Stingaree 7

Thursday, January 24th, 1889

Harold Youngblood drifted awake in the narrow bed, feeling fully rested.  A glance at the wall clock told him it just after 11:00 AM, and he stretched lazily under the down comforter.  Then his memory kicked in, and he sat bolt upright in the bed.  Much as he disliked the apparatus, he used the chamber pot in the room; plenty of time to clean that later.  Dressing hurriedly in plain work clothes, he waved a brush at his hair, forewent the shave entirely, and hustled down the spidery stairs to his office.  No one was there, and he opened the door to the gambling floor and stepped out into the big room.

Benjamin, the junior bartender, was behind the bar consolidating whiskey from half-emptied bottles.

“Morning, sir,” the young man offered, going about his work.

“Benjamin.  Be sure you’re not mixing types there.  The connoisseurs we get in here will sniff out any funny business.”

“Good one, Mr. Youngblood,” the man replied with a smile as he poured the dregs of a bottle of Scotch into a bottle of Rye.

“Have the police been here yet?”

“No, sir. You don’t generally see them down here until after lunch, although a dead body in the privy may get them moving a bit earlier than usual.”

“Really, do you think it might?  I can’t believe they didn’t come last night.”

“I don’t think, no offense, Mr. Youngblood, but I don’t think you’ve quite tumbled to where you are just yet.”

“None taken, Benjamin, but just where am I?”

“This is Stingaree, Mr. Youngblood.  The coppers don’t cross Market Street after dark.  It’s more than their lives are worth.”

“Seriously?”

“God’s truth, Mr. Youngblood.  They wouldn’t come down here to meet Jesus Christ hisself.  Not that he’d come here after dark, either.”

“That’s comforting, Benjamin.  I’ll make it a point not to die at night, then.  Is Isabella in yet?”

“Yes, sir.  She’s out back.”

“Great!  She isn’t meddling about with that body, I hope.”

“Oh, I shouldn’t think Miss Isabella would—  Oh, here she is now.”

Youngblood turned as Isabella entered through the back door, and turned to lock it.

“Babysitting?” he asked.

“Ah, there you are, Harold.  You sleep soundly for a man with a corpse in his toilet.”

“Can’t do anything about it until the police come.  Might as well be rested.  What were you doing out there?”

“Shooing away the strays.  They aren’t picky in their diets.”

“Delightful. Any word from the police?”

“They should be along within the hour.  Probably Jackson.  He seems to have a special interest in us these days.”

“That suits me.  I’d hate for them to get the idea that we killed him.”

“That would be unfortunate, but that isn’t your biggest worry.”

“Oh?”

“No.  That is Ambrose Duncan’s right hand man in there.  He came in here two nights ago to start trouble, and bullets were exchanged.  Señor Duncan will be hearing the news shortly, if he hasn’t already, and if he gets it into his head that we did this, we could have a very big problem on our hands.

*          *          *

“Mr. Belmont, sir,” Filmore said from the door of George Howard Belmont’s opulent study, “that gentleman you call Red is here to see you.”

The butler’s inflection of the word gentleman left no doubt as to his own opinion of that assessment.

“Excellent, Filmore.  Escort him up, won’t you?”

“Yes, sir.”

Belmont laid his book on the side table and moved to his desk, the more imposing to appear to his rough-edged employee.  Not that everything about Chatsworth, floors to ceilings, hadn’t been designed from the first day to be imposing.  He leaned back in the comfortable chair and waited, master of all he surveyed.  Presently, Filmore appeared at the double doors, accompanied by a rangy man with tanned leathery skin, and the sort of squint that demanded respect.

“Mr. Red, sir,” the butler announced.

“Thank you, Filmore.  Wait outside, would you?  Come in, Red, come in.  Have a seat.  Like a cigar?” Belmont offered as his visitor pulled a chair over to sit across the desk from him.

“Don’t mind if I do,” Red said, taking one and going through the process of lighting up.

“I hear you had a bit of difficulty yesterday.”

“Difficulty?” Red exclaimed, getting the thing going in a cloud of blue smoke.  “That’s one way to put it.  I got two men shot.  One of ’em might not make it, according to that doctor you hooked me up with.”

“I told you Duncan was tough.”

“Hell, you didn’t tell me he has his own private army.  If you’re gonna go getting my men shot, I’m gonna have to raise my rates.”

“Really?  What exactly happened down there?”

“We went to the Dusky Rose like you told us.  Double-checked the address so there’d be no mistakes.”

“That’s good.”

