When the car stopped out front and the door opened I went out and stood at the top of the steps to call down. But the middle-aged colored driver was holding the door for her to get out. Then he followed her up the steps carrying a small overnight case. So I just waited.
She reached the top and turned to the driver: “Mr. Marlowe will drive me to my hotel, Amos. Thank you for everything. I’ll call you in the morning.”
“Yes, Mrs. Loring. May I ask Mr. Marlowe a question?”
He put the overnight case down inside the door and she went in past me and left us.
“‘I grow old… I grow old… I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled.’ What does that mean, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Not a bloody thing. It just sounds good.”
He smiled. “That is from the ‘Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.’ Here’s another one. ‘In the room the women come and go/Talking of Michael Angelo.’ Does that suggest anything to you, so far?”
“Yeah—it suggests to me that the guy didn’t know very much about women.”
“My sentiments exactly, sir. Nonetheless I admire T. S. Eliot Very much.”
“Did you say ‘nonetheless’?”
“Why, yes I did. Mr. Marlowe. Is that incorrect?”
“No, but don’t say it in front of a millionaire. He might think you were giving him the hotfoot.”
He smiled sadly. “I shouldn’t dream of it. Have you had an accident, sir?”
“Nope. It was planned that way. Goodnight, Amos.”
He went back down the steps and I went back into the house. Linda Loring was standing in the middle of the living room looking around her.
“Amos is a graduate of Howard University,” she said. “You don’t live in a very safe place—for such an unsafe man, do you?”
“There aren’t any safe places.”
“Your poor face. Who did that to you?”
“What did you do to him?”
“Nothing much. Kicked him a time or two. He walked into a trap. He’s on his way to Nevada in the company of three or four tough Nevada deputies. Forget him.”
She sat down on the davenport.
“What would you like to drink?” I asked. I got a cigarette box and held it out to her. She said she didn’t want to smoke. She said anything would do to drink.
“I thought of champagne,” I said. “I haven’t any ice bucket, but it’s cold. I’ve been saving it for years. Two bottles. Cordon Rouge. I guess it’s good. I’m no judge.”
“Saving it for what?” she asked.
She smiled, but she was still staring at my face. “You’re all cut.” She reached her fingers up and touched my cheek lightly. “Saving it for me? That’s not very likely. It’s only a couple of months since we met.”
“Then I was saving it until we met. I’ll go get it.” I picked up her overnight bag and started across the room with it.
“Just where are you going with that?” she asked sharply.
“It’s an overnight bag, isn’t it?”
“Put it down and come back here.”
I did that. Her eyes were bright and at the same time they were sleepy.
“This is something new,” she said slowly. “Something quite new.”
“In what way?”
“You’ve never laid a finger on me. No passes, no suggestive remarks, no pawing, no nothing. I thought you were tough, sarcastic, mean, and cold.”
“I guess I am—at times.”
“Now I’m here and I suppose without preamble, after we have had a reasonable quantity of champagne you plan to grab me and throw me on the bed. Is that it?”
“Frankly,” I said, “some such idea did stir at the back of my mind.”
“I’m flattered, but suppose I don’t want it that way? I like you. I like you very much. But it doesn’t follow that I want to go to bed with you. Aren’t you rather jumping at conclusions—just because I happen to bring an overnight bag with me?”
“Could be I made an error,” I said. I went and got her overnight bag and put it back by the front door. “I’ll get the champagne.”
“I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. Perhaps you would rather save the champagne for some more auspicious occasion.”
“It’s only two bottles,” I said. “A really auspicious occasion would call for a dozen.”
“Oh, I see,” she said, suddenly angry. “I’m just to be a fill-in until someone more beautiful and attractive comes along. Thank you so very much. Now you’ve hurt my feelings, but I suppose it’s something to know that I’m safe here. If you think a bottle of champagne will make a loose woman out of me, I can assure you that you are very much mistaken.”
“I admitted the mistake already.”
“The fact that I told you I was going to divorce my husband and that I had Amos drop me by here with an overnight bag doesn’t make me as easy as all that,” she said, still angry.
