Weaving spiders, come not here.
—A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Tuesday, April 17, 1900
“State your name for the court.”
“Atticus James Riot.”
“Do you solemnly swear that you will tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help you God?”
Riot stared down at the leather-bound bible. He could feel the embossing under his fingertips, and the trembling of the clerk’s hand.
Death and life are in the power of a tongue. Killing words had put him here—in this hollow, wood-paneled courtroom. Only he hadn’t counted on the price.
The court held its collective breath. He looked across to a pair of intent eyes, and gave his answer. “I do.”
The clerk swept the bible away.
The prosecutor stood. Mr. Hill was a thin man with a neat little mustache, his eyes as intense as his starched collar. “Atticus James Riot,” he repeated. “Is that your real name?”
Nathan Farnon hoisted himself out of his chair. “Objection. Irrelevant.”
Judge Adams practically rolled his eyes. Gruff and direct, he wasn’t one for theatrics. The defendant had had the audacity to plead not guilty. His day had already been ruined. He looked to Hill. “This had best lead somewhere.”
Mr. Hill tilted his head.
“Answer the question,” Judge Adams ordered Riot.
“To my knowledge.” Riot’s voice was deep and low, and yet it filled the courtroom.
“To your knowledge.” In contrast, Hill’s voice was clipped, as if each word were a bite. “You mean you aren’t sure?”
The prosecutor waited for more; Riot gave him nothing.
“You’re not sure if that’s your real name or do you mean that your name is something different?”
“To my knowledge, that is my name.”
“Was ‘Riot’ your mother’s surname, or your father’s?”
“I never asked.”
“So Riot is not your birth name?”
“It’s what I answer to.”
Judge Adams shifted. “Mr. Riot, answer the question.”
“I am, your honor,” Riot said. “I believe Mr. Hill is trying to work his way around to announcing that my mother was a whore. Isn’t that right? Because, if so, I think you could save the jury their time and patience, and simply ask me.”
A wave of chuckles traveled around the gallery.
“Was your mother a whore?”
“Objection,” Farnon huffed. “What possible relevance can that have on the present case?” Blond and balding, he wore a pince-nez that had a habit of falling off his nose.
Judge Adams raised his brows at the prosecutor.
“Mr. Riot’s character has every bearing on this case.”
“My mother was a whore,” Riot confirmed. “A Morton Street crib whore. She had a professional name, but I never learned her real name.”
“I imagine you had a rough upbringing.”
It wasn’t a question, so Riot didn’t answer.
“In fact, you’re known as a gambler.”
“In the past, yes.”
“After your partner, Zephaniah Ravenwood, was murdered, you left San Francisco to travel. When did you return?”
“January second of this year on the SS Australia.”
Hill plucked a paper from his desk, and held it up. “And only a month later you were fined for gambling and destruction of property. That’s a very recent past, Mr. Riot.”
“A woman was murdered. The case required me to ply my old trade to catch the killer. The murderer didn’t much care to be caught.”
“Yes, a Mrs. Rose Cottrill—a negro woman—was found dead.” A few eyes narrowed in the audience. “Yet your supposed murderer was set free with nothing more than a gambling fine.”
Again, Riot did not take the prosecutor’s bait.
“And only weeks before that you were involved in another altercation aboard a sailing vessel, the Pagan Lady, which resulted in a death.”
“Curtis Amsel fired at me. I returned the greeting. The coroner’s report will show that I shot him in the shoulder.”
“Resulting in his death.”
“A firearm he had in his coat misfired. That’s what killed him,” Riot clarified.
“And only a few weeks after that you were involved in yet another altercation. You shot Virgil Cunningham.”
“I pegged him in the hand. He was about to light a stick of dynamite. Unfortunately, he was sitting on a mound of gunpowder.”
The attorney smiled. “You seem to attract misfortune, Mr. Riot.”
“I’m a detective. That’s my lot.”
“But you weren’t always a detective. Your history of violence began long before you called yourself detective. At one time you were known as The Undertaker’s Friend. Were you not?”
“I was,” he confirmed.
“If I were to list your altercations, it would take up considerable time. All, I should add, were said to be in self-defense.”
“As you say.”
“Were you in a relationship with Abigail Parks?”
“On occasion,” he answered easily.
“And did you go to a graveyard on March eighteenth intending to kill Jim Parks?”
“I did not.”
“Yet you testified that Jim Parks killed not one, but three of your associates: Zephaniah Ravenwood, Abigail Parks, and your housekeeper, Mrs. Shaw.”
“I also brought three policemen along to arrest him.”
“And a revolver,” Hill stated.
“As well as a walking stick. I’d have taken an umbrella, too, if it had been raining.” His comment elicited a burst of laughter from the gallery. When silence settled on the courtroom, Riot continued, “I’d have been a fool to confront a man like Parks unarmed, and I’d be an idiot to invite three policemen along to witness a premeditated murder.”
“Or you’re simply a very calculating man, Mr. Riot. You have a reputation as a ‘quick draw.’” Hill turned to the jury box. “I’d like to remind the members of the jury that Sgt. Price and Deputy Inspector Coleman both testified that Jim Parks reached for his weapon, but Mr. Riot drew and fired before the man had even pulled his revolver from the holster.”
He let that hang in the air, and then spread his fingers over the table. Long and fine, the attorney kept his nails as immaculate as his steely hair.
“By your own testimony, Mr. Riot, you’ve admitted to shooting two men, aiming for non-lethal areas. And yet you shot Jim Parks in the stomach. You are an expert gunman—again, by your own testimony.”
