On the third Thursday of every month, Contempora held a luncheon meeting, with dry martinis before and a male guest speaker after, in the upstairs dining room at Musetta's.
Around that luncheon table one might find Henrietta Wickliffe, who owned a Fifth Avenue beauty salon; Terry Cayle, playbroker, currently collecting ten per cent from three Broadway hits; Jane Tennant, news-paper columnist; Eda Prince, stylist for the country's leading silk manufacturer; Rhoda Arnheim, chief of social service at a large public hospital; Beth Stiles, editor of a national magazine; Laverne Sullivan, psychologist at the Women's Prison; Mary Carner, detective at Blankfort's Fifth Avenue department store, and Phyllis Knight, attorney-at-law, who was president of the group.
Contempora was a career women's club. Business women, editors, writers, social workers, doctors, lawyers. Glamour girls of the higher earning brackets. Important young women. Smart. That last adjective referred as much to attire as to mentality.
The "girls" dressed for their jobs as deliberately as actresses making up for a role. To be a type, to look a part. Mary Carner's costume was a case in point.
Mary looked like year before last's debutante, last June's bride, this year's young matron. Prospective shoplifters, hesitating before a haul, never guessed that the pretty, well-groomed young woman in the oxford gray suit and kolinsky scarf, standing beside them at the counter, was far more interested in the behavior of their nimble fingers than in the quality of the step-ins, marked down from five-ninety-eight to three and a half. They - poor, mis-led thieves - took her at dress and face value. It was one of the secrets of her success as a minion of law and order.
Style, chic - whatever the season's pet fashion phrase might be - the "girls" of Contempora possessed it. For them, Schiaparelli had invented her weirdest hats; Chanel and Worth brewed their most sophisticated perfumes. Their finger nails seemed fresh from the abattoir. Toward the end of a day, they were grubby around the cuticle.
They is, of course, a generalization. Rugged individualists among them - Phyllis Knight, for example - clung, while the tempests raged in the hairdressing salons, to long, blonde braids, wound coronet-wise around her head, and scorned the rouge pot. But that made Phyllis a type, too, as definite as Eda Prince in her slinky black dress and three strand, gilt choker necklace.
Wise girls. Clothes wise. World wise.
When one looked closely, fatigue was plain in their eyes, in the hard line, circling the rouged lips that moved glibly in bright patter, that drooped in tired parenthesis when they believed themselves unnoticed; in the parchment lifelessness of the skin under their makeup.
Tired women, driving themselves too hard toward fame and fortune. All of them smoked at least a pack a day.
They lived - omitting the few who resided under a parental roof with an aging mother or father - in modern, two and a half room housekeeping apartments and spoke with wistful pride of their domesticity. They entertained at intimate little dinners and Sunday night suppers. The food was sent up from the restaurant on the street floor of the apartment house.
They had well-stocked liquor closets, mixed drinks with a bartender's expert hand, but rarely took more than two in an evening themselves. A minute on the palate, a lifetime on the hips.
On Mother's Day and Christmas, they telegraphed flowers to maple-shaded towns in Ohio and Kansas. Their favorite magazine was Esquire.
Few of them wore wedding rings, not even those who had had a husband or two. No prejudice against matrimony, of course. Simply that it was bad business to flaunt the marital state. Nor had those who still wrote themselves down as "spinster" taken vows of celibacy. Men were amusing. One dined, danced, went to theatre, sat at bars, golfed, motored with them, all with a brittle gayety that had its overtones of hopefulness that this male would turn out to be the someone special. The man who was big enough to share a household with a wife who had a career, or make her forget she had ever wanted one.
When the "girls" talked about themselves, it was in a vein of persiflage, as though they thought it fantastic that they had gone so far and achieved so much. Amusing! That was their word. Work was amusing. Life was amusing. People, events. Amusing. A wisecrack hid a multitude of yearnings.
It was amusing, for example, to invite a male to address the luncheon meetings of Contempora, to offer advice, to treat the "girls" as helpless little women.
The guest speaker for the luncheon of the third Thursday of October was a visiting Englishman, an author, currently the darling of sophisticates on both sides of the Atlantic. A rosy cheeked young man with a negligible nose and chin and curly, golden hair, the solitary male fidgeted like a worm on hot ashes between Henrietta Wickliffe and a vacant chair.
The vacant chair waited for Phyllis Knight.
