When staying over in Denver, Isaac Bell always roomed at the Brown Palace, the city’s premiere hotel. While it was already nearing its twentieth year of operation, it had yet to be surpassed in luxury, style, or comfort. And was located just a stone’s throw from the state capitol building.
He had finished dining and found himself in the Marble Bar, the site of the infamous murder the previous May of Tony Von Phul and an innocent bystander by Frank Henwood. Von Phul had been carrying on an affair with Isabel Springer, the wife of Henwood’s friend John Springer. He had come to confront Von Phul and put an end to the illicit assignation. The sordid matter had the opposite effect and the Springer’s divorced five days after the double homicide. It was still the talk of the town, Bell had learned.
That, and the deaths of nine miners two days prior out near Central City. He’d read an evening paper about the efforts by Bill Mahoney, the foreman at a nearby mine, to reach the trapped men. He and his fellow rescuers had been turned back by severe flooding. Mahoney had also been the person first informed about the disaster when a mysterious and unsigned note saying there had been an accident was slid under his cabin door. That last detail was something Bell knew well. People were reluctant to come forward with information, especially about something as macabre as a mine accident, or have their name associated with so much death. It was human nature.
He had made reservations for the morning train to Chicago and then on east to New York and was just about to enjoy the last of his drink and call it a night when a middle-aged man in a decent suit came into the bar, swept it once like a searchlight, and made straight for Isaac. He took the stool at Bell’s side.
“You wouldn’t be Isaac Bell, by chance?”
Wary, Bell said, “Who’s asking?”
“Sir, my name is Hans Bloeser.” He handed Bell a business card. Bound by etiquette, Bell returned to him one of his own. “I took a chance you were still in town and either at the Oxford Hotel or here. You are Bell?”
Bloeser spoke fine English with just a trace of German accent. In Bell’s estimate, he’d come from Germany as a youth and learned English in school but spoke German at home. He had a German’s barrel chest, eyes as blue as Bell’s own, but his hair was dark and thinning. Bell estimated he was at least fifty years old. And had the smoother hands of someone who worked indoors.
“I am. May I help you with something, Mr. Bloeser?”
The stranger indicated to the barmen that he wanted two of whatever Bell had been drinking.
“Your reputation as an investigator is known far and wide, Mr. Bell, but it seems that other than a vague description of your blond hair no one seems to know you. The man at the Van Dorn office here in Denver didn’t know you were in town until the arrest this morning at the post office hit the afternoon papers.”
“I prefer to keep my anonymity as best I can, Mr. Bloeser. It helps in my line of work. Also, since I wasn’t in need of additional agents for this morning’s activities, I find it best not to let satellite offices think I’m here checking up on them. As Van Dorn’s chief investigator, I find my presence sometimes distracts rather than benefits.”
“A wise choice, and one I wish I could follow through on. I own a bank with six branches and I find myself unable to leave them well enough alone. My managers must believe that I think they are incompetent and always need minding. In truth, they are all good men, but I can’t help but watch over their shoulders.” The man smiled at his own foible.
“If you are in need of Van Dorn agents, I assure you that Charles Post, our man here, is more than qualified, and he has access to additional men as the need arises. For myself, I leave for the east tomorrow morning.”
Bloeser leaned in conspiratorially. “Would you be willing to listen to a story that might convince you to remain for a while?”
Bell smiled. He liked Bloeser instinctively. “A man who buys me a drink is entitled to tell me a story.”
Bloeser stood and indicated that Bell should follow him to a dark and secluded corner of the bar. He offered Bell a cigar from a leather case. Bell demurred and waited while Bloeser went through the ritual of cutting its tip, warming it with the candle in the center of the table, and puffing the thing to life. The smoke was dense but fragrant.
“Have you heard about the disaster at the Little Angel Mine and the nine fatalities?” When Bell nodded, Bloeser continued. “My brother, Ernst, owns the mine, Mr. Bell. When word reached him in Golden about your presence here in Denver, he cabled me to find you.”
“I’m afraid I know little of mining, so I can’t imagine why your brother sent you to me.”
Bloeser nodded. “But you do know mysteries, sir, and there’s a big one surrounding the disaster.” The banker saw skepticism on Bell’s face. “The papers didn’t tell the half of it. For one thing, Joshua Hayes Brewster, the lead miner, claim-jumped the Little Angel.”
Bell drew back involuntarily. There was a time that even the accusation of claim jumping resulted in swift and usually fatal justice. It was a crime that miners saw as more loathsome than just about any other. To the men of the Rocky Mountain mining community, calling someone a claim jumper was akin to calling them the murderer of children.
A remembered fact popped into Bell’s head that brought into question Bloeser’s assertion. “Didn’t I read that the mine had shut down back in ’81?”
“You did indeed. The mine was a bust from the outset. My brother isn’t a miner himself, just the senior partner in our bank, and he invested heavily in the gold rush. The Little Angel was one in which he owned a stake. Many were successful, others were expensive holes that produced nothing at all. However, it doesn’t matter if the mine was closed or not, one needs permission from the owner to step one foot into another man’s workings. That’s the law and Brewster knew it. Brewster also knew that the Little Angel was a worthless bore, and no matter how much he tried to talk up what he was about to do, nothing changed that fact. There wasn’t then, and there isn’t now, a motherlode waiting to be found up there.”
“If all that is true, what was Brewster really doing?” Bell asked.
Bloeser touched the tip of his nose. “That’s the mystery, sir. What exactly was he doing up there to get him and eight other men killed? I can tell you plain and true that they weren’t looking for silver.”
