A NIGHT ON THE BARBARY COAST
Kage Baker was an American writer who wrote both serious and funny stories and novels, most with a fantastical or science fiction slant. She was a finalist for the Hugo Award and winner of the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award and the Nebula Award.”A Night on the Barbary Coast” was the winner of the first of the Emperor Norton awards for San Francisco based speculative fiction in 2003. It was originally published in The Silver Gryphon anthology. You can find another Company story, “Noble Mold,” elsewhere in this anthology.
I’d been walking for five days, looking for Mendoza. The year was 1850.
Actually, walking doesn’t really describe traveling through that damned vertical wilderness in which she lived. I’d crawled uphill on hands and knees, which is no fun when you’re dressed as a Franciscan friar, with sandals and beads and the whole nine yards of brown burlap robe. I’d slid downhill, which is no fun either, especially when the robe rides up in back. I’d waded across freezing cold creeks and followed thready little trails through ferns, across forest floors in permanent darkness under towering redwoods. I’m talking gloom. One day the poets will fall in love with Big Sur, and after them the beats and hippies, but if vampires ever discover the place they’ll go nuts over it.
Mendoza isn’t a vampire, though she is an immortal being with a lot of problems, most of which she blames on me.
I’m an immortal being with a lot of problems, too. Like father, like daughter.
After most of a week, I finally came out on a patch of level ground about three thousand feet up. I was standing there looking down on clouds floating above the Pacific Ocean, and feeling kind of funny in the pit of my stomach as a result – and suddenly saw the Company-issue processing credenza on my left, nicely camouflaged. I’d found Mendoza’s camp at last.
There was her bivvy tent, all right, and a table with a camp stove, and five pots with baby trees growing in them. Everything but the trees had a dusty, abandoned look.
Cripes, I thought to myself, how long since she’s been here? I looked around uneasily, wondering if I ought to yoo-hoo or something, and that was when I noticed her signal coming from … up? I craned back my head.
An oak tree rose from the mountain face behind me, huge and branching wide, and high up there among the boughs Mendoza leaned. She gazed out at the sea; but with such a look of ecstatic vacancy in her eyes, I guessed she was seeing something a lot farther away than that earthly horizon.
I cleared my throat.
The vacant look went away fast, and there was something inhuman in the sharp way her head swung around.
“Hi, honey,” I said. She looked down and her eyes focused on me. She has black eyes, like mine, only mine are jolly and twinkly and bright. Hers are like flint. Always been that way, even when she was a little girl.
“What the hell are you doing here, Joseph?” she said at last.
“I missed you, too, baby,” I said. “Want to come down? We need to talk.”
Muttering, she descended through the branches.
“Nice trees,” I remarked. “Got any coffee?”
“I can make some,” she said. I kept my mouth shut as she poked around in her half-empty rations locker, and I still kept it shut when she hauled out her bone-dry water jug and stared at it in a bewildered kind of way before remembering where the nearest stream was, and I didn’t even remark on the fact that she had goddam moss in her hair, though what I wanted to yell at the top of my lungs was: How can you live like this?
No, I played it smart. Pretty soon we were sitting at either end of a fallen log, sipping our respective mugs of coffee, just like family.
“Mm, good Java,” I lied.
“What do you want?” she said.
“Okay, kid, I’ll tell you,” I said. “The Company is sending me up to San Francisco on a job. I need a field botanist, and I had my pick of anybody in the area, so I decided on you.”
I braced myself for an explosion, because sometimes Mendoza’s a little touchy about surprises. But she was silent for a moment, with that bewildered expression again, and I just knew she was accessing her chronometer because she’d forgotten what year this was.
“San Francisco, huh?” she said. “But I went through Yerba Buena a century ago, Joseph. I did a complete survey of all the endemics. Specimens, DNA codes, the works. Believe me, there wasn’t anything to interest Dr. Zeus.”
“Well, there might be now,” I said. “And that’s all you need to know until we get there.”
She sighed. “So, it’s like that?”
“It’s like that. But hey, we’ll have a great time! There’s a lot more up there now than fog and sand dunes.”
“I’ll say there is,” she said grimly. “I just accessed the historical record for October 1850. There’s a cholera epidemic going on. There’s chronic arson. The streets are half quicksand. You really take me to some swell places, don’t you?”
“How long has it been since you ate dinner in a restaurant?” I coaxed. She started to say something sarcastic in reply, looked down at whatever was floating in the bottom of her coffee, and shuddered.
“See? It’ll be a nice change of scenery,” I told her, as she tossed the dregs over her shoulder. I tossed out my coffee, too, in a simpatico gesture. “The Road to Frisco! A fun-filled musical romp! Two wacky cyborgs plus one secret mission equals laughs galore!”
“Oh, shut up,” she told me, but rose to strike camp.
* * *
It took us longer to get down out of the mountains than I would have liked, because Mendoza insisted on bringing her five potted trees, which were some kind of endangered species, so we had to carry them all the way to the closest Company receiving terminal in Monterey, by which time I was ready to drop the damn things down any convenient cliff. But away they went to some Company botanical garden, and, after requisitioning equipment and a couple of horses, we finally set off for San Francisco.