Phyllis was late and so luncheon was late that afternoon. Waiters puttered around the tables, refilling water glasses, straightening cutlery. The "girls" smoked, chattered, looked pointedly at their wrist and lapel watches.
At half past one, Terry Cayle said: "This can't go on. I've got a date at three. Let's begin without Phyllis."
Laverne Sullivan added: "I shouldn't have come at all today. Twenty new girls to be I.Q.'d. It looks like a busy season for us."
"My busy season, too," Mary Carner echoed. "First cool weather this year. Store's jammed today. Chris'll be tearing his hair if I'm late."
Henrietta Wickliffe frowned. "Phyllis should have telephoned," she said. "She should have let us know she'd be late. It's discourteous to our guest. I'm sure he's impatient too."
The guest shook his blonde head gallantly. "In this company? Not impatient, really. But - shall I be frank?" He patted his upper abdomen, smiled ruefully. "Somewhat empty."
Miss Wickliffe blushed like an adolescent. "Oh dear," she tittered. "We can't let the poor man starve." She thrust back her chair. "Girls. Attention, please. Is it the consensus of opinion that we begin without Phyllis?"
"Let's. . . . Come on."
Miss Wickliffe nodded to the head-waiter. He crooked his finger. Trays of crab meat cocktail scuttled through the swinging doors.
While the salad was being served, some twenty minutes later, Mary Carner said to Laverne Sullivan: "I can't understand it. Phyllis doesn't do this."
Laverne answered: "She's probably been detained at a conference. Or traffic. It's nothing less than a miracle to keep appointments in New York."
"Not to Phyllis." Mary shook her head decisively. "They set the Grand Central clock by her."
"Don't worry about her. She'll be along."
But, over demi-tasse, Mary said: "I am worried about Phyllis."
"Don't. Phyllis must have a good reason. And we're getting along all right without her."
"Henrietta is. She has the Englishman. No little Phyllis to compete with." She glanced at the head of the table and smiled.
Miss Wickliffe's color was high. Her eyes and teeth sparkled. She chattered ceaselessly while the young man pulled at his neck-tie, and fidgeted toward the vacant chair on his left.
Laverne Sullivan stared at the empty chair. Unexpectedly, irrelevantly, she asked: "Do you think Phyllis is attractive?"
Miss Carner puckered her small, pert nose. "In a way. She's petite and she's blonde. And her hair's gorgeous. And she has those china doll blue eyes. If her mother had taken her to a dentist and had her front teeth straightened when she was little, she'd have been very nice-looking."
"Didn't you know? Phyllis never had a mother."
"No? Test tube baby in reverse?"
Laverne Sullivan laughed. The prison psychologist exhibited deep dimples when she laughed. More than one jail inmate, getting her psychological at Miss Sullivan's desk, had come right out with it. "Say, beautiful, if you're not doing all right at this racket, you're a sap to work at it with your looks. Let me put you wise."
"Phyllis' mother died when Phyllis was born," Laverne explained. "Her father brought her up. A dreadful parent. He seems to have blamed her for her mother's death. And held it against her, too, that she was a girl. Wanted a son to carry on his name and lineage. . . . I shouldn't be talking about Phyllis like this. She hates to be discussed."
"I know. Phyllis is close-mouthed. We've all known her for years, but I don't think she's ever been really intimate with any of us."
"She isn't used to confidantes. I'm probably the only one whom she has told anything at all about herself. Poor Phyllis spent her childhood in a gloomy old house on Washington Square, with no one for company but a housekeeper, hired by her mother when she was a bride. Old family retainer. Phyllis had governesses and private tutors. No schools. No contact with the outside world. Just the house with the same rugs and chairs Lyman Knight's bride put into it before McKinley was shot. It's amazing that that girl had spirit enough to go through college and law school. Shows you how tough the human ego can be. Other girls might have run away from home, and taken the path that leads to one of our little cells."
"She never abandoned her father or turned against him?"
