My goodness, but things move fast in Los Angeles. I’d barely begun to think about
purchasing my sister and brother-in-law’s lovely home on Bunker Hill—the name of
which my parents deplored because it had been borrowed from a revered eastern landmark—when
the deed was done!
Oh, very well . . . things didn’t happen quite that quickly, but almost. Chloe, my
sister, and Harvey Nash, her husband, had intended to build their own home, probably
in Beverly Hills, in anticipation of a family to come, the first infant member of
which was already on its way to being born. Then Velma Blackwood and Stanley Hastings,
two huge names in the motion-picture business, divorced. Their gigantic home in Beverly
Hills, complete with swimming pool, acres of gorgeous gardens and huge iron privacy
fences, went on the market. Harvey said the deal was too good to pass up, and Chloe
liked anything that didn’t require her to work very hard—Chloe had been suffering
from morning sickness for a couple of months by that time—and voila! I owned a house.
I already lived in the house at this time, Chloe having kindly offered me a haven
from our parents when I dared leave the nest, which was in Boston and a good two
thousand happy miles away. It was thus that I ended up buying the Nash home, which
was not but a couple of blocks away from Angels Flight, the almost vertical funicular
railroad running the steep block from Olive to Hill that I took to work every day.
I loved that railroad. I loved my job. I’d had to endure gobs of pressure from my
parents and assorted other relations to get it, what’s more. You see, I was born
and bred in the upper echelons of Boston society, and the women in the Allcutt clan
did not work for their bread. It was baked for them by cooks and served to them by
various maids, butlers and house boys. In leaving home and securing employment clear
across the country, I had bucked entire centuries of proper Allcutt heritage. Phooey
on heritage, say I.
What I wanted was experience of the real world, and there wasn’t much of that to
be had in my parents’ Beacon Hill estate in Boston. But I was getting plenty of valuable
experience as secretarial assistant to Ernest Templeton, P.I. By the way, P.I stands
for Private Investigator. I only mention it because I didn’t know that until Ernie
I didn’t even have to go to an agent or an attorney to purchase the Nash place. Harvey
sent his own personal representatives to me at the Bunker Hill house, so I was able
to secure the property with ease and in comfort. I’ll admit it here, but I’d never
tell Ernie, that having scads of money does make one’s life easier. That didn’t mean
I took grievous advantage of the legacy my great-aunt Agatha left me; I only used
her money for emergencies, and it didn’t look as if it would be running out any time
soon, since the principal was invested in secure bonds and so forth. That’s what
my odious brother George had told me, his nose wrinkling the while. Both George and
my father are bankers. Banking is a fine profession for them, but I had tired of
my ivory tower in Boston eons earlier. Therefore, I’d made my way to Los Angeles,
where I was jolly well enjoying myself.
No one in the Allcutt family except Chloe and me approved of people enjoying themselves.
The women in my family are supposed to take tea with friends, shop, go to the theater
occasionally, do “good works” at their assorted churches and deplore everything else.
Our church was Episcopalian. I think being an Episcopalian is de rigueur in Boston
for some reason. My mother almost suffered a spasm when she learned I’d gone to services
at the Angelica Gospel Hall a month or so ago and enjoyed a rip-roaring sermon delivered
by the charismatic Adelaide Burkhart Emmanuel.
Anyhow, now that I owned the property on Bunker Hill, my next plan was to rent out
rooms. In truth the house had suites of rooms, any of which would serve as a wonderful
apartment for a woman like me, a working woman. My first tenant would be Lulu LaBelle,
receptionist at the Figueroa Building, where I worked for Ernie on the third floor.
Lulu was also a good friend to me.
On this, the third Monday in September, I’d come to work in a sunny mood. Chloe and
Harvey had sent in a swarm of people to pack and move them and their belongings to
their newly acquired mansion in Beverly Hills, and I’d spent a good deal of time
and a very little bit of Great-Aunt Agatha’s money in furnishing the former Nash
residence. Chloe and Harvey left most of their furniture, Harvey claiming that it
would be easier to buy new stuff than move the old. See what I mean about money?
