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the thin man's bride

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It was Easter. We were in L.A. Nick had been going on about not wanting to travel far from home in my delicate condition, by which I understood he'd tired of sleeping in train berths for a while. It comes on him occasionally, the way the shakes do other people. I didn't kick up much of a fuss, though. L.A. was fine by me. I guess you could say I had some pretty fond memories of the place, all things considered.

"There now," Nick was saying as we strolled back to the hotel after taking Asta for his morning walk, "this hasn't been so bad, has it? To hear you go on about it, you would have thought I was dragging you to the seventh circle of hell."

I bit my lip and racked my memory. "With the flatterers? Or was it the heretics?"

Nick's eyes widened in offended piety. "The teetotalers, of course! Also known as the eleventh plague of Egypt."

"Those Sunday School classes are all coming back to me now." Then because the concierge was making a dreadful nuisance of himself, hovering over us and clearing his throat, I said, "Yes, what is it?"

"There's a gentleman here to see you, ma'am. Shall I send him up to your rooms in five minutes or so?"

Oh, how wonderful, I thought. I always love it when Nicky's friends come to call. "Sure, if he can be out in broad daylight," I said. "Nick, why didn't you tell me you had company on the way?"

The concierge cleared his throat again. I was beginning to hate the noise. "I beg your pardon. The guest is here to see Mrs. Charles, not Mr. Charles." He sent a critical stare Nick's way, shocked, I guess, that Nick didn't exercise his husbandly authority and forbid me any male company.

Nicky, bless him, only shrugged. "If we see my brand of reprobates, I guess we're available to the other kind, too. Send him up."

So we went upstairs and freshened up, and more importantly, freshened our drinks. Sure enough, within minutes, the door opened, and in strolled Robert Pendleton. Looking at him I was bowled over like always. He might have been some Renaissance sculptor's idea of an angel made flesh, which just went to show you that life wasn't fair.

"Nora," he said throatily, reaching out his hands to me as if the last time we had seen each other, he hadn't been warning me that marrying Nick would be the mistake of my life, "how have you been, my dear?"

I finished up my drink and went to him anyway. "Keeping well enough, Bobby." After a pause, I added. "Nick's been doing all right, too."

Bobby's head shot up as though he had been scalded. "Oh, Charles," he said, in a tone as chilly as a Chicago wind. "I didn't see you there. So sorry."

"Hiding in plain sight is a tool of the trade," replied Nick. "What'll you have?"

"Oh, no, I never drink before noon. I expect I haven't your...robust constitution."

"Nonsense," said Nick, handing him a glass of whiskey anyhow. "All you need is an amendment or two and that'll sort it right out. Here. Now, what brings you here to see Nora?"

Bobby had to let go of my hands to take the glass. He looked annoyed about that, I guess because it meant he couldn't squeeze them for emphasis when he looked at me plaintively and said: "Oh, yes. Nora, darling, I'm in terrible trouble and you're the only one who can help. You see, I'm getting married--"

"Bobby!" I cried. "Married? Are you quite sure?"

He scowled. "Yes and yes. Nora, it's time I settled down and paid my debts to Pendletons past--"

"And other men have survived matrimony in their time," said Nick, raising his glass in salute, "nerve-wracking though it may be. Now I understand what the trouble is, but what I can't see is how Nora comes into it--"

"The wedding is not the problem!" snapped Bobby. "Barbara is a good girl who understands...matters perfectly. The problem is a few - ahem!- compromising letters that might, ah, have fallen into unfriendly hands."

"Oh, Bobby," I said sadly. "You didn't."

"It seemed perfectly harmless at the time! How was I to know they would be stolen out of Tommy's room?"

"Man ought to be banned from writing love-letters," observed Nick sagely. "I wonder the Almighty didn't think to put that in the Ten Commandments."

Bobby ignored him. "I found the note a first week ago. It was left behind on a table after one of Mother's get-togethers. It said to leave a check for five thousand dollars taped under a park bench if I didn't want my letters published in the morning papers. I couldn't think what else to do. I sent it, and I thought that was the end of it. Then, yesterday, after Mother's garden party, I found another one. This time, it's asking for ten thousand dollars by next Thursday, and I decided that was more than enough."

