Chapter 1: Miss Lily Comes to Call
You’ve heard of the big fish in the small pond. That was Vegas in 1948 for casino owners, mobsters, and movie stars—but not for me. I’d had a few jobs since I landed in town and even did some very clever work, but it was all small potatoes: the cashier with sticky fingers operating the till at Woolworth’s on Fremont, the dame who slipped the leash her bookie boyfriend had her on and was seeing a blackjack dealer on the sly. And then there was my favorite case, the newsboy who cut in on the other kids’ territory. I never thought I’d be catching a twelve-year-old criminal mastermind, but he had the goods all right. Went around on the other boys’ routes, collecting a day early. He was counting on the fact that most people just don’t look that close at the kid who rides by and tosses the paper on their front step. And he was scoring big-time, at least till I got on his trail. Probably had a blooming career ahead of him when he got a little older.
No, I was the little fish in the big pond. None of the bigs came around calling on me to get their problems solved, at least not until that one day when she walked into my office.
Femmes fatales had been noticeably absent since I hung out my shingle, but the day she opened the door without knocking, I knew I’d hit the jackpot.
She was a doll all right, a little out of my age range, maybe in her early forties although she didn’t look it, but everything was positioned right where it should be. She was tall and slim, dressed all in black: the fashionable suit with the big shoulders, expensive furs, the jaunty hat with a little veil and a sweeping feather, but the somber color just set off her shiny red hair and that famous peaches and cream complexion. They said it extended way down past what I could see with all her clothes on.
“Mr. Dick,” she announced in a velvety tone that spoke of seduction and made you want to get dirty.
“Call me Mr. Randall, that’s my name, Miss—?” I stood up politely. My mother was a stickler for proper manners.
“You may call me Lily.”
I admired her strategy. By putting us on a first name basis right off the bat, she managed to stay incognito and get us on a cozy footing. A lot of people don’t like admitting that they need a dick’s help. But I recognized her, all right. Miss Lily McIntyre had been a dancer, not just a dancer, only the most famous dame to have ever strutted her stuff on a Vegas stage. She wasn’t hoofing for dough any more, but retirement seemed to agree with her.
There was something about her that suggested that if she were yours, each day would be filled with fascinating and exciting surprises. Her laugh made the little lines around her eyes stand out a bit more, despite the expert make-up. She might be getting on in years, but she was still an astoundingly beautiful woman. And she had something that transcended beauty, that elusive quality called charm that would make her the center of attention when she was eighty. She flashed me the kind of smile that had probably gotten her that fur stole around her shoulders and the sparkly bracelet on her wrist. She really piled on the rocks, but she could carry the weight.
Miss McIntyre came a little closer, and I got a whiff of her perfume. Expensive, just like everything else about her, from the diamonds sparkling in her ears to her exquisite coiffure. She had on a four-string pearl choker with a diamond and emerald catch; probably she thought that was toned down for days, but under it I caught the glint of a fine platinum chain studded at intervals with diamonds that disappeared down into the deep V of her silk blouse. I’m no expert in women’s fashion, but hers was top-drawer. First class all the way for a dame like her. I wondered who was keeping her now that dancing wasn’t paying the bills.
“All the girls must love you. Such beautiful eyes and those long, thick lashes, simply wasted on a man. You’ve got something, haven’t you, Mr. Randall?”
I couldn’t help smirking. “I don’t know about that.”
“You’re skinnier than I thought a private dick would be.”
She had a way of saying “dick” that made it sound very dirty, and I could tell she liked doing it.
“Wiry. I’m wiry, not skinny.”
“Of course. Wiry, but tough.” She ran a gloved fingertip over my cheekbone, the one that had healed a little funny. “Where did you get that?”
“You didn’t come here to get my life story, did you, Miss Lily?” I caught her hand and held it away from my face.
She just smiled and strolled to the window, looking down at the street through the blinds. I wondered if I’d remembered to dust them lately.
“Would you like to sit down?” I went around my desk to hold a chair for her.
Of course she homed in on the good one, the green leather chair. She sank down onto the seat, light as a feather, and crossed her legs. Stems a million miles long, and they looked good, damned good. She made sure I got a good gander by surreptitiously hiking her skirt up above her knees, which were worth the attention. Knees in general can be problematic, but if shorter skirts came in, Lily wouldn’t have to be ashamed of her knees at all. I wondered how her toes were.
