© R.Chandler, Trouble Is My Business, 1939
Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)
E-Text: Greylib .
1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8
Anna Halsey was about two hundred and forty pounds of middle-aged putty-faced woman in a black tailor-made suit. Her eyes were shiny black shoe buttons, her cheeks were as soft as suet and about the same color. She was sitting behind a black glass desk that looked like Napoleon's tomb and she was smoking a cigarette in a black holder that was not quite as long as a rolled umbrella. She said: "I need a man."
I watched her shake ash from the cigarette to the shiny top of the desk where flakes of it curled and crawled in the draft from an open window.
"I need a man good-looking enough to pick up a dame who has a sense of class, but he's got to be tough enough to swap punches with a power shovel. I need a guy who can act like a bar lizard and backchat like Fred Allen, only better, and get hit on the head with a beer truck and think some cutie in the leg-line topped him with a breadstick."
"It's a cinch," I said. "You need the New York Yankees, Robert Donat, and the Yacht Club Boys."
"You might do," Anna said, "cleaned up a little. Twenty bucks a day and ex's. I haven't brokered a job in years, but this one is out of my line. I'm in the smooth-angles of the detecting business and I make money without getting my can knocked off. Let's see how Gladys likes you."
She reversed the cigarette holder and tipped a key on a large black-and-chromium annunciator box. "Come in and empty Anna's ash tray, honey."
The door opened and a tall blonde dressed better than the Duchess of Windsor strolled in.
She swayed elegantly across the room, emptied Anna's ash tray, patted her fat cheek, gave me a smooth rippling glance and went out again.
"I think she blushed," Anna said when the door closed. "I guess you still have It."
"She blushed-and I have a dinner date with Darryl Zanuck," I said. "Quit horsing around. What's the story?"
"It's to smear a girl. A redheaded number with bedroom eyes. She's shill for a gambler and she's got her hooks into a rich man's pup."
"What do I do to her?"
Anna sighed. "It's kind of a mean job, Philip, I guess. If she's got a record of any sort, you dig it up and toss it in her face. If she hasn't, which is more likely as she comes from good people, it's kind of up to you. You get an idea once in a while, don't you?"
"I can't remember the last one I had. What gambler and what rich man?"
I started to get up from my chair, then remembered that business had been bad for a month and that I needed the money.
I sat down again.
"You might get into trouble, of course," Anna said. "I never heard of Marty bumping anybody off in the public square at high noon, but he don't play with cigar coupons."
"Trouble is my business," I said. "Twenty-five a day and guarantee of two-fifty, if I pull the job."
"I gotta make a little something for myself," Anna whined.
"O.K. There's plenty of coolie labor around town. Nice to have seen you looking so well. So long, Anna."
I stood up this time. My life wasn't worth much, but it was worth that much. Marty Estel was supposed to be pretty tough people, with the right helpers and the right protection behind him. His place was out in West Hollywood, on the Strip. He wouldn't pull 'anything crude, but if he pulled at all, something would pop.
"Sit down, it's a deal," Anna sneered. "I'm a poor old brokendown woman trying to run a high-class detective agency on nothing but fat and bad health, so take my last nickel and laugh at me."
"Who's the girl?" I had sat down again.
"Her name is Harriet Huntress-a swell name for the part too. She lives in the El Milano, nineteen-hundred block on North Sycamore, very high-class. Father went broke back in thirty-one and jumped out of his office window. Mother dead. Kid sister in boarding school back in Connecticut. That might make an angle."
"Who dug up all this?"
"The client got a bunch of photostats of notes the pup had given to Marty. Fifty grand worth. The pup-he's an adopted son to the old man-denied the notes, as kids will. So the client had the photostats experted by a guy named Arbogast, who pretends to be good at that sort of thing. He said O.K. and dug around a bit, but he's too fat to do legwork, like me, and he's off the case now."
"But I could talk to him?"
"I don't know why not." Anna nodded several of her chins.
"This client-does he have a name?"
"Son, you have a treat coming. You can meet him in person-right now."
She tipped the key of her call box again. "Have Mr. Jeeter come in, honey."
"That Gladys," I said, "does she have a steady?"
"You lay off Gladys!" Anna almost screamed at me. "She's worth eighteen grand a year in divorce business to me. Any guy that lays a finger on her, Philip Marlowe, is practically cremated."
"She's got to fall some day," I said. "Why couldn't I catch her?"
The opening door stopped that.
I hadn't seen him in the paneled reception room, so he must have been waiting in a private office. He hadn't enjoyed it. He came in quickly, shut the door quickly, and yanked a thin octagonal platinum watch from his vest and glared at it. He was a tall white-blond type in pin-striped flannel of youthful cut. There was a small pink rosebud in his lapel. He had a keen frozen face, a little pouchy under the eyes, a little thick in the lips. He carried an ebony cane with a silver knob, wore spats and looked a smart sixty, but I gave him close to ten years more. I didn't like him.
"Twenty-six minutes, Miss Halsey," he said icily. "My time happens to be valuable. By regarding it as valuable I have managed to make a great deal of money."
"Well, we're trying to save you some of the money," Anna drawled. She didn't like him either. "Sorry to keep you waiting, Mr. Jeeter, but you wanted to see the operative I selected and I had to send for him."
"He doesn't look the type to me," Mr. Jeeter said, giving me a nasty glance. "I think more of a gentleman-"
"You're not the Jeeter of _Tobacco Road_, are you?" I asked him.
He came slowly towards me and half lifted the stick. His icy eyes tore at me like claws. "So you insult me," he said. "Me-a man in my position."
"Now wait a minute," Anna began.
"Wait a minute nothing," I said. "This party said I was not a gentleman. Maybe that's O.K. for a man in his position, whatever it is-but a man in my position doesn't take a dirty crack from anybody. He can't afford to. Unless, of course, it wasn't intended."
Mr. Jeeter stiffened and glared at me. He took his watch out again and looked at it. "Twenty-eight minutes," he said. "I apologize, young man. I had no desire to be rude."
"That's swell," I said. "I knew you weren't the Jeeter in _Tobacco Road_ all along."
That almost started him again, but he let it go. He wasn't sure how I meant it.
"A question or two while we are together," I said. "Are you willing to give this Huntress girl a little money-for expenses?"
"Not one cent," he barked. "Why should I?"
"It's got to be a sort of custom. Suppose she married him. What would he have?"
"At the moment a thousand dollars a month from a trust fund established by his mother, my late wife." He dipped his head. "When he is twenty-eight years old, far too much money."
"You can't blame the girl for trying," I said. "Not these days. How about Marty Estel? Any settlement there?"
He crumpled his gray gloves with a purple-veined hand. "The debt is uncollectible. It is a gambling debt."
Anna sighed wearily and flicked ash around on her desk.
"Sure," I said. "But gamblers can't afford to let people welsh on them. After all, if your son had won, Marty would have paid _him_."
"I'm not interested in that," the tall thin man said coldly.
"Yeah, but think of Marty sitting there with fifty grand in notes. Not worth a nickel. How will he sleep nights?"
Mr. Jeeter looked thoughtful. "You mean there is danger of violence?" he suggested, almost suavely.
"That's hard to say. He runs an exclusive place, gets a good movie crowd. He has his own reputation to think of. But he's in a racket and he knows people. Things can happen-a long way off from where Marty is. And Marty is no bathmat. He gets up and walks."
Mr. Jeeter looked at his watch again and it annoyed him. He slammed it back into his vest. "All that is your affair," he snapped. "The district attorney is a personal friend of mine. If this matter seems to be beyond your powers-"
"Yeah," I told him. "But you came slumming down our street just the same. Even if the D.A. is in your vest pocket-along with that watch."
He put his hat on, drew on one glove, tapped the edge of his shoe with his stick, walked to the door and opened it.
"I ask results and I pay for them," he said coldly. "I pay promptly. I even pay generously sometimes, although I am not considered a generous man. I think we all understand one another."
He almost winked then and went on out. The door closed softly against the cushion of air in the door-closer. I looked at Anna and grinned.
"Sweet, isn't he?" she said. "I'd like eight of him for my cocktail set."
I gouged twenty dollars out of her-for expenses.
The Arbogast I wanted was John D. Arbogast and he had an office on Sunset near Ivar. I called him up from a phone booth. The voice that answered was fat. It wheezed softly, like the voice of a man who had just won a pie-eating contest.
"Mr. John D. Arbogast?"
"This is Philip Marlowe, a private detective working on a case you did some experting on. Party named Jeeter."
"Can I come up and talk to you about it-after I eat lunch?"
"Yeah." He hung up. I decided he was not a talkative man.
I had lunch and drove out there. It was east of Ivar, an old two-story building faced with brick which had been painted recently. The street floor was stores and a restaurant. The building entrance was the foot of a wide straight stairway to the second floor. On the directory at the bottom I read: John D. Arbogast, Suite 212. I went up the stairs and found myself in a wide straight hall that ran parallel with the street. A man in a smock was standing in an open doorway down to my right. He wore a round mirror strapped to his forehead and pushed back, and his face had a puzzled expression. He went back to his office and shut the door.
I went the other way, about half the distance along the hall. A door on the side away from Sunset was lettered: JOHN D. ARBOGAST, EXAMINER OF QUESTIONED DOCUMENTS. PRIVATE INVESTIGATOR. ENTER. The door opened without resistance onto a small windowless anteroom with a couple of easy chairs, some magazines, two chromium smoking stands. There were two floor lamps and a ceiling fixture, all lighted. A door on the other side of the cheap but thick new rug was lettered: JOHN D. ARBOGAST, EXAMINER OF QUESTIONED DOCUMENTS. PRIVATE.
A buzzer had rung when I opened the outer door and gone on ringing until it closed. Nothing happened. Nobody was in the waiting room. The inner door didn't open. I went over and listened at the panel-no sound of conversation inside. I knocked. That didn't buy me anything either. I tried the knob. It turned, so I opened the door and went in.
This room had two north windows, both curtained at the sides and both shut tight. There was dust on the sills. There was a desk, two filing cases, a carpet which was just a carpet, and walls which were just walls. To the left another door with a glass panel was lettered: JOHN D. ARBOGAST. LABORATORY. PRIVATE.
I had an idea I might be able to remember the name.
The room in which I stood was small. It seemed almost too small even for the pudgy hand that rested on the edge of the desk, motionless, holding a fat pencil like a carpenter's pencil. The hand had a wrist, hairless as a plate. A buttoned shirt cuff, not too clean, came down out of a coat sleeve. The rest of the sleeve dropped over the far edge of the desk out of sight. The desk was less than six feet long, so he couldn't have been a very tall man. The hand and the ends of the sleeves were all I saw of him from where I stood. I went quietly back through the anteroom and fixed its door so that it couldn't be opened from the outside and put out the three lights and went back to the private office. I went around an end of the desk.
He was fat all right, enormously fat, fatter by far than Anna Halsey. His face, what I could see of it, looked about the size of a basket ball. It had a pleasant pinkness, even now. He was kneeling on the floor. He had his large head against the sharp inner corner of the kneehole of the desk, and his left hand was flat on the floor with a piece of yellow paper under it. The fingers were outspread as much as such fat fingers could be, and the yellow paper showed between. He looked as if he were pushing hard on the floor, but he wasn't really. What was holding him up was his own fat. His body was folded down against his enormous thighs, and the thickness and fatness of them held him that way, kneeling, poised solid. It would have taken a couple of good blocking backs to knock him over. That wasn't a very nice idea at the moment, but I had it just the same. I took time out and wiped the back of my neck, although it was not a warm day.
