**Please see Part One for Disclaimers
Southern Comfort: Youve Never Been Nowhere
"Hold all my calls," I said to Meg as I closed the door. I knew this had to be driving her crazy, hell it was driving me crazy, but I couldnt show her that. I turned to my guests. Dick was taking Mels coat off her shoulders and she flashed him a sweet smile. Lucky bo. "Please have a seat." I gestured to the two chairs in front of my desk.
"Thank you, Miss Covington." Dick smiled and took a seat. Mel, I noticed, didnt even make eye contact with me as I walked around my desk. Instead, she took her seat and sat, as she did that first night, with a rigid posture and hands folded neatly upon her lap. Damn, was being comfortable a sin to Southern women?
Dick, on the other hand, was sitting comfortably with his legs crossed. I put my gumshoe training to use and gave him the once over with a sly eye. He had his glad rags on- a sharp gray pinstripe suit and shiny black shoes. The only color came from a red silk tie expertly knotted around his neck. It was flashy in a subtle way, which I assumed was a lot like him. His wavy black hair and neatly trimmed mustache capped off the effect: handsome, rich and way too friendly. Yup, he was a real butter and egg man. I wondered how many women, in how many cities, Dick had at his beck and call. I looked at Mel, and wondered how any man could want more. I shook my head and turned my attention back to Mr. Handsome.
His brown eyes regarded me openly and almost flirtatiously. I can tell you right now, Dick didnt have much of a poker face. Dumb bastard. Here he was trying to put the make on me when he had a dream on heels sitting next to him. In a way, I could almost feel sorry for him. Kind of like the way somebody feels sorry for an art collector who neglects a valuable painting. Pop and I once worked on a case for an art collector. Dick was sort of like that guy. He had this incredible painting, which he just let hang on the wall, set apart with lights but still collecting dust. I didnt know who it was by, but it was beautiful to me. Maybe once in a while hed stop to look at it but only out of pride of possession. It held no meaning to him, the beauty that he saw was because someone else wanted it. All the while that painting, the one that sat on his wall, could have been the very painting that inspired another by simply being what it is. Ah what the hell, I was never one for waxing poetic and I never had much patience for dumb bastards.
"Im not one for formality so just call me Jan," I said as I sat in my leather chair, taking some comfort in the slight creak of the worn leather. I love leather. The way you can soften it and make it yours. Lord knows I needed something to be mine. "Well, what can I do for you?" I directed the question toward Mel, who simply raised an eyebrow over a glacial blue eye. I braced my wingtips against my desk to keep myself from sliding out of my chair.
However, before Mel could answer, Dick beat her to the punch. "Wed like to retain your services."
"Services?" I laughed. "Im not running some stud farm, Mr. Williamson."
Dick looked slightly flustered. "Please, theres a lady present." He made a slight motion with his head toward Mel, like the dope didnt realize that I knew she was there. Oh yeah, I knew that every tall Southern inch was present in my office. I was aware of how her jet-black hair felt like smooth silk and how her voice strained in the heat of passion. Even if I wanted to, I couldnt forget that Mel Pappas was in the room.
"Its quite all right, Richard. Janices colorful language doesnt bother me," she paused to look me directly in the eye, "really it doesnt. And please call me Mel, Janice."
I smiled. "Okay, Mel." I dont know about colorful language but the images popping into my head under her frank stare were certainly colorful enough for me.
I cleared my throat and somewhere off in the distance I heard Dick continue. "Even so, Melinda, I might ask that Miss Covington choose her language more carefully?" I looked at Dick. Who did this stiff think he was? This was my office, my time, and my city. I was gonna talk however damn well I wanted to and I made sure he knew that with a hard stare from my green eyes. It was Dicks turn to clear his throat. "Anyway, I understand that you and Melinda met once already to discuss the preliminary details."
With a thud, my wingtips hit the floor and I got up to my feet. I moved over to the liquor cabinet. It was time for a drink. "Yeah, thats right, but we uh, didnt really get anything squared away." I looked back toward Mel and swore I saw a brief flicker of fire in those eyes, but then again, maybe not. Shit, I was being ridiculous to think otherwise. I mean here the dame was sitting with a guy who had some serious dough. I was just an experimentation, a nothing. Ive been less and Ive been more but it never mattered before. "Im about to dip the bill," I said through clenched teeth. "You two want something?"
Dick checked his watch then shook his head at me with some disapproval. "No, were fine." he said.
So, the chump thought he was talkin for both of them now? I turned around to face Mel. "What about you, Mel? I still have some of that Southern Comfort you seemed to like so much."
