The wisteria were in bloom in the canyons. They hung like early, weightless grapes from the wood-beam eaves of one of those alarmingly modern houses artists sculpt out of concrete these days. A building like that didn't need eaves except for wisteria. I could not tell how they grew from the barren roof.
The height of the hills on either side of the lot didn't leave any room for me to park my car against the curb. There was no hope for it: I pulled into the driveway, forward as a waitress at a producer's table. There was no car on the gravel for me to box in with mine, but the house might have been hiding a garage between its knees. The whole thing looked like a garage, flat and stiff and whitewashed, four or five stories tall so it rivaled the undressed stone of the canyon ridges. The pockmarks of its windows were vertical and irregular.
I rang the bell. I'd been hired to ring the bell. I scraped the soles of my shoes on the sharp corner of the front step. Nobody answered.
It was an awfully long drive just to wipe my shoes and go home, so I stepped into the laurel bushes to peer into one of those tall windows. The window frame was black and looked like steel and the smooth machined glass curtly turned away my gaze. The morning sun's reflection was so severe I couldn't see more than a few feet into the foyer. Unfortunately, that was enough for me to find the body.
When he'd been alive, he'd been short and slim and formal, the kind whose shirt never peered between the curtains of waistcoat and trousers. They were pinstriped, waistcoat and trousers both, something pale and fine on the black that made it look gray from a distance. The man had brown thinning hair that drooped over his forehead, and that forehead was red. I couldn't see the rest of his face, as his outflung arm covered it, a black garter like an exclamation mark at his elbow. His black Oxfords were double-knotted neatly on his feet, which splayed in two different directions on the shiny wood floor. I had the sinking feeling that I would not be paid for this job.
I tried the door handle, and it gave. I didn't step inside.
A black door on my right was open on shiny sliding tracks. Inside the closet were coats on hangers, including a dark jacket with pale pinstripes that matched the trousers. Hats sat patiently on the upper shelf, men's hats. One of them was a bowler. On the floor, no blood or broken glass or knocked-over furniture, just the dead man marring the bright waxed boards. It was a kind of wood that matched the beams on the eaves I'd seen outside. There was no rug on which to wipe your feet.
There wasn't any furniture in the foyer except for a single black-lacquered table in the Chinese style. On the table stood an oddly-shaped clear vase, soft gardenia blossoms nestled in their dark waxy leaves. There was no smell of flowers. There was no smell at all. The body was fresh. I watched its chest carefully: it neither rose nor fell.
I closed the door and got back in my car and backed out of the driveway. As I drove down the canyon to the nearest precinct, I laid a bet with myself about just how Bernie Ohls from the D.A.'s office would sound on the telephone. "Okey, Marlowe," he sighed, and his chair squeaked as he leaned back and touched his forehead. It was a rare day: I could tell him honestly that I had no idea what had happened. My client hadn't even told me her name.
Her name wasn't too hard to find, at that. I looked up the address in the precinct's city directory and found two names: DeWitt Jamison and his wife, Dolores. If she still resided in that strange concrete house, it was no longer evident: even the landscaping was masculine, professional. Not that people of their kind have kitchen gardens, but I like to think that the lady of the house would not put silk gardenias in her front hall if she could afford the real thing. Silk gardenias said cleaning service to me, weekly or every two weeks. Not often enough to replace fresh-cut flowers.
I thought about that while I waited for the detectives to arrive from Central. I thought about it some more after they stuffed me into the back seat and drove up to the crime scene. They were a pair, camel coats and hats with sweat-stains at the band. Dodge was bald and the other, Annis, had curly pink hair and a bull neck. They'd already decided they hated me by the time we pulled back onto the gravel driveway of the modern house. I guess my name had gotten around.
The M.E.'s man still liked me, though. He'd come in a squad car, which was parked in front of us. He had propped open the front door and was about ready to turn the body.
"He's been dead a couple hours at least," the M.E.'s man announced, on seeing me. He took up the corpse's hand and dropped it again. It flopped back to the hardwood floor like a slab of suet.
"Don't touch anything," said Dodge, and stepped past the body. He and Annis clomped into the other rooms while I lingered. The M.E.'s man enlisted a uniform to help him lift the body by the shoulders, and all the rest of it rolled over obediently.
