Authors: Linda L. Richards
“For starters, though, I’d like you to scratch out a fast list now so that I can get Kitty here right to work on it when we get back to the office.”
“Who should be on that list?” Wyndham asked. “Possible enemies?”
“Sure,” Dex said, “that’s a good place to start. But also I’d like the names of some of the people closest to you. People who work for you. And friends. Your inner circle. See, we’ll start by building a profile, in a way. We’ll put together a big picture. And then we’ll see what we’ve got when we’re done with that and think about what to do with the information we’ve gathered.”
“I can do that,” Wyndham said.
“Good. I know that there will be names that escape you this first go-round. So, like I said, I’ll drop back in a couple of days and let you know what, if anything, I’ve got and you can give
me the more detailed list you’re going to work on. One way or another, we’ll make some sort of progress.”
“What about now?” Wyndham said.
“Pardon?” Dex replied.
“I mean what if I can think of things—now—to help you?”
“I guess I’d expect you’d tell me.”
“Well, I’m just thinking about the Masquers’ annual ball. It’s tonight. That might be a good starting point for you. Short notice, I know. But I’d planned on attending. And, as you can see,” there was a bitterness in his tone, slight, but present, “I now have other plans.”
“Sorry, Wyndham, that’s a new one on me. I’ve never heard of the Masquers’ Ball. What say you fill me in?”
“The Masquers? You know: ‘We laugh to win.’” He looked from Dex to me, then back again. “No? Nothing? Never heard of it?” Wyndham seemed completely astonished.
“No, Wyndham,” Dex said firmly. “Never heard of it. If we need to know about it now, you’d best tell us.”
“The Masquers are a, well a sort of secret organization,” Wyndham said.
“It being secret might be why we never heard of it,” Dex said.
secret,” Wyndham said. “Least, we’ve never expended much effort to keep it from people.”
“But what sort of organization is it?” I said.
At the sound of my voice, Wyndham looked at me as though he’d perhaps forgotten I was there. He smiled, not unkindly. “Why, I would have thought the name made it apparent: Masquers?” he looked from Dex to me then back again. “No? All right, then: actors. It’s an organization of actors.”
“Like a guild?” I asked. “A union?”
“No,” he said, “not really like that, though there are some who would make it so. No, the Masquers are more of a social club. We have a clubhouse on North Sycamore and any member can go there any time at all and always know friends are
there. And we have dinners commemorating great accomplishment of our members. We have revels about once a month….”
Here Dex stopped him. “Revels?”
“Oh. Sorry. Performances, I guess you could say. But it’s more than that, too. A revel is a theatrical evening with members staging plays and the like. It’s quite entertaining.”
“And the ball, is that what it is?” I asked. “A revel?”
“Oh no,” Wyndham said. “Nothing like that. The Masquers’ Ball is an evening of mystery,” he said theatrically. “Everyone must wear a mask, so all who come are anonymous. Because of that, everyone is more willing to step outside themselves and be something more or at least different than they normally are.”
“That’s why you think they’d talk to us?” Dex said. “You think people might be more willing to talk about things than might normally be the case?”
“Quite right,” Wyndham said. “That’s just what I think. Plus it’s the only time you’ll find so many prominent people from the movie business in one place. Well, short of the Academy Awards, of course, but that wouldn’t be a good evening to engage people in conversation. But the ball, that’s different. And you can go not as a detective but as a party-goer. An invited guest.”
“So this shindig is open to everyone?” Dex asked.
“No, that’s the beauty,” Wyndham said. “That’s what brought it to mind. The event is open to members only, along with their invited guests. The fact that you’re even there—that you even know about it—implies a level of intimacy. People will talk more freely because they’ll assume you’re a member, or close to someone who is.”
“But they’ll see me, right?” Dex pointed out. “They’ll recognize that they don’t recognize me.”
“No, no. As I said: you’ll be wearing a mask.”
“And Kitty, if I bring her along”—my head shot up from the notes I was still making a big show about taking. I hadn’t even thought about asking Dex if I could go.
“That’s right: Miss Pangborn would need to wear a mask as well. Everyone wears one to the annual ball.”
“Where would we get them?” I asked. “And how would we know the right kind to get?”
