BY: DAVID CORBETT

The most notorious love letters in American history—supposedly destroyed a century ago—mysteriously reappear, and become the coveted prize in a fierce battle for possession that brings back to life the lawless world evoked in the letters themselves.

Lisa Balamaro is an ambitious arts lawyer with a secret crush on her most intriguing client: former rodeo rider and reformed art forger, Tuck Mercer. In his newfound role as an expert in Old West artifacts, Tuck gains possession of the supposedly destroyed correspondence between Doc Holliday and his cousin and childhood sweetheart, Mattie—who would become Sister Mary Melanie of the Sisters of Mercy.

Given the unlikelihood the letters can ever be fully authenticated, Tuck retains Lisa on behalf of the letters’ owner, Rayella Vargas, to sell them on the black market. But the buyer Tuck finds, a duplicitous judge from the Tombstone area, has other, far more menacing ideas.

As Lisa works feverishly to make things right, Rayella secretly enlists her ex-marine boyfriend in a daring scheme of her own.

When the judge learns he’s been blindsided, he rallies a cadre of armed men for a deadly standoff reminiscent of the moment in history that made Doc famous: The Gunfight at the OK Corral.

TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday by David Corbett, Lisa Baramalo is an arts attorney hired by Tuck Mercer, an ex-con-former-art-forger-turned-art-expert to sell some historical letters for Tuck’s client. The documents are purported to be love letters between Doc Holliday to his childhood sweetheart Mattie. The buyer that Tuck has found for the letters is a greedy dishonest judge who wants the letters for reasons of his own and doesn’t care what he has to do to get them, along as he doesn’t have to pay for them.

Corbett’s characters are marvelously crafted, realistic, and sympathetic, each one with his/her own complex personality. With a solid plot, lots of action, and plenty of surprises, this is one you won’t be able to put down.

REGAN MURPHY SAYS: The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday by David Corbett is the story of attorney Lisa Baramalo and ex-art forger and now art expert, Henry “Tuck” Mercer, who team up to sell some historical letters for Tuck’s client. According to the client, the letters were handed down through her family from a servant of Doc Holliday’s cousin and sweetheart, Mattie. The letters, written by both Doc and Mattie, cannot be authenticated, but even so, are valuable historical documents. Lisa assumes the sale will be a breeze, especially since Tuck has not only provided the client who owns the letters but also the buyer. All Lisa has to do is negotiate the sale. But both the buyer and Tuck have ulterior motives and agendas. Lisa soon discovers that nothing is as it seems, and betrayal is rampant.

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday is a thrilling and compelling tale of greed, corruption, and collateral damage. With superb character development; a solid, well-thought-out, and fast-moving plot; and a number of surprising twists and turns, Corbett has crafted a story that will grab and hold your interest from beginning to end.

Prologue

November 8, 1881

Dearest Mattie:

Be forewarned, my news is not good.

I killed a man, and but for luck would have killed another, for which it now appears I will likely be hanged.

Three men in all died in the affray. Make no mistake, the violence was mutual. We defended ourselves. More importantly, though hatred enflamed both sides, a fact I cannot deny, those responsible for the mortalities, myself and the Earp brothers, two of whom took bullets as well, acted under color of the law.

That now, however, appears to matter little, for the forces aligned against us, men without principle or honor, who treat the truth like a rag to polish their hypocrisy, will say or do anything to watch us swing.

Small surprise, I suppose, for if history teaches us anything, it is that men can always produce attractive arguments to justify their disgraceful actions.

Then again, that is precisely what is being said of us. That we used the law to justify butchery. It is not true, Mattie, I swear that to you.

This turn in events has me wishing that I could not just write to you, but speak directly, openly, as we so often did long into the night at the house on Cat Creek, or that summer I hid away with you and your family in Jonesboro.

In particular, I find myself revisiting over and over the evening when your father sought fit to reprimand the increasingly heedless and dark turn in my nature.

Rage is no virtue, he told me. Look all around and what else do you see but the folly, the ravages, of anger? The sense of power that flights of temper evoke will betray you sooner or later. It is a masquerade intended to hide the gentler, nobler, more vulnerable aspects of your heart.

I’m sure you recall the scene. You were sitting there with us, as were your mother and sisters and Jim Bob.

I responded uncharitably. I knew how his service during the war and imprisonment at its end continued to gnaw away at his spirit, and yet I could not hold my tongue. I had witnessed far too much weakness and humility in men I once admired, and it seemed to me–for I was young, and thus knew everything–that what was needed was not less anger and outrage but more, a bonfire of it in every heart, a conflagration.