“Yeah, well, we found the place all right, Stevens shot the front window out so the bomb would sail in smooth, but before we could even throw it, half a dozen men opened up on us from inside.  Couple more came down an alley and flanked us.  We’re lucky any of us made it.  Like I say, if you’re gonna get us mixed up in a range war, you’re gonna have to up the ante.”

“I must apologize, Captain.  That was never my intention.  It was a case of unfortunate timing, that’s all.  You must have arrived just as he was briefing his thugs.  Of course, I’ll compensate you for your wounded men.”

“Decent of you.  What do we do now?”

“Take your men back to Los Angeles.  A shootout like you describe is likely to be investigated, but if you aren’t around to be questioned, it’ll lead nowhere.  Leave on the two o’clock train.  Tickets will be waiting for you.”

“What about Draco?  Your doctor says it’ll be a week or more before he can travel.”

“Don’t worry about him.  Doctor Greene will make sure nobody finds out about him.”

“And if somebody does?”

“They won’t.  Phillip is very resourceful.  Just clear out for now.  Go back north and don’t mention San Diego.  I’ll send word if there are any developments.”

“All right.  I guess that works best for us.”

“Best for all of us, Captain,” Belmont agreed, signalling the end of the interview by rising to his feet.  “Filmore.”

“Yes, sir,” the butler replied at once, appearing in the doorway.

“See the captain out, and be so kind as to give him five hundred from petty cash on the way.”

“Very good, sir.  This way, sir,” he added to Red, and turned to lead him away.

Belmont returned to his easy chair, and the chapter he wanted to finish before lunch.  Before long, Filmore returned.

“Mr. Belmont, sir, may I ask a question?”

“Of course.”

“Why do you risk engaging in commerce with that ilk?  What do you have to gain?”

“Why, the state, Filmore.”

“The state, sir?”

“Yes, Filmore, the state.  The road to the state house leads through San Diego, and to take that first step, I need Stingaree’s sins and vices to become such a festering cesspool that they spill out onto the decent citizens of this town.  You just wait, my loyal friend.  In the words of the great showman, the best is yet to come!”

*          *          *

At the jarring sound of the heavy knock on the Oyster’s door, Isabella peeked around the curtain, then unlocked the door to admit Deputy Jackson and his partner Quincy.

“Miss Isabella,” Jackson greeted her, touching his hat brim, “is the boss in?”

“Si.  He is in his office.”

“Good.  Do you know who the dead man is?”

“Si.  It is Señor Price, Señor Duncan’s right hand troublemaker.”

“Shouldn’t speak ill of the dead, Izzy,” Quincy told her.

“Of some people, there is naught but ill to speak,” she countered.

“Who found the body” Jackson asked.

“One of our girls, Janice.”

“How’d she take it?” Quincy asked.

“How do you think?”

“Is she here?” asked Jackson.

“No. She went northside to spend the night with a cousin. It shook her up pretty badly.”

“I thought these whores had seen it all,” Quincy said.

“They’ve seen a lot,” Isabella allowed, “but when you open the door to a dark privy, and see a man sitting there covered in blood, well, it can be a bit much.”

“True enough,” said Jackson.  “We’ll need to talk to her.  Do you know the cousin’s address?”

“Si.”

“Good.  We’ll get that on our way out.  So, let’s have a look at our esteemed victim, shall we?”

“We locked the privy.  I’ll get Harold and the key.”

“We’ll meet you out there, then.”

Quincy and Jackson went out the back door and stood waiting by the row of outhouses.

“Guess it’s good this Youngblood fellow took over,” Quincy said.  “Old Newt would have cut him up and thrown him in the bay.”

“No big loss where Price is concerned,” Jackson said.  “Still, it’s refreshing to have one decent citizen down here.”

“Yeah.  Maybe it’ll start a trend.”

“Quiet.  Here they come.”

“Good morning, deputies,” Youngblood greeted them.  “I understand you’re here to claim our uninvited guest.”

“I suppose you could say that.  Where is he?”

“Right where we said he was,” Youngblood said, leading them to the privy nearest the street as he fumbled with a key ring.  Removing the padlock from the door, he stood back.  “This would have been a mite less unpleasant if you’d come last night.”

“I see what you mean,” Jackson said, opening the door and quickly stepping back to escape the cloud of flies the motion stirred up.  Waving his broad-brimmed hat to chase them out, he stepped back to the door and studied the body.

“You haven’t touched anything?” he asked.

“Are you joking?” Youngblood asked in reply.

“Yeah, I guess so.  Come on, Doug, what do you see?”

“A guy who’s been beat up enough to kill three men,” Quincy replied, not bothering to step any closer.

“You’re a big help.”

