No Job for a Lady by Carol McCleary is the fourth historical mystery set in Victorian times with Nellie Bly, who travels to Mexico in 1886 to prove that a woman is fully capable of serving as a foreign correspondent (available June 10, 2014).
History, mystery, and murder are the traveling companions of Nellie Bly, the world’s first female investigative reporter. Nellie defies the wrath of her editor and vengeful ancient gods while setting out to prove a woman has what it takes to be a foreign correspondent in dangerous Victorian times.
Pyramids, dark magic, and dead bodies are what the intrepid Nellie encounters when she takes off for Mexico after her editor refuses to let her work as a foreign correspondent because “it’s no job for a lady.”
It’s 1886 and Mexico has not cast off all its bloodthirsty Aztec past. Among the towering pyramids in the ghost city of Teotihuacán, Nellie is stalked by ruthless killers seeking Montezuma’s legendary treasure and an ancient cult that resorts to the murderous Way of the Aztec to protect it.
Nellie travels with Gertrude Bell, who will go on to be called Queen of the Desert for her later exploits in Egypt, as well as the most glamorous and beautiful woman of the era, Lily Langtry, consort to the Prince of Wales. Along for the ride is a young gunfighter called the Sundance Kid. And there’s the mysterious Roger Watkins, who romantically and physically challenges Nellie’s determination to be an independent woman in a man’s world.
El Paso, Texas
I bite my upper lip, a terrible habit when I’m nervous. This time it’s the long line for tickets at the train station causing the chewing. The ticket counter is an opening in an outside wall of the station house, leaving those of us in line to endure the cool of the evening as night falls. A line this long, this late, isn’t a good sign.
The insane trip I set out on has already taken more than one wrong turn, and I don’t need anything else to go sour. I spent four days traveling from Pittsburgh to El Paso, sitting and sleeping on hard seats. My body and soul ache at the prospect of hard seats for the final twelve-hundred-mile—three long days and nights—leg to Mexico City.
I want a Pullman sleeper berth and I am ready to fight for it.
A compartment all to myself would be even better. I need time to digest the fact that I am going to Mexico alone. I’m hoping that with a good night’s sleep the sunken feeling in the pit of my stomach and overwhelming fear that I’m being quite foolish will go away. But I have a sick feeling that no matter how much rest I get, I won’t be able to keep a bridle on my doubts.
What was I thinking! Well, as my dear mother says, when I act impulsively, I’m not thinking. For the first time in quite a while I, too, am questioning my good sense. It’s just that when Mr. Madden refused to let me tackle a foreign correspondent assignment on the grounds that it was too dangerous for a woman … well, I became furious. What poppycock!
Like most men, he has little understanding of what women are capable of doing. And that brought us to butting heads because I’m too impatient to keep tackling the boring reporting assignments given to me solely because I wear petticoats.
Rebelling from being exiled to the society page, I set out to do something that no other female reporter has ever done: report news from Mexico.
Why Mexico? I had saved my pennies during my brief sojourn in the newsroom, but what little I had wasn’t enough for reporting from “overseas.” It would pay, however, for the seven days by train it takes to get from Pittsburgh to Mexico City, a journey of close to 2,500 miles.
Once in the Mexican capital, I would generate enough money to keep me going by sending articles back to the paper. I am certain Mr. Madden will not fail to publish the articles—even if he refused to underwrite the assignment, interesting stories about events in a land far away sent by a young woman of their community will excite the paper’s readers.
My mother’s elation at my abrupt success at going from laborer to newspaperwoman turned to shock and disbelief when I told her I would prove myself by reporting from untamed Mexico, a land of endless bloody revolutions, fierce bandidos, and wild Indians on the rampage.
Even though it is 1886, the West is not yet completely tamed, and I have read that Mexico is decades behind America in its own struggle to civilize itself. This makes the land south of us either fertile ground for exciting stories or a danger zone, depending on whether one is looking at the situation through my rose-colored vision or my mother’s morbid fears.
