Tuesday, June 11, 2013

The Six-Day Race (Pt. 2)

[From a manuscript purported to be among the literary relicts of the estate of Raymond Chandler, creator of the private investigator, Philip Marlowe. Chandler died in 1959. In observance of the 2013 Tour de France which will commence this July, as it does each year.]
The Six-Day Race

The afternoon was sweltering.  The smog hung around like a fat dog outside my office in the Cahuenga Building.  I had the door to the inner office locked and the buzzer in the outside waiting room turned on, in the increasingly rare event that a paying client might walk in. I had the blinds drawn shut so I wouldn't have to watch the bricks in the wall outside my fourth-floor window shimmer in the heat. If my office were in Europe I would have been on the third floor, not that it would have helped the climate, or made the elevator ride any shorter. Or the rent any cheaper, for that matter. 

I had just set the office bottle and a clean glass onto the dust on top of my desk when the phone rang.  Lafferty’s voice gargled over the line like a strangled walrus on a Hawaiian ice floe. I could barely hear what he was saying for the whirr of the oscillating fan  You got anything for me, Marlowe?  I’ll take anything you found out. I need something.

How about a roundhouse to the jaw? I asked him. I asked nicely. Women tell me I generally ask nicely.

Don’t push me, Lafferty growled.  I got some pressure here. The boss thinks there’s maybe some kinda ring or somethin’.  Like a dope ring, maybe gang stuff, maybe kidnapping, smuggling. 

You left out the sex trade. That’s a pretty broad brush, Lafferty.  It’s not gangs, not kidnapping – the guy’s been seen on the street.  I don’t think he’s done anything illegal.  Yet, anyway.  But you’d be the best judge of that, I said, with a generous swipe of the soft soap.  

Lafferty grunted like a stuck bull in a tight stall. Not much help, are you Marlowe, he growled.   

Tell your boss you’re looking for a defrocked medico.  A doc who’s lost his shingle – busted, maybe for selling drugs, maybe for sticking up a blood bank, maybe some guy with veterinary aspirations who's been selling cow’s blood.  Which I guess is a pretty broad brush, but not so broad as yours.  And nothing illegal, that I know of.

I guess drinking blood ain't illegal, Lafferty admitted, but nobody said he was drinking anything. Drinking what you drink ain't illegal either. And you make it sound like the guy's a sicko.  A vampire.  We're talking about fruits riding bicycles, fer Chrissakes. They’re not shopping for blood, human or animal.  Do you think? Look at what they wear.  Talk to me Marlowe, I don’t like the sound of your smirk.

"Fruits riding bicycles . . ."

That’s what your boss said, I told him.  I guess these guys inject fresh blood for extra going power.  Like you might take a shot of rye, or a bit of strychnine in water, which in your case I recommend, Lafferty. But I don’t know anything except what I’ve been told.  Being a gimlet-and-scotch man myself, you understand. Or the occasional whiskey sour on a hot afternoon - it gives the Buick a nice pickup. But I probably shouldn’t mention that to a cop. Anyway, I’ve been talking to some people in what I’ll call related industries.

You don’t make this an easy job, Marlowe, Lafferty said, in a voice that sounded like a hymn at his mother’s graveside. You think I got it easy just ’cause I get a regular paycheck.

You’d be the best judge of that, I told him. I wouldn't know anything about a regular paycheck.

Yeah, said Lafferty, I'll send some flowers.
 The Buick

I got home late that night with not very much to show for an empty gas tank and a pair of feet that were barking like tired Dobermanns.  I set up the chess board, poured a solid double scotch, and had just started to replay the 1947 Petrograd match between Kazurov and Burakovsky, when the telephone rang.  It was Eddie.  Marlowe? he started.  No, this is the Scarlet Pimpernel - who’s this?  It’s Eddie, he said.  Is Marlowe there?  Eddie, I snorted, you got a cheese blintz for a head?

Oh, it’s you, Marlowe, he said, brightening.  Yeah, I seen that guy, Clement.  After you left this afternoon. He was going in the alley door at Nunzio’s Trattoria, I’d say about 6:30 this afternoon. 

He’s been missing for almost 24 hours, I calculated out loud. Jesus, I wonder what it takes to get disqualified in a bike race? I think it takes a letter from your priest, Eddie said. Or from Jesus.

I knew the joint. Nunzio's was a ‘trattoria’ like a cathouse is a Methodist church.  It was a cocktail bar, one you could bring your dog into, if you had a dog, one of those joints that’s always changing names but maybe not owners, always ‘formerly’ something else, like ‘Nunzio’s (formerly Scarpone’s)’.   It was frequented by the bike racers and by the drug trade – shady doctors and defrocked medical personnel who still had their hands in hospital dispensaries and resold prescription junk out of alley doors and car windows.  

