A Private Man – Chapter One

July, 1947. And hotter than hell in Hamilton.

But it sure felt good to be back on my old stomping ground. Felt good? Well, hell, it felt great. I didn’t think I’d get back alive. After five long years in war-ravaged Europe, count me among the lucky ones who survived.

Now I was back on Civvy Street – and if you believed the folks at the Rehab Centre, I was becoming a productive member of postwar society. But I say the jury was still out on that score.

I boarded a Belt Line streetcar on King Street, followed by a couple of soldiers in uniform toting duffel bags. Must’ve been on leave, judging by the big grins on their mugs. They reminded me of that old song from the last war: “Pack up your troubles in your old kit bag and smile, smile, smile.”

Not always easy to follow that simplistic advice. But after three operations, the shrapnel wound that blew out my right knee was on the mend. Sure, I still limped, but so did a lot of other guys who’d survived the German shelling. And I was a helluva lot better off than my comrades who’d stayed behind under the Normandy sod.

At the Ferguson Street railway tracks, the motorman clanged his bell and stomped on the brake when a market truck loaded with cucumbers veered toward us. Our sudden stop jolted the pole on the streetcar’s roof from the line above in a shower of sparks. When the driver walked behind the tram and returned the pole to the overhead cable, he shook his fist at the truck driver. That earned him a round of applause from his passengers, me included.

I swung off the streetcar at John Street and limped across King to the Wentworth Building, which housed the one-man agency I’d bought a few months ago, determined to prove that my so-called disability wouldn’t stop me being the best damn private detective this side of Philip Marlowe. So what if this was Hamilton?

And my job today? Hire a new secretary.

Down the hall on the third floor I unlocked my office door; the frosted glass panel still lettered W.J. JEFFRIES INVESTIGATIONS. For the umpteenth time I puzzled over what to replace it with. Something snappy. Maybe VETERANS INVESTIGATIONS or … MAX DEXTER MASTER DETECTIVE. No, not quite right. I’d think about it later, as usual.

I flipped on the lights and tossed my grey fedora onto the filing cabinet by the door. In front of the window facing King Street, three worn club chairs hunkered around a low table like old soldiers in a retirement home. The secretary’s desk and typewriter stand guarded the door to my own office in the opposite corner. The lease referred to this layout as a two-room suite. Washroom down the hall.

I ignored the Mount Everest of paper on my scarred wooden desk, crossed to the window and forced it open a few inches. Muggy air crawled over the sill, carrying with it the stench of car exhaust from below. Another day of record-breaking temperatures in Southern Ontario, which meant too damn hot. Annoyed by the traffic noise, I closed the window, opened the bottom drawer of the desk and sat down, using both hands to place my right leg across the drawer.

“Ahhh,” I said, out loud. “Contrary to popular opinion, there is indeed rest for the wicked.”

“I beg to differ with you, Young Man,” a stern voice boomed from the doorway.

“As far as I can see there’s been far too much rest taken in this office.”

I gaped up at a middle-aged woman standing tall and straight-backed before me. She wore a severely-cut black suit and her coarse grey hair was so closely cropped it conformed to her head like a pewter helmet. For a panicky moment I was back in Grade 6 and Sister Theresa was targeting me with her X-ray vision. I put my hands behind my back to avoid a blow across the knuckles from her ruler.

I snapped back to the present, withdrew my leg from the desk drawer and sat upright. It took me a moment to dig through the pile in my pending basket until I extracted the list of interviewees for the secretary’s job.

“Ah, yes, you must be Miss Higgins. In response to our notice in The Hamilton Spectator.”

“Well, of course I am. We made an appointment for nine a.m. sharp this morning. And it is now nine a.m. sharp.”

I flicked my eyes to the wall clock. It read oh-nine-thirty but I couldn’t remember the last time I’d wound it. I glanced back at Miss Higgins but her eyes had followed mine and her lips were now pinched in a prune-like frown. If my years of training in the Canadian Army had taught me nothing else, it was the hard-won lesson of when to abandon an unwinnable position. I could spend the next hour being lectured by this officious woman or I could save us both a truckload of aggravation.

