The last time we had a drink in a bar was in May and it was earlier than usual, just after four o’clock. He looked tired and thinner but he looked around with a slow smile of pleasure.
“I like bars just after they open for the evening. When the air inside is still cool and clean and everything is shiny and the barkeep is giving himself that last look in the mirror to see if his tie is straight and his hair is smooth. I like the neat bottles on the bar back and the lovely shining glasses and the anticipation. I like to watch the man mix the first one of the evening and put it down on a crisp mat and put the little folded napkin beside it. I like to taste it slowly. The first quiet drink of the evening in a quiet bar—that’s wonderful,” I agreed with him.
“Alcohol is like love,” he said. “The first kiss is magic, the second is intimate, the third is routine. After that you take the girl’s clothes off.”
“Is that bad?” I asked him.
“It’s excitement of a high order, but it’s an impure emotion—impure in the aesthetic sense. I’m not sneering at sex. It’s necessary and it doesn’t have to be ugly. But it always has to be managed. Making it glamorous is a billion-dollar industry and it costs every cent of it.”
He looked around and yawned. “I haven’t been sleeping well. It’s nice in here. But after a while the lushes will fill the place up and talk loud and laugh and the goddamn women will start waving their hands and screwing up their faces and tinkling their goddamn bracelets and making with the packaged charm which will later on in the evening have a slight but unmistakable odor of sweat.”
“Take it easy,” I said. “So they’re human, they sweat, they get dirty, they have to go to the bathroom. What did you expect—golden butterflies hovering in a rosy mist?”
He emptied his glass and held it upside down and watched a slow drop form on the rim and then tremble and fall.
“I’m sorry for her,” he said slowly. “She’s such an absolute bitch. Could be I’m fond of her too in a remote sort of way. Some day she’ll need me and I’ll be the only guy around not holding a chisel. Likely enough then I’ll flunk out.”
I just looked at him. “You do a great job of selling yourself,” I said after a moment.
“Yeah, I know. I’m a weak character, without guts or ambition. I caught the brass ring and it shocked me to find out it wasn’t gold. A guy like me has one big moment in his life, one perfect swing on the high trapeze. Then he spends the rest of his time trying not to fall off the sidewalk into the gutter.”
“What’s this in favor of?” I got out a pipe and started to fill it.
“She’s scared. She’s scared stiff.”
“I don’t know. We don’t talk much any more. Maybe of the old man. Harlan Potter is a coldhearted son of a bitch. All Victorian dignity on the outside. Inside he’s as ruthless as a Gestapo thug. Sylvia is a tramp. He knows it and he hates it and there’s nothing he can do about it. But he waits and he watches and if Sylvia ever gets into a big mess of scandal he’ll break her in half and bury the two halves a thousand miles apart.”
“You’re her husband.”
He lifted the empty glass and brought it down hard on the edge of the table. It smashed with a sharp ping. The barman stared, but didn’t say anything.
“Like that, chum. Like that. Oh sure, I’m her husband. That’s what the record says. I’m the three white steps and the big green front door and the brass knocker you rap one long and two short and the maid lets you into the hundred-dollar whorehouse.”
I stood up and dropped some money on the table. “You talk too damn much,” I said, “and it’s too damn much about you. See you later.”
I walked out leaving him sitting there shocked and white-faced as well as I could tell by the kind of light they have in bars. He called something after me, but I kept going.
Ten minutes later I was sorry. But ten minutes later I was somewhere else. He didn’t come to the office any more. Not at all, not once. I had got to him where it hurt.
I didn’t see him again for a month. When I did it was five o’clock in the morning and just beginning to get light. The persistent ringing of the doorbell yanked me out of bed. I plowed down the hall and across the living room and opened up. He stood there looking as if he hadn’t slept for a week. He had a light topcoat on with the collar turned up and he seemed to be shivering. A dark felt hat was pulled down over his eyes.
He had a gun in his hand.
The gun wasn’t pointed at me, he was just holding it. It was a medium-caliber automatic, foreign made, certainly not a Colt or a Savage. With the white tired face and the scars and the turned-up collar and the pulled-down hat and the gun he could have stepped right out of an old fashioned kick-em-in-the-teeth gangster movie.
