Monday, December 19, 2016

The Case of the Bogus Detective 38

‘What brought you to San Francisco?’ Minnie O’Malley asked me a short time later. 

I was standing behind her in the moving wagon & looking over her shoulder as she drove north up Valencia Street.

I told her my story and concluded with these words, ‘I have got to find evidence proving that those two bogus detectives were using me. Otherwise I will be WANTED till the end of time.’ 

‘And you are hoping to find it at the Occidental Hotel?’

‘Yes. My mortal enemy Violetta de Baskerville is involved and she resides there.’

‘Crouch down!’ she hissed. ‘I think I see some policemen up ahead.’ 

I retreated into the dim & rocking interior of the Medicine Wagon. 

‘All clear,’ she said presently, ‘but you better lay low. You can use my bed.’

She had a kind of padded shelf along one side of the cluttered space of her wagon. I stretched out on it. 

I must have dozed off for I was suddenly awoken by the juddering noise of iron-rimmed wheels on a corduroy road. 

‘Whoa!’ said Minnehaha, and put her head into the wagon. ‘We have arrived.’ 

‘Already?’ I said. 

She grinned. ‘I am guessing you had forty winks!’ 

I sat up & stretched & yawned. Then I tucked my bundle of new clothes under my left arm & went down the back steps of the wagon & stood blinking in the bright sun. I judged it was about 2 and a half o’clock. When my eyes adjusted, I saw a wood plank street lined with the backs of some nice buildings and the fronts of some crowded-together buildings. 

Minnie had stopped the cart outside one of the crowded-together buildings. I saw a chalk number 88 scrawled on the wall beside a door. 

‘Will you wait to see if they are in?’ I asked. 

‘Surely,’ said she. 

I knocked on the door and then took a step back.

It was a warm day. I could smell a kind of swampy smell coming up from beneath the wooden road & fresh baked bread. I could hear hammering & sawing somewhere & also tinkly piano music from a saloon. I could see the same hill that had loomed behind the Occidental Hotel.

‘Are we near the Occidental Hotel?’ I asked. 

She nodded and tipped her head. ‘Montgomery is the next street along. And the Broadway Wharf where the inland steamers dock is only a few blocks the other way,’ she said.  

I knocked again. Louder this time. 

No reply. 

I called out. ‘Martha? Miz Zoe?’ (That was what Martha called Mrs. Zoe Brown.)

Then I heard a feminine voice from on high.

‘What do you want?’ 

I looked up to see the pretty head of Mrs. Zoe Brown sticking out of a raised sash-window of an upper floor. 

I said, ‘I want you, Miz Zoe. It is me: P.K. Pinkerton.’ I lifted up my pink poke bonnet to show my short dark hair. ‘I am in disguise.’

‘P.K.?’ The head retreated & presently I heard feet on stairs & a moment later the door flew open. 

‘Oh, P.K.!’ She rushed forward & hugged me to her frilly bosom. ‘It is wonderful to see you!’

Miz Zoe Brown is a quadroon, which means she has a dash of Negro blood. This makes her skin the color of caramel. She is shapely with big brown eyes & long eyelashes & a smell of honeysuckle.

I squirmed out of her embrace. ‘Miz Zoe,’ I said, ‘I am in trouble and need a place to lay low. Can you shelter me for a day or two?’

‘Why of course!’ she cried. ‘Martha and I have been hoping for a visit!’

I turned & waved to Minnehaha. She gave me a thumbs-up. ‘Don’t be a stranger!’ she cried. ‘You know where to find me.’ Then she flicked the reins & carried on down Sansome Street. 

‘Oh, P.K.,’ said Zoe, again. ‘Martha will be overjoyed.’

‘She ain’t here?’

‘No,’ said Zoe. ‘She works as a chambermaid.’

‘Even on the Sabbath?’ 

Mrs. Zoe Brown nodded. ‘Even on the Sabbath. It is harder than I thought it would be to make ends meet.’ She gave a sigh and a smile and then looked me up and down. ‘That is some disguise. I cannot wait to hear why you are here in Frisco dressed like that.’

She led the way up dark & narrow stairs and said over her shoulder. ‘Martha will be home soon. I am just making a pot of tea. Do you like tea? Martha is partial to China tea with a slice of lemon and I have got a taste for it, too.’

I said, ‘I have never tried China tea with slice of lemon.’

‘Please excuse the disarray,’ said Miz Zoe as she went into a large room. The sun shining through red calico curtains gave it a roseate glow. She pulled opened the curtains and a strong flood of afternoon light showed a wrought iron table with one of those newfangled sewing machines like the one Mrs. Wasserman had used to alter my dress. 

‘This is my Singer sewing machine,’ said Zoe. ‘I had to sell Sassy to buy it. All the ladies here in Frisco want machine-sewn seams on their dresses,’ she explained. ‘Now how about that cup of tea? We do not have a kitchen but I have a little camp stove and there is a baker downstairs who gives us day-old rolls for a fraction of the price. I have got cinnamon rolls today.’ 

‘You had to sell Sassy?’ I asked. (Sassy and Sissy were the names of the two white horses that had pulled Zoe and Martha over the Sierra Nevada.)

Miz Zoe nodded. ‘Sissy, too. And the lacquered buggy. Since I wrote to you our fortunes have dipped a mite. This city is a lot like Virginia, only bigger. And the weather is perverse.’

I did not reply, for there was a full-length mirror leaning against one wall & I had just caught a glimpse of myself in it. 

I said, ‘I look like an Indian brave who had just massacred a little white girl and dressed in her frock for a hideous jest!’

Miz Zoe giggled. ‘Well, let us just say that color and style don’t flatter you much. Whatever possessed you to wear such a thing?’

I was about to tell her everything when I heard footsteps on the stairs. Was it Martha? 

No. These steps were heavy & menacing. Zoe must have thought so, too, for she ran to the door & bolted it with a wooden bolt. Then she stepped back a few paces & put her hand over the base of her throat like some women do when they are upset or scared.

The footsteps on the stairs got closer & closer & closer.

They stopped right outside.

For a moment there was silence.

Then the latch slowly moved but the bolt was down and the door stayed shut. 

A sudden heavy pounding on the door made my heart leap up into my throat.

‘Dang it! You come out now!’ a man’s voice shouted. (Only he did not say ‘dang.’) ‘I know you are in there!’ 

My heart was beating like a rabbit’s. Somehow my pursuers had found me.

I looked at Zoe. ‘Is there any way out of here?’ I said in a low tone.

Her pretty eyes were round with fear. ‘No,’ she said. ‘There is no way out. I will have to open the door.’

I stared at my erstwhile friend in dismay. 

I thought I had found a person I could trust in this strange city. 

But Mrs. Zoe Brown was about to hand me over to my pursuers!

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