A Secret Singing (Chapter One)
by Richard C. Smith
Why is there
always a secret singing
When a lawyer cashes in?
Why does a hearse horse snicker
Hauling a lawyer away?
"The Lawyers Know Too Much"
My Name Is Mallory
I stepped into
the stone entanceway set a few feet back from the sidewalk and rang the bell.
The house had a solid, midwestern look to it, like houses I'd seen in suburbs
north of Chicago where there's a Frank Lloyd Wright on every corner.
It was in a rich neighborhood in Brookline, Massachusetts, opposite a small
park of oak trees where an unfriendly sign said ball-playing and dogs were
not permitted. In the glass of the door a red decal warned visitors
that the house was protected by Anderson Security Systems, but I knew what
that was worth. Anderson is a former colleague of mine. He hates
my guts because I went to Harvard and once played golf with Tip O'Neill.
The door opened to a stony-faced woman who cocked her head and said, "Yes?"
with a sharp British accent of the private secretary, Miss Phoebe Goodrich,
who'd summoned me from the office.
A British servant in America is a rare and wonderful thing
to see, and my heart lifted. My own grandmother was an upstairs maid
imported by the Guggenheims, I'm told, after one of their shopping trips to
"I'm the investigator you rang up, Miss Goodrich. I'm James
She wanted to see identification, then said, "Come."
Only one of four doors leading into the central hall was open, and I peeked
in and saw a study furnished like a period room in the Museum of Fine Arts.
Then we stepped onto a wide, formal terrace in back where Morgan Streeter
was using the telephone at a table set for afternoon tea. Beyond the
terrace, at the foot of the incline of a long, landscaped garden, a high board
fence held back suburban woods lit up by the afternoon sun. Not a bad
spread, considering we were just a forty-five minute stroll from my not-so-posh
office in downtown Boston's red-light district.
Mrs. Streeter finished talking and looked up. She
was a gray-haired woman and past fifty, blue eyes set in wrinkles. She
wore a well-tailored blue dress and held a heavy white china cup with a picture
on it commemorating the coronation of Elizabeth II. The wrinkles gave
her a look of frowning annoyance. The souvenir cup was chipped and didn't
match the rest of the tea service and struck me as an odd touch for a woman
of her position-the Social Register said she'd been bred by one of
the oldest and wealthiest families in Boston. But that could be eccentricity.
I noticed an open book on the table, with my name spelled out in capital letters
halfway down the right-hand page.
Phoebe introduced me, disconnected the phone, and took
it back into the house. A servant in a black uniform and white apron
came out with a tray and set pastries onto the table. I sat dawn and
Mrs.Streeter started talking.
"This meeting is difficult for me, Mr. Mallory. I
have never been involved with a person in your field before today, and I abhor
the necessity for it. I see from information Phoebe has provided that
you are an educated man-you graduated from Harvard some years ago, and even
went to the law school for a year. How did you happen to become a private
investigator? The money can't be as good."
"It isn't," I said. I always feel a little pompous
explaining myself, but I went ahead. "I think of my work as the 'private
justice' business, Mrs. Streeter. I went to law school to study justice,
but they weren't teaching it. And I didn't want to be a cop."
The wrinkles deepened when she smiled-if it was a smile.
"That's a good answer. I too have found, to my chagrin, that lawyers
concern themselves very little with justice. I dislike them, especially
these new young cut-throats. That has some bearing on my asking you
here to talk about my father.
"I also understand that a woman's attention to her father's
affairs is generally viewed with suspicion, due in large part to the pernicious
influence of Mr. Freud and his followers. I ask for the benefit of the
doubt when I tell you my present course of action is provoked by nothing more
than a full sense of familial responsibility.
"You should know that, despite his position in society,
Father has always been an exceptionally irresponsible man. He comes
from an old family and squandered the lion's share of his fortune many years
ago. When Mother died she vested control of her personal resources in
me. The income from various trusts supports him, but the principal cannot
be touched without my authorization."
She said that last with smug satisfaction, then finished
her tea and set the cup onto the marble table.
"Notwithstanding my attention to his affairs, he has become
attached to a much younger woman, a woman of inappropriate social background.
I am concerned."
"Because of her youth or her social background?"
"Both. She is twenty-five years younger than I.
She is a blonde and quite attractive. I want you to determine her intentions
before she becomes more deeply involved with Father."
"Young women fall in love with older men all the time."
"I want her investigated, Mr. Mallory. I'm not interested
in platitudes. If love is her motivation I suppose I shall have to be
satisfied, but I doubt if that will prove to be the case. Father has
a propensity for getting into bad situations."
I reached across for the silver teapot and filled the thin
bone china heirloom set for me, then refilled Mrs. Streeter's cup. We
were drinking English breakfast tea. I know that because I read the
tag on the teabags. The pastries all looked too sweet to eat.
