THE DECEPTIVE DAMSEL: It's never easy to turn down a pretty dame, especially when her face is flushed from tears she's barely had time to wipe away. This one stood before me, paced really, and refused to sit down or accept a drink until she had finished her story. There's always a story. I leaned back in my chair and propped my feet up under my desk, silently waiting for her to finish and working my way through most of my last deck of Luckies at the same time.

She kept talking, but her eyes never met mine; I could tell she was lying and planned to play me for a fool; I knew that the moment she walked through my door. A mink stole and too much jewelry marked her uptown, but the plain flats threw me off for a little while and I couldn't quite place her. Her face had that kind of familiar look to it, as if I'd seen her in a crowd the day before. Every few minutes she would pause and look towards me, not at my eyes but at my chest, and earnestly wait for some sort of acknowledgement. I'm listening, don't worry kid.

"Oscar left with the ledgers we'd been fighting over, except for the pages I'd taken earlier. I found a note that said he'd be back, but it's not his writing. I know my husband's handwriting," she repeated for the tenth time, shaking her finger at some point halfway between us. She'd shown me the brief letter, and it lay like a deflated ghost on my otherwise bare desk.

With flustered women, it's best to just sit back and let them run out of steam. I nodded at the right moments and let my eyes wander over her body as she paced back and forth. There are worse ways to spend an evening.

"I've called his family in Lakeshire and they haven't seen him. It's not like Oscar to disappear like this, it just isn't. We've fought over expenses before but he's never run off."

Maybe he got his fill of looking at your legs and ran out of cigarettes while you babbled. Eventually I did the same, and extinguished her as I dropped the Lucky to the floor and rubbed it beneath my shoe. "Mrs. Vinson, I understand your situation. What I don't get is what you want from me." I laid it out there and let it hang in the air with the stale smoke. Finally exhausted, she collapsed into the chair I'd set out for her nearly an hour before.

"I want you to find my husband; find Oscar," she said, pleading with me. Her body said agony, but her eyes were dancing everywhere.

I stood up quickly and she lurched back in the chair, a frightened look flashing across her ivory cheeks and creaseless forehead. I checked my movement and sauntered over to the cabinet; straight whiskey times two, and mine a double. I set hers down on the edge of the desk closest to where she was sitting, and when she leaned forward to pick it up I snuck a glance down her coat. A sheaf of paper was secreted in an inside pocket, and everything else I saw was gravy. I leaned against the hard oak corner and nursed my drink, letting my mind wander over Mrs. Vinson's flesh. When my double whittled down to a single, I circled behind her chair. Her head turned quickly to follow me, but I kept walking, making a semicircle around her and finishing back behind my desk.

I sat, drained my class, and dropped it sharply on the dark wood with a crack. My fingers itched for another smoke, and I made a mental note to pick up another carton downstairs on my way out. "Your husband's dead," I told her plainly, and she gasped. She looked shocked, but her eyes searched the floor. "The letter was written by a woman. That should have been obvious, even to you, but you didn't mention it. Why's that? Either you're desperately afraid for your husband's reputation -- and you'd let that fear slow down an investigation -- or you didn't want to draw attention to the only woman involved: you."

Her mouth moved wordlessly, and I tapped my finger on the arm of my chair. Her eyes met mine now, unchained by revelation, but her head shook with incomprehension.

"You changed your shoes to get around more quickly -- to see me? -- yet you had time to grab the remnants of the ledgers before you left." Her hand went immediately to the breast of her coat before she caught herself. "You brought the papers, but after more than an hour of storytelling you never showed them to me. The rest of the ledger's been stolen, and that's what you really want me to find, isn't that right?"

She stammered for a few seconds, and I let her turn it over. Her skin was flushed again, but this time there weren't any tears. When she started to speak I cut her off. "Whoever took the ledger could have killed Oscar, but if that's the case then why would you forge a note to try and throw me off? No, you killed him, but you were too late. Most of the records are gone. You brought the rest with you because someone's still looking for them." Every word hammered her deeper into the plush cushions, until she nearly disappeared. She huddled like a trapped animal and winced each time my index finger rapped against the dark grain. I waited while she gathered her mental strength. She still cradled the whiskey in her shaking hand, and she tossed it back with one swallow as she pulled herself together.

"I want the ledger," she said. "Will you help me or not?"

My lips twisted in what I've been told is a frightening grimace. It's been many men's last sight, and sometimes gets more of a reaction than finding my .45 cannon in your face. Mrs. Vinson's eyes went wide, and I told her in measured tones, "I don't help murderers. I'd call the police, but I'm sure that whoever has your ledger will come looking for the rest of it soon enough, and that's fine by me. Now get out."

She sat motionless for just a couple of seconds before leaping to her feet and darting out of my office, leaving the stenciled doors swinging behind her. I knew who'd be in my dreams tonight, and another double was most definitely in order.



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