Mae Devers came into my office with the mail. She stood by my chair for a moment putting envelopes on the desk, pausing to make little adjustments of the inkwell and paper weights, tidying things up a bit.
There was a patent-leather belt around her waist, and below that belt I could see the play of muscles as her supple figure moved from side to side. I slid my arm around the belt and started to draw her close to me.
"Don't get fresh!" she said, trying to pull my hand away, but not trying too hard.
"Listen, I have work to do," she said. "Let me loose, Pete."
"Holding you for ransom, smile-eyes," I told her.
She suddenly bent down. Her lips formed a hot circle against mine-and Cedric L. Boniface had to choose that moment to come busting into my office without knocking.
Mae heard the preliminary rattle of the door-knob, and scooped up a bunch of papers from the desk. I ran fingers through my hair, and Boniface cleared his throat in his best professional manner.
I couldn't be certain whether I had any lipstick on my mouth, so I put my elbow on my desk, covered my mouth with the fingers of my hand and stared intently at an open law book.
Mae Devers said, "Very well, Mr. Wennick, I'll see that it gets in the mail," and started for the door. As she passed Boniface, she turned and gave me a roguish glance, as much as to say, "Now, smartie, see what you've got yourself into."
Boniface stared at me, hard. His yellowish eyes, with the bluish-white eyeballs, reminded me of hard-boiled eggs which had been peeled and cut in two lengthwise. He was in a vile humour.
"What was all the commotion about?" he asked.
"Commotion?" I inquired raising my eyes, but keeping my hand to my mouth. "Where?"
"In here," he said.
Mae Devers was just closing the door. "Did you hear anything, Miss Devers?" I asked in my most dignified manner.
"No, sir," she said demurely, and slipped out into the corridor.
I frowned down at the open law book on the desk. "I can't seem to make any sense out of the distinction between a bailment of the first class and a bailment of the second class."
That mollified Boniface somewhat. He loved to discourse on the academic legal points which no one else ever gave a damn about.
"The distinction," he said, "is relatively simple, if you can keep from becoming confused by the terminology. Primarily, the matter of consideration is the determining factor in the classification of all bailments."
"Yes, sir," I said, my voice muffled behind my hand.
Boniface stared at me. "Wennick," he said, "there's something queer about your connection with this firm. You're supposed to be studying law. You're supposed to make investigations. You're a cross between a sublimated law clerk and a detective. It just happens, however, that in checking over our income tax, I find that the emoluments which have been paid you during the past three months would fix your salary at something over fifteen thousand dollars a year."
There was nothing I could say to that, so I kept quiet.
Mae Devers opened the door and said, "Mr. Jonathan wants to see you at once, Mr. Wennick."
I got out of the chair as though it had been filled with tacks and said, "I'm coming at once. Excuse me, Mr. Boniface."
Mae Devers stood in the doorway which led to the general offices and laughed at me as I jerked out a handkerchief and wiped lipstick from my mouth. "That," she told me, "is what you get for playing around."
I didn't have time to say anything. When old E. B. Jonathan sent word that he wanted to see me at once, it meant that he wanted to see me at once. Cedric L. Boniface followed me to the door of my office and stared meditatively down the corridor as though debating with himself whether or not to invade the sanctity of E. B.'s office to pursue the subject further. I popped into E. B.'s private office like a rabbit making its burrow two jumps ahead of a fox.
Old E. B. looked worse than ever this morning. His face was the colour of skimmed milk. There were pouches underneath his tired eyes as big as my fist. His face was puckered up into the acrimonious expression of one who has just bit into a sour lemon.
"Lock the door, Wennick," he said.
I locked the door.
"Take a seat."
I sat down.
"Wennick," he said, "we're in a devil of a mess."
I sat there, waiting for him to go on.
"There was some question over certain deductions in my income tax statement," he said. "Without thinking, I told Mr. Boniface to brief the point. That made it necessary for him to consult the income tax return, and he saw how much you'd been paid for the last three months."
"So he was just telling me," I said.
"Well," E. B. said, "it's embarrassing. I need Boniface in this business. He can spout more academic law than a college professor, and he's so damn dumb he doesn't know that I'm using him for a stuffed shirt. No one would ever suspect him of being implicated in the-er, more spectacular methods which you use to clean up the cases on which he's working."
"Yes," I conceded, "the man's a veritable talking encyclopaedia of law."
E. B. said, "We'll have to handle it some way. If he asks you any questions, tell him it's a matter you'd prefer to have him discuss with me. Wennick! Is that lipstick on the corner of your mouth?"
Mechanically, I jerked a handkerchief out of my pocket to the corner of my mouth. "No, sir," I said, "just a bit of red crayon I was using to mark up that brief and…"
I stopped as I saw E. B.'s eyes on the handkerchief. It was a red smear. There was no use lying to the old buzzard now. I stuck the handkerchief back in my pocket and said, "Hell, yes, it's lipstick."
"Miss Devers, I presume," he said dryly.
I didn't say anything.
"I'm afraid," he said, "it's going to be necessary to dispense with her services. At the time I hired her, I thought she was just a bit too-er, voluptuous. However, she was so highly recommended by the employment agency that-"
"It's all right," I said. "Go ahead and fire her."
"You won't mind?"
"Certainly not," I told him. "I can get a job some other place and get one for her at the same time."
"Now, wait a minute, Wennick," he said, "don't misunderstand me. I'm very well satisfied with your services, if you could only learn to leave women alone."
I decided I might as well give him both barrels. "Listen," I said, "you think women are poison. I think they're damned interesting. The only reason I'm not going to ask you whether the rumour is true that you're paying simultaneous alimony to two wives is that I don't think I have any business inquiring into your private life, and the only reason I'm not going to sit here and talk about my love life is that I know damned well you haven't any business prying into mine."
His long, bony fingers twisted restlessly, one over the other, as he wrapped his fists together. Then he started cracking his knuckles, one at a time.
"Wennick," he said at length, "I have great hopes for your future. I hate to see you throw yourself away on the fleeting urge of a biological whim."
"All right," I told him, "I won't."
He finished his ten-knuckle salute and shook his head lugubriously. "They'll get you in the long run, Wennick," he said.
"I'm not interested in long runs," I told him. "I like the sprints."
He sighed, unlaced his fingers and got down to business. "The reason I'm particularly concerned about this, Wennick, is that the case I'm going to send you out on involves a woman, a very attractive woman. Unless I'm sadly mistaken, she is a very vital woman, very much alive, very-er, amorous."
"Who is she?" I asked.
"Her name is Pemberton, Mrs. Olive Pemberton. Her husband's Harvey C. Pemberton, of the firm of Bass & Pemberton, Brokers, in Culverton."
"What does she want?" I asked.
"Her husband's being taken for a ride."
"What sort of a ride?"
He let his cold eyes regard me in a solemn warning. "A joy ride, Pete."
"Who's the woman?"
Old E. B. consulted a memo. "Her name is Diane Locke-and she's redheaded."
"What do I do?"
"You find some way to spike her guns. Apparently she has an ironclad case against Pemberton. I'll start Boniface working on it. He'll puzzle out some legal technicality on which he'll hang a defence. But you beat him to it by spiking her guns."
"Has the redhead filed suit?" I asked.
"Not yet," E. B. said. "At present it's in the milk-and-honey stage. She's getting ready to tighten the screws, and Mrs. Pemberton has employed us to see that this other woman doesn't drain her husband's pocketbook with this threatened suit. Incidentally, you're to stay at the Pemberton house, and remember, Mr. Pemberton doesn't know his wife is wise to all this and is trying to stop it."
"Just how," I asked, "do I account for my presence to Mr. Harvey C. Pemberton?"
"You're to be Mrs. Pemberton's brother."
"How do you figure that?"
"Mrs. Pemberton has a brother living in the West. Her husband has never seen him. Fortunately, his name also is Peter, so you won't have any difficulty over names."
"Suppose," I asked, "the real brother shows up while I'm there at the house?"
"He won't," E. B. said. "All you have to do is to go to the door at seven-thirty this evening. She'll be waiting for your ring. She'll come to the door and put on all the act that's necessary. You'll wear a red carnation in your left coat lapel so there'll be no mistake. Her maiden name, by the way, was Crowe. You'll be Peter Crow, sort of a wandering ne'er-do-well brother. The husband knows all about you by reputation."
