About the AuthorBrian Thornton is the author of nine books, including THE BOOK OF BASTARDS and THE BOOK OF ANCIENT BASTARDS, in addition to serving as collection editor for the crime fiction anthology WEST COAST CRIMEWAVE. His short fiction has appeared in such venues as ALFRED HITCHCOCK ' S MYSTERY MAGAZINE and the Akashic Books anthology SEATTLE NOIR. A native Washingtonian, he lives in Seattle with his wife and son.
James Robbins Jewell took a step away from the makeshift plank table as the grizzled morgue attendant man-handled it to the center of the hot, small, noisome viewing chamber. Not since attending the funeral of an uncle who had stepped off the curb in New York City’s Canal Street and directly into the path of a beer wagon had Jewell seen someone who had met a violent end. He was twelve that summer.
Now twenty-four, he put a handkerchief to his nose and mouth, then willed his stomach not to betray him and add to the charnel house smell of Seattle’s Cherry Street morgue. Hardly a predicament in which a newly-minted Treasury Department Immigrant Inspector expects to find himself, he thought.
As if reading his mind, the attendant, a squat, copper-haired fellow with the map of Ulster stamped all over his brogue, said, “First time with a corpse, hey?”
Jewell shook his head. “No, but it’s been years.” He didn’t mention the fact that this was his first opportunity to do anything besides sit behind a desk and copy forms in the regional office since he’d been posted to Seattle three months previously.
“And why, pray tell,” the attendant continued, “comes a Treasury man to claim this Chink?”
“Ask your cousins among the bulls about that one,” Jewell said drily. It was 1889, and Washington Territory found itself on the cusp of statehood. The Irish, among the first non-Anglo-Saxon immigrants to the region, had set about doing in Seattle what they had done in such large eastern cities as Chicago, New York, Philadelphia and Boston: filling the ranks of the local constabulary. Seattle’s tiny police force numbered right around twenty men; split almost evenly between Sons of Erin and Norwegian immigrants.
The attendant bobbed his red head thoughtfully, reaching beneath his filthy apron to retrieve a pipe and tobacco pouch. “Wouldn’t touch a Chink, hey?”
Jewell shrugged. “Where did they find him, again?”
The little Irishman struck a match, touched it to his pipe, and puffed a couple of times while pulling back the sheet where it covered the lower half of the corpse. Squinting at the tag attached to one big toe, he read haltingly, “South shore… Mercer Island… one half-mile west of Clark Beach.”
Straightening up, the man said, “No wonder our city fellas wanted nothin’ to do wi’ this one. Mercer Island’s unincorporated county, not city turf.”
“The King County Sheriff disagrees. Says the currents running through south Lake Washington pass right by the city proper, and that’s most likely the place where the corpse originated. Says he’s too busy and hasn’t enough deputies to put on the case of-”
“A dead Chink,” the Irishman finished for him. “McGraw’s no Chink hater. Gave a fair account of himself a couple of years back, during the Queen business.” He said it as if he expected the younger man would be familiar with the reference. He wasn’t.
But Jewell nodded as if he was, thinking it must have something to do with the Chinese troubles with the local Knights of Labor back in ‘86. “So since this fellow is obviously a foreigner, the city and the county decided that this becomes a federal matter, and contacted my office. My superior in turn fetched me and sent me down here to take possession of the poor unfortunate.” And steeling himself not to vomit, he motioned for the attendant to pull back the sailcloth tarpaulin covering the body.
The dead man had obviously spent a lot of time in the water. His eyes were gone, and his features so bloated that it was difficult to tell whether he was Chinese, Indian, even white. Jewell stepped closer to get a good look at the cold, quiet lump of mortality laid out on the plank slab like a feast on a truncheon.
The Chinamen Jewell had seen before, both back home in New York and during the three months he had spent in Seattle had all worn their hair in the same manner. They completely shaved front, sides and back of the skull, leaving only a circular topknot along the crown of the head: grown long and braided down the back.
The naked corpse before him sported a similarly shaven head. There was, however, no topknot to speak of. This man’s hair was far shorter, and lay in a loose halo about his head, as if to draw attention to the jagged cut that ran from ear to ear along his throat. The only other injury that Jewell could find on the body was a missing right pinky finger. Bloating caused by the corpse’s watery sojourn made it impossible to discern how long its owner had gone without the missing finger. Old wound or new, Jewell had no idea.
