Next morning the bell rang as I was wiping the talcum off an earlobe. When I got to the door and opened up I looked into a pair of violet-blue eyes. She was in brown linen this time, with a pimento-colored scarf, and no earrings or hat. She looked a little pale, but not as though anyone had been throwing her downstairs. She gave me a hesitant little smile.
“I know I shouldn’t have come here to bother you, Mr. Marlowe. You probably haven’t even had breakfast. But I had a reluctance to go to your office and I hate telephoning about personal matters.”
“Sure. Come in, Mrs. Wade. Would you go for a cup of coffee?”
She came into the living room and sat on the davenport without looking at anything. She balanced her bag on her lap and sat with her feet close together. She looked rather prim. I opened windows and pulled up venetian blinds and lifted a dirty ashtray off the cocktail table in front of her.
“Thank you. Black coffee, please. No sugar.”
I went out to the kitchen and spread a paper napkin on a green metal tray. It looked as cheesy as a celluloid collar. I crumpled it up and got out one of those fringed things that come in sets with little triangular napkins. They came with the house, like most of the furniture. I set out two Desert Rose coffee cups and filled them and carried the tray in.
She sipped. “This is very nice,” she said. “You make good coffee.”
“Last time anyone drank coffee with me was just before I went to jail,” I said. “I guess you knew I’d been in the cooler, Mrs. Wade.”
She nodded. “Of course. You were suspected of having helped him escape, wasn’t it?”
“They didn’t say. They found my telephone number on a pad in his room. They asked me questions I didn’t answer—mostly because of the way they were asked. But I don’t suppose you are interested in that.”
She put her cup down carefully and leaned back and smiled at me. I offered her a cigarette.
“I don’t smoke, thank you. Of course I’m interested. A neighbor of ours knew the Lennoxes. He must have been insane. He doesn’t sound at all like that kind of man.”
I filled a bulldog pipe and lit it. “I guess so,” I said. “He must have been. He was badly wounded in the war. But he’s dead and it’s all done with. And I don’t think you came here to talk about that.”
She shook her head slowly. “He was a friend of yours, Mr. Marlowe. You must have a pretty strong opinion. And I think you are a pretty determined man.”
I tamped the tobacco in my pipe and lit it again. I took my time and stared at her over the pipe bowl while I was doing it.
“Look, Mrs. Wade,” I said finally. “My opinion means nothing. It happens every day. The most unlikely people commit the most unlikely crimes. Nice old ladies poison whole families. Clean-cut kids commit multiple holdups and shootings. Bank managers with spotless records going back twenty years are found out to be long-term embezzlers. And successful and popular and supposedly happy novelists get drunk and put their wives in the hospital. We know damn little about what makes even our best friends tick.”
I thought it would burn her up, but she didn’t do much more than press her lips together and narrow her eyes.
“Howard Spencer shouldn’t have told you that,” she said. “It was my own fault. I didn’t know enough to keep away from him. I’ve learned since that the one thing you can never do to a man who is drinking too much is to try to stop him. You probably know that much better than I do.”
“You certainly can’t stop him with words,” I said. “If you’re lucky, and if you have the strength, you can sometimes keep him from hurting himself or someone else. Even that takes luck.”
She reached quietly for her coffee cup and saucer. Her hands were lovely, like the rest of her. The nails were beautifully shaped and polished and only very slightly tinted.
“Did Howard tell you he hadn’t seen my husband this time?”
She finished her coffee and put the cup carefully back on the tray. She fiddled with the spoon for a few seconds. Then she spoke without looking up at me.
“He didn’t tell you why, because he didn’t know. I am very fond of Howard but he is the managing type, wants to take charge of everything. He thinks he is very executive.”
