For the firm of Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, stopping extortionists is not only grand, but excitingly lucrative.
When a pleasant afternoon’s bicycling through Golden Gate Park with a friend ends with the revelation of threatening letters, followed by a gunshot in a mansion garden, Sabina Carpenter knows this is a case that demands her immediate and undivided attention.
The questions her partner John Quincannon has to unravel are not difficult: Wrixton, a wealthy banker, has met his extortionist’s first demand, but the order to pay another $5,000 is too much to face. The banker’s real problem is something he doesn’t want to reveal. That was fine with the detective, and when he was informed that some private letters were involved and Wrixton absolutely needed them back, there was nothing more Quincannon needed in the way of background. As with so many of San Francisco’s elite, the bedroom doors never seemed to stay shut.
That was the easy part; far more difficult was the matter of the dead courier, murdered most foully in a locked room within a locked room, creating a trail that will take John Quincannon through most of San Francisco’s less savory places and end with a riverboat trip that is anything but a relaxing cruise.
The Dangerous Ladies Affair is the next thrilling installment in this charming historical mystery series from MWA Grand Masters Marcia Muller and Bill Pronzini. It will become available January 3rd. Please enjoy this excerpt.
The spokes of bicycle wheels twirled and gleamed in the sunlight as scores of riders, alone, in tandem, and in groups, sped along the network of tree-bordered paths in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. The bloomers of the women cyclists billowed out in the wind off the nearby Pacific Ocean—flowing fabrics tight at the waist, cinched in at the knee, and adorned with varicolored flowers, stripes, and checks. Some of the gentlemen wheelers, clad in knickerbockers and white or striped jackets, steered with one hand while the other clutched a straw boater or Alpine hat to his head to keep it from being stolen by the breeze. On this crisp Spring day the park was alive with the colors and motion of the cycling mania that was sweeping not only the city but also, from all reports, the rest of the country.
The park, now nearly thirty years old, covered a thousand acres from the Panhandle on its eastern end to the Great Highway and the miles-long fence erected across the length of Ocean Beach as a barricade against wind-whipped sand. Scores of winding lanes, a wealth of trees and fragrant plantings, and numerous bridges spanning the Chain of Lakes and its streams and their tributaries made it a favorite of casual weekend cyclists as well as organized clubs. Among the most avid riders were members of the Golden Gate Ladies’ Bicycle Club; known as “scorchers,” they were swift and sure and ample competition for many of the men, save the daredevils who had preempted the title of “crackerjacks.”
Sabina Carpenter had been participating in these Sunday GGLBC excursions for several weeks now, weather permitting, at the encouragement of her new friend Amity Wellman. She found the outings exhilarating: the speed, the wind in her hair, the challenge to her muscles, the freedom of movement. Critical comments in the press from mostly male reporters that bicycle riding was harmful to women’s health, and implying that it was sexually stimulating to a dangerous degree, was stuff and nonsense. The idea of hundreds of predatory bloomer-clad women on wheels amorously descending upon crowds of timorous men amused her greatly.
She enjoyed cycling so much that she had attempted to interest her partner in Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, in taking part in the sport and perhaps joining one of the wheelmen’s clubs. John had flatly refused. It was all well and good for ladies to go bicycle riding, he said, but he considered the men who did so to be “sissified.” Which was ridiculous, of course, but God knew John had his blind spots. Well, it was probably just as well. The thought of him with his large frame and thick freebooter’s beard outfitted in banded breeches, a striped jacket, and an Alpine hat, his long legs pumping furiously at the pedals of a bicycle, was somewhat ludicrous—not that she would ever have said so to him.
She had met Amity Wellman, who rode beside her this afternoon, at a woman suffrage group meeting some months ago. Amity was well-known in the drive to add California as a Fourth Star to the suffragists’ banner, the other three states in which women had been granted the right to vote being Wyoming, Colorado, and Utah. She was head of the most active local organization, Voting Rights for Women, and would be a delegate to the California State Woman Suffrage Convention to be held in the city in November—the focal point of a statewide campaign for an amendment to the state constitution.
Not only was Sabina in sympathy with the cause, but she was herself an ardent suffragist. She had long considered herself to be a “New Woman,” the term used to describe the modern woman who broke with the traditional role of wife and mother by working outside the home—an attitude encouraged by her late husband, Stephen, during their relatively short time together. His sudden death by an outlaw’s hand outside Denver, her work as a “Pink Rose” for the Pinkerton detective agency, and her subsequent move to San Francisco to join forces with John had all deepened and broadened her sense of independence; as the widowed co-owner of a highly respectable business, she was free of many of the strictures imposed on single and married women alike. While she had always supported the suffrage movement, she had been kept too busy to take as active a role as she would have liked. The ever-increasing number of women throughout the city and state who had joined the struggle, and the emergence of outspoken leaders such as Amity Wellman, had convinced Sabina that she needed to give more of herself to the cause.
