“Clever Women Are Dangerous Too” by Jon Cleary

An Australian magazine editor is entangled in a love triangle between a vapid new cover girl and his whip-smart photographer.

Woman holding a cigarrete.

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Summer is for steamy romance. Our new series of classic fiction from the 1940s and ’50s features sexy intrigue from the archives for all of your beach reading needs. In “Clever Women Are Dangerous Too,” Australian magazine editor Charlie looks to a young, new cover girl for love, but his longtime colleague with a sharp tongue won’t let him get away without a struggle.

Australian author Jon Cleary wrote romance and crime stories for the Post at the dawn of his prolific career as a novelist and screenwriter. Under his editor, Graham Greene, Cleary wrote fiction of all stripes, from war stories to political thrillers to his famous Scobie Malone detective series. His snappy dialogue and whip-smart prose made him a hit, selling about 8 million books in his lifetime.

 

Charlie Harriss pressed the buzzer, and when the door opened he wondered if he’d come to the wrong flat. He checked the brass number beside the door. That was the right one, all right. He looked back at the blonde number in the doorway. An unbiased observer would have said she was all right too. Gray-eyed, beautifully shaped and 99 percent beautifully tanned. The other one percent was covered by a Bikini bathing suit.

“Is Miss Conlan at home?”

Charlie was a tall, good-looking young man, with early streaks of gray in his brown hair, a tired look about his eyes and absolutely no interest in intelligent, beautifully shaped young ladies. For the last four years Charlie had been surrounded by clever, good-looking women, and now they meant no more to him than stray dogs do to a pound-keeper.

“Won’t you come in?” The blonde’s voice was like bells across a deep valley, musical and empty. Charlie followed her into the flat, automatically but academically noting the well-oiled motion of her hips. “Miss Conlan had to rush out to buy something for her camera — a light meter or something. Though I don’t know why. I think there’s enough light here, don’t you?”

“There seems enough,” said Charlie, idly noticing how it made itself at home on her curves.

“I don’t know much about photography,” the blonde said, taking her time about the four-syllable word. “Miss Conlan must be awfully clever.”

“Fiendish” was a better word, Charlie thought; Joy Conlan was one of the clever women who plagued him at his office. “Are you a relative of Miss Conlan?” he said.

“Oh, goodness, no!” She lowered her eyelashes and somehow seemed a little more clothed. “I’m a model.”

“You must be new. I know all the models in Sydney,” Charlie said; then added as an afterthought and a precaution, “professionally, that is.”

“This is my first job,” the blonde said. “I’ve never done it before. It’s sort of exciting, isn’t it?”

“Yes,” said Charlie, beginning to wonder how she managed to stay within the limited boundaries of the bathing suit. “What’s your name?”

“Imogene,” said the blonde.

She was a friendly girl, putting things on a first-name basis right away. Charlie, too, decided to be informal. “I’m Charlie. An old friend of Miss Conlan.” Abruptly he remembered the streaks of gray in his hair. “But not that old.”

“Oh, I don’t mind old men,” Imogene said. “I think gray hair makes a man look distinctive, don’t you?”

“I hadn’t thought about it,” said Charlie, wondering if they were thinking of the same adjective. “How old are you, Imogene?”

“Nineteen,” Imogene said, and threw out her chest.

“Very nice,” said Charlie, suddenly deaf to what she had said. “Shall we sit down?”

They sat down, and in the new posture half of Imogene’s bathing suit seemed to disappear into thin air. Charlie tried to think of other things, but they, too, seemed to have disappeared. This morning the world had been full of news. But now it was just a vacuum, like Imogene’s head. Charlie was beginning to realize there were other women in the world besides clever ones. He looked at Imogene with renewed interest, then blushed for the nature of his interest.

“Do you work, Charlie?” Imogene said.

“Oh, sort of,” said Charlie, wondering that she hadn’t recognized the lines of slavery in his brow. Maybe I don’t look as harried as I think. “I make enough to buy a crust and a glass of beer. Speaking of food, would you have dinner with me tonight?”

“Oh, I don’t know,” Imogene said, the phrase falling glibly off her tongue. “Miss Conlan said a model should never have late nights, not if she wants to last.”

“Did she say anything about not eating?” Charlie said, wondering why Miss Conlan didn’t mind her own business. For four years she had been trying to run his life, and now here she was organizing this poor defenseless girl.

