“Don’t look now, but we seem to have acquired a new friend.”
“Hmm?” Nora’s voice drifted up sleepily from my right shoulder, where she’d been resting her head for the last three blocks. I liked that just fine, though I didn’t understand how she could walk with her neck at that angle. “What was that, Nicky?”
If I’d been out with a different dame, I would have lied at that point, but I’d been running around with Nora long enough to get the idea that she wouldn’t spook like other girls. “Some mugg has been tailing us since we left the nickelodeon.”
Sure enough, Nora wasn’t a bit scared. In fact, she got kind of excited by the news and tried to turn around despite me telling her not to. I’d anticipated that though, and grabbed her face before she could get much traction. I leaned down and gave her a thorough kiss. A passing cop told us to move along, so I let her go.
“Not that I didn’t like it, but what’d you do that for?” she asked me as soon as I released her.
“Because, sugar, you were about to blow the gaff. I don’t want that guy knowing that I’ve made him, and you turning to stare at him might have tipped him off.”
“I’m sorry,” she said with evident sincerity. “But Nick, we don’t want some strange man following us all evening, do we? What’ll we do?”
“Do you see that corner up there? Do you?” Nora nodded. “That’s fine. When we turn that corner, I’m going to need you to stay out of sight and out of my way. I’m going to jump our friend there, and I can’t do that if I’m worried about you.”
“No buts, now,” I said firmly. “Promise me?” Nora didn’t much like that idea, but I got her to promise after I agreed to be careful.
We turned the corner I’d pointed out earlier and I put my back against the wall, as close to the edge as I could without being seen. Nora kept her promise and kissed the wall about ten feet away from me.
My heart thumped wildly. I hadn’t gotten a good look at the guy, but I’d seen enough to know that he was bigger than me. Now, I’m pretty tough, so that wouldn’t normally bother me, but Nora’s presence meant that all bets were off. I couldn’t afford to let him rough me up too badly when I still had to get the girl home safely. I’d have to make my first punch count and then kick him hard once he went down.
Although he couldn’t see us any longer, the palooka following us didn’t slow down one bit. Either this was his first time tailing somebody, or he wasn’t following us at all and I’d owe some guy one hell of an apology.
I jumped him the second he came into view. He didn’t go down with the first blow so I cocked my fist back to really give him a beaut. Before I could connect, however, Nora suddenly yelled, “Nick! Stop! Don’t hit him again!”
I grabbed the guy by his shirt and kept my left fist ready just in case he tried any funny business. “Yeah? Why not?” I asked, keeping my eyes on him the entire time.
“Because he’s my father.”
“Your father, eh?” I took a good look at him. He was taller than me and broader in the shoulder, but he had a slightly wasted look that I hadn’t noticed from a distance. I suspected that he could have taken me down when he was in his prime, but not now. His hair was still dark brown and free from grey, but his face was lined. Now that I was looking for it, I could see a strong resemblance to Nora. “Well, well. Fancy that.” I let go of his shirt and began patting him back into shape. “Say listen, Mr. Forrest. I’m sorry for jumping you. I wanted to make an impression when I met you, but not that kind.”
“You were protecting my daughter,” he gasped out, his breathing more labored than it should have been. “How could I object to that? Still, I would like to sit down now. Not as young as I used to be.”
Nora ducked under her father’s arm and I went for the other. He waved me off, putting all of his weight on his daughter. I felt oddly proud to be out with the kind of girl that could take it. “So,” Nora said brightly. “Where should we go? Know of any good diners around here?”
“Diners?” I sneered. “How about—“ Nora was shaking her head at me, so I got the idea that speaks were out. I coughed then started again. “Sure. I know a swell diner. Just a few doors down.”
Nora’s father gave me a knowing look. “Something stronger than coffee would be appreciated, but I’m in the middle of a large transaction right now that would be endangered should I be caught in any place less than—“ He trailed off uncomfortably.
“Less than completely legal?” I suggested.
“As you say,” he agreed. “However, if you happen to have a little something on you, that wouldn’t go amiss.”
