Dust jacket and interior illustrations by Vincent Chong.
The year is 1703. The place: the Carolina settlement of Charles Town. Matthew Corbett, professional “problem solver,” has accepted a lucrative, if unusual, commission: escorting a beautiful woman to a fancy dress ball.
What should be a pleasant assignment takes a darker turn when Matthew becomes involved in a murder investigation. A sixteen-year-old girl has been stabbed to death on the grounds of a local plantation. The suspected killer is a slave who has escaped, with two family members, into the dubious protection of a nearby swamp. Troubled by certain discrepancies and determined to see some sort of justice done, Matthew joins the hunt for the runaway slaves. He embarks on a treacherous journey up the Solstice River, also known as the River of Souls. He discovers that something born of the swamp has joined the hunt… and is stalking the hunters with more than murder in mind.
What follows is a shattering ordeal encompassing snakes, alligators, exiled savages, mythical beasts, and ordinary human treachery. The journey up the River of Souls will test the limits of Matthew’s endurance, and lead him through a nightmarish passage to a confrontation with his past, and a moment that will alter his life forever.
Gripping, unsettling, and richly atmospheric, The River of Souls is a masterful historical adventure featuring the continuing exploits of a young hero the USA Character Approved Blog has called “the Early American James Bond.”
The Limited and Lettered Editions will contain the 10,000 word bonus story, “The Scorpion’s Eye”, as well as full-color illustrations not in the Trade Hardcover.
Lettered: 26 signed, deluxe bound copies, housed in a custom traycase
Limited: 474 signed numbered copies, bound in leather, with the bonus story, artwork not in the trade hardcover, and housed in a custom slipcase
Trade: Fully cloth bound hardcover copies
From Publishers Weekly:
“Macabre surprises abound in McCammon’s entertaining fifth Matthew Corbett historical (after 2012’s Providence Rider). In the summer of 1703, while on a visit to Charles Town in the Carolina colony, “problem-solver” Matthew and Magnus Muldoon, his “big as a mountain” new friend, join a manhunt for three escaped slaves, one of whom has been accused of murdering a plantation owner’s daughter (though Matthew has uncovered evidence that implicates one of the hunters). McCammon resorts to a few credibility-stretching gambits in the closing chapters, but, as usual, he nicely evokes America’s colonial past and deftly straddles the boundary between the explicable and the supernatural.”
(excerpt from the limited and lettered edition bonus story)
Across the table from Minx Cutter sat a man with the word Love ornately tattooed on the scarred knuckles of his right hand and Hate on the scarred knuckles of his left. He kept them in full view atop the table so that she might appreciate either their beauty or brutality. She thought that he, of the rest of the men assembled in this mean little room, might try to kill her...and so her knife was ready beneath the table, slipped slowly from its place under her dark green riding jacket—her “joseph”—and held in a firm but casual grip in her right hand, the better to pierce his gut if he lunged at her. Then it was a leap out the window behind her if the other three took up his bloody cause.
The man who was torn between Love and Hate took a drink of bitter red wine from the tankard before him and cocked his head, dark eyes narrowed, his weather-seamed face appraising her in the yellow glow of the candles. His eyebrows were flame-colored thickets and he had a burning bush of hair that stood up in wild cowlicks at front and back.
“So,” he said at last, in a husky but quiet voice that told all he was the leader of this gang of devil’s grenadiers, “you wish us to catch a thief for you.”
“Not catch, exactly,” the woman replied, just as quietly. They might have been friends meeting in this backroom of the Iron Cock tavern at the end of Water Street where harbor water actually rolled up onto the street in curls of white foam and the moored ships groaned in their uneasy sleep; they might have been true companions, or indeed lovers, but in fact were none of these. They were, instead, business associates of a sort, and looking to profit from each other this night in June of the year 1703 in the Puritan-hallowed town of Boston. By day the Puritan ethic of hard work and diligence being an honor to God ruled the town, but by night the rules changed. Minx Cutter knew well that all rocks when overturned revealed the insects that hid beneath them, and so it was true even of Boston, this foundation rock of Puritan creed in the New World; beneath the solid stone was another world, and at night the crawlers came out to play.
