The Crack in the Lens

A Holmes on the Range Mystery

Holmes on the Range Mysteries (Volume 4 of 5)

Steve Hockensmith

Minotaur Books

1 Gertie And Adeline

Or, Old Red Reopens an Old Wound . . . and It’s a Bloody One

I suspect you’re asking yourself a number of questions right about now. For instance: "Who are these unlucky SOBs with the ropes around their necks?" And: "Where in God’s name are they?" And: "Why would anyone want to string them up?" And: "Can they un-string themselves, somehow?"

And perhaps most important of all, "Do I give a crap?"

Allow me to answer all of the above the best way I know how. Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time, there were two young cowboys. One was named Otto Amlingmeyer—"Big Red" to his friends—and he was strapping, handsome, and as charming as the day is long and all through the night, too.

He was also me.

The other was a tad older, a good sight smaller, and infinitely crabbier. This was Gustav "Old Red" Amlingmeyer—my brother.

One day somewhere in the vicinity of July 1892, Old Red got religion. Not your usual churchgoing, hymn- singing kind, though. No he became a Sherlockitarian. Or maybe you’d call it a Holmesodist. Either way, it was Sherlock Holmes he worshipped.

He first saw the light when I read out a magazine yarn by Holmes’s disciple John (Watson). It was me reading the scripture because my brother couldn’t do it for himself: He can pick out enough letters to read your average brand, but words—let alone sentences and paragraphs and stories and such—remain beyond him.

Yet despite this minor impediment, Old Red got it in his head that he’d make almost as good a detective as the Great One, if given half a chance. And, miracle of miracles, more than one such chance came his way—and he proved himself a top- rail deducifier. So much so that your (admittedly not particularly) humble narrator was moved to put pencil to paper and chronicle his Sherlockery. The result: Old Red found his true calling as a sleuth (albeit an unemployed one), I found my true calling as a tale-teller (albeit an unpublished one), and the both of us were finally striving for a higher purpose than not starving between roundups.

End Part One.

If you’re going to forge on with Part Two, I suggest you make yourself comfortable. It takes up the rest of this book.

It begins when—instead of the "No thank you" or "Not for us" or silence I’d become accustomed to from publishers—I recently received a contract plus two hundred dollars to show it was good for something besides wallpaper. One of my yarns would soon see print.

My ever glum brother had been especially sulky of late, so I left it up to him what to do with the windfall.

"We’re goin’ to Texas," he announced after a day of mute, moody pondering.

"Oh?" I said hopefully.

We were pushing brooms in a Petaluma, California, hatchery at the time (both detecting and drovering jobs being scarce thereabouts). So the hustle of Houston, the bustle of Dallas, the more easygoing allure of Austin or San Antone . . . any of it sounded good to me.

Old Red nodded firmly, eyes aglint with a grim purpose that withered my foolish hope before he even spoke.

"San Marcos."

"Oh," I said, and it was a very different sound this time—knowing and sad and tinged with trepidation.

At last, our future looked bright . . . or something other than hazy gray, anyway. Leave it to my brother to turn back to the dark past.

Now, among the many things Gustav’s not (funny, sunny, as good- looking as his kid brother, etc.) is chitchatty. So there was no idle gab as to whys or wherefores. I knew, more or less—mostly less—and that’d have to do until my brother couldn’t justify silence another second.

The moment finally arrived soon after we stepped off the train in San Marcos, a big town/small city (take your pick) dangling off the eastern edge of the rolling Hill Country north of San Antonio. Old Red led us straight to a dingy downtown hotel called the Star (a place I won’t label a fleabag lest I give offense to fleas) and promptly checked us in.

"Alright, we’ve put off plannin’ long enough," I said, dropping my carpetbag onto the bed and myself on after it. "How we gonna start this thing, Brother?"

Gustav let his own bag drop to the floor with a thud.

"We done started." He closed the door behind him and began moving slowly through the little room, gaze sliding up and down over the sparse, stained fixtures and furniture like he was touring the Smithsonian. "This is where my Gertie was murdered."

I hopped up off the bed so quick you’d have thought I’d stretched myself out on a hot griddle.

"Right here? In this room?"

My brother shrugged without looking at me.

"Could be. She was sent to the Star, and somebody done her in. That’s all I was ever told."

"Gustav," I said, and the soft, solemn sound of my voice turned him around to face me.

Up to that moment, all I’d known was that Old Red—normally so bashful about women he’d blush at the sight of a bustle in a dry goods store—had loved a girl once. A chippie who’d met a bitter end. In San Marcos.

It had taken him years to get around to telling me even that much. Like I said, not a chitchatty man. So I’d never prodded him for more. He’d tell me in his own good time, I reckoned.

But now here we were. Good or not, the time had come.

"Don’t you think you oughta lay out the whole story?" I said. "I mean, sweet Jesus, Brother—till a second ago I didn’t even know the gal’s name."

Gustav drifted over to the room’s one window. Its smudged, cracked glass afforded a scenic view of the brick of the neighboring building and a trash-strewn alley below.

He stood there, his back to me, as he told the tale.