Laverne shook her head. "She has an amazing loyalty. But poor old Lyman Knight, I gather, hates her more than ever since she's become a successful lawyer. I had dinner at her house one night last spring. I'll never forget it. That cadaverous old man sat at the table, scarcely touching his food, staring at Phyllis with venomous eyes. Mary, there was murder in those eyes. I'm not susceptible to glares as a rule. But he terrified me. Have you ever seen him? You should. He's something to see. All bones and mustache. And the housekeeper! A ferocious female. But very tender with him. Fussed around him, coaxed him to eat, as if he were a child. After dinner, he slithered upstairs without an excuse-me. We could hear him moving around in his room over the parlor, making strange noises, that (honestly, I'm not making this up) were exactly like the dragging and clanking of chains. I talked to Phyllis about it. I even warned her. But Phyllis laughed. 'Oh, don't be silly, Laverne,' she said. 'You're taking father too seriously. He hates the world. Not me in particular. Everything and everybody. He's old and infantile. He was much older than my mother, and very much in love with her. When mother died, father's world fell to pieces. He never had the spirit to go out and make a new world for himself. He takes his unhappiness out in helpless rage. He's more to be pitied than feared.' She laughed it off, Mary, but she did look worried. I pleaded with her. I said he might become dangerous if something upset him. 'Oh no,' she answered. 'He'll never hurt anyone. Generations of gentility. Too far removed from the elemental passions. The blood runs thin. Gentlemen never hurt anyone. They merely curdle.' Did you ever hear such nonsense?"
"Never," Mary agreed. "But that's Phyllis. Stubborn as a mule. And utterly without fear."
Laverne Sullivan said: "That's wrong, too. It's not normal to be without fear. Nor sensible. Mary, what was the illness she had in September, did you know?"
"Influenza. A bad case. She went to the hospital. And then to Ashville for convalescence."
Miss Sullivan seemed relieved. "I was afraid it was a nervous breakdown."
"No. Just old-fashioned flu. She was run down. She works too hard. She's been back from Ashville a week and working like a dog again. I talked with her on the phone Monday. Tried to make a date. But she was busy. Work had piled up while she was ill. She said she wanted to see me. Had something important to tell me. She sounded well and happy, particularly when she said she'd something important."
"A man, do you think?"
"Might be. She's always had that nice collar man from Troy. P'raps she's decided to marry him."
"I wish she would. And get out of that gloomy house. Settle down with a man who'd take care of her."
Mary Carner shook her head gently. "She couldn't do that. Any more than you or I could. Ordinary domesticity with ordinary males isn't for us."
"Sh." Laverne Sullivan touched her finger tip to her lips. "We are about to be addressed."
"Ladies." Miss Wickliffe tapped the edge of her demi-tasse with a spoon. "Your attention, please. The time has come to share with you the charming young man whose wit it has been - thanks to our president's inexplicable absence - my pleasure to enjoy alone."
The visiting Englishman bowed to Henrietta, inclined his blonde head toward Contempora, jerked his necktie. "Young ladies." His smile was uncertain. "Mesdames. I scarcely know how to address you. You have the freshness, the verve of youth, the maturity of achievement . . ."
"Just call us pal and let it go," Terry Cayle wise-cracked.
The speaker pretended not to hear. He ploughed ahead.
"I have, to be sure, met many of your sort individually, but never, I confess, have I at one time faced such an alarming assemblage of pulchritude and intellectual acumen. I must admit a bit of diffidence at offering you any advice whatever. You ladies know your own minds, possibly a bit too well for your good. But, undoubtedly, you did not invite me here merely for the privilege of gazing at me, or feeding me - as if I were some strange creature out of the Zoo. And I confess I have felt very much that way this afternoon." (Laughter and applause. The speaker pulled his tie again.) "Come, come, young ladies. This is no laughing matter. I am not here to amuse you. I am here to give you sound advice. And may heaven protect me! Here it is: are you ready? Ladies, stop this nonsense at once. Go back to the agreeable pursuits of domesticity which nature has ordained for you." (Pencilled eyebrows rose in interrogatory arcs.)
"Oh, no indeed, I do not intend to speak sanctimoniously about the nobility of wifehood or motherhood. Nor the sacred duty to be handmaidens to the warrior. I refer to another aspect. You girls are simply idiotic. Now, don't fly off. Hear me out. As females, you would have, save for your wretched contrariness, been relieved by nature and custom from the cruel necessity of contending in the marts of commerce. You would have been spared the sordidness of money grubbing. You would have been sheltered from life's ugliness. You would need to know nothing of man's inhumanity to man. Yet, deliberately, you have tossed away your natural good fortune. Ladies, you have gone far out of your way to look for trouble . . ."
"He means you, Mary."
"And you, Laverne."
"All of us. Do you think he's a fool?"
