Wednesday, January 23rd, 1889
Harold Youngblood finished his toilette, curtains open to allow the light free access, and wondered if he would ever get used to working into the wee hours and sleeping until nearly noon. He settled his new planter’s hat squarely on his head, and descended the circular stairs to his office. There he found Isabella, dressed to the nines with corset, bustle, petticoats, the total woman, ready for any occasion, seated at his desk going over some papers.
“Ah, good,” she said, squaring them up and putting them in the top drawer. “I thought you were going to sleep all day.”
“Am I needed? Has Mr. Earp been here already?”
“Yes, and no. Señor Earp has not been here, and yes, I need you to take me to lunch.”
“Why, Miss Lopez, are you asking me on a date?”
“That is one possibility,” she said with a flutter of eyelashes. “I want to show you what this town has to offer, besides a collection of gambling dens and pleasure houses.”
“I believe I’d enjoy that. Shall I send for a carriage, then?”
“What can you see from a carriage? Do you have good walking shoes on your feet?”
“Come, then, see my town.”
She took his arm as they left the bar, and steered him around the corner and west toward the bay. As they put more and more buildings behind them, a deep blue waterway opened up in front with a miles-long sand spit on the other side holding back the ocean and creating a magnificent natural harbor with nearly a dozen oceangoing ships tied to piers, or anchored out, waiting their turn. Straight ahead of them, and opening out to the right, the strip of sand expanded into a large, flat island. The framework of a large structure was going up near the point where the sand joined the island, and an arrangement of scaffolding and tanks nearer the center of the island was occupied by a dirigible tethered to a mast, looking huge though it really wasn’t by the standards of the industry. Its yellow-gold gasbag glowed warmly in the morning sun.
“I didn’t notice any of that when I was coming in. What is all that?”
“The ship of the air is the Golden West. It takes passengers between the great cities of the western United States. You will notice it is here, and it does not stop in Los Angeles.”
“I’ve seen those on the east coast. They’re very fast.”
“And very expensive. Only the wealthiest of the wealthy can afford to ride on them. Plus they are very dangerous.”
“Harold! They fly higher than any building. That is a long way to fall!”
“Why would you fall?”
“They are machines. Machines break.”
In the face of such irrefutable logic, he turned his attention to the building being constructed nearby.
“What’s going up over there?”
“Oh, that is going to be the Hotel del Coronado, the greatest hostelry on the west coast, far better than anything even San Francisco has to offer.”
“The Hotel of the Coronado?”
“I am sure it will be given a grand name before it opens. This city is the future, Harold, and Señor Babcock is going to take it there.”
“Who’s Babcock?” he asked as she turned them north and headed toward the “respectable” side of town.
“Elisha Spurr Babcock is the genius who is going to make San Diego great, single-handed by himself! He built these docks,” she said, waving her arm airily to take in practically the whole waterfront, “he is constructing dams in the back country to collect the water that flows down from the mountains, and he is building the great hotel that will bring people from all over the world. San Diego is more than just some saloons and card tables, as you will see, and I am going to be part of it.”
“By applying the skills I have learned at the Oyster. It is no small matter to manage a bar, and gambling, and a staff of girls, juggling figures in your head and making dozens of details come to completion with expert timing and within a budget. These skills would be very valuable in the hotel industry, would they not?”
“Indeed they would.”
“And I have them! Someday, Harold, I will be a manager at the Horton Tower, or perhaps the great Coronado resort itself.”
“But you’re— The sailors on the boat told me that San Diego is dying out, that the population is half what it was this time last year. They said the railroad only goes to Los Angeles, so why would anyone locate here just to pay extra freight to move their goods?”
“But Los Angeles has no port. Have you seen the map? It is just a curved coastline up there with waves breaking directly on the shore. There is not the slightest inlet. Ships must come here, and so will the people.”
“You seem very sure. You must have great plans.”
“Oh yes!” She hugged his arm and leaned against him, surprising and pleasing him at once. He was really starting to like this girl.
They continued uptown, crossing Market Street into the northside business district. At D Street, they turned east, and entered an elegantly appointed five-story whitestone.
“This is Horton Tower,” she said quietly, voice hushed even further by the thick carpet and textured wallpaper. An older gentleman in the traditional uniform approached them as they stood, eyes adjusting to the much dimmer lighting.
“Welcome to Horton Tower. Are you here for a room, or the restaurant?”
