After serving as a nurse in the Crimea, British-born Celia Davies left her privileged family for an impulsive marriage to a handsome Irishman. Patrick brought her to San Francisco’s bustling shores but then disappeared and is now presumed dead. Determined to carry on, Celia partnered with her half-Chinese cousin Barbara and her opinionated housekeeper Addie to open a free medical clinic for women who have nowhere else to turn. But Celia’s carefully constructed peace crumbles when one of her Chinese patients is found brutally murdered…and Celia’s hotheaded brother-in-law stands accused of the crime.
A veteran of America’s civil war, detective Nicholas Greaves is intent on discovering the killer of the girl, whose ethnicity and gender render her as powerless in death as they did in life. Nicholas’s efforts are complicated by Celia, who has a knack for walking into dangerous situations that may lead to answers…or get them both killed. For as their inquiries take them from Chinatown’s squalid back alleys to the Barbary Coast’s violent shipping docks to the city’s gilded parlors, Celia and Nicholas begin to suspect that someone very close to them holds the key to a murderous conspiracy…
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
To Phil, Nathan, and Will— your tireless support means everything to me.
San Francisco, March 1867
The Chinese believed that some days were inauspicious, the ill tidings written in the passage of the heavenly bodies. Celia Davies gazed down at her patient, a delicate Chinese girl whose skin displayed more bruises than unblemished flesh, and wondered if today would prove to be one of those days.
“You heal.” The old woman who’d been watching from the doorway flapped wrinkled hands, causing the lengthy twist of her silver-tinged ebony hair to swing across her chest. “You heal!”
“I shall try,” Celia answered. “I shall try my best.”
Celia leaned over the girl, a bead of perspiration trickling down her spine. It was stifling and gloomy in this airless room no larger than a closet, devoid of any furnishings beyond a washstand, a rickety bamboo stool, and the miserable cot the girl lay upon.
A room as tight and dark as a coffin.
“I have come to help you,” Celia said, though the prostitute likely could not hear or understand. There was a purple bruise along her collarbone, just above the neckband of her blue cotton sacque, and several more along her chin and cheekbone. One skinny arm was wrapped in filthy, bloodstained bandages. The girl’s face was sticky with dried sweat, and she whimpered drowsily. Undoubtedly, she had been dosed with opium for the pain. Celia rested a hand upon the girl’s forehead. Hot but not dangerously so. Not yet.
“She may have inflammation from her wounds. It is bad. Yau peng,” she said to the old woman waiting by the open door with its lattice-barred window.
The brothel owner’s hands had returned to the wide sleeves of her high-necked silk tunic, and her features creased with a frown. How much, Celia wondered, did this girl owe her in exchange for passage from China? Two hundred dollars? Three? Her freedom had been signed away in a contract she probably had not been able to read and might never escape. These girls came here by the dozens, sometimes sold by their own desperately poor families in China who thought they were sending their daughters to a better world, to Gam Saan, the Golden Mountain. Instead they were gathered at the docks and locked in barracoons, stripped and sold at auction, and relegated to the worst servitude a female could endure.
Celia settled onto the bamboo stool and undid the latch on the black leather portmanteau she used as a medical bag. More droplets of sweat collected beneath her collar, in the pits of her arms, and along her ribs where her corset hugged. She longed for a breath of air.
“When did this happen?” she asked, feeling for a pulse in the girl’s wrist. Weak and fast. Not unexpected. “How many days? Yat.”
Did she mean three entire days? Celia wished Barbara were here to talk to the woman. But her half-Chinese cousin had not been home when Celia had been summoned and had rushed to the stews in China Alley with only her portmanteau as company.
“You should have sent for me before now,” she said.
The Chinese woman’s expression, stoic and implacable, hardened. “You heal or you go.”
“I do not intend to let her die.”
Swiping the cuff of her sleeve across her forehead, Celia set out the clean cloth she’d had the foresight to bring and spread her tools upon it—a small pair of scissors and forceps. Fresh muslin and linen for the dressing. Carbolic acid for cleaning the lacerations.
Celia unwound the bandage covering the girl’s arm. It adhered to the wound, which stank when she peeled the last of the cloth away. The wound was extensive, suppurating, its edges jagged. The tissue was brown instead of healthy pink, and clotted with blood. Bits of torn clothing were stuck in the gashes.
Gently, she turned the girl’s arm over, looking for redness along its length, the sign of a dangerous spread of purulent matter in the blood. In the shadowy gloom the extent of the inflammation was difficult to determine, the angry purple bruises too many and too great. She must have attempted to fend off the blows. Celia suspected she would also find bruises on the girl’s torso. The strikes her customer had landed—with a heavy belt buckle, if Celia had to guess—had been unrelenting and could have killed her immediately. Might still kill her, despite Celia’s best efforts.
A young woman had appeared in the doorway. Two long braids hung beneath a dirty gingham handkerchief tied over her hair, and her hands plucked anxiously at the hem of her shabby tunic. The girl—small boned, pretty—was another of the many prostitutes imprisoned within this building.
“I need clean water,” Celia said to her. “Ts’eng shui.” Given the stench of sewage wafting through the open door, she might as well ask for the moon.
The prostitute gathered the filthy bandages and scurried off to fetch water.
Celia brushed her patient’s hair away from her face. The girl groaned and twisted away from her touch.
“Shh,” said Celia. “I am here to help you.”
“You heal or you go,” the old woman repeated.
“Yes, I shall try,” she answered firmly. That was all she’d ever sought to do—help, heal. But a brothel in Chinatown was worlds away from her childhood home in England and her youthful attempts to bandage the scrapes suffered by the neighbor’s barn cat or mend the broken wings of birds.
The other young woman had returned with a tin basin, water sloshing over the rim. She set it on the floor next to Celia’s feet and stood back. There were tears in her eyes as she looked down at Celia’s patient. It would be hard to be a friend in this place. Hard when life was so uncertain and far too short.
Celia started to work, first cleaning the wound as best she could, flushing it with generous amounts of water to remove the loose debris and pus. The runoff splashed onto the dirt floor at her feet, splattering her boots, dirtying her stockings. The prostitute standing in the doorway murmured to the elderly woman, sounding distressed. Her anxiety for her friend received a sharp reprimand. There was no pity to be found here, and less room for affection.