I waited, not saying anything. There was another silence. She looked at me quickly then looked away again. Very softly she said: “My husband has been missing for three days. I don’t know where he is. I came here to ask you to find him and bring him home. Oh, it has happened before. One time he drove himself all the way to Portland and got sick in a hotel there and had to get a doctor to sober him up. It’s a wonder how he ever got that far without getting into trouble. He hadn’t eaten anything for three days. Another time he was in a Turkish bath in Long Beach, one of those Swedish places where they give high colonics. And the last time it was some sort of small private and probably not very reputable sanitarium. This was less than three weeks ago. He wouldn’t tell me the name of it or where it was, just said he had been taking a cure and was all right. But he looked deadly pale and weak. I got a brief glimpse of the man who brought him home. A tall young man dressed in the sort of over-elaborate cowboy outfit you would only see on the stage or in a technicolor musical film. He let Roger out in the driveway and backed out and drove away at once.”
“Could have been a dude ranch,” I said. “Some of these tame cowpunchers spend every dime they make on a fancy outfit like that. The women go crazy over them. That’s what they’re there for.”
She opened her bag and took out a folded paper, “I’ve brought you a check for five hundred dollars, Mr. Marlowe. Will you accept it as a retainer?”
She put the folded check down on the table. I looked at it, but didn’t touch it. “Why?” I asked her. “You say he has been gone three days. It takes three or four to sober a man up and get some food into him. Won’t he come back the way he did before? Or does something make this time different?”
“He can’t stand much more of it, Mr. Marlowe. It will kill him. The intervals are getting shorter. I’m badly worried. I’m more than worried, I’m scared. It’s unnatural. We’ve been married for five years. Roger was always a drinker, but not a psychopathic drinker. Something is all wrong. I want him found. I didn’t sleep more than an hour last night.”
“Any idea why he drinks?”
The violet eyes were looking at me steadily. She seemed a bit fragile this morning, but certainly not helpless. She bit her lower lip and shook her head. “Unless it’s me,” she said at last, almost in a whisper. “Men fall out of love with their wives.”
“I’m only an amateur psychologist, Mrs. Wade. A man in my racket has to be a little of that. I’d say it’s more likely he has fallen out of love with the kind of stuff he writes.”
“It’s quite possible,” she said quietly. “I imagine all writers have spells like that. It’s true that he can’t seem to finish a book he is working on. But it isn’t as if he had to finish it for the rent money. I don’t think that is quite enough reasons”
“What sort of guy is he sober?”
She smiled. “Well, I’m rather prejudiced. I think he is a very nice guy indeed.”
“And how is he drunk?”
“Horrible. Bright and hard and cruel. He thinks he is being witty when he is only being nasty.”
“You left out violent.”
She raised her tawny eyebrows. “just once, Mr. Marlowe. And too much has been made of that. I’d never have told Howard Spencer. Roger told him himself.”
I got up and walked around in the room. It was going to be a hot day. It already was hot. I turned the blinds on one of the windows to keep the sun out. Then I gave it to her straight.
“I looked him up in Who’s Who yesterday afternoon. He’s forty-two years old, yours is his only marriage, no children. His people are New Englanders, he went to Andover and Princeton. He has a war record and a good one. He has written twelve of these fat sex-and-swordplay historical novels and every damn one of them has been on the best-seller lists. He must have made plenty of the folding. If he had fallen out of love with his wife, he sounds like the type who would say so and get a divorce. If he was hanging around with another woman, you would probably know about it, and anyway he wouldn’t have to get drunk just to prove he felt bad. If you’ve been married five years, then he was thirty-seven when that happened. I’d say he knew most of what there is to know about women by that time. I say most, because nobody ever knows all of it.”
I stopped and looked at her and she smiled at me. I wasn’t hurting her feelings. I went on.
“Howard Spencer suggested—on what grounds I have no idea—that what’s the matter with Roger Wade is something that happened a long time ago before you were married and that it has caught up with him now, and is hitting him harder than he can take. Spencer thought of blackmail. Would you know?”
She shook her head slowly. “If you mean would I know if Roger had been paying out a lot of money to someone—no, I wouldn’t know that. I don’t meddle with his bookkeeping affairs. He could give away a lot of money without my knowing it.”
“Okay then. Not knowing Mr. Wade I can’t have much idea how he would react to having the bite put on him. If he has a violent temper, he might break somebody’s neck. If the secret, whatever it is, might damage his social or professional standing or even, to take an extreme case, made the law boys drop around, he might pay off—for a while anyhow. But none of this gets us anywhere. You want him found, you’re worried, you’re more than worried. So how do I go about finding him? I don’t want your money, Mrs. Wade. Not now anyway.”