I retreated behind my desk, glad to have that shield between us, sat down, and waited.
She said, “Nice office, Mr. Randall.”
I had to laugh. It was pretty basic and located on the side of town that dames like her just don’t get to very often. “You didn’t come to admire the décor, either.”
“What are your rates?”
She had me hoping she wasn’t shopping for a kept boy. Maybe she hadn’t read the sign on my door. “Depends on what you want me to do.”
“I want you to find and catch a killer for me, Mr. Randall.”
I sat up straight. Murder? Now we were talking! Miss Lily McIntyre and a murder case. I rubbed my hands together, and she seemed amused by my eagerness. “Why me? Why not the police?”
Her peachy, luscious lips thinned for a moment, and that was a pity. She had nice lips, meant for smiling in that come-hither way she tried on me earlier. She couldn’t know she was wasting her ammo. “The police have had forty-eight hours to catch him, and they’re no nearer to finding out the truth than they were when they first found her body.”
“Sometimes it can take a while, Miss Lily, even for the cops. Believe me, they like stamping ‘case closed’. Makes them look good to the public.”
“A while will be too long. Time is of the essence, Mr. Randall. And I have it on good authority that you’re the man for the job. Perhaps the only man who can solve this case.”
Of course a guy likes to hear that, but I also wanted to know who gave her the word. “And who told you that?”
She smiled. “Does it really matter?”
“Maybe. We can come back to that.” I pulled out a pen and a pad of lined paper. “Who got murdered and when?”
“You’re very businesslike. I like that.” She let the fur thing slip off her shoulders, and somehow she managed to make it look as hot as if she’d just taken it all off. It had to be a practiced technique from her dancing days, when word was if the stakes were high enough, she did more than just shake her stuff. “It was a woman, only a girl, really. Miss Marguerite Saint-Ville. Very talented, and only at the beginning of her career.”
“And who was this girl to you?”
“A protégé,” Miss McIntyre said. “And a charming young friend.”
I was beginning to have an inkling that she was lying to me. They all do, the people who bring me their troubles. They want me to dig them out of a hole, but they never want to tell me the whole story. They seem to like making you work for the money. “You taught her to dance?”
“You can tell I’m a dancer, then? You’re very observant, Mr. Dick. May I ask how you knew?”
“You have a certain… grace. And it’s my job to be observant.”
“I see,” she said. “Every year I take on a student or two. However, Miss Saint-Ville was different. Special.”
“In what way?”
“She was a lovely girl, and she should have been a star. She could dance, sing, entertain. She had a bright future ahead of her.”
Suddenly I understood the all-black get-up. I would eat my hat if I didn’t find out there was a closer acquaintance between the two than just teacher and student. But Miss McIntyre didn’t betray any sign of grief. Not that she would show any emotion she chose not to. Those soft furs and silky glad rags covered a lady made of steel.
“When was she killed?”
“Two nights ago.” Miss McIntyre leaned forward and gazed at me intently. “She was found in an alley, in the warehouse section behind Union Station.”
I got the sense of some powerful emotion being held firmly in check. “What was she doing there?”
“I was hoping you’d find that out, Mr. Randall,” she said somewhat tartly. “So far no one has been able to tell me a thing.”
“How was she killed?”
I looked up from my notes. “Personal.”
Miss McIntyre shrugged, but her gaze was intent upon me. “I’m not sure what other motive there could be. She wasn’t rich.”
“When was she found?”
“After two a.m.”
“Were any of her belongings stolen?”
“Her purse was there, although the money was gone. Can’t you find all this out from the newspapers?”
“I will, Miss Lily. I just want to get your take.”
“I wasn’t there. I know nothing about what she was doing or why.” Miss McIntyre uncrossed her legs, giving me a little flash of the top of her stocking. She was still watching me carefully, although I had no idea what she was hoping to see. “You’re going to find all that out for me.”
“What if I find out something you don’t want to know?”
She gave me a determined smile. All steel, that lady, although she wanted you to think otherwise. “Truth can be a harsh mistress.”
“All right. Why was she killed?”
“Isn’t that supposed to be your job?”