When Mary Carner got back after three o'clock to Blankfort's Fifth Avenue department store, where she was employed, Christopher Whittaker, the parrot-beaked, saturnine chief detective at the store, looked up from his desk and said: "About time."
Miss Carner flashed a conciliatory smile. "Didn't miss me?"
He scowled. "Never do. Men never miss girls like you. Don't even know they're around. Don't know when they're not around."
"I'm just a quiet little mouse?"
"Mouse that imagines itself a ferret. Don't throw that ink-stand, Mary. Put that down, woman. You could hurt someone with a thing like that. All right. All right. I'll admit you're a fair to middling ferret - sometimes - when you take the trouble to come to work."
"That's not fair, Chris. Just because we waited for Phyllis Knight and luncheon was late starting. What's doing?"
"Not much. One of your old friends - green-eyed Gussie, remember her? - dropped in. Fresh out of Westfield Prison. Came right on over to get a new fur coat. Had a Persian Lamb under her sport coat when we caught her. The cool weather'll be reminding the girls they'd like a new fox or a hunk of mink."
Miss Carner nodded, her hand on the door-knob. "Remind me," she said, "to call Phyllis Knight's office later. She didn't show up at the luncheon."
"She's getting smart. I never thought much of those hen parties of yours. Women! Just women!"
"Oh, we had a man. He made a speech. You'd have loved it. Said we go around looking for trouble. Told the girls to stay home and tend to their knitting."
"There's a special on wool and needles in art embroidery today, sweetheart. You do the knitting. I provide the home."
"I'll think it over." Miss Carner waved her hand airily. "Some evening when I've nothing better to do, I'll think about it."
"Do, sweet. Dinner with me, tonight?"
Miss Carner's nod said "Yes."
At half past five, when the bell had rung to warn the customers of closing time, and the clerks were covering the tables with night shrouds of blue denim, Miss Carner stepped into a phone booth and dialed a number in the John exchange.
A man's voice answered.
"Is this Miss Knight's office?" Mary asked.
"Yes." The voice at the other end seemed disappointed.
"Is Miss Knight in?"
"Has she been back this afternoon?"
"Is she at her home?"
There was a ten second pause before the voice answered: "I do not believe so."
"This is her friend. Mary Carner of Blankfort's. We expected her at the Contempora luncheon. She didn't show up. I thought I'd call to see whether she was ill."
"I do not believe Miss Knight is ill."
"Who is this? To whom am I speaking?"
The voice seemed to hesitate again. "Miss Knight's secretary. Ben Struthers," it said finally.
"Oh, Mister Struthers, but you'd surely know if Miss Knight were ill, wouldn't you?"
"If she informed me."
The secretary's taciturnity was trying. "Miss Knight was planning to attend the luncheon, wasn't she?" Mary persisted.
"One moment. . . . Hold the wire, please. I'll consult her calendar. . . . Yes, Miss, she planned to attend the luncheon. It is written in her engagement book."
"Did she notify you of any change in her plans?"
The pause before Struthers answered was longer this time. At last he said: "I have not heard from Miss Knight at all today. I have been waiting at the office to hear from her."
"Have you called her house?"
"I have not called her residence. Miss Knight does not care to be called at home. . . ." Another pause. "She has a rule about that."
"And you follow instructions, always?"
"Miss Knight is the best judge of what she wishes." Mr. Struthers was beginning to show irritation. "I am sorry. I can give no further information." Mr. Struthers' receiver clicked an abrupt ending.
Miss Carner fished another nickel from her bag, dialed a number in the Gramercy exchange. The dial tone hummed half a dozen times before a woman's voice growled: "Yes?"
"Is this Miss Knight's residence?"
"May I speak to Miss Knight?"
"Not in. Good-bye."
"Where is she? Where can I reach her?" Miss Carner's questions rolled futilely along a deaf wire.
At dinner with Christopher Whittaker that evening, Mary said: "Chris, I'm worried about Phyllis. She isn't home. She hasn't been at her office all day."
"Can't the woman have a private life?"
"Of course she can. But it's not like her."
"What isn't - a private life?"
"No. Not that. Failing to keep an appointment. She's one of the most meticulous people I know. The sort of person who works out schedules and keeps them to the dot. She planned to come to the luncheon."
"Maybe she met Robert Taylor and ran off with him."
"Oh silly. If you knew Phyllis. She'd not look twice at any man. Not even Taylor."
