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In a Los Angeles diner, tough private detective Mike Hammer takes pity on Red, a young woman who has come from Nebraska to try to break into movies, but is now down on her luck. After Mike buys Red some soup, she is threatened by Louis, a thug, who tries to get her to leave with him. Mike beats up Louis, then provides Red with money for her bus fare back home and gives her his name and address so that she can let him know when she arrives. As they part, Mike notices a unique ring on Red's finger. A few hours later, police detective, Capt. Pat Chambers, questions Mike about Red, because his name was found among her belongings after she was killed in a hit-and-run car accident. When Pat shows Mike the girl's possessions, Mike realizes that the ring is missing and makes a sketch of it for Pat, who recognizes it. Pat then shows Mike photographs of the ring and other jewelry, explaining that it was part of the Venacci collection. He adds that the collection was stolen in Germany at the end of World War II by American intelligence officer Col. Holloway. Both the French and American governments caught up with Holloway, and he served ten years in prison, but the Venacci collection was never recovered. Mike suspects that Red was murdered because of the ring and returns to the diner where he learns from the counterman that Red had been working at The Blue Bell nightclub where she was friends with a Mexican striptease dancer named Maria. After Maria's act, Mike asks her about Red and, when she takes him to the building where she and Red lived, they discover that Red's apartment has been ransacked. Maria tells Mike that Red received the ring as a present from Jean, a mute Frenchman whom she befriended at the club, where he works as a cleaner. Jean, saddened by Red's death and wanting to help, informs Mike and Maria that he has something to show them at his apartment, and Mike arranges to meet Jean there later. When Mike arrives, however, he discovers that Jean has fallen to his death from a window. In the distance, Mike spots Louis and follows him as he drives to a house at the beach. Mike introduces himself to the owner, young widow Nancy Williams, and after Mike tells her about his encounters with Louis, who is her butler, Nancy promptly fires Louis then hires Mike as a bodyguard until she can find a replacement. During an outing on her motorboat, Nancy tells Mike that she has been in Europe for several years and was involved in a major scandal when the wife of a man with whom she was having an affair committed suicide. When they return to the beach house, Mike and Nancy discover the missing ring on the floor. Suddenly, a man bursts out of hiding and heads for a waiting speedboat. Mike follows him, and they fight on the dock until an accomplice, a man with a hook for a hand, knocks Mike out, enabling him and the other man to escape. Later, Mike and Nancy try to figure out how the ring wound up on her floor. As Nancy had rented out the house while she was in Europe, Mike has his secretary, Velda, contact the rental agency and finds out that Holloway was among the tenants. At The Blue Bell, Mike recognizes Holloway among the customers and, eventually, he and Holloway meet. Holloway, who thinks Mike knows the whereabouts of the jewels, offers him twenty-five percent of their value if he can produce them, as he intends to cut them up and extract the valuable diamonds. He then explains that when he went to prison, he left the jewels with his friend, Jean, whom he had rescued from the Nazis, but Jean carelessly gave Red the ring because she was kind to him. Holloway adds that a Frenchman named La Roche is the leader of a gang that also is searching for the jewels. When Mike goes to Maria's apartment, he is mugged by La Roche, the man with the hook, and his accomplices. Mike then drives to Nancy's house and tells her what he has learned, after which she gives him a drugged drink, causing him to and pass out. The next day, Mike learns that Maria has been murdered, and Holloway informs him that Ludwig Teller, a Dutch diamond cutter, whom he tried to hire, is already on board a ship to Los Angeles. Holloway assumes that La Roche has found the jewels and contracted Teller. Mike tries to intercept Teller at the docks and narrowly escapes death in a scrap metal yard where La Roche's henchmen work. On his car radio, tuned to the police wavelength, Mike hears that he is wanted for questioning over an incident at Nancy's house. When Mike arrives at the house, he secretly observes Louis' dead body being carried out just as Teller is suffering a heart attack. Mike also sees Chambers examine a large hole, which apparently housed a concealed wall safe. Holloway is waiting for Mike at his car and tells him that the La Roche gang has taken the jewels and is preparing to leave from the docks. After a gunfight between the two factions, La Roche falls on his own hook and Holloway is mortally wounded. Mike recovers the bag of jewels and shows them to the dying Holloway. Nancy then pulls alongside in her motorboat, Mike jumps on board and they leave. When Mike gives Nancy the jewels and asks if they are all there, she reveals her involvement in the case by stating that the collection is intact, except for the ring, then admits that she and Louis were partners in searching for the jewels. She also states that she had not intended for Red to be killed, and Jean was murdered to prevent him from telling Holloway that she and Louis now had the jewels. Maria was also killed to prevent her talking about the case. Nancy has assumed that she and Mike have a future together, but Mike informs her that he intends to hand her over to the police. Nancy pulls out a revolver, but Mike easily gains possession of the weapon, then heads the boat toward the shore.