Authors: Raymond Chandler
After a while I went down to the office.
“Well, it didn’t work,” I said. “Does either one of you happen to have noticed the cabdriver who took her away?”
“Joe Harms,” the girl said promptly. “You ought to maybe find him at the stand halfway up Grand. Or you could call the office. A pretty nice guy. He made a pass at me once.”
“And missed by from here to Paso Robles,” the clerk sneered.
“Oh, I don’t know. You didn’t seem to be there.”
“Yeah,” he sighed. “You work twenty hours a day trying to put enough together to buy a home. And by the time you have, fifteen other guys have been smooching your girl.”
“Not this one,” I said. “She’s just teasing you. She glows every time she looks at you.”
I went out and left them smiling at each other.
Like most small towns, Esmeralda had one main street from which in both directions its commercial establishments flowed gently for a short block or so and then with hardly a change of mood became streets with houses where people lived. But unlike most small California towns it had no false fronts, no cheesy billboards, no drive-in hamburger joints, no cigar counters or pool-rooms, and no street corner toughs to hang around in front of them. The stores on Grand Street were either old and narrow but not tawdry or else well modernized with plate glass and stainless steel fronts and neon lighting in clear crisp colors. Not everybody in Esmeralda was prosperous, not everybody was happy, not everybody drove a Cadillac, a Jaguar or a Riley, but the percentage of obviously prosperous living was very high, and the stores that sold luxury goods were as neat and expensive-looking as those in Beverly Hills and far less flashy. There was another small difference too. In Esmeralda what was old was also clean and sometimes quaint. In other small towns what is old is just shabby.
I parked midway of the block and the telephone office was right in front of me. It was closed of course, but the entrance was set back and in the alcove which deliberately sacrificed money space to style were two dark green phone booths, like sentry boxes. Across the way was a pale buff taxi, parked diagonally to the curb in slots painted red. A gray-haired man sat in it reading the paper. I crossed to him.
“You Joe Harms?”
He shook his head. “He’ll be back after a while. You want a cab?”
I walked away from him and looked in at a store window. There was a checked brown and beige sport shirt in the window which reminded me of Larry Mitchell. Walnut brogues, imported tweeds, ties, two or three, and matching shirts for them set out with plenty of room to breathe. Over the store the name of a man who was once a famous athlete. The name was in script, carved and painted in relief against a redwood background.
A telephone jangled and the cabdriver got out of the taxi and went across the sidewalk to answer it. He talked, hung up, got in his cab and backed out of the slot. When he was gone, the street was utterly empty for a minute. Then a couple of cars went by, then a good-looking well dressed colored boy and his prettied up cutie came strolling the block looking in at the windows and chattering. A Mexican in a green bellhop’s uniform drove up in somebody’s Chrysler New Yorker—it could be his for all I knew—went into the drugstore and came out with a carton of cigarettes. He drove back towards the hotel.
Another beige cab with the name Esmeralda Cab Company tooled around the corner and drifted into the red slot. A big bruiser with thick glasses got out and checked on the wall phone, then got back into his cab and pulled a magazine out from behind his rear-view mirror.
I strolled over to him and he was it. He was coatless and had his sleeves rolled up past the elbows, although this was no Bikini suit weather.
“Yeah. I’m Joe Harms.” He stuck a pill in his kisser and lit it with a Ronson.
“Lucille down at the Rancho Descansado thought maybe you’d give me a little information.” I leaned against his cab and gave him my big warm smile. I might as well have kicked the curbing.
“Information about what?”
“You picked up a fare this evening from one of their cottages. Number 12C. A tallish girl with reddish hair and a nice shape. Her name’s Betty Mayfield but she probably didn’t tell you that.”
“Mostly they just tell me where they want to go. Quaint, isn’t it?” He blew a lungful of smoke at his windshield and watched it flatten out and float around in the cab. “What’s the pitch?”
“Girl friend walked out on me. We had a little argument. All my fault. I’d like to tell her I’m sorry.”
