The Big Squash (à la Raymond Chandler) Part One

It was about eleven o’clock in the morning, one day in October. There was no sun, and there were rain−clouds over the distant hills. I was a neat, clean, shaved and sober private detective, and didn’t care who knew it.

What’s more, I was about to meet four million dollars.

I was waiting in the entrance hall of General Sternwood’s home in West Hollywood. It had been less than twenty-four hours since I got a call from Bernie Ohls at the DA’s office.

‘Whatever he wants, the General’s not saying,’ said Ohls, ‘at least he’s not saying anything to me. Seems he wants the best in the business.’

I waited for the punch-line.

‘I recommended you anyway. Don’t let me down, Marlowe.’

‘I’ll try not to.’

Through the hall window I could see a lot of smooth green grass and a white windowless building with a sloping roof and one door. Beyond it was a large greenhouse and beyond that there were trees and then the hills. There was oil in those hills and oil was where Sternwood had made his money.

I heard footsteps.

‘The General will see you now, Mr Marlowe.’

The butler was a tall, thin, silvery man of about sixty, with expressionless blue eyes. He led me out of the house and headed for the greenhouse. As we were passing the white building, the door opened and two women came out. They were both wearing white tops, shorts and sneakers. I guessed they were Sternwood’s daughters. They were both sweating. Whatever they’d been doing in there, they were hot. Very hot.

The younger one saw me and gave me a smile I could feel in my hip pocket. A smile showing little, sharp, white teeth. Then she put her thumb in her mouth and giggled. She was about twenty, small but tough−looking. Her blonde hair was cut short and she was carrying a towel in her left hand. The other woman was tall and strong-looking with black hair, late 20s maybe. She looked at me with cold, dark eyes. I wouldn’t be asking her out on a date anytime soon.

I followed the butler to the greenhouse. He opened the door and ushered me in. It was hot, the air thick and wet and the light green. From a wheelchair in the middle of the greenhouse an old man with black eyes and a white moustache watched us. Despite the temperature, he was covered in blankets.

The butler said, `This is Mr Marlowe, General.’

The old man didn’t move or speak. He just looked at me. Then he said, `Fetch the brandy please, Norris. You’ll take a drink Mr Marlowe? I can’t join you, I’m afraid. Doctor’s orders.’

I nodded. The butler went and the old man spoke again, slowly, using his strength as carefully as an out-of-work show-girl uses her last good pair of stockings.

‘Take off your coat, sir. It’s too hot in here for a healthy young man. You may smoke. I like the smell of cigarettes.’

I took off my coat and lit a cigarette. The butler brought the brandy and I drank some.

`Tell me about yourself, Mr Marlowe.’

`There’s very little to tell. I’m thirty−three. I used to work for the DA until I got fired for thinking for myself. I’m not married and I don’t like policemen’s wives.’

The old man smiled.

‘What do you know about my family?’

`Your wife is dead. You have two young daughters. They’re both pretty and both wild. One of them has been married three times, the last time to a bootlegger called Rusty Regan.’

The General smiled his thin smile.

`I was very fond of Rusty Regan. He was a big red−haired Irishman with sad eyes and a wide smile. He spent hours with me. He was a grand story−teller and a great drinker. Of course, he wasn’t a suitable husband for my daughter. I’m telling you our family secrets, Mr Marlowe.’

`They’ll stay secrets,’ I told him. `What happened to Regan?’

The old man looked at me sadly. `He went away a month ago. Without saying goodbye. That hurt me. I hope he’ll come back. And now someone is blackmailing me.’

He stared at me. `Look at this,’ he said. `And have some more brandy.’

He handed me a packet. The address said: General Guy Sternwood, 3765 Alta Brea Crescent, West Hollywood, California. There was a card inside it with the name Mr Arthur Gwynn Geiger, Specialist Bookseller, with a business address. There were also three notes signed by Carmen Sternwood. Each promised to pay Geiger $1,000.

`Any ideas?’ the General asked.

`Not yet. Who is Arthur Gwynn Geiger?’

`I don’t know.’

`What does Carmen say?’

`I haven’t asked her. If I did, she’d put her thumb in her mouth and giggle.’

