Work Header

the means at hand

Work Text:

The air in the bathhouse was thick as wet cotton-wool. Wilmer Cook sucked it in through his front teeth and held his towel in front of his neat pale body. His side was pressed against the red stone wall, and ahead of him a rounded archway led into a large square room with a domed roof. A whitish light filtered down from the top of the dome to the big central pool, where knots of men sat back or talked together, slapping their hands now and then on the water for emphasis. The stone walls were smooth as used soap, their edges rounded as if the whole place had been long underwater. Above, in the dome, patches of old plaster clung in irregular shapes.

Sounds came towards him, dull and tinny, from all directions. He could make out no more than a dull murmur from straight ahead, where Spade sat with his wide white back turned towards him, round shoulders sloping down to where his elbows leaned back on the lip of the bath. He was talking in an even voice to the small dark man next to him, whose sleekly oiled hair looked wet and shiny as a seal’s fur. Without looking round, Spade raised his hand and snapped his fingers.

“Oh, Garcon,” he said lightly. He turned his head a little. “The view’s better from over here, kid.” His face from the side made a sudden sharp pattern of creases as he smiled.

“Fuck you.” Wilmer slapped his feet forward and into the water, standing over Spade on the first step of the pool. Spade looked up.

“Sit down, kid,” he said. “And shut up. You might learn something.”

Wilmer’s eyes darted from Spade’s face, red and livid white in patches from the heat, to that of the man beside him, whose pale narrow eyes looked down at the water and crinkled at the edges like old cigarette papers.

“An associate of yours, I understand?” the man said to Spade. He had a breathy voice and a faint Russian accent.

Spade’s face creased up again. “Something like that,” he said. “An associate of an associate, I guess you could say.”


Wilmer's lips drew together and he looked round the wet dim room. Water ran from lion-headed faucets down into smaller pools in each corner, and there was a sweet, rank smell of damp stone and male sweat.


"Why did you meet here, then?" he said abruptly. "Can't hear a thing over all this jibber-jabber."


Spade tipped his head up to Wilmer and winked slowly and obscenely, his yellowish eyes flat. "Oh, you can wait outside if you'd rather," he said. "Looks like you'll be no good to us in here."


Wilmer's hands clenched in his towel and he made a quick small movement as if to draw his arm back for a blow. Then he turned and his feet slapped abruptly out of the pool and back down the corridor. Spade's laughter followed him all the way.




Later that day Wilmer stood under an awning in front of a dusty little restaurant. A sign in the window over his head read 'WE KEEP ALL OUR MEAT IN THE REFRIGERATOR.'  Across the street, Spade sat with Brigid O'Shaughnessy at a wrought-iron table in front of a cafe window filled with sticky rows of sweets in shades of yellow and brown. She was wearing a light dress in sheer pale green cotton, the colour darkening where her slip was rucked up underneath. Spade's jacket was round her shoulders; the air was chilly and damp.


Wilmer shifted his feet together and sucked on his lower lip. A group of women tapped past him in western clothes, giggling together. Brigid O'Shaughnessy was eating a square of brown sweet stuff, cutting into it with a fork with a white enamel handle. Sam leant towards her and said something into the hollow of her jaw, covering her hand with one of his own. He raised his other arm in the air and made as if to click his fingers. Wilmer spat on the pavement and stepped across the street.


"Know a lot of people who'd like to know you're talking to the girl," he said to Spade. He turned to Brigid, his voice getting tighter. "Don't you get it?" he said. "He sold you down the river once already." Brigid looked up at him, eyes wide. Wilmer shook his head, spat again.


"That's enough of that," said Spade evenly. He looped one long arm round behind Wilmer and tugged one of the curlicued iron chairs roughly behind him. His right ankle snaked out and hooked behind one of Wilmer's shiny brown shoes, sending him back into the chair with a grunt. He leant back and patted Brigid's hand. "The kid's just sore on account of my spending the morning soaking in the tub with our Russian friend," he said. "Isn't that so?"


Wilmer shoved his hands into the pockets of his overcoat and turned to Spade, his lower teeth showing in a neat tight row in his half-open mouth. "Mr Gutman - " he began.


