© R.Chandler, Try the Girl, 1937
Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)
E-Text: Greylib .
The big guy wasn't any of my business. He never was, then or later, least of all then.
I was over on Central, which is the Harlem of Los Angeles, on one of the "mixed" blocks, where there were still both white and colored establishments. I was looking for a little Greek barber named Tom Aleidis whose wife wanted him to come home and was willing to spend a little money to find him. It was a peaceful job. Tom Aleidis was not a crook.
I saw the big guy standing in front of Shamey's, an all-colored drink and dice second-floor, not too savory. He was looking up at the broken stencils in the electric sign, with a sort of rapt expression, like a hunky immigrant looking at the Statue of Liberty, like a man who had waited a long time and come a long way.
He wasn't just big. He was a giant. He looked seven feet high, and he wore the loudest clothes I ever saw on a really big man.
Pleated maroon pants, a rough grayish coat with white billiard balls for buttons, brown suede shoes with explosions in white kid on them, a brown shirt, a yellow tie, a large red carnation, and a front-door handkerchief the color of the Irish flag. It was neatly arranged in three points, under the red carnation. On Central Avenue, not the quietest dressed street in the world, with that size and that make-up he looked about as unobtrusive as a tarantula on a slice of angel food.
He went over and swung back the doors into Shamey's. The doors didn't stop swinging before they exploded outward again. What sailed out and landed in the gutter and made a high, keening noise, like a wounded rat, was a slick-haired colored youth in a pinchback suit. A "brown," the color of coffee with rather thin cream in it. His face, I mean.
It still wasn't any of my business. I watched the colored boy creep away along the walls. Nothing more happened. So I made my mistake.
I moved along the sidewalk until I could push the swing door myself. Just enough to look in. Just too much.
A hand I could have sat in took hold of my shoulder and hurt and lifted me through the doors and up three steps.
A deep, soft voice said in my ear easily, "Smokes in here, pal. Can you tie that?"
I tried for a little elbow room to get to my sap. I wasn't wearing a gun. The little Greek barber business hadn't seemed to be that sort of job.
He took hold of my shoulder again.
"It's that kind of place," I said quickly.
"Don't say that, pal. Beulah used to work here. Little Beulah."
"Go on up and see for yourself."
He lifted me up three more steps.
"I'm feeling good," he said. "I wouldn't want anybody to bother me. Let's you and me go on up and maybe nibble a drink."
"They won't serve you," I said.
"I ain't seen Beulah in eight years, pal," he said softly, tearing my shoulder to pieces without noticing what he was doing. "She ain't even wrote in six. But she'll have a reason. She used to work here. Let's you and me go on up."
"All right," I said. "I'll go up with you. Just let me walk. Don't carry me. I'm fine. Carmady's the name. I'm all grown up. I go to the bathroom alone and everything. Just don't carry me."
"Little Beulah used to work here," he said softly. He wasn't listening to me.
We went on up. He let me walk.
A crap table was in the far corner beyond the bar, and scattered tables and a few customers were here and there. The whiny voices chanting around the crap table stopped instantly. Eyes looked at us in that dead, alien silence of another race.
A large Negro was leaning against the bar in shirt-sleeves with pink garters on his arms. An ex-pug who had been hit by everything but a concrete bridge. He pried himself loose from the bar edge and came towards us in a loose fighter's crouch.
He put a large brown hand against the big man's gaudy chest. It looked like a stud there.
"No white folks, brother. Jes' fo' the colored people. I'se sorry."
"Where's Beulah?" the big man asked in his deep, soft voice that went with his big white face and his depthless black eyes.
The Negro didn't quite laugh. "No Beulah, brother. No hooch, no gals, jes' the scram, brother. Jes' the scram."
"Kind of take your goddam mitt off me," the big man said.
The bouncer made a mistake, too. He hit him. I saw his shoulder drop, his body swing behind the punch. It was a good clean punch. The big man didn't even try to block it.
He shook his head and took hold of the bouncer by the throat. He was quick for his size. The bouncer tried to knee him. The big man turned him and bent him, took hold of the back of his belt. That broke. So the big man just put his huge hand flat against the bouncer's spine and threw him, clear across the narrow room. The bouncer hit the wall on the far side with a crash that must have been heard in Denver. Then he slid softly down the wall and lay there, motionless.
"Yeah," the big man said. "Let's you and me nibble one."
We went over to the bar. The barman swabbed the bar hurriedly. The customers, by ones and twos and threes, drifted out, silent across the bare floor, silent down the dim uncarpeted stairs. Their departing feet scarcely rustled.
"Whisky sour," the big man said.
We had whisky sours.
"You know where Beulah is?" the big man asked the barman impassively, licking his whisky sour down the side of the thick glass.
"Beulah, you says?" the barman whined. "I ain't seen her roun' heah lately. Not right lately, no suh."
"How long you been here?"
'Bout a yeah, Ah reckon. 'Bout a yeah. Yes suh. 'Bout-" "How long's this coop been a dinge box?"
The big man made a fist down at his side, about the size of a bucket.
"Five years anyway," I put in. "This fellow wouldn't know anything about a white girl named Beulah."
The big man looked at me as if I had just hatched out. His whisky sour didn't seem to improve his temper.
"Who the hell asked you to stick your face in?"
I smiled. I made it a big, friendly smile. "I'm the fellow came in here with you. Remember?"
He grinned back, a flat, white grin. "Whisky sour," he told the barman. "Get them fleas outa your pants. Service."
The barman scuttled around, hating us with the whites of his eyes.
The place was empty now, except for the two of us and the barman, and the bouncer over against the far wall.
The bouncer groaned and stirred. He rolled over and began to crawl softly along the baseboard, like a fly with one wing. The big man paid no attention to him.
"There ain't nothing left of the joint," he complained. "They was a stage and a band and cute little rooms where you could have fun. Beulah did some warbling. A redhead. Awful cute. We was to of been married when they hung the frame on me."
We had two more whisky sours before us now. "What frame?" I asked.
"Where you figure I been them eight years I told you about?"
"In somebody's Stony Lonesome," I said.
"Right." He prodded his chest with a thumb like a baseball bat. "Steve Skalla. The Great Bend job in Kansas. Just me. Forty grand. They caught up with me right here. I was what that-hey!"
The bouncer had made a door at the back and fallen through it. A lock clicked.
"Where's that door lead to?" the big man demanded.
"Tha-tha's Mistah Montgom'ry's office, suh. He's the boss. He's got his office back-"
"He might know," the big man said. He wiped his mouth on the Irish flag handkerchief and arranged it carefully back in his pocket. "He better not crack wise neither. Two more whisky sours."
He crossed the room to the door behind the crap table. The lock gave him a little argument for a moment, then a piece of the panel dropped off and he went through, shut the door after him.
It was very silent in Shamey's now. I looked at the barman.
"This guy's tough," I said quickly. "And he's liable to go mean. You can see the idea. He's looking for an old sweetie who used to work here when it was a place for whites. Got any artillery back there?"
"I thought you was with him," the barman said suspiciously. "Couldn't help myself. He dragged me up. I didn't feel like being thrown over any houses."
"Shuah. Ah got me a shotgun," the barman said, still suspicious.
He began to stoop behind the bar, then stayed in that position rolling his eyes.
There was a dull flat sound at the back of the place, behind the shut door. It might have been a slammed door. It might have been a gun. Just the one sound. No other followed it.
The barman and I waited too long, wondering what the sound was. Not liking to think what it could be.
The door at the back opened and the big man came through quickly, with a Colt army .45 automatic looking like a toy in his hand.
He looked the room over with one swift glance. His grin was taut. He looked like the man who could take forty grand singlehanded from the Great Bend Bank.
He came over to us in swift, almost soundless steps, for all his size.
"Rise up, nigger!"
The barman came up slowly, gray; his hands empty, high.
The big man felt me over, stepped away from us.
"Mr. Montgomery didn't know where Beuiah was either," he said softly. "He tried to tell me-with this." He waggled the gun. "So long, punks. Don't forget your rubbers."
He was gone, down the stairs, very quickly, very quietly.
I jumped around the bar and took the sawed-off shotgun that lay there, on the shelf. Not to use on Steve Skalla. That was not my job. So the barman wouldn't use it on me. I went back across the room and through that door.
The bouncer lay on the floor of a hall with a knife in his hand. He was unconscious. I took the knife out of his hand and stepped over him through a door marked Office.
Mr. Montgomery was in there, behind a small scarred desk, close to a partly boarded-up window. Just folded, like a handkerchief or a hinge.
A drawer was open at his right hand. The gun would have come from there. There was a smear of oil on the paper that lined it.
Not a smart idea, but he would never have a smarter one- not now.
Nothing happened while I waited for the police.
