The bride wore a bouffant gown of off-white silk taffeta with a fitted bodice of Alençon lace. The groom wore striped pants, a carnation and a look of bitter regret. As for me, Ben Gates, I was wearing my .38 in a shoulder rig inside my best dacron and worsted. But I wasn’t a guest. Most of the wedding receptions I go to socially take place in bar-and-grills. An insurance company had hired me to come to this one and make sure that nobody went home with any of the wedding presents.
A striped marquee had been pitched on the lawn. The bride’s father, the president of a big pharmaceutical company and obviously loaded, had supplied thirty cases of imported champagne and another fifty of domestic, to be broached when the guests were too far along to care about the difference. From the library, where I was stationed, the popping of corks sounded like target practice on a 4.2 mortar range. At dusk the Japanese lanterns hanging from the edge of the marquee were turned on. The cars thinned out, the State Trooper went off duty, only a hard core of serious drinkers remained. I continued to get visitors from time to time, but most of them were trying to find a bathroom. One of the maids, a small fair-haired girl who looked pleasantly warm inside her black uniform, brought me a pot of coffee and a platter of sandwiches from the buffet. I considered this thoughtful of somebody. She put her tray down in a space I cleared for her on the coffee table. Her uniform was perhaps a half size too large, arid she was doing a certain amount of moving around inside it. We exchanged some boy-girl conversation, as one non-guest to another, and I asked her when she was due to go off. Eleven-thirty, she said, which I considered an interesting coincidence. I was due to go off at eleven-thirty myself.
The sandwiches were small, oddly shaped and a little soggy. I ate them all, down to the last anchovy and the last globule of caviar. The coffee was hot and strong. I poured a second cup and lighted a cigar. A piano was playing somewhere in the house, and a pick-up vocal group was singing dirty limericks. The steady popping of corks outside had made me edgy, but I was finally beginning to think that it might turn out to be an uneventful evening. I try not to have that kind of thoughts, because I always have them just before the trouble starts.
Sure enough, a blonde in a blue dress was looking in at me from the doorway.
"So here’s where they’re hiding the wedding presents," she said.
She had a glass in one hand, a champagne bottle in the other. As she came into the room I saw that she was barefoot. I didn’t need to take her blood count to know she had enough little bubbles inside her to lift her off the floor, like those speedboats that travel on a cushion of foam. I had seen the same blue dress on other girls that afternoon, which probably meant she was one of the bridesmaids. It was a demure dress, but there was nothing demure about what was inside it. The dress had been engineered to be worn with high heels, and the shock-waves set up an interesting play of movement, chiefly in an up-and-down direction, but accompanied by a small amount of sway. Her lipstick was slightly crooked.
I set my coffee cup on the arm of the leather sofa.
"Don’t get up," she said as I got up. "Just browsing."
The most valuable presents were displayed on a big refectory table in the center of the room, with the overflow on two trestle tables against the walls. I rotated my cigar to get it burning evenly, not looking at the girl directly as she made a clockwise circuit of the main table. She stopped in front of a tea service of heavy silver to finish the champagne in her glass, holding the stem between her middle fingers in what as far as I know may be the approved grip. She leaned forward to read a card propped against the teapot. Her nose wrinkled.
"Pretty awful, isn’t it? But that uncle lives in Texas, so they can take it back to Tiffany’s and trade it in for some salad forks."
She rode the bubbles around the table. "Excuse me. They already have salad forks."
A little further she said, "They certainly have salad forks."
Suddenly she gave a little cry, put down the bottle and the glass and picked up a bracelet. "The girls have been gossiping about this one."
There was a prominent notice directly in front of her, requesting guests not to handle the presents, but I didn’t bother to point it out. I drifted to the right, getting between her and the door. She fastened the bracelet on her wrist and held it up.
"Now that is gorgeous," she said with approval. "What’s your name?"
When I didn’t answer she looked at me. "You."
"Ben Gates," I said without taking the cigar out of my mouth.
"Who do you work for, the insurance company?"
"Today I do," I said. "I’m a private detective. They sent me out to keep good-looking blondes from helping themselves to the diamond bracelets."
