There was a desert wind blowing that night. It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.
I was getting one in a flossy new place across the street from the apartment house where I lived. It had been open about a week and it wasn’t doing any business. The kid behind the bar was in his early twenties and looked as if he had never had a drink in his life.
There was only one other customer, a souse on a bar stool with his back to the door. He had a pile of dimes stacked neatly in front of him, about two dollars’ worth. He was drinking straight rye in small glasses and he was all by himself in a world of his own.
I sat farther along the bar and got my glass of beer and said: “You sure cut the clouds off them, buddy. I will say that for you.”
“We just opened up,” the kid said. “We got to build up trade. Been in before, haven’t you, mister?”
“Live around here?”
“In the Berglund Apartments across the street,” I said. “And the name is Philip Marlowe.”
“Thanks, mister. Mine’s Lew Petrolle.” He leaned close to me across the polished dark bar. “Know that guy?”
“He ought to go home, kind of. I ought to call a taxi and send him home. He’s doing his next week’s drinking too soon.”
“A night like this,” I said. “Let him alone.”
“It’s not good for him,” the kid said, scowling at me.
“Rye!” the drunk croaked, without looking up. He snapped his fingers so as not to disturb his piles of dimes by banging on the bar.
The kid looked at me and shrugged. “Should I?”
“Whose stomach is it? Not mine.”
The kid poured him another straight rye and I think he doctored it with water down behind the bar because when he came up with it he looked as guilty as if he’d kicked his grandmother. The drunk paid no attention. He lifted coins off his pile with the exact care of a crack surgeon operating on a brain tumor.
The kid came back and put more beer in my glass. Outside the wind howled. Every once in a while it blew the stainedglass door open a few inches. It was a heavy door.
The kid said: “I don’t like drunks in the first place and in the second place I don’t like them getting drunk in here, and in the third place I don’t like them in the first place.”
“Warner Brothers could use that,” I said.
Just then we had another customer. A car squeaked to a stop outside and the swinging door came open. A fellow came in who looked a little in a hurry. He held the door and ranged the place quickly with flat, shiny, dark eyes. He was well set up, dark, good-looking in a narrow-faced, tight-lipped way. His clothes were dark and a white handkerchief peeped coyly from his pocket and he looked cool as well as under a tension of some sort. I guessed it was the hot wind. I felt a bit the same myself only not cool.
He looked at the drunk’s back. The drunk was playing checkers with his empty glasses. The new customer looked at me, then he looked along the line of half-booths at the other side of the place. They were all empty. He came on in-down past where the drunk sat swaying and muttering to himself-and spoke to the bar kid.
“Seen a lady in here, buddy? Tall, pretty, brown hair, in a print bolero jacket over a blue crêpe silk dress. Wearing a widebrimmed straw hat with a velvet band.” He had a tight voice I didn’t like.
“No, sir. Nobody like that’s been in,” the bar kid said.
“Thanks. Straight Scotch. Make it fast, will you?”
The kid gave it to him and the fellow paid and put the drink down in a gulp and started to go out. He took three or four steps and stopped, facing the drunk. The drunk was grinning. He swept a gun from somewhere so fast that it was just a blur coming out. He held it steady and he didn’t look any drunker than I was. The tall dark guy stood quite still and then his head jerked back a little and then he was still again.
A car tore by outside. The drunk’s gun was a .22 target automatic, with a large front sight. It made a couple of hard snaps and a little smoke curled-very little.
“So long, Waldo,” the drunk said.
Then he put the gun on the barman and me.
The dark guy took a week to fall down. He stumbled, caught himself, waved one arm, stumbled again. His hat fell off, and then he hit the floor with his face. After he hit it he might have been poured concrete for all the fuss he made.
The drunk slid down off the stool and scooped his dimes into a pocket and slid towards the door. He turned sideways, holding the gun across his body. I didn’t have a gun. I hadn’t thought I needed one to buy a glass of beer. The kid behind the bar didn’t move or make the slightest sound.
The drunk felt the door lightly with his shoulder, keeping his eyes on us, then pushed through it backwards. When it was wide a hard gust of air slammed in and lifted the hair of the man on the floor. The drunk said: “Poor Waldo. I bet I made his nose bleed.”
The door swung shut. I started to rush it-from long practice in doing the wrong thing. In this case it didn’t matter. The car outside let out a roar and when I got onto the sidewalk it was flicking a red smear of taillight around the nearby corner. I got its license number the way I got my first million.
There were people and cars up and down the block as usual. Nobody acted as if a gun had gone off. The wind was making enough noise to make the hard quick rap of .22 ammunition sound like a slammed door, even if anyone heard it. I went back into the cocktail bar.
The kid hadn’t moved, even yet. He just stood with his hands flat on the bar, leaning over a little and looking down at the dark guy’s back. The dark guy hadn’t moved either. I bent down and felt his neck artery. He wouldn’t move-ever.
The kid’s face had as much expression as a cut of round steak and was about the same color. His eyes were more angry than shocked.
I lit a cigarette and blew smoke at the ceiling and said shortly: “Get on the phone.”
“Maybe he’s not dead,” the kid said.
“When they use a twenty-two that means they don’t make mistakes. Where’s the phone?”
“I don’t have one. I got enough expenses without that. Boy, can I kick eight hundred bucks in the face!”
“You own this place?”
“I did till this happened.”
He pulled his white coat off and his apron and came around the inner end of the bar. “I’m locking this door,” he said, taking keys out.
He went out, swung the door to and jiggled the lock from the outside until the bolt clicked into place. I bent down and rolled Waldo over. At first I couldn’t even see where the shots went in. Then I could. A couple of tiny holes in his coat, over his heart. There was a little blood on his shirt.
The drunk was everything you could ask-as a killer.
The prowl-car boys came in about eight minutes. The kid, Lew Petrolle, was back behind the bar by then. He had his white coat on again and he was counting his money in the register and putting it in his pocket and making notes in a little book.
I sat at the edge of one of the half-booths and smoked cigarettes and watched Waldo’s face get deader and deader. I wondered who the girl in the print coat was, why Waldo had left the engine of his car running outside, why he was in a hurry, whether the drunk had been waiting for him or just happened to be there.
The prowl-car boys came in perspiring. They were the usual large size and one of them had a flower stuck under his cap and his cap on a bit crooked. When he saw the dead man he got rid of the flower and leaned down to feel Waldo’s pulse.
“Seems to be dead,” he said, and rolled him around a little more. “Oh yeah, I see where they went in. Nice clean work. You two see him get it?”
I said yes. The kid behind the bar said nothing. I told them about it, that the killer seemed to have left in Waldo’s car.
The cop yanked Waldo’s wallet out, went through it rapidly and whistled. “Plenty jack and no driver’s license.” He put the wallet away. “O.K., we didn’t touch him, see? Just a chance we could find did he have a car and put it on the air.”
“The hell you didn’t touch him,” Lew Patrolle said.
The cop gave him one of those looks. “O.K., pal,” he said softly. “We touched him.”
The kid picked up a clean highball glass and began to polish it. He polished it all the rest of the time we were there.
In another minute a homicide fast-wagon sirened up and screeched to a stop outside the door and four men came in, two dicks, a photographer and a laboratory man. I didn’t know either of the dicks. You can be in the detecting business a long time and not know all the men on a big city force.
One of them was a short, smooth, dark, quiet, smiling man, with curly black hair and soft intelligent eyes. The other was big, raw-boned, long-jawed, with a veined nose and glassy eyes. He looked like a heavy drinker. He looked tough, but he looked as if he thought he was a little tougher than he was. He shooed me into the last booth against the wall and his partner got the kid up front and the bluecoats went out. The fingerprint man and photographer set about their work.
A medical examiner came, stayed just long enough to get sore because there was no phone for him to call the morgue wagon.
The short dick emptied Waldo’s pockets and then emptied his wallet and dumped everything into a large handkerchief on a booth table. I saw a lot of currency, keys, cigarettes, another handkerchief, very little else.
The big dick pushed me back into the end of the half-booth. “Give,” he said. “I’m Copernik, Detective Lieutenant.”
I put my wallet in front of him. He looked at it, went through it, tossed it back, made a note in a book.
“Philip Marlowe, huh? A shamus. You here on business?”
“Drinking business,” I said. “I live just across the street in the Berglund.”
“Know this kid up front?”
“I’ve been in here once since he opened up.”
“See anything funny about him now?”
“Takes it too light for a young fellow, don’t he? Never mind answering. Just tell the story.”
I told it-three times. Once for him to get the outline, once for him to get the details and once for him to see if I had it too pat. At the end he said: “This dame interests me. And the killer called the guy Waldo, yet didn’t seem to be anyways sure he would be in. I mean, if Waldo wasn’t sure the dame would be here, nobody could be sure Waldo would be here.”
“That’s pretty deep,” I said.
He studied me. I wasn’t smiling. “Sounds like a grudge job, don’t it? Don’t sound planned. No getaway except by accident. A guy don’t leave his car unlocked much in this town. And the killer works in front of two good witnesses. I don’t like that.”
“I don’t like being a witness,” I said. “The pay’s too low.”
He grinned. His teeth had a freckled look. “Was the killer drunk really?”
“With that shooting? No.”
“Me too. Well, it’s a simple job. The guy will have a record and he’s left plenty prints. Even if we don’t have his mug here we’ll make him in hours. He had something on Waldo, but he wasn’t meeting Waldo tonight. Waldo just dropped in to ask about a dame he had a date with and had missed connections on. It’s a hot night and this wind would kill a girl’s face. She’d be apt to drop in somewhere to wait. So the killer feeds Waldo two in the right place and scrams and don’t worry about you boys at all. It’s that simple.”
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s so simple it stinks,” Copernik said.
He took his felt hat off and tousled up his ratty blond hair and leaned his head on his hands. He had a long mean horse face. He got a handkerchief out and mopped it, and the back of his neck and the back of his hands. He got a comb out and combed his hair-he looked worse with it combed-and put his hat back on.
“I was just thinking,” I said.
“This Waldo knew just how the girl was dressed. So he must already have been with her tonight.”
“So, what? Maybe he had to go to the can. And when he came back she’s gone. Maybe she changed her mind about him.”
“That’s right,” I said.
But that wasn’t what I was thinking at all. I was thinking that Waldo had described the girl’s clothes in a way the ordinary man wouldn’t know how to describe them. Printed bolero jacket over blue crêpe silk dress. I didn’t even know what a bolero jacket was, And I might have said blue dress or even blue silk dress, but never blue crêpe silk dress.
After a while two men came with a basket. Lew Petrolle was still polishing his glass and talking to the short dark dick.
