Compiled by Liquid Silver Books
"Excuse me, but what're you doing in my office?"
I'd just sauntered in through the back entrance to see a lanky boy leaning over my desk using the tip of a pencil to pick up the edges of papers stacked there.
Startled, he turned, blushing with embarrassment. As well he should.
"Uh … uh, waiting for you, sir."
"That's nice, kid, but usually people wait in the outer office. What are you doing in here?" Casually, I hung my coat on the rack and moved behind the desk. Business was slow and I knew the only thing of any interest on this desk was yesterday's racing form.
"I wanted to talk to you. To find out about being a detective. You are the famous detective, Sam Slade, aren't you?" His face brightened and I hated to quash his enthusiasm.
"Sam's not here, kid. I'm Richard Hammer, his nephew. But I'm a detective, too."
"Oh?" he studied me with a guarded look. His eyes narrowed. "If Mr. Slade is your uncle, why is your last name Hammer?"
Now here was a kid who needed a lesson on family. "Mother's brother."
"Oh." The suspicion didn't leave his face. "I wanted to see your uncle, but if you're a detective, too… What's the main difference between you and your uncle?"
I rubbed a hand across my chin as I thought of the best way to describe how I differed from my uncle. "He's dead."
"About a year ago."
"Oh." With a look of dejection, the kid slumped into the chair that fronted my desk.
"Don't take it so hard, kid. He lived a good life."
His long face brightened again. "Did he get killed on a job?"
"Nah. Just fell asleep one night and didn't wake up." No need disillusioning the boy by explaining that Uncle Sam had suffered a heart attack after he'd boinked a longshoreman's wife, and heard the guy's truck pull in the drive. "Death is usually not very adventurous." I sat forward. "What'd you want to see him about, anyway."
"Oh, nothing." He looked so unhappy I just had to press.
"Come on, kid," I said in my most avuncular tone. "What's the trouble?"
"Well, I wrote Mr. Slade years ago when I was just a kid, you see. I'd read about him in the papers and always wanted to be just like him. I told him that I planned to go to school and learn all kinds of PI techniques and then I wanted to come out and join him. Be his apprentice, like. He said to come on. And, well, here I am."
I hardly knew what to say. He couldn't be over twenty one, fresh-faced and enthusiastic as only someone who hasn't spent hundreds of nights sitting in a car watching for something that never happens. He'd learn. If he stayed in this business, he'd learn. "Kid… Say, what's your name, anyway?"
"Phil. That's what my friends call me back in Ohio."
"Well, Phil, why do you want to be a detective, anyway? It's boring work most of the time. Sure you get to meet hot babes once in a while, but a lot of the time you don't even get paid because the assholes skip out. I do all right now, since the Golden Steps Spa case, but it's not so good when you're just starting out. You should consider that."
He sighed with resignation. "But Mr. Hammer, it's all I've ever wanted to do. Tell me about it, won't you? I mean tell me about this … what did you call it? The Golden Stairs…"
"Golden Steps Spa. You mean you never heard of it?" I could see my incredulity showed, by his surprised expression. He shook his head. "Let me get us some coffee."
"You'd think they'd have newspapers in Ohio," I muttered as I headed for the outer office.
When I got settled again, I tried to decide how to tell the story. The Golden Steps Spa was unquestionably the biggest case of my career, but I didn't want it to be too romantically framed for his impressionable mind. Most of the work in this business is tedious.
My secretary, Bunny, brought in the coffee. I could see Phil's eyes light up with interest. Bunny was a real looker, with legs that went from the floor all the way up to her ass, and it was a long trip. Plus, she didn't mind showing them off. Today she wore sandals with three inch heels, and a leather mini-skirt that barely reached milky white thighs. The white cotton blouse she wore had short sleeves and dipped in front, showing off deep cleavage.
She leaned over the desk to set my cup down, giving me a view of a pair of great tits and Phil a view of an even greater ass. She winked at me, making me smile. I glanced at the kid and his tongue practically hung out of his mouth. After years of working with Bunny and her flirtatious ways, I was immune to those feminine charms. But it was always interesting to see their effects on clients. And when Bunny went into the field, she got more information out of people than I ever could—as long as they were of the male persuasion.
She gave Phil a casual smile and a wink as she glided back to the desk in the outer office. He squirmed in the chair before he was able to pick up his cup and take a sip. "Oh! She's hot. I … I mean it's hot, the coffee."
"That's okay, kid. I know what you mean. Well, put up your feet and sip your coffee and I'll tell you about the Golden Steps Spa case." He did just that, holding his coffee cup gingerly as he propped his long legs on the edge of my desk and leaned back.
