If I hadn't been carefully watching Mrs. Luella Cooper, I wouldn't have overheard it, and one of the best chances of my career might have been lost. But I'd hardly taken my eyes off her since I arrived at Jim Fielding's house party.
Fielding was noted for his lavish parties. He always invited just the right number of people so he could personally take care of them all, though he usually made certain there were enough so the guests could pair off. Fielding's house, a three-story affair, was in town, and the top floors were all bedrooms and baths, a fact every amorously inclined man and woman guest had long ago noted.
I knew that Mrs. Cooper's husband was on the Coast on business. In fact, I knew a lot more about Mrs. Cooper than any reliable jeweler should know about any of his clients. My interest in her wasn't amorous, however. What Mrs. Cooper meant to me was a diamond and emerald necklace she liked to flaunt in the faces of her female friends and make them see the emeralds in a greener color than they really were.
I wasn't disappointed when I greeted Mrs. Cooper earlier that evening. She wasn't wearing her necklace, and that suited me fine because lifting a two hundred thousand dollar bit of bric-a-brac off a lady's neck is a pretty difficult feat even under the best conditions. However, I did know she'd been wearing the necklace at a very fancy tea and cocktail party this afternoon and that she had returned to her apartment house much too late to get the thing into her bank vault. Therefore it had to be in her apartment and I thought I knew just about where it was hidden. I wanted that necklace.
So, when Mrs. Cooper gave impressive-looking Jim Fielding a covert little signal, I spotted it. They left the dancing in the gaudy ballroom and went out to a small formal garden at the back of the house--a garden growing mysteriously in the shadows of the skyscrapers and in the cement-laden soil of the city. I guessed those blooms must have cost Fielding twenty dollars each, and he could have bought better ones for five dollars a dozen in any florist's shop, but Fielding apparently liked to do things the expensive way.
I saw Fielding take Mrs. Cooper's hand, hold it a moment and then let go and put his arm around her. Jim Fielding's wife was away, as usual, so he had little to worry about. I was wondering if this whole expensive shindig hadn't been arranged just so that Fielding could get together with Mrs. Cooper.
As I said, she wasn't a bad sort. A bit on the snooty side but then, with her dough, she could afford to be. Still she was well built, had a pretty if not beautiful face and at thirty she wasn't too old to take. I had an idea, however, that when you slept with a woman, you shouldn't steal her jewelry.
I trailed them out into the darkness and Fielding took her to one side of the four-car garage. There, in the shadows, he grabbed her and I never heard a whimper from Luella. They were locked together like that for a long time and Fielding's hands and arms wandered all over her and she appeared to enjoy it. That damned gold mesh evening bag with a gold strap dangled from her arm. I wanted that bag as much as Fielding wanted Luella.
I heard Fielding say, "You knew this would happen, my dear. You knew damned well."
"Yes," she replied in a hoarse whisper. "Oh yes, Jim. I've been waiting and waiting."
"Listen," he said, "we can't stay here."
She was silent a moment, then in a low voice she asked the inevitable question. "Where can we go?"
He kissed her a couple of times. Then he said, "You're wonderful. Listen--we'll go back inside and mingle with the guests for a few minutes. Then you drift upstairs." He fumbled in his pocket. "Here is a key. My rooms are at the end of the hall. Let yourself in, put the key on the little table just inside the door and wait for me there."
"Promise you won't be long, Jim."
"No longer than I can possibly help. I'm showing some movies tonight. Nothing sensational, but enough to keep everybody busy for an hour or so."
She said, "Who wants to see movies with you around, darling."
I got out of there fast and beat them back to the ballroom. Getting my hands on Luella's pet necklace was going to be much easier than I expected.
When they entered the ballroom, I was handy enough so that they both greeted me. Fielding shook hands. "Hello, Mike Sloan," he said. "I saw you around, but I couldn't get near you."
I said, "Good evening, Mr. Fielding. Hello, Mrs. Cooper. You're looking especially lovely."
She nodded rather formally, but her eyes clearly returned the compliment. Even though she intended to hold a tryst with Fielding in just a few minutes, she couldn't resist being interested. That warm, sultry look of hers said that there simply weren't enough men in the world for her.
I saw them separate and Luella was grabbed up for a dance by a bulgy guy with inquisitive paws and an alcohol-glass pair of eyes. I made my way out of the ballroom, saw nobody around the reception hall and I walked briskly up the curving staircase to the second floor.
