First things first: The magnificent building in the photo is ©2013, by Richard Schulte. Built in 1888, the Louis Bank of Commerce was home to the infamous Oyster Bar and Golden Poppy Hotel, once owned by Wyatt Earp, and the focus of much of the action in this story. Preserved today as a historical site, this magnificent photo of the “hotel” above is used with the kind permission of the artist. You can see thousands more of his fine photographs at https://coolsandiegosights.com/
As to the book, this has been in the works since I completed Beyond the Rails III at the end of 2016. San Diego, California, my home town, was in the 1880s the first U.S. port for sailing ships that had “rounded the Horn” around South America with business on the west coast, and Stingaree was her red-light district. The Barbary Coast got the press, and Shanghai had the mystique of the Orient, but Stingaree was every bit as dangerous, and as respected by sailors of every nation as being the third city of the Unholy Trinity of the Pacific. While the nature of its vices changed over the course of a century, it wasn’t completely cleaned up until the urban renovation of the 1980s, and I have walked her streets, and patronized her businesses.
Under construction since the completion of Beyond the Rails III, this is my “other” work in progress, taking a back seat to Beyond the Rails IV for the moment. Stingaree is a full size novel currently sitting at 12½ chapters complete out of a projected 24. I have a tumultuous history with this thing, as it runs in fits and starts, but it is a cherished project about my home, and I refuse to half-ass anything about it. It is a steampunk opus with several historical characters in minor roles, one of them with a “speaking part,” and while this never seems to be my primary project, neither is it ever far off the radar.
Set in the 1880s, as is the majority of my work, it is the tale of an innocent young man from Charleston, South Carolina who has inherited a hotel in San Diego from a cousin he never knew he had. Discarding every vestige of his humdrum life, he makes the grueling journey west to find that the “hotel” he has inherited is actually the most notorious house of ill repute in San Diego’s infamous Stingaree district.
I offer the first three chapters here in the hope that people will like it and say so, thus encouraging me to move it forward. Hopefully, pride in the work and public encouragement will get this moving, and keep it moving. It needs to be told in one form or another, so get your cattle prods ready, and don’t let me get too comfortable here!
The Pacific Mail Steamer City of Topeka wouldn’t have been worth a second glance were she employed shuttling passengers between Manhattan and Long Island, but here on the southern California coast she was considered positively heroic. Plodding to and fro on her route from San Francisco to San Diego, with a mid-journey stop in Los Angeles, her deck had seen many tons of crated cargo and well-dressed travelers.
One such traveler stood on her deck, defying the tiny, stinging droplets of the fine drizzle. He wore an oilcloth slicker over his three-piece suit, and the waterproof wrap hid the lines of his bowler as he sneered at the January weather; as a former resident of South Carolina, if this was what these people called winter, he would have little difficulty maintaining the upper hand.
Still, he reminded himself, taking in the view as the little steamer rounded the cliffs of the bluff headland, he shouldn’t think in terms of dominating the local businessmen. If he was to be an accepted member of the local community, he should make a point of being humble, and not showing up these rubes with the hard-won skills of commerce he had gained back east.
Rubes. What else could they be? A look at this magnificent harbor, and an appraisal of what they hadn’t done with it was evidence enough. A veritable mountain, five hundred feet and more, protected the west side of the bay. To the right as they turned north into the channel was a wide, flat island, much more than a mere sandbar, that curved around to the east and south, enclosing a broad, protected harbor on the shores of which he could see practically nothing. Oh, a few shacks stood on the island, a few more on a stubby peninsula that reached out from the high hill to the west, and he could make out a few buildings across the island on the shore of the bay, but compared to Charleston, this was little more than a red-Indian village, a temporary squat on an undeveloped shore.
For God’s sake, he thought, it’s only eleven years until the new century!
Well, that was why the good Lord had chosen him, Harold Eustis Youngblood, to bring to this wasteland of commerce. He would show them how to build an empire, by God, and he would be remembered!
For Harold Eustis Youngblood had surely been chosen. He had labored in obscurity at old man Pennymore’s freight company. He had begun in a charity job counting boxes, a favor to a family friend. Showing some clerical aptitude, he was given ever increasing duties, learning ever more convoluted tasks, but was never given any but the paltriest salary increases.
“You’ll pan out some day,” the old man would say, and send him off to inventory the latest shipment.
Samantha Fisher was a local belle he fancied he was courting. A beautiful young woman, her family had, like so many, lost everything when Sherman’s ruffians had sacked the city, punishing it severely for being the seat of secession. Somehow, having never seen her family’s plantation house, she managed to carry herself as if she still lived there. Haughty and teasing, she had led Harold on (and unbeknownst to him, a number of others) just far enough to receive expensive gifts, but when he professed his undying love, and asked for her hand in marriage, she had laughed in his face, and asked where he had come by such a ridiculous notion.
So, when he received word from a local law firm that Newton Hamilton, a distant cousin along a great aunt’s branch of the family tree, had died without an heir out in California and left him a hotel, he was primed to believe it was the culmination of God’s plan, and suddenly the setbacks and disrespect he had long-suffered made sense. With neither finance nor sentiment to hold him, he sold everything but his clothes and booked passage to San Francisco on the Transcontinental Railroad, and thence by steamer, to the sleepy little pueblo of San Diego.
Up to this point it had been a grand adventure, and San Francisco was a thriving, if youthfully exuberant city, but now he experienced his first moment of doubt. He could see a cluster of modern buildings up ahead as they rounded the island, and a long wharf extending out into the stream. A flotilla of sleek, armed steamboats came out to meet them, a little tug huffing gamely behind, but this was a far cry from San Francisco. That grand city sat at the tip of a peninsula, and had utilized every square inch. By contrast, San Diego had miles, dozens of miles of shoreline, and barely any of it was being used for anything.
“’Scuse me, Mr. Youngblood,” came a voice from behind him. “Need to get right there.”
Youngblood made way for the sailor, Albert, one of the deck hands, who straightened the mooring hawser that was laid out on deck to run out freely, and tied a light throwing line to the big eye at the end.
“Would you mind telling me something, Albert,” Youngblood asked him.
“If I can, sir,” the sailor said, leaning on the rail, waiting to play his part when they came alongside the wharf.
“Where are all those little gunboats going?”
“Why, they’re comin’ out to meet us, Mr. Youngblood. Everybody gets the royal reception since Mr. Belmont decided to take on the pirates.”
“The pirates? The ones I was told about in San Francisco?”
“Aye, the very same. Not the brightest pirates on the high seas, if you ask me. The owners just tell everybody there’s pirates. You know what that means, and you can make an intelligent decision about whether you want to risk the trip or not, but I don’t think for a minute they’re pirates.”
“Really? Why’s that?”
“Well, what do pirates want, Mr. Youngblood? They want to steal every blessed thing you own, right? Well, these particular pirates don’t steal nothin’. They just sink ships.”
“Aye. Been a good dozen of them in the last, oh… Hey, Miguel,” he called to a mate, “how long ships been sinkin’ down here?”
The sailor, a wiry Mexican, crossed himself before answering.
“Yeah, nine months, that’s about right. First ship was a big barque. Went down right off the island there. She was comin’ up from Mexico way, just makin’ the turn to line up with the channel when she stopped sudden like she’d hit somethin’, went nose down, and settled to the bottom. Happened in minutes. Everybody got off all right, and nobody thought too much about it. Accidents happen, you know, and ships sink. It’s part of life at sea. Well, two, three weeks later, the Alhambra’s comin’ in from Frisco. Big steamer, you know. She’s makin’ the turn off the Point, same as what we just did, and the same thing happens, she stops cold, takes on a list, and sinks by the stern. Went down in a couple of minutes, two dead I think. This time, some of the survivors said they heard a crunch, like timber hittin’ rocks, but some others said they heard an explosion. Either way, nobody’s stoppin’ them to take off cargo.”
“What do you think it is?”
“Me? I think it’s damned spooky, is what I think. This is all sandy bottom around here. There’s no rocks to hit, if you get my drift, sir, and what about that explosion they were talkin’ about? There’s been a good ten more since, goin’ down like clockwork every two or three weeks. That’s how come the escort,” he said, jerking his thumb back toward where the USS Brooklyn, a Civil War-era sloop of war, followed a half-mile back. “Course, she hasn’t made a damned bit of difference. She’s just along to fish folks out of the water when whatever this is strikes. It’s them little boats that have made the difference.”
“Well, the navy came down, ran some patrols, dropped a few bombs in the water, you know how they are, lots of noise and bother.”
