Tuesday, August 7, 1900
It was a hot day, even for August, and the faint breeze carried the reek of kelp rotting on the beach a few blocks away. John Lansdowne Granville strolled down Hastings Street, noting the rush of businessmen hurrying from some appointment or other—all formally dark-suited and hatted in defiance of the heat.
He himself was no better, he thought with a grin as he glanced down at his own well-cut suit. Good thing he didn’t wear the thick beards so popular now. Or even a mustache.
Crossing the street, he waved off the driver’s good-natured cursing as he narrowly avoided being clipped by a furniture-delivery wagon. He laughed aloud at the incongruous sight of an oak china cabinet, finely carved, swaying in time with the clop of the job horse’s hooves.
Between two mansions looking out over the harbor, Granville found his destination. The Vancouver Club was an ivy-clad, two-story building of brick, with a gabled roof and a heavy stone arch over the doorway. He found it too heavily imposing for a house, and too chateau-like for a club. Whatever had the architect been thinking?
Pushing open the heavy walnut doors, he swiped at the sweat beading on his forehead as he gladly passed his hat to the attendant at the door and glanced around. The place was clad in warm wood-paneling, custom-built in a style that would be found in many of London’s best clubs. Which was undoubtedly the intent of the members, many of whom were English themselves, and still spent time there on their frequent trips ‘home’.
Two years digging for gold in the frozen ground of the Klondike had given Granville a different perspective on such clubs—and while he still felt at home in these environs, he found them a little stifling.
The formality of the Vancouver Club felt odd to him here—in this newly built city carved out of the wilderness—in a way it never did in London, with its long-depleted forests and centuries of existence. Still, it was an excellent place to do business. Its members represented most of the businesses in the city—and most of the money.
If the Terminal City Club was a place for the up-and-coming businessmen, the Vancouver Club was home to those already well-established.
Granville took the stairs to the first floor, his feet sinking into the thick pile carpet. Turned left, towards the so-called wine room, which served as the bar. He paused in the doorway, scanning the sparsely-filled room.
“Granville. There you are,” Angus Turner said, walking up to him and holding out a pudgy hand. His future father-in-law looked like he belonged here, with his full beard, expensively tailored dark suit, and satisfied expression. “Come along, there’s someone I want you to meet.”
Following the portly figure across the room, Granville wondered what Turner was up to. They had agreed to meet here for a drink to celebrate Granville’s acceptance as a member of the club, since his future father-in-law had sponsored him.
Apparently Turner had another motive.
His suspicions were confirmed when Turner marched over to a tall, fairly thin man with a full beard and a commanding presence. He’d been sitting in one of the leather club chairs near the window, but stood as they approached.
“Alexander, this is my daughter’s fiancé, John Granville. John, Alexander Ross-Murray.”
Inclining his head in acknowledgement, Ross-Murray held out a hand, one equal to another. “Pleasure,” he said, a faint burr of his Scotland in his voice.
Granville shook hands. Ross-Murray? The family was a good one, from the Scottish borderlands, he thought. And he’d heard of Alexander Ross-Murray.
He was one of the city’s most influential businessmen, and a stalwart member of Vancouver’s upper class. He was also an acknowledged leader in the canning industry, managing the British & Canadian Packing Company.
In fact, Granville remembered hearing that the fellow had founded the company some years before, raising the money to consolidate nine canneries, seven of them near Vancouver. It had made Ross-Murray’s fortune.
Why would a canneries magnate want to meet with him? Granville knew very little about the industry.
But like Ross-Murray, he was the son of a good British family—his late father had been the 5th Baron Granville. And he’d found Vancouver’s businessmen to be surprisingly class-conscious, for all the city’s declared independence from the colonial mentality. And that included his prospective father-in-law. Angus Turner was definitely impressed by his genteel background.
Did the same hold true for Alexander Ross-Murray?
“I’ve been hearing good things about your firm’s investigative work,” Ross- Murray said. “And Turner here tells me you’re trustworthy.”
Good to know, Granville thought with an inward grin. He inclined his head in acknowledgement. And waited for the man to come to the point.
“Please, have a seat,” Ross-Murray said, gesturing to the empty leather- covered club chairs clustered around a heavy coffee table. “Can I offer you a drink? Whiskey?”
Granville nodded, and Ross-Murray motioned to the uniformed attendant, holding up three fingers. Turner beamed at both of them as they sat down and the whiskey was served on a silver tray. Ross-Murray raised his glass to them. “What do you know about the local canneries?” he asked.
