The city was sweltering in the hottest July in recorded memory. For five days in a row, temperatures had reached above ninety degrees Fahrenheit, and the nights weren’t much cooler. The newspapers reported two hundred deaths across the country, all attributed to the heat. Rumour had it that a man had cooked an egg on the sidewalk in Winnipeg. I didn’t believe it. Nobody would waste a perfectly good egg on such a stunt. Not these days. In Toronto, a milkman’s horse had dropped dead on his rounds. That one I believed.
Monday, I went in to work even earlier than usual to take advantage of the slightly lower morning temperature. My boss, Mr. Gilmore, rents two rooms on the second level of the Yonge Street Arcade. I had the front, he had the back, neither had windows. It was artificial light, winter and summer. The rooms tended to be a touch cooler in summer, with no sun to beat in, but today, I’d hardly been there half an hour before I was sweating. I discreetly unbuttoned the neck of my blouse. I’d already slipped off my stockings, but nobody could see my bare feet underneath the desk. Mr. Gilmore wasn’t due until ten o’clock, and I expected on a day like this he might come in later. The hall was, shall we say, under-carpeted, and I could always hear him clumping down the hall, so there would be plenty of time to make myself presentable. “We have to create an immediate impression of decorum and good breeding, Miss Frayne. Our clients see a polite and pleasant young woman as well dressed as any of Mr. Eaton’s salesladies. They will feel at ease, knowing they can expect to be treated with the utmost decorum.” “Decorum” was one of Mr. Gilmore’s favourite words.
I’d picked up copies of the morning newspapers on my way over and I was about to skim through them. My job was to take note of particular items that might bring us business. Lost and Found, of course. You’d be amazed how easy it was to link people together. Those who had lost and those who had found. Sort of like being a matchmaker. I kept a file on all the missing dogs, purses and bits of jewellery. By now I had developed quite a circle of acquaintances who kept an eye out for me. Kidnapped dogs were easy to identify. We were usually able to get in before the kidnapper contacted the owner. Joyous reunions resulted. Generous rewards were always shared.
However, I’d say the obituary column was the most lucrative. I would track down the address of the people mentioned as “left,” and send them a note. Our letterhead said, “t. gilmore and associates. private investigators. utter discretion. reasonable rates guaranteed.” In fact, I was the only associate and also acted as general odds body and secretary. One of my jobs was to write a short note to the grieving widow or, occasionally, widower. “Please accept our most sincere condolences. We are here if you need us.” Unscrupulous people were known to keep track of the death notices in the newspapers and send a letter to the bereaved one, claiming dubious connections with the dear departed. Blackmail really. You’d be surprised how common this was. Getting to the bottom of such false claims was how we earned our bread and butter.
I swatted a reckless fly who had decided to explore my desk. This morning’s Star was as leaden and dispirited as the weather itself. Europe in an upheaval as usual. I was about to switch to the Globe when a terse notice caught my eye:
The body of a man was washed up on Cherry Beach late last night. According to police he was probably in his mid-twenties, blond haired, medium height. He was clothed only in his swimming trunks. The cause of death was drowning. The police believe he must have gone into the water to escape the heat and got into difficulties. Given the condition of the body, they estimate he had been in the lake for a couple of days. To date, the body has not been identified, although the police did conduct a search of the beach and discovered a neat pile of clothing near the shore. No wallet was present.
If there had been, it would have been a miracle indeed. Dozens of people jammed into broiling squalid houses were spending nights on the beach. An unguarded bundle of clothes would have been too tempting to resist.
I heard somebody coming down the hall and quickly buttoned my collar and slipped my feet into my shoes.
There was a knock on the door. You can tell a lot by the way prospective clients knock. There’s the timid, uncertain sort of knock from those who would rather not be consulting a private detective but feel they must: always a woman, usually in search of her dog, most often afraid of risking the disapproval of her husband, who had to pay the bill. A sharp and prolonged rat-a-tat was, ninety per cent of the time, an aggrieved man who suspects his spouse is cheating on him.