She reached into her bag again and came up with a couple of pieces of yellow paper. They looked like second sheets, folded, and one of them looked crumpled. She smoothed them out and handed them to me.
“One I found on his desk,” she said. “It was very late, or rather early in the morning. I knew he had been drinking and I knew he hadn’t come upstairs. About two o’clock I went down to see if he was all right—or comparatively all right, passed out on the floor or the couch or something. He was gone. The other paper was in the wastebasket or rather caught on the edge, so that it hadn’t fallen in.”
I looked at the first piece, the one not crumpled. There was a short typewritten paragraph on it, no more. It read:
“I do not care to be in love with myself and there is no longer anyone else for me to be in love with. Signed: Roger (F. Scott Fitzgerald) Wade. P.S. This is Why I never finished The Last Tycoon.”
“That mean anything to you, Mrs. Wade?”
“Just attitudinizing. He has always been a great admirer of Scott Fitzgerald. He says Fitzgerald is the best drunken writer since Coleridge, who took dope. Notice the typing, Mr. Marlowe. Clear, even, and no mistakes.”
“I did. Most people can’t even write their names properly when soused.” I opened the crumpled paper. More typing, also without any errors or unevenness. This one read: “I do not like you, Dr. V. But right now you’re the man for me.”
She spoke while I was still looking at it. “I have no idea who Dr. V. is. We don’t know any doctor with a name beginning that way. I suppose he is the one who has that place where Roger was the last time.”
“When the cowpoke brought him home? Your husband didn’t mention any names at all—even place names?”
She shook her head. “Nothing. I’ve looked in the directory. There are dozens of doctors of one sort or another whose names begin with V. Also, it may not be his surname.”
“Quite likely he’s not even a doctor,” I said. “That brings up the question of ready cash. A legitimate man would take a check, but a quack wouldn’t. It might turn into evidence. And a guy like that wouldn’t be cheap. Room and board at his house would come high. Not to mention the needle.”
She looked puzzled. “The needle?”
“All the shady ones use dope on their clients. Easiest way to handle them. Knock them out for ten or twelve hours and when they come out of it, they’re good boys. But using narcotics without a license can get you room and board with Uncle Sam. And that comes very high indeed.”
“I see. Roger probably would have several hundred dollars. He always keeps that much in his desk. I don’t know why. I suppose it’s just a whim. There’s none there now.”
“Okay,” I said, “I’ll try to find Dr. V. I don’t know just how, but I’ll do my best. Take the check with you, Mrs. Wade.”
“But why? Aren’t you entitled—”
“Later on, thanks. And I’d rather have it from Mr. Wade. He’s not going to like what I do in any case.”
“But if he’s sick and helpless—”
“He could have called his own doctor or asked you to. He didn’t. That means he didn’t want to.”
She put the check back in her bag and stood up. She looked very forlorn. “Our doctor refused to treat him,” she said bitterly.
“There are hundreds of doctors, Mrs. Wade. Any one of them would handle him once. Most of them would stay with him for some time, Medicine is a pretty competitive affair nowadays.”
“I see. Of course you must be right.” She walked slowly to the door and I walked with her. I opened it.
“You could have called a doctor on your own. Why didn’t you?”
She faced me squarely. Her eyes were bright. There might have been a hint of tears in them. A lovely dish and no mistake.
“Because I love my husband, Mr. Marlowe. I’d do anything in the world to help him. But I know what sort of man he is too. If I called a doctor every time he took too many drinks, I wouldn’t have a husband very long. You can’t treat a grown man like a child with a sore throat.”
“You can if he’s a drunk. Often you damn well have to.” She was standing close to me. I smelled her perfume. Or thought I did. It hadn’t been put on with a spray gun. Perhaps it was just the summer day.
“Suppose there is something shameful in his past,” she said, dragging the words out one by one as if each of them had a bitter taste. “Even something criminal. It would make no difference to me. But I’m not going to be the means of its being found out.”
“But it’s all right if Howard Spencer hires me to find out?”
