Dr. Amos Varley was a very different proposition. He had a big old house in a big old garden with big old oak trees shading it. It was a massive frame structure with elaborate scrollwork along the overhang of the porches and the white porch railings had turned and fluted uprights like the legs of an old-fashioned grand piano. A few frail elderly people sat in long chairs on the porches with rugs tucked around them.
The entrance doors were double and had stained-glass panels. The hall inside was wide and cool and the parquetry floor was polished and without a single rug. Altadena is a hot place in summer. It is pushed back against the hills and the breeze jumps clear over it. Eighty years ago people knew how to build houses for this climate.
A nurse in crisp white took my card and after a wait Dr. Amos Varley condescended to see me. He was a big baldheaded guy with a cheery smile. His long white coat was spotless, he walked noiselessly on crepe rubber soles.
“What can I do for you, Mr. Marlowe?” He had a rich soft voice to soothe the pain and comfort the anxious heart. Doctor is here, there is nothing to worry about, everything will be fine. He had that bedside manner, thick, honeyed layers of it. He was wonderful—and he was as tough as armor plate.
“Doctor, I am looking for a man named Wade, a well-to-do alcoholic who has disappeared from his home. His past history suggests that he is holed up in some discreet joint that can handle him with skill. My only lead is a reference to a Dr. V. You’re my third Dr. V. and I’m getting discouraged.”
He smiled benignly, “Only your third, Mr. Marlowe? Surely there must be a hundred doctors in and around the Los Angeles area whose names begin with V.”
“Sure, but not many of them would have rooms with barred windows. I noticed a few upstairs here, on the side of the house.”
“Old people,” Dr. Varley said sadly, but it was a rich full sadness. “Lonely old people, depressed and unhappy old people, Mr. Marlowe. Sometimes—” He made an expressive gesture with his hand, a curving motion outwards, a pause, then a gentle falling, like a dead leaf fluttering to the ground. “I don’t treat alcoholics here,” he added precisely. “Now if you will excuse me—”
“Sorry, Doctor. You just happened to be on our list. Probably a mistake. Something about a run-in with the narcotics people a couple of years ago.”
“Is that so?” He looked puzzled, then the light broke. “Ah, yes, an assistant I was unwise enough to employ. For a very short time. He abused my confidence badly. Yes, indeed.”
“Not the way I heard it,” I said. “I guess I heard it wrong.”
“And how did you hear it, Mr. Marlowe?” He was still giving me the full treatment with his smile and his mellow tones.
“That you had to turn in your narcotic prescription book.”
That got to him a little. He didn’t quite scowl but he peeled off a few layers of the charm. His blue eyes had a chilly glint. “And the source of this fantastic information?”
“A large detective agency that has facilities for building files on that sort of thing.”
“A collection of cheap blackmailers, no doubt.”
“Not cheap, Doctor. Their base rate is a hundred dollars a day. It’s run by a former colonel of military police. No nickel grabber, Doctor. He rates way up.”
“I shall give him a piece of my mind,” Dr. Varley said with cool distaste. “His name?” The sun had set in Dr. Varley’s manner. It was getting to be a chilly evening.
“Confidential, Doctor. But don’t give it a thought. All in the day’s work. Name of Wade doesn’t ring a bell at all, huh?”
“I believe you know your way out, Mr. Marlowe.”
The door of a small elevator opened behind him. A nurse pushed a wheel chair out. The chair contained what was left of a broken old man. His eyes were closed, his skin had a bluish tinge. He was well wrapped up. The nurse wheeled him silently across the polished floor and out of a side door. Dr. Varley said softly: “Old people. Sick old people. Lonely old people. Do not come back, Mr. Marlowe. You might annoy me. When annoyed I can be rather unpleasant. I might even say very unpleasant.”
“Okay by me, Doctor. Thanks for the time. Nice little dying-in home you got here.”
“What was that?” He took a step towards me and peeled off the remaining layers of honey. The soft lines of his face set themselves into hard ridges.
“’What’s the matter?” I asked him. “I can see my man wouldn’t be here. I wouldn’t look for anybody here that wasn’t too frail to fight back. Sick old people. Lonely old people. You said it yourself, Doctor. Unwanted old people, but with money and hungry heirs. Most of them probably judged incompetent by the court.”
