“These fragments I have shored against my ruins.”
― T.S. Eliot
Sunday, March 3, 1900
THE OCEAN WAS IN a mood. A raging thunder threw itself at shore, and that kind of power frightened Edward Sinclair. All that water. As a boy, he’d seen a grizzly bear charge a man, and the sea and storm reminded him of that bear’s fury.
He even fancied he heard the same screaming.
Rain and wind beat at his back, and he pulled his hat lower, hunching down into his slicker as if he could escape notice, just as he had as a child. But it was hard to shrink on horseback. His horse, Wilson, was nervous, too. The wind nipped at the gelding’s ears, and the grass on the dunes looked like snakes in the poor light of the occasional lamp post.
Edward should have stayed at Annie’s. Propriety be damned. He wanted to be inside, away from the thunder and crashing tide. He dreamed of a fire, and Wilson dreamed of dry hay. So when the horse tossed his head, and broke into a hurried trot, Edward gave him free rein.
As the lights of Ocean Beach fell away, phantom sounds came and went with the wind on the stretch of lonely road. Edward nudged Wilson into a run to climb the curving hill. Once they were safe in the sand dunes, the wind would lose its roar.
A streetcar’s light shone bright over the crest. Edward cursed, and Wilson danced to the side as the car trundled past. Blinded by the light, Edward pulled on the reins. Wilson stumbled, the ground gave way, and the horse pitched forward with a scream, throwing Edward from the saddle. A hard weight rolled over him, a snap echoed between his eardrums, and pain came a moment later.
It was sharp. His leg didn’t want to move. Wilson found his hooves, and bolted, and Edward yelled at him to come back through gritted teeth. But the frightened horse vanished into the night.
Yelling helped. And he threw a number of curses into the mix that would have heated his cheeks in the light of day.
Fighting down a wave of nausea, he lifted his head, and squinted into the dark. Distant lights shone from Ocean Beach like a beacon on the horizon, but those lights danced chaotically, and he squeezed his eyes shut, feeling sick.
Edward reached down a shaky hand, and probed his leg. The mere touch sent his nerves burning. Puffing out pain, he opened his eyes, and looked towards the dim lamp post light. There was a lump moving on the road, in the spot where Wilson had tripped.
Clenching his jaw, Edward dragged himself along the sandy road. His heart pounded, his leg blazed, and as he neared he saw the jerking lump for what it was. A man.
The man’s hat had tumbled off, and even in the storm, as the man gasped and gurgled, the glossy sheen covering his face was unmistakable. As the man convulsed, Edward tried to stem the bleeding, but death wasn’t kind.
All of Edward’s hopes and dreams for him and Annie caught in his throat—he had killed a man. With that thought, he fainted dead away.
A LITTLE RAIN AND San Franciscans went mad. So it seemed to Isobel as she watched the interns carrying in a badly mangled old man. There was a great deal of blood under the electric lights in the receiving hospital. His ribcage was off kilter, one rib protruding through his blood-soaked shirt.
Motorcar accident, she surmised in a flash. The Vultures, those noble knights of pen and ink called journalists, swarmed the carnage. But Isobel stayed where she was, sulking with boredom against a shadowed wall near a faulty bulb. She consulted her watch. It was near to eight o’clock. The night was busy, but the cases were mundane: one man bitten by a rattler; another man had tripped and fallen on a crack into an open basement hatch, hitting his head and dislocating a shoulder (the cappers were swarming that case); and, mildly entertaining, two old women who had beaten each other bloody. They were still screeching at one another from their hospital cots.
Isobel pinned them as long-time roommates, or sapphic lovers.
The night looked to be a bust by all accounts. Certainly nothing that sparked her investigative instincts. She’d have to invent another story if she were to be paid.
As Isobel watched the chaos of physicians, police, and flustered family members, she began to wonder if it weren’t the obvious crimes and accidents making her restless, but rather her own mind. Her thoughts kept traveling to a large chair by a warm fire, and a pair of warmer eyes across the way. And to two days before, to the hours spent with that distracting man Atticus Riot.
Her heart swelled at the memory, but as fast as it had come, the memory disappeared, as the weight of her life came crashing down on her shoulders. She was married for one; dead for another. Her life was a mess, and love was the most complicated, wretched tangle of them all.
