There was nothing spectacular about the way this thing started. It was simple police routine, and if it hadn't been for the girl none of the detectives in the Hollywood Division of the Los Angeles Police Department would have paid the slightest attention.
But the girl was there, and no normal male between the ages of seven and seventy could have failed to be aware of her. She was young and beautiful and expensive-looking and anybody but a working cop would have whistled at her. As it was, one of the dicks said, "Wow!" and we all knew what he meant.
It had been one of those nights: no major crime, no important cases under investigation. Just a lot of paperwork and a lot of waiting for midnight so that we of the night watch could go home and let the morning watch take over.
Two of the teams drifted in from patrol, so that the little room at the head of the stairway was crowded. We were all professional policemen, which meant that we weren't discussing police work. As I remember it, the subject under discussion was baseball, the rivalry between the Los Angeles and Hollywood clubs of the Pacific Coast League. We weren't even very excited about that. We wouldn't have been excited about anything if a certain us pounds of female dynamite hadn't walked up the stairs and started looking us over while the man with her chatted with Lieutenant Bert Lane, the night-watch commander.
The two visitors stood on the far side of the Dutch door that was designed to keep the riffraff from intruding on the detectives and vice versa. They looked like class and money. They looked as if they'd be more at home in Romanoff's than in a police station. The man looked at the sign over the doorway that said, "Detectives," and asked whether this was the Detective Bureau. Lieutenant Lane answered him that it was. The man then asked whether he could file a missing-person report and Lane asked the circumstances.
"My wife has been missing since yesterday."
He said he was worried, he sounded worried, and he looked worried.
He was one of those improbably handsome guys who look like an advertisement for sports clothes. He was perhaps an inch better than six feet in height, weighed approximately 185, and said he was thirty-seven, although he didn't look nearly that old. He had soft, wavy black hair, black eyes, clear complexion, broad shoulders, slender waist, and a lot of confidence in himself. He talked softly, yet he gave the impression that he'd be a tough guy to tangle with. You could figure without half trying that he was dripping with money and that luxury was his middle name. He added up as a VIP, chiefly perhaps because he didn't work too hard at being one.
He was dressed Hollywood style: sports coat with gabardine slacks of a blending, but contrasting, shade; gabardine shirt, no tie. You didn't have to guess whether his clothes came from an expensive place; you knew it. He was apparently cold sober and above average intelligence, so we knew right away that we weren't dealing with a drunk, a screwball, or a psycho. He didn't look like a lad who would run around reporting his wife missing just for the fun of it.
Lieutenant Lane started with the customary questions.
"What makes you think she's missing--not just visiting somewhere?" he inquired.
The man shrugged. "That's how it adds up. She went off in her car last night. She should have been back by midnight. She didn't show up and didn't telephone. We haven't heard from her all day today."
"How old was she?" That question had a definite significance. Around the detective bureau you learn that a lot of wives do odd things between the ages of forty-five and fifty, nature being what it is, so that if the missing woman fits in that age bracket you at least have a hint of where you might start figuring. But his answer quashed that idea.
"She's thirty-two," he said. "Has she ever before disappeared like this?" "No."
"Did you quarrel? What I mean is: Could she have got sore at something?"
"O. K." Lane reached for the missing-person form and started jotting down answers. "Your name, please."
"Dean Halliday." One of the boys looked at me and nodded. We'd heard of the guy. Plenty of dough, and quite a rep around certain night spots.
He gave a residence address on Valleycrest Drive in the Los Feliz section. He said his wife was named Dorothy, that her maiden name had been Kent, that they had been married since 1945, and that she was in perfect health.
"Now," suggested the Lieutenant, "let's get back to the circumstances of her disappearance. Yesterday, wasn't it?"
"When did you last see her?"
Dean Halliday hesitated. "I didn't see her when she left the house. I hadn't been home for several hours. My sister-in-law can tell you about that."
He turned to the girl who accompanied him. "This," he explained, "is my wife's sister, Iris Kent."
That gave us an excuse to stare at Miss Kent instead of pretending we were looking at something else.
Iris was worth looking at. She was small, but not too small--maybe five-three. She looked as though she weighed around 112 and that nature had distributed her good points where they were most effective. She, too, had dark hair and eyes, which was fine with me because I'm a blond myself and have always gone for brunettes. Actually, though, this Iris wasn't a true brunette; she had the complexion of a blond.
She was twenty years of age, which pegged her as two years over the age of consent, and her bold, roving eyes gave the impression that maybe she had taken advantage of that privilege more than a few times. Of course, you couldn't be sure, not after one brief glance, but if you were a trained observer you might bet on it.
It wasn't that she was beautiful or vivid or that she, too, gave off an impression of wealth. It was something else, something intangible, as though she were broadcasting the mating call from a private station. Also there was no mistaking the fact that from the moment she had rested her two pretty elbows on the shelf of the Dutch door, she had been giving all of us the business.
We're a pretty good bunch of guys, masculine enough and perhaps above average intelligence, but we're still in a different league from the Iris Kents and Dean Halli-days of this world. That being the case, I wondered why she had been flashing her bedroom glance, why she had been doing what is politely termed flirting, why she'd been exhibiting an interest above and beyond the call of duty.
