Stingaree 9

George Belmont stood on the portico of Chatsworth, his tall figure imposing in his impeccably tailored black evening suit as the sun set behind him, watching the evening activity of boats on the bay.  A couple were from his gunboat flotilla diligently patrolling the harbor entrance.  They were conscientious, having no idea that they were merely pawns in a game, to be used and discarded on the whim of the player.  Simple, honest tradesmen, they carried no secrets to divulge.

Belmont turned and entered the house, his long stride carrying him toward his den in the rear.  This secluded room was plush and opulent, and no one entered save Filmore; this was not a room for entertaining guests.

“Do you need anything, sir?” Filmore asked from his room near the door as Belmont crossed the long hall running north to south through the width of the manse.

“Yes, Filmore, hide the carriage.  I’m going down to the dock, and I want people to think I’m out.”

“Very good, sir.”

Belmont continued to the back of the house, opened the door on the right of the hall, and entered his den, turning to bolt the door.  He wasn’t here for rejuvenation, and he ignored the elegant surroundings and the well-stocked bar, moving straight to the rear corner and depressing a concealed strip of wood built into the carved dado rail.  The adjacent bookcase popped loose, and he swung it out into the room on its rollers.  He drew a match from his pocket and lit the gaslamp extending from the side wall, then closed the door.  Turning, he followed a narrow, winding passage that ran west toward the ocean, and descended by drop after drop of roughly crafted wooden stairways.  He had to light more lamps as he went, and eventually, the sound of surging water began to come from ahead.  After covering close to a mile, he came to the sort of rounded door common to ships.  Turning back the single dog holding it closed, he pushed it open and stepped through.

The whine of a turbine assailed his ears, almost painful after the subterranean silence of the tunnel.  Bright arc lights strung some fifty feet above illuminated the interior of a sea cave, water surging in from the opening ahead, and slapping against the walls.  He stood on a wooden dock, work benches and test equipment built in an orderly arrangement more or less following the wall well back to his left, a dozen or more men hard at work on various machines.  A crane at the edge of the dock stood out over a low, sleek craft with a rounded turtleback as it lay tied to the dock.  The only flat spot on it was surrounded by a knee-high combing suggestive of a giant’s bathtub, with metal rails for safety.  A spoked steering wheel stood on a binnacle to the front, a mounted telescope toward the center, and a large hatch stood open at the rear, light and a clanging noise coming from inside.

Belmont cast his eye about until he located the man he had come to see, a stocky figure in blue denim work trousers, seaman’s boots, and a nautical peajacket, unbuttoned and standing open, supervising the storage of some equipment at dockside.

“Captain,” Belmont shouted as he started toward the man.  “Captain McLean!”

“Aye, who’s callin’?” the man called out, looking around.

“I am, Captain,” Belmont replied, walking up beside him.  “Do you have time for a word?”

“Aye, Mr. Belmont, that I do.  You lot take a break,” he added to his work crew, “but don’t wander off.  What can I do fer, ye, sir?”

Belmont started walking, guiding him toward an uninhabited area on the dock.

“I need you to take a bit of a sabbatical, Captain.”

“A what?”

“A break.  A vacation, if you like.”

“Ach, a vacation from what?”

“Attacking ships.”

“What?  You set me up, funded me vessel to attack shipping in these waters, an’ now ye want me to quit?”

“Just for a time.”

“How long a time?”

“Two or three weeks, or maybe even longer.  It depends.”

“Two ‘r three weeks?  An’ what’re me boys s’posed t’ do in the meantime?”

“Relax, Captain. Rest and refresh.  I’ll give you a month’s pay in advance for your whole crew.  You can leave the Krokodil out at San Clemente and take the schooner up to San Francisco.  Enjoy the Barbary Coast.  Be back here in three weeks, and if I don’t have any work for you then, you’re a free man.”

“A free man?  Free t’ do what, be down on me luck?”

