The messenger finds Harrison Raines in one of the finest gambling halls in Washington. As usual, Raines is losing. Union intelligence demands his presence immediately—it’s a matter that could affect the outcome of the Civil War—but Raines delays. After all, he’s holding four eights, and as a southern dandy who renounced his family to serve the Union government as a secret agent, Raines can’t resist a bet.
But as soon as he finishes this hand of poker, Raines will be gambling with more than cards—he’ll be wagering his life. Abraham Lincoln is a close friend of Colonel Baker, and he orders Raines to guard the colonel on the battlefield. But in the chaos of Ball’s Bluff, Baker refuses to take cover from enemy fire. When Baker cut down by a Confederate riding a white horse, Raines is a prime suspect for the murder, and must clear his name or risk being a fugitive from both sides of the Civil War.
“Kilian’s use of historical detail is accurate and pertinent without detracting from what is, essentially, a tightly constructed, well-written, and suspenseful whodunit. Raines, a relentless but all-too-human hero, is an intriguing character . . . in what promises to be a fine series of novels. Both Civil War and mystery fans will appreciate Kilian’s grasp of the genres of historical fiction and mystery.” —Booklist
A Killing at Ball’s Bluff is the second book in the Harrison Raines Civil War Mysteries, but you may enjoy reading the series in any order.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
A Killing at Ball's Bluff
A Harrison Raines Civil War Mystery
By Michael Kilian
MysteriousPress.comCopyright © 2001 Michael Kilian
All rights reserved.
Harrison Raines did not want to talk to the small, dirty boy who darted into the Palace of Fortune and headed directly for his table.
Harry was holding four eights in a high-stakes poker game with some of the best cardplayers in the federal city. It was the only good hand he had drawn that night, or that week. But the boy's presence portended more than the abandonment of a rare gambling opportunity. Harry guessed that an altogether different game was in the offing — one that would see a beautiful and gracious lady, a good friend of his and his family's, hauled off in irons to a jail cell.
And he would be asked to play a part.
The small boy, whose name was Homer, tugged at Harry's sleeve.
"Please, mister," said Homer. "He says to come."
"Yes, of course. After this hand."
The boy relinquished his grip on the sleeve of Harry's expensive linen coat — his grubby fingers leaving their mark — but didn't budge from the spot where he stood. The conditions of Homer's employment were that he would not receive his due compensation until the recipients of his messages responded to them.
Harry ignored the boy for the moment, taking his gold-rimmed spectacles from his coat pocket to better assess his situation in the card game.
Raines was as vain as any Southern gentleman of his youth and agreeable countenance, and not fond of wearing eyeglasses. Normally, he used them only when reading, or attending theatrical performances that featured comely actresses, of which wartime Washington City now had substantial supply. He sometimes left his spectacles off even when aiming a firearm, trusting to instinct.
He almost always wore them when engaged in a game of poker, a serious business with him. Gambling was one of several occupations he had taken up after breaking with his slave-owning Virginia family. Lately, he hadn't prospered at it much.
This hot August night he wondered if he might need stronger lenses. He still did not quite believe the four eights in his hand.
The others at the table were serious players as well. Big Jim Coates was a bearlike, cheerful, professional gambler who'd come to the capital from the western territory of Colorado in hopes of greater profit. He liked to joke that there was too much fighting and brawling out on the frontier and he preferred the peace and quiet of the Potomac during wartime. Certainly there wasn't much fighting around Washington, not with General George B. McClellan having taken command of the army after Irwin McDowell's disaster at Bull Run the month before.
The celebrated English war correspondent William Howard Russell was another notable gambler at the table, and a friend of Harry's as well, who had been with him as a spectator at the Bull Run debacle. Next to Russell was Colonel Phineas Gregg, an army surgeon at the Union hospital in Georgetown. Gregg was Harry's mentor on almost all matters, but most especially on chess. The war had not interfered with their weekly games.