“Sterling knows,” Wyndham said. “He can bring one for each of you to your office. And an invitation, so you’ll be all set.”
“What kind of costume would I have to wear?” Dex asked. “Would I have to dress like King Tut or something?”
“No, no, nothing like that. Just normal evening dress. Black tie for you, Dex, and ladies long.”
“Well, that’s settled then,” Dex said, startling me. I hadn’t thought anything was settled at all. “All right, Miss Pangborn.” I blushed at the way he said my name. Intimate, in a way. And playfully at the same time, even with the honorific in place. Dex rose and clasped Wyndham’s hand, then, “Come along. We’ve got a ball to attend.”
go to a ball.”
We were in a taxi heading back to the office. I knew we’d be there all too soon—it was not a lengthy ride—I figured if I was gonna talk, I’d better do it fast.
“‘Course you can,” Dex said calmly. “You can and you will.”
“‘Please, Dex,’” he mimicked me. I wanted to slug him right in his smug mug, but I did not. And not just because he’s several times bigger than me. “It’s just the ticket, don’t you see? This isn’t the sort of thing a dope goes to stag, kiddo. You heard Wyndham: it’s their big once-a-year affair. And those actors have got their pick of dames standing in line waiting to be asked to this thing. No, no: I can’t go alone.”
“OK then,” I said, trying for my most reasonable tone, “why not ask someone else, then?”
“A real girl, you mean?”
girl,” I said biting back all of the more obvious retorts that sprang to mind. None of that would have been productive. “Isn’t there someone you’re sweet on? Asking her to this might be just the thing. Like you said, dames stand in line to go to a shindig like this.”
“Well,” Dex said thoughtfully, “there are a few I might ask, but I’d be afraid they might get the wrong idea.”
“And you’re not afraid I’ll get the wrong idea?”
Dex looked at me and smirked. “Kiddo,” he said, “that would be about the furthest thing from my mind.”
“Thanks,” I said a bit huffily, settling myself more deeply into my seat.
“You’re welcome,” he said back. I didn’t like him much right then for his grin. “Ah, don’t be like that. You know I’m just kiddin’ around with you.” I didn’t respond, so he went on, “Here’s what I figured: if I take a date—a real date—to this thing, my head might get all full of her instead of full of the business at hand. And, anyway, she’d be hangin’ off me like a wet blanket. How am I supposed to detect with some dame always asking for a drink or a dance?”
“And that won’t happen if I’m there instead? Geez, thanks, Dex.”
“C’mon, Kitty. Whaddayawant? You can’t have it both ways,” he said, sounding suddenly more serious than before. “And I know you don’t want it both ways anyway. We’ve got a good thing, me and you. We wouldn’t want to mess that up with any funny business.”
I smiled at him then. A real smile. Because the truth was, the last thing I wanted with Dex was … funny business. On the other hand, a girl likes to know she’s considered someone you’d want to be funny with, if you get what I’m saying. I didn’t want Dex to feel that way about me—I really did not. Yet, on the other hand, I did. I could see the duality in that, but it didn’t change the way I felt.
“OK. There’s another reason.” We were nearing downtown now.
“OK,” Dex said. “Shoot.”
I found myself sitting up straight in my seat, looking ahead and past the driver out the window, very focused on the line painted down the middle of the road.
“I have …” I stopped. “Promise not to laugh.”
“Sure, kid. I promise.”
“I have nothing to wear to a party like that.”
Dex broke his promise. Maybe he’d never meant to keep it. He laughed a big, deep, murderous laugh. “And
why you don’t want to go?” he asked.
I just nodded.
“Well hell, Kitty. That’s easy, why didn’t you say something? Wyndham’s paying our expenses.” He told the driver to stop the car right there and, when he pulled over I noticed that though we were still a few blocks from the office, we were on Broadway only half a block or so from Blackstone’s Department Store. Dex brought out his wallet and fished out a fifty. “This cover it?” I felt my eyes go all wide. Dex knew damn well that with fifty bucks I could buy a used car. Not a good one, but that wasn’t really the point.
“Pretty much,” is all I said.
“Good. So buy something to wear to a ball, Kitty. Something just as nice as you please. And don’t worry about the price: unless it’s more than fifty bucks. And if you got any left over, you keep it.”
