THE FAITHFUL SECRETARY
The match I had struck in the darkness, illuminated the shocked face of Detective Robert Malone, 6th Precinct, as he stepped back in alarm.
“Wh...what are you doing here?”
“More to the point, Bobby, what are you doing here?”
The here in question was the hotel suite of my client, Magda Bathsheba Goering, quite a mouthful, I know but, hey, I’m just a private dick hired by this young lady at five hundred bucks per day, a week paid in advance, so who am I to argue?
As I turned slightly to reach from my comfortable armchair and switch on the adjoining table lamp, I sensed Bobby Malone reach for his gun and, as the lamplight came on, simultaneously, a flash exploded as a shot was fired and I dived for the floor.
But here I am getting ahead of myself as usual. Lets backtrack twenty four hours and start over, okay?
There I was minding my own business, leaning back in my office chair, trying to train my pet pigeon by lobbing morsels of my salt beef sandwich through the air in the hope that the dumb bird would catch one in its beak. So far, no success but what else did I have to do? The San Fran heat was debilitating, business was slow and I was beginning to wonder if it would ever pick up again. As I stared at the pile of bread gathering on the carpet below my open window, my faithful secretary, Gladys, buzzed me. At least I think she was faithful seeing as how I hadn’t been able to afford her salary for two months now.
“Mister Harlowe? You have a client. Can I bring her through?”
I got a real kick out of Gladys addressing me as Mister. Very professional and unlike the names she usually called me and which I put up with on account of my inability to pay her.
“Just a moment, Miss. Hodges”.
I figured she got the same kick out of my addressing her so formally, too, plus it gave me a moment to do up my tie and put my suit jacket back on and spread a few documents around my desk to make me look busy.
“Very well, Miss. Hodges. You can come on in”.
Gladys entered and her eyes went immediately to the pigeon relieving itself on my window sill, then to the mountain of salt beef sandwich beneath it. Gladys was not a pigeon lover!
Behind her stood an apparition; a statuesque blonde Amazonian. I wasn’t sure if they made ‘em blonde in the Amazon; I’d have to check that out.
“This is Miss. Goering, Mr. Harlowe”.
I’m not easily dazzled by feminine charms but this vision in front of me was one sweet looking broad and I couldn’t take my eyes off her as she glided easily into my office and took a seat in front of my desk.
“That will be all, Miss. Hodges. In fact, you may call it a day”.
Gladys stared balefully at me as she removed herself reluctantly from the room.
“James Harlowe, Miss. Goering. How may I be of service?”
She had the bluest peepers I had ever seen and I watched, mesmerised, as, removing a handkerchief from her bag, she dabbed at her eyes bewitchingly.
“Mr. Harlowe, I have recently arrived here from Germany...”
A kraut! I shoulda known with that name but, what the hell, her accent was kinda cute.
“Welcome to America”, I spouted. “But how can I help?”
“I have paid a large amount of money, Mr. Harlowe, to recover a painting that belonged to my vater. It was to have been delivered to my hotel suite last night but the gentleman involved did not turn up. I need your help in finding this man”.
Vater, huh? She meant her father, of course. I had picked up enough of the lingo serving overseas during the war and had picked up a bullet in my right hip as a result.
“What happened that he lost possession of the painting in the first place?”
Tears gathering pace-enough to make me want to come around my desk and console her, the heady perfume she wore assailing my senses -she replied.
“It was stolen; smuggled out of Germany. I paid a great deal to have it tracked here, to San Francisco. I made contact with the man who had the painting and we agreed on a price for him to return it...”
“But, if it was stolen, surely this man is a thief and the police...”
“No. No police. I insist. Mr. Harlowe, your secretary told me your fees. I will pay double with one week’s payment in advance. Please, will you help me?”
I considered everything...for about ten seconds. I could do with the cash, that was certain, and it sure beat pigeon training.
“Very well, Miss. Goering. Thirty five hundred dollars in cash and I’ll take your case”.
She paid me promptly, peeling of the C notes from a wad she carried around in her bag. Then she gave me the facts I needed and left; her perfume lingering erotically as I sat back inhaling while I could. Gladys, who had not taken my instruction to leave and go home, entered my office, disturbing my reverie.
“Well, you big galoof, we got a case, finally?”
“Hey, what happened to the Mister?”, my voice sounding hurt. “Yeah, we got ourselves a case and you got yourself a salary payment. We’re back in business, kid”.
“There’s something about this one, boss. I can’t put my finger on it but...”
For a moment, I was concerned. Gladys always had my back and her intuition was always spot on but, this one? I was on the hook from the moment that goddess had walked into my office.