"You find out something in this business, one thing usually leads to another. You never know where a clue will take you or what will come of a case. That was a fact with one big case I closed a few years ago. A big job. Pigs."
I sat forward, leaning across the desk, drawing his eyes to me. When I was sure I had his attention, I enlightened him.
"I don't mean pigs like you see in the barnyard. I mean pigs like fat, greedy businessmen. These pigs happened to be bankers who were being harassed and threatened. They called me in to find out who was causing the trouble and to help put a stop to it."
Phil nodded and his eyes sparkled, obviously appreciating the importance of the job. I couldn't help it, my chest puffed out a little.
"Before I could do much, the junior guy on the totem pole had his double-wide pulled off the pilings one night. It was a total loss and no one saw a thing of course, although it had to be one big mother of a truck to do the job. Goes to show you, no one likes a banker."
"Then I got information that pointed to a guy who had been turned down for a loan. These damn bankers. They'll only loan you money if you've got enough other money for collateral. I mean, if you've got other money, whaddaya need with theirs? If they hadn't been paying me so well, I probably woulda helped the guy, just on…"
"Mr. Hammer? I think you're off the subject, sir."
"Yeah, sorry." I grinned, shrugging.
"Anyway, the first guy runs to the second guy's house to tell him to watch out, when BAM! the whole back side of the house gets blown up. It was a nice-looking cedar job and there were little toothpick-sized sticks everywhere after that bomb. But the two guys? Not a scratch. But now they're scared shitless and they run to the bank president's house. Nice brick job up in the Heights, know where I mean?"
"Luckily, I got there ahead of the poor slob and the cops arrived on time. Saved those pigs' bacon, I can tell you. They paid me nicely, and gave me a bonus, too. More than that though, was the publicity I got. TV interviews, newspaper stories. Magazines from the south side way up into the valley had articles about me, and a few covers, too."
I could see admiration in his eyes. Uh-oh. I was laying it on a little thick. Time to back off.
I cleared my throat. "And that's how the Punzels came to see me." I sat up. "Want some more coffee, kid?"
He looked down into his cup then back up. "No sir, I'm fine."
"Okay, because I'm about to let you in on the scoop behind the biggest kidnapping story of the century. Settle back, and learn how a pro works." Matching his position, I settled my feet on the desk and began my tale.
It was a bright, sunny day. I'd just gotten back from the racetrack where I'd neatly won a couple of C-notes, and the world was looking good. The previous month I'd saved three executives of the Grimm Brothers Bank (slogan: "We take your money. Seriously."), and I was still basking in the glory of a job well done. And a job well compensated. I almost skipped through the outer office, already planning how I was going to spend my hard-earned winnings, when Bunny stopped me with a wave of her hand. I slid onto the edge of her desk and smiled at her.
"What is it, sweetheart? I've got phone calls to make. Who should the lucky girl be tonight? Karo? She's so sweet. She says my green eyes make her insides melt and then she does things with her mouth that make my insides melt." I waggled my eyebrows at her. "It's a very good combination. Or should it be…"
"Richard, will you shuddup and listen? You've got new clients in your office. A man and woman. Evidently they saw the story Channel Five did on you, and they need help real bad. Their daughter's been kidnapped."
Well. I didn't need a 2X4 to knock me in the head. This was sober business. I tapped the tip of her nose with my finger, straightened my jacket and tie, and went through to my office.
The couple sat straight-backed in two chairs pulled to the front of my desk. Bunny had brought them coffee, but it sat untouched, a light film of oil floating on the surface, indicating it was cold.
They stood to face me when I entered, a cheerless looking pair, dressed in brown head-to-toe, with gray hair, tightly drawn lips and sad eyes. I held out my hand to the gentleman and introduced myself. He did the same, introducing the two of them. Stanley and Harriet Punzel. We sat as Bunny brought in another round of coffee.
"Mr. and Mrs. Punzel, how can I help you?" I leaned forward a little, companionably, taking a sip of coffee and hoping it would encourage them to do the same. They needed something to focus on besides me and their trouble, and Bunny's coffee would do it. She was the hottest babe this side of the Mississippi, but her coffee was like oil sludge, a fact that seemed to bother Bunny not at all. It didn't bother the male friends she had, either. When guys went home with Bunny, it wasn't to sample her French roast.
Mrs. Punzel picked up the cup but didn't venture a sip. Mr. Punzel concentrated on shifting his feet. Neither said a word. I smiled on the outside but groaned on the inside. This would be like pulling teeth.
"Is this about your daughter?" Mrs. Punzel nodded. Mr. Punzel's lips compressed even more. "She disappeared?" I coaxed, leaning further forward. Another nod. I leaned forward even more. Soon my chin would be on the desk. "Recently?"