When they came both the barman and the bouncer were gone. I had locked myself in with Mr. Montgomery and the shotgun. Just in case.
Hiney got it. A lean-jawed, complaining, overslow detective lieutenant, with long yellow hands that he held on his knees while he talked to me in his cubicle at Headquarters. His shirt was darned under the points of his old-fashioned stiff collar. He looked poor and sour and honest.
This was an hour or so later. They knew all about Steve Skalla then, from their own records. They even had a ten-year-old photo that made him look as eyebrowless as a French roll. All they didn't know was where he was.
"Six foot six and a half," Kiney said. "Two hundred sixtyfour pounds. A guy that size can't get far, not in them fancy duds. He couldn't buy anything else in a hurry. Whyn't you take him?"
I handed the photo back and laughed.
Hiney pointed one of his long yellow fingers at me bitterly. "Carmady, a tough shamus, huh? Six feet of man, and a jaw you could break rocks on. Whyn't you take him?"
"I'm getting a little gray at the temples," I said. "And I didn't have a gun. He had. I wasn't on a gun-toting job over there. Skalla just picked me up. I'm kind of cute sometimes."
Hiney glared at me.
"All right," I said. "Why argue? I've seen the guy. He could wear an elephant in his vest pocket. And I didn't know he'd killed anybody. You'll get him all right."
"Yeah," Hiney said. "Easy. But I just don't like to waste my time on these shine killings. No pix. No space. Not even three lines in the want-ad section. Heck, they was five smokes- five, mind you-carved Harlem sunsets all over each other over on East Eight-four one time. All dead. Cold meat. And the--newshawks wouldn't even go out there."
"Pick him up nice," I said. "Or he'll knock off a brace of prowlies for you. Then you'll get space."
"And I wouldn't have the case then neither," Hiney jeered. "Well, the hell with him. I got him on the air. Ain't nothing else to do but just sit."
"Try the girl," I said. "Beulah. Skalla will. That's what he's after. That's what started it all. Try her."
"You try her," Hiney said. "I ain't been in a joy house in twenty years."
"I suppose I'd be right at home in one. How much will you pay?"
"Jeeze, guy, coppers don't hire private dicks. What with?" He rolled a cigarette out of a can of tobacco. It burned down one side like a forest fire. A man yelled angrily into a telephone in the next cubbyhole. Hiney made another cigarette with more care and licked it and lighted it. He clasped his bony hands on his bony knees again.
"Think of your publicity," I said. "I bet you twenty-five I find Beulah before you put Skalla under glass."
He thought it over. He seemed almost to count his bank balance on his cigarette puffs.
"Ten is top," he said. "And she's all mine-private."
I stared at him.
"I don't work for that kind of money," I said. "But if I can do it in one day-and you let me alone-I'll do it for nothing. Just to show you why you've been a lieutenant for twenty years."
He didn't like that crack much better than I liked his about the joy house. But we shook hands on it.
I got my old Chrysler roadster out of the official parking lot and drove back towards the Central Avenue district.
Shamey's was closed up, of course. An obvious plainclothes man sat in a car in front of it, reading a paper with one eye. I didn't know why. Nobody there knew anything about Skalla.
I parked around the corner and went into the diagonal lobby of a Negro hotel called the Hotel Sans Souci. Two rows of hard, empty chairs stared at each other across a strip of fiber carpet. Behind a desk a bald-headed man had his eyes shut and his hands clasped on the desk top. He dozed. He wore an ascot tie that had been tied about 1880, and the green stone in his stickpin was not quite as large as a trash barrel. His large, loose chin folded down on it gently, and his brown hands were soft, peaceful, and clean.
A metal embossed sign at his elbow said: This Hotel Is Under the Protection of the International Consolidated Agencies, Inc.
When he opened one eye I pointed to the sign and said: "H.P.D. man checking up. Any trouble here?"
H.P.D. means Hotel Protective Department, which is the part of a large agency that looks after check bouncers and people who move out by the back stairs, leaving second-hand suitcases full of bricks.
"Trouble, brother," he said, in a high, sonorous voice, "is something we is fresh out of." He lowered the voice four or five notches and added, "We don't take no checks."
I leaned on the counter across from his folded hands and started to spin a quarter on the bare, scarred wood.
"Heard what happened over at Shamey's this morning?"
"Brother, I forgit." Both his eyes were open now and he was watching the blur of light made by the spinning quarter.
"The boss got bumped off," I said. "Montgomery. Got his neck broken."
"May the Lawd receive his soul, brother." The voice went down again. "Cop?"
"Private-on a confidential lay. And I know a man who can keep one that way when I see one."
He looked me over, closed his eyes again. I kept spinning the quarter. He couldn't resist looking at it.
"Who done it?" he asked softly. "Who fixed Sam?"
"A tough guy out of the jailhouse got sore because it wasn't a white joint. It used to be. Remember?"
He didn't say anything. The coin fell over with a light whirr and lay still.
"Call your play," I said. "I'll read you a chapter of the Bible or buy you a drink. Either one."
"Brother," he said sonorously, "I kinda like to read my Bible in the seclusion of my family." Then he added swiftly, in his business voice, "Come around to this side of the desk."
I went around there and pulled a pint of bonded bourbon off my hip and handed it to him in the shelter of the desk. He poured two small glasses, quickly, sniffed his with a smooth, expert manner, and tucked it away.
"What you want to know?" he asked. "Ain't a crack in the sidewalk I don't know. Mebbe I ain't tellin' though. This liquor's been in the right company."
"Who ran Shamey's before it was a colored place?"
He stared at me, surprised. "The name of that pore sinner was Shamey, brother."
I groaned. "What have I been using for brains?"
"He's daid, brother, gathered to the Lawd. Died in nineteen and twenty-nine. A wood alcohol case, brother. And him in the business." He raised his voice to the sonorous level. "The same year the rich folks lost their goods and chattels, brother." The voice went down again. "I didn't lose me a nickel."
"I'll bet you didn't. Pour some more. He leave any folks- anybody that's still around?"
He poured another small drink, corked the bottle firmly. "Two is all-before lunch," he said. "I thank you, brother. Yo' method of approach is soothin' to a man's dignity." He cleared his throat. "Had a wife," he said. "Try the phone book."
He wouldn't take the bottle. I put it back on my hip. He shook hands with me, folded his on the desk once more and closed his eyes.
The incident, for him, was over.
There was only one Shamey in the phone book. Violet Lu Shamey, 1644 West Fifty-fourth Place. I spent a nickel in a booth.
After a long time a dopey voice said, "Uh-huh. Wh-what is it?"
"Are you the Mrs. Shamey whose husband once ran a place on Central Avenue-a place of entertainment?"
"Wha-what? My goodness sakes alive! My husband's been gone these seven years. Who did you say you was?"
"Detective Carmady. I'll be right out. It's important."
"Wh-who did you say-"
It was a thick, heavy, clogged voice.
It was a dirty brown house with a dirty brown lawn in front of it. There was a large bare patch around a tough-looking palm tree, On the porch stood one lonely rocker.
The afternoon breeze made the unpruned shoots of last year's poinsettias tap-tap against the front wall. A line of stiff, yellowish, half-washed clothes jittered on a rusty wire in the side yard.
I drove on a little way and parked my roadster across the street, and walked back.
The bell didn't work, so I knocked. A woman opened the door blowing her nose. A long yellow face with weedy hair growing down the sides of it. Her body was shapeless in a flannel bathrobe long past all color and design. It was just something around her. Her toes were large and obvious in a pair of broken man's slippers.
I said, "Mrs. Shamey?"
"Yeah. I just called you."
She gestured me in wearily. "I ain't had time to get cleaned up yet," she whined.
We sat down in a couple of dingy mission rockers and looked at each other across a living room in which everything was junk except a small new radio droning away behind its dimly lighted panel.
"All the company I got," she said. Then she tittered. "Bert ain't done nothing, has he? I don't get cops calling on me much."
"Bert Shamey, mister. My husband."
She tittered again and flopped her feet up and down. In her titter was a loose alcoholic overtone. It seemed I was not to get away from it that day.
"A joke, mister," she said. "He's dead. I hope to Christ there's enough cheap blondes where he is. He never got enough of them here."
"I was thinking more about a redhead," I said.
"I guess he'd use one of those too." Her eyes, it seemed to me, were not so loose now. "I don't call to mind. Any special one?"
"Yeah. A girl named Beulah. I don't know her last name. She worked at the Club on Central. I'm trying to trace her for her folks. It's a colored place now and, of course, the people there never heard of her."
"I never went there," the woman yelled, with unexpected violence. "I wouldn't know."
"An entertainer," I said. "A singer. No chance you'd know her, eh?"
She blew her nose again, on one of the dirtiest handkerchiefs I ever saw. "I got a cold."