His hair was gray and clipped short and his neck had as many folds as a concertina. His feet were small, as the feet of fat men often are, and they were in black shiny shoes which were sideways on the carpet and close together and neat and nasty. He wore a dark suit that needed cleaning. I leaned down and buried my fingers in the bottomless fat of his neck. He had an artery in there somewhere, probably, but I couldn't find it and he didn't need it any more anyway. Between his bloated knees on the carpet a dark stain had spread and spread-
I knelt in another place and lifted the pudgy fingers that were holding down the piece of yellow paper. They were cool, but not cold, and soft and a little sticky. The paper was from a scratch pad. It would have been very nice if it had had a message on it, but it hadn't. There were vague meaningless marks, not words, not even letters. He had tried to write something after he was shot-perhaps even thought he was writing something-but all he managed was some hen scratches.
He had slumped down then, still holding the paper, pinned it to the floor with his fat hand, held on to the fat pencil with his other hand, wedged his torso against his huge thighs, and so died. John D. Arbogast. Examiner of Questioned Documents. Private. Very damned private. He had said "yeah" to me three times over the phone.
And here he was.
I wiped doorknobs with my handkerchief, put off the lights in the anteroom, left the outer door so that it was locked from the outside, left the hallway, left the building and left the neighborhood. So far as I could tell nobody saw me go. So far as I could tell.
The El Milano was, as Anna had told me, in the 1900 block on North Sycamore. It was most of the block. I parked fairly near the ornamental forecourt and went along to the pale blue neon sign over the entrance to the basement garage. I walked down a railed ramp into a bright space of glistening cars and cold air. A trim light-colored Negro in a spotless coverall suit with blue cuffs came out of a glass office. His black hair was as smooth as a bandleader's.
"Busy?" I asked him.
"Yes and no, sir."
"I've got a car outside that needs a dusting. About five bucks worth of dusting."
It didn't work. He wasn't the type. His chestnut eyes became thoughtful and remote. "That is a good deal of dusting, sir. May I ask if anything else would be included?"
"A little. Is Miss Harriet Huntress' car in?"
He looked. I saw him look along the glistening row at a canary-yellow convertible which was about as inconspicuous as a privy on the front lawn.
"Yes, sir. It is in."
"I'd like her apartment number and a way to get up there without going through the lobby. I'm a private detective." I showed him a buzzer. He looked at the buzzer. It failed to amuse him.
He smiled the faintest smile I ever saw. "Five dollars is nice money, sir, to a working man. It falls a little short of being nice enough to make me risk my position. About from here to Chicago short, sir. I suggest that you save your five dollars, sir, and try the customary mode of entry."
"You're quite a guy," I said. "What are you going to be when you grow up-a five-foot shelf?"
"I am already grown up, sir. I am thirty-four years old, married happily, and have two children. Good afternoon, sir."
He turned on his heel. "Well, goodbye," I said. "And pardon my whiskey breath. I just got in from Butte."
I went back up along the ramp and wandered along the street to where I should have gone in the first place. I might have known that five bucks and a buzzer wouldn't buy me anything in a place like the El Milano.
The Negro was probably telephoning the office right now.
The building was a huge white stucco affair, Moorish in style, with great fretted lanterns in the forecourt and huge date palms. The entrance was at the inside corner of an L, up marble steps, through an arch framed in California or dishpan mosaic.
A doorman opened the door for me and I went in. The lobby was not quite as big as the Yankee Stadium. It was floored with a pale blue carpet with sponge rubber underneath. It was so soft it made me want to lie down and roll. I waded over to the desk and put an elbow on it and was stared at by a pale thin clerk with one of those mustaches that get stuck under your fingernail. He toyed with it and looked past my shoulder at an Ali Baba oil jar big enough to keep a tiger in.
"Miss Huntress in?"
"Who shall I announce?"
"Mr. Marty Estel."
That didn't take any better than my play in the garage. He leaned on something with his left foot. A blue-and-gilt door opened at the end of the desk and a large sandy-haired man with cigar ash on his vest came out and leaned absently on the end of the desk and stared at the Ali Baba oil jar, as if trying to make up his mind whether it was a spittoon.
The clerk raised his voice. "You are Mr. Marty Estel?"
"Isn't that a little different? And what is your name, sir, if one may ask?"
"One may ask," I said. "One may not be told. Such are my orders. Sorry to be stubborn and all that rot."
He didn't like my manner. He didn't like anything about me. "I'm afraid I can't announce you," he said coldly. "Mr. Hawkins, might I have your advice on a matter?"
The sandy-haired man took his eyes off the oil jar and slid along the desk until he was within blackjack range of me.
"Yes, Mr. Gregory?" he yawned.
"Nuts to both of you," I said. "And that includes your lady friends."
Hawkins grinned. "Come into my office, bo. We'll kind of see if we can get you straightened out."
I followed him into the doghole he had come out of. It was large enough for a pint-sized desk, two chairs, a knee-high cuspidor, and an open box of cigars. He placed his rear end against the desk and grinned at me sociably.
"Didn't play it very smooth, did you, bo? I'm the house man here. Spill it."
"Some days I feel like playing smooth," I said, "and some days I feel like playing it like a waffle iron." I got my wallet out and showed him the buzzer and the small photostat of my license behind a celluloid window.
"One of the boys, huh?" He nodded. "You ought to of asked for me in the first place."
"Sure. Only I never heard of you. I want to see this Huntress frail. She doesn't know me, but I have business with her, and it's not noisy business."
He made a yard and half sideways and cocked his cigar in the other corner of his mouth. He looked at my right eyebrow. "What's the gag? Why try to apple-polish the dinge downstairs? You gettin' any expense money?"
"I'm nice people," he said. "But I gotta protect the guests."
"You're almost out of cigars," I said, looking at the ninety or so in the box. I lifted a couple, smelled them, tucked a folded ten-dollar bill below them and put them back.
"That's cute," he said. "You and me could get along. What you want done?"
"Tell her I'm from Marty Estel. She'll see me."
"It's the job if I get a kickback."
"You won't. I've got important people behind me."
I started to reach for my ten, but he pushed my hand away. "I'll take a chance," he said. He reached for his phone and asked for Suite 814 and began to hum. His humming sounded like a cow being sick. He leaned forward suddenly and his face became a honeyed smile. His voice dripped.
"Miss Huntress? This is Hawkins, the house man. Hawkins. Yeah . . . Hawkins. Sure, you meet a lot of people, Miss Huntress. Say, there's a gentleman in my office wanting to see you with a message from Mr. Estel. We can't let him up without your say so, because he don't want to give us no name . . . Yeah, Hawkins, the house detective, Miss Huntress. Yeah, he says you don't know him personal, but he looks O.K. to me . . . O.K. Thanks a lot, Miss Huntress. Serve him right up."
He put the phone down and patted it gently.
"All you needed was some background music," I said.
"You can ride up," he said dreamily. He reached absently into his cigar box and removed the folded bill. "A darb," he said softly. "Every time I think of that dame I have to go out and walk around the block. Let's go."
We went out to the lobby again and Hawkins took me to the elevator and highsigned me in.
As the elevator doors closed I saw him on his way to the entrance, probably for his walk around the block.
The elevator had a carpeted floor and mirrors and indirect lighting. It rose as softly as the mercury in a thermometer. The doors whispered open, I wandered over the moss they used for a hall carpet and came to a door marked 814. I pushed a little button beside it, chimes rang inside and the door opened.
She wore a street dress of pale green wool and a small cockeyed hat that hung on her ear like a butterfly. Her eyes were wide-set and there was thinking room between them. Their color was lapis-lazuli blue and the color of her hair was dusky red, like a fire under control but still dangerous. She was too tall to be cute. She wore plenty of make-up in the right places and the cigarette she was poking at me had a built-on mouthpiece about three inches long. She didn't look hard, but she looked as if she had heard all the answers and remembered the ones she thought she might be able to use sometime.
She looked me over coolly. "Well, what's the message, browneyes?"
"I'd have to come in," I said. "I never could talk on my feet."
She laughed disinterestedly and I slid past the end of her cigarette into a long rather narrow room with plenty of nice furniture, plenty of windows, plenty of drapes, plenty of everything. A fire blazed behind a screen, a big log on top of a gas teaser. There was a silk Oriental rug in front of a nice rose davenport in front of the nice fire, and beside that there was Scotch and swish on a tabouret, ice in a bucket, everything to make a man feel at home.
"You'd better have a drink," she said. "You probably can't talk without a glass in your hand."
I sat down and reached for the Scotch. The girl sat in a deep chair and crossed her knees. I thought of Hawkins walking around the block. I could see a little something in his point of view.
"So you're from Marty Estel," she said, refusing a drink.
"Never met him."
"I had an idea to that effect. What's the racket, bum? Marty will love to hear how you used his name."
"I'm shaking in my shoes. What made you let me up?"
"Curiosity. I've been expecting lads like you any day. I never dodge trouble. Some kind of a dick, aren't you?"
I lit a cigarette and nodded. "Private. I have a little deal to propose."
"Propose it." She yawned.
"How much will you take to lay off young Jeeter?"
She yawned again. "You interest me-so little I could hardly tell you."
"Don't scare me to death. Honest, how much are you asking? Or is that an insult?"
She smiled. She had a nice smile. She had lovely teeth. "I'm a bad girl now," she said. "I don't have to ask. They bring it to me, tied up with ribbon."
"The old man's a little tough. They say he draws a lot of water."
"Water doesn't cost much."
I nodded and drank some more of my drink. It was good Scotch. In fact it was perfect. "His idea is you get nothing. You get smeared. You get put in the middle. I can't see it that way."
"But you're working for him."
"Sounds funny, doesn't it? There's probably a smart way to play this, but I just can't think of it at the moment. How much would you take-or would you?"
"How about fifty grand?"
"Fifty grand for you and another fifty for Marty?"
She laughed. "Now, you ought to know Marty wouldn't like me to mix in his business. I was just thinking of my end."
She crossed her legs the other way. I put another lump of ice in my drink.
"I was thinking of five hundred," I said.
"Five hundred what?" She looked puzzled.
She laughed heartily. "You amuse me. I ought to tell you to go to hell, but I like brown eyes. Warm brown eyes with flecks of gold in them."
"You're throwing it away. I don't have a nickel."
She smiled and fitted a fresh cigarette between her lips. I went over to light it for her. Her eyes came up and looked into mine. Hers had sparks in them.
"Maybe I have a nickel already," she said softly.
"Maybe that's why he hired the fat boy-so you couldn't make him dance." I sat down again.
"Who hired what fat boy?"
"Old Jeeter hired a fat boy named Arbogast. He was on the case before me. Didn't you know? He got bumped off this afternoon."
I said it quite casually for the shock effect, but she didn't move. The provocative smile didn't leave the corners of her lips. Her eyes didn't change. She made a dim sound with her breath.
"Does it have to have something to do with me?" she asked quietly.
"I don't know. I don't know who murdered him. It was done in his office, around noon or a little later. It may not have anything to do with the Jeeter case. But it happened pretty pat-just after I had been put on the job and before I got a chance to talk to him."
She nodded. "I see. And you think Marty does things like that. And of course you told the police?"
"Of course I did not."
"You're giving away a little weight there, brother."
"Yeah. But let's get together on a price and it had better be low. Because whatever the cops do to me they'll do plenty to Marty Estel and you when they get the story-if they get it."
"A little spot of blackmail," the girl said coolly. "I think I might call it that. Don't go too far with me, brown-eyes. By the way, do I know your name?"