She smiled very slowly. “Do you really think I expected you to give Howard any answer but the one you did—a man who went to jail rather than betray a friend?”
“Thanks for the plug, but that wasn’t why I got jugged.” She nodded after a moment of silence, said goodbye, and started down the redwood steps. I watched her get into her car, a slim gray Jaguar, very new looking. She drove it up to the end of the street and swung around in the turning circle there. Her glove waved at me as she went by down the hill, The little car whisked around the corner and was gone.
There was a red oleander bush against part of the front wall of the house. I heard a flutter in it and a baby mockingbird started cheeping anxiously. I spotted him hanging on to one of the top branches, flapping his wings as if he was having trouble keeping his balance. From the cypress trees at the corner of the wall there was a single harsh warning chirp. The cheeping stopped at once and the little fat bird was silent.
I went inside and shut the door and left him to his flying lesson. Birds have to learn too.
No matter how smart you think you are, you have to have a place to start from: a name, an address, a neighborhood, a background, an atmosphere, a point of reference of some sort. All I had was typing on a crumpled yellow page that said, “I do not like you, Dr. V. But right now you’re the man for me.” With that I could pinpoint the Pacific Ocean, spend a month wading through the lists of half a dozen county medical associations, and end up with the big round O. In our town quacks breed like guinea pigs. There are eight counties within a hundred miles of the City Hall and in every town in every single one of them there are doctors, some genuine medical men, some just mail-order mechanics with a license to cut corns or jump up and down on your spine. Of the real doctors some are prosperous and some poor, some ethical, others not sure they can afford it. A well-heeled patient with incipient D.T.’s could be money from home to plenty of old geezers who have fallen behind in the vitamin and antibiotic trade. But without a clue there was no place to start. I didn’t have the clue and Eileen Wade either didn’t have it or didn’t know she had it. And even if I found somebody that fitted and had the right initial, he might turn out to be a myth, so far as Roger Wade was concerned. The jingle might be something that just happened to run through his head while he was getting himself stewed up. Just as the Scott Fitzgerald allusion might be merely an offbeat way of saying goodbye.
In a situation like that the small man tries to pick the big man’s brains. So I called up a man I knew in The Carne Organization, a flossy agency in Beverly Hills that specialized in protection for the carriage trade—protection meaning almost anything with one foot inside the law. The man’s name was George Peters and he said he could give me ten minutes if I made it fast.
They had half the second floor of one of these candy-pink four-storied buildings where the elevator doors open all by themselves with an electric eye, where the corridors are cool and quiet, and the parking lot has a name on every stall, and the druggist off the front lobby has a sprained wrist from filling bottles of sleeping pills.
The door was French gray outside with raised metal lettering, as clean and sharp as a new knife. THE CARNE ORGANIZATION, INC. GERALD C. CARNE, PRESIDENT. Below and smaller: Entrance. It might have been an investment trust.
Inside was a small and ugly reception room, but the ugliness was deliberate and expensive. The furniture was scarlet and dark green, the walls were a flat Brunswick green, and the pictures hung on them were framed in a green about three shades darker than that. The pictures were guys in red coats on big horses that were just crazy to jump over high fences. There were two frameless mirrors tinted a slight but disgusting shade of rose pink. The magazines on the table of polished primavera were of the latest issue and each one was enclosed in a clear plastic cover. The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him. He probably wore a pimento shirt, mulberry slacks, zebra shoes, and vermilion drawers with his initials on them in a nice Mandarin orange.
The whole thing was just window-dressing. The clients of The Carne Organization were charged a minimum of one hundred fish per diem and they expected service in their homes. They didn’t go sit in no waiting rooms. Carne was an ex-colonel of military police, a big pink and white guy as hard as a board. He had offered me a job once, but I never got desperate enough to take it. There are one hundred and ninety ways of being a bastard and Carne knew all of them.
A rubbed glass partition slid open and a receptionist looked out at me. She had an iron smile and eyes that could count the money in your hip wallet.
“Good morning. May I help you?”
“George Peters, please, My name is Marlowe.”
She put a green leather book on the ledge. “Is he expecting you, Mr. Marlowe? I don’t see your name on the appointment list.”
