The Bughouse Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini is the first book in a new historical mystery series (available January 8, 2013).
San Francisco. The 1890s. Former Pinkerton operative Sabina Carpenter and her detective partner, ex-Secret Service agent John Quincannon, undertake what initially appear to be two unrelated investigations.
Sabina’s case involves the hunt for a ruthless lady “dip” who uses fiendish means to relieve her victims of their valuables at Chutes Amusement Park and other crowded places. Quincannon, meanwhile, is after a slippery housebreaker who targets the homes of wealthy residents, following a trail that leads him from the infamous Barbary Coast to an oyster pirate’s lair to a Tenderloin parlor house known as the Fiddle Dee Dee.
The two cases eventually connect in surprising fashion, but not before two murders and assorted other felonies complicate matters even further. And not before the two sleuths are hindered, assisted, and exasperated by the bughouse Sherlock Holmes.
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 house breaker 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.”
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.”
“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 house breaker. 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 visiting in San Francisco?”
“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.”
After John had left the office for parts unknown, Sabina put on her straw picture hat and skewered it to her upswept dark hair with a Charles Horner hatpin of silver and coral. The pin, a gift from her cousin Callie on her last birthday, was one of two she owned by the famed British designer. The other, a butterfly with an onyx body and diamond-chip wings, had been a gift from her late husband and was much too ornate—to say nothing of valuable—to wear during business hours.
Momentarily she recalled Stephen’s face: thin, with prominent cheekbones and chin. Brilliant blue eyes below wavy, dark brown hair. A face that could radiate tenderness—and danger. Like herself, a Pinkerton International Detective Agency operative in Denver, he had been working on a land-fraud case when he was shot during a raid and succumbed to his wounds. It troubled Sabina that over the past few years his features had become less distinct in her memory, as had those of her deceased parents, but she assumed that was human nature. One’s memories blur; one goes on.
At times, however, the memories had a stronger pull than at others. This morning she could not dismiss recollections of the year when she had been a girl Friday (a term she loathed) in the Pinkerton Agency’s offices in Chicago. Her father had also been a Pinkerton operative and had died at the age of forty-nine, not in the line of duty but rather ignobly of gout; Sabina had secured her position through her father’s partner when the need to work to support her sickly mother became apparent. And it was there that her talent for detective work had engaged the interest of branch manager Stephen Carpenter, who began courting as well as mentoring her. By the onset of the new year, Sabina was on her way to becoming a full-fledged “Pink Rose,” as the women operatives proudly called themselves.
The Pink Roses were few in number, yet respected as excellent detectives. Forty years earlier, the first of them, a widow named Kate Warne, had entered the Chicago offices of the agency and requested of Allan Pinkerton that he give her a position—not as a member of the clerical staff, but as an operative. Mrs. Warne overcame Pinkerton’s objections, was given the position on a trial basis, and acquitted herself outstandingly from the first. She had been instrumental in uncovering a plot to assassinate Abraham Lincoln as he rode the train from Illinois to Washington, D.C., to take the oath of office after his election, and had herself accompanied him all the way to the nation’s capital.
It was rumored that Mrs. Warne had engaged in a long-standing love affair with Allan Pinkerton, but if the rumors were true, the affair had been well shielded and never publicly corroborated. John seemed not to know about this, or at least had never spoken of it to her, and of course she had been careful not to mention it herself. She had enough difficulty fending off his advances without a possible precedent to spur him on.
Within a year of their marriage, she and Stephen had been transferred together to the agency’s Denver headquarters, where occasionally they worked as a team, but most often on separate cases that utilized their individual talents. Until the unthinkable happened, and Sabina found herself a widow.
In her grief she had taken a leave of absence from the agency and for a time withdrawn from society, even from herself. She spent long days and nights in the too-quiet flat she and Stephen had occupied in a large brick house in the city, doing little, feeling nothing. Neglecting her appearance, burrowing in bed for entire days, not eating until hunger drove her to gorge herself and then regurgitate.
