The deputy on the early night shift was a big blond guy with meaty shoulders and a friendly grin. He was middle-aged and had long since outlived both pity and anger. He wanted to put in eight easy hours and he looked as if almost anything would he easy down his street. He unlocked my door.
“Company for you. Guy from the D.A.’s office. No sleep, huh?”
“It’s a little early for me. What time is it?”
“Ten-fourteen.” He stood in the doorway and looked over the cell. One blanket was spread on the lower bunk, one was folded for a pillow. There were a couple of used paper towels in the trash bucket and a small wad of toilet paper on the edge of the washbasin. He nodded approval. “Anything personal in here?”
He left the cell door open. We walked along a quiet corridor to the elevator and rode down to the booking desk. A fat man in a gray suit stood by the desk smoking a corncob. His fingernails were dirty and he smelled.
“I’m Spranklin from the D.A.’s office,” he told me in a tough voice. “Mr. Grenz wants you upstairs.” He reached behind his hip and came up with a pair of bracelets. “Let’s try these for size.”
The jail deputy and the booking clerk grinned at him with deep enjoyment. “What’s the matter, Sprank? Afraid he’ll mug you in the elevator?”
“I don’t want no trouble,” he growled. “Had a guy break from me once. They ate my ass off. Let’s go, boy.”
The booking clerk pushed a form at him and he signed it with a flourish. “I never take no unnecessary chances,” he said. “Man never knows what he’s up against in this town.”
A prowl car cop brought in a drunk with a bloody ear and went towards the elevator. “You’re in trouble, boy,” Spranklin told me in the elevator. “Heap bad trouble.” It seemed to give him a vague satisfaction. “A guy can get hisself in a lot of trouble in this town.”
The elevator man turned his head and winked at me. I grinned.
“Don’t try no thing, boy,” Spranklin told me severely. “I shot a man once. Tried to break. They ate my ass off.”
“You get it coming and going, don’t you?”
He thought it over. “Yeah,” he said. “Either way they eat your ass off. It’s a tough town. No respect.”
We got out and went in through the double doors of the D.A.’s office. The switchboard was dead, with lines plugged in for the night. There was nobody in the waiting chairs. Lights were on in a couple of offices. Spranklin opened the door of a small lighted room which contained a desk, a filing case, a hard chair or two, and a thick-set man with a hard chin and stupid eyes. His face was red and he was just pushing something into the drawer of his desk.
“You could knock,” he barked at Spranklin.
“Sorry, Mr. Grenz,” Spranklin bumbled. “I was thinkin’ about the prisoner.”
He pushed me into the office. “Should I take the cuffs off, Mr. Grenz?”
“I don’t know what the hell you put them on for,” Grenz said sourly. He watched Spranklin unlock the cuffs on my wrist. He had the key on a bunch the size of a grapefruit and it troubled him to find it.
“Okay, scram,” Grenz said. “Wait outside to take him back.”
“I’m kind of off duty, Mr. Grenz.”
“You’re off duty when I say you’re off duty.”
Spranklin flushed and edged his fat bottom out through the door. Grenz looked after him savagely, then when the door closed he moved the same look to me. I pulled a chair over and sat down.
“I didn’t tell you to sit down,” Grenz barked.
I got a loose cigarette out of my pocket and stuck it in my mouth. “And I didn’t say you could smoke,” Grenz roared.
“I’m allowed to smoke in the cell block. Why not here?”
“Because this is my office. I make the rules here.” A raw smell of whiskey floated across the desk.
“Take another quick one,” I said. “It’ll calm you down. You got kind of interrupted when we came in.”
His back hit the back of the chair hard. His face went dark red. I struck a match and lit my cigarette.
After a long minute Grenz said softly. “Okay, tough boy. Quite a man, aren’t you? You know something? They’re all sizes and shapes when they come in here, but they all go out the same size—small. And the same shape—bent.”
“What did you want to see me about, Mr. Grenz? And don’t mind me if you feel like hitting that bottle. I’m a fellow that will take a snort myself, if I’m tired and nervous and overworked.”
“You don’t seem much impressed by the jam you’re in.”
“I don’t figure I’m in any jam.”
“We’ll see about that. Meantime I want a very full statement from you.” He flicked a finger at a recording set on a stand beside his desk. “We’ll take it now and have it transcribed tomorrow. If the Chief Deputy is satisfied with your statement, he may release you on your own undertaking not to leave town. Let’s go.” He switched on the recorder. His voice was cold, decisive, and as nasty as he knew how to make it. But his right hand kept edging towards the desk drawer. He was too young to have veins in his nose, but he had them, and the whites of his eyes were a bad color.
“I get so tired of it,” I said.
“Tired of what?” he snapped.
