The Continental Op is a short, squat, and utterly unsentimental tank of a private detective. Miss Gabrielle Dain Leggett is young, wealthy, and a devotee of morphine and religious cults. She has an unfortunate effect on the people around her: they have a habit of dying violently. Is Gabrielle the victim of a family curse? Or is the truth about her weirder and infinitely more dangerous? The Dain Curse is one of the Continental Op's most bizarre cases, and a tautly crafted masterpiece of suspense.
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July 17, 1989
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Excerpt from The Dain Curse by Dashiell Hammett
Eight Diamonds It was a diamond all right, shining in the grass half a dozen feet from the blue brick wall. It was small, not more than a quarter of a carat in weight, and unmounted. I put it in my pocket and began searching the lawn as closely as I could without going at it on all fours. I had covered a couple of square yards of sod when the Leggetts' front door opened. A woman came out on the broad stone top step and looked down at me with good-humored curiosity. She was a woman of about my age, forty, with darkish blond hair, a pleasant plump face, and dimpled pink cheeks. She had on a lavender-flowered white housedress. I stopped poking in the grass and went up to her, asking: "Is Mr. Leggett in?" "Yes." Her voice was placid as her face. "You wish to see him?" I said I did. She smiled at me and at the lawn. "You're another detective, aren't you?" I admitted that. She took me up to a green, orange, and chocolate room on the second floor, put me in a brocaded chair, and went to call her husband from his laboratory. While I waited, I looked around the room, deciding that the dull orange rug under my feet was probably both genuinely oriental and genuinely ancient, that the walnut furniture hadn't been ground out by machinery, and that the Japanese pictures on the wall hadn't been selected by a prude. Edgar Leggett came in saying: "I'm sorry to have kept you waiting, but I couldn't break off till now. Have you learned something?" His voice was unexpectedly harsh, rasping, though his manner was friendly enough. He was a dark-skinned erect man in his middle forties, muscularly slender and of medium height. He would have been handsome if his brown face hadn't been so deeply marked with sharp, hard lines across the forehead and from nostrils down across mouth-corners. Dark hair, worn rather long, curled above and around the broad, grooved forehead. Red-brown eyes were abnormally bright behind horn-rimmed spectacles. His nose was long, thin, and high-bridged. His lips were thin, sharp, nimble, over a small, bony chin. His black and white clothes were well made and cared for. "Not yet," I said to his question. "I'm not a police detective--Continental Agency--for the insurance company--and I'm just starting." "Insurance company?" He seemed surprised, raising dark eyebrows above the dark tops of his spectacles. "Yeah. Didn't--?" "Surely," he said, smiling, stopping my words with a small flourish of one hand. It was a long, narrow hand with overdeveloped finger-tips, ugly as most trained hands are. "Surely. They would have been insured. I hadn't thought of that. They weren't my diamonds, you know; they were Halstead's." "Halstead and Beauchamp? I didn't get any details from the insurance company. You had the diamonds on approval?" "No. I was using them experimentally. Halstead knew of my work with glass--coloring it, staining or dyeing it, after its manufacture--and he became interested in the possibility of the process being adapted to diamonds, particularly in improving off-color stones, removing yellowish and brownish tinges, emphasizing blues. He asked me to try it and five weeks ago gave me those diamonds to work on. There were eight of them, none especially valuable. The largest weighted only a trifle more than half a carat, some of the others only a quarter, and except for two they were all of poor color. They're the stones the burglar got." "Then you hadn't succeeded?" I asked. "Frankly," he said, "I hadn't made the slightest progress. This was a more delicate matter, and on more obdurate material." "Where'd you keep them?" "Usually they were left lying around in the open--always in the laboratory, of course--but for several days now they had been locked in the cabinet--since my last unsuccessful experiment." "Who knew about the experiments?" "Anyone, everyone--there was no occasion for secrecy." "They were stolen from the cabinet?" "Yes. This morning we found our front door open, the cabinet drawer forced, and the diamonds gone. The police found marks on the kitchen door. They say the burglar came in that way and left by the front door. We heard nothing last night. And nothing else was taken." "The front door was ajar when I came downstairs