The Fall Of A Merciless Criminal (Preview)

Chapter One

There had been rumors.

Xui Ling clung to the woman next to her. She didn’t know her name, but it hardly mattered—it might as well have been Xui Ling. They all might as well have had the same name, especially from the point of view of their captors.

There had been rumors that things had changed in the New World, but nobody was sure what those changes were. Xui Ling and the others still found themselves in the cargo hold of that creaking shipping vessel as it rolled over the great choppy water between the old world and the new, the waters the white devil called Pacific. They had heard any number of things about life for them in North America, but they couldn’t all be true. Some said the men were giants, some up to twenty feet tall, with a never-ending thirst for female flesh. It was rumored they ate the women they ravaged. Others said that the like of Xui Ling and the others were despised by the whites, that they never touched them at all, but also that they didn’t feed them or slake their thirst, wash them or even cloth them. Others said they were to be concubines for the Chinese laborers, whom no white woman would allow to touch them. The women would be shipped off to the mountains to service the construction crews of railroads and other major projects.

Xui Ling could still hardly conceive of such a thing as they’d been described to her, massive metal machines that were moved by the power of heat and steam, tons of weight, said to be as long as ten dragons lined up nose to tail, charging up to thirty miles an hour.

There had been rumors.

And if anybody could conceive of and execute such a thing, it would be the whites. They seemed determined to advance the discoveries even of the Chinese. It hadn’t been lost on Xui Ling that so much of what was said to have built the new and expanding American empire had come from the Chinese: gunpowder, paper, movable print, alcohol. The Chinese were masters of the sea long before the round-eye, but even they would hardly have ventured so far from home over such raging seas.

The storm hit hard and fast, the ship plunged headlong into the tumult. The winds howled and the waves smashed against the hulls. Water leaked in from several places, the ship rocking and listing. Thunder clapped, lighting flashing through the openings in the deck above them, where the cargo door opened, rain water slipping through those cracks along with the bright split-seconds of light.

The boat moaned as it sailed on, as if it was some great sea creature in its dying agonies. The big ship was straining to survive, but the storm seemed just as determined that the ocean should swallow it whole, along with every living soul on board.

Xui Ling surveyed the expressions of the women around her, three hundred women cluttering several layers of wooden shelving built into the sides of the hull. It stank of brine and body odor, black hair plastered down around frightened faces. They clung to the wooden posts supporting the shelves, they clung to one another, as the waves lifted the ship and then dropped it back down hard into the ocean. The women gasped and screamed with the cycle, the ship listing to one side or another as it dipped and pulled up again. Each cycle seemed to take a little more out of the ship’s integrity, its strength sapped little by little as it crawled inch by inch toward a watery grave.

And it wouldn’t die alone.

Ships went down to the murky depths in great numbers, it was said, and would continue to do so. There was an endless supply of trees in the New World, it was said, and ships enough to clutter the seas from one coast to the other. They had endless need of laborers and related beasts of burden, and they considered China and other countries to be offering those very things in limitless supply. It was said in China that the whites collected slaves from every corner of the world, that the land was crawling with refugees from every hill and valley.

There had been rumors.

The journey was said to be treacherous, and it was nothing Xui Ling would have chosen if she could have escaped. But danger didn’t necessarily mean death, and Xui Ling steadied herself. Perhaps death would not be the worst of it, she thought, envisioning the kind of tortures some had been told to expect. But there was also the chance of new life, new possibilities that could not exist in the Old World. The Chinese were said to be establishing large neighborhoods in some of the bigger cities, where they could live in peace among their own. There were services the Chinese were known to provide beyond the perilous construction, and there was still a chance that Xui Ling might find herself working in a laundry or textile mill. There were Chinese men looking for wives, not merely temporary companions. For Xui Ling, the prospect of life with a new husband in a new world had its appeal, if it was at all possible. She might have children, and those children might go on to ply the family trade to some moderate success among the whites. While despised as outsiders, as most outsiders were no matter who they were or where they went, they were also valued, as most exotics seemed to be. It was said that the whites were protective of their belongings, even when those were human beings. They were efficient, and they valued commodity, utility—they needed to in order to conquer their new and rugged landscape, at least as far as Xui Ling had heard.

