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SHORT FICTION: SPINE (Inspired by an Actual One-time Meeting)

“Mr. Hammett, Mr. Chandler, the lens is up here, please.” I swear, photographing a bunch of mystery writers is as tough as bridal parties, only without the kids sticking out tongues or scratching their business. I gave a three count so nobody would get caught blinking and pressed the shutter. They all gave me eyes except those two. Dashiell Hammett was staring three guys over at Raymond Chandler, who had his attention downward like he was wondering if he left the gas on. And what was with Hammett? Was he shooting daggers at Chandler or just feeling his scotch? Not that I’d been counting. I stopped at his third.

I dated my exposed plate with a grease pencil, “1-11-36,” as the group hustled to the exit of the Musso & Frank back room. Each contributor stopped to pump hands with Joe Shaw, editor of the detective magazine that put on the banquet. “First of many,” he said to each. “Wouldn’t be Black Mask without you.” 

Humping my gear out onto Hollywood Boulevard, Raymond Chandler rushed over to hold the door for me. “Apologies if I wrecked your picture.” With his high tone, Chandler didn’t sound much to me like a hardboiled detective writer. More like he was British. Since Horace McCoy nicked his taxi while he was helping me, I scouted for another Green Top and spotted Dashiell Hammett waiting off by himself next door under the marquee of the Vogue. When Hammett saw Chandler, he touched his brim then started over, but a Cadillac pulled to the curb, and when the chauffeur hopped out, the famous writer just waved and made for his car. “See what books and movies get you?” said Chandler. We watched the chauffeur hustling around for Hammett’s door when tires squealed and a gray Plymouth skidded to a stop in a cloud of blue wheel smoke. Its driver leveled his arm across the front seat. Crack. Another crack. And then the shooter floored it west. Hammett jogged up the sidewalk and stopped, fixing his gaze on the disappearing car. The chauffeur bolted behind his wheel, U-turned, and roared east, leaving skid marks on the road beside the spatter of his own blood.

The police aren’t too crazy about lead flying anywhere, especially Hollywood Boulevard on a Saturday afternoon. So after the cops showed up to get statements, Mr. Hammett, Mr. Chandler, and I – the only ones who saw the trigger man – got a ride downtown to look at mug books. Rossiter, a red-faced detective whose neck spilled over his collar, separated us to flip through the pictures, but brought us together in his cramped office afterward to tell us we all chose the same thug.

“Hubie Szanto is a knuckles-and-sap man for a mobster named Frank Graf. Impresario, he calls himself now that he’s got a fancy casino ship floating three miles off Santa Monica.” The detective played with Szanto’s mug shot on his blotter. “Guess Hubie’s moving up in the world and graduated to .38s. That’s the caliber slug we pulled from the Vogue box office. The other one must have hit your chauffeur.” He rapped his desktop and startled Hammett out of a daydream. “The officers told me you got a plate number off the Plymouth. That’s unusual. Most folks freeze up or duck.”

“Once upon a time, I was a private detective.”

The big cop nodded and his neck turned white at the edge of his collar. “A Pinkerton’s man, I know. I read your book. The one with the Continental Op. Not terrible.” Chandler coughed out a puff of smoke from the pipe he was lighting and hid a laugh. When our interview was over the sarge snagged us at his doorway. “Mr. Hammett? You don’t have anyone out to take a shot at you, do you?”

“Only my critics,” he said with a chiseled face. “I’ll keep an eye on you.”

My Chevrolet was still in Hollywood, and a patrolman dropped us off there. Hammett asked Chandler if he could use a drink. Chandler mumbled that he had been abstaining lately, then waved a hand and said he sure could. “It’s one thing to write about shootings and bloodshed. Quite another to witness it.” Could have fooled me, if he was rattled like I was, talking so calm. Like a professor. Which is what I started calling him in my head. 

Forget that it was six o’clock on Saturday night, they sure knew those two at Musso & Frank’s. A prime table was no problem. They even invited me to join them.

Nobody said much at first. Hammett was too involved in his scotch, and Chandler seemed to be trying to read him secretly while he sipped his Manhattan. My G&T loosened me up, so I asked how long they knew each other. Hammett sniffed and checked his watch. “Going on five hours.”

