Dirty Proof | Reviews

By Barbara Gregorich

 

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Chapter 1

 

She wrenched the door open as if doorknobs were disposable, nuisances rather than aids. I flinched, scattering a handful of index cards across my desk. Of course, I didn't know it was a she when the doorknob clattered, so I'm not telling the story in its proper sequence. But what burst in was a she, very definitely.

"Are you Frank Dragovic?" she asked before I could say hello, yell for help, or retrieve my scattered cards. Then she gave the room a slow once-over. Perhaps she was expecting a better looking office, with a more successful looking detective in it.

"Yes, I am," I replied, admiring her mass of dark red hair.

"I'm Suzanne Quering," she said, striding up to the desk and extending her hand. She had beat me to the punch twice now. As I stood, I pushed back my old oak desk chair, which would never roll smoothly when I wanted it to. Her hand was warm and her grip strong.

"I need help." Her next words tumbled out before I'd even had a chance to offer her a seat or sit back down. "Have a chair," I offered, waving my hand at one of the two extra chairs in my office as I sat back down.

Instead of taking the chair, she continued to stare at me.

"Help with what?" I asked.

She hesitated, then finally sat. "I think somebody's trying to frame me." She gripped the arms of the old oak chair with such force that her knuckles turned white. 

"For what?" I asked after a pause.

She swallowed. "Murder . . . is there anything else people get framed for?"

I shrugged. "Embezzlement. Theft. Bribery. Whose murder?"

She swallowed again. "Ralph Blasingame. Do you know about it?"

Everybody in Chicago who read the papers knew about it. Ralph Blasingame was one of thousands of young business executives in the Windy City, which is another way of saying that before last week, hardly anyone had heard of him. Blasingame might have been well on the way to becoming, someday, a gray-haired editor of the Chicago Truth- Examiner, a newspaper whose mergered past had coined an interesting name. In Chicago we called it simply the Truth, some of us more seriously than others. But now Blasingame would never become its editor. All I knew about his death was what had appeared in the papers. Late one night — Monday night (or rather Tuesday morning), exactly a week ago — Blasingame had been at the Truth, up on the fourth floor catwalk, watching the presses run the 2 A.M. Tuesday release. Blasingame came out with his edition — fell over the railing and was mangled by the presses. Not a pretty death.

"The papers say it was an accident."

"I know what the papers say," Suzanne Quering replied in an annoyed tone. "I set what the papers say. The fact is that whatever the papers say, the police think it was . . . murder." This was the second time she had trouble getting that particular word out. They keep asking me questions."

"The police always ask questions. It makes them feel good. You still haven't explained what makes you think somebody is trying to frame you." I watched her as I talked. The case, or potential case, was looking interesting already. The average person involved in a murder case doesn't think somebody is out to frame him, or her. And this wasn't a murder case. At least not yet.

But it was more interesting than that, even. Despite what you see in movies, the clients of private detectives seldom live up to their glamorous image. Don't get me wrong. Suzanne Quering wasn't glamorous. That would have been the wrong word to describe her. She was beautiful. Her face had strength, character. Her red hair was thick and glossy, long and wavy. Her eyes were gray. And from where I was sitting, the rest of her looked just as perfect. I readjusted myself in the chair.

She was scraping a thumb along the arm of the chair, as if concentrating hard. Pulling a sliver of wood out of the arm, she twirled it in her fingers. Then she looked up at me and began to talk.  

"There are two reasons. I work in the composing room. I typeset the articles that appear in the paper. On the night that . . .on that night, I was working the 9 P.M. shift. Somebody — not me — set a story that came out dirty. The proof was dirty, all full of errors. I'm a very good typesetter. I make mistakes, but I don't set dirty proofs. My slug was at the top of the galley." She stopped and sighed, toying with the old oak chair. There was no point in interrupting her; I had the feeling she would tell me what I had to know.

"I did not set that story. I don't know who did, and I don't know how my slug got on it, but I did not set it. But . . . the police think it means I pushed Ralph into the presses and it upset me so much that I wasn't myself and so I set a dirty proof," she finished in a rush.

The name had said it all. She didn't have to go on. But she did.

"I . . . I mean we, had been lovers. No, that's wrong. We had had an affair. While he was married. He still is. I mean was. I guess the police think I killed him out of jealousy, or spite, or something, who knows what they think," she finished in another rush. She looked at me, her head tilted back and her chin defiant. She hadn't been in the room for five minutes and had already caused me to scatter my case index cards and emotions everywhere. I never knew Blasingame and here I was already not liking him. Pushing aside my index cards (whose cases were looking less and less interesting), I pulled open the center drawer of my desk, grabbed a handful of paperclips, and began to arrange them in even rows along the desktop.