I only had to make a few purchases to round out my household furnishings.
Because I’d planned the acquisition of my home and what I aimed to do with it carefully,
I’d already hired Mr. and Mrs. Emerald Buck to be my housekeeper/cook (Mrs. Buck)
and caretaker (Mr. Buck). Mr. Buck was the custodian at the Figueroa Building, but
he said he didn’t mind keeping things running in my home as well as doing his regular
job. The man was a positive well of energy. I also provided them with their own apartment,
which sweetened the deal for them.
But that’s not the point. The point was that I was in a very good mood when Ernie
Templeton strolled into the office about nine-thirty on that hot Monday morning.
According to Chloe, September is always hot in Los Angeles, although in Boston it’s
generally beginning to cool off a bit by that time. However, for my independence
from my overbearing mother, I could endure months of hot weather. Already had, if
it came to that.
“Good morning, Ernie,” said I, beaming at him with genuine pleasure. I liked Ernie.
He was a trifle slovenly and definitely not cut of the same upright cloth of my social
“equals” in Boston, but that only made him more appealing to me. He was a good, honest
man—a shade too honest sometimes—and, therefore, I liked him.
He frowned at me. This was his habitual greeting, so I didn’t take umbrage. “What
the devil are you so happy about?”
“It’s Monday, I love my job, and I now have a home of my very own.”
He grunted. “Oh, yeah. You bought Chloe’s house, didn’t you?”
“Indeed I did. Now I intend to stock it with girls like me who hold jobs in the neighborhood.”
“Huh. Must be nice to have money.”
He was always saying things like that. As a matter of fact, he’d pegged me as a rich
girl the moment he saw me. I’d chalked up his astute perception to long years in
his profession. He was good at this detectival business. Before he became a P.I.,
he’d belonged to the Los Angeles Police Department, but he couldn’t stand the corruption
therein and had quit. I was almost accustomed to his snide references to my upper-crust
roots by then.
Ergo, I only said, “Yes, it is.”
With a characteristic roll of his deep brown eyes, he moved toward his office door.
I, you see, sat in the outer office, where I had my own desk, my own telephone, and
a good deal more of my own property, which I’d bought here and there to spiff the
place up some. The office—nay; the entire building—had been a run-down, dirty mess
when I’d first begun working for Ernie in July. Some of the run-downedness had been
the result of an inefficient, not to mention mentally disturbed, custodian, but that
problem had been fixed by the hiring of Mr. Buck, who kept the place shiny and clean.
Figuring that was it as far as morning greetings that day would go, I went back to
my work. Well . . .
To tell the truth, there wasn’t much work to do in that office at the time. Ernie
and I—I, mind you—had solved a terrible murder the preceding month, but business
had been rather slow since then. A couple of wives wanting Ernie to spy on their
husbands; a couple of husbands wanting Ernie to spy on their wives. That was it.
The business side of a private investigator’s life can be, all things considered,
a bit on the sordid side in between murder cases and so forth. I’d never tell my
mother that. Actually, I didn’t have to. She told me how sordid it was every time
she wrote me a letter.
That morning, however, before Ernie shoved his office door open, entered, flung his
hat and coat at the rack set there to receive them—he often missed, but that’s neither
here nor there—and plunked himself in his swivel chair to read the Los Angeles Times,
he hesitated. Then he stopped. Then he turned around and spoke to me again.
“Who are you going to rent rooms to?”
“Lulu, of course. But I suppose I’ll have to place an advertisement in the Times
in order to find other working girls who need a place of refuge from the rigors of
Los Angeles life.”
“Huh. You’re going to get yourself into trouble, Mercy. You know that, don’t you?”
Ernie and I’d had similar conversations earlier in our association. He considered
me too innocent for words. I agreed with him, which had been the whole point of my
moving west and getting a job. I wanted experience of the real world in order to
write the novels I had within me begging to get out. Gritty stuff. You know what
I mean. How can a girl write gritty stuff when she has no understanding of grit?