“Captain, you own the world’s only truly functional submersible warship.  Take a ship like this to, oh, South America or the Orient, why, you could set yourself up as a god!”

“I own . . .  But, she’s your’n, bought n’ paid for.”

“You misunderstand, Captain. I paid you to build your design, and to do a job for me.  I have no use for a submersible, and if the job is done, you and your men are free to get on with your lives.  Frankly, the further you are from here, the better.  I don’t need one of your men getting drunk and talking about what you’ve been doing.”

“Why, yer Lairdship, I had no idea.  You’re sure about this?”

“That’s your ship, Captain.  I’ll send Filmore down with the money.  You can get underway as soon as you’re ready.  You be back here in three weeks, and if I have anything else for you, I’ll give it to you.  If not, you can be on your way with my gratitude.”

“Well, this beats all!  I had no idea, sir.  I still don’t understand, though.”

“The less you understand, the better.  Let’s just say that I have a large plan in motion, and sinking a few ships with your submersible was one part of it.  You and your boys have a nice rest, and I’ll see you in three weeks.”

*          *          *

The Black Maria, San Diego’s polished police paddy wagon, pulled to a halt at the sidewalk across the street from the Tombstone Saloon & Entertainment Emporium.  Deputy Jackson climbed down from his seat beside Deputy Perkins, who had driven down here from City Hall, and waited while he tied one of the horses to the hitching rail out front.  Three more deputies climbed out of the back and arrayed themselves on the sidewalk.

“Remember, men,” he admonished them, “we aren’t here to start trouble, but if trouble starts, don’t fool around.  Everybody ready?”

Nods and grunts of affirmation followed.

“All right.  I’ll do the talking.  Just back my play, and don’t start anything unless someone else does.”

Jackson looked back and forth, ensuring the darkening street was clear, then led his men across Sixth Street, onto the sidewalk, and through the swinging doors of the Tombstone.  The place was crowded, but not near as crowded as it would be in another two hours.  His timing, at least, had been impeccable.  The bartender looked up, took in the party of lawmen, and nodded to Wyatt Earp, who sat beside a faro table near the back, watching the action.  Jackson followed his gaze, and led his men over.

“Deputy.”

“Wyatt.”

“This is quite a crowd.  You boys come to drink, or gamble?”

“Gamble, I guess.  Wyatt, I have to take you in.”

“For what?”

“The murder of Charlie Price.”

“I had nothing to do with that, Deputy.”

“We’ve found some evidence that suggests otherwise.”

“What kind of evidence?”

“This isn’t the place to discuss that.”

“Why not?  You’re discussing arresting me and hauling me out in irons in front of my customers.  At least do them the courtesy of telling them why.”

“It’s none of their business why. Anyway, if this goes to trial, some of them might be on your jury.  You wouldn’t want them to be prejudiced by hearing the evidence in a saloon, would you?”

“That would depend on what the evidence is, wouldn’t it?”

“It might.  Why don’t you come down to the office with us, and see for yourself what it is?

Maybe you can answer it right there.”

“Maybe.”

Earp rose to his feet, a tall man who dominated with his height.  Two of the deputies pushed their coats back and put their hands on their pistols.

“Easy, boys,” Jackson cautioned both sides.  “There’s no need for that.”

“No, there isn’t,” Earp said.  “I’ll come with you and see this ‘evidence.’  You probably want me unarmed.”

“That would be best,” Jackson agreed.

“One of these young hotheads isn’t going to shoot me when I reach to take off my gunbelt, is he?”

“Do it slowly, Wyatt, and there won’t be any trouble.”

Jackson stepped forward into the line of fire.

With a nod, Earp unbuckled his gunbelt and handed it to his faro dealer.

“Take care of that, Tom,” he said.  “I’ll be back for it shortly.”

“I don’t like it, Wyatt,” the man said.

“I don’t either.  Lead on, Deputy.”

