I didn’t start out to be a private eye. I thought I was gonna be a secretary—get my boss his java in the morning, take letters, and so on. Hell, I didn’t get my degree in steno to put my life on the line. It was true I wanted an interesting job, but that I’d end up a PI myself . . . it never entered my mind.
Back in 1940 when I went for my interview, one look at Woody Mason and I thought for sure it was gonna be a bust.
There he was, brogans up on the wobbly wooden table he called his desk, wearing dark cheaters in the middle of the day, his trilby pulled down so low on his head it was a week before I knew he had straw-blond hair. A butt hung from his thin lips, smoke curled up past his rosy nose. I wondered if he was a boozehound.
“I’m Faye Quick,” I said.
“Good for you.”
“Mr. Mason, I came for the job. You wanna good secretary or not?” That got his attention.
Mason slid his legs off the desk, pushed down the sunglasses, and over the rims eyeballed my gams, while he stubbed out his Old Gold and lit a new one. So what did I expect from a gumshoe?
My friends told me I was a crackpot trying for a job with a shamus. But I thought it could be interesting. I didn’t want to be in some nine-to-fiver pushing papers that had to do with mergers, business agreements, or the like. I wanted to be where whatever I was typing or listening to had some meat to it.
“Are ya?” Mason asked.
“Am I what?”
To myself I thought, Hardy, har, har, but I didn’t say it. I gave him a look instead.
“Sorry. Guess ya get that a lot.”
“Sometimes I open my big yap too much. So Miss Quick, you wanna work for me?”
“That’s the general idea,” I said, and thought maybe he was a little slow or something. But Woody Mason was anything but slow, I was to find out.
We went through some Q and A’s, then he hired me on the spot. I was slaphappy getting a job my first day looking.
That was how it was then.
But in ’41 the Japs hit Pearl Harbor, and by January of ’42, Woody Mason was in the army and I was running A Detective Agency. The A didn’t stand for anything. He named it that so it would be first in the phone book. By the time I took over I knew almost as much as Woody, but in the beginning it was a scary idea.
“I’m not sure, boss.”
“Ah, Quick, you can do it. I got complete confidence in ya.”
“Yeah, but I don’t.”
“Listen, when I come back from this clambake I wanna have a business to come home to. You gotta keep the home fires burning, like they say.”
“That’s not what it means: a girl like me packin a heater and chasin the bad guys. Keepin the home fires burnin means sittin in the nest waitin for your man.”
“Ain’t I your man, Quick?” Woody smiled, the dimples making their mark in his cheeks, and my heart slipped a notch.
I wasn’t in love with Woody, but he was a looker when he gave ya the smile. Mostly he reserved it for female clients. But on that day he brought it out for me.
“You’re my boss, Mason, not my man.”
“Ah, hell. Ya know what I mean.”
“Even still. I can’t be a PI.”
I wanted to tell him I didn’t know how, but he knew that was a lie. So I said, “I’m afraid.”
“Hell you are, Quick. I never saw the likes of you when it comes to guts.”
I had been on a few stakeouts with him and never showed any fear even when we got into close shaves.
“If you’re thinkin of some of those cases we did together, well, I had you with me, Mason.”
“Ah, you coulda handled them alone.”
“How’d ya know?”
“I know ya, Quick. I knew it from the first day I laid my headlights on ya.”
“You were hungover and ya woulda hired King Kong.”
“But I didn’t. I hired you, and now I gotta get my rump overseas and knock off some Nips. Ya gotta take over.”
“What if I’m so lousy at this I lose the agency.”
And so far I hadn’t.
I’m not what you’d call a raving beauty, but some even call me pretty, and I agree I’ll pass. Take today. I was wearing a short-sleeved cream-colored dress that was covered with bright blue intersecting circles, cinched below my bosom and belted at the waist. My hair was black, the long sides ending in a fringe of manufactured curls, and every hair in my pompadour was in place. But I was getting sick of this style, and I’d been thinking of changing. Maybe I’d get it cut short, shock the pants off my pals. Rolling and pinning were getting to be a pain in the derriere.
My mouth was small but full; my nose had a little bump, but it was okay. So the point was that even though I looked like any twenty-six-year-old gal ankling round New York City in ’43, there was one main difference between me and the rest of the broads. Show me another Jane who did my job and I’d eat my hat. And I wouldn’t relish that cause my brown felt chapeau had a bright red feather sticking up from the left side of the brim, and I knew the feather would tickle going down.
Once or twice I had some numbskull who thought a dame couldn’t handle his so-called important case, but most people didn’t care that I was a girl, and they knew any self-respecting male private dick was fighting to keep us safe.
So I wasn’t hurting for things to do when my secretary, Birdie, showed the Wests into my office. But I was surprised, even though it was no mystery why they’d come to me as I was the one who’d discovered their daughter’s body and no one had been arrested so far. I lit a Camel and listened while they talked.
The man and woman who sat on the other side of my desk were in their late forties to early fifties and looked fifteen years older. Having yer child murdered will do that to you.
Porter West was a big man, but he slumped in his chair like a hunchback. His thinning blond hair was turning the color of old corn. And his brown eyes were dull and defeated.
His wife, Myrna, was a brunette, spear-thin with skin that looked like tracing paper and eyes too sad to look into.
