The girl cleared her throat, eyes falling, long fingers intertwining like the cross-hatched roof of a child’s game, church and steeple, church and steeple.
Miranda made her voice patient, soft.
“Miss Crowley—even if I can’t help you or you don’t wish to hire me, anything you tell me is always held in confidence. That’s a promise.”
“I’ll Never Smile Again” drifted up from Tascone’s jukebox on the ground floor, Dorsey and Sinatra swallowed by the guttural rumble of a White Front, while the newspaper vendors bawled the afternoon edition and a fog horn bellowed on the Golden Gate, gentle rain from heaven falling on San Francisco, city of mercy for sinners and the sinned against.
Miranda figured Louise Crowley fell into the latter group.
Pink lips opened and shut again, blue eyes clinging to Miranda like a life preserver. Louise took a breath, voice as pretty and delicate as the Dresden china bone structure.
“Miss Corbie, I’m afraid … I’m afraid someone is—someone is trying to kill me.”
* * *
Miranda studied the letter again, frowning.
Bond paper, not terribly cheap but not too expensive. Probably available in any moderately sized business office in San Francisco. The typewriter ribbon was fresh, letters evenly struck except for the t, which faded on the serif in every instance of “bitch.”
There were fifteen in half a page.
She sniffed the paper. Faint whiff of lilac.
“Do you wear perfume, Miss Crowley?”
“Mr. Alexander prefers me not to. He said—he said it distracts him when I take dictation.”
Miranda raised an eyebrow. Mr. Niles Alexander, Publisher, held forth in a self-important little office on the sixth-floor corner of the Monadnock. A vain, pretentious man with a Turkish cigar and a lascivious sneer, he sold books and sold out authors, business done with the aggression of a two-cent stockbroker and the manner of an Egyptian prince. She’d cut him short on a few elevator trips after failed attempts to impress and attract.
“What about when you’re not taking dictation? Shalimar? Joy? Shocking, perhaps?”
Louise hesitated. “I wear Fleurs de Rocaille sometimes.”
A church bell chimed on Mission, long somber note caught by the wind and carried upward until a Municipal Railway braked hard on Montgomery. The secretary turned quickly toward the window, neck twisted in a delicate S curve like a madonna in a Mannerist painting.
The girl wasn’t theatrical, the kind of self-made victim who courted and pursued trouble only to roll around in it like a cat in heat. Not particularly hungry for attention, either, and her looks would guarantee her plenty, wanted or not.
Miranda set the letter on the black desk, tapping a finger and frowning again. “Miss Crowley—”
“Please—call me Louise.”
“You say you’ve received five of these over the last two months—about one every two weeks.”
The blonde nodded.
“Where are the rest?”
Her eyes stuttered a little. “I—I only kept a few. I burned the first two, thinking they were—they were some sort of prank, you know, perhaps a disgruntled author or someone else who knew I worked at Alexander Publishing. We do get a number of cranks, you know, people who are upset that Mr. Alexander won’t publish their novels.”
Miranda shook out a Chesterfield from the pack on the desk and flicked the desk lighter. Glanced back to the white bond paper, lines single-spaced and alternating between all caps and lowercase.
Ugly message, ugly letter, typed with heavy, violent strokes.
“I need whatever you kept, with dates of receipt. And a list of your crackpot writers, the ones who think God dictated four hundred pages of Holy Scripture that Mr. Alexander won’t publish because he’s the Anti-Christ.”
A faint smile pulled at the corner of the blonde’s mouth. “Do you know anything about the publishing business, Miss Corbie?”
Miranda tipped ash into the Tower of the Sun tray. “Only what I read.”
“It’s a bit like show business. Agents and authors are constantly trying to get manuscripts to Mr. Alexander. Bigger publishers, New York publishers, might have a whole fleet of editors, but Alexander Publishing is a small house, and Mr. Alexander prefers to do most of the acquisitions himself—though we do keep two editors on staff. Anyway, he’s the face of the business and agents and authors target him directly. Most of what is submitted is drivel, frankly, unreadable piles of illiterate junk. Few of the manuscripts—a very small percentage—could even qualify as the lowest form of entertainment.”
Miranda leaned back against the overstuffed black leather of her desk chair, eyes focused on the secretary.
“So the list of discontents is long. Thank the ‘Do You Want to Be an Author?’ ads in the back of the Saturday Evening Post. But what about repeat offenders? The ones who won’t take no for an answer?”
Louise hesitated. “I’d have to ask Mr. Alexander for permission. We keep records of every legitimate submission, but I’ve made a few notes for myself on—on troublesome people who come to the office and sometimes demand to see him in person.”
Miranda tapped the letter again. “You have anyone in mind for this?”
The crowded writing, black on white, drew the girl’s eyes before they closed for a moment.
Louise shook her head. “No.”
“You’re single, you said. Any fiancé, steady boyfriend?”
Quick, stuttering glance toward the window before she shook her head again. “No one in particular.”
“And you say these—these ‘accidents’ you’ve described—they’ve all occurred within the last three weeks?”
