E.E. Durbin and the Haunt of Idaho City

Boise train depot circa 1920. Found at napcommissions.org

The wind was a howling wolf. Emma Elizabeth Durbin knifed her hatpin like a sabre through both her short-brimmed, kid skin hat, and mounds of luxuriant auburn hair as she exited the train’s passenger car. Scuffed shoe leather met fresh boardwalk. Her long dress and matching short jacket were oppressively warm. It was only 10:15 in the morning, and hot for June in Boise.

Checking the weight of her satchel by jiggling it in her right hand, she longed for a comfortable bath and a filling meal. Neither of them were in her near future as she clip clopped forward, desperately avoiding semi-intimate collisions with fellow passengers and locals on the platform, as she navigated through the terminal hordes.

The rest of her belongings would be delivered to her hotel, but she had someplace else to be. Assuming the information on the telegram nestled in her dark jacket pocket was accurate, and he was on time like he said he’d be, she’d be sitting across a table from the Sheriff of Idaho City in half an hour.

Emma waved a bare left hand at the cab driver, his palms idly caressing the reins for the carriage’s single horse, but his soft, gray eyes eager for the next passenger. A gust hit him, and cougar-like reflexes saved his plaid ivy cap from being lost to the dusty street heading north toward downtown.

Opening the door, the coach’s step creaked as she put her weight on it to get in. “Know where Brady’s Excuse is?” Sheriff Bobby Bill Thornton told her it was an out-of-the-way, less than respectable dive where everyone minded their own damn business. It was a good place for this sort of introduction.

“Sure do, Ma’am.” He sounded younger than he looked, thin strands of sandy hair escaping his cap’s confines behind both ears. “You sure you want to…” He shut up when he turned and looked back inside the carriage. She was a woman not young and not middle-aged, but bore the look of someone not to be trifled with. “Yes, Ma’am. Name’s Turner, Frank Turner. Pleased to meet you.”

“Thanks, Mr. Turner. Brady’s Excuse, please.”

“Yes, Ma’am.”

Mercifully, he turned his attention to the mare that would be doing most of the work. He guided the wagon more gracefully than she expected, but the roads were rough and her bag containing the tools of her trade, jostled in her lap. Looking down at the seat to her left, she saw a newspaper, what passed for information in the territorial capital of Idaho. “Friday, June 10, 1887,” she murmured, not realizing she was speaking out loud.

Away from the depot, its alabaster clock tower rising above the hill overlooking the nearby brick businesses and cedar homes, the gale subsided some, though loose refuse and the occasional tumbleweed rolled down Capitol Boulevard.

Less than half an hour later, a thankfully silent Turner halted their conveyance at the opening of a moist alleyway. “Here you go, Ma’am.”

Emma Elizabeth slid out of her seat and onto the cobblestones, squinting against the glare of the late morning sun. He quoted her a price, and she gave him an extra fin for his troubles. Then she dismissed him as irrelevant, which was how she saw most of the living. There were only two kinds she didn’t treat so, her clients and their problems, some of which weren’t human, or for that matter, alive anymore.

The entrance to Brady’s was halfway down the shadowed alley, which managed to shield her from some heat, and at the same time, funneled the breeze, causing her dress to rustle and her hair to flutter. Walking down three steps, she pushed the door open. There wasn’t much business this time of day, and the smoky air smelled of sweat and stale beer.

He saw her as she entered and stood at the table in the far, right corner. Wide, dark hat and suit. String bow tie, heavy at the right hip with a .45 and holster, thick mustache and goatee. She got the feeling these were the best clothes he had, and normally only wore them to church, if he were a churchgoer. Given what she understood about his troubles, it wouldn’t hurt.

She walked over to him without hesitation. “You Thornton?”

“That I be. And you’re Miss Durbin.” He offered to take her hand, and she shook his with more force than women are expected to use.

“Have a seat.” If he had been surprised, he didn’t show it. Yet, in spite of the stoic expression, she could feel waves of anxiety pouring off of him. Allowing her to sit first, she resumed his original chair, back to the wall. He had appraised her as she was sitting, his gaze lingering just a moment too long upon her bosom. She’d been called a handsome woman more than once, but she had disciplined herself to ignore such attentions from paying customers, at least until the job was over.

Two fingers slipped into an inner jacket pocket opposite the one that held his telegram, as she allowed the satchel to gently land at her feet. Emma retrieved a business card from the most recent ones she had printed during an assignment in Kansas City last March.

