The giggling on the other end of the line told me that the party had started without me. "Sammy, is that you?" Lola sounded a little giddy. "Where ya been, Sammy? They let us go a little early today and I've been waiting here for you all this time. When are you coming to get me?"
"Hiya, doll," I started, "that's why I called. I'm going to be a little bit late. Something came up at the office when I came back for my bag, and I've got to take care of it before I come down there. Shouldn't take more than an hour or so."
The silence on the other end of the line was broken only by the sounds of bottles clinking and people laughing in the background. "Oh, Sammy, no..." she said. "You promised! You said we'd go away right after you finished your last case! It's not fair! Tell him to wait 'til Monday."
"I can't do that, baby," I said, lowering my voice, "This one's a real fat cat - it could mean some serious dough. Besides, I'm still gonna be there - I'm just running a little late, that's all. C'mon doll, just wait for me a little longer. Have a few drinks with the boys. You'd just better not be giving any of them the eye."
"Sammy - you know I'm not that kind," she said, sounding petulant. "All right, Sammy, I'll wait for another hour. But you'd better be real nice to me this weekend. And Sammy..." She lowered her voice a shade. "Just 'cause I'm not giving them the eye, doesn't mean they're not giving me the eye. Don't be too long." Lola broke the connection with a loud click. I put down the receiver back on its hook. I'd bought myself sixty minutes, more or less. Less would be better - despite Lola's assurances I wasn't sure I trusted her drinking in a room full of my buddies, and I knew I didn't trust them. All I had to do was figure out what to do with woman in the next room.
I looked through the window in the door to my inner office. Marlene Milkbone was sitting in the chair I keep for my clients. The tip of her tail lashed in short little fits as she sat hunched forward in the chair. Her long, golden hair fell in tendrils around her face. She looked tired, strained. As I opened the door and went in she sat up and regained some of her composure. I walked around behind my desk. "Can I offer you a drink, Mrs. Milkbone?"
"No thank you," she said. "I don't drink alcohol."
"No, of course not. But I've got some canned fruit juice, if you'd like. Pineapple or tomato."
She smiled, and the shadows in the room seemed to retreat a little bit. "Tomato juice sounds wonderful, thank you."
I opened the small bar dry bar behind my desk, got out two cans of juice, opened them and poured each into a highball glass. I topped mine off with a shot of vodka. "I'm afraid it's warm," I said as I handed her the drink. "I only fill the ice bucket when I'm expecting clients."
"Oh, I don't mind," she said. She took a sip of her drink while glancing around the office. "This is a nice place you've got, Mr. Spaniel."
"It serves its purpose," I said, taking a pull off my own drink. "So do you mind telling me why you're here? Let's start off simple - where did you get my name?"
"Sonya Mao is an old friend of mine from school. She told me how you helped her last year when thieves stole one of her family's heirlooms. She said you're good at what you do and very discreet."
"When did you last see Sonya?"
"Last night. When I told her how frightened I was, she gave me a place to stay where she knew no one would find me."
"And that's when my name came up?"
"No, she first mentioned you about a week ago. We were having lunch and I told her about my suspicions. She gave me your card, but after we talked I felt better and decided not to call you." So far her story made sense. Sonya Mao was a petite, pretty Siamese who ran the oldest and most respected restaurant in Chinatown. Her family had money, and Sonya had lots of rich and powerful friends. I could picture her and Marlene as kittens chasing each other around the playground of some swank private school. Chinatown was a close-knit community, and with Sonya's network of contacts there, I didn't doubt she'd be able to hide Marlene from her rich hubby, especially with bumblers like Lou and Georgie doing the looking. The lunch story explained how she'd gotten the card they eventually found.
"So what changed your mind? Why the disappearing act, and why show up here now?"
"Because yesterday morning somebody tried to kill my husband."
I leaned back in my chair. "You're telling me that there was an attempt on Hanover Milkbone's life yesterday morning?" If it was true, they'd done a good job at keeping it in the family. There had been nothing in the papers or on the radio about it.
"That's right. He wasn't hurt, thank God. The attempt failed. But I know it's just a matter of time until they try again."
"And you say that this attempt on his life was designed to look as though you were the one making it?"
"I leaned forward and put my elbows on the desk, looking deeply into her gorgeous green eyes. "So who really did it?"
She held my gaze for a moment, then looked down. When she spoke there was a tremble in her voice. "I don't know... that's just it - I have no idea who would do such a thing, or why."
I sat up a little and took another long swig of my drink. "Does your husband think you did it?"
She looked up, a bit startled. "No, he couldn't think - I mean... I don't think so. Hanover knows how much I love him. I don't think he believes I had anything to do with it. At least... I don't think he does."