I guess if we had been any other two people, we’d have chatted about bygone times as we rode along. It’s never safe to drag up old memories with Mendoza, though. We didn’t talk much, all the way up El Camino Real, through the forests and across the scrubby hills. It wasn’t until we’d left San Jose and were picking our way along the shore of the back bay, all black ooze and oyster shells, that Mendoza looked across at me and said: “We’re carrying a lot of lab equipment with us. I wonder why?”
I just shrugged.
“Whatever the Company’s sending us after, they want it analyzed on the spot,” she said thoughtfully. “So possibly they’re not sure that it’s really what they want. But they need to find out.”
“And your only field expert is being kept on a need-to-know basis, which means it’s something important,” she continued. “And they’re sending you, even though you’re still working undercover in the Church, being Father Rubio or whoever. Aren’t you?”
“You look even more like Mephistopheles than usual in that robe, did I ever tell you that? Anyway – why would the Company send a friar into a town full of gold miners, gamblers, and prostitutes?” Mendoza speculated. “You’ll stick out like a sore thumb. And where does botany fit in?”
“I guess we’ll see, huh?”
She glared at me sidelong and grumbled to herself a while, but that was okay. I had her interested in the job, at least. She was losing that thousand-year-stare that worried me so much.
I wasn’t worrying about the job at all.
* * *
You could smell San Francisco miles before you got there. It wasn’t the ordinary mortal aroma of a boom town without adequate sanitation, even one in the grip of cholera. San Francisco smelled like smoke, with a reek that went right up your nose and drilled into your sinuses.
It smelled this way because it had been destroyed by fire four times already, most recently only a month ago, though you wouldn’t know it to look at the place. Obscenely expensive real estate where tents and shanties had stood was already filling up with brand-new frame buildings. Hammers pounded day and night along Clay, along Montgomery and Kearney and Washington. All the raw new wood was festooned with red-white-and-blue bunting, and hastily improvised Stars and Stripes flew everywhere. California had only just found out it had been admitted to the Union, and was still celebrating.
The bay was black with ships, but those closest to the shore were never going to sea again – their crews had deserted and they were already enclosed by wharves, filling in on all sides. Windows and doors had been cut in their hulls as they were converted to shops and taverns.
Way back in the sand hills, poor old Mission Dolores – built of adobe blocks by a people whose world hadn’t changed in millennia, on a settlement plan first designed by officials of the Roman Empire – looked down on the crazy new world in wonderment. Mendoza and I stared, too, from where we’d reined in our horses near Rincon Hill.
“So this is an American city,” said Mendoza.
“Manifest Destiny in action,” I agreed, watching her. Mendoza had never liked being around mortals much. How was she going to handle a modern city, after a century and a half of wilderness? But she just set her mouth and urged her horse forward, and I was proud of her.
For all the stink of disaster, the place was alive. People were out and running around, doing business. There were hotels and taverns; there were groceries and bakeries and candy stores. Lightermen worked the water between those ships that hadn’t yet been absorbed into the city, bringing in prospectors bound for the gold fields or crates of goods for the merchants. I heard six languages spoken before we’d crossed Clay Street. Anything could be bought or sold here, including a meal prepared by a Parisian chef. The air hummed with hunger, and enthusiasm, and a kind of rapacious innocence.
I grinned. America looked like fun.
We found a hotel on the big central wharf, and loaded our baggage into two narrow rooms whose windows looked into the rigging of a landlocked ship. Mendoza stared around at the bare plank walls.
“This is Oregon spruce,” she announced. “You can still smell the forest! I’ll bet this was alive and growing a month ago.”
“Probably,” I agreed, rummaging in my trunk. I found what I was looking for and unrolled it to see how it had survived the trip.
“A subterfuge.” I held the drawing up. “A beautiful gift for his Holiness the Pope! The artist’s conception, anyway.”
“A huge ugly crucifix?” Mendoza looked pained.
“And a matching rosary, baby. All to be specially crafted out of gold and – this is the important part – gold-bearing quartz from sunny California, U.S.A., so the Holy Father will know he’s got faithful fans out here!”
“That’s disgusting. Are you serious?”
“Of course I’m not serious, but we don’t want the mortals to know that,” I said, rolling up the drawing and sticking it in a carpetbag full of money. “You stay here and set up the lab, okay? I’ve got to go find some jewelers.”
* * *
There were a lot of jewelers in San Francisco. Successful guys coming back from the Sacramento sometimes liked to commemorate their luck by having gold nuggets set in watch fobs, or stickpins, or brooches for sweethearts back east. Gold-bearing quartz, cut and polished, was also popular, and much classier looking.
Hiram Gainsborg, on the corner of Ohio and Broadway, had some of what I needed; so did Joseph Schwartz at Harrison and Broadway, although J. C. Russ on the corner of Harrison and Sixth had more. But I also paid a visit to Baldwin & Co. on Clay at the Plaza, and to J. H. Bradford on Kearney, and just to play it safe I went over to Dupont and Clay to see the firm of Moffat & Co., Assayers and Bankers.