Lake Washington had done equal damage to the corpse’s remaining fingers, bloating them to the size of sausages. These appendages sported long fingernails, blackened as a sign of what Jewell had come to recognize as prolonged opium use.
“Poor devil,” he muttered. “How do we even know he was Chinese? See?” he pointed at the corpse’s head. “No pig-tail.”
“Likely cut off,” the Irishman said, “Big insult to the Chinks, cuttin’ their hair. Did ye mark how the rest of his hair is cut like a slant’s, though? And,” he said, pulling a canvas bag from one of the shelves that lined the walls of the gruesome little room, “He was wearin’ these when they found him.”
Jewell inspected the contents: heavily wrinkled black trousers and an equally bedraggled red tunic, both of oriental design and obviously made of silk.
“No shoes, no hat, no other possessions?”
“He’d washed around in the lake for a while, captain.”
“These clothes are not much to advance upon. Aside from arranging for a burial up on Capitol Hill, I’m uncertain as to what other service I or my office can be of in this matter.”
“Lovely fabric, silk,” the little man said.
“I hardly think-” Jewell began.
“Strong,” the morgue attendant went on as if he hadn’t heard. “Holds a design or a dye better than most other fibers. Oh, I’ll allow that it shrivels right up and looks an ungodly mess if it’s gotten too wet, just as this Chink’s togs have. But look,” he held up the red silk of the dead man’s shirt for Jewell’s inspection. “It’s even got the poor soul’s laundry mark right here inside the collar.”
* * *
“A pauper’s grave over in Lake View is the only place this is headed.” H. M. Porter looked at his new gold watch, wound it, then returned it to the pocket of a vest so expansive, ten dead Chinamen might easily have hidden within it.
H.M. (short for “Hamilton Menander”) Porter, a Treasury Department agent of countless years’ service and for exactly two more days head of the territory’s Immigrant Inspection Division, stretched his considerable bulk backward in the chair he’d had shipped west by the Sears & Roebuck Company the previous year.
“Dead Chinaman, in the water since the great fish swallowed Jonah. No one’s reported a Chinaman missing; ergo, no one cares.”
Jewell stood staring out the window of the single room clapboard building that had housed the territory’s sole Immigration Inspection office since it had ended its previous incarnation as a dry goods store the previous winter. Like nearly every other Seattle street, 7th Avenue was unpaved, rutted, and prone to turn into a morass when it rained.
But that spring of 1889 had been unseasonably warm, especially for Seattle. Many an old-timer had remarked upon the unlikely pleasant weather they’d been having. Now the first week of June, Seattle’s infamous late-spring rains showed no signs of reasserting themselves in their wonted seasonal patterns.
When Jewell had arrived in the city a short three months previously, the street on which their window faced had been home to the usual assortment of rivulets, puddles, and wagons stuck here and there in mud up to the axle. And “puddle” was too tame a word, a poor choice of descriptor for the standing rainwater that by turns eroded and covered the byways of Seattle’s primitive urban grid. Horses had been lost in them. Pigs had gone squealing in them. Drunks had been fished from them. Children had been known to drown in the “puddles” that dominated Seattle’s soggy streets.
Looking out upon the sunlit street from the fusty confines of what was rapidly beginning to feel like a prison to him, Jewell balked at the thought of even three more days spent shuffling papers. He might as well just be locked up in the iron cell that occupied one corner of the building, the one where illegals were held while awaiting deportation. After Porter’s retirement things might be different, but at the moment, three days felt like an eternity.
“It’s a laundry mark, sir,” Jewell said. “How long might it possibly take to pursue it in the Chinese community?” He looked from the street over to where Porter sat waiting out the remaining hours until his retirement. “Besides, they’re Chinese. Just where would they have been able to go to report one of their number missing?”
Porter reached for his new watch again, looked longingly at it, as if willing the minutes to go by more quickly. “Immigrant Inspectors are not to involve themselves in local civil matters.”
“Perhaps you ought to have thought of that before you sent me down to collect the body, Sir.”
Porter gave a sigh so violent that for a split second Jewell thought he might be having a seizure. Looking at his watch a third time, the older man said, “If only Clute were here. He’d know what to do.”
Clute. The man Jewell had been sent to replace. The fellow whose abrupt resignation had reportedly been greeted within the hallowed halls of the Treasury building back east in Washington City by a satisfied and protracted silence.