She was making it pretty obvious. Elsie Barker (he's one of the biggest, best, and huskiest detectives in the bureau and he gets his nickname from his initials, L. C.) leaned over and whispered to me, "She's working on you, Danny. Play it right and you'll be in like Flynn."
"Sure," I said. "Sure. I'm irresistible."
Lieutenant Lane was looking her over. He's older than the rest of us, but not so much older that he failed to notice the young lady's feminine attributes. He said, "You're Mrs. Halliday's sister?"
"Yes." She beamed it at him and you could see him quiver.
"Do you think your sister has disappeared or that she's just gone off visiting somewhere?"
The provocative smile left Iris' face, and for an instant she became deadly serious. "I think something has happened to her. I suggested that Dean make this report."
"You were with her last night?"
"Yes." She paused long enough to take a cigarette from a thin gold case and to light it with a thin gold lighter. She drew a big puff of the smoke into a very seductive pair of lungs (at least the part we could see was attractive), exhaled slowly, and spoke in an excitingly husky voice: "Dorothy and I dined at home last night. Dean was out. I told Dorothy I had a date for a late party at the Ambassador, but that for three cents I'd call it off. She urged me to go.' She said she had an engagement and was going out herself."
"So you went?"
"She was at home when you left?"
"No. She went with me. My car was out of order. Something wrong with the starter. She drove me to the Ambassador and left me there. We figured I could get someone to give me a lift home when the party was over."
"That's all. We said good night and she drove away. I haven't seen her since."
"Did she tell you where she was going?"
"Did you ask her?"
Again Iris hesitated, as though what she said might be important. "Ye-e-ess. She was evasive."
"What does that mean?"
"She avoided a direct answer. She simply said she had an engagement, and when I saw that she didn't want to go into detail, I dropped it."
Lane did a little doodling on the back of a pad. "Did you join the party at the Ambassador, Miss Kent?"
"Because what I suspected turned out to be true. There was a drip there I don't like. I had a hunch he'd be there, and he was. I looked into the Cocoanut Grove from the doorway, saw him, and moved on. I went to a picture show and then took a taxi home."
"What was the name of the man you didn't want to be with?"
"Greg--Gregory--Watson. He gives me a pain in an embarrassing spot." She smiled when she said it, and Lane said he understood what she meant.
"Now then," he went on, "let's get back to your sister. You're sure she didn't go back home?"
"I'm not sure of anything. When I got home I went to my room. I got up late this morning. Just as I was finishing breakfast, Dean came downstairs. He asked me where Dorothy was, said she apparently hadn't been home all night. He wasn't worried, and at first I wasn't, either. Later, I started calling friends she might have visited. None of them had seen her. Tonight I insisted that he come down and make this report."
"And you think . . . ?"
"I don't know what I think. Dorothy has never done anything like this before. She's not home, and her car isn't there. There's been no word from her. I'm afraid she may have had an accident."
"Did she carry identification?"
"Sure. Driver's license. Automobile Club card. Things like that."
Bert said, "I'll start phoning. Take it easy, you two."
There's a lot of telephoning to do when you take a missing-person report. You get in touch with the Missing Persons Bureau down at City Hall, then with the hospitals, the morgue, the city and county jails. I heard him ask the morgue the usual question: whether, in the past twenty-six hours, they'd had a Mrs. Dorothy Halliday or a Jane Doe, white female American, age thirty-two, brown hair and eyes, height about five-five, weight about 130.
Dean Halliday was leaning on the shelf of the Dutch door looking too handsome and too bored. Iris Kent had brightened up as though she had flipped a switch marked "Vivacity." She engaged in a bit of bright and airy persiflage with us and made the conventional remark that she'd had no idea a police station looked like this. I remarked that it didn't, really, and she appeared to think that was an excruciating remark.
"What are all those other rooms?" she asked, gesturing down the hall.
"Squad rooms," I explained.
"How about the one at the end of the hall, the one marked 'Homicide. Robbery'?"
"Just what it says. The day watch has a detail that specializes in those things. That's their private hangout."
"Ooooh!" she said with a girlishness I couldn't quite believe. "I'd love to see it."
Lieutenant Lane flashed me a quick glance without appearing to do so. He looks like a tall, gangling Wisconsin farmer, but he's sharp as hell. He'd caught what I thought I had detected, that she wanted to talk to someone away from her brother-in-law, and that for some inexplicable reason she had elected me.
So I said I'd be delighted to show her around while the checkup was being made. We walked down the hall together and into the Homicide Room. As we stepped inside Iris Kent closed the door, and when she faced me there was nothing bright or gay or coy in her manner.
"You're one of the detectives?" she asked.
"Yes. Danny O'Leary. Sergeant." x
"Listen, Danny." She was informal enough, all right. "I've got something to tell you. It sounds crazy and maybe it is, but I don't think so."
"All right, Miss Kent," I said, "let's have it."
She came right to the point.
"My brother-in-law," she said, "is a prime louse. This f missing-person stuff is just a lot of eyewash. I think Dean Halliday knows where my sister is. I think he knows that she's dead, and the reason he knows it is because he murdered her."