Fred Dannay, in a dark-gray overcoat and fedora, heavy briefcase swinging at his side, walked quickly along West Tenth Street. An editorial meeting at EQMM had gone on longer than anticipated and he was running late. It was eight minutes after six on an early autumn evening in 1951. The sky was lambent. The trees still had their leaves, obscuring the brick and stone of the buildings that lined the block, but the air was chillier than a week ago. He was glad he’d worn the overcoat. If only he’d brought his scarf . . .
He pressed the buzzer of the garden apartment at number 28 and waited.
Dashiell Hammett, tall and painfully thin, with a shock of white hair and a dark moustache, opened the door. He was wearing a crisp white shirt with French cuffs and onyx cuff links and sharply creased brown slacks. He greeted Fred, who was shorter by at least a foot, hung up his hat and overcoat, and led him from the small foyer into the living room.
“Sorry I’m late.”
“No need to apologize. Drink?”
“Do we have time?”
“They’ll wait for us.”
“A small one, then.”
Dash fixed drinks.
Fred sat on a chair near the fireplace. The grate was filled with cigarette butts and crumpled-up legal-pad pages. He took a scotch-and-water from Dash. “Thank you.” He unbuttoned his jacket and exhaled with a sigh. “It’s good to be here.”
“How’s your day in the city been?” Dash poured a scotch, no water, for himself.
Fred sipped his drink. “The train was late this morning. I missed a meeting with Stanley. Things are crazy at the magazine. I’ve been trying all day to catch up.”
“Have you succeeded?”
Fred lifted his bulging briefcase and let it drop back to the floor with a thud. “Not until I’ve read these.”
Hammett whistled. “Jesus.”
“I just hope there’s a decent story in the lot. Two would be better.”
“Don’t push your luck.”
Fred laughed. “We get a lot of dreck, it’s true.” He took off his glasses and rubbed his eyes.
“You all right?”
“Headache.” He massaged his temples. “I’ve had it all day.”
“Sure you want to come to class tonight? You wouldn’t rather head back to Larchmont and get some rest?”
“I promised I’d be there,” Fred said doggedly, “and I’ll be there.”
“I appreciate it. I know the students are looking forward to meeting you.”
Fred put his glasses on. “Any writers in the class?”
“Too soon to tell. They should have a character assignment ready for tonight. That’ll help sort out the sheep from the lambs.”
“How many students this time around?”
Fred was surprised. “Only three?”
“Students have been scared away from the school.”
“My God, these are perilous times.”
“They’re getting worse.” Dash sat in the chair across from Fred and lit a cigarette. He gestured to a yellow legal pad and several typewritten pages on the coffee table. “I’ve spent my day working on that.”
Light danced in Fred’s eyes. “A new story?”
“A begging letter. It’s for the school. They asked me to take a look at it.” He smiled. “I’m nothing but a glorified proofreader these days.”
Dash nodded. Fred leaned forward and collected the typewritten pages. He adjusted his glasses, then started reading:
The Jefferson School of Social Science was founded in 1944, and occupies a nine-story building in downtown Manhattan. It is an adult evening school that teaches Marxism, the philosophy and social science of the working class. It analyzes the nature of capitalist and socialist society and studies the general laws of social change, with special emphasis on the United States.
Hammett watched him, smoke unfurling from his cigarette.
Today the United States Department of Justice is trying to shut down the Jefferson School—the first time in history our Government has moved to close a school on the basis of what it teaches. Such thought-control measures are not new in this period of the “Cold War.” Many Americans have fallen victim to the growing menace of McCarthyism.
Fred looked up from the page. “They can’t actually shut it down, can they?”
Before Dash could answer, the telephone rang. He tossed his cigarette into the fireplace, crossed the room, and picked up the receiver.
“ORegon 3-3797,” he said. A voice buzzed on the other end.
Fred watched Dash listening to his caller, then went back to the typewritten page:
They include teachers and students, trade-union leaders, writers and publishers, artists and entertainers, leaders of the Negro people, and foreign-born persons who have lived here for decades. Thousands have been “investigated” by Congressional committees, hounded by the F.B.I., pilloried in the press, fired from their jobs, deported, barred from travel abroad, or sent to prison—on the basis of what they think and advocate, or what they are suspected of thinking.
Fred took another sip of his scotch-and-water.
The drive to intimidate the nonconformists of our time has become so severe that what Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas calls “The
Black Silence of Fear” has begun to settle over the people of our country. Much of this drive against so-called “subversives” has been directed against our democratic right to teach and—
“I’ll be there as soon as I can,” Dash said.
Fred looked up. He could tell from Dash’s expression that something was wrong. He set the page aside.
