"Oh, Miss Ralston doesn't run an agency. She told me. Her business is much more exclusive than that. She handles very highly specialized people. That's the reason why ..."
"I know. That's why you gave her an appointment with me," said the exasperated personnel director. "Well, you can go right back out and tell her I've canceled the appointment. This is a security job we're filling and ..."
Before Harry could utter another syllable his attention was drawn to the doorway. The view to the outer office was blocked by a bundle of curves. The most alluring female bombshell his eyes had ever beheld put everything important out of his mind.
"I didn't realize you were being so inconvenienced, Mr. Payne. I'm terribly sorry." Her eyes drooped. "I can take my business elsewhere." Miss Ralston's voice was just above a half whisper. The words came out warm and intoxicating.
"No, wait! Wait a minute, Miss Ralston." Harry was out of his chair and at the door. He took her arm. "Who said anything about inconvenience? Come in. Come in. That'll be all, Miss Conway. Thanks."
The secretary giggled and left. Miss Ralston sat down and lit a cigarette. Harry noticed she was wearing a beige knit suit with a neckline that spoke volumes. Every curve was in the right place. Every movement had another movement all its own.
Harry knew she was bound to talk business and he knew there wasn't much he could do for her in that direction. But at thirty-five, and eligible, he just couldn't let this woman leave his office. Harry Payne was a sucker for a gorgeous face. He knew it and he knew the gorgeous face knew it.
"Tell me, Miss Ralston, when did my secretary arrange this appointment for you?"
"I called yesterday."
Harry arched his eyebrows and smiled. "Yesterday? What prompted you to call me?"
"You're looking for a laboratory technician, aren't you?"
"What gave you that idea?" he asked, not caring in the slightest what gave it to her.
"I make it my business to comb the papers every day, Mr. Payne. I came across the news of George Fisher's suicide and called you. Simple as that."
"You don't waste any time."
She smiled and pursed her lips. "Do you?"
"I try not to."
"I have seven clients who would qualify for the job. I'd appreciate it if you'd see them."
"Well, as a matter of fact, Miss Ralston ..."
She leaned forward with an inquisitive "Yes?"
Harry cleared his throat. "As a matter of fact I'm not supposed to do business with civilian agencies."
"Mr. Payne," she smiled demurely, "do I look like an agency? Or do I look like a Personnel Consultant?"
Now there was an opening, Harry thought, but it might be best to avoid it. "You're working to get someone a job. It amounts to the same thing."
"I see. Then how do you go about hiring your new personnel?"
"I do the soliciting myself. Sorry, Miss Ralston, but I don't make the rules and regulations."
But the lady was undeterred. She crossed her legs and sank further into the easy chair. Her eyes sparkled at Harry.
"These clients of mine are all top men, Mr. Payne. Why couldn't I just leave you their names? You can still do the soliciting. I'd be happy to forego my regular commission on this job. Call it the value of prestige."
Harry recognized another opening and this time plunged in. "Suppose we talk it over later. There's a place at Fourth Avenue and Woodward called 'Maria's.' Best Italian food in captivity. I'm through at five. What about you?"
She didn't have to say anything. Her eyes told him he would be having an Italian dinner that night. And not alone. She rose and walked in front of his desk.
"I'm so glad we have something in common, Mr. Payne. I can't think well on an empty stomach either."
After walking her to the outer office he came back to his desk. He took a deep breath and loosened his tie. Dreams like Miss Ralston didn't materialize every day. For a first meeting he figured he hadn't fared too badly at all. And if this first date went well he was sure he'd be seeing a lot of this girl.
It did not escape Harry's mind that here was a girl who was in the habit of getting what she wanted. But why not? Her powers of persuasion were Grade-A. They were so good they presented him with one big problem. He had regulations. Army regulations. He couldn't violate them. Miss Ralston, it was obvious, was going to meet him solely for the purpose of getting a client a job. Would he be able to see her again after she knew he had no intention of hiring that client?
The following morning Harry entered the office to find his secretary unusually busy. She was pecking away furiously at the typewriter.
He handed her a sheet of paper and said, "Miss Conway, copy these names and addresses and when they ..."
"When they come in you'll see them at half-hour intervals." She smiled benignly. "Miss Ralston just called and told me. Pretty smart chick, huh, boss?"
Harry did a slow burn and ambled into his office. Miss Conway was right, of course, and that's what annoyed him. It had been quite a night. He wined and dined her. They did all the bright spots. And, wonder of wonders, on the first date they wound up at Paula Ralston's apartment. She was a captivating hostess, an exquisite dancer and something of a sorceress. After one kiss, an unforgettable one, Harry had agreed to interview her seven clients.
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."