I said, `I saw her outside. She did that to me.’

The expression on his face didn’t change.

`Do the girls spend a lot of time together?’

`Not that I know of. Vivian is intelligent but cruel. Carmen is just a selfish child. Neither of them ever worries about the difference between right and wrong. Neither do I.’

‘Do they have any money of their own?’

`Vivian has a little. I’m generous to both of them.’

I drank some brandy. Then I said, `I can take Geiger off your back, General, if you want me to.’ I told him how much money I wanted for the job.

`I see,’ he said. `That seems fair. Very well, Mr Marlowe. The problem is now in your hands. And now you must excuse me. I’m tired.’

He touched a bell, stared at me once more, and closed his eyes.

I picked up my coat and went out of that hot greenhouse full of flowers. The cool air of the garden smelled wonderful. The butler was coming towards me.

`Mrs Regan would like to see you, sir.’

`Why?’

His blue eyes looked straight into mine.

`I believe that she misunderstands the reason for your visit, sir.’

I told him it was none of his business, let alone hers. But what the hell, I thought.

‘Take me to Mrs Regan.’

++++

It was a big white room, too big, too white. Long windows looked out onto the dark hills. It was going to rain soon. I walked across the floor and looked at Mrs Regan. She was lovely. She was trouble. She was lying in a chair with her shoes off, so I stared at her legs. They were long and beautiful. She was drinking, and looked at me over her glass with her hot black Sternwood eyes.

`So you’re a private detective,’ she said. `I imagined an awful little man.’

I said nothing.

‘Tall, aren’t you?’ she said.

‘I didn’t mean to be.’

Her smile was as faint as a fat lady at a fireman’s ball.

`How did you like Dad?’

`I liked him.’

`He liked Rusty. Do you know who Rusty is?’

`Yes.’

`Rusty was sometimes rough and noisy, but he was never dull. He was a lot of fun for Dad. Why did he just disappear like that? Dad wants you to find him. Isn’t that true, Mr Marlowe?’

`Maybe,’ I said. I sat on the edge of a deep, soft chair and lit a cigarette.

`Do you think you can find him?’

`I didn’t say I was going to try. Why don’t you go to the police?’

`Oh, Dad will never bring the police into it.’

She looked at me smoothly and drank what was left in her glass.

`You don’t make much money, do you?’ she said.

`You can’t make big money in this game if you’re honest.’

`Oh, are you honest?’ she said and lit a cigarette.

`Terribly honest.’

`So what made you become a detective?’

`What made you marry a bootlegger?’

She went red. Her hot black eyes looked angry. I just smiled at her. `Don’t play with me,’ she said. `I don’t like the way you’re behaving.’

`I’m not crazy about you either,’ I told her. `I didn’t ask to see you, you asked to see me. I don’t care if you show your legs and drink whiskey for lunch. I don’t care if you think I behave badly. You’re probably right. But don’t try to question me.’

`I hate big, dark, handsome men like you, Marlowe,’ she said. `I just hate them.’

`What are you afraid of, Mrs Regan?’ I asked.

Her expression changed. `You could find Rusty – if Dad wanted you to,’ she said.

`He told me about Mr Regan. He wanted to see me about something else. Is that what you wanted me to say?’

`I don’t care what you say!’ she shouted.

I stood up and left the room. I walked back to the entrance hall and stood on the steps outside, smoking my cigarette. In the distance I could see some old oil−wells. The Sternwoods’ money came from those oil−wells. Now they lived in their beautiful house, far from the machines and the smell of the oily water in the sump.

The sky was black when I reached my car. I heard thunder in the hills and put the top up.

She had lovely legs. They were a smooth act, General Sternwood and his daughters. `What do they really want?’ I wondered.

++++

Geiger’s bookstore was on the north side of the boulevard, near Las Palmas. As I stopped to look in the window, a man in the street gave me a knowing smile. The door closed quietly behind me and I stepped onto a soft blue carpet. A few customers were browsing the shelves. There were big comfortable blue armchairs and some expensive−looking books on small tables. In one corner a woman wearing wire-framed glasses sat at a desk.

