Authors: Stuart M. Kaminsky
I had forty dollars in my wallet and another three hundred in my only other pair of shoes, in a closet at Mrs. Plaut’s boarding house, where I lived. The money was in payment for a case I handled for Greta Garbo in one day. The fee was only two hundred bucks. The extra hundred and forty was a bonus to insure my promise that I wouldn’t tell anyone what had happened, ever. I had told her the bonus wasn’t necessary. She had insisted. I had held out for five whole seconds.
Those who seek my services through former clients, friends, acquaintances, and ex-wives have learned that I don’t sell brilliant deductions and a vast network of contacts in high places. What I do sell is dogged persistence, confidentiality, and a face that had once been described by Peter Lorre as “classic expressionism.”
As a result, I’m frequently looking for part-time jobs, hanging around Levy’s restaurant on Spring Street trying to seduce Carmen the cashier into a romantic nightlife of cowboy movies and hot-dog stands on the beach. When not pursuing the ample Carmen, I prowl after the even more elusive Anne Mitzenmacher, my former wife who divorced me half-a-dozen years and a few thousand busted promises ago. My brother, who’s an L.A. Police captain, has no use for me, and I have some very lonely days and some damned good ones. This Monday was a damned good one.
If I wanted to work, which I didn’t, since I was sitting on the vast wealth I had earned from Garbo, I could have done a night house-detective stint at any of five downtown hotels. No, I was preparing to go down to Levy’s restaurant and boldly invite Carmen to join me for a few days in Lake Tahoe. Maybe she would accept. Maybe she would let me pay for a sitter so her twelve-year-old son didn’t have to join us. Maybe she would utter more than a few weary words and display something beyond complete, widemouthed indifference.
“Have you noticed,” I told Dash, who had been nibbling at an open envelope containing an invitation to join the Vegetarian Party, “that my vocabulary has improved as a result of my association with Jeremy?”
Dash didn’t give a rat’s tail. He kept munching.
“The key to success is convincing the world that you went to a school east of Denver,” I told Dash.
Dash looked up with a strip of envelope flap glued to his nose. I reached over and removed it.
The phone rang. I picked it up.
“Toby Peters Agency,” I said, dropping my voice a few decibels to client-confidence level. With potential clients I was a baritone, at least for the first day.
“My name is Arthur Farnsworth,” the man said in a back-East voice that suggested a good education or a top- notch language coach. “I’ve been told you might be able to help me.”
“Mr. Farnsworth,” I said. “I’m afraid you caught me at a bad time. I’m about to go on vacation. If your case can wait a week, I’ll be happy to talk. If it can’t, I can recommend—”
“No,” Farnsworth shouted loud enough to make Dash look up from his tasty envelope. “This is very important and the person who recommended you said no one else would do.”
“Look—” I began.
“National security is involved here, Mr. Peters,” he said. “Give me five minutes of your time. I’ll come right over.”
“No,” I said. “I’ll tell you what. I was on my way out for lunch. You know Levy’s Grill on Spring Street?”
“Yes,” he said.
“Can you make it in fifteen minutes?”
“Twenty-five,” he said.
“Twenty-five,” I agreed. “Just ask the cashier who I am.”
I hung up the phone and didn’t bother to check the watch on my wrist. The watch had belonged to my father. I got it when he died. It was the only thing I got from him besides vague memories and a lopsided grin. The watch had refused, in the more than three decades I’d had it, to simply quit. It also refused to come close to the right time. I loved that watch. It reminded me of me.
“You want to come with me or stay here?” I asked Dash.
He looked up from the confettied envelope and blinked a couple of times.
“Why don’t you come with me?” I said, picking him up. “Shelly’ll probably forget to feed you. You can eat what’s left of the upholstery in my car.”
This seemed a good idea to Dash. At least he didn’t protest.
The phone rang. I debated answering. I didn’t have much time to make it to Levy’s, charm Carmen, order a Levy’s Patriotic Reuben—with Kraft cheese and coleslaw instead of Swiss and sauerkraut—and be ready for Farnsworth of the East.
I picked up the phone.
“Mr. Peelers?” blasted the voice of my ancient landlady, Mrs. Plaut.
