The sun was setting slow and hard behind the jagged edges of Los Angeles as I drove out to Laurel Canyon. After a half an hour of twisting and turning down a road that got gradually thinner until it was barely a thread of gravel and dust, I pulled into a driveway that curved gently like a python napping on a hot veranda. At the end of it stood a big house set deep into the hills and surrounded by even bigger houses, like a ten-caret canary diamond trying to outshine the Hope Diamond, the Star of India, and the Bahia Emerald in the modest digs of old King Louie’s crown.
It was a solid, respectable brownstone that would be perfectly at home in Manhattan. But this wasn’t Manhattan and I wasn’t feeling perfectly anything as I jogged up the smooth cement steps to the intricately carved oak front door. I rang the bell and lit a cigarette.
The door was opened by a woman. She was the kind of woman who was the best-looking girl in Sandy Plat, Minnesota, for about five minutes when she was nineteen and never got over it. She stood in the doorway with one hand on the doorknob and the other on the frame. Trim, neat, and lightly toasted by the sun, she had a figure that politely asked to be handled roughly and a face that rudely begged to be admired. Her lips were slashed with pink lipstick the color of overblown carnations. Her pale blue eyes were outlined with kohl thicker than the picture frames at the Louvre. A string of pearls as big as dried green peas was wound a little too tight around her neck.
“Mr. Marlowe?” she inquired.
“That’s what it says on my driver’s license,” I said.
“I’m Madeline Sterling. Do come in, won’t you. Did you have any difficulty finding the place?”
“No more difficulty than a cop trying to find a sober man in the drunk tank.”
She gave me a searching look and stepped aside so I could enter the house. The entry hall was lined with paintings of English gardens the same color as Madeline’s eyeshadow. The dark hardwood floor was patched over with half a dozen exotic rugs worn to tatters at the fringes. A pair of double doors at the end of the hall led to a dim library lined with bookshelves that held no books. A fine layer of dust lay over the battered furniture, which slouched at odd angles around the room with the fatigued look of deck chairs on a transatlantic ocean liner after a storm.
“Thank you for coming at such an unorthodox hour. And for agreeing to meet me at home. I didn’t feel that your office would be the most discreet location for what I have to tell you.”
“Looks like this place has discretion in spades,” I said.
“Would you care for a drink?”
“Are you sure that wouldn’t be too indiscreet at this unorthodox hour?”
She gave me a queer smile, then laughed lightly and stepped across the room to a rusty little bar cart with brass wheels like a locomotive. She poured whiskey in two gushing cascades into a pair of big tumblers that didn’t quite match and carried them over to a little purple sofa done up with gold tassels that could use a vigorous polishing. She sat down at one end of the sofa and made a vague beckoning gesture with her head. It was about as welcoming as a traffic cop’s upturned palm.
“Won’t you sit?” she said.
I brushed at the dust and sat. I took my tumbler from her sun-bronzed hand and drank. She drank too, long and thirsty like a ditch-digger taking a pull from a canteen. The pearl necklace that encircled her tan throat surged up and down like the frothy edge of a wave rushing against the smooth sand off Santa Monica.
“I suppose we should get down to business,” she said. She set her empty glass on the arm of the sofa. It teetered uncertainly but didn’t fall.
“I suppose we should,” I replied.
“The job I have in mind for you is exceedingly simple. It will take no more than one minute of your time. And for your trouble, I will pay you five thousand dollars.”
I took another drink and emptied my glass. I held onto it because I thought I might make use of it later, and not as a million tiny shards scattered across the floor in the gray grime.
“That sounds good. So good I’d say it’s a set-up.”
“I assure you, it’s no set-up, Mr. Marlowe. Do you accept?”
“How about you tell me what the job is before I agree to anything that could land me on the front pages of tomorrow’s newspapers or in the county lock-up.”
“The job is perfectly simple. And perfectly safe.”
“Simple and safe like pulling a trigger? A man can do plenty of simple, safe things in sixty seconds that aren’t what we in the investigation racket call legal. That’s not my line of work.”
I stood, shook out my jacket, and held out the empty glass to her.
She ignored it.
“The job isn’t about violence. It’s about taste,” she said.
She motioned to me to sit back down. I sat back down. I was still holding the empty whiskey glass and still wishing it would fill itself back up.