“The restaurant,” Youngblood told him.
“This way, please.”
He led them into a fine dining facility, rich and sumptuous, and seated them at a window table overlooking Fifth Avenue.
“This is nice,” Youngblood told her. “How do you know about this place?”
“This was the centerpiece of Alonzo Horton’s vision for San Diego. Everybody knows about it.”
“Who was this Horton, then?”
“He was a man with a vision like Señor Babcock. He bought all this land down here for pennies and sold it to anyone who would establish a business on it, but unlike Señor Babcock, he brought no solution to the problems of water and the railroad, so many of the legitimate businesses died away, and people began to leave. Stingaree depends much more on the sailors and vaqueros for our business, so we have done much better. So of course, we are resented by people up here struggling to sell farm implements or china plates.”
A young man, stiff in a tailed suit, starched collar high around his neck, came to their table and handed them both a menu.
“Good morning, I am Charles, your waiter. Signal me when you’re ready, and I’ll take your orders.”
They both thanked him, and he moved back to his waiting station as they read the list of delightful items. Youngblood barely noticed his conversation with another lad, until that boy pointed at them, and they exchanged a quiet laugh.
He returned to the menu and was discussing cuts of steak with Isabella when the waiter reappeared unbidden, a smirk on his face.
“May I recommend the New York cut this morning?” he began. “Chef has just received a fresh order from the butcher’s, and the New York is especially choice. Also, we have received fresh broccoli just yesterday evening, and that makes a most complimentary side dish. Of course, if those choices aren’t to your liking, there are several stray cats in the alley, and I’m sure one can be obtained without too great an effort.”
“What did you say?” Youngblood asked, looking sharply at the lad.
“Cats, sir, cats. We pride ourselves on serving the needs of all our customers, even those who work in the local cat houses. Well, just signal when you’re ready to order.”
He turned, smirk still in place, and started to walk away.
“Stop right there,” Youngblood said, his tone menacing.
“Apologize to the lady.”
The waiter turned around, looked at Isabella, then said, “I’m not in the habit of apologizing to this particular sort of lady.”
Youngblood stood, finding himself an inch or two taller than the man, and took a step toward him. After a head-to-toe measurement, he slapped him hard in the face with the palm of his right hand.
“Then I demand satisfaction. Choose the weapons.”
“You’re mad!” the lad said, holding his cheek. “People don’t fight duels anymore.”
“Then stand exposed as a coward, and apologize to the lady.”
“Here, what’s the meaning of this?” the Maître d’ demanded, bustling over with a scowl on his face, seeking to defuse the situation before it put the other diners off their lunch.
“This oaf insulted the lady,” Youngblood said, “and I demand an apology!”
“Apologize at once,” the older man ordered.
“I’ll not apologize to her!” the youngster wailed, massaging his cheek. “She works in a whore house!”
“And you, sir, act as if you were born in one,” Youngblood said. “I’ve owned the Oyster, and worked on the floor for two nights now, and not one of my customers has exhibited the vile manners that you have.”
“Here, you can’t say that to me! I’ve never been in a whore house in my life.”
“Mr. Fleming, this lady’s profession is well-known to me, and contrary to your misguided belief, she is not a prostitute,” the Maître d’ told him. “If I were opposed to her dining here, I wouldn’t have seated her. Now, since you won’t apologize, take off your apron and collect your things. You may pick up your final earnings on your way out.”
“What? Here! It was Jake put me up to it. He’s the one who recognized her!”
“It wasn’t Jake who insulted her, was it? No matter, you may tell Jake that he’s fired as well, and thank you for pointing that out to me. Now, get out.”
“Charles Fleming, mister!” the ex-waiter shouted at Youngblood. “Remember the name! You ain’t heard the last of this!”
He ripped his apron off and threw it on the floor before stomping away.
“I do apologize,” the old gentleman told them. “Should you choose to dine with us after all this, your meal, of course, will be on the house.”
Now that the confrontation was over, a rising tide of excited conversation began to fill the room. Youngblood returned to his seat.
“We would still like to dine here,” he said, “but I insist on paying. Two waiters is enough for you to lose today, even if they did both deserve it.”
“The gentleman is too kind. Shall I order you the specialty of the house, then?”
“Please. And a pot of tea.”
“Of course, sir.”
“Harold, you were magnifico,” Isabella told him as the man moved away, “but weren’t you frightened?”
