May 1940, the last days of the Great Depression, and private investigator Benjamin Wade isn’t exactly rolling in the dough. He doesn’t even have a secretary. So he’s in the unenviable position of taking any client that walks in his office.
Elmer Smith, a local farmer, has a problem: all of his chickens are scheduled for slaughter. He’s desperate to save his livelihood. He got a court injunction to slow the process, but time is running out.
Instead of laughing Smith out the door, Wade suppresses his pride to take the case. It seems like a simple, straight-forward paycheck. He zeroes in on a central question: What really happened the night police chased someone through Smith’s farm? Wade isn’t the only one asking that question, but he could be the only one who might die for it.
Do you know how embarrassing it is to be a private eye without a secretary? It means that every potential client sees you sitting in the outer office, typing your own reports and notes, and not in your main office with your feet on the desk, whiling away a hot summer’s day looking at the Houston skyline. It would also have meant that clients such as Elmer Smith and his chicken problems would have been turned away and I never would have learned that a secret society existed here in Houston that had, as its one rule, the obligation to avenge any wrong done to any member, real or imagined.
Why I didn’t just type my reports in my own office, I’ll never know. I think, honestly, I wanted to convey the impression that I did, indeed, have a secretary. I didn’t have one—yet—but I was actively looking for one. I had placed a classified ad in all the local papers and I had been interviewing many of the candidates over a few weeks. I found the decision to be extraordinarily difficult. I wanted the perfect combination of beauty and ability. To date, that type of woman hadn’t walked in my door.
That didn’t stop other types of women from waltzing in and looking for a job. This was May 1940 and the effects of the Depression still permeated the economy. It made me feel a little bad when I had to turn away a few applicants because they were not quite the type I was looking for. If you had put a gun to my head, I’d have admitted that the way a woman looked was pretty important. I’m running a small business and the first thing clients see is the secretary. She needs to be a knockout.
Martha Weber was sitting in the interview chair when Mr. Smith rang the front bell. I’d faced men with guns, but for some reason, that day I didn’t want to face a potential client without a secretary.
“You want to make five bucks?” I said.
Martha looked at me with wariness. “What do I have to do?”
“Pretend to be my secretary.”
She frowned. “So, I have the job?”
“No, but I’d like you to pretend to be my secretary for that potential client out there.”
“Why don’t I have the job?”
I winced. That was an argument best discussed among other men. Only they could understand the importance of an attractive secretary for private-eye business. Martha had the typing skills in spades. But her looks were on the homely side. She looked like she belonged in a school or public library, not at the receptionist/typist for a private investigator firm.
“I have a few other applicants, and I need to give them a chance, you know?”
“I’m a great typist. I can even do some field work, if you need it. Did I tell you I’m pretty good with a gun?” She said the last with a bit more emphasis than was necessary.
The doorbell rang again. Work wasn’t flowing as I would have liked. I was in a dire position of having to take almost everything that came through the door. I desperately didn’t want any potential clients to leave.
I gave her a double take. “Double my offer. Ten dollars.”
Martha looked at me sidelong. “You really got it?”
Sure, I just won’t get any gas for a week. “I’ll get the client to make a down payment.”
“You’d better.” She rose from her chair. “I’ll be right back, Mr. Wade.” She winked at me and sashayed out of my office. Seeing her from behind, I had second thoughts about doing this. What if she blew it?
Through the closed door, I heard soft murmuring then Martha’s shape through the frosted glass door. Didn’t every private eye have doors with frosted glass?
The door cracked and Martha stuck her head in. “Mr. Wade, there are two gentlemen here to see you.”
Two gentlemen? I rarely got pairs of potential clients. “Please send them in…” I paused and my eyes raced across my desk until I found her file. “Miss Weber.”
She narrowed her eyes. I shrugged. I cinched up my tie and sat up straighter in my chair.
The first man who walked in I didn’t recognize. He wore, of all things, denim overalls. The hat he held in his hands looked nicer than his entire wardrobe, his pressed shirt notwithstanding. I pegged him for a farmer and quickly dreaded needing to take any job to pay the rent. I wasn’t up for some sort of cow theft.
The second man, on the other hand, I knew. Burt Haldeman was a lawyer, a shyster if you ask me. He was the kind of man who used his size and bulk to get his way when his words failed him. Half the time, that’s what happened. His tie only reached halfway down his gut. Not flattering, but his looks were enough to land a semi-slob like me in Life magazine.
I stood and came around my desk, extending my hand to the lawyer. “Burt, how you doing? What brings you in my door?”
“Good to see you again, Wade,” Haldeman said. “I see you landed on your feet after that little incident.”
I cleared my throat. “Sure did.” I pivoted and introduced myself to the farmer.
He took my hand, his leathery, hard skin felt like some sort of moving beef jerky. “Elmer Smith.” He was looking around, clearly out of his element.
“Please, gentlemen, have a seat.” I indicated the two chairs opposite my desk. To Martha, I said, “Thank you, Miss Weber. That will be all.” She rubbed her thumb and index finger together in the universal sign of money.
With their backs to her, Haldeman and Smith were unable to see Martha. I smiled and nodded once, then gestured her out.
I sat and leaned my elbows on the desk. “What brings you into my office?”
“Chickens,” Smith said.
I looked to Haldeman for confirmation. He nodded in assent.
“Chickens,” I said. “I can’t say I’ve ever had a case involving chickens.”
“Judging from how long you’ve been doing this little job,” Haldeman said, “I’d have to agree with you. But, nonetheless, we are here on account of chickens.” He reached into his suit and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. He shook one out, put it between his lips, and lit up. “Tell him, Elmer.”
The farmer cleared his throat. I got the impression he wasn’t used to speaking in public. “Well, you see, Mr. Wade, the agriculture man, the health inspector man, wants to condemn all my chickens and kill’em all.”
I waited for additional details. Smith, his mouth a thin line with almost no upper lip, sat there as if he had just spoken a fact, like the color of the sky or the humidity level in town that day. Turning to Haldeman, I raised my eyebrows. “Burt?”
Haldeman smiled. “It’s true. Mr. Smith’s entire brood of chickens has been declared unsanitary by the health inspector. They’re scheduled to be slaughtered in the next few days. I got Judge Briscoe to put a temporary injunction on the slaughter, but we’re running outta time.”
“I’m still not seeing where I come in.”
Smith frowned. “Ain’t it obvious? I need you to investigate that bastard inspector and figure out why he’s trying to kill my livelihood.”