Whether chasing hoodlums or solving impossible murders, Dashiell Hammett’s Continental Op is one of the toughest detectives in the history of crime fiction
The Continental Op is going over his expense reports when a raw-boned man staggers through the door of his office, stretches out his arms, and dies. As the stranger falls to the floor, he utters a final word: Hell. It’s apt, because this man’s death will drag the Op right into the inferno. The contents of the man’s pockets are enough to send the Op off in search of his identity, his connection to San Francisco, and the treacherous underworld dealings of both the victim and his killers.
The Continental Op made his name taking punches and dodging bullets, but unraveling “The Creeping Siamese” is the kind of mystery that will baffle even him. This story, along with “The Big Knock-Over” and “$106,000 Blood Money,” is a testament to the enduring genius of Dashiell Hammett.
About the Author
Date of Birth:May 27, 1894
Date of Death:January 10, 1961
Place of Birth:St. Mary, Maryland
Place of Death:New York
Education:Baltimore Polytechnic Institute
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Creeping Siamese and Other Stories
Collected Case Files of the Continental Op The Later Years, Vol. 1
By Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman, Julie M. Rivett
MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated MediaCopyright © 1984 Pro-Distributors
All rights reserved.
Black Mask, March 1926
Standing beside the cashier's desk in the front office of the Continental Detective Agency's San Francisco branch, I was watching Porter check up my expense account when the man came in. He was a tall man, rawboned, hard-faced. Grey clothes bagged loosely from his wide shoulders. In the late afternoon sunlight that came through partially drawn blinds, his skin showed the color of new tan shoes.
He opened the door briskly, and then hesitated, standing in the doorway, holding the door open, turning the knob back and forth with one bony hand. There was no indecision in his face. It was ugly and grim, and its expression was the expression of a man who is remembering something disagreeable.
Tommy Howd, our freckled and snub-nosed office boy, got up from his desk and went to the rail that divided the office.
"Do you —?" Tommy began, and jumped back.
The man had let go the doorknob. He crossed his long arms over his chest, each hand gripping a shoulder. His mouth stretched wide in a yawn that had nothing to do with relaxation. His mouth clicked shut. His lips snarled back from clenched yellow teeth.
"Hell!" he grunted, full of disgust, and pitched down on the floor.
I heaved myself over the rail, stepped across his body, and went out into the corridor.
Four doors away, Agnes Braden, a plump woman of thirty-something who runs a public stenographic establishment, was going into her office.
"Miss Braden!" I called, and she turned, waiting for me to come up. "Did you see the man who just came in our office?"
"Yes." Curiosity put lights in her green eyes. "A tall man who came up in the elevator with me. Why?"
"Was he alone?"
"Yes. That is, he and I were the only ones who got off at this floor. Why?"
"Did you see anybody close to him?"
"No, though I didn't notice him in the elevator. Why?"
"Did he act funny?"
"Not that I noticed. Why?"
"Thanks. I'll drop in and tell you about it later."
I made a circuit of the corridors on our floor, finding nothing.
The raw-boned man was still on the floor when I returned to the office, but he had been turned over on his back. He was as dead as I had thought. The Old Man, who had been examining him, straightened up as I came in. Porter was at the telephone, trying to get the police. Tommy Howd's eyes were blue half-dollars in a white face.
"Nothing in the corridors," I told the Old Man. "He came up in the elevator with Agnes Braden. She says he was alone, and she saw nobody close to him."
"Quite so." The Old Man's voice and smile were as pleasantly polite as if the corpse at his feet had been a part of the pattern in the carpet. Fifty years of sleuthing have left him with no more emotion than a pawnbroker. "He seems to have been stabbed in the left breast, a rather large wound that was staunched with this piece of silk" — one of his feet poked at a rumpled ball of red cloth on the floor — "which seems to be a sarong."
Today is never Tuesday to the Old Man: it seems to be Tuesday.
