But all this was last night, Harry reminded himself. Today was a different matter. He was in the sanctity of his office now and capable of clearer thinking. Paula Ralston had accomplished the first phase of her mission. The next move was his. Seeing the clients, he rationalized, was not violating the regulations. And for the moment it satisfied her.
She certainly was a determined girl. Anyone would think, watching her operate, that a lab technician was a job of world-shaking importance. What the hell, he shrugged, if the girl didn't look out for her own interests, she wouldn't have a successful business. There's only one way to keep clients happy and that's to keep them busy.
Besides, her maneuvering wasn't going to work anyway. He just couldn't hire any of them. His problem now was to stall her for a couple of days so he could keep seeing her. In the end he might possibly tell her the army had refused to accept any of them.
He glanced out the window and saw the Weapons Development Center across the parade ground. Business appeared to be going on as usual. Routine. Quiet. Cautious. High time I start thinking seriously about that replacement, he thought.
There was a knock at the door.
Miss Conway bounced in. "They've started to arrive. The first one is a Mister Thompson."
"Okay, let's get started. Send him in."
Thompson was a small, roundish man in his mid-forties. He remained quite at ease during the interview. Harry began the session in the usual dull manner, formulating his questions from the several sheets of information Mr. Thompson had brought with him.
It wasn't long before Harry detected something unusual about the man. But he couldn't determine what it was. He became more alert, more interested as the interview progressed.
"Where are you from originally, Mr. Thompson?"
"Oh, yes." He glanced at the written information. "I see you went to the University."
"Yes, sir. My practical experience is documented on the second sheet."
What was it about this guy? He was overly polite but that could hardly be considered strange. His answers were brief, to the point, even curt. That was just a personality trait, Harry supposed. Couldn't condemn a man for that.
"How long did you live in Chicago?"
"Twenty-one years, sir."
"Are you married?"
He had noted before that Mr. Thompson had a distracting habit of patting his hair. Now he knew why. He was wearing a toupee. Harry wondered if the poor guy was sensitive about it. If he was that conscious of it, it might account for his strange attitude.
"Thank you for coming in, Mr. Thompson. I'll submit your papers to Colonel Waters. If he has any further interest in you, don't be surprised if you receive a visit from a couple of Intelligence agents. That's routine for this job. I just tell you in advance so you won't worry."
"I understand," he said, rising and checking his toupee once more. "Many thanks to you, sir." He shook Harry's hand and left the room.
Harry glanced at the papers again. Mr. Thompson's background was impressive indeed. There didn't seem to be much question as to his ability. But what a queer duck he was!
The second applicant was a short, wiry man named Chase. Like his predecessor, he was brief and to the point with his answers. He let his qualification papers speak for themselves. He was formal and polite.
Midway through the interview Harry noticed that he too was wearing a toupee. If that wasn't the damnedest coincidence! Fortunately Mr. Chase didn't have the annoying habit of patting his head every thirty seconds. Harry guessed he either had a more expensive one or was just endowed with more confidence that it would not slip off.
The interview over, Mr. Chase offered his thanks and strolled out.
Harry had a few moments to himself before Paula's third client arrived. He thought about the first two men. Funny thing about toupees ... even the most expensive ones could always be detected. He couldn't quite understand why the two men wore them. They were often used by playboys, actors, self-styled over-age Romeos, people whose niche in society depends upon their looks. But not scientists or technicians. In fact Harry couldn't remember ever having known one such person who shunned his baldness in this manner. That didn't mean they had no right. But it did seem peculiar as hell.
By the time the third interview was over Harry Payne's curiosity was ablaze. Applicant number three, Mr. Boles, was not only wearing a toupee but had gone one step further. Just north of his mouth there was a mustache! A good-looking mustache, well groomed and shaped, but phoney as a wax banana.