"It might be mutual."
"Oh, she's not bad looking. The petite, blonde type you boys like."
"Don't say 'you boys' to me. Got my own ideas. Willowy brunettes in tailored, gray suits."
"I'm not joking, Chris. I didn't like the way her secretary answered. Couldn't get much more than yes or no out of him. And a female who answered the phone at her house was even more secretive."
"Mary." Chris Whittaker's voice was sharp as his chin and nose. "Don't let your imagination run away with you. A friend of yours fails to keep an unimportant date and you build a case. Phyllis Knight is a grown woman, isn't she? She knows her way around, doesn't she? She's free and over twenty-one, isn't she? She doesn't have to give an accounting to anyone, does she, of where she comes and goes? Not to you, at any rate. She can take care of herself. Stick to your knitting . . . Now, what'll you eat? A steak? O.K. Two T-bone. Medium for the lady, rare for me. Get them right on the fire, will you, waiter? What'll you have first - oysters, tomato juice? How about some nice hot soup? Cool night like this? O.K., two puree Mongole. Baked Idahoes with the steak. . . . That's settled"
A tattered urchin, eluding the cashier at the desk near the door, was making his way between the restaurant tables with a sheaf of evening papers under his arm. Chris Whittaker beckoned: "Here boy!", took a paper, gave the boy a nickel, waved the change away. "All yours, sonny." He flipped the paper open, glanced over page one.
Miss Carner said: "Where were you brought up? Didn't anyone ever teach you it's bad manners to read at table?"
"'Scuse please, ma'am." He slipped the paper behind him. "Your friend was beginning to pall. Thought I'd dig up something else to talk about. Takes twenty minutes to do a steak medium. . . Lots of good conversation in that front page. Europe, f'r instance. And Rockey Nardello. Trial started today. Bad break for Europe. Rockey'll steal the front page."
Miss Carner made a little moue of distaste. "International gangsterism in Europe. . . . Small time gangsterism in New York."
"Small time, my eye, lady. Rockey'd bust a blood vessel if he heard that. He's the big shot. Policy. Bookmaking. Alcohol. Vice on the side. Others I never even heard about. I'm a nice boy. If the D.A. doesn't fall down on the Nardello prosecution - and I think he means business - he can take the town apart. A man like Rockey can't operate without protection: police, judges, politicians, big shots way up on the top crust who won't soil their lily hands with blood and dirt - only with gravy."
"Amazing, isn't it." Mary spooned her soup thoughtfully. "How little we know about what goes on under our noses in New York. The sores of evil run deep, but if the surface is smooth . . ."
"Sure, sure," Chris Whittaker assented. "New York's the place where you can have a private life. You can do anything, be anything you please. New Yorkers mind their own business. Police cars, ambulances, fire engines - nobody even turns around for them. We go to the movies for excitement. You can get away with murder in this town."
"You don't believe that, Chris. It isn't true."
"Isn't, eh? Shows how little you know. What's the name of the people next door to you? Don't you say you know. Nobody knows. Why should you be different? Know what they look like? Well, maybe you've seen her taking in the milk, him reaching for the Sunday paper. Maybe you've passed them in the hall, gone down the elevator with them once or twice. Could you give the police an accurate description of them? No, you couldn't. Admit it. Even you, whose business it is to have eyes and ears Well, suppose she slipped him a dose of poison some night - or vice versa - or slit his throat while he was sleeping, left a note for the milkman not to deliver any till further notice (that's a nice touch - my own idea - never forget to stop the milk after a homicide) and skipped town. How long would it be before the crime was discovered? Couple of days, when the corpse smelled to heaven. By that time the murderer'd be - who knows? Boats leave New York harbor every day of the week. And trains and busses. And air-lines."
Miss Carner broke a roll and buttered it. "That's your story and you'll stick to it," she said. "Even if it couldn't happen. There's always something to betray a murder - an outcry, a careless misstep, the workings of conscience."
"You're a big girl, now," Chris answered. "Ain't it time to stop believing in Santa Claus? Here's dinner. Say, this steak's not bad." He chewed in contented silence for a few moments. Then he lifted his head, grinned at Miss Carner. "As I was saying - or wasn't I? - your lady friend might be dead this very minute and nobody be the wiser. That's a pretty thought for the evening. What do you say we go to the movies?"
