MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
The Olympic Club, San Francisco’s venerable men’s athletic and social club, was housed in a new four-story brick and masonry pile on Post and Mason streets, more or less cheek by jowl with the home of the city’s even more exclusive all-male fraternal organization, the Bohemian Club. The present clubhouse had opened in 1893 to no small amount of fanfare; the Olympic itself had been in existence for nearly forty years, the brainchild of two German brothers and fitness enthusiasts. Such prominent San Franciscans as Charles Crocker and Leland Stanford were among the Olympic’s members, as was Gentleman Jim Corbett, winner of the 1892 world heavyweight prizefighting title. Samuel Clemens, better known under his pen name Mark Twain, had been a frequent visitor during his newspapering days.
Quincannon was neither a member of the club nor a regular guest. Its various attractions—gymnastic equipment, boxing facilities, steam rooms, a large natatorium filled with salt water from a pipeline that extended all the way downtown from Ocean Beach—held no appeal for him. Neither did the sporting events such as rugby and tennis that the Olympic sponsored. Athletics were all well and good, but he kept himself in excellent physical shape by his own devices, often enough as a consequence of the cases he was called upon to investigate. And when it came to social interaction, he preferred the fellowship of friends and valued business acquaintances to that of either the cloistered rich or the sporting young.
He passed through the club’s arched Post Street entrance at five minutes shy of noon on a blustery late October day. As with his only other visit three years previous, he was there on a business matter, though in this instance he had been invited by one of the members. The invitation had come by messenger, and though the message hadn’t specified the reason for the requested meeting, he had wasted no time in sending an affirmative reply. The identity of the sender was a more than sufficient lure: Everett Hoxley was among the city’s wealthiest men, the head of a large corporation that owned several gold and silver mines in northern California and Nevada.
Quincannon presented his name and card at the reception desk in the high-ceilinged lobby and was immediately conducted by a young attendant to a private alcove in the bar/restaurant. Two men were seated at the table there; neither of them rose or offered to shake hands when the attendant announced, “Mr. John Quincannon.” He was not offended. Gentlemen of means sometimes failed to observe the niceties with individuals they considered beneath their station, and he didn’t mind being patronized as long as there was a chance he would be amply rewarded.
The older of the two gave him a long appraising look. He seemed to approve of what he saw; he nodded once, vigorously, after which he looked up at a large wall clock and said, “Precisely noon. Very good, I like a man who keeps his appointments on time. I am Everett Hoxley.”
“At your service, sir.”
“I hope you shall be,” Hoxley said, and nodded again. He had lived fifty years, if the newspaper articles about him were accurate, but he might have passed for a gent on the near side of forty. Lean and trimly fit, smooth-shaven cheeks a healthy hue, gray-green eyes clear and bright, authoritative demeanor showing the same vigor as his nods. He obviously made regular use of the club’s facilities. He wore an expensive light gray business suit, but there was no question that he would strike an equally impressive figure in athletic garb. “Be seated, Mr. Quincannon.”
The table was set for luncheon, but there was nothing edible on it, nor any bills of fare. This told Quincannon that his invitation did not include sharing a meal with Mr. Hoxley and his companion unless he agreed to whatever proposition the mining entrepreneur had summoned him to discuss.
When he occupied the table’s only vacant chair, Hoxley introduced the other man as James O’Hearn. Just who O’Hearn was he didn’t say, but to Quincannon’s practiced eye the man bore the stamp of a hardrock miner out of his element. He was as unlike Hoxley as it was possible to be. Matted brown hair thicker and more coarse than Quincannon’s whiskers covered his face, likewise his wrists, the backs of his fingers, and no doubt the rest of him except for the crown of his head, which was as barren as a desert knob. The overall image he presented was that of a scalped grizzly bear stuffed into an ill-fitting broadcloth suit. It was plain that even in these genteel surroundings he would have been more comfortable in miner’s garb. No refined athlete, O’Hearn. Whip-hand mine boss and barroom brawler was more like it.
A white-jacketed waiter approached and hovered. Hoxley asked, “Would you care for a libation, Mr. Quincannon?”