This current knock was somewhere in between. Firm and confident but not aggressive. Male, I guessed.
He did, and I met Julian Cross. My life was never the same after that.
Let me backtrack a little. I had just stepped over to the other side of thirty and I’m not spoken for. I had a couple of tries that didn’t go anywhere, so I suppose you’d say I was on the verge of giving up hope. I’d lived with my grandparents since my mother ran off with a roadie when I was three. Gran died last year and there’s just Gramps and me now. She was always telling me I’m too picky. “No such thing as the perfect man.” I know that, of course I do, but somehow or other, for a variety of reasons, no relationship had worked out so far.
The man who had just walked into the office was tall. I was surprised to see he was leaning on a cane, which reduced his height somewhat. He was elegantly dressed in a tan-coloured linen suit. When he removed his Panama, he revealed crisp, dark hair, cut short. He had brown eyes and a smile that would light up your life.
“Can I help you?” I asked. To my own ears I sounded breathless.
“I can see you’re not Mr. Gilmore. You therefore must be Miss Charlotte Frayne.”
He nodded in the direction of the nameplate on my desk.
I returned his smile. Who wouldn’t?
“Correct on all counts. I am expecting Mr. Gilmore later this morning.”
“That’s fine. I’d just as soon talk to you.”
“Please have a seat.”
I indicated the wooden chair just to one side of the desk, and he limped over to it. He groaned slightly as he sat down, and I could see his leg was stuck straight out in front of him. No mobility at the knee from the look of it. I glanced at his hand. I wished men would wear wedding rings the way we women did so everybody could know what was what. He had long fingers, tanned and slim, bare of jewellery.
“My name is Cross. Julian Cross. I heard about you from a neighbour, Mrs. Harley,” he said. “She was most impressed with your ability.”
I remembered the case well. Luring Mrs. Harley’s cat from the roof with an open can of sardines didn’t exactly require much skill, but Boots had certainly impressed himself on me. The scratch marks had only just started to fade.
“Thank you,” I murmured. “How can I help you, Mr. Cross?”
“I would like to find my brother. My mother is gravely ill and it would bring her much comfort if she could see Stephen before she passes on.”
I raised my eyebrows.
“He disappeared about two years ago. We have not had a word since.”
“Did you report this to the police?”
“Eventually we did. Stephen left home more than once when he was a teenager, so at first we didn’t think much of it. He was always back within the week, hungry and dirty. This time two weeks went by, then a month. I went to the police and filed a missing persons report.”
He paused and his eyes drifted away. An unhappy memory, I thought.
He came back to earth, gave me a little grin.
“Sorry. I got distracted. The police could find no trace of him whatsoever. After a year they closed the case. As one officer said to me, ‘Kids leave home every day of the week. He’ll show up when he’s ready.’”
“Was he a kid?” I asked.
“He’d just turned eighteen. Not exactly a kid, but I suppose not an adult either.”
“Was there a reason he might have run away? Trouble in the family for instance?”
Cross began to rub his knee. It was an unconscious gesture I’m sure he wasn’t aware of.
“He didn’t get along with our father. Ever since I remember, Steve was rebellious. ‘Mouthy’ my father called him. They were always arguing.”
Again, his thoughts drifted away. I called him back.
“What about you? Did you have the same kind of relationship with your father?”
“Oddly enough I didn’t. I’d say he was rather strict, but he wasn’t around much when I was growing up so I was left to my mother’s ministrations.”
He held up his hand to halt my comment, although I hadn’t been about to make one.
“I know what you’re thinking. That I was spoiled rotten.” He smiled that light-up-your-life smile. “I confess, I was. My mother was a lot younger than my father, and she was full of fun.”
I got the picture.
“Come the war, I joined up as soon as I could, and Father liked that. Made him proud. Unfortunately, I didn’t last long. Ypres did for me. . . .”