“You’re driving me to Tijuana to get a plane at ten-fifteen,” he said. “I have a passport and visa and I’m all set except for transportation. For certain reasons I can’t take a train or a bus or a plane from L. A. Would five hundred bucks be a reasonable taxi fare?”
I stood in the doorway and didn’t move to let him in. “Five hundred plus the gat?” I asked.
He looked down at it rather absently. Then he dropped it into his pocket.
“It might be a protection,” he said, “for you. Not for me.”
“Come on in then.” I stood to one side and he came in with an exhausted lunge and fell into a chair.
The living room was still dark, because of the heavy growth of shrubbery the owner had allowed to mask the windows. I put a lamp on and mooched a cigarette. I lit it. I stared down at him. I rumpled my hair which was already rumpled. I put the old tired grin on my face.
“What the hell’s the matter with me sleeping such a lovely morning away? Ten-fifteen, huh? Well, there’s plenty of time. Let’s go out to the kitchen and I’ll brew some coffee.”
“I’m in a great deal of trouble, shamus.” Shamus, it was the first time he had called me that. But it kind of went with his style of entry, the way he was dressed, the gun and all.
“It’s going to be a peach of a day. Light breeze. You can hear those tough old eucalyptus trees across the street whispering to each other. Talking about old times in Australia when the wallabies hopped about underneath the branches and the koala bears rode piggyback on each other. Yes, I got the general idea you were in some trouble. Let’s talk about it after I’ve had a couple of cups of coffee. I’m always a little lightheaded when I first wake up. Let us confer with Mr. Huggins and Mr. Young.”
“Look, Marlowe, this is not the time—”
“Fear nothing, old boy. Mr. Huggins and Mr. Young are two of the best. They make Huggins-Young coffee. It’s their life work, their pride and joy. One of these days I’m going to see that they get the recognition they deserve. So far all they’re making is money. You couldn’t expect that to satisfy them.”
I left him with that bright chatter and went out to the kitchen at the back. I turned the hot water on and got the coffee maker down off the shelf. I wet the rod and measured the stuff into the top and by that time the water was steaming. I filled the lower half of the dingus and set it on the flame. I set the upper part on top and gave it a twist so it would bind.
By that time he had come in after me. He leaned in the doorway a moment and then edged across to the breakfast nook and slid into the seat. He was still shaking. I got a bottle of Old Grand-Dad off the shelf and poured him a shot in a big glass. I knew he would need a big glass. Even with that he had to use both hands to get it to his mouth. He swallowed, put the glass down with a thud, and hit the back of the seat with a jar.
“Almost passed out,” he muttered. “Seems like I’ve been up for a week; Didn’t sleep at all last night.”
The coffee maker was almost ready to bubble. I turned the flame low and watched the water rise. It hung a little at the bottom of the glass tube. I turned the flame up just enough to get it over the hump and then turned it low again quickly. I stirred the coffee and covered it. I set my timer for three minutes. Very methodical guy, Marlowe. Nothing must interfere with his coffee technique. Not even a gun in the hand of a desperate character.
I poured him another slug. “Just sit there,” I said. “Don’t say a word. Just sit.”
He handled the second slug with one hand. I did a fast wash-up in the bathroom and the bell of the timer went just as I got back. I cut the flame and set the coffee maker on a straw mat on the table. Why did I go into such detail? Because the charged atmosphere made every little thing stand out as a performance, a movement distinct and vastly important. It was one of those hypersensitive moments when all your automatic movements, however long established, however habitual, become separate acts of will. You are like a man learning to walk after polio. You take nothing for granted, absolutely nothing at all.
The coffee was all down and the air rushed in with its usual fuss and the coffee bubbled and then became quiet. I removed the top of the maker and set it on the drain board in the socket of the cover.
I poured two cups and added a slug to his. “Black for you, Terry.” I added two lumps of sugar and some cream to mine. I was coming out of it by now. I wasn’t conscious of how I opened the Frig and got the cream carton.
I sat down across from him. He hadn’t moved. He was propped in the corner of the nook, rigid. Then without warning his head came down on the table and he was sobbing.
