Ladies & Escorts

Prologue and Chapter 1

My Dearest Elizabeth,

It greatly distresses me that this may be the last communication you will ever have from me. I am grateful for the affection and respect you have bestowed upon me, despite the difference in our ages.

On the afternoon of the 23 October, I embarked on the voyage from Skagway back to Vancouver, hoping to see you again, but that evening the ship hit a rocky reef at full speed. We are grounded hard on the rocks in rough seas, fog, and rain. I am writing this in my cabin, but we have been advised to remain in the public areas in case of a rescue. The electric lights are still on, but it is thought the generator may soon be submerged, and all power will be lost.

Several ships have come by, and rescue attempts have proved useless due to high winds and seas, I fear the ship will soon founder, and due to the angle we are lying at, the lifeboats cannot be launched. Chances of survival are, in my opinion, very poor, although, as is my nature, I remain hopeful.

I plan to put this letter in a metal flask I have with me and throw it into the sea. Chances of it being found seem greater than if it goes to the bottom with the ship. The flask is sturdy and watertight, so it should survive, although I most likely will not.

Lizzie, I have left my will, properly inscribed, with my solicitor, Jan van Holgren, at his office in Howe Street. I have left the bulk of my modest estate to you, with a few dollars to each of my surviving relatives. I hope this will be of some small comfort to you.

I have something else I must tell you. I spent the greater part of the summer prospecting for gold in the area in and around Thomas Bay, Alaska.  The gold rush is long over, and to my knowledge at the time, no significant quantity of gold was ever found there. Nevertheless, as a geologist, my examination of the rocky terrain in the area led me to believe it was a likely spot to find veins of gold.

I used a rented gas boat called Scurry, with a small engine, a sleeping cabin, and a coal stove for heat and cooking. Behind it, I towed a canoe for shore excursions.

In any case, I found no gold but did find a curious cave high up along the eastern side of a long narrow lake. The cave entrance was hidden by brush, and I found it only by accident when an animal of some sort ran out as I approached.  I pushed aside the undergrowth and found the entrance, just big enough for a stooped man to enter, perhaps four feet high and three wide.

Inside it was pitch dark except for a bit of diffused daylight right at the entrance. Fortunately, I had a US Army electric torch, which I obtained from an outfitter in Skagway. Although not extremely bright, it threw a decent beam.  Once inside, the cave opened out into an area perhaps ten feet wide and as much as thirty feet deep. At the far end, it tapered down. There were some signs of human habitation. I could see a blackened area surrounded by stones where there must have been a fire. There was one charred and battered saucepan, half-buried by the fire, which, while old, was clearly of modern manufacture. I pulled it out of the dirt and examined the bottom.  There was a faintly stamped maker’s imprint, square, and filled with Chinese characters. Underneath were the letters BCCHK 1896. I assume BCCHK means British Crown Colony Hong Kong.

I searched the cavern for further artifacts and found only a few bones, whether human I could not determine. Suddenly a low moan arose from deep inside, like a large animal in great pain. A cold sweat of fear came over me, and my heart raced.  I felt an urgent need to get outside. As I scrabbled for the entrance, I tripped on something partly buried in the gravelly dirt of the floor. My foot was caught on a small protrusion of what appeared to be leather, cracked, and worn with age. Instinctively I pulled at it with my right hand, and it came loose from the dirt. It was a pigskin bag, closed with a knotted thong. It was heavy and made a muffled rattle when shaken. I took it with me as I hastened away from that fearful place.

Once outside in the sunshine, I ran for a few hundred yards until I was at the edge of the lake. I sat on a rock to recover. The fear gradually subsided, and my heart returned to normal. After a few minutes, I started to open the leather bag. The knot was tight, but I managed to loosen it and extract the contents.

Inside was a carved sandalwood box a bit larger than a cigar box. It had tarnished brass hinges, and a brass hasp held closed with a matchstick. It was intricately carved with ornate patterns, seeming to represent flowers and leaves. There was a single carved Chines character inscribed in a circle. I had seen a similar box once in Batavia but did not ask its origin.

I started to open the box with care, as it seemed fragile, and I didn’t want to destroy it. As I did so, an overwhelming feeling of trepidation and terror came over me, and I closed the box.  After a few minutes, I tried again and caught a glimpse of something shiny inside. But the feeling of terror was even stronger, and I closed the lid. This time I put the box back in the bag and tied it with the thong. I wanted to return it to the cave, but fear prevented me.

Although I have been in combat during the Boer war, even wounded, I never felt the sort of terror that this place and that box occasioned. I espied a boulder with a flat top, which overhung in such a way as to form a deep recess, sheltered from the rain. I placed the bag under the rock and made a pile of stones to hide it from view. I planned to return another time, armed, and with at least one other person, and open it then. I marked the location by lining up three large rocks about a yard apart in a line pointing at the site, and about five yards away. They also point the way to the cave beyond.

