That was all. I refolded the letter and put it back in the envelope. It had been the mozo with the coffee all right. Otherwise I would never have had the letter. Not with a portrait of Madison in it. A portrait of Madison is a $5000 bill.
It lay in front of me green and crisp on the tabletop. I had never even seen one before. Lots of people who work in banks haven’t either. Very likely characters like Randy Starr and Menendez wear them for folding money. If you went to a bank and asked for one, they wouldn’t have it. They’d have to get it for you from the Federal Reserve. It might take several days. There are only about a thousand of them in circulation in the whole U.S.A. Mine had a nice glow around it. It created a little private sunshine all its own.
I sat there and looked at it for a long time. At last I put it away in my letter case and went out to the kitchen to make that coffee. I did what he asked me to, sentimental or not. I poured two cups and added some bourbon to his and set it down on the side of the table where he had sat the morning I took him to the plane. I lit a cigarette for him and set it in an ashtray beside the cup. I watched the steam rise from the coffee and the thin thread of smoke rise from the cigarette. Outside in the tecoma a bird was gassing around, talking to himself in low chirps, with an occasional brief flutter of wings.
Then the coffee didn’t steam any more and the cigarette stopped smoking and was just a dead butt on the edge of an ashtray. I dropped it into the garbage can under the sink. I poured the coffee out and washed the cup and put it away.
That was that. It didn’t seem quite enough to do for five thousand dollars.
I went to a late movie after a while. It meant nothing. I hardly saw what went on. It was just noise and big faces. When I got home again I set out a very dull Ruy Lopez and that didn’t mean anything either. So I went to bed.
But not to sleep. At three AM. I was walking the floor and listening to Khachaturyan working in a tractor factory. He called it a violin concerto. I called it a loose fan belt and the hell with it.
A white night for me is as rare as a fat postman. If it hadn’t been for Mr. Howard Spencer at the Ritz-Beverly I would have killed a bottle and knocked myself out. And the next time I saw a polite character drunk in a Rolls. Royce Silver Wraith, I would depart rapidly in several directions. There is no trap so deadly as the trap you set for yourself.
At eleven o’clock I was sitting in the third booth on the right-hand side as you go in from the dining-room annex. I had my back against the wall and I could see anyone who came in or went out. It was a clear morning, no smog, no high fog even, and the sun dazzled the surface of the swimming pool which began just outside the plate-glass wall of the bar and stretched to the far end of the dining room. A girl in a white sharkskin suit and a luscious figure was climbing the ladder to the high board. I watched the band of white that showed between the tan of her thighs and the suit. I watched it carnally. Then she was out of sight, cut off by the deep overhang of the roof. A moment later I saw her flash down in a one and a half. Spray came high enough to catch the sun and make rainbows that were almost as pretty as the girl. Then she came up the ladder and unstrapped her white helmet and shook her bleach job loose. She wobbled her bottom over to a small white table and sat down beside a lumberjack in white drill pants and dark glasses and a tan so evenly dark that he couldn’t have been anything but the hired man around the pool. He reached over and patted her thigh. She opened a mouth like a fire bucket and laughed. That terminated my interest in her. I couldn’t hear the laugh but the hole in her face when she unzippered her teeth was all I needed.
The bar was pretty empty. Three booths down a couple of sharpies were selling each other pieces of Twentieth Century-Fox, using double-arm gestures instead of money. They had a telephone on the table between them and every two or three minutes they would play the match game to see who called Zanuck with a hot idea. They were young, dark, eager and full of vitality. They put as much muscular activity into a telephone conversation as I would put into carrying a fat man up four flights of stairs. There was a sad fellow over on a bar stool talking to the bartender, who was polishing a glass and listening with that plastic smile people wear when they are trying not to scream. The customer was middle-aged, handsomely dressed, and drunk. He wanted to talk and he couldn’t have stopped even if he hadn’t really wanted to talk. He was polite and friendly and when I heard him he didn’t seem to slur his words much, but you knew that he got up on the bottle and only let go of it when he fell asleep at night. He would be like that for the rest of his life and that was what his life was. You would never know how he got that way because even if he told you it would not be the truth. At the very best a distorted memory of the truth as he knew it. There is a sad man like that in every quiet bar in the world.