“Damn the overnight bag!” I growled. “The hell with the overnight bag! Mention it again and I’ll throw the damn thing down the front steps. I asked you to have a drink. I’m going out to the kitchen to get the drink. That’s all. I hadn’t the least idea of getting you drunk. You don’t want to go to bed with me. I understand perfectly. No reason why you should. But we can still have a glass or two of champagne, can’t we? This doesn’t have to be a wrangle about who is going to get seduced and when and where and on how much champagne.”
“You don’t have to lose your temper,” she said, flushing. “That’s just another gambit,” I snarled. “I know fifty of them and I hate them all. They’re all phony and they all have a sort of leer at the edges.”
She got up and came over close to me and ran the tips of her fingers gently over the cuts and swollen places on my face. “I’m sorry. I’m a tired and disappointed woman. Please be kind to me. I’m no bargain to anyone.”
“You’re not tired and you’re no more disappointed than most people are. By all the rules you ought to be the same sort of shallow spoiled promiscuous brat your sister was. By some miracle you’re not. You’ve got all the honesty and a large part of the guts in your family. You don’t need anyone to be kind to you.”
I turned and walked out of the room down the hall to the kitchen and got one of the bottles of champagne out of the icebox and popped the cork and filled a couple of shallow goblets quickly and drank one down. The sting of it brought tears to my eyes, but I emptied the glass. I filled it again. Then I put the whole works on a tray and carted it into the living room.
She wasn’t there. The overnight bag wasn’t there. I put the tray down and opened the front door. I hadn’t heard any sound of its opening and she had no car. I hadn’t heard any sound at all.
Then she spoke from behind me. “Idiot, did you think I was going to run away?”
I shut the door and turned. She had loosened her hair and she had tufted slippers on her bare feet and a silk robe the color of a sunset in a Japanese print. She came towards me slowly with a sort of unexpectedly shy smile. I held a glass out to her. She took it, took a couple of sips of the champagne, and handed it back.
“It’s very nice,” she said. Then very quietly and without a trace of acting or affectation she came into my arms and pressed her mouth against mine and opened her lips and her teeth. The tip of her tongue touched mine. After a long time she pulled her head back but kept her arms around my neck. She was starry-eyed.
“I meant to all the time,” she said. “I just had to be difficult. I don’t know why. Just nerves perhaps. I’m not really a loose woman at all. Is that a pity?”
“If I had thought you were I’d have made a pass at you the first time I met you in the bar at Victor’s.”
She shook her head slowly and smiled. “I don’t think so. That’s why I am here.”
“Perhaps not that night,” I said. “That night belonged to something else.”
“Perhaps you don’t ever make passes at women in bars.”
“Not often. The light’s too dim.”
“But a lot of women go to bars just to have passes made at them.”
“A lot of women get up in the morning with the same idea.”
“But liquor is an aphrodisiac—up to a point.”
“Doctors recommend it.”
“Who said anything about doctors? I want my champagne.”
I kissed her some more. It was light, pleasant work.
“I want to kiss your poor cheek,” she said, and did. “It’s burning hot,” she said.
“The rest of me is freezing.”
“It is not. I want my champagne.”
“It’ll get flat if we don’t drink it. Besides I like the taste of it.”
“Do you love me very much? Or will you if I go to bed with you?”
“You don’t have to go to bed with me, you know. I don’t absolutely insist on it.”
“I want my champagne.”
“How much money have you got?”
“Altogether? How would I know? About eight million dollars.”
“I’ve decided to go to bed with you.”
“Mercenary,” she said.
“I paid for the champagne.”
“The hell with the champagne,” she said.
An hour later she stretched out a bare arm and tickled my ear and said: “Would you consider marrying me?”
“It wouldn’t last six months.”
“Well, for God’s sake,” she said, “suppose it didn’t. Wouldn’t it be worth it? What do you expect from life—full coverage against all possible risks?”
“I’m forty-two years old. I’m spoiled by independence. You’re spoiled a little—not too much—by money.”
“I’m thirty-six. It’s no disgrace to have money and no disgrace to marry it. Most of those who have it don’t deserve it and don’t know how to behave with it. But it won’t be long. We’ll have another war and at the end of that nobody will have any money—except the crooks and the chiselers. We’ll all be taxed to nothing, the rest of us.”
I stroked her hair and wound some of it around my finger. “You may be right.”