I heard Dick guffaw. "Melinda doesnt drink-"
"Why thank you, Janice. That would be lovely."
I nodded and turned back toward the liquor cabinet. I had to hide my small smile of triumph. I fixed Mel a glass of SC-neat. As I handed her the drink I was careful to keep my fingers away from hers. I needed to play this straight. Melinda Pappas was as good as married and I didnt need the headache of thinking otherwise. In all my days of carousing around Id never been there or done that. Sure as hell, I didnt want to start now. I took a sip of my bourbon. "As I recall, Mel would be taking a trip to New York to retrieve a family heirloom or something, and she wanted someone to accompany her."
"Actually, all that has changed. The heirloom is coming into San Francisco in a week and instead of New York, the destination is Chicago. So, youll be accompanying Melinda to Chicago with the heirloom," Dick said a bit gruffly.
"Why the change?"
"We have a friend of the family, an appraiser in rare artifacts who will be taking a look at it. He moved from New York to Chicago recently," Mel stated as she straightened out the hem of her blue dress.
"Chicago, huh?" I took a sip and shrugged my shoulders--more to relax than appear uninterested. "Well, with all due respect," I looked at Mel, "Im not a baby sitter." Did I just say I was going to play this straight? Funny what a little anger will do for you. Well, I tried but I was never good at being straight. So, in true Covington fashion, I had to give her a little dig. Hell, I was angry. Angry for the way she never called me; angry for the way she never sent me a telegram, angry with her for being so goddamned beautiful and angry for the way she made me sweat in all the right places. But most of all, I was angry because she was with Dick and not with me.
"I assure you, Janice, I do not need a baby sitter." There was steel in Mels voice and it suited her nicely.
From the pocket of my wool trousers, I pulled out my silver lighter. I held it between my thumb and forefinger, alternately opening and closing the flip lid. It was a habit I picked up along the way to help me think. "Maybe not, but like I said before, I usually dont get hired for my muscle. Yknow what I mean? You want someone just for protection or is there something else I should know about?" I sat on the edge of my desk.
"Well, to be quite honest there is," Dick answered. "We do need protection and frankly you werent my first choice." It was my turn for the upturned eyebrows. Dick continued, "Actually, I had given Melinda your name only as a reference in hopes you could recommend her to another...male detective. It was she, however, who decided that you should be hired for the job. Dont get me wrong, Miss Covington. I was very pleased with the work you did for me before but still, you have to admit theres no substitute for a little muscle."
"Oh I dont know about that, Richard. Ive found that on more than one occasion a little quick thinking has gotten me more success than bulk" I reached down to pat my .38. "A little iron never hurt the situation either, but if you want someone else I can recommend someone else," I said with as calm a voice as I could manage.
He smiled triumphantly. What a dick. "Well if youd rather not take the job-"
"I do wish you would consider it, Janice." Mels sweet voice cut Dick off, again. "I am of the opinion that you would be the best person for the job. When last we talked I became very confident in your...abilities."
I swear I could have blushed but being a peeper had taught me a few things about hiding my emotions. Jesus, I was about say yes when every sane thought in my head screamed out NO! But she was irresistible to me and no matter how hard I tried to deny it, it was the truth. My only hope was that she would somehow see it like I did. "How would we be getting to Chicago?"
Mel smiled, her teeth perfect and white. "Im afraid well be flyin. You might have to forgive me if I appear nervous. You see, I dont care much for air travel."
"To tell you the truth neither do I. Im not that big a believer in mans ingenuity but I am a believer in gravity."
Mel laughed and it was music to my ears. Dick, on the other hand was in full frown mode. "So, I take it you will be taking the case?"
So, now it was a case? There was something Dick was hiding but I couldnt put my finger on it. I took a drink and eyed Dick over the rim of the glass. "I take it that since you need some protection youre expecting some trouble?"
Dick shrugged and straightened out his red silk tie. "No, but you must understand, I love Melinda very much." He paused to look at Mel and my stomach tightened. "I just want her safe as possible. After all, we are to be married very soon."
I looked down into the glass I cradled between my hands. "Im very happy for you...both." I looked up to catch Mels eyes intently on mine. "Ill need to know what this heirloom is, what its worth and-"
"The heirloom is very valuable and Mel has had several offers for its purchase. She has refused of course. Being a scholar she wants the heirloom to go to a museum in Charleston. Like I said, we arent expecting any trouble. We havent told anybody that its coming in to San Francisco. In fact, the only people that know are Melindas broker and the appraiser in Chicago. We believe that discretion is prudent considering the uniqueness of the piece."
"Yes, Janice. That is where I make my home. I would like to have the heirloom close by," Mel said.