So I was one pooped little friar, carrying one big heavy carpetbag, by the time I trudged back to our hotel as evening shadows descended. I’d been followed for three blocks by a Sydney ex-convict whose intent was robbery and possible murder; but I managed to ditch him by ducking into a saloon, exiting out the back and across the deck of the landlocked Niantic, and cutting through another saloon where I paused just long enough to order an oyster loaf and a pail of steam beer.
I’d lost him for good by the time I thumped on Mendoza’s door with the carpetbag.
“Hey, honeybunch, I got dinner!”
She opened the door right away, jittery as hell. “Don’t shout, for God’s sake!”
“Sorry.” I went in and set down the carpetbag gratefully. “I don’t think the mortals are sleeping yet. It’s early.”
“There are three of them on this floor, and seventeen downstairs,” she said, wringing her hands. “It’s been a while since I’ve been around so many of them. I’d forgotten how loud their hearts are, Joseph. I can hear them beating.”
“Aw, you’ll get used to it in no time,” I said. I held up the takeout. “Look! Oyster loaf and beer!”
She looked impatient, and then her eyes widened as she caught the scent of the fresh-baked sourdough loaf and the butter and the garlic and the little fried oysters …
“Oh, gosh,” she said weakly.
So we had another nice companionable moment, sitting at the table where she’d set up the testing equipment, drinking from opposite sides of the beer pail. I lit a lamp and pulled the different paper-wrapped parcels from my carpetbag, one by one.
“What’re those?” Mendoza inquired with her mouth full.
“Samples of gold-bearing quartz,” I explained. “From six different places. I wrote the name of each place on the package in pencil, see? And your job is to test each sample. You’re going to look for a blue-green lichen growing in the crevices with the gold.”
She swallowed and shook her head, blank-faced.
“You need a microbiologist for this kind of job, Joseph, surely. Plants that primitive aren’t my strong suit.”
“The closest microbiologist was in Seattle,” I explained. “And Agrippanilla’s a pain to work with. Besides, you can handle this! Remember the Black Elysium grape? The mutant saccharomyces or whatever it was? You won yourself a field commendation on that one. This’ll be easy!”
Mendoza looked pleased, but did her best to conceal it. “I’ll bet your mission budget just wouldn’t stretch to shipping qualified personnel down here, eh? That’s the Company. Okay; I’ll get started right after dinner.”
“You can wait until morning,” I said.
“Naah.” She had a gulp of the beer. “Sleep is for sissies.”
So after we ate I retired, and far into the hours of the night I could still see lamplight shining from her room, bright stripes through the plank wall every time I turned over. I knew why she was working so late.
It’s not hard to sleep in a house full of mortals, if you tune out the sounds they make. Sometimes, though, just on the edge of sleep, you find yourself listening for one heartbeat that ought to be there, and it isn’t. Then you wake up with a start and remember things you don’t want to remember.
* * *
I opened my eyes and sunlight smacked me in the face, glittering off the bay through my open door. Mendoza was sitting on the edge of my bed, sipping from her canteen. I grunted, grimaced, and sat unsteadily.
“Coffee,” I croaked. She looked smug and held up her canteen.
“There’s a saloon on the corner. The nice mortal sold me a whole pot of coffee for five dollars. Want some?”
“Sure.” I held out my hand. “So … you didn’t mind going down to the saloon by yourself? There are some nasty mortals in this town, kid.”
“The famous Sydney Ducks? Yes, I’m aware of that.” She was quietly gleeful about something. “I’ve lived in the Ventana for years, Joseph, dodging mountain lions! Individual nasty mortals don’t frighten me anymore. Go ahead, try the coffee.”
I sipped it cautiously. It was great. We may have been in America (famous for lousy coffee) now, but San Francisco was already San Francisco.
Mendoza cleared her throat and said, “I found your blue-green lichen. It was growing on the sample from Hiram Gainsborg’s. The stuff looks like Stilton cheese. What is it, Joseph?”
“Something the Company wants,” I said, gulping down half the coffee.
“I’ll bet it does,” she said, giving me that sidelong look again. “I’ve been sitting here, watching you drool and snore, amusing myself by accessing scientific journals on bioremediant research. Your lichen’s a toxiphage, Joseph. It’s perfectly happy feeding on arsenic and antimony compounds found in conjunction with gold. It breaks them down. I suspect that it could make a lot of money for anyone in the business of cleaning up industrial pollution.”
“That’s a really good guess, Mendoza,” I said, handing back the coffee and swinging my legs over the side of the bed. I found my sandals and pulled them on.
“Isn’t it?” She watched me grubbing around in my trunk for my shaving kit. “Yes, for God’s sake, shave. You look like one of Torquemada’s henchmen, with those blue jowls. So Dr. Zeus is doing something altruistic! In its usual corporate-profit way, of course. I don’t understand why this has to be classified, but I’m impressed.”
“Uh-huh.” I swabbed soap on my face.
“You seem to be in an awful hurry.”
