The Goldcamp Vampire
V. Lovelace's Guide to the Wild "West"
Pelagia Harper, aka Valentine Lovelace, published her memoirs of her time in Draco, Texas and became an established writer—at least in her own mind. But when her father dies and her stepmother steals her royalties, she finds herself destitute. Also haunted. The ghost of her papa keeps popping up everywhere. When her father’s old flame, Sasha Devine, offers her a way out of her poverty, Pelagia jumps on it before she knows what’s involved. In 1897, the two ladies must travel North to the Klondike (the Wild West is a relative term as far as V. Lovelace is concerned) escorting the coffin of a man said to be Lost-Cause Lawson, a prospector.
It turns out the man beneath the coffin lid is not as dead as he was supposed to be and somehow, Pelagia ends up being accused of murdering a Mountie. Apparently the sensible solution to that is to fake her own suicide. The upshot is that when she finally does arrive in Dawson City with Sasha, she is obliged to take employment as a dance hall girl and a flamenco dancer (Corazon, the Belle of Barcelone). Her boss seems nice though. Very sociable, especially with all of his new female employees. It isn’t long before Pelagia learns that Vasily Vladovitch Bledinoff is giving the biting cold some competition. It isn’t until her friend Captain Lomax receives a new book from England, written by a fellow named Bram Stoker, that she begins to get a clue what exactly is going on with the mode for black velvet neck bands the girls are all sporting. Then there’s all of those really smart wolves, the threat of starvation and disease, and other strange and unusual wildlife.
This book is about what life was like for a female artiste in Dawson City as it was during the Gold Rush—when everyone was there to strike it rich—except for the vampires, who were there for the night life.
As very little had been to my advantage lately, I roused myself to accept.
It would be inaccurate to say I had been prostrated with grief. My father’s death was hardly unanticipated. He had been deliberately drinking himself to death since the demise of my mother thirty years ago, and since his second marriage to the sanctimonious Widow Higgenbotham, he had speeded up the process appreciably.
Considering his inclinations, the manner and location of his passing were as he would have wished it. When found, he wore a blissful smile upon his face as if he had discovered some new and particularly potent elixir that had carried him straight to heaven—assuming that was his destination. I felt guilty when I saw him to note how pale and drained he looked, for I so despised his new wife that I had seen him very seldom. But his happy expression and the fact that he had died just outside his favorite haunt, the Gold Nugget Opera House, consoled me.
Nevertheless, as I made my way to the backstage door of that establishment, I averted my eyes and held my skirts away as I passed the spot where he had been found.
With the mist creeping up to conceal the garbage and broken bottles, and the drizzle descending like unceasing tears, the alley was a depressing place to be. Even the pearl-handled derringer in my bag was cold comfort. This was a night the poet Poe might relish, except that ravens seldom frequented the alleys or San Francisco anymore. Pigeons perhaps. Pigeons with uncannily direct gazes, for as I turned back toward the lamplight flickering in from the main street, small eyes glittered down at me, then swooped aside. I grasped the knob of the backstage door and shoved.
The strains of the final chorus act met me even before I entered, but Sasha Devine’s numbers were over for the evening. It was her policy always to “leave them wanting more.” Her dressing room door was cracked open, for despite the midsummer fog and damp, the air was warm.
Sasha saw me reflected in her mirror even before I spoke. “Vahlenteena,” she said effusively, twisting in her chair to face me. “How kind of you to come to see me in my bereavement. You alone know how very dear Patrick was to me. And you, my dear Vahlenteena, have always been the daughter I never had.”
I would have been more moved by this declaration were it not for the fact that it was only since my novels began to sell that Sasha had learned my name—and at that she chose to learn my nom de plume, Valentine Lovelace, not my given name, Pelagia Harper. Although to be perfectly fair, I do recall that at times while I was in my teens, she was wont to refer to me as “Peggy.”
“Because of this sentiment I bear you and your dear departed father,” she continued, “and because you are a fellow artiste in what I understand are straitened circumstances, I have selected you to be my traveling companion on my grand tour of the Klondike. Expenses will be paid, of course, but you must wait for your salary until we arrive.”
My spirits rose immediately. I was, in fact, so elated by the chance to see the Klondike, that dazzling repository of gold of which everyone was speaking, that I failed to note Sasha s tone. It was identical to the one I had once heard her use when she parted my father from the subscription money that was supposed to support our newspaper for a month.
Instead, my previous caution vanished and I saw in her my deliverance from my problems. No matter if Jade Fan, Wy Mi’s grieving sister, sold her laundry—and my lodgings—and moved back to China. No matter if the Widow Higgenbotham refused to pay me the monies that Papa had promised me for the serialization of my latest saga in the Herald. No matter that the West was now all but won, and I had to dredge my dwindling memories of Texas for material for my popular-but-un-lucrative epistles. No matter that I would never again see Papa slumped over his desk, or hear him singing as he stumbled from his favorite saloon. Long since he had ceased telling me the stories of Cuchulain and Maeve. Wy Mi had not mentioned the Wind Dragons of his native China since I told him I’d met one. Life had become quite dull. And now lovely, kindly Sasha Devine, in all her beneficence, was going to take me away from all this.
My face must have betrayed my emotion. With a complacent smile, she turned away from me and began removing her stage makeup, smoothing the cream below the high ruffled collar of her dressing gown, which kept tickling her chin and threatening to get makeup and grease on its lace. I had never realized her complexion was so fair-pallid, one might even say. When she removed the whitening under her great green eyes, dark hollows appeared. When she turned back to me, her collar flopped away, revealing an angry insect bite on the left side of her still almost-perfect throat.
