Marta had visited a few of the mansions along Van Ness Blvd. with her father when she was young, but none as palatial as Byron Wagner’s. Three balconies framed green-shuttered windows on the upper floors. Below, shaded verandas with white wicker chairs were sequestered behind palm trees and great oaks. One look told Marta the imposing residence held no less than thirty rooms. As she walked up the tree-lined walkway and rang the bell, she wondered how many people could be housed and fed by just this one house. Hundreds, she guessed. It was just the kind of blatant display of wealth that raised her temper and made her head ache.
The butler who answered the door pursed his lips in a subtle expression of disapproval as he appraised her plain, cotton clothing. Marta knew from his haughty attitude that he thought she was someone’s maidservant and should be calling at the back door. When she identified herself, however, his expression flattened into a mask of indifference. He stood back and held the door open, indicating that she should come in. The interior was no less enchanting than the house’s exterior. A two-story, marble entryway larger than her own living room surrounded a winding staircase that seemed to float in the radiant light pouring into the vast room from a series of the high-arching windows on either side of the doorway. Green plants in over-sized, clay pots and large paintings on the far walls softened the room’s brilliant glare.
The butler led Marta to a drawing room with two couches and cushioned chairs grouped around a glass coffee table. The stitched, satin fabrics covering the furniture were as elegant as the clothing worn by society’ women. A grand piano stood at the far end of the room. China teacups and a silver teapot sat on a side board. She lowered herself delicately on the edge of one couch, her back rigid with tension, and gazed at the paintings hanging on the walls.
The butler left to advise Byron of Marta’s arrival. She had called him from home, and he had urged her to come at once. The concern in his voice had warmed and calmed her, but now that she sat in his grand mansion, her indignation at the spoils of the rich boiled to the surface. She had to remind herself that this man had offered to help her. Still, it galled her to think how much good this wealth could do for the poor families she saw every day. She sighed. It wasn’t Byron’s fault, she supposed. She knew he had inherited a great deal of money and business interests from his father, so in a way, he was no different from her and her brother. He had just inherited a great deal more!
A voice coughed politely, and she turned to find Byron standing behind her in the doorway. How wonderful he looked in his smoking jacket and trousers! It was his warm smile, however, that enchanted her. All her feelings of indignation at his grand home were shunted aside and replaced by the joy of seeing him again. She smiled and stood up, suddenly uncertain what to do. When she first met him at his club, she had found herself flustered and afraid if she spoke, she would become tongue tied. It was no different now. Her chest thrummed as though a humming bird had become trapped inside, and her mouth was as dry as desert sand.
“It is good to see you again, Miss Bald . . . excuse me, Marta.” He joined her and motioned for her to sit down again. Marta leaned back in the folds of the couch. To her surprise, she felt more comfortable now that Byron was present, although the humming bird had not stopped buzzing in her chest. It was disquieting to admit the range of emotions she felt around this man. Byron sat opposite her.
“Would you care for some tea?” He indicated the teacups she had noted before.
She shook her head no and smoothed her dress with her hands while she gathered her thoughts. “Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Byron. As I told you, my helper and companion has gone missing, and I am quite beside myself with worry. I hoped your friend might be able to help, although I’m not sure how. It’s just that you said he knows about hypnotism, and I believe that is what happened to Missy. I believe the man I spoke of before has taken her.”
Marta felt tears welling in her eyes and tried desperately to stop them. She didn’t want to appear the foolish, weak woman now. Not in front of Byron. But the tears would not cooperate, and they were soon streaming down her face. Byron immediately took a clean handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to her. She smiled her thanks and wiped her face. The embroidered, silk cloth felt soothing on her cheeks. She squared her shoulders and calmed herself. “Do I make any sense?” she asked plaintively.
“Yes indeed.” Byron rubbed his hands and took his pipe from his coat pocket. She waited for him to clamp it between his teeth, but he merely held it. “In fact, I have just located Charles and was about to go fetch him when you called. He may very well know of this man, or where to find someone like him.”
