The dame breezed into my office a little after breakfast. Okay, so some people would call my office the Brockley Jack, and some would say that breakfast at four in the afternoon was unusual and some would even say that a double rye on the rocks wasn’t really breakfast, but hell, some people will say anything if there’s a buck in it.
She sure looked like she could put plenty of bucks into it. She was all long legs, an Olympic dive of a neck line and eyes that made your breath frosty. Her auburn hair swirled as she walked like she carried her own supply of sea breeze and the whole package was expensively wrapped in a flowing jade chiffon dress and scented with the sort of perfume that costs a man more than he can afford. She was the sort of chick that’d make saps like me pant if we didn’t already know she’d sooner scrounge her own eyeballs out than make with us.
Some be-bop cat named Giles lay down a tune of heartbreak that’d make most men question the point. Me? I just kept on starring.
“You Marston?” she purred.
I look over each shoulder as though there might some other schmuck down on his luck enough to be in this joint on a Tuesday afternoon.
“Depends who’s askin’.” I took a match out the box on the table and ground it under my fingernail just for the hell of it.
“I’m asking,” she leant in and for a second I’d have said anything as long as my tongue had played along.
“Yeah, I’m Philip Marston,” I composed myself. “Whatddya want, doll?”
“They tell me you’re quite a shamus, Marston.”
“I reckon they might tell you just about anything, Miss...?”
“Ashleigh. Ashleigh Bourbon.” She sat down even though I hadn’t offered. Brassy. I liked it more and more. “You better be as good as you’re reputation, Mr Marston. I need someone found and I needed it yesterday.”
I leaned back and took a sip of my second breakfast. “Spill.”
And spill she did. It seemed her husband was Anton Bourbon, some big shot aluminium importer who grew up down the docks and made good when the going was bad. When she met him he was all charm and flash with his dough. He knew how to show a young girl with a sweet nature a swell time in the big city. But once they’d got hooked up that was it. He became interested in one piece of tail after another. He stopped wanting the prime steak in the bedroom and kept popping out for burgers on some street corner. Ashleigh didn’t care though, why should she? Except for the bedroom stuff he indulged her every whim; money was no object.
So, she’d gotten into gambling and drinking with the sharks just for kicks. Now she was down five large ones to big Jimmy McDuff.
“You know him?”
“Sure,” I smiled and flexed the arm that had broken last time I ran afoul of McDuff and that was only for a couple of ponies. For what she owned there aren’t enough bones in the body to cover the interest.
“Well he’s dead now.”
“That so?” You could have knocked me down with a sharp gasp, but I didn’t show it. I never showed no-one much.
“Yeah,” she lit a cigarette. It was that kind of joint. No-one cared. I joined her. Why not, I thought, if cancer’s going to kill me it’ll have to get in the queue behind everyone else. “He started getting heavy with Anton when I couldn’t pay. Stormed up to the house one day and started beating on the door. Anton will usually let me have however much I need, but even he got suspicious at five thou.” She paused.
“Keep going else the suspense’ll kill me,” I ushered her along.
“Well I had to come clean with big Jim still threatening to break the door down. Anton was mad. Mad as hell. He slapped me around a little. A couple, I guess I deserved, but three was just for fun and four and five were because he has a mean streak from his fingers to his eyes. Then he stormed out to confront Jimmy. There’s was shouting and a scuffle and then a shot.” I leaned inwards and filled her face with smoke. She liked it, I could tell. “I ran out into the rain and Jim’s body was lying there in a puddle. A puddle of blood.”
“He was gone. But he couldn’t have killed Jimmy.”
“Seems to me that he probably did.”
“No, no, you don’t understand. We didn’t own a gun. Plus I heard a car racing away and all six of ours are still in the garage. You must find Anton for me, before the police do.”
I leaned back, took some more breakfast and crushed out my smoke. “There’s a lot of angles. He could have owned a gun you didn’t know about, or you might have miscounted the cars.” I thought a little longer, “but, hell, you seem one cute kid. I see what I can do.”
“Oh, Mr Marston, thank you.”
“Thanks will get you nothing. I need twenty-five a day plus expenses.”
“And the guarantee that someone else gets implausibly murdered during the course of my investigation in a way that’s never quite adequately explained.” She looked as baffled as I sounded so we left it there.
I stepped out into the afternoon light and tried to ignore how it burned the backs of my eyes. I clambered into the old Ford. Sure, she’d better days but we’d been through a lot and at least no-one gave her a second glance. I popped the glove box and checked the thirty-eight was still there. Best place for it. Better than in my jacket, that’s for sure.
I drove two blocks south and parked up beside the phone booth. Inside I rang Lieutenant Morley. Morley and I had worked on the Deptford Razor case together a few years back and he owed me more than a hatful of favours for that one.
“Marston, ya bum! Ain’t you found yerself real work yet?”
“Good to speak to you too, Morley.”
“Whaddya want, Marston? I got me two pushers, a barrel full of dope and a couple of flatfoots that think they’re in a Dashiell Hammett novel here. I ain’t got time for no social calls.”
“Just a couple of names, Morley. That’s all. Just a couple of little names.”
“Bourbon. Ashleigh and Anton.”
“Yeah, I knows them. He’s that aluminium tycoon that blew big Jim McDuff’s liver all over the pavement and she’s the dumb broad who says he’s innocent.”
“You think he did it?”
“Sure. Open and shut, kiddo. Just gotta find the guy ‘fore he wastes any other lowlifes the curvaceous Ashleigh been banging.”
“Hey! Murphy! Put that down you blowhard.” The was a sound like hell on a hung-over Sunday morning.
“Catch you later, Morley.” I said and put the phone back in its slot before he had a chance to reply.
I decided it was time to check out the aluminium factory down Rotherhithe way. If Anton was as a big a tail chaser as Ashleigh had suggested then he was bound to have a smouldering secretary I could shoot the breeze with for ten pages.
Before I could get back to the Ford, though, someone placed a leather gloved hand with a grip like a rutting rhino on my shoulder and a voice that sounded as though it had been breast-fed broken glass said, “Hey, Marston.”
The writer pounded out last couple of sentences on the battered old type-writer, making a noise akin to the one men make when they’ve been sealed in a coffin and the soil is being thrown down. The air was thick with smoke and the whiskey bottle sat with its cap off next to an empty glass.
“What am I doing?” I asked no-one in particular. It had to be no-one because I was alone and, besides, every joe with half a brain was curled up asleep on a night like this. “I don’t do genre stuff. Why am I starting to write a detective story?”
“You’ve been reading Chandler again, haven’t you?” asked the voice in my head that, let’s be honest, only exists for handy moments of exposition like this one.
I nodded even thought it wasn’t necessary.
“And what have we said before about Chandler?”
“Don’t get too into it. Don’t get over excited. It isn’t real.” I wiped my ink smudged finger around the cool rim of the glass and then topped it up. “People aren’t really like that.” I took a gulp and it burned gratefully all the way down. “But I’ve started now and I hate not finishing things.”
“So finish it,” the voice would have shrugged if that was possible.
“But I don’t know how to. I’ve no idea what happens next.”
“Perhaps I can help you out there,” said a different voice. This one had a body. The body wore a grey suit, with a dirty-off-white shirt and a black tie. The body’s one hand wore a leather glove that held the door open and the other wrapped itself around the butt of a pistol.