Authors: Raymond Chandler
There are almost too many offices like Clyde Umney’s office. It was paneled in squares of combed plywood set at right angles one to the other to make a checkerboard effect. The lighting was indirect, the carpeting wall to wall, the furniture blond, the chairs comfortable, and the fees probably exorbitant. The metal window frames opened outward and there was a small but neat parking lot behind the building, and every slot in it had a name painted on a white board. For some reason Clyde Umney’s stall was vacant, so I used it. Maybe he had a chauffeur drive him to his office. The building was four stories high, very new, and occupied entirely by doctors and lawyers.
When I entered, Miss Vermilyea was just fixing herself for a hard day’s work by touching up her platinum blond coiffure. I thought she looked a little the worse for wear. She put away her hand mirror and fed herself a cigarette.
“Well, well. Mr. Hard Guy in person. To what may we attribute this honor?”
“Umney’s expecting me.”
Umney to you, buster.”
“Boydie-boy to you, sister.”
She got raging in an instant. “Don’t call me ‘sister,’ you cheap gumshoe!”
“Then don’t call me buster, you very expensive secretary. What are you doing tonight? And don’t tell me you’re going out with four sailors again.”
The skin around her eyes turned whiter. Her hand crisped into a claw around a paperweight. She just didn’t heave it at me. “You son of a bitch!” she said somewhat pointedly. Then she flipped a switch on her talk box and said to the voice: “Mr. Marlowe is here, Mr. Umney.”
Then she leaned back and gave me the look. “I’ve got friends who could cut you down so small you’d need a stepladder to put your shoes on.”
“Somebody did a lot of hard work on that one,” I said. “But hard work’s no substitute for talent.”
Suddenly we both burst out laughing. The door opened and Umney stuck his face out. He gestured me in with his chin, but his eyes were on the platinum girl.
I went in and after a moment he closed the door and went behind his enormous semicircular desk, with a green leather top and just piles and piles of important documents on it. He was a dapper man, very carefully dressed, too short in the legs, too long in the nose, too sparse in the hair. He had limpid brown eyes which, for a lawyer, looked very trustful.
“You making a pass at my secretary?” he asked me in a voice that was anything but limpid.
“Nope. We were just exchanging pleasantries.”
I sat down in the customer’s chair and looked at him with something approaching politeness.
“She looked pretty mad to me.” He squatted in his executive vice-president type chair and made his face tough.
“She’s booked up for three weeks,” I said. “I couldn’t wait that long.”
“Just watch your step, Marlowe. Lay off. She’s private property. She wouldn’t give you the time of day. Besides being a lovely piece of female humanity, she’s as smart as a whip.”
“You mean she can type and take dictation as well?”
“As well as what?” He reddened suddenly. “I’ve taken enough lip from you. Just watch your step. Very carefully. I have enough influence around this town to hang a red light on you. Now let me have your report and make it short and to the point.”
“You talk to Washington yet?”
“Never mind what I did or didn’t do. I want your report as of right now. The rest is my business. What’s the present location of the King girl?” He reached for a nice sharp pencil and a nice clean pad. Then he dropped the pencil and poured himself a glass of water from a black and silver thermos jug.
“Let’s trade,” I said. “You tell me why you want her found and I’ll tell you where she is.”
“You’re my employee,” he snapped. “I don’t have to give you any information whatsoever.” He was still tough but beginning to shred a little around the edge.
“I’m your employee if I want to be, Mr. Umney. No check has been cashed, no agreement has been made.”
“You accepted the assignment. You took an advance.”
“Miss Vermilyea gave me a check for two hundred and fifty as an advance, and another check for two hundred for expenses. But I didn’t bank them. Here they are.” I took the two checks out of my pocketbook and laid them on the desk in front of him. “Better keep them until you make up your mind whether you want an investigator or a yes man, and until I make up my mind whether I was offered a job or was being suckered into a situation I knew nothing about.”
He looked down at the checks. He wasn’t happy. “You’ve already had expenses,” he said slowly.
“That’s all right, Mr. Umney. I had a few dollars saved up—and the expenses are deductible. Also I’ve had fun.”
