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Excerpt: The Paradise Affair by Bill Pronzini

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Mystery Writers of America Grand Master Bill Pronzini’s next historical mystery The Paradise Affair, perfect for fans of Peaky Blinders and The Alienist.

The latest Carpenter & Quincannon mystery: “Attractive characters, a finely tuned plot, and fascinating snippets of California history. Who could ask for more?”—Publishers Weekly on The Stolen Gold Affair

Quincannon’s pursuit of two con men who have absconded to Hawaii with a considerable sum of his employer’s assets dovetails nicely with Sabina’s vision of a second honeymoon.

But neither is wont to stay out of trouble, and Sabina inadvertently becomes involved in a locked room/dying message murder in Honolulu.

The Paradise Affair will be available on January 26, 2021. Please enjoy the following excerpt of the first chapter!


1 

Quincannon

The one thing above all others that Quincannon could not abide was failure.

Failure was an affront to his pride and his skills as a detective, a threat to his mental health if not his very career. It infuriated and frustrated him. It plunged him into a morass of gloom, nagging and rankling after the fashion of an infected tooth.

A long time had passed since he’d last tasted the bitterness of defeat. He hadn’t expected he would ever taste it again. Now, faced with the evident fact that his infuriatingly elusive quarry had permanently escaped his clutches, it was as if his mouth had been stuffed with ashes. Two weeks of intense investigative work, all for nothing! He glowered at the Matson Navigation Company clerk, a look of such ferocity that the man paled; the business card Quincannon had given him dropped to the counter as if it had suddenly burned his fingers. “You’re certain those two men embarked for the Hawaiian Islands on

Saturday?”

“Yes, sir. Their names are on the Roderick Dhu’s passenger list.

James A. Varner and Simon Reno.”

Those were aliases, not their true names, but that was none of the clerk’s business. “Did they actually depart?” Quincannon demanded. “You know that for a fact?”

“They must have, sir, or their names would not be on the list.

They each booked a first-class cabin.”

“To Honolulu, not to Australia or someplace in the Far East?

You’re sure of that, too?”

“Yes, sir. Honolulu is their final destination.” “One-way or round-trip tickets?”

“Round-trip.”

“Date of return passage also booked?”

“No, sir. Round-trip tickets are valid for three months, so passengers often delay booking their return voyage.”

Hell, damn, and blast! “Did you personally sell them the tickets?” “Yes, sir,” the clerk said. “Friday afternoon, the day before the Roderick Dhu sailed. I remember them because they each paid the

one-hundred-and-fifty-dollar fee in gold specie.” “Describe them.”

The clerk did so. One tall, dark, slender, well dressed, the possessor of a mane of silvery hair; the other short, stout, red-haired, also well dressed, and sporting an imperial beard. Unquestionably the two birds Quincannon had been chasing. Incredible as it seemed, they had not only managed to fly away, they had flown the blasted country.

“May I ask why you’re looking for these men, sir?”

Quincannon said, “No, you may not,” turned on his heel, and stomped out into the cold, wet, early-May morning. Another dreary day in a string of dreary days, a perfect match for his mood.

 

Hoolihan’s Saloon was marginally closer to the Matson Navigation Company’s office than to the Market Street base of Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services. He went there first because it was a familiar place of refuge, and because he was not yet ready to face Sabina with the news of his failure.

The Second Street resort had been his favorite in his drinking days. It was there that he had sought for two long years to drown his guilty conscience after the incident in Virginia City, Nevada, when a young woman named Katherine Bennett, eight months pregnant, had perished with a bullet from his pistol in her breast. The shooting, a tragic accident, had happened during a gun battle that erupted when he and a team of local law enforcement officers attempted to arrest a pair of brothers who were counterfeiting U.S. government currency. In the skirmish one of the brothers wounded a deputy and then fled through the backyards of a row of nearby houses. Quincannon had shot the man, to avoid being shot himself; but one of his bullets had ricocheted wildly and found Katherine Bennett, who had been outside hanging up her washing.

That had been the darkest day of his life by far. The burden of responsibility for the loss of two innocent lives had been unbearable; guilt and remorse had eaten away at him, led him to take so heavily to drink that he’d been in danger of losing his position as a Secret Service operative. Two things saved him: the first was another counterfeiting case that led him to the Owyhee Mountains of Idaho; the second was meeting Sabina, then a “Pink Rose” attached to the Pinkerton Agency’s Denver office, who was there on an undercover assignment of her own. Their investigations had combined, and the successful resolutions to both had led him to make peace with himself and to the eventual creation of their detective partnership. Not a drop of alcohol had passed his lips since then, nor ever would again. Nevertheless, he continued to frequent Hoolihan’s on a sporadic basis, or had until he and Sabina tied the marital knot six months ago. His visit there today was only his second in that half year’s time. He had always felt comfortable among its clientele of small merchants, office workers, tradesmen, drummers, and less rowdy waterfront habitués. It was dark and bare in comparison to the uptown, Cocktail Route saloons, illuminated as it was by old-style gaslights. Sawdust was spread thick on the floor, and there were back-room pool and billiard tables on which Quincannon had often honed his considerable skills with a cue. The other lure for him in the old days had been Hoolihan’s free lunch, the best free lunch in the city in his estimation—corned beef, strong cheese, rye bread, bowls of hard-boiled eggs and tubs of briny pickles. But he had no appetite for any of the fare today. Nor any desire to trade the usual good-natured and mildly profane insults with Ben Joyce, the head barman. He ordered his usual tipple, a mug of steaming clam juice, and sat at a corner table letting it warm his hands and his insides while he reflected gloomily on what he’d been told by the Matson Company clerk.