I gave Miss Higgins a tight smile and lifted my leg back across the desk drawer. Hands behind my head, I squeaked back in my chair and cocked my head toward the wall clock.

“I’m sorry, Ma’am, but the success of this business is measured by the punctuality of its staff. And arriving a half-hour late for your job interview has disqualified you as a candidate.”

Her face became a purple mask and a wormy vein crawled along her forehead. She sputtered but couldn’t speak. Then she turned and puffed through the still-open door like a cartoon steam engine.

I sighed with relief, not realizing I’d been holding my breath. Judas Priest! Miss Higgins’ scornful scowl at the disarray in my office had pushed my guilt button and I hung up my jacket, rolled up my shirt sleeves and began to clean away the clutter. My former secretary had worked twenty years for old Jeffries and when she’d quit last month she delivered a short, but impassioned, speech: “You take the cake, Mr. Dexter,” she’d said, “for the world’s messiest man.”

At the secretary’s desk, I plowed through the mound of accumulated paper, advertising flyers and other junk. I’d filled three medium-sized boxes with trash and I still hadn’t reached the desktop when the scent of too much perfume wrinkled my nose.

I looked up at a skinny woman in a sagging red dress as she peered at me from behind a veil of dark hair. She closed the door without a sound and crept a timid step forward, clutching a black purse and a newspaper against her flat chest.

“The ad,” she whispered. “Miss Jones.”

I waved her toward a chair beside the desk and she sat. When she raised her eyes and brushed her hair from her face with long, bony fingers, I realized Miss Jones was just a kid, probably wearing one of her mother’s dresses.

“Well, Miss Jones, tell me about your work experience,” I said. “You’re familiar with typing and filing, arranging appointments and keeping accounts?”

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open as if to answer but not knowing what to say. “I’m just starting out,” she finally squeaked.

I smiled and lowered my voice. “What’s your real name?”

Her lower lip pouted and her shoulders slumped. When her eyes met mine, she said with a tiny grin, “Linda Jaworski.”

I pushed back my chair and stood. “Whaddya say we go next door for a Coke, Linda?”

We took a booth in the White Spot, where Linda told me her parents didn’t understand her because they were too old to remember that high school was an “utter waste of time”. So she planned to move out, get a job and her own apartment. Show them she was old enough to live on her own. She was 16, after all.

“War’s over, Mr. Dexter. Boys are back from overseas and there’s lots of jobs. Jeepers creepers, I don’t want to be left behind, miss out on all the fun.”

After she ran out of steam, I got her to promise she’d call a friend of mine, a counsellor at Central High. And she’d consider giving her parents another chance. After we waved goodbye I felt better about her prospects. I hoped she did too.

Back in my office, a young guy with an armload of newspapers breezed into the room. “Hot off the press, Max.” He flapped an early edition of The Hamilton Spectator on the desk, lowered his voice and glanced around as though he were selling risqué postcards. “Ya shoulda seen the glamourpuss I seen downstairs. Whatta gorgeous dame. Slinky like Betty Grable, but even sexier. Like Lana Turner.”

I laughed and gave him a light punch on the arm. “What d’you know about dames, Rick? Now beat it. I’m busy.”

Back to my cleanup of the secretary’s desk. I glanced at the Spec’s front page – the good news: RATIONING OF COFFEE, SUGAR & BUTTER TO END THIS YEAR; the not-so- good news: REMOVAL OF WARTIME PRICE CONTROLS SENDS PRICES SOARING.

I riffled through the new mail. Bills for electricity, rent and office supplies. No cheques for services rendered. A full-colour flyer proclaimed: COMING SOON The All New 1948 Studebaker Starlight Coupé: Manufactured Right Here in Hamilton. I sighed as I pitched it into the wastebasket; I couldn’t afford to replace my Model A Ford. In fact, I was just making ends meet on a disability pension from the government and a few new accounts I’d managed to acquire. And I retained the credit and background checks that Jeffries had serviced, but I planned to reduce the amount of that boring work in favour of more interesting cases. I hoped my new secretary would help me become more efficient and, maybe someday, make a profit.

