Vengeance Behind the Mask (Preview)

Chapter One

Maggie Bannon had just been thrown out of the Redtail Saloon by Black Jack Valentine himself. He was a brute of a man, demanding portions of her income as if she were one of his own girls.

Maggie wasn’t one of anybody’s girls.

“Get outta my joint,” he’d shouted, “you freeloading floozy!” But she’d left unharmed, and that was about as much as Maggie could hope for.

She made her own way and had ever since she’d been a little girl on the streets of Philadelphia. She’d come a long way since then—most of her thirty-five years spent on the run, from one man or another, from one town to another, from one near-miss to another.

Men like Black Jack Valentine had a lot to offer women like Maggie. They would have shelter, food, even a doctor’s care in some cases. Many girls were eager to take a place in a saloon like the Redtail or the hundreds of others strewn all over the nation.

But there wasn’t as much protection as rumors laid claim. Men like Black Jack were as dangerous as any rogue, such as the one currently said to be haunting the streets and alleyways of Chicago. But there had always been rumors, tall tales of dangerous and wicked men. Mothers used such tales to frighten their daughters into staying in and marrying young. They always had. When those stories failed, there were always biblical warnings of eternal reward, or damnation to force society’s will upon any young man or woman, the latter in particular.

But there had been a murder in the Redtail, making the offer of protection that much less appealing. The incident had generated as much rumor as anything else, some believing that the saloon owner himself had stabbed the girl found dead in his joint. Nobody knew for sure, and the local sheriff seemed to have come up with nothing pointing toward or away from Black Jack Valentine—or anybody else.

Indeed, places like the Redtail could be like hunting grounds for men like the Baltimore Butcher. Why should I pay that cutthroat Valentine half my money just to plot my murder from that office in the upstairs corner of the building? Sonny Daye may still be deluded by his façade of masculine protection, but she’ll find out where all that will lead, and sooner than she thinks!

Uncertainty was the only certainty, but that was a common condition in Chicago, or just about anywhere else in the new country of the United States. In the year eighteen-fifty, a clean century hadn’t even passed since the country’s founding, and whether it would survive the coming century was gravely in doubt. Maggie had little concern for any of that. Those were things for men to discuss over cigars after dinner.

She just wanted to stay alive, ply her trade, perhaps find some way to establish a decent and respectable life in Chicago. But it wasn’t likely to happen in the back alleys of that sprawling and increasingly dirty and dangerous city.

Other things were, however.

Crime had become the bane of big cities and even little towns. The rise of prosperity had brought with it the curse of those who would exploit the good fortune of others. They came as gun-wielding road agents, bank robbers, street muggers, confidence men, hucksters of all sorts. And men like Chicago’s Sheriff Neil Mallory or his deputy, Bill Peters, simply weren’t up to the task of holding back the steadily increasing tide of crime and violence.

The law, Maggie thought, they’re criminals too, of a different sort. Confidence men with a different kind of pitch. But they don’t care any more for the law than any gang of road agents or Mexican banditos! They’re all just looking to grab whatever they can, as much as they can, and leave the rest to the rats and the roaches.

She had little concern and even less use for such men. They’d always looked down on her and her ilk, and she knew why. She’d grown up a street urchin and had become a desperate woman of ill repute, operating on the street like the gutter trash she’d always been afraid she would become.

How is any of this my fault? Left alone to fend for myself, unloved and mistreated all my life! Nobody to reassure or comfort me, nobody to love me. Will it always be so?

But she already knew the answer. She’d always hoped for a way out, to meet a man who would see through the stigma of her lot in life to the good person she was, the person she’d never had a chance to truly become in full. But time for that was running out, the last traces of her beauty disappearing with time. Her black hair was graying, her heaving bosom beginning to sag. Nothing was going to change that. Taking refuge in a place like the Redtail Saloon would only be to wallow in a different kind of purgatory.

Maggie’s long-term prospects weren’t nearly so pressing as her immediate needs. The spring nights were still chilly, particularly with the winds blasting off turbulent Lake Michigan. She had her room at the boarding house, but the landlady was increasingly suspicious and impatient with her bringing customers back there. She could sleep there at night… alone. That would keep her alive.

But, Maggie had to wonder, to what end? Tomorrow, the cycle will start all over again. And every day brings us all closer to the next killing, the next lucky or unlucky turn for some poor, fated soul.

She had been miserable all day, and events leading up to her being ejected from the Redtail could have been better managed, she knew that. She might have made some temporary arrangement, though turning her life over to a man like Black Jack Valentine was virtually to give it away. If Maggie Bannon were to lose her life, it would have to be wrenched away from her.

But there was little denying the lump in her throat, the chill running up her spine from more than just the terrible winds. It had been her imagination, Maggie felt certain. But stories of the dead girl still rang in her brain, conjuring images she desperately wanted to ignore. The young woman had been in a safe place, a popular saloon, and had still been killed. The murderer had gone on without discovery.

No woman was safe on the streets of Chicago.

Sheriff Mallory had asserted a sound theory that the killer had moved on. Many of the city’s locals seemed ready and even eager to believe it. The idea of living among a hidden monster who could strike out at almost anyone at almost any time was more harrowing than most people seemed ready to accept, let alone live with.

Looking at the eyes of the men on the sidewalk, Maggie had to ask herself, Who is the guilty man? Is he watching me even now, readying the killing strike? What have I done to deserve that? Well, what haven’t I done?

It could be anyone, and he could strike again at virtually any time.

The East seemed to be humming with word, via wire and idle gossip, of similar killings. So Maggie had some reason to assume the man was traveling westward, and that he hadn’t stayed anywhere too long. But that didn’t make the rumors true or accurate, and even their truth or accuracy didn’t mean the killer hadn’t left Chicago yet.

The fact was that nobody knew much, but more and more people seemed to be formulating opinions. The local newspaper had made much of the killing, even mentioning the possibility of a man on a nationwide crime spree. Some theorized that there was no single killer, only a smattering of deranged outsiders who assumed the mantle of the Baltimore Butcher to indulge their own basest impulses.

Nobody knew anything for certain, and they didn’t seem likely to know. There were too many people, too many places to hide in plain sight. Anybody could be a maniac, even the most seemingly civilized man or even woman. The face of crime was changing as the nation was growing, and the progress for good and for ill was closing in on everybody from all sides.

Poor girl, Maggie thought, but I guess it’s only a matter of time for most of us. And I still wouldn’t be surprised if Black Jack Valentine himself did for her, for whatever his own sick reasons might have been. Lord knows how many women he’s made disappear. Safety in the Redtail Saloon? Is the pan any worse than the fire?

She tried to rid her mind of it. Such things worked their way into the back of the brain and could drive people to madness. Maggie had seen it during her travels, irrational mistrust of Mexicans, Indians, and Blacks. Women were as often reviled by men as they were revered; neither perspective truly realistic. But once a person set their mind to a thing, Maggie’s experience was that it wasn’t likely to be changed. It would only become more deeply ingrained, in fact. Things seemed to develop as they were and had been: the big got bigger, the rich got richer, the weird got weirder.

The rumors of the Baltimore Butcher only brought it all into a clearer light. The nation had barely survived by hook and by crook, forged in revolution and conceived in the principle that all men were created equal. Violence had been part of that struggle for independence. But prosperity had brought indulgence, bacchanalia, men so twisted that they mutilated the bodies of others, of women, for sport or amusement.

Nobody knew why a man would do such a thing. The girl who’d been killed in the Redtail could have been dispatched for any number of reasons, people guessed. She may have betrayed her criminal overlord boss, Valentine. She might have learned too much about something she should have known nothing about. She might have broken the heart of some rube who had come back for revenge.

But Maggie didn’t have to look far into her past to find more of such things, an even longer line of prospective and potentially lethal enemies. Hardly anybody would say otherwise about their own lives. But that would have nothing to do with any rumored traveling killer. As many as those who believed in him, others were certain it was all a ruse to sell newspapers and frighten the citizenry into compliance with local authorities and other sources of power in Chicago.

Nobody knew for sure.

All Maggie truly wanted was what most people wanted—to go on not knowing. She certainly had no interest in discovering the truth of the matter firsthand. She just wanted to earn enough money to buy breakfast after a good night’s sleep in her room at the boarding house. She could see it at a glance, just a few blocks down the street, off that section of the town’s central thoroughfare.

The little boarding house was her shelter, at least for a time. She knew it wouldn’t last, that she’d be moving on soon. But she longed for that warm bed, that quiet confine where a locked door seemed to protect her from the evils of the world.

My room, she thought, a bed I don’t have to share, a space that’s mine alone—at least for the time being. I won’t have it long if I can’t scrape some money together.

And so the little room would have to wait. Her stomach was already churning, empty and aching. She’d need sustenance to make it through the following day and to the ensuing night, when hunger would no doubt return. Maggie felt locked in a cycle she could not escape. There would only be one way out, she’d always known it. But she desperately did not want to face it, to forestall it for as long as possible. That was all anybody really wanted, as far as Maggie could see.

Men walked up and down the elevated wooden sidewalks on either side of the big street. The nighttime traffic was lighter than during the day, when the muddy streets were often jammed with carts and horsemen. By the flickering orange light of whale oil lamps, fixed to the tops of tall pine poles, the streets were quieter, darker, with shadows deepening into the alleys and side streets.

The cafés and restaurants were open, diners walking in and out in groups or pairs. Every woman seemed to have a man, as it had so often been in her life. There was love, companionship, trust—things Maggie had been forced to go without. But she had gotten as far as she had without them, which made her wonder how valuable they truly were.

A new hotel on the corner was already filled, and other places were jostling to accommodate new travelers and arrivals. Progress was happening at every turn, threatening to leave Maggie and her ilk in the dustbin of history.

Just one more night, she thought. One day and then the next. That’s held me in good stead so far. What other way is there? What choice do I have?

Maggie stood on her corner, an alley stretching behind her. The narrow passage was useful for loading foods into the hotel on the corner, as well as merchandise into the sundries shop next to the hotel. The alley led to the next street, where a cobbler and a haberdasher had established new businesses.

She glanced at the men walking past, letting her fading blue eyes trace their height, their build. There was no need for a come-on line. They knew what Maggie was offering. Those who stopped were interested. Those who didn’t, weren’t.

Men, she thought, little more than animals! Certainly, that’s the way they see us women; beasts of burden to be ridden hard and put away wet like a horse in a storm.

Some men eyed Maggie as they walked by, some with an evil glare she’d seen too many times in her life. Any one of them could be the killer of the girl in the Redtail, or they could be others with minds of their own. The news could have inspired others toward similar actions and activities, or simply given them an excuse to satisfy some dark corner of their secret personalities. In some cases, those secrets were not so well kept.

She heard the man’s breathing behind her, even before hearing his footsteps. But once her ears locked onto those things, they couldn’t ignore or deny them. Maggie turned to glance into the alley. The figure standing before her was cloaked in darkness, only a pair of eyes piercing the shadows.

That lump rose higher in Maggie’s throat. “Lookin’ for a friend, stranger?” The man offered no response. He stepped toward her, and Maggie tried to suppress her gasp. Her voice cracking a bit, she asked, “You got a name, hon?”

But he just kept walking toward her, no answer other than his slow and steady approach. The closer he got, the faster he walked. A clenched scream rose up and spilled out of Maggie’s throat before she turned and ran out of the alley and into the street.

Maggie’s heart pounded as she weaved through the few horsemen, carts, and coaches on the big thoroughfare. Her feet slipped in the mud, but she kept running. She didn’t dare look back, and there was no time to stop and explain to anyone who or what she was running from. There was time for one thing and one thing only.

Keep running.

Maggie finally fell, collapsing into the mud. But she pushed herself up in time to avoid an oncoming horse. Pedestrians pointed and laughed at her. Some shook their heads at the aging floozy who was probably drunk.

They didn’t care about her. None of them did. They never had, and they never would.

But she did have somebody’s interest, and it was altogether unwelcome. There was no time to tarry. Her boarding house was only two blocks away. She had no idea if the man was still following her, and she didn’t want to know. She was alive; she was close to safety.

He’s probably still back in the alley, Maggie reassured herself, waiting for his next victim! He wouldn’t kill me here, on the thoroughfare! Stay out of the alleys, stay in the light… get back to the boarding house!

She pushed off again, down the long stretch to the boarding house. She ran past the closed hardware store and the tailor’s shop with suited mannequins in the window. All seemed well enough, no pedestrians seemed to take notice of anyone behind her. There were no signs of a fight or struggle, no sign that anything at all was wrong, in fact.

But she couldn’t be sure, and there was no room for uncertainty. Maggie urged herself, Keep running! Get away, back to the boarding house!

Her feet slipped again, but she retained her footing and ran toward the boarding house, to safety.

Keep running… keep…

But her course was violently corrected, a hand grabbing her right arm and yanking her into an alley before she could pull away or even scream. The man spun her into the shadows, things swirling around her until Maggie could hardly tell one thing from another. But she could hardly miss the feeling of his hand around her throat, mighty fingers squeezing hard to silence her. Her eyes locked with his, the only feature she could make out.

The knife drove deep into her gut, pain exploding throughout her body. She trembled as a wave of panicked heat passed through her, body trembling, and sweat trickling down the side of her face. She felt the blood rise up in her throat, heart pounding as it dribbled down her chin.

Her panicking mind boggled at how he’d outpaced, outsmarted, and overwhelmed her.

Murdered her.

Maggie turned to see her boarding house, just a block away. But she’d never traverse that last bit of distance, never make it to the safety and shelter of what would have to pass for her last residence on Earth.

Just one more night, Maggie thought, even her voice sounded weak in the back of her brain. Just… one… more…

Flashes of memory jarred her, bringing her back to the deaths of her parents and the first man who first robbed her of her virtue. The agony only increased as the man withdrew the blade and plunged it in again.

Maggie’s mind went blank, terror blotting out all else. There was nothing more to remember, no thoughts worth harboring. All was lost. It was over. The pain receded with the last of her strength, arms and legs becoming numb as her vision went black, ears a dull hum, one more thought crackling in the back of her brain.

No more.

Chapter Two

Michael Hillburn’s faithful paint Rigor carried him past the American elm and river birch southeast of Gary, Indiana. The sandy flats on the shores of Lake Michigan were farther north, waiting for him. And they were not the only things in Michael’s immediate future. The little town almost certainly gave shelter and succor to a far more lethal peril even than those treacherous lake currents, known to draw grown men off the sand to disappear into the chop.

It had been a long trail, one which had come to possess more than one year of Michael’s total of only thirty-two. He’d left his life and identity far behind after hearing the terrible news about his late sister, Kate.

It had seemed impossible at the time, something out of a nightmare. But the things Michael and seen and heard and learned on his year-long trek to avenge his kid sister had proven that her fate hadn’t been any imagined occurrence or the result of some old wives’ tale. It had been all too real.

Looking around, there was no way to mistake the radical turn his life had taken. He’d grown up in Boston, eagerly reporting local news for the Globe. He’d been popular among the ladies of Boston, many of whom were eager to be known as Mrs. Michael Hillburn. He could look back on every one with pride, never having compromised his honesty or integrity. He’d left a few broken hearts in his wake, but he’d never once been dishonest. They all seemed to admire his forthrightness, his sense of commitment to the truth. It was going to propel him to greatness in his field, his editor had often said as much.