While Amity had the full backing of her wealthy husband, Burton Wellman, a noted buyer and seller of Spanish and other valuable antiques, she had been ridiculed and angrily denounced by the misogynist elements within the city’s population. As had many of her sisters, Sabina among them—in her case from hidebound clients, business associates, and casual acquaintances. Thank heaven John wasn’t one of them, else their professional association as well as their budding personal relationship would have suffered. Despite an occasional poorly considered remark, he genuinely respected and admired women, valued those with the drive to forge ahead in a world still heavily weighted against their success.
Riding beside her now, Amity slowed, raised a hand to indicate a rest stop, and veered off the path as they neared one of the many animal habitats that dotted the park, this one of bison, deer, and elk. Sabina followed suit. They laid their safety cycles on the grass and went to sit on a nearby stone bench. Sabina was a trifle winded, Amity not at all, for she had been riding regularly for many years. She was a few years older than Sabina’s thirty and in splendid physical condition—tall, willowy, long legged, and narrow hipped, with a wealth of taffy-colored hair that she wore in braided coils atop her head.
She had been unusually quiet today. There were dark smudges under her eyes, testimony to a lack of sleep, and her mouth was a taut line instead of stretched into its usual tip-tilted smile. This prompted Sabina to ask, “Amity, is something troubling you?”
“Yes, there is. I’ve been trying to decide if I should discuss it with you, ask for your professional advice. I know it’s an imposition—”
“Not at all. Is it serious?”
“It may be. I just don’t know.”
“Tell me about it.”
“I’ll do better than that—I’ll show you.”
From the pocket of her bloomers Amity extracted a folded envelope, which she handed to Sabina. It was of heavy vellum, as were the two sheets of stationery folded inside. The envelope bore nothing more than Amity’s name, so it had not come by post. The black-ink letters on both it and the enclosures had been printed by the same practiced hand, the words so perfectly aligned that they might have been formed with the aid of a ruler.
The first sheet contained half a dozen lines:
Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. You have trespassed upon the Lord’s word. Repent and beg His forgiveness, NOW, or you will suffer the full measure of His wrath.
And on the second sheet:
And the devil that deceived them was cast into the lake of fire and brimstone, where the beast and the false prophet are, and shall be tormented day and night for ever and ever. DO NOT FAIL TO TAKE HEED OR ELSE!
“When did you receive these?” Sabina asked, frowning.
“The ravening-wolves one two days ago, the other yesterday morning. There was another of the same sort four days ago that I tore up and threw away. Lord knows I’ve had my share of crank messages since I assumed the leadership role in Voting Rights for Women, and these may well be more of the same. But this last one … Perhaps I’m overreacting, but I can’t help feeling it and the others might constitute a serious threat.”
“Do you have any idea who wrote them?”
Amity hesitated for a moment before answering. “The penmanship isn’t familiar,” she said, which didn’t exactly answer Sabina’s question.
“How and where were they delivered?”
“To my home. Slipped through the mail slot.”
“What did the first message say?”
“Similar to the others—a warning that I would burn in hell for flouting the Lord’s command about submitting to the dominant male. I know our movement disturbs a number of men, and some women as well, but…”
“Are there any who have been particularly virulent in their opposition to your work?”
“No remonstrants,” Amity said, using the colloquial term for those old-line (Sabina preferred “mossbacked”) members of their sex who belonged to the Woman Anti-Suffrage Association. “But there is one male I’ve clashed with on more than one occasion.”
“And he is?”
Dobbs, the city’s former Water Department commissioner, was head of the Solidarity Party, a quasi-political group known as the “Antis” for their determined and outspoken stand against anything of a progressive nature. The suffrage movement in general and Voting Rights for Women in particular were their primary targets, though as far as Sabina knew, Dobbs and his followers had thus far restricted their opposition to the picketing of suffrage rallies, bombastic verbal assaults, and inflammatory pamphlets and newspaper articles.
“Has Dobbs ever threatened you?” she asked.
“No. But he’s been unpleasant and insulting when our paths have crossed. He hates and fears women to an alarming degree.”
“Capable of violence, then?”
“Perhaps. I simply don’t know.”
“Did you show the notes to your husband?”
“No. Burton has been away on one of his buying trips, in Sacramento and the northern Mother Lode this time, for more than a month. He won’t be back for another week or so.”
“So you’re alone in the house.”
“Yes, except for Kamiko and our cook.”
Kamiko was the young Japanese woman who, as an abandoned immigrant child, had been given shelter by the Wellmans and become their ward. Now that she had matured, she acted as their housekeeper—by her choice, for Amity and Burton considered her their daughter, not a servant. She was well named, Amity had said once, for the English translation of Kamiko was “superior child.”
“Does she know about the messages?” Sabina asked.
