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THE MALTESE DINGUS
A SMKVirtual6 Episode

This episode is dedicated to all of the actors who portrayed our much loved Scarecrow and Mrs. King characters. Thanks for 20 years of danger, excitement, and intrigue...

 

Credits
Story Premise By: Miriam
Written By: Miriam
Editors: SMK720, SMKTiff (see acknowledgments below)
SMK VS6 Season Creator: BlueAngel
SMK VS6 Executive Producers: SMKTiff, SMK720

Acknowledgments: A huge thanks to Rita, my super beta moll, for hard-boiling the soft parts, adding tons of oomph and humor, and giving this old pulp hack one of the best beatings she ever had. A tip of my fedora to Gail, my brilliant casting director. Thanks to Suzanne, Jean, Cheryl, Chris, Debbie, Mary, Heather, and Ruth for catching my goofs and greatly improving the prose. Thanks to Lisa, Lynda, Lena, Lindsey and others for urging me on and suggesting how to extend the story. Thanks to Laura and Tiff for suggesting how to turn a season four pseudo-noir story into a virtual season 6 episode.

Setting: First-person dream scenes, January 1947; Third person-scenes, January 1989.

Definitions: This story uses a great deal of slang from the classic "hard-boiled" mysteries of the 1940s. Readers not steeped in this genre may find William Denton's "Twists, Slugs, and Roscoes: A Glossary of Hard-Boiled Slang" useful in defining unfamiliar terms. See
http://www.geocities.com/Hollywood/Lot/8628/hard.html

 

And now, on with the show!

 

ACT ONE
January 1989

Lee took Amanda's hand and edged through the people heading out of the lobby of the Biograph Theater and into the chilly darkness. Stopping in front of a poster advertising the midnight showing of "The Maltese Falcon," he scanned the crowd. Where the hell was Augie Swann?

"Relax." Amanda placed her hand on his arm. "And at least we were able to see a good movie--with no space monsters or slashers--while we waited."

"And waited and waited." Lee checked the clock over the concession stand. 1:50 a.m. If Augie had a tip about who was marketing or buying the stolen weapons, why hadn't he passed it along during the movie? "Trust Augie to screw up."

"Trust Augie to be late." Amanda squeezed his hand. "He'll be here."

"He better be."

"Lee?"

"Yeah?" He turned and caught the pensive look on her face.

"If we'd been alive when that movie was made, who do you think we'd be?" She didn't wait for him to answer before continuing. "Maybe you'd be a private detective like Sam Spade. And I'd be a femme fatale like Bridget O'Shaunessey."

He laughed. "Not likely. I can imagine saying a lot of things to you, but 'I hope they don't hang you, precious, by that sweet neck' isn't one of them. Naw, I'd cast Francine in that role. You'd make a great Girl Fri--What the hell?"

Scowling, Lee turned to face the jerk who had just spilled a supersize cola on his arm. Of course. Augie Swann.

"Oops. What's steamin', demon?" Augie, wearing a baggy, bright blue suit and matching fedora, dabbed at Lee's tan coat with a fistful of crumpled paper napkins.

"Give me those!" Lee reached for the napkins, but he backed away. "Augie ... Augie ... AUGIE!"

"Chill, man. I'll steer you to a new weave."

"What?"

"I'll get you a good deal on a classic coat. When the queen-bees lamp that tunic, it'll really rattle their choppers."

"Something that fell off the back of a truck?" Lee managed to grab the napkins and tried to mop up the sticky brown liquid. "Where have you been?"

"What are you wearing?" Amanda asked.

"Hello, sugar, are you rationed?" Augie grinned and winked at her. "It's a zoot suit. I'm investing in a boutique. 'Forties-R-Us.'" He flung out his arms, as if to better display his high-waisted, ballooning trousers, and accidentally pelted Lee with a shower of greasy popcorn from his heaping cardboard bucket.

"Enough!" Lee grabbed Augie's checkerboard tie. "What've you got?"

"The phone number's in here." He thrust the container of popcorn into Lee's hands. "I think somebody followed me, so be careful."

* * * * * * * * * *

Lee stared at the oily scrap of paper in the glare of the Corvette's overhead light and handed it to Amanda. "Can you read this?"

She took the note and frowned. "The extra butter sure smudged the ink. I don't know if that's a nine or a four or a one. And those could be either fives or sixes. Or maybe eights."

"Great." He turned off the light, started the car, and pulled onto M Street. "Guess we try all the combinations."

"Maybe we should ask Augie."

Before Lee could answer, a car drew up beside them, its tires squealing. When the driver failed to pass, Lee glanced to his left and saw light from a streetlamp reflecting off a gun. "Get down!"

He slammed down the accelerator, and they darted ahead of their pursuer. A second later, shots rang out.

The car fishtailed, and Lee realized that a bullet must have punctured their rear tire. He struggled to regain control of the vehicle, jerked the wheel to the right, and the `Vette plowed into a parked BMW. Just before his head hit the windshield, he remembered with relief that Amanda always buckled her seatbelt.

Unfortunately, he hadn't.

* * * * * * * * * *

"I'm okay, Mother. Just a little shaken up." Amanda took a deep breath and tightened her grip on the receiver of the hospital telephone. "But Lee has a concussion."

"Oh, darling! Is he going to be all right? What do the doctors say? Should the boys and I come to the hospital?" Dotty West's voice quavered at the other end of the phone line.