“Well, look at him.  The undertaker will have to wash him down to even tell where the wounds are.  There’s more blood outside than there is inside!”

“You think he was killed here?”

“It would be an easy mark.  Catch a man doing his business, open the door and shoot him.  Even if the first shot don’t kill him, you could have you way with him after that.”

“Yeah.  You folks hear any shots last night?”

“We hear shots every night,” Youngblood replied.  “You know what it’s like around here.”

“I do.  Any of them sound close?”

“No more than usual.  Certainly not like they were in my back yard.”

“Could have happened, though.”

“I doubt it, Mr. Jackson,” Youngblood said.

“Why’s that?” Jackson asked asked with a sigh, suppressing the urge to make a snide remark about meddling amateurs.

“Well, doesn’t it seem to you that if he’d been shot on the toilet, his pants would be down?  Unless the killer took the time to pull them back up and fasten them, of course.  Then there’s the writing inside the door.”

“You can’t put too much stock in that, Mr. Youngblood.  All of these public toilets have writing inside, especially down here.”

“Yes, writing that would embarrass any of my girls.  But, have you read that?”

Jackson turned his attention to the darker brown letters inside the wooden door.

“C four twelve question.  This wasn’t here before?”

“I don’t remember seeing it.”

“Nor do I,” Isabella added.

“What do you think it means?” Quincy asked.

“I don’t know, a street address, or a room number” Youngblood offered.  “One thing it means is that he wasn’t dead when he was left in here.”

“You think not?” Jackson asked.

“Unless the killer, after putting his pants back on him, decided to take some more time to leave a clue to help us catch him.”

“Or to throw us off,” Quincy said.

“That’s possible,” Jackson said.

“It’s possible,” Youngblood said, “but if you’d just shot a man in the yard of a place this busy, would you take the time to do all that?”

“That’s true,” said Jackson as he turned to study the corpse.  “You know, Mr. Youngblood, if the brothel business doesn’t work out for you, you might consider a career as a lawman.  Douglass, write those figures down.  Copy them exact.”

“Whatever you say, boss.”

“So, when can I expect the undertaker?” Youngblood asked.

“We’ll report it when we get back.  I guess the wait’ll depend on how busy he is.”

“What is there, a waiting list?  I have a business to run here.”

“Ah, I wouldn’t worry too much.  The kind of business you run, this here’s what’s called an attraction.”

“Attraction?  Now, see here—”

“Keep your wig on, youngster,” Jackson said with a smile, “I’m just funnin’ with you.  He’ll likely be gone before you open.  Lock this back up, and let him in when he comes.”

“All right.  I got another question for you.”

“Shoot.”

“What do I do when Duncan assumes I did this?”

“Why would he?”

“We had an issue in the bar the other night.  Price and a couple of goons tried to do something to my man, Chato.”

“Yeah?  What?”

“They had some device.  I don’t know what it was, but they tried to use it on him.”

“What stopped them?”

“Wyatt Earp.  He was in the bar at the time, and he took exception to their manners.  I guess they weren’t ready for that kind of trouble.”

“Earp’s a killer, and no doubt.  Maybe he did it.”

“I don’t know.  He seemed to think Price wasn’t worth a bullet.  Of course, Price might have tried to settle accounts later.”

“Might have, but why would he hide the body in your privy?”

“Hey, you’re the detective here.  Tell that undertaker to step lively when you get back up there.  I don’t need this guy stinking up my bar.”

“I’ll tell him.  Lock this up until he gets here.  I’d watch your back until we sort this out.”

“Don’t worry.  Good day, deputy.”

“Mr. Youngblood.  Izzy, can I get that address?”

“Our bartender has it.  He’ll give it to you on your way out.”

Touching his finger to the brim of his hat, Jackson led his partner toward the bar.

“Thank you for not mentioning that I shot one of them,” Isabella said as Youngblood locked the privy and they left the yard.

“Not good business to manufacture trouble,” he said.  “Nothing to do now I guess but get ready for another night’s work.”

*          *         *

Early evening, and it was proving to be a good night at the Oyster.  There was a large crowd, freely spending, and no one had come close to a fight, nor even a heated argument.  Chato was at the end of the bar, unobtrusive, where he would be seen by everyone coming in, but not floating, intimidating, in the crowd as he sometimes had to do.

“Congratulations, Mr. Westerbrook!” Isabella said to a patron as he raked in a large pot at a poker table.  “Fortune smiles on the bold.”

“Well, she did this time,” the pilot boat deckhand said as he stacked his chips.  “Drinks for the table on me!”