I quit the paper, bade my few journalistic friends adieu, packed a bag, grabbed my mother, and set out to prove myself again. And as I said, at my own expense, something else that would never have happened to a man.
My mother insisted upon coming with me, of course, no doubt planning to poke with a hat pin any bandido who bothered me. She is certain that I will end up being kidnapped and having to make tortillas for a bandido chief—after I endured unspeakable things. And I must admit that her insisting upon accompanying me put the minds of my brothers and my editor a little more at ease, for they, too, were positive that I would be putting myself in harm’s way.
Nevertheless, all this changed when last night on the train my mother got stomach problems.
To my dismay, there was no way she could continue. The poor dear had horrible stomachaches. At first, she couldn’t stop throwing up. She was not in a dying state, just an uncomfortable, messy state. We figured she’d eaten something that didn’t agree with her and by morning she’d be better, but she wasn’t. Instead, she had a bit of a fever and just felt that icky, miserable feeling when one is under the weather—not wanting to move, just rest and sleep.
This left me in a pickle, for I felt responsible for her. A decision had to be made. Either I gave up my trip or I found a place for her to stay while I continued on. My mother hated to see me go on alone, but she knew how important it was that I complete what I had started. If I returned to Pittsburgh without having succeeded at my boast that I was capable of being a foreign correspondent, it would be with my tail between my legs and the only employment opportunity that of begging for my old job at the factory.
Before disembarking the train, I asked the porter, who was so helpful and kind when my poor mother became ill, if he knew of a place my mother could stay for a while. He gave me the address of an elderly couple who might rent us a room.
Thank goodness I was able to make safe and comfortable arrangements for her stay; otherwise, I would never have gone on.
I promised her once I arrived in Mexico that I would send letters every day so she would know how I was progressing—and that I was unharmed.
I am determined to prove myself come hell or high water. She knows how important this trip is to me, and no matter how crazy she thought I was in taking this trip, she also believed that it would be the only way for me to prove myself.
A shout from the ticket counter brings me back to reality: “Window closed; come back tomorrow morning.”
“What?” I tap the shoulder of the man in front of me. “Are they really closing the window?”
He turns to me, a rather nice-looking man.
“Yes, I’m afraid so.” He glances down at a railroad pocket watch, an item that reminds me of my own. When my father died, my mother gave me his watch, and it has been with me ever since.
“No idea. Maybe he’s tired and wants to go home and eat. Can’t blame the poor chap. Listen, I know you don’t know me from a hole in the wall, but would you like to join me for dinner? I’m famished and wouldn’t mind the company.”
“I, uh…” I fumble, caught by surprise, not knowing what to say. This is a first for me. I’ve never been asked out by a strange man. To the contrary, my life has been so occupied with helping my mother keep food on the table for my brothers and sister that I’ve had neither the time nor the inclination for courtship or even keeping company.
The first thing I can’t help but notice is his height—I have to look up. He’s tall, probably over six feet; his body hovers over my five-foot frame. I assume he indulges in sports, for he appears to have the build of an athlete. He’s young, maybe five or six years older than my nineteen,* with striking green eyes that are framed in silver wire-rimmed pince-nez—another favorite of my dad’s, except his glasses were gold. He’s clean-shaven, which I prefer, and his hair—curly, dark brown—is not long, but not short, either, falling just below his ears. He’s wearing a dark suit, giving him an eastern look, rather than the rough clothes of the westerners I see all around.
* Nellie was actually twenty-two years old at the time of the Mexico trip. She lied about her age to maintain a “girl reporter” image.—The Editors.
My mother claims I will fall for an older man because I worshiped my father, who died when I was six. He was prominent in our little community and became a judge. When not out tending to the horses, he wore suits.
“Cat got your tongue? It’s just dinner. I thought you’d like the company. Frankly, I felt sorry for you because you appear to be a woman alone. A bit worried, are you, out in the world all by yourself?”
Well I’ll be! What a turkey!