He accepted it from her and read aloud, “E.E. Durbin, Occult Investigating Detective.”

“That’s right, Sheriff. I understand you’ve got a haunting problem in your town up north. We can discuss that and my fee over a drink. I’ll have Rye Whiskey. Now, where do you want to begin?”

I wrote this for Mindlovemisery’s Menagerie, and specifically for Saturday Mix – Mad About Metaphor, 9 May 2020. The challenge is to use a metaphorical phrase as the basis for a poem, short story, or other creative work. The phrase is The wind was a howling wolf.

I’ve been going over my list of upcoming writing projects, and one involves an occult detective. I don’t know if I’ll develop E.E. Durbin into a full blown character and continue this tale, but I decided to play a little bit. What do you think?

My short story “Betrayal” will be featured in the Eleanor Merry Presents horror anthology Dark Solstice, available for pre-order now at Amazon for delivery to your Kindle device May 15, 2020.

My “old school” science fiction story “Buried in the Sands of Time” is currently available in the Zombie Pirate Publication’s anthology Raygun Retro.

15 thoughts on “E.E. Durbin and the Haunt of Idaho City

  1. I believe you have here a good beginning, James. I had a moment, while your protagonist was in the carriage, when I thought there was a hint about time travel, cross-dimensional travel, or something of the sort. But the final revelation of “occult” services, which I suppose could include vampire hunting, was both a surprise and a confirmation. I don’t think this storyline would stretch into a full novel, but it would certainly suffice for a short story and maybe even a series of episodes.

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      • “Monster”, James? I thought this would be a simple matter of “a-haunting we will go, a-haunting we will go”. Now, there are a variety of complexities and twists that could be developed along the way, including variations on the Canterville ghost and other redemptive themes. Or you could go darker with a gollum or a dibbuk, or something else that goes bump in the night.

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      • Y’know, James, you might even work a cross-dimensional traveler into that “bump in the night”. Maybe an inadvertent incursion producing what might appear as a haunting to people of the era you’ve depicted.

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      • Now you’ve really got me spit-balling, here, James. Suppose some crazy scientist in the same era were experimenting with teleportation, had not yet succeeded, but nonetheless had zeroed-in on a remote location where the space was being disturbed in preparation to materialize a transported object or person. The failures of an incomplete transport process might look like a haunting, perhaps even knock over or throw objects around, poltergeist style. Now, *there’s* work for a detective! I think I picked up a thread from your narrative, where twice you contracted the phrase “telegraph message” (befitting the era) into “telegraph” rather than the slightly later term “telegram”. It would make a sort of sense, then, for the detective to find that an experimenter might be trying to telegraph objects rather than electrical impulses representing coded letters and words.

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      • Of course, you would want to save as a surprise the discovery of a teleportation experimenter toward the end of the story. You wouldn’t want to “telegraph” that realization too soon. [:)]

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  2. This story+ caught my eye as I was scrolling through to look for another one of your entries. I don’t always read the fiction pieces in detail, as I am not an avid fiction reader. (I have and do, however, read some representative fiction works in my life to get a sense of genres and so forth. But that, today, is an aside.) I am writing to ask you your thoughts, if any, of the detail in etiquette that says a man should not initiate the shaking of a woman’s hand. My sons were inevitably, over the years and a couple of decades now, faced with how to encounter and navigate having been taught manners established before, say, the nineteen eighties. When they were very young [for context, this would be around year 2000, for the era], I put them into a community summer course headed by an older societal lady with books and experience and a program she had put together to convey the seemingly timeless rules.

    In college, in the eighties (perhaps earlier too), women were taught to shake hands firmly and without hesitation. Yet I don’t recall the matter of whether one should overlook the rudeness of a man putting out his hand, to insist on or nudge a woman into responding with hers, coming up. The implication was, to the female future-professional hopeful, to be very forward and get your hand out there in order to GRIP. But I’m sure, and have evidence that, many women in business or the working world — in a profession or not and college-educated or not — didn’t grasp this unstated or uncontrasted solution (to an often unknown convention). I am speaking of the time and my particular experience as to the established etiquette not being referenced at all within the instructions to try and appear assertive and strong or capable. It is possible that earlier women had the variance spoken aloud in instruction.*

    Irrespective of this potentially problematic aspect in specific of the topic of women entering [or re-entering of their own accord, as the case may be, as we recall practicalities per WWII before then] the work force in enumeration and needing to display their parity formally, I have additionally observed, as have my sons, that too many women who have gone to school with the notion in mind of climbing some corporate ladder — or perhaps simply with the imperative toward not dying of or suffering from neglect — shake hands, but not really (a different specific). They will put their hand out, but leave it limp while shaken by the other person. They will extend a hand but not in the expected configuration for shaking hands… rather, hanging forward and leveled as if someone would take hold to bring it up for a kiss.~ They will often move their hand in connection with the counterpart in the act, but barely.