The secretary clutched the calfskin gloves in her lap like a rosary.
“The—the shoving incident—”
“Someone tried to push you in front of a White Front—”
“Yes. That was the first. I didn’t think anything of it, you know, it does get crowded on Market Street after work and sometimes people stumble, but I’d received those—those letters, so I wrote down what happened once I got home that night. Just in case.”
Louise shuddered and opened her shiny, brown leather bag, replacing the gloves and pulling out a pack of Viceroys.
“Mr. Alexander doesn’t allow smoking in the office, but my nerves are so jittery I started sneaking one or two on lunch break.”
“How fascist of Mr. Alexander.”
Louise tittered nervously and lit the cigarette, acrid bite of the cork filter drifting upward with the blue-gray smoke.
Maybe the secretary wasn’t quite as demurely naïve as the nervous hands and spit-curled hair and admiration of her swaggering boss would suggest. Fearful, definitely; under attack, probably. But her sangfroid was holding together, the Viceroys a sophisticated smoke, the clothes not I. Magnin, but not the Sears, Roebuck catalog, either.
“Smart of you to write down what happened. How long have you been in San Francisco?”
The blonde tried to smile. “Does it show? About seven months. I’m originally from Olympia, Washington.”
“Why did you leave?”
A tight line formed at the corner of the girl’s lips. She suddenly looked older.
“You’ve never been to Olympia. I can tell. Unless you work in the government—it is the state capital, you know—or want to become a logger’s wife, there isn’t much to do. I saw an ad in the paper for the Dorothy Durham School of Business here in San Francisco, saved the money my father left me—he died when I was fourteen—and I worked my way through the courses in three months.”
Ambitious and determined. Louise Crowley was becoming more and more intriguing and less and less just a frightened china doll.
“When did you start work at Alexander Publishing?”
“Immediately after I graduated. I supported myself as a theater usher and—and sometimes a model.”
Red suffused her cheeks. The secretary took two quick puffs on the Viceroy, avoiding Miranda’s eyes.
The job you don’t write home about.
Tascone’s juke started up again, Al Stuart intoning “Practice Makes Perfect” with Bob Chester and his orchestra.
Miranda’s lips twitched and she said dryly: “Lingerie or the kind on the Gayway?”
The blue eyes flinched. “Miss Corbie—”
“I put myself through school, yes. But I did it without—without taking off all my clothes. I was—I was a lingerie model, though how you were able to guess—”
“My employment history isn’t quite so pure—though I’m sure you’ve heard about that by now.” Miranda tilted her head back, exhaling a steady stream of smoke. “And you’re still here, so you’re no drooping daisy.”
“I assure you, Miss Corbie, I am not shocked easily, nor am I judgmental. What I didn’t learn about life before I started working in publishing, I’ve learned since. I know you were an escort once. What matters is whether or not you can help me now.”
The single-set pearl necklace bounced with emotion as Louise inhaled her Viceroy, eyes glued to the window on Market Street, knees pressed tightly together, face blotched with pink.
Tougher than first appraisal, no Pearl White tied to a railroad track, but her jutting chin and straightforward look still couldn’t mask the stench of fear. She was drenched in it, sharp tang of sweat and desperation just below the surface, blue eyes hunted, breasts and legs and what was between them the target and the quarry.
Miranda had seen enough women from Olympia or Boise or Topeka walk through the doors at Dianne’s, first-timers, second-timers, last-chancers on the Funhouse slide, ride fast enough and quick enough and you’ll never know when you hit bottom.
The secretary wasn’t there yet but on the way down, maybe, whether an unwilling victim of malice or lust or a woman running from her own shadows, whether someone was trying to kill her or she was stringing Miranda along for reasons unseen.
Miranda ground out her Chesterfield, three strong twists in the glass ashtray.
“I need honest answers. You say you’ve been with the Alexander Publishing company as executive secretary to Mr. Niles Alexander for approximately four months. After the first two, you started to receive letters.”
“Then after the near miss with the White Front, a car almost ran you over in front of your apartment—and that was late at night, about eight days later, correct?”
“Yes. Saturday, September 7th. The first incident was on a Friday, August 30th, and, as I told you, I thought it might be a—a prank or something.”
“So the second attempt was when you were off work and had just gone out for the evening?”
“Ye-es.” The blonde drew down hard on the remains of the stick before stubbing it out in the glass ashtray.
“Answers, Louise. All of them. No secrets between us, no hiding. Men you know, men you used to know, whoever you were out with that night.”
“Miss Corbie, I—”
“Miranda. That’s the only way I can help you.”
The blonde bit her lip, small white teeth worrying the skin. She didn’t look up. “I can bring you the notes I made, Miss Cor—Miranda. I wasn’t sure if you’d be able to help me or even believe me, so I brought only the one letter.”
Miranda scratched another note in the Big Chief pad on her desk.
“Who were you with?”
Louise was clenching her hands again, voice rising. “I could get fired…”
“You could get killed. Name?”
The girl dragged her eyes toward Miranda’s.
