the starkadder switchback: a fitz fortune thriller

Rain was falling, sleek as silk stockings, splashing off the sidewalks and sliding off the cops' rubber slickers like charges slide off a mob boss. October in San Angelo, and the rain early this year. It gathered in the brim of Fortune's hat, ran giggling down the back of his collar, and pooled companionably in his shoes, making sure his feet weren't lonely down there. Even the rain wanted a piece of today's action.

Fitz Fortune's face looked like a collision mat, and he knew it. The whiskey felt good and heavy in his stomach though. It drowned the rats which had nibbled, daintily as duchesses, at the kid's thin little fingers and pale little cheeks. She'd look like hell when the cops found her. Fortune looked like hell now. Fair trade.

Keep it together, Fortune, said a nasty little voice that didn't sound like him, not at all, even though he could feel his numb lips moving. Keep it together. You're a tough guy. You've had worse. You don't need to take a nap right here in the street, no matter how soft and inviting the paving slabs are in this neighbourhood. Take some more whiskey and keep it together.

He took another slug from the quart of drug-store liquor. It tasted of rain water. San Angelo, where even the rain tasted of whiskey.

The hotel dick at the Windermere had thin red hair, a paunch, and an elk's tooth on his watch chain. Fortune didn't even try flashing his license. He just slipped him a folded bill, and took the elevator straight up to eighth.

The rain water was dripping off his coat, leaving spots on the hall carpet as big as nickels. Even the rain didn't want to stick with Fitz Fortune. Fortune couldn't blame it. He didn't want to stick with himself today.

Keep it together, Fortune.

"Who is it?"

"Room service."

"Nothing ordered from here."

"The Queen of England."

"Never heard of her, pal."

"Linda Pharoe."

The lock rattled and the door opened about wide enough for a mouse to saunter through happy. An eye like a poached egg looked him up and down. Mainly down.

"You ain't got the legs for it, pally," said the wiseguy, right before the butt of a Luger smashed into his nose.

Fortune put his shoulder to the door, broke the chain, kicked the wiseguy in the gut and clocked him with the Luger again on his way down. He went down peaceful after that. It was a sweet enough play, but Fortune wasn't in the mood to admire it.

Nor was the guy sitting on the bed. He looked like a couple of panthers blended and poured into an evening suit. He wasn't so tough - no bigger than a mountain gorilla, no harder than Mt Rushmore. He had dark curly hair, black eyes, and a smile that you could see on every billboard in town.

His name was Seth Starkadder, and he'd killed a girl.

"That's the trouble with being stashed in cheap hotels," said Fortune, fishing the gun out of Wiseguy's shoulder holster and dropping it into his pocket. A Colt .25. A lady's gun. Cute. "No intellectual stimulation."

Starkadder reached out for the glass on the bedside table. It looked like the smooth kind, the kind that you could drink a pint of at a sitting and still be able to see in the morning. His hands were big, with sturdy brown fingers. They'd played with the garters of every starlet in town. And they'd wrapped around the neck of one mixed-up kid and left her for the rats.

"Tell me about Wanda Chiozza."

Starkadder smiled a million-buck smile. Maybe it was in his contract to be the strong and silent type. Maybe he didn't speak a word of English, and all his movies were dubbed in by a little ugly guy from Iowa. He sat and smiled and sipped his whiskey, while Wiseguy bled quietly on the rug.

"Every cop I've ever met has told me what a nice town this is." Fortune took a dirty handkerchief from his pocket and began to clean the blood from his gun. "A nice town. A quiet town. A town where the cops don't like trouble." He looked closely at the butt. He'd shot a man with it yesterday. Maybe he'd have to shoot another one today. "But the great thing about such a quiet little town is just how much you can hear if you listen to the right people. You might hear that this messed-up kid named Wanda Chiozza is calling herself Linda Pharoe now. You might hear that she's the next hot thing, that she's got the legs to walk into any job in Hollywood, and enough talent that she might not even have to spread them on the way. You might hear she's been making time with a big star like Seth Starkadder. He hates women, of course, all the gossip rags know that, but man can't live by celluloid alone. You might also hear that his good buddies at United Integrated Pictures Incorporated had hustled him off to a lousy downtown hotel the day after little Wanda Chiozza unexpectedly went on a long trip to visit her folks in Vancouver." He reached over and flicked the rim of Starkadder's glass, making it ring. "His studio buddies say he's drying out, and he'll be back as soon as he's crawled out of his bottle. But you don't look to me like a man who's nursing a dose of the D.T.s."

"Were you wanting somethin', or did you come round to pitch me your screenplay?" Seth Starkadder's voice purred like a happy Buick, and his black eyes were like hot coals.

"I came to find out where you dumped the body."

His face creased up like the bay in earthquake season. "You're reaching."

"The flatmate puts you at Pharoe's house that evening. You left Lomax's party before ten - plenty of time to get over to her place and back before that neat little scene you staged with Valentine Orlo at eleven. You tripped up, buddy. You and your friends at the studio. When she's found with your finger-marks on her throat, you'll be for the chair before you can say `cut'."

Starkadder stood up, slow, like the start of a stampede or continents bumping shoulders. "You got nothin', peeper. You ain't got a body, you ain't got a case. But if I was to kill someone - " He stepped forward, smiling like a dental commercial. "That'd be the way I'd do it. Put my hands round her little white neck and squeeze - just like she tried to squeeze the life out of me. That's all women want - just a man's life, just the blood in his veins and the strength in his arms and the breath in his lungs. They tie you up in their fancy silk-stockings, until you can't move for the longin' of them." He laughed, a growl like a mountain lion spotting a lost poodle. "But not me. I never killed anyone, peeper. But if I did, that's how I'd do it."

"Really, Seth, I would have hoped that three years in the talkies would at least have given you some new material."

The dark fire went out of Starkadder's eyes. They turned sullen, like the last barbeque of the summer.

"Hullo, cousin Flora," he muttered rebelliously.

Fortune turned round.

There are blondes, and there are blondes.

This particular blonde's hair was the colour of old Spanish dubloons. She had eyes the colour of slate, and a dress the colour of the first smoke of the day. It was a dress which left pretty much all the vital points to the imagination. There were no more than six inches of silk-covered leg and nicely-turned ankle between the hem and the sensible little shoe with its sensible little heel. She was the kind of dame you wanted to muss up, just a little, just to see the effect.

Flora looked around the little hotel room, taking in the unmade bed, the bottle, the glasses, and the man in badly-cut evening dress curled up on the hearth-rug, and sighed inwardly. She was beginning to feel that America was really making far too much effort on her behalf. She stepped daintily over the prone body, noting that the man appeared to be breathing regularly if rather laboriously through his open mouth and was thus unlikely to be in any immediate danger, and sat down carefully on the little squeaking desk-chair. Seth was still looking rebellious, and turning a glass around in his hands as though considering throwing it at something. The other man, the man in the fawn trenchcoat and fedora who was leaving a water-mark on the carpet, was looking at her as if she were some sort of fabulous monster.