“Not catch,” Minx repeated, keeping her steady gaze fixed upon the man who was split between Love and Hate, and whose name was Edward Bandy. “Find, yes. I will handle the rest of it, thank you.”
“Very sure of yourself,” Bandy replied, with a hint of a sneer.
“I am,” said Minx, her face remaining emotionless.
“Ha,” said Bandy, but this was expressed without a smile. He took another drink of wine and watched the woman from New York with a heightened sense of curiosity and not a little measure of awe.
Minx Cutter had arrived in Boston three days before, on a packet boat that had suffered the wave-tossed indignities of two rainstorms and had a near miss running aground on the hard edges of Massachusetts Colony rocks. She had been sent from New York on behalf of her new employer the Herrald Agency, on a mission that Katherine Herrald had thought Minx might find of interest, and so it was that Minx on this muggy eve sat in this smoky tavern where refined women dared not venture. Far from Minx to claim refinement, for she had walked her share of dirty streets by night and known the heat and smell of blood upon her hands, but if anything she considered that her experiences in the world—and as part of Professor Fell’s criminal underworld—had prepared her for her new line of work: a “problem-solver,” as much as her compatriots Matthew Corbett and Hudson Greathouse.
Perhaps neither Matthew nor Greathouse trusted her completely yet, but Minx shrugged this off; she understood that Madam Herrald had sent her here as the best person for this job, and she was content to have the madam’s trust. She intended to earn it...and yet, she didn’t fully know what she might think when she had the scorpion in her hand, and when she felt the free wind blowing and heard the trumpet call of ships about to cast off their moorings for England. She wondered...when the scorpion was in her hand...would she return it to its rightful owner, as was the stated plan...or would she cast off her own moorings, and would the gleam of all those jewels bring to her eyes the bright promise of the freedom they would purchase? It was a question she wondered if Katherine Herrald had asked herself, as well.
Freedom, Minx thought, and her lip slightly curled.
She had betrayed Professor Fell and escaped him. She had caused the Professor’s own dream of riches born from warfare to explode on Pendulum Island, little more than three months ago. And so where might she travel, to find freedom from Professor Fell’s wrath? For surely it was coming at her, as surely as it was coming at Matthew; even now she could sense the fist tightening beneath the glove, and she knew it must somehow strike at both of them.
Freedom. Not even the scorpion could buy that for her.
But for now she was free—or enjoyed an illusion of freedom—and she sat confidently in this tavern with her right hand gripping a knife under the oaken table, with a peaked cap the color of a summer forest perched jauntily atop her curls of blond hair, her once-broken and yet-crooked nose smelling the thick air of the world of insects beneath the rock, and her intelligent light brown eyes directed at a man who might try to kill her in the next few minutes. Edward Bandy, the king of this particular rock garden, had already killed two men and a woman in the nine months of his self-imposed exile from England to this Puritan stronghold. He did have quite the raw and ragged temper. This was according to talk in other taverns she had visited, and the talk included stories of equal violence and ferocity concerning Bandy’s band of night stalkers: the long and thin-limbed Scotsman McGill who had a face as pale as a crater-marked moon, the burly brown-bearded and barrel-chested Bronson, and the dandily-dressed and powdered-wigged Wampanoag Indian called Nip for some name that made a tangle of the white man’s tongue. All save Bandy were standing, or leaning against the planked walls as their nature willed. From Nip’s clay pipe puffed blue fumes of smoke that rose up and hung like seething spirits at the ceiling, the Indian’s narrow eyes nearly hidden behind the clouds. McGill cleaned his fingernails with a curved knife that Minx imagined had found other more gruesome uses, and Bronson’s arms were crossed over his chest like small trees, his beard still holding bits of buttered cornbread he’d recently engulfed into his cavern of a mouth.
“You,” said Bandy, “must be a female lunatic. Coming in here—into my territory—and seating yourself like the queen of the world. I am not used to having conversations with women.”
“I can tell,” Minx answered.
“It is unheard of for a woman to be in here.”
“Well,” said Minx, with a quick glance around at the tatterdemalions, drunken louts and Lord Lobcocks who occupied the larger room beyond Bandy’s gang, “I should hate giving this place a bad reputation.”
“Your quail-pipe will get you in trouble yet,” Bandy warned.