Clute, who had an answer for everything. Clute, whose efficiency and commitment to his profession had allowed Porter to commence his life as a pensioner a couple of years early in everything but name. Clute, who understood and respected the Celestials that Immigration Inspectors were supposed to be encouraging to return to their homes in China. Clute, who had left his letter of resignation on Porter’s desk and vanished, all in the same evening.
“But Mr. Clute isn’t here, Mr. Porter. I am. In scarce two days’ time you’re to be pensioned off. In the three months I’ve been here you’ve had me hard at it, mastering the intricacies of our particular bureaucracy. This is an opportunity for me to gain some experience working outside of our office, while I still have you as a source of advice. Your sagacity and good counsel will be sorely missed once you’ve returned home.” That last part was sheer flattery. Porter had done little over the past three months save arrive late, take long lunches, and leave early. “Why not make the most of this opportunity while I still have you here?”
At first Jewell thought he might have overplayed his hand. Porter sat there staring at his watch for a number of heartbeats. At length he asked, “Where’s the body, anyway?”
Jewell blinked once while Porter’s question registered. “They need a day to release it. Paperwork, I was told.”
“You’re hell-bent on following this up, aren’t you, lad?”
“In this man’s shoes I would want my mother to know what became of me.” When Porter said nothing, he continued, “It’s the Christian thing to do, sir.”
Porter gave a loud rumble that might have been a chuckle or it might have been a grunt. “The Chinese,” he said slowly, “seem to know very little of either Christianity or sentimentality. In China, life is a cheap commodity. This fellow’s family likely wrote him off the day he set out for Gum Shan,” he used the Cantonese name for America. It translated as “Gold Mountain” in English.
After pursing his lips and squinting at Jewell for nearly a minute, Porter said, “If I forbid you to pursue this, you’ll just wait out my remaining days and then set about it on your own anyway, won’t you?”
Rather than wait for a reply, Porter sighed and looked at his watch again. “You have one day, young man; all of today and till twelve noon on the morrow. I expect you here not one jot later. After all, there’s still the matter of the collection of that body.”
When Jewell began to thank him, the older man cut him short. “I can spare you the rest of today and tomorrow morning, but nothing further. Do I make myself clear?”
* * * *
Jewell savored the feel of the sun on his face as he headed downhill in the general direction of Chinatown. No clouds today; the sky bright blue. Off away to the west across the Sound the jagged snow-capped peaks of the Olympics showed themselves. Gulls reeled and swooped overhead, looking for their next meal.
Taking the Skid Road, Jewell wove his way in and out of the foot and wagon traffic to be expected on so glorious a June afternoon. Known alternately as “the Mill Road” and “Yesler’s Drive,” the Skid Road was the first (and to that point, only) paved road in town.
Built at public expense at the direction of former mayor Henry Yesler in order to more easily get freshly-cut logs downhill to his huge sawmill on Front Street, the Skid Road ran straight down Seattle’s steep western slope all the way from the timberline where it crested First Hill to the fill-dirt of the waterfront. Surprisingly, Yesler’s primitive plank pavement did its work, serving as the “skid” that gave the avenue its name, and keeping logs being sent down the hill from sticking fast in the ever-present Seattle mud.
Such a reliable thoroughfare quickly sprouted residences and businesses running along both its sides. The Skid Road already boasted saloons, general stores, two millinery shops, a carpenter, a tinker, a hostlery, a cobbler on the corner of 5th, and at the foot of the hill, the elaborate cornice-work and hand-carved façade of the three-sided three-storey Occidental Hotel stood on the corner where James Street dead-ended into it right in front of Yesler’s massive mill.
This growth had made the Skid Road the anchor of Seattle’s burgeoning downtown, and had spilled over onto neighboring streets, such as the spot a block to the north where the significantly pious whitewashed bulk of Trinity Church rose. As far as Jewell knew, Chinese were not welcome within. Furthermore, not a single business lining Seattle’s busiest street was Chinese-owned.
The first Chinese to come to the area during the labor shortage of the late 1850s had been welcomed by Seattle’s white settlers. When businesses began to fail in response to the panic of 1873 and available jobs dried up, Chinese laborers, always willing to work hard for less pay than white men, became less welcome. Anti-Chinese riots periodically broke out across the Northwest, culminating in the Knights of Labor successfully running nearly two hundred Chinese out of Seattle on-board a steamer bound for Victoria only three years previously.