I ran the considerable distance back to the beach, jumped in the canoe, and paddled back to where Scurry was anchored across the bay. I got underway and headed for Petersburg. The next day I recounted the story, without mention of the box, to a fellow in the hotel bar there. He told me that Thomas Bay was known as the Bay of Death. It was considered by the locals to be haunted, and few would venture there. The place was the scene of a massive landslide that wiped out a large Indian village in 1750. He also told me of crazed prospectors coming out of the area in terror, after being chased by hairy creatures with long claws. He called it the Devil’s Bay and vowed he would never go there.

I decided to abandon the box, and my gold prospecting, to come home to you.  Because of bad weather, it took me several weeks to get to Skagway to return Scurry. Princess Sophia was due to leave the same day, and I just managed to book a ticket. At the time that seemed lucky, but now I know it was not.

Lizzie, I can’t tell you how important you are in my affections, and how it sorrows me that I will never see you again. I’m praying that you will get this letter, which I will now go on deck and throw overboard. The lights are flickering, and the groaning of the ship’s plates as they grind on the rocks below is getting more strident. I must get up on deck.

With all my love,

Jakob B. Holcomb

Princess Sophia was lost with all hands on that day, at 5:50 PM, confirmed by stopped watches found on some of the bodies.  More than 350 passengers and crew perished. The only survivor was a small dog, believed to belong to a wealthy couple aboard, that was able to swim to a nearby island and found a few days later. It remains the most severe maritime disaster on the BC and Alaska coast.

Chapter 1 – Sean, May 1968

It was warm and cozy in my bunk. I rolled over and reached out to put my arm around Suzy. My head thumped on the bulkhead, and I woke up groggily. No Suzy. My fuzzy brain shook itself like a wet dog, and reality returned. Suzy was in Toronto. Our romance was over.

I should never have asked her to marry me. When I said the words, her eyes had shown love, pity, and fear. Not all at once, but one at a time, in that order. The dazzling woman who could climb a mast in a gale and swim a mile was afraid of me! Or at least afraid of committing to me.

I unfolded myself out of the vee-berth and stumbled to the chart table to check the time on the ship’s clock. The hands pointed to 2:17, but it was daylight outside. I forgot to wind it. Again.

I found the key and wound the clock. Then I looked around for some clean clothes. There was a choice of long or short khaki pants and long or short-sleeved blue cotton shirts. Looking through a port showed nothing but grey, so I chose long in both categories. After slipping into my topsiders, I pulled on a light windbreaker.  Climbing the steep companionway ladder, I remembered to duck and avoided a collision with the stainless tubing supporting the dodger. I clambered out of the cockpit and vaulted over the lifelines on to the dock. It wasn’t as graceful as it sounds. My shoe caught on the top line, and I narrowly avoided a faceplant. The shoe came off and landed in the water. I fished it out, shook it, and put it back on. It squished a bit as I walked.

I turned back to admire my boat. Tangled Moon was a beauty, a 41-foot Olin Stephens Sloop built by Nevins in ‘38, with no expense spared.  The decks were laid teak almost an inch thick. The long trunk cabin was painted white with a varnished mahogany eyebrow. An inlaid gold leaf cove stripe and broader white boot stripe accented the double-planked navy-blue hull. All the deck hardware was bronze, which would look splendid when polished — if that ever happened.

I found the old yacht chained and padlocked to the dock at Clay’s Wharf and seized by the Sheriff. I inquired at the office and found out it had belonged to a well-known stock promoter who had recently disappeared without a trace, taking a lot of investors’ money with him. The boat was for sale, and I negotiated a price I could manage, about half as much as a house in the suburbs. The bank loan had payments of two hundred and ten dollars a month. I found moorage in Coal Harbour and moved aboard. That was in 1967.

Walking up the slope from the marina toward Denman Street, I took a shortcut through the remains of the old Georgia Auditorium. Only the concrete walls and floor remained, and inside was a jumble of temporary sheds and various boats under construction or repair. I passed Wright Mariner, a local marine store, a place I often hung out. Laurie Wright always had the coffee ready. But the shop was closed, as it was not yet nine.

I crossed Georgia and continued up Denman to the Shipmate Café. It was the kind of place you could charitably call a “greasy spoon,” located on the ground floor of a boxy brick commercial building.  Locals called it the Shitbait. The hinges squealed as I pushed the door inward.

“Sean Gray! I haven’t seen you in ages, maybe as much as twelve hours. Are you still an asshole?”

Coffee was twenty-five cents, but Brenda’s abuse was free. I had no snappy comeback.  I needed a shot of caffeine first.