Marta’s spirits rose at Byron’s encouraging words. “Can we go to him now?” she asked anxiously.
Byron leaned back in his chair with a frown. “I would advise you not to. He’s in a rather nasty place, one not fit for ladies. You are welcome to wait here,” he added quickly when he saw the disappointment on her face.
“Where is he?”
“Chinatown. He has an appetite for opium, I’m afraid, and often frequents the opium dens found there. The establishment he prefers is called Blind Annie’s Cellar. I plan to go find him and fetch him back here.”
Chinatown! The name raised chilling images of dark alleys, fallen women, and nefarious men. Marta had heard terrifying stories about thugs and murderers and Chinese women sold into slavery. The idea of going there sent icicles of fear and excitement darting through her. It was the last place she wanted to visit, but she knew she must. There could well be a connection between that Chinese enclave and Missy. Where else would the hypnotist take his captured women? It was the one place where he could hide them from prying eyes and inquisitive neighbors. But to what purpose? Slavery? Prostitution? The thought of such fates appalled her. Would that have been her fate if she had succumbed to his charms? Could it be Missy’s?
“I want to go with you, Byron. I must.” She mustered her courage and looked him in the eye to show her determination not to be left behind. She had to see this place for herself.
Byron’s frown deepened to one of concern. She could see by the way he shifted his weight and looked away from her that he was struggling with her request. When he clamped his teeth on his pipe, she knew he had made up his mind. “I have never been there myself, Marta, but I hear it’s not a pretty place. However, I’m told it’s safe enough in the daytime, and we will be accompanied by a police officer. If it’s your wish to join me, I suppose there is no harm in it.”
Marta beamed him a smile and was pleased to see his face brighten, as well. He looked rather handsome when he smiled. This realization brought a flood of warmth to her own face and she quickly looked away. She was still confounded by her reactions to the man and had no idea how to deal with them. Her greatest fear was making a fool of herself. Byron Wagner moved in different circles than hers, and she did not expect him to show her any interest beyond her problem.
“Then it’s decided,” he said and rubbed his hands once more. “Let me call my carriage.”
Fifteen minutes later they were on the outskirts of Chinatown. They had arrived there in grand style. Byron’s carriage was appointed with leather seats and a family crest on the doors. Its springs were so pliant, she hardly felt the bumps in the uneven pavement. People stared at them as they passed as if they were royalty, which in a way she supposed they were. Well, not her, but certainly Byron. Yet when she observed him, she saw a man who seemed unaffected by his wealth. He wore a simple jacket and tie; his hair was just as tousled as the day she faced him at the club; and from the way he fiddled with his pipe, she had the distinct feeling he was ill at ease with all the attention. In fact, he acted a little shy, a characteristic she found quite endearing.
The brief excursion had been surprisingly uplifting. Marta was amazed at how enjoyable it was to ride in such a fine vehicle, although she knew much of the pleasure came from the company seated across from her. Still, she saw how easily one could become accustomed to such luxury, and this insight surprised her. Not that she had any need to worry about falling into such a trap. She would never possess that kind of money, and if Samuel were not more responsible, she might end up with none at all.
“We will go on foot from here. The police captain who works this precinct will guide us.” Byron’s announcement interrupted her thoughts, and she looked up, startled that they had arrived so quickly. No sooner had he helped her down, then a man in a black suit with a handlebar mustache approached them.
“Afternoon, Mr. Wagner,” he said with a tip of his bowler hat. His eyes swung to Marta. “Didn’t know you were bringing a lass. Might be better if you wait here, miss.”
“Captain O’Connor, meet Marta Baldwin. Don’t worry about her. She has more backbone than most men I know.”
Marta blushed openly at Byron’s compliment and nodded. “Pleased to meet you.” The officer’s confident demeanor impressed her. Here was a man who got things done, she thought. Here was an officer to whom she could turn if the police at the station failed to find the hypnotist. She would keep him in mind.
