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An amber bulb lit up on the board and Audrey Cain reflexively inserted a plug into the hole below it.
“Mr. Gray’s office. May I help you?” she asked as automatically as she had made the connection. She barely heard the name on the other end of the line before plugging in the wire to connect the call and disconnecting herself.
Another light flashed and she repeated the process, inserting the name of one of the district sales managers, Walter Huff. This time she hesitated before pulling her plug and listened to the beginning of the conversation.
“Walt, you old son-of-a-gun, when were you going to tell me?” Audrey’s interest was piqued. “Agnes and I have a standing date on Thursday. You should join us and we’ll make it a foursome.” She yanked the cord and let it snap back into its place in the board in front of her. Damned Daddy Warbucks, she cursed under her breath. ‘Anyone for tennis?’ ‘I’ll meet you out on the links, old boy.’ Did any of them ever do a solid day’s work in their life – let alone a whole week’s worth?
Audrey hated everything about her job, especially that she had to sit all day in one place. At the Phantom Works down in Georgetown, she’d had to always be on the go, and she preferred it like that. She was a crack troubleshooter, fixing problems when they came up and seeing to it that her part of the production line kept moving smoothly.
Her old job, helping build the flying battleships that clobbered the Japs and the Nazis, had been important work. Peacetime was the worst thing that ever happened to her. Boeing had kept her on for half a year, but finally her position, like so many others, had gone to a returning serviceman.
Routing phone calls at the Federal Insurance Company’s Northwest regional headquarters felt about as important as sitting on a park bench. In this job she was back to the bottom of the totem pole. She was in charge of nobody. She wanted to move up. She deserved to. As her finger brushed the plug that connected her to Walt Huff, she decided he’d be her stepping stone.
Walt hung up the phone and leaned back in his chair that amount that was just less than too far. Everything was coming together, working out as he’d planned. His region was doing fine, insuring all those new homes sailors and soldiers and flyboys were buying on the GI bill. Soon enough he could move up and he and the wife could maybe even move back East, if he could swing the assignment. Vice President at Federal, then — who knows?
His phone rang. One of the switchboard girls, said, “Mister Huff? Your wife called to say she won’t be able to make it to lunch. Her hairdresser’s appointment was moved up.”
“You’re most welcome, Mr. Huff. Can I do anything else for you?” The operator’s voice deepened; she stage-whispered her offer, hinting at another below the surface. “Change your luncheon reservations? Order in?”
Walt paused. He knew this operator’s voice, Audrey, he thought her name was. A cute redhead as he recalled. It couldn’t hurt to be friendly. “Better yet, Audrey, isn’t it? What time do you go to lunch? I’d hate to waste the reservation.”
A short pause, then that husky voice said, “I’d love to, Walt. I’m off at noon.”
Audrey unplugged the cord and let it snap back into the well-ordered forest of brass and Bakelite plugs that was the nervous system of the insurance company’s telephone network. Walter Huff was just another unhappily married mid-level company man, an easy target, like Jud Grey had been back at Boeing. Once she’d had Grey enmeshed in her web, squeezing him for good performance reports and regular promotions had been a snap. And she turned out to be good at her new job, so no one really got hurt in the deal. Grey got what he wanted for his troubles, too.
Lunch did not go quite as planned. Walt Huff was not what she had imagined. The few times she’d met the big porcine man in the hallways he’d had the usual slight leer most agents sent her way, the usual oh-so-sly innuendoes. The man who met her around the corner from the main entrance was sweating from the exertion of walking down the street faster than usual. He mopped at his balding pate with a checkered handkerchief.
Audrey felt a mixture of relief and frustration when he spent the entire meal talking about his family and the house he had built for them, now that the war was over and supplies were available again. But it meant she’d need another pigeon. Or another angle.
Over pie and coffee, he opened up about Leonard Petrie, the firm’s president. “Old Len’s got a bee in his bonnet about Reds and queers,” he said. “Sees ‘em everywhere. Last week he canned an agent from Omaha just because he’d heard the man was a fairy.”
Just like that, the new angle presented itself. Audrey smiled. Handled gently, Walt should pay off for years. She could even see him becoming her very own corporate ladder. She could climb right up his back. But she’d have to be careful, not get too greedy. If she squeezed too hard, he might balk.
That night, Audrey lay under the sheets, putting together the details of her scheme. In the other single bed, her roommate Dorothy snored gently. Just hired into Federal’s typing pool, Dot gobbled up every tidbit of gossip that came her way.
