Chicago, April 1937
Normally I wouldn't be caught dead-or even undead-in this kind of eatery anymore, but my partner Charles Escott needed my help with a case. He had a skittish client who insisted on being along for the ride and wanted someone to hold her hand and keep her out of trouble-that is to say, out of his hair-while he worked.
I looked across the table at Mary Sommerfeld, and tried to give her a reassuring smile, but she wasn't having any of it. She kept darting nervous glances to her left, my right, and several times I had to stop myself from doing the same. If I wanted to see what was going on there, I could use the pocket mirror cupped in my palm.
"Keep your eyes on me," I muttered. "Try to eat something." After all, I'd bought her the more expensive fifty-five-cent dinner (beverage extra), and I hated to see good food going to waste. I assumed it was good, anyway. My judgment on fine dining was no longer reliable. The only thing that didn't smell nauseating to me in this joint was my untouched coffee.
"But he's not doing anything," she muttered back.
I took her to mean my partner. "Mr. Escott's had lots of experience at this kind of thing. Give him time, he'll come up aces for you."
She grimaced and seized a fork, glared at it, and made a point of wiping it thoroughly with her napkin, which I thought unnecessary. Granted, the joint wasn't the Ritz Hotel, like what she was used to, but then it was a few steps above a greasy spoon, like what I'd been used to before I stopped eating solid food. It was clean and well lighted, with no lip-rouge stains on the glasses, and the ashtrays were emptied regularly. Not my kind of place these nights, but still fairly respectable.
Escott had chosen it because you could seat yourself, hence my place in a booth with Miss Sommerfeld, and his at a table twenty feet away with Jason McCallen. From my vantage I could easily block the front and back exits in case McCallen decided to hoof it before our business with him was done.
Our client wasn't too happy being so close to him, but with her short dark hair hidden by a gray cloche hat and the rest of her covered up with a matching coat and galoshes, she looked like a thousand other Chicago women for this time of year. Besides, McCallen was angled away from us, and would have to turn to spot her.
I'd tried to dress to blend in as well, leaving my pricey double-breasted suits and silk shirts in the closet in favor of a nondescript jacket and slacks, both in dark blue. My newsboy's cloth hat was stuffed in a pocket, and I wore black shoes with gum soles. My hair was trimmed, combed, and slicked straight back from my face. The impression I hoped to give was that of a laborer taking his girl out on a Friday-night date. Nothing fancy, but not insultingly cheap.
Miss Sommerfeld pushed her vegetables around and savagely speared a single kernel of corn. She shoved it into her mouth and chewed on it for half a minute.
"Stop staring at me," she growled.
I broke off and looked down at the mirror. Instead of paying attention to business, I'd been distracted by how long it took her to eat the corn kernel.
The tiny image in my hand shivered and settled. It was the same as the last time I'd checked, with Escott and McCallen at their table facing off over cups of cooling coffee. My partner was lean and tall, beak-nosed, dressed neatly in a stuffed-shirt sort of way, looking like a fussy bank teller. McCallen was just as tall, but more massive, with at least an extra fifty pounds of solid muscle riding easily on his shoulders and arms. He was big, hairy down to his knuckles, and dressed like a longshoreman. I couldn't blame Miss Sommerfeld for seeking help with the Escott Agency in dealing with him.
According to her story, McCallen had taken away an envelope of papers that were not his. They were worth a lot to her, enough to hire us to get them back again. She didn't want publicity, so the theft went unreported to the cops, and her lawyers had no clue about the incident.
When she first came to Escott's office early this afternoon to rent his services as a private agent, he made a good stab at trying to find out the contents of the envelope, but she clammed up and shook her head.
"It's personal and private," she told him. "Nothing illegal, I assure you, but they don't belong to him. Will this cover your fee?" Then she put five matching pictures of Andrew Jackson on his desk and that was that.
He called home at sunset to give me the short version of the deal and what sort of help he would need from me if I was available. I was-at least until around two in the morning when my girlfriend got off work.
"Are you out of your mind accepting a case without knowing the whole story?" I asked, running a hand over my beard stubble as I leaned toward the mouthpiece of the kitchen phone.
"Miss Sommerfeld's within her rights, Jack," he said lightly. "And it's not as murky as you think. I happen to have more background on her than you do."
The background being that she was an heiress to a fortune in saltine crackers. No, really. McCallen had been a foreman in one of the factories or plants or bakeries or whatever it is you call a place that makes crackers. He'd been romantically linked with Mary for a couple of months, until her parents in Michigan heard what was going on and packed her off to Europe. A little hobnobbing with other rich kids in the south of France had done the trick. Mary found herself accepting a marriage proposal from some minor prince and returned home in triumph.
"It is my opinion," said Escott, "that the diamonds on her engagement ring could easily buy my house with some considerable change left over for lavish decoration."
"So you do a good job for her and maybe she recommends you to rich friends in need?"
"That's always a possibility." He made no effort to dampen the smug satisfaction in his tone.
"What about the papers? Got any idea what they might be?"
"From her manner I'm assuming they're indiscreet love letters written to McCallen when things were still amicable between them. She must have gotten them away from him at some point, then he thought better of it and stole them back. Her royal engagement could go up in smoke if he decides to use them against her."
"Where do you come by that?" I shifted from one bare foot to the other. He'd caught me just as I'd opened my eyes for the night. I'd launched straight out of my basement lair to catch the ringing phone and had only thin pajamas between me and any lurking draft. I don't feel the cold like I used to, but I hate drafts.