Her head started to throb, and she tightened the tie on her scrubs again to keep the baggy pants from falling to her feet. She was determined to see this through for Zander and the Fitches.
The door opened a few inches, stopped by a chain, and a bespectacled gaze peered out. “Emily!” He closed the door, unhooked the chain, and yanked it open. His grin faltered as he spotted Zander behind her.
“Hi, Simon,” Emily quickly said to pull his stare away from Zander. “I need your help with something. It just came up today, so I’m sorry I didn’t set up an appointment.” She schooled her features into a contrite look.
Simon was shorter than Emily—most people were shorter than Emily—and consistently wore slacks that bagged at his ankles. His striped button-down collared shirt had yellowed and grown thin, and several holes had been worn through the collar. His hair was nearly solid gray, the same as his beard, and both needed the attention of a barber.
She also felt he could use the help of an organized woman.
Dory wouldn’t be much help. Her great-aunt wasn’t one for detail . . . but maybe that would make her the perfect match for Simon.
Simon looked from her to Zander and back. “I’m always available for you, Emily.” He shot a look at Zander that emphasized the words weren’t for him.
“I appreciate it.” She put a hand on Zander’s arm. “This is Zander Wells. He’s with the FBI and is investigating the murders of Sean and Lindsay.”
Bushy brows narrowed as he scrutinized Zander. “You were at the meeting the other night,” he said.
Simon’s attention went back to Emily. “How is your aunt?” His gaze was full of hope.
She didn’t need to ask which one. “Very good, thank you. You should come over for dinner soon.”
His entire demeanor perked up. “Fabulous! I’ll take you up on that. Come in, come in.” He stepped back, waving them in. Emily silently exhaled; he’d accepted Zander’s presence.
The city had bought the tiny house several decades ago after the owner died, intending to fix it up and sell it at a profit. But the city budget had virtually no money for repairs, and no buyer was ever interested. For years the poorly planned purchase had caused local tongues to wag. The grandson of the woman who’d died had been on the city council and had convinced the council to buy her house. One day he abruptly stepped down from his position and moved to Florida.
The city never bought another piece of property.
Simon Rhoads had finally come along and offered to do some basic repairs if they’d let him store his historical records there. The council acquiesced, and eventually Simon’s treasure trove of history earned a tiny permanent spot in the city budget. Now he was available by appointment two days a week.
Emily knew those appointments were rarely filled.
The scuffed wood floor creaked as Emily and Zander entered. The home smelled of old, brittle paper and leather. An ancient damask couch, a battered coffee table, and a faded rug desperately in need of a good vacuuming filled the living room. Filing cabinets lined every wall of the attached dining room, with file boxes stacked three deep on top of each one.
Standing out in the shabby office was a beautiful, wide cabinet with a dozen shallow drawers. A controversy in the city council had played out in the local paper as the city considered purchasing the expensive cabinet. Her aunt Vina had firmly pointed out that Simon Rhoads did Bartonville a valuable service, never asked for anything, and needed a proper place to store his vintage maps.
Simon got his cabinet.
“You two sit on the sofa. I’m sorry it’s a bit lumpy, but you know I take what I can get and appreciate it all. Beggars can’t be choosers.” He scurried around the coffee table and sat in a wooden chair. “What can I help you with?” he asked Emily, eagerly leaning forward. Simon always exuded energy; all her aunts except Dory found it exhausting.
“I would like Agent Wells to explain it,” Emily said.
The historian blinked and nodded reluctantly, reining in his enthusiasm.
“Mr. Rhoads, did Sean Fitch have an appointment with you a week ago?”
Simon cocked his head, his gaze curious. “He did.”
“What was it for?”
“Well now.” The historian pinched his bottom lip and averted his focus to the coffee table. “I’d say that’s confidential between Sean and me.”
Zander started to reply, but Emily touched his thigh. “Sean was murdered, you know,” she said gently, willing Simon to look at her. “The FBI is tracing his last movements.”
The man jerked upright. “Do you think I killed him?” One knee started to rapidly bounce.
