When that blonde bombshell walked into my office, the last thing I was thinking about was crime.
It was a crisp day in November. The year was 1936. My office had been empty for days, so I was just sitting back, feet on the desk, still chortling over FDR's crushing defeat of the hapless Alf Landon in the presidential election two days before. (Oh, yeah--there was also a third-party candidate, one William Lemke, a stooge of Father Coughlin and Francis E. "Share the Wealth" Townsend, but no one paid much attention to him.) I had half toyed with voting for Norman Thomas, but figured it would be a waste of effort. FDR had, in his first term, craftily steered a middle ground between the mossbacks of the Republican Party, all screaming that he was leading the country down the path to a socialist hell, and the firebrands on the left, like Townsend and the late and unlamented Huey Long. No one had expected the extent of FDR's victory: Landon couldn't even win his home state of Kansas, managing only to snag the conservative New England states of Maine and Vermont.
But back to the blonde bombshell.
Practically everyone who walks through my door seems shy and hesitant, and this broad was no different. After all, who needs a private investigator except someone wanting the dirt on a cheating spouse, or the dope on a missing relative, or some way he or she can skirt the law or get out of a jam? Add to that the fact that, once you open that door, you come face to face with me and not some kindly and smiling receptionist? The New Deal had done some good, but not enough for me to hire back my Nellie. She had, I'm sure, long ago gone to greener pastures.
So here I was, face to face with a tall, slender, fur-covered dish (it was cold outside) whose large green eyes and spots of color on her cheeks made it clear she wanted to be anywhere but here. Before even speaking a word, she was breathing heavily.
Maybe I'm not the most reassuring guy in the world. I don't have what is called the avuncular manner. I just want to get down to business, whether it's with a slip of a girl like this (she couldn't be more than eighteen) or a hardened ex-con trying to escape one more trip to the hoosegow.
So I didn't do anything but look at her. She looked back at me--for a moment--then looked away.
Finally she spoke. "Are you . . . are you Mr. Scintilla?"
I took pity on her. In my gentlest voice I said, "Yeah, I'm Joe Scintilla. What can I do for you?"
That seemed harmless enough, but the babe reacted as if I'd electrocuted her. Her eyes got even bigger, her breathing even more stertorous, those bright spots on her cheek even more scarlet.
"Just sit down, ma'am, and relax," I said. "Take your coat off."
She did so. And it was my turn to turn bug-eyed.
This lady was built. No flat-chested flapper-style for this piece of work--that was so passe. She had a good figure and she knew it--knew also that the long black dress that hugged her form was just the thing to set men's hearts and minds aflame. If that fur coat hadn't told as much, that dress and the various trinkets of jewelry that ornamented her ears, neck, and wrists stated in no uncertain terms that she was no pauper. That might be good news for me, since it's hard to get money out of paupers.
Placing her fur over the back of the chair, she sat down. She still said nothing. I looked at her. She looked at me.
Finally: "I'm Lizbeth Crawford." She paused--as if expecting me to recognize that name. When I made no response, she went on:
"My father was--er, is James Allen Crawford."
I looked up sharply. Him I'd heard of, although the details were now vague. A scandal of some kind a dozen or more years ago . . . a murder trial . . . something like that. Wealthy guy--family had made money in rubber, being one of the early suppliers for Henry Ford's motorcars. I didn't know whether the guy was dead or alive--and neither, it seemed, did his daughter.
She failed to meet my gaze when I looked at her. All she did was clutch her handbag and look down at her feet. At last she raised her head and said:
"He's in Rahway State Prison for the murder of his brother, my uncle Frank--Frank Crawford," she said in a small voice. Then, without warning, she cried:
"But he didn't do it!"
Those rosy blotches on her cheeks had now suffused her whole face. She looked at me almost truculently, as if daring me to deny her utterance.
But all I said was: "What makes you say that?"
I had spoken quietly, but it's as if I'd slapped her in the face. I thought she would break down and cry. I really don't like women crying in my office.
I was starting to remember more of the case. It had been a fairly big deal, not only because it came on the heels of the notorious Leopold and Loeb case, but because it had involved such a prominent and wealthy businessman. It had also ended the same way: although Crawford didn't have a Clarence Darrow to save him from the chair, he had pleaded guilty and gotten a stiff prison sentence. Unlike Leopold and Loeb, he hadn't killed merely for sport--it was believed to be a crime of passion of some kind. But at this point the details became hazy--for me, at any rate.
So, as a way of getting this dame to cough up what she knew--and, more importantly, what I could possibly do about it--I said, "Didn't Mr. Crawford confess, or something?"
She let out an immense sigh--the kind of sigh you give when a particularly dense schoolboy continually gives you the wrong answer to an easy question.
"Yes, he confessed," she said, "but that means nothing. I know he didn't do it!"
I said nothing but just raised my eyebrows a fraction of an inch. Even that mild expression of skepticism seemed to have the desired effect, for she finally spilled the beans.
"Look, Mr. Scintilla, I just turned eighteen last week. As a result of that, I've . . . I've come into some money from my trust fund. So I have as much money as you could possibly ask for to prove . . . to show that my father didn't commit this crime."
I replied coolly. "I don't doubt your ability to pay, Miss Crawford, but it's hard to prove a negative." I didn't study philosophy at Johns Hopkins for nothing. "If your father didn't kill your uncle, someone else did. And not only that--"
But she didn't let me finish. Seizing on my words, she reached into her handbag and slapped down on my desk a stiff sheet of paper, with some typewritten names on it. "There!" she cried, as if that proved her case.
I looked down quickly at the paper, then back at her. "What is this?"
"That's a list of people who were at a party when my uncle Frank died . . . was killed, on March 19, 1924. I was only about five and a half, but I got that list from my mother. One of them had to have done it!" She glared at me with those big green eyes of hers.
This was all getting a bit strange. In the first place, the idea of investigating a twelve-year-old murder didn't seem like the most profitable use of my time--except in the crude sense that I could bill this dame for a lot of legwork that would probably go nowhere. And in the second place . . . well, I couldn't put it more bluntly than I did.
"But Miss Crawford, your father confessed to the murder. Why would he do that? Why would he spend more than a decade--and, I imagine, the prospect of several more decades--in the penitentiary for a crime he didn't commit? What's in it for him?"
Her eyes turned to glints of adamant.
"That's what I want you to find out."