A dark-haired man just shy of forty turned from the coffee urn with a steaming mug in one hand. He had a trim mustache over a wide mouth, narrow, amused eyes under level brows, a strong jaw, a small faded scar on his left cheek. Before exiting he set down his coffee and cinched up the belt of his ulster.
Sam Spade, who had been leaning against the bulkhead midcabin, sauntered out after him. Moisture immediately beaded Spade's woolen knit cap, the turned-up collar of his mackinaw.
The man was standing at the rail, mug in hand, staring down at the wind-tossed water. A glow came into Spade's eyes. His upper lip twitched in what could have been a smile. He leaned on the railing beside the other man.
"Mr. Flitcraft, I presume?"
The man dropped his mug overboard.
Charles Pierce slid warily through the doorway like a cat entering a strange room. He relaxed fractionally when he saw a bottle of Johnnie Walker whiskey and two glasses on a tray on the table. Spade was at the sink running water into a pitcher. The room was simple, comfortable, homey, with a private bath.
"I want to get this over with," said Pierce in a high, clear voice. "Not that I have anything to feel guilty about."
They touched glasses. Spade said, "Success to crime."
"There's no crime involved here. Nothing like that."
Without obvious irony Spade said, "Five years ago, in 1916, a man named Robert Flitcraft did a flit in Tacoma. Before leaving his real estate office to go to luncheon, he made an engagement for a round of golf at four o'clock that afternoon. He didn't keep the engagement. Nobody ever saw him again."
Pierce downed half his drink. Spade's hands had been rolling a cigarette. He lit it, looked through the drifting smoke with candid eyes.
"The police got nowhere. Flitcraft's wife came to our Seattle office. She said she and her husband were on good terms, said they had two boys, five and three, said he drove a new Packard, said he had a successful real estate business and a net worth of two hundred thousand dollars. I was assigned to the case. I could find no secret vices, no other woman, no hidden bank accounts, no sign Flitcraft had been putting his affairs in order. He vanished with no more than fifty bucks in his pocket. He was just gone, like your lap when you stand up."
"What he did makes perfect sense! He-"
"When I went into the army in nineteen seventeen he was still missing. Last week his wife came in to tell us a friend of hers had seen him here in Spokane."
Spade rubbed his jutting chin as if checking his shave.
"Now we have Charles Pierce living in a Spokane suburb with his wife of two years and an infant son. He sells new cars, nets twenty-five thousand a year, belongs to the country club, plays golf most afternoons at four o'clock during the season. His wife doesn't look like Flitcraft's wife, but they're more alike than different. Afternoon bridge, salad recipes..."
Pierce was fidgeting. "What are you getting at?"
"I was sent here to find and identify the man our informant thought was Flitcraft. I've done that. Charles Pierce is Robert Flitcraft. No definite instructions beyond that, but there's the bigamy question. Wife here, wife in Tacoma.
Kids from both marriages..." For the first time Spade addressed Pierce directly as Flitcraft. "Of course since you left your first wife extremely well fixed you could claim you thought that after all this time she would have divorced you in absentia-"
"I was on my way to lunch." He paused. "A steel beam fell from a new office building and hit the sidewalk right beside me."
"A beam." Spade's voice was without inflection.
"A chip of concrete flew up..." His hand absently touched the faint scar on his left cheek. "I was more shocked than scared. I was a good husband, a good father, I was doing everything right, and none of it meant a damned thing if a beam could fall off a building and kill me."
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