“Unh.” The patient’s eyelids fluttered as she tried to open them.
“Hurt?” asked her friend, shuffling forward.
“What I am doing hurts only a little,” Celia reassured her. “The flesh is too decayed to have much feeling in it.”
Using her forceps to grasp the diseased tissue, she retrieved the scissors and cut away as much flesh as she could manage. The wound began to bleed anew, which she took as a good sign. The other prostitute decided she could stand no more and ran off, her footsteps echoing down the alleyway. When Celia finished, she cleaned the gash with the carbolic and packed the wound with a pad of linen. She would not stitch it closed or cover it with a plaster. It needed a chance to heal, and sealing in the putrefaction would only guarantee the girl’s death.
“It must be kept clean. Wash it. Sai,” she said to the elderly woman as she bandaged the arm. “Change the dressing every day.” From her bag, Celia extracted a small envelope. “This is quinine. She must be given a grain every three to four hours.” She held up fingers, trying to explain. “For the fever.”
The woman took the envelope and tucked it into a pocket hidden beneath her tunic.
“Send a message if she worsens,” Celia added.
“You go now,” the brothel owner demanded, and stalked off.
Celia stared at the empty doorway, saw a drunk laborer shuffle past and down the alleyway, heard the call of prostitutes. No matter how long she stared, though, the woman would not be reappearing, her concern limited for a girl she considered little more than damaged merchandise.
Celia washed her hands and returned her supplies to the medical bag. Collecting her bonnet, she glanced at her patient one last time before hastening out into the alleyway.
The incessant spring winds had died down, leaving the air heavy with the reek of clogged sewer drains and the cloying sweetness of incense burning in a nearby joss house. She could hold her breath, but she couldn’t avoid hearing the muffled noises emanating from behind the closed doors that lined the passageway.
The alley widened as Celia walked on, the prostitutes’ rooms replaced by apartments and small shops. Overnight rain had left muddy puddles in the street. Hoisting her skirts, she hopped from one dry spot to the next. A porter squeezed past, the bamboo pole he’d slung over his shoulders curving from heavily laden baskets on either end. She skidded as she attempted to jump out of his path, her feet sinking to her ankles in slimy water.
“Gad!” Brilliant, Celia.
At the sound of her voice, the local constable who always offered to act as an escort straightened from where he had been leaning against a telegraph pole. He pulled the cigarette he’d been smoking from his mouth.
“You done, ma’am?” he asked.
“Yes, Constable.” She stepped up to him, her feet squelching in her boots. “Thank you for waiting.”
They headed for Washington Street, the constable eyeing every Chinese person they passed. “Ain’t smart to come here.”
“I do believe, Constable, that makes the tenth time you have made that observation,” she said, with a slight smile. He meant no harm.
“I keep hopin’ you’ll get some sense.”
“Most of these women are uncomfortable leaving Chinatown, so I have to come to them,” Celia explained. “I do not know what else I could do.”
The look he gave her suggested he could think of a whole host of things a proper lady should be doing besides tending prostitutes, and Celestials at that. It was not the first time he had given her that look, either.
They reached Washington Street. “I will be safe from here, Constable. Again, thank you.”
He nodded and strolled off, his head swiveling as he peered into every doorway, searching for drunks or gamblers to apprehend. The farther he walked without finding any, the more his shoulders sagged with disappointment.
Celia took one last glance back at the alleyway. In the distance, the old woman leaned through a ground-floor window, checking that Celia had left without taking any of the girls with her. As if there were someplace Celia could readily hide a girl from the owner who controlled her life.
As if there were someplace safe for any of them.
• • •
Celia hailed the horsecar running along the rails laid down on Stockton, its yellow coach a bright splash of color against the brick buildings and gray macadam. A ride when she was less than a mile from home was a real treat, but as her housekeeper would say in her Scottish brogue, “We didna come to America to kill ourselves.”
It was nearly seven years to the day since she had arrived in America with a husband and a dream. She had lost one. She clung fiercely to the other.
The driver reined in the horse, bringing the omnibus to a halt. She waited for the steps to clear of departing passengers and idly observed the busy streets around her. Across the way, the corner tobacconist closed his shop, shoving back the awning with a bang, and a newspaper boy called out the last copies of the Evening Bulletin. An elderly Chinese woman clattered past in her satin shoes with thick soles of felt and wood, silver anklets jangling. She disappeared into the shadows of the alley Celia had just left. The day’s activities were winding down, while soon the restaurants, lagerbier saloons, and gambling dens of the Barbary would be in full swing. And in the morning there might be new patients like the girl Celia had left moaning on a filthy cot.
Celia climbed aboard and paid her five cents to the conductor, who recorded her payment with his gang punch. The car was as crowded as ever, having come from the businesses along Market Street, and noisy with voices speaking a myriad of tongues. Several men stood hanging on to straps suspended from the ceiling. One or two eyed her outfit and the portmanteau in her hand. She could almost hear their thoughts: One of that sort of women, looking for rights. Next they’ll be asking for the vote, too, just like the negroes.
Gazing coolly at them, she noticed that a gentleman in a stovepipe hat had risen to offer her a seat. He, apparently, was not alarmed by a woman toting a medical bag. Celia thanked him and sank onto the bench between a matron whose hooped dress spread across two spaces and a man fast asleep. The woman pursed her lips as her regard settled on Celia’s muddy boots. Hastily, Celia tucked them beneath the hem of her equally muddy petticoats.
She had closed her eyes for only a second, it seemed, when someone called her name.
“Signora Davies. You come from a patient?”
Her neighbor, Maria Cascarino, occupied the bench opposite. Celia must have been exhausted to have missed her, a stout woman wearing a floral print skirt, her usual bright red shawl tucked around her white blouse. Perhaps Celia had not noticed Mrs. Cascarino without all of her children clinging to her skirts. Today only her youngest boy, Angelo, was at her side, kicking his heels.
“Yes, I have done, Mrs. Cascarino. I am sorry I did not notice you. It has been a very long and tiring day.”