“Well, that didn’t help. There was some thought that it might be some kind of sea serpent, so some of the whalers put out and hunted around, but they never found nothin’, and after a month or so, they got bored and gave it up. The head priest come down from Frisco and blessed the harbor. Apparently, this thing, whatever it is, ain’t Catholic, ‘cause that didn’t even knock it off its pace. And then Mr. Belmont stepped in.”
“George Belmont. Local businessman. Owns a shipyard. He repairs ships and builds boats. Well, he decides that whatever this thing is is disruptin’ business, you know, and he’s gonna put a stop to it, so he starts buildin’ these patrol boats and hirin’ crews for them, and the next thing you know, the sinkings start to taper off. They still happen, you know, but not near as often.”
“Because of these boats?”
“Right. The pilot stands in that crow’s nest on the mast, so he has a good view of the surroundings, and can react in an instant to anything he sees. They have a quick-firing gun up front, and they’re all engine, so they can go like a bat out of hell, pardon the language, sir, and they say they have a window in the bottom to see what’s underneath. I don’t know about that, but they escort ships goin’ in and out, and they run patrols, and once in a while you’ll see them shootin’ up the water like the devil himself’s risin’ up, and the sinkings have dropped from every two weeks to every two months. Now there’s talk that Mr. Belmont ought to run for mayor. He’d win, too. All these lost cargoes have been stiflin’ the local economy, and people see him as the savior of the city.”
“How is the local economy here? Would you call this a great city?”
“Great? It’s a city. Feller named Horton touched off somethin’ of a land boom a few years back, but that didn’t lead to nothin’.”
“Why was that?”
“Geography. Great harbor, obviously, but you can’t get nowhere. There’s a mountain range thirty, forty miles east that it took them twenty years to drive a rail line through, and now they can’t keep it open.”
“Landslides mostly, I hear. That and the cost of gettin’ maintenance crews back in there with their gear. The railroad finally gave up, and the main line runs into Los Angeles. There’s just a spur line down the coast now.”
“But surely, a railroad is a railroad. If it connects to one point on the system, it connects to all of them.”
“That ain’t how the money crowd sees it. It costs money to move stuff. Why pay to freight to Los Angeles when you can just start your business there? There was thirty, forty thousand people here this time last year. Now there’s maybe half that, and every trip, we take more out than we bring in.”
“So, why is there a town even here?” Youngblood asked, feeling the first chill of disaster touching at his collar.
“They raise livestock back in the foothills, and there used to be gold comin’ out of the mountains. There’s still prospectors up in there who swear the mother lode’s callin’ to them. I wish them luck.” He spat over the rail.
“You don’t think it’s there?”
“They found the vein, they tapped it out. If there was more up there, somebody would have found it by now.”
“So, you do what, carry hides up north?”
“Hides, beef, candles and mail, suchlike up to the rail heads, then bring in goods for them what live here. And occasionally somebody like you, no offense, who thinks he’s gonna come out here and make his fortune.”
“None taken,” Youngblood said suspiciously, “but what makes you think that?”
“Your clothes, mostly. I’m sure they’re in fashion somewhere, but you’re as out of place here as a Hindu. What you gonna do in Dago? If you don’t mind me asking, of course.”
“Not at all. I’ve inherited a hotel.”
“Yeah?” The sailor seemed impressed.
As well he should be! Youngblood thought.
“The Golden Poppy.”
The sailor turned to him with a startled look, then quickly turned away, put his hand over his mouth, and gave what might have been a cough.
“Sorry,” he said turning back. “The cold irritates my throat. Yeah, I’ve heard of The Poppy.”
“What does that mean, exactly?”
“Just what I said, I’ve heard of it. It’s a well-known establishment among travelers. I’m sure you’ll do fine.”
At this juncture, the tug began to push them sidelong up against the pier, and the sailor had to take his leave to begin his duties.
“When we get tied up,” he said, “we’ll put your gear over on the pier. Then you can hire one of them wagons to take it to the Poppy, or wherever you’re going first. Best of luck, Mr. Youngblood.”
His conveyance, a miniature freight wagon pulled by a single horse that had seen better days, drew up in front of the side entrance of the four-story brownstone on D Street.
“This here’s city hall,” the driver, a middle-aged man with leathery skin and tired expression told him. “Just ask for the land office in the lobby.”
The frigid drizzle had mercifully stopped, but it had converted the ubiquitous grime and horse manure into some mutant form of clinging mud, and Youngblood dreaded the work this would require to bring his shoes back to some semblance of presentability. The lobby was nearly deserted, and he was directed to an office on the second floor in the back.
Several offices along his path were shuttered, and some bore signs announcing their availability; dust stood thick upon them. The office he entered at the end was large enough to make his footsteps echo in its desertion. Behind a counter were a dozen desks, all but one deserted. The waiting area on his side held two-score chairs, not one occupied.
“You lost?” the occupant of the single desk asked, tipping his head back to see his visitor beneath his visor.
“We don’t see many customers in here these days. Thought you might have lost your way.”
“That depends. Is this the land office?”
“Yes, yes it is.” The man got up and approached the desk, pushing up his sleeve garters. “I’m Emil Grigsby. What can I do for you today?”
“Pleased to meet you, Mr. Grigsby. Harold Youngblood. I’ve inherited a business here in town, and I was told by the lawyer who handled the will that I need to register the change of ownership.”
“That’s quite correct. Do you have your papers with you?”
“Yes, sir. In triplicate.” Youngblood placed his valise on the counter and began organizing sheaves of paper.
“Good, good, that will speed the process considerably. What business is it”
“One of the hotels,” Youngblood replied, laying the packets out in order. “The Golden Poppy.”
“The Golden Poppy,” Youngblood repeated, looking up to see Grigsby glaring at him through his spectacles.
“From Newton Hamilton?”
“You knew him, then?”
“Oh, everybody knew Mr. Hamilton. You seem like a decent enough young fellow. How is it you know such a black-hearted scoundrel?”
“Scoundrel? Well, I didn’t actually know him. He’s a distant cousin who was nothing but a name to me until the lawyers came to execute his will.”
“Blood relation, huh? Well, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, if you want my opinion. Did they tell you how this cousin died?”
“No, only that it was unexpected.”
“Huh. It was unexpected if you didn’t know him, maybe. He was gunned down in his own palace of sin, and the law didn’t make much of an effort to find the civic-minded hero who performed the service. He got what was coming to him, and if you’re in the same business, you will too.”
“The hotel business?”
“Hotel? Don’t try to play me for a fool, sonny. I seen ‘em come, and I seen ‘em go. The Golden Poppy’s no more a hotel than that gambling den downstairs is a bar.”
“There’s a bar?”
“Yeah. The Oyster Bar’s on the ground floor. Hotel’s upstairs. They call it a bar, but it has more faro tables than drinking glasses.”
“I don’t know anything about that. I came all the way out here from South Carolina to run a hotel, and that’s what I plan to do.”
“South Carolina, huh? There’s a festering hotbed of insurrection! Just the sort of place to breed a family of Newt Hamiltons.”
“Look, are you going to register this deed, or not?”
“Oh, it will be registered, but there’s questions to be answered first. You must have expected that.”
“You aren’t asking questions. You’re practically accusing me of being a criminal, and I can assure you that I have never committed a criminal act in my life.”
“When a den of iniquity changes hands, Mr. Hamilton—”
“Yes. When a den of iniquity changes hands, it’s just good form for a law abiding, God fearing community to protect itself. And make no mistake, Mr. Youngblood, San Diegans, the real San Diegans who have built this town and raised our families here, do comprise a law abiding, God fearing community, and one day we’re going to sweep the filth out of town, and the filth mongers with it. You might want to decide which side you want to be on come judgment day.”
“It sounds as though I’ve already been judged.”
“Maybe. But even the devil had his chance for redemption. Will you take yours when it’s offered?”
“Undoubtedly. Now, about that deed.”
“Yes, yes. I have to send two off to Sacramento. They’ll send one back with the state seals in place. Until then, you operate under the old license, and show your copy to anyone who questions you. Start checking back in three weeks. You can pick up your sealed copy as soon as it comes in.”
“You won’t send a messenger?”
“I’ll not ask any decent person to visit that cesspool.”
“Cesspool? Really, I must protest!”
“Oh, you haven’t been there yet, have you? You have engaged a driver?”
“Yes. He’s waiting outside.”
“Well, just tell him to take you to the Oyster Bar. Odds are he won’t, but you can probably find one that will if you pay enough. Good luck to you, Mr. Youngblood. You be thinking about that chance for redemption.”
