MARLOWE AND THE MOVIE STAR
(A tribute to Raymond Chandler and Philip Marlowe)
I was about ready to turn the light out when there was a knock at my door and this dame walks in. She didn’t wait to be asked. I’d already got my coat on and she’s standing there, just inside the doorway. She smiled and said: “I saw your light on from the street. I came up... on the off-chance.”
I looked at her, trying to figure the politest, quickest way to turn her around. It had been a long, niggling, no-headway kind of day and I needed to check out with a couple of stiff ones at Jimmy’s before I hit dreamland. Jimmy’s wasn’t a late bar and I was running out of time.
“The door was open.” she said, her smile fading quicker than an L.A. sunset when I continued to button my coat.
“I think you mean, wasn’t locked, lady. There’s a difference. You normally walk right in on people without being asked?”
“I’m sorry,” she said.
“Anyhow, I’m closed for business. I’ve had a really long day and it’s ten-thirty. Even a PI’s got to get some shut-eye sometimes. Come back in the morning and we can shoot the breeze.”
You’d have thought she’d been hit by a truck the look on her face. There was some real sadness in them blue eyes. She chewed on her bottom lip and looked at the floor, like she was getting up the courage to go on. “Please, I do so need your help, Mr Marlowe.”
“Can’t it wait a few hours? Things might look a little better in the morning.”
“I’m afraid if I go away now I won’t come back.”
She was a smart looking broad, tall and elegant in her cream suit with what looked like real mink draped over the shoulders. The wide brim on the brown felt hat cast a shadow across her face. She reminded me of someone in the movies - that Vera, or Virginia Lake or somebody, some good-looking dame who was making her way in Hollywood these days.
I shrugged and sighed heavily. “Okay, lady, you win.” She looked up. Her eyes had begun to water-up. I offered her my handkerchief, thankfully a fresh one.
“Thank you,” she said, dabbing her eyes and then blowing her nose. “I’m sorry.” She handed it back, complete with smears of mascara.
“I guess I must be getting soft in my old age.”
“You don’t know how much I—”
“Sit down, lady... but I can only give you a coupla minutes - I’m behind schedule for my nightcap.”
“Thank you, Mr Marlowe. I just can’t tell you how much I appreciate it.”
I went to the cupboard where I kept the jar of coffee, the chocolate chip cookies and the bottle of Jameson’s. I took the bottle out and showed it her. “Do you..?” I said.
She shook her head. “No thank you,” she said and fished in her handbag until she found the cigarette packet. She took one, started to put the pack away, apologised, then offered me one.
“No thank you, ma’am. I used to smoke Camels, but these days I prefer a pipe – thanks anyway.”
I poured some whiskey into a chipped coffee mug and went back to sit behind my desk opposite her.
“You don’t mind, do you?” The unlit cigarette wiggled between her lips as she spoke.
“Go ahead, it’s a free country, ma’am.”
I was quick with my Zippo and had the flame flickering right there in front of her before she could find her lighter.
“Thank you.” She puffed the thing into a glow, blew smoke towards the ceiling and managed a smile. It was a sweet smile, but full of sadness. I began to feel sorry for her, so I took a slug of the Jameson’s. I felt my throat go warm and my healthy cynicism recovered itself.
I made a big thing out of looking at my watch. “You better start talking soon, ma’am.”
She exhaled a long, cool draught of smoke.
“Yes, of course...” She got up and went to the window, looking out at the pretty lights of the city’s skyline. I watched the smoke of her cigarette rise above her head. “It’s my husband, you see…”
There you go. Those two words always send a shiver down my spine. “My husband!” it never fails.
“Lady, I just gotta tell you before we get too far down this particular road. I don’t touch domestics. It never agrees with me.”
She turned to look at me. The blue smoke crept up around her eyes. She blinked, and moved away from the cloud. “Please... just hear me out, Mr Marlowe. I know you can help me. You did come highly recommended, you know.”
“That’s nice.” I knocked back more whiskey. “I try not to get involved in family business. It just ain’t good for my health.”
I indicated an old scar at the top of my forehead. It had nothing to do with irate husbands – I’d acquired it falling down some steps and hitting my head on a trash can after too many sherbets - but as a prop, it came in real handy whenever I wanted to reinforce my point about poking my nose into somebody’s domestic unrest.
“Oh yes, I understand that. But I really wouldn’t be here if…” She felt in her handbag again and pulled out a fat roll of greenbacks with an elastic band round it. “Listen, Mr Marlow, I don’t know what your fees are, but here’s 200 dollars right away - as an advance. I want you to know I’m genuine. Is that okay? I mean is it enough to get started with?”
“Hey, hold it right there, lady…”
“Veronica... Call me Veronica.”
“Veronica...” The name seemed to strike a chord somewhere. “I haven’t said I’m taking any job yet, I don’t even know what you have in mind.”
I could see the desperation in her eyes. Right at that moment I felt a little less tired at the sight of that fat carrot she was waving around. Funny how the sight of money can suddenly rejuvenate you. But I guess if she hadn’t been such a ‘looker’ too, I might not have fallen for it.
“Okay, okay. I guess you better spill the beans.” I took another slug of whiskey and poured some more from the bottle. “So... Veronica... why don’t we start at the beginning?”