#2 Deadfall

My name is Roger Collins. I am a Night Spy or rather, a detective. Or at least I was. I think I am dead. I can’t be sure really. I have always believed that most deaths are preventable, and I hope that mine wasn’t. I’d hate to think I died for something stupid or unnecessary. Maybe you can help me. I am going to trace my steps and see where it all went wrong. I hope you don’t frighten easily. Things got a little, how should I say. . .bloody.

*****

My father failed at everything. Even his death was a failure. It was mid winter in Dakota Territory. The ground was too cold and hard to dig a grave. His burial would have to wait, but not for me. I was the last one to call that shack home. The land never gave us anything. So, I left. I went west, again. 

Oregon Country it was called then. The place had been called “The Clearing” by most at that time, but in 1851 it was named Portland. After 2 semi-successful years in Sumpter, Oregon, I made my way to Portland to start a business. What business that would be I had no idea. I had a pocket full of gold and some ambition and figured that would be enough. The docks were always buzzing with activity. 

Gold Rushers to California and Oregon kept the business of moving goods alive and flourishing. This also kept the business of crime flourishing. Prostitution and smuggling were hotter than gold mining in 1860. Gambling and Grog followed swiftly behind that. Part and parcel I suppose. So, it followed that the business of crime prevention grew exponentially. Portland’s Marshal had a very difficult task of keeping up with this new business and actively recruited police. The pay was decent and there was no overhead, so, rather than hanging a shingle, I ended up carrying a badge.

That was two years ago.

Lily was special. Not because she was a call girl, sure, that helped. No, it was because she was a pretty call girl. She had all her teeth. Her hair was always done up and perfect. She was clean. THAT was rare in these parts. Lily had a benefactor back east. He sent her a claw foot tub. No one in Portland in 1875 had a claw foot tub. Something else about Lily was pretty interesting. She could read. An hour with Lily could sustain a man for a year. But no one just walks in, drops a dollar, and gets under Lily’s dress. There was a ritual involved. Lily had rules. First, you had to close the door and lock it behind you. Then take off your boots in the mud room. Next, in the mud room, take water from a bowl and wash your face. This part is interesting. Take tooth powder and clean your teeth.  Exit the mud room and you would find yourself in a parlor/bedroom. Everything was clean and fresh.  Lily would come from another room in a long silk robe.  She would have just had a luxurious bath. 

Now, this ain’t cheap mind you. Usually the men at the docks would gamble until someone had sufficient funds for a visit. The other men would actually follow the victor, rooting him on. All of them imagining what wonders awaited in Lily’s house.

Lily gave me a complete and detailed account of an evening that ended badly.  It went something like this. 

Jeremy was a bundle of nerves. His luck was with him it seemed. He’d spent the night bluffing his way through several hands and won the night. Now it was time for the big prize. Lily was waiting for him. The guys rallied behind him as they walked the pier to Lily’s place. Several men were teasing him about using the tooth powder, but Jeremy couldn’t hear them anymore. He was focused and a little more than nervous. His shoes were already untied by the time they reached Lily’s. They could all smell the jasmine emanating from her bath. Their jealousy was thick, but none had any malice in their hearts for Jeremy.

She could hear them walking from the docks. At least they were mostly sober. The winner usually was. It is hard to win at poker and be drunk at the same time. That was part of her strategy. Drunks weren’t too kind. She kept her eyes closed and soaked a little longer. She liked this part. Water splashed in the basin in the mudroom. Jeremy was following the directions well. She would wait until he entered the bedroom and closed the door behind him. The water dripped off her olive skin and puddled around her feet. She left wet foot marks on the floor as she headed for the bathroom door. Her robe, tied loosely around her narrow waist, soaked up the remaining water and oils. She paused.  She heard the bedroom door slam. That wasn’t normal. Then muffled rustling and a slight thud and moan. She threw open the bathroom door and stood in darkness where there had once been candlelight. She hurried back into the bathroom and carefully picked up the lamp. Her heart was racing. She held the lamp at arms length in front of her and lit the room ahead.

It was empty.

That had been a week ago.