Chandler said today’s banquet was their first-ever meeting. “We don’t mingle a lot. Writing’s pretty solitary.”

“You should try screen writing,” said Hammett. “You’ll have more company than you want.”

“It affords you your own chauffeur.” This was the first time I’d seen the two exchange more than a sentence.

“The studio provides them,” said Hammett. “I liked this Lonnie. He knew how to button his lip so I could think.”

“Dreaming up your next book?” I must have said the wrong thing because his eyes dropped like they had weights on them.

But the professor said, “Yes, Mr. Hammett. When’s your next Sam Spade?”

“Better question is, when are you going to stop farting around with short stories and write a book? And it’s Dash.”

“A novel. That’s a big step. Don’t need to tell you.” Under Hammett’s stare Chandler shifted and drained his coupe glass. He seemed more rattled by this topic than by the gunplay. “Of course, I do have some, uh, notions for a book.”

“What about that one story of yours, ‘Killer in the Rain?’ Bet you could do something with that.”

“Nice of you to say, but not enough there for a full novel. Needs… I don’t know. Something more. You, of all people, must understand what I’m talking about.”

I saw Hammett’s face change for the first time, cinching into a dark frown while he thought. Then he said, “Want to know the difference between a short story and a novel? A spine.”

I wasn’t sure whether he was talking about the edge of a book or courage. If Mr. Chandler was wondering the same thing, he didn’t let on. He and Mr. Hammett just sat there in silence like a pair of gunslingers getting the measure of each other.

Since I lost Mr. Chandler his taxi and Mr. Hammett’s chauffeur got shot, I offered them rides home. On the way to Hammett’s apartment at the Beverly-Wilshire Chandler pressed Hammett on why he slowed down his book writing. “Nothing from you since The Thin Man, and that was two years ago.” 

“You said it yourself. A novel’s a big step.”

“You’re not quitting, are you?” He got no reply and turned around to look at him in the back seat. “Did you hear me, Dash?”

Hammett let out something between a sigh and a moan. “Just waiting, I guess. For what, I don’t know.” I couldn’t help thinking how these men were at two stages. One was a famous novelist and one hadn’t pulled that trigger, but both were waiting for something. And neither seemed too pleased about it. 

I had been heading west, which put me on the wrong side of Wilshire when I stopped for the light at Rodeo. I made a U-turn across the boulevard so I could pull him up to the canopy. A pair of headlights stayed glued on my tail for my illegal maneuver and stopped on my bumper outside the hotel. But the two men who got out were in suits, not uniforms. And their automobile was one of those new Cords with the coffin nose. A little swank for police detectives. One of them rested a shoe on my running board. Inside the flap of his coat I saw the butt of a revolver. He knuckled my window, and I rolled it down. “I checked the traffic before I made my turn.”

He ignored me and bent over so he could see my passengers. Then he gave a nod, and his companion opened the back door and got in. “What’s this?” asked Hammett to the man beside him.

“An invitation,” answered the one at my window. “Frank Graf would like you to be his guests aboard The Monaco this evening.”

“The gambling ship?” asked Chandler.

“All three of you.” Even though his revolver was holstered it was clear this was anything but optional. “You drive, I’ll follow.” He got back in the Cord. His companion rode with us.

Of course Hammett and Chandler kept asking our backseat driver what this was about but he only spoke to give me directions. He didn’t hold a gun, but in the mirror and saw a bulge under his arm. Because of the skeevy neighborhoods where the Examiner sends me when I get freelance work photographing homicides and overdoses, I keep a snub nose .38 in my glove box. In my mind I started practicing my move if he started to draw. All it did was make my palms slick on the wheel.

We parked on the paved lot under the municipal pier in Santa Monica. The charmer in back waited until the Cord pulled up, then we all got out. Topside, our escorts pointed us to the end of the wharf. The lousy economy had shut down most of the arcades, but those that were still open smelled the same as they always did, like popcorn and creosote. Sailors were tossing darts at balloons, trying to win teddy bears for their dates. At one stall, a mom and dad watched their ten-year-old shoot a BB gun at tin ducks. As we walked on, shouts of “Nooo!” came from behind us and something hit the Cord driver’s hat, tipping it on his head. He whirled and drew. It was that kid. The boy had turned his rifle around to shoot at us. His mom started screaming not to shoot her kid and both parents tried to snatch the air gun away. But the boy didn’t care. He just stared at us, smiling. Our man raised up to fire but his partner said, “Hey, it’s just a kid. Not here.” The gunsel holstered up and we all moved on except Raymond Chandler. The kid was still smiling that creepy smile at him, and the writer stood studying the boy shooter with same the look I get when I see a keeper through the viewfinder of my Graflex. 

