A Dangerous Business

Jane Smiley

December 6, 2022 
The following is from Jane Smiley's A Dangerous Business. Smiley is the author of numerous novels, including A Thousand Acres, which was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, and the Last Hundred Years Trilogy: Some Luck, Early Warning, and Golden Age. She is the author as well of several works of nonfiction and books for young adults. A member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, she has also received the PEN Center USA Lifetime Achievement Award for Literature. She lives in Northern California.

Jean ran to the end of the bridge, scrambled down the bank, which wasn’t steep. Eliza followed right behind her. When they got there, though, neither one of them touched the remains, not even the gown, which was soaked with water, draped over the girl, hiding the girl’s body but showing her shape. Eliza looked to the left, then to the right. Mrs. Marvin called out, “The headwaters are down south. The mouth is on the bay. She must have floated down the river.”

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Eliza thought this was unlikely, with the river so shallow, but she only said, “How far away are the headwaters?”

“Oh, goodness,” said Mrs. Marvin. “Days away.”

Eliza put her hands behind her back and bent down to look at the girl’s face. Her skin was dry, wrinkled, and red, and her hand, too, the one that was visible (the other one was underneath her), looked desiccated and sort of black rather than bloated. The mouth was slightly open; the lips were wrinkled and dry. The eyes were half closed. Eliza would have thought that if a body was in water for a long time it would be bloated, but this one was not. Thinking of DuPANN, she realized how little she knew about any of this, how no system of logic could lead her anywhere. She shivered.

Jean said, “I don’t see a bullet hole.” She leaned forward, as if to turn the girl over, but Eliza put her hand on Jean’s elbow and said, “If this has been a murder, I think we have to leave things the way they are.”

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“But who is going to look at it, or do anything about it?”

From up on the bridge, Mrs. Marvin said, “No one. Possibly no one at all, but certainly not us. Leave it there. We can’t take it with us, as we haven’t the room. It’s getting dark. I will tell a man my husband knows who might be able to do something. We know just where it is. I can tell him. It’s not going to go far in this weather.”

Jean said, “Do you think it’s the American girl or the Spanish girl?”

Eliza thought you would be able to tell by the color of the hair, or the length, since the Spanish girls seemed to be able to grow theirs longer. But the girl’s hair was mostly underneath her. What was sprayed out over the sand was dark, but, given how long it appeared she had been in the river, that could be dirt, or rot, or something. Eliza knew nothing about hair except how to comb it, how to roll it into a bun, how to push it out of her face. She stared. But she had a thought, and so, when Jean went back up the bank, she grabbed a few strands, pulled them out, put them in a small pocket on the side of her gown. Now one of the horses, who had been standing on the far side of the bridge, looked over the edge, which was built of stone, and shied. Mrs. Marvin turned away, and said, “Come, girls, come! Less and More do not like this! I fear that they will run off.”

Less and More. It turned out that Less was Lester, the older one, and More was Morley, the younger one. And they did trot away at a good clip once everyone was back in the buggy.

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But, of course, Eliza realized when she was walking home late that night, after her customer left, the girl did not have to be either of the ones everyone knew about. She supposed that the difference between Monterey and Paris was that Paris was a city where, if you did something horrible, someone was bound to hear or see something, but there was so much empty space around Monterey that if you did something horrible to someone, or, at least, to someone who was not prominent, it was much more likely that no one would hear or see a thing. She looked around. It was so late that even the saloons were shut up, and the streets were (or looked) nearly empty. There was a shadow that, for a moment, she mistook for a man, and then she realized that she should be scared, or unnerved, but, for once, she wasn’t. She didn’t understand why, but she was grateful.

Mrs. Marvin was true to her word. Her husband knew the sheriff, whose name was Roach, and three days later, Jean told Eliza that they had found the body—not under the bridge, but a little farther downstream, where the river curled toward the mountains. Since Mrs. Marvin hadn’t gone down below the bridge to see the remains, Jean and Eliza had to go to the place where they were keeping it and have a look. Mrs. Marvin, with Less and More, already had Jean in the carriage when she picked Eliza up at her boarding house. Jean was excited. Eliza was full of dread.

The place where they kept the body, the “morgue,” was not far from the docks, and Eliza could understand why—fishing accidents and shipwrecks were not infrequent, and they needed a place to collect the corpses before sending them to their funerals or their graveyards. It was a rather modest building, all adobe, without many windows; Eliza had always thought it was a factory, though she’d never heard any noise coming out of it. It was also only one story, or so it appeared, but all the bodies were down below, in a cooler area. Eliza thought she and Jean would go down together, but the man who let them in, Mr. Lowe, said they couldn’t do that, nor could they say anything to one another about what they saw. In order to assure this, he stood Eliza in one corner and Jean in another, and a fellow, a client Eliza had seen at Mrs. Parks’s place, stood in the middle of the room, sometimes glancing at her, but not smiling, and not scowling, either. Jean went first. She was down there long enough for the sun, blazing against the tiny window near Eliza, to vanish behind the branches of one of the oaks. When she came back up, she didn’t even look at Eliza—the man who escorted her wouldn’t let her, and Eliza understood from DuPANN why. They each had to say truly what they saw. The man came over and walked Eliza down the steps. They were steep and narrow, and there was no banister. They were stone, and not evenly cut. Eliza watched her feet and imagined herself ending up in this storehouse, merely from toppling over and knocking her head on the wall. There was light, though—they’d made sure of that. The remains were laid out on a table, and the light was sunshine coming through a large window set flat in the roof.

