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Yeah, it was hot enough to fry an egg on the sidewalk. I never could understand why people said that. Did somebody fry one then eat it? Who’d wanna eat a fried egg from the sidewalk? Especially in a city like New York. Maybe I’d try it. Not the eating part, the frying. But then people would think I was more of a screwball than they did already.
Nah. That wasn’t true. Nobody thought I was loose in the upper story. It’s just that most people didn’t understand why a dame like me would wanna be a PI. And it wasn’t that I set out to be. It’s just the way it turned out.
In 1940 Woody Mason hired me as a secretary for his A Detective Agency. He was a PI. But then in ’41, when the Nips hit Pearl Harbor, Woody felt he should do his duty for his country and left me to run the agency. That was two years ago and the war still wasn’t over.
The office is on Forty-third Street between Seventh and Eighth. A few months ago the agency moved one flight up so now I had my own office and a proper waiting room where my secretary, Birdie Ritter, sat.
I’d had two murders since last spring, solved them both. The first one was prime and it got a lotta attention in the fish wrappers, so I had a bunch of clients for a while. Just cause people saw my name in the paper they figured I was the best (which I might be) and they hired me for everything from finding a dog to solving another murder. Not bad for a twenty-six-year-old gal from Newark, New Jersey.
Even though the rush was over my dance card was full at the moment, so when Birdie knocked on my door and said I had a possible client in the outer office, I wasn’t overjoyed.
“Guy or gal?”
“Gal. She’s cryin, Faye.”
“They’re always cryin.”
“Ah, don’t be a tough tootsie with me. I got yer number, ya know.”
And she did. Always. Birdie kept me honest, like they say. She was the cat’s whiskers, far as I was concerned. And she was also whistle bait, a tall blonde with brown eyes that screamed Come get me, even though she wasn’t that kinda girl.
“So what’s her can a peas?” I asked.
“She didn’t gimme particulars. I could hardly make out what she was sayin through the waterworks. Somethin about a guy.”
“What else would it be?”
“Yeah. So will ya see her?”
“Ya know I will. What’s her moniker?”
“Claire Turner. Least I think that’s what she said.”
“Okay, bring her in.”
“That dress yer wearin is easy on the eyes. New?”
She smiled. “Yeah. Pete bought it for me.”
Pete. “I thought ya were gonna dump the bum.”
“I tried, Faye. We had a lollapalooza the other night and when we made up, Pete came round with this getup. What could a girl do?”
“Well, it suits ya to a T.” And it did, with the colorful butterflies on white cotton and a diamond cutout below the neck.
“Thanks. I better get the jane waitin out there before she floods the office.”
Birdie and Pete’d been on and off since I’d known her, which wasn’t that long, come to think of it. But she’d told me they’d been seeing each other for a few years and it was always a battle. Pete wanted to get married and Birdie didn’t, which was the source of most of their rhubarbs.
In a mo she was back with Claire Turner.
You got yer lookers and you got yer lookers. This Turner broad was the real thing. She was a long drink of water, maybe five feet nine inches. I knew being just shy of five four sometimes gave me a skewed slant on height, but this was one tall cookie.
Her hair was black and wavy, flowing down to her shoulders, and the ends blew a little from the standing fan I had going. She had a body that looked to have perfect measurements and it was wrapped in a white suit, short padded jacket with a pink blouse underneath.
Her eyes were almond-shaped and that shade of blue close to lavender. Also they were slightly pink from crying. She had full lips painted ruby red. And when she spoke one dimple creased her right cheek. I pegged her to be about twenty-two or -three.
“Yeah.” I stood up and held out my hand.
She took it and gave it a fast squeeze like she might get typhoid if she held it too long. Broads didn’t go in much for handshaking. But I did it anyway cause it always got them a little off kilter.
“Miss Turner, is it?”
“Yes. Claire Turner.” Her voice was husky.
“Please have a seat, Miss Turner.”
She took the green leather chair in front of my desk. Since my fortunes had risen and we’d moved, I’d done some decorating to make the agency look more like a real office instead of a toy to go with the trains under a Christmas tree.