He didn’t pay any attention when I reached across and dug the gun out of his pocket. It was a Mauser 7.65, a beauty. I sniffed it. I sprang the magazine loose. It was full. Nothing in the breach.
He lifted his head and saw the coffee and drank some slowly, not looking at me. “I didn’t shoot anybody,” he said.
“Well—not recently anyhow. And the gun would have had to be cleaned. I hardly think you shot anybody with this.”
“I’ll tell you about it,” he said.
“Wait just a minute.” I drank my coffee as quickly as the heat would let me. I refilled my cup. “It’s like this,” I said. “Be very careful what you tell me. If you really want me to ride you down to Tijuana, there are two things I must not be told. One—are you listening?”
He nodded very slightly. He was looking blank-eyed at the wall over my head. The scars were very livid this morning. His skin was almost dead white but the scars seemed to shine out of it just the same.
“One,” I repeated slowly, “if you have committed a crime or anything the law calls a crime—a serious crime, I mean—I can’t be told about it. Two, if you have essential knowledge that such a crime has been committed, I can’t be told about that either. Not if you want me to drive you to Tijuana. That clear?”
He looked me in the eye. His eyes focused, but they were lifeless. He had the coffee inside him. He had no color, but he was steady. I poured him some more and loaded it the same way.
“I told you I was in a jam,” he said.
“I heard you. I don’t want to know what kind of jam. I have a living to earn, a license to protect.”
“I could hold the gun on you,” he said.
I grinned and pushed the gun across the table. He looked down at it but didn’t touch it.
“Not to Tijuana you couldn’t hold it on me, Terry. Not across the border, not up the steps into a plane. I’m a man who occasionally has business with guns. We’ll forget about the gun. I’d look great telling the cops I was so scared I just had to do what you told me to. Supposing, of course, which I don’t know, that there was anything to tell the cops.”
“Listen,” he said, “it will be noon or even later before anybody knocks at the door. The help knows better than to disturb her when she sleeps late. But by about noon her maid would knock and go in. She wouldn’t be in her room.”
I sipped my coffee and said nothing.
“The maid would see that her bed hadn’t been slept In,” he went on. “Then she would think of another place to look. There’s a big guesthouse pretty far back from the main house. It has its own driveway and garage and so on. Sylvia spent the night there. The maid would eventually find her there.”
I frowned. “I’ve got to be very careful what questions I ask you, Terry. Couldn’t she have spent the night away from home?”
“Her clothes would be thrown all over her room. She never hangs anything up. The maid would know she had put a robe over her pajamas and gone out that way. So it would only be to the guesthouse.”
“Not necessarily,” I said.
“It would be to the guesthouse. Hell, do you think they don’t know what goes on in the guesthouse? Servants always know.”
“Pass it,” I said.
He ran a finger down the side of his good cheek hard enough to leave a red streak. “And in the guesthouse,” he went on slowly, “the maid would find—”
“Sylvia dead drunk, paralyzed, spifflicated, iced to the eyebrows,” I said harshly.
“Oh.” He thought about it. Big think. “Of course,” he added, “that’s how it would be. Sylvia is not a souse. When she does get over the edge it’s pretty drastic.”
“That’s the end of the story,” I said. “Or almost. Let me improvise. The last time we drank together I was a bit rough with you, walked out if you recall. You irritated the hell out of me. Thinking it over afterwards I could see that you were just trying to sneer yourself out of a feeling of disaster. You say you have a passport and a visa. It takes a little time to get a visa to Mexico. They don’t let just anybody in. So you’ve been planning to blow for some time. I was wondering how long you would stick.”
“I guess I felt some vague kind of obligation to be around, some idea she might need me for something more than a front to keep the old man from nosing around too hard. By the way, I tried to call you in the middle of the night.”
“I sleep hard. I didn’t hear.”
“Then I went to a Turkish bath place. I stayed a couple of hours, had a steam bath, a plunge, a needle shower, a rubdown and made a couple of phone calls from there. I left the car at La Brea and Fountain. I walked from there. Nobody saw me turn into your street.”
“Do these phone calls concern me?”
