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15

No matter how smart you think you are, you have to have a place to start from: a name, an address, a neighborhood, a background, an atmosphere, a point of reference of some sort. All I had was typing on a crumpled yellow page that said, "I do not like you, Dr. V. But right now you're the man for me." With that I could pinpoint the Pacific Ocean, spend a month wading through the lists of half a dozen county medical associations, and end up with the big round 0. In our town quacks breed like guinea pigs. There are eight counties within a hundred miles of the City Hall and in every town in every single one of them there are doctors, some genuine medical men, some just mail-order mechanics with a license to cut corns or jump up and down on your spine. Of the real doctors some are prosperous and some poor, some ethical, others not sure they can afford it. A well-heeled patient with incipient D.T.'s could be money from home to plenty of old geezers who have fallen behind in the vitamin and antibiotic trade. But without a due there was no place to start. I didn't have the due and Eileen Wade either didn't have it or didn't know she had it. And even if- I found somebody that fitted and had the right initial, he might turn out to be a myth, so far as Roger Wade was concerned. The jingle might be something that just happened to run through his head while he was getting himself stewed up. Just as the Scott Fitzgerald allusion might be merely an off-beat way of saying goodbye.

In a situation like that the small man tries to pick the big man's brains. So I called up a man I knew in The Came Organization, a flossy agency in Beverly Hills that specialized in protection for the carriage trade-protection meaning almost anything with one foot inside the law. The man's name was George Peters and he said he could give me ten minutes if I made it fast.

They had half the second floor of one of these candypink four-storied buildings where the elevator doors open all by themselves with an electric eye, where the corridors are cool and quiet, and the parking lot has a name on every stall, and the druggist off the front lobby has a sprained wrist from filling bottles of sleeping pills.

The door was French gray outside with raised metal lettering, as clean and sharp as a new knife. THE CARNE ORGANIZATION, INC. GERALD C. CARNE, PRESIDENT. Below and smaller: Entrance. It might have been an investment trust.

Inside was a small and ugly reception room, but the ugliness was deliberate and expensive. The furniture was scarlet and dark green, the walls were a flat Brunswick green, and the pictures hung on them were framed in a green about three shades darker than that. The pictures were guys in red coats on big horses that were just crazy to jump over high fences. There were two frameless mirrors tinted a slight but disgusting shade of rose pink. The magazines on the table of polished primavera were of the latest issue and each one was enclosed in a dear plastic cover. The fellow who decorated that room was not a man to let colors scare him. He probably wore a pimento shirt, mulberry slacks, zebra shoes, and vermilion drawers with his initials on them in a nice Mandarin orange.

The whole thing was just window-dressing. The clients of The Carne Organization were charged a minimum of one hundred fish per diem and they expected service in their homes. They didn't go sit in no waiting rooms. Carne was an ex-colonel of military police, a big pink and white guy as hard as a board. He had offered me a job once, but I never got desperate enough to take it. There are one hundred and ninety ways of being a bastard and Came knew all of them.

A rubbed glass partition slid open and a receptionist looked out at me. She had an iron smile and eyes that could count the money in your hip wallet.

"Good morning. May I help you?"

"George Peters, please, My name is Marlowe."

She put a green leather book on the ledge. "Is he expecting you, Mr. Marlowe? I don't see your name on the appointment list."

"It's a personal matter. I just talked to him on the phone."

"I see. How do you spell your name, Mr. Marlowe? And your first name, please?"

I told her. She wrote it down on a long narrow form, then slipped the edge under a dock punch.

"Who's that supposed to impress?" I asked her.

"We are very particular about details here," she said coldly. "Colonel Carne says you never know when the most trivial fact may turn out to be vital."

"Or the other way around," I said, but she didn't get it. When she had finished her book work she looked up and said:

"I will announce you to Mr. Peters."

I told her that made me very happy. A minute later a door in the paneling opened and Peters beckoned me into a battleship-gray corridor lined with little offices that looked like cells. His office had soundproofing on the ceiling, a gray steel desk with two matching chairs, a gray dictating machine on a gray stand, a telephone and pen set of the same color as the walls and floor. There were a couple of framed photographs on the walls, one of Came in uniform, with his snowdrop helmet on, and one of Came as a civilian seated behind a desk and looking inscrutable. Also framed on the wall was a small inspirational legend in steely letters on a gray background. It read:

A CARNE OPERATIVE DRESSES, SPEAKS AND BEHAVES LIKE A GENTLEMAN AT ALL TIMES AND IN ALL. PLACES. THERE ARE NO EXCEPTIONS TO THIS RULE.

Peters crossed the room in two long steps and pushed one of the pictures aside. Set into the gray wall behind it was a gray microphone pickup. He pulled it out, undipped a wire, and pushed it back in place. He moved the picture in front of it again.

"Right now I'd be out of a job," he said, "except that the son of a bitch is out fixing a drunk-driving rap for some actor. All the mike switches are in his office. He has 'the whole joint wired. The other morning I suggested to him that he have a microfilm camera installed with infra red light behind a diaphanous mirror in the reception room. He didn't like the idea too well. Maybe because somebody else had it."

He sat down in one of the hard gray chairs. I stared at him. He was a gawky long-legged man with a bony face and receding hair. His skin had the worn weathered look of a man who has been out of doors a great deal, in all kinds of weather. He had deep-set eyes and an upper lip almost as long as his nose. When he grinned the bottom half of his face disappeared into two enormous ditches that ran from his nostrils to the ends of his wide mouth.

"How can you take it?" I asked him.