We all went down to Headquarters.
Lew Petrolle was all right when they checked on him. His father had a grape ranch near Antioch in Contra Costa County. He had given Lew a thousand dollars to go into business and Lew had opened the cocktail bar, neon sign and all, on eight hundred flat.
They let him go and told him to keep the bar closed until they were sure they didn’t want to do any more printing. He shook hands all around and grinned and said he guessed the killing would be good for business after all, because nobody believed a newspaper account of anything and people would come to him for the story and buy drinks while he was telling it.
“There’s a guy won’t ever do any worrying,” Copernik said, when he was gone. “Over anybody else.”
“Poor Waldo,” I said. “The prints any good?”
“Kind of smudged,” Copernik said sourly. “But we’ll get a classification and teletype it to Washington some time tonight. If it don’t click, you’ll be in for a day on the steel picture racks downstairs.”
I shook hands with him and his partner, whose name was Ybarra, and left. They didn’t know who Waldo was yet either. Nothing in his pockets told.
I got back to my street about 9 P.M. I looked up and down the block before I went into the Berglund. The cocktail bar was farther down on the other side, dark, with a nose or two against the glass, but no real crowd. People had seen the law and the morgue wagon, but they didn’t know what had happened. Except the boys playing pinball games in the drugstore on the corner. They know everything, except how to hold a job.
The wind was still blowing, oven-hot, swirling dust and torn paper up against the walls.
I went into the lobby of the apartment house and rode the automatic elevator up to the fourth floor. I unwound the doors and stepped out and there was a tall girl standing there waiting for the car.
She had brown wavy hair under a wide-brimmed straw hat with a velvet band and loose bow. She had wide blue eyes and eyelashes that didn’t quite reach her chin. She wore a blue dress that might have been crêpe silk, simple in lines but not missing any curves. Over it she wore what might have been a print bolero jacket.
I said: “Is that a bolero jacket?”
She gave me a distant glance and made a motion as if to brush a cobweb out of the way.
“Yes. Would you mind-I’m rather in a hurry. I’d like-”
I didn’t move. I blocked her off from the elevator. We stared at each other and she flushed very slowly.
“Better not go out on the street in those clothes,” I said.
“Why, how dare you-”
The elevator clanked and started down again. I didn’t know what she was going to say. Her voice lacked the edgy twang of a beer-parlor frill. It had a soft light sound, like spring rain.
“It’s not a make,” I said. “You’re in trouble. If they come to this floor in the elevator, you have just that much time to get off the hall. First take off the hat and jacket-and snap it up!”
She didn’t move. Her face seemed to whiten a little behind the not-too-heavy make-up.
“Cops,” I said, “are looking for you. In those clothes. Give me the chance and I’ll tell you why.”
She turned her head swiftly and looked back along the corridor. With her looks I didn’t blame her for trying one more bluff.
“You’re impertinent, whoever you are. I’m Mrs. Leroy in Apartment Thirty-one. I can assure-”
“That you’re on the wrong floor,” I said. “This is the fourth.” The elevator had stopped down below. The sound of doors being wrenched open came up the shaft.
“Off!” I rapped. “Now!”
She switched her hat off and slipped out of the bolero jacket, fast. I grabbed them and wadded them into a mess under my arm. I took her elbow and turned her and we were going down the hall.
“I live in Forty-two. The front one across from yours, just a floor up. Take your choice. Once again-I’m not on the make.”
She smoothed her hair with that quick gesture, like a bird preening itself. Ten thousand years of practice behind it.
“Mine,” she said, and tucked her bag under her arm and strode down the hall fast. The elevator stopped at the floor below. She stopped when it stopped. She turned and faced me.
“The stairs are back by the elevator shaft,” I said gently.
“I don’t have an apartment,” she said.
“I didn’t think you had.”
“Are they searching for me?”
“Yes, but they won’t start gouging the block stone by stone before tomorrow. And then only if they don’t make Waldo.”
She stared at me. “Waldo?”
“Oh, you don’t know Waldo,” I said.
She shook her head slowly. The elevator started down in the shaft again. Panic flicked in her blue eyes like a ripple on water.
“No,” she said breathlessly, “but take me out of this hall.”
We were almost at my door. I jammed the key in and shook the lock around and heaved the door inward. I reached in far enough to switch lights on. She went in past me like a wave. Sandalwood floated on the air, very faint.
I shut the door, threw my hat into a chair and watched her stroll over to a card table on which I had a chess problem set out that I couldn’t solve. Once inside, with the door locked, her panic had left her.
“So you’re a chess player,” she said, in that guarded tone, as if she had come to look at my etchings. I wished she had.
We both stood still then and listened to the distant clang of elevator doors and then steps-going the other way.
I grinned, but with strain, not pleasure, went out into the kitchenette and started to fumble with a couple of glasses and then realized I still had her hat and bolero jacket under my arm. I went into the dressing room behind the wall bed and stuffed them into a drawer, went back out to the kitchenette, dug out some extra-fine Scotch and made a couple of highballs.
When I went in with the drinks she had a gun in her hand. It was a small automatic with a pearl grip. It jumped up at me and her eyes were full of horror.
I stopped, with a glass in each hand, and said: “Maybe this hot wind has got you crazy too. I’m a private detective. I’ll prove it if you let me.”
She nodded slightly and her face was white. I went over slowly and put a glass down beside her, and went back and set mine down and got a card out that had no bent corners. She was sitting down, smoothing one blue knee with her left hand, and holding the gun on the other. I put the card down beside her drink and sat with mine.
“Never let a guy get that close to you,” I said. “Not if you mean business. And your safety catch is on.”
She flashed her eyes down, shivered, and put the gun back in her bag. She drank half the drink without stopping, put the glass down hard and picked the card up.
“I don’t give many people that liquor,” I said. “I can’t afford to.”
Her lips curled. “I supposed you would want money.”
She didn’t say anything. Her hand was close to her bag again.
“Don’t forget the safety catch,” I said. Her hand stopped. I went on: “This fellow I called Waldo is quite tall, say fiveeleven, slim, dark, brown eyes with a lot of glitter. Nose and mouth too thin. Dark suit, white handkerchief showing, and in a hurry to find you. Am I getting anywhere?”
She took her glass again. “So that’s Waldo,” she said. “Well, what about him?” Her voice seemed to have a slight liquor edge now.
“Well, a funny thing. There’s a cocktail bar across the street . . . Say, where have you been all evening?”
“Sitting in my car,” she said coldly, “most of the time.”
“Didn’t you see a fuss across the street up the block?”
Her eyes tried to say no and missed. Her lips said: “I knew there was some kind of disturbance. I saw policemen and red searchlights. I supposed someone had been hurt.”
“Someone was. And this Waldo was looking for you before that. In the cocktail bar. He described you and your clothes.”
Her eyes were set like rivets now and had the same amount of expression. Her mouth began to tremble and kept on trembling.
“I was in there,” I said, “talking to the kid that runs it. There was nobody in there but a drunk on a stool and the kid and myself. The drunk wasn’t paying any attention to anything. Then Waldo came in and asked about you and we said no, we hadn’t seen you and he started to leave.”
I sipped my drink. I like an effect as well as the next fellow. Her eyes ate me.
“Just started to leave. Then this drunk that wasn’t paying any attention to anyone called him Waldo and took a gun out. He shot him twice-I snapped my fingers twice-‘ ‘like that. Dead.”
She fooled me. She laughed in my face. “So my husband hired you to spy on me,” she said. “I might have known the whole thing was an act. You and your Waldo.”
I gawked at her.
“I never thought of him as jealous,” she snapped. “Not of a man who had been our chauffeur anyhow. A little about Stan, of course-that’s natural. But Joseph Coates-”
I made motions in the air. “Lady, one of us has this book open at the wrong page,” I grunted. “I don’t know anybody named Stan or Joseph Coates. So help me, I didn’t even know you had a chauffeur. People around here don’t run to them. As for husbands-yeah, we do have a husband once in a while. Not often enough.”
She shook her head slowly and her hand stayed near her bag and her blue eyes had glitters in them.
“Not good enough, Mr. Marlowe. No, not nearly good enough. I know you private detectives. You’re all rotten. You tricked me into your apartment, if it is your apartment. More likely it’s the apartment of some horrible man who will swear anything for a few dollars. Now you’re trying to scare me. So you can blackmail me-as well as get money from my husband. All right,” she said breathlessly, “how much do I have to pay?”
I put my empty glass aside and leaned back. “Pardon me if I light a cigarette,” I said. “My nerves are frayed.”
I lit it while she watched me without enough fear for any real guilt to be under it. “So Joseph Coates is his name,” I said. “The guy that killed him in the cocktail bar called him Waldo.”
She smiled a bit disgustedly, but almost tolerantly. “Don’t stall. How much?”
“Why were you trying to meet this Joseph Coates?”
“I was going to buy something he stole from me, of course. Something that’s valuable in the ordinary way too. Almost fifteen thousand dollars. The man I loved gave it to me. He’s dead. There! He’s dead! He died in a burning plane. Now, go back and tell my husband that, you slimy little rat!”
“I’m not little and I’m not a rat,” I said.
“You’re still slimy. And don’t bother about telling my husband. I’ll tell him myself. He probably knows anyway.”
I grinned. “That’s smart. Just what was I supposed to find out?”
She grabbed her glass and finished what was left of her drink. “So he thinks I’m meeting Joseph. Well, perhaps I was. But not to make love. Not with a chauffeur. Not with a bum I picked off the front step and gave a job to. I don’t have to dig down that far, if I want to play around.”
“Lady,” I said, “you don’t indeed.”
“Now, I’m going,” she said. “You just try and stop me.” She snatched the pearl-handled gun out of her bag. I didn’t move.
“Why, you nasty little string of nothing,” she stormed. “How do I know you’re a private detective at all? You might be a crook. This card you gave me doesn’t mean anything. Anybody can have cards printed.”
“Sure,” I said. “And I suppose I’m smart enough to live here two years because you were going to move in today so I could blackmail you for not meeting a man named Joseph Coates who was bumped off across the street under the name of Waldo. Have you got the money to buy this something that cost fifteen grand?”
“Oh! You think you’ll hold me up, I suppose!”
“Oh!” I mimicked her, “I’m a stick-up artist now, am I? Lady, will you please either put that gun away or take the safety catch off? It hurts my professional feelings to see a nice gun made a monkey of that way.”
“You’re a full portion of what I don’t like,” she said. “Get out of my way.”
I didn’t move. She didn’t move. We were both sitting down-and not even close to each other.
“Let me in on one secret before you go,” I pleaded. “What in hell did you take the apartment down on the floor below for? Just to meet a guy down on the street?”