The “Boneyard” was a dreary place anytime, but nighttime brought out the depraved. It was my job to patrol the salvage yards on the waterfront. This was what the marshal called a “hot spot” for criminal endeavor. As a ‘Night Spy’, I could roam freely and mingle with the sad souls that worked, lived, or merely survived. It wasn’t exactly where I had wanted to find myself after joining the force, but it seemed I was good at my job. At least I was considered proficient. Lily kept a tidy shop, so to speak, and I was surprised to find myself in her salon investigating what she was sure was a crime. A week-old crime. 

“Um, how do you know he is missing, Lily? 

Maybe he simply ran off.” I had to ask.

“Run off? Heavens no. That isn’t my vanity, deputy I assure you, but simple deduction.” Lily was insistent.

“Deduction? What do you, er, deduce happened?”

She looked me squarely in the eye. “My ears, sir. They do not lie. I heard the young man in my mud room. He used the wash bin, removed his shoes, as you see, walked into the bedroom, here, and was attacked by an assailant.”

“An assailant? Madame, the door was locked from within. He was either never here, or he never left.” She hadn’t thought of that. Her face reddened.

“Goodness, I see your eyes are quite adept, deputy. But he was here. The bin and his shoes prove that, yes?”

“Yes,” I frowned without meaning to. “That they do.”

It had been three more weeks since I had that peculiar visit at Lily’s place. Peculiar was a perfect word to describe the last three weeks. The number of missing persons reports had more than quadrupled. The Marshal was not a patient man, so the heat had been applied to my case load. 

All of the cases occurred in the ‘Boneyard’ at night. I wanted to set up a series of surveillance posts, but we simply didn’t have manpower. I needed to find a way into the darker side of the docks. Not a pleasant assignment, that is certain, but a necessary job. The most peculiar aspect to these strange occurrences was that all of the missing, were men. Just where did they go?

And another week went by.

The Family has never been open to “outsiders” and today was no different. The whole group was in such turmoil and grief, I felt it was going to take every ounce of patience to sort out what happened last night. But it seems they were open to my investigation, today at least. That was a surprise and a worry. 

“He was only a child. Who would do such a thing to a child?” She was inconsolable at the loss of her son. I still wasn’t sure what happened. The story was hard to believe. The woman continued but it was hard for me to look at her and she knew it. I was not familiar with the ways of the Gypsies.

“I am truly sorry for your loss ma’am. I need to know what happened as best you can recall. Did you see or hear anything?”

She stopped sobbing, took a deep breath, and spoke in a surprisingly calm voice.

“We were celebrating another year of prosperity. The fires were high and so were our spirits. The drink flowed freely as it always does during the celebration. The children are not allowed to drink but you know children, they find ways. It had never been a problem before. So when he wandered off we assumed it was just a bit of childish curiosity and it simply didn’t concern us.”  Her sobbing started again. Guilt.

“Did you see or hear anything?” I asked again.

She inhaled deeply and looking up in disbelief and agony said, “Outside the light of the fires it is black. The monster was silent except for. . .” she shuddered.  “. . .except for the howl.”  She was done. Her grief overcame her.

I just wish we had been able to find the boy’s body so the family could find closure. All that remained was a small patch of wet blood.

I wandered the ‘Boneyard’ feeling helpless. Where were the missing people? Was a wild beast entering the city and hunting prey? Portland was beginning to feel like a trap; with innocent bait waiting to be devoured. A shiver went through me as I was reminded of my mortality. I paused and took a deep breath.   

Jasmine.

Lily was home. I rang the bell.

Afterwards, Lily made tea. I had become accustomed to her special brand of tea. It may have been improper for me to be so “familiar” with Lily and her culinary specialties, but I no longer concerned myself with those consequences. I feared I might lose myself to her charms. But the fact was, I could return to focus after a visit with Lily. She had become a bit of an addiction I suppose.

No bother. 

Refreshed and at ease, I returned to the horrors of the Boneyard. In search of what, I could never be sure.

Deduction isn’t an exact science. In fact, it isn’t a science at all.  It is mere observation and I am a reasonable observer. Had I been a better listener, watcher, smell-er, whatever, I would not have missed valuable clues. Some of which were not so subtle that a blind man could have seen them with pure, crystalline, clarity. The bumbling policeman that I was, however, didn’t excuse my lack of insight. People were missing; taken directly in sight of other people and those same persons failed to report any wrongdoing. Perhaps, I surmised, that no one in sight of said abduction considered there were any criminal acts involved at all. Curious that no one heard any crying out for help, or witnessed any violence.

