A Steve Hockensmith Mystery
We’re pleased as whiskey punch to bring you a hot-off-the-press peek at World’s Greatest Sleuth!, just released on Jan. 18 by Minotaur Books. The fifth mystery in Alameda author Steve Hockensmith’s high-spirited series featuring a pair of late–19th-century cowboy detectives, the novel brings the duo to Chicago during the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Supposedly, they’re slated to participate in a “detectiving” contest—but then the plot thickens. Following, Sleuth’s Prelude and Chapter One.
Or, The Quick and the Dead
My heart wasn’t just pounding in my ears as we ran. It sounded like I’d stuck my head inside a brass band’s bass drum half-way through a Fourth of July parade.
I didn’t slow my pace, though. Everything Old Red and I had dreamed of and worked at and suffered for these past months was on the line. Better to have my heart explode like an over-stoked boiler than quietly break in two.
We rounded a corner and saw what we’d been searching for so frantically: a raised platform topped by a huge metal tank. Between it and us was a thick-packed crowd that numbered in the hundreds.
My brother slowed down.
I sped up.
“One side! Gangway! Sleuths comin’ through!”
Fortunately for both me and the bystanders in my path, folks listened. A lane cleared through the throng—at the other end of which I saw The Enemy charging toward that tank just like me.
Well, one of The Enemies, anyhow. We had so many just then, it was hard to keep track of them all.
“Oh, no you don’t!” I roared, somehow pouring on more speed.
He and I reached the steps to the top of the tank at the same time.
“Pardon,” I said, bumping him aside and bounding up the staircase.
“Go to hell,” the man said, leaping up to grab me by the tail of my long coat.
“My apologies,” I said, kicking backward into his chest.
“Fudge you,” he said (more or less), and he wrapped his arms around my legs, bringing the both of us falling flat onto the steps.
“Excuse me,” someone new said, and I felt the skirts said someone was wearing sweep over me from heels to head as she walked up my back and then carried on up the staircase.
“Feh,” someone not-so-new said, and first The Enemy and then I oophed as my brother tramped over our backs with a far heavier step than the lady.
I got to my feet before anyone else could use me as a stepping stone.
“I’m sorry, Old Red,” I heard the lady say. “I’m afraid you’re too late to . . . oh!”
I reached the top of the stairs half-expecting to find that my brother had tackled her, skirts (and propriety) be damned. Instead, I saw the lady on her hands and knees peering into a large, round hole cut into the top of the tank. From it wafted a smell of cheese so strong I felt like I was drowning in Welsh rarebit, and for a moment I thought it was the swoon-inducing odor that had given the lady pause. But rather than pinch her nose or simply faint, she nodded down at the black hole before her.
“Is that what I think it is?”
Old Red crouched down beside her, then plugged the hole—with himself. His legs he stretched out flat while his top half he dropped down into the darkness inside the tank.
“Yes, Miss. It is,” my brother said with a sigh. “So long as you think it’s a dead feller face-down in cheddar.”
Blind Luck — Or, Things Look Black for Old Red, Yet Our Prospects Finally Brighten
That great writer, philosopher, and (I’m guessing) lunatic Lewis Carroll once offered some fine advice for anyone interested in the art of storytelling.
“Begin at the beginning,” the King proclaims in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, “and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
Yet wise as this approach might seem to be, it must be pointed out that neither Mr. Carroll nor his King were in the business of writing dime novels. I am. Which is why I’ve been forced to adopt my own credo.
To wit: Start with an exciting bit, jump back and rush through the beginning quick as you can, run through the exciting bit again (tacking on a few more for good measure) and wrap everything up before folks get bored. Then stop.
So now that we’ve got that (hopefully) exciting bit with the body out of the way, we can give Mr. Carroll’s method a go and begin at the real beginning.
On June 4, 1872, Mr. and Mrs. Conrad Amlingmeyer of Marion County, Kansas, were blessed with their fifth and, by all accounts, most beautiful child: a beaming bundle of joy they named Otto Albert, a.k.a. “Big Red,” a.k.a. me. Growing into a precocious boy who amazed all around with his intelligence, charm, and good looks, young Otto began his schooling at the early age of . . .
You know, I don’t think that “Begin at the beginning” business is as simple as it seems. What, for instance, is the beginning of the tale I have to tell? I suspect I’ve overshot it a mite.
Let me try again.