She laughed. "The trouble with you is, you’re sober."
"That’s one of the rules."
As she came around the corner of the table toward me, I felt an unreasonable flicker of alarm. She couldn’t have weighed more than one-ten stripped, in itself an interesting thought. But I was getting a good look at her eyes for the first time. She wasn’t a solemn drunk. She was one of the wild ones. She was quiet enough at the moment, but it was the quiet of an unexploded torpedo.
I started counting backward from ten.
"Let me hold this," she said.
She took the cigar out of my mouth before I could do anything to stop her. We were as close as we could get without colliding and she kept on coming. Her free hand glanced off my chest and slid up around my neck. Without her shoes on, the top of her head was on a level with my chin, but she didn’t let that bother her. She came up me like a caterpillar climbing a wall. I didn’t help her, except insofar as the wall can be said to help the caterpillar.
Her lips were open, and I tasted champagne. I’m not enough of an expert on champagne to know if it was domestic or imported. I took a backward step; she stayed with me, and we were now in position to go into the juvenile-delinquent dance known as the fish. Contact was total, and I felt a strong pressure against my eyeballs. It wasn’t painful. It wasn’t even exactly unpleasant. It was just there, and it seemed out of proportion. She shouldn’t have been affecting me that much.
She pushed off. If she had waited a fraction of a second longer we would have gone over backward.
"Weddings always make me feel amorous," she said. "I start kissing people."
"Didn’t the bracelet have anything to do with it?"
"Maybe a little." She studied me as though I had just blown in from extra-galactic space. "Without the cigar, you know you look quite nice? Sort of rugged. You’ve been around, haven’t you?"
"Here and there," I said.
She tapped the ash off the cigar elaborately, and put the cigar in her mouth. She didn’t quite succeed in carrying it off. She gave a single sharp cough, laughed and handed it back. The pressure on my eyeballs, whatever it was, had relaxed.
"Now suppose you take off the bracelet," I said.
"Oh, Ben," she said, disappointed in me. "You can’t really think I expected to accomplish anything with just one kiss? But you’ve heard of buying things on installments. That was the down payment."
She found the champagne bottle. "If I got another glass would you join me?"
"I just had some," I said.
She laughed again. "That wasn’t nearly enough. I want you to get so drunk you’ll forget I’m wearing somebody else’s bracelet."
She sipped at her champagne, using the same backhand grip. She kept looking at me and I had a feeling she was laughing. I couldn’t help that. I stayed between her and the door, hoping that I looked incorruptible.
"If you change your mind about the champagne," she said, "I’ll let you use my glass."
She sat down in one of the leather armchairs, stretching her feet out in front of her. Her legs were clearly outlined under the blue dress, from the painted toes all the way up. She lifted her wrist and tilted it slightly, to get a glint from the diamonds.
"Are you going to wrestle me for it?"
"I hope not," I said.
"And first you’d have to catch me," she went on. "I can move fast when I have to. Maybe I can trip you up and get out the door. I know my way around the house. You’d never find me."
"All I’d have to do is ask for the wedding picture," I said. "The big one, including the bridesmaids. I don’t want to get your hopes up by paying you any compliments, but I think I’d recognize you."
"Then it would be your word against mine, right?"
I was beginning to get the same odd fuzziness I had felt when her tongue was in my mouth. "But they’d believe me."
She sighed. "I suppose you’re right. But I wish it was mine! It makes me feel—completely different. I just had a fight with somebody, not that you’d be interested. I looked all over for a certain son of a bitch, and I found him in the back seat of the family Cadillac with one of my fellow bridesmaids. Of course we’re wearing the same color dress today, and maybe he was confused. Don’t be so square, Ben. Let me keep it." She looked at me seriously, as though she were asking for something of no value, like my autograph. "What would happen if one tiny little bracelet was missing when you turn in the rest of the stuff?"
"First they’d rip off my fingernails," I said. "Then they’d put me in the hole for six months on bread and water. After that they wouldn’t give me any business. They have an association. They’d put the word around—when you need somebody, don’t call Gates, because he’s a man who gives away bracelets."