In my own office, I retrieved the interview list for the morning, crossed off Miss Higgins’ name with a shiver and glanced at the wall clock. Still oh-nine-thirty. I stroked off the next name as well … the rebellious Miss Jones/Jaworski, a sweet kid. Maybe she’d stay in school but somehow I doubted she’d resist the tidal wave of hopeful excitement now flooding Hamilton after years of rationing and anxiety caused by the war.

Next on my list was Isabel O’Brien. What was that old saying? Bad luck comes in threes? Was it just an old wives’ tale? That thought teased me when I heard a firm knock on the door and looked up to admire a striking redhead striding into my life. Her flaming hair, cut in a shoulder-length curl, contrasted with her green tailored suit, its skirt falling just below her knees, accentuating her hips. Nifty. She glided right through into my office and extended a velvety hand across the desk as I scrambled to my feet.

“Good morning,” she said, giving my hand a firm shake. “You must be Max Dexter. I’m Isabel O’Brien, your new assistant.”

Her dazzling smile pulled you right into her orbit. But what did she mean, she was my new assistant? She’d skipped over secretary and promoted herself already? My mind was spinning its wheels.

I was still standing, still shaking her hand, still mesmerized by her green eyes and the sprinkling of freckles across her nose, still deciding what to say, when she walked back to the outer office and returned with a small man dressed in a sombre three-piece suit, twirling a homburg in his left hand. Everything about his appearance, from his spit-shined shoes to his pencil-thin moustache, shouted I’m a successful man of commerce and I’ve no time to waste.
Isabel slid her arm through his and drew him closer to the desk.

“Max, I’d like you to meet our new client, Mr. H. B. Myers.”

Lord love a duck, now she’s calling me Max. Everything about this dame knocked me off balance. I hadn’t spoken a word to her yet and she’s hired herself, promoted herself and brought in a new client, all in the space of two minutes.

I reached across the desk and shook Mr. Myers’ hand as though I were the one in charge here.

“Happy to meet you, Sir. Please have a seat.”

Isabel relieved him of his hat. “I’ll hold all your calls, Max, and see what’s keeping the coffee.”

My eyes widened but I gave her a brave smile. And I made a battlefield decision not to resist her superior firepower as she captured my unfortified office. So I said, “Thanks, Iz,” and she strode out the door.

I turned my attention to Mr. Myers: a prissy little guy, taking care not to crease his tailored suit and sitting forward on the edge of his chair with an anxious-to-leave look on his pinched face. “I’m a busy man, Mr. Dexter; time is money, you know.”

“Yes, Sir, and I’m eager to know how I can help so you can be on your way.”
“Good, good.” Then he explained that he owned a successful brokerage firm occupying an entire floor of the Pigott Building and he suspected one of his accountants of embezzling funds from his company.

“How much is missing?” I asked him.

He shrugged. “About fifty thousand.”

I fought hard to keep my eyes from bugging out. Holy mackerel, fifty thousand! At a time when the average annual wage is about two thousand bucks, this banty little businessman mentions losing fifty grand as though he might be discussing his bar bill at the Hamilton Golf and Country Club. I swallowed my anger, or envy, or whatever I was feeling and soldiered on. “So … What did the police say when you reported this?”

His pixie nose tilted upward. “Nothing. I didn’t report it.” Then he leaned forward, wagging a delicate finger. “And I don’t intend to. You can imagine the loss of confidence this news might provoke among our customers. Large amounts of money are handled by my office, you see. And I’m in the business of selling trust in my company’s ability to invest a customer’s money for a satisfactory profit. So I want this problem solved on the q.t.” Then he straightened in his chair and tugged on his monogrammed shirt cuffs, flashing his gold links.

