Authors: Joe Gores
For the Op
for the great H.M.
A good many things go around in the dark besides Santa Claus
Joe Gores (1931-2011) was educated at Notre Dame University and Stanford University, served in the US Army, writing biographies of generals, and spent twelve years as a San Francisco private investigator. He is the author of the acclaimed DKA Files series and has written screenplays and television scripts. He has won three Edgar Allan Awards and Japan’s Maltese Falcon Award.
Also by Joe Gores
A TIME OF PREDATORS
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
DKA Files Series
GONE, NO FORWARDING
CONTRACT NULL AND VOID
CONS, SCAMS AND GRIFTS
SPEAK OF THE DEVIL
STAKEOUT ON PAGE STREET
amuel Dashiell Hammett guided Goodie Osborne out of Loew’s ornate Warfield through the jostling midweek crowds.
‘Oh, Sam!’ she exclaimed. ‘I just
Billy Dove!’ She had watched the whole of
enthusiastically, her baby-blue eyes even wider than usual.
Hammett grinned. He wore a maroon worsted Shaker coat over a wool shirt, an ideal outfit for the chilly San Francisco May evening. ‘You hungry?’
‘I’m always hungry.’
She tucked her arm in his. They made quite a pair: Hammett a lean six feet two, Goodie a petite blonde who came just to his shoulder. They crossed the foot of Powell Street, past gripmen and passengers heaving one of the rattly little cable cars around on the turntable for its next trip up Nob Hill.
Hammett’s thoughts were a long way from food. He was thinking about a one-time carnival showman named Felix Weber and his run-down rooming house. Weber was the trouble, all right. Weber and his damned Primrose Hotel.
Goodie was looking wistfully across Powell at the all-night Pig’n Whistle when Hammett said, ‘You ever been to Coffee Dan’s?’
‘Oh, Sam!’ She danced almost sideways for a few quick steps, skipping to keep up with his forgetfully long strides. Her eyes were alight with excitement. ‘
‘Coffee Dan’s it is.’
‘Do gamblers really hang around there, and does the man on the piano really sing dirty—’
‘Just hymns,’ Hammett assured her seriously.
They went uphill on Powell under the marquee of the sprawling at-night Owl Drug Store. Across the street, Bernstein’s jammed itself out over the sidewalk like the prow of a fifteenth-century Spanish treasure galleon.
‘Can I ride the chute?’
‘Ladies don’t. Too much stocking shows.’
Pure flapper, Goodie Osborne, from her cheap green felt cloche hat to the hem of her green jersey sports skirt a daring half-inch above her knees.
ride the chute,’ she persisted.
‘I’m too old. Pieces tend to fall off when you get—’
‘Thirty-three isn’t old.’
‘Thirty-four on Sunday.’
Her face fell. ‘Three days from now? Sam, you didn’t tell me! I don’t have a present . . .’
‘Just get me a rocking chair.’
Hammett turned in at a narrow basement stairwell on the corner of O’Farrell.
‘Sedately, sweetheart,’ he warned the glint in her eyes.
She made a moue with her small soft carmined mouth. ‘In Coffee Dan’s, who’d care?’
But she didn’t try to jump on the shiny chute that flanked the stairs to curve down out of sight below street level. Despite her short skirt and bobbed hair and rolled silk stockings, she was still really just a twenty-year-old small-town girl from Crockett who earned twenty-three dollars a week as receptionist for a credit doctor on Market Street.
The din, mingled with smoke and the odors of good food and bad booze, rose around them like cloudy water as they descended the narrow wooden stairs. A rinky-tink piano was bashing out ‘Ja-Da’ in time with a heavy baritone almost lost in the thunder of mallets on wooden tabletops.
That’s a funny little bit of melody—
It’s so soothing and appealing to me,
It goes Ja-Da, Ja-Da,
Ja-Da, Ja-Da, Jing, Jing, Jing
At the foot of the stairs, Goodie unconsciously posed for the room’s male eyes as she looked about. How fast they learned to use it, Hammett thought with open delight – even the Goodies of this world.
He leaned down to shout over the babble of voices and rattle of crockery. ‘They don’t seat you at Coffee Dan’s, angel.’
The sleeve-gartered, derby-hatted man at the piano, who was champing a dead cigar despite his singing, finished in a shower of tinkling notes. The mallets thundered out applause.
