In 1871, a reluctant medium reenters the fray to solve her partner’s murder as her criminal past comes back to haunt her…literally. #pitprom
VIOLA “VI” THORNE’s days of grifting and running errands for the dead should have ended years ago when she left Peter eating steam on a Chicago train platform. No one in California knows she can speak to spirits, yet there’s a dead stranger at her doorstep begging her to recover his buried gold in order to pay his debt and save a life. The unlikely companions find themselves racing horses, cheating at cards, and tangling with bandits, and that’s just before lunch.
Once Vi finds out who is responsible for telling the ghost her location, she must face the past she thought she’d buried. Peter appears as a spirit to bring her a warning of those who want to lure her back to New Orleans and are willing to kill for it. Vi may play the damsel in distress when it suits her, but she won’t let herself be rescued if she can use her “special talents” to earn Peter’s forgiveness and atone for the only deception she’s ever regretted. During the journey, her long-repressed powers begin to grow in unexpected ways, threatening her mind as well as her body. She stops in Chicago to get help from an estranged and recalcitrant aunt with knowledge of the supernatural and unwittingly gives her enemy's ghostly assassin the opportunity to strike.
Historical fiction gets a paranormal twist in No Rest for the Wicked, which is 94,500 words long and intended for adult fantasy readers looking for a complex female protagonist at the helm. It is the first installment in a planned 5-book series that will take Vi and her companions across gaslit America in 1871.
When I’m not penning speculative fiction, acting as co-editor for SteampunkJournal.org, and sharing articles with my fellow writers on OurWriteSide.com, I am the Creative Director for a creativity competition for grades 5-8. I love attending conventions and have been a frequent guest speaker at events like the International Steampunk Symposium. You can find my Gothic short story, "The Vigil," in the Chasing Magic anthology, as well as my contributions to the novel Esyld's Awakening, which were both published by the Collaborative Writing Challenge in 2017. I coordinated and contributed to a Steampunk fantasy novel called Army of Brass that launched April 2018. My latest short story, a horror retelling of Pinocchio entitled "The Marionette," can be found in The Queen of Clocks and Other Steampunk Tales anthology published earlier this month.
Thank you for your time and consideration,
First Ten Pages:
September 30, 1871
About two miles as the crow flies from Sacramento, California
Viola Thorne preferred to bathe by moonlight. Perhaps it was the quiet chirps of the crickets or the splash of stars above, but something about the nights here at the end of the world called out to her.
After weeks of aching muscles, she’d managed to reinforce the natural hot spring with stones from all over the ranch to build the perfect niche for soaking. Sulfurous steam rose off the water and eddied around her head and shoulders while the rest of her luxuriated in the gentle currents of heat.
A half-empty bottle of whiskey kept a waxed paper parcel company on the edge. She reached inside the package and pulled out a fragrant hunk of soap—the last of what she’d brought from back East four years earlier. No telling when she’d be able to get more, but she worked the bubbles through her hair and scalp with gusto. The smell of lilacs rose from the lather to combat the reek of rotten eggs emanating from the spring. Vi breathed it deep into her lungs as she closed her eyes against the tide of foam.
A sensation as light and dangerous as hornet wings fluttered on the back of her neck and slowed her hands. Miles away from anywhere anyone might possibly want to go, she should have been safe from prying eyes here in the pool, even in broad daylight.
All the same, someone was watching.
Unwilling to let the peeping Tom know she was on to him, Vi went back to washing her hair. She listened for the telltale crack of a twig or the whisper of cloth to indicate the direction of the infiltrator’s approach. If it came down to it, she could always reach out with her other sense, but that was reserved for special occasions these days.
She leaned her head back to rinse, the lather floating around her tinged a dull red from the henna she used to muddy her identity. Though the chance of being recognized way out here remained remote, Vi favored distancing herself from her old life wherever she could. Her chestnut hair was a small sacrifice for obscurity.
The frontier night stretched out quiet and undisturbed before her, yet the prickling awareness spreading across her shoulders told her the invading presence somehow drew nearer. Beneath the water’s surface, she brushed her fingers against her garter and the knife she always kept strapped to her calf. Having a jack rabbit for a stalker would be far more likely than encountering some poor soul wandering the prairie, but naked and alone (and if she was being honest, more than a little inebriated) out in a distant corner of her ranch, she couldn’t take that risk.
