The Six-Day Race
The phone by the bed jangled me out of a bad dream. Better late than never. I’d been dodging some rough customers, the kind who need a shave and a new haberdasher. It was down around Mazatlan along the Cocaine Corrida, and I was driving too fast, trying to lose a Packard-load of thugs in cheap suits on the lane-and-a-half of a typical Mexican highway. I can’t say I was sorry to wake up, even considering I’d emptied the office bottle and then some the previous evening. But that was history now and I knew before I was fully awake I’d have to get reacquainted with my head for the rest of the day.
After a few fumbles I got the receiver right side up, just in time to hear Lafferty already in full throat, like the sound of a lathe cutting some mug’s headstone. All I could think without coffee was, here we go again. Perfectly natural in the circumstances. The circumstances were Lafferty.
Aw, Lafferty, I groaned. It’s nine-thirty in the a. m. What can’t the entire L. A. police department figure out now?
Aw, don’t 'aw Lafferty' me, Lafferty aw-Laffertyed me. We got a problem. You got a problem, more like it.
I wasn’t awake yet. There was something I wasn’t taking in. The Packard was still racing through the mists of my subconscious, making me wonder what I could have done last night. Tell me about my problem, I moaned.
There’s a rub, Marlowe. I know you bet pretty heavy on those six-day races down at the Coliseum. So, three days in and a schmoe in funny shorts from the lead team goes past the concession stand, well in front. By the turn he’s gone, kaput, disappeared, like an angel in the mist. You wouldn’t know anything about that, would you? Marlowe?
I could see Lafferty’s face as he talked, eyes like gumboils, big nose cratered like the fenders on a getaway car. It didn’t improve my hangover. Or my mood.
No, Lafferty, I wouldn’t know anything about that. You’re absolutely correct in your surmise. I was waking up now.
Aw, don’t go all Sherlock Holmes on me, Lafferty barked. I was impressed by his sudden ability to spot irony when it hit him in the kisser.
Look, I said. You know me well enough to know that I’m a sporting man. I wouldn’t take any bet I could fix. You already know that. So why are you calling at this hour?
There was dead silence on the other end, like when a humanitarian has just shot the neighbor’s barking dog at six a.m. I didn’t figure it was you, Lafferty finally said.
Thanks, I said. Could you say that again, just a little louder and with some feeling?
Don’t push me, Marlowe. My point is, you know most of those dainty-legged types with the cowhide up their asses. Find out what you can and let us know, would you?
Why didn’t someone file a missing person report? I asked him. It’s not that, Lafferty mumbled. It’s probably kidnapping, or drugs or something like that.
Sure, I said. And where should I submit my expenses? And then there’s the matter of my considerable upkeep.
The LAPD does not forget its friends, Marlowe, Lafferty said in a plangent whisper. He sounded like he was lying to some woman on a dance floor.
I almost teared up. You mean you won’t hassle me too much when another one of my clients turns up in the morgue?
Like that, Lafferty said.
I’d been betting on the six-day races since the Coliseum installed the best board track west of the Alleghenies. It was every bit as finely banked as the one at the Garden, the Chicago boards were no better, and the L.A. track was faster than either. I’d gotten to know the racers, all the skinny-legged kids from Fresno and Sacramento, the banged-up veterans from the Portland and Seattle circuits. Every kid had a dream, every scar told a tale. I liked horse racing, but I liked bicycle racing better. Horses can’t talk. And they generally don’t have marital problems, or owe anybody for barbiturates.
My general rule, when looking around for an easy solution, is to talk to the janitor first. Janitors belong to the second-oldest profession in the world. Meaning whatever the oldest profession might be, someone had to clean up after it. And they would have at least an idea about what went on. My Roladex had as many phone numbers for guys named Stubby as it had numbers for girls named Lulu.
Actually, the guy’s name was Luis and he was in his office in the basement when I found him. He pulled a bottle and two glasses out of his desk when he saw me. I offered him a cigarette, took one for myself, flared a match on my thumbnail, lit us both and sat down.
