Part One: Sleight of Hand
Today is the day my new life begins. One hundred and twenty-three days since we sailed from New York harbor bound for San Francisco. Seventy-one days since I buried Mother at sea.
A cold wind whips the sails and sloshes sea spray on the deck. My skirts snap at my ankles. Loose strands of salt-stiff hair fly at my face in a frenzied dance. I can’t see land yet, but I smell it—stone and earth and things that plant their roots deep down in the soil, plus tar smoke and cold iron that bring the promise of civilization. Soon, thank the stars and angels, will come the sweeter smells: pressed linens, perfumed baths, a roasting leg of lamb, sliced oranges. Mother loved oranges.
Mother. Every time I look at the churning water, a surge of heartache washes over me. I see her wasted body, wrapped and bound, slide down the plank and into the ocean and wonder if the smell of fish will always make me cry.
But no, I tell myself. Enough tears—they’ve given ample salt to the ocean these past two and a half months. It’s time to buck up, as Father would have said. Whatever life dishes up, you must go on until you can go on no more.
We slip midday through the Golden Gate, though there’s nothing golden about it. Silvery light mutes the land and glints off the rough water. Starboard, a babel of masts confuses the shore, while houses upon houses, stacked like children’s blocks, stretch up into a shroud of fog.
I jump as the cannon’s boom announces our arrival, then brace myself against the rail. Toes curl in my boots—my feet long for solid ground that does not shift or sway. Squinting at the crowd that swarms the approaching dock, I strain for a glimpse of Kit. A year and a half have passed since I’ve seen my twin—we had just turned fifteen when he left with Father for California. As much as I long to see my brother, I dread the news I have to share.
When the gangplank comes down, I scramble to be among the first to disembark. I hit the dock, wobble and sway as if I were still on the water. I snatch up my skirts and lurch forward into the chaos of the crowded wharf. The din of so many voices makes my head spin. I try not to panic as I’m pressed and jostled with the surging mob, meeting and greeting family and friends, and those shouting out their services to the newly arrived. I cover my ears, which lowers the decibel to a rumbling roar. How will Kit and I ever find each other in this bedlam?
I make my way to the edge of the crowd and clamber on top of a pile of trunks the sailors have unloaded to search for my twin brother—long limbed, light brown hair—at least, last time I saw him.
My heart leaps and my hand shoots high in the air as a slender, wheat-haired boy of medium height catches my attention. “Kit!” I cry, “Kit! Over here!”
He doesn’t look up, but continues through the crowd, nudging his way between a press of distracted passengers. I cry out again, “Ki—” but swallow the name as his hand slips into the side pocket of a nearby gentleman’s coat—so quick and slick, like a magic trick. Whatever he’s plucked, he slides inside his own coat and keeps going!
Good god—has my brother taken to a life of crime since I saw him last?
He turns and worms his way in the other direction, then looks up and sees me staring. I let out a held breath—it’s not Kit. Thank goodness. When I glare at the shameless thief’s dishonesty, he shoots back a self-satisfied smirk and disappears into the crowd.
“I’ll thank you to get down off my trunks, Lucy Sparrow,” booms Mr. Chaney, who has no patience for young people. I’d like to tell him that you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar but of course I say, “I beg your pardon,” and jump down. He scowls at me, the sour old coot, and directs two men to load his things into a waiting hackney coach.
I go to find my own trunks. When I locate the set marked Sparrow, I sit and wait for Kit to find me. No sense in both of us wandering around, missing each other.
In the midst of the bustle of debarking passengers, another group is saying their farewells, preparing to board a large steamer boat. An elegant young man in a top hat standing in the swirl catches my attention. Where Kit is fair and slender, this handsome young man is mahogany-haired and broad at the shoulder. Seemingly abandoned, his expression drifts between impatience and melancholy. He pulls out his pocket watch, checks the time, and searches the crowd. I wonder who he’s waiting for?
A wife returning from a long journey? A lover come to join him from some place far away? A sister or a brother? Maybe a business partner come to claim his share of California riches? I stand on tiptoes, craning my neck for a better look when his dark eyes catch mine. He smiles and I sway off balance, nearly falling over my trunks. Good lord Lucy. Just because it’s been forever since a handsome young man has smiled at you doesn’t mean you have to go tripping all over yourself.
I risk a glance and his eyes crinkle with both sympathy and amusement. He tilts in my direction but briskly turns as a pretty, ringleted young woman in a stylish traveling ensemble, calls him away. She’s followed by a porter laden with baggage and bundles, hatboxes and a flitting, frightened bird in a cage. She gives the young man a quick kiss and beckons him to follow her to the waiting steamer.
A hitch of disappointment catches in my throat. I scold myself at my silliness as a familiar voice draws my attention.
“Lucy, darling,” a voice calls. It’s Elsa Dickerson , the only person on the ship to befriend me. She weaves through the crowd with her baby fussing at her shoulder and her little Peter in tow. “Is he here? Have you found him?”
“No, not yet.” I hold out my pinkie and baby Charlotte latches on with her tiny fist, drawing my finger to her rosebud mouth.
