As the lawlessness of Prohibition pushes against the desperation of the Depression, there are two ways to make a living in Los Angeles: join the criminals or collar them. Kitty Pangborn has chosen the crime-fighters, becoming secretary to Dexter J. Theroux, one of the hard-drinking, tough-talking PIs who pepper the city's stew. But after Dex takes an assignment from Rita Heppelwaite, the mistress of Harrison Dempsey, one of L.A.'s shadiest--and richest--businessmen, Kitty isn't so sure what side of the law she's on.
Rita suspects Dempsey has been stepping out and asks Dex to tail him. It's an easy enough task, but Dex's morning stroll with Johnnie Walker would make it tough for him to trail his own shadow. Kitty insists she go along for the ride, keeping her boss--and hopefully her salary--safe. However, she's about to realize that there's something far more unpleasant than a three-timing husband at the end of this trail, and that there's more at risk than her paycheck.
Richly satisfying and stylishly gritty, Death Was the Other Woman gives a brand-new twist to the hard-boiled style, revealing that while veteran PIs like Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe spent their time slugging scotch and wooing women, it may well have been the Girl Fridays of the world who really cracked the cases.
Related collections and offers
|Publisher:||St. Martin's Publishing Group|
|File size:||331 KB|
About the Author
Linda L. Richards is the editor and cofounder of January magazine and a regular contributor to The Rap Sheet blog. She is the author of Death Was the Other Woman and Death Was in the Picture. She lives near Vancouver.
Read an Excerpt
Death Was the Other Woman
By Linda L. Richards
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2007 Linda L. Richards
All rights reserved.
HE'S DRESSED WELL, the dying man. Sharply, one would say. He's wearing a good suit. Dark, and of a wool so fine it would feel soft to the touch. The suit has a pale pinstripe; it's barely discernible. And he's wearing the suit well — he wore it well — except for the dying part.
He's standing there, his lifeblood draining from him, the look on his face showing surprise as much as horror. He hadn't planned on dying today. Had, in fact, planned on being the one doing the killing. Killing is part of his job. Not dying. There's not enough money in L.A. — or the world for that matter — to get a man to give up his life as easily as that.
The man is standing. I can see him as clearly as if I were there, though of course I was not. But I understand things now. Things I had no hope of understanding at the time. I can re-create them in my mind and know what the details mean.
His hat is fashionable, well shaped, well made, and for the moment, it's worn at a good angle. His features are as well cut as his suit. Dark like the suit as well. He'd be handsome if he weren't presently concerned about the end he can see so clearly.
Another man is there, similarly dressed, but the look on his face is different. No surprise. No pain. He's in control. He's always in control. The gun in his hand tells that story.
The woman is barely in the room, but she doesn't look away. That shocks me somehow. She shouldn't watch. Why would she watch? What profit will her witness bring?
She's exquisite. That shocks me as well. Her shoulders are broad and smooth. Her legs long and well defined. Her hair, her features, soft and lovely. And the look on her face ... that shocks me most of all. Not pleasure, no. But not distress either. To her, this scene is correct. The only proper conclusion to a story she helped write.
But all of this is later. Much later. It makes sense to me now. But then? Not then. At the time I found him, it made no sense at all.CHAPTER 2
DEX IS TALL AND DREAMY. Oh, sure, he's a mook, but he's the kind of mook that can heat a girl's socks, if you follow my drift. The kind that can get your lipstick melting.
It's never going to happen for me and Dex. Most days I don't really want it to anyway. Dex is my boss, first and foremost. The work is easy, and most weeks Dex remembers to cut me a check. That's important; a girl's gotta eat. And there are worse ways to make a living. A lot worse.
Take Rita Heppelwaite, for instance. I had her figured before she even settled down in the chair across from my desk. It's just a little space, and when no one is listening Dex and I call it our waiting room. It's a joke because Dex isn't the busiest P.I. in L.A., and that's no understatement. And anyway, to be a waiting room it would have to be a room, and that little space between my desk and the door to the office is more like a steamer trunk without all the legroom.
So Rita Heppelwaite breezes into the office nice as you please, the scent of violets following her like a mob. She looks haughty, like she thinks I don't know what she does for a living. Like Dex hadn't already spilled his guts about everything he knows. Though to be honest, at that point he didn't know much.