“Stop being silly,” she snapped. “I didn’t. I lied. It’s his apartment.”
She nodded sharply.
“Does my description of Waldo sound like Joseph Coates?”
She nodded sharply again.
“All right. That’s one fact learned at last. Don’t you realize Waldo described your clothes before he was shot-when he was looking for you-that the description was passed on to the police-that the police don’t know who Waldo is-and are looking for somebody in those clothes to help tell them? Don’t you get that much?”
The gun suddenly started to shake in her hand. She looked down at it, sort of vacantly, and slowly put it back in her bag.
“I’m a fool,” she whispered, “to be even talking to you.” She stared at me for a long time, then pulled in a deep breath. “He told me where he was staying. He didn’t seem afraid. I guess blackmailers are like that. He was to meet me on the street, but I was late. It was full of police when I got here. So I went back and sat in my car for a while. Then I came up to Joseph’s apartment and knocked. Then I went back to my car and waited again. I came up here three times in all. The last time I walked up a flight to take the elevator. I had already been seen twice on the third floor. I met you. That’s all.”
“You said something about a husband,” I grunted. “Where is he?”
“He’s at a meeting.”
“Oh, a meeting,” I said, nastily.
“My husband’s a very important man. He has lots of meetings. He’s a hydroelectric engineer. He’s been all over the world. I’d have you know-”
“Skip it,” I said. “I’ll take him to lunch some day and have him tell me himself. Whatever Joseph had on you is dead stock now. Like Joseph.”
“He’s really dead?” she whispered. “Really?”
“He’s dead,” I said. “Dead, dead, dead. Lady, he’s dead.”
She believed it at last. I hadn’t thought she ever would somehow. In the silence, the elevator stopped at my floor.
I heard steps coming down the hall. We all have hunches. I put my finger to my lips. She didn’t move now. Her face had a frozen look. Her big blue eyes were as black as the shadows below them. The hot wind boomed against the shut windows. Windows have to be shut when a Santa Ana blows, heat or no heat.
The steps that came down the hall were the casual ordinary steps of one man. But they stopped outside my door, and somebody knocked.
I pointed to the dressing room behind the wall bed. She stood up without a sound, her bag clenched against her side. I pointed again, to her glass. She lifted it swiftly, slid across the carpet, through the door, drew the door quietly shut after her.
I didn’t know just what I was going to all this trouble for.
The knocking sounded again. The backs of my hands were wet. I creaked my chair and stood up and made a loud yawning sound. Then I went over and opened the door-without a gun. That was a mistake.
I didn’t know him at first. Perhaps for the opposite reason Waldo hadn’t seemed to know him. He’d had a hat on all the time over at the cocktail bar and he didn’t have one on now. His hair ended completely and exactly where his hat would start. Above that line was hard white sweatless skin almost as glaring as scar tissue. He wasn’t just twenty years older. He was a different man.
But I knew the gun he was holding, the .22 target automatic with the big front sight. And I knew his eyes. Bright, brittle, shallow eyes like the eyes of a lizard.
He was alone. He put the gun against my face very lightly and said between his teeth: “Yeah, me. Let’s go on in.”
I backed in just far enough and stopped. Just the way he would want me to, so he could shut the door without moving much. I knew from his eyes that he would want me to do just that.
I wasn’t scared. I was paralyzed.
When he had the door shut he backed me some more, slowly, until there was something against the back of my legs. His eyes looked into mine.
“That’s a card table,” he said. “Some goon here plays chess. You?”
I swallowed. “I don’t exactly play it. I just fool around.”
“That means two,” he said with a kind of hoarse softness, as if some cop had hit him across the windpipe with a blackjack once, in a third-degree session.
“It’s a problem,” I said. “Not a game. Look at the pieces.”
“I wouldn’t know.”
“Well, I’m alone,” I said, and my voice shook just enough.
“It don’t make any difference,” he said. “I’m washed up anyway. Some nose puts the bulls on me tomorrow, next week, what the hell? I just didn’t like your map, pal. And that smugfaced pansy in the bar coat that played left tackle for Fordham or something. To hell with guys like you guys.”
I didn’t speak or move. The big front sight raked my cheek lightly almost caressingly. The man smiled.
“It’s kind of good business too,” he said. “Just in case. An old con like me don’t make good prints, all I got against me is two witnesses. The hell with it.”
“What did Waldo do to you?” I tried to make it sound as if I wanted to know, instead of just not wanting to shake too hard.
“Stooled on a bank job in Michigan and got me four years. Got himself a nolle prosse. Four years in Michigan ain’t no summer cruise. They make you be good in them lifer states.”
“How’d you know he’d come in there?” I croaked.
“I didn’t. Oh yeah, I was lookin’ for him. I was wanting to see him all right. I got a flash of him on the street night before last but I lost him. Up to then I wasn’t lookin’ for him. Then I was. A cute guy, Waldo. How is he?”
“Dead,” I said.
“I’m still good,” he chuckled. “Drunk or sober. Well, that don’t make no doughnuts for me now. They make me downtown yet?”
I didn’t answer him quick enough. He jabbed the gun into my throat and I choked and almost grabbed for it by instinct.
“Naw,” he cautioned me softly. “Naw. You ain’t that dumb.”
I put my hands back, down at my sides, open, the palms towards him. He would want them that way. He hadn’t touched me, except with the gun. He didn’t seem to care whether I might have one too. He wouldn’t-if he just meant the one thing.
He didn’t seem to care very much about anything, coming back on that block. Perhaps the hot wind did something to him. It was booming against my shut windows like the surf under a pier.
“They got prints,” I said. “I don’t know how good.”
“They’ll be good enough-but not for teletype work. Take ’em airmail time to Washington and back to check ’em right. Tell me why I came here, pal.”
“You heard the kid and me talking in the bar. I told him my name, where I lived.”
“That’s how, pal. I said why.” He smiled at me. It was a lousy smile to be the last one you might see.
“Skip it,” I said. “The hangman won’t ask you to guess why he’s there.”
“Say, you’re tough at that. After you, I visit that kid. I tailed him home from Headquarters, but I figure you’re the guy to put the bee on first. I tail him home from the city hall, in the rent car Waldo had. From Headquarters, pal. Them funny dicks. You can sit in their laps and they don’t know you. Start runnin’ for a streetcar and they open up with machine guns and bump two pedestrians, a hacker asleep in his cab, and an old scrubwoman on the second floor workin’ a mop. And they miss the guy they’re after. Them funny lousy dicks.”
He twisted the gun muzzle in my neck. His eyes looked madder than before.
“I got time,” he said. “Waldo’s rent car don’t get a report right away. And they don’t make Waldo very soon. I know Waldo. Smart he was. A smooth boy, Waldo.”
“I’m going to vomit,” I said, “if you don’t take that gun out of my throat.”
He smiled and moved the gun down to my heart. “This about right? Say when.”
I must have spoken louder than I meant to. The door of the dressing-room by the wall bed showed a crack of darkness. Then an inch. Then four inches. I saw eyes, but didn’t look at them. I stared hard into the bald-headed man’s eyes. Very hard. I didn’t want him to take his eyes off mine.
“Scared?” he asked softly.
I leaned against his gun and began to shake. I thought he would enjoy seeing me shake. The girl came out through the door. She had her gun in her hand again. I was sorry as hell for her. She’d try to make the door-or scream. Either way it would be curtains-for both of us.
“Well, don’t take all night about it,” I bleated. My voice sounded far away, like a voice on a radio on the other side of a street.
“I like this, pal,” he smiled. “I’m like that.”
The girl floated in the air, somewhere behind him. Nothing was ever more soundless than the way she moved. It wouldn’t do any good though. He wouldn’t fool around with her at all. I had known him all my life but I had been looking into his eyes for only five minutes.
“Suppose I yell,” I said.
“Yeah, suppose you yell. Go ahead and yell,” he said with his killer’s smile.
She didn’t go near the door. She was right behind him.
“Well-here’s where I yell,” I said.
As if that was the cue, she jabbed the little gun hard into his short ribs, without a single sound.
He had to react. It was like a knee reflex. His mouth snapped open and both his arms jumped out from his sides and he arched his back just a little. The gun was pointing at my right eye.
I sank and kneed him with all my strength, in the groin.
His chin came down and I hit it. I hit it as if I was driving the last spike on the first transcontinental railroad. I can still feel it when I flex my knuckles.
His gun raked the side of my face but it didn’t go off. He was already limp. He writhed down gasping, his left side against the floor. I kicked his right shoulder-hard. The gun jumped away from him, skidded on the carpet, under a chair. I heard the chessmen tinkling on the floor behind me somewhere.
The girl stood over him, looking down. Then her wide dark horrified eyes came up and fastened on mine.
“That buys me,” I said. “Anything I have is yours-now and forever.”
She didn’t hear me. Her eyes were strained open so hard that the whites showed under the vivid blue iris. She backed quickly to the door with her little gun up, felt behind her for the knob and twisted it. She pulled the door open and slipped out.
The door shut.
She was bareheaded and without her bolero jacket.
She had only the gun, and the safety catch on that was still set so that she couldn’t fire it.
It was silent in the room then, in spite of the wind. Then I heard him gasping on the floor. His face had a greenish pallor. I moved behind him and pawed him for more guns, and didn’t find any. I got a pair of store cuffs out of my desk and pulled his arms in front of him and snapped them on his wrists. They would hold if he didn’t shake them too hard.
His eyes measured me for a coffin, in spite of their suffering. He lay in the middle of the floor, still on his left side, a twisted, wizened, bald-headed little guy with drawn-back lips and teeth spotted with cheap silver fillings. His mouth looked like a black pit and his breath came in little waves, choked, stopped, came on again, limping.
I went into the dressing room and opened the drawer of the chest. Her hat and jacket lay there on my shirts. I put them underneath, at the back, and smoothed the shirts over them. Then I went out to the kitchenette and poured a stiff jolt of whiskey and put it down and stood a moment listening to the hot wind howl against the window glass. A garage door banged, and a power-line wire with too much play between the insulators thumped the side of the building with a sound like somebody beating a carpet.
The drink worked on me. I went back into the living room and opened a window. The guy on the floor hadn’t smelled her sandalwood, but somebody else might.
I shut the window again, wiped the palms of my hands and used the phone to dial Headquarters.
Copernik was still there. His smart-aleck voice said: “Yeah? Marlowe? Don’t tell me. I bet you got an idea.”
“Make that killer yet?”
“We’re not saying, Marlowe. Sorry as all hell and so on. You know how it is.”
