Yes, it’s crime. But most of you are familiar with my work know it from Leeds – in various eras – or medieval Chesterfield.
This is far from that. About 5,500 miles distant, in fact. It’s 1939, and it’s Seattle. I lived in the city for 20 years, and it’s history fascinates me. The first white people only arrived in 1851, and not even 90 years later it was a metropolis. How could that happen?
Add to that the fact that I love noir novels and well, this opening just came to me. Given that it’s different, I have no idea if any of you will enjoy it. But I’d appreciate you letting me know…
Dave Stone chewed on the meatloaf special, washed it down with a sip of coffee, then looked at the other man again.
‘Let me get this straight,’ he said. ‘You want me to give you city money for information I could maybe get for free by leaning on someone else. That it?’
Chapman had a weasel’s face, sharp and pointed, unattractive when he smiled and showed his set of stained, uneven teeth.
‘Well yeah, but you get it faster and with cleaner from me.’
They were sitting in the Dog House restaurant, on the short block of Denny between Aurora and Dexter. From his seat, Stone could look down the hill toward the bay and see the shipping heading in to Seattle or going down Puget Sound to dock in Tacoma. The sky was blue, the late May sun was bright and warm through the window. He felt happy with the world.
‘I could take you downtown and sweat it out of you for nothing.’
Chapman glanced at him nervously. He was sweating under a cheap seersucker suit and a gaudy tie, a straw boater casually pushed to the back of his head. He tried to look as if he didn’t care; instead he seemed desperate.
‘C’mon Dave, I’m trying to make a buck. It’s solid news.’
‘I’m already spending a nickel on a cup of coffee for you.’ He took out a pack of Luckies and lit one, sitting back as Harriet the waitress came over and took the empty plate.
‘You want dessert, honey? There’s apple pie. Made fresh this morning. It’s good a la mode.’
‘I’m fine, thanks.’ Once she’d gone he turned back to Chapman. ‘Okay, if it’s good I’ll give you five.’ Before the other man could object, he held up a finger to stop him, ‘And I pay you after. You’ve given me too many bum tips in the past, Tony. I’m don’t trust you these days.’
Everyone had something to sell. Information, the name of a bum who’d was looking to lie low, the winner in the last race at Longacres. That was the Depression. It had left everybody hustling. It was history now, that’s what the politicians said. But the remains of the Hooverville down on the tideflats or the people crowding the nickel lodging houses on Skid Road told a different story. There was still plenty of poverty in Seattle. Too many suspicious eyes and hungry bellies.
Chapman tugged a sack of Bull Durham tobacco from his suit coat, and took his time rolling a smoke.
‘Okay,’ he agreed finally and slid a folded piece of paper across the table. Stone raised an eyebrow as he took it. ‘You’re gonna owe me big for this, Dave.’ He slid out of the booth and left. Stone left two quarters and walked out to his Buick Special. The parking lot was almost empty. On the passenger seat the block headline in the P-I proclaimed Europe On Verge Of War. Let them fight, he thought. He had more important things on his mind, things much closer to home.
Very carefully, he unfolded Chapman’s note. Spider writing, bad spelling, but the meaning was clear. There was going to be an attempt on the life of Wilton Davis, the head of railroad workers’ union. Olympic Hotel, Friday night.
As he drove along Seventh Avenue, Stone rolled down the window and tossed out the cigarette butt. If he stopped that happening, maybe the Seattle Police Department would have a new lieutenant.
‘Goddammit, Stone, what were you doing?’ Captain McReady tossed the newspaper down on the desk. The room was almost empty. He was the only one there, sipping a cup of coffee he’d picked up at the Greek diner on the corner.
Saturday morning and the story was all over the front pages of the Seattle Times. ‘The chief called me this morning to congratulate me and I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about.’ He rested a hip against the corner of the desk, anger still flaring in his eyes, his mouth twisted, breath sour. ‘I realize you’re a big star of the press now, but maybe you’d been willing to tell me what happened.’
It had been easy enough. He’d checked Chapman’s story; it was copacetic. Davis was a bagman for the mob out of Chicago that was trying to get a foothold on the coast. But he’d been keeping back some of the money and they’d found out.