“Woman,” came a low, harsh voice from the center of the smoke, “holds knife under table.”
“You think I don’t know that? Bleeding Jesus!” Bandy shot Nip a red-eyed glower, then returned his attention to Minx. “That’s another thing. Holding a blade on me, and thinking you’re so sharp?” His cheeks had begun to show swirls of red, and he took another drink of wine that Minx hoped was meant to delay the burst of temper tapping at his window. “Well, you’re scared of me—of us—so I’m supposing that’s a good sign,” he said when the tankard was lowered again. “Just don’t do anything you’d regret.”
“If I do,” Minx answered calmly, “you’ll regret it first.” And deciding that a show of ability was needed, she brought the knife out from beneath the table, took perhaps two seconds to aim, and let the blade fly.
The knife pierced Nip’s wig and pinned it to the plank behind him. White powder flew like a snowstorm and scattered across the shoulders of his jet-black coat. To the credit of the Wampanoag’s nerves, however, Nip did not blink nor remove the pipe from his mouth; he simply stepped forward a pace and left the wig hanging on the wall like a small dead dog with slightly-yellowed curls. His own pate was bald save for a black topknot that had been neatly tucked beneath the topping.
“No,” said Bandy, speaking to McGill. The Scotsman had readied his own knife for action, and Bronson had started forward to lock an arm around Minx’s throat. “Let her be. No harm done. Correct, Nip?”
“Got other wigs,” Nip said, with a resigned shrug.
“Quick with a blade,” was Bandy’s next comment to Minx. He allowed himself a shadow of a smile, which made his weathered hatchet of a face look more ominous than ever. “All right, then,” he said, as if at last accepting the woman’s presence and appreciating her abilities, “you’ve come from New York to find the scorpion and you wish us to help. For whatever reason, you’ve sought myself and my comrades out for the undertaking of this task. And, I have to say, shown quite a bit of bull’s balls for a female. People don’t just find us, you know. And usually they don’t like us to find them.”
“You have earned the respect and the fear of many good Puritans,” Minx replied. “Also your last murder, of a constable, has frightened the law—whatever there is of it here—into leaving you be.”
“The constable beat a friend of mine nearly to death a few weeks ago. I don’t let something like that pass.”
“From what I hear,” said Minx, as she leaned slightly toward him, “you have—shall we say—influence in many different areas. And also knowledge of many things that happen in this town, both by day and night. Ears to the ground, one might say. That’s why I’ve sought you out.”
“To help you find who stole the scorpion, as you’ve said,” Bandy replied, with a nod. “But were you thinking it was done by myself and my crew? I’ll have to say, we do have experience with cracking tools and we have done the occasional job, but this...no.”
“I already know who took it from the Sutton house. A maid by the name of Elisa Rhodes. She worked there for two months and then vanished on the same night as the scorpion’s lockbox. The problem I’m facing, Mr. Bandy, is that it appears Elisa Rhodes was not her real name and there is no record of her anywhere in or near Boston. She had concocted an elaborate story of her family and background, complete with forged letters of reference from London. Where is the thief who calls herself Elisa Rhodes, and who obviously entered that employ to steal the scorpion?” Minx let this sit for a few seconds before she went on. “I was wondering, sir, if your ears had told you anything?”
“Hm,” came the man’s quiet response. The fingers of his Love hand drummed the table. At length he said, “Tell me what you know of the scorpion.”
“I know that it’s a fabulous piece of jewelry. A brooch pin in the shape of a scorpion, fashioned of silver and its spine studded with eight stones...two emeralds, two rubies, two sapphires, two diamonds and at the center of its head an oval blue moonstone the size of a man’s thumbnail. They call that particular stone the ‘scorpion’s eye’. The brooch has been in the Sutton family for as many generations as Steven Sutton can recall, and he is nearing his eighty-third year. Who made it and how it entered the family, he doesn’t know. But...he and his family desire it returned to the Sutton hand, and that’s what I intend to do.”
“And what else do you know about it?” Bandy prompted, with a lift of the thick and fiery eyebrows.
Minx was silent for a moment, for she knew in which direction he was headed. “It is...the family believes,” she answered, “capable of mystic powers. The word mystic being the elder Sutton’s own.”