“O.K., I don’t care who he is. Just come and get him off the floor of my apartment.”
“Holy Christ!” Then his voice hushed and went down low. “Wait a minute, now. Wait a minute.” A long way off I seemed to hear a door shut. Then his voice again. “Shoot,” he said softly.
“Handcuffed,” I said. “All yours. I had to knee him, but he’ll be all right. He came here to eliminate a witness.”
Another pause. The voice was full of honey. “Now listen, boy, who else is in this with you?”
“Who else? Nobody. Just me.”
“Keep it that way, boy. All quiet. O.K.?”
“Think I want all the bums in the neighborhood in here sightseeing?”
“Take it easy, boy. Easy. Just sit tight and sit still. I’m prac tically there. No touch nothing. Get me?”
“Yeah.” I gave him the address and apartment number again to save him time.
I could see his big bony face glisten. I got the .22 target gun from under the chair and sat holding it until feet hit the hallway outside my door and knuckles did a quiet tattoo on the door panel.
Copernik was alone. He filled the doorway quickly, pushed me back into the room with a tight grin and shut the door. He stood with his back to it, his hand under the left side of his coat. A big hard bony man with flat cruel eyes.
He lowered them slowly and looked at the man on the floor. The man’s neck was twitching a little. His eyes moved in short stabs-sick eyes.
“Sure it’s the guy?” Copernik’s voice was hoarse.
“Positive. Where’s Ybarra?”
“Oh, he was busy.” He didn’t look at me when he said that. “Those your cuffs?”
I tossed it to him. He went down swiftly on one knee beside the killer and took my cuffs off his wrists, tossed them to one side. He got his own off his hip, twisted the bald man’s hands behind him and snapped the cuffs on.
“All right, you bastard,” the killer said tonelessly.
Copernik grinned and balled his fist and hit the handcuffed man in the mouth a terrific blow. His head snapped back almost enough to break his neck. Blood dribbled from the lower corner of his mouth.
“Get a towel,” Copernik ordered.
I got a hand towel and gave it to him. He stuffed it between the handcuffed man’s teeth, viciously, stood up and rubbed his bony fingers through his ratty blond hair.
“All right. Tell it.”
I told it-leaving the girl out completely. It sounded a little funny. Copernik watched me, said nothing. He rubbed the side of his veined nose. Then he got his comb out and worked on his hair just as he had done earlier in the evening, in the cocktail bar.
I went over and gave him the gun. He looked at it casually, dropped it into his side pocket. His eyes had something in them and his face moved in a hard bright grin.
I bent down and began picking up my chessmen and dropping them into the box. I put the box on the mantel, straightened out a leg of the card table, played around for a while. All the time Copernik watched me. I wanted him to think something out.
At last he came out with it. “This guy uses a twenty-two,” he said. “He uses it because he’s good enough to get by with that much gun. That means he’s good. He knocks at your door, pokes that gat in your belly, walks you back into the room, says he’s here to close your mouth for keeps-and yet you take him. You not having any gun. You take him alone. You’re kind of good yourself, pal.”
“Listen,” I said, and looked at the floor. I picked up another chessman and twisted it between my fingers. “I was doing a chess problem,” I said “Trying to forget things.”
“You got something on your mind, pal,” Copernik said softly. “You wouldn’t try to fool an old copper, would you, boy?”
“It’s a swell pinch and I’m giving it to you,” I said. “What the hell more do you want?”
The man on the floor made a vague sound behind the towel. His bald head glistened with sweat.
“What’s the matter, pal? You been up to something?” Copernik almost whispered.
I looked at him quickly, looked away again. “All right,” I said. “You know damn well I couldn’t take him alone. He had the gun on me and he shoots where he looks.”
Copernik closed one eye and squinted at me amiably with the other. “Go on, pal. I kind of thought of that too.”
I shuffled around a little more, to make it look good. I said, slowly: “There was a kid here who pulled a job over in Boyle Heights, a heist job. It didn’t take. A two-bit service station stick-up. I know his family. He’s not really bad. He was here trying to beg train money off me. When the knock came he sneaked in-there.”
I pointed at the wall bed and the door beside. Copernik’s head swiveled slowly, swiveled back. His eyes winked again. “And this kid had a gun,” he said.
I nodded. “And he got behind him. That takes guts, Copernik. You’ve got to give the kid a break. You’ve got to let him stay out of it.”
“Tag out for this kid?” Copernik asked softly.
“Not yet, he says. He’s scared there will be.”
Copernik smiled. “I’m a homicide man,” he said. “I wouldn’t know-or care.”
I pointed down at the gagged and handcuffed man on the floor. “You took him, didn’t you?” I said gently.
Copernik kept on smiling. A big whitish tongue came out and massaged his thick lower lip. “How’d I do it?” he whispered.
“Get the slugs out of Waldo?”
“Sure. Long twenty-two’s. One smashed a rib, one good.”
“You’re a careful guy. You don’t miss any angles. You know anything about me? You dropped in on me to see what guns I had.”
Copernik got up and went down on one knee again beside the killer. “Can you hear me, guy?” he asked with his face close to the face of the man on the floor.
The man made some vague sound. Copernik stood up and yawned. “Who the hell cares what he says? Go on, pal.”
“You wouldn’t expect to find I had anything, but you wanted to look around my place. And while you were mousing around in there”-! pointed to the dressing room-“and me not saying anything, being a little sore, maybe, a knock came on the door. So he came in. So after a while you sneaked out and took him.”
“Ah,” Copernik grinned widely, with as many teeth as a horse. “You’re on, pal. I socked him and I kneed him and I took him. You didn’t have no gun and the guy swiveled on me pretty sharp and Ileft-hooked him down the backstairs. O.K.?”
“O.K.,” I said.
“You’ll tell it like that downtown?”
“Yeah,” I said.
“I’ll protect you, pal. Treat me right and I’ll always play ball. Forget about that kid. Let me know if he needs a break.”
He came over and held out his hand. I shook it. It was as clammy as a dead fish. Clammy hands and the people who own them make me sick.
“There’s just one thing,” I said. “This partner of yours- Ybarra. Won’t he be a bit sore you didn’t bring him along on this?”
Copernik tousled his hair and wiped his hatband with a large yellowish silk handkerchief.
“That guinea?” he sneered. “To hell with him!” He came close to me and breathed in my face. “No mistakes, pal-about that story of ours.”
His breath was bad. It would be.
There were just five of us in the chief-of-detective’s office when Copernik laid it before them. A stenographer, the chief, Copernik, myself, Ybarra. Ybarra sat on a chair tilted against the side wall. His hat was down over his eyes but their softness loomed underneath, and the small still smile hung at the corners of the clean-cut Latin lips. He didn’t look directly at Copernik. Copernik didn’t look at him at all.
Outside in the corridor there had been photos of Copernik shaking hands with me, Copernik with his hat on straight and his gun in his hand and a stern, purposeful look on his face.
They said they knew who Waldo was, but they wouldn’t tell me. I didn’t believe they knew, because the chief-of-detectives had a morgue photo of Waldo on his desk. A beautiful job, his hair combed, his tie straight, the light hitting his eyes just right to make them glisten. Nobody would have known it was a photo of a dead man with two bullet holes in his heart. He looked like a dance-hall sheik making up his mind whether to take the blonde or the redhead.
It was about midnight when I got home. The apartment door was locked and while I was fumbling for my keys a low voice spoke to me out of the darkness.
All it said was: “Please!” but I knew it. I turned and looked at a dark Cadillac coupe parked just off the loading zone. It had no lights. Light from the street touched the brightness of a woman’s eyes.
I went over there. “You’re a darn fool,” I said.
She said: “Get in.”
I climbed in and she started the car and drove it a block and a half along Franklin and turned down Kingsley Drive. The hot wind still burned and blustered. A radio lilted from an open, sheltered side window of an apartment house. There were a lot of parked cars but she found a vacant space behind a small brand-new Packard cabriolet that had the dealer’s sticker on the windshield glass. After she’d jockeyed us up to the curb she leaned back in the corner with her gloved hands on the wheel.
She was all in black now, or dark brown, with a small foolish hat. I smelled the sandalwood in her perfume.
“I wasn’t very nice to you, was I?” she said.
“All you did was save my life.”
“I called the law and fed a few lies to a cop I don’t like and gave him all the credit for the pinch and that was that. That guy you took away from me was the man who killed Waldo.”
“You mean-you didn’t tell them about me?”
“Lady,” I said again, “all you did was save my life. What else do you want done? I’m ready, willing, and I’ll try to be able.”
She didn’t say anything, or move.
“Nobody learned who you are from me,” I said. “Incidentally, I don’t know myself.”
“I’m Mrs. Frank C. Barsaly, Two-twelve Fremont Place, Olympia Two-four-five-nine-six. Is that what you wanted?”
“Thanks,” I mumbled, and rolled a dry unlit cigarette around in my fingers. “Why did you come back?” Then I snapped the fingers of my left hand. “The hat and jacket,” I said. “I’ll go up and get them.”
“It’s more than that,” she said. “I want my pearls.” I might have jumped a little. It seemed as if there had been enough without pearls.
A car tore by down the street going twice as fast as it should. A thin bitter cloud of dust lifted in the streetlights and whirled and vanished. The girl ran the window up quickly against it.
“All right,” I said. “Tell me about the pearls. We have had a murder and a mystery woman and a mad killer and a heroic rescue and a police detective framed into making a false report. Now we will have pearls. All right-feed it to me.”
“I was to buy them for five thousand dollars. From the man you call Waldo and I call Joseph Coates. He should have had them.”
“No pearls,” I said. “I saw what came out of his pockets. A lot of money, but no pearls.”
“Could they be hidden in his apartment?”
“Yes,” I said. “So far as I know he could have had them hidden anywhere in California except in his pockets. How’s Mr. Barsaly this hot night?”
“He’s still downtown at his meeting. Otherwise I couldn’t have come.”
“Well, you could have brought him,” I said. “He could have sat in the rumble seat.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Frank weighs two hundred pounds and he’s pretty solid. I don’t think he would like to sit in the rumble seat, Mr. Marlowe.”
“What the hell are we talking about anyway?”
She didn’t answer. Her gloved hands tapped lightly, provokingly on the rim of the slender wheel. I threw the unlit cigarette out the window, turned a little and took hold of her.
When I let go of her, she pulled as far away from me as she could against the side of the car and rubbed the back of her glove against her mouth. I sat quite still.