“Do I?” I scraped whiskers from my cheek.
“I wonder what you’re in a hurry to do?” Mendoza said. “Probably hotfoot it back to Hiram Gainsborg’s, to see if he has any more of what he sold you.”
“Can I go along?”
“I’m not sitting in my room all day, watching lichen grow in petrie dishes,” she said. “Is it okay if I go sightseeing?”
I looked at her in the mirror, disconcerted. “Sweetheart, this is a rough town. Those guys from Australia are devils, and some of the Yankees—”
“I pity the mortal who approaches me with criminal intent,” she said, smiling in a chilly kind of way. “I’ll just ride out to the Golden Gate. How can I get into trouble? Ghirardelli’s won’t be there for another two years, right?”
* * *
I walked her down to the stable anyway, and saw her safely off before hot-footing it over to Hiram Gainsborg’s, as she suspected.
Mr. Gainsborg kept a loaded rifle behind his shop counter. I came in through his door so fast he had it out and trained on me pronto, before he saw it was me.
“Apologies, Father Rubio,” he said, lowering the barrel. “Back again, are you? You’re in some hurry, sir.” He had a white chin beard, wore a waistcoat of red-and-white striped silk, and overall gave me the disconcerting feeling I was talking to Uncle Sam.
“I was pursued by importuning persons of low moral fiber,” I said.
“That a fact?” Mr. Gainsborg pursed his lips. “Well, what about that quartz you bought yesterday? Your brother friars think it’ll do?”
“Yes, my son, they found it suitable,” I said. “In fact, the color and quality are so magnificent, so superior to any other we have seen, that we all agreed only you were worthy of this important commission for the Holy Father.” I laid the drawing of the crucifix down on his counter. He smiled.
“Well, sir, I’m glad to hear that. I reckon I can bring the job in at a thousand dollars pretty well.” He fixed me with a hard clear eye, waiting to see if I’d flinch, but I just hauled my purse out and grinned at him.
“Price is no object to the Holy Mother Church,” I said. “Shall we say, half the payment in advance?”
I counted out Chilean gold dollars while he watched, sucking his teeth, and I went on: “In fact, we were thinking of having rosaries made up as a gift for the whole College of Cardinals. Assuming, of course, that you have enough of that particular beautiful vein of quartz. Do you know where it was mined?”
“Don’t know, sir, and that’s a fact,” he told me. “Miner brought in a sackful a week ago. He reckoned he could get more for it at a jeweler’s because of the funny color. There’s more’n enough of it in my back room to make your beads, I bet.”
“Splendid,” I said. “But do you recall the miner’s name, in case we do need to obtain more?”
“Ayeh.” Mr. Gainsborg picked up a dollar and inspected it. “Isaiah Stuckey, that was the fellow’s name. Didn’t say where his claim was, though. They don’t tell, as a general rule.”
“Understandable. Do you know where I might find the man?”
“No, sir, don’t know that. He didn’t have a red cent until I paid for the quartz, I can tell you; so I reckon the next place he went was a hotel.” Mr. Gainsborg looked disdainful. “Unless he went straight for the El Dorado or a whorehouse, begging your pardon. Depends on how long he’d been in the mountains, don’t it?”
I sighed and shook my head. “This is a city of temptation, I am afraid. Can you describe him for me?”
Mr. Gainsborg considered. “Well, sir, he had a beard.”
* * *
Great. I was looking for a man with a beard in a city full of bearded men. At least I had a name.
So I spent the rest of that day trudging from hotel to boardinghouse to tent, asking if anybody there had seen Isaiah Stuckey. Half the people I asked snickered and said, “No, why?” and waited for a punchline. The other half also replied in the negative, and then asked my advice on matters spiritual. I heard confessions for seventeen prostitutes, five drunks, and a transvestite before the sun sank behind Knob Hill, but I didn’t find Isaiah Stuckey.
By twilight, I had worked my way out to the landlocked ships along what would one day be Battery and Sansome Streets, though right now they were just so many rickety piers and catwalks over the harbor mud. I teetered up the gangplank of one place that declared itself the MAGNOLIA HOTEL, by means of a sign painted on a bedsheet hung over the bow. A grumpy-looking guy was swabbing the deck.
“We don’t rent to no goddam greasers here,” he informed me. “Even if you is a priest.”
“Well, now, my son, Christ be my witness I’ve not come about taking rooms,” I said in the thickest Dublin accent I could manage. “Allow me to introduce myself! Father Ignatius Costello. I’m after searching for a poor soul whose family’s in sore need of him, and him lost in the gold fields this twelvemonth. Do you rent many rooms to miners, lad?”
“Sure we do,” muttered the guy, embarrassed. “What’s his name?”
“Isaiah Stuckey, or so his dear old mother said,” I replied.
“Him!” The guy looked up, righteously indignant now. He pointed with his mop at a vast expanse of puke on the deck. “That’s your Ike Stuckey’s work, by God!”
I recoiled. “He’s never got the cholera?”