“Hard little men in hard little offices talking hard little words that don’t mean a goddamn thing. I’ve had fifty-six hours in the felony block. Nobody pushed me around, nobody tried to prove he was tough. They didn’t have to. They had it on ice for when they needed it. And why was I in there? I was booked on suspicion. What the hell kind of legal system lets a man be shoved in a felony tank because some cop didn’t get an answer to some questions? What evidence did he have? A telephone number on a pad. And what was he trying to prove by locking me up? Not a damn thing except that he had the power to do it. Now you’re on the same pitch—trying to make me feel what a lot of power you generate in this cigar box you call your office. You send this scared baby sitter over late at night to bring me in here. You think maybe sitting alone with my thoughts for fifty-six hours has made gruel out of my brains? You think I’m going to cry in your lap and ask you stroke my head because I’m so awful goddamn lonely in the great big jail? Come off it, Grenz. Take your drink and get human: I’m willing to assume you are just doing your job. But take the brass knuckles off before you start. If you’re big enough you don’t need them, and if you need them you’re not big enough to push me around.”
He sat there and listened and looked at me. Then he grinned sourly. “Nice speech,” he said. “Now you’ve got the crap out of your system, let’s get that statement. You want to answer specific questions or just tell it your own way?”
“I was talking to the birds,” I said. “Just to hear the breeze blow. I’m not making any statement. You’re a lawyer and you know I don’t have to.”
“That’s right,” he said coolly. “I know the law. I know police work. I’m offering you a chance to clear yourself. If you don’t want it, that’s jake with me too. I can arraign you tomorrow morning at ten A.M and have you set for a preliminary hearing. You may get bail, although I’ll fight it, but if you do, it will be stiff. It’ll cost you plenty. That’s one way we can do it.”
He looked down at a paper on his desk, read it, and turned it face down.
“On what charge?” I asked him.
“Section thirty-two. Accessory after the fact. A felony. It rates up to a five-spot in Quentin.”
“Better catch Lennox first,” I said carefully. Grenz had something and I sensed it in his manner. I didn’t know how much, but he had something all right.
He leaned back in his chair and picked up a pen and twirled it slowly between his palms. Then he smiled. He was enjoying himself.
“Lennox is a hard man to hide, Marlowe. With most people you need a photo and a good clear photo.. Not with a guy that has scars all over one side of his face. Not to mention white hair, and not over thirty-five years old. We got four witnesses, maybe more.”
“Witnesses to what?” I was tasting something bitter in my mouth, like the bile I had tasted after Captain Gregorius slugged me. That reminded me that my neck was still sore and swollen. I rubbed it gently.
“Don’t be a chump, Marlowe. A San Diego superior court judge and his wife happened to be seeing their son and daughter-in-law off on that plane. All four saw Lennox and the judge’s wife saw the car he came in and who came with him. You don’t have a prayer.”
“That’s nice,” I said. “How did you get to them?”
“Special bulletin on radio and TV. A full description was all it took. The judge called in.”
“Sounds good,” I said judicially. “But it takes a little more than that, Grenz. You have to catch him and prove he committed a murder. Then you have to prove I knew it.”
He snapped a finger at the back of the telegram. “I think I will take that drink,” he said. “Been working nights too much.” He opened the drawer and put a bottle and a shot glass on the desk. He poured it full to the brim and knocked it back in a lump. “Better,” he said. “Much better. Sorry I can’t offer you one while you’re in custody.” He corked the bottle and pushed it away from him, but not out of reach. “Oh yeah, we got to prove something, you said. Well, it could be we already got a confession, chum. Too bad, huh?”
A small but very cold finger moved the whole length of my spine, like an icy insect crawling.
“So why do you need a statement from me?”
He grinned. “We like a tidy record. Lennox will be brought back and tried. We need everything we can get. It’s not so much what we want from you as what we might be willing to let you get away with—if you co-operate.”
I stared at him. He did a little paper-fiddling. He moved around in his chair, looked at his bottle, and had to use up a lot of will power not grabbing for it. “Maybe you’d like the whole libretto,” he said suddenly with an off-key leer. “Well, smart guy, just to show you I’m not kidding, here it is.”
I leaned across his desk and he thought I was reaching for his bottle. He grabbed it away and put it back in the drawer. I just wanted to drop a stub in his ashtray. I leaned back again and lit another pill. He spoke rapidly.
“Lennox got off the plane at Mazatlán, an airline junction point and a town of about thirty-five thousand. He disappeared for two or three hours. Then a tall man with black hair and a dark skin and what might have been a lot of knife scars booked to Torreón under the name of Silvano Rodriguez. His Spanish was good but not good enough for a man of his name. He was too tall for a Mexican with such dark skin. The pilot turned in a report on him. The cops were too slow at Torreón. Mex cops are no balls of fire. What they do best is shoot people. By the time they got going the man had chartered a plane and gone on to a little mountain town called Otatoclán, a small time summer resort with a lake. The pilot of the charter plane had trained as a combat pilot in Texas. He spoke good English. Lennox pretended not to catch what he said.”
“If it was Lennox,” I put in.
“Wait a while, chum. It was Lennox all right. Okay, he gets off at Otatoclán and registers at the hotel there, this time as Mario de Cerva. He was wearing a gun, a Mauser 7.65, which doesn’t mean too much in Mexico, of course. But the charter pilot thought the guy didn’t seem kosher, so he had a word with the local law. They put Lennox under surveillance. They did some checking with Mexico City and then they moved in.”