We didn’t speak for some time. Then she said very slowly: “I meant you to do that. But I wasn’t always that way. It’s only been since Stan Phillips was killed in his plane. If it hadn’t been for that, I’d be Mrs. Phillips now. Stan gave me the pearls. They cost fifteen thousand dollars, he said once. White pearls, forty-one of them, the largest about a third of an inch across. I don’t know how many grains. I never had them appraised or showed them to a jeweler, so I don’t know those things. But I loved them on Stan’s account. I loved Stan. The way you do just the one time. Can you understand?”
“What’s your first name?” I asked.
“Go on talking, Lola.” I got another dry cigarette out of my pocket and fumbled it between my fingers just to give them something to do.
“They had a simple silver clasp in the shape of a two-bladed propeller. There was one small diamond where the boss would be. I told Frank they were store pearls I had bought myself. He didn’t know the difference. It’s not so easy to tell, I dare say. You see-Frank is pretty jealous.”
In the darkness she came closer to me and her side touched my side. But I didn’t move this time. The wind howled and the trees shook. I kept on rolling the cigarette around in my fingers.
“I suppose you’ve read that story,” she said. “About the wife and the real pearls and her telling her husband they were false?”
“I’ve read it,” I said, “Maugham.”
“I hired Joseph. My husband was in Argentina at the time. I was pretty lonely.”
“_You_ should be lonely,” I said.
“Joseph and I went driving a good deal. Sometimes we had a drink or two together. But that’s all. I don’t go around-”
“You told him about the pearls,” I said. “And when your two hundred pounds of beef came back from Argentina and kicked him out-he took the pearls, because he knew they were real. And then offered them back to you for five grand.”
“Yes,” she said simply. “Of course I didn’t want to go to the police. And of course in the circumstance Joseph wasn’t afraid of my knowing where he lived.”
“Poor Waldo,” I said. “I feel kind of sorry for him. It was a hell of a time to run into an old friend that had a down on you.”
I struck a match on my shoe sole and lit the cigarette. The tobacco was so dry from the hot wind that it burned like grass. The girl sat quietly beside me, her hands on the wheel again.
“Hell with women-these fliers,” I said. “And you’re still in love with him, or think you are. Where did you keep the pearls?”
“In a Russian malachite jewelry box on my dressing table. With some other costume jewelry. I had to, if I ever wanted to wear them.”
“And they were worth fifteen grand. And you think Joseph might have hidden them in his apartment. Thirty-one, wasn’t it?”
“Yes,” she said. “I guess it’s a lot to ask.”
I opened the door and got out of the car. “I’ve been paid,” I said. “I’ll go look. The doors in my apartment are not very obstinate. The cops will find out where Waldo lived when they publish his photo, but not tonight, I guess.”
“It’s awfully sweet of you,” she said. “Shall I wait here?”
I stood with a foot on the running board, leaning in, looking at her. I didn’t answer her question. I just stood there looking in at the shine of her eyes. Then I shut the car door and walked up the street towards Franklin.
Even with the wind shriveling my face I could still smell the sandalwood in her hair. And feel her lips.
I unlocked the Berglund door, walked through the silent lobby to the elevator, and rode up to Three. Then I soft-footed along the silent corridor and peered down at the sill of Apartment 31. No light. I rapped-the old light, confidential tattoo of the bootlegger with the big smile and the extra-deep hip pockets. No answer. I took the piece of thick hard celluloid that pretended to be a window over the driver’s license in my wallet, and eased it between the lock and the jamb, leaning hard on the knob, pushing it toward the hinges. The edge of the celluloid caught the slope of the spring lock and snapped it back with a small brittle sound, like an icicle breaking. The door yielded and I went into near darkness. Street light filtered in and touched a high spot here and there.
I shut the door and snapped the light on and just stood. There was a queer smell in the air. I made it in a moment- the smell of dark-cured tobacco. I prowled over to a smoking stand by the window and looked down at four brown butts- Mexican or South American cigarettes.
Upstairs, on my floor, feet hit the carpet and somebody went into a bathroom. I heard the toilet flush. I went into the bathroom of Apartment 31. A little rubbish, nothing, no place to hide anything. The kitchenette was a longer job, but I only half searched. I knew there were no pearls in that apartment. I knew Waldo had been on his way out and that he was in a hurry and that something was riding him when he turned and took two bullets from an old friend.
I went back to the living room and swung the wall bed and looked past its mirror side into the dressing room for signs of still current occupancy. Swinging the bed farther I was no longer looking for pearls. I was looking at a man.
He was small, middle-aged, iron-gray at the temples, with a very dark skin, dressed in a fawn-colored suit with a winecolored tie. His neat little brown hands hung limply by his sides. His small feet, in pointed polished shoes, pointed almost at the floor.
He was hanging by a belt around his neck from the metal top of the bed. His tongue stuck out farther than I thought it possible for a tongue to stick out.
He swung a little and I didn’t like that, so I pulled the bed shut and he nestled quietly between the two clamped pillows. I didn’t touch him yet. I didn’t have to touch him to know that he would be cold as ice.
I went around him into the dressing room and used my handkerchief on drawer knobs. The place was stripped clean except for the light litter of a man living alone.
I came out of there and began on the man. No wallet. Waldo would have taken that and ditched it. A flat box of cigarettes, half full, stamped in gold: “Louis Tapia y Cia, Calle de Paysandü, 19, Montevideo.” Matches from the Spezia Club. An under-arm holster of dark-grained leather and in it a 9-millimeter Mauser.
The Mauser made him a professional, so I didn’t feel so badly. But not a very good professional, or bare hands would not have finished him, with the Mauser-a gun you can blast through a wall with-undrawn in his shoulder holster.
I made a little sense of it, not much. Four of the brown cigarettes had been smoked, so there had been either waiting or discussion. Somewhere along the line Waldo had got the little man by the throat and held him in just the right way to make him pass out in a matter of seconds. The Mauser had been less useful to him than a toothpick. Then Waldo had hung him up by the strap, probably dead already. That would account for haste, cleaning out the apartment, for Waldo’s anxiety about the girl. It would account for the car left unlocked outside the cocktail bar.
That is, it would account for these things if Waldo had killed him, if this was really Waldo’s apartment-if I wasn’t just being kidded.
I examined some more pockets. In the left trouser one I found a gold penknife, some silver. In the left hip pocket a handkerchief, folded, scented. On the right hip another, unfolded but clean. In the right leg pocket four or five tissue handkerchiefs. A clean little guy. He didn’t like to blow his nose on his handkerchief. Under these there was a small new keytainer holding four new keys-car keys. Stamped in gold on the keytainer was: Compliments of R. K. Vogelsang, Inc. “The Packard House.”
I put everything as I had found it, swung the bed back, used my handkerchief on knobs and other projections, and flat surfaces, killed the light and poked my nose out the door. The hall was empty. I went down to the street and around the corner to Kingsley Drive. The Cadillac hadn’t moved.
I opened the car door and leaned on it. She didn’t seem to have moved, either. It was hard to see any expression on her face. Hard to see anything but her eyes and chin, but not hard to smell the sandalwood.
“That perfume,” I said, “would drive a deacon nuts … no pearls.”
“Well, thanks for trying,” she said in a low, soft vibrant voice. “I guess I can stand it. Shall I … Do we . . . Or . . . ?”
“You go on home now,” I said. “And whatever happens you never saw me before. Whatever happens. Just as you may never see me again.”
“I’d hate that.”
“Good luck, Lola.” I shut the car door and stepped back.
The lights blazed on, the motor turned over. Against the wind at the corner the big coupe made a slow contemptuous turn and was gone. I stood there by the vacant space at the curb where it had been.
It was quite dark there now. Windows, had become blanks in the apartment where the radio sounded. I stood looking at the back of a Packard cabriolet which seemed to be brand new. I had seen it before-before I went upstairs, in the same place, in front of Lola’s car. Parked, dark, silent, with a blue sticker pasted to the right-hand corner of the shiny windshield.
And in my. mind I was looking at something else, a set of brand-new car keys in a keytainer stamped: “The Packard House,” upstairs, in a dead man’s pocket.
I went up to the front of the cabriolet and put a small pocket flash on the blue slip. It was the same dealer all right. Written in ink below his name and slogan was a name and address- Eugenie Kolchenko, 5315 Arvieda Street, West Los Angeles.
It was crazy. I went back up to Apartment 31, jimmied the door as I had done before, stepped in behind the wall bed and took the keytainer from the trousers pocket of the neat brown dangling corpse. I was back down on the street beside the cabriolet in five minutes. The keys fitted.
It was a small house, near a canyon rim out beyond Sawtelle, with a circle of writhing eucalyptus trees in front of it. Beyond that, on the other side of the street, one of those parties was going on where they come out and smash bottles on the sidewalk with a whoop like Yale making a touchdown against Princeton.
There was a wire fence at my number and some rose trees, and a flagged walk and a garage that was wide open and had no car in it. There was no car in front of the house either. I rang the bell. There was a long wait, then the door opened rather suddenly.
I wasn’t the man she had been expecting. I could see it in her glittering kohl-rimmed eyes. Then I couldn’t see anything in them. She just stood and looked at me, a long, lean, hungry brunette, with rouged cheekbones, thick black hair parted in the middle, a mouth made for three-decker sandwiches, coraland-gold pajamas, sandals-and gilded toenails. Under her ear lobes a couple of miniature temple bells gonged lightly in the breeze. She made a slow disdainful motion with a cigarette in a holder as long as a baseball bat.
“We-el, what ees it, little man? You want sometheeng? You are lost from the bee-ootiful party across the street, hem?”
“Ha-ha,” I said. “Quite a party, isn’t it? No, I just brought your car home. Lost it, didn’t you?”
Across the street somebody had delirium tremens in the front yard and a mixed quartet tore what was left of the night into small strips and did what they could to make the strips miserable. While this was going on the exotic brunette didn’t move more than one eyelash.
She wasn’t beautiful, she wasn’t even pretty, but she looked as if things would happen where she was.
“You have said what?” she got out, at last, in a voice as silky as a burnt crust of toast.
“Your car.” I pointed over my shoulder and kept my eyes on her. She was the type that uses a knife.
The long cigarette holder dropped very slowly to her side and the cigarette fell out of it. I stamped it out, and that put me in the hall. She backed away from me and I shut the door.
The hall was like the long hall of a railroad flat. Lamps glowed pinkly in iron brackets. There was a bead curtain at the end, a tiger skin on the floor. The place went with her.
“You’re Miss Kolchenko?” I asked, not getting any more action.
“Ye-es. I am Mees Kolchenko. What the ‘ell you want?”
She was looking at me now as if I had come to wash the windows, but at an inconvenient time.
I got a card out with my left hand, held it out to her. She read it in my hand, moving her head just enough. “A detective?” she breathed.
