MOONSTONE CLIFFHANGER FICTION-NEW STORY TODAY!
Moonstone Books and ALL PULP are proud to present the first chapter in a new tale from MOONSTONE CLIFFHANGER FICTION!!!!
“They stole a what?” Ellen Patrick sputtered, getting fresh squeezed orange juice up her round, perfectly shaped nose. She began to cough and had to set the glass down on the stand next to her bathtub where she had been luxuriating when the irksome telephone rang. At first she gave some serious thought to ignoring it altogether. Its delicate, customized tones sounding as intrusive as any typical phone. And just as persistent. Still, to be interrupted in the middle of her bubble bath was nothing less than a capital offense, in her humble opinion.
When the voice on the other end turned out to belong to Maxwell Campion, star reporter for the Los Angeles Sentinel, she was somewhat placated. Max was a devilishly handsome fellow in his own roguish way, what with his wavy dark brown hair, trim mustache, and tall, slim masculine physique. They had met in Berkeley during their college days. Besides a major in journalism, Campion was also star quarterback for the football team. The lovely Miss Patrick of course was the lead cheerleader. They had dated often.
“Max darling!” she squealed delightfully while running a sponge over a long, shapely leg rising out of the clouds of floating bubbles. “It’s been ages, lover. What’s been keeping you away from my doorstep?”
At which point a laughing Campion had begun relating the story of a string of robberies that had been plaguing Hollywood recently. The police were baffled. It seemed a group of criminals had targeted the rich and famous of the district in their heists of a particularly peculiar nature.
Ellen picked up the half finished glass of cold juice and began to sip after asking the loaded question, “What’s so strange about these robberies?”
Then, as the chilled, sweet liquid was splashing against her throat, Max Campion voice replied, “The hoods are stealing cats.” Which was when Ellen choked.
“Hey, you all right, Ellen?” Max’s voice was sincerely concerned.
“Sorry,” Ellen managed to gasp. “I swallowed the wrong way.”
“What, a champagne breakfast pick-me-up?”
“Very funny, but no. If you must know I was enjoying some fresh squeezed orange juice while taking a bubble bath.”
There was a pause on the line and Ellen wondered if they’d been disconnected. “Max? Are you still there?”
“Oh, I’m here,” he responded. “I just had a wonderful mental image of you covered only by bubbles. Now that’s something I’d like to squeeze.”
“Still the same old dirty-mind, lover,” Ellen laughed.
“I thought that’s why you liked me, sweetheart.”
“Be that as it may, Mister Campion, can we please get back to the reason for your call. You are serious about someone stealing cats?”
“On my boy’s scout honor. Been going on for about two months now. All total four have been snatched.”
“Funny, I don’t remember reading anything about this in the papers.” Ellen scrunched her pretty face as she tried to recall the last week’s worth of local headlines.
“That’s because the cops don’t want us to write it up and all the animals have been safely returned, except for the one taken yesterday.”
“Really. You say all the cats were returned.”
“Uh-huh. Seems each of the victims paid off the ransoms promptly and actually got the little critters back safe and sound.”
“How much was the ransom for?”
“Well, that’s the other odd thing. Like I said, all these folks were the well-to-do around town. They all have bank accounts that would make the King of Siam jealous. But in all the heists, all the cat-nappers wanted was a few thousand bucks.”
“That is strange.”
“Oh yeah. Problem with the cops was each of these past victims didn’t report the crime until after they’d paid the ransom and reclaimed their pets. You can bet the coppers were none too happy about that. That’s why they want the lid kept on.”
“Okay, Max, it all sounds perfectly bizarre, but you still haven’t told me why this would be of interest to little ole me? I don’t even like cats, let alone own one.”
“No, but your big time charity matron does and had her precious fur-ball snatched yesterday morning in the park just outside her apartment.”
Ellen sat up in the tub, her playful banter forgotten, as she clutched the ivory handle receiver tighter. “Who was it?”
“Constance Miller. From what I hear she’s a mess along about now and could probably use a friendly shoulder to lean on.”
One hour later, the elevator doors opened on the fifth floor of the Palisades Tower and through them emerged a vision of patriotic splendor. Ellen Patrick had finished her bath, dried off and finished her toilette by adding a judicious amount of talcum powder and then applying a generous dose of expensive French perfume. Once done, she chose a particularly bright outfit that would help cheer her friend, Constance Miller.
Her hourglass figure was poured into a navy blue dress that barely touched the tops of her lovely knees. Her stocking feet moved gracefully into red velvet pumps with three-inch heels and a slim ankle strap. This cherry hue was matched by three other spectacular accessories; a big, wide belt, a cocky little hat riding atop her curly blonde tresses, and last but never least, her heart-shaped, bee-stung lips. Added to this ensemble were a small white handbag and a matching silk scarf giving her the appearance of an ultra-chic beauty draped in the American flag.
As she walked through the long corridor, the elevator operator and his remaining two male passengers were unable to take their eyes off her winsome shape, the hips rocking provocatively from side to side with each balanced step of her high heels. And for all her doll-like appearance, there was a distinct purpose to her walk that belied a hidden strength beneath a superficial exterior. There was a lot more to Ellen Patrick than met the eye, although what met the eye was altogether memorable as well.
As Ellen neared apartment 521, she encountered a group of uniformed police officers all milling about the open door to the suite. She didn’t pause a second and continued to move past them as if they weren’t even there. Of course they noticed her, and then some. For the most part they parted out of her way, their chattering stopped by her presence and obvious effect on them.
“Excuse me, ma’am,” a burly, square-jawed sergeant appeared in front of her, arms folded over his chest, effectively blocking entry. “And where do you think you’re going, now?”
“Good morning, Sergeant,” Ellen smiled her most charming smile. “I’m here to see my friend, Mrs. Miller. If you’ll kindly step aside and allow me to proceed.”
Everyone in the hall watched silently wondering who would win the confrontation, the lady or the bulldog copper? The decision was taken out of their hands by a familiar voice inside the rooms.
“Clancy, let the lady in. She’s okay.”
The seasoned cop looked over his shoulder, shrugged, then stepped aside with a barely heard grunt.
“Thank you,” Ellen said sweetly as she moved passed him. “You’re a dear.” That last jibe was for the benefit of his men, still gathered about and they immediately broke out into loud, raucous laughter. Clancy’s face turned a nice shade of pink.
“Detective Bishop, isn’t it?” Ellen had identified the young investigator’s voice immediately.
“Hello, Miss Patrick. Nice to see you again,” the handsome, sandy-haired detective smiled, his boyish good looks beaming.
“What, no Inspector McCarty?” Ellen knew the lanky, 5’ 10” Bishop was usually following after her friend’s coat tails most of the time.
“Actually, I’m in charge here,” Bishop announced proudly, his chest almost rising as the words came out of his mouth. “It’s my first big case.”
Looking up at him, Ellen cocked a pretty eyebrow realizing what the naive Bishop hadn’t. The cat snatchings were not a top priority to the downtown brass. The mere fact that they’d assigned it to the rookie was evident of that. But Ellen did not wish to belittle the earnest fellow and decided her own plans would be best served by her appearing noticeably impressed.
“Well, how exciting, Detective. I’m sure you’ll solve the case in no time at all.”
“Hmm,” Bishop’s face took on a sour note as he tipped back the brown fedora on his head. “I sure hope you’re right, Miss Patrick. The kidnappers haven’t made any calls yet.” He indicated a small writing table in the corner of the spacious, lavishly appointed living room. There, two older detectives, their jackets off, sleeves rolled up, were sitting around a telephone wired into another twin box receiver whose line ran into earphones draped around one of the bulls.
“As soon as they do, we’ll be able to get a trace on them.”