"You know what's good for it," I said.
She gave me a swift, raking glance. "I'm fresh out of that."
"Gawd," she said. "You're no cop. No cop ever bought a drink."
I brought out my pint of bourbon and balanced it on my knee. It was almost full still. The clerk at the Hotel Sans Souci was no reservoir. The woman's seaweed-colored eyes jumped at the bottle. Her tongue coiled around her lips.
"Man, that's liquor," she sighed. "I don't care who you are. Hold it careful, mister."
She heaved up and waddled out of the room and came back with two thick, smeared glasses.
"No fixin's," she said. "Just what you brought." She held the glasses out.
I poured her a slug that would have made me float over a wall. A smaller one for me. She put hers down like an aspirin tablet and looked at the bottle. I poured her another. She took that over to her chair. Her eyes had turned two shades browner.
"This stuff dies painless with me," she said. "It never knows what hit it. What was we talkin' about?"
"A red-haired girl named Beulah. Used to work at the joint. Remember better now?"
"Yeah." She used her second drink. I went over and stood the bottle on the table beside her. She used some out of that.
"Hold on to your chair and don't step on no snakes," she said. "I got me a idea."
She got up out of the chair, sneezed, almost lost her bathrobe, slapped it back against her stomach and stared at me coldly.
"No peekin'," she said, and wagged a finger at me and went out of the room again, hitting the side of the door casement on her way.
From the back of the house presently there were various types of crashes. A chair seemed to be kicked over. A bureau drawer was pulled out too far and smashed to the floor. There was fumbling and thudding and loud language. After a while, then, there was the slow click of a lock and what seemed to be the screech of a trunk top going up. More fumbling and banging things around. A tray landed on the floor, I thought. Then a chortle of satisfaction.
She came back into the room holding a package tied with faded pink tape. She threw it in my lap.
"Look' em over, Lou. Photos. Newspaper stills. Not that them tramps ever got in no newspapers except by way of the police blotter. They're people from the joint. By God, they're all the-left me. Them and his old clothes."
She sat down and reached for the whisky again.
I untied the tape and looked through a bunch of shiny photos of people in professional poses. Not all of them were women. The men had foxy faces and racetrack clothes or make-up. Hoofers and comics from the filling-station circuits. Not many of them ever got west of Main Street. The women had good legs and displayed them more than Will Hays would have liked. But their faces were as threadbare as a bookkeeper's coat. All but one.
She wore a Pierrot costume, at least from the waist up. Under the high conical white hat her fluffed-out hair might have been red. Her eyes had laughter in them. I won't say her face was unspoiled. I'm not that good at faces. But it wasn't like the others. It hadn't been kicked around. Somebody had been nice to that face. Perhaps just a tough mug like Steve Skalla. But he had been nice. In the laughing eyes there was still hope.
I threw the others aside and carried this one over to the sprawled, glassy-eyed woman in the chair. I poked it under her nose.
"This one," I said. "Who is she? What happened to her?"
She stared at it fuzzily, then chuckled.
"Tha's Steve Skalla's girl, Lou. Heck, I forgot her name."
"Beulah," I said. "Beulah's her name."
She watched me under her tawny, mangled eyebrows. She wasn't so drunk.
"Yeah?" she said. "Yeah?"
"Who's Steve Skalla?" I rapped.
"Bouncer down at the joint, Lou." She giggled again. "He's in the pen."
"Oh no, he isn't," I said. "He's in town. He's out. I know him. He just got in."
Her face went to pieces like a clay pigeon. Instantly I knew who had turned Skalla up to the local law. I laughed. I couldn't miss. Because she knew. If she hadn't known, she wouldn't have bothered to be cagey about Beulah. She couldn't have forgotten Beulah. Nobody could.
Her eyes went far back into her head. We stared into each other's faces. Then her hand snatched at the photo.
I stepped back and tucked it away in an inside pocket.
"Have another drink," I said. I handed her the bottle.
She took it, lingered over it, gurgled it slowly down her throat, staring at the faded carpet.
"Yeah," she said whisperingly. "I turned him in but he never knew. Money in the bank he was. Money in the bank."
"Give me the girl," I said. "And Skalla knows nothing from me."
"She's here," the woman said. "She's in radio. I heard her once on KLBL. She's changed her name, though. I dunno."
I had another hunch. "You do know," I said. "You're bleeding her still. Shamey left you nothing. What do you live on? You're bleeding her because she pulled herself up in the world, from people like you and Skalla. That's it, isn't it?"
"Money in the bank," she croaked. "Hundred a month. Reg'lar as rent. Yeah."
The bottle was on the floor again. Suddenly, without being touched, it fell over on its side. Whisky gurgled out. She didn't move to get it.
"Where is she?" I pounded on. "What's her name?"
"I dunno, Lou. Part of the deal. Get the money in a cashier's check. I dunno. Honest."
"The hell you don't!" I snarled. "Skalla-"
She came to her feet in a surge and screamed at me, "Get out, you! Get out before I call a cop! Get out, you
"Okay, okay." I put a hand out soothingly. "Take it easy. I won't tell Skalla. Just take it easy."
She sat down again slowly and retrieved the almost empty bottle. After all I didn't have to have a scene now. I could find out other ways.
She didn't even look towards me as I went out. I went out into the crisp fall sunlight and got into my car. I was a nice boy, trying to get along. Yes, I was a swell guy. I liked knowing myself. I was the kind of guy who chiseled a sodden old wreck out of her life secrets to win a ten-dollar bet.
I drove down to the neighborhood drugstore and shut myself in its phone booth to call Hiney.
"Listen," I told him, "the widow of the man that ran Shamey's when Skalla worked there is still alive. Skalla might call to see her, if he thinks he dares."
I gave him the address. He said sourly, "We almost got him. A prowl car was talkin' to a Seventh Street conductor at the end of the line. He mentioned a guy that size and with them clothes. He got off at Third and Alexandria, the conductor says. What he'll do is break into some big house where the folks is away. So we got him bottled."
I told him that was fine.
KLBL was on the western fringe of that part of the city that melts into Beverly Hills. It was housed in a flat stucco building, quite unpretentious, and there was a service station in the form of a Dutch windmill on the corner of the lot. The call letters of the station revolved in neon letters on the sails of the windmill.
I went into a ground-floor reception room, one side of which was glass and showed an empty broadcasting studio with a stage and ranged chairs for an audience. A few people sat around the reception room trying to look magnetic, and the blond receptionist was spearing chocolates out of a large box with nails that were almost royal purple in color.
I waited half an hour and then got to see a Mr. Dave Marineau, studio manager. The station manager and the dayprogram manager were both too busy to see me. Marineau had a small sound-proofed office behind the organ. It was papered with signed photographs.
Marineau was a handsome tall man, somewhat in the Levantine style, with red lips a little too full, a tiny silky mustache, large limpid brown eyes, shiny black hair that might or might not have been marceled, and long, pale, nicotined fingers.
He read my card while I tried to find my Pierrot girl on his wall and didn't.
"A private detective, eh? What can we do for you?"
I took my Pierrot out and placed it down on his beautiful brown blotter. It was fun watching him stare at it. All sorts of minute things happened to his face, none of which he wanted known. The sum total of them was that he knew the face and that it meant something to him. He looked up at me with a bargaining expression.
"Not very recent," he said. "But nice. I don't know whether we could use it or not. Legs, aren't they?"
"It's at least eight years old," I said. "What would you use it for?"
"Publicity, of course. We get one in the radio column about every second month, We're a small station still."
"You mean you don't know who it is?"
"I know who she was," I said.
"Vivian Baring, of course, Star of our Jumbo Candy Bar program. Don't you know it? A triweekly serial, half an hour."
"Never heard of it," I said. "A radio serial is my idea of the square root of nothing."
He leaned back and lit a cigarette, although one was burning on the edge of his glass-lined tray.
"All right," he said sarcastically. "Stop being fulsome and get to business, What is it you want?"
"I'd like her address."
"I can't give you that, of course. And you won't find it in any phone book or directory. I'm sorry." He started to gather papers together and then saw the second cigarette and that made him feel like a sap. So he leaned back again.
"I'm in a spot," I said. "I have to find the girl. Quickly. And I don't want to look like a blackmailer."
He licked his very full and very red lips. Somehow I got the idea he was pleased at something.
He said softly, "You mean you know something that might hurt Miss Baring-and incidentally the program?"
"You can always replace a star in radio, can't you?"
He licked his lips some more. Then his mouth tried to get tough. "I seem to smell something nasty," he said.
"It's your mustache burning," I said.
It wasn't the best gag in the world, but it broke the ice. He laughed. Then he did wingovers with his hands. He leaned forward and got as confidential as a tipster.