With a deep breath, she reached into herself and quested for the feelings that always tickled at the edges of her awareness. Reaching out with her mind, she washed through the waiting embers of her long-repressed senses. They flared to life, hot and sharp despite her years of denial. Vi allowed the unexpected feeling of satisfaction to curl the corner of her mouth before she returned to the task at hand.
Her audience stood behind her, his decidedly unrabbitlike outline burning bright and blue inside her skull. In one fluid motion, her blade flashed moon-bright and hurtled toward the place he stood. A hollow “thunk” told her it had hit the tree behind him, just as she’d expected from the color of his aura.
“Are you crazy?” the ghost cried, patting his chest where the knife had passed straight through him. “You could kill someone like that!”
He took a few noiseless steps away from the offending blade, as if it intended to jump out of the tree and bite him.
“You’re already dead,” she mocked. “What are you so worried about?”
“What if I wasn’t?”
With a shrug and a few splashes, Vi made her way over to the makeshift stone bench beneath the water’s surface and settled upon it. “I knew what I was doing.”
“Then what, pray tell, did you hope to accomplish with your little trick?” The insubstantial form crossed his arms and peered at her from under the brim of his transparent bowler hat. Even in death, the fine cut of his clothes marked him as an outsider the same way his accent marked him as a New Englander.
Vi twisted her hair into a coil at the top of her head before breathing out a contented sigh and resting against a pillow of moss. “I was hoping it would make you go away. So, if you don’t mind?” Her fingers fluttered in a gesture of dismissal and she closed her eyes.
A few silent seconds ticked by, and she dared to hope he’d go. Then his curiosity shattered the quiet again. “Where did you even pull that knife from?”
He craned his neck as if he could see beneath the silver ripples of the pool. Vi’s head snapped forward, face red from more than the heat of the spring. “It was strapped to my leg, you degenerate! Now go away. I want to finish my bath in peace.”
The ghost removed his hat and simpered, “Please, I must speak with you.”
“No. What you must do is move on and stop bothering the living. I’m out of the business of running errands for the dead, thank you very much.” Her hands traced shallow furrows in the water.
“But you don’t even know what I want.”
“It’s my wife, you see—”
“There are these men and—”
“We owe them some money—”
“I can keep this up all night,” she warned.
“But, they’re going to—”
Vi raised her hands above the water and moved them like a conductor as she sang to the tune of a new song that had been making the rounds. “I’m not interested in helping, all the live-long day.” She let her hands drop back into the water with a splash.
If he could breathe, his chest would have been heaving in anger. In his current state, the ghost had to settle for pulling a sour face. “Well, I had to try. My wife is—was—my whole life.” He donned his spectral hat and turned to leave, mumbling to himself, “He warned you she wouldn’t help.”
“Yep, he was right,” Vi called lazily. Then the water surged around her as she sat forward with sudden interest. “Wait. Who warned you I wouldn’t help?” After the lengths she’d gone to to disappear, there shouldn’t be anyone for hundreds of miles who knew about her “special talent.”
“Will you help me if I tell you?” the ghost asked, hope written in the lines of his gently glowing face.
Vi squinted and sniffed. “I can guarantee I won’t help you if you don’t.”
The spirit smiled and waved his hands in imitation of her earlier display. “I’m not interested in telling, all the live-long day.”
She glared at the ripples on the pool. Not knowing the identity of her referrer was going to eat at her, but the information alone wasn’t worth the price of dealing with this guy.
Hat in hand, he tried again. “Forgive me. Please? I promise, I’ll tell you the whole sorry tale of how I found out about you as soon as you agree to help me.”
“No wonder you’ve gotten yourself into trouble,” she spat. “You shouldn’t offer to pay someone up front; you need to hold onto whatever it is for leverage.”
“All right. Then I promise to tell you after you help me.”
“Nope. Still not interested. It would take a lot more than that to get me involved.”
His face fell for a moment before he brightened. “Well, there’s always the gold.”
Vi’s smirk returned. “You didn’t say anything about gold before.”
“You didn’t let me get that far!” The spirit took a few eager steps in her direction as he began, but his restlessness kept him pacing as he spoke. “I spent all I had getting out here. So, I owed money for my prospecting equipment, but I wasn’t having any luck panning. When they came around to collect, I told them I’d go out again and try farther up the river. They gave me until noon tomorrow to pay my debt, but I don’t think anyone really expected me to find anything.”
“Of course, they didn’t. The big strike in these parts happened when I was a girl.”