I tapped my breast pocket. “Never go anywhere without it,” I assured him.
We went into the diner and I ordered us all coffee. Nora asked for some scrambled eggs and her pop put in an order for toast and marmalade, so I told the waitress I’d have something too. She suggested sausage and gravy so I said I’d have that.
Once the waitress left, I doctored up everyone’s coffee with the bourbon in my flask, and then we all stared at each other. I was just about to ask Old Man Forrest what he thought about that Santa Barbara flood when he and Nora both started to speak. Nora gestured for her father to go and he smiled uncomfortably. “So. I suppose introductions are in order. I’m Jasper Forrest. Please, call me Jay.”
Nora had never mentioned her family at all, but everything about her screamed class and money. I knew her last name was Forrest, so it wasn’t too difficult to guess that she might be related to those Forrests, the ones who owned half the mines, woods and railroads around San Francisco, but I never would have figured her for the Big Cheese’s daughter. Everyone knew that Jay Forrest was worth at least five mil, so that jumped Nora into a higher tax bracket than I’d ever see with my salary. I figured the two of us could get into that later though, so I just nodded and stuck out my hand. “Nick Charles,” I told him.
He shook my hand then gave me some cock-and-bull story about accidentally running into us, and he was sorry he hadn’t let us know, and the last thing he’d intended to do was frighten us, and he hoped I hadn’t gotten the wrong impression of him. It was baloney, but I swallowed it because I felt bad for punching the old man in the gut. So I told him that no, it was my fault for jumping to conclusions, and it was him that needed to forgive me. Old Man Forrest said no, that was all right, and we were all square now. Happy to hear that he wasn’t going to stop me from seeing Nora, I shook his hand again and told him that was all right with me.
Then he said something that froze my blood cold. “Well, that’s fine then. Glad it’s all settled. Since there are no hard feelings, you’ll come to dinner on Thursday night. Seven o’clock. I want to talk to you.”
“But Dad,” Nora said urgently. “Isn’t Aunt Katherine coming to dinner on Thursday?”
“Yes, yes,” Forrest muttered. “Katherine, and Willie and Emily and I forget who else. The whole damn lot, I shouldn't wonder. They’ll want to meet your young man, and I want him to meet them.” This sounded a bit sinister to me, but the look he gave me let me know there was no getting out of it. “I’ll expect to see you at seven, Charles. Don't be late.”
Since there was nothing else for it, I tipped a bit more hooch into my coffee and drained it. It scalded my throat like hell on the way down. As soon as I could talk again, I ordered another.
I’d left my monkey suit in New York so I went in to the Pinkerton offices the next day to bum a tuxedo off someone. Besides, I was running low on scratch and needed to see if they had a new case for me. I was out of luck for work, but I did find a tuxedo so the trip was worth my while. More than that, Weedy McGuire told me something rather interesting about Jasper “Jay” Forrest. I suspected it might prove useful on Thursday.
The taxi arrived at Nora’s house at a quarter till seven. A chain across the road prevented the cab from going up to the house, so I paid the driver and started hoofing it across the yard. The grounds were vast, and my estimates about Nora’s wealth increased with each step I took.
I was halfway to the house when a copse of trees tried to catch my attention. “Psst! Nicky!”
I went to investigate. “Well, lookie what the fairies left me.” I grinned and gave Nora a quick kiss. “Hello, sugar.”
“I haven’t seen you in a tuxedo before,” she said. “You clean up pretty good.”
“Thanks. I guess you don’t look so bad yourself.” The truth was that she looked as gorgeous as I’d ever seen her, but I was sore about this dinner and didn’t feel like buttering her up right then.
That dinner was on Nora’s mind too. “Oh, Nick. I’m so sorry about this. I think you and my father will get on, but I’m afraid that the rest of my family are pretty dreadful.”
“As bad as all that?”
“Worse,” she said glumly. “But don’t worry. I begged Selma to come tonight, and she invited David over, so you’ll have at least two friends at dinner.”
“Besides you, of course.” She smiled sweetly and kissed me to show what kind of friend she was, and I decided I wasn’t sore at her after all. “Say listen, kid. Let’s blow this joint. Dressed up as you are now, I can think of some swell joints we could go to. I’ll have a man-to-man with your father when I bring you back home. Sometime around dawn.”
Nora sighed wistfully but shook her head no. I grumbled but allowed her to lead me towards the house. I balked at the door. “You told me once that you were an only child, but you never said that your father was Jasper Forrest. Why not?”
“Does it make a difference?” I just looked at her until she sighed again. “It’s like this, Nick. If you were a wrong guy, you’d try to marry me for my money. If you were a right guy, you’d stop seeing me—“
“Stop seeing you so nobody would think that I was a wrong guy.” I considered her. “I guess that makes sense. But listen here. You know that I’m a dick. What if I investigated you, found out that you were loaded, and then kept seeing you while letting you think I was a dope. Then I’d be both a wrong guy and a grifter. You could be in a heap of trouble running around with me, sister. Do you ever think about that?”
Nora ignored my question and asked one of her own. “Did you? Investigate me, I mean.”
“No.” She nodded as if that settled the issue, and it did funny things to my stomach to realize how much she trusted me. Then I thought that this dinner might be the end of us if she decided that I didn’t belong in a high society crowd, and that did funny things to my stomach as well. Rather than think about that, I opened the door and said, “After you.”
Nora’s family was as ghastly as advertised, but Aunt Katherine was the kicker. She was one of those dames that never gets over being a big sister. No matter how old or rich her younger siblings become, they’ll never be more than snot-nosed three year olds that exist solely for her to boss around. I thought Old Man Forrest was pretty swell, the way he put up with her but not with her phooey. Nice to see where Nora gets it from.
We had drinks before dinner and that wasn’t so bad. Forrest had some Bushmill whiskey that had been sitting in his cellar from before the start of the Prohibition. It was a tad better than the hooch I normally drink, in the same way that the Taj Mahal is slightly more livable than a New York tenement building. Uncle Willie got started on the Red Menace, but that was fine with me because he didn’t seem to expect much more than the occasional grunt of agreement. This left me free to make faces at Nora and drink her father’s whiskey. We were both pretty zozzled by the time dinner was ready.
Once we got to dinner, though, the evening began to go sour. I got placed between Aunt Katherine and Cousin Emily. Nora’s cousin Selma was across from me. Selma’s all right—better than Aunt Katherine and Cousin Emily by a long shot—but I’ve never been as fond of her as Nora is. She’s a bit sulky for my taste. Nora was seated at the other end of the table, between her father and Selma’s fiancé, David, which prevented me from mouthing things at her without them seeing.
Aunt Katherine waited for the soup before pouncing. “So tell me, Nicholas—I presume that I may call you Nicholas?”
“It’s Nick,” I told her firmly.
“So tell me, Nicholas, what is it that you do for a living?”
I grimaced but answered the question. “Right now, I’m on vacation. I’ll have to go back to New York soon, however, as I’m almost out of dough.”
Aunt Katherine scowled. “Well, what is it you do when you’re earning ‘dough’?”
“I’m an agent for the Trans-American Detective Agency.” She looked at me blankly, so I elaborated. “I’m a Pinkerton man.”
Both Katherine and Emily shuddered at that. There was an uncomfortable pause before Emily timidly asked, “Is your employment there some kind of lark, then?”
“Oh, yeah,” I assured her. “It’s been a non-stop gag for the past eight years.”
Emily smiled weakly, but Katherine glared at me. She, at least, was bright enough to know when someone was pulling her leg. I felt hostile looks from all over the table, but kept my eyes on my plate. No way was I afraid of a bunch of San Francisco nobs, but this was Nora’s family and I didn’t like the feeling of being odd man out there. She knew I was a cop, but perhaps she’d never considered before that she might be slumming.
Aunt Katherine waited for the next course before lobbing her next sally. “Are you originally from New York, young man, or did you grow up somewhere else before taking employment with Mr. Pinkerton?”
“Oh, I was born and bred in New York, all right.”
