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Macmillan Childrens Publishing Group

The Flimflam Affair

A Carpenter and Quincannon Mystery

Carpenter and Quincannon (Volume 7)

Bill Pronzini

Forge Books




Sabina was ten minutes early for her two o’clock appointment with Winthrop Buckley. She had decided to walk the relatively short distance from lower Market Street to the Montgomery Block where his offices were situated. There was no other pressing business to keep her at Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, and John had left the day before for Jamestown on an investigation for the Sierra Railway Company. It being a clear, crisp fall day, she set a brisk pace.

On the way she wondered again what had prompted Mr. Buckley to seek the services of a detective agency. His Telephone Exchange call earlier had been brief; he said only that it was a private matter of some importance. Well, she would find out soon enough. It was customary for a prospective client to come to the agency for a preliminary consultation, but he had a busy schedule and had sounded harried, so she agreed to the appointment with him. A citizen who could afford offices in the “Monkey Block,” that four-story haven of lawyers, financiers, physicians, writers, and artists, was likely to be the sort of well-to-do client John coveted.

Rather than dally in the shops on the ground-floor level, she went straight to the elevators, exited the car on the third floor, and stepped through the frosted-glass door marked C. E. BUCKLEY, SECURITIES INVESTMENT BROKERAGE. She expected to be asked to wait in the anteroom until two o’clock, but the receptionist immediately took her card into a private office, came back in no more than fifteen seconds, said, “Mr. Buckley will see you now, Mrs. Carpenter,” and ushered her inside.

Winthrop Buckley in the flesh was something of a surprise. On the telephone his voice had been strong and a bit gruff, leading her to envision a large, imposing individual. He was, in fact, just the opposite—a short, slight, almost gnomish man of some fifty-odd years, his thinning crown of hair and neatly trimmed spade beard the color of faded red brick shot through with mortarlike streaks of gray. He peered at her somewhat myopically through gold-rimmed spectacles as he took her hand and thanked her for her prompt arrival. Despite his lack of stature, he exuded an air of forcefulness as befitted a successful investment broker.

His office, like the anteroom, was conservatively and functionally furnished. A large mahogany desk and comfortable leather chairs, all of good quality but nondescript in design, dark gray carpeting, unadorned walls flanking a pair of windows that overlooked Washington Street. Unlike some successful businessmen, Winthrop Buckley clearly considered it unnecessary to outfit his work environment with symbols of his prosperity.

When they were both seated, Sabina asked how she might be of service. Instead of answering he removed a business card similar to hers from his vest pocket, leaned forward to slide it across the polished surface of his desk. It was of plain white vellum engraved with black lettering:




Sabina studied it for a moment before raising her head. Buckley was watching her expectantly, his breathing audible and a bit wheezily asthmatic. “Are either of those names familiar?” he asked.

“No, I’m afraid not.”

“I was hoping they would be. Frankly, I don’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.”

“Are you a follower of spiritualism, Mr. Buckley?”

“Reluctantly,” he said. “In deference to my wife. She believes wholeheartedly in communication with the disembodied essences of the dead, what Professor Vargas refers to as ‘spiritual vibrations of the positive and negative forces of material and astral planes.’”

“And you don’t?”

“I am a practical man, and a skeptical one after thirty years in the securities business. No one has yet to convince me that the living can converse with the dead, especially not A. Vargas.”

“You think he’s a charlatan?”

“I hope not, for my wife’s sake, but I suspect he may well be. If so, I will need positive proof in order to convince Margaret. That is why I wish to retain you.”

Spiritualism was a growing movement in the United States, though as yet not as popular in San Francisco as it was in the East. While there were any number of psychics, crystal gazers, and palm readers operating in the city, most of them on Kearney Street on the edge of the Barbary Coast, Sabina knew of only three self-styled mediums, all women, who conducted séances and claimed to perform “spirit wonders.” She had had no direct dealings with any of them, nor with any spiritualism-related fraud cases in Denver during her time as a “Pink Rose” operative for the Pinkerton Detective Agency, and she had never heard of Vargas or the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses. A new game in town, likely.

“How long has Professor Vargas been here in the city?” she asked.