I locked the door to the hall and put the key in my pocket. She watched warily.
"Now we start chasing each other?"
"Not yet," I said. "I’m supposed to be able to handle a little thing like this without working up a sweat. As soon as I found out they had eighty cases of champagne for five hundred people, I called New York and talked them into sending out another man. His name’s Irving Davidson, and he played pro football after college. Between the two of us we should be able to take off that bracelet."
"It sounds like fun," she said.
"It would be a lot simpler to take it off yourself."
She lifted the champagne glass and smiled at me without replying. There was a tiny point of light in each eye, like a reflection from the diamonds. I went to the window. I heard a shout outside, followed by a burst of feminine laughter. The mixed chorus, wearying of "Sweet Violets," had moved along to "Show Me the Way to Go Home." I, too, would have liked to be shown that way. I was tired and I wanted to go to bed.
I saw Davidson at the far end of the terrace, looking down at the parked cars. A girl in a white dress was talking to him eagerly. Davidson is easily the best-looking private investigator in New York, and girls have difficulty keeping their hands off him. With me and girls, it’s usually the other way around.
I rapped on the glass with a half dollar. He heard it and turned.
"All right," the girl said behind me. "I won’t make any more trouble. Here."
She was standing. She put down her glass and began picking at the unfamiliar clasp of the bracelet.
"I like competent men," she said, "and, dear God, do I need one right now. Maybe I could hire you. How would I—"
"It’s easy," I said. "I’m in the Manhattan book. If you didn’t get my name the first time, it’s Gates."
"But if you don’t let me keep this bracelet, how can I pay your fee?"
Somebody rattled the doorknob. A man’s voice called, "Shelley? Shelley?"
"Christ!" she said. The little flares of excitement came back to her eyes. "I’ve just had the most marvelous idea! Ben, listen. That’s my boy. Do me a favor! You don’t have to say anything, just hold still and look guilty. But you’re too neat. He won’t think we’ve been playing doctor in here unless you’re a little more tousled."
She yanked at my tie, pulling me in against her, and put some more lipstick near my mouth. I stepped back, knocking over her glass. Champagne splashed on my coat.
"That’s better," she said.
There was a furious knocking at the door. "Shelley!" the voice shouted. "I can hear you whispering! I know you’re in there. Open this goddam door before I kick it down!"
I straightened my tie, feeling more and more like the one man at this party on the wagon. I tried to rub off some of the lipstick, but the doorknob was being rattled so furiously that there was a real danger it would be pulled off the door. I used the key. As the bolt cleared, a powerfully built young man knocked the door out of my hands. This was Richardson Pope, Jr., the bride’s brother. He had changed out of his formal clothes into a checked jacket and chinos. His face was flushed with champagne and suspicion.
"Chauffeurs, golf pros!" he shouted at the girl. "What taste!"
"Do you know Mr. Gates?" she said coolly.
He seized her shoulders. "You think you can make a fool of me at my sister’s wedding, do you? In front of my friends?"
"Friends?" she asked.
"All right, boys and girls, let’s cut it out," I said without much conviction.
Davidson walked in. "Need me, Ben?"
Damn right I needed him. I needed any help I could get. Suddenly it was all I could do to keep my eyes open. I was riding a revolving seesaw, going slowly up and down and around, all at the same time. I was getting some peculiar reactions, considering that among all the champagne-drinkers I had had nothing to drink but a single cup of coffee. And then it hit me. The coffee had been slightly bitter. I had thought the bitterness was an aftertaste from the fish-spread or the caviar. But if—
"Let go of me," Shelley was saying reasonably.
Pope tightened his grip. "You’d do it with anybody, wouldn’t you?" he said, his face close to hers. "You’re the one needs analyzing, not me. They have a word for your trouble, and I’ll tell you what it is. Nymphomania!"
Reaching behind her, she picked a silver cream pitcher off the table and hit him with it. Pope staggered back, his hand going to his forehead.
