SAN FRANCISCO 1897
THE BONE ORCHARD WAS silent. As were the two men standing on top of memories. The younger of the two was worn, pale, and hatless. A bandage wrapped around his temples. He leaned heavily on his silver-knobbed stick while an older man with a bushy white beard rocked back and forth on his heels.
“It’s a real nice gravesite, A.J. Just up the hill there.”
The younger did not respond.
“You were like a son to Zeph—the closest he could have, anyhow. Left you everything, including the agency. Things will get right, you’ll see.”
“Ravenwood should be here, not me.”
“Zeph would likely say somethin’ about your fanciful wishing.”
The younger man frowned. After a time, he murmured, “He already did.”
The older man fixed a worried gaze on his friend. “Well if you don’t intend to say goodbye, we best get you home. Some rest will put you right.”
“I’m not going home, Tim. I can’t face his empty chair.” The younger man touched the bandage over his right temple and closed his eyes. The bone orchard fell away. Blood and death and failure exploded behind his eyes. Around and around—a revolving vision.
Ashes to ashes; dust to dust.
Unfortunately, memories weren’t so easily buried.
A Gentleman Returns
TUESDAY, JANUARY 2, 1900
UNKNOWINGLY, HE HAD ARRIVED with the plague. It was fitting, divine almost, for he had left with death on his heels, and now he was bringing an old companion home.
The pair sailed into port on a four-masted steamer, the S.S Australia. It towered alongside the wharf, spewing passengers down its gangplank. The ramp bowed under their eager weight. Boots thudded on planks, voices clamored, and a surge of porters rushed forward to stake their claim on weary travelers.
A single gentleman stopped at the gangplank’s end. He was not a tall man, nor a large one, but he was steady and unwavering and the tide of humanity flowed around his presence.
Atticus James Riot stared at the tips of his polished shoes. With methodical indifference to the glares directed at his back, he set down his Gladstone, removed his round spectacles, polished the glass with silk, and resettled the wire on his nose. Through an unblemished sheen, he scanned the docks.
They surged with chaos. Harried dockworkers swarmed over the steamers and wharves like an army of ants, unloading and loading goods into waiting wagons.
Seeking comfort, he raised his eyes to the city, to familiar hills and rising spires. His heart soared, but only for a moment. The sweetness left an aftertaste of bitterness and grief. Resigned, he took a breath, placed his stick on the dock and stepped forward, arriving in San Francisco, a city he had once known intimately.
California’s Silver Mistress greeted him with a lush, sensuous embrace. She was a late riser who generally left at noon, returning in the evening like a slow crashing wave rolling relentlessly towards the port. Her touch was cool and it settled around his bones. He had missed her caress.
Turning his nose to the mist, he breathed her in, flipped up his collar, and waded into his old hunting ground.
The crowds flowed towards a clock tower to the north. Contrary to their rushing strides, he moved at a leisurely pace, circling a family of Italian immigrants. The infant bawled, the children squealed, and the parents looked lost and mystified all at once. He tipped his hat to the woman, and silently wished the family good luck. Dreams only carried one so far in this city.
Riot had been abroad three years, and in his absence an ornate building had replaced the old wooden gateway to San Francisco’s ferry terminals. Its tower, still caged in scaffolding, rose over the bristling bay of masts. Thunder rolled from its base where four tracks converged at the foot of Market.
Travelers poured on and off cable cars. Bells, horns, shouts, and a tumult of rattling hacks mingled with the earthquaking noise. He stopped beside a lamp post, leaning casually on his silver-knobbed stick, watching travelers argue over hacks and pile into cable cars, eager to escape the chaos.
Everyone had somewhere to be, except Riot. He was in no particular hurry to finish his journey. Home beckoned, but not with hope or promise.
However, the fates conspired, hurling a perceptive hackman in front of the well-dressed gentleman.
A cabriolet rolled to a stop in front of Riot. The nag that looked more donkey than horse nipped at his pinstriped trousers, and a driver who resembled his horse, bared his remaining teeth.
“Well if it isn’t the detective who shanghaied himself,” the hackman crowed around the stem of his pipe. “Finally found your way back to port, A.J.”
“Only to fall into the hands of the very crimper who sent him far ashore.” The hackman, in cap and peacoat, was certainly dressed like a seaman.
“If only I were so smart. Well don’t stand there, climb in before I’m hijacked.”
Riot eyed the deranged old man, whose bushy white beard resembled that of a crazed St. Nick. He ran a hand over his trimmed beard, as if the mere proximity to the wild mass would taint his own.
“How is it, Tim, that I’m gone for three years, yet within an hour of returning you find me?”
“Call it a knack. Might say a speciality.”
“More likely a greased palm at the custom station.” Riot handed his Gladstone up, tucked his stick under his arm, and settled on the seat next to Tim. “Taken up hack driving on your spare time?”
“That’s right,” Tim snorted, urging the horse forward. The cab lurched, bumping over the uneven street. “I retired from crimping after throwing you to the dogs. Ready to get back in the investigating business, then?”
“I’m retiring, Tim.”
“You’re too young to retire.”
“Hardly,” Riot drawled. “Didn’t you notice the grey in my beard, or have your eyes failed in my absence?”
“My one good eye is better than the two of yours.”