The answer to that question is: she can’t.
“I will not,” I said hotly. “You think I’m an idiot, don’t you, Ernie Templeton?”
He heaved a deep sigh. “No, I don’t think you’re an idiot. I think you have no experience,
and that you’ll find yourself in trouble because of it. How do you plan to select
these so-called working girls of yours?”
“Well . . . um, actually, I haven’t given that much thought yet.” Golly, I hated
“Figures.” Ernie slouched over to me and took the chair beside my desk. “Tell you
what, Mercy. You place your ad in the Times, and when people begin responding, I’ll
sit in on the first interview to show you how it’s done.”
“Interview?” I think I blinked blankly at him.
Another eye-roll. “How the heck else do you expect to choose which people will grace
your grand home? You’re not going to let in any old Tom, Dick or Harry, are you?”
“Heavens, no! I’ll allow no men at all above the first floor.”
He covered his face with his hands for a second and his shoulders shook slightly.
I think he was laughing at me, and I resented it. “Good God, Mercy,” he said in a
voice that hinted of amusement and exasperation. “I’m not talking about you allowing
men in your house. I’m talking about finding suitable tenants. You can’t just let
in anybody, you know, or you’ll end up with a house full of riffraff.”
Deciding it wouldn’t behoove me to chastise Ernie for his amusement at my expense,
I said stiffly, “Very well. I shall interview the women desiring accommodations.”
“Do you know how to interview anyone?” he asked, his tone laced with doubt.
I bridled instantly. “I certainly can’t do any worse than you did when you interviewed
He grinned. He would. “Yeah, that was something, wasn’t it? I knew you’d do the minute
I saw you.”
I sniffed significantly. “There. You see?”
“But you don’t have my experience.”
“I’ve learned a lot—”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. You fancy yourself a real detective by this time. But
you’re not. Tell you what. You show me the ad before you take it to the Times. I
want to make sure you word it properly. Then, as I said, I’ll sit in on the first
interview with you. In fact, I’ll conduct your first interview. Show you how to go
about it. Then you’ll know what questions to ask of these working girls of yours.”
“You’d better take my offer, Mercy, or you’re liable to end up in the soup.”
Boy, I hated to admit it, but he might well be right. My judgment concerning people
hadn’t always been the best of late, although I chalk that up merely to having been
reared in the confines of the aforementioned ivory tower. I was learning and learning
fast. Therefore, rather than refuse Ernie’s offer and perhaps make a huge mistake,
I said graciously, “Very well. Thank you for your kind offer.”
“You’re welcome.” And he rose and slumped to his office. Shortly thereafter I heard
his hat hit the floor, Ernie’s soft ensuing “Damn,” and the workday began.
About the only interesting thing that happened during the rest of the day was that
I composed what I considered a nice ad to run in the Times:
Rooms to let to employed, single young ladies. Telephone Miss Allcutt at HOllywood
As much as I didn’t want to, I showed the ad to Ernie before I took it to the Times
to place it. I had to admit he was correct in that he was the one with the experience
in that office.
“You’re giving them your home telephone number?” he asked, squinting at me.
As I sat in the chair across from his desk, I’d been wringing my hands in anticipation
of what I expected from Ernie, which was criticism. It looked as if I wasn’t going
to be disappointed in that expectation. “Well . . . yes. If I’m at work, Mrs. Buck
will answer the telephone. Why? Don’t you think it’s a good idea?”
“I think the idea stinks. I also think you shouldn’t say, ‘Telephone Miss Allcutt.’
Hell, Mercy, that’s announcing to the world that you’re a single woman alone in the
I goggled at him for a moment, confused. “I don’t see how it announces anything of
the sort. It’s only my name.”
“Just leave out the ‘Miss Allcutt’ business altogether, all right? It’s safer that
way. You don’t want any madmen showing up at your door looking for single women,
do you?” He tapped the side of his head. “Think about it, Mercy.”