In spite of Chris Whittaker's admonition to mind her business - or possibly because of it - Mary Carner called the telephone number in the John exchange and the one in the Gramercy exchange at ten on Friday morning and again at five in the afternoon. She called both numbers Saturday morning. She dialed the Gramercy number Saturday afternoon and Sunday morning and on Monday morning she phoned to the John number again. And then she said: "Chris, she isn't at her office. She isn't at her house. At least they say she isn't. And they tell it to me in a way that makes me uneasy."
"Are you your girl friend's keeper? Suppose Miss Knight has gone away somewhere and left orders that nosy people aren't to be told where she is. Suppose you're just being told what she wishes you to be told, no more, no less."
Mary shook her head. "No, the man at the office is worried too. I can tell by his voice. Look, Chris, would you mind very much if I took an earlier lunch hour today? I'd like to run down and talk to him."
Just before noon, Miss Carner climbed out of the subway caverns into the gloomy canyons of lower Manhattan. She blinked at the sunlight that lay like a benediction over the grass and marble oasis of Trinity churchyard. She paused to envy the mid-day idlers, spreading their lunches on the flat gravestones, swinging their heels above dust of the centuries. Then she crossed Broadway, saying to herself how odd it was that that historic churchyard made one think only of peace and ageless beauty. It was the street of the living, rather, the narrow, sunless canyon of Pine Street, which gave one a chill of foreboding. Where there were living people, there was fear, for there was hate.
On the forty-second floor of a tall office building, a door, black lettered "Phyllis Knight, Counsellor-at-Law," let into a reception room, sexless with worn leather upholstered chairs, long oak table on which the daily law journals, and the bulkier magazines of the profession were neatly stacked; carpet of taupe broadloom, stereotyped etchings of non-committal landscapes.
An attractive young receptionist at a desk in the center dog-eared the page of her screen magazine, looked up with a bright "Good-morning."
"Is Miss Knight in?"
"Not at the moment."
"Her secretary, Mister Struthers? He's in, isn't he?"
"I'll see. Who shall I tell him is calling?"
Mary gave her name. The girl wrote it on a slip of paper. "Will you have a seat?"
Miss Carner took the edge of a chair. The receptionist disappeared behind a door in the partition. Mary heard the distant ringing of a telephone, the muffled sound of a masculine voice, answering the phone, then the man's voice and a girl's voice in colloquy. Then the door opened. The receptionist came in and behind her a stocky man with waxen face, yellow-dyed by either fading summer tan or jaundice, a freckled bald head, like a brown egg, and unhappy eyes behind a pince-nez.
"I'm Mister Struthers." The man surveyed Miss Carner. The inspection seemed to reassure him, for he added, almost politely: "Please step inside."
He led the way to a window-less cubicle which held a book-case, a typewriter desk and swivel seat, and a single straight-backed chair. An electric light burned dismally below the ceiling. "This is my private office."
Through an open doorway, Miss Carner could see a spacious, sunny room, a wide desk, easy chairs, corner windows spreading a panorama of water and sky, of undulating hills of Staten Island, of ships ploughing toward the sea. Mr. Struthers followed her gaze, and got up to close the connecting door. "Miss Knight does not care to have her office entered in her absence," he said stiffly. He pulled out the straight-backed chair for Mary Carner. He clasped his hands, put them up on a corner of his desk.
"Now then," he said. "What is it you wish?"
"I? Nothing but to get in touch with Miss Knight."
Struthers smiled wryly. "I share your wish," he said. "You're the person who has been calling up, are you not?"
"I'm Mary Carner, Miss Knight's friend."
"May I ask what makes you so concerned over her absence?"
"I've told you that on the phone. She didn't appear at our luncheon. I knew she had been ill. I thought she might be ill again." She paused, considered what she was about to say, watched his face, as she said: "I'm a detective, Mister Struthers. That's my business." Was it illusion that the man paled and his fingers twitched? "Not police. Department store," she added quickly.
"Oh." He seemed relieved. "What makes you feel," he said, with what seemed to be eagerness, "that there's anything wrong about Miss Knight's absence?"
"A sixth sense, possibly." She smiled to reassure him. "I gathered you were worried too." She fumbled in her bag. "Do you mind if I smoke?"
"Miss Knight doesn't like it. Since her illness, she claims smoke irritates her throat. I've stopped it myself. I like a cigar once in a while. I've given that up, too. She might come in while you're here and she'd be annoyed."
