When a lawyer cashes in?
Why does a hearse horse snicker
Hauling a lawyer away?
-Carl Sandburg, "The Lawyers Know Too Much"
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 London.
"I'm the investigator you rang up, Miss Goodrich. I'm James Maxfield Mallory."
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 help me?"
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.