I put the receiver down on the desk. There was no point in telling Mrs. Plaut that I had to hurry to meet a potential client, or even that the Farraday Building was surrounded by savage Eskimos. I had learned through hard and painful experience that the only way to deal with Mrs. Plaut was to hear her out and, if at all possible, obey. Any other path led to a labyrinth of confusion, apology, and failure. Occasionally, and to my deep regret, I sometimes forgot this simple truth.
“It’s me, Mrs. Plaut.”
“It is you,” she shouted.
“Good. It is necessary for you to stop at Ralph’s Market,” she said. “Please get your pencil.”
I put Dash back down on the desk, pulled the notebook out of my rear pocket, and found a pencil on the desk.
“Ready,” I said.
“Are you prepared?”
“I am prepared.”
Though she was nearly deaf, Mrs. Plaut heard reasonably well on the telephone. The problem was that she assumed others couldn’t hear unless she helped the sound along the wires by shouting. I wrote dutifully as she made her way carefully through the list.
“A big box of Climalene. Two Waldorf toilet tissues. Pay no more than a nickel for each. A jar of Musterole. A box of French’s Birdseed, for Dexter. The kind Virginia Bruce gives her canary. A box of Aunt Jemima Ready-Mix Pancakes. An Arrid Cream Deodorant. The thirty-nine-cent jar, not the ten-cent or the fifty-nine-cent one. One pound of Durkee’s Vegetable Oleomargarine. A jar of Spry. Four cans of Prem. That’s Prem, not Spam. Last time you brought Spam. Spam is not sugar-cured.”
“And a Silvercup bread. And a milk. And, Mr. Peelers, I must remind you that U.S. Government wartime milk regulations go into effect today,” she said.
“Yes,” I said neutrally.
“There will be a three-cent deposit on the store bottle. The radio says that half a million bottles a year are not returned. These bottles are needed for the war effort.”
“Thank you for the information,” I said.
“There is a point to my conveying this information to you, Mr. Peelers.”
“I never doubted it, Mrs. Plaut.”
“You are using a milk bottle in your room for a penny bank and another for a flowerpot. You have forty-two pennies in that bank and have not added one in many months. The flower in your milk bottle died more than a month ago.”
“Take the bottles, Mrs. Plaut,” I said.
“Good. I’ll reimburse you for the groceries when I check them. Do not be late.”
With that she hung up. I did the same, tucked my notebook into my back pocket, reached down, swooping a dazed Dash under my arm, and headed for the door, where I almost ran into Jeremy Butler.
Jeremy was massive, bald, and somewhere in his mid- sixties. He was wearing a gray long-sleeved sweat shirt and dark pants. Jeremy owned at least three buildings, including the Farraday. He managed and kept them with his wife, Alice Pallis, who almost matched him in bulk and strength. He also found time to write and publish poetry and to engage in adoration of his and Alice’s baby, Natasha, a beauty whose existence belied her heredity.
“On the way out,” I said. “Client.”
“I won’t keep you,” said Jeremy. “Did you hear the news?”
“Stalingrad,” I said, moving past him.
“No,” he said seriously. “Edna St. Vincent Millay received the Medal of the Poetry Society of America in New York. Alice and I are holding a small party tonight in her honor. We’ll have readings from
The Murder of Lidice
and some sonnets. I’m also composing a brief poem in her honor.”
“I’ll do my best to be there,” I said. “Will you do me a favor?”
Jeremy said nothing.
“Take care of Dash for a while.”
Jeremy took the docile cat.
“Pick him up at the celebration,” said Jeremy. “Our apartment. Nine o’clock.”
“Nine o’clock,” I repeated, and headed for the door.
The lights were on and bright in Shelly’s chamber of horrors, but he wasn’t in sight. The patient chair was occupied only by the oversized plaster model of a set of teeth which Shelly used to demonstrate how to brush properly. The plaster teeth were yellow, dirty, and beyond cleaning with anything less than a blowtorch.
The sink in the corner was, as always, filled with dishes. The trash container was, as always, flowing over with unsavory, used cloth pads and cotton swabs.
I pleaded with my back not to go out on me as I hurried six flights down the stairway of the Farraday. I had no time for the elevator.
My footsteps echoed, and wordless voices sang, argued, screamed, and guffawed behind each door. The tenants of the Farraday included bookies, alcoholic physicians, baby photographers with astigmatism, a fortune-teller named Juanita, at least three talent agents, and a long list of con artists who were long on con and short on artistry. In the lobby, I was greeted by the satisfying smell of Lysol, which Jeremy and Alice used in bulk vats to hold off the alternative.