“It is fine. I know you work hard.” She ruffled the mop of dark hair atop Angelo’s head. He must have misplaced his cap again. “We come from the city to buy shoes.” She motioned toward the scuffed brogans on the young boy’s feet. They looked far too large for a six-year-old. “Seventy-five cents. For old shoes! We cannot buy better.”
Celia’s gaze lingered on Maria Cascarino’s hand. It had come to rest upon Angelo’s shoulder, drawing his warm body snug against her side, the familiar itch of his wool jacket beneath her fingers. Celia buffed a thumb across her wedding band and felt an empty, hollow longing, which she quickly snuffed.
“Your shoes look very sturdy and fine, Angelo,” said Celia, making the boy grin and kick his heels faster.
Mrs. Cascarino smiled at her, crinkling the skin around her eyes. She often smiled, though she and her husband both claimed they had seen horrible things during the Risorgimento, the wars of Italian independence from Austria, which were still being fought, and the reason they had fled Italy almost twenty years ago, an infant girl in tow.
“But your patient, she is better?” the other woman asked.
“I have done what I could for her.”
“Sì. You always do the best.” She glanced down at Angelo, whose large eyes blinked at Celia, and her smile faltered. “Do you see my daughter?”
“I was in the Chinese quarter, Signora Cascarino. Not near her place of employment.”
Mrs. Cascarino clicked her tongue against her teeth. “That Mina,” she said. “We worry for her.”
I would worry for her, too, if she were my daughter. As far as Celia knew, however, Mina Cascarino did nothing more than sing at the saloon where she worked. A situation far better than what other girls like Mina could claim.
“Mina is a good girl,” said Celia.
Mrs. Cascarino eyed her. “My Mina? You are kind to say, but . . .” She looked out the window behind Celia’s back and yanked the cord strung overhead, ringing the bell to signal the driver to stop. “You come for dinner tonight. You and Miss Barbara. You talk to my husband and tell him Mina is good. We pray every day.”
“We would be delighted to come . . .” Oh no. Celia consulted the Ellery watch pinned to her waistband. She’d completely forgotten that she and Barbara were attending a meeting at the Ladies’ Society of Christian Aid in less than an hour. Celia was scheduled to give a talk urging the group to extend support to the Chinese women, and she expected opposition. “Actually, we cannot. We have a prior engagement this evening.”
“One day soon.”
The horsecar arrived at their destination, and they both alighted. Angelo noticed a friend across the street and dashed over the muddy road to join him.
“Good day, Signora,” Celia called, leaving the woman shouting at her son from the corner of Vallejo Street as the streetcar rattled off.
She hurried up the steep wooden pavement that lined both sides of the street. Telegraph Hill rose to her left, the white building and its unused signal pole at its peak. A horse and rider pulling a water cask on wheels slogged up the hill, the dirt road slick from last night’s shower. There would be fog tonight because of the damp. The water carrier tipped his hat to her as she reached her house, two stories tall and sturdily built of brick, wedged between clapboard dwellings that stairstepped the incline. From here, the city flowed over hills in all directions, buildings crowding out the chaparral that still clung to the sides of Telegraph Hill and Russian Hill looming to the west. She wondered if she would ever grow accustomed to the drifts of tawny sand that clogged the streets when the wind blew hard, or to the overwhelming brownness of it all during the summer months. At least there was the bay and the green, green mountains to the east to ease her homesickness.
Celia climbed the flight of stone steps and passed beneath the sign suspended from the overhang that read FEMALES’ FREE CLINIC and was repeated in Chinese and every other language she had been able to think of. Optimism had encouraged her to add the Chinese characters when she’d first opened the clinic two years ago. To date, only one Chinese girl had found her way there.
Mrs. Cascarino had collected Angelo and was ascending the road with him as Celia entered the house. She gave them a parting wave. Hearing the front door open, Addie Ferguson wandered into the vestibule from the parlor, her attention fixed on the day’s copy of the Daily Alta California.
“Men looking for positions and men looking for houses to let, but not a one looking for a wife! I’m wasting my time . . .” She glanced up and caught sight of Celia, who had dropped into the chair by the door and began wrestling off her boots. “Och, look at your feet! And those stockings . . . I’ll ne’er get that muck out of them.”
Lean and strong, with snapping hazel eyes and curly brown hair pinned beneath a cap, Addie conveyed her disapproval—and concern—with the hastiest of frowns. Despite being younger than Celia and on the wrong side of the servant-mistress relationship, Addie never hesitated to express her opinion. The tendency had irritated Celia’s husband, whose broad shoulders and Irish wit hadn’t impressed the strong-minded Scottish maid the same way they had impressed an impetuous young nurse with a wounded heart. Patrick had demanded Addie be dismissed within a month of Celia’s employing her. All this time later, though, she was still with Celia.
And Patrick Davies was the one who had left.
“Has Barbara returned from checking on the girl down the street?” asked Celia, worried for the young woman, who’d burned herself cooking.
Addie caught Celia’s boots before they landed on the floor.
“Miss Barbara’s been home near to an hour now, ma’am. She’s been reading on the back porch. That Dickens book you assigned her. And grumbling all the while,” Addie added, holding the grimy footwear away from her hopsack apron, the newspaper tucked under her other arm. “I suppose this rush means you’ve no plans to eat?”
“I do not have time, Addie.”
“’Tisn’t my place, ma’am, but starving will do you no good.”
“I shall not starve. I’ll eat when we return from the meeting.” Celia headed for the oak staircase in the center of the house, her fingers working the buttons of her crimson flannel garibaldi. The style of blouse had been named for a hero of the Italian independence movement, she recalled, thinking again of the Cascarinos and their chanteuse daughter.
“And please tell Miss Barbara to be ready to leave in fifteen minutes,” she added.
“Aye, ma’am.” The newspaper crackled as Addie withdrew it, ready to return to scanning its pages in her hunt for a man seeking a spouse. In all honesty, there were so many unattached males in San Francisco that if Addie really wanted a man, all she need do was step onto the street and snag one. “She’s none too happy about having to go.”
“Well, I’m none too happy about having to go, either, but we must. For the sake of the women we are trying to help,” said Celia, climbing the steps.
