Just below the old spanish mission, a few miles north of Ensenada in Baja, I have the house that I bought from Larry Danish in 1984. There I live as an old gumshoe or jelly bean should, with my middle-aged maid, Maria, and a stray dog rescued from the garbage. Out at sea, the porpoises that never sleep. La Mision had been Larry’s exile for decades. He built a Spanish-style villa perched on the rocks within sight of the old La Fonda Hotel and Bar, where, it is rumored by the staff, the margarita was invented during Rita Hayworth’s many fiestas at that same establishment. It doesn’t matter if it isn’t true. But I too had known La Fonda, La Mision’s only hotel, for years. I used to drive down here in the ’50s, when it was still beautiful, before the world was turned into a silo of unsatisfactory teenage fantasies and a garbage dumpster of schemes. Before the SunCor corporation littered the coast with golf resorts and there was any such thing as spring break in Rosarito Beach. Back then I’d go there to lie on a bed in a dark room and dry out. By the ’70s, I was still drying out and no longer noticed whole decades passing in the night.
The cliffs of teddy bear cholla remain. The lonely hot roads in the interior and the little churches with their tin-painted retablos of car accidents and death by cancer. The Pacific with lines of kelp, chilling waves rolling in to a beach between rock headlands shrouded with mist and spray. This is what all of California once looked like. Close your eyes and wonder. I often do. How easy it was to destroy, easier than destroying a cherry cake with a plastic fork. All for a bit of tin.
But it’s a good place for an old man. A sanctuary of clean wind and two hundred days of sun. On weekends I played the casinos in Ensenada. There was a bar there called Porfirio’s, I think, which had a machine on the counter called El Electrucador. It was a kind of Van de Graaff generator with two finger pads. You put your fingers on the pads and the barman, with some noise and fuss, gave you a stiff shock. If you could withstand it, you got a free shot of mescal. I didn’t need to get it free, but I got it free all the same. I figured the shocks were doing my intestines and hair roots some good. People said I looked much younger when I came back from my weekends. They said I looked “returned from the dead.” At my age, I’ll take any compliment.
We, the old guard, go to the terrace of La Fonda at night to eat its roast suckling pig and often stay there all day playing cards among ourselves under the palapas and running up our tabs. Alive is a relative word.
They play Los Tres Ases and Los Panchos tracks on the sound system, and there are some of us who can dream backward to the splendid years. There is still an occasional glimpse of the old times here, and maybe it’s the last glimpse we’ll ever enjoy. Has there ever in history been a time when four decades could turn everything upside down in such a conclusive way? I can remember the summer of 1950 in this very same place. Men in flannel suits and the women dressed like movie stars to go to the supermarket in the daytime. Thirty-eight years on--not a great amount of time when you think about it--the gentle sound of swing has given way to Guns N’ Roses. Back then, the old Mexico was still there, hanging on to life with style. Pedro Infante was on the screens and Maria Félix was in the air. They were destroyed to make way for Madonna.
Then one day, after a low near-decade of sloth and decay and Ronald Reagan, two men from the Pacific Mutual insurance company walked into the terrace bar of La Fonda Hotel. They were dressed like undertakers and had sauntered down from the main road above the hotel, finding me seated alone with my pitcher of sangria and my silver-tipped cane as if they had known I would be there unaccompanied within sight of my home on the Baja cliffs. They knew which house it was, too, because their eyes rose to take it in, and they smiled with the small contempt of company men.
They’d heard I was retired, but a man they trusted in La Jolla had said I was the best that money couldn’t buy. That was, of course, the best joke of the afternoon. They offered to buy me an early dinner and bared the teeth of friendly hyenas who have done their killing for the day. The older one held out a card that gave his name, Michael D. Kalb, and the other simply told me his: O’Kane. Kalb had at least twenty years over his colleague, but both of them were lean enough to carry the undertaker look. When I had put down the habanero and they had settled down into their chairs, the older one spoke with a voice that made me think of a father telling a bedtime tale to a child with attention-deficit problems. He glanced with distaste at the Baja beach and his eyes were dead. Boys sat there under palapas, selling cattle skulls and lumps of floating kelp hacked out of the waves, yet it was clear that Kalb didn’t know their world, or mine, and that he had probably never ventured so far south before. Was he surprised that the sun still shone so gently?
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Mr. Marlowe. Sandy and I weren’t sure we’d be able to find you down here. You bought that house on the cliff?”
“It’s called Danish Mansion. A lifetime of beating people up went into buying it.”
They laughed, but there was surprisingly little sound.
“Let’s get some margaritas,” Kalb went on loudly. “I like the frosted glasses with the salt around the rim.”
“They were invented at this hotel,” I said. “Rita Hayworth used to come here. Margarita Hayworth.”
I wondered who had recommended me. Years had gone by since I was last on a case, beating sidewalks in proper leather shoes, yet many of my former employers were probably still alive. Deirdre Gowan in Del Mar, ancient but able to remember my services; the Garland family whose daughter had gone missing in ’79, and whose happiness I had restored. They were not yet ghosts.
“It’s an easy job,” the younger one said. “Did you ever meet an American called Donald Zinn down here in La Mision? They say he used to come to Mexico a lot.”
I said I’d never heard of him.
“Surprising. But anyway, he was a developer with a lot of debt who died in a swimming accident in a place called Caleta de Campos in Michoacán last month. He had a policy with us and we have to pay the widow. The paperwork all checks out fine on the Mexican side.”