"And hasn't seen any pictures or anything?" I asked.
"Apparently not," E. B. said.
"It sounds like a plant to me," I told him dubiously.
"I'm quite certain it's all right," he said. "I have collected a substantial retainer."
"O. K.," I told him, "I'm on my way."
"Pete," he called, as I placed my hand on the door.
"What is it?"
"You'll be discreet," he warned.
I turned to give him a parting shot. "I certainly hope I'll be able to," I said, "but I doubt it," and pulled the door shut behind me.
I looked at my wrist watch, saw I had three minutes to go, and put the red carnation in the left lapel of my coat. I'd already spotted the house. It was a big, rambling affair which oozed an atmosphere of suburban prosperity. I took it that Bass & Pemberton, Brokers, had an income which ran into the upper brackets.
I jerked down my vest, adjusted the knot in my tie, smoothed the point of my collar, and marched up the front steps promptly at seven-thirty. I jabbed the bell. I heard slow, dignified masculine steps in the corridor. That wasn't what E. B. had led me to expect. I wondered for a moment if there'd been a hitch in plans and I was going to have to face the husband. The door opened. I took one look at the sour puss on the guy standing in the doorway and knew he was the butler. He was looking at me as a judge looks at a murderer when I heard a feminine squeal and caught a flying glimpse of a woman with jet-black hair, dusky olive complexion and a figure that would get by anywhere. She gave a squeal of delight and flung her arms around my neck.
"Pete!" she screamed. "Oh, Pete, you darling. You dear! I knew you'd look me up if you ever came near here."
The butler stepped back and coughed. The woman hugged me, jumped up and down in an ecstasy of glee, then said, "Let me look at you." She stepped back, her hands on my shoulders, her eyes studying me.
Up to that point, it had been rehearsed, but the rest of it wasn't. I saw approval in her eyes, a certain trump-this-ace expression, and she tilted her head to offer me her lips.
I don't know just what E. B. referred to as being discreet. I heard the butler cough more violently. I guess he didn't know she had a brother. I let her lead. She led with an ace. I came up for air, to see a short-coupled chap with a tight vest regarding me from brown, mildly surprised eyes. Back of him was a tall guy fifteen years older, with fringes of what had once been red hair around his ears. The rest of his dome was bald. He had a horse face, and the march of time had done things to it. It was a face which showed character.
Mrs. Pemberton said, "Pete, you've never met my husband."
The chunky chap stepped forward and I shoved out my hand. "Well, well, well," I said, "so this is Harvey. How are you, Harvey?"
"And Mr. Bass, my husband's partner," she said.
I shook hands with the tall guy "Pete Crowe, my rolling-stone brother," Mrs. Pemberton observed. "Where's your baggage, Pete?"
"I left it down at the station," I told her.
She laughed nervously and said, "It's just like you to come without sending a wire. We'll drive down and pick up your baggage."
"Got room for me?" I asked.
"Have we!" she exclaimed. "I've just been dying to see you. Harvey is so busy with his mergers and his horrid old business that I don't ever get a chance to see him any more. You're a Godsend."
Harvey put his arm around his wife's waist. "There, there, little girl," he said, "it won't be much longer, and then we'll take a vacation. We can go for a cruise somewhere. How about the South Seas?"
"Is that a promise?" she asked.
"That's a promise," he told her so solemnly I felt certain he was lying.
"You've made promises before," she pouted, "but something new always came up in the business."
"Well, it won't come up this time. I'll even sell the business before I get in another spell of work like this."
I caught him glancing significantly at his partner.
"We've just finished dinner," Mrs. Pemberton explained to me, "and Mr. Bass and my husband are going back to their stuffy old office. How about going down and picking up your baggage now?"
"Anything you say," I told her, leaving it up to her to take the lead.
"Come on then," she invited. " Harvey 's car is out front. Mine's in the garage. We'll go get it out. Oh, you darling! I'm so glad to see you!" And she went into another clinch.
Harvey Pemberton regarded me with a patronising smile. "Olive's told me a lot about you, Pete," he said. "I'm looking forward to a chance to talk with you."
Bass took a cigar from his pocket. "Is Pete the one who did all the big game hunting down in Mexico?" he asked.
"That's the one," Mrs. Pemberton told him.
Bass said, "You and I must have a good long chat some time, young man. I used to be a forest ranger when I was just out of school. I was located up in the Upper Sespe, and the Pine Mountain country. I suppose you know the section."
"I've hunted all over it," I said.
He nodded. "I was ranger there for three years. Well, come on, Harvey, let's go down and go over those figures."
"We go out the back way," Olive Pemberton told me, grabbing my hand and hurrying me out a side door. She skipped on ahead toward the garage. "Hurry," she said. "They have a conference on at their office and I want to hear what it's about."
She jerked open the garage door. I helped her into the car and she smiled her thanks as she adjusted herself in the seat. "I like my feet free when I'm driving," she said, pulling her skirt up to her knees.
She had pretty legs.
I climbed in beside her and she started the motor. We went out of there like a fire wagon charging down the main stem of a hick town. Her husband and Bass were just getting into their car as we hit the incline to the street. The car flattened down on its springs, then shot up in the air. I hung on. I heard rubber scream as she spun the wheel, waved her hand to her husband, and went streaking down the street.
"You always drive like that?" I asked.
"Most of the time," she said. "Sometimes I go faster."
"No wonder you want your feet free," I told her.
She glanced down at her legs, then her eyes were back on the road. "I want to beat them there," she explained. "I've bribed the janitor and I have an office next to theirs." She stepped harder on the gas, angrily.
"Hope I didn't scare you with my greeting," she said, with a sidelong glance. "I had to act cordial, you know."
"I like cordiality," I told her. "It becomes you."
She gave attention to her driving. It was the sort of driving which needed lots of attention. She reached the business section of town, hogged the traffic, crowded the signals at the intersections, and whipped the car into a parking lot. She said, "Come on, Pete," and led the way toward a seven-story building which apparently was the town's best in the way of office buildings.
"It's fortunate your name's really Pete," she commented as we entered the building.
I nodded and let it go at that. I was sizing her up out of the corner of my eye. She was one of these supple women who seem to be just about half panther. She must have been around thirty-two or three, but her figure and walk were what you'd expect to find on a woman in the early twenties. There was a peculiar husky note to her voice, and her eyes were just a little bit more than provocative.
The night elevators were on. The janitor came up in response to her ring. His face lit up like a Christmas tree when he saw her. He looked over at me and looked dubious.
"It's all right, Olaf," she said. "This man's helping me. Hurry up because my husband's coming."
We got in the cage. Olaf slammed the door and sent us rattling upward, his eyes feasting on Olive's profile. I've seen dogs look at people with exactly that same expression-inarticulate love and a dumb, blind loyalty.
He let us out at the sixth floor. "This way," she said, and walked on ahead of me down the corridor.
I noticed the swing of her hips as she walked. I think she wanted me to-not that she gave a particular damn about me, she was simply one of those women who like to tease the animals-or was she making a play for me?
"No chance of the janitor selling you out?" I asked as she fitted a key in the lock.
"No," she said.
"You seem to have a lot of faith in human nature," I told her, as she clicked back the lock and snapped on lights in the office.
"I have," she told me, "in masculine nature. Men always play fair with me. It's women who double-cross me. I hate women,"
The office was bare of furnishings, save for a battered stenographer's desk, a couple of straightback chairs, an ash-tray and waste basket. Wires ran down from a hole in the plaster, to terminate in an electrical gadget. She opened a drawer in the desk, took out two head pieces and handed me one. "When you hear my husband come in the next office," she said, "plug that in, and remember what you hear. I think things are coming to a show-down tonight."
I sat across from her and nursed the last of my cigarette. "Anything in particular I'm supposed to do about it?" I asked.
"Of course," she said.
"What?" I asked.
"That's up to you."
"Want me to bust things up with a club?" I asked.