His voice tailed off.
Since the war had ended I’d had occasion to talk to several returning soldiers and, without fail, they seemed to run out of words very quickly. They’d get a strange expression on their faces as if the physical pain and the heart pain were indistinguishable. Julian Cross wore just such a look.
He began to fish in his pocket.
“Do you mind if I smoke?”
I minded, but he was a prospective client so I simply shrugged. He tapped a cigarette out of his silver case, lit it, and drew in the smoke as if it was keeping him alive. A lot of ex-soldiers consumed cigarettes in this way. While he was doing all that, I inserted a fresh sheet of paper into the typewriter and moved my chair into position.
“You don’t mind if I take this down do you?”
“Not at all.”
“You said your brother disappeared two years ago, when he was eighteen.”
“That’s right. October 30, 1934. It was a few days after his birthday.”
“And you say your mother is gravely ill?”
“Yes, unfortunately she is. The doctor has given her three months at the most.”
“And your father?”
“He died last year.”
“Did he want to find your brother?”
Julian drew deeply on his cigarette.
“I’d say no. Not at all. He was only too glad to be rid of him.”
“So other than informing the police, this is the first time you have independently tried to discover his whereabouts?”
Another drag on the cigarette. The tiny office was rapidly filling up with smoke. I suppressed my cough.
“Actually, I am here at my mother’s request,” said Cross. “She knows her life is coming to an end and she hopes to get some information about Stephen that is conclusive one way or the other.”
“That is understandable. Otherwise one finds oneself in a perpetual state of waiting.”
He flashed me a look of surprise.
“Exactly. Mother won’t give up hope.”
Out of the corner of my eye I could see the newspaper notice.
“Have you tried advertising yourself?”
“Frankly, no. We are a fairly wealthy family and I was afraid we’d have to deal with too many fraudulent responses. My mother cannot take it. She is dreadfully frail at the moment. If we do find him alive I will make sure she sees him.”
“And if he’s dead?”
“I will have to tell her. She is insisting on setting up a trust fund in his name in case he does deign to return.”
I’d meant to keep my voice neutral but something must have seeped through. He flushed.
“Perhaps you think that’s crass of me to even care, but it seems a waste to tie up money for a ghost. Don’t get me wrong, Miss Frayne, I loved my little brother. Nothing would give me greater pleasure than to see him again, but he has caused my mother much grief. Why should he saunter back, say, in three or four years’ time and simply pick up a hefty sum of money that he hasn’t ever earned?”
He couldn’t keep the bitterness out of his voice. So much for his claim to being spoiled. It seemed like Mom had been asking for a payback.
I reached for the newspaper and handed it to him.
“Did you happen to see this notice about a missing man?”
“No. I make a point of not reading the paper. Too depressing. Sometimes I wonder what we fought a war for. I don’t know if it changed much.”
A lot of veterans felt the same way and I sympathized with them.
I gave him a moment to read the notice.
“Could it be your brother?”
“Possibly, but it’s a very general description.”
He stubbed out his cigarette in a little metal pillbox which he took from his pocket. Another holdover from being in the army.
“I’ll need to actually see the body before I can be sure. Do you know how I should go about doing that?”
“As a matter of fact, I do. Let me make a phone call.”
He continued to stare at the newspaper as if it might suddenly speak up and give him answers. I dialed the morgue.
“Operator, will you put me through to Mr. Craig. It’s Charlotte Frayne calling.
Within a minute, Joe Craig came on the phone.
“Lottie! Where’ve you been? You owe me a lunch as I recall.”
I’d known Joe Craig for a couple of years and liked him a lot. He was the head mortician at the city morgue and knowing him had proved useful on more than one occasion. Our relationship might have gone further than friendship, but even standing on tip-toe, Joe couldn’t make five feet five inches. He swore it didn’t matter to him, but it did to me, so we had never progressed past the flirtation stage.