“Yes. I showed this one to to her and told her about the others.” Amity paused, nibbling at her full lower lip. “She’s afraid for me. And of something else, too, perhaps.”
“Why do you say that?”
“I had the feeling she was keeping something from me, some sort of secret concern.”
“As if she might suspect the identity of the message writer?”
“I can’t imagine how she could,” Amity said. “I questioned her and she denied it.”
Sabina had met Kamiko on the two occasions she’d accepted invitations to the Wellman home. The Japanese girl, while somewhat reserved, had been pleasant and friendly—not at all the so-called inscrutable Oriental. It was difficult to believe that she would withhold vital information from the woman who had raised her and whom she adored. Or, for that matter, that she or any member of her mostly Buddhist race could be responsible for threatening notes composed of dire biblical phrases.
“This is just a thought,” Sabina said. “Does Kamiko have a swain, a Caucasian of whom you don’t approve and who dislikes you as a result?”
“No. If she did have a swain, I would know it. And it’s my belief she would neither keep company with nor marry a Caucasian. Despite her Westernized upbringing, she is still very much a woman of her race.”
Sabina asked, “Is there anyone other than Nathaniel Dobbs, anyone at all, who might want to harm you? Someone affiliated with the Liquor Dealers League, for instance?”
Amity shifted her gaze away from Sabina to another group of cyclists flashing by. It was several seconds, with her eyes still averted, before she said, “No. Not where the movement is concerned.”
“For some other reason, then?”
“Are you sure?”
She’s lying. I wonder why. Something—a name, a dispute, an incident she’s afraid or unwilling to reveal? Kamiko isn’t the only one with a secret, it seems.
“What do you think, Sabina? Am I overreacting? Or should I be concerned?”
“Threatening notes are always a cause for concern. You might bring them to the attention of the police—”
“Oh, Lord, no. Policemen in general hold our cause in low regard; you know that. They would merely dismiss me as a hysterical female and do nothing.”
Sabina had no great liking for or trust in San Francisco’s constabulary herself, though she wasn’t quite as vehemently scornful in her feelings as John, who considered all but a select handful of police officials to be incompetent, corrupt, or both. In this case, Amity was no doubt right to want to avoid dealing with them.
“Is there anything you can do, Sabina? Any way you can find out who wrote the notes and whether or not the threats are genuine?”
“I could try, but—”
“I’d pay you, of course. Your usual fee for such investigations.”
“That’s not an issue. The fact is, attempting to track down anonymous notes with no more information than you’ve given me would be an extremely difficult undertaking. I could speak to Dobbs, but it would serve no real purpose. Even if he’s guilty, he would simply deny it.”
“Then there’s nothing to be done?”
“I didn’t say that. I could arrange to have an operative stay with you until your husband returns—”
“A male operative? No, that wouldn’t do.”
“Not a male, a woman,” Sabina said. “A highly competent former police matron who has done excellent work for our agency in the past.”
Amity considered this, nibbling again at her lower lip. Then, slowly, she shook her head. “How would it look to our sisters, to our opponents, if I were to have a bodyguard staying in my home and accompanying me to meetings and such? No, that won’t do, either. I’m a New Woman, and I won’t damage my reputation or the movement’s by acting like a weak sister in public or private. I’m not all that afraid for my life.”
“I never doubted your strength or your courage, Amity.”
“Thank you. So there is nothing else you can recommend?”
“Other than what we’ve discussed, and for you to be on your guard whether or not there are any more of these messages, I’m afraid there isn’t.” Sabina paused. “Well, that’s not quite true,” she said then. “There is one thing I can do, not as a detective but as a friend.”
“Have a private talk with Kamiko, if you have no objection.”
“No, no objection. But what good would it do? She’d be even less likely to confide in you, a relative stranger.”
“That’s probably true, but it couldn’t hurt to try. I’m a different sort of authority figure and I have certain professional powers of persuasion. You mentioned that you’ll be busy tomorrow and the rest of the week preparing for Friday evening’s benefit rally in Union Square. I could drop by your house while you’re away—”
“I have a better idea,” Amity said. “If you have no engagement planned for this evening, why not come back home with me and we’ll have dinner together? I’ll tell Kamiko that I’ve confided in you, then make some excuse to leave you and her alone together.”
Sabina had no plans and saw no reason to refuse the invitation. When Amity added, “Please say yes. I’d be grateful for your company tonight,” she accepted.
Amity stood then and went to lift her bicycle from the grass. Following suit with hers, Sabina asked, “Shall we try to find the rest of our group?”
“No, let’s return directly to the clubhouse,” Amity said. “I seem to have lost my enthusiasm for any more pleasure cycling today. Frankly, what I’d very much prefer, and the sooner the better, is a large glass of Burton’s amontillado.”
Copyright © 2016 by Pronzini Muller Trust
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