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What a Swell Party This Is

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Now

"I need to see Nick Charles, and I need to see him now."

The speaker was a man not much taller than Nora, but he was broad and stocky under his black overcoat, with a spray of freckles across a nose that looked like it had been broken more than once. His voice was nasal and sharp and cut easily through the noise of the crowd. It made an unexpected shiver run down Nora's spine.

"I'm afraid Nick's not here yet," she said. "It's a surprise party."

"I got a surprise for you, sweetheart." The man pulled a gun out of his jacket pocket and pointed it at her. The noise of the party faded to a dull hum as Nora focused on the weapon in his hand, a nervous thrill making her fingers tighten around her glass. Nora was no expert, but it looked like a twenty-two. It was black and malevolent and shone dully in the bright light from the chandelier.

She was going to need all her wits about her for this. And another drink.

*

This morning

Nora breathed in the cool morning air, tinged with the smell of automobile exhaust and early spring, the sidewalk damp from last night's rain. She stepped around the newsboys hawking the morning paper, headlines screaming about the murder of a showgirl, and tried to keep Asta's leash from tangling itself around a telephone pole.

"Well, if it isn't Nora Charles! When did you get in from the coast?"

Nora stopped and turned at the sound of her name. "Margot, darling, how are you? We got into Grand Central Friday morning."

"Are you in town for long?"

"Just a few days. We're heading down to Charleston on Tuesday for my Great-Aunt Ermintrude's eightieth birthday party."

"Oh, how lovely."

Nora grinned wryly, remembering Nick's response when she'd told him they had to go. "Indeed." Asta pulled at the leash in her hand and she tugged it sharply in response. "Asta, sit." She returned her attention to Margot. "We're at the Plaza until then. You should stop up tonight--I'm having a small gathering for Nick's birthday. Nothing fancy, just drinks and hors d'oeuvres." Asta jerked at the leash again, and Nora allowed him to pull her along. "It's a surprise, so don't say anything if you see him."

Margot laughed. "What time?"

"Around seven."

Margot's voice followed Nora down Fifth Avenue. "I'll be there, with bells on."

"I'm sure you will," Nora murmured, "and you'll bring half the city with you." Asta barked in agreement and Nora laughed.

*

Earlier this evening

Margot arrived at seven on the dot, with Louise Jacobs and Halsey and Tip Edge right behind her. Eddie Gilmore and Larry Crowley were next, followed by a group of women Nora hadn't seen in ages--surely Judy Tyler's hair had never been that blonde before, nor Nancy Nolan's lipstick that red?

Nora shrugged away the questions and took a drink off a passing tray as she greeted her guests. "Just a small party for Nick's birthday," she said as she hugged and kissed old friends and shook hands with acquaintances. She admonished them to have a good time and directed them to hand off their coats to Joey the bell boy and to put their gifts on the credenza by the closet. Most of the gifts were bottle-shaped, she noted with approval.

The early guests were soon followed by a slew of people whose names Nora might have known once or not at all--she wasn't sure, and the important thing wasn't that she didn't know them now, but that she had a martini in hand to fake that she did. Some of Nick's more colorful acquaintances arrived in a loud group, and Nora skirted around them, listening with amusement as they talked about how Nick had sent this one up the river, or cleared that one's name, or won a ton of money on a fight the other one had been in. The murder of Lucy Lawford, the showgirl, had everyone's tongues wagging, each of their theories wilder than the last.

The noise level rose as people had their third and fourth rounds of drinks. A resounding crash gave Nora a start and she whirled to see that it was only Chad Banner overturning a tray of finger sandwiches. The group he was with laughed; everyone knew he couldn't hold his liquor. Nora took a deep breath, willed her pulse to slow, and called room service, asking them to send up more hors d'oeuvres.

The party was in full swing, guests chattering loudly over the sound of Levi Oscant playing the piano and singing "I've Got the World on a String," waiters weaving through the crowd with trays of drinks and hors d'oeuvres, when another group of unfamiliar men, all of them in black overcoats, showed up. Nora nodded at them, and wished Nick would arrive.

*

Now

Nora stepped into the crook of the gangster's arm, drawing it around her just as the music tumbled into a foxtrot and the dancing began. "Why, I'd love to dance, Mr.--I'm afraid I don't know your name," she said, shimmying in the circle of his arm and giving him a flirtatious smile. His eyes widened, all his attention on her. Which was how she wanted it.

"O'Brien," he replied. "Boots O'Brien from the Hell's Kitchen Gang." He tightened his arm around her waist. The cool, hard press of the gun nudged the small of her back. "And I don't want no funny business, see? I'm here to see Nick Charles."

"And you'll see him when he gets here," she said. "Would you like a drink, Mr. O'Brien?" It was easy to fall back on the social niceties--she would be a good hostess even in her sleep, or after an unwise last glass of scotch; a gun at her back should make no difference.

"You're a cool customer, ain't you?"

Nora raised her chin and laughed. "Do you think you're the first mook to point a gun at me?" And this time, there would be no one knocking her out or locking her in the closet so she missed all the excitement. She nodded at Joe Morelli, who stood near the piano, gesticulating wildly at Portia Goodman and Rosemary Wilcox. She'd have to keep an eye on them. "He beat you to it." She polished off her own drink and placed the empty glass on a passing tray before picking up a new one, all without missing a beat. She took a long sip of that, as well. "I don't want to spill it," she said when O'Brien gave her an incredulous look.

"Yeah, sure."

She smiled her best society smile at him and maneuvered him around other dancing couples, aiming for the second bedroom. They were almost there when Studsy Burke tried to cut in.

