After Bee slapped me, she turned & ran through the crowd back the way she had come.
‘Why did she strike you?’ asked Affable, looking after her retreating bonnet.
I stared at the boardwalk. ‘She had a bad habit of trying to kiss me,’ I said. ‘I reckon she is mortified to learn I am a girl.’
‘I will attempt to console her,’ said Affable. He touched his hat & turned & followed her.
As my pa and I resumed our perambulation along the boardwalk I clenched my jaw. All my fears were coming to pass. My friends felt betrayed by my secret that was no longer a secret.
If my deception had caused a prim and proper girly-girl to strike me, how would my less demure friends react?
I wished I could put on my beloved buckskin trowsers & pink flannel shirt.
I stopped dead. ‘Where are my buckskin trowsers and flannel shirt?’ I asked my pa. ‘I took them off at Wassermann’s.’
‘Those greasy old things?’ said Pa. ‘Why, Ray and I tossed them on a bonfire out back of the livery stable while you were getting alterations.’
I was too stunned to reply.
Then my pa stunned me some more: instead of crossing over to Almack’s, he turned right. He was taking me up steep & muddy Taylor Street.
‘Where are we going?’ I said. ‘Almack’s is right back there. It is kitty corner across C Street. Ain’t we going to supper?’
‘I thought it would be good for us to preserve this special moment with an ambrotype,’ he said. ‘Before the sun sets.’
He was taking me to Isaiah Coffin’s Ambrotype & Photographic Gallery right next door to my office! That meant Isaiah would find out I was a gal. So would Belle Donne. So would Ping, the person I most dreaded telling.
‘No!’ I cried digging in my heels.
‘But I want to send photographic image to my brother, when I tell him about you,’ said my pa.
Reluctantly, I undug my heels.
The sun had not yet dropped behind Mount Davidson when we reached Isaiah Coffin’s Ambrotype & Photographic Gallery. The little bell over the door gave a familiar tinkle as we came into the empty studio.
‘They ain’t here,’ I said, tugging his arm & backing up. ‘Let’s go. We can try tomorrow.’
‘Nonsense,’ said my pa. ‘The door was unlocked and the sign said OPEN. Hello?’ he cried. ‘Anybody here?’
There were some muffled noises from the store room where the proprietor has various costumes & also a small laboratory in a cupboard. After about a minute Mr. Isaiah Coffin emerged, putting on his frock coat. Despite a grim-sounding name he is a good-looking man with fair hair, symmetrical features and a billy-goat beard. I observed his cheeks were pinker than usual.
‘Excuse my disarray,’ he said, ‘but I was developing – Zounds!’ He stopped with his arm half in one sleeve and stared at me open mouthed. Then he closed his mouth & resumed putting on his coat.
‘That is to say: Good afternoon, sir! Good afternoon, little girl. May I help you?’
‘We’d like ye to ambrotype us,’ said my pa. ‘My name is Robert Pinkerton. I believe ye know my daughter, Prudence Kezia?’
Mr. Isaiah Coffin’s gray eyes opened wide in Expression No. 4 - surprise. ‘Prudence Kezia?’
He narrowed his eyes. ‘Prudence Kezia?’ This time his face wore No. 5 – suspicious or thinking.
I sighed. ‘Yes.’
Finally his face showed No. 1 – a genuine smile. ‘Prudence Kezia?’
I sighed again. Deeply. ‘Yes.’
‘Sacray blur! You have confounded us all! For over half a year you have pulled the proverbial wool over our eyes.’
‘Who has pulled the wool over our eyes?’ said a feminine voice, and Miss Belle Donne came out of the same storeroom from which her husband had emerged. Yes, the prim & proper English photographer and the pistol-packing Soiled Dove were now man & wife, though she retained her stage name.
She was prettily attired in a dark blue silk outfit with flounces & furbelows. Her cheeks were also pinker than usual and her bodice was buttoned wrong near the top.
‘Vwa La!’ said Isaiah Coffin to his wife. He flourished his hand at me. ‘It transpires that P.K. Pinkerton is one of the weaker sex.’
