IT STARTED in Boston, back in 1917. I ran into Lew Maher on the Tremont Street sidewalk of the Touraine Hotel one afternoon, and we stopped to swap a few minutes’ gossip in the snow.
I was telling him something or other when he cut in with:
“Sneak a look at this kid coming up the street. The one with the dark cap.”
Looking, I saw a gangling youth of eighteen or so; pasty and pimply face, sullen mouth, dull hazel eyes, thick, shapeless nose. He passed the city sleuth and me without attention, and I noticed his ears. They weren’t the battered ears of a pug, and they weren’t conspicuously deformed, but their rims curved in and out in a peculiar crinkled fashion.
At the corner he went out of sight, turning down Boylston Street toward Washington.
“There’s a lad that will make a name for hisself if he ain’t nabbed or rocked off too soon,” Lew predicted. “Better put him on your list. The Whosis Kid. You’ll be looking for him some one of these days.”
“What’s his racket?”
“Stick-up, gunman. He’s got the makings of a good one. He can shoot, and he’s plain crazy. He ain’t hampered by nothing like imagination or fear of consequences. I wish he was. It’s these careful, sensible birds that are easiest caught. I’d swear the Kid was in on a coupla jobs that were turned in Brookline last month. But I can’t fit him to ’em. I’m going to clamp him some day, though— and that’s a promise.”
Lew never kept his promise. A prowler killed him in an Audubon Road residence a month later.
A week or two after this conversation I left the Boston branch of the Continental Detective Agency to try army life. When the war was over I returned to the Agency payroll in Chicago, stayed there for a couple of years, and got transferred to San Francisco.
So, all in all, it was nearly eight years later that I found myself sitting behind the Whosis Kid’s crinkled ears at the Dreamland Rink.
Friday nights is fight night at the Steiner Street house. This particular one was my first idle evening in several weeks. I had gone up to the rink, fitted myself to a hard wooden chair not too far from the ring, and settled down to watch the boys throw gloves at one another. The show was about a quarter done when I picked out this pair of odd and somehow familiar ears two rows ahead of me.
I didn’t place them right away. I couldn’t see their owner’s face. He was watching Kid Cipriani and Bunny Keogh assault each other. I missed most of that fight. But during the brief wait before the next pair of boys went on, the Whosis Kid turned his head to say something to the man beside him. I saw his face and knew him.
He hadn’t changed much, and he hadn’t improved any. His eyes were duller and his mouth more wickedly sullen than I had remembered them. His face was as pasty as ever, if not so pimply.
He was directly between me and the ring. Now that I knew him, I didn’t have to pass up the rest of the card. I could watch the boys over his head without being afraid he would get out on me.
So far as I knew, the Whosis Kid wasn’t wanted anywhere— not by the Continental, anyway— and if he had been a pickpocket, or a con man, or a member of any of the criminal trades in which we are only occasionally interested, I would have let him alone. But stick-ups are always in demand. The Continental’s most important clients are insurance companies of one sort or another, and robbery policies make up a good percentage of the insurance business these days.
When the Whosis Kid left in the middle of the main event— along with nearly half of the spectators, not caring what happened to either of the musclebound heavies who were putting on a room-mate act in the ring— I went with him.
He was alone. It was the simplest sort of shadowing. The streets were filled with departing fight fans. The Kid walked down to Fillmore Street, took on a stack of wheats, bacon and coffee at a lunch room, and caught a No. 22 car.
He— and likewise I— transferred to a No. 5 car at McAllister Street, dropped off at Polk, walked north one block, turned back west for a block and a fraction, and went up the front stairs of a dingy light-housekeeping room establishment that occupied the second and third floors over a repair shop on the south side of Golden Gate Avenue, between Van Ness and Franklin.
That put a wrinkle in my forehead. If he had left the street car at either Van Ness or Franklin, he would have saved himself a block of walking. He had ridden down to Polk and walked back. For the exercise, maybe.
I loafed across the street for a short while, to see what— if anything— happened to the front windows. None that had been dark before the Kid went in lighted up now. Apparently he didn’t have a front room—unless he was a very cautious young man. I knew he hadn’t tumbled to my shadowing. There wasn’t a chance of that. Conditions had been too favorable to me.
The front of the building giving me no information, I strolled down Van Ness Avenue to look at the rear. The building ran through to Redwood Street, a narrow back street that split the block in half. Four back windows were lighted, but they told me nothing. There was a back door. It seemed to belong to the repair shop. I doubted that the occupants of the upstairs rooms could use it.
On my way home to my bed and alarm clock, I dropped in at the office, to leave a note for the Old Man:
Tailing the Whosis Kid, stick-up, 25-27, 135, 5 foot 11 inches, sallow, br. hair, hzl. eyes, thick nose, crooked ears. Origin Boston. Anything on him? Will be vicinity Golden Gate and Van Ness.
Excerpt From: Dashiell Hammett. “The Continental Op -1925-26.”
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