Bitter Spirits

Roaring Twenties -1


Jenn Bennett

To the ghost of Mary Ellen Pleasant


I couldn’t do this without my extraordinary agent, Laura Bradford, who never blinks or loses patience with me when I hurl my (often) madcap book ideas her way. And I’m so thankful for my lovely new editor, Leis Pederson, who not only “gets” my voice but also champions it with grace and positivity. Many thanks to the talented Aleta Rafton for her gorgeous cover art, and to everyone at Penguin who works tirelessly behind the scenes.

Thanks to: Ashley Diestel at the Palace Hotel for her archival assistance, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Bancroft Library at Berkeley, the Swedish Club of San Francisco, and the numerous people who answered my questions about the (often painful) history of Chinatown, especially Philip Choy. Hat tip to Stacey Luce for the 1920s map of San Francisco.

Much love to the fab Sandy Williams and my wonderful beta readers: Miriam Blackmon, Cat Lauria, and Katie Morley. Special shout-outs to: Annika Einarsson (who corrected my wobbly Swedish) and Daphne Yeung (who made me fall in love with Hong Kong and taught me how to swear, toast, and give thanks in Cantonese). And I’ll never be able to thank my (massively creative) husband enough; his ideas for fixing plot problems are always better than mine. Always. Lastly, my unwavering gratitude goes out to: all the booksellers and librarians who carry my books, the bloggers who write about them, and to the readers who read them. 



AIDA PALMER’S TENSE FINGERS GRIPPED THE GOLD LOCKET around her neck as the streetcar came to a stop near Gris-Gris. It was almost midnight, and Velma had summoned her to the North Beach speakeasy on her night off—no explanation, just told her to come immediately. A thousand reasons why swirled inside Aida’s head. None of them were positive.

“Well, Sam,” she muttered to the locket, “I think I might’ve made a mistake. If you were here, you’d probably tell me to face up to it, so here goes nothing.” She gave the locket a quick kiss and stepped out onto the sidewalk.

The alley entrance was blocked by a fancy dark limousine and several Model Ts surrounded by men, so Aida headed to the side.

Gossip and cigarette smoke wafted under streetlights shrouded with cool summer fog. She endured curious stares of nighttime revelers and hiked the nightclub’s sloping sidewalk past a long line of people waiting to get inside. Hidden from the street, three signs lined the brick wall corridor leading to the entrance, each one lit by a border of round bulbs. The first two signs announced a hot jazz quartet and a troupe of Chinese acrobats. The third featured a painting of a brunette surrounded by ghostly specters:





One of the men standing next to the sign looked up at her when she passed by, a fuzzy recognition clouding his eyes. Maybe he’d seen her show . . . Maybe he’d been too drunk to remember. She gave him a tight smile and approached the club’s gated entrance.

“Pardon me,” she said to the couple at the head of the line, then stood on tiptoes and peeked through a small window.

One of the club’s doormen stared back at her. “Evening, Miss Palmer.”

“Evening. Velma called me in.”

Warm, brassy light and a chorus of greetings beckoned her inside.

“The alley’s blocked,” she noted when the door closed behind her. “Any idea what’s going on?”

“Don’t know. Could be trouble,” said the first doorman.

A second doorman started to elaborate until he noticed the club manager, Daniels, shooting them a warning look as he spoke to a couple of rough-looking men. His gaze connected with Aida’s; he motioned with his head: upstairs.

Wonderful. Trouble indeed.

Aida left the doormen and marched through the crowded lobby. At the far end, a yawning arched entry led into the main floor of the club. The house orchestra warmed up behind buzzing conversations and clinking glasses as Aida headed toward a second guarded door that bypassed the crowds.

Gris-Gris was one of the largest black-and-tan speakeasies in the city. Social rules concerning race and class went unheeded here. Anyone who bought a membership card was welcome, and patrons dined and danced with whomever they pleased. Like many of the other acts appearing onstage, Aida was only booked through early July. She’d been working here a month now and couldn’t complain. It was much nicer than most of the dives she’d worked out East, and to say the owner was sympathetic to her skills was an understatement.