“Our coach is loaded and ready to go,” Elsa tells me, releasing Peter’s hand and shifting the baby to her other hip. “But we’ll stay until your brother comes.” Peter stretches his arms up to his mama, wanting to be picked up, too. When she tells him no, he whimpers and stamps his feet. Poor Elsa—she’s just eighteen, little more than a year older than I am, and already a widow.
“You don’t need to wait,” I tell Elsa. “If Kit doesn’t show in the next twenty minutes, I’ll take a hack to his boarding house. I have money and the address. I’m quite sure I’ll be fine.”
Peter has worked himself up into a fine fit, now yanking on his mother’s skirts and banging his head at her knees.
“Look, Petey.” I squat and pull a penny from behind his ear. He wipes his face with the back of his hand and takes the offered coin.
“Again,” he says, never tiring of my trick or questioning my ability to pull countless coins from his little ears. I pull out another penny. He takes it and clacks the two together.
“It works every time,” Elsa says when I stand up. “We’ll miss your magic touch.”
“My small handful of tricks—you’ve seen them all. Now Kit, he’s the real magician. The showman in the family.”
The baby whimpers, getting ready for a good cry. She’s too little to be distracted by a coin trick. Elsa glances at the line of coaches. “I hate to leave you on your own…”
“Really, Elsa, I’ll be fine. You still have hours of travel. You should start or you’ll be traveling after dark.”
“If you’re quite sure…”
“I am. Thank you for everything—your kindness and friendship got me through these past few months. I hope you find your sister and her husband well.” We exchange a warm embrace and a kiss on the cheek, then she and her children head toward her waiting coach.
I sit and pull Kit’s letter out of my satchel, the one he’d written after Father had been killed and Kit had made his way to San Francisco. I read over my brother’s bold and solid script in the upper left hand corner. C.S. 1423 Sacramento Street, SF, Ca.
I slide the letter back and reach deeper into my satchel, fingering the fat purse of money—plenty to get by for a week or so. The rest of our savings, enough to buy a modest house and make a life for ourselves in California, are in bonds safely hidden inside Mother’s large trunk. Beneath the purse of bills and coins sits a knot of rope. A cattail knot, the last one Mr. Farnsworth, first mate, taught me. After Mother’s death, all I could do was sleep and tie knots. Grief knot, strangle knot, blood knot, monkey’s fist. Tying knots was the only thing that kept my hands from shaking and I practiced with an urgent desperation until I could tie and untie them all.
Now I can’t help but smile at the prospect of showing Kit. Won’t he be surprised and even a little bit envious! I might teach him a few in exchange for his divulging another illusion or two from his jealously guarded repertoire.
“Good evening, Miss.”
I look up at a small, square-headed man in a bowler hat. An enormous nose, whitened with some kind of powdery substance, blooms above a large dark moustache, waxed at the ends into two tight curls. A clutch of diamonds closes the neck of his starched white shirt. He doesn’t look like a thief, but I grasp my satchel all the same. I’ve been warned to be wary of strangers. The pick-pocketing boy I’d seen earlier drummed that into my head well and clear. “Good evening.”
“You appear to be on your own.” His head tips at my plain grey dress as his face assumes an expression of sympathy. “And in mourning.”
“Yes. I…I recently lost my mother.” The words catch like a fistful of cold coins wedged in the center of my chest. I swallow and straighten, trying to regain my composure, then smooth the sleeves of my mourning dress—one of two plain grey wool dresses that I’ve worn since Father’s death.
“Allow me to assist you.” He gestures to my set of trunks. “You have a lot of luggage and no apparent way to transport them. I can offer a ride to your destination. Which is…?”
“I thank you,” I answer, perhaps too curtly. “But I’m waiting for my brother.”
“I see.” He glances around at the thinning crowd. Many of the passengers, like Elsa, have already left with their families and belongings, although the pier is still buzzing with sailors.
“He seems to be delayed,” says the odd little man. He pinches the gold watch chain that hangs from his vest pocket to one of its jeweled buttons and runs his fingers along the links. “Young lady such as yourself shouldn’t be left on her own around these parts. I would be quite willing to deliver you and your belongings free of charge to your destination.”
“I appreciate your offer,” I say. “But I wouldn’t want to miss my brother.” And I do know better than to go off with a strange man.
As if he’s read my thoughts, he holds out his suede-gloved hand. “Name’s Frank Kenny. At your service, Miss—?”
“I’m not in need of service at the moment.” I don’t volunteer my name—he has no need to know who I am. Besides, it would only encourage further conversation. I can’t decide if he’s a gentleman or not, but either way, there’s something in his manner that unsettles me. His words are friendly enough but his eyes are cold and hard as lumps of black ice and continue to stray below my neckline. I cannot help but feel as if he is assessing me like a side of beef or a horse at auction.
“If your brother comes and misses you,” Mr. Kenny goes on, “then he’ll find you at his residence when he returns.”
“Thank you for your offer, but I’ll wait here a little longer,” I tell him. “Good day, Sir.”
“Suit yourself,” he says, his nose visibly reddening. “But I wouldn’t wait too long. All sorts of scum—” he coughs the word, “—come crawling out around these docks after dark.” He coughs again into a fist then reaches into his breast pocket and takes out what looks like a saltshaker filled with powder. He sprinkles the white substance liberally on his nose, then rubs it in with his fingertips. If this puzzling gesture is meant to mask the blooming crimson, it does so at the cost of making his nose look like a nob of floured dough. He returns the shaker to his pocket, touches the brim of his hat and gives me a slight nod, then turns away.