Dash dropped the receiver into its cradle. He took a long swig of scotch and lit another cigarette.
Dash exhaled smoke. “Can they shut the place down? Isn’t that what you asked just before the phone rang?”
“Their chances just got a hell of a lot better.” Dash downed the rest of his scotch. “That was Peggy Parsons, one of the board members. There’s been a murder.”
“At the school?”
“Yes.” Dash flicked his cigarette into the fireplace and got to his feet. “They want me to talk to the police.” He left the room.
Fred stood up and walked to the bedroom door. Dash stood at the mirror, tying his tie with quick, efficient movements. “Who’s been killed?”
“One of the staff members.”
“Do they have any idea who did it?”
Dash slipped into a tan-and-black-checked sport coat. “They think it was one of my students.” He crossed into the foyer and put on his hat and overcoat. “There won’t be any class tonight. You can get an early train home.”
“Are you kidding me?” Fred, briefcase in hand, bustled into the foyer. He grabbed his overcoat. “I’m coming with you. I wouldn’t miss this for the world.”
“I’ll be glad to have you there. And from what Peggy told me, it sounds like this murder is right up your alley.”
“How do you mean?”
Dash would say nothing more. Fred slapped his hat on and followed him out of the apartment.
The black-and-yellow Plymouth Deluxe taxicab let them out in front of the Jefferson School of Social Science, a nondescript building at Sixteenth and Sixth. They showed their identification to a policeman, massive in his brass-buttoned tunic and cap, and got into the self-service elevator. Dash pushed the button for the seventh floor. The elevator ground its way upward.
“We’re lucky,” he said, breaking the silence he’d maintained since leaving West Tenth Street.
Dash gave Fred a grim smile. “Usually the elevator’s out of order.”
While they waited for Detective McAlpine, Dash and Fred talked with Margaret Parsons in an empty classroom. Mrs. Parsons was a striking dark-haired woman in her early forties who favored dungarees and pearls. She came from old money and had new ideas about how to spend it. She funded organizations dedicated to social justice, the improvement of race relations, American-Soviet friendship, and a dozen other causes. She taught an evening class in Dialectical Materialism and, like Dash, was on the school’s board.
At twenty minutes to six, Mrs. Parsons had found the body of Morris Rabinowitz, the school’s registrar, lying dead on the floor of his office, a letter opener protruding from his neck. Rabinowitz’s desk had been forced open and searched. Only one thing was missing: a list of the students currently enrolled in the school. Mrs. Parsons had notified the police and then called Dash.
“You see how horrible this is,” Mrs. Parsons said. “Not only is Mr. Rabinowitz dead, but the student list is gone.”
“What’s so important about the list?’ Fred asked.
Dash lit a cigarette. “The school guards that list carefully. If it fell into the wrong hands, it could be used to blacklist or blackmail the students on it.”
“We may do away with keeping any lists at all.” Mrs. Parsons drew her mink tighter about her. “If this doesn’t close us down for good.”
Dash aimed a plume of smoke toward the ceiling. “They think it was one of my students?”
“Yes. They were all seen around Mr. Rabinowitz’s office within twenty minutes of the time I found him.”
“Between five-twenty and five-forty or so?”
Mrs. Parsons nodded. “That’s right.”
“No one else was around?”
“No. It looks like whoever killed poor Mr. Rabinowitz is one of your students.”
“Who saw them?” Fred said.
“Bridie, the cleaning woman.”
“Where are they now?” Hammett said.
Mrs. Parsons gestured toward one of the faded green walls. “In one of the classrooms. Waiting to be questioned.”
“Who are they?” Fred said. “What are their names?”
Dash held up a finger for each student. “Penny Meyer. Brendan Nicholl. Salvatore Quarta.”
“Wait a second. Penny—Nicholl—Quarta . . . Their names are all coins, or damn near. You’ve got to be kidding me.”
“I wish I was.”
“And that’s not all.” Mrs. Parsons twisted her strand of pearls. “Mr. Rabinowitz was found with a dime clutched in his hand.”
“A dying clue?” Fred shook his head in disbelief. “This is like something out of one of the Queen stories.”
“Now you see why I’m glad you’re here,” Dash said.
“Ellery would know what to do. I’m afraid I don’t.”
“If only Ellery Queen were here,” Mrs. Parsons said. “He could solve the murder and save the school.”
Fred looked thoughtful. “Would it really?”
Mrs. Parson sighed deeply “At this point, Mr. Dannay, anything would help.”
Fred paced. Hammett watched him, amused. He could see the wheels turning in Fred’s mind. . .
# # #