She summoned Benjamin from behind the bar with a wave of her finger as cheers rose from the table and the man in the neighboring chair slapped Westerbrook on the back.  She turned and wandered, seemingly aimlessly across the room until Madame Rula, the Romani woman who managed the rooms upstairs, caught her eye from the bottom of the stairs.

“Is Charlotte down here?” she asked when Isabella reached her.

“I didn’t notice her if she came down,” she replied.  “Do you think something’s wrong?”

“Well, I wouldn’t normally, but given this business with Duncan’s man . . .”

“Yes.  What happened?”

“She finished with a customer, and told me she needed a few moments to freshen up.  I told her to go ahead, but that was over an hour ago, and she isn’t back yet.”

“I see,” Isabella said, and turned to motion Chato over to them.

“Charlotte’s missing,” she said when he reached them.  “Check the toilets, would you?”

“Certainly.”

He headed for the back door.

“Meeting of the minds?” Youngblood asked, coming up beside them.

“Charlotte’s missing,” Isabella said.

“Missing?  When did this happen?”

“Within the hour.  Chato is checking the toilets, but if she isn’t there, and she isn’t in the bar, there’s no place else she should be right now.”

“Great.  Duncan certainly doesn’t waste time, does he?”

*          *          *

Over at the Dusky Rose, a slim figure in voluminous skirts slipped in through the back door and stood in the shadows waiting to be noticed.  She soon was, and Willy Steinmann, the poorly educated immigrant and roustabout who had succeed Price until Duncan could find a new right hand man, stepped up to her, touching his hat brim in greeting.

“Help you, ma’am?” he asked.

“I’m here to see Mr. Duncan,” the woman told him.

“Yes, ma’am,” Willy said.  “He’s right here in the bar.”

“I dare not be seen here.  Tell him Charlotte needs a moment, would you?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

He touched his hat again and took his leave, shortly to be replaced by the big African, Duncan.

“Why, Miss Charlotte,” he greeted her, “didn’t expect to see you here so soon.”

“There’s developments,” she said.  “Thought you’d want to know.”

“Of course, my dear.  Sure you won’t come in and sit?”

“Can’t.  I have to get back, and besides, if I get seen in here, and word gets back to the Oyster, there can’t anything good come of that.”

“You’re a smart girl,” Duncan complimented, making a note to be more careful in his dealings with her.  “What do you have for me?”

“You know Charlie Price was found dead in one of our outhouses over there.”

“Yes.”

“Well, I don’t get the impression that they had anything to do with it.”

“Not Youngblood, maybe, but he had a bad run-in with that Chato character over there the other night.  You think he’d be above taking a little revenge?”

“No, but I’ve never seen Chato touch a gun.  He’s a knife man, and damned good at it.  No, he might gut you like a fish, especially if he wanted revenge, but I just can’t see him using a gun.”

“All right, I can see that.  What about Miss Izzy?  Think she could do it?”

“Miss Izzy?  No, no, she couldn’t do that.  Could she?”

“She shot one of my boys during the very altercation I speak of.”

“Defending her establishment, maybe, and her people, but in cold blood?  And what if she had shot him?  Does she even have the strength to wrestle Charlie’s body into that outhouse and prop him up on the seat?”

“A woman scorned, eh?  She could have had help.”

“Who could you trust with a secret like that?  She barely knows Mr. Youngblood.  None of us do except for the fact that he shies away from the illegal aspects.  I suppose that would include murder.”

“One of the dealers, then?  The bartender?”

“I doubt it.  They’re all employees, hirelings, there to do a job.  They don’t have the sort of emotional attachment to the place, and they’re terrified that you’ll think they did, and take some revenge of your own.”

“Is that right?”  Duncan gave a little chuckle.  “Well, maybe I’ll let them stew a little bit, and see what shakes out. That will give me time to decide how best to use their worry to my advantage.  Meanwhile, there’s something else you can do.”

“What’s that?” she asked nervously.

“Oh, nothing dangerous.  Don’t do anything to attract attention to yourself, just keep your eyes and ears open.  When my crew went in there the other night, the Oyster people stole a small wooden box from them.”  He held up his fist.  “About that size, with a couple of brass strips around it.  If you see it, or hear anything about what happened to it, it would be worth a considerable sum to me to be able to recover it.”

“I’ll be on the lookout, Mr. Duncan.  Now I need to get back.”

“That’s fine, Miss Charlotte, you go ahead.  And don’t be nervous.  I’ll get word to you if I decide to do anything.  You’ve been a good girl, and I wouldn’t want anything to happen to you.”

He stroked his callused thumb down her soft cheek.

“That’s good to hear, sir, I wouldn’t either,” and with those parting words, she slipped out into the night.