Stingaree 11

Youngblood walked Isabella out to the carriage as Maladroit wrapped the box in a piece of heavy quilting and followed them out.  Youngblood steadied his hostess as she climbed to the seat, then climbed up himself.

“I wish I could have learned more,” the professor told them as they settled themselves for the drive back.  “It would be worth a continental dollar to know what this thing does to its victim.”

“It would indeed,” Youngblood agreed.  “Still, look at what we know now compared to what we knew just a couple of days ago.”

He held out his hand for the box.

“There’s the little matter of my fee,” Maladroit said with an embarrassed expression.

“Oh, of course.  How much?”

“One hundred dollars.”

“What?  And you agreed to this?” he asked, turning to Isabella.

She gave a coquettish smile and fluttered her eyelashes.

“You told me to find out everything.  What else could I do but pay the price he asked?”

“A hundred dollars,” Youngblood repeated.  “Do we have it?”

“Of course,” she replied, taking a folded stack of bills from her handbag and passing it to Youngblood.

“A hundred dollars,” he said, looking at the bills.  “You don’t come cheap, Professor.”

“I am rarely asked to dismantle something that might very well kill me,” Maladroit replied.

“Fair enough,” Youngblood replied, handing him the money and taking the box in return.

“This hundred dollars pays for everything associated with the box,” Maladroit told him, “so if something else comes up, and you need it reexamined, that won’t cost you.”

“That’s decent of you.  We’d better get going.  It looks to be a busy day.  Take care, Professor.”

“And you.  These flats can be treacherous.”

“If by that you mean they’ll shake a body to death, I’ve already discovered that.  Com’on!”

He tapped the horse with the whip, and the animal eased away from the front of the workshop, stepping around a puddle before pulling the carriage right through it.

“Oof!” Youngblood grunted, feeling his kidney shift its position.

“Do you not have carriages in Charleston?” Isabella asked, smiling.

“Yes.  We also have roads in Charleston.  I’ll return your money out of petty cash when we get back.”

“Where do you think I got a hundred dollars?”

“I see.  I may have to change some locks down at the saloon.”

“Harold, you told me to find out everything.  You must have known there would be a price.”

“Relax, Izzy, I’m joking.”

He stopped the carriage and craned his neck to see around her.  Finding what he wanted, he tapped the horse into a sharp left turn.

“Where are we going?” she asked.

“Old Town.”

“Why?”

“Because Jackson needs to see this.”

“What for?  He is a bribe collector, nothing more.”

“Maybe, but he also represents the local police, and he’s taking quite an interest in the Oyster right now.  I think it would be a good idea for him to have all the facts at his disposal.”

*          *          *

William Jackson harbored a fondness for rabbit.  It was a small vice, but he owned it, lock, stock, and barrel.  Rabbit was hard to come by in this land of rattlesnakes and cattle ranches, but del Cerro’s paid a hunter to keep a small stock on hand.  It wasn’t cheap, but it was the only game in town.  And so it was every other Saturday, the day after payday, Deputy Jackson set aside six dollars for lunch.  The muscular hind legs were nothing but meat, and the chef at the little restaurant had a secret recipe to make it melt in your mouth.

He had gotten his favorite table, back to the corner with a view toward False Bay, and was just digging in when Youngblood and Isabella stepped in through the open doors.  They approached the younger del Cerro daughter, Carmen, he thought her name was, who pointed right at him.  He gave an inward groan as they started toward him.

“Deputy,” Youngblood greeted him as they reached his table.

“We meet again,” Jackson replied.  “What can I do for you this time?”

“We got the information on Duncan’s box from Professor Maladroit.  Do you mind if we join you?”

“Not if you don’t mind if I keep eating.  This won’t be good cold.”

“Not at all.”

Youngblood held a chair for Isabella, then pulled an extra over from the next table.

“So, what’d you find out?”

Isabella put the quilt-wrapped package on the table and pulled back the cloth.

“That’s nice workmanship,” Jackson observed around a mouthful.  “What’s it for?”

“Well, that’s the part the professor hasn’t figured out yet.”

“Huh.  I hope you didn’t pay much for that information.”

“Quite a bit, actually, but he did work out what it does.”

“And what’s that?”

“It has a clockwork mechanism that you wind up with a key.  When you’re ready to use it, you pull that cotter pin out of the side and slap it against your victim’s arm.  Those metal bands swing around to grab onto him, and two needles come out the bottom and pierce his skin.  One injects something, could be any liquid, and the other draws a blood sample.”

“Well, that’s disturbing,” Jackson allowed.  “What the hell for, though?  If you want to murder somebody, you can just shoot them, and if you’re bent on using poison . . .  Well, there’s a lot easier ways to poison somebody.”

“Oh, that isn’t the best part,” Isabella said.  “When we took this box to the professor, it was filled with blood that would have been injected into Chato.”

“Blood?  Are you sure it wasn’t something else that just happened to be red?”

“The professor said it was blood.”