She got up slowly and came towards me. She was wearing a short black dress, which looked good over long legs. She had brown hair and green eyes. Her fingernails were silver. You don’t often buy a book from a girl like that.

`Can I help you?’ she asked me.

I asked her for a book. It was a famous book, but she had never heard of it. I tried another name. Her eyes rounded. She was puzzled. She was thinking. I could see, even on short acquaintance, that thinking was always going to be a bother to her. She didn’t know about the book. She knew as much about books as I knew about painting my fingernails silver.

`I’ll have to speak to Mr Geiger,’ I told her. `Is he here?’

`I’m afraid not,’ she said. `He’ll be here later.’

‘Mind if I wait?’ I said. ‘I’ve got nothing to do this afternoon.’ I sat down in an armchair and lit a cigarette. The brunette looked unhappy.

After twenty minutes, the door to the street opened and a tall man wearing black-rimmed glasses and a Panama hat came in. He hurried past me and over to the brunette.

He took something out of his wallet and showed it to her. She touched a button and a door opened. He disappeared through it.

Minutes passed. I smoked another cigarette. The brunette was staring at me with an expression she probably would have said was thoughtful.

The door opened and the tall man came out. He was carrying a large packet. He looked quickly at me as he passed and went out into the street.

++++

I left the bookstore and followed him. Someone who looks like that is easy to follow. When he stopped to cross the street, I let him see me. He walked on quickly and turned left, between two houses surrounded by trees. I stood and waited, as rain began to fall. Minutes passed. Then he came back and walked straight past me. He didn’t have the packet any more. He was safe now.

I watched him go down the street. Then I went between the houses and found the packet behind a tree. Nobody saw me pick it up. I went back to the boulevard and found a phone booth. I looked in the book and found that Geiger lived on Laverne Terrace, a street off Laurel Canyon Boulevard. Then I went to visit some other stores. In one of them I found a girl who could describe Geiger. She said he was about forty, a fat man with a fat face and a moustache. He dressed fashionably.

I ran back to my car through heavy rain. Then I opened the packet. I thought I knew what would be inside it but I thought wrong. It wouldn’t be the last time.

The packet was full of squash magazines.

I sat and looked at the glossy covers. Pictures of matches in play. Headlines trailing interviews, stories, best-buy features, tournament reports. Men and women posing with squash racquets. Wearing white.

I stared at them. I used to play the game myself when I was at the DA’s office. Now I played different games. Games where I could make my own rules.

Then I opened one. What was inside made me feel sick. The worst pornography I’d ever seen. The magazine covers were a front, just like Geiger’s bookstore was a front for distributing ugly dirt. To run that business on the boulevard he must be paying someone a lot of protection money.

I sat in my car and smoked and thought about it. Something didn’t feel right.

Then I looked again at the covers.

I found what I was looking for at the bottom of the pile. The cover showed two women on court playing a rally. The shot had been taken from low down on the front wall. One woman was a brunette with her hair in a ponytail. She was wearing a red sweatband and was lunging into the back right hand corner of the court to play a shot.

The second woman was standing on the T, her head turned towards her opponent. Her face was in left profile, her mouth slightly open, taking in a breath. It was a pretty mouth, a mouth showing little, sharp, white teeth.

The woman’s blonde hair was cut short.

She was holding her racquet in her left hand.

Coming next…

In Part Two of ‘The Big Squash’ the mystery deepens as Marlowe waits for Geiger to appear.

Acknowledgements

Set in Los Angeles, California, Raymond Chandler’s ‘The Big Sleep’ was first published in 1939. Howard Hawks 1946 film version starred Humphrey Bogart as Marlowe, Lauren Bacall as Vivian Routledge (Vivian Regan in the novel), and Martha Vickers as Carmen Sternwood.

For an appreciation of Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe in Howard Hawks movie, read Leonard Pierce’s ‘Come Into My Boudoir.’

Thanks to Rosalie Kerr for her masterly re-telling of ‘The Big Sleep’ and the ‘Good Reads’ website for its compendium of Raymond Chandler quotes. I’ve used quotes from Chandler’s  ‘The Big Sleep’, ‘Farewell My Lovely’ and ‘The Little Sister’ in this story.