“Hmm… That’s very interesting.” Aunt Katherine gave me a python’s smile, clearly convinced that she was going to deflate me with her next question. “I’ve been wracking my brains, Nicholas, but I can’t quite place your family. I know some Charles’s from Long Island; are those your people? Or perhaps you come from the Kane-Charles’s in Manhattan? Or the Bledsoe-Charles’s? I suppose you might come from the Queens’ Charles’s, but they’re not quite it, are they…”
“As a matter of fact, I do come from Queens,” I told her. “But still not the Charles’s you’re thinking of. I come from the Charalambides Charles’s of Astoria, Queens.”
From the other side of the table, Uncle Willie barked in irritation. “Charl-a-what?”
“Charalambides. My pop changed his name when a fella on Ellis Island told him that his name wouldn’t fit on the photograph.” Finding out that I was just one generation off the boat shocked the table into silence. I smiled broadly and lifted my glass. “Cheers!” I said, far too loudly.
Aunt Katherine looked like she swallowed a bug. “Just what sort of name is Char-, Charl- …. What sort of name is that?”
“Greek,” I told her cheerfully. I wasn’t feeling it though. I’d never mentioned my pop to Nora before because you never knew when something like that would make a difference to somebody. It was okay in New York, but here on the West Coast, things like that can matter… and I didn’t want to find out that Nora was that sort of dame.
I was a mugg to worry about her. When I glanced her way, I saw that she was grinning like a loon. I mouthed the words, “having a good time?” at her, and she gave me a jaunty salute in return. At that moment, I finally realized something that even the most knuckleheaded detective in the world would have seen weeks ago: I was completely goofy for that girl.
Nora may have been having a great time, but no one else was. Her father was stone-faced, his expression unreadable. All eight of Nora’s elderly relatives looked shocked or angry, and even David and Selma looked uncomfortable. I should have felt sore about all these bluebloods judging my pop, but Nora was smiling, which meant that I was on top of the world. That smile, added to the Bushmill’s I’d drunk before dinner, had my head swimming.
Perhaps that’s what led me to raise my glass in a toast. “I want to thank you, Mr. Forrest, for inviting me into your home and introducing me to your wonderful family. You’ve all made me feel so very welcome. Why, it’s almost like being in the bosom of my own kin. Except, of course, everyone would be singing by now if I were with my own family. Should I start us off?
“ Thalassa, thalassa, tous
Thalassinous, thalassaki mou
Mi tous thalassodernis,
Yia sena ksimeronoume.”
Nora began clapping with me halfway through the first verse, so I stood up to dance while I sang. It’s not easy to dance solo to Greek music, but Aunt Katherine was hardly likely to join me if I asked her. Besides, she was so red at this point that the exercise probably wouldn’t do her any good anyway. Uncle Willie, Cousin Emily, Aunt Hattie, and the other mausoleum dwellers were all yelling, but since there’s always a lot of yelling during Greek dances, I chose to believe that they were encouraging me.
“Thalassa kialmiro nero
Na se ksehaso den boro.
A quiet voice somehow broke through the din. “That’s enough.”
“Opa!” yelled Nora.
“I said, that’s enough, child,” Jasper Forrest barked. I stopped dancing mid-step and the room went quiet. “Now. If you’ll all excuse us, I’d like to see Mr. Charles in my study.” Aunt Katherine opened her mouth, but Forrest cut her off. “Alone. I would be pleased if all of you would continue with your dinner during our absence. Now, please excuse us.”
Forrest left without another word. I bowed deeply to the room then followed him out. I’ve never sobered up as quickly in my entire life as I did walking down that hallway.
“That was quite the display, young man,” Forrest said as soon as I closed the door.
“It was unforgivable, Mr. Forrest. I’m sor--“
“It was brilliant.”
I sat down and pulled out a cigarette. “You aren’t sore?”
“I quite enjoyed it.” He gave me a wicked smile, very similar to Nora’s. “I’m not sure I’ve ever seen my sister so completely flummoxed before. You’re an impressive fellow, Mr. Charles.”