I figured it was more than likely that his bank account had done the deciding for him, but I didn't say so.

"Do you have either of the notes with you?" asked Nick.

"No." Bobby blushed. "I burned them both as soon as I received them. I thought even having them in my possession might be incriminating."

Nick raised his eyebrows but didn't say a word. I asked: "Do you remember anything about them? The handwriting, or the slant of the typing?"

Bobby shook his head. "They weren't either. Someone had cut letters out of newsprint and pasted them onto paper."

"Just how soon after either party did they turn up?"

"Not too long." Bobby scrunched up his forehead. "It must have been just after."

Which meant it couldn't have been enough time for anyone else to come by. "Bobby, you didn't hire any new staff, did you?"

Bobby looked stricken. "I do hope you're not implying anything about the quality of my servants, Nora. I assure you, Mother goes to great lengths to ensure their reliability. No, it must have been one of the guests. They're the only ones who would have had entry in and out of the house, and there's not more than a dozen who were at both events."

Nick coughed. "Congrats on cracking the case, flatfoot, but I still can't see what brought you here today."

"Yes, Bobby, tell me what I can to do to help you." I could think of a whole lot of things I could do to help, like maybe pointing out all the gaping holes in his logic, but he would be in no mood to hear it. "I'm sure Nick would be happy to--"

Bobby flung out his arms. "Don't you realize, Nora? It's one of us. Nothing against Nick, I'm sure he's very good at what he does, but this needs a more elegant, refined touch. Er-- no offense, that is--"

"None taken," Nick assured him.

"Nora, can't you see, you're the only one who knows this crowd as well as I do. Selma mentioned what a help you'd been during that awful business with David. Can't you see your way clear to help an old friend?"

I took a contemplative sip. "What exactly would I have to do?"

"Nothing much. I was going to have a little party tomorrow night, in your honor, so you could get to know Barbara. We'd have the same people over, and, you know, you could investigate them and so on. It would be all sorted by Thursday."

My God, Bobby needed more help than I had imagined. "I don't think we're spoken for that evening, Bobby. What do you say, Nicky?"

"Ah--not Nick. It doesn't look nice, does it, the famous detective at one of our parties?"

"You invited him once," I reminded him. That had been the night Nicky and I had met. That was why the way I saw it, I still owed Bobby more than he would ever understand.

Bobby's face turned the exact shade of my favorite lipstick. "No --I intended--it might tip off our culprit, don't you think? Nick Charles poking about?"

"Clever man." Nick made a face. "Mrs. Charles never pokes. Well, Nora?"

"Tomorrow night it is," I decided, and held up my empty glass for Nick to refill it.

That was how I found myself walking into the Pendleton's foyer once again. It was decorated to the nines, as usual, with blooms of Mrs. Pendleton's beloved roses sitting in vases around the room. True to Bobby's word, there were only about a dozen folks swanning around instead of the usual crush. I knew the Marshalls, the Leroys, Helen Griswold, Fred and Barney Blake, Colonel Sutter and his daughter Ruth already. I didn't get too worked up. I would bet fifty dollars none of them had the imagination to plan out anything this complicated. There were only two people i didn't know: one tall, dark, and handsome, and another golden and languishing. The blonde was sitting at the piano, making Mozart sound like a funeral dirge. If I closed my eyes, it could have been seven years back with Selma at the piano instead, studying the keys with all the enthusiasm of a convict eyeing the electric chair.

"Nora!" said Bobby, trotting up to meet me. "So lovely of you to come. Come on, I want you to meet Tommy."

"I thought her name was Barbara," I reminded him sweetly, but I let him tug me along anyway. Tommy turned out to be the tall, thin man with dark shaggy hair who blinked up at me like a sleepy sheepdog.

"The famous Nora," he said. "Robert's not stopped talking about you all week."

"Don't believe a story you hear," I advised him, "except the unbelievable ones."

"Tommy's my business partner," said Robert happily. "Better head for stocks than any man I know."

