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Authors: Linda L. Richards

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BOOK: Death Was in the Picture
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“No,
his
client. Whoever it is. The ‘group of concerned citizens.’ That kind of thing gives me the heebie-jeebies.”

“Why?”

“Well, look at temperance.”

“Who’s Temperance?” This was getting more and more confusing.

“Not who, Kitty. What. Temperance was the movement that ended up starting Prohibition. C’mon: the Women’s Temperance League. Didn’t they teach you anything at that fancy school you went to up in Frisco?”

I shrugged. Of course I knew what temperance was. But it was ancient history to me: when Prohibition started, I was a little girl.

“Sure, they taught me. But we can’t all be as old as you are, Dex: it was history to me, not current events.”

“But it led to Prohibition. And see what a bad idea that turned out to be? Everyone knows drinking has gone way up since it started. Crime has too. There are even people that argue that the country’s current financial turmoil is partly due to Prohibition.”

“That’s a lot of hooey,” I said.

“Maybe it is,” Dex said, “and maybe it ain’t. My point is that
the group of ‘concerned citizens’ responsible for Prohibition have a lot to answer for. And sometimes, groups like that just smack of people shoving their noses in where they don’t belong and a lot of telling people what to do.”

“But they’re paying, Dex. Whoever ‘they’ are, aren’t they paying?”

Dex nodded. Then he sighed. “Sure,” he said finally, opening up his top desk drawer and pulling out a neat pile of green bills that I took to be his retainer. “They’re paying. Doesn’t mean I have to like what they’re buyin’ though.” He sounded so morose that I laughed.

“Aw, Dex. Cheer up. Getting paid is good. And don’t worry about it: if not you, they’d just hire some other bird. So you’ll follow the guy around for however long, you’ll report what you see and we’ll both get to buy some groceries. What’s the trouble with that?”

Dex shrugged and grinned. “I know you’re right, Kitty. I shouldn’t grouse. There are worse things, right?”

“Sure, Dex. Lots worse. Like not payin’ your devoted secretary.”

Dex gave me the ghost of a smile. His mind was clearly on other things. “I start tonight. Dean told me Wyndham is going to be at a party at the Ambassador Hotel.”

“At the Cocoanut Grove?” I asked. The Cocoanut Grove was the hottest spot in the city. But Dex shook his head.

“Naw, it’s in one of the bungalows. Sounds swank.”

“Swank? Why they gonna let you in then?”

“Dean gave me the name and number of a girl. A contract player at MGM. I’m to pick her up on my way over. She’s got the invite: I’ll be her date.”

I liked this setup. “Cloak and dagger.”

“Yeah, well,” Dex still looked glum. “I still don’t like the way it smells.”

“Oh, poor Dex. Forced against his will to go to a swank party with a starlet on his arm. You’d best not tell Mustard. He’d feel so sorry for you, he wouldn’t know what to say.”

“Enough with all the noise, Kitty.” Dex was grinning, but I could see there was strain behind the smile. “If I wanted grief, I’d call up my pop and talk about the Dodgers and the Yankees. And call Mustard and get me a boiler, will ya? If I’m gonna have a date, I’ll need wheels.”

CHAPTER THREE

I WAS BORN in the house where I live, the house my father built for my mother when they were first wed. They weren’t married long, though: my mother left the world just as I entered it. My father never recovered from her loss, though he hung about for a couple of decades longer. When he took his own life after the crash of ‘29, it came to light some time before he’d transferred the title of the house to Marcus and Marjorie Oleg. The couple had been with my family since before my birth, Marcus as driver and valet to my father when required, while Marjorie managed the house.

When father died, creditors scrambled for every speck of value in his estate, but thanks to my father’s foresight, the house was beyond their reach. After the dust settled and my father was buried and the vultures had carried off what they could of his estate, Marcus and Marjorie left things pretty much as they had been. They didn’t move out of their accommodations above the garage and they insisted I keep the suite of rooms that had been mine since childhood. However they had opened the fine old mansion to boarders. I sometimes wondered what my father would have thought of the house he built for his beloved wife turned into a rooming house. But I never wondered long. Between most of my small salary and the money that the boarders brought in, it was possible for the three of us to live. There was no money for luxuries, but we were comfortable enough. It was not a bad arrangement.