“One was to Harlan Potter. The old man flew down to Pasadena yesterday, some business. He hadn’t been to the house. I had a lot of trouble getting him. But he finally talked to me. I told him I was sorry, but I was leaving.” He was looking a little sideways when he said this, towards the window over the sink and the tecoma bush that fretted against the screen.
“How did he take it?”
“He was sorry. He wished me luck. Asked if I needed any money.” Terry laughed harshly. “Money. Those are the first five letters of his alphabet. I said I had plenty. Then I called Sylvia’s sister. Much the same story there. That’s all. ”
“I want to ask this,” I said. “Did you ever find her with a man in that guesthouse?”
He shook his head. “I never tried. It would not have been difficult. It never has been.”
“Your coffee’s getting cold.”
“I don’t want any more.”
“Lots of men, huh? But you went back and married her again. I realize that she’s quite a dish, but all the same—”
“I told you I was no good. Hell, why did I leave her the first time? Why after that did I get stinking every time I saw her? Why did I roll in the gutter rather than ask her for money? She’s been married five times, not including me. Any one of them would go back at the crook of her finger. And not just for a million bucks.”
“She’s quite a dish,” I said. I looked at my watch. “Just why does it have to be the ten-fifteen at Tijuana?”
“There’s always space on that flight. Nobody from L. A. wants to ride a DC-5 over mountains when he can take a Connie and make it in seven hours to Mexico City. And the Connies don’t stop where I want to go.”
I stood up and leaned against the sink. “Now let’s add it up and don’t interrupt me. You came to me this morning in a highly emotional condition and wanted to be driven to Tijuana to catch an early plane. You had a gun in your pocket, but I needn’t have seen it. You told me you had stood things as long as you could but last night you blew up. You found your wife dead drunk and a man had been with her. You got out and went to a Turkish bath to pass the time until morning and you phoned your wife’s two closest relatives and told them what you were doing. Where you went was none of my business. You had the necessary documents to enter Mexico. How you went was none of my business either. We are friends and I did what you asked me without much thought. Why wouldn’t I? You’re not paying me anything. You had your car but you felt too upset to drive yourself. That’s your business too. You’re an emotional guy and you got yourself a bad wound in the war. I think I ought to pick up your car and shove it in a garage somewhere for storage.”
He reached into his clothes and pushed a leather key holder across the table.
“How does it sound?” he asked.
“Depends who’s listening. I haven’t finished. You took nothing but the clothes you stood up in and some money you had from your father-in-law, You left everything she had given you, including that beautiful piece of machinery you parked at La Brea and Fountain. You wanted to go away as clean as it was possible for you to go and still go. All right. I’ll buy it. Now I shave and get dressed.”
“Why are you doing it, Marlowe?”
“Buy yourself a drink while I shave.”
I walked out and left him sitting there hunched in the corner of the nook. He still had his hat and light topcoat on. But he looked a lot more alive.
I went into the bathroom and shaved. I was back in the bedroom knotting my tie when he came and stood in the doorway. “I washed the cups just in case,” he said. “But I got thinking. Maybe it would be better if you called the police.”
“Call them yourself. I haven’t anything to tell them.”
“You want me to?”
I turned around sharply and gave him a hard stare. “God damn it!” I almost yelled at him. “Can’t you for Chrissake just leave it lay?”
“Sure you’re sorry. Guys like you are always sorry, and always too late.”
He turned and walked back along the hall to the living room.
I finished dressing and locked up the back part of the house. When I got to the living room he had fallen asleep in a chair, his head on one side, his face drained of color, his whole body slack with exhaustion. He looked pitiful. When I touched his shoulder he came awake slowly as if it was a long way from where he was to where I was.
When I had his attention I said, “What about a suitcase? I still got that white pigskin job on the top shelf in my closet.”
“It’s empty,” he said without interest. “Also it’s too conspicuous.”
“You’d be more conspicuous without any baggage.”
I walked back to the bedroom and stood up on the steps in the clothes closet and pulled the white pigskin job down off the high shelf. The square ceiling trap was right over my head, so I pushed that up and reached in as far as I could and dropped his leather key holder behind one of the dusty tie beams or whatever they were.