Then, at her lowest point, Frieda Gosling became her savior.
Frieda, the wife of another Pinkerton operative and a friend of both hers and Stephen’s, entered the flat against Sabina’s protests, sat her down, and in stern but compassionate tones delivered both a lecture and a message from the Pinkerton office. Did Sabina expect to wallow in grief and misery for the rest of her life? A fine monument to Stephen’s memory that would be. Wouldn’t he want her to start embracing life again, and return to her duties in the profession for which she was best suited? If she chose the latter, Frieda said, the agency had urgent need of a Pink Rose to work an undercover assignment in Silver City, Idaho, on a case involving a mining stock swindle.
Sabina had taken her friend’s words to heart and never regretted it. For not only had her return to Pink Rose status given her renewed purpose, it had been in Silver City that she’d met John Quincannon, then with the United States Secret Service, and eventually embarked on her new and rewarding life in San Francisco. She and Frieda had remained close, exchanging frequent letters and small gifts at Christmastime.
Now she scrutinized her reflection in her hand mirror and concluded that she looked more like a respectable young matron than a detective setting out to snaffle a pickpocket. Satisfied, she left the office to keep her luncheon date with Callie at the Sun Dial, a popular spot with the ladies.
Sabina held a relatively unique position for a woman in San Francisco: as a widow and the co-owner of a highly respectable business, she was free of many of the strictures imposed on single and married women alike. While the ladies of the city poured tea and offered sweets during weekly “at homes,” Sabina traveled the far more interesting, if sometimes dangerous, byways and districts from the notorious Barbary Coast to luxurious Nob Hill. In the course of her investigations she met people of undisputed good standing as well as those of dubious and ill repute. To her second cousin, Callie French, with whom she’d resumed a childhood friendship when she moved West, and with whom she was in fact lunching today, these were dangerous activities inviting folly.
Callie, like Sabina, had been born in Chicago, but her family had moved to California when she was only five. For a time they’d lived in Oakland, the city across the Bay, then settled on Nob Hill when her father was promoted to the regional headquarters of the Miners Bank. Callie had been a debutante—one of the “buds” of society who were presented at the cotillions—and had married a protégé of her father’s in a lavish wedding that had reputedly cost fifty thousand dollars, an unheard of amount for the day. She was Sabina’s entrée into the workings of the upper classes and the ways of the city’s elite.
But Sabina also moved unharmed through far less genteel surroundings, as if protected by an invisible shield of armor. Perhaps it was her confident manner or perhaps it was because with Stephen’s death the worst that could happen to her had already occurred. On that matter, she didn’t care to speculate.
When she entered the Sun Dial, she spied Callie at a corner table in the bright, airy main room. Sunlight spilled down through one of the large skylights, giving Callie’s intricately braided and coiled blond hair a golden sheen. She greeted Sabina effusively as always, with a hug and a burst of chatter. “There you are, my dear! How are you? In fine fettle, I hope. Here, let me help you with your cloak. They say the chicken dish is exceptional today, but I’m thinking of the veal chop.”
While Sabina studied the menu, Callie plied her with questions about John. How was he? Had she changed her mind about seeing him outside the office? No? Why not? He was such a charming man, so polite and well mannered in spite of his ferocious beard.
Sabina smiled inwardly. Callie was a firm believer in marriage, thanks to the success of her own union, and made no bones about the fact that she thought Sabina ought to marry again. Nothing would have made her happier than a Carpenter and Quincannon matrimonial as well as business match. If Sabina ever even hinted at such a possibility, Callie would immediately order champagne and a string quartet for the wedding.
Not that such a hint would ever be forthcoming, but if Sabina had spoken forcefully against the notion, it would only have hurt Callie’s feelings. Her cousin could be frivolous and at times downright silly, but she was loyal and had a good, well-meaning heart. Sabina prized their friendship.
The coq au vin didn’t appeal to her, nor did the veal chop, but a seafood pasta struck the right note. When she ordered it, Callie said, “Oh, how I envy you. If I ate starch for lunch, I’d have to let my corset out.”
