THE LADY IN THE LAKE
The Treloar Building was, and is, on Olive Street, near Sixth, on the west side. The sidewalk in front of it had been built of black and white rubber blocks. They were taking them up now to give to the government, and a hatless pale man with a face like a building superintendent was watching the work and looking as if it was breaking his heart.
I went past him through an arcade of specialty shops into a vast black and gold lobby. The Gillerlain Company was on the seventh floor, in front, behind swinging double plate glass doors bound in platinum. Their reception room had Chinese rugs, dull silver walls, angular but elaborate furniture, sharp shiny bits of abstract sculpture on pedestals and a tall display in a triangular showcase in the corner. On tiers and steps and islands and promontories of shining mirror-glass it seemed to contain every fancy bottle and box that had ever been designed. There were creams and powders and soaps and toilet waters for every season and every occasion. There were perfumes in tall thin bottles that looked as if a breath would blow them over and perfumes in little pastel phials tied with ducky satin bows, like the little girls at a dancing class. The cream of the crop seemed to be something very small and simple in a squat amber bottle. It was in the middle at eye height, had a lot of space to itself, and was labelled Gillerlain Regal, The Champagne of Perfumes. It was definitely the stuff to get. One drop of that in the hollow of your throat and the matched pink pearls started falling on you like summer rain.
A neat little blonde sat off in a far corner at a small PBX, behind a railing and well out of harm’s way. At a flat desk in line with the doors was a tall, lean, darkhaired lovely whose name, according to the tilted embossed plaque on her desk, was Miss Adrienne Fromsett.
She wore a steel gray business suit and under the jacket a dark blue shirt and a man’s tie of lighter shade. The edges of the folded handkerchief in the breast pocket looked sharp enough to slice bread. She wore a linked bracelet and no other jewelry. Her dark hair was parted and fell in loose but not unstudied waves. She had a smooth ivory skin and rather severe eyebrows and large dark eyes that looked as if they might warm up at the right time and in the right place.
I put my plain card, the one without the tommy gun in the corner, on her desk and asked to see Mr. Derace Kingsley. She looked at the card and said: “Have you an appointment?”
“It is very difficult to see Mr. Kingsley without an appointment.”
That wasn’t anything I could argue about.
“What is the nature of your business, Mr. Marlowe?”
“I see. Does Mr. Kingsley know you, Mr. Marlowe?”
“I don’t think so. He may have heard my name. You might say I’m from Lieutenant M’Gee.”
“And does Mr. Kingsley know Lieutenant M’Gee?”
She put my card beside a pile of freshly typed letterheads. She leaned back and put one arm on the desk and tapped lightly with a small gold pencil.
I grinned at her. The little blonde at the PBX cocked a shell-like ear and smiled a small fluffy smile. She looked playful and eager, but not quite sure of herself, like a new kitten in a house where they don’t care much about kittens.
“I’m hoping he does,” I said. “But maybe the best way to find out is to ask him.”
She initialed three letters rapidly, to keep from throwing her pen set at me. She spoke again without looking up.
“Mr. Kingsley is in conference. I’ll send your card in when I have an opportunity.”
I thanked her and went and sat in a chromium and leather chair that was a lot more comfortable than it looked. Time passed and silence descended on the scene. Nobody came in or went out. Miss Fromsett’s elegant hand moved over her papers and the muted peep of the kitten at the PBX was audible at moments, and the little click of the plugs going in and out.
I lit a cigarette and dragged a smoking stand beside the chair. The minutes went by on tiptoe, with their fingers to their lips. I looked the place over. You can’t tell anything about an ouffit like that. They might be making millions, and they might have the sheriff in the back room, with his chair tilted against the safe.
Half an hour and three or four cigarettes later a door opened behind Miss Fromsett’s desk and two men came out backwards laughing. A third man held the door for them and helped them laugh. They all shook hands heartily and the two men went across the office and out. The third man dropped the grin off his face and looked as if he had never grinned in his life. He was a tall bird in a gray suit and he didn’t want any nonsense.
