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Hacquette's Palace of Art, on Post Street near Market, was one of San Francisco's most fashionable restaurants. Not only was the menu extensive and the cuisine reputed to be outstanding, it housed a considerable number of preeminent works of art-fine paintings, marble carvings, hammered silver plaques and cups. Many different types of curios adorned the walls as well, among them redwood burls and other uniquely shaped and colored wooden items. An elaborate rococo bar occupied one side of the large dining room; tables covered with immaculate white linen were arranged throughout, as well as upon a balcony opposite the bar.
This October Tuesday evening Sabina sat with her escort, Carson Montgomery, at one of the intimate balcony tables. Although her cousin Callie French had spoken of the Palace of Art to her, she had never before had occasion to dine there. Carson, however, judging from the fawning attentions of the maître d' and the headwaiter, was something of a regular customer. Not that that was any surprise; he was a member of the socially prominent Montgomery family and one of the city's more eligible bachelors, and well-known at a number of first-class restaurants and other elegant gathering places.
He was a handsome man, clean-shaven except for long sideburns, his hair curly brown. His most striking feature, the one that had drawn Sabina to him initially and continued to command her attention whenever they were together, was his eyes. Bright blue, lively, interested, gentle, and kind. Yet with the type of inner fire that proclaimed him a man of action who would respond quickly to the threat of danger.
So much like Stephen's eyes ...
Like Stephen in other ways, too? Perhaps, she thought as she watched Carson confidently ordering for both of them, but she didn't know him well enough to make any definite judgments. Certainly there were no professional similarities. He was a metallurgist who had spent several years working in the rough-and-tumble goldfields of the Mother Lode and who was currently employed by Monarch Engineering, while Stephen had been one of the Pinkerton Detective Agency's most capable operatives. Her late husband had also been the most capable, most passionate man she had ever known. Before Carson, the only other she'd encountered who possessed similarly admirable qualities was John Quincannon. But her esteem for her business partner was purely professional, or so she kept telling herself, and her feelings for Carson were still uncertain. It was Stephen who remained uppermost in her thoughts and her heart and always would.
She had met him in Chicago, where she'd been born. Although her father also had been a Pinkerton man, she'd been allowed little knowledge of his profession while growing up, being steeped in the conventions deemed proper for a middle-class young lady. By her eighteenth birthday, she had grown thoroughly sick of afternoon teas, quilting parties, and silly evening soirees, and longed for a more exciting, adventurous life. When her father died shortly afterward, from complications of gout, she made up her mind to follow his career path and applied for a secretarial position with the Pinkerton agency. From the first she'd shown aptitude for detective work, perhaps inherited from her father, and it was not long before she was promoted to the status of "Pink Rose," as the agency's female operatives were called. Stephen, already an established Pinkerton operative, had been transferred to the Chicago office six months later. Their courtship had been as ecstatic as it was swift.
Within a year of their marriage, they were transferred together to the Denver office. They'd had five years together there, five short years of sharing private moments and occasionally working together before his life was snuffed out, through no fault of his own, in a shooting scrape with a band of outlaws. His death had devastated her, thrust her into a deep depression that had nearly cost her her livelihood. A friend had helped rid her of the shackles of grief and self-pity by urging her to resume her career. This she'd done, throwing herself tirelessly into her work.
If it hadn't been for an undercover assignment in Silver City, Idaho, she might still be living in Denver and working as a Pink Rose. For it was in Silver City, while posing as a milliner (though she knew little about the creation of hats), that she'd met John, then a near-alcoholic treasury agent investigating a counterfeiting case. Their liaison had altered the course of both their lives. On his return to San Francisco he had sworn off demon rum, left the Secret Service to open his own detective agency, and persuaded her to relocate and join him as an equal partner. She'd never regretted the move. Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, was now a well-established and prosperous enterprise.
She led a full life in her new home, free of the strictures placed by the era's Victorian standards on single, married, and widowed women. As a professional detective, she was able for the most part to do as she chose, associate with whom she pleased, without male interference (except John's now and then). Her apartment on Russian Hill was a cozy haven; her cat, Adam, a pleasant companion; and Callie and her husband, Hugh, had provided an entrée into local society.
It was Callie who had pressed her to attend the dinner party, "just a few of our more interesting acquaintances," at which she'd met Carson. Like most of Callie's "small dinner parties," this one had mushroomed into a soiree complete with an orchestra, uniformed servants bearing trays laden with canapés, and a score of her plump, bejeweled friends and their well-fed husbands. Callie was an inveterate matchmaker; she invariably invited one or more eligible bachelors in the hope of piquing Sabina's interest. None had until Callie practically forced Carson onto her, and she'd looked into those bright blue eyes, Stephen's eyes. When he'd taken her hand, she'd felt a tingling electric current pass between them.