Rita, Dex had told me, was a "lady of the night," which was his attempt at polite talk "in front of the kid" — which is me — for saying that what Rita does for a living, she does on her back. From the looks of her, she probably gets paid a damned sight better than I do. Probably doesn't have to answer the phone or bring coffee either.
The first thing I notice is her coat. It's a pretty hard thing not to notice. Even in October, Los Angeles just doesn't get that kind of cold, so a fur coat hits you right off. And this was one you'd mark in any room, at any time of the year. Anywhere. Black lamb's wool, all curly and fine, and a jaunty little hat to match, perched on her head just so. I wouldn't have hated her just for the coat though. I've never been a girl who dreamed about furs.
There were other reasons to hate her. The dark red hair that poured over her shoulders, for starters. Dusky flames that seemed to make her lips even redder. Her eyes were the color of the ocean at midnight. A green so dark you'd swear it was black until the light shifted; then you had to look again. She was beautiful enough that you might have taken her for a movie star. Until you looked into those eyes. Then you saw something else.
"Mr. Theroux will be with you in a moment," I told her, when she showed up five minutes ahead of their appointment. "Please have a seat and I'll let him know you're here."
She settled into the "waiting room" chair so meekly, I should have suspected a trick, but I just didn't see it coming. Who would have thought anyone in heels that high could be so quiet?
So when I opened Dex's door to let myself in, I didn't expect her to follow right behind me, catching Dex kicked back in his chair before he could stuff the sports pages and his usual glass of whiskey into the top drawer of his desk.
I expected a curt word from him. Dex doesn't like it when clients barge into his office before I have a chance to announce them. He says it's unseemly. And I mostly agree. I like it when my paychecks aren't made of rubber, and I've discovered that the best way to avoid that is to do everything I can to keep Dex's clients from running in the other direction when they first get a load of him.
Like I said, Dex is kind of dreamy. But the way I figure it, seeing a detective hitting the sauce before noon and greeting you with bleary eyes and not a lot of other customers lined up in front of you isn't the most inspiring thing in the world. There's gotten to be a lot of detectives in the city. Most of them better at it than my boss.
So I expected Dex to bawl me out for letting this broad sail into his office like nobody's business. But one look at his face gawping at Rita Heppelwaite told me that wasn't going to happen. I glanced back at her to see what he was seeing, and I understood.
She stood framed in the doorway, doing her best damsel-in-distress. Her coat was open, and the dress beneath it was as red and tight as the skin on an apple. Did she practice all that bosom heaving in front of a mirror? I figured she'd have to. If I tried a stunt like that, I'd look like I had just run a block to catch a bus. And the sight of me wouldn't cause Dex Theroux's jaw to go all slack and his eyes to lose focus either. As things were, I wanted to cross the room and slap some sense into him. What kind of client, I wondered, would want to hire a detective who looked at her the way a dog looks at meat?
I didn't slap him though. Instead I just said, "Let me know if you need anything, Boss." Then I breezed past Rita, who was now leaving the doorway and taking a seat, uninvited, in front of Dex's desk.
As I closed the door, I heard her say, "Thank you for seeing me on such short notice, Mr. Theroux." A smoky voice, filled with experience and promise. A combination that startled. And another reason to hate her.
The time seemed to pass real slow while Miss Heppelwaite had her meeting with Dex. I think the phone rang a few times — bill collectors who I politely told that Dex was out of town on a job.
I remembered to shove a blank piece of paper into the typewriter and make a lot of clacking every once in a while. Dex asked me to do that when he's with a potential client. He figures that because you can hear the echo of the clacking in his office even with the door closed, a new client will realize how busy and important he is and cough up the required dough more easily.
Actually, what Dex asked me to do while he's with a new client was, "Be sure to catch up on the typing." But really? There's never anything to catch up on. It's not like there's much to type even when he's on a case. And when he's not? What would I type? Some ode to rye whiskey that my boss mumbles when he's dancing with the sauce? I don't think so. So I mostly clack pointlessly. It gets the job done.
I was happily clacking when half an hour or so later, Dex escorted Rita Heppelwaite out of the office. That was my first clue that the meeting had gone well. When Dex actually escorts a client past my desk, it means some cash has been choked up for him, or promised for the immediate future. But if potential clients come out in a huff and slam the door behind them, it means I might have to wait for my paycheck. So I was glad to see Dex escorting the Heppelwaite dame, even though it meant I got an extra look at her apple-skin-tight dress while she dragged her fur coat behind her and batted her eyes up at my boss.