“Only if warm clam juice is available.”
It wasn’t. Hoxley waved the waiter away without ordering anything for himself and O’Hearn, to the latter’s apparent displeasure. Then he said to Quincannon, “You are not a drinking man?”
Another approving nod. “Neither am I. Alcohol, in my view, is a detriment to good health and clear judgment.”
From the way O’Hearn’s crop of whiskers twitched, he didn’t agree. The whiskers had also twitched at Quincannon’s stated preference for warm clam juice, a drink he obviously considered unsavory if not unmanly.
“I do not believe in wasting time or breath,” Hoxley said, “so I will get right to the point. You have been recommended as a highly competent investigator willing to undertake difficult assignments. True?”
“True enough. Though if I may say so, ‘highly competent’ doesn’t quite describe my abilities.”
“No? How would you describe them?”
“As unparalleled. There is no better detective in the Western states.”
O’Hearn grunted and spoke for the first time in a growly voice that matched his bearlike appearance. “Think a lot of yourself, don’t you?”
“With just cause. My accomplishments speak for themselves.”
“I like a man who speaks plainly and without false modesty,” Hoxley said with yet another head bob. “You have no fear of undertaking a potentially hazardous investigation?”
The question caused an involuntary response: Quincannon lifted a hand to almost but not quite finger his mutilated left ear. A counterfeiter’s bullet had torn off the earlobe less than two months ago. He was no longer quite so self-conscious about the disfigurement, thanks mostly to Sabina, but he had yet to completely lose the notion that people were wont to stare at the ear, or to end his habit of probing at it.
“None,” he said, “if it isn’t of a foolhardy nature.” And if the fee is large enough, he thought but didn’t add.
“What do you know about gold mining? Specifically, the physical operation of a large mine.”
“A fair amount.”
“In principle or from personal experience?”
“Both. I once worked as a laborer in such a mine.”
“Here in California?”
“No. Back East.” He saw no reason to explain that it had been a brief and none too satisfactory summer job in his youth.
O’Hearn said, “Gold mining’s different out here.”
“No doubt. But the basic labor practices are the same.”
“Where’d you work, topside or down below?”
“At what levels below?”
“Seven hundred and eight hundred feet.”
“Not so deep. Doing what?”
“Member of the timber crew.”
Hoxley said, “Would you be willing and able to undertake such work now?”
“You mean adopt the guise of a hardrock miner?”
“It would be necessary, yes. Do you feel you could pose as one well enough to avoid detection?”
Undercover work. Quincannon had no objection to that; he had done a fair and varied amount of it over the years, most recently as a mixologist in a Grass Valley saloon and gaming parlor. “I have no doubt that I could,” he said. “For what purpose?”
“To identify the individuals responsible for an insidious high-grading operation in a mine owned by Hoxley and Associates, and to put a satisfactory end to their activities. You know what high-grading is, of course.”
Quincannon acknowledged that he knew high-grading was the surreptitious theft of ore or dust from inside a gold mine by one or more members of its mining crews. He said then, “Large amounts of gold are being stolen, I assume?”
“Very large amounts, by our reckoning. We don’t know how much, of course, but the production of high-quality ore in this mine has dropped noticeably in the past few months.”
“An organized gang of thieves, then.”
“Has to be,” O’Hearn said. “As many as half a dozen men working on each of three shifts.”
“Have you any idea who they are?”
“No. There have been rumors of the high-grading, but special company men posted in the crews failed to come up with any definite information. If anyone knows or suspects who the thieves are, they’re keeping it to themselves.”
“Special company men” was a euphemism for informant miners paid extra to keep an eye on their fellows and to report any slacking or other rule breaks. It was no surprise that the ones posted by O’Hearn had failed to learn anything. Such spies were often known or suspected by their fellows, and untrained in the art of detection in any case; the high-graders would be careful to neither act nor converse in the presence of anyone other than one of their own.
“We do have our eye on one man,” O’Hearn went on, “but he isn’t directly connected with the mine.”
Copyright © 2020 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust