“The Hammett Hex” by Victoria Abbott
Squished into a cable car, hurtling down a steep hill, clinging to a rail with the wind rushing in your ears amid the clang and clatter of metal and the shrieks of fellow passengers might not be everybody’s idea of a romantic moment, but, strangely, it was working for me. Sure, my knuckles were white, but I was happy because I was wedged up against Tyler “Smiley” Dekker, the occasional man of my dreams. Plus the cable car we were riding gave us a view of San Francisco Bay. The half dozen-squealing school girls—black asymmetrical haircuts with the weird colored tips, the shredded jeans and the selfie sticks— couldn’t diminish the experience.
After all, you’re only young and pink-tipped once. One of them rolled her eyes at me.
I had also managed to tune out the puffy, bickering couple next to us. Who knew that you could sustain a twenty-minute dispute about the flavor of gelato? Chocolate hazelnut or nocciola? Obviously these two would never run out of things to fight about, and yet, they’d miraculously agreed to the same 49ers T-shirt.
We’d bumped into them before on the tourist walks in the area near Union Station. They always had plenty to argue with each other about.
The hulking guy right behind me was a bit harder to ignore. His large, pink, moon face was damp with sweat and his short-sleeved, blue-checked shirt strained at the buttons. He had clearly forgotten his deodorant this morning. Worse, he didn’t appear to comprehend the idea of personal space.
Smiley turned and flashed his grin. I loved that little gap between his front teeth and the way his blond hair blew in the wind. I loved that we were here in this romantic city. I loved that I could still make him blush.
Two silver-haired ladies wearing Birkenstock sandals and Tilley hats nudged each other and smiled at us in approval. I recognized them from our hotel. I’d noticed their bright toe nail polish in the line-up at the restaurant in the morning. Even though I was a bit jealous that they’d found seats on the cable car, I smiled back at them.
They each gave us a little wave they eased their way to the exit behind me.
All the world loves a lover, as they say. Loves a lover! Imagine that. Smiley and I had taken a few sharp detours in our relationship. It was still hard to believe that we were on a getaway alone without hot and cold running relatives and the persistent, gravelly voice of my employer, Vera Van Alst. Could a cop with ambitions to be a detective and a girl who was the first person in her family to go legit have a chance at happiness?
So far, it was looking good.
“Powell Street,” he mouthed. Smiley had a thing for Dashiell Hammett and Powell Street was important to him too. He mentioned the name every few minutes. He had also mentioned something to do with Sam Spade every few minutes on our cable car ride. As far as I could see, he’d watched The Maltese Falcon once too often as a child. It seemed that his grandfather was to blame. I knew all about fascinations with fictional characters and settings. So I got that. But I had just discovered this classic noir detective and I was reserving judgment about Hammett and his gang.
Today, Smiley was also busy taking pictures. I was equally busy hanging on to my gray fedora because of the bouncy ride and the stiff breeze. That fedora had been the perfect vintage find and just right for San Francisco. It was sort of inspired by Sam Spade, (see reserving judgement, above) but mainly I wore it because the foggy damp air turned my mid-length, dark hair into wild frizz. It was either the fedora or a brown paper bag.
It was our third trip on this particular line. We had three-day visitor passports and Smiley wanted us to get our twenty-bucks worth on every form of transportation.
Much of it had to doing with getting to know the city of Sam Spade. Smiley had a strong desire to visit Burrett Alley, off Stockton, where there was supposed to be a sign commemorating the shooting of Miles Archer in The Maltese Falcon. Pulp and Noir were not my thing and, to tell the truth, I’d been a bit surprised that Smiley was such an aficionado. I preferred the gentlemen of the Golden Age of Detection and of course, anything with Archie Goodwin in it. But if he wanted to see that memorial to a fictional murder, I was fine with it as long as I could keep my hat on.
Smiley had managed to turn full circle as we proceeded down the next block. There couldn’t be a building he hadn’t captured for posterity. There were plenty of shots of me too. That was fine as my hair was covered and I had lots to smile about.
“Seafood tonight?” he shouted, suddenly serious.
Well, how about that? I had something else to smile about. “We’re in the right city for it.”
My response was lost in the racket.
We shuddered to a stop again and people pushed onto the cable car. I tried not to get separated from Smiley as people squeezed their way into the car and a short, bullet-shaped man with crisply-gelled black hair attempted to shoulder his way between us. The cable car lurched forward. I steadied myself by grabbing Smiley’s belt with one hand. I held on to my hat with the other. “Sorry,” I said to the bullet-shaped man who seemed determined to take up more space.
I guess I’d been in the friendly, civil society of Harrison Falls, in upstate New York, for a bit too long. I wasn’t used to jockeying for position in confined spaces.
Bullet-man flashed me a bleak look and eased behind me. Good. Let him experience the big stinky guy first hand.
Smiley was pointing now, his enthusiastic words carried away on the wind. No question about it. He was adorable. And he wasn’t the first person to develop a fascination with Sam Spade or the Continental Op. I’d get my turn too. I couldn’t wait to get to Haight-Ashbury Street and its vintage stores.
As I reached for the airborne fedora, I felt something slam hard into my back, knocking the breath out of me. I lost hold of Smiley as I tumbled forward. When I managed to steady myself, a second sharp slam accelerated my fall. Panicked, I tried to grab at nearby passengers, but too little too late. With a roar of shouting voices behind me, I plunged, screaming wordlessly, from the lumbering cable car toward the pavement, my head set to meet Powell Street the hard way.
But I’m getting ahead of my story.
Let me start at the beginning.
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About the Author:
That shadowy figure known as Victoria Abbott is a happy collaboration between the artist, photographer and short story author, Victoria Maffini, and her mother, Mary Jane Maffini, lapsed librarian and award-winning author of three mystery series and two dozen short stories.
Their contemporary and humorous book collector mysteries draw from the beloved authors of the golden age of detection. There is no extra charge for the crooked Irish uncles or the pug. The good news is that while they’ve written five books together, they haven’t killed each other. Yet.
In other good news, their fourth book collector mystery, The Marsh Madness, won the 2016 Bony Blithe award for ‘mysteries that make us smile’. They’re smiling because their fifth book collector mystery will be released on October 4th.
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Cover art by Tony Mauro.
The Book Collector Mystery Series is published by Berkley Prime Crime