“Girl friend got a home somewhere?”
“A long way from here.”
He knocked ash from his cigarette by flicking his little finger at it still in his mouth.
“Could be she planned it that way. Could be she don’t want you to know where she went. Could be you were lucky at that. They can drop the arm on you for shacking up in a hotel in this town. I’ll admit it has to be pretty flagrant.”
“Could be I’m a liar,” I said, and got a business card out of my wallet. He read it and handed it back.
“Better,” he said. “Some better. But it’s against the company rules. I’m not driving this hack just to build muscle.”
“A five interest you? Or is that against the rules too?”
“My old man owns the company. He’d be pretty sore if I was on the chisel. Not that I don’t like money.”
The phone on the wall jangled. He slid out of the cab and went over to it in about three long strides. I just stood planted, gnawing my lip. He talked and came back and stepped into the cab and was sitting behind the wheel all in one motion.
“Have to blow,” he said. “Sorry. I’m kind of behind schedule. Just got back from Del Mar, the seven forty-seven to L.A. makes a flag stop there. Most people from here go that way.”
He started his motor and leaned out of the cab to drop his cigarette in the street.
I said, “Thanks.”
“For what?” He backed out and was gone.
I looked at my watch again. Time and distance checked. It was all of twelve miles to Del Mar. It would take almost an hour to ferry someone to Del Mar and drop him or her off at the railroad station and turn around and come back. He had told me in his own way. There was no point in telling me at all unless it meant something.
I watched him out of sight and then crossed the street to the booths outside the telephone company’s office. I left the booth door open and dropped my dime and dialed the big OShe stopped and frowned.
“I’d like to make a collect call to West Los Angeles, please.” I gave her a Bradshaw number. “Person to person, Mr. Clyde Umney. My name is Marlowe and I’m calling from Esmeralda 4-2673, a pay phone.”
She got him a lot quicker than it took me to tell her all that. He came on sharp and quick.
“Marlowe? It’s about time you reported in. Well—let’s have it.”
“I’m in San Diego. I’ve lost her. She slipped away while I was taking a nap.”
“I just knew I’d picked a smart cookie,” he said unpleasantly.
“It’s not as bad as it sounds, Mr. Umney. I have a rough idea where she went.”
“Rough ideas are not good enough for me. When I hire a man I expect him to deliver exactly what I order. And just what do you mean by a rough idea?”
“Would it be possible for you to give me some notion of what this is all about, Mr. Umney? I grabbed it off kind of quick on account of meeting the train. Your secretary gave me a lot of personality but very little information. You want me to be happy in my work, don’t you, Mr. Umney?”
“I gathered that Miss Vermilyea told you all there is to know,” he grumbled. “I am acting at the request of an important law firm in Washington. Their client desires to remain anonymous for the present. All you have to do is trace this party to a stopping place, and by stopping place I do not mean a rest room or a hamburger stand. I mean a hotel, apartment house, or perhaps the home of someone she knows. That’s all. How much simpler do you want it?”
“I’m not asking for simplicity, Mr. Umney. I’m asking for background material. Who the girl is, where she came from, what she’s supposed to have done to make this job necessary.”
“Necessary?” he yapped at me. “Who the hell are you to decide what is necessary? Find that girl, pin her down, and phone me her address. And if you expect to be paid, you better do it damn quick. I’ll give you until ten o’clock tomorrow morning. After that I’ll make other arrangements.”
“Okay, Mr. Umney.”
“Where are you exactly and what is your telephone number?”
“I’m just kind of wandering around. I got hit on the head with a whiskey bottle.”
“Well, that’s too bad,” he said acidly. “I presume you had already emptied the bottle.”
“Oh it might have been worse, Mr. Umney. It might have been
head. I’ll call you around ten
at your office. Don’t worry about anybody losing anybody. There’s two other guys working the same side of the street. One’s a local boy named Mitchell and the other is a Kansas City shamus name of Goble. He carries a gun. Well, good night, Mr. Umney.”