He almost turned me out that night, returning me to Cat Creek, for the disrespect I showed both toward him and toward my father.

Later, you came to comfort me, and we left the house and walked beneath a threatening sky, with silent lightning flashes in the distance, talking as we trudged through the high cotton to a windbreak of pines.

You told me that night that you comprehended your father’s concern, but you understood something else as well, the elemental fire in my spirit, understood its causes–Mother’s horrible sickness and ugly death, my father’s insidious betrayals, the degrading occupation with all the scum and scavengers it legitimized.

More importantly, you told me that you loved me. We embraced and kissed, and you let me press my hand to your heart, so that I might feel the fury of its beating.

It is that remembrance that has intensified and clarified my feelings of regret tonight. Your face rose up in my mind’s eye with such shocking vividness as I sat here, hoping to tame my thoughts, that I nearly wept with longing for your presence.

I will admit, I am afraid. Not for me. I long ago surrendered any investment in my own fortunes. To wake up in my bed on a new day, even if it means hacking up bloody scraps of lung, and then get dressed, go out into the racket of life and take my seat among the furies of chance, has been all I have thought fit to ask for.

In this present matter, however, I am not alone.

It has, at last, become clear to me–wretchedly, painfully clear–that the consequences of my intemperance are not constrained to my own fate. I have, perhaps, condemned at least one other man with me, someone I admire as much as any soul I know, with one lone exception, of course: you.

I speak of Wyatt. Though the warmer, more spirited latitudes of friendship still often lie beyond us–for that, I turn to his younger brother Morgan, who shares with me a touch of the wildness, while the older brother, Virgil, tends to regard me as some kind of disagreeable medicine–Wyatt alone among the men I have met since coming west has earned my total trust.

He is also the one with me in this cell–sleeping at this moment, hands clasped on his midriff, head turned away from the candlelight by which I write this letter. Morgan and Virgil remain at home, recovering from their wounds. Wyatt, like me, can claim a mournful darkness within him, a storm of sorrow and rage that somehow never quite breaks.

I envy that. The not breaking.

I need to assure you: I did not kill easily or casually.

I have scoured my conscience, as I know you would have me do, and have wondered, as others now allege, if in fact sheer meanness or malice or the gratifications of vengeance played a part.

As I have confided in previous letters, it has become almost a daily affair of my life here in the West, having to stand up against some noxious insult, or confront an enemy who talks gamely of watching me die. So it was this day, making it not unlike any other, I suppose, except in it ending not in a flurry of heated curses but real blood.

Knowing better than to show even the slightest apprehension, I erected a mask of almost cheerful nonchalance, tempered by the steady calm necessary to do the thing right. In my heart, I was hoping to prove myself worthy of Virgil’s trust, Wyatt’s confidence, and Morgan’s friendship, and knew if they needed defending I would give it my all.

Whether that counts for calculation or deceit or some other insidious design, suggestive of evil purpose, I leave for God to decide.

Furthermore, I took no satisfaction in the result, but instead learned what the wiser veterans from the war have confided to me, that success in battle often inspires only the most ephemeral satisfaction.

Mattie, I assure you that once the smoke cleared and the damage could be assessed, I returned to my hotel room, put my face in my hands and could not help myself from muttering over and over, like a penitent before the altar of Judgment, “This is awful. Just awful.”

That was just the first wave of remorse, as it turned out. Very shortly I succumbed to the utter sinful horror of it, not just because Virgil was wounded, and Morgan as well, perhaps fatally.

I found myself praying for the men we killed, and shuddered at the haphazard course of misjudgment that led to so much blood.

Worse, I understood the ancient curse of wrath in a way I previously had not.

Your father tried to warn me, but I would not listen. I did not, or would not, peer honestly enough into the darkness of my heart. And thus I could not foresee how deeply I would draw from the well of rage that day.

What I tasted when I drank was the sin of Cain.

I do not say this out of some perverse extravagance, or to placate your piety, nor to seek from you once again the grace of understanding or, even more impertinent, forgiveness.

I say it to claim the truth about my own nature. The greatest sin is not murder but hypocrisy. I saw myself clearly, too clearly. I am not a good man, and absent a deluge of grace from God, that never will change.

That is the terrible truth of sin, the absence of escape.

Even though I stand by what we did, and remain adamant that we performed a lawful duty and acted in self-defense, the law is not what I recognized within myself that day, unless it be the law of Hell.

