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Considerably Before the Thin Man

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Nick Charles knew what his type was. Let other men go for the buxom blonde or the snooty debutante; he wanted a nice redhead who could cook and didn’t bother him while he was on a case. He also knew better than to get involved with suspects or clients, so he didn’t know why he felt stirred by the lanky brunette with the wicked jaw.

He knew her name was Nora Forrest because she’d called him last night and asked him to meet her at the Drake at ten in the morning. It seemed she thought she needed a detective, and she’d been willing to pay his day rate just for the meeting. Nick could practically smell the money on her. Not only did the maître himself walk Nick to her table, it was obvious the Drake’s cafe was currently closed -- except for the lady.

She smiled at him with cool amusement and said, “I’m sorry to ask you to come out of your way. My house wouldn’t do, and, frankly, the only way your office could be in a worse neighborhood would be if it were in Oakland.”

Nick smiled at her as he sat down. “Why wouldn’t your house do?” he asked.

“My family -- well, it’s mostly my aunt and some cousins now -- think I take in too many strays and have friends in low places. If a private detective were to come by, I shudder to think what they’d assume.”

“The worst I suppose.”

She raised an eyebrow and said, “You’d be surprised at how bad my Aunt Katherine’s worst is. And in some ways they’d be right. Not for me, of course, but for my friend Maeva.”

He pulled out a small notebook. “Does Maeva have a last name?”

“Most people do. I’m not certain I want to share it until I know whether you’ll take the case.”

“I can’t decide whether to take the case without knowing the pertinent details, so we seem to be at an impasse. Thank you for your check and I’ll wander down the street to a little speakeasy I’ve heard is nearby.”

Nora flagged the waiter. “Jimmy, Mr. Charles would like a plate of eggs, wheat toast with apricot jam, and a large pot of that lovely Canadian tea you have. How do you like your eggs?”

“Over hard.”

The waiter nodded, and went to fetch the order.

“I prefer coffee with my breakfast,” Nick said.

“I’m certain you’ll like the tea,” Nora said. “Now, are you ready to hear the problem? It may be that you can’t help, but I’d at least like to find out before you wander off.”

The waiter brought a pot and two cups. He poured for each of them and Nick said, “It’s cold.” Then he caught a whiff and said, “Canadian tea. It’s amazing how much it tastes like straight rye.”

“I’m rather partial to the French tea myself, but I thought you’d prefer Canadian.”

He looked at her with respect. “And you’d be right.”

“There’s a man in Maeva’s life. Usually, I’d be cheering. If anyone needs a companion, it’s Maeva, but, though I’ve only met him twice, I...”

“Didn’t like the cut of his jib?”

Nora took another sip of tea. “I suppose you think I’m a snob. I am in a way. I respect a man who has something that lights a fire in him. If it’s a farmer who’s passionate about melons, that’s fine with me, but I distrust a man without something in his life to guide him.”

“Perhaps for …?”

“Jonathan Ivins.”

Nick continued, “Perhaps for Mister Ivins, that guide will be Maeva.”

“Maeva’s not that kind of girl.” She sat back on her chair and looked pensive. “It’s strange that I’d think of Maeva as a girl. She’s two years older than I.”

“Does she have a history of trouble?”

“In a way. She’s charming, but rudderless.”

Nick tucked into his eggs and toast as he thought about the next question. “In my experience, clients come to me about two types of women. The ones in trouble and the ones who are trouble. The ones who are trouble usually know how to prevent getting in trouble, I’ve found.”

“Maeva’s far more likely to get in trouble as you put it. Sadly, that might mean literally. After all, if Mister Ivins were to guarantee that he’d have to marry her, he’d be set financially for life.”

“Do you have any reason other than your visceral dislike for thinking so poorly of Mister Ivins?”

“No. I don’t. He’s a little slick, but he makes an effort to be polite to Maeva’s friends.”

Nick poured himself some more tea. “But it’s obviously an effort?”

“I think so. Maeva doesn’t see it. She wants us all to care for him as she does.”

The maître came to the table with a telephone. “The caller asked for you, Miss Forrest.”

“Thank you, Pierre.” Nora listened for a moment. “Of course, Maeva, I’ll be there right away.”

“Where do you plan to meet Maeva? And don’t you think you’d better give me her last name?”

Nora said, “Her name is McDonald, and I’m meeting her at the police station. She’s been arrested for murder. May I retain you to find out the real killer?”

Nick appraised her for a moment. “You’re cool in a crisis. What’s your alibi?”

“I’ve been here with you all morning.”

“But he might have been killed before I arrived or last night?”

Nora bristled and then calmed down. “Of course. I want a man who’ll do the job correctly, and that means I’m a suspect, too. I’m positive you’re the right man for the job, even if you weren’t my first choice.”

“Who was?”

“A friend recommended Spade and Archer. But Mister Spade informed me his partner had been killed, and it would be some weeks before he could take my case. He suggested you.”

Nick bolted back the last of his tea. “I’ll have to thank Sam, the next time I see him.”

Nora called her attorney from the lobby payphone and asked him to meet her at the police station to represent Maeva. As soon as they arrived at the station, Nick was greeted by policemen and criminals alike as an old friend. “It seems you know all the best people,” Nora said.

“Well, Lieutenant Saito just informed me that Jonathan Ivins was better known in my elite social set as ‘Jack the Rack’ for the way he laid out his opponents in the boxing ring.”

“Was he a good fighter?”