Even when the big car had pulled back into traffic, I stood on the pavement and watched it. I actually had a fifty dollar bill clenched in my hand.
I could take a steamship to Hawaii. I could buy groceries for the whole house for a year or take a luxury train trip to San Francisco and stay at the Fairmont Hotel for a week. I could
to New York in a clipper plane. With the fifty bucks in my hand, I could do almost anything. For just a moment, there on the sidewalk outside Black-stone’s, the possibilities took my breath away.
My mission was pretty clear: Dex had given me the fifty bucks and told me not to bring him any change. I knew he meant it. He’d asked Wyndham for his daily rate plus expenses. And Wyndham was loaded. I knew he wouldn’t give Dex any trouble with laying out fifty bucks for a new get-up for me so that I could accompany Dex to the ball.
No, the source of the money was okey-dokey, no problems there. The problem came from my end: fifty bucks was a
of money. The fifty bucks pressed tightly into my hand was too much to spend on a dress and maybe some shoes.
The department store was filled with the scent of newness. Why had I never noticed that when I was a child? Newness and possibilities. I inhaled deeply and considered. Prosperity, that’s what I smelled. It lingered still, in here.
I wandered around for a bit, entranced by the scent of prosperity and possibilities and, in the end, I fell in love with a dress being worn by a haughty looking mannequin on a plinth in one of the aisles. It was an ivory sheath dress covered in gold beads. So glittery. I wanted it instantly.
A salesgirl saw me admiring it. “It’s the last one, you know.”
“Is it… is it very expensive?”
“You know,” she said, “for how beautiful the workmanship is and how well it’s made, it’s not very expensive at all.”
I looked at her out of the corner of my eye. She was wearing a perfectly tailored little suit over a beige blouse, her hair permed to a perfect blond nimbus around her head. Even if she understood the full meaning of the word “expensive,” she would not let on to me.
“How much?” I asked cautiously.
“Well, it was $49.95,” she said. She must have heard me gasp, because she added, “It’s Jean Patou, you know. But, as I said, it’s also the only one left. It was going to come down today anyway. I can let you have it for,” and here she looked at me shrewdly, perhaps sizing me up and estimating what I might be able to pay, “um … $19.95.”
a lot of money. More than a lot. There were dresses that would have done quite nicely for half that. But none were actual Jean Patou—even last season’s—and once I’d tried it on I knew that none of them would have fit me so perfectly, or sparkled so prettily when I walked.
I managed to find a pair of shoes to go with the dress and a hooded cape affair to wear over it for another three bucks each. Then, with money still in hand and strict instructions not to give any back, I bought two attractive dresses for the office,
one for three dollars and another for five and a nice new leather handbag for Marjorie for three. I knew that later, when I got home, I could in good conscience give Marjorie her new purse and a few dollars toward groceries and keep a couple emergency dollars for myself while still knowing I’d followed Dex’s instructions to the letter.
I was tired, but happy.
I felt like Cinderella.
I was going to a ball.
THERE IS NO feeling quite like the one you get emerging from a department store with your arms fully laden, knowing that you’ve spent a great deal of money exceedingly well. I almost can’t explain it. Your arms might be tired from carrying all those packages, but your heart is light and satisfied.
There are those who will scoff at such fancy, others who feel such thinking is flawed or wrong. I don’t care. Shopping can be restorative. It can be like time in church. Shopping can lift your spirit and your heart. They say gambling is addictive. Those who say it have not truly shopped.
The lightness of mood I felt after leaving Blackstone’s followed me all the way to our building and even to the elevator where I wondered if I would show Dex my dress right away, or make him wait until he picked me up that evening so that he got the full golden-beaded effect. I found that, silly though it was, I liked the possibilities available to me. I liked pondering these questions. It made me feel young and girlish. And I was both those things, but the times and my troubles sometimes pushed that reality aside. I found myself looking forward to the ball far more than I’d anticipated I could when we’d first heard about it a few hours before.
My mood continued thus—light and girlish—until the moment I passed Hartounian’s door and our own came in sight. It stood open to the hallway. The sight of it stopped me in my tracks for a moment. I tried to get hold of myself. Was an open door really so odd, I asked myself? Yes it was, I replied instantly, then hurried along.