What if a few sheets of paper could change the way you see the world? What if a Letter made your brain do a handspring, so that topsy became turvy and everything looked wrong?
I had been patting my dead pa’s coat to see if there were any hidden pockets when something pricked my finger. It was a straight pin in the seam on the left front of the coat. Not just one pin, but six of them.
As I removed the 6 pins, the seam opened. An envelope fell out. It was folded lengthwise. It contained 3 things:
No. 1 – a newspaper clipping
No. 2 – a telegram
No. 3 – a page torn from a notebook
I looked at the newspaper clipping first. As I scanned it, I saw the names Pinkerton and Lincoln. It was an article about how my uncle Allan had thwarted an assassination attempt on Lincoln 2 ½ yrs ago. I remembered my Ma Evangeline reading me that very article.
We wrote to Allan Pinkerton at that time, but never got a reply.
Next I turned my attention to the telegram.
It read as follows:
From J.C. Harris, Chicago, to Chauncy Pridhaume, c/o Occidental Hotel, San Francisco.
Dear Chauncy, You asked for facts about Robert Pinkerton of the Detective Agency here in Chicago. Have not been able to find many. The following are general knowledge: Robert started agency, not Allan. Robert resents his brother’s political ambitions. Angry when Allan accepted IOUs from Gen McClellan in return for spying out Reb positions and numbers. Robert still supervises some rail and stage protection operations, but is mainly concerned with Agency accounts. Works behind a desk. Wife named Bella (short for Isabella), four children all boys. Robert suffers poor health after taking bad chill during efforts to help slaves escape on the ‘Underground Railway’. Smokes Lucy Hinton, is teetotal, speaks with noticeable brogue.
Finally I studied the page torn from the notebook. The notes were as follows:
Born 1815 in Glasgow, supported Chartist movement, involved in riots, warrant for arrest, hastily married Isabella AKA Bella, fled Scotland for America, survived shipwreck off Newfoundland and made way to Chicago. Worked as canal digger then est. Pinkerton & Co. in ’43; partnered w/ bro in ’50 to form Det Agency; resents younger bro’s fame & fortune; disapproves of his spying for McClellan as only being paid in IOUs.
I did not understand what I was reading.
Why would my pa have a telegram addressed to a man named Chauncy Pridhaume?
Why would he have a page of notes about himself?
Had he caught someone trying to personate him and had he kept these documents as evidence?
I felt the seams on the other side of the coat in case there might be an answer there.
I found no pins, but as I worked over the seams with my forefinger and thumb something crinkled in the lining of the right-hand side.
I used my Indian ma’s flint knife to cut some big uneven stitches and take it out.
It was another envelope, also folded twice lengthwise. In purple ink & what appeared to be a feminine hand, it was addressed to a certain Jonas Blezzard, Esq.
There was no address.
A single sheet of stationery lay within. On the top it read: From the escritoire of Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint, Occidental Hotel, Corner of Montgomery & Bush Streets, San Francisco
Dearest – You have asked me to jot down a few facts about the background of the person we were discussing at cards last night. Very well. Your three “trump cards” are these. Firstly: “he” is really a “she” a fact known to only one or two people. Secondly: she herself does not know what the initials P and K signify. Thirdly: she is worth a deal of money. She has three feet of the Chollar mine which people are clamoring to buy. I heard of a man who paid ten thousand for one foot! Other facts? She is twelve years old, born in the autumn of ’50 if I am not mistaken. She claims her father was Robert Pinkerton, older brother of the celebrated detective, and she longs to go to Chicago and work with him. They say her mother was a Sioux Indian. This must be true, for her sallow complexion, black hair and cold eyes betray savage blood. The mother was obviously wild and wayward, even for a heathen. Although the daughter is stoical of expression I believe she has inherited much of this savagery, so beware! Other facts? She drinks black coffee and is partial to layer cake. She carries two talismanic objects in a greasy leather neck-pouch: a flint knife and a small brass button with the words Pinkerton Railroad Detective on it. She has an extraordinary visual memory, yet she often forgets faces. If you–
I turned the page over but there was nothing on the back. If there had been more pages, they were missing.
My stomach felt like a cold rock.
I looked at the dead man lying by the shallow grave I had dug.
He was not my father. He had never been my father. He was a man personating my father.
I felt numb, like I did the time Doc Pinkerton dosed me with laudanum so he could remove a ball from my arm.