We went down the stairs at the end of the pier to a dock where water taxis ferried gamblers to the floating casino for twenty-five cents. Twelve minutes later we tied up to The Monaco, a defunct cruise ship whose gunwale was rimmed by white Christmas lights. Two men in suits met our pair and the four of them whisked us past the roulette and craps tables of the boisterous and smoky gambling hall. 

The casino noise fell dead when Frank Graf’s office door latched behind us. The gangster rose from a big desk on the far end of the room and the little man in the tuxedo come toward us flashing white teeth as fake as his smile. He gave me a fast once-over then stuck a hand out to my companions. “Mr. Hammett, Mr. Chandler, welcome.”

Neither shook his hand. Hammett gave him some brow and said, “Who the hell wears a white dinner jacket in January?” 

“OK, I can see that you’re a little put off.” He dropped his hand to his side.

“Put off?” said Chandler. “You had us kidnapped.”

“Whoa, now, that’s not true. You are here as my guests. Cocktails? Sandwiches? Here.” From a cabinet he took out some casino chips, divided them in three stacks and set them on his desk. “You boys play on me tonight.”

Hammett said, “If we’re your guests, can we leave?”

“OK, if you won’t accept my hospitality, don’t you at least want to know why I invited you here?”

“I do,” said Chandler. Then he took a seat in one of the guest chairs and got out his pipe. A brief moment passed then Hammett sat, too. I took the remaining chair.

“I wanted to personally assure you that I had absolutely nothing to do with that shooting today. Normally, I wouldn’t give two shits, but since you boys are writers, and well connected, I didn’t want anybody spreading the wrong idea.” 

“Hold on,” said Hammett. “What made you think we would associate you with that?”

“A precaution.” For a rich criminal he was a poor liar.

Hammett turned in a squint to Chandler who lit the bowl of his pipe then blew out the match. After a double puff, the professor said, “I’m thinking, Dash, that we aren’t the only ones here who are well connected.”

The racketeer smiled. “You guys aren’t dumb, I’ll give you that. Yes, I do have a few eyes and ears at the police department. In my line, you have to. So when I heard you fingered one of my ex-employees as the shooter, I thought I had better clear the air.”

“Hubie Szanto no longer works for you?” asked Hammett.

“Not since he got himself involved in some blackmail crap. Now, I don’t care what you’ve heard about me. Right now, this is my life.” He spread his arms to indicate the ship and I got a whiff of his cologne. “The state and the county want to shut me down. The last thing I need is to get anywhere near blackmail, or shooting, or littering the damned sidewalk. Here’s the God’s truth. For Frank Graf, blackmail and gambling don’t mix.”

Back on the pier, Chandler worried about withholding information that the shooter was involved in a blackmail plot. Sounding like a professor again, he said, “In addition to our legal culpability for concealing information, what if we don’t tell the police, and someone ends up hurt or killed because we held back a clue?” 

He dialed the Rossiter’s office from a public telephone. All his report did was make the detective angry that we had interfered in his investigation. I could hear the cop’s voice spill out of the earpiece before he hung up on Chandler. “What did he say?” asked Hammett, hiding an actual smile.

“He said this wasn’t some dime mystery, so stay out of it.”

“That’s that, then.”

“That’s that.”

But it wasn’t. Back in my car the two of them started talking all the angles like they were plotting a dime novel. Hammett suddenly seemed like he’d awakened from a long sleep. When I pulled up to the Beverly-Wilshire again, he said, “Ray, if you were making a story of this, who do you think might know something about this blackmail?”

“Besides the shooter? I’d say the man he was shooting at.”

He nodded. “Sit tight. I’ll be right back.” Hammett, suddenly full of energy, hustled into the building like an old, weather-beaten statue that broke free of its pedestal. He returned ten minutes later, flopping into the back seat with an exhale of fresh scotch. In his desk he’d found his chauffeur’s business card with his home number. “Lon’s wife answered, frantic, thinking I might be him calling. I introduced myself and asked to come by to ask a few questions. He rested a hand on my shoulder and I took the note paper scrawled with an address on Melrose. “I’d hurry. A man’s life could be at stake.”