“Mr. Craig, I’m calling on behalf of a client. He thinks the body that was taken from the lake yesterday might be his brother.”v
“He’s within earshot I gather?”
“Quite so. We were wondering if you could give us any more specific details. Save an unnecessary visit to the morgue.”
“Sure. You won’t want to come here if you don’t have to. The fish and the water have had a go at the corpse’s face. It’s a mess. We did all the usual X-ray checks, but there were no traces of previous injuries or diseases that we could see. The body was thinner than it should be, but otherwise normal. Early twenties probably. Blond hair. Blue eyes.” He chuckled. “Do you want to do the usual test?”
Julian Cross was now watching me intently. I didn’t really like what I was about to do, but it was a good way to sift out the truth.
“Here goes,” said Joe. “Ask him if his brother had a small crescent shaped scar above his left ankle.”
“Nope, smooth as a baby’s you know what.”
It’s surprising how many people try to claim bodies that don’t really belong to them. Sometimes, through sheer longing, sometimes in the hope of recompense. Joe and I had devised a little trap to catch the liars and cheats.
“Thank you, Mr. Craig. I will pass this along.”
“All righty. How about lunch on Friday?”
“Thank you. Much appreciated.”
“Is that a yes?”
“Quite so. Goodbye.”
I hung up and faced Julian Cross.
“Did Stephen have a crescent shaped scar on his left ankle?”
“Good Lord. He did. He fell off a swing when he was a kid. Gave himself quite a bang. Oh my. Don’t tell me I’ve found my brother at last.”
“The best thing to do is go to the morgue and make a personal identification. Do you feel up to doing that?”
He slumped in the chair.
“I suppose there’s no help for it. We must get this settled. Were there any other marks on the body?”
“Nothing really significant. Apparently the young man was rather emaciated.”
Cross shook his head.
“Stephen was always a skinny runt.”
vHe reached into his jacket and took out a chequebook.
“How much do I owe you?”
“Good heavens, Mr. Cross. I haven’t done anything. You could have seen that notice yourself.”
“But I didn’t, and you did. Please! If you don’t tell me how much, I shall be compelled to improvise and that probably isn’t a good idea.”
He was right about that. I named our usual consultation fee, which he promptly doubled. Finally, he struggled to his feet and limped off.
I waited until I knew he had left the floor and I rang Joe. He answered immediately.
“He’s on his way.”
“He’s looking for a body. He’ll take whatever fits the general description of missing sibling.”
“His mother says she’s going to leave a trust fund for the missing brother unless he’s proven dead. Take a big chunk out of Julian’s inheritance, most likely.”
“I’m guessing he’ll ask for a prompt cremation to save his mother the pain of having to see the corpse of her son.”
“What do you want me to do?”
“Make it really difficult for him. Lots of red tape to go through. Nothing can proceed until the mother sees the body.”
“And by the way, Joe. You’ll notice that sometimes Mr. Cross will limp and sometimes he won’t.”
“Playing for sympathy, is he?”
“Something like that. I heard him coming down the hall and he wasn’t using a cane then but when he came into the office, he acted like a crippled war veteran.”
“Is he tall and good looking?”
“What does that have to do with anything?”
“Nothing. It’s just that you’ve got a certain tone in your voice.”
“That’s ridiculous. I do not.”
“Yes, you do.”
“Joe. Get out of here!”
“O.K. See you Friday?”
“We can pick up sandwiches and bring them here.”
“What? To the morgue?”
“Probably the coolest place in the city.”
I knew what he meant but it’s not just the weather that determines the temperature of the human heart.
Oh, I mentioned earlier that after encountering Julian Cross my life changed. What happened was that Mr. Gilmore, on hearing the story (and seeing the cheque), said he would promote me to acting partner. He said he was very pleased with my work.
And Joe and I did have lunch in the morgue. It was indeed wonderfully cool.