“Nonsense to you, perhaps. You’ve never needed to wear a corset.”
“Not yet, at least.”
Callie leaned forward and lowered her voice. Sabina knew what was coming, for her cousin had an enormous interest in her work—and an equally enormous penchant for gossip. “Tell me, dear. What sort of cases are you and John investigating now?”
“You know I can’t tell you that.”
“You and your silly rules about client confidentiality. At least tell me this: is there any danger in what you’re doing?”
“Are you sure? You know how I worry about you.”
“Yes. But needlessly.”
“I wish I could be certain of that. It’s such a dangerous profession you’ve chosen. . . .”
Sabina said quickly, to forestall any painful reminder of what had happened to Stephen, “No more dangerous than crossing a busy street. Or devouring that veal chop you ordered.”
Callie sighed. “Not to mention the chocolate torte I’m considering for dessert.”
After she and Callie parted outside the restaurant, Sabina hailed a cab that carried her down Van Ness Avenue and south on Haight Street. The journey was a lengthy one, passing through sparsely settled areas of the city, and all unbidden she found herself thinking about John instead of Stephen. No doubt because of Callie’s none-too-subtle matchmaking . . . and yet, her thoughts seemed to turn to her partner more and more often lately, at odd moments, in spite of her vow to keep their relationship strictly professional.
He had left the office grumbling because of her refusal to tell him with whom she was having lunch, and because she had also refused an invitation to dinner at Marchand’s French restaurant. Sabina, a practical woman, had thus far turned down nearly all of John’s frequent invitations. Mixing business with even the simplest of pleasures was a precarious proposition; it could imperil their partnership, an arrangement with which she was quite happy as it stood.
Another reason she spurned his advances was that she was unsure of what motivated them. Plain seduction? She had no interest in a dalliance with her partner or any other man. A more serious infatuation? As she had often told Callie, she was unwilling to enter into another committed relationship—especially one with John of all possible swains—while the lost love of her life remained bright in her memory. Whatever poor John’s intentions, he was simply out of luck.
Sometimes working with him tried her patience, and not only because of his persistence in trying to obtain her favors. His preening self-esteem, though often justified, could be exasperating. Yet she knew him well enough to understand that it was more a façade than his true nature, masking an easily bruised ego and a deep-seated fear of failure. Of course, he would never admit to being either vulnerable or insecure. Or to the fact that she was his equal as a detective. His pride wouldn’t allow it.
Yet John also had many good qualities: courage, compassion, sensitivity, kindness, a surprising gentleness at times. And she had to admit that she did not find him unattractive. Quite the opposite, in fact . . .
The Chutes Amusement Park, on Haight Street near the southern edge of Golden Gate Park, had only been open a short while and was still drawing large daily crowds. Its most prominent feature was a three-hundred-foot-long Shoot-the-Chutes: a double trestle track that rose seventy feet into the air. Passengers would ascend to a room at the top of the slides, where they would board boats for a swift descent to an artificial lake at the bottom. Sabina craned her neck to look up at the towering tracks, saw the boats descending, heard the mock terrified screams and shouts of the patrons. She had heard that the ride was quite thrilling—or frightening, according to one’s perspective. She herself would enjoy trying it.
In addition to the water slide, the park contained a scenic railway that chugged merrily throughout its acreage; a mirrored, colorful merry-go-round with a huge brass ring; various carnival-like establishments—fortune-tellers, marksmanship booths, ring tosses, and other games of chance—and a refreshment stand offering hot dogs, sandwiches, and lemonade. Vendors with carts moved among the crowd, dispensing popcorn and cotton candy. A giant scale defied men to test their strength—“hit it hard enough with a wooden mallet to make the bell at the top ring,” the barker in charge intoned, “and win a goldfish for your lady.” Sabina suspected trickery: a man built like a wrestler accompanied by a homely woman missed the mark, but another as thin as a slat accompanied by a dark-haired beauty came away with two fish.