"We're going at this wrong," he said. "Obviously. You're probably on the level-you look it-so let me make my play." He grabbed a leatherbound pad and scribbled on it, tore the leaf off and passed it across.
I read: _1737 North Flores Avenue_.
"That's her address," he said. "I won't give the phone number without her O.K. Now treat me like a gentleman. That is, if it concerns the station."
I tucked his paper into my pocket and thought it over. He had suckered me neatly, put me on my few remaining shreds of decency. I made my mistake.
"How's the program going?"
"We're promised network audition. It's simple, everyday stuff called 'A Street in Our Town,' but it's done beautifully. It'll wow the country some day. And soon." He wiped his hand across his fine white brow. "Incidentally, Miss Baring writes the scripts herself."
"Ah," I said. "Well, here's your dirt. She had a boy friend in the big house. That is he used to be. She got to know him in a Central Avenue joint where she worked once. He's out and he's looking for her and he's killed a man. Now wait a minute-"
He hadn't turned as white as a sheet, because he didn't have the right skin. But he looked bad.
"Now wait a minute," I said. "It's nothing against the girl and you know it. She's okay. You can see that in her face. It might take a little counterpublicity, if it all came out. But that's nothing. Look how they gild some of those tramps in Hollywood."
"It costs money," he said. "We're a poor studio. And the network audition would be off." There was something faintly dishonest about his manner that puzzled me.
"Nuts," I said, leaning forward and pounding the desk. "The real thing is to protect her. This tough guy-Steve Skalla is his name-is in love with her. He kills people with his bare hands. He won't hurt her, but if she has a boy friend or a husband-"
"She's not married," Marineau put in quickly, watching the rise and fall of my pounding hand.
"He might wring his neck for him. That would put it a little too close to her. Skalla doesn't know where she is. He's on the dodge, so it's harder for him to find out. The cops are your best bet, if you have enough drag to keep them from feeding it to the papers."
"Nix," he said. "Nix on the cops. You want the job, don't you?"
"When do you need her here again?"
"Tomorrow night. She's not on tonight"
"I'll hide her for you until then," I said. "If you want me to. That's as far as I'd go alone."
He grabbed my card again, read it, dropped it into a drawer.
"Get out there and dig her out," he snapped. "If she's not home, stick till she is. I'll get a conference upstairs and then we'll see. Hurry it!"
I stood up. "Want a retainer?" he snapped.
"That can wait."
He nodded, made some more wingovers with his hands and reached for his phone.
That number on Flores would be up near Sunset Towers, across town from where I was. Traffic was pretty thick, but I hadn't gone more than twelve blocks before I was aware that a blue coupé which had left the studio parking lot behind me was still behind me.
I jockeyed around in a believable manner, enough to feel sure it was following me. There was one man in it. Not Skalla. The head was a foot too low over the steering wheel.
I jockeyed more and faster and lost it. I didn't know who it was, and at the moment, I hadn't time to bother figuring it out.
I reached the Flores Avenue place and tucked my roadster into the curb.
Bronze gates opened into a nice bungalow court, and two rows of bungalows with steep roofs of molded shingles gave an effect a little like the thatched cottages in old English sporting prints. A very little.
The grass was almost too well kept. There was a wide walk and an oblong pool framed in colored tiles and stone benches along its sides. A nice place. The late sun made interesting shadows over its lawns, and except for the motor horns, the distant hum of traffic up on Sunset Boulevard wasn't unlike the drone of bees.
My number was the last bungalow on the left. Nobody answered the bell, which was set in the middle of the door so that you would wonder how the juice got to where it had to go. That was cute too. I rang time after time, then I started back to the stone benches by the pool to sit down and wait.
A woman passed me walking fast, not in a hurry, but like a woman who always walks fast. She was a thin, sharp brunette in burnt-orange tweeds and a black hat that looked like a pageboy's hat. It looked like the devil with the burnt-orange tweeds. She had a nose that would be in things and tight lips and she swung a key container.
She went up to my door, unlocked it, went in. She didn't look like Beulah.
I went back and pushed the bell again. The door opened at once. The dark, sharp-faced woman gave me an up-and-down look and said: "Well?"
"Miss Baring? Miss Vivian Baring?"
"Who?" It was like a stab.
"Miss Vivian Baring-of KLBL," I said. "I was told-"
She flushed tightly and her lips almost bit her teeth. 'If this is a gag, I don't care for it," she said. She started the door towards my nose.
I said hurriedly, "Mr. Marineau sent me."
That stopped the door closing. It opened again, very wide. The woman's mouth was as thin as a cigarette paper. Thinner.
"I," she said very distinctly, "happen to be Mr. Marineau's wife. This happens to be Mr. Marineau's residence, I wasn't aware that this-this-"
"Miss Vivian Baring," I said. But it wasn't uncertainty about the name that had stopped her. It was plain, cold fury.
"-that this Miss Baring," she went on, exactly as though I had not said a word, "had moved in here. Mr. Marineau must be feeling very amusing today."
"Listen, lady. This isn't-"
The slamming door almost made a wave in the pool down the walk. I looked at it for a moment, and then I looked at the other bungalows. If we had an audience, it was keeping out of sight. I rang the bell again.
The door jumped open this time. The brunette was livid. "Get off my porch!" she yelled. "Get off before I have you thrown off!"
"Wait a minute," I growled. "This may be a gag for him, but it's no gag to the police."
That got her. Her whole expression got soft and interested.
"Police?" she cooed.
"Yeah. It's serious. It involves a murder. I've got to find this Miss Baring. Not that she, you understand-"
The brunette dragged me into the house and shut the door and leaned against it, panting.
"Tell me," she said breathlessly. "Tell me. Has that redheaded something got herself mixed up in a murder?' Suddenly her mouth snapped wide open and her eyes jumped at me.
I slapped a hand over her mouth. "Take it easy!" I pleaded. "It's not your Dave. Not Dave, lady."
"Oh." She got rid of my hand and let out a sigh and looked silly. "No, of course. Just for a moment ... Well, who is it?"
"Nobody you know. I can't broadcast things like that, anyway. I want Miss Baring's address. Have you got it?"
I didn't know any reason why she would have. Or rather, I might be able to think of one, if I shook my brains hard enough.
"Yes," she said. "Yes, I have. Indeed, I have. Mister Smarty doesn't know that. Mister Smarty doesn't know as much as he thinks he knows, does Mister Smarty? He-"
"The address is all I can use right now," I growled. "And I'm in a bit of a hurry, Mrs. Marineau. Later on-" I gave her a meaning look. "I'm sure I'll want to talk to you."
"It's on Heather Street," she said. "I don't know the number. But I've been there. I've been past there. It's only a short street, with four or five houses, and only one of them on the downward side of the hill." She stopped, added, "I don't think the house has a number. Heather Street is at the top of Beachwood Drive."
"Has she a phone?"
"Of course, but a restricted number. She would have. "They all do, those-. If I knew it-"
"Yeah," I said. "You'd call her up and chew her ear off. Well, thank you very much, Mrs. Marineau. This is confidential, of course. I mean confidential."
"Oh, by all means!"
She wanted to talk longer but I pushed past her out of the house and went back down the flagged walk. I could feel her eyes on me all the way, so I didn't do any laughing.
The lad with the restless hands and the full red lips had had what he thought was a very cute idea. He had given me the first address that came into his head, his own. Probably he had expected his wife to be out. I didn't know. It looked awfully silly, however I thought about it-unless he was pressed for time.
Wondering why he should be pressed for time, I got careless. I didn't see the blue coupé double-parked almost at the gates until I also saw the man step from behind it.
He had a gun in his hand.
He was a big man, but not anything like Skalla's size. He made a sound with his lips and held his left palm out and something glittered in it. It might have been a piece of tin or a police badge.
Cars were parked along both sides of Flores. Half a dozen people should have been in sight. There wasn't one-except the big man with the gun and myself.
He came closer, making soothing noises with his mouth.
"Pinched," he said. "Get in my hack and drive it, like a nice lad." He had a soft, husky voice, like an overworked rooster trying to croon.
"You all alone?"
"Yeah, but I got the gun," he sighed. "Act nice and you're as safe as the bearded woman at a Legion convention. Safer."
He was circling slowly, carefully. I saw the metal thing now.
"That's a special badge," I said. "You've got no more right to pinch me than I have to pinch you."
"In the hack, ho. Be nice or your guts lie on this here street. I got orders." He started to pat me gently. "Hell, you ain't even rodded."
"Skip it!" I growled. "Do you think you could take me if I was?"
I walked over to his blue coupé and slid under its wheel. The motor was running. He got in beside me and put his gun in my side and we went on down the hill.
"Take her west on Santa Monica," he husked. "Then up, say, Canyon Drive to Sunset. Where the bridle path is."