"Then listen, Philip. I was in the Social Register once. My family were nice people. Old man Jeeter ruined my father- all proper and legitimate, the way that kind of heel ruins people-but he ruined him, and my father committed suicide, and my mother died and I've got a kid sister back East in school and perhaps I'm not too damn particular how I get the money to take care of her. And maybe I'm going to take care of old J eeter one of these days, too-even if I have to marry his son to do it."
"Stepson, adopted son," I said. "No relation at all."
"It'll hurt him just as hard, brother. And the boy will have plenty of the long green in a couple of years. I could do worse-even if he does drink too much."
"You wouldn't say that in front of him, lady."
"No? Take a look behind you, gumshoe. You ought to have the wax taken out of your ears."
I stood up and turned fast. He stood about four feet from me. He had come out of some door and sneaked across the carpet and I had been too busy being clever with nothing on the ball to hear him. He was big, blond, dressed in a rough sporty suit, with a scarf and open-necked shirt. He was redfaced and his eyes glittered and they were not focusing any too well. He was a bit drunk for that early in the day.
"Beat it while you can still walk," he sneered at me. "I heard it. Harry can say anything she likes about me. I like it. Dangle, before I knock your teeth down your throat!"
The girl laughed behind me. I didn't like that. I took a step towards the big blond boy. His eyes blinked. Big as he was, he was a pushover.
"Ruin him, baby," the girl said coldly behind my back. "I love to see these hard numbers bend at the knees."
I looked back at her with a leer. That was a mistake. He was wild, probably, but he could still hit a wall that didn't jump. He hit me while I was looking back over my shoulder. It hurts to be hit that way. He hit me plenty hard, on the back end of the jawbone.
I went over sideways, tried to spread my legs, and slid on the silk rug. I did a nose dive somewhere or other and my head was not as hard as the piece of furniture it smashed into.
For a brief blurred moment I saw his red face sneering down at me in triumph. I think I was a little sorry for him-even then.
Darkness folded down and I went out.
When I came to, the light from the windows across the room was hitting me square in the eyes. The back of my head ached. I felt it and it was sticky. I moved around slowly, like a cat in a strange house, got up on my knees and reached for the bottle of Scotch on the tabouret at the end of the davenport. By some miracle I hadn't knocked it over. Falling I had hit my head on the clawlike leg of a chair. That had hurt me a lot more than young Jeeter's haymaker. I could feel the sore place on my jaw all right, but it wasn't important enough to write in my diary.
I got up on my feet, took a swig of the Scotch and looked around. There wasn't anything to see. The room was empty. It was full of silence and the memory of a nice perfume. One of those perfumes you don't notice until they are almost gone, like the last leaf on a tree. I felt my head again, touched the sticky place with my handkerchief, decided it wasn't worth yelling about, and took another drink.
I sat down with the bottle on my knees, listening to traffic noise somewhere, far off. It was a nice room. Miss Harriet Huntress was a nice girl. She knew a few wrong numbers, but who didn't? I should criticize a little thing like that. I took another drink. The level in the bottle was a lot lower now. It was smooth and you hardly noticed it going down. It didn't take half your tonsils with it, like some of the stuff I had to drink. I took some more. My head felt all right now. I felt fine. I felt like singing the Prologue to Pagliacci. Yes, she was a nice girl. If she was paying her own rent, she was doing right well. I was for her. She was swell. I used some more of her Scotch.
The bottle was still half full. I shook it gently, stuffed it in my overcoat pocket, put my hat somewhere on my head and left. I made the elevator without hitting the walls on either side of the corridor, floated downstairs, strolled out into the lobby.
Hawkins, the house dick, was leaning on the end of' the desk again, staring at the Ali Baba oil jar. The same clerk was nuzzling at the same itsy-bitsy mustache. I smiled at him. He smiled back. Hawkins smiled at me. I smiled back. Everybody was swell.
I made the front door the first time and gave the doorman two bits and floated down the steps and along the walk to the street and my car. The swift California twilight was falling. It was a lovely night. Venus in the west was as bright as a street lamp, as bright as life, as bright as Miss Huntress' eyes, as bright as a bottle of Scotch. That reminded me. I got the square bottle out and tapped it with discretion, corked it, and tucked it away again. There was still enough to get home on.
I crashed five red lights on the way back but my luck was in and nobody pinched me. I parked more or less in front of my apartment house and more or less near the curb. I rode to my floor in the elevator, had a little trouble opening the doors and helped myself out with my bottle. I got the key into my door and unlocked it and stepped inside and found the light switch. I took a little more of my medicine before exhausting myself any further. Then I started for the kitchen to get some ice and ginger ale for a real drink.
I thought there was a funny smell in the apartment-nothing I could put a name to offhand-a sort of medicinal smell. I hadn't put it there and it hadn't been there when I went out. But I felt too well to argue about it. I started for the kitchen, got about halfway there.
They came out at me, almost side by side, from the dressing room beside the wall bed-two of them-with guns. The tall one was grinning. He had his hat low on his forehead and he had a wedge-shaped face that ended in a point, like the bottom half of the ace of diamonds. He had dark moist eyes and a nose so bloodless that it might have been made of white wax. His gun was a Colt Woodsman with a long barrel and the front sight filed off. That meant he thought he was good.
The other was a little terrierlike punk with bristly reddish hair and no hat and watery blank eyes and bat ears and small feet in dirty white sneakers. He had an automatic that looked too heavy for him to hold up, but he seemed to like holding it. He breathed open-mouthed and noisily and the smell I had noticed came from him in waves-menthol.
"Reach, you bastard," he said.
I put my hands up. There was nothing else to do.
The little one circled around to the side and came at me from the side. "Tell us we can't get away with it," he sneered.
"You can't get away with it," I said.
The tall one kept on grinning loosely and his nose kept on looking as if it was made of white wax. The little one spat on my carpet. "Yah!" He came close to me, leering, and made a pass at my chin with the big gun.
I dodged. Ordinarily that would have been just something which, in the circumstances, I had to take and like. But I was feeling better than ordinary. I was a world-beater. I took them in sets, guns and all. I took the little man around the throat and jerked him hard against my stomach, put a hand over his little gun hand and knocked the gun to the floor. It was easy. Nothing was bad about it but his breath. Blobs of saliva came out on his lips. He spit curses.
The tall man stood and leered and didn't shoot. He didn't move. His eyes looked a little anxious, I thought, but I was too busy to make sure. I went down behind the little punk, still holding him, and got hold of his gun. That was wrong. I ought to have pulled my own.
I threw him away from me and he reeled against a chair and fell down and began to kick the chair savagely. The tall man laughed.
"It ain't got any firing pin in it," he said.
"Listen," I told him earnestly, "I'm half full of good Scotch and ready to go places and get things done. Don't waste much of my time. What do you boys want?"
"It still ain't got any firing pin in it," Waxnose said. "Try and see. I don't never let Frisky carry a loaded rod. He's too impulsive. You got a nice arm action there, pal. I will say that for you."
Frisky sat up on the floor and spat on the carpet again and laughed. I pointed the muzzle of the big automatic at the floor and squeezed the trigger. It clicked dryly, but from the balance it felt as if it had cartridges in it.
"We don't mean no harm," Waxnose said. "Not this trip. Maybe next trip? Who knows? Maybe you're a guy that will take a hint. Lay off the Jeeter kid is the word. See?"
"You won't do it?"
"No, I don't see. Who's the Jeeter kid?"
Waxnose was not amused. He waved his long .22 gently. "You oughta get your memory fixed, pal, about the same time you get your door fixed. A pushover that was. Frisky just blew it in with his breath."
"I can understand that," I said.
"Gimme my gat," Frisky yelped. He was up off the floor again, but this time he rushed his partner instead of me.
"Lay off, dummy," the tall one said. "We just got a message for a guy. We don't blast him. Not today."
"Says you!" Frisky snarled and tried to grab the .22 out of Waxnose's hand. Waxnose threw him to one side without trouble but the interlude allowed me to switch the big automatic to my left hand and jerk out my Luger. I showed it to Waxnose. He nodded, but did not seem impressed.
"He ain't got no parents," he said sadly. "I just let him run around with me. Don't pay him no attention unless he bites you. We'll be on our way now. You get the idea. Lay off the Jeeter kid."
"You're looking at a Luger," I said. "Who is the Jeeter kid? And maybe we'll have some cops before you leave."
He smiled wearily. "Mister, I pack this small-bore because I can shoot. If you think you can take me, go to it."
"O.K.," I said. "Do you know anybody named Arbogast?"
"I meet such a lot of people," he said, with another weary smile. "Maybe yes, maybe no. So long, pal. Be pure."
He strolled over to the door, moving a little sideways, so that he had me covered all the time, and I had him covered, and it was just a case of who shot first and straightest, or whether it was worthwhile to shoot at all, or whether I could hit anything with so much nice warm Scotch in me. I let him go. He didn't look like a killer to me, but I could have been wrong.
The little man rushed me again while I wasn't thinking about him. He clawed his big automatic out of my left hand, skipped over to the door, spat on the carpet again, and slipped out. Waxnose backed after him-long sharp face, white nose, pointed chin, weary expression. I wouldn't forget him.
He closed the door softly and I stood there, foolish, holding my gun. I heard the elevator come up and go down again and stop. I still stood there. Marty Estel wouldn't be very likely to hire a couple of comics like that to throw a scare into anybody. I thought about that, but thinking got me nowhere. I remembered the half-bottle of Scotch I had left and went into executive session with it.
An hour and a half later I felt fine, but I still didn't have any ideas. I just felt sleepy.
The jarring of the telephone bell woke me. I had dozed off in the chair, which was a bad mistake, because I woke up with two flannel blankets in my mouth, a splitting headache, a bruise on the back of my head and another on my jaw, neither of them larger than a Yakima apple, but sore for all that. I felt terrible. I felt like an amputated leg.
I crawled over to the telephone and humped myself in a chair beside it and answered it. The voice dripped icicles.
"Mr. Marlowe? This is Mr. Jeeter. I believe we met this morning. I'm afraid I was a little stiff with you."
"I'm a little stiff myself. Your son poked me in the jaw. I mean your stepson, or your adopted son-or whatever he is."
"He is both my stepson and my adopted son. Indeed?" He sounded interested. "And where did you meet him?"
"In Miss Huntress' apartment."
"Oh I see." There had been a sudden thaw. The icicles had melted. "Very interesting. What did Miss Huntress have to say?"
"She liked it. She liked him poking me in the jaw."
"I see. And why did he do that?"
"She had him hid out. He overheard some of our talk. He didn't like it."
"I see. I have been thinking that perhaps some consideration-not large, of course-should be granted to her for her co-operation. That is, if we can secure it."
"Fifty grand is the price."
"I'm afraid I don't-"
"Don't kid me," I snarled. "Fifty thousand dollars. Fifty grand. I offered her five hundred-just for a gag."
"You seem to treat this whole business in a spirit of considerable levity," he snarled back. "I am not accustomed to that sort of thing and I don't like it."
I yawned. I didn't give a damn if school kept in or not. "Listen, Mr. Jeeter, I'm a great guy to horse around, but I have my mind on the job just the same. And there are some very unusual angles to this case. For instance a couple of gunmen just stuck me up in my apartment here and told me to lay off the Jeeter case. I don't see why it should get so tough."
"Good heavens!" He sounded shocked. "I think you had better come to my house at once and we will discuss matters. I'll send my car for you. Can you come right away?"
