SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA | 1889
“Excuse, me! Mr. Urias,” the desk clerk at the Union Hotel called after the tall figure dressed in gray sack coat and matching vest. The gentleman’s dark trousers were splattered with bay mud at the cuffs from walking the docks and the streets north of Montgomery where the burgeoning city was busy constructing a new seawall. Urias turned and lowered one of his prominent eyebrows while raising the other, the better to take full measure of the man.
“At your service,” Urias lied. “This isn’t about my bill, is it?”
“No sir!” the clerk chirped. “Your account has been taken care of. Sir.”
Urias glanced once at the double glass door he had been planning to take full advantage of before redirecting his bearing to better give the clerk the pleasure of his full attention. “Excuse me?”
“Paid in full until the end of the week,” the clerk began to wither under the man’s double-barreled gaze. “You will be staying with us for the remainder of the week, won’t you?”
“That all depends,” Urias loped up to the desk of polished dark walnut. “Are there any … messages that accompany that bit of good news?”
“Am I to simply thank providence for this fortunate turn of events, or is there a string or two attached that you’ve not revealed?”
“There was a gentleman here earlier,” the clerk took a measured step back from his side of the desk as if the man’s long arms could not reach over the mostly symbolic barrier.
“Of course there was,” Urias sighed, already tired of playing cat and mouse with the hotel functionary. “And what, may I ask, did this gentleman happen to say; in regards to me, that is.”
“He wanted to speak with you … ”
“Obviously,” Urias growled. “Out with it man!
The clerk’s words fell out of him with a clatter. “The gentleman said that he would wait at the saloon on the corner if you would be so good to meet him for a drink. You can’t miss him. He’ll be wearing a green plaid suit. He looked as if he had just finished leading the St. Patrick’s Day parade.”
“Plaid, you say?”
“Yes, sir,” the clerk caught his breath. “Plaid.”
“Curious.” Urias tipped his hat, spun on his heels and hit the front doors with a force that caused the giant chandelier above to shake, its cut crystals tinkling a merry tune out of sync with the violent jolt.
Outside, the fog had moved in off the bay, wrapping busy Market Street in a gauzy unreality. Urias felt as if he was moving through an impressionist painting, the world around him spontaneously faceting and reforming into a colder, damper version of itself as he went. Maybe a drink isn’t such a bad idea after all, he often thought and found himself doing so again.
The Baldwin Bar beckoned as bright as a ship’s beacon in the gloom. Urias reached the corner at a determined gait and plunged into the gas-lit interior. Above his head, another set of chandeliers did not dare tinkle, jingle, or chime. Across the surprisingly empty saloon, given the time and texture of the evening, a man in a green English plaid suit sat at the bar with his back to the door. The heavy Turkish carpet absorbed Urias’ footfalls as he approached, but the gentleman apparently had eyes in the back of his head.
“Mr. Urias, what a singular pleasure!” the man exclaimed without turning. “Can I buy you something to help knock back the damp?”
“You may,” Urias conceded as he slid onto the barstool to the man’s left. “If I may ask how you know my name.”
“Your reputation precedes you, sir! I am in need of someone who knows how to find things, and I understand that you have quite a knack.”
“Maybe I do,” Urias admitted as he signaled the barman. “Have you lost something, then?”
“I come on behalf of person or persons who have experienced that very misfortune, yes. There is considerable interest in the retrieval of what has been misplaced. Profitable interest as you yourself are concerned.”
“I haven’t decided that I am all that concerned, friend,” Urias hedged and addressed the bartender. “Double rye, neat. Put it on my plaid companion’s tab.”
“Let me ask you something, Mr. Urias, as you are sitting to my left. The bible tells us that the Son of God has taken his place at the right hand of God. Who do figure sits at his left?”
“I couldn’t say,” Urias dodged the question and took a long, warming pull from his glass before answering. “Why does anybody have to sit there?” He finally posited. “I would guess those two are pretty tight. Three’s a crowd.”
“I think you’ve hit the proverbial nail on the head! So to speak.” The gentleman finally turned to face Urias revealing a deep scar that ran from his right eyebrow to the place where his proliferative muttonchops began. “According to an accustomed reading of Scripture, the seat is kept free, but I know of a preacher that espoused that place was originally held for Lucifer, the Morning Star, before his ignoble fall from grace.”
“I’ve heard that theory,” Urias tensed. “How about you tell me what this is about? I’m done with my drink, and I’m done with these games as well.”
“I didn’t mean to offend you, sir,” the man gestured to have their glasses filled again. “So you are familiar with the good Reverend Fox?”
Urias placed his hand atop his empty glass, blocking the attentive bartender from pouring. “I would say that you know damn well I am. So, that’s why we are sitting here? I’ll give you one more chance to state your business, and then I am going to have to say goodnight.”
“The girl,” the man said.
“The girl? What girl? What are you talking about?”
“My client believes that Reverend Fox survived the spectacular events of the night in Fiesta and made off with a young girl. My client is very interested in getting her back.”
“That’s ludicrous,” Urias exploded. “You are wasting my time as well as your own. After the accident, I identified the body myself. Mordikai Fox had his problems, but I assure you, being alive is no longer one of them.”
“I have five thousand dollars that says differently.”
“Well, we can’t be too quick to judge now, can we?” Urias removed his hand and waved the bartender on. “What did you say your name was, friend?”
“Puddin’ Tane,” the man sang. “Ask me again and I’ll tell you the same.” The man bravely reached over and grasped the lapel of Urias’ jacket between the thump and first two fingers of his right hand as if assessing the nature and quality of the material. Before his impropriety lasted long enough to earn a reaction, he slid a small card into the jacket’s breast pocket with a deftness that revealed a certain familiarity with small detail work. “That’s where to find me. I am afraid I must take my leave this evening; but I do look forward to doing business with you, Aaron, if I might be so informal …”
Urias wordlessly glanced down at the place on his jacket the man had just molested and then fixed the gentleman’s icy blue eyes with his own.
“Very well,” the man conceded, “I bid you a good evening, Mr. Urias. Until we might speak again.”
Urias watched the plaid pattern move across the room and disappear out the front door. Turning to his left, he was surprised to see an attractive young woman sitting at his elbow. “Well, now,” his eyebrows gave the girl a less severe but no less animated inspection than the desk clerk received. “You wouldn’t be the devil, now, would you, miss?”
“Why don’t you buy me a drink and find out?” The woman parried.