Grenz picked up a ruler and sighted along it, a meaningless gesture which kept him from looking at me.
I said, “Uh-huh. Smart boy, your charter pilot, and nice to his customers. The story stinks.”
He looked up at me suddenly. “What we want,” he said dryly, “is a quick trial, a plea of second degree which we will accept. There are some angles we’d rather not go into. After all, the family is pretty influential. ”
“Meaning Harlan Potter.”
He nodded briefly. “For my money the whole idea is all wet. Springer could have a field day with it. It’s got everything. Sex, scandal, money, beautiful unfaithful wife, wounded war hero husband—I suppose that’s where he got the scars—hell, it would be front page stuff for weeks. Every rag in the country would eat it up. So we shuffle it off to a fast fade.” He shrugged. “Okay, if the chief wants it that way, it’s up to him. Do I get that statement?” He turned to the recording machine which had been humming away softly all this time, with the light showing in front.
“Turn it off,” I said.
He swung around and gave me a vicious look. “You like it in jail?”
“It’s not too bad. You don’t meet the best people, but who the hell wants to? Be reasonable, Grenz. You’re trying to make a fink out of me. Maybe I’m obstinate, or even sentimental, but I’m practical too. Suppose you had to hire a private eye—yeah, yeah, I know how you would hate the idea—but just suppose you were where it was your only out. Would you want one that finked on his friends?”
He stared at me with hate.
“A couple more points. Doesn’t it strike you that Lennox’s evasion tactics were just a little too transparent? If he wanted to be caught, he didn’t have to go to all that trouble. If he didn’t want to be caught, he had brains enough not to disguise himself as a Mexican in Mexico.”
“Meaning what?” Grenz was snarling at me now.
“Meaning you could just be filling me up with a lot of hooey you made up, that there wasn’t any Rodriguez with dyed hair and there wasn’t any Mario de Cerva at Otatoclan, and you don’t know any more about where Lennox is than where Black Beard the Pirate buried his treasure.”
He got his bottle out again. He poured himself a shot and drank it down quickly, as before. He relaxed slowly. He turned in his chair and switched off the recording machine.
“I’d like to have tried you,” he said gratingly. “You’re the kind of wise guy I like to work over. This rap will be hanging over you for a long long time, cutie. You’ll walk with it and eat with it and sleep with it. And next time you step out of line we’ll murder you with it. Right now I got to do something that turns my guts inside out.”
He pawed on his desk and pulled the face-down paper to him, turned it over and signed it. You can always tell when a man is writing his own name. He has a special way of moving. Then he stood up and marched around the desk and threw the door of his shoe box open and yelled for Spranklin.
The fat man came in with his B.O. Grenz gave him the paper.
“I’ve just signed your release order,” he said. “I’m a public servant and sometimes I have unpleasant duties. Would you care to know why I signed it?”
I stood up. “If you want to tell me.”
“The Lennox case is closed, mister. There ain’t any Lennox case. He wrote out a full confession this afternoon in his hotel room and shot himself. In Otatoclan, just like I said.”
I stood there looking at nothing. Out of the corner of my eye I saw Grenz back away slowly as if he thought I might be going to slug him. I must have looked pretty nasty for a moment. Then he was behind his desk again and Spranklin had grabbed onto my arm.
“Come on, move,” he said in a whining kind of voice. “Man likes to get to home nights once in a while.”
I went out with him and closed the door. I closed it quietly as if on a room where someone had just died.
I dug out the carbon of my property slip and turned it over and receipted on the original. I put my belongings back in my pockets. There was a man draped over the end of the booking desk and as I turned away he straightened up and spoke to me. He was about six feet four inches tall and as thin as a wire.
“Need a ride home?”
In the bleak light he looked young-old, tired and cynical, but he didn’t look like a grifter. “For how much?”
“For free. I’m Lonnie Morgan of the Journal. I’m knocking off.”
“Oh, police beat,” I said.
“Just this week. The City Hall is my regular beat.” We walked out of the building and found his car in the parking lot. I looked up at the sky. There were stars but there was too much glare. It was a cool pleasant night. I breathed it in. Then I got into his car and he drove away from there.
“I live way out in Laurel Canyon,” I said. “Just drop me anywhere.”
“They ride you in,” he said, “but they don’t worry how you get home. This case interests me, in a repulsive sort of way.”
“It seems there isn’t any case,” I said. “Terry Lennox shot himself this afternoon. So they say. So they say.”
“Very convenient,” Lonnie Morgan said, staring ahead through the windshield. His car drifted quietly along quiet streets. “It helps them build their wall. ”
“Somebody’s building a wall around the Lennox case, Marlowe. You’re smart enough to see that, aren’t you? It’s not getting the kind of play it rates, The D.A. left town tonight for Washington. Some kind of convention. He walked out on the sweetest hunk of publicity he’s had in years. Why?”
“No use to ask me. I’ve been in cold storage.”
“Because somebody made it worth his while, that’s why. I don’t mean anything crude like a wad of dough. Somebody promised him something important to him and there’s only one man connected with the case in a position to do that. The girl’s father.”