“We could fly to Paris and have a wonderful time.” She raised herself on an elbow and looked down at me. I could see the shine of her eyes but I couldn’t read her expression. “Do you have something against marriage?”
“For two people in a hundred it’s wonderful. The rest just work at it. After twenty years all the guy has left is a workbench in the garage. American girls are terrific. American wives take in too damn much territory. Besides—”
“I want some champagne.”
“Besides,” I said, “it would be just an incident to you. The first divorce is the only tough one. After that its merely a problem in economics. No problem to you. Ten years from now you might pass me on the street and wonder where the hell you had seen me before. If you noticed me at all. ”
“You self-sufficient, self-satisfied, self-confident, untouchable bastard. I want some champagne.”
“This way you will remember me.”
Conceited too. A mass of conceit. Slightly bruised at the moment. You think I’ll remember you? No matter how many men I marry or sleep with, you think I’ll remember you? Why should I?”
“Sorry. I overstated my case. I’ll get you some champagne.”
“Aren’t we sweet and reasonable?” she said sarcastically. “I’m a rich woman, darling, and I shall be infinitely richer. I could buy you the world if it were worth buying. What have you now? An empty house to come home to, with not even a dog or cat, a small stuffy office to sit in and wait. Even if I divorced you I’d never let you go back to that.”
“How would you stop me? I’m no Terry Lennox.”
“Please. Don’t let’s talk about him. Nor about that golden icicle, the Wade woman. Nor about her poor drunken sunken husband. Do you want to be the only man who turned me down? What kind of pride is that? I’ve paid you the greatest compliment I know how to pay. I’ve asked you to marry me.”
“You paid me a greater compliment.”
She began to cry. “You fool, you utter fool!” Her cheeks were wet. I could feel the tears on them. “Suppose it lasted six months or a year or two years. What would you have lost except the dust on your office desk and the dirt on your venetian blinds and the loneliness of a pretty empty kind of life?”
“You still want some champagne?”
I pulled her close and she cried against my shoulder. She wasn’t in love with me and we both knew it. She wasn’t crying over me. It was just time for her to shed a few tears.
Then she pulled away and I got out of bed and she went into the bathroom to fix her face. I got the champagne. When she came back she was smiling.
“I’m sorry I blubbered,” she said. “In six months from now I won’t even remember your name. Bring it into the living room. I want to see lights.”
I did what she said. She sat on the davenport as before. I put the champagne in front of her. She looked at the glass but didn’t touch it.
“I’ll introduce myself,” I said. “We’ll have a drink together.”
“It won’t ever be like tonight again.”
She raised her glass of champagne, drank a little of it slowly, turned her body on the davenport and threw the rest in my face. Then she began to cry again. I got a handkerchief out and wiped my face off and wiped hers for her.
“I don’t know why I did that,” she said. “But for God’s sake don’t say I’m a woman and a woman never knows why she does anything.”
I poured some more champagne into her glass and laughed at her. She drank it slowly and then turned the other way and fell across my knees. .
“I’m tired,” she said. “You’ll have to carry me this time.”
After a while she went to sleep.
In the morning she was still asleep when I got up and made coffee. I showered and shaved and dressed. She woke up then. We had breakfast together. I called a cab and carried her overnight case down the steps.
We said goodbye. I watched the cab out of sight. I went back up the steps and into the bedroom and pulled the bed to pieces and remade it. There was a long dark hair on one of the pillows. There was a lump of lead at the pit of my stomach.
The French have a phrase for it. The bastards have a phrase for everything and they are always right.
To say goodbye is to die a little.
Sewell Endicott said he was working late and I could drop around in the evening about seven-thirty.
He had a corner office with a blue carpet, a red mahogany desk with carved corners, very old and obviously very valuable, the usual glass-front bookshelves of mustard-yellow legal books, the usual cartoons by Spy of famous English judges, and a large portrait of Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes on the south wall, alone. Endicott’s chair was quilted in black leather. Near him was an open roll top desk jammed with papers. It was an office no decorator had had a chance to pansy up.
He was in his shirtsleeves and he looked tired, but he had that kind of face. He was smoking one of his tasteless cigarettes. Ashes from it had fallen on his loosened tie. His limp black hair was all over the place.