“By the by, ma’am, Miss Li didna come for dinner this afternoon.”
Celia paused and looked down at Addie. Li Sha, the lone Chinese girl who’d found her way to the clinic—and a way out of her life of prostitution—regularly came for dinner at Celia’s invitation. She had never missed a meal before. “Did she send a note?”
“Nae a word.”
“That is not like her.” Not in the least. “Li Sha will have a good reason for her absence, and we are silly to fret.”
“I am certain you’re right, ma’am,” answered Addie, sounding none too certain at all.
• • •
“We have always been generous,” Celia said, her gaze sweeping the women seated in the meeting room in the church’s basement. This evening the numbers were fewer than usual. “We can afford to be generous again in support of these girls, who have nowhere else to turn.”
At the back, a woman rose, gathered her things, and exited the room. Mrs. Douglass, the chairwoman of the Ladies’ Society of Christian Aid, intercepted her before she reached the door. The woman, however, was not dissuaded from leaving. Heads leaned together as others debated following her lead.
“I know this is a difficult choice to make,” Celia continued, “given how sentiment has turned against the Chinese who labor among us.”
“Taking away jobs,” someone muttered, generating more restless shuffling of delaine and poplin skirts, more whispers.
Celia studied each face; most of the women in the room had ceased meeting her gaze. “The Chinese should not be allowed to fall victim to prejudice. These girls require assistance now more than ever.”
Her cousin, seated in the front row, stared down at her hands folded in her lap. It was because of Barbara that Celia had become so passionate about the Chinese women of this city. A sentiment clearly not shared by most of those gathered here.
“There already is a Chinese Mission House in the city, Mrs. Davies,” pointed out a matron in plaid taffeta, a beribboned hat perched upon her graying hair. “The society doesn’t need to stretch its meager budget to provide charity to Chinese prostitutes when they already have an avenue toward a proper life.”
Her comment received a flutter of applause.
“Many of them cannot get to the mission, even if they wished to,” responded Celia. “They do not feel safe in the streets, and their own culture discourages them from leaving their homes and accommodations.”
“Brothels, you mean.”
“The society has supported other prostitutes who wished to turn their lives around. How are these women different?”
“It’s obvious! They’re Chinese!” said the woman. Frowning, she slid her glance toward Barbara, whose hands were clasped so tightly that her knuckles were turning white. A young lady seated next to her took a chair farther away.
It had been a mistake to bring her cousin here, Celia realized. In the past, these same women had always welcomed Barbara. Tonight, however, she was learning how readily professions of friendship could hide the bitterness of bigotry.
Celia rapped a fist against the podium, her anger mounting. “And it is because they are Chinese that we must act as a force for good in this city, a city that is becoming obsessed with dangerous hatred.”
“You’re mistaken, Mrs. Davies. We can’t afford to support these women,” said a third woman, who stood to leave, taking a friend with her.
The grumbling increased. Mrs. Douglass, sensing serious trouble, swept forward between the chairs and stopped in front of the podium.
“Thank you so much, Mrs. Davies. Perhaps at another time we can discuss extending support to the Chinese girls in this town.” She clapped politely and signaled for the next speaker to come up.
Seething, Celia stepped out from behind the podium. She collected the reticule she had left on her chair and clasped Barbara’s elbow. “Come, it’s time to leave.”
Tears in her dark eyes, her cousin rose awkwardly to her feet.
“Keep your chin up, Barbara. They must not defeat us,” Celia whispered, marching out of the room while every eye remained on them.
“Cousin Celia, please wait!” Barbara called, hobbling into the stairwell. Her left foot, disfigured since birth, made it difficult for her to walk quickly.
Celia slowed and helped her climb the stairs that led to the church’s vestibule.
“I shouldn’t have dashed off like that, but I was angry,” Celia said by way of apology. “It was a mistake to bring you here.”
“I hate them!” Barbara spat, all of her youth exposed in the angry outburst.
Her cousin was only sixteen and not much different from Celia at that age—sensitive, awkward, baffled by the world. To be half-Chinese and afflicted with a clubfoot made life that much more difficult.
“At the moment, Barbara, I feel precisely the same,” said Celia, stepping through the church’s main doors and descending onto the street. The sun had set, and the corner streetlamp puddled light over the pavement. A man across the road shot Barbara a black look. Celia hoped her cousin hadn’t noticed.
Celia hailed a hackney coming up the cobbled road. They climbed into the dark, quiet interior and the carriage pulled away from the curb.
“How could those ladies be so mean?” Barbara asked, her voice breaking on a sob. “It’s just like when Papa sent me to that school and everybody made fun of me.”
Celia wrapped an arm around her cousin’s shoulders, drawing her close. Barbara rarely allowed such attention, and Celia relished it.
“Shh,” she murmured. “We must stay strong, you and I, because there will be times when strength is all we have to rely on.”
Her words only made Barbara cry harder.
Celia sighed and let her weep. We are both pitiful. A reluctant daughter and an inexperienced guardian who could not replace the parents Barbara had lost. They both had so much to learn.
• • •
“It’s a bad ’un, Mr. Greaves.”
Detective Nicholas Greaves shifted his gaze from the crumpled pile of indigo cotton and black hair tangled in the staves of a discarded broken barrel to stare at the policeman. He squinted against the morning sun. “When, exactly, aren’t they, Taylor?”
The man frowned. Lifting his hat, Taylor pulled out a handkerchief to wipe the sweat beading his forehead. It was turning into a typical San Francisco spring day—cool, a breeze off the water climbing the hills, chasing off the fog. The weather wasn’t making Taylor sweat. The dead body was.
“Give me the details,” Nick requested. His assistant had a weak stomach and probably shouldn’t have been on the detective force, but he was thorough in his work. Nick would forgive a lot for thoroughness.
Taylor retrieved a small notebook from the inner pocket of his knee-length gray coat and consulted it. Out in the bay a few yards distant, a seagull bobbed on the waves while its companions swirled overhead. Behind Nick, at the land side of the quay, a crowd had gathered—warehouse workers and longshoremen in shirtsleeves, a couple of chapped-skinned Italian fishermen in blue serge coats, neighbors and nearby shopkeepers. Their gossiping voices rose and fell as children roamed among them, their eyes wide. Where were the parents to keep them away? No one needed to see this, certainly not a child.
