Portland, Oregon 1900
A WEATHER-WORN face reflected the warm glow from a lantern hanging on a nearby piling. The single source of light cast harsh shadows, emphasizing the many wrinkles that contoured his skin; making them read as miniature canyons on some distant island. He turned a timepiece towards the light to better see the dial, and watch the hands tick closer to the hour of nine p.m. and the high tide that would arrive with it; enabling his ship easier passage down the Willamette River and on towards the Pacific Ocean. Nervously, he scratched the gray stubble on his cheek as he inspected the pier for prying eyes, then he looked down at the two men delivering an awkward bundle onto the deck of his ship. The first mate would see to the storage of the freight after they had gotten underway.
The ship’s captain opened the gold cover on the pocket watch again. He was getting itchy to cast off. It was seventy-eight nautical miles from Portland to the ocean, and there was no guarantee that they would make the next available slack tide that would safely allow his vessel to cross the Columbia Bar—the graveyard of the Pacific. If those two didn't hurry, his ship would get caught in Astoria waiting for the next opportunity to break out into deep water. He was a merchantman, after all, and the longer he stayed in port, the longer it would take to get the goods his ship carried to Shanghai, sold, and pocket the profits. Time being money as an old saying went.
Besides, the longer his ship stayed moored in this city, the greater the possibility of the local constabulary discovering the bundle now being left on deck and the more out-of-pocket cash it would take to pay them off, or that his newest “hire” might even be able to escape. And he was in no frame of mind to allow either to happen, not after all the trouble he had to go through to engage that local crimp, Joseph “Bunco” Kelly, to acquire the lad in the first place.
As if on cue, the two men stepped off the gangplank connecting the deck of his ship to the dock and came to a stop in front of the nervous captain. The one in the bowler hat, Kelly, stepped closer; hat in hand. The ship's skipper unfolded a sheet of paper and handed it to Kelly; one last task before the job was complete. Kelly reached into his coat pocket and pulled out a fountain pen, removed the cap and forged the signature of the new “crew member” agreeing to the terms of employment and the rules of the ship legally binding him to the captain and the vessel he would be sailing on.
“He's a bit under the weather at the moment.” Bunco said in an affected Irish accent and winked conspiratorially, acknowledging that the bundle he had just delivered was a man who had been drugged. “But the lad'll be as right as rain come the mornin'. Now if you'll be upholdin' your end of the deal?” Bunco asked with his hand out.
The captain removed a large leather billfold from his inside coat pocket and counted out the bills, placing them individually onto Bunco's palm, one five-dollar bill at a time.
“. . . and thirty.” The captain said closing the billfold.
“If you would pardon the impertinence, but our agreement was for fifty dollars this time. You were in a hurry you said,” Bunco stated apologetically, then grinned.
Exasperated, the captain pulled out an additional twenty dollars and stabbed the extra paper notes on top of the initial thirty already in Bunco's palm.
“It's blood money that's what it is,” The captain grumbled.
“Yes, and I wouldn't be getting paid now if you weren't needin' an extra hand. Would I?”
Bunco looked at the printed paper in his hand. He held the greenbacks up to the lantern to make sure they appeared authentic. He felt satisfied when he saw the red Treasury stamp at the bottom right. It wouldn’t do his reputation any good as a swindler if he were to be swindled himself.
The ship’s captain turned, grabbed the lantern, and stormed down the gangplank barking orders to his men. The flurry of activity on the deck disinterested Bunco and he turned to his friend, “Now for the next delivery of the evening Poe me boy.” They spun the cart around and headed into the service tunnel that opened out onto the lower tier of docks that lined the riverfront and began to push it back under the city.
As Bunco and Poe moved further into the dank tunnel, the only illumination came from a lantern that was hanging from a pole lashed to the front side of the cart. As the small wagon moved forward the amber light radiating from the lantern rocked back and forth across the brick lining of the tunnel first climbing the right wall and then swinging around to the left side and down to the ground then back up to the right wall again in a predictable pattern made only different by the speed at which they proceeded. After several minutes of pushing and pulling the cart, the sounds of the waterfront had fallen behind them, and they were deep into the dark passage under the city.
“Ah hell!” Poe grumbled. “You'd think that by this time of year the tunnels would have dried out more.”
“Quit your gripin' you old fool,” Bunco said. “These tunnels connect to the river, remember? And rivers flood. The last flood was only a month ago. And we're talkin' about the streets above being flooded. Down here? Now that would have been a wee bit more than floodin’ to be sure.”
Bunco stepped under the swaying light and opened the cover of his pocket watch, checked the time then closed it with a snap. Satisfied with what he saw he put the timepiece back into his vest pocket and urged his partner to keep moving through the tunnel.
“What the hell was that?” Poe asked wiping at his face.
“That shit that just brushed across my face. Felt like a cobweb or somethin'.”
“You drinking your own rotgut again there Poe?”
“Hey! I felt somethin' touch me.”
A rustling sound came from above their heads.
“And what was that? The wind blowing through the bows of the trees?” Poe rubbed his face trying to remove the sticky feeling. “This is disconcerting.”
“Quit your grousing. We gotta get this one delivered and get above ground before sunrise.”
As ordered Poe shut up, and the two continued into the tunnel for several more minutes.
“We stop here,” Bunco said quietly.
“Here? Where’s here?” Poe looked around the extremely dark passage. In the lantern light, all he could make out was the same monotonous brick that lined the passage since they left the waterfront. “What are we . . .”
The two partners in crime stood next to the cart making no sound. Then, from out of the dark tunnel ahead, they heard footsteps splashing towards them through the puddles.
“What was that?” Poe asked with a twinge of fear in his voice.
“That was your signal to leave.” Bunco pulled a partially used candle from his pocket, lit it from the lantern and handed it to Poe. “You go and head on back to the saloon. I'll be handlin' things from here.”
“You sure? You don't need my help with this?”
“Friend, believe me, I can handle things. And besides, you want nothing to do with this transaction.”
“I don't understand . . .”
“And you never will. Truth be told, I don’t either.”
They heard more movement coming towards them.
“Now get yourself outta here before you can't go nowhere no more!” Bunco said pushing Poe away from the area.