Read By Starlight Online

Authors: Dorothy Garlock

By Starlight

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For Zach, Laramie, Travis, and Jake

May all of your futures be “mint in the bag”

Why?

It’s seven long years since we parted.

And I’m alone, brokenhearted.

Wanting,

Wishing,

Wondering.

Why?

 

And now you’re near enough to touch,

Ready to help when I need you so much.

And I’m still

Wanting,

Wishing,

Wondering.

Why?

F.S.I.

Prologue

Colton, Montana
July 1924

MADDY ALDRIDGE FROZE
as the floorboard beneath her bare foot creaked loudly. In the still dark of the night, it sounded like a gunshot. A warm summer breeze swirled through the open window of her bedroom, but it did nothing to lessen the panic that held her tight. Staring at her reflection in the small mirror over her dresser, her long red hair falling in curls across her shoulders, her green eyes looking black in the darkness, Maddy willed herself to stay still.

The last thing she wanted was for her father to wake up. Silas Aldridge wasn’t the sort of man who would react well to his fifteen-year-old daughter trying to sneak out in the middle of the night. If he were to catch her now, there’d be hell to pay; even if he didn’t take a belt to her, she had no doubt that he’d lock her in her room for weeks.

And that would be far too late …

On the other side of the bedroom, Maddy’s younger sister, Helen, slept peacefully. Most nights, she was asleep as soon as her head hit her pillow, but this evening she’d prattled for over an hour about some nonsense at school. Maddy had been forced to wait impatiently, gritting her teeth.

Maddy had considered confiding her plans to Helen, had wondered if she could be trusted, but in the end had decided it was far too great a risk to take. So instead Maddy had held her tongue, waiting until she was certain Helen was sleeping before getting out of bed.

But then Maddy had stepped on a loose floorboard and made so much noise she was sure she’d awakened the dead.

Seconds ticked slowly past. Beads of sweat trickled off Maddy’s brow and down the sides of her face; she was so fearful that wiping them away would make more noise that she let them crawl down her skin. Each breath she drew was agonizing.

Finally, after several long, nervous minutes, she was certain that no one had heard her. Cautiously, Maddy crossed the room, swung her leg over the windowsill, ducked under the sash, and headed into the night.

High above, the moon looked down on her, full and bright, illuminating outhouses and wood shelters and throwing shadows onto the ground. Maddy moved carefully yet quickly. Running through the dewy grass with bare feet, she wished that she’d remembered to put on shoes, but in the chaotic moments after the floor creaked she hadn’t been thinking clearly. She’d also forgotten her shawl; the night air was cooler than she’d expected, especially for summer, raising goose bumps on the bare skin of her arms and shoulders. But it was too late to turn back.

Maddy didn’t know what time it was, only that it was late, probably sometime just after midnight. Colton wasn’t a bustling town even in the middle of the day; as she slipped between houses, dashed across a dirt road, and then hurried across the church grounds, she saw no one, set no dogs to barking, and noticed only one lamp burning behind a drawn curtain.

On and on she ran, as fast as she could, fearful she would be late.

Colton had been built into the crook between two narrow rivers that flowed out of the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. The Lewis River ran to the north, while the Clark River meandered to the south. The town was small, surrounded by thick stands of evergreens, and was located only a few miles south of the Canadian border. It was the only home Maddy had ever known and, in only a few short hours, the part of it she loved most was leaving.

Maddy hurried to the bank of the Lewis River, carefully stepping through the carpet of dry pine needles that covered the ground. She gave a silent curse; her bare feet caused her to move more slowly than she liked. Beside her, the river ran low, its water gurgling over rocks worn smooth as eggs. The air was filled with the fresh, sharp scent of pine.

She hadn’t gone far when a bridge loomed up out of the night before her; in the glare of the moon’s bright light, its bare steel frame resembled a skeleton. Breaking into a run, Maddy padded out onto its wooden planks, looking in every direction and growing alarmed.

I’m alone.

