Deadly Descent: A Lottie Albright Mystery #1

Deadly Descent: A Lottie Albright Mystery #1

Layers of deadly intrigue bind generations of families in historian Lottie Albright's Western Kansas community. When false accusations threaten senatorial candidate Brian Hadley's political career, secrets whispered to Lottie as ...

About The Author

Charlotte Hinger

Charlotte Hinger is an award-winning novelist and Kansas historian. The first book in her Lottie Albright series, Deadly Descent, won ...

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Chapter One

She was coming for me. From the belly of the vault, I could hear Fiona Hadley making her way down the main hall of the county courthouse toward my open door. No mistaking those authoritative, high-heeled clicks echoing across the marble floor.

It was a dusty Friday, the first week in September. Heavy, malevolent, sinus-destroying dust. I already had one headache. I didn’t need another. Outside, fast-moving clouds scuttled across the sky like dingy cottontail rabbits looking for a hole. This cold snap was sudden, unsettling and the threat of tornados always hovered in Western Kansas.

I looked at the hodgepodge of layouts, family photos, bottles of glue, masking tape, old magazines, and stacks of memorabilia cluttering the office of the Carlton County Historical Society. The place was not always a dump. I wished the mother of our youngest state senator could see us at our shining best. Just once. Then, perhaps, she would coax her son to squeeze more funds out of the legislature.

I caught a glimpse of her taut face as she rounded the stairwell. Countdown time, and I still had not decided how to handle her sister’s submission to the county history book. If Fiona knew about Zelda’s story, all hell was going to break loose.

She paused in the doorway. I rose and made a swipe at my hair, wishing I had worn it in a chignon instead of a long braid. At the historical society dress-down Friday is patched Levis, an old denim work shirt, and cowboy boots. Dressing up is new denim, shirt tucked in. I was quite a contrast to The Lady, who was dressed to kill.

Fiona Hadley wore a forest green cloche pulled over her brassy yellow curls. Her hat was the exact shade of her exquisitely tailored gabardine suit. A face lift? A little tuck here and there? Probably. But it had never been mentioned in the press. She should have been an easy target, but the whimsical deities who manipulate the media gave everything Fiona did or said a benign spin.

Although over-dressed and out-dated, she reminded columnists of an actress from an old thirties movie. Garbo, Harlow, Colbert? Someone. Some fetching beauty.

“Hello, Fiona.”

“Lottie Albright. You’re just the one I was looking for. You’re hard at work, I see.” Short, curt pleasantries when it usually took her fifteen minutes to get a proper hello-how-are-you out of the way. Fiona’s nose wrinkled as she looked at the crazy tangle of old pipes running the length of the twelve-foot ceiling in our narrow,  hot room.

“As usual. Deadline, this week.” In addition to being the director of the Carlton County Historical Society, I was Fiona’s son’s election committee chairman for this area. Perhaps she was here about Brian and not her sister’s story.

“What can I do for you, Fiona?”

“I want you to give me Zelda’s story. I’m going to burn the damned thing.”

Stunned by her presumption, my skin prickled with fury, but I can nearly always choose my words. “How did you know about it? She just turned it in yesterday.”

“She called me. She said it would cause Brian trouble. I want it destroyed.” Her voice was haughty, commanding, but her mouth trembled.

“Fiona, Zelda’s story is now a historical document in her own hand. It’s under lock and key. Before I agreed to put together the county history books, I insisted on sole editorial control over every word, picture, drawing, or clipping included in these books. There were good reasons for that.”

“Zelda doesn’t have the right. You don’t have the right.”

“I can’t let people start tinkering with other folks’ stories. There would be no stopping the changes. It would be opening a Pandora’s box of misinformation and family quarrels.”

“Please.” Tears trickled. Runlets of mascara splotched her powder.

“I don’t intend to print it as is. I’m going to persuade Zelda to delete certain paragraphs and tone it down overall.” I had already made a number of discreet phone calls to ask families to omit embarrassing truths or straighten out  inconsistencies.

“She won’t,” Fiona whispered. “She wants to ruin us. All of us. From what she told me, her story isn’t right. Vicious lies, in fact.”

“Actually, most of what’s in these family histories isn’t quite right, but no one is going to change one single word of an original story except the person submitting it. I can’t make it any plainer than that. I’ve not deviated from this policy once. Write your own story. Contradict every single word your sister wrote if you want to, but you can’t change what she wrote.”

I edged closer to the framed degrees hanging on the wall, but my Ph.D. in history from Kansas State University obviously meant no more to her than a certificate in advanced yoga techniques.

“You’ll be very, very sorry you did this, Lottie.”

“I’ll talk to her. These books aren’t intended to hurt people.” “I want to see exactly what she turned in.” She rummaged in her purse, took out a white linen handkerchief and began dabbing at her eyes.