“Hold it!” he roared. “Wait a minute! What does that mean—two other operatives?”
“You asking me what it means? I’m the guy that asked you. Looks like you only got a piece of the job.”
“Hold it! Hold it right there!” There was a silence. Then in a steady voice that didn’t bluster any more: “I’ll call Washington the first thing in the morning, Marlowe. Excuse me if I sounded off. It begins to look as though I am entitled to a little more information about this project.”
“If you make contact again, call me here. At any hour. Any hour at all.”
“Good night, then.” He hung up.
I put the phone back on the hook and took a deep breath. My head still ached but the dizziness was gone. I breathed in the cool night air laced with sea fog. I pushed out of the booth and looked across the street. The old guy who had been in the taxi slot when I arrived was back again. I strolled across and asked him how to get to The Glass Room, which was where Mitchell had promised to take Miss Betty Mayfield to dinner—whether she liked it or not. He told me, I thanked him, recrossed the empty street and climbed into my rented car, and started back the way I had come.
It was still possible that Miss Mayfield had grabbed the 7:47 for Los Angeles or some way station. It was a lot more likely that she had not. A cabdriver taking a fare to the station doesn’t stick around to watch the fare get on the train. Larry Mitchell wouldn’t be that easy to shake. If he had enough on her to make her come to Esmeralda, he had enough on her to keep her there. He knew who I was and what I was doing. He didn’t know why, because I didn’t know myself. If he had half a brain, and I gave him credit for a good deal more, he would have to assume I could trace her movements as far as a taxi took her. The first guess I was working on was that he would have driven to Del Mar, parked his big Buick somewhere in the shadows, and waited for her taxi to drive up and unload. When it turned around and started back, he would pick her up and drive her back to Esmeralda. The second guess I was working on was that she wouldn’t tell him anything he didn’t already know. I was a Los Angeles private eye, unknown parties had hired me to follow her, I had done so and then made the mistake of trying to get too close. That would bother him because it suggested he didn’t have the field to himself. But if his information, whatever it was, came from a press clipping, he could hardly expect to have it to himself forever. Anybody with enough interest and enough patience could turn it up in time. Anybody with enough reason to hire a private dick probably knew it already. And that in turn meant that whatever kind of bite he planned to put on Betty Mayfield, financial or amatory or both, would have to be put on fast.
A third of a mile down the canyon a small illuminated sign with an arrow pointing seaward said in script
The road wound down between cliffside houses with warm lights in the windows, manicured gardens, stucco walls and one or two of fieldstone or brick inset with tiles in the Mexican tradition.
I drove down the last curve of the last hill and the smell of raw seaweed filled my nostrils and the fog-veiled lights of The Glass Room swelled to amber brightness and the sound of dance music drifted across the paved parking lot. I parked with the sea growling out of sight almost at my feet. There was no attendant. You just locked your car and went in.
A couple of dozen cars, no more. I looked them over. One hunch at least had paid off. The Buick Roadmaster solid top bore a license number I had in my pocket. It was parked almost at the entrance and next to it in the very last space near the entrance was a pale green and ivory Cadillac convertible with oyster-white leather seats, a plaid traveling rug thrown over the front seat to keep it dry, and all the gadgets a dealer could think of, including two enormous spotlights with mirrors on them, a radio aerial almost long enough for a tuna boat, a folding chromium luggage rack to help out the boot if you wanted to travel far and in style, a sun visor, a prism reflector to pick up traffic lights obscured by the visor, a radio with enough knobs on it for a control panel, a cigarette lighter into which you dropped your cigarette and it smoked it for you, and various other trifles which made me wonder how long it would be before they installed radar, sound-recording equipment, a bar, and an anti-aircraft battery.
All this I saw by the light of a clip-on flash. I moved it to the license holder and the name was Clark Brandon, Hotel Casa del Poniente, Esmeralda, California.