I reached for her arm and she whirled on me. The waiting violence I had seen back of her eyes was out in the open. She struck at my face with her fingernails. I had plenty of time to get out of the way, but my responses were slow. It was like being clawed with a blueberry rake.
"With anybody!" Pope yelled again. "And when I think I was almost dumb enough to marry you!"
Shelley laughed harshly. "I thought that had been canceled."
"It is now, by God! It is now!"
"But don’t ask me to give back the ring," she said. "I may need to raise some money on it."
Davidson was holding Pope from behind. The boy’s mouth worked, and I saw tears in his eyes.
"A detective!" he said. "Shell, I don’t see how you could do it."
"Oh, you hypocrite," she said scornfully. "If there’s one thing in the world I can’t stand, it’s hypocrisy. How about my good friend Tina Hare in the back of the Cadillac?"
"We were just—"
"You were just!" Shelley said. "I know how much you were just. And while we’re on the subject of adolescent love-play, how about last Saturday? I don’t suppose you went visiting in White Plains at one o’clock in the morning?"
Pope lowered his head, and stood absolutely still. "You followed me?"
"I’ll kill you," he said, and then shouted, "I’ll kill you!"
"Why don’t you?" she cried. "Haven’t you had enough practice?"
I wasn’t getting much of this. The seesaw was doing its best to throw me. The voices cut in and out, as though they came from a TV set with a poor connection.
It takes two sober men to hold one determined drunk, and Pope broke away from Davidson. Shelley jerked her head back so his fist didn’t land solidly, but it succeeded in knocking her down.
"Dick?" a woman’s voice said from the doorway. "Is everything all right, dear?"
I couldn’t speak for anybody else, but things were definitely not all right with me. The woman’s face went out of focus. I bore down hard and brought it back. She was enormously fat and loaded with jewels, like the wife of a slum landlord in an old-fashioned radical cartoon. Her face was powdered chalk-white, with little red features painted on it. Her fingers were crowded with rings, most of them too tight, and her necklace must have been worth its weight in thousand-dollar bills. The jewelry made a very strong statement, but without it, in spite of her immense bulk, she would have seemed dazed and uncertain.
"I want to go up," she said in a little girl’s voice. "And Dickie-bird, you did promise you wouldn’t have any more to drink."
The boy’s tension drained away. "Oh, Jesus, mother."
I reached for the corner of the table, but it was gone by the time my hand got there. The walls had begun to change places.
"Get them out of here, Irving," I said.
He gave me a quick look. "What’s that, Ben?"
"Somebody slugged the goddam coffee."
I may have said something else, but I went to sleep before I heard what it was. Anyone who has gone to sleep driving a thruway knows the sensation—it is both agreeable and disagreeable. When I came awake I was still on my feet, but everything was in rapid sideways motion, with considerable overlap. Davidson and I were alone in the room. He was trying to get me to the couch, without actually picking me up and carrying me.
"What’s this glub-glub stuff, Ben? Have you been hitting the vino?"
I put all my strength into forming one word he would understand. "Coffee."
"Coming right up, not that it’s going to do you a hell of a lot of good."
I shook my head. For an instant I managed to open a path through the smog around me. I lunged at the coffee pot and knocked it off the table. Now if I went back to sleep before I got my message across, which seemed likely, Davidson wouldn’t be tempted to sample the same loaded brew. Coffee splashed on my leg, but I didn’t feel it.
"There goes your coffee," Davidson said.
I pushed against him feebly, trying to keep him from putting me on the couch. Once I was horizontal I knew I was through.
"Mickey," I said. "Fake it. You."
Even to me it didn’t make sense, but at least Davidson distinguished the separate words. He peered at me. His eyes were the only fixed points in the general swirl, and they kept me from going under.
"I’m beginning to get you, Ben. They mickeyed the coffee? What do you mean, fake it? Stay inside? Pretend I’ve passed out?"
I started a nod. Before I could complete it I was asleep. He must have laid me on the couch, because that was where I was when I woke up, but I wasn’t aware of being handled. I was too busy dreaming. The only thing I remember about those dreams is that they weren’t pleasant.
Copyright © 1960 by Robert Kyle.