“With some other things mixed in,” Youngblood added.  “The professor thought they were plant chemicals, and those could have been a poison, but why take a blood sample from someone you’re going to kill anyway?”

“Blood, huh?” Jackson said.  “You two know anything about voodoo?”

“Religion of slaves, centered around New Orleans,” Youngblood said.  “What about it?”

“It is very bad business,” Isabella said with a shudder.

“Yeah,” Jackson agreed, “bad business.  I passed through New Orleans on my way out here.  Thought I might settle there, but the climate’s a little harsh for one of my bloodline, if you get my drift.”

Isabella nodded solemnly.

“Voodoo goes on out in the swamp.  They got high priestesses that are supposed to be hundreds of years old, yet they look like teenage prostitutes.  They got kings and queens of the cemeteries.  It’s commonly believed that they can raise the dead and make them into zombies, and that they can put a spell on you, and turn you into their willing slave, and here’s the thing.  All this stuff relies on body parts, hair, nail clippings, teeth, you name it.  They make them into dolls, and through the doll, they work their will on their victims.  But the holy grail of body parts, the most powerful magic of all, is blood.  If somebody was looking to take Chato’s blood, I’d be worried.”

“People believe all kinds of nonsense,” Youngblood said.  “Don’t make any of it true.”

“Don’t mean it ain’t, either.  People have believed in the supernatural for thousands of years.  Sure, us modern people with our flying ships and our indoor plumbing are too sophisticated to believe in magic anymore, but let me ask you this.  Slaves in Louisiana been practicing voodoo for two hundred years.  Those are desperate people.  If it doesn’t work, why are they still wasting their time on it?”

Youngblood had no answer.

“Uh huh, that’s right.  Your hostess knows, don’t you, Izzy?  This is bad business.  If I were you, I’d be trying to find someone who knows something about it.  Duncan wanted Chato’s blood for something, and it would be worth your while to find out why.  You mind if I hang onto this thing for a while?”

“What for?  We went to a lot of trouble to get that.”

“And you can see the value, the craftsmanship.  Duncan’s going to want it back, and it’ll be a lot safer in my impound vault than it will behind your bar.”

“Well, that’s a hard point to argue with.  But if I want it back, this isn’t a gift.”

“I understand that.  I’ll take good care of it.  Now, could I finish my lunch in peace?  You two go back to Stingaree and start asking questions about voodoo, and if that’s really what’s going on, it’ll spur Duncan to action in no time.”

*          *          *

Isabella wrestled her bloomers back into place, and lowered her voluminous skirts and petticoats, mentally cursing the societal convention that imprisoned women in so many clothes that the simple act of using the toilet was transformed into a half-hour endurance contest.  As she arranged her skirts, looking forward to donning her comfortable Mexican garb, she heard the back door of the Oyster open and close.  This was nothing unusual in the early afternoon, with staff coming in to prepare for Saturday night, but as she prepared to exit the privvy, she realized that she hadn’t heard one of the privy’s doors being operated.  That was unusual.

Stepping up onto the bench, she looked out through the vent holes below the eaves.  There at the corner, clearly identified by her truncated tangerine dress, was Charlotte.  The girl stopped at the edge of the building, carefully looked both ways, then stepped around the corner toward Fifth Avenue.  There was certainly nothing illegal or forbidden about the girls going out before the evening started, but why so secretive?

Isabella opened the door carefully, suppressing the groan of the rusty hinges as much as was possible, and walked to the edge of the building.  A quick peek around the corner showed her Charlotte, again using the concealment of the building to examine the street before heading off toward the right, away from the Oyster, avoiding walking where she could be seen from the main barroom.  Isabella followed her carefully, suddenly glad she was wearing the traditional Anglo clothing; a glace back on Charlotte’s part would show her another woman in shiny satin who, if Izzy turned away quickly enough, could be any of a couple of hundred working girls in Stingaree.  Her soft peasant dress would have identified her at a mile to anyone who looked her way.

Isabella followed the girl, carefully, stopping to look in windows, and stepping into a tobacconist’s on one occasion, as Charlotte was paying a great deal of attention to her surroundings.  She went a block up the street, then across to Third Avenue, and back two blocks in the other direction.  Isabella saw this as confirmation that she didn’t want to be seen crossing the front of the Oyster, as it added two blocks to her walk.

Isabella ducked into a doorway alcove as Charlotte turned for another look around.  Izzy could see her in the reflection from the window glass as she completed her search for anyone who might know her, then stepped off the sidewalk into the doorway of the adjacent business.  Isabella crossed to the opposite side of the street, quick-stepping between a carriage and a buckboard, and turned to verify her suspicion.  It was the work of a glance.  Charlotte had entered The Dusky Rose, Ambrose Duncan proprietor.

*          *          *

Charlotte Adams, the name Victoria Dinwiddie had assumed for her job at the Oyster’s Golden Poppy, came in through the front door and headed for the staircase.

“I didn’t know you’d gone out, Miss Charlotte,” Roberto, the senior bartender greeted her.

