I was in the outer office, standing by the files, doing some research on a blackmailer, when he came in, all six feet of him.
He wore a plaid coat, carefully tailored, pleated slacks, and two-tone sport shoes. He was built like a secondhand soda straw, and I heard him say he wanted to see the senior partner. He said it with the air of a man who always demands the best, and then settles for what he can get.
The receptionist glanced at me hopefully, but I was deadpan. Bertha Cool was the "senior" partner.
"The senior partner?" she asked, still keeping an eye on me.
"That’s right. I believe it is B. Cool," he announced, glancing toward the names painted on the frosted glass of the doorway to the reception room.
She nodded and plugged in to B. Cool’s phone. "The name?" she asked.
He drew himself up importantly, whipped an alligator-skin card case from his pocket, took out a card, and presented it to her with a flourish.
She puzzled over it for a moment as though having difficulty getting it interpreted. "Mr. Billings?"
"Mr. John Carver Billings the—"
Bertha Cool answered the phone just then, and the girl said, "A Mr. Billings. A Mr. John Carver Billings to see you."
"The Second," he interposed, tapping the card. "Can’t you read? The Second!"
"Oh, yes," she said, "the Second."
That evidently threw Bertha Cool for a loss. Apparently she wanted an explanation.
"The Second," the girl repeated into the phone. "It’s on his card that way, and that’s the way he says it. His name is John Carver Billings, and then there are two straight lines after the Billings."
The man frowned impatiently. "Send my card in," he ordered.
The receptionist automatically ran her thumbnail over the engraving on the card and said, "Yes, Mrs. Cool," into the telephone.
Then she hung up and said to Billings, "Mrs. Cool will see you now. You may go right in."
"Mrs. Cool?" the man said.
"That’s B. Cool?"
"Yes. B. for Bertha."
He hesitated perceptibly, then straightened his plaid sport coat and walked in.
The receptionist waited until the door had closed, then looked up at me and said, "He wants a man."
"No," I told her, "he wants the senior partner."
"When he asks for you what shall I tell him?"
I said, "You underestimate Bertha. She’ll find out how much dough he has, and if it’s a sizable chunk she’ll ask me in for a conference. If it isn’t a big wad and John Carver Billings the Second intimates he thinks a woman isn’t as good a detective as a man, you’ll see Mr. John Carver Billings the Second thrown out of here on his ear."
She looked very demure. "You’re so careful with your anatomical distinctions, Mr. Lam," she said without smiling.
I went back to my office.
In about ten minutes the phone rang.
Elsie Brand, my secretary, answered, then glanced up and said, "Mrs. Cool wants to know if you can come into her office for a conference."
"Sure," I said, and gave the receptionist a wink as I walked past and opened the door of Bertha’s private office.
One look at the expression on Bertha’s face and I knew everything was fine. Bertha’s little, greedy eyes were glittering. Her lips were all smiles. "Donald," she said, "this is John Carver Billings."
"The Second," he amended.
"The Second," she echoed. "And this is Mr. Donald Lam, my partner."
We shook hands.
I knew from experience that it took cold, hard cash to get Bertha to assume that ingratiating manner and that cooing, kittenish voice.
"Mr. Billings," she said, "has a problem. He feels that perhaps a man should work on that problem, that it might—"
"Be more conducive of results," John Carver Billings the Second finished.
"Exactly," Bertha agreed with a cash-inspired alacrity of good humor.
"What’s the problem?" I asked.
Bertha’s chair squeaked as she moved her hundred and sixty-five pounds around so as to pick up the newspaper clipping on the far corner of her desk. She handed it to me without a word.
Maurine Auburn, the blond beauty who was with "Gabby" Garvanza at the time he was shot, has mysteriously disappeared. "Friends" have asked police to make an investigation.
The police, however, who feel that the young woman was considerably less than cooperative during their investigation into the shooting of the mobster, are inclined to feel that Miss Auburn, who kept her own counsel so successfully a few nights ago, is about business of her own. So far as police are concerned, her failure to pick up milk bottles from the doorstep of her swank little bungalow in Laurel Canyon is a matter of official indifference. In fact, officers pointed out quite plainly that Miss Auburn resented having police "stick their noses" into her private life a few days ago, and the police intend to respect her desire for privacy whenever possible.
