I stood in front of Mr. Pruitt's desk, explaining to him and his personal secretary Pricilla Cosgrave that I was new in town and needed a job. I laid it on really thick, fluttering my eyelashes and looking girlish. He must have thought I was crazy. Frankly, I thought Scotty was crazy. He wanted me to search Pruitt's office while the big cheese was out.
"No, Miss Jones, I don't believe you're crazy," Pruitt said in his slithery voice. He had the belly of Santa Claus, but I could tell that this was not a man you'd want coming down your chimney on Christmas Eve. He had the face of a sick bulldog and an ego that would make Hilary Booth look like Deanna Durbin. And how can he hear my voice over? I mulled that over while Pruitt mulled my fake credentials over. He barked short sentences to Miss Cosgrave, who dutifully wrote every single word on her note pad.
He smiled. His ugly grin chilled me to my bones. "Miss Jones, I believe you have everything Miss Cosgrave and I are looking for in a new secretary. We're both constantly busy and could use someone to retrieve coffee and do minor writing assignments."
I beamed. "I'll do my best, Mr. Pruitt."
"I'm sure you will, Miss Jones." He picked up his coat. "Miss Cosgrave and I will be lunching at Bella's Restaurant in Monroeville. I have a meeting with Kurt Holstrom afterwards in this office. For now, I need you to do one tiny trifling assignment for me."
"Have this nine-hundred-eighty-seven page report on last year's quarterly stock market take for Holstrom Construct-O-Sets done by the time we get back." Miss Cosgrave deposited a stack of paper the size of the Glickman Building on the desk in front of me. "Well, hop to it, Miss Jones." He glared at me. "Or else!"
I got typing. I kept typing until Pruitt and Cosgrave were totally out of sight. I then dropped page six hundred of that nine hundred some page report and started searching the office for evidence of Jeff Singer's visit with Rollie Pruitt.
She was beautiful, and sweet, and beautiful, and smart, and did I mention beautiful? Betty Jones was the perfect combination of country sweetheart and city glamour queen and I aimed to marry her someday, as soon as I could get her to notice me as something more than her partner in fighting crime. I was in....
"Scott, could you please leave the voice-overs to me? This is MY imaginary-show sequence!"
"Sorry, Betty, but I just had to tell the readers and the listeners how I felt about you."
"Wait until the end of the spoof segment to sing my praises. We haven't even solved the mystery yet!"
"Awwww, Betty! What about our fans who so desperately want to see us together?"
"Mystery first, romance later. Aren't you the one who complained about the 'mushy stuff' in our soaps?"
"Yeah, that's true."
"So, let's get back to the story!" Ahem, Sorry for that little interruption, folks. We now return you to "The Great Big Slumber", already in progress.
After he had his fun stealing my voice-over...
...Scott joined me in Pruitt's office. We turned the place inside out searching for something, anything, which would reveal the secret of Pruitt's strange meeting with Jeffrey Singer. I was riffling through the drawers in the desk when I discovered an interesting object. I pulled it out of the desk and showed it to Scott, who was going through the books on the shelves. "Scott, look at this!"
He frowned. "A black strongbox. So what?"
"Locked?" I nodded. ""Where's the key?"
We searched the whole desk from top to bottom for that lock opener and found neither hide nor hair nor anything else of it. We were looking through the rest of the office when I heard voices in the hall. I opened the door and peered out.
"Scott," I exclaimed, "Pruitt, Holstrom, and Cosgrave are coming this way! You have to hide!"
He was already putting books in their original spots. "Never mind that, get this joint cleaned up! If Pruitt knows we've been snooping, he'll get suspicious!"
"I'll finish! Just hide!" I shoved Scott under a conference table and continued shelving books and papers when my employers and their lunch companion entered the room. They sat at the conference table and didn't give me a second look, even when I barely concealed a gasp. Scott's foot jutted out from under the table. The last thing I needed was for him to get caught and the jig to be up. I discreetly kicked his foot under the table while serving the two men coffee (Miss Cosgrave declined, claiming that caffeine did frightening things to her nerves.) He yelped, but I covered his complaints with a fit of coughing.
