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One night, private detective Mike Hammer is driving home to Los Angeles when he is stopped by a woman standing in the highway. Although Mike upbraids the woman, he gives her a ride. As they drive, the panicked woman, who is wearing only a trenchcoat, asks Mike to drop her at the nearest bus stop. Before Mike can learn more, they are stopped at a roadblock, and the police reveal that they are looking for a woman who escaped from a nearby sanitarium. After Mike bluffs his way past the officer, the woman, named Christina, admits that she is the escapee, but insists that she was being held prisoner at the sanitarium. When they stop at a gas station, Christina gives the attendant a letter to mail and looks relieved. Mike is intrigued by Christina's demeanor and her plea to remember her if anything should happen. Just then, a car blocks their way and Mike is knocked unconscious by the occupants. When Mike awakens, he hears Christina scream as she is being tortured, but because he is lying face-down, he cannot identify his captors, although he does notice that one wears a distinctive pair of shoes. After Mike passes out again, he and the now-dead Christina are put into his car, which is pushed over a cliff to make it look like they died in an accident. Mike jumps from the car just in time, however, and three days later, is wakened in the hospital by his devoted secretary and girl friend, Velda Wickman. Mike's friend, police captain Pat Murphy, is also happy to see him recovering. When Mike leaves the hospital, he is detained by federal agents, who question him about Christina. Mike refuses to divulge any information, and after he is released, Pat warns him not to pursue the matter. At his apartment, Mike tells Velda that they are going to investigate anyway, and she reveals that a man named Ray Diker called while he was in the hospital. Their conversation is interrupted by Pat, who revokes Mike's private detective license and gun permit, then dismisses Mike's speculations about Diker, a newspaper science editor who disappeared recently. Despite interference from an unknown attacker, Mike locates Diker, who, although terrified, tells Mike that Christina's last name was Bailey and gives him her address. When Mike visits the boardinghouse where Christina lived, he learns that her roommate, Lily Carver, is gone, although a moving man tells him Lily's new address. Remembering that Christina stated she was named after the poet Christina Rossetti, Mike picks up a volume of her poetry from Christina's nightstand, then looks for Lily. Upon entering Lily's rundown apartment, Mike finds the nervous woman leveling a pistol at him. Lily explains that Christina was very frightened lately, but she does not know why, nor does she know the identity of the men who came to question her after Christina's death. When Mike goes home, he receives a phone call from an unidentified man, offering a token of appreciation if he will pretend that he never met Christina. In the morning, a new car is in front of Mike's building, and the suspicious Mike asks his mechanic, Nick, to examine it. Nick finds two bombs inside the car, after which Mike visits Velda, who is leery of pursuing Christina's murder. Velda reveals that Diker called her, offering her several other names, and when Mike checks out the leads, he learns that there have been two other automobile "accidents" in which people connected to Christina were killed. Mike also discovers that Charlie Max and Sugar Smallhouse, two hired killers, are looking for him, and after learning that they work for gangster Carl Evello, goes to Evello's house. Impressed with the way Mike handles himself, Evello agrees to talk with him, and confesses that he sent the rigged car. Evello attempts to bribe Mike to remain silent, but Mike demurs and goes to see Carmen Trivaco, one of the names given to him by Diker. Carmen admits that his friend, Nicholas Raymondo, was an atomic scientist who hinted about having an important secret before he was killed. Mike then returns to Lily's, where he finds her hiding in the basement after some men came looking for her. Hoping to protect her, Mike then takes Lily to his apartment. Meanwhile, Nick, who had investigated the car bombs at Mike's request, is murdered. Grieving, Mike goes to see Velda, who pleads with him to forgo his search for the "great whatsit" that has resulted in so many deaths. Velda then reveals that Diker introduced her to a modern art dealer who mentioned both Evello and a Dr. Soberin when discussing his gallery. Mike tells Velda to press for more information, then goes to a bar, where he passes out from drinking too much. When Mike is awakened, he learns that "they" have kidnapped Velda, and soon discovers that the letter Christina mailed was addressed to him. At his office, Mike opens the letter, which says only "Remember Me!" Sugar and Charlie are waiting, and after beating Mike, take him to a beach house. There, Mike is tied face-down on a bed, and when he is interrogated by a stranger, recognizes the man's shoes from the night Christina was killed. Although the man drugs Mike with sodium pentathol to discover the meaning of Christina's letter, Mike rambles incoherently. Later, Mike manages to slip his bonds, and when Evello enters the room, Mike traps him and ties him to the bed. Believing that Evello is Mike, Sugar mistakenly kills him before being killed by Mike. Mike escapes and returns home, where he and Lily attempt to puzzle out Christina's message, using one of Rossetti's poems. Mike deduces that Christina swallowed an important clue and goes to the morgue, where Doc Kennedy had extracted a key from her stomach. The next day, Mike and Lily drive to the Hollywood Athletic Club and Mike uses the key to open a locker registered to Raymondo. In the locker Mike finds an iron box, wrapped in leather. Mike is surprised that the inner box is hot and cries out when it burns him as he attempts to open it. Mike immediately shuts the lid, then tells the clerk to let no one near it. Upon returning to his car, Mike discovers that Lily has disappeared and contacts Pat. Pat demands the key, but Mike refuses, stating that he needs it to bargain for Velda's life. When Pat reveals that the body of the real Lily Carver was found over a week ago, Mike realizes that he has been duped. Seeing the burn on Mike's wrist, Pat says "Manhattan Project, Los Alamos, Trinity," and Mike, understanding that he is in over his head, gives Pat the key. At the athletic club, however, the clerk has been killed and the box stolen. With Diker's reluctant help, Mike eventually realizes that the leader of the gang is Dr. G. E. Soberin, and traces the doctor to the beach house where he had been held earlier. The doctor, who wears distinctive shoes, is currently admiring the box, which was brought to him by the woman impersonating Lily, whose real name is Gabrielle. Despite her curiosity, the doctor refuses to allow her to open the box, however he does not to explain that the reason is that it contains atomic material. When Soberin refuses to divide the box's contents with her, Gabrielle shoots and kills him. Gabrielle is about to open the box when Mike bursts in, and when he responds too slowly to her demand that he kiss her, she shoots him in the side. Mike staggers out as Gabrielle opens the box and the material within incinerates her. Finding Velda just in time, Mike runs with her from the house, and watches from the beach as the house is engulfed in a huge explosion.