“No, sir, just paralytic drunk. You ought to smell his damn room, after he lay in there most of a week! Boss had me fetch him out, plastered or not, on account of he ain’t paid no rent in three days. I got him this far and he heaved up all over my clean floor! Then, I wish I may be struck down dead if he don’t sober up instant and run down them planks like a racehorse! Boss got a shot off at him, but he kept a-running. Last we saw he was halfway to Kearney Street.”
“Oh, dear,” I said. “I don’t suppose you’d have any idea where he was intending to go, my son?”
“No, I don’t,” said the guy, plunging his mop in its pail and getting back to work. “But if you run, too, you can maybe catch the son of a—” he wavered, glancing up at my ecclesiastical presence “— gun. He ain’t been gone but ten minutes.”
I took his advice, and hurried off through the twilight. There actually was a certain funk lingering in the air, a trail of unwashed-Stuckey molecules, that any bloodhound could have picked up without much effort – not that it would have enjoyed the experience – and incidentally any cyborg with augmented senses could follow, too.
So I was slapping along in my sandals, hot on Stuckey’s trail, when I ran into Mendoza at the corner.
“Hey, Joseph!” She waved at me cheerily. “You’ll never guess what I found!”
“Some plant, right?”
“And how! It’s a form of Lupinus with—”
“That’s fascinating, doll, and I mean that sincerely, but right now I could really use a lift.” I jumped and swung up into the saddle behind her, only to find myself sitting on something damp. “What the hell—”
“That’s my Lupinus. I dug up the whole plant and wrapped the root ball in a piece of my petticoat until I can transplant it into a pot. If you’ve squashed it, I’ll wring your neck,” she told me.
“No, it’s okay,” I said. “Look, could we just canter up the street that way? I’m chasing somebody and I don’t want to lose him.”
She grumbled, but dug her heels into the horse’s sides and we took off, though we didn’t go very far very fast because the street went straight uphill.
“It wouldn’t have taken us ten minutes to go back and drop my Lupinus at the hotel, you know,” Mendoza said. “It’s a really rare subspecies, possibly a mutant form. It appears to produce photoreactive porphyrins.”
“Honey, I haven’t got ten minutes,” I said, wrootching my butt away from the damn thing. “Wait! Turn left here!” Stuckey’s trail angled away down Kearney toward Portsmouth Square, so Mendoza yanked the horse’s head around and we leaned into the turn. I peered around Mendoza, trying to spot any bearded guy staggering and wheezing along. Unfortunately, the street was full of staggering bearded guys, all of them converging on Portsmouth Square.
We found out why when we got there.
Portsmouth Square was just a sandy vacant lot, but there were wire baskets full of pitch and redwood chips burning atop poles at its four corners, and bright-lit board and batten buildings lined three sides of it. The fourth side was just shops and one adobe house, like a row of respectable spinsters frowning down on their neighbors, but the rest of the place blazed like happy Gomorrah.
“Holy smoke,” said Mendoza, reining up. “I’m not going in there, Joseph.”
“It’s just mortals having a good time,” I said. Painted up on false fronts, garish as any Old West fantasy, were names like The Mazourka, Parker House, The Varsouvienne, La Souciedad, Dennison’s Exchange, The Arcade. All of them were torchlit and proudly decked in red, white, and blue, so the general effect was of Hell on the Fourth of July.
“It’s brothels and gambling dens,” said Mendoza.
“It’s theaters, too,” I said defensively, pointing at the upstairs windows of the Jenny Lind.
“And saloons. What do you want here?”
“A guy named Isaiah Stuckey,” I said, leaning forward. His scent was harder to pick out now, but … over there … “He’s the miner who found our quartz. I need to talk to him. Come on, we’re blocking traffic! Let’s try that one. The El Dorado.”
Mendoza gritted her teeth but rode forward, and as we neared the El Dorado the scent trail grew stronger.
“He’s in here,” I said, sliding down from the saddle. “Come on!”
“I’ll wait outside, thank you.”
“You want to wait here by yourself, or you want to enter a nice civilized casino in the company of a priest?” I asked her. She looked around wildly at the happy throng of mortals.
“Damn you anyway,” she said, and dismounted. We went into the El Dorado.
Maybe I shouldn’t have used the words nice civilized casino. It was a big square place with bare board walls, and the floor sloped downhill from the entrance, because it was just propped up on pilings over the ash heaps and was already sagging. Wind whistled between the planks, and there is no night air so cold as in San Francisco. It gusted into the stark booths along one wall, curtained off with thumb tacked muslin, where the whores were working. It was shantytown squalor no Hollywood set designer would dream of depicting.
But the El Dorado had all the other trappings of an Old West saloon, with as much rococo finery as could be nailed up or propped against the plank walls. There were gilt-framed paintings of balloony nude women. There was a grand mirrored bar at one end, cut glass glittering under the oil lamps. Upon the dais a full orchestra played, good and loud, and here again the Stars and Stripes were draped, swagged and resetted in full glory.
