The Maltese Black Bird

Written by Jon Reed not Wendi Knape

The following was a writer’s exercise in developing a short story, especially for Bogart fans; one requirement is that it had to include a golden Roman coin of Caligula somewhere in the plot.

 “Oh, Sam. Sam. What can it mean? There’s a dapper little frog-faced man calling himself Joel Cairo waiting to see you outside right now. Should I let him in? By the way, the painter’s adding our new name Sam Spade Detective Agency on the door.” Sam’s secretary, Bridget, seemed worried, whether it was frog-face man or the smell of new paint, he wasn’t sure.

“Sure, doll-face. We need the business right now, anyway. By the way, why’s it so dark in here? We’re in the twenty-first century and it’s almost like early ‘40’s film noir. Let Mr. Cairo in.” Joel Cairo was the spitting image of Peter Lorre, along with his menacing lisp. He had a drip of black paint on one of his white gloves. Spade took his time lighting a cigarette, smoke softly curling up into his eyes, almost making him choke. But ace detectives don’t cough, so he waited.

“Good afternoon, Mr. Spade. Gee, why is it so dark in here? Almost like an early ‘40’s film noir.”

Spade took a long minute putting out the first and lighting another non-filter Camel, measuring Cairo, before answering. “I don’t know, Mr. Cairo, since I don’t know why it’s so dark, much less why I’m wearing a double-breasted suit at this time of day. What can I do for you, anyway?”

“Mr. Spade, I’m prepared to offer you $5,000 to find a black figure of a bird for me. But, before you accept, I must pull this gun on you and search your office.”

Spade raised his hands. “Heh, heh. You sure looked suspicious coming in here wearing a tuxedo and white gloves at this time of day. Go ahead and search, by all means. As if you’ll find anything.” But, quick as a flash, he knocked a lethal-appearing Beretta from Cairo’s hand and slugged him. Cairo went down like a stone, and Sam began going through his clothes. Inside a tuxedo jacket pocket, he found a Detroit Free Press clipping from only a few weeks before:

“The future of the 108-year-old SS Ste. Claire remains uncertain after a fire ravaged the iconic steamer known for ferrying generations of Detroiters to Boblo Island. The Ste. Claire was docked at Riverside Marina in Detroit, and workers with welding equipment were on board when the fire broke out Friday morning,” officials said. According to Detroit’s Deputy Fire Commissioner, “Workers tried extinguishing the flames before calling for help.” The Ste. Claire’s co-owners watched as firefighters fought the flames, and had planned to open a restaurant on the boat. “We know everybody loved it, and we’re going to do our best to bring it back. There’s nothing like the taste of zebra mussel-stuffed, mercury-laced Lake Erie perch.”

It had taken a long time reading the clipping because the Freep wasn’t known for quality writing, and Spade had never knowingly tasted zebra mussel-stuffed, mercury-laced perch. Cairo was showing signs of consciousness as Spade finished reading. Did Cairo’s interest in a “black figure of a bird” have any relation to the Boblo fire? Hmm. Cairo recovered remarkably quickly, so Spade returned the Berretta to him because he needed the business.

Joel Cairo pointed the gun at him again. “And now, Mr. Spade, it seems ridiculous after just hiring you for $5,000, but I must ask you again to allow me to search your person and office. If there’s the slightest chance of possessing the black bird, I must have it, and by the way, has anyone ever mentioned you’re the spitting image of Humphrey Bogart?”

Not for the first time, Spade laughed at himself. How stupid could he be? Cairo soon left, and it was only moments before Sam and Bridget heard a noise outside. Sam opened the door and a disheveled old Captain stumbled inside, obviously mortally-wounded what with all the bullet holes in him. The man dropped a heavy muslin-wrapped bundle on the carpet, before expiring, eyes wide open, on the couch, a grisly scene. Bridget screamed. Spade noticed the Captain’s hat read “SS Ste. Claire” as did the metal tag on his blood-coated breast, his shoulder epaulets, and sleeve patches. Sam wondered aloud, “Where do you think he came from? Maybe the Ste. Claire?”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. Is he dead!!” She looked as if she would faint, before asking for a non-filtered Camel to soothe her nerves. Camel ads from the ’50s said, “More Doctors Smoke Camels than Any Other Cigarette” and “Not One Single Case of Throat Irritation Due To Smoking Camels” so what was there to worry about, anyway?

