When I say I’m a private investigator, you might think James Bond or Sherlock Holmes. You shouldn’t.
But sometimes life insists on imitating art. That June day, during lunch hour, the office door banged open. In the doorway stood a beautiful blonde, very young but perfect. Her skin was like roses, and her hair hung down in back like pale heavy silk. Her clothes had that sheen of high fashion that means money. Just like in a movie, two big tears rolled down her flawless cheeks. “I need help,” she whispered. I almost looked around for the TV cameras. It was a perfect setup for Allen Funt.
Instead I tossed my newspaper on top of a filing cabinet and stood up. “Sit down, miss. Can I get you a cup of coffee? Here’s a Kleenex. Did you want Mr. Depford?”
“I don’t care,” she sniffled. “I just need a detective.”
That was good. Ernie Depford, my partner, was in the hospital for gallstones, so if she wanted him she’d be disappointed. I didn’t want her to be disappointed. I shut the door and sat down in my chair again. She sat on the edge of the plaid office sofa. A lot of excellent leg showed under the hem of her skirt. The mini is the best development in fashion since the bikini.
“What’s your name? Tell me about it. How can I help?”
She blew her nose. An hour ago I would have said it’s not possible to blow your nose and look great doing it. She looked wonderful. “I need to find my mom,” she said.
My heart sank. “How old are you?”
“I’m seventeen,” she said defensively. “And I can pay. Look!”
She dipped into her handbag and passed me a manila envelope. Inside was a thousand dollars in fifties, still held by the paper band. I riffled the edge of the wad and passed it back. “A girl like you, you shouldn’t walk around with cash like this. Someone snatches your purse, and where are you?”
“I can handle myself.” For a second she looked tough as nails.
Like it says on the radio, you don’t have to be a weatherman to know which way the wind blows. “Tell me your name,” I said, wary. “Where’d you get this cash? How’d you mislay your folks?”
She sat back on the plaid sofa, cool and calm. A chilly pride flowed out from her, like Queen Victoria being not amused. “I earned it,” she said. “And not the way you’re thinking, either. My name is Eléonore Quartern. Perhaps you’ve heard of me.”
“No,” I had to admit. “But let me guess. You’re — an actress. TV — no, Broadway. Your family, let me see, an aging but honest mom, two kid brothers, and a baby sister. They were kidnapped by feuding hillbillies in rural Kentucky. Or was it Mormon schismatics in the mountains of Utah? And you’ve come to New York to hire Tim Coates, the best investigator in the Western hemisphere, to find them.”
That made her smile a little. “Are you really the best investigator in the hemisphere, Mr. Coates?”
“You bet. How’d you hear about me?”
“I used the Yellow Pages.”
I clapped a hand to my forehead and slouched onto the inky desk blotter. “Sic transit gloria! What do you do, really?”
“Here.” She took a glossy magazine out. It was a last winter’s Harper’s Bazaar. Roberta our secretary prefers LaMode — the clothes are cheaper. I began to flick through it but she said, “No, look at the cover.”
The woman on the cover looked like a clown in the heavy makeup they favor these days. You could have polished a shoe with her eyeliner. She wore an ugly dress, what they call OpArt, very mini. I had to look twice at the face. “That’s you!”
She nodded. “It’s a living.”
I don’t read these things, so I was horrified. “But — but you’re so beautiful! Why do you let ’em do that to you?”
She smiled again, a fleeting half-smile like the Mona Lisa. “It’s a living,” she repeated. “Now tell me about your firm, Mr. Coates. Can you find my mother for me?”
“You bet. Or,” I added, “we can find out what happened to her, I mean if she’s deceased or moved to Brazil or something. When did you see her last?”
“Three years ago.”
“It’ll be a snap, that short a time frame.”
“Good. It’s like, I really want to see her again.” She blinked hard to keep the tears back.
“What I’ll need from you …” I scribbled on a scratch pad. “… Names. Her family, your father’s family. Where she’s lived, and on what. What she does with her time. Friends, church, Junior League —”
“None of that,” she said. “She has none. No family, except me. No friends. Not what you’d call friends.”
I could see already it wasn’t going to be a usual investigation, but I could sort it out. “Well, list whoever you want. Here, take this. Write down everything, bring it back when you’re done, and we’re off to the races.”
She frowned at the paper. “Is there — well, any way to find her without all these questions?”
I banged my hand on the desk. “Look, I’m an investigator. I ask questions. You want answers and no questions, get an astrologer.”
“I’m sorry,” she said right away. “I didn’t think.” She must have seen I really meant it. Her eyes were very bright, gazing straight into mine. They were brown, an unusual color for a blonde. Who knows what would have happened, if the office door hadn’t banged open again. It was Roberta back from lunch. She summed up the situation in one needle glance. Ernie started out with Roberta back in the Eisenhower administration, and she knows the business inside out. “I’m back, Mr. Coates,” she announced unnecessarily. “Let me switch the phones back to my desk.” She marched over to my phone and flipped the switch, taking in Eléonore’s paper while she was at it. “Perhaps you’d prefer that typed, miss. Mr. Coates’s writing is impossible.”
Meekly Eléonore handed over my notes. Roberta took it to her own desk near the door and ran some paper into the black manual typewriter. Over the clatter of the keys I said, “Where can I reach you, Miss Quartern?”
The formal name didn’t taste very good. I was glad when she said, “Please, call me Ellie.”
“Ellie. Is that what they really call you?”
“Sure.” She didn’t seem surprised. “Eléonore, that’s my professional name. I’m really Ellie.”
Triumph glowed in my chest, as if I’d actually advanced in intimacy. “Are you staying in town, Ellie?”
“Right now I’m at the Plaza.” She took out a checkbook, just like in a Nero Wolfe novel. “Shall I give you a retainer? And you can give me your expense account later.”
But it didn’t feel right, money exchanging hands now. “No. Roberta will send you a bill.”
She smiled again, and I felt my knees weaken. She stood up. Roberta brought over the typed notes. And she was gone.
I leaned back in my chair with a sigh of happiness. “I’m in love.”
“You and who else.” Roberta glared down at me from her five foot two, hennaed curls bristling. “A bill, hah! You didn’t even give me a chance to call the Plaza, to see if she’s registered there.”
“What the diff, we haven’t done any work on it yet. If she doesn’t return with that list we haven’t lost a dime.” I retrieved my paper and unfolded it at the sports page. Roberta snorted and tripped back to her desk. After a while she went out again to the ladies. Quickly I dialed the Plaza Hotel. “Is there a Miss Eléonore Quartern registered there? Yes? There is? No, no message just yet. I’m just checking for a floral delivery.” I scooped up my paper again before Roberta came back.