I square my shoulders. “I was concerned about getting a sleeper, not about traveling alone. I am quite capable of taking care of myself, thank you. And for your information, I’m not alone. I’m with my mother. Now if you’ll excuse me, I must get back to her.”
“Fine, have it your way.” He starts to leave, but then turns back and tips his hat. “Good day.”
He walks away, leaving me agitated—more at myself than at him. The invitation had been polite and my hesitation had annoyed or perhaps even embarrassed him. But he is also insensitive enough not to realize that I have a right as a woman to travel alone if I care to and that I am not hiding my head in fear. However, I also realize I am oversensitive about setting out alone, not only because of what it will do to my career if I fail but also about how it will shatter the high expectations of those who encouraged me.
I have to admit that it probably would have been nice to have shared dinner with the gentleman. And he might even be heading in the same direction I am by train. But as usual, I’ve thrown caution to the wind and am doing it alone, going to a foreign country with a reputation of being wild and lawless, and with no one to lean on. No one to protect me or at least have for companionship and comfort, as my mother would have been. Oh, I am going to miss her sorely. Especially after I have turned down an invitation to dinner in this strange, rather wild, and backward town.
“Chin up, Nellie,” I mumble to myself in the most confident voice I can muster, “you can do this.”
One thing is for certain: Without a doubt, I will be here tomorrow at the crack of dawn to secure a private sleeping berth. Maybe I can sleep my way to Mexico and avoid the likes of him.
Once there, I will just take it day by day. I’ll be fine.
In the meantime, I might as well head into the station building to wait. I’m not hungry and have crackers left over from lunch to nibble on. I want to be right here, even if I have to sit on a bench all night long. Besides, as much as I’d like to, I can’t go back to my mother.
Since there was the possibility she might get better and try to continue on despite the fact she was weak and could relapse, I told her a little fib: I was leaving tonight. Right or wrong, I saw this as an opportunity of a lifetime, to experience traveling on my own, so I seized the opportunity. How could I pass it up?
Never before have I gone out of town all by myself, because it’s not proper etiquette for a single woman to travel without a companion. Well, why is it proper etiquette for a man to travel alone? Once again, rules made by men. Why should they have all the fun? Besides, this is something I have wanted to do forever, and even though I realize this is probably not the smartest time to make this decision, being that I am going into a foreign country where I don’t speak the language, I’m glad I’m doing it.
And without a doubt, I am scared.
But I can’t, I won’t let that stop me.
When I was five years of age, my father took me down to the stables to learn how to ride a horse. I was so scared. I didn’t want to get on—the horse was a monster, even though it was only a pony—but my father insisted he wouldn’t let the reins go.
Instead of giving in to my tugging and pulling to leave, my father knelt down and looked me square in the eyes and said, “Nellie, you’ll never get anywhere in life if you don’t face your fears. Worse, you will miss out on a lot. So hop on.”
So here I am—facing my fear.
Tomorrow I will make sure to be first in line, before I lose my false courage.
Oh, no, I groan as I enter the station waiting room—men, women, children, and dogs, and stacks of baggage of all shapes and sizes are all about, so crowded together they appear to be one big, unwieldy mass.
The dim light of a large oil-lamp fixture hanging from the center of the ceiling falls with dreary effect on the scene. Some people are sleeping sitting up, lost for a while to all the cares of life; some are eating; some smoking; while a group of men are passing around a bottle occasionally as they deal from a greasy pack of cards.
The bench that I was determined to sit on till dawn is nowhere to be found. Every single one is completely occupied. It is evident that I cannot await the glimpse of dawn ’mid these surroundings. Even if I had planned on spending the rest of the night miserably nodding between sleep and wakefulness on a hard bench, I can’t; there isn’t even a squeeze-in space.
With a deep breath, I square my shoulders and leave, entering into the night again.
There are no inviting lights of hotels, and I have to wonder whether most travelers with a stopover at El Paso sleep on the streets.
A man with a lantern on his arm comes along and I ask directions to a hotel.