“Other than the recent fisheries strike?” Granville said. “Not a great deal.”
Ross-Murray nodded. The answer didn’t seem to concern him. “What you need to know is that salmon canning is now British Columbia’s major industry. The output from our canneries grew one hundred and sixty percent last year alone.”
Those were impressive figures. Granville wondered if they were sustainable. He’d learned about salmon’s four year cycle from the Indians in the north, whose lives had depended on the size of each year’s salmon run. As did Ross- Murray’s fortune.
“In a very real sense, the success of the province—and this city—depends on the success of the fishing season. We have already lost most of July to the fishermen’s strike—no salmon were caught, and none canned. And the salmon will run for only another two, two and a half months, at most. We must make up our losses in the time we have left.”
He looked hard at Granville. “Nothing can be allowed to prevent that.”
Interesting. Ross-Murray clearly spoke for his fellow cannery owners as well as himself. And he was undoubtedly right about the impact on the economy if the canneries did poorly.
And on the fishermen and the cannery workers as well, though Ross-Murray hadn’t mentioned them. They too must need to make as much money as they could in what was left of the short fishing season.
“I see. And why come to me?”
“I have a job that needs doing,” Ross-Murray said. He paused a moment, watching Granville’s expression. “It’s a sensitive issue, one that will have to be very carefully handled. Otherwise, we’re likely to be facing another strike, and as I said, neither the city nor the province can afford that.”
“I’d like to hire your firm to handle it for us,” Ross-Murray said. “And I’m speaking on behalf of the B.C. Salmon Packers’ Association.”
So that explained Ross-Murray’s involvement. Granville had heard of the newly-formed association, which represented all the canneries in the province. But what kind of situation could require this kind of build-up? “I’m flattered,” Granville said smoothly. “What is the job?”
“They’ve found a body at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery in Steveston. Or rather, they’ve found the bones.”
Even on the mining fields of the Klondike, Granville had heard stories about Steveston’s infamous Cannery Row.
But still. Finding a human skeleton? At a cannery?
How was that even possible?
Granville raised his glass—of heavy crystal, he noted absently—as he considered Alexander Ross-Murray’s matter-of-fact offer. The rich taste of good single malt whiskey coated his mouth. Around him the low buzz of quiet conversation mixed with the clink of glasses as drinks were served. Sunlight poured in from clerestory windows, in direct contrast to the dark subject of their conversation, while slow-turning ceiling fans kept the room comfortable.
Beside him, Granville’s future father-in-law sat alert, sipping his own drink, his eyes slipping from one to the other of them. He looked rather like a playgoer at a particularly interesting performance. Across the table, Ross-Murray was leaning back, seemingly relaxed, but his long, slender fingers played with his whiskey glass.
“Whose bones?” Granville said.
“One of the workers, most likely.”
“Then it’s a recent death?”
“So it would seem.” Ross-Murray waved an impatient hand. “But coming so soon after the strike was settled? We can’t afford to have any rumors of this unfortunate fellow’s death re-igniting the tensions that are still simmering in the wake of that action.”
Probably he meant the fact that the government had called in the army— specifically the Duke of Connaught’s 6th Regiment—against the strikers, Granville thought. Urged on by the cannery owners? The official reason had been to prevent further threats against the Japanese fishermen, who had settled with the canneries and gone back to work. The real story was unclear, but the newly formed Fishermen’s Union had cried foul.
Granville remembered reading about it—during what proved to be the last week of the strike—and wondering how the fishermen had felt, facing an armed regiment. Not surprising that there was still tension between the cannery owners and the workers with their new union. And that the cannery owners were worried.
“It needs to be handled quietly,” Ross-Murray was saying. “Which is why we haven’t brought in the Steveston police.”
“You know we’ll have to bring the police in, if we take the job.” Granville wasn’t compromising on this one.
Ross-Murray’s face was impossible to read, until he broke into a smile. “A man of honor, then, are you? Good. That’s what we need.” He leaned forward. “And what will it take for you to decide to accept this job?”
‘To start, I’ll need more information,” Granville said. “Who was found, where, and when.”
“The dead man, or rather his bones, were found early yesterday morning. In the lye bath at the Gulf of Georgia Cannery. We have no idea who he was.”
In a lye bath? He grimaced at the thought. “Could it have been an accidental death?”