I took her west on Santa Monica, past the bottom of Holloway, then a row of junk yards and some stores. The street widened and became a boulevard past Doheney. I let the car out a little to feel it. He stopped me doing that. I swung north to Sunset and then west again. Lights were being lit in big houses up the slopes. The dusk was full of radio music.
I eased down and took a look at him before it got too dark. Even under the pulled-down hat on Flores I had seen the eyebrows, but I wanted to be sure. So I looked again. They were the eyebrows, all right.
They were almost as even, almost as smoothly black, and fully as wide as a half-inch strip of black plush pasted across his broad face above the eyes and nose. There was no break in the middle. His nose was large and coarse-grained and had hung out over too many beers.
"Bub McCord," I said. "Ex-copper. So you're in the snatch racket now. It's Folsom for you this time, baby."
"Aw, can it." He looked hurt and leaned back in the corner. Bub McCord, caught in a graft tangle, had done a three in Quentin. Next time he would go to the recidivist prison, which is Folsom in our state.
He leaned his gun on his left thigh and cuddled the door with his fat back. I let the car drift and he didn't seem to mind. It was betweentimes, after the homeward rush of the office man, before the evening crowd came out
"This ain't no snatch," he complained. "We just don't want no trouble. You can't expect to go up against an organization like KLBL with a two-bit shakedown, and get no kickback. It ain't reasonable." He spat out of the window without turning his head. "Keep her rollin', ho."
"You wouldn't know, would you? Just a wandering peeper with his head stuck in a knothole, huh? That's you. Innocent, as the guy says."
"So you work for Marineau. That's all I wanted to know. Of course I knew it already, after I back-alleyed you, and you showed up again."
"Neat work, ho-but keep her rollin'. Yeah, I had to phone in. Just caught him."
"Where do we go from here?"
"I take care of you till nine-thirty. After that we go to a place."
"It ain't nine-thirty. Hey, don't go to sleep in that there corner."
"Drive it yourself, if you don't like my work."
He pushed the gun at me hard. It hurt. I kicked the coupé out from under him and set him back in his corner, but he kept his gun in a good grip. Somebody called out archly on somebody's front lawn.
Then I saw a red light winking ahead, and a sedan just passing it, and through the rear window of the sedan two flat caps side by side.
"You'll get awfully tired of holding that gun," I told McCord. "You don't dare use it anyway. You're copper-soft. There's nothing so soft as a copper who's had his badge torn off. Just a big heel. Copper-soft."
We weren't near to the sedan, but I wanted his attention. I got it. He slammed me over the head and grabbed the wheel and yanked the brake on. We ground to a stop. I shook my head woozily. By the time I came out of it he was away from me again, in his corner.
"Next time," he said thinly, for all his huskiness, "I put you to sleep in the rumble. Just try it, ho. Just try it, Now roll- and keep the wisecracks down in your belly."
I drove ahead, between the hedge that bordered the bridle path and the wide parkway beyond the curbing. The cops in the sedan tooled on gently, drowsing, listening with half an ear to their radio, talking of this and that. I could almost hear them in my mind, the sort of thing they would be saying.
"Besides," McCord growled. "I don't need no gun to handle you. I never see the guy I couldn't handle without no gun."
"I saw one this morning," I said. I started to tell him about Steve Skalla.
Another red stoplight showed. The sedan ahead seemed loath to leave it. McCord lit a cigarette with his left hand, bending his head a little.
I kept telling him about Skalla and the bouncer at Shamey's.
Then I tramped on the throttle.
The little car shot ahead without a quiver. McCord started to swing his gun at me. I yanked the wheel hard to the right and yelled: "Hold tight! It's a crash!"
We hit the prowl car almost on the left rear fender. It waltzed around on one wheel, apparently, and loud language came out of it. It slewed, rubber screamed, metal made a grinding sound, the left tailight splintered and probably the gas tank bulged.
The little coupé sat back on its heels and quivered like a scared rabbit.
McCord could have cut me in half. His gun muzzle was inches from my ribs. But he wasn't a hard guy, really. He was just a broken cop who had done time and got himself a cheap job after it and was on an assignment he didn't understand.
He tore the right-hand door open, and jumped out of the car.
One of the cops was out by this time, on my side. I ducked down under the wheel. A flash beam burned across the top of my hat.
It didn't work. Steps came near and the flash jumped into my face.
"Come on out of that," a voice snarled. "What the hell you think this is-a racetrack?"
I got out sheepishly. McCord was crouched somewhere behind the coupé, out of sight.
"Lemme smell of your breath."
I let him smell my breath.
"Whisky," he said. "I thought so. Walk, baby. Walk." He prodded me with the flashlight.
The other cop was trying to jerk his sedan loose from the coupé. He was swearing, but he was busy with his own troubles.
"You don't walk like no drunk," the cop said. "What's the matter? No brakes?" The other cop had got the bumpers free and was climbing back under his wheel.
I took my hat off and bent my head. "Just an argument," I said. "I got hit. It made me woozy for a minute."
McCord made a mistake. He started running when he heard that. He vaulted across the parkway, jumped the wall and crouched. His footsteps thudded on turf.
That was my cue. "Holdup!" I snapped at the cop who was questioning me. "I was afraid to tell you!"
"Jeeze, the howling-!" he yelled, and tore a gun out of his holster. "Why'n't you say so?" He jumped for the wall, "Circle the heap! We want that guy!" he yelled at the man in the sedan.
He was over the wall. Grunts. More feet pounding on the turf. A car stopped half a block away and a man started to get out of it but kept his foot on the running hoard. I could barely see him behind his dimmed headlights.
The cop in the prowl car charged at the hedge that bordered the bridle path, backed furiously, swung around and was off with screaming siren.
I jumped into McCord's coupé, and jerked the starter. Distantly there was a shot, then two shots, then a yell. The siren died at a corner and picked up again.
I gave the coupé all it had and left the neighborhood. Far off, to the north, a lonely sound against the hills, a siren kept on wailing.
I ditched the coupé half a block from Wilshire and took a taxi in front of the Beverly-Wilshire. I knew I could be traced. That wasn't important. The important thing was how soon.
From a cocktail bar in Hollywood I called Hiney. He was still on the job and still sour.
"Anything new on Skalla?"
"Listen," he said nastily, "was you over to talk to that Shamey woman? Where are you?"
"Certainly I was," I said. "I'm in Chicago."
"You better come on home. Why was you there?"
"I thought she might know Beulah, of course. She did. Want to raise that bet a little?"
"Can the comedy. She's dead."
"Skalla-" I started to say.
"That's the funny side," he grunted. "He was there. Some nosy old-next door seen him. Only there ain't a mark on her. She died natural. I kind of got tied up here, so I didn't get over to see her."
"I know how busy you are," I said in what seemed to me a dead voice.
"Yeah. Well, hell, the doc don't even know what she died of. Not yet."
"Fear," I said. "She's the one that turned Skalla up eight years ago. Whisky may have helped a little."
"Is that so?" Hiney said. "Well, well. We got him now anyways. We make him at Girard, headed north in a rent hack. We got the county and state law in on it. If he drops over to the Ridge, we nab him at Castaic. She was the one turned him up, huh? I guess you better come in, Carmady."
"Not me," I said. "Beverly Hills wants me for a hit-and-run. I'm a criminal myself now."
I had a quick snack and some coffee before I took a taxi to Las Mores and Santa Monica and walked up to where I had left my roadster parked.
Nothing was happening around there except that some kid in the back of a car was strumming a ukelele.
I pointed my roadster towards Heather Street.
Heather Street was a gash in the side of a steep flat slope, at the top of Beachwood Drive. It curved around the shoulder enough so that even by daylight you couldn't have seen much more than half a block of it at one time while you were on it.
The house I wanted was built downward, one of those clinging-vine effects, with a front door below the street level, a patio on the roof, a bedroom or two possibly in the basement, and a garage as easy to drive into as an olive bottle.
The garage was empty, but a big shiny sedan had its two right wheels off the road, on the shoulder of the bank. There were lights in the house.
I drove around the curb, parked, walked back along the smooth, hardly used cement and poked a fountain pen flash into the sedan. It was registered to one David Marineau, 1737 North Flores Avenue, Hollywood, California. That made me go back to my heap and get a gun out of a locked pocket.
I repassed the sedan, stepped down three rough stone steps and looked at the bell beside a narrow door topped by a lancet arch.
I didn't push it, I just looked at it. The door wasn't quite shut. A fairly wide crack of dim light edged around its panel. I pushed it an inch. Then I pushed it far enough to look in.
Then I listened. The silence of that house was what made me go in. It was one of those utterly dead silences that come after an explosion. Or perhaps I hadn't eaten enough dinner. Anyway I went in.
The long living room went clear to the back, which wasn't very far as it was a small house. At the back there were french doors and the metal railing of a balcony showed through the glass. The balcony would be very high above the slope of the hill, built as the house was.