I’d made a working to-be-edited copy, of course. Normally, I would show her that one. Originals were precious historical narratives and kept pristine. Handwriting, choice of paper, even the ink told a story. Many archives have researchers wear white gloves while handling material. I don’t go that far. However, after I made a copy, there should be no need to handle the original again.

I eyed the weeping woman. What the hell. It wouldn’t hurt to let Fiona see the primary document, with me standing right there protecting it.

I went to the locked master file where all the original pictures and stories were in alphabetical order, retrieved Zelda St. John’s story and handed it to her sister. I moved back about five feet, and observed Fiona like a cop looking through a one-way mirror. Her enormous blue eyes, framed by thick black lashes, weren’t made for concealing feelings. I followed their movement as she quickly read the story, then looked up at me. Perhaps I make too much of body language, but her relief was evident.

The blood rose in my cheeks and I drew a deep breath. She was relieved! How dare she be relieved? When I’d first read it yesterday, I had burst into tears and closed the office for the rest of the day.

“I thought,” she began. “I…this doesn’t…I thought perhaps…I’m sorry, Lottie.”

She read it again, glanced at the back of the sheets, and then gasped. She closed her blue-veined lids, and the color drained from her face. The skin around her mouth whitened, leaving her lips thin. Ugly.

The pages fluttered to the floor.

Chapter Two

Fiona ran from the room before I could stop her. I started after her, following until she rounded the bottom of the staircase.

Clusters of county personnel gathered at windows and eyed the approaching storm. Three women hovered around the front door tracking the clouds: Inez Wilson, the county health nurse, Minerva Lovesey, the register of deeds, and Priscilla Ramsey, the home economist. One look at Fiona’s face and they fell silent, parting to let her pass through the heavy glass doors.

“What was that all about?”

Priscilla Ramsey would ask. She was fifty-something with short blond curls topping a powdered, kindly face and built like a pickle. I would bet she wore a girdle under her collection of navy and white rayon print dresses.

“Oh you know,” I said lamely, “nothing really. People get sentimental when they start thinking about their families.”

“Didn’t look like sentiment to me,” said Inez Wilson as we watched Fiona drive off.

It wasn’t a smooth exit. Her tires squealed and she narrowly missed backing into a car parked across the street.

“Goodness gracious.” Inez turned to me, her dark eyes glittering with curiosity. “Now what…?”

Minerva Lovesey cut her off. “Well, ladies. I’m sure we all have work to do.” Not a gossip, she pointedly left the group.

I sighed. Inez wasn’t a discreet person, even if she was a member of the medical profession. Skinny as a crane, she flapped around spreading hysteria like a mental health Typhoid Mary. This would be all over town by nightfall.

“My God, I wish it would rain,” I said, hoping to take their minds’ off Fiona. Priscilla and Inez nodded, and we looked up at the sky. In an instant I was one of them again. An insider. Included. Despite being married to Keith Fiene only seven years.

It hadn’t taken me long to figure out after coming to the Great Plains that the great unifying element among Kansans was a willingness to talk about the weather. All the time, every day, forevermore.

Lightning ripped, followed by ear-splitting thunder. Sulfurous clouds boiled. Lights flickered, then went out. Inez and Priscilla joined the blind courthouse grope to shut down computers. We are on daylight savings time, so it wasn’t totally dark.

I lingered. I have an offsite backup system that triggers automatically, switches to batteries, exits programs, and neatly shuts off the computer. Then with a start, I realized I’d left my office unlocked and the master file open. I fumbled toward the staircase. The lights flickered once, twice, then stayed on. I hurried down the hallway.

I glanced around. Relieved, I picked up Zelda’s story from the floor. Furious to see this original treated so carelessly, I checked to make sure all the pages were there, then locked Zelda’s story back in the master file. I had an hour to kill before closing time, but there was no point in booting up again as I was too upset to concentrate.

I reached for a folder of black construction paper and began making letters for a display. Calming work akin to knitting, it gave my hands something to do while I thought about Fiona and her twin. Their maiden name was Rubidoux, and they never let anyone forget their aristocratic Southern background for an instant.

An identical twin myself, I’ve always been intrigued by The Ladies, as Fiona and Zelda are called. I like to think my  sister

Josie and I are both normal. Different styles, but normal. The difference between Zelda and Fiona had everything to do with sanity. I’d always looked upon Fiona as the sane one, but after today’s encounter, I was beginning to wonder.

Zelda, like Fiona, wore clothes that were out of step with the times and preened like a peacock, but unlike her twin, Zelda always managed to look a little crazy. With overly permed bright blond hair, and outrageously red lipstick no matter what the color of her costumes, she ghosted about in the past. Her wounded blue eyes recorded every slight.