Ackerman had told Sabina she would find his manager, Lester Sweeney, in the office beyond the ticket booth. She crossed the street, holding up her flowered skirt so the hem wouldn’t get dusty, and asked at the booth for Mr. Sweeney. The man collecting admissions motioned her inside and through a door behind him.
Sweeney sat behind a desk that seemed too large for the cramped space, adding a column of figures. He was a big man, possibly in his late forties, with thinning red hair and a complexion that spoke of a fondness for strong drink. When at first he looked up at Sabina, his reddened eyes, surrounded by pouched flesh, gleamed in appreciation. To forestall any unseemly remarks she quickly presented her card, and watched the gleam fade.
“I didn’t know they’d be sending a woman,” he said. “Mr. Ackerman told me it would be one of the owners of the agency.”
“I am one of the owners.”
He looked at the card again. “Well, well. These days . . . well. Please sit down, Mrs. Carpenter.”
“Thank you.” Sabina sat on the single wooden chair sandwiched between the desk and the wall.
“You’ll pardon me if I expressed reservations,” Sweeney said. “You look so, ah, refined—”
“As do many of your patrons, from what I’ve observed. One of the advantages for a woman in my profession is to be able to blend in. And few would expect a detective to be female.”
“True,” he admitted, “true.”
“To business, then. These pocket-picking incidents have occurred over the past two weeks?”
“Yes. Five in all, primarily in the afternoon. Word has begun to spread, as I’m sure Mr. Ackerman told you, and we’re bound to lose customers.”
“You spoke with the known victims?”
“Those who reported the incidents, yes. There may have been others who didn’t.”
“And none was able to describe the thief?”
“Other than that she’s a woman who disguises herself in different costumes, no. Nor have our security guards been able to find any trace of her after the incidents.”
“Were the victims all of the same sex?”
He nodded. “All men.”
“Did they have anything in common? Such as age, type of dress?”
Sweeney frowned while he cudgeled his memory. The frown had an alarming effect on his face, making it look like something that had softened and spread after being left out in the direct sun. In a moment he shook his head. “Various ages, various types of dress. Picked at random, I should think.”
“Possibly. Do you have their names and addresses?”
“Somewhere here.” He shuffled through the papers on his desk, found the list, and handed it to her. Sabina read it through, then tucked it into her reticule and rose from the chair. “You’ll begin your investigation immediately, Mrs. Carpenter?”
“Yes. I’ll notify you as soon as I have anything to report.”
John’s vast storehouse of knowledge of San Francisco’s underworld had helped Sabina familiarize herself with most of the city’s female dips and cutpurses. Fanny Spigott, dubbed “Queen of the Pickpockets,” who with her husband, Joe, “King of the Pickpockets,” had not long ago audaciously—and unsuccessfully—plotted to steal the two-thousand-pound statue of Venus de Milo from the Louvre Museum in Paris; Lily Hamlin (“Fainting Lily”), whose ploy was to pretend to pass out in the arms of her victims; Jane O’Leary (“Weeping Jane”), who lured her marks by enlisting them in the hunt for her “missing” six-year-old, then lifted their valuables while hugging them when the precocious and well-trained child accomplice was found; Myra McCoy, who claimed to have the slickest reach in town; and “Lovely Lena,” true name unknown, a blonde so bedazzling that it was said she blinded her male victims. Unfortunately, none of these, nor any others of their sorority, was working the Chutes today.
Sabina’s roaming two-hour search had taken her on a tour of the park grounds on the scenic railway, and for a thrilling boat ride down the Chutes waterway—so thrilling that, despite the generous meal she’d eaten at the Sun Dial, she had rewarded her bravery with a cone of vanilla ice cream. No person or activity had struck her as suspicious until she spied a youngish, unaccompanied woman wandering among those clustered around the merry-go-round. The way in which the woman moved and looked over the men in the crowd struck Sabina as furtive. She grew even more alert when the woman sidled up next to a nattily dressed man in a straw bowler, closer than a respectable lady would venture to a stranger. But when he turned and raised his hat to her, she quickly stepped away.