So Michael could not escape looking back on his mandate to leave it all behind, the life he’d created virtually single-handed.

He’d tried to tempt his sister to join him after losing her husband to a cancer of the stomach. And though he’d been steadfastly committed to his work as a financier, Kate had become rootless there, abandoned by her late husband’s friends and associates. Several had indicated an interest in marriage, but she could hardly accept under such mournful circumstances.

That was when he got word of what had happened to her. She’d been buried by the time he’d made it to New York, but she’d been identified by her clothes and the possessions found on the body: her purse and some documents with her signature.

At first, it was another news story, the biggest one of his career and of his life. And though New York was decidedly not covered by the writers of the Boston Globe, Michael had convinced his editor that the story would be of interest to readers of their national news desk.

In truth, he knew the story itself would be an afterthought. His beloved sister had been brutally murdered, and the person responsible had to be found, stopped, and brought to justice of one kind or another. Michael’s life would be dedicated to that premise. If he lived long enough to write and publish the story, it would be a fitting epitaph if nothing else.

Weeks had been wasted investigating these men of power in New York, any one of whom might have had poor Kate killed. But none of his leads had panned out, and when a victim with similar wounds was found east of Boston, the hunt for the man who would be become known as the Baltimore Butcher began for Michael Hillburn.

So much wasted time, he couldn’t help but think, even a year later as he approached Gary, Indiana. The woods were thick but fairly level, the spring sky clear ahead of him. Rigor huffed and shook his head, rusty mane flopping against the white fur of his long, muscular neck. The horse seemed to sense danger, and Michael shared the animal’s trepidation. The woods were always perilous, offering shelter and threatening ambush to any number of predators, both animal and otherwise. Road agents, lingering Miami, Wea, and Shawnee warriors, French fur trappers and traders, lone mountain men eager for slaves, wives, and anything else they could get their hands on—even these could pale in comparison to the strength and effectiveness of a big brown bear or a pouncing cougar. Deadly vipers hid amongst the rocks and tree roots, ready to kill Rigor or Michael himself with a well-placed strike. In the spring, the woods and forests of the nation would be rife with such hunters, on the prowl both day and night.

Even birds of prey were said to attack humans from above. Either by mistake or ambition, they would strike young children, small animals, even the heads of adults, talons pulling at hats, hair, and scalps in surprise attacks from above.

There also terrible storms associated with the shores of Lake Michigan, and while the landscape was not particularly mountainous, there were still drop-offs and crags, rotting trees falling with no warning.

It was not the place Michael had ever expected to be, not the kind of place he wished to remain. His skills with his fists and with small arms such as pistols and knives were impressive, and he’d often needed them in the pursuit of a good story. He missed civilization, and being a part of a community. However able he was to survive his hunt, time was working against him. Another year on the trail would likely take his life. But Michael survived with the idea of catching and killing the Baltimore Butcher, whatever the cost to his own life. In that way, Michael could hardly ignore the feeling that he was already dead, that he’d died a year before on the day he received the wire about Kate. He felt like little more than a ghost himself, lurking among the living for his last, fated confrontation, one final story to tell, one more great truth to reveal. After that, he only hoped to live long enough to write the story and see it published. Nothing else really mattered.

He wanted to harbor hope for a better future, a time when he could resume being a civilized man in modern society. Until then, he was in exile, returning to the natural brutality of his humanity. A year in the open had created a new direction of development for Michael. He began to wonder if he could ever return to society, ever be the modern man he’d been before heading out on the hunt. He’d changed, and he would never truly be the same. Michael knew that, and he mourned the loss of the good and decent man he’d been, the life of courteous civility he’d enjoyed.

That man was dead, and in his place rode a hardened manhunter, all thoughts fixed on a single goal, and following a trail of blood and gore to the source of his all-consuming melancholy and determination.

A peregrine falcon cried out overhead, drawing Michael’s gaze. Something had caught the circling raptor’s attention, and Michael tensed as he neared whatever the center of the bird’s attraction might be.