In only three days, the body had gotten darker and more pickled. It also looked as though some fish or rats had eaten their fill, because parts were gone around the left shoulder and down the left arm, two of the fingers. Most of the gown was gone—perhaps it had rotted away—showing that one of the girl’s bosoms was gone, too. It was hard to look at it, hard to smell it, but the fellow said, “What do you see that is the same as what you saw the other day?”

Eliza said, “It’s the same size. The face looks like the other face, but not exactly like a face, if you know what I mean.”

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He said, “I know what you mean.”

She kept staring, got used to what she was looking at, thought of DuPANN again. Without realizing it, she reached toward the girl, but the fellow grabbed her hand. He said, “Don’t touch.”

But Eliza wanted to touch her, just to pet her forehead or something, to say that everything was going to be all right. Even though she couldn’t see her, Eliza could picture her, a girl in her own business, putting up with something new and maybe unexpected every day, pushing her fears away until, one day, all of her fears were realized, and even though she had imagined many terrible things, what she had imagined didn’t prepare her for what was actually happening. Eliza closed her eyes.

The hair in the river had been dark, and this girl’s hair was dark, too. Eliza leaned forward, carefully, and looked at the girl’s eyes. One of her eyeballs was missing, but the other one was an odd color, more green than blue. She glanced at the fellow. He looked impervious, and Eliza couldn’t tell how he felt about this corpse. Maybe, she thought, he had seen so many that he didn’t care anything about it. After they left, she thought, that was what she would talk to Jean about—not the girl, but the fellow. She stared at the remains again. She couldn’t help herself: she ran her hand down her hip, feeling her own living flesh. It gave her the shivers.

Now he spun toward her and said in a stern voice, “Is there any way you might recognize this chit as someone you would have known before she died?” and Eliza understood perfectly that what Jean had said was true—all of this could become an excuse to drive Mrs. Parks out of business and put all the girls into jail. Or into this room. She summoned as much calm as she could and said, “No, I do not recognize her.” Then they stood for a period of time, and at last he sent her up the steep steps, though he stayed behind. The man who had watched her and Jean was standing at the top. He told them to say nothing of this to the citizens of Monterey, and sent them out the door.

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They walked toward the lighthouse. It took quite a long time for Jean to say anything. Finally, she said, “That wasn’t her.”

Eliza said, “I thought it was.”

“Her nose was a different shape, longer and thinner.” Eliza said, “I didn’t notice that.”

They were passing someone on Lighthouse. Jean remained silent until he was out of earshot, then said, “And her earlobes were pierced. Did you notice that?”

Eliza shook her head.

“There’s another brothel somewhere, but I don’t know where. When the girls come to work there, the owner takes them and has their ears pierced; then he gives them different earrings so he can keep track of them.”

“Why doesn’t he just give them names?”

“He does, but, according to him, he’s terrible at recalling names.

I think he does it for a different reason. Some of the girls wear pearl earrings, some opals, some amethysts. They say he keeps a diamond pair in a safe, but no one gets to wear them except with certain clients. I think they show what they are worth by their earrings.”

“I’m going to ask Mrs. Parks about that.” “She knows him. They all know each other.”

They turned up Pacific. Eliza said, “I still don’t understand how she was killed. I didn’t see a bullet hole.”

“Strangled,” said Jean. “I thought I saw some marks around her neck. Or stabbed in the back. Oh, I don’t know.”

“He could have stabbed her, then held her down with his hand over her mouth or something like that.”

Jean said, “I don’t like to think of it, but that makes sense.” After they had made their way up the hill, she said, “I saw her ghost.”

Eliza stopped and stared at her friend.

“I knew you wouldn’t believe me, but I did. There was a shadow, and I looked up. She was staring through that window on the roof. Just staring. She didn’t look frightened, she looked serious and determined. I whispered—”

Eliza said, “Everything is going to be all right.” Jean said, “Exactly that. Did you see her?”

“I didn’t see her ghost. I saw . . .” And then Eliza thought, “Myself,” but she said nothing.

Jean looked upward. “She rose into the sky and floated away. She was wearing white muslin.”

At this, Eliza chuckled, and Jean said, “Well, she was!”

The only thing Eliza said was “How come your ghosts aren’t scary?”

Jean said, “Ghosts don’t have to be scary. I think that ghosts are more likely to be scared themselves than scary.”

At Franklin, they had to part. Jean took Eliza’s hand. She said, “We have to go back there.”

Eliza knew that she meant the bridge, or the river. She said, “That’s a long way!”

“We have some money. We can hire some ponies for a day. Can you ride?”

“More or less.”

Jean smiled. She said, “I don’t think we can borrow those two. But I love to ride. We’re going back to that river, and we are not going to be afraid to look around.”

As she walked to her place, Eliza tried to recall as many details as she could about the girl under the bridge. Eventually, she decided that it was the same girl, even though, as a rule, Jean was more observant than she was. But their disagreement was a reminder, wasn’t it, that neither of them knew what they were doing.


 Excerpted from A DANGEROUS BUSINESS by Jane Smiley. Copyright © 2022 by Jane Smiley. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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