Mary dropped her cigarette case back into her handbag. "You certainly follow instructions," she began. Then she halted, realizing the import of what he had said. "You're expecting Miss Knight back any moment, aren't you?"
"Why, certainly," Ben Struthers answered. "She has work to do. She has a title closing here this afternoon at four. She has to be in court tomorrow at ten. She's given me no instructions to change those appointments."
"When did she make the appointments?"
"Last week. Before she left."
"This is Monday. You've had no word from her since last Wednesday and yet you expect her to keep her appointments?"
"I do. Miss Knight always keeps her appointments."
"She didn't keep them Thursday, or Friday or Saturday, did she?"
"No." Struthers seemed reluctant to make the admission. "It was most troublesome. We - Miss Getch and I - that's Miss Knight's clerk - did the best we could. We put people off. It was very difficult. There's one default judgment - Oh, that'll be a headache, that will. I do wish she'd get back."
"Yet when she left here Wednesday, she gave you no hint that she was changing her plans? No notion of where she was going?"
"Why, certainly." Was that a shadow of a smile on Struthers' face? "She told me where she was going. She said she was going to the movies."
Now that was preposterous! A busy attorney had walked out of her office, announcing she was going to the movies, and had been gone for nearly a week. Was the man joking? No, apparently not. His expression was serious, anxious even.
"What movies?" Mary asked sharply.
"I have no idea."
"Was she alone?"
"I believe so."
"Was she to meet anyone?"
A brief hesitation. "I could not say. Miss Knight does not tell me her personal affairs."
"Have you been in touch with her house? Have you suggested that they notify the authorities to search for her? Have you spoken to her father?"
Distress cut deep lines alongside Mr. Struthers' nose. His words were tangled in a stutter. "I don't know whether you know it, Miss,- Miss Knight wouldn't like me to discuss her family - her housekeeper is a bit difficult."
"I've found that out."
"All I've been able to get out of her is that Miss Knight hasn't been home since she left her residence Wednesday morning. I haven't been able to talk to her father at all."
"Did she leave any writing, any papers, any letters that might indicate her plans? Anything on her desk? In her desk?"
"Miss Knight is very meticulous. She clears up all current matters before she leaves. She never leaves anything on her desk. It's locked. It's always locked. She has the keys with her."
"Could you show me her appointment sheet?"
Struthers stiffened. "Of course not. I would not dream of revealing the details of Miss Knight's business to anyone."
"I hope," said Miss Carner gravely, "you'll not have to reveal them to the police."
Again the pallor, deepening under the ecru skin. But Struthers was silent. Miss Carner picked up her purse. "Then there's nothing we can do but wait."
The furrow creased Struthers' face again. "I trust she will return today," he said. "There's the payroll, her appointments. There are so many things . . ."
The telephone rang at that moment, and the secretary lifted the receiver. . . . "John 8 - Yes, this is Ben Struthers. . . . Yes. . . . Yes, Mister Rorke. . . No, Mister Rorke. . . . Yes, Mister Rorke, I will inform her." He hung the receiver up.
Mary said: "Mister Rorke is anxious, too?"
"He has telephoned every day."
"May I ask who Mister Rorke is?"
"Miss Knight has not informed me. I do not feel free to speculate about her acquaintances."
Miss Carner stood up. "You're very well trained," she said. "To mind Miss Knight's business and your own."
A faint pink colored Struthers' face. "I try to," he said. "I wish Miss Knight to be satisfied. I trust, Miss, I have allayed your curiosity."
"Quite the contrary," Miss Carner answered. "Quite the opposite."
Mr. Struthers shrugged his shoulders wearily. "There's nothing else I can do. Nothing I can say."
Washington Square had shut its windows, turned on its oil burners against the sharp wind, blowing north by west across the Hudson. Busses and motor cars rolled, dark and secretive, past the deserted benches of the park, past pedestrians, scurrying like the autumn leaves, blown by the wind; past solitary dogwalkers, shivering at the curbs.
Lamp light glowed behind the diaphanous window curtains of the Square. In the high, gracious rooms of sedate brick houses, chairs were drawn up before open fires. Their hospitable warmth seemed to pass through their curtained windows, and hurrying by them, Mary Carner opened a button of her topcoat. Then, she caught herself buttoning it again and unbuttoning it and she said to herself: "I'm nervous. Why am I so nervous? What's to be afraid of? I'm merely going to Phyllis' house. This is New York. It's eight o'clock. There's nothing to be afraid of. Nothing can happen to you on a New York street at eight o'clock."
