Wednesday, February 14th, 1900
HIS LINE WENT TO the edge of the world, then it dropped right off into freedom. J.P. Humphrey glanced towards the looming rise as his streetcar began its final climb. In the two years that Humphrey had operated the Park and Ocean line, the expectation of what waited over the hill never dwindled. There were never two sunsets alike, never the same two clouds in the morning, and the taste of fog over a calm sheen of grey was a constant comfort to the aging conductor. In San Francisco, fences did not hem people in; the city was one step away from the world.
The streetcar reached the hill’s peak, the fog parted over the moonlit sea, and for the first time in two years, Humphrey didn’t notice. There was a young woman on his line. She sat on an outer bench, on the edge of the runner, and had not so much as uttered one word, or even looked at the conductor. She had a neat little hat, and her hair was done up, but a few tendrils had escaped. It reminded Humphrey of the sunset—all fiery and bright, even in the dark.
The streetcar tilted, beginning its smooth descent. Humphrey glanced at his operator Simon who was no help at all with women. The large man was good with turntables and rough passengers.
Humphrey cleared his throat, summoning courage. “This is the last line, ma’am,” he said to the woman’s back. “There’s no other cars that run til morning.”
On the weekends, he expected a few late night beach goers to be waiting at the station, but on a Wednesday night, it was uncommon. So was a young woman traveling to the ocean at night.
“I know,” the woman said. Her voice was faint, she might have said, more but even those two words made his ears strain.
“Are you meeting someone, then?” Humphrey ventured, hopefully.
She tilted her head, as if bending her ear towards his words. “The sound of the surf is soothing, don’t you think, sir?”
“That it is, ma’am.” This close to the shore, he could hear the rhythmic wash of waves. He looked at the water, surprised that he’d missed that first sight. But the woman was right, Humphrey could sit and listen to the tides all night.
That was what the woman needed, he decided. Fresh air and space, as every San Franciscan craved—to be left alone to live their own lives. Humphrey decided to keep his own to himself instead of bumble his way where he wasn’t wanted. So the conductor said nothing more.
At the station, the streetcar stopped, and Simon stepped down to walk his customary circuit of the trolley. “End of the line, ma’am,” Humphrey said, stepping down to offer his hand. The redhead accepted, keeping her eyes on the street. When she stood on solid ground, she looked at Humphrey for the first time. The conductor blinked. The young woman’s hair might look like the sun falling into the sea, but her eyes looked as if the light would never rise again.
It took Humphrey a moment to realize that she had a little envelope in her gloved hand. “Would you mail this for me, sir? It’s important.”
“No trouble at all.” He accepted the envelope, and the task. “Can I help you with anything else, ma’am?” he blurted past his mustache, breaking his silent promise to mind his own business.
“Just that,” she replied, smiling. Rather than reassuring, her smile put him on edge—it looked like a pair of fishhooks had twitched the corners up. Before the conductor could think of anything else to say, the woman turned, and walked towards the end of the road, to the long stretch of lonely shore.
There was no one waiting on the platform, just as Humphrey had suspected. He blew a breath past his lips, and consulted his pocket watch as Simon stepped into the car. Both hands pointed to twelve, on the dot. Another perfectly timed shift.
Humphrey squinted at the envelope, tilting it towards the light of the streetcar. The address was bold, addressed to—the city of San Francisco. He frowned. No name, no number, or even a street. The postmaster wouldn’t do a thing with the letter. The young lady must have forgotten to address it, but when Humphrey looked up, searching the darkness for the lone passenger, she was gone. The street was empty.
Humphrey glanced at the envelope again. Muttering under his breath about redheads and their strange temperaments, he opened the envelope, hoping he wasn’t going to get arrested. It held a neatly folded slip of paper. When he unfolded the slip, a single line of elegant words ran its width. A cold prickle pierced Humphrey’s neck and crawled down his spine, producing a shiver that no San Franciscan wind had yet managed.
Thursday, February 15th, 1900
TWO QUEENS STARED at the gambler from his hand. The women were blonde, pale, and buxom. It wasn’t his preferred deck. These two cards had a vapid expression that made him ache for a sharper set of eyes.
“You’re bluffing,” a voice said.
Atticus Riot looked from the irksome women in his hand to the young man sitting across the table. Bart Martins was a confident fellow, slim and dapper, with an easy smile that had charmed his way into the expensive suit he wore. His tongue was smoother, and he had made ample use of it throughout the night, goading and boasting with every hand. Five players had begun the night. One had dropped out, two had gone bust, and Riot and Martins remained.
In reply, Riot carefully set down his cards, removed his wire-rimmed spectacles, and polished the glass with a silk handkerchief. As Riot did so, he nodded towards the impressive pot: bills, large and small, and a cufflink. The latter was Martins’ contribution to the pot, a gaudy decoration with a gold spade in the polished center. No proper gentleman would wear such a thing.
Martins smiled. “I know you’re bluffing, and just to prove it, I’ll raise.” The swell pushed the remainder of his money into the pool.
Riot put on his spectacles and looked at his opponent. “I’m afraid that won’t do.”
“Six hours without a word, and now he speaks,” the swell announced to the room. But his admirers were slumped on a bench in the corner, snoring.
The gambler said nothing more.
Martins would not be intimidated. He unclipped his pocket watch, dangled it in front of Riot’s eyes, and set it on the table with a smirk. The gold chain curled around the mound of cash.
Riot leaned forward, his hand pausing over the gold. “May I?” When the swell nodded, he picked up the pocket watch, checking its make and worth. The latch gave smoothly, and Riot read the inscription on the inside of the cover:
To my beloved —Your Rose forever
Riot clicked the watch shut and replaced it with care. “There’s an art to bluffing, Martins.” The taciturn man’s voice was deep and unhurried, and it roused the dozing audience. The women stirred from where they slumped and the men looked up from their whiskey. “The key is to be sure, and now I am. You see, when you bluff, you can’t care whether you win or lose, and you, my young sharp, have a lot to lose, as did the man you stole that from.”
“That’s my Rose,” Martins said.
“You’re the one whose bluffing.” Riot backed his words with his own pocket watch, sliding it towards the pool. “I call.”
Martins laid down his hand triumphantly. A row of spades challenged—a Flush.
Riot frowned at his vapid queens. “Your Rose belonged to another man—a worthy man who never harmed a hair on her head.” He slowly rearranged his cards. “I know three things for certain: the first being that Mrs. Cottrill was taking her husband’s time piece to a watchmaker’s shop to repair on the day that she was brutally murdered.”
“Fine,” the swell smiled pure charm. “You caught me. I won the watch in a poker game—as I’m about to win yours. I am sorely grieved for the woman.”
Riot ignored the swell’s claim, reaching into his pocket. “Second, that I am an honest man, and that watch is worth more than my contribution; therefore, let me add something more to the pool.” He withdrew a cufflink from his waistcoat pocket, a gaudily decorated one with a gold spade in the center of black that matched the one in the pot. Martins’ right eye twitched. “You lost one of your cufflinks. I found it in a grate, in the very alley where you assaulted and strangled Mrs. Cottrill.”
In a flash, Martins pushed back his chair, gripped the table, and shoved. But Riot was already on his feet, stick in hand. He sidestepped the toppling table, and lunged, stretching leg and arm, reaching towards the swell’s chest. The silver tip struck, catching Martins square in the solar plexus. The swell staggered back, gasping for air, and Riot stepped forward, twirling his walking stick with one smooth sweep. The silver knob connected with the man’s head.
Cash and jewelry littered the floor. And so did Martins. The women and men moved forward. Riot thumped the point of his stick onto the floor, and they froze. “The police will be here shortly,” he said, calmly.
The room cleared.
Atticus Riot brought his right hand up, fanning out the cards beneath his eyes. “Thirdly,” he said to his unconscious opponent. “I never bluff.” He laid the cards on Martins: two queens and three aces—a Full House.
The proprietor rushed into the room. “I’ll have no fighting at my tables,” he said brandishing a shotgun.