There were nice lamps, nice chairs with deep sides, nice tables, a thick apricot-colored rug, two small cozy davenports, one facing and one right-angled to a fireplace with an ivory mantel and a miniature Winged Victory on that. A fire was laid behind the copper screen, but not lit.
The room had a hushed, warm smell. It looked like a room where people got made comfortable. There was a bottle of Vat 69 on a low table with glasses and a copper bucket, and tongs.
I fixed the door about as I had found it and just stood. Silence. Time passed. It passed in the dry whirr of an electric clock on a console radio, in the far-off hoot of an auto horn down on Beachwood half a mile below, in the distant hornet drone of a night-flying plane, in the metallic wheeze of a cricket under the house.
Then I wasn't alone any longer.
Mrs. Marineau slid into the room at the far end, by a door beside the french doors. She didn't make any more noise than a butterfly. She still wore the pillbox black hat and the burnt-orange tweeds, and they still looked like hell together. She had a small glove in her hand wrapped around the butt of a gun. I don't know why. I never did find that out.
She didn't see me at once and when she did it didn't mean anything much. She just lifted the gun a little and slid along the carpet towards me, her lip clutched back so far that I couldn't even see the teeth that clutched it,
But I had a gun out now myself. We looked at each other across our guns. Maybe she knew me. I hadn't any idea from her expression.
I said, "You got them, huh?"
She nodded a little. "Just him'," she said.
"Put the gun down, You're all through with it."
She lowered it a little. She hadn't seemed to notice the Colt I was pushing through the air in her general direction. I lowered that too.
She said, "She wasn't here."
Her voice had a dry, impersonal sound, flat, without timbre.
"Miss Baring wasn't here?" I asked.
She took a better look at me but her face didn't light up with any pleasure.
"I'm the guy that was looking for Miss Baring," I said. "You told me where to come. Remember? Only Dave sent a logan to put the arm on me and ride me around while he came up here himself and promoted something. I couldn't guess what."
The brunette said, "You're no cop. Dave said you were a fake."
I made a broad, hearty gesture and moved a little closer to her, unobtrusively. "Not a city cop," I admitted. "But a cop. And that was a long time ago. Things have happened since then. Haven't they?"
"Yes," she said. "Especially to Dave. Hee, hee."
It wasn't a laugh. It wasn't meant to be a laugh. It was just a little steam escaping through a safety valve.
"Hee, hee," I said. We looked at each other like a couple of nuts being Napoleon and Josephine.
The idea was to get close enough to grab her gun. I was still too far.
"Anybody here besides you?" I asked.
"I had an idea Dave was here." It wasn't clever, but it was good for another foot.
"Oh, Dave's here," she agreed. "Yes. You'd like to see him?"
"Well- if it isn't too much trouble."
"Hee, hee," she said. "No trouble at all. Like this."
She jerked the gun up and snapped the trigger at me. She did it without moving a muscle of her face.
The gun not going off puzzled her, in a sort of vague, weekbefore-last manner. Nothing immediate or important. I wasn't there any more. She lifted the gun up, still being very careful about the black kid glove wrapped about its butt, and peered into the muzzle. That didn't get her anywhere. She shook the gun. Then she was aware of me again. I hadn't moved. I didn't have to, now.
"I guess it's not loaded," she said.
"Maybe just all used up," I said. "To bad. These little ones only hold seven. My shells won't fit, either. Let's see if I can do anything?"
She put the gun in my hand. Then she dusted her hands together. Her eyes didn't seem to have any pupils, or to be all pupils. I wasn't sure which.
The gun wasn't loaded. The magazine was quite empty. I sniffed the muzzle. The gun hadn't been fired since it was last cleaned.
That got me. Up to that point it had looked fairly simple, if I could get by without any more murder. But this threw it. I hadn't any idea what either of us was talking about now.
I dropped her pistol into my side pocket and put mine back on my hip and chewed my lip for a couple of minutes, to see what might turn up. Nothing did.
The sharp-faced Mrs. Marineau merely stood still and stared at a spot between my eyes, fuzzily, like a rather blotto tourist seeing a swell sunset on Mount Whitney.
"Well," I said at last, "let's kind of look through the house and see what's what."
"You mean Dave?"
"Yeah, we could take that in."
"He's in the bedroom." She tittered. "He's at home in bedrooms."
I touched her arm and turned her around. She turned obediently, like a small child.
"But this one will be the last one he'll be at home in," she said. "Hee, hee."
"Oh, yeah. Sure," I said.
My voice sounded to me like the voice of a midget.
Dave Marineau was dead all right-if there had been any doubt about it.
A white bowl lamp with raised figures shone beside a large bed in a green and silver bedroom. It was the only light in the room. It filtered a hushed kind of light down at his face. He hadn't been dead long enough to get the corpse look.
He lay sprawled casually on the bed, a little sideways, as though he had been standing in front of it when he was shot. One arm was flung out as loose as a strand of kelp and the other was under him. His open eyes were flat and shiny and almost seemed to hold a self-satisfied expression. His mouth was open a little and the lamplight glistened on the edges of his upper teeth.
I didn't see the wound at all at first. It was high up, on the right side of his head, in the temple, but back rather far, almost far enough to drive the petrosal bone through the brain. It was powder-burned, rimmed with dusky red, and a fine trickle spidered down from it and got browner as it got thinner against his cheek.
"Hell, that's a contact wound," I snapped at the woman. "A suicide wound."
She stood at the foot of the bed and stared at the wall above his head. If she was interested in anything besides the wall, she didn't show it.
I lifted his still limp right hand and sniffed at the place where the base of the thumb joins the palm. I smelled cordite, then I didn't smell cordite, then I didn't know whether I smelled cordite or not. It didn't matter, of course. A paraffin test would prove it one way or the other.
I put the hand down again, carefully, as though it were a fragile thing of great value. Then I plowed around on the bed, went down on the floor, got halfway under the bed, swore, got up again and rolled the dead man to one side enough to look under him. There was a bright, brassy shellcase but no gun.
It looked like murder again. I liked that better. He wasn't the suicide type.
"See any gun?" I asked her.
"No." Her face was as blank as a pie pan.
"Where's the Baring girl? What are you supposed to be doing here?"
She bit the end of her left little finger. "I'd better confess," she said. "I came here to kill them both."
"Go on," Isaid.
"Nobody was here. Of course, after I phoned him and he told me you were not a real cop and there was no murder and you were a blackmailer and just trying to scare me out of the address-" She stopped and sobbed once, hardly more than a sniff, and moved her line of sight to a corner of the ceiling.
Her words had a tumbled arrangement, but she spoke them like a drugstore Indian.
"I came here to kill both of them," she said. "I don't deny that."
"With an empty gun?"
"It wasn't empty two days ago. I looked. Dave must have emptied it. He must have been afraid."
"That listens," I said. "Go on."
"So I came here. That was the last insult-his sending you to me to get her address. That was more than I would-"
"The story," I said. "I know how you felt. I've read it in the love mags myself."
"Yes. Well, he said there was something about Miss Baring he had to see her about on account of the studio and it was nothing personal, never had been, never would be-"
"My Gawd," I said, "I know that too. I know what he'd feed you. We've got a dead man lying around here. We've got to do something, even if he was just your husband."
"You-, she said.
"Yeah," I said. "That's better than the dopey talk. Go on."
"The door wasn't shut. I came in. That's all. Now, I'm going. And you're not going to stop me. You know where I live, you-.' She called me the same name again.
"We'll talk to some law first," I said. I went over and shut the door and turned the key on the inside of it and took it out. Then I went over to the french doors. The woman gave me looks, but I couldn't hear what her lips were calling me now.
French doors on the far side of the bed opened on the same balcony as the living room. The telephone was in a niche in the wall there, by the bed, where you could yawn and reach out for it in the morning and order a tray of diamond necklaces sent up to try on.
I sat down on the side of the bed and reached for the phone, and a muffled voice came to me through the glass and said: "Hold it, pal! Just hold it!"
Even muffled by the glass it was a deep, soft voice. I had heard it before. It was Skalla's voice.
I was in line with the lamp. The lamp was right behind me. I dived off the bed on to the floor, clawing at my hip.
A shot roared and glass sprinkled the back of my neck. I couldn't figure it. Skalla wasn't on the balcony. I had looked.
I rolled over and started to snake away along the floor away from the french doors, my only chance with the lamp where it was.
Mrs. Marineau did just the right thing-for the other side. She jerked a slipper off and started slamming me with the heel of it. I grabbed for her ankles and we wrestled around and she cut the top of my head to pieces.
I threw her over. It didn't last long. When I started to get up Skalla was in the room, laughing at me. The .45 still had a home in his fist. The french door and the locked screen outside looked as though a rogue elephant had passed that way.
