If you enjoy pulp fiction of the private investigator type, you’ll like this previously unpublished short story. I have a whole series of Stern Talbot PI novels and novellas. You can check them out at https://stonethreadpublishing.com/mystery-novels/. Enjoy!
The Strange Case of Marlene Stratford
a Stern Talbot PI short story by Harvey Stanbrough
Marlene Stratford was a beauty, with a red head chock full of ideas, blue eyes you could fall into, a smile that would melt cold steel, and a body that would make men cash-in their pensions.
But all of that was theory now. At the moment the hair was doing its best not to stand on end, the eyes were filled with flames, and the smile was more of a gritted-teeth fiasco. Her hands—which two seconds before had been massaging her hips through her gold-sequined dress in what she probably thought was a seductive way and one second before had been clutching her waist—clenched into fists at her sides.
And she uttered a growl, leaned forward a little and came at me the way a winter storm rips its way across a desert landscape, fast and furious and all at once.
I sidestepped her in time all right, but I stopped the message from my brain to my right foot that said I should trip her as she went past. After all, she was a lady.
When she turned around, she was trembling all over, but not with the good kind of passion. “Get out!” she screamed, and she flung one finger in the direction of the door so hard the polish on her nail peeled back.
My hat was already in my hands—it’s the only way to approach a lady in the first place—so I considered the brim with my fingers just to show her I was in no hurry and wouldn’t be bullied by her very impressive 120 pounds. But I never learned to leave well enough to those who find leaving well enough alone important.
Just to toss a little fuel on the fire, I gave her a steady look accompanied by a down payment on a smile. “Was it something I said?”
And as the flames rose again in her eyes, I added, “See you around” and stepped deftly through the door.
Something shattered on the other side, and it didn’t surprise me, though it should have. She hadn’t been standing close enough to anything she could throw.
But then, breakable objects tend to appear in the hands of irate women.
The whole thing started with an innocent enough phone call, which was odd in itself. Men who require my services call me or come in, about fifty-fifty. But women—at least women like Marlene—almost always come in. They like to give me an eyeful of the possible fringe benefit I might reap from helping them out of whatever situation they were in. Not that I put a lot of stock in anything I can’t deposit in a bank account, but they don’t know that and I don’t let them know it right away. Hey, everybody needs a vacation now and then.
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
When that black annoyance of a telephone rang on my desk and Margie yelled-in from the outer office in her Brooklyn accent, “Stern, that’s f’you,” I took my feet down from the desk and caught the tennis ball I’d been bouncing off the opposite wall of my office for the six hundred and fourth time in a row. It had been a slow morning, and I was pretty sure that was a new record, so I took a second to scribble 604 on the corner of my desk blotter as the phone rang for the second time.
Then I opened my top right desk drawer and dropped the ball into the triangle between the half-empty bottle of Early Times and the two shot glasses. Hey, sometimes I have company. An extra pair of black dress socks were rolled up in front of the shot glasses. I keep them there partly to keep the glasses from clinking and partly because I’m paranoid about wet feet.
Then I reached for the phone and picked it up toward the end of the third ring. I didn’t have to fake my calm disinterest. “Stern Talbot, PI.”
“Stern. May I call you Stern? This is Marlene Stratford, and I need your help.” She said that last part as if it might matter to me. Then she said “I’m located at” and gave me an address like it was real—they aren’t always—and like she wasn’t reading it off a script, and then she took a breath. That was followed by, “Could you come right over? Please?”
The voice was sultry and warm and definitely female. So right off the bat, I knew the owner was either a non-looker or was smart enough to know that looks don’t matter to my bottom line. Either of which was why she had called instead of coming in. The voice was also confident and self-assured, as in well-off and possessing the basic skills necessary to write a check.
So I checked the city map in my mind for my location and hers and the connecting roads. Then I forced a smile to give my voice the right tone and said, “Sure. Give me fifteen minutes.” In 1953 in LA it isn’t easy to get from anywhere to anywhere in fifteen minutes, but I liked to sound impressive.
“I’ll be waiting,” she said in that same sultry voice, and with the kind of slight emphasis on “waiting” that gave it wings and made me picture it fluttering off. And that made it sound like I’d regret making her wait at all when I saw her.