Ross-Murray shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
Which meant they were looking at a murder. And one with no body—and presumably no witnesses. Just bones.
This would be a difficult case. And different from anything his investigative agency had yet attempted. Granville and Scott Investigations had been in business less than a year, but they were slowly becoming known for their ability to take on complex cases—and solve them. He wasn’t ready to risk that reputation on a hopeless case.
On the other hand, it would be a challenge. And he’d never been able to resist a challenge, even one with long odds. And if they succeeded, it could only help their reputation. And in the right quarters, Granville thought, glancing at the old-world elegance around him.
“And who knows about this discovery?” he asked.
“The only ones who know so far are the shift foreman, the cannery manager, myself and several of my fellow cannery owners, and now you,” Ross-Murray said. “None of us will talk about it. We can’t afford to have word getting out.”
“None of the workers know?”
“Just one. A Chinese who maintained the lye bath. He’s been let go, and the Chinese contractor will make sure he doesn’t talk.”
“The Chinese contractor?”
“Also known as the China Boss,” Ross-Murray said. “All the canneries hire them. A China Boss is paid a per head fee to provide all the Chinese workers for the season. He’s responsible for them. Makes sure they show up, feeds them, takes care of any complaints. And since the China Bosses are Chinese themselves, they know the language, the customs. It’s a good system.”
It sounded like a convenient one, at least for the cannery owners. And maybe for the workers, too, since most of them wouldn’t speak English. “And what are your expectations on this case?”
“That you will find out who was killed, by whom, and why. I trust that you will do so in a discreet manner.”
He raised his whiskey glass, glanced at Granville over the top of it. “And I sincerely hope that your finding will be that this man’s death had nothing to do with the strike, or with tensions between the Japanese and the white workers,” he said, and drained the glass. “And if the death proves to be related to the strike?” Granville said. “What do you expect of my firm then?”
“Then it will be up to you how you choose to handle it. Which is why I needed to hire an honorable man.”
That decided him. He hoped Ross-Murray meant what he was saying, because once their firm took on a case, they followed it through. “Then we accept the job.”
“I’ll need to see the cannery where the bones were found.”
“Yes, of course. Someone will be in touch later today.” Ross-Murray stood and shook hands. “I’m glad you’ve decided to take this on. You’re one of us.”
Beside him, Turner had nodded. In approval? Granville couldn’t decide how he felt about Ross-Murray’s statement. Was he was flattered to be treated as a peer by this very successful businessman, or appalled? What did “one of us” mean in a murder investigation?
Wednesday, August 8, 1900
Even from the doorway, the heat was overwhelming, the noise beyond belief. But it was the smell Granville couldn’t ignore. The steamy air stunk of fish guts, machine oil, grease and sweat.
The Gulf of Georgia Cannery was built on a pier suspended over the deep, muddy waters of the Fraser River on long poles—poles the size of tree trunks— sunk deep into the mud. Seeing the thick encrustation of barnacles and seaweed on those poles, smelling the creosote that sealed them—it seemed as if they’d stand forever. Granville had spent enough of his childhood in and around water, though, to know that the river wouldn’t allow anything to last forever.
Steeling himself, he walked into the huge wooden building. He could see both of the working canning lines, running the length of the building. Two strings of men and women—standing for twelve, fifteen hours a day in that noise and that heat—whose labor resulted in the cans of sockeye salmon that had ended up on his breakfast table when he was still in London.
There was something frantic in the air. In the clattering of the machines. The hissing of steam. The quick motions of the cannery workers as they slung the fish along the line. They’d lost all of July to the fishermen’s strike, so none of them—not the owners, not the fishermen, not the cannery workers themselves—could afford to lose any more time. Or money. The salmon run was too short as it was.
The cannery foreman waved him forward—Bob Dirks, another Brit, and London-born by his accent. Assigned as his guide, Dirks had proven eager to please a guest of cannery magnate Alexander Ross-Murray himself. Dirks walked Granville the length of the building, past the hectic pace of the workers on the line, until they reached the far end.
Huge wooden doors stood open to the river, letting in a gust of air, cool from the river. It was a welcome relief.
Against the near wall stood large wooden bins on wheels, full of fish. Two Chinese men were flinging in more salmon as fast as they could move. As they got closer, Granville could see through the big doors to the fishing boats on the river below. Two men, unloading thick-bodied sockeye salmon. Hundreds of them. Fifteen, twenty pounds apiece. Sides gleaming silver in the sun. Two more men shoveled the salmon into bins, loaded them on a trolley. Another winched the trolley up a ramp for unloading.
