I t all started on a Friday in mid-December 1942. A woman who identified herself as Lorna Bartholomew called. Behind her a dog was yapping. The woman said, "Miguelito, be quiet," asked me if I was free to come to San Francisco immediately to take on an "assignment." The dog kept yapping.
It was raining in Los Angeles when she called. I'd been sitting in my office in the Farraday Building, looking out the window, feeling sorry for myself. Before the war I used to sail paper airplanes out the window on rainy days and watch them fight the elements on their way to the alleyway six floors below. But paper was scarce now. Kids collected it, tied it in bundles, and brought it to school in their wagons to contribute to the war effort. S AVE W ASTE P APER a khaki-uniformed soldier on a billboard told us as we drove down Wilshire. The soldier on the billboard had his arm around a little boy whose wagon was piled high with old copies of Collier's and the L.A. Times .
"Just one for old times," I told Dash the cat, who sat on my desk licking the waxed paper of the dime taco from Manny's we had just shared for early lunch. Dash was a big orange beast with a piece of his left ear missing and one eye that didn't want to work with the other one. He's been with me a few months now. I never thought of him as mine. I didn't want to own a cat. I didn't mind sharing my milk and Wheaties and cheap tacos with him, but I didn't want responsibility for his happiness. I'll give Dash credit. He didn't push me. I'd met Dash on a case. He more or less saved my life.
"Watch," I said, folding an ad I'd received the day before from a pair of optometrist brothers named Irick in Glendale who promised me better eyesight with their new lightweight glasses. I held up the work of aeronautic art for Dash's opinion.
Dash stopped licking his paw and watched me open the window, letting in the sounds of rain and traffic on Hoover. He knew something big was up. As I sailed the plane into the rain, Dash leaped to the windowsill. His head moved and at least one of his eyes was fixed on the plane, which swayed, looped, and glided down. Dash purred and watched.
"Pretty good, huh?" I said.
The plane landed somewhere beyond the junked Chevy. An alcoholic named Pettigrew usually slept in the Chevy, but he had gone south to Mexico for the winter.
Anyway, that plane going out the window was the highlight of my week till the phone call came.
Sheldon Minck, who rented me the one-window broom closet I called an office, had stuck his head in to announce the call. Sheldon was working on a little boy when the call came. Sheldon is a dentist. If I were really the civic-minded knight I want people to think I am, I would have spent my days in front of the outer door of our offices warning away the unwary, telling them to flee with their hands held tightly over their mouths to preserve whatever remained of the enamel they prized. But the rent was low, and I couldn't spend my life protecting an unwary public from the unsanitary creatures who lurked in thousands of offices throughout downtown Los Angeles with certificates on their walls claiming they were qualified to pull teeth, collect money from insurance companies, make you a star, tell your fortune, take your picture, find you an orange grove in Lompoc you could turn into a gold mine, or locate your lost grandmother.
Shelly, his bald head gleaming with sweat, his chubby cheeks bouncing, his Dr. Pepper-bottle-bottom glasses slipping on his nose, opened the door and pointed his cigar at me with one hand and reached over to hand me the phone with his other. We'd gotten rid of one phone in the office. Cutting overhead.
"For you," he said. "Long distance. Frisco."
"Thanks," I said, taking the phone and waiting for him to back out of the room.
Shelly brushed an