I looked at my watch and this high-powered publisher man was already twenty minutes late. I would wait half an hour and then I would leave. It never pays to let the customer make all the rules. If he can push you around, he will assume other people can too, and that is not what he hires you for. And right now I didn’t need the work badly enough to let some fathead from back east use me for a horse-holder, some executive character in a paneled office on the eighty-fifth floor, with a row of pushbuttons and an intercom and a secretary in a Hattie Carnegie Career Girl’s Special and a pair of those big beautiful promising eyes. This was the kind of operator who would tell you to be there at nine sharp and if you weren’t sitting quietly with a pleased smile on your pan when he floated in two hours later on a double Gibson, he would have a paroxysm of outraged executive ability which would necessitate five weeks at Acapulco before he got back the hop on his high hard one.
The old bar waiter came drifting by and glanced softly at my weak Scotch and water. I shook my head and he bobbed his white thatch, and right then a dream walked in. It seemed to me for an instant that there was no sound in the bar, that the sharpies stopped sharping and the drunk on the stool stopped burbling away, and it was like just after the conductor taps on his music stand and raises his aims and holds them poised.
She was slim and quite tall in a white linen tailor-made with a black and white polka-dotted scarf around her throat. Her hair was the pale gold of a fairy princess. There was a small hat on it into which the pale gold hair nestled like a bird in its nest. Her eyes were cornflower blue, a rare color, and the lashes were long and almost too pale. She reached the table across the way and was pulling off a white gauntleted glove and the old waiter had the table pulled out in a way no waiter ever will pull a table out for me. She sat down and slipped the gloves under the strap of her bag and thanked him with a smile so gentle, so exquisitely pure, that he was damn near paralyzed by it. She said something to him in a very low voice. He hurried away, bending forward. There was a guy who really had a mission in life.
I stared. She caught me staring. She lifted her glance half an inch and I wasn’t there any more. But wherever I was I was holding my breath.
There are blondes and blondes and it is almost a joke word nowadays. All blondes have their points, except perhaps the metallic ones who are as blond as a Zulu under the bleach and as to disposition as soft as a sidewalk. There is the small cute blonde who cheeps and twitters, and the big statuesque blonde who straight-arms you with an ice blue glare. There is the blonde who gives you the up-from-under look and smells lovely and shimmers and hangs on your arm and is always very very tired when you take her home. She makes that helpless gesture and has that goddamned headache and you would like to slug her except that you are glad you found out about the headache before you invested too much time and money and hope in her. Because the headache will always be there, a weapon that never wears out and is as deadly as the bravo’s rapier or Lucrezia’s poison vial.
There is the soft and willing and alcoholic blonde who doesn’t care what she wears as long as it is mink or where she goes as long as it is the Starlight Roof and there is plenty of dry champagne. There is the small perky blonde who is a little pal and wants to pay her own way and is full of sunshine and common sense and knows judo from the ground up and can toss a truck driver over her shoulder without missing more than one sentence out of the editorial in the Saturday Review. There is the pale, pale blonde with anemia of some non-fatal but incurable type. She is very languid and very shadowy and she speaks softly out of nowhere and you can’t lay a finger on her because in the first place you don’t want to and in the second place she is reading The Waste Land or Dante in the original, or Kafka or Kierkegaard or studying Provencal. She adores music and when the New York Philharmonic is playing Hindemith she can tell you which one of the six bass viols came in a quarter of a beat too late. I hear Toscanini can also. That makes two of them.
And lastly there is the gorgeous show piece who will outlast three kingpin racketeers and then marry a couple of millionaires at a million a head and end up with a pale rose villa at Cap Antibes, an Alfa-Romeo town car complete with pilot and co-pilot, and a stable of shopworn aristocrats, all of whom she will treat with the affectionate absent-mindedness of an elderly duke saying goodnight to his butler.
The dream across the way was none of these, not even of that kind of world. She was unclassifiable, as remote and clear as mountain water, as elusive as its color. I was still staring when a voice close to my elbow said: “I’m shockingly late. I apologize. You must blame it on this. My name’s Howard Spencer. You’re Marlowe, Of course.”