Nick rubbed his left arm where it always ached, clenched and unclenched his fist to ease the tingling in his fingers, and nodded to Taylor, who’d waited for his attention.
“Chinese female. Young, maybe in her early twenties. Given that her feet were never bound, she wasn’t from one of their higher classes. A prostitute, I’d guess, especially considering the face paint. Though the regular sorta dress she’s wearing don’t make sense. Sliced across the torso. Deep gash in her right hand, cuts on her forearms. From fighting off her attacker, maybe. Another wound at the back of the head, like something smashed against it.”
Nick crouched at the girl’s side while Taylor continued his litany of observations and guesses. She hadn’t been murdered here; there was no blood on the wharf planks, though last night’s rain might have washed it away. Bruises marred her face. The man who had found her in the water bumping against a timber pile had left her in a heap, her bare legs tangled in her skirt, her right arm bent awkwardly beneath her. Nick cast his gaze down the length of the girl’s body, at the bloodstained bodice and skirts that stuck to her, revealing her soft curves, the gentle bulge of her belly. A few months pregnant, it seemed, and wearing an oversized dress to accommodate—or hide—the increasing swell. That the gown wasn’t the cheap cotton sacque most prostitutes wore indicated something, but what? Nick wondered why her hair wasn’t braided into the long pigtail the Chinese—both men and women—favored. He wondered where her shoes had been left. Perhaps they had fallen off in the water. One thing Taylor hadn’t mentioned was how lovely she was beneath the bruises and the clinging tendrils of hair.
Nick swept the lush blue-black mass out of her eyes and off her high cheekbones, piling the tresses at the base of her neck and trying not to think of Meg. One day he’d stop seeing his sister’s face in that of every fallen woman. One day he’d stop feeling guilty for having failed her.
“Don’t you think, Mr. Greaves, sir?”
He glanced up. “Don’t I think what, Taylor?”
“I said bad luck for him that when he tossed her off the pier her clothes snagged and she didn’t sink.”
“She would’ve shown up eventually, in these shallow waters,” said Nick, standing. “And we don’t know that whoever tossed her in was a he.”
A flush joined the sweat on the policeman’s face. “Yes, sir.”
“I’ve told you that you don’t need to call me ‘sir.’”
“Can’t help myself, sir. Em, sorry . . . Mr. Greaves.”
“It’s okay, Taylor.”
Nick looked out at the water. Goat Island was a rocky outcrop in the bay, and the Contra Costa hills rose in the distance. The nine-o’clock ferry was chugging toward Oakland, creating a wake. Several three-masted ships and steamers were angling into nearby piers, the slap of paddle wheels and the clink of rigging carrying across the water. Stacks belched streams of smoke into the sky, reminding him of the girl’s long black hair. It wasn’t likely she had been in the water long, even though this particular wharf wasn’t one of the busier ones and currently sat empty of any ships. A harbor official had rowed out to intercept a schooner making for the quay, halting it before the boat could dock and add to the confusion.
“When was she found?” Nick asked.
Taylor eyed the workers assembled ten yards distant. “Sunrise this morning. When the workers arrived for their shift. Two ships are due in today, one from Panama. It was that one that found her. A customhouse inspector.” He nodded toward a man who was slouched in a dark coat and drawn-down cap and stood apart from the crowd.
“Perfect evening last night to commit a crime like this,” observed Taylor, “what with the rain keeping folks indoors.” He made the mistake of looking down at the girl’s body and blanched.
“And a good spot to dump a body. Wharf hasn’t been very busy these past coupla weeks.” Taylor used the butt end of his notebook to scratch at his neck above his collar. He studied the book’s contents one last time before restoring it to the breast pocket of his coat. “From what I’ve been told.”
“Yes, a good spot,” Nick said absently, scanning the ground nearby.
He poked among the bits of detritus, barrels marked SODA ASH and TAR OIL, casks of crockery and fire clay, piles of lumber. No handy footprints were visible. No bits of cloth or dropped cheroot butts to collect as evidence. No incriminating weapon hiding among the stacked crates.
“Don’t think I missed anything, sir,” said Taylor, sounding uncertain.
“I’m sure you didn’t.”
Straightening, Nick brushed his hands together and sighed.
“I know you, Mr. Greaves, sir,” said Taylor brightly, misunderstanding his superior’s exhalation. “You’ll get to the bottom of this quick as a wink. Even if the captain isn’t gonna want us bothering about some murdered Chinese girl.”
“When have I ever not bothered, Taylor?”
“Well . . . never, sir.”
Nick removed his coat and draped it over the girl. The gawkers had seen enough. “Bring that one”—he gestured at the customhouse inspector who had found the body—“into the station as soon as you can get him there. Send for the coroner, if you haven’t already. He’ll need to assemble a jury for his inquest, and they’ll want to see the body. Also, put the news out on the street that we’re looking for information about her. Somebody will claim her and then we’ll learn more.”
“No Chinaman’s gonna claim one of his girls. They don’t care once they’re done with them.”
Nick glanced over, the raw sea breeze piercing his shirtsleeves.
“This one’s different, Taylor,” he said, wanting to believe it. “Trust me. Someone will turn up for her.” Because they had to.
Because he needed them to.
“You did your best Monday evening to be persuasive, Mrs. Davies. I appreciate that,” Mrs. Douglass said, perching her cup of pekoe tea atop her melon-and-maroon plaid skirt. She regarded Celia with the intense gaze that had made her such a successful chairwoman. “But you saw how some of the ladies feel.”
Celia tapped a fingernail against her own teacup and glanced up at the portrait of Barbara’s father that hung above the brocatelle-covered settee. The artist had captured him with a grin on his mustachioed face, his thumbs tucked into the pockets of his silk waistcoat. Plump and prosperous and pleased, he’d been a successful miner who had married a Chinese woman, only to lose her when Barbara was nine years of age. Celia knew what he would say about how “the ladies feel,” and the words would not be complimentary.