There had been rumors.

A loud crack shook the ship, grabbing every woman’s attention. Men’s screams rang through the howling wind and pelting rain, and a crash from above shook the hull. A massive rounded beam burst through the deck above them, a drenched white sail sagging with the new inundation of rain and ocean water. The women screamed and clung tighter to one another as the ship listed hard to one side, then rose up with the crest of a wave beneath it.

The ship listed at an even sharper angle, the women thrown from their shelves in a screaming tide of arms and legs and nearly naked torsos, toppling one upon the other to gather on one side of the hull. Xui Ling held onto the post as other women fell past her, some clinging to the post or even to her. The shift of weight only furthered the ship’s list, the hull creaking and seeming to cry out under the insufferable weight and pressure. The lightning flashed though the shattered wood around the fallen mass, a great wooden stake having punctured the sea beast’s back.

It was a lethal strike.

Thunder clapped and the angry ocean pounded the ship from the side. The ship’s list finally gave way to a sharp roll onto the hull’s side, no longer to resist the terrible pull. The rest of the women slid away from their purchases on the wooden planks, falling to the writhing mass of humanity cluttering one side of the hull. Arms reached out from lower levels as women were crushed or smothered by others laying on top of them.

Xui Ling clung to the post, only one or two others able to do the same, arms and legs wrapped around that wooden beam to keep her elevated from that panicking mass. Water rose up around them, pouring in from the ruptured deck, once above them but now on their side. The rush of white foam came in with horrific pressure and a terrifying roar, Chinese women screaming and clamoring for some feeble position of fleeting safety.

The post Xui Ling was clinging to cracked where it was nailed to the deck, not designed to support weight at that angle. It gave a few inches, and Xui Ling’s heart skipped in her chest. She looked down at the mass of drowning, trampled, and panicked women, a death trap beneath her. But the entire ship had become just that, one from which none would escape.

The water rose higher, the women screamed louder, the hull rolled and tossed. The front dipped down as the ship seemed to prepare for its final journey, this time to the murky bottom to join so many others.

The oceans were teeming with terrible creatures, too big for any fisherman to retrieve. They had many long arms, massive jaws lined with teeth to shred and tear and devour. They were merciless and innumerable, like the whites themselves.

There had been rumors.

Crack!

The beam gave way and half of it fell in. Xui Ling was tilted downward, feet above her head. Her wet grip slid from the beam, splinters digging into her palms as her body fell away and into the rising tide of wailing women.

She hit hard and fell into that soup of scrambling women. They pushed into her from every side, their own weight forcing her into the lower levels of that human slurry. Dead bodies were already spread out around her, feet pushing her down as everyone tried for some shred of possibility that they might yet survive.

The air was forced from her lungs. Xui Ling tried to push herself up, but her arms and legs were nearly useless, and her blood began to feel as if carried a million needles to pierce her from within.

Nobody knew what lay beyond.

If a Tianzi was truly the Son of Heaven, with authority bestowed by the tian, the Confucius would have been right. It did not allow him to die until his work was completed. There was a method, then, some divine reason to her short life and terrible death. It was the last thing Xui Ling thought as the life was crushed out of her, a last gasp letting salty brine fill her mouth, her throat, her lungs.

Heaven opens to those with virtue, not authority. I have none of the last, but all of the first. Will it be enough?

There had been rumors.

Chapter Two

Stella Selby crouched down behind the corner of the saloon. It was one of only two in Astoria, Oregon. The salty mist was thick in the air, rolling off the ocean and shrouding the streets in a misty light gray. It was an advantage, though conditions still weren’t ideal, despite the timing. The man wasn’t as drunk as she’d prefer he be. The early morning hours were when most of the saloon’s customers were fatigued by hours of drinking and gambling and other pursuits. But many of them left their money inside and had little to take.

But Stella had found her own ways around the uncertainties of her profession. She kept her auburn curls cut short to hide under wide-brimmed hats, often going almost unnoticed in places like that. She could watch from the corner who was winning at the poker tables, who was losing at the bar and upstairs, in the girls’ rooms.

