THE HIGH WINDOW
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.”
She turned the wine glass with her thick fingers and smiled faintly in the dim light of the shadowed room. “My daughter-in-law,” she said. “A charming girl—and tough as an oak board.”
She looked at me with a sudden gleam in her eyes.
“I have a damn fool of a son,” she said. “But I’m very fond of him. About a year ago he made an idiotic marriage, without my consent. This was foolish of him because he is quite incapable of earning a living and he has no money except what I give him, and I am not generous with money. The lady he chose, or who chose him, was a night club singer. Her name, appropriately enough, was Linda Conquest. They have lived here in this house. We didn’t quarrel because I don’t allow people to quarrel with me in my own house, but there has not been good feeling between us. I have paid their expenses, given each of them a car, made the lady a sufficient but not gaudy allowance for clothes and so on. No doubt she found the life rather dull. No doubt she found my son dull. I find him dull myself. At any rate she moved out, very abruptly, a week or so ago, without leaving a forwarding address or saying good-by.”
She coughed, fumbled for a handkerchief, and blew her nose.
“What was taken,” she went on, “was a coin. A rare gold coin called a Brasher Doubloon. It was the pride of my husband’s collection. I care nothing for such things, but he did. I have kept the collection intact since he died four years ago. It is upstairs, in a locked fireproof room, in a set of fireproof cases. It is insured, but I have not reported the loss yet. I don’t want to, if I can help it. I’m quite sure Linda took it. The coin is said to be worth over ten thousand dollars. It’s a mint specimen.”
“But pretty hard to sell,” I said.
“Perhaps. I don’t know. I didn’t miss the coin until yesterday. I should not have missed it then, as I never go near the collection, except that a man in Los Angeles named Morningstar called up, said he was a dealer, and was the Murdock Brasher, as he called it, for sale? My son happened to take the call. He said he didn’t believe it was for sale, it never had been, but that if Mr. Morningstar would call some other time, he could probably talk to me. It was not convenient then, as I was resting. The man said he would do that. My son reported the conversation to Miss Davis, who reported it to me. I had her call the man back. I was faintly curious.”
She sipped some more port, flopped her handkerchief about and grunted.
“Why were you curious, Mrs. Murdock?” I asked, just to be saying something.
“If the man was a dealer of any repute, he would know that the coin was not for sale. My husband, Jasper Murdock, provided in his will that no part of his collection might be sold, loaned or hypothecated during my lifetime. Nor removed from this house, except in case of damage to the house necessitating removal, and then only by action of the trustees. My husband—” she smiled grimly— “seemed to feel that I ought to have taken more interest in his little pieces of metal while he was alive.”
It was a nice day outside, the sun shining, the flowers blooming, the birds singing. Cars went by on the street with a distant comfortable sound. In the dim room with the hardfaced woman and the winy smell everything seemed a little unreal. I tossed my foot up and down over my knee and waited.
“I spoke to Mr. Morningstar. His full name is Elisha Morningstar and he has offices in the Belfont Building on Ninth Street in downtown Los Angeles. I told him the Murdock collection was not for sale, never had been, and, so far as I was concerned, never would be, and that I was surprised that he didn’t know that. He hemmed and hawed and then asked me if he might examine the coin. I said certainly not. He thanked me rather dryly and hung up. He sounded like an old man. So I went upstairs to examine the coin myself, something I had not done in a year. It was gone from its place in one of the locked fireproof cases.”
I said nothing. She refilled her glass and played a tattoo with her thick fingers on the arm of the chaise longue. “What I thought then you can probably guess.”
I said: “The part about Mr. Morningstar, maybe. Somebody had offered the coin to him for sale and he had known or suspected where it came from. The coin must be very rare.”
“What they call a mint specimen is very rare indeed. Yes, I had the same idea.”
“How would it be stolen?” I asked.
“By anyone in this house, very easily. The keys are in my bag, and my bag lies around here and there. It would be a very simple matter to get hold of the keys long enough to unlock a door and a cabinet and then return the keys. Difficult for an outsider, but anybody in the house could have stolen it.”
