6:2 Islands of the Dead

FARALLONES ISLANDS, CALIFORNIA  |  1889

Boarding the steamship Pride of Jefferson with a tired and emotionally distraught eleven-year-old was easier than Fox imagined. It turned out that every adult he saw traveling with children had the same look of exhaustion and mortal dread that he himself wore. He wondered for a moment if they all were escaping the bloody scene of some equally Shakespearian drama; he hoped not, if simply for the sake of humanity in general.

Once he had the tired child and their collective meager possessions stowed away in a cabin below, Fox took the opportunity to walk the decks as the ship left the Golden Gate. The oppressive marine layer overhead began to dissipate as soon as the Farallon Islands came into sight. Fox wished with all his heart for a cigarette although he had given them up years ago.

“Isn’t that a sight, friend?” A husky drawl inquired from the shadows.

Fox flinched and turned to face his fellow passenger. A large man in evening clothes two sizes too small for his stout frame stepped into the light. A dapper silk top hat was rakishly balanced atop a head that looked as if it had been hastily assembled from spare steam engine parts. The man’s rubber grommet lips parted to reveal a mouth full of teeth that would put a combine harvester to shame.

“Isn’t what a sight?” Fox asked as he regained his composure.

“Why the comet, friend, just look at it!” The enigmatic gentleman pointed to a break in the fog with a cane topped with what looked like a baby alligator head. Fox followed the man’s gaze and truly noticed the engine of his delivery for the first time. “They say a piece of it broke off and came crashing down,” the man continued in a cadence dipped in hot tar. “Killed a preacher somewhere in the Central Valley. Isn’t that something? A preacher. I guess when the Lord calls his own back home, he very well means it.” The man began to chuckle quietly to himself.

“Where did you hear that, sir?” Fox fought to maintain his best poker face.

“Hell, son, it’s in all the papers! It’s the biggest news since Coca-Cola,” the man abandoned his chuckle and traded up to a full-throated laugh that sounded like someone filling a dry well with gravel.

“I’m sorry, I don’t know what you … ”

The man turned off the horrible laugh as abruptly as if he hit a kill switch. “I think you know exactly what I’m talking about, friend. We are two of a kind, you and I.”

“You can’t know that,” Fox argued reflexively. “I don’t believe we’ve met.”

“True enough,” the man conceded, “but I would recognize a man in the business anywhere. Am I right?”

“What business is that?” Fox caged.

“Why the oldest business there is that doesn’t include lying on your back!” He exclaimed and gave Fox a knowing look. “Or does it? No matter. Oh hell, do I have to come right out and say it? Belief! We are both in the belief racket, padre. Granted, no matter how sublime the cast, some fish bite and some don’t, but in the end, it’s all the same. It’s the grand game, and you and I are regular masters, are we not?”

“No, we are assuredly not, Mr. … ”

“I’ve gone by many names, as I’m sure you have, or will. You can call me Mr. Sebek, or Puddin’ Tane, or John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt; I don’t give a good Goddamn, it’s not who I really am,” he confided. “But let me ask you a question, padre. Who might you really be?”

“That, I’m afraid, is none of your affair,” Fox shot back, visibly shaken.

The gentleman took no visible offense to Fox’s outburst and merely took advantage of the lull in conversation to reach into a waistcoat pocket and remove a solid gold cigarette case.

“Smoke?” the man asked, snapping the ornate case open with one hand and holding it out to Fox.

“No, thank you,” Fox managed, the rich smell of premium tobacco pulling at his will.

“You don’t mind if I indulge, do you?” The man did not wait for an answer, but placed a cigarette between his greasy lips and procured a lighter seemingly out of thin air. Oddly, Fox caught a whiff of sulfur as his companion lit up and took a single drag before expelling a huge cloud of smoke that obscured even the bright comet above them.

“You know the Indians around these parts thought these islands were haunted,” the man abruptly changed tack pointing out at the night with the glowing cherry at the end of his cigarette. “They called the Farallones, ‘the Islands of the Dead.’ Quite naturally, they made a point to not paddle out here. All except for one brave, distraught over the loss of his true love, he made the dangerous trip out to these rocks—it was quite a different undertaking without the benefit of a steamship, I’ll tell you that.”

“Does your story have a point?” Fox interrupted. “It is getting quite late.”

“Oh, I assure you it does, reverend. You see, the young man made the ultimate sacrifice for the worst reason imaginable—chasing a bit o’ wagtail. Of course, once he made it out to the so-called Islands of the Dead, he didn’t find his true love waiting to cross over, he found a bunch of seals and rocks covered in bird shit. Understandably disappointed, he paddled his sorry ass back to shore, where his friends—believing he had returned from the Great Beyond—wanted nothing to do with him. I believe they tried to stone him back to death as he slept. You see, nobody wants to die, but even worse, nobody likes to think that someone else can cheat death while they cannot.

“You said, ‘tried to stone him to death.”

“Never underestimate the redemptive powers of bird shit.”

“I’m afraid I am going to have to say goodnight, sir.” With that, Fox left the man standing at the railing.

“Perhaps you will fare better, padre,” Sebek growled, staring up at the bright rogue star. “We shall see. Star light, star bright, first star I see tonight … ”

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