About twenty minutes later I entered Levy’s on Spring at the crack of noon. The tables were full of people on their lunch break, taking advantage of the sixty-five-cent special, eating fast and talking loud.
Carmen looked up from giving change to a pale man in a three-piece suit whose shoulders swayed as if he were listening to some internal tune. The man looked a little like Donald Meek, the whiskey drummer in
“Toby,” she said. “He’s here. Back table near the kitchen.”
“Farnsworth?” I asked.
“Yes,” she said with more enthusiasm than I’d heard from her since I took her to see Man Mountain Dean and Ruffy Silverstein wrestle two years before at the Olympic.
She handed the dancer his change and he bopped out, giving way to a corn-blond couple in their thirties who could have been twins or married. I squinted toward the table near the kitchen. A guy about forty with a round handsome face and straight brown hair was playing with his coffee and looking back at me.
“Should I know him?” I asked Carmen, nodding at Farnsworth.
“He’s married to Bette Davis,” she whispered.
The blond couple adjusted their glasses in unison and turned to look at Arthur Farnsworth, who nervously adjusted his tie.
“Client,” I said. “I’ll tell you about it later.”
I moved around the tables, enjoying the smells of Levy’s, and made my way to Farnsworth, who stood up to greet me. He was wearing a leather jacket and blue denim pants, all new. He was also wearing a worried look and the faint smell of Sen-Sen. Standing up, he was shorter than I had expected, and heavier, an ex–college lineman.
“Peters?” he asked, holding out his hand.
I took the hand. Grip firm. Face serious. Breath 80 proof beyond the Sen-Sen.
“Farnsworth,” I said.
We sat and I motioned for Rusty the waiter. Rusty, so named because he was born ancient and arthritic, creaked his way toward us.
“Thanks for coming,” Farnsworth said, lighting a cigarette. “I know you’re not really interested, but someone—”
“Someone?” I asked as Rusty made it to our table. He was short, thin, corroded, and raspy.
“What’ll it be?” he demanded.
“American Reuben and a Pepsi for me,” I said, raising an eyebrow at Farnsworth, who glanced at his coffee.
“Just coffee,” he said.
Rusty grunted. The trip had hardly been worth the pain. He turned and left us.
“Someone told you to come to me,” I reminded him.
“Oh, yes. Let me explain. My wife is—”
“Bette Davis,” I said casually above a roar of laughter from one of the four men at the table behind us.
“You do your research,” said Farnsworth.
“My job,” I said with a shrug.
“I’ll come to the point,” he said, leaning over the table toward me and lowering his voice, though no one was listening to us and only Carmen across the room at the cash register was glancing our way. “Someone is threatening me, suggesting that he’ll create a scandal, hinting that he’ll kidnap my wife, claiming they have something that will ruin her career.”
“Go to the police,” I said.
He shook his head.
“Then pay him.”
“No, it’s not like that. And they don’t want money. If I go to the police the newspapers will find out, the radio, the fan magazines. And the police can’t watch her all the time. They’ll assign someone for a week or two. We’ll get a lot of publicity and, besides, I’d have to tell the police why someone threatened Bette or wanted her kidnapped. I can’t do that.”
“Because,” he went on, “I’m involved in some very private aeronautical research. I’m a pilot and … I can’t say much more. My work is done very quietly in Minnesota for a nongovernment research company. If we’re successful, the war could end sooner than we hoped. Obviously, there are people who know a little about what we’re doing who don’t want us to succeed.”
He shrugged. “Spies, Nazi sympathizers.”
“What makes you think?…”
“I told you. I got a phone call,” said Farnsworth, putting out his cigarette and lighting another as Rusty returned with my sandwich and Pepsi. He gave Farnsworth a disgusted look and dropped the check between us.
Farnsworth waited till Rusty was moving to another table before he went on. “The man said he had something that my wife and I would not want to get into the hands of the wrong people. Some nonsense about a record of my wife and her first husband. He indicated that I might want to trade some information on the work I was doing for the recording. He said that if I didn’t see him to discuss it, my wife might disappear and the record might be sent to the newspapers. He also said I shouldn’t tell anyone.”