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?"
"It's important, Frank. I must find out what causes total loss of all hair."
The detective grunted. "Well, let's see, there are three or four diseases I know of. Some people claim it's hereditary. Sometimes a deficiency in the genes ..."
"Okay, Frank, that's enough."
"What do you want me to do about the girl?"
"Just as the man told you. Lay off. I'll call you tomorrow and let you know what this thing is all about."
He hung up the phone and paced in front of his sofa for several minutes. It was inconceivable that the seven men all had the same disease, the same gene deficiency or the same hereditary shortcomings. So his own answer must be much closer to the truth. He'd have to wait until morning to put it to a test. If he was right he would call Colonel Waters and dump the whole bizarre set-up right into the army's lap where it belonged.
Again he found himself hoping he was not right, and, more important, that Paula Ralston wasn't what he was beginning to think she was.
Miss Conway was already in when Harry arrived at the office. He managed a half smile for her.
"Miss Conway, two of the seven men are coming back this morning and ..."
"And Mr. Boles is the one who's getting the job."
"Who called you this time?" he asked with exasperation.
Harry's stomach muscles contracted. "Colonel Waters?"
"That's right. When you were gone yesterday the colonel dropped in to see you. He asked me if you were working on the replacement for George Fisher ... I told him you were right on the job. And I showed him the information sheets you had on all seven men."
"You did what!!"
"And Colonel Waters liked the man named Boles best of all. So I guess when Mr. Boles comes in you can tell him the job is his."
"You nitwit!" he bellowed. "You brainless, knuckleheaded ..." He stomped into his office, and slammed the door.
It was difficult for him to think clearly. He knew he had to make a move. And fast.
He stood by the window and gazed at the Weapons Development Center across the parade ground. The low gray buildings had a quiet peaceful aura about them. If it weren't for the guards marching in front of the great wire fences anyone might think the place was used for manufacturing can-openers, automobile parts, any one of a thousand harmless products.
But it wasn't. Weapons Development represented a vital link in the country's defense program. He no longer figured they were developing a weapon to counteract Soviet aggression. They were working on something far more important. He was just ninety percent sure of that.
Mr. Boles was the first to arrive. He sat in an easy chair which Harry had moved close to his desk in order to better observe the man.
"Mr. Boles, my secretary tells me Colonel Waters was looking at your qualifications yesterday and was very impressed. I gather from that that the job is yours."
"Thank you, sir."
Harry shoved his chair closer to him. The toupee was intact. So was the mustache.
"Now it'll take the government about two weeks to complete a security check-up."
He could see plainly now that the man was also wearing false eyebrows and had no beard. That did it.
"I understand, sir," Boles replied.
"So all I can tell you at the moment is that you'll be hearing from us as soon as possible." Harry got up thinking the interview was over.
Mr. Boles remained seated.
"Miss Ralston would like to see you, Mr. Payne."
"Oh, yes," Harry chuckled, "I'm going to see her this evening."
"She wants to see you now."
"Afraid I can't make it right now. I have a pile of work to do. Besides I'm expecting another client of hers. Have to let him know he didn't get the job."
"Mr. Chase is waiting for us downstairs in the car. You will come with me, Mr. Payne." The order was clear and firm.
Harry didn't like it. "I don't get it. What's so important that Miss Ralston has to see me ..."
He stopped at the sight of the gun leveled at his chest.
"When we pass your secretary's desk, you will tell her you are taking an early lunch. I will return you in an hour if you cooperate."
Harry Payne knew better than to argue.
Mr. Chase was seated behind the wheel of a blue sedan. Boles and Harry climbed into the back seat. They drove away from Fort Dickson toward the city.
The two men remained silent during the trip. Harry had plenty of time to think. Why this sudden move of Paula's? He must have done something to motivate it. But what?
The only person he had talked to was Frank Barnes and he hadn't divulged anything to him. She couldn't be sore because he had asked Frank to check on her. Routine investigation was part of his job. She knew that. He failed to come up with an answer. He was worried. He knew who the seven men were but he didn't know where they came from. It could have been any one of a million different places. Heaven only knew what kind of people they were.
The shades were drawn in Paula's apartment. There was no sign of her. But as soon as Harry entered the room he forgot about her anyway. His gaze rested upon the small, roundish man sitting in the contour chair, the bald man with no eyebrows and no beard.
"Please be seated, Mr. Payne." The man's tone was soft and courteous.
"Which one are you?" Harry asked.
The man was amused. "I am Mr. Thompson."
"Oh, yeah," said Harry, "you're the one who kept patting your skull. Couldn't you find one that fit you?"
Nobody was amused. Boles and Chase took positions on either side of Thompson. Their faces were drawn and sober. They resembled two bankrupt morticians.
"Where is the body beautiful?" Harry asked. "Or is she no longer the body beautiful?"
"Take a look for yourself." It was Paula's voice. The familiar sultriness was missing.
Harry swung around to see her emerge from the bedroom. "Well, well, well! If it isn't Miss Lonelyhearts. Mind if I ask why I'm here? I mean the gun and all?"
He had to be flippant. It was the only way he knew to conceal the terror he felt in their presence.
She sat beside him on the sofa. "Harry, you've disappointed me. You haven't been playing the game fair and square."
"If you're referring to the private eye I put on you ..."
"I'm not, Harry. You put him on, we took him off. Those things even themselves out."
Harry shrugged. "Okay, I give up. What did I do wrong?"
"Show him, Mr. Thompson." She lit a cigarette and folded her legs under her.
Mr. Thompson reached into his pocket and produced a small object. He tossed it into Harry's lap. Harry examined it.
"Do you recognize it?" Mr. Thompson asked.
"It's a microphone," Harry replied.