He stared at me silently after I sat down. Then he said: “You’re a stubborn son of a bitch, if ever I met one. Don’t tell me you’re still digging into that mess.”
“Something worries me a little. Would it be all right now if I assumed you were representing Mr. Harlan Potter when you came to see me in the birdcage?”
He nodded. I touched the side of my face gently with my fingertips. It was all healed up and the swelling was gone, but one of the blows must have damaged a nerve. Part of the cheek was still numb. I couldn’t let it alone. It would get all right in time.
“And that when you went to Otatoclán you were temporarily deputized as a member of the D.A.’s staff?”
“Yes, but don’t rub it in, Marlowe. It was a valuable connection. Perhaps I gave it too much weight.”
“Still is, I hope.”
He shook his head. “No. That’s finished. Mr. Potter does his legal business through San Francisco, New York, and Washington firms.”
“I guess he hates my guts—if he thinks about it.”
Endicott smiled. “Curiously enough, he put all the blame on his son-in-law, Dr. Loring. A man like Harlan Potter has to blame somebody. He couldn’t possibly be wrong himself. He felt that if Loring hadn’t been feeding the woman dangerous drugs, none of it would have happened.”
“He’s wrong. You saw Terry Lennox’s body in Otatoclan, didn’t you?”
“I did indeed. In the back of a cabinet maker’s shop. They have no proper mortuary there. He was making the coffin too. The body was ice-cold. I saw the wound in the temple. There’s no question of identity, if you had any ideas along those lines.”
“No, Mr. Endicott, I didn’t, because in his case it could hardly be possible. He was disguised a little though, wasn’t he?”
“Face and hands darkened, hair dyed black. But the scars were still obvious. And the fingerprints, of course, were easily checked from things he had handled at home.”
“What kind of police force do they have down there?”
“Primitive. The jefe could just about read and write. But he knew about fingerprints. It was hot weather, you know. Quite hot.” He frowned and took his cigarette out of his mouth and dropped it negligently into an enormous black basalt sort of receptacle. “They had to get ice from the hotel,” he added. “Plenty of ice.” He looked at me again. “No embalming there. Things have to move fast.”
“You speak Spanish, Mr. Endicott?”
“Only a few words. The hotel manager interpreted.” He smiled. “A well-dressed smoothie, that fellow. Looked tough, but he was very polite and helpful. It was all over in no time.”
“I had a letter from Terry. I guess Mr. Potter would know about it. I told his daughter, Mrs. Loring. I showed it to her. There was a portrait of Madison in it.”
“Five-thousand-dollar bill. ”
He raised his eyebrows. “Really. Well, he could certainly afford it. His wife gave him a cool quarter of a million the second time they were married. I’ve an idea he meant to go to Mexico to live anyhow—quite apart from what happened. I don’t know what happened to the money. I wasn’t in on that.”
“Here’s the letter, Mr. Endicott, if you care to read it.”
I took it out and gave it to him. He read it carefully, the way lawyers read everything. He put it down on the desk and leaned back and stared at nothing.
“A little literary, isn’t it?” he said quietly. “I wonder why he did it.”
“Killed himself, confessed, or wrote me the letter?”
“Confessed and killed himself, of course,” Endicott said sharply. “The letter is understandable. At least you got a reasonable recompense for what you did for him—and since.
“The mailbox bothers me,” I said. “Where he says there was a mailbox on the street under his window and the hotel waiter was going to hold his letter up before he mailed it, so Terry could see that it was mailed.”
Something in Endicott’s eyes went to sleep. “Why?” he asked indifferently. He picked another of his filtered cigarettes out of a square box. I held my lighter across the desk for him.
“They wouldn’t have one in a place like Otatodan,” I said.
“I didn’t get it at first. Then I looked the place up. It’s a mere village. Population say ten or twelve thousand.
One street partly paved. The jefe has a Model A Ford as an official car. The post office is in the corner of a store, the chancery, the butcher shop. One hotel, a couple of cantinas, no good roads, a small airfield. There’s hunting around there in the mountains—lots of it. Hence the air. field. Only decent way to get there.”
“Go on. I know about the hunting.”
“So there’s a mailbox on the street. Like there’s a race course and a dog track and a golf course and a Jai Alai Fronton and park with a colored fountain and a bandstand.”