Stone had talked to the union man. Friday nights he met his girlfriend for a few hours at the Olympic when his wife thought he was out at the American Legion. A few quiet facts of life and everything was easily arranged. Davis and his friend had gone to a motor court at the top of University Way. Stone was in the room at the Olympic, gun drawn, ready as the killer picked the lock and entered silently. There wasn’t even a fight.
While he sat, passing time until the assassin showed up, he’d called the crime desk at the Seattle Times.
‘Pat, it’s Dave Stone.’
‘Dave, hey buddy, long time.’ He could almost hear the man sweating for a story. ‘You got something for me?’
You might want to be outside the Olympic a bit later. Bring a photographer with you.’
But he’d already hung up.
‘I had a tip, Cap’n,’ Stone said. ‘Just enough time to get down there before it all happened.’ He could see that McReady didn’t believe a word, but it didn’t matter. There was no one to contradict the story. He’d given Chapman ten bucks and a warning to keep his mouth shut.
‘Is that right?’ the captain asked. ‘And you want to tell me how come the Times just happened to be there with a snapper?’
‘Maybe a bellhop tipped him off.’ He shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
Pat Drake had laid it on thick in his article. Hero detective, the story read, taking on a murderer single-handedly. And there was his favorite sentence:
Detective Stone, 34, showed that, in spite of stories about corruption on the force, some Seattle policemen put the public first and show extreme bravery.
The photograph had caught his good side, too, as he led out the handcuffed prisoner. A pretty good evening’s work. And he was still home in West Seattle by eleven.
‘The chief promoted you to the empty lieutenant slot,’ MacReady said grudgingly. ‘Congratulations.’
He had to wait while the drawbridge went up and a boat passed along the Duwamish and into Elliott Bay. Then he was hitting the gas and the Buick leaped along the road, up by Longfellow Creek and toward home.
The house was a 1920s Sears catalog bungalow on a lot that still needed grass and plants. He’d picked it up at auction four years before. After the previous owner hadn’t been able to afford the taxes. Stone bumped the car over the dirt and parked by the steps to the back door.
It was a small place, but that was all he needed; he was the only one living there. It wasn’t too heavily settled out here yet; the nearest neighbor was a hundred yards away. But that was changing. It seemed like every month a new house was going up and a fresh family moving in. Right now, though, West Seattle felt like a different place, open and free.
Saturday night, still sunny and warm, but work wasn’t quite over yet. In the bedroom he tuned the radio to KVI as he changed into an old pair of pants and a faded shirt, with a jacket on top to hide his gun.
Alki Beach was busy. Families had arrived in their cars, kids too young to drive had ridden the trolley bus. The stretch of beach was packed, the water full of people. Out in the bay the ferries from the mosquito fleet plowed over to the islands and the peninsula.
This was the Seattle he loved. His father had brought him out here when Luna Park still existed. Stone was just five years old. Given him a fortune, fifty cents, to go on all the rides while he sat at the longest bar in Seattle and drank beer.
About the only time the old man was happy was when he had a full glass on the table and two or three drinks inside him. He’d been a old-time Seattle cop, knocking the heads of the drunks and the grifters south of Yesler until the Alaska gold rush. Just married, he’d left his wife and headed north, returning empty-handed a year later and begging to have his job on the force back. He’d settled down after that, no more running away. Instead, he’d drowned his sorrows and disappointments in the bars.
Stone had learned his lesson early. He enjoyed a drink, but in moderation. The picture of his father stayed at the back of his mind.
He strolled along as far as the lighthouse, watching the pretty women sitting in on the sand and enjoying the evening sun. One or two gazed back, but no one he was interested in knowing. Finally he leaned against a wall, seeing the waves sparkle out in the Sound.
‘Nobody followed you, Loot. I hung back enough to tell.’ Stone didn’t turn toward the man, just nodded and said,
‘Good job. Thanks.’
For the last week Jenkins had been tailing him. Just a year out of uniform and already the best shadow man in the department.
Stone hadn’t wanted it. He didn’t believe the threats that arrived after he arrested the killer at the Olympic Hotel. But Captain McReady was taking no chances. It would look bad if his new lieutenant ended up dead.
Stone didn’t complain, even though he liked the freedom to operate the way he wanted. A couple of times he’d manage to escape, but he couldn’t let it happen too often.
