A rival madam to Kate, an old black woman known as "the Nigger," dies. Joe Valery is one of the many curious people who goes to have a last look at this woman who had lived so long in Salinas yet was unknown to almost all save her devoted husband.
While at the mortuary, Joe runs into Alf Nichelson, a handyman and inveterate gossip. Alf remembers Joe from some work he had done at Kate's place and ropes Joe into an uncomfortable conversation. Joe tries to get away, saying he has someone to meet, but Alf continues to talk, bringing up Faye, her mysterious death, and how no one really knows how Kate came to own the place. Suddenly Joe's "friend" is no longer a priority; Joe offers to buy Alf a beer.
At a saloon, the two continue to talk. Joe learns that Kate may have been married once to Adam Trask. He stores away that piece of information as he might one day use it to blackmail Trask. He is unsure of what to do with Alf's speculations about Faye and Kate; he is still afraid of pushing Kate too far.
Alf is perturbed that although he offered Joe some good gossip, Joe does not return in kind. Joe stiffly says he has to go meet that friend and leaves Alf with nothing to pass on. Joe goes back to Kate's to ponder what to do with the new information.
After a long night of contemplation, Joe decides he has been given "the breaks" and that it is his duty to make the best of them. He goes to Kate's room to receive his evening orders. Unexpectedly, Kate accuses Joe of not doing his job properly. He tells Kate he has been busy trying to find out more about Ethel. Although he had not planned on saying it, Joe tells Kate he ran into a man who claims to have seen Ethel.
After a pregnant pause, Kate tells Joe that she should not have kept him working in the dark. She has discovered that Ethel is innocent and will feel so much better, she claims, when she can apologize to Ethel in person. Kate offers Joe more money and asks him to either bring Ethel to the house or find out how to contact her.
Joe thinks he has wildly succeeded. He is beside himself with glee as he quietly closes the door to Kate's room. Behind the door, Kate sits quietly at her desk. She thinks of "fat, sloppy Ethel" and is weary. Her fingers ache and her head pounds. Still, she fixes her makeup and hair. She calls to one of the girls, Helen, to come in to her room. She wants to know about the Nigger's funeral. Helen says it was sparse but dignified. She tells Kate about the devotion of the former madam's husband. Kate asks why business is so slow tonight and Helen reminds her boss that it is Thanksgiving.