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The Bughouse Affair



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About The Authors

By Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini

Marcia Muller is the New York Times bestselling creator of private investigator Sharon McCone. The author of more than thirty-five novels, Muller received the MWA’s Grand Master Award in 2005.Bill Pronzini, creator of the Nameless Detective, is a highly praised novelist,... More

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EXCERPT

1
QUINCANNON

 
It was late morning of a warmish early fall day when Quincannon, in high good spirits, walked into the handsomely appointed offices he shared with his partner. Sabina had opened the window behind her desk, the window that overlooked Market Street and bore the words CARPENTER AND QUINCANNON, PROFESSIONAL DETECTIVE SERVICES. A balmy breeze off San Francisco Bay freshened the air in the room, carrying with it the passing rumble of a cable car, the clatter of dray wagons, the calls of vendors hawking fresh oysters and white bay shrimp in the market across the street, the booming horn of one of the fast coastal steamers as it drew into or away from the Embarcadero.
Sabina was reading one of the city’s morning newspapers. Unlike many women in this year of 1894, she read them front to back, devouring political and sensational news along with the social columns and features aimed at her sisters. She glanced up at Quincannon, smiled, and immediately returned her attention to the newsprint. This gave him the opportunity to feast his gaze on her—something he never tired of doing—without fear of reprimand.
She was not a beautiful woman, but at thirty-one she possessed a mature comeliness that melted his hard Scot’s heart. There was strength in her high-cheekboned face, a keen intelligence in eyes the color of dark blue velvet. Her seal-black hair, layered high and fastened with one of the jeweled combs she favored, glistened with bluish highlights in the pale sunlight slanting in at her back. And her figure … ah, her figure. Slim, delicately rounded and curved in a beige cotton skirt and white blouse with leg-o’-mutton sleeves. Many men found her attractive, to be sure—and as a young widow, fair game. But if any had been allowed inside her Russian Hill flat, he was not aware of it; she was a strict guardian of her private life.
They had been partners in San Francisco’s premier investigative agency for over three years now. When they had met by chance in Silver City, Idaho, he had been an operative of the United States Secret Service investigating a counterfeiting operation, and she had been a Pink Rose, one of the select handful of women employed as investigators by the Pinkerton International Detective Agency, at the time working undercover to expose a pyramid swindle involving mining company stock. Circumstances had led them to join forces to mutually satisfactory conclusions, and resulted in an alliance that had prompted Quincannon to wire her at the Pinkerton Agency in Denver shortly after his return to San Francisco:
I AM CONSIDERING RESIGNATION FROM SERVICE TO ESTABLISH PRIVATE PRACTICE STOP WOULD YOU BE INTERESTED IN MOVE TO SF TO JOIN THIS VENTURE QMK STRICTLY BUSINESS OF COURSE
Her reply had come the next afternoon:
YOUR OFFER PLEASANT SURPRISE STOP YES I WOULD CONSIDER IF EQUAL PARTNERSHIP WHAT YOU HAVE IN MIND STOP STRICTLY BUSINESS OF COURSE STOP IF YOUR ANSWER AFFIRMATIVE I WILL REQUEST LEAVE OF ABSENCE TO COME TO YOUR CITY FOR DISCUSSION OF TERMS
Two weeks later, she had arrived by train and ferry, and not long afterward the joint venture had been established and their offices leased and opened for business. Quincannon had no regrets where their professional relationship was concerned; it had turned out to be more compatible and successful than either of them had foreseen. A man engaged in the time-honored profession of manhunter couldn’t ask for a more capable associate. He could, however, eventually ask for more than a “strictly business” arrangement and an occasional luncheon and a few dinners that had ended with nothing more than a chaste handshake.
He knew she was fond of him, yet she continually spurned his advances (which may at first have been slightly less than honorable, he admitted to himself, but were now more wistful than lecherous). This not only frustrated him, but left him in a state of constant apprehension. The thought that she might accept a proposal of either dalliance or marriage from anyone other than John Quincannon was maddening.…
He was still visually feasting on her when she glanced up and caught him at it. “Well, John?”
The words brought him out of his reverie. He cleared his throat, and said, “I was merely taking note of the fact that you look lovely this morning.”
Her smile bent at the corners. “Soft soap so early? Really.”
“A genuine compliment, I assure you.”