“I see,” Ellen nodded approvingly. “Tell me, where is Constance… ah… Mrs. Miller. I came here to give her some moral support.”
“Oh, right. Mrs. Miller is really busted up about losing her cat,” Bishop elaborated. “Her doctor was here last night. He gave her something to calm her nerves a bit. She was a real mess when we got here yesterday afternoon.”
“I wish I’d heard about it sooner myself,” Ellen confessed, biting her lower lip gently.
“Say, how did you get wind of this?” Barney Bishop was suddenly all detective. “No one was supposed to know about these pet abductions.”
“Relax,” the brown-eyed temptress said, patting Bishop’s arm like a big sister. “For all its stars and money, Hollywood is still a small community, honey. There was no way this was going to stay a secret for very long.”
“I guess you’re right. Still, if McCarty and the Chief get wind of this, it won’t look good for me.”
“You have my solemn vow, I won’t say a word of this to anyone.”
“Thanks, Miss Patrick, I appreciate that.” He reached into his jacket pocket and withdrew a packet of Beaman’s. “Would you like a stick of gum?” he asked, as he slipped one out for himself. It added to his childlike charm.
“Ah, no thank you. May I see Mrs. Miller now?”
“Right,” Bishop pointed to the door beyond the grand piano, as he began chewing the gum. “She’s in her bedroom.”
At the door, Ellen knocked and called out, “Hello, Constance. It’s Ellen Patrick. May I come in?”
“Ellen!” The door flung open and the stout, weary Constance Miller, attired in an oversized, purple bathrobe, stood looking a frightful mess. Dried tear tracks lined her cheeks and her eyes were still puffy and red. “You’ve come.”
The rich widow threw her arms wide and gave her young friend a desperate hug. “Oh, Ellen, it’s been awful. They took my precious Snowflake.”
“I know, dear,” Ellen said, disengaging herself. “Come, let’s sit down. You poor thing, you look a fright. Have you had breakfast yet?”
As they walked back to the bed and the stuffed chair beside it, Constance indicated the rolling cart with the silver tray. “They brought it up a little while ago, but I simply don’t have any appetite.”
The big woman sat back on her unmade bed and reached over to a framed picture on the night table next to an expensive porcelain lamp. It was of Snowflake. “My poor baby. What have they done to you?”
Ellen put down her purse and lifted the food cover to reveal bacon and eggs and two slices of buttered toast. There was a glass of orange juice and next to this a carafe of coffee. She began to pour some of the black liquid into a small, china cup. “Here, at least have some coffee, then we’ll see about getting some of this food into you.”
“Oh, it’s so horrible,” Mrs. Miller sobbed, “I don’t know what I’ll ever do without my precious Snowflake! She’s a pure white Persian. Did you know that?”
“No, I didn’t,” Ellen said, taking the photograph from her friend’s hand and replacing it with the hot coffee. “Here, come now. Drink a little. It will make you feel better.”
“You don’t have any pets, do you, dear?”
“No,” the lovely blonde answered, removing her cap as she reclined in the straight-back chair. She crossed her lovely legs and looked at the picture. “You got her right after Harry died, didn’t you?”
“Yes, she saved my life, Ellen.” Mrs. Miller took a sip of coffee and sniffled slightly. “If it had not been for my Snowflake, I might have gone mad with loneliness.”
Ellen Patrick thought the world of Constance Miller and she hated seeing her is such a distraught condition. But for the life of her, she simply couldn’t understand the time, love, and attention people like Constance could give a dumb animal. Many of her rich associates treated their pets better than some people cared for their own children. They spent extraordinary amounts of money on toys, gourmet food, and sleeping beds. So, although she couldn’t fathom the relationship herself, it was no surprise to Ellen that someone with a criminal frame of mind would resort to kidnapping, or “catnapping” as the case may be, the beloved pets of wealthy high society patrons. Not only would it guarantee these nefarious criminals a healthy ransom, but they had to know the police department would give them very little attention.