I leaned my head back in a corner of the car. “Sounds a little unlikely,” I said. “What about the press? Harlan Potter owns a few papers, but what about the competition?”
He gave me a brief amused glance and then concentrated on his driving. “Ever been a newspaperman?”
“Newspapers are owned and published by rich men. Rich men all belong to the same club. Sure, there’s competition—hard tough competition for circulation, for newsbeats, for exclusive stories. Just so long as it doesn’t damage the prestige and privilege and position of the owners. If it does, down comes the lid. The lid, my friend, is down on the Lennox case. The Lennox case, my friend, properly built up, could have sold a hell of a lot of papers. It has everything. The trial would have drawn feature writers from all over the country. But there ain’t going to be no trial. On account of Lennox checked out before it could get moving. Like I said—very convenient—for Harlan Potter and his family.”
I straightened up and gave him a hard stare.
“You calling the whole thing a fix?”
He twisted his mouth sardonically. “Could just be Lennox had some help committing suicide. Resisting arrest a little. Mexican cops have very itchy trigger fingers. If you want to lay a little bet, I’ll give you nice odds that nobody gets to count the bullet holes.”
“I think you’re wrong,” I said. “I knew Terry Lennox pretty well. He wrote himself off a long time ago. If they brought him back alive, he would have let them have it their way. He’d have copped a manslaughter plea.”
Lonnie Morgan shook his head. I knew what he was going to say and he said it. “Not a chance. If he had shot her or cracked her skull, maybe yes. But there was too much brutality. Her face was beaten to a pulp. Second degree murder would be the-best he could get, and even that would raise a stink.”
I said: “You could be right.”
He looked at me again. “You say you knew the guy. Do you go for the setup?”
“I’m tired. I’m not in a thinking mood tonight.”
There was a long pause. Then Lonnie Morgan said quietly: “If I was a real bright guy instead of a hack newspaperman, I’d think maybe he didn’t kill her at all. ”
“It’s a thought.”
He stuck a cigarette in his mouth and lit it by scratching a match on the dashboard. He smoked silently with a fixed frown on his thin face. We reached Laurel Canyon and I told him where to turn off the boulevard and where to turn into my street. His car churned up the hill and stopped at the foot of my redwood steps.
I got out. “Thanks for the ride, Morgan. Care for a drink?”
“I’ll take a rain check. I figure you’d rather be alone.”
“I’ve got lots of time to be alone. Too damn much.”
“You’ve got a friend to say goodbye to,” he said. “He must have been that if you let them toss you into the can on his account.”
“Who said I did that?”
He smiled faintly. “Just because I can’t print it don’t mean I didn’t know it, chum. So long. See you around.”
I shut the car door and he turned and drove off down the hill. When his taillights vanished around the corner I climbed the steps, picked up newspapers, and let myself into the empty house. I put all the lamps on and opened all the windows. The place was stuffy.
I made some coffee and drank it and took the five C notes out of the coffee can. They were rolled tight and pushed down into the coffee at the side. I walked up and down with a cup of coffee in my hand, turned the TV on, turned it off, sat, stood, and sat again. I read through the papers that had piled up on the front steps. The Lennox case started out big, but by that morning it was a Part Two item. There was a photo of Sylvia, but none of Terry. There was a snap of me that I didn’t know existed. “L. A. Private Detective Held for Questioning.” There was a large photo of the Lennox home in Encino. It was pseudo English with a lot of peaked roof and it would have cost a hundred bucks to wash the windows. It stood on a knoll in a big two acres, which is a lot of real estate for the Los Angeles area. There was a photo of the guesthouse, which was a miniature of the main building. It was hedged in with trees. Both photos had obviously been taken from some distance off and then blown up and trimmed. There was no photo of what the papers called the “death room.”
I had seen all this stuff before, in jail, but I read it and looked at it again with different eyes. It told me nothing except that a rich and beautiful girl had been murdered and the press had been pretty thoroughly excluded. So the influence had started to work very early. The crime beat boys must have gnashed their teeth and gnashed them in vain. It figured. If Terry talked to his father-in-law in Pasadena the very night she was killed, there would have been a dozen guards on the estate before the police were even notified.
But there was something that didn’t figure at all—the way she had been beaten up. Nobody could sell me that Terry had done that.
I put the lamps out and sat by an open window. Outside in a bush a mockingbird ran through a few trills and admired himself before settling down for the night. My neck itched, so I shaved and showered and went to bed and lay on my back listening, as if far off in the dark I might hear a voice, the kind of calm and patient voice that makes everything clear. I didn’t hear it and I knew I wasn’t going to. Nobody was going to explain the Lennox case to me. No explanation was necessary. The murderer had confessed and he was dead. There wouldn’t even be an inquest.
As Lonnie Morgan of the Journal had remarked—very convenient. If Terry Lennox had killed his wife, that was fine. There was no need to try him and bring out all the unpleasant details. If he hadn’t killed her, that was fine too. A dead man is the best fall guy in the world. He never talks back.
In the morning I shaved again and dressed and drove downtown in the usual way and parked in the usual place and if the parking lot attendant happened to know that I was an important public character he did a top job in hiding it. I went upstairs and along the corridor and got keys out to unlock my door. A dark smooth-looking guy watched me.