“Any calls?” he asked in a sharp bossy voice.
Miss Fromsett said softly: “A Mr. Marlowe to see you. From Lieutenant M’Gee. His business is personal.”
“Never heard of him,” the tall man barked. He took my card, didn’t even glance at me, and went back into his office. His door closed on the pneumatic closer and made a sound like “phooey.” Miss Fromsett gave me a sweet sad smile and I gave it back to her in the form, of an obscene leer. I ate another cigarette and more time staggered by. I was getting to be very fond of the Gillerlain Company.
Ten minutes later the same door opened again and the big shot came out with his hat on and sneered that he was going to get a hair-cut. He started off across the Chinese rug in a swinging athletic stride, made about half the distance to the door and then did a sharp cutback and came over to Where I was sitting.
“You want to see me?” he barked.
He was about six feet two and not much of it soft. His eyes were stone gray with flecks of cold light in them. He filled a large size in smooth gray flannel with a narrow chalk stripe, and filled it elegantly. His manner said he was very tough to get along with.
I stood up. “If you’re Mr. Derace Kingsley.”
“Who the hell did you think I was?”
I let him have that trick and gave him my other card, the one with the business on it. He clamped it in his paw and scowled down at it.
“Who’s M’Gee?” he snapped.
“He’s just a fellow I know.”
“I’m fascinated,” he said, glancing back at Miss Fromsett. She liked it. She liked it very much. “Anything else you would care to let drop about him?”
“Well, they call him Violets M’Gee,” I said. “On ac— count of he chews little throat pastilles that smell of violets. He’s a big man with soft silvery hair and a cute little mouth made to kiss babies with. When last seen he was wearing a neat blue suit, wide-toed brown shoes, gray homburg hat, and he was smoking opium in a short briar pipe.”
“I don’t like your manner,” Kingsley said in a voice you could have cracked a Brazil nut on.
“That’s all right,” I said. “I’m not selling it.”
He reared back as if I had hung a week-old mackerel under his nose. After a moment he turned his back on me and said over his shoulder:
“I’ll give you exactly three minutes. God knows why.”
He burned the carpet back past Miss Fromsett’s desk to his door, yanked it open and let it swing to in my face. Miss Fromsett liked that too, but I thought there was a little siy laughter behind her eyes now.
The private office was everything a private office should be. It was long and dim and quiet and air-conditioned and its windows were shut and its gray venetian blinds half-closed to keep out the July glare. Gray drapes matched the gray carpeting. There was a large black and silver safe in the corner and a low row of low filing cases that exactly matched it. On the wall there was a huge tinted photograph of an elderly party with a chiselled beak and whiskers and a wing collar. The Adam’s apple that edged through his wing collar looked harder than most people’s chins. The plate underneath the photograph read: Mr. Matthew Gillerlain 1860-1934.
Derace Kingsley marched briskly behind about eight hundred dollars’ worth of executive desk and planted his backside in a tall leather chair. He reached himself a panatela out of a copper and mahogany box and trimmed it and lit it with a fat copper desk lighter. He took his time about it. It didn’t matter about my time. When he had finished this, he leaned back and blew a little smoke and said:
“I’m a business man. I don’t fool around. You’re a licensed detective your card says. Show me something to prove it.”
I got my wallet out and handed him things to prove it. He looked at them and threw them back across the desk. The celluloid holder with the photostat license in it fell to the floor. He didn’t bother to apologize.
“I don’t know M’Gee,” he said. “I know Sheriff Petersen. I asked for the name of a reliable man to do a job. I suppose you are the man.”
“M’Gee is in the Hollywood substation of the sheriff’s office,” I said. “You can check on that.”
“Not necessary. I guess you might do, but don’t get flip with me. And remember when I hire a man he’s my man. He does exactly what I tell him and he keeps his mouth shut. Or he goes out fast. Is that clear? I hope I’m not too tough for you.”