“No-o-o. But what about the late night?” Imogene said. “I want to make good as a model, Charlie. I’ve never been any good at anything else.” Again the eyelashes did their best to cover her.

You just haven’t made the most of your assets, Charlie thought; then realized that for the first time he himself was beginning to realize a girl could have other assets than brains. “Well, don’t let’s spoil your life by making a recluse of you.”

“Oh, goodness, I’d never want to be anything like that!” Imogene said, aghast. “Whatever it is.”

Charlie smiled at her, more and more fascinated with her each time she opened her trap. Then the door opened and Joy Conlan came in. Joy was dressed in a pale lemon linen dress that looked like the leftover from a bargain sale, tan shoes so worn over on their sides that at first glance their wearer looked bandy, and a large picture hat whose brim hung down in front of Joy’s face like a curtain.

“Sorry I was so long, Imogene.” The curtain went up, and Joy saw Charlie. “Greetings. What are you doing here?” She threw her hat away casually, as if it had cost but a few shillings, which it had. “Or are my evil thoughts correct?”

“You’re a cynical old wench,” Charlie said. “I’m just offering to improve Imogene’s mind.”

Joy squinted at him, then shrugged. “Well, we all have hobbies. Some have easy ones, others have impossible ones.” She looked at Imogene. “You know who he is, darling?”

“Oh, yes,” Imogene said brightly. “Charlie.”

Joy closed her eyes for a moment, as if she had just been hit on the forehead with a hammer. Then she opened them. “Yes, he’s Charlie. Charles B. Harriss, with two esses. He edits the magazine you’re going to be on the fashion pages of.”

“You have a preposition hanging there,” Charlie said.

“I always hang my prepositions,” said Joy. She looked back at Imogene. “He’s the editor and only man around Portia, the Magazine For Smart Women.”

“But he said he only earned enough for a crust and a beer!” Imogene looked at Charlie with a look bordering on intelligent. “Why, Charlie, you could make me a famous cover girl. Like Dusty Anderson or Gypsy Rose Lee.”

“How covered do you want to be?” Joy said, talking almost to herself.

Charlie shrugged. “I’ll see what I can do.”

“Your job must be awfully interesting,” Imogene said. “How much a year do you earn?”

“You’d better go and put some clothes on,” Joy said. “I’d hate to see you catch cold.”

“Oh, I’m not cold,” Imogene said. “I’m warm.”

“So am I,” said Charlie.

“For different reasons, obviously,” Joy said… . “Go on, Imogene. I shan’t let Charlie get away.”

Imogene left them with a smile and a ripple of the hips. Charlie looked after her until the door closed behind her.

“Put your eyes back in their sockets,” Joy said. “Now what is this?” She dropped ungracefully into a chair and drew her feet up under her. She pushed her thick dark hair back with an impatient hand. “Why the interest in Miss Sun Tan?”

“Who is she?” Charlie said. “What’s she doing here at your flat?”

“I’m using her for the fashion spread in the late summer issue. The studio’s being painted, so I brought her here.”

“Her face is familiar,” said Charlie.

“Did you notice she had one?” Joy said. “She was Business Girl of the Month in your last issue. But it was just a head study. That was why you didn’t recognize her.”

Charlie had been editor of Portia from just a few months after his breaking relations with the army, and Joy was the magazine’s top staff photographer. Six months ago they had dreamed up the idea of a series on up-and-coming young women, and Charlie had left the choice of subjects to Joy.

“But, heck,” Charlie said, “that series is supposed to feature smart girls.”

“How can I photograph brains?” Joy’s gray eyes lifted toward the ceiling in exasperation. “All the public wants is a pretty face.”

“Have you been giving me Dumb Doras all through the series?”

“Of course. Are you complaining?”

“No,” said Charlie, remembering the battles in the office with determined young women who knew too much. The gray in his hair had come only after he’d joined the magazine. “But I wish I’d known sooner.”

Joy squinted at him again and bit her lower lip. “What’s the matter with you? There’s something going on in that overpaid skull of yours — ”

“I’m just tired of smart, clever, independent, brainy women, that’s all,” said Charlie. He leaned back in his chair, relaxing completely, struck with a beautiful thought. “I’m thinking of marrying a bird-brain, like Imogene.”