I miss you, Uncle. Nearly as much as Barbara does.
“Indeed, I did see how they feel, Mrs. Douglass. As did my cousin.”
“I am sorry if Miss Barbara was uncomfortable.”
Was she sorry? Celia wondered. “Nonetheless, I am surprised the ladies have permitted current sentiment to affect them.”
Hardly a day passed without a newspaper article calling for men and women to join anti-coolie groups that were organizing to stem the flow of Chinese immigrants into California. People had had few concerns so long as the Chinese stayed within their own communities. But when the woolen mills had begun replacing white laborers with cheaper Chinese workers, anger and hatred had started to swell.
The anger had spilled out a few weeks ago. A mob of unemployed men, primarily Irish, had assaulted dozens of Chinese laborers who were grading a road and burned their temporary shelters to the ground. Only through the intervention of the police had no one died. Barbara had been afraid to leave the house for days afterward, in case the rage was turned toward every Chinese person.
“I expect,” said Mrs. Douglass, “and the ladies expect, that there will be more violence.”
“The men responsible for that riot were punished, Mrs. Douglass.” Three months in jail and a five-hundred-dollar fine had been handed out, inflaming the locals who had sympathized with the men. “The Chinese of this city stand nothing to gain by retaliating.”
“I am not speaking of the Chinese causing violence, Mrs. Davies.”
“Then what are you speaking of?”
“I was approached after the meeting and yet again yesterday afternoon by a number of women whose husbands own businesses in this city. I won’t share their names; it’s not necessary.” Mrs. Douglass set her cup of cold tea on a side table. “Their husbands have been visited by members of an investigating committee. This committee has been given the task of collecting the names of any white men found employing Chinese labor. As I’m sure you know, several of our members’ husbands utilize Celestials. They are good workers.”
Mrs. Douglass ignored Celia’s comment. “But now these same members are alarmed. This is not the time for the society to provide financial assistance to your work with the Chinese . . . females of this town, Mrs. Davies. We shouldn’t be drawing attention to ourselves in this fashion. It is simply too dangerous. Perhaps in a few months, once the situation has had a chance to calm. It is a worthy cause, but let us wait for a better time.”
“A few months, Mrs. Douglass? Do you honestly believe that the workingmen behind these attacks, these meetings, this intimidation, will be pacified in a few months? The women need our help now, not when these men finally decide to stop rioting and assaulting the Chinese.”
“I have informed you of the situation, Mrs. Davies,” said Mrs. Douglass, rising to her feet. “I won’t be scheduling you to speak again on this topic for the near future.”
Celia stood as well. “I also presume these same ladies will no longer be providing support for my clinic.” She couldn’t afford to lose their donations; Uncle Walford had left her a stipend for the clinic in his will, but the money never went far enough.
“How they decide to distribute their charity is up to them, Mrs. Davies. Good—”
“Cousin!” Barbara burst into the parlor, her face as white as chalk, startling Celia, who spilled tea onto the red-and-gold-patterned carpet beneath her feet. “I’m sorry to interrupt, but there’s awful news in the paper.”
She thrust the newspaper into Celia’s hands. “There. Right there.” Barbara jabbed a trembling forefinger at an article. “It’s got to be Li Sha. It’s got to be!”
The headline screamed CHINESE GIRL FOUND DEAD.
Celia lifted her gaze to an ashen Barbara. “Dear God, no.”
• • •
“Here he is, Mr. Greaves,” announced Officer Mullahey.
Nick looked up from his desk. Mullahey pressed a beefy hand to the back of the customhouse worker, thrusting him into the office Nick shared with one other detective. Who, thankfully, was currently away.
“Glad you could come talk to us again, Mr. Wagner,” said Nick, gesturing for the man to take a seat. Thomas Wagner. Average height, average weight, average looking. Above-average temper. Already, a vein in his neck was bulging. He wore a black suit of high quality over all that averageness. Working as an inspector for the U.S. Custom House must pay better than Nick realized.
“Didn’t give me much choice, Detective Greaves,” Wagner muttered, dropping into the chair.
“Need me to stay?” asked Mullahey.
“No. Thank you,” said Nick, waiting to proceed until the officer had closed the door once again.
He leaned back in his chair and stared at Wagner, the rattle of carriage wheels on the street outside the basement-level office the only sound in the room. That and the whistle of Wagner’s breathing, which was getting louder and more rapid as each second ticked past.
“Well?” the man asked. “Are you just going to stare at me?”
“I already told you people all I did was spot that Chinese girl in the water. And then that dockworker came along to help me pull her out. That’s it! I didn’t have anything to do with killing her.”
“Yes, I know that’s what you said to Officer Taylor.” Wagner had claimed to have never seen the girl before he’d arrived at work Tuesday morning to inspect a vessel and found her bobbing in the water. It might be the truth. Might not.
“So you don’t need to talk to me anymore,” said Wagner.
“What did she do?” asked Nick. “Did the girl spurn your advances, and you got angry?”
“I don’t go to Chinese prostitutes.”
“Ah, I see. Of course not. It’s also come to my attention”—Nick consulted a paper on his desk—“that you were arrested last year for assaulting a Mexican sailor. Not far from the wharf where that Chinese girl was dumped.”
“I was let off. Besides, he started it,” he answered, sounding like an eight-year-old accused of a spat with a neighbor kid.
“Still, it seems you don’t much care for foreigners. Maybe you can tell me how much you hate the Chinese. All that grumbling among the Irish laborers. Lots of folks agree with them. Maybe you do, too.”
“Unlike those Paddies, I’ve got a job, a good one. I don’t hate Celestials. Don’t have any reason to.”
“You think I’d kill that girl?” Now Wagner was sweating. He yanked a handkerchief from an inner coat pocket and mopped his forehead. “I was home with my wife. Didn’t your officer talk to her? She’ll tell ya!”
“She did say something to that effect. But my officer also spotted a newspaper on a table at your place. Open to an article about an anti-coolie meeting planned for a few days from now.” Nick rested his elbows on his desk and leaned over them. “So perhaps you can tell me just how much you hate the Chinese.”
• • •
“When will you be back from the police station?” asked Barbara, looking over at Celia from where she sat at the dining room table.