“There’s no quarrel over your table, sir,” Riot explained. “This is a police matter.” The proprietor tensed, and Riot didn’t much care for that twitch in his finger, considering the double-barrel so readily at hand. “The quarrel doesn’t involve you either. I’m a detective; not a lawman. If you don’t want police attention, I suggest helping me drag this murderer outside.”
“Of a woman—a man’s wife.”
The proprietor set his shotgun aside, and bent his shoulders to the task. As the big man dragged the dead weight out, Riot bent to retrieve the pocket watch and cuff links.
“Took you long enough, A.J.,” a short, wizened old man yawned from the corner. Tim tugged on a bushy white beard and climbed to his feet, throwing his arms up to stretch. A crack echoed in the hollow room. “Gawd, I’m gettin’ old.”
Riot looked at his gnomish friend. “You’ve been old as long as I’ve known you.”
“As the oldest and most decrepit here, I’ll just start with the cleaning, then.” Tim chortled, rubbed his hands together, and began his chore, picking up the scattered cash.
In short order, Martins was cuffed and loaded into a waiting wagon. Riot pulled the brim of his bowler low, squinting at the brightness of the morning.
“A fine night’s work, A.J.,” Tim said at his shoulder.
Riot looked over, and down at the balding pate of his oldest friend. “Doesn’t bring her back, now does it?”
An eye for an eye, my boy, a whispery voice rasped in his memory. Riot dislodged his spectacles to rub the bridge of his nose. Zephaniah Ravenwood was as fond of quotes in death as he’d been in life.
“But not for you,” Riot murmured to the memory.
Tim frowned at the detective, rocked forward on his feet and back on his heels with a low whistling breath. “Smith and me will take Martins down to the jail. You could use the rest.”
“And you don’t?” Riot inquired.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Tim spat, and hopped into the wagon. “You want a lift to Kearney?”
“I’ll take this watch by Mr. Cottrill’s.”
“You sure you don’t want to wait, A.J.?”
“If you were the husband, would you want to wait for news?”
Tim clapped a floppy cap on top his head. “While you’re at it—you can write up the report.”
“I’ll retire from this business,” Riot threatened.
Tim snorted, and nudged the horse forward with a click of his tongue.
“Watch him, Smith,” Riot said to the young man guarding their prisoner. The large, ex-patrolman nodded in affirmative, and Riot watched the wagon roll into the waking city.
Every evening the barbary Coast lured hungry men with its glitter and lights, but in the morning, in the grey light of day, the streets and alleyways crisscrossing the nine blocks of vice looked as drab and worn as the women who sold their bodies there.
A lonely bread wagon trundled past, and Riot turned east, towards the docks. Whereas the Barbary Coast baited men with lust, the harbors lured Atticus with hope. Every day for the past month, he had walked the harbors, looking for a single cutter. It was a dim sort of hope, the kind that inflated his heart with the piercing of a needle.
Ever the romantic, his dead partner huffed from the shadows. Riot shoved the voice away, and just to prove he wasn’t the romantic, he defied the voice and cut straight for Market.
Thunder washed over Riot, a cacophony of rattling cable cars, bells, and the frenetic pace of morning commuters. With a smooth gait and the click of his stick, he maneuvered the morning rush, weaving his way through a stream of cable cars and cabriolets, to a side street where a small tobacco shop vied for space between a tailor and a barber.
Riot had no taste for cigar, cigarette, or pipe, but he had business with the proprietor of the Fragrant Rose. The bell chimed above the door and a wave of spice and wood washed pleasantly over him. A curving counter guarded a wall of treasures: hand-carved pipes waiting for a loving touch.
Silas Cottrill walked from the back room. The tobacconist was as tidy as his shop. Everything about him gleamed, from his bald head to his dark skin, pristine apron, and polished shoes.
“Mr. Riot,” Silas greeted. His customary smile had been absent for two weeks, but there was hope in his eyes. Hope that would not bring the dead back. Justice, however, mattered. It didn’t remove the pain of loss, but it eased it enough for a man to step over, and get on with his life.
