My dear departed foster pa, the Rev. Emmet Jones – may he rest in peace – once told me that San Francisco was the Devil’s Playground. As if to prove my pa wrong, the church bells of Frisco started pealing in a joyous fashion the moment I stepped off the steamer Antelope and onto the wooden jetty. It was as if the town was saying ‘This ain’t the Devil’s Playground; this is a God-fearing place!’
Then I remembered it was Sunday and the bells were merely announcing early morning church services. I saw that the ‘Broadway Wharf’ was full of people & baggage & traps & drays & omnibuses. Beyond the wharf lay a hilly town with scattered buildings & houses & even a windmill or two up on the highest points. The sky was blue and the air was mild and the sun had a kind of sparkle to it.
I saw a 2-horse omnibus waiting on the wharf. It had an advertisement for the What Cheer House on it! Because I was the only person not waiting for baggage to be unloaded, I got the best place: right at the front where I could see the driver & horses & the city. It only cost 5 cts for a ticket. I got a book of 6 tickets for a quarter, thus saving 5 cts.
Soon the omnibus was filled up with people. The conductor pulled a cord which made a ding-ding.
He said, ‘Hold on!’ so I held on to a green-painted metal bar at the front. The driver flicked the horses’ reins & we were off. We clopped south over boards at first & then onto a wooden street called ‘Davis’ between brick warehouses. By and by we turned west on a wide street called ‘Washington’ which had two story buildings made of stone, and when the conductor dinged the bell and told us ‘Montgomery!’ I got off.
This was the biggest street yet with fancy white buildings & street-level shop signs in gold paint on wood & awnings as colorful as the people who strolled on the sidewalks below them.
I found the Occidental Hotel with no problems as it was about a block long and four stories tall with each window like a little Greek temple and also some statues of naked ladies above the entrance. I saw some high-tone men & women coming out.
The women had big hats & little parasols. The men had silver-headed walking sticks & shiny black stovepipe hats. But then I saw a man in a plug hat going in. He did not look as high-tone as the others and this gave me courage. I took a deep breath and followed him in. I found myself in a luxurious lobby with chandeliers & ferns in brass pots & big leather chairs to sit in.
The man in the plug hat was striding purposefully across a Turkey carpet towards a big mahogany counter with a man in a Magenta-colored uniform standing behind. I hurried to catch up and then listened hard, to hear how it was done.
‘Is Mr. Potts residing here?’ asked the man in the Plug Hat.
‘Yes, sir,’ said Mr. Uniform. ‘He is in room three oh five.’
After Plug Hat left I stepped up to the desk & stood on tiptoe to make myself look as tall as possible.
I said in a high-tone English accent, ‘Excuse me, sir. Can you tell me is Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint residing here?’
Mr. Magenta Uniform wrinkled his nose to make Expression No. 3 – Disgust – and said, ‘What business is it of yours, boy?’
I said, ‘I have an important message for her.’
He said, ‘You may give it to me.’
I said, ‘I have been instructed to place it in her hands only.’
He came out from behind the tall counter & looked me up and down, taking in my short black hair & muddy complexion & oversized greatcoat which almost reached ground & thus hid most of my girly-girl button-up boots from his view.
‘A likely story!’ he said. ‘As if a savage like you would have anything to do with Mrs. von Vingschplint.’ He grasped my arm so hard it hurt and started to haul me through the lobby towards the glass & brass double doors.
I was trying to think what to do when my sharp nose caught the unmistakable scent. It was the ‘pipe of a thousand smells’!
Digging the heels of my button-up boots into the Turkey carpet of the Occidental Hotel, I looked around for its owner.
Sure enough, I saw two clean-shaven men, one slightly plump with a ‘hangdog’ expression, the other good-looking with fox brown hair and a slim figure.
I recognized them both and cried out, ‘Mr. Clemens! I mean, Mr. Twain! Please help me! Tell this man I am not bogus!’
The man with fox-brown hair stopped & turned & peered over at me with blood-shot eyes.
‘Why P.K.!’ he slurred. ‘Imagine seeing you here in Frisco. Ain’t it fine? And ain’t this hotel the bulliest thing? It is like heaven on the half shell.’
‘Help me!’ I repeated. ‘I am on a detective job and they do not believe me.’
Magenta Uniform said, ‘Do you know this boy, Mr. Twain?’
‘Sure,’ drawled Sam Clemens AKA Mark Twain. ‘He is a famous personage in Virginia City. He is a miniature Pinkerton Detective.’
I was thankful he had left Virginia before the news about my being a gal got out.
The man gave Mr. Mark Twain Expression No. 5 – suspicion. And with good reason: the newspaper reporter was a known prankster and brazen liar.
‘You on the trail of a desperado, P.K.?’ Mark Twain winked at me.
I nodded, and tugged my arm free of the clerk’s grasp. ‘I have to find a Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint and I think she is staying here. It is a matter of life or death!’
Mark Twain turned to Magenta Uniform. ‘Please assist this young Pinkerton Detective,’ he slurred.
The clerk heaved a deep sigh. ‘Very well, sir,’ he said. ‘If you are certain you can vouch for this person.’
‘I am certain,’ said Mr. Twain. ‘Is Mr. Shplingvint residing here?’ It was clear from his bloodshot eyes and languorous drawl and whiskey breath that he had not yet been to bed.
‘Mrs. von Vingschplint is in room two oh two,’ said Magenta Clerk. ‘But she is not here at present. She departed a few minutes ago, on her way to church.’
‘Which church?’ I said.
‘Why, the Unitarian Church of course,’ he replied. ‘Mr. Starr King is preaching this morning. He is small in stature but big of heart and all the ladies swoon for him.’