“As quickly as I can,” said Celia, tying the ribbons of her low-brim spoon bonnet beneath her chin. “Get back to your sums. The work should distract you while I am gone.”
Barbara scowled at her workbook of mathematical computations. “But I can’t concentrate.”
“Miss Barbara, ’tis best to carry on when awful things happen,” said Addie, who was cleaning the walnut sideboard, the feather duster repeating its circuit across the polished surface for the third or fourth time. She seemed adhered to her spot on the dining room rug, as if moving too far might disturb the heavens and cause more unhappiness to rain down. “As my father would say, nothing is so difficult but may be overcome with perseverance. And that includes sorrows.”
“The Palmers would never make Em do schoolwork if she was upset,” retorted Barbara.
“They might do,” said Celia. Invoking the wisdom of the wealthy and influential Palmers, acquaintances who had befriended Barbara, was one of the girl’s favored tactics. And tiresome, at a time like this. “They dote on Emmeline, but not at the expense of her education.”
Barbara sighed loudly but picked up her pencil.
“I was thinking mulligatawny for supper, ma’am. Something light,” said Addie. The feather duster made another pass across the sideboard.
“A good idea, Addie,” Celia said. “Here is hoping I have good news when I return.”
Celia set out for Portsmouth Square, where city hall and the police station were located. It was a short walk, all downhill, and she arrived within minutes. She dodged the traffic along Kearney, the hackney carriages discharging passengers, others waiting for fares near the iron fence that surrounded the square. The wind whirling across the road snatched at the ribbons of Celia’s bonnet, and she caught her breath as a gust spat sand against her cheek.
Pausing, she stared up at the three-story, sandstone-fronted structure that housed both city hall and the police station, gathering her nerve against what she might learn inside its walls.
Please, let it not be Li Sha.
She climbed the short flight of steps at the same time that a woman in a striped dress with a low-cut bodice strolled through the front doors.
“What’s your hurry, darlin’?” she asked Celia, wafting the aroma of alcohol.
Celia brushed past her and stepped inside. The entry area was dim and quiet and retained vestiges of the building’s past life as the Jenny Lind Theatre, though most of the interior had been gutted during the renovation. Ornate moldings decorated doors and ceilings, and a broad staircase led to other floors. Hallways sprouted offices with closed doors, the sounds of a commotion coming from behind one of them. Three men in black frock coats exited a room to her right and crossed to climb the stairs, their footfalls echoing. They didn’t halt their conversation or notice her attempts to hail them. Frowning, she examined the signs tacked to the farthest wall and realized the police station was located in the basement with the jail cells.
The staircase descended into an open room jammed with chairs and desks, gas lamps flickering to chase away the gloom. Cigar smoke hung in the air, the source of the smoke hunched over a desk shoved into the farthest corner, his gray policeman’s coat with its black buttons and velvet collar and star thrown over his chair. Though every window was propped open, Celia could hardly breathe for the appalling stench coming from the direction of the jail cells, guarded by a barred door. The stink likely explained why most of the room was empty.
Off to one side, a man argued with an officer, stammering on about not being involved in smuggling. At the nearest desk, another policeman glanced up, his eyes widening. She suspected it was not every day that a reasonably well-dressed woman found her way here.
“Ma’am?” he inquired, her wedding ring having been observed.
“I need to speak to an officer.” She took a quick, small breath; the stink made her head swim. “About the Chinese girl discovered dead yesterday morning.”
“Detective Greaves is busy.”
Detective. If a detective was involved, Li Sha had not met with some sort of accident, as she’d hoped despite what the newspaper article had implied.
She felt light-headed. She should sit and collect herself. She reached for the nearest chair and collapsed onto it, a mound of crinoline and heavy skirts. The alleged smuggler stopped arguing to gawk.
The policeman jumped up. “Ma’am?”
“I shall be fine,” she assured him.
“I’ll fetch water anyhow,” he said, and scurried off through a side door, leaving it ajar.
To ease light-headedness, she would advise a patient to put her head between her knees, but Celia’s corset kept her as upright as if she had been strapped to the chair back. Wretched cage.
She breathed in carefully. She had fainted only once before, even through everything she had experienced in the army hospitals—the putrefying wounds, the hacked-off limbs, the sickness and disease that took as many as the damage caused by men’s bullets and bayonets. Only once, and that had been when they had brought in Harry, her brother, delirious from fever. She must not faint now. They would never take her to see Li Sha if she fainted.
The policeman returned and thrust a chipped glass at her. “Here.”
“Thank you, Officer . . .”
“Thank you, Officer Mullahey. I’m sorry to have alarmed you.” Celia took a sip and handed back the glass. “So, might I see the detective?”
The officer scrunched his nose, which was crooked from a long-ago break. “Detective Greaves don’t take to bein’ disturbed when he’s interviewin’ folks.”
“In that case, is there someone else I might speak to?” When he hesitated, she sat taller and looked him straight in the face. “I shall wait here as long as is required.”
“I kin tell.”
“Then you have no reason not to permit me to speak with someone immediately.”
The smuggler, eavesdropping, laughed aloud. His enjoyment of the spectacle she was making prompted a cuff on the shoulder from the constable beside him, which generated another argument.
“Hey, Taylor, you busy?” the officer called to the policeman smoking in the corner. “This here lady wants to talk to someone about that Chinese prostitute—”
“If the girl is who I think she is,” Celia interrupted, “she was not a prostitute.” Not any longer.
He smirked. “Anyways, Taylor, can you talk to her about that girl found on the wharf? While she waits for your boss. If’n he even agrees to meet with her.”
Officer Taylor glanced over, his eyebrows lifting, and hastily stubbed out his cigar. He stood and pulled a second chair close to his desk. “Miss.”
Celia crossed the room while Officer Mullahey went in search of the uninterruptible Detective Greaves. The smuggler lost his argument and was hauled off through the door with the barred window. The portal thudded shut behind him, settling the room into a sudden quiet.
“Not miss,” she said. “Mrs. Davies.”
“Sorry, ma’am.” With a gentle smile, Officer Taylor waited until she seated herself to retake his chair. “So, you think you might know the girl who was found yesterday?”
