I opened the door marked Bertha Cool—Confidential Investigations —Entrance. Elsie Brand looked up from her shorthand notes, and, without missing a beat on the keyboard, said, "Go on in. She’s waiting." The staccato rhythm of her typing followed me across the office and through the door marked Bertha Cool—Private.
Bertha Cool, profane, massive, belligerent, and bulldog, sat back of her desk, her diamonds flashing in the morning sunlight as she moved her hand over a pile of papers, sorting and rearranging. The thin man in the middle forties seated in the client’s chair looked up at me with anxious, apprehensive eyes.
Bertha Cool said, "You were long enough getting here, Donald."
I said nothing to her, but sized up the client, a slender man with grayish hair, a gray, close-clipped mustache, and a mouth which seemed more decisive than the general anxiety of his appearance would indicate. He wore blue glasses so dark that it was impossible to distinguish the color of his eyes.
Bertha Cool said, "Mr. Smith, this is Donald Lam, the man I told you about. Donald, Mr. Smith."
Smith said, in the voice of a man who has disciplined himself to subordinate general impressions to exact accuracy, "Good morning, Mr. Lam." He didn’t offer to shake hands. He seemed disappointed.
Bertha Cool said, "Now, don’t make any mistakes about Donald. He’s a go-getter. God knows he hasn’t any brawn, but he has brains. He’s a half-pint runt and a good beating raises hell with him, but he knows his way around. Don’t mind my cussing, Mr. Smith."
Smith nodded. I thought the nod was somewhat dubious, but I couldn’t see his eyes.
Bertha Cool said, "Sit down, Donald."
I sat down in the hard, straight-backed wooden chair.
Bertha Cool said to Smith, "Donald can find her if anyone can. He isn’t as young as he looks. He got to be a lawyer, and they kicked him out when he showed a client how to commit a perfectly legal murder. Donald thought he was explaining a technicality in the law, but the Bar Association didn’t like it. They said it was unethical. They also said it wouldn’t work." Bertha Cool paused long enough to chuckle, then went on: "Donald came to work for me, and the first case he had, damned if he didn’t show ’em there was a loophole in the murder law through which a man could drive a horse and buggy. Now they’re trying to amend the law. That’s Donald for you!"
Bertha Cool beamed at me with a synthetic semblance of affection that didn’t mean a thing.
Smith nodded his head.
Bertha Cool said, "In nineteen hundred and eighteen, Donald, a Dr. and Mrs. James C. Lintig lived at 419 Chestnut Street, Oakview. There was a scandal, and Lintig took a powder. We’re not concerned with him. Find Mrs. Lintig."
"Is she still around Oakview?" I asked.
"No one knows."
"How long had they been married when she disappeared?"
Bertha looked at Smith, and Smith shook his head. Bertha Cool kept looking at him, and he said finally, in that precise, academic manner which seemed characteristic of him, "I don’t know."
Bertha Cool said, "Get this, Donald. We don’t want anyone to know about this investigation. Above all, no one is to know who our client is. Take the agency car. Start now. You should get there late tonight."
I looked at Smith and said, "I’ll have to make inquiries," and Smith said, "Certainly."
Bertha said, "Pose as a distant relative."
"How old is she?" I asked.
Smith knitted his brows thoughtfully, and said, "I don’t know exactly. You can find that out when you get there."
Smith said, "No."
I looked across at Bertha Cool. She opened a drawer in her desk, took out a key, unlocked a cash box, and handed me fifty dollars. "Keep expenses down, Donald," she said. "It may be a long chase. We’ll have to make the money go as far as possible."
Smith put his fingertips together, rested his hands on the front of his gray, double-breasted coat, and said, "Exactly."
"Any leads to work on?" I asked.
"What more do you want?" Bertha asked.
"Anything I can get," I said, my eyes on Smith.
He shook his head.
"Know anything about her, whether she had a commercial education, whether she could do any work, who her friends were, whether she had any money, whether she was fat, thin, tall, short, blonde, or brunette?"
Smith said, "No. I can’t help you on any of that."
"What do I do when I locate her?" I asked.
"Notify me," Bertha said.
I pocketed the fifty dollars, scraped back my chair, said, "Pleased to have met you, Mr. Smith," and walked out.
Elsie Brand didn’t bother to look up from her typing as I crossed the outer office.