My teeth catch the corner of my lip as he strolls off towards a diminishing row of coaches. How much longer should I wait?
I close my eyes and see Kit’s face, a near mirror image of my own. Or has he changed in the year and a half since I saw him last? I’d cried when he and Father left Concord to come out west. I hate now that my first words to him after all this time will bring him grief.
Angry shouts draw my attention in another direction, then a swirl of flailing limbs makes me gasp as two savagerous ruffians punch and kick each other to the ground. I let out a squeak and scuttle to the far side of my trunks as they roll and growl, tearing at each other.
One grabs hold of a loose plank and swings it at the head of the other. A tough pack of scoundrels circle around, cheering and urging the fighters on until a shrill whistle cuts through the din and two policemen appear to break up the fight.
Startled, I whip around to face a plump, ruddy-faced woman standing next to me. A good inch of grey roots separates her forehead from a crown of faded red hair.
“Why, yes. I am. How did you know my name?”
“Thank goodness I found you! I’m Mrs. Terkle. Your brother, Kit? He asked me to fetch you and your mother.” She takes in my dress then looks around. Her hand covers her mouth. “Oh, my dear. You’re all alone?”
“Yes. Mother…didn’t make it.” A cold pinch flattens my windpipe, pressing the last three words out in a thin stream of air.
“You poor thing. I’m so sorry. Your brother will be devastated.”
Yes. I know he will. “But why isn’t Kit here himself?”
“A small disaster at the theater—”
“Why, the California. Where your brother works? He didn’t write and tell you?”
“No—the last letter we had, he was hoping to get work as a clerk in a land office.” That was three weeks before we boarded the ship, so nearly five months ago.
“Ah. Well. He’s moved up in the world. Assistant stage manager, he is. But you’ll see him soon and he can tell you all about it.” She reaches over and pats my arm. “We’ll get you settled and then he should be home for supper, before tonight’s show.”
This is such good news! The tightness in my brow and jaw eases—I can feel my face soften with relief. “And you work at this theater, too?” I ask.
“Me?” She tips her head back in a short laugh. “Heavens, no. I’m his housekeeper. A young man such as your brother has no time to cook or clean.”
Stars and angels. Mother would be soothed. She’d never liked the idea that Kit was living in a boarding house.
“Wait here,” Mrs. Terkle commands. “I’ll fetch someone to help with your baggage.” She hurries off, leaving me with my head in a flurry. A job in the theater—how perfect for Kit! Even if he isn’t the one on stage.
I’m not so sure Mother or Father would agree with me—I doubt they’d approve of theater work. Mother had seen to it that both Kit and I were educated. That was one of the reasons she was in such a pucker at Father for taking Kit with him to look for silver. Father’s argument was that once they struck it rich, Kit could use his good education to start a business and forget the nonsense of being a magician.
But then Father was killed and no fortune had been made. The news of Father’s death, his head kicked in by a mule, had left us both wrecked. Mother wandered the house like a grief-stricken ghost while I emptied out the china cabinet and scrubbed each plate, cup, and saucer with lye until my hands were blistered. Later that night, I found Mother crying under the rose bush Father had planted when they were first married, her lips bloodied from eating thorns.
But knowing Kit was on his own, Mother pulled herself together—within a month, she’d sold everything and booked us passage on a ship around the Horn, tracing the same route Father and Kit had taken. Her big plan was to set Kit up in business somewhere in California with the less attractive plan of finding me a husband. As if a girl of a certain age without a ring on her finger wasn’t worth her weight in beans. While I never said it out loud, I was a little disappointed that Mother didn’t expect more from me. And while I’ve no objection to an eventual happy marriage, I’d like the chance to first fall in love before becoming someone’s wife.
But now, who knows? With Kit working at a theater, maybe I’ll be the one to open a business. A bookstore. Or a hat shop. Why not? A tingling of excitement travels through me but is quickly doused by a wave of shame. Mother only wanted what she thought was best for both of us.
Mrs. Terkle returns with two large, rough-looking men pulling a wooden cart and gives the instructions to load up my belongings.
“Come along now, dear. I’m sure you’re quite exhausted after your long voyage.” She turns and I follow her and my trunks to the waiting coach.
My new life is about to begin. I can’t help but take one last glance back in hopes of seeing the handsome man with the mahogany hair standing there with a smile on his face. Of course he isn’t—but the possibility, no matter how vague, is enough to make me smile.
I climb inside the rather run-down coach with my temporary guardian. The smell of stale cigars and sour bodies makes me wonder who the previous passengers were. Mrs. Terkle reaches into her bag and brings out a small bottle of amber liquid. Unscrewing the top, she holds the bottle out to me. “I brought along a little Sherry to settle your nerves.”
The fumes make my head rear back. “No, thank you.” Mother had held the firm belief that alcoholic beverages invited wantonness. I’m not sure I agree, but right now the sickie-sweet smell of this Sherry makes it about as appealing as a dose of cod liver oil.
“Surely a little sip wouldn’t hurt. It’ll perk you up—put some color in your cheeks.”