Adolph Webber, a whiskey seller and notorious Washington swindler, had few friends — and Harry was not one of them. But Webber was always welcome at the poker tables because he had a large pocketbook and, oddly, small talent for the game.
Templeton Saylor was a dashing young captain serving with the 3 New York Cavalry. He had graduated from Harvard College three years before. Though Harry sometimes found it hard to abide Saylor's unfortunate snobbery — he liked to say that he and Harry were the only "gentlemen" to be found in the Palace of Fortune, if not all of Washington — Harry liked the man and counted him a friend. They shared a passion for the theater and were often invited to the same dinner parties. Saylor was a terrible poker player. Harry sometimes wondered if he truly examined his cards before making his bets. But the captain frequently won, if not by the intimidating size of his wagers, then by his willingness to see every bet and draw cards to every hand.
Saylor's father was said, without too much hyperbole, to own most of New York City and Saylor had little need of the money he won, or much care for that which he lost. He was a generous fellow who, despite his snobbery, always had a coin or two for the poor.
The remaining player at the table was Sam Buckeys, a Maryland horse trader whom Saylor quite openly despised — mostly for his uncouth appearance and horrible manners, but also because he was the sort of man who'd rob grandmothers on their deathbeds. A man who'd rob them of their deathbeds.
And rob the federal government as well. Harry had seen some of the mounts Buckeys had sold to the army. He could only hope the Union cavalry would not have to ride into battle anytime soon if they had Buckeys's nags beneath them.
Also engaged in horse trading, Harry sometimes held his nose and did business with Buckeys, though he thought the rough fellow to be a Confederate spy. Buckeys held a similar notion about Harry, which Raines of course encouraged. Harry was an agent, to be sure, but with a much different employer.
"Bet's to you, Raines," Webber said. The whiskey dealer had taken only one card.
Harry brought his hand into closer focus. The four eights were still there.
"It's a dollar to you, Sir Harry," reminded Saylor, using an appellation inspired by too much attendance at Shakespearean theatricals.
"He must still have his mind on that English actress," said Coates. "The one he took out to Bull Run and nearly got killed."
"Was the other way 'round," said Dr. Gregg. "She was the one keen on seeing all the heroes lay waste to one another."
"A splendid-looking woman, Caitlin Howard," said Russell. "And an actress of prodigious talent. But, do you know? I've only seen her perform here in the United States. Never once in London."
"'The grass stoops not, she treads on it so light,'" recited Saylor.
"She's in New York now," Harry said, swallowing away a pang of sadness. "Preparing for a play."
True enough, but as everyone in Harry's circle knew, she'd gone there with another man — the actor John Wilkes Booth — a fellow Harry also did not count among his friends. The beautiful Caitlin was enormously fond of Harry — and had demonstrated this on numerous public occasions. But she was madly, hopelessly in love with Booth, who, beyond his considerable acting talents, enjoyed enormous fame as "the handsomest man in America." It was perhaps not true, as had been said, that all the women in the country were in love with Booth — but all the women in Washington certainly seemed to be.
"Damn it, Raines," said Buckeys. "See the bet or throw in your hand!"
Quickly, with little further thought upon it, Harry pushed forth a silver dollar. He'd leave the raise to someone else.
That did not take long. Saylor, rich as Croesus and sitting to Harry's right, tossed in a five dollar gold piece with an elegantly accurate flip.
"The Virginia gentleman is too reticent," he said, with a nod to Harry. "Northern blood is stronger stuff."
Coates and Dr. Gregg folded their hands. When the bet came 'round to Buckeys, the horse trader grumbled, but then raised Saylor's offering another dollar. The pot now held more than even an actress of Caitlin's stature and celebrity made in a month.
Harry was now ready to hike the wager even higher, when he felt another tug at his sleeve. He looked down at the small, dirty face.
"You're to come, mister," the boy said. "You got to come."