The story as given to police by "friends" is that three days ago Maurine Auburn, who was the life of the party at a well-known nitery, became peeved at her escort and walked out.
Nor did she walk out alone.
Her departure was prefaced by a few dances with a new acquaintance whom she had met for the first time at the night club. The fact that she left the place with this newfound friend, rather than with members of her own party, is a circumstance which police consider to be without especial significance. Friends of the young woman, however, regard it as a matter of the greatest importance. Detectives are frank to state they do not consider this occurrence unique in the life of the mysterious young woman who was so singularly unobservant when Gabby Garvanza was on the receiving end of two leaden slugs.
When milk bottles began to pile up on Miss Auburn’s doorstep, the peeved and jilted escort, whose name is being withheld by the police, felt that something should be done. He went to the police—perhaps for the first time in his life. Prior to that time, as one of the officers expressed it, the police had gone to him.
In the meantime, Garvanza, who has so far recovered that he has been definitely pronounced out of danger, continues to occupy a private room at a local hospital and, despite his convalescence, continues to employ three special nurses.
After coming out of an anesthetic at the hospital following the operation which resulted in removing two bullets from his body, Gabby Garvanza listened patiently to police inquiries, then, by way of helpful cooperation, said, "I reckon somebody who had it in for me must have taken a coupla shots at me."
Police consider this a masterly understatement of fact and point out that as an aid to investigative work it is somewhat less than a valuable contribution. There was a distinct feeling at headquarters that both Gabby Garvanza and Miss Auburn could have been much more helpful.
I dropped the clipping back on Bertha’s desk and looked at John Carver Billings the Second.
"Honestly," he said, "I never knew who she was."
"You’re the pickup?" I asked.
"And Maurine left the nitery with you?"
"It really wasn’t a night club. This was late in the afternoon, a cocktail rendezvous, food and dancing."
I said to Bertha, "We might not want to handle this one."
Bertha’s greedy eyes flashed at me. Her jeweled hand surreptitiously strayed toward the cash drawer. "Mr. Billings has paid us a retainer," she said.
"And I offer a five-hundred-dollar bonus," Billings went on.
"I was coming to that," Bertha interposed.
"A bonus for what?" I asked.
"If you can find the girls I was with afterward."
"After the Auburn girl left me."
"That same night?"
"You seem to have covered a lot of territory," I said.
"It was this way," Bertha explained. "Mr. Billings was to have been joined for cocktails by a young woman. This young woman stood him up. He had been attracted to Maurine Auburn, and, when he caught her eye, asked her to dance. One of the men who was with her told Billings to go roll his hoop. Miss Auburn told the guy he didn’t own her, and he said he knew that; he was watching the premises for the man who did.
"It looked like the party might get rough so Billings, here, went back to his own table.
"A few minutes later Maurine Auburn came over to his table and said, ‘Well, you asked for a dance, didn’t you?’
"So they danced, and, as our client says, they clicked. He was nervous because her escorts looked like tough mugs. He suggested she shake them and have dinner with him. She told him about another place she liked. They went there. As far as Billings knows she’s still powdering her nose."
"What did you do?" I asked Billings.
"I stuck around, feeling like a sap. Then I noticed two girls by themselves. I made a play for one of them and got the eye. We danced for a while. By that time I realized, of course, Maurine had stood me up. I wanted one of these girls to ditch the other one so we could go places. No dice. They were together and they were going to stay together. I moved over to their table, bought them a couple of drinks, danced with them, had dinner, paid the check, and took them to an auto court."
"I stayed all night."
"In this motor court."
"With both of them?"
"They were in bedrooms. I was on a couch in the front room."
"We’d all had quite a bit to drink."
"About ten-thirty in the morning we had tomato juice. The girls cooked up a breakfast. They weren’t feeling too good and I was feeling like hell. I got away from there, went to my own motel, took a shower, and went down to a barbershop, got shaved and massaged and— Well, from there on I can account for my time."
"Every minute of it?"
"Every minute of it."
"Where was the motor court?"
"Out on Sepulveda."