"Yeah. But I can drive myself. I-"
"No. I'm sending my car and chauffeur. His name is George; you may rely upon him absolutely. He should be there in about twenty minutes."
"O.K.," I said. "That just gives me time to drink my dinner. Have him park around the corner of Kenmore, facing towards Franklin." I hung up.
When I'd had a hot-and-cold shower and put on some clean clothes I felt more respectable. I had a couple of drinks, small ones for a change, and put a light overcoat on and went down to the street.
The car was there already. I could see it half a block down the side street. It looked like a new market opening. It had a couple of headlamps like the one on the front end of a streamliner, two amber f'oglights hooked to the front fender, and a couple of sidelights as big as ordinary headlights. I came up beside it and stopped and a man stepped out of the shadows, tossing a cigarette over his shoulder with a neat flip of the wrist. He was tall, broad, dark, wore a peaked cap, a Russian tunic with a Sam Browne belt, shiny leggings and breeches that flared like an English staff major's whipeords.
"Mr. Marlowe?" He touched the peak of his cap with a gloved forefinger.
"Yeah," I said. "At ease. Don't tell me that's old man Jeeter's car."
"One of them." It was a cool voice that could get fresh.
He opened the rear door and I got in and sank down into the cushions and George slid under the wheel and started the big car. It moved away from the curb and around the corner with as much noise as a bill makes in a wallet. We went west. We seemed to be drifting with the current, but we passed everything. We slid through the heart of Hollywood, the west end of it, down to the Strip and along the glitter of that to the cool quiet of Beverly Hills where the bridle path divides the boulevard.
We gave Beverly Hills the swift and climbed along the foothills, saw the distant lights of the university buildings and swung north into Bel-Air. We began to slide up long narrow streets with high walls and no sidewalks and big gates. Lights on mansions glowed politely through the early night. Nothing stirred. There was no sound but the soft purr of the tires on concrete. We swung left again and I caught a sign which read Calvello Drive. Halfway up this George started to swing the car wide to make a left turn in at a pair of twelve-foot wroughtiron gates. Then something happened.
A pair of lights flared suddenly just beyond the gates and a horn screeched and a motor raced. A car charged at us fast. George straightened out with a flick of the wrist, braked the car and slipped off his right glove, all in one motion.
The car came on, the lights swaying. "Damn drunk," George swore over his shoulder.
It could be. Drunks in cars go all kinds of places to drink. It could be. I slid down onto the floor of the car and yanked the Luger from under my arm and reached up to open the catch. I opened the door a little and held it that way, looking over the sill. The headlights hit me in the face and I ducked, then came up again as the beam passed.
The other car jammed to a stop. Its door slammed open and a figure jumped out of it, waving a gun and shouting. I heard the voice and knew.
"Reach, you bastards!" Frisky screamed at us.
George put his left hand on the wheel and I opened my door a little more. The little man in the street was bouncing up and down and yelling. Out of the small dark car from which he had jumped came no sound except the noise of its motor.
"This is a heist!" Frisky yelled. "Out of there and line up, you sons of bitches!"
I kicked my door open and started to get out, the Luger down at my side.
"You asked for it!" the little man yelled.
I dropped-fast. The gun in his hand belched flame. Somebody must have put a firing pin in it. Glass smashed behind my head. Out of the corner of my eye, which oughtn't to have had any corners at that particular moment, I saw George make a movement as smooth as a ripple of water. I brought the Luger up and started to squeeze the trigger, but a shot crashed beside me-George.
I held my fire. It wasn't needed now.
The dark car lurched forward and started down the hill furiously. It roared into the distance while the little man out in the middle of the pavement was still reeling grotesquely in the light reflected from the walls.
There was something dark on his face that spread. His gun bounded along the concrete. His little legs buckled and he plunged sideways and rolled and then, very suddenly, became still.
George said, "Yah!" and sniffed at the muzzle of his revolver.
"Nice shooting." I got out of the car, stood there looking at the little man-a crumpled nothing. The dirty white of his sneakers gleamed a little in the side glare of the car's lights.
George got out beside me. "Why me, brother?"
"I didn't fire. I was watching that pretty hip draw of yours. It was sweeter than honey."
"Thanks, pal. They were after Mister Gerald, of course. I usually ferry him home from the club about this time, full of liquor and bridge losses."
We went over to the little man and looked down at him. He wasn't anything to see. He was just a little man who was dead, with a big slug in his face and blood on him.
"Turn some of those damn lights off," I growled. "And let's get away from here fast."
"The house is just across the street." George sounded as casual as if he had just shot a nickel in a slot machine instead of a man.
"The Jeeters are out of this, if you like your job. You ought to know that. We'll go back to my place and start all over."
"I get it," he snapped, and jumped back into the big car. He cut the foglights and the sidelights and I got in beside him in the front seat.
We straightened out and started up the hill, over the brow. I looked back at the broken window. It was the small one at the extreme back of the car and it wasn't shatterproof. A large piece was gone from it. They could fit that, if they got around to it, and make some evidence. I didn't think it would matter, but it might.
At the crest of the hill a large limousine passed us going down. Its dome light was on and in the interior, as in a lighted showcase, an elderly couple sat stiffly, taking the royal salute. The man was in evening clothes, with a white scarf and a crush hat. The woman was in furs and diamonds.
George passed them casually, gunned the car and we made a fast right turn into a dark street. "There's a couple of good dinners all shot to hell," he drawled, "and I bet they don't even report it."
"Yeah. Let's get back home and have a drink," I said. "I never really got to like killing people."
We sat with some of Miss Harriet Huntress' Scotch in our glasses and looked at each other across the rims. George looked nice with his cap off. His head was clustered over with wavy dark-brown hair and his teeth were very white and clean. He sipped his drink and nibbled a cigarette at the same time. His snappy black eyes had a cool glitter in them.
"Yale?" I asked.
"Dartmouth, if it's any of your business."
"Everything's my business. What's a college education worth these days?"
"Three squares and a uniform," he drawled.
"What kind of guy is young Jeeter?"
"Big blond bruiser, plays a fair game of golf, thinks he's hell with the women, drinks heavy but hasn't sicked up on the rugs so far."
"What kind of guy is old Jeeter?"
"He'd probably give you a dime-if he didn't have a nickel with him."
"Tsk, tsk, you're talking about your boss."
George grinned. "He's so tight his head squeaks when he takes his hat off. I always took chances. Maybe that's why I'm just somebody's driver. This is good Scotch."
I made another drink, which finished the bottle. I sat down again.
"You think those two gunnies were stashed out for Mister Gerald?"
"Why not? I usually drive him home about that time. Didn't today. He had a bad hangover and didn't go out until late. You're a dick, you know what it's all about, don't you?"
"Who told you I was a dick?"
"Nobody but a dick ever asked so goddam many questions."
I shook my head. "Uh-uh. I've asked you just six questions. Your boss has a lot of confidence in you. He must have told you."
The dark man nodded, grinned faintly and sipped. "The whole set-up is pretty obvious," he said. "When the car started to swing for the turn into the driveway these boys went to work. I don't figure they meant to kill anybody, somehow. It was just a scare. Only that little guy was nuts."
I looked at George's eyebrows. They were nice black eyebrows, with a gloss on them like horsehair.
"It doesn't sound like Marty Estel to pick that sort of helpers."
"Sure. Maybe that's why he picked that sort of helpers."
"You're smart. You and I can get along. But shooting that little punk makes it tougher. What will you do about that?"
"O.K. If they get to you and tie it to your gun, if you still have the gun, which you probably won't, I suppose it will be passed off as an attempted stick-up. There's just one thing."
"What?" George finished his second drink, laid the glass aside, lit a fresh cigarette and smiled.
"It's pretty hard to tell a car from in front-at night. Even with all those lights. It might have been a visitor."
He shrugged and nodded. "But if it's a scare, that would do just as well. Because the family would hear about it and the old man would guess whose boys they were-and why."
"Hell, you really are smart," I said admiringly, and the phone rang.
It was an English-butler voice, very clipped and precise, and it said that if I was Mr. Philip Marlowe, Mr. Jeeter would like to speak to me. He came on at once, with plenty of frost.
"I must say that you take your time about obeying orders," he barked. "Or hasn't that chauffeur of mine-"
"Yeah, he got here, Mr. Jeeter," I said. "But we ran into a little trouble. George will tell you."
"Young man, when I want something done-"
"Listen, Mr. Jeeter, I've had a hard day. Your son punched me on the jaw and I fell and cut my head open. When I staggered back to my apartment, more dead than alive, I was stuck up by a couple of hard guys with guns who told me to lay off the Jeeter case. I'm doing my best but I'm feeling a little frail, so don't scare me."
"Listen," I told him earnestly, "if you want to call all the plays in this game, you can carry the ball yourself. Or you can save yourself a lot of money and hire an order taker. I have to do things my way. Any cops visit you tonight?"
"Cops?" he echoed in a sour voice. "You mean policemen?"
"By all means-I mean policemen."
"And why should I see any policemen?" he almost snarled.
"There was a stiff in front of your gates half an hour ago. Stiff meaning dead man. He's quite small. You could sweep him up in a dustpan, if he bothers you."
"My God! Are you serious?"
"Yes. What's more he took a shot at George and me. He recognized the car. He must have been all set for your son, Mr. Jeeter."
A silence with barbs on it. "I thought you said a dead man," Mr. Jeeter's voice said very coldly. "Now you say he shot at you."
"That was while he wasn't dead," I said. "George will tell you. George-"
"You come out here at once!" he yelled at me over the phone. "At once, do you hear? At once!"
"George will tell you," I said softly and hung up.
George looked at me coldly. He stood up and put his cap on. "O.K., pal," he said. "Maybe some day I can put you on to a soft thing." He started for the door.
"It had to be that way. It's up to him. He'll have to decide."
"Nuts," George said, looking back over his shoulder. "Save your breath, shamus. Anything you say to me is just so much noise in the wrong place."
He opened the door, went out, shut it, and I sat there still holding the telephone, with my mouth open and nothing in it but my tongue and a bad taste on that.
I went out to the kitchen and shook the Scotch bottle, but it was still empty. I opened some rye and swallowed a drink and it tasted sour. Something was bothering me. I had a feeling it was going to bother me a lot more before I was through.
They must have missed George by a whisker. I heard the elevator come up again almost as soon as it had stopped going down. Solid steps grew louder along the hallway. A fist hit the door. I went over and opened it.
One was in brown, one in blue, both large, hefty and bored.
The one in brown pushed his hat back on his head with a freckled hand and said: "You Philip Marlowe?"
"Me," I said.
They rode me back into the room without seeming to. The one in blue shut the door. The one in brown palmed a shield and let me catch a glint of the gold and enamel.
"Finlayson, Detective Lieutenant working out of Central Homicide," he said. "This is Sebold, my partner. We're a couple of swell guys not to get funny with. We hear you're kind of sharp with a gun."
Sebold took his hat off and dusted his salt-and-pepper hair back with the flat of his hand. He drifted noiselessly out to the kitchen.
Finlayson sat down on the edge of a chair and flicked his chin with a thumbnail as square as an ice cube and yellow as a mustard plaster. He was older than Sebold, but not so goodlooking. He had the frowsy expression of a veteran cop who hadn't got very far.
I sat down. I said: "How do you mean, sharp with a gun?"
"Shooting people is how I mean."
I lit a cigarette. Sebold came out of the kitchen and went into the dressing room behind the wall bed.
"We understand you're a private-license guy," Finlayson said heavily.
"Give." He held his hand out. I gave him my wallet. He chewed it over and handed it back. "Carry a gun?"