She studied me with her dark, seductive eyes. "I may as well be frank with you," she said in that rich, throaty voice. "I don't care a thing in the world about my husband. I don't think he cares any more about me. A separation is inevitable. When it happens I want my share of the property."
"What's the property?" I asked her.
"Mostly a partnership interest," she said. "He's a free spender and he's been stepping around high, wide and handsome. After a man gets to be forty-three and starts stepping around, it takes money.
"So far, he's been just a mild sugar daddy. I haven't cared particularly just so there was plenty for me to spend. But now he's put his neck in a noose. This Diane Locke is shrewd. She's too damn shrewd, or maybe somebody with brains is back of her. I think it must be a lawyer somewhere. Anyway, they have Harvey over a barrel. He needs money, lots of money. The only way he can get it is to sell his partnership interest. You heard that crack he made about selling out so he could take me on a cruise."
"Well," she said, "if that's what's in the wind, I'm going to throw a lot of monkey wrenches in that machinery."
I did a little thinking. "The redhead," I said, "might open her bag, take out a nice, pearl-handled gun, and go rat-a-tat-tat. They have been known to do that, you know."
It was just a feeler. I wanted to see what she'd say. She said it. "That's all right, too. There's a big life insurance policy in my favour. But what I don't want is to have him stripped. He-Here they come now."
I heard the elevator door clang. There were steps in the corridor, then I heard keys rattling and the door in the adjoining office creaked back and I heard the click of the light switch. Mrs. Pemberton nodded to me, and I plugged in the jack and put the ear pieces over my head. She snapped a switch, and I could hear faint humming noises in the ear pieces. Then I heard a voice that I recognised as Bass' saying, "But, Harvey, why the devil do you want to sell out?"
"I want to play a little bit," Harvey Pemberton said. "I want to have a real honeymoon with my wife before I'm too old to enjoy it. We've never travelled. I married her four years ago, when we were putting through that big hotel deal. And I've had my nose pushed against the grindstone ever since. We never had a honeymoon."
"What are you going to do after you get back?"
"I don't know."
"You could arrange things so you could take a honeymoon without selling out," Bass said. "I hate to lose you as a partner, Harvey."
"No, I wouldn't leave a business behind in which I had all my money tied up," Pemberton said. "I'd worry about it so I'd be a rotten companion. I want to step out footloose and fancy-free."
"One of the reasons I don't want you to do it right now," Bass said, is that I'm rather short of money myself. I couldn't offer you anywhere near what your interest in the business is worth."
"What could you offer?" Pemberton said, an edge to his voice.
"I don't know," I heard Bass say.
"Oh, come," Pemberton told him impatiently. "You can't pull that stuff with me, Arthur. I told you this afternoon that I wanted to figure on some sort of a deal. You've had all afternoon to think it over."
There was silence for several seconds, and I gathered that Bass was, perhaps, making figures on paper. I heard Harvey Pemberton say, "I'm going to have an accountant work up a statement showing the status of the business and-"
"That doesn't have anything to do with it," Bass said. "It's not a question of what the business is worth, it's a question of what I can afford to pay without jeopardizing my working capital. I'll tell you frankly, Harvey, that I don't want you to sell. I don't want to lose you as a partner and you can't get anything like a fair value for your holdings at the present time. There's no one else you can sell them to. Under our articles of partnership, one partner has to give the other six months' notice before-"
"I understand all that," Pemberton said impatiently. "What's the price?"
"Ten thousand," Bass said.
"Ten thousand!" Pemberton shouted. "My God, you're crazy! The business is worth fifty thousand. I'm going to have an audit made in order to determine a fair figure. But I know my share's worth twenty-five. I'll take twenty for it, and that's the lowest price I'll even consider."
There was relief in Bass' voice. "That settles it then and I'm glad to hear it! You know, Pemberton, I was afraid you were in a jam over money matters and might have considered ten thousand dollars. It would be an awful mistake. I don't want you to sell."
Pemberton started to swear. Bass said, "Well, I'm glad we have an understanding on that, Harvey. Of course, I wouldn't try to exert any pressure to hold you here. In some ways it would be a good business deal for me to buy you out now. But I don't want to do it, either for my sake or yours. I'd have paid you every cent I could have scraped up, but-well, I'm glad you're staying. The business needs you, and I need you, and you need the business. Well, I'll be going. See you later. Good night."
Over the electrical gadget came the sound of a slamming door. Pemberton yelled, "Come back here, Arthur! I want to talk with you," but there was no other sound. I exchanged glances with our client.
"You see," she said, "he's trying to sell the business. That vamp would get most of the money. He'd probably run away with her. I want you to stop that."
"What's the program now?" I asked.
"I think he has an appointment with her," she said. "The janitor told me that he'd left instructions to pass a young woman to his office."
Pretty soon I heard the clang of the elevator door, and light, quick steps in the corridor past our door, then a gentle tapping on the panels of the adjoining office. I put the head phones back on, and heard the sound of a door opening and closing.
"Did you bring the letters?" Harvey Pemberton asked.
A woman's voice said, "Don't be such an old granny. Kiss me, and quit worrying about the letters. They're in a safe place."
"You said you could put your hand on them any time," Pemberton charged, "and were going to bring them here to show me just what I'd written."
"I brought you copies instead," she said. "My lawyer wouldn't let me take the originals."
"I don't know. I guess he doesn't trust me. Harvey, I don't want you to think that I'm utterly mercenary, but you broke my heart. It isn't money I'm after, dear, I want you. But you hurt me, and I went to that horrid lawyer, and he had me sign some papers, and now it seems I have to go through with it, unless you go away with me. That's what I want."
"My lawyer tells me you can't sue a married man for breach of promise," Pemberton interrupted. "I think your lawyer is a shyster who's trying to stir up trouble and turn you into a blackmailer."
"No, he isn't, Harvey. There's some wrinkle in the law. If a girl doesn't know a man's married and he conceals that fact from her, why then he can be sued for breach of promise, just the same as though he hadn't been married. Oh, Harvey, I don't want to deal with all these lawyers! I want you. Can't you divorce that woman and come with me?"
"Apparently not," Harvey Pemberton said. "Since you've been such a little fool and signed your life away to this lawyer, he isn't going to let me get free. There's enough stuff in those letters to keep me from getting a divorce from my wife, and she won't get a divorce from me unless I turn over everything in the world to her. She wants to strip me clean. You want to do almost that."
For a moment there was silence, then the sound of a woman sobbing.
Pemberton started speaking again. His voice rose and fell at regular intervals, and I gathered he was walking the floor and talking as he walked. "Go ahead and sob," he said. "Sit there and bawl into your handkerchief! And if you want to know it, it looks fishy as hell to me. When I first met you on that steamboat, you didn't have any of this bawling complex. You wanted to play around."
"You w-w-wanted to m-m-marry me!" she wailed.
"All right," he told her, "I was on the up-and-up on that, too. I thought my wife was going to get a divorce. Hell's fire, I didn't have to use marriage for bait. You know that. That came afterward. Then, when I break a date with you because of a business deal, you rush up to see this lawyer."
"I went to him as a friend," she said in a wailing, helpless voice. "I'd known him for years. He told me you'd been t-t-trifling with me and I should get r-revenge. After all, all I want is just enough to get me b-b-back on my feet once more."
Pemberton said, "Add that to what your lawyer wants, and see where that leaves me. Why the hell don't you ditch the lawyer?"
"I c-can't. He made me sign papers."
Once more there was silence, then Pemberton said, "How the hell do I know you're on the level? You could have engineered this whole business."
"You know me better than that," she sobbed.
"I'm not so certain I do," Pemberton told her. "You were a pushover for me and now-"
Her voice came in good and strong then. "All right, then," she said, "if you don't want the pill sugar-coated we'll make it bitter. I'm getting tired of putting on this sob-sister act for you. I never saw a sucker who was so damn dumb in my life. You seem to think a middle-aged old gander is going to get a sweet, innocent girl to fall for just your own sweet self. Bunk! If you'd been a good spender, taken what you wanted and left me with a few knick-knacks, I'd have thought you were swell. But you thought I was an innocent little kid who'd fall for this Model T line of yours. All right, get a load of this: You're being stood up. And what're you going to do about it? I have your letters. They show the kind of game you were trying to play. So quite stalling."
"So that's it, is it?" he said. "You've been a dirty double-crosser all along."
"Oh, I'm a double-crosser, am I? Just a minute, Mr. Harvey Pemberton, and I'll read from one of your letters. Figure how it will sound to the jury.
" 'Remember, sweetheart, that except for the silly conventions of civilization, we are already man and wife. There is, of course, a ceremony to be performed, but I'll attend to that just as soon as I can arrange certain business details. It would hurt certain business plans which are rapidly coming to maturity if I should announce I was going to marry you right now. I ask you to have confidence in me, sweetheart, and to know that I cherish you. I could no more harm you than I could crush a beautiful rose. I love you, my sweetheart-'" She broke off and said, "God knows how much more of that drivel there is."
"You dirty, double-crossing tramp," he said.
Her voice sounded less loud. I gathered she'd moved over toward the door. "Now then," she said, "quit stalling. You have twenty-four hours. Either put up or shut up."
I heard the door slam, then the click of heels in the hall, and, after a moment, the clang of an elevator door.
All was silent in the other office.
I slipped the head pieces off my head.
"Well," Mrs. Pemberton said, "there it is in a nutshell. I suppose he'll sell out to Bass for about half what his interest is worth and that little redhead will get it all."
"How do you know she's redheaded?" I asked.
"I've seen her and I've had detectives on her tail turning up her past and trying to get something on her. I can't uncover a thing on her, though. She dressed the window for this play."
"All right," I told her, "let your husband go ahead and fight. Even if he can't prove anything, a jury isn't going to give her so much in the line of damages."
"It isn't that alone," she said, "it's a question of the letters. He writes foolish letters. Whenever he loses his head, he goes all the way. He can't learn to keep his fountain pen in his pocket. Remember that Bass & Pemberton have some rather influential clients. They can't carry out business unless those clients believe in the business acumen of the members of the partnership."
"Those things blow over," I told her. "Your husband could take a trip to Europe."
"You don't understand," she said. "He made a fool of himself once before. That's why Bass had a clause in the partnership contract. Each of them put in two thousand dollars when they started the partnership. The articles of partnership provide that neither can sell his interest without first giving six months' notice to his partner. And then there's some provision in the contract by which Bass can buy Harvey out by returning the original two thousand dollars to him if Harvey gets in any more trouble with women. I don't know the exact provision. Now then, I want you to nip this thing in the bud. Harvey 's desperate. Something's got to be done within twenty-four hours."
"All right," I told her, "I'll see what I can do. What's the girl's address?"
"Diane Locke, apartment 3A, forty-two fifteen Centre Street. And it won't do you any good to try and frame her, because she's wise to all the tricks. I think she's a professional; but try and prove it."
"One thing more," I told her. "I want the name of the lawyer."
"You mean Diane Locke's lawyer?"
"I can't give it to you."
"I don't know it," she said. "He's keeping very much in the background. He's some friend of the girl's. Probably he's afraid, he might be disbarred for participating in a blackmail action."
"How long has this thing been going on?" I asked.
"You mean the affair with that redhead? It started-"
"No," I said, "I mean this," indicating the office with a sweep of my hand.
"Since I couldn't get anywhere with the detective agency," she said. "Olaf, the janitor, is an electrician. He helped me rig things up. He got some old parts-"
"Think you can trust him?"
"With my life," she said.
I lit a cigarette and said, "How about the wash-room? Is it open?"
"I'll have to give you my key," she told me, opening her handbag. Then she hesitated a second and said, "I think it's in another purse. But the lock's mostly ornamental. Any key will work it. Or you can use the tip of a penknife."
I looked down into her handbag. "What's the idea of the gun?"
"For protection," she said, closing the bag.
"All right," I told her, "pass it over. I'm your protection now. You'll get in trouble with that gun."
She hesitated a moment while I held my hand out, then reluctantly took the gun from her purse and hesitated with it in her hand.
"But suppose you're not with me, and something should happen? Suppose he should find the wires and follow them in here and catch me?"
"Keep with me all the time," I told her.
The business end of the gun waved around in a half-circle. "Want me to go with you now?" she asked.
"Don't be a sap," I told her. "I'm going to the wash-room. I'll be right back."
"And if my husband comes in while you're gone, I suppose I'm to tell him it's not fair, that you're seeing a man about a dog, and he mustn't choke me until you get back."
I strode over to the door. "Keep your plaything until I come back," I said. "When we go out, you either get rid of the gun, or get rid of me. You're the one who's paying the money, so you can take your choice."
I crossed the office to the door, opened it, and pushed the catch so I could open the door from the outside. I wondered what would happen if Harvey Pemberton should make up his mind to go to the wash-room while I was in there, or should meet me in the corridor. I'd kill that chance by going to the floor below. I saw stairs to the right of the elevator, and went down.
The men's room was at the far end of the corridor. The first key on my ring did the trick.
Five minutes later, when I got back to Mrs. Pemberton, I saw that she was nervous and upset.
"What's the matter?" I asked. "Did something happen?"
She said in a nervous, strained voice, "I was just thinking of what would happen if my husband ran into you in the corridor."
I said, "Well, he didn't."
"You shouldn't take chances like that," she told me.
I grinned. "I didn't. I ran down the stairs for a couple of flights and used the room on the fourth floor."
Her face showed relief. "All right," I told her, "let's go. We'll pick up my baggage and then I'm going to take you home. Then, if you don't mind, I'll borrow your car. I have work to do."
"Have you any plan?" she asked.
"I'm an opportunist."
"All right," she said, "let's go. We'd better run down the stairs and ring the elevator from the lower floor."
We started for the door. She clicked out the light.
"Just a minute," I told her. "You're forgetting something."
"It's all right. I thought it over. I decided you were right about it, so I ditched the gun."
"In the desk drawer."
I switched the lights back on and went over to look.
"The upper right-hand drawer," she said, her voice showing amusement.
I opened the drawer. The gun was there. I picked it up, started to put it in my pocket, then changed my mind and dropped it back in the drawer. "Come on," I told her, closing the drawer and switching off the lights.
We sneaked across the hall and down the flight of stairs to the lower floor. I rang for the elevator. Olaf brought the cage up and I took another look at him. He was a big raw-boned Swede with a bony nose, a drooping blond moustache, and dog eyes. His eyes never left Mrs. Pemberton all the way down to the ground floor.
Mrs. Pemberton kept her head turned away from him, toward the side of the elevator shaft, watching the doors creep by. When we got to the ground floor, she turned and looked at him. It was some look. His eyes glowed back at her like a couple of coals. Olaf opened the door, I took Mrs. Pemberton's arm and we crossed over to the parking station.
"I'll drive," I told her. "I want to get accustomed to the car."
I drove down to the station, got my baggage and drove Mrs. Pemberton back out to the house. The butler carried my things up and showed me my room.
After he left, I opened my suitcase. There were two guns in it. I selected one with a shiny leather shoulder holster. I put it on under my coat and knocked on the door of Mrs. Pemberton's room.
She opened the door and stood in the doorway. The light was behind her, throwing shadows of seductive curves through billowy, gossamer silk. I resolutely kept my eyes on her face. "I'm going out," I told her. "Will you hear me when I come in?"
"Yes," she said. "I'll wait up."
"If I cough when I pass your door, it means I have good news for you. If I don't cough, it means things aren't going so well."
She nodded, stepped toward me so that her lithe body was very close to mine. She put her hand on my arm and said in that peculiar, throaty voice of hers, "Please be careful."
I nodded and turned away. My eyes hadn't strayed once. Walking down the corridor and tiptoeing down the stairs, I reflected that I never had known a woman with that peculiar husky note in her voice who didn't like to tease the animals.
Forty-two fifteen Centre Street was a three-story frame apartment house, the lower floor given over to stores. A doorway from the street opened on a flight of stairs. I tried the door, and it was unlocked.
I went back to sit in the car and think. It was queer the lawyer had never appeared in the picture except as a shadowy figure. No one knew his name. He was quoted freely, but he left it up to his client to do all the negotiating. Therefore, if the racket turned out to be successful, the client would be the one to collect the money. Then it would be up to her to pay the lawyer. That didn't sound right to me. It was like adding two and two and getting two as the answer.