My German client had given her full details to Gladys before seeing me and, as I stared at the client sheet, I was surprised at the name: Magda Bathsheba. Boy! Nothing simple for those Germans.
The painting in question was called Valkyrie and portrayed an image of her dear, beloved father dressed in traditional hunting costume. Just why a painting such as this should have aroused enough interest to have been stolen in the first place was a mystery. But it clearly meant a great deal to this young fraulein and she had paid fifty per cent of the agreed purchase price to get it back, a sum of fifty thousand dollars. The value placed on this piece of art was even more of a mystery but it wasn’t my job to ponder these questions. I just had to get the damn thing back. The man my client had tracked down had remained in the background and had used a go between to negotiate his deal. The go between, according to Fraulein Goering, was a big man, heavy build, none too clean, with dirty fingernails and a strong body odour. That wasn’t much help as it applied to about ninety per cent of the male inhabitants of this city but the man had come to my client’s hotel room to collect the down payment and, when putting the envelope in the inside pocket of his raincoat, had exposed a holstered revolver and the shiny glint of a badge. That precious observation had proved priceless. Only one type of citizen carried a holstered gun, a shiny badge and wore a raincoat in the stifling summer heat of San Francisco; a cop.
I figured the best place to start was the 6th Precinct, the closest to my client’s hotel and a place I knew only too well. It’s even fair to say that I still had a few chums there from my own time on the force pre-war.
“Jimmy! Boy, you’re a sight for sore eyes, bejesus. I hadn’t seen nor heard o’ ye for a while. I figured you’d skipped town."
The Desk Sergeant, Billy O’Hanlon, greeted me warmly as I limped into the precinct. He and I went back a long ways.
“Nah, Billy, it’s San Fran forever”.
“And how’s that old hip o’ yours holding up?’
“Only gives me grief when it rains”.
“Sure, you’ll not get much rain ‘round here, boyo”.
“Which is why it’s San Fran forever”, I smiled.
I gave Billy the description of the palooka I was looking for and, without hesitation, he came up with the name of a detective, Robert Malone.
“Jesus, sure, it’s the perfect witness identification. It has to be him. What’s this about, anyway?”
“I can’t tell you right now, Billy, but you’ll be the first person I tell, once I’m sure. What can you tell me about this chump and where can I find him?”
“At this hour, you’ll surely find him drinking at Clancy’s Bar. Be careful, Jimmy, he’s a bad un, alright. Nothing concrete but lots of very bad rumours”.
Clancy’s was situated on California Street, not far from the dockside. I didn’t know it well and it wasn’t a favoured hangout of cops; being more frequented by the kinda guys that cops liked to put outa business. It wasn’t my hip that had made me quit the force; I just didn’t like the kinda cops that turned a blind eye, or looked the other way, or worse. Malone, from all indications, seemed like a bad penny; the type I felt no guilt about bringing down.
Having checked out the bar and spotted my quarry, the only klutz wearing a dirty raincoat, seated alone, a half bottle of bourbon in front of him, I sauntered over.
“Who’s asking?” was his gruff reply, not even doing me the courtesy of looking up at me.
“Well, if you looked up, you thick Mick, you’d see my lips moving and you’d know it was me asking. The name’s Harlowe and I’m onto your game”.
That got his attention, alright. Without saying another word, he stood and hit me with a haymaker. That got my attention, alright!
When I came round, he was gone.
The next morning, when I showed up at my office, Gladys gave me a look as if to say: not again! My left eye, though still working -just-was black and blue.
“Don’t ask”, I told her as I entered my office. Following me in, she poured me a coffee, added a shot of bourbon from the bottle I kept for emergencies and bade me sit down. See what I mean about being ever faithful?
“You have to listen to this, you big galoof...”
“I know, I know...stop feeding that stupid pigeon. I get it”.
“For pity’s sake, Jimbo, you need to listen to what I have to say”.
“I’m listening, okay? Just don’t talk so loud. My head feels like I’ve been ten rounds with Rocky Marciano”.
“Are you serious? The Brockton Blockbuster. Mark my words, he’s the next heavyweight champ”.
“Enough about wrestling, Jimmy. This is important”.
I gave up trying to educate my secretary on the intricacies of boxing.
“Okay, let’s hear it”.
“The woman, Magda Bathsheba Goering. I had a funny feeling about her so I spoke with some of my German friends last night. Her father...”
“Vater. That’s German for father. Stick with me, kid, you learn something new every day”.
“Vater, father, whatever...he was Goering, the Nazi Goering”.
I stared at her in disbelief. I couldn’t speak. My hip began to ache real bad, as memories of my time fighting in Europe reemerged painfully. Her father, the fat son of a bitch who had pilfered most of the art treasures of that continent. The number two to his kumpel, Hitler; the reason why I had seen so many good pals die on the battlefield.