“Are you kidding? I have the police wanting information, the Angel of Death wanting my business, and Wyatt Earp helping me fend off attacks on my employees, and you think I’m worried about some snot-nosed waiter with a foul mouth?”
“What information do the police want?”
“What do you mean?”
“You said the police want information.”
“Bribes, I said, the police want bribes.”
“No, you said information. Harold, if you become an informant down there, and anyone gets wind of it—”
“Relax, Izzy, it was a slip of the tongue. I’m just on edge because of that lout, that’s all.”
“You were very brave.”
“Nonsense. I didn’t have the courage not to do it. Listen, you must never let a stranger tell you what you’re worth. Especially a piss-ant like that. Don’t give it another thought.”
But in truth, he would be very happy for her to give it several other thoughts, and more beyond that. Despite all the rough-and-tumble down at the bar, things were very much looking up.
* * *
A few blocks east of the Horton Tower, and two blocks over on B, Deputies Douglas Quincy and William Jackson entered the small walk-in business of Stanhope and Lee, a printing shop making a marginal profit providing small jobs from advertising flyers to wedding invitations. As they walked in, two men, a huge black and a diminutive Chinese, were cleaning up the aftermath of what looked like the impact of a round of naval ordinance. Type racks and shelves littered the floor, and their shoes crunched in a gravel of bits of moveable type.
“Mr. Stanhope?” Jackson asked.
“I’m Stanhope,” the black man said, standing a shelving unit back onto its base. “You the police?”
“We’re from the City Marshall’s office, yes. I’m Deputy Jackson, this is Deputy Quincy. Our lieutenant didn’t tell us what your complaint was about. I guess we know now.”
“Yeah, our gripe was about this, boss. Five men, disguised, come in here last evenin’ just before closin’. Caught Lee by hisself and beat him up a bit, and did all what you see here.”
“Mr. Lee, did you recognize any of the men who did this?”
“No, sir,” the man said quietly, not looking up from his sweeping. “They all wore disguises. They were dressed to look like scarecrows, down to gloves, and cloth sacks over their heads.”
“Did they say anything to you?”
“Yes, sir. They said that we had been warned, and hadn’t listened, and that this was what happened to people who didn’t listen. They said if they had to come back, it wouldn’t be the shop that looked like this, it would be us.”
“What had you been warned about?” Quincy asked.
“I recall no warning, sir.”
“I didn’t say nothin’,” Stanhope said. “Didn’t want to scare you.”
“Didn’t say anything about what, exactly?”
“There’s an association of businessmen up here. They don’t allow no black men to join, no men of any color, really. Then if you ain’t a member, they steer business away from you. I come out here from Miss’ssippi to get away from that. Never expected I’d find it waitin’ for me here.”
“That’s unfortunate. Still, if you aren’t allowed to join, and you aren’t a member, what’s their complaint? What made them do this?”
“We been suggestin’, just suggestin’, mind, that the non-white shop owners should form our own association, sort of look out for one another, you know?”
“Ah, and they didn’t like that?”
“Seems they didn’t. Well, a couple weeks ago, we printed a flyer to hand out to the other colored business owners tryin’ to get ‘em to organize. Then last week, I opened the shop and a letter was stuck under the door.”
“What did it say?”
“Pretty much what you’d expect. Real folksy stuff. Basically, said that niggers of any color wasn’t welcome here, and we’d best keep to our place, or things would go hard for us.”
“And you didn’t believe it?”
“Oh, I believed it. See, I was a boy of ten when Mr. Lincoln’s army freed my family. A lot of other families, too. At ten, I was workin’ in the fields, overseer’s whip on my back every time I stood up and wiped my brow. Then the Yankee army come, said we was free. Free to live like men. Didn’t rightly work that way, though. We was free to do the dirtiest jobs nobody else wanted, and to live like dogs. I come to California to get away from that, and I get handed a letter that says things are gonna go hard for me if I try to live like a man. Well, Mr. police man, there comes a time in every man’s life, black, white, or indifferent, when he’s been pushed right up to the wall, and he has to decide whether he’s gonna lay down and die, or stand up and fight. I done made my choice.”
“I hope it doesn’t cost you your life, Mr. Stanhope,” Jackson told him. “This isn’t the first complaint we’ve had about these scarecrows, and this isn’t the worst thing they’ve done.”
“Well, if it does, I’ll die on my feet. I find that preferable to livin’ on my knees.”
“You’re a brave man, Mr. Stanhope. Do you still have this letter?”