“With the usual underlying motives.”
“Can I help it if I find you alluring? I do, you know.”
“So you’ve told me any number of times.”
“Truth can’t be repeated often enough.”
“Nor can blarney, apparently.”
Quincannon sighed, shed his Chesterfield and derby, and went to his desk, which was set catercorner to Sabina’s. He sat for a moment fluffing his beard, watching her read. His whiskers were so dark brown as to be almost black, and when he assumed one of his ferocious scowls, the combination gave him the appearance of an angry and dyspeptic pirate—a look he cultivated in his dealings with yeggs, thimbleriggers, and other miscreants. A fierce demeanor was sometimes as effective a weapon as the Navy Colt he carried.
“Idle hands, eh, my dear?” he said when Sabina turned another page in the newspaper.
“Hardly, John. These are the first few moments I’ve had to myself all morning. Not only have I finished the reports, invoices, and other paperwork you find so tedious, but I’ve taken on a new client over the telephone.”
“Have you, now? And who would that be?”
“Mr. Charles Ackerman, owner of the Haight Street Chutes Amusement Park.”
“Ah. A new and wealthy client,” Quincannon said approvingly. Ackerman not only owned and operated the Chutes, but was a prominent attorney for both the Southern Pacific Railroad and the Market Street and Sutter Street railway lines. “What service does he want us to perform?”
“To relieve him of the headache of a clever pickpocket. Several Chutes patrons have been robbed in the past few days, despite increased security measures, and his business is suffering as a result.”
“And the coppers, naturally, have failed to identify much less arrest the dip.” In Quincannon’s view, shared by a number of other local citizens, San Francisco’s police force was composed largely of fat-headed incompetents only slightly less corrupt than the denizens of the Barbary Coast.
“Yes. I have a one o’clock appointment with Mr. Ackerman’s manager, Lester Sweeney, to begin my investigation.”
“Will you need my assistance?”
Sabina shook her head. “I’m perfectly capable of handling the matter myself. The pickpocket is a woman.”
“Well and good, then. But perhaps you’ll share an early lunch with me before your appointment? The table d’hôte at the Hoffman Café is particularly good on Tuesdays—”
“I already have a luncheon engagement.”
“With whom, may I ask?”
“You may not.”
“Well … a business meeting, is it?”
“As a matter of fact, no.”
“Your cousin? Another woman friend?” Concern had risen in him, scratching like a thorn at his jealousy.
“Really, John, it’s none of your concern.” With her usual deftness, she changed the subject. “You have work of your own, haven’t you? The consultation with Jackson Pollard?”
Quincannon worried in silence for a few seconds before he replied. “Already attended to. Earlier this morning, in his office.”
“Do you agree with his theory about the burglaries?”
“I do. He’s a shrewd bird, when he sets his mind to it.”
“How many names on the list?”
“Six. The three who have already had their homes burglarized, plus three other prominent citizens—all Great Western policy holders. Pollard is likely right that the housebreaker is in possession of a similar list. Possibly from an unscrupulous Great Western employee, though he disputes that notion, or through other nefarious means.”
“He’s paying our usual fee?”
“For the prevention of any more burglaries, yes. With a handsome bonus for the recovery of all the stolen goods in the first three crimes.”
“How handsome?”
The answer to that question brought a gleam to Quincannon’s eye and restored his good spirits. “One thousand dollars.”
Sabina raised an eyebrow. “Pollard offered that much?”
“Not at first. The power of persuasion is one of my many gifts, as you know.”
“The more so when it involves the root of all evil.”
“You make it sound as though I’m consumed by greed.”
“Well?”
“Not so. I admit to a thrifty Scot’s desire for financial security, but my motives are pure. The pursuit of justice. The righting of wrongs against society and my fellow men.”
“The spreading of hogwash.”
He pretended to be wounded. “A great man is often misunderstood, even by his intimates.”
Sabina made a sound close to an unladylike snort and returned to her reading. The newspaper’s front page was turned toward him, and he glanced at the headlines. None of the stories they heralded was of any professional interest. A soireé at the Japanese tea garden that had been built for the Mid-Winter Fair in Golden Gate Park. A three-alarm fire in the Western Addition. The gist of yet another speech by Adolph Sutro, who was running for mayor on the Populist ticket, promising to end widespread City Hall corruption. As if he stood a chance of doing so. Politics. Bah!
Quincannon busied himself with his stubby briar and pouch of shag-cut tobacco, and soon had the air filled with fragrant clouds of smoke. Fragrant to him, anyhow. Sabina wrinkled her nose and would have opened the window if the sash weren’t already up.
