American alternate-history steampunk.
| A while back in a blog post titled "The Great White Whale" , I offered a lengthy discussion of that project that many of us have that, no matter what we do, simply will not come to completion. Mine is titled Stingaree, and is a steampunked alternate history of my home town, San Diego, California. San Diego was home to a waterfront red-light district known as Stingaree that was pound-for-pound the equal of any seaport on the Pacific Rim. San Francisco's Barbary Coast got the publicity, most likely because it was, you know, San Francisco, but Stingaree had longevity on its side. Its origin is hard to pin down, most sources citing the early 1880s for its formal genesis, but it quickly became famous for whore houses, opium dens, and gambling establishments, as well as sailors ordering a drink and waking up two days later on a tramp bound for Macao and points east. This activity (with the possible exception of the kidnapping) resisted cleanup until the early 1980s, when the whole area was finally bulldozed to make way for the giant Horton Plaza urban mall and an adjacent restaurant and entertainment district known world-wide as The Gaslamp Quarter.
That is a century of a red-light district open for business every night of the year. Wyatt Earp owned a string of saloons down there and it is said that the police wouldn't go in there after dark, and if a night went by without a murder, that was newsworthy enough to be reported in the papers. My own mother was a card dealer in the back room of the Golden Inn hotel during my preteen years, and took me down there to meet her "business associates" on occasion; what I remember is it being every bit as colorful as the history books maintain.
As to the story Stingaree, I have been working on it for about three years. Twelve of the projected 24 chapters are complete, and it resists further attempts to make progress. I have given up and put it aside several times, but it eventually demands to be brought back out and addressed. The main problem seems to be that I have a killer ending in mind, but I can't connect it to the excellent (my opinion only!) story I have crafted up to now. So this is my thought: If I post a chapter here every month, then I can assume it is being read whether anyone says anything or not, and under the prod of peer expectations, I might summon the grit to finish this hometown piece that is so near and dear to my heart.
So, to paraphrase my dear wife, take my hand and walk with me along the road awhile. I'll tell you things I've often dreamed, and try to make you smile.
Stingaree: Chapter one
Monday, January 21st, 1889
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 unoccupied. 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.