"You really ought to get that eye attended to," she offered helpfully. "And a split lip isn't anything to laugh about either. You should probably go to a hospital and then straight home."

The Private Detective - for there could be no doubt that he was one. His name was certainly Johnny Dalmas or Slick de Soto or similar - was still staring at her. She wondered for a moment if he had difficulty understanding her accent, but decided that there were quite enough English actors in the talkies these days that there was no longer any excuse for parochialism.

She gathered up Seth's glass from his unresisting fingers, collected two more from a little cluster on the desk, rinsed them in the little hand-basin, and poured a generous measure into each from the bottle of pale golden liquid. Tea, she reflected, would really have been a better idea, but she had her doubts about the management's ability to provide it. In these days of universal shortages, sacrifices had to be made.

"I'm sure you'll both get along much better if you discuss things like civilised people," she said, handing one glass to Seth, who took it automatically, and one to the detective, who couldn't take it at all, as he still held a gun in one hand and a rather dirty handkerchief in the other.

"Just who the hell are you, lady?" he snarled.

Flora decided against putting the glasses down and offering to shake hands, as there didn't seem to be much point under the circumstances. "I'm Mrs Flora Fairford," she answered. "Mr Starkadder is my cousin."

The detective's lip curled. "Come to see if your British money can buy him out of his troubles? Or maybe it's not money you're offering. Dames like you are a dime a dozen over on central, lady. It's getting so you can't go out for a pint of scotch in this town without tripping over a blonde."

"I haven't the least idea what you mean," said Flora, truthfully, as she had lost her place in the vernacular at around the second sentence. "I wanted to see Seth while I'm in town with my husband, and Mr Neck told me he was staying here."

"So, the studio and the family are in it together," growled the detective.

Flora smiled, placatingly. "If you like."

She managed to remove the handkerchief from the detective's hand, and substituted a glass. Then she sat down again, feeling that at least her duties as hostess were done.

The detective slammed his glass down on the desk, so the liquid licked up the sides like a drunk licks out his first hit of the day. "Lady, I don't care if you got the studios on your side. I don't care if you've got the cops. Hell, I don't care if you got the goddamn Pope - I've been out of the confessional too many years to bother about him. Your cousin killed a small-town kid with big dreams and bigger problems, and I'm going to see him fry for it."

Flora frowned. "You didn't kill anyone, did you?" she asked Seth. It was best to be certain in such matters.

Starkadder's eyes were smouldering. He looked at his cousin with a face like a bull in a bush fire. "Happen I might," he growled.

"'Happen' nothing, Seth," said Flora sharply. "This is a very serious matter, and it's no time for melodrama. Did you kill her?"

Seth glowered at her, then decided there was more mileage in glowering at the rug instead. "No," he said, sulkily.

"There you are, Mr - I'm sorry, I don't believe I caught your name."

"Fortune. Fitz Fortune," said Fortune, blankly.

Flora smiled. It would be. "Mr Fortune. My cousin Mr Starkadder may be many things, but I'm reasonably sure he isn't a murderer. And he's certainly not the sort of murderer who thinks about alibis and hiding bodies and things like that. I hope we can sort all of this out amicably without any more histrionics - "

"Goddamn it, lady, this is a murder, not a high-society tea-party!" Fortune knocked back his drink in one angry motion, then coughed and glared into the glass. "Jeez, what the hell is this crap?"

"I believe it's apple and ginger juice," said Flora, helpfully. She looked across at Seth.

Seth shuffled his feet a little. "I'm filming tomorrow," he muttered defensively. "Anything I drink'll just go straight to my throat. And Mr Neck don't like it when I'm huskier'n I was last take."

Fortune looked at him blankly. Then he took off his hat, and ran a hand through his tangled hair. The rain water was getting warm, and the soft patch where he'd been sapped was getting tender. "Lady, I been awake forty hours. I've been knocked out, beat up, held up, shaken down and given the run around. I been doped by an amateur and sapped by a pro. Nothing but liquor and wisecracks has passed my lips all day."

Flora was uncertain whether the correct response was sympathy or admiration, as it was entirely possible that such a day was a badge of honour in the Private Detective business, so she remained silent.

"And now," Fortune went on, "I've gotta deal with a movie star who drinks apple-juice in his leisure time. Just tell me if it's the world that's gone screwy, or if it's just me."

Flora looked at the detective. He wore a shabby coat, a black eye, and an expression of slightly angry bafflement. She stood up, and slipped her arm through his.

"I think it would be a good idea if we discussed that over lunch, don't you?"

As they were leaving the room, they found that the Wiseguy (who it turned out was actually an out-of-work actor called Hereward who was only moonlighting as a bodyguard to gather colour for his next picture) had regained consciousness. Flora insisted that they took him out for lunch too.

* * *

They lunched at the Angel Flights club, which was a beautifully shabby Victorian townhouse in the middle of shining acres of glass and metal which had once been other similarly beautiful Victorian townhouses. It had pure white walls, charmingly scarlet curtains, and the only professional waiters in the city. There wasn't a platinum blonde in the place. Mr Earl P. Neck had directed Flora towards it, and she had embraced it like a lost relation.

Seth lounged, perfectly at his ease; Hereward the Wiseguy dabbed surreptitiously at his nose; and Fitz Fortune looked around him with the expression of a caveman in Tiffany's. He had looked askance at the consommé, but had visibly perked up when the marvellous Irish stew arrived.

Flora applied herself diligently to her risotto with porcini mushrooms and truffle oil, and let the silence do her work for her.

"I was put on the case by Tiny O'Shea," said Fortune through his stew. "So called because he isn't. He just got back into town after making a pile cattle-ranching down Mexico way, and he's on the look-out for his old-time sweetheart, Wanda Chiozza. She was the kind of kid who makes a big splash in Nowhere Idaho, and comes to the big city to make it even bigger. She had a cute smile and hair you could light your cigarettes off. But she got into bad company - as if there's any other kind in this town. That's where she met Tiny. When Tiny dropped out of circulation, so did Wanda. But if you're a redhead with a cute smile and nice legs, you sometimes find that you can be even cuter and nicer as a blonde. Wanda Chiozza became Linda Pharoe, and left the mob behind her. She must have thought all her Cinderellas had come at once when she was picked up by United Integrated Pictures. But like all good stories in this town, that's where her troubles begin."