"Not now, Homer," Harry said. "Have to finish this hand."
"Damn it, Raines," said Buckeys. "Bet!"
Harry merely saw the previous raises. Saylor raised another five dollars.
"He says come now," said Homer. "He says the horse is sick."
Those particular words were a signal. Harry glowered at his hand.
"Soon," he muttered. "Very soon."
Raines gave the boy a penny and a friendly shove toward the door, then tried to return his attention to the game. There were only three of them in it now — the raises having intimidated the others into folding.
Harry glanced at Saylor. He wasn't at all certain whether the young officer was bluffing, playing recklessly, or had something very good. That was never clear.
Buckeys was a different matter. Greedy to a sizable fault, he always played shrewdly. He was by far the table's biggest winner that night.
A small shiver ran up Harry's back. Who could beat four eights?
Another tug from Homer, which Harry struggled to ignore. He'd leave with the boy the instant the hand was done.
"I call," Harry said.
Saylor flamboyantly laid down his hand, which boasted no more than three jacks.
Harry set down his own hand faceup, separating the magnificent array of eights from the lone queen. He was about to reach for the pot when there came another tug at his sleeve. It was Buckeys. He'd set out four tens on the table.
Harry straightened his spectacles and stared at Buckeys's hand with great deliberation. Then, sadly, he shook his head, quickly downed his glass of whiskey, and pushed back his chair. It was barely nine o'clock, and he'd already lost most of the money in his wallet.
"Sorry, gentlemen," he said. "Have to see a man about a horse."
"The South in retreat," said Saylor.
"I ain't retreatin'," said Buckeys, raking in his winnings.
Dr. Gregg was looking at Harry strangely. He seemed about to speak, then thought better of it.
With Homer nipping on ahead, Harry hurried across the muddy expanse of Pennsylvania Avenue, dodging considerable street traffic and carousing soldiery, happy to reach the brick sidewalk on the other side. From there, he made his way west toward the President's Park and the Treasury Building, proceeding to the corner opposite Nailor's Livery Stable. Careful to keep out of the glow of the street lamp, he waited.
Not long. The line about a sick horse was a coded message for him to come to this place at once for a rendezvous with one Joseph "Boston" Leahy, a former Massachusetts police detective who now shared with Harry the distinction of discreetly serving the Union cause as an agent in the new U.S. Secret Service, formed just after the North's Bull Run defeat. When the term "sick horse" was used, it meant a matter of some urgency that needed immediate attention.
Leahy was taller even than Harry, who stood six feet. The Irishman was also so powerfully muscled his habitual cheap black suits seemed never to fit, especially about his shoulders. Leahy had a large head, and the bowler hat he always wore seemed similarly undersized.
He stepped out of the shadows behind Harry so quietly, he made Harry jump.
"Major Allen's got a wee job for us, Harry," he said softly.
"Something tells me it's not quite as wee as I should like."
Leahy looked both ways along the dark street. "It's Rose Greenhow," he said.
"I thought as much."
"Let's hope she has not. The night's game is to catch her unawares."
Rose O'Neal Greenhow was one of the most influential and socially prominent hostesses in the federal city. Maryland born, she had married a prosperous Virginia lawyer who had become even more moneyed through successful land speculation in far-off California. In 1854, he'd fallen into a street excavation in San Francisco, a misfortune that had enriched Rose's sizable holdings by ten thousand dollars when the claim was settled. She'd afterward reestablished herself in Washington as might a noblewoman at a royal court.
James Buchanan had been her close friend before her husband's passing and remained an intimate of hers after Buchanan had ascended to the presidency. Senator Stephen Douglas had married her niece. Her friends and admirers in the Lincoln Administration included several high-ranking generals and, in great particular, Secretary of State William Seward. Her power and position in Washington were such that she'd been emboldened to snub the president's wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, at a dressmaker's.