"Two days ago." They speak! Thank God. I blew out a breath and sat up.
"Two days ago. And do you have any reason to believe she was taken, as opposed to simply leaving?"
"She would never leave on her own. She loved living with us. We are her family."
Well, yeah. Living with these two, a person could overdose on chuckles. Maybe she was lying somewhere trying to recover from laughing. "You saw the police?" A nod from Dad Punzel. "And they said…"
"Not long enough. But I know something's happened."
"It's all your fault," spat Mom Punzel, to Dad.
Well, this is interesting. The Blands have some spark in them.
"My fault? How's that?"
"It was your kin that started all this trouble. They stole from that woman's family and there's been bad blood ever since." Anger put bright splotches of color on Harriet's face as she glared at her husband.
"Oh, for Pete's sake," Stanley spat back, "that was years and years ago. That has nothing to do with what's happened to our baby. What's wrong with you, woman?"
"Excuse me," I tried to interject.
"You know that's what's happened. Didn't we get a warning letter a few months ago telling us that when Ramona turned thirty, something horrible would happen?"
"A letter?" I tried again.
"You don't have any idea who that was from. You're making things up while our baby's out there all alone." Pa Punzel looked ready to cry. Not so his wife. She was ready to go a few more rounds, but I finally put a stop to the squabbling.
"Look, just start from the beginning and tell me everything." I looked at my cup. Jeez, I'd been so distracted by the Punzels that I'd actually drunk half a cup of Bunny's coffee. I'd pay for that later.
I pushed the cup away and pulled a legal pad and pen toward me. After a stare first at Mr. Punzel and then at the Mrs., she finally started talking.
Their daughter, Ramona Angelique Punzel, shortened to RA—and pronounced 'ray', I was informed, and not 'rah'—had been a child prodigy. A genius, really, and it wasn't just Mrs. P's opinion. No, Ray was a tried and tested, bona fide genius, classified as such by professors at the university. Got her first degree there when she was seventeen and went on to get several others. She was sought after in businesses all over the country, but she wanted to stay at home and live with her parents. (Note to self: I wrote, Woman is smart but is she intelligent?)
"She got a very good job about five years ago, as the head of technology for the Golden Steps Spa." Mr. P spoke up again, after glancing at his wife as though for permission. "She does everything there. Made it the famous place it is."
I did remember that the spa had come into its own just a few years ago. Before that, it hadn't been anything much more than a local place for facials and nails.
"How did she do that?" You never knew, I might get a few tips on stock purchases here.
"She wrote a program that individualized any treatment for any client. I don't really understand it."
Mrs. P sniffed. "Of course you don't," she declared. "Me neither. Our baby's a genius. It's not for the likes of us to understand what she does."
"Right," I said, printing G-E-N-I-U-S in big letters on my pad and drawing a circle around it. "I got the genius part. Now, what's this about a letter and a family feud?"
Ma Punzel glared at Pa, her lips again compressed into a tight line and circles of color dotting her cheeks. "That's for him to tell you. It was his family."
Mr. P sighed resignedly. "Maybe eighty or ninety years ago, my family lived back east, on the same side of the mountain as a family named Harridan. The Harridans had some sort of medicinal plant they'd brought from the Old Country. One of my ancestors went over one night and picked it out of their garden to use for his sick wife. He got caught and offered to pay, but never did. The wife in the Harridan family died that winter, real young, thirty or so. They cursed us, saying that someday we'd have something of great value and we'd pay the price. But you know how people were back then. A curse." He flicked his hand to dismiss the thought.
"And this letter?"
"That came a while ago. But that was a prank of some sort."
"Did you keep it?"
"Yes." Mr. Punzel looked at his wife in astonishment, and she looked back at him smugly, as she drew a sheet of paper from the pocketbook she had clutched in her lap.
"Your daughter will soon be of age. Remember the item of value.
Payment must be made."
"I'd like to keep this," I said, and Mrs. Punzel nodded. "And you think the item of value is your daughter?"
"Well, we've certainly never had anything else of value. Our Ray's got brains, and that's worth any amount of gold, just by itself."
I hated to admit it, but I recognized the essential truth in what she said. "Do you have a picture of your daughter?"
"Yes." It was said simultaneously, as both parents pulled photos from wallet and purse, and thrust them across the desk at me. Obviously, they did love their girl.
I looked down. Two poses, two different occasions, but very definitely the same woman. The old ticker, normally thumping right along in a regular sort of way, did a sharp about face. My pulse raced and my breath quickened. From the moment my eyes met those of the blond-haired, blue-eyed angel who stared up at me out of those photos, I fell in love.
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