“Then he made a mistake,” Endicott said coldly. “Perhaps it was something that looked like a mailbox to him—say a trash receptacle.”
I stood up. I reached for the letter and refolded it and put it back in my pocket.
“A trash receptacle,” I said. “Sure, that’s it. Painted with the Mexican colors, green, white, red, and a sign on it stenciled in large clear print: KEEP OUR CITY CLEAN. In Spanish, of course. And lying around it seven mangy dogs.”
“Don’t get cute, Marlowe.”
“Sorry if I let my brains show. Another small point I have already raised with Randy Starr. How come the letter got mailed at all? According to the letter the method was prearranged. So somebody told him about the mailbox. So somebody lied. So somebody mailed the letter with five grand in it just the same. Intriguing, don’t you agree?”
He puffed smoke and watched it float away.
“What’s your conclusion—and why ring Starr in on it?”
“Starr and a heel named Menendez, now removed from our midst, were pals of Terry’s in the British Army. They are wrong gees in a way—I should say in almost every way—but they still have room for personal pride and so on. There was a cover-up here engineered for obvious reasons. There was another sort of cover-up in Otatoclán, for entirely different reasons.”
“What’s your conclusion?” he asked me again and much more sharply.
He didn’t answer me. So I thanked him for his time and left.
He was frowning as I opened the door, but I thought it was an honest frown of puzzlement. Or maybe he was trying to remember how it looked outside the hotel and whether there was a mailbox there.
It was another wheel to start turning—no more. It turned for a solid month before anything came up.
Then on a certain Friday morning I found a stranger waiting for me in my office. He was a well-dressed Mexican or Suramericano of some sort. He sat by the open window smoking a brown cigarette that smelled strong. He was tall and very slender and very elegant, with a neat dark mustache and dark hair, rather longer than we wear it, and a fawn-colored suit of some loosely woven material. He wore those green sunglasses. He stood up politely.
“What can I do for you?”
He handed me a folded paper. “Un aviso de parte del Señor Starr en Las Vegas, señor. Habla Usted Espaflol?”
“Yeah, but not fast. English would be better.”
“English then,” he said. “It is all the same to me.”
I took the paper and read it. “This introduces Cisco Maioranos, a friend of mine. I think he can fix you up. S.”
“Let’s go inside, Señor Maioranos,” I said.
I held the door open for him. He smelled of perfume as he went by. His eyebrows were awfully damned dainty too. But he probably wasn’t as dainty as he looked because there were knife scars on both sides of his face.
He sat down in the customer’s chair and crossed his knees. “You wish certain information about Señor Lennox, I am told.”
“The last scene only.”
“I was there at the time, señor. I had a position in the hotel. ” He shrugged. “Unimportant and of course temporary. I was the day clerk.” He spoke perfect English but with a Spanish rhythm. Spanish—American Spanish that is—has a definite rise and fall which to an American ear seems to have nothing to do with the meaning. It’s like the swell of the ocean.
“You don’t look the type,” I said.
“One has difficulties.”
“Who mailed the letter to me?”
He held out a box of cigarettes. “Try one of these.” I shook my head. “Too strong for me. Colombian cigarettes I like. Cuban cigarettes are murder.”
He smiled faintly, lit another pill himself, and blew smoke. The guy was so goddamn elegant he was beginning to annoy me.
“I know about the letter, señor. The mozo was afraid to go up to the room of this Señor Lennox after the guarda was posted. The cop or dick, as you say. So I myself took the letter to the correo. After the shooting, you understand.”
“You ought to have looked inside. It had a large piece of money in it.”
“The letter was sealed,” he said coldly. “El honor no se mueve de lado como los congrejos. That is, honor does not move sidewise like a crab, señor.”
“My apologies. Please continue.”
“Señor Lennox had a hundred-peso note in his left hand when I went into the room and shut the door in the face of the guarda. In his right hand was a pistol. On the table before him was the letter. Also another paper which I did not read. I refused the note.”
“Too much money,” I said, but he didn’t react to the sarcasm.
“He insisted. So I took the note finally and gave it to the mozo later. I took the letter out under the napkin on the tray from the previous service of coffee. The dick looked hard at me. But he said nothing. I was halfway down the stairs when I heard the shot. Very quickly I hid the letter and ran back upstairs. The dick was trying to kick the door open. I used my key. Señor Lennox was dead.”