Now past forty, Mrs. Greenhow was at the outer edge of what had not so long before been a brilliant beauty. Age had abated none of her charm, which could be magical in its effect.
Harry's plantation-owning father, now a colonel in the Virginia Cavalry, had been so friendly with Mrs. Greenhow that it caused some embarrassment for the family. Harry called upon Mrs. Greenhow to pay his respects upon moving to Washington two years before, and had been thoroughly smitten, though she was fifteen years his elder.
Leahy's summons meant Harry would be calling on her once again, to much different purpose. Both men knew, as did their leader in the newly formed U.S. Secret Service, that Mrs. Greenhow was more than just another of the capital's many highborn Southern sympathizers. She was thought to be the Confederacy's principal spy in Washington. It had apparently been decided she could no longer be tolerated.
"She's to be arrested?" Harry asked Leahy. They were moving along the north side of the avenue toward the Willard Hotel. "Tonight?"
"That's not clear, Raines. But the Major indicated some urgency in the matter."
"Major" E. J. Allen actually did hold that military rank, but he was no soldier. His true occupation was detective. He had been the first detective on the Chicago police force and later was chief detective for the Philadelphia, Wilmington & Baltimore Railroad. Now he headed the newly formed U.S. Secret Service, reporting directly to General McClellan. His real name was Allan Pinkerton.
He had a number of offices and hideaways in Washington from which he worked, and kept living quarters at the Willard, the city's finest hostelry. It was also the hotel most favored by supporters of the Union. Mr. Lincoln had stayed there in the days before his inauguration.
Harry's quarters were down Pennsylvania Avenue at the National Hotel, still a hotbed of secessionism. Its other residents included some of the most ardent Southerners in the federal city — as well as Harry's rival for the affections of Caitlin Howard, John Wilkes Booth.
Before knocking at the door to Pinkerton's rooms, Leahy went back down the hall to the stairs to make certain no one had followed them. Enemy agents were as thick in the capital as the prostitutes and drunken soldiery in the streets.
Pinkerton admitted them quickly. He was a short, stocky, strongly built man with broad face and nose and a brushy, closely cut beard, though he lacked a mustache. He was friendly enough, but seldom smiled. Never broadly. Yet Lincoln was always telling him jokes.
"Where were you?" Pinkerton asked. "Idling in the abodes of criminals again?"
"The Palace of Fortune," Harry said. "Yes."
"You are not a virtuous man, Raines. Happily, you are a useful one. I trust you will prove so tonight."
The gaslight in his parlor was very low. Going to the window overlooking the street, Pinkerton parted the curtains carefully, observing the passersby below. Satisfied that no one was taking an interest in him or his window, he let the drapes fall back into place, then came to the center of the room, where Harry and Leahy stood waiting. Pinkerton's dark eyes darted from one to the other quickly.
"You both have your revolvers?" he asked.
Leahy nodded. Harry started to nod as well, then stopped in alarm. "We're to shoot her? Mrs. Greenhow?"
Pinkerton shook his head. Harry almost detected amusement.
"No one wishes her dead, merely that she be removed from her mischief," the detective said. "That will be up to us. We need proof, and tonight we shall have it. She has dangerous friends. I want you prepared."
Harry had joined the Secret Service with great reluctance, compelled by circumstance to abandon the neutrality he had clung to after Sumter. Had he not joined the federal service, he'd been persuaded that he might well end up arrested on suspicion of being a Southern agent. His father was a good friend of both Confederate President Jefferson Davis and his chief military adviser, General Robert E. Lee. Harry's brother was also a Confederate officer, and the family plantation in Charles City County down in the Virginia Tidewater was home to more than a hundred slaves.
It was the matter of slaves that had driven Harry from his family and into residence in Washington. He was a supporter and admirer of Abraham Lincoln and all that the president stood for — including especially abolition of "the peculiar institution."
Excerpted from A Killing at Ball's Bluff by Michael Kilian. Copyright © 2001 Michael Kilian. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.