I know you will pray for me, and remind me of the Lord’s mercy. I am grateful for all such kindness. What I am trying to confide is that I know now, as I have never understood before, just how little I deserve such a blessing.

I cannot express the depth of my gratitude for being able to admit this to you. We have not always been perfectly truthful with each other–and even my candor at times was meant merely to shock or scandalize–but now, what else but truth can serve a worthy purpose, and mend whatever wounds linger between us?

I will end here, except to say that, sobered by the prospect of malicious judgment and immanent death, as well as the fact I may never get the chance to write you again, I have never felt more keenly the affection for you that I carry in my heart.

Nor have I ever realized with greater misgiving and dread that, as with Wyatt, I have betrayed your loyalty time and time again through thoughtless excess and an utter, reckless disregard for consequences, shaming the family, even from afar.

Please know that, despite all the meagerness of spirit I have exhibited, throughout all my misspent wanderings, you have remained my true north. That will continue until my final breath.

It is well past midnight, but not quite dawn. An hour, I suppose, that has defined my life. For it seems I have spent the vast majority of my days enveloped in darkness, waiting for that first show of light.

With all the love in my heart,
Your devoted, John Henry

***

Part I

All happiness or unhappiness solely depends upon the quality of the object to which we are attached by love.

~ Baruch Spinoza

***

Chapter 1

Don’t look for the innocent here. You won’t find them.

Start with Lisa Balamaro.

Prodigal daughter, born into what many would consider American royalty, she had no use for that old canard that there are no second acts in American life. Though only twenty-eight years old, she’d already been obliged to crawl out from the wreckage she’d made of herself.

In her first year of law school, after an all-night party upstate in the Hudson Valley, she foolishly chose to drive all the way back to the Bronx at daybreak. Blind drunk, she fell asleep at the wheel and careened off the Taconic Parkway into oncoming traffic, narrowly missing an airporter van, and only coming to rest upon impact with an old-growth hickory.

The airbag saved her, nominally: a separated shoulder, both cheeks broken, a gaping wound above her right eye–she still bore the scar. A broken rib punctured a lung, another tore into her liver, while her seatbelt ruptured her intestines. Even so, she lived.

For a middle child already seen as the family letdown–father a revered jurist, mother a force in Philadelphia charity circles, golden-boy older brother clerking for Justice Breyer, beautiful younger sister serving an internship in Brussels with NATO–this particular disaster (it wasn’t the first) proved transformative.

Coffin, meet final nail.

Ironically, as her family turned away, she found new direction within. And so she knew it could be done, knew what it took to make it happen: to change. It explained her preference for misfits, outcasts, the failed and forgotten–why else represent artists?

Why else feel so committed to a man like Tuck Mercer?

His face–deeply lined from the sun, with that chiseled roughness that speaks of the West–possessed the watchful patience of a man who’s earned each and every one of his forty-three years on this earth. And yet a wistful humor abided in his eyes as well. That hint of charitable grace provided the wary a reason to loosen their spines, unbuckle their shoulders, and return his smile.

An aura of loss hovered about him as well, an impression intensified by his limp and the occasional reliance on a maple walking stick with an ivory lion’s head grip.

The irony of this impression, with its palette of hard-earned toughness and wise, affable charm, lay in the fact that most people, if they knew what’s commonly referred to as the truth, would have considered nearly half his life wasted.

How else to regard the eight years in prison, or the decade before when he earned the right to his cell?

To Lisa’s way of thinking, that all just added further testament to his capacity for self-transformation, for in truth Tuck had reinvented himself not just once, but twice.

Up until age eighteen, he’d been an up-and-comer on the rodeo circuit, earning side money as a sketch artist, exhibiting no small talent in either realm. But then the door to the future he’d been scheming got slammed shut for good, after which, through two hard years of dogged patience and meticulous practice, he transformed himself into an art forger.

Not just some slapdash hack, either. They would come to call him The Man Who Forged the West, for he could claim responsibility for over two hundred fake Blumenscheins, Blakelocks, Schreyvogels, Catlins, even the occasional Farny or Remington and one wildly convincing Georgia O’Keefe, a fair share of his pieces still gracing the walls of mansions, galleries, and museums throughout the world, the great majority in China.

Nothing lasts forever, of course, especially in matters of crime. Tuck was betrayed, apprehended, prosecuted, and convicted, all of which eventually produced his second transformation.