They mostly discussed business, but their talk sounded rehearsed, like when one of WENN's shows actually goes for more than five minutes without a disaster. Pruitt wanted to buy shares in Holstrom's Construct-O-Sets, which seemed innocent enough to me. I felt like Miss Clavel in the Madeline children's book - something was not quite right.
"I can do wonderful things for Holstrom Construction, Kurt," Pruitt said. "We need to become partners."
"Yes, Rollie," Holstrom added, "it would be a good thing for both our businesses. We could go national, even global. Do we have a deal?"
"Yes, of course, Kurt," Pruitt purred. I shivered again. Pruitt's voice just did that to me. Or maybe it was the cigars that the two men smoked. My eyes watered. Miss Cosgrave had to wring sweat and tears out of her notepad. I prayed that the smoke wouldn't effect Scott, but, naturally, he just had to sneeze. Twice, actually. The conference table rose several feet both times. Pruitt lifted the tablecloth and looked under it. "Come out of there, sir," he purred.
Scott glared at them and wiped his wet eyes. "Man, couldn't you guys put out the cigars? They're killing me!"
Pruitt frowned. "Who is this man?"
I backed off. "I don't know, sir. I've never seen this man before in my life." Scott shot me a nasty look but I pointed at the two burly businessmen to remind him not to blow my cover.
Holstrom seemed to notice me for the first time. "They're both private dicks...and doras," he added when I realized what he said and gave him my best angry look. "Pavlia and I met them at the club last night. They were prying into the Jeff Singer case."
Cosgrave started to say something, but Pruitt stopped her. "Oh, really? That's very interesting. Very interesting indeed." He laughed like a villain from a serial or a Jack Benny parody. "You both knows what happens to people who pry into other people's business."
"Oh, puh-leeze," I groaned. "Don't lay the threats on us again. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing no matter what you tell us." I dumped the paper stack in Miss Cosgrave's arms. "Oh, by the way, Rollie," I giggled, "I finished your report."
"Don't think you're going to get away this easily!" Holstrom reminded us. "Bad guys have ways of getting good guys out of the way."
Pruitt laughed. "This is all most amusing, but we're not bad guys or girls. Mr. Holstrom, Miss Cosgrave and I are merely innocent businesspeople who are just going about their duties. We're just buying and selling shares in Mr. Holstrom's company. What's wrong with a little old-fashioned American capitalism?"
Scott flashed the trademarked Dane grin. "Oh, nothing, nothing at all." He mock-sighed. "Come on, Betty, there's obviously nothing of any interest here. Let's go back to our office." His speech sounded as phony as some of his more dubious schemes and I told him that when we were back out on the street.
"They're not going to believe that anymore than they'd believe that the earth was flat!" I told him as we wrote the trolley to our place on Isabella Street.
He still looked happy, which worried me. Scott comes up with his looniest schemes when he's in a good mood. "Betty, Betty, Betty," he said, "you'll never believe this."
When it comes to Scott Dane, I'll believe just about anything. "Try me."
"Pavlia Nellicoa is sitting in our office and she's wants to spill her guts and tell us all about her links to the Jeff Singer case!"
I gasped in delight. "She does? That's wonderful!" I was halfway to hugging Scott when something occurred to me. "Why does she want to reveal this information to us now? She didn't seem interested last night. As I recall, she threatened your life!"
Scott had the decency to blush. "Well, I kind of, um, promised her I'd help her get a part in a movie. She's aiming to be the next Greta Garbo and I have Hollywood connections...."
I groaned. "Scotty, how are you going to get her a part in a movie? And why did she turn to you?"
