Sneak Peek: The Plague of Thieves Affair

The Plague of Thieves Affair by Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini Sabina Carpenter and John Quinncannon are no stranger to mysteries. In the five years since they opened Carpenter and Quinncannon, Professional Detective Services, they have solved dozens, but one has eluded even them: Sherlock Holmes or, rather, the madman claiming his identity, who keeps showing up with a frustrating (though admittedly useful) knack for solving difficult cases.

But while John is certain he can catch his quarry, Sabina is less certain she wants to catch hers. Holmes has been frustrating, but useful, even kind. She is quite certain he is mad, and quite uncertain what will happen when he is confronted with the truth. Does every mystery need to be solved?

We hope you enjoy this excerpt from Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini’s latest Carpenter and Quincannon mystery, The Plague of Thieves Affair.

Chapter 1: Quincannon

There were few more undesirable places for a detective and committed temperance man to be plying his trade, John Quincannon reflected sourly, not for the first time in the past few days, than the bowels of a blasted brewery.

The fine, rich perfume of malt, hops, yeast, and brewing and fermenting beer permeated every nook and cranny of the two-story, block-square brick building that housed Golden State Steam Beer. Whenever he prowled its multitude of rooms and passages, he was enveloped in a pungent miasma that tightened his throat and dried his mouth, creating a thirst that plain water couldn’t quite slake.

In his drinking days he had been mightily fond of the type of lager, invented during the Gold Rush and unique to San Francisco, known as “steam beer.” John Wieland’s Philadelphia Brewery, the National Brewery, and others operating in the city in this year of 1896 specialized in porter and pilsner; if one of their owners had sought the services of Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, he would not be suffering such pangs as this place instilled in him. But it had been Golden State’s James Willard who had come calling, and the fee he’d offered for an investigation into the bizarre death of the head brewmaster, Otto Ackermann, was a sum no self-respecting Scot in his right mind could afford to turn down.

In the five years since Quincannon had taken the pledge, he had seldom been even mildly tempted to return to his bibulous ways. Even on his regular visits to his favorite watering hole, Hoolihan’s Saloon on Second Street, to spend an evening with cronies or clients, he hadn’t once considered imbibing anything stronger than his usual mug of clam juice. But after four days in Golden State’s rarefied atmosphere, his craving for a tankard of San Francisco’s best steam beer had grown to the barely manageable level. Another few days here and he might well be shamefully if briefly seduced.

Well, such a temporary fall should not be in the offing. He wouldn’t be here in the guise of a city sanitation inspector for a second week, or even for one more day, if matters developed as he now believed they would. In anticipation of such a development, he wore his .36 Navy Colt holstered under his coat—the very same 1861 model sidearm his father had carried in the company of Allan Pinkerton during the Civil War, rechambered now for metal cartridges. Until today, he had honored Willard’s aversion to firearms and refusal to permit them in his brewery. Under the present circumstances, however, Quincannon had no qualms about ignoring his employer’s edict; a detective on the verge of unmasking and arresting a dangerous felon was a fool to do so unarmed. The weapon, necessary or not, was a comfortably familiar weight on his hip.

Instead of entering the brewery with the arriving employees, as he had on previous mornings, he loitered outside the main entrance. The cold, fog-laden, late January wind was much preferable to the brewery perfume. He smoked a pipeful of navy cut tobacco, feigning interest in the big dray wagons with both full and empty kegs that emerged from the wagon entrance and rumbled past on Fremont Street.

He had been there some five minutes when James Willard arrived. The brewery owner paused for a moment as if thinking of having a word with Quincannon, rightly changed his mind—this was no place to discuss matters pertaining to an undercover investigation—and moved past with no more than a nod. His step was less than brisk, his back and shoulders bowed as if he bore an invisible weight. A large florid man of fifty-odd years, Willard had gray-flecked sideburns that resembled woolly tufts of cotton and morose gray eyes. A worry-prone gent even at the best of times. And with just cause under the present circumstances.

Otto Ackermann’s death had shaken him badly, not only because the head brewmaster had been a trusted employee, but because it was Ackermann who had developed the formula for “the finest steam beer on the West Coast.” It was his fear that Ackermann had not died in a freak accident, as the incompetent minions of the law had determined after a cursory investigation, but that he had been coshed and then pitched into the vat of fermenting beer to drown. And that the reason behind the murder was a plot to steal Ackermann’s secret recipe. For no other local brewmaster had been able to equal the unique proportions in which the German immigrant mixed his ingredients, or the manner in which he treated them in the processing. Should a rival brewery manage to obtain the formula and begin brewing lager of comparable quality, Golden State’s reputation would suffer and sales decline as a result.

Only one of Willard’s competitors was cutthroat enough to collude in, if not sponsor, such a scheme—the small but aggressive West Star Brewing Company. Its owner, Cyrus Drinkwater (an ironic name for a beer mogul), was a morally bankrupt businessman who often used quas-illegal if not downright illegal methods to make his fortune. He had his busy fingers in several pies, not the least of which was a silent partnership in the Gray Brothers Quarry Company—an outfit engaged in supplying crushed stone for construction and street and sidewalk paving, by systematically dynamiting the eastern face of Telegraph Hill and hillsides in Noe Valley. The Grays, George and Harry, were also notoriously unscrupulous. Their careless quarry blasting had crushed homes, destroyed lots, severely injured several people. Numerous lawsuits had been filed against them, to little or no avail; weak law enforcement and the city’s corrupt political machine had permitted them to continue operating as they saw fit. Drinkwater, too, had escaped retribution and likewise operated with impunity in this and his other enterprises.