In the years since then most of the Chinese still resident in Seattle had been pushed out to the south end, clinging to a few blocks between the businesses downtown and the Duwamish mudflats that ran east from Elliott Bay right up to the foot of the craggy, flat-topped escarpment that the locals called Beacon Hill. Washington Street bordered Chinatown on the north and since the mud flats were just spitting distance south from it, Seattle’s Chinese population of between three and four hundred found itself crowded into the narrow space between.
While many of Chinatown’s buildings were single-storey frame affairs like most of those occupying the slopes of other neighborhoods such as Capitol Hill, First Hill, Belltown and Magnolia, Chinatown’s buildings doubled as both businesses and tenements, with living quarters in the back for both owner-operator and staff. The Chinese had been known to sleep ten men and more to a room. According to the records with which Porter had kept him so busy, no less than twenty-seven Chinese houses occupied the block of Washington Street that ran between 2nd and 3rd alone.
Because the Scott Act of 1882 had made it almost impossible for Chinese citizens wishing to come to “Gold Mountain” to do so, Seattle’s Chinese denizens tended to be American residents of long standing. Since the Scott Act further effectively barred all women of Chinese extraction from entering the country, the overwhelming majority of Chinatown’s residents were male. Rare indeed was the sight of a woman of any race in Chinatown.
Jewell had once wondered aloud why these men, barred by state and local laws from working mining claims or owning mineral rights, bothered to stay in a country so different from their own, and so far from their homes.
“The Chinese can make more money in one month doing white men’s laundry and laying railroad ties in Gold Mountain than they can clear in a year at home,” Porter had told him. “That’s why they stay. They put in their time here and go back home to much fan-fare from the family they’ve supported for the past ten or twenty years.”
These thoughts occupied Jewell during the fifteen-minute walk down the hill to where Yesler’s big frame house dominated the northwest corner of the intersection of the Skid Road and 3rd Avenue. From there he turned left and walked down 3rd to where it met Washington Street, and crossed over into Chinatown.
The mark that Jewell had copied down when the attendant had pointed it out to him that same morning had vaguely resembled a square with a single slash running through it top-to-bottom, at a slight left-to-right angle. Seattle had five Chinese-operated laundries, all of them on the block at the heart of Chinatown; running along either 2nd or 3rd on the block south from Washington to Jackson Streets.
It was the work of another twenty minutes to show this design to the owners of the first four out of the five of these establishments. Nothing but blank stares and muttered “No Englee.”
Jewell had begun to wonder whether he had really just embarked on a fool’s errand when he entered the last Chinese laundry on the block; the southeastern most one, sitting as it did on the corner of 3rd and Jackson Streets.
The unmistakable odors of lye and bleach assailed his nostrils as he opened the door. The place was small, hot, and clean, the boards along the top of the walls and of the entire ceiling bleached a dull gray by who knew how many thousands of gusts of bleach-riddled water vapor. Stacks of neatly folded clothes lined shelving that ran the length of the back wall. In one corner surrounded by piles of multicolored clothing sat a large cast iron pot, water bubbling in it.
According to the clerk, a slightly built Chinese youth barely five feet tall, a man named Louie Chong owned the establishment. He had gone on a long journey to someplace called “Gwongdong.” The clerk professed no idea when Louie Chong could be expected back in town.
Jewell flashed his Treasury badge. “What’s your name?”
“Me?” the boy piped in a pre-pubescent voice. He couldn’t be older than 14.
The boy pointed at his own chest. “Louie Gon.”
Chinese put the family name first, Jewell thought. This is a relative. A younger brother, a nephew, a cousin, or a-
“Son,” the boy said as if reading his mind. “Louie Gon,” he pointed at himself again, “Son…” he paused as if searching for the right word, “…to Louie Chong.” Then again, more sure of himself, putting the words together: “Me Louie Gon. Me son Louie Chong.”
Having gotten that out of the way, Jewell held up his sketch of the laundry mark he’d seen at the morgue that morning. “You know this mark?”
The boy leaned forward and squinted. His bone structure was finer than that of most Chinamen. His features were different, too; not as flat as those of most Chinese, with a pointed, obviously beardless chin.