His driver had asked for an extra two dollars to brave the streets south of Market, and by the time Youngblood’s little freight wagon pulled up in front of the Oyster Bar, his carefully imagined dream of lifting a backwater hotel to the status of the cosmopolitan establishments of New York and San Francisco had just about had the life crushed out of it. So it was with some surprise that the wagon stopped in front of a neat granite building on a corner lot, its recessed double doors flanked with large windows, and four stories of regular hotel windows, five wide, above. Gingerbread abounded, as did bay windows in alternating rooms. The street was as quiet as any he had seen, barely anyone moving anywhere in sight.
“I’m confused,” he said to the driver, looking up and down the street. “This is the famous slum that everyone’s afraid to enter?”
“This is it, boss,” the man replied, beginning to climb down.
“But, there’s no one around.”
“Oh, they’re around. Stingaree don’t get goin’ ‘til the sun goes down. I wouldn’t come down here after dark if you filled my wagon with hundred dollar bills.”
He removed the tailgate, and began moving Youngblood’s smaller bags onto the sidewalk.
“Let me just find out where to bring those,” Youngblood said, dropping to the wooden walkway.
“You can put ‘em wherever you like,” the driver said. “I wouldn’t go in there if you gave me the place.”
“Well, I never,” Youngblood remarked, cupping his hands to peer into the window at the edge of the large “closed” sign that took up half of it. Some sort of screen was set in place behind it, and he could make out nothing of the interior. He moved to the door, where another sign hung, and knocked loudly.
“We are closed,” a female voice, rich with a warm accent, called from somewhere back in the building.
“There, you see” his driver asked, “what kind of hotel is closed in the middle of the day? I’ll tell you what I’ll do, if you want to return to your senses. I’ll load your stuff up and take you to a reputable hotel, no extra charge.”
Youngblood didn’t answer, but pounded harder on the door.
“I said we are closed,” the woman shouted. “Come back this evening!”
“You are not closed to me, Madam. I am the new owner.”
There was a mumbled phrase, a pause, then, “Uno momento!”
As keys rattled in the lock, the driver asked, “Are you sure about this?”
“Not entirely,” Youngblood replied, “but I’m going through with it.”
“Your funeral,” the man sighed, and climbed back onto his wagon.
The door opened a crack, exposing one large brown eye, and a cascade of thick black hair.
“Who did you buy the Oyster from, Mister new owner?”
“It was inherited from my cousin.”
“What was his name?”
She opened the door and stood back, inviting him in by her action.
He stepped in and swept his gaze over her. She was Mexican, with cocoa complexion and full lips and bosom, wide hips, and clad in a peasant dress that concealed very little. She was practically naked by his east-coast standards of propriety, and he stood staring for a moment.
“I am Isabella Garcia Lopez,” she said, extending a hand, “the hostess here.”
She waited a short pause, then added, “And you are?”
“What? Oh! Harold Youngblood, late of Charleston.”
He took her hand, unsure how one treated a “hostess,” but when he hesitated, she shook his hand as a man would, and took it back.
“I’m sorry, are you a…”
“No. I am the hostess. I greet the customers, make sure they have what they want before they know they want it, introduce clients to the right girls, and generally keep the good times and the money flowing.”
“Sounds like a big job.”
“It can be.” She started to draw him in.
“I have bags outside. Will they be safe?”
“Certainly not. Chato!”
A big man, over six feet, in suit pants and a white cotton shirt came to her call.
“This is Mr. Youngblood, the new owner. His bags are outside. Put them behind the bar, please.”
“He’s a big fellow,” Youngblood said as he stepped out.
“Chato handles the ones that I can’t charm.”
She began to lead him slowly toward the far back corner on the left, the side that faced the cross street. He took note of the ornate, polished bar that backed against the windows, and a number of gambling tables, mostly faro, but a couple of large round ones that could be used for other card games. A dice pit was set up against the far wall. A small man, bald with spectacular muttonchops, and a woman of exotic features, were setting up the chips at a faro table.
“Charles, Rula,” Isabella said to them, “this is Mr. Youngblood, our new owner.”
“How d’ya do, sir?” Charles said, shaking his hand.
“Youngblood,” Rula said. “Have you Roma blood in you?”
“I’m not sure,” Youngblood said.
“No matter.” She picked up a deck of heavily worn cards from the table. “Cut the deck.”
“Rula, or Madam Corara, is a gypsy,” Charles explained. “She sometimes reads fortunes for our customers. Easiest to humor her.”
Youngblood took a dozen or so cards off the deck she held out and turned them over, exposing a card that showed a naked woman caressing a lion as a bird watched from her shoulder.
“Strength,” Rula said. “Do not give in to intimidation. Take the time to make wise decisions.”
“That’s good advice,” Youngblood said with a smile, and replaced her cards.
“Come,” Isabella said, “You can meet the others this evening as we begin our work. You must be tired after your journey.”
They reached the back corner, and a plain wooden door marked “private.” She opened it to reveal a small office, and ushered him in.
“This was the center of your cousin’s business. Staff has reason to be in and out of here, generally without knocking. However,” she said, opening a latticed door in the corner that looked to be a linen closet, but that revealed a tightly spiraled wrought-iron staircase, “upstairs is a comfortable bedchamber. Your cousin lived at the Cosmopolitan in Old Town, but he spent many a night with us. It’s a comfortable room, and no one goes up there without being invited. I’ll have Chato move your bags into the office. Come out when you are ready, and I’ll show you the operation.”
“Thank you,” he said as she took her leave. “Do you think you could find me a bromide?”
Head spinning with the new information it tried to absorb, he sat down at the desk opposite the door as she took her leave. The office was small, but well-appointed. A single window looked out on the street, with a sheer for privacy. Two plain chairs for visitors sat against the wall. Cubbyholes against the wall held envelopes, rulers, a dish of paper clips and the like. He pulled out the center drawer, finding as he expected pens, inks, writing paper, and a few pamphlets, mostly advertising similar businesses. Flipping through one, he idly pulled out the side drawer. He finished reading the flyer extolling the virtues of the Gilded Harpy on J Street, and tossed it down to look in the drawer.
His eyes beheld an elegantly blued Remington .36 caliber Navy revolver. A black powder cap-and-ball, it was an exquisitely preserved antique with all the accessories. He lifted the powder flask to find it full. A soft pouch contained dozens of rounds, likely formed with the bullet mold that lay beside it. He picked it up and checked the chambers. Empty. He considered loading it, then decided against it. This was hardly the hotbed of crime he’d been led to believe. Just some ordinary, if colorful, business people getting ready for the evening’s trade. Rubbing the bridge of his nose, he closed the drawer and leaned back to wait for his bromide.
Youngblood studied the ceiling, and wondered what use his cousin had found for an elegant old pistol. In a world of magazine loaders, spring wound, hand-held Gatling guns, and even the occasional electric, plasma, or chemical discharge firearm, a man armed with the Remington would have little more impact in a gunfight than a Neanderthal swinging a dinosaur bone. Still, here it was, one more mystery of this unknown cousin, a mystery that added to the growing headache that had settled around his sinuses. He hoped that Isabella would hurry with that bromide. How could this have turned out so wrong?
The door opened instantly after a single soft knock, admitting the hostess with the blessed tumbler full of the grainy white liquid. She sat it on the desk before him, asking if it was bad.
“Not really, just annoying. I think it’s the sudden change in climate. It only took me nine days to get here from Charleston, you know. And then the shock of finding out what this so-called hotel really is. It’s a bit much.”
He drained the bromide.
“What do you know about this gun?”
“Which one,” she asked, picking up the glass. “Newt had several guns.”
“This one,” he replied, opening the drawer and taking out the Remington.
“Ah, the old one. He used to wear that in the bar. Mostly for show, you know. There is a fancy rig that goes with that, probably upstairs in the chest of drawers. You should start. It would look good on you.”
The door opened without a knock, admitting a short but well-built man in scruffy work clothes, a frowning Chato right behind him.
“Whoa, don’t shoot, boss,” he said, holding up his hands. “You must be the new owner, an’ takin’ up right where the old one left off, I see. How’s he workin’ out, Izzy?”
“We’re just getting him settled,” she replied with a nod to Chato, who faded back into the bar. “Harold Youngblood, this is Deputy Douglas Quincy of the San Diego City Marshall’s office. A finer gentleman you’ll be pressed to find,” she added with a curl to her lip that made it clear what she really thought.
“Run on, now, Izzy,” the man said. “Man talk.”
He swatted her on the bottom as she turned toward the door, and just for a bare instant, she spun with a look that made Youngblood glad she wasn’t the one holding the gun.