I hung up, then got up, grabbed my coat and shrugged it on. Then I took my fedora off the top of the rack and walked out past Margie’s desk. “Don’t wait up, sweetness. If I’m not back in three days, check Mexico.”
She smiled up at me. “I shouldn’t check the wedding announcements?”
Cute kid, that Margie. But I didn’t give her the satisfaction of looking back.
I muttered a dry “Ha-ha,” then put on my hat and went out the door.
The drive took fifteen minutes on the nose. The address, and conveniently, the house itself, was in the Hills, the ones advertised by that big, ugly sign that acts as a siren to the world.
The place was broad, off-white stucco, deep-set windows with decorative black iron grates covering the bottom half, a red Spanish tile roof and a lawn that had been manicured until its cuticles were almost bleeding.
I parked at the curb, made my way up a red terra-cotta tile walkway, and stepped onto the small covered porch, which was also surrounded on two sides by black cast iron. A few chips along the front edge of the stoop showed it was concrete underneath, but it was the same red terra-cotta tiles on top. The door was—something. I don’t know wood. Maybe mahogany or oak or maple or something. It was heavy and carved all over. Drilling a peephole into it would’ve been a sin. And people who live in the Hills don’t commit sins that they let the rest of us know about. Well, unless it’s good for publicity.
I pressed a prominent little brass button to the right side of the door and bells chimed inside. It sounded like maybe the pope was arriving or something. I fought the urge to look behind me.
Then the door swung open and wasn’t even one-fourth filled with the light that was Marlene Stratford. That red hair, those blue eyes, that beaming smile, and that same sultry voice. “Stern Talbot? Welcome.”
The hair, eyes, smile and the light perfume that wafted out late were all part and parcel of the magic that kept me from noticing she had to move her feet in order to glide back to one side like that. She seemed to float back there. The door knob remained in her left hand as her right arm floated up and away to indicate I should come in.
I took my hat off, forced another smile to give me the same right tone I’d used on the phone and said, “Thank you” as if I meant it and wasn’t being either gracious or snide. Then I stepped past her and out came the obligatory, “Nice place you have here.”
But it really wasn’t a bad place, with a spacious living room off to the left, a large eat-in kitchen off to the right, and a hallway leading to parts unknown dead ahead. Too clean for me though, like something had been covered up. Intentions, maybe.
In the living room at least, everything was white. A white leather couch and overstuffed chair, a white leather wingback, and a white Berber carpet with a polar bear rug on top. The rug was positioned to span the space in front of the couch. And on his back the bear bore an ornate blonde (maple?) cocktail table. On matching end tables at either end of the couch were the requisite white ceramic lamps with white shades and even white switch knobs.
While I was moving away and noticing things, the door closed behind me with a hush and Marlene swept past me into the room. Her armless, gold-sequined, floor-length, form-fitting dress glittered in a thousand different directions at once. The two most interesting directions were nicely rounded and mirrored each other.
But I didn’t have time to enjoy the view. I had the distinct feeling she was passing me purposely, not to play the proper hostess but because I’d passed her. She passed me back, so to speak, so stringently that I thought for a moment maybe it was a competition. But I quelled the urge to pass her again. Besides, there was no room left.
She stopped three-quarters of the way into the spacious living room, turned around and clasped her hands in front of her directions as if in prayer.
Ah. So begins the lead-up.
“Can I get you a drink? Coffee? Something stronger?”
I gestured slightly with my hat in an attempt to show I was nervous, which I wasn’t. “No, no thanks. So what’s this all about?”
The hands remained clasped. “Would you care to sit?” She gestured behind her with one hand. “Perhaps here on the couch—” Here she inserted the tiniest pause. “With me?”
“No, I’m fine. Maybe later.” Only a fool doesn’t leave his options open.
And the show began. She moved her hands to her hips. Not to her waist like she was about to insist on something or chastise a wayward child or a husband (but I repeat myself), but palms flat and fingers splayed on the front of her hips, where that endlessly interesting bone protrudes a little to entice men. And she scrunched forward the tiniest bit, maybe a quarter-inch, to indicate her sincere sincerity. “Oh Stern, I just don’t know what to do!”