I nodded. He held out his hand for it. Sebold came out of the dressing room. Finlayson sniffed at the Luger, snapped the magazine out, cleared the breech and held the gun so that a little light shone up through the magazine opening into the breech end of the barrel. He looked down the muzzle, squinting. He handed the gun to Sebold. Sebold did the same thing.
"Don't think so," Sebold said. "Clean, but not that clean. Couldn't have been cleaned within the hour. A little dust."
Finlayson picked the ejected shell off the carpet, pressed it into the magazine and snapped the magazine back in place. He handed me the gun. I put it back under my arm.
"Been out anywhere tonight?" he asked tersely.
"Don't tell me the plot," I said. "I'm just a bit-player."
"Smart guy," Sebold said dispassionately. He dusted his hair again and opened a desk drawer. "Funny stuff. Good for a column. I like 'em that way-with my blackjack."
Finlayson sighed. "Been out tonight, shamus?"
"Sure. In and out all the time. Why?"
He ignored the question. "Where you been?"
"Out to dinner. Business call or two."
"I'm sorry, boys. Every business has its private files."
"Had company, too," Sebold said, picking up George's glass and sniffing it. "Recent-within the hour."
"You're not that good," I told him sourly.
"Had a ride in a big Caddy?" Finlayson bored on, taking a deep breath. "Over West L. A. direction?"
"Had a ride in a Chrysler-over Vine Street direction."
"Maybe we better just take him down," Sebold said, looking at his fingernails.
"Maybe you better skip the gang-buster stuff and tell me what's stuck in your nose. I get along with cops-except when they act as if the law is only for citizens."
Finlayson studied me. Nothing I had said made an impression on him. Nothing Sebold said made any impression on him. He had an idea and he was holding it like a sick baby.
"You know a little rat named Frisky Lavon?" he sighed. "Used to be a dummy-chucker, then found out he could bug his way outa raps. Been doing that for say twelve years. Totes a gun and acts simple. But he quit acting tonight at seventhirty about. Quit cold-with a slug in his head."
"Never heard of him," I said.
"You bumped anybody off tonight?"
"I'd have to look at my notebook."
Sebold leaned forward politely. "Would you care for a smack in the kisser?" he inquired.
Finlayson held his hand out sharply. "Cut it, Ben. Cut it. Listen, Marlowe. Maybe we're going at this wrong. We're not talking about murder. Could have been legitimate. This Frisky Lavon got froze off tonight on Calvello Drive in Bel-Air. Out in the middle of the street. Nobody seen or heard anything. So we kind of want to know."
"All right," I growled. "What makes it my business? And keep that piano tuner out of my hair. He has a nice suit and his nails are clean, but he bears down on his shield too hard."
"Nuts to you," Sebold said.
"We got a funny phone call," Finlayson said. "Which is where you come in. We ain't just throwing our weight around. And we want a forty-five. They ain't sure what kind yet."
"He's smart. He threw it under the bar at Levy's," Sebold sneered.
"I never had a forty-five," I said. "A guy who needs that much gun ought to use a pick."
Finlayson scowled at me and counted his thumbs. Then he took a deep breath and suddenly went human on me. "Sure, I'm just a dumb flatheel," he said. "Anybody could pull my ears off and I wouldn't even notice it. Let's all quit horsing around and talk sense.
"This Frisky was found dead after a no-name phone call to West L. A. police. Found dead outside a big house belonging to a man named Jeeter who owns a string of investment companies. He wouldn't use a guy like Frisky for a penwiper, so there's nothing in that. The servants didn't hear nothing, nor the servants at any of the four houses on the block. Frisky is lying in the street and somebody run over his foot, but what killed him was a forty-five slug smack in his face. West L. A. ain't hardly started the routine when some guy calls up Central and says to tell Homicide if they want to know who got Frisky Lavon, ask a private eye named Philip Marlowe, complete with address and everything, then a quick hang-up.
"O.K. The guy on the board gives me the dope and I don't know Frisky from a hole in my sock, but I ask Identification and sure enough they have him and just about the time I'm looking it over the flash comes from West L. A. and the description seems to check pretty close. So we get together and it's the same guy all right and the chief of detectives has us drop around here. So we drop around."
"So here you are," I said. "Will you have a drink?"
"Can we search the joint, if we do?"
"Sure. It's a good lead-that phone call, I mean-if you put in about six months on it."
"We already got that idea," Finlayson growled. "A hundred guys could have chilled this little wart, and two-three of them maybe could have thought it was a smart rib to pin it on you. Them two-three is what interests us."
I shook my head.
"No ideas at all, huh?"
"Just for wisecracks," Sebold said.
Finlayson lumbered to his feet. "Well, we gotta look around."
"Maybe we had ought to have brought a search warrant," Sebold said, tickling his upper lip with the end of his tongue.
"I don't _have_ to fight this guy, do I?" I asked Finlayson. "I mean, is it all right if I leave him his gag lines and just keep my temper?"
Finlayson looked at the ceiling and said dryly: "His wife left him day before yesterday. He's just trying to compensate, as the fellow says."
Sebold turned white and twisted his knuckles savagely. Then he laughed shortly and got to his feet.
They went at it. Ten minutes of opening and shutting drawers and looking at the backs of shelves and under seat cushions and letting the bed down and peering into the electric refrigerator and the garbage pail fed them up.
They came back and sat down again. "Just a nut," Finlayson said wearily. "Some guy that picked your name outa the directory maybe. Could be anything."
"Now I'll get that drink."
"I don't drink," Sebold snarled.
Finlayson crossed his hands on his stomach. "That don't mean any liquor gets poured in the flowerpot, son."
I got three drinks and put two of them beside Finlayson. He drank half of one of them and looked at the ceiling. "I got another killing, too," he said thoughtfully. "A guy in your racket, Marlowe. A fat guy on Sunset. Name of Arbogast. Ever hear of him?"
"I thought he was a handwriting expert," I said.
"You're talking about police business," Sebold told his partner coldly.
"Sure. Police business that's already in the morning paper. This Arbogast was shot three times with a twenty-two. Target gun. You know any crooks that pack that kind of heat?"
I held my glass tightly and took a long slow swallow. I hadn't thought Waxnose looked dangerous enough, but you never knew.
"I did," I said slowly. "A killer named Al Tessilore. But he's in Folsom. He used a Colt Woodsman."
Finlayson finished the first drink, used the second in about the same time, and stood up. Sebold stood up, still mad.
Finlayson opened the door. "Come on, Ben." They went out.
I heard their steps along the hall, the clang of the elevator once more. A car started just below in the street and growled off into the night.
"Clowns like that don't kill," I said out loud. But it looked as if they did.
I waited fifteen minutes before I went out again. The phone rang while I was waiting, but I didn't answer it.
I drove towards the El Milano and circled around enough to make sure I wasn't followed.
The lobby hadn't changed any. The blue carpet still tickled my ankles while I ambled over to the desk, the same pale clerk was handing a key to a couple of horse-faced females in tweeds, and when he saw me he put his weight on his left foot again and the door at the end of the desk popped open and out popped the fat and erotic Hawkins, with what looked like the same cigar stub in his face.
He hustled over and gave me a big warm smile this time, took hold of my arm. "Just the guy I was hoping to see," he chuckled. "Let's us go upstairs a minute."
"What's the matter?"
"Matter?" His smile became broad as the door to a two-car garage. "Nothing ain't the matter. This way."
He pushed me into the elevator and said "Eight" in a fat cheerful voice and up we sailed and out we got and slid along the corridor. Hawkins had a hard hand and knew where to hold an arm. I was interested enough to let him get away with it. He pushed the buzzer beside Miss Huntress' door and Big Ben chimed inside and the door opened and I was looking at a deadpan in a derby hat and a dinner coat. He had his right hand in the side pocket of the coat, and under the derby a pair of scarred eyebrows and under the eyebrows a pair of eyes that had as much expression as the cap on a gas tank.
The mouth moved enough to say: "Yeah?"
"Company for the boss," Hawkins said expansively.
"Let me play too," I said. "Limited Liability Company. Gimme the apple."
"Huh?" The eyebrows went this way and that and the jaw came out. "Nobody ain't kiddin' anybody, I hope."
"Now, now, gents-" Hawkins began.
A voice behind the derby-hatted man interrupted him. "What's the matter, Beef?"
"He's in a stew," I said.
"Now, now, gents-" as before.
"Ain't nothing the matter," Beef said, throwing his voice over his shoulder as if it were a coil of rope. "The hotel dick got a guy up here and he says he's company."
"Show the company in, Beef." I liked this voice. It was smooth quiet, and you could have cut your name in it with a thirty-pound sledge and a cold chisel.
"Lift the dogs," Beef said, and stood to one side.
We went in. I went first, then Hawkins, then Beef wheeled neatly behind us like a door. We went in so close together that we must have looked like a three-decker sandwich.
Miss Huntress was not in the room. The log in the fireplace had almost stopped smoldering. There was still that smell of sandalwood on the air. With it cigarette smoke blended.
A man stood at the end of the davenport, both hands in the pockets of a blue camel's hair coat with the collar high to a black snap-brim hat. A loose scarf hung outside his coat. He stood motionless, the cigarette in his mouth lisping smoke. He was tall, black-haired, suave, dangerous. He said nothing.
Hawkins ambled over to him. "This is the guy I was telling you about, Mr. Estel," the fat man burbled. "Come in earlier today and said he was from you. Kinda fooled me."
"Give him a ten, Beef."
The derby hat took its left hand from somewhere and there was a bill in it. It pushed the bill at Hawkins. Hawkins took the bill, blushing.
"This ain't necessary, Mr. Estel. Thanks a lot just the same."
"Huh?" Hawkins looked shocked.
"You heard him," Beef said truculently. "Want your fanny out the door first, huh?"
Hawkins drew himself up. "I gotta protect the tenants. You gentlemen know how it is. A man in a job like this."
"Yeah. Scram," Estel said without moving his lips.
Hawkins turned and went out quickly, softly. The door clicked gently shut behind him. Beef looked back at it, then moved behind me.
"See if he's rodded, Beef."
The derby hat saw if I was rodded. He took the Luger and went away from me. Estel looked casually at the Luger, back at me. His eyes held an expression of indifferent dislike.
"Name's Philip Marlowe, eh? A private dick."
"So what?" I said.
"Somebody's goin' to get somebody's face pushed into somebody's floor," Beef said coldly.
"Aw, keep that crap for the boiler room," I told him. "I'm sick of hard guys for this evening. I said 'so what,' and 'so what' is what I said."
Marty Estel looked mildly amused. "Hell, keep your shirt in. I've got to look after my friends, don't I? You know who I am. O.K., I know what you talked to Miss Huntress about. And I know something about you that you don't know I know."
"All right," I said. "This fat slob Hawkins collected ten from me for letting me up here this afternoon-knowing perfectly well who I was-and he has just collected ten from your iron man for slipping me the nasty. Give me back my gun and tell me what makes my business your business."
"Plenty. First off, Harriet's not home. We're waiting for her on account of a thing that happened. I can't wait any longer. Got to go to work at the club. So what did you come after this time?"
"Looking for the Jeeter boy. Somebody shot at his car tonight. From now on he needs somebody to walk behind him."
"You think I play games like that?" Estel asked me coldly.
I walked over to a cabinet and opened it and found a bottle of Scotch. I twisted the cap off, lifted a glass from the tabouret and poured some out. I tasted it. It tasted all right.
I looked around for ice, but there wasn't any. It had all melted long since in the bucket.
