It was late and business had been a little off lately, so I was about ready to call it a day and head down to Charlie’s for a couple of rounds. That’s when she came through my office door. She was a Kewpie doll sized figure of fire and Ice. The fire, her flaming red hair, the ice, her milky skin and hard blue eyes that looked as if that could have been chipped off the berg that took down the Titanic. She was dressed in dark silk and furs, and threw me a look that scanned me from my scuffed brogans to my overgrown mop. A slight smile played around with those crimson lips before she closed the door behind her.
“You Cutter?” Her low husky voice was as deep and lilting as a twenty year old scotch trickling into a four finger tumbler.
“That’s what the door says, Woodrow Cutter Investigations. What can I do for you Miss Riding?” I recognized her right enough, I might be a simple shamus but I did occasionally read the society pages. I would have to be an idiot not to recognize Veronica Riding. Considering she was the type the society page was created for in the first place, that and having a daddy who had more money than the devil had sinners.
“I need help, are you any good, Woody?”
“Only my dear old ma calls me Woody, and sweetheart, I can track a penny through a gumball machine and tell you what flavor it spit out.”
She gave a throaty laugh and sashayed across the office, sashay was the polite way of saying it. She sat down with crossed legs, pulled out a cigarette and leaned forward with a cocked eyebrow. I reached across and thumbed my Zippo till the flame shot up and fired off the tip. She blew out a cloud of smoke and let her fox fur slipped off one shoulder. Its glittering eyes and malevolent grin warned me to mind my manners. I ignored him. I knew I could take him; he didn’t carry the weight to back up his threat.
“Now Miss Riding, want to tell why you’re interested in my services?” I snapped the lighter shut, slipped it into my pocket and leaned back in my squeaking chair.
“It’s my Nana, I’m worried about her. She’s been drawing the attention of a few unsavory characters since my grampy Riding died, and one in particular really has me worried,” she explained as she pursed her lips and blew out a stream of smoke that fogged the air.
“Does this particular sheik have a name?”
Her laughter bubbled forth like the head on a hot beer, or considering her social standing, an overflowing magnum of champagne. “Why Woodrow, you sound absolutely jive when you talk like that. But he does have a name. Alphonse Lobo, a greasy wolf whose main interest seems to be getting his hands on her money, only she’s too blind to see it. I’ve caught him going through parts of her house where he has no business being, and it looked to me like he was casing the place. Is that the right street vernacular? Casing the place?”
“Yeah, makes you sound like you grew up on skid row. What do you expect from me sister?” I knew dames like her expected a mug like me to be as tough as nails. It was an image that made them feel safe, like daddy was still watching over them and keeping the boogie man under the bed where he belonged.
“I expect you to get something on this guy so we can expose him for what he is, and then get rid of him.”
“I get twenty dollars a day, plus expenses. You Jake with that?” She just gave me a look, then opened her purse and pulled out a roll of bills. She fanned a hand’s worth of double saw bucks, brought them to her lips and left a crimson imprint across Jackson’s brow before laying them on the desk with a smirk. She then laid a card with an address beside them.
“On the other side you’ll find a picture of Alphonse I managed to steal from nana’s house, so you won’t have any trouble spotting him. Is that enough of a retainer?”
“You just bought yourself a Shamus, Ronnie.” I picked the bills up and tucked them in my jacket pocket, lipstick and all. “I assume you want me to get on this right away.”
“As soon as you can Mister Cutter, as soon as you can. My nana is putting on one of her famous soirees tonight. I’ll see that your name is added to the invitation list. ” She stood and headed for the door, paused a moment with her hand wrapped around the knob and looked coyly back over her shoulders. “Just one more thing, nobody calls me Ronnie. My friends call me Little Red, but you can call me Miss Riding. I’ll see you there Woody.”
I escorted her out the door with a whistle of appreciation, and she left a cloud of smoky perfume in her wake. Ouch, she put me in my place, reminding me no matter what I found out or what secrets I uncovered, I was still the hired help. I was good with that.
I picked up the card and checked the address. It seemed that nana lived in the ritzy part of town, in a development called Dark Forest Estates. I knew it to be a sprawling neighborhood of walled manor houses. A hell of a lot more impressive than my fourth floor walkup, some people really knew how to live.