"Is that what they're calling it these days?" I murmured, and Robert blushed. Tommy winked at me, though, which made me like him a lot more.

"I take it Bobby filled you in on why I'm really here," I said.

Tommy stopped smiling. Bobby said, pretty anxiously: "I trust Tommy absolutely."

"Anything you've noticed yet?"

"Nothing really," said Tommy vaguely. "Your mother's not down yet," he told Bobby.

"She'll have to hurry," said Bobby, but he seemed more relieved than anything. He took my arm again and started steering me again, this time towards the piano. If he thought he would distract me that easily, he didn't know Nora Charles.

"Who's behind the quarrel you're hoping to avoid? Tommy?"

Bobby sniffed. "Don't be ridiculous. Mother thinks very highly of Tommy. No, it's--" And as we approached the blonde, he said, in a different tone: "Barbara."

She really was a swell girl, I'll give Bobby that. Pink cheeks, pin-curls, the Pendleton rubies around the neck: the whole package. He couldn't have picked out a better image of wholesome domesticity if he tried. And the way she looked at him! It was enough to make my stomach turn.

She beamed at me. "Mrs. Charles," she breathed. "It's such an honor. Robert describes you in such terms!"

"I'm very sure I don't deserve any of them," I told her, but I grinned back. I couldn't help it. She had one of those faces.

I heard the rumble of men rising from their seats behind me and guessed Mrs. Pendleton had finally descended. I took my time turning around, which was just as well, as she was making a beeline for me by the time I did. I pasted on a smile and pecked those cold, wrinkled cheeks.

"Nora," said Rose Pendleton, "how lovely to see you. And settled down, too! We despaired of you at one time, you know."

"That was some time back," I pointed out. "I've been a dull old married woman for years now."

"Indeed," Rose said in tones of freezing scorn. "Robert tells me your er, Nick, couldn't attend. What a pity."

"Sure is," I said, though privately I was thinking that the real pity was that I hadn't joined him. "I'll let you say hello to everyone else."

Rose inclined her head. "Thank you, child. Give my love to your Aunt Katherine."

Beside me, Barbara let out a long breath. Poor thing. At least I could say good-bye to Rose at the end of the night. "Chin up," I told her. "My aunt's known her for years and she says Rose's bark's worse than her bite."

"I don't know about that," said Barbara. "Her bark's bad enough, most of the time." But she managed a shaky sort of grin, so I figured she'd be all right in the end.

She stayed real close to me for the next hour or so, though, which kind of put a damper on sniffing around. I did my best to shake her off, trying to trap her in conversations with Ruth Sutter and Helen Griswold, but she stayed put. I even complained about the quality of the hired help, after one of the waiters surreptitiously pinched me as he brushed by, but Barbara just flushed and apologized. Finally, I excused myself to powder my nose, but that backfired spectacularly: I wasn't two steps into the hallway when Milly Marshall accosted me.

"Nora, dear," she exclaimed and caught my arm. "Oh it's been so long, can you believe it! You won't believe all that's happened. Trudy Belair's gone off with her father's accountant--accountant, can you imagine, it's only one step above the chauffeur!--and everyone knows Ruth Sutter's seeing an actor or something, and her father's in a rage, I'm only grateful she didn't drag him here, could you only think what a kerfuffle that would be...."

She went on like this for the better part of half an hour. I had to pretend to pass out to stop her prattle, and then endure her raptures over the thought of the baby. Finally she left me in the alcove of the library to rest. I gave her enough time to select her next victim, and then I got up.

"...you won't be able to imagine the trouble it'll make!" I heard Milly say from the library itself, and that would have been enough to send me scurrying, if the next thing I heard hadn't been Barbara blubbering.

"Oh, please--there's been some mistake--"

Milly laughed. "There's not a lot I'd trust Nathan to do, but recognizing the faces of his tramps is one of them. He noticed you the instant he walked in. I can't think how you imagined you would get away with it. Did you really think Rose Pendleton was going to welcome a--a--"

"A pro skirt?" I offered, walking back inside.

