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The house was on Dresden Avenue in the Oak Noll section of Pasadena, a big solid cool-looking house with burgundy brick walls, a terra cotta tile roof, and a white stone trim. The front windows were leaded downstairs. Upstairs windows were of the cottage type and had a lot of rococo imitation stonework trimming around them.
From the front wall and its attendant flowering bushes a half acre or so of fine green lawn drifted in a gentle slope down to the street, passing on the way an enormous deodar around which it flowed like a cool green tide around a rock. The sidewalk and the parkway were both very wide and in the parkway were three white acacias that were worth seeing. There was a heavy scent of summer on the morning and everything that grew was perfectly still in the breathless air they get over there on what they call a nice cool day.
All I knew about the people was that they were a Mrs. Elizabeth Bright Murdock and family and that she wanted to hire a nice clean private detective who wouldn't drop cigar ashes on the floor and never carried more than one gun. And I knew she was the widow of an old coot with whiskers named Jasper Murdock who had made a lot of money helping out the community, and got his photograph in the Pasadena paper every year on his anniversary, with the years of his birth and death underneath, and the legend: His Life Was His Service.
I left my car on the street and walked over a few dozen stumble stones set into the green lawn, and rang the bell in the brick portico under a peaked roof. A low red brick wall ran along the front of the house the short distance from the door to the edge of the driveway. At the end of the walk, on a concrete block, there was a little painted Negro in white riding breeches and a green jacket and a red cap. He was holding a whip, and there was an iron hitching ring in the block at his feet. He looked a little sad, as if he had been waiting there a long time and was getting discouraged. I went over and patted his head while I was waiting for somebody to come to the door.
After a while a middle-aged sourpuss in a maid's costume opened the front door about eight inches and gave me the beady eye.
"Philip Marlowe," I said. "Calling on Mrs. Murdock. By appointment."
The middle-aged sourpuss ground her teeth, snapped her eyes shut, snapped them open and said in one of those angular hardrock pioneer-type voices: "Which one?"
"Which Mrs. Murdock?" she almost screamed at me.
"Mrs. Elizabeth Bright Murdock," I said. "I didn't know there was more than one."
"Well, there is," she snapped. "Got a card?"
She still had the door a scant eight inches open. She poked the end of her nose and a thin muscular hand into the opening. I got my wallet out and got one of the cards with just my name on it and put it in the hand. The hand and nose went in and the door slammed in my face.
I thought that maybe I ought to have gone to the back door. I went over and patted the little Negro on the head again.
"Brother," I said, "you and me both."
Time passed, quite a lot of time. I stuck a cigarette in my mouth but didn't light it. The Good Humor man went by in his little blue and white wagon, playing Turkey in the Straw on his music box. A large black and gold butterfly fishtailed in and landed on a hydrangea bush almost at my elbow, moved its wings slowly up and down a few times, then took off heavily and staggered away through the motionless hot scented air.
The front door came open again. The sourpuss said: "This way."
I went in. The room beyond was large and square and sunken and cool and had the restful atmosphere of a funeral chapel and something of the same smell. Tapestry on the blank roughened stucco walls, iron grilles imitating balconies outside high side windows, heavy carved chairs with plush seats and tapestry backs and tarnished gilt tassels hanging down their sides. At the back a stained-glass window about the size of a tennis court. Curtained french doors underneath it. An old musty, fusty, narrow-minded, clean and bitter room. It didn't look as if anybody ever sat in it or would ever want to. Marble-topped tables with crooked legs, gilt clocks, pieces of small statuary in two colors of marble. A lot of junk that would take a week to dust. A lot of money, and all wasted. Thirty years before, in the wealthy close-mouthed provincial town Pasadena then was, it must have seemed like quite a room.
We left it and went along a hallway and after a while the sourpuss opened a door and motioned me in.
"Mr. Marlowe," she said through the door in a nasty voice, and went away grinding her teeth.
It was a small room looking out on the back garden. It had an ugly red and brown carpet and was furnished as an office. It contained what you would expect to find in a small office. A thin fragile-looking blondish girl in shell glasses sat behind a desk with a typewriter on a pulled-out leaf at her left. She had her hands poised on the keys, but she didn't have any paper in the machine. She watched me come into the room with the stiff, half-silly expression of a self-conscious person posing for a snapshot. She had a clear soft voice, asking me to sit down.
"I am Miss Davis. Mrs. Murdock's secretary. She wanted me to ask you for a few references."
"Certainly. References. Does that surprise you?"
I put my hat on her desk and the unlighted cigarette on the brim of the hat. "You mean she sent for me without knowing anything about me?"
Her lip trembled and she bit it. I didn't know whether she was scared or annoyed or just having trouble being cool and businesslike. But she didn't look happy.
"She got your name from the manager of a branch of the California-Security Bank. But he doesn't know you personally," she said.
"Get your pencil ready," I said.
She held it up and showed me that it was freshly sharpened and ready to go.
I said: "First off, one of the vice-presidents of that same bank. George S. Leake. He's in the main office. Then State Senator Huston Oglethorpe. He may be in Sacramento, or he may be at his office in the State Building in L.A. Then Sidney Dreyfus, Jr., of Dreyfus, Turner and Swayne, attorneys in the Title-Insurance Building. Got that?"
She wrote fast and easily. She nodded without looking up. The light danced on her blond hair.
"Oliver Fry of the Fry-Krantz Corporation, Oil Well Tools. They're over on East Ninth, in the industrial district. Then, if you would like a couple of cops, Bernard Ohls of the D.A.'s staff, and Detective-Lieutenant Carl Randall of the Central Homicide Bureau. You think maybe that would be enough?"