Flora poked at a stray slice of mushroom, and wondered vaguely whether the course in monologuing was a compulsory one that every Private Detective had to take at Private Detective school, or if it was something one learned on the job.

Seth was moodily making bread pellets.

"Linda Pharoe starts making time with Seth Starkadder. He hates women, almost as much as he hates the movies, and the whole town knows the temper he's got on him. Then one night Linda Pharoe suddenly takes it into her head to go on a long vacation. The studio guys all place Starkadder at a swell party - a party where he takes a swing at his co-star and knocks him into a punch-bowl the size of the Great Lakes, and half of Hollywood's there to take the photos. The studio guys say he was there all night. But I've got a scared little cloakroom kid who says he didn't check his coat until ten minutes before the fight started. And I've got a car that's done twenty miles more than it should. And I've got a sweet little girl called Maeve Corrigan, who says Starkadder was round at Pharoe's place at ten - and she lives there, so she ought to know. And when Pharoe's body turns up, I know what bruises we're going to find round her neck."

"'Tes a damned lie!" snarled Starkadder, picking up his glass and winding his arm back like it was the last pitch of the season.

Flora sighed. "Seth, do please sit down."

He did. The waiter who had been hovering nervously hovered away again.

Flora put her knife and fork neatly together on the plate. "Thank you, Mr Fortune. I think that's where I came in. Now, I'm sure this is the first thing you thought of, but - are you absolutely certain the Miss Pharoe is dead?"

The detective barked a laugh bitter as love. "Sure, lady. I often go around putting my license on the line for hunches."

"I do wish you would stop calling me `lady', it's rather medieval," said Flora, a touch crossly. "'Mrs Fairford' will be quite sufficient. And if there's no evidence that a crime has actually been committed, then I don't see how it can be anything else but a - `hunch'."

"The Corrigan kid puts Starkadder at the scene," said Fortune, grimly. The mutton tasted good enough that the sheep was probably proud to have given it up. It was better than his usual 85-cent lunch pail, which had about as much nourishment in it as a good deep breath. Fortune speared another piece of meat, and gestured with the fork. "She hears him go in, she hears a struggle, she hears him go. She don't hear Linda Pharoe go. No one hears her go. And an hour later, Starkadder's picking a fight at a party like he'd been spoiling for it for hours."

"But - I'm sure you know more about the detective business than I do, Mr Fortune - but isn't there something in the law about habeas corpus?"

"Then why doesn't he say where he was?" rapped out the detective, leaning across the table at Seth, who had subsided into mutinous silence again as he chewed on his steak bleu.

"I think that's a reasonable request," said Flora, reasonably, even though she was darkly aware of how seldom reason had more than a nodding acquaintance with the Starkadders of Cold Comfort Farm. "You can't really expect poor Mr Fortune to just take your word for it. I'm sure it'd be very bad for his business."

Hereward the Wiseguy rumbled into life.

"Mr Starkadder don't - "

He caught Flora's eye, and coughed. Mrs Fairford had already made it quite clear that he was having an hour off from his Method, and that she was not willing to countenance the abuse of verbal forms over her lunch.

"I mean," he began again, in a rather more Harvard-educated voice, if still somewhat indistinctly on account of his swollen nose. "Mr Starkadder doesn't have to say where he was if he doesn't want to. In fact, he's contractually obligated under certain circumstances to not say where he was."

"Under what circumstances?" Flora enquired.

Hereward prodded his sea-bass and sniffed, disconsolately. "I'm contractually obligated not to say."

"But I'm sure the contract wasn't drawn up with an accusation of murder in mind," Flora insisted. Then she thought again. "Even in Hollywood," she added.

Hereward looked uncomfortable. "You have to swear that you won't tell the fan magazines," he hissed, leaning across the table.

"The fan - "

Flora laid a gently restraining hand on Fortune's arm, and he subsided, darkly. "Of course, Hereward. You can rely on our discretion. Can't he, Mr Fortune?"

Fortune muttered something faintly affirmative.

"Well..." said Hereward very softly, eyes darting from point to point around the room like ball-boys at a tennis match. "He was at the pictures."

It was the kind of silence where you could hear a spider tap-dancing in carpet slippers.

"Gosh," said Fortune, sounding awestruck. "And did he take in a soda parlour on the way home, or would that be too exciting?"

"Mr Fortune, this is a very serious matter!" said the Wiseguy, getting less wise by the minute.

"Serious!" snapped Fortune. "I'll say it's serious! From the build-up up I was expecting he'd just rolled over a couple of nice old ladies! I didn't for one moment imagine he'd have gone to the movies. From there it's a short step to taking in a show, and after that there's only incest and country dancing between you and the pit."

"Would you please keep your voice down?" Hereward whispered. "Listen, no one's anyone in Hollywood these days unless they've got a gimmick. Mr Starkadder's gimmick is that he hates women and he hates the movies. So if the fan magazines found out he spent the evening at the movies with his best girl - "

"Oh, sure, it'd be worse than being had up for murder - !"

"Do you have a best girl, Seth?" asked Flora, honestly surprised.

Seth curled his lip, and radiated pure, virile self-confidence. "Happen I might have a few."

"That's no alibi," objected Fortune. "Sure, you could find a girl who says she was with him that evening. I could find a dozen on any block in town."

"Mr Starkadder slipped away from Mr Lomax's part just before eight," Hereward maintained, doggedly. "He went to the cinema on the corner of sixty-eight and fourth, and watched Other Men's Wives with a certain lady. He then returned to the party."

"And I suppose you know because you acted as chauffeur, and helped him with the lady's garters when they got too complicated."

"Was it a good film?" Flora asked, less because she wanted to know the answer than because she had been at too many Bloomsbury parties to be much interested in talking about garters these days, especially not over a perfectly nice lunch. Discussing Mrs Smiling's brassiere collection with her butler, Sneller, had somehow ensured that there were remarkably few intimate garments which provoked in her any sense of embarrassment.

"'s all right," said Seth, sweepingly. "See'd it twice before anyway. Not as good as Sins of the Flesh. Or Downtown Delilah. Or - "

"Very trying for you I'm sure," said Flora, vaguely.

"If you got nothing to hide, then why do your buddies at the studio want to keep you stashed away in a cheap hotel where interfering private eyes can't find you?" Fortune demanded, viciously mopping up the last of the gravy with a piece of soda bread.

Seth, having got over his fit of brief animation, went back to looking sulky again.

"His apartment's being redecorated," said Hereward, a little apologetically.

* * *
The glass panel in the door had his name on it, somewhere under the dust and the grime. It let into a little mail box of a room where a client could sit and wait, if he happened to have a client and that client happened to want to sit and wait. There were two chairs, the fabric shiny at the arms, and a table the size of a shoe box with magazines on it that went back to before the war.