this morning," Mrs. Leggett said from the doorway. "I went upstairs and awakened Edgar, and we searched the house and found the diamonds gone. The police think the man I saw must have been the burglar." I asked about the man she had seen. "It was last night, around midnight, when I opened the bedroom windows before going to bed. I saw a man standing upon the corner. I can't say, even now, that there was anything very suspicious-looking about him. He was standing there as if waiting for somebody. He was looking down this way, but not in a way to make me think he was watching this house. He was a man past forty, I should say, rather short and broad--somewhat of your build--but he had a bristly brown mustache and was pale. He wore a soft hat and overcoat--dark--I think they were brown. The police think that's the same man Gabrielle saw." "Who?" "My daughter Gabrielle," she said. "Coming home late one night--Saturday night, I think it was--she saw a man and thought he had come from our steps; but she wasn't sure and didn't think anything more of it until after the burglary." "I'd like to talk to her. Is she home?" Mrs. Leggett went out to get her. I asked Leggett: "Were the diamonds loose?" "They were unset, of course, and in small manila envelopes--Halstead and Beauchamp's--each in a separate envelope, with a number and the weight of the stone written in pencil. The envelopes are missing too." Mrs. Leggett returned with her daughter, a girl of twenty or less in a sleeveless white silk dress. Of medium height, she looked more slender than she actually was. She had hair as curly as her father's, and no longer, but of a much lighter brown. She had a pointed chin and extremely white, smooth skin, and of her features only the green-brown eyes were large: forehead, mouth, and teeth were remarkably small. I stood up to be introduced to her, and asked about the man she had seen. "I'm not positive that he came from the house," she said, "or even from the lawn." She was sullen, as if she didn't like being questioned. "I thought he might have, but I only saw him walking up the street." "What sort of looking man was he?" "I don't know. It was dark. I was in the car, he was walking up the street. I didn't examine him closely. He was about your size. It might have been you, for all I know." "It wasn't. That was Saturday night?" "Yes--that is, Sunday morning." "What time?" "Oh, three o'clock or after," she said impatiently. "Were you alone?" "Hardly." I asked her who was with her and finally got a name: Eric Collinson had driven her home. I asked where I could find Eric Collinson. She frowned, hesitated, and said he was employed by Spear, Camp and Duffy, stockbrokers. She also said she had a putrid headache and she hoped I would excuse her now, as she knew I couldn't have any more questions to ask her. Then, without waiting for any reply I might have made to that, she turned and went out of the room. Her ears, I noticed when she turned, had no lobes, and were queerly pointed at the top. "How about your servants?" I asked Mrs. Leggett. "We've only one--Minnie Hershey, a Negress. She doesn't sleep here, and I'm sure she had nothing to do with it. She's been with us for nearly two years and I can vouch for her honesty." I said I'd like to talk to Minnie, and Mrs. Leggett called her in. The servant was a small, wiry mulatto girl with the straight black hair and brown features of an Indian. She was very polite and very insistent that she had nothing to do with the theft of the diamonds and had known nothing about the burglary until she arrived at the house that morning. She gave me her home address, in San Francisco's darktown. Leggett and his wife took me up to the laboratory, a large room that covered all but a small fifth of the third story. Charts hung between the windows on the white-washed wall. The wooden floor was uncovered. An X-ray machine--or something similar--four or five smaller machines, a forge, a wide sink, a large zinc table, some smaller porcelain ones, stands, racks of glassware, siphon-shaped metal tanks--that sort of stuff filled most of the room. The cabinet the diamonds had been taken from was a green-painted steel affair with six drawers all locking together. The second draw from the top--the one the diamonds had been in--was open. Its edge was dented where a jimmy or chisel had been forced between it and the frame. The other drawers had jammed the locking mechanism so that he would have to get a mechanic to open the others. We went downstairs, through a room where the mulatto was walking around behind a vacuum cleaner, and into the kitchen. The back door and its frame were marked much as the cabinet was, apparently by the same tool. When I had finished looking at the door, I took the diamond out of my pocket and showed it to the Leggetts, asking: "Is this one of them?" Leggett picked it