I looked the block over. There was a little jewellery store in the first floor of the apartment house. It was closed up now, with a night light in the window, showing a few cheap wrist watches and some costume jewellery.
I drove around the corner and parked the car. A catch-all drugstore was open. I went in, bought some adhesive tape, a small bottle of benzine, a package of cotton, a writing pad and a police whistle. "Got any cheap imitation pearls?" I asked the clerk.
He had some strings at forty-nine cents. I took one of those. Then I went out to the car, cut the string of pearls and threw all but four of them away. I pulled a wad of cotton out of the box, put the four pearls in the cotton and stuffed the wad in my pocket. I popped the pasteboard off the back of the writing pad, cut two eyeholes in it and a place for my nose. I reinforced it with adhesive tape and left ends of adhesive tape on it so I could put it on at a moment's notice. Then I climbed the stairs of the apartment house and located apartment 3A.
There was a light inside the apartment. I could hear the sound of a radio, and gathered the door wasn't very thick. I took a small multiple-tool holder from my pocket and fitted a gimlet into the handle. I put a little grease on the point of the gimlet, bent over and went to work.
The best place to bore a hole in a panelled door is in the upper right- or left-hand corner of the lower panel. The wood is almost paper-thin there and doesn't take much of a hole to give a complete view of a room. Detectives have used it from time immemorial, but it's still a good trick. After the hole is bored, a little chewing gum keeps light from coming through the inside of the door and attracting the attention of a casual passer-by.
Making certain the corridor was deserted, I dropped to one knee and peeked through the hole I'd made. The girl was redheaded, all right. She was listening to the radio and reading a newspaper.
Watching through one hole to make certain that she didn't move in case my gimlet made any noise, I bored two more holes. That gave me a chance to see all of the apartment there was. I put a thin coating of chewing gum over each of the holes, went downstairs and waited for a moment when the sidewalk was deserted and there were no cars in sight on the street. Then I took the police whistle from my pocket and blew three shrill blasts. By the time the windows in the apartments commenced to come up, I'd ducked into the doorway and started up the stairs.
I held my pasteboard mask in my left hand. All I had to do was to raise it to my face, and the adhesive tape would clamp it into position. I backed up against the door of apartment 3A and knocked with my knuckles. When I heard steps coming toward the door, I slapped my left hand up to my face, putting the mask in position, and jerked the gun out of my shoulder holster. The redhead opened the door and I backed in, the gun menacing the corridor. Once inside of the door, I made a quick whirl, kicked the door shut and covered her with the gun.
"Not a peep out of you," I said.
She'd put on a negligee and was holding it tightly about her throat. Her face was white.
"All right, sister," I told her, "get a load of this. If any copper comes wandering down the hallway, you go to the door to see what he wants. If he asks you if anyone's in here or if you've seen anyone in the corridor, tell him no. The reason you'll tell him no, is that I'm going to be standing just behind the door with this gun. They're never going to take me alive. I'd just as soon go out fighting as to be led up thirteen steps and dropped through a hole in the floor. Get it?"
She was white to the lips, but she nodded, her eyes large, round and dilated with fright.
"I stuck up that jewellery store downstairs," I told her, "and I've got some swag that's worth money. Now, I want some wrapping paper and some string. I'm going to drop that swag in the first mailbox I come to and let Uncle Sam take the responsibility of the delivery. Get me?"
She swallowed a couple of times and said, "Y-yes."
"And I'll tell you something else: Don't hold that filmy stuff so tight around you. I'm not going to bite you, but if a cop comes to the door and sees you all bundled up that way, he'll figure out what's happened.
If there's a knock, I want you to open the door a crack and have that thing pretty well open in front, when you do. Then you can pull it shut when you see there's a man at the door and give a little squeal and say, 'Oh, I thought it was Mamie!' Do you get that?"
"You're asking a lot of me," she said.
I made motions with the business end of the gun. "You've got a nice figure," I said. "It would be a shame to blow it in two. These are soft-nosed bullets. You'd have splinters from your spinal cord all mixed into your hip bone if I pulled this trigger. The cop in the doorway would get the next shot. Then I'd take a chance on the fireescape."
She didn't say anything and I jabbed at her with the gun. "Come on, how about the wrapping paper?"
She opened a door into a little kitchenette, pulled out a drawer. There was brown paper and string in there. I said, "Get over there away from the window; stand over there in the corner."
I crossed over to the little card table. There was an ash-tray there with four or five cigarette ends in it and some burnt matches. I noticed that a couple of the matches had been broken in two. I pushed the tray to one side, spread the paper out, and took the cotton from my pocket.
When I opened the cotton, she saw the four big pearls nested in it and gave a little gasp. Standing eight or ten feet away as she was and seeing those pearls on the cotton, she felt she was looking at ready money.
"That all you took?" she asked in a voice that had a can't-we-be-friends note in it.
"Is that all I took?" I asked, and laughed, a nasty, sarcastic laugh. "That jeweller," I told her, "has been trying to get those four pearls for a client for more than two years. They're perfectly matched pearls that came in from the South Seas, and, in case you want to know it, they didn't pay any duty. I know what I'm after before I heist a joint."
I put the cotton around the pearls again, wrapped them in the paper, tied the paper with string and ostentatiously set my gun on the corner of the table while I took a fountain pen from my pocket to write an address on the package. I printed the first name which popped into my head, and a Los Angeles address. Then I reached in my pocket, took out my wallet and from it extracted a strip of postage stamps.
"What-what are they worth?" she asked.
"Singly," I told her, "they aren't worth over five thousand apiece, but the four of them taken together, with that perfect matching and lustre, are worth forty grand in any man's dough." I shot her a look to see if she thought there was anything phoney about my appraisal. She didn't. Her eyes were commencing to narrow now as ideas raced through her head.
"I suppose," she told me, "you'll peddle them to a fence and only get about a tenth of what they're worth."
"Well, a tenth of forty grand buys a lot of hamburgers," I told her.
She moved over toward a small table, slid one hip up on that, and let the negligee slide carelessly open, apparently too much interested in the pearls to remember that she wasn't clothed for the street. She had plenty to look at, that girl.
"You make a working girl dizzy," she said wistfully. "Think how hard I'd have to work to make four thousand dollars."
"Not with that shape."
Indignantly she pulled the robe around her. Then she leaned forward, let the silk slip from her fingers and slide right back along the smooth line of her leg.
"I suppose it's wicked of me," she said, "but I can't help thinking what an awful shame it is to sell anything as valuable as that for a fraction of what it's worth. I should think you'd get yourself some good-looking female accomplice, someone who could really wear clothes. You could doll her up with some glad rags and show up in Santa Barbara or Hollywood, or perhaps in New Orleans. She could stay at a swell hotel, make friends, and finally confide to one of her gentlemen friends that she was temporarily embarrassed and wanted to leave some security with him and get a really good loan. Gosh, you know, there are lots of ways of playing a game like that."
I frowned contemplatively. "You've got something there, baby," I told her. "But it would take a girl who could wear clothes; it'd take a baby who'd be able to knock 'em dead and keep her head while she was doing it; it'd take a fast thinker, and it would take someone who'd be one hundred per cent loyal. Where are you going to find a moll like that?"
She got up off the table, gave a little shrug with her shoulders, and the negligee slipped down to the floor. She turned slowly around as though she'd been modelling the peach-coloured underwear. "I can wear clothes," she said.
I let my eyes show suspicion. "Yeah," I told her. "You sure got what it takes on that end, but how do I know you wouldn't cross me to the bulls if anybody came along and offered a reward?"
Her eyes were starry now. She came toward me. "I don't double-cross people I like," she said. "I liked you from the minute I saw you-something in your voice, something in the way you look. I don't know what it is. When I fall, I fall fast and I fall hard. And I play the game all the way. You and I could go places together. I could put you up right here until the excitement's over. Then we could go places and-"
I said suspiciously, "You aren't handing me a line?"