This time he didn’t even try. He strode along the sidewalk and past the screen door into Lou’s Tavern. A few steps and he was hidden in the cool shadows, away from the crowds and the noise. Jenkins would stay outside, eyes alert for trouble.
Stone bought a Rainier and carried it to the last booth at the back of the bar. John Winchester was waiting there, smoking, a half-empty glass in front of him.
‘You’re late, Mr. Stone.’ His voice was tight and he kept looking around.
‘Yeah?’ He checked his watch. ‘Five minutes. Loosen up, Johnny. What you got for me?’
They met once a month, always a Saturday evening, always at Lou’s. It was out of the way, there was a back door, and Lou kept a Colt Police under the bar in case of trouble.
‘Nothing,’ Winchester said. ‘I got nothing this time.’
He was a snappy dresser, wearing a gabardine suit from Frederick’s and a silk tie, trilby resting on the table. When the mood took him, he could be a persuasive talker, when he was getting the people in the jazz clubs of Jackson Street to spend their money on his reefer and cocaine. Stone had a tobacco tin of marijuana in his desk at work, Winchester’s prints all over the metal. That was the reason the man was here now. Good information once a month or jail. Straight choice.
‘Johnny,’ Stone said wearily, ‘I never liked liars. And you don’t do it well.’
Winchester glance darted around again, then he lowered his head as if he was speaking to the table and his voice became little more than a whisper.
‘There’s something big brewing, okay? Last night I saw Duke Swenson talking to Big Ricky Gibson in the Cotton Club, and you know those two don’t even speak.’
‘Could you get close?’ Stone asked.
Winchester shook his head.
‘Bodyguards all around.’
It was bad news. Swenson and Gibson were two of the biggest operators in Seattle. Swenson looked after everything north of the Ship Canal, while Gibson controlled the territory from Chinatown south. The only person missing from the meeting was Chuck Bowden. Downtown and Capitol Hill were his. And the fact that he hadn’t been invited was the worrying part.
‘I need you to find out what you can,’ Stone told him.
Winchester stubbed out his cigarette, lit another and took a drink of his beer.
‘Not a chance, Dave. The word’s out Talk and you’re dead. I shouldn’t even be here with you. You see why I’m scared?’
Swenson and Gibson were ruthless. And they were men of their word.
‘Okay. Keep your ears open. And if you hear anything, let me know. Anything at all.’
At home, he sat in his chair, blinds down, thinking about Winchester’s words. In the background Leo Lassen’s play-by-play on the Rainiers game came out of the radio. Suddenly it was into extra innings, the commentator yelling ‘hang on to those rocking chairs’ and he was hooked until they edged it in the twelfth, five to four, and he turned off the set. Maybe tomorrow he’d go over to Sick’s Stadium, catch the first part of the double-header. Sit with a beer and a hot dog and forget about the world.
Stone smiled as someone tapped on the door. Three short knocks, a pause, then two, another pause, three more, and one. The smile widened into a grin.
‘Hello, angel,’ he said. She came in and wrapped herself around him like she needed the affection. Five feet three, blonde hair, and a smile that could melt ice at a hundred paces. There first time she’d been here in a week.
‘Hello, Johnny. I’ve missed you.’
Stone took a couple beers from the icebox. She leaned back in her chair and sighed. Helga Lindstrom waitressed at the Rainier Club, where the city’s elite gathered to do their business and drinking away from prying eyes. She was a Ballard girl born and bred, Scandihoovian all the way back to the old country, and looked it. But he knew that someone very tough lurked under the delicacy. He’d watched her take down the thief who tried to steal her purse one lunchtime. Two blows and he was out cold on Fourth Avenue. After that, Stone knew he had to ask her on a date.
He lit a pair of Luckies and handed her one.
‘I saw something interesting tonight,’ she told him as she blew out smoke. ‘Chuck Bowden was having dinner with Joe Robinson. Then they went off to the billiard room together after.’ Helga raised an eyebrow.
‘Is that right?’ He tried to sound casual but his mind was racing. Robinson was the city attorney. His job was to put criminals in jail, not eat with them. ‘I don’t suppose you heard any of the conversation?’
‘They had a corner table and a couple of guys with them. Big lummoxes, both carrying. And they shut up while they were being served.’
Winchester was right. Something big was brewing.