The girl was barely recognizable in her demure dress with her hair pulled back into a bun, face cleaned of makeup, as she slipped in through the back door of the Dusky Rose. Several men were playing billiards at two of the tables, and looked up with interest as this strange woman appeared in their midst.
“Evenin’, Miss Charlotte,” Willy, one of Price’s henchmen, greeted her after a moment.
“Good evening, Willy. Is Mr. Duncan in?”
“Yeah. You need to see him?”
“I’m afraid so.”
“This way, then.”
He led her out through the barroom, and up the stairs to Duncan’s office on the second floor, where he rapped on the door with his knuckles.
“What is it?” came Duncan’s voice.
“Miss Charlotte to see you, boss.”
“Good, good. Door’s open.”
Willy opened the door and let her pass in front of him, then stood waiting.
“That’s all, Willy,” Duncan said. “I’ll take it from here.”
“Right, boss. I’ll just be in the pool room if you need anything.”
Duncan just grunted, waiting until his temporary henchman closed the door and left, then waved Charlotte toward a chair.
“Have a seat, girl,” he invited. “Like a drink?”
“Not really in the mood,” she said, sitting down. “Youngblood just fired me.”
“Fired you? What for?”
“I guess his doxy followed me here earlier, and they were both waiting in my room to accuse me of all sorts of bad things.”
“Spying on them, for one.”
“Well, you were.”
“What does that have to do with it? I sacrificed everything for them! I put the Golden Poppy on the map.”
“Yes, really! I’ve done unspeakable things in that room to keep their clients happy and coming back, and this is the thanks I get.”
“Yes, it does seem a bit harsh.”
“It damned sure does. But I was thinking, I could come to work for you, and make the Dusky Rose the biggest business in Stingaree.”
“Modesty isn’t one of your faults, is it?” he asked, leaning back in his chair.
“You have a very high opinion of yourself.”
“Oh. Well, why shouldn’t I? Look at me.”
“Yes, you are certainly a beautiful young woman. And yet, that didn’t prevent you from becoming careless, did it?”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“It means that in spite of all your talk about what a great asset you are to your employers, you were careless enough to let yourself be followed to my door by a simple hostess. Now, Youngblood knows that I had a spy in his house, and now that he’s alerted, it will be twice as hard to get another one in. Your incompetence has cost me a great deal of trouble, Miss Allen.”
She stared at him, a look of bewilderment on her face.
“And now you want me to take you in and give you a job here. You promise to put me on the map. That’s very big of you, but Mr. Youngblood doesn’t provide much of a recommendation, does he?”
“He hasn’t said anything about me.”
“Oh, but he has. You were on his payroll, and he didn’t think twice about tossing you into the street. I’m afraid I can’t do anything but follow his lead.”
“What do you mean?” she asked, frightened now.
“I have all the girls I need. Your only value to me was as a collector of information from inside the Oyster. Now that you aren’t in a position to do that anymore, I’m afraid I have no further use for you.”
“You mean you won’t give me a job?”
“My dear girl, I gave you a job, and you botched it. I’d suggest you go up north and try your luck in Los Angeles. It’s a growing town. They need all sorts of people up there, and as no one knows you, it would be a perfect place for a fresh start.”
“But, Mr. Duncan, that isn’t fair!”
“Life isn’t fair, my dear. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have important matters to attend to.”
* * *
Saturday night was rapidly approaching as the sun hovered just above the imposing headland across the bay, the lengthening shadows painting the Oyster’s windows with their gloomy shades. Youngblood stepped out of his office and looked around the gathering crowd to find Chato at the back wall lighting the gas jets to illuminate the room. He gave a nod of satisfaction at the establishment’s efficiency, and walked over to join him.
I could have stayed in Charleston for all that I’m needed here, he thought, but quickly dismissed that idea, as he recalled his abject humiliation at the hands of Miss Samantha Fisher.
“Evening, Chato,” he said, raising his voice above the growing din. “It’s starting early tonight.”
“Is Sabado, Jefe,” his floor boss replied, “Saturday. People been paid, they can sleep late tomorrow, and they want to have some fun. Is no started good yet.”