“I am getting annoyed,” Dr. Varley said.
“Light food, light sedation, firm treatment. Put them out in the sun, put them back in the bed. Bar some of the windows in case there’s a little spunk left. They love you, Doctor, one and all. They die holding your hand and seeing the sadness in your eyes. It’s genuine too.”
“It certainly is,” he said in a low throaty growl. His hands were fists now. I ought to knock it off. But he had begun to nauseate me.
“Sure it is,” I said. “Nobody likes to lose a good paying customer. Especially one you don’t even have to please.”
“Somebody has to do it,” he said, “Somebody has to care for these sad old people, Mr. Marlowe.”
“Somebody has to clean out cesspools. Come to think of it that’s a clean honest job. So long, Dr. Varley. When my job makes me feel dirty I’ll think of you. It will cheer me up no end.”
“You filthy louse,” Dr. Varley said between his wide white teeth. “I ought to break your back. Mine is an honorable branch of an honorable profession.”
“Yeah.” I looked at him wearily. “I know it is. Only it smells of death.”
He didn’t slug me, so I walked away from him and out. I looked back from the wide double doors. He hadn’t moved. He had a job to do, putting back the layers of honey.
I drove back to Hollywood feeling like a short length of chewed string. It was too early to eat, and too hot. I turned on the fan in my office. It didn’t make the air any cooler, just a little more lively. Outside on the boulevard the traffic brawled endlessly. Inside my head thoughts stuck together like flies on flypaper.
Three shots, three misses. All I had been doing was seeing too many doctors.
I called the Wade home. A Mexican sort of accent answered and said that Mrs. Wade was not at home. I asked for Mr. Wade. The voice said Mr. Wade was not home either. I left my name. He seemed to catch it without any trouble. He said he was the houseboy.
I called George Peters at The Carne, Organization. Maybe he knew some more doctors. He wasn’t in. I left a phony name and a right telephone number. An hour crawled by like a sick cockroach. I was a grain of sand on the desert of oblivion. I was a two-gun cowpoke fresh out of bullets. Three shots, three misses. I hate it when they come in threes. You call on Mr. A. Nothing. You call on Mr. B. Nothing. You call on Mr. C. More of the same. A week later you find out it should have been Mr. D. Only you didn’t know he existed and by the time you found out, the client had changed his mind and killed the investigation.
Drs. Vukanich and Varley were scratched. Varley had it too rich to fool with hooch cases. Vukanich was a punk, a high-wire performer who hit the main line in his own office. The help must know. At least some of the patients must know. All it took to finish him was one sorehead and one telephone call. Wade wouldn’t have gone within blocks of him, drunk or sober. He might not be the brightest guy in the world—plenty of successful people are far from mental giants—but he couldn’t be dumb enough to fool with Vukanich.
The only possible was Dr. Verringer. He had the space and the seclusion. He probably had the patience. But Sepulveda Canyon was a long way from Idle Valley. Where was the point of contact, how did they know each other, and if Verringer owned that property and had a buyer for it, he was halfway to being pretty well-heeled. That gave me an idea. I called a man I knew in a title company to find out the status of the property. No answer. The title company had closed for the day.
I closed for the day too, and drove over to La Cienaga to Rudy’s BarBQ gave my name to the master of ceremonies, and waited for the big moment on a bar stool with a whiskey sour in front of me and Marek Weber’s waltz music in my ears. After a while I got in past the velvet rope and ate one of Rudy’s “world-famous” Salisbury steaks, which is hamburger on a slab of burnt wood, ringed with browned-over mashed potato, supported by fried onion rings and one of those mixed up salads which men will eat with complete docility in restaurants, although they would probably start yelling if their wives tried to feed them one at home.
After that I drove home. As I opened the front door the phone started to ring.
“This is Eileen Wade, Mr. Marlowe. You wanted me to call you.”
“Just to find out if anything had happened at your end. I have been seeing doctors all day and have made no friends.”
“No, I’m sorry. He still hasn’t showed up. I can’t help being rather anxious. Then you have nothing to tell me, I suppose.” Her voice was low and dispirited.
“It’s a big crowded county, Mrs. Wade.”
“It will be four whole days tonight.”
