The rain hit hard at my window. It slowed down to a whisper, then hit hard again. All afternoon the rain had been doing this while I sat behind my desk with my feet up, doing nothing. I looked around the ratty little office and wondered vaguely what time it was.
It wasn't much of an office. The four walls were painted a sickly lime-green, and the only bright spot in the room was the famous Marilyn Monroe calendar with its flame-red background. Two ladder-backed straight chairs, a two-drawer file cabinet, a cheap combination typing-and-writing desk and a swivel-chair completed the furnishings. The rugless floor was laid with brown and yellow linoleum blocks. As I sat facing the door, looking over my feet at the milk-glass pane, I could see in reverse the lettering of my name:
JACOB C. BLAKE PRIVATE INVESTIGATIONS
Behind me was my single window with its excellent view of the air shaft. The office was on the mezzanine of the King Edward Hotel and it was probably the worst location for a private investigator in San Francisco. But I hung onto it for two reasons. One: I lived in the hotel. Two: It was cheap.
I lit a cigarette and tried my best to blow smoke rings. After several tries I blew a good one. While I watched it disintegrate the door opened and a girl entered. She was young and she held a pistol in her hand. I left my feet on the desk and raised my arms in the air as high as I could reach.
"Stick 'em up!" the girl said, out of the corner of her mouth.
"They are up." My voice came out higher than I'd ever heard it before. My body felt suddenly cold and damp. The girl came around to the side of my desk, shoved the pistol into my face and pulled the trigger. A jet of lukewarm water splashed on my forehead and dribbled into my eyes. The girl made a noise; a foolish, school-girl giggle.
My fear had become unreasoning anger. I jerked the black water pistol out of her hand and broke it in two. I threw the shattered plastic into the wastebasket, twisted my hands into the lapels of the girl's garbardine raincoat and started shaking her. I shook her so hard her head whipped back and forth like a marionette's. When she started to cry I cooled off. I shoved her into a chair and sat down again in my own. My hands were trembling from the combination of fear, anger, and now sudden remorse for ill-treating the girl. I took a calmer look at her.
She seemed about fifteen years old. A mop of auburn poodle-cut curls topped a pretty, innocent, delicate face. She carried a small, black patent-leather handbag and her shoes were single-strap Mary Janes. She took a tiny handkerchief out of her purse and dabbed at her blue eyes.
"You hurt me." Her voice was a bubbling, light soprano.
"You scared me."
"I was just having a little fun."
"It wasn't funny!"
She giggled. "You should have seen your face!"
"What were you trying to prove, anyway?" I smiled in spite of myself.
"I'm waiting for my brother," she explained.
"I see. You thought I was your brother."
"No! Freddy's visiting Mr Davis in his room and he told me to wait for him in the lobby."
"This is the mezzanine."
"I know that! But I've been waiting for over an hour, and I've been exploring sort of, to kill time. I saw your office, and I wondered what a private detective would do if someone tried to stick him up, and then I remembered I had my little brother's water pistol with me"
"The brother Freddy, visiting Mr Davis"
"No! My little brother's water pistol! Freddy's my big brother. He's eighteen years old!"
"He won't let you use his water pistol?"
"My goodness! He doesn't even have one! That was my little brother's water pistol you broke up, and I'll have to get him a new one."
"What's his name?"
"Melvin. Melvin Allen."
"And what's your name?"
"Barbara Ann. They call me Bobby, but I hate it. Don't you?"
"Is your last name Allen too?"
"Of course it is, and my big brother Freddy, the one upstairs visiting Mr Davishis name is Allen, too!"
"Then it isn't Freddy?"
"Yes! Freddy Allen."
"The one upstairs. The one who doesn't own a water pistol."
"That's right. My, you sure do have a hard time understanding things!"
