I’d agreed to visit Mr. Brown at his place because Sally, my secretary, had asked me to especially nicely, wearing that dress I like, the persuasive periwinkle number that matches my lucky handkerchief and also goes well with her blond curls. I’d only agreed to see Brown at all because I was in need of funds after the spinster Othmar had stiffed me.
I could hear a dog yapping behind the door to Brown’s apartment, growing only more animated when Brown opened the door and invited me in.
“Cute puppy,” I remarked, referring to a young beagle, all nose and ears. “What do you call him?”
“I just got him. I was thinking of calling him Ace … or Joe …”
The dog yelped at each, dissatisfied.
“How about Snippy?”
“He’s not used to people. Come on … Snippy,” Brown said to the dog, trying it out. “And please come in, Mr. Van Pelt.”
“After you, Mr. Brown.”
I followed, sizing up Brown. If “snippy” described his dog, “shabby” described the owner. Easy as his sister was on the eyes, he was something to avoid seeing in daylight. It looked as if he’d never had hair, and this did nothing to lessen the immensity of his unnaturally round head. His posture hinted at an insistence on playing contact sports despite no significant ability, or even balance. He wore a pale-yellow shirt with a jagged stain on the front, near where his belt seemed ready to renege on what was being asked of it.
“Thank you for your time,” my host said, leading me past a birdcage on a stand—the dog circled it three times, then lay down underneath—into the living room.
“You’ll be paying for my time, Charles, if I agree to take your case.” I told him my terms. I asked if he still wanted to talk.
“Money’s not an issue,” the man in the stained shirt said, starting the clock, and I couldn’t find a reason to believe him. “My father—”
“Your father,” I said, “was a barber.”
“Yes,” Charles confirmed, “but he invested wisely, and—”
“So you had some trouble with a woman,” I said, moving us along. “What’s her name?”
“I … I never got it.”
“Petite, with … hair … like …”
Waiting for him to finish, I lit a cigarette.
“… like fire!”
“And you got burned. OK, I’ll find your small, carrot-topped dame, Mr. Brown.” I stood, letting him know our interview was over. He extended a hand toward me. I shook it, briefly.
“Thank you, Mr. Van Pelt,” he said. “Sally says you’re the best. She talks about you all the time. She—”
She’s a sweet kid," I allowed.
“I’ll have to buy her dinner tonight,” Charles said.
“Take an umbrella,” I recommended. “It’s supposed to be dark and stormy.”
At that, Charles Brown’s beagle bolted from the room. As I made my own way out, Brown’s canary chirped weakly. I peered into its cage and saw dozens of uneaten treats.
“He doesn’t care for peanuts,” I observed.
“Neither do I,” Brown confessed. “But I do like Cracker Jack.”
“Looking for a big prize? I wouldn’t,” I volunteered, “but I would stock up on birdseed.”
As a rule, if you’re looking for a girl in this town, start at the Crab’s Dungeon.
I was swallowing a slug of hooch when the bartender said, “Go on back. Miss Lucy will see you now.”
“Thanks, Franklin,” I said, flipping him a token of my gratitude before venturing into a plush, velvet-lined office behind a door that read "Private"—and below that: “The Madam Is IN.”
“I’m looking for a girl,” I said, dropping into a davenport.
“Who isn’t?” she replied.
“Client says the dame’s small, with red hair.”
“Doesn’t sound like anyone I know. Or anyone I can remember seeing around.”
“I’m not holding out on you, pipsqueak,” Miss Lucy said. “It doesn’t ring a bell.”
“All right, then. Thanks anyway. If you don’t mind, I’ll use the back door.”
“Oh, brother,” she said. “If I had a nickel …”
Breaking into Brown’s apartment was almost too easy. Once I’d taken a look around, I saw that my client would have more to replace than just a lock—his bird was dead. It was only a bird, but I was uncomfortable with how … exposed it seemed.
I was draping my handkerchief over the body of Charles Brown’s canary when everything went dark.
I came around to find myself bound to a chair with kite string, a kite still attached to one end. The kite had seen better days. So had I.
“It’s all we could find,” a woman explained.
“Who are you?” Not my smoothest repartee, but the best I could muster under the circumstances.
“Miss Patricia Reichardt,” the dame said, curtsying sarcastically.
“And my associate, Marcie,” she added, with a wave of her hand. The one doing the talking was tomboyish, with freckles, while her quiet companion was bespectacled and mousy.
“Ladies,” I said, bowing my head. Slowly. It still throbbed.
“Very good, Chuck. Marcie, find me a corkscrew.”
“Wait,” I said, but not because I was afraid. I was curious why they were in Charles Brown’s apartment, and it was only starting to dawn on me that they were laboring under a misconception. Chuck? I’d thought she’d been calling me Dick.
“You’re looking for Charles Brown?” I asked.
“Not anymore,” Patricia said. “Now we’re going to turn Charles black and blue.”
“Good one, sir,” Marcie chimed in.
“I’m not him.”
“You couldn’t pay me enough to pretend,” I told them. “I’m a P.I. hired by Brown. I suspected he wasn’t being straight with me, so I came here to poke around while I knew he’d be away. I thought he’d mentioned he’d be out tonight only casually. Now I know he wanted me here … because you’d be getting here first. I also have a feeling he’s not planning to come back. Ever.”
The women took a moment to consider this. Finally, the larger woman nodded to the smaller, and Marcie untied me.
“Maybe we need a formal introduction after all, shamus,” Patricia said.
“My name’s Van Pelt,” I said, standing, shaking off the kite string and turning to the kitchen cabinets in search of something restorative to drink. “Linus Van Pelt. Now, I’ve told you why I’m looking for Brown. What’s your beef, Patty?”
“I’m an adjuster with the Metropolitan Life Insurance Company.”
“I take it Brown has a policy,” I said.
“A big one. And he made a claim on it just this morning.”