Amanda studied the still form and ashen face of her husband, and the beeping, whirring monitors that loomed over his bed. She needed time alone with Lee, without the distraction of reassuring others. "He'll probably be conscious soon. Don't wake up the boys. I'll call when there's any change."

"If you're sure." Dotty sniffed. "I know Lee's going to be absolutely fine."

The N.E.S.T. doctor hadn't been so sure. Instead: "Mr. Stetson has a very serious head injury. We'll have to wait and see. Talk to him. He may respond to your voice."

As much to Lee as to her mother, Amanda said, "I love you. And I'll see you soon."

* * * * * * * * * *

I looked up at the sound of Amanda saying my name. "What's knittin', kitten?"

She held her back so straight you could fly a flag from it. Today's flag signaled "rough seas ahead." "There's a ... woman to see you."

I threw down the paper. Dodgers winning the pennant in '47. Yeah, right. And I'll be Man of the Year in '48. I guessed my Gal Friday didn't take to my visitor. Dames Amanda liked were "ladies"; the ones she didn't were "women."

"Client or personal?" I pulled my spats off my desk. A scratched and dented gray metal piece of wood that looked like it had been through a war.

Well, it had been, same as me.

I just missed knocking over the china globe lamp with roses painted on it. Amanda had brought in the lamp "to make things homier." It went with the battered Army salvage furniture like a maraschino cherry in a shot of gin. But I needed the light; the winter sunlight barely oozed through my tobacco-stained and sooty window.

"Client." The filly tossed her head. "She's nervous and asked for 'Mr. Stetson,' not 'Lee.'"

"Send her in, angel." I had nothing to do but watch the muddy paint peel between the Office of War Information posters, glued on the walls by the landlord. A civilian defense nut who thought the war never ended, he knocked a sawbuck off the rent if I left up Uncle Sam's artwork.

Amanda pointed to the poster saying "THESE BREED DANGER: Meals That Are Too Meager" and then at the untouched cinnamon roll next to my java. "Breakfast is the most important meal of the day. And I made sure that roll was stale, just the way you like it."

I puffed a big one. Of all the offices in all the towns in all the world, she had to walk into mine ... and start shoving breakfast down my throat.

Still, along with being the poster girl for the "Breakfast of Champions," Amanda was a good kid, hardworking and a real smart cookie. Even if she played deaf when she didn't want to hear me.

When Amanda turned around, I stuffed the roll in the drawer behind the bottle of Scotch. It might as well join my stash of stale rolls. "Food Is a Weapon," another poster said. Some of those rolls could double as blackjacks.

The blond who breezed through the door smelled like trouble under the cloud of French perfume. A mink family reunion had been massacred to keep her warm. Her hat would fit in the palm of my hand and probably cost enough to feed a working sap for a year. She would have been a looker if doom and gloom didn't plaster her face.

"Mr. Stetson, I need your help. It's a matter of life and death. I don't have much money, though."

Yeah, and J.D. Rockefeller checks the oil in my jalopy. I decided to play along.

"Park it and tell me about it, Miss ... ?"

"Jones. Mary Jones." The blond perched on the edge of the shabby chair, opened her purse, and took a cigarette from a gold case. While she fished around for her matching lighter, I spotted a pearl-handled heater in her bag.

I wasn't worried. I had one too, minus the pearl handle. And mine was bigger.

"What's your beef, Miss Jones?"

She fit a cigarette into an ivory holder, lit it, and blew smoke. "I'm a model for a department store—"

"And I'm Dick Tracy. Start over and tell it straight. I won't play the sap for you."

Her baby blues almost popped out of her head. "I don't know what you mean."

"If you say your moniker's Mary Jones, don't smoke gaspers monogrammed with 'F.D.' And keep your picture out of the society page." I got in her face. "You're Francine Desmond. Daddy builds ships—the kind with big guns. I was on a few of them."

"Oh, all right! So I'm Francine Desmond." She flipped her Veronica Lake locks and flopped back her mink to show off her assets. Like Lucky Strikes, they were round, firm, and fully packed. "But I do need you. So very, very much."

She probably thought she could drive a deacon to drink. My heart did not flip-flop. But my bank account needed a transfusion from her other assets, the ones with dollar signs, so I went along.

"For what?"

She stared at the "Loose Lips Sink Ships" and "Somebody Blabbed: Button It!" posters behind me. "To find some stolen papers."

Must be blackmail. Born with a silver spoon in her mouth and minus the brains to keep from gagging on it. "What's the dirt? Love letters? Gambling I.O.U.'s? 'Artistic' snapshots?"

"No! And I don't like your attitude." She glared like she'd found a tarantula instead of a prize in her Cracker Jacks.

"I don't like it myself. It keeps me up nights. Quit stalling."

She wrung her hands since my neck was out of reach. "They're plans for an improved radar system. Someone took them from my father's safe last night."

"Why don't you go to the coppers? Or the Army smart guys?"

"But you—"

"You think I still work for them? Not me, Toots. I've learned my lessons." I had. The hard way.

She stared down at her blood-red nails. For the first time, I got a glimmer of something vulnerable under that hard-boiled, glitzy front.

When she spoke, her voice was soft as a kitten's fur. "I need a private investigator. Very private. The thief might be Efraim Beaman, my fiancé."

"Why him?"

"His business is in trouble, but he's too proud to ask for my help."

"So he swipes and peddles classified info? Tell him to crawl back under a rock. Then report the snatch and him along with it."

She looked like she wanted to claw my eyes out. "I don't know that it's Efraim! But ... he was in the library last night when I took a necklace out of the safe. He might have noticed the combination. And this morning the papers were gone."