“You sound like a bird-brain yourself,” Joy said. Again the wayward hair was pushed back. “You’d be as bored as blazes within a week. All that girl has is a sun tan and a Size 36. You need more than that for a successful marriage.”

“Such as?” said Charles. “None of the clever women I know has appealed to me in the way Imogene has. None of them has what she has.”

“Maybe we have. Maybe we just don’t display it the way she does.” Joy tried to rearrange the shape of the lemon linen, but she would have had more success shaping a sugar bag. “Anyhow, you’re too old for her. You’re old enough to be her father.”

“If I were, I’d have been a child bridegroom,” said Charlie. “You’re no teenager yourself.”

“I’m 29,” Joy said. “Ten years older than she, and old enough to be — er — matured.” She slapped her knees. “Golly, I think I’ll marry you myself.”

Charlie laughed hollowly. “I’d rather see myself dead.”

“So would I,” said Joy. “In preference to your marrying Imogene with the light-brained head.”

The door opened and Imogene made her entrance on cue, clad for the street. Charlie couldn’t think of a street where she wouldn’t cause a commotion, but he knew there must be one somewhere; the world couldn’t be that small. The plunging neckline of her dress had developed into a headlong dive, and elsewhere, when she moved, the seams sang like taut guy ropes in a gale.

“Beautiful,” said Charlie; he was fast developing an entirely new outlook on women.

“Going to a masquerade, darling?” Joy said.

Imogene didn’t know what a masquerade was, but she didn’t bat an eyelash. Smart as a whip, she said, “I’m going to dinner with Charlie.”

“She certainly is,” Charlie said, springing to his feet with more agility than he’d shown in months. “I’m going to show her something of life with a capital L.”

“Picture books were made for girls like her,” Joy murmured. “Well, I wish you anything but a boring evening, Imogene. And I’ll want you here at seven-thirty in the morning.”

“Oh, my goodness!” Imogene said. “But that’s almost when the sun comes up.”

“The farmers have been up three or four hours by that time,” Joy said.

“Why don’t you get one of the farmers, then?” Charlie said, and laughed at his own repartee; he felt like a comedian who’d just found a new book of jokes.

“I would,” said Joy, “if I could find one who’d look good in a Bikini bathing suit.”

“What do you want with her at that hour?” Charlie said. “She’ll be here at nine. Like any respectable working girl,”

“She’ll be out of a job, if she is,” said Joy. “And let’s leave respectability out of this. It’s irrelevant to the subject under discussion.”

All this multiple-syllable talk was above Imogene’s pretty blond head, but it made no difference to her; she just loved the sound of the words.

“I am protecting the girl from herself . . . and you. Something tells me you aren’t the Charlie Harriss I’ve known all these years,” said Joy. “I want her to have an early night and I want her here at seven-thirty in the morning. Understand?”

“Imagine being married to you,” Charlie said.

“If you were,” said Joy, “you wouldn’t be allowed out with any plunging necklines.”

“Are you married to Miss Conlan?” Imogene said to Charlie.

“No,” said Charlie. “Fortunately.”

“Oh, good,” said Imogene. “Let’s go to dinner.”

“Watch your figure,” Joy said as they went out the door.

“Her figure’s all right,” said Charlie.

“I was talking about yours,” said Joy.

Charlie wondered if the sedentary life was giving him editor’s spread.

Imogene and Charlie went to a little restaurant in King’s Cross. The waiter handed Imogene the elaborate menu and stood waiting for her to order. Imogene studied the menu for almost five minutes, her eyes crossed in concentration and her red lips caught between her teeth; international treaties had never received such careful scanning. Then she looked up. “Steak and eggs, please.”

Charlie shrugged and ordered the same. Over dinner, the conversation was light and inconsequential, about the weather and bathing suits and the pain in Imogene’s mother’s side. Imogene wasn’t one to let the conversational ball gather dust in a corner. Charlie, for his part, ate his steak and eggs, and rested his brain. Imogene was as good as a vacation.

Later they drove out to Tamarama and parked on the road that skirted the top of the cliffs. Below them the waves thundered on the rocks, and far out the moon was rising out of its own reflection on the sea. It was a night for romance, and the girl’s intellectual capacity didn’t count here.