‘Dang my buttons!’ exclaimed Mark Twain. ‘Is it Sunday? I promised John D. Winters I would escort his wife to church. I said I would meet her here at ten to eleven.’
‘Here she comes now,’ said his friend, Mr. Clement T. Rice. ‘Perhaps I should nip upstairs and attend to my toilette.’
‘No!’ cried Sam. ‘Last Sunday you drenched yourself with so much cologne and bergamot that you smelled like the owner of drug store and barber shop combined. Why hello, Miz Winters,’ he drawled as a lady in gray swept up. ‘We have been waiting for you.’
Mrs. John D. Winters was wearing a gray silk gown with puffy sleeves and a lighthouse bonnet with little sprigs of gray-green sagebrush on it. I had seen her once or twice last November when I was working on a case in Carson City. Her husband was one of the legislators who had hammered out new laws for Nevada Territory. (He was a hot-tempered man who had also hammered another legislator with a piece of firewood.)
Mark Twain gestured towards us. ‘You remember Clement T. Rice AKA The Unreliable? And this here is our young friend Pinky,’ he added. ‘AKA P.K. Pinkerton, Private Eye.’
Mrs. John D. Winters greeted The Unreliable with a smile but only looked down her nose at me. I allow I must have looked like a half-Sioux street-urchin in that oversized coat and with no hat.
‘Let us all waltz down to the Unitarian church,’ said Sam. ‘I understand the Reverend Starr King is packing them to the rafters.’
Mrs. Winters smiled & nodded graciously & took his arm.
The four of us exited the hotel & soon found ourselves amongst a passel of finely dressed men and women all heading west on Sutter Street. At Stockton Street everybody turned south & so did we. On the other side of grassy plaza stood a squat & spiky stone church with a round window of colored glass.
Mrs. John D. Winters had taken Sam’s arm so Mr. Clement T. Rice was walking beside me.
‘Do you happen to know what Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint looks like?’ I asked him, as we joined log-jam of people shuffling into the church.
Mr. Clement T. Rice AKA The Unreliable nodded, ‘I have seen her in the hotel a couple of times. She is shapely and beautiful.’
That surprised me as the name Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint made me think of a stout German lady of about 50 yrs.
‘She will be near the front if I am not mistaken,’ said Mr. Clement T. Rice. Then he lowered his voice. ‘They say she is climbing the Social Ladder, and that she has buried three or four husbands. She gets richer with every marriage.’
I nodded. I had met such women before. One of them was my mortal enemy: Mrs. Violetta de Baskerville. She had also made a career of marrying and then burying. I had only narrowly succeeded in preventing my mentor Poker Face Jace from falling into her deadly web of deceit. In fact, my little silver-plated Muff Deringer had once been hers. I patted the medicine bag hanging from my neck to make sure it was still there. It was.
It was not quite 11 o’clock. The fine May morning was already hot, but inside the church it was cool & airy & full of deep organ music. I noticed the front pews were reserved for the most fashionably dressed. The usher took one look at my hatless head and oversized coat and shooed us towards the back.
Mr. Mark Twain found us a pew in the middle. We had to squish in real good. I made sure I was on the end of the row with an exit in sight. (I always like to have an exit in sight as I do not like feeling trapped.) By the time the last surge of the organ died away, I reckon there were about a thousand people packed into that church.
A shapely lady in a lighthouse bonnet went up & stood by the pulpit & faced the front.
I turned to Mr. Clement T. Rice, who was sitting next to me. ‘Is that her?’ I asked. ‘Is that Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint?’
‘No,’ he said. ‘That is a famous opera-singer. She is going to sing a Religious Song.’
Sure enough, the lady started to trill and warble in some foreign language.
I had never heard such singing in a church before & when she finished, I half expected everyone to stamp and applaud as they did at Topliffe’s Theatre in Virginia, but of course this was Church and not a Music Hall.
Then a man of about 35 rose up from behind the pulpit & read from the Bible in a voice that seemed too big for his slight frame. He was clean-shaven with flat dark hair that covered his ears & almost reached his collar.
The Unreliable nudged me. ‘That is Starr King. There in the pulpit.’
I said, ‘That little nondescript man with flat hair?’
‘Yup,’ said the Unreliable. ‘Despite his youth, he is one of the most famous preachers in the world.’
This made me eager to hear him speak, but as the lady singer launched into a second hymn, Mr. Rice bent down & whispered in my ear.
‘Do you see the lady in the front pew with the violet-colored skyscraper bonnet?’
‘That is Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint!
‘Are you sure?’
‘I am positive. She always wears that color.’
Heart thumping, I slipped out of the pew & started down the side aisle. The opera singer was still trilling and the organ was still groaning.
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a black-clad usher scowl & shake his head at me, but he was way over yonder on the other side of the church so I reckoned I could make it. The music drowned out my tippy-tappy boots as I clamped my arms to my side and broke into a fast walk. (How I longed for my butter-soft moccasins!)
I was almost at the front when the opera-singer ceased her song & sat down.
Mr. Starr King stood up, rising in his pulpit. ‘Today’s lesson,’ he said, ‘will be taken from Psalm one hundred ten and verse three, Your troops will be willing on your day of battle. Please be seated.’
He was interrupted by shouting from the back of the church. Many people looked to see what was causing the commotion, including Mrs. von Vingschplint. She turned her skyscraper-bonneted head to glance back.
At last I saw her lovely face.
My stomach did a somersault.
Mrs. V. F. von Vingschplint was not like Mrs. Violetta de Baskerville.
She was Violetta de Baskerville.