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Hard recoil. Ringing. Bitter smoke and god damn it, the shot did not fall him. He’s still coming, tiger-eyed, bloom of red spreading over his collarbone. Glass crunches under my boots. Shouts from the street and quick, there can be no trail, the plan to disappear the body can’t work if I’m found with it. Trigger pull. Hardwired forearm reining in the kickback. He’s still coming.
Shoulder to sternum, falling, hip to hip, carpet, knee to shin, glass sharp in one elbow, wet on my chest. He swipes for the gun, catches my neck. How the fuck is he still breathing with a hole in his lung. Knuckles twisted into throat gristle. Blood on his teeth, hissing in his inhales. Just go down.
He finds my fist, the iron locked inside it. His mouth so near mine its red dripping slicks my lips. More noise from the street but it’s not in the hall yet, his hand crushing my jugular so dark spots clot the faraway ceiling, his too-close eyes. Keep hold of the pistol. Keep clear of the trigger. Think of the low body. Knees tight around his hips. Flesh memory: imprint of this position minus the gun. Memory of reaching up to pull him closer, liquid slippery between us. Surge to the left. Roll with bone gravity and come out on top.
Now his jaw unclenches. He knows it’s over. When he looks at me, which face is he seeing, maybe all of those I’ve worn for him, overlaid in the darkening lens of his vision. I’ve made corpses before but never loved it. The stilling throb of pulse, the slowness in the eyes—they’re wrong. Bodies belong in motion.
His hand falls from my throat, brushes my chest. Blood-thick breath. He says my name. I put the muzzle to his temple, gentle. I told you, I say. Don’t call me that.
JANUARY 12, 1887
Last time Alma wore this shirt, she ended up in jail. The cotton still carries a cellblock tang of piss and mildew. Straw crackles on the sleeves. Ruddy blotches dot the shirt’s collar—tobacco juice? No. The fight that landed her in lockup comes back clear: bone crush, jaw clench, freight-train heart. The marks are blood.
That was a damn good night.
Next to the shirt is a pair of socks, wadded into a bristling lump. Alma unknots the wool. Angles out a snub-nosed knife. When she tests it on her forearm, dark hairs gather on the blade like iron filings on a magnet.
Pins nip her scalp as she pulls them free. An auburn wig comes loose. She drops it onto the cot, where it curls among other castaway layers: oilcloth cape, green silk bodice, green silk skirt, lacy petticoat. A corset slumps gutted beside a sweat-ringed shift and cotton stockings. She chafes a damp rag across her cheeks, across her wrists and knuckles, stripping off a thick coat of cosmetic powder.
Wearing only her own skin and hair, she is unbound. Powerful. She can mold her form into any shape. But the nakedness also knocks her askew, kicks open an unlit pit. Who would stare back at her in a mirror when she has not arranged herself? Who is Alma when she stands naked and silent in a threadbare rented room?
Leave that thought. Be glad there is no looking glass here. Be glad for the smash and racket of the couple next door, the distraction of their fighting or fucking. The noise is an impetus: Put on a new costume. A new performance has begun.
To lacquer on manhood, Alma starts with the hands. Gentlemen wear rings. A workingman wears calluses. He leaves dirty fingerprints on newspapers, drops peanut shells in his path. His nails may or may not be bitten. In winter his knuckles crack with cold.
She shakes open a sackcloth bundle. Inside is a warped metal pipe, slick with grease, caked with ash. A sailor sold it to her from a dockside box of scraps. He said its explosion unmade a boiler room and nearly sent its ship to the bad place.
Only faint smears of French chalk remain between her fingers. Gripping the pipe, she twists her hands in opposite directions. Twists, so the pipe’s grease grits into her skin and its metal ridges rouse the nerves of her palms.
Remember how to talk like Jack Camp. Rough voice. Tobacco-muddied tongue.
Remember how to move like Jack Camp. Hips first, cocksure.
Remember how to fight like Jack Camp—and at this, Alma smiles. This is her favorite thing. The red and sweat and swearing, the fire in her rib cage, the bend and crush of bodies. Muscles contracting. Sunbursts of pain. Nothing but the pummeling, the wild onrushing of life.
As Camp, she could be a thief, saying, I was on a crew in the city. We ran small-time jobs—liquor, queered cash. Your place looked like easy pickings, and your boys sure as shit didn’t put up much of a fight.