“Never overlook the basics. I’d feel like a damned fool if I didn’t ask and I found out later you knew all along. And I’ll need a photograph,” I said.
She opened her handbag and flashed me a photo. “Autographed?”
I coughed. “Er, not of you, ma’am, of Miss Saint-Ville. Although….” I caught sight of the picture she was offering. “If you don’t mind, make it out to Grey Randall.” Hell, I’m not gonna pass up a photograph of a beautiful woman wearing only pearls and a G-string, although most of the good stuff was left to the imagination between the lighting and the pose. My mother didn’t raise any stupid children. I was smart enough to play along when a dame showed a yen to flirt. No sense raising questions I didn’t want to answer. Besides, having her autographed photo on my desk could only help when future clients came to call.
She smirked as she signed it, obviously thinking she had me back on a leash. But nobody puts Grey Randall, private dick, on a leash. I may let them think so, but only till I get what I’m after.
She slid it across the desk with a smug look as I took a glance before putting it in the top drawer to file later. “I was a dish, wasn’t I?”
“Was? You still are. And now the photograph of Miss Saint-Ville, please.”
After fixing me with a gaze that bored right through me, Miss McIntyre seemed to make up her mind about me. She opened her bag again and took out another photograph.
It was a black-and-white publicity still, the kind used by actresses, singers, and dancers, shot with professional lighting. Still, the girl had been lovely, beautiful, even. Which in itself could constitute a motive.
“Yes. More than one, I suspect.”
“Don’t you know?”
“She spoke of seeing more than one man. She never mentioned any names.” Miss McIntyre made a graceful gesture with her hand. “You understand, in the entertainment business, one meets a number of… admirers, shall we say?”
“And maybe one of them got a little out of hand?”
“Perhaps.” Miss McIntyre didn’t seem too shocked by the idea.
“Was she a hooker?”
“No, Mr. Randall, she was not!” she snapped.
“Not even amateur? Look, Miss Lily, entertainment is a tough business to break into. Sometimes girls have to do things to make ends meet—”
“She was a lovely girl. Not in my league as a dancer, of course,” she added modestly, “but these days what passes for talent would barely have landed you onto a casting couch back then. Not that I’m past it. I can still do a high kick over your head.”
She peered at me deviously, just hoping I would ask. Well, I’m a gentleman, and I can never refuse a beautiful dame.
“I may need to see that, just as part of the case, ma’am,” I murmured.
“Call me Lily,” she said. She rose languidly to her feet, letting the stole slip behind her to the floor, and came around my desk like a panther on the prowl, sleek and dangerous.
She approached my chair, and my nostrils were filled with the feminine scent of her. I sniffed, trying to identify it. Lily of the valley. I can always tell.
She swung her leg up and over my head with no apparent effort, remaining perfectly balanced. Obviously she had a cleverly concealed slit in her skirt that I’d missed, cut up to the thigh. I applauded. Hey, even a hard-nosed, booze-swilling, seen-it-all dick like me can appreciate talent when I see it. That and she had on some really glam lace-topped stockings.
“Very nice,” I said, keeping my breathing steady. After all, I was a dick, a private dick, and I know complications when I see them. “What does that have to do with your case, Miss Lily?”
She remained standing in front of me, crowding me. Not that I minded. But it was odd how she didn’t back away from me. Almost as if….
I gasped when she suddenly planted her right foot on my chest, my hands gripping the arms of my chair, ready to take her down if she proved dangerous. She leaned forward slightly, increasing the pressure on my chest, applying enough pressure that I knew I would see the mark that the heel of her expensive shoe left there tomorrow.
She leaned closer, saying, “Mr. Randall, dancers are very flexible.”
“So am I, ma’am, and if you don’t take your foot off my chest, I may have to show you, and I don’t think you’ll like it very much.”
She smiled and increased the pressure of her heel. “If I really put my weight into it, this heel would cut right through you like butter.”
I grabbed her ankle, the hose silky to the touch, and pushed her slowly away from me. “I think I get the picture. You could have just told me.”
She shifted her balance instantly, swinging her leg up and out of my grasp with a little flash of smooth white skin above the black garter, spinning away from me before walking back to her chair with a provocative roll of her hips. Even at her age, she was… flexible. She bent to retrieve her stole and pick up her bag.