"Sit down, pal. Breathe quietly, keep your voice down, and remember that a Came operative is to a cheap shamus like you what Toscanini is to an organ grinder's monkey." He paused and grinned. "I take it because I don't give a damn. It's good money and any time Came starts acting like he thought I was doing time in that maximum-security prison he ran in England during the war, I'll pick up my check and blow. What's your trouble? I hear you had it rough a while back."

"No complaints about that. I'd like to look at your file on the barred-window boys. I know you have one. Eddie Dowst told me after he quit here."

He nodded. "Eddie was just a mite too sensitive for The Came Organization. The file you mention is top secret. In no circumstances must any confidential information be disdosed to outsiders. I'll get it at once."

He went out and I stared at the gray wastebasket and the gray linoleum and the gray leather corners of the desk blotter. Peters came back with a gray cardboard file in his hand. He put it down and opened it.

"For Chrissake, haven't you got anything In this place that isn't gray?"

"The school colors, my lad. The spirit of the organization. Yeah, I have something that isn't gray."

He pulled a desk drawer open and took out a cigar about eight inches long.

"An Upman Thirty," he said. "Presented to me by an elderly gent from England who has been forty years in California and still says 'wireless.' Sober he is just an old swish with a good deal of superficial charm, which is all right with me, because most people don't have any, superficial or otherwise, induding Carne. He has as much charm as a steel puddler's underpants. Not sober, the client has a strange habit of writing checks on banks which never heard of him, He always makes good and with my fond help he has so far stayed out of the icebox. He gave me this. Should we smoke it together, like a couple of Indian chiefs planning a massacre?"

"I can't smoke cigars."

Peters looked at the huge cigar sadly. "Same here," he said. "I thought of giving it to Carne. But it's not really a one-man cigar, even when the one man is Came." He frowned. "You know something? I'm talking too much about Carne. I must be edgy." He dropped the cigar back in the drawer and looked at the open file. "Just what do we want from this?"

"I'm looking for a well-heeled alcoholic with expensive tastes and money to gratify them. So far he hasn't gone in for check-bouncing; I haven't heard so anyway. He has a streak of violence and his wife is worried about him. She thinks he's hid out in some sobering-up -joint but she -can't be sure. The only clue we have is a jingle mentioning a Dr. V. Just the initial. My man is gone three days now."

Peters stared at me thoughtfully. "That's not too long," he said. "What's to worry about?"

"If I find him first, I get paid."

He looked at me some more and shook his head. "I don't get it, but that's okay. We'll see." He began to turn the pages of the file. "It's not too easy," he said. "These people come and go. A single letter ain't much of a lead." He pulled a page out of the folder, turned some more pages, pulled another, and finally a third. "Three of them here," he said. "Dr. Amos Varley, an osteopath. Big place in Altadena. Makes or used to make night calls for fifty bucks. Two registered nurses. Was in a hassle with the State Narcotics people a couple of years back, and turned in his prescription book. This information is not really up to date."

I wrote down the name and address in Altadena.

"Then we have Dr. Lester Vukanich. Ear, Nose, and Throat, Stockwell Building, on Hollywood Boulevard. This one's a dilly. Office practice mostly, and seems to sort of specialize in chronic sinus infections. Rather a neat routine. You go in and complain of a sinus headache and he washes out your antrums for you. First of course he has to anesthetize with Novocain. But if he likes your looks it don't have to be Novocain. Catch?"

"Sure." I wrote that one down.

"This is good," Peters went on, reading some more. "Obviously his trouble would be supplies. So our Dr. Vukanich does a lot of fishing Ensenada and flies down in his own plane."

"I wouldn't think he'd last long if he brings the dope in himself," I said.

Peters thought about that and shook his head. "I don't think I agree. He could last forever if he's not too greedy. His only real danger is a discontented customer-pardon me, I mean patient-but he probably knows how to handle that. He's had fifteen years in the same office."

"Where the hell do you get this stuff?" I asked him.

"We're an organization, my boy. Not a lone wolf like you. Some we get from the clients themselves, some we get from the inside. Came's not afraid to spend money. He's a good mixer when he wants to be."

"He'd love this conversation."

"Screw him. Our last offering today is a man named Verringer. The operative who filed on him is long gone, Seems a lady poet suicided at Verringer's ranch in Sepulveda Canyon one time. He runs a sort of art colony for writers and such who want sedusion and a congenial atmosphere. Rates moderate. He sounds legit. He calls himself doctor, but doesn't practice medicine. Could be a Ph.D. Frankly, I don't know why he's in here. Unless there was something about this suicide." He picked up a newspaper clipping pasted to a blank sheet. "Yeah, overdose of morphine, No suggestion Verringer knew anything about it."

"I like Verringer," I said. "I like him very much."

Peters dosed the file and slapped it. "You haven't seen this," he said. He got up and left the room. When he came back I was standing up to leave. I started to thank him, but he shook it off.

"Look," he said, "there must be hundreds of places where your man could be."

I said I knew that.

"And by the way, I heard something about your friend Lennox that might interest you. One of our boys ran across a fellow in New York five or six years ago that answers the description exactly. But the guy's name was not Lennox, he says. It was Marston. Of course he could be wrong. The guy was drunk all the time, so you couldn't really be sure.

I said: "I doubt if it was the same man. Why would he change his name? He had a war record that could be checked."

"I didn't know that. Our man's in Seattle right now. You can talk to him when he gets back, if it means anything to you. His name is Ashterfelt."

"Thanks for everything, George. It was a pretty- long ten minutes."

"I might need your help some day."

"The Came Organization," I said, "never needs anything from anybody."

He made a rude gesture with his thumb. I left him in his metallic gray cell and departed through the waiting room. It looked fine now. The loud colors made sense after the cell block.


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