Mr. DeWitt Jamison was no more than thirty, trim and small. His conservative waistcoat and trousers were marred by a badly-knotted necktie. A hawk nose dominated his face, which was red from settled blood. It made him look enraged. His thin mean lips were purple with it. A different kind of purple marked his temple, a long narrow bruise shaped like a pipe or a walking stick, with small brown beads of dried blood arrested in their journey along his forehead. The cut on his skull was a tiny pucker, the sort of cut that comes from a fist rather than something sharp.
"No pool of blood," I pointed out. The only mark on the floor was a bit of spittle and scuffs in the wax from his shoes. "Did he die here?"
Without looking up the M.E.'s man nodded. "If it's a brain hemorrhage, then he might have been struck somewhere else in the house. Staggered out here and fell."
"Okey," I said, and followed the clomping noises toward Detectives Annis and Dodge.
Every room had high ceilings and an alarming lack of ornament. Nothing on the bare white walls, no rugs laid down to soften the unrelieved shine of floors, the furniture narrow and straight with all its corners sanded down. I did not find anything that could plausibly be stuffed with horsehair or feathers on the entire first floor.
Annis was in the kitchen. Even such a man as DeWitt Jamison had a junk drawer in his kitchen, and Annis snapped a worn pair of shears at me.
"Not unless somebody sewed him into that suit," I said. "The M.E.'s man says blunt force."
"For -----'s sake," said Annis. He poked his hat back on his head till the cloud of his hair bounced forward. He wore braces and stuck his thumbs into them. "So he called you in to find his wife?"
I examined the toaster for dents. "That's what he said. He was a little fuzzy on the 'phone last night."
"Bad batch of gin, rather."
Annis laid a finger next to his nose. "Ah," he said. "What time?"
"The call? Late. I'm not sure of the time."
His heavy shoes turned him around in the spacious room. The floor was some kind of futuristic substance like rubber, patterned in a way that defied tile. I could not find a seam in it to say how it had been laid.
While he entertained himself with the contents of the deceased's cupboards, I turned around and found the stairs. The railing under my hand was as inflexible as bone, and about as appealing. I found Dodge on the second floor, thick hands wrist-deep in the top drawer of a man's bureau.
"He called you in to find his wife?" he asked, same as Annis.
"Yes," I said over my shoulder, and opened the closet door. If we were going to invade, we might as well massacre the natives too. The closet held enough suits to dress an orchestra, fine wool and flannel sorted from one another and then sorted by color. They all had waistcoats and they all had labels from back east: New York, mostly, a few from Philadelphia. A tie rack was screwed to the back of the closet door.
"What the heck kind of first name is DeWitt," Dodge asked the air.
I flapped one of the neckties from the rack at him. "A Princeton first name, I guess." He came over and studied the woven seal, shiny orange and black.
"Princetoniensis," he read aloud. "My, don't you know everything."
I ignored the snipe and put the necktie away. The tie rack was full of them: yellow ones and pink ones and ones in peacock colors. The suit downstairs and the suits in the closet seemed far too conservative for such neckwear.
Dodge's hands moved everywhere, left their oils on every surface. "Ticket from a boxing match," he narrated. "Slip of paper with a downtown number on it. Handful of coins, pile of pocket squares. Hello." He flipped up an ebony picture frame which had been turned down on the bureau.
The woman in the picture had black hair that fell in chic, pinned waves from a center part. Her face was round and soft. Her teeth gleamed from between full lips. She was posed three-quarters towards the camera, head a little downward so she could look up through her generous black lashes. Her neck went on forever. In her hands, clutched to her bosom, a rectangular object: a nightclub microphone. She'd signed on the corner of the glossy paper, like a movie actress: Dolores Martin.
He'd married a singer. Well, even Princeton boys got blindsided by Cupid's arrow sometimes.
"Princetoniensis," Dodge said again. "Sounds like a dinosaur."
There were no other photographs in the room. I ducked into the other rooms without any luck either. The happy couple didn't even have a snap from their wedding day.
I found a dressing room at the other end of the hall. It had been cleaned and dusted and the only object on the vanity table was a plain black telephone. The hired help didn't live-in, but they seemed to come pretty regular. I'd spared some poor charwoman finding him five days moldered by showing up when I had.