“Hell, no! I wouldn’t keep filth like that around. Sure wish I’d warned Lee, though.”
“It is all right, my friend. They did little enough to me.”
“Still. You gonna be able to get these fellas, deputy?”
“I’ll be honest with you, Mr. Stanhope. It probably won’t be anytime soon. We have to collect evidence, testimony. We get a clue from you, put it with a clue we get from another man who’s been attacked, and another, and another, and in time, we hope, enough of a picture builds up that we can put our finger on the perpetrators.”
“That don’t sound very promisin’.”
“It’s the best we can do. We can’t arrest anyone until we know who to arrest.”
“S’pose not. Well, they best be prayin’ you find ‘em before I do.”
“Mr. Stanhope, I understand your frustration-”
“You understand nothin’! Talk to me about frustration when you been treated like a dog, owned like a dog, whipped like a dog, sold like a dog! Then you can talk to me about frustration.”
“Mr. Stanhope,” Jackson said, “my mother was black. I understand more than you think. You seem like a decent man. Don’t do anything that will force me to put you in jail instead of them.”
“Oh yeah, I see it now. I’ll bear it in mind, but don’t be too long about it.”
“Mr. Lee, can you remember anything, anything at all, about the men who did this?”
“One of them, the one who did the talking, wore glasses beneath his head sack.”
“Must have been awkward for him. Do you remember anything about his voice, tone, accent maybe?”
“Just a normal voice, but with odd inflections. I’ve heard it once before, but I can’t remember where. Also, after I was knocked down, I noticed one of their guns. They all wore guns, of course, but one man’s pistol had an abalone shell handle.”
“Are you sure? It wasn’t pearl or something?”
“I fished for abalone before I joined Earl in this business. It is very distinctive. Looks like pearl, but has many more blue and purple highlights.”
“Well, that should be easy enough to spot. If you remember anything else, either of you, come down to the office and one of us will see you right away. Best of luck to you.”
Out on the sidewalk, Jackson looked back and shook his head before leading Quincy away from the windows.
“You thinking what I’m thinking?”
“If you’re thinking the Northside Businessmen’s Association, I am.”
“Uh huh. Everybody knows they have to be behind this somehow. The real trick is going to be proving it. But why? Why do they do this? If we could figure out who gains from this, it would go a long way toward starting us down the road to a solution.”
“Well, you heard him, Will. They want to keep all the business in the hands of white men.”
“That isn’t what he said, and even if it was, those two have the only print shop in town aside from the paper, so which white man are they taking business from?”
“Maybe a white man wants to open a print shop, and he’s gone to the Association for help.”
“Ah, now that’s a possibility. We know the rumors. Why don’t we ride out to the Point and just ask Belmont himself?”
“And you think, what, that he’ll just tell us?”
“There’s no no knowing what a man might let slip if you surprise him,” Jackson said, “especially if he’s a racist, and he’s surprised by a colored man. Or a half-colored man.”
“All right, I’ll give you that one, but we’ll be tipping him off that we’re onto him.”
“Nothing of the sort. We’ve all heard the rumors, including him. We’re just eliminating him as a suspect, that’s all. Come on, let’s get a cab.”
* * *
Chatsworth, George Belmont’s mansion on the high hill west of town, commanded a panoramic view of San Diego, the harbor, the city, and the mountains many miles beyond. His personal study was at the end of the south wing on the second floor, beautifully situated to take advantage of the afternoon sun as it passed beyond the roofline to the west, and lit the scene like a magnificent painting. His ornate desk was positioned to take full advantage of it, but at the moment, his attention was on his two guests, Doctor Phillip Greene and young Richard Merriweather. Merriweather sat primly in one of the straight-backed chairs in front of Belmont’s desk, but Greene stood at the windows taking in the spectacular view.
“Have you instructed the action committee yet?” Greene asked.
“I have summoned them. They’re on a job in Los Angeles. I expect them on the evening train. Why?”
“Don’t have Duncan killed, George.”
“We went over this at the meeting, Phillip. You heard the vote. You were offered a chance to speak there.”
“I know, action will be taken, but it isn’t necessary to kill the man.”
“You know, don’t you,” Belmont asked, “that Duncan has a reputation as a very tough customer? What if we rough him up, trash his place, and he gets it into his head that you were behind it? Would you fancy a visit to your clinic from him and some of his enforcers?”