At twenty-one years, with a face that men always seemed to admire and a body that attracted more and more attention for its physical fitness and womanly curves, hiding herself had become more difficult than it had been in earlier years. She didn’t even want to look back on the years after her mother’s death, when she was forced to live hand-to-mouth, traveling from town to town while staying out of sight, hiding from men who would turn her into anything they wanted her to be.

She’d wound up in Astoria, only the Pacific itself preventing her from going further. But the little seaside town didn’t provide many targets or very many places to hide. She’d found a rooming house, but it wouldn’t do for much longer than another week. The spring was giving way to summer, where she could perhaps survive in the mountains along the coast, though that was just as dangerous as surviving on the streets. There was also a matter of money, or the lack of it. She needed a bit more, enough to fill her pockets before disappearing to a bigger town where she could hide more easily.

The key to that freedom was even then stepping out of the Wet Rocks Saloon. He was big, with broad shoulders and thick arms hanging slack at his sides. But he was unsteady at that hour, weighted down by winnings and liquor and likely a nagging hunger. He had a pocket watch in his waistcoat, but Stella had discounted it as too much trouble to trade or barter.

The man kept his pocketbook in the breast pocket of his jacket, where he no doubt considered it safe, close to his heart.

The fool, Stella thought, all these pompous jackanapes are such fools! 

She pulled out the little blade she used for just such occasions. It was nothing more than a metal spoon with the end of the handle sharpened to a cutting edge. The length of its reach depended on its position in her palm, and she held it with the cutting edge protruding just an inch from her fist, just at the tip of her thumb.

The blade was so sharp that it would cut through the back flap of the man’s jacket, just where the back of his pocket would be. The billfold would slide right out and into her palm.

The challenge was the approach. She’d done the move to great success in heavy crowds, but actually approaching from the front and just grabbing the thing out of the pocket was often equally effective in such cases.

This was a case for a bump, hit him from behind so he’d land facedown. She could cut and run before he was even on his feet and be long gone before he even realized his jacket had been tailored without his knowing and against his wishes.

Stella prepared the spoon, took a deep breath, and peeled out in pursuit of the man. He was alone, another advantage to Stella. But it was a dangerous move, and she’d need all her skills and all her powers. She walked up fast, smooth, not drawing attention to herself. The big man got closer fast as she came up to him, her mouth dry, heart pounding in her chest.

Stella accelerated fast and bumped him from behind as hard as she could. She sliced downward along the protruding shape of the billfold and it came sliding out, right into her grip before the big man even hit the ground.

Stella grabbed the billfold and ran ahead, past her victim, to run down the block and around the corner, gone… and rich.

But a fist wrapped around her ankle and Stella fell forward, hitting the wooden sidewalk hard, hands barely cushioning her landing. The billfold fell out of her grip, sliding just a foot or so in front of her. The spoon fell, too, clanking and dropping from the elevated wooden sidewalk to the muddy street below. Stella grabbed the billfold with one hand and turned to face the man behind her.

She pulled her other foot back and kicked at the man’s beefy hand, his grimacing face fixed on hers. Instead of freeing the ankle from his grip, his other big arm swung out and his hand locked on her other ankle to pin them both down.

Stella struggled to get out of his clutches, finally reaching over to curl up her free fist and punch at his hands and forearms to loosen his hold.

He growled and grunted and pulled her too close to kick him. He grabbed the billfold from her and pinned her arm to her side with his arm. Stella tried to wriggle out of his grip as the big man climbed to his feet and pulled her up with him.

“Stop struggling, you little she-devil!”

“Leave me alone! I don’t know what’s going on!”

“You lying little mugger!” Her hat fell off, revealing her face and soft hair. He grimaced and chuckled, each more wicked than the other. “Well, you’re quite a tasty little treat, as well.”

“I was just walking by and I tripped, that’s all.”

“You were holding my billfold,” he rasped. “I saw it!”

“I… it fell out. I was trying to retrieve it… to hand it back to you. That’s when I tripped!”