"I asked you a question," Estel said gravely.
"I heard it. I'm making my mind up. The answer is, I wouldn't have thought it-no. But it happened. I was there. I was in the car-instead of young Jeeter. His father had sent for me to come to the house to talk things over."
I didn't bother to look surprised. "You hold fifty grand of the boy's paper. That looks bad for you, if anything happens to him."
"I don't figure it that way. Because that way I would lose my dough. The old man won't pay-granted. But I wait a couple of years and I collect from the kid. He gets his estate out of trust when he's twenty-eight. Right now he gets a grand a month and he can't even will anything, because it's still in trust. Savvy?"
"So you wouldn't knock him off," I said, using my Scotch. "But you might throw a scare into him."
Estel frowned. He discarded his cigarette into a tray and watched it smoke a moment before he picked it up again and snubbed it out. He shook his head.
"If you're going to bodyguard him, it would almost pay me to stand part of your salary, wouldn't it? Almost. A man in my racket can't take care of everything. He's of age and it's his business who he runs around with. For instance, women. Any reason why a nice girl shouldn't cut herself a piece of five million bucks?"
I said: "I think it's a swell idea. What was it you knew about me that I didn't know you knew?"
He smiled, faintly. "What was it you were waiting to tell Miss Huntress-the thing that happened?"
He smiled faintly again.
"Listen, Marlowe, there are lots of ways to play any game. I play mine on the house percentage, because that's all I need to win. What makes me get tough?"
I rolled a fresh cigarette around in my fingers and tried to roll it around my glass with two fingers. "Who said you were tough? I always heard the nicest things about you."
Marty Estel nodded and looked faintly amused. "I have sources of information," he said quietly. "When I have fifty grand invested in a guy, I'm apt to find out a little about him. Jeeter hired a man named Arbogast to do a little work. Arbogast was killed in his office today-with a twenty-two. That could have nothing to do with Jeeter's business. But there was a tail on you when you went there and you didn't give it to the law. Does that make you and me friends?"
I licked the edge of my glass, nodded. "It seems it does."
"From now on just forget about bothering Harriet, see?"
"So we understand each other real good, now."
"Well, I'll be going. Give the guy back his Luger, Beef."
The derby hat came over and smacked my gun into my hand hard enough to break a bone.
"Staying?" Estel asked, moving towards the door.
"I guess I'll wait a little while. Until Hawkins comes up to touch me for another ten."
Estel grinned. Beef walked in front of him wooden-faced to the door and opened it. Estel went out. The door closed. The room was silent. I sniffed at the dying perfume of sandalwood and stood motionless, looking around.
Somebody was nuts. I was nuts. Everybody was nuts. None of it fitted together worth a nickel. Marty Estel, as he said, had no good motive for murdering anybody, because that would be the surest way to kill chances to collect his money. Even if he had a motive for murdering anybody, Waxnose and Frisky didn't seem like the team he would select for the job. I was in bad with the police, I had spent ten dollars of my twenty expense money, and I didn't have enough leverage anywhere to lift a dime off a cigar counter.
I finished my drink, put the glass down, walked up and down the room, smoked a third cigarette, looked at my watch, shrugged and felt disgusted. The inner doors of the suite were closed. I went across to the one out of' which young Jeeter must have sneaked that afternoon. Opening it I looked into a bedroom done in ivory and ashes of roses. There was a big double bed with no footboard, covered with figured brocade. Toilet articles glistened on a built-in dressing table with a panel light. The light was lit. A small lamp on a table beside the door was lit also. A door near the dressing table showed the cool green of bathroom tiles.
I went over and looked in there. Chromium, a glass stall shower, monogrammed towels on a rack, a glass shelf for perfume and bath salts at the foot of the tub, everything nice and refined. Miss Huntress did herself well. I hoped she was paying her own rent. It didn't make any difference to me-I just liked it that way.
I went back towards the living room, stopped in the doorway to take another pleasant look around, and noticed something I ought to have noticed the instant I stepped into the room. I noticed the sharp tang of cordite on the air, almost, but not quite gone. And then I noticed something else.
The bed had been moved over until its head overlapped the edge of a closet door which was not quite closed. The weight of the bed was holding it from opening. I went over there to find out why it wanted to open. I went slowly and about halfway there I noticed that I was holding a gun in my hand.
I leaned against the closet door. It didn't move. I threw more weight against it. It still didn't move. Braced against it I pushed the bed away with my foot, gave ground slowly.
A weight pushed against me hard. I had gone back a foot or so before anything else happened. Then it happened suddenly. He came out-sideways, in a sort of roll. I put some more weight back on the door and held him like that a moment, looking at him.
He was still big, still blond, still dressed in rough sporty material, with scarf and open-necked shirt. But his face wasn't red any more.
I gave ground again and he rolled down the back of the door, turning a little like a swimmer in the surf, thumped the floor and lay there, almost on his back, still looking at me. Light from the bedside lamp glittered on his head. There was a scorched and soggy stain on the rough coat-about where his heart would be. So he wouldn't get that five million after all. And nobody would get anything and Marty Estel wouldn't get his fifty grand. Because young Mister Gerald was dead.
I looked back into the closet where he had been. Its door hung wide open now. There were clothes on racks, feminine clothes, nice clothes. He had been backed in among them, probably with his hands in the air and a gun against his chest. And then he had been shot dead, and whoever did it hadn't been quite quick enough or quite strong enough to get the door shut. Or had been scared and had just yanked the bed over against the door and left it that way.
Something glittered down on the floor. I picked it up. A small automatic, .25 caliber, a woman's purse gun with a beautifully engraved butt inlaid with silver and ivory. I put the gun in my pocket. That seemed a funny thing to do, too.
I didn't touch him. He was as dead as John D. Arbogast and looked a whole lot deader. I left the door open and listened, walked quickly back across the room and into the living room and shut the bedroom door, smearing the knob as I did it.
A lock was being tinkled at with a key. Hawkins was back again, to see what delayed me. He was letting himself in with his passkey.
I was pouring a drink when he came in.
He came well into the room, stopped with his feet planted and surveyed me coldly.
"I seen Estel and his boy leave," he said. "I didn't see you leave. So I come up. I gotta-"
"You gotta protect the guests," I said.
"Yeah. I gotta protect the guests. You can't stay up here, pal. Not without the lady of the house home."
"But Marty Estel and his hard boy can."
He came a little closer to me. He had a mean look in his eye. He had always had it, probably, but I noticed it more now.
"You don't want to make nothing of that, do you?" he asked me.
"No. Every man to his own chisel. Have a drink."
"That ain't your liquor."
"Miss Huntress gave me a bottle. We're pals. Marty Estel and I are pals. Everybody is pals. Don't you want to be pals?"
"You ain't trying to kid me, are you?"
"Have a drink and forget it."
I found a glass and poured him one. He took it.
"It's the job if anybody smells it on me," he said.
He drank slowly, rolling it around on his tongue. "Good Scotch."
"Won't be the first time you tasted it, will it?"
He started to get hard again, then relaxed. "Hell, I guess you're just a kidder." He finished the drink, put the glass down, patted his lips with a large and very crumpled handkerchief and sighed.
"O.K.," he said. "But we'll have to leave now."
"All set. I guess she won't be home for a while. You see them go out?"
"Her and the boy friend. Yeah, long time ago."
I nodded. We went towards the door and Hawkins saw me out. He saw me downstairs and off the premises. But he didn't see what was in Miss Huntress' bedroom. I wondered if he would go back up. If he did, the Scotch bottle would probably stop him.
I got into my car and drove off home-to talk to Anna Halsey on the phone. There wasn't any case any more-for us. I parked close to the curb this time. I wasn't feeling gay any more. I rode up in the elevator and unlocked the door and clicked the light on.
Waxnose sat in my best chair, an unlit hand-rolled brown cigarette between his fingers, his bony knees crossed, and his long Woodsman resting solidly on his leg. He was smiling. It wasn't the nicest smile I ever saw.
"Hi, pal," he drawled. "You still ain't had that door fixed. Kind of shut it, huh?" His voice, for all the drawl, was deadly.
I shut the door, stood looking across the room at him.
"So you killed my pal," he said.
He stood up slowly, came across the room slowly and leaned the .22 against my throat. His smiling thin-lipped mouth seemed as expressionless, for all its smile, as his wax-white nose. He reached quietly under my coat and took the Luger. I might as well leave it home from now on. Everybody in town seemed to be able to take it away from me.
He stepped back across the room and sat down again in the chair.
"Steady does it," he said almost gently. "Park the body, friend. No false moves. No moves at all. You and me are at the jumping-off place. The clock's tickin' and we're waiting to go.
I sat down and stared at him. A curious bird. I moistened my dry lips. "You told me his gun had no firing pin," I said.
"Yeah. He fooled me on that, the little so-and-so. And I told you to lay off the Jeeter kid. That's cold now. It's Frisky I'm thinking about. Crazy, ain't it? Me bothering about a dimwit like that, packin' him around with me, and letting him get hisseif bumped off." He sighed and added simply, "He was my kid brother."
"I didn't kill him," I said.
He smiled a little more. He had never stopped smiling. The corners of his mouth just tucked in a little deeper.
He slid the safety catch off the Luger, laid it carefully on the arm of the chair at his right, and reached into his pocket. What he brought out made me as cold as an ice bucket.
It was a metal tube, dark and rough-looking, about four inches long and drilled with a lot of small holes. He held his Woodsman in his left hand and began to screw the tube casually on the end of it.
"Silencer," he said. "They're the bunk, I guess you smart guys think. This one ain't the bunk-not for three shots. I oughta know. I made it myself."
I moistened my lips again. "It'll work for one shot," I said. "Then it jams your action. That one looks like cast-iron. It will probably blow your hand off."
He smiled his waxy smile, screwed it on, slowly, lovingly, gave it a last hard turn and sat back relaxed. "Not this baby. She's packed with steel wool and that's good for three shots, like I said. Then you got to repack it. And there ain't enough back pressure to jam the action on this gun. You feel good? I'd like you to feel good."
"I feel swell, you sadistic son of a bitch," I said.
"I'm having you lie down on the bed after a while. You won't feel nothing. I'm kind of fussy about my killings. Frisky didn't feel nothing, I guess. You got him neat."
"You don't see good," I sneered. "The chauffeur got him with a Smith & Wesson forty-four. I didn't even fire."
"O.K., you don't believe me," I said. "What did you kill Arbogast for? There was nothing fussy about that killing. He was just shot at his desk, three times with a twenty-two and he fell down on the floor. What did he ever do to your filthy little brother?"
He jerked the gun up, but his smile held. "You got guts," he said. "Who is this here Arbogast?"
I told him. I told him slowly and carefully, in detail. I told him a lot of things. And he began in some vague way to look worried. His eyes flickered at me, away, back again, restlessly, like a hummingbird.
"I don't know any party named Arbogast, pal," he said slowly. "Never heard of him. And I ain't shot any fat guys today."
"You killed him," I said. "And you killed young Jeeter-in the girl's apartment at the El Milano. He's lying there dead right now. You're working for Marty Estel. He's going to be awfully damn sorry about that kill. Go ahead and make it three in a row."
His face froze. The smile went away at last. His whole face looked waxy now. He opened his mouth and breathed through it, and his breath made a restless worrying sound. I could see the faint glitter of sweat on his forehead, and I could feel the cold from the evaporation of sweat on mine.
Waxnose said very gently: "I ain't killed anybody at all, friend. Not anybody. I wasn't hired to kill people. Until Frisky stopped that slug I didn't have no such ideas. That's straight."