“Only a short time. A little over two months. Margaret went to consult with him as soon as she learned of his so-called college.” Mr. Buckley removed his spectacles, pinch-rubbed tired-looking brown eyes. Then he sighed and said, “My wife believes that it is possible to obtain an audience with our daughter Bernice, a childhood victim of diphtheria. None of the other mediums she has consulted was able to effect such a dubious contact. Professor Vargas, however, has managed to convince her that he can and will summon Bernice through his spirit guide.”

“At a fee you consider exorbitant?”

“No, he charges only nominal fees. Refers to them as donations to the Unified College of Attuned Impulses. Ten dollars for an individual psychic consultation, twenty-five dollars per person for attendance at his séances. But he makes no secret of the fact that larger donations are not only welcomed but encouraged from satisfied acolytes.”

“I take it he hasn’t satisfied Mrs. Buckley as yet.”

“No, but I am afraid he’s capable of it.”

“How often has she visited him?”

“Six private sittings and two séances thus far, the most recent séance two nights ago. I joined her then at her insistence.”

“Were just the two of you present?”

“No, there was one other couple.”

“Held where?”

“In a closed room in his place of residence. Quite a performance, I must say. Margaret was most favorably impressed, as were the other devotees. Even I found it remarkably well staged.”

“What exactly took place?”

Mr. Buckley explained in terse detail. Vargas had ordered his “psychic assistant,” a woman named Annabelle, to securely tie him to his chair, then he proceeded to invoke such apparently supernormal phenomena as bell-ringing, table-tipping, spirit lights, automatic writings, and ectoplasmic manifestations. As his finale he announced that he was being unfettered by his friendly spirit guide and guardian, Angkar, and the rope that had bound him was heard to fly through the air just before the lights were turned up; when examined by Buckley and the other attendees, the rope was completely free of the more than ten knots that had been tied into it.

Even though “unstable influences in the fourth dimension” had prevented the departed Bernice from putting in an appearance, Margaret Buckley had been impressed enough to return the next day without her husband’s knowledge, to arrange for two more private audiences. And for her and her husband’s presence at another séance this coming Saturday night, at which Vargas promised to do everything in his power to establish and maintain contact with the shade of the long-deceased daughter. Should such a connection come to pass, Mrs. Buckley was prepared to, as her husband put it to Sabina, “endow the damned … excuse me, the Unified College of the Attuned Spirits with five thousand dollars.” Nothing Mr. Buckley had said or done had changed her mind. The only thing that would was a public unmasking of the professor as knave and charlatan, if in fact that was what he was.

Sabina said, “You mentioned that he holds his private audiences and conducts his séances in his place of residence. Where is it located?”

“On Turk Street, near Van Ness Avenue. A modest house, number 3106.”

“Bought or rented?”

“I have no idea.”

“Who else resides there? The psychic assistant you mentioned?”

“Evidently. A strange little woman, Annabelle.”

“Strange in what way?”

“In appearance and actions both. She flits about wraithlike in a long black robe cowled like a monk’s.”

“Was anyone else on the premises?”

“Not that I saw.”

“How would you describe Professor Vargas?”

“Dark complexion, curling black mustache, piercing black eyes. Speaks in a deep, powerful voice like that of an actor. Wears a robe similar to Annabelle’s and a large white amulet identical to hers.” Buckley added grudgingly, “An imposing figure.”

“His age?”

“Relatively young. Thirty-five to forty, at a guess.”

“Do you have any idea where he and Annabelle resided before moving here?”

“I asked Vargas that,” Buckley said. “His answer was vague and evasive. ‘The East’ is all he would say.”

“Did he give any indication of why he chose San Francisco?”

“Not to me. Or to Margaret.”

“Who was the other couple at last Saturday’s séance?”

“Dr. and Mrs. Oliver Cobb.”

The name was unfamiliar to Sabina. “Medical doctor?”

“Yes. And like Margaret, both true believers. The doctor seeks to communicate with his mother, who died recently.”

“Did you voice your misgivings to him or Mrs. Cobb?”

“No. Nor to Vargas. Only to my wife.”

There was a discreet knock on the door, after which it opened just far enough for the receptionist to poke her blond head through. “Excuse me for interrupting, Mr. Buckley, but Mr. Archer is here.”

“Yes, all right, tell him I’ll be with him shortly.” When the blond head withdrew and the door closed, Buckley said to Sabina, “Have you any more questions, Mrs. Carpenter?”

