For David Prill Avallone
who is full of life
who is full of life
The Cast of Characters
…. according to their wearing apparel
ED NOON Brooks Brothers
ALBERTA CARSTAIRS Gloria, Inc.
HUGO ORLANDO A. Sulka
JOHN FREELING Browning King
MELISSA MERCER Ohrbach’s
THE SLIM SAVIOUR A Bespoke Tailor
CAPTAIN MONKS S. Klein
DONNA MARIE TORRONE Dior
SANDERSON, JAMES T. Howard Clothes
R. ROBERT ROBERTS Savile Row
MAX FINE Simon Ackerman
CLARA Henry Rosenfeld
…. and some of them wind up in shrouds
Prologue to Murder
When The Fat Death hit New York, lots of things had already happened to grip the public’s interest. Johnson had finally got tough about civil rights down South, a rapist killer had gone berserk in one ten-block section of Manhattan and a Convair airliner out of La Guardia had ploughed up a residential street in Queens. So it took plenty for The Fat Death to catch on, hold on and keep on holding. It wasn’t easy. But The Fat Death was handled by experts.
The first indication that a giant was walking among us was the leaflet invasion. One shining fall day, the skies over Manhattan rained a million leaflets. No one knows who was the first person to see the message on the square, orange streamers. But after that first one, all of New York that was out walking or leaning out of windows got the message.
It was pure Barnum hokum. Grandstand technique applied to mass saturation. Madison Avenue with wings on. And it worked. God, how it worked. Like babies cried for milk, like tigers need taming, the obese and the overweight of the city, cried for the pie in the sky.
Nobody saw the plane that dropped the leaflets. The Air Patrol had been caught napping. The Civil Defence, worrying about atomic attacks, couldn’t do a damn thing about one small plane unloading a ton of propaganda for a smart operator. Or operators:
BEWARE THE FAT DEATH
DON’T EAT YOURSELF INTO THE GRAVEYARD
WATCH FOR THE SLIM SAVIOUR
Nothing happened for a whole week. The leaflet air-raid was a four-day sensation. The wire services and network news organisations tried to track the thing down. Walter Cronkite said, “This is how it was …” and Douglas Edwards tried to level the monster with humour. But no one came forth; nobody made their purpose known. There was no follow-up to BEWARE THE FAT DEATH. No Slim Saviour came forth to capitalise on the cutest publicity stunt in decades. It was as if Heaven had opened up to deliver a message to the Earth and then forgot about it. But in all the houses on the island of Manhattan, stretching into the home-from-work kitchens of Brooklyn, Queens, the Bronx and Outer Suburbia, the message was repeated. As a joke, as a curiosity, as a come-on for some secret movie about to open with a big campaign to invoke the public interest.
I found a leaflet on the windowsill at my office on West 46th. Fluttered safe between the sash and the top of the air conditioner. But I would have heard about it one way or another. Everybody knew about The Fat Death in New York that week.
Somewhere in the middle of all the commotion, I received a telephone call from a Miss Carstairs of Gloria, Inc., one of the most fashionable dress houses in town. No matter how interesting and bizarre The Fat Death business was, I still earn my coffee and cake as a confidential investigator.
Private Eyes according to Television. Private Detectives according to truth.
Still, as I took a cab downtown that bright October morning, The Fat Death was something to think about.
Like the scared dames in those rich old mansions always say — had I but known.
Still, there’s no sense in kidding myself. Being the kind of restless clown I am, I suppose I would have gone anyway.
I always was a sucker for a mystery.
The Fashion in Flim-Flam
“You may go right in, Mr. Noon. Miss Carstairs will see you now.”
The unreal receptionist behind the glass-topped desk at Gloria, Inc. looked like a movie star. Her smile was porcelain perfection, her beehive a topless tower, her eyes artfully tilted with mascara. In spite of her million dollar front, she was a flunky. The type turned out on finishing school and charm school assembly lines. Nothing she had was what she had been born with.
I twirled my borsalino hat, smiled and moved through the golden door her lacquered fingernails indicated. Gloria, Inc. had a lot of golden doors. High, wide and beautiful. The word handsome just didn’t fit a Broadway layout aimed directly at rich miladies clawing to wear the latest in dress fashions.
Miss Carstairs’ office seduced me. Colour without real names; hues and shades which would take seventeen kinds of paint to produce, invited a visitor to sit down and dream orgies. A square, low, golden desk looked lonesome on a wasteland of parquet flooring. There were purplish drapes on the sheer glass windows overlooking Broadway and 39th.