For a moment he thought Paula Ralston might be perpetrating a joke of elaborate proportions. He rejected the idea as fast as it came to him. He didn't know the girl very well yet, but he knew her well enough to know she was strictly business. She wanted one of these men to get that job.
He flipped the intercom button for Miss Conway. She might be able to tell him ... indirectly.
"You wanted me, Mr. Payne?"
"Yes, Miss Conway. The three men who've already been in here ... have you noticed anything strange about them?"
Her eyebrows merged and spelled perplexity. She pursed her lips and gave the matter the gravest consideration. Then she concluded, "Yes, something very strange."
Harry was hopeful. "What was it?"
"None of them did very much talking. Strictly anti-social types."
Harry groaned, realizing he should have known better. "Thank you, Miss Conway. That's all."
"The fourth guy is waiting outside."
"Let him sit for a couple of minutes, then send him in."
He decided to put the whole matter out of his mind and get the interviews over as fast as possible. There were other, more serious duties to attend to. The toupee episode was probably nothing more than a crazy coincidence anyway. Strictly an item for Believe-It-Or-Not.
By two o'clock that afternoon the four remaining candidates had come and gone. And Harry Payne sat at his desk in the immediate aftermath questioning his sanity. All seven men wore toupees! It was incredible but true. And now the matter was one of deep and abiding concern to him. There was nothing funny about it. There was a touch of the macabre in it that rendered his flesh cold and weak.
He lit a cigarette and tried to pull his thoughts together. Seven men applying for the same job; seven men with one thing in common; seven men as bald as Doctor Cyclops. Harry had to abandon the notion that sheer coincidence brought these men together. That was too fantastic. They were brought together by design.
Their backgrounds varied in that they had all worked and come from different parts of the country. But those facts were only on paper. It was an odds-on bet they all knew each other. There was even something about the order in which they arrived at the office that indicated a pattern or an over-all plan. Numbers three, five and six had worn false mustaches.
If it was true the seven men were well acquainted then Paula Ralston could undoubtedly give him some answers. Harry had another dinner engagement with her at five o'clock. But this date, he told himself, would be different. He was going to be all business until he learned exactly what she was involved in.
He picked up the phone, got an outside line and dialed. Frank Barnes was a private detective. A good one. Harry was sure he could rely on him for a small favor.
A subdued, resonant voice answered on the other end.
"Frank, Harry Payne here."
"Harry! Where you been hiding?"
"I need a favor."
"Only time you ever call me, you ingrate."
"There's a dame called Paula Ralston. Runs a business called Ralston Personnel Consultants. How soon can you get anything on her?"
"How soon do you need it?"
"Today, if possible. You can call me at home. Any hour."
After promising Frank to meet him for lunch one day Harry sank into an easy chair and tried to shake the unnerving effect the seven men had had on him.
Maybe he shouldn't have called Frank. This might be something he should have informed the army about. No. They'd want to know what business he had seeing the seven men in the first place. He didn't have much of an answer for that one.
Driving along Woodward Street toward Fourth Avenue, Harry was beset with one nagging question. Why had Paula Ralston never brought any of her clients to see him before? He was the dispenser of over a hundred good jobs that offered high salaries. The answer was just as persistent as the question. Lab Technician was the only security job he handled. She was determined that one of her men get that job at any cost.
It wasn't a very pleasant thought. Harry didn't want to believe it. He didn't want to believe that Paula Ralston was going to mean trouble for him. And yet he knew that's exactly what she meant.
She was waiting for him at Maria's. She kissed him as he slipped into the booth beside her. Through four drinks and a six-course dinner he watched her smile. That smile could melt down the door on a bank vault. He noticed how she laughed at all of his wisecracks. When it was her turn to talk she talked about him. She offered a toast to their closer friendship, with special emphasis on the word "closer."
But she did not mention the seven men. That was the smart approach, Harry ventured. She'd save that until she got home and slipped into something more comfortable.