“They’re all closed at this hour, filled anyway for sure,” he says, “but if you can be satisfied with a room in a second-class guesthouse, my wife will put you up for the night at less than what a hotel would charge. Very clean, no bugs.”
I am only too glad for any shelter and the thought of not sleeping with bed bugs for the night; well, to say the least, I am happy with his offer. Without one thought of where he might take me, I follow the light of his lantern as he walks ahead of me.
I expect wood sidewalks, but instead there is just sand. The Texas border town is obviously not in a high state of building arts.
As we are passing a saloon, its double doors fly open and an old man in rough clothes, with a battered, dusty hat and a thick beard, comes staggering out, bumping into me.
“Jus’ me and ol’ Montezuma … we know where the gold’s at,” he says in a drunken slur, blowing alcohol breath in my face.
I move forward to get away from him. I have an extreme dislike for drunken men—they remind me of my stepfather, who got drunk regularly and became quite abusive—but the drunk takes ahold of my dress sleeve.
“Let go!” I jerk my arm out of his grip.
“Venus.” He points his grimy, filthy index finger up. “The stars, they tell everything.”
The doors to the saloon swing open again and three men come out. My guide also has come back, but he keeps a few steps away from us.
“Howard!” The younger of the men takes ahold of the drunk. “You old geezer, here you are.”
“No,” he says to me, as if it is a plea.
The young man, a cowboy by his dress, grabs the old man by the shoulders and steers him to the other two men, gents who look like nothing argues with them—not even the meanest bull.
Howard gurgles something indecipherable; all I pick up is the word Montezuma as he looks back at me with pleading eyes as the men pull him away.
“What are you going to do with him?” I ask, stepping forward, concerned because rolling drunks is a favorite pastime of thugs.
The young cowboy steps between me and the men hustling the old man down the alley next to the saloon.
“Sorry Howard frightened you like that, miss.” He tips his hat and gives me a smile and a friendly look of concern.
He doesn’t look much older than I am, but behind the smile he has the same hard edge as the other two. He’s wearing a white Boss of the Plains hat made by Mr. Stetson, which is popular with cowboys. His mustache appears neatly groomed and his hair respectfully short, which I prefer, unlike the slightly longer hair on the man I met earlier at the ticket office.
He’s wearing his six-shooter low on his left leg—a southpaw, something not too common. His whole appearance gives him the look of what they call a “gunslinger” in dime novels.
“I don’t think he wants to go with your men.”
The young cowboy gives a quick glance back. “Howard’s fine, always a little ornery after having too much to drink. Hope he didn’t offend you in any way.”
“Drunks are always offensive, but no harm done.”
“You sure? Howard has a tendency to mouth off and say crazy things—what did he say to you?”
“He’s trying to get away from those men.”
He glances back again in the direction Howard has been taken. “Like I said, he’s an ornery coot who says crazy things.” He gives me a grin. “You can just run along.”
“Excuse me?” I look him square in the eye and stand my ground. “My feet take me where I alone tell them.”
“I’ve gotta git,” my lantern carrier says. His tone tells me he wants no part of the gunslinger, and he turns, hurrying away.
“Something’s fishy,” I mumble under my breath as I turn to leave.
“What’d you say?” the cowboy asks.
“I thought I heard you say something.”
“You heard wrong.”
“Then I suggest you hurry along, or you’re going to lose your friend.”
He’s right: My lantern carrier has wings on his feet.
“Wait!” I yell to him.
I don’t go far before I can’t help but glance back. The cowboy is rolling a cigarette and appears in no hurry to go back into the saloon—as if he is standing guard at the alley or making sure I do leave.
I know I should shrug the incident off, but it’s hard for me when my gut tells me something is wrong. But robbing a drunk doesn’t seem like a very likely motivation on the part of the three men, if for no other reason than they were better dressed than the older man—who didn’t leave an impression of having much jangling in his pockets. Yet my gut says that the old man was frightened of them.