“Remember what Rula told you,” she said, and went out, closing the door behind her.
“Women, huh?” Quincy said, pulling one of the visitor’s chairs up in front of the desk. “I just got word there’s a new owner—”
“Mr. Grigsby works fast,” Youngblood observed, laying the gun on the desk.
“Well, we all work hand in hand down at city hall. Like to keep a lid on potential problems, one of which could be you.”
“Precisely. Somebody new takes over an established enterprise like the Oyster, we need to find out if he’s gonna cause any waves, like.”
“Cause any waves, Mr. Quincy, is that what you said?”
“You allow an entire district of whorehouses and opium dens to operate like they’re part of the chamber of commerce, and you’re concerned about me making waves? I just want to be sure I understand your position.”
“I can see you aren’t a man for small talk, Mr. Youngblood, and I appreciate that. Let’s talk numbers, then. There are twenty-five deputies in this city. The budget don’t support any more, and we got a full plate of peace-keepin’ to do north of Market.”
“North of Market?”
“The boundary. South of Market Street, you can run a business like this. North of Market is where the decent folk live and do business. You open an outfit like this north of Market, you’ll be in a cell before you can hang your shingle. But down here, different matter.”
“These activities, Mr. Youngblood, the whoring, the gambling, the drugs and all of it, are things that a certain element likes to engage in. You got dockmen, cattlemen, sailors from all the seven seas. You got a Chinatown two blocks from here that’s teeming with Chinee, near three thousand of ‘em. You think any of that lot give a hoot and holler about the law?”
“Well, I don’t know much about the Chinese, constable.”
“We do, Mr. Youngblood. Huge source of crime, that lot. Hell, you got a Chinee whore workin’ in your own establishment, and that’s illegal in itself.”
“I do understand that prostitution is illegal, Mr. Quincy.”
“No, no. It’s illegal in the city of San Diego to employ a Chinee for any job that a white, a Mexican, or an Indian is willing to do.”
“Well, no wonder they turn to crime! How do you expect them to live?”
“We don’t. They built the railroad, they got paid, now they need to go home.”
Youngblood stared in incomprehension. Sure, blacks were oppressed in Charleston. His own father had owned slaves. But to make it illegal for a man to earn a living was a form of oppression he had never imagined might exist.
“Did you come here to make a point, constable, or are we just talking hypothetically?”
“Good, you want to get to the point. Here’s the point, then. There are sixteen businesses in Stingaree that offer prostitutes, the better part of fifty offer gambling games, and a baker’s dozen sell drugs, and offer a place to use them. Twenty-five deputies ain’t gonna make a dent in that.”
“And so we have a sort of unofficial license and operating fee that we charge these businesses to look the other way.”
“You’re here for a bribe, then?”
“Bribe is such a harsh word, Mr. Youngblood. A rose by any other name, and all that? You can look at it as a business license, you can look at it as a pre-paid fine for the illegal activities we all know are being carried out in this establishment, you can look at it in any way you want. The point is, you pay your fee, and you conduct your business free from interference. As long as you don’t escalate to violence against your customers, or your fellow businessmen, of course.”
“Of course. And what does this ‘fee’ amount to, suh?”
“It’s a flat rate, five hundred a month.”
“Five hundred dollars? And you call me a criminal!”
“Now, now, Mr. Youngblood, there’s no need for that. I think you’ll find that you bring in twice that on a typical night. Five hundred once a month for complete peace of mind I think you’ll find to be a bargain.”
“And what do you do with all the money you collect?”
“What does it matter to you?”
“A businessman needs to keep track of his expenditures.”
“Fair enough. It mostly goes to the policeman’s benefit association. Takes up the shortfall in what the city’s able to pay.”
“It goes in your pocket, in other words?”
“Some of it. Again, what do you care? You can run this whorehouse and gambling den without interference, and when you need a lawman, you can call one without fear of bein’ hauled off yourself. On our side, we can maintain better services for everybody because of this here extra money comin’ in. What do you say, Mr. Youngblood, you gonna ride with the tide?”
“I don’t like it.”
“So you’ve said.”
“Look, I haven’t been here an hour yet. I haven’t seen the books, I don’t even know where they keep the money.”
“All right, all right, I understand. You was honest wherever you came from, and now you ain’t. Probably takes a little gettin’ used to. Tell you what, you talk with your employees, spend tonight in the bar, see how things run, and I’ll be back tomorrow to pick up the money. You have yourself a great evenin’, Mr. Youngblood.”
Quincy stood and offered his hand for a shake. Youngblood didn’t take it.
Dusk was falling as Harold Youngblood stepped out of his office onto the floor of the Oyster Bar. What a difference a few hours made! The piano player just inside the door was swinging into his litany of minstrel show songs, and the gas lamps were turned high, banishing the gathering gloom to the street outside. Customers had begun to arrive with the fading of the sun. Already, two faro games were underway, and a group of men waited for more players to arrive at one of the poker tables. Two sailors were chatting with a trio of brightly clad women at the end of the bar. Isabella appeared beside him as if by magic, dressed now in a crimson silk gown with a bodice cut to hide nothing. Its rich color set off her black hair superbly.
“Good evening, Mr. Youngblood,” she greeted him.
“Please,” he replied, “call me Harold.”
“As you wish. How do you like it?”
“Gets very busy, doesn’t it?”
“Oh, we are just warming up. In another hour you won’t be able to walk through here in a straight line.”
“Who are those women?” he asked, indicating the three chatting and laughing with the sailors.
“They are your employees,” she told him. “They work upstairs. Helen is in the yellow, the blue is Janice, and the Chinese girl in green is Mai Lee. Her customers call her Jade. Did you know that their dresses match the color of their rooms?”
“Si. A brilliant idea that Rula had. The customers love it. Come.”
Taking his arm, she led him slowly through the room, observing the faro games, and introducing him to a couple of the regulars. During the course of the tour, he decided that he liked her Mexican accent with its soft vowels and dearth of contractions very much.
“You see,” she said when they reached the far corner, “you have inherited a very lucrative business. Your cousin put a great deal of work into the Oyster, and we can easily bring in a thousand dollars on a good night.”
“Yes, but, my God, it’s all based on sins of basest sort.”
“This is what people want. We don’t force anyone to come here. The man on the north side who sells nails and barbed wire, he struggles to make a thousand in a month. If we are going to hell, we will have a great deal of company.”
“But surely, people must know this is wrong.”
“Does the Bible not tell us, ‘Judge not, lest ye be judged?’ Harold, life here is hard. People work like dogs to earn a living, from the ranchers to the sailors. Who is to judge a man who wants to have a bit of fun at the end of a long week, or to experience at least the illusion of love? This is a new city, and still very much part of the frontier. There are far more men here than women, and most of the women there are are wives of the men.”
At this point, a man jumped up from his seat at a faro table, shouting about a crooked deal. Somehow, barely seeming to move at all, Chato was standing behind him.
“What’s all this now?” Youngblood muttered, taking a step toward the table.
Isabella stopped him with a hand on his forearm.
“I saw you pull that card off the bottom, Floyd, I saw you!”
“I did no such thing, Mr. Gilchrist,” the dealer protested. “I wouldn’t even know how.”
“I saw you do it! I saw him,” he protested, as Chato laid a firm hand on his shoulder.
“Come along, Mr. Gilchrist,” Chato said quietly. “You know Miss Isabella don’t allow this kind of thing in here.”
“Allows her dealers to steal from the customers,” the man snarled, weaving as Chato steered him toward the door.
“Mr. Gilchrist,” Isabella said, stopping his progress, “you should not get yourself so excited. What would your partner think?”
“You shouldn’t steal from your customers,” the man bellowed at her, “and they wouldn’t have to get excited!”
“David, you hurt me. Look around. Do you think all these customers would come here if we were cheating them?”
“He did, I’m telling you.”
“You have been drinking a little, I think.”
He looked at her then like he was seeing her for the first time.
“That’s none of your business!”
“How much did you lose?”
“On one card? You should not bet so heavily.”
With a nod to Chato, she took his arm and led him to the end of the bar, where she whispered something to the bartender. The man went to the far end, and returned with a five dollar note.
“Here, David,” she said, handing it to him, “we don’t want to take your money if you think we stole it. You go home and sleep. When you wake up tomorrow, you will realize that we are not thieves here, and you can come back and lose it again.”
She stretched up and kissed his cheek.
“You be careful going home, now. Don’t let the alley pirates shanghai you.”
“I’m sorry, Miss Izzy,” the man said sheepishly, “but he cheated.”