"Gertrude Eichelberger—that was her name. A Hill Country gal. Grew up on a farm not thirty miles from here. Run off ’cuz of . . . family troubles. Well, a gal on her own, no money, knowin’ nothin’ but farm chores and a little sewin’. You know what’s gonna happen to her. So . . . that’s what happened.

"I met her in the local bawdyhouse—the Golden Eagle. I come into town with some other boys from the spread I’d signed on at, and me bein’ a little feller and skirt- shy to boot, naturally I ended up with the new filly who’s just as scrawny- thin and scared as me. ‘Adeline,’ that’s what they called her at the Eagle. I guess ‘Gertie’ don’t have the right sound to it for a . . . woman in that line. Anyway, when she and me went off to her crib to do our business . . . well . . . she up and cried on me.

"You know me. I ain’t sentimental nor particularly soft- hearted, but just about nothin’ I ever saw broke my heart as bad as that little thing a-bawlin’ the way she was. So though I ain’t much of one for words around women, this one I had to talk to, just to soothe her down some. And the more we talked, the more it turned out we had things in common—her comin’ off a farm, her pa bein’ a Deutsch-sprecher just like Mutter and Vater. Why, it coulda been Greta or Ilse sittin’ there."

The mention of our mother and father and sisters—all long dead—added to the lump in Old Red’s throat that had already started to choke off his words. He had to hack out a couple coughs to keep going.

"After that, me and Gertie . . . Adeline . . . we got to be friends, and then more than friends, the more I come back to check on her. The first three, four times I saw her, we didn’t do more than talk. Eventually, though . . . you know. At the time, I was sendin’ most of my money back to the family in Kansas, but before long I was holdin’ back a little extry for me and Adeline, so I could be with her every chance I got. Cuz true love or not, of course, them damned pimps of hers expected me to pay.

"Adeline, she started layin’ some cash aside, too. Which wasn’t easy to do, livin’ as she was—most of them ‘workin’ gals’ ain’t much more than slaves, you know. She had her a hidin’ place where she’d tuck the tips and gifts the fellers give her, though. And when the time was right, she was gonna put her kit with my caboodle, and we’d run off to Kansas."

Gustav paused again. He didn’t just have a lump in his throat now—his voice was so strangled it sounded like he had a watermelon wedged in there. After a few more coughs and a sigh, he managed to forge on.

"I couldn’t get into town more than once a week, so I wasn’t around when it happened. I was out to the ranch I was workin’. The Lucky Seven. Hadn’t been in San Marcos in days. Then a friend of mine—a hand who’d been sent to town after supplies—he comes flyin’ in to tell me something’s happened to Adeline. She’s dead, he says. Been dead. Murdered, two days back.

"I jump on the nearest horse and point it north and dig in my spurs and ride. When I get to the cat house, they just send me straight on to the cemetery—and there she is under a cheap pinewood marker I didn’t even have the letters to find without flaggin’ someone down for help, that’s how useless I am.

"After that, I tried askin’ around, lookin’ to make somebody pay, but I didn’t learn much. Her macks, they sent gals to the Star for special customers didn’t wanna be seen in no brothel. Drummers and the bigger cattlemen and such. Respectable men. So Adeline was over here on a call . . . and some respectable piece of shit up and slit her throat.

"Of course, I didn’t have Mr. Holmes’s method to call on at the time. I didn’t know what to do. So eventually, I just let my friends drag me back to the Seven in a daze."

My brother turned his head to the side, looking away from the window yet still not meeting my gaze.

"This was in October of 1888, exactly five years ago. Five years. . . you understand?"

"I understand," I said.

That part of the story he didn’t have to tell me. I knew it well.

It had been five years since a flood swept over our family farm, the only flotsam left breathing being me. Gustav came back to Kansas to collect me, and ever since we’d been on the drift together.

So in a matter of weeks, he’d lost the love of his life and most of his family and gained a big-mouth ball- and- chain kid. Yet Old Red never let me see anything you might call pain. Irritation, yes—morning, noon, and night—but not weakness. Not hurt. Till now.

"So here we are, after all these years . . ." I took a deep breath and tried to say with conviction what so often felt like mere bluff: "Detectives."

Gustav snuffed out a snort.

"Or so we keep tellin’ ourselves—but things ain’t always worked out so good with my deducifyin’, have they? I mean, we get our answers , sure, but folks always get hurt along the way, and things don’t ever seem to tie up neat. It’s got me thinkin’ . . . maybe I’ve had it all wrong. Maybe I ain’t really meant to be a dee-tective. Maybe I’m just meant to track down one killer . . . and then leave well enough alone."

Well, what was I going to say to that?

You can’t stop detectifyin’ now . . . I just got me a publishin’ contract!

No.

I walked across the room to Old Red—a journey that took my long legs all of three steps, teeny as our wee cigar box was.

"I reckon there’s only one way to know for sure," I said, and I reached out and placed a hand on my brother’s shoulder. "Let’s you and me catch the bastard."

Excerpted from The Crack in the Lens by Steve Hockensmith.
Copyright 2009 by Steve Hockensmith.
Published in July 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.