The agency car was an antiquated heap with tires worn down pretty close to the fabric. It had a leaky radiator, front wheels that developed a bad shimmy at anything above fifty, and so many rattles the engine knocks were almost drowned out. It was a hot day, and I had trouble getting over the mountains. It was hotter in the valley, and my eyes began to feel like hard-boiled eggs. The hot glare from the road cooked them right in their sockets. I couldn’t get hungry enough to make stopping worthwhile, but grabbed a hamburger along the road, ate with one hand, and drove with the other. I made Oakview at ten-thirty that night.
Oakview was in the foothill country, and it was cooler up there, with moisture in the air, and mosquitoes. A river came brawling out of the mountains to snake smoothly past the foothill country around Oakview, and spread out on the plains below.
Oakview was a county seat which had gone to seed. They rolled up the sidewalks at nine o’clock. The buildings were all old. The shade trees which lined the streets were old. The place hadn’t grown fast enough to give the city fathers an excuse to widen the streets and rip out the trees.
The Palace Hotel was open. I got a room and rolled in.
Morning sun streaming through the window wakened me. I shaved, dressed, and got a bird’s-eye view of the town from the hotel window. I saw a courthouse of ancient vintage, got a glimpse of the river through the tops of big shade trees, and looked down on an alley full of old packing-cases and garbage cans.I looked around for a place to eat breakfast, and found a restaurant that looked good on the outside, but smelled of rancid grease on the inside. After breakfast I sat on the steps of the courthouse and waited for nine o’clock.
The county officials came straggling leisurely in. They were mostly old men with placid faces—browsing along the streets, pausing for choice morsels of gossip. They gave me curious stares as they climbed past me up the steps. I was a stranger. They knew it and showed they knew it.
In the county clerk’s office an angular woman of uncertain age stared at me with black, lackluster eyes, listened to my request, and gave me the great register of 1918—a paper-backed volume starting to turn yellow. Its fuzzy-faced type indicated a political plum had been handed to a local newspaper.
Under the L’s, I found: Lintig:—James Collitt, Physician, 419 Chestnut Street, age 33, and Lintig:—Amelia Rosa, Housewife, 419 Chestnut Street. Mrs. Lintig hadn’t given her age.
I asked for the 1919 register and found neither name. I walked out feeling the deputy’s black eyes staring at the back of my neck.
There was one newspaper, the Blade. The lettered sign on the window showed it was a weekly. I went in and tapped on the counter.
The noise made by a typewriter came to a stop, and an auburn-haired girl with brown eyes and white teeth came from behind a partition to ask me what I wanted. I said, "Two things. Your files for 1918, and the name of a good place to eat."
"Have you tried the Elite?" she asked.
"I had breakfast there."
She said, "Oh," and then, after a moment, said, "You might try the Grotto, or the Palace Hotel dining room. You want the files for 1918?"
I didn’t get any more glimpses of her teeth, just two tightly closed lips and opaque brown eyes. She started to say something, changed her mind, and went into a back room. After a while she came out with a board clip filled with newspapers. "Was there something in particular you wanted?" she asked.
I said, "No," and started in with January 1, 1918. I glanced quickly through a couple of issues, and said, "I thought you were a weekly."
"We are now," she said, "but in 1918 we were a daily."
"Why the change?" I asked.
She said, "It was before my time."
I sat down and started poring through the papers. War news filled the front page, reports on the German drives, the submarine activities. Liberty Loan committees were making drives to reach their quotas. Oakview had gone "over the top." There were mass meetings, patriots making speeches. A returned Canadian veteran, disabled, was making a lecture tour telling the story of the war. Money was being poured into Europe through a one-way funnel.
I hoped what I was looking for would make a big enough splash to hit the front page. I went through 1918 and found nothing.
"Could I," I asked, "keep this temporarily, and see 1919?"
The girl brought me the file without a word. I kept on going through the front pages. The Armistice had been signed. The United States was the savior of the World. American money, American youth, and American ideals had lifted Europe out of the selfishness of petty jealousies. There was to be a great League of Nations which would police the world and safeguard the weak against the strong. The war to end war had been won. The world was safe for Democracy. Other news began to filter into the front pages.
I found what I wanted in a July issue, under the headline: Oakview Specialist Sues for Divorce—Dr. Lintig Alleges Mental Cruelty.