“You’re pretty stubborn, Marlowe.”
“I guess, but I have to be in my business. Otherwise I wouldn’t be in business. I told you the girl was being blackmailed. Your Washington friends must know why. If she’s a crook, fine. But I have to get told. And I have an offer you can’t match.”
“For more money you are willing to switch sides?” he asked angrily. “That would be unethical.”
I laughed. “So I’ve got ethics now. Maybe we’re getting somewhere.”
He took a cigarette out of a box and lit it with a pot-bellied lighter that matched the thermos and the pen set.
“I still don’t like your attitude,” he growled. “Yesterday I didn’t know any more than you did. I took it for granted that a reputable Washington law firm would not ask me to do anything against legal ethics. Since the girl could have been arrested without difficulty, I assumed it was some sort of domestic mix-up, a runaway wife or daughter, or an important but reluctant witness who was already outside the jurisdiction where she could be subpoenaed. That was just guessing. This morning things are a little different.”
He got up and walked to the big window and turned the slats of the blinds enough to keep the sun off his desk. He stood there smoking, looking out, then came back to the desk and sat down again.
“This morning,” he went on slowly and with a judicious frown, “I talked to my Washington associates and I am informed that the girl was confidential secretary to a rich and important man—I’m not told his name—and that she absconded with certain important and dangerous papers from his private files. Papers that might be damaging to him if made public. I’m not told in what way. Perhaps he has been fudging his tax returns. You never know these days.”
“She took this stuff to blackmail him?”
Umney nodded. “That is the natural assumption. They had no value to her otherwise. The client, Mr. A we will call him, didn’t realize that the girl had left until she was already in another state. He then checked his files and found that some of his material was gone. He was reluctant to go to the police. He expects the girl to go far enough away to feel safe and from that point to start negotiations with him for the return of the material at a heavy price. He wants to peg her down somewhere without her knowing it, walk in and catch her off balance and especially before she contacts some sharp lawyer, of whom I regret to say there are far too many, and with the sharp lawyer works out a scheme that would make her safe from prosecution. Now you tell me someone is blackmailing her. On what grounds?”
“If your story stood up, it could be because he is in a position to spoil her play,” I said. “Maybe he knows something that could hang a pinch on her without opening up the other box of candy.”
“You say if the story stood up,” he snapped. “What do you mean by that?”
“It’s as full of holes as a sink strainer. You’re being fed a line, Mr. Umney. Where would a man keep material like the important papers you mention—if he had to keep them at all? Certainly not where a secretary could get them. And unless he missed the stuff before she left, how did he get her followed to the train? Next, although she took a ticket to California, she could have got off anywhere. Therefore she would have to be watched on the train, and if that was done, why did someone need me to pick her up here? Next, this, as you tell it, would be a job for a large agency with nation-wide connections. It would be idiotic to take a chance on one man. I lost her yesterday. I could lose her again. It takes a bare minimum of six operatives to do a standard tail job in any sizable place, and that’s just what I mean—a bare minimum. In a really big city you’d need a dozen. An operative has to eat and sleep and change his shirt. If he’s tailing by car he has to be able to drop a man while he finds a place to park. Department stores and hotels may have half a dozen entrances. But all this girl does is hang around Union Station here for three hours in full view of everybody. And all your friends in Washington do is mail you a picture, call you on the phone, and then go back to watching television.”
“Very clear,” he said. “Anything else?” His face was deadpan now.
“A little. Why—if she didn’t expect to be followed—would she change her name? Why if she did expect to be followed would she make it so easy? I told you two other guys were working the same side of the street. One is a Kansas City private detective named Goble. He was in Esmeralda yesterday. He knew just where to go. Who told him? I had to follow her and bribe a taxi driver to use his R/T outfit to find out where her cab was going so that I wouldn’t lose her. So why was I hired?”
“We’ll come to that,” Umney said curtly. “Who was the other party you say was working the same side of the street?”