“Will you take the case, Miss Quick?”
“Yeah, I’ll take it,” I said. “But starting this late after the murder will make it harder.”
“Well, the police haven’t done anything,” Mrs. West said. Her voice was shrill.
I knew the coppers had probably done plenty. Still, this was what people who were connected to unsolved murders believed. I didn’t say this to Mrs. West. I nodded in a way I hoped would give her the idea that I agreed with her and was sympathetic, which I was.
“You have to understand that chances are slim that I’ll find the killer.”
West said, “We have no other choice.”
“Well, my fee is—”
“We don’t care what the fee is.”
He was a lawyer with an important firm, and the Wests were in clover.
“I have to tell ya anyway.”
When that was settled, West gave me a picture of his dead daughter, a folder that included a history of Claudette West’s short life, and all the newspaper clippings about the case. The murder, as I well knew, had taken place four months before.
“You don’t have police reports, do ya?”
He snorted. “What do you think?”
“They wouldn’t give us anything,” she said.
“Not even the names of possible suspects?” I asked.
“There was only one. Her ex-boyfriend, Richard Cotten.” She wrinkled her small nose like she was smelling Limburger.
“He was never charged,” West said.
“But he was a suspect?” I knew he was.
“For a time.”
“I guess neither of ya liked him much.” I stubbed out my butt in the overflowing glass ashtray.
“Liked him? Cotten is a despicable bastard,” he said.
“Tell me why ya say that?”
“He didn’t love her. He was only interested in her money.”
I’d heard this before, but mostly from wives hiring me to follow husbands they think are stepping out on them.
Mrs. West said, “He was from a poor family and was raised by a working mother. Not that there’s anything wrong with a mother working, but she was never there and Richard ran wild.”
I could tell Myrna West didn’t think a mother should work no matter what.
“Shot in a bar fight when Cotten was four,” West said.
“Richard is a very angry person.”
“Did he hit your daughter?”
He said, “Oh, no. But he showed it in other ways.”
“It was the way he talked to her. He always acted as if she was dumb, said hurtful things. That’s what we observed the three or four times we saw them together.”
“Claudette would have told us if he’d hurt her physically,” Myrna said.
I wasn’t sure that was true.
“You ever talk to her about the things he said to her?”
“Yes. She said that it was just his way.” West shook his head in disgust.
“You said ex-boyfriend. How long before the murder had they split up?”
“Only a few weeks.”
“Do you have a picture of him?” I’d seen his picture in the paper, but I hadn’t kept it.
“You’ll find one in the clippings.”
“Did he go to NYU, too?” I already knew the answer.
“Yes. And he’s still there. They were juniors when it happened. Didn’t you read the papers, Miss Quick? Weren’t you interested, considering?”
“Yeah, sure. But I didn’t keep a file.”
The expression on Porter West’s pale pinched face looked as though he didn’t approve. I ignored it.
“Being a suspect didn’t change his life; it made him a kind of hero.”
I also knew this, but I wanted to get the straight skinny from the father.
Anger flashed in West’s eyes, a small sign of life. “Some of the students got behind him, saying he was being picked on because he was poor.”
“That he was a wonderful, kind boy,” she said.
“The boy is a C student.”
In my book this didn’t make him a murderer.
“I guess he had a lot of friends,” I said.
“But he didn’t. Not until this happened. There are always those people looking for a martyr. Finding injustice wherever they can,” West said.
“And there were no other suspects?”
“None that we knew about.”
That didn’t mean there weren’t any. I’d have to have a meet with a dick named Marty Mitchum. He’d been Woody’s connection, and he’d passed Mitchum on to me. Or maybe it was me to him.
“So, you suspect Cotten because he said mean things to your daughter and Claudette dumped him?”
West looked at me as though I was his enemy.
“I’m not crossin you, Mr. West. I’m just tryin to get things in place.”
“Yes. Those actions and the fact that he was after her money. When she broke it off with him, he knew that the pot of gold was out of reach, and it made him furious.”
This last was speculation, but I’d keep it in mind when I met with Cotten.
“Is there anything else I should know?” I lit another cig.
They looked at each other. Almost invisibly West shook his head at Myrna like a warning.
“No,” he said.
“Okay. That’s all for now. I’ll need your phone number.”
I took the number down, and West handed me a check.
“You’ll call us every day?”
“That’s not how I usually operate,” I said.
“That’s how I expect you to operate.”
“What I normally do is call the client if I have somethin to tell.”
“I don’t care what you normally do. I want you to call us daily.”
This was getting my goat, but I held back. “How about once a week unless I have somethin to tell you?”
I didn’t like this arrangement, but I wanted this case. “Okay.”
“We’ll hear from you tonight,” he said.
“Mr. West, I have to go through this material. I’ll have nothin to say by tonight.”
He weighed this information. “Tomorrow night then.”
West put a hand on his wife and guided her toward the door. They went out and didn’t look back.
Charming people, I thought. Then I brought to mind what they’d been through, who they’d lost, and I gave them some slack.
I thought about when West shook his head at his wife and knew it could’ve meant a simple no to my question, but I felt it meant something else.
I didn’t know what it was.
But I knew I’d find out.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from This Dame for Hire by Sandra Scoppettone. Copyright © 2005 by Sandra Scoppettone. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.