Even without the makeup, however, Sasha looked no older than I, though she had to be at least ten years my senior. Her hair really was that blond, but without the false curls of her fancy coiffure, it hung long and straight. She looked delicate when unpainted, rather like a fairy princess who might, with that sharp determined chin and those acquisitive green eyes, turn into a wicked queen with the least encouragement. Hadn’t I heard a rumor somewhere, no doubt started by Sasha herself, that she was descended from the royal house of some long-defunct Balkan country?
“I have been working very hard, and your father’s death has distressed me greatly,” she said. “Also, until departure time, I must continue to fulfill my contract here. You will be in charge of the practical details, booking the passage for me, yourself, and Mr. Lawson’s coffin . . .”
“Mr. Lawson’s what?” I asked.
“His coffin,” she said, slowly and distinctly, as if to the deaf. “Mr. Lawson is dead and requires one.”
“Excuse me,” I said. “Unacquainted with Mr. Lawson as I am, his demise had escaped my notice. If he is dead, why does he require not only a coffin, but passage aboard a steamer to the Klondike?”
She turned again, her actress’s eyes entreating me tragically. “Because Mr. Lawson’s partner is a man not only of exceptionally good taste, as he is an admirer of mine, but also of considerable sentiment. He and Mr. Lawson worked their Alaskan claim for many years without success. Even when my admirer temporarily gave up mining for bartending in order to earn a further grubstake, Mr. Lawson, it is said, worked with commendable determination throughout the winter in an attempt to find the mother lode. To no avail. This earned him the cruel soubriquet of Lost-Cause among his associates. Finally, his partner insisted that he come to San Francisco to recuperate from exhaustion and the illness that consumed him as a result of his efforts. When the gold strike was made in the Klondike, my admirer abandoned his bar, after standing a drink for the denizens in order to get a head start on them, and headed for Canada. The day Mr. Lawson died, my admirer made one of the richest strikes in the Yukon. But he is guilt-ridden about it. His partner must at least see the wealth that eluded them both for so long, he feels. The gentleman in question remembers me fondly from a night—a performance—two years ago, and dispatched a message containing a retainer and promising that if I would see to it that his poor partner was escorted to the Yukon, he would make me owner of my own establishment, which is somewhat better than a gold mine.”
“And you, you will get the experience of traveling to the most exciting place in the world. Later, when I have earned my reward, you may be my agent to summon my girls to come join me.”
“It’s a very kind offer, Miss Devine,” I said. “But I fail to understand exactly why you need me . . .”
“Because I certainly cannot be expected to do everything. You must see to collecting the body from the undertaker’s, to booking the passage, to acquiring certain papers assuring Mr. Lawson’s corpse of entry into Canada.”
She rose and faced me, one hand extended dramatically. “Vahlenteena, I ask you because I know that you are a person of integrity, and in my line of work one meets all too few of those. Do you think I failed to see how you kept your newspaper running when dear Patrick was unable? You are rather young, of course, and a woman, but I thought you might be—”
She needed to say no more. I was hooked without hearing any of the particulars, which is, of course, always a mistake.
I asked to see the letter from her admirer, so that I might get a list of the tasks to be accomplished. I thought, from all the details in her story, that it must certainly have been a very long letter, or perhaps an entire series of correspondence. However, she responded that she had received just a note and she thought she had left it in her suite. She remembered it quite well, however, and went over with me the prodigious list of chores I needed to perform to secure our passage. The oddest of these was arranging for the disinterment of Lost-Cause Lawson from his tomb and his transport to the steamer.
This I determined to tackle the following day. I got a rather late start. I left Sasha Devine during the wee hours Sunday morning, when it was not yet light and the fog made the alley look like the smoking aftermath of a great fire. I have traveled the streets of my native city in what I fondly believed was perfect safety for most of my life, but in these early hours, I felt ill at case. The rain finished its demolition work on my mourning bonnet, which had not been especially crisp to begin with. My one good woolen coat had used the warmth of Sasha’s dressing room to finish permeating its fibers with damp, so that I was now chilled through. My spine was already curling itself into tight ringlets when the black carriage flashed past the alley entrance, drenching me to the waist as the wheels splashed through a puddle.
I shouted a few of the more colorful epithets I had learned in Texas at the denizens of the carriage, little expecting response, for half of my remarks were in Spanish, the vernacular being particularly suited for self-expression of that sort.
To my dismay, the carriage stopped abruptly and swung around in the middle of the street, the lamps gleaming off the coats of the horses and the polished ebony of the coach. Shadows shrouded the interior, but as the vehicle drew even with my dripping form, a low and melodious voice from within said softly, ‘Se lo reuego usted que mi disculpas con todo sinceridad, señora.”
“Oh, dear, excuse me,” I sputtered, wringing out my hem. Evidently, I had just had the honor of being splattered by a member of our local Spanish nobility. “I mean, I didn’t think you’d under—oh, never mind . . .”
“Ah, you are American, despite your bilingual fluency.” The voice sounded pleased. Its accent was foreign but not, I thought, Spanish after all. “Please, madam, permit me to offer the services of my carriage to conduct you to your quarters, where you may change your attire and present your other clothing to my man for cleaning or replacement, if the damage is too extensive.”
I peered into the shadows and alternated between feeling like a perfect fool and feeling very cautious about this disembodied voice. The man sounded like a gentlemen, but many gentlemen, I had found, were anything but gentle and had attained their wealth and high station by taking the position that everyone else was inferior to themselves and, therefore, fair game.
“Don’t trouble yourself, sir,” I said, inching away. “My lodgings are not far and my landlady and her family, who are waiting up for me, operate a laundry. Jade Fan will have my costume good as new tomorrow at no expense to me.” And before he could say any more or possibly leap from his carriage and drag me in, as my overheated imagination began to suggest, I sprinted—or splashed—away.