She tosses the pipe aside. Curls her palms around the desk lamp. Its chimney funnels warm air onto her face as she inspects her fingers. They feel stronger. They feel sturdier. Soot and hairline scrapes form a blackened patchwork on her skin.
Alma pulls on the long woolen socks. Narrows her mouth, her eyes. No lace trimming softens men’s smallclothes. The mold-soured shirt is rough against her armpits, rough against the bruised flesh of her throat. With each layer her breath comes faster. She hungers for heat, for movement and salt.
As Camp, she could be a gambler, saying, He owes me fifty dollars. Skipped right out of a card game, the son of a bitch. I don’t know who you are, mister, but if you’re not prepared to front for him, I’ll beat him again until he pays up.
Knife into belt. Put out the lamp. Throw two jabs and a cross in the darkness just to feel the swing-snap of muscles under stiff oilcloth.
Dressed, armed, kindled to sweat, she slips out of her room.
The hall is lined with the fallen. Poppy-sick sailors and girls lie together, barely moving in the candlelight, all wreathed in bitter seed and smoke. She steps over more bodies on the stairs. A dice game. A whore earning a nickel. At the bottom a boy streaked with mud is hunched toward the wall, quietly vomiting. The midnight lobby, too, is crowded, but the manager’s cubicle—where the hairless, sightless landlord keeps a child on the floor beside him to examine customers’ coins—is empty. A man is crumpled against the door with his limp penis in one fist. As Alma steps over him, he grabs her trousers.
“Hands off, pal,” she says, and kicks him in the ribs. Her gravelly voice and bitten-off inflection please her almost as much as the thump of her boot against his bones.
Outside, everything feels tight and shiny, crowded with energy. Frost gilds the thrumming boardwalk. Candy-colored lanterns light the crowded mouths of pleasure houses. A saloon rattles with shouts and a melodeon’s groaning. At the corner, men are clotted around a brawl. The meaty slap of a punch fishhooks Alma’s attention, but she turns up her collar and hustles past. The next street, darker, belongs to the wind. Icy brine fills her nose and mouth and ears. She walks with her shoulders up, hands flexing in her coat pockets, cap pulled low.
As Camp, she could go right for the heart of it, saying, Word is you’re moving tar. I want in on the work. I’ve spent time in the trade, and I’ll be more use to you than your man here. I had him on his back in a minute flat.
Green reek of kelp. Ship rigging rattles fifty feet out in the bay. She weaves through Lower Town, its shingles and piers coating the peninsula’s shore like a barnacle cluster. The road is humped with piled wooden crates and construction gear. The foundry’s furnaces suffuse the air with char.
Just past its smokestacks is the warehouse.
A tall plank box, it has barred, copper-paneled doors and high windows. It is on a private pier, close to Barnaby Sloan’s boardinghouse, and its entrance is frequently patrolled. All this, plus the deciding link: last night, she watched Sloan’s man help carry a cartload of crates off the Victoria-based steamboat Orion and load them into the warehouse.
Opposite the foundry’s coke shed is an unfinished building. In the shelter of its doorway Alma blinks ice off her lashes and strikes a match against new-caulked brickwork. As she lights a cigarette, her fingers flicker redly in the lower half of her vision, with the warehouse floating above, forty feet away.
She doesn’t have to see the watchman before she approaches, but it would help to know which guard she’ll face. Three take shifts at the door: a grizzled old-timer with long arms; a hulking man with a bad shoulder he tries to hide; and a boxy kid about her size. The youngster would put up a good fight. He keeps his hands near his midriff and moves light on the balls of his feet, so she can tell he’s done time in the ring. The big man lumbers. She could fell him like a tree. It’s the old fellow she worries about. A man like that might rely on his fists, but if his fists fail, he might switch to a pistol.
Pinkerton would love it if she was shot. It would be easier for him if the last trace of the Women’s Bureau disappeared. No more cover-ups. No more embarrassments, like the time she swaggered into his private Chicago office and offered to work a case as a man, as Hannah sometimes did. Once Pinkerton recognized her, he was mortified. He cut in to say, “Unequivocally no, Miss Rosales.” She hated him more for insisting on the “Miss” than for turning her down.
Yet here she is, investigating for Pinkerton while wearing Camp’s clothes. Close to fulfilling the first part of the agency’s instructions: find opium importers on the waterfront, trace chains to the top, and identify who’s in charge. With his warehouse, his private pier, and his shipments from Victoria—the prime source of opium on the West Coast—Barnaby Sloan is looking like the perfect suspect.
The snow that fell briefly at sunset is coming back, thin sheets of flakes riding the wind off the strait. Alma’s toes curl against the cold. Her pocket watch reads ten fifty.
Ten fifty is close enough.
Off the stoop, down the pier, and she’s on private property. The three alibis crouch in her head, each trailing a skeleton story to be fleshed out in the moment. Her moves will depend on Sloan’s, so she is still taking shape as she lopes toward the warehouse. She can be anyone. A gambler. A thief. An opium smuggler.
She flicks her cigarette into the water. Walks up to the doors like she owns the place. A chain is looped over the bar, held secure by a rusted padlock. The warehouse perimeter is night-shaded, vacant.
Pause in the pool of lamplight. Be visible from the neighboring docks, from the back of the pier, from the street. Lift the padlock and chain. Let go.
Whistling, Alma steps past the door to inspect a window. It’s set two feet above her head. Not much of an outside ledge to grip, which will make for an awkward pull-up, with her elbows scraping the boards. She’s reaching for it when a shadow flickers on her right.
“Nice setup you got here,” she says, dropping her arm as she faces the watchman. It’s the big fellow. Lucky break.
“Who the fuck are you?”
She lets him slam her shoulder blades against the wall. The breath bursts out of her. Tingling fills her arms, her emptied chest. The man’s red hair is slicked back. His beard patchy. He smells like a bearskin rug: sour flesh, matted fur, the underside of boots.
“Who’s asking?” she says.
“Get lost.” His knuckles press into her breastbone, just above her binding cloth. “This is a private pier.”
No skip in his voice, no wandering of his eyes. He sees nothing of a woman in her. She is Jack Camp, flawlessly.
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere,” she says, grinning.
Muscles tight, she waits for the gut punch. When it comes, she wheezes, sags, drops to her knees and then her side; playing clumsy, groaning. The man shifts to better aim his kick, and the angle is right for her to snap her boot into his knee. He goes down hard and her fists are ready. Eye. Throat. Favored shoulder. Exhale with each blow.
Just as she expected, this giant is no fighter. She’s barely worked up a sweat when the watchman’s overstuffed arms flop onto the pier and his eyes roll white.
Too easy. And too quick. It’s only ten fifty-five—not yet the eleven o’clock change of watch. The burst of heat from the fight is already seeping away: she imagines it leaving her in a red-sparked shower, like cigarette ashes peeling into the wind. She can’t burn out yet.
To stay warm she shoves the big man’s body against the wall. Standing on his back brings her twelve inches closer to the window. She chins up the remaining distance, but the warehouse interior is a deep trough of black. It could hold one crate of smuggled opium or one hundred. There’s no proof yet.
Down again. Hands braced on boards. Boots muffled by the man’s fleshy torso. From behind: footsteps.
“Son of a bitch.”
It’s an old man’s voice, close to her shoulder. Maybe her luck has gone off. But maybe he won’t go for his gun. Then the leather creak of a holster stirs a hiccup of dread. She hops from the body into gathering snow. The iced planks betray her. Boots slip-crunching, she stumbles backward into a yank on her jacket and a steel-tipped punch—
* * *
Drag, scrape. Knees on fire. Drag, scrape. Oh, Jesus. A wet cough wells up in Alma’s throat and it tastes like blood.
Buy time. Stay limp. Let limbs dangle, which is not easy when some of them must be hanging on by single tendons.
What’s the damage?
Pulsing lower right rib. Hard hands in each armpit. Knees and jawbone stinging. General agony at the base of her skull. No bullet wounds, but check again—last time she was shot she didn’t feel it at the entry point on her hip. That patch of flesh went numb, and instead she had the worst back spasms of her life. Until Hannah nudged the slug out with a knife tip. After that Alma recalibrated her pain scale.
Think about location.
They are still outside. Cracking her eyes shows a sliver of blurry nightscape made up of yellow shadows. The ground bucks forward eagerly: plank boards, plank boards, granulated snow. They are no longer over water. She takes this as a good sign. If the men were going to kill her, they would’ve thrown her in the bay to bloat.
Her plan might have worked. They might be going to Sloan. The real game begins here. She knows how Sloan handles problems. Get on his crew, or he’ll … No. There is no failing. Get on his crew.