"Okay," I said. "I give up."
"Who's the twist? She sure likes you, pal."
I got up on my feet. The woman was over in a corner somewhere. I didn't even look at her.
"Turn around, pal, while I give you the fan."
I hadn't worked my gun loose yet. He got that. I didn't say anything about the door key, but he took it. So he must have been watching from somewhere. He left me my car keys. He looked at the little empty gun and dropped it back in my pocket.
"Where'd you come from?" I asked.
"Easy. Clumb up the balcony and held on, looking through the grill at you. Cinch to an old circus man. How you been, pal?"
Blood from the top of my head was leaking down my face. I got a handkerchief out and mopped at it. I didn't answer him.
"Jeeze, you sure was funny on the bed grabbin' for the phone with the stiff at your back."
"I was a scream," I growled. "Take it easy. He's her husband."
He looked at her. "She's his woman?"
I nodded and wished I hadn't.
"That's tough. If I'd a known-but I couldn't help meself. The guy asked for it."
"You-" I started to say, staring at him. I heard a queer, strained whine behind me, from the woman.
"Who else, pal? Who else? Let's all go back in that livin' room. Seems to me they was a bottle of nice-looking hooch there. And you need some stuff on that head."
"You're crazy to stick around here," I growled. "There's a general pickup out for you. The only way out of this canyon is back down Beachwood or over the hills-on foot."
Skalla looked at me and said very quietly, "Nobody's phoned no law from here, pal."
Skalla watched me while I washed and put some tape on my head in the bathroom. Then we went back to the living room. Mrs. Marineau, curled up on one of the davenports, looked blankly at the unlit fire. She didn't say anything.
She hadn't run away because Skalla had her in sight all the time. She acted resigned, indifferent, as if she didn't care what happened now.
I poured three drinks from the Vat 69 bottle, handed one to the brunette. She held her hand out for the glass, half smiled at me, crumpled off the davenport to the floor with the smile still on her face.
I put the glass down, lifted her and put her back on the davenport with her head low. Skalla stared at her. She was out cold, as white as paper.
Skalla took his drink, sat down on the other davenport and put the .45 beside him. He drank his drink looking at the woman, with a queer expression on his big pale face.
"Tough," he said. "Tough. But the louse was cheatin' on her anyways. The hell with him." He reached for another drink, swallowed it, sat down near her on the other davenport right-angled to the one she lay on.
"So you're a dick," he said.
"How'd you guess?"
"Lu Shamey told me about a guy goin' there. He sounded like you. I been around and looked in your heap outside. I walk silent."
"Well-what now?" I asked.
He looked more enormous than ever in the room in his sports clothes. The clothes of a smart-aleck kid. I wondered how long it had taken him to get them together. They couldn't have been ready-made. He was much too big for that.
His feet were spread wide on the apricot rug, he looked down sadly at the white kid explosions on the suede. They were the worst-looking shoes I ever saw.
"What you doin' here?" he asked gruffly.
"Looking for Beulah. I thought she might need a little help. I had a bet with a city cop I'd find her before he found you. But I haven't found her yet."
"You ain't seen her, huh?"
I shook my head, slowly, very carefully.
He said softly, "Me neither, pal. I been around for hours. She ain't been home. Only the guy in the bedroom come here. How about the dinge manager up at Shamey's?"
"That's what the tag's for."
"Yeah. A guy like that. They would. Well, I gotta blow. I'd like to take the stiff, account of Beulah. Can't leave him around to scare her. But I guess it ain't any use now. The dinge kill queers that."
He looked at the woman at his elbow on the other little davenport. Her face was still greenish white, her eyes shut. There was a movement of her breast.
"Without her," he said, "I guess I'd clean up right and button you good." He touched the .45 at his side. "No hard feelings, of course, just for Beulah. But the way it is-heck, I can't knock the frail off."
"Too bad." I snarled, feeling my head.
He grinned. "I guess I'll take your heap. For a short ways. Throw them keys over."
I threw them over. He picked them up and laid them beside the big Colt. He leaned forward a little. Then he reached back into one of his patch pockets and brought out a small pearlhandled gun, about .25 caliber. He held it on the Hat of his hand.
"This done it," he said. "I left a rent hack I had on the street below and come up the bank and around the house. I hear the bell ring. This guy is at the front door. I don't come up far enough for him to see me. Nobody answers. Well, what do you think? The guy's got a key. A key to Beulah's house!"
His huge face became one vast scowl. The woman on the davenport was breathing a little more deeply, and I thought I saw one of her eyelids twitch.
"What the hell," I said. "He could get that a dozen ways. He's a boss at KLBL where she works. He could get at her bag, take an impression. Hell, she didn't have to give it to him."
"That's right, pal." He beamed. "0' course, she didn't have to give it to the-. Okay, he went in, and I made it fast after him. But he had the door shut. I opened it my way. After that it didn't shut so good, you might of noticed. He was in the middle of this here room, over there by a desk. He's been here before all right though"-the scowl came back again, although not quite so black-because he slipped a hand into the desk drawer and come up with this." He danced the pearl-handled thing on his enormous palm.
Mrs. Marineau's face now had distinct lines of tensity.
"So I start for him. He lets one go. A miss. He's scared and runs into the bedroom. Me after. He lets go again. Another miss. You'll find them slugs in the wall somewheres."
"I'll make a point of it," I said.
"Yeah, then I got him. Well, hell, the guy's only a punk in a white muffler, If she's washed up with me, okay. I want it from her, see? Not from no greasy-faced piece of cheese like him. So I'm sore. But the guy's got guts at that."
He rubbed his chin. I doubted the last bit.
"I say: 'My woman lives here, pal. How come?' He says: 'Come back tomorrow. This here is my night.'"
Skalla spread his free left hand in a large gesture. "After that nature's got to take its course, ain't it? I pull his arms and legs off. Only while I'm doing it the damn little gat pops off and he's as limp as-as-" he glanced at the woman and didn't finish what he was going to say. "Yeah, he was dead."
One of the woman's eyelids flickered again. I said, "Then?"
"I scrammed. A guy does. But I come back. I got to thinkin' it's tough on Beulah, with that stiff on her bed. So I'll just go back and ferry him out to the desert and then crawl in a hole for a while. Then this frail comes along and spoils that part."
The woman must have been shamming for quite a long time. She must have been moving her legs and feet and turning her body a fraction of an inch at a time, to get in the right position, to get leverage against the back of the davenport.
The pearl-handled gun still lay on Skalla's flat hand when she moved. She shot off the davenport in a flat dive, gathering herself in the air like an acrobat. She brushed his knees and picked the gun off his hand as neatly as a chipmunk peels a nut.
He stood up and swore as she rolled against his legs. The big Colt was at his side, but he didn't touch it or reach for it. He stooped to take hold of the woman with his big hands empty.
She laughed just before she shot him.
She shot him four times, in the lower belly, then the hammer clicked. She threw the gun at his face and rolled away from him.
He stepped over her without touching her. His big pale face was quite empty for a moment, then it settled into stiff lines of torture, lines that seemed to have been there always.
He walked erectly along the rug towards the front door. I jumped for the big Colt and got it. To keep it from the woman. At the fourth step he took, blood showed on the yellowish nap of the rug. After that it showed at every step he took.
He reached the door and put his big hand flat against the wood and leaned there for a moment. Then he shook his head and turned back. His hand left a bloody smear on the door from where he had been holding his belly.
He sat down in the first chair he came to and leaned forward and held himself tightly with his hands. The blood came between his fingers slowly, like water from an overflowing basin.
"Them little slugs," he said, "hurt just like the big ones, down below anyways."
The dark woman walked towards him like a marionette. He watched her come unblinkingly, under his half-lowered, heavy lids.
When she got close enough she leaned over and spat in his face.
He didn't move. His eyes didn't change. I jumped for her and threw her into a chair. I wasn't nice about it.
"Leave her alone," he grunted at me. "Maybe she loved the guy."
Nobody tried to stop me from telephoning this time.
Hours later I sat on a red stool at Lucca's, at Fifth and Western, and sipped a martini and wondered how it felt to be mixing them all day and never drink one.
I took another martini over and ordered a meal. I guess I ate it. It was late, past one, Skalla was in the prison ward of the General Hospital. Miss Baring hadn't showed up yet, but they knew she would, as soon as she heard Skalla was under glass, and no longer dangerous.
KLBL, who didn't know anything about it at first, had got a nice hush working. They were to have twenty-four clear hours to decide how to release the story.
Lucca's was almost as full as at noon. After a while an Italian brunette with a grand nose and eyes you wouldn't fool with came over and said: "I have a table for you now."