Since then they had dined four times at elegant restaurants, taken a buggy ride through Golden Gate Park, and held lively conversations on all manner of subjects. He was attentive, interesting, possessed a keen sense of humor, and had been a perfect gentleman-in fact, he hadn't even attempted the liberty of a good-night kiss. She enjoyed his company, felt comfortable with him. Still, she was hesitant about the courtship-if indeed that was what it was-and not quite sure why. Stephen and her memories of their time together, yes. John was part of the reason, too, in spite of her vow to keep their relationship on a professional-only basis. But there was something else that she couldn't quite define....
Carson was saying something to her. She blinked, refocused her attention on him across the table.
"Woolgathering?" he asked with a smile. "Or were you thinking about one of your investigations?"
"Oh ... neither, actually. I was thinking of adopting another cat." This was not really a fib. She had indeed been considering another feline adoption; she was absent from her apartment a good deal, and Adam would be happier, she felt, if he had a companion.
"One isn't enough for you?"
"I'm not enough for him."
"Well, then. It so happens a relative of mine is looking to place a litter of kittens. All black, wiggly, and charming."
"Really? Perhaps you could arrange an interview."
"An interview ... with cats?"
"Each has its own personality. I could determine which meshes best with Adam's and mine."
Carson nodded and said he would be happy to make the arrangement. Just then goblets of wine arrived-an excellent French Chablis. He raised his and made a toast, as he had at their previous dinner engagements. This one, however, was a touch more personal.
"To us," he said. "And the rosiest of futures."
Sabina felt her smile dim slightly as she touched her glass to his. He seemed to want their relationship to move forward more rapidly than she did. She simply didn't know him well enough. Nor was she at all sure that she wanted or needed intimacy with any man. It had been more than four years since Stephen's death and though tempted a time or two since-by John, of all possible suitors-she had remained celibate. The passion she had shared with her late husband could never be matched, of that much she was certain.
Fortunately, Carson made no more statements of a personal nature. While they ate their first course-plump, juicy South Bay oysters on the half shell-he asked what sort of cases Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, were presently working on.
"Oh, a small matter of stolen checks, a breach of contract suit, a larcenous servant. The only recent one of interest came to us just this afternoon."
"And that would be?"
"Well, it's confidential. All I can tell you is that it has a Chinatown connection."
"Ah. The trouble brewing there? The stolen body of the late tong president? The newspapers have been full of those stories lately."
"Yes, they have. But of course I can't reveal the specifics."
"Of course. The situation appears to be potentially volatile, however. I hope your investigation won't put you in harm's way."
"No. It's John's case more than mine." Sabina felt a momentary thrust of concern, for John had gone to prowl about Chinatown tonight on behalf of their client, the wife of an opium-addicted attorney named James Scarlett, and the rancid byways of the Quarter could be dangerous after dark. She banished the concern by saying, "He's well able to take care of himself."
"He, too, must be a very good detective."
"Yes. He is."
"When will I have the pleasure of meeting him?"
Not any time soon, Sabina thought wryly. John was a very good detective, yes, but he was also infatuated with her, in a way that went beyond what had seemed at first to be typical male lechery, and ridiculously jealous as a result. She hadn't told him about Carson, nor would she until-if-their relationship progressed beyond its present casual stage. He would grumble and growl if he knew, and if he and Carson came face-to-face, sparks were liable to fly and there was no telling what might happen.
"I really can't say," she said. "He's quite busy these days."
"Try to arrange it, won't you? You speak so often and so well of him that my curiosity has been aroused."
Oh, Lord. Now he's the jealous one!
"Yes," she lied, "I'll try."
Carson smiled and reached across the table to entwine his fingers with hers. She felt the familiar electricity as his blue eyes, Stephen's eyes, gazed into hers. But then the uncertainty came again. What was it about this attractive, cultured man that bothered her? A reserve, perhaps, that piqued her detective's instincts and made her wonder if he was exactly the man he seemed to be; if there might be some part of him he deliberately kept hidden.
That seemed unlikely, for his life had been chronicled in detail by Callie, and in a profile in the Sunset Limited. His reputation was impeccable, as was that of the entire Montgomery family. What could he possibly have to hide? Unless it was something from his roving days in the Mother Lode ...
While they dined on crab cakes, she encouraged him to talk about his mining experiences. He'd mentioned them before, but only in a general way. He was forthcoming enough tonight, but in a way that made Sabina think he might be holding back, reluctant to provide specific details.
"By the time I left my last job in Nevada County," he said, "the rough-and-ready years were over and the area was showing signs of civilization-churches and church socials, quilting bees, even a small art museum. The miners imported their women, you know, and with respectable ladies came polite society. Of course there were still a disproportionate number of saloons and houses of ill repute."
"You were quartered in Grass Valley?"
"For a short time, yes. In the Holbrooke Hotel, as fine a hostelry as one could hope for in the Sierra foothills. None of the other counties I worked in offered such satisfactory accommodations."
"What exactly was it you did in the mines?"
"Principally, study and report on the quality of the ore to be extracted from them. Most were opened in mid-century, and many had been played out by that time, or were capable of yielding only low-grade ore, but a few of the larger mines continued to produce substantial amounts of gold. Whenever new veins were discovered or old ones threatened to play out, I was employed by the owners to assess them."