Drag, scrape. She wants to pull away from the pinioning hands that send shocks through her neck and shoulders. Instead, as a diversion, she takes stock of the men towing her. A weaker grip on one arm and a holster’s squeak near her left ear: the old-timer. The other man walks with a limp. Bulky thigh, bearskin stink: the huge watchman she was recently stepping on. As they move, the man has his revenge—his uneven gait echoes through their body chain so her knees bang against boards with his every other step.
A flight of stairs rises under her nose. They are going in. We are going in! She repeats this fierce internal shout over the jolting pain the steps ladder into her legs.
Warmth. Soft carpet. An embroidered patch of flowers passes under her face. So Sloan likes a bit of luxury. She coughs again, waiting for another clump of blooms on the blue rug, then lets copper-sweet spit dribble over her lips and chin.
“He’s bleeding on the fucking runner,” someone calls. An Irishman—a rarity in this town. Head down, Alma allows herself a private grin. She may have a new name to tie to Sloan’s ring.
The men halt. Drop her to the floor. She lets out a groan that’s not entirely for show.
“Shut up,” the huge man says. His kick misses her throbbing rib by three inches, but the blow is still enough to puncture her breath.
Knocking above her. From inside the room comes a muffled voice.
Now. Sober up. There is no failing. Alma stares at the carpet. It fills her field of vision with pure azure, like the morning sky. She thinks of waking, of moving, of life churning back into her numbed arms, her pulped knees and shins.
“Found a problem at Madison Wharf,” the old-timer says.
Someone opens the door. A veil of firelight falls over the rug. Rough hands hoist her up—Don’t flinch, damn it!—and the men haul her into the room and almost to standing. Blood rushes back into her legs in a needle-tipped tide. The air is scented with smoke: birchwood and a sweet tobacco note she starts to follow just as the old-timer speaks.
“He was trying to break into the warehouse,” he says. “Beat the shit out of Conaway. He don’t—”
Alma rears to life. Twists to kick at his knee. Still dizzy, she misses. The bigger man plows a fist into her stomach.
“Try that again and I’ll shoot you,” the old-timer says. Then, in a milder tone: “He don’t look like none of Sloan’s boys, but I brung him anywise.”
She’s got no air, and it’s not just the punch. This isn’t Sloan’s place.
Her plan unravels and she comes apart a little, too, woozy, pooling with alarm.
A glossy pair of laced boots appears. Fine-cut black trousers. Her cap brim obscures the rest, and she can’t lift her chin until she remembers how to breathe.
“You work for Sloan?”
This voice. She knows it.
Alma blinks away vertigo. She hangs between the men, lungs sucking into motion at last, so her own herky-jerk inhales fill her ears.
“You’re going to tell me if you work for him,” the man before her says, and she places the familiar smell: vanilla tobacco smoke. “If not Sloan, then whoever it was that sent you to nose around my warehouse. I’m busy; you’re a bother. Quit wasting my time.”
She does not have a strategy for this. As she cobbles one together, the man steps forward, grunts an order. Another punch to the stomach blots her mind with shadow. She wheezes, folding inward as far as she can strain with the two men wrenching her arms.
“Take off his cap,” the man says. “So he can look me in the—”
Her cap flops onto the floor, leaving her damp forehead chilled. She doesn’t look up. Maybe he won’t recognize her.
The silence tells her he does.
She makes blank her face and raises her chin.
Nathaniel Wheeler stands three feet away. He is pale, staring, but even as she watches, he tucks away his shock-loosed corners: he closes his mouth, hardens his eyes. Brings a hand to his already-straight necktie and smooths it flat.
“Wait outside,” he says to the men.
They don’t obey at once, though the huge man’s grip slackens.
“Put him down, and wait outside,” Wheeler says again, louder.
Him. Wheeler has preserved her cover. Maybe her luck is back. The corners of her mind are busy mashing together fact and fiction. In ten seconds she’ll have an alibi to suit this new geography.
The men at either side of her let go. One of them—the old bastard, she’d wager—shoves her forward. Her shredded knees drag over the carpet and she chokes down a gasp.
The hallway door closes. Wheeler comes to stand over her. She eases up into an unsteady crouch. He offers no help. As she levers herself to standing, her right ribs crunch into a knot of fire.
“Alma?” Wheeler says, when they are face-to-face. “Jesus Christ. What the hell are you doing?”
Copyright © 2018 by Katrina Carrasco