Youngblood steadied a chair as Chato climbed onto it to reach one of the higher lamps.
“That looks like a hell of a procedure,” Youngblood remarked. “I may have to lay on the electricity in here.”
“I wish you would,” Chato replied, adjusting the jet and replacing the glass shade. “These things are dangerous.”
“How many times have you fallen?”
“A few, but that is not what I mean. I don’t think Señor Newton paid for the best people to put these in. The lines are thin rubber, and they develop leaks. You can smell it in the daytime when the lamps are not lit, and when we find one, we cover it with mucilage, but we have had three fires. They have all happened at night, when the fire brigade does not wish to come down here. We have been fortunate. We found them when they were small enough to put out by ourselves. Miss Izzy says the mayor would love to see a big fire burn down all of Stingaree, so he tells them not to come.”
“What do you think?”
“I think the people northside hate us, and would not be sad to see that happen. Whether the mayor has given such orders I could not say.”
“I’ll look into those lights first thing Monday. Look, Chato, do you know that we let Charlotte go this afternoon?”
“I heard talk. No one has told me.”
“Well, I’m telling you. She was gathering information and reporting it to Duncan. If she shows up and tries to come in, keep her out, and if you happen to see her in here, escort her to the door immediately. She isn’t to take anything, or talk to anyone. Don’t be any rougher with her than you have to. Just keep her out.”
“Si, Jefe, it will be done.”
With a pat on the big man’s shoulder, Youngblood began a slow circuit of the bar, his bar, absently contemplating the fact that he had just instructed an enforcer, his enforcer, to keep a prostitute out of his whorehouse by whatever means necessary. He was two weeks removed from Charleston, he realized, but a lifetime away from the considerate gentleman he had been on the other side of the continent. He would have to keep a close eye on who he was becoming.
* * *
Deputy William Jackson loathed the idea of being in Stingaree alone after dark, but he wanted a word with Youngblood, and would be departing on an all-day errand long before the saloon owner would be out of bed. Thus he found himself in the clothing of a Mexican peasant slouching from shadow to shadow as he made his way toward the Oyster. Of course, he was far from being Mexican, but the dim light and his coffee-colored skin deflected curiosity well enough. He encountered a few roving bands on his way, some drunk, some looking for trouble, but the shadows and his disguise protected him.
Alert as a cat, he rounded the corner onto Fifth Avenue, and walked the block to the ornate granite building to find Harold Youngblood standing on the sidewalk outside the front door, left thumb in his vest pocket, right hand holding a cigarillo.
“Didn’t know you was a smoker, boss,” Jackson said as he reached him.
Youngblood turned to look at him, then leaned slightly forward and looked harder.
“In the flesh.”
“Jesus, what’s with that get-up?”
“You don’t think I’m coming down here at night in my uniform, do you?”
“I’m surprised you’re down here at all. What’s the occasion?”
“Came to see you, as a matter of fact. Didn’t expect to find you out here, though.”
“Had to get out of the noise. The place is a madhouse.”
“Oh, right, this is your first Saturday, isn’t it?”
“Well, look on the bright side. You’ll probably bring in a couple of thousand dollars tonight.”
“There is that. What did you want to see me about?”
“I just wanted to let you know that tomorrow at first light I’m going to head out to Cajon Ranch to check on an alibi.”
“Cajon Ranch? Where’s that?”
“Out east, over those hills you can see during the day. There isn’t much of a road back there, so I’m thinking I’ll go on horseback.”
“Okay. So, why’d you come all the way down here to tell me this?”
“Well, the story is that Wyatt Earp was out there playing in a poker game the night Price was killed, and partaking of the product of the new iced cream machine the owner purchased. Apparently, our resident former lawman has quite the sweet tooth.”
“So, that would clear him?”
“Sure would. And he’d owe you plenty, too, I can tell you. I wouldn’t have looked much harder if you hadn’t been so stubborn about it.”
“Why’d you wait until now?”
“Don’t know if you’ve noticed, but there’s been a lot going on around here lately. I figured Sunday’d be the quietest day of the week, so I’m going to risk being out of town.”
“I’m sure it’ll pan out. Wyatt’s a lot of things, Deputy, but he isn’t a killer.”
Jackson cocked his head and raised an eyebrow.
“All right,” Youngblood corrected, “he most certainly is a killer, but he isn’t sneaky about it. He does his killing out in the open and takes responsibility.”
“Maybe. There are still warrants out for him in Arizona Territory for the murder of Bill Brocious, Frank Stillwell, and half a dozen other fellows. A fact like that could change the way a man does things.”
“Anyway, he’s offered this alibi, and I’m going out there tomorrow to look into it. You won’t be able to find me tomorrow, and I thought you ought to know why.”
“Thank you, Deputy. I appreciate it.”
“I’ll let you know how it goes. Now, don’t take this the wrong way, but I need to get out of this cesspool. I’ll see you tomorrow night, or Monday. Depends on what I find out there.”
“I’ll be looking forward to it. You take care, William.”
“You do the same. It’s far more dangerous right here than it is in the back country.”
* * *
Eleven o’clock on Saturday night, and Stingaree was in full-throated roar. Youngblood could barely make his way across the floor through the press of bodies surrounding the blackjack table at the far side of the room.
“Hit me!” came a voice, loud but controlled, and the oooh! of the crowd as the next card hit the table.
Youngblood finally got through to the front of the crowd to see Earl, his heavy-set blackjack dealer, surrounded by blue smoke from his ever-present cigar, flip a card from the eight-deck shoe.
“Twenty,” he announced, and reached across with the spatula to flip the player’s card.
“Twenty-one. Player wins!”
The roar that went up from the surrounding crowd was deafening. The player, “Muzzy,” Giovanni Mazzanti, reached to the stack of bills that Earl pushed across to him, peeled off a dozen or so which he put in his pocket, and placed the rest of the stack on top of what was already there.
“Another hand,” he declared.
With a glance up at Youngblood, who offered no response, Earl started the next hand.
Youngblood pushed back through the crowd, easy enough as they all wanted to push closer to the front, hoping some of the man’s luck might rub off on them. Reaching the back of the press, he found half the floor wide open, as everyone sought a view of the blackjack table.
“Do we know that gentleman, Izzy?” he asked his hostess, who stood near the door at the end of the bar.
“Oh, yes, he is a regular.”
“He has a strange accent.”
“Si. He is Italian. There’s a community of fishermen up north on the other side of the city. Most of them don’t like to frequent our fair establishment, but there are a few, and Muzzy is maybe the most regular.”
“Well I hope he doesn’t break the bank.”
“Relax, Harold. Remember what I told you. If a man takes a thousand dollars out of here, we’ll take five from other players trying to ride his luck.”
“I hope you’re right. That’s quite a stack he’s got over there.”
“I am right, Harold. Be calm.”
“Yes, well, if his luck holds and he leaves here with a big wad of cash, I want you to have Chato go out with him and put him in a carriage. Half the people watching look like they’d be happy to kill each other for the chance to rob him.”
“I’m sure they would,” Isabella said with a smile. “I’ll tell Chato—”
“Miss Izzy!” an older man in disheveled work clothes panted as he half ran, half staggered through the front door, almost collapsing on the bar.”
“What is it, Mica?” she asked, placing her hand on his back. “Roberto, a glass of water.”
“Never mind that,” the man panted, pushing himself back to a standing position. “Have you heard the news?”
The man took a few more gulps of air before replying.
“George Belmont has announced that he’s running for mayor. He’s promised his first act in office will be to burn Stingaree down to the foundations and run all us sinners out of town!”
“I’ve heard that name somewhere,” Youngblood said. “Who’s Belmont?”
“He’s the head of the Northside Businessman’s Association,” Izzy told him. “He owns a boatyard.”
“That’s right,” Mica added through his wild gray beard. “He financed the gunboats that chased off the pirates. There ain’t a chance in hell he won’t win.”
To be continued . . .