At the gambling tables were croupiers and dealers in black suits, every one of them a gaunt Doc Holliday clone presiding over monte, or faro, or diana, or chuck-a-luck, or plain poker. A sideboard featured free food for the high rollers, and a lot of ragged men – momentary millionaires in blue jeans, back from the gold fields for the winter – were helping themselves to pie and cold beef. At the tables, their sacks of gold dust or piles of nuggets sat unattended, as safe as anything else in this town.
I wished I wasn’t dressed as a friar. This was the kind of spot in which a cyborg with the ability to count cards could earn himself some money to offset operating expenses. I might have given it a try anyway, but beside me Mendoza was hyperventilating, so I just shook my head and focused on my quarry.
Isaiah Stuckey was in here somewhere. At the buffet table? No … At the bar? No … Christ, there must have been thirty guys wearing blue jeans and faded red calico shirts in here, and they all stank like bachelors. Was that him? The beefy guy looking around furtively?
“Okay, Mendoza,” I said, “if you were a miner who’d just recovered consciousness after a drinking binge, stone broke – where would you go?”
“I’d go bathe myself,” said Mendoza, wrinkling her nose. “But a mortal would probably try to get more money. So he’d come in here, I guess. Of course, you can only win money in a game of chance if you already have money to bet—”
“STOP, THIEF!” roared somebody, and I saw the furtive guy sprinting through the crowd with a sack of gold dust in his fist. The croupiers had risen as one, and from the recesses of their immaculate clothing produced an awesome amount of weaponry. Isaiah Stuckey – boy, could I smell him now! – crashed through a back window, pursued closely by bullets and bowie knives.
I said something you don’t often hear a priest say and grabbed Mendoza’s arm. “Come on! We have to find him before they do!”
We ran outside, where a crowd had gathered around Mendoza’s horse.
“Get away from that!” Mendoza yelled. I pushed around her and gaped at what met my eyes. The sorry-looking bush bound behind Mendoza’s saddle was … glowing in the dark, like a faded neon rose. It was also shaking back and forth, but that was because a couple of mortals were trying to pull it loose.
They were a miner, so drunk he was swaying, and a hooker only slightly less drunk, who was holding the miner up by his belt with one hand and doing her best to yank the mutant Lupinus free with the other.
“I said leave it alone!” Mendoza shoved me aside to get at the hooker.
“But I’m getting married,” explained the hooker, in as much of a voice as whiskey and tobacco had left her. “An’ I oughter have me a buncha roses to get married holding on to. ’Cause I ain’t never been married before and I oughter have me a buncha roses.”
“That is not a bunch of roses, you stupid cow, that’s a rare photoreactive porphyrin-producing variant Lupinus specimen,” Mendoza said, and I backed off at the look in her eyes and so did every sober man there, but the hooker blinked.
“Don’t you use that kinda language to me,” she screamed, and attempted to claw Mendoza’s eyes out. Mendoza ducked and rose with a roundhouse left to the chin that knocked poor Sally Faye, or whoever she was, back on her ass, and her semiconscious fiancé went down with her.
All the menfolk present, with the exception of me, circled eagerly to give the ladies room. I jumped forward and got Mendoza’s arm again.
“My very beloved daughters in Christ, is this any way to behave?” I cried, because Mendoza, with murder in her eye, was pulling a gardening trowel out of her saddlebag. Subvocally I transmitted, Are you nuts? We’ve got to go after Isaiah Stuckey! Snarling, Mendoza swung herself back into the saddle. I had to scramble to get up there, too, hitching my robe in a fairly undignified way, which got boffo laughs from the grinning onlookers before we galloped off into the night.
“Go down to Montgomery Street!” I said. “He probably came out there!”
“If one of the bullets didn’t get him,” said Mendoza, but she urged the horse down Clay and made a fast left onto Montgomery. Halfway along the block we slowed to a canter and I leaned out, trying to pick up the scent trail again.
“Yes!” I punched the air and nearly fell off the horse. Mendoza grabbed my hood, hauling me back up straight behind her.
“Why the hell is it so important you talk to this mortal?” she demanded.
“Head north! His trail goes back toward Washington Street,” I said. “Like I said, babe, he sold that quartz to Gainsborg.”
“But we already know it tested positive for your lichen,” said Mendoza. At the next intersection we paused as I sniffed the air, and then pointed forward.
“He went thataway! Let’s go. We want to know where he got the stuff, don’t we?”
“Do we?” Mendoza kicked the horse again – I was only grateful the Company hadn’t issued her spurs – and we rode on toward Jackson. “Why should we particularly need to know where the quartz was mined, Joseph? I’ve cultured the lichen successfully. There’ll be plenty for the Company labs.”
“Of course,” I said, concentrating on Isaiah Stuckey’s scent. “Keep going, will you? I think he’s heading back toward Pacific Street.”
“Unless the Company has some other reason for wanting to know where the quartz deposit is,” said Mendoza, as we came up on Pacific.
I sat up in the saddle, closing my eyes to concentrate on the scent. There was his earlier track, but … yes … he was heading uphill again. “Make another left, babe. What were you just saying?”
“What I was about to say was, I wonder if the Company wants to be sure nobody else finds this very valuable deposit of quartz?” said Mendoza, as the horse snorted and laid its ears back; it wasn’t about to gallop up Pacific. It proceeded at a grudging walk.
