Cera’s Place is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2011 by Elizabeth McKenna
All rights reserved.
“You should have told me you were with child.”
Ever since walking through the front door of his home in Boston and seeing Martha’s swollen belly, Jake Tanner had repeated those words like the chorus of a favorite song. In that moment, he had never been so angry—or so in love—with his wife. Now, as she lay on their bed fanning herself in the early summer heat, he gave in to the urge to say it again.
Martha turned her head away and sighed. “Now what good would that have done, my love, but to give you a needless worry?”
He tugged her thick, honey blond braid until she looked at him again. “I could have gotten leave sooner, maybe even more than once.”
“And what makes you more deserving than the other Union boys with wives and children at home?” She patted her bulging stomach. “We are fine. Even better now that you are here with us.”
The bed creaked when Jake shifted beside his wife. He closed his eyes for a moment, allowing himself to enjoy the coolness of the cotton sheets next to his skin. It had been months since he had slept on anything softer than a horse blanket. His hand wavered above her belly before gaining the courage to join hers. “It was just such a shock. You must have known when I was home for Christmas.”
Martha shrugged, breaking the slow rhythm of her fan. “I wanted to be sure. Things can happen.”
Jake’s stomach did a nervous flip. “But you are all right now?”
“Mama said I can do anything a woman would normally do.” She moved his hand down her belly and under her thin shift. When he found her favorite spot, she closed her eyes.
Jake leaned over and tasted the sheen of perspiration forming between her breasts. They were fuller than he remembered, straining against the soft cloth that hid them from his hungry eyes. “I’ve missed you more than I can say.”
Martha flicked her wrist and the fan snapped shut before it hit the floor. “Show me then.”
Happy to oblige, Jake balanced above her, being mindful of his weight. His eyes caressed her face, willing his brain to remember every curve, every lash. He would need these memories in the coming months to keep him sane.
He moved the tip of his tongue over her bottom lip, savoring the sweetness. When she giggled, he smiled. Her lips parted to receive his kiss, and Jake wished he could stay in this moment forever. As their lips touched, a piercing wail filled the room.
Jake jumped back from his wife, panic seizing him. The baby. He must save the baby, but where was it? The cries were louder now and carried an edge of pain. Jake searched the room, crawling on hands and knees to peer under the furniture and behind the curtains.
“Martha, please help me! I can’t find the baby!”
His wife lay silent on the bed with hands folded over her flat stomach. In place of her shift, she wore the dress from their wedding day—the one with small pink roses and lace trim that had always been his favorite. An errant breeze scattered flakes of her creamy white skin across the pillows and sheets, revealing the smooth bones of the skeleton beneath.
As he stared in horror at his once-beautiful wife, a fiery explosion shook the room. Jake dropped to the floor, covering his head with his arms. When all was still, he looked up and there in the doorway stood his old friend Daniel, his eyes staring upward, glazed and lifeless, never to see again. In his dead arms, Daniel cradled the screaming baby, chest heaving with each cry. Blood dripped from Daniel’s scalp, painting the baby’s face and body scarlet and soaking the front of Daniel’s shirt. Jake knew if he tore it open, he would see the black festering wound, courtesy of a too-young-to-be-killing Confederate soldier.
“Save us,” Daniel’s motionless mouth pronounced.
When the second explosion sounded, Jake bolted up in his rented bed, screaming. His eyes darted around the shabby room, trying to place his surroundings. Not his bedroom in Boston or a riverbank in the Indian Territory. His hands fisted over his eyes, willing his breathing to slow. San Francisco. That’s where he was. Mae’s Boarding House for 50 cents a night.
He picked up a corner of the tangled sheet and wiped the sweat from his face. Calmer, he crossed the room to the basin and splashed water over his head. Drying his skin, he let out a heavy breath into the threadbare towel.
“Complications during delivery” Martha’s mother had written. Their baby girl was stillborn and Martha died three days later from fever. And Daniel? So many men died on the battlefield that hot summer day. Despite Jake’s efforts to get him to the field hospital, when it came to his friend, the surgeons were all out of miracles.
Though this terrible nightmare had regularly haunted him over the past four years, it had been a good six months since its last visitation. He had looked upon its absence as a positive sign. Like the North and South struggling to rebuild the country, maybe he too could make a new life. He absently rubbed the spot over his still racing heart. Maybe tomorrow would bring the end to his mission and he could finally move on. Peace. What would that feel like?
He looked heavenward for the briefest moment and then across the room. The night sky glowed through the grime on the bedroom window. Jake didn’t need to look any closer to see why. He had seen that shade of sky more times than he wished to recall. Something big in the city burned. For once, the explosions in his dream were real.
The first explosion rained dust from the rafters onto Cera Cassidy’s gleaming bar top.