“No, really. Thank you. But go ahead.” I nod to the bottle.
Mrs. Terkle tucks the bottle back in her bag with a small harrumph, apparently not wishing to imbibe alone.
The road we take is muddy and full of holes. Clusters of shacks give way to rows and rows of little rectangular wooden box houses with plank sidewalks. Construction is everywhere—pounding hammers, rumbling wagons piled high with lumber, and sidewalks piled with heaps of bricks and slabs of stone and marble, forcing people to take to the muddy street.
But then we turn and the view changes—we travel down a wide, brick-paved boulevard lined with large buildings ornate as wedding cakes. Before and behind us, teams of horses pull clanging streetcars along iron tracks. The pungent smell of horse manure pierces the air. The light is flat and harsh—so different from the patterns of dappled light and shade at home. It strikes me that there are no trees in sight. Before he left, Father had told us that San Francisco was a brand new town—that just twenty years ago there were more tents than buildings.
Even so, here the walks swarm with fashionable people, hastening along in their finery. Most men wear shorter frock coats and top hats or bowlers. The ladies are dressed in satins and velvets—rich golds, crimsons from rose-red to pomegranate, and deep, dark, midnight blues—some bustled, all trimmed in cunningly pleated ruffles and bows. Hair is pulled up in clusters of ringlets or high knots, topped with amusingly small, perky veiled hats. I tug and tuck up strands of my own wind-whipped hair—I must look a fright. I’m glad I’ll have time to freshen up before Kit sees me.
We turn off the boulevard and make our way up another muddy street with vendors selling fish and fowl—live geese hiss from behind the bars of their cages. A large tub crawls with red-backed crabs, climbing on top of each other, waving their pinchers around in the air, looking for something to latch onto.
We pass a row of carts filled with produce—lettuces and spinach, peppers, green beans, and carrots. And fresh fruit! My mouth waters. All we’d had on the ship were potatoes, beets and some dry, mealy apples full of worms. And disgustingly bitter Brussels sprouts. I vow never to eat another Brussels sprout in my entire life.
But here, there are even strawberries! Kit had written about the sweet and juicy California strawberries, how good they were. How much he knew I’d love them. He didn’t need to try and convince me—I’d wanted to come to California from the start. I’d hated being left at home while Kit and Father were off on an adventure. I couldn’t help but wonder how different things would be if we had all come out together. But we didn’t, and I am here now.
I turn to Mrs. Terkle and point at the display. “Could we stop?” I ask. “I’d like to get some berries.”
Mrs. Terkle hesitates, then answers, “Of course.” She thumps on the outside of the carriage door, bringing it to a halt, then turns to me. “You do need to beware of pick-pockets,” she reminds me. “Take what you need to buy some fruit and leave your satchel with me. A bit will buy you a nice tin of berries.”
I think of the boy who slipped his hand into the gentleman’s pocket. I do plan to be careful. I take out two bits and tuck them in the cuff of my sleeve. “I’ll be right back,” I tell Mrs. Terkle.
I climb out and start to cross, but gasp and jump back, limbs flailing, as another horse and carriage speeds by me. Heart knocking in my chest, I watch my two-bit coin roll away from me into the street. I catch my breath and wait for several more carriages to pass in each direction. At last, the street is clear, and I cross, snatching up my coin on the way.
A young man hurries toward me. My pulse quickens.
It’s the handsome man from the docks. Apparently, he did not get on the steamer ship.
“Are you all right?” he asks, out of breath. “I am so sorry. But really, you need to be more careful crossing. I nearly ran you over.” He holds a top hat in one hand. He rakes the fingers of his other hand through a spill of dark curls. He is quite tall. And yes, very handsome. His eyes search mine.
My heart flutters at his gaze, but I do not look away.
“I believe I saw you at the pier,” he says.
“Yes.” I barely manage to keep my voice steady.
He clears his throat and his eyes drop to his hands. “Please tell me that you’re all right.” Up close I see his dark hair has a honeyed streak, like it’s been kissed by the sun.
“You gave me a fright,” I say with a mock sternness, “but no, I’m not hurt. I dropped my coin, is all.” The two-bit coin sits in my open right palm—without thinking, I make a pass to my left hand and the coin disappears. An easy trick. I wait a breath and reverse the motion to reveal the coin in my palm again. A habit, I suppose, and something to do when I’m nervous. It seems to help steady my hand.
His face opens with a grin that makes him seem more boyish than he first appeared. “Nicely done,” he says with a laugh. He tips his head back, reassessing me.
My face warms with a flush of pleasure. “Thank you.” I lean with a small bow. “And thank you for not running me over. I…I was just on my way to buy some strawberries.” I wave in the general direction of the berry vendor. I could stand here for hours looking into his fine, intelligent face, but I mustn’t forget the waiting Mrs. Terkle or my brother. “I should probably do that now.”
“Yes, of course. And I’ve left my horse unattended.” He dips his head in another small bow, then sets his top hat on his head. “Perhaps I’ll see you here again sometime? I’m told strawberries are in season until the end of September.”
“Yes,” I say, unable to suppress a grin of my own. “I…I adore strawberries.”
He smiles at me. His eyes look deeply into mine and softly widen, as his face grows solemn. As if he can see the sadness inside of me, as if, for a moment, he can see into my soul.
Neither of us moves.
Finally, he takes a sharp sip of air and breaks his gaze. “I…I should be going.”
“Yes.” My chin dips. “Well. Goodbye then.” I nod and reluctantly turn.
“Please,” he says, making me turn back.
“Please…be more careful crossing the street from now on.”
“Yes. I will.” I turn again and make my way to the berry vendor, both buoyant and slightly stunned by what has just transpired. I pay my bit on a tin of the plump red fruit, drop one into my mouth and sink my teeth into the firm, sweet flesh. The juicy burst makes me laugh out loud. A taste of heaven.
Dear Mother, you would have loved it here.
I see bowls of berries and cream—bushels and bushels of berries!—in my near future. Strawberry jelly, strawberry jam, strawberry shortcake…
I gasp and duck as a loud string of explosive pops shatter the air, immediately followed by the shrill scream of frightened horses.
Chaos erupts—shouts, clatters, a crash and a drawn-out, ear-splitting screech that makes me cringe.
I steady myself in the midst of the frenzy then stretch up on my toes. An overturned hack lies in the road, still attached to a wild-eyed horse, frothing at the mouth. Bystanders rush to get closer to the accident, shoving and elbowing to the front of the crowd.
I’m carried along with the jostling mob—a shove to my shoulder knocks the tin from my hand. In seconds, my berries are trampled to red pulp. A chill shivers up my spine.
Gasps and a hushed murmur of pity travel through the crowd. I push through to see three men pulling a writhing young man from under the overturned hack. I cover my mouth as a cry slips up from the back of my throat.
It’s the man I had just been talking with—the one who’d nearly ran me over! My stomach twists at the dark stain that seeps out below the knee of his trousers. Moments ago he was telling me to be careful. Why didn’t I tell him the same? I don’t even know his name.
I pray he will live. Even if he does, it will be a miracle if he ever walks again.
The man I’d bought the strawberries from turns from the front of the crowd, making his way back to his cart. “What happened?” I ask as he passes.
“Hoodlum pranks,” he says, frowning and shaking his head. He points off to the side where some vendors have grabbed several shirking boys by their collars. One of the boys guiltily clings to a string of still unlit firecrackers.
Wretched boys! Wretched firecrackers!
The good Samaritans lift the poor young man, his beautiful face distorted in agony, and place him in another carriage that will hopefully take him to a surgeon. His top hat has been kicked into the gutter in the process. I hurry over, pick it up and run to the coach before it leaves.
“His hat,” I say, handing it through the window to one of the attending men.
“Thank you.” The man nods to me solemnly.
“Thank you for helping him.” A swell of gratitude for the kindness of strangers surges through me.
My desire for berries has evaporated—their sweetness would only taste false. I start back to Mrs. Terkle’s carriage.
I stop, confused. Did it move? Am I turned around?
There it is. Down the street.
I hurry to the waiting coach, but as I near, I see a family inside with a different driver, and I slow to a walk. This carriage has shiny brass trim—not the rusted iron of the other. I turn in a dizzy circle, heart slamming in my chest like a fist.
No. Please, no.
I run wildly from carriage to carriage.
Not this one.
Not the next one.
Is that it?
I race from one end of the block to the other, but know in my sickening heart that none of them are mine.
Maybe my carriage, Mrs. Terkle’s carriage, moved a safe distance from the activity?
I check all possibilities. But no.
The carriage with all of my belongings is gone.
I stand, turned to stone. Still and cold. Holy saints have mercy.
What am I to do now?
All of my money. All of my clothes…photographs…letters. Gone. Everything. Gone.
Around me, strangers return to their lives.
I grab the sleeve of a passing man. “Help me,” I cry, my voice like ripping cloth.
He shakes his head, his brows raised high. “What’s this?”
My hand shakes as I point at the empty space where the carriage stood. “A woman. She robbed me—my money…my clothes.” My words spill in breathless spurts.
He steadies my elbow, looking around. “There.” He points to a policeman taking notes near the site of the accident. “That’s the man to tell.”
I run, stumble, catch myself and keep going until I reach the officer. “I’ve been robbed,” I cry. “A woman—in a carriage—she took everything!”
He holds up a hand. “Calm down there, Miss. Take a deep breath. I just need to finish up this report and I’ll be right with you.” He scribbles something on the pad he’s holding. He turns to the man standing beside him and asks another question.
“Please! It’s urgent!” I grab hold of his sleeve and he levels me with narrowed eyes. “I said wait—I’ll be with you soon as I can.”
My head is going to burst if I have to wait any longer.
He scribbles a few more words on his pad and then turns to me. “Now,” he says, finally. “What happened?”
I swallow and start to describe the knot of events from the time Mrs. Terkle spoke to me while the officer nods and pulls at his ear, gazing over the top of my head.
“So,” he says when I’ve finished, “you got in a carriage with a complete stranger.” He says it like an accusation.
“Why yes. She said she knew my brother.”
“Thieves generally aren’t opposed to telling lies.”
The sarcasm in his tone brings me back to myself, makes me want to kick something. Like his leg. “How would she have known my brother’s name? And mine, for that matter?”
“Lots of ways she could have figured that out—someone saying your name, you mentioning your brother’s name to someone.”
“I didn’t—” Or had I? I stop, dumbfounded, as the scene at the wharf plays out in stronger detail. Mr. Chaney saying my name, my calling out to the pickpocket, thinking it was Kit. I’d even told the man who’d offered me the first ride that I was waiting for my brother. To someone standing near by, paying attention, that was all information that could be used to make a fool of me.
My fingernails dig at the palms of my hands. How could I have been so stupid? So…so naïve? “I have to get my things back—you need to find that woman and my things!”
“Getting huffy won’t help,” the officer says. “Just tell me where you’re staying. We’ll let you know if we locate the goods.”
“I…don’t know where I’m going to stay—I need to find my brother.” How was I going to find Kit now? I had no idea where his house was. I had no idea where to go.
Yes I did—the theater! The California. Kit had a show there toni—Oh. Wait.
Kit’s the showman in the family. That’s what I’d told Elsa at the dock. Mrs. Terkle could have used that to build a story I would believe. She’d fed my own words back to me and I’d swallowed them like a fish swallows a worm.
The letter—Kit’s letter. I reach for my satchel before remembering it was gone. Blast it!
“Hard to help you if we can’t find you,” the policeman says.
“Sacramento Street,” I say.
“That’s a start but I need a number.”
“I…I’m not sure.” I rack my brain for the right numbers. It’s some combination of one, two, three, four. But in what order? Twelve forty-three? Or thirteen forty-two? Or is it fourteen twenty-three?
“Where’s the police station?” I ask.
“City Hall, Washington and Kearny.”
“I’ll come down when I know where I’ll be.”
“All right, little sister. You do that.” He tucks his notebook in his shirt pocket.
I’ll start with the only piece of true information I have—the boarding house where last we’d known Kit was staying. “How do I get to Sacramento Street from here?” I ask.
It’s a steep climb up a bump of hills to Sacramento Street, which can hardly be called a street—at least at this point, it’s no more than a rutty dirt road. My heart sinks at the rundown row of boarding houses that stretch ahead. The dilapidation goes beyond mere thrift. I’d assumed that Kit had modest means from the mining claim he’d worked with our father, or had found a job that paid a decent wage—he was clever and charming, albeit easily distracted by what interested him at any given moment.
The first guessed address is not a boarding house but rather a one-story saloon. A veil of black flies drawn by the stench of urine and alcohol buzz loudly from the mud yard. I won’t even bother inquiring after my brother here.
The second address looks to be more of a possibility but when a scantily dressed woman with bleached hair opens the door, my hopes falter.
“What do you want?” the woman says, narrowing her eyes. “If you’re looking for work, you need to spiff yourself up and come back later. Lacey Lil don’t get up ‘til four.”
“No,” I say, horrified at her presumption, for I’m pretty certain what kind of house this is: a house of ill repute where wanton women without morals debase and sell themselves.
“I’m looking for my brother—Kit Sparrow.” I’m nearly as horrified to think that this might be where my brother lives. If this is his residence, I’m glad that Mother isn’t here to see it. It would break her heart.
But I do not, will not, believe it.
“All men out by eight a.m. Looks like you missed him.” She scans my appearance and sneers. “I can see why he’d prefer the company around here,” she says, and shuts the door in my face.
Well! I step back, cheeks burning.
What kind of hellish place have I landed in? Father’s letters had painted something fresher…brighter. The land of golden opportunity, he’d called it. Perhaps for thieves and ladies of the night.
But it’s where I am now. Two down, one to go. I walk another ten blocks to fourteen twenty-three. A quiet house with peeling paint, but the front steps have been swept and decorated with pots spilling red geraniums. I approach the door and pull the strung bell.
A thin woman in a clean but faded dress opens the door, looks me over, and shakes her head. “I’m sorry, but I don’t rent to single ladies.” She starts to close the door without waiting to hear my request.
“Wait! Please, I’m looking for my brother, Kit—Christian—Sparrow. I believe this is the address he gave? Is he…does he live here?”
The door opens slowly again and the woman stares at me. “You look like him.”
“Yes! We’re twins—”
She shakes her head. “He’d heard your ship was lost in a storm. He believed you and your mother dead.”
“Dead?” Oh! Poor Kit. He was right about Mother, but I’m still among the living. “Please, is he here? Can I see him?”
“I’m sorry, Miss. Young Sparrow’s been gone for almost a month, now.”
“G—gone? What do you mean gone? He’s not—” I cannot say the word again. Dead. It can’t be. I would know. I would have felt it, felt that invisible line snap. My hand shakes as I grab the doorframe to steady myself.
“You’d better come in.” She steps back and motions me into the room. “Let me fix you a cup of tea and then I’ll tell you what little I know.” She points me into the parlor and disappears down the hall.
I collapse onto a love seat, numb except for the clutching ache in my chest. Kit. My Kit. He couldn’t have…died. Not without me knowing. And how could he have believed that I was dead?
She returns shortly, hands me a cup of tea and sets a plate of tea biscuits on the table in front of me. The teacup rattles against the saucer. I set it on the table next to the biscuits before I spill hot tea in my lap.
“I’m not certain what happened to your brother,” the woman says, taking a seat in the chair across from the love seat. “All I know is he disappeared about three and a half weeks back. It was a Tuesday.” Her brow furrows and she gets up, goes to a small secretary in the entry way and pulls out a ledger. She turns the pages, squints and nods. “August fifteenth, I believe it was. I heard later that my sister’s husband’s cousin saw him that Tuesday evening with a group of boys on their way down someplace on the Barbary Coast. Out on a spree to sow some wild oats. Went looking for trouble and probably found it. They all disappeared, most likely shanghaied.” She shakes her head.
“Shanghaied? What…what does that mean?” My mouth is so dry, the back of my tongue sticks to my throat.
“Shanghai’s kidnapped. Out to sea. There’s those who get their crew by drugging and taking unattached and fit young men. Poor unsuspecting fellows wake up on a ship miles from shore with no choice but to work as sailors until the tour is over.”
I suck in air, as the smallest of weights wings off my chest. “So—he’s not dead?”
“Like I said, I don’t know what happened. This is all supposition. And I hate to get your hopes up. I hear that once these boys get started going to sea, it’s impossible for them to get away. Most last less than a week back on shore before they drink up their wages and have to do it all over again. They’d be better off dead, if you asked me.”
The landlady’s face blurs and something inside of me collapses again as I think of Kit in such a dreadful situation. I swipe at my eyes with the heel of my hand. My poor brother.
But I have to remember that Kit is clever. I have to believe if he’s been taken to sea, he will find his way back. And I will be here waiting here for him. “How can I find out what ship he might be on? They must keep a record of who comes on board.”
“Not likely. Harbormaster could tell you what ships went out the week your brother went missing, but I doubt there’s a record of those taken against their will. You’ll find out soon enough that most people round here don’t play by any code of ethics.”
I’ve already found that out, and lost everything I had.
“Did anyone check with the land office? Where Kit was working?”
“He’d lost that job. Him thinking you and your mother drowned at sea, he took to his room, missed showing up for work three days in a row. Lots of boys looking for work, so they replaced him, let him go. I checked with them a week or so after he hadn’t come back here. They said they hadn’t seen him for more than a month.”
“What about Kit’s things?”
“I’m sorry.” She touches her fingers to her lips. Her eyes drop to her lap. “I waited two weeks and then gave away everything.” She brushes at invisible crumbs on her faded skirt.
“Everything?” I say, over the hard knuckle in my throat.
Her eyes flick to mine and then back to the hands in her lap. Her head rocks in what might be a nod, then stills. “There’s one thing.” She gets up, goes back to the secretary and opens a small drawer in the middle.
My eyes fill with tears when she places the tiny blue velvet box in my hands. Inside rest two humble treasures—Father’s cufflinks. A gift from Mother two Christmases ago.
“Not expecting you, I’d thought of giving them to my nephew for matriculation,” the landlady says, then lets out a surprised, “Oh…” when I pop one open to reveal the miniature watercolor my mother painted of me, inside. I open the other, and there is Kit.
“Of course, they’re yours now,” she tells me.
I tuck them back and close the box. “Thank you.” They’re all I have. I clutch the velvet box to my heart.
“Of course.” She shifts, uneasy, and clears her throat. “I don’t wish to be rude, but my boarders start returning within the hour and I have business to attend to. When you’ve finished your tea, you best be on your way.”
I attempt a sip of tea but the bitter brew sloshes the brim and puddles the saucer as the realization hits me that I have no place to go. I take a deep breath to clear my head and quickly try to explain how I’ve lost everything. “I cannot pay you,” I say, “but would it be possible for me to stay here for a few days?”
“I’m very sorry for your troubles,” she says, fidgeting with her hands. “Besides keeping a strict rule of no unmarried women, the rooms are full. I have no free beds. It’s a terrible predicament you’re in. If I were you, I’d turn around and go back to where you came from as soon as possible.”
“I have nothing to even pay for a telegram.” Much less a room. Or food. Even if I did have a ticket back to New York, I doubt that my father’s cranky spinster aunt would have me. She was fond of Kit but never liked me much—said I had too many opinions for a proper young lady. Just thinking about her makes me dig the heels of my boots in the carpet. I wouldn’t return to live with her even if I had the money to. Besides, I won’t leave without my brother, or until I at least know what’s happened to him.
My brother’s landlady leaves me sitting, then returns and presses a gold coin in my hand. A quarter eagle. Two and a half dollars. “I’m sorry, but this is all I can do. It should be enough to send a telegram. You must have family somewhere who can wire you the cost of a ticket. Other than that, I really cannot help you.”
As soon as the landlady closes her door behind me, I slump down on the top step. I can’t think of what to do. This morning I awoke with the hope that I’d be sitting with my brother by now, catching up on the past year and a half, comforting each other in our mutual loss, discussing what to do. Now all I can hope for is his safe return in the not-too-distant future. And that I can find a way to survive while I wait.
My limbs feel thick and heavy. I rub my temples to ease the ache behind my eyes. I need a plan, but fog has seeped into my brain, making my wits dull.
It’s almost dusk when the first boarder comes up the steps. The gaunt man glares at me with pale grey eyes like my presence is a personal offense. I am feeling so cross, I stick my tongue out at him.
His door slam is followed by a muted but agitated exchange on the other side. Moments later, the landlady comes scurrying out. “You cannot sit here,” she says, her forehead bunched. “It will upset my boarders. You need to go on now.”
“I’ve no place to go,” I say, my voice weary.
Her thin lips press together, her hands grip each other in bleach-boned silence. Finally, her breath slides out in a flat whistle and she gestures to the back of the house, then turns and goes inside.
She’s at the back door holding a broom and a bucket when I come around. “Sweep out the hen house and you can sleep in there tonight. Clean straw’s in the shed. Wash up at the spigot when you’re done and I’ll bring you out a bowl of soup. Oh, and watch out for Naughty Boy. If that cock thinks you’re interfering with his biddies, he’ll try to peck your eyes out.”
Stars and angels. Fighting off a cock is all I need to make one of the most awful days of my life even worse. Still, I muster up my manners. “Thank you,” I say. I grab the broom and bucket and follow my nose to the stinking chicken house.
There’s no hint of the evil rooster, so I climb the plank to the door. Inside, I squint at the startled hens and gag at the even fouler smell. A far cry from the starched sheets and perfumed bath I’d been looking forward to. I try breathing through my mouth, but the feather dust stirred up by the flapping chickens makes me cough, sending the hens into a squawking frenzy. Wings beat my arms and face.
“Stop!” I cry, ducking and swiping at them with the broom. This does not have a calming effect. I take a few breaths into my elbow and then hold my breath while I tuck up my skirts. I take a few more elbow breaths and then sweep. When it feels like my lungs will burst, I press my nose back into my elbow for another muffled breath.
When I’ve filled the bucket with dirty straw, I hurry out the low door. Naughty Boy is right there, waiting for me. He rears back, evil-eyed, ready to attack.
I drop the bucket and start swinging. “Stay away or I’ll send you flying.” Either my actions or my words make him stop and take stock. He puffs himself up and struts off in the other direction, pretending he’s lost interest in me. Stupid cock.
I keep him in my sight while I clean up the spill from the bucket, dump it in a heap at the back of the yard and refill it with clean straw from the shed. I spread the clean layer of straw on the hen house floor. As I wash the filth off my hands, the landlady appears with a blanket and a bowl of soup.
“Only one night,” she tells me. “Tomorrow, you need to move on.”
“I will,” I say, although have no idea where ‘on’ will be. “Your brother-in-law’s cousin—the one who saw Kit the night he disappeared? Where might I find him?”
“Tom Deene. Tends lunchtime bar down at The Phoenix. On California. He won’t tell you anymore or different than I did, but if you feel the need, you can catch him when he gets off at five.”
“Thank you Mrs.—?”
“Thank you Mrs. O’Doul. I’ll be gone in the morning.”
I sit on the plank leading up to the hen house and eat the bowl of soup. It’s unseasoned and spare, but I make a display of enjoying the stringy bits of chicken while Naughty Boy gives me the evil eye from the fence and the nervous hens fret inside. “Who rules the roost now, Naughty Boy?” I taunt. He pecks the air and flaps his wings at me but keeps his distance.
I set down the bowl and close my eyes, forehead in my palms. My mind slips to the market, the handsome stranger whose leg was crushed in the accident—I wonder how he’s doing? I curse the boys who lit the firecrackers. And the thieving Mrs. Terkle, deceptive witch—I hope she chokes on her flask of sherry. And the policeman with his arrogant disdain—he acted like someone getting all their belongings stolen happened everyday. Well, for all I know, in this dreadful town, it does. If the police don’t find my trunks, I don’t know what I’ll do. I’ll have to find some way to keep myself while I try to learn what has happened to Kit. Until I can find him. But what? And what if I don’t find him? Oh Kit. What can a sixteen-year-old girl do, all alone in this terrible and unfamiliar city?
My lungs feel tight and hard like shriveled walnuts. Breathe, I tell myself. Air in, air out, air in, air out. Not easy in a corset but I cannot let myself fall into a pit of despair. I’m smart—Father always said I was and never to forget it. I will figure it out.
I will find my brother.
A Brief Synopsis:
Joining a gang of cross-dressing ex-prostitutes who pick pockets for a living is not what demure but feisty Lucy Sparrow envisioned when she stepped off the ship in San Francisco. But when her brother doesn’t show and she loses everything she has in a con, Lucy does what she has to do to survive. It’s 1876 and the young city of San Francisco, bursting with new wealth from the influx of gold and silver, is cultured, glamorous, wild, dangerous and full of extraordinary characters, many who have woven their way into the fabric of Lucy’s story, including Jeanne Bonnet, Emperor Norton, Miss Piggott and Herrmann The Great.
In the midst of bootleggers, pimps and thieves, Lucy struggles to maintain her moral compass. When Jeanne is killed, it’s up to Lucy to find work and shelter and to help keep the girls safe while avoiding a notorious pimp set on revenge, maintaining her disguise as a boy, and negotiating complicated friendships. THE LIES AND ILLUSIONS OF LUCY SPARROW tells a unique coming-of-age story, full of adventure, shanghaiing hoodlums, and a mistaken-identity romance triangle that nods at Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night.
by Sharry Wright
Young Adult Winner, Katherine Paterson Prize for Young Adult and Children’s Literature