“I swear, Dot, Mr. Huff is up to something. Something odd,” she said the next night over a plate of spaghetti. The Chef Boy-Ar-Dee sauce didn’t hold a candle to what her mom would whip up with fresh tomatoes from the garden, but who had time to slave over a bubbling pot all day?
“Do you think he’s having an affair?” Dorothy sounded positively excited by the possibility. “My magazines are full of cheating husbands. They commit most of the murders, you know. It’s a proven fact.”
“Not a chance,” Audrey said with a dismissive wave of her fork. She felt sorry to pop her friend’s balloon like that but adultery wouldn’t give her the kind of leverage she needed. “Him looking like that, who’d even want to?” They both laughed at that. “No, but he was whispering as soon as he got on the line, and mad that whoever it was had called him at work.”
“See, it sounds just like an affair,” Dorothy said.
“The voice on the other end was a man.”
“You think he’s a fairy?”
Audrey considered that for a minute. Not bad, she thought before rejecting the notion. Who’d believe it? She shook her head and shoved a forkful of spaghetti into her mouth so she wouldn’t have to explain too much.
Then Dorothy smiled. “Well, you know, he has a secret. I wonder—“ She spun her fork in the pile of pasta. “What if he’s in some secret organization? Maybe he’s a Communist spy.”
Audrey kept her eyes on her plate. Dot read too many of those pulp magazines. But, the more she rolled the suggestion around in her brain, the better it sounded. Swallowing, she said, “That could be it.”
“Well, then, you’re going to have to call the FBI.” Dorothy moved some spaghetti around on her plate. “Maybe Mr. Hoover will give you a medal.”
For a minute, Audrey weighed her options. A witch hunt for Commies could result in a lot of vacant positions. On the other hand, she already had a plan. Dot’s way would set her back to square one.
She looked up to meet Dorothy’s cool blue eyes. “No,” she said. “It was just something I heard. But maybe you could ask around in the pool, see if anybody else knows anything about him being a Red?” Just enough to set the rumors in motion but to still be able to call them back before they got out of hand. She wouldn’t want Old Man Petrie actually hearing them.
Walt usually ate in the company cafeteria, but Audrey’d seen him a time or two at the hamburger stand a block over on Republican when she’d been running errands during her lunch hour. When a quick scan of the room showed he wasn’t in the cafeteria, she decided to chance it that he was there. He was.
Audrey slipped into the seat opposite Walt and took off her wide-brimmed yellow hat. She patted at her hair as she broke immediately into a breathless apology for tracking him down and a promise it would be worth his time.
“Honestly, Mister— I mean Walt, honestly, it just burns me up, hearing these things about you.” Audrey stopped short of batting her eyes. She had to play this one sincere. “But you really need to know what they’re saying down in the secretarial pool.” She leaned in close and poured her poison into his ear.
Walt nodded slowly, obviously thinking as fast as his plodding little brain could. “You… you don’t believe that.” He nearly made it a question. His face turned first almost white, then deepening pink. “I’m certainly not a Red, young lady. Certainly not. I’m a citizen in good standing, a Rotarian. Why, I belong to the Green River Presbyterian Church, for God’s— for Pete’s sake.”
“Oh, I’m sure.” She touched his arm, lightly, building rapport. “I mean, what do they know? But, you know, it’s best to nip this in the bud.” She took a sip of her Coke to let that sink in. “A person can get the wrong idea.” She let her head fall slightly to one side and smiled, just a little, in an I’m-on-your-side way. “Still, if word were to get to Mister Petrie…”
He frowned. “That would never do. He’d blow his top.”
“Why, yes.” She took a small sip of her Coke. “He does take a dim view of Communists. Not that I can blame him,” she added quickly. Another small smile.
“Is there anything you can do?” He’d taken the bait. “Maybe you could talk to them, nip all this talk in the bud, as you said? You did mention you have lunch with them sometimes.”
Bingo. She set the hook. “I do, sometimes,” she said. Let him squirm. “I’ll see what I can do.”
A week later, Audrey connected with Walt’s phone. “Walt? Audrey here. We need to talk.”
“Is it something we can talk about now? I can close my office door.”
“My end isn’t secure.” In fact, Audrey was alone in the three-person alcove serving all the building’s telephone lines. It wasn’t unusual for Lois and Margaret to take their breaks together. She just wanted to watch Walt’s face while hitting him up for a position in charge of the secretarial pool. She could tell what somebody was thinking if she could see the way they sat, their eyes, how they were holding their arms. It was almost like there was a whole additional language being spoken by a person’s body.