“I had time to aim with the others. This was a quick draw, and my bullet didn’t kill him; he died by his own hand.”
“Gut-shot is a painful way to die. Most men would be tempted to take their own life.” Hill moved to the front of the table, and folded his hands behind his back. “It seems that your past is as wild as your fake name. And it begs the question, given your history of having carnal relations with married women, did you aid and abet the defendant’s pseudocide?”
Atticus Riot looked across the well to the defendant’s table. To the pair of gray eyes looking intently back. Her lips were taut, her face pale.
There was a plea in her eyes. Please, no.
“I did not meet the defendant until after she died.”
“When did you discover the truth?”
“The fourth of January—the day after the body was identified.”
“And yet you didn’t inform my client.”
“I did not.”
“So you were a participant in the defendant’s pseudocide.”
“After the fact.”
“To protect her.”
“Or were the two of you a pair of lovers, scheming to collect her ransom payment.”
“Objection.” Farnon didn’t bother standing.
“The prosecution will refrain from speculation,” Judge Adams ordered.
Hill nodded, but the seeds of doubt had already been planted. “Why didn’t you inform the authorities, Mr. Riot? Was it for love?”
“No, love came later. The defendant was in grave danger.”
“So you say.”
“Sing Ping King Sur,” Riot said slowly.
“I beg your pardon?”
He let the token he’d hid up his sleeve slip down into his palm, and as if by magic it appeared between his fingers. A red token. He held it up in front of the court.
“This is why I aided and abetted her ruse.” And just like that, he marked them both for death.
I’m not gifted with reading people. They defy reason. As did this young man. —Z.R. Journal Excerpt
Sunday, March 18, 1900
Atticus James Riot stared down at the recently deceased. By nature he was a calm fellow who took things as they came, but this—this had caught him by surprise.
A crimson stain blossomed over Jim Parks’ clothing. His body twitched, refusing to release its hold on life and the bowie knife he had driven into his own heart.
‘Sing Ping King Sur,’ Parks had spat. ‘Those words killed Ravenwood, and they’ll do the same for you.’
A death sentence from a dead man. If Riot had been the superstitious sort he might have been unnerved; instead, he was merely puzzled. But then Jim Parks had been prone to playing mind games—manipulation was his forté.
This might be his final game.
“What the blazes?” Deputy Inspector Coleman cursed. Sgt. Price and a patrolman stepped out of a nearby mausoleum. The trio gathered around the gravesite and stared down at the corpse with a knife in its heart and a bullet in its gut.
Riot tucked his walking stick under an arm, and cracked his revolver open. He eyed Inspector Coleman. Silver-haired and courteous, the inspector’s politeness was often mistaken for gullibility. “I sincerely hope you had a clear vantage point from your concealment.”
“Yes, yes,” Inspector Coleman said. “It was clear he was reaching for his revolver.”
Riot removed the empty casing, replaced it with a fresh cartridge, and snapped his No. 3 closed. He holstered the weapon.
“I see your hand hasn’t slowed in these last three years,” Sgt. Price noted. “And left-handed, no less.”
“Survival instincts,” Riot said dryly. He could hardly have pulled the trigger with two broken fingers on his right hand, a parting gift from an angry hatchet man less than two weeks before. And that had been Jim Parks’ mistake. He had seen a man in a fancy suit with two broken fingers. Easy prey, he had no doubt thought.
“But why the devil did he stab himself?”
The four men stood in a semi-circle around the body. Abigail Parks’ gravestone completed the circle. Jim Parks had seen his wife as easy prey, too.
“You didn’t hear our conversation?” Riot asked. But his seemingly casual question was everything opposite. He needed to know what these policemen had overheard.
“I heard him confess—to killing Zephaniah Ravenwood, Mrs. Shaw, and Abigail Parks,” Sgt. Price said.
“As did I,” Inspector Coleman confirmed, and turned to his patrolman. “Summon the coroner, we’ll need the dead wagon.”
The policeman trotted off to find the nearest callbox.
“I couldn’t make out anything after you shot him,” the Inspector said. “It was garbled.”
Riot slipped on a glove. “May I, Inspector?”
“You’d best let us search him.” Coleman nodded to Sgt. Price, who knelt down and began rifling the man’s pockets. “What did he say?”
“Parks told me I was a dead man for shooting him in cold blood,” Riot said, watching every item that Price handed to his superior: a billfold, a folding knife, a pocket watch, and a slim cigarette case. “I told him that I’d only shot a slow man who fancied himself a gunfighter.”
Inspector Coleman grunted.
“He asked me if I was going to finish the job, and I said no, that I’d let the law do that.”
Sgt. Price opened the slim case, and a circle of red caught Riot’s attention. It was a faro token.
“Was that all he said?” Coleman pressed.
Riot reached over and plucked the token from Sgt. Price’s hand. He adjusted his spectacles and turned it over, studying the stamp: The Palm. Riot looked up at the Inspector, and lied straight to his face. “The rest was garbled nonsense.”
“Does that token mean something to you?” Sgt. Price asked.
Riot wove the token over his fingers, and shook his head, before flipping it back to the sergeant. “I suppose the man liked his faro.”
“Well, all the same, good work, Mr. Riot,” the Inspector said. “We never did solve Mrs. Parks’ or Ravenwood’s murder.”
Riot inclined his head.
“There’ll be a coroner’s inquest, of course. But it was clear self-defense. And your bullet didn’t kill him. He did himself in.”
“Unfortunately, you’re not my jury, Inspector.”