Murder on the Last Frontier

M
URDER
ON THE
L
AST
F
RONTIER
CATHY PEGAU
KENSINGTON BOOKS
www.kensingtonbooks.com
All copyrighted material within is Attributor Protected.
Acknowledgments
M
any thanks to . . .
 
Mary Van Den Broek for inspiration from a story he told as my family and I explored a nearly forgotten graveyard.
Michele Harvey, beta reader extraordinaire, for catching glitches and asking all the right questions.
Author friends Alyssa Linn Palmer and Sharron Camaratta for reading/critiquing/plot help. You both keep me on track, tell it like it is, and make me a better writer.
Cathy Sherman, Nancy Bird, Mimi Briggs, and Denis Keogh at the Cordova Museum for letting me scour files and pick their brains. Paula Payne, Miriam Dunbar, Sally Campbell, and Anna Hernandez from the Cordova Public Library for support and pointing me to the right drawers and shelves.
Lovely agent Natalie Lakosil for sticking with me even when I'm freaking out.
Editor John Scognamiglio for liking Charlotte as much as I do and giving her a chance to get out in the world.
Extra special thanks to my friends and family for support and love. I couldn't do this without you!
Author's Notes
T
his is a work of fiction, just like it says in the disclaimer. No real persons, past or present, are depicted in these pages. The murder itself is loosely based on an incident I was told happened in Cordova, Alaska, in the 1930s or 1940s. I didn't pursue researching that crime and don't know any details of it. And to be honest, I didn't really want to know. Why? Because I didn't want to be influenced by the facts of a real case. If there are any similarities beyond the occupation of the victim, it is truly a coincidence. But now that the book is done, I'm going to look for that information!
A few real people involved in the history of Cordova and elsewhere are mentioned, but not portrayed here. Historic facts are presented with as much accuracy as I could muster, and if I missed or messed up anything, it's all on me. Cordova is, of course, a real place, though I will admit to scooting a few buildings here and there, changing the layout of the town a little, and tweaking names of establishments. That's artistic license for you.
Chapter 1
Cordova, Alaska Territory, 1919
 
T
he stench of rotting fish, salt, and tar rose from the dock and the water surrounding the
S.S. Snow Queen,
nearly making Charlotte Brody gag. Even if she'd had a free hand, she would have refused to press her handkerchief to her nose. She was in Alaska now, and Alaskan women were made of sterner stuff. They also probably breathed through their mouths to preserve their senses.
The midnight arrival had infused the steamship with bustling energy. The crew dashed about, doing whatever tasks were necessary when they made port. Disembarking passengers followed the signs and lanterns on the deck to the gangplank.
Clutching her satchel against her side to keep thieving hands from its contents, Charlotte grasped the rain-slick rail and made her way down the incline. The chest-to-back press of her fellow travelers was a situation calling for the protection of a scented handkerchief if there ever was one. Most of the passengers, herself included, hadn't seen a real tub in the seven days since leaving Seattle. There had been facilities for a washup each morning, but a long soak in a hot bath was definitely in order, and soon.
A gust of icy, wet wind blew in from the bay, plastering stray hairs to her cheek and sending a chill through her. Three weeks ago, Charlotte had been wilting in the heat and humidity of Yonkers. Now, she was shivering. Late August in Alaska was nothing like the summer days back East.
The
Snow Queen
bobbed against the pier, rocking the gangplank. Charlotte tightened her grip on the rail, taking care not to run into the sack slung over the shoulder of the man in front of her. If it weren't for the rain, the angle wouldn't have been nearly so treacherous. She shuffled along, grateful that current fashion put the hem of her skirt well above her ankles so it wouldn't catch on the rough planks or under her heels.
Michael was down there somewhere. The
Snow Queen
's late arrival due to storm delays wasn't unusual, and the good-sized crowd on the dock attested to Cordovans' patience.
“Alaskans are used to things getting here when they get here,” the captain had said during dinner one night.
Well, I'm here now
.
A shimmer of anticipation skittered across Charlotte's skin and tickled her stomach. Her parents had tried to talk her out of going, but she was determined. Sidestepping the real reason she needed a change, she'd barely managed to keep her argument even-toned under their disapproval.
Eventually, they'd conceded, but only because Michael would be there. Not that their parents could have stopped her. At least the dark cloud of discontent had been lifted between the three of them.
Just a week's travel by train from Yonkers to Seattle, then the steamer to Alaska, and here she was. The Last Frontier.