The top drawers of the bureau, the small drawers where a woman keeps her unmentionables, were empty. The lower drawers were not. The wife had left behind most of her shoes, too, racked neatly in the closet along with an absurd white fox coat. Maybe she'd taken all the photographs with her when she left.
I did not find a jewelry box. I was poking a finger into the hatboxes in the closet when my detective escorts appeared in the doorway, a wall of camel coat.
"Leave those alone," said Dodge, arms crossed.
"Chief told us about you," said Annis, and re-settled his hat forward on his bullet-shaped head.
I said, "I bet he did."
They let me go after a little while. I hitched a ride with the M.E.'s man back to my car at the precinct. Evidently it was just long enough a drive for me to wipe my shoes and go home.
I left things alone enough to go down to the city clerk's office the next day and find the marriage certificate. They'd done the deed only eleven months ago. Dolores Jamison's maiden name wasn't Martin after all: it was Martinez.
A Mexican girl, then. Crossed the river, plucked her eyebrows, won the lottery, married a Princeton man. Left him, and left him in a state so awestruck he would pay to look for her. Now that he was dead she would inherit a bundle, the concrete house not least.
I got back in my car and headed over to the public library. The lady at the reference desk had pouches for cheeks and little button eyes under folds of grayish oniony skin. Her dress was a decade old, with a pattern so faded from washing I could not discern it. She had a pencil in her white hair and another pencil behind one ear and she picked up a third from her desk drawer as she saw me approach. I showed her my card and she got a little less enthusiastic.
"What do you need?" she asked. Her voice was reedy and thin, as if she'd lost the ability to shout entirely.
"Who's Who," I told her. She frowned at me up and down. Obviously I wasn't looking up myself. I shrugged and she shrugged and she came out from behind her oaken desk to show me to the proper shelves. The volume was big, heavy, leather-bound. It made an expensive thump when I put it down on the table.
There were a lot of Jamisons. It was a popular surname among those who needed to be known. I had the right one from the marriage application, and found DeWitt Jamison's father without too much difficulty. His business was in trains, in shipping things east and west. He'd gone to Princeton too, and had three sons. DeWitt was the third of them. Probably they'd all gone to Princeton. Probably the father had used his own trains to ship his third son westward.
It beat going to sea, anyway.
I spent another few hours paging through the city's business license directory and the membership rosters of all the fraternal organizations I could think of. DeWitt Jamison belonged to none of them, and ran no licensed business. It was unclear what he had done with his time, aside from drink and misplace his wife.
The last thing I asked for from the lady at the desk were the newspapers from eleven months ago. She brought me individual issues instead of a bound volume. The newsprint was smudged and delicate, like her wrinkled skin. I folded the pages back with care under her baleful eye, but for all my attention I found nothing. The Jamison marriage hadn't made the society pages.
There are a lot of nightclubs in Los Angeles. Unfortunately for Dolores Martin Jamison, most of them aren't nice enough to warrant glamour photographs for their featured singer. I was friends with a lot of bartenders, especially downtown. They were friends with me too, or anyway with my wallet.
I didn't have a picture to show around and I didn't have a good idea whether she'd given up the singing gig upon her marriage or earlier. What I did have was the story of a nightclub singer and a rich kid from back east, and that was a story that people remembered. "Try the Swan," said Eddie in the Blue Note Bar. "The girls always say the Swan is where dreams come true." I tried the Swan.
It was a nightclub like any other: dazzling from the outside and dim within. It had a stage with musicians and a bar with glass behind it and little round tables in-between. The dancing parquet was uninhabited at this hour, a checkerboard of black and white linoleum. The ceiling was low and the air heavy with cigarette smoke.
She stood alone at the bar, her back to me. It was a fine back, olive-skinned and exposed down to the lumbar area. Her shoulders were broad and her waist narrow and cream-colored satin touched every curve. Her hair was black and up in a wavy chignon, except for a few strays that decorated her long neck. She did not even need to turn around; I knew her from that neck.
I signaled the bartender and asked for bourbon. Up close, I could see she had her hand wrapped around a highball glass, the depths of which were engrossing. She wore no ring. Around her neck was a gold chain that looked real, with a diamond pendant that looked even realer. It nestled in the hollow at the base of her throat like a porcelain cup in its saucer. Matching diamonds flashed in her ears as she moved.
