I’m back with a second preview of my upcoming novel, From the Darkness Risen: Book II. If you missed yesterday’s blog, read it here, because I explained why publication has been delayed. I also suggest reading the synopsis of the novel and reading the first novel excerpt before you read this excerpt because it will all make much more sense. You can find those particular blogs by clicking on the links.
To set the scene of this excerpt, Eva planted a bomb on a steamer carrying Union munitions and supplies four days before this scene. The bomb planting was depicted in the first excerpt, so go read it for clarification. She hid for four days while the authorities searched for the culprits but she finally got bored enough to risk going out for a little while. Lafayette Park was a new park on the outskirts of St. Louis at the time of this novel and the picture to the left is the lake in the park as it looks today. Whenever possible, I try to use real locations in my novels. Very rarely am I compelled to fictionalize a location, although minor details of locations may require dramatic license. This particular excerpt has not been fully edited yet. I still have some fact checking to do about Benton Barracks, which isn’t as easy as Jefferson Barracks because Benton Barracks doesn’t actually exist anymore. Robert Louden, if you’re new to my St. Louis books, was a real Confederate agent, mail smuggler and boat burner. Not a lot is known about him, so I’m filling in the gaps by making educated guesses about what I do know.
Anyway, here is the excerpt.
By the morning of the fourth day after the explosion, she couldn’t tolerate being isolated at home anymore.
Snow melted across the city as the temperature finally climbed above freezing, much to Eva’s delight. Of course the deep snow drifts would take time to dissolve but the water flowing through city drains heralded the first blush of spring to arrive in the following month. Eva strolled through the city in her favorite green dress with a fur trimmed coat pulled from her trunk of South Carolina things. Occasionally she wore something from her old life to lift her spirits and temper the sting of homesickness. Besides, looking better than a street peasant meant she was less likely to be recognized as Elizabeth Brown by the soldiers in the city.
She stopped in a bakery near Lafayette Park and treated herself to a lemon pastry. At first she kept her face downcast should anyone recognize her but the further she tested her outing, the more she realized she actually got away with blowing up the Martha. Nobody would logically believe a lady debilitated by an obvious limp could do such a thing. Luckily they didn’t know her fighting spirit.
“Five cents, please,” the bakery clerk said through a bushy beard.
“Five cents, really? For one little pastry?” Such high prices stunned her. She handed the old man her coins.
“Nothing’s cheap with the war on anymore,” he replied.
“That’s true. Thank you.”
“Good day, ma’am.”
Regardless of the chilly air, she crossed the street to the entrance of Lafayette Park. A few brave people enjoyed afternoon strolls and drove horse drawn sleds through the last of the winter wonderland. She inhaled the sharpness of cold air and lazily ambled along the path toward the lake and the fountain. Such a happy place where she first laid eyes on Thaddeus the previous spring then resembled the surface of a freezing mirror in the middle of a gentle valley. She enjoyed the tart taste of the lemon pastry on her tongue as she walked around the lake. Once winter died and spring reemerged, the fountain would stand in the middle of a beautiful bluish-green body of water with ducks and dozens of flowers scattered around it.
She avoided the spot on the other side of the lake beyond the bridge where she used to meet Benjamin Geary. A clammy chill passed through her skin at the memory of that man touching her and kissing her. The greatest blessing of the last month was certainly not seeing him again after Senator Godfrey’s reception. That didn’t mean he wasn’t around somewhere out there watching her every move like a vulture waiting for the right moment to sweep in and make his kill. No mistake in her life ever brought her as much regret as the day she met him.
Eva dipped her finger into the lemon center of her pastry and tasted the filling with a contented sigh. Benjamin wasn’t anywhere to be found, her leg felt stronger and she hadn’t been connected to the explosion. For the moment, she relished in a sense of accomplishment and peace. After her stroll through the park, she made plans to go home and cook supper. Beef filets and beans, she thought. Beef was a new venture in her cooking efforts but nobody learned anything without effort.
Quicker footsteps approached from behind, interrupting her supper plans, and abruptly fell in time with hers. She glanced over her shoulder only to find the shocking figure of Robert Louden three paces behind and two to the right.
“Don’t look at me. Keep walking,” he directed in a monotone voice.
Obeying, her spine stiffened and she clutched the remainder of her pastry.
“You’re a difficult woman to find.”
“I stayed home and waited out the city’s shock.” Her voice suddenly sounded as monotone as his in her apprehension.
“Good thinking. They have your description anyway.”
She spun and stared agape. The man had her followed more than she expected. A flush of anger filled her but she kept her reaction in check. He had the power to end her career as a Confederate agent.
“Don’t look at me. Keep walking.” His eyes flickered over her in a stern warning as he strolled with his hands clasped behind his back.
Eva rolled her shoulders in a vain struggle to appear cool and collected. She strolled along and did her best to stay ahead of him. She broke off a tiny bite of her lemon pastry to occupy her hands.