"You want me to get the stuff back and keep everything hush-hush?"

She nodded. "And if it isn't Efraim ... I don't want him to know I ever suspected him."

When I stalled, she laid a picture of Madison on my desk. "Here's five hundred dollars. If you take the case and keep quiet, it's yours. And if you recover the plans, I'll pay you another thousand."

For a guy who earned fifty berries a day plus expenses, when he could get it, that was a lot of moolah. Too much to turn down. I wasn't sure I believed her story, but I believed her money.

"Two conditions. If Beaman's already hawked the plans, I turn him in. And if I don't find the papers in twenty-four hours, you go to the Feds."

Her shoulders sagged. "Very well. But I expect you do to everything possible in the meantime."

It seemed screwy. "If Beaman needs dough, why doesn't he just hurry up and say, 'I do'?"

She stared like I'd told her to get hitched to an orangutan. Though from what she'd spilled about Beaman, that wasn't far off. "Get married in January? Everyone who's anyone is away! Do you know how long it takes to plan a wedding? To arrange for the designer dresses from Paris, the engraved invitations, the proper guest list, the gift registry..."

I earned my fee just sitting through that spiel. Francine and Efraim deserved each other. I imagined moseying off to City Hall to tie the knot with Amanda. Wouldn't take more than a couple hours, tops.

"...in June, at the very earliest." La Desmond finally ran out of gas, leaned back, and crossed her shapely gams.

"Who else knew the combination to the safe? How about your father's secretary?"

Amanda knew the combination to my office safe. Knew it held nothing but my P.I. license, so she never opened it. Maybe I should start putting rolls there when I ran out of room in my desk.

"It can't be anyone from my father's office. They'd just make a copy of the plans and sell them, not take the papers from our safe at home."

That sounded on the square. I nixed the underlings at Desmond Industries as possible perps. I'd check out the other angles, from the fiancé to the family mansion. Who knows, maybe the butler did it.

"Sounds like Beaman pulled off the job, then." I shrugged. "If I don't nail somebody else by noon tomorrow, you turn him in. Or I will."

The broad dabbed at her blinkers with a white lace hankie, then pulled out a gold compact. "Give me a moment." She painted on red lipstick brighter than a hot firecracker on the Fourth of July and gave me the once over. "Do your best, Mr. Stetson. I'm counting on you."

When we came out of my office, I saw Amanda pounding the Remington like she was thwacking flies with every keystroke.

Miss Desmond ankled out, done with slumming.

Amanda stood up. "So, do we have a case?"

"I've got a case. You've got typing." I eyed the poster of a typist giving a snappy salute, under the words, "Victory Waits on Your Fingers," and wondered if Amanda would follow orders too. Yeah, when Eleanor Roosevelt voted Republican.

Amanda skipped the salute, stuck out her lip, and dug in her heels next to the picture of Rosie the Riveter flexing her bicep. "That can wait. You need me."

To look at Amanda, you'd never guess she was more bull-headed than MacArthur. In her blue dress, brown hair tucked into one of those snood things women were wearing this year, she looked like she belonged behind a white picket fence. But you could build torpedoes out of her backbone.

I scratched my jaw. I'd bite the big one before I'd come clean with her, but she came in handy once in a blue moon. Still, I didn't know what I was sashaying into. Trouble was my business; I had no business getting her in trouble.

I jabbed my finger at her. "Typing."

* * * * * * * * * *

Amanda jerked upright when Lee moaned. She brushed her fingers across his forehead and yanked them away when he moaned again. Intent on her husband's face, she tried to get through to him. "Can you hear me? It's Amanda."

He muttered something, but she couldn't make out the words over the drone of medical monitors.

"What is it?" She squeezed his hand.

His eyelashes fluttered for a moment, and she bent closer.

Another moan, and then he murmured, "Stay here."

"Of course, I'll stay with you. You know I’ll never leave you."

When she kissed his cheek, she caught another word. It sounded like "typing."

 

ACT TWO

Five minutes later we stepped out of the Acme building, arm in arm, into a January morning colder than a banker's heart. Amanda grabbed my wrist. "Wait. I'd better pick up lunch." She pointed across the street, to Westheimer's Deli. "I'll just be a minute. Get your shoes shined. And buy another paper."

I knew what was cozied in her cute noggin. Throw some more business to Phillip, the cheeky newsie, and his younger brother, Jamie, the shoeshine boy. The orphaned brothers flopped in a pint-sized room in the boarding house where Amanda lived. I might not be the richest private eye in D.C., but I always had the shiniest shoes and more copies of the "Post" than a hooker had Johns.

I sauntered over to the battered folding chair next to Jamie. "How `bout a shine, Sport?"

He looked like an owl behind his horned-rimmed glasses. "You sure, Mr.Stetson? You just got one an hour ago."

"Hey, I'm hobnobbing with high society. Make it look good." I pointed to a speck of lint I couldn't see on my blue pin-striped suit. "Better brush this off, too."

I spiffed up, palmed a five spot into Jamie's shine kit, and bought another paper. Since Amanda still hadn't come out, I slipped into the deli. Just like I figured, she was gabbing with the old biddy who ran the joint.

"He doesn't appreciate you, dear. Why don't you open your own detective agency? If women can be Rosie the Riveter, they can be Gertie the Gumshoe. I mean, this is 1947."

"Dot-ty! Mr. Stetson may have a few rough edges, but he's really a very sweet man. And he needs me."