"Yes, thats right, we will be making our home in Charleston but the heirloom must go to Chicago. We have an expert up there who will authenticate the item for us."
"And afterwards, it goes down to Charleston? I take it Chicago wont be my only destination?"
Dick shook his head. "No, but if thats going to be a problem then perhaps you could go ahead and recommend someone else-"
"Richard," Mel cut him off. "Lets just give Janice some time to think about it."
Oh yeah, now this was interesting. Dick had made it pretty clear that he didnt want me on the job and when people dont want me on something thats when I know I should be in on it. Mel on the other hand, was a tougher read. What the hell was with her? I swear the way the dame looked at me she was remembering my desk the same way I did: with her on top of it. Like I said, it was all very interesting. "No need, Mel. Ill take the job."
Mel smiled again and damn if I couldnt stop myself from smiling back. Richard jumped to his feet. "Well, Im glad we have the preliminaries settled then. Miss Covington, I need to make a phone call...with some privacy if that is at all possible?"
"Sure," I said as I stood from my desk. I walked over and opened the door to my office, just in time to see Meg scurrying back to her own desk. I rolled my eyes and gave her a look that said she was caught. "Meg, run down to Joes and pick me up a box, will ya? Richard needs to use your phone and he wants some...privacy."
Meg nodded as she put on her coat. "Sure, Janice. I need some air anyway."
"Anything for you, Jan," she said as she left the office.
I turned to find Dick looking over my shoulder and eyeing Megs departing form appreciatively. What a hound. "Feel free to use the phone."
"Thanks, wont be but a minute."
"Take your time." He smiled and I closed the door to my office. I turned toward my desk and was caught by the sight of Mels perfect postured back. Ah, now this was awkward. I didnt realize I would be alone with the Southerner. I took a moment to straighten out my tailored vest and run a hand through my hair before I moved back into her line of vision. Jesus, I was primping for her. What next, nose powder? Not in this lifetime, sister. I moved purposefully toward my desk.
"So... your secretary seems quite nice," she said with that certain drawl.
She made a gesture toward the door. "Meg, that is her name isnt it?"
"Oh yeah, shes a good kid." I walked over to the window, which looked out on the street below. It was late afternoon and the street was getting busier since people were starting to get off work. I took a moment to study a streetcar lumbering up the hill.
"Really, Janice, you call her a kid but if I were to venture a guess, I would say shes not that much younger than you?"
I turned back toward her and had to stop my voice from cracking. Melinda was walking toward me. Her long legs prompting the gentle sway of her hips. "Yeah, I guess you would be right." Nothing else really came to mind except that sentence.
She stopped a few feet away and held out her glass. The Southern Comfort was gone. "Thank you for the drink, Janice."
"Anytime. Would you like another?"
A smile, which I can only describe as sly, played across her face. "Why yes Janice, I would love another drink but I dont think that would be wise." Then she turned from me. "You and Meg make a lovely couple."
"You two seemed...rather intimate earlier."
Oh yeah, earlier when my main objective was making Mel jealous. I do believe, to paraphrase the Southernism, it worked. "Yeah, well, me and Meg have been through quite a bit."
"Yes, Im sure you have." Her reply was terse and it almost made me regret my childish game until Dick walked back into the room.
"Im sorry, Melinda but Ive got some business to take care of. I wont be able to finish giving Miss Covington the details." He looked apologetically toward me and I simply shrugged. No skin off my back. "Miss Covington, are you free tonight?"
I checked the clock on the wall. "Yeah, I guess, why?"
"Well Id like Melinda to accompany me back to the hotel but Im afraid that my business will occupy me well past dinner. If you would like to hear the rest of the details of the case, perhaps you could come to our hotel room and accompany Melinda to dinner."
Mel looked embarrassed and slightly angry. "Really Richard, Im quite capable of eating alone or finding my own company for dinner. No need to coerce Janice into it. Why, Im sure shes got more interestin plans for dinner."
Actually I didnt and the thought of spending another evening with Mel was just too good to pass up. "I dont mind at all, Mel. That is if you dont mind the company?"
The Southerner looked surprised. "Are you sure Janice?"
"A girls gotta eat."
Dick clapped his hands together like a little boy who gets what he wants. "Great! Its set then."
Mel smiled at me and I swore I needed to work on stiffening up my knees. It could hurt a girls reputation if she swooned every time a gorgeous Southerner smiled at her. "What time would be good for you?"
"How about seven?"
"That would be wonderful," she said. Yeah, I was feeling kind of wonderful myself.
End part 2...stay tuned for the next edition.