"According to Gertie and to Pavlia, Pruitt and Holstrom could get her onto Madison Avenue, but not Hollywood Boulevard. They're more interested in finances than actresses."
We arrived at the old office building that housed our room. It was cheap and not in the best of repair, but it also was clean, relatively free of vermin, and located in a decent part of town. We took the elevator to the third floor, where we met Mr. Eldridge, the kindly old janitor. He's sweet but a little, well, confused.
"Oh, hello, Miss Jones, hello, Mr. Dane. There's some kind of ruckus going on in your office. Miss Reece went out to lunch after Mr. Dane called and I was cleaning up when I saw some ketchup on the floor."
Now I was confused. "Ketchup?"
"Well, it was something red. Or black. It's hard to tell in these black-and-white programs. Anyway, it was on the floor next to this lady with blonde hair and it was kind of sticky..."
I already suspected that I knew what was on the floor of our office. "Sticky?" Scott took off and flung open the door to the room.
"...so I figured you must have gone to the Buttery to have a bite," Mr. Eldridge triumphantly completed.
"Betty!" shouted Scott. "Come here!"
I joined him in the office. The cracked, once whitewashed plaster walls and chipped desks remained the same as always, but the dead woman on the floor was decidedly different. Scott gingerly turned her over. The pasty, gray face of Pavlia Nellicoa stared wide-eyed at us. There was a patch of red, uh, black, on her fashionable navy blue suit. "Somebody stabbed her," Scott declared. I turned my head from the horrifying site. I can play tough, but not that tough. He tried to smile. "I guess I won't have to get her a part in a movie now."
"Then it's not ketchup?" Mr. Eldridge asked.
I shook my head. "No," I whispered, "it's blood."
The old man just stared. "Oh, dear. That's not good, is it?"
I sat at my desk as Gertie shooed out the last of the reporters. Scott sat across from me. I was going through our mail and he was working on... "What are you working on?"
"Codes," he explained.
I frowned. "Come again?"
"Betty," he showed me his notebook, "everything that Pruitt and Holstrom said about construction futures was said in code. They probably didn't want you or anyone else in the building to overhear something that could damage them later."
"Well," I exclaimed, "what does it say?"
He gave me a pained look. "I'm workin' on it, Betty Roberts, I'm workin' on it."
Gertie came in at that moment, looking a little worried. "Betty, we've been raided."
I frowned and Scott looked up from his code breaking. "What?"
A small, balding man with a mustache stormed past Gertie and into our office. He flashed us a badge. "Agent Mackie Bloom, FBI." He went to both of us and sat on my desk. "Ok, Jones, Sherwood, what are you up to this time? I just heard that you found the body of a dead German spy in your office. Do you know what they do to people who go within five miles of a spy?"
Scott and I exchanged surprised expressions. "German spy?" I asked.
"Yeah, Pavlia Nellicoa was a German spy. She was one of their best, and she has been for years. Her superiors brought her here to get the goods on our men. We believe that she may have been involved with Kurt Holstrom. He was her guardian angel of Hollywood until she found out that he earned his wings selling stocks and shares, not 'Gone With the Wind' and 'The Wizard of Oz'." He grabbed a chair and sat between our desks. "What I'd like to know is how she winded up dead in your office!"
"That's what we're trying to figure out," I explained.
Gertie nodded. "I talked to her last night. She sounded a little nervous, but I thought that was because she was going to spill her beans to the law."
"Well, she ended up spilling a lot more than that." I called Mr. Eldridge, who was dusting the front lobby of our agency. "Mr. Eldridge said that he heard a ruckus going on after Gertie went to lunch." I gestured at the kindly old man. "Tell Agent Bloom what you told me, Mr. Eldridge."
"About what, Miss Jones?"
"About the red...black stain and what you heard."
"Oh, you mean the ketchup?"
I gritted my teeth. "No the...lady...you found."