"Humph! If he needs you, then why doesn't he settle down and marry you? You know you can't adopt Phillip and Jamie as a single woman, but if you had a husband—"

I decided to show myself before the deli owner saddled me with as many dependents as God. Stepping out from behind a case packed with pickles and pastries, I coughed. "Chicken salad on white, extra mayo."

Amanda squeaked.

The widow Westheimer didn't bat an eye. "I've got it all ready, Mr. Stetson. I know what my customers like." She pushed four brown bags toward Amanda and whispered, "The ones on the bottom are for Phillip and Jamie. Don't forget what I said."

* * * * * * * * * *

Before sweating Beaman, Amanda and I stopped by Horn & Hardart's. You didn't have to tell T.P. Aquinas to meet you at the Automat. He got his mail there.

The retired newshawk was stuffing his face with macaroni and cheese, creamed spinach, and beef stew. From the spread in front of him, he must have blown a couple of bucks on chow.

"Hey, T.P. What's the skinny on an Efraim Beaman?" I pulled up a chair and took a load off.

"Lee, my boy. And Miss King!" T.P. hefted a forkful of baked beans. "I recommend the lemon meringue pie. 'Less Work for Mother,' as they say, and a better recipe."

While Amanda slung nickels, I got the scuttlebutt on Beaman. The boob sank his trust fund into some gadget for turning the television on and off by remote control. The upper crust who could plunk down the cash for a set had the maid twist the knob. Beaman was on his uppers and down for the count. Now if he'd come up with a gizmo like that for radios, he'd be walking down easy street.

Amanda plunked down a slab of rice pudding. "Eat this. It's very nourishing."

It looked as tasty as stale K rations. I hid it under a napkin, since I didn't have a desk drawer handy.

We shot the breeze with T.P. for a while. Though his noodle was crammed more full than Fibber McGee's closet, he came up empty on the radar plans.

I was pumping a refill at the coffee urn when somebody elbowed me, whining, "Brother, can you spare a dime?"

I mopped off scalding java. "How 'bout a free knuckle sandwich, Augie?"

Swann was a stool pigeon. His tips were as reliable as Chinese fortune cookies, and he was as graceful as a tight-rope walker with a peg leg.

Augie gave me the hot scoop on a nag that was ready for the glue factory. I scooped up some cold cash and pointed to the chrome and glass vending machines. "Go play the slots. I hear they're paying off today." Then I rounded up Amanda, and we headed out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Efraim Beaman called a fancy hotel off Dupont Circle his temporary home. The décor of the lobby was artsy nouveau bordello--pink and plush or sleek and shiny. Including the receptionist, lolling behind a silver desk with fake vines crawling up the legs. They looked like poison ivy.

I flashed my pearly whites. "I'm looking for Efraim Beaman. Know if he's in?"

She batted her eyelashes and patted her platinum curls. "Is he expecting you, handsome?"

I felt Amanda go stiffer than a Scotch and water minus the H2O. Maybe bringing her along wasn't such a hot idea. "No, this is a surprise visit. I'm an old pal."

"Old enough to know better, but not too old." The blonde purred like a cat in heat. Then her voice got sweet as static. She jerked her thumb at Amanda. "Who's she?"

"Oh, that's my kid sister. Beaman hasn't seen her since she was in pigtails. I thought he'd get a kick out of seeing her all grown up."

The receptionist eyeballed Amanda's chest, then ogled her own bazookas. "I'd say she's still got some growing to do. If you and Ef decide to have a little party for real grown-ups, keep me in mind. My name's Honey."

"Good for catching flies," Amanda hissed in my ear.

I patted her arm. "I know you're busting a gut to see Ef, Sis. So we'll go right up. See ya, Honey."

* * * * * * * * * *

Nobody answered when I banged on the door of suite 703, so I got ready to make quick work of the lock. Join the Army, get an education. While I eyed my trusty lock pick, Amanda opened the unlocked door.

When we got inside, I saw our host was indisposed. Very indisposed. As in dead.

A weak-chinned guy in his thirties, wrapped in a custom-tailored suit, lay sprawled on his back on an Oriental rug thick as the Bataan jungle. Of course, the small hole in his forehead took your mind off the chin, the tailoring, and the decorations.

"Oh my gosh." Amanda looked pale, but Beaman looked paler. Next to him, the marble statues by the elevator had a healthy tan. He hadn't seen this coming; his face froze in permanent surprise.

I grabbed Amanda's elbow with one hand and my gun with the other. "Beat it," I whispered. "Maybe somebody's still here."

The stubborn chickie shook her head. "I'm not leaving you."

"Then stay right here. And take off if there's trouble."

I slunk through the apartment, Amanda right behind me and banging into me every time I stopped. I checked the whole enchilada, including the walk-in closet and the marble shower stall. Nothing but a bust. I went back to the living room to check out the stiff.

"Whoever clipped him didn't roll him. Beaman's got a century in his wallet, nobody took his time piece, and there wasn't a rumble."

"Maybe it was robbery." Amanda pointed to a scrap of blue paper, with "Rada" in white letters, on the glass coffee table.

"So Beaman found a buyer for the blueprints, but the guy didn't want to cough up. Guess Francine Desmond will be ordering weeds instead of wedding duds." I took a gander at the other junk on the coffee table: two cups of joe, still warm, and an ashtray the size of a soup plate. A cigarette butt, monogrammed with F.D., sat in the ashes. One cup had a matching lipstick stain. "Or maybe she'll just wear stripes."