James A. Varner and Simon Reno. Two of the many fictitious names utilized by the slick and slippery grifters he had pursued the past two weeks, and who had escaped his clutches by inexplicably sailing away to what had formerly been known as the Sandwich Islands. Their true names: Jackson “Lonesome Jack” Vereen—the “Lonesome Jack” an ironical moniker, for he was a libertine of gargantuan appetites—and E. B. Nagle, better known as Nevada Ned, whose primary vice was the opium derivative morphine.

During their lengthy careers, the pair had first engaged in bait-and-switch and gold-brick trickery, then graduated to confidence games involving phony stock swindles that netted greater profits. They had been arrested half a dozen times in three states and tried once for their crimes (case dismissed for insufficient evidence), and had yet to serve a single day in prison. Their latest mark had been R. W. Anderson, a nouveau riche Oakland resident who owned several East Bay dry goods establishments and who had recently begun investing in the stock market. Vereen and Nagle had made his acquaintance and insinuated themselves into his confidence by posing as Eastern investors with inside knowledge of the commodities market.

Mr. Anderson had allowed himself to be talked into the purchase of two thousand dollars’ worth of bogus shares in a nonexistent Nevada silver mine. This error in judgment had been exacerbated by the commission of a mistake even more egregious: Anderson, a trusting soul, had permitted the two swindlers to examine his slim but valuable portfolio of stock certificates and bearer bonds, then foolishly left them alone in his private office while he went to answer a call of nature. The two miscreants, naturally, had seized the opportunity to make off with the portfolio.

Embarrassment, distrust of the police, fear that word would get out and damage his standing in the community had kept him from reporting the theft. It had taken all his courage to seek the aid of a private agency, he admitted to Quincannon—that, plus a healthy dose of anger, a burning desire to see the thieves punished, and the slim hope that the stock certificates and bearer bonds could be recovered. He had chosen Carpenter and Quincannon, Professional Detective Services, because of the agency’s reputation for discretion as well as success.

Anderson was willing to pay handsomely for their services, but this was not the only factor in the decision to undertake a full-time investigation on his behalf. Quincannon didn’t often feel sorry for his clients, but he felt sorry for this one—a pleasant, well-meaning, harmless gent who had been badly used and who was suffering miserably as a result. His mouth quirked sardonically. He felt even sorrier for Mr. Anderson now. Yes, and not a little for himself.

He had been confident—overconfident, as much as he hated to admit it—that nabbing Vereen and Nagle would prove to be neither a difficult nor a lengthy undertaking. For one thing, he had had no trouble identifying them from Anderson’s descriptions and the agency’s file of dossiers of known confidence men. And for another they were known habitués of the more sordid fleshpots when financially solvent. He had tracked them through known and newly uncovered associates, both female and male, from the East Bay to San Francisco, then south to San Jose, where the pair had succeeded in cashing one of the bearer bonds, then back again to San Francisco. Twice he had come near to closing in on them, only to be foiled by cussed misfortune. He had been sure he was close to nabbing them when he learned that they had been seen in Charles Riley’s high-toned Polk Street gamblers’ mecca, House of Chance, and that one of the waiters there overheard them planning to make the rounds of the Uptown Tenderloin parlor houses. That usually meant not one but several nights of debauchery, which made it likely that they could still be found in the district.

But this turned out not to be the case. The pair had sampled the exotic wares in three establishments—Miss Bessie Hall’s notorious O’Farrell Street establishment, Lettie Carew’s Fiddle Dee Dee, and Madame Lucy’s Ye Olde Whore Shoppe. But Madame Lucy’s had been their last stop. And it was there that the trail ended. A painted and powdered, red-haired nymphet informed Quincannon, upon receipt of a gold sovereign, that after having been serviced by her, Lonesome Jack had drunkenly boasted that he and his partner were soon to embark on a voyage to the “Crossroads of the Pacific.”

Quincannon hadn’t believed it. A false boast, surely, one of Vereen’s habitual fabrications. The pair’s bases of operations ranged from Seattle to Los Angeles and points inland; never once had they traveled so far as Mexico, much less to a far-flung island in the Pacific Ocean. Yet he had no other leads, so this morning he had begun canvassing the shipping companies that offered passenger service to various ports in the South Pacific. And now, after his interview with the Matson clerk, there could be no doubt that the pair were in fact bound for Honolulu, Hawaii.

Why, blast it? A lark? Unlikely, given their past history. It must be that they had stumbled onto a new mark and were plotting a swindle as profitable as, if not more so than, the one they had perpetrated on R. W. Anderson. The red-haired bawd had had no knowledge of who or what the new game might involve, nor had Quincannon picked up so much as a whisper or a hint at any time during his search.

And what of the stock certificates and the rest of the bearer bonds? Had Vereen and Nagle taken those with them, or had they stashed them somewhere in the city? In either case he saw no way of finding out, no way of recovering the documents or the two thousand dollars in cash.

The clot of unanswerable questions made the galling taste of failure that much more bitter.

Copyright © 2021 by Bill Pronzini

Pre-order The Paradise Affair—available on January 26, 2021!

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