"Don't laugh at me," she said. "I'm only doing what I'm told."
"Better not call the last two, unless you know what the job is," I said. "I'm not laughing at you. Hot, isn't it?"
"It's not hot for Pasadena," she said, and hoisted her phone book up on the desk and went to work.
While she was looking up the numbers and telephoning hither and yon I looked her over. She was pale with a sort of natural paleness and she looked healthy enough. Her coarse-grained coppery blond hair was not ugly in itself, but it was drawn back so tightly over her narrow head that it almost lost the effect of being hair at all. Her eyebrows were thin and unusually straight and were darker than her hair, almost a chestnut color. Her nostrils had the whitish look of an anaemic person. Her chin was too small, too sharp and looked unstable. She wore no makeup except orange-red on her mouth and not much of that. Her eyes behind the glasses were very large, cobalt blue with big irises and a vague expression. Both lids were tight so that the eyes had a slightly oriental look, or as if the skin of her face was naturally so tight that it stretched her eyes at the corners. The whole face had a sort of off-key neurotic charm that only needed some clever makeup to be striking.
She wore a one-piece linen dress with short sleeves and no ornament of any kind. Her bare arms had down on them, and a few freckles.
I didn't pay much attention to what she said over the telephone. Whatever was said to her she wrote down in shorthand, with deft easy strokes of the pencil. When she was through she hung the phone book back on a hook and stood up and smoothed the linen dress down over her thighs and said:
"If you will just wait a few moments--" and went towards the door.
Halfway there she turned back and pushed a top drawer of her desk shut at the side. She went out. The door closed. There was silence. Outside the window bees buzzed. Far off I heard the whine of a vacuum cleaner. I picked the unlighted cigarette off my hat, put it in my mouth and stood up. I went around the desk and pulled open the drawer she had come back to shut.
It wasn't any of my business. I was just curious. It wasn't any of my business that she had a small Colt automatic in the drawer. I shut it and sat down again.
She was gone about four minutes. She opened the door and stayed at it and said: "Mrs. Murdock will see you now."
We went along some more hallway and she opened half of a double glass door and stood aside. I went in and the door was closed behind me.
It was so dark in there that at first I couldn't see anything but the outdoors light coming through thick bushes and screens. Then I saw that the room was a sort of sun porch that had been allowed to get completely overgrown outside. It was furnished with grass rugs and reed stuff. There was a reed chaise longue over by the window. It had a curved back and enough cushions to stuff an elephant and there was a woman leaning back on it with a wine glass in her hand. I could smell the thick scented alcoholic odor of the wine before I could see her properly. Then my eyes got used to the light and I could see her.
She had a lot of face and chin. She had pewter-colored hair set in a ruthless permanent, a hard beak and large moist eyes with the sympathetic expression of wet stones. There was lace at her throat, but it was the kind of throat that would have looked better in a football sweater. She wore a grayish silk dress. Her thick arms were bare and mottled. There were jet buttons in her ears. There was a low glass-topped table beside her and a bottle of port on the table. She sipped from the glass she was holding and looked at me over it and said nothing.
I stood there. She let me stand while she finished the port in her glass and put the glass down on the table and filled it again. Then she tapped her lips with a handkerchief. Then she spoke. Her voice had a hard baritone quality and sounded as if it didn't want any nonsense.
"Sit down, Mr. Marlowe. Please do not light that cigarette. I'm asthmatic."
I sat down in a reed rocker and tucked the still unlighted cigarette down behind the handkerchief in my outside pocket.
"I've never had any dealing with private detectives, Mr. Marlowe. I don't know anything about them. Your references seem satisfactory. What are your charges?"
"To do what, Mrs. Murdock?"
"It's a very confidential matter, naturally. Nothing to do with the police. If it had to do with the police, I should have called the police."
"I charge twenty-five dollars a day, Mrs. Murdock. And of course expenses."
"It seems high. You must make a great deal of money." She drank some more of her port. I don't like port in hot weather, but it's nice when they let you refuse it.
"No," I said. "It isn't. Of course you can get detective work done at any price-just like legal work. Or dental work. I'm not an organization. I'm just one man and I work at just one case at a time. I take risks, sometimes quite big risks, and I don't work all the time. No, I don't think twenty-five dollars a day is too much."
"I see. And what is the nature of the expenses?"
"Little things that come up here and there. You never know."
"I should prefer to know," she said acidly.
"You'll know," I said. "You'll get it all down in black and white. You'll have a chance to object, if you don't like it."
"And how much retainer would you expect?"
"A hundred dollars would hold me," I said.
"I should hope it would," she said and finished her port and poured the glass full again without even waiting to wipe her lips.
"From people in your position, Mrs. Murdock, I don't necessarily have to have a retainer."
"Mr. Marlowe," she said, "I'm a strong-minded woman. But don't let me scare you. Because if you can be scared by me, you won't be much use to me."
I nodded and let that one drift with the tide.
She laughed suddenly and then she belched. It was a nice light belch, nothing showy, and performed with easy unconcern. "My asthma," she said carelessly. "I drink this wine as medicine. That's why I'm not offering you any."
I swung a leg over my knee. I hoped that wouldn't hurt her asthma.
"Money," she said, "is not really important. A woman in my position is always overcharged and gets to expect it. I hope you will be worth your fee. Here is the situation. Something of considerable value has been stolen from me. I want it back, but I want more than that. I don't want anybody arrested. The thief happens to be a member of my family--by marriage."