I flipped the card over to get a gander at the sheik’s mug. He had oiled hair, a Caesar Romero mustache, and Peter Lorre eyes. I thumped the picture with a grin. “My, what big peepers you have there Alfie.”
I tucked the picture in my pocket, grabbed my lid and headed for the door. It was time to get cleaned up and then go out to pay nana Riding a visit, and give me the chance to rub elbows with the haute monde.
I kept my Franklin Tonneau town car parked against the curb outside the office, twenty feet from the corner fire plug in one direction, and twenty feet from the police call box in the other. I climbed behind the wheel and headed for my place, only a half dozen blocks from the office, I figured I had time for a shave and to change into my best set of duds. Within an hour I was on my way to nana Riding’s house after doing all the damage I could do to get prettied up, and hoped the old lady kept a well-stocked bar.
When I arrived the place was jumping, but in a place like that it could mean nothing more than the band was playing a waltz a little too fast, or somebody had spiked the mimosas. The gates were opened and when I pulled up in my Franklin before a domicile that could have worked as a double for the Tara plantation. The valet gave me the once over. Twice.
“You sure you’re in the right place mister?” The refugee from the grappler’s circuit looked at me with a barely concealed sneer. He carried a lot of beef on his size fifteen kicks and had a jaw as square as a concrete block.
“Check your list chum, and see if the name Woodrow Cutter is there,” I said, then waited while he ran his fingers down the paper and grunted when he stopped, then worked out the name through moving lips.
“Okay, so you’re on the list. But you don’t look like the usual guest that comes to Mrs. Riding’s party.”
“Funny, but I wouldn’t have picked you for the social secretary type.”
“What do you mean by that crack little man?” His head swiveled up on his bull neck, and glared.
“It means I didn’t realize you had final approval over Mrs. Riding’s invitation list,” I said with a sneer, then ignored the bruiser as I pushed past him to enter the front door. The hat checking butler greeted me when I crossed the threshold, took my lid but didn’t offer me a stub, I figured he must have a good memory. He passed me on through into the highbrow gala.
I gravitated towards the bar where a slim Porto Rican in a white half jacket mixed and poured the libations. He flashed me a smile with enough gold inlays to make a leprechaun sit up and take notice.
“What’ll you have sir?” He seemed polite enough, and I nodded toward the back shelf.
“Four fingers of scotch, and don’t try to peddle some of that new stuff off on me, the older the better.”
He grabbed a bottle and cut off the wax seal, worked the cork out with his thumb and poured out four and a half fingers of Highland Heaven into a wide tumbler. I let it sit for a few minutes filling the air with its nose numbing fragrance, and waved him off when he offered to drop in a couple of cubes of ice.
“No sense in bruising the beverage son, or taking a chance on insulting the Gods of distilled spirits. It’ll either stand on its own, or it won’t.” I took a generous swig and smacked my lips with appreciation. “This stuff will stand on its own.”
He nodded then moved down the bar while I did a one eighty and surveyed the room filled with a bunch of old bloated swells with their young twist hanging off their arms, or jewelry laden society dowagers with their Buster Brown Beaus. A string quartet was sat up in the corner, busy torturing their cats with a rug cutter of a tune, while Filipino waiters wove through the crowd with trays balanced on their white gloved hand. I ignored them all. I was only interested in seeing Little Red or Alfie.
It didn’t take long to spot him, he was cozying up to a well-heeled dame on the long side of fifty, but I did have to admit she did seem to be fighting off father time tooth and nail, and looked to be winning, but barely. He kept shoving his face in her neck, and she would push him back with a giggle, then he would throw his head back and bray like a jackass.
“My, what a big pie hole you have there Alfie,” I murmured, and then spotted Little Red gliding across the floor. She latched onto her Nana’s arm whisper something in her ear while throwing me a wink, and then pulled her away. Alfie didn’t look none too happy, he downed his drink and walked away, heading for the stairs to the second floor. I waited till he reached the top where he paused a moment to check that no one paid him undue attention before he vanished.
