American alternate-history steampunk
| 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 this. 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. Drink was openly 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 the Oyster's two bartenders. As the barman placed a glass on the counter and reached for a bottle, Isabella appeared at Youngblood's 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 five thousand in interest, 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.