He stopped walking for a moment. Even in his insubstantial state, greed glinted in his eyes. “But I did! I found enough to pay them back and make up our losses from the trail.”
“And then you died. That’s a poor stretch of luck.”
“Yes! I was jumped a few hours’ walk from here by some bandits.” He pointed out into the distance behind Vi and her hot spring. “They took my equipment and my mule, but they didn’t take my gold.”
She chuckled. “They must not have been very good bandits, then.”
“No, you see, I buried it,” he said with a hint of satisfaction. “I knew there might be people like them roaming around, so I dug a hole before I went to sleep and stashed it there.”
“And we see how well that worked out for you.”
“Well, yes, they were rather unhappy when they saw I was a prospector but wouldn’t give them any gold.” He allowed himself a gratified laugh, but the next memory sobered him again. “They beat on me for a spell, trying to get the information, but I knew if they took the gold, that was the end for me anyway. You see, ma’am, if I don’t get that gold to Salty somehow, they said they’d kill her. They’re going to kill my wife! I can’t let her pay for my mistakes.”
“Ugh, of course. Another man, another woman caught in the crossfire.” Vi gave the water another contemplative splash. “That sounds like Salty all right.”
“You know him?”
“He puts on airs like he’s some sort of businessman, but there’s a big difference between business and his way of doing things.” She wrung the final drops of water out of her hair before letting it spill loose across her shoulders. “Even so, we have an understanding of sorts.”
“So, you’ll help me?”
“No.” She stood, water streaming down her torso. “But I’ll help your wife.”
The ghost turned away in a flurry of embarrassed splutters. No surprise there—the frontier always ate up and spat out the honorable ones like tobacco. If he were an ordinary man, she’d have been more self-conscious about her nudity, but as ghosts are generally limited to looking and nothing more, she tended to treat them like furniture. The air was cool after her long soak in the spring, and she climbed onto the bank to retrieve her clothes.
“Well, if we’re going to be working this job together, I suppose introductions are in order.” The final button fastened, she grabbed her whiskey and took another swig. The world tilted and blurred pleasantly as she moved to retrieve her knife from the tree. “I suppose your mysterious informant told you I’m Vi, and you are…Oh, sorry. And you were…?”
He whirled back, a pained expression on his face. “I don’t see what is so funny about all this.”
“Sorry,” she mumbled, making a show of shoving her foot into an oversized boot to avert her eyes. “This isn’t my first time talking to a ghost, but I suppose this is the first time you’ve died.”
“Obviously,” he retorted, a giggle bubbling up and receding into weary sigh. An uncomfortable silence followed, and Vi cleared her throat. “Ah yes, my name. It’s Tobias.”
“Okay, Toby, this ‘buried treasure’ of yours, it’s marked with an X or something?”
“Not exactly…I’ll have to lead you there.”
Vi pulled on her second boot and straightened. “When do we leave?”
The song of the prairie night disappeared, banished by the blush of morning.
Though picturesque, it was definitely not a time of day Vi usually considered possible. This went double for mornings after a late night full of whiskey and steam.
“Wake up, Vi!” Tobias called for what seemed like at least the thousandth time.
She dragged her stiff tongue around her sour mouth before groaning, “I heard you.”
“It’s about time,” the ghost grumped. “We need to get moving if we are going to get to the gold and back before twelve.”
“Is there time for coffee?” Vi pinched the bridge of her nose.
Her ability to glare remained unaffected by the hangover. “Let me rephrase that: There is time for coffee.”
Tobias fussed while she lit a lamp and built the fire in the stove. As Vi poured the dark powder into the pot, she frowned; it was almost gone, too. Unlike her favorite soap, coffee was a cargo hauled by the regular steamboat traffic on the Sacramento, but the price varied depending on supply and demand, and she hated to haggle when she didn’t have any power. After all, if she didn’t buy it, someone else definitely would.
Vi took stock of her other supplies. With her spartan approach to existence on the ranch, it didn’t take long. One cup, one plate, one fork—one person making an effort to make as small a dent in the world as possible didn’t need much. Her place in town was nicer if she needed creature comforts, but sometimes whiling away the long nights, she had to admit a partner for cribbage wouldn’t have gone amiss. Of course, it was safer for everyone this way.
When steam rolled off the water, she tipped the contents of one pot into the other and leaned into the fragrant plume. The very smell of coffee helped clear away some of her whiskey-induced cobwebs, and she almost remembered how to smile again.