“You have to drop her, Jimmy. She’s trouble; real trouble. You have the advance. Leave it at that”.
Still speechless, I sat, thinking. Gladys was droning on but I blocked her out. That damn pigeon had started pecking on my window but I ignored it, too. My mind was working overtime; everything started to make sense: the reason why the stupid painting would be stolen in the first place, a portrait of a famous enemy; a souvenir for any G.I. to be taking back home to the States, her financial capability to be able to pay fifty thousand bucks to retrieve the darn thing, her not wanting the publicity from getting the police involved. But I just couldn’t reconcile that beautiful, angelic face, those baby blue eyes, her smell, with her being the daughter of a Nazi monster.
I rose and started to leave.
“Jimmy, you cannot be serious. I’ve got a real bad feeling about this. Forget about her”.
I carried on to the staircase, her voice calling me all sorts of names behind me, and none of them sounded like Mister.
The thing is, I knew Gladys was right, she always was, but I just couldn’t help myself. I had almost lost my life over there, fighting the Hun, and I should have just walked away. But I just couldn’t. I admired this dame for traveling all this way to buy back a painting of her father. But, if I was completely honest, I felt something that I couldn’t accurately describe though it made my heart flutter.
As I knocked on her room door, that fluttering had started to turn to a furious pounding and, when the door opened and a gust of her fragrance assaulted my senses before I had even set eyes on her, my knees began to give way.
“Mr. Harlowe. I wasn’t expecting you. Come in”.
This was no room; this was a full-blown suite; opulent and spacious.
“Quite a set up you’ve got here”, I snarled; my way of regaining my equilibrium.
“Yes. I believe in the comforts of life. It’s something my father taught me. Can I get you a drink?”
“Listen lady, I know who your father is, okay?"
She didn’t flinch as she moved to the bar and began pouring two large shots.
“My father was a great man, Mr. Harlowe. He got involved with the wrong people...”
“Listen, sister, don’t give me any of that crap. Your old man was a member of the most evil crew ever known. You shoulda told me, okay?”
“But I didn’t lie to you, Mr. Harlowe”, she said calmly, approaching me with my drink. “Please, sit down”.
Pushing me gently onto the sofa, she seated herself demurely beside me, her scent almost making me swoon.
“May I call you, James?”
She could call me whatever she wanted as far as I was concerned. I took a deep slug of my drink as she squeezed closer.
“I told your secretary my full name.” she purred. “If I had something to hide, would I have done that?”
I couldn’t argue with her logic. In fact, I couldn’t argue with anything as she leaned towards me, her lips ruby red, and kissed me.
As we lay in the silken sheets later, she related to me how the intermediary had been in touch, had explained that the failure to deliver the painting had all been a mistake and the painting would be delivered tonight, as long as the balance of cash was available.
“So you see, Jimmy. Everything is sorted. You don’t have to do anything more and you can keep the advance I gave you. Everything has worked out wonderfully”.
It all sounded too pat to my jaded ears. I explained that the go between, almost certainly, could take the balance of the money and still hang on to the painting. Why did I even bother? I coulda been outa there. She was going to hop a plane back to Germany anyway. At least, I had had a good week’s pay and bedded this beauty. What more did I hope to achieve? Yet, I admit, I was hooked. I had to see this through to the bitter end.
We hatched the plan whereby, when Malone came later, hopefully with the painting, he would find the suite in darkness; with me waiting for him. Magda would be secreted in the bedroom with her money. If the big Mick had the painting, I would make sure that a proper transaction took place. If he didn’t have the painting, I’d force him to take me to where he had it stashed. It sure seemed like a good plan at the time.
It wasn’t one gunshot I heard, it was two. Magda had come out from the bedroom and shot Malone clean through the heart. Her second shot hit me in the gut.
As I lay, unable to move on the floor, I watched as she took the painting that the dead Irishman had brought with him and, breaking open the frame, retrieved an endless stream of diamonds, secreted within. Smiling down at me, she explained:
“Mein vater’s emergency fund; worth two million of your American dollars. He taught me all of his hiding places. He was such a good father. He also taught me how to shoot. I’m sorry, mein liebling; I truly am but needs must”.
As I lay, helpless, I watched as she exited the suite. As the blood poured from my wound, I thought of the irony of surviving German bullets in Europe but succumbing to a German bullet in San Francisco. I worried for my pigeon. How long would he come pecking before realising that my window would never open again. But, most of all, I thought about my secretary, her wisdom, her faithfulness, her intuition and I knew: I should have listened to Gladys!