    ~ This might be what was most often done in certain cultured circles before college was widespread.

    *Again, I’m speaking of college/university. What a younger lady would or would not have imbibed (and I did) prior to college is separate. Girls and young ladies have a variety of earlier training and experiences and education. We shouldn’t neglect to keep in mind that there was a time when far fewer men attended post-secondary schools than in the seventies. In fact it had been considered appropriate to hire men, in professional offices and careers, who hadn’t gone to high school at all. Graduating eighth grade put one in sufficient-to-good stead to make a living for a family. As for me, both of my parents (and at least half of the women around me including relatives and in congregational and other settings) had college degrees, my dad more than a graduate degree. No women shook hands (with the possible exception, by the eighties, of a preacher’s wife with the women as she stood next to her husband).

    +As you might remember, I often like newer “westerns” (stories with the influence of old westerns but written from about the middle nineties onward; certainly not all-inclusive). Even if older westerns can seem sleepy or dull. (And, of course, not all “westerns” of any age are good or compelling.)

    Immersed in your story, set earlier than the latter twentieth century, I wondered if offering to take her hand refers to an intention, on his part, to kiss said hand; or whether or not the woman is “ignoring” the incorrect or gauche behavior of the man in the corner in the dark hat in the regard of his aiming to shake her hand (rather than, more fitting to the day, implement said kiss). She could be going with the flow (by shaking hands as he intends, if indeed that was what he intended, or by transforming his intention into her preference for shaking hands) for several reasons. One reason would be hinted at when you say she ignored other things at least until the job was over. On the occasion of the work being done and the pay secured, some women wouldn’t care what class of a man…

    {I won’t get into whatever other designs she might have for
    any man upon completion of her task(s) within purview.}

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    • Never mind — please excuse — the typo/error in editing that I created when I inserted the words and do to indicate an ongoing interest.
      {(I have and do, however, read some representative fiction works in my life to get a sense of genres and so forth. But that, today, is an aside.)}

      [I’m sure I’ve missed other typos or mistakes as well. Oh, well.]

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    • I’m curious, Marleen, about your perception that a man offering his hand to a woman as a greeting in a business setting could be construed as rude. My own perception is that it should be construed as representing acceptance of parity, not introducing an unnecessary or unwarranted distinction of gender in such a circumstance. In other contexts, I can see how the social constructs might favor the woman offering her hand first as an introductory gesture to which a man might respond with either a gentle handshake, a handclasp, or an honorary kiss. But I can well understand your sense of uncertainty about the social etiquette pertaining to this sort of greeting. It didn’t stand out to me in James’ story, but your noting of it does raise an interesting question about the authenticity of the story’s reflection of its purported era. Returning to the etiquette of a business meeting and a presumption of parity, both parties ought to be extending hands in expectation of a handshake. The origin of the practice was a demonstration by both parties that their hands were open and not holding weapons in expectation of conflict or aggression. I say this not as an expert on etiquette, because I am far from a reliable arbiter of such matters, but I offer it from an analytical perspective on the symbols and signaling inherent in this matter.

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      • OBTW, while I would extend this business etiquette to two women in a business setting, I cannot speak to the proper expectation for two women in other contexts, such as a reception line, a social introduction, or any other event. The various options seem to include a handclasp, a double handclasp, or a kiss to one or both cheeks. Hugging seems to be reserved for existing relationships rather than new introductions or cursory greetings. But I must concede ignorance about the distinctions of such greetings which might determine the appropriate choice of expression for each.

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    • I hadn’t really put that much thought into it outside of the fact that Durbin was being hired to do a job, albeit a rather unusual one, for the Sheriff of a small Idaho town (or rather, a job for the town in general). All I was intending to communicate was that she, as a woman in the latter part of the 19th century, really had to sell herself as an business woman and an “occult detective.” She likely dealt with mostly male clients, so that’s what she’s used to.

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