“Niles Alexander’s son? Stanford running back?”
More scratches on the Big Chief tablet while the secretary lit another stick, right arm hugging her middle, expanse of heavy black desk between them.
So Louise Crowley had graduated from Olympia with a Ph.D. in San Francisco, by way of Dorothy Durham, Niles Alexander, and Jerry Alexander, star athlete for the Cardinals, her boss’s only son and heir. That might explain the fear. The bastard had a reputation, on and off the gridiron. And the father had one, too, in and out of the boardroom, in and out of the bedroom.
Neither of them were known to accept “no” as an alternative, though Jerry was rumored to pay for his flings, favoring Sally Stanford’s place over smaller boutiques like Dianne’s.
Miranda studied the girl. Blue-gray cigarette smoke formed a cloud around her face, and she was still holding on to herself with her right arm, avoiding Miranda’s eyes.
“The last attempt on your life was yesterday, nine days after the car. What made you suspect the chocolates?”
“I’m—I’m not sure. The letters—the car—all of it has made me so nervous, I feel like I should check into a sanitarium. So I asked Roger what he thought, and he suggested cutting them open before I eat them. In fact, he insisted. I’m not prone to reading silly crime stories—”
“You mean the type Alexander publishes?”
“He publishes much more than that, Miss Corbie. Mr. Alexander is a real genius at discovering talent.”
“And you showed a real genius for discovering poison in a box of chocolates.”
She was almost too quick. “I was lucky Roger was there. There was no return address on the package and I—well, I confess I have read a few detective novels and I thought I’d best examine the candy to see if the chocolates had been tampered with. That’s when we found the—the powder. Roger sniffed it and said he thought it was rat poison, and I just—well, I couldn’t really believe it, it all seems so absurd.”
“In every piece?”
“No—only four out of eight, in the chocolates with crème centers.”
“Your favorite kind.”
It came out as a whisper. “Yes.”
“And you threw out the chocolates and didn’t contact the police.”
“No. I—I don’t want to make a fuss over nothing—”
“Do you know of anyone who has a grudge against you or who has threatened you in the past?”
The blonde shook her head. Miranda sharpened her voice.
“What about Alexander? Are you having an affair? Or are you saving yourself for his son?”
Louise stood up stiffly and reached for the brown leather bag, voice high-pitched.
“I’m—I came to you because you’re in the same building and you’re a woman and I thought you’d understand these things—”
Miranda tapped the letter. “‘Run you over with a car until you’re a bloody pool of guts and brain’? ‘Sluts and whores should drink poison and die’? ‘You’re going to die soon—you’ve been lucky so far’? Miss Crowley—Louise—the threat in this letter is either personal or playwrighting. If you want me to get to the bottom of it—to find out who wrote it and protect you from any more ‘accidents’—I need to know the truth. About your work, about Jerry, about your boss. About boyfriends, about girlfriends. About you.”
The secretary slowly sank back into the chair, large blue eyes focused again on the window to Market Street. Her voice was even, remote. The fear had dissipated, replaced with a calm Miranda found disquieting.
“You will take the case then?”
Miranda glanced at the paper calendar on the wall. September 17th. The Cameronia sailed from New York today, another opportunity gone, her place on the ocean liner supplanted by a diplomat. One or two more chances before the ship was commissioned by the Royal Navy, one or two more chances to find Catherine Corbie.
One or two chances to save a mother she never really knew.
She turned back to the blonde, composed and sitting still in the hard-backed chair.
“Yes. But on my terms. That means you tell me why you haven’t gone to the police and why, instead, a woman on a secretary’s salary is willing to pay twenty dollars a day to a private investigator. You’ll tell me the nature of your relationships with Jerry Alexander and Niles Alexander—and Roger Roscoe, who so helpfully convinced you to slice open the chocolates. You’ll tell me what you’re afraid of and what you suspect and whom you suspect.”
The girl’s face drained to white but her voice remained steady.
“You’ll get your answers, Miss Corbie. Tomorrow. Along with the rest of the letters and my handwritten notes on the—the attempts. Tonight Mr. Alexander is throwing a party for a famous author, and he expects me to attend.”
Miranda leaned back against her desk chair, a smile at the corner of her lips. Her eyes glinted green.
“But he doesn’t expect me. Wangle an extra invite, Louise. I’m feeling literary.”
Copyright 2018 by Kelli Stanley
Kelli Stanley is the Macavity Award-winning creator of the Miranda Corbie series (City of Dragons, City of Secrets, City of Ghosts), literary noir novels set in 1940 San Francisco and featuring “one of crime’s most arresting heroines” (Library Journal). She is also a Bruce Alexander Award and Golden Nugget Award winner, and a Shamus Award and Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist.
Critics have compared her work to her icons Dashiell Hammett, Raymond Chandler, Norman Corwin, and Herb Caen. She was awarded a Certificate of Merit from the City and County of San Francisco for her contributions to literature. City of Sharks is her next novel.
Kelli has also published numerous short stories and essays, holds a Master’s Degree in Classics, and prefers her bourbon neat.
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