"Handing you a line!" she said scornfully. "Do I look like the sort of girl who'd have to hand anyone a line? I'm not so dumb. I know I have a figure. But you don't see me living in a swell apartment with some guy footing the bills, do you? I'm just a working girl, plugging along and trying to be on the up-and-up. I'm not saying that I like it. I'm not even saying that I'm not sick of it. But I am telling you that you and I could go places together. You could use me and I'd stick."
"Now, wait a minute, baby," I temporised. "Let me get this package stamped and think this thing over a minute. You sure have got me going. Gripes! I've been in stir where I didn't see a frail for months on end, and now you come along and dazzle me with a shape like that. Listen, baby, I-"
I raised the stamps to my tongue, licked them and started to put them on the package. The wet mucilage touched my thumb and the stamps stuck. I tried to shake my thumb loose and the stamps fell to the floor, windmilling around as they dropped. I swooped after the stamps, and sensed motion over on the other side of the table.
I straightened, to find myself staring into the business end of my gun, which she'd snatched up from the table.
"Now then, sucker," she said, "start reaching."
I stood, muscles tensed, hands slowly coming up. "Now, take it easy, baby. You wouldn't shoot me."
"Don't think I wouldn't," she told me. "I'd shoot you in a minute. I'd tell the cops you'd busted in here after your stick-up and I distracted your attention long enough to grab your gun; that you made a grab for me and I acted in self-defence."
"Now listen, baby," I told her, keeping my hands up, "let's be reasonable about this thing. I thought you and I were going away together. I'd show you London and Paris and-"
She laughed scornfully and said, "What a sap I'd be to start travelling with a boob like you. A pair of pretty legs, and you forget all about your gun and leave it on the table while you chase postage stamps to the floor."
"You going to call the cops?" I asked.
She laughed. "Do I look dumb? I'm going to give you a chance to escape."
"Because," she said, "I haven't got the heart to see a nice-looking young man like you go to jail. I'm going to call the cops and tell them I saw you in the corridor. I'll give you ten seconds start. That ten seconds will keep you from hanging around here, and calling the cops will put me in the clear in case anybody sees you."
"Oh, I see," I said sarcastically. "You mean you're going to grab off the gravy."
"Ideas don't circulate through that dome of yours very fast, do they?" she asked.
I made a lunge toward the paper parcel I'd wrapped up, but the gun snapped up to a level with my chest. Her eyes glittered. "Don't crowd me, you fool!" she said. "Of all the dumbhead plays you've made, that's the worst. I'll do it, and don't think I don't know how to shoot a gun, because I do."
I backed slowly away.
"There's the door," she said. "Get going." She started toward the telephone and said, "I'm going to call the cops. You have ten seconds."
I spilled a lot of cuss words, to make the act look good, unlocked the door, jerked it open and jumped out into the corridor. I made pounding noises with my feet in the direction of the fireescape and then tiptoed back. I heard a metallic click as she shot the bolt home in the door.
After waiting a couple of minutes, I dropped to one knee and peeked through the hole in the door. She was over at the table, ripping the wrappings from the parcel. I straightened, and pounded with my knuckles on the door.
"Police call," I said in a deep gruff voice. "Open up."
Her voice sounded thick with sleep. "What is it?"
"Police," I said, and dropped again, to put an eye to the peer-hole in the door.
She ran to a corner of the carpet, raised it, did something to the floor and then snatched up a kimono.
I pounded with my knuckles again.
"Coming," she said drowsily.
She twisted back the bolt, opened the door about the width of a newspaper and asked, "What do you want?"
I stood aside so she couldn't see me.
"We're looking for a man who robbed the jewellery store downstairs," I growled in my throat. "We think he came up here."
"Well, he didn't."
"Would you mind letting me in?"
She hesitated a moment, then said, "Oh, very well, if you have to come in, I guess you have to. Just a minute. I'll put something on… All right."
She pulled the door back. I pushed my way into the room and kicked the door shut. She looked at me with wide, terror-stricken eyes, then jumped back and said, "Listen, you can't pull this. I'll have the police here! I'll-"
I walked directly to the corner of the carpet. She flung herself at me. I pushed her off. I pulled back the corner of the carpet and saw nothing except floor. But I knew it was there and kept looking, pressing with my fingers. Suddenly I found it-a little cunningly joined section in the hardwood floor. I opened it. My package had been shoved in there, and down below it was a package of letters.
Bending down so that my body concealed just what I was doing, I pulled out pearls and letters and stuffed them in my inside coat pocket.
When I straightened, I found myself facing the gun.
"I told you you couldn't get away with this," she warned. "I'll claim you held up the jewellery store and then crashed the gate here. What're you going to do about that?"
"Nothing," I told her, smiling. "I have everything I came for."
"I can kill you," she said, "and the police would give me a vote of thanks."
"You could," I told her, "but nice girls don't go around killing men."
I saw her face contort in a spasm of emotion. "The hell they don't!" she said, and pulled the trigger.
The hammer clicked on an empty cylinder. She reinforced the index finger of her right hand with the index finger of her left. Her eyes were blazing. She clicked the empty cylinder six times and then threw the gun at me. I caught it by the barrel and side-stepped her rush. She tripped over a chair and fell on the couch.
"Take it easy," I told her.
She raised her voice then and started to call me names. At the end of the first twenty seconds, I came to the conclusion I didn't know any words she didn't. I started for the door. She made a dash for the telephone and was yelling: "Police headquarters!" into the transmitter as I closed the door and drifted noiselessly down the corridor.
In the hallway I pulled off the pasteboard mask, moistened a piece of cotton in the benzine and scrubbed off the bits of adhesive which had stuck to my face and forehead. I wadded the mask into a ball, walked around to my car and drove away.
I heard the siren of a police radio car when I was three blocks away. The machine roared by me, doing a good sixty miles an hour.
Walking down the corridor of the Pemberton home, I coughed as I passed Mrs. Pemberton's door. I walked into my bedroom and waited. Nothing happened. I took out the letters and looked at them. They were plenty torrid. Some men like to put themselves on paper. Harvey Pemberton had indulged himself to the limit.
I heard a scratching noise on my door, then it slowly opened. Mrs. Pemberton, walking as though she'd carefully rehearsed her entrance, came into the light of the room and pulled lacy things around her. "My husband hasn't come in yet," she said. "But he may come in any minute."
I looked her over. "Even supposing that I'm your brother," I said, "don't you think he'd like it a lot better if you had on something a little more tangible?"
She said, "I wear what I want. After all, you're my brother."
"Well, go put on a bathrobe over that," I told her, "so I won't be so apt to forget it."
She moved a step or two toward the door, then paused. "You don't need to be so conventional," she said.
"That's what you think."
"I want to know what you've found out."
"You're out in the clear," I told her. "All we need now is to-" I broke off as I heard the sound of an automobile outside. There was a business-like snarl to the motor which I didn't like, and somebody wore off a lot of rubber as the car was slammed to a stop.
"That's Harvey now," she said.
" Harvey wouldn't park his car at the curb in front, would he?" I asked.
"No," she admitted.
"Get back to your room," I told her.
"But I don't see what you're so-"
"Get started!" I said.
"Very well, Sir Galahad," she told me.
She started down the corridor toward her room. I heard the pound of feet as someone ran around the house toward the back door. Then I heard feet on the stairs, crossing the porch, and the doorbell rang four or five times, long, insistent rings.
I slipped some shells into the empty chambers of my gun, switched off the lights, opened my door, picked up my bag and waited.
I heard Mrs. Pemberton go to the head of the stairs, stand there, listening. After a moment I heard the rustle of her clothes as she started down. I stepped out to the hallway and stood still.
I heard her say, "Who is it?" and a voice boom an answer through the closed door. "Police," it said. "Open up."
"But I-I don't understand."
She unlocked the door. I heard men coming into the corridor, then a man's voice say, "I'm Lieutenant Sylvester. I want to talk with you. You're Mrs. Pemberton?"
"Yes, but I can't understand what could bring you here at this hour. After all, Lieutenant, I'm-"
"I'm sorry," the lieutenant interrupted, "this is about your husband. When did you see him last?"
"Why, just this evening."
"What time this evening?"
"Why, I don't know exactly."
"Where did you see him last?"