"Mr Gutman, huh," said Spade. "That's not what you said on the train." He leant confidingly towards Brigid, his lids drooping low over his yellowish eyes. "Me and the kid had quite a talk," he said. "Over one of those little tables in the dining car, with all the fixings. Seems like Gutman hasn't given him his fair dues for a while." He settled back and rolled his shoulders. From the next street there came the long low rattle of a tram. "Our Russian friend," he said again. "He had quite a bit to say, too." He lifted his eyes up to Brigid's face, folding his face into a smile. "I guess you won't be getting the job done this time, sweetheart," he said. "But as for the method in general, well, you use what you've got." He shifted the smile towards Wilmer. All the v shapes of his face turned sharper.


Wilmer shoved his chair back abruptly and made to stand. Under his long eyelashes his small eyes were shiny as black glass beads. "Fuck you," he said. "Fuck you. I'm not doing that. Mr Gutman is going to be real interested in all this." He stopped and ran his eyes over the v of Sam's smile. "He'll be real interested," he said again, his voice dull.


"Sure he will," said Spade, almost gently. "You show him yours, and I'll show him mine, and we'll see who gets sold down the river. Or you can let Joel dress you up and slip the Colonel some of the stuff Gutman dosed me with. You can kick him in the head as well, if it makes you any less antsy."


"As long as it wears off soon enough," said Brigid quickly. "You need to let Sam in so that he can get the Colonel to talk. They're going to move it soon. That's what Sam was finding out this morning." She tightened her hands together in her lap.


Wilmer let out his breath with a wet pop of his lips. "I can make him talk," he said.


"Can you, now," said Spade. "You have a go at him, then, and I'll sit back and enjoy the show. You just make sure to let me in first." He patted Wilmer's arm. "You'll do just fine, kid," he said. Wilmer showed his teeth again and pushed his chair back. "See you at the Regal tomorrow evening at six," said Spade. He leant back towards Brigid, raising his hand to thumb a bead of honey off her lip.


Wilmer walked away jerkily, one hand in his gun-heavy pocket, the other crossing his chest to hold his arm, thin fingers tight on the cloth. 




The Colonel's house was full of yellow-varnished bamboo furniture and little knick-knacks in carved horn and meerschaum. His thick English face was pocked around the nose with large black pores, and his grey hair had the coarse evenness of a moderately expensive wig. When Wilmer woke up, the Colonel's wide white hand was curled palm upwards on the floor beside him. The flesh had the sheen of tallow, pale as chalk around the shiny fingernails. Beyond it, the Colonel's red face was pressed against the plush carpet, a neat hole in his cheek and the back of his head a pulpy mass of white and pinkish matter, a wet halo spreading on the carpet underneath.


Wilmer raised himself up, his mouth working. As he made to move his left leg, he let out a loose, loud sound of pain. His trousers were dark with blood, and shards of bone showed in the wet hole in his leg. Familiar footsteps sounded in the next room. Wilmer's head snapped round.


"Mr Spade," he called quietly. Another slack sound came from his mouth. "Get the fuck in here, you fucking cunt of a ratbastard," he called, louder this time. "Mr Spade?"


Sam's big feet and grey trousers came slowly across the carpet towards him. They stopped beyond where the Colonel lay, and Wilmer tilted his face up, both hands clutching at his trousers above his splintered leg. All around him, the carpet was black and wet. His hands moved vaguely over each other.


"You've made a mess," Sam said flatly. "I guess he wouldn't spill." He leant forward and snapped his fingers at Wilmer. "Hey, kid. I'm talking to you. All you had to do was open the goddamn door." He sighed and moved back, sitting down on a cane chair with a sharp squeak of varnish. "It's not here, anyway," he said. "Guess you put on your dancing shoes for nothing, kid." He sat back, hands loose on his long thighs. The air was full of the smell of meat.


Wilmer looked up at him, his face wavering into a blandly childish expression of guilt. "Mr Spade," he said, slowly. His mouth moved convulsively, and a thin stream of spittle tipped out down his chin. "Mr Spade," he said again, chewing his words. He lay back and his face fell down against the wet carpet with a smack.


Sam stood up and brushed off his trousers. He smoothed out the cushion of the chair behind him and bent for a moment over the boy, two fingers pressing for a moment on his neck. Around him the Colonel's house ticked and rustled. Light from a car outside swung across the room, shading one side of Spade's face a brief sharp yellow. He checked his wristwatch and, shaping his mouth as if to curse under his breath, moved quickly and softly to the door. It closed quietly behind him.