"It must have been interesting work."
"Only to a metallurgist." His smile was a trifle crooked, she thought. "But the places ... French Camp, for instance. Not only was it a first-rate mining town, but also the terminus of the first long-distance telephone lines in the country. And Downieville in Sierra County, once the fifth largest town in the state. It almost became the capital of California, you know, losing to Sacramento by a mere ten votes."
"Did you have any adventures in those days?"
"At the mines or in the towns. Encounters with desperadoes, that sort of thing."
A frown darkened Carson's features, tightened the corners of his mouth. "No."
"Nothing at all exciting or dangerous?"
"Nothing at all," he said, and immediately changed the subject.
Now Sabina was convinced that he was holding back, concealing some unpleasantness in his past. There was nothing necessarily wrong in that; most people at one time or another had done or been caught up in something they preferred to keep to themselves. Still, being cautious and inquisitive by training and nature, she couldn't help wondering if Carson's secret indicated a dark side to his nature.
The main course he had ordered for them was boeuf bourguignon. He consulted the wine list, then summoned their waiter to order a bottle of Bordeaux. While he was doing this, Sabina happened to glance down and across the busy dining room toward the long ornate bar. A tall, angular man in evening dress who stood at the near end, directly opposite their balcony table, was staring intently up at her. Startled, she peered back at him. He was familiar ... too familiar.
No, it can't be him!
But it was. Even at a distance, even outfitted like Carson and the other male diners, that lean, hawklike countenance was unmistakable. And when he realized that she'd caught his riveted attention, he turned abruptly and hurried away toward the entrance. A moment later he was gone.
Sabina was nonplussed, to say the least. The last time she'd seen the Englishman who claimed to be the famous detective, Sherlock Holmes, had been less than a month ago. Outlandishly dressed in one of his inexplicable disguises, he'd accosted her on a streetcar on her way home to give her what had turned out to be valuable information on related cases she and John were investigating. He'd claimed to be involved in some mysterious undercover work of his own, and she'd thought-hoped-that would be the last she would see of him. But here he was again. Coincidence that he'd turned up like a bad penny on the same night she was dining at the Palace of Art? She fervently hoped so. John would be furious if the "crackbrain," as he called the bogus Sherlock, once more attempted to insinuate himself into their lives.
The boeuf bourguignon and the Bordeaux were both excellent. As was the gateaux Sabina ordered for dessert. Her appetite had always been prodigious, and she was one of those fortunate individuals who never gained an ounce no matter how much rich food she consumed.
She and Carson lingered over coffee. He was something of a raconteur and more than once he made her laugh out loud with stories that ranged from the droll to the mildly outrageous. By the time they left the restaurant, she felt comfortable with him again, her earlier fears of a possible dark side to his nature temporarily dispelled.
Outside, the night was chilly. Sabina drew her angora wrap tightly about her as Carson went to engage the first in a line of three waiting hansom cabs, and glanced casually about the vicinity while she waited. A few pedestrians, passing conveyances ... and a dark figure lurking in a doorway a short distance away.
She kept a narrowed eye on the doorway as Carson returned to take her elbow and guide her to the hansom. Just as she took the first step up, she saw the figure emerge and had a clear look at him in the glow of a streetlight as he hurried into the next hack in line.
Oh, yes, drat him. The bogus Mr. Holmes.
The hack containing him took every turn hers and Carson's did on the way to the lower flank of Russian Hill, following a relatively short distance behind. Sabina confirmed this by three brief glances through the rear window.
Now she was bemused as well as irritated. Why on earth would the crackbrain want to spy on her? It couldn't be for usual reasons men followed women; like the genuine Sherlock Holmes, he seemed to have little if any romantic interest in the female sex. But neither could she imagine any other reason for his not so covert surveillance. Of course, the man wasn't in his right mind, but there had always been method in his mad behavior before. The previous cases of hers and John's that he'd intruded into, with rather startling results, had been of considerable importance and notoriety. None of the agency's current investigations had any such significance, except possibly the one involving the unrest in Chinatown and that had come to them only today.
When their hansom arrived at her flat, Carson escorted her to the front door. The street was sufficiently well lighted for her to note that the trailing hack drew up less than half a block behind. At the door, Carson was once again the perfect gentleman; he took her hand, kissed it, said that it had been a splendid evening, and invited her to attend a dramatic performance at the Baldwin Theatre on Saturday evening. She accepted tentatively and a little distractedly, and he smiled, bowed, and left her.
Sabina went inside and shut the door, only to open it again a few inches and peer out. She watched Carson climb back into the hansom they had shared, the driver crack his whip smartly to start them moving again along the cobbles. Watched the Englishman's hansom jerk into motion, following until both were out of sight.
This was even more disconcerting. From the look of things, the would-be Sherlock hadn't been spying on her after all.
The person he was spying on was Carson Montgomery.
Copyright © 2014 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust