Margo Hanson leaned back in her chair and brought her legs up onto her desk. Her pleated trousers rode up her shins to reveal tanned, naked ankles, while her black and white leather brogues rested over the edge of the mahogany wood. She let out a sigh and brought a cigarette to her lips while her other hand loosened the black silk tie around her neck.
It had been a long day, tailing hapless philanderers chasing pussy they couldn’t afford. Infidelity was the bread and butter for her line of work, but it didn’t make it any less depressing. After lighting the end of her cigarette with a stray matchstick, she took a long, well-deserved drag. Margo pursed her lips and released the smoke into the air above her, throwing her hands behind her neck. Her fingers searched for the handful of pins keeping her hair in a chignon and pulled them out one by one. Released from their hold, her hair fell down in cascading chestnut waves and she felt the pressure in her head disappear while the nicotine worked its way through her system to relax the tension in her body. Thank fuck the day was over.
Across the room, she saw her hand-cut, crystal decanter, filled with a Tennessee whiskey that she wished was in a glass in her hand. “Eliot!” she called out, too weary from the day to get up and walk the few feet to the sideboard. An exceptionally tall man in an immaculate, three-piece suit entered her office with an air of dignified offense. “Be a doll and fetch me a drink,” she requested as her dark eyes trailed from his perfectly coiffed raven curls to his polished oxfords in unashamed appraisal.
Margo was pleased to have found the aspiring actor, fresh off a bus from Nowheresville, Indiana. Stars in his eyes but only lint in his pockets, he marched into her office one muggy Los Angeles summer day in ‘45 and demanded a job. Reluctant to give in to his sense of entitlement, she quickly saw his worth. His pale skin and rakish masculinity afforded her easier access to locations that her own complexion and gender prevented. But even more than that; for there was always an in if you knew the right people—Eliot had a way with her clients that she never would. Uptight, skittish society women with limited access to their husbands’ funds were so easily put off by her brash personality and lack of respect for protocol, yet he seemed designed for stroking their desperate egos. Perhaps it was his time in the Army, or maybe he was just raised that way. In any case, it didn’t matter. She hired him that very day.
Three years later and not a single film credit to his name, he’d stuck with her. Despite his chiseled jaw and impeccable affectation of that oh so irritating transatlantic accent the Hollywood types were fond of, he’d never cracked the audition process to become the world-famous actor he dreamed he would become. Margo didn’t have the heart to tell him he was probably too tall for the pictures; John Wayne was the exception, not the rule. She was terrified he might leave her for the East Coast to try his hand at theatre.
“Don’t forget to get one for yourself,” she added, watching him with a keen eye as he poured a generous fifth of the amber liquid into a lowball tumbler. It had come with her decanter; a matching set, stolen as a memento of her estranged parents.
“When do I ever forget, my dear?” he replied, having already poured the second glass. He snuck an extra few ounces for himself as per usual, but she always let him get away with it. Balancing both glasses in the palm of his hand, Eliot closed the distance between them with a single step and took the seat in front of her desk before he passed her the glass. Still holding his own, he reached out to clink it against the crystal. “To a day like every other, filled with sad women and boring men,” he said with a glint in his eye that suggested he had bigger and better plans for the evening.
“And how are you planning on fixing this day?” she raised her brow. Margo brought the glass up to her lips and finished half the liquid in one go.
Eliot reached across the desk, picked up her smoldering cigarette and brought it to his lips. “Oh, you know, the usual,” he said, taking a lazy drag rather than explain what he had in mind. Margo glared at him, her deep brown eyes a cold, endless abyss that demanded answers. “Fine,” he huffed, snuffing out her cigarette in defiance. “I got a line on an RKO producer who likes to find pliant young men in dark theatres, and I intend to show him just how ‘pliant’ I can be.” Eliot’s mouth curled up into a satisfied smirk as her glare fell apart. “Before you know it, you’ll be telling your clients you used to boss around the greatest actor of our generation.”
Ready to dash his hopes of stardom, Margo was cut off by the sound of a door being slammed. Aluminum venetians clanged against the glass panel of the main entrance. Suddenly, a clenched fist appeared in the shadows behind the door to her office. She reached into her desk drawer, drew out her Remington .38 revolver and carefully checked that it was loaded. At the same time, Eliot produced a pistol from beneath his jacket and aimed across his body with his left hand. Margo thumbed the superfluous mother of pearl handle before she cocked back the hammer and leveled it up at the figure. The shadowy fist made four knocks on the frosted glass, each deliberately softer than the last.
“For Christ’s sake Todd, I could have shot you,” Margo called out. She recognized the knocking pattern of the building’s concierge and returned the hammer to its position before she placed the revolver back in its drawer. “Come in before I decide to do it anyway.”
The door opened slowly to reveal a young man—barely nineteen, with a mop of curls on his head and an eager look on his innocent face. Eliot rolled his eyes and replaced his weapon in his concealed holster. With a gentle nod, Margo encouraged Todd to come inside her office. A huge smile broke out on his face as he entered the room as his eyes darted around taking everything in.
“I have a message for you, Mar-Ms Hanson,” he said, quickly covering for his minor indiscretion. “I tried to see if she’d wait on the line until I could bring you downstairs, but she said it was urgent that I take the message because she had to make a flight.” Not knowing where to stand, Todd, paced around the small office in short strides while his hands rolled over each other in a gesture that made Margo motion sick.
“Who, what, when, where and why?” She said slowly. Margo kicked her legs off the desk and stood up. “You want to take calls for me, you know the questions you gotta ask.” Margo placed her hands on the top of the desk and leaned her body forward, demanding answers. They’d gone over it together numerous times, though having Todd answer her calls was more for her own benefit than his. Telephones were expensive and required her to be listed, which made it too easy to be found. Plus, it was always so much fun to make Todd run up five flights of stairs anytime a client called the building looking for her.
Todd took a deep breath and held out his right hand. With his left index, he touched his right thumb. “Who, her name was Julia Wicker,” he said confidently. “What, well obviously she wants to hire you,” he added, pointing to his right index finger with an irritating grin. “When and where, uh she’s coming from New York, or maybe New Jersey...I don’t remember exactly, but she said she had to get on a flight to come out here tomorrow or the day after and that’s why she couldn’t wait.” His eyes darted up and to the left once he’d tapped his middle finger and moved onto the fourth.
“And the why?” Eliot interrupted him, bored by the change in conversation.
“Of course, I know the why, I wrote it down,” Todd said, beaming with pride at his ability to do his unofficial job. He pulled a crumpled piece of paper from his trouser pocket and tried to hand it to Margo. Instead, Eliot easily snatched it from Todd’s outstretched arm and smoothed the paper on his thigh before he gave it a read.
“This Julia wants to hire us to find her best friend, an aspiring screenwriter named Quentin Coldwater whom she thinks is missing.” Eliot paraphrased the note, clearly leaving out information he couldn’t bother reading. “She’s wired two hundred dollars as a retainer, and will double that plus expenses once she reaches Los Angeles.” His voice rose at the mention of the money and Margo rounded the desk to take the note from him. “Why didn’t you lead with the money, Todd?”
“I,” Todd started to speak before he was cut short by a finger on his lips. Margo shook her head to prevent him from starting an argument with Eliot. She took a step back, put her hand in her trouser pocket and pulled out a handful of bills. Counting out three dollars, she folded them over and placed them in his shirt pocket. “Oh, thank you, Ms. Hanson.” It was more than he earned in a day, and she was glad to hear him grateful for it. She patted his chest, gently at first but followed by a forceful push to the doorway.
“Good work, Todd,” she said as she shoved him out of the room. “You can go now.” Margo gave him a quick smack on the ass and shut the door before he could turn back and say anything. She walked back over to the front of the desk where Eliot remained seated, used her hands to prop herself up, sat on the edge of the desk and flicked one leg over the other; the pleat in her trousered leg lined up perfectly with the point of her toe. “What do you say? Hit up the Western Union with me before your hot date with disappointment?” she said, her words dripped in a hint of sarcasm that she didn’t mean.
Eliot pulled out a pocket watch and checked the time instead of answering her question. “I suppose…” he dragged out his answer just to annoy her. “I can spare a moment or two, to play bodyguard,” he said with a satisfied smile.
