“WELL, THAT’S the last of ’em.”
Bruce Shannon leaned back in his worn leather chair and rubbed his hands vigorously over his face. What a stinker of a day. Not that he gave a hoot over something as off the cob as Valentine’s Day, but having to let dames know the week of said schmaltzy holiday that their beaus had found their way onto greener pastures wasn’t his idea of a good time. Then again, when did being a private dick have anything to do with having a good time? Besides, good times were a thing of the past. When the market had gone to hell over four years ago, the world had gone with it. Good for his business, bad for the soul. FDR had his work cut out for him. The key word there being work—something that was in short supply these days.
A deep purring dragged him out of his thoughts, and he smiled, scratching the scruffy black feline under her chin.
“We do fine on our own, don’t we, sweetheart?”
A slightly louder mew and twitch of the tail made Bruce chuckle. “Yeah, I suppose a tomcat now and then wouldn’t be so bad, would it?” With a sigh he stood and closed the file on his desk. That was something he damn well wasn’t going to start thinking about. This blasted holiday had him feeling enough of a heel as it was, without making him want to board that particular train wreck waiting to happen.
He opened his bottom desk drawer and pulled out a bottle of Old Forester, refilled his whiskey glass, then tossed it back. It wasn’t as if he had far to go to get home, and the brisk walk in the cold would sober him up some anyway. What the hell, one more wouldn’t hurt. After pouring himself another, he carried the glass to the cabinet and cursed under his breath when he found it locked. With a frustrated grunt, he went back to his desk and all but took it apart looking for the key.
“Damn that woman! Where is it?”
He swiped the telephone off its cradle and somehow found the patience not to bark at the operator as he asked to be connected.
A pleasant voice on the other end greeted him cheerfully. “Hello?”
“Gladys, where’s the damn key?”
“Bruce, how lovely to hear from you. It’s been what, a quarter of an hour since we last spoke?”
“Well, if you hadn’t hidden everything from me, I wouldn’t have to call you!” It was his damn office. Was it too much to ask to be able to find what he needed?
“If by hiding everything you mean putting it in plain sight? Then yes, Bruce, I’ve hidden everything from you. Face the cabinet.”
Bruce grudgingly did. “Now what.”
He looked up and frowned. On a small nail hung a thin black cord with a key tied to the end of it. “Why the hell would I be looking up if I’m gonna be filing somethin’?”
There was a soft titter at the other end. He chose to ignore it. “You’re right, Bruce. How silly of me.”
“You know…,” he began, pouting miserably. “If you hadn’t skipped out on me, I wouldn’t have to ring you a dozen times a day.”
“Bruce, I got married. I didn’t defect.”
He could hear the smile in her voice, and he reined in that petulant child inside him. “The wedding was nice, by the way. You looked… pretty.” There was a long pause, and for a minute there, he thought they’d been disconnected. “Gladys?”
“I’m here. Why, Bruce, that’s the nicest thing you’ve ever said to me.”
“Yeah, well, don’t let it go to your head. I still think you’re a sap for getting yourself middle-aisled. But I’m glad it was to Harold. He’s a decent fella.”
“You’re only saying that because you tailed him.”
“If I was gonna lose the best secretary I ever had to some mug, he better damn well be worth it.”
Gladys laughed. “I’m the only secretary you’ve ever had.”
“Not really, but I’ll take it.” There was another pause before Gladys spoke up, her gentle tone making him cringe. He took a swig of his whiskey to fortify himself. “Bruce, please hire another secretary. You spend too much time on your own as it is. Do you have anything planned for Valentine’s Day? Other than work?”
“If you already know the answer, why do you bother askin’? Silly broad.” There was a heavy sigh on the other end, telling him it was time to wrap this up. “You’re a married woman, Gladys. What are you doing callin’ a shady fella like me at this time of night? Shouldn’t you be knitting booties or somethin’?”
“You called me, you pill!”
Bruce laughed at the high-pitched squeal and scratched Mittens behind the ear. “I did? You better get goin’ before Harold starts thinkin’ I’m tryin’ to steal his girl. I got enough mugs tryin’ to give me the Broderick.”
Gladys released the most unladylike of snorts. “Don’t be a bunny. Harold knows how I feel about you. You’re the obnoxious brother I never had. Also, Harold isn’t the type to give anyone any kind of beating. He’s a gentle man.”
Not to mention, Bruce was six foot four and weighed two hundred pounds, leaving poor Harold about a foot too short and forty pounds too light. The guy would need a ladder to whack Bruce over the head. Either that or resort to gnawing at Bruce’s ankles.
“I know what you’re thinking,” Gladys muttered. “Harold might not go down there and clobber you, but I will. Cut back on the cigarettes, put away the whiskey, get something decent to eat that does not include coffee, and a slice of pie, and get some sleep.”
“Yes, ma’am,” he replied most seriously. At least he could still torment her via telephone.
“Don’t razz me.”