A decade or two earlier she would have fit in as the quintessential club woman, if she had been a bit more reliable. But she had a habit of starting projects, then losing interest after a few teary clashes with people.

My twin, Josie Albright, is a psychologist in Manhattan, Kansas. She also teaches part-time at Kansas State University. Sometimes, when the dust blows in Western Kansas, I envy her clean, elegant, childless existence. The path I had not taken. She deals with plain vanilla crazies, not Fiona Hadley’s brand of arrogance that passes for normal in our community.

Too distracted to continue with the lettering, I went to the bank of file cabinets where I kept all the working copies of the family history stories and removed Zelda’s. All these drawers were unlocked so volunteers could have access. Even though the originals were kept pristine, these versions that would make their way into the family history books bore my many red-pen edits. As I had tried to tell Fiona, I’d persuaded a number of authors to correct dates, rethink fuzzy details, and delete mean- spirited truths.

Once in a while I get a submission centered on one topic. One old bachelor’s story was about money and only money. His narrative began with the first dollar he’d ever earned. He lived in a shack. Handwritten, there were no margins on the paper and no space between the lines.

Zelda’s one-topic wonder was all about the family’s relationship with African Americans. Although I encourage people to write what they want, this was a blatantly racist piece and it stated that Brian shared those views. He absolutely, positively did not. Did the family honestly think I would continue to organize his campaign in Carlton County if he did? For that matter, until I read Zelda’s submission I had no idea the twins were that backward and Old South.

I seethed whenever I even thought about Zelda’s senseless diatribe, and was even angrier that Fiona had read right through those pages and never raised an eyebrow. I was sure of that. It wasn’t until she’d looked at it a second time that she’d become upset.

Bewildered, I decided to read it again. Obviously Fiona hadn’t objected to her sister’s view of blacks, but perhaps there was something else there I’d overlooked because I’d been madder than hell.

The Rubidoux Family History

by Zelda St. John

Our beloved and courageous ancestors, Clarissa and Jonathan Rubidoux, came to Carlton County in 1880. They filed on 160 acres of prime homestead land, they bought another 320 acres through pre-emption, and another 160 acres through a tree claim. Previously they lived in Arkansas, having fled there from Georgia following the Late Rebellion. Eternally grateful for the kindness and generosity with which they had been treated during the time they lived on my great-grandparent’s magnificent plantation, five household slaves went with them to Arkansas and continued to serve the family until they moved to Kansas. Then these five were lured away by treacherous and erroneous propaganda from blacks living in the county next door. Biting the hand that had previously fed them, they threw in their lot with other land-hungry ex-slaves and filed for their own homesteads.

Naturally, Jonathan was devastated. He had not healed from the deep wounds caused by those who exploited the failure of the noble Southern Cause. The Rubidouxes suffered greatly, having lost all of their property, not only their magnificent plantation but their investment in a goodly number of slaves they had purchased for a pretty sum. Now even these last five were leaving them.

Jonathan had planned to forge a life for his family in the new land but he simply could not manage that amount of land after his blacks deserted. To add insult to injury, his children Jacob and Melissa would be forced to attend school with a Negro teacher or do without.

I smiled. The lofty Rubidoux had obviously settled close to Nicodemus, Kansas, and blacks there had formed the first school district in Graham County. This colony had preceded the great migration of African Americans who left the South for Kansas in 1879.

Due to the strain of the war, the hardships of the new life, and her sense of grief over her abandonment by the Negroes upon whom she had lavished nothing but kindness all her life, Great Great Grandmother Clarissa was plagued by melancholy and a mere shadow of the woman she was in the South.

When the Negroes tried to organize the county, Jonathan fought these greedy politicians tooth and toenail. In fact, his very own slaves popped up in all kinds of county offices, and one even was county clerk. Naturally, having personal knowledge of their treachery he considered it his duty to warn other deserving white folks in the county that the man was a fool and illiterate and none of their transactions would be kept private. Until he died, Jonathan protested against blacks holding office where they would be privy to white folks’ business and made his children swear they would take up the cause.

The cause. Keeping blacks out of politics? Negating the whole civil rights movement? Tears started again. I specialize in African American history. Were the early Rubidoux Klansmen?

I’m proud to say that the children and their descendents have carried on this tradition and we even had a Rubidoux doing his best to block the disastrous outcome in Brown v. Board of Education. We believe the races should be segregated, and now, I’m proud to say, we have another Rubidoux descendent, senatorial candidate, Brian Hadley, who understands the importance of genetic purity.

