Bullets Across the Bay


Mark Coggins read the following excerpt from Joe Gores’ Interface (1974).

The Maltese Falcon
SAN FRANCISCO’S TENDERLOIN has changed for the worse over the years. For several decades it was merely tough and a little raunchy; now it is nasty as well, like perfume behind the ears of a corpse. Seedy hotels with Rates for Senior Citizens still cater to the aged, but now the old folks living on inflation-ruined pensions must rub shoulders and mingle life-styles with whores, topless dancers, pushers and users, cool black cats, teen-age male prostitutes, transvestites looking for sailors.

   Coffee shops feature Breakfast All Day; bars turn on their garish neons at six A.M. Violence is endemic; drifting hard-eyed men roll drunks and gays and the fragile aged and cripples, both emotional and physical, as a way of life. Hustlers and grafters con social workers getting their jollies from seeing Life in the Raw, and one day at a time is how people live. Because in the Tenderloin anything can happen and sooner or later everything does.

   Certainly the girl who panhandled Neil Fargo as he got out of his Fairlane was just hanging on by the hour. She would have been attractive if she hadn’t had lice and smelled bad. She was under twenty, wearing blue wash pants and a blue sweater and a crust of dried vomit around her mouth.

   She asked for spare change as if for salvation. He gave her a dollar bill. She smiled shyly at him.

   “You want a nooner, mister ...”

   He shook his head, watcher her shamble up Jones Street. He shook his head again, finished locking the Fairlane, fed the meter, and started across the street to the FarJon Hotel.

   In mid-stride he swerved downhill. A black-and-white was parked in the bus zone with one door hanging open and the radio crackling. He went into the liquor store on the corner, stood with his back to the door in deep contemplation of a quart of Early Times. A paddy wagon with mesh over the rear windows pulled up in the yellow zone on O’Farrell with a squeal of worn brake linings.

   In a little more than two minutes, a pair of uniformed patrolmen went by the open door of the liquor store. Between them, wearing handcuffs and a dazed expression, was Alex Kolinski. He was having a little trouble with his feet. There was a trickle of blood down his chin and above the right eye a hard red knob which looked shiny. The cops looked tough, competent, and untouched.

   Neil Fargo laughed aloud, catching the attention of the liquor store clerk. Men with stimulant-blown minds who chuckled and whistled and smirked to themselves before going berserk would be no rarity to him. The cool competence in Neil Fargo’s face seemed to reassure him.

   The wagon had pulled out with its prisoner. Neil Fargo walked uphill on Jones with quick strides. The narrow door of 517 Jones was standing open under its faded FarJon Hotel, Weekly Rates sign. He went in.

   The stairs were very narrow, the handrail slick from a million sliding hands. Insulation-wrapped steampipes ran up the corner of the stairwell. There were rat droppings on one of the wedge-shaped corner steps which made the ninety-degree left turn under the tiled mirror Kolinski had used that morning to watch Daphne go down these same stairs.

   At the head of the stairs was another uniformed prowlie. Behind him Neil Fargo could see the office door with a hand-lettered sign over it:


   The cop was holding one of the extra-long riot-control billies, the sort Tac Squads have made so popular, at present-arms across his chest. His face was too young, too unformed for his hard, competent body or for the cop’s eyes experience had already given him.

   “Sorry, sir, residents only.” Neil Fargo moved a hand, and the face was suddenly as tough as the rest of him. His voice barked, “Hold it!

   “Just I.D.” Neil Fargo got it out gingerly. “I had a tip that a skip I’m looking for is holed up in this dump.”

   The cop returned the I.D. “Sorry, sir, but we’ve had a homicide here.”

   “Homicide?” His voice was unsurprised, as if Kolinski being led away had partially prepared him for it. “Wouldn’t be a woman, would it?”

   The cop’s eyes sharpened. “Think she’s the one you’re looking for?”

   “Could be. First name Roberta—although she probably wouldn’t be using her real name here.”

   “Our D.O.A. is called Robin by the manager. The Lieutenant’ll want to see you.” He turned to yell down the hall, “Lieutenant Tekawa, sir.”

   “Tekawa? What’s a narc doing in charge of a homicide?”

   The cop spun back to him. “Lieutenant Tekawa to you, Jack. And narc isn’t a word we—”

   “Is that Neil Fargo you got?” Tekawa had appeared in the far end of the corridor. “Come on up, Neil.”

   Neil Fargo went by the prowlie without saying anything; the cop’s face had closed up at being bypassed. The private detective paused in the doorway of Robin’s room, his eyes taking it in: the body on the bed, now with a sheet drawn over the face; the candle stub; the junkie’s paraphernalia; the chair turned toward the airshaft. The sunlight had now entirely departed from the red bricks opposite.

   “Seeing how the other half lives, Hank?”

~Interface (1974) by Joe Gores, p. 125-128


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