“Keep lying, my pretty little thief. It’s only gonna be worse fer you!”

“Just let me go! Don’t turn me over the sheriff!”

“The sheriff?” The man chuckled and gave her a hard shake. “Why would I do that… when I can see to you myself?”

“Hold up, you two!”

Stella and the man both turned to see a very handsome young man striding toward them. He had a lean torso, broad shoulders, high cheekbones under his green eyes, and long brown hair hanging over his face. He couldn’t have been more than twenty-five, by Stella’s keen estimation.

“Harvey Bell,” the man said, a deputy sheriff by his badge.

The big man’s iron fists held tight to Stella’s forearms. “Deputy,” he said with a slur, making an insult of the title.

“Deputy Norwood,” the deputy corrected him. “What’s all this, Harvey?”

“Mister Bell,” the big man said with a snarl. “This little trollop tried to gut me! Take a look at my jacket!”

“It was already cut,” Stella was quick to say. “You can search me, I don’t have any weapons to do something like that!”

The deputy said to big Harvey Bell, “Let her go.”

Harvey shook his head and huffed, his big body pressed behind her, breath stinking of grain alcohol. “You don’t know what yer talkin’ about, and yer just a deputy, Joseph.”

“My job isn’t to know,” Joseph said, “it’s to find out. If there’s something for me to figure out here, let go of the woman and I’ll do my job.”

“Let go—? She’ll run off! She’s a thief, a mugger, perhaps a murderer!”

“I saw the billfold slip out of the man’s jacket,” Stella said to Joseph. “I tried to catch it and give it to him, but I slipped. That’s what happened.”

“If you believe that,” Harvey said to Joseph, “you’re even dumber than I thought.”

“You keep talking,” the deputy answered in a low, even tone, “you’ll spend the day behind bars.”

Harvey huffed out a disgusted chuckle. “Do that and you’ll wind up without a badge! Yeah, I know yer boss. You may be new, but I been here years, boy! So, why don’t you go back and talk to the sheriff about how things work around here. Meanwhile, me and Oliver Twist here are going to handle things… privately.”

“You’ll let her go,” Joseph said, “or I’ll put a bullet in your head.”

The big man paused, his fingers easing up on their grip from what Stella assumed was simple shock. “You’ll what?”

Joseph drew a Colt pistol, pulled back the trigger, and aimed it directly at the bigger man’s face. “You’re interfering with an officer of the court discharging his duties. You’re obstructing an investigation. You’re kidnapping a woman on the street, in broad daylight, and threatening her life. It’s vigilante justice at best, and I won’t abide that.”

Stella already knew what the charges would be at worst, and both men clearly knew it, too.

He added to Stella, “Don’t you run off; you’ll take one in the back.”

“That’s something I’d like to see,” Harvey said.

Joseph said, “Don’t you trifle with me, either one of you!”

The young deputy had an intensity Stella couldn’t deny, and one she knew could work to her favor if necessary.

Harvey finally let go of Stella’s arms and stepped away. “All right, fine. But this ain’t over.” His voice became low and Stella knew he was addressing her in particular when he repeated, “Ain’t… over.”

He walked away, leaving Stella to turn to Joseph.

“I swear… I was just trying to help him.”

Joseph looked her up and down. He didn’t seem to have the same lusty thirst for her that many men succumbed to so quickly, but there was a scrutiny to his survey she couldn’t ignore.

“There’s been a spat of muggings, pickpocketing, things of the sort.”

Stella glanced around, tucking one corner of her mouth into her cheek. “Sign of the times, I guess.”

Joseph nodded. He clearly didn’t believe her, but that was the only thing about his position that was clear. She was ready to guess by his actions that he’d never believed her, but that he’d rightly considered Harvey’s intended crimes worse than the one she probably had committed.

“What’s yer name… miss?”

She wasn’t sure whether to tell him the truth. But considering that he’d just saved her life, it was a fair trade. As far as she knew, nobody was looking for her, in any case. She wasn’t a wanted woman, not officially. “Stella,” she said. “Stella Shelby.”

“Joseph Norwood,” he said. “And what do you do here in Astoria, Miss Shelby?”