I wondered if she was trying to convince me or herself. "So you had talked to Sonya about your feeling that someone was after him. Had you told him of your suspicions?"
"Yes, of course. But he dismissed them out of hand. He thought I was just being silly and worrying over nothing."
"And what does he think now?"
"I... I haven't really spoken to him since then. Right after it happened, he called up the head of security for his company, and they had a big argument. Lou - that's the head of security - kept insisting that he call the police. I'd never seen Hanover like that before. He was angry, enraged, but also confused and uncertain. I was afraid, I guess I panicked. I thought if I stayed they might try to kill him again." I could see she was on the verge of breaking up; tears had begun to trickle from the corners of her eyes. "I just didn't know what else to do. I thought Lou might convince Hanover that I really was to blame. I thought Lou would call the police and tell them I had done it and they'd arrest me and Hanover wouldn't be able to stop them. I was terrified because of what had happened..." She began to sob. "Oh, Mr. Spaniel! I've just been in such a state since this all happened. I don't know whether I'm coming or going, or what's going to happen next. Please, you've got to help me! I don't have anyone else to turn to." She put her head down in her paws and began to cry steadily.
I let her go at it for a few minutes while I gathered my thoughts. She seemed sincere, but on the other hand this town was full of actresses who could pull off a scene like this. Her story had some holes in it, but nothing that couldn't be explained by her state of mind given the circumstances. I let her wind down a bit, then said gently, "Mrs. Milkbone, I know this is hard, but I still need to ask you some questions. If I'm going to help you, I need to know more about what happened." She sniffled a little, but nodded and held her head up, waiting for me to go on. "The attempt on your husband's life - how was it carried out? How did they try to kill him?"
She swallowed once, then said "It was a bomb. There was an explosion that destroyed our bedroom. It was terrible. If Hanover hadn't been in the bathroom at the time, he would certainly have been killed."
I gave a low whistle. "That's pretty serious. It sounds like it could just as easily have killed you both. What makes you think whoever planted the bomb wanted to pin it on you?"
She gave a wry smile. "The way it was delivered." She opened her purse and pulled out a yellow silk handkerchief, and began dabbing it at the corners of her eyes as she spoke. "You see, when Hanover and I were married, I wore a white gown trimmed with blue ribbons. On our honeymoon, Hanover started to call me his 'blue-ribbon bride.' On the last day of our trip, I bought him a small present and wrapped it in a white box with a blue ribbon, with a card signed 'from your blue-ribbon bride.' It became his pet name for me." She wiped her eyes again and stifled a small sob, then went on, "Ever since then, I've been in the habit of buying him small gifts - just tokens, really - to cheer him up or to let him know that I've been thinking of him. I always wrap them in a white box with a blue ribbon. Sometimes I'd hide them or try to deliver them in ways he wouldn't expect. I've left them in his dresser drawer, the back seat of his limousine, his desk at the office. I even packed one in his suitcase once when he had to go away on business." She smiled a little at the memory, then her face turned somber. "Hanover works from home on Thursday mornings, and I have an early tennis lesson. He usually rises late, after I've left, and has his breakfast sent up on a tray. Yesterday morning when the tray arrived, it had a white box wrapped in a blue ribbon on it. Naturally Hanover thought it was from me. But it wasn't. When I returned from my lesson, I found our bedroom in a shambles, scorched and smelling of smoke, with Hanover and Lou arguing at the top of their lungs. Lou was shouting that they had to call the police and have me arrested." Her voice caught as she let a single sob escape. "You should have seen the look in Hanover's eyes when he saw me, Mr. Spaniel. He was so hurt. I could tell he didn't want to believe I had done it, but what else could he think? What else could anyone think?"
She began to cry again, and I slowly sucked up the last of my drink. What indeed? If somebody wanted Hanover Milkbone out of the way, it might make sense to frame his wife for the job. On the other hand, if his wife wanted him out of the way, and her first attempt failed, she might want to do something to throw suspicion off herself - like hiring a private eye to investigate what had happened. I considered the two possibilities, and came to the conclusion that the first one sounded a lot more likely, although I wasn't ruling the second one out altogether.
"All right, Mrs. Milkbone, I'll take your case," I said finally. "But you should know that I don't work cheap, and given the special circumstances surrounding this case, and the timing of it, I'm going to have to charge you somewhat more than my usual fee. Plus expenses, of course."
"That's fine," she said. "Hanover had a special account set up for me, so I have my own money. I'll pay you whatever it takes. I just want to be back with my husband and for us to feel safe again."