She said something in a spitting language. Then in English: “Come in! Thees damn wind dry up my skeen like so much teesue paper.”
“We’re in,” I said. “I just shut the door. Snap out of it, Nazimova. Who was he? The little guy?”
Beyond the bead curtain a man coughed. She jumped as if she had been stuck with an oyster fork. Then she tried to smile. It wasn’t very successful.
“A reward,” she said softly. “You weel wait ‘ere? Ten dollars it is fair to pay, no?”
“No,” I said.
I reached a finger towards her slowly and added: “He’s dead.”
She jumped about three feet and let out a yell.
A chair creaked harshly. Feet pounded beyond the bead curtain, a large hand plunged into view and snatched it aside, and a big hard-looking blond man was with us. He had a purple robe over his pajamas, his right hand held something in his robe pocket. He stood quite still as soon as he was through the curtain, his feet planted solidly, his jaw out, his colorless eyes like gray ice. He looked like a man who would be hard to take out on an off-tackle play.
“What’s the matter, honey?” He had a solid, burring voice, with just the right sappy tone to belong to a guy who would go for a woman with gilded toenails.
“I came about Miss Kolchenko’s car,” I said.
“Well, you could take your hat off,” he said. “Just for a light workout.”
I took it off and apologized.
“O.K. ,” he said, and kept his right hand shoved down hard in the purple pocket. “So you came about Miss Kolchenko’s car. Take it from there.”
I pushed past the woman and went closer to him. She shrank back against the wall and flattened her palms against it. Camille in a high-school play. The long holder lay empty at her toes.
When I was six feet from the big man he said easily: “I can hear you from there. Just take it easy. I’ve got a gun in this pocket and I’ve had to learn to use one. Now about the car?”
“The man who borrowed it couldn’t bring it,” I said, and pushed the card I was still holding towards his face. He barely glanced at it. He looked back at me.
“So what?” he said.
“Are you always this tough?” I asked. “Or only when you have your pajamas on?”
“So why couldn’t he bring it himself?” he asked. “And skip the mushy talk.”
The dark woman made a stuffed sound at my elbow.
“It’s all right, honeybunch,” the man said. “I’ll handle this. Go on.”
She slid past both of us and flicked through the bead curtain.
I waited a little while. The big man didn’t move a muscle. He didn’t look any more bothered than a toad in the sun.
“He couldn’t bring it because somebody bumped him off,” I said. “Let’s see you handle that.”
“Yeah?” he said. “Did you bring him with you to prove it?”
“No,” I said. “But if you put your tie and crush hat on, I’ll take you down and show you.”
“Who the hell did you say you were, now?”
“I didn’t say. I thought maybe you could read.” I held the card at him some more.
“Oh, that’s right,” he said. “Philip Marlowe, Private Investigator. Well, well. So I should go with you to look at who, why?”
“Maybe he stole the car,” I said.
The big man nodded. “That’s a thought. Maybe he did. Who?”
“The little brown guy who had the keys to it in his pocket, and had it parked around the corner from the Berglund Apartments.”
He thought that over, without any apparent embarrassment. “You’ve got something there,” he said. “Not much. But a little. I guess this must be the night of the Police Smoker. So you’re doing all their work for them.”
“The card says private detective to me,” he said. “Have you got some cops outside that were too shy to come in?”
“No, I’m alone.”
He grinned. The grin showed white ridges in his tanned skin. “So you find somebody dead and take some keys and find a car and come riding out here-all alone. No cops. Am I right?”
He sighed. “Let’s go inside,” he said. He yanked the bead curtain aside and made an opening for me to go through. “It might be you have an idea I ought to hear.”
I went past him and he turned, keeping his heavy pocket towards me. I hadn’t noticed until I got quite close that there were beads of sweat on his face. It might have been the hot wind but I didn’t think so.
We were in the living room of the house.
We sat down and looked at each other across a dark floor, on which a few Navajo rugs and a few dark Turkish rugs made a decorating combination with some well-used overstuffed furniture. There was a fireplace, a small baby grand, a Chinese screen, a tall Chinese lantern on a teakwood pedestal, and gold net curtains against lattice windows. The windows to the south were open. A fruit tree with a whitewashed trunk whipped about outside the screen, adding its bit to the noise from across the street.
The big man eased back into a brocaded chair and put his slippered feet on a footstool. He kept his right hand where it had been since I met him-on his gun.
The brunette hung around in the shadows and a bottle gurgled and her temple bells gonged in her ears.
“It’s all right, honeybunch,” the man said. “It’s all under control. Somebody bumped somebody off and this lad thinks we’re interested. Just sit down and relax.”
The girl tilted her head and poured half a tumbler of whiskey down her throat. She sighed, said, “Goddam,”in a casual voice, and curled up on a davenport. It took all of the davenport. She had plenty of legs. Her gilded toenails winked at me from the shadowy corner where she kept herself quiet from then on.
I got a cigarette out without being shot at, lit it and went into my story. It wasn’t all true, but some of it was. I told them about the Berglund Apartments and that I had lived there and that Waldo was living there in Apartment 31 on the floor below mine and that I had been keeping an eye on him for business reasons.
“Waldo what?” the blond man put in. “And what business reasons?”
“Mister,” I said, “have you no secrets?” He reddened slightly.
I told him about the cocktail lounge across the street from the Berglund and what had happened there. I didn’t tell him about the printed bolero jacket or the girl who had worn it. I left her out of the story altogether.
“It was an undercover job-from my angle,” I said. “If you know what I mean.” He reddened again, bit his teeth. I went on: “I got back from the city hall without telling anybody I knew Waldo. In due time, when I decided they couldn’t find out where he lived that night, I took the liberty of examining his apartment.”
“Looking for what?” the big man said thickly.
“For some letters. I might mention in passing there was nothing there at all-except a dead man. Strangled and hanging by a belt to the top of the wall bed-well out of sight. A small man, about forty-five, Mexican or South American, well-dressed in a fawn-colored—.-
“That’s enough,” the big man said. “I’ll bite, Marlowe. Was it a blackmail job you were on?”
“Yeah. The funny part was this little brown man had plenty of gun under his arm.”
“He wouldn’t have five hundred bucks in twenties in his pocket, of course? Or are you saying?”
“He wouldn’t. But Waldo had over seven hundred in currency when he was killed in the cocktail bar,”
“Looks like I underrated this Waldo,” the big man said calmly. “He took my guy and his pay-off money, gun and all. Waldo have a gun?”
“Not on him.”
“Get us a drink, honeybunch,” the big man said. “Yes, I certainly did sell this Waldo person shorter than a bargaincounter shirt.”
The brunette unwound her legs and made two drinks with soda and ice. She took herself another gill without trimmings, wound herself back on the davenport. Her big glittering black eyes watched me solemnly.
“Well, here’s how,” the big man said, lifting his glass in salute. “I haven’t murdered anybody, but I’ve got a divorce suit on my hands from now on. You haven’t murdered anybody, the way you tell it, but you laid an egg down at police Headquarters. What the hell! Life’s a lot of trouble, anyway you look at it. I’ve still got honeybunch here. She’s a white Russian I met in Shanghai. She’s safe as a vault and she looks as if she could cut your throat for a nickel. That’s what I like about her. You get the glamor without the risk.”
“You talk damn foolish,” the girl spat him.
“You look O.K. to me,” the big man went on ignoring her. “That is, for a keyhole peeper. Is there an out?”
“Yeah. But it will cost a little money.”
“I expected that. How much?”
“Say another five hundred.”
“Goddam, thees hot wind make me dry like the ashes of love,” the Russian girl said bitterly.
“Five hundred might do,” the blond man said. “What do I get for it?”
“If I swing it-you get left out of the story. If I don’t-you don’t pay.”
He thought it over. His face looked lined and tired now. The small beads of sweat twinkled in his short blond hair.
“This murder will make you talk,” he grumbled. “The second one, I mean. And I don’t have what I was going to buy. And if it’s a hush, I’d rather buy it direct.”
“Who was the little brown man?” I asked.
“Name’s Leon Valesanos, a Uruguayan. Another of my importations. I’m in a business that takes me a lot of places. He was working in the Spezzia Club in Chiseltown-you know, the strip of Sunset next to Beverly Hills. Working on roulette, I think. I gave him the five hundred to go down to this-this Waldo-and buy back some bills for stuff Miss Kolchenko had charged to my account and delivered here. That wasn’t bright, was it? I had them in my briefcase and this Waldo got a chance to steal them. What’s your hunch about what happened?”
I sipped my drink and looked at him down my nose. “Your Uruguayan pal probably talked curt and Waldo didn’t listen good. Then the little guy thought maybe that Mauser might help his argument-and Waldo was too quick for him. I wouldn’t say Waldo was a killer-not by intention. A blackmailer seldom is. Maybe he lost his temper and maybe he just held on to the little guy’s neck too long. Then he had to take it on the lam. But he had another date, with more money coming up. And he worked the neighborhood looking for the party. And accidentally he ran into a pal who was hostile enough and drunk enough to blow him down.”
“There’s a hell of a lot of coincidence in all this business,” the big man said.
“It’s the hot wind,” I grinned. “Everybody’s screwy tonight.”
“For the five hundred you guarantee nothing? If I don’t get my cover-up, you don’t get your dough. Is that it?”
“That’s it,” I said, smiling at him.
“Screwy is right,” he said, and drained his highball. “I’m taking you up on it.”
“There are just two things,” I said softly, leaning forward in my chair. “Waldo had a getaway car parked outside the cocktail bar where he was killed, unlocked with the motor running. The killer took it. There’s always the chance of a kickback from that direction. You see, all Waldo’s stuff must have been in that car.”
“Including my bills, and your letters.”
“Yeah. But the police are reasonable about things like that-unless you’re good for a lot of publicity. If you’re not, I think I can eat some stale dog downtown and get by. If you are- that’s the second thing. What did you say your name was?”
The answer was a long time coming. When it came I didn’t get as much kick out of it as I thought I would. All at once it was too logical.
“Frank C. Barsaly,” he said.
After a while the Russian girl called me a taxi. When I left, the party across the street was doing all that a party could do. I noticed the walls of the house were still standing. That seemed a pity.
When I unlocked the glass entrance door of the Berglund I smelled policeman. I looked at my wrist watch. It was nearly 3 AM. In the dark corner of the lobby a man dozed in a chair with a newspaper over his face. Large feet stretched out before him. A corner of the paper lifted an inch, dropped again. The man made no other movement.
I went on along the hall to the elevator and rode up to my floor. I soft-footed along the hallway, unlocked my door, pushed it wide and reached in for the light switch.