“I will look into it,” she told him. “Now, you be safe out there.”
She walked him to the door and patted him on the back as he stepped out.
“I say, you handled that brilliantly,” Youngblood told her as she returned to his side.
“We get a lot of practice,” she replied with a small but fetching smile.
“And do we cheat the customers?”
“No. Every dealer is made aware that we do not condone such things, and any dealer caught cheating is dismissed on the spot.”
“What was his beef, then?”
“Mr. Gilchrist likes to drink and gamble, an unfortunate combination. He simply thought he saw something that he didn’t.”
“You’re sure about this dealer?”
“Floyd Carter. Yes, he has been with us from the beginning, and knows very well what we expect. If it were one of the newer ones, maybe, but not Floyd.”
“I’m glad to hear that. It’s enough that I’m running a den of sin. A cheating den of sin might be a bit much for me to take. Tell me, where can I get a good meal around here? Or does anybody eat in this modern-day Gomorrah?”
“Oh, yes,” she said, flashing that smile again. “There is a very good restaurant a block over on Sixth Street that most of us favor. If you can wait twenty minutes, some of the dealers will be going on their break. You shouldn’t go out alone until you know what to expect.”
“I am more than willing to accept your wise counsel, my lady. Twenty minutes it is.”
* * *
The meal had surprised him. Advertised as “southern cooking,” the ham, steamed cabbage, and cornbread had actually been prepared quite authentically, and he had made a mental note to visit often. Now he stood in his best brown suit, white gaiters immaculate, thumb in his waistcoat pocket, on the third step of the broad mahogany staircase, looking out over the bar, his bar, at the late night revelers. Late night. Ten o’clock, time for any decent working man to be in bed, and yet this place was as crowded as a county fair at high noon. The drinking was open and enthusiastically partaken, as was the gambling. He avoided thinking of what was going on a floor above his head.
The glass door swung open, and a man entered, a striking example of the noble African. Tall and lithe like a jungle cat, with skin as dark as the ebony cane he carried, he wore a white suit cut in the western style and a wide-brimmed white hat, with polished shoes and a string tie of the deepest black. He also wore a wide black belt with a pistol of some sort visible under the lie of his coat. He stepped to the bar and began a conversation with Benjamin, the younger of his two bartenders. As the barman placed a glass on the counter and reached for a bottle, Isabella appeared at his side.
“You see the darkie who just came in?” she asked.
“One could hardly miss him.”
“He is Ambrose Duncan, owner of the Dusky Rose. He had some sort of dealings with Newt.”
“What sort, exactly?”
“None of us know. It was private.”
Duncan turned with a tall drink in his hand, looked toward them, then started their way.
“His cane is embossed with his initials, AD. Many people here say it stands for Angel of Death. Be careful, Harold Youngblood,” she finished, and melted into the crowd.
“Mr. Youngblood?” Duncan asked from the floor in a voice as deep and tranquil as a bottomless pool.
“Yes, I’m Harold Youngblood.”
“Ambrose Duncan.” The men shook hands. “I assume your young hostess has filled your ear with a dramatic description of my shortcomings.”
“To a point.”
“Well, when a man sees to his business interests, he acquires something of a reputation. Is there somewhere we can talk?”
“We’re talking now, aren’t we?”
“If you’d care to air this matter in public, I don’t object.”
“No one is paying any attention to us.”
“Your hostess is,” Duncan said with a nod to where Isabella loitered at a card table almost under the stairs.
Youngblood gave a sniff of laughter.
“My office, then?”
“Lead the way.”
Youngblood did so, negotiating the shifting paths through the crowd, and noticing that a good number of people moved to make an opening for the tall black man. He ushered him into the small office in the corner and offered him a seat. Moving behind the desk, he sat down.
“So, Mr. Duncan, what brings you to my humble establishment this fine evening?”
“I’ll be direct, Mr. Youngblood. Your predecessor, Mr. Hamilton, was a friend of mine. He got himself into some trouble with an undesirable element, and I loaned him fifty thousand dollars to get himself out of it. I expect that loan to be paid back, and he expected to pay it. Then, of course, came his unexpected demise.”
“What could he have possibly done to need fifty thousand dollars, and why would he have to borrow it if he did? This place looks like it’s making money faster than they can print it.”
“That doesn’t mean he saved it. Mr. Hamilton had a penchant for, shall we say, questionable investments? A gold mine in the hills, a rail line to Yuma, abalone farms in the Channel Islands. Do any of those things sound marginal to you, Mr. Youngblood?”
“Your tone suggests that they are.”
“Just so. I don’t know what Newt got himself into. That wasn’t part of the conversation. He was a good friend in need, and I gave him what he needed, which was a larger loan than any of those stodgy banks Northside would have allowed him. He had paid back a portion of it. Eighteen thousand, at a thousand a month. So I’m out thirty-two thousand, and I’ve come to see whether you intend to honor the debt.”
“The money wasn’t loaned to me, Mr. Duncan.”
“It was loaned to this establishment, sir, and I don’t mean to cut my losses.”
“I assume you have documents to back up your claim?”
“Hamilton’s word was his bond. His handshake was his document.”
“You’re saying you have nothing, then”
“I have the word of the former owner that this establishment was good for the debt, and I mean to collect it.”
“With no proof it was ever owed? Mr. Hamilton is dead, and all he owned was this bar and its associated enterprises, which he passed on to me through a lawful will. Perhaps you should pursue your claim through the courts.”
“Very clever, Youngblood.”
No “mister” this time.
“Pursue a claim without documents is your advice, is it? I have the sort of document right here that is recognized throughout Stingaree.” He patted his holster.
“Are you threatening me, Mr. Duncan?”
“I’m a businessman. I don’t make threats, I point out conditions. While I’m pointing things out, I should point out that we had a sub-clause in our verbal contract. If for any reason he couldn’t pay the debt, I would receive a quarter interest in the Oyster.”
“You really are a wastrel of the first order, suh. You come into my business, unknown to me in any way, display a firearm, and tell me you’re entitled to thousands of dollars and part interest? There are words for bounders like you, but I am too much a gentleman to use them!”
“No, you’re a welsher. Newton Hamilton was a gentleman. His word was gold all over Stingaree. There wasn’t a person in this place he didn’t make deals with, and all without a contract. He borrowed money from me on the strength of his word. It isn’t my fault he’s dead, and I mean to collect my loan.”
“I’ll have to make some inquiries,” Youngblood said.
“You do that. Don’t take too long about it, though. This is a tough district, and things have a way of happening to people. By the way, I don’t like your attitude, so I’m tacking on a five thousand fee for questioning my integrity, and I mean to collect that, too. That’s my word, sir.” He stood to his full height, something over six feet. “Good evening.”
He let himself out and slammed the door.
Tuesday, January 22nd, 1889
Youngblood awoke in the diffuse light of mid-morning. His sleep had been dogged by fitful dreams, none bad enough to wake him, but leaving him oddly fatigued. His eyes told him he wasn’t about to be fully rested, but his mind would have none of it, demanding more answers to the ever-mounting questions about his unknown cousin’s bequest. He sat up on the edge of the bed and looked around at the room.
In his initial sleep-fogged state, he didn’t recognize it, but he soon saw it for the small bedroom above his office in the Oyster. It could be nothing else, as he hadn’t found time to engage quarters in one the town’s hotels, and as he took in the cozy surroundings, it occurred to him that perhaps he wouldn’t. He rather liked the closeness, the difficult access for any intruder to negotiate, the close-to-hand appointment of bed, dresser, and chest of drawers that he could almost reach all of without taking a step. It was a wood-and-plaster womb to which he could retreat to lie in the fetal position, out of reach of the lunacy going on downstairs. Or so he felt.
He stood, stretched, used the chamber pot, and dressed in a comfortable travelling suit. Setting his favorite bowler atop his head, he looked out the window at the sidewalk across the street, bedroom to a handful of less fortunates, and made his way down the slender wrought iron stairs to the office below. Opening the door, he found Isabella sitting in his office chair counting a fistful of currency.
“Don’t you ever sleep?”
“Sleep? I have heard of it. I think I might like to try it sometime.”
“Insolent wench. What time is it?”
“Time for you to go to work. There is a man waiting to see you in the bar.”
“Good Lord, again?” He glanced up at the wall clock. Nine-thirty. “Who is this now, the king of California?”
“No one so important. This man’s name is William Jackson. He is Quincy’s superior.”
“Christ, he’s here about the bribe. I didn’t think they’d be so punctual.”
“When there is a question of money, jefe, all men are punctual.”