She did not spare me so much as a glance. She kicked back the last of her highball in one gulp and knocked on the bar for another. I watched in the wall-mirror as the bartender mixed her a whisky and soda. He didn't ask whether she'd had enough, and she didn't ask whether he liked his face the way it was.
Over the smoky air the club's band wafted easy, forgettable music. It was a lot of horns and drums, half of them played by negroes, and one tall wallowing bass thumbed by a white man who nodded erratically with his closed eyes pointed heavenward. In front of their tiers of seats a wide circle of dais painted white, and in the middle of it stood a lonely microphone. It seemed likely that if I waited long enough, I would get to see Mrs. Jamison perform.
Before and after that, though, she would have a chance to disappear backstage. I put my glass back down on the bar and turned to her.
"The bandleader's pretty good," I said.
She glanced at me over her shoulder. The photo I'd found at her home in the canyon hadn't done her justice at all. Her eyes were sparkling black, wide-set in a round face. Her mouth was generous and very red and set above a chin that wasn't afraid of anybody. I could have talked to her all day.
"He's no Benny Goodman," she said, and turned away again.
That highball glass got all her attention. I was a little jealous. "Say, Miss Martin," I said, and she looked up at me again.
"I'm on break, pal," she said. "You got a request, you can wait till I'm in front of the orchestra like everybody else."
"It wasn't songs I was asking after."
She sneered. If I hadn't been leaning on the bar I might have staggered. "I'm pretty good friends with the bouncer," she threatened.
She was. On the other side of the room a mountain rumbled and shook itself and resolved into a man with his sleeves rolled up. His shirt was no bigger than a mainsail. He watched me put my hands up and then turned his fist-sized eyeballs over to the woman. "I only want to talk," I told her. "About Mr. Jamison."
The expanse of her back came stiff, and she clutched the highball hard enough she might have broken it. Her dark-lacquered nails were like knives. I could not decipher the tightening of her face, though I spent long enough gazing at it. "What about him," she prompted me.
"Well," I said. "He's dead."
Her mouth pursed, but not with surprise. "Cop?" she asked, and I shook my head.
"The deceased hired me to find you, actually. Philip Marlowe." I offered her my card but she didn't take it. Finally I laid it on the bar between us, a white patch on that dark surface like a lighthouse beacon. She finished off that whisky and soda as if it had said something mean to her.
"Not me you're looking for," she told me. I made a noise in my throat and she turned all the way towards me. That cream satin was even nicer from the front. She said, "If I'd ever been married, I'd know about it."
I looked over her features carefully. They were easy to look at. She stared back with a disarming frankness and eyebrows so perfectly arched a Roman might have engineered them. Suddenly I realized why the picture hadn't done her justice. "Mrs. Jamison's your sister?" I asked.
Miss Martin cocked her head at me. "Singing runs in the family."
"Any chance I could talk to her?"
"Not if I have any say in the matter."
I could see she had a lot of say, and maybe a fist or two if it came to that. A glance across the room told me that the bouncer was still paying attention. She took my silence as an opportunity to open up a slim steel cigarette case. I watched her tap the cigarette against the case and set it to her lips and wondered whether she would take a light from the likes of me. Anyway, I offered, but she didn't take my hand to steady the flame.
Smoke wafted from her lips like a curtain of gauze. "The thing is," I told her, "a widow generally inherits when her husband shuffles off."
She said nothing. All that and clever, too.
I went on, "But not if she's the one who shuffled him, so to speak."
Her laughter was low, bitter. "Good to know."
"That she hasn't come forward yet tends to make her look bad."
"You obviously don't know what she looks like, if you mistook me for her."
"I don't know what I can have been thinking. I'll go out and have my eyes checked tomorrow."
Miss Martin smoked her cigarette. She had her elbows on the bar and her chin titled up like a calla lily on its long stem.
"I hate to see a woman go to the chair," I said. "I'm old-fashioned that way."
She bared her teeth at me. "They can't convict her. There's no evidence."
"You know a lot about what evidence there is and isn't."
"There can't be any evidence of something that didn't happen."
"Well," I said. "I got a look at the body. He didn't just lie down and die of a broken heart."