“Sure, but that’s not too long.”
“For me it is.” She was silent for a while. “I’ve been doing a lot of thinking, trying to remember something,” she went on. “There must be something, some kind of hint or memory. Roger talks a great deal about all sorts of things.”
“Does the name Verringer mean anything to you, Mrs. Wade?”
“No, I’m afraid not. Should it?”
“You mentioned that Mr. Wade was brought home one time by a tall young man dressed in a cowboy outfit. Would you recognize this tall young man if you saw him again, Mrs. Wade?”
“I suppose I might,” she said hesitantly, “if the conditions were the same. But I only caught the merest glimpse of him. Was his name Verringer?”
“No, Mrs. Wade. Verringer is a heavily built, middle-aged man who runs, or more accurately has run, some kind of guest ranch in Sepulveda Canyon. He has a dressed up fancy boy named Earl working for him. And Verringer calls himself a doctor.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said warmly. “Don’t you feel that you’re on the right track?”
“I could be wetter than a drowned kitten. I’ll call you when I know. I just wanted to make sure Roger hadn’t come home and that you hadn’t recalled anything definite.”
“I’m afraid I haven’t been of much help to you,” she said sadly. “Please call me at any time, no matter how late it is.”
I said I would do that and we hung up. I took a gun and a three-cell flashlight with me this time, The gun was a tough little short-barreled .32 with flat-point cartridges. Dr. Verringer’s boy Earl might have other toys than brass knuckles. If he had, he was plenty goofy enough to play with them.
I hit the highway again and drove as fast as I dared. It was a moonless night, and would be getting dark by the time I reached the entrance to Dr. Verringer’s estate. Darkness was what I needed.
The gates were still locked with the chain and padlock. I drove on past and parked well off the highway. There was still some light under the trees but it wouldn’t last long. I climbed the gate and went up the side of the hill looking for a hiking path. Far back in the valley I thought I heard a quail. A mourning dove exclaimed against the miseries of life. There wasn’t any hiking path or I couldn’t find one, so I went back to the road and walked along the edge of the gravel. The eucalyptus trees gave way to the oaks and I crossed the ridge and far off I could see a few lights. It took me three quarters of an hour to work up behind the swimming pool and the tennis courts to a spot where I could look down on the main building at the end of the road. It was lighted up and I could hear music coming from it. And farther off in the trees another cabin showed light. There were small dark cabins dotted all over the place in the trees. I went along a path now and suddenly a floodlight went on at the back of the main cabin. I stopped dead. The floodlight was not looking for anything. It pointed straight down and made a wide pool of light on the back porch and the ground beyond. Then a door banged open and Earl came out. Then I knew I was in the right place.
Earl was a cowpoke tonight, and it had been a cowpoke who brought Roger Wade home the time before. Earl was spinning a rope. He wore a dark shirt stitched with white and a polka-dot scarf knotted loosely around his neck. He wore a wide leather belt with a load of silver on it and a pair of tooled leather holsters with ivory-handled guns in them. He wore elegant riding pants and boots cross-stitched in white and glistening new. On the back of his head was a white sombrero and what looked like a woven silver cord hanging loosely down his shirt, the ends not fastened.
He stood there alone under the white floodlight, spinning his rope around him, stepping in and out of it, an actor without an audience, a tall, slender, handsome dude wrangler putting on a show all by himself and, loving every minute of it. Two-Gun Earl, the Terror of Cochise County. He belonged on one of those guest ranches that are so all-fired horsy the telephone girl wears riding boots to work.
All at once he heard a sound, or pretended to. The rope dropped, his hands swept the two guns from the holsters, and the crook of his thumbs was over the hammers as they came level. He peered into the darkness. I didn’t dare move. The damn guns could be loaded. But the floodlight had blinded him and he didn’t see anything. He slipped his guns back in the holsters, picked up the rope and gathered it loosely, went back into the house. The light went off, and so did I.
I moved around through the trees and got close to the small lighted cabin on the slope. No sound came from it. I reached a screened window and looked in. The light came from a lamp on a night table beside a bed. A man lay flat on his back in the bed, his body relaxed, his arms in pajama sleeves outside the covers, his eyes wide open and staring at the ceiling. He looked big. His face was partly shadowed, but I could see that he was pale and that he needed a shave and had needed one for just about the right length of time. The spread fingers of his hands lay motionless on the outside of the bed. He looked as if he hadn’t moved for hours.
