Authors: Dashiell Hammett
JOSEPH THOMPSON SHAW
I first heard Personville called Poisonville by a red-haired mucker named Hickey Dewey in the Big Ship in Butte. He also called his shirt a shoit. I didn’t think anything of what he had done to the city’s name. Later I heard men who could manage their r’s give it the same pronunciation. I still didn’t see anything in it but the meaningless sort of humor that used to make richardsnary the thieves’ word for dictionary. A few years later I went to Personville and learned better.
Using one of the phones in the station, I called the
asked for Donald Willsson, and told him I had arrived.
“Will you come out to my house at ten this evening?” He had a pleasantly crisp voice. “It’s 2101 Mountain Boulevard. Take a Broadway car, get off at Laurel Avenue, and walk two blocks west.”
I promised to do that. Then I rode up to the Great Western Hotel, dumped my bags, and went out to look at the city.
The city wasn’t pretty. Most of its builders had gone in for gaudiness. Maybe they had been successful at first. Since then the smelters whose brick stacks stuck up tall against a gloomy mountain
to the south had yellow-smoked everything into uniform dinginess. The result was an ugly city of forty thousand people, set in an ugly notch between two ugly mountains that had been all dirtied up by mining. Spread over this was a grimy sky that looked as if it had come out of the smelters’ stacks.
The first policeman I saw needed a shave. The second had a couple of buttons off his shabby uniform. The third stood in the center of the city’s main intersection—Broadway and Union Street—directing traffic, with a cigar in one corner of his mouth. After that I stopped checking them up.
At nine-thirty I caught a Broadway car and followed the directions Donald Willsson had given me. They brought me to a house set in a hedged grassplot on a corner.
The maid who opened the door told me Mr. Willsson was not home. While I was explaining that I had an appointment with him a slender blonde woman of something less than thirty in green crêpe came to the door. When she smiled her blue eyes didn’t lose their stoniness. I repeated my explanation to her.
“My husband isn’t in now.” A barely noticeable accent slurred her s’s. “But if he’s expecting you he’ll probably be home shortly.”
She took me upstairs to a room on the Laurel Avenue side of the house, a brown and red room with a lot of books in it. We sat in leather chairs, half facing each other, half facing a burning coal grate, and she set about learning my business with her husband.
“Do you live in Personville?” she asked first.
“No. San Francisco.”
“But this isn’t your first visit?”
“Really? How do you like our city?”
“I haven’t seen enough of it to know.” That was a lie. I had. “I got in only this afternoon.”
Her shiny eyes stopped prying while she said:
“You’ll find it a dreary place.” She returned to her digging
with: “I suppose all mining towns are like this. Are you engaged in mining?”
“Not just now.”
She looked at the clock on the mantel and said:
“It’s inconsiderate of Donald to bring you out here and then keep you waiting, at this time of night, long after business hours.”
I said that was all right.
“Though perhaps it isn’t a business matter,” she suggested.
I didn’t say anything.
She laughed—a short laugh with something sharp in it.
“I’m really not ordinarily so much of a busybody as you probably think,” she said gaily. “But you’re so excessively secretive that I can’t help being curious. You aren’t a bootlegger, are you? Donald changes them so often.”
I let her get whatever she could out of a grin.
A telephone bell rang downstairs. Mrs. Willsson stretched her green-slippered feet out toward the burning coal and pretended she hadn’t heard the bell. I didn’t know why she thought that necessary.
She began: “I’m afraid I’ll ha—” and stopped to look at the maid in the doorway.
The maid said Mrs. Willsson was wanted at the phone. She excused herself and followed the maid out. She didn’t go downstairs, but spoke over an extension within earshot.
I heard: “Mrs. Willsson speaking…. Yes…. I beg your pardon? … Who? … Can’t you speak a little louder? …
… Yes…. Yes…. Who is this? … Hello! Hello!”
The telephone hook rattled. Her steps sounded down the hallway—rapid steps.
I set fire to a cigarette and stared at it until I heard her going down the steps. Then I went to a window, lifted an edge of the blind, and looked out at Laurel Avenue, and at the square white garage that stood in the rear of the house on that side.
Presently a slender woman in dark coat and hat came into sight hurrying from house to garage. It was Mrs. Willsson.
She drove away in a Buick coupé. I went back to my chair and waited.