Sabina moved nearer.
The woman had light brown hair, upswept under a wide-brimmed straw picture hat similar to Sabina’s that was set low on her forehead so that her face was shadowed. She was slender, outfitted in a white shirtwaist and cornflower blue skirt. The only distinctive thing about her attire was the pin that held the hat to her head. Sabina—a connoisseur of hatpins—recognized it even from a distance as a Charles Horner of blue glass overlaid with a pattern of gold.
When the slender woman glanced around in a seemingly idle fashion, Sabina had a glimpse of rather nondescript features except for a mark on her chin that might have been a small scar. If it was a scar. . .
After a few seconds the woman’s gaze seemed to focus on a man to her right. She took a step in his direction, but when he reached down to pick up a fretting child, she didn’t approach him. Instead she veered away toward a fat burgher in a fawn-colored waistcoat, only to stop abruptly when a young girl hurried up and took hold of his arm.
The actions of a pickpocket, for certain; Sabina had observed how they operated on a number of occasions. They prowled a crowd, chose a would-be mark, studied the possibilities carefully before proceeding. The hatpin woman had backed off when two promising marks were joined by another person. It was much easier to rob an unaccompanied individual in a public place.
But who was she? Not any dip known to Sabina. And yet that blemish on her chin, the plain features, and the brown hair were familiar. . . .
The woman sauntered along, scanning the sea of faces, looking only at members of the opposite sex. Men were easier marks than those of her own sex, who were likely to cry out when they felt their purse strings cut or clutched upon. Also, men were assumed to carry larger amounts of cash and more easily sold valuables.
Apparently she saw no other prospects to her liking along the midway, and eventually approached a group of revelers clustered in front of an ice-cream wagon. She paused there, then approached a portly man who glared at her when she brushed up close beside him. She moved gracefully away, paused again outside the group, then abruptly turned to cast a long sweeping glance behind her as if sensing that she was being watched. Sabina pretended interest in a sticky-faced, weeping child who had been jostled into dropping her cotton candy, until the hatpin woman turned again and moved off at a quickened pace. Sabina followed as inconspicuously as she could without losing sight of her.
The woman’s destination soon became apparent—the park gates between Cole and Clayton. By the time she reached them, she was moving as quickly as though she were being chased.
Guilty, Sabina thought.
There was a row of hansom cabs waiting outside the gates of the park. The woman with the distinctive hatpin claimed the first in line; Sabina entered the second, asking the driver to follow the other hack. He regarded her with perplexed curiosity, no doubt unused to gentlewomen making such requests, but he neither objected nor refused. A fare was a fare, after all.
Sabina smiled wryly as she settled back. She’d seen the same bemusement on John’s face. The new century was rapidly approaching and with it what the press had dubbed the New Woman; very often these days the female sex did not think or act as they once had. Men didn’t necessarily dislike the New Woman—at least the progressively intelligent among them didn’t—but in general they failed to understand her. What did she want? Sabina had heard them asking one another on more than one occasion. Wasn’t the American woman—particularly those in cosmopolitan San Francisco—among the most prized, revered, and coddled in the world?
What they were unable to grasp was that many women were no longer content with being treated as fragile pieces of china and were tired of being considered intellectual inferiors. Such treatment, to one of Sabina’s temperament, was both demeaning and insulting.
The hatpin woman’s cab led them north on Haight and finally to Market Street, the city’s main artery. There she disembarked near the Palace Hotel—as did Sabina—and crossed Market to Montgomery. It was five o’clock, and businessmen of all kinds were streaming out of their downtown offices, many on their way to travel what the young blades termed the Cocktail Route.
The pickpocket’s destination was of no surprise to Sabina. A professional thief operated in more than one venue, and while there were plenty of potential marks at the Chutes, the Cocktail Route was a virtual dip’s paradise.