Marjorie served breakfast for her boarders in the dining room at eight thirty every morning, on the dot. I liked to be at the office by nine, so I often joined Marjorie in the kitchen before
eight, having a bit of whatever was available while helping her prepare breakfast for the household. Since Marjorie was the closest thing I’d had to a mother my whole life, this part of our new arrangement was easy for both of us to get used to. After all, I’d spent much of my early childhood playing at her feet in the kitchen while she busied herself with whatever needed doing. Having me on hand behind the scenes now was just an extension of a pattern that was pleasantly familiar to us both.

“Eggs and potatoes this morning,” I said as I entered the kitchen. Sun was streaming in through the window over the sink, hitting the pile of potatoes she’d washed carefully and laid out on the draining board. The basket of eggs on the sideboard was my other clue. Eggs and potatoes and sunshine. It sounded like a wonderful combination. “Lovely,” was what I said.

“I wish I had a bit of bacon to go with,” Marjorie sniffed.

“Never mind,” I said, picking up a potato and peeling it, then putting it aside for Marjorie to chop into the tight triangles she favored for her delicious home fries. She brought me a cup of strong tea and I kept it at my elbow while I worked. Marjorie, meanwhile, began manhandling the toaster over the stove’s front burner for my morning toast. The odor of carefully burnt bread soon filled the air along with her discontent.

“I’ll wager you’ve got some bacon fat saved,” I said in an effort to placate her. “Fry the potatoes in that, and give everyone a few extra wedges and no one will complain, I’m sure.”

“I know you’re right, Miss Katherine. And none of the gentlemen will go away hungry, but it would be nice, don’t you think? It’s one of the things I miss the most: meat at every breakfast. Imagine!”

It was getting harder to imagine, Marjorie was right about that. But it wasn’t meat with breakfast I missed. Perhaps it wasn’t what she missed either. What both of us felt the lack of was the ability to have that meat if we wanted it. Some months we had trouble paying the electric bill and getting enough groceries
into the house to keep the boarders from knowing how strapped we were. Some months it was all we could do to keep going, and never mind where the next bit of meat was coming from, we were lucky to have a roof. There were an increasing number of people in Los Angeles—in the whole country, for that matter—who did not.

As was our habit, while we worked, we chatted about all sorts of things. I could not tell you what the earliest part of our conversation was made of. The marriage of one friend, perhaps. The death of another. We might have talked about the weather—it had been unseasonably cold—or perhaps the Olympics that were going to be held in Los Angeles the following year. I don’t recall, precisely, because the conversation of one day blends into the chatter of the next. But then Marjorie said something that stopped my potato peeling hand in mid-stroke.

“Did you hear the news this morning Miss Katherine?”

“How would I have heard?” I said without missing a stroke in my peeling. “You know I don’t have a radio in my room.”

“So you didn’t hear about Laird Wyndham?”

It was as though a cloud drifted over my head, right there in the kitchen. Drifted over and settled right in. Though I would have had a difficult time explaining it, her words filled me with dread.

“What about him?” I managed to keep my voice neutral.

“Why he’s in jail, Miss Katherine.”

“In jail?” I thought I might have misunderstood, though Marjorie tends to make herself very clear.

“That’s right. He killed someone. Last night. At a party at the Ambassador Hotel.”

CHAPTER FOUR

MY FIRST THOUGHT was a silly one. I thought of Dex. Perhaps dead at the hands of the man he’d been hired to watch. I dressed for the office in a hurry, toast and potato and meat dilemmas forgotten, unable to shake a feeling of impending doom.

At Angels Flight I was in for my first disappointment of the day. Though I usually took the funicular railroad to work—it cost a nickel to ride up Bunker Hill, but was always free going downtown—today I’d have to hoof it: one of the little cars had derailed near the bottom. It didn’t look like a mad panic, perhaps it hadn’t fallen very far, but there was a sign across the turnstile: ANGELS FLIGHT WILL BE CLOSED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. I felt another sigh slide out as I began to trudge down the first of the 200 stairs. It would be worse going home if they didn’t get it working soon.