I tried not to stare at the metal tube on the end of the Woodsman.
A flame flickered at the back of his eyes, a small, weak, smoky flame. It seemed to grow larger and clearer. He looked down at the floor between his feet. I looked around at the light switch, but it was too far away. He looked up again. Very slowly he began to unscrew the silencer. He had it loose in his hand. He dropped it back into his pocket, stood up, holding the two guns, one in each hand. Then he had another idea. He sat down again, took all the shells out of the Luger quickly and threw it on the floor after them.
He came towards me softly across the room. "I guess this is your lucky day," he said. "I got to go a place and see a guy."
"I knew all along it was my lucky day. I've been feeling so good."
He moved delicately around me to the door and opened it a foot and started through the narrow opening, smiling again.
"I gotta see a guy," he said very gently, and his tongue moved along his lips.
"Not yet," I said, and jumped.
His gun hand was at the edge of the door, almost beyond the edge. I hit the door hard and he couldn't bring it in quickly enough. He couldn't get out of the way. I pinned him in the doorway, and used all the strength I had. It was a crazy thing. He had given me a break and all I had to do was to stand still and let him go. But I had a guy to see too-and I wanted to see him first.
Waxnose leered at me. He grunted. He fought with his hand beyond the door edge. I shifted and hit his jaw with all I had. It was enough. He went limp. I hit him again. His head bounced against the wood. I heard a light thud beyond the door edge. I hit him a third time. I never bit anything any harder.
I took my weight back from the door then and he slid towards me, blank-eyed, rubber-kneed and I caught him and twisted his empty hands behind him and let him fall. I stood over him panting. I went to the door. His Woodsman lay almost on the sill. I picked it up, dropped it into my pocket-not the pocket that held Miss Huntress' gun. He hadn't even found that.
There he lay on the floor. He was thin, he had no weight, but I panted just the same. In a little while his eyes flickered open and looked up at me.
"Greedy guy," he whispered wearily. "Why did I ever leave Saint Looey?"
I snapped handcuffs on his wrists and pulled him by the shoulders into the dressing room and tied his ankles with a piece of rope. I left him laying on his back, a little sideways, his nose as white as ever, his eyes empty now, his lips moving a little as if he were talking to himself. A funny lad, not all bad, but not so pure I had to weep over him either.
I put my Luger together and left with my three guns. There was nobody outside the apartment house.
The Jeeter mansion was on a nine- or ten-acre knoll, a big colonial pile with fat white columns and dormer windows and magnolias and a four-car garage. There was a circular parking space at the top of the driveway with two cars parked in it- one was the big dreadnaught in which I'd ridden and the other a canary-yellow sports convertible I had seen before.
I rang a bell the size of a silver dollar. The door opened and a tall narrow cold-eyed bird in dark clothes looked out at me.
"Mr. Jeeter home? Mr. Jeeter, Senior?"
May I arsk who is calling?" The accent was a little too thick, like cut Scotch.
"Philip Marlowe. I'm working for him. Maybe I had ought to of gone to the servant's entrance."
He hitched a finger at a wing collar and looked at me without pleasure. "Aw, possibly. You may step in. I shall inform Mr. Jeeter. I believe he is engaged at the moment. Kindly wait 'ere in the 'all."
"The act stinks," I said. "English butlers aren't dropping their h's this year."
"Smart guy, huh?" he snarled, in a voice from not any farther across the Atlantic than Hoboken. "Wait here." He slid away.
I sat down in a carved chair and felt thirsty. After a while the butler came cat-footing back along the hall and jerked his chin at me unpleasantly.
We went along a mile of hallway. At the end it broadened without any doors into a huge sunroom. On the far side of the sunroom the butler opened a wide door and I stepped past him into an oval room with a black-and-silver oval rug, a black marble table in the middle of the rug, stiff high-backed carved chairs against the walls, a huge oval mirror with a rounded surface that made me look like a pygmy with water on the brain, and in the room three people.
By the door opposite where I came in, George the chauffeur stood stiffly in his neat dark uniform, with his peaked cap in his hand. In the least uncomfortable of the chairs sat Miss Harriet Huntress holding a glass in which there was half a drink. And around the silver margin of the oval rug, Mr. Jeeter, Senior, was trying his legs out in a brisk canter, still under wraps, but mad inside. His face was red and the veins on his nose were distended. His hands were in the pockets of a velvet smoking jacket. He wore a pleated shirt with a black pearl in the bosom, a batwing black tie and one of his patent-leather oxfords was unlaced.
He whirled and yelled at the butler behind me: "Get out and keep those doors shut! And I'm not at home to anybody, understand? Nobody!"
The butler closed the doors. Presumably, he went away. I didn't hear him go.
George gave me a cool one-sided smile and Miss Huntress gave me a bland stare over her glass. "You made a nice comeback," she said demurely.
"You took a chance leaving me alone in your apartment," I told her. "I might have sneaked some of your perfume.'
"Well, what do you want?" Jeeter yelled at me. "A nice sort of detective you turned out to be. I put you on a confidential job and you walk right in on Miss Huntress and explain the whole thing to her."
"It worked, didn't it?"
He stared. They all stared. "How do you know that?" he barked.
"I know a nice girl when I see one. She's here telling you she had an idea she got not to like, and for you to quit worrying about it. Where's Mister Gerald?"
Old man Jeeter stopped and gave me a hard level stare. "I still regard you as incompetent," he said. "My son is missing."
"I'm not working for you. I'm working for Anna Halsey. Any complaints you have to make should be addressed to her, Do I pour my own drink or do you have a flunky in a purple suit to do it? And what do you mean, your son is missing?"
"Should I give him the heave, sir?" George asked quietly.
Jeeter waved his hand at a decanter and siphon and glasses on the black marble table and started around the rug again. "Don't be silly," he snapped at George.
George flushed a little, high on his cheekbones. His mouth looked tough.
I mixed myself a drink and sat down with it and tasted it and asked again: "What do you mean your son is missing, Mr. Jeeter?"
"I'm paying you good money," he started to yell at me, still mad.
He stopped dead in his canter and looked at me again. Miss Huntress laughed lightly. George scowled.
"What do you suppose I mean-my son is missing?" he snapped. "I should have thought that would be clear enough even to you. Nobody knows where he is. Miss Huntress doesn't know. I don't know. No one at any of the places where he might be known."
"But I'm smarter than they are," I said. "_I_ know."
Nobody moved for a long minute. Jeeter stared at me fisheyed. George stared at me. The girl stared at me. She looked puzzled. The other two just stared.
I looked at her. "Where did you go when you went out, if you're telling?"
Her dark blue eyes were water-clear. "There's no secret about it. We went out together-in a taxi. Gerald had had his driving license suspended for a month. Too many tickets. We went down towards the beach and I had a change of heart, as you guessed. I decided I was just being a chiseler after all. I didn't want Gerald's money really. What I wanted was revenge. On Mr. Jeeter here for ruining my father. Done all legally of course, but done just the same. But I got myself in a spot where I couldn't have my revenge and not look like a cheap chiseler. So I told George to find some other girl to play with. He was sore and we quarreled. I stopped the taxi and got out in Beverly Hills. He went on. I don't know where. Later I went back to the El Milano and got my car out of the garage and came here. To tell Mr. Jeeter to forget the whole thing and not bother to sick sleuths on to me."
"You say you went with him in a taxi," I said. "Why wasn't George driving him, if he couldn't drive himself?"
I stared at her, but I wasn't talking to her. Jeeter answered me, frostily. "George drove me home from the office, of course. At that time Gerald had already gone out. Is there anything important about that?"
I turned to him. "Yeah. There's going to be. Mister Gerald is at the El Milano. Hawkins the house dick told me. He went back there to wait for Miss Huntress and Hawkins let him into her apartment. Hawkins will do you those little favors-for ten bucks. He may be there still and he may not."
I kept on watching them. It was hard to watch all three of them. But they didn't move. They just looked at me.
"Well-I'm glad to hear it," old man Jeeter said. "I was afraid he was off somewhere getting drunk."
"No. He's not off anywhere getting drunk," I said. "By the way, among these places you called to see if he was there, you didn't call the El Milano?"
George nodded. "Yes, I did. They said he wasn't there. Looks like this house peeper tipped the phone girl off not to say anything."
"He wouldn't have to do that. She'd just ring the apartment and he wouldn't answer-naturally." I watched old man Jeeter hard then, with a lot of interest. It was going to be hard for him to take that up, but he was going to have to do it.
He did. He licked his lips first. "Why-naturally, if I may ask?" he said coldly.
I put my glass down on the marble table and stood against the wall, with my hands hanging free. I still tried to watch them-all three of them.
"Let's go back over this thing a little," I said. "We're all wise to the situation. I know George is, although he shouldn't be, being just a servant. I know Miss Huntress is. And of course you are, Mr. Jeeter. So let's see what we have got. We have a lot of things that don't add up, but I'm smart. I'm going to add them up anyhow. First-off a handful of photostats of notes from Marty Estel. Gerald denies having given these and Mr. Jeeter won't pay them, but he has a handwriting man named Arbogast check the signatures, to see if they look genuine. They do. They are. This Arbogast may have done other things. I don't know. I couldn't ask him. When I went to see him, he was dead-shot three times-as I've since heard- with a twenty-two. No, I didn't tell the police, Mr. Jeeter."
The tall silver-haired man looked horribly shocked. His lean body shook like a bullrush. "Dead?" he whispered. "Murdered?"
I looked at George. George didn't move a muscle. I looked at the girl. She sat quietly, waiting, tight-lipped.
I said: "There's only one reason to suppose his killing had anything to do with Mr. Jeeter's affairs. He was shot with a twenty-two-and there is a man in this case who wears a twenty-two."
I still had their attention. And their silence.
"Why he was shot I haven't the faintest idea. He was not a dangerous man to Miss Huntress or Marty Estel. He was too fat to get around much. My guess is he was a little too smart. He got a simple case of signature identification and he went on from there to find out more than he should. And after he had found out more than he should-he guessed more than he ought-and maybe he even tried a little blackmail. And somebody rubbed him out this afternoon with a twenty-two. O.K., I can stand it. I never knew him.
"So I went over to see Miss Huntress and after a lot of finagling around with this itchy-handed house dick I got to see her and we had a chat, and then Mister Gerald stepped neatly out of hiding and bopped me a nice one on the chin and over I went and hit my head on a chair leg. And when I came out of that the joint was empty. So I went on home.
"And home I found the man with the twenty-two and with him a dimwit called Frisky Lavon, with a bad breath and a very large gun, neither of which matters now as he was shot dead in front of your house tonight, Mr. Jeeter-shot trying to stick up your car. The cops know about that one-they came to see me about it-because the other guy, the one that packs the twenty-two, is the little dimwit's brother and he thought I shot Dimwit and tried to put the bee on me. But it didn't work. That's two killings.
"We now come to the third and most important. I went back to the El Milano because it no longer seemed a good idea for Mister Gerald to be running around casually. He seemed to have a few enemies. It even seemed that he was supposed to be in the car this evening when Frisky Lavon shot at it-but of course that was just a plant."
Old Jeeter drew his white eyebrows together in an expression of puzzlement. George didn't look puzzled. He didn't look anything. He was as wooden-faced as a cigar-store Indian. The girl looked a little white now, a little tense. I plowed on.