I stared at him, trying to rearrange the puzzle pieces in my mind. To gain time, I went on the attack with the dope that Weedy had given me. “So impressive that you needed to have me investigated?” He blinked at me, but made no effort to deny the accusation. “You had someone following me for the past week. He called you while Nora and I were watching the movie and you took over for him. You tried tailing me yourself at that point and gummed the game.”
“Oh dear,” Forrest murmured. “You knew all along? Perhaps I should get my money back.”
“Nah,” I told him. “Your guy did all right; I never made him. It just makes sense for it to have gone down that way.” No reason to admit that Weedy tipped me off about the tail in the first place. “What I don’t get is why.”
“Hm… Let me ask you something. If I like your answer, I’ll answer yours.”
I pulled hard on my cigarette then blew a smoke ring. “Sounds okay to me.”
“Are you planning to marry my daughter?”
Some smoke went down the wrong way and I coughed. “Say again.”
“It’s a simple enough question: are you planning to marry my daughter? Because if you are, I can make it worth your while to wed sooner rather than later.”
A couple of hours ago, I would have laughed at the idea of getting married… but that was before I realized that I was dizzy over Nora. Now I was thinking that marriage sounded pretty swell, but not like this. “I might be thinking about marrying Nora and I might not,” I told him coldly. “But I have absolutely no interest in marrying her money.”
“I know you don't,” he said. “That’s why I had you investigated. Nora seems rather smitten with you and I needed to know whether or not you were a gigolo.”
“Yeah? And what did you find out?”
He held up one hand and counted each finding with one finger. “You are thirty-four years old and are in excellent health. You’re a heavy drinker, but always pay your tab and never run up debts. You’re friendly with many of the miscreants you’ve apprehended, but have never been known to take a bribe. You’re intelligent and resourceful, but not particularly ambitious. Your father was an immigrant, but you yourself are so thoroughly Americanized that you don’t even speak Greek.” He shook his head sadly. “Clearly that last part is incorrect.”
I laughed. “Nah, your report is fine. I don’t speak Greek. I just remember a few songs, that’s all.” I skewered him with a glance. “None of that explains why you just offered me money to marry Nora.”
“Did you get that impression? Oh dear.” Forrest smiled. “I was only trying to influence the timing, not the marriage itself.”
“Not that I’m agreeing to anything, but what’s the rush? Nora’s just turned nineteen. What’s a few years?”
“I’m dying,” he said simply. “Nora doesn’t know and I don’t want her to know, but the doctors are giving me a year at most. I need to know that my daughter’s future is taken care of before I go.”
That made me sore. “I’m sorry to hear about your health, Mr. Forrest, but see here. You’re kidding yourself if you think Nora can’t take care of herself. She’ll be just fine whether she’s married or not.”
“I guess it depends upon your definition of ‘fine.’ Having been under Katherine’s thumb when Mother died, I’d prefer not to put Nora there.”
“What’s Aunt Katherine have to do with anything?” I demanded.
“My business partner convinced me to put all of Nora’s money into trust until she’s twenty-eight.” Forrest offered me a cigar which I declined, and then lit one for himself. “Our stockholders would have pulled out, otherwise. I tried to change my will when I found out that I was dying, but MacFay (my partner) says that the board won’t stand for it and he’s probably right. I put in a clause that says she can have it all right away if she’s married, but that was the best that I could do for her.”
“You still haven’t said where your sister comes into this.”
“Katherine is my closest relative, so she’ll have control over Nora’s trust fund for the next nine years. I know my sister; if I name someone else as guardian, she’ll fight it and probably win. What really worries me though is that control over Nora’s money will give her control over Nora. She’ll want to extend that control by preventing her from marrying for as long as she can. She may insist that Nora live with her, and will certainly forbid Nora from marrying any man that thinks likely to stand up to her. You've met Katherine. Do you really want that for Nora?” I shuddered theatrically. “No more do I. If Nora isn’t married before I die, she’ll either have to kow-tow to her aunt, or forfeit all my money until her 28th birthday… assuming that there’s still any left at that time.”
“What about naming your business partner as Nora’s guardian? MacFay, did you say his name was?”