“It’s a personal matter. I just talked to him on the phone.”
“I see. How do you spell your name, Mr. Marlowe? And your first name, please?”
I told her. She wrote it down on a long narrow form, then slipped the edge under a clock punch.
“Who’s that supposed to impress?” I asked her.
“We are very particular about details here,” she said coldly. “Colonel Carne says you never know when the most trivial fact may turn out to be vital. ”
“Or the other way around,” I said, but she didn’t get it. When she had finished her book work she looked up and said:
“I will announce you to Mr. Peters.”
I told her that made me very happy. A minute later a door in the paneling opened and Peters beckoned me into a battleship-gray corridor lined with little offices that looked like cells. His office had sound-proofing on the ceiling, a gray steel desk with two matching chairs, a gray dictating machine on a gray stand, a telephone and pen set of the same color as the walls and floor. There were a couple of framed photographs on the walls, one of Carne in uniform, with his snowdrop helmet on, and one of Carne as a civilian seated behind a desk and looking inscrutable. Also framed on the wall was a small inspirational legend in steely letters on a gray background. It read: A CARNE OPERATIVE DRESSES, SPEAKS AND BEHAVES LIKE A GENTLEMAN AT ALL TIMES AND IN ALL PLACES. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE.
Peters crossed the room in two long steps and pushed one of the pictures aside. Set into the gray wall behind it was a gray microphone pickup. He pulled it out, unclipped a wire, and pushed it back in place. He moved the picture in front of it again.
“Right now I’d be out of a job,” he said, “except that the son of a bitch is out fixing a drunk-driving rap for some actor. All the mike switches are in his office. He has the whole joint wired. The other morning I suggested to him that he have a microfilm camera installed with infra red light behind a diaphanous mirror in the reception room. He didn’t like the idea too well. Maybe because somebody else had it.”
He sat down in one of the hard gray chairs. I stared at him. He was a gawky long-legged man with a bony face and receding hair. His skin had the worn weathered look of a man who has been out of doors a great deal, in all kinds of weather. He had deep-set eyes and an upper lip almost as long as his nose. When he grinned the bottom half of his face disappeared into two enormous ditches that ran from his nostrils to the ends of his wide mouth.
“How can you take it?” I asked him.
“Sit down, pal. Breathe quietly, keep your voice down, and remember that a Carne operative is to a cheap shamus like you what Toscanini is to an organ grinder’s monkey.” He paused and grinned. “I take it because I don’t give a damn. It’s good money and any time Carne starts acting like he thought I was doing time in that maximum-security prison he ran in England during the war, I’ll pick up my check and blow. What’s your trouble? I hear you had it rough a while back.”
“No complaints about that. I’d like to look at your file on the barred-window boys. I know you have one. Eddie Dowst told me after he quit here.”
He nodded. “Eddie was just a mite too sensitive for The Carne Organization. The file you mention is top secret. In no circumstances must any confidential information be disclosed to outsiders. I’ll get it at once.”
He went out and I stared at the gray wastebasket and the gray linoleum and the gray leather corners of the desk blotter. Peters came back with a gray cardboard file in his hand. He put it down and opened it.
“For Chrissake, haven’t you got anything In this place that isn’t gray?”
“The school colors, my lad. The spirit of the organization. Yeah, I have something that isn’t gray.”
He pulled a desk drawer open and took out a cigar about eight inches long.
“An Upman Thirty,” he said. “Presented to me by an elderly gent from England who has been forty years in California and still says ‘wireless.’ Sober he is just an old swish with a good deal of superficial charm, which is all right with me, because most people don’t have any, superficial or otherwise, including Carne. He has as much charm as a steel peddler’s underpants. Not sober, the client has a strange habit of writing checks on banks which never heard of him. He always makes good and with my fond help he has so far stayed out of the icebox. He gave me this. Should we smoke it together, like a couple of Indian chiefs planning a massacre?”
“I can’t smoke cigars.”
Peters looked at the huge cigar sadly. “Same here,” he said. “I thought of giving it to Carne. But it’s not really a one-man cigar, even when the one man is Carne.” He frowned. “You know something? I’m talking too much about Carne. I must be edgy.” He dropped the cigar back in the drawer and looked at the open file. “Just what do we want from this?”