I sat with my hands folded in my lap for a moment. How could Fiona not have been upset the first time she read the story? Even if reading about her family’s racial history hadn’t thrown her into a tizzy, how could she have tolerated the implication that Brian went along with this attitude? Was the woman so stupid she couldn’t see what it would do to his campaign?

I went to the coffee pot, tossed the old filter, walked to the restroom to rinse out the old sludge, then headed back to complete the rest of my closing ritual. But the routine couldn’t lift my mood.

Sometimes the room seemed to fill with the spirits of the people who had lived in this county. On top of the Rubidoux fiasco, a number of the stories I’d edited this week dealt with accidental deaths.

Since the county was founded, children drowned in ponds  or died from infections that went untreated. They were run over by wagons or gored by bulls. Women got scalded or cut during butchering or burned during canning. Men were gassed digging wells or caught fire or had limbs sheared off by equipment. The list was endless and we still had our share of accidents in the twenty-first century.

Western Kansas was a hard row to hoe. I recalled the horrified expression on Josie’s face when she visited Gateway City for the first time.

“You’ll die,” she’d snapped. “Your soul will shrink into a little rock. You’ve never liked the wind. You’re an educated woman, Lottie. What will you do for entertainment?”

“It’s not that bleak. Besides, there’s always Denver. We do have cars out here, you know.”

“Denver is three hundred miles away.” “That’s nothing. A morning’s drive.”

“Lottie, are you sure? You’re marrying a man with grown children older than you are.”

“I’m sure of the man, Josie. That’s all that matters to me right now.”

Seven years later, I was still sure of the man. Josie had been right about the soul-shrinking incessant wind, but as far as my work as a historian was concerned, I’d hit the mother lode. Originally seen as part of the Great American Desert, academics tended to ignore Western Kansas. There were enough unwritten stories here to keep me publishing for the rest of my life.

I adore this county. For over a century, its families had become tangled in little webs of intrigue. Known and unknown.

As I neatened my desk, my thoughts kept returning to Fiona. The woman’s sobs seemed to remain in the room. Even given Fiona’s capacity for theatrics, her distress did not seem staged. It had been a long day, ending an absolute bitch of a week.

I loaded my briefcase with Zelda’s working copy, and other family stories that needed editing, turned out all the lights, and left the courthouse.

I would call Zelda when I got home and set up a meeting. Even though I’d retain the story now on file, together we could come up with another one for the book. I would urge her to write about the family’s achievements. Or something.

Lightning flashed again, but the clouds were moving further west. Irritated at being cheated out of rain, and having to drag work home, I hurried toward my Tahoe. Josie was coming this weekend along with two of Keith’s daughters and our grandchildren. My sister drove out twice a year for long weekends. The visits were to convince herself that she had forgiven me for choosing to live here.

During these bi-yearly treks, she had met Tom, Keith’s son, and Angie, his middle daughter, but by some quirk of fate she had never met Elizabeth and Bettina. Career women, they couldn’t get away when Josie chose to come. They said.

I wanted all the children to make a special trip home to honor our seventh anniversary. But two days ago, Angie called. She absolutely, positively had to work. Tom called last night. He had a special assignment. Keith assured him it was no big deal. We would see him in a couple of months for the opening day of pheasant season. Our seventh anniversary was a big deal only to me.

As if I weren’t wired enough already, my sister would be hearing our family’s music for the first time and it wouldn’t be the same without Tom and Angie. Josie had sweetly consented to bring her own violin.

“It’s the land that’s flat, not my life,” I kept telling her.

I drove steadily toward our home on a hill eight miles north of town. On a clear day you can see its white three-story exterior from miles away. It was huge and wonderful, with enough turrets and hiding places to drive children crazy with delight.

When Josie saw the colossal sprawl of Fiene’s Folly the first time her eyes sparked with surprise. She was fun to watch. She imagined she always maintained a psychologist’s inscrutability, but she was not quite quick enough for me. I knew her too well.

“But we’re already rich,” she said in verbal shorthand, relying on this to fill in all the gaps. That we had trust funds. That a house wouldn’t compensate for a life.

“I didn’t marry him for his money.” “He’s still a dirt farmer, Lottie.”

“He’s an educated man. A veterinarian.”

“So? Why doesn’t he practice? Contribute something.”

I’d had enough sense to shut up. Keith’s main income was from wheat and cattle. He wrote occasional medical and economic pieces for veterinary trade magazines and he did have a very informal practice, along the lines of helping thy  neighbor.

Truth was Keith couldn’t stand high-strung women with yapping little dogs.

Josie owned a miniature shih tzu. On our farmstead we had two real dogs. Totally non-neurotic border collies.

Josie would have been surprised at the net worth of my dirt farmer.

Reviews of

Deadly Descent: A Lottie Albright Mystery #1

“…holds your attention every exciting step of the way.”

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

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