There was a third chair, but you couldn't see it around the red-headed giant who was sitting on it, his knees somewhere up around his ears. He levered himself out of the chair as though he'd rather have had a pry bar to help him.

"Lieutenant Mallory," grunted Fortune, shaking the water from his coat like a dog. "To what do I owe the privilege?"

"Just a courtesy call," said the big police officer, twisting his hat in his huge hands like it was a handkerchief. His eyes were dusty violets in the gloom, and his smile lit up the room. "Sorry, Ma'am, I don't believe we've been introduced."

Flora edged her way around Fortune, who was standing stonily in the doorway, and held out her neatly gloved hand. "Mrs Flora Fairford."

"Rusty Mallory," said the giant, engulfing her hand with fingers the size of bananas and a touch like a kitten walking on fresh-fallen snow. "Pleased to make your acquaintance."

"Likewise," said Flora, with a sense of relief. It was, she reflected, the first time she had made the acquaintance of someone in San Angelo who wasn't bleeding, or holding a gun, or both. She felt obscurely as Columbus might have on first reaching America and finding the Indians sitting down to afternoon tea.

"You a friend of Fortune's?" he asked.

Flora was fortunately spared from answering that rather complex question by the detective himself, growling into his damp collar.

"Not that I don't appreciate the social call, officer, but it's been a busy day, and I've already got a full afternoon scheduled of keeping an eye on my office wall in case someone tries to steal it. You wouldn't be here to spoil my schedule, would you?"

Rusty played with his hat some more, awkward as the chess club captain at the High School prom, but with an extra foot of height and hundred pounds of weight to be awkward with. "Just because I'm wearing a badge don't mean I'm not your friend - "

"Skip it," said Fortune, shortly. "You're here because the chief leaned on you. The chief leaned on you because someone leaned on him. Now, that someone could be anyone with two bits to rub together in this town, but I'm betting it was Mr Earl P. Neck of United Integrated."

"Nobody's been leanin' on nobody," said the big man, with the mildness of big men everywhere. "Sure, we've had Mr Neck on the phone. He says you've been hassling his boy. Would you say you've been hassling anybody lately?"

"I don't think it's possible under the law to hassle a murderer, officer. I think it's called doing my job. I'm pretty sure it'd be called doing yours, too."

"Homicide isn't a job for private dicks!" Mallory wailed. "Christ, Fitz - if you were really chasing round after a killer, you think the department would be letting you play it alone? You think I would?"

"I think the department wouldn't give a handful of magic beans for one lost little girl in this city of hungry giants," said Fortune. He stood against the silver grey of the window, and tried to decide if the pounding was the rain on the glass or the blood in his head. He was a tough guy, but it'd been one hell of a day. "I think the studios can afford one hell of a lot of beans. Now me - I'm getting twenty-five dollars a day plus expenses from an ex-enforcer who's not going to be too pleased with me when I tell him that his little peach has been bruised in a pretty permanent way. And if you or any of the department tries to stop me closing the case, then so help me God - "

"You'll what?" asked Rusty, sadly, his eyes big and gentle and only a little bit angry. "Fortune, you got no power in this town. You got no right to go hustling movie stars without any evidence against them. Don't do anything which I'm goin' to hafta take you in for. You got evidence, you bring it to me, and we'll look into it."

"Oh, sure," sneered the detective. "But not until after Christmas. That's when good ol' Saint Neck brings all the good little Commissioners their Christmas bonuses, right?" He kicked at the connecting door into the inner office, sprung the lock, and turned in the doorway. "Skip it, Rusty. I'm closing this case. You want to do me a favour, for old time's sake? Keep your new buddies at the precinct off my back."

The door slammed. It sounded like a Luger, fired close enough you could feel the powder-burn on your cheek.

"Goddamn self-centred stupid son of a - "

"Are you a friend of Mr Fortune?" asked Flora, setting upright again the table which the slamming of the door had overturned, and arranging the rather faded magazines in a neat fan on top. They seemed to be mostly back issues of Surveillance Monthly, with a couple of Black Masks to add spice, and they left her gloves a little grimy.

"That depends, Ma'am," said Rusty, trying to straighten his hat out and discovering that he'd already detached half of the brim from the crown. "I'd say I'm one of the oldest friends he's got. You tell me what he thinks of me. Him and me - "

He and I, Flora almost corrected, but managed to bite her tongue.

" - we were partners, working for the DA's office. We had big dreams about cleaning up this dirty town. He don't trust me no more, since I went to work for the cops. But it ain't like the old days!" Rusty's fingers, apparently independently of his will, had started to remove the brim from the hat entirely. Flora took it gently but firmly out of his hands without managing to disrupt the flow of narrative. "A lot of the bent cops got moved on, and plenty of good, honest people got moved in - "

"People like you," said Flora, who had taken rather a liking to the large awkward man. Rusty glowed, shyly.

"Yeah, maybe. But Fitz, he just don't see it. He's gotta fight every case for himself, like he was one of them lone gun fighters in the movies." He looked at the inner office door, face crumpling like the till receipt from a by-the-hour hotel. "He's a good guy. I don't want to see him hurt."

"Of course you don't," said Flora, comfortingly. She looked around the little dingy reception room, with its quaint drapes of cobweb and the gentle patina of mildew on the walls. She could feel her fingers beginning to itch.

"Mrs Fairford," said Rusty, earnestly, picking his ruined hat up from the table and perching it on top of his auburn hair. "If you're a friend of his - would you keep an eye on him? For me?"

Flora came to a decision. "Lieutenant, do you have a telephone number where I could reach you?"

"Sure," said Rusty, fishing a battered and lightly stained card out of his wallet and handing it to her.

Flora held it delicately between her gloved fingers, and gently tapped it against her gloved thumb. "I don't think you need to worry, Lieutenant Mallory," she said in a slightly distracted voice, a voice that beheld visions. "I think I can deal with Mr Fortune."

* * *

There was a fly beating against the window. It beat its head against the glass, lifting halfway up the pane before dropping back to the bottom to start over again. If Robert the Bruce had been watching this fly, he'd never have made it out of the cave. Even if it somehow got outside, it'd be washed straight into a storm drain by the water still throwing its from the sky like jumpers off Colorado Street Bridge.

Fortune sat with his heels digging a furrow into the desk, watching it. If there was a metaphor to be had in that little fly, he didn't want to hear it.

He knocked back the glass of scotch and poured another from the office bottle.

"Twenty-five bucks a day plus expenses, with a Christmas bonus of whatever I can sucker out of nice little old ladies with lost dogs. Not a lot of bread for a whole lot of troubles. I need a drink. I need a holiday. I need some life insurance and a place in the country. Right now I'd settle for a pair shoes that didn't let in the puddles." He drank again, the liquor sliding smooth and easy down his throat. "Right now I need cops like I need another hole in my head. San Angelo, a town where the cops don't like trouble. That's why they pass all that trouble on to me."