Chandler stared out his window a while then said, “This is sure different. It’s not like just dreaming up one of these.”

“Or maybe it’s exactly the same,” said Hammett, like he was giving an elbow to the other writer.

The place was an efficiency above a newsstand about a block from the Paramount Studios. Lon Dyman’s wife opened the door before we even knocked. She looked like hell. When we sat on the davenport she told Hammett that he was Lonnie’s favorite to drive. She barely got that out before she broke down. “Sorry. But I’m beside myself, and I can’t get anyone from the police to tell me anything, except that he was shot.” She choked up again. “And you saw it? How was he?”

Her plea was heartbreaking. The two writers eyed each other, deciding how to describe the violent attack. Hammett answered only the question she’d asked. “Sure well enough to drive out of harm’s way.”

When the relief showed on her Chandler shifted the topic. “Mrs. Dyman, did the police ask you why anyone would do this to your husband?”

She rocked her head. “They kind of did. But what would I know?” It sounded like a dodge, and not just to me.

The professor said, “Perhaps after the police spoke with you, something might have come to mind.” She kept her attention on the handkerchief she was twisting. He continued in a quieter tone. “Something that might help us save him from further trouble. Worse trouble.”

“If you know something about some blackmail, now’s the time,” said Hammett. “I think Lon would trust me.”

“Lonnie isn’t involved in blackmail, I swear.” She fished a bent Lucky out of a pack. Chandler lit her up, and after a drag, she came with it. “But there’s a family that is. A rich one up in the Hills. Last night they needed a driver to drop off the ransom, so they hired Lon from the phone book.” Mrs. Dyman spent the next few minutes telling us her Lon is not a bad guy and how honest he was by nature. “But… We work hard, and look.” She waved a trail of cigarette smoke at the sad apartment. 

“Did Lon steal the money?” asked Hammett.

“No! Well…” Upset was turning to the relief of confession. “Just some. Five hundred.”

Hammett asked, “Out of how much?”

“Ten thousand dollars.” The tears started again. “I know it was wrong. So does he. In fact, Lon felt so bad after he made the drop, he went back to replace the cash. There was a car there, and when he walked up, they shot at him so he raced off.” She reached out and clawed Hammett’s sleeve. “I know! Maybe, Mr. Hammett, if a man like you could go to those people being blackmailed. Tell them to contact the blackmailers, and say we’ll make good on the five hundred, but just… don’t let them hurt my Lonnie.” She broke down again. 

Thirty minutes later, I turned off Mullholland and we ascended a hill into a car park with a fountain flickering pink light against a mansion. When Dyman’s wife gave us the name of the blackmail mark, Hammett and Chandler knew it. Walter Foxon was a real estate developer who built tract houses in the San Fernando Valley when nobody thought it would take off. The three of us got out of my car and looked down at the twinkling lights from mile after mile of cheap homes that paid for this one.

At the top of the steps Hammett pressed the bell. While we waited I saw a chauffeur in livery across the paving blocks polishing a white Caddy. A lanky old gent opened up and gestured us inside. The butler’s purr echoed on marble. Foxon would see us in the parlor. I’m not sure what I expected, meeting a millionaire, but I never imagined what I saw in the middle of that room. A large metal barrel laid on its side with a man’s head sticking out one end. I could see his face, but it was in a mirror fastened above him. “Gentlemen, you’ll pardon me if I don’t get up.” He coughed a puny laugh drowned by the mechanical pulse of the iron lung. A half circle of chairs faced his mirror and we sat. A grandfather clocked chimed eleven, and Chandler apologized for coming at this late hour. “They’re all the same to me,” said Foxon. “I’m in this silly bucket day and night. I haven’t enjoyed an unbroken rest in two years.”

“Was it polio, my I ask?” said Chandler.

“Try po-lo. Imagine, a mounted cavalry major who fought Pancho Villa getting his spinal cord severed in a damned chukka in the Palisades. God has quite a sense of humor.” The butler asked for drink requests. Hammett instantly called for a scotch. Chandler and I skipped. “You said on the telephone you had information relating to my blackmail,” came the voice in the mirror. “How did you come to it?”