Margo leaned back and grabbed her suit jacket from where it hung over the back of her chair. She slipped off the desk and threw the jacket over her shoulders. A quick flick of her hand behind her neck and her long hair rested outside the collar and all the way down to her waist. It would have been prudent to pin it back up before they left the office, but prudence never suited her.
When she was ready, Eliot finally stood, towering over her by over a foot. “Don’t forget you pay me extra when I work after hours,” he said as he held out his arm for her to take. Hooked by the front door were two hats. Margo took her soft, wide-brimmed fedora and angled it, so it nearly covered her right eye. Meanwhile, Eliot grabbed his own blocked hat and placed it gently on his head. Seemingly satisfied it wouldn’t ruin his hair, he locked the main door and slipped his key into his vest pocket before they made their way down the five flights of stairs to the street.
At the nearest Western Union branch, they found that just as Todd had written down, two hundred dollars had been wired to her name, along with a telegram from one Julia Wicker.
Ms. Hanson. I trust you accepted my case. Quentin is staying at Midtown Boarding House. I will be in LA on Wednesday afternoon to see you. Regards J.W.
It was an expensive telegram and a generous retainer. Combined with the knowledge that she was flying from the East Coast to Los Angeles, Margo figured this woman was wealthy, desperate and cared deeply for her missing friend.
With a place to start their investigation, and just under a day before their client arrived with further information, Margo sent Eliot to look into the boarding house. To her relief, it had been rather easy to successfully squash his plans for the night with the promise of double pay. It wasn’t that she had a problem with him offering himself to a shady producer—more that in his naïveté he thought it would guarantee him a credited part. She’d seen too many men lose themselves over a promise never fulfilled and she knew all too well that those producers had a habit of employing less than desirable types to clean up loose ends. He might have been able to hold his own in a fight with one or two, but that didn’t help him against a bullet in the dark.
She watched as Eliot disappeared down the street in the back of a taxi cab. Left alone on the corner, she fingered the belt loop of her trousers and wished for the reassurance of the sidearm she left in her desk drawer. A simple task like visiting the Western Union didn’t call for her to be armed; bringing Eliot was more of a comfort than protection. For most people, Downtown, Los Angeles was hardly the safest place once the sun had set, but it was her turf. Margo knew it better than she knew anywhere else. It was only two blocks to her office, yet something—more than just the wad of cash burning a hole in her pocket—had her on edge.
Margo walked back to her office at a brisk pace. Outside the front of her building, she pressed the buzzer and waited impatiently for Todd to open the door and let her in. “About time,” she complained, brushing past him to enter the lobby.
“Wait, Ms. Hanson.” Todd ran ahead. “I have your suit back from the dry-cleaner and some of my mother’s famous Osso Bucco for you, in case you decide to stay here again ton-” Todd cut himself short, aware that Margo hated to have her private life brought up; even when there was no one around for her to keep up appearances for.
She halted at his words. Her face couldn’t decide if it wanted to frown or smile and settled into an awful grimace. Todd was the only person who was aware she had slept in her office the past few nights, and it pained her that even he knew. Still, the kid was damn thoughtful, waiting until she was alone before bringing her laundry. Not to mention the food—if his mother's cooking were as good as he always said, it would be a better meal than she would have at home.
“Thanks,” she said after a long pause. It was tough for her to admit that she appreciated his help, and a single word answer was all she could give.
While Todd raced back to the front desk to collect the items for her, Margo removed her hat and made her way back up to her office. The sight of her name, stenciled in gold on the glass panel filled her with pride. It was enough to momentarily forget the embarrassment of living out of her office. Even if it was temporary—and voluntary. She pulled her keys from her pocket and unlocked the door. After hanging her hat on the hook, she leaned against the door frame for leverage and pulled off her shoes. The cheap carpeting felt rough on her bare feet; Margo hadn’t returned to the habit of wearing nylons since rationing ended.
By the time she hung up her jacket, Todd had already bounded up the stairs carrying her clothes over his shoulder and the food in a small plastic container. He pushed through the door and hung up her clothes, before placing the food on her desk. So thoughtful, he even provided her with cutlery.