“Get ahold of yourself, doll-face. And stop repeating my name. He sure looks toes up to me. Let’s see what’s in the package. It must have been hidden on the Boblo boat for a long time.” He sliced through the bindings, tearing at layers of ancient Free Press newspaper. “He sure packed a lot of Freep around whatever’s in here. Must have been more Kroger and Walmart clippings than usual. Have you noticed how many Menards ads there are lately, and no Sears Roebuck at all? And why is it so dark in here; almost ‘40’s film noir-ish, whatever that is?”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. What can it be? Can it be the black bird? Yes, I’ve seen Menard’s ads, but I’ve never shopped there.” Their eyes glowed with anticipation. And greed. The wrappings parted, revealing a black, sculptured and painted bird constructed of tiny stacks of gold coins.

“Yes, doll-face. That’s what dreams are made of. Hmmm. Did someone else once say that? Oh, well. Get some string. I have to re-wrap this and store it in a local bus station locker before mailing the key to myself. I’ll have trouble getting rid of all this extra newspaper ‘cause my trash can is full. Wait a minute. Don’t you have a birdcage that needs re-lining”?

Doll-face glanced at Spade, confused. “Are you kidding? We haven’t had bus station storage lockers in the States since 9-11, what with the ease of terrorists storing bombs. You’ll have to check it at Metro Airport’s Westin and ask them to hold a piece of luggage. That way, you’ll have a claim ticket to retrieve later.”

“Oh, yeah. I wonder where I’ve been all these years. It used to be so simple. What does the Westin cost for a night?”

After disposing of the black bird for safekeeping, and mailing the Westin claim ticket to himself, he received a text on his cell phone from Joel Cairo. “Meet an associate, Casper Gutman, in room 342 re black bird.”

Spade knocked and entered, finding Cairo, a gunsel triggerman, and a huge Gutman who looked appalling like Sydney Greenstreet. Gutman extended a welcoming hand. “Well, sir. If I may say so, don’t mind the film noir appearance in this room. The lighting seems to be under stress at the moment in this rather stark airport hotel. Well, sir, I understand you have access to the black bird, and I am willing to pay a lot of money for it. It was hidden for years on the recently demised SS Ste. Claire, and it appears you may have knowledge of it. If that is correct, would you like some indifferent hotel whiskey I found in the refrigerator? It may taste a little odd, but that’s hotel whiskey for you.”

Spade took his time lighting another non-filtered Camel, smoke softly curling into his eyes, almost making him choke. But ace detectives don’t cough so, instead, he wondered where he could find another carton. Camels were in short supply unless one drove to Indiana and smuggled them across the state line without paying Michigan’s sales tax, which was outrageous anyway. “Of course, Gutman. As long as you haven’t added any drugs. Heh, heh. But, let’s get down to business. Tell me about the bird.” He downed a half glass of Old Ironsides, making a face. “This stuff sure tastes funny.”

“Well, sir. If I don’t mind saying so, the bird as you call it is made of gold Roman coins stuck together in the shape of a falcon, or a chipmunk if you will, by 16th-century Knights of Malta; a gift to the King of Spain. But it was captured by pirates. They could never figure out how to get the coins apart. Something to do with Caligula’s heads interfering with each other. After passing from owner to owner, at some time the sculpture was coated with black enamel to conceal its value. It then led to a General Kemidov, a Russian exile in Constantinople, and I hired Cairo to retrieve it. But it found its way to Hong Kong, San Francisco, and Toledo, Ohio before being hidden on the SS. Ste. Claire. Have you ever been to Toledo, Ohio? I spent a week there one day.”

While Spade was mulling over the clever Bon Mot “spent a week in Toledo one day,” he not only wondered what “Ste.” stood for in the ship’s name but what Bon Mot meant, since he didn’t speak French. That was before he fell over unconscious.

Gutman heaved himself to his feet. “Gentlemen, let us continue our adventure by first departing this darkened Westin room and its rotten hotel whisky. I didn’t even put anything in his drink, and it knocked him out anyway. I think Mr. Spade has hidden the “bird” in his room at the decrepit Hotel Fordson in downtown Dearborn. It would be just like him.” As they left, the triggerman, who had had a bad morning, kicked Spade in the head just for luck.