In the forest around me, woodpeckers were still tapping & the chickadees were still conversing & the early morning sunbeams were still slanting green-gold through pine boughs.
But the whole world had changed. I had been looking at it wrong. I had been looking at the world as if ‘through a glass, darkly’.
I thought, ‘Of all the detectives in the whole wide world, I must be the worst.’
The man lying at my feet was not my pa; he was a clever impostor.
Or maybe not so clever, as he was now dead.
My real pa – that is, the real Robert Pinkerton – was still in Chicago.
You would have thought that finding out my pa was bogus might have dashed my spirits. But instead it lifted them on account of it made me mad. Real mad.
I looked down at the man who had pretended to be my pa.
I had all the clews right there in front of my eyes:
No. 1 – he was too young to be my pa. I knew the famous detective Allan Pinkerton was born in 1818 and so he was 45 yrs old which meant his older brother had to be at least 46 but the man lying at my feet was probably 36 at most. How had I not seen it?
No. 2 – I remembered how his Scottish accent had come and gone. Sometimes he said ‘ye’ and othertimes ‘you’. Sometimes ‘wee’ and other times ‘little’. It especially went when he was excited or not paying attention.
No. 3 – He had claimed to be ‘teetotal’ but had drunk champagne and asked for whiskey in his final hours.
No. 4 – Kepi had called him something like ‘Chance’ and I had not thought that strange.
No.5 – he had a handkerchief with the initials C.P. on it. It was not a woman’s handkerchief, but a man’s. The initials were his.
He was Chauncy Pridhaume.
What fooled me was he knew facts only my pa could have known. And that he had pretended not to recognize me at first, which made me try to convince him, not the other way around.
That made me even madder. I looked at the grave I had dug him.
Then I yelled, ‘Come back, Bears! You can come eat this one. He is a piece of tasty carrion!’
My teeth were chattering & I was shivering hard.
My bogus pa was still wearing that warm woolen greatcoat.
I bent down & I yanked it off his cold, stiff body.
I rolled back the cuffs of the sleeves & pinned up the hem with the spare straight pins. Then I put it on over my velvet sacque & buttoned it up.
Immediately I felt warmer.
I would gladly have changed out of my yellow dress and put on some of his other clothes, but his trousers & jacket were too big and his shirt was stiff with blood.
I had been planning to leave his body lying there, but I remembered how he had asked me to forgive him with tears trickling down his face so I pushed his body into the hole I had dug & shoveled some of the earth back over the corpse & tramped it down.
‘Ashes to ashes, dust to dust,’ I said. ‘Amen.’
Up on the main road the early morning sun clearly showed me the hoof prints of nine horses, six of them deeper, as if carrying a heavy load. Ray G. Tempest and the booty-laden horses were heading west.
As I followed those clear tracks, I thought about those documents, especially the letter.
Who was Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint? Why was she writing to a Jonas Blezzard? What did she have to do with my bogus pa & Mr. Ray G. Tempest?
Walking always helps me think and after a mile or so when I remembered my bogus pa’s dying words. ‘Blizzard’s a coming.’
Suddenly I realized: it wasn’t ‘blizzard’. It was ‘Blezzard’.
But it was an easy mistake to make on account of Blezzard sounded like blizzard and a blizzard was a kind of storm or tempest. Tempest!
Also, the Reb Road Agents had spoken of someone named Jonas, who was meaner than a rattlesnake.
I stopped in my tracks. In the pine woods the woodpeckers stopped pecking, like they had realized it, too.
How had I been so stupid?
Just as Chauncy Pridhaume had taken the name Robert Pinkerton, Jonas Blezzard must have taken the name Ray G. Tempest.
It was a pseudonym!
I guess my bogus pa been struck by a spasm of conscience, for with his dying breath he had tried to tell me that Ray G. Tempest was really Jonas Blezzard.
But who were those two men? Why had they plotted to deceive me? Were the Reb Road Agents involved in the scheme? And how were they all linked to Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint?
I had to know.
[Don't have a clue what's going on? Start with chapter one.]
The Case of the Bogus Detective by Caroline Lawrence is the fourth P.K. Pinkerton Mystery. You can buy the first 3 real cheap HERE. And you can read the rest of this one HERE. Or just check into this blog, where I will be posting chapters weekly!
Fun facts, research, news & topics linked to the children’s books of Caroline Lawrence: The Roman Mysteries and The Western Mysteries.