I am now deducing that these “random” disappearances are not what they seem.

I decided to start nosing around the bar scene on the waterfront. My hope was that someone would talk. I doubted anyone would, but you never know when it comes to drunks. Buy em a drink and see what comes out.

First stop on my list was Betty Sue’s. That’s the name of the place, not a person.  It may have been at one time but now it is just a name. Most folks just call it BS. There is humor in that I suppose. One must be careful to avoid fisticuffs here. So, I needed to be on guard.

“Hey Jack!” I acknowledged the bar keep.

“Roger.” He nodded back.

“Business doing well these days?” I had to break the ice.

“It would be better if folks spent more time drinkin and less time talkin.” He suggested.

“I getcha. I’ll take a double.” I had to play along.

He served me my drink. I learned a long time ago not to complain about the cleanliness of the glassware, or the watered-down whisky. I wasn’t there to drink anyway.

“Thanks.” I paid double what I owed. Fishing.

“What’s this for?” His suspicions aroused now.

“Just a tip for your pleasant service and cordial demeanor.”

“Bull! Whaddaya want?”

“Nuthin. Really. Just curious about these missing men. You heard about them I’m sure.”

“Huh. Probably just some blokes wantin’ to get lost. Probably owed sumbody money or sumthin’.”

“Sure. That would make sense.” I paused, “normally. . .”

“What do you mean by that?” I hooked him.

“Oh, c’mon. You been around. You see things. Hear stuff.” I flipped another coin at him.

“Yeah, ok. Maybe I have. Maybe I haven’t. But I don’t go messin with other people’s business. Ya’know?” He was nearly whispering to me now. He didn’t want to be seen taking money from me.  Interesting.

After spending too much for too little, I headed back home. I needed to think about what information I did get. Jack implied that missing people could just be business. What sort of business could he mean? 

Slavery was illegal in Oregon but that didn’t mean Negros couldn’t be kidnapped and shipped off to Southern states. But there were none missing. Logging camps here and north of the border into Washington Territory and Canada were notorious labor camps but, as far as I knew, labor wasn’t a problem or stolen. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t happening now. Were logging camps kidnapping labor? It wasn’t impossible. 

I would have to visit a camp. Not something I was looking forward to.

Before heading out to Eugene, I had to see Lily. My “addiction” to her was growing steadily. I could hear all the usual noises coming from the waterfront. Only this time I could hear a little more urgency in some of the raised voices. Instinct told me there was something wrong. 

It was the smell that alerted me to the reason for all the voices. Something was dead. Covering my nose with a handkerchief, I pushed my way through a small gathering near a rather dark pier. 

“Make way! Police! Dammit!”

My eyes could only be lying to me. It was definitely a body stinking up the southern end of The Boneyard. But the nature of the humanity that lay before me was definitely in question. Was this even a human being? It was mostly skin and a few bones.

After a careful, albeit hasty examination of the body, I concluded that it indeed was a human corpse; male and in his mid thirties. Probably homeless, by the condition of his clothing. The crowd had dispersed due to boredom and probably the horrendous fumes coming from the body.  I didn’t blame them. Lily would INSIST that I bathe before she would as much as look at me.

“Dammit.” I needed to focus and all I could think about was my sweet Lily.

I was nearly done with my external exam of this unfortunate soul when something caught my eye. The wound to his neck was small and awful, but what had made such a perfect puncture?  How could someone cause all of the facial bones to collapse in such a way? This could not have been the work of an instrument as I had presumed. The wharf was home to many fishing and logging businesses. All of which had sharp and pointy instruments of commerce to their disposal.  But this was not the work of such implements. Who, or what, could have caused this?

After checking with several fishermen at the wharf the next morning, it seems no one was missing any sharp items, and no one reported anything with additional blood or flesh. That could easily be explained by simply washing a murder weapon. But I had no proof to advance any theories I might have.

The crime scene itself yielded no clues either. Just a big wet blood stain and a dirty old blanket remained. I had no choice but to report the death as a mysterious and bloody demise of a transient. My boss would not like such a simple answer but, for now, that was all I had to offer.

Now I was free to make time with my favorite gal.

Unfortunately my favorite gal wasn’t free to see me.