Bell ran a few scenarios, sifting out ideas or trains of thought, but nothing became immediately clear. While part of him balked at the idea of leaving something unknown on the table, the pragmatist in him wasn’t intrigued enough to forgo a loving reunion with his wife, Marion.
“That does sound intriguing, Mr. Bloeser, but I’m afraid that I have pressing matters back in New York that need my attention.”
“I have yet to tell you the strangest part of my story.”
“None of the men were married. No one would miss them if they died in a mining accident. No one other than my brother has the slightest interest in their deaths.” Bloeser let that sink in. “One or two bachelors wouldn’t be unusual. Heck, even half wouldn’t raise an eyebrow. But all? No, Brewster selected these particular men because no one was going to miss them. It was as though they knew they weren’t coming out of that shaft. Or . . .”
Bell finished the thought, interest suddenly piqued, “ . . . they never went in in the first place.”
The banker settled himself deeper into his club chair, a good enough judge of character to know he’d landed his fish.Like an artist who must paint, or an author who is compelled to write, Isaac Bell couldn’t refuse an interesting case.
Like an artist who must paint, or an author who is compelled to write, Isaac Bell couldn’t refuse an interesting case. His last cable from Marion said she’d be in Georgia until the twenty-second. Factoring in the time it would take her to get to New York and if Bell upgraded to express trains only, he could buy himself three extra days in Denver.
“If need be,” Bloeser added, “my brother said he is willing to double your normal fee.”
Bell could hear Joseph Van Dorn in his head telling him to take the extra money, but that wasn’t Isaac’s style. “That won’t be necessary, though I might need to bring in our man here in Denver to do legwork.”
“I read in the papers that the mine was completely flooded. How deep is the water?”
“Depth isn’t the issue. The Little Angel Mine isn’t a vertical shaft dug straight down but rather a gently sloping tunnel drilled into the side of the mountain that’s shaped like a flattened V. The very deepest part of the mine is only about thirty feet lower than the adit.”
“Sorry. I’ve spent too much time around my brother. The adit is the mine’s entrance. After the deepest point, the floor of the mine slopes up again. All told, it’s a little over a mile long, with a dozen or so smaller side passages dug into what looked like promising quartz veins.”
“I see. Can the mine simply be pumped dry?”
“It’s possible, but even now water under pressure is still running out of the entrance at a depth of at least a foot. My brother and his mining people tell me this means there is a lot of water still flowing into the mine. It can’t be drained until the flow stops. That could be weeks or months but there’s another problem with that. There are some workings down below the Little Angel that are getting inundated with the outflow and they’re demanding my brother seal off the tunnel completely. He hasn’t agreed yet, but he will eventually.”
Bell pictured the scene in his mind. The mouth of the Little Angel perched halfway up a hillside with a slow river of water pouring from it. The water then flowing down and washing through some other mining camps on the lower slopes. He could well imagine that if Bloeser’s brother didn’t seal the tunnel, the other miners would mete out some frontier justice and do it themselves, consequences be damned.
“As with all investigations,” Bell told the banker, “time is always of the essence. I want to see where each of the men lived before they went into that mine. Unfortunately, I suspect many were at boardinghouses. Once news of their deaths reached the lodge owners, it isn’t much of a stretch to see that their belongings were sorted through for valuables and the rest discarded.”
Bloeser nodded at this grim but practical assessment.
Bell continued, “There is one more avenue to pursue and that is breaching the mine itself.”
“But I just explained that it’s flooded.”
“I understand, but what if I told you that I can breathe underwater?”
“I’d say you’d had one whiskey too many.”
Bell smiled at that. “Possibly, but that isn’t the source of my boast. Have you ever heard of the Severn Tunnel?”
“In England. Right?”
“Wales, actually. It’s a railroad tunnel that was driven beneath the Severn River estuary. In 1880, it had flooded so badly that a diver needed to be sent down to close some watertight doors. He went over a thousand feet into the tunnel and breathed air just as you and I are doing right now.”
Bloeser was still trying to process the impossibility of what Bell described when the detective got to his feet. “I need to make some arrangements. How does one get to Central City?”
“The CC,” Bloeser said. “The Colorado Central Railroad. It’s an old narrow-gauge line that runs right up into the mountains. Not sure of its schedule, but the hotel’s deskman should know.”
“I will probably need someone up there to help with equipment and who knows the Little Angel Mine.”
“Ahead of you on that one. My brother uses an engineer-slash-inspector whenever he invests in a new project. The man’s name is Tony Wickersham. He’s English and came here as a teenager looking to find his fortune. He has a good head on his shoulders. Ernst trusts him completely.”
“Okay. I need you to get word to him that I’m coming tomorrow. What’s a good hotel in Central City?”
“The Teller House,” Bloeser said without hesitation. “One of the few buildings to survive the fire of 1874. It’s a brick four-story place on Eureka Street. You can’t miss it. Wickersham is staying there too.”
“I still don’t understand how you’re going to get into the mine. That much hose to feed a dive helmet would weigh tons. And it would tear on all the sharp rocks.”
Bell held out a hand to say his good-bye. “Mr. Bloeser, I myself don’t believe how far technology has advanced in the past decade or two. When I first arrived in New York, there were so many horses it reminded me of a rodeo. Now, just a few years later, the Model T Ford is well on its way of replacing them all. We live in amazing times.” Bell shrugged off a rare moment of idle contemplation and shook Bloeser’s hand. “Our man here will call upon your office tomorrow to sign a contract and discuss the finer details of remuneration. Good night.”