“I’m telling you he was dying—dead. I killed a man! You have to go back.” The frantic words snapped her out of bleakness. Ears bristling, she sought the source like a hound on the hunt.
What kind of man would confess to murder?
She pinned the self-proclaimed murderer in her sights, and sidled up to the attending physician.
“Calm yourself, Mr. Sinclair,” the doctor ordered. “There was no one else on the road. The conductor already checked.”
“I saw him,” Edward persisted. “He was bleeding—in the throes of death. Look!” He lifted his hand, but it was only slick with mud and water. When he realized his proof had washed away with the rain, he tried to rise despite a broken leg, and the physician pushed him back down.
“If you don’t calm yourself, I’ll have to strap you to the cot.”
“At least summon the police.”
Mr. Sinclair was persistent. His leg was broken, but other than pain turning his voice raw, he looked a respectable sort—if drugged. The physician was about to make good on his threat, when Isobel inserted herself into the scene.
“I might be of some help, sir. Mr. Morgan at your service.” She tipped her cap, and produced an official looking Ravenwood Detective Agency card. She carried an ample supply since she would never pass for anything other than a young man between hay and grass, and the heavy cards added respectability to her male disguise.
Edward latched on to the embossed card like a drowning man. “You’ll go back? You’ll look for him?”
“I’ve just finished up my business here,” she said. “It’s only neighborly. If I find anything I’ll go straightaway to the police.” Her offer seemed to calm the patient, so the physician let her be, while Edward unburdened his soul to her eager ears.
“Not a soul was out here, except that fellow with the broken leg,” J.P. Humphrey told her. Isobel had met the conductor only two weeks ago, both as Mr. Morgan and Miss Bonnie. He ran the Park and Ocean line, and he was the sort of gentleman who was always keen to help someone in need.
“We nearly hit him,” he said with a shake of his head. Even now, he squinted into the night like a sea captain at the helm as his streetcar rolled along the track. “Just over the crest as we were traveling west. It’s a bad place to put a curve in the road, what with the slope and all. But I have good eyes, and know where trouble is likely to lie on my line.”
The rain had lessened to a soft drizzle, and the streetcar lamp seemed to catch each drop and freeze it in the light for a breath. A gust of wind blew from the ocean, sending rain slanting sideways, until it released its hold and the drizzle ambled from the dark once again.
“The rider got out of the way, so I kept going, but when we came back, I noticed him lying in the road. He kept saying there was someone else when he came to. Simon and me looked around, but there wasn’t anyone. The mind plays tricks in this kind of weather. For all I know it could have been the Beach Ghost come back to haunt the dunes.”
“The Beach Ghost?” she yelled through a gust.
“Turned out to be a John Chinaman hiding out. There’s lots of vagrants who live out here.”
“What about his horse Wilson?”
“Haven’t seen the horse. Probably shot off across the dunes, or it’s already back home. Did you check there?”
The horse was of secondary concern. She brushed aside his question with one of her own. “If there wasn’t a body in the road, then what do you think made his horse stumble?”
“The road is slick, and the wind harsh. Might have been anything,” Humphrey yelled into another gust. “I reckon it could have been a piece of driftwood. Stop here, Simon!”
The brakeman pulled on his lever, and the streetcar rolled to a stop before a slope that curved sharply around dunes. The lamp illuminated the lonely stretch, and Humphrey took a hooded lantern from its peg before stepping off the runner.
Isobel followed. The drizzle was light, but gusts of wind snatched at her cap and blew sand in her eyes. She kept her umbrella closed. This weather would snatch it right away. Between lulls in the wind, she could hear the angry surf—the crash and roar, and unrelenting power.
There wasn’t much to look at on the road. Nothing at all save streaks of sand on wet earth, and trampled prints along the tracks. “Did you see a piece of driftwood when you found Sinclair?”
Humphrey thought. “Logs, boards, rubbish,” he yelled. “All manner of things get dropped along the road. But if it’s not on the track, I don’t pay much mind.”
A gust knocked her back. She clapped a hand over her cap, keeping it in place. “How long does it take to travel your route?”
“Forty-five minutes. From here to the end of the line on Market, thirty minutes, and fifteen to the Boulevard terminus.”
Isobel appreciated a precise man. She thanked him, and told him she’d look for the horse.