“Stick around,” he said. “A guy wants to see you.” He unplastered his back from the wall and strolled off languidly.
I stepped inside the office and picked up the mail. There was more of it on the desk where the night cleaning woman had put it. I slit the envelopes after I opened windows, and threw away what I didn’t want, which was practically all of it. I switched on the buzzer to the other door and filled a pipe and lit it and then just sat there waiting for somebody to scream for help.
I thought about Terry Lennox in a detached sort of way. He was already receding into the distance, white hair and scarred face and weak charm and his peculiar brand of pride. I didn’t judge him or analyze him, just as I had never asked him questions about how he got wounded or how he ever happened to get himself married to anyone like Sylvia. He was like somebody you meet on board ship and get to know very well and never really know at all. He was gone like the same fellow when he says goodbye at the pier and let’s keep in touch, old man, and you know you won’t and he won’t. Likely enough you’ll never even see the guy again. If you do he will be an entirely different person, just another Rotarian in a club car. How’s business? Oh, not too bad. You look good. So do you. I’ve put on too much weight. Don’t we all? Remember that trip in the Franconia (or whatever it was)? Oh sure, swell trip, wasn’t it?
The hell it was a swell trip. You were bored stiff. You only talked to the guy because there wasn’t anybody around that interested you. Maybe it was like that with Terry Lennox and me. No, not quite. I owned a piece of him. I had invested time and money in him, and three days in the icehouse, not to mention a slug on the jaw and a punch in the neck that I felt every time I swallowed. Now he was dead and I couldn’t even give him back his five hundred bucks. That made me sore. It is always the little things that make you sore.
The door buzzer and the telephone rang at the same time. I answered the phone first because the buzzer meant only that somebody had walked into my pint-size waiting room.
“Is this Mr. Marlowe? Mr. Endicott is calling you. One moment please.”
He came on the line. “This is Sewell Endicott,” he said, as if he didn’t know his goddamn secretary had already fed me his name.
“Good morning, Mr. Endicott.”
“Glad to hear they turned you loose. I think possibly you had the right idea not to build any resistance.”
“It wasn’t an idea. It was just mulishness.”
“I doubt if you’ll hear any more about it. But if you do and need help, let me hear from you.”
“Why would I? The man is dead. They’d have a hell of a time proving he ever came near me. Then they’d have to prove I had guilty knowledge. And then they’d have to prove he had committed a crime or was a fugitive.”
He cleared his throat. “Perhaps,” he said carefully, “you haven’t been told he left a full confession.”
“I was told, Mr. Endicott. I’m talking to a lawyer. Would I be out of line in suggesting that the confession would have to be proved too, both as to genuineness and as to veracity?”
“I’m afraid I have no time for a legal discussion,” he said sharply. “I’m flying to Mexico with a rather melancholy duty to perform. You can probably guess what it is?”
“Uh-huh. Depends who you’re representing. You didn’t tell me, remember.”
“I remember very well. Well, goodbye, Marlowe. My offer of help is still good. But let me also offer you a little advice. Don’t be too certain you’re in the clear. You’re in a pretty vulnerable business.”
He hung up. I put the phone back in its cradle carefully. I sat for a moment with my hand on it, scowling. Then I wiped the scowl off my face and got up to open the communicating door into my waiting room.
A man was sitting by the window ruffling a magazine. He wore a bluish-gray suit with an almost invisible pale blue check. On his crossed feet were black moccasin-type ties, the kind with two eyelets that are almost as comfortable as strollers and don’t wear your socks out every time you walk a block. His white handkerchief was folded square and the end of a pair of sunglasses showed behind it. He had thick dark wavy hair. He was tanned very dark. He looked up with bird-bright eyes and smiled under a hairline mustache. His tie was a dark maroon tied in a pointed bow over a sparkling white shirt.
He threw the magazine aside. “The crap these rags go for,” he said. “I been reading a piece about Costello. Yeah, they know all about Costello. Like I know all about Helen of Troy.”
“What can I do for you?”
He looked me over unhurriedly. “Tarzan on a big red scooter,” he said.
“You. Marlowe. Tarzan on a big red scooter. They rough you up much?”
“Here and there. What makes it your business?”
“After Allbright talked to Gregorius?”
“No. Not after that.”
He nodded shortly. “You got a crust asking Allbright to use ammunition on that slob.”
“I asked you what made it your business. Incidentally I don’t know Commissioner Allbright and I didn’t ask him to do anything. Why would he do anything for me?”
He stared at me morosely. He stood up slowly, graceful as a panther. He walked across the room and looked into my office. He jerked his head at me and went in. He was a guy who owned the place where he happened to be. I went in after him and shut the door. He stood by the desk looking around, amused.
“You’re small time,” he said. “Very small time.”
I went behind my desk and waited.
“How much you make in a month, Marlowe?”
I let it ride, and lit my pipe.
“Seven-fifty would be-tops,” he said.
I dropped a burnt match into a tray and puffed tobacco smoke.