There was also a woman behind the desk. A golden woman to match the decor. She didn’t get up when I walked in.
“Thank you for being prompt. I appreciate punctuality.”
I nodded, waiting for her to ask me to sit down. I was looking while I waited. What the receptionist was copying from Hollywood blueprints, Miss Carstairs had by natural design. They had broken the mould to make her.
“Oh, do sit down. The butterfly is comfortable.”
The butterfly was. I hung on to my hat and crossed my legs. You always do in butterfly chairs.
“Miss Carstairs,” I said. “I hope you haven’t been misled by my business card.”
Violet eyes frowned beneath a smooth forehead capped by a waterfall of gleaming honey. “I beg your pardon?”
“Well, I handle all sorts of private investigations but you intimated on the telephone this morning that the work had something to do with Gloria, Inc. It’s only fair to tell you, skip tracing is out of my line.”
A complexion that didn’t come out of a bottle dimpled faintly.
“Good Lord, what an idea. Are you aware of how exclusive our patrons are?” Her eyes narrowed. “You had no qualms about the fee I mentioned.”
I shrugged. “Who would? Five hundred dollars for one day’s work is not alfalfa, hay or peanuts. But I’m ready to hear your offer.”
She sat back in her chair. Miss Carstairs’ face was something out of the four-colour advertising section of the Sunday Times. But it was really her nose that got me. It was ruler straight with the barest pinch of reality in the nostrils. The one touch of irregularity in all her perfection that made her surpassingly female. Like Gene Tierney’s buck teeth.
“I see.” She sounded annoyed.
“Do you? Fine. So please tell me what an outfit like this needs a private detective for?”
She sighed. I lost interest in her nose and concentrated on the swell graduating from the base of her throat. She was a great argument for open neck dresses.
“Mr. Noon, are you familiar with the fashion business at all? Perhaps if you understood the amount of money and scheming that go into a dress line you would appreciate the pitfalls and dangers that come with the operation.”
“I’m willing to learn,” I suggested. I liked the way her voice caressed my short name.
Her smile was so faint I almost missed it.
“All right. We have such occupational hazards. Something’s come up that warrants a man like you.”
“I have heard somewhere in my travels, Miss Carstairs, how you folks have to protect your designs from falling into the competition’s hands —” I let it trail off, wanting her to spell it out.
“Exactly.” She sounded a little relieved I wasn’t an immigrant. “Then you will know what I mean when I say that next week, the fifteenth to be precise, Gloria is presenting its Winter Line.”
“In our showroom. There will be buyers from all over the country on hand to make selections.”
“We feel we have something that may revolutionise the field. The programme has cost a fortune but we may inaugurate a trend in women’s wear that will sweep the nation. So our experts tell us.”
She controlled her annoyance with my talky answers by toying with a long golden ballpoint pen between her slender figures. But the nice nostrils fumed and the golden flesh of her bosom rose slightly.
“We keep our designs in a bank vault. They have to be protected at all costs. A leak of the material would ruin Gloria. Do we understand each other on that score?”
“We do. Go on.”
She nodded briskly. “Only two people have access to that vault. Myself and Hugo Orlando. Orlando is the designer. His designs can just not be seen by anyone until the Show. You have already indicated you understand that much at least. Surprise, novelty and the newness and daring of revolutionary design is all the advantage one wants. Anyone. Therefore, if the designs were stolen and duplicated by another company, it could ruin us —”
I took out my cigarettes. “Stop stalling, Miss Carstairs.”
“I beg your pardon?” shot out of her again. Her voice was no less exquisite than the rest of her. Bright, shining and polished.
“You’re a chooser not a beggar, Miss Carstairs. Will you please get to the point? You’ve been trying to be polite since I walked in here but it isn’t necessary. Say what you want to say.”
Sudden rage made her beauty vulnerable. Her red mouth showed some white teeth. “What do you mean by that?”
I smiled and showed her my teeth. “Have the designs been stolen?”
“Of course not.”
“You have your own Security People? Special Guards and stuff like that?”
“Yes, but —”
“And the show is next week and the designs are in the vault and only you and this Orlando have the key?”
“This is ridiculous,” she snapped. “Now what are you driving at, Mr. Noon?”