"On his person," he went on, "I have found some nine hundred dollars in bills of various denominations, and some silver; a gold watch and a pocket knife of English manufacture; a Japanese silver coin, 50 sen; tobacco, pipe and matches; a Southern Pacific timetable; two handkerchiefs without laundry marks; a pencil and several sheets of blank paper; four two-cent stamps; and a key labeled Hotel Montgomery, Room 540.
"His clothes seem to be new. No doubt we shall learn something from them when we make a more thorough examination, which I do not care to make until the police come. Meanwhile, you had better go to the Montgomery and see what you can learn there."
In the Hotel Montgomery's lobby the first man I ran into was the one I wanted: Pederson, the house copper, a blond-mustached ex-bartender who doesn't know any more about gum-shoeing than I do about saxophones, but who does know people and how to handle them, which is what his job calls for.
"Hullo!" he greeted me. "What's the score?"
"Six to one, Seattle, end of the fourth. Who's in 540, Pete?"
"They're not playing in Seattle, you chump! Portland! A man that hasn't got enough civic spirit to know where his team —"
"Stop it, Pete! I've got no time to be fooling with your childish pastimes. A man just dropped dead in our joint with one of your room-keys in his pocket — 540."
Civic spirit went blooey in Pederson's face.
"540?" He stared at the ceiling. "That would be that fellow Rounds. Dropped dead, you say?"
"Dead. Tumbled down in the middle of the floor with a knife-cut in him. Who is this Rounds?"
"I couldn't tell you much off-hand. A big bony man with leathery skin. I wouldn't have noticed him excepting he was such a sour looking body."
"That's the bird. Let's look him up."
At the desk we learned that the man had arrived the day before, registering as H. R. Rounds, New York, and telling the clerk he expects to leave within three days. There was no record of mail or telephone calls for him. Nobody knew when he had gone out, since he had not left his key at the desk. Neither elevator boys nor bell-hops could tell us anything.
His room didn't add much to our knowledge. His baggage consisted of one pigskin bag, battered and scarred, and covered with the marks of labels that had been scraped off. It was locked, but traveling bags locks don't amount to much. This one held us up about five minutes.
Rounds' clothes — some in the bag, some in the closet — were neither many nor expensive, but they were all new. The washable stuff was without laundry marks. Everything was of popular makes, widely advertised brands that could be bought in any city in the country. There wasn't a piece of paper with anything written on it. There wasn't an identifying tag. There wasn't anything in the room to tell where Rounds had come from or why.
Pederson was peevish about it.
"I guess if he hadn't got killed he'd of beat us out of a week's bill! These guys that don't carry anything to identify 'em, and that don't leave their keys at the desk when they go out, ain't to be trusted too much!"
We had just finished our search when a bell-hop brought Detective Sergeant O'Gar, of the police department Homicide Detail, into the room.
"Been down to the Agency?" I asked him.
"Yeah, just came from there."
O'Gar pushed back his wide-brimmed black village-constable's hat and scratched his bullet head.
"Not a heap. The doc says he was opened with a blade at least six inches long by a couple wide, and that he couldn't of lived two hours after he got the blade — most likely not more'n one. We didn't find any news on him. What've you got here?"
"His name is Rounds. He registered here yesterday from New York. His stuff is new, and there's nothing on any of it to tell us anything except that he didn't want to leave a trail. No letters, no memoranda, nothing. No blood, no signs of a row, in the room."
O'Gar turned to Pederson.
"Any brown men been around the hotel? Hindus or the like?"
"Not that I saw," the house copper said. "I'll find out for you."
"Then the red silk was a sarong?" I asked.
"And an expensive one," the detective sergeant said. "I saw a lot of 'em the four years I was soldiering on the islands, but I never saw as good a one as that."
"Who wears them?"
"Men and women in the Philippines, Borneo, Java, Sumatra, Malay Peninsula, parts of India."
"Is it your idea that whoever did the carving advertised himself by running around in the streets in a red petticoat?"
"Don't try to be funny!" he growled at me. "They're often enough twisted or folded up into sashes or girdles. And how do I know he was knifed in the street? For that matter, how do I know he wasn't cut down in your joint?"
"We always bury our victims without saying anything about 'em. Let's go down and give Pete a hand in the search for your brown men."