Dread began to fill Maddy’s stomach. She knew it was later than she’d promised, but there hadn’t been anything she could do to get out of the house.
It’s not fair!
If only her father wasn’t so pigheaded stubborn, if only her sister had gone to sleep as usual, and if only—

“I was starting to wonder if you were coming.”

Maddy turned at the sound of his voice, gasping in both surprise and happiness. He was sitting on the bridge’s railing in shadows so deep she could’ve been looking right at him and wouldn’t have known he was there. As she watched, he leaped down, his boots thudding on the planks.

Without saying a word, Maddy rushed to him, threw her arms around his chest, and squeezed him tight. Even though she’d been with him only a few hours earlier, it felt as if days had passed. She wanted to hold on to him, to cling jealously to the warmth of his touch, the smell of his skin, the sound of his voice, and never let him go.

“I’ve been waiting for almost an hour,” he said softly.

“I came as quickly as I could.”

“I was starting to get awfully worried,” he said, gently stroking her hair. “I’d decided that if you didn’t show up in the next five minutes I was going to march over to your house and bang on the door until you came out.”

“My father would have answered with his gun.”

“You know I’m not scared of him. Still,” he chuckled, “it’s probably for the best that you showed up when you did.”

Maddy knew that he meant it; though he was only three years older than she was, he’d always seemed sure of himself, confident, almost fearless, as if there was nothing he couldn’t do as long as he set his mind to it. He wouldn’t let anything get in the way of his dreams, not even Silas Aldridge’s worries about his daughter’s well-being. It was one of the reasons Maddy had fallen in love with him, and one of the things she’d miss most.

“I still can’t believe you’re leaving,” she said.

“Me either,” he answered.

“It’s for too long!” Maddy whined, knowing that she sounded like a child.

Placing his fingers under her chin, he raised her face up until their eyes met. “I’m not going away forever,” he explained. “I’ll only be in Boston for a couple of years. Once I get the schooling my father’s so insistent on, I’ll be back. Then we can start our life together.”

“We can get married—”

“And build a house, have some children, and grow so old our faces are nothing but wrinkles.” He laughed, trying to cheer her up. “Everything we’ve dreamed about will come true. All we have to do is be patient.”

“It’s just that … that I’m so … so scared,” Maddy said as tears filled her eyes. She’d promised herself that she wouldn’t cry in front of him, not tonight, but knowing how long it would be before she saw him again was more than her heart could bear. “What if you decide you’d rather live there?” she began, spilling all her worries. “What if your father says that he wants you to go somewhere else after you’ve finished with school?”

“Maddy, stop,” he tried to interrupt her.

“What if you meet someone prettier than me?” she kept on, tears streaming down her cheeks. “She could be smart and funny! You could fall in love with her and never think of me ever again! I don’t know—”

Before she could say another word, Maddy felt his lips press against hers and, in that instant, all of the emotions she’d struggled against fell away. Desperately, she clung to him, squeezing his arm as she returned his passion. More than ever, she wanted their embrace to go on forever. Unfortunately, it couldn’t last. He broke their kiss and wiped away her tears tenderly.

“I’m coming back for you,” he said softly but firmly.

“Do … do you promise?” Maddy asked.

“Of course I do.” His eyes searched hers, intently. “I love you.”

“And I love you, Jack.”

Maddy folded herself into his embrace, her head upon his chest, secure in the promise they’d made to each other. She allowed herself to believe him, to believe that nothing, not time or distance, would keep them apart for long.

Chapter One

Morningside, Washington
June 1931

JACK RUCKER WAS LEANING
against the bar when the front door of the speakeasy was knocked off its hinges and sent crashing inward, followed by a dozen policemen all brandishing billy clubs and a couple of men in suits wielding axes. In an instant, everything around him became chaotic. All of the men and women who’d been enjoying a taste of illegal alcohol jumped to their feet in panic, desperate to escape their approaching arrest. The air was filled with cigar smoke, shouts, and, soon after, the sounds of violence.