Walk away, Nellie; there is nothing for you in this. I hear my mother’s voice in my head and I know she’s right, as usual, so I reluctantly keep walking away and don’t look back again. She has always claimed that I stick my nose in so many places it shouldn’t be in that one day it’s likely to get pinched.
What is wrong with me? I haven’t even crossed the border yet and I’m already sticking my nose where it might get pinched. It’s just that I hate seeing someone being manhandled. Having six brothers, I not only learned how to defend myself; they also instilled in me a desire to defend the helpless, though the fact the older man is boozed up doesn’t particularly endear him to me.
Within a short time, through the sandy streets, we reach the place where there is but one room unoccupied. I gladly pay for it and, by the aid of a tallow candle, find my way to bed.
Relaxing as best I can on a cold-stiff mattress, I try to turn off my mind, checking off my encounter with the drunk and the gunslinger like it was a bad nightmare, but a puzzle keeps knocking on my head, wanting to be invited in. Finally, I realize what’s bothering me.
The cowboys all wore wide-brimmed Stetsons, but Howard was wearing a bowler, though it had been battered enough to hardly be recognized as one. And while Howard’s clothes were that of a man who worked with his hands, they were strikingly different from the range outfits the cowboys wore.
All that meant is that the old man and the cowboys were not peas from the same pod. And what was Howard trying to tell me? Something about the stars and Montezuma? The Aztec emperor who’s been dead for hundreds of years? Drunken talk that made no sense.
I wish my mother was here so I could talk this out with her. I need her common sense, for I know my imaginative and suspicious mind will weave a tale that will have little connection to reality.
I shake my head. I should bang it on the wall to get some sense into it, because I need to be up early and fresh. Tomorrow I am boarding the train for Mexico City and a grand adventure! I have to get to sleep.
Rats! All my logic is still not working, for I can’t stop tossing and turning.
Frustrated, I get out of bed and go to the window. Maybe some fresh air will clear my mind of all this foolishness.
I’m about to raise the window, when I see a man standing below the gas-lit lamp on the street below, smoking a cigarette. He’s wearing a white Stetson and—I’ll be—he has a six-shooter strapped low on his leg. His left leg.
I’m sure he’s looking up at my window, and I step aside so I can sneak a peek out.
Okay … and what does this mean? What’s he doing out there?
I carefully peek back out again.
Yes—he is definitely there looking up at my window.
He takes a step forward and I jerk my head back in and press my body against the wall, my heart pounding.
Did he see me watching him?
“Get ahold of yourself, Nellie,” I tell myself in a strong voice to calm my nerves. It’s dark in my room, so I wouldn’t have been silhouetted and easy to spot. Besides, what could he do even if he knew I had spotted him? I’m up here. He’s down there. I’m safe.
I peek out again. He’s still there, but now he’s leaning against the lamppost.
I slip back into my place of complete darkness and try to take deep breaths to relax and think. Be logical. Think. Maybe he is waiting for someone. One of the other guests? When I signed the register, there were three names—all male. Good Lord, he might be staying here, because it might be the same three men who came out of the saloon.
No, that doesn’t work. The man who rented me the room would have recognized them back in front of the saloon.
So why’s the young cowboy, gunslinger, whatever he is, out there? A coincidence? Why not? I’m just being silly and paranoid.
I slowly look back out.
He’s gone, yet the hairs on the back of my neck are still standing straight up. I lean back and bang my head against the wall. Darn it! I gave myself a good scare. And it all started because I stuck my nose into something.
I crawl back into bed. The morning can’t come soon enough.
Tomorrow I’ll board the train for Mexico City and leave behind the jabbering drunk and whatever schemes these El Paso cowboys have under their hats.
“Good riddance to bad rubbish,” as my mother would say.
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Carol McCleary was born in Seoul, South Korea, and lived in Hong Kong, Japan, and the Philippines. She now lives on Cape Cod in an antique house that is haunted by ghosts. McCleary is the author of The Alchemy of Murder, The Illusion of Murder, and The Formula for Murder.