“No, I wouldn’t think so. And that isn’t the worst possibility. What if he whips up the darkies into one of their frenzies? Why, we could have riots like they had in Savannah last summer. Wouldn’t that be a fine how do you do?”
“No, it wouldn’t”
“No. For your information, I don’t intend to order him killed. We’re going to burn him out. If he dies in the fire, well, these things happen. Instead of an angry black man stirring up trouble, all there’ll be is a brothel owner who died in, what? A raid by a rival? An act of vengeance by a disgruntled customer? And this in a place where people die every night. It’s cut and dried, and no one will look any further.”
“I know.” He turned to Merriweather. “What are you here for, son, moral support?”
“Doctor Greene invited me to come along to see what the Association really does, sir.”
“Did he? And what do you think?”
“Well, sir, it doesn’t seem very businesslike.”
“It doesn’t, does it? Let me explain something to you, son, since your father hasn’t seen fit to. Business is bloodless war. Each business is sort of a nation unto itself, at war with all the others, but instead of bullets and bombs, we make war with advertising, pricing, superior products, and every sale we make is a victory. Every dollar I earn at my business is one you didn’t get at yours. When a man falls in a war, he’s dead. That’s unfortunate, but at least he’s free of suffering. He may be remembered as a hero. But when a man falls in business, he’s ruined, set adrift with his family to finish his life as a pauper, and if he’s remembered at all, it’s as a failure. Just as nations form alliances to assist one another in war, so too do businesses. That’s what the Association is, son, an alliance. People think twice about prodding an alliance, but only if it demonstrates its strength on frequent occasions. Does that make sense to you, lad?”
“Well, I’d have to think about it some.”
“This isn’t the same thing, and you know it,” Greene put in. “How does Duncan’s brothel take money from your shipyard?”
“There is a finite amount of money, Phillip. A dollar spent at the Dusky Rose is a dollar that man doesn’t have to spend at Pacific Ship and Cargo.”
“That’s awfully thin,” the Doctor replied. “I doubt the sort of man who spends money in a brothel is the same man who patronizes your shipping business.”
“No? He buys food, clothes, sundries. All that’s freighted in. He needs doctoring from time to time. What if he doesn’t have the money? Do you treat him for free?”
“As a matter of fact, I do.”
“Then the brothel is hurting your income! I don’t see why you’re opposed to this.”
“I’m opposed because it’s wrong!”
“You were at the meeting, Phillip. You were offered a chance to speak, and you had your vote. Case in point. What do you think of this fellow Bell’s notion of opening a dog track south of town?”
A polite clearing of a throat at the door precluded Greene’s reply as Filmore, Belmont’s aging but elegant butler called for attention.
“What is it, Filmore?”
“There are two gentlemen to see you,” the old gentleman announced, handing their calling cards to Belmont, who read them and frowned.
“Offer them refreshments in the library, and tell them I’ll be right down.”
“Very good, sir,” the butler said, and left the room.
“Gentlemen, I’m afraid I have to take this meeting,” Belmont said, rising.
“The action committee?” Greene asked.
“I told you, they won’t be here until tonight. This is much more mundane, I fear. You’re welcome to wait here. I don’t know how long this may take, though.”
“No, George, we’ll be going. It’s obvious that you have no intention of listening to us, and it’s a long ride back to town. Have a pleasant day”
“I’m sorry you feel that way, Phillip. I’ll see you at the next meeting, then.”
“Maybe. Come, Richard, we’ve things to do. We can show ourselves out.”
Could have some trouble with these two, Belmont thought as he followed his guests into the hallway. He took a different route to the library, which by no coincidence had no view of the driveway; he hardly needed these new visitors cataloging his old ones.
Arriving at the library, he looked the two men over as he closed the double doors behind him.
“Gentlemen,” he greeted them, “I’m George Belmont. Welcome to my home. I don’t often receive policemen as guests. What can I do for you on this fine afternoon?”
“Mr. Belmont, I’m Deputy Jackson, and this is Deputy Quincy. There have been some incidents down in town, and your name, or rather the name of your organization, has come up, and we’d like to ask you a few questions.”
“Incidents?” Belmont asked, moving around behind his desk. “What sort of incidents?”
“There have been some businesses wrecked, some men, and even a woman beaten.”
“Good Lord! Not seriously, I hope?”
“Not so far, but these attacks are escalating, and they all have one thing in common.”
“The attackers always dress as scarecrows.”
