Authors: Raymond Chandler
A tapping sound awoke me. It was very light but it was also persistent. I had the feeling that it had been going on a long time and that it had very gradually penetrated my sleep. I rolled over and listened. Somebody tried the door and then the tapping started again. I glanced at my wrist watch. The faint phosphorescence showed it was past three o’clock. I got up on my feet and moved over to my suitcase and reached down into it for the gun. I went over to the door and opened it a crack.
A dark figure in slacks stood there. Some kind of windbreaker also. And a dark scarf knotted around the head. It was a woman.
“What do you want?”
“Let me in—quickly. Don’t put any light on.”
So it was Betty Mayfield. I pulled the door back and she slid in like a wisp of the fog. I shut the door. I reached for my bathrobe and pulled it on.
“Anybody else outside?” I asked. “There’s nobody next door.”
“No. I’m alone.” She leaned against the wall and breathed quickly. I fumbled my pen flash out of my coat and poked a small beam around and found the heater switch. I shone the little light on her face. She blinked away from it and raised a hand. I put the light down on the floor and trailed it over to the windows and shut them both and lowered and turned the blinds. Then I went back and switched on the lamp.
She let out a gasp, then said nothing. She was still leaning against the wall. She looked as if she needed a drink. I went out to the kitchenette and poured some whiskey into a glass and carried it to her. She waved it away, then changed her mind and grabbed the glass and emptied it.
I sat down and lit a cigarette, the always mechanical reaction that gets so boring when someone else does it. Then I just sat there and looked at her and waited.
Our eyes met across great gulfs of nothing. After a while she reached slowly into the slanted pocket of the windbreaker and pulled out the gun.
“Oh no,” I said. “Not that again.”
She looked down at the gun. Her lip twitched. She wasn’t pointing it anywhere. She pushed herself away from the wall and crossed to lay the gun down at my elbow.
“I’ve seen it,” I said. “We’re old friends. Last time I saw it Mitchell had it. So?”
“That’s why I knocked you out. I was afraid he would shoot you.”
“That would have fouled up all his plans—whatever his plans were.”
“Well, I couldn’t be sure. I’m sorry. Sorry I hit you.”
“Thanks for the ice cubes,” I said.
“Aren’t you going to look at the gun?”
“I have looked at it.”
“I walked all the way over here from the Casa. I’m staying there now. I—moved in this afternoon.”
“I know. You took a taxi to the Del Mar station to catch an evening train and then Mitchell picked you up there and drove you back. You had dinner together and danced and there was a little ill-feeling. A man named Clark Brandon took you back to the hotel in his convertible.”
She stared. “I didn’t see you there,” she said finally, in a voice that was thinking of other things.
“I was in the bar. While you were with Mitchell you were too busy getting your face slapped and telling him to wear a bullet-proof vest next time he came around. Then at Brandon’s table you sat with your back to me. I left before you did and waited outside.”
“I’m beginning to think you
a detective,” she said quietly. Her eyes went to the gun again. “He never gave it back to me,” she said. “Of course I couldn’t prove that.”
“That means you’d like to be able to.”
“It might help a little. It probably wouldn’t help quite enough. Not when they found out about me. I guess you know what I’m talking about.”
“Sit down and stop grinding your teeth.”
She moved slowly to a chair and sat down on the edge and leaned forward. She stared at the floor.
“I know there’s something to find out,” I said. “Because Mitchell found it out. So I could find it out too—if I tried. Anyone could who knows there is something to find. I don’t know at this moment. All I was hired to do was to keep in touch and report back.”
She looked up briefly. “And you’ve done that?”
“I reported in,” I said after a pause. “I’d lost contact at the time. I mentioned San Diego. He’d get that from the operator anyway.”
“You’d lost contact,” she repeated dryly. “He must think a lot of you, whoever he is.” Then she bit her lip. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to say that. I’m trying to make up my mind about something.”
“Take your time,” I said. “It’s only twenty past three
I looked towards the wall heater. It didn’t show a thing, but there seemed to be a lessening of the chill if no more. I decided I needed a drink. I went out to the kitchen and got it. I put it down, poured some more and came back.