“What in blazes is going on now?” She flicked away the offending dirt with her rag. “I want a saloon uptown. I’m tired of this nonsense every other night.”
Surveying the room, she clucked her tongue. The men hadn’t even looked up from their card games. Her good friend and business partner Isaac Knappe continued to move his head to the beat as he pounded out a lively tune on the piano in the corner. Mary Beth Edwards weaved effortlessly through the crowd balancing a tray of dirty glasses, her pale blond curls swinging with every change in direction.
Two seconds after the second explosion, her kitchen girl, Sadie Freedom, crashed through the saloon’s wooden double doors. In her wake, she dragged a wisp of a Chinese girl who Cera had never seen before.
Holding her side, Sadie gasped for breath, her slim frame jerking from the effort. “Miss Cera! Miss Cera!”
Cera shook her head in resignation. It was going to be one of those nights.
“Lord have mercy, Miss Cera! They’re killin’ the China men!” Sadie’s hands flew to her mouth, as if by stopping her words she could stop the horrors she had just seen.
Cera froze where she stood and stared at the shaking girls. Oh Lord, she prayed, please not another riot.
The Chinese girl hung on to Sadie’s hand like a lifeline, her wild eyes taking in the room full of half-drunk white men regarding her with interest. Though tears streaked down her face, she made no sound. A mixture of blood and dirt stained her black, silk tunic. At some point during their flight, she’d lost her slippers. Bare feet peeked out from beneath her pants.
Coming to her senses, Cera hurried over to Sadie, as the girl wavered on her feet. She grabbed Sadie’s shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. “Don’t you go fainting on me now. Tell me, who’s killing the Chinese?”
“Samuel Biggs and his men…in…in Ross Alley.”
“And who’s that with you?” Cera pointed with her chin at the Chinese girl who looked no more than sixteen years old, if she was a day.
Sadie’s corn roll braids whipped side to side as she looked from the Chinese girl to her boss and then back. “I…I don’t know. She was with the China men. I reckon’d she needed help.”
Cera was about to ask her next question when the saloon doors burst open again. A boy dressed in clothes too big for his scrawny frame rushed in. “Fire! Fire in Ross Alley!”
It took only an instant for the room to empty out, as the customers poured into the street and headed for the alley.
Before the boy could follow, Cera grabbed him by the wrist and pulled him back. “Johnny, what’s going on out there?”
Excitement lit the boy’s face as he danced from foot to foot. “Kong Chow’s buildin’ is burning. There must be rockets inside. Did’ja hear the booms?”
“Did you see the China…?” That was as far as Cera got. Johnny yanked his wrist from her grasp, and the thump, thump of the swinging doors echoed behind him.
“Lord almighty, what’s all the ruckus? Did someone strike another silver vein? I sure hope they spend some of that wonderful money here.” The charming Southern drawl of Ginger Crawford, another of Cera’s serving girls, carried down from the top of the stairs leading to the saloon’s second floor. Fluffing her bright red curls, she swayed her generous hips with each step. Halfway down she stopped, her eyes widening. “What’s happened?”
“No time to explain,” Cera called over her shoulder as she headed for the saloon doors. “Sadie, go get Li from the kitchen. Ask him to talk with this girl while I’m gone.”
Isaac jumped up from the piano and hurried after her. “Cera, don’t be crazy. You could get hurt if you go out there.”
Cera shook her head at his fears. “You remember last year when the whites and Chinese got to fighting? All those buildings looted and burned during the fray? I’m not letting that happen to our saloon.”
“But I’m sure the police and firemen are already there,” Isaac persisted. “They’ll have things under control in no time.”
“I’ll be fine.” She gave an affectionate tug on his gray beard. “I just want to make sure nothing’s coming our way. I’ll be gone five minutes at the most.”
Out on the street, gas lamps cast a muted glow in the foggy night. Cera patted her skirt pocket, feeling the weight of the double-barreled Derringer that never left her side. She hesitated for a moment, shivering in the cool air, but then ran after the crowd headed in the direction of Ross Alley.
Reaching the corner of Jackson and Dupont, she stopped in awe. Flames leapt high into the sky as they consumed the three-story building standing next to Ross Alley. The wind whipped the sparks through the air like fireflies, threatening the adjoining buildings. On the sidewalk, broken glass sparkled in the firelight like a jeweler’s display of precious gems. A jumble of frantic voices and fire alarm bells added to the chaos. The sound of beating hooves drew Cera’s attention away from the fire and down the street. The fire department’s horses and wagon were coming at full gallop.