“Yes. Bib overalls, plaid work shirts, and a gunny sack over their heads. And great big boots they use to stomp their victims with.”
“Scarecrows. Imagine that. But, why are you talking to me?”
“Because these attacks seem to be motivated by business concerns, and you being the head of local businessman’s association, you’re the natural person to talk to.”
“How are they business motivated? What does that even mean?”
“The people that are attacked are always colored business owners who receive warnings about trying to do business in this town. These warnings usually come in writing a week or so before the attack, telling these people to get out of town, or things will go hard for them. I can’t say how many took the warning and left, but those who didn’t get visited by these scarecrows, beaten up, and everything in their shops destroyed. There are even rumors that you or your association are behind it.”
“Who’s spreading these rumors?”
Belmont’s friendly demeanor was gone in an instant.
“They’re just talk, Mr. Belmont. You know how people are.”
“And you know how the law works, Deputy. I have a right to know who’s slandering my good name.”
“You know very well that you can’t trace a rumor back to a single individual. This stuff’s circulating like air south of Market.”
“South of Market,” Belmont sneered. “In Stingaree, you mean. Thieves, vagabonds, whores. Those people don’t have the God-given sense to wipe their own ass, and you’re investigating me based on the word of some prostitute?”
“We investigate everything, Mr. Belmont, likely or not. As I’m sure you’re well aware, half the population of northside spends half of their wages down in Stingaree, and when people from up here are down there in a room with a prostitute, they talk about things. Things we have to look into.”
“Huh. And you say the victims are colored people?”
“Well, I think it’s very commendable for you to stand up for your own people, Deputy.”
“My own people?”
“Oh, did you think you were passing? You may have some white blood in you, but there’s plenty that isn’t. I have to commend you, boy, it takes a lot of courage to attack a pillar of the community, but this could be the kind of error in judgement that ends your nice little career in a train wreck, understand? You’d better think long and hard before you come after me on the word of some whores.”
“I’m not coming after anybody, Mr. Belmont. There are acts of violence being committed. There are some suggestions that it might come from your organization. I have to determine whether any of them are true.”
“Is that it? Well, they’re false. End of story. Now, do you have any other insulting questions to ask, or have you embarrassed yourself enough?”
“No, sir, that’s all we have for now.”
“All right, then. It’s a long ride back to town. You’ll want to get an early start.”
Belmont walked to the door and held it open as the two lawmen filed out. They started down the hall, and then Jackson turned back.
“Oh, Mr. Belmont, do you know anyone who owns a gun with an abalone handle?”
“My colleagues do their work with pens, and ledgers, and invoices. If you want to talk about guns, find yourself a shootist to talk to.”
“An excellent suggestion! Thank you for your time, sir.”
He watched them until they left the house, then returned to the library and poured himself a bourbon. With the police having gotten his name somehow, his thoughts returned unbidden to Greene and Merriweather. Loose cannons, those two, with no stomach for the work. They would have to be watched.
* * *
Billiards was played in a separate room of the Dusky Rose, a room behind the gambling tables on display behind the large front windows. A room away from the prying eyes and ears out on the sidewalk that lent itself well to the sort of meetings that Ambrose Duncan didn’t want made public. Eight men lounged around the room, tough men, men inured to violence and the suffering of others. Duncan’s special staff.
They talked, laughed, drank, two of them shot a game of eight-ball on the far table, but when Duncan stepped into the room, pool cues were laid aside and all eyes turned to him.
He entered through the back door from his private offices, accompanied by a young woman in the “uniform” of a prostitute, a high-born lady’s tangerine satin dress cut especially low in the bodice and high at the hem, enabling easy display of and access to the merchandise. She was a stunner, her alabaster skin and jet black hair making an eye-catching contrast. Her delicate features gave the impression of a porcelain doll while the well-turned lines of her exposed lower legs promised an embrace a man would cheerfully die to experience. As she entered the room, the gathered men began to cough and clear their throats as rakes and rogues did to alert one another to the presence of an attractive woman, until for a moment the place began to sound like a tuberculosis ward.
“Enough, boys,” Duncan boomed. “You’ll embarrass the lady.”
“Not bloody likely,” one of them shouted, and the room erupted in laughter.