Hammett leaned close. ‘They don’t seat you, you’re lucky if someone doesn’t knock you down trying to beat you to a –
He grabbed Goodie’s hand and dragged her across the sawdust-strewn floor. They plopped down facing each other across a plank table, a relic of the wooden wharves of prequake days. It was deeply carved with intertwined initials, names, dates, and nicknames.
Goodie tried to pick out gamblers and bootleggers from the crowd. There’d sure never been anything like this back in Crockett, a little sugar town under the new Carquinez Strait bridge up by Vallejo.
Or, she thought, looking across the table, anyone like Hammett. She had met him three weeks before, when she’d been moving into the apartment next to his on Post Street after leaving the rooming house on Geary and Gough where she’d lived while attending the St Francis Technical School for Girls.
The writer had removed his snap-brim gray Wilton; his fine, prematurely gray hair contrasted sharply with his trim black mustache and expressive black brows. His eyes were penetrating and direct and clear. He weighed only one hundred and forty-five
pounds, but there was a stubborn whipcord strength to this man.
Goodie leaned across the table to shout, ‘Is it always like this?’
‘Sometimes it’s busy,’ he yelled back.
A heavyset, sweating waiter appeared, wearing old-fashioned spats and a food-stained black cutaway over his dingy apron. He balanced a tray of thick white ceramic mugs on one hand with practiced ease. The piano was working on ‘Where’d You Get Those Eyes?’ Two steaming mugs thudded down to slop java across the planks. The waiter beamed fondly at Hammett from an ugly, battered face.
‘Ham and eggs?’ When Goodie nodded, Hammett added, ‘Looking at us.’
‘Punk and plaster?’
The waiter picked up his tray and was gone.
‘What’s punk and plaster?’
‘Bread and butter. Con talk. He pulled a little time at Q once because of me.’
A wild-haired youth wearing a loud check suit and a pair of the new square-toed sport oxfords came down the chute to whoosh out across the floor. His arms flailed wildly as his feet went out from under him and he lit on the seat of his pants in the sawdust. The mallets thundered their appreciation.
‘See what would have happened if you’d come down the chute?’
He shook a Camel partway from his pack, and extended it.
After a quick glance around to see that other women were smoking, Goodie took it. Hammett lit them both up and waved out the match.
‘Sam, why don’t the police. . .’
‘Coffee Dan’s pays plenty for protection.’
She watched his hard, angular, mobile countenance as he
drifted smoke into the general haze. He could sometimes seem as insubstantial as smoke himself.
‘Penny?’ she asked almost timidly.
He merely shook his head. The tough-faced waiter arrived with their ham and eggs. Hammett ate halfway through his before losing interest and fishing out another of his cigarettes.
‘Writing problem I don’t know how to solve,’ he said unexpectedly. He checked his watch. ‘When Frankie Shaw’s tight enough, he gives out lyrics that’d turn ’em toes-up in Crockett.’
Goodie raised shapely arms above her head in an uninhibited stretch. She wanted it all. Fun. Excitement. Experience. She said: ‘What’s a Crockett?’
‘Where little girls come from.’
She leaned toward him and consciously wet her lips. ‘I know I’m a virgin, but I’m a big girl now, Sam. I know what I—’
‘You’re a brat.’ He jerked his head at a far corner of the room. ‘You were asking about gamblers. Here comes Fingers LeGrand.’
‘Why do they call him Fingers?’
‘Everything but the national anthem on a deck of cards.’
LeGrand was a cadaverous man who moved as if on rubber joints; his dolorous face, with dark-rimmed eyes, was thrust forward on a thin stalk of neck. He wore a very natty double-breasted diamond weave and a hand-tailored silk tie with a wicked purple stripe.
‘Miss Goodie Owens. Mr Harrison LeGrand.’
‘Charmed, ma’am.’ He turned back to Hammett. ‘Haven’t seen you around lately, Dash.’
‘I’m on the hog.’
He nodded. ‘When you get healthy, I’m banking a little game at twenty Prescott Court – upstairs above the wop speak.’
He bowed slightly and drifted away.
Hammett measured the piano player critically. Shaw looked drunk enough to start his special lyrics. Hammett put down
their sixty cents with a dime tip, and stood up. On the wall behind his head was a sign reading:
Goodie began, ‘Why—’
‘I promised your mother I’d look after you.’
‘You’ve never met my mother!’
‘That’s why,’ said Hammett.
They caught a rattling little dinky up Powell to Sutter, transferred to a Number 1 Owl, and left that to walk downhill on Hyde.