"Well, I can't promise you that," I said "All I can do is get to the bottom of what's really going on."
She smiled a little, put her hanky back in her purse and snapped it shut. "I'm sure that will be more than enough, Mr. Spaniel."
I leaned forward, crossed my paws on my desk and looked her in the eye. "You know, Mrs. Milkbone, you've got to go back home. I understand why you took it on the lam, but the longer you stay away, the more suspicious it looks."
She nodded. "I know," she said, "I know you're right. I've made such a mess of things. I can't even imagine what Hanover must think by now. But I'm afraid to go back." She turned and looked out the window. Night was falling and the city lights had begun to appear.
"I'm sure your husband is very worried about you," I said gently. "And after what happened, he may even fear for your life - and he could be right. Whoever tried to kill him obviously thought they could use you to get at him. They might try and get hold of you at some point to have more leverage over him. And if you're still at large, they could easily lure him into a trap just by saying they've got you, even if you're here with me." The last bit seemed to jolt her. I had thought that it might. I pushed the telephone across the desk to her. "Call your husband, Mrs. Milkbone. Tell him you're coming home."
She looked at the telephone nervously, whiskers twitching. Finally, she seemed to sag a little. "Yes, I guess I had better." She reached out tentatively and picked up the receiver, then dialed quickly. After a few seconds I heard a faint click as the connection was made, then a muffled voice came across the line. "Maggie?" she said. "This is Marlene. Will you put Hanover on the phone please?" There was an anxious pause - I noticed her grip on the handset tighten up a little as the muted sound of a deeper voice came out of it. "Yes, Hanover, it's me," she said wearily. "Hanover, I'm so sorry. I'm sorry I ran off that way. I can imagine what you must think." She paused as the handset mumbled into her ear. "No, no - I'm fine. I've been just fine. I was just frightened. I was afraid what might happen if I stayed. Can you forgive me?" Another long pause, and then I saw the relief come into her face. "Of course, my darling! Of course... I want that more than anything in the world! Yes, yes, I'll be home within the hour. No - you don't need to send the car. I've got a ride. I'll be fine. Yes, yes! All right then - I'll see you soon, my love." She put the handset back on its cradle, looked at it for a second, then glanced up at me. "You were right, Mr. Spaniel. He's been terribly worried about me. I'm going to go straight home to see him."
"I think that's for the best. So, will you still be interested in retaining my services?"
"Absolutely. I'll be back first thing Monday morning to sign the contract." She opened her purse again and pulled something out, which she set on my desk. I looked at it. It was a pile of bills... one hundred dollar bills. I had seen piles such as this that were bigger, but this one was still of a respectable size. "I want to hire you, effective immediately. That should serve well enough as a retainer, and cover your first round of expenses, shouldn't it?" I nodded, then looked up at her. The look on her face was anxious, almost pleading. She seemed so earnest, so vulnerable. I opened the top drawer of my desk, slid the cash into it, then closed it. She stood up, clutching her purse and extended her paw. I took it and we shook. "Thank you so much, Mr. Spaniel. You've been very helpful."
"Anytime, Mrs. Milkbone," I said, "Are you sure you don't need a ride anywhere? My car is right downstairs."
"No, thank you. That's very kind, but Sonya lent me one of her family's cars. I'll drive it home tonight and have one of the servants return it to her tomorrow."
I had come around from behind my desk and moved to the door. I held it open for her as we moved into the outer office. My valise caught the corner of my eye and I scooped it up as we passed. Bag in hand, I opened the outer door for her, twisting the lock as she passed through. I followed her out and pulled the door shut behind us. I watched her walk down the hall. She was wearing a tailored red suit; the jacket had broad shoulders and lapels, but pulled in narrowly at the waist. The skirt was tight and cut to make the most of her admirable figure. Her high-heeled red shoes further accentuated the curvaceousness of her calves. My eyes wandered over her form from top to bottom and came to rest a height that, I'm afraid to say, was a little less than respectable.
We proceeded down the stairs together in silence, until we found ourselves outside in the cool evening air. I walked her to where her car was parked. It surprised me, but only for a moment. It was an import - a 6-cylinder Jaguar 2-seater with a long hood and a closed convertible top. She opened the door and put her purse inside, then slid behind the wheel. She sat down and I tried not to notice as her skirt rode up above her knee and revealed a little more of the best set of gams that ever I'd seen - and I'd seen plenty. She pulled the door shut and turned over the engine, then cranked down the window. "Thank you again, Mr. Spaniel. I'll see you on Monday." The window slid back up, cutting her off from me and obscuring her face with my own distorted reflection.
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