She opened her white pocketbook and took out a pack of white Lucky Strikes, cause Lucky Strike green had gone to war. I didn’t know what the green was doing over there, but that was the deal. While she fussed with them I got a Camel from my pack and was ready with a match when she put the cig between her lips.
“What can I do for ya, Miss Turner?”
“I’m not sure anyone can do anything for me,” she said.
If I had a nickel for every potential client who said something like that I’d be one rich girl. Why did they come here if that’s what they thought? “Tell me what’s on yer mind and we’ll see what I can do.”
“It’s my boyfriend. He’s disappeared.”
How unusual, I thought. Then I told myself I was getting much too cynical.
“I’ve been to the police, but they don’t pay any attention to what I have to say.”
“Well, I’m gonna pay attention so tell me everything. Let’s start with his name.”
“Charlie Ladd. Private Charlie Ladd.”
“He’s in the army?”
I put my finger inside the roll at the bottom of my hair and gave it a little flip. “So when ya say disappeared, ya don’t mean he’s missin in action, do ya?”
“Oh, no. He was here on leave for a week. He arrived on Saturday. We saw each other the first three nights.”
“What happened on the fourth night?”
“He didn’t show up.”
“Show up where?”
“At my apartment.”
“You live alone?”
“And where’s that?”
“West Sixty-first Street.”
“You work, Miss Turner?”
“I should be at work now but the boss gave me an hour.”
“I’m a salesgirl at Wanamaker.”
There wouldn’t be a lotta money coming my way, but sometimes that didn’t matter.
“So ya had a date for Tuesday night and he was supposed to pick ya up at yer place and didn’t call. Just didn’t show. Right?”
“What’d ya do about it?”
“I phoned his hotel but he wasn’t in.”
“What hotel’s that?”
I knew that lotsa the soldiers and sailors stayed there. You couldn’t beat six clams a night to be right on Forty-second Street. I made a note of the hotel.
“He ever stand ya up before?”
She sat straighter in the chair. “He didn’t stand me up, Miss Quick. And no, he’s never stood me up.”
“What’d ya do yesterday?”
“Same thing. I kept phonin and he kept not bein there.”
“So what happened to him?”
“That’s what I wanna know. That’s what I want you to find out. Why do you think I’m here?”
“I gotta ask a lotta questions that sound dumb, Miss Turner. Bear with me, okay?”
“Sorry. I didn’t mean to get on my high horse.”
“So ya haven’t heard from him since Monday night, right?”
“Did ya call anybody? Any of his friends?”
“He’s from Rhode Island. He doesn’t have friends here.”
“Not even buddies he was on leave with?”
“Well, yes. I thought you meant civilian friends.”
“So who’s he on leave with?”
“I can’t remember his name.”
“Lemme think. David. Yeah. He was named David.”
“I didn’t pay attention to the name.”
“Do ya know Charlie’s family?”
“No. He said he’d introduce me when the war was over.” She looked like someone had taken the shine off her.
“Where’d ya say he’s from?”
“Did ya think he mighta gone home to his family?”
“Why would he do that without tellin me?”
“Have ya called his parents?”
“No. I couldn’t do that. I told you, I don’t know em. Besides, it’d look desperate, if you know what I mean.” She killed her cigarette in the glass ashtray on her side of the desk.
“And he’s got no friends in this area.”
I gave her a look and she knew what it meant.
“I forgot about him before. I never met him.”
“Charlie told me they’d gone to Franklin and Marshall College together. Best friends in school.”
“What’s his name?”
“He in the service?”
“I don’t know.”
“Did ya call him?”
“Ya got a problem usin the Ameche, Miss Turner?”
“The phone. Don Ameche played Alexander Graham Bell as in The Story Of.”
“I never heard that one.”
“Wanna give me his phone number?”
“Don’t you mean his Ameche number?” She giggled and put her hand over her ruby lips.
I decided to play. “Okay. Wanna give me his Ameche number?”
“I can’t. I don’t have it.”
I made a note to get the number. “Where’s he live?”
“I don’t know.”