The scenery on the way up the coast had been breathtaking. Glorious mountains, stretches of blue-white glaciers, even a number of small icebergs that made a few passengers fret. The
Titanic
disaster was still quite fresh in people's minds.
Charlotte hadn't been concerned. The extended daylight hours so far north meant hazards were easier to avoid. She often stayed out on deck, bundled against the chill and unaware of the time, watching porpoises swimming in front of the bow, sea otters floating on their backs as they bobbed on the waves, and large brown bears ambling along the not-so-distant beaches. She was familiar with the gulls that followed the boat, but the sight of bald eagles soaring overhead was a first for her. One time, a great leviathan had breached off the port side, close enough to see barnacles clinging to its lower jaw. Charlotte thought her heart had stopped as the beast threw itself up into the air and crashed to the surface, spraying water onto the lower deck.
“Charlotte, over here!” Michael's familiar voice called up to her over the crowd.
Her gaze darted among the upturned faces illuminated by the pier lights. Michael waved his fur cap, his blond hair fluttering in the sea breeze and a grand smile on his moustached lip.
A moustache? Her brother sporting a moustache? Mother would have had a say about that.
But Mother and Father were thousands of miles away.
Charlotte smiled, as happy to see Michael as she was relieved to leave the past back East, and released the rail to wave back. Her boot caught on the edge of the next plank, and she stumbled. Strong hands grabbed her long, wool coat from behind to keep her from falling into the man in front of her.
“Easy, miss,” the gravelly voice behind her said, not unkindly, as she was set back on her feet. “No call for ye flyin' into the drink.”
She glanced over her shoulder at the burly man who had saved her. “Thank you, no.”
He touched his hand to his wide-brimmed hat and grinned. Or she assumed he grinned. The corners of his blue eyes creased and the tangle of graying brown facial hair moved in that manner.
Charlotte resumed her grip on the rail and safely made it to the bottom of the gangplank. Passengers veered off into the crowd waiting beyond the low wooden safety barrier. Michael shouldered his way to the front. The green mackinaw over his black suit was dotted with rain. She hurried over, dropped her bag, and threw herself into his arms.
Michael laughed and lifted her off her feet in a tight hug. He might have swung her around, but there were too many people within kicking range for such a thing. The town doctor shouldn't create patients.
“God, I've missed you, Charlie,” he said, setting her on her feet.
Charlotte slapped his chest playfully. “I've missed you too, but not so much that you can call me by that nickname.”
She was an adult now. Charlotte Mae Brody had made it to Alaska on her own and could take care of herself.
Michael rubbed his chest, still chuckling. “Fair enough.” He hefted her satchel and gave an exaggerated grunt. “Goodness, what do you have in here? Bricks?”
Charlotte slipped her hand around his other arm. “Books. Be glad I packed my typewriter in my trunk.”
They both glanced up at the block-and-tackle winch conveying pallets of cargo from the ship's hold. Longshoremen swung the heavy load expertly to the dock where workers sorted passenger bags onto open horse-drawn carts.
“Sullivan's rooming house has a storage shed,” Michael said. “Your things should be there later. They'll be safe until morning when we can get them to your room.”
Michael had told Charlotte he'd secure her a room as soon as she announced her intention to come to Alaska. Living at Sullivan's, he'd explained, would be more comfortable, as his own home, with its attached office and exam room, would be too small for the two of them.
“That's fine. I packed the necessities in my satchel.”
“Yes, along with the bricks.” They laughed again, and Michael guided her away from the ship. “There isn't much in the way of transportation to town. You up for a midnight stroll?”
A lone motorcar idled in front of the steamship company's office. Several people argued or haggled with the driver—and each other—for a ride in the six-passenger Model T. Even if there had been plenty of taxicabs, Charlotte would have refused a ride, as she felt quite awake and energized.
“I'm not in the least tired.” She started toward the road, following the majority of folks who had disembarked. If Alaskans walked to town at midnight in the rain, so would she. “How far is it?”
“Half a mile or so.”
The packed-dirt road was slick with mud. Michael drew his flashlight from the deep pocket of his coat to navigate around puddles. Walkers ahead and behind them had kerosene lanterns or flashlights as well. The chatter of conversation and the occasional burst of laughter accompanied them as Charlotte brought Michael up-to-date on family and friends.
The road followed the shoreline, curving in and out of patches of spruce trees to provide glimpses of the town ahead. Vague outlines of buildings and several streets lit with electric or gas lamps indicated it was larger than she had assumed.
“How many people live here?”
“One thousand or so, including the Natives who mostly live along the lake and homesteaders who live outside of town but use its services.” He narrowed his gaze as if evaluating Cordova from a distance. “Things are a little different in these parts, Sis. It takes some getting used to.”