I turned my head and looked at him. He was middle aged, rather plump, dressed as if he didn’t give any thought to it, but well shaved and with thin hair smoothed back carefully over a head that was wide between the ears. He wore a flashy double-breasted vest, the sort of thing you hardly ever see in California except perhaps on a visiting Bostonian. His glasses were rimless and he was patting a shabby old dog of a briefcase which was evidently the “this.”
“Three brand new book-length manuscripts. Fiction. It would be embarrassing to lose them before we have a chance to reject them.” He made a signal to the old waiter who had just stepped back from placing a tall green something or other in front of the dream. “I have a weakness for gin and orange. A silly sort of drink really. Will you join me? Good.”
I nodded and the old waiter drifted away.
Pointing to the briefcase I said: “How do you know you are going to reject them?”
“If they were any good, they wouldn’t be dropped at my hotel by the writers in person. Some New York agent would have them.”
“Then why take them at all?”
“Partly not to hurt feelings. Partly the thousand-to-one chance all publishers live for. But mostly you’re at a cocktail party and get introduced to all sorts of people, and some of them have novels written and you are just liquored up enough to be benevolent and full of love for the human race, so you say you’d love to see the script. It is then dropped at your hotel with such sickening speed that you are forced to go through the motions of reading it. But I don’t suppose you are much interested in publishers and their problems.”
The waiter brought the drinks. Spencer grabbed for his and took a healthy swig. He wasn’t noticing the golden girl across the way. I had all his attention. He was a good contact man.
“If it’s part of the job,” I said. “I can read a book once in a while.”
“One of our most important authors lives around here,” he said casually. “Maybe you’ve read his stuff. Roger Wade.”
“I see your point.” He smiled sadly. “You don’t care for historical romances. But they sell brutally.”
“I don’t have any point, Mr. Spencer. I looked at one of his books once. I thought it was tripe. Is that the wrong thing for me to say?”
He grinned, “Oh no. There are many people who agree with you. But the point is at the moment that he’s an automatic best seller. And every publisher has to have a couple with the way costs are now.”
I looked across at the golden girl. She had finished her limeade or whatever it was and was glancing at a microscopic wristwatch. The bar was filling up a little, but not yet noisy. The two sharpies were still waving their hands and the solo drinker on the barstool had a couple of pals with him. I looked back at Howard Spencer.
“Something to do with your problem?” I asked him. “This fellow Wade, I mean.”
He nodded. He was giving me a careful once over. “Tell me a little about yourself, Mr. Marlowe. That is, if you don’t find the request objectionable.”
“What sort of thing? I’m a licensed private investigator and have been for quite a while. I’m a lone wolf, unmarried, getting middle-aged, and not rich. I’ve been in jail more than once and I don’t do divorce business. I like liquor and women and chess and a few other things. The cops don’t like me too well, but I know a couple I get along with. I’m a native son, born in Santa Rosa, both parents dead, no brothers or sisters, and when I get knocked off in a dark alley sometime, if it happens, as it could to anyone in my business, and to plenty of people in any business or no business at all these days, nobody will feel that the bottom has dropped out of his or her life.”
“I see,” he said. “But all that doesn’t exactly tell me what I want to know.”
I finished the gin and orange. I didn’t like it. I grinned at him. “I left out one item, Mr. Spencer. I have a portrait of Madison in my pocket.”
“A portrait of Madison? I’m afraid I don’t—”
“A five-thousand-dollar bill,” I said. “Always carry it. My lucky piece.”
“Good God,” he said in a hushed voice. “Isn’t that terribly dangerous?”
“Who was it said that beyond a certain point all dangers are equal?”
“I think it was Walter Bagehot. He was talking about a steeplejack.” Then he grinned. “Sorry, but I am a publisher. You’re all right, Marlowe. I’ll take a chance on you. If I didn’t you would tell me to go to hell. Right?”
I grinned back at him. He called the waiter and ordered another pair of drinks.
