The story is part Steam Punk, part adventure, and wisps of fantasy laced with mystery: It is 1902 and Jack London is kidnapped off of Fisherman’s Wharf in San Francisco. He finds himself imprisoned aboard the submarine the Nautilus. Jules Verne is there along with a curious character called Sibilius. London finds the wonderment of the Nautilus and the sea adventures of Verne’s 2000 Leagues Under the Sea is all true, but with a price.
Fast forward to Germany in 1945, Richard Zübler leaves behind his Nazi’s uniforms and travels to California to retrieve a legacy from Verne and London. A blind priest has also stumbled upon the clues to the legacy but isn’t sure it would be wise to accept the legacy, yet he cannot resist discovering everything about it. The key to resolve the murders, the ethical and romantic questions raised in the story is found within the Circle of Fifths.
Before dawn San Francisco 1897
Mist decorated Jack’s beard as the fog grew thicker and the ferry chugged away from the wharf. Soon it became like motoring through a bowl of thick cold chowder. Alcatraz Island was out there, and freighters sat at anchor in the bay just waiting for a boat to run into them. As if the captain knew his fears, or enjoyed torturing the unwary, the ferry picked up speed. It bounced over the waves, blindly plowing ahead and like the Flying Dutchman, swimming in and out of the bank of fog.
All of a sudden some damn fool slammed into their portside. No warning. No horns. Jack didn’t even hear their engine.
The impact lifted him off his feet, and then to the rail as the ferry swung hard to starboard tilting so close to the churning water he could have licked it. It seemed like years went by until the boat straightened. Seconds more and Jack got his breath back. But with the next impact he went head over ass into the air, flung into the water like an empty whiskey bottle.
Disembodied screams blossomed everywhere as bodies splashed the bay. Then silence. That was the worst part: the first seconds of nothing at all in the pitch black night as the water swirled over his head and the current dragged him away like a rag doll.
The screams began again and some of them were his. Jack London, so brave on paper, but as helpless as a child in the sea. Like an idiot, he flapped his arms as if he could fly and clawed at the air. Anything to stay above the surface. Through all his years, all thirty of them, he’d never learned to swim. The idea of water pressing down over his head was his greatest fear.
Then there were lights headed toward him. Through the breaks in the undulating swells of seawater they became a boat steaming his way with its alarm bells clanging like a fire truck. Too far away. Too late. A few seconds more and the lights dimmed as he sank under the rolling waves.
In the profound darkness of the murky water he couldn’t see his hands. But he could hear the muted screams of the other men as they faded away. Hope grew softer too; he’d never planned to die like this. No air. Jack’s throat swelled in panic and his eyes strained to see through the darkness as it enveloped everything. Defeated, he let his arms fall to his sides, knowing there was no where to turn, no one to help. As lingering as a long first kiss he slowly sank lower, the nightmare coming true: the worst way to die is to drown.
Just when he’d started wondering about his chances of a seat in Heaven, Jack felt the sensation of being held up, buoyed, yet no hands held him. With an explosion of spray, his face broke through the surface of the water and he gulped air as a chunk of metal rushed by his right ear. Seconds more and he’d grabbed another piece of debris, clinging to it like a lover. The best he’d ever had. In his head, Jack corrupted a Bible verse, “..the sea is a lover I shall not want…”
“Damn–” If he got out of this, every impression, each thing he saw and felt would go into his novel. How often could a writer nearly die and still be alive to really describe something like this?
But gradually his hope, and hands and feet grew numb from the cold. No one could see him and with each swell of a wave he and the debris he clutched drifted further from the wreckage of the ferry. Thoughts of redemption and the boiling pits of Hell faded, replaced with delirious and disjointed memories of adventures and lost loves as they traded places in a sad dance.
A long time later strong arms lifted him out of the water with murmurs of comfort as he shook with the cold.
The last thing Jack remembered was a man saying, “Where in the hell are the rest of them?”
Over the next few hours hands roved over him like a pickpocket’s dream, voices checked to see if he was hurt, did he want something to eat, did he know any of the other passengers, and other questions he didn’t want to answer.
“You’re at Good Samaritan Hospital on North Beach. The best in the city,” the matronly nurse murmured, patted his arm and straightened the sheet under his chin.
Another voice whispered outside the doorway, “Do you know who that is?”
“No, who?” The second voice sounded husky, like a heavy smoker, the whisper easy to hear.