Perkins stepped forward, wrist irons at the ready.

“That won’t be necessary, Douglas,” Jackson said.  “This is a gentleman.  We’ll treat him like one.  Mr. Earp?” he added with a gesture toward the door.

With another nod to Jackson, Earp walked out into gathering night.

*          *          *

A block over on Fifth street, and two blocks up, the Oyster was going hammer and tongs.  Friday night was in full swing, three cargomen were moored along the Babcock & Story Wharf, USS Brooklyn was still anchored in the channel awaiting her next escort, and it seemed there weren’t enough brothels, bars, and card tables in Stingaree to accommodate the revelers.  There were shouts, laughter, tall tales being told in every corner, noise to the point that you could barely hear the piano player.  All that, and the night was just getting started.

Isabella was in her element, matching players with games, drinkers with drinks, and making all feel like they were old friends, even those on their first visits.  As she reached around a ranch hand at one of the poker tables to hand him a drink, Youngblood came up beside her.

“I don’t know how you do it,” he said to her, looking around the sea of mostly working men letting off the steam of another hard week.

“Ah, Harold, can you not feel the energy, the excitement?  A room like this is the only place you can be truly alive.”

“You, maybe.  Have you never experienced the wonders of quiet contemplation?”

“Contemplation of what?  Harold, you come into this life with nothing, and you leave with nothing.  The only thing that matters is how much enjoyment you can have while you’re here.  There must be a hundred people in here having fun, and that energy multiplies, person to person, for the good of all.”

“We’ll see what’s good for all when Duncan comes in here shooting up the place.”

“We are ready, Harold,” she assured him.  “The bartenders are ready.  Chato is ready.  I am ready.”

She lifted the ruffles of her left sleeve to show him the pearl handle of her derringer.

“If Ambrose Duncan comes in here to make trouble, he will find more than he bargained for.”

“You think he’ll come himself?  He sends henchmen, Isabella, like the one that was found in our outhouse.”

“He wouldn’t dare start a house war on a hunch.”

“What’s a house war?”

“When a house like the Oyster or the Dusky Rose, thinks it has been wronged beyond tolerating, their men launch an all-out attack on the house that wronged them.  This can go on until there is no one left from one house or the other.”

“A blood feud, then?”

“Exactly.”

“But we haven’t wronged anyone.”

“As I have said.  Mr. Duncan may think we have.  He may even believe we have, but he isn’t going to risk everything on a feeling.”

“I certainly hope you’re right.”

“I’m sure of it.  Uh-oh, time to go to work.”

At the far end of the bar, Chato had just pushed one of the Brooklyn’s sailors back from Helen, one of the girls who had been flirting with them.

“Keep your hands offa me, you God-cursed spig!” the man shouted.  Four of his mates stood in support, ready to go to war on his behalf.

“We have standards here, sailor,” Chato shot back.  “You want to touch the girls like that, pay their price and go up to the room.”

“Whores’re here for gropin’, bucko!” the man bellowed, obviously drunk as a lord.  “You mind yer own business!”

“What’s the trouble here?” Isabella asked, slipping into the space between them.

“This God-cursed ape thinks it’s okay to put his hands on a white man!” the sailor roared.

“He wanted a free feel of Helen’s tit,” Chato said.  “Tore her dress to get it.”

“Mmm.  Why don’t you go up and change, Helen?”

“Yes, Miss Izzy.”  The girl moved quickly away.

“Hey,” the sailor shouted,  “I ain’t done with her!”

“You have been drinking a little, yes?” Isabella asked with a coy smile and a flutter of eyelashes.

“No, Ma’am.  I’ve been drinking a lot!”

“Yes, and now you are risking getting into a bit of trouble.   I’ll tell you what.”

She tapped the bar with the back of her open hand, and Roberto put a brass disc in it.

“You take this,” she went on, slipping the disc into the pocket of the man’s jumper.  “Come back tomorrow, and you can use that to buy a free round for you and all your friends.”