His hair, shorn at the sides and front, like that of most of the Chinese Jewell had seen, was glossy black and tightly braided into a long queue that ran down his back and out of sight. The youth’s clothes were an odd mix of East and West. He wore grey woolen trousers and a black silk, oriental-cut shirt. No customary black cloth slippers on his feet, though. Heavy, square-toed brogans completed his wardrobe.
The youth straightened up with a jerk, recognition crossing his baby face. Mouth hanging open, head shaking in the negative, he backed away from the long wooden counter that separated them.
“What’s the matter?”
The boy shrugged. “No see that mark before.”
“Have you a mark ledger?”
Another head-shake. “Keep all marks here.” He tapped the side of his head. “Nothing written down. We busy. No time flip through big book.”
“I’ll need to satisfy myself as to that,” Jewell said, making his way to the end of the long counter.
The youth blocked his path. “We no have book!” he repeated, voice rising into a near-squeak. “Louie Chong no like customer behind counter! Him beat Louie Gon for letting you come back here!”
“And what do you think the Treasury Man will do if you don’t?” Appalled at the regrettable necessity of using strong-arm tactics with a member of the community he was trying to help, Jewell continued, “Now stand aside and allow me to have a look around, short-leg.”
The boy turned and fled. Before Jewell could react, he had flung open a cupboard on the room’s back wall, snatching up exactly the sort of long leather-bound book Jewell had just been asking about as he did so. Recovering from the shock of the youth’s unexpected move, Jewell sprang after him, catching the fellow by his queue just two steps shy of the back door.
The boy gave a squawk and began to flail his arms and legs about wildly, shouting in frantic, high-pitched Cantonese. Jewell hauled him round so he could look him in the face. “Listen to me,” exasperation lent a further edge to his tone. “A man is dead. You savvy ‘dead’?”
The boy tried to bite him for answer. They struggled further. Jewell got between the youth and the back door. No sooner had the two of them faced off, than a gong sounded loudly somewhere within Jewell’s head, lights cascaded in a thousand glorious colors before his eyes, and then the world went black.
* * * *
An hour later Jewell’s ears still rang, and a knot had begun to rise on the back of his head. By the time he’d regained his senses there in Louie Chong’s laundry, the little Chinaman and whoever had hit him on the head were gone.
So was the ledger over which they’d struggled.
Porter had been unmoved when Jewell had reported his lack of progress to him. “Told you it was a waste of time,” he’d said. Then he’d suggested Jewell go see Chin Gee Hee. “If he can’t help you locate those two, no one in Seattle can.”
Chin Gee Hee was the best labor wrangler in Seattle, and a leading member of what was left of the Chinese community. A resident of the territory for over twenty years, Chin had come to Seattle a decade previously, bringing a wife over from China, and starting a family upon his move to the city.
On that terrible day when most of the Chinese in Seattle had been rounded up and forced down to the docks in preparation for deportation, Chin’s family had been among them. It was a testament to the amount of respect he commanded among Seattle’s old guard that he had been able to talk his way into both staying and keeping his family in town. No question, Chin Gee Hee had pull, and not just with City Hall, but within the Chinese community as well. Rumor had it that he was also the eyes and ears of the Chinese Consulate down in San Francisco.
If you were Chinese and you wanted to work, Chin was the man to see. If you were white and wanted to hire Chinese labor, Chin was also the man to see.
He ran his business out of a brand-new building on the southwest corner of Washington Street and 2nd Ave. Jewell found him there, seated at a roll-top desk pressed into a cramped spot along the back wall of the single-room building. It took some doing to arrange to speak to Chin, because the place was alive with Chinese; customers and tradesmen, Chin’s employees and white contractors seeking Chinese labor.
In his mid-40s, and a bit above average height for a Chinaman, Chin had thinning hair, a ready smile, and dressed in rough western work clothes, complete with square-toed, heavy-soled boots. No queue, no shaven head, no silk clothing. With a battered broad-brimmed hat perched on the back of his head, he looked the part of the prosperous western businessman he was.
“Always happy to help honored Treasury Man,” he’d said with a disarming grin after reading the note of introduction that Porter had scribbled for Jewell. They shook hands, and he offered the younger man a seat.
Chin’s open face clouded when Jewell mentioned his quest for information regarding a laundry owner named Louie Chong. “Louie Chong not good man,” he said. “Hock tell me when I first come here, ‘stay clear Louie Chong.’ Not easy to do. Louie Chong bad man, but good customer.”