The captain gave her a frank appraisal. “We don’t get many women coming down here, but the place is safe enough during the day. Just don’t come wandering around here after dark. It’s a bit different then.” With that, he led the way and they started their adventurous journey into Chinatown.
At first, they entered broader streets congested with throngs of people. The men wore black jackets, trousers, and bowler hats and shuffled along in thick-soled shoes. By contrast, the women wore pantaloons beneath black gowns, large jade earrings, and high rocker shoes. Gold clasps held the women’s hair in neat buns at the back of their heads, but Marta was amazed to see pigtails dangling from under the men’s hats. Curiosity at the presence of three “foreigners” was evident in their quick glances. If Marta stared directly at someone, either man or woman, they instantly looked away. A small girl with silver bracelets on her ankles held the hand of her mother as they passed. She peeked out from under her mother’s arm with a tentative smile. A withered, old man leaned on a cane and peered out from under a black skull cap at the three of them. Everywhere she looked, she saw scenes she had never witnessed before.
Shops offered everything from dried lizards to opium pipes, and an endless selection of restaurants crowded the busy sidewalks. Sing-song voices filled the air, which was thick with smoke from dozens of chimneys and braziers. The smoke cast an eerie fog that dimmed the light and heightened the quarter’s sense of mystery.
The thick air mingled with the odors of plucked poultry, pickled herrings, fresh fish, tubs of snails, and roasted ducks packed in ice or glazed with a salty wax. Eels, sharks, octopi, lotus roots and melons poured from the shops onto the streets. Whole hogs could be seen roasting in steaming barbeque pits. Strings of pork and slender sausages dangled from doorways and windows. Eggs sat suspended in wire baskets affixed to the walls. Men passed her with baskets swinging from the ends of poles braced across their shoulders. The baskets were filled with vegetables and exotic foods with which she was unfamiliar.
They passed Chinese temples, called joss houses, decked with balconies, enormous lanterns, and brilliantly painted woodwork. The captain explained that the local people fulfilled their spiritual needs there. A pungent wisp of burning incense curled about Marta’s nose from each one they passed.
The captain walked ahead of her and Byron with the confidence of a wayfarer who had traveled these roads many times before. Soon, they abandoned the busy streets for a maze of narrow alleyways where the buildings were made of wood and brick walls. Second stories often hung out over their heads. The overhangs crowded the narrow space above them and blocked the light. Tiny windows looked out on filthy streets and standing water. At one point, they came upon a small group of hard-looking men heading their way, but the men turned down a side alley when they caught sight of Captain O’Connor.
“Hatchet men,” he said matter-of-factly. “As soon kill you as look at you, but they follow the orders of their tong bosses. The tongs don’t want trouble with the law, so they stay clear of white folks and me.”
Marta had gotten a good look at their grim expressions, and her heart beat faster at the thought of coming face-to-face with one of those murderous men.
The clustered streets twisted and turned until Marta became hopelessly lost, but it was clear the captain knew where he was going. She was thankful Byron had brought him along. They entered an alley full of cats and refuse that was so foul smelling, Marta had to press the handkerchief Byron had given her to her nose. They walked single file, now, with the captain in front and Byron at the rear. Chinese lettering on wooden signs announced numerous opium dens and brothels. Sparsely clad Chinese girls beckoned them from dimly lit doorways. It was a slimy world where people easily lost their way, both in a physical and a spiritual sense. Marta shuddered to think that Missy might have been brought here.
“Almost there,” the captain announced. He turned a corner and stopped in front of a door with a sign in both Chinese lettering and English, which read: Blind Annie’s Cellar. To Marta’s shock, the woman who stood in the doorway was white. She was an evil-looking woman with dull eyes, pallid skin, and a fleshy face that had lost its beauty long ago.
“That one survives by offering herself to any man who will give her enough change for her next bowl of opium,” O’Connor commented as they entered.