She had a small imitation leather folder in her hand now. She showed it to me.
“I have five thousand dollars in American Express checks in this—one hundred dollar size. How far would you go for five grand, Marlowe?”
I took a sip of whiskey. I thought about it with a judicial expression. “Assuming a normal rate of expenses, that would buy me full time for several months. That is, if I happened to be for sale.”
She tapped on the chair arm with the folder. I could see that her other hand was almost pulling her kneecap off.
“You’re for sale all right,” she said. “And this would be merely a down payment. I can buy big. I’ve got more money than you ever dreamed of. My last husband was so rich that it was pitiful. I got a cool half million dollars out of him.”
She put a hardboiled sneer on her face and gave me plenty of time to get used to it.
“I take it I wouldn’t have to murder anybody?”
“You wouldn’t have to murder anybody.”
“I don’t like the way you say that.”
I looked sideways at the gun that I hadn’t so far laid a finger on. She had walked over from the Casa in the middle of the night to bring it to me. I didn’t have to touch it. I stared at it. I bent over and sniffed it. I still didn’t have to touch it, but I knew I was going to.
“Who’s wearing the bullet?” I asked her. The cold in the room had got into my blood. It ran ice water.
“Just one bullet? How did you know?”
I picked up the gun then. I slipped the magazine out, looked at it, slipped it back. It snapped home in the butt.
“Well, it could have been two,” I said. “There are six in the magazine. This gun holds seven. You could jack one into the chamber and then add another to the magazine. Of course you could fire the whole supply and then put six in the magazine.”
“We’re just talking, aren’t we?” she said slowly. “We don’t quite want to say it in plain words.”
“All right. Where is he?”
“Lying across a chaise on the balcony of my room. All the rooms on that side have balconies. They have concrete walls across them, and the end walls—between the rooms or suites, that is—are slanted outward. I guess a steeplejack or a mountain climber might get around one of the end walls, but not carrying a weight. I’m on the twelfth floor. There’s nothing any higher but the penthouse floor.” She stopped and frowned, then made a sort of helpless gesture with the hand that had been squeezing her kneecap. “This is going to sound a little corny,” she went on. “He could only have got there through my room. And I didn’t let him through my room.”
“But you’re sure he’s dead?”
“Quite sure. Quite dead. Stone cold dead. I don’t know when it happened. I didn’t hear a sound. Something woke me all right. But it wasn’t any sound like a shot. Anyhow he was already cold. So I don’t know what woke me. And I didn’t get up right away. I just lay there, thinking. I didn’t go back to sleep, so after a while I put the light on and got up and walked around and smoked. Then I noticed the fog was gone and it was moonlight. Not down on the ground, but up there on my floor. I could still see fog down below when I went out on the balcony. It was damned cold. The stars seemed enormous. I stood there near the wall for quite a while before I even saw him. I guess that sounds pretty corny too—or pretty unlikely. I can’t imagine the police taking it very seriously—even at first. And afterwards—well, just take it this way. I haven’t a chance in a million—unless I get help.”
I stood up, tossed down what whiskey was left in the glass and walked over to her.
“Let me tell you two or three things. First off, you’re not taking this with normal reactions. You’re not icy cool, but you’re too cool. No panic, no hysteria, no nothing. You’re fatalistic. Next, I heard the entire conversation between you and Mitchell this afternoon. I took those bulbs out”—I pointed to the wall heater—“and used a stethoscope against the partition at the back. What Mitchell had on you was a knowledge of who you were, and that knowledge was something that if published could drive you into another switch of names and another dodge to some other town somewhere. You said you were the luckiest girl in the world because you were alive. Now a man is dead on your balcony, shot with your gun, and the man of course is Mitchell. Right?”
She nodded. “Yes, it’s Larry.”
“And you didn’t kill him, you say. And the cops would hardly believe that even at first, you say. And later on not at all. My guess is that you’ve been there before.”
She was still looking up at me. She came slowly to her feet. Our faces were close, we stared hard into each other’s eyes. It didn’t mean a thing.
“Half a million dollars is a lot of money, Marlowe. You’re not too hard to take. There are places in the world where you and I could have a beautiful life. In one of those tall apartment houses along the ocean front in Rio. I don’t know how long it would last, but things can always be arranged, don’t you think?”