“Oh, you must have been in the back,” she said, slowing her pace to exchange pleasantries.  “I just needed a bite to eat.”

“Oh, well, welcome back.”

He returned to arranging his bottles, labels out, as she swept up the stairs in a rapid patter of fancy shoes.  She arrived on the third floor landing and walked to the tangerine room that overlooked Fifth Avenue, eager to put Mr. Duncan’s twenty dollars with the rest of her earnings and feel it all in one stack.  Turning the key, she pushed the door open, and stopped short, almost toppling forward as her eye took in Isabella Lopez seated on her bed.

“Afternoon, Charlotte,” Izzy greeted her.  “Have a pleasant walk?”

“Why, Miss Izzy, you startled me,” Charlotte said with a quick, nervous smile, stepping into the room.  How was my walk?  It was, it was good.  Aren’t I allowed to go out?  I just wanted a bite to eat.”

“How’s the food at the Dusky Rose?” Youngblood asked from behind her.  She spun to see him close the door from where he was standing behind it.

“The Dusky Rose?”  She looked nervously from him to the door, then turned to face Isabella.  “What makes you think I went there?”

“Because I followed you there,” Izzy said, standing up.  “I watched you go in.”

“That’s impossible,” Charlotte blurted.  “No one could have . . .”

“No one could have followed you?” Izzy finished for her.  “I guess you aren’t as careful as you thought you were.”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” the girl answered defiantly, having decided on her strategy.  “I wouldn’t have any business at the Rose.”

“Well, I guess it’s settled, Izzy,” Youngblood said.  “You’re a liar.”

“Is news to me.”

“Me as well,” said Youngblood.  “You might as well come clean, Charlotte.  What were you doing down there?  Spying for Duncan?”

“No, sir.  I work for you.”

“And Duncan, apparently.”

“No, sir!”

“Well, help me understand this.  What does he offer that we don’t?  We have drinks, we have gambling, we have snacks.  What does our arch-rival offer that would bring you to his establishment?”

“Only one thing I can think of,” Izzy said.  “Money.  How much does he pay you?”

“And more important, what does he pay you for?  He has his own girls down there, so it can’t be your professional services.  You’d might as well come clean, Charlotte.  Isabella saw what she saw, and we aren’t in the mood to play games.”

“What are you going to do to me?” she asked in a quieter tone.

“Do to you?  Do you think I’m like Duncan?  I don’t intend to do anything to you.  I just want to know who you’re working for besides me.”

Charlotte looked between the two faces, and saw only determination there.

“All right, it’s true.  Mr. Duncan pays me for information.”

“What information?”

“Sometimes the clients say things when they’re, you know, thinking about other things.”

“Like you?”

Charlotte looked down with a small smile.

“Charlotte, we aren’t in the business of stealing our clients’ secrets.  This is unconscionable.  What could you have been thinking?”

“It was just a little extra money, Mr. Youngblood,” the girl protested.  “I didn’t see the harm.”

“What did you tell him about us?” Isabella asked.

“About us?” she parroted.

“About our operations here, our financial situation, our arrangements with the police?” Izzy asked with a pointed look toward Youngblood.  “What about that?”

“Well, there may have been a few little things.  Nothing important, though, I swear!”

“She swears,” Isabella said.  “Do you believe this?”

“Incredible,” Youngblood commented.  “If Duncan pays so well, why didn’t you just go to work for him?  Where is your loyalty?”

This apparently drove the girl past some internal limit, for her eyes flared with a fierce glow as she rounded on him.

“Loyalty?  You want to talk about loyalty?  You try lying on your back while a dozen disgusting strangers in a row paw at you and worse, all night, night after night, and the only thing you have to look forward to is more nights, until you’re too old and ugly to attract them anymore.  You do that for a year, Mr. high-and-mighty Youngblood, then come back and lecture me about loyalty!”

“I’m sorry, Charlotte, but I didn’t make your choices for you.”

“I didn’t either!” she shouted.  “My father, who left when I was baby.  My mother, who crawled into a bottle when she should have been teaching me to be a woman.  My half-brother, who raped me when I was ten years old.  They made my decisions, and that’s why I’m here, and if you begrudge me making a little extra money just for remembering things I hear, well that is just too God damned bad!”

“Yes, it is,” Youngblood said sadly.  “This hurts me, Charlotte, because I like you, but I can’t have an employee reporting on my business to my competitors, especially to Ambrose Duncan.  I’m going to have to let you go.  You’ll need to pack up your things and clear out.”

“Where will I go?  What will I do?”

“Maybe Mr. Duncan will have a place for you.  I’ll pay for a room for a week at the Cosmopolitan, but after that, you’re on your own.”

“Well, this is just wonderful!  Another man turns his back on me, then.”

“You turned your back on us, Charlotte. Let me give you a word of advice.  If you go to work for Duncan, don’t do this to him.  He’ll leave you floating in the bay with a bullet in your head.”

She just glared at him, words exhausted.

“Pack your things.  Now.  Izzy, stay with her and make sure she doesn’t take anything that belongs to the hotel.”