That angle was empty. Any brown men who had snooped around the hotel had been too good at it to be caught.
I telephoned the Old Man, telling him what I had learned — which didn't cost me much breath — and O'Gar and I spent the rest of the evening sharp-shooting around without ever getting on the target once. We questioned taxicab drivers, questioned the three Roundses listed in the telephone book, and our ignorance was as complete when we were through as when we started.
The morning papers, on the streets at a little after eight o'clock that evening, had the story as we knew it.
At eleven o'clock O'Gar and I called it a night, separating in the direction of our respective beds.
We didn't stay apart long.
I opened my eyes sitting on the side of my bed in the dim light of a moon that was just coming up, with the ringing telephone in my hand.
O'Gar's voice: "1856 Broadway! On the hump!"
"1856 Broadway," I repeated, and he hung up.
I finished waking up while I phoned for a taxicab, and then wrestled my clothes on. My watch told me it was 12:55 A.M. as I went downstairs. I hadn't been fifteen minutes in bed.
1856 Broadway was a three-story house set behind a pocket-size lawn in a row of like houses behind like lawns. The others were dark. 1856 shed light from every window, and from the open front door. A policeman stood in the vestibule.
"Hello, Mac! O'Gar here?"
"Just went in."
I walked into a brown and buff reception hall, and saw the detective sergeant going up the wide stairs.
"What's up?" I asked as I joined him.
On the second floor we turned to the left, going into a library or sitting room that stretched across the front of the house.
A man in pajamas and bathrobe sat on a davenport there, with one bared leg stretched out on a chair in front of him. I recognized him when he nodded to me: Austin Richter, owner of a Market Street moving picture theater. He was a round-faced man of forty-five or so, partly bald, for whom the Agency had done some work a year or so before in connection with a ticket-seller who had departed without turning in the day's receipts.
In front of Richter a thin white-haired man with doctor written all over him stood looking at Richter's leg, which was wrapped in a bandage just below the knee. Beside the doctor, a tall woman in a fur-trimmed dressing-gown stood, a roll of gauze and a pair of scissors in her hands. A husky police corporal was writing in a notebook at a long narrow table, a thick hickory walking stick laying on the bright blue table cover at his elbow.
All of them looked around at us as we came into the room. The corporal got up and came over to us.
"I knew you were handling the Rounds job, sergeant, so I thought I'd best get word to you as soon as I heard they was brown men mixed up in this."
"Good work, Flynn," O'Gar said. "What happened here?"
"Burglary, or maybe only attempted burglary. They was four of them — crashed the kitchen door."
Richter was sitting up very straight, and his blue eyes were suddenly excited, as were the brown eyes of the woman.
"I beg your pardon," he said, "but is there — you mentioned brown men in connection with another affair — is there another?"
O'Gar looked at me.
"You haven't seen the morning papers?" I asked the theatre owner.
"Well, a man came into the Continental office late this afternoon, with a stab in his chest, and died there. Pressed against the wound, as if to stop the bleeding, was a sarong, which is where we got the brown men idea."
"Rounds, H. R. Rounds."
The name brought no recognition into Richter's eyes.
"A tall man, thin, with dark skin?" he asked. "In a grey suit?"
"All of that."
Richter twisted around to look at the woman.
"Molloy!" he exclaimed.
"Molloy!" she exclaimed.
"So you know him?"
Their faces came back toward me.
"Yes. He was here this afternoon. He left —"
Richter stopped, to turn to the woman again, questioningly.
"Yes, Austin," she said, putting gauze and scissors on the table, and sitting down beside him on the davenport. "Tell them."
He patted her hand and looked up at me again with the expression of a man who has seen a nice spot on which to lay down a heavy load.
"Sit down. It isn't a long story, but sit down."
We found ourselves chairs.
"Molloy — Sam Molloy — that is his name, or the name I have always known him by. He came here this afternoon. He'd either called up the theater or gone there, and they had told him I was home. I hadn't seen him for three years. We could see — both my wife and I — that there was something the matter with him when he came in.