I thought about it. Again, I regretted the conclusion I came to, which was that Ernie
was, as usual, right. I sighed. “But what should I say then?” I was losing a good
deal of my confidence along with some of my happy mood.
“Just give the telephone exchange. Don’t mention your name, and definitely don’t
let on that you’re a young, unmarried woman living alone in that huge house.”
“I’m not living alone!” I cried, because it was the truth, and because his words
stung. Darn it, you’d think I hadn’t learned a single, solitary thing about life
on the mean streets of Los Angeles in the months I’d lived here, and that wasn’t
accurate. “The Bucks have already taken up accommodations in the suite of rooms off
the kitchen. And I’m not stupid, either, Ernie Templeton! You’re acting as if I don’t
have a lick of common sense.”
Ernie sucked in about a gallon of air. His voice, when he used it again, was measured.
“I didn’t mean to imply that you have no common sense, Mercy, and I know you’re not
stupid. You’re . . . still a trifle innocent of the world, is all.”
“What I propose,” he said, in the same measured tone, “is that you leave out a name,
any name. Just have the Times print the telephone exchange, only make it the one
here at the office. That way, nobody you don’t want hanging around will know your
home telephone number, and if an undesirable person does happen to show up, it’ll
be here, where there will be lots of people in lots of offices—primarily me—to hear
you holler for help or kick the rotter out. Doesn’t that make good sense?”
He didn’t sound sarcastic as he asked the last question, so I didn’t get mad at him.
Rather, I said, “But wouldn’t you mind having my prospective tenants calling here
at the office?”
He shrugged. “Hell, why not? Nobody else ever calls.”
He had a point there, unfortunately. “Well . . .”
“It’s fine, Mercy. I’ll be happy to hear the telephone ringing. Anyhow, when it comes
to interviewing tenants, this will be a good place to do it. That way, I won’t have
to go out of my way and neither will you. It’ll be neutral territory. Besides which,
if anyone really unsavory shows up, he or she won’t know where you live.”
Darn it, he had yet another good point there. “All right,” I said, feeling humble.
“Thank you, Ernie.”
“You’ve already enlisted Lulu and the Bucks, right?”
“Yes,” I said frigidly. “Lulu will be moving in over the coming weekend. And I consider
both Lulu and the Bucks a very good start in what I believe will be a noble enterprise.
Why should young women who have to work for a living be any different from young
men who have to secure employment?” My feminist sensibilities were another thing
my parents deplored. Sometimes I wondered what they’d have to deplore if I weren’t
“No reason I can think of,” Ernie said with casual indifference, curse him. “Mrs.
Buck is going to feed the herd of nubile young ladies?”
Frowning, I said, “I wouldn’t put it that way. But yes. I aim to set up a sort of
boarding house. Lulu’s told me there are a lot of those in Los Angeles. They give
young women a safe refuge away from work and healthy meals. For the proper recompense,
Approximately three weeks earlier than this particular Monday morning, Ernie had
sat me down and explained to me the appropriate rent I should expect to get from
my prospective tenants. I’d been going to give Lulu a big break in the rent, but
he’d pointed out to me that if I did that, Lulu would have felt she owed me something
and ended up resenting me. That notion hadn’t once occurred to me, but after thinking
about it I realized he was correct. In other words, he’d been a big help to me then,
but his attitude now niggled at me.
“Darn you, Ernie, I’m learning! Quit disparaging me, will you? It was I, don’t forget,
who saved you from a murder charge not long ago!”
“How could I ever forget?” He rubbed his behind, which had been badly bruised in
the incident mentioned.
“Ernest Templeton, if you aren’t the most—”
He held up a hand, stopping me in mid-rant. “You’re right. I appreciate you helping
with that case.”
“Helping?” I arched my eyebrows at him.
“All right. I appreciate you saving my neck.”