Upstairs, some of the bedroom doors were open. A couple were closed, but not empty from the giggling I heard coming through the panels. I proceeded at once to the door of Fielding's rooms that he had told Luella about.
This was an old house, very well kept up and worth a small fortune, but the door locks were the old-fashioned kind which required a long, round key--the easiest sort in the world to pick, and I knew quite a lot about locks. This one surrendered to a special blade on a gold knife I carried. I went inside and snapped on the lights for about ten seconds so that I could spot the location of the furniture and relock the door. Then I put them out, moved a big divan away from the corner and got behind it. I pulled the divan back in place, curled up and waited.
I could visualize that necklace. I'd repaired it seven times and the last time I'd worked on it I had learned something particularly intriguing. Some of the diamonds had been a trifle loose and Luella had wanted the whole thing gone over. It had been necessary to clear out a lot of perfumed face powder from under some of the loose gems. She wasn't the first woman to hide her most valuable jewels inside a powder box when they weren't gathering dust in a safe deposit vault.
The necklace was an exquisite piece of yellow gold set with a row of fine diamonds, then a row of emeralds and finally a third row of diamonds. All the stones were perfect, all uniformly large but not so big that they couldn't be easily disposed of. I'd assessed that necklace for two hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars once. I could make a hundred and fifty thousand on it even after I'd broken it up, which I always did with any of the pieces worth going after.
About a dozen of those emeralds could be made up into a neat bracelet, which would look good on Mona's wrist, I thought. Emeralds went with her dark eyes and hair. Having watched Jim Fielding and Luella, and knowing they were coming here soon made me think about Mona. I remembered I had to get her on the phone as quickly as possible when I left this suite of rooms. She was going to have to earn some of those emeralds.
A key slid into the lock, turned and Luella stepped into the room. She snapped on the overhead lights and I automatically ducked lower even though I knew she couldn't see me. Then she lit a dim table lamp and extinguished the others. She put the key on the little table just inside the door and alongside it she placed her gold mesh handbag. I saw that from where I was hidden and I smiled because it was exactly what I knew she'd do.
After five minutes, Fielding showed up. He locked the door and left the key in it. Neither of them said anything. They met in the middle of the room and embraced.
When Fielding, in a thick voice, said, "God, you're beautiful, Luella. You're amazing," I realized she was out of her dress. From my hiding place I could see only their heads.
She was clinging to him, arching back so her body would be pressed tightly against him, and she said, "Jim--let's not hurry back to the party. Those people won't budge while the movies are on. We have plenty of time."
I didn't. Fielding was impatient, for suddenly he curled an arm under her and lifted her. She giggled, threw her arms around his neck, and kicked her legs. He took a couple of steps in the direction of the next room and then he couldn't hold her any longer. He almost dropped her, but she managed to get her feet under her. She started laughing out loud. He stopped that with a hard kiss squarely on her lips, and she grabbed him again.
They disappeared into the next room. After a couple of minutes, there was silence and the light in the other room went out. I waited three minutes by the luminous dial of my watch, climbed over the divan and tiptoed to the door. I picked up her handbag, opened it and found what I was looking for. A single key. I dropped it into my pocket, closed the bag and put it back on the table. I turned the key in the door gently, withdrew it and opened the door a crack. Nobody was in the hall.
I closed the door without making a sound, locked it and put the key in my pocket. Then I started moving fast. The first thing I did was step into one of the bedrooms, close the door and pick up the telephone. I dialed the office, where Mona always waited when I was on the prowl. She answered right away.
"Listen, baby," I said, "it worked. In ten minutes I'll be in the apartment and out on the street ten minutes after. That gives you twenty minutes to meet me around the northwest corner of the building. Can do?"
I could almost hear Mona lick her chops. "Can do," she purred. "Good luck, darling."
I went down the stairs. The ballroom was dark and quiet except for the movie screen, on which some fleshy figures cavorted gayly. I slipped out through one of the French doors and nobody would have seen me if I was ten feet tall.
Luella's apartment was in a building only seven blocks north, one of those breaks a guy in my profession hopes for and seldom gets. I whistled for a cab, had myself driven north on the avenue and got off a block beyond the street where Luella lived. I knew every step of the way from here.
