Author Elizabeth Lane
"His Substitute Bride"
by Elizabeth Lane
Excerpt from "His Substitute Bride"
San Francisco, April 13, 1906
By the time Quint found the woman, she was dying. She lay face-up on the checkered linoleum, a dollar-sized crimson stain oozing through the fabric of her plain white shirtwaist. It appeared she’d been stabbed.
“Virginia!” Quint crouched beside her, clasping her hand. “Can you hear me? It’s Quint Seavers!”
The blood-frothed lips moved slightly, but no sound emerged. She was a slight creature, about thirty, he judged, her plain features made plainer by the thick spectacles that lay askew on her nose. Quint was meeting her in person for the first time. But he already knew Virginia Poole to be honest and brave. The man responsible for this was damned well going to pay.
“The letter, Virginia!” His fingers tightened around hers. “Where is it? Can you tell me?”
But she was already gone, slipping away without a sound.
Releasing her hand, Quint cast his eyes around the shabby one-room apartment. The place had been ransacked. Furniture had been toppled, clothes thrown helter skelter. Kitchen cupboards had been emptied, their contents strewn on the floor. The Murphy bed, which took up one wall, had been lowered, the mattress, quilt and pillow ripped to pieces.
Feathers eddied in the gas lit room, blown by a chilly draft from the open window. Whoever was here hadn’t been gone long. They’d probably climbed over the sill when they’d heard Quint pounding on the door. Judging from the mess, and the hasty departure, he’d bet good money they hadn’t found what they were looking for.
And neither would he.
Quint cursed in frustration. The handwritten letter, linking Supervisor Josiah Rutledge to a crooked scheme involving funds for the city’s water system, would provide enough evidence to bring Rutledge down. Even more important, it would alert the public that this critical work wasn’t being done.
Quint had written more than a dozen articles for the San Francisco Chronicle, stressing the urgent need to repair the city’s crumbling network of pipes, aqueducts and cisterns and build a line to pump water out of the bay. Just last week he’d interviewed Dennis Sullivan, the city’s longtime fire chief, who’d stated that, given the faulty water system, a major fire could destroy much of the city, with loss of life in the hundreds, if not the thousands.
For a balanced perspective, he’d also interviewed Mayor Eugene Schmitz and Supervisor Rutledge. Both had insisted that repairs were being made in good order.
And pigs could fly, Quint had groused as he left City Hall. Schmitz was almost as crooked as Rutledge. The whole mess stank like rotten fish. But he couldn’t just start making accusations. He needed solid proof.
The key to that proof had come yesterday, in the form of a phone call to his desk at the Chronicle. Virginia Poole, a clerk on Rutledge’s staff, had, by sheer accident, come across the damning letter in a stack of papers she’d been given to file. Knowing what she had, and being a woman of conscience, she’d called Quint and offered to give the letter to him.
He’d arranged to meet her the next evening in a book shop off Portsmouth Square. When she’d failed to show up, Quint, who’d had the foresight to ask for her home address, had sensed that something was wrong.
Sadly, his instincts had been right.
Leaving by the back stairs, Quint slipped into the alley and cut a meandering course down Telegraph Hill to Montgomery Street. The mist-shrouded night was damp and chilly, the lighthouse a great blinking eye in the darkness behind him. Foghorns echoed mournfully across the bay.
Thrusting his hands into his pockets, Quint lengthened his stride. Tomorrow at work he would call in some favors, find out whether Virginia’s murder was being investigated or merely hushed up. He would also make inquiries about her daily routine, talk to her friends, her family if she had any.
With luck, maybe he could—
Oh, bloody hell!
Quint halted as if he’d slammed into a brick wall.
Tomorrow morning Clara and Annie would be arriving by train, all the way from Dutchman’s Creek, Colorado. Quint had arranged to take the entire week off. He had cleared his calendar of appointments, freeing his time to show them the city.
For weeks he’d looked forward to the visit. Six-year-old Clara was the most important person in Quint’s life. Every minute with the little girl was a gift. And Annie Gustavson, her maternal aunt, was always pleasant company. Neither of them had ever been to California. They were eager to experience the marvels of San Francisco.
Now this mess had dropped into Quint’s hands, and he had no choice except to deal with it.
It was too late to postpone the visit. Their train would be arriving at the Oakland terminal at 11:00 tomorrow morning. After such a long trip, he could hardly put them back on board and send them home. Nor could he walk away from a story so rife with urgency.
What the devil was he going to do?
Quint hailed a cab to take him back to his Jackson Street apartment. Somehow, for the coming week, he would have to be in two places at once. If it meant working early mornings and late nights, or leaving Clara and Annie on their own once in a while, that couldn’t be helped. Virginia Poole had given her life to expose Rutledge. Whatever it took, Quint vowed, he would make sure she hadn’t died in vain.
* * * * * * *
“Where’s the ocean, Aunt Annie? I want to see it!” Clara bounced with excitement. Her nose smudged the window of the first class railway car.
“All in good time, Miss Clara Seavers.” Annie resettled her weary buttocks against the vibrating seat cushion. She adored her sister Hannah’s child, but three days and nights on a rattling train with an active six-year-old had frayed her nerves. She looked forward to a quiet lunch, a lovely hot bath...and Quint.
Damn his charming, impossible hide!
Maybe after this week, she would finally be over him.
Frank Robinson, who owned the hotel in Dutchman’s Creek, had asked Annie to marry him three times. He was decent, kind and passably handsome, with enough money to keep her in comfort for the rest of her days.
Her sister Hannah thought she was crazy for turning Frank down. “You’re twenty-three years old, Annie!” she’d fussed. “What are you waiting for, a knight on a white horse?”
The question was wasted breath, and both sisters knew it. Quint Seavers was no shining knight. But Annie had worshipped him since her teens.
Annie had jumped at his invitation to bring Clara to San Francisco. But she had no illusions about why he’d sent her the ticket. He needed someone to accompany Clara and act as a nanny during the visit. Well, fine. She was determined to have a good time anyway. And she would do her best to see Quint through clear eyes. “Will Uncle Quint be there when we get off the train?” Clara asked.
“He said he would.”
“Then he will.” Clara nodded happily. “How much longer is it?”
“Not much longer. We should be there in time for lunch.” Annie slipped an arm around the little girl.
“Here, look out the window. We’re coming into Oakland now. Soon you’ll be able to see San Francisco Bay. It’s almost like the ocean!”
“Will we ride on a boat?”
“Yes. We’ll be taking the ferry boat across the bay to San Francisco.”
Thirty minutes later the train pulled into the station. Plastered against the window, Clara scanned the platform. “There he is! There’s Uncle Quint! Look, he can see us! He’s waving!”
They gathered their things and filed down the aisle to the exit door. Quint was there to greet them, looking tired but unforgivably handsome in a light woolen topcoat and black derby. He helped Annie down the steps, then swept Clara off her feet, waltzing her around until she squealed with laughter.
Watching them, Annie felt the familiar ache. What a breathtaking pair they were, the man and the child. They had the same brown eyes and thick, dark chestnut curls, the same dimpled cheeks and dazzling smiles.
No one with eyes in their head could fail to guess the truth.
Clara was Quint’s daughter.