"I think I'll give you a spanking." I was having a lot of fun with the girl. Barbara Ann had put some life into a dull, dreary day. Her eyes widened, and for a moment, she stared at me with a scared expression on her innocent face. Then the corners of her mouth turned up slightly and formed a knowing, truly feminine smile. Without a word she got up from her chair, removed her raincoat, folded it, and put it on the seat. She leaned well over the desk, reached behind her and lifted her plaid skirt, exposing pink panties and a firm, beautifully rounded bottom.
"Go ahead," she said calmly. "Spank me. I deserve it."
This was my second surprise of the afternoon. And I would have enjoyed giving a spanking to her. But my native intelligence came to my rescue. I reached over and pulled her skirt down, resisting my strong desire to pat her nicely rounded buttocks.
"I didn't think you'd do it," she said scornfully, tossing her curls. She put her raincoat back on.
"You knew I wouldn't do it," I said, "but you'd better watch out for that cute little rear end of yours. Next time, you might not be so lucky. And now, with that fatherly advice, you can leave. Beat it."
I put my feet back up on the desk. Barbara Ann pulled a chair up close and sat down. She was prim and business-like. Her hands were folded neatly in her lap and there was a set, serious glint in her blue eyes.
"Mr Blake," she began earnestly, "I proved something when I came in here with that toy pistol. I showed you how alert I was, and how nervy a young girl can be. Why, no one would ever suspect a girl like me of being a private detective, and I could get away with almost anything."
"Well, I'm still going to high school, but I don't go on Saturdays, and I can stay out real late at night, and Daddy never says anything. Many times I come in as late as eleven o'clock and still he doesn't say anything. So how about giving me a part-time job working for you?" She sat back in the chair.
"How old are you, Barbara?"
"I'm going on sixteen, but I look a lot older."
"I can see how old you look." I shook my head. "That's too young. I'd lose my license. But even if you were older I couldn't give you a job, kid. I don't have enough business to keep myself busy."
"Oh, you don't have to pay me, Mr Blake! I'll work for the experience"
"I'm sorry, Barbara. I can read your mind. You think that being a private detective is a glamorous, exciting jobwell, it isn't. It's a boring, underpaid profession. Doors slammed in your face, creditors after you all the time; soliciting work from cheap loan outfits, and you end up nine times out of ten with the dirty end of the stick. You don't want any part of it."
"But I do! And I'm going to sit right here until you give me an assignment." She set her pretty lips in a tight line.
"All right." I owed her something for the dirty trick she had played on me with the water pistol. "I'll give you an assignment. Without pay, of course."
"I told you, I don't care about that!"
"Listen carefully, then." I made up a lie. "Do you know where the big 'E' department store is?"
"The Emporium? Of course."
"Well, tomorrow, Saturday, they're having a sale on women's ostrich-skin pocketbooks. These are very expensive, you know. Now, I've heard something through my sources in the underworld, which I can't divulge to anyoneyou understand that?"
"Of course. You can't expose your stoolies."
"Right. There's a notorious shoplifter who's coming up from Los Angeles expressly for that one sale. My job is to get her. But, unfortunately, she knows me and that's where the trouble comes in. If she spots me, she won't steal any pocketbooks, and unless I can catch her red-handed, we can't prove anything. Do you follow me?"
"Oh, yes!" Barbara's eyes were round with excitement.
"But she doesn't know me and I can watch for her instead of you!"
"That's the idea. Here's what you do. I'll check with my sources tonight, and if she comes to town, I'll open my office door tomorrow morning and wave a handkerchief at exactly 8:30. If she doesn't come I won't open my door, and I can call you later if I find a suitable assignment. Okay?"
"I get it. I'll watch your office door from the lobby in the morning and if the shoplifter is in town you'll wave a handkerchief. Then what do I do?"
"Go down to the big 'E' and hang around the counter where the ostrich-skin handbags are. When you spot her lifting one, arrest her and turn her over to the manager.
"Aren't you going to be there?"
"I told you already. She knows me."
"What does she look like?"
"I don't know," I said truthfully. "I've never seen her."
"You can depend on me, Mr Blake. I won't let you down." Barbara stood up. I shook hands with her gravely.