"Nora!" said Milly, deflated. "Well, I was just catching up with Barbara here--"

"I know," I told her. "I caught most of it. Now why don't you stop picking on Barbara, and I won't drop a hint to Nate about what really happened to that yacht of his that went down in that storm last month. I think that seems fair, don't you?"

Milly shot me an annoyed look and stalked out. I suppose I could have done that with a bit more finesse--I used to be able to, back in the day--but I just didn't have the patience for that sort of thing these days.

"Thank you," said Barbara, and laughed. "I guess it was bound to come out sooner or later."

"Things like that usually do," I said. "Does Bobby know?"

She went very still. "I think the question is: are you planning on telling him?"

It didn't seem to be my business, and I had enough to worry about already. I told her as much, but she didn't say anything back, just kept watching me, one last tear running down her nose.

I left her there, looking as blue as the Lady of the Camellias. It wasn't the work of a minute to slip out into the hallway again, and from there, past the kitchen and down the stairs into the wine cellar. Just as I'd hoped, Nicky was there, slouching against a wall with a tray stacked with half a dozen glasses in front of him. Most of them were even full. He was pretty easy on the eyes in his monkey suit, if I said so myself. I couldn't make out how everyone else had just dismissed him as just another waiter.

I said, "Swell service round here," and Nicky looked up, beaming.

"About time you showed up, Mommy," he told me.

"What does a girl have to do to get one of those for herself?" I asked, pointing at the tray. "Make eyes at the staff?"

"In the absence of any other encouragement, yes," said Nick, and finished off another glass. He patted a box beside him. "Sit down, mommy, and tell me what you've found out."

I plopped down on his lap instead. "Bobby's a chump," I began, "Tommy's so stuck on him--or his money--that he'd jump over the moon if Bobby asked it, Rose is the same grizzled terror she's been, Barbara's a chippy who took up with Nate Marshall not too long ago, Milly Marshall's seeing green over it and threatening Barbara, and that really is the end of the sorry business."

"When it rains, it pours." Nicky was generous enough to hand me a drink. "It's not any of the servants, at least. I've spent the evening talking to them, and Marlowe owed me a favor and looked them up. They all check out."

"So it is my lot, then," I said. A depressing prospect. As usual, they were nuttier than the last. I would have been happy to leave them all behind me.

"It can't be that hard. There's Tommy, for one. He wouldn't be the first squeeze to want to squeeze out a bit more of his paramour."

"Maybe. Or Milly, for that matter. Maybe when she saw she wasn't getting anywhere with Bobby, she thought she'd find some dirt on Barbara instead."

"On the subject of Barbara--"

I laughed. "Absolutely not. If she wanted to shake Bobby up for funds, she'd do better to sell the jewels he's given her. Did you see the size of those stones around her neck?"

"Not anymore, darling. I am a sober married man." Nick took another gulp of whiskey.

I nursed mine, too, trying not to sulk. Nicky's cases were always so easy. Someone else always wound up dead just in time to point him in the right direction. Well, I guessed there was nothing for it.

"I guess there's nothing for it," I announced with a last swallow. "Don't look so concerned, darling; I learned from the best. Just gather everyone I think might have done it and start talking until someone starts shooting."

Nick wished me luck by pouring himself a new set of drinks. I got up and went back upstairs.

Bobby was looking for me, wild-eyed. "Well? Do you know who did it?"

Honesty wasn't going to do a thing for me at the moment. "Of course I have," I said, "but first you'll have to gather Tommy, Barbara, and Milly and Nate Marshall into the library for me to prove it." I thought it over and added: "And don't you think it's time your mother knew, Bobby?"

Bobby looked stricken, but he said yes in the end. Sure enough, not fifteen minutes later, I was squinting at the whole sad bunch. Tommy looked as agreeable as ever, Barbara had calmed down except for the lone sniffle, Milly's lips were pressed together, and Nate just seemed to be wondering why he wasn't in his bed already. He certainly couldn't seem to keep his legs from jittering.

"Nora, child!" Rose boomed in my ear. "Are you planning to stand about looking mysterious, or to explain at last why you've dragged us all here before the first course could even be served?"