“I’m looking for a well-heeled alcoholic with expensive tastes and money to gratify them. So far he hasn’t gone in for check-bouncing; I haven’t heard so anyway. He has a streak of violence and his wife is worried about him. She thinks he’s hid out in some sobering-up joint but she can’t be sure. The only clue we have is a jingle mentioning a Dr. V. Just the initial. My man is gone three days now.”
Peters stared at me thoughtfully. “That’s not too long,” he said. “What’s to worry about?”
“If I find him first, I get paid.”
He looked at me some more and shook his head. “I don’t get it, but that’s okay. We’ll see.” He began to turn the pages of the file. “It’s not too easy,” he said. “These people come and go. A single letter ain’t much of a lead.” He pulled a page out of the folder, turned some more pages, pulled another, and finally a third. “Three of them here,” he said. “Dr. Amos Varley, an osteopath. Big place in Altadena. Makes or used to make night calls for fifty bucks. Two registered nurses. Was in a hassle with the State Narcotics people a couple of years back, and turned in his prescription book. This information is not really up to date.”
I wrote down the name and address in Altadena.
“Then we have Dr. Lester Vukanich. Ear, Nose, and Throat, Stockwell Building, on Hollywood Boulevard. This one’s a dilly. Office practice mostly, and seems to sort of specialize in chronic sinus infections. Rather a neat routine. You go in and complain of a sinus headache and he washes out your antrums for you. First of course he has to anesthetize with Novocain. But if he likes your looks it don’t have to be Novocain. Catch?”
“Sure.” I wrote that one down.
“This is good,” Peters went on, reading some more. “Obviously his trouble would be supplies. So our Dr. Vukanich does a lot of fishing Ensenada and flies down in his own plane.”
“I wouldn’t think he’d last long if he brings the dope in himself,” I said.
Peters thought about that and shook his head. “I don’t think I agree. He could last forever if he’s not too greedy. His only real danger is a discontented customer—pardon me, I mean patient—but he probably knows how to handle that. He’s had fifteen years in the same office.”
“Where the hell do you get this stuff?” I asked him.
“We’re an organization, my boy. Not a lone wolf like you. Some we get from the clients themselves, some we get from the inside. Carne’s not afraid to spend money. He’s a good mixer when he wants to be.”
“He’d love this conversation.”
“Screw him. Our last offering today is a man named Verringer. The operative who filed on him is long gone. Seems a lady poet suicide at Verringer’s ranch in Sepulveda Canyon one time. He runs a sort of art colony for writers and such who want seclusion and a congenial atmosphere. Rates moderate. He sounds legit. He calls himself doctor, but doesn’t practice medicine. Could be a Ph.D. Frankly, I don’t know why he’s in here. Unless there was something about this suicide.” He picked up a newspaper clipping pasted to a blank sheet. “Yeah, overdose of morphine, No suggestion Verringer knew anything about it.”
“I like Verringer,” I said. “I like him very much.”
Peters closed the file and slapped it. “You haven’t seen this,” he said. He got up and left the room. When he came back I was standing up to leave. I started to thank him, but he shook it off.
“Look,” he said, “there must be hundreds of places where your man could be.”
I said I knew that.
“And by the way, I heard something about your friend Lennox that might interest you. One of our boys ran across a fellow in New York five or six years ago that answers the description exactly. But the guy’s name was not Lennox, he says. It was Marston. Of course he could be wrong. The guy was drunk all the time, so you couldn’t really be sure.
I said: “I doubt if it was the same man. Why would he change his name? He had a war record that could be checked.”
“I didn’t know that. Our man’s in Seattle right now. You can talk to him when he gets back, if it means anything to you. His name is Ashterfelt.”
“Thanks for everything, George. It was a pretty long ten minutes.”
“I might need your help some day.”
“The Carne Organization,” I said, “never needs anything from anybody.”
He made a rude gesture with his thumb. I left him in his metallic gray cell and departed through the waiting room. It looked fine now. The loud colors made sense after the cell block.