“The simple truth, Miss Carstairs. Why don’t you just tell me that you want to check on Orlando — have him followed or something — and stop beating around the designs? Don’t be embarrassed. You’d be surprised how many business people have their colleagues-investigated.”
“Really!” That was the last shot out of her. She dropped the golden ball point pen on the desk and pyramided her tapering fingers. Her eyebrows arched.
“Was I that obvious?” she asked in a low voice. “I don’t mean to be disloyal to Hugo but —”
I blew a small smoke ring. “Why don’t you just tell me what he’s been up to that has you imagining all sorts of terrible things?”
She smiled wanly. “Are you always so direct, Mr. Noon? That technique would get you nowhere in this business. You have to learn how to lead up to your point.”
“Forget about me. What about Hugo?”
“Talking to you has made me feel slightly foolish. It may mean nothing at all but this show means so much to Gloria, Inc.”
“Just tell me what you suspect, huh?”
She sighed. “Yesterday I went to Cartier’s to price a ring. While I was waiting for a cab on Fifth Avenue to come back here, I spied Hugo on the other side of the street. He was with someone I had rather not have seen him with.”
“Exactly. John Freeling of Freeling’s. They’re our biggest competitor. It may have been merely social. It’s a free country, of course, and Hugo may talk to whomever he likes but seeing him with Freeling a mere five days before the Show upset me. It’s like — well —”
“Macy’s telling Gimbels?”
That made her laugh. A low, polite chuckle. “Quite. I may be being foolish, as I say but I owe it to Gloria to cover every possibility of trouble. You understand?”
“Perfectly. What do you want me to do?”
“Check on Hugo.” Now that she had committed herself, she was as briskly efficient as though she were ordering sample swatches. “Between now and the Show. Or until you prove something I could confront him with. I haven’t the nerve to tell him I saw him with John Freeling.”
She shuddered. “You don’t know these passionate Latins. He’s as gentle as a baby or as violent as a thunderstorm. Moody, talented, perverse. I just couldn’t. Not without proof of some kind.”
I walked over to her desk to put out my cigarette. I stared down the front of her dress. Everything about Miss Carstairs was real. “Young guy?”
Her eyes looked surprised. “Why, yes. They all are now you know. Dior turned them out in droves after the war. St. Laurents, Le Maine, Beauchamp — Hugo can’t be more than twenty-nine.”
“How does he feel about you or more importantly, how do you feel about him?”
Miss Carstairs stood up behind the desk. What her face and neckline had promised, the rest of her delivered. Her hips tapered smartly and sexually in a powder-blue chiffon something or other.
“I’m sure these questions are necessary though I’m not quite sure why. But I asked you to come here so I’ll put up with your bluntness. Hugo Orlando eats women alive. All weights, all shapes, all sizes. He’s God’s gift to women. Black wavy hair, perfect teeth and a body like an Olympic athlete. Fortunately, we are merely business associates. I like him but he is not my cup of tea. Nor did I make the mistake of falling in love with him. A woman would go crazy with jealousy if she really cared for him. Understood?”
“Understood.” We were checking each other back like invoices. I looked into the violet eyes. “You’ll have to point him out to me and I’ll take it from there —”
The golden door behind me suddenly clicked open. I turned easily. Miss Carstairs lost some of her executive stability. I could see she wasn’t going to have to finger Hugo Orlando for me. He came as advertised. He was standing in the doorway with loads of charm spilling from a pure Roman face, replete with bronze, dimples and dreamy eyes. With a slight bow of door-wide shoulders encased in Ivy League-Continental charcoal grey, he began a Pinza-loaded apology.
“Oh. I am so sorry. I did not know. Forgive me. Alberta, I come back later —”
“Come in, Hugo. Come in. We’re all through here. Mr. Noon, meet our Mr. Orlando. Hugo, Mr. Noon is with Sloane-Regis. Guests of our Show next week —”
She handled the lie so easily, Hugo Orlando and I briefly nodded to each other in passing. Our eyes met, found nothing, and Hugo Orlando swept by me in to the office. I said a meaningless good-bye to Miss Carstairs, promised to keep in touch and closed the door behind me. I had two fast impressions before I cleared out.
Hugo Orlando was very worried about something. His hands were anchored into the pistol pockets of his grey trousers, throwing back the tails of his form-fitting jacket. Also, Miss Carstairs — forgive me, Alberta — was the jealous type.