Riot removed his bowler. “I’ve tracked down your wife’s murderer. A swell and swindler by the name of Bart Martins. He has a fair knot on his head, but he’s alive and in police custody.” Riot reached into his coat pocket, and brought out a pristine handkerchief. He set it ceremonially on the counter, and unwrapped the silk, revealing a timepiece.
Silas touched the gold, and closed his eyes. A weight left his shoulders and he breathed a little easier. After a moment, and maybe a soft prayer, he picked up the watch and tucked it carefully away.
“I’ll see he hangs,” Riot said.
“For murdering a Negro woman? The police all but accused my wife of harlotry.”
“There’s good and bad everywhere, and a whole lot of grey, Mr. Cottrill. It just so happens that I know where to find all the colors. As I said, I’ll see that he hangs for his crimes.”
Silas closed his eyes, and nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Riot. There’s no price fit to repay you for what you’ve done. Make sure your agency sends me a bill. If there is anything I can ever do for you, just ask.”
Riot ran a hand over his trim beard. “There is something. A fair trade of services.”
Mr Cottrill glanced over his shoulder, at the wall of pipes. “I didn’t know you were a smoking man. You can have your pick. No trade necessary.”
Riot shook his head. “I’m not a smoking man, but I am a man who has his ear to the ground. During my investigation, I discovered that your wife had a cousin by the name of Mabel.”
“I know her well. She’s right grieved over Rose’s murder.”
“Mabel works for a Mr. Alex Kingston.”
Silas’ face turned grim. “That she does.”
“Is she mistreated in his employ?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“But you dislike him.”
“I don’t much trust any man with that much money.”
Riot nodded in understanding. “If any word of him should reach your ears, Mr. Cottrill, I’d be obliged if you passed it on.”
“Are you investigating Kingston for a crime?”
“Let’s just say that I like to see justice done.”
“A fair trade, is it?”
“It is, Mr. Cottrill.”
Silas nodded, and extended his hand. Riot shook it, firmly.
At the door, Silas stopped Riot with a word. “It helps, you know. My Rose is at peace now.”
Caught in the act of donning his hat, Riot turned to regard the tobacconist. “I imagine so.” Riot set his bowler on his head and touched the brim.
The sun was bright, bringing a promise of another warm, San Franciscan winter day. Riot’s right temple throbbed. He resisted the urge to rub the stripe of white hair that hid a bullet scar. He’d find no rest in sleep—not with old memories that reminded him of business left undone.
In no mood to tempt his luck, Riot hopped aboard a cable car heading west on Market, away from the Ferry Building. The car was full. He stood on the runner, fingers resting lightly on a pole as the car rattled through chaos. The clock tower was the gateway to San Francisco, a heart of travel, and if the building was the heart then Market was an artery. Wagons cut in front of the cable cars, motorcars weaved in and out, and pedestrians ran for their lives.
Riot felt the personal touch of eyes. He swept a casual gaze over the passengers, trying to pinpoint the source, but it was near to impossible in the crush; the cable car was packed as tightly as a sardine tin. Worse, he had a number of enemies.
Despite the masses traveling through the city, one began to recognize the regulars: conductors and gripmen, flower vendors, newspaper men, shoe shiners, and a stream of commuters that rode the ropes every morning like clockwork. San Francisco was a sea of familiarity masked in the obscurity of the masses.
The cable car stopped in the heart of Market, at Lotta’s fountain, a cast iron monument holding its own in the shadow of towering buildings. Over half the passengers disembarked, hitting the sidewalk and hurrying away.
Riot stepped down, and recognized a woman, with umbrella in hand, preparing to navigate the runner. She wore a broad-brimmed hat atop a full head of brown hair, red lipstick, trim jacket and matching green skirt that hugged an hourglass shape. Twice this week, he had ridden the cable car with her, and each time had offered his hand. He did so now. Gloved fingers touched his own.
“Thank you, sir.” Her voice was deep and sultry and something in her manner pricked his senses. Instead of heading directly towards the Ravenwood offices, he escorted her across four lines of cable cars to the sidewalk.
“Ma’am,” he made to touch the brim of his hat, but as he pulled away, the fingers tightened over his own.
“Oh, dear,” the woman said faintly. She wobbled, her fingers loosened, and she fell.