"I'm sorry, were you saying something?" asked Flora, closing the last of the drawers in the filing bureau. She felt inwardly certain that her presence was entirely incidental to the progress of the monologue, but it was as well to stop playing Second Spear-Carrier once in a while. "You know, your filing system really is awful."

"You can't be a clean cop in a dirty town," Fortune went on, eyes on the fly as it butted up the pane and dropped back down.

"You really ought to think about putting some sticking plaster on your lip too," said Flora, brushing a finger against the heavy green curtains and dislodging a cloud of dust and a few minute spiders. "And I'm not sure that whiskey is a good remedy for incipient concussion either, even if it is being used for purely medicinal purposes."

"You just get cops like Chief Ogilvie, the squeaky wheel that gets greased all the time. Or like Rusty, a good guy who can't be as good as he'd like any more."

"I think you might have been a little more polite to the lieutenant," Flora said, standing in front of the desk and looking pointedly at the grooves worn by seemingly several generations of private detective heels. It was nothing that replacing the leather surface wouldn't cure, of course, but her chances of persuading Fortune to agree to that in the few days she would be spending in the city seemed remote. She would have to console herself with the notion that they could be easily concealed by a vase of flowers, or perhaps - a conscious concession to the setting - a piece of extremely modernist sculpture.

"Sure, I'm a swell guy," said Fortune, looking through the glass and seeing eternity in the bottom. "I'm the guy who chews out his friends for having the brains to get out and make more than a couple of hundred a month."

"Plus expenses," Flora reminded him.

Fortune's eyes lifted from the glass. "Plus expenses," he conceded, grudgingly.

"I really do think you should let me look at that lip," said Flora, peeling off her gloves.

"Lady, you can get better acquainted with my lips any time you please."

"Too kind of you," said Flora, brightly. After her first rather shocked encounter with the choir boys in Charles' new parish, this sort of genteel flirtation was positively relaxing. "Do you have any sort of disinfectant?"

"No, lady, I drank it," said Fortune, oozing liquid irony.

Flora shook her head. "You know, you really shouldn't mix your drinks like that."

"Cute." Fortune opened the bottom drawer of his desk and pulled out a clear bottle of surgical spirits, a bottle labelled `Mercurochrome' that Flora eyed with deep trepidation, and some cotton swabs.

"This would be rather easier if you had shaved this morning," said Flora, reprovingly, as she cleaned dried blood from the split lip.

Fortune looked at her from the corner of one red eye. "I woke up this morning in a three-day patented liquor cure clinic, doped up to the eyes. You're lucky I'm still walking and talking."

"Don't you think you'd be much happier in a job where you could guarantee that you'd never have to wake up in a three-day patented liquor cure clinic?" Flora suggested, tilting the detective's head forward with firm, cool fingers, so she could apply the alcohol to the dented patch on the back of his head. "I don't know what job exactly. But I'm sure there must be lots of jobs which don't necessitate you getting beaten down or knocked up or whatever it was you said."

"I don't need any frail to tell me my job!" snapped Fortune, addressing his knee. "I work at being a detective, lady. It's not just fine holiday fun."

"I can see that," agreed Flora earnestly, and privately pondering whether it was possible that Fitz Fortune had simply been sapped once too often, possibly in childhood. "But you could surely be a detective without having to get knocked out every other day just to keep you in overcoats and hats." Neither of which were too clean, she noted. Something would have to be done about those.

"I'm not cop material, lady," Fortune growled. "I got problems with authority figures. I have a note from my shrink excusing me from positions in hierarchical structures."

"I didn't mean a police detective, necessarily," said Flora. "I just meant a different sort of private detective. One who had a chance to shave every morning, and kept a nice clean office which clients wouldn't be afraid to walk into. There are wonderful south-facing windows in here, I'm sure it would be a lovely room if you would only keep it a little tidier."

Fortune snorted, and Flora pushed his head forward a little further. "A little front costs a lot of dough," he said, sounding somewhat muffled. "You think I make enough for a secretary and a cleaner on twenty-five bucks a day?"

"Plus expenses."

"Forget the goddamn expenses! They only just keep me in gas and liquor."

"Perhaps if you started taking soda with your liquor you'd be able to afford a cleaner," said Flora, dropping the cotton wool into the waste-paper basket. "Why don't you just take better paid jobs?"

"Because I don't do divorces, and I don't sleep with heiresses," snapped Fortune, coming upright like a boxer two counts from the bell in the last round. "If I wanted to die rich, lady, I'd have settled down to write my memoirs years back. But sometimes, when it's real late, I hear someone out there in the night crying their heart out, and I'm the sap who can't just roll over and go to sleep. And there's no money in that."

Flora flicked her handkerchief over the chair on the opposite side of Fortune's desk, then decided it was probably safer just to sit on the handkerchief. "Mr Fortune, I think it's wonderful that you're keeping the ideal of the knight errant alive and well in the New World. But surely if you accepted just a few well-paying cases, then you'd be able to answer crying voices in the night for nothing, and still be able to employ a cleaner?"

"And when would I find time to solve these well-paying cases?"

"I'm sure they wouldn't take very long for a detective of your experience," said Flora, a little vaguely, as she had never cared enough for police business to trouble to find out how long it took to solve a simple kidnapping or the like. "Or you could employ an assistant. That way they could take care of the boring paying cases while you were busy helping the needy. Or getting sapped, I suppose. But only if you really wanted to."

"And I'm going to pay an assistant how?"

Flora sighed, wearily. "With the money from all those dull well-paid cases, of course."

"And how am I going to find all those dull, well-paid cases?"

Flora was beginning to suspect that Fortune was being deliberately obstructive. Still, she was willing to give him the benefit of the doubt and assume that he had been so long mired in his own rather defeatist philosophy that he probably wouldn't recognise a reasonable business-plan if it was introduced to him at a party. "Well, you might begin by making your offices look like they've been inhabited some time this century."

Fortune swung his feet up onto the desk again, and looked at her through his crossed feet. "I'm a private eye, lady. A shamus. A dick. A peeper. Ever hear of a shamus who took much time over his interior décor?"

"No," Flora conceded. "But then, I've never heard of any shamuses either."

Fortune uncapped the bottle, poured another slug into the glass. It glowed like spring sunshine, like New Year's resolutions, like the Fairford dame's hair. He looked at her through the glass, at her straight, serious little nose, her slim waist just designed for putting an arm round, at her long, long legs -

Flora pointedly draped her green raincoat over her lap.