Bertha said, "You see, Donald, these were a couple of San Francisco babes on an auto tour. Mr. Billings thinks they knew each other pretty well, that they may have been relatives, or may have been working together in an office somewhere. Apparently they’d planned an auto tour of the country on their vacation. They wanted to see a Hollywood night spot and see if they could get a glimpse of a movie star. When Mr. Billings offered to dance with them they were willing to play along but they were playing the cards close to their chest and wouldn’t let the party split up.
"Mr. Billings offered to drive them in his car but they said they were going to drive their own car. He— Well, he didn’t want to say good night too soon." Billings looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. "One of these babes had gone for me, and I’d gone for her," he said. "I thought I might get rid of the chaperone if I tagged along. I didn’t. I’d had a little more to drink than I thought. When we got out to the motor court I proposed a nightcap and— Well, either they loaded it on me or I’d already had too much. The next thing I knew I was all alone and then it was daylight and I had a beautiful hangover."
"How were the girls the next morning?"
"Sweet and cordial."
"Don’t be silly. They weren’t in the mood any more than I was. We’d all of us been seeing the town."
"And what do you want?"
"I want to find those two girls."
"Because," Bertha said, "he’s uneasy now that it seems Maurine Auburn has disappeared."
"Why beat about the bush?" Billings said. "She’s Gabby’s moll. She knows who pumped the lead into him. She didn’t tell the police but she knows. Suppose someone should think that she told me?"
"Any particular reason why she should tell you?" I asked.
"Or," he said hastily, "suppose something’s happened to her? Suppose the milk bottles keep on piling up on her porch?"
"Did Maurine Auburn give you her name?"
"No. She just told me I could call her ‘Morrie.’ It was when I saw her picture in the paper that I knew what I’d been up against.
"The guys with her must have been mobsters. Think of me barging up and asking for a dance!"
"Do that sort of thing often?" I asked.
"Certainly not. I’d been drinking, and I’d been stood up."
"And then you went out and picked up these two babes?"
"That’s right, only they made it remarkably easy for me. They were on the prowl themselves—just a couple of janes on a vacation looking for a little adventure."
"What names did they give you?" I asked.
"Just their first names, Sylvia and Millie."
"Who was the one that you fell for?"
"Sylvia, the little brunette."
"What did the other one look like?"
"A redhead who had a possessive complex as far as Sylvia was concerned. She knew all the answers and didn’t want me asking questions. She built a barbed wire fence around Sylvia and kept her inside of it. She may have loaded my drink with something besides liquor. I don’t know. Anyway, she produced the bottle for a nightcap and I went out like a light."
"They consented to let you take them home?"
"Yes. As a matter of fact, they hadn’t checked in anywhere yet. They wanted a motor court."
"You went in their car?"
"Did they register when you got to this motor court?"
"No. They asked me to register. That was the nicest way of asking me to pay the bill. In a motor court you pay in advance."
"Were you driving their car?"
"No. Sylvia was driving the car. I was sitting in the front seat next to Millie."
"Millie was in the middle?"
"And you told Sylvia where to drive?"
"Yes. She wanted to know where to get a good motor court. I told her I’d try and get one for her."
"And you picked this court out on Sepulveda?"
"We passed up a couple that had a sign ‘No Vacancy’ but this one had a vacancy sign."
"You went in there?"
"Yes, we drove in."
"Who went to the office?"
"And you registered?"
"How did you register?"
"I can’t remember the name I thought of."
"Why didn’t you use your own name?" He looked at me scornfully and said, "You’re a hell of a detective. Would you have used your name under the circumstances?"
"When it came to putting down the make and license number of the automobile what did you do?"
"There," he said with a burst of feeling, "is where I made the mistake. Instead of going out and getting the license number of their automobile I just made up one out of my head."
"And the person who was running the motor court didn’t go out to check it?"
"Of course not. If you look reasonably respectable they never go out to check the license number. Sometimes they just check the make of the automobile and that’s all."
"What make of car was it?"
"And you registered it as a Ford?"
"Yes. Why all the third degree? If you don’t want the case give me back my retainer and I’ll be on my way."
Bertha Cool’s eyes glittered. "Don’t be silly. My partner is simply trying to get the facts of the case so we can help you."
"It sounds to me as though he’s cross-examining me."
"He doesn’t mean anything by it," Bertha said. "Donald will locate these girls for you. He’s good."
"He’d better be," Billings said sullenly.