“The news isn’t reporting much about it what with the conscription bill being passed in Congress and West Virginia finally agreeing on a state constitution, but the job was done and it was done well. You got in quickly, you kept your wits about you, and you managed to talk your way out of being arrested. I doubt any of us could have done better.” Louden’s praises sounded forced and reluctant as if he completely loathed admitting she did well for his merry little band of Confederate misfits. “Moreover, you had the sense to lay low until the investigation lost steam. There aren’t enough Yankee resources to really find the culprits, I think.”
“I appreciate your confidence,” she said without addressing him by his name, as he had not addressed her by hers.
“The only hitch in things was your questioning by the provost marshals, which, of course, amounted to nothing more than your description circulating the army should you be seen doing anything of a questionable nature. That can be avoided easily enough. I’ve got a new task for you. Are you ready to go again?”
Without hesitation, Eva nodded. Exhilaration already found her.
“Good,” Louden said as they rounded the lake for the second time. “I need a lady to go to Benton Barracks and collect mail from our prisoners there. Officially there are no Confederate prisoners but the intelligence you overheard from the senator has proven true. The Yankees don’t want it known that they’ve captured guerrillas lest the knowledge provoke further raids by other guerrillas. Nothing scares Yankees more than rouge guerrillas combing the wilderness waiting for a chance to wreak havoc.” A brief inflection of amusement colored his words. “What do you know of Benton Barracks?”
“It lies four or five miles north of the city and used to be the old fairgrounds. Now it’s rented to the army by Mr. John O’Fallon.” She rattled off the facts from her studying of the Federal army’s occupation of Missouri. “There’s room for about thirty thousand soldiers. The site is about a mile long and houses barracks, kitchen sheds, warehouses, cavalry stables, parade grounds, and a hospital that holds about three thousand patients. Additionally, Camp Benton opened nearby about eighteen months ago. It has a troop cantonment, a parole encampment, a hospital, and a camp for contraband slaves. There are rumors that refugee Unionists have also found sanctuary there. Saloons, restaurants and photograph galleries have opened around the camp as well.”
“Very good.” Louden sounded genuinely impressed.
“Where are the guerrillas being held?”
“The guard house. It’s up to you to find a way inside. Bring them paper and pencils and tell them to write to their families quickly. Collect the letters and bring them to me.”
The assignment sounded odd to her. “Why? I mean, how does this help the war effort?”
“It doesn’t directly but we’ll soon be taking another mail shipment to Memphis. Those men are scheduled for execution. It’s the very least we can do to give their families some comfort in their final days. Many of their families may not even be aware they’ve been captured. That’s why you’ve got to act quickly. We don’t know when they’ll be sent away for execution.”
“I understand.” She nodded soberly. Louden’s apparent act of compassion came as a surprise but she was grateful for the chance to be entrusted with a mission of mercy. A thought occurred to her. “You say you smuggle mail through the lines? Does that include South Carolina?”
Louden snatched her elbow and spun her to face him. “You just worry about getting the letters from the condemned men and then we’ll see if you’re worth the contact with your family.”
“You don’t need to worry about that,” she replied in a low tone. “I’ll get what you ask of me. The question presses upon my mind of what you’ll do for me in return. I’ll give you two choices – you either pay me for my time away from my husband and risk to my life, or you include me in your mail smuggling operations so I might exchange mail with my family. You’ll have until I return with the letters to make your decision.”
Eva shook herself free of Louden’s grip and strode away. She didn’t know where the sudden burst of confidence came from but it reminded her of the old days. The temptation of hearing from her family and Isabelle’s family after months of silence proved more than she could bear. It didn’t diminish her desire to help the poor Southern patriots appointed to die but if she could arrange some benefit for herself, she certainly intended to do so. As she marched to the gated entrance of the park, she popped the remainder of the lemon pastry in her mouth and imagined the rotten Mr. Louden standing there slack jawed at her audacity.
“What makes you think you’re in any position to bargain?” he growled after her.
She was right. A smile flashed on her lips but she wiped it clean as she turned and eyed him over her shoulder. She paused for effect, giving no indication of her thoughts. A moment passed and then she retraced her steps directly to the man. It required a stiff spine and cemented eye contact to assert herself as a prevailing strength in the Confederate secret underground.
“Do you have another woman who hasn’t been arrested and identified by the army beyond a vague physical description? Another woman who can pass through the barracks without causin’ a stir? Another woman who can, say, act as a nurse persuasively enough to get inside, possibly anywhere she chooses, because she’s had earlier nursin’ experience in large medical facilities?”
Louden tilted his head like a confused puppy for the slightest second and righted himself nearly in the same instant. He glared but offered no argument.
“I didn’t think so.” Quite satisfied with herself, Eva smiled and smoothed out the man’s lapels just for the added offense. “My father’s a doctor. I know my way around a sick or wounded man. All I have to do is find a nurse’s uniform to blend in, if they even wear uniforms, and I can get in with no difficulty. See, darlin’, you need my expertise more than you presume. It’d serve you well to do me a few kindnesses before I find another agent to work for.”
Resentment filled Louden’s eyes and his jaw tightened.
“Oh….” Eva formed a dramatic frown and upturned her eyes the way she used to flirt with boys back home. “You didn’t think you were the only Confederate agent leadin’ operations in St. Louis, did you?”