The Six-Day Race
Why do they call it Aspen? I asked the barmaid. She blinked at me like I'd asked her why a Kodachrome sky was green.
I'm sure it must be the aspen trees, she said. There are aspen trees everywhere out here, I shot back.
Real estate developers, she said after a pause. Save an elk, shoot a developer. I guess they thought it sounded cute. I figured she was probably right at that.
Then I flipped a photo onto the bar. Ever seen this guy? I asked. The barmaid glanced at it, shook her head and started to walk away. But I'd seen her do the double take.
Sure? I said, and laid a fin on the bar. She looked offended, like a debutante at a pig roast. Just for information, I explained. Oh, she said, and stuffed it somewhere in a shirtfront like a double nail bin in a hardware store.
He's been in a couple times, she said. That's all.
That's all? I asked. Know where he lives? Where I might find him?
He's not local, she answered. I think he's in the medical trades, pharmaceutical, something like that. What I've heard, anyway. I think his name's Ben.
Any last name? I asked.
Dizz . . . Dizzrailer, I think. Or maybe Derailler. Like some bicycle part, what I was told.
Disraeli? Benjamin Disraeli? I asked. Yeah, something like that, she said. Know him?
He was the prime minister of England, I said. Really? she said. She seemed mildly impressed. I figured I was in Aspen, so I let it go at that.
One other question, I said. Did you ever see him buy a bag of blood?
Jees, she exploded like a steam grate, we're not all preverts out here, ya know.
That's the last impression I'd want to leave you with, miss, I said. I just need to know who you've seen Ben with in the last 24 hours. A doctor, local vet? Anyone?
The barmaid (by John Brack)
Stan? I asked. So a last name?
Baldwin, she said after a minute. Yeah, Stan Baldwin.
As in Stanley Baldwin? I said.
I suppose so, she said. Stanley, Stan. Is it a big deal?
He was the prime minister of England, I said, not to anyone in particular.
I've heard they have bad blood in the royal family over there, she said absently.
Bad blood, I repeated.You mean hemophilia?
Well, yes - homophobia, I've heard. One of those.
And all the time I'd been thinking just bad teeth. Honey, you may have given me some daylight here, I said, and walked back along the blazing sidewalk to the Buick.
I had the motor idling and flared a match to fire up a smoke when I saw the sign just a block down - Ye Olde Pork Pie Shoppe. Begorrah! I muttered in a brogue as phony as the joint in question.
I shut off the engine, pocketed the key, stubbed the cigarette, strolled back down the sidewalk and in through a front door grimed with smoke and disuse. That probably meant that the back door was the entry of choice for this clientele. The first thing I could make out in the musty interior was a pastry case with about three pork pies lounging in the back, covered in more dust than a miner. I'd never seen a pork pie before, and these particular samples weren't a compelling advertisement for the culinary merits of the genre. I'd been thinking about lunch until that moment.
Something emerged from a curtain behind the pastry case and into the murky light of the joint. May I assist you? asked a fruity voice.
I'm looking for Stan, I said.
I am Stanley - how might I be of service? the voice asked. My eyes were adjusting to the dust and the dim light, and I could barely make out an aging chap in a tweed jacket, a starched white shirt and an ascot that hid more chins than a Chinese phone book. He was wearing tassel loafers. I reminded myself that this was Aspen.
Stanley Baldwin? I asked.
And to whom do I have the honor of being unintroduced? he purred.
Sorry, I said, immediately sorry I'd apologized. Name's Marlowe. Philip Marlowe, from Los Angeles. I'm a private detective and I've been engaged to track down a cyclist who's gone missing from a six-day at the Coliseum. I've heard him called Clement Atlee . . .
Oh dear, said the fellow behind the pork-pie case, Clement's been retired now for years - went to Majorca, I understood.
Clement Atlee, "a sheep in sheep's clothing"
I wouldn't know about that, I said. He was seen four days ago, two days into a six-day in L.A.
Are we speaking of a different fellow, perhaps? asked the fruity voice. I flipped the photo onto the glass top of the pastry case. Oh, said the chap, and who might this be?
Not Clement? I asked. He shook a negative. What about Ben? I shot back.
Ben? he countered.
Ben Disraeli, I barked. He go to Majorca as well? Not with the family silver, I hope.
Oh, really, Mr Marlowe, the Ascot chuckled. I have only the highest regard for Mr. Atlee and the deepest reverence for the memory of Mr. Disraeli. But surely, surely you're not aware of the identities of England's illustrious own. This photograph is of some Lower Midlands tout, I wager, one who may well have absconded with some family's silver. Though I doubt it would have been his own family's.
Know anything about blood? I asked him.
Blood, he mused. Blood . . . you mean as in blood lines, families, that sort of thing? Like in Debrett's Peerage?
Not like that, I said. Like in quart bags. For sale.
The chins stopped waggling for a moment and then the Ascot looked thoughtful. You must be mad, he said at last.
I've heard there's some demand for blood over on your side of the Atlantic, I said. Among the highest circles of government, if you see what I'm driving at.
Oh, surely . . . he spluttered . . . you can't believe everything you read in the San Francisco Chronicle. Or is it the Sacramento Bee?
L.A., I corrected him. But I was buying time because by now I'd figured out that the bad blood angle was a false scent. I thought I'd recognized this guy when he oozed out from behind the curtain back of the counter, and I finally made his mug. His name, or his stage name, was Desmond Desmond, a B-movie walk-on, the type the Hollywood geniuses always cast as a snotty butler or a continually outraged father-in-law in cheesy society dramas that feature types whose rooms are awash in white drapery and who go to night clubs with Busby Berkeley floor shows, skinny cigarette girls and Latino crooners.
I'd also seen a refrigerator behind that plastic curtain, and while the Chin was spluttering about the purity of the royal house I'd also seen a guy with hips like a snake's, fishing out a bag of what could have been raspberry jam. Or enhanced blood. From where I stood, I couldn't be sure which. Anyway, I figured that whatever they were up to was probably more weird than it was illegal. Besides, I figured, I'm in Aspen. Who cares what goes on here?
I walked back down the sidewalk to the bar and bought a roll of dimes, then went into the phone booth to call Lafferty. I didn't have anything to tell him except I was finished with the case and thanks a lot for the trip to Aspen. He picked up after about four rings. I'd probably woke him from a doze. I asked him if there'd been any sightings of Clement Atlee back on the Coliseum track.
Yeah, said Lafferty. He finished the six-day yesterday, came in first, I hear. Hey Marlowe, did you know he used to be the prime minister of England?
I heard something like that, I said. I just let it go. I figured it was only Lafferty.
The young Lafferty