“I see. How do you establish that your daughter-in-law took it, Mrs. Murdock?”
“I don’t—in a strictly evidential sense. But I’m quite sure of it. The servants are three women who have been here many, many years—long before I married Mr. Murdock, which was only seven years ago. The gardener never comes in the house. I have no chauffeur, because either my son or my secretary drives me. My son didn’t take it, first because he is not the kind of fool that steals from his mother, and secondly, if he had taken it, he could easily have prevented me from speaking to the coin dealer, Morningstar. Miss Davis—ridiculous. Just not the type at all. Too mousy. No, Mr. Marlowe, Linda is the sort of lady who might do it just for spite, if nothing else. And you know what these night club people are.”
“All sorts of people—like the rest of us,” I said. “No signs of a burglar, I suppose? It would take a pretty smooth worker to lift just one valuable coin, so there wouldn’t be. Maybe I had better look the room over, though.”
She pushed her jaw at me and muscles in her neck made hard lumps. “I have just told you, Mr. Marlowe, that Mrs. Leslie Murdock, my daughter-in-law, took the Brasher Doubloon.”
I stared at her and she stared back. Her eyes were as hard as the bricks in her front walk. I shrugged the stare off and said:
“Assuming that is so, Mrs. Murdock, just what do you want done?”
“In the first place I want the coin back. In the second place I want an uncontested divorce for my son. And I don’t intend to buy it. I daresay you know how these things are arranged.”
She finished the current instalment of port and laughed rudely.
“I may have heard,” I said. “You say the lady left no forwarding address. Does that mean you have no idea at all where she went?”
“A disappearance then. Your son might have some ideas he hasn’t passed along to you. I’ll have to see him.”
The big gray face hardened into even ruggeder lines. “My son knows nothing. He doesn’t even know the doubloon has been stolen. I don’t want him to know anything. When the time comes I’ll handle him. Until then I want him left alone. He will do exactly what I want him to.”
“He hasn’t always,” I said.
“His marriage,” she said nastily, “was a momentary impulse. Afterwards he tried to act like a gentleman. I have no such scruples.”
“It takes three days to have that kind of momentary impulse in California, Mrs. Murdock.”
“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”
“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”
She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr. Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”
“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”
She turned the color of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.
“You’ll do,” she said dryly, “I wish I had met you two years ago, before he married her.”
I didn’t know exactly what this last meant, so I let it ride. She bent over sideways and fumbled with the key on a house telephone and growled into it when she was answered.
There were steps and the little copper-blond came tripping into the room with her chin low, as if somebody might be going to take a swing at her.
“Make this man a check for two hundred and fifty dollars,” the old dragon snarled at her. “And keep your mouth shut about it.”
The little girl flushed all the way to her neck. “You know I never talk about your affairs, Mrs. Murdock,” she bleated. “You know I don’t. I wouldn’t dream of it, I—”
She turned with her head down and ran out of the room. As she closed the door I looked out at her. Her little lip was trembling but her eyes were mad.
“I’ll need a photo of the lady and some information,” I said when the door was shut again.
“Look in the desk drawer.” Her rings flashed in the dimness as her thick gray finger pointed.
I went over and opened the single drawer of the reed desk and took out the photo that lay all alone in the bottom of the drawer, face up, looking at me with cool dark eyes. I sat down again with the photo and looked it over. Dark hair parted loosely in the middle and drawn back loosely over a solid piece of forehead. A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus.
I nodded over the photo and slipped it into my pocket. thinking I was getting too much out of it to get out of a mere photo, and in a very poor light at that.
The door opened and the little girl in the linen dress came in with a three-decker check book and a fountain pen and made a desk of her arm for Mrs. Murdock to sign. She straightened up with a strained smile and Mrs. Murdock made a sharp gesture towards me and the little girl tore the check out and gave it to me. She hovered inside the door, waiting. Nothing was said to her, so she went out softly again and closed the door.
I shook the check dry, folded it and sat holding it. “What can you tell me about Linda?”