The newspaper handled the affair with gloves, mostly confining itself to the allegations of the complaint. Poste & Warfield were attorneys for the plaintiff. I read that Dr. Lintig had an extensive practice in eye, ear, nose, and throat, and that Mrs. Lintig was a leader of the younger social set. Both were exceedingly popular. Neither had any comment to make to a representative of the Blade. Dr. Lintig had referred the reporter to his attorneys, and Mrs. Lintig had stated she would present her side of the case in court.Ten days later, the Lintig case splashed headlines all over the front page: Mrs. Lintig Names Corespondent—Society Leader Accuses Husband’s Nurse.I learned from the article that Mrs. Lintig, appearing through Judge J. E. Gillfoil, had filed an answer and cross-complaint. The cross-complaint named Vivian Carter, Dr. Lintig’s office nurse, as corespondent.Dr. Lintig had refused to make any comment. Vivian Carter was absent from the city and could not be located by telephone. There was some history in the article. She had been a nurse in the hospital where Dr. Lintig had interned. Shortly after Dr. Lintig had opened his office in Oakview, he had sent for her to come and be his office nurse. According to the newspaper account, she had made a host of friends, and these friends were rallying to her support, characterizing the charges contained in the cross-complaint as utterly absurd.
The issue of the Blade next day showed that Judge Gillfoil had asked for a subpoena to take the depositions of Vivian Carter and Dr. Lintig; that Dr. Lintig had been called out of town on business and could not be reached; that Vivian Carter had not returned.
There were scattered comments after that. Judge Gillfoil charged that Dr. Lintig and Vivian Carter were concealing themselves to avoid service of papers. Poste & Warfield indignantly denied that, and claimed that the accusation was an unfair attempt to influence public opinion. They claimed their client would be available "in the near future."
After that the case drifted to the inside pages. Within a month, deeds were recorded conveying all of Dr. Lintig’s property to Mrs. Lintig. She denied that a property settlement had been made. The attorneys also registered denials. A month later, a Dr. Larkspur had purchased from Mrs. Lintig the office and equipment of Dr. Lintig and had opened an office. Poste & Warfield had no comment to make other than that "in due time, Dr. Lintig would return and clear matters up satisfactorily."
I turned through the issues after that, and found nothing. The girl sat on a stool behind the counter watching me turn the pages.
She said, "There won’t be any more until the December second issue. You’ll find a paragraph in the local gossip column."
I pushed the file of papers to one side and said, "What do I want?"
Her eyes looked me over. "Don’t you know?"
She said, "Then just keep right on the blazed trail."
A gruff, masculine voice from behind the partition said, "Marian."
She slid off the stool and walked back of the partition. I heard the rumble of a low-pitched voice, and after a while a word or two from her. I retrieved the file of papers and turned to the December second issue. In the gossip column was a paragraph to the effect that Mrs. James Lintig planned to spend the Christmas holidays with relatives "in the East" and was leaving by train for San Francisco where she would take a boat through the Canal. In answer to queries about the status of the divorce action, she had stated that the matter was entirely in the hands of her lawyers, that she had no information as to the whereabouts of her husband, and branded as "absurd and false" a rumor that she had learned of her husband’s whereabouts and was planning to rejoin him.
I waited for the girl to come back out. She didn’t show up. I went to a corner drugstore and looked in the telephone directory under Attorneys. I found no Gillfoil, no Poste & Warfield, but there was a Frank Warfield having offices in the First National Bank Building.
I walked two blocks down the shady side of a hot street, climbed rickety stairs, walked down a corridor slightly out of plumb, and found Frank Warfield with his feet on a desk littered with law books, smoking a pipe.
I said, "I’m Donald Lam. I want to ask a few questions. Do you remember a case of Lintig versus Lintig which was handled by—"
"Yes," he said.
"Can you," I asked, "tell me anything about the present whereabouts of Mrs. Lintig?"
I thought back over Bertha Cool’s instructions, and decided to take a chance on my own.
"Do you know anything about the whereabouts of Dr. Lintig?"
"No," he said, and then added, after a moment, "He still owes us court costs and retainer fees on that original action."
I said, "Do you know whether he left any other debts?"
"Have you any idea whether he’s alive or dead?"
"Or about Mrs. Lintig?"
He shook his head.
"Where could I find Judge Gillfoil, who represented her?"
His pale blue eyes made a watery smile, "Up on the hill," he said, pointing in a northwest direction.
"On the hill?"
"Yes, the cemetery. He died in 1930."
I said, "Thank you very much," and went out. He didn’t say anything as I pulled the door shut.
Copyright © 1940 by Erle Stanley Gardner.