My imagination put Skalla across the table from me. His flat black eyes had something in them that was more than mere pain, something he wanted me to do. Part of the time he was trying to tell me what it was, and part of the time he was holding his belly in one piece and saying again: "Leave her alone, Maybe she loved the guy."
I left there and drove north to Franklin and over Franklin to Beachwood and up to Heather Street. It wasn't staked. They were that sure of her.
I drifted along the street below and looked up the scrubby slope spattered with moonlight and showing her house from behind as if it were three stories high. I could see the metal brackets that supported the porch. They looked high enough off the ground so that a man would need a balloon to reach them. But there was where he had gone up. Always the hard way with him.
He could have run away and had a fight for his money or even bought himself a place to live up in. There were plenty of people in the business, and they wouldn't fool with Skalla. But he had come back instead to climb her balcony, like Romeo, and get his stomach full of slugs. From the wrong woman, as usual.
I drove around a white curve that looked like moonlight itself and parked and walked up the hill the rest of the way. I carried a flash, but I didn't need it to see there was nobody on the doorstep waiting for the milk. I didn't go in the front way. There might just happen to be some snooper with night glasses up on the hill.
I sneaked up the bank from behind, between the house and the empty garage. I found a window I could reach and made not much noise breaking it with a gun inside my hat. Nothing happened except that the crickets and tree frogs stopped for a moment.
I picked a way to the bedroom and prowled my flash around discreetly, after lowering the shades and pulling the drapes across them. The light dropped on a tumbled bed, on daubs of print powder, on cigarette butts on the window sills and heel marks in the nap of the carpet. There was a green and silver toilet set on the dressing table and three suitcases in the closet. There was a built-in bureau back in there with a lock that meant business. I had a chilled-steel screwdriver with me as well as the flash. I jimmied it.
The jewelry wasn't worth a thousand dollars. Perhaps not half. But it meant a lot to a girl in show business. I put it back where I got it.
The living room had shut windows and a queer, unpleasant, sadistic smell. The law enforcement had taken care of the Vat 69, to make it easier for the fingerprint men. I had to use my own. I got a chair that hadn't been bled on into a corner, wet my throat and waited in the darkness.
A shade flapped in the basement or somewhere. That made me wet my throat again. Somebody came out of a house half a dozen blocks away and whooped. A door banged. Silence. The tree frogs started again, then the crickets. Then the electric clock on the radio got louder than all the other sounds together.
Then I went to sleep.
When I woke up the moon had gone from the front windows and a car had stopped somewhere. Light, delicate, careful steps separated themselves from the night. They were outside the front door. A key fumbled in the lock.
In the opening door the dim sky showed a head without a hat. The slope of the hill was too dark to outline any more. The door clicked shut.
Steps rustled on the rug. I already had the lamp cord in my fingers. I yanked it and there was light.
The girl didn't make a sound, not a whisper of sound. She just pointed the gun at me.
I said, "Hello, Beulah."
She was worth waiting for.
Not too tall, not too short; that girl. She had the long legs that can walk and dance. Her hair even by the light of the one lamp was like a brush fire at night. Her face had laughter wrinkles at the corner of the eyes. Her mouth could laugh.
The features were shadowed and had that drawn look that makes some faces more beautiful because it makes them more delicate. I couldn't see her eyes. They might have been blue enough to make you jump, but I couldn't see.
The gun looked about a .32, but had the extreme rightangled grip of a Mauser.
After a while she said very softly, "Police, I suppose."
She had a nice voice, too. I still think of it, at times.
I said, "Let's sit down and talk. We're all alone here. Ever drink out of the bottle?"
She didn't answer. She looked down at the gun she was holding, half smiled, shook her head.
"You wouldn't make two mistakes," I said. "Not a girl as smart as you are."
She tucked the gun into the side pocket of a long ulsterlike coat with a military collar.
"Who are you?"
"Just a shamus. Private detective to you. Carmady is the name. Need a lift?"
I held my bottle out. It hadn't grown to my hand yet. I still had to hold it.
"I don't drink, Who hired you?"
"KLBL. To protect you from Steve Skalla."
"So they know," she said. "So they know about him."
I digested that and said nothing.
"Who's been here?" she went on sharply. She was still standing in the middle of the room, with her hands in her coat pockets now, and no hat.
"Everybody but the plumber," I said. "He's a little late, as usual."
"You're one of those men." Her nose seemed to curl a little. "Drugstore comics."
"No," I said. "Not really. It's just a way I get talking to the people I have to talk to. Skalla came back again and ran into trouble and got shot up and arrested. He's in the hospital. Pretty bad."
She didn't move. "How bad?"
"He might live if he'd have surgery. Doubtful, even with that. Hopeless without. He has three in the intestines and one in the liver."
She moved at last and started to sit down. "Not in that chair," I said quickly. "Over here."
She came over and sat near me, on one of the davenports. Lights twisted in her eyes. I could see them now. Little twisting lights like Catherine wheels spinning brightly.
She said, "Why did he come back?"
"He thought he ought to tidy up. Remove the body and so on. A nice guy, Skalla."
"Do you think so?"
"Lady, if nobody else in the world thinks so, I do."
"I'll take that drink," she said.
I handed her the bottle. I grabbed it away in a hurry. "Gosh," I said. "You have to break in on this stuff."
She looked towards the side door that led to the bedroom back of me.
"Gone to the morgue," I said. "You can go in there."
She stood up at once and went out of the room. She came back almost at once.
"What have they got on Steve?" she asked. "If he recovers."
"He killed a nigger over on Central this morning. It was more or less self-defense on both sides. I don't know. Except for Marineau he might get a break."
"Marineau?" she said.
"Yeah. You knew he killed Marineau."
"Don't be silly," she said. "I killed Dave Marineau."
"Okay," I said. "But that's not the way Steve wants it."
She stared at me. "You mean Steve came back here deliberately to take the blame?"
"If he had to, I guess. I think he really meant to cart Marineau off to the desert and lose him. Only a woman showed up here-Mrs. Marineau."
"Yes," the girl said tonelessly. "She thinks I was his mistress. That greasy spoon."
"Were you?" I asked.
"Don't try that again," she said. "Even if I did work on Central Avenue once." She went out of the room again.
Sounds of a suitcase being yanked about came into the living room. I went in after her. She was packing pieces of cobweb and packing them as if she liked nice things nicely packed.
"You don't wear that stuff down in the tank," I told her, leaning in the door.
She ignored me some more. "I was going to make a break for Mexico," she said. "Then South America. I didn't mean to shoot him. He roughed me up and tried to blackmail me into something and I went and got the gun. Then we struggled again and it went off. Then I ran away."
"Just what Skalla said he did," I said. "Hell, couldn't you just have shot the-on purpose?"
"Not for your benefit," she said. "Or any cop. Not when I did eight months in Dalhart, Texas, once for rolling a drunk. Not with that Marineau woman yelling her head off that I seduced him and then got sick of him."
"A lot she'll say," I grunted. "After I tell how she spat in Skalla's face when he had four slugs in him."
She shivered. Her face whitened. She went on taking the things out of the suitcase and putting them in again.
"Did you roll the drunk really?"
She looked up at me, then down. "Yes," she whispered.
I went over nearer to her. "Got any bruises or torn clothes to show?" I asked.
"Too bad," I said, and took hold of her.
Her eyes flamed at first and then turned to black stone, I tore her coat off, tore her up plenty, put hard fingers into her arms and neck and used my knuckles on her mouth. I let her go, panting. She reeled away from me, but didn't quite fall.
"We'll have to wait for the bruises to set and darken," I said. "Then we'll go downtown."
She began to laugh. Then she went over to the mirror and looked at herself. She began to cry.
"Get out of here while I change my clothes!" she yelled. "I'll give it a tumble. But if it makes any difference to Steve-I'm going to tell it right."
"Aw, shut up and change your clothes," I said.
I went out and banged the door.
I hadn't even kissed her. I could have done that, at least. She wouldn't have minded any more than the rest of the knocking about I gave her.
We rode the rest of the night, first in separate cars to hide hers in my garage, then in mine. We rode up the coast and had coffee and sandwiches at Malibu, then on up and over. We had breakfast at the bottom of the Ridge Route, just north of San Fernando.
Her face looked like a catcher's mitt after a tough season. She had a lower lip the size of a banana and you could have cooked steaks on the bruises on her arms and neck, they were so hot.
With the first strong daylight we went to the City Hall.
They didn't even think of holding her or checking her up. They practically wrote the statement themselves. She signed it blank-eyed, thinking of something else. Then a man from KLBL and his wife came down to get her.
So I didn't get to ride her to a hotel. She didn't get to see Skalla either, not then. He was under morphine.
He died at two-thirty the same afternoon. She was holding one of his huge, limp fingers, but he didn't know her from the Queen of Siam.
© Aerius, 2004