Three-quarters of an hour went by. At five minutes after eleven, automobile brakes screeched outside. Two minutes later Mrs. Willsson came into the room. She had taken off hat and coat. Her face was white, her eyes almost black.
“I’m awfully sorry,” she said, her tight-lipped mouth moving jerkily, “but you’ve had all this waiting for nothing. My husband won’t be home tonight.”
I said I would get in touch with him at the
in the morning.
I went away wondering why the green toe of her left slipper was dark and damp with something that could have been blood.
I walked over to Broadway and caught a street car. Three blocks north of my hotel I got off to see what the crowd was doing around a side entrance of the City Hall.
Thirty or forty men and a sprinkling of women stood on the sidewalk looking at a door marked
There were men from mines and smelters still in their working clothes, gaudy boys from pool rooms and dance halls, sleek men with slick pale faces, men with the dull look of respectable husbands, a few just as respectable and dull women, and some ladies of the night.
On the edge of this congregation I stopped beside a square-set man in rumpled gray clothes. His face was grayish too, even the thick lips, though he wasn’t much older than thirty. His face was broad, thick-featured and intelligent. For color he depended on a red Windsor tie that blossomed over his gray flannel shirt.
“What’s the rumpus?” I asked him.
He looked at me carefully before he replied, as if he wanted to be sure that the information was going into safe hands. His eyes were gray as his clothes, but not so soft.
“Don Willsson’s gone to sit on the right hand of God, if God don’t mind looking at bullet holes.”
“Who shot him?” I asked.
The gray man scratched the back of his neck and said:
“Somebody with a gun.”
I wanted information, not wit. I would have tried my luck with some other member of the crowd if the red tie hadn’t interested me. I said:
“I’m a stranger in town. Hang the Punch and Judy on me. That’s what strangers are for.”
“Donald Willsson, Esquire, publisher of the
was found in Hurricane Street a little while ago, shot very dead by parties unknown,” he recited in a rapid singsong. “Does that keep your feelings from being hurt?”
“Thanks.” I put out a finger and touched a loose end of his tie. “Mean anything? Or just wearing it?”
“I’m Bill Quint.”
“The hell you are!” I exclaimed, trying to place the name. “By God, I’m glad to meet you!”
I dug out my card case and ran through the collection of credentials I had picked up here and there by one means or another. The red card was the one I wanted. It identified me as Henry F. Neill, A. B. seaman, member in good standing of the Industrial Workers of the World. There wasn’t a word of truth in it.
I passed this card to Bill Quint. He read it carefully, front and back, returned it to my hand, and looked me over from hat to shoes, not trustfully.
“He’s not going to die any more,” he said. “Which way you going?”
We walked down the street together, turned a corner, aimlessly as far as I knew.
“What brought you in here, if you’re a sailor?” he asked casually.
“Where’d you get that idea?”
“There’s the card.”
“I got another that proves I’m a timber beast,” I said. “If you want me to be a miner I’ll get one for that tomorrow.”
“You won’t. I run ’em here.”
“Suppose you got a wire from Chi?” I asked.
“Hell with Chi! I run ’em here.” He nodded at a restaurant door and asked: “Drink?”
“Only when I can get it.”
We went through the restaurant, up a flight of steps, and into a narrow second-story room with a long bar and a row of tables. Bill Quint nodded and said, “Hullo!” to some of the boys and girls at tables and bar, and steered me into one of the green-curtained booths that lined the wall opposite the bar.
We spent the next two hours drinking whiskey and talking.
The gray man didn’t think I had any right to the card I had showed him, nor to the other one I had mentioned. He didn’t think I was a good wobbly. As chief muckademuck of the I. W. W. in Personville, he considered it his duty to get the low-down on me, and to not let himself be pumped about radical affairs while he was doing it.
That was all right with me. I was interested in Personville affairs. He didn’t mind discussing them between casual pokings into my business with the red cards.
What I got out of him amounted to this:
For forty years old Elihu Willsson—father of the man who had been killed this night—had owned Personville, heart, soul, skin and guts. He was president and majority stockholder of the Personville Mining Corporation, ditto of the First National Bank, owner of the
the city’s only newspapers, and at least part owner of nearly every other enterprise of any importance. Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. Elihu Willsson was Personville, and he was almost the whole state.