A Private Detective (a story)
by Nancy Ames
I remember my mother used to keep a green glass ashtray
on a little table inside the front door. She told us it
was in case Mike Hammer or Sam Spade dropped by. Those
guys chain-smoked and they were always in such a big
hurry, she would say.
My Ma drank a bit, mostly when she was cooking, which she
generally was, so we didn`t mind, not at all.
"Oh, Ma!" I said like always. "Those guys aren`t real!"
"Well, Mickey Spillane was real. He was a writer. Writers
are real people. One time when I was pregnant with you
Mickey Spillane got up and gave me his seat on the bus.
What a tough guy! And so handsome! I always hoped you`d
take after him because you sort of shared the same air-space
on the bus that day."
"And anyway, Dashiell Hammett wrote The Maltese Falcon that
was very famous and he worked for the Pinkerton Detective
Agency before. He was a private dick. That`s a historical
Behind me I could hear my two little sisters go into fits of
giggles and Ma hissed at them to get up off the couch and go
tidy up their room.
Then she said, "Private investigators, as I suppose they are
properly called, do all the risky stuff so the cops can live
long enough to collect their pensions. The dicks don`t have
to use all the sirens and flashing lights and let the criminals
know they`re coming, so the dicks can fade through the shadows
and get the drop on them nasty buggers."
I said, "Sure, Ma. Sure."
"It was a private dick helped me get my first divorce, you know,
from that Mr. Sebastian, who was a really beautiful guy to look
at, with his wavy black hair and lovely shining eyes, but his
heart was already going more and more rotten and I was just too
young to know."
Behind me I could hear the girls going along the hall to their
room, laughing and whispering, "Private dick! Private dick!"
Ma just clicked her tongue and ignored them. She told me, "A
couple of years after I married your father, I ran into that same
private detective fella in that little drugstore up the street.
He told me I had sure been lucky because Mr. Sebastian really
went to the bad after that. The drinking and the gambling got
much worse and then he joined up with some of them mobbed-up
gangsters downtown. Ended up doing hard time for something or
Ma lowered her voice and said, "I told him I guessed I was lucky
I left Mr. Sebastian before we had any kids. Sure did dodge a
bullet there." She winked at me and said, "Back in them days a
private dick was a real gentleman."
Ma started to walk back to the kitchen, smiling reminiscently and
wiping her hands on her apron.
Just to tease her I took a cigarette out of my package of Lucky
Strikes and dangled it between my lips.
Ma stopped and looked back, shook her finger at me and said, "Now
you take that dirty filthy habit outside, young man. Git!"
So I put on my trench coat and my fedora and stepped out into the
vestibule. I struck a match on my thumbnail, lit my smoke and
breathed it in. Then I huffed it out my nose and pulled the fedora
down over my face before I hunched up my shoulders and went out
into the darkness and the rain. My leather shoes made those wet
clicking sounds on the sidewalk.
At the bottom of the hill the neon colours of the signs downtown
were looking all blurred and slimy between the vertical lines of
rain and through the smog-dirty drifting water-colour fog. The
whole obscene scene down there looked a lot like some kind of a big
flashy wavering rainbow. But the raspy voice of experience just
laughs and whispers in your ear that the pot of gold at the end of
that particular rainbow always turns out to be tarnished... and
I knew a couple of guys who went that route, working at the big
clubs downtown. Back in the day those boys were real ambitious,
wanted all the action they could get just as soon as they could get
it. Once in a while I`d see them, still trying so hard to impersonate
their teenage selves it just looks pathetic, because after you sell
your soul you don`t exactly have it any more, do you? Your soul is
being held hostage in another dimension entirely.
It gets dark pretty early at that time of year but the street lights
still hadn`t come on yet. I paused and dropped my cigarette on the
dirty, rain-slick sidewalk, heard its tiny dying hiss and stepped on
it to end the pain. Then I turned on my heel, turned up the collar
on my trench coat, took a last look downtown and started to stride
back in the opposite direction on my long skinny legs, moving swiftly
up the steep curving slant of the street.
I stood still at the top of the hill for a moment to scan the distant
view ahead and light another cigarette. Just wanted to feel its fire
in my hand really, wanted to aim it at something I was looking for out
there, I guess. Something up ahead that wasn`t right, that was going
wrong for somebody, something going bad. Didn`t know what. Not yet.
The sky was clearing. The heavy black clouds overhead were moving away
fast now, leaving the city behind, hurrying south. In my peripheral
vision I saw a small moon rising over the run-down apartment buildings,
looking like a shiny old dollar and giving everything down here below
an ominous little silvery edge.