The Calhoun Chronicles
A Summer Affair (Calhoun Chronicles #5)
Mira (February 2010)
Published in 2003
He never even knew her name. Not her age, nor her favorite color, nor what she looked like when she smiled. All he knew for certain was that she had been a prostitute, and she had ingested too much black drop opium.
As though searching for some rationale for the tragedy, he made a final study of her gaunt, bony face, her frizzy hair the color of a brass spittoon. One arm was permanently disfigured from a poorly-healed break; it must have ached for years. Yet in spite of all that, she was oddly beautiful, almost defiantly so in the face of the grotesque indignities heaped upon her by life, and now by death.
Strange that he would be the last to look upon her.
In a ritual he’d performed far too many times, he tucked her into a bleached canvas shroud. The garment had been hand sewn and donated by the Ladies Aid Guild, whose members gossiped and drank imported tea as they performed good works for the betterment of society.
He pulled the drawstring tight. Then he rolled the creaking wheeled cot out through the back of the building and stepped into the thick, cool air. San Francisco was a different place at the hollow hour between dark and dawn.
Night still haunted the city, darkness clinging in corners and crevices of the waterfront district, lingering under the bows of ships in the harbor and trailing down crooked stairways that led to dank-smelling basements. He checked his pocket watch. The colorless limbo would linger for another hour before first light smeared the foggy sky over the bay.
Travelers often remarked that San Francisco had grown into one of the world’s great places, but he wouldn’t know about that. These days he rarely left the city, anyway.
A rescue wagon, serving double duty as a morgue transport, backed up to the raised bay jutting out into the alley. “Let me give you a hand with that, Dr. Calhoun.” Willie Bean, his orderly, jumped down from the driver’s bench.
Together, with as much reverence as they could manage, they loaded the nameless woman into the wicker morgue casket on the flatbed cart.
Blue Calhoun tucked a stray corner of the shroud down into the casket, lowered the lid, then buckled the fastener to hold it shut. The ancient leather strap, cracked from frequent use, practically crumbled in his hand as he cinched it tight. The lid sprang upward several inches.
He stared at the broken curl of leather. “This is useless,” he said.
“She won’t notice,” Willie pointed out.
“I will.” The idea of the woman being driven through the city streets, her casket lid flapping open at every bump in the road, made him want to growl with frustration. He unbuckled the belt at his waist and yanked it through the trouser loops. Then he passed the supple Italian leather through the lid closure and fastened it securely. Feeling Willie’s stare, Blue became conscious of the jerky, repressed violence of his movements.
He took a deep breath and stepped away from the wagon. Working half the night to save a woman beyond saving had left him exhausted and emptied out. “Ready,” he said, signaling for Willie to go.
“You can’t save them all, Doc.” Willie took the reins. He clicked his tongue and drove off, the wagon disappearing into the weightless veil of fog until only the hollow clop of the horse’s hooves could be heard. By this time tomorrow, the dead woman would be loaded into a contract box and buried among the sagebrush and sand dunes of Lime Kiln Point at a cost of $2.60 to the City and County of San Francisco.
Blue heard a few muffled popsâ€”fireworks, or more likely, gunshot, coming from the waterfront district. He was so hardened to the sound that he felt no alarm.
He rotated his aching shoulders, feeling knots and twinges of tension in every fiber of his body. His meddlesome friends and well-meaning family liked to remind him that he was a vigorous man in his prime, but he didn’t feel that way at all. Each patient tore off a little piece of his heart, yet he carried on. This was his entire life now. He didn’t know what else to do.
Long ago, he’d stopped questioning himself. It didn’t matter why he was compelled to go down to the seamy underbelly of the city, night after night, to find the sickest, most hopeless souls, to gather them in like a blighted harvest, to nurture and heal, or to comfort and then let go. It took a certain measure of arrogance to practice medicine with such doggedness, but it was more than arrogance that drove him. He was like a miner who kept sifting and searching through the detritus of humanity for a glint of redemption. No matter how many people he rescued, dozens or hundreds or more, all his heroics would never make up for the one he’d failed to save.
He had spent the past ten years trying to reclaim that moment.
The distant bong of the clock in Montgomery Square signaled five o’clock. It was as good a time as any to head home, catch a few hours’ sleep, then see his regular patients. The medical wing of the Mission Rescue League would be served during the day by his associates. The league was staffed by nuns and volunteers whose chief qualification was the only one that really matteredâ€”compassion.
He collected his heavy satchel, jammed on a hard felt Homburg hat that had seen better days and climbed into his one-horse phaeton, a sporting vehicle he favored for the speed of getting through the city streets. Few horses had the strength and stamina to climb the undulating hills of San Francisco, and people generally made use of the cable cars whose steel ropes connected the commercial area like thick webs.
Blue rarely used cable cars. His horses came from his family’s own breeding farm. He’d left behind a haunted childhood and grew up there, racing along the seaside cliffs on light-boned, muscular horses that quickly became famous throughout the region. Life had been unimaginably sweet there, at the ranch his parents called Cielito, so sweet it had left him ill-prepared for the harshness of the world.
He’d learned the easy lessons of life but not the hard ones. He used to believe life was made for joy and that love lasted forever. He joined the Union Army, and he actually believed at the outset that he fought for a just cause. Only later did he discover that even justice had its horrors. And the war was not even the worst thing that had happened to him.
He drove through the damp miasma rolling in off the bay. His route took him past filthy-looking hells with signs advertising Steam Beer, Five Cents. He passed the occasional reeling drunk, busy hod carrier, scurrying woman or furtive child fleeing with stolen goods.