“Practically nothing. Before she married my son she shared an apartment with a girl named Lois Magic—charming names these people choose for themselves—who is an entertainer of some sort. They worked at a place called the Idle Valley Club, out Ventura Boulevard way. My son Leslie knows it far too well. I know nothing about Linda’s family or origins. She said once she was born in Sioux Falls. I suppose she had parents. I was not interested enough to find out.”
Like hell she wasn’t. I could see her digging with both hands, digging hard, and getting herself a double handful of gravel.
“You don’t know Miss Magic’s address?”
“No. I never did know.”
“Would your son be likely to know—or Miss Davis?”
“I’ll ask my son when he comes in. I don’t think so. You can ask Miss Davis. I’m sure she doesn’t.”
“I see. You don’t know of any other friends of Linda’s?”
“It’s possible that your son is still in touch with her, Mrs. Murdock—without telling you.”
She started to get purple again. I held my hand up and dragged a soothing smile over my face. “After all he has been married to her a year,” I said. “He must know something about her.”
“You leave my son out of this,” she snarled.
I shrugged and made a disappointed sound with my lips. “Very well. She took her car, I suppose. The one you gave her?”
“A steel gray Mercury, 1940 model, a coup�. Miss Davis can give you the license number, if you want that. I don’t know whether she took it.”
“Would you know what money and clothes and jewels she had with her?”
“Not much money. She might have had a couple of hundred dollars, at most.” A fat sneer made deep lines around her nose and mouth. “Unless of course she has found a new friend.”
“There’s that,” I said. “Jewelry?”
“An emerald and diamond ring of no very great value, a platinum Longines watch with rubies in the mounting, a very good cloudy amber necklace which I was foolish enough to give her myself. It has a diamond clasp with twenty-six small diamonds in the shape of a playing card diamond. She had other things, of course. I never paid much attention to them. She dressed well but not strikingly. Thank God for a few small mercies.”
She refilled her glass and drank and did some more of her semi-social belching.
“That’s all you can tell me, Mrs. Murdock?”
“Isn’t it enough?”
“Not nearly enough, but I’ll have to be satisfied for the time being. If I find she did not steal the coin, that ends the investigation as far as I’m concerned. Correct?”
“We’ll talk it over,” she said roughly. “She stole it all right. And I don’t intend to let her get away with it. Paste that in your hat, young man. And I hope you are even half as rough as you like to act, because these night club girls are apt to have some very nasty friends.”
I was still holding the folded check by one corner down between my knees. I got my wallet out and put it away and stood up, reaching my hat off the floor.
“I like them nasty,” I said. “The nasty ones have very simple minds. I’ll report to you when there is anything to report, Mrs. Murdock. I think I’ll tackle this coin dealer first. He sounds like a lead.”
She let me get to the door before she growled at my back: “You don’t like me very well, do you?”
I turned to grin back at her with my hand on the knob. “Does anybody?”
She threw her head back and opened her mouth wide and roared with laughter. In the middle of the laughter I opened the door and went out and shut the door on the rough mannish sound. I went back along the hall and knocked on the secretary’s half open door, then pushed it open and looked in.
She had her arms folded on her desk and her face down on the folded arms. She was sobbing. She screwed her head around and looked up at me with tear-stained eyes. I shut the door and went over beside her and put an arm around her thin shoulders.
“Cheer up,” I said. “You ought to feel sorry for her. She thinks she’s tough and she’s breaking her back trying to live up to it.”
The little girl jumped erect, away from my arm. “Don’t touch me,” she said breathlessly. “Please. I never let men touch me. And don’t say such awful things about Mrs. Murdock.”
Her face was all pink and wet from tears. Without her glasses her eyes were very lovely.
I stuck my long-waiting cigarette into my mouth and lit it.
“I—I didn’t mean to be rude,” she snuffled. “But she does humiliate me so. And I only want to do my best for her.” She snuffled some more and got a man’s handkerchief out of her desk and shook it out and wiped her eyes with it. I saw on the hanging down corner the initials L.M. embroidered in purple. I stared at it and blew cigarette smoke towards the corner of the room, away from her hair. “Is there something you want?” she asked.