“I suppose. What do I need to know about this fellow?”
“That he almost never comes down here. They must think you very important for their boss to come see you. Jefe a jefe, so to speak.” She smiled at her own witticism.
“How do I rate such treatment?”
“I told you.”
“Tell me again.”
“We are a big operation down here. Most places have drinking, or girls, or gambling. We have it all. The smaller places look to the bigger ones for leadership, and if they see us decide not to pay, they start getting ideas, yes? The men collecting the money cannot allow that to happen, so they have to remind us of our obligation.”
“And Newton paid this?”
“Si. Oh, he didn’t like it any more than you do, but it is how business runs when your business is sin, yes? You pay a little, things go smooth. You don’t, then every time there is a problem with a customer, another business, the snooty people northside, then the law is against you. The price is not so great, really.”
He noted with some irony that she was punctuating her words by waving that fistful of five- and ten-dollar bills around.
“Just pay it, then?”
“It’s your business. I would pay it. I’ve seen a few who didn’t. It didn’t go so well for them.”
With a sigh and a nod, he stepped out to face Mr. William Jackson. He wasn’t hard to find, being the only man in the bar at this hour. Mr. Jackson was a man of medium height and slender build who nicely filled his off-the-rack blue suit. His coffee complexion and tightly-curled hair marked him as a mulatto. Youngblood walked right up to him.
“Mr. Jackson, I presume?”
“That’s right. Youngblood?”
“Mister Youngblood, yes. What can I do for you, suh?”
“Look, Mr. Youngblood, if you want to go through this song and dance, it’s all right by me, but I’ve known Miss Lopez for a long time, and I’m reasonably sure that she’s just been educating you on what to expect from me, so let’s work from that premise, shall we?”
“All right, then, Mr. Jackson, you seem to hold all the cards. May I assume that you’re going to deal some at some point?”
“I am, indeed. Is there someplace we can talk?” He jerked his head pointedly toward the bartender, busily cleaning glassware at the far end of the bar.
“This is fine. Apparently, everyone knows about this bribery business but me.”
“This ain’t about that,” Jackson whispered, leaning close. “This is for your ears only.”
Youngblood’s mind raced. Not about the bribe? What else could he want?
He led Jackson to a faro table in the far corner, secluded beneath the stairs to the girls’ rooms. He took the corner seat facing the door, and laid his bowler on the table.
“Say your piece, Mr. Jackson.”
“Call me William,” the policeman said, pronouncing it “Wee-yum.”
“Maybe. What’s on your mind?”
“Well, Mr. Youngblood, everything I’ve heard about you suggests that you’re an honest man who’d like to stay that way.”
“That’s essentially correct.”
“Well, as you’ve no doubt seen, there’s nothing down here that can be remotely described as honest. As a general rule, we charge the businesses to let them run. The businesses run whores, serve watered-down liquor, and cheat at cards. Everybody in general has a good time, there’s some fleecing and pickpocketing and the like, and if the businesses don’t let that get out of hand, we don’t bother them too much. But there’s bigger things that go on down here.”
“Murder, Mr. Youngblood, first and foremost. People disappear, male and female. Most of the men, we suspect, wind up on ships headed for the Orient. The women too, only in their case, they’re mostly going as slaves. Crime doesn’t stay small, Mr. Youngblood. You let somebody profit by a small crime, and he’s going to try a bigger one. If that works, a bigger one yet, and so on. You see where this is going?”
“I see where you’re taking it.”
“I don’t think you do.” He lowered his voice further. “Mr. Youngblood, you want to stay honest. I want a pair of eyes down here. I think we can find a middle ground.”
“What are you saying, Mr. Jackson?”
“I’m dealing my cards, sir. You work for me, and I mark your business fee paid.”
“Work for you in what way?”
“You have one of the key establishments down here. Keep your eyes open, listen to conversations. Take in the rumors. If you hear anything that sounds like it could be useful to me, pass it along.”
“What would you consider useful?”
“That’s hard to say, Mr. Youngblood. I doubt anyone is going to speak about a slavery ring in the middle of this bar, but it could happen. But other things less, should we say, dramatic than that could be useful as well. Sometimes a few little items can be combined into one big one.”
“And that’s all you want, just information?”
“That’s more than you might think, Mr. Youngblood. Nobody down here will talk to a deputy. One pair of well-tuned ears in the right place could be well-worth five hundred a month.”
“What if it doesn’t work out?”
“We can always revert to the other arrangement. Would you care to try it for a month, see whether it’s productive at all?”
“I believe I would. That might be a redeeming activity.”
“Could be. Of course, anybody down here tumbles to the fact that there’s a spy in their midst, your life won’t be worth a wooden nickel. What I suggest, Mr. Youngblood, is that you go to your office and get me an envelope stuffed with paper so it looks like a big wad of cash. That’s what people expect to see, so that’s what they’ll see. And not a word about this to anybody.”
“Be especially careful around Isabella. She smart, and she knows how things work here. If she figures out what you’re up to, you’ll be at her mercy, and that’s not a place I’d care to be.”
“Of course. Wait right here.”
Youngblood walked back to the office where Isabella had put the money away and was adding a column of figures.
“Isabella, I need five hundred cash.”
“Decided to pay, did you? It’s for the best.”
She reached under the desk and pulled a hidden lever, and a panel underneath released. Opening the hidden compartment thus exposed, she took out a flat box, unlocked it, and counted out ten fifty-dollar bills before handing them to him.
“Thank you,” he said as she returned the box to its hiding place. “Envelope?”
She pulled one from the pigeonhole and passed it over.
“Go see if Robert needs anything for the bar, would you?” he asked, stuffing the bills into the envelope. “If he needs a store run for anything, I have a few items I’d like to add.”
“You don’t want me to finish here first?”
“No, this will wait. I need a few toiletries, and we might as well get everything in one trip.”
She stood and walked out into the bar. Youngblood pocketed the five hundred, pulled some sheets of foolscap from the desk drawer, folded them into thirds, and stuffed them into the envelope in place of the money. He licked and sealed it, making a horrible face at the foul-tasting glue, and followed her out. Lifting the envelope to her as he passed the bar, he walked to where Jackson waited by the table and offered it to him.
“A pleasure doing business with you, Mr. Youngblood,” Jackson said, shaking hands with him as he pocketed the package of worthless paper.
“Same to you, suh,” Youngblood said, and added, “Call me Harold.”
* * *
And a few steps up the staircase, just behind the wall that blocked the view of anyone on the floor, a pair of smoky eyes widened in surprise at what their owner had just heard.
* * *
“How did it go?” Isabella asked, opening the office door after her one quiet knock.
“What?” Youngblood, lost in thought, had no idea what she was talking about.
“With Señor Jackson.”
“Oh. Sticks in my craw, that’s all. This isn’t how you do legitimate business.”
“I keep telling you, this is not a legitimate business. The policia can cause us no end of trouble unless we pay them not to.”
“I’m not sure I want to conduct this sort of business.”
“Well, this is the sort of business it is. What are you thinking, to turn this into a real hotel?”
“It’s an idea.”
“Well, don’t get too matrimonial with it. You know where we are, and no respectable traveler is going to come southside looking for a place to sleep.”
“Yes, and that’s the problem, isn’t it?”
“Si, and it will always be the problem. It is good you paid. Señor Jackson never comes down here himself. They would not have waited much longer without making an example of us.”
“He warned me not to trust you,” Youngblood said, “but I have to trust someone, and I think he’s wrong about you.”
He reached into his inside pocket and produced the $500.00, laying it on the desk.
“You’d better put this back in the strongbox.”
“You did not pay? Madre de dio!” She made the sign of the cross. “I can only pray that no one gets hurt.”
“Is it really that bad?”
“Look around here, baboso! Where do you think you are, in an English drawing room? This is the furthest edge of the great frontier. Civilization as you know it is years away from here. Men kill each other over a handful of pesos. Do you think the policia are going to walk away from hundreds of dollars with a shrug of their shoulders? If you are going to cling to your drawing room sensibilities, maybe you should make a deal with Señor Duncan while you can still hold a pen!”
“Maybe I will! Only if his claim is honorable, though. I don’t intend to pay anyone a vast sum of money because they walk in here and say I owe them. This is still the United States of America, even this far away from the capitol. There are laws.”
“And we are breaking a hundred of them every time we open our doors! Señor Youngblood, there is a saying I have heard you Americanos use. ‘When in Rome…’”
“‘Do as the Romans do.’ I’ve heard it. If I walk into a room where a man is being beaten to death, am I obligated to join in because everyone else is doing it?”