“Please, Stella,” she said. “I’m new to town, looking for work.”

“Are you?” She nodded, hoping he wouldn’t press the matter further. “All right,” he finally said, “good luck t’you.”

He tipped his hat, turned, and walked off. She couldn’t help but watch him go, a fleeting flight of fancy inspired by the attractiveness of his physique from behind.

She put the whole matter out of her head. She could hardly become a deputy’s wife, a thing she’d never even considered. The best thing to do was get out of Astoria as soon as she could. But she still needed money to do that. Stella would need to find another score, bigger and safer. She wouldn’t get both easily, but nothing in her life had come easily. Stella didn’t mind a reasonable amount of trouble, as long as she was ready for it when it came. The problem was that trouble rarely announced itself, and once it struck, it was sometimes irresistible and unstoppable.

And lethal.

Chapter Three

Joseph was headed back from his rounds up and down the pier and back to the office. He second-guessed letting the thief go. He had to admit that her pretty face and comely presence had a good deal to do with it.

But it wasn’t his own immediate interest in her, his own temptation which might have been the problem. Sheriff Mallory Geoffreys and Dep. Carl Travers weren’t men who would resist such a base temptation. The two were less than on the up-and-up, Joseph was increasingly certain. He hadn’t discovered anything too troubling, but he was on the lookout for it, and he wasn’t about to sacrifice a young woman’s virtue or even her life just to find out how low his boss and sole coworker would stoop if given the chance and the proper motivation.

The girl was still in some danger, Joseph didn’t doubt. Harvey Bell was a man capable of tremendous criminality, and he made more than enough money to get away with it. His words about the sheriff were troubling but not shocking. It was a piece of a puzzle that Joseph was putting together, but it was nothing like complete.

Astoria was growing fast. New shipping companies were trickling in from Portland, even from as far south as San Francisco and Los Angeles. The country was blossoming, and less than twenty-five years from the turn of the century, it was promising to change more and change faster. Astoria was going to go the same way as the rest of the country, and it would be all the better for it.

But Joseph had to wonder if the people of Astoria would be up to the task of their own country’s aspirations. Men like Sheriff Geoffreys and Dep. Travers were not setting the right example. And corrupted men in such roles could only lead the city, the state, the whole country down the wrong road. Once the country set itself down that road, it would quickly be too late to turn back. Joseph had seen the way it went with his own father, once a decent man turned into a debased cutthroat, driven by drink and madness to fall into the grave with three bullets in his back.

He swore he’d never be such a man, and he’d never let such men run or ruin his life, or his way of life.

“Deputy? Deputy Norwood?”

Joseph turned to see a familiar but unwelcome face approaching. He smiled, blond hair falling in front of his eyes.

“Mister Phillips.”

“Please, Gabriel.

“I address my friends in that manner,” Joseph said. “But you made it clear that ours was a strictly professional relationship.”

“No reason it can’t also be friendly,” Gabriel said with a little smile. “We’re on the same side, after all.”

“The devil we are,” Gabriel said. “I’m here to make this town safe, to keep it from driving itself straight into the ocean with its own debauchery, dragging the whole state and then the nation along with it.”

“But… that’s just what I’m trying to do, too, and for the same virtuous reasons!”

“That’s what you tell people, and what you tell yourself, and who knows? Maybe you actually believe it. The truth is another matter, however.”

“And why don’t you enlighten me, then?”

Joseph took a step toward Gabriel, looking at him dead in the eyes. “You exploit the wrongdoings of others for your own financial benefit.”

“The Astoria Sun Times has expenses, like any newspaper. I don’t make the rules! Do you collect a paycheck for your efforts?”

“You glorify danger, sensationalizing it.”

Gabriel answered back, “I have to appeal to my readers!”

“You engender fear among the citizens.”

“I warn them of oncoming danger!”

“You make our jobs more difficult!”

“If you’re not up to the demands of your profession, that’s not my dominion.”

Joseph wrestled with his temper, which he knew to be a challenge for him, and at all the wrong times. He looked Gabriel over, unable to find words for just how he felt. Instead, he offered the truth. “I guess we just see things differently.”