Walt agreed to tell his wife he would be having an after-hours business meeting, and to meet her at her apartment. An hour later she had her own break, and used it to call home.
“Dot? Audrey here. Listen, I’ve got a guy coming over tonight. You know how it is. Yes, for a few hours. Thanks honey, I owe you one.”
Audrey left Walt sunk into the soft overstuffed chair in the small apartment’s front room while she went to the kitchen to pull a pair of beers out of the refrigerator. Maybe in a month or two she could afford the ingredients for one of those fancy South Seas concoctions, a Mai Tai, was it? Or a piña colada. When she set the heavy steel cans on the counter to retrieve the can opener from a drawer, she found Walt looming over her. She jumped back in fright, putting her hands beside her on the edge of the counter.
He regarded her coldly. “Maybe you don’t know how business works,” he said.
“What—“ He didn’t have that anxious look on his face, the one he’d been wearing since he showed up at her door, right on the money. Audrey swallowed and tried to put on a smile, looked into his eyes, expecting him to melt the way men always did.
“Businesses,” he repeated, “want to know they’re hiring the right people. Motivated people, honest people, or mostly honest.”
The smile wasn’t working on him. He reached around her to pick up one of the beers, eyeing it distastefully. “They call references, interview former employers, look into personal histories.” He weighed the can in his hand, drawing her eye. “I read your file. Boeing said you were a real go-getter. I could see that in you myself. That’s one of the reasons we hired you; we’re looking for a woman who can sell insurance to women. That’s going to be a coming thing. Needs to have someone forceful in charge. We had our eye on you.”
“But see,” he tapped her temple with the can. A small, unintended squeak came out Audrey’s mouth, surprising even her. “See, I don’t know what you thought you heard, or if you were eavesdropping on my private calls. But it doesn’t really matter. You see, the war’s over and our one-time friends, they’re not so friendly anymore. So my friends and I can’t take chances.” He tapped her nose, harder. “Cold can. It’s freezing my hand. Want to see?” Moving the can to his left hand, he wrapped his right around her throat. It was cold.
Audrey focused on that hand, her own scrabbling for any weapon, maybe that other can? That’s why she never saw his left hand come around in a roundhouse, pounding that can into her cheek, splintering bone, breaking her neck.
Dorothy paid the cabbie and went to the front door of the apartment house. She could hear the cab idling at the curb while she fiddled with the key. She was grateful for him waiting until she got in the door. A real gentleman, she thought. The door was stuck when she tried to push through. She pressed her shoulder against the frame but it held stubbornly, pushing back against her. She peered through the crack she’d forced open and saw a brown scarf draped on the bottom stair. Bending down to look from another angle, Dorothy could see her roommate’s hair splayed out across the foyer floor. Her scream brought the cab driver running.
An hour later, she was perched on the edge of the big easy chair in her apartment, clutching a mug of hot tea. Detective Roy Berenstein hovered over her, looking concerned and impatient at the same time. He was a beefy man with the rosy cheeks and nose of a man with a long and close association with a bottle. But right now all he smelled of was Old Spice, and his eyes were clear, penetrating, brown.
Dorothy went over her answers again. Yes, she had gone out for the evening, to the movies – it was a double bill, Deception and Notorious, and yes, she’d gone by herself because Audrey wanted some privacy. No, she did not know who Audrey was planning to meet that evening, but she knew it was a man and she was pretty sure it was somebody that she worked with – had worked with. Then she started bawling again.
It wasn’t hard for Dorothy to get the waterworks going – finding your friend lying at the bottom of the stairs with her neck broke would shake any girl up. And with any luck, the cop would feel sorry for her and stop badgering her with questions. But he didn’t.
“Didn’t she say anything about who this mystery man might be? I know how you ladies like to talk. I’ve got three daughters of my own.” Dorothy just shook her head and blew her nose. Maybe he’ll take the hint.
Berenstein flipped his notebook shut and stared at her. It made the skin on the back of her neck feel all prickly. She bawled louder.
“I guess that’s all for now,” he said finally. “You get some rest, young lady. Maybe you’ll remember something in the morning.” Dorothy sniffled into her handkerchief and nodded.
When the cops cleared out she put down the hanky and picked up the telephone receiver.
“Information? I’d like a listing for a Mister Walter Huff.” Pause. “No, just the address.” She smiled, just a little, to herself.
Walt wasn’t the cowering sort. He was the friendly sort most of the time, the looming dangerous sort when he needed to be. Now, sitting at the breakfast table, he didn’t know how to react. He looked down again at the note that had been left in his mailbox some time during the night.