“Well, I’m here now, dear,” Ellen smiled happily to see the older woman finishing her drink. “So why don’t you tell me all about it. And take your time. I want to know the entire story.”
For the next ten minutes, between bites of food, Constance Miller composed herself enough to relate the events of the previous day. As was their routine, the hotel doorman always took Snowflake for a walk in the park after lunch. It was there he was assaulted by two men who knocked him down and ran off with the pure white cat.
“Did the doorman give the police a description of the two men who attacked him?” Ellen asked when the story was finished.
“Indeed, the poor man. He was in such a stupor when I came home. Kept saying it was all his fault and he should have been more careful. The hotel manager sent him home and told him to take today off.”
“And you’ve received no ransom note yet?”
Constance Miller’s eyes seem to freeze. She looked toward the door to the living area and then leaned over towards Ellen and whispered. “Shhh… you must be quiet.”
“This was folded in the front page of the morning paper that came with the food tray,” Miller explained as she withdrew a small, folded piece of paper from her bathrobe. She handed it to Ellen Patrick. “I haven’t told Detective Bishop about it yet.”
Ellen’s eyebrow arched as she opened the note and read it. In block letters, the note ordered the wealthy widow to bring ten thousand dollars to a garage in West Hollywood at midnight that evening. She was to come alone or the cat would be destroyed. The address for the rendezvous was written beneath the instructions. Ellen was familiar with the area.
“Oh, Ellen, I couldn’t tell that nice Detective Bishop. The note says I’m not to inform the police, and that I have to bring the ransom alone. Oh, what ever shall I do?” Mrs. Miller put a hand over her heaving bosom, exasperated. “I don’t even drive.”
“Relax, Connie,” Ellen advised, folding the paper and tapping it on the knuckles of her hand. “You won’t have to.”
“I don’t understand? What do you mean?”
“Do you have the money?”
“But of course. I can draw a check for it this second.”
“Then do so and make it out to my name.”
“But why… oh, no, Ellen. I can’t ask that of you? It’s much too dangerous.”
Ellen Patrick shrugged. “No more than a late night dinner date with half a dozen studio lotharios I’m acquainted with. And lord knows I’ve survived enough of those. Ha!”
“But sweetheart, these are brutish criminals capable of anything.”
“They only want money, Constance. If what Bishop told me is true, I’ll have your Snowflake back safe and sound before you know it.”
Constance Miller’s face was filled with concern for her friend. “Very well, Ellen. But you must promise me you’ll be extremely careful. If anything were to happen to you on my account, I could never forgive myself.”
“Don’t worry, I’ll be the model of caution.” Still, even as she said the words, Ellen Patrick could not disguise the merry twinkle in her eyes. She wondered what Constance would have thought had she realized she had just acquired the services of Hollywood’s most famous celebrity, the Domino Lady.
After leaving Mrs. Miller, Ellen Patrick drove to the First Bank of Hollywood, cashed the check, and left for home with a bag full of money. She put the green burlap sack into her bedroom wall safe and then sat down to plan her strategy. Since it was midday and the money drop was not scheduled until midnight, she saw no reason to curtail her planned activities. Her biggest challenge would be how to keep her anxiety in check until then.
Luckily one of her sorority sisters, Dolores Colquitt, was in town and the two of them were to have lunch together at the Brown Derby. Dolores, who had moved to New York after graduation, was now romantically involved with the famous detective-adventurer, Jim Anthony. The blonde, blue-eyed socialite was in town on business and Ellen was thrilled to see her again. Catching up would be great fun and hopefully take her thoughts away from what the night would entail.
It was ten minutes of twelve when the beams from Ellen Patrick’s sporty Auburn Convertible Cabriolet fell on the darkened Sunoco sign centered above the small gas station at the end of Dawson Street in West Hollywood. It was a residential neighborhood covered with white plaster houses that all looked the same, their roofs shielded with red Spanish tiles. Except for a solitary streetlight on the far corner, the place was painted in shadows.