“That’s better.” I sniffed again. This was becoming a bad habit of mine when in Ernie’s
company, and I resolved to stop doing it.
“Even though you almost got yourself killed in the process.”
“That wasn’t my fault!” I cried, stung.
He shrugged, a gesture as characteristic of him as my sniff was of me. “And I’m not
disparaging you. I’m only trying to get you to see that you need . . . that is to
say, you might benefit from a little help from a man who’s been loose in the big,
bad world for many years now. Until you moved out here to live with Chloe and Harvey,
you’d never seen hide or hair of the seamier side of life. Admit it, Mercy.”
“I admit it readily,” I said smartly. “Which is why I showed you my ad before I went
to the Times to place it. However, I won’t be ridiculed.”
“I’m not ridiculing you,” Ernie said, sounding world-weary and as if he thought I
were sorely abusing him. Nuts. “I only want to assist you. Detecting is my business,
after all. Has been for years and years. I’m good at it. I expect I’ll be able to
spot a . . .” He paused, pursing his lips as if searching for the right word. He
settled on objectionable. “I expect I’ll be able to spot an objectionable tenant
a little better than you can. Because of my experience with the criminal element.”
“Heavens! You don’t really think criminals will answer my ad, do you?” that particular
possibility had not occurred to me, thereby, I regret to say, justifying Ernie’s
doubts about my interviewing abilities. Darn it. “I mean, I certainly don’t want
any of . . . those types of women renting rooms in my house.”
“Exactly my point. So you’ll leave out your name and use the office telephone number,
I thought about it for a moment or two, wishing I could see a flaw in Ernie’s plan.
I couldn’t. “Right,” I said.
And just in time, too, because Ernie’s best friend and, according to Ernie, the only
honest copper in the entire Los Angeles Police Department, shoved open the outer
door at that moment, and I rose to go do my duty as Ernie’s assistant. I mean his
“ ’Lo, Mercy,” said Phil Bigelow, removing his hat like a true gentleman, unlike
some other men I could mention. Phil and I had been on a first-name basis for months
“Good morning, Phil. Ernie’s not busy, so you can walk right in.”
Phil chuckled. “When is he ever busy?”
“Not very often, I fear,” I said ruefully.
“Well, maybe that’s about to change.”
Brightening, I said, “Oh! Do you have a case for him to work on?”
He shook his head at me. “You know I can’t talk about my work with you, Mercy.”
“Phooey. You talk about your work all the time with Ernie. I’m his private secretary,
so I should be in the know, too.”
He gave me a big grin. “Well, I’ll let Ernie tell you about this case then, if he
thinks you can help.”
Oh, great. Phil knew good and well that Ernie never wanted me involved in any of
his cases. Which was silly, considering I’d been of great assistance to him quite
often since I’d come to work for him.
Men. As Chloe sometimes says, there’s no doing anything with them.
Since that was the case, and since it was lunchtime, I said farewell to my aggravating
employer and his almost-equally aggravating best friend and took the stairs down
to the lobby, where I approached Lulu’s reception desk.
“Want to go to the Times office with me, Lulu? I’m placing an advertisement for young
ladies to take rooms in my house.”
Lulu, who looked rather like a pansy that day, in a vivid yellow dress with brown
accessories, and with her lips and fingernails painted a bright, startling red, rose
from her desk as if she’d been shot from a gun. “You betcha!” Then she reached into
her drawer, drew out a mind-bogglingly yellow hat and pinned it to her bottle-blond
curls. Lulu, you see, was aiming to be “discovered” by a motion-picture producer,
who would then make her a star, and she dressed accordingly.
I had my doubts about the way she was going about trying to be “discovered.” I mean,
I should think such an agenda would require a trifle more positive action on a girl’s
part than sitting behind the reception desk at the Figueroa Building on Seventh and
Hill and waiting for a picture producer to stroll in, but what did I know?
According to Ernie, nothing at all.
Upon that lowering thought, Lulu and I left the building and headed to the Times.