He moved his fingertips gently along the edge of the desk and sighed. “The rest no doubt you know.”
“Was the hotel full?”
“Not full, no. There were half a dozen guests.”
“Two Americanos del Norte. Hunters.”
“Real Gringos or just transplanted Mexicans?”
He drew a fingertip slowly along the fawn-colored cloth above his knee. “I think one of them could well have been of Spanish origin. He spoke border Spanish. Very inelegant.”
“They go near Lennox’s room at all?”
He lifted his head sharply but the green cheaters didn’t do a thing for me. “Why should they, señor?”
I nodded. “Well, it was damn nice of you to come in here and tell me about it, Señor Maioranos. Tell Randy I’m ever so grateful, will you?”
“No hay de que, señor. It is nothing.”
“And later on, if he has time, he could send me somebody who knows what he is talking about.”
“Señor?” His voice was soft, but icy. “You doubt my word?”
“You guys are always talking about honor. Honor is the cloak of thieves—sometimes. Don’t get mad. Sit quiet and let me tell it another way.”
He leaned back superciliously.
“I’m only guessing, mind. I could be wrong. But I could be right too. These two Americanos were there for a purpose. They came in on a plane. They pretended to be hunters. One of them was named Menendez, a gambler. He registered under some other name or not. I wouldn’t know. Lennox knew they were there. He knew why. He wrote me that letter because he had a guilty conscience. He had played me for a sucker and he was too nice a guy for that to rest easy on him. He put the bill—five thousand dollars it was—in the letter because he had a lot of money and he knew I hadn’t. He also put in a little off-beat hint which might or might not register. He was the kind of guy who always wants to do the right thing but somehow winds up doing something else. You say you took the letter to the correo. Why didn’t you mail it in the box in front of the hotel?”
“The box, señor?”
“The mailbox. The caja cartero, you call it, I think.”
He smiled. “Otatoclán is not Mexico City, señor. It is a very primitive place. A street mailbox in Otatodán? No one there would understand what it was for. No one would collect letters from it.”
I said: “Oh. Well, skip it. You did not take any coffee on any tray up to Señor Lennox’s room, Señor Maioranos. You did not go into the room past the dick. But the two Americanos did go in. The dick was fixed, of course. So were several other people. One of the Americanos slugged Lennox from behind. Then he took the Mauser pistol and opened up one of the cartridges and took out the bullet and put the cartridge back in the breech. Then he put this gun to Lennox’s temple and pulled the trigger. It made a nasty-looking wound, but it did not kill him. Then he was carried out on a stretcher covered up and well hidden. Then when the American lawyer arrived, Lennox was doped and packed in ice and kept in a dark corner of the carpinterla where the man was making a coffin. The American lawyer saw Lennox there, he was ice-cold, in a deep stupor, and there was a bloody blackened wound in his temple. He looked plenty dead. The next day the coffin was buried with stones in it. The American lawyer went home with the fingerprints and some kind of document which was a piece of cheese. How do you like that, Señor Maioranos?”
He shrugged. “It would be possible, señor. It would require money and influence. It would be possible, perhaps, if this Señor Menendez was closely related to important people in Otatoclán, the alcalde, the hotel proprietor and so on.”
“Well, that’s possible to. It’s a good idea. It would explain why they picked a remote little place like Otatodan.”
He smiled quickly. “Then Señor Lennox may still be alive, no?”
“Sure. The suicide had to be some kind of fake to back up the confession. It had to be good enough to fool a lawyer who had been a district attorney, but it would make a very sick monkey out of the current D.A. if it backfired. This Menendez is not as tough as he thinks he is, but he was tough enough to pistol-whip me for not keeping my nose clean. So he had to have reasons. If the fake got exposed, Menendez would be right in the middle of an international stink. The Mexicans don’t like crooked police work any more than we do.”
“All that is possible, señor, as I very well know. But you accused me of lying. You said I did not go into the room where Señor Lennox was and get his letter.”
“You were already in there, chum—writing the letter.”
He reached up and took the dark glasses off. Nobody can change the color of a man’s eyes.
“I suppose it’s a bit too early for a gimlet,” he said.