Meanwhile in L.A. ...
As soon as the blonde walked through the door Miss Marple could tell she was
no better than she ought to be. That bottle-blonde hair that she couldn't help feeling
made girls look so cheap, and a pair of high-heeled shoes that must have played
havoc with her poor ankles, and a red dress that she was sure must have been very chic but
which really left little to the imagination, and perfume which must have been
expensive but which was really quite overpowering and which she must have splashed on from
a gallon drum.
'Oh dear,' thought Miss Marple, 'what a terrible old cat I am. I really shouldn't judge. But she does remind me of that girl who came to work in the tobacconists in St. Mary Mead and got her claws into poor Mr. Joskyns, and him a churchwarden and married twenty years.'
She had plenty of what the young people called S.A., Miss Marple supposed as the girl swayed teeteringly across the office - really, how those shoes must cripple her feet! - what in her younger days had been known as 'come-hither' or It. Miss Marple remembered endless discussions about what It was and who had It. Whatever It was, this girl had it in spades.
"Philip Marlowe?" said the blonde huskily, if a trifle puzzledly.
"I'm afraid not, my dear," said Miss Marple. "I am merely wearing his suit. Mr. Marlowe is not here at the moment. We have a little arrangement, you see, whereby once a year I look after his practice for a week and he takes care of mine. It prevents our growing stale and allows us to cross-dress. My name is Marple. Please, won't you take a seat?"
Miss Marple watched attentively as the girl seated herself, crossed her legs and lighted a cigarette, knowing that Mr. Marlowe would like her to describe these things in detail upon his return.
"My name is Adele Sylvester," said the girl. "I need you to find my husband Nick." She put a photograph on the desk. "He disappeared three weeks ago and I haven't heard from him since."
"I am sorry," said Miss Marple. "Perhaps your cooking was unsatisfactory?" Miss Marple had found that that was often a cause of marital discord. Mr. Joskyns had left the girl from the tobacconists in the end, she remembered, saying he missed his wife's suet pudding. Really, she suspected most men would find all that constant Sex Appeal and come-hither terribly fatiguing after a while.
The blonde narrowed her eyes and blew smoke. "Not funny, Marple. Not even fresh. Nick had no intention of leaving me. He was skipping out on a gambling debt. Big Lloyd Bentsen had his marker for fifteen G's and was starting to put the screws on. Nick planned to disappear and come up with a new identity. I was supposed to meet him in Reno a week ago but he never showed."
Miss Marple frowned. Oh, dear. It was going to be one of those stories. She opened the bottom drawer of the desk and looked longingly at the emergency pot of tea she kept there. Perhaps not just yet. It wasn't quite eleven o'clock. Regretfully, she shut the drawer.
"Do you have any idea where he might be now?" she asked.
The blonde put an envelope on the desk. "Two days ago I got a letter from a cheap punk named Carmine Riviera. He and Nick used to run together back in Fresno. He said Nick was in trouble and I should send money. He enclosed Nick's signet ring. When I confronted him and demanded to know where Nick was, he denied all knowledge of him or the letter."
Miss Marple sighed and opened the bottom drawer again. Just one cup wouldn't hurt her.
"Tea, dear?" The blonde shook her head. Miss Marple poured a cup and drank deeply. Really, she would know she had a problem when she started taking it straight from the pot. "That's better. Am I to understand that you believe this Mr. Riviera actually does know the whereabouts of your husband?"
"I'm sure of it."
"And you would like me to pay him a visit and, ah, put the screws on him?"
The blonde looked Miss Marple up and down. "Are you sure you're up to it? Riviera's a cheapie but he can get rough when he has to. He sells tea down in Bay City."
"A tea shop!" said Miss Marple. "How nice. I like tea."
The address the young lady gave her turned out to be in a not very salubrious
neighbourhood. Miss Marple didn't imagine the tea shop would do much business in such a
location. Indeed, it didn't seem to be a shop at all, but a rather seedy-looking house with a neglected lawn. Miss Marple parked her shopping trolley on
the sidewalk and walked over.
The door was ajar and swung further open as she knocked on it. A racket of jazz music was coming from within. There was no reply to her knock. Miss Marple crept into the dusty hallway. There was a heavy but not unpleasant smell in the house - an exotic fragrance that reminded her of an aromatherapy treatment she had once been given. Beneath that, though, there were other, less agreeable smells.
The music was coming from a room on her left. Miss Marple went in and found an exceedingly cluttered and dirty living room. Lying full length on a couch was the man in the photograph Miss Sylvester had given her. His face was contorted and there was a ragged black hole in his stomach and blood had spilled all over the couch and onto the carpet. 'That will stain,' thought Miss Marple, but she supposed it didn't matter as they were an old couch and carpet anyway.