Miss Martin said, "He didn't have a heart."
I liked her teeth. They were white and even. I didn't much like that she was showing them to me. "Somebody hit him pretty hard. Maybe it was you."
"Maybe it was the sideboard. He's a clumsy drunk. Tell you the truth, that's the only reason she's still alive."
I pushed away my empty glass and the bartender poured me another without asking. He approached Miss Martin, but she shook her head. She'd turned away from me, back to the bar, and was scanning the audience. It was a reasonable crowd, a little early still, dull chatter thick in the air. I could not see what Miss Martin was looking for.
"When's the last time you saw him?" I asked.
"I do my best not to," she told me. She talked over her shoulder, casual: "She used to telephone me after the set, if it was bad. I'd come and get her and drive her to the hospital. I had to pull a gun on him once, a year ago. I might as well have been threatening him with a feather duster."
I put my hand over my mouth. "When you tell the cops this story, don't tell it like that."
"It wasn't loaded." She waved the hand with the cigarette at me. Her gaze was still on the tables. "When did he hire you?"
As difficult as it was, I wrenched my eyes off her and scanned the tables as well. "Monday, over the 'phone. I showed up for a handshake and a picture on Tuesday, and he was dead in the foyer."
Miss Martin had nothing to say to that. We stood side by side leaning on the bar. I watched the slides of the trombones as they glinted in the overhead lights. They reminded me of something and I kept looking till I found it: a woman at a table in the corner. She had dark hair and wore a dark dress and nothing at all on her sparkled or shone or stood out. She sat with her elbows on the table and an untouched martini in front of her. I saw her at an angle, and it was dim: but it seemed to me that the left side of her face was that sickly green color of fading bruises.
Mrs. Jamison never looked up while I watched her. The bouncer ambled past her on his rounds and said a word, and she shook her head at him.
Though I hadn't spoken, Miss Martin beside me heaved a sigh heavy enough to counterweight a drawbridge. "You'd think, him being dead, he wouldn't have any hold on her any more."
"He said he'd forgive all," I told her. "That he wanted her back. He said he loved her."
"He would say that." She paused and shook her head. "He did say that. Before and after."
I got the picture. Miss Martin's cigarette burned down forgotten between her fingers. Her sister looked up on the other side of the room and Miss Martin nodded that bold chin. Her eyes snapped and sparked and Mrs. Jamison lowered her head at her table with a shy little smile on her face. She lifted her martini glass and tasted it daintily.
"Anyway, I was working Monday night. I had her with me, in case." Miss Martin glanced at me through the curtain of her black lashes, then away. She wasn't the sort that could look through her lashes at a man for long. "You can ask the bouncer or the manager."
She stood up straight, as if to leave. I wanted to reach a hand out to stop her, and didn't. "I didn't catch your first name, Miss Martin."
"You said you're a private detective?" she asked, and amusement danced over her lips. She stubbed out her cigarette and straightened her glorious back, just a moment before the spotlight found her. Under its blue-white glare she stepped forward and onto the round white dais in front of the band. She smiled out at the crowd and enveloped us all in her loveliness. She did not single me out; with the bar in darkness she probably couldn't even see me anymore.
Nina. Her name was Nina Martin. The bandleader called it out as she climbed the dais.
I had lunch a day or so later within shouting distance of the Hall of Justice, so I rode up to the seventh floor to talk to Bernie Ohls.
"Marlowe," he said, without standing. His hat was on a hatrack in the corner of the room. It looked a lot bigger when it wasn't on his head. His wheat-colored hair was not more grey than the last time I had seen him. He put a foot up on the desk as he gestured for me to sit. I went and said hello to the hatrack instead.
Six or eight battered desks fill the room and corkboards filled the walls and everywhere was paper except for Ohls's desk. I've never known how he does it. "That's my name," I said.
With the windows closed you couldn't hear a thing from the street below. I peered through the glass for a moment.
Ohls told my back, "You going to tell me what your game is?"
"No game," I said. I turned around. Ohls had already put his other foot up on his desk: he'd settled in for the real thing. I asked, "You get the autopsy on DeWitt Jamison?"
He tipped his head back and closed his eyes. "There a reason you're in my office instead of speaking to the duly-assigned police representatives?"