“More reason to retire.”
Tim glanced to the side, appraising his passenger, who appeared as agile as the boy who had once tried to pick his pocket. “You can’t be a day over forty if you remember at all.”
“Forty-three, or thereabouts, by my estimation.”
“Never took you for a man who’d dig his grave early.”
“I would sleep easier if it were only my own,” Riot replied, severely.
“Gawd dammit,” Tim swore, but whether it was directed at the hay wagon and cable car hogging the road, or to Riot, was not immediately apparent. With an expert hand, Tim maneuvered his cab around the lumbering wagon, dodged an oncoming motorcar and swerved in front of the cable car. A bicyclist turned sharply towards the curb and the pedestrians, left to fend for themselves, bolted like startled hens. “Put it in the past, A.J. It’s been three years, Ravenwood is good and buried.”
Riot sighed, closing his eyes to a vision of terror and blood.
“Besides,” Tim persisted, “an apprentice isn’t allowed to retire before his teacher.”
“Teacher?” Riot pushed up the brim of his fedora, staring at the older man in amusement.
“The only things I recall you ever teaching me were everything I’d never admit knowing.”
“You knew them well enough before I got a hold of you,” Tim retorted. “Besides, a teacher’s a teacher.”
“One more profession to add to your prodigious list.”
“And still growing,” Tim said with pride. “Not much left to me except harlotry.”
The younger man winced. “I hope to be long dead before that happens.”
“Unless you plan on dying soon, you won’t miss it. I’ve been saving that trade for my eightieth birthday.”
“I’m fairly certain I don’t want to know your reasoning behind that scheme.”
“Plan on charging a dollar per year. I reckon you can’t put a price on experience.”
“Certainly not on that kind,” Riot agreed dryly.
“Your faith in me is heartening.” Tim turned down Post towards Franklin, and calmer roads. “Look here, I’ve got a job tailor made for you.”
“You’re more than able, Tim.”
“I need help.”
“You have other investigators.”
“With heads full of bricks. Smith and Johnson do a fair job, but this case calls for a certain amount of refinement and delicacy. The agency hasn’t been the same without you.”
Riot looked at the small man with the wild white beard. Tim had always looked more like a mad leprechaun than a detective. “I never asked you to manage the agency.”
“Ravenwood spent his life building that agency. I’ll not let it die because his partner got the jitters.”
The air turned cold in Riot’s lungs, he squeezed the knob of his walking stick until his knuckles turned white. “Direct your client to Pinkerton’s,” he said, tersely.
“If my client hired Pinkerton’s men, there’d be a riot. What with the anti-Pinkerton Act and all. Besides, he wants the best and you’re the best. Just so happens he’ll get a Riot after all.”
“I see your puns haven’t suffered in my absence.”
“My knees have. I need a young’un for the rough work.”
“I thought you required refinement and delicacy?”
“All attributes of a sharp blade.”
“If the client can’t hire Pinkerton’s men, then it means he’s either a politician, or in the same boat with them. You know how I feel about that sort.” Ironically, the cabriolet bounced through an affluent neighborhood that was filled with those very people: San Francisco’s puppeteers, who made the city dance to their whims.
“So you’re going to make the young lady who was abducted suffer for your prejudice?”
Riot pressed his lips together. Tim always knew how to reel him in.
“It’s a puzzle, just the kind you like, with a damsel in distress to boot. How can you resist?”
“By resisting,” Riot stated.
“But you’re not allowed. One last case, that’s all I’m asking,” pleaded Tim. “Think of it as a favor for an old friend.”
“Might be your last chance.”
Riot glanced at Tim, and then away, letting his gaze rove over the ornate houses and their slim turrets. He didn’t much care for Tim’s use of words: ‘old’ and ‘last’ were permanent.
“Begging is beneath you.”
“Well I can’t twist your arm like I used to.” Tim tossed Riot the reins and plucked his pipe from between his lips to relight it.
“Particulars of the case?”
“I’m not saying a word until you agree,” Tim huffed, knocking his pipe against his palm. The ashes fluttered to the cobblestones.
“I’m going to need more bait than that.”
“I’ll give you three words and that’s all.”
Riot inclined his head.
“Two ransom demands.”
“Two?” Riot narrowed his eyes. “How far apart?”
“Not a word more until you agree.” The nag snorted, reinforcing Tim’s ultimatum.
One more case in San Francisco—without his mentor and partner—the brilliant half of the agency. Riot had solved his fair share of cases, but his last blunder was unforgivable. He nudged the brim of his fedora up, and rubbed at his temple, where a streak of white slashed across his raven hair.
“Fine,” he relented at length, “but I’m retiring after this final case.”
“And I’m a crimper,” Tim muttered, taking the reins.
“I said, how was Honolulu?”
“Like a kettle about to explode.”
“How ‘bout the women?”
Riot primly adjusted his spectacles. “Mind the carriage, Tim.”
The old man cackled. “By the way, I should warn you that after you left me in charge of Ravenwood’s place—your estate now—I might have rented it out to a few boarders.”
“I’m surprised you didn’t open a parlor house.”
“Only one room,” Tim admitted.
Riot closed his eyes and ran a hand over his beard. It was, he reflected, not too late to turn coward and fall back into his nomadic ways.