“This is not the same, and you know it. This is not violence, this is the prevention of violence. Harold, listen to me. This is not about your principles. You are putting us all at risk with your stubbornness. Me, Chato, the dealers, the girls upstairs, any of us could be used to show you the wages of stubbornness. Is that what you want?”
“Of course not.”
“Then pay him! Give Señor Jackson his money, and all of this will go away.”
“All right, Isabella, I’ll consider it. Now, would you be an angel and fetch me a bromide?”
“Of course.” She laid a folded piece of paper on the desk before him. “Roberto’s list.”
“List of what?” he asked with a blank look.
“The list for your market run,” she told him. “You’re going after sundries, yes?”
“Oh, right, of course,” he stammered, “sundries. Right away. First, though, the bromide?”
With an eye roll and a head shake, she turned to the door.
* * *
Roberto retrieved the crushed white powder from the cabinet beneath the bar, mixed it with water from the service pipe, waited for it to foam, and handed it to Isabella. When she returned to the office, giving her customary single knock then coming straight through, she was greeted by the sight of Youngblood sitting at the desk loading the ancient pistol.
“Oh, good, you’re back,” he said without looking up.
“What are you doing?” she asked as she placed the grainy liquid on the desk.
“What does it look like?”
“I looks like you are going to invite someone to kill you.”
“Actually, I’m uninviting them. Apparently the only way to get any respect in this town is to be ready and able to kill people. So be it. This old blunderbuss will do the job nicely.”
“Harold, listen to me. If someone walks in here and kills you, an unarmed man, they will go immediately to the gallows, and everyone knows it. You are protected by this fact that is bigger than you or anyone else. But if you put on a gun, there are questions. Who started it? Were you looking for a fight? Were you shot in self-defense? As soon as you put that gun on, people will assume you intend to use it.”
“Maybe I do. Isabella, this is my second day here, and I’ve already had my life and well-being threatened multiple times, twice by policemen, and once by a man who claims that part of my business belongs to him. I’m thinking that a gun worn openly will make them think twice about dismissing me as prey for their greed. You said yourself it would look good on me.”
“A joke! Something to say! I do not need another dead boss. I implore you not to do this thing.”
He rammed a ball with the lever beneath the barrel, completing the loading of a chamber, then laid the pistol on the desk.
“Tell me, Isabella, how did you keep Duncan from taking over when Newton died?”
“Oh, the Commerce Committee took care of that.”
“The Commerce Committee?”
“Si. A board composed of the owners of businesses in Stingaree. They held back Señor Duncan’s ambition in the hope that the new owner would be someone they could manipulate. One does not manipulate the Angel of Death.”
“They will find me of sterner mettle. What is this Commerce Committee, and at what point in the relationship were you going to tell me about them?”
“Never, of course. I am not of that world, and it is not my place to speculate on their affairs. I would not have mentioned it now, save for the fact that you are about to do something very foolish.”
“Of course, the gun.”
“But I am now a Stingaree business owner. How am I expected to find out about them if my right hand woman doesn’t tell me?”
“They are watching you, Harold, to see how you are going to act. They watch every new owner for a few days or a week or two, and only when they see how he is as an owner do they openly approach.”
“And you knew about this all the time?”
“Who does your loyalty belong to, Isabella? You obviously don’t see yourself as working for me. Who do you work for?”
The question took her aback, and she wondered if she was about to be dismissed. She would have to be very careful.
“I work for the Oyster. This bar is where my loyalty lies, this and the rooms upstairs. Keeping this operation moving smoothly pays me a wage that enables me to live in a private room, and buy the occasional pretty, and act like a human being. Do you have any idea what it is like for a girl from central Mexico to come here from a shack and try to find work? You don’t speak the language, you don’t look right, you aren’t white enough. It was only by the grace of your cousin Newton that I didn’t wind up as one of the girls upstairs. With the skills I have learned on this job, I will someday manage one of the great hotels.”
He didn’t rise to the bait. He understood more than she thought, having come from Charleston and seen former slaves that no one would hire turn to lives of crime, or shuffle off north, all their worldly goods tied in a handkerchief on a stick. Yes, he understood her better than she thought.
“I’m sorry,” he said to her surprise. “I was out of line. I just don’t know what to do, what the rules are here. It’s like the convicts have been left on their own to run the prison, and everything I do is wrong. You are really my only contact with all this, and if I can’t rely on you, I’m in more trouble than I thought.”
“You can rely on me, Harold. In a very real sense, you are the Oyster. Your success is in my best interest, and I will help you any way that I can.”
“Does that help run to not keeping secrets from me?”
“Unless keeping a secret would help you.”
He sat back and stared at her for a moment, then gave a full-throated laugh.
“What a typically female answer!”
“Well, Harold, you know, I am a typical female.”
He laughed again and leaned forward extending his hand.
“Somehow, I’m inclined to doubt that! Pax?”
“Pax. It’s the Latin for peace.”
“Ah, pax!” She stepped forward and shook his hand.
“Harold, there is one favor I would like to ask of you.”
“I have a friend in town who knows something of guns, and what it means to wear one. I would ask that you do not put that gun on until you talk to him.”
“And he would be willing to do that?”
“For me, he would. I will bring him to the bar tonight. If he cannot convince you, then you wear your gun and get yourself killed, and I will learn to get along with yet another boss.”
* * *
“This meeting of the Northside Businessmen’s Association will now come to order,” the immaculately groomed older gentleman intoned. “As is customary, Chairman George Belmont will be presiding. Is the secretary ready to proceed?”
“Ready, Filmore,” a young man, barely out of his teens, announced from a side table as some three dozen men in formal attire found their places in the rows of chairs aligned facing a raised dais.
“Very well. Mr. Belmont, sir, you may begin.”
“Thank you, Filmore.”
George Howard Belmont, an expansive man, the product of sumptuous meals, looked out across the assembled gallery, then raised his gaze suggestively to take in the spectacular view through the open double doors and the windows on each side. He looked out from a height across the long curve of San Diego bay, the rising sticks of Babcock’s Folly on the island, and the modern city of San Diego on the shore beyond.
“Gentlemen,” he began. “Colleagues. I stand before you at this fortnight’s meeting to raise a question of propriety, a question of right, a question, gentlemen, of simple business, and what is right and proper for business in this fair city.”
Often it was the case that conversations interrupted by the call to order would continue in the audience as the first speaker began his topic. Not so today. Belmont understood well the dramatic pause, as was to be expected of the New York politician he once was, and he used it well to draw his listeners in.
“San Diego is drying up,” he continued. “That’s right, friends, the city is bleeding, nay, hemorrhaging residents, as manufacturers, shippers, and speculators move north to Los Angeles and San Francisco. We here are being left with the dregs, the leftovers, plain and simple, of this exodus to the north. The great Alonzo Horton’s vision is dying, snatched from us by not only an accident of geography, but the dilution of the race!”
The swelling crescendo of his speech brought men to their feet with shouts of outrage.
God, this was so easy, he thought, waiting for his audience to get control of themselves once more.
“What of the great resort?” someone had the temerity to ask.
“The Hotel del Coronado,” Belmont sneered. “Babcock’s Folly, as I name it. Elisha Babcock believes that he can raise a luxury hotel and spa on a godforsaken sand bar on the farthest edge of the continent, and people will flock to it to frolic on the beach for a handful of days. Lunacy! You are all wealthy men. Do any of you travel the world to play? Of course not! None of us here became wealthy by squandering money in such frivolous pursuits. No, Mr. Babcock thinks that recreational tourism will become an industry. Well, my reply to Mr. Babcock is that people may well travel to see the monuments of Washington or the skyscrapers of New York, but what do we have here, gentlemen? Do we have any great battlefields or classical ruins? Theater? Art? No. What we have is a great harbor, and no means to make it commercially viable.”
“We provide a great service to ships coming around the Horn.”
“You refer to coal and ballast, brother?”
“Services only made necessary because they stop to offload goods for those too stubborn to leave, a few ranchers, farmers, and loggers, mostly. But we digress.”
He cleverly included his audience in the “blame” for taking the conversation astray.
“Growing our city is work for the politicians. They are ones whose responsibility it is to solve that problem. We are businessmen, and we have formed this organization to address and correct the problems of business that interfere with the success of our efforts to provide a livelihood for our families. Now the good Lord knows that there are problems enough to go around, most of them of a geographical nature, but there is one insidious cancer that affects us all, eroding our profits and conspiring to make our businesses ultimately unprofitable and unsustainable. I think you all know that that problem is race.”