A tap on the door announced Isabel’s entrance. She set a tray on the corner of my desk, poured coffee from an insulated jug bearing the circular White Spot monogram and left without a word.

“Nice to see an efficient operation,” Mr. Myers said. “Perhaps you’d be good enough to explain how you’d propose to solve my problem?”

I considered his question for a moment and tried to don my professional detective’s face. “Alright. A number of things we can do right away. First of all, we’ll learn all we can about your accountant – background checks, how he spends his free time, is he a gambler, for example, who his associates are, and other info which might be pertinent. Maybe do some surveillance or even place someone undercover in your accounting department.”

“Only one problem with that,” he said.

I waited.

“He’s missing.”

I took my time screwing the cap back onto my fountain pen and pushed aside the pad on which I’d been making notes. My chair squeaked as I rolled it back, and I gave my new client a hard look. I noticed a thin line of perspiration sprouting along his receding hairline, or maybe I only imagined the power of my hard look. In any case, he seemed like a smart guy, successful in business, and ten-to-one he lived in one of those mansions along Aberdeen Avenue. But, goddammit, the last thing he tells me is the first thing he should have told me. And it occurred to me, not for the first time, that this agency of mine would be a helluva good business if it weren’t for the stupid customers.

“Since when?”

“Friday.”

Hell, today was only Wednesday. Maybe the guy hadn’t bothered to phone in sick. But with fifty thousand clams missing … I needed a break from this chowderhead before I jeopardized the transfer of some of his money into my account, especially now that it appeared I had an assistant on the payroll. “Alright, Mr. Myers. I’ve got another appointment in ten minutes,” I lied. “Could we meet later today? I might be able to make some time this afternoon.”
I limped to the door just as Isabel opened it. Did she have her eye to the keyhole? We exchanged an intense look and if I believed in thought transference, I’d have to say that it was happening right now.

She stepped toward my new client. “Here’s your hat, Mr. Myers. I’ll rearrange Mr. Dexter’s schedule and contact your secretary.”

He positioned the homburg on his noggin just so, and patted Isabel on the arm.
“Thank you, my dear. You’re a very charming young lady.” And he left.

Back at my desk, I propped up my leg and Isabel settled into the visitor’s chair.

“Well,” I said with a sigh.

She grinned, or was that a smirk? “Yes … that’s what I was thinking.”

“Looks like you’re my new assistant. Even though I’d advertised for a secretary.”

“Titles are so arbitrary, don’t you find?” Her green eyes sparkled as she stood and gathered up some of the papers scattered over my desk. “My job is to do whatever needs to be done here. Let’s not waste any more time talking about it, Max.”

I stared at her for a moment. “Mr. Myers a friend of yours?”

“Don’t be silly, Max. We met in the lobby, searching in vain for your name on the directory board. I asked that nice elevator operator and he brought us up together.” She placed the tray with the coffee things on top of the stack of papers, lifted them both and headed for the door. Her red curls bounced on her shoulders as she turned her head and flashed me another hundred-watt grin. “I’ll fix that directory now. And maybe you could give me a hand arranging the new office furniture after lunch.”

She paused then, her eyebrows raised, and I realized this was a sort of test and she was waiting to see how I’d handle it. My first thought was that she needed a swift kick. Ordering new office furniture on her own hook went way beyond the responsibilities of an assistant, never mind a secretary. But then I weighed the pros and cons. On the plus side, she was direct and decisive. On the minus side, same damn thing – she was direct and decisive. If I wanted to make every little decision, I’d have to hire someone far less competent, and to hell with that.
“Okay, then,” I said aloud. “After lunch we get the new furniture then figure out how to pay for it. Meantime I’m working on our new case.”

She had the grace to look surprised. “But you’re not meeting with Mr. Myers ’til this afternoon.”

“Iz,” I said, “waiting on the client makes for a slow game. But it’s my guess that you already know that.”

​ ****

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