“He live in the city?”
“I don’t think so. I mean, I would’ve met him if he did. On the other hand, Charlie always wanted to be alone with me.”
“And Charlie never said where his best friend lives?”
“No. Why would he? We didn’t spend a lotta time talkin about his pals, Miss Quick.”
“Right. How about his parents’ address and phone number? I guess ya don’t have them, either.”
“That’s right. I don’t. There was never a reason for me to have their Ameche number.” She smiled like a little girl, proud she’d learned a new word.
“What about your Ameche number. Ya know that, don’t ya? And yer address.” I wrote it all down. “How long have you been goin out with Ladd?”
“About six months.”
“How’d ya meet him?”
She lit another cigarette, tilted back her head, and blew out a smoke stream. “It’s gonna sound bad and I’m sure you’ll think I’m awful.” She blushed.
“I had a date with another fella, Van Widmark, and we were meetin at the Biltmore, under the clock. Van was late. I was standin there and I guess I looked put out. At least that’s what Charlie said.” Her eyes flashed at the mention of this memory. “Charlie came over to me. He was very polite. He asked me if I needed any assistance.”
“Assistance?” I squashed my cig.
“He thought I might be stranded. I told him I was waitin for my date who was a captain in the marines. And then I asked him what his rank was. I’ve never been good at learnin those. He told me he was a private. One thing led to another and before I knew it we were laughin and havin a good time. Van still hadn’t shown up when Charlie asked if he could call me. Well, I’d never done anything like that, but it’s different now, isn’t it?”
“I mean it’s wartime and it feels like all the rules are off.”
“Yeah. I guess ya could say that. So ya gave him yer number?”
“Did Captain Widmark ever show up?”
“Did the two guys meet?”
“Yeah. Charlie pretended we were old friends.”
“So ya dumped the captain for the private?”
“It wasn’t like that.”
“How was it?”
“Charlie called me the next night and we went out. I guess ya could say it was love at second sight.”
“What about Widmark?”
“I told him the next day.”
Yeah, that was a lot different from what I’d said.
“Where’s Widmark now?”
“He’s no longer in the marines.”
She looked down at her skirt and smoothed out nothing. “He was discharged after he was wounded.”
“So where is he?”
“He’s here in the city.”
“Address and phone, please.”
“There’s no reason to talk to Van.”
“Ya want me to take this case, Miss Turner, ya hafta let me decide who to talk to and what I think is important.” If clients knew who to talk to and what to look for, why in the Sam Hill did they come to me?
“Van doesn’t have anything to do with this.”
“That’s exactly what I mean. Ya hafta let me decide that. So, address and phone number.”
She opened her purse and took out an address book, ran a pointed polished nail down the alphabetized side to the W’s, I guessed, opened the book, and read me Widmark’s info.
“Ya went to the police, ya said.”
“After work yesterday.”
“What’d they tell ya?”
“They told me they’d look into it and that I should come back in a week.”
“I think they thought I was jilted or somethin the way they looked at me.”
“They look at everybody that way.” I had no idea what I meant by that, but it cut off the jilting avenue. “Anything else ya can tell me?”
“I don’t think so.” She went into her pocketbook, brought out a tortoiseshell compact, opened it, and took a gander at herself.
I thought this was a strange time to be checking her makeup. But I didn’t want to judge her just cause I wouldn’t do it. Then again, I wasn’t the raving beauty Miss Turner was. Although pretty had been used to tag me.
After putting a dab of powder on her unshiny nose she snapped shut the compact, and the powder made a little puff in the air.
“So ya wanna hire me, Miss Turner?”
“Well, yeah. Sure.” She returned the compact to her pocketbook.
I hated this part. “My rates are . . .”
She shook her head.
“What’s that mean?”
“It means I don’t care what your rates are. I gotta do this. I’ve been savin up.”
“You and Ladd are gonna tie the knot?”
“I hope so.”
“But he hasn’t popped the question yet?”
“No. But I know he will.”
Not if he’s dead, I thought. Instead, I said, “So about my rates.”
“I said it was okay.”