Excerpt from The Shanghai Secret by Vanessa Lind (copyright 2023)
The Astor Saloon is a whirl of color and sound. Bright laughter and music and the clanking of bottles. Cigar smoke and whiskey. Shapes and colors that break apart, spin, and break apart again, like the kaleidoscope Neal’s mother gave him when he was a boy back in Minnesota.
He’s a long way from Minnesota now. He knows that much, despite the fog in his head. A long way from the corn and the hogs and the endless rounds of chores that were enough to drive a man crazy.
Only it’s now he feels crazy. Like he’s losing his mind. He plants his hands on the bar, steadying himself. The barstool feels precarious, like he’s perched on a rock, poised to tumble to the sea.
For years he’d dreamed of the ocean, the waves roiling and crashing, the endless expanse that stretches all the way to Asia. Slopping the hogs, pushing the plow, milking the cows, he pictured it. He promised himself that someday he’d break away. Go West. Look out over the Pacific and prove there was more to life than a patch of farmland.
A voice comes to him from out of the haze. A hand grips his arm. Neal turns his head. The face filling his vision wobbles, splits, then comes together again, all but one eye that looks off to the side, as if it can’t stand the sight of him. Neal’s own mother would have looked away, too, if she saw him like this.
The stranger grabs his hand. Neal feels the sensation of this, but it’s distant, as if his arm or maybe just his hand is detached from his throbbing head. He feels his fingers wrapping around a stick, like he used to toss at the pond for his dog to fetch. A pang of longing. He misses that dog. Its name… what was it? A lump rises in his throat.
Not a stick. A pencil. “Right here.” The man with the wandering eye presses Neal’s hand to a paper. “Got a hankering for the ocean, this’ll cure it.” He chuckles like one of the crows that used to perch in the elm tree behind the farmhouse.
The paper kaleidoscopes in and out, words fragmenting and coming together, though never long enough for Neal to make out what they say. And he’s tired. So tired. But there’s muscle memory in his fingers, the signature the schoolmarm had him practice over and over. Neal A. Cummings. His hand shakes, but the letters form themselves.
The pencil disappears. The stranger hoists him up by his armpits. “Come along now, like a good boy.”
All around, laughter. But he is a good boy. Don’t they know that?
Heavy, Neal’s eyelids droop. He leans on the stranger for support. His feet drag. He must be almost asleep, on the cusp of what would be a sweet dream of home, when the air shifts. The music and laughter are gone.
He stumbles. The man yanks him up. “Get a grip, lad. Don’t make me fetch the wheelbarrow.”
Neal tries to shake his head. A wheelbarrow is for dirt. Dirt like they used to cover his mother’s coffin.
A tear trickles down his cheek. He tries to swipe it away, but the back of his hand misses his face entirely.
“No sniveling now,” the man says. “It’s a grand adventure you’ll be having.”
Neal blinks. Opens his eyes. Before him floats a ship, its crew readying the sails. He struggles to focus, to keep his eyes open, but the effort feels like too much.
A grand adventure. Like he’s always dreamed of.
The Shanghai Secret: A Gilded Age Mystery
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