"Miss Desmond didn't do this. At least, that's not her lipstick."

Amanda could barely afford lipstick from the five and dime on what I paid her. How could she tell cheap paint from the pricey stuff? "What are you talking about?"

"It's orange."

"So?"

If you waited through all six verses, Amanda usually made sense. I waited.

"Miss Desmond's blonde. She wouldn't wear orange lipstick, any more than you would. I could wear orange, but I wouldn't. It looks kind of sleazy. Miss Desmond might not mind looking sleazy, in an expensive sort of way, but she wouldn't want to look washed-out. And orange lipstick makes a blonde look washed-out."

"I hope the bulls buy that. I better get Melrose on the blower."

 

ACT THREE

"He still hasn't woken up, sir, but I'm sure he said, 'Call Billy.' Amanda cradled the phone receiver between her cheek and her shoulder and continued to stroke Lee's hand.

"We ran 'typing' through crypto. 'Tai-peng' means 'eternal peace' in Chinese. There was a Taiping Rebellion in China in the mid-nineteenth century. The only connection we made with Lee was the city of Taiping in Malaysia. He was there in 1975." Billy Melrose sounded hoarse with exhaustion. "Has he said anything else?"

"Augie Swan's name, and 'paper.' So he's talking about the case. But he said Phillip and Jamie's names, too. And 'shine' and 'chicken sandwich.' Do you suppose he could be thinking about Hans Retzig?"

"Let's see what the computer pulls up on Retzig." Billy's voice came back on the line. "Interpol puts Retzig in Leipzig, Germany, a week ago. The German police are pretty embarrassed about his escape. They tried to nab him, but they struck out."

"Oh. I thought Lee said 'lipstick,' but it might have been 'Leipzig.' I don't know why he didn't tell me about Retzig earlier."

* * * * * * * * * *

Lieutenant Billy Melrose from Homicide chewed his unlit stogie while he gave me the third degree. "You couldn't go to church without tripping over a body, Stetson."

"That's why I don't go. The pews don't look right with corpses in them."

Amanda whacked my arm. Sergeant Fred Fielder sniggered.

"Stow it, Fielder." Melrose eyed his notebook. "You say the fiancée said Beaman might be in some kind of trouble and asked you to weasel it out of him. And that's all you know."

"That's all I know." I wasn't sure why I clammed up on Melrose. We were as close to friends as peepers and cops got in this town. But the whole shooting match, including the planted lipstick, was hinky. And a less goofy story might send Francine Desmond right to the Big House.

"I don't buy your cockamamie lipstick theory. We're picking up the fiancée and sweating her. And I've got half a mind to hold you as a material witness, shamus."

"You do that and you've got half a mind, period. I saw that the guy bought it. Even Fielder can see that. On a good day."

Melrose rubbed his belly and turned to his flatfoot. "Get me some water for my Bromo-Seltzer."

Fielder hot-footed for the kitchen, tripped over the rug, and made a side trip to the linoleum.

"I know you, Stetson. You'll be sticking your nose where it doesn't belong. God knows why, but I'm letting you go. You just whistle if you find anything. You do know how to whistle, don't you?"

That line sounded better coming from Bacall.

I put my lips together and blew "Smoke Gets in Your Eyes" on the way out.

* * * * * * * * * *

Amanda brushed tears from her eyes and hesitated outside the entrance to the hospital waiting room. Even though she couldn't help Lee, even though he didn't know she was there, she felt that her leaving made him more vulnerable. Hadn't she promised, "You know I'll never leave you"? What if he woke up, in pain, disoriented, alone, while she was gone? What if he didn't ever wake up?

In a futile gesture of displaced comfort, she wrapped her arms around herself. As she wanted to hold him. As she wanted to be held.

"Boys, do you want anything from the cafeteria?"

At the sound of her mother's voice, Amanda took a step forward and looked into the waiting room.

"No thanks, Grandma." Phillip stared at a television infomercial for hair replacement.

Jamie shook his head, not looking up from the book he wasn't reading.

Dotty put down her knitting--something red and shapeless. Maybe, Amanda thought, she'll finish an afghan before Lee wakes up.

"Well, I'm going to get something for your mother. She needs to eat."

Despite the determination in her voice, Dotty moved slowly. Without her characteristic bustle, she seemed to Amanda, for the first time, to be an old woman. But when her eyes met Amanda's, Dotty smiled, hurried forward, and hugged her.

"There you are, darling! I was just saying that I should get you some dinner. What would you like?"

"Maybe some soup."

"Good. Something hot. I had the tomato soup for lunch, and it really wasn't bad. Well, I'm sure it's just Campbell's, out of those giant cans they have at the A & P, but I don't suppose many people make tomato soup from scratch any more, the way your grandmother did." Dotty headed toward the elevators.

Amanda walked to the couch, sank down on it, and put her arms around Phillip and Jamie. They hugged her, Jamie almost fiercely.

Funny, how people just talked about being comforted in their parents' arms. They should also talk about how children did it back.

"Lee said your names. I'll bet he's dreaming about you right now."

"Did he wake up?" Jamie asked.

"Not yet."

"But if he's saying stuff, he's gonna be okay, right?" Phillip said.

"The doctor thinks that's a good sign. Listen, why don't you each sit with Lee for a while again? And talk to him."

"What should we talk about?" Jamie looked anxious, as if facing an oral pop quiz.

Amanda leaned forward and kissed the top of his head. "It's Lee, Sweetheart. You can talk to him about anything. School or your friends or what you want to do with him when he's better. Just tell him that you love him and then keep talking. It's good for him to hear our voices."

