I nodded to the receptionist, crossed over to the door of my private office, opened it, scaled my hat onto the shelf of the coat closet, and said to Elsie Brand, "What’s new?"
She looked up from the typing. "Donald, is that a new suit?"
"Well?" I asked.
"Swell," she said.
"Thanks," I told her. "What’s cooking?"
"Bertha wants to see you."
"Okay," I said. "I’ll go in."
I walked out to the reception room, gave a perfunctory tap on the door that was marked B. Cool—Private, and walked in.
The girl who sat across the desk from Bertha was just opening her purse. Bertha’s greedy little eyes were glittering. She turned away from the purse to frown at my interruption and then said to the girl, "This is Donald Lam, my partner." To me she said, "Miss Beatrice Ballwin. She’s a client."
I bowed and smiled and said the four-word formula of pleasure. And, somehow, Miss Ballwin seemed relieved and reassured. She said, "How do you do, Mr. Lam," and then added, "I’ve heard a lot about you."
Bertha’s chair creaked as she twisted her hundred and sixty-five pounds of hard muscle impatiently. Her eyes were back on the purse in the girl’s lap.
"I hope we can be of some assistance," I said.
Bertha said impatiently, "I’ll tell you about it afterward, Donald. I have all the data. We won’t take time to go over it now. My notes cover everything."
Her diamonds glittered as she moved her hand in a sweeping gesture over some scribbled notes on her desk.
I looked over Bertha’s shoulder and saw that the notes consisted of half a dozen names and the figure $500 written out half a dozen times all over the yellow sheet of legal foolscap.
Bertha liked to doodle with figures.
The girl’s hand hovered over the half-open purse, but didn’t make any effort to bring out a checkbook.
Bertha’s office chair squeaked again in high-pitched protest. She said, "Well, dearie, I guess that’s all," and then added, "I’ll make you a receipt. Let’s see, two hundred and fifty dollars now and two fifty more tomorrow."
The girl’s hand went down inside the purse, came out with some bills neatly folded together.Bertha’s chair gave a quick, impatient squeak as she reached forward for the money. Then she started scrawling a receipt.
While she was writing, the girl looked up at me and smiled; then she took a cigarette case from her purse, raised her eyebrows in silent invitation.
I shook my head. "Not now, thanks."
She took out a cigarette, tapped it on the edge of the cigarette case. The cigarette case was silver with gold initials brazed onto the silver.
The initials were C.H.
She saw me looking at the cigarette case and her hand slid over to cover the initials.
Bertha Cool handed her the receipt. The girl dropped it in her purse, took a cigarette lighter, and lit the cigarette.
Her hand was shaking a little.
She dropped the lighter back into the purse, folded the receipt, said, "Well—thank you so much. You can start work immediately?"
"Immediately," Bertha said, unlocking a cash drawer in the desk and dropping in the money.
"It’ll have to be fast," the girl said, "because I think—well, I think there’s some danger right now. You’ll have to find some way to frighten her."
"Don’t worry, dearie."
"And you’ll protect me?"
"I’m your client?"
"So you’ll always have my interests in mind?"
"Even if—well, even if someone should try to buy you off?"
"We can’t be bought off."
"How long," I asked, "will you want us on the job?"
"For a week. I think that’s the period of greatest danger."
"Starting right now."
"Our rates were for a week," Bertha said.
"I understand, Mrs. Cool."
The girl got up, took a deep drag at her freshly lit cigarette, then ground it out and dropped it into the ashtray.
"Thank you," she said to Bertha. Her eyes turned to mine. They looked at me for a long two seconds; then she was moving forward and I was holding the door open for her.
She was a nice number, brunette, trim, with nice curves and I liked the fit of her skirt in the back. I watched her cross the reception room.
"Well," Bertha said, "don’t stand there gawking all morning. I—"
"Just a minute," I told her.
I slipped quickly into my office, grabbed the back of Elsie Brand’s stenographic chair, and jerked her away from the typewriter.
"What in the world!" she said, protestingly.
I said, "A cute little trick in a grayish skirt and jacket, with a fluffy green blouse collar, a brown handbag, tan shoes and stockings, twenty-four or twenty-five, about a hundred and twelve. She’s just at the elevator now. She hasn’t seen you. If she takes a taxicab, get the number of it. If she doesn’t, try to tail her but don’t let her know she’s being tailed."
"Oh, Donald, I can’t do that sort of thing. I’m no good at—"
I pushed her out through the door.
She walked across the office and out through the door to the corridor. I went back to Bertha Cool’s office.
"For God’s sake," Bertha said, looking me over.
"What’s the matter?"
"Another new suit."
"What’s wrong with it?"
"What’s wrong with it! Are you going to spend all of your money on clothes?"
"Not all of it."
"Well, I should hope not. There’s an income tax, you know."
I opened my eyes wide with surprise. "The deuce there is! You mean the government’s finally passed one?"
Bertha’s face got red and then almost purple. "Sometimes I could kill you."
I sat down in the client’s chair and lit a cigarette. The chair was still warm from Miss Ballwin’s occupancy.
"Well, what’s it all about?"
"Her name’s Beatrice Ballwin."
"You told me that before."
"Her uncle is Gerald Ballwin. He’s in some sort of a real estate business. His wife Daphne is going to poison him. He doesn’t suspect anything. We’re to stall for time and scare the wife."
I blew smoke out through my nostrils, "She live in the same house with her uncle?"
"No. She has an apartment of her own. She does some sort of research work, but she says we aren’t, under any circumstances, to call her at her apartment because she has a roommate who is very curious and very suspicious."
"How do we get in touch with her?"
"We aren’t supposed to. She’s going to call us. But if anything should happen, if there should be any emergency, she says that we can call Gerald Ballwin’s house and ask that Mrs. Ballwin’s secretary come in at once for another fitting on her suit. She says she’ll get that message and understand what it means."
"Just how are we going to go about keeping this Ballwin guy from getting cramps?" I asked.
"How the hell should I know? That’s in your department, Donald."
"Okay. I’ll do some thinking," I said, and went back to my own office and opened the morning newspaper to the sporting section.
Copyright © 1947 by Erle Stanley Gardner