Bandy grunted. “From what I hear, the word mystic hardly does it justice. From what I hear, the scorpion has the power to curse to madness whoever possesses it. Oh, it’s no secret here in Boston! You mention that thing, and everyone’s heard of it. Why do you think it’s never been stolen before now? It’s kept in its lockbox and never worn...never looked at, what I hear. The Sutton family themselves fear it, but it is—as you say—a fabulous and very valuable piece. So they’ve held onto it lo these many years, brought it over from England with them when they came.” He took another drink to wet his dry whistle. “But only a fool would steal the thing, and for sure it wasn’t just this woman’s idea. Someone hired her to do it, of course. Set her up with false papers and everything she needed.”
“Of course,” Minx agreed. “Any idea who that someone might be?”
“The collector,” said McGill, who stopped speaking as soon as Bandy raised a finger from his hand of Hate.
“Before we go on,” Bandy said, “what’s the Sutton family paying you to recover the thing? And tell me true, woman, because I can smell a lie on a skunk’s breath.”
“One hundred pounds,” was the reply, and the truth.
“Ah!” Bandy’s smile was broader now, and almost festive. “Well...you’ll never get it back by yourself. Even if I tell you the name and where the scorpion likely is...you won’t get to it, not alone. You won’t even get to the front door, not through that iron gate. And the house itself...a fortress.”
“You may underestimate me, sir,” said the princess of blades, who had another knife ready in another hiding-place of her joseph.
“I may. But...if the scorpion is inside the fortress of Xavier Dreadson, which it probably is, considering the man’s interests...then it will have to be stolen back from him. No one person can do that.”
“His interests? Meaning what?” Minx prompted.
“Tell her, McGill,” said Bandy.
“Xavier Dreadson,” McGill said, with a heavy Scottish burr, “collects death. Or...that is to say...items deadly and dangerous. I’ve heard stories of what lies inside that house of his—we all have, and maybe it’s the truth or not—but if anyone has arranged to get the scorpion, it will be him...and because of its reputation.”
“His house is a fortress?” Minx returned her attention to Bandy. “But surely it has a weak point, as all fortresses do?”
“Possibly. A couple of breakers I know—knew—tried to get in. That’s the last I heard of them. He was a shipbuilder in England, came over a few years ago, bought and sold a shipbuilding company here. Then he bought an unfinished mansion house about three miles up the coast and disappeared into it when the work was done. He’s rarely seen in Boston anymore. As I say...he’s made his place into a fortress. He brought the workmen over from England, kept them housed on the estate and sent them back when the last stone was laid.” Bandy nodded. “Yes. Dreadson must have the scorpion. It suits his...shall we say...oddness. And no, he’s not going to open that gate for you, or answer your knock at his door if you got that far. If the Suttons want the damned thing back, it has to be stolen back.”
“What’s in the house that’s so deadly and dangerous?” Minx asked.
“His collections,” Bandy replied. “From around the world, the stories go. Those from workmen at the harbor who took his crates off the ships. Occasionally a crate would fall and break open. It’s said dozens of human skulls rolled from one. Another revealed an army’s worth of swords and battleaxes. Some of the crates had air holes for living creatures inside. One tidbit I’ve heard: Dreadson values his collections enough to let loose a tiger at night to roam the grounds.”
“Impressive,” said Minx, with a lifting of her eyebrows.
“And hungry. It’s said two men from a village up there arrive in the morning to feed the thing with horsemeat and lead it back to its cage. Oh...and this I know for certain: the windows of Dreadson’s fortress are covered with iron shutters that are bolted at dusk and opened at dawn. Every window. From six in the morning until six at night the place is patrolled by several men with muskets, but the gate is always locked and the iron fence around the estate is ten feet high. Dreadson pays his guards very well, so they’re beyond bribery by common thieves. Or even uncommon ones, like us,” he added.
“Intriguing,” said Minx.
Bandy finished off his wine and listened for a moment to the babble of other drinkers from the front room. He examined his tattooed knuckles and then narrowed his eyes at Minx. “Some say there are gold statues from ancient Egypt in that house. Diamonds as big as a man’s fist. Daggers and swords in sheaths covered with jewels. Gold coins by the bagful. And another thing...deadly traps to catch thieves who get over the fence, past the tiger and through the iron shutters.”