“Jack London. Famous drunk who sells stories to the papers.”
“I’ve never heard of him.”
Minutes went by until a doctor arrived and pronounced him healthy as a horse and told him he could leave. Someone had provided dry clothes, but the pants were so short his ankles grew goose bumps. With thanks, he escaped. Everything seemed real but not real, and his wet hair still smelled like the sea.
Outside, the scene he saw appeared more vivid, as if he’d never seen a fat man in a top hat stoop over to pick up a penny before, or a starving dog ripping apart a rat in the alley behind the Orpheum.
As he turned away from the theater, a newsboy ran by waving the Chronicle at him. In seconds he had one in his hand. The front page featured a picture of a ferryboat moored at a dock. Below was the caption:
Sausalito Ferry Sinks!!!!
The ferry between Sausalito and the City sank in the pre-dawn
hours this morning, All of the passengers and crew perished in this
tragedy except for one survivor. As he was brought ashore, our own
Jack London could barely move. He was hustled to the hospital and we
were told he’d be all right in a few days.
There’s no word on what happened to the ferry. It could have hit a
whale. No other ships were in the vicinity…
The newspaper was shaking so hard in Jack’s hands he couldn’t read any more. Why was he saved? He was a sinner, gambler, and no-good son of a gun. With a curse he threw the newspaper back at the boy and stomped off. A distraction might help.
The matinee music from La Traviata reached a crescendo, and so did Jack. His partner smiled like a cat and pulled him into a most passionate embrace. At least that part of him worked. He bent her over his arm and ran a long line of kisses down her neck and between her breasts. She laughed and pushed him away.
“Here, button me up,” Phoebe Drysdale said. When he hesitated, she reared back and regarded him with a beautiful, if critical, eye. “You seem a bit jumpy, Jack.”
“Thought you liked my style,” he whispered into her hair and drew her close, holding her tight but without ardor. This morning’s adventure was still with him as much as if they’d just pulled him into the rescue boat.
As if she was peeling an onion, Phoebe tilted her head and tried to peer inside him. “I do.”
Time to change the subject.
“Would you care to have dinner later?”
She played with the curls in his beard and said, “You know I can’t. Lawrence will be looking for me any second.” She pointed at the ceiling and the stage above our heads. “As soon as the fat lady sings.”
“Don’t marry him,” he murmured against her neck, taking his time buttoning her up.
Phoebe moved to the dressing room table and inspected her face in the mirror. “You are terribly amusing, Jack,” she said as she pinned her hair in place. “But try to understand, the situation isn’t unusual; both our families need this union. For money and for the connections to society.” She admired her profile in mirror. He did too, from the pale blonde hair to the sea blue eyes. The curve of her lips caught and held the eye.
“We could be good together. Just us,” he said.
She squinted at him. “I require luxury, not just lust.”
What of the other word that began with an ‘L’ he wondered.
“My novel is almost done. There’s a publisher interested.” At least he hoped so.
“You’ve been saying that for months.”
London sighed. The novel might be nearly complete, but it didn’t mean he was happy with it. Even he could see that something basic was missing from the pages, and he loved anything he did. The story needed to be strong, unique, and last forever in a readers’ mind. He’d give anything to be a great writer, and much later he’d come to regret that thought.
“For now I’m content with our arrangement, Jack. Also, since we’re on the subject, you should know that Lawrence wants to move up the date of the wedding.” She looked around for her hat.
The curse on his lips wasn’t fit for a lady. Why was it that until he was ready to lose something, he didn’t realize how much he wanted it?
The ribboned ostrich-feathered creation she’d nearly stepped on as they undressed lay under a chair and just as he handed it to her a rapid knock sounded at the changing room door.
“Oh hell!” Phoebe whispered and hid behind him.
“Occupied!” he yelled. It would be easy to confront her fiancé right now, but this kind of thing could be handled other ways. With or without him sporting a bloody nose.
Quick steps clattered away down the hall. Phoebe listened a moment and then started fussing with her hat again.
“Your fiancé might be the reasonable sort.”
“Of course, he might be.” She pinched his cheek. “But, not if he knew I was being diddled by the infamous Jack London in an Opera House dressing room.” She snuggled closer. “Stop looking at me like that or someone will catch us in here.”