Quincannon had yet to tie Otto Ackermann’s death to Drinkwater and West Star, but he was now tolerably sure that the brewmaster had in fact been a homicide victim, that he knew who had created what Willard referred to as a “devil’s brew” in that vat of fermenting beer, and that the owner’s fears of a plot to steal the master formula were justified. What was needed now was additional proof. Once he had that, he would collapse the entire scheme like the proverbial house of cards.

Ah, think of the devil and he appears. For here came his man now—Caleb Lansing, Golden State’s assistant brewmaster.

Lansing, heavily bundled in cap, bandanna, and peacoat, barely glanced at him as he hurried into the building. Quincannon essayed a small satisfied smile round the stem of his briar. Lansing, he was sure, had no idea that he was under suspicion or of what lay ahead for him. Yaffling the man would be a pleasure, the more so because it would allow Quincannon to once again prove his long-held belief that he was a far better detective than any of those on the public payroll, most of whom couldn’t be counted on to detect a horseshoe in a bowl of Irish stew.

When he finished his smoke, he knocked out the dottle on the sole of his boot and stored the briar in the pocket of his chesterfield. Then, instead of entering the brewery, he strolled briskly to Market Street where he boarded a westbound trolley car.

He rode the car as far as Duboce, walked two blocks south from there to Fourteenth Street—a workingman’s neighborhood of beer halls, oyster dealers, Chinese laundries, grocers, and other small merchants. The front door of the nondescript boardinghouse where Lansing hung his hat was unlatched; Quincannon sauntered in as if he belonged there, climbed creaking stairs to the second floor.

The hallway there was deserted. He paused before the door bearing a pot-metal numeral 8 and tested the latch. Locked, naturally. Not that this presented a problem. Quincannon had developed certain skills during his years as an operative with the United States Secret Service and his subsequent time as a private investigator, some of which rivaled those of the most accomplished yeggs and housebreakers. The set of burglar tools he had liberated from a scruff named Wandering Ned several years ago, and which he now carried with him at all times in a small pouch, gave him swift access to Caleb Lansing’s two small rooms.

Both sitting room and bedroom were as untidy as most bachelor’s quarters, cluttered with personal items and several bottles of rye whiskey both empty and full. But no steam beer; Lansing evidently had little taste for what he helped brew. Quincannon commenced a methodical search, beginning with a moderately large steamer trunk at the foot of an unmade bed. It yielded naught but clothing and a faded daguerreotype of a plump young woman, scantily dressed, which was inscribed “To Caleb from his Sugar Sweet.” Sugar Sweet. Faugh!

He found nothing of interest in the closet, the bureau, or anywhere else in the bedroom. His first important discovery came when he examined the fireplace. It was gas-fitted, its iron grate little more than a cheap ornament, but something had been burned there nonetheless. Caught around one of its legs was a partially charred note penned in a sprawling backhand. Some of the writing was still legible, including an injunction from the writer to Lansing to destroy it after reading. Also present was the writer’s signature, the initials X.J. And damning this was, for very few men in San Francisco could lay claim to those initials. Quincannon knew of only one: Xavier Jones, the head brewmaster at West Star Brewing Company.

A smile parted his freebooter’s whiskers as he tucked the paper carefully inside his billfold. Little doubt remained now that Cyrus Drinkwater had a hand in this dirty business.

His second find took longer, but was equally rewarding. In a small strongbox cleverly (but not too cleverly) concealed beneath a loose floorboard he found a sheaf of greenbacks bound together with a rubber band and a handful of double eagles. A quick count revealed the total to be slightly more than two thousand dollars.

As much as he enjoyed the look and feel of spendable currency, he hesitated only a few seconds before returning the money to the strongbox and the strongbox to its hiding place. Only a corrupt detective would appropriate a wad of greenbacks, illegally obtained by Lansing though they were. John Frederick Quincannon was many things, but a thief was not one of them. He would inform the police of the booty and its whereabouts once Lansing was in their custody. Of course the cash might well mysteriously disappear before it could be used as evidence against Lansing in court—more than a few dicks on the city payroll lacked Quincannon’s code of ethics—but that was not his concern. His duty was to himself, his reputation, and his clients, no more and no less.

His mouth quirked wryly as he straightened. Criminals—bah! The lot of them, fortunately, were arrogant and careless dolts. Lansing’s failure to completely burn the note and his hiding of the payoff money here in his rooms, coupled with the testimony of the witness Quincannon had found who’d seen him entering the brewery late on the night of Otto Ackermann’s murder and Lansing’s bald denial of this fact, was more than sufficient evidence to arrest him and eventually help hang him.

Quincannon whistled an old temperance tune, “The Brewers’ Big Horses Can’t Run Over Me,” as he relocked the door to the assistant brewmaster’s rooms and then left the boardinghouse. Naught was left but to confront Lansing, urge a confession out of him through one means or another, then hand him over to those blue-coated denizens of the Hall who had the audacity to call themselves San Francisco’s finest. Then he could collect his fee from James Willard, and return to the relative peace and clean, brewery-free air of Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services.

Where only one temptation awaited him—one he would succumb to in an instant were the opportunity to present itself. A possibility, by Godfrey, that was not as unlikely as it had once seemed, not for a man as determined and optimistic as John Frederick Quincannon. For in the words of Emily Dickinson, one of his favorite poets, “Hope is the thing with feathers / That perches in the soul.”

Ah, Sabina. Dear Sabina.

Copyright © 2016 by the Pronzini-Muller Family Trust

The Plague of Thieves Affair goes on sale January 26th. Pre-order it today: Amazon | Barnes & Noble | Books-A-Million | IndieBound | Powell's