When I arrived at Lily’s front door, the smell of Jasmine indicated that she was with a customer.  It infuriated me.

I showed my displeasure by kicking a small stone. It ricocheted off a larger stone and crashed into the glass of a downstairs window. A figure passed by Lily’s bedroom window upon the breaking of the glass.

I depressed a desire to cower behind a nearby bush and held my ground. It didn’t bother me in the slightest to interrupt Lily’s business.

To my surprise, Lily herself appeared at the front door.

“What on earth is going on? Roger? Is that you? What are you doing?”

I suppressed a lie.

“In my haste, I seem to have damaged a window. I am terribly sorry. Did I disturb you?”

Ok, so it was a little lie.

“Not really. I was heading to bed to sleep. Why are you here? Are you making a call on me?” She smiled. 

“That had been my intent. Yes. But, the jasmine. . .” I looked away, in shame.

“The jasmine? That was for me you silly man. Come inside, it is dreadfully cold.”

“I really should see to your damaged window.” I agreed.

She took my hand.

“It can wait until morning.”

She shut the door behind us.

I wanted to repair the damage I caused to Lily’s downstairs window. She told me not to worry about it. That it could wait until morning. But I felt bad and insisted.

I approached the lower half of the house as I would any part of a house; without worry. It’s just a house. The moment I opened the door at the base of the stairs, I got that creepy feeling. You know the one that runs right up your back and down your arms? I got that in spades.

The first thing I noticed was how dark it was. Even with my candle torch it was difficult to see any details. So, when I opened a second door imagine my surprise when I saw small streams of light coming from the ceiling. 

“What the hell is that?”

I brought my candle torch up to shine a light on my discovery. There was a long handle dangling from what appeared to be a trap door. I looked directly below the trap; a series of pillows lined the floor to muffle anything that might fall on them. Anything or anyone, that is.

“What the hell?” I reiterated to myself.

I could hear the sound of water dripping. It was coming from further back, into the blackness under the house. That didn’t make any sense. There is no house further back that way. Furthermore, there should be no water.

“Hello?” I tested.

My voice didn’t seem to die as quickly as it should. I raised the small candle torch and pointed the light towards the sounds. There was a hole where there should only be dirt. 

“What is taking so long, Dearest?” Lily called out.

“Stay up there darling. I may be a while.” I assumed she knew nothing about this.

I headed towards the hole. There, before me was a tunnel of unknown length.

“Incredible.” I disappeared in to the black unknown.

I should explain that while I was well aware that I could be walking into danger, this was before the advent of certain police procedures such as calling for backup. As a night spy I had a certain amount of autonomy in my investigations. That being said, I would have preferred another body between me and the intense blackness that lay ahead of me.

My candle torch was nearly useless as only a few feet in front of me were illuminated. I looked at the walls of the narrow passageway. Tool marks were clearly visible. This was not a naturally occurring cave.

“Someone dug this out.” I said aloud. 

It was also clear that the work had been done rather recently. Not in the last few days or anything, but it wasn’t years old. This was done for some purpose. Some nefarious purpose.

“But to what end, and by whom?”

The dripping water was just a small leak from somewhere above. It created dankness in the already still darkness. As my eyes adjusted I could see a faint light source further ahead. I am not sure how far I had traveled but it was less than a mile.

Then, suddenly, I heard voices. Mixed voices calling out to each other; some loud and hurried.  Now, I am not stupid. I didn’t race towards the sounds. This tunnel system could not have been known above ground. I would have known about it. I slowed my already slow pace and crept ahead.  

The light source grew brighter but never too bright that it hurt my eyes. It could only be a few candles or a torch. It was barely enough to inform my direction. Fortunately there was a corner before what I assumed was a larger room. I could pause long enough to build courage. There were some voices still coming from there, but these voices were subdued and quiet.

I paused before daring a peek. When I did venture a look, I could not believe what I was seeing.

There, in a lowly lit room were 4 crates; large enough to fit a human if he was crouched. And coming from those crates were the voices. To my horror I realized a terrible truth. There were people in them.

Then I smelled it.

Jasmine. . .?

WHAM!!

My world went black.

*****

So, here I am. Am I dead? The ache and blood from the back of my head says otherwise. My Lily hit me. Why? I attempt to open my eyes. Everything is dark. Mostly dark. There is a torch somewhere nearby throwing some color into the cave.

