Spade Work

Putting the lessons of Dashiell Hammett's San Francisco life and art to practical use

"It's like this, see: We each pick a mark, someone ankling by the box or nibblin' on one," says Secret Agent X-9, casting an eye around John's Grill. "Then, we tail 'em for a couple of hours, see?"

Translation: "We choose a person walking by the bar or having a drink and we follow them for a while."

Secret Agent X-9 -- a slender, 32-year-old tailor from Madison, Wis. -- adjusts his fedora and squares his shoulders. It doesn't help.

"If you catch a live one, and you can't make it to the St. Francis by 8, get on the blower," says X-9, distributing his cell phone number on discreet, russet-colored cards. "Remember, be inconspicuous and stick with your mark. (Unless they catch you; then, you know, find someone else. You don't want to go to jail or spook anyone.) Then report back. We'll swap tales over stiff hookers of bourbon.

"OK, let's go!" Thus begins Sam Spade Lesson No. 1: The Shadow, an interactive "game" meant to satisfy the post-Prohibition sleuth in all of us.

The six would-be private eyes giggle like schoolgirls, taking daisy sips off their drinks, hoping someone else will work up enough balls to leave the table. A nice-looking dame two tables over checks her watch and pulls on a long red coat that matches her war paint. Taking the unspoken invitation, "Miles Archer," a short man with freckles who chose the alias of Sam Spade's partner in The Maltese Falcon, counts to 10 and slips out the door behind her. "Amelia Peabody," a longtime friend of X-9 who helped gather people for this game, also slips out the door, falling behind some old guy who caught her fancy. Not one to be outdone by a woman who reads Elizabeth Petersmystery novels, I dust John's Grill, one-time home-away-from-home of hard-boiled detective master Dashiell Hammett, and plunge into the holiday crowd on Ellis Street.

A twist, wearing white go-go boots and a plastic raincoat covered in little yellow ducks, catches my attention. "A pushover for sure," I think, "good for a laugh." I wait a couple of heartbeats, then start after her, walking toward Powell Street. I try to remember the four cardinal rules of shadowing offered by the Continental Opin one of Hammett's early short stories: 1) Stay behind the suspect; 2) Don't attempt to hide; 3) Act naturally, no matter what; 4) Never meet the suspect's eye.

Little Ducks makes for Urban Outfitters -- not my preferred digs, but I'm on the job. She takes her sweet time looking over a wall of Christmas lights, the kind done up with plastic chilies and Chinese lanterns. I make like I'm really interested in fancy shower curtains. She buys a box, then heads over to Blondie's for a slice. She eats inside, standing up with her packages delicately balanced between her feet, staring out at the cable cars with her high cheekbones and expressionless eyes. A good gumshoe never gets close enough to know his suspect's features, but I'm not very good. When Little Ducks steps out of the pizza joint she glances over her shoulder, and I feel my heart skip a beat. I toss some coins into an open guitar case and act casual, waiting for her to cross Market Street. In the San Francisco Shopping Centre is where I notice Little Ducks' "tell." Something about spending money doesn't sit too well with her. Waiting in lines for the register is too much; she twirls pieces of her hair like a taffy machine on the blink; even if her hands are full, her fingers find a way to pluck and pull at that hair. I wonder if she's passing "orphan paper" or just cashing in her rent money for sweet-smelling bath salts. Either way, she's goofy, and I know it. Near Nordstrom, Little Ducks meets up with two friends -- Japanese hipsters with arms full of neat, colorful packages. I'm careful to stay at least one escalator behind them, keeping an eye on the chippy from across the mezzanine, but when they head over to the Metreonand get in line for a movie, I call it quits.

At the St. Francis Hotel, Secret Agent X-9 and Amelia Peabody are nursing drinks, waiting for the other ops to arrive.

"Mine took me shopping," I say with a grunt.

"Mine, too," says X-9. "They can't all be exciting. That's the first rule."

One of our crew, calling himself "Ned Beaumont" after the shady antihero in Hammett's The Glass Key, slides into a chair next to me.

"I cased a bum who found 20 bucks on the sidewalk," says Beaumont, trying to maintain his cool. "I followed him up through the Tenderloin and watched him buy a jug of wine. He shared it with his old lady in that little park, but he lied about the money. And after the bottle was gone, they got into a fight. Fucking pulling hair and spittin'. It was great!"

"I got fingered," says Miles Archer. "That woman from John's met up with her husband or boyfriend or whatever and pointed me out. I just kept walking, and the guy didn't follow me or anything, but ... I guess I wasn't too careful. Maybe it was the hat."

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