I closed my brain to the scent of violets and kept clacking.
"Well, whaddaya think of that?" Dex sauntered up to my desk once the office door closed and we could hear the tapping of Rita's heels receding down the hallway toward the elevator. Dex plunked himself on the corner of my desk, balanced himself on his behind, and crossed his long legs at the ankles.
"That coat looks hot," I said dryly, without looking up, leaving it to Dex to figure out if I meant Rita's fur looked stolen or was too warm for the day. Either way, he would get the idea it wasn't a compliment.
I was still clacking away, by now with a bit of venom. And more pointlessly than ever. It's not like there were any clients in the office that Dex needed to impress.
"Heh-heh." His laugh had a lecherous sound that I figured I understood. I was wrong. "Look what she gave me." He spread the cash between my eyes and the typewriter, a nice big fan of green. I stopped typing. Dex was holding out a couple of twenties, three sawbucks, a fin, and a mitt full of singles, all so bright and unlined that — if her manicure hadn't been so perfect — I would have suspected the Heppelwaite broad had made them in her garage that morning.
"That's gotta be like, what? Eighty bucks?" I said, surprised. "What for?"
"Eighty-three," he corrected. "It's my retainer," Dex said smugly.
"I figured that part, wise guy. I mean, you know, for how long? And for what?"
"I told her my daily rate was twenty-five bucks." I issued forth an appreciative whistle and flushed when Dex grinned at me approvingly. "Plus expenses. You know."
I nodded. "Sure. What's she want you to do?"
"You could probably guess, kiddo. She's got a boyfriend. ..."
I rolled my eyes at the euphemism. Dex caught it and grinned again.
"Well, what else would you call it? Anyway, she's afraid the boyfriend is stepping out. She wants me to follow him for a few days and give her a report."
"The usual stuff."
Dex smiled and stretched, then eased himself off my desk. "Precisely, my dear. The usual stuff. So I'll need a new bottle of Jack and a good car. Can you make that happen?"
"Can't you just take a Red Car?" I asked, knowing full well that managing a tail from a streetcar was asking a bit much. And if I hadn't known, Dex's look would have set me straight.
"Let me know when the car is ready to roll," he said. "Meanwhile, I've got some paperwork to do in my office."
Paperwork, I thought, when Dex's door closed behind him.
That would be his version of pointless clacking. And what it really meant was the heel of the bottle of bourbon in his office — now that he had some loot, he wouldn't need to hoard his stash — and maybe forty winks while I got things ready.
I groused a little about the car, but only to myself. We'd been a while between clients, and I always thought about expenses, even if Dex seldom did. Still, as soon as the door clicked shut, I got on the blower.
"Hey, Mustard," I said, when he answered the phone. "Dex just bought a case. He needs a decent heap for a tail."
I've known Mustard as long as I've known Dex, which is to say about two years. Word is, they were in the army together, though neither of them has told me so. The other thing no one has told me is why he's called Mustard. Is it his name? I mean, it could be. I think "Mustard" can be a name. What confuses me is that his hair is a sort of dirty ginger color. When pressed, I think you could say his hair is the color of mustard.
And Mustard smokes a lot of cigarettes. In fact, he smokes them end to end. As a result, the index and middle finger of his left hand are — you guessed it — mostly the color of mustard. And I've never actually seen him eat, but it may well be that he just loves the condiment so much that he puts it on everything.
I do know that Mustard is as sunny as Dex is dour. Dex calls Mustard a fixer. I'm not entirely sure what he fixes, though I suspect it has something to do with horses and dogs and maybe bootleg whiskey. For Dex though, Mustard fixes everything. Like today, Dex needed a car, so Mustard was the man to call. He'd fix it.
"Couldn't convince him to do it in a Red Car, eh?" I could hear the laughter in Mustard's voice. He knows all about the back-and-forth Dex and I do about spending money.
"It's for a tail, Mustard. He needs a car."
"OK. Sure," he said, humoring me. "You want me to have it dropped by the office, or will Dex swing over and pick it up?"
I considered briefly. Having it dropped off would mean an extra charge. However, considering the amount of whiskey Dex had already consumed on this cold but sunny morning, plus the amount he was now consuming in celebration of getting another job, I figured I'd better have the car dropped off. No sense in taking the chance of Dex getting waylaid on the way to the garage.