Imogene was leaning back in the seat, the moonlight striking sideways across her face and the plunging neckline. Charlie looked at her and was glad he was sitting down; his knees had gone.

“Have you ever thought of marriage, Imogene?” he said.

“Oh, yes,” said Imogene eagerly.

“To what sort of man?”

“Oh, any man would do,” Imogene said; she wasn’t hard to please, like some girls. “How old are you, Charlie?”

“Thirty-two,” said Charlie. “Don’t scream.”

“Why, that’s not old,” Imogene said. “Why, daddy’s 40.”

Charlie felt better. He put an arm about her, protectively. She turned toward him and he felt her lips press on his. He had only a dim idea of what was happening to him. Behind her head he saw the moon splinter on the sea and his blood began to thunder louder than the surf below them. Your blood pressure’s caught up with you, he thought. You’re older than you think. This is the beginning of a stroke…

“You’d never know,” Imogene said.

“Know what?”

“That you were 32. Not the way you kiss.”

“Thank you,” said Charlie, who had never considered that he might be beyond the kissing stage. “We could be very happy, Imogene.”

“Are you proposing to me, Charlie?” Imogene said.

“Not exactly.” The habit of caution was hard to throw off. Charlie smiled the disarming smile he’d been practicing for the last four years, his only defense against the clever women who had tried to run him. “But we could think about it, couldn’t we?”

“I don’t think much about anything,” Imogene said truthfully. “How soon could you make me a cover girl, Charlie darlie?”

She’s mercenary, Charlie thought. But so are the clever ones. And at least all Imogene wants is fame. The smart ones would want a joint bank account.

He kissed her on the forehead, like a father. “Any time you wish, honeybunch.” His voice sounded strange in his own ears, but he was game. “Lovey dovey.”

Later that night, in his bachelor flat, Charlie lay awake and took stock of the situation. He was getting on, there was no denying that, and it was time he settled down. He’d been working too hard lately. You could flog a middle-aged horse just so far; then he either lay down and died or went to the old folks’ home. He wasn’t middle-aged yet, but he believed firmly in the saying, “It’s later than you think.” Each morning when he woke he expected to find he’d suddenly lost 10 years overnight.

Charlie had been too long badgered and bullied by clever women, and Imogene looked like the ideal escape. Tomorrow he would ask her to marry him. . . .

Next morning was Saturday, so Charlie didn’t have to go to the office. Instead he went to Joy’s flat. At 10 o’clock, having allowed the girls an hour to get some work done, he pressed the buzzer and waited for another view of the next-to-nothing bathing suit.

The door was opened by Joy in the lemon linen sugar bag. “Where is she?”

“Who?” said Charlie.”

Miss Intellect. I’ve been waiting for her since half past seven.” Joy kicked the door shut behind them. “She doesn’t know it, but she’s unemployed.”

“It doesn’t matter,” said Charlie. “I wouldn’t want any wife of mine to work.”

“You haven’t got a wife,” Joy said. Then she looked at him again. “Have you?”

“Not yet,” said Charlie. “But it’s only a matter of time.”

“Who’s the lottery winner?” Joy said.

“Imogene,” said Charlie.

Joy blinked, and pulled slowly and savagely at her hair. “Charlie, you weren’t serious yesterday… . Oh, no!” She suddenly spun and folded onto a couch, burying her face in a cushion and shaking convulsively.

“It’s no laughing matter.” Charlie sat down carefully in a chair; he was putting on weight or they were making pants tighter this year. Joy continued to shake like a girl riding pillion on a motor bike, her face still buried in the cushion. Charlie watched the spasm for a few minutes, then said, “I repeat, it’s no laughing matter.”

Joy lifted her face from the cushion. Her hair hung down like dark seaweed, her eyes were red and glistening, and her nose twitched to one side as she sniffled.

“I think you — ” Then Charlie took a second look at her. “You’re crying!”

“I’ve got something in my eye,” Joy sniffled. “No woman in her right senses would waste tears over you.”

“You were crying over me,” said Charlie, full of a wonder and tenderness; he felt like someone’s mother being helped across a busy street. “Joy, I didn’t know! I never — ”

But Joy had left him, slamming the bedroom door behind her as the front-door buzzer buzzed. Charlie, still in a daze, climbed carefully out of his chair.

“Why, Charlie darlie,” said Imogene, as he opened the door to her. “Have you been here all night?”

