I recognized the shape of Natalie’s face from her photograph but I immediately saw that something was wrong about it. Her skin was extremely pale and chalky except for her bright red lips. I further noticed that her hair was lighter than it had been in the photographs I’d seen. I couldn’t see her eyes because she wore dark, yet fashionable, sunglasses.
“Talc?” I asked.
She smiled, said yes, and the smile expanded into what would have been a grin.
“Oh damn!” I said. Her face was like a hollow mask. While she had cleverly coated her face in talcum powder and applied lipstick to her lips, she had no teeth. She looked like a hollow mask with red lips.
Noting my curse she took out a small folding mirror and examined her face. “My regular lip color isn’t this vivid,” she observed casually. She then looked at me with her dark glasses and asked, “Is the inside of my mouth that noticeable?”
“Well,” I said hesitantly, “I don’t want to discourage you. It’s really a very clever idea. Perhaps you could use a veil again but it need not be so thick this time.”
She sat and opened her purse. This one was much larger than the one she carried in her widow guise the night I had met her. This one had to be larger because it was filled with a variety of scarves, veils and at least three pairs of gloves that I could see. It was then that I noticed that her hands were also coated with talc.
“Good job on the hands, too.” I added.
“I don’t think that part is going to work very well. It gets on everything I touch and I sometimes smudge little holes. Unsightly blemishes, you might say.”
She took out a simple veil to pin to her small hat.
“And the wig is nice, too.” I said, “Very close to your own color.”
She stopped what she was doing. “How do you know my hair color? You’ve never seen my hair.”
I stood a little taller and said, “I’m a detective. I’m good at guessing things.”
We both laughed at that.
I watched her as she fixed her veil in place, touched up her face and put on a pair of white gloves. She took extra care to get the cuffs of the gloves under the sleeves of her jacket.
I said, “I guess you’ll be fine as long as gloves and hats never go out of fashion.”
She gave a short laugh and said, “I doubt that will ever happen.”
We then walked into my inner office and talked about the case. I reviewed what I had learned from Doctor Morand then started to review the suspects. Since I didn’t want to prioritize them yet, I started in the order that I had taken notes. But my client stopped me on the first one.
“Greta? You can’t be serious.”
“Well consider some points,” I said, “You were visible when you went to bed that night?”
“Yes, I was.”
“How sure are you?”
“I took a bubble bath.”
“And your body could still be seen when you toweled off?”
“Is that a professional question, Mister Drake?”
“Not entirely, no. Let’s move on. So, in the morning you were definitely invisible as soon as you woke. Right?”
“Yes, that’s right. And Greta was shocked when she saw me. Or, saw my pajamas.”
“Correction,” I said, “the only thing we can say with certainty is that Greta acted shocked. Remember that she is the only one who had access to your person during the time of the vanishing.”
Natalie just stared at me with her dark glasses so I went on. “Unless, the source of this phenomena included a time delay, then we have to go back to the dinner at the yacht club.”
“Bradley? But he’s always been so nice to me.”
I leaned forward and tried to sound more serious, “Has he really been all so nice?”
“Well,” she didn’t sound so sure, “I admit he doesn’t lack for ego. But he bought me so many nice gifts.” But as she said this it sounded as if the gifts had loss some market value in the past two weeks.
“How did you meet him?” I asked, truly curious.
“He saw my picture in a magazine and sent flowers to me through my employer.” She paused and then continued in a deeper vein. ” I guess he just wanted a pretty face to have around, a trophy to show off. And now I don’t even have a face so I expect I won’t see him again.”
I decided not to tell her what he had said at the ranch.
“I’ve depended so much on my appearance. My whole career was based on that. My family and friends back home always told me that my beauty would take me far and now I’ve lost that.”
I handed her a handkerchief from my desk drawer.
No,” she said with a sudden determination, “I’m not going to cry. I’m going to do something about my problems. Maybe it’s time to start a new career.”
She looked down at the handkerchief I had given her and made a point of handing it back to me. “Besides,” she said, “Crying would make my face run.”
Before we could continue there was a knock at the outer door. As I started to stand Natalie sprung from her chair and went out to answer it.
“Good day,” a woman’s voice said, “I’m here to see Mister Drake. Are you his secretary?”
I could hear Natalie’s voice very bright and cheerful. “Yes, I’m Natalie, Mister Drake’s new secretary. Please make yourself comfortable and I’ll tell him you’re here.”