The air inside was oppressive from the stupefying smoke of opium pipes. Double-tiered wooden bunks covered with thin mats lined the walls. Each bed had an opium lamp and pipe by its side, and four were occupied by men in various stages of drug induced stupors. Two Chinese men lay on their sides in the full effects of an opium trance, their eyes half-closed and their bodies so still Marta wondered if they had died. The other two were Caucasian. One took a long puff, then let the pipe tumble from his limp hand. His head fell backward as he, too, entered the dreamland of the opium smoker. The fourth propped himself on his elbow while he cooked a lump of opium and packed it into the bowl of his pipe.
Smoke from the pipes curled around the lamps, reducing the already feeble light to a yellow glow that made the sultry atmosphere even more depressing. Despite the gloom, Marta could see the floor had not been swept and the ceiling and walls were blackened by soot. The men on the beds might be in their own paradise, but the room in which they dreamed was only one step removed from hell.
Byron walked over to the man cooking his opium and spoke to him in a low voice. Marta could see from his languid movements that he had already consumed at least one pipe, but he appeared alert enough to recognize his friend. Byron helped him to his feet and guided him back to the doorway where Marta and the captain waited.
“This is Charles. He’s a bit fuzzy, I’m afraid, but luckily we found him before he went completely under. We will take him back to my place and let him sleep off the opium for a little while.” Despite his lethargic condition, Charles’ blond hair was neatly combed and his clothes crisply ironed. Unlike Byron’s narrow face and prominent nose, the man’s features were broad and ruggedly handsome. With his looks and money, Marta wondered why he needed such an insidious drug to cope with his world. She was particularly struck by his blue eyes which shone through his glazed expression with the radiance of a mid-day sky.
The captain and Byron propped Charles between them and set off for the carriage with Marta close behind. She was relieved when they emerged from the dire alleyways and rejoined the lively crowds on the main street, yet she also experienced a twinge of regret at departing. She hated to think she might be leaving Missy behind. Marta had only gotten a glimpse of Chinatown’s sinister underbelly, but it was enough to convince her Missy would not survive there for long, and as badly as she wanted to flee the place, she would have gladly turned around and plunged back into its murky depths if she thought she could locate her friend.
Once Charles was safely aboard the carriage, Marta addressed the captain. “My assistant, Missy McCallen, has disappeared. I believe she’s been kidnapped, and I fear she might have been brought here.” She gestured towards Chinatown.
“That’s not likely,” he replied with an edge of skepticism in his voice. “There’s an unwritten law that white folk aren’t to be mistreated here. The tongs are careful not to violate that agreement.” He teased his mustache with one hand as he spoke.
“But there’s a man who is hypnotizing young women from the tenements. I believe he’s the one who has Missy.” A note of irritation rose in Marta’s voice, and she forced it down. She couldn’t afford to alienate this officer if she expected his help.
“Sounds like the tenements are the place to look, then,” he concluded. “Have you filed a police report?”
“About the hypnotist, yes, but not Missy. She just disappeared today.” She knew her worries probably sounded trivial. “My office door was wide open when I arrived this morning, and things were a mess,” she hastily added. “I’m certain something is wrong.”
The captain rubbed his forehead in thought. “Better give it a day or two. If she doesn’t show up by then, go back and file a new report. My bet is she’ll return with some explanation.”
Marta had hoped the captain would take some immediate action, but she had to admit there was little to go on. Her fears were mostly driven by instinct. She heaved a sigh of frustration but said nothing further. Police wanted facts, not women’s intuition.
The captain bid them goodbye and Byron directed his driver to take them home. Marta couldn’t help contrasting the differences between the netherworld of opium dens, thieves, and murderers she had just visited, and the world of carriages clip clopping along sunlit avenues to homes the size of ships. It was as if she had just visited a foreign country and in a way, she supposed she had, for there had been nothing familiar about Chinatown.