“Get your damn hands offa me ’fore I…!”

“…all under arrest!”

“Would you just quit hittin’ me with that thing and I’ll…”

But Jack didn’t so much as move, his eyes never leaving the bartender.

The speakeasy originally had been a coal cellar down a darkened alleyway from a decrepit vaudeville theater. There were no windows and the inside, even with its high ceiling, made him feel cramped, almost claustrophobic. An assortment of chairs and tables had been set out and empty apple crates stacked to act as a makeshift bar. Jack had seen every nook, cranny, and dingy corner in the week he’d been coming in the door. Now it was in even
worse
shape.

The scruffy-bearded bartender had been pouring a drink when the police forced their way inside; the man had been so startled by the sound that he’d dropped the glass onto the floor, where it shattered. But his surprise didn’t last long; one second later, he looked right at Jack. Maybe it was because Jack was a newcomer to the speakeasy, or that he didn’t appear shocked by the appearance of so many cops: either of those things might’ve given him away. It was obvious that the bartender knew the truth. Jack could only hope that he would run for it or, even better, just throw up his hands in surrender.

Instead, the bartender chose to fight.

“You no-good, rotten son of a bitch!” the man bellowed as he hurried to get around the pile of crates.

Jack cursed silently. All night, he’d been wondering who he’d have to fight. Whenever the law arrived, there was sure to be a brawl. Unfortunately for him, his job was to find out who was in charge, stay close, and learn everything he could. In the time he’d been coming to the speakeasy, that person was the bartender.

Now Jack was going to pay a price for his curiosity.

The bartender looked to be no stranger to fighting. Thick muscles knotted his bare forearms and his clenched fists seemed carved out of stone. His chest resembled an oak barrel and he was the tallest man in the room. Even his face showed signs of past brawls; an angry white scar zigzagged from cheek to chin. A couple of his front teeth were missing. Jack knew he was in for a tussle.

Though he wasn’t as large as his foe, Jack was hardly a pushover. Turning to face the bartender, Jack caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror that had been hung crookedly on the wall behind the bar; tufts of dark hair poked out from beneath his longshoreman’s cap and his eyes were narrowed, determined. He planted his feet, squared his broad shoulders, and raised his hands, ready to give as good as he got.

But then something strange happened.

Just before the bartender reached Jack, a fist cocked and ready to be thrown, his eyes wide with fury, the man’s feet suddenly flew out from under him, slipping in a puddle of booze that had been spilled when the police arrived. For a moment, it was as if he were frozen in mid-air, high off the ground, before crashing painfully to the ground, the back of his head cracking against the floor. The man’s eyes were wide with both shock and pain before fluttering and then closing, his head lolled to the side as he fell unconscious.

I reckon they don’t call me Lucky Jack for nothing.

Suddenly, a half-filled glass of whiskey whistled past Jack’s face, mere inches from hitting him. It shattered against the wall behind the bar, barely missing the crooked mirror; pieces of glass rained onto the floor as dark alcohol stained the bricks. His heart thundered in his chest.

It didn’t take long for Jack to learn who’d thrown the glass. Ten feet away stood the bartender’s right-hand man, a lackey who usually guarded the door. He resembled a badger, short and stocky, with a long nose and a lip curled up to reveal filthy teeth. Even as a policeman brought his club down on a drunk next to where he stood, the man’s narrow eyes never left Jack, burning with unrestrained hatred. The man showed no interest in trying to get away; his focus was solely on getting revenge.

I don’t think I’m going to be lucky enough to avoid this one.

Without wasting any more time, the thug stepped menacingly toward Jack, a low growl rising from his throat. His first punch was thrown with anger, a wild, looping right; Jack saw it coming a mile away and easily ducked under his opponent’s outstretched arm, staying down low to throw a short left into the man’s ribs. The tough grunted as the air whooshed from his lungs, but Jack held no illusions that the blow would be enough to stop such an obviously dangerous man.

“You’ll…you’ll have to do more than that,” the man snarled.