"Today I didn't even earn the gas money," said Fortune, grimly. "I got jack from your cousin about the Chiozza kid. And I spilled like a fire hydrant. Now everyone from the studio execs on down to the clapper boys will know that it's the Corrigan kid who fingers Starkadder at the scene. They'll take her out fast as a greased snake on St Patrick's day."

"Well, why don't we go and see her?" Flora suggested.

"It's too late by now. She'll be filling out a plane-seat to Chicago by now if she can be bought, and a Chicago overcoat if she can't."

"Nonsense," said Flora briskly, standing up. "I'd very much like to ask her why she says poor Seth was at this Miss Pharoe's flat that evening when we know perfectly well he wasn't."

Fortune frowned, but eased himself out of the chair all the same. "You carry a piece, lady?"

"I'm afraid I have no idea."

"I mean - are you packing heat? Got a rod? A gat? A bean shooter?" Flora maintained her studiously blank expression until Fortune growled, "A gun, lady."

"Of course I don't."

"Of course she doesn't..." Fortune opened another drawer, and began extracting a variety of different firearms of different size, weights, calibres, and degrees of illegality.

"Do you really need that many guns?" asked Flora, dubiously.

"It's in case I lose one."

"Do you often lose them?"

"Sure! There was that time in the Jefferson jewellery case - lost two guns that time. One when I got slugged by the family's tame gorilla, once when the lovely Miss Jefferson frisked me over cocktails. Then there was the Big Bond Bank Robbery case - "

"Do you really think it's entirely sensible to store them all in one unlocked desk drawer?"

"It's the last place anyone'd think to look."

When they reached the corridor outside - which was clean and singularly lacking in inexplicable smells, and generally rather more salubrious than Fortune's office - Flora stopped and looked ostentatiously through her handbag.

"Oh, bother," she said, a little theatrically. "I seem to have left my gloves in your office. I won't be a moment - would you be a lamb and lend me you key? You can go downstairs and get the car started."

Fortune - and bless him for the innocent lamb and the chivalrous gentleman that he rather incongruously appeared to be - handed Flora the key without a demur.

She fussed with the lock until the metal cage of the lift had clanged shut. Then she ducked back out into the corridor, and tapped gently three doors down. It was opened by a person of indeterminate gender, with what looked like a small tablecloth wrapped around its head. It held a duster in one hand and a cloth in the other, and wore an expression which could best be described as non-plussed.


"I'm sorry to disturb you while you're working," said Flora, winningly. "I heard you from Mr Fortune's room. Tell me, do you see to all the offices on this floor?"

"Um...all th'offices in this building, ma'am."

"Except for Mr Fortune."

"Um. Yes. Yeah, except'n for Mr Fortune."

"Do you think you could see your way clear to doing his rooms too?"

"Well, I suppose - I mean - sure, ma'am, only'n how I don't have no key."

"Is there a piece of soap in there somewhere you might borrow?"

It turned out that there was. Flora took it, and pressed the key into the softer side before presenting it to the girl.

"But, say, isn't this - I mean - oh, bother. Ain't this il-le-gal?"

"Of course not," said Flora. "It would only be illegal if Mr Fortune didn't want it done. And he'd have hardly left me with his key if he didn't, now would he?"

"Well," said the girl, "I suppose - I mean, I guess - oh, bother."

Flora peered into her face a little more carefully. "You are the cleaning lady, aren't you?"

"Oh, yes!" agreed the girl. "Positively!" Then she sighed, and looked at Flora reproachfully. "Y'know, it's real difficult staying in character when people will insist on talking to you. Nobody normally talks to the maid. They're not even meant to realise you're there. It's a frightfully important part of the character's motivation, you know, staying in the background as much as possible."

"Really?" wondered Flora.

"Absolutely," said the girl, with considerable fervour. "You've no idea how much time and effort I've taken learning to be invisible. It's really vital to the role." She had unwrapped the extraordinary tablecloth-like garment from her head as she spoke, and shook out glossy waves of neat dark hair.

"May I assume that you're not really a char-lady then?"

"Oh, I am," the girl hastened to reassure her. "But only while I'm gathering material for my next movie. I'm taking classes with this wonderful man who keeps telling me about his Method. He says you can't hope to play a role unless you've really been that role. So this month I'm being a maid."

"But you still get paid as if you were actually a char-lady?"

The girl laughed, a pleasantly husky sound, like mynah-birds coughing. "Gracious, no! Daddy would never allow it. He says it's bad enough me being an actress, without me actually earning wages."

Flora, who felt she was beginning to understand how the cogs of society and the wheels of commerce in this great city were kept turning, nodded seriously. "Oh, I quite understand. Tell me, would you be interested in the opportunity to pick up some experience in other roles?"

"I guess that'd depend on how good the roles were," said the girl, doubtfully.

"Oh, it'd be perfect for a young woman just starting in the industry," Flora enthused. "Not a lead, obviously, but a very complex and sympathetic supporting role. She's the secretary to a long-wolf detective - you know the sort of thing. The kind of man who gets knocked about by every villain in town, so his devoted secretary always has to patch him up at the end of the first reel. She keeps his files in order, does his typing, answers his phone, and keeps the office clean and tidy, because at the end of the day she knows that all those flashy blondes are just window dressing, and it's her he always comes back to." (Privately, Flora thought that any putative secretary might be waiting a very long time for Fortune to come in out of the rain; but there was no harm in over-selling a position.) "And of course, Mr Fortune wouldn't want to insult either you or your father by offering you a salary," she finished. "It would be purely for the sake of your Art."

The young woman's eyes, which were sea-green and of an impressive vapidity, were glowing. "I'll do it! Ma'am, I don't know how to thank you enough for this opportunity - "

"Please don't thank me," said Flora, and meant it quite sincerely. It is possible that she ought to have felt rather more remorse at the manipulation; but, as she reminded herself, a reliable secretary was surely a far more valuable commodity in San Angelo than an aspiring actress. "If you just take that impression away and have a key made from it, you could start tomorrow morning. Oh, and Mr Fortune will probably kick up something of a fuss, saying he doesn't need a secretary and that dames only get in the way of good detective work. He's a method man himself, so he'll just be helping you get into the part. Just be firm with him, and I'm sure you'll get along splendidly."

As Flora closed the door of the lift and began to pull on her dove-grey gloves (now safely retrieved from the dark corner of the bag where they had been concealed), she could hear the girl trilling that great show-stopping number, `It's Only Dictation (But He Won't Dictate To Me)', in a voice like two mynah-birds trying to sing in unison.

* * *

"This is ridiculous," said Flora from the comparative shelter of a rose-trellis.