“You killed Audrey Cain yesterday. Send $5000 to Roy B, General Delivery, Atlantic City, by Friday, or else.”
The note was typed neatly on plain white bond, sealed in an envelope with the Federal Insurance Company return address. There was no stamp, which meant whoever had written it had actually been outside his house sometime in the night. Since it said ‘yesterday’ he figured it had actually been typed after midnight.
How many people worked at Federal’s Seattle office? Well over two hundred, he was sure. If he limited it to those who regularly used typewriters, that was still almost a third of the employees at the branch. He brought the note up to his nose, but it just smelled like paper. The police would doubtless have a heyday with the note, dusting for fingerprints, questioning security guards about who had access to typewriters, and so on, but going to the police would be the worst possible move.
“What’s that?” said a voice. His wife entered the room carrying a platter of toast and a carafe of coffee.
Walt put on a smile. “Just a list of clients we’re hoping to contact,” he said. “I should probably jump on it right away.” He folded the demand and stuck it back in its envelope. Mary wasn’t usually the slightest bit curious, so he looked up. She had her lips pursed.
“You work so hard,” she said. “I don’t see why they need to give you orders in the middle of the night.”
Walt leaned forward. Had she seen the blackmailer? “It’s unusual, that’s for sure,” he said. “Who dropped this off, anybody you know?” He waved the envelope before sticking it in the pocket of the coat hanging on the back of his chair.
“Oh, you know I only talk to the executives’ wives.” Mary ladled some food on his plate despite his having said he needed to leave. “I got up because Antoine was scratching at the back door to be let in, and I heard a car stop out front. When I looked out the window I saw it was a taxi, and some lady with a big floppy hat just getting back in. I figured she had the wrong house, but she must have put that in our box. If I’d known I would have gotten it for you.”
He was more than a little bit happy she hadn’t had to be so considerate.
“Big floppy hat, you say? Was it yellow?” He’d seen a hat like that, and recently.
“I couldn’t tell,” she said, “I do know it was a light color. Imagine. Working at two in the morning.”
“Yes.” Walt picked up a piece of toast and rose, snagging his coat as he did. He pecked his wife on the cheek. “I guess I’ll be burning the midnight oil tonight, Mary,” he said, patting his breast pocket. “Don’t wait dinner for me. I’ll pick something up at the diner to eat at my desk.” He kissed her on the cheek. “Gotta run.”
Walt spent the streetcar ride going through the last day’s events in his head, not focusing on anything too hard, but always searching for a floppy yellow hat in his mind’s eye. He looked up to realize he’d gone three blocks past his stop. The day was bright and uncharacteristically sunny for Seattle at this time of year. He was annoyed at himself, nonetheless. Walt prided himself on his eagle eye and a cautious attitude that had become instinct. It had kept him alive this long, and moving up in the organization. Both organizations, in fact, Federal and the other one. Not even Mary suspected. Which begged the question, how did that little tart Audrey sniff him out? And who else had – someone clearly had. He unfolded the note from his pocket again and studied it in the bright morning sunlight for clues.
Suddenly the light came on – not anything about the note, but he remembered a hat like the one Mary had seen the blackmailer wearing. Audrey had been wearing it when she tracked him down that day. And she’d said something yesterday about her roommate being out for the evening. That had to be it.
On his lunch hour Walt took a cab, directing the driver to a corner two blocks away from Audrey Cain’s apartment and walking in after the taxi had disappeared. He just needed the other name on the buzzer for now. He walked to the bus stop and went to his bank next. Here too, he was careful, not visiting his usual branch, where everyone knew him as a good regular customer. He withdrew $500 from a savings account that Mary didn’t know about and had the teller count it out in tens and twenties. Stuffing the money into his pockets, he caught a taxi back to the insurance company.
He told his secretary that his lunch hadn’t agreed with him and asked her to bring him a Bromo, then went into his office and closed the door. When Jennifer brought the glass of fizz, he asked her to hold his calls and visitors for a while, until he felt better, and to lower the shades before she left.
Then he took a sheet of plain paper out of his desk and, with a pencil (because they were a dime a dozen and not even J. Edgar Hoover’s science boys could trace it), he printed a note in childish block letters:
No need to play games or trust the US Mail. Postmen aren’t always the most honest people, you know. Meet me behind your rooming house tonight at 8 and I’ll give you what you’re asking for.”