“You’re a piker, Marlowe. You’re a peanut grifter. You’re so little it takes a magnifying glass to see you.”
I didn’t say anything at all.
“You got cheap emotions. You’re cheap all over. You pal around with a guy, eat a few drinks, talk a few gags, slip him a little dough when he’s strapped, and you’re sold out to him. Just like some school kid that read Frank Merriwell. You got no guts, no brains, no connections, no savvy, so you throw out a phony attitude and expect people to cry over you. Tarzan on a big red scooter.” He smiled a small weary smile. “In my book you’re a nickel’s worth of nothing.”
He leaned across the desk and flicked me across the face back-handed, casually and contemptuously, not meaning to hurt me, and the small smile stayed on his face. Then when I didn’t even move for that he sat down slowly and leaned an elbow on the desk and cupped his brown chin in his brown hand. The bird-bright eyes stared at me without anything in them but brightness.
“Know who I am, cheapie?”
“Your name’s Menendez. The boys call you Mendy. You operate on the Strip.”
“Yeah? How did I get so big?”
“I wouldn’t know. You probably started out as a pimp in a Mexican whorehouse.”
He took a gold cigarette case out of his pocket and lit a brown cigarette with a gold lighter. He blew acrid smoke and nodded. He put the gold cigarette case on the desk and caressed it with his fingertips.
“I’m a big bad man, Marlowe. I make lots of dough. I got to make lots of dough to juice the guys I got to juice in order to make lots of dough to juice the guys I got to juice. I got a place in Bel-Air that cost ninety grand and I already spent more than that to fix it up. I got a lovely platinum-blond wife and two kids in private schools back east. My wife’s got a hundred and fifty grand in rocks and another seventy-five in furs and clothes. I got a butler, two maids, a cook, a chauffeur, not counting the monkey that walks behind me. Everywhere I go I’m a darling. The best of everything, the best food, the best drinks, the best hotel suites. I got a place in Florida and a seagoing yacht with a crew of five men. I got a Bentley, two Cadillacs, a Chrysler station wagon, and an MG for my boy. Couple of years my girl gets one too. What you got?”
“Not much,” I said. “This year I have a house to live in—all to myself.”
“Just me. In addition to that I have what you see here and twelve hundred dollars in the bank and a few thousand in bonds. That answer your question?”
“What’s the most you ever made on a single job?”
“Jesus, how cheap can a guy get?”
“Stop hamming and tell me what you want.”
He killed his cigarette half smoked and immediately lit another. He leaned back in his chair. His lip curled at me.
“We were three guys in a foxhole eating,” he said. “It was cold as hell, snow all around. We eat out of cans. Cold food. A little shelling, more mortar fire. We are blue with the cold, and I mean blue, Randy Starr and me and this Terry Lennox. A mortar shell plops right in the middle of us and for some reason it don’t go off. Those jerries have a lot of tricks. They got a twisted sense of humor. Sometimes you think it’s a dud and three seconds later it ain’t a dud. Terry grabs it and he’s out of the foxhole before Randy and me can even start to get unstuck. But I mean quick, brother. Like a good ball handler. He throws himself face down and throws the thing away from him and it goes off in the air. Most of it goes over his head but a hunk gets the side of his face. Right then the krauts mount an attack and the next thing we know we ain’t there any more.”
Menendez stopped talking and gave me the bright steady glare of his dark eyes.
“Thanks for telling me,” I said.
“You take a good ribbing, Marlowe. You’re okay. Randy and me talked things over and we decided that what happened to Terry Lennox was enough to screw up any guy’s brains. For a long time we figured he was dead but he wasn’t. The krauts got him. They worked him over for about a year and a half. They did a good job but they hurt him too much. It cost us money to find out, and it cost us money to find him. But we made plenty in the black market after the war. We could afford it. All Terry gets out of saving our lives is half of a new face, white hair, and a bad case of nerves. Back east he hits the bottle, gets picked up here and there, kind of goes to pieces. There’s something on his mind but we never know what. The next thing we know he’s married to this rich dame and riding high. He unmarries her, hits bottom again, marries her again, and she gets dead. Randy and me can’t do a thing for him. He won’t let us except for that short job in Vegas. And when he gets in a real jam he don’t come to us, he goes to a cheapie like you, a guy that cops can push around. So then he gets dead, and without telling us goodbye, and without giving us a chance to pay off. I could have got him out of the country faster than a card sharp can stack a deck. But he goes crying to you. It makes me sore. A cheapie, a guy cops can push around.”
“The cops can push anybody around. What do you want me to do about it?”
“Just lay off,” Menendez said tightly.
“Lay off what?”
“Trying to make yourself dough or publicity out of the Lennox case. It’s finished, wrapped up. Terry’s dead and we don’t want him bothered any more. The guy suffered too much.”
“A hoodlum with sentiment,” I said. “That slays me.”
“Watch your lip, cheapie. Watch your lip. Mendy Menendez don’t argue with guys. He tells them. Find yourself another way to grab a buck. Get me?”
He stood up. The interview was finished. He picked up his gloves. They were snow-white pigskin., They didn’t look as if he ever had them on. A dressy type, Mr. Menendez. But very tough behind it all.