“Of course not,” Emily said.
She felt Zander stiffen at Simon’s outburst but stayed quiet.
“We’re hoping you can illuminate what he was doing in the days before he was killed.” Attempting to use gentle language, Emily felt as if she were balanced on a fence. The wrong words could make Simon lock down and refuse to help.
He scowled, thinking hard, and then took a deep breath. “Sean and I spoke on the phone several times over the last month or two. His appointment was the first time he’d come in, and it was a pleasure to speak with someone who has a deep knowledge of history. Most people are only interested in research for their family trees. Sean and I talked for three hours. Much longer than I had scheduled him for. He was a knowledgeable and intelligent man.”
“What was Sean researching?” Zander asked.
“Several things. Shanghaiing was one of his main interests. In this little corner of the state, we have a dark history of the practice and other crimes against people. Sean was fascinated. You know he was writing a book, right?” Simon jumped to his feet and darted to the file cabinets in the dining room behind the sofa. “There were so many interesting events in this often-ignored area of the US, it’s a pleasure when someone wants to discuss them. I was more than happy to show him what I had.” He sorted through a drawer and yanked out a thick file, his eyes lit with delight.
Simon came alive as he talked about what he loved best.
“There’s tons of information, but these are some of the items I scanned for him.” He paused and looked over at the two of them. “Scanning is the most wonderful invention. So much better than making paper copies.” He hummed under his breath as he went back to his file. “Makes my life so much easier. Email. Thumb drives. Wireless scanning. We live in an amazing world.”
“I admit I don’t know much about shanghaiing,” Zander said. “Just what I’ve seen in movies, which I doubt is accurate.”
“Astoria was Oregon’s shanghai capital,” Simon said. “In the late nineteenth century, ships from all over the world came to the port in Astoria. Timber and salmon were two of our biggest exports, and all these ships needed labor. Shanghaiing was called crimping at first. The ship’s captains would make contracts with crimps—another name for men who would provide the labor by whatever means possible. The crimps would sometimes use alcohol to trick men onto the boats, or force them at gunpoint. It didn’t matter who the victims were . . . loggers, farmers.” His eyes sparkled. “Astoria even had a female crimper. Her husband had drowned, and she needed to support herself, so she sold unsuspecting labor to the captains.”
Emily and Zander moved to look over Simon’s shoulder.
The historian tapped on a photo of a solemn older woman surrounded by family wearing early-1900s fashions. “She doesn’t look like a criminal, does she? New laws around the turn of the century finally made shanghaiing a federal crime, and it mostly disappeared.”
“What else did you and Sean talk about?” asked Zander, a hint of impatience in the tightening around his mouth. Emily understood. She didn’t see how shanghaiers in the nineteenth century could have anything to do with the Fitch murders of today.
“Let’s see . . .” Simon pinched his lip again. “He was researching crime on the northern Oregon coast, so information on Fort Stevens, crimes against the Clatsop Indians and other races . . . A lot of these crimes took root in Portland and spread over here. I also gave him research on founding city families, Columbia River bar pilots—”
“I’ve never heard of a bar pilot,” said Zander.
“All those big ships I mentioned? They needed a local pilot to board and safely navigate the shallow passage of the Columbia River. Where the river meets the Pacific Ocean is one of the most treacherous navigated waters in the world, so they’d boat out an experienced local to guide the ships in safely. Local pilots are still required by law for every ship engaging in foreign trade. These days they board the ships via helicopter or boat about fifteen miles from the mouth of the river.”
“Sounds dangerous,” said Zander.
“Very dangerous. Boarding the ships in the rough ocean was a huge risk for bar pilots in the past. Still can be.”
“Did Sean contact you after the meeting at all?” Zander asked.
“He came back for a short visit a day or two later. I’d sent him to Harlan for more information.”
“The mayor,” Emily clarified for Zander. “He had an ancestor who owned a tavern in Astoria that was a very active shanghai location. Everyone knows he has a ton of research on the topic. It’s one of his hobbies.”