“Certainly not,” Charlie said. “If you remember, I didn’t leave you until two o’clock.”

Imogene closed her eyes and rocked her head ecstatically. “Oh, I can remember it just like it was last night. Daddy wanted to know why I’d stayed out so late. He was really wild, till I told him you were going to make me famous. He said you must be a miracle worker.” She opened one eye. “I didn’t tell him we were going to be married, Charlie darlie.”

“That’s good,” said Charlie, still with half his mind on Joy.

Both eyes came open suddenly, like searchlights. “Charlie!”

The bedroom door opened and Joy came in. She had dried her eyes, stopped sniffling and combed her hair. There was no sign of the broken blossom of a few minutes ago.

“Hello, Imogene darling,” she said. “Charlie and I were talking about you only a few moments ago. We said we’ll ask Imogene to go on the picnic with us “‘

“What picnic?” said Imogene and Charlie.

“We’re going to Coogee. Charlie has his car, and it’s much too hot for work.”

“But what’ll I wear?” said Imogene and Charlie.

“You, Imogene, can wear the Bikini suit,” Joy said. “And Charlie can hire trunks at the beach.”

“It’s a wonderful idea,” Imogene said. “I just love the beach, don’t you, Charlie darlie?”

“Charlie darlie used to be a surf god,” Joy said. “He gave it up when they cut the legs off bathing suits.”

“Sour women have an acid wit,” said Charlie; he’d been mistaken about the tender feeling for Joy. He was just a softie for tears, that was all. “Have you packed the basket for the picnic we’ve been planning so long for?”

“You have a preposition hanging there,” Joy said.

“That’s not all I’d like to hang,” Charlie said.

Joy smiled at him. “You love your little joke,” she said. “We’ll call in somewhere and buy a picnic lunch.”

“I haven’t been on a picnic since I was a child,” Imogene said.

“Only yesterday,” said Joy, and closed the door behind them.

The three of them crowded into the front seat of Charlie’s convertible, Imogene practically in Charlie’s pocket and Joy practically in the door pocket.

“Comfy, darling?” Joy said.

“Oh, yes, thank you,” said Imogene.

“I meant Charlie,” Joy said, and smiled sweetly at Imogene. “After all, he’s my oldest friend. I can’t think of anyone older. Had you noticed the gray in his hair?”

Charlie shot the car forward with a jerk, but Joy was expecting it. She just smiled at him while she helped Imogene down into the seat again. “Don’t mind him, Imogene. He got his driver’s license in a tank.”

In the city, while Charlie sat in stolid silence and Imogene sat almost in his lap, Joy disappeared into a department store. She returned with a picnic basket.

“Righto.” She squeezed back into the car. “Let’s go, lovers.”

The beach at Coogee was crowded. Charlie left the girls and headed for the men’s dressing rooms. He hired a pair of trunks, sucked in his stomach and went out to find a place on the sands.

Women, he thought. They tried to trap you with either sex appeal or sobs. If they got you with neither, they turned into bitter old harpies. Like Joy. Imogene would be the same in another 10 years. And she probably wouldn’t have her build then. That was what had got him. The 36. At his age, he should be ashamed of himself. He must have been out of his mind yesterday and last night. Well, he wouldn’t fall again. He’d go on being a bachelor until he was too old to be anything else. They could parade all the Bikini bathing suits in the world before him and he wouldn’t raise a whistle.

A chorus of whistles made him look up to see Imogene standing over him. Here in the open, she looked even more uncovered than yesterday. I could have been wrong, Charlie thought, and despised himself for his weakness.

“Where’s Joy?” he said.

“She’s coming,” Imogene said. “Couldn’t we run off and leave her, Charlie darlie? I want you to myself.”

There was another chorus of whistles. Charlie looked up again. Joy was standing over him, the wayward dark hair now neatly braided on her small neat head.

“Don’t look now,” she said, putting down the picnic basket, “but your eyeballs are showing.”

Charlie was speechless. But Imogene wasn’t. “Why, Miss Conlan! That suit’s exactly like mine!”

“Not quite, darling,” said Joy, running a hand over her hip. “There isn’t so much of it.”

