the show business . . . her and Oscar.”
Verna appeared mortified. She merely stared as he chuckled and walked out the door. Her mind was reeling with the thought of him and his hussy—at the Tabor Grand Opera House!
She suddenly felt faint.