"When I asked him, he said he'd been stabbed, by a Siamese, on his way here. He didn't seem to think the wound amounted to much, or pretended he didn't. He wouldn't let us fix it for him, or look at it. He said he'd go to a doctor after he left, after he'd got rid of the thing. That was what he had come to me for. He wanted me to hide it, to take care of it until he came for it again.
"He didn't talk much. He was in a hurry, and suffering. I didn't ask him any questions. I couldn't refuse him anything. I couldn't question him even though he as good as told us that it was illegal as well as dangerous. He saved our lives once — more than my wife's life — down in Mexico, where we first knew him. That was in 1916. We were caught down there during the Villa troubles. Molloy was running guns over the border, and he had enough influence with the bandits to have us released when it looked as if we were done for.
"So this time, when he wanted me to do something for him, I couldn't ask him about it. I said, 'Yes,' and he gave me the package. It wasn't a large package: about the size of — well — a loaf of bread, perhaps, but quite heavy for its size. It was wrapped in brown paper. We unwrapped it after he had gone, that is, we took the paper off. But the inner wrapping was of canvas, tied with silk cord, and sealed, so we didn't open that. We put it upstairs in the pack room, under a pile of old magazines.
"Then, at about a quarter to twelve tonight — I had only been in bed a few minutes, and hadn't gone to sleep yet — I heard a noise in here. I don't own a gun, and there's nothing you could properly call a weapon in the house, but that walking stick" — indicating the hickory stick on the table — "was in a closet in our bedroom. So I got that and came in here to see what the noise was.
"Right outside the bedroom door I ran into a man. I could see him better than he could see me, because this door was open and he showed against the window. He was between me and it, and the moonlight showed him fairly clear. I hit him with the stick, but didn't knock him down. He turned and ran in here. Foolishly, not thinking that he might not be alone, I ran after him. Another man shot me in the leg just as I came through the door.
"I fell, of course. While I was getting up, two of them came in with my wife between them. There were four of them. They were medium-sized men, brown-skinned, but not so dark. I took it for granted that they were Siamese, because Molloy had spoken of Siamese. They turned on the lights here, and one of them, who seemed to be the leader, asked me:
"'Where is it?'
"His accent was pretty bad, but you could understand his words good enough. Of course I knew they were after what Molloy had left, but I pretended I didn't. They told me, or rather the leader did, that he knew it had been left here, but they called Molloy by another name — Dawson. I said I didn't know any Dawson, and nothing had been left here, and I tried to get them to tell me what they expected to find. They wouldn't, though — they just called it 'it.'
"They talked among themselves, but of course I couldn't make out a word of what they were saying, and then three of them went out, leaving one here to guard us. He had a Luger pistol. We could hear the others moving around the house. The search must have lasted an hour. Then the one I took for the leader came in, and said something to our guard. Both of them looked quite elated.
"'It is not wise if you will leave this room for many minutes,' the leader said to me, and they left us — both of them — closing the door behind them.
"I knew they were going, but I couldn't walk on this leg. From what the doctor says, I'll be lucky if I walk on it inside of a couple of months. I didn't want my wife to go out, and perhaps run into one of them before they'd got away, but she insisted on going. She found they'd gone, and she phoned the police, and then ran up to the pack room and found Molloy's package was gone."
"And this Molloy didn't give you any hint at all as to what was in the package?" O'Gar asked when Richter had finished.
"Not a word, except that it was something the Siamese were after."
"Did he know the Siamese who stabbed him?" I asked.
"I think so," Richter said slowly, "though I am not sure he said he did."
"Do you remember his words?"
"Not exactly, I'm afraid."
Excerpted from Creeping Siamese and Other Stories by Dashiell Hammett, Richard Layman, Julie M. Rivett. Copyright © 1984 Pro-Distributors. Excerpted by permission of MysteriousPress.com/Open Road Integrated Media.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
ContentsForeword: "Through Mud and Blood and Death and Deceit",
Introduction: The Later Years, 1926–1930,
"The Big Knock-Over",
"$106,000 Blood Money",
About the Author,