Nick shook his head. “Too lazy. He got out of the racket because the rumors kept flying that his fights were all fixed. No one could ever prove it. I'm not certain anyone wanted to. He also told me the .22 Ivins was shot with was registered to a Gregory McDonald. Maeva’s father?”

“Younger brother.”

“How much younger?”

“Maeva’s twenty-seven and Gregory’s twenty-three.”

“College kid?”

“He’ll finish law school next May. He’s been volunteering for some of the veterans who’ve been trying to get their pensions from the last war. There’s a big soup kitchen and aid foundation in the Tenderloin. I suppose that’s why he has the pistol for protection.”

Nick shook his head, “Not anymore. It was in Maeva’s hands. She was standing over Ivins holding the gun when they found her.”

“I can’t believe Maeva is the killer.”

“Because she’s a friend?”

Nora chuckled. “I’ve seen your friends. Murderers all, I’m sure. No, sadly, it’s because I don’t think she has the gumption.”

“Whereas you not only have gumption, you have spunk.” Nick looked at her. “Give me your full whereabouts last night. I’m going to check your alibi six ways to Sunday, and then I’m going to inquire in some of the less salubrious parts of town as to the state of grief at Jack the Rack’s passing.”

“What shall I do?”

Nick grinned. “Get all the information you can from Maeva about who might have a grudge against her or Jonathan. Ask Gregory his whereabouts and when he last saw the gun. Do they have living parents?”

“Their mother passed in the great flu, but their father is still with us and a force to be reckoned with in banking,” Nora said.

“Then find out his whereabouts, too.” Nick touched her shoulder and she looked into his eyes. “And Miss Forrest, be careful. If you get to close to a killer, you might not survive the encounter.”

“Shall we meet at the Drake for tea at five then, to compare our notes?”

“Why not? Maybe this time I’ll try the French tea.”

They actually met around three at the McDonald estate. Nick had called Lieutenant Saito and asked him to bring all the suspects to the scene of the crime -- the small guest house closest to the main house on the McDonald property.

Nick was already waiting when they arrived and chronicled their reactions to the patch of dried blood on the floor. He was pleased to see that Nora didn’t flinch from it or seem particularly curious. He was also pleased that she decided to come over and stand by him.

“Francis McDonald, Gregory and Maeva’s father, has been having some financial difficulties, at least according to rumor,” Nora said.

“Rumor in my part of town says it's because he likes a flutter and doesn’t particularly care whose money he uses.”

Nora shook her head. “Poor Maeva. A scandal like that would break her.”

Nick said, “She’s charged with murder, and you think an embezzlement scandal would break her?”

“In our set, it would be poor manners to mention a murder investigation, but embezzlement is a crime of honor -- and money.”

“I see. Young Gregory’s reputation is good. They like that he’s working for the veterans’ pensions. One of my contacts said he had ‘the makings of a first rate shyster,’ and from Stubby, that’s high praise.”

“Gregory confirmed to me that it was his gun. He put it away the night before last. Went out to a dinner party, and the following morning -- yesterday -- it was gone when he unlocked the safe.”

Nick said, “Could Maeva have a key?”

“It’s unlikely. Gregory thinks she’s too flighty to be trusted with a gun, although she had asked for lessons in how to shoot it.” She took in his expression. “That’s bad, isn’t it.”

“It’s not good.”

Lieutenant Saito called everyone to order including the household staff.

Nick noticed one older woman couldn’t keep her eyes off the blood stain on the floor. He nudged Nora with an elbow. “Who’s that?”

“Nanny Wainwright. She looked after all three of the children. She’s kept around as a retainer now. She helps out.”

“Three children?”

“There was an older sister who died in the great flu around the same time Mrs. McDonald died. Maeva and Gregory didn’t contract it at all, and Mister McDonald survived his bout.”

Nick nodded. He called the lieutenant over and whispered something to him.

The lieutenant said, “None of us could figure out why the body was found here. This guest house wasn’t being used. Miss McDonald were you planning to use it for a tryst with your lover?”

“No.” Maeva’s voice was fragile, and she looked shaken. “Jonathan and I planned to elope, but we weren’t supposed to meet here. We were going to meet at the end of the drive at midnight on Friday. We’d have been in Carson City in six hours.”

“Did anyone know of your plans?” Nick asked. “Your brother or Miss Forrest, perhaps.”

Maeva said, “I thought of telling Nora, but she seemed so disapproving of Jonathan. And Gregory...” she shook her head.

“So no one knew besides you and the prospective groom? Did he want to back out of the wedding? Is that why you sent for him to meet here last night? Did you shoot him when he threatened to talk to your father?”

Throughout Nick’s questions, Maeva had been saying “No, no, no,” but the “no” that rang out at the end was from across the room.

Nanny Wainwright presented herself to the lieutenant. “I can’t let Miss Maeva continue to go through this. She’s always been fragile. I sent the note and signed it with Miss Maeva’s name asking him to meet me here last night. I offered him my life’s savings if he would leave the state and never see Miss Maeva again. He laughed and demanded twice as much. When he tried to take the money as a down payment, I shot him.”

Maeva and Gregory went to their old nanny and took turns embracing her before a police sergeant cuffed her and led her gently from the room.

Nora said, “They won’t give her the death penalty will they?”

Nick shook his head. “An elderly lady trying to protect the family she’s been part of for thirty years? No. I’m certain she’ll be spared.” He gave her his best smile. “You know, if I had a car, I’d suggest we drive to Carson City ourselves. You’re a hell of a woman, Miss Forrest. Nora.”

She raised one eyebrow and gave him a thorough appraisal. “My car’s out front. You can pay for the gas. Nick.”