Rigor pushed him through the trees to the edge of a clearing, where a covered wagon had paused on the trail. Four riders faced the wagon, and Michael could make out bandanas over their faces to disguise their identities.

Road agents, he realized, robbing that wagon and whoever’s inside it.

Michael rode in quietly, withdrawing his Colt pistols from the leather holsters on the sides of his gun belt. Rigor seemed to understand, quieting his own huffing as the tension of the moment began to thicken around them. The horse took a few steps closer to the edge of the clearing.

Michael couldn’t make out their words, but he could tell by the timbre of the men’s voices that they were angry, demanding, commanding. They wouldn’t be merciful, and neither was Michael.

He was fairly sure that the man he was hunting was not among those terrorizing the wagon. The Butcher traveled alone, according to what little information Michael had been able to garner on his investigation and manhunt. And he favored cities, towns, he didn’t seem to strike on the trail.

And he wasn’t after money or the kind of goods one might find in a covered wagon.

The Baltimore Butcher seemed to be one of those rare men who did not steal in order to own, use, or sell common goods or sundries. He did not rob for money, the cold currency of which so many men were in such great need. The Baltimore Butcher, it seemed to Michael, killed for fun, for sport. And holding up a covered wagon wasn’t the kind of sport the Butcher favored, nor the kind of prey.

The Baltimore Butcher killed women. And there could yet be a woman in that wagon, perhaps traveling alone or, more likely, with a male companion of some sort. That would account for the prolonged negotiation, it seemed to Michael. Separate man from woman, kill one and possess the other; uninjured until things get complicated.

Michael had little time to formulate a plan. He could see the men’s guns pointed into the wagon, their faces covered. But it was still possible that they were lawmen, lawfully bringing in a suspected criminal in that wagon.

Perhaps even the Baltimore Butcher himself, Michael had to consider. That was more likely than him being a member of the four-rider team.

Michael pulled the hammers of his Colt pistols back, the click inspiring the road agents to turn their heads in his direction. Still protected by the line of trees at the edge of the clearing, he called out, “First man who moves gets shot.”

The men remained calm, their horses holding them in position next to the wagon. A voice cried, “The Lord be praised! Help me, good sir!”

One of the riders said, “Ride on, stranger. This one’s ours!”

That left no room for doubt. Any lawman would have announced himself and his honorable intentions at the first opportunity.  And what the man did was more than enough to incriminate him. The men were there with evil intent, and they were about to die as a result.

But they still had pistols trained on the wagon, on whoever called out from within. That person was likely to be killed in the exchange, something Michael was focused on preventing. A ruse would be necessary. The man who had sought the truth for most of his adult life, who even then chased down his sister’s murderer, had to abandon truth once again in favor of chicanery. It had become a necessary tactic on his travels, to disguise his intentions from his intended prey. After a year, the man would be reasonable to assume, to learn, to know for sure that he was being hunted.

Michael rode out into the clearing, a Colt in both hands.

“Vengeance Behind the Mask” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Michael Hilburn, a former newspaper writer, is hunting the Baltimore Butcher, the man who killed his sister. In the trail of revenge, he disguises himself as a priest. As he works to outwit his deadly opponent, innocent victims continue to die one after the other…

Can he uncover the killer’s identity before time runs out?

Clara Daniels came to Chicago with her father to build a church, but his death and a harsh winter slowed her progress. Desperate for help, she wired for a pastor and received a priest instead. This mysterious newcomer, skilled in both the pulpit and in a fight, stirs feelings she struggles to resist.

Will her growing attraction to him put her in danger?

Together, Michael and Clara face a deadly game of cat and mouse. As they draw closer, danger intensifies. Will their combined strength be enough to stop the Baltimore Butcher? Or will an unspeakable horror tear them apart?

“Vengeance Behind the Mask” is a historical adventure novel of approximately 60,000 words. No cliffhangers, only pure unadulterated action.

Get your copy from Amazon!

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