There are days when hail falls like bullets, and then there are days when bullets fall like hail. Maybe it doesn't hail much in San Angelo - especially not in the nicer districts, not if the hail knows what's good for it - but it could sure provide showers of shootings. Sweet old ladies went out for their electric blue rinses with pieces in their purses, and well-brought-up kids swapped them like candy, practicing for the day when they were bona fide juvenile delinquents. And nice little girls, the kind with fiery Mexican eyes and fiery Irish hair - the kind who showed a little more leg than a nice girl really should - kept modest arsenals in their garter belts. It was that kind of town.

Fortune was ducked down behind a gatepost, keeping low, with a gun in one hand and his hat in the other, a bullet-hole drilled smart as a pin-prick through the crown. "Can you blame a girl for being just a tad jumpy?"

Jumpiness, in Flora's experience, was more conventionally manifested in a tendency to drop crockery, or in a morbid fondness for dried flower arranging, than in a penchant for high-velocity firearms, but she was prepared to accept that there was some sort of cultural division at work here. She brushed a stray rose-petal off her shoulder, and cupped her hands around her mouth to call across to Fortune: "I think I might just go and see if there's a back door."

"You're crazy, lady! Hey, hold up, I'll keep you covered - "

Flora made her way at a brisk clip from trellis to urn and from urn to the generous bed of begonias around the corner of the house. There were little green hummingbirds tranquilly enjoying the delights of a large jacaranda tree against the wall. They did not seem to be in the least disturbed by the sounds of gunfire near at hand, apparently regarding it as one of the natural wonders of the region.

Flora let herself in by the side door, and slipped cautiously through the kitchen. A very circumspect glance around the door revealed that the girl was pressed against the wall near the window, snapping off shots around the corner with impressive skill and rapidity. Flora wondered fleetingly if she had missed her calling in professional clay-pigeon shooting, but then dismissed the notion as a project too many.

"Excuse me," she said in quite a normal voice as soon as a lull in the explosions made speech possible. "Do you think you might stop shooting at Mr Fortune? He really has had an eventful enough few days that I don't think he needs to be shot too. Thank you so much."

The girl turned and gaped at her, her gun temporarily forgotten.

"And do you happen to have any tea? It's past four o'clock already. I'm sure you'd feel much better for a cup."

The girl gaped a little more.

"It's all right, I'm sure I'll be able to find everything," said Flora, returning to the neat little kitchen and filling the kettle from the tap. "By the way, do you think you might call Mr Fortune to come up?"

"You're - with Mr Fortune? The private eye?" The girl hovered in the doorway, hesitant and darting as the hummingbirds.

"Of course," Flora replied.

"Oh, thank God!" the girl wailed, dropping into a chair and the gun into her lap. "I thought you were with - them!"

"Oh, no, we're certainly not with them," said Flora absently, finding a little box of what smelled almost like tea, and reflecting sadly on the absence of a teapot. Standards were slipping even in the States, it seemed. There was a cafetiére, however, which she supposed would have to do in such an emergency.

"Would someone explain to me what the blazes is going on round here?"

"Do come through, Mr Fortune," Flora called into the other room. "Maeve - I may call you Maeve, mayn't I? - Maeve was just helping me make some tea."

"Nuts," muttered Fortune, sidling into the room with his gun up. "Lady, you are absolutely, positively and definitely nuts. Or I am."

"Now, Maeve, I wonder if you would answer a few questions," said Flora, putting the hot cafetiére on the table with three mismatched cups and a prettily painted jug full of milk. "Do come and sit down, both of you, while the tea brews."

Silently, with much the same suspicious expressions that the emperor Heliogabolus' later dinner guests must have worn when the flower arrangements were brought out. They sat down on either side of Flora at the kitchen table.

"Why'd you feed me that line about Starkadder being here that night, Maeve?" snarled Fortune, as grimly as was possible over the tea-cups.

"It weren't no line!" the girl squawked. "He was here, I seen him myself!"

"We got witnesses say different, Maeve. We got people who put him on the other side of town. So why'd you lie to me?"

"I don't tell you no lies, Fortune!"

"You made me your patsy," said Fortune, slamming his now rather drafty hat down on the table and rattling the crockery. "I make enough mistakes of my own without you making them for me. If I had a nasty suspicious mind, I might wonder just what you were covering up by putting me on to Starkadder. But people with nasty suspicious minds shouldn't become private eyes, I guess. They become cops. You think I should see what the nasty suspicious cops make of your story, Maeve?"

The girl jumped to her feet, grabbed the edge of the table like the world was a ship and the ship was going down. She giggled, a nasty creeping sound that seemed like it should have come from some other lips, foam-flecked and blood-spotted. "You got nothin' on me, shamus! Not even a body!"

Fortune leaned back in his chair and tipped his head back, the better to talk to the ceiling. "You know, Maeve, a gun-shot is unique as a fingerprint. Those slugs you put into your neighbours' acacia trees a few minutes back won't look like the slugs I put into your door jamb. You know what I think, Maeve? I think Starkadder didn't kill Linda Pharoe. I think that when the cops find Linda Pharoe's body, they'll find one of your nice little .25 bullets, right between her eyes, just waiting for us to come along and dig it out."

"You make me sick!" the girl spat, eyes shining like oil burning on water. "Dirty little man with your dirty little plots. But you'll never pin anything on me! I'll - "

"Do you take milk with your tea, Maeve?"

"No thanks," said Maeve, automatically, in a quite sensible voice. "Just a little lemon."

"Would you hand that to Miss Corrigan, Mr Fortune?" asked Flora, holding out a delicate china cup full of steaming golden liquid. She held it patiently for a long moment before adding, "While it's still hot, if at all possible."

Fortune took the cup and passed it silently on to Maeve.

There was a long pause as Flora poured out two more cups, added milk, and blew delicately on the ruffled brown surface.

"Oh, what the hell," said Maeve Corrigan, sitting down again. "It was a lousy plot anyway."

Flora sipped her tea. "So you didn't see Seth - Mr Starkadder at all that evening?"

"Not me," said Maeve, flicking her red hair over her shoulder and smoothing it in place.

"And Miss Pharoe?"

Maeve shrugged. "Gone to Vancouver to see her folks. She just went up a little sudden, since some deadbeat friend of hers turned up in town and started making a nuisance of himself. Name of Tommy O'Shea. Wanted her to come out and raise cattle with him or similar. Can you imagine?"

"Quite," said Flora, who couldn't.

Fortune appeared to be choking on his tea. "Then what in hell's name made you spin me a story like you did?" he spluttered.

"Oh, it was all the studio's idea," said Maeve, airily. "They figured it'd be nice if Linda and Mr Starkadder could get some free publicity ahead of this new movie they're in. It's something about some guy who fell in love with some girl on a moor, but then she went and married someone else, and he swears he'll destroy her and her family. Only then she dies in a plane crash or something. Anyway, it's going to be marvellous."