A young man, with a wire-haired terrier on leash, cut in front of her, toward a fire hydrant. A taxi drew up at a curb and a couple in evening attire came out, entered a house. Two men in tweeds, arguing, with widely gesticulating arms, jostled her. "I'm not alone. This is a thoroughfare. I'm safe as a babe in its mother's arms. What makes me nervous?"
The residence of Lyman Knight and his daughter Phyllis was on the south side of the Square. Three stories high, of mellow red brick, with beautiful Grecian columns framing its doorway, leaded window panes, and a fence and gate of graceful wrought iron, it was part of that row of magnificent private dwellings which are the pride and joy of modern New York, the tangible reminder of the graciousness of the city's earlier way of life.
Steep stone steps led to the front door. A grilled gate was shut over the basement entrance. The facade seemed wholly dark. But as Mary looked closely at it, she fancied she saw pin points of light through the shades drawn over the front basement windows and two windows on the second floor.
She looked quickly up and down the street. Around the rim of the park, the lights in apartment buildings and offices were an exquisite frieze. The man and dog had disappeared; the arguing pair were down near the corner. A tall man, whose contours seemed vaguely familiar, was strolling leisurely at the far end of the block. The man ducked into a basement areaway, half a dozen houses down, and passed from Mary's speculations.
Mary mounted the steps, ran her hand over the black moulding of the entry, hunting a bell. She struck a match.
Behind the curtained glass of the front door, something seemed to move - the outline of a head, jumping back, and two white eyeballs, illumined by the match flare. She thought she heard the tick of footsteps, running up the stairs. She flattened her nose against the glass, peered into the darkness. She saw nothing, heard nothing.
She pressed the bell, listened to its remote, imperious buzz. Then silence. She found the bell again, held her finger against it. Someone was at home. There was no doubt of that. From the top of the steps she could see plainly that there was light behind the basement shades. She tapped her toe impatiently.
Suddenly, a light clicked on in the hall and the door opened. A towering, square-jawed woman, dressed in long-sleeved, black servants' poplin, peered out. Mary Carner set her foot in the opening, her hand on the knob. "Is Miss Knight in?" she asked pleasantly.
"No." The single syllable was a bark.
"I'm so sorry. I had to see her tonight."
"She isn't home."
"I realize that now. Can you tell me when she'll be in? You see," she coaxed, "I've been trying for several days to reach her."
"Call her office. You're a client, ain't you?" The slight inflection of curiosity was encouraging.
"I'm a friend. A very good friend. Is her father at home? May I see him?"
The woman looked quickly over her shoulder. "I dunno," she said.
Mary followed her glance. There was movement in the shadows at the head of the staircase.
"Please see whether he's in. It's very important. I must speak to him."
"Wait a minute." The servant lifted Mary Carner's fingers from the door-knob, brushed them with a movement that was like a slap across the knuckles, nudged the detective's knee out of the doorway, closed the door, locked it.
Through the curtained glass, Mary saw her back mounting the staircase. She leaned against the door, trying to see inside, to hear. Behind her, motors honked, tires slithered, heels clicked on the pavement. Within the old house was the dark silence of a tomb.
Then she saw the woman coming back down the steps, stopping in the middle of the staircase, waving her arm. It was the sort of admonitory gesture a parent makes to a refractory child. The door was opened - just a crack this time.
"He's gone to bed. Mister Knight's fast asleep. Go away."
The door slammed. The light in the hall went off.
The wind whipped Miss Carner's skirts. She buttoned her topcoat, dug her hands into her pockets.
As she walked slowly down the street, a man slouched out of an areaway and swung into step beside her.
"Oh, Chris. It was you."
"Sure it was me."
"Why did you follow me?"
"Personal reasons. Have a nice visit?"
"Don't be nasty. I didn't get in."
"Oh it is, is it?" Temper flared. "You think it's fun to be given the bum's rush?"
He linked his arm in hers. "Not fun, but safer. You don't know what's good for you. Sweetheart, has it occurred to you that these people don't want you sticking your nose into their business? They're making that perfectly clear. Lyman Knight doesn't want you to look for his daughter. He's not worried about her. Nobody is but you."