The Abduction of Smith and Smith
Embarcadero Port, San Francisco. 1868.
Moonlight rippled on the black water. The sounds of the Barbary Coast saloons filled the air and met them on shore. Jupiter watched the rocks. He aimed his lantern at the shadows. Something moved underneath the sand. “They’re here,” he said to Clement. The earth parted, light shined through the crack, and a hand emerged beckoning Jupiter and Clement. The trapdoor under Maggie’s saloon opened and an unconscious man slumped to the shore. He was young, about twenty or so, and strong. His palms were pebbled with calluses, no stranger to work on a ship. He’d fetch about twenty-five dollars, a tidy sum, but Jupiter searched the man’s pockets anyway. No money, just a crooked deck of cards and loaded dice. Poor boy had tried to trick the wrong people and ended up on the bad end of a vanishing act. Jupiter nodded to the man underneath the earth. The hole closed and all was dark again.
Jupiter put the shady paraphernalia in his pockets, then he and Clement dragged the boy to their boat and dropped him on top of a pile of three other unconscious men. The lad was all muscle; maybe they’d get an even thirty for him.
They pushed off. Clement manned the oars and Jupiter held the lantern, waving its beam in the darkness until the masts of the Halcyon became visible. She was bound for the Philippines; a ton of pepper in her hull, she needed a crew badly.
• • •
“What have we here?” asked the first mate as he looked at the three unconscious men at Jupiter’s feet. Clement spoke up. “We’ve got a carpenter, a cooper, and one able-bodied seaman—skills to be determined on deck.”
The ship’s crew buzzed about.
The first mate scratched his beard. “Are you sure these men have sailed before? Last lot you two provided were so fond of land that they damn near had tree trunks instead of legs.”
“It’s our promise,” Clement said, “to provide you with the most skilled seamen available at the time.”
“Aye, and I’m sure you’d swear it on your mother’s soul,” the first mate grumbled.
“Well, I’m glad we are in agreement,” said Clement.
“How much?” asked the first mate.
“Fifty dollars for the lot,” said Jupiter.
Clement looked at him. “You heard the man.”
The first mate spat. “Highway robbery, this is,” but paid Clement accordingly: fifty dollars—ten to Jupiter, fifteen to Clement, and twenty-five to Maggie.
“Be careful of this one,” Jupiter said, pointing to the man as he climbed back in the boat. “He likes to beat women.” Judging them made it easier for Jupiter. If they had done bad things, if they were bad people, then they must deserve what was happening to them. In places like Maggie’s there was an ample supply of men who did terrible things.
“Oh, does he?” asked the first mate. “Too bad for him—and the lot of us—that there ain’t any woman aboard. Although, these long trips do tend to play tricks on your mind. Some of these younger lads may get mistaken for mermaids.”
• • •
The ship vanished into the fog as if by some natural sleight of hand. Jupiter was no magician, but he was quite good at making men disappear.
They brought the boat back to shore, secured it, then walked onto the portside road, merging with a crowd teeming with sailors, drunks, and thrill seekers.
Jupiter could feel Clement staring at him as they walked. “Something on your mind?”
“I feel as though I should ask you that question,” answered Clement.
Jupiter hated when Clement acted as though they were friends. It was closer to indentured servitude than a relationship, and he wasn’t foolish enough to think otherwise.
“Where were you the other night?” Clement asked. “Had to hire off the docks for muscle.”
“Had a prior obligation.”
“Tea with the Queen? I don’t see a note pinned to your shirt.”
Jupiter stared him down. Clement had seen Jupiter kill a man once. Jupiter gave him a look to remind him of that fact. Clement stared back as if he remembered but didn’t care.
“Did you say anything to Maggie about it?” Jupiter asked.
“No, I didn’t. There’s me saving your ass again,” said Clement.
“Fine. Thanks to me, we got double what we expected for those last ones. Just take what you spent out of my share.”
Clement spat in the road and barely missed the shoe of a passerby. “Damn right I will. Listen to you acting like you don’t need the money.”
He always needed the money. He had strong-armed his way across the country, tarnishing whatever honor remained in his uniform. During the day, Negroes, old and young alike, had waved at him as he passed in his tattered blue coat. At night he stole food and rifled through the pockets of unconscious drunks. By the time he arrived in San Francisco, smelled the briny air, and saw the harbor—a forest of masts—he had turned desperation into an art. He had killed countless men during the war, only two since its end. Maybe he was becoming a better man.
“And we’re still one man short,” said Clement.
“Or we can take what we have and call it a night.”
“Call it a night, he says. This isn’t that kind of job, now is it?”
Jupiter was walking. “Did you hear that?”
Something faint and shrill floated over the ironworks. “That. It was a scream.”
“So what if it was,” said Clement. “Screams are popular this time of night.”
Jupiter heard the sound again and walked toward it.
“Jupiter, don’t bother—”
At the end of a dark alley, he found the source of the sound: a Chinese girl, about thirteen or so, pinned to the wall by a man three times her size and three times her age. “Ease up, honey,” the man growled. “The more you fight the longer it’ll take.” There was a tipped-over basket of laundry, clothes strewn on the ground.
The girl screamed again. She looked up and saw Jupiter. She began shouting at him in her language. Jupiter had not picked up much Chinese, but it was obvious that she was screaming for help.
The man slapped her into silence. He looked over his shoulder and saw Jupiter. “Get out of here, nigger. This doesn’t concern you.” He put his hand between her legs, forcing them open.
“I think it does. Why don’t you leave the girl alone? Go to one of the saloons up the street, plenty of willing women there. I’ll even buy their time for you if you let that little girl take the laundry back to her family.”
“Ain’t this somethin’. Why would you care what I do with this little whore?”
Jupiter looked at her, then the clothes; small clothes, the clothes of children. “How much do you want for her?”
“You said she’s a whore. How much do you want for her?”
Clement had caught up with him. “Jupiter, let’s leave this man to his business. We have our own to attend to.” He grabbed Jupiter by the arm.
“Best listen to your master, dog.”
Jupiter snatched his arm back. “If she’s a whore how much are you going to pay her then?”
He seemed confused. “Not a goddamned thing. I’ve never paid for Chink slit in my life. Why start now?” The girl took advantage of the distraction, gathered her things, and ran away.
The man walked over to Jupiter, an inch from his face. The man had no teeth, which put Jupiter at ease: men with teeth like to use them when a fight does not go their way. “You just cost me my entertainment for the evening,” he said, poking Jupiter’s chest upon each syllable. “What are you—”
Jupiter grabbed the finger, bent it back until the man was on his knees. Clement flung his coat open, drew his blackjack, and swung it against the man’s head. His face hit the ground before Clement brought his arm back.
“Christ, why did you start that?” said Clement, searching the dark windows and doorways for witnesses.
“You said we need another man. His finger’s broken, but I think he’ll do just fine.” Jupiter knelt and struggled to lift him. “Aren’t you going to help me?”
“Oh, The Mighty Jupiter needs help?”
“What are the two of you up to?”
Jupiter knew it was a policeman. He turned around while trying to hold the man upright.
“Our friend has had too much to drink. We’re just taking him back to his room.”
“Too much to drink, you say?” The policeman walked over to the man and lifted his chin, which dropped promptly once he let it go. “Unless the man has swallowed a bathtub full of liquor, I’d say he’s been done in by something stronger than drink. What house did you say you’re taking him to?”
“Clark’s on Geary.”
The policeman stroked his mustache. “So if I were to stop by in a couple of hours, I’d find him there, sleeping like a baby?”
Jupiter looked at Clement. “Yes, you would, officer. You see the state he’s in.”
“Oh, I see the state he’s in, but something tells me he’s headed outside of California.” The officer gripped his baton and moved closer
to them. “Listen,” he said, “I know the routine. The world’s a cruel place—makes good men do bad things. I don’t know what this man did, but he has done something, and I’m sure it would make my job easier to have him off the streets. However, the problem is that this man is wanted.”
“Wanted?” said Clement. They struggled with the man’s body.
“Aye, for chopping down cherry trees . . . and a large fellow’s beanstalk. There’s a reward for him. I’d hate to miss out on that reward.”
“Just how large is that reward, officer?” asked Jupiter.
He tapped his palm five times with his baton. “Oh, I’d say about ten dollars.”
“Christ,” said Clement
“Shouldn’t take the Lord’s name in vain, son. It shows a lack of character.”
• • •
San Francisco was a rough city, a city that broke you if you were weak. A night of carousing in a saloon, and you might awake the next morning on a ship headed for Australia. Close your eyes while enjoying a woman’s charms—the sweetness of her kiss, the safety of her embrace—and you would open them in the cramped quarters of a vessel charting a course for the East Indies.
There were ships out there that needed crews; supply failed to keep pace with demand. About twenty or so gangs specialized in shanghaiing—snatching unsuspecting sailors off the street—even other ships—and selling them to ships bound for distant ports. Some were coy about it; in other places it was blatant. Yet everyone looked the other way. Things had become so dire that it wasn’t just sailors in danger of the crimp: any able-bodied man who dared to enter a brothel or saloon made himself a potential victim. Shipmasters were duped into believing they were purchasing the skills of true sailors, not just the insolence of drunkards and louts.
“Tracking down deserters,” is how Clement explained it at first, but Jupiter soon learned the truth.
It was Jupiter’s idea for Maggie to be more discreet in her endeavors. To him, the brazenness of the crimps and tricks played on the shipmasters seemed misguided. If skilled seamen were needed, it made sense to seek them. Why shouldn’t Maggie keep her intentions secret? Since sailors were fearful of being shanghaied from every dive on the waterfront, why not create a place that offered the illusion of safety, one where they could have a drink without the fear of receiving a club to head or dope slipped into their drinks?
Jupiter learned that the hard way. Soon after his arrival, some white men began following him. During a night of drinking, one of the men attacked him. The war had unlocked a desperate lust for survival in Jupiter: when threatened, he was unmatched.
He grabbed the man’s windpipe and squeezed until the rigid tissues collapsed in his grip. His victim thrashed violently; he tried to scream, but no sound came.
Clement watched all of that unfold and shot the remaining attacker. He approached Jupiter, offering to help him remove the bodies. Yes, Jupiter had acted in self-defense, but there was no way—even after emancipation—a black man who killed a white man could avoid the noose.
After helping Jupiter, Clement said he needed a favor. He explained that the man Jupiter killed had worked for Maggie. He was her best man; the fact that Jupiter killed him so easily would both anger and amaze her. She would want to be repaid for helping him and for the man’s death.
• • •
Ace of spades. Ten of diamonds. Queen of hearts . . .
He looked at his watch. He had memorized the entire deck in two minutes. A good memory was prized back on the plantation. By the time he was thirteen he could recall the order of a deck in less than ten minutes. The Colonel had a prodigious memory—as did the Colonel’s father, he was quick to let you know. Colonel Smith considered memory to be the cornerstone of a superior intellect. He taught his son, Archer, memorization techniques handed down from the ancient
Egyptians and Greeks, as well as the Freemasons. Jupiter would listen to the two of them, father and son, undetected—the door cracked just enough to let through a sliver of candlelight, and their voices were a soft chant of words and numbers.
• • •
He had bought some land out in San Joaquin. No home on it yet, just the lean-to, there before he’d come along, dusty and empty. It seemed right. It overlooked a creek. It felt like the kind of place that she deserved: unmarred by history, brimming with promise. Thinking about it usually comforted him, but sometimes that comfort gave way to dread. What if he found her today? Or the next day? The next month? The next year? There was just land, no home for her.
He’d bought the land and gave up, as if he never truly expected to find her. How could he? That would require a drastic change of luck. Wherever he looked for her, the old plantation, San Francisco, it seemed that he always ended up hurting someone. He had crimped another man. He tried to let go of the memory but there was no getting free of it. It had already dropped its anchor.
He once tried putting up posters that bore her likeness, but the drawings never did her justice and, despite his romantic notions, it made her seem like an outlaw. Lately, the idea had revisited him, begging for attention.
He leafed through the incomplete sketches. Noses, eyes, and lips drifting unmoored from the face that should have held them.
There were two other items seemingly out of place: a notice—preemancipation—for a runaway slave, and a document detailing the profitability of a plantation nailery. He turned them over carefully and read the script, scrawled in charcoal and already beginning to fade.
September 16, 1864
I have been practicing my writing like you taught me. I have not heard from you in so long I do not know if you are alive or dead. I imagine you using that mind of yours to do whatever it takes to
make it out of the War. I imagine you coming back here to find me, and hopefully finding this letter. We have gone west to San Francisco. We hear the War did not reach that far, and there are places of hope for colored. I so wish I could be there to greet you, but with the War ending, we could not stay on the plantation much longer, and in the south there is no place for us—
He went to the next page.
I pray you can forgive me. I pray you will read this and still join me—
The pages were numbered 1 and 3; the second page was missing. Whenever he read what he had of the letter, he would speculate what might have been on that missing page. A name? Some other detail that would help to find her? Clara told him this was all that Sonya left. He was so grateful to have some part of her that he did not question the old woman’s honesty.
• • •
San Francisco was a hard place to get used to. He often wondered why he’d chosen it. The desperate immigrants working the docks, the tardy prospectors still looking to stake a claim, the din of confusion from the strange screeching sounds of foreign languages, the grifters and conmen, the outlaws and robbers, the shanghaiing crimpers. The brothels. The earthquakes. Why would she have chosen this place?
He wondered if she was passing for something other than Negro—a Mexican or Spaniard. She was a shade or two darker than he was. He couldn’t pass for white, but it was obvious he was something else besides Negro. In San Francisco, it was common for him to be addressed in Spanish or French, Arabic occasionally, but also a half dozen other languages he had never heard before.