“I’m not looking for publicity,” I said. “And nobody’s offered me any dough. Why would they and for what?”
“Don’t kid me, Marlowe. You didn’t spend three days in the freezer just because you’re a sweetheart. You got paid off. I ain’t saying who by but I got a notion. And the party I’m thinking about has plenty more of the stuff. The Lennox case is closed and it stays closed even if—” He stopped dead and flipped his gloves at the desk edge.
“Even if Terry didn’t kill her,” I said.
His surprise was as thin as the gold on a weekend wedding ring. “I’d like to go along with you on that, cheapie. But it don’t make any sense. But if it did make sense—and Terry wanted it the way it is—then that’s how it stays.”
I didn’t say anything. After a moment he grinned slowly. “Tarzan on a big red scooter,” he drawled. “A tough guy. Lets me come in here and walk all over him. A guy that gets hired for nickels and dimes and gets pushed around by anybody. No dough, no family, no prospects, no nothing. See you around, cheapie.”
I sat still with my jaws clamped, staring at the glitter of his gold cigarette case on the desk corner. I felt old and tired. I got up slowly and reached for the case.
“You forgot this,” I said, going around the desk.
“I got half a dozen of them,” he sneered.
When I was near enough to him I held it out. His hand reached for it casually. “How about half a dozen of these?” I asked him and hit him as hard as I could in the middle of his belly.
He doubled up mewling. The cigarette case fell to the floor. He backed against the wall and his hands jerked back and forth convulsively. His breath fought to get into his lungs. He was sweating. Very slowly and with an intense effort he straightened up and we were eye to eye again. I reached out and ran a finger along the bone of his jaw. He held still for it. Finally he worked a smile onto his brown face.
“I didn’t think you had it in you,” he said.
“Next time bring a gun—or don’t call me cheapie.”
“I got a guy to carry the gun.”
“Bring him with you. You’ll need him.”
“You’re a hard guy to get sore, Marlowe.”
I moved the gold cigarette case to one side with my foot and bent and picked it up and handed it to him. He took it and dropped it into his pocket.
“I couldn’t figure you,” I said. “Why it was worth your time to come up here and ride me. Then it got monotonous. All tough guys are monotonous. Like playing cards with a deck that’s all aces. You’ve got everything and you’ve got nothing. You’re just sitting there looking at yourself. No wonder Terry didn’t come to you for help. It would be like borrowing money from a whore.”
He pressed delicately on his stomach with two fingers. “I’m sorry you said that, cheapie. You could crack wise once too often.”
He walked to the door and opened it. Outside the bodyguard straightened from the opposite wall and turned. Menendez jerked his head. The bodyguard came into the office and stood there looking me over without expression.
“Take a good look at him, Chick,” Menendez said. “Make sure you know him just in case. You and him might have business one of these days.”
“I already saw him, Chief,” the smooth dark tight-lipped guy said in the tight-lipped voice they all affect. “He wouldn’t bother me none.”
“Don’t let him hit you in the guts,” Menendez said with a sour grin. “His right hook ain’t funny.”
The bodyguard just sneered at me. “He wouldn’t get that close.”
“Well, so long, cheapie,” Menendez told me and went out.
“See you around,” the bodyguard told me coolly. “The name’s Chick Agostino. I guess you’ll know me.”
“Like a dirty newspaper,” I said. “Remind me not to step on your face.”
His jaw muscles bulged. Then he turned suddenly and went out after his boss.
The door closed slowly on the pneumatic gadget. I listened but I didn’t hear their steps going down the hall. They walked as softly as cats. Just to make sure I opened the door again after a minute and looked out. But the hall was quite empty.
I went back to my desk and sat down and spent a little time wondering why a fairly important local racketeer like Menendez would think it worth his time to come in person to my office and warn me to keep my nose clean, just minutes after I had received a similar though differently expressed warning from Sewell Endicott.
I didn’t get anywhere with that, so I thought I might as well make it a perfect score. I lifted the phone and put in a call to the Terrapin Club at Las Vegas, person to person, Philip Marlowe calling Mr. Randy Starr. No soap. Mr. Starr was out of town, and would I talk to anyone else? I would not. I didn’t even want to talk to Starr very badly. It was just a passing fancy. He was too far away to hit me.
After that nothing happened for three days. Nobody slugged me or shot at me or called me up on the phone and warned me to keep my nose clean. Nobody hired me to find the wandering daughter, the erring wife, the lost pearl necklace, or the missing will. I just sat there and looked at the wall. The Lennox case died almost as suddenly as it had been born. There was a brief inquest to which I was not summoned. It was held at an odd hour, without previous announcement and without a jury. The coroner entered his own verdict, which was that the death of Sylvia Potter Westerheym di Giorgio Lennox had been caused with homicidal intent by her husband, Terence William Lennox, since deceased outside the jurisdiction of the coroner’s office. Presumably a confession was read into the record. Presumably it was verified enough to satisfy the coroner.