A chain switch tinkled and light glared from a standing lamp by the easy chair, beyond the card table on which my chessmen were still scattered.
Copernik sat there with a stiff unpleasant grin on his face. The short dark man, Ybarra, sat across the room from him, on my left, silent, half smiling as usual.
Copernik showed more of his big yellow horse teeth and said: “Hi. Long time no see. Been out with the girls?”
I shut the door and took my hat off and wiped the back of my neck slowly, over and over again. Copernik went on grinning. Ybarra looked at nothing with his soft dark eyes.
“Take a seat, pal,” Copernik drawled. “Make yourself to home. We got pow-wow to make. Boy, do I hate this night sleuthing. Did you know you were low on hooch?”
“I could have guessed it,” I said. I leaned against the wall.
Copernik kept on grinning. “I always did hate private dicks,” he said, “but I never had a chance to twist one like I got tonight.”
He reached down lazily beside his chair and picked up a printed bolero jacket, tossed it on the card table. He reached down again and put a wide-brimmed hat beside it.
“I bet you look cuter than all hell with these on,” he said.
I took hold of a straight chair, twisted it around and straddled it, leaned my folded arms on the chair and looked at Copernik.
He got up very slowly-with an elaborate slowness, walked across the room and stood in front of me smoothing his coat down. Then he lifted his open right hand and hit me across the face with it-hard. It stung but I didn’t move.
Ybarra looked at the wall, looked at the floor, looked at nothing.
“Shame on you, pal,” Copernik said lazily. “The way you was taking care of this nice exclusive merchandise. Wadded down behind your old shirts. You punk peepers always did make me sick.”
He stood there over me for a moment. I didn’t move or speak. I looked into his glazed drinker’s eyes. He doubled a fist at his side, then shrugged and turned and went back to the chair.
“O.K.,” he said. “The rest will keep. Where did you get these things?”
“They belong to a lady.”
“Do tell. They belong to a lady. Ain’t you the lighthearted bastard! I’ll tell you what lady they belong to. They belong to the lady a guy named Waldo asked about in a bar across the street-about two minutes before he got shot kind of dead. Or would that have slipped your mind?”
I didn’t say anything.
“You was curious about her yourself,” Copernik sneered on. “But you were smart, pal. You fooled me.”
“That wouldn’t make me smart,” I said.
His face twisted suddenly and he started to get up. Ybarra laughed, suddenly and softly, almost under his breath. Copernik’s eyes swung on him, hung there. Then he faced me again, bland-eyed.
“The guinea likes you,” he said. “He thinks you’re good.”
The smile left Ybarra’s face, but no expression took its place. No expression at all.
Copernik said: “You knew who the dame was all the time. You knew who Waldo was and where he lived. Right across the hall a floor below you. You knew this Waldo person had bumped a guy off and started to lam, only this broad came into his plans somewhere and he was anxious to meet up with her before he went away. Only he never got the chance. A heist guy from back East named Al Tessilore took care of that by taking care of Waldo. So you met the gal and hid her clothes and sent her on her way and kept your trap glued. That’s the way guys like you make your beans. Am I right?”
“Yeah,” I said. “Except that I only knew these things very recently. Who was Waldo?”
Copernik bared his teeth at me. Red spots burned high on his sallow cheeks. Ybarra, looking down at the floor, said very softly: “Waldo Ratigan. We got him from Washington by Teletype. He was a two-bit porch climber with a few small terms on him. He drove a car in a bank stick-up job in Detroit. He turned the gang in later and got a nolle prosse. One of the gang was this Al Tessilore. He hasn’t talked a word, but we think the meeting across the street was purely accidental.”
Ybarra spoke in the soft quiet modulated voice of a man for whom sounds have a meaning. I said: “Thanks, Ybarra. Can I smoke-or would Copernik kick it out of my mouth?”
Ybarra smiled suddenly. “You may smoke, sure,” he said.
“The guinea likes you all right,” Copernik jeered. “You never know what a guinea will like, do you?”
I lit a cigarette. Ybarra looked at Copernik and said very softly: “The word guinea-you overwork it. I don’t like it so well applied to me.”
“The hell with what you like, guinea.”
Ybarra smiled a little more. “You are making a mistake,” he said. He took a pocket nail file out and began to use it, looking down.
Copernik blared: “I smelled something rotten on you from the start, Marlowe. So when we make these two mugs, Ybarra and me think we’ll drift over and dabble a few more words with you. I bring one of Waldo’s morgue photos-nice work, the light just right in his eyes, his tie all straight and a white handkerchief showing just right in his pocket. Nice work. So on the way up, just as a matter of routine, we rout out the manager here and let him lamp it. And he knows the guy. He’s here as A. B. Hummel, Apartment Thirty-one. So we go in there and find a stiff. Then we go round and round with that. Nobody knows him yet, but he’s got some swell finger bruises under that strap and I hear they fit Waldo’s fingers very nicely.”
“That’s something,” I said. “I thought maybe I murdered him.”
Copernik stared at me a long time. His face had stopped grinning and was just a hard brutal face now. “Yeah. We got something else even,” he said. “We got Waldo’s getaway car-and what Waldo had in it to take with him.”
I blew cigarette smoke jerkily. The wind pounded the shut windows. The air in the room was foul.
“Oh, we’re bright boys,” Copernik sneered. “We never figured you with that much guts. Take a look at this.”
He plunged his bony hand into his coat pocket and drew something up slowly over the edge of the card table, drew it along the green top and left it there stretched out, gleaming. A string of white pearls with a clasp like a two-bladed propeller. They shimmered softly in the thick smoky air.
Lola Barsaly’s pearls. The pearls the flier had given her. The guy who was dead, the guy she still loved.
I stared at them, but I didn’t move. After a long moment Copernik said almost gravely: “Nice, ain’t they? Would you feel like telling us a story about now, Mis-ter Marlowe?”
I stood up and pushed the chair from under me, walked slowly across the room and stood looking down at the pearls. The largest was perhaps a third of an inch across. They were pure white, iridescent, with a mellow softness. I lifted them slowly off the card table from beside her clothes. They felt heavy, smooth, fine.
“Nice,” I said. “A lot of the trouble was about these. Yeah, I’ll talk now. They must be worth a lot of money.”
Ybarra laughed behind me. It was a very gentle laugh. “About a hundred dollars,” he said. “They’re good phonies-but they’re phony.”
I lifted the pearls again. Copernik’s glassy eyes gloated at me. “How do you tell?” I asked.
“I know pearls,” Ybarra said. “These are good stuff, the kind women very often have made on purpose, as a kind of insurance. But they are slick like glass. Real pearls are gritty between the edges of the teeth. Try.”
I put two or three of them between my teeth and moved my teeth back and forth, then sideways. Not quite biting them. The beads were hard and slick.
“Yes. They are very good,” Ybarra said. “Several even have little waves and flat spots, as real pearls might have.”
“Would they cost fifteen grand-if they were real?” I asked.
“Si. Probably. That’s hard to say. It depends on a lot of things.”
“This Waldo wasn’t so bad,” I said.
Copernik stood up quickly, but I didn’t see him swing. I was still looking down at the pearls. His fist caught me on the side of the face, against the molars. I tasted blood at once. I staggered back and made it look like a worse blow than it was.
“Sit down and talk, you bastard!” Copernik almost whispered.
I sat down and used a handkerchief to pat my cheek. I licked at the cut inside my mouth. Then I got up again and went over and picked up the cigarette he had knocked out of my mouth. I crushed it out in a tray and sat down again.
Ybarra filed at his nails and held one up against the lamp. There were beads of sweat on Copernik’s eyebrows, at the inner ends.
“You found the beads in Waldo’s car,” I said, looking at Ybarra. “Find any papers?”
He shook his head without looking up.
“I’d believe you,” I said. “Here it is. I never saw Waldo until he stepped into the cocktail bar tonight and asked about the girl. I knew nothing I didn’t tell. When I got home and stepped out of the elevator this girl, in the printed bolero jacket and the wide hat and the blue silk crêpe dress-all as he had described them-was waiting for the elevator, here on my floor. And she looked like a nice girl.”
Copernik laughed jeeringly. It didn’t make any difference to me. I had him cold. All he had to do was know that. He was going to know it now, very soon.
“I knew what she was up against as a police witness,” I said. “And I suspected there was something else to it. But I didn’t suspect for a minute that there was anything wrong with her. She was just a nice girl in a jam-and she didn’t even know she was in a jam. I got her in here. She pulled a gun on me. But she didn’t mean to use it.”
Copernik sat up very suddenly and he began to lick his lips. His face had a stony look now. A look like wet gray stone. He didn’t make a sound.
“Waldo had been her chauffeur,” I went on. “His name was then Joseph Coates. Her name is Mrs. Frank C. Barsaly. Her husband is a big hydroelectric engineer. Some guy gave her the pearls once and she told her husband they were just store pearls. Waldo got wise somehow there was a romance behind them and when Barsaly came home from South America and fired him, because he was too good-looking, he lifted the pearls.”
Ybarra lifted his head suddenly and his teeth flashed. “You mean he didn’t know they were phony?”
“I thought he fenced the real ones and had imitations fixed up,” I said.
Ybarra nodded. “It’s possible.”
“He lifted something else,” I said. “Some stuff from Barsaly’s briefcase that showed he was keeping a woman-out in Brentwood. He was blackmailing wife and husband both, without either knowing about the other. Get it so far?”
“I get it,” Copernik said harshly, between his tight lips. His face was still wet gray stone. “Get the hell on with it.”
“Waldo wasn’t afraid of them,” I said. “He didn’t conceal where he lived. That was foolish, but it saved a lot of finagling, if he was willing to risk it. The girl came down here tonight with five grand to buy back her pearls. She didn’t find Waldo. She came here to look for him and walked up a floor before she went back down. A woman’s idea of being cagey. So I met her. So I brought her in here. So she was in that dressing room when Al Tessilore visited me to rub out a witness.” I pointed to the dressing-room door. “So she came out with her little gun and stuck it in his back and saved my life,” I said.
Copernik didn’t move. There was something horrible in his face now. Ybarra slipped his nail file into a small leather case and slowly tucked it into his pocket.
“Is that all?” he said gently.
I nodded. “Except that she told me where Waldo’s apartment was and I went in there and looked for the pearls. I found the dead man. In his pocket I found new car keys in a case from a Packard agency. And down on the street I found the Packard and took it to where it came from. Barsaly’s kept woman. Barsaly had sent a friend from the Spezzia Club down to buy something and he had tried to buy it with his gun instead of the money Barsaly gave him. And Waldo beat him to the punch.”