Though I didn’t think I’d need it, habit made me stop for Dex’s ice at a diner on my way to the office. Our building was on Spring near Fourth Street, a twelve-story Beaux Arts building that had for many years been the tallest skyscraper in the city, though it wasn’t anymore. Dex had told me that when the building was new at the turn of the century, it had been a technological marvel, the most absolutely fireproof building at a time when fire was very much on everyone’s minds. Ridiculously, my favorite bit of technology were the mail chutes on every floor. All you had to do to mail a letter was go out into the hall and place your stamped envelope in a glass-fronted chute, then watch it drop beyond sight. I didn’t know where the letters went from there, only that they ended up being delivered as
indicated, which is all a girl needs to know, really. But there was something almost sinfully modern about the whole arrangement. Modern magic.

From the outside, the building still had a graceful if tired beauty. Inside the ornamented front doors, however, once gracious and spacious offices had been renovated to accommodate warrens of smaller places of business. Dex’s P.I. office shared the fifth floor with a slightly seedy accountancy firm, a dental surgeon with the ironic name of Payne, and a company whose door announced them to be “investment specialists” and whom I figured for their spats, the sheen on their coats, and the rough looking traffic that came and went to be the type of operation you don’t ask a lot of questions about.

The only door I looked forward to walking past on my way to the mail chute or the elevator belonged to an importer named Hartounian. I didn’t know anything about the man, nor did I have the least idea in what part of the world he plied his trade, but the scents and sometimes even the sounds that wafted through his office door seldom failed to put me in mind of lands so exotic I could scarcely imagine them. When he saw me, he always raised a single eyebrow in a pleasant smile.

At the end of the hall—the farthest from the elevator but at the front of the building, with an eagle’s view of Spring Street—Dex did his business.

On this morning, however, when I crossed the threshold I knew right away that today’s business would be dodgy at best. From the hall, everything looked normal: the gleaming wood door; the pebbled glass window with
DEXTER J. THEROUX, PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR
carefully lettered on it in gold and black; the brass knob I shined in idle moments.

Opening the door, however, told another story. The wave of odors were unmistakable. Even in the outer office smoke seemed to drip from the ceiling in hazy, undulating waves. It was almost as strong as the smell of the booze that rose over it.
I’m nothing like a connoisseur, but it didn’t take an expert to recognize the reek of bootleg whiskey from twenty paces. A lot of bootleg whiskey. And not the good stuff.

Dex’s office door was open—things in the outer office wouldn’t have smelled quite so bad if it were not—but I moved forward hesitantly, afraid of what I’d find.

When I entered his office, Dex lifted his head from the desk and regarded me without recognition. His eyes were rimmed in red and shot through with blood; a roadmap to hell.

“Oh Dex,” I said, putting the bag of ice on his desk. For a second, I thought he might say something in return. His mouth even opened, but all that came out was a kind of incoherent grumble that sounded something like “Grrk.”

I felt a fleeting sadness for something lovely that I’d only seen for a moment on the day before. Things had been different then, that’s what he’d said at the time. I could see that they were different again now.

I didn’t need to spend a lot of time trying to squeeze some sense out of him to know that Dex was currently past sensibility. Most likely, he just needed time to sleep it off. Failing that, I figured I’d do what I could to clean him up and maybe get some coffee into him.

In the outer office, I put away my handbag and light coat and addressed myself to making coffee. When I’d measured out the amount of ground coffee usually appropriate to making a pot, I paused before putting the tin away, then tipped in another tablespoon for good measure. Dex was going to need all the help he could get.

While the percolator busied itself, I sat at my desk and collected myself. The sound of coffee percolating cheered me slightly. It always does, along with the smell of fresh coffee that began to rise through the office, chasing away a bit of the reek of tavern that greeted me when I opened the door.

I used the ice I’d brought to fashion a crude pack for Dex’s
head and brought it in to him with his first cup of joe. The coffee was strong and black with a couple of spoons of sugar. I knew he preferred a splash of cream in his coffee—sweet and blonde was what he’d say—but I didn’t have any cream and, in any case, on this day, I figured he’d be best served with all the straight coffee goodness I could siphon into him.

While Dex sipped toward a more sober state, I busied myself with the office. I didn’t want to spend the next eight hours soaking up the reek of smokes and booze.

BOOK: Death Was in the Picture
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