‘Ha, ha!’ said Belle. ‘That is rich.’
‘Go on, Prudence,’ said my pa. ‘Tell her.’
I hung my head. ‘It is true,’ I confessed. ‘I am a gal.’ I shot a glare at Isaiah Coffin. ‘But I ain’t weaker, dam it!’
‘Prudence…’ said my pa with an admonishing tone. ‘Didn’t I tell ye not to blaspheme?’
‘I meant a mill dam,’ I said.
‘Why you cunning little vixen!’ cried Belle, narrowing her eyes.
She came close to me & circled round me & took my chin to turn my head this way & that. Finally she prodded my chest with a hard forefinger.
‘Outch!’ I cried.
‘Dang!’ cried she. ‘You have been pulling the wool over our eyes. The merino wool!’ Then she laughed & clapped her hands. ‘Oh, but this is bully news! I must tell everybody I know and have ever met.’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘Don’t!’
Too late. She was out the door.
By the time Isaiah had stood me and pa up against his new painted backdrop of a Greek Temple & put our heads in iron vise-like contraptions to keep us from moving – lest we make the image blurry – a whole passel of people had gathered outside the shop and were peering through the window at us.
I stood there in humiliation – the back of my lighthouse bonnet gripped by iron pincers – and watched the townspeople of Virginia City watch me.
I saw my lawyer, Mr. William Morris Stewart, a lofty man with a beard the size of a sagebrush whose office was right across the street. He had obviously been doing business with Joe Goodman, the young owner of the Daily Territorial Enterprise Newspaper, for he was there, too. Stewart and Goodman had both helped me in times past, but now they were staring at me with Expression No. 4.
Doc Pinkerton (no relation) appeared beside them. He had once offered to adopt me. I wondered if he would have made that offer if he had known my sex.
I noticed Titus Jepson, who had lost the tip of his pinky finger on account of me, but had promised to feed me in perpetuity. His Mexican waiter Gus was there, too, and several regular customers known to me by sight. They were all staring at me with banjo eyes & open mouths & shaking their heads in disbelief.
I felt a dribble of sweat tickle my backbone as Isaiah Coffin made a few last adjustments to his camera.
‘Compose your faces,’ he commanded, ‘look into the lens, and do not move! The sun will be gone in a moment.’ Then he took a black disc from the front of the camera. I kept my eyes on the front of the camera but that did not stop me spotting the person I dreaded seeing most: my partner Ping.
Belle Donne was beside him, gesturing & talking in an animated fashion. But he was taking no notice of her. He was glaring at me with his arms folded across his chest & the scowliest scowl I had ever seen. He was mouthing something, too. I am good at lip-reading but I could not tell what he was saying. I reckoned he was cussing in Chinese.
Finally Ping turned and stalked off.
I wanted to run out of the studio & go after him to explain, but my head was in the jaws of that vise & also I was too ashamed. Of all people, I should have told him sooner, for he was my business partner.
I hoped he would not stay riled at me forever.
More people had come and were jostling at the window to see.
They had stopped staring & were now laughing & pointing & shaking their heads. I felt my cheeks go hot.
When Isaiah released us from the gripping vises & said we could go, I wanted to climb out the back window & escape down that rotten ladder. But Pa said I must hold my head high and be seen as his daughter, so he made me go out the front door & hold his arm.
As we pressed through the gawping & grinning throng I heard people say, ‘Is it true? Have you really been a gal all this time?’
I kept my head up but squinched my eyes shut. I clung onto Pa as he led me through the clamoring crowd.
I knew it was vital to our Plan that I act like a girly-girl, but I hated it.
I thought, Pa had better take me back to Chicago when we have solved this case for I will never be able to face the folk of Virginia City again.
The Case of the Bogus Detective by Caroline Lawrence is the fourth P.K. Pinkerton Mystery. You can buy the first 3 real cheap HERE. And you can read the rest of this one HERE. Or just check into this blog, where I will be posting chapters weekly!