I walked past the unreal receptionist at the desk and found another golden door leading out. I had to plan my campaign for Hugo Orlando, kicking myself for not grabbing a retainer from Miss Alberta Carstairs first crack out of the box.
There was a coffee shop on the ground floor of 1407 Broadway. I took a booth, ordered lunch, and mulled over some notions. I had a couple but they could wait until I fed the inner man.
The outer man was the one who was going to have to act like a detective for the next couple of days.
Nothing unusual happened in the coffee shop except that it was my day for meeting new people. I had just finished my last coffee and was reaching for my cigarettes when I felt a sudden weight against my shoe. The next thing I knew was a stream of Italian invective close to my ear. The dame who had nearly stumbled across my ankle foolishly poked into the aisle was fuming attractively above me. She must have been in a hurry. I’m sure she had lots more to tell me. In a flashing glance, I saw an amazingly shapely, pint-sized female with startling dark eyes and a bust right out of Vesuvius. A butch haircut flounced angrily at me before its owner flounced off, disappearing behind me towards the booths at the rear. I never did have time to see what she was wearing, let alone apologise.
“Bestia!” she hissed, the frost of the word settling over my defenceless head before she was gone. A powerful aroma of exotic perfumes went with the chill, charging my nostrils with tingling memories.
She was gone before I could even make a snappy comeback. All men are animals but they don’t like to be called one. Not to their faces, at any rate.
I forgot all about her and got on with my thinking about Miss Carstairs and the new assignment.
Dear Miss Alberta Carstairs. Even though the price was right, she very easily brought out the beast in me. Something about those pinched nostrils and that icy reserve.
But all of this, of course, was before The Fat Death threw a shroud over my private affairs.
Does She or Doesn’t She
After lunch, which was uninspiring, I phoned Gloria, Inc. from a phone booth in the coffee shop. I was connected with the brittle voice of the unreal receptionist.
She sounded even phonier, courtesy of Alexander Graham Bell. But she got Miss Carstairs on the wire for me.
“Mr. Noon? I’m glad you called back —”
“So am I,” I admitted. “Look. I forgot to get my retainer from you. By the way, I take it Rudolph Valentino left again?”
“Oh — Hugo? Yes. He’s in the Showroom.”
“Good. I’ll tell you where to mail the cheque. And while you’re taking notes, you might give me his home address. And yours. I think I shouldn’t come to the office again. I can scout around the rest of the afternoon and see you tonight.”
She thought about that for a second. “Yes. I agree. Now that Hugo has seen you. Go ahead. I have my datebook before me.”
I pictured that unforgettable face and those long fingers curled around the golden ball point pen. We talked no longer than was necessary. She found out where I slept and I learned that she called Sutton Place home. Hugo Orlando was bivouacked on West End in the Eighties. It figured. I was dealing with fancy clients.
“How about eight o’clock, Miss Carstairs? I ought to have some poop by then.”
“Eight will be fine. Till then, Mr. Noon.”
Something about the way she sounded her “n’s” set a bell off in my head when she hung up. Fine. Noon. Fine — When it came to me it was a logical sequence of thought. Fine. Max Fine. Good old Max with his Ready-to Wear business just a few short blocks away. Max, with his stubby finger on the very pulse of the Garment Industry, could tell me all I might want to know about Gloria, Inc. Max could get information for me wholesale. The more I thought about it the better the notion seemed. Why go tracking down Hugo Orlando in a hurry without some other parts of the picture in focus?
Max Fine was in at two o’clock. I found him sandwiched between two mountainous piles of swatch books, his spectacles sitting on his furrowed forehead. He’d been located on East 36th for as long as I’d known him. He was fat then and he was fatter now. And just as busy. When you had a conversation with Max Fine, it was as if you had opened a window in the Tower of Babel. He must have been born talking. Not even two marriages and seven children had interrupted the zest and zeal that operated Max Fine, Sportswear.
“My friend the detective,” he bellowed in his horse-trading voice when his secretary, a plump blonde named Shelly, ushered me into his inner office.
“Sit down, Eddie baby. Shelly, get the port. This is a drinker. And keep me off the telephone, you hear? Or nobody gets paid around here. Go on, go on. Go, go, go.”
That was Max. His handshake across the swatch book pile was crushing. I made room for myself in a chair and made small small talk to clear away the debris of the eighteen months since I’d seen him. Shelly giggled, disappeared, came back with a bottle and two glasses and disappeared again.