With great effort, she pushed her way to the front of the crowd. Expecting to see the dead Chinese men, she looked at the empty alley in bewilderment. Besides the slack jaws staring at the burning building, the only other people nearby were Samuel Biggs and Officer Klein. The men stood apart from the crowd, exchanging what could only be heated words from all the finger pointing and chest thumping.
Another explosion rocked the building, lighting up the night sky with a whoosh. The crowd responded with a collective cry of fright, as debris fell from the sky. The few extra seconds of brilliant light illuminated several puddles on the cobblestone in front of the alley.
Water? It hadn’t rained in days. Blood?
As Cera reached toward one of the puddles, a rough hand from behind yanked her back. Losing her balance, she fell hard, cutting her palm on a shard of glass.
“I told y’all to get back! Go on now!” Officer Klein’s face pulled into a snarl as he barked orders at the crowd.
Glaring at the officer, Cera sucked on her bleeding palm to stay silent.
“You hurt, Miss Cera?” a small voice asked. Johnny appeared at her side, sticking a hand out to help her to her feet.
Cera smiled at the boy. “Just cut my hand a bit.” She tried for one more look at the puddles, but the firemen were already pouring water on the building. Whatever was there moments ago was washed away. “Johnny, did you see anyone in Ross Alley earlier—maybe some Chinese fighting with Mr. Biggs?”
The boy shook his head. “Naw, nothin’ like that. Why?”
“Never mind. I need to head back to the saloon. Are you staying here?”
Johnny’s eyes scanned the mesmerized crowd. “I’m thinkin’ of watchin’ for awhile.”
“You’ll watch, huh? From the look on your face, I’d say you’re figuring how much money you can pinch from these people.”
Scowling, he replied, “I don’t take nothin’ they can’t afford to lose.”
Cera ruffled his hair a bit harder than she had to. “Why don’t you come by the saloon tomorrow and earn an honest wage? The floor needs a good sweeping and I’m sure Li could use some help in the kitchen.”
“Sure thing, Miss Cera,” Johnny agreed before slipping into the crowd.
Hurrying back the way she came, Cera puzzled over what she had—and hadn’t—seen. Obviously, from the looks of Sadie and the Chinese girl, something murderous had happened, so where was the proof? Had someone taken the bodies away before the crowd came out to gawk?
“She is Hu Wong, daughter of Chen Wong,” Li Chan explained to Cera when she arrived at the saloon. He sat at a table with Hu and Sadie, while Isaac, Mary Beth, and Ginger stood nearby, their faces reflecting concern.
Cera frowned. “That’s all she’s said so far?”
Li shook his head. “She say nothing. I know her.”
“Should we go find her family?” Cera asked.
Li shrugged. “Mother die on ship to America. Father have laundry shop. No more family.”
Cera sighed and rubbed her forehead, trying to stop the dull throb taking over inside her head. “Sadie, what happened out there?”
Sadie stopped wiping the dried blood from Hu’s face. “Well, ma’am, I was coming from visitin’ a friend, when I saw a China man and Mr. Biggs arguin’. The China man was waving his arms all ‘round and shouting up a storm. Then Mr. Biggs hit him hard—right in the face—and the China man fell to his knees. Some other China men came a runnin’ to help, but the men with Mr. Biggs had clubs…” Sadie’s voice faltered. She squeezed her eyes shut for a moment, grimacing at the memory. “The girl here was cryin’ and such. When the white men beat all the China men to the ground, I grabbed her and ran.”
Cera nodded. “I would have done the same.” She walked behind the bar and poured a shot of whiskey. Setting it in front of Hu, she motioned for her to drink.
Hu’s hand shook as she brought the glass to her mouth, but when the smell of the raw alcohol reached her nose, she made a sour face and set it back down.
Cera pushed the glass at her again.
Giving in, Hu swallowed the liquor and promptly broke into a coughing fit.
Satisfied, Cera asked the girl, “Do you speak English? I can speak some of your language, but it might insult your ears.”
“I speak English.”
“Good. Then can you tell me why your people and Biggs were fighting?”
Hu shook her head, burying her face in her hands. Her shoulders moved up and down as she silently cried.
Blowing air from her cheeks, Cera hunkered down beside Hu and took her hands away from her face. She held them until the girl looked at her. “You are safe here. I—we,” nodding toward Li, “will protect you, but I need to know what happened.”
Hu stared at Cera for several moments, but finally, as if making a decision, she began her story.
“You know Chinese brothel? It small shack with bars on window and door. Many girl live in shack. When girl see man, she show bosom. Make him want to buy. All night you hear girl call, ‘two bits to look, four bits to feel, six bits to do’. Girl live terrible life. Girl sad, take opium every day.
“Girl not want this work. Men tricky. Say if leave China and go to America, girl marry rich man. But not true. My father know Samuel Biggs buy girl from Hip Yee and Choy Poy for brothels. If they no have girl, Biggs steal girl from street. Tonight, my father tell Biggs to stop and my father die in alley like dog.”
