1927, October 17, San Francisco. The day was gray, with low clouds that sat on the hills and threatened rain like cross old men. Around 5 the sun finally lost its hold on the bay giving in to the relentless press of the fog that covered the water like a sheet. That was when she arrived. The first I saw of her was the silhouette through the frosted glass in my office door. From that moment I knew there would be trouble, dames like her always meant trouble; The only question was who it would land on. She paused there, perhaps reeding my name and title: Robert Jones, Private Investigator. The placard outside the door was relatively new since I had only started up nine months ago. She opened the door without knocking, and came in like the whole world owed her money and she was about to collect. She was a woman who was used to being in control, and expected to be obeyed. I didn't move from behind my desk, and didn't bother asking any questions. A woman like that would start talking without any prompting from me.
She took off her trench coat, folding it over her arm while taking in my office. I knew what she was seeing. The sparse order to the room would probably grant a few points in my favor. On the other hand, the rug was threadbare and all my furniture had small nicks, to say nothing of the old burn mark on my desk. It painted a certain picture, that of a man fallen on harder times, but still determined to hold on in spite of all the world threw at him. I preferred to meet clients elsewhere when possible.
I took a moment to size up the dame while she was concentrating on the room; and my first impressions were only reenforced. She was tall for a woman, 5'9" or 10" at a guess, and she took advantage of every inch. She stood with her back straight and her chin up as if she were looking down on the world. Maybe she was, it was clear she came from money. She was wearing a dress that was clearly new and also clearly expensive. Not that it was in any way flamboyant. In fact, compared to some of the beaded contraptions that were in style, her deep blue-gray silk ensemble was downright conservative. The effect was offset by the strands of pearls that hung in three long loops from her neck. Real pearls, not those fake white beads every girl and her sister had a set of yet another sign she came from money. Her short, dark auburn hair was done in the latest style. Tight waves that fell just past her chin, framing her face and offsetting her dark blue eyes. She looked like a woman who, even if she hadn't seen Hell, knew exactly how to get there.
"Mr. Jones," she addressed me with a voice that was softer then I had expected. I kept my face blank. I had learned the hard way not to commit to anything before you knew exactly what you were dealing with.
"You probably don't remember me. My name is Annabelle Roads. You knew my father."
I did indeed. Captain Jonathan Roads had been my mentor back when I first transferred to San Francisco. That was back before half the cops were as dirty as those they hunted and retirement meant taking a pair of lead boots off the bay bridge. I hadn't seen the man in years, but that didn't mean I hadn't heard things. The Roads family had been cops for generations. The sons became cops, the daughters married cops. As a family they were as strong as any crime group in the area, and stronger then some. The last few years had been bad though. Apparently there had been a falling out between Jonathan and miss Annabelle's brother Daniel. Young Danny had been raised to lead the family when he got older, but someone hadn't liked that idea. He left town, supposedly to visit family in Chicago. Since then the balance of power had been shifting, and no one was yet sure how things were going to land.
"I'll be honest, Mr. Jones. I don't want to be here. I would rather not be asking a virtual stranger for help, but I'm afraid that's what it has come down to." She paused, watching for my reaction. I let her see enough to know I was paying attention.
"I'll get straight to the point. I believe someone is trying to kill me. I wan't you to find out who and why." She stood there, tall and strong as an oak, announcing her own death like it was the score of the latest Yankees game. I had to admit, she impressed me.
"Do you have any proof that someone is trying to kill you?" I kept my voice even as I spoke. She was a smart woman, and took the question not as an insult, but as the simple request for information that it was.
"Mr. Jones, I have already trusted you by coming here, but I'm afraid that's as far as I can go without knowing you're on my side. I'll be happy to provide you with all my information once you take the case."
It made sense. No one in their right mind would take on two opposing cases at once, especially if that put them between two of the families. That would be tantamount to suicide. Within hours of taking the case anyone with their ear to the ground would know I was allied with the Roads, at least for the time being. That was exactly what I didn't like about this case. The families were trouble, even the ones who were supposedly the good guys.
She watched me. I looked back, weighing my options. I was beginning to remember the girl I had once met. Back then she had been so full of life and innocence. 14 years old in a sky blue dress, drinking lemonade at some get-together. She had been just old enough that her father had started threatening any boys who came close, but still young enough to think anything was possible. It was a far cry from the woman in front of me, but remembering that girl, there was no way I could turn her down.
"Sit down, I'll take the case." I pulled out a sheaf of paper from an upper drawer in my desk and prepared to take notes. I looked away from her. I could already tell I was going to regret this.
She set her coat on the chair, but instead of sitting down she reached into her bag and pulled out a folder. She set it on the desk in front of me.
I flipped open the folder and found myself looking at a picture of her family. It was several months old at least, since they were standing out on the lawn of family house. The whole family was there, from grandparents to the youngest cousins. The one noticeable absence was Danny. Annabelle stood in the center of the picture between her mother and a man I vaguely recalled as her uncle.
"I'll assume that you know of the situation with my brother." She had taken her seat and was delicately pulling out a cigarette. She lit it with an elegant silver lighter and paused as if reviewing the facts. I pushed my ashtray over to sit in front of her. She nodded her thanks and continued.
"Last month my brother returned unexpectedly. He arrived in the middle of the night and in great distress. He claimed that someone had come to Chicago, tried to kill him. From his description they nearly succeeded. My father wanted him to stay here in Chicago where he could be protected, but he seemed to think it was someone in the family who was behind it. As you can imagine my father didn't like that. He's always been big on loyalty. They fought. In the end, my father gave him $500 and told him to never come back to San Francisco. He called his lawyer the next day to change his will. As of last week my children and I will get everything. My brother was completely cut off."
I checked her left hand and noted the lack of a ring.
"My father doesn't believe women can handle money. I can't inherit unless I marry. At the same time, he doesn't want a stranger waltzing in and taking what is not theirs. Any children I might have will get everything. If I die without, the money will return to the family." Judging by the way she held her cigarette she didn't like the situation. I wrote down the information and decided to change the subject.
"So you think the attempts on your life are connected to the will?"
"I think they are connected to my brother. The rest of the family doesn't like how my father handled things. If he can't control his own son, how could he possibly be trusted with the family."
I nodded. "But then why come after you?"
"Any number of reasons, depending on who is behind it. That is one of the things I wan't you to find out."
"And this?" I tapped the folder with its family picture.
"Basic information on my family: friendships, grudges, habits, that sort of thing. I can't be certain it is someone in the family, mind you. Someone from the outside may be trying to upset things even further."
I nodded. "And where will you be in all this?"
"Some friends in Los Angeles have been begging me to visit them. I thought I might take them up on their offer."
"How do I contact you?"
"I don't expect you to. I'll get in touch when I return, or send a telegram if I need to contact you urgently."
"My fee is $35 a day plus any extra."
Once again, she reached into her bag, pulling out an envelope. "$500, that should cover two weeks pay plus expenses."
She stood, ground out her cigarette, and put on her coat. I took a moment to check the money, not that I doubted her, but you can never be too careful. She turned to the door but paused before leaving.
"My father spoke very highly of you when you worked together." She didn't wait for my reply.