out of my palm with forefinger and thumb, held it up to the light, turned it from side to side, and said: "Yes. It has that cloudy spot down at the cutlet. Where did you get it?" "Out front, in the grass." "Ah, our burglar dropped some of his spoils in his haste." I said I doubted it. Leggett pulled his brows together behind his glasses, looked at me with smaller eyes, and asked sharply: "What do you think?" "I think it was planted there. Your burglar knew too much. He knew which drawer to go to. He didn't waste time on anything else. Detectives always say: 'Inside job,' because it saves work if they can find a victim right on the scene; but I can't see anything else here." Minnie came to the door, still holding the vacuum cleaner, and began to cry that she was an honest girl, and nobody had any right to accuse her of anything, and they could search her and her home if they wanted to, and just because she was a colored girl was no reason, and so on and so on; and not all of it could be made out, because the vacuum cleaner was still humming in her hand and she sobbed while she talked. Tears ran down her cheeks. Mrs. Leggett went to her, patted her shoulder, and said: "There, there. Don't cry, Minnie. I know you hadn't anything to do with it, and so does everybody else. There, there." Presently she got the girl's tears turned off and sent her upstairs. Leggett sat on a corner of the kitchen table and asked: "You suspect someone in this house?" "Somebody who's been in it, yeah." "Whom?" "Nobody yet." "That"--he smiled, showing white teeth almost as small as his daughter's--"means everybody--all of us?" "Let's take a look at the lawn," I suggested. "If we find any more diamonds I'll say maybe I'm mistaken about the inside angle." Half-way through the house, as we went towards the front door, we met Minnie Hershey in a tan coat and violet hat, coming to say good-bye to her mistress. She wouldn't she said tearfully, work anywhere where anybody thought she had stolen anything. She was just as honest as anybody else, and more than some, and just as much entitled to respect, and if she couldn't get it one place she could another, because she knew places where people wouldn't accuse her of stealing things after she had worked for them for two long years without ever taking so much as a slice of bread. Mrs. Leggett pleaded with her, reasoned with her, scolded her, and commanded her, but none of it was any good. The brown girl's mind was made up, and away she went. Mrs. Leggett looked at me, making her pleasant face as severe as she could, and said reprovingly: "Now see what you've done." I said I was sorry, and her husband and I went out to examine the lawn. We didn't find any more diamonds. 2 Long-Nose I put in a couple of hours canvassing the neighborhood, trying to place the man Mrs. and Miss Leggett had seen. I didn't have any luck with that one, but I picked up news of another. A Mrs. Priestly--a pale semi-invalid who lived three doors below the Leggetts--gave me the first line on him. Mrs. Priestly often sat at a front window at night when she couldn't sleep. On two of these nights she had seen the man. She said he was a tall man, and young, she thought, and he walked with his head thrust forward. The street was too poorly lighted for her to describe his coloring and clothes. She had first seen him a week before. He had passed up and down on the other side of the street five or six times, at intervals of fifteen or twenty minutes, with his face turned as if watching something--or looking for something--on Mrs. Priestly's--and the Leggetts'--side of the street. She thought it was between eleven and twelve o'clock that she had seen him the first time that night, and around one o'clock the last. Several nights later--Saturday--she had seen him again, not walking this time, but standing on the corner below, looking up the street, at about midnight. He went away after half an hour, and she had not seen him again. Mrs. Priestly knew the Leggetts by sight, but knew very little about them, except that the daughter was said to be a bit wild. They seemed to be nice people, but kept to themselves. He had moved into the house in 1921, alone except for the housekeeper--a Mrs. Begg, who, Mrs. Priestly understood, was now with a family named Freemander in Berkeley. Mrs. Leggett and Gabrielle had not come to live with Leggett until 1923. Mrs. Priestly said she had not been at her window the previous night and therefore had not seen the man Mrs. Leggett had seen on the corner. A man named Warren Daley, who lived on the opposite side of the street, down near the corner where Mrs. Priestly had seen her man, had, when locking up the house Sunday night, surprised a man--apparently the same man--in the vestibule. Daley was not at home when I called, but, after telling me this much, Mrs. Daley got him on the phone for me.