Velma Toussaint certainly stirred up chatter among her employees. People said she was a witch or a sorceress—she was—and that she practiced hoodoo, which she did. But the driving force of the gossip was a simpler truth: polite society just didn’t know how to handle a woman who single-handedly ran a prosperous, if not illicit, business. Still, she played the role to the hilt, and Aida admired any woman who wasn’t afraid to defy convention.

Though it was a relief to work for someone who actually believed in her own talents, all that really mattered was Aida was working. She needed this job. And right now she was crossing her fingers that the “trouble” was not big enough to get her fired. A particular unhappy patron from last night’s show was her biggest worry. It wasn’t her fault that he didn’t like the message his dead sister brought over from the beyond, and how was she supposed to have known the man was a state senator? If someone had told her he preferred a charlatan’s act to the truth, she would’ve happily complied.

Grumbling under her breath, Aida climbed the side stairs and sailed through a narrow hallway to the club’s administrative offices. The front room, where a young girl who handled Velma’s paperwork usually sat, was dark and empty. As she passed through the room, her breath rushed out in a wintery white puff.


She cautiously approached the main office. The door was cracked. She hesitated and listened to a low jumble of foreign words streaming from the room, spoken in a deep, male voice. Beyond the cloud of cold breath, she saw a woman with traditional Chinese combs in her hair, on which strings of red beads dangled. Bare feet peeked beneath her sheer sleeping gown. She stood behind a very large, dark-headed man wearing a long coat, who stared out a long window that looked down over the main floor of the club.

Aida’s cold breath indicated that one of them was a ghost. This realization alone was remarkable, as Aida had only encountered one ghost in the club since she’d arrived—a carpenter who’d suffered a heart attack while building the stage and died several years before Velma came into possession of Gris-Gris—and Aida had exorcised it immediately.

In her experience, ghosts did not move around—they remained tethered to the scene of their death. So unless someone died in Velma’s office tonight, a ghost shouldn’t be here.

Shouldn’t be, but was.

Strong ghosts looked as real as anyone walking around with a heartbeat. But even if the woman with the red combs hadn’t been dressed for bed, Aida would’ve known the man was alive. He was speaking to himself in a low rumble, a repeating string of inaudible words that sounded much like a prayer.

Ghosts don’t talk.

“Is she your dance partner?” Aida said.

The man jerked around. My. He was enormous—several inches over six feet and with shoulders broad enough to topple small buildings as he passed. Brown hair, so dark it was almost black, was brilliantined back with a perfect part. Expensive clothes. A long, serious face, one side of which bore a large, curving scar. He blinked at Aida for a moment, gaze zipping up and down the length of her in hurried assessment, then spoke in low voice. “You can see her?”

“Oh yes.” The ghost turned to focus on the man, giving Aida a new, gorier view of the side of her head. “Ah, there’s the death wound. Did you kill her?”

“What? No, of course not. Are you the spirit medium?”

“My name’s on the sign outside.”

“Velma said you can make her . . . go away.”

“Ah.” Aida was barely able to concentrate on what the man was saying. His words were wrapped inside a deep, grand voice—the voice of a stage actor, dramatic and big and velvety.It was a voice that could probably talk you into doing anything. A siren’s call, rich as the low notes of a perfectly tuned cello.

And maybe there really was some magic in it, because all she could think about, as he stood there in his fine gray suit with his fancy silk necktie and a long black jacket that probably cost more than her entire wardrobe, was pressing her face into his crisply pressed shirt.

What a perverse thought. And one that was making her neck warm.

“Can you?”


“Get rid of her. She followed me across town.” He swept a hand through the woman’s body. “She’s not corporeal.”

“They usually aren’t.” The ghost had followed him? Highly unusual. And yet, the giant man acted as if the ghost was merely a nuisance. Most men didn’t have the good sense to be afraid when they should.