Black Jade – Chapter 2
In a whirlwind, Dai cleaned up her space. She then scooped up Prince Razor and headed upstairs, leaving me with no straightforward explanation of what we were about to embark on. I took care to bag the bowl and the dress as instructed, and followed her.
After a few questions at the front of the store, I determined it had been Mei Ling who’d hung the gown in the new arrivals rack. She’d found it hanging on the front door, with a dollar bill pinned on the inside, out of sight, to pay for the service—a very odd way of leaving something to be laundered. I wondered what Dai would make of it.
Above the main floor of the laundry were the company offices, a break room with a compact kitchen for the employees, and restrooms. Evaporative air coolers brought the temperature down to more tolerable levels. There was also a private chamber where Dai or her mother might freshen up or change after delving into the heat and the humidity downstairs. Having carried a change of clothes and a hand towel, I was soon back to a more presentable state.
Dai exited wearing a silk afternoon dress in light blue, with puffed sleeves and a belted waist, as well as white day gloves trimmed with lace. A wide-brimmed white hat with blue trim would deflect notice of her silver eyes and foreign heritage, even as it got hinted at with a Chinese collar on the frock rather than the typical large ones popular at the moment. Prince’s dog collar matched Dai’s colors.
Unlike Prince, I wasn’t made to coordinate; I was more than happy in my double-breasted light gray chauffeur’s uniform.
With our wrapped parcels in hand, we descended to the back of the building where our car—a 1930 Ford Model A Town Sedan, in brown and black—waited for us. The car sat to the side, out of the way of the loading dock. I settled the packages in the trunk that was attached to the rear of the vehicle, then helped Dai into the back seat. I drew the curtains over the windows to afford her some privacy; sadly, the view of the city and the lovely drive from Oak Cliff were always lost to her.
“So, where are we headed?”
“The Old Red Courthouse, if you please. South Houston Street.”
Did she really intend to contact the justice of the peace?
A soft chuckle echoed from the back. “I can hear the wheels in your head spinning, Jacques. Should I take pity on you? Or make you wait to find out what I’m up to?”
A glance in the angled side peep mirror showed her reclining, her expression a contented cat’s. “Whichever you deem the most appropriate will be fine, Dai.” The Ford rattled to life, its twenty-four-horsepower engine eager to roll out onto the street.
“Jacques, sometimes you aren’t any fun at all.” She pulled a small fan from her clutch and snapped it open with a flick of her wrist.
“As you say.” I tried to hide a grin as we merged into traffic.
She tapped her window with her fan, vying for my attention. “We’re going to see the justice in the hopes of finding a body.”
“A body? Why would we be looking for a body? And why would the justice have one?” What mad errand was she sending us on?
Dai ignored my first two questions, only answering the third. “In Texas, unlike most other states, the duties of the coroner are entrusted to the justice of the peace. With any luck, he called in a doctor to examine the deceased before making a pronouncement. Better still if the judge requested an autopsy.”
My eyebrow rose, wondering where the devil she’d picked up that bit of information. She was like a sponge where facts were concerned. It always amazed me what details she could glean that I did not, despite my being ever at her side. Perhaps the fact that she was blind—and thus not distracted by visual input—was responsible, but I doubted it.
I did wonder why she decided not to enlighten me on the reason she thought there was a body involved. Still, I recalled how dark the stain from the Marsh test was. Might that be why she believed this was an indication of foul play?
Traffic lumbered along, heavy even in late mid-morning. Though you might still spot the occasional horse-drawn cart or carriage, it was steel horses that ruled the roads of Dallas. The smell of their exhaust thickened the sultry air. But it was the scent of progress, of the future—of a city thriving despite the financial hardships hitting harder elsewhere. Wildcat wells and “black gold” erupting from the ground had people and businesses descending on the town, and they brought jobs and money with them.
The downtown Dallas courthouse reigned over its corner like a medieval castle. Built in 1892, its gray base and red stone walls rose over the site of four previous courthouses. Unlike its predecessors, which had all burned to the ground, the magnificent building looked as if it might easily weather even the worst Texas tornadoes.
With a bit of luck, I was able to park near the primary entrance. I helped Dai from the back, and with my hand tucked at her elbow, steered her toward the building. Prince Razor watched from the rolled-down back window, keeping guard over the car. Using a code we’d come up with as children, I tapped the inside of Dai’s arm to make her aware we were about to reach a small set of stairs. Another tap alerted her that we’d reached the first step, warning her to raise her foot to climb it.
In a quiet voice, I described what was before us. It was a duty I’d managed for many years, a way to make my eyes her own. It allowed her to create a mental image of what she couldn’t see for herself.
The tall stone, the rounded archway, and the gloom within increased the fanciful impression that we were entering a castle. Once through the large wooden doors with the stained glass lunettes, however, the romantic notion vanished as if it had never been. We’d entered a world of chaos.
Men in business suits mingled with others wearing cowboy hats, jeans, and boots. Texas twangs clashed with genteel accents. Everyone had a purpose, a drive, and they all aimed to get their business done before anyone else.
We stepped into the throng, and I used my body to shield Dai from those too rude to watch where they were going.