Jewell asked how to spell that name, and as he wrote it down, asked who “Hock” was.
“Business partner, Chin Chun Hock. We come from same village in Gwongdong.”
Porter had mentioned nothing about a business partner. “Oh, I was under the impression that you owned this place,” Jewell waved his hand to take in the entire building, “outright.”
“I do. Hock old business partner. I once own 25 percent of his company, Wa Chong. He buy me out last year.”
“May I ask why?”
“Many reason. Final and most important on his part, he no want to stay in employment business after Riot of ’86.”
“Opium,” Chin murmured. “Not write that down, not report that. Hock want to sell opium here. I want no part of that. We dissolve partnership; I start up Quong Tuck Company last year.”
“And Hock knows Louie Chong well?”
“Better than me. Louie Chong come from our village, too, but he older, I do not know him there. Those two know each other long time, though. Why you ask?”
Jewell told him about the body found washed up on Mercer Island, the laundry mark on the man’s tunic, and his attempts to track that mark in Chinatown’s laundries. He showed Chin the sketch he’d made of it.
The man’s eyes widened. “Triad mark,” he whispered.
“What is a triad?”
Chin placed a hand on Jewell’s arm, looking around the shop, motioning for him to keep his voice down. “Criminals. Smuggle opium, girls, whatever you like. That mark the sign of the Red Dragon of Macau, very powerful triad.”
“Why would anyone use such a symbol as a laundry mark?”
“No Chinaman who see that going to mess up order on shirt,” Chin cracked a lop-sided grin at his own wry joke. “Louie Chong work with them.”
“He’s a member?”
“No. He work with them, though. Louie Chong smuggle for them. Long time ago. No more. Now run laundry.”
“Had you heard that he was gone to Gwongdong?”
Chin shrugged. “Porter tell you I know everything happen in Chinatown, eh? I do not. No hear about any trip for Louie Chong. Who tell you that?”
“Son? Louie Chong have no son.”
Jewell blinked, then recovered, and said, “The boy who worked in his shop. Called himself Louie Gon.”
“Ah. Louie Gon not ‘son.’ Louie Gon mui tsai.”
“What is… ‘mooey jooey’?”
Chin shook his head, smiled again, and said, “Louie Gon ‘paper son.’ Son on paper. Only Chinese merchant and their son can go back and forth between Gold Mountain and China, so many merchant sell paper to other people they not know, saying, ‘this my son, represent me,’ and that get new Chinamen into Gold Mountain.”
Jewell frowned. “Well, he didn’t want me to see the ledger where his boss kept track of laundry marks. Is it possible that the boy’s killed him and gone into business for himself?”
Chin laughed. “Louie Gon? Oh, no. Louie special case. No kill anyone.”
“He put up a pretty good fight with me when I asked to see that ledger.”
Chin laughed again. Jewell wondered what the Chinaman found so funny. “He get away from you?”
“Someone fetched me a pretty rough blow on the back of the head while we struggled. Dazed me for a bit. When I came to my senses, I was alone in the place. Mr. Porter suggested I see you about it.”
Chin removed his hat and absently stroked the thinning hair on top of his head.
“Is Louie Chong an habitual user of opium?”
“So was our dead man. Had the stained fingertips and nails to prove it.”
Chin considered that for a moment. Then he said, “All ten fingers stained?”
Jewell shook his head. “He was missing his right pinkie finger.”
Chin nodded decisively and said, “You go home now.”
“What?” Jewell couldn’t believe his ears. “Surely you don’t mean that. I have-”
Chin cut him off. “I see to this problem. I fix for you.”
“What is your interest?”
“No more excuse for riot here,” he said. “Seattle good city. My neighbor good neighbor. No talk of triad or mui tsai, Chinese murders done in local newspaper. I handle it. You let me. I bring you solution.” Chin looked from Jewell to an ancient grandfather clock against the wall behind him. “After five now. You go home. I bring you everything tomorrow.”
And just like that, the interview was over.
* * * *
A game of whist with the other boarders at his rooming house hadn’t helped the evening go by any more quickly for James Robbins Jewell. He’d passed a sleepless night in the unseasonable heat waiting for dawn and an answer to the question of whether or not Chin would keep his word.