"Will you please tell me the reason for these questions?"
"Where," he repeated, "did you see your husband last?"
"Well, if you insist on knowing, he was here for dinner and then left for the office about seven-thirty."
"And you haven't seen him since?"
The officer said, "I'm sorry, Mrs. Pemberton, but your husband's body was found on the floor of his office by the janitor about half an hour ago."
"My husband's body!" she screamed.
"Yes, ma'am," the lieutenant said. "He'd been killed by two bullets fired from a thirty-two calibre automatic. The ejected shells were on the floor of his office. In an adjoining office, furnished with a dilapidated desk and a couple of chairs, we found a home-rigged microphone arrangement which would work as a dictograph. In the drawer of that desk we found the gun with which the murder had been committed. Now, Mrs. Pemberton, what do you know about it?"
There was silence for a second or two, then she said in a thin, frightened voice, "Why, I don't know anything about it."
"What do you know about that office next to your husband's?"
"You've never been in there?"
This time she didn't hesitate. "No," she said, "never. I don't know what makes you think I would be spying on my husband. Perhaps someone has hired detectives. «I» wouldn't know."
I tiptoed back to my room, picked up my bag and started silently down the corridor toward the back stairs. I could hear the rumble of a man's voice from the front room, and, at intervals, the thin, shrill sound of Mrs. Pemberton's half-hysterical answers.
I felt my way down the back stairs. There was a glass window in the back door -, with a shade drawn over it. I raised a corner of the shade and peered through the glass. I could see the bulky figure of a man silhouetted against the lights which filtered in from the back yard. He was holding a sawed-off police riot gun in his hands.
I took a flash-light from my pocket and started exploring the kitchen. I found the door to the cellar, and went down. From the floor above came the scrape of chairs, then the noise of feet moving about the house.
There was a little window in the cellar. I scraped cobwebs away and shook off a couple of spiders I could feel crawling on my hand. I worked the catch on the sash and pulled it open. It dropped down on hinges and hung down on the inside. I pushed my bag out, breathed a prayer to Lady Luck, and gave a jump. My elbows caught on the cement. I wiggled and twisted, pulling myself up, and fighting to keep the side of the window from catching on my knees and coming up with me. I scrambled out to the lawn.
No one was watching this side of the house. I picked up my bag, tiptoed across the lawn and pushed my way through a hedge. In the next yard a dog commenced to bark. I turned back to the sidewalk and started walking fast. I looked back over my shoulder and saw lights coming on in the second story of the Pemberton house.
I walked faster.
From a pay station, I put in a long distance call for old E. B. Jonathan. E. B. didn't appreciate being called out of his slumber, but I didn't give him a chance to do any crabbing.
"Your client down here," I told him, "is having trouble."
"Well," he said, "it can keep until morning."
"No," I told him, "I don't think it can."
"Why can't it?"
"She's going to jail."
"What's she going to jail for?"
"Taking a couple of pot shots at her husband with a thirty-two automatic."
"Did she hit him?"
"Where does that leave you?" Jonathan asked.
"As a fugitive from justice, talking from a pay station," I told him. "The janitor will testify that I was with her when she went up to the place, where the shooting occurred. The janitor is her dog. He lies down and rolls over when she snaps her fingers. She thinks it'd be nice to make me the goat."
"You mean by blaming the shooting on you?"
"What makes you think so?"
"I'd trust some women a hell of a lot more than you do, and some women a hell of a lot less. This one I trust a lot less."
"She's a client," E. B. said testily. "She wouldn't do that."
"I know she's a client," I told him. "That may put whitewash all over her as far as you're concerned, but it doesn't as far as I'm, concerned. I made her ditch the gun out of her handbag so she wouldn't be tempted to use it. I got my fingerprints on the gun doing it. When the going gets rough, she'll think of that, and the janitor in the building will swear to anything she suggests."
He made clucking noises with his tongue against the roof of his mouth. "I'll have Boniface drive down there right away," he said. "Where can Boniface find you?"
"Nowhere," I said and hung up.
There was an all-night hamburger stand down by the depot. I ordered six hamburgers with plenty of onions and had them put in a bag to take out. I'd noticed there was a rooming-house across from the apartment where Diane Locke lived. I went there.
The landlady grumbled about the lateness of the hour, but I paid two days' rent in advance and she showed me a front room.
I said to her "I work nights, and will be sleeping daytimes. Please don't let anyone disturb me."
I told her I was Peter J. Gibbens from Seattle. She digested this sleepily and ambled away. I found a 'Do not Disturb' sign in the room which I hung on the door. I locked the door and went to bed.
About three o'clock in the afternoon, I sneaked out in the hallway for a reconnaissance. There were newspapers on the desk. I picked up one, left a nickel, and went back to the room.
My own picture stared at me from the front page. 'Peter Wennick, connected with prominent law firm in the metropolis, being sought for questioning by local police in connection with Pemberton murder. ' This was in bold, black type. It was quite an account: Mrs. Pemberton had "told all." She had consulted the law firm in connection with some blackmail letters. The law firm had said I was a "leg man and detective." I had been sent down to investigate the situation and report on the evidence. She had taken me to the office, where, with a friendly janitor, she had rigged up a dictaphone. I had listened to a conversation between her husband and "the woman in the case."
On the pretext of leaving for the wash-room, I had thrown the night latch on the door of the office so I could return at any time. She had forgotten to put the night latch back on when we left. Therefore, I had left myself an opportunity to return and gain access to the room.
The janitor remembered when we had left. Something like an hour later, he had heard muffled sounds which could have been the two shots which were fired. He thought they had been the sounds of backfire from a truck. He'd been in the basement, reading. The sounds had apparently come from the alley, but might have been shots echoed back from the walls of an adjoining building. The medical authorities fixed the time of death as being probably half an hour to an hour and a half after we'd left the building.
Mrs. Pemberton had insisted she'd gone home, and that I had immediately gone out. She didn't know where. I had returned, to tell her that I had good news for her, but before I could report, police had come to the house to question her in connection with her husband's death. I had made my escape through a cellar window while police were searching the house.
Arthur H. Bass, Pemberton's partner, had stated that Pemberton had been very much worried for the past few days, that he had announced it was necessary for him to raise immediate funds and had offered to sell his interest in the partnership business for much less than its value. Bass had reluctantly made a nominal offer, but had advised Pemberton not to accept it, and when Pemberton had refused to consider such a nominal amount, Bass had been jubilant because he didn't want to lose Pemberton as a partner. He had met Pemberton at Pemberton's request, to discuss the matter.
The district attorney announced that he had interviewed "the woman in the case." Inasmuch as she seemed to have been "wronged" by Pemberton, and, inasmuch as a Peeping Tom who had tried to crash the gate of her apartment had caused her to place a call for the police at approximately the time Pemberton must have been killed, the police absolved her of all responsibility.
It seemed that this Peeping Tom, evidently trying to make a mash, had knocked at her door and advised her he had held up the jewellery store downstairs. She had promptly reported to the police, who had visited her apartment, to find her very much undressed, very much excited and shaken, and apparently sincere. Police records of the call showed that the police were actually in her apartment at the time the janitor had heard the sounds of what were undoubtedly the shots which took Pemberton's life.
Mrs. Pemberton, the news account went on to say, could give no evidence in support of her alibi, but police were inclined to absolve her of blame, concentrating for the moment on a search for Pete Wennick, the leg man for the law firm.
Cedric L. Boniface, a member of the law firm, very much shocked at developments, had made a rush trip to the city and was staying at the Palace Hotel. So far, authorities had not let him talk to Mrs. Pemberton, but they would probably do so at an early hour in the afternoon. Mr. Boniface said he "hoped Mr. Wennick would be able to absolve himself."
That was that.
Just for the fun of the thing, I turned to the Personals. It's a habit with me. I always read them in any paper. Under the heading: "Too late to classify," I came on one which interested me. It read simply: "P. W. Can I help? Call on me for anything. M. D."
Now there was a girl! Old E. B. Jonathan, with his warped, distorted, jaundiced idea of the sex, suspected all women except clients. Clients to him were sacred. I took women as I found them. Mae Devers would stick through thick and thin.