Humphrey left her with a spare bullseye lantern, and as the streetcar trundled out of sight, she was left alone with the howling wind. She kept the lantern’s hood over the lens, and squinted into the hazy night. Distant lights from saloons and chalets shone along the shoreline: Seal Rock Hotel, Ocean Beach Pavilion, and the great monstrosity that perched on Land’s End.
She shivered at the sight of the Cliff House. The case that had ended with her twin nearly drowning was still fresh in her mind, and she doubted she could ever look at that place without feeling a dread that clutched her heart.
Tearing her gaze from the lights, she looked to the dunes. The Outer Lands, as they were known, was a vast stretch of sand dunes considered uninhabitable. Civilization, however, had a way of spreading like a fungus.
Isobel removed the lens cover and shone her bullseye lantern on the road. Moving the light in a zigzag pattern, she walked slowly towards the curving slope. She didn’t know what she hoped to find. If a dying man with his head caved in had been lying on the road, and now was missing, the storm was sure to have washed away the blood. There was nothing but confusion in the worn tracks of endless tourists traveling to Ocean Beach in their cabriolets and landaus. And puddles—a whole road full of water-filled potholes.
There was no body, and there was nothing that could be mistaken for a lump. Not even a piece of driftwood. Maybe the horse had tripped in a deep puddle and Edward had imagined the whole thing? A storm coupled with excruciating pain could do odd things to a person.
With the road clear, Isobel returned to the spot where Humphrey had discovered Edward. What did the throes of death look like? Had Edward seen blood, or simply mud in the night? He’d sworn it was blood, but with only an occasional street lamp lighting the road, how could he really be sure?
The moon and stars were obscured behind thick clouds. A drunk hermit flailing in the road could easily be mistaken for a dying man with this kind of light.
Isobel shone her lantern over a high sand dune. The road cut through a kind of shallow valley in the dunes. The rain had streaked the sandy slope, and the wind had given it a thorough sweeping. But there was a portion of caved-in sand, as if a good bit of it had slid down the slope.
She climbed over the crest, and shone her light like a methodical bumble bee, searching for prints, signs of life, or death. There were plenty of impressions, but she couldn’t make heads or tails of most of it. The prints might be old for all she knew, and they were currently filled with water. Isobel sighed internally. She wished Riot were here. The man could read prints as if they were directions written in sand.
She searched for nearly an hour, and then finally looked towards the distant lights along the Great Highway. If Edward had been mistaken about the severity of wounds, perhaps the supposed-dead man had crawled towards those lights.
She turned west, towards civilization, and began climbing over crests and sliding down valleys. Ten minutes later, she stopped at a deep depression in the wet sand. It appeared as if someone had fallen, and then been dragged. Five feet away, she discovered a water-logged hoof print, and another.
Had the whole thing been a ruse? Had a man feigned injury to steal Edward’s horse?
Something caught her eye in the lantern’s light. It was a limp flutter in the wind, something foreign snagged on a bent grass. Isobel crouched, shining her light on the strange apparition. A bit of ribbon, or embroidery. She plucked it from the grass, and held it up to her lantern, but it was hard to tell the color. Turning it this way and that, she studied the intricate design. Blue, maybe?
Another gust howled, flinging rain and sand into her eyes. She tucked the ribbon into her breast pocket, and bent her head against the gust, shielding her eyes.
The gust released its hold, and a warning zipped down her neck—some primal intuition that screamed at her to flee. Isobel spun, swinging her lantern at a shadow. In the flash of flailing light, she saw a bowler hat and a snatch of flesh, before her lantern slammed into a man’s head. Sharp air zipped over her shoulder, and the crack of a bullet came a moment later. Isobel ducked, turned and drew her revolver. She squeezed the trigger, firing at a second shadow. It was aimed at a chest as broad as could be. But the man kept coming.
He slammed into her, knocking her clean off her feet. The air stuck in her lungs, and he was on top of her in a frantic second. His weight crushed her, and he wrenched her arms back, placing her square on her belly. An iron hand pressed her face into the sand. Sand filled her nostrils, and clogged her mouth. She couldn’t even scream. And as she fought and struggled against his strength, air never returned to her body.
Isobel fought until there was nothing left, and still she struggled right up until darkness won.