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Authors: Jonathan Latimer

Red Gardenias

BOOK: Red Gardenias
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Red Gardenias

By Jonathan Latimer

 
CHAPTER I

"There's a burglar downstairs," Ann Fortune said.

"A burglar?" William Crane sat up in the colonial four-poster, blinked his eyes in the light. "A burglar?"

"He didn't send up a card," Ann said.

Crane modestly pulled the patchwork quilt about him. "Let him burgle." Ash-gray, like cigarette smoke, his breath hung in the air. "It isn't our house."

"Everyone thinks it is."

"Do we care what a burglar thinks?"

"Yes." She tried not to smile, but her sea-green eyes crinkled at the corners. "You have to go down and shoot him."

"Oh, very well," he said. "I'll go down and shoot him in the leg."

He swung his feet over the side of the bed. The air was very cold near the floor. He put his feet back under the covers.

She watched from the bedroom door. "Well?"

"You're beautiful," he said.

"Aren't you going to shoot him?"

"Beautiful, blonde... and bloodthirsty!"

"Not so loud. You'll frighten him."

"I hope I do."

"You're a fine, brave detective. I thought — " She hesitated for a halved second. "Hear him?"

There was a tinkling noise downstairs. A breath of November wind, rustling the shades, momentarily silenced it; then, in a lull, they heard it again. Crane was favorably impressed.

"I think he's pouring a drink."

"He's in the living room," Ann said.

"He could pour a drink in the living room, couldn't he?"

A Nile-green robe, drawn close, revealed her slender figure. "Bill!" Her hair was as pale as Manila rope. "As head of this household, it's your duty..."

"All right," he said hastily. "But I'm inexperienced with burglars."

"Now's your chance to learn."

"What a wife you'll make some guy." He shuddered as his feet touched the floor. "It's cold, too."

"In the eyes of the world, I am your wife."

"Not in the eyes of God... yet."

"And never," she said. "Hurry up."

"I think he's gone."

"No."

He put on slippers and a Scotch-plaid dressing gown. He took a police.38 out of a pigskin zipper bag. "If I'm killed you'll have me on your conscience."

She said, "It won't be much of a load."

He went by her at the door, thinking how nice it would be to kiss her. He liked her skin, stained the color of cornhusks by the sun, and the way her green eyes crinkled at the corners. He almost wished he was married to her.

"Good-by now," she said.

Halfway down the stairs he thought he might have pretended he was really saying good-by to her and so kissed her. He almost went back to attempt this, but he didn't. He remembered he was stalking a burglar. That was a serious business.

By leaning over the banister he could see a sliver of banana-colored light near the living-room door. He would have liked to fire a couple of shots down the stairs and frighten the burglar away, but he supposed he had to capture him. He and Ann had just been assigned to what might be a murder case by their agency, and it was possible the burglar was connected with it in some way.

Besides, it was a rented house and the shots wouldn't be good for the rugs.

He crept down a few steps and discovered he was a little frightened. He wondered if he ought to rush in and overpower the man, or simply shoot him. He remembered with growing indignation the calm manner in which Ann had sent him downstairs. Women were queer. They'd fuss over a man going out in a rainstorm or on a fishing trip, but they'd send him after a burglar as offhandedly as they would for the morning milk.

He crossed the hall and peeped in the living room.

Dim rays from a parchment-shaded desk lamp made a half circle of blue and oyster white on an Aubusson rug, lost themselves in shadows on high blue walls, reappeared like fireflies in a crystal chandelier. Over the desk, over bright sheets of paper, a man leaned. As Crane watched, he tore one of the papers, let the pieces flutter into a metal wastebasket. He took a drink from a glass by the lamp.

Crane thought it was a damn funny way for a burglar to act. He reached into the room and snapped on the overhead lights. "Put your hands up," he ordered.

Getting to his feet, the man knocked over his glass. "What the deuce!" Two ice cubes fell on the blue-and-white Aubusson.