"So you think that somebody deliberately put your slug — what is that, a name? "

"A number."

" On a story full of mistakes."

"Yes. But with a purpose."

"I was getting there. For the purpose of calling attention to you."

"Yes."

"The police keep asking you about this dirty copy?"

"Dirty proof, it's called. The copy is what comes down from the reporters. The proof is the typeset story. The Truth was supposed to convert to floppy disks a year ago, but still hasn't. None of this would have happened, then. Yes. They ask me every day. And they're asking everybody I work with. I'm a sub, and I work only when a regular hires me. All of a sudden, here comes a weekend and I don't get a single hire. Am I supposed to believe that it's just a coincidence that I didn't get a hire Friday, Saturday, or Sunday?" Her clenched fist pounded the arm of the chair.

I wondered what a floppy disk was. I wondered whether she was more indignant about losing work or about losing her reputation. I also wondered whether my chair would survive her visit. As I watched her, she pulled a splinter out of her finger, then sucked on the finger. "You should sand down this chair," she advised. "It could look really —" Her face turned red. Possibly she thought she had committed a gaffe. She looked beyond me, out the window, until her flush subsided.

"Did you have any motive for killing Blasingame?"

"No! I'm the one who broke it up. What reason could I have? My god, I couldn't kill somebody. Not in cold blood. I mean," she explained, "I couldn't murder anybody!" She shuddered. "I didn't hate him."

"You still loved him?"

She gasped — certainly a strange reaction to my question. "No. I didn't. I didn't love him, and I didn't hate him," she replied evenly. "I didn't like him, either. I don't know what that leaves. It's kind of hard, you know, to find a word for feelings that used to be, that you thought were one thing, but then . . . then. . . ." Her words trailed off. She simply stopped and looked at me.

It was also hard to find a word for feelings that yet weren't. I certainly couldn't put a name to them. I wanted to believe her. You always want to believe your clients. That's part of the problem, separating the wanting-to from the believing. Her denial of wanting to kill Blasingame had been vehement. Was it the vehemence of innocence, guilt, or simply fear?

"Blasingame had been your lover. He fell, or was pushed, into the presses. You think that somebody put your slug on a dirty proof that same evening. What's the second reason you think that somebody's trying to frame you?"

"He . . . they . . . I . . . . She shook her head in anger. "Somebody . . . somehow, I mean, a silk scarf was found with … Ralph's body."

I stared at her, knowing what was coming, wondering by what strange quirk of thinking she saw it fit to list the dirty proof and the silk scarf as equal reasons. "The scarf is yours," I stated.

Suzanne Quering sighed. "I don't know. It's all covered with ink. And blood. It could have been a brand new scarf that Ralph bought. To give to somebody."

"But you had one like it?"

She nodded.

"And Blasingame had given it to you."

She grimaced. "Yes."

"And where is your scarf?"

She shrugged. "That's the thing. I don't know. You see, what if somebody took mine?" 

I saw, all right. I saw that what she needed was a lawyer, not a detective. But when I told her so, she shook her head.

"No. I can't afford both a lawyer and a detective. If I hire a lawyer, the lawyer will hire a detective, right?"

I nodded my head.

She continued. "Then I'd have to pay for both the lawyer and the detective. Why can't I just pay you?"

I tried to explain why it was important for her to have a lawyer, but she was adamant. Stymied, I told her my terms. "The fee is $200 a day, plus expenses."

She gulped, but that was all. 

I took it as acceptance. Studying her, I asked, "Did you do it?"

She looked astonished. "No! I didn't. I told you — somebody is trying to frame me."

Sweeping the paperclips off the desk and into the drawer, I made up my mind. I gathered the index cards and stacked them. "Okay. All right. I can go to the police and see what they have. I'll see what I can find out."

"That's all?"

"That's all for the time being," I replied. What was she expecting, some Mike Hammer threats or Nero Wolfe ponderings? "I can't clear you of a frameup unless you're charged with murder. And I don't think you want that, do you?" I could have bit my tongue, it sounded so patronizing.

If she recognized it, she ignored it. "I don't want you to clear me. That's negative. I want something positive. I want you to find out who killed Ralph. If he was killed. That way, I'll automatically be cleared."

I stared at her. She merely wanted me to discover who had killed Ralph. That's all. A mere nothing.

I probably mumbled something indicating that I would try my best. Then I took a retainer fee, as well as her address and phone number. She shook my hand and left. 

I sat in my chair a long time, rubbing the finish and wondering about Suzanne Quering.