In point of fact, they were a bit confused by her presence. They assumed that Duncan had just had sex with her, for why else would a prostitute be emerging from his private rooms? Yet she was as white as Duncan was black, and as a general rule, their boss had no truck with the Caucasian race. Nearly all his employees were people of color, the major exception being his right hand man, Charlie Price, and it was widely assumed that Price was only tolerated because he gave access to a world that Duncan himself couldn’t penetrate.
They didn’t remain confused for long.
“Boys, this here’s Miss Charlotte. We have to get her moving along, as she’s employed by the Oyster, and we don’t want them wondering what she’s up to. Just tell them what you told me, Charlotte.”
The girl stepped forward under the gaze of nine hard men. They were as intimidating a group as could be found on short notice, yet if they made her nervous, she didn’t show it.
“Well, we got a new owner over there, Harold Youngblood’s his name, and he’s a greenhorn city-slicker fresh off the boat. Real southern gentleman. About as tough as a wet dishrag, if you take my meanin’, and has no business at all in a business like ours.”
“Some of these men might take exception to that description,” Duncan said with a pointed look at Price. “Just tell ‘em the good part, and you can be on your way.”
“Yes, sir. Well, the other night I was on the stairway, and I heard Mr. Youngblood and that meddlesome flatfoot Jackson talking. Well, they struck a deal at a table not ten feet below me to where Mr. Youngblood’s going to be a spy for the marshal’s office right here in the middle of Stingaree.”
“What kind of spy?” one of them asked.
“Well, he’s to keep his eyes and ears open, and if he tumbles onto anything of an ‘interesting’ nature, he’s to tell Jackson about it at once.”
“How about that?” Duncan asked the group. “A spy right here in the middle of our little enterprise. Why, there’s no telling how many conversations go on in there every night. How many he might overhear.”
“Can’t be all that many about us,” one of his men allowed.
“No? Is there a business down here we don’t have our fingers in? All it’ll take is for one of our clients to be in there shootin’ his mouth off. Word gets back to Jackson, and all of a sudden we’ve got the hounds sniffing around. It would seem prudent to me to discourage that sort of behavior, how about you?”
A chorus of agreement echoed in the room, and Duncan nodded in agreement with his own ideas.
“Damn’ right! We don’t need to detain you further, darlin’. Mr. Devlin, show our guest out, and give her ten dollars. You might want to take a few days off work, Charlotte, what with this being accident season and all.”
“I could use a break, truth is,” she replied. “I’ll take your advice, and thank you kindly.”
Devlin extended his arm, guiding her to the door into the front gambling room, and they moved off.
“Well, this complicates things a bit,” Duncan said to Price as the bell on the register out front dinged; Devlin getting the informant her money. “If he’s on the inside track with the marshal’s office, it will be more difficult to move against him directly, but I will have the intraphanator back in my possession, and you will correct your glaring oversight by recovering it. Accidents have been known to happen from time to time. Fires break out, people fall down dangerous staircases, any number of things. But whatever you do, you will first ensure the intraphanator is safe.”
“Of course, sir. The first thing will be to find what he’s done with it. Once we do that, a big, loud accident could be just the distraction we need to lay hands on it. What about Earp?”
“What about him?”
“Well, he threw in with the Oyster crew last time we were there. This Youngblood don’t amount to much, but with Earp backing his play, well, this could get dangerous.”
“I pay you to deal with dangerous, Price. Earp’s a man, just like any other, and a bullet makes him just as dead. I don’t expect any more disappointments, are we clear on that?”
“Quite clear, sir.”
“Good. Now go find my intraphanator.”
* * *
Three miles north-northwest of San Diego, the original Spanish settlement on the south bank of the optimistically-named San Diego River stood, its old adobe buildings weathering in the sun. This was a quietly thriving community made up predominantly of Mexicans and the descendants of the original Spanish colonists, but time had passed it by. San Diego was the future now, and this sleepy little pueblo by the trickle of a river seemed to have stood still for the last hundred years.
To the west of the settlement, standing on the mud flat on the north shore of the harbor was a collection of mismatched buildings, most of them with the appearance of having been hastily thrown up at need. That would have been an accurate assessment. The resident would undoubtedly have liked to have been more centrally located, but people tended to feel less than safe in his immediate proximity. It was toward these buildings that the buggy coming up from the city was headed.
“It’s good of you to accompany me, Wyatt,” Isabella told the man driving, “but I could have driven up here myself.”
“That’s true,” Wyatt Earp replied, “but Duncan wants this thing back, and he might think he has a better chance of taking it from you if he finds you out here alone. Anyway, I don’t know the professor, and this seems a good opportunity to meet him. Phineas Maladroit. That cannot be his real name.”
