No Rest for the Wicked: Mistress of None Book 1
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. Vi 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 jackrabbit 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 consciousness. 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 vivid 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 before 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.” She traced shallow, annoyed furrows in the water with her fingers.
“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 that 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 couldn’t be worth the price of dealing with him.
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,” Vi 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.”
“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.”
“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 a 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?
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