"Well," I said and looked to Bobby for confirmation. After he nodded, I went on, "about a week ago, Bobby started finding notes about, asking for cheques to keep from publishing certain letters between him and Tommy--"

Milly's eyes went wide, and my heart sank to my toes like a lead balloon. "Bobby! Why didn't you tell us about any of this...unpleasantness?"

"Blackmail," I corrected. I believe in calling a spade a spade, except when he's named Sam. Nicky doesn't do too well with hearing about his old competition. "And likely because he didn't trust you with it when he thought there was a fair chance you might be responsible. I do, too, for what it's worth."

"Nora!"she said, all outraged sensibility, "How could you? After all these years I've been friends with Bobby!"

"All those years of friendship didn't stop you from making Barbara miserable," I pointed out.

Milly considered her options and sought refuge in tears. Barbara joined her. Nate looked from one to the other before pulling out a handkerchief and nobly moving to his wife's side. Barbara looked wounded for an instant before Tommy held his handkerchief out to her.

"And what of it?" barked Rose, entering the fray. "The girl's no better than she ought to be, and why blame young Milly for admitting it?" At our startled looks, she added, "Yes, I know. Surprised, aren't you, that an old woman has more to do than wander about her garden?"

"Mother!" said Bobby and began gesticulating furiously. Stronger measures were clearly needed. I stuck my head back in the hallway and shouted for someone to bring us some more drinks.

Finally, between the two of us, Tommy and I managed to bully the room into silence. Nate was blustering about how he hadn't come to dinner only to be insulted, and Bobby was attempting to get a whole sentence out when forced with the dread specter of his mother. Barbara closed her eyes and snapped, "Oh, all right!"

Bobby turned to gape at her. "All right," Barbara said again, quieter this time, "so I'm not a blue-blood like you. So I did some things to earn my dinner. It's still a sight more honest than anything the lot of you would have done! I'm not ashamed of it, I'm not, I'm not!"

The room stood in silence, broken only by the unobstrusive entry of the long-awaited drinks. The corners of Rose's lips twitched upwards. Then Tommy cleared his throat and came to stand by her. "And why should you be?" he asked.

Bobby blinked and joined the two of them. "Why indeed?" he said, and took her arm. "Incidentally," he said, "have I told you yet those rubies are stunning with your complexion, darling, wouldn't you say, Tommy?"

"Robert!" Rose cried shrilly. "What are you thinking? That girl can't be trusted. I've seen her sneaking off with newspapers at all times. Look into that and I'm sure you'll see where your notes are coming from. I knew, I knew from the day I laid eyes on her--"

"Bobby," I said, quietly so he could hear me over Rose's tirade. "Bobby, I didn't say a thing about the notes being pasted-on newsprint."

Bobby went very still. "Mother," he said. "May I have a word?"

Rose heard the truth in his voice. Her face turned gray. "Robert--Robert--please--all I've done, I've done for you. For us! Please, I couldn't let you throw your father's fortune away on that chit--"

"Upstairs, Mother," said Bobby, with more authority than I'd ever given him credit for. He took her by the elbow and led her away. I could guess what he would say. Her health hadn't been in the best of conditions. An extended trip to Europe might do wonders for it, at least until Barbara was safely married and settled down. It wouldn't be half of what Rose Pendleton deserved, but it also wouldn't be what she would want. I could settle for that.

"Thank God that's over with," said Nate, and fled, probably for the washroom. The rest of us lingered. Tommy and Barbara stood together, making quiet conversation. I saw her face as she looked at him, all hopeful friendliness and gratitude. I figured the three of them had as good a chance of happiness together as anyone else in the world.

Nick put down his tray and winked at me. "As fine a sleuth as I've ever seen, Mommy. Do you figure you could find us a way out of here while you're at it?"

I came to him and kissed him. "Oh, yes, Nicky." The night was young, I was in a fine mood, and there were bound to be a few clubs still open at this hour. I curled my arm around his and my head on his shoulder and out we strolled together.

Behind us, Milly squealed, delighted: "Nora! Eloping with the waiter!"