In October of this year of Our Lord 1893, while the rest of humanity was marveling at the modern miracles on display at the World’s Fair, the Columbian Exposition in Chicago, I found myself marveling at something very, very different: the gag-inducing powers of goat stink. Depending on how you looked at it, I was either a guest or (my view) prisoner on a Texas angora ranch, a place that couldn’t have been more odiferous had the primary livestock been chili-fed polecats. Yet escape had been impossible, as the other guest thereabouts—my elder brother Gustav, a.k.a. “Old Red,” a.k.a. (when he’s not around to hear me) “Chief Stick-Up-His-Ass”—was, at first, in no condition to travel and, later, of no mind to.
“And go where?” he’d say when asked if it wasn’t perhaps time to mosey on.
“Anywhere!” being my usual reply.
He’d just stare through me, as if blind. I let him get away with this for a while because he had a pretty good excuse for it: He was blind. A close call with a load of exploding flash powder had left him temporarily sightless.
After two weeks convalescing on the ranch (owned by friends from his days as a Hill Country cattle hand), Old Red was prickly, mopey, and taciturn. Pretty much back to normal, in other words. He was still grousing about his eyes, but at least he could see well enough not to flatten his big nose walking into walls anymore.
While Gustav had done his healing, I’d passed the time (and dodged any goat wrangling) by writing up an account of our most recent experiences along the mystery-solving line. Eventually, I announced that the tale was complete and I’d be riding into town to mail it to my publisher in New York.
The timing of this pronouncement was met with considerable (and justified) suspicion, for my departure coincided with the first day of the fall shearing.
“If I can help shave them shaggy bastards, by God you can, too,” Old Red snarled. I would say he was giving me his patented Steely Look of Censure, but I can’t be certain. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of purple-tinted spectacles the local sawbones had given him.
I jerked a thumb at the shearing shed my brother had been shuffling toward when I’d given him the news.
“There’s plenty of hired help in there. I ain’t needed. And anyway, I’ve put up with enough ornery old goats in my time.”
Gustav’s frown deepened, but those sun cheaters again spared me the full brunt of whichever of his usual glowers, squints, and scowls he was throwing my way. (My best guess: Glare of Irritated Vexation #5, “The Constipated Bear.”)
“So,” I said, “long as I’m headin’ into town, you got anything you need me to pick up?”
Old Red snorted. “You don’t gotta test me. You know what I want.” He turned and headed for the shed again. “Ya damn goldbricker . . .”
I did indeed know what he wanted. But it was still good to hear him ask for it, even in his cranky, roundabout way.
I was to look for the latest issue of Harper’s Weekly—and, more importantly, the new story of the late, great Sherlock Holmes it hopefully contained.
Before he’d been blinded, my brother had but one ambition in life: becoming a “consulting detective” like his hero, Mr. Holmes. Yet while he managed to sleuth us up plenty of trouble, detectiving jobs proved more elusive. So eventually I created my own, chronicling our amateur deducifications Doc Watson–style. Hence my newfound career as a writer—and my relief to learn that Old Red’s interest in crime-busting hadn’t been blown sky-high along with the rest of him. Now I just had to haul him off his ass and get him back to doing something about it again.
I stewed on that during the long ride to the nearest city, San Marcos, but the only plan I could think up was to throw a lasso on my brother and simply drag him along behind me. Which had a certain appeal, actually. I just couldn’t figure out where to drag him to.
When I finally arrived at the postmaster’s office in town, I gave my new book a good-luck kiss, paid for postage, and wished my bundled-up baby Godspeed in its journey to my literary patron, Mr. Urias Smythe of Smythe & Associates Publishing, Limited.
The postmaster was a slovenly, sleepy-looking man who draped himself over the counter between us with such slump-shouldered droopiness I almost expected him to climb up and stretch out for a nap. When he glanced down at the return address on my package, though, his eyes widened, and for the first time he looked at me as if I was something more than an exceptionally boring dream.
“Say . . . you’re one of them dee-tective brothers, ain’t you?”
I nodded. “The devilishly handsome, irresistible to women one, yeah. But I’m sure you figured that out, already.”
The postmaster wasn’t quite awake enough to follow me, and after a moment watching him blink at me slack-jawed, I prodded him with an “And . . . ?”
“Got a message for you. The Western Union boy come round lookin’ for you the other day. Said you should run over to their office first thing.”
I thanked the man, wished him sweet dreams (which got me another gawk, it being eleven in the a.m.), and left.
The Western Union office was but a couple blocks away, near the railroad depot, and the clerk there was a much more wide-awake sort of fellow—a slender man with slicked-back hair and garters on the sleeves of his immaculate white shirt. He recognized me on sight, perhaps thanks to the less-than-flattering descriptions (“doughy-faced,” indeed!) that had appeared in the local paper. (One can’t go around blowing things up—homes and their occupants, in particular—without attracting a certain amount of attention, even in Texas.)