“I aim to.” Jack nodded.

This time, when the thug raised his fists, he feinted first with his right to draw Jack out of position before firing a left. Jack had seen it coming, but the man was as fast as a snake and the punch clipped the tip of his chin before finishing against his shoulder. Though it was a glancing blow, it still stung like hell. If one of those were to land flush…

But Jack was no slouch when it came to fighting, either. With his hands held defensively in front of him, he shot off a couple of punches that snapped the man’s head straight back, then landed a hook to the jaw that wobbled his opponent’s knees. The thug managed to throw a weak punch that Jack batted harmlessly away, before immediately attacking again. The heavy’s nose crunched beneath Jack’s fist and the man toppled over, falling onto his back with a loud thud. His eyes rolled back slightly, looking glassy.

“Stay down,” Jack ordered him.

But there was still enough fight left in the man for him to disagree; desperately, he tried to claw his way to a sitting position. With his shoe, Jack drove the man back to the floor hard, without mercy.

“I told you to stay down!” he repeated.

This time, the man understood that he was defeated, the tension dropped from his shoulders, and he stared up at the ceiling.

A thin smile curled at the corners of Jack’s mouth. “You’re under arrest by the authority of the Bureau of Prohibition.”

 

“So the Jack Rucker luck came through again.”

Jack stood in front of Elmer Pluggett’s desk, trying his best not to appear
too
pleased with the praise he was receiving. Rare afternoon sunlight streamed down out of the Seattle sky, shining through the office’s tall windows and falling across the Bureau lieutenant’s desk. Outside the closed door, the sound of typewriters and bits of conversation could be heard.

For the last half hour, Jack had told his superior officer about his activities in Morningside that had ended three days earlier. In great detail, he described how he’d traveled to the border town as directed and within hours had overheard a man talking about a speakeasy with a direct connection to illegal booze runners operating out of Canada. Over the course of the next week, Jack had frequented the bar and gathered as much information as possible: how big an operation it was, who was in charge, and, most important, where they got their liquor. No opportunity was missed to emphasize the lengths to which he’d gone to do his job. Finally, once he’d obtained what was needed, the bust had been set up. In the end, more than two dozen people had been arrested and the smuggling operation destroyed.

“In all my years on the job,” Pluggett went on, “I can’t say I’ve ever known someone so darn lucky. What do you reckon the odds are that the fellow you heard talking about the tavern would spill the password for getting past the doorman?” He shook his head. “Hard to believe.”

“I was fortunate, sir,” Jack admitted.

“If all the men working out of this office were as lucky as you are, Rucker, there wouldn’t be a drop of alcohol to be had west of the Rockies and I’d be sitting in a nice, comfortable office back east.” The Lieutenant grinned ironically, his eyes narrowing. “Or maybe we’d all just be out of a job.”

Jack frowned inwardly. The conversation wasn’t taking the direction he’d wanted. What he’d been hoping for was talk of a commendation, a medal, or, if he allowed himself to dream a little, maybe a promotion. There wasn’t nearly enough praise coming his way.

What’s the old man thinking?

Elmer Pluggett was like most of the senior officers Jack had met since he started working for the Bureau of Prohibition. Tough and smart, Pluggett ruthlessly guarded his own place on the map while stepping on anyone who got in the way of his own advancement, all traits that Jack held in some admiration. In his mid-fifties, Pluggett was as demanding of himself as he was of the men who served under him; his face bore signs of the weariness of long hours spent tracking down those bent on breaking the law. For officers who failed to produce the results Pluggett sought, his wrath could be a terrible thing, but he also wasn’t stingy with praise for those who got the job done.

So where’s mine?

“How long have you been with the Bureau now, Rucker?” Pluggett asked, leaning forward in his chair. “Four years, isn’t it?”

“Almost five,” Jack replied.

“And in that time, how many run-down, two-bit, dingy dives have you wriggled your way into? How many con men, ship captains, hired goons, murderers, and ladies of the night have you manipulated into giving you what you want?”