Since leaving prison, he’d “gone legit,” working with the same galleries, foundations, and auction houses he’d bamboozled for a decade, now consulting on the provenance of artwork depicting the American West, pieces that came into their possession through purchase or bequeathal or estate endowment.

He’d uncovered not a few creditable fakes and confirmed a handful of genuine finds.

Lisa helped negotiate that transition.

He’d been one of her first clients when she’d uprooted herself from the east coast, hoping to escape all its backsliding ghosts, and relocated to San Francisco. She’d staked her fledgling reputation on the irreversible nature of Tuck’s turn toward legitimacy and reliability, which helped explain the strength of the connection between them.

It wasn’t just a case of client and counsel, or even troubled saint and gifted sinner. They’d established a genuine rapport in their work together, grown close over long walks in Golden Gate Park, leisurely lunches and dinners at Greens and The Slanted Door, late night talks about the addictive power of hatred, the strangely liberating silence of God, the inscrutable allure of romance.

That closeness explained the walking stick. Lisa found it while wandering antique shops in the tiny outposts of rural Sonoma, and instantly recognized the elegant, simple instrument as a fitting gift for her newfound friend, for she knew Tuck’s limp was not feigned or exaggerated, a ploy to inspire pity–or trust. The injury was real and had never truly healed.

Which returns us to what cut short his earliest dreams, slamming the door on that long-lost future.

He’d been eighteen, showing off for a girl he had no right to love–a sixteen-year-old whose portrait, clothed and otherwise, he’d secretly sketched or painted dozens of times. At La Fiesta de Los Vaqueros in Tucson, he chose to ride a bucking longhorn named Crater Maker, who showed him where dreams end, and nothingness begins.

The rodeo clown trailing them from the chute had failed to turn the bull away from Tuck’s riding hand. The steer bucked him off, but a suicide wrap delayed impact–the animal dragged him one-armed a full thirty yards.

When he finally did break free, the bull turned before he could scramble to his feet. Its hooves crushed his ribs into splinters. One horn, despite the dulled tip, plowed deep into his pelvis, butchering muscle, ripping arteries like thread.

Tuck dropped into unconsciousness then coma, lying near death for days. When he finally blinked awake in the ICU on the third night–lying there alone, packed tight in gauze and strapped to a thousand tubes–it took several moments for the situation to register.

He lay like that for some time, eyes open in the dim smeary light, taking in that unique smell every hospital has, the fragrance of bad luck, nothing but his howling mind for company, while the room maintained its terrible welcoming silence.

Even then he knew he’d crossed some crucial border, the dividing line between the cowboy career he’d lost for good, the love the fates had stolen back with it–her family would make damn sure she never saw him again–and the lonely, angry years of deceit ahead.

But now, twenty-five years on, three years since walking out of Leavenworth, he sipped from a glass of his favorite whiskey, Connemara Cask Strength, and entertained his young brunette lawyer-cum-amiga with her distinctive scar, arcing around her eye like a wicked red whiptail.

They sat across from each other in the third floor studio of the Queen Anne Victorian he’d purchased with honest money, refurbished with his own hands.

Meanwhile, in the leather wingback armchair across from him, Lisa nursed her tea and wondered at the reason she was there. He’d said he had a surprise, one that would “knock her over.”

Secretly, she enjoyed the idea of being knocked over–no one changes that completely. And as she sat there, watching him, listening to his gravelly voice, patiently waiting him out, she found herself wanting nothing so much as to have him put down his glass, gather his cane, cross the space between them, and ravage her.

© 2018 by David Corbett

US Book Review:

“Corbett’s character-driven legal thriller is full of suspense and hard-charging gunslinging action from the Old West to a modern-day shoot-out. The courtroom scenes are a master class in legal procedural fiction with quick-fired exchanges between all parties as the arts lawyer, Lisa Balamaro, seeks to have the stolen letters protected by the courts. Outside the courtroom, other characters find ways beyond the law to settle their disputes with deadly consequences, and an action-packed finale full of strategic combat complexity makes the shootouts of the Old West seem like a simpler time. But the results of violent revenge are timeless, and Corbett has served it up cold with calculated precision.” ~ Michelle Jacobs, US Book Review READ FULL REVIEW

Randee Green:

The Long-Lost Love Letters of Doc Holliday is an intense and interesting crime drama about art forgery and the fallout of the forgery…This is a great novel for anyone interested in art forgery or crime dramas. The plot is stimulating, and there is a lot of action and suspense.” ~ Randee Green Book Reviews READ FULL REVIEW