“Here it is,” he said carefully. “We are in bad trouble over Roger Wade. He can’t finish a book. He’s losing his grip and there’s something behind it. The man seems to be going to pieces. Wild fits of drinking and temper. Every once in a while he disappears for days on end. Not very long ago he threw his wife downstairs and put her in the hospital with five broken ribs. There’s no trouble between them in the usual sense, none at all. The man just goes nuts when he drinks.” Spencer leaned back and looked at me gloomily. “We have to have that book finished. We need it badly. To a certain extent my job depends on it. But we need more than that. We want to save a very able writer who is capable of much better things than he has ever done. Something is very wrong. This trip he won’t even see me. I realize this sounds like a job for a psychiatrist. Mrs. Wade disagrees. She is convinced that he is perfectly sane but that something is worrying him to death. A blackmailer, for instance. The Wades have been married five years. Something from his past may have caught up with him. It might even be—just as a wild guess—a fatal hit-and-run accident and someone has the goods on him. We don’t know what it is. We want to know. And we are willing to pay well to correct the trouble. If it turns out to be a medical matter, well—that’s that. If not, there has to be an answer. And in the meantime Mrs. Wade has to be protected. He might kill her the next time. You never know.”
The second round of drinks came. I left mine untouched and watched him gobble half of his in one swallow. I lit a cigarette and just stared at him.
“You don’t want a detective,” I said. “You want a magician. What the hell could I do? If I happened to be there at exactly the right time, and if he isn’t too tough for me to handle, I might knock him out and put him to bed. But I’d have to be there. It’s a hundred to one against. You know that.”
“He’s about your size,” Spencer said, “but he’s not in your condition. And you could be there all the time.”
“Hardly. And drunks are cunning. He’d be certain to pick a time when I wasn’t around to throw his wingding. I’m not in the market for a job as a male nurse.”
“A male nurse wouldn’t be any use. Roger Wade is not the kind of man to accept one. He is a very talented guy who has been jarred loose from his self-control. He has made too much money writing junk for halfwits. But the only salvation for a writer is to write. If there is anything good in him, it will come out.”
“Okay, I’m sold on him,” I said wearily. “He’s terrific. Also he’s damn dangerous. He has a guilty secret and he tries to drown it in alcohol. It’s not my kind of problem, Mr. Spencer.”
“I see.” He looked at his wristwatch with a worried frown that knotted his face and made it look older and smaller. “Well, you can’t blame me for trying.”
He reached for his fat briefcase. I looked across at the golden girl. She was getting ready to leave. The white-haired waiter was hovering over her with the check. She gave him some money and a lovely smile and he looked as if he had shaken hands with God. She touched up her lips and put her white gauntlets on and the waiter pulled the table halfway across the room for her to stroll out.
I glanced at Spencer. He was frowning down at the empty glass on the table edge. He had the briefcase on his knees.
“Look,” I said. “I’ll go see the man and try to size him up, if you want me to. I’ll talk to his wife. But my guess is he’ll throw me out of the house.”
A voice that was not Spencer’s said: “No, Mr. Marlowe, I don’t think he would do that. On the contrary I think he might like you.”
I looked up into the pair of violet eyes. She was standing at the end of the table. I got up and canted myself against the back of the booth in that awkward way you have to stand when you can’t slide out.
“Please don’t get up,” she said in a voice like the stuff they use to line summer clouds with. “I know I owe you an apology, but it seemed important for me to have a chance to observe you before I introduced myself. I am Eileen Wade.”
Spencer said grumpily: “He’s not interested, Eileen.”
She smiled gently. “I disagree.”
I pulled myself together. I had been standing there off balance with my mouth open and me breathing through it like a sweet girl graduate. This was really a dish. Seen close up she was almost paralyzing.
“I didn’t say I wasn’t interested, Mrs. Wade. What I said or meant to say was that I didn’t think I could do any good, and it might be a hell of a mistake for me to try. It might do a lot of harm.”
She was very serious now. The smile had gone. “You are deciding too soon. You can’t judge people by what they do. If you judge them at all, it must be by what they are.”
I nodded vaguely. Because that was exactly the way I had thought about Terry Lennox. On the facts he was no bargain, except for that one brief flash of glory in the foxhole—if Menendez told the truth about that—but the facts didn’t tell the whole story by any means. He had been a man it was impossible to dislike. How many do you meet in a lifetime that you can say that about?