"Is there anything else," I asked, "that you can tell us that will help?"
"Not a thing."
"The address of the motor court?"
"I gave it to Mrs. Cool."
"What was the number of your cabin at the court?"
"I can’t remember the number, but it was the one on the right at the far corner. I think it was Number Five."
I said, "Okay. We’ll see what we can do."
Billings said, "Remember that if you find these women there’s to be a five-hundred-dollar bonus."
I said, "That bonus business doesn’t conform to the rules of ethics that are laid down for the operation of a private detective agency."
"Why not?" Billings asked.
"It makes it too much like operating on a contingency fee. They don’t like it."
"Who doesn’t like it?"
"The people who issue the licenses."
"All right," he said to Bertha, "you find the girls and I’ll donate five hundred dollars to your favorite charity."
"Are you nuts?" Bertha asked.
"What do you mean?"
"My favorite charity," Bertha told him, "is me."
"Your partner says contingency fees are out."
"Well, no one’s going to tell anyone about it," Billings said, "unless you get loquacious."
"It’s okay by me," Bertha said.
I said, "I’d prefer to have it on a basis that—"
"You haven’t found the girls yet," Billings interrupted. "Now get this straight. I want an alibi for that night. The only way I can get it is to find these girls. I want affidavits. I’ve made my proposition. I’ve given you all of the information that I have. I’m not accustomed to having my word questioned."
He glared at me, arose stiffly, and walked out.
Bertha looked at me angrily. "You damn near upset the applecart."
"Provided there is any applecart."
She tapped the cash drawer. "There’s three hundred dollars in there. That makes it an applecart."
I said, "Then we’d better start looking for the rotten apples."
"There aren’t any."
I said, "His story stinks."
"What do you mean?"
I said, "Two girls drive down from San Francisco, they want to look over Hollywood, and see if they can find a movie star dining out somewhere."
"So what? That’s exactly what two women would do under the circumstances."
I said, "They’d driven down from San Francisco. The first thing they’d do would be to take a bath, unpack their suitcases, hook up a portable iron, run it over their clothes, freshen up with make-up, and then go looking for movie stars. The idea that they’d have driven all the way down from San Francisco and—"
"You don’t know that they made it all in one day."
"All right, suppose they made it in two days. The idea that they’d have driven from San Luis Obispo or Bakersfield, or any other place, parked their car, and gone directly to a night club without stopping to make themselves as attractive as possible, stinks."
Bertha blinked her eyes over that one. "Perhaps they did all that but lied to Billings because they didn’t want him to know where they were staying."
I said, "Their suitcases must have been in the car, according to Billings’s statement." Bertha sat there in her squeaking swivel chair, her fingers drumming nervously on the top of the desk, making the light scintillate from the diamonds with which she had loaded her fingers. "For the love of Pete," she said, "get out and get on the job. What the hell do you think this partnership is, anyway? A debating society or a detective agency?"
"I was simply pointing out the obvious."
"Well, don’t point it out to me," Bertha yelled. "Go find those two women. The five-hundred-bucks bonus is the obvious in this case as far as I’m concerned!"
"Did you," I asked, "get a description?"
She tore a sheet of paper from a pad on her desk and literally threw it at me. "There are all the facts," she said. "My God, why did I ever get a partner like you? Some son of a bitch with money comes in and you start antagonizing him. And a five-hundred-dollar bonus, too."
I said, "I don’t suppose it ever occurred to you to ask him who John Carver Billings the First might have been?"
Bertha screamed, "What the hell do I care who he is, just so John Carver Billings the Second has money? Three hundred dollars in cold, hard cash. No check, mind you. Cash."
I moved over to the bookcase, picked out a Who’s Who and started running through the B’s.
Bertha narrowed blazing eyes at me for a moment, then moved to look over my shoulder. I could feel her hot, angry breath on my neck. There was no John Carver Billings. I reached for Who’s Who in California. Bertha beat me to it, jerked the book out of the bookcase, and said, "Suppose I do the brain work for a while and you get out and case that motor court?"
"Okay," I told her, starting for the door, "only don’t strain the equipment to a point of irreparable damage."
I thought for a moment she was going to throw the book.
Copyright © 1952 by William Morrow & Company, Inc. Copyright renewed 1980 by Jean Bethell Gardner.