"That's what I say," said Crane.

He was a young, good-looking burglar. He had very black hair and heavy, straight eyebrows and he wore a tweed suit. It was a well-tailored suit; gray with flecks of green and red in it.

"I'm unarmed," he said. "You can put your gun away."

"It's all right," Crane assured him. "I'm not sure it's loaded."

"You're Mr Crane?"

Crane nodded and said, "You have the advantage of me."

The young man stared pointedly at Crane's revolver. "I'd hardly say that."

"Possibly not," Crane agreed. He looked at the litter of papers on the desk. There were letters, some bills, some typewritten documents. He looked at the overturned glass. "Do you carry a flask?" he asked.

"Didn't Dad show you the liquor?" the young man said.

"Does your father burgle, too?"

"Maybe I ought to explain," said the young man. "My father is Simeon March."

"Oh!" Crane toed the ice cubes on the Aubusson.

"We didn't expect you until tomorrow," the young man said.

"We flew," Crane said. "Your father... if he is your father... wasn't home, but the butler brought us over." He frowned, thinking hard. "But that doesn't explain..."

"I know." The young man moved toward a white damask chair. "Mind if I sit down?"

"Do you mind if I do, too?"

A smile erased sullen lines at the corners of young March's mouth, made his face pleasant. He sat on the damask chair. Crane selected a sofa covered with soft blue velvet. He thought the room must have been furnished by an interior decorator, so carefully blended were the blues and whites.

Young March said conversationally, "This house belonged to my cousin, Richard March."

"So I was told."

Crane thought the decorations had been selected to match the Aubusson. There were on the windows white taffeta curtains, drawn close at their middles with a blue cord so that each curtain looked like half of a very-graceful woman wearing a Grecian robe. Over the white marble fireplace was a blue-framed mirror. Lilies, on an eighteenth-century English mahogany table, arched their necks above a crystal vase.

"I wanted to clean out Richard's correspondence," the young man said. "He had a number of feminine friends — " As black, as straight as penny licorice sticks, his eyebrows nearly met over his nose. "You know—there might be something compromising—a note or something."

"To Richard or the ladies?"

"Oh, Richard." His eyes were on the ice cubes. "You know—the family name." The water made dark circles on the rug.

"You didn't think the name would be safe with me?"

"I didn't know."

The sofa gave under Crane's neck. "Well, that's all right." A spring pinged in the sofa. "But you might have rung the bell."

"As I said, I didn't know you were here."

"That's so." Crane pushed against the sofa, let the rebound help him to his feet. "I guess it's all right." He waved at the papers. "Take 'em. But one thing... a favor?"

"Sure."

"Where did you get that drink?"

The white-enameled butler's pantry proved to have a liquor cabinet. Crane selected a bottle of scotch, asked, "Have one with me?" March nodded and they took glasses and the bottle back to the living room. Ann Fortune was there.

"I thought maybe the burglar had killed you," she said.

Crane knew this was a lie because she had put on lipstick. The Nile-green robe went well with her rope-colored hair. He said, "This is our burglar, Ann."

Ann smiled. "It looks as though you'd joined the union."

"No," said March. "He's a very efficient householder. My name is Peter March. Will you have a drink?"

"I think that would be nice."

"Here, darling." Crane gave her his glass, said, "Mr March is the son of Simeon March."

Her brows arched over green eyes. "With all those millions behind him, does he have to housebreak?"

Peter March laughed boyishly. Crane said, "He didn't expect us until tomorrow."

"We didn't expect him, either." She sat on the blue sofa, drew her knees under her. "It was polite of him to call, though." Her slim legs were tan.

"Now, really," Peter March objected with a smile. "I can explain everything."

"He has," said Crane.

"Everything's all right?" Ann asked.

"Certainly."