"Everything all right, Mrs. Charles?" He moved with them as they danced, a weak, nervous grin on his face, his hand warm and sweaty on her shoulder. She shook him off gently.

"Just ducky, thanks. How are you, Studsy?"

"Good, good. Thanks for asking. Really, Mrs. Charles, Boots here ain't exactly on the up and up, if you know what I mean."

Studsy tried to separate them again and O'Brien growled, "Dry up, Studsy. This ain't got nothing to do with you."

Studsy looked to Nora, and she shook her head. "It's fine, Studsy. I've got it all in hand." Studsy didn't look convinced, but he backed off.

Nora bit back her relieved sigh and concentrated on getting O'Brien into the second bedroom. She danced him around groups of twos and threes, around other laughing, dancing couples, dodging and weaving obstacles like a boxer in a championship fight.

When they finally reached their destination, Nora closed the door and leaned against it, forcing O'Brien into the middle of the room, gun still pointed right at her. She could still hear the sounds of the party faintly through the closed door, but it felt much further than one room away.

"Is this about how you killed Lucy Lawford?" she asked.

"Yes. No. I didn't kill nobody. I need Nick Charles to prove it, like he done for that Wynant guy."

"But you actually killed Miss Lawford," Nora said. "That's what Jackie O'Connell told me."

"Jackie O'Connell don't know from nothing. Maybe he killed her and he's trying to pin it on me."

"Maybe," Nora said. She stole a glance at the clock on the bedside table. She wished Nick would arrive. "Maybe you killed her because she took the jewels you stole from Cartier last week."

"Is that what you think?"

"I don't know what to think, Mr. O'Brien. I'm just a silly girl who's had too many martinis." There was a nervous edge to her laugh that wasn't entirely feigned.

"Yeah, sure." He didn't sound like he believed her, but he didn't seem the type who believed anybody. She didn't take it personally.

She gave him a careful once-over. "Or did you kill her because she was going to run off with Jackie O'Connell?"

"Is that what he told you?"

"He told me so many things, Mr. O'Brien."

"Yeah, he's a regular chatterbox, that O'Connell. He was in on it, too, you know. The pair of them were double-crossing me. I planned that heist, took all the risks, and they were gonna go to Paris with my money." O'Brien paced the room impatiently, but kept the gun pointed at her the whole time.

"Please stop pacing, Mr. O'Brien. You're making me dizzy."

He snorted in disbelief. "Where is he?"

Nora raised her eyebrows in mock surprise. "Jackie O'Connell? I'm sure I don't know."

"Nick Charles. I thought you was his wife."

"There's no need to raise your voice, Mr. O'Brien." Nora raised her own voice, finally letting some of her discomfort show through. It was a good question. Where was Nick?

"I'll raise my voice if I like. I'm the one with the gun."

Nora tightened her grip on her glass and drew it back to throw it at him just as Asta came running in through the connecting door from the master bedroom. The dog barreled into O'Brien's knees, bowling him over. He went down hard, losing his grip on his gun, which bounced to the carpet. Nora snatched it up before Asta could run off with it.

"Good dog," she said, scratching behind Asta's ears while he growled low at O'Brien, who proved himself smarter than the average hoodlum, and stayed down. "I was getting ready to throw my drink in his face, and you know how I hate to waste a good martini."

"And we couldn't have that, could we?" Nick stood in the doorway to the master bedroom, flanked by Lieutenant Guild and a group of policemen.

"Nicky, darling, where have you been? I had to keep him talking for ever so much longer than we planned." She threw herself into his embrace and kissed him hungrily.

"You looked like you were having so much fun, I didn't want to interrupt." He grinned down at her, looking entirely too pleased with himself when she was the one who'd done all the work.

"Oh, Nicky." She took a long sip of her martini. When she lowered the glass, Nick took it from her and finished the drink.

The cops had O'Brien handcuffed and were leading him out through the connecting door while he muttered threats and curses.

Lieutenant Guild said, "Thanks for all your help, Mrs. Charles. We couldn't have drawn him out of hiding if it wasn't for you. I didn't like the plan when Mr. Charles explained it, but he was right--it worked. It must have been awful terrifying for you."

"Yes, she looks quite terrified," Nick said, pulling open the door to the living room and waving over a waiter. "Have another drink, darling. It'll settle your nerves."

"I think I will." She took the drink and closed the door behind the waiter before wrapping her arms around Nick's neck and giving him another kiss, this one slower and more thorough, but no less hungry.

"Now, now, that was quite enough excitement for one night, wasn't it?"

"It was rather exciting," she agreed. "But I could stand a little more."

He held her close and kissed her soundly. "Do you think that crowd out there will miss us at all?" he asked, running his lips down the line of her jaw, giving her a pleasant shiver.

"It is your birthday party," she said, wrinkling her nose. "It would be rude to ask them to leave without having cake."

"Nora, my birthday isn't until June."

"I know that, but I had to tell them something."

"Are there a lot of gifts?"

"Yes."

"Okay, then, I suppose we can give them some cake before we kick them out."

"That's very gracious of you," she said, taking his proffered arm.

"I have just one question," he said as they re-entered the party. "How did you know O'Brien would show up?"

"I knew Margot would tell everybody in the city about it, and you know everybody comes to our parties."

Nick took a pair of drinks off a passing tray and handed one to her, so both her hands were full, and then he swung her into a careful foxtrot. "Of course they do," he said, kissing her quickly. "You're irresistible."

She finished one of her drinks and smiled. "I know."

end

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