I heard steps coming along the path at the far side of the cabin. A screen door creaked and then the solid shape of Dr. Verringer showed in the doorway. He was carrying what looked like a large glass of tomato juice. He switched on a standing lamp. His Hawaiian shirt gleamed yellowly. The man in the bed didn’t even look at him.
Dr. Verringer put the glass down on the night table and pulled a chair close and sat down. He reached for one of the wrists and felt a pulse. “How are you feeling now, Mr. Wade?” His voice was kindly and solicitous.
The man on the bed didn’t answer him or look at him. He went on staring at the ceiling.
“Come, come, Mr. Wade. Let us not be moody. Your pulse is only slightly faster than normal. You are weak, but otherwise—”
“Tejjy,” the man on the bed said suddenly, “tell the man that if he knows how I am, the son of a bitch needn’t bother to ask me.” He had a nice clear voice, but the tone was bitter.
“Who is Tejjy?” Dr. Verringer said patiently.
“My mouthpiece. She’s up there in the corner.”
Dr. Verringer looked up. “I see a small spider,” he said. “Stop acting, Mr. Wade. It is not necessary with me.”
“Tegenaria domestica, the common jumping spider, pal. I like spiders. They practically never wear Hawaiian shirts.”
Dr. Verringer moistened his lips. “I have no time for playfulness, Mr. Wade.”
“Nothing playful about Tejjy.” Wade turned his head slowly, as if it weighed very heavy, and stared at Dr. Verringer contemptuously. “Tejjy is dead serious. She creeps up on you. When you’re not looking she makes a quick silent hop. After a while she’s near enough. She makes the last jump. You get sucked dry, Doctor. Very dry, Tejjy doesn’t eat you. She just sucks the juice until there’s nothing left but the skin. If you plan to wear that shirt much longer, Doctor, I’d say it couldn’t happen too soon.”
Dr. Verringer leaned back in the chair. “I need five thousand dollars,” he said calmly. “How soon could that happen?”
“You got six hundred and fifty bucks,” Wade said nastily. “As well as my loose change. How the hell much does it cost in this bordello?”
“Chicken feed,” Dr. Verringer said. “I told you my rates had gone up.”
“You didn’t say they had moved to Mount Wilson.”
“Don’t fence with me, Wade,” Dr. Verringer said curtly. “You are in no position to get funny. Also you have betrayed my confidence.”
“I didn’t know you had any.”
Dr. Verringer tapped slowly on the arms of the chair, “You called me up in the middle of the night,” he said. “You were in a desperate condition. You said you would kill yourself if I didn’t come. I didn’t want to do it and you know why. I have no license to practice medicine in this state. I am trying to get rid of this property without losing it all. I have Earl to look after and he was about due for a bad spell. I told you it would cost you a lot of money. You still insisted and I went. I want five thousand dollars.”
“I was foul with strong drink,” Wade said. “You can’t hold a man to that kind of bargain. You’re damn well paid already.”
“Also,” Dr. Verringer said slowly, “you mentioned my name to your wife. You told her I was coming for you.”
Wade looked surprised. “I didn’t do anything of the sort,” he said. “I didn’t even see her. She was asleep.”
“Some other time then. A private detective has been here asking about you. He couldn’t possibly have known where to come, unless he was told. I stalled him off, but he may come back. You have to go home, Mr. Wade. But first I want my five thousand dollars.”
“You’re not the brightest guy in the world, are you, Doc? If my wife knew where I was, why would she need a detective? She could have come herself—supposing she cared that much. She could have brought Candy, our houseboy. Candy would cut your Blue Boy into thin strips while Blue Boy was making up his mind what picture he was starring in today.”
“You have a nasty tongue, Wade. And a nasty mind.”
“I have a nasty five thousand bucks too, Doc. Try and get it.”
“You will write me a check,” Dr. Verringer said firmly. “Now, at once. Then you will get dressed and Earl will take you home.”
“A check?” Wade was almost laughing. “Sure I’ll give you a check. Fine. How will you cash it?”