“I could do that,” Forrest admitted. “But he’s not the most honest fellow in the world. Fine as a partner, but a little shady in his private dealings. Still, he would be better than Katherine, I suppose. I mean, look at her current ward and how well she’s turning out. Selma brought home gigolo after gigolo before settling on that dunderhead Graham. True, he has his own money, but I don’t want my daughter married off to a boobie like that. I don’t trust him.’ He shook his head furiously. “I don’t want Nora to have any guardian, if truth be told. I want her to have a husband who’s over the age of twenty-eight so that I can get around the whole damn thing. I want Nora to marry an honest man with a good head on his shoulders. Someone who doesn’t want her money but respects it enough that he won’t lose it all for her. Someone who will make her happy.” He looked me right in the eyes. “Someone like you, Charles.”
I didn’t know what to say to that, so I sidestepped the issue. “I’m glad you like me, Mr. Forrest, but you’re not the one I’d be marrying. What does Nora think of me? Or of marriage in general, for that matter?”
“She likes ‘em both,” he said confidently. “She told me two weeks ago that she had her heart set on marrying you.”
“Did she, now?”
“Indeed she did. I went out the very next day to hire a detective to investigate you, to determine whether or not you were suitable.” Forrest smiled. “You are.”
While Forrest was talking, I heard a muffled “OH!” from the other side of the door. Putting my finger across my lips, I walked to the door and flung it open. Nora tumbled forward, but I’d anticipated that and caught her before she could fall. “Hello, sugar,” I drawled.
Nora turned an adorable shade of pink. “Oh. Hullo there, Nick. Hi, Dad. I was just--”
“Just listening at the keyhole?” I suggested with a smile. She turned even redder and stuck her tongue out at me. I stuck mine right back at her.
Forrest ignored our interplay. “Hello, child. I’m going out for a walk. You two young people are welcome to use my office, if you like.” With that, he gave Nora a peck on the cheek and left.
I gave Nora my nicest smile. “So. You told your father that we were getting married. When were you going to let me know?”
“I was going to let you figure it out for yourself,” she said. “But it turns out that you’re not so bright after all.”
I thought about how long it took me to figure out that I was in love with this wonderful girl and decided that I had to agree with her. “No. I guess I’m not at that. So tell me, oh font of wisdom, does this mean that we’re engaged now?”
“I don’t know,” she said with a smile. “You haven’t actually asked me to marry you yet.”
“I guess I haven’t.” I dropped down on one knee, as theatrically as I could. “So, how about it, kid?”
I pulled her in for a kiss. I meant for it to be quick and light, but Nora clung to me and the kiss became far more intense than I had intended. We were both breathing hard when we broke apart. “Easy now,” I croaked hoarsely. “Save something for the honeymoon, baby.” She didn’t say anything to that, just smiled sweetly and began tucking her hair back into place. She looked so prim and proper—and so unlike the hot tomato that I’d been kissing a moment before—that I just had to laugh. “You’re some woman, Nora.”
“Darn tootin’ I am!” she exclaimed. “Say, listen. We should go out and celebrate.”
“Out there? No offense, Nora, but I’ve had just about enough of your family for one night. Let’s stay in here and see if your father has any more of that whiskey stashed away somewhere.”
“We could do that,” Nora agreed. “Or we could climb out the window and make our escape that way.”
“Sounds good to me, sugar, but that dress isn’t exactly made for climbing out windows.”
“Aw, it’ll be fine,” she insisted. “You’ll help me.”
“Okay, but how will we get to town? We might be waiting for a long time for a cab to come along.”
Nora smiled pulled out a bottle of her father’s wonderful whiskey that she’d slipped into the pocket of her wrap. “Think this will keep us warm?”
I stared at her in amazement. How did a woman this wonderful come to exist in this rotten world? “Oh, baby,” I purred. “If you keep coming up with ideas like that, I’m gonna like spending the next fifty years with you.”
“As long as you keep the drinks coming, Nicky, you’ll get to do just that.”
“Then lead on, woman. Lead on.”