“Is that all?” Ybarra said softly.
“That’s all,” I said licking the torn place on the inside of my cheek.
Ybarra said slowly: “What do you want?”
Copernik’s face convulsed and he slapped his long hard thigh. “This guy’s good,” he jeered. “He falls for a stray broad and breaks every law in the book and you ask him what does he want? I’ll give him what he wants, guinea!”
Ybarra turned his head slowly and looked at him. “I don’t think you will,” he said. “I think you’ll give him a clean bill of health and anything else he wants. He’s giving you a lesson in police work.”
Copernik didn’t move or make a sound for a long minute. None of us moved. Then Copernik leaned forward and his coat fell open. The butt of his service gun looked out of his underarm holster.
“So what do you want?” he asked me.
“What’s on the card table there. The jacket and hat and the phony pearls. And some names kept away from the papers. Is that too much?”
“Yeah-it’s too much,” Copernik said almost gently. He swayed sideways and his gun jumped neatly into his hand. He rested his forearm on his thigh and pointed the gun at my stomach.
“I like better that you get a slug in the guts resisting arrest,” he said. “I like that better, because of a report I made out on Al Tessilore’s arrest and how I made the pinch. Because of some photos of me that are in the morning sheets going out about now. I like it better that you don’t live long enough to laugh about that baby.”
My mouth felt suddenly hot and dry. Far off I heard the wind booming. It seemed like the sound of guns.
Ybarra moved his feet on the floor and said coldly: “You’ve got a couple of cases all solved, policeman. All you do for it is leave some junk here and keep some names from the papers. Which means from the D.A. If he gets them anyway, too bad for you.”
Copernik said: “I like the other way.” The blue gun in his hand was like a rock. “And God help you, if you don’t back me up on it.”
Ybarra said: “If the woman is brought out into the open, you’ll be a liar on a police report and a chisler on your own partner. In a week they won’t even speak your name at Headquarters. The taste of it would make them sick.”
The hammer clicked back on Copernik’s gun and I watched his big finger slide in farther around the trigger.
Ybarra stood up. The gun jumped at him. He said: “We’ll see how yellow a guinea is. I’m telling you to put that gun up, Sam.”
He started to move. He moved four even steps. Copernik was a man without a breath of movement, a stone man.
Ybarra took one more step and quite suddenly the gun began to shake.
Ybarra spoke evenly: “Put it up, Sam. If you keep your head everything lies the way it is. If you don’t-you’re gone.”
He took one more step. Copernik’s mouth opened wide and made a gasping sound and then he sagged in the chair as if he had been hit on the head. His eyelids dropped.
Ybarra jerked the gun out of his hand with a movement so quick it was no movement at all. He stepped back quickly, held the gun low at his side.
“It’s the hot wind, Sam. Let’s forget it,” he said in the same even, almost dainty voice.
Copernik’s shoulders sagged lower and he put his face in his hands. “O.K.,” he said between his fingers.
Ybarra went softly across the room and opened the door. He looked at me with lazy, half-closed eyes. “I’d do a lot for a woman who saved my life, too,” he said. “I’m eating this dish, but as a cop you can’t expect me to like it.”
I said: “The little man in the bed is called Leon Valesanos. He was a croupier at the Spezzia Club.”
“Thanks,” Ybarra said. “Let’s go, Sam.”
Copernik got up heavily and walked across the room and out of the open door and out of my sight. Ybarra stepped through the door after him and started to close it.
I said: “Wait a minute.”
He turned his head slowly, his left hand on the door, the blue gun hanging down close to his right side.
“I’m not in this for money,” I said. “The Barsalys live at Two-twelve Fremont Place. You can take the pearls to her. If Barsaly’s name stays out of the paper, I get five C’s. It goes to the Police Fund. I’m not so damn smart as you think. It just happened that way-and you had a heel for a partner.”
Ybarra looked across the room at the pearls on the card table. His eyes glistened. “You take them,” he said. “The five hundred’s O.K. I think the fund has it coming.”
He shut the door quietly and in a moment I heard the elevator doors clang.
I opened a window and stuck my head out into the wind and watched the squad car tool off down the block. The wind blew in hard and I let it blow. A picture fell off the wall and two chessmen rolled off the card table. The material of Lola Barsaly’s bolero jacket lifted and shook.
I went out to the kitchenette and drank some Scotch and went back into the living room and called her-late as it was.
She answered the phone herself, very quickly, with no sleep in her voice.
“Marlowe,” I said. “O.K. your end?”
“Yes … yes,” she said. “I’m alone.”
“I found something,” I said. “Or rather the police did. But your dark boy gypped you. I have a string of pearls. They’re not real. He sold the real ones, I guess, and made you up a string of ringers, with your clasp.”
She was silent for a long time. Then, a little faintly: “The police found them?”
“In Waldo’s car. But they’re not telling. We have a deal. Look at the papers in the morning and you’ll be able to figure out why.”
“There doesn’t seem to be anything more to say,” she said. “Can I have the clasp?”
“Yes. Can you meet me tomorrow at four in the Club Esquire bar?”
“You’re really rather sweet,” she said in a dragged out voice. “I can. Frank is still at his meeting.”
“Those meetings-they take it out of a guy,” I said. We said goodbye.
I called a West Los Angeles number. He was still there, with the Russian girl.
“You can send me a check for five hundred in the morning,” I told him. “Made out to the Police Relief Fund, if you want to. Because that’s where it’s going.”
Copernik made the third page of the morning papers with two photos and a nice half-column. The little brown man in Apartment 31 didn’t make the paper at all. The Apartment House Association has a good lobby too.
I went out after breakfast and the wind was all gone. It was soft, cool, a little foggy. The sky was close and comfortable and gray. I rode down to the boulevard and picked out the best jewelry store on it and laid a string of pearls on a black velvet mat under a daylight-blue lamp. A man in a wing collar and striped trousers looked down at them languidly.
“How good?” I asked.
“I’m sorry, sir. We don’t make appraisals. I can give you the name of an appraiser.”
“Don’t kid me,” I said. “They’re Dutch.”
He focused the light a little and leaned down and toyed with a few inches of the string.
“I want a string just like them, fitted to that clasp, and in a hurry,” I added.
“How, like them?” He didn’t look up. “And they’re not Dutch. They’re Bohemian.”
“O.K., can you duplicate them?”
He shook his head and pushed the velvet pad away as if it soiled him. “In three months, perhaps. We don’t blow glass like that in this country. If you wanted them matched-three months at least. And this house would not do that sort of thing at all.”
“It must be swell to be that snooty,” I said. I put a card under his black sleeve. “Give me a name that will-and not in three months-and maybe not exactly like them.”
He shrugged, went away with the card, came back in five minutes and handed it back to me. There was something written on the back.
The old Levantine had a shop on Melrose, a junk shop with everything in the window from a folding baby carriage to a French horn, from a mother-of-pearl lorgnette in a faded plush case to one of those .44 Special Single Action six-shooters they still make for Western peace officers whose grandfathers were tough.
The old Levantine wore a skull cap and two pairs of glasses and a full beard. He studied my pearls, shook his head sadly, and said: “For twenty dollars, almost so good. Not so good, you understand. Not so good glass.”
“How alike will they look?”
He spread his firm strong hands. “I am telling you the truth,” he said. “They would not fool a baby.”
“Make them up,” I said. “With this clasp. And I want the others back, too, of course.”
“Yah. Two o’clock,” he said.
Leon Valesanos, the little brown man from Uruguay, made the afternoon papers. He had been found hanging in an unnamed apartment. The police were investigating.
At four o’clock I walked into the long cool bar of the Club Esquire and prowled along the row of booths until I found one where a woman sat alone. She wore a hat like a shallow soup plate with a very wide edge, a brown tailor-made suit with a severe mannish shirt and tie.
I sat down beside her and slipped a parcel along the seat. “You don’t open that,” I said. “In fact you can slip it into the incinerator as is, if you want to.”
She looked at me with dark tired eyes. Her fingers twisted a thin glass that smelled of peppermint. “Thanks.” Her face was very pale.
I ordered a highball and the waiter went away. “Read the papers?”
“You understand now about this fellow Copernik who stole your act? That’s why they won’t change the story or bring you into it.”
“It doesn’t matter now,” she said. “Thank you, all the same. Please-please show them to me.”
I pulled the string of pearls out of the loosely wrapped tissue paper in my pocket and slid them across to her. The silver propeller clasp winked in the light of the wall bracket. The little diamond winked. The pearls were as dull as white soap. They didn’t even match in size.
“You were right,” she said tonelessly. “They are not my pearls.”
The waiter came with my drink and she put her bag on them deftly. When he was gone she fingered them slowly once more, dropped them into the bag and gave me a dry mirthless smile.
I stood there a moment with a hand hard on the table.
“As you said-I’ll keep the clasp.”
I said slowly: “You don’t know anything about me. You saved my life last night and we had a moment, but it was just a moment. You still don’t know anything about me. There’s a detective downtown named Ybarra, a Mexican of the nice sort, who was on the job when the pearls were found in Waldo’s suitcase. That is in case you would like to make sure-”
She said: “Don’t be silly. It’s all finished. It was a memory. I’m too young to nurse memories. It may be for the best. I loved Stan Phillips-but he’s gone-long gone.”
I stared at her, didn’t say anything.
She added quietly: “This morning my husband told me something I hadn’t known. We are to separate. So I have very little to laugh about today.”
“I’m sorry,” I said lamely. “There’s nothing to say. I may see you sometime. Maybe not. I don’t move much in your circle. Good luck.”
I stood up. We looked at each other for a moment. “You haven’t touched your drink,” she said.
“You drink it. That peppermint stuff will just make you sick.”
I stood there a moment with a hand on the table.
“If anybody ever bothers you,” I said, “let me know.”
I went out of the bar without looking back at her, got into my car and drove west on Sunset and down all the way to the Coast Highway. Everywhere along the way gardens were full of withered and blackened leaves and flowers which the hot wind had burned.
But the ocean looked cool and languid and just the same as ever. I drove on almost to Malibu and then parked and went and sat on a big rock that was inside somebody’s wire fence. It was about half-tide and coming in. The air smelled of kelp. I watched the water for a while and then I pulled a string of Bohemian glass imitation pearls out of my pocket and cut the knot at one end and slipped the pearls off one by one.
When I had them all loose in my left hand I held them like that for a while and thought. There wasn’t really anything to think about. I was sure.
“To the memory of Mr. Stan Phillips,” I said aloud. “Just another four-flusher.”
I flipped her pearls out into the water one by one at the floating seagulls.They made little splashes and the seagulls rose off the water and swooped at the splashes.