Charlie let out his breath and his stomach; he felt weak and middle-aged and flummoxed. “Four years I’ve known you — ” He looked at Joy as if she were a stranger; the second bikini suit revealed a figure that was even a little more curved than Imogene’s. “And I never knew — ”

“You’ve always been interested only in my brain,” Joy said. “You’ve got only yourself to blame if you’ve had a surfeit of clever women around you. What did you expect when you said your magazine was For Smart Women Only?”

The girls sat down, one on each side of him. In the background the whistles were still rising and falling like the cries of lost sailors.

“Charlie,” said Imogene, “don’t look at Miss Conlan like that!”

“I’ll look at her any way I want to,” Charlie said. “I looked at you like this yesterday.”

“There’s no charge,” said Joy.

“I won’t have you looking at her like that!” Imogene said. “Not when we’re going to be married.”

“We’re not going to be married.” Charlie turned full on to Imogene, keeping his eyes on a level with hers, so he wouldn’t be distracted. “I haven’t asked you. I only suggested. Now I’ve changed my mind. The suggestion is retracted.”

“You can’t do that, whatever it is,” Imogene exclaimed. “I’ll sue you for breach of premises.”

Charlie still kept his eyes at the proper level. “You haven’t a leg to stand on.”

“You said you liked my legs,” Imogene said, and stood up. “You said — ”

“I said nothing that hasn’t been said to you before.” Charlie also stood up. “I apologize if I misled you. But I know now that you were interested only in what I could do for your career.”

“What career?” Imogene said. “You haven’t even promised to put me on one cover, even.”

“What’s going on here?” said a bull-like voice. “Or what’s coming off?”

The beach inspector, all muscles and sun tan, came to a halt beside Imogene. He looked her up and down twice; then, like Charlie, looked her in the eyes fixedly. “You can’t get around like that on this beach.”

“And why not?” said Imogene, throwing out her chest defiantly.

“Because it’s — it’s indecent,” said the beach inspector, and was greeted with hoots from the crowd now gathering around. “You’ll have to go and put some clothes on.”

There were groans from the crowd.

“I’ll do nothing of the sort,” Imogene said; she didn’t have much of a mind, but it was all her own.

“Yes, you will!” said the inspector, and felt for Imogene’s arm without removing his gaze from her face.

Imogene looked at Charlie with scorn. Then she looked at the bulging muscles of the beach inspector and a familiar gleam of interest came back into her eyes. Men were just the most wonderful things. She leaned against the beach inspector like a cat against a table leg.

“If I go,” she said, “then she has to go too!”

“Who?” said the inspector.

Imogene looked at Charlie again, then dramatically flung an accusing arm. Then she stopped, as if paralysis had set in. Her mouth opened and the big eyes followed suit. The inspector and Charlie followed her pointing finger. Joy smiled up at them.

“Hello,” she said, and delicately arranged the skirt of the lemon linen about her legs; she couldn’t have been more covered if she’d been wearing a tent. “Having trouble?”

“No,” said the inspector, still conscious of Imogene leaning against him. “None that I can’t deal with.” And he gently hustled the still-dumb Imogene off toward the dressing rooms, to a thundering accompaniment of boos from the crowd.

Joy looked up at Charlie. “Going to sit down? Your figure’s showing.”

Charlie sat down. “How did you do it?”

“Sleight of hand,” Joy said. “It pays to be clever.”

Charlie looked at the lemon linen. “Well, it got you out of trouble. But I prefer you in the bathing suit.”

“Maybe I’ll wear it in our own swimming pool,” Joy said. “We’re going to have one, aren’t we?”

Charlie stared hard at her. “Are you proposing to me?”

“Yes,” said Joy. “I’m going to marry you before some other predatory blonde gets you into trouble.”

“I’ll think over the offer,” Charlie said, but he knew he didn’t have a chance. “But what about Imogene? She’ll be back as soon as she is dressed and there’ll be another scene. Hadn’t we better get out of here?”

“There’s plenty of time,” Joy said, and opened the picnic basket to disclose Imogene’s clothes rolled in a neat bundle. “A clever woman thinks of everything.”

Charlie smiled and relaxed. His middle age was going to be all right, with a clever, good-figured woman to organize everything and make life comfortable for him. He might even let his editor’s spread spread a little more.

 

First page of the short story "Clever Women Are Dangerous Too."
Read the story “Clever Women Are Dangerous Too” by Jon Cleary. Published in the Post on August 5, 1950.

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