  The floor show at Nunzio's (formerly the 'Creole Palace')

If Atlee was tangled up with these guys there was no way he could test clean and stay qualified – unless he had either a lot of dough or a reputation as shiny as the seat of a bus driver’s pants, which I hadn’t heard he did have.  Either one, I mean.  The way I figured it, he wouldn’t be in six-day races if he was loaded with cash, and he wouldn’t be in Nunzio’s if he was clean.  He was down on both counts and all I had to do was find some guy who was dealing bags of blood. Shouldn’t be too hard to nail a guy like that in what you might say was a niche market.  

Are you selling anyone blood, Eddie?  I asked abruptly.  No, boss, Eddie whined.  I’m a normal human being.  Who would sell it, then?  I asked him.  Anyone you might know?

I had a guy try to move into my patch about two months back, Eddie remembered.  He couldn’t get a source.  But a coupla guys mentioned seeing him hanging around in the warehouse district by the slaughterhouses.  I never made no connection.  Until now, just putting two and two together. 

Thanks, Eddie, I said.  It probably won't help, but it better be true.  God’s honest, he chirped.  I heard he was a vet who lost his license working the cockfights.  That’s what I figured, I told him.

I thought it was time to pay a visit to Nunzio’s, so I showered and shaved in anticipation of needing another shower when I came out of there.  I had to brace myself at the door before I pushed it open. I walked through into the dark and the malodorous smell of stale smoke and spilled beer.  There were six or eight people in the place - a pair at the bar, the others sitting at tables back in the deep murk.  I walked up to the bar and the barman slouched over indifferently.  Can I get a fresh squeezed orange juice? I asked him.  Sure, he said, put some ice in a highball glass and filled it from a bottle of sickly yellowish stuff that was recuperating in the ice well.  I didn’t say anything, I just tossed four bits onto the bar and stared into the back mirror without picking up the glass.

I studied the other patrons.  The tables didn’t look like they were doing anything but killing time there, but one of the two guys at the bar interested me greatly.  He had that emaciated, insect-like body bike racers get when the little bit they have left for the track comes from amphetamines.  He looked edgy and hungry and maybe like he might be ready to spill something besides his drink.  I walked over and offered him a smoke.  He shook his head, looked at it, then took it. Don't take it on my account, kid, I told him.  I lit it for him and another one for myself.

 The other guy at the bar

You might be able to help me, I said.  He didn’t answer, so I took out a sawbuck and slid it under his glass like a bar napkin.  He brightened, seemed to become more cooperative.  You’re not in the six-day at the Coliseum? I asked.  Pulled a hamstring in a fall, he said.

There’s medicine can help with that, I said.  He said he couldn’t afford that kind of medicine.  Ever use speed? I asked him.  Naw, he told me.  Know any guys who might? I asked.  You a narc? he shot back.  I was making him nervous.  Not me, I told him.  I’m looking for a guy named Clement Atlee.  He should be finishing up the six-day but no one’s seen him.  You seen him around?

He looked up into the mirror behind the bar to see if anyone could hear or might be watching us, and when he didn’t see anyone, he shook his head.  Clement's gone missing before, in the middle of a race, he said, talking sideways out of his mouth.  He's got somebody tells him when they're going to do pee tests, blood samples, whatever.  He knows, he leaves.

Why don't they yank him? I asked.  Why do they let him back on the track?  You got a couple more of those napkins? he asked. I slid two more sawbucks under his glass and kissed them a long goodbye.

Because, whispered Insect Man, if Clement didn't race no one would show up in the stands. The place would be empty as Saturday night mass. He's that big a draw? I asked. I admit I was impressed. I'd never even bet on the guy. 

He's a good rider, said the kid, but he does some weird stuff - medical treatments, I guess. The guys on his team don't talk about it but everyone else knows what's going on. Chicken blood, I've heard, or something. I don't mean Jamaican stuff - voodoo, nothing like that. Cow's blood, could be. You can get it from a few doctors - what everybody calls doctors - but you gotta have some money behind you. Serious money. Like money from somebody whose name you probably maybe already know.

The racer's edge

Somebody here in town? I knew I was on to something and I knew that The Bug was about to shut down on me like a slow electric garage door. One more thing, I said as quickly as the thought came to me. Where does he go for these, uhh, treatments?

It ain't local, he said, glancing up at the bar mirror. It's someplace back East - Aspen, I think. Never heard of it otherwise.

There was only one Aspen I'd ever heard of - some little dump of a Colorado mining town where interior decorators, down-and-out architects, and the occasional savings-and-loan executive went to avoid the sodomy laws, construction liens or the tax man.  I knew Clement wasn't in Aspen. He'd want to finish the race. His backers would want him to finish the race in the correct slot, the slot they'd paid for. So Clement was still in town.

But I knew I'd be making a trip to Aspen on my own dime. I wasn't looking forward to any more cheesy overpriced diner food, or another paperboard room in a crappy motel full of highly buzzed ski trash in Jeeps.

(To be continued)

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