Cheers, he said , yeah, it was the damnedest thing. This guy’s coming around the turn on the east side of the arena, he’s just gone past the hot dog tienda, veers off into one of the bleacher aisles - no idea how he coulda made that turn - through a double door into a loading area and no one’s had a glimmer of him since. You didn’t pay him to throw it, did you Marlowe, he asked with a big grin.
I ignored it. Who was the guy, I asked, did he have a name? Clement Atlee was what I heard, Luis said. Luis was a real card.
It doesn’t figure, I said. Bike racing is working-class stuff – pretty soon guys from Texas will be in it and when that happens, I’m out of it. I wouldn’t bet on a Texan to do anything but cheat the dealer.
You mean a gringo Texan, Luis insisted. So maybe Clement’s a gringo Texan. Luis was trying my patience. but maybe he was on to something. I couldn't tell, him being a smartass Mexicano.
Clement Atlee’s the prime minister of Great Britain, I said wearily. So did this guy Clement Atlee wear a vest and smoke a pipe? Was he carrying a musette full of diplomatic communications?
Luis was thoughtful, and not in an ironic way. Not that I noticed, he said carefully. These guys don’t wear musettes. They all eat at the hot dog counter.
Yeah, I almost forgot, I said. They like to eat healthy.
I knew some bicycle racers. The way I figured them, they weren’t in it for the dames. Those funny legs don’t draw women. And for three hundred dollar purses, they weren’t in it for the money. So I figured it had to be for drugs – strychnine, cocaine, Dexadrol, Seconal, cheap champagne for the hungover days, you name it, they’d try it and probably buy it. Putting a six-day racer next to a dime bag is like putting a cheap suit next to a radiator – in ten minutes all you’ve got is a mess on your hands.
I knew a few junk dealers on the Strip, too, so I thought that might be a good place to start. It was a warm evening and I’d had a brace of Beefeater gimlets and a rare Jap steak over in La Brea with an old flame who wouldn’t say no, except at the wrong times, so after I dropped her at her apartment building on La Cienega I put the top down on the Buick and drove back into town to examine the trade along Sunset Boulevard.
Just outside the Town House Grille (with an ‘e’) I spotted an old friend. His name was Eddie, never a last name that I knew of. I pulled in along the curb and he came up to the car, leaned over the door, and bummed a smoke. I flared a match and lit it, he took a drag and started to look interested. Wathcha got? he asked.
Whaddaya need? I asked. Like always, he grinned back, money. I fished out a Lincoln and handed it over. He rolled it up, bent down and put it in his sock. He straightened, looked at me with renewed curiosity, and said, So? Whaddaya need?
What do you know about Clement Atlee? I said after a minute. Prime minister o’ Great Britain, our grateful friend and ally in the last and we hope the final war among nations, he said. I told him to cut the crap. Clement Atlee, I said.
He come by here last evening, pretty late, said he needed a bag of blood pretty bad. Told me he could pay up after the last day of the race, Sunday.
A bag of blood?
I thought he musta been crazy at first, but he told me that’s how they do it – fresh blood in the veins, they seem to go longer or somethin’, not sure how that would work, but . . . Eddie shuddered like a girl with a spider down her back.
What did you tell him?
I said I wasn’t in that line, never heard of anyone selling blood. He says no, you can get a prescription for it, if you know the right doc. Fresh blood is like medicine, he said.
That’s sick, I said. That’s what I told him, said Eddie. I said I ain’t in that line. And besides, I prob’ly don’t have your type, I told him.
What type is that? I asked. He wasn’t sure, said Eddie. Thought it might be B-positive.
Have any? I asked. Have to check the stock, Eddie said. So where did he go? I asked. No idea, Eddie said. He said he had to get back, might be disquallerfied or dropped or somethin’.
Don’t forget my number, I told him. No, sir, he said. I got it in my heart.
Yeah, I said, like a lesion. Right, he said. Exactly. Nowhere without it.
(To be continued)