“And you have to know them for that,” she added gently. “Goodbye, Mr. Marlowe. If you should change your mind—” She opened her bag quickly and gave me a card—”and thank you for being here.”
She nodded to Spencer and walked away. I watched her out of the bar, down the glassed-in annex to the dining room. She carried herself beautifully. I watched her turn under the archway that led to the lobby. I saw the last flicker of her white linen skirt as she turned the corner. Then I eased myself down into the booth and grabbed the gin and orange.
Spencer was watching me. There was something hard in his eyes.
“Nice work,” I said, “but you ought to have looked at her once in a while. A dream like that doesn’t sit across the room from you for twenty minutes without your even noticing.”
“Stupid of me, wasn’t it?” He was trying to smile, but he didn’t really want to. He didn’t like the way I had looked at her. “People have such queer ideas about private detectives. When you think of having one in your home—”
“Don’t think of having this one in your home,” I said. “Anyhow, think up another story first. You can do better than trying to make me believe anybody, drunk or sober, would throw that gorgeous downstairs and break five ribs for her.”
He reddened. His hands tightened on the briefcase. “’You think I’m a liar?”
“What’s the difference? You’ve made your play. You’re a little hot for the lady yourself, maybe.”
He stood up suddenly. “I don’t like your tones” he said. “I’m not sure I like you. Do me a favor and forget the whole idea. I think this ought to pay you for your time.”
He threw a twenty on the table, and then added some ones for the waiter. He stood a moment staring down at me. His eyes were bright and his face was still red. “I’m married and have four children,” he said abruptly.
He made a swift noise in his throat and turned and went. He went pretty fast. I watched him for a while and then I didn’t. I drank the rest of my drink and got out my cigarettes and shook one loose and stuck it in my mouth and lit it. The old waiter came up and looked at the money.
“Can I get you anything else, sir?”
“Nope. The dough is all yours.”
He picked it up slowly. “This is a twenty-dollar bill, sir. The gentleman made a mistake.”
“He can read. The dough is all yours, I said.”
“I’m sure I’m very grateful; If you are quite sure, sir—”
He bobbed his head and went away, still looking worried. The bar was filling up. A couple of streamlined demi-virgins went by caroling and waving. They knew the two hotshots in the booth farther on. The air began to be spattered with darlings and crimson fingernails.
I smoked half of my cigarette, scowling at nothing, and then got up to leave. I turned to reach back for my cigarettes and something bumped into me hard from behind. It was just what I needed. I swung around and I was looking at the profile of a broad-beamed crowd-pleaser in an overdraped oxford flannel. He had the outstretched arm of the popular character and the two-by-six grin of the guy who never loses a sale.
I took hold of the outstretched arm and spun him around. “What’s the matter, Jack? Don’t they make the aisles wide enough for your personality?”
He shook his arm loose and got tough, “Don’t get fancy, buster. I might loosen your jaw for you.”
“Ha, ha,” I said, “You might play center field for the Yankees and hit a home run with a breadstick,”
He doubled a meaty fist.
“Darling, think of your manicure,” I told him.
He controlled his emotions. “Nuts to you, wise guy,” he sneered. “Some other time, when I have less on my mind.”
“Could there be less?”
“G’wan, beat it,” he snarled. “One more crack and you’ll need new bridgework.”
I grinned at him. “Call me up, Jack. But with better dialogue.”
His expression changed. He laughed. “You in pictures, chum?”
“Only the kind they pin up in the post office.”
“See you in the mug book,” he said, and walked away, still grinning.
It was all very silly, but it got rid of the feeling. I went along the annex and across the lobby of the hotel to the main entrance. I paused inside to put on my sunglasses. It wasn’t until I got into my car that I remembered to look at the card Eileen Wade had given me. It was an engraved card, but not a formal calling card, because it had an address and a telephone number on it. Mrs. Roger Stearns Wade, 1247 Idle Valley Road. Tel. Idle Valley 5-6524.