* * * * * * * * * *

Harry Thornton Desmond's study was just the place for holding a cozy polo match. A stone fireplace, a little too small for roasting an elephant, took up part of one wall. Enough velvet sofas to seat a platoon flanked the three sides around the mantle.

I guess guns buy a lot of butter.

The old man was a windbag and liked to flap his gums. I'm a man who hates to talk to a man who likes to talk. Unless he's got something useful to spill. I hoped this egg did.

"Who was here last night? After you stowed the papers in the safe?"

"Just Christina and I, plus Francine and Efraim. The two of them left for the opera after dinner. Verdi. 'La Traviata,' I believe."

"No hired help?"

"Oh, well, of course the servants were here."

I guessed Desmond had more savvy for the potted palms than he did for the lackeys.

"Could somebody've busted in?"

"Of course not. We have the best security system money can buy. Alarms on every door and every window. Plus, the dogs were patrolling the grounds. Fine animals. The best that money can buy." He patted the Doberman at his feet. It looked up and sneered at me.

I already had a handle on this caper. Definitely an inside job. Nobody had jimmied the doors and windows. The alarms still buzzed like a hive of ticked-off bees. I knew. I made them buzz.

"If Beaman didn't nick the plans, and somebody iced him to make it look like he did, the blueprints might still be here. I'd like to take a look around."

Mrs. Desmond snagged a hanky. "Of course. But, Mr. Stetson, what about my daughter? When will the police let her go?" She looked like she was about to turn on the waterworks. "Poor Francie."

A fading beauty who worked hard at slowing down the fade, the mother seemed more the type to send out "Sorry, unable to lunch" notes when her daughter fried. Maybe she was human after all.

"As soon as your mouthpiece springs her. I'm sure he's the best that money can buy." I stood up and stretched out my mitt to Amanda. "We'd better get cracking." It wouldn't take long to toss this place. Not as long as the Grand Canyon, anyway.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Amanda, I don't understand about the accident. Lee's such a good driver. Except for forgetting to wear his seatbelt." Lee was still unconscious, but Dotty talked to him anyway. "Lee, we love you to pieces, but you are *never* going to do that again."

Amanda sighed and forced herself to be patient. "I told you, the rear tire blew out, and the car went out of control. Things like that just happen." Even though her mother knew about their jobs, Amanda couldn't bear to worry her more. And telling separate stories to Dotty and the boys was just too complicated.

"I have a good mind to write to Ralph Nader. From now on, we're getting the best tires that money can buy. There's no point in economizing on safety."

"Of course." As soon as they put bullet-proof tires on the market, she'd be the first in line.

A nurse came into the room and tsk'ed her tongue. "I'm sorry, but you know the rules. Just one family member at a time."

Dotty stood up. "I'll go, dear. I know you need to be with Lee. And I'm sure it's good for him to hear your voice."

 

ACT FOUR

"Let's check the butler's quarters next." Amanda tugged my arm. "I don't like him."

"What do you mean, you don't like him?" I cased the library, trying to spy anything we missed.

"He gives me the creeps. That funny voice and those shifty eyes. Like he ought to be in horror movies. I'll bet Smyth isn't even his real name."

"Amanda, that doesn't mean beans. I knew a trigger man with a mug like Santa Claus."

She stuck out her chin and fiddled with her locket.

I knew when I was licked.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Ah hah! It's got to be right there!"

"What?" I tracked Amanda's pointing finger. "You mean that black bird dingus on the whatsit?"

"Lee, that's not a 'dingus.' It's a knick knack. A figurine. I suppose Mrs. Westheimer would call it a tchotchke. Definitely not a dingus. And it's on an armoire, not a whatsit. Or you could call that shelving a whatnot. But not a whatsit."

"Whatever. What makes you think he stashed the plans in the whatchamacallit?"

"Are you kidding? Just look around."

I looked around. It didn't help.

Amanda rolled her eyes. "Look at the décor. It's all colonial American. Very cozy. With Currier and Ives prints. Hooked rugs. And chintz slipcovers."

"So what?"

"And on top of the wardrobe, there's that monstrosity. It just doesn't fit in. All those fake jewels. So it must be here for a reason. As a secret hiding place."

I reached up and grabbed the dingus. Shook it. Nothing.

I turned it over. On the bottom, there was a label that said "Made in Malta."

"Looks jake to me."

"Let me see that." She snatched it from me.

I rifled the desk, flipped the mattress, and was about to peel wallpaper when Amanda yelped.

"I told you so!"

She'd pried out the glass eyes with the knitting needles she kept in her purse, along with the kitchen sink. And there were the blueprints inside, wadded into little balls.

I swiped the dingus when she held it up. "I'll be damned. The butler did it."

* * * * * * * * * *

"How's Lee doing, Amanda?"

"They did another C.A.T. scan, and his brain swelling has gone down." Amanda rubbed her eyes, which were gritty with exhaustion, and took a sip of the bitter coffee from the hospital vending machine.

"That's good news." Even over the telephone, she could hear the relief in Billy's voice. "Has he said anything else?"

"He said, 'The butler did it.'"

* * * * * * * * * *

Amanda made the Murphy bed and made me straighten up before we spilled the beans. Even though the Desmonds were lousy with maids, she wouldn't let me leave the place a mess.

We were about to fade when Smyth busted in, as appealing as an oyster with ptomaine. He was wearing orange lipstick. Amanda was right; he looked sleazy and washed out.
Smyth waved a pearl-handled .38.