That was my cue. I tossed back the rest of my drink, no sense in wasting a good scotch, and followed him. I placed my foot on the bottom riser when someone snagged my arm, and Little Red pressed her slim body against mine.
“Where you headed Woody?” she cooed in my ear, and then dampened my lobe with a swipe of her tongue.
“I thought you were busy with grandma.”
“She prefers nana, says grandma sounds too old. But that doesn’t answer my question about where you were headed.”
“I saw her boyfriend take a dust up the stairs, thought I might see what he’s up to.”
“Let’s go then.”
“This could get dirty.”
“The dirtier the better,” she laughed and hugged me tighter as we climbed the stairs together.
At the top I could see a door cracked and light spilling through. I motioned for her to be quiet and peeked through to spot Alfie standing at a wall safe over a fireplace, slowly manipulating the dial. I eased my roscoe out and motioned Little Red to step back. I pushed the door and it swung back at the same time he opened the safe. He pulled out a flat box, flipped the lid back and flashed a predatory grin.
“My, what big choppers you have Alfie,” I said, and he spun around with a snarl.
“Who the hell are you?”
“Woodrow Cutter, shamus. I was hired by Miss Riding to keep a close watch on things tonight,” I responded, then stepped into the room, keeping my eye on the yegg.
“I always thought that dame was too nosy for her own good.”
“Why don’t you put that case down on the mantle and step back like a good boy, and keep your hands where I can see them.”
“Take it easy Cutter,” Veronica purred as she entered the room. “I’m sure Alphonse has a good explanation for what he was doing in nana’s safe.”
He glared at the two of us, but still tried to tickle the ceiling. But something changed, his scowl twisted into a smile and his hands faded down by his side.
“What’s going on here? Veronica, who is this man and why is he holding a gun on Alphonse?” Nana Riding came into the room with an imperious sweep. “Why is my safe open? Well, isn’t anyone going to say anything?”
“We caught this guy trying to lift your ice,” I explained, never taking my eyes off Alfie boy.
“I don’t believe you.” Nana went into her pearl clutching act as she moved past us and deeper into the room, breezing past me before I could snag her.
“It’s true, look at the mantle and you’ll see the box with your necklace. Woody made him put it down there when we caught him in the act.”
“Oh Alphonse, is that true?” Nana stepped closer before I could warn her to stay back and I could see a predatory gleam bloom in Alfie’s eyes.
“Naw baby, they got me all wrong. I can prove it, look.” He reached for his pocket and the old dame stepped even closer. His hand came up and flashed a shiv, he reached out to grab her in one swift move and jerked her body against his.
“Get back shamus, you too Red, unless you want to see me cut this old woman from ear to ear.” The tip of the knife kissed her throat and drew a ruby bead. I considered just shooting the asshole right then, but rethought that after realizing a dead nana could affect my bonus.
“Take it easy Alfie.” I raised my hand, eased the hammer down and went to slip my roscoe back in its holster.
“Uh, uh big man. Toss it.”
I grimaced and pitched it across the room, mumbling a silent apology for the mistreatment. Fortunately I still had my back up. Now all I needed was a good enough reason to go pawing around my ankles, one that would seem perfectly natural.
“That’s a good boy. Now I’ll just take this and be on my way.” He reached back to snag the flat box, but he forgot about nana. She whipped her elbow back and caught him across the nose, then spun around and kneed him in the groin. I dropped to my knee to fumble for my backup while Red raced across the room and snagged my roscoe. By the time I freed my gun, Alfie was on his knees, had two weapons pointed at him and an angry nana Riding kicking him in the belly.
“How dare you call me an old woman, you insufferable little worm. After all the things you said to me about love and our future together.” She landed a low kick that sent him toppling over to curl into a mewling ball.
I put my spare heater away and strode across the room, grabbed his arm and jerked him from the floor with an unsympathetic grin. His eyes had begun to blacken and his broken nose had sprouted like a mushroom after a spring shower.
“Let’s go, I know a couple of bulls that will want to have a nice long talk with you.”
“Screw you shamus.”
I reached out and thumped him on his broken nose hard enough to make him scream. “My, what a big schnozz you have there Alfie.”