Looking back over the note, he paused at the name. He was pretty sure there was a Dorothy in the company, and it made sense the two girls would have met at Federal. At any rate, he didn’t remember her. Maybe she was new.
He folded one crisp twenty dollar bill into the letter and stuffed it into an envelope. Then he called Jennifer on the intercom and told her the Bromo-Seltzer had not done the trick and he would be leaving early today. Then Walt walked out the front door of the Federal Insurance Building. He had all afternoon to make his arrangements. At yet another bank Walt stopped in, using his alias, Lester Bronstein, a private joke, a play on the name of the class traitor Trotsky’s real name. Here he was led to the Safe Deposit Box vault, where he retrieved the Luger he had brought back from France – a contraband war souvenir, one nobody knew he had. Loading it from the box of shells he kept with it, he pocketed the pistol and headed to the waterfront, where there was a choice of dives to disappear in for a few hours.
Dot walked home from the bus stop, dog tired but exhilarated about her good fortune when she found Walt’s letter and the Jackson. She laughed under her breath and let herself into the apartment, emptier now without Audrey’s high-energy presence. She looked at the alley out the back window, then glanced at the clock. It was just under two hours until their designated meeting time.
She poked through the refrigerator, suddenly hungry. She hauled out some leftover fried chicken, a bowl of peas, and a slice of apple pie Audrey had been saving for a special day. Dot felt a small pang of conscience, eating the dead girl’s dessert. But then, somebody had to.
Walt walked down the trash-strewn alley, one hand on the money in his left pocket, the other on the Luger in his right. He had to piss. He was early, with time enough to regret drinking so much, maybe two beers too many, while waiting. They hadn’t gone to his head, he knew that, but they sure had gone the other direction and he didn’t dare go someplace nearby to relieve himself. The sacrifices I make, he thought, looking around for a spot in the shadows that could hide him – two birds with one stone. He’d welcome her with a wad of bills in one hand and put a hole in her with the other. He chuckled, just a little, the old jovial Walt surfacing.
Minutes passed, and so did his need to piss. A patter of high heels announced Dorothy. He stepped away from the shadowed wall to the center of the alley. Dorothy stood there, a dozen feet away, limned by the light coming from the alley’s mouth.
“Hello, Walt,” she said.
“Dorothy.” He took a step, hands moving to pockets.
“Hold on.” Dorothy moved one of her hands. Something shiny was in it. “Move slowly, all right?”
“Did you bring a gun?” Walt was astounded; this wasn’t the way things were supposed to go.
“Have you got my money?”
Hands suddenly damp, Walt gestured to one pocket. “Right here. See, I’m going to reach in and get it for you.” In the dark half a thousand bucks would look like the full amount.
“No funny stuff.”
Walt shook his head. He’d heard that line a million times in movies, on radio shows. It had never made sense why something so serious as life and death should be called “funny.” Slowly he reached into his pocket, grasping the Luger in his fat hand. His other hand he kept raised.
He moved that hand a little lower. He watched Dorothy’s eyes follow the hand into his pocket where the money roll bulged out the fabric, all the while bringing out the pistol with his other. He aimed the barrel at her and grinned like the Big Bad Wolf facing Red Riding Hood.
That’s when the light hit him from above, probably from a window in her apartment. The voice came with it.
“Walter Huff! Don’t move. We have you covered.” Police swarmed into the alley from the paddy wagon around the corner, where they’d been waiting. As he was led away, he saw Dorothy calmly light a cigarette with the Zippo she’d been holding.
Dorothy McGuire opened the door and surveyed the apartment Walt had been renting. She sat experimentally on a red velveteen chair. The springs had worn smooth circles on the seat and one poked her in the behind but it was not too uncomfortable. Small sacrifices. She arranged several other seats in a haphazard circle along the walls, opening a closet to find a few folding chairs. A low coffee table sat in the center, left empty for whatever she might have brought. She hung up her coat and the wide brimmed yellow hat on the room’s coat tree. She hated yellow, but it was noticeable, even in the dark.
She made a pot of coffee and waited for the others. One by one they joined her, unremarkable people dressed in neutral grays and browns. Dot waited for them all to quiet down and give her their attention. This was just the first step, the first of many she deserved. She smiled at the assemblage. They looked like a decent bunch.
“Comrade Huff was taken into custody last night. He got careless, and carelessness will not be tolerated.” With Huff out of the way, she could move up, both at Federal and in her other ‘job’. “Our mission here is too important.”
Edd Vick and Manny Frishberg both have sold stories, separately and together. Their latest, “Ashfall”, is due to be published this summer by Analog.