The call from steel magnate Charles Weldon interrupted my plans to spend a pea-souper of a morning with two fingers of Jack Daniels and a newspaper. But I knew I wouldn’t regret it when I stepped into the tycoon’s home office. Whatever made one of the richest men in California this jumpy was bound to pay well.
Weldon started talking even before I sat down. “No good beating around the bush. My daughters are missing.”
I leaned forward in the leather chair. “Have you talked with the police?”
“Can’t afford the publicity with the ongoing merger.”
“Names? How long have they been missing?”
“Christine and Rosalind.” He handed me a picture of two beautiful dames smiling on a beach. “I went into their rooms to talk to them last night, and they were gone.”
His cheeks sank under the shadows around his eyes. I knew better than to bother with the usual questions about ransom notes. “You’ve been worried about them far longer, haven’t you?”
“Frankly, yes. They haven’t been themselves—moody, tired. At first, I thought it was the stress of this merger. But now I wonder if someone has a hold on them.”
“Do you have any reason to think that? Could a business enemy have moved against them?”
“No! Nigel Montgomery is my biggest rival in the merger, but his daughters are my girls’ closest friends.”
“Are you sure they haven’t simply slipped away for a few hours? They’re grown women, after all.”
Weldon looked me straight in the eye. “We’re close. They would’ve said something or at least cabled if their plans changed.”
The two opulent boudoirs revealed nothing helpful. No clothes missing. No added disarray. Only a heap of worn-down dancing shoes.
I left, wondering where to begin, and not expecting a lead from the first news board I saw outside: “San Francisco Mayor George Christopher’s Daughter Disappears!!!”
Since half-a-dozen other debutantes were either missing or evasive, I paid an afternoon visit to Iris, Mandy, and Debra Montgomery to see what they knew.
The classy Montgomery apartment in town, which had the reputation of hosting the cream of ‘Frisco society according to my few connections in high places, was eerily quiet.
As I knocked, my shoulder spasmed, sending pain through my body.
“Good afternoon. Oh! Are you all right, sir?” inquired the grandmotherly housekeeper who answered.
“Just this old injury acting up,” I said. “Got it in Normandy.”
Her eyes misted. “I lost my son in Normandy. I don’t know what I’d do without Michael, my other boy.”
“Are the Misses Montgomery in?”
“They raced away after lunch, I’m afraid.”
I grumbled, nearly upsetting a pile of tools as I turned to leave.
“Why did you want to see them?”
“I’m trying to find some of their friends. They’ve gone missing, and their parents are worried.”
“Missing!” Her hand fluttered to her ample bosom. “The girls won’t tell you anything.”
“No? Why not?”
“You know how secretive girls are,” she hedged.
My hunch was paying off. “Then it might be better if I follow them.”
She seemed to come to a decision and retrieved a chauffeur’s livery from a closet. “If you do, come back this evening around eight, wearing this.”
I thanked her. “Lot of tools around. Having some work done?”
“Yes,” she said, avoiding my gaze.
Dressed as the chauffeur, I didn’t receive a second glance from the three girls as I held the car door for them. Except the youngest. She’d be a knockout in a couple years but looked like what she was now—sixteen.
“Just get in, Debbie!” her sister prodded.
They directed me to a seedy corner of the city and had me stop at the last place I expected. An alley.
They giggled. “Don’t wait for us!”
I put on a sweater and threw the jacket in the trunk, where something caught my eye. Something intriguing enough to send me to the nearest pay phone for a quick call, before following the girls. They’d disappeared behind a door stenciled with the words “Silver Branch.” I had to fork over a Lincoln before the man let me in.
Inside, a house band played the latest tune as young people took to the dance floor.
I elbowed my way around the room until I found Christine Weldon, then slipped an arm around her waist and carried her into the dance.
“Do I know you?” Christine laughed at me with full lips, her sea-blue eyes sultry. A woman with more grace and passion than any of these younger girls.
Tongue-tied, whatever I meant to say got lost in the pulse her touch sent through me.
“Do you want to dance under the moonlight…”
Iris Montgomery cooed at her partner as they shimmied past. “Oh, Michael!”
I pulled myself together, spotting the other eleven missing girls around the club. “Your father’s worried about you, Christine.”
Two hours, a long conversation, and several phone calls later, Christine and I were back in Weldon’s office.
He looked years younger, but flummoxed. “Dancing?”
Christine blushed. “That’s all. Only for the last few weeks. Last night, it was so late we stayed at Mary Sutton’s house. I’m sorry, Pops. We needed a distraction. Iris suggested it.”
“But it was her boyfriend Michael’s idea,” I said.
“Yes. How did you…?”
“Michael used his mother’s access as housekeeper to steal from other tenants in the Montgomery’s apartment building. He suggested the girls go to the Silver Branch so there’d be a reason to drive the car down regularly. Then, in the confusion after the girls stayed longer last night, Michael nearly made off with his biggest haul yet. Until I found the tools from the apartment stashed in the trunk, along with a silver coffee set. On my information, the police are executing a few search warrants.”
Weldon shook his head. “I’m just glad to have my girls back. What do I pay you?”
I met Christine’s eyes. “Dinner with your daughter?”