He stood alone in Paula's living room nursing a scotch on the rocks. The night before he had been too concerned about his progress with this latter-day Aphrodite to give a damn about the place she lived in. He glanced around the room. Every inch reeked of success. The furniture was sleek, modern, exquisitely contoured ... like its owner. There wasn't much question about it, Paula Ralston made a lot more dough than he did. But how? That was the question.
She came out of the bedroom and mixed herself a drink. She was a living dream in a black lace negligee. Transparent. It figured. A lot of things were beginning to figure.
"Shall I tell you a secret?" she asked.
"I didn't think you had any left." He couldn't take his eyes from the negligee.
"I think Mr. Chase and Mr. Boles are the best of the seven. I think they come closest to what you're looking for." She lifted her glass and clinked it against his.
Harry smiled. He wasn't looking at her anymore. It was more of an education to look through her. She was good. Damn good. She could lull you into believing the Grand Canyon was brimming over with silver dollars, all yours for the taking. It was next to impossible to doubt the sincerity in her face.
"I liked all seven of them," he said. "But since you know them better than I do I'll take your recommendation that Chase and Boles are the best."
She moved closer to him. He could feel the warmth of her body.
"We're making some progress, Harry. We've narrowed the field down to two candidates."
Harry kept her maneuvering. "Paula, I'm still faced with the problem of finding a way around the regulations. I can't hire either one of them until I solve that."
Nothing stopped this girl. Nothing even slowed her down. She moved still closer to him. "There's a way around anything if a man has the right incentive to look for it."
He knew what the right incentive was. He didn't have to go looking for that. He laid his drink down, put his arms around her and kissed her. They walked to the sofa. Paula stayed close to him, the ever thoughtful, loving female companion. She rubbed his back and neck and sprinkled him with soft moist kisses. She never mentioned her clients again. And Harry promised to hire one of them the following day.
He was anxious to get back to his apartment to find out if Frank Barnes had called. As he drove back along Woodward Street he couldn't put Paula out of his mind. He already had her character pegged. But what was she up to? What was her goal? She wasn't doing all this for a lousy commission. The stakes were bigger than that.
In a way it was too bad she was going to have to settle for less than she bargained for. If her seven clients hadn't been so phoney she might have gotten away with it. But why was it necessary for them to be phoney? Why should a girl as shrewd as Paula send seven men in disguise to see ...
Disguise! Somehow that word threw a different light on the matter. The men had all been disguised in places where hair should grow. They were not bald. There was something abnormal about them. And Harry was ninety percent certain what it was. The answer was incredible. There was still a ten-percent margin for error. For Miss Paula Ralston's sake he hoped he was wrong.
Frank Barnes' message was waiting for him at the switchboard in the lobby. The word "urgent" was written on it.
He raced upstairs and picked up the phone. Frank answered on the first ring. He sounded like a man with a gun at his back.
"Harry, what the hell kind of a mess have you gotten yourself into?"
"Why? Something go wrong?"
"You bet your sweet life. An hour after you called me to check on that Ralston dame a guy came into the office and told me to lay off."
Harry was silent. And scared. His answer looked better all the time.
"What did the guy look like?"
"He looked important, Harry. And he meant business. He had a big bulge in his pocket and he made it very clear I'd be up to my funny bone in hot lead if I relayed any information about this girl to you."
"Frank, was the guy wearing a toupee?"
"A toupee, a hair piece!"
"How the hell should I know. I wasn't interested in his coiffure. He was wearing a black overcoat, he kept his hand on that bulge and he didn't care much for smiling. Harry, you in trouble with this dame?"
"What did you find out about her, Frank?"
"Between the time you called and the time the guy strolled into the office I found out she's only had this Personnel Consultant racket for about three months."
"You didn't learn anything else?"
"After I got warned I decided to wait'll I talked with you."
Harry was silent again. His mind was working.
"Frank, what causes baldness?"
"Baldness! Geez, Harry, you're in a fat mess of trouble and you're worrying about losing your hair?"