From under one of the faded velvet cushions she pulled a small red box. There were pictures of hamburger sandwiches on it and a little note in the left corner written in a Japanese script. The word “Everyburger” was spelled out along the top of the box, which looked like it was made of cheap cardboard. Without warning, Madeline tore the box open, grabbed my free hand, and poured several little brown objects into it. They were light and dry and looked like tiny patties of beef wrapped in bread.
“This is the job,” she said. “I want you to tell me what these are.”
“After several good whacks on the head over the years, my memory isn’t what it once was. But I can’t recall accepting the job,” I replied. “And even if I had, I’m no short-order cook. I guess this is some sort of food. That kind of detective work isn’t worth five thousand dollars or five cents even in Laurel Canyon.”
“I can see you misunderstand me,” Madeline replied.
She still had hold of my hand and it was still filled with little brown things that might or might not have been Japanese and might or might not have been hamburger sandwiches but certainly weren’t worth a beat-up dime to an old private dick like me.
“The story of how I came to possess these objects is long and strange,” she said.
“How about you give me the short and normal version?”
“Very well. I acquired this box of … whatever these are from a shop that specializes in the importation of foreign delicacies. Peculiar delights for those who dabble in the exotic. You understand?” she asked.
“They were sold to me along with a quantity of candy that had its origins in Japan.”
“So these are some kind of Oriental candy,” I stated.
She shook her head, then shrugged. She stood and crossed the room to the bar cart. She picked up the whiskey decanter and brought it to the sofa. She filled my glass, then hers. We drank and I eyed the little foreign foodstuffs that were getting moist in the palm of my hand. The things didn’t feel like any candy I’d ever run across. They felt like …
“Cookies,” she said, as if my thoughts were typing themselves out in big block letters across the tickertape of my forehead. “It has been suggested that they aren’t, in fact, candy at all. It has been proposed by … certain interested parties that they are really cookies.”
“Candy, cookies — what’s the difference?” I said.
“There is a great deal of difference between candy and cookies!”
She was fired up all of a sudden. Her eyes flashed and her pink lips pressed themselves together nice and firm like two plump pillows. “It is a mystery that must be solved. Will you solve it for me?”
“Like I said, I’m no chef. And I’m even less of a scholar of Japanese confectionary oddities.”
“But you’re a detective — you’re experienced in making snap judgements. You know when to trust and when to doubt. Five thousand dollars, Mr. Marlowe, for you to taste just one of these … things … and tell me what you think it is.”
“Taste a piece of candy or a cookie or whatever it is and tell you how it strikes me. I’m struggling to understand something. It’s eating at me, in fact, Miss Sterling,” I leaned across the sofa and put my mug close to hers. “Why me?”
She lowered her eyes, giving me the full greenery of her eyelids.
“You are known to be a man who is … discreet.”
“Fair point. And now another question. Why is it worth five grand to you?”
“That, I’m afraid, will have to remain a mystery to you.”
“But it’s not a mystery to you.”
“No. It’s not a mystery to me.”
I wasn’t in a position to turn down five grand. Even if the whole affair sounded too good to be true.
“Give me another slug of that wet stuff and I’ll do my best.”
Madeline refilled my glass. I sent it shooting down my throat and set the tumbler carefully on the dirty wooden floor next to the sofa. I looked into my cupped hand and gave it a little shake. I selected the least moist Japanese specimen and grasped it between my right thumb and trigger finger.
“Sixty seconds, right?” I said. “Well, here goes.”
I popped the little morsel in my mouth and chewed. It had the crunchy texture of a cookie but there was a cloying inner layer that was pure chocolate like a Hershey bar. Was it a cookie with a candy center, or candy wearing a cookie jacket?
“I don’t know,” I began.
I tried to say more, but I found that I couldn’t get a word out. My tongue had gone completely numb.
My vision seemed to swim. The whole room began to swim. Madeline’s tawny face swam before mine and a pink smile curved across her teeth like a flamingo rising from dry land on bent wings.
“You fool,” she said. “Did you really think anyone would pay five thousand dollars for such a ridiculous task?”
I felt myself fall off the sofa and hit the floor, though my whole body was so numb I could only tell that I’d gone down because the room was suddenly sideways.
“It was perfectly obvious from the start what these happy little Japanese treats are. They are drugged, Mr. Marlowe.”
Drugged. I should have guessed. It was a scam all along. As the room and Madeline’s taunting voice floated away into darkness, a question chanted in my dull mind.
Were the things candy or were they cookies?
Candy or cookies?
It’s the kind of mystery that can haunt a man for the rest of his days.