Ah. The Lost, Helpless and Frightened Little Female opening. Interesting gambit.
I didn’t bite. I didn’t even put on a fake frown. “About what?” Then again, I didn’t overdress it with “pray tell” either.
“My husband, of course! He’s such a beast! Such a brute!” For effect, she put the middle three fingers of one hand to her mouth and caught her breath. When she moved the fingers, she said, “Such a—” and whispered, “a bastard!”
I almost laughed at that one. By all accounts, Harold Stratford was one of the calmest, kindest, most straightforward, straight-laced and defenseless men in Los Angeles. Therefore he deserved what he got when he married Marlene a few years go.
But I didn’t laugh. Despite my original fears as to why she’d called rather than coming into the office, looking at her made my eyes feel better and her perfume really was—enticing, I think is the word most of the ads use.
But I’m not completely without honesty. She wasn’t wearing any bruises anywhere that I could see, and I said so.
“Oh no,” she said, and smirked slightly. “Harold would never strike me.”
Despite the fact that his bank account had. The same rags that filled me in on Harold’s temperament had informed me long ago that Marlene was a notoriously bad actress with dreams of stardom. And everyone in and out of the business knew Harold was a major success as a writer, director and producer.
But he would never “strike” her? Of course not.
Normal people “hit” each other. Poor people and cops “smack each other around.” And either of those might “beat” each other. But only rich people ever get struck.
Then the problem finally poured out, and it was maybe the poorest excuse for hiring a private eye I’d ever heard.
“But he’s closed all our accounts to me. And he’s cancelled all of my accounts. Can you imagine the nerve? Can you imagine my embarrassment? I can’t show my face in any of the finer stores. And I won’t even drive down Rodeo anymore.” She over emphasized the second syllable of Rodeo too.
Ah. So this might not be a payday after all, at least not in the traditional sense.
I figured I might as well drop a hint. “Okay, so as much as I enjoy the present company, what do you have in mind? For me, I mean?” Then, damn my morals, I added, “But let me warn you, it isn’t like I can force the guy to change his mind about his money and how it’s spent or who has access to it.”
She took the hint okay and decided to ignore my warning. So the show continued a little longer.
Her hands went back to her hips and began an easy but intentionally unintentional-looking massage. And the hips themselves might have even undulated a little. Or maybe that was my imagination.
She said, “First let me just say I would never have bared my soul in front of anyone else, Stern. You’re so… well, big and strong and rough and—”
Not born yesterday. I sighed, almost audibly. “How can I help you, Mrs. Stratford?”
She stopped and her hands went to her waist. Ah, the insistent pose. “I want you to kill him.”
And that tore it. I laughed. I felt my own eyebrows arch and my eyes went big and my mouth gaped wide open and I laughed like I haven’t laughed in a long time. Between guffaws, I managed to get out, “You—you want me—to kill him?” Then I was overcome by my own laughter for a bit before I was able to add, “And how—how will you pay me?”
I didn’t point at her, I swear. And I didn’t say “With that?” though judging from her reaction that might’ve been what she extrapolated.
I just had time to say, “I told you. I can’t free up the money for you.”
“But,” she sputtered as her cheeks grew pink and her eyes started to smolder, “I would inherit everything, you fool! I’d pay you out of that!”
“Yeah. You’d pay me with ‘Leave me alone or I’ll tell the cops who killed my loving hubby.” And I cracked up laughing again.
And that’s when the theory of her allure went bad.
That’s when her hair strained for the ceiling and fire leapt into her eyes and her teeth ground against each other and she clenched her fists and came across the room like a banshee straight from a barrow.
But like I said, I sidestepped her and didn’t trip her and she turned around and yelled at me to get out and I asked her if it was something I said and she went all nutso and then I said, “See you around” and got out just before something shattered against the door. Just like I said.
And that’s when I heard the gunshot.
I even ran back to the door and tried it but it must’ve locked behind me.
Best I can figure, Detective, the crazy dame shot herself. Hey, you know me, Del. I wouldn’t risk losing my license, much less going to jail.
Not just to kill some broad who wasted my time.