The entrance lobby was on a balcony which looked down over the bar and a dining room on two levels. A curving carpeted staircase led down to the bar. Nobody was upstairs but the hat-check girl and an elderly party in a phone booth whose expression suggested that nobody better fool with him.
I went down the stairs to the bar and tucked myself in a small curved space that commanded a view of the dance floor. One side of the building was an enormous glass window. Outside of it was nothing but fog, but on a clear night with a moon low over the water it would have been sensational. A three-piece Mexican band was making the kind of music a Mexican band always makes. Whatever they play, it all sounds the same. They always sing the same song, and it always has nice open vowels and a drawn out sugary lilt, and the guy who sings it always strums on a guitar and has a lot to say about
amor, mi corazón,
a lady who is “linda” but very hard to convince, and he always has too long and too oily hair and when he isn’t making with the love stuff he looks as if his knife work in an alley would be efficient and economical.
On the dance floor half a dozen couples were throwing themselves around with the reckless abandon of a night watchman with arthritis. Most of them were dancing cheek to cheek, if dancing is the word. The men wore white tuxedos and the girls wore bright eyes, ruby lips, and tennis or golf muscles. One couple was not dancing cheek to cheek. The guy was too drunk to keep time and the girl was too busy not getting her pumps walked on to think of anything else. I needn’t have worried about losing Miss Betty Mayfield. She was there and with Mitchell, but far from happy. Mitchell’s mouth was open, he was grinning, his face was red and shiny, and his eyes had that glazed look. Betty was holding her head as far as she could get away from him without breaking her neck. It was very obvious that she had had about all of Mr. Larry Mitchell that she could take.
A Mexican waiter in a short green jacket and white pants with a green stripe down the side came up and I ordered a double Gibson and asked if I could have a club sandwich where I was. He said,
“Muy bien, senor,”
smiled brightly, and disappeared.
The music stopped, there was desultory clapping. The orchestra was deeply moved, and played another number. A dark-haired headwaiter who looked like a road company Herbert Marshall circulated among the tables offering his intimate smile and stopping here and there to polish an apple. Then he pulled out a chair and sat down opposite a big handsome Irish type character with gray in his hair and just enough of it. He seemed to be alone. He wore a dark dinner jacket with a maroon carnation in the lapel. He looked like a nice guy if you didn’t crowd him. At that distance and in that light I couldn’t tell much more, except that if you did crowd him, you had better be big, fast, tough and in top condition.
The headwaiter leaned forward and said something and they both looked towards Mitchell and the Mayfield girl. The captain seemed concerned, the big guy didn’t seem to care much one way or another. The headwaiter got up and left. The big guy fitted a cigarette into a holder and a waiter popped a lighter at him as if be had been waiting all evening for the opportunity. The big guy thanked him without looking up.
My drink came and I grabbed it and drank. The music stopped and stayed stopped. The couples divided and strolled back to their tables. Larry Mitchell still had hold of Betty. He was still grinning. Then he began to pull her close. He put his hand behind her head. She tried to shake him off. He pulled harder and pushed his flushed face down on hers. She struggled but he was too strong for her. He chewed her face some more. She kicked him. He jerked his head up, annoyed.
“Let go of me, you drunken slob,” she said breathlessly but very distinctly.
His face got a nasty look. He grabbed her arms hard enough to bruise her and slowly using his strength he pulled her tight against his body and held her there. People looked hard, but nobody moved.
“Whassa matta, baby, you no love poppa no more?” he inquired loudly and thickly.
I didn’t see what she did to him with her knee but I could guess and it hurt him. He pushed her away and his face went savage. Then he hauled off and slapped her across the mouth forehand and backhand. The red showed on her skin at once.
She stood quite still. Then in a voice the whole joint could hear she said clearly and slowly: “Next time you do that, Mr. Mitchell—be sure to wear a bullet-proof vest.”
She turned and walked away. He just stood there. His face had gone glistening white—whether from pain or rage I couldn’t tell. The headwaiter walked softly up to him and murmured something with an inquiring lift of the eyebrow.