“Why not leave that an open question?” I said.
He frowned. He said sharply: “What do you charge?”
“Twenty-five a day and expenses. Eight cents a mile for my car.”
“Absurd,” he said. “Far too much. Fifteen a day flat. That’s plenty. I’ll pay the mileage, within reason, the way things are now. But no joy-riding.”
I blew a little gray cloud of cigarette smoke and fanned it with my hand. I said nothing. He seemed a little surprised that I said nothing.
He leaned over the-desk and pointed with his cigar. “I haven’t hired you yet,” he said, “but if I do, the job is absolutely confidential. No talking it over with your cop friends. Is that understood?”
“Just what do you want done, Mr. Kingsley?”
“What do you care? You do all kinds of detective work, don’t you?”
“Not all kinds. Only the fairly honest kinds.”
He stared at me level-eyed, his jaws tight. His gray eyes had an opaque look.
“For one thing I don’t do divorce business,” I said. “And I get a hundred down as a retainer—from strangers.”
“Well, well,” he said, in a voice suddenly soft. “Well, well.”
“And as for your being too tough for me,” I said, “most of the clients start out either by weeping down my shirt or bawling me out to show who’s boss. But usually they end up very reasonable—if they’re still alive.”
“Well, well,” he said again, in the same soft voice, and went on staring at me. “Do you lose very many of them?’ he asked.
“Not if they treat me right,” I said.
“Have a cigar,” he said.
I took a cigar and put it in my pocket.
“I want you to find my wife,” he said. “She’s been missing for a month.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ll find your wife.”
He patted his desk with both hands. He stared at me solidly. “I think you will at that,” he said. Then he grinned. “I haven’t been called down like that in four years,” he said.
I didn’t say anything.
“Damn it all,” he said, “I liked it. I liked it fine.” He ran a hand through his thick dark hair. “She’s been gone a whole month,” he said. “From a cabin we have in the mountains. Near Puma Point. Do you know Puma Point?”
I said I knew Puma Point.
“Our place is three miles from the village,” he said, “partly over a private road. It’s on a private lake. Little Fawn Lake. There’s a dam three of us put up to improve the property. I own the tract with two other men. It’s quite large, but undeveloped and won’t be developed now for some time, of course. My friends have cabins, I have a cabin and a man named Bifi Chess lives with his wife in another cabin rent free and looks after the place. He’s a disabled veteran with a pension. That’s all there is up there. My wife went up the middle of May, came down twice for weekends, was due down the 12th of June for a party and never showed up. I haven’t seen her since.”
“What have you done about it?” I asked.
“Nothing. Not a thing. I haven’t even been up there.” He waited, wanting me to ask why.
I said: “Why?”
He pushed his chair back to get a locked drawer open. He took out a folded paper and passed it over; I unfolded it and saw it was a Postal Telegraph form. The wire had been ified at El Paso on June 14th at 9:19 A.M. It was addressed to Derace Kingsley, 965 Carson Drive, Beverly Hills, and read:
“AM CROSSING TO GET MEXICAN DIVORCE . STOP WILL
MARRY CHRIS STOP GOOD LUCK AND GOODBY CRYSTAL.”
I put this down on my side of the desk and he was handing me a large and very clear snapshot on glazed paper which showed a man and a woman sitting on the sand under a beach umbrella. The man wore trunks and the woman what looked like a very daring white sharkskin bathing suit. She was a slim blonde, young and shapely and smiling. The man was a hefty dark handsome lad with fine shoulders and legs, sleek dark hair and white teeth. Six feet of a standard type of homewrecker. Arms to hold you close and all his brains in his face. He was holding a pair of dark glasses in his hand and smiling at the camera with a practised and easy smile.
“That’s Crystal,” Kingsley said, “and that’s Chris Layery. She can have him and he can have her and to hell with them both.”
I put the photo down on the telegram. “All right, what’s the catch?” I asked him.