Miss Marple checked the rest of the house and found it empty. She returned to the scene of the crime and turned off the radio from which the music had been coming.
Just then there was a squeal of brakes outside and moments later two large, rather surly-looking men burst into the room. The bigger of the two marched straight over to Miss Marple and pinned her roughly against the wall while the other eyed the body with revulsion.
"Belly-shot," he grunted. "Who the hell are you?"
"My name is Jane Marple, Private Investigator, licensed to operate by the State of California and the chief constable of Barsetshire. I am here in connection with a case. May I ask the same question of you?"
The man flashed a badge. "Detective Lenahan, Bay City Police Department. This is Detective Green. Someone reported a gunshot."
Detective Green flung Miss Marple down into an armchair and growled, "Why did you kill him?"
"But I didn't, you know."
"Oh yeah?" sneered Lenahan.
"She's lying," said Green, clenching his fists. "Let me slap her around a little."
"Easy, Dixie. If you didn't kill him, who did?"
"Well, you know, I'm afraid it seems rather obvious who killed him," said Miss Marple apologetically.
"Oh, yeah? Suppose you enlighten us."
"Oh, dear," said Miss Marple. "I really wouldn't like to make any accusations - really, I have no evidence, you know - I was simply going by my observations - "
"Refusing to talk, huh?" The policemen exchanged glances. "Down here in Bay City we have a way of dealing with smart-aleck dicks who get coy on us. That your shopping trolley outside? Seemed to me it had a defective offside wheel, what do you think, Dix?"
"Yeah," said Green with a slow smile. "And I think she was drunk in charge of it, too." He went over to a cupboard and came back with a bottle of whisky. "Take a drink," he growled, thrusting it at Miss Marple.
"Thankyou, no, I occasionally take a small drop of sherry in the afternoon, but - "
Detective Green hauled Miss Marple out of the chair, pinched her nostrils shut, and poured half the bottle of whisky down her throat when she opened her mouth.
"Juiced to the eyeballs," he muttered. "And she was a mean drunk, too. She resisted arrest, right, Pat?"
Green slapped Miss Marple brutally across the face several times and proceeded to bounce her energetically off all four walls.
"That's enough," snapped Lenahan suddenly, dragging him off. "How about it, Marple, you ready to talk?"
Miss Marple wiped blood off her mouth and hauled herself painfully to her feet. "Well, you know," she said, "I really don't like to make accusations - really, I am just a silly old woman, of course, and I would hate to make a mistake - I do get in a muddle sometimes - and now you have got me so flustered, and I've spilled blood and whisky all down Mr. Marlowe's nice suit, and I believe you have broken several of my ribs - and of course I have seen very little of the world, but then I have always thought, you know, that one learns more about life just living in a little village and observing people - don't you think? And really, it seems to me that whoever committed this crime must be exactly like little Tommy from St. Mary Mead, Mr. Perkins the greengrocer's youngest, you know - "
"What the hell are you wittering about?" yelled Lenahan. "You gave her too much booze, damn it."
"Booze nothing, she's on the reefer," muttered Green. "Let me work her over with a tyre-iron."
"Tommy Perkins was such a rascal," Miss Marple went on more composedly. "As a child he used to put mice and frogs down the back of ladies' blouses in church. And whoever killed poor Mr. Sylvester must have had the same mentality. Being belly-shot is such a painful way to die, you know. The killer must have been someone with a sadistic streak, like Tommy - someone like Detective Green here, for example."
Green coloured and stepped forward. "What are you saying?"
"You see, it did seem peculiar to me that Detective Green didn't so much as glance at that rather gruesome corpse when he first came in - and it does seem odd that he knew exactly where to find that whisky - really, I should say it was obvious that Mr. Green has been in this room before."
Green lurched towards Miss Marple but Lenahan stepped in and restrained him. "Easy there," he murmured, looking thoughtful. "You're making a serious allegation, lady," he said over his shoulder. "You'd better keep talking."
"Christ, Pat, you aren't going to listen to her?" Green threw Lenahan off him and stepped back angrily.
"Of course I would hate to cast any aspersions," said Miss Marple, "and I am sure that the Bay City Police Department has a sterling record of integrity, but I have heard that there is such a thing as graft - P.C. Hubbard at home, you know, will occasionally wink at a spot of after-hours drinking, or unlicensed fishing - "
"You seemed to find this house pretty easily," said Lenahan staring bleakly at Green. "And who exactly was it rang to tell you about the shot?"
"Now see here - " Green's mouth worked. He picked up the whisky and took a swig. "Supposing I had been here before. Supposing I did have a little arrangement here. I would have cut you in eventually, Pat. And suppose something went wrong - who's going to miss a little punk like this?"