“Do you believe that?”
“He’s had some servants who talked when their cups were full. But as I say, no one knows for sure...and the fellows who found out what’s what in that house never came back to tell.”
Minx frowned. All this was indeed impressive and intriguing, but was it impossible? Still...a job was a job and a challenge a challenge, and she felt herself compelled by this one.
“I see your wheels moving,” said Bandy. “Mine are moving too.”
“Are we moving in the same direction?”
“Mine are moving this way: you need help, and to get it you—and the Suttons—are going to have to pay for it. I’m not saying we can get into that house or if we get in find the scorpion...but I think I may know at least one thing to try.” He let this sit for a few seconds before he continued on. “So this is where I’m going: we want fifty pounds and anything else we care to take out of the house. Fifty pounds up front. We agreed on that?” He was asking the other members of his crew, who nodded...all except Nip, who gave a resigned shrug that spoke volumes for an Indian who had seen much of the white men’s madness and had decided their madness was a way of life.
Bandy returned his gaze to Minx Cutter. “Bring me the money tomorrow night, here at ten o’clock. Then you can go back to wherever you’re staying and—”
“Wrong,” Minx interrupted. “I’ll talk to the Suttons and bring you the money, but I’m going with you tomorrow night. How can I be sure you’ll even try, if you get the money and I’m not along?”
“How can you be sure we won’t take the money, ride you out in our wagon a mile or so, cut your throat and throw your body into the weeds?” was the rather chilling response.
Minx gave him a faint smile and stared forcefully into his eyes. “Would you really want to do that?” she asked.
Bandy paused. He flicked a glance at McGill, Bronson and Nip as if asking their pardon for ungentlemanly manners. “No,” he allowed. “But I’m damned if I ever had a woman speak to me in this way, and force herself into my business.”
“I’m not forcing, I’m guiding,” said Minx. She stood up from her chair. “Tomorrow night at ten you’ll have your fifty pounds. Then I’m going with you to Dreadson’s fortress...and perhaps we’ll find out if five uncommon thieves can crack their way in?”
“I count four of us,” said the brown-bearded Bronson.
“Without me,” Minx answered, still staring into Bandy’s eyes, “you’re just common.” She advanced on Nip, said, “Stand aside,” and when the Indian obeyed she pulled the knife from the wall and deftly twirled it into its pocket within her jacket. “Good night,” she told them, and she left the room and the Iron Cock.
“Woman moon-touched,” said Nip, the blue fumes floating around his head. He picked up his fallen wig and stroked it like a favored pet. “Brain broke like clay pot.”
“Damnedest woman I ever seen,” said Bronson. “Edward, we ain’t really gonna try to crack the Dreadson house, are we? I ain’t one for gettin’ et by a tiger, no matter what treasure’s supposed to be in there.”
Bandy didn’t answer for a time. He decided he needed another tankard of bitter red wine, for at least when he was completely drunk he would feel less like a fool tempted into action by a beautiful—and maybe deadly?—woman.
“We are going to try to crack the house,” he said, and his voice carried a hard edge. “Call it a point of pride. Never been done before, and I’d like to say the Bandy crew can do it.”
“Or die trying?” asked McGill.
“I’ve got some ideas. Maybe they’ll work. Got some things to find and put together before tomorrow night. Whoever’s not with me can walk out of here right now, no hard feelings...but you’re done with me, and you’re on your own. So...what’s your say?”
None of the other three men spoke, but none of them left the room either.
“That’s my boys,” Bandy said, and he grinned. But he was thinking that this Minx Cutter had caused him to not only put his reputation on the line, but also the lives of himself and his stalwarts. So falls a man, he thought. Then again...if they could get past the fence and the tiger and the iron shutters and locks and whatever else might lie in wait in that devil of a house...they might come out rich, and as true kings of the night in this fair town.
Hell of a woman though, he thought. Ought to slit her throat for talking to him like that...but he had the feeling that tomorrow night they would need her...if only as bait for a hungry tiger.
- Vincent Chong
- Robert McCammon
- 256 pages
- United States
- Out of Print