Flora shivered slightly at the idea of Seth in a modern-dress retelling of Wuthering Heights, but agreed that, yes, it was certainly going to be marvellous.

"Anyway," Maeve went on, "the promotion boys thought it'd be swell if the fan magazines could figure there was some deep dark secret between Linda and Mr Starkadder. So when Linda went to see her folks for a few days, they asked me to say she'd disappeared." She crossed her long, gleaming legs, and fluffed her hair modestly. "I think I played it pretty good, don't you?"

Flora was beginning to feel a certain crushing sense of inevitability. "Maeve, you wouldn't happen to be an actress, would you?"

"'Happen'?" the girl gasped. "Haven't you heard of me? Didn't you see `The Starlet Slayings'? Or `A Marriage Is Denounced'? I got great notices in that one!" She looked at Flora down her beautiful nose, with cornflower eyes full of pitying incomprehension. "Boy, you English sure have it tough."

* * *

"Mr Fortune, do please wait."

"Sorry lady. I'd like to say it's been a pleasure working this case with you. I'd like a lot of things, starting off with the last three days of my life back and ending with a new head. But it turns out we haven't been working a case at all, just an elaborate con. So you just trot off back to your husband, and let me crawl into a bottle in peace."

Flora sighed, caught up with the detective as he reached the bottom of Maeve Corrigan's driveway, and put her arm through his again. "You really shouldn't take this so to heart. Isn't it better if the victim isn't actually dead?"

"I'm all washed up, lady," said Fortune, kicking a stray shell case and sending it ricocheting off a nearby parked car. "Washed up, dried out, and on the shelf."

"I'm sure you're not. You were quite right, after all - it was all a plot by the studio."

"Never trust a dame," he snarled. "First rule, and I forgot it, like I was still considering trading up to solid food. She played me like a viola, and I didn't even notice."

Flora considered. "Well, you had already been knocked out twice before you went to see her in the first place, hadn't you? I don't think anyone would blame you if you weren't quite as perceptive as usual."

"You're a sweet kid," said the shamus. "Just a shame I don't go for sweet kids. I go for red-heads with names you can't remember and legs you can't forget, and they're the ones who'll clean you out every time. Run on home to your husband, kid. You're not my type."

I should jolly well think not, was what Flora thought; but she managed to restrict her reply to, "Oh, really?"

"I'm washed up, kid. I should quit the business. But it's not the kind of business you can just leave behind."

"I don't think you're washed up," said Flora, comfortingly. "And I don't think you need to stop being a detective. You just need to change your idiom a little, that's all."


"You could start off by not seeing murdered blondes and dangerous red-heads behind every tree," she suggested. "You could try to find some clients who are real people instead of actors - "

"You ever met a real person in this town, kid?"

Flora had to concede that one. "You could work more with that nice man Lieutenant Mallory. I'm sure you'd really be a lot happier if you didn't spend every evening getting knocked out, or drinking with dangerous women, or listening to people crying in the night. You could go out for dinner. Perhaps you could even go to a show. There's such an amusing piece on at the Alhambra at the moment, all about a brilliant attorney and his secretary and his friend the private detective, and about how they take all sorts of cases that no one else will take. I do think you'd enjoy life a lot more if you would only try."

"I don't need no help from you or any other dame on how to enjoy my life," growled Fortune, but it sounded a little formulaic. His blue eye - or as much of it as Flora could see around the bruising - looked pensive. "For the record...what was that show called?"

Fortune dropped her off at her hotel in good time to dress for dinner, with a cynical quip and a lingering glance which made her very glad that she wasn't his type. As the blessedly clean and shining lift lifted her, graceful as goose down, to the fourteenth floor, her mind was still seething with the half-formed possibilities of a plan well in hand.

"Did you have a pleasant day, darling?" asked Charles, as she kissed him in greeting and gravely accepted the quizzical glance of their Firstborn, who was still at the stage of finding his own feet fascinating.

"A little fatiguing," she confessed. "Do you think we might eat in the hotel restaurant tonight?"

"Wherever you like, dear heart," said Charles cheerfully. "Did you manage to see that cousin of yours? I saw the tail end of the most extraordinary thing on the television a little while ago - seemed to be saying that a Seth Starkadder had disappeared after an altercation with a female co-star. There can't be more than one Seth Starkadder in San Angelo, can there?"

Flora thought of all the fan magazine headlines which had screamed at her as she passed the news-vendor on the corner (SETH STARKADDER IN SEX SLAYING?!). "Oh, that's all nonsense, of course. I saw him this afternoon, he seemed perfectly well. Charles?"


"Do you know of any good detective stories? With the sort of detective who can dress smartly and enjoy a civilised dinner, but who isn't afraid of fisticuffs if the occasion demands? I thought of Lord Percy Wisham, but he's probably not quite the thing."

"You know I don't read that sort of book, darling," said Charles. "Though I suppose there's Rex Wolfe. Or there's Mason Gardner. Or - "

"Could you write them down for me, darling? I might go to a bookshop tomorrow, if I can find one."

"I didn't think they were your sort of thing."

"Oh, they're not for me. They're for a friend."

It was high time, Flora decided, for Fitz Fortune to be divested of his Black Mask habits and to be dragged into the world of the modern private detective. By this time next week, he would have a clean and smart office, a sensible new filing system, a secretary who would certainly be smart and might even become sensible, if given sufficient encouragement, and - she picked Rusty Mallory's card out of her handbag and tucked it securely in her address book - a far more sensible relationship with the police department. He would also have a selection of novels which depicted the modern detective in all his many and varied moods, from orchid-cultivating to classical-music-appreciating, while still managing to defend the defenceless and exact justice from the wicked-doer. (She had briefly considered slipping a copy of her beloved Pensées amongst them, but regretfully decided that its influence at this stage might even be counter-productive.) And he would have a surprising influx of smart new clients, who would delight in the novelty of consulting a detective who shaved on a regular basis and could be introduced into polite society without the suspicion that he might disgrace himself over the entrées. It would be a solution that could only satisfy everyone concerned.

The hard-boiled detective style was all very well for the 1930s, she reflected, and still had a certain anachronistic charm, but it was really utterly impractical in dealing with the delicate realities of modern life.

"Would you keep an eye on the Firstborn a little longer, Charles dear?" Flora asked. "I really must make some telephone calls before dinner."

Charles looked up from his slim novel, and smiled knowingly. "I hope you're not interfering again, Flora."

Flora, leafing through her address book for all her wealthiest and most sensible American acquaintances, smiled sweetly in return. "Of course not," she said.