"Until tomorrow then."
"Right. 8:30 sharp." She left the office, her cheeks glowing with excitement. I felt a slight tinge of remorse, but I shrugged it away. The hell with it. Do her good. At the time I didn't know that I was making a terrible mistake by playing a practical joke on Barbara Ann Allen. It seemed like an amusing idea, a way to get rid of the kid, but no man can see into the future, and even now, I have no regrets.
I smoke a cigarette with enjoyment. It's the little surprises in life that go to make a good day. When nothing ever happens, the day is a lousy one. My whole outlook was changed by Barbara's visit. I decided to do a little work. I cracked the telephone book to the yellow section to look up addresses of loan companies, intending to solicit a few skip-tracing jobs by correspondence . . . but again my door opened and I looked up.
No teenager this time. This was a woman. She was about twenty-six or -seven, with sparkling drops of rain dotting a thick mass of dark, almost blue-black hair. Her face was very pale. This made her eyes, which were the color of freshly washed blackberries, appear even darker than they were. She had plenty upstairs, but her posture was erect and her body slim, with narrow hips. She closed the door and stood with her back against it, smiling at me with a set of little white teeth. The teeth weren't perfect; they slanted toward the center lightly.
"Are you Mr Blake?" she asked, raising her dark eyebrows.
"Yes, I am. Won't you sit down?" I pointed to the chair vacated by Barbara Ann.
She removed a slick raincoat, exposing a tailored suit of heavy ochre tweed. I could see the sticks and twigs in the material. It was at least a two-hundred-dollar suit.
She removed her yellow gloves and tossed them on the desk. She sat down and crossed her legs and we waited each other out.
"Do you know who I am?" she asked.
"Am I supposed to know? This is a good-sized city." I smiled.
"My name is Florence Weintraub." Her voice was flat, toneless.
"My father is Milton Weintraub."
"I've heard of him. He's the architect who built those city projects."
"That's right. He's my father."
"And what can I do for you?"
"I'll show you. Open your door a crack and take a look around the lobby."
I got up, moved to the door, opened it and scanned the lobby. In addition to the lobby regulars and the easily spotted tourists, I saw two men who didn't belong there. Both were the bruiser type, big enough to wrestle for TV. One was standing by the entrance pretending to read a newspaper and the other was lolling near the short staircase leading to the mezzanine. As I watched they exchanged glances, and the man with the newspaper shrugged.
"See what I mean?" Miss Weintraub was at my shoulder and I got a whiff of the perfume in her hair.
"Yeah, I dig them." We backed into the office.
"Those two men are holding me prisoner."
"Why?" I didn't doubt it. They were rugged enough to do it.
"They've been hired by my father. They follow me everywhere I go; except the bathroom. In fact, they think I'm in the ladies' room now."
"I see. But you don't know why your father hired them?"
"Certainly I know," she said bitterly. "He's afraid I'll get into some kind of trouble. If I enter a bar they follow me in, take me by the arm and lead me outside again. If I start an innocent conversation with anybody, they get right on me, both of them. 'Oh, here you are, Florence!' they say, and off we go. After I've been removed from whoever it was I happened to talk to, they let me go again and fall in behind me. How would you like it?"
"I wouldn't like it, Miss Weintraub."
Her purplish eyes were angry and her breathing was quick. She was beautiful this way, very much so, and yet there was something about her that put me on my guard.
"How old are you, Miss Weintraub?"
"Twenty-six," she said without hesitating. "Certainly old enough to dispense with nursemaids."
"I agree. What do you want me to do? Lose them for you?
"For a while. They can pick up your trail again easily enough. That can be done by returning to where they first lost you, or to your home, or by checking your regular hangoutsmany ways. But if you want to lose them for an hour or so, it can be done."
"I'd like to lose them permanently."
"The only way to do that is have your father call them off. Want me to talk to him for you?"
"Oh, no! That wouldn't do any good."
"Without more thought on it, then, that's all I can suggest."