The garage wasn’t anything out of the ordinary. Two gas pumps stood like silent sentinels near the quiet, empty boulevard. Behind them, the storefront was situated between two closed-up working bays. There was a stack of old tires to the right of the building and beyond them several autos in various stages of disrepair. The dirt road skirted around the building in a half loop and Ellen had a hunch that was where the cat-nappers would be waiting. She parked her car, shut off the lights and the engine. A full white moon was moving through an almost cloudless sky and illuminated the station all around her.
Now it was wait-and-see time. Ellen smoothed her green skirt and drummed her fingers on the steering wheel. Beside her on the passenger seat was a wire-mesh animal cage. On top of the cage was the moneybag.
“Alright, lady, you can get outta the car,” a gravely voice barked from the shadows behind the garage.
Ellen took a deep breath and climbed out into the warm night air. In her arms was the burlap sack.
“Where are you?”
“Over here, in the back.” A flashlight beam winked on and stabbed at her face. She blinked and tried to cover her face. Ellen was wearing a matching toreador jacket the same color as her skirt and soft leather gaucho boots. On her head was a flat-brim pillbox hat of the same green shade. Her long flowing hair was tied in a severe bun behind her head. It was all an illusion of appearance. She did not want these characters to remember her long, yellow tresses.
“Hey! You ain’t that Miller dame!”
“How astute of you,” Ellen said dryly, free hand still in front of her face. “Can you please shut that thing off or get it out of my face?”
The light moved to the ground as hoods materialized before her. Through the fading spots in her eyes, she identified two big men, similarly dressed in stylish suits and wearing wide brimmed hats. The one to her left had a mean scar over his right cheek and was holding a .45 automatic in his hand. It was pointed at her and he looked very upset. The fellow on the right had a brush mustache and thick eyebrows. In his hands was a balled up cat.
“The Miller dame was to bring the cash,” the gun-wielder repeated. “No one else!”
“You must be joking,” Ellen chuckled. “Have you ever seen Constance Miller? There is no way in heaven she could make it out here in the middle of the night like this by herself. And what difference does it make?” The pretty blonde lifted up the sack. “I have your money right here.”
The man with the gun looked confused, but his gaze was clearly on the bag. His partner, petting the sleeping feline looked from Ellen to his pal anxiously. “Aw, come on, Eddie. She’s got the dough. Let’s just give her the damn cat and get out of here before a radio car goes by.”
Eddie made a grimace and shook his head reluctantly. “Alright. Alright. Give me the bag.”
Ellen approached him calmly and handed over the heavy sack. Ten thousand dollars was not light pocket change.
“It better be all here,” Eddie warned hefting the sack while at the same time putting his gun away in a shoulder rig. “Okay, Jack. Give her the cat.”
The second hood gently handed Ellen the dozing Snowflake. “She’s just sleeping.”
“Thank you.” Ellen cradled the cat in her arms. The animal moved its head, opened her eyes, looked up at her and then snuggled back into the crook of her arm.
Eddie had opened the top of the sack and was shining the flashlight into it, an ugly smile spreading over his face.
“Can I go now?” Ellen asked.
“Sure, doll. Beat it. And tell your friend not to go blabbing to the coppers if she knows what’s good for her.”
“I’m sure,” the blond sneered as she returned to her car. Once inside she carefully placed Snowflake into the cage before starting her engine. When she turned on the headlamps, both men were gone. They must have their automobile parked in the back, she surmised as she stepped on the gas and rolled onto the deserted road.