Mitchell brought his eyes down and looked at the man. Then without a word he walked right through him and the headwaiter had to stagger out of his way. Mitchell followed Betty, and on the way he bumped a man in a chair and didn’t stop to apologize. Betty was sitting down now at a table against the glass wall right next to the big dark guy in the dinner jacket. He looked at her. He looked at Mitchell. He took his cigarette holder out of his mouth and looked at that. His face was quite expressionless.
Mitchell reached the table. “You hurt me, sweetness,” he said thickly but loudly. “I’m a bad man to hurt. Catch on? Very bad. Want to apologize?”
She stood up, jerked a wrap off the back of the chair and faced him.
“Shall I pay the check, Mr. Mitchell—or will you pay it with what you borrowed from me?”
His hand went back for another swing at her face. She didn’t move. The guy at the next table did. He came up on his feet in one smooth movement and grabbed Mitchell’s wrist.
“Take it easy, Larry. You’ve got a skinful.” His voice was cool, almost amused.
Mitchell jerked his wrist loose and spun around. “Stay out of this, Brandon.”
“Delighted, old man. I’m not in it. But you’d better not slug the lady again. They don’t often throw people out of here—but it could happen.”
Mitchell laughed angrily. “Why don’t you go spit in your hat, mister?”
The big man said softly, “Take it easy, Larry, I said, I won’t say it again.”
Mitchell glared at him. “Okay, see you later,” he said in a sulky voice. He started off and stopped. “Much later,” he added, half turning. Then he went out—unsteadily but quickly, looking at nothing.
Brandon just stood there. The girl just stood there. She looked uncertain about what to do next.
She looked at him. He looked at her. He smiled, just polite and easygoing, no come-on. She didn’t smile back.
“Anything I could do?” he asked. “Drop you anywhere?” Then he half turned his head. “Oh, Carl.”
The headwaiter came up to him quickly.
“No check,” Brandon said. “You know, in the circumstances—”
“Please,” the girl said sharply. “I don’t want other people paying my bills.”
He shook his head slowly. “Custom of the house,” he said. “Nothing to do with me personally. But may I send you a drink?”
She looked at him some more. He had what it took all right. “Send?” she asked.
He smiled politely. “Well, bring then—if you care to sit down.”
And this time he pulled out the chair at his own table. And she sat down. And at that moment, nor a second before, the headwaiter signaled the orchestra and they began to play another number.
Mr. Clark Brandon seemed to be the sort of man who got what he wanted without raising his voice.
After a while my club sandwich came. It was nothing to brag about, but eatable. I ate it. I stuck around for half an hour. Brandon and the girl seemed to be doing all right. They were both quiet. After a while they danced. Then I left and sat in the car outside and smoked. She could have seen me although she didn’t show it. I knew Mitchell hadn’t. He had turned too quickly up the stairs, he had been too mad to see anything.
About ten-thirty, Brandon came out with her and they got into the Cadillac convertible with the top down. I followed it away without trying to hide because the way they went would be the way anybody would go back to the downtown part of Esmeralda. Where they went was to the Casa del Poniente, and Brandon drove down the ramp to the garage.
There was only one thing more to find out. I parked in the side lot and went through the lobby to the house phones.
“Miss Mayfield, please. Betty Mayfield.”
“One moment, please”—slight pause—“Oh yes, she just checked in. I’m ringing the room, sir.”
Another and much longer pause.
“I’m sorry, Miss Mayfield’s room does not answer.”
I thanked her and hung up. I beat it out of there fast in case she and Brandon should get off at the lobby.
I went back to my rented chariot, and poked my way along the canyon through the fog to the Rancho Descansado. The cottage where the office was seemed to be locked up and empty. A single hazy light outside showed the position of a night bell. I groped my way up to 12C, tucked the car in the car port, and yawned my way into my room. It was cold and damp and miserable. Someone had been in and taken the striped cover off the day bed and removed the matching pillowcases.
I undressed and put my curly head on the pillow and went to sleep.