I went for my heater. It was bigger than his. But I was no Billy the Kid. I came up short on the draw. Amanda was next to him, and quicker than I could say "cement overcoat," he rammed his rod against her skull.

I didn't want even a tiny hole in that noggin. I grabbed air and raised the dingus.

"You will give me the crow, Mr. Stetson."

Great. Everybody had a special moniker for it. "And you let the kitten lam?"

He looked confused and tapped his gun barrel against Amanda's head. "What's he saying?"

"If he gives you the figurine, will you let us leave?"

I butted in. "Not us, her."

"Oh, Lee." Amanda shook her head. I wished she'd hold still, what with the loaded rod glued to her brain. "That's awfully sweet, but I'm not leaving unless you go, too."

"A-maan-da!"

"Neither of you is leaving." Smyth looked loco. "I must have the blackbird, and I'll be pecking off both your noses."

"Huh?" Not even a head doctor could savvy that. Maybe Smyth was a hop-head.

I was sure of it when he sing-songed, "The King was in the counting house, counting out his money. The queen was in the dining room, eating bread and honey. The maid was in the garden, hanging out the clothes. Along came a blackbird, and pecked off her nose."

"Say what?" Yeah, the guy was definitely jingle-brained.

He cleared his throat. "While Mr. Desmond was at the bank and Mrs. and Miss Desmond were breakfasting, I took the blueprints from the safe. The under-parlor maid saw me. When she went outside, I hit her with the statue. Her body's in the wine cellar. The Desmonds won't miss her, but I'm leaving before Mr. Desmond selects tonight's vintage. I have to eliminate you, too."

I snorted. "Don't be a bunny! Burn powder, and the racket'll raise the coppers."

Smyth tapped Amanda again, and she piped, "People will hear you. You can't get away with it."

The butler smirked. "You're wrong. I drugged the Desmonds' tea and told the rest of the staff to take the day off."

I jerked a nod. He could've slipped the big cheeses a Mickey Finn. Since the butler bossed the help, the lackeys would scram if he said so. Clip us and he'd have a clean sneak.

If I were solo, I'd chance it and rush him. But not with Amanda in the bull's-eye. "Go climb your thumb," I growled.

Amanda gave me the eye. "So he's going to kill us, and there's nothing we can do about it. I guess we just have to accept it."

I wondered what kind of a flimflam she was pulling. My brain was as useless as a dead battery and as empty as politician's promise.

Smyth nodded. "Exactly."

"Can't you grant us one last request? I mean, prisoners on death row get whatever they want for their last meal, and, gosh, we haven't even done anything but get in your way. So it seems like you could honor one last little request. Especially since it wouldn't really be any bother. And it won't take long or cost anything. And then you could kill us with a clear conscience and be on your way. You'd probably feel awful guilty some day if you didn't at least consider it, wouldn't you?"

The butler looked dizzy. I started to feel dizzy. I wondered if nonstop yapping gave Amanda the strange power to cloud men's minds.

I was ready to blurt, "Spill it, sister," when Smyth croaked, "What is it?"

Amanda's face got dreamy. "Something to give us a last moment of true happiness."

Finally, I knew what street she was on. With a smile, I puckered up. I should have done that long ago. I'd make this a smacker neither of us forgot for the rest of our lives. Of course, the way things looked, we wouldn't have much time to reminisce.

"I want a cigarette."

"A cigarette?" Smyth asked the question. My trap wasn't working. As far as I knew, the only cigarette Amanda ever had was a candy one at Halloween. Maybe there was more to her than met the eye. And I'd never see it.

"Uh-huh." Now her voice got dreamy. "It's the traditional thing, you know. For a prisoner facing the firing squad. That and a blindfold. You're kind of like a firing squad, though maybe one person can't be a squad, but it's pretty close. You don't have to bother with a blindfold, but I sure would like a cigarette right now. Wouldn't you? I bet you would. It's so caaalming. So sooothing. To inhale and relax and let your cares float away like smoke. Especially when you're tense. I'm tense because you're going to shoot me, but I'll bet having to kill us and run away from the police is making you tense. And at a time like that, you really, really want a cigarette. You do, don't you? Sure you do."

From the look on Smyth's mug, Amanda's voice was clouding his mind for sure. His gun wavered, and then his hand went to his breast pocket, like he was reaching for a pack of Luckies.

I lunged, knocking Amanda out of the way and tackling the butler like clearing a path for the quarterback. Playing football is underrated as training for gumshoes. I wrestled the rod from him, and he was nothing but a sad little man.

* * * * * * * * * *

"I'm still waiting, sir. But I don't think it will be much longer. I'm pretty sure that Lee squeezed my hand." Amanda glanced around the hospital room. "Please thank everyone for the flowers."

"I have some good news on this end." Billy's chuckle came across the telephone line. "Going on that 'Butler' tip, we brought Ernst Butler in for questioning. He's got a rap sheet as long as your arm, and when we mentioned Taiping and Retzig, he started singing like a canary. He and Retzig were smuggling anti-aircraft guns to a rebel group in the Philippines. Butler was the shooter, and we'll be putting him away for a long time. And going on Butler's information, the Leipzig police pulled in Retzig."

"That's a relief." Now she wouldn't have to worry about someone making another attempt on Lee's life. Not this time, anyway.

"You're sure Lee didn't say anything about Retzig or Butler before the accident?"