“Not at the moment, no.”

“Then I must terminate this meeting—a crucial business matter. You will investigate Vargas and his activities?”

“Yes. I’ll begin immediately.”

“Good, good, thank you.”

Buckley asked the amount of the fee, and when Sabina told him, he quickly wrote a check, blotted it, handed it to her, and rose to accompany her to the door. His handshake and good-bye were perfunctory, his mind already turned to whatever crucial business matter awaited him.

It wasn’t until she was in the hallway outside C. E. Buckley, Securities Investment Brokerage, that Sabina looked at the check. Winthrop Buckley either had great faith in her abilities or had become too preoccupied with his upcoming meeting to realize what he was doing, for the amount was not merely the retainer sum she had named but two-thirds of the full fee, sans expenses, for a successfully completed investigation.

John would be delighted.

Before returning to Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, Sabina made two stops. The first was at the Miner’s Bank on New Montgomery, where she deposited Mr. Buckley’s generous check. The second was the Western Union office on Market Street. There, she wrote and sent three wires—one each to the offices of the Pinkerton Detective Agency in Chicago, New York, and Washington, D.C., requesting information on Professor A. Vargas and the Unified College of the Attuned Impulses. She included the capsule descriptions of Vargas and his assistant Annabelle. If the pair had ever run afoul of the law, the Pinks would have a dossier on them or be able to track down the requisite information.

At the agency, she prepared a file on the investigation and noted Buckley’s payment in the accounts receivable ledger. Then she penned a message to Madame Louella, the Kearney Street fortune-teller who claimed to be a Transylvanian Gypsy (she had in fact been born in Ohio) and whose alternate profession was that of gatherer and seller of information involving the city’s less savory elements. If anyone knew or could find out if A. Vargas was a professional flimflammer, it was a rival “psychic” who was one herself. Finished with the message, Sabina sealed it into an envelope and took it to the messenger delivery service a few doors down the block.

Busywork occupied the rest of the afternoon. She had no visitors and no one rang up through the Telephone Exchange. The office had an empty feel to it. She found herself wishing she had been able to talk Elizabeth Petrie into joining the firm on a regular basis; her company as well as her able assistance would have been welcome. But Elizabeth, the widowed former police matron who did part-time duty for them when needed, had been loath to give up her comfortable independence for full-time work.

The feeling of emptiness—or perhaps loneliness was a better word—was one Sabina had seldom experienced until the past few months. Always before during the five years of her partnership with John, she had missed him only slightly when he was away on business. Their relationship had been strictly professional, though he would have had it otherwise. He was a very good detective and quite capable of taking care of himself, despite a tendency toward rash behavior in certain circumstances; she hadn’t worried about him, or at least very little. Now …

Now she did miss him, worry about his welfare; their connection had become personal as well as professional and he was more or less constantly in her thoughts. He had finally worn down her resistance, succeeded in convincing her that his intentions were honorable; and she in turn had come to realize she could no longer continue to devote herself to Stephen’s memory after five years of widowhood, and to admit to herself that John was more than just partner and friend. The desperate, terrifying events of three months ago, about which she still had nightmares, had drawn them even closer together.

She had vowed to herself that she would not sleep with him unless he proposed marriage, but she was weakening on that point, too. Six years of celibacy was enough, more than enough; the erotic dreams she’d been having about John made that abundantly clear. Whether he proposed or not—and she thought he might be readying himself to do so—she was not sure she would be able to withhold her favors much longer.

Five o’clock finally came. She pinned on her hat, donned her cape, closed the office, and went to board the streetcar that would take her to her flat on Russian Hill. The flat, too, would have a lonely feel tonight, she knew, despite the presence of Adam and Eve. Cats were all well and good as pets, but no substitute for human company.

How long would John’s investigation in the Jamestown area take? He’d thought only a few days, but he could be away as much as a week or more—and that seemed a long time. Sabina chided herself for being silly; she was, after all, an independent, emancipated woman engaged in a sometimes dangerous, male-dominated profession. But the chiding did no good. Tonight she felt needy, oddly vulnerable.

It was a mood that wouldn’t linger, however, because she would not allow it to. Emotion could always be conquered by a strong will, and Sabina Carpenter was nothing if not strong-willed.

Copyright © 2018 by Pronzini-Muller Family Trust