"Have you told him your concerns?"
"I have. He tells me they are without rational basis.
As if he could comprehend rationality."
"Assuming he's wrong, Mrs.Streeter, what could the woman
do, given that you control the trust funds? Do you think she's under
the impression he's richer than he is?"
"Certainly not. The woman in question has particular
knowledge of Father's financial circumstances. She is Susan Winston,
formerly an associate in the law firm that handles our family's affairs.
Which I might add makes her present actions quite inexplicable to me.
They are a very old and reputable law firm. She has resigned her position
in favor of living with my father."
What I knew of the lives of young associates in old and
reputable law firms made her actions seem perfectly explicable to me, but
I understood what Mrs. Streeter meant.
"You mean she's not a floozy, a dancer, or an actress?"
"Not a dancer or an actress in any event."
"What's the name of the law firm?"
"Choate and Masterson."
"Have you consulted them?"
"Of course. They tell me not a penny of Mother's
money could be shifted to this woman, even were she to marry Father.
As long as I am alive, nothing can be done without my authorization.
And I intend to live a very long time, Mr. Mallory."
I knocked on wood for her. As if on cue, a short-haired
blonde in a white tennis outfit jogged onto the terrace. She stopped
to make a face at me, kissed Mrs. Streeter on the cheek, took a cream-filled
pastry, and dropped into a chair.
For the first time I saw Mrs. Streeter really smile.
"My daughter Melissa," she said.
The sudden appearance of this modern creature made me realize
just how old-fashioned my conversation with her mother had been up to that
point. We had actually been talking about, gold diggers, spendthrift
widowers, and the pernicious influence of Mr. Freud, while drinking tea.
But mother and daughter obviously belonged together. They both looked
rich. Melissa stuck out a hand to shake. Her hand was sticky from
the pastry, and she looked at it and made another face.
"I think this is crazy," she said. "I think you should
let Grandfather have his fling."
"Melissa knows what I'm hiring you for, Mr. Mallory."
She turned to her daughter. "There have been too many 'flings' by members
of this family. It is important for people in our position to maintain
a positive image."
Melissa crinkled her nose, as if to demonstrate the inaccuracy
of her mother's statement, and started eating a second pastry. She was
pretty and quite slim, and I wondered about that. Probably burned up
a lot of calories making faces. I put her at about twenty-five.
"What do you say?" Mrs. Streeter said. "Will you
I drank some tea and considered. Just as a snap judgement,
Melissa looked like trouble, and the mother was an obvious candidate for a
few years in analysis- why else would she feel hostility for Freud?
But I probably wouldn't have to deal with them once I got started on the job,
I wasn't working on anything else at the time, and maybe the old guy really
was in trouble. I said, "Okay. I'll make some inquiries."
"Excellent," Mrs. Streeter said, "The place to begin is
the Bombay Hunt Club in Hamilton. Father plays golf every morning.
I can arrange an introduction to the Club."
"We could play tennis," Melissa said.
"An introduction won't be necessary," I said to the mother,
"And probably wouldn't be advisable."
"Are you certain? Since our friends refuse to see
the two of them socially, the only place Father appears with the woman is
at the Club. Phoebe and I selected you for this job, Mr. Mallory, because
we thought you would be able to mingle with Father and this woman on a social
basis. Can you manage it without an entree?"
"I'll manage. I have a few friends in high places."
"Then so much the better." She made a dismissive
gesture that involved lifting her chin and half closing her eyes. "My
daughter will show you to Phoebe's office now. Phoebe can provide you
whatever particulars you require, and also write a check for your retainer."
"One question first, Mrs. Streeter. I assume we've
been talking about your stepfather, Caleb Johnson?"
"Of course. My natural father has been dead for many
years. I take it you have researched the family?"
"How long has he been seeing Susan?"
"She moved into his home in Marblehead in April.
There is one other point I suppose I should make. Five years ago I authorized
a special disbursement of trust income for one of Father's young women.
It was intended to make the woman disappear, and it was effective. If
necessary I would be willing to make a similar arrangement with Miss Winston."
"If she's conning him, we'll stop it without your having
to pay her. You can spend the money on me instead."
I stood up and Melissa got up beside me. "I'll try
the Bopmbay tomorrow," I said. "If Phoebe has addresses and vital statistics,
and a picture of Mr. Johnson, I won't need to take any more of your time."
Mrs. Streeter nodded once and reached across the table
to shake my hand. Her hand was cold.
"Thank you, Mr. Mallory."
"Thank me when I have something," I said.
Richard C. Smith, a graduate of Dartmouth College and Boston University Law School, was a corprate attorney in Boston for several years. He now lives and practices in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. A Secret Singing is his first novel.