Dr. Verringer smiled quietly. “You think you will stop payment, Mr. Wade. But you won’t. I assure you that you won’t.”
“You fat crook!” Wade yelled at him.
Dr. Verringer shook his head. “In some things, yes. Not in all. I am a mixed character like most people. Earl will drive you home.”
“Nix. That lad makes my skin crawl,” Wade said.
Dr. Verringer stood up gently and reached over and patted the shoulder of the man on the bed. “To me Earl is quite harmless, Mr. Wade. I have ways of controlling him.”
“Name one,” a new voice said, and Earl came through the door in his Roy Rogers outfit. Dr. Verringer turned smiling.
“Keep that psycho away from me,” Wade yelled, showing fear for the first time.
Earl put his hands on his ornamented belt. His face was deadpan. A light whistling noise came from between his teeth. He moved slowly into the room.
“You shouldn’t have said that,” Dr. Verringer said quickly, and turned towards Earl. “All right, Earl. I’ll handle Mr. Wade myself. I’ll help him get dressed while you bring the car up here as close to the cabin as possible. Mr. Wade is quite weak.”
“And he’s going to be a lot weaker,” Earl said in a whistling kind of voice. “Out of my way, fatso.”
“Now, Earl—” he reached out and grabbed the handsome young man’s arm—”you don’t want to go back to Camarillo, do you? One word from me and—”
That was as far as he got. Earl jerked his arm loose and his right hand came up with a flash of metal. The armored fist crashed against Dr. Verringer’s jaw. He went down as if shot through the heart. The fall shook the cabin. I started running.
I reached the door and yanked it open. Earl spun around, leaning forward a little, staring at me without recognition. There was a bubbling sound behind his lips. He started for me fast.
I jerked the gun out and showed it to him. It meant nothing. Either his own guns were not loaded or he had forgotten all about them. The brass knuckles were all he needed. He kept coming.
I fired through the open window across the bed. The crash of the gun in the small room seemed much louder than it should have been. Earl stopped dead. His head slewed around and he looked at the hole in the window screen. He looked back at me. Slowly his face came alive and he grinned.
“Wha’ happen?” he asked brightly.
“Get rid of the knucks,” I said, watching his eyes.
He looked surprisingly down at his hand. He slipped the mauler off and threw it casually in the corner.
“Now the gun belt,” I said. “Don’t touch the guns, just the buckle.”
“They’re not loaded,” he said smiling. “Hell, they’re not even guns, just stage money.”
“The belt. Hurry it.”
He looked at the short-barreled .32. “That a real one? Oh sure it is. The screen. Yeah, the screen.”
The man on the bed wasn’t on the bed any more. He was behind Earl. He reached swiftly and pulled one of the bright guns loose. Earl didn’t like this. His face showed it.
“Lay off him,” I said angrily. “Put that back where you got it.”
“He’s right,” Wade said. “They’re cap guns.” He backed away and put the shiny pistol on the table. “Christ, I’m as weak as a broken arm.”
“Take the belt off,” I said for the third time. When you start something with a type like Earl you have to finish it. Keep it simple and don’t change your mind.
He did it at last, quite amiably. Then, holding the belt, he walked over to the table and got his other gun and put it in the holster and put the belt right back on again. I let him do it. It wasn’t until then that he saw Dr. Verringer crumpled on the floor against the wall. He made a sound of concern, went quickly across the room into the bathroom, and came back with a glass jug of water. He dumped the water on Dr. Verringer’s head. Dr. Verringer sputtered and rolled over. Then he groaned. Then he clapped a hand to his jaw. Then he started to get up. Earl helped him.
“Sorry, Doc. I must have just let fly without seeing who it was.”
“It’s all right, nothing broken,” Verringer said, waving him away. “Get the car up here, Earl. And don’t forget the key for the padlock down below.”
“Car up here, sure. Right away. Key for the padlock. I got it. Right away, Doc.”
He went out of the room whistling.
Wade was sitting on the side of the bed, looking shaky. “You the dick he was talking about?” he asked me. “How did you find me?”
“Just asking around from people who know about these things,” I said. “If you want to get home, you might get clothes on.”
Dr. Verringer was leaning against the wall, massaging his jaw. “I’ll help him,” he said thickly. “All I do is help people and all they do is kick me in the teeth.”