“Yeah?”

“Yes.  You and all your friends.”  She began to steer him toward the door.  “Tomorrow, Saturday.  That is our biggest night of the week, and you bring that coin back, you’ll be treated like a king.  But tonight, well, we can’t have you ripping the girls’ clothes off right here in the bar.  What would your mother think?”

He looked down in surprise at her smiling face, and grinned sheepishly.

“Aw, I didn’t mean nothin’.  I was just havin’ a little fun.”

“I know, but some girls don’t like that.  It’s embarrassing, you understand?”

“Yeah.  I didn’t mean nothin’.  Tell her I’m sorry, okay?”

“You can tell her yourself when you come back tomorrow,” Isabella said, stepping through the door and releasing his arm.  “We will all be happy to see you.”

She stood aside to make room for his mates, who had decided to follow him out, two of them touching their caps with a “G’night.”  Youngblood looked on in wonder as she worked her magic.  With the sailors out, she stepped back in and stopped to give a reassuring smile to Benjamin, the young bartender.  As she did, a tall form in a white suit stepped into the doorway behind her.

“Trouble with the clientele, Izzy?” the deep, rich voice of Ambrose Duncan asked.

*          *          *

Youngblood’s heart rose to crowd his tongue as he took in the spectacle of Ambrose Duncan, the Angel of Death, looming unexpectedly over his hostess.  He patted the gun at his hip as he started over, but Isabella was difficult to surprise.

“What do you want here, Duncan?” she demanded, spinning around to face him.

“Why, Miss Izzy, whatever do you mean?  I just stopped by to have a drink.”

“There are a hundred places to drink, Duncan,” Youngblood said, stepping up behind Isabella.  “Why here?”

“Why not?  We got off on the wrong foot, Youngblood, and that was mostly my fault.”

“That was all your fault,” Youngblood retorted.  “What do you want here, suh?  Spit it out and move on.”

“Well, ain’t you just the cock-o-the-walk?  All right, little man, here it is.  Word’s all over town that you’re worried about me takin’ revenge over Price, and I just came by to let you know that that ain’t gonna happen.”

“Why should I believe that?”

“First, cause Charlie Price was . . .  Well, let’s say he didn’t have the most generous helping of good sense.  He might have got himself into something that wasn’t necessarily what I wanted.  Also, Price wasn’t my man.  He did contract work for some of my friends, and if he got killed over one of their jobs, I’m not about to swing for murder on their account.”

Youngblood tilted his head while he considered this; you could almost hear him thinking.

“Anyway, you owe me a lot of money, so shootin’ you don’t help my bottom line any.  You might say there’s no future in it.”

“You can’t prove any of that, you said so yourself.”

“I also said I’m gonna collect my debt, and you can take that to the bank.  But that’s for another time.  I didn’t come here to have a fight tonight, just to tell you why you don’t need to look over your shoulder, at least, not for me.”

“All right, Duncan.  All right.  I appreciate that.  This don’t mean we’re drinking buddies, though.  I’m going to have to ask you to buy your drink somewhere else.”

“Sure, kid, sure, I understand.  Too much water under the bridge.”

He started to walk away, then stopped and turned back.

“By the way, the marshal’s office arrested your buddy Earp tonight.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You hard of hearing, boy?  Wyatt Earp, arrested.”

“That isn’t possible.”

“Believe what you want, but I saw five deputies loading him the Black Maria on the way over here.  I think they might have expected a fight.  Well, you just have yourself a fine evening now.”

He turned and strolled away down the sidewalk, slowly twirling his cane like a man without a care in the world.

“Wyatt arrested,” Youngblood repeated.

“You can’t believe anything that man says,” Isabella said.  “He is just trying to put us off our guard.”

“Yes, but Wyatt.  I’ve got to find Jackson.”

“You will not find him tonight.  He is working.  We had better do the same.”