The walk to the office the next morning was uneventful, as was the morning routine of unlocking first the back door, then the front, drawing the blinds and looking over his desk for any pressing correspondence or other sort of paperwork in need of his immediate attention. It was only when Jewell sat down and happened to glance in the direction of the cell that took up one corner of the large room that he realized he was not alone.
An unkempt, bearded white man, black-haired and dull-eyed, half-sat, half-slumped against the opposite wall. He looked neither right, nor left, and took no notice of Jewell, not even when he attempted to speak to him. He was dressed in ragged Chinese silk tunic and corduroy workmen’s trousers, with Chinese slippers on his feet. His fingernails bore the tell-tale signs of frequent opium use.
A double-folded and sealed note with the word “Porter” type-written on it lay on the floor in front of the cell. It was half-past eight. Over the next half-hour Jewell considered breaking the seal at least once per minute.
* * * *
“Ran afoul of a mui tsai, did you?” Porter said when he’d finished reading the note. It was five minutes past nine.
“According to Mr. Chin Gee Hee, I did.”
“You did nice work on this, boy. Nice work, indeed. Perhaps I’ve misjudged you.”
“I fail to see how I’ve done anything of the kind. If this ‘mooey jai’ killed our dead Chinaman, then who is the fellow in the cage? Why does he resist any attempt at communication?”
“The fellow in the cage is the killer of our man, and that man is without doubt Louie Chong. The mui tsai played no part in this except that of victim, poor thing.”
“But then why did this ‘paper son’ of Louie Chong’s fight me so hard to keep me from that ledger?”
“Yes, the ‘mooey jai,’ that’s how Mr. Chin translated that name: called him a ‘paper son’ in English. Claimed it was a reference to some false identification paper scheme running rampant through China.”
“A mui tsai,” Porter said, “is not a son of any kind. The phrase ‘mui tsai” in Cantonese means, ‘slave girl.’”
Jewell’s jaw dropped. It all suddenly made sense. The slight build, the odd cast of the ‘boy’’s features, ‘his’ piping voice.
Porter went back to perusing Chin’s letter. “Chin’s old partner Chin Chun Hock runs an opium den in the basement of his establishment. The bulls know about it. As long as they get their cut, they turn a blind eye to it, shrug it off as being part of the degenerate Oriental culture.’
“Time was when part and parcel of that den was a brothel stocked with Cantonese girls brought over here by the triads. Chin bought their freedom as part of his deal to leave Hock with the lion’s share of the profits from their partnership.’
“But Louie Chong had pull with the triad, and he’d already bought one of the girls to keep for himself. He passed her off as a boy working in his laundry. You can imagine how else he used her. It was common knowledge among the Chinese. I told you that their notions of charity are not the same as ours.”
“So why did this fellow,” Jewell motioned with his head in the direction of the cell and its occupant, “kill Louie Chong and dump him in Lake Washington?”
“Who can say? Some sense of chivalry, perhaps?”
“I doubt that. Look at the poor wretch. He’s an opium fiend if ever there was one. And where is the girl?”
“She’s gone. Chin didn’t mention what’s become of her, but I have no doubt that she’s not to be found within the limits of King County this morning.”
Jewell sat thinking for a moment. Porter watched him intently. At length, Jewell said, “I didn’t see any of it.”
Porter shifted his bulk in the Sears & Roebuck chair. “You knew which questions to ask, just not which answers to listen for. But you’ve shown promise I didn’t think you had in you.’
"On the other hand,” he said as he reached for his pocket watch and began to wind it, “Chin did tell you everything you needed to know in that single conversation. You’ve come a long way in three months, m’lad, but if you’re going to be the Treasury man in these parts, you’ve still got quite a ways to go before you’re ready."
“Yes sir. Apparently I have much to learn,” Jewell said, chastened.
"Just remember this: it’s also possible to go too far, to be too good at your job. It’s a tricky, tricky balance. Don’t go far enough and you can’t understand them and you won’t get anything constructive done. Don’t get the work done, and you risk losing your position."
"Go too far, and you risk much more. You tempt the very Fates themselves."
"How d’ye mean?"
Porter motioned with a broad hand past Jewell’s shoulder in the direction of the cell, and the wretch who occupied it, the man turned completely inward, focused on the wreckage of a last opium dream.
"That," he said glumly, "was once Sebastian Clute."