“I know just how you feel,” I said.
I went out and left them to work at it.
The car was close by when they came out, but Earl was gone. He had stopped the car, cut the lights, and walked back towards the big cabin without saying anything to me. He was still whistling, groping for some half-remembered tune.
Wade climbed carefully into the back seat and I got in beside him. Dr. Verringer drove. If his jaw hurt badly and his head ached, he didn’t show it or mention it. We went over the ridge and down to the end of the graveled drive. Earl had already been down and unlocked the gate and pulled it open. I told Verringer where my car was and he pulled up close to it. Wade got into it and sat silent, staring at nothing. Verringer got out and went round beside him. He spoke to Wade gently.
“About my five thousand dollars, Mr. Wade. The check you promised me.”
Wade slid down and rested his head on the back of the seat. “I’ll think about it.”
“You promised it. I need it.”
“Duress, the word is, Verringer, a threat of harm. I have protection now.”
“I fed and washed you,” Verringer persisted. “I came in the night. I protected you, I cured you—for the time being, at least.”
“Not five grand worth,” Wade sneered. “You got plenty out of my pockets.”
Verringer wouldn’t let go. “I have a promise of a connection in Cuba, Mr. Wade. You are a rich man. You should help others in their need. I have Earl to look after. To avail myself of this opportunity I need the money. I will pay it back in full. ”
I began to squirm. I wanted to smoke, but I was afraid it would make Wade sick.
“Like hell you’d pay it back,” Wade said wearily. “You won’t live long enough. One of these nights Blue Boy will kill you in your sleep.”
Verringer stepped back. I couldn’t see his expression, but his voice hardened. “There are more unpleasant ways to die,” he said. “I think yours will be one of them.”
He walked back to his car and got into it. He drove in through his gates and was gone. I backed and turned and headed towards the city. After a mile or two Wade muttered: “Why should I give that fat slob five thousand dollars?”
“No reason at all. ”
“Then why do I feel like a bastard for not giving it to him?”
“No reason at all. ”
He turned his head just enough to look at me. “He handled me like a baby,” Wade said. “He hardly left me alone for fear Earl would come in and beat me up. He took every dime I had in my pockets.”
“You probably told him to.”
“You on his side?”
“Skip, it,” I said. “This is just a job to me.”
Silence for a couple of miles more. We went past the fringe of one of the outlying suburbs. Wade spoke again.
“Maybe I’ll give it to him. He’s broke. The property is foreclosed. He won’t get a dime out of it. All on account of that psycho. Why does he do it?”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“I’m a writer,” Wade said. “I’m supposed to understand what makes people tick. I don’t understand one damn thing about anybody.”
I turned over the pass and after a climb the lights of the valley spread out endlessly in front of us. We dipped down to the highway north and west that goes to Ventura. After a while we passed through Encino. I stopped for a light and looked up towards the lights high on the hill where the big houses were. In one of them the Lennoxes had lived. We went on.
“The turn-off is pretty close now,” Wade said. “Or do you know it?”
“I know it.”
“By the way, you haven’t told me your name.”
“Nice name.” His voice changed sharply, saying: “Wait a minute. You the guy that was mixed up with Lennox?”
He was staring at me in the darkness of the car. We passed the last buildings on the main drag of Encino.
“I knew her,” Wade said. “A little. Him I never saw. Queer business, that. The law boys gave you the rough edge, didn’t they?”
I didn’t answer him.
“Maybe you don’t like to talk about it,” he said.
“Could be. Why would it interest you?”
“Hell, I’m a writer. It must be quite a story.”
“Take tonight off. You must be feeling pretty weak.”
“Okay, Marlowe. Okay. You don’t like me. I get it.”
We reached the turn-off and I swung the car into it and towards the low hills and the gap between them that was Idle Valley.
“I don’t either like you or dislike you,” I said. “I don’t know you. Your wife asked me to find you and bring you home. When I deliver you at your house I’m through. Why she picked on me I couldn’t say. Like I said, it’s just a job.”
We turned the flank of a hill and hit a wider, more firmly paved road. He said his house was a mile farther on, on the right side. He told me the number, which I already knew. For a guy in his shape he was a pretty persistent talker.