Minutes later, Jack watched Phoebe walk across the polished floor of the opera house foyer. At the base of the grand staircase she stopped and bestowed a smile on him, then lifted her skirts and started up the stairs. It was then he made a decision to marry her. Right after he published his book.
As he trotted down the stairs to the street his whistling drew a few glances. What he hadn’t told her was that he knew her Lawrence. The fucker cheated at cards, too. Wouldn’t it be interesting if some day Lawrence found himself in a poker game with someone who could cheat better than he could?
Late the same evening ribbons of fog returned, moving like a living animal. Breathing, thinning to vapor, and then revealing the shadows between the wooden barrels that lined the docks. Beyond the silhouette of the Opera House, oily glimmers of the bay cut through the darkness, only to be obscured again.
Moonlight painted sailors with a silvery brush as they scurried along the boardwalk, hunched into their coats and thoughts. The smell of their pipe smoke seeped into the Forty Niner as Jack pushed the door open and stepped inside to find a surprise.
A man with a nose like a parrot sat at his customary table. He looked scruffy, like someone had cut his hair with one eye shut.
The hell with him, Jack sat down anyway.
Cheney hurried over from the bar with a drink saying, “Sorry about this, Mr. London.” He took hold of the collar of the man across the table. “Where’s your manners?” The barkeep lifted the interloper out of his chair. Admittedly, a tipsy grandmother could have done the same. Cheney’s victim had to be half his size.
To Jack something about the intruder seemed curious; it could have been the feminine fingernails, or the grubby coat. It might have been his peculiar odor. Like flowers mixed with some spice.
London held up a hand. “You can leave him.”
Cheney dropped the man back in his seat and curled his lip in disapproval. “If you say so.” He kicked the man’s chair and stomped back behind the bar.
Dark serious eyes studied Jack without blinking. They contained more than intelligence; the modicum of mockery had London squirming in his jacket and wondering if one of Phoebe’s ostrich feathers was stuck to his face. Could her fiancé have sent this man?
The hiss of a dirigible flying in low for a landing reached them, then the night outside the saloon windows lit up and the building vibrated as the balloon vented its steam engines passing by overhead.
“Nice to meet you, Jack,” the little man said.
“Who are you?” London demanded, forcing himself to meet the stranger’s eyes.
The man nodded, and the long fingernails beat a rat-a-tat on the polished surface of the table between them. In front of him sat a half empty cup of coffee, not whiskey: another reason to distrust him. The runt regarded him through half closed eyes. “Sibilius is my name.”
Every so often, a man would read an article Jack wrote for the San Francisco Chronicle and be offended by his ideas. A few citizens called them Socialist. Sometimes, readers stopped him on the street, wanting to start a fight with fists, not words.
The runt cocked his head and said, “I just wanted to make your acquaintance.” He paused to be sure their eyes caught and held. “And to congratulate you on your, ah…. survival.” He smiled. “Yes, let us call it your survival from your ordeal this morning.”
Jack had hoped the unscheduled afternoon romp with Phoebe might help him forget his near drowning. But no. The shuddering started in his feet and traveled upward until he had to hug his knees so they wouldn’t shake the table. Again the water rose higher, closing over his head. The screams from the other passengers seemed to go on forever.
“Something bothering you, Jack?”
That brought him back to the saloon and the insolent face of the man across the table wearing that secret smile like he knew exactly how Jack had almost drowned.
Hell yes, something bothered him. And it wasn’t any of this man’s business.
“Just luck, that’s all.”
The stranger shrugged. “If you say so.”
London sprang to his feet and shouted, “Everyone else died! What else could you call it?”
“Yet, you did not.” The runt held his palms up with another shitty grin.
Jack grabbed him and lifted him high, ready to smack him a good one.
“Damn you! I couldn’t save them!”
The bartender knew Jack. Another round of Bushmills arrived and London subsided into his chair. As the runt picked himself off the floor he asked, “Will you write of your experiences this morning?” The question came with the kind of nonchalance that meant he really wanted to know.
Doubtful. London knew that his nerves were shot. Someone told him that if he wanted to write so people would read it and believe the story, he had to experience each part of it and be right there when the bullets whistled by his ears and hearts were broken so painfully he’d never love again. The reader needed to feel each emotion with him. And Jack was close. He knew it. Like he was hanging by the tips of his fingers over the edge of a high cliff: he knew he was on the brink of something great, if only he could make them feel the words as he saw the picture in his head.