“Hold on, Todd,” she called out to stop him before he raced back down to the lobby. Feet frozen in place at her words, he turned his head and looked over his shoulder. Margo took a deep breath, “When is your shift over?” she asked with great reluctance. She wasn’t sure why, but she didn’t want to be alone, and he was the only choice she had.
“Oh, Ms. Hans-”
“Call me Margo,” she interrupted with a soft smile. “But only after five. It’s Ms. Hanson during office hours.” She winced at the words. She had no right to call them office hours when she was practically living in the office.
“Margo,” he echoed, with a grin that spread across his entire face. His whole body turned to face her. Todd was a perpetually open person; most of the time it irritated her to no end, but on occasion, it could be a comfort. “I would love to spend more time with you, you’re...so world—knowledgeable,” he continued, the grin turning sheepish as he realized what he was saying. “I just, I have to get back to the front desk. Money is tight at home since my dad got sick, you know.” Todd kept the smile, but she could see the way he became glassy-eyed at the mention of his father.
At some point or another he had probably told her what had happened, but she hadn’t listened. Being a private investigator made her exceptionally observant. It also made her hesitant to strike up personal relationships. All day she lived in the world where bad trumped good, where people’s worst fears were almost always confirmed. “I’m—” she stopped to consider the right words. Sympathy was a quality that she sorely lacked. “I might have some work for you...if you need extra cash,” she offered employment instead of condolence. It was safer than getting dragged into a conversation about his home life.
“Thanks, Margo,” he said, the smile back on his face. “Would I get to do the stuff that you and Mr. Waugh do?” He asked her earnest. The excitement radiated out of him, warming her cold heart, and she almost wanted to say yes.
“Maybe. Once you’ve proven yourself,” she tried diplomacy, careful not to dash his hopes too early with the dull reality that any help he would provide would be closer to picking up her laundry than chasing down leads.
“On the beam!” he said, without a hint of irony. He was just a child. “Well, I have to get back to the desk, and you should eat that food before it goes cold. Mamma is going to ask me what you thought, and she’ll blame me if you don’t like it because it’s not hot enough.” Todd seemed genuinely afraid of his mother’s disappointment, further exaggerating his youth. “Goodnight, Margo.”
Margo walked over to where he stood smiling. He was still riding high from being allowed to call her by her first name. “Goodnight Todd,” she said in return as he left her office.
She followed him to the main door and locked it behind him before returning to her desk. Typewriter moved to the edge to give her space, she opened the plastic container and let the scent of slow-cooked beef fill her nose. The food demanded wine, so she grabbed a half-finished bottle of unlabelled red and poured it into the same glass she had used earlier. She picked up the fork and let her hand hover over the food before deciding to remove her shirt and tie first; whatever the sauce was, it would definitely leave a stain.
Seated at her desk in just her bra and and trousers, Margo devoured the Osso Bucco. It lived up to the excessive praise the kid had given it, and she would have to find a way to get more in the future.
The half-finished bottle of wine came closer to being empty. She knew she should clear up the room before she reached the point where she didn’t care, but she poured another glass before she even realized what she was doing. Ready to relax and get comfortable, Margo threw her legs onto the desk and settled in with her glass. She adjusted her position in the chair and heard a rustling sound from her pocket. Investigating the source of the noise, she pulled out the cash, telegram and Todd’s original note.
The cash went in her drawer. It should have gone into the safe, but that was on the other side of the room, and she was comfortable where she sat. She re-read the telegram before discarding it on the desk to focus on the note instead. There was so much information that Eliot left out. The missing man was twenty-four, only a few years younger than she was, but his friend, Julia, seemed to think he wasn’t the type to look after himself. He had been out west for just over two months, doing research for a screenplay about a fantasy land and the author who created it, and the last time Julia heard from him was three days ago.
Maybe she did have real investigation work that Todd could do. He seemed to be great at taking down notes. Far better than Eliot, who preferred talking to listening. Her paid assistant was more suited to being out on the street, gathering intelligence rather than interpreting it. She’d have to think about it again in the morning. The combination of food, wine and a long day caused her eyelids to become heavy, and before long she fell asleep in her chair.