As I opened the door and stepped into the reception room, a flash bulb blazed into brilliance and blinded me.
Big Bertha Cool, who had been facing the camera with a fatuous smile on her face, whirled angrily, glared at me and turned to the photographer.
"Did that hurt anything?" she asked.
"I’m afraid it did," the photographer said apologetically. "The opening of the door put it at just the right angle so my flash bulb was reflected back into the camera."
Bertha said, by way of explanation, "It’s only my partner." Then, as I hesitated, she said, "Don’t worry, Donald. It’s just publicity. I have it all fixed up."
She was turning back toward the cameraman when she caught the pose of the filing clerk who was sitting on the corner of the desk with her skirt up over her knees, her toes pointed down so that her crossed legs showed to advantage.
"Now what the hell are you doing sitting there sticking that nylon out at the camera?" Bertha asked.
The girl looked helplessly at the photographer.
"She was following instructions," the photographer said.
"Well, I’m the one who gives all the instructions here," Bertha told him. "Any time I want to have a bunch of chippies sitting on the edge of a desk...get your fanny off of that desk. Stand over by the filing case if you want, but don’t sit up there with your legs sticking out."
"I’m sorry, Mrs. Cool," the photographer said.
A man who had been standing over behind the filing case came out and said, "We’re going to need cheesecake, Mrs. Cool. If we don’t have cheesecake, the papers won’t publish it."
"Cheesecake in a detective’s office!" Bertha Cool snapped.
"Cheesecake in a detective agency," the man repeated stubbornly. "Cheesecake is everywhere. If you don’t have cheesecake, you don’t get published. There’s no use wasting the film on this if it isn’t going to make the papers, and if it isn’t going to make the papers, Mr. Crockett won’t care to employ your agency."
Bertha glowered at him, then said somewhat reluctantly, "This is my partner, Donald Lam—Donald, this is Melvin Otis Olney, who handles public relations for Dean Crockett."
Olney came over and shook hands. "We could have a picture with Mr. Lam and the file clerk," he said. "Lam could be looking for a paper in a hurry, and—"
"Not Donald," Bertha said. "If that girl sticks her legs out in front of Donald, he won’t be looking for any paper. He’ll be looking at legs....Now let’s get that picture."
The filing clerk looked at Olney questioningly.
Olney took the bit in his teeth. "Get back up on the desk," he said. "Get your skirts up over your knees. Don’t leave a wrinkle in the skirt as though you had just pulled it up. Try to drape it naturally...here, I’ll show you."
He walked over and folded the girl’s skirt back, then stood back, surveyed the effect, moved over and draped the skirt down on the side away from the desk.
Bertha glowered at him, with her angry little eyes snapping cold rage.
"Is...is it all right?" the girl asked.
"I suppose it’s all right," Bertha said. "If he says he has to have it, go ahead. But you don’t need to look up at him with that simpering look while he’s feeling your leg."
"He wasn’t feeling my leg," the girl said angrily.
"Well, he was getting ready to," Bertha said. "For the love of Mike, let’s get this shindig over with so we can get to work."
The photographer, who had replaced the flash bulb and reversed the plateholder, held up the camera. "All ready?"
Melvin Otis Olney said to the filing clerk, "Keep your toes pointed down; both of them. It makes your legs look a lot longer and a lot more graceful. Point them way down. Now take a deep breath....Okay, Lionel, let her go."
Bertha Cool twisted her face into a fatuous smile; a sweetly synthetic grin that was as foreign to her as a postage stamp on a dollar bill.
The flash bulb blazed again.
"All right," Bertha said, "now get the hell—"
"One more," the photographer said, "just as a measure of insurance."
He whipped out another film holder, slammed it into the camera, jerked out the slide, set the shutter, took another flash bulb from his pocket, touched the base of it to the tip of his tongue, inserted it in the socket in front of the reflector, cocked the shutter, held up the camera, and said, "Now smile, please."
Bertha took a deep breath. I could almost hear her teeth grit.
Olney said, "We should have one of the two partners together, and—"
"Shoot it," Bertha said angrily through lips that were twisted into that leering smile. "Somebody’s got to work in this joint. Get going."
The photographer waited until Bertha’s face returned to just the expression he wanted, his eyes on Bertha’s lips.
Bertha, conscious of what he wanted, twisted the corners of her mouth up into a tight-lipped smile.
Once more the flash bulb blazed.
Bertha whirled to the file clerk. "All right," she said, "get off that desk and get back to your job."
Bertha started toward her office, stopped, evidently felt she owed me an explanation, and grudgingly said, "Dean Crockett the Second is giving a big shindig and has retained us to guard the entrance to see that no gate crashers get in.
"The last time he gave a party some gate crashers got away with a jade statue worth six thousand bucks. He wants to make certain that it doesn’t happen again. He feels that if we can keep the gate crashers out of the party, the guests who are invited can be trusted."
I said, "You’re not to guard the jewelry then, but guard the gates?"
"That’s right," Olney said, "the gates—and a little publicity helps, Mr. Lam. Not only helps Mr. Crockett, but helps me in my job. It helps the agency, and advising gate crashers in advance that they won’t be tolerated will be half the battle."
"It’ll keep out the amateurs," I told him, "but it just might prove a challenge to some of the more expert ones."
"Well, Mrs. Cool can handle them," Olney said. "That’s one reason I wanted her picture for the paper. She looks so decidedly..." He caught himself and said, "Competent."
Bertha glowered at him. "You don’t need to pull punches with me," she said. "I’m a tough bitch and I know it."
"We wanted a detective agency that had a woman," Olney explained, "a thoroughly competent woman. Mr. Crockett felt that the last gate crasher who got away with the carved jade statue was a woman. A man can’t walk up to a woman and say, ‘Pardon me, I think you just dropped a statue down the front of your dress.’ A really determined woman is in a different position."
Olney looked at Bertha Cool and smiled.
"I’d have picked her up by her heels, stood her on her head and shaken the damn thing out," Bertha said. "They’re not going to get away with anything crude like that when I’m around."
I told Olney I thought it was a smart move, nodded to Bertha and went on into my private office.
Elsie Brand, my secretary, was opening mail.
"How did it happen you didn’t get in on the picture?" I asked.
"I wasn’t invited."
I looked down at her legs. "You’d have done a lot better job than the filing clerk."She blushed, then laughed and said, "The filing clerk was acting as receptionist and she was very friendly with the photographer and very cooperative. I don’t think my legs would have added a thing."
"Two things," I said.
She tactfully pushed the mail at me. "There’s one letter that needs to be answered right away, Donald."
Copyright © 1958 by Erle Stanley Gardner.