Chandler gave the nod to Hammett, and he recounted how the shooting of his driver led us to learn of the ransom and Dyson’s skim and how his wife wanted to return it to call off the shooter.

Machinery purred, compressing and releasing Foxon’s chest. At last, he said, “Have you involved the police?”

“Unsuccessfully.”

“Good.” Hammett’s scotch was served, then he continued, “I don’t have a lot of breath, so I’ll get to it. I lost my wife ten years ago and have raised my daughter as best I can. Private schools, etiquette training, a debutante. A good girl and now, a fine young lady. But Rose decided to pursue acting. In pictures.” He said it like he wanted to spit. Hammett, the screenwriter, remained stone faced. “She got mixed up romantically with an unsavory talent agent. A hood, by my measure. I found out he’d been a bootlegger. It took threatening to cut off her inheritance, but I got Rose to end it with the bum just before Thanksgiving. But this creep’s come back in an evil way. Early on, he had convinced her it was good for her acting career to take some dirty pictures. Now he’s blackmailing us. A scandal would tarnish her for life.” The color of emotion came to the old soldier’s face for the first time. “I thought the ten thousand would be the end of this. He contacted me today and wants ten more.”

“Because of the missing five hundred?” asked Chandler.

“He didn’t mention that. He’s just out to bleed me.”

The professor got out his pipe then looked at the iron lung and put it away. “Do you have a name for this fellow?”

“He goes by Ricardo Castile, but that’s an alias according to the private detective I hired to check him out.”

Hammett drained his glass. “Why didn’t you use that detective to handle this blackmail?”

“I may have to now, Mr. Hammett. I wanted to keep it quiet. I didn’t want to involve any of my staff or associates.”

 “I am truly sorry for your problem, sir.” Hammett rose. “My advice to you would be to go to the police and—“

“No!”

“Then engage your detective. Because my understanding of blackmailers is, once they strike gold, they don’t stop.”

On our way out, a voice called, “Wait!” from above. A girl of about twenty rushed down the curved staircase to the foyer, coming between us and the front door. The butler left us. “My father told me you knew something about the blackmail.” Her dad’s description of Rose Foxon was accurate: a good girl, all grown up. Her sandy hair was cut short, almost like a boy’s, and she was dressed in a simple skirt and top. I tried not to stare, but she had a swell figure underneath. 

Hammett repeated the summary that he’d given the major. Her eyes flashed panic when he mentioned Dyson’s five-C skim. “That’s horrible! We have to find that driver and hand that money over. That must be why that creep’s asking for more.”

Chandler clenched his cold pipe in his teeth and made a visual scan of the grand entry hall. “Are you trying to tell us that raising five hundred dollars is a problem for you?”

“Personally? You bet it is. I’m trying to start a career as an actress. I don’t have that kind of money. I get a small allowance, and that’s it. All this is my father’s, not mine. Now, what you need to do is, you have to find that driver and get the money to the blackmailer. Tonight. We’ll put it in with the next payment. My father told you about that, didn’t he?”

“Do you think five hundred would mean that much to him?” asked Hammett. “You know this Castile pretty well, right?”

Her face reddened. “I do know he is a hot head. And missing any bit of that cash could be enough to set him off.” Rose went from alarmed to pleading. “Don’t you see? Everything has to go smoothly or he’ll release those awful photographs. I have a screen test at MGM to play Sister Ann in Nun’s Awakening. If they get in the scandal sheets, I’m ruined. If you don’t believe me – wait.” She darted away to fetch her purse from a cabinet beneath the staircase and thrust a small stack of prints at us. Chandler hesitated, but her look was insistent, so he examined each one, then passed them through me to Hammett.

Even the scandal sheets might find these too hot to print. Rose was nude on a bed, posing in various ways, revealing all. There was nothing shy in them, and it was hard to match the six shots of pornography with the nice gal whose eyes were filling with tears in front of me. 

Hammett seemed to dwell on one of them, then shuffled the stack and returned them to her. Rose’s voice strained with desperation. “That chauffeur could fix this!” She paused to sniff. “Can’t you find him and get that money back? Please help.” 

He said, “We will, if he turns up. Meanwhile, your best bet is to work with the police.”