“I would have to see the body, obviously, to be certain.”
He went crimson, having the sort of pale skin that reddened easily. “Well, now, ma’am, that’s a mighty unpleasant thing you’re suggesting—”
“I have seen dead bodies before, Officer Taylor. More than you can imagine.” She must see the girl they had found. “More than you likely have, unless you served during your war.”
His blush spread across his face, and he jutted out his chin. The gesture made him look far younger than her own nine-and-twenty years. “I didn’t have a chance to fight, but I would’ve if I could’ve.”
“I am sorry. I did not mean to question your patriotism or your courage,” she replied, regretting her brusqueness. “I still insist, however, on seeing the body. I must know whether or not it is Li Sha.”
“A dead body isn’t a sight for any lady,” he said curtly, her apology rebuffed. “She was cut all over. It was awful.”
“If she was murdered, then I absolutely insist on seeing the body. I must know.”
“Detective Greaves won’t—”
“I shall speak to him myself.”
She stood and marched back across the station room, headed for the door through which Officer Mullahey had vanished.
“Ma’am!” Officer Taylor shouted. “Come back here!”
With one motion, Celia stepped over the threshold and plowed straight into a very solid chest.
• • •
Nick grabbed the woman’s arms before she lost her balance.
“I told you she was obstinate as all get-out,” said Mullahey from within the office.
“I see that.”
“You may let go,” the woman said, her voice as cultured and smooth as English cream. The impact with his chest had dislodged her bonnet, which tilted on her honey-colored hair.
She had even features and was as pretty as Mullahey had also claimed. She smelled good, too, fresh with the scent of strong soap and lavender, though any scent was better than the station’s reek. The beat police, who worked out of their homes, were lucky they hardly ever had to come here.
And her eyes . . . well, they were a gray-blue like the sheen of ice on a winter’s lake. About as damned lovely as any eyes he’d ever seen.
“I am Detective Nicholas Greaves,” he said. “I understand from Officer Mullahey you wanted to speak to me about the Chinese woman who was found yesterday morning.”
“I do.” Those eyes lowered to look at his hands, still gripped around her arms. “And you may release your clutch on me, Detective.”
“Excuse me, miss,” he said, letting go.
“Mrs. Davies,” she corrected, and brushed her hands down the sleeves of her jacket. A wedding band glinted on her left hand.
“So, whatever you’ve got to say about that girl, I’m listening, Mrs. Davies.”
Inside the detectives’ office, Wagner got up from the chair. “Can I go now?”
“Mullahey, get him out of here.” The man had stuck to his story, despite Nick’s attempts to force him to confess.
Mullahey complied, dragging the man toward Mrs. Davies, whose wide skirts were blocking the aisle. She moved aside.
“I must see her.” Mrs. Davies felt for her bonnet and rearranged it upon her head. One tendril escaped her efforts to contain her hair, and the strand quivered against her cheek. He didn’t suggest she fix it. “I must know if it is my friend who has been murdered.”
“That isn’t possible.”
Taylor had come to stand nearby and was shaking his head. “She’ll insist,” he murmured.
“Thank you, Taylor.” Nick focused on Mrs. Davies. Definitely very pretty. “Let me describe her for you. She was wearing a dark blue dress and—”
“And had black hair and Chinese features, I do suppose?”
Her superior-sounding accent made her sarcasm all the more pointed. “Mrs. Davies—”
“I know you must think me forward to come here and make these demands,” she interrupted again. “But I have to see the body. Li Sha was a close friend, and I feel responsible for her.”
“I am not taking you to view the body, ma’am.”
“If you will not take me to her, then I shall go and speak to the coroner and have him show me,” she said. “I am no delicate creature who will faint at the sight, if that is what you are worried about.”
“I might’ve been having thoughts along those lines.”
“Then I have reassured you.”
She squared her shoulders, calling to mind all of his dead sister’s fierce determination, puncturing his resolve.
“All right,” he conceded, startling Taylor, whose brows leapt up his forehead. “I’ll take you to the undertaker’s where the body has been stored for the coroner.”
He reached for her arm again, but she evaded his grasp. “I can make my way upstairs on my own, Mr. Greaves.”
To prove it, she nodded to Taylor and started for the stairs.
“We can use . . .” Never mind telling her to use the side door out into the alley. She was already halfway up the other steps, her back as flat as a board and her skirts swishing as she moved quickly out of sight. Delicate? She was as delicate as a chunk of granite.
Watch yourself, Nick.
“If the captain asks where I am, Taylor, tell him I’m with the coroner.” Grabbing his hat off the rack just inside the doorway, he bounded after her.
• • •
She felt a fool.
Celia bolted across the foyer of city hall, startling a clerk carrying an armful of papers, and burst through the front doors. She pressed a hand to her side and gulped in air. She had been unnerved by a handsome detective whose every finger she could still feel upon her arms and had let her response vex her into rudeness.
Such a fool.
“Oh, Celia, do calm down,” she grumbled, slowing to take the few steps down to street level.
“Celia? What a fine name.”
It was that detective, the uninterruptible one with the spaniel brown eyes, his hair a thick sable wave. She wanted to touch it. That was what she had been thinking while his hands had clutched her arms. She wanted to touch that gorgeous hair.
“Do you always sneak up on ladies?” she asked, lifting her chin to hide her embarrassment at having been caught talking to herself.
“Not always.” With a slow scan of the street around them—was he always watchful? she wondered—he joined her on the pavement.
“Just sometimes,” she said.
“If the need arises,” he responded.
A tall man, he looked down at her. His eyes, shaded by the brim of his clove brown flat-crowned hat, did not blink. He must intimidate criminals with that gaze. It strayed to the bit of hair trailing down her face, and she stuffed the errant strand back into the chignon at the nape of her neck.
“I was named after my mother,” she explained. Cecilia Eglinton Walford. Her mother’s name was one of the few things she remembered about the woman, a blurry face and form from her childhood.
“Celia is not a common name,” said Mr. Greaves. “Short for Cecilia, I’d guess?”
Excerpted from "No Comfort for the Lost"
Copyright © 2015 Nancy Herriman.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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