When Sam came to his senses, the room was even more dark than usual. He vainly searched his pockets for another non-filtered Camel to sooth his nerves. It would be another long drive to Michigan City, Indiana for more. But he could always send doll-face Bridget. He pocketed a pistol the triggerman had stupidly dropped, before texting doll-face, “meet me at the Fordson” and set out. He didn’t need a car this time, since he could get a Uber, or take the FAST bus downtown if he pointed the gun at the driver and was dropped off in Dearborn.

He got to the Hotel Fordson before Gutman, Cairo, and the dirty son-of-a-bitch stupid triggerman arrived, and met doll-face. Once in the room, he sat her down and said, “I won’t play the sap for you.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. What are you talking about?

“Sorry, doll-face. It must be the rotten no-good Old Ironsides Westin whisky that’s still affecting me. That, and the look on the bus driver’s face when I had him drop me over here in Dearborn. I told him I voted to support the Suburban Mobility Authority for Regional Transportation bus system otherwise known as SMART, so I didn’t think he’d mind. Of course, holding the gun that stupid no-good triggerman dropped didn’t hurt, and he thanked me for supporting SMART.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. Why do you still have a room in East Dearborn, anyway? And why’d you mail the claim ticket to me? And I never heard the full name of our local regional transit system before, so thank you. And why is it so dark in here? Did you pay the rent?”

“Don’t mention it, doll-face. Come back here in an hour with the bird and we’ll get it all settled.”

“But I have to get an Uber to go back out, because the latest regional transit system millage was defeated.  And you and I don’t look like each other, so the Westin clerk will be suspicious.”

“All right, doll-face, here’s some car fare. And you shouldn’t begin all your sentences with the word “And.”  Just remember, I won’t play the sap for you. If I can get you off with a long prison term, I’ll wait for you. But, if you hang, so be it. And don’t hold your breath. Times, they are a-changin.”

“Oh, Sam. Sam. That’s not original. And I still don’t know what you’re talking about. Michigan no longer has the death penalty, but whoever started the Boblo Boat fire should be hanged, anyway, because I was looking forward to zebra-mussel stuffed perch.”

Bridget was out and back from Metro Airport in a jiffy, just before the doorbell rang. “Oh, Sam. Sam. Here’s the package. The men have arrived.”

Portly Casper Gutman, Joel Cairo, and the dirty son-of-a-bitch stupid triggerman entered Spade’s strangely darkened, almost ‘40’s film noir-ish apartment. A tiny bit of Spade’s forehead stuck to the latter’s shoe.

The forgetful triggerman spoke first. “Have you seen an extra pistol laying around by any chance? I seem to have mislaid one somewhere.”

Gutman interrupted, “Well, sir. Have you the bird? I am prepared to pay a half-million.” He handed over a wad of bills, and he and his cronies tore at the wrappings. “There doesn’t seem to be as much newspaper this time” he intoned, suspiciously. “It must not have been a holiday issue, or people aren’t buying the Freep as much as they used to. They really don’t have much news to report these days, do they?” He palmed a knife and began scraping the black coating off the bird, which actually looked more like a chipmunk than a falcon. Gutman was sweating, eyes ablaze with greed.

“Yes, Gutman. That’s what dreams are made of. Hmmm. Did someone else once say that? Oh, well.”

Gutman began scraping faster, before blurting, “These are actually WWII U.S. one-cent, zinc-coated steel coins.  I like the term “steelie” as it takes me back to my childhood. Well, sir, after my erudite soliloquy, I must ask for my money back. We will return to Constantinople to pursue better avenues, besides departing this wretchedly dark room, almost ‘40’s film noir-ish in its own way.”

After they left, Spade texted the local police where they could pick up Gutman and his men for smuggling Indiana cigarettes into Michigan, wearing tuxedos in the middle of the day, and not paying for Westin Hotel airport whiskey. But local law enforcement couldn’t find an Uber driver to take them to Istanbul, so they hung up.

He turned to his somewhat distraught secretary. “Oh, all right, doll-face. I won’t turn you in, but remember I won’t play the sap for you. Instead of Camels from Indiana, can you pick up some gin at Windsor’s Duty Free Shop next time you’re over there? Here, take this coin with you. I think it’s actually a gold Roman coin that fell off the bottom of the chipmunk, since it’s a Caligula with a wreath on his head. The coin, not the chipmunk. It may come in handy. All the time we were fooling around, who knew?”



    • Anonymous on February 15, 2019 at 1:17 pm
    • Reply

    An interesting story. I enjoyed to read it

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