“Gee, Mendoza, why would Dr. Zeus worry about something like exclusive patent rights on the most valuable bioremediant substance imaginable?” I said.
She was silent a moment, but I could feel the slow burn building.
“You mean,” she said, “that the Company plans to destroy the original source of the lichen?”
“Did I say that, honey?”
“Just so nobody else will discover it before Dr. Zeus puts it on the market, in the twenty-fourth century?”
“Do you see Mr. Stuckey up there anyplace?” I rose in the saddle to study the sheer incline of Pacific Street.
Mendoza said something amazingly profane in sixteenth-century Galician, but at least she didn’t push me off the horse. When she had run out of breath, she gulped air and said: “Just once in my eternal life I’d like to know I was actually helping to save the world, like we were all promised, instead of making a lot of technocrats up in the future obscenely rich.”
“I’d like it too, honest,” I said.
“Don’t you honest me! You’re a damned Facilitator, aren’t you? You’ve got no more moral sense than a jackal!”
“I resent that!” I edged back from her sharp shoulder blades, and the glow-in-the-dark mutant Lupinus squelched unpleasantly under my behind. “And anyway, what’s so great about being a Preserver? You could have been a Facilitator like me, you know that, kid? You had what it took. Instead, you’ve spent your whole immortal life running around after freaking bushes!”
“A Facilitator like you? Better I should have died in that dungeon in Santiago!”
“I saved your life, and this is the thanks I get?”
“And as for freaking bushes, Mr. Big Shot Facilitator, it might interest you to know that certain rare porphyrins have serious commercial value in the data storage industry—”
“So, who’s making the technocrats rich now, huh?” I demanded. “And have you ever stopped to consider that maybe the damn plants wouldn’t be so rare if Botanist drones like you weren’t digging them up all the time?”
“For your information, that specimen was growing on land that’ll be paved over in ten years,” Mendoza said coldly. “And if you call me a drone again, you’re going to go bouncing all the way down this hill with the print of my boot on your backside.”
The horse kept walking, and San Francisco Bay fell ever farther below us. Finally, stupidly, I said:
“Okay, we’ve covered all the other bases on mutual recrimination. Aren’t you going to accuse me of killing the only man you ever loved?”
She jerked as though I’d shot her, and turned around to regard me with blazing eyes.
“You didn’t kill him,” she said, in a very quiet voice. “You just let him die.”
She turned away, and of course then I wanted to put my arms around her and tell her I was sorry. If I did that, though, I’d probably spend the next few months in a regeneration tank, growing back my arms.
So I just looked up at the neighborhood we had entered without noticing, and that was when I really felt my blood run cold.
“Uh – we’re in Sydney-Town,” I said.
Mendoza looked up. “Oh-oh.”
There weren’t any flags or bunting here. There weren’t any torches. And you would never, ever see a place like this in any Hollywood western. Neither John Wayne nor Gabby Hayes ever went anywhere near the likes of Sydney-Town.
It perched on its ledge at the top of Pacific Street and rotted. On the left side was one long row of leaning shacks; on the right side was another. I could glimpse dim lights through windows and doorways, and heard fiddle music scraping away, a half-dozen folk tunes from the British Isles, played in an eerie discord. The smell of the place was unbelievable, breathing out foul through dark doorways where darker figures leaned. Above the various dives, names were chalked that would have been quaint and reassuring anywhere else: The Noggin of Ale. The Tam O’Shanter. The Jolly Waterman. The Bird in Hand.
Some of the dark figures leaned out and bid us “G’deevnin’,” and without raising their voices too much let us know about the house specialties. At the Boar’s Head, a woman was making love to a pig in the back room; did we want to see? At the Goat and Compass, there was a man who’d eat or drink anything, absolutely anything, mate, for a few cents, and he hadn’t had a bath in ten years. Did we want to give him a go? At the Magpie, a girl was lying in the back on a mattress, so drunk she’d never wake before morning, no matter what anyone did to her. Were we interested? And other dark figures were moving along in the shadows, watching us.
Portsmouth Square satisfied simple appetites like hunger and thirst, greed, the need to get laid or to shoot at total strangers. Sydney-Town, on the other hand, catered to specialized tastes.
It was nothing I hadn’t seen before, but I’d worked in Old Rome at her worst, and Byzantium too. Mendoza, though, shrank back against me as we rode.
She had a white, stunned look I’d seen only a couple of times before. The first was when she was four years old, and the Inquisitors had held her up to the barred window to see what could happen if she didn’t confess she was a Jew. More than fear or horror, it was astonishment that life was like this.
The other time she’d looked like that was when I let her mortal lover die.
I leaned close and spoke close to her ear. “Baby, I’m going to get down and follow the trail on foot. You ride on, okay? I’ll meet you at the hotel.”
I slid down from the saddle fast, smacked the horse hard on its rump, and watched as the luminous mutant whatever-it-was bobbed away through the dark, shining feebly. Then I marched forward, looking as dangerous as I could in the damn friar’s habit, following Isaiah Stuckey’s scent line.