From the Reception Saloon on Sutter Street to Haquette’s Palace of Art on Post Street to the Palace Hotel Bar at Third and Market, the influential men of San Francisco trekked daily after five, partaking of fine liquor and bountiful “free lunches.” More like banquets, these lavish tables consisted of cheeses, platters of sausages and salamis, hams, small sardines, pickles, green onions, and rye and pumpernickel breads. Later came the hot dishes; terrapin cooked in its shell with cream, butter, and sherry being the most favored of all.
It was along this route that friends met, traveling in packs like so many well-trained—and sometimes ill-trained—dogs. In the various establishments, business was transacted and political alliances formed. Women were not admitted, and often, Sabina’s cousin Callie had told her, messenger boys scampered to take notes to wives waiting at dinner that stated that their husbands would be “unfortunately detained” for the evening. The festivities often continued with lavish dinners and, for the recklessly adventurous and immoral, visits to the Barbary Coast or the parlor houses in the Uptown Tenderloin, followed by stops at the Turkish baths and culminating with breakfast—and more champagne, of course—at various restaurants throughout the city.
As a respectable woman, Sabina had had no chance to frequent such establishments, but she had ample knowledge of them from Callie and from John’s tales of the days when he had been a hard-drinking Secret Service operative unabashedly savoring the liquors and fine wines, the rich foods and seductive women of this glittering city.
The hatpin woman was now well into the crowd on Montgomery Street—known as the Ambrosial Path to cocktail hour revelers. Street characters and vendors, beggars and ad-carriers for the various saloons’ free lunches, temperance speakers and the Salvation Army band, all mingled with well-dressed bankers and attorneys, politicians and physicians. The men called out greetings, conferred in groups, some joining, some breaking away. Conviviality was in the air. It was as if these men had suddenly been released from burdensome toil—although many did not reach their offices until late morning and then indulged in long recuperative luncheons.
Sabina made her way through the Ambrosial Path throngs, never losing sight of the pickpocket’s blue hat, brushing aside the importunings of a match-peddler. The woman moved along unhurriedly, scanning for marks as she had at the Chutes, and after two blocks turned left and walked over to Kearney Street at the edge of the Barbary Coast.
There the gaslit street scene was even livelier. Saloons, shooting galleries, auction houses, discount clothiers, and painless dentists lined the block; gaudy signs proclaimed Prof. Diamond, Courses in Hypnotism and the great Zocan, Astral Seer and Dr. Blake’s Indestructible Teeth. And there were sellers and pitchmen of all sorts—fakirs, snake charmers, news vendors, organ players, matrimonial agents, plug-hatted touters of Marxism and Henry George’s Single Tax. The only difference between the pitchmen and a pickpocket or footpad, Sabina thought, was that they employed quasi-legitimate means to relieve individuals of their money.
Her quarry continued to walk at a leisurely pace, stopping once to finger a bolt of Indian fabric and then again to listen to a speaker extol the dubious virtues of phrenology. Momentarily she lost her in the crowd, then spotted her again edging up close beside a gentleman in a frock coat. Hurrying, Sabina drew near just as the man cried out and bent over at the waist, his silk hat falling to the sidewalk.
The crowd swarmed around him as he straightened, his face frozen in a grimace of pain. Sabina, elbowing her way forward, saw him reach inside his coat, and suddenly anger replaced pain. “My gold watch,” he shouted, “it’s been stolen! Stop, thief!”
But no one was fleeing. Voices rose from the group around him, heads swiveled in alarm and confusion, bodies formed a moving wall that prevented Sabina from reaching or pursuing her quarry.
When she finally extricated herself, the blue hat was nowhere to be seen. The pickpocket had found an ideal mark, struck, and swiftly vanished into the crowd.
Copyright ©2012 Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini
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Marcia Muller is the New York Times best-selling creator of private investigator Sharon McCone. The author of more than thirty-five novels, Muller received the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master Award in 2005.
Bill Pronzini, creator of the Nameless Detective, is a highly praised novelist, short story writer, and anthologist. He received the Grand Master Award from MWA in 2008, making Muller and Pronzini the only living couple to share the award.