For fifteen years, the first thing I’ve done when I’ve walked into the office is make a pot of coffee, the particular way Mr. Millings insisted on: two pints of bottled water, brought about halfway to a boil in the percolator before scooping in four ounces of grounds. It sounds finicky because it is, but the man knew how to make a good cup of joe. He also knew how to find a good secretary. The name painted on the frosted glass door is mine now, but I have to be my own girl Friday because I can’t get anybody half as good as I am to work for me.
It was starting out as a slow morning at the end of a slow week in the middle of a slow September. The outside air had snapped from comfortably cool to unseasonably frosty, and the super had let me know the landlord had told him to shut off the radiator if I couldn’t hack up two overdue rent checks by month’s end. He wouldn’t do it because he was a little dizzy for me and a little scared of me, and I wasn’t above taking advantage of either. Unfortunately, his boss wasn’t so easy.
When the knock on the door came, I’d just poured my second cup and started going through the invoices my few clients had been ignoring. If I could lean on them, I’d have enough to cover both of those rent checks, right in time for a new one to come due. I started to get up, but she didn’t wait before sweeping into the office.
Back when I was Bud’s secretary, I’d let him know a walk-in was a real dish by introducing her with I think you’ll want to meet with her right away. He’d have wanted to meet this particular vixen even faster. A midnight blue halter top gown hugged curves that’d make a mountain road jealous. Flawless snow-white fur promised purity that the look in her smoke grey eyes promised to debase. I’ve rarely swung lavender, but one glance at her and it was hard not to. Two glances and it was even harder, even though that second glance caught the gleam of a gold band.
“Miss Mallory, I presume.” She had a voice like fine whiskey served neat.
I finished standing and walked around the desk, taking her offered hand. Ivory fox, coal-black cat—oh, we’d look smashing together. But I had to focus. “You presume correctly. Impressive. Most people presume I’m Mr. Mallory’s secretary.”
“I sought you out in part because you’re a woman.”
“And I might understand woman problems in a way a man wouldn’t.” I nodded toward her ring.
Her glorious tail twitched a twitch of hesitation. “Yes.”
“If he’s cheating on you, he’s a damn fool.” I motioned toward the seat in front of my desk. “What’s the other part?”
She tilted her head.
“Of why you sought me out.” I headed back to the percolator with my mug. “Can I get you a cup of coffee, Mrs.…?”
“Lambert. Elsa Lambert. No, thank you. Samuel Cross keeps you on retainer.”
“He did.” Cross was a criminal lawyer turned city commissioner, one of Bud’s old friends. His firm fed us lesser cases like table scraps, but it was enough for us to get by, while there was still an “us.” By the time he became a politico I was doing more investigating than secretary-ing; after Bud’s death, he was the one who suggested I hang out a private eye shingle, and gave me enough support to make it work. Until he didn’t.
A slight frown creased her muzzle. “But not now?”
“But not now.” After topping off my mug, I sat down on my desk facing her. “Are you a friend of his, or a client?”
“I barely know him, but my husband’s both a friend and a client.”
“The husband you want me to investigate.”
“I trust his judgment in business associates.”
“What is it you don’t trust his judgment in?”
She crossed her legs, then held out a slim cigarette. “My maiden name is Strauss. The clothing company.”
“You don’t seem like a bluejeans kind of lady.” I leaned over, giving her a light.
“I’m not involved with the family business, but I share in the family fortune. I’ve always been independent. I had my own accounts, my own interests.”
“Did Mr. Lambert start with his own money before marrying into yours?”
“Some. Not much. He managed a construction firm. My father thought he was a gold-digger, but I knew he wasn’t. I thought he wasn’t.” She looked away. Her cigarette remained unpuffed.
I nodded, and waited.
She sighed, taking a long drag, exhaling slowly. “Our marriage gave him access to most of my accounts. You know how that is, I trust.”
“I do.” In these modern times, married women had rights to their own property, sure, but those rights came with a few hundred asterisks. One of many reasons I’d stayed a bachelor girl.
“Last week I had reason to go into the bank myself, and a clerk let slip that Edgar had been making regular withdrawals. Five hundred every two weeks, for the last nine months. It was the first I’d heard of it.” She took another drag. I held out an ashtray, and she crushed the cigarette out. “Maybe he’s gotten himself into some kind of trouble he refuses to share. Or…” She shook her head.
“He have any debts you know about?”
“I’ve never heard him even talk about gambling.”
I set my coffee mug down behind me and slid off the desk to stand again. “I can look into it and see what I see, but this might involve a few days, even a week, of tailing him when he’s out of the house. I bill fifteen a day, plus expenses.”
Elsa nodded, and reached into her purse as she stood, taking out two twenties and a sawbuck, along with her calling card. “Your first three days, then.”
“We’ve got a deal, Mrs. Lambert.” I pocketed them and handed her my card. “I’ll be in touch.”
At the door, she half-turned toward me. “Is it true that you’re a shifter, Miss Mallory?”
“Is that important?”
“If my husband is cheating…put your foot down.”
“That’ll run you double,” I joked, but she’d already shut the door behind her.