He was sweating heavily, now, easy to track even here. Sooner or later, the mortal was going to have to stop, to set down that sack of gold dust and wipe his face and breathe. He surely wasn’t dumb enough to venture into one of these places …
His trail took an abrupt turn, straight across the threshold of the very next dive. I sighed, looking up at the sign. This establishment was The Fierce Grizzly. Behind me, the five guys who were lurking paused, too. I shrugged and went in.
Inside the place was small, dark, and smelled like a zoo. I scanned the room. Bingo! There was Isaiah Stuckey, a gin punch in his hand and a smile on his flushed face, just settling down to a friendly crap game with a couple of serial rapists and an axe murderer. I could reach him in five steps. I had taken two when a hand descended on my shoulder.
“Naow, mate, you ain’t saving no souls in ’ere,” said a big thug. “You clear off, or sit down and watch the exhibition, eh?”
I wondered how hard I’d have to swing to knock him cold, but then a couple of torches flared alight at one end of the room. The stage curtain, nothing more than a dirty blanket swaying and jerking in the torchlight, was flung aside.
I saw a grizzly bear, muzzled and chained. Behind her, a guy I assumed to be her trainer grinned at the audience. The act started.
In twenty thousand years I thought I’d seen everything, but I guess I hadn’t.
My jaw dropped, as did the jaws of most of the other patrons who weren’t regulars there. They couldn’t take their eyes off what was happening on the stage, which made things pretty easy for the pickpockets working the room.
But only for a moment.
Maybe that night the bear decided she’d finally had enough, and summoned some self-esteem. Maybe the chains had reached the last stages of metal fatigue. Anyway, there was a sudden ping, like a bell cracking, and the bear got her front paws free.
About twenty guys, including me, tried to get out through the front door at the same moment. When I picked myself out of the gutter, I looked up to see Isaiah Stuckey running like mad again, farther up Pacific Street.
“Hey! Wait!” I shouted; but no Californian slows down when a grizzly is loose. Cursing, I rose and scrambled after him, yanking up my robe to clear my legs. I could hear him gasping like a steam engine as I began to close the gap between us. Suddenly, he went down.
I skidded to a halt beside him and fell to my knees. Stuckey was flat on his face, not moving. I turned him over and he flopped like a side of meat, staring sightless up at the clear cold stars. Massive aortic aneurysm. Dead as a doornail.
“No!” I howled, ripping his shirt open and pounding on his chest, though I knew nothing was going to bring him back. “Don’t you go and die on me, you mortal son of a bitch! Stupid jackass—”
Black shadows had begun to slip from the nearest doorways, eager to begin corpse-robbing; but they halted, taken aback, I guess, by the sight of a priest screaming abuse at the deceased. I glared at them, remembered who I was supposed to be, and made a grudging sign of the Cross over the late Isaiah Stuckey.
There was a clatter of hoofbeats. Mendoza’s horse came galloping back downhill.
“Are you okay?” Mendoza leaned from the saddle. “Oh, hell, is that him?”
“The late Isaiah Stuckey,” I said bitterly. “He had a heart attack.”
“I’m not surprised, with all that running uphill,” said Mendoza. “This place really needs those cable cars, doesn’t it?”
“You said it, kiddo.” I got to my feet. “Let’s get out of here.”
Mendoza frowned, gazing at the dead man. “Wait a minute. That’s Catskill Ike!”
“Cute name,” I said, clambering up into the saddle behind her. “You knew the guy?”
“No, I just monitored him in case he started any fires. He’s been prospecting on Villa Creek for the last six months.”
“Well, so what?”
“So I know where he found your quartz deposit,” said Mendoza. “It wasn’t mined up the Sacramento at all, Joseph.”
“It’s in Big Sur?” I demanded. She just nodded.
At that moment, the grizzly shoved her way out into the street, and it seemed like a good idea to leave fast.
“Don’t take it too badly,” said Mendoza a little while later, when we were riding back toward our hotel. “You got what the Company sent you after, didn’t you? I’ll bet there’ll be Security Techs blasting away at Villa Creek before I get home.”
“I guess so,” I said glumly. She snickered.
“And look at the wonderful quality time we got to spend together! And the Pope will get his fancy crucifix. Or was that part just a scam?”
“No, the Company really is bribing the Pope to do something,” I said, “But you don’t—”
“— Need to know what, of course. That’s okay. I got a great meal out of this trip, at least.”
“Hey, are you hungry? We can still take in some of the restaurants, kid,” I said.
Mendoza thought about that. The night wind came gusting up from the city below us, where somebody at the Poulet d’Or was mincing onions for a sauce piperade, and somebody else was grilling steaks. We heard the pop of a wine cork all the way up where we were on Powell Street …
“Sounds like a great idea,” she said. She briefly accessed her chronometer. “As long as you can swear we’ll be out of here by 1906,” she added.
“Trust me,” I said happily. “No problem!”
“Trust you?” she exclaimed, and spat. I could tell she didn’t mean it, though.
We rode on down the hill.