“What the hell is your name?” Jack tossed back another shot and waved at the barkeep.
The stranger grinned at Cheney as he plunked down more Bushmills and left.
“Listen closer, Jack.” The runt removed an envelope from his coat and placed it on the table between them. “Sibilius is my name.” From it he withdrew four globules of what appeared to be chunks of cow pies about the size of a silver dollar. “Care for a button?”
Jack patted his shirt front. He had his buttons. “What for?”
“Peyote.” Sibilius popped one of the pieces into his mouth.
Ah. London had read of what the Kiowa Indians called “peyote.” With a few of those things in their bellies they experienced visions and manifestations, all kinds of things.
“No, thank you.” Jack may be known as a colorful drunk around the wharf, but he had no desire to be labeled a drug addict.
Sibilius munched another button, grinding it like he would a bite of sirloin. “Suit yourself.” He ate the remaining two pieces and stood, swirling the flower and spice air. Winking like they’d been drinking buddies for years, he leaned toward Jack over the back of his chair and added, “Be careful, Jack London. The sea won’t be patient forever.”
With that he turned and walked out.
As the saloon door shut behind him, London closed his eyes for a second, and with an extraordinary effort didn’t relive his adventure from the bay again. That pleasure probably awaited him later, after he’d retired for the evening. A single shot of the Bushmills still sat on the table. It didn’t look good at all; the little bastard had soured his taste for whiskey for the night.
Something made him shiver, like a ghost had tickled his chin with a feather. A moment later another stranger came inside and as he sat at the next table he aimed an unsettling stare right at Jack. London sighed. Good grief, he seemed to be attracting his share of outlandish attention tonight. Could it be this stranger had heard about the ferry sinking? Probably the man thought he was a coward too. Those passengers should be alive, but London couldn’t do anything. No matter how many times he replayed it inside his mind, it turned out the same. Just like an apple rotting from the inside out the guilt grew stronger.
Despite how unsettling this man appeared to be, Jack couldn’t help glancing at the other table again and noticing the walking stick that rested against his leg. Carved sea creatures and horned devils decorated the length of it. No doubt expensive. And a supreme example of bad taste.
A fresh blast of cold air flooded the room as the saloon door opened again and a newcomer entered. This man’s neat beard, clean coat, and immaculate hands belied the perception he was a sailor, yet Jack knew him as one. Instead of skin kissed by the sun, he had unnaturally pale pallor the color of alabaster, nearly iridescent, as if he had been ill for a long time. He didn’t look at anyone, but went straight over to the man with the disconcerting stare.
They talked in undertones for a moment. The sailor’s lips tightened and he leaned back, crossing his arms. The more the first man talked, the angrier the pale sailor became. Things came to a head when the sailor got up from his chair and rushed out of the saloon.
Odd, but none of Jack’s business. He got to his feet, stretched, and headed to the back to relieve himself. When he returned, the man with the concentrated stare had left, along with his ugly walking stick.
London didn’t sit again, and despite the collection of odd visitors this evening, he managed to sip a final Bushmills as he settled his tab. Time to go. Sleep came easier after his nightly walk on the wharf. It had been a disturbing day, and the ghosts from the sunken ferry would be lined up, anxiously waiting for him to fall asleep.
Outside the saloon, the evening air swept the pier with icy fingers. The boards creaked underfoot, keeping time with his steps and serious thoughts. Nearly dying made things clearer: he wanted to marry Phoebe. And to win her, he had to finish his novel. No more drinking and whoring around.
Heading south down the pier, he passed no one, just the gaslights that dotted the boards. Like rows of giant eggs, a corral of amphibious dirigibles sat moored next to the water tanks that provided their steam. Would they replace the majesty of the sailing ships? Hopefully not. The intricate and personal sounds of the ships carried across the night air and laughter rang from the bowels of a Peruvian frigate as a baby breeze gently slapped the canvasses on the tall masts of a barkentine. The past and future floated in front of him.
When he reached the end of the pier his steps slowed as usual, delaying the return trip back, and to bed.
From the darkness came the sound of blows like the thumping of chopping wood. Then London was running down one of the short wharves that led into the darkness of the bay. This time he could save someone–
Through the mist, London saw the face of the pale sailor who’d left the bar, and above him the ornate walking stick glistening with blood as it rained blows down upon the his head.
The sailor cried out as pain exploded above Jack’s ear and everything went black.