“More’s the pity,” Gabriel said. “If we worked more closely, pooled our efforts—”

“Then I’d be your informant, letting you know when you could take some of those photographs you’re becoming so famous for. I suppose it’s better than publishing the truth.”

“I do not lie, sir, and I resent that insinuation. If you ever think you have legal claim against me or my paper—”

“Then I’m sure you’ll be ready to join forces with some of the new lawyers in town,” Joseph said, “handle things another way. Just mind your business, Mr. Phillips… and don’t let me catch you breaking any laws.”

“I’m a newspaperman,” Gabriel said, “everybody’s business is my business.”

Joseph watched the man walk away. He had known some bad men in his life, and he’d go on to know a good deal more of them. Gabriel didn’t seem quite such a man, but Joseph had seen good men travel the dark path and lose whatever it was that had made them good men in the first place. Without the good, a man was only a man, an empty vessel for whatever impulse might overtake him, and Joseph was not about to be such a man or to abide one in his town if he could help it.

He sighed, knowing he was never going to be able to rid the town of crime altogether, to prevent bad men from encroaching on his territory. They came in every day and from every direction, their threats heralding dark times for the country—particularly from the west, across the Pacific. Astoria was thriving due to the shipping industry to bolster the local fishermen. But those ships were bringing in opium, prostitutes, many of them bringing legal male Chinese laborers to be shipped inland to work the mines, the railroads, the bridges, the levees. It was terrible practice, steeped in inhuman cruelty, though it was not illegal.

It was a mix of criminality and corruption and borderline acceptability which it was not Joseph’s privilege to judge or not. That was Sheriff Geoffreys’ purview, and he wasn’t about to share it, at least not with Joseph.

He was much closer to Dep. Carl Travers. Carl had been with the sheriff long before Joseph’s arrival from his wanderings through the Pacific Northwest. Whatever the sheriff was or was not up to, Joseph felt certain that Carl was his man, there to back his play at any turn. It was nothing he could be certain of, however, and Joseph owed it to them, to the very nature of his man behind a badge, to give them the benefit of the doubt. But doubt about their guilt was not to say he was certain of their innocence.

Just the opposite. Even then he noticed the drapes on the sheriff’s office window moving just a bit. Somebody had just stepped away from those drapes, from that window, before Joseph had turned to approach the office.

Somebody was watching him, and Joseph knew what two men were in that office. Though there could yet be more. The sheriff and his favored deputy seemed to be getting suspicious of Joseph. Joseph didn’t doubt that they sensed the same alienation from him that he felt from them. He didn’t seem to be a close-knit part of the team, and he wasn’t sure he wanted to be.

But not being part of that team, whatever his personal disposition or integrity required, meant that he was on the other team, at least as far as they were concerned. It meant that they could turn against him at any moment, that any time he walked into that sheriff’s office could be the last.

Time would tell. But Joseph had been thinking that very thing for several months, and something told him that the time he was relying upon was fast running out.


“The Fall Of A Merciless Criminal” is an Amazon Best-Selling novel, check it out here!

Stella Shelby has been fending for herself for years until she stumbles upon proof of a smuggling operation that she is determined to stop. She approaches deputy Joseph Norwood for help, and she uses her wiles and skills to gather the necessary information. But she has to be careful and not get caught…

Will her partnership with Joseph save thousands of lives, or will it cost them their own?

Deputy Joseph Norwood is a righteous man who will defend anyone in need. A smuggling operation new to town threatens the status quo and puts a strain on Joseph’s relations with his corrupted sheriff and fellow deputy. Things are going to come to a head between them, and the conflict promises to be explosive.

Will Joseph be able to cleanse the seat of power, or will he fall to the devilish goings-on overtaking his town?

Joseph and Stella soon team up with an unlikely ally who will either be the key to their success or the instrument of their destruction. In the face of impending danger, the uneasy alliance raises questions about romantic conflict, loyalty, and morality… Can they make it through a deadly game of dangerous outlaws and secret schemes?

“The Fall Of A Merciless Criminal” 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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