I climbed down with the suitcase, dusted it off, and shoved some things into it, a pair of pajamas never worn, toothpaste, an extra toothbrush, a couple of cheap towels and washcloths, a package of cotton handkerchiefs, a fifteen-cent tube of shaving cream, and one of the razors they give away with a package of blades. Nothing used, nothing marked, nothing conspicuous, except that his own stuff would be better. I added a pint of bourbon still in its wrapping paper. I locked the suitcase and left the key in one of the locks and carried it up front. He had gone to sleep again. I opened the door without waking him and carried the suitcase down to the garage and put it in the convertible behind the front seat. I got the car out and locked the garage and went back up the steps to wake him. I finished locking up and we left.
I drove fast but not fast enough to get tagged. We hardly spoke on the way down. We didn’t stop to eat either. There wasn’t that much time.
The border people had nothing to say to us. Up on the windy mesa where the Tijuana Airport is I parked close to the office and just sat while Terry got his ticket. The propellers of the DC-3 were already turning over slowly, just enough to keep warm. A tall dreamboat of a pilot in a gray uniform was chatting with a group of four people. One was about six feet four and carried a gun case. There was a girl in slacks beside him, and a smallish middle-aged man and a gray-haired woman so tall that she made him look puny. Three or four obvious Mexicans were standing around as well. That seemed to be the load. The steps were at the door but nobody seemed anxious to get in. Then a Mexican flight steward came down the steps and stood waiting. There didn’t seem to be any loudspeaker equipment. The Mexicans climbed into the plane but the pilot was still chatting with the Americans.
There was a big Packard parked next to me. I got out and took a gander at the license on the post. Maybe someday I’ll learn to mind my own business. As I pulled my head out I saw the tall woman staring in my direction.
Then Terry came across the dusty gravel.
“I’m all set,” he said. “This is where I say goodbye.”
He put his hand out. I shook it. He looked pretty good now, just tired, just tired as all hell.
I lifted the pigskin suitcase out of the Olds and put it down on the gravel. He stared at it angrily.
“I told you I didn’t want it,” he said snappishly.
“There’s a nice pint of hooch in it, Terry. Also some pajamas and stuff. And it’s all anonymous. If you don’t want it, check it. Or throw it away,”
“I have reasons,” he said stiffly.
“So have I.”
He smiled suddenly. He picked up the suitcase and squeezed my arm with his free hand. “Okay, pal. You’re the boss. And remember, if things get tough, you have a blank check. You don’t owe me a thing. We had a few drinks together and got to be friendly and I talked too much about me. I left five C notes in your coffee can. Don’t be sore at me.”
“I’d rather you hadn’t?”
“I’ll never spend half of what I have.”
“Good luck, Terry.”
The two Americans were going up the steps into the plane. A squatty guy with a wide dark face came out of the door of the office building and waved and pointed.
“Climb aboard,” I said. “I know you didn’t kill her. That’s why I’m here.”
He braced himself. His whole body got stiff. He turned slowly, then looked back.
“I’m sorry,” he said quietly. “But you’re wrong about that. I’m going to walk quite slowly to the plane. You have plenty of time to stop me.”
He walked. I watched him, The guy in the doorway of the office was waiting, but not too impatient. Mexicans seldom are. He reached down and patted the pigskin suitcase and grinned at Terry. Then he stood aside and Terry went through the door. In a little while Terry came out through the door on the other side, where the customs people are when you’re coming in. He walked, still slowly, across the gravel to the steps. He stopped there and looked towards me. He didn’t signal or wave. Neither did I. Then he went up into the plane, and the steps were pulled back.
I got into the Olds and started it and backed and turned and moved halfway across the parking space. The tall woman and the short man were still out on the field. The woman had a handkerchief out to wave. The plane began to taxi down to the end of the field raising plenty of dust. It turned at the far end and the motors revved up in a thundering roar. It began to move forward picking up speed slowly.
The dust rose in clouds behind it. Then it was airborne. I watched it lift slowly into the gusty air and fade off into the naked blue sky to the southeast.
Then I left. Nobody at the border gate looked at me as if my face meant as much as the hands on a clock.