After inquiring with a guide in the lobby, I discovered the place we sought was on the second floor. Searching for an elevator or a set of stairs, we followed the crowd looking to obtain or renew permits, lodge claims, or yell out complaints. I’d heard that the courthouse had once flaunted a large cast-iron staircase, but that it was removed years ago to create more office space. The stairs I found were narrow and zig-zagged upward. Still trying to shield Dai as much as possible, I led the way up. Throughout, she said nothing, and I had no time to even glance in her direction. There were too many elbows and arms moving every which way.
Once we were off the second-floor landing, the chaos eased a bit. There appeared to be courtrooms and offices on this level. I steered her to a bench nearby.
“Dai, are you all right?” I kneeled before her, looking for any sign that she’d been hurt. Her cheeks were flushed, but she seemed otherwise unharmed.
“Yes, I’m fine.” Her teashade glasses had slipped during the hurried climb up the stairs, and she pushed them further up her nose to set them right. “Just a little more exciting than I was expecting, to be sure.”
“Why don’t you wait for me here? I can track down the correct office and make inquiries for you.”
A hint of a smile came and went. “That’s very sweet of you to suggest, but also highly impractical. While I have my proof of residency papers, it wouldn’t do to leave a young lady unattended in such a public place.”
I felt my neck heating in embarrassment. Of course—she couldn’t be left here alone. If Prince Razor were with her, it might not be as worrisome, but I shouldn’t forget this was a government office. Anyone here could question her presence once they realized she was a foreigner. The Geary Act had placed even more stringent restrictions on Chinese immigrants, a roundabout way of battling the increasing popularity of opium in several major cities. Illegal residents faced a year of hard labor before deportation, and there were plenty of unscrupulous men who were willing to use the law to destroy others. It was the reason I carried duplicate copies of her residency papers on my person. “My apologies. I should know better.”
“Don’t worry about it. I know your heart is in the correct place.” She rose to her feet, her head tilted at a slight angle. “I think if we go this way, we’re likely to find what we’re looking for.”
As usual, she was right. A corridor to the left led to a series of offices which were cut off from entry by a half door. The sign hanging from the ceiling designated the area as belonging to the justice of the peace.
“Pardon me, sir,” Dai said. “We have something of a unique inquiry—I wonder if you might help us?”
The middle-aged man sitting at a desk just beyond the split door, as if guarding the offices beyond, glanced up in surprise. Between her tiny figure, dark glasses, and ribboned hat, I was certain she was a better sight than most of those who sought to talk to him. I filled the space behind her to be sure he was aware of my presence.
“Why, I suppose I could, depending on what it is you want to ask about, miss.” He seemed intrigued, studying each of us.
“Thank you.” She flashed him a smile. “In carrying out his duties, to whom would the justice turn for medical advice on the recently departed?”
The man’s eyebrows rose. “Why in the world would you be wanting to know that?”
His reaction was pretty much what I expected. “Sir, it’s a private matter,” I said. “But my mistress would appreciate an answer all the same.”
“Well, being as I’m the constable in this district, I’m thinking ‘private’ won’t cut the mustard after a question like that one.” He stepped closer to the half door, his gaze more piercing than before.
“You must be George Higgins, then. This is your third term as the precinct’s constable, I believe?”
The man’s jaw dropped. He moved up to the entry. “How would you be knowing that?”
“I have an interest in many things, Mr. Higgins. Being civic-minded is but one of them. It’s hard to know whom to turn to if you don’t know who your leaders are.”
“You’re a foreigner!” This close, he finally noticed the color of her skin and the slight tapering of her eyes behind the glasses.
“Yes, I’m afraid so. Despite the fact that I’ve lived here all but a few months of my twenty-one years. Unfortunately, Thomas J. Geary made sure we wouldn’t have the choice, as so many other immigrants do, to become an American citizen.”
To my amazement, the constable seemed taken aback by Dai’s barrage of information.
“I meant no offense, miss.” He held up his hands as if that would support his sincerity. “I just never seen a Chinaman before. It plumb took me by surprise. You don’t even have an accent.”
Dai tilted her head. “There are a lot fewer Chinese in Dallas than there used to be. Being called the ‘Yellow Menace’ tends to make us feel unwelcome.” She gave him a dimpled smile. “Skin color means nothing to me. Blindness destroys certain barriers.”
The constable’s face crumpled in on itself. “Dang, girl! Not all of us believe that rot.” He threw me a look as if asking for help. “Just give me a reason, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”
I could sense Dai metaphorically circling to home in for the kill.
“I expect I have information that would assist in the investigation of a murder. Being a woman and part of the Yellow Peril, I am by law unable to bear witness in court. But as my intelligence is rather technical, I wished to share my findings with whomever the justice goes to for such matters, so they can bring up the scientific evidence we accidentally came across.”
The poor man’s jaw was hanging again. “Dang! I give. You win!” He shook his head. “Nobody will ever believe any of this, anyway. You’ll want to talk to Dr. Aiden Campbell at Baylor Hospital.” He shook his head again. “Now git. Go on!”
“Many thanks, Constable.”
I sent the man a commiserating look, then steered Dai back the way we’d come.
“That was rather much, wasn’t it?”
She barked a laugh. “He’s an elected official. When else would I get a chance to give voice to the shackles that bind me and others? As if being blind weren’t enough of a handicap.”
She gave a small nod. “I’ll try to behave myself. I promise. But you have to admit it did the trick, did it not?”
I said nothing, knowing that acknowledging it would only encourage her. Besides, we were almost at the bottom of the stairs. I needed to concentrate on getting her safely past the walls of men moving back and forth below.