While her breakfast steeped, Vi gave yesterday’s shirt a quick sniff and deemed it passable. On the other hand, the skirt she’d been wearing wouldn’t be the best for horseback, so she pulled out one of the pairs of trousers she’d picked up after meeting some gauchos on her way around the horn. The chiripá over-layer may not be flattering, but it sure kept a body comfortable in the saddle.
She started toward the door, then remembered her uninvited guest. The poncho she pulled over her head made her voice come out porridge-thick. “I’m going to go get my horse ready while the coffee’s brewing.”
“I’ll come with you. I could use a stroll.”
She grabbed the lamp and went outside, the ghost trailing behind. A barn slouched a few paces away, appearing as perturbed by the earliness of the hour as Vi. The only one happy to be awake was Smithy, who nickered a greeting when she pushed the barn door aside. He got a pat and a smile before she started checking the tack. Though no stranger to riding, she’d only learned how to take care of the equipment herself when she’d come out West. Now, the soft feel of the oiled leather and the clean glint of metal in the lamplight gave her a swell of pride.
“Any chance you’ve got two horses?”
“No, I’ve only got Smithy.” Vi gave the black gelding’s broad back a few strokes with a brush before grabbing a saddle blanket from the railing where she’d left it to air out. It cracked like a whip as she flapped it, sending a cascade of black hairs dancing. “But even if I had another horse, you can’t ride.”
“How would you know?” he whined. “I did fine on my mule.”
She shook her head, sending the room into momentary, bleary haze. It was hard to keep the annoyance out of her voice with last night’s excesses pounding inside her skull, but she tried to treat his inane question with patience.
“It’s not personal. It’s spiritual, er, or scientific, or something. I don’t actually know the specifics.” Vi massaged the space between her brows and the pain receded a few paces. She smoothed the saddle blanket across her mount, then turned around to retrieve the saddle. “That is to say, I had someone try to tell me about it, but I wasn’t a very good listener. But you must have realized you can’t touch things, right?”
A little groan escaped her throat as she heaved the saddle up onto Smithy. Despite the weight dropped unceremoniously onto his broad back, Smithy remained still and obedient under her touch.
“Well, of course,” Tobias chuckled. “If I could dig up the gold myself, I wouldn’t need your help. I’m not completely incompetent!”
Vi made her adjustments and looped the leather straps into place. Once she tested the cinch, she gestured between the ghost and the waiting saddle. “Okay. Hop on.”
With a sniff, Tobias walked into the stall and reached for the pommel. Inevitably, his hand passed right through it. Next, he tried a stirrup, but his fancy, posthumous boot never made contact, sending him toppling through Smithy and onto the ground at Vi’s feet.
The only thing stopping her laughter was the pounding between her eyes. “I’ll keep the ‘I told you so’ to myself, shall I?”
The ghost got to his feet, his head sticking up through the saddle just enough to see the surprise in his eyes. The horse gave a twitch at the sensation of having a phantom pass through his midsection.
Tobias took a step backward to view Vi across Smithy’s back rather than through it. “What about those stories?” he demanded, voice reedy with embarrassment. “The ones in the monthly. Ghosts knock on walls and move things. And people can see them.”
She shrugged and took the bridle from its nail. “Sure, some ghosts can do plenty. The longer it takes you to cross over, the more likely you’ll figure out how to move things. Not that it would be a good thing if you could, mind.”
“Why not? That seems like a pretty fine consolation prize to me. I could at least write messages.”
Vi sighed. “Honestly, it doesn’t happen often. And it would mean it is harder to pass over when the time comes. Getting yourself seen by the living without some help is even rarer.”
Tobias stroked a neat, semi-transparent mustache. “What kind of help?”
“Some ghosts learn how to crawl inside of objects,” she evaded. “Heirlooms and the like. Though for some reason, there are certain materials that they never touch.”
“Could I do that? Haunt something and then you carry me?”
Vi gave an exasperated, theatrical shrug. “Like I said, none of this is common. And believe it or not, I’m no expert. As far as I know, ghosts just sort of wander about, occasionally making demands of the living.”
The bit clacked against Smithy’s teeth as he took it. Vi rubbed his velvety, black snout with one hand as she drew the bridle over his ears with the other.
“Are you sure I have to walk all the way back out there?” the ghost bellyached.
“Well…” She smirked. “You could always run, instead. It’s not like you’ll ever get tired.”
“Nice to know death has some advantages.”