"Maybe he forgot. I'll ask him when he wakes up. Of course, since he has a concussion, he might not remember." She took a deep breath. "What about that phone number from Augie Swann?"

"It was for a cheap hotel where Butler had been staying under an alias, and he'd already checked out. Without what you gave us, we couldn't have put this together."

* * * * * * * * * *

I roped Smyth with the curtain cord and shut his yap with a pillowcase. Then I faced Amanda.

"How'd you know he'd go for a smoke?"

"Oh, honestly, Lee!" She rolled her eyes again. "Didn't you notice how yellow that man's teeth are? And his stinky breath! He's *obviously* a heavy smoker."

"I wouldn't put a two dollar bill on the ponies with odds like that."

"But we solved the case!"

"Yeah. I better hike your pay after they spring the Desmond broad."

"There's something I'd rather have."

"What?"

"A ring." She ducked her head and then looked up at me, eyes shining like stars on a clear night. "Lee, you'll make fifteen hundred dollars from this case. That's a lot. Plenty of people get married on less than that."

Sometimes the girl next door is more dangerous than any femme fatale.

* * * * * * * * * *

When Amanda said, "A ring," my head pounded like a jackhammer. I figured we'd get around to talking about tying the knot sooner or later. After all, I was dizzy about the dame. But I didn't think the subject would give me a headache like this brain fryer.

Or make me hug the floor. I seemed to be flat on my keister.

Someplace white. Where they needed to kill the lights. Opening my eyes was a mistake. So, I shut them.

I heard Amanda, somewhere very far off, saying my name.

What did I have to lose? Nothing. "I love you," I said, and went back to sleep.

* * * * * * * * * *

"Lemme sleep," Lee muttered in response to Amanda's insistent voice. "I've got a headache."
"Open your eyes again. I love you, too, and you have to wake up."

"Okay, okay." Squinting against the stabbing white light, and wondering how he'd acquired the mother of all hangovers, Lee peered into Amanda's face.

She looked happy, excited, and scared, all at the same time. "Do you know who I am?"

Well, that was easy. "My Amanda." Maybe he could take a dozen aspirin and sleep off this headache now.

"Thank goodness." She smiled and kissed him. "I had this sudden, crazy fear that you wouldn't remember me. Like I couldn't remember you when I was in that car accident. I should get the doctor."

The doctor ... somehow the word made him think of Dr. Smyth, trussed up in curtain cords. And there was something else ... something precious ... He grabbed Amanda's hand. "Do you have it?"

"Have what?"

"The dingus." He tried to sit up, but the room spun. "The knick-knack. The crow."

"I think you've been dreaming."

"For the case."

"Oh, that's all taken care of. Why didn't you tell me about Retzig?"

When he stared at her, she shook her head. "It doesn't matter. I have to tell Phillip and Jamie and Mother that you're okay. You had us so worried. And from now on, you have got to wear a seatbelt."

Some of what Amanda said made no sense. But neither did the fleeting thought of his stepsons selling papers and shining shoes and his mother-in-law slicing pastrami. Nor the gaudy black bird that had seemed so important just a moment ago.

Amanda kissed his cheek. "You better still be awake when I get back," she called out as she hurried from the room. "I'll just be a minute."

Lee closed his eyes. How could anything make sense when his head hurt this much? He'd sort it out eventually. All that mattered was being back to the stuff that dreams are made of.

 

TAG

"Be patient," Amanda whispered to herself. Shifting the bag behind her back, she opened the door to the hospital room and smiled at Lee. "Hi, how are you feeling?"

"Terminally bored." He threw his newspaper down on the bed and scowled.

Irritability, Amanda reminded herself, is a common symptom during recovery from a traumatic head injury. Just like headaches and dizziness and sleep disturbance. "I know you think resting's another word for boring, and I know you hate hospitals, but you have to put up with it for a little longer. Anyway, I brought you a treat."

"If it's another Chubby Chewy Chocobar, things are going to get ugly."

Amanda held out the bag with a flourish. "It's cheesecake. They're showing 'The Big Sleep' on TV. I thought we could have some while we watched the movie. And Mother sent a few detective novels for you to read."

Lee winced, and she thought he looked pale.

"What's the matter?" She hurried to the bed and sat beside him. "Are you dizzy? Do you have a headache?"

"I'm fine. Really." He grimaced. "Guess I'm just not in the mood for that."

"What are you in the mood for?"

He snaked his arms around her and kissed the back of her neck. "Do you remember what I asked for when Billy made you my bedside bluebell? Can I have that instead?"

Amanda shivered with anticipation and leaned against him. Yes, Lee was definitely getting better.

"You know, Stetson, this time I think I can get you a woman."

Disclaimer: Characters are the property of Warner Brothers and Shoot the Moon Productions. I make no claim on "The Maltese Falcon," "Across the Pacific," "To Have and Have Not," "The Big Sleep," "Casablanca," "The Shadow" radio show, and various other noir and hardboiled films and books affectionately spoofed in this story. The synopsis is based on Raymond Chandler's "Farewell, My Lovely" and "The Simple Art of Murder." This story is written for entertainment purposes, not for profit.

Relevant facts: Television sets were sold in the U.S. in 1947, but there were only 44,000 in American homes, compared to 40 million radios. By 1948, only 10 percent of Americans had ever seen a TV, most of them in public places like bars and department stores. For information and pictures about life in the 1940s, see http://www.angelfire.com/retro2/lisanostalgia1/40s.html
For information about and pictures of automats, see: http://www.theautomat.com/inside/history/history.html