"You mean the lady who was here yesterday? She came in right after Miss Reece went to lunch. She asked me if I knew where the Jones and Dane Detective Agency was, and I said that if she was a detective like Miss Jones and Mr. Dane she should be able to find their office, and she said that she wasn't a detective, and I said...
Agent Bloom stopped him before his blathering took up the rest of the fanfiction. "When did you hear the noise?"
"Oh, it was about ten minutes later, right before Miss Jones and Mr. Dane came back. I was at the other side of the hallway sweeping the left stairwell when I heard a popping sound, like a champagne bottle, from the Jones and Dane Detective Agency. I saw the shadow of a man running away and the lady on the floor with a patch of black ketchup on her, but nothing important."
Agent Bloom nodded as Gertie went to get the phone. "Thank you, Mr. Eldridge. You were most, um, helpful."
"You're welcome," Mr. Eldridge said. "I hope you catch whoever put a bullet in that nice detective lady. I don't want to clean up her ketchup again!" He shuffled off and I just groaned.
"Blood, Mr. Eldridge," I reminded his retreating form. "It was blood."
Gertie returned to the main office. "Mr. Sherwood, it was for you. She said her name was Mabel and she had some important information to give you at the Green Room Bar and Lounge."
Scott closed his notebooks. "I got it!" He exclaimed. He then turned to Gertie. "Tell Mabel I'm on my way." He handed the notebooks to me. "Put these in the safe. They're big, big news, Betty! This could be the case of our careers!"
"What do you mean?" I asked. "And what does it have to do with Jeff Singer?"
Agent Bloom frowned. "You mean Jeff Singer the American spy?"
Boy, the surprises were just piling one on top of the other today. "Jeff Singer is a spy, too? Does his wife know this?"
Gertie rushed in with today's paper. "Miss Jones, wasn't Hilary Booth your client?" She handed me the Pittsburgh Daily News. The headline screamed BROADWAY STAR VANISHES DAYS BEFORE OPENING OF LATEST PLAY. "Does this mean that Hilary Booth is a spy as well?"
Agent Bloom grabbed the paper from Gertie and Scott took it from him as I stuffed our notebooks in the safe with some yellowed papers, dust, and a year-old ham and cheese sandwich that looked like a top secret medical experiment. "Jeff told me that Hilary knew nothing about his other job," Mackie explained. "We think that he may have found out something that the Axis didn't want anyone else to know."
"I've begun to notice that myself." I took Scott's arm as he got his coat and hat. "Scott, don't do this. It might be dangerous."
He raised his eyebrows. "The Green Room Bar and Lounge? The only thing dangerous there is the Saturday-night college crowd." He gave me a quick kiss. I tried to control my shivers when his warm lips touched my cheek and remind myself that I was spoofing film noir, not film d'amour.
"Scott..." I gulped and went on. "Just be careful."
"I will." He left and I went back to Agent Bloom, Gertie, and my desk.
Agent Bloom gestured at the safe. "I wonder what those codes said, anyway?"
I looked at the safe. "He didn't say not to read them."
Gertie went to attend to the door as Mackie and I opened the safe and took the notebooks out from under the fur-covered sandwich. I was just about to read them when Gertie brought me my third surprise of the day. Miss Mabel entered, dressed in a floral street outfit that, while gaudy, was far less extravagant than the showy red gown she wore for her singing act. The plump blonde woman and her short companion were also with her. "Hiya, Miss Jones! Eugie, Foley, and I have some information for you and Scotty that we thought you'd like to hear about."
I suddenly didn't feel well. "You just missed him, Miss Mabel. He went to see you at the Green Room Bar and Lounge."
"I didn't call him from there! Honest!" Mabel yelped. "Eugie and Foley and I spent the last hour rehearsing for tonight's show!"
Eugie raised her hand. "I can vouch for that, and so can Foley. Right, Foley?" The little man nodded and started to speak, but I cut him off.
"But if you didn't call him..." No one wanted to answer my unspoken question.
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