“Absolutely! Think of all that pesky eating and belching you won’t have to do anymore.”
The dead man sulked while she finished getting ready to leave. With a broad-brimmed hat on her head and her supplies stowed in her saddle bags, Vi mounted up. Smithy had never gotten used to the slow pace out West, so he pulled at the reins, eager to be given his head. She kept him to a walk for the long miles to keep from leaving her guide behind.
The twitter of cardinals and towhees joined the horse’s heavy footfalls as the morning progressed. Using her hand to shield her eyes, Vi squinted at the pale streak of the rising sun as it struggled over the Sierras and under her hat brim. The rainy season was due to return within a few weeks, but at the moment the rolling foothills were covered with parched grass and the occasional clump of stunted trees. The rain would be good for the prairie, but her body had been through too much to favor the cold. She planned to close the ranch house again for the season in the next few weeks. There was less protection from gossips and prying eyes in town, but it was a small price to pay for the heat of a radiator during the damp winter months.
“So.” Tobias broke the silence. “What brought you all the way out here?”
“An annoying dead guy, about yay high.” She passed her hand through the top of his head and he lurched away. “Anybody you know?”
“No,” he said with a laugh. “I mean what brought you to California?”
Vi returned her gaze to the horizon. “How far did you say we need to go? I’ve got things to do, you know.”
“We’re getting close…I think.”
“You think?” The reluctant medium hit him with a glare before reaching into her saddlebag and retrieving her flask of coffee.
“Yes, we’re getting close. But you didn’t answer my question.” Vi focused all her attention on unscrewing the top and taking a long swig of the gritty brew. “Come on,” he prodded. “Why are you in California? Were you born here or…?”
She wiped her mouth with the back of her hand, savoring the freedom to behave so poorly. “My life story is both terribly interesting and something I have no intention of telling you.”
The ghost stopped walking and crossed his arms in consternation. “And what’s wrong with me, then?”
Vi pulled Smithy to a stop, twisting in her saddle to face him. “I like my privacy.”
“Uh-huh. So, you’re saying it has nothing to do with me being a spirit?”
She made a show of acting hurt and surprised. “How dare you? There are plenty of spirits I like. Whiskey, for instance. Rum…”
He grimaced. “You obviously don’t like ghosts, though I can’t really see—”
“Look,” she snapped. “When I finish this little errand of yours, you’re going to pass over anyway. Why do you even care?”
His ethereal face didn’t have any blood in it to start with, but he grew paler and stuttered, “Pass over?”
Despite her better judgment, Vi felt sorry for him. “Well, sure. That’s the point of all this, isn’t it? To finish your unfinished business?”
“I guess I hadn’t thought that far ahead,” Tobias said sheepishly. “I only wanted to help Bonnie.”
Vi turned away from the longing in his voice and gave Smithy a squeeze to get them moving again. “That’s your wife?”
“Yes,” the ghost sighed, falling in step beside her. “She’s an amazing woman. Dropped everything and came out here with me on this damn fool enterprise. Now, she’s going to be all alone….”
The pause stretched on for too many footfalls. Vi finally blurted something to break it. “Malaeska.”
“Um. Bless you?”
“It’s a name,” she chuckled. “Malaeska; the Indian Wife of the White Hunter. It’s a dime novel I read as a kid.”
“I’m answering your question. It’s what inspired me to come to California.”
“What, didn’t think I could read?”
“No, that’s not it.” He thought for a moment. “It’s, well, a rather romantic thing to do, following a book. You don’t strike me as the sentimental type.”
She snorted. “Ah well, Malaeska is why I chose California, but it has nothing to do with why I left in the first place. That wasn’t sentiment, it was one hundred per cent pragmatism. It was time to move on.”
They crested the hill they’d been climbing. Tobias pointed to a clump of trees at the bottom of the trough and they meandered their way through the scrub. As they reached the edge of the copse, a huge snore ripped through the morning calm.
“Were you traveling with anyone else?” Vi hissed, tightening the reins and bringing them to a stop.
“No!” Tobias whispered back. “And I didn’t see a single house between my strike and town.”
The sun was high enough now that a trickle of sweat ran down the back of her neck. “Well, shit. You know what that means?”
“It must be that gang! The ones who killed me.”
“Yep,” she drawled, leaning forward to pat Smithy’s neck. “Things just got a whole lot more complicated.”
Welcome to the final round of pitches!
Agents and Publishers,