"We're talking about murder, Dixie! You know I can't protect you."
Green's arm whirled out and the bottle broke over Lenahan's head. Lenahan dropped to the floor and lay there bloody and groaning.
"I'm sorry, Pat," muttered Green thickly, taking a revolver out of his shoulder holster. "You wanted it like this." He aimed the gun at Lenahan's head and started to squeeze the trigger.
But by that time Miss Marple had her own gun out. Her first shot blew half his neck away, sending a fountain of arterial blood jetting all over the wall, and the second took the top of his head off.
'Oh dear,' thought Miss Marple, blowing smoke from the barrel, 'I don't suppose they will ever get this room clean.'
"The owners of the tea shop were paying off the detective, you see." Miss Marple
leaned forward and lit Adele Sylvester's cigarette, igniting the match with a practised rasp
of her thumbnail. "Why a tea shop should have to pay off the police I have no idea.
Something to do with the zoning laws, I expect. But then they tried to blackmail him into
doing other things and it turned nasty."
"But what did it have to do with my husband?" asked Miss Sylvester. Really, Miss Marple had to admit she did look quite fetching in her mourning black.
Miss Marple smiled apologetically. "Of course, he wasn't really your husband, was he? You haven't been strictly truthful with me, have you, my dear?"
The blonde widened her eyes. "You mean you know?"
Miss Marple put her feet up on the desk and started to fill Mr. Marlowe's pipe. "I know that once upon a time three people named Carmine Riviera, Adele Kuberman and Jimmy the Beak had a sweet little racket forging Treasury bonds with stolen plates, and running an innocent tea shop on the side. Things were ticking over nicely until a man named Nick Sylvester, with whom you had gone through a form of marriage back in Kansas City, showed up. Although you had abandoned him for Jimmy the Beak, Sylvester pleaded with you to come back to him, telling you he had just inherited his wealthy father's fortune. A mercenary child, you agreed. But then things went wrong. Jimmy the Beak had stolen the plates for the T-bonds from a mobster named Dutch Kaminsky. Dutch found out and ordered a hit on Jimmy. Unfortunately Dutch's goons saw you with Nick Sylvester, who bore a passing resemblance to Jimmy the Beak. Sylvester was killed in mistake for Jimmy and fed to the fishes off Catalina. You decided to get out while the going was good, move back to KC and claim Sylvester's estate as his widow. However the lawyers told you that you would need a body to prove Nick's death. Jimmy the Beak hatched a plot to force the crooked policeman who protected the tea shop to provide a body from the police morgue that could pass as Sylvester. But Green turned leery and plugged Jimmy. So you planted documents on Jimmy's body which would identify him as Sylvester and came here with a moonshine story about wanting to find your husband, giving me a photograph of Jimmy. You intended me to identify the body as Nick Sylvester, thus satisfying the legal niceties and enabling you to claim his estate."
Adele looked astounded. "How do you know all that?"
"I'm afraid it was obvious from the beginning, my dear. The same thing has happened many times in St. Mary Mead, on a microcosmic level." Actually Miss Marple had pieced it together from Jimmy the Beak's diary and the confession Detective Lenahan had pistol-whipped out of Carmine Riviera, but she was an old woman and pretending to be omniscient was one of her few joys in life.
Adele got up and came over to Miss Marple. Really, she did have a delectable figure. "Are you going to turn me in?" she said breathily. "I didn't do anything really wrong, did I? I just had a lot of bad breaks. I'm going straight now, honest I am."
"Well, my dear..." Miss Marple rose and studied the girl. There must be some good in the child, and she really was far too pretty to send to jail. That scent was really quite nice, she decided. "The police appear to regard the case as closed, so I suppose we can leave you out of it."
Adele smiled. "You're good people, Marple. You won't regret this."
"I knew you were trouble," said Miss Marple ruefully.
"I don't know how I can ever thank you."
"As to that, my dear..." Miss Marple seemed flustered. "I understand that there is a certain reward traditionally rendered for acts of gallantry performed by a detective...I haven't indulged in any sapphic activities since the late 1920s, but you really are very lovely, and Mr. Marlowe was most insistent that I fulfill all his duties...the agency has a reputation to uphold, you know..."
Adele blinked. "I don't think I know what you mean."
"Sure you do, sweetheart," said Miss Marple, pulling her close.
17th Dec 01
* A few months back, i.e. Autumn '03, someone got in touch to say this had been badly ripped off on a BBC radio sketch show, but was unable to say which programme or give an exact date. If anyone can provide details please contact me.
Edit Jan 08:
Arse on it, just been re-reading the Flashman books and it turns out I unconsciously nicked 'curves to make Rubens chew through his paintbrush' from one of them.