The body was released for burial. It was flown north and buried in the family vault. The press was not invited. Nobody gave any interviews, least of all Mr. Harlan Potter, who never gave interviews. He was about as hard to see as the Dalai Lama. Guys with a hundred million dollars live a peculiar life, behind a screen of servants, bodyguards, secretaries, lawyers, and tame executives. Presumably they eat, sleep, get their haircut, and wear clothes. But you never know for sure. Everything you read or hear about them has been processed by a public relations gang of guys who are paid big money to create and maintain a usable personality, something simple and clean and sharp, like a sterilized needle. It doesn’t have to be true. It just has to be consistent with the known facts, and the known facts you could count on your fingers.
Late afternoon of the third day the telephone rang and I was talking to a man who said his name was Howard Spencer, that he was a representative of a New York publishing house in California on a brief business trip, that he had a problem he would like to discuss with me and would I meet him in the bar of the Ritz-Beverly Hotel at eleven A.M. the next morning.
I asked him what sort of problem.
“Rather a delicate one,” he said, “but entirely ethical. If we don’t agree, I shall expect to pay you for your time, naturally.”
“Thank you, Mr. Spencer, but that won’t be necessary. Did someone I know recommend me to you?”
“Someone who knows about you—including your recent brush with the law, Mr. Marlowe. I might say that that was what interested me. My business, however, has nothing to do with that tragic affair. It’s just that—well, let’s discuss it over a drink, rather than over the telephone.”
“You sure you want to mix it with a guy who has been in the cooler?”
He laughed. His laugh and his voice were both pleasant. He talked the way New Yorkers used to talk before they learned to talk Flatbush.
“From my point of view, Mr. Marlowe, that is a recommendation. Not, let me add, the fact that you were, as you put it, in the cooler, but the fact, shall I say, that you appear to be extremely reticent, even under pressure.”
He was a guy who talked with commas, like a heavy novel. Over the phone anyway.
“Okay, Mr. Spencer, I’ll be there in the morning.”
He thanked me and hung up. I wondered who could have given me the plug. I thought it might be Sewell Endicott and called him to find out. But he had been out of town all week, and still was. It didn’t matter much. Even in my business you occasionally get a satisfied customer. And I needed a job because I needed the money—or thought I did, until I got home that night and found the letter with a portrait of Madison in it.
The letter was in the red and white birdhouse mailbox at the foot of my steps. A woodpecker on top of the box attached to the swing arm was raised and even at that I might not have looked inside because I never got mail at the house. But the woodpecker had lost the point of his beak quite recently. The wood was fresh broken. Some smart kid shooting off his atom gun.
The letter had Correo Aéreo on it and, a flock of Mexican stamps and writing that I might or might not have recognized if Mexico hadn’t been on my mind pretty constantly lately. I couldn’t read the postmark. It was hand-stamped and the inkpad was pretty far gone. The letter was thick. I climbed my steps and sat down in the living room to read it. The evening seemed very silent. Perhaps a letter from a dead man brings its own silence with it.
It began without date and without preamble.
I’m sitting beside a second-floor window in a room in a not too clean hotel in a town called Otatoclán, a mountain town with a lake. There’s a mailbox just below the window and when the mozo comes in with some coffee I’ve ordered he is going to mail the letter for me and hold it up so that I can see it before he puts it in the slot. When he does that he gets a hundred-peso note, which is a hell of a lot of money for him.
Why all the finagling? There’s a swarthy character with pointed shoes and a dirty shirt outside the door watching it. He’s waiting for something, I don’t know what, but he won’t let me out. It doesn’t matter too much as long as the letter gets posted. I want you to have this money because I don’t need it and the local gendarmerie would swipe it for sure. It is not intended to buy anything. Call it an apology for making you so much trouble and a token of esteem for a pretty decent guy. I’ve done everything wrong as usual, but I still have the gun. My hunch is that you have probably made up your mind on a certain point. I might have killed her and perhaps I did, but I never could have done the other thing. That kind of brutality is not in my line. So something is very sour. But it doesn’t matter, not in the least. The main thing now is to save an unnecessary and useless scandal. Her father and her sister never did me any harm. They have their lives to live and I’m up to here in disgust with mine. Sylvia didn’t make a bum out of me, I was one already. I can’t give you any very clean answer about why she married me. I suppose it was just a whim. At least she died young and beautiful. They say lust makes a man old, but keeps a woman young. They say a lot of nonsense. They say the rich can always protect themselves and that in their world it is always summer. I’ve lived with them and they are bored and lonely people.
I have written a confession. I feel a little sick and more than a little scared. You read about these situations in books, but you don’t read the truth. When it happens to you, when all you have left is the gun in your pocket, when you are cornered in a dirty little hotel in a strange country, and have only one way out—believe me, pal, there is nothing elevating or dramatic about it. It is just plain nasty and sordid and gray and grim.
So forget it and me. But first drink a gimlet for me at Victor’s. And the next time you make coffee, pour me a cup and put some bourbon in it and light me a cigarette and put it beside the cup. And after that forget the whole thing. Terry Lennox over and out. And so goodbye.
A knock at the door. I guess it will be the mozo with the coffee. If it isn’t, there will be some shooting. I like Mexicans, as a rule, but I don’t like their jails. So long.