Brenda brought me a thick mug of black stuff that resembled used motor oil but did smell a bit like coffee. With a liberal dose of cream, it could be consumed. She looked quite attractive in her waitress uniform, a sort of sailor suit with a short skirt. Her blonde hair was tied back in a bun. She was just a little too curvy to be fashionable, more 1958 than 1968.

I was nursing my coffee and eating a slice of buttered toast when the café door opened again.  The place was quiet early in the morning, so you noticed who came in. This woman was tall, black—a rare sight in Vancouver—and slim, with a long neck and fine features. I couldn’t guess her age, but since she was wearing a very well-tailored business suit and expensive-looking shoes, I assumed she was a professional of some sort. In the moment before she spoke to Brenda, I made up a history. She was a career diplomat from Ethiopia, posted to Vancouver, and exploring the neighborhoods to decide where to live.

The moment she ordered coffee, I knew I was wrong. Her accent was pure Bajan, with an overtone of British education. She ordered an Earl Grey and a muffin and said something to Brenda, which I didn’t catch. Brenda jerked a thumb in my direction and said, “Talk to that clod.”

It wasn’t every day a beautiful stranger walked up to me with a smile on her face. The last time, it was a bill collector, so that was what I expected when she reached into her purse. I had a momentary flash of imagination in which she was pulling a gun on me.

Instead, she looked directly into my eyes and pulled out a card. Her eyes were a surprising bright blue. I wiped my face with a paper napkin and stood up.

“Sean Gray, at your service,” I said. Probably should have bowed or something, but I didn’t.

“Darya Hubert.”  She handed me the card and sat down at my table.

The card said:

Darya Hubert, BA, LL.D

At the bottom was a phone number, nothing else. I stared at it for a moment.

 “A lawyer? What can I do to help you?”

She looked down at the table, as though composing her thoughts. When she looked up, she spoke softly. “I heard about what you did for Mrs. Haskell.”

“I found her missing cat, that’s all. No big deal.”

Darya smiled, revealing straight white teeth with a slight gap in the front, and her eyes glistened with amusement. “I heard the cat was solid gold with ruby eyes.”

“That’s the rumor.” Mrs. Haskell had me sign an agreement not to reveal that the cat was only gold plated, and the rubies were glass.

“I also heard that you have a boat. I need your help.”

I stood up. “We’d better continue the discussion upstairs in my office.” I raised my eyebrows in the direction of Brenda, who was leaning on the counter, paying close attention.

Brenda turned around and started polishing the coffee urn, something never seen before. Darya followed me out of the shop and up the narrow stairs to my office. The old-fashioned oak door had a frosted glass panel with Anson Investigators engraved in the glass. It was there when I rented the office, and it was too expensive to change. The rest of the office was also pretty much as I found it.

Darya looked around the room. I had a large oak desk behind which was my wooden swivel chair.  Beside the desk were a big old steel filing cabinet and three wooden guest chairs. On the side of the room opposite the entry were two unmarked oak doors. One was a toilet and sink, and the other was a private back room. The floor was well worn Douglas fir planking.

Darya walked over to the tall bookshelf, which occupied a space between the two doors. She perused the titles on the shelf at her eye level.

“Nietzsche, Freddy the Pig, Proust, Hardy Boys, Agatha Christie, Conan Doyle…you have eclectic taste in literature.”

“Don’t forget the RCA Vacuum Tube Manual. That’s my favorite.”

I sat at my desk and waved her to a chair.  I thought I better clear up the false impression made by the sign on the door.

“I’m not a licensed investigator; technically, I’m an archaeologist.” I waved at the wall behind me where three diplomas were displayed, all from I.C.S.

“None of those is for Archaeology. I see Electronics, Diesel Mechanics, and Watch Repair.” She had sharp eyes. Most people couldn’t read them from over there.

“As I said, I’m a technical archeologist. I dig up old technology and fix it.” 

I pointed to the typewriter on the side extension of my desk. “That is the only IBM Selectric in the world with a teak case. The original broke when it was thrown from a second-story window. Thankfully, it missed me. Anyway, to the point, how do you think I can help you?”

“A client of mine just received a letter that was sent to her almost fifty years ago.”

“The Postal Service is sometimes slow. I doubt I can do anything about that.”

She ignored me, and reaching into her purse took out a Xerox copy of a hand-written letter. The writing was old fashioned but legible. I took the hint and read it. Several words, which seemed to be the names of people and places, were blacked out.

The contents excited my interest, but I played it cool. I asked if her client had the means to pay for my time, and she asked my rate.

I usually charged eight bucks an hour for repair work, but this was likely to be a long job, so I figured a daily rate would be more appropriate. The figure of sixty dollars entered my head, but I said, “One hundred a day plus expenses.”

“Agreed. My client will be pleased.”

I should have asked for two hundred.