Rose looked at the closed parlor door and back to us. “Call me anytime if you hear anything,” she said. Then her face went pale. “How could I have been so stupid?” She returned the stack of photos to her purse then drifted up the stairs in a daze.

When we got back in my car the first thing Chandler said was, “Think that creep slipped some chloral in her drunk?”

“Or maybe she’s like all actresses,” said the screenwriter. “Exhibitionists. And nuts.”

A frown grew on the professor’s face. “Dash, maybe I’m just punch drunk because it’s late, but does something seem off-kilter?” Hammett didn’t answer. “You awake back there?” A match struck, and we turned to find Hammett examining something by its light. It was one of Rose Foxon’s nudies. “You kept one?”

The match burnt down to Hammett’s fingers, and he wagged it out. “Start the car,” he said. “Do you have access to a darkroom? Tonight, I mean?”

His eyes bored into me in the rearview. “Sure, I have a whole set-up in my apartment, depending on what you need.”

“I need a blow-up of this.”

“I didn’t peg you for having the hots for dirty pictures,” said Chandler.

“Only for dirty secrets.” He got out a sack of Durham to roll one as we swerved down the canyon to West Hollywood.

Through the closed door of my bathroom, which was also my darkroom, I made out the writers talking at my kitchen table. “You taking notes, Ray?”

“Notes? What do you mean?”

Hammett grunted and my scotch bottle got set down hard on the table. “You know damned well what I mean.” I rinsed the chemicals off the eight-by-ten, clothes-pinned it to a line, and leaned into the door for a good listen. Hammett cleared a frog. “I’m not going to wrestle with you for this. This night, I mean.” His voice grew sad and I had to strain to hear him. “You called me on it at Musso’s. I’m slowing down. I don’t have it in me to write this up just now.” 

“You’re selling yourself short, Dash.”

“Don’t condescend. It’s insulting.” Glass tinkled. “This night — wherever it goes – this story’s yours. See if it fills out your novel. I’ll bet in your hands, with a little imagination, it will. Do something with it.”

The chauffeur’s wife wasn’t expecting us. Not at two-thirty in the morning. She asked through the door who was there. When Hammett answered, instead of opening up, she told him what time it was. “It’s about Lon,” he said. “It’s important.”

Mrs. Dyman opened up. She was in a robe and wasn’t as frantic as before, but she was nervous. Chandler asked her if she had heard from her husband and she shook no. Behind her, I saw Hammett’s gaze fall on two open bottles of Eastside on the coffee table then to a pair of men’s shoes sticking out under a curtain that partitioned the kitchenette. “That’s too bad,” he said. “We have a way to get him out of this jam. It’s a tough thing to spend his life looking behind him.”

“How?” from inside the drapes. They parted and the chauffeur stood there. Dyson’s left arm hung in a sling and an amber stain wept on the shoulder of his undershirt. 

“Do you still have that half-yard on you?” asked Hammett.

It was almost four a.m. by the time we pulled off Highland Avenue and I steered up into the Hollywood Bowl parking lot. Rose Foxon was in the white Caddy, parked right where she said she’d meet us, in the upper lot near the trees, for privacy. Hammett and Chandler got out and walked over to meet her. I trailed behind. She rolled her window down as we approached. “Where’s the chauffeur?” was the first thing she said. 

“We brought the five hundred,” said Hammett.

“You said the chauffeur was coming. I want a personal apology.”

Chandler beckoned to my car. “That’s swell because he wants to see you, too.” 

Lon Dyman made his way over and said, “Yes, that’s her.”

The glow from my headlights lit up her frown. “What’s he talking about?” 

Hammett spoke, sounding more casual than I felt. “Lon was telling us something interesting. When he went back up to the observatory last night to return the money, there were two people outside the gray Plymouth at the drop. The man who shot him today and a woman.”

“The boy haircut threw me,” said Dyman, “But it was you.”

“What would I be doing there? I’m the one being blackmailed. You saw those filthy pictures.”

Hammett nodded. “So smutty, I had to look away. And when I did, something caught my eye on the nightstand beside the bed. It was a screenplay. I had our photographer friend blow up one.” Rose’s jaw dropped. He gave her the original. “Here, this is yours. But look at this.” I gave him the eight-by-ten of only the nightstand. “You can read the title on the script. Nun’s Awakening.”