When he had the pipe drawing to his satisfaction, he gave his attention to the list of Great Western clients. A few judicious inquiries should tell him which of the three remaining names was most likely the next victim of the phantom housebreaker. Tonight, if all went according to his plan, the scruff would no longer be anonymous.
He was about to use the telephone to make the first of his inquiries when Sabina began to chuckle. She possessed a fine chuckle, throaty and melodious, and an even finer laugh; both had the power to stir him in uncomfortable ways.
“What do you find so amusing in … which paper is that?”
“The Examiner. Mr. Bierce’s ‘Prattle’ column.”
As he might have known. Sabina was an admirer of San Francisco’s resident pundit and merciless, often vicious critic of all that others held dear: Ambrose Bierce—Bitter Bierce, as he was more widely known. Quincannon found the man’s scribblings insufferably arrogant, as evidenced by his definition of an egoist as “a person of low taste, more interested in himself than in me.” Sabina had once voiced the opinion, tongue in cheek, that Quincannon’s aversion to the man stemmed from the fact that he was something of a curmudgeon himself and chafed at the competition. Patent nonsense, of course. True, he was not one to suffer fools and knaves, and often grumbled at the foibles of others, but the milk of human kindness had yet to sour in him as it had in Bitter Bierce.
Sabina said, “I know how you feel about Mr. Bierce, but I think you’ll find this entry amusing.”
“Will I? I doubt it.”
“‘In a city in which anomalous occurences abound,’” she read, “‘none would seem more peculiar than the presence among us of an ambulatory dead man. No less a personage than the world’s most-celebrated detective, Mr. Sherlock Holmes, reportedly done in by a plunge from atop a waterfall in Switzerland three years ago, is alleged to have achieved a miraculous resurrection and found his way across thousands of miles of land and sea to our fair city, where he is spending a leisurely period of recuperation, or perhaps reanimation, at the home of a prominent family. If these rumors should prove factual and the secret of the Great Man’s revivification is widely disseminated, cemeteries everywhere will soon empty and the general population swell to riotous proportions.
“‘There is, however, a less preternatural explanation for this phenomenon. It may well be that the person answering to the name of the London sleuth is in fact that rival aspirant to public honors, an impostor—a latter-day claimant in deerstalker hat and gray cape to the throne left vacant by the passing of His Imperial Majesty, Joshua Abraham Norton. More crackbrains walk among us than dead men, as may be seen on any evening’s stroll along the Cocktail Route.’”
Joshua Abraham Norton. A gent known locally as Emperor Norton, the self-proclaimed “Emperor of these United States and Protector of Mexico,” whose antics had captured the imagination of San Francisco’s citizens some thirty years earlier, long before Quincannon’s arrival in the city. Among Norton’s numerous proclamations were an “order” that the United States Congress be dissolved by force, and ridiculously impossible “decrees” that a bridge be built across and a tunnel under San Francisco Bay. A crackbrain, to be sure.
“For once, Bierce and I agree,” Quincannon said. “There is no disputing his last statement.”
“No. But wouldn’t it be wonderful if Sherlock Holmes were still alive and visting in San Francisco?”
“Wonderful? Bah.”
“Why do you say that?”
“World’s most-celebrated detective. In whose opinion besides Bitter Bierce’s?”
“You’ve read of Holmes’s exploits, surely. His companion and biographer, Dr. John Watson, has written numerous accounts that have been all the rage here as well as in England.”
“I’ve better things to do with my time,” Quincannon said. He was not about to admit that he had, in fact, read some of Dr. Watson’s hyperbolic writings. “Sherlock Holmes … faugh! The man may have achieved a small measure of fame, but fame is fickle and fleeting. In a few years, his exploits will be forgotten.”
“Whereas the detections of John Quincannon are bound to be writ large in the annals of crime.”
Quincannon, who did not have a humble bone in his body and who considered himself the finest detective west of the Mississippi, if not in the entire United States, failed to notice the note of gentle sarcasm in her voice. He said in all seriousness, “I should hope so. Meaning no disrespect to your detective skills, my dear.”
“Oh, of course not. You know, you should cultivate a biographer such as Dr. Watson. Perhaps Mr. Ambrose Bierce would agree to the task.”
“Bierce? Why Bierce?”
“Well,” Sabina said, “prattle is his stock-in-trade.”

 
Copyright © 2012 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust

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