He’d never seen so many fish in his life.
The foreman pointed at the bins full of fish, shouted something—his words lost in the din—then guided him towards the next station. Two rows of long narrow wooden benches, mirroring each other, each with two of the wooden bins behind it—one full of salmon, one half-empty. More than two dozen Chinese and Japanese men, knives flying, were butchering the fish. Slicing off heads, tails and fins, slitting the bellies, gutting them. Each knife moving so fast it almost sang. Whssst.
The butchered fish tossed into the half-empty bins. Heads and entrails pushed off the bench. A new fish reached for. Whssst.
“These men are the butchers, they do four, five fish a minute,” Dirks yelled in his ear. “They have to be fast, or it slows down the whole line. ’S why they’re paid so much, nearly a quarter as much as me.”
Granville was mesmerized by the flashing knives, the quick, precise movements. And repelled by the smell, the blood staining their aprons, the table, the floor, until it fell through the cracks in the cannery floor to the river below. Dirks was tugging his elbow, moving him along.
Following the route the salmon took, they stopped at a double row of waist high benches fitted with cutting boards and rubber hoses gushing water. Rows of women—mostly native Indian, some with babies on their backs— were cleaning and washing the butchered salmon. Busy knives flying. Bits of entrails pushed into a trough below their cutting boards. Water splashing everywhere. “Sliming station,” the foreman yelled. “Cleans the fish.”
Granville noted the water lying in pools at the women’s feet. He could feel the breeze coming in from the open doors, and sneaking through chinks in the cannery walls. It helped with the heat and the smell, but these women must be freezing—standing here hour after hour with wet hands and feet. Faces calm, the women’s hands flashed as they moved the fish along, talking to each other as fast as they worked. He wondered how they managed to hear anything through the din all around them.
Dirks was pulling him along again, as they followed the cleaned salmon to the next station. “Gang knives,” he said. “Fast, but deadly.”
Protectively garbed Chinese men were feeding whole salmon into the whirring blades, which cut the fish into thick steaks. Granville instinctively clenched his fists—it was obvious how little it would take to lose fingers or a whole hand to the machine. But the foreman was already moving on, pointing out the machines that packed the one pound cans of salmon, though the half-pound cans were filled manually .
“Costs more, but we can charge more,” he yelled gleefully, already moving on to the clattering, whirring canning machine, moving tins forward at dizzying speed. “Cans are made before the season,” Dirks added. “Stored in the can loft,” and he pointed to the wooden ceiling above them. “Kids drop them down this chute to us.”
Children? Here? He’d have to ask to see the loft as well, Granville thought. He could only imagine the heat building up in there.
“Crimping machine, then soldering machine over here for the lids.”
Granville watched as can after can rolled out of the soldering machine, and quick hands stacked them one row deep in large baskets made of strips of wrought iron. He tried to imagine trying to keep up this pace all day long. Couldn’t.
“These men punch a hole in each lid to let out the steam.” Dirks nodded at them. “Then they run them through the steam bath.”
The foreman patted the side of a machine. “Got this one two years ago. Saves us at least four workers a shift.” He didn’t seem to care if the men working the steam bath heard him. “The cooled cans get resealed by hand,” Dirks waved at the tables of workers, bent over the trays of cans with soldering irons, carefully re-sealing the hole. “Then it’s off to the cooking line.”
The smell of cooking salmon was everywhere. It smelled anything but appetizing mixed in with the stench from the rest of the plant. Granville tried not to smell it. Fresh caught and cooked salmon had become a favorite of his since he’d moved to Vancouver. He’d hate to have his enjoyment of it permanently spoiled by this experience.
“Soon’s they’re cooked, it’s into the lye bath to clean ‘em off,” the cannery foreman said, waving in the direction of a large steel bin.
Granville glanced at Dirks’ indifferent face, wondering if he knew about the bones found here. Surely he must. Did he care so little, then? He looked back at the lye bath. About three feet by four feet across, it stood nearly four feet high. He could smell the caustic odor of the lye, cutting through the overall stench of the place. And he was tall enough to see easily into the thing.
The heavy tub was three quarters full of a clear liquid with the distinctive sharp burning odor of lye. He could see that it easily held several crates full of cans. More than big enough to hold a body. And there was no lid on the thing. How could people work like this? And why had a man died there?