Before I could say so much as “Hello,” the clerk whirled around to a row of cubby holes, whipped out a small sheet of paper, and offered it to me. The second I had the note in hand, the man opened his money drawer and started counting out tens.
“Uhhhh,” I said, hypnotized by the sight of those bills stacking up ever higher.
“Read the telegram, sir,” the clerk said without looking up.
When a gent’s counting out cash for me, I tend to do as he asks. This is what I read.
SAN MARCOS TEX
BRING BROTHER EXPOSITION IMMEDIATELY STOP SEND DETAILS ARRIVAL COLUMBIAN HOTEL HOPE AVENUE CHICAGO STOP ALL EXPLAINED LATEST MCCLURES MAGAZINE STOP NOT HERE NOON MONDAY 23 ALL LOST STOP FOR GODS SAKE HURRY FULL STOP
I looked back up at the clerk. He was now standing behind two tidy piles of greenbacks.
So many questions were bouncing around my skull they knocked the tongue right out of my mouth.
“Uhhhh,” I said, staring at the money again.
“Two hundred dollars,” the clerk said. “Via money order. For you.”
“Uhhhh,” I said, scanning the office wall for a calendar.
“It’s the twentieth,” the clerk told me. “You have three days to reach Chicago.”
“Uhhhh,” I said, stepping back to throw a panicked glance at the train station.
“Exposition specials leave from Houston daily,” the clerk said. “If you catch the 3:50 this afternoon, you might just make it.”
“Uhhhh,” I said, whirling in a circle looking for the nearest newsstand or sundries store.
“Page twelve,” the clerk said.
He pulled something out from under the counter and slid it over to me—a slick-looking magazine I’d never laid eyes on before. McClure’s.
I flipped to page twelve and found the following words screaming up at me.
FOR YEARS, THE WORLD HAS AWAITED AN ANSWER: HOW DID
THAT MONARCH OF ALL DETECTIVES, THAT PEERLESS
MASTER OF LOGIC, THAT FEARLESS RIGHTER OF WRONGS
MEET HIS TRAGIC END? THE ANSWER WILL BE REVEALED
IN THE NEXT ISSUE OF THIS MAGAZINE
WITH THE PUBLICATION OF DR. JOHN WATSON’S
“THE FINAL PROBLEM”
BUT ANOTHER QUESTION REMAINS: WITH HOLMES GONE, WHO IS
OUR FOREMOST CRUSADER AGAINST CRIME? WHO SHOULD OUR CONSTABULARY MOST EMULATE — AND OUR CRIMINALS MOST FEAR?
THAT QUESTION, TOO, SHALL BE ANSWERED SOON, FOR
THE S.S. McCLURE COMPANY
IN ASSOCIATION WITH NEW YORK DETECTIVE LIBRARY, SMYTHE & ASSOCIATES PUBLISHING,
THE PINKERTON NATIONAL DETECTIVE AGENCY, AND THE WORLD’S COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION COMPANY
IS PROUD TO ANNOUNCE THAT THE SEARCH IS ON FOR THE
WORLD’S GREATEST SLEUTH!
THE CLAIMANTS TO THE THRONE — RENOWNED DETECTIVES, MYSTERY-SOLVING MASTERMINDS, ALL! — WILL GATHER IN
CHICAGO THE FINAL WEEK OF THE COLUMBIAN EXPOSITION
FOR A SERIES OF CHALLENGES SPECIALLY DESIGNED
TO TEST THEIR WITS, SKILL, AND DARING.
THE JUDGE: MR. WILLIAM PINKERTON!
THE PRIZE: $10,000!
ONLY TO BE FOUND HERE,
IN THE DECEMBER ISSUE OF
I read the announcement through once, skimmed it again, triple-checked certain key phrases—“Smythe & Associates” and “The prize: $10,000” chief among them—then found my voice again at last. Lady Luck was finally offering me and my brother a helping hand rather than an upraised finger, and there was only one thing to say about it.
“Holy shit holy shit holy shit!”
And I danced a little jig right there in the Western Union office.
“Uhhhh,” the clerk said.
Excerpted from World’s Greatest Sleuth! by Steve Hockensmith. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of Minotaur Books, an imprint of St. Martin’s Press, LLC.
Steve Hockensmith is a widely published journalist, short story writer, and the author of four previous mysteries featuring Big Red and Old Red. He’s also the author of Dawn of the Dreadfuls (the prequel to Pride and Prejudice and Zombies) and the third book in the trilogy, Dreadfully Ever After, to be published in March. For more info: stevehockensmith.com.