I said: “What a lot of different girls you are. Now you’re making like a moll. When I first saw you, you were a quiet well-bred little lady. You didn’t like dreamboats like Mitchell making a pitch at you. Then you bought yourself a pack of cigarettes and smoked one as if you hated it. Then you let him cuddle you—after you got down here. Then you tore your blouse at me ha, ha, ha, cynical as a Park Avenue pet after her butter and egg man goes home. Then you let me cuddle you. Then you cracked me on the head with a whiskey bottle. Now you’re talking about a beautiful life in Rio. Which one of you would have her head on the next pillow when I woke up in the morning?”
“Five thousand dollars down. And a lot more to come. The police wouldn’t give you five toothpicks. If you think different, you have a telephone.”
“What do I do for the five grand?”
She let her breath out slowly as if a crisis was past. “The hotel is built almost on the edge of the cliff. At the foot of the wall there’s only a narrow walk, very narrow. Below the cliffs are rocks and the sea. It’s almost high tide. My balcony hangs right over all that.”
I nodded. “Are there fire stairs?”
“From the garage. They start just beside the basement elevator landing, which is up two or three steps from the garage floor. But it’s a long hard climb.”
“For five grand I’d climb it in a diver’s suit. Did you come out through the lobby?”
“Fire stairs. There’s an all night man in the garage but he was asleep in one of the cars.”
“You said Mitchell is lying on a chaise. Is there a lot of blood?”
She winced. “I—I didn’t notice. I suppose there must be.”
“You didn’t notice? You went near enough to find out he was stone cold dead. Where was he shot?”
“Nowhere that I saw. It must have been under him.”
“Where was the gun?”
“It was lying on the floor of the porch—beside his hand.”
She widened her eyes slightly. “Does it matter? I don’t know which hand. He’s sort of lying across the chaise with his head hanging on one side and his legs on the other. Do we have to keep on talking about it?”
“All right,” I said. “I don’t know a damn thing about the tides and currents around here. He might wash up on the beach tomorrow and he might not show up for two weeks. Assuming, of course, we bring it off. If it’s a long time they may not even find out he was shot. Then I guess there’s some possibility that he won’t be found at all. Not much, but some. There are barracuda in these waters, and other things.”
“You certainly do a thorough job of making it revolting,” she said.
“Well, I had a running start. Also I was thinking if there was any chance of suicide. Then we’d have to put the gun back. He was left-handed, you know. That’s why I wanted to know which hand.”
“Oh. Yes, he was left-handed. You’re right. But not suicide. Not that smirking, self-satisfied gentleman.”
“Sometimes a man kills the dearest thing he loves, they say. Couldn’t it be himself?”
“Not this character,” she said briefly and finally. “If we are very lucky, they will probably think he fell off the balcony. God knows he was drunk enough. And by that time I’ll be in South America. My passport is still valid.”
“In what name is your passport?”
She reached out and drew her fingertips down my cheek. ‘You’ll know all about me soon enough. Don’t be impatient. You’ll know all the intimate things about me. Can’t you wait a little?”
“Yeah. Start getting intimate with those American Express checks. We have another hour or two of darkness and more than that of fog. You play with the checks while I get dressed.”
I reached into my jacket and gave her a fountain pen. She sat down near the light and began to sign them with the second signature. Her tongue peeped out between her teeth. She wrote slowly and carefully. The name she wrote was Elizabeth Mayfield.
So the switch of names had been planned before she left Washington.
While I dressed I wondered if she was really foolish enough to think I’d help her dispose of a body.
I carried the glasses out to the kitchenette and scooped the gun up on the way. I let the swing door close and slipped the gun and the magazine into the tray under the broiler of the stove. I rinsed out the glasses and wiped them off. I went back into the living room and threw my clothes on. She didn’t even look at me.
She went on signing the checks. When she had finished, I took the folder of checks and flipped them over one by one, checking the signatures. The big money meant nothing to me. I shoved the folder into my pocket, put the lamp out and moved to the door. I opened it and she was beside me. She was close beside me.