“You take care of yourself, okay?” she insisted softly.
How did she do that? Now he didn’t feel much like teasing. “Thanks, Gladys. Good night.”
“Good night. Call me if you need anything.”
Ah ha! “Remember, you offered.”
She let out a groan. “I regret it already.”
With an evil cackle, he hung up and made his rounds, straightening his desk and watering the fern before he ended up killing another one. Maybe he should get a cactus. Nah, he’d probably end up killing that too.
After closing the blinds, he slipped into his suit jacket, pulled on his black overcoat, then scooped Mittens up and deposited her on his shoulder.
“Ready to go home, dollface?”
Receiving a mew in response, he turned off the lights, grabbed his hat off the coatrack, and locked up. He gave the reception area a once-over before locking that up too. Overall, the place was in dire need of attention. Maybe it was time he put an ad in the paper:
Cranky private investigator seeks mild-mannered secretary with exceptional coffee-making skills, built-in homing beacon for lost property, and no intention of ever getting hitched. Ever.
P.S. Must like cats.
Yep, he’d get on that tomorrow. For now, he’d pick up some dinner and try to catch tonight’s episode of Amos ’n’ Andy. Maybe he’d even listen to a little Walter Winchell. Turning up his coat collar, then pulling his hat low over his eyes, he reminded himself, yet again, to find his blasted gloves. Three days until Valentine’s Day and it was colder than a room full of ex-wives. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to have a lovers’ holiday, say, in July? Not that he cared. In a way it was a relief not having anyone. He wasn’t exactly a warm, fuzzy-feeling kinda guy.
He grumpily crossed the street, then kicked the snow off his shoes outside Clifton’s Café before heading inside.
“Hey, Clif, whad’ya know?” Bruce greeted the handsome blond with a wink as he sat down at the counter. Clifton’s had the best pies in New York City, and Clif was the godsend who made them. Didn’t hurt that the pie was served by a looker like Clif. The two of them went way back—a good portion of that time back on Bruce’s couch, making Clif blush.
“How’s it going, Bruce?” Clif replied with a bright smile, chuckling when Mittens meowed for his attention. “I’m sorry, sweetheart. Hello to you too.” He gave her a little scratch before reaching under the counter, then placing a large brown paper bag in front of Bruce.
“One roast beef sandwich with extra roast beef, a side of potato salad, one slice of pie, one coffee—easy on the cream—and a reminder to go to bed before sunup.”
Bruce glowered at him. “Gladys called you, didn’t she?”
“You bet. She also said to swap out your coffee for juice, but I don’t have the heart to deny a fella his cup of joe.” Clif laughed. The phone rang, and he gave Bruce a wicked grin. “I’ll bet you five dollars that’s her calling to make sure you’re taking home more than just pie.”
“Five dollars? Who do you think I am, Rockefeller? I ain’t got that kinda bank to lose.” Bruce said his goodbyes and high-tailed it out of there before he got another earful. In a matter of minutes, he was at his small bachelor-apartments hotel, picking up his mail. A familiar hiss stopped him halfway to the rickety elevator.
For crying out loud! Just when he thought he was in the clear. Bam! The cantankerous old man appeared like some specter from a Universal Pictures horror film. Pasting on the most pleasant smile he could muster, Bruce turned to face his landlord, a man who couldn’t seem to make up his mind as to whether Bruce was his personal house dick or a reprobate of the lowest order. Last time Bruce checked, he was neither. If push came to shove, he’d rather be the latter.
“Yes, Mr. Moyer. What can I do for you?”
“What happened to the pretty brunette who used to come ’round here? I don’t see her no more.”
Here we go. “She was my secretary, Mr. Moyer. She doesn’t work for me anymore. Got herself hitched recently.”
“Maybe if you didn’t go around stinkin’ of booze and cigarettes and shaved every once in a while, she wouldn’t have given you the high hat and married some other mug. I’m surprised that fleabag of yours ain’t left ya too.”
God, give me the strength not to break that cane over his greasy, balding head. Feeling a twitch in his free hand, he shoved it into his overcoat pocket, just in case. “Gladys was my secretary.”
“What’s the matter with you, boy?” He gave Bruce the up-and-down, as if the old geezer could see anything through those ridiculously thick glasses anyhow. “I don’t want no degenerates living in my building,” he added sharply.
That’s right. Only the best dope fiends, racketeers, grifters, hoods, and pro skirts allowed in this fine establishment. Bruce needed to find a new apartment. “Is there something you wanted, Mr. Moyer?”
“One of ’em hobos got in here somehow, and he’s sleepin’ on the stairs. Since he’s on your floor, you get rid of ’im.”
“Sure thing,” Bruce muttered, wishing the old guy would quit being so stingy and hire a damn doorman. Tipping his hat politely, Bruce headed for the stairs. He glanced over his shoulder to find Mr. Moyer peering distrustfully at him. Did he think Bruce was going to make off with the banister? Relieve himself in the pot of already wilting gardenia? Jeepers creepers.