The apartment building was provided with a service entrance, a freight elevator which was strictly self-service, and at this hour of the evening there'd be few engineers around. I got into the elevator, sent it to the eleventh floor, walked down two flights and made my way along the corridor to Luelia's duplex.
I noticed that the lock in her door looked new and when I thrust her key into it, the whole business operated stiffly. It was a brand new lock, all right, but just about as pickproof as the old one. I didn't turn on any lights, but used the small flat flashlight I carried.
I went through the living room, passed up the dining room and found the stairway to the second floor of the two-story apartment. I knew just where Luelia's bedroom was, walked in and sprayed the big French Provincial vanity with light. It had a large metal powder box on it. I put a piece of paper under it, raised the lid and gave a nervous start because opening the lid set off some concealed chimes. They couldn't be heard twenty feet away, but I cursed them anyway. I thrust a finger into the layer of powder and found what I was after with astonishing simplicity. She'd rolled the necklace and a few other bits of jewelry into a piece of wax paper and buried them under the powder. I got them out very carefully, to avoid spilling powder, rolled the jewelry and their wax paper covering into more tissues and put them in my pocket.
I replaced the lid, shook the box to level off the powder inside, cleaned up the vanity, put everything exactly as it was when I came in and wiped away any prints. It was as simple as that. I left by the same route I used to enter, walked casually out the service door to the side street and then stepped briskly to the corner.
As I rounded it, Mona Montinez came out of the shadows. She was wearing an evening gown and a mink jacket over it so that if we were seen, nobody would pay much attention, since we were both formally dressed. Besides, if an emergency compelled her to crash the Fielding party, she'd be prepared. Mona was practical, too.
But being practical wasn't all there was to Mona. She was tall, only two inches shorter than my six feet, but she wasn't the rangy type. Beautiful as a painting from head to foot, you could see the Spanish background in her family tree. At least she claimed it was Spanish. I went more for the Gypsy idea, possibly because I always was a romantic guy.
She said, "How did it go, darling?"
"Like always," I said. I fished out the tissue-wrapped package and pressed it into her hand. "Unveil it later, baby. Is the car close by?"
She led me to where the club coupe was waiting, and we got in. Mona needed no instructions. She headed straight for Fielding's place. She stopped for a traffic light and leaned over. I kissed her lightly and then seriously. I was still thinking about Fielding and Luella.
"I'll get away early if I can," I said. "Be at the office."
"I'll be there, Mike," she said with a slow smile.
I grinned. "Wait until I tell you what I've been through. No time now. Drop me at the next corner, go back to the office and start work on this stuff."
"Yes, Mike. By the time you get there, I should be almost finished."
She took time to squeeze my knee, and then she was pulling up to the curb. I took a quick look around, slipped out and walked quickly to the driveway beside Fielding's town house. Twenty seconds later I entered through the same French door, right into the same scene I'd left. The movie was still going on.
I went up the stairway, after scanning the faces in the audience as best I could in the gloom. I didn't see Fielding or Luella among them. When I reached the suite, I listened outside the door for half a minute. I also peeked through the old-fashioned keyhole. Only that same weak light was on.
I threaded the key into the lock, turned it carefully, opened the door and listened some more. I could hear Luella speaking in a low voice. I stepped inside, picked up her evening bag and placed the key in it. I laid it down gently, thrust the door key into the lock, turned it and then I stepped softly across the floor, climbed over the divan and crouched down behind it.
I'd had plenty of time, for they didn't come out for another fifteen minutes. Fielding was trying to tie his black tie without a mirror and doing a lousy job of it. Luella picked up her dress and, with one of those deft motions only a woman knows, stepped into it, gave one quick pull and the dress was back in place.
She kissed him once more and then started putting on lipstick. "You're very nice, Jim. Very, very nice."
Fielding wanted to take a couple of minutes for some more necking, which showed he didn't know women as well as he thought he did. Luelia's fresh lipstick was on.
Fielding grabbed the doorknob and tried to open the door. He gave a laugh. "I forgot. I locked us in."
I gave them five minutes before I slipped out of the place myself and went downstairs. When the picture was over and the lights went up, I was sitting far back in the room, legs crossed, smoking a cigar and apparently having a hell of a fine time all by myself. I wished Fielding would call it a night because I wanted to get back to Mona--and fast.