"Guess I'm sweet on you," I said.
Ohls breathed out and patted down his pockets. He didn't find his cigarillos anywhere but he didn't put his feet down to search the desk drawers. I'd never seen inside those desk drawers, and I wasn't going to see inside them today. "Don't you ever work for pay?" he complained.
"Sure I do. If I thought I could profit by this visit, I'd bill you."
His sharp little eyes followed me around the room, so I stood still. He hadn't answered my question. "The Jamison autopsy," I reminded him.
A big bony hand, a-whisk up beside his ear as if a dead man in an ugly house were no bigger matter than a housefly. The hairs on his knuckles were beginning to go white. "They opened him up yesterday. No real surprises."
"Cause of death?"
"Well I don't know, Marlowe, that dent in his skull might have had something to do with it." His nostrils flared with irritation.
I asked, "And his stomach? Am I right he'd been drinking?"
"You could pickle herring with what they found." Ohls gave a smart little smile. "And yes, your friend Detective Annis looked everywhere, and only found the one glass."
"Annis," I said.
"Public servant's wages," he said. We shook our heads at each other and moved on. "Anyway, Dodge's bulb shines a little bit brighter than average. After you left he went over the stairs one by one. He found a dent in the fourth one from the bottom, and dried blood in the dent."
I put my hands down on Ohls's desk. "He was drunk when he 'phoned me. There was a 'phone on the second floor, in the lady's dressing room." It was probably the same 'phone Mrs. Jamison had used to call her sister, on bad nights. "He talked to me awhile and hung up and fell down the stairs."
Ohls waited for me to stop. He brushed one sleeve of his suitcoat with his other hand, casual, and corrected me: "Or was pushed."
I stood back up and walked away. There were pictures pinned up on the corkboard, just one or two from other cases. None of them were big enough for glamour photos. I didn't know if Nina Martin had ever had pictures taken of herself the way her sister had, or if a camera could even catch her properly.
The walls got to hear me say, "The sister-in-law said he was a clumsy drunk."
Ohls was deliberate, calm. He said, "There's such a thing as witness tampering." I turned around and he'd managed to open a desk drawer and find a cigarillo and close the drawer again without my hearing it. He clamped that cigarillo between tense lips.
Ohls and I had known each other for years. Every once in a while he'd throw me a case, out of the goodness of his heart. I said nothing at all.
After a moment he relaxed. "Anyway," he muttered, "I'm a clumsy drunk too, and I've never yet killed myself at it."
"They were at the Swan, all evening. Both the Martin sisters."
"Martinez, isn't it?" said Ohls, sardonic. "And I don't imagine they stayed all night. He died close to two in the morning."
I did the math. Even if Nina Martin drove a horse and buggy she could have made it up to the canyon by then. You might be able to walk it. And walk back down again, in the dark, all alone in your cream satin and your high-heeled shoes.
"I don't think she's the type," I said, slow.
Ohls laughed at me. "You mean the rich widow or the hothead sister?"
"The sister." I ignored his laugh. "She's not the kind to go sneaking up on a man in his own home. If he'd been run over, maybe."
Ohls gave another little chuckle and waggled his white eyebrows. "The widow, then?"
"She took her jewelry box with her when she left. The sister was wearing some of it, pricey stuff. She's not hurting for money."
"That's a headline," he mused, and licked the cigarillo from one corner of his mouth to the other. "Extra, extra. East L. A. songbird not looking for a payday."
He got a look at my face. Maybe there was something on it. He took his feet off the desk and put them on the floor.
"Look, Marlowe," he said, but he didn't continue. I went back to the window and looked out at the tiny cars and tiny people below. There were higher floors in taller buildings in Los Angeles, but after a certain height they all looked like little crawling maggots, and got no smaller.
I turned around. "Can they prove it's murder?"
Bernie Ohls's eyes were clear. He regarded me for a long time. "I doubt it."
"Okey," I said, but he wasn't done.
"Can't prove it isn't, either." He shook his head.
"Thanks, Bernie," I told him, and left. I rode down in the elevator all seven floors wondering whether the Swan might be open at this hour for a good stiff drink. I stepped out into the bright midday sun and the bright, rushing crowd, and concluded that they would be closed at least till nightfall.