“You know I've never been afraid of a challenge, Michael. I want to know what it's really like.” She pulled him closer. “Not what you prettied up for Mother and Father, or what you glossed over for me. I want the real story of living here.”
Michael stiffened, staring straight ahead, and said nothing for several moments. “I tried to keep some of the more shocking events out of my letters. Folks looking to leave civilization behind can be rough, and boys returning from war can have some troubles not suitable for correspondence with your little sister.”
He hadn't been on the front himself, due to childhood bouts with bronchitis, but he'd worked at several stateside hospitals. He'd treated shell-shocked soldiers back East, and she had watched him lose sleep and weight throughout his tenure, due to his concerns for the men.
Before the war ended a year ago, Michael had responded to an advertisement for doctors in the Alaska Territory. As grim as he made it out to be, he'd regained weight and lost the haunted look he'd had before leaving New York. Alaska agreed with him, erasing the years of turmoil he'd endured on behalf of his patients. She hoped it would do the same for her.
“You could have told me.” She hugged his arm tighter. “I'm not so delicate—or so little—that I can't lend an ear or a shoulder, you know.”
He patted her arm. “Thank you, but I'm fine.” Then he gave her a startled look. “Is that what brought you up here? You wanted to see what I
wasn't
telling you?”
Charlotte let out a laugh that masked her knee-jerk inclination to tell him the truth of it. A couple ahead of them turned around. She clamped her hand over her mouth, cheeks burning. The couple resumed their own quiet conversation.
“Something like that,” she said at a more ladylike volume. “I've already started my first article to Kit. As soon as I can, I'll unpack and post it. She'll be tickled to get something postmarked from Alaska.”
Kit, her best friend since their primary-school days, worked as an assistant editor at
The Modern Woman Review
. She'd been positively giddy over Charlotte's proposal for a series of articles written by a woman in the wild Alaska frontier. Kit's boss, Mr. Malone, had approved the assignment after he learned Charlotte would be paying her own way and giving them editorial latitude. She trusted Kit not to change her writing too much, and Charlotte would keep carbon copies of her work for reference. If necessary, she could compare her original stories to what was printed in
Modern Woman
.
The series would be less controversial than Charlotte's typical writings about the suffragette movement, as well as her more recent work on the potential effects of the soon-to-be-voted-upon national Volstead Act. Those articles had produced heated responses from all sides, something many journalists aspired to. What was the point of having your words in print if they weren't going to stir up emotion?
She wasn't one to back down, but after threatening letters to the papers and broken windows at her parents' home, she'd realized she needed to let things cool off before someone got hurt. Alaska, with its potential for adventure and an opportunity to make peace with herself, was the perfect solution.
“You can go after lunch tomorrow,” Michael said. “The post office is in the federal building across from my office. Your little stories will find their way to the ladies back home in a month or so, depending on the weather. I'm sure they'll be a fine source of conversation for you and your friends when you return.”
Charlotte drew him to a stop, her boots slipping in the mud, and hurt and anger squeezing her chest. “My little stories? Is that what you think of them? That they're just a lark, a fancy to pass the time here before I head home to . . . what? The ladies' sewing circle and Wednesday luncheons?”
He blinked down at her, his brow wrinkled. “That's not what I meant.”
“No? Then what did you mean?” She released his arm and crossed her arms over her chest. She had sent him copies of her earlier articles in which she'd described the often dangerous and sometimes deadly struggles for equality and the potential ramifications of national Prohibition. Did he think those were frivolous too?
Michael shifted the flashlight to his other hand, then ran his fingers through his hair, catching his cap before it fell to the ground. He gave a heavy sigh, looking so much like Father—but with hair—that Charlotte had to steel herself against the inclination to agree with Michael, just to keep the peace.
“I meant your visit here will make a great read back home. You wrote that your friends were constantly asking about my life in Alaska. Now you can give them a taste of it. And yes, over luncheon. What's wrong with that?”
“What's wrong, aside from your belittling attitude, is that I may not go back.” Charlotte resumed walking toward town, the heat of indignation keeping the chilled air at bay. Why had she said such a thing? The trip up the coast had been exciting, and she looked forward to the experience of Alaska, but to stay longer than April, as she'd planned?
Maybe. She wasn't sure yet. Living here would certainly keep her mind off the past twelve months.
She managed three or four steps before Michael grabbed her arm and spun her toward him. His face was contorted with confusion. “What? That's insane. You can't stay. I can't look out for you.”

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