"Back at the El Milano I found that Hawkins had let Marty Estel and his bodyguard into Miss Huntress' apartment to wait for her. Marty had something to tell her-that Arbogast had been killed. That made it a good idea for her to lay off young Jeeter for a while-until the cops quieted down anyhow. A thoughtful guy, Marty. A much more thoughtful guy than you would suppose. For instance, he knew about Arbogast and he knew Mr. Jeeter went to Anna Halsey's office this morning and he knew somehow-Anna might have told him herself, I wouldn't put it past her-that I was working on the case now. So he had me tailed to Arbogast's place and away, and he found out later from his cop friends that Arbogast had been murdered, and he knew I hadn't given it out. So he had me there and that made us pals. He went away after telling me this and once more I was left alone in Miss Huntress' apartment. But this time for no reason at all I poked around. And I found young Mister Gerald, in the bedroom, in a closet."
I stepped quickly over to the girl and reached into my pocket and took out the small fancy .25 automatic and laid it down on her knee.
"Ever see this before?"
Her voice had a curious tight sound, but her dark blue eyes looked at me levelly.
"Yes. It's mine."
"You kept it where?"
"In the drawer of a small table beside the bed."
"Sure about that?"
She thought. Neither of the two men stirred.
George began to twitch the corner of his mouth. She shook her head suddenly, sideways.
"No. I have an idea now I took it out to show somebody- because I don't know much about guns-and left it lying on the mantel in the living room. In fact, I'm almost sure I did. It was Gerald I showed it to."
"So he might have reached for it there, if anybody tried to make a wrong play at him?"
She nodded, troubled. "What do you mean-he's in the closet?" she asked in a small quick voice.
"You know. Everybody in this room knows what I mean. They know that I showed you that gun for a purpose." I stepped away from her and faced George and his boss. "He's dead, of course. Shot through the heart-probably with this gun. It was left there with him. That's why it would be left."
The old man took a step and stopped and braced himself against the table. I wasn't sure whether he had turned white or whether he had been white already. He stared stonily at the girl. He said very slowly, between his teeth: "You damned murderess!"
"Couldn't it have been suicide?" I sneered.
He turned his head enough to look at me. I could see that the idea interested him. He half nodded.
"No," I said. "It couldn't have been suicide."
He didn't like that so well. His face congested with blood and the veins on his nose thickened. The girl touched the gun lying on her knee, then put her hand loosely around the butt. I saw her thumb slide very gently towards the safety catch. She didn't know much about guns, but she knew that much.
"It couldn't be suicide," I said again, very slowly. "As an isolated event-maybe. But not with all the other stuff that's been happening. Arbogast, the stick-up down on Calvello Drive outside this house, the thugs planted in my apartment, the job with the twenty-two."
I reached into my pocket again and pulled out Waxnose's Woodsman. I held it carelessly on the flat of my left hand. "And curiously enough, I don't think it was this twenty-two- although this happens to be the gunman's twenty-two. Yeah, I have the gunman, too. He's tied up in my apartment. He came back to knock me off, but I talked him out of it. I'm a swell talker."
"Except that you overdo it," the girl said coolly, and lifted the gun a little.
"It's obvious who killed him, Miss Huntress," I said. "It's simply a matter of motive and opportunity. Marty Estel didn't, and didn't have it done. That would spoil his chances to get his fifty grand. Frisky Lavon's pal didn't, regardless of who he was working for, and I don't think he was working for Marty Estel. He couldn't have got into the El Milano to do the job, and certainly not into Miss Huntress' apartment. Whoever did it had something to gain by it and an opportunity to get to the place where it was done. Well, who had something to gain? Gerald had five million coming to him in two years out of a trust fund. He couldn't will it until he got it. So if he died, his natural heir got it. Who's his natural heir? You'd be surprised. Did you know that in the state of California and some others, but not in all, a man can by his own act become a natural heir? Just by adopting somebody who has money and no heirs!"
George moved then. His movement was once more as smooth as a ripple of water. The Smith & Wesson gleamed dully in his hand, but he didn't fire it. The small automatic in the girl's hand cracked. Blood spurted from George's brown hard hand. The Smith & Wesson dropped to the floor. He cursed. She didn't know much about guns-not very much.
"Of couse!" she said grimly. "George could get into the apartment without any trouble, if Gerald was there. He would go in through the garage, a chauffeur in uniform, ride up in the elevator and knock at the door. And when Gerald opened it, George would back him in with that Smith & Wesson. But how did he know Gerald was there?"
I said: "He must have followed your taxi. We don't know where he has been all evening since he left me. He had a car with him. The cops will find out. How much was in it for you, George?"
George held his right wrist with his left hand, held it tightly, and his face was twisted, savage. He said nothing.
"George would back him in with the Smith & Wesson," the girl said wearily. "Then he would see my gun on the mantelpiece. That would be better. He would use that. He would back Gerald into the bedroom, away from the corridor, into the closet, and there, quietly, calmly, he would kill him and drop the gun on the floor."
"George killed Arbogast, too. He killed him with a twentytwo because he knew that Frisky Lavon's brother had a twentytwo, and he knew that because he had hired Frisky and his brother to put over a big scare on Gerald-so that when he was murdered it would look as if Marty Estel had had it done. That was why I was brought out here tonight in the Jeeter car-so that the two thugs who had been warned and planted could pull their act and maybe knock me off, if I got too tough. Only George likes to kill people. He made a neat shot at Frisky. He hit him in the face. It was so good a shot I think he meant it to be a miss. How about it, George?"
I looked at old Jeeter at last. I had been expecting him to pull a gun himself, but he hadn't. He just stood there, openmouthed, appalled, leaning against the black marble table, shaking.
"My God!" he whispered. "My God!"
"You don't have one-except money."
A door squeaked behind me. I whirled, but I needn't have bothered. A hard voice, about as English as Amos and Andy, said: "Put 'em up, bud."
The butler, the very English butler, stood there in the doorway, a gun in his hand, tight-lipped. The girl turned her wrist and shot him just kind of casually, in the shoulder or something. He squealed like a stuck pig.
"Go away, you're intruding," she said coldly.
He ran. We heard his steps running.
"He's going to fall," she said.
I was wearing my Luger in my right hand now, a little late in the season, as usual. I came around with it. Old man Jeeter was holding on to the table, his face gray as a paving block. His knees were giving. George stood cynically, holding a handkerchief around his bleeding wrist, watching him.
"Let him fall," I said. "Down is where he belongs."
He fell. His head twisted. His mouth went slack. He hit the carpet on his side and rolled a little and his knees came up. His mouth drooled a little. His skin turned violet.
"Go call the law, angel," I said. "I'll watch them now."
"All right," she said standing up. "But you certainly need a lot of help in your private-detecting business, Mr. Marlowe."
I had been in there for a solid hour, alone. There was the scarred desk in the middle, another against the wall, a brass spittoon on a mat, a police loudspeaker box on the wall, three squashed flies, a smell of cold cigars and old clothes. There were two hard armchairs with felt pads and two hard straight chairs without pads. The electric-light fixture had been dusted about Coolidge's first term.
The door opened with a jerk and Finlayson and Sebold came in. Sebold looked as spruce and nasty as ever, but Finlayson looked older, more worn, mousier. He held a sheaf of papers in his hand. He sat down across the desk from me and gave me a hard bleak stare.
"Guys like you get in a lot of trouble," Finlayson said sourly. Sebold sat down against the wall and tilted his hat over his eyes and yawned and looked at his new stainless-steel wrist watch.
"Trouble is my business," I said. "How else would I make a nickel?"
"We oughta throw you in the can for all this cover-up stuff. How much you making on this one?"
"I was working for Anna Halsey who was working for old man Jeeter. I guess I made a bad debt."
Sebold smiled his blackjack smile at me. Finlayson lit a cigar and licked at a tear on the side of it and pasted it down, but it leaked smoke just the same when he drew on it. He pushed papers across the desk at me.
"Sign three copies."
I signed three copies.
He took them back, yawned and rumpled his old gray head. "The old man's had a stroke," he said. "No dice there. Probably won't know what time it is when he comes out. This George Hasterman, this chauffeur guy, he just laughs at us. Too bad he got pinked. I'd like to wrastle him a bit."
"He's tough," I said.
"Yeah. O.K., you can beat it for now."
I got up and nodded to them and went to the door. "Well, good night, boys."
Neither of them spoke to me.
I went out, along the corridor and down in the night elevator to the City Hall lobby. I went out the Spring Street side and down the long flight of empty steps and the wind blew cold. I lit a cigarette at the bottom. My car was still out at the Jeeter place. I lifted a foot to start walking to a taxi half a block down across the street. A voice spoke sharply from a parked car.
"Come here a minute."
It was a man's voice, tight, hard. It was Marty Estel's voice. It came from a big sedan with two men in the front seat. I went over there. The rear window was down and Marty Estel leaned a gloved hand on it.
"Get in." He pushed the door open. I got in. I was too tired to argue. "Take it away, Skin."
The car drove west through dark, almost quiet streets, almost clean streets. The night air was not pure but it was cool. We went up over a hill and began to pick up speed.
"What they get?" Estel asked coolly.
"They didn't tell me. They didn't break the chauffeur yet."
"You can't convict a couple million bucks of murder in this man's town." The driver called Skin laughed without turning his head. "Maybe I don't even touch my fifty grand now . . . she likes you."
"Uh-huh. So what?"
"Lay off her."
"What will it get me?"
"It's what it'll get you if you don't."
"Yeah, sure," I said. "Go to hell, will you please. I'm tired." I shut my eyes and leaned in the corner of the car and just like that went to sleep. I can do that sometimes, after a strain.
A hand shaking my shoulder woke me. The car had stopped. I looked out at the front of my apartment house.
"Home," Marty Estel said. "And remember. Lay off her."
"Why the ride home? Just to tell me that?"
"She asked me to look out for you. That's why you're loose. She likes you. I like her. See? You don't want any more trouble."
"Trouble-" I started to say, and stopped. I was tired of that gag for that night. "Thanks for the ride, and apart from that, nuts to you." I turned away and went into the apartment house and up.
The door lock was still loose but nobody waited for me this time. They had taken Waxnose away long since. I left the door open and threw the windows up and I was still sniffing at policemen's cigar butts when the phone rang. It was her voice, cool, a little hard, not touched by anything, almost amused. Well, she'd been through enough to make her that way, probably.
"Hello, brown-eyes. Make it home all right?"
"Your pal Marty brought me home. He told me to lay off you. Thanks with all my heart, if I have any, but don't call me up any more."
"A little scared, Mr. Marlowe?"
"No. Wait for me to call you," I said. "Good night, angel."
"Good night, brown-eyes."
The phone clicked. I put it away and shut the door and pulled the bed down. I undressed and lay on it for a while in the cold air.
Then I got up and had a drink and a shower and went to sleep.
They broke George at last, but not enough. He said there had been a fight over the girl and young Jeeter had grabbed the gun off the mantel and George had fought with him and it had gone off. All of which, of course, looked possible-in the papers. They never pinned the Arbogast killing on him or on anybody. They never found the gun that did it, but it was not Waxnose's gun. Waxnose disappeared-I never heard where. They didn't touch old man Jeeter, because he never came out of his stroke, except to lie on his back and have nurses and tell people how he hadn't lost a nickel in the depression.
Marty Estel called me up four times to tell me to lay off Harriet Huntress. I felt kind of sorry for the poor guy. He had it bad. I went out with her twice and sat with her twice more at home, drinking her Scotch. It was nice, but I didn't have the money, the clothes, the time or the manners. Then she stopped being at the El Milano and I heard she had gone to New York.
I was glad when she left-even though she didn't bother to tell me goodbye.
© Aerius, 2004