I am in a cage of some sort. There are bars and a latch. The straw lining the bottom of it doesn’t really provide any comfort. I am forced to crouch or lay down.

“Hello?”

“SHUT UP!!” A disembodied yell from further away.

A smaller voice comes out of the darkness. “hello. . .?” It came from right next me.

“Where are we?” I say.

“Um, in a cave. Under the saloon, I think.” The voice responds.

Under the saloon? Oooooh. Now I get it. I had heard rumors. That explains why Jack, the barkeep at Betty Sue’s was so aloof. He knows about this.

“How do you know we are under the saloon?” I say, looking up.

“Because the last thing I remember is falling through the floor at the saloon. Landed down here. Knocked out cold. Woke up in this cage.”

“SHUT THE HELL UP!” The voice comes from deeper in the cave, out of sight.

I whisper again. “Who is that?”

“Just one of the guards. There’s two of em.”

My suspicions are now confirmed. The missing men are being shanghaied. There are trap doors in the saloon and probably other places. Lily must be part of it. I got too close.

Dammit.

“But I haven’t seen the other guy in a while. Something isn’t right?”

“What? How is any of this is ‘right’?”

“There were others in cages, before you. I have been stuck here and then you showed up too. The two goons took them, one at a time, all regular-like. But then nothing. For two days. Something is happening. Something out of the ordinary.”

“Wait a minute. I saw three of you before, well, before. . .”

Then I realize, “How long was I out?”

“SHUT UP I MEA. . .urk!”

THUMP

SCRITCH SCRITCH thump!

“What the hell is that?”

“Crunch, slurp, crunch crunch. . .”

“HELP! HELP ME!! WE’RE DOWN HERE HELLLLLLP!!”

While he is yelling, I see a shadow forming on the cave wall. It doesn’t make any sense. Something large, with numerous appendages flailing about. And a stench. Death. Horrible. But that can’t be real. My mind must be playing tricks.

“SCRITCH SCRITCH thump!”

It moves strangely. The shadow has disappeared as this thing has moved out of the thin light. But I can tell it is approaching. The smell has grown stronger. It’s enough to make me dizzy.

Suddenly a new sound. The bars on my cage rattle with intensity. Someone is removing the chains.

“Who’s there?!”

A gruff voice.

“What does it matter, I’m letting you out.”

The gate opened and a man, dressed in black, held out a hand. His long black hair partially obscured his face.

“I assume you wish to leave?”

I grabbed the offered hand and pulled myself out.

“What about him?” I pointed to the other cage.

“I got him. Now RUN!!”

I can’t be certain, but I swear I saw fangs in the mystery man’s mouth. He pulled out a large shiny knife and headed for the other cage as I made haste back the way I came.

The sounds of combat and deathblows behind me got softer as I quickly headed back to Lily’s.

EPILOGE

A week after my harrowing ordeal in the cave, the following facts emerged. Lily disappeared without a trace. No one can be sure she really existed in the first place. Which I will never understand. Her memory will never go away. The scent of Jasmine recreates her every time I smelled it for the rest of my days.

The missing men were NOT shanghaied after all. In fact, no one had ever been kidnapped for that purpose. That was merely a cover story. And it is the “official” reason reported to the Marshal. The REAL story is truly hard to believe. It also isn’t in my final report because I would be removed from my position and sent out of the territory on account of lunacy.

When I returned to the cave, the empty cages remained as well as evidence of the trap doors under Lily’s and several saloons. All of which have been sealed shut. The other evidence, the remains of all the men who had been abducted after falling through the traps, has been destroyed without any descriptions as no one who had not seen it would believe.

Sacks of skin and bones, bodies, drained of all internal soft tissue, were stacked and burned in one night, under strict secrecy.

But, as they always do, rumors of the real story spread throughout the region.

So, the “Shanghai Tunnels” of Portland prevail and engage the imaginations of weary travelers to the waterfront saloons and brothels of old Stumptown. Saloon keepers tell the tales of the trap doors, Deadfall traps as they were called, to anyone who dropped a coin in the jar.

As for the mysterious stranger who liberated me, I have no knowledge. He was never seen again. Nor was the creature that fed on the unsuspecting men who fell through the floors.

End.