“Miss Saint-Ville knew how to take care of herself.” She wasn’t even breathless when she sat down. “Sometimes a girl has to know how to get out of a sticky situation.”
I brushed off my tie, trying to pretend that it hadn’t hurt. “Nice move.”
“I was holding back. If I really put my weight into it, this heel would have made you think twice.”
“I believe you.” I did. She had dancer’s legs, slim but strong. I wouldn’t want to meet her in a dark alley at night if she were mad at me. “So she could have taken a man by surprise with that move.”
“I know a lot of other moves as well.”
“And you taught her everything you know.”
For the first time, I saw a flicker of emotion cross her face. “Not enough, apparently. I taught her all I knew, except how to stay alive.” She looked sad for a moment, but then it was back to business. “You never gave me your rates.”
“A hundred a day, plus expenses.”
“You can open your mouth all right.” Miss McIntyre smiled at me as she looked over the office. I knew that she knew I was lying, but she must have wanted someone on the case right away and was willing to pay for it. “I can do better than that.” She opened up her bag and pulled out a five-G stack.
“Look, you want someone killed, get yourself another dick,” I said.
“I’ll take care of that part after you find the man,” she said. “I know a lawyer or two.”
“I don’t carry out revenge,” I told her. “I’ll find him for you, but I’m not going to kill him. I may not even be able to produce enough evidence to bring him to trial, but I’ll find him.”
“You’re very sure of yourself,” she purred flirtatiously as she settled back in her chair.
“I should be. I’ve never failed to get my man yet,” I said casually, although I didn’t let on exactly what I meant by that. It was the keeping them that was the tricky part.
“Oh, I have complete faith in you, Mr. Randall,” she assured me. She crossed her legs and leaned forward, one silk-clad leg against the other making a hushing noise like rain, and said, “All you have to do is find him. I have ways to take care of him later. If you catch him before the week is out, there could be a bonus in it for you as well.”
“What kind of bonus?”
“That’s up for negotiation.” Something in her smile made me feel like we were talking a whole different currency here.
“You’re a fascinating lady, Miss Lily.”
She threw back her head and laughed. “I’m no lady, darling. I’m a woman, full-grown.”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “Armed and dangerous.”
“Who knows, maybe I could teach you something.”
“Oh, I have no doubt of that.” Even though she wasn’t packing the right equipment, I’m sure I could have learned a lot from her. “Where do I call you when I catch him?”
“I like your style, Mr. Randall. You’re confident. That’s good in a man.”
“Thank you, Miss McIntyre. And your number?”
“So you knew all along? I see I’ve found the right man for the job.” She recited her number. I didn’t make a move to write it down, and she seemed to approve. “This job is likely to be difficult.”
“Trouble is my business, Miss McIntyre, and I’m open twenty-four hours. Why the time limit?”
“We don’t want to give him time to—dispose of the evidence, shall we say?” She stood up, and I circled my desk to pick up her fur thing and set it on her shoulders. She put her hand over one of mine with a grip of iron. “I suspect that you won’t let me down, Mr. Randall. But before you let anyone know that you’re working for me, get yourself a new tie.”
“What’s wrong with my tie, other than your footprint on it?” I looked down at it. Dark blue with red and yellow stripes. It was just a regular tie.
“It’s hideous. A handsome man like you can do so much better.” Then she turned and walked out.
“Hideous?” I muttered, staring at my tie.
“Hideous, darling!” Her voice floated back from the hallway, followed by a throaty laugh.
I went to the window and waited for her to emerge from the building. A middle-aged colored man was standing by a big shiny limousine, and he held the door open for her when she came out. A Lincoln two-tone, midnight blue, 1948. I would have loved to drive that car. He handed her into the back seat and circled the car to get in the driver’s side. I watched it start to roll and turn at the corner.
She was lying. Miss Lily McIntyre was lying to me, from start to finish, but somehow I could tell this was the start of something big for me.
All I had to do now was find out what the fuck it was I was really supposed to be finding out.
I sat down and entertained myself by trying to read my name backwards on the frosted glass in the door: evitceteD etavirP lladnaR yerG. Yerg! What was I thinking? I had to get to work. I had a case to solve.