“It’s the only name I know for him. He might have made it up to attract business. Some folks do that. Mostly show people, though.”
“Yes, but Maladroit? The very word describes someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.”
“Yes? Well, just hold onto that thought until you meet him.”
Earp guided the horse around the soggier portions of the vast sand field, and toward the larger of the two buildings, one that seemed to be a two-story cube crammed with whatever sort of junk the owner could drag in. As they rolled up in front of the open wall, there was some bustling motion way back in the shadows, then a sudden pop, and a cloud of white smoke that rolled toward the door. As Earp jumped down from the buggy, a roly-poly little gnome of a man hurried to the front, grabbed a bucket of sand from a rack of five, and hurried back into the shadows.
“Do you need any help, Professor?” Isabella called back into the shadows.
“No, no,” came the reply in a rather high voice for such a stout man. “It’s just a little –grunt– flashover in the –grunt– priming circuit. Not a problem at all.”
When no other sounds were forthcoming, Earp took a tentative step toward the rear of the building.
“Are you sure?”
“Yes, yes, of course I’m sure. Just overdid it a little with the flash powder, that’s all.”
The little gnome emerged from his self-made catacombs, a round little fellow with a big round face made bigger by a spectacular set of graying orange muttonchops. His heavy leather gauntlets matched his expansive work apron, and he made a show of dusting them in front of himself, slap-slap-slap, as white powder or dust flew everywhere.
“Izzy?” he said, stopping and squinting at his visitor. “Why, I haven’t seen you in a coon’s age! What brings you out to Maladroit Flats this fine afternoon?”
“We want your opinion on something,” she replied. “Wyatt, show him the box.”
“On this?” the funny little man asked. “Doesn’t look like much. What is it for?”
“That’s what we’d like you to tell us,” Earp said.
“That might prove difficult,” the little gnome said, looking up at Earp. “I say, have we met, sir?”
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Isabella said. “This is my friend, Wyatt Earp.”
“Ah, Mr. Earp!” Maladroit said, pumping his hand vigorously. “Somehow I expected you to be taller. So, what do you know about this device?”
“Last night some men tried to attach this to the arm of one of the Isabella’s employees. Some of us stopped them and made them leave it, and now we want to know what it does, or was supposed to do, to its victim.”
“These were bad men who meant him no good, so you’ll want to be careful as you handle it.”
“Yes, yes. Might I see the piece?”
“Yes, of course.”
Earp handed it to the professor.
“Heavy,” Maladroit said, “but not as heavy as it should be. Probably hollowed out for a mechanism of some sort. Do you know anything else about it?”
“Well, the one who had it pulled that cotter pin out of the side when he got ready to use it, so it’s probably safe when it’s in. You’ll see on the bottom there’s a sort of plunger, and he was going to press that against the victim’s arm. If that plunger is the trigger, that would have set it off. What we want to know is what it does when it’s triggered.”
“Yes, I see, I see. This is excellent workmanship. I’d guess it wasn’t made locally. It’s too perfect to have been whittled with a jackknife, you see. There must have been some machine work involved. The nearest factories are in Los Angeles, but it could have even come down from San Francisco.”
“Or Chicago,” Earp speculated, “or Constantinople. That doesn’t matter. We just want to know what it does. So, how long will it take you to find out?”
“Hard to say, hard to say,” Maladroit said. “There’s no telling what I’ll find when I get inside it, and that will be the deciding factor.”
“All right. I want you to give this top priority until you’ve finished. What will that cost me?”
“Top priority, and the thing’s dangerous? Well, I couldn’t take that risk for less than twenty dollars.”
“Twenty. What do you say, Izzy, is it worth twenty to you?”
“Harold told me to find out everything I could. He had to know it was going to cost money.”
“All right, Professor,” Earp told him, “twenty it is. You get word to Miss Lopez at the Oyster when you’ve puzzled it out, and we’ll be back with your money.”
“It shall be done, Mr Earp. You’ll know as soon as I do.”
“Good. You mind what you’re doing, now, and don’t blow off any useful body parts with that thing!”
“Fear not, sir, I’m the very soul of heedfulness.”
“I’m serious, just be careful. It would save the young lady twenty dollars, but we’d rather know what that thing is. Let’s go, Izzy. I don’t want to be around here when he starts messing with it.”