I noticed the card when I pulled out the keys to my car. It was the same business card I had slipped to Laura in the pack of cigarettes. It had a slight smell of tobacco on it, but also bore "Liberty and 8th the alley, 3am" in a fluid, feminine hand. Which is why I ended up at the entrance to an alley on the south side of Meridian.
"You always follow instructions this well?" Laura stepped out of the darkness into the scant moonlight.
"Only the ones from nice looking dames. Something I can do for you?"
"Perhaps. But there's something I can do for you."
"Let me ask you something. Why did you play against me tonight?"
I could've gone with the usual, the dodge. I had to in order to save Danny, but I knew she wanted more than that. "The challenge. If I was going to go down, it was going to be to someone that deserved to take me down, not Joey and his pathetic crew. So, your turn. Why'd you let me win?"
"I didn't let you win. Ciro pays me to run a straight game."
I fixed her with flat stare.
"Fine. I was going to take everything you had, just as Joey wanted."
"So why didn't you?"
"I wanted to find out how good you were."
"That's not all of it."
"Joey has a habit of putting his hands where they don't belong, and he's been angling after Ciro's job."
I nodded. I could believe Joey let his hands wander.
"I stuck around a little after Ciro asked me to leave. Are you really Bennie Slider?"
"You're good. I knew I wasn't showing any tells. I could've clobbered Joey."
"I had to use the tools at hand."
"It was more than that. I never saw you change out the cards, and I watched you." I didn't say anything. She cocked her head to one side. "I haven't been here long, but a few people still talk about you like a legend. I've been compared to you. I didn't think you were real. Makes me feel better I can beat you at poker."
"I never claimed to be the best, and it's long done."
"Why? What happened? You just disappeared, they say."
"Long story, and not one I'm too keen on sharing. You can take up the racket just fine from what I saw."
"Are you sure you're done? I've got a proposition for you."
"I don't want in on your job, but I'll give you some friendly advice: Don't go after Ciro. He's not too shabby himself, and he won't tolerate people trying to steal from him. Just ask Joey Silver."
"D-did you see what Ciro did to him?"
"No need. I know Ciro. No one will be hearing from Joey."
"I can handle myself."
"I saw, but you shouldn't go after him. It doesn't matter what the score is, not to you."
Her eyes narrowed on me.
"You like the game. You want to be the best. Hustling on the street isn't enough of a challenge. You could make enough pulling short jobs, but you got a job as a dealer for Ciro Rosetti. You want the long con. By yourself, no less. You want the challenge, the thrill of it. You want to know if you can pull it off, and do what no one else can."
"Is this where you try and talk me out of it?"
I shrugged. "There comes a time when it's not enough. I'm not going to lecture you. You made me an offer, now let me make you one. Work with me."
"Tsk. I thought you were better than that. I expect this kind of thing from Joey Silver, but I thought you were better. I'm not going to work for you. Get someone else to fetch your damn coffee or write a letter!"
She began to stalk off, into the depths of the alley.
"I said with, not for. Partners."
She stopped, and called back over her shoulder. "You must be joking. A woman . . . dick?"
"I got no problem with it. I know you're capable though you may want to hold off on pulling knives. Besides, haven't you heard? women got the vote. You can do anything."
"You're actually serious about this?" She turned towards me. "Full partners. And we would, what, take cases and investigate things?"
I pulled out a cigarette, and the weather chose that moment to turn the imperceptible shower to a full drizzle. I tucked it back into its pack, and stepped closer.
"It would never work. People would never hire a woman PI. We may have the vote, but that doesn't mean people have changed their way of thinking."
"I'm betting there are people willing to give it a shot."
"A bet? How much?" she smirked at me.
I smiled. "Tell you what, come with me tomorrow. If Kincaid's mom balks at you being my partner, you get to keep every dime of my fee."
"And how much is that?"
"Twenty a day plus expenses. But she promised me a bonus of five C if I got it done tonight with him unharmed."
"And if you win I become your partner?"
"Nope. You still have a choice about it, but I do get something."
Her smile came back. "Okay."
The next morning, she was with me, dressed as proper as you please in skirt, blouse, and jacket as we paid a visit on the Kincaid estate. Arabella Kincaid was a frail woman, old before her time, but her eyes and mind were still bright with the mind behind them. She wore an elaborate house robe in dark green with pearl buttons, and the outfit looked understated in this house.
"Mrs. Kincaid. How's Danny?"
"Sulking, Mr. Slater. He did not take it kindly that I restricted him to the estate and suspended his allowance."
"I'm sure it's for the best.
"It's not fair!" Danny yelled from across the hall.
"Daniel, I'll not tolerate such outbursts. If you cannot be civil to Mr. Slater and his companion, you shall remove yourself to your room."
"Yes, Mummy." The contrition made him seem much younger.
"Mrs. Kincaid, I'd like to introduce you to my partner. She's also a private investigator."
"What?!" Danny burst out before I could continue. If he had more than a baby face, I would've said he was livid. "She's your partner? But she was the one you played against at the end!"
Arabella looked from Danny to me to Laura, and fixed a long, hard gaze on Laura. "A woman detective?" She walked closer and scrutinized Laura. "Hmm. How extraordinary. It is certainly unconventional, but good for you, dear. And very progressive of you, Mr. Slater. There are many who would think a woman incapable of such a profession."
"Mummy, don't you see? He deceived you. He arranged the whole thing."
"Daniel! He did no such thing. It was you who got yourself into trouble, and Mr. Slater extracted you from your own folly, causing all of us a good deal of trouble. However he solved your indiscretion, I say good for him."
I had to keep my face smooth. I liked Mrs. Kincaid. Laura had a smug expression on her face, but she quickly schooled it back to that porcelain mask.
"Not. Another. Word." Each word came out hard as steel. "Leave us. I shall be up later."
Danny made as if he was about to start in again, but Mrs. Kincaid tapped her foot impatiently. Danny turned and scurried up the staircase, disappearing from sight.
"Well, now. I apologize for the interruption. I didn't catch your name, dear?" She held out her hand to Laura.
"Eva. Eva Tomas."
After that, Mrs. Kincaid settled up, apologized for being unable to speak with us longer, and excused herself to go deal with Danny.
"We're square, now." Eva said once outside. "Doesn't mean I'm going to join up with you."
I watched her as she walked to her car.
"You know, Slater," she called once she reached her car, some thirty feet away. "You're out of practice. You got my name, but I still got the five C. And more!" She waggled my bill fold at me.
I shrugged then dangled a set of car keys from two fingers.
She searched into her purse, came up with nothing, and smiled at me.