"Have it dropped off, please. And if it wouldn't be too much trouble, it would be great if there was a new bottle of Jack Daniel's on the passenger seat."
Mustard didn't bother hiding the laugh this time — he knew what all of that meant — but he promised the car would be waiting downstairs by midafternoon.
Now understand, my boss isn't just a pointless lush. As much as I watch out for him and sometimes even baby him, he can be a capable guy, though he has some very real challenges.
Like a lot of boys, Dex went off to war when he was eighteen. The Great One. Unlike a lot of those boys though, Dex came back. There's something in that combination that's made him not right. Something that's damaged him, like a shiny Ford that's been fixed after a fender bender. It might look OK on the outside, but it never works in quite the same way again.
For a while after the War he went back to Canada, to the small town on the Ontario border where he's from. Things didn't work out at home, so he slid over to Buffalo, where he got a job as some kind of deputy. He's never told me the whole story, but I've been piecing things together. Things between him and Mustard. Things I hear when Dex is on the phone. Even things he tells me when he's been into the sauce and is waiting for a job. He talks at times like those, but he talks in half thoughts, as though to himself. I have to put two and two together then. It's possible that sometimes I come up with six.
From being in the War, Dex knew how to handle a gun, knew how to use it on a man. He knew how to wait real quiet for a long time in order to get a job done. And he knew — and this part is important — he knew how to stay alive. Police work seemed like the only kind of thing he could do. Somehow — and I don't really know how — that didn't work out. So he came out to L.A. at the same time a lot of other people were coming here, and he hung up his shingle: Dexter J. Theroux, Private Investigator.
A little over two years ago he caught a big case that, as near as I can figure, he concluded quickly and almost by accident. But that led to a lot of work, which led him to hire me to answer his phones and do his paperwork. And we've been getting along pretty well ever since.
About half past three, Mustard's guy showed up with the heap. The kid gave me the keys and smiled on his way out the door when I tipped him a quarter.
I poked my head into the office after the kid had gone. "Your car's ready," I said. Dex was sitting behind his desk, not even pretending to read the newspaper. His expression was morose, and the glass on his desk was empty but for the ice I'd picked up for him on my way to the office in the morning. Disappointment on the rocks.
"What is it?" His eyes focused on me slowly and he didn't get up. He was clearly half cut. Maybe more than half.
"What is it?" I repeated. "It's a car. What do you think?"
"No, I meant is it a Ford? Or a Packard? Or what?"
"Geez, Dex, I don't know. It's a car. I guess it'll be black. Whaddaya want?"
He grunted and lapsed back into looking morose, having hit a high of mildly interested for about thirty seconds.
"So what's the plan?" I asked.
It took him a few seconds to refocus.
"Plan?" he said, looking honestly confused. I choked back a stub of impatience.
"Yeah. Remember? Rita Heppelwaite? The boyfriend? You wanted a car. And there's someplace you're supposed to be. You didn't tell me where."
Excerpted from Death Was the Other Woman by Linda L. Richards. Copyright © 2007 Linda L. Richards. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Reading Group Guide
Author's Insight When I was a kid, I lived for a while in a structure on the boardwalk in Santa Monica that had been built during Prohibition as a luxury hotel. The building has since been gutted and is now once again a luxury hotel, but at the time I lived there it was not. It was an ageing dowager filled with a sort of dowdy glamour. It was an exciting place to be a kid.
I realize now that I probably first caught a glimpse of Kitty Pangborn as I ran through the halls and ballrooms and rotundas of that old hotel with my friends. I could see her on occasion: on the arm of a sharply dressed man, heading for an evening at the tables. Or wearing a swimming costume as she made her way through the tunnel under the boardwalk that came out on the private beach. I had a sense of her and I knew she was full of fun and ready for adventure. But I didn't know who she was.
Something about that hotel and having fairly free access to beachfront Santa Monica and Venice in the 1970s made me cognizant of the tenuous nature of the physical history of that area. A lot of what was then fading Prohibition-era glamour is gone now. Just gone. And I didn't realize it at the time but, even then, a lot of what I was seeing had already been altered beyond recognition.
Of course, these things are true everywhere. Time molds things as she passes. New things spring up, others fade to memory. But sometimes it just seems more true in Los Angeles. LA is such a young city and her periods of growth have often been dramatic to the point of violence. All that paving of Paradise. But sometimes in all that paving and moving and shaking something falls off, comes lose. And something new is born.
And here we are.