“A playboy named Mitchell. He lives down there. He met the girl on the train. He made a reservation for her in Esmeralda. They’re just like that”—I held up two touching fingers—“except that she hates his guts. He’s got something on her and she is afraid of him. What he has on her is a knowledge of who she is, where she came from, what happened to her there, and why she is trying to hide under another name. I overheard enough to know that, but not enough to give me exact information.”
Umney said acidly: “Of course the girl was covered on the train. Do you think you are dealing with idiots? You were nothing more than a decoy—to determine whether she had any associates. On your reputation—such as it is—I relied on you to grandstand just enough to let her get wise to you. I guess you know what an open shadow is.”
“Sure. One that deliberately lets the subject spot him, then shake him, so that another shadow can pick him up when he thinks he is safe.”
“You were it.” He grinned at me contemptuously. “But you still haven’t told me where she is.”
I didn’t want to tell him, but I knew I’d have to. I had up to a point accepted the assignment, and giving him back his money was only a move to force some information out of him.
I reached across the desk and picked up the $250 check. “I’ll take this as payment in full, expenses included. She is registered as Miss Betty Mayfield at the Casa del Poniente in Esmeralda. She is loaded with money. But of course your expert organization must know all this already.”
I stood up. “Thanks for the ride, Mr. Umney.”
I went out and shut his door. Miss Vermilyea looked up from a magazine. I heard a faint muffled click from somewhere in her desk.
“I’m sorry I was rude to you,” I said. “I didn’t get enough sleep last night.”
“Forget it. It was a stand-off. With a little practice I might get to like you. You’re kind of cute in a low down sort of way.”
“Thanks,” I said and moved to the door. I wouldn’t say she looked exactly wistful, but neither did she look as hard to get as a controlling interest in General Motors.
I turned back and closed the door.
“I guess it’s not raining tonight, is it? There was something we might have discussed over a drink, if it had been a rainy night. And if you had not been too busy.”
She gave me a cool amused look. “Where?”
“That would be up to you.”
“Should I drop by your place?”
“It would be damn nice of you. That Fleetwood night help my credit standing.”
“I wasn’t exactly thinking of that.”
“Neither was I.”
“About six-thirty perhaps. And I’ll take good care of my nylons.”
“I was hoping you would.”
Our glances locked. I went out quickly.
At half past six the Fleetwood purred to the front door and I had it open when she came up the steps. She was hatless. She wore a flesh-colored coat with the collar turned up against her platinum hair. She stood in the middle of the living room and looked around casually. Then she slipped the coat off with a lithe movement and threw it on the davenport and sat down.
“I didn’t really think you’d come,” I said.
“No. You’re the shy type. You knew darned well I’d come. Scotch and soda, if you have it.”
“I have it.”
I brought the drinks and sat down beside her, but not close enough for it to mean anything. We touched glasses and drank.
“Would you care to go to Romanoff’s for dinner?”
“And then what?”
“Where do you live?”
“West Los Angeles. A house on a quiet old street. It happens to belong to me. I asked you, and then what, remember?”
“That would be up to you, naturally.”
“I thought you were a tough guy. You mean I don’t have to pay for my dinner?”
“I ought to slap your face for that crack.”
She laughed suddenly and stared at me over the edge of her glass.
“Consider it slapped. We had each other a bit wrong. Romanoff’s could wait a while, couldn’t it?”
“We could try West Los Angeles first.”
“Why not here?”
“I guess this will make you walk out on me. I had a dream here once, a year and a half ago. There’s still a shred of it left. I’d like it to stay in charge.”
She stood up quickly and grabbed her coat. I managed to help her on with it.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I should have told you before.”
She swung around with her face close to mine, but I didn’t touch her.
“Sorry that you had a dream and kept it alive? I’ve had dreams too, but mine died. I didn’t have the courage to keep them alive.”
“It’s not quite like that. There was a woman. She was rich. She thought she wanted to marry me. It wouldn’t have worked. I’ll probably never see her again. But I remember.”
“Let’s go,” she said quietly. “And let’s leave the memory in charge. I only wish I had one worth remembering.”
On the way down to the Cadillac I didn’t touch her either. She drove beautifully. When a woman is a really good driver she is just about perfect.