“I haven’t been keeping count, sir,” he said, although he knew the number was greater than fifty, probably closer to a hundred.

“Quite a lot by my reckoning,” Pluggett said before adding, “and all in the good name of Prohibition.”

For the last eleven years, beginning in 1920 with the passage of the Eighteenth Amendment to the Constitution, the sale, production, and distribution of alcohol were illegal in the United States. In response, hundreds of thousands of speakeasies had opened across the country, pouring glasses of homemade liquor brewed in bathtubs, fermented fruit steeped in basements and outhouses, and, in the worst cases, alcohol illegally smuggled from Canada, Mexico, and other foreign ports. The law was being broken.

The Bureau of Prohibition had been created to enforce it. For the hundreds of Prohibition agents, the goal wasn’t the closing of
every
speakeasy or the confiscation of
every
drop of booze but rather the dismantling of the larger criminal networks intent on making a profit from the void Prohibition created. Organized-crime syndicates had begun bootlegging alcohol, controlling the trade from brewery to speakeasy and every step in-between. For agents like Jack, it meant finding the liquor at its largest point of distribution and catching as many rats as possible in one trap.

From the moment Jack joined the Bureau, he’d taken to the work like a duck to water. He took pride in what he did; he believed in it. While he certainly wasn’t a teetotaler, wasn’t above taking a nip of confiscated alcohol from time to time, he followed the letter of the law and expected others to do the same. His overbearing father had instilled in Jack a strong sense of right and wrong in among the lectures and Scripture readings; his moral compass was straight and true. Bringing down a den of criminals, smashing open their casks of whiskey, and confiscating their money was exciting work. He was very good at it.

“We’ve sent you to San Francisco, Buffalo, little shacks on the fishing coast of Maine, that Indian reservation in Idaho, and everywhere in-between,” Lieutenant Pluggett continued, “and every time you manage to make it look as easy as taking a Sunday stroll after church.”

Now this is more like it…

“I’ve done my best,” he answered with a practiced air of modesty.

“That you have, my boy,” the older man agreed.

What neither of them spoke of was the danger Jack faced every time he went undercover. He’d been shot at, stabbed, spat upon; a woman had tried to slip poison into his drink. He’d been tossed down a flight of stairs, thrown through a couple of windows, and in dozens of bare-knuckle brawls much like the one in Morningside. Jack had a knack for finding just what the Bureau wanted; unfortunately, that usually meant that he found trouble, too. Thankfully, his “luck” had managed to get him through it all relatively unhurt.

He
was
lucky, but he’d acquired a few mementos on the job. A nick of a scar ran along his left cheekbone just beneath his dark green eye, a reminder of a knife fight in Milwaukee. A gunshot wound pocked his right biceps and there were burn scars on both of his legs courtesy of a particularly messy night in Duluth. To Jack, they were simply the price he had to pay to uphold the law.

And to get ahead.

“It says in here that you’re from Montana,” Lieutenant Pluggett said, tapping his finger in a folder that he’d spread open on his desk; Jack noticed that his name was typed across the top.

“I was born and raised there, sir.”

“When was the last time you were home?”

“I’ve been undercover in Montana twice,” Jack replied.

“But what about…,” Pluggett began, peering down at what was written, “…Colton?” he asked. “How long since you’ve been there?”

“It’s…it’s been years…,” Jack said, unable to keep the confusion out of his voice. “Might I…inquire as to why you ask, sir?”

“Because that’s where you’re heading next.”

Instantly the confidence Jack always took great pains to project fell from his face. His eyes grew wide as his mouth dropped slightly open. With no small amount of hope, he entertained the possibility he’d misheard or that, as unlikely as it was, Lieutenant Pluggett was playing some kind of prank on him; if so, the Lieutenant was holding his cards awfully close to his vest, peering through the folder and not even bothering to look up at Jack.

“Excuse me, sir,” Jack began, chuckling, “but I thought you said that you were sending me to Colton—”

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