“How much is she paying you?” he asked,
“We didn’t discuss it.”
“Whatever it is, it’s not enough. I owe you a lot of thanks. You did a great job, chum. I wasn’t worth the trouble.”
“That’s just the way you feel tonight.”
He laughed. “You know something, Marlowe? I could get to like you. You’re a bit of a bastard—like me.”
We reached the house. It was a two-story over-all shingle house with a small pillared portico and a long lawn from the entrance to a thick row of shrubs inside the white fence. There was a light in the portico. I pulled into the driveway and stopped close to the garage.
“Can you make it without help?”
“Of course.” He got out of the car. “Aren’t you coming in for a drink or something?”
“Not tonight, thanks; I’ll wait here until you’re in the house.”
He stood there breathing hard. “Okay,” he said shortly. He turned and walked carefully along a flagged path to the front door. He held on to a white pillar for a moment, then tried the door. It opened, he went in. The door stayed open and light washed across the green lawn. There was a sudden flutter of voices. I started backing from the driveway, following the back-up light. Somebody called out.
I looked and saw Eileen Wade standing in the open doorway. I kept going and she started to run. So I had to stop. I cut the lights and got out of the car. When she came up I said:
“I ought to have called you, but I was afraid to leave him.”
“Of course. Did you have a lot of trouble?”
“Well—a little more than ringing a doorbell. ”
“Please come in the house and tell me all about it.”
“He should be in bed. By tomorrow he’ll be as good as new.”
“Candy will put him to bed,” she said, “He won’t drink tonight, if that’s what you are thinking of.”
“Never occurred to me. Goodnight, Mrs. Wade.”
“You must be tired. Don’t you want a drink yourself?”
I lit a cigarette. It seemed like a couple of weeks since I had tasted tobacco. I drank in the smoke.
“May I have just one puff?”
She came close to me and I handed her the cigarette. She drew on it and coughed. She handed it back laughing. “Strictly an amateur, as you see.”
“So you knew Sylvia Lennox,” I said. “Was that why you wanted to hire me?”
“I knew who?” She sounded puzzled.
“Sylvia Lennox.” I had the cigarette back now. I was eating it pretty fast.
“Oh,” she said, startled. “That girl that was—murdered. No, I didn’t know her personally. I knew who she was. Didn’t I tell you that?”
“Sorry, I’d forgotten just what you did tell me.”
She was still standing there quietly, close to me, slim and tall in a white dress of some sort. The light from the open door touched the fringe of her hair and made it glow softly.
“Why did you ask me if that had anything to do with my wanting to, as you put it, hire you?” When I didn’t answer at once she added, “Did Roger tell you he knew her?”
“He said something about the case when I told him my name. He didn’t connect me with it immediately, then he did. He talked so damn much I don’t remember half of what he said.”
“I see. I must go in, Mr. Marlowe, and see if my husband needs anything. And if you won’t come in—”
“I’ll leave this with you,” I said.
I took hold of her and pulled her towards me and tilted her head back. I kissed her hard on the lips. She didn’t fight me and she didn’t respond. She pulled herself away quietly and stood there looking at me.
“You shouldn’t have done that,” she said. “That was wrong. You’re too nice a person.”
“Sure. Very wrong,” I agreed. “But I’ve been such a nice faithful well-behaved gun dog all day long, I got charmed into one of the silliest ventures I ever tackled, and damned if it didn’t turn out just as though somebody had written a script for it. You know something? I believe you knew where he was all along—or at least knew the name of Dr. Verringer. You just wanted to get me involved with him, tangled up with him so I’d feel a sense of responsibility to look after him. Or am I crazy?”
“Of course you’re crazy,” she said coldly. “That is the most outrageous nonsense I ever listened to.” She started to turn away.
“Wait a minute,” I said. “That kiss won’t leave a scar. You just think it will. And don’t tell me I’m too nice a person. I’d rather be a heel. ”
She looked back. “Why?”
“If I hadn’t been a nice guy to Terry Lennox, he would still be alive.”
“Yes?” she said quietly. “How can you be so sure? Goodnight, Mr. Marlowe. And thank you so very much for almost everything.”
She walked back along the edge of the grass. I watched her into the house. The door closed. The porch light went off. I waved at nothing and drove away.