“I told you. I have a screen test.”

“My eye caught this.” He held out my blow-up, and she switched on her dome light. “See the spine of the script? It’s not all-white. There are dark layers like a Napoleon pastry. I write screenplays. And once a picture starts shooting, revised pages always get printed on colored paper. Hence the layering.”

“What is all this supposed to mean to me?”

“They’re shooting Nun’s Awakening near my MGM bungalow. Production just started. No colored revision pages would have come out until last week.”

Chandler picked up. “The major told us you broke up with Ricardo Castile at Thanksgiving. Based on those colored pages in your script, those photographs could only have been taken just a few days ago.”

Her lips clenched in and out of a goldfish kiss while she dug around for an answer. Hammett set the cigarette he had rolled on the ride in the corner of his mouth. “This was why my chauffeur had to die.” He used an unlighted match to gesture at Dyman. “He could place you with Castile and spoil the blackmail plan you two hatched. Against your own father.” 

Suddenly more naked than her photos, Rose let it all out. “My father’s got millions. And when he threatened to cut me from the will, I decided I’d be damned if I was going to wait around for him to die to find out he left me only table scraps. But I had nothing to do with your driver getting shot.”

“Then why did you insist I bring him here?” 

“I told you.” She stole glances around the parking lot. “I wanted an apology.”

“Ray and I had another notion.” Hammett struck his match. But instead of lighting up, he held the flame out. Detective Rossiter and a patrolman emerged from the scrub oak and crossed the lot leading Hubie Szanto in handcuffs. 

“Look what we found hiding in here,” said Rossiter. “And what he had on him.” The cop held up a Thompson submachine gun.

Chandler turned to Rose Foxon. “That’s a lot of bullets. Looks like the chauffeur wasn’t the only one you and Hubie planned on silencing.” When the prisoner arrived, he asked him, “Or is it Ricardo? Which name are you using tonight?” 

Szanto drilled him with a menacing glare, then spat. Chandler backed up a step, and when he did, the hood body-slammed the patrolman into Rossiter and stripped his holster. Cuffed, he held the cop’s gun around his back, aiming at Chandler. A single .38 shot barked. Rose screamed. My palm felt like it had been smacked with a hammer, but through the smoke from my snub nose, I saw disbelief in Hubie’s expression as he dropped his gun then followed it to the pavement.

I made my last run as their driver, setting out again for Wilshire Boulevard. As the first glow started to break over the San Gabriels, Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler sifted through the aftermath of the night they had met each other. Szanto had confessed from his jail ward bed. Hammett said, “As for Rose, I believe the major will use his influence to keep her out of it. At least that’s the way I’d write it.”

Chandler thought a moment and said, “If I wrote it, the major would never know Rose was involved.”

“Then do,” said the other writer like he was throwing down a gauntlet. He got out. Then his head filled the open door. “Can’t you smell a novel, Ray? Make the leap. Show some God-damned spine.” Then his face faded to granite. “While it’s still in you.” Dashiell Hammett closed the car door and gave us his scarecrow’s back, offering only a small wave on his walk inside the Beverly-Wilshire.  

The professor and I rode on. Outside his house in West Hollywood, he said, “That man’s gun was aimed right at my chest, you know.”

“I had a bad feeling when we pulled into that parking lot.” I shrugged. “Lucky I’m a coward.” 

“Lucky for me you’re a coward with a .38.” As he shook my hand, he asked for a business card. “I don’t even know your name, and I might need a photographer,” he chuckled. Then he added, “Or I might think of some other way to express my gratitude.” I pulled a card from under my snub nose in the glove box and gave it to him. Raymond Chandler read it and raked the edge across his knuckles. “Philip Marlowe, huh? Nice name.”

THE END

Tom Straw is an Emmy and Writers Guild of America nominee for his TV writing and producing. He joined the Mystery Writers of America in 2007 on publication of his first book, The Trigger Episode. Subsequently, under the pseudonym Richard Castle, he authored seven New York Times Bestsellers, originating the Nikki Heat series inspired by the hit ABC show. His latest mystery, Buzz Killer, was recently published under his own name. Tom served as a board member of the MWA-NY chapter and lives on the Connecticut shoreline. “Spine” is his first published short story.