Mrs. Pemberton had paraded around in revealing silks and had called me Sir Galahad when I'd told her to go put on a bathrobe. The minute the going got rough, she'd tossed me to the wolves. The question was whether she either killed her husband while I was in the washroom or had gone back and killed him afterwards and deliberately imported me as the fall guy for the police. If she had, she'd made a damn good job of it.
Supper consisted of a couple of cold hamburgers. About five o'clock, I drew up a chair in front of the window and started watching. The redhead had accused me of being a Peeping Tom and now I was going to be one.
I didn't see Diane Locke come in or go out, and I didn't see anyone else I knew. After it got dark, a light came on in Diane's apartment. I sat there and waited. About nine o'clock I had another hamburger. I got tired of waiting and decided I'd force the play. I looked up the telephone number of Bass & Pemberton's office and memorised it. It was Temple 491. I shaved, combed my hair, put on a suit none of my new playmates had seen me wear, crossed the street, climbed the stairs of the apartment house and knocked on the door of apartment 3A.
Nothing happened at once. I dropped to one knee, scooped dried chewing gum out of the hole in the door and looked through. She was coming toward the door. And she had her clothes on.
I straightened as she came to the door, opened it, and asked, "What is it?"
"I'm from the police," I said in a thin, high, nasal voice this time. "I'm trying to check up on that call you put through to police headquarters last night."
"Yes?" she asked. She'd never seen me without a mask. "What is it you wanted to know?"
"I'm trying to check your call," I told her. "If you don't mind, I'll come in." I came in before she had a chance to mind. I walked over to the chair and sat down. She sat down in the other chair.
The chair I was sitting in was warm. "Pardon me," I said, "was this your chair?"
"No. I was sitting in this one," she told me.
She looked at me and said, "I've seen you before. There's something vaguely familiar about your face. And I think I've heard your voice somewhere."
I grinned across at her and said, "I never contradict a lady, but if I'd ever met you, I'd remember it until I was a hundred and ten."
She smiled at that and crossed her knees. I looked over at the ashtray. There were two cigarette stubs on it. Both were smouldering. There was only one match in the tray. It was broken in two.
She followed the direction of my eyes, laughed, and pinched out the stubs. "I'm always leaving cigarette stubs burning," she said. "What was it you wanted?"
I slid my hand under the lapel of my coat and loosened the gun. "Miss Locke," I said, "you understand that the time element here is important. It's a question of when you placed that call to the police, as well as when the police got here. We want to check carefully on all those times. Now, in order to do that, I've been checking your calls with the telephone company. It seems that you put through a call to Temple 491 very shortly after you called the police. Can you tell me about that call?"
She studied her tinted fingernails for a minute, then raised her eyes and said, "Yes, frankly, I can. I called Mr. Pemberton."
"Why did you call him?"
She said, "I think you'll understand that I felt very close to Mr. Pemberton in many ways. He had-well, he'd tricked me and betrayed me, but, nevertheless… Oh, I just hated to make trouble for him. I called him to tell him I was sorry."
"Did you talk with him?" My throat was getting irritated from straining my voice high.
Once more she hesitated, then said, "No, he didn't answer the telephone."
"The telephone company has you on a limited call basis," I said. "They report that the call was completed."
Once more she studied her fingernails.
"Someone answered the phone," she said, "but said he was the janitor cleaning up the offices. So I hung up on him."
That gave me all I wanted to know. I said, and I spoke in my own voice now, "You know, it was a dirty trick they played on you, Diane. I don't think Bass cared whether you got anything out of it or not. He wanted Pemberton's interest in the partnership. In fact he had to have it because he'd been juggling funds. He was the mythical 'lawyer' behind you. You're his woman and he put you up to playing Pemberton for a sucker, hoping Pemberton would be involved enough so he could put into effect that trick clause in the partnership agreement and buy him out for two thousand dollars. When Pemberton said he was going to have an auditor make a complete analysis of the books for the purpose of finding out what a half interest was worth, Bass went into a panic."
She went white to her lips, but said nothing.
I went on: "As soon as your 'burglar' left and you found you'd lost the letters, you called Bass up and told him what had happened. He was in his private office, waiting for a call, waiting also for Pemberton to come back and accept his offer as a final last resort.
"But Bass was pretty smooth. He probably knew I wasn't Olive Pemberton's brother. He guessed I was a detective. That meant Olive was wise to the Diane business, and he was shrewd enough to figure there might be a dictograph running into Pemberton's office. He did a little exploring. The door to the adjoining office was unlocked, and he stepped in, looked the plant over, and found the gun. Obviously either Olive or I had left the gun there. It could be traced to one of us. It looked like a set-up. Bass took the gun with him, did the job and returned it.
"Killing Pemberton was his only out. Without the letters, his little blackmail scheme had fallen through. There'd be no money coming in to cover the shortage the audit would turn up. That meant he'd go to prison. Well, he'll go anyway, and he'll stay just long enough to be made ready for a pine box."
By this time the redhead had recognised me, of course. "You and your pearls," she sneered, but the sneer was only a camouflage for the growing fright in her eyes.
"Now," I went on, "you're in Bass' way. Bass can't have the police knowing he was behind the blackmail business, and you can show he was. He'll have to try to get rid of both of us."
"Arthur would never do anything like that," she cried.
The closet door was in front of me. The bathroom door was behind me. But a mirror in the closet door enabled me to see the bathroom one. I kept my eyes on these doors.
"He will, though," I told her, "and you know it. He's already killed once. Otherwise why did he come here tonight to tell you that under no circumstances were you to admit you'd talked with him over the telephone?"
She moistened her lips with her tongue. "How do you know all these things?" she asked.
"I know them," I told her, "because I know that persons who have ever worked as forest rangers in the dry country make it an invariable habit to break their matches in two before they throw them away. I know that he was here the other night because there were broken matches in your ash-tray. He'd sent you up to put the screws on Harvey Pemberton. I know that he's here tonight. I know he was in the office last night. Just before you came in he'd been talking with Harvey Pemberton. I didn't hear him take the elevator, so I know he went in to his private office after he'd finished that talk. He was still there when I left. I'm Wennick."
"But he wouldn't have done anything like that," she said. "Arthur couldn't."
"But you did telephone right after those letters had been stolen, and told him about it, didn't you?"
"Yes," she said, "I-"
The door behind me opened a half inch. I saw the muzzle of the gun slowly creep out, but it wasn't until I had my fingers on the butt of my own gun that I realised the barrel wasn't pointing at me, but at her.
"Duck!" I yelled.
I think it was the sudden yell which frightened her half out of her wits. She didn't duck, but she recoiled from me as though I'd thrown a brick at her instead of my voice. The gun went off. The bullet whizzed through the air right where her head had been, and buried itself in the plaster. I whirled and shot, through the door. I saw the gun barrel waver. I shot again, and then an arm came into sight, drooping toward the floor. The gun fell from nerveless fingers, and Arthur Bass crashed full length into the room.
Old E. B. glowered at me with little, malevolent eyes which glittered from above the bluish-white pouches which puffed out from under his eyeballs. "Wennick," he said, "you look like the devil!"
"I'm sorry," I told him.
"You look dissipated."
"I haven't shaved yet."
"From all reports," he said, "you cleaned up this Pemberton murder case and were released by the police at Culverton with a vote of thanks, some time before ten o'clock yesterday evening. Cedric Boniface was in the law library, briefing the question of premeditation in connection with murder. He didn't know what had happened until after the police had obtained Bass' dying statement and you had left."
"Now then," E. B. said, "why the hell is it that you didn't report to me?"
"I'm sorry," I told him, "but, after all, I have social engagements."
"Social engagements!" he stormed. "You were out with some woman!"
I nodded. "I was out with a young lady," I admitted, "celebrating her birthday."
He started cracking his knuckles. "Out with a young lady!" he snorted. "I had your apartment watched so I could be notified the minute you got in. You didn't get in until six o'clock this morning."
I listened to the dull cracking of his knuckles, then grinned at him. "The young lady," I said, "happens to have been born at five o'clock in the morning, so I had to wait until then to help her celebrate her birthday. If you doubt me, you might ask Mae Devers."