Ellen raced down the street to the corner, spotted a billboard and quickly pulled off the road and rolled to a stop behind it. She shut off her lights but kept the engine purring. From where she was parked, she could look into the rearview mirror and see the gas station. She crossed her fingers that the hoods hadn’t departed while she was finding this hiding spot. A few minutes ticked by and then headlights cut across the dark street from behind the garage. A gray Buick sedan appeared and turned in her direction. Ellen let out a sigh. She took her foot off the brake and allowed the Cabriolet to roll forward a few more yards wanting to make sure she was not visible when the crooks drove past.
The sedan rocketed by and she counted to five before putting on her lights again and returning to the road. She could just make out the receding glimmer of the car’s lights as it headed into the distant landscape that was the Beverly Hills countryside. She fed gas to the Auburn’s efficient engine and took off after the unsuspecting pair. As she drove along, maintaining a good distance between them, Ellen pondered over events back in the gas station lot. It was obvious that Eddie and Jack between them didn’t have a single working brain cell. They were hired thugs doing the bidding of a third, as yet unknown, party. But who was that person and what was the real purpose behind the cat-heists? Again the logic was skewed in that any of the victims, to include Constance Miller, would have paid three times the ransom that had been demanded of them. If the crimes were solely for monetary gains, then the requested sums just didn’t make any sense at all.
Digging into her purse set on the dashboard, while steering with one hand, Ellen pulled out a pack of cigarettes and using her mouth, tugged one free. Using the same hand, she fished into the purse and found her silver plated lighter, the one with the domino design on it. Lighting the smoke, she had a thought that some day car manufacturers would be smart to install battery charged lighters into their consoles. It sure would make things easier for people to light up while driving.
There was little traffic through the rolling hills at this late hour and Ellen had no trouble following the Buick as it wound its way further from the center of the famous community with its million dollar mansions. Eventually the scenery opened to long empty stretches and she started wondering how much further she was going to have to drive. No sooner had the thought crossed her mind than the lights in front of her veered off the road and disappeared. Ellen sat up straighter and slowed down as her car went past a dirt road by which a sign was erected: Carson Lumber and Construction. She spotted the gray Buick rolling through stacks of cut timber and hastily pulled off the road. Through the trees, she could just see the sprawling lumberyard beyond. There were several huge structures at the middle of the site and it was amidst these that the gray car had disappeared. In the stillness of the night she could hear the slamming of car doors. So, they had reached their destination. What came next was going to be the tricky part. But she still felt confident that with just the right amount of courage, and a little luck, she could pull it off.
Now stealth was called for and her headlamps were again extinguished. She shifted into reverse and carefully backed up along the road and into the dirt entrance. The moonlight was sufficient enough for her to carefully weave her way past several rows of hewn lumber rising to twenty feet on both sides of the road. She was approaching the yard’s buildings and deftly eased the little convertible backward into a gap between two towers of planks.
Two minutes later she was standing beside the open car door and preparing herself for action. She hastily removed the short jacket and threw it into the back seat. This revealed her tunic to be the top of a satin white evening gown that exposed her pink arms and was cut daringly low in the front. Next she unclasped a button clip on her dark gown and peeled it off her hips. Off came her boots to be replaced by silver pumps with two-inch heels. Generally she preferred sexier stilettos, but a crime-fighter had to be practical as well as smartly outfitted. She picked up her reversible dress, spun it inside-out and refastened it around her tiny waist. Voila, she was now attired in a flowing white gown to match her top; with two long slits along the sides that revealed her graceful legs as she moved.
Finally she unhooked the pins in her hair and shook it free to cascade down her bare shoulders. Ellen’s hair curled at the ends and was a distinctive trademark of the persona she was now adapting. From behind the driver’s seat, she produced a black cape, throwing it over her bare shoulders and from the car’s glove box the last two items to complete her transformation. One was a black domino mask that fitted snuggly about her eyes and the last was a small, silver-plated automatic with a six-round clip.
“This shouldn’t take long, Snowflake,” she told the sleeping cat.
Ellen Patrick had driven into the lumberyard. Now the Domino Lady was on the prowl.