“Who are Hip Yee and Choy Poy?” Cera asked. For the most part, the Chinese kept to themselves, but the names sounded familiar and rumors were as plentiful as the foggy nights in San Francisco.
Hu wiped a palm across her wet cheek. “They run Chinese Tong. They bad.”
Isaac let out a low whistle and exchanged a look with Cera. They both knew the Tong controlled the Chinese community, by force if necessary. “Are you sure Biggs is involved in these kidnappings? He has a lot of influence with the city officials. I have never much cared for him but if it is true, I’m not sure if we will be able to convince the police to do anything. Did your father have any proof?”
“One night, my father see two men put girl, Lan Chiu, in Biggs’ wagon. My father go to Chiu house. Lan no come home. My father see Biggs and say ‘Where you take Lan Chiu?’ Then…” Hu stopped, unable to go on.
Pacing the length of the bar, Cera considered Hu’s story. She wasn’t sure what could be done. Since the Chinese community didn’t trust the whites, she knew they wouldn’t talk to the police willingly. Yet, for the sake of these girls, Biggs and the Chinese Tong had to be stopped.
“I have more bad news.” Cera hesitated, not knowing how to tell Hu what she had seen. “When I went to the alley, no one was there but Biggs and Officer Klein. The bodies of your father and his friends were gone.”
Speechless, Hu gaped at Cera.
“That’s why there was a fire,” Isaac said, coming to the realization Cera had already formed. “They needed to get rid of the bodies to hide the killings.”
“That’s what I reckon. I saw some puddles that were probably blood—” Cera stopped short when Hu’s face began to crumble. “Anyway, what it comes down to is the word of a colored kitchen girl and a Chinese laundry girl against an influential white man. I can tell you right now who’s going to win that one in court.”
“Do you know the names of any other girls who have gone missing?” Isaac asked.
Gripped with grief, Hu managed to nod.
“Good.” Isaac rubbed his palms together briskly, in a no-nonsense manner. “Li can talk to their families. Maybe if we get enough people to come forward, the authorities will listen to us.”
Cera started to pace again. “That’s a good plan, Isaac. How about if—”
Ginger interrupted her boss. “How’s about if I take Hu upstairs and find a bed for her? She’s as pale as a magnolia petal. This can all wait until the morning, after she’s rested some.”
Hu raised her eyes to Li. Behind the redness, there was fear, but Li nodded reassuringly.
“Come with me, honey.” Ginger helped Hu to her feet and wrapped a protective arm around her. “Now don’t you worry none. Cera’s real good at putting things right.”
“Thank you,” Hu whispered and bowed her head.
“Remember Hu, you are safe here. I told you I would protect you and I meant it.” Cera clenched her fists at her sides. Her temper rose and she welcomed it. “Men like Biggs think the rules don’t apply to them. They are the worst kind of lowlife. Taking him down will be a great pleasure.”
When Ginger and Hu were out of earshot, Sadie turned to Cera. “Are we safe, boss? Biggs knows we saw him murder those men. If he recognized me, you can bet he’ll come a-calling.”
Cera bit her lip, but then took Sadie’s hands in her own and squeezed them. “I know. I just didn’t want to bring that up and scare you all more. I think you and Hu had better stay out of sight when customers are around for the next few days until we figure out what to do. And what I said to Hu goes the same for you. You’re like my family and I will do everything I can to keep you safe. Now, why don’t you go upstairs and get some rest. We’ll deal with this mess in the morning.”
Sadie nodded. “I’m sorry for bringin’ trouble to your doorstep. I didn’t know what else to do.”
Cera held up her hand. “Not another word. Get to bed.”
Cera kept the saloon open for a few more hours, but only a handful of the regulars returned. Every now and then, another explosion rocked the neighborhood, signaling the fire still burned strong.
After closing, Cera climbed the stairs to the bedrooms where she and her serving girls lived. From the upper landing, she looked down at the barroom. So much hard work just to have a saloon in the worst part of San Francisco, it almost made her laugh. Still, she was grateful. Not many women were given the chance to own their own business—she had Isaac to thank for that. Without his agreement to be a silent partner, the bank would never have lent her the start-up money. Of course, a few palms were also greased along the way. Officer Klein enjoyed his share of their profit on a monthly basis.
Two decades ago, her folks came West in the hopes of finding a fortune in gold, but that hadn’t happened and her parents were long dead. The Chinese men in Ross Alley came to this country looking for a better life as well. For a short time, they found it but now they were dead. Her heart went out to Hu. Grief was a hard parcel to carry. Maybe if she could give the girl some justice, it would make the load lighter.