Murmurings broke out in the gallery. Belmont let it go on for a few moments, then brought the group back to focus.
“Gentlemen, it is no surprise that the whole region is overrun with Mexicans. In fairness, they were here first, laying about, taking their siestas, squandering the promise of this rich land until the white race came and took possession of it. Then there are the coolies down south of Stingaree, breeding like cockroaches, looking for handouts, getting in the way of everything, and maybe the most egregious of all, there is at this moment, as we speak, gentlemen, a free Negro who owns one of those filthy establishments in Stingaree, and by all accounts, is raking in money hand over fist.”
“Successful, then?” someone asked from the floor.
“Very successful, brother, and think of the message that sends! Look, I have nothing against our former slaves. I employ two in my own establishment, and pay them a decent wage, but every dollar that’s spent in that man’s saloon is a dollar that a white merchant, that you don’t get, and make no mistake, people are watching. The Mexicans, the coolies, the other blacks are all taking note. They see a black man, the lowest of the low, making a go of it, and if that’s allowed to continue, why, the next thing you know, they’ll all be setting up shops. A God-fearing white man, you, brothers, won’t be able to put food on your families’ tables anymore. Those people aren’t like us. They’re from different cultures, they have different ways. They don’t have ethics. They’re dishonest. They lie, they cheat, they steal. How are we going to compete with that sort of people?”
“I thought you said they were lazy,” a very young man spoke up, drawing a fierce glare from Belmont that froze him in his tracks.
“They are, young brother. Who are you?”
“Richard Merriweather, sir.”
“Son of James Merriweather?”
“That’s right, sir.”
“Well, you ask your father, young Mr. Merriweather, what effect all these blacks, browns, and yellows have on business. He’ll tell you some tales about Mississippi and the New Mexico Territory that’ll set you straight. They cheat because they’re lazy. They can’t compete with a hard-working white man, so they have to take short cuts to harm your business, to negate the effect of your work. Now, is there anyone else who doesn’t understand the situation?”
He cast his glare around the room like the focused beam of a lighthouse beacon. Everyone else understood.
“Good. Now I say it’s time to put a stop to this nonsense, and I’m calling for a vote to have the action committee pay this nigger a visit. All in favor?”
A chorus of ayes! rang out in the room.
“I’m opposed,” said an older gentleman with white hair and beard, a still-trim figure rising to his feet in his three-piece suit. “The action committee hasn’t been employed in six months. I thought we had moved past such tactics.”
“Well, you heard the vote, Doctor. People are tired of sitting still and watching these vermin destroy their businesses.”
“I heard the vote,” the old man said. “I notice that you called it without a rebuttal speaker.”
“Do you wish to speak? I yield the floor.”
“Oh, I’m no speaker, George. I just think you’ve whipped these men up to do the wrong thing.”
“What do you think we should do, Doc, buy him a train ticket and politely ask him to leave? The action committee can be a bit more direct.”
“If by direct, you mean illegal, yes, they most certainly can. You’re going to bring the marshal’s office down on our heads if you aren’t careful.”
“The marshal’s office? Phillip, the marshal’s office has more to worry about than one nigger in Stingaree. Hell, if a day goes by that somebody doesn’t get killed down there, it’s newsworthy.”
“So he’s to be killed, is he?”
“The action committee will determine what’s best.”
“The action committee takes its marching orders from you.”
“Only in the most general terms. Now you heard the vote, Doctor. You were offered a chance to speak, and you declined. If you want to stand in opposition, that’s your prerogative, but you’ll be held to your oath. Not a word of this to anyone, understand?”
“I know the oath, George.”
“Good. Now we’ll take a couple of days to gather information, and then we’ll send our message. Is there any further opposition?” He looked around the room. “Doctor Greene?”
“Wouldn’t be much point, would there?”
“No, there wouldn’t. All right, moving on with the agenda, our next speaker needs no introduction…”
* * *
The fact was that Youngblood’s favorite hat had been ruined, smashed in shipment. Though he liked the simplicity of the bowler, the message it sent to the world was “here is a common laborer,” and as he was now a business owner, it simply wouldn’t do. As he had committed himself to making the liquor supply run for the bar in order to get Isabella out of his office, he’d might as well explore the town a bit. So clad in his best white Charleston suit, he centered the offending bowler on his head and set off west toward Front Street.
Front Street was the location of the Calhoun Brothers shipping agents, and he left Roberto’s liquor order there for delivery in a day or two. Then he turned his steps north toward the imaginary line of demarcation that was Market Street. He saw no particular difference this second time he crossed it, but as he reached the north sidewalk, he felt eyes on him, the feeling of the outsider who knew he didn’t belong.
Following Isabella’s directions, he continued on for five blocks, marveling at the electric street lights and streetcars running the length of D Street, headed back east, and found George Marston’s “department store.” This cosmopolitan product of a big eastern city had never seen the like. Shops in his experience were either specialty or general, but here on this large open floor were racks of women’s ready to wear dresses, gentlemen’s suits and work clothes adjacent, labor saving appliances for the home, tack for the horse, all presented in orderly displays ready for viewing. Admiring the genius of it all the while, he located the haberdashery “department” just behind the men’s wear, and with the help of a knowledgeable clerk, selected his replacement, a wide-brimmed cream-colored plantation hat that fairly shouted opulence, not least by its price. Bowler now carried in a complementary box, he made his way to the city’s administration complex to look in on his new partner.
Escorted to the correct location, he knocked twice on the frame of Deputy Jackson’s office, thinking that closet would be a more apt description, and when Jackson looked up to see him, his look of horror made Youngblood look behind himself to see what monster might be approaching.
“Have you taken leave of your senses?” Jackson asked in astonishment. “Get in here, quickly!”
As he stepped in, Jackson got up and closed his door.
“How many people know you’re in here?”
“Just the man at the front desk.”
“That’s bad enough. What’s happened that’s so almighty important that you had to come up here in person?”
“Nothing in particular.”
“Nothing in particular? You’re quite mad, you know. What did I tell you about anyone finding out that you’re working with me in any way?”
“That it wouldn’t be a good idea?”
“Quite. And now you walk into my office in broad daylight? I can only assume that you’ve heard something so almighty important that it can’t possibly wait for me to come around.”
“Oh, you’ll be coming around?”
“What do you think?”
“Well, you weren’t exactly clear about it.”
“Jesus, man, do I have to draw you a picture? What were you in Charleston, the village idiot?”
“There’s no reason to take that attitude.”
“There is every reason, you dolt! You’ve been in Stingaree for a couple of days now. Have you looked around down there? Have you met anyone? That place is full of people who will kill you over a dirty look, and you take it on yourself to walk into the marshal’s headquarters? Jesus!”
“Well, if you want news for a visit, I did have my life threatened by a gentleman last night who said he had a claim on part of the Oyster.”
“That could be interesting. Who was this gentleman?”
“The Angel of Death?”
“What did you do to attract the attention of that particular worthy?”
“He claims he had a deal with my cousin, the former owner. He’d loaned him fifty thousand dollars. Newton had repaid eighteen, but still owed him thirty-two when he died. He’s of the opinion that I owe him the balance.”
Jackson gave a long, low whistle at this revelation.
“Isn’t there anything you can do? Lock him up, maybe? There has to be law against issuing death threats.”
“Mr. Youngblood, if we locked up everyone in this town who made threats against each other, there wouldn’t be anyone walking around free. Were there any witnesses?”
“I fear not.”
“Well, there you are. What did he say he was going to do?”
“He said his agreement with Newton was that if he couldn’t repay the debt, then he would give him a quarter-interest in the business. He said it was his intention that I was to honor it, and that he wouldn’t wait long for my response.”
“What do you intend to do?”
“I’m not sure. I don’t like it, though.”
“I shouldn’t imagine you would. I don’t think you’re in any immediate danger, though your employees might be.”
“He might use one of them to hasten your reply.”
“Oh, I see. That would be unfortunate.”
“Yes, it would. And if he does that, there won’t be anything traceable back to him.”
“Meaning that you can’t do anything?”
“I’ll keep an eye on the situation, of course, but there’s damned little I can do if he doesn’t step out of line. If I were you, Mr. Youngblood, I’d be sleeping with one eye open.”
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson, that’s very comforting.”
“All just part of the job. Here,” he said, reaching into his desk drawer, “here’s a map of the city. Shows the important businesses and all. If anybody asks what you were doing in here, tell them you came to get that.”
He got up and opened the door.
“Go down there, turn left, and take that long hall out to the front of building. If you come out the door of city hall, it won’t look quite so suspicious. And try to relax. I’ll be around.”