"Then why don't you put that gun away, darling?" Crane was astonished to find the revolver in his hand. He put it on the desk, beside the pile of papers. Peter March said, "I was hoping someone would think of that."

Crane put two fingers of whisky in a glass. "Here's to bigger burglaries."

They all drank. Ann covered her ankles with a fat pillow. "Is it always as cold as this in November?"

"It gets pretty cold, but we like it," March said. "It brings the ducks down."

"I love duck," Ann said.

"Do you? If he likes, I'll take your husband out to our duck club."

Crane said, "I'm not such a shot."

"That's all right."

"I'd like to, then."

"Fine. Next Sunday."

Ann asked what wives did while their husbands shot duck.

"It depends upon the kind of wives they are," Peter March said.

Crane said, "She's the worst kind." He grinned at Ann.

"Then she'll have a cocktail party. That's the custom of Marchton's upper-crust wives." Against March's dark skin, his teeth looked very white. "They pretend they drink in protest."

Crane said, "She'll stay home and sew while I'm away."

"I'll sew nothing," Ann said, "unless it's wild oats."

Crane saw admiration in Peter March's eyes. He. didn't blame him. Maybe he shouldn't have objected so strenuously to working with Ann. But she was the boss's niece—that was bad. He hadn't wanted a relative of the boss to see how he handled a case. He supposed he would hardly dare take a drink while she was around.

Peter March told them his father had arranged for them to become members of the Country and City clubs.

"That's decent of him," Crane said.

"And this house is lovely," Ann added.

"Dick's wife, Alice, just finished decorating it before they got divorced," Peter March said, his face not quite so pleasant. "She had a man—at least he wore trousers —all the way from New York to do the work." His eyebrows were back in two absolutely straight lines. "It cost Dick close to twenty thousand."

He sounded as though he didn't approve of the expenditure. Crane wondered what had happened to Richard. He thought maybe he was dead.

"It was terribly nice of you to let us have it," Ann said.

Peter March put down his glass, offered her a cigarette. She took one and he lit a match. "Dad was glad to get it rented," he said. "It belongs to the estate." He lit his own cigarette. "It's for sale... no bids."

Crane said, "It is a swell layout. All we had to do was hang up our hats."

"We were pleased to fix it up. It isn't often we can pick up as good an advertising man. Our advertising department needs some life." Peter March raised him glass, held it to his lips, spoke over it. "I've been after Dad a year to get somebody good."

"Sometimes I'm pretty bad," Crane said.

Ann said, "Dear, you're a wonderful copy writer."

Crane scowled at her, drawing his brows down toward his nose, but this apparently had no effect.

"He has what is known as F. A.," she explained to Peter March. "Feminine appeal."

Crane had to laugh. He said, "I'm known as Casanova Crane, the Copy-Writing Cad."

"You're good if you can put sex appeal in a washing machine," Peter March said.

He was smiling again, and Crane noticed the difference it made in his appearance. In his age, too. In repose his face looked sullen, mostly because of his utterly straight brows and the downcurve of his lips..It looked middle aged. Smiling, he was boyish, almost handsome. Crane supposed he was about twenty-eight.

"Will you have another drink?" he asked.

Peter March said he'd have a small one. They all had a small one. Then March looked at his wrist watch. "I've got to go." He shook Ann's hand; an unnecessary gesture, Crane thought. "This is the nicest burglary I've ever committed," he told her.

"Please break in again," Ann said.

Crane said, "Our front door is always locked to you."

"Thank you." March was half a head taller than Ann. He was smiling again. "If you haven't a car we've plenty. You may want to look the town over tomorrow."

"Why, that's nice..." Ann began, smiling up at him.

Crane broke in, "We've got one on the way from New York. Williams, our general factotum, is driving it with our belongings."

Peter March said, "But if he doesn't get here — "

"We'll be glad to use yours," Ann said.

March moved toward the table with the parchment-shaded lamp. "I'll get my papers and — "

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