I knew a good deal about Idle Valley, and I knew it had changed a great deal from the days when they had the gatehouse at the entrance and the private police force, and the gambling casino on the lake, and the fifty-dollar joy girls. Quiet money had taken over the tract after the casino was closed out. Quiet money had made it a subdivider’s dream. A club owned the lake and the lake frontage and if they didn’t want you in the club, you didn’t get to play in the water. It was exclusive in the only remaining sense of the word that doesn’t mean merely expensive.
I belonged in Idle Valley like a pearl onion on a banana split.
Howard Spencer called me up late in the afternoon. He had got over his mad and wanted to say he was sorry and he hadn’t handled the situation very well, and had I perhaps any second thoughts.
“I’ll go see him if he asks me to. Not otherwise.”
“I see. There would be a substantial bonus—”
“Look, Mr. Spencer,” I said impatiently, “you can’t hire destiny. If Mrs. Wade is afraid of the guy, she can move out. That’s her problem. Nobody could protect her twenty-four hours a day from her own husband. There isn’t that much protection in the world. But that’s not all you want. You want to know why and how and when the guy jumped the rails, and then fix it so that he doesn’t do it again—at least until he finishes the book. And that’s up to him. If he wants to write the damn book bad enough, he’ll lay off the hooch until he does it. You want too damn much.”
“They all go together,” he said. “It’s all one problem. But I guess I understand. It’s a little over-subtle for your kind of operation. Well, goodbye. I’m flying back to New York tonight.”
“Have a smooth trip.”
He thanked me and hung up. I forgot to tell him I had given his twenty to the waiter. I thought of calling back to tell him, then I thought he was miserable enough already.
I closed the office and started off in the direction of Victor’s to drink a gimlet, as Terry had asked me to in his letter. I changed my mind. I wasn’t feeling sentimental enough. I went to Lowry’s and had a martini and some prime ribs and Yorkshire pudding instead.
When I got home I turned on the TV set and looked at the fights. They were no good, just a bunch of dancing masters who ought to have been working for Arthur Murray. All they did was jab and bob up and down and feint one another off balance. Not one of them could hit hard enough to wake his grandmother out of a light doze. The crowd was booing and the referee kept clapping his hands for action, but they went right on swaying and jittering and jabbing long lefts. I turned to another channel and looked at a crime show. The action took place in a clothes closet and the faces were tired and over familiar and not beautiful. The dialogue was stuff even Monogram wouldn’t have used. The dick had a colored houseboy for comic relief. He didn’t need it, he was plenty comical all by himself. And the commercials would have sickened a goat raised on barbed wire and broken beer bottles.
I cut it off and smoked a long cool tightly packed cigarette. It was kind to my throat. It was made of fine tobacco, I forgot to notice what brand it was. I was about ready to hit the hay when Detective-Sergeant Green of homicide called me up.
“Thought you might like to know they buried your friend Lennox a couple of days ago right in that Mexican town where he died. A lawyer representing the family went down there and attended to it. You were pretty lucky this time, Marlowe. Next time you think of helping a pal skip the country, don’t.”
“How many bullet holes did he have in him?”
“What’s that?” he barked. Then he was silent for a space. Then he said rather too carefully: “One, I should say. It’s usually enough when it blows a guy’s head off. The lawyer is bringing back a set of prints and whatever was in his pockets. Anything more you’d like to know?”
“Yeah, but you can’t tell me. I’d like to know who killed Lennox’s wife.”
“Cripes, didn’t Grenz tell you he left a full confession? It was in the papers, anyway. Don’t you read the papers any more?”
“Thanks for calling me, Sergeant. It was real kind of you.”
“Look, Marlowe,” he said raspingly. “You got any funny ideas about this case, you could buy yourself a lot of grief talking about them. The case is closed, finalized, and laid away in mothballs. Damn lucky for you it is. Accessory after the fact is good for five years in this state. And let me tell you something else. I’ve been a cop a long time and one thing I’ve learned for sure is it ain’t always what you do that gets you sent up. It’s what it can be made to look like when it comes in to court. Goodnight.”
He hung up in my ear. I replaced the phone thinking that an honest cop with a bad conscience always acts tough. So does a dishonest cop. So does almost anyone, including me.