It wasn’t until Bruce reached the third floor that he heard the old man’s apartment door slam shut. Mittens let out a low grumble, and Bruce joined her. Only then did it occur to him he should have taken the rust bucket of an elevator. After mentally going through every possible scenario for getting away with murder, he finally reached the dimly lit flight of stairs to the eighth floor. Sure enough, a dark lump denoting a bundled-up body lay fast asleep on the top step.
Giving the bum a once-over, Bruce quickly took in the details. Obviously at some point the guy had been better off. Maybe he hadn’t had a lot of dough, but enough to afford the once-decent suit he was wearing and the leather shoes in desperate need of resoling. There was a dusty, dirt-smudged cap pulled low over thick, black hair, which was shadowing most of the man’s face, leaving some of his dark, stubbly jaw visible. Whoever he was, he obviously hadn’t been on the streets long. Then again, how long was long enough?
“Hey, pal. Wake up.” Bruce nudged the man’s shoulder firmly. “You gotta get movin’.”
There was a groan, and suddenly the man gave a start, threw his dirt-stained hands out and grabbed a fistful of Bruce’s overcoat. His eyes were round, wide, and the palest blue Bruce had ever seen. They shone even in the barely there light around them. It wasn’t just the color of those eyes that knocked Bruce for a loop, but the terror and anguish in them. The guy was also far younger than Bruce had expected. It was hard to tell with the unpleasant state he was in, but he was in his late twenties, maybe?
“Whoa there,” Bruce said gently. “I’m not gonna hurt you.”
The young man’s expression soon gave way to wariness as he studied Bruce. His slim shoulders held a sudden alertness, and Bruce figured the kid had seen some trouble. Enough to know Bruce looked like the kind of guy to be mixed up in it.
“Relax. I don’t know you, and no one’s payin’ me to,” Bruce assured him, though for the life of him he didn’t know why. He should be escorting the guy out, not making conversation. “What’s your name?”
“Jace. Jace Scarret,” the young man replied quietly. When he realized he was still holding on to Bruce, he quickly released him. “Sorry.”
Mittens jumped onto Jace’s lap, purring and rubbing her head against him, making Jace smile. And what a smile it was. Despite the beard and shabby state of him, his smile was something else.
Bruce shook his head at his wayward thoughts and his wayward feline. “Mittens, you shameless hussy. Stop twitching your tail for other men.”
Jace chuckled and gave Mittens the attention she demanded. “She’s real friendly, isn’t she?”
“Tell that to all the mugs who ended up pin cushions.” Frankly, he was surprised to see Mittens taking a liking to anyone other than him and Clif. Not even Gladys had the honor. Content with the affection lavished on her, Mittens sprang off Jace’s lap and cantered over to the apartment door to scratch at it. “Her highness is eager to get indoors.”
“I don’t blame her,” Jace replied with a wistful smile.
Aw hell, how could anyone expect Bruce to kick this poor schmo out on his ear? Better yet, when the hell had he become such a sap? Granted, he was known to give fellas a dime or two, fifty cents here and there, a dollar in some cases, but he couldn’t help every bum who ended up at his door. The young man started to get up, but as soon as he was on his feet, he wobbled. Bruce swiftly caught hold of his arm and steadied him.
“Sorry,” Jace groaned, holding on to his head. “I… I need a minute.”
“You feelin’ okay?” Aside from the obvious, the guy looked a little green.
“Yeah, just dizzy.”
“When’s the last time you ate?”
That was taking far more thought than it should. Before Bruce could listen to any of the hundred reasons in his head telling him not to do what he was about to do, he nodded to his door.
“Why don’t you come in, have something to eat, and get cleaned up.”
A fretful expression crossed Jace’s face, making him appear even younger than he was. “Why?”
“You’re hungry, ain’t cha?”
Jace nodded, looking miserable. He glanced over at the apartment door tentatively before moving his gaze back to Bruce. “Your wife won’t mind?”
“Only dame I got is the one meowing to get in,” Bruce said with a smile.
“Oh.” Jace went quiet and got a little fidgety, his gaze shifting to the floor. “Are you expecting me to… repay you?”
“What?” Bruce had no idea what the guy was yammering on about. As Jace bit down on his lower lip and his face colored, the penny dropped. “What the hell? No, no! Of course I don’t expect you to—Jesus Christ, what kinda places you been to?”
Jace opened his mouth, and Bruce quickly put up his hand. “I don’t wanna know. Look, it’s a sandwich. I don’t expect nothin’ in return, got me? Mittens gave you the all clear, so you’re welcome to come in.”
With a relieved expression, Jace allowed Bruce to help him the rest of the way to the apartment. After opening the door, they let her highness in first, then followed close behind, all the while, Bruce wondering what the hell he was doing. What was it about Jace Scarret that had him acting the twit? A part of him wanted to find out. The other part of him was packing bags and getting ready to make tracks.