“Except,” said Kalb, “that it’s not entirely fine with us.”
“In what way?”
“Mr. Zinn had a policy with us for a number of years, and he had included his wife of about seven years. So there’s nothing suspicious about recent events relative to the policy. But we understand he had been going to Caleta de Campos for a number of years and that he was not prone to doing risky or adventurous things that might endanger his health.”
“Drugs, maybe,” O’Kane said.
“What I’m trying to say is that there was no reason to increase his premiums or regard his policy as risky. Quite the opposite. Despite being profligate with his money, he was not considered a risk by our department. But with a death in Mexico, we never know what the circumstances really are.”
“Suppose,” the other chimed in, “he had committed suicide or even died in the course of committing a crime. Our liabilities wouldn’t be entirely the same. The picture would change.”
“Do you see, Mr. Marlowe? It’s remarkably easy to bribe people down there here to alter facts on a death certificate. It happens all the time. Caleta is a small village on the coast, fairly remote. It’s at least seventeen hundred miles south of the border. The embassy in Mexico City receives the report from the local police, the local coroner, and so on, and they rubber-stamp it before forwarding it to us. Most of these claims are not questioned. The insurance companies just pay out and they leave it at that. And yet we know fraud is going on. Well, maybe not fraud in this case. Maybe an embellishment of the truth to make Mr. Zinn look less responsible for his own demise than he might have been. What, for example, if he had been high on drugs at the time he was trying to swim across the bay at Caleta de Campos? I think that would change things.”
“You’d have to pay out less?”
“Possibly. There’s also the question of the cremation. He was cremated locally in Mexico, and very quickly. It’s unusual to say the least. We’ve come to the conclusion that it might be worthwhile for us to take a second look at the file. We thought you might like to go down there and check it out for us.”
“Well, he hung around in a number of places. As well as Caleta de Campos, he liked to big-game fish in Mazatlan. Perhaps we could get a better idea of what was going on the days leading up to his death.”
They had with them an envelope, which was now laid upon the table.
“Here’s some information on him. The widow is named Dolores Araya and she’s still running the resort they built together near El Centro, out in the desert on the American side. You could go up and have a chat with her.”
“I haven’t accepted yet.”
“You have a point there! Shall we have another round of margaritas?” Kalb said, slapping his hand on the counter. “I’m not saying it’ll influence you. You’ll only do it if you want to do it.”
“That’s what I’m thinking about.”
The drinks arrived. I hadn’t worked in ten years and I had retired too late as it was. In those final days, I felt I had run out of courage rather than energy. Seventy-two isn’t a bad age, but sixty-two is too old to be working. You are just impersonating the man you used to be. Retirement had seemed like the best way not to die, but the adrenaline had gone the day I threw in the towel and it never returned. You have your books and your movies, your daydreams and your moments in the sun, but none of those can save you any more than irony can.
I looked out now at the beach and felt as bored as I had the night before. The same old conversations of expats who were declining night by night on the terrace. The same gossip about neighbors and real estate deals and aging adultery and petty crime down the coast in Ensenada. The same overheightened indignations about things that didn’t really matter. I realized then that I had never anticipated getting old or not being needed. I was suddenly flattered by the presence of these two men in slim black suits with their salty lips, even when Sandy said, “You’re the best man for the job. We need someone inconspicuous.”
Someone far and away over the hill, in other words.
His colleague assured me that it was nothing strenuous or physically risky. It would not be like the old days. I was too far gone to be a hero, and I wouldn’t have to be one.
“We know you speak fluent Spanish, and that’s the essential thing. You’d just be collecting some information for us. Would you like a couple of days to think about it?”
Kalb handed me his card and I was tempted to refuse it just to see the look in his eyes.
“I always decide on the spot, you know. It’s a bad habit, but it’s a habit.”
I knocked back the second margarita and rolled a coin in my head. It came out heads, and I always go with heads.
“Well, I could give it a try.”
“Excellent,” Kalb said, and there was a subtle relief in his tone. “I can set up a contract with my office tomorrow.”
And he rattled off terms.
“You can make that three hundred a day expenses,” I interrupted him. “I’d want to go to San Diego and see where and how Donald Zinn had spent his time, and then go to the resort and see Dolores Araya. Seeing the wife is always the fun part.”
“Then we have an agreement?”
We shook hands then, and the two relaxed and pushed forward the envelope that lay before us. Inside were a sheaf of photographs of both Zinn and his wife, and the places they liked to frequent in happier days, including the Marius restaurant at the Meridien Hotel in San Diego. It was a portrait of a marriage on two hundred thousand a year and a marina house on Coronado Cays. They had been told that the wife no longer went to the house but they had the keys, which I could pick up from their office when I was in town. How they had obtained them, they didn’t say.
“Is that legal, to go inside their house?” I said, now that I was on their little team.
“Old Donald had a mountain of debt, so the bank took the house and pretty much everything else. We came to an understanding with them. But no, it’s not legal. So if you want to look at the house, you’ll do it discreetly.”
“So he was bankrupt?”
“Dry as a salted fish. We can’t understand how he came to have so much money in the first place. Perhaps he never did.”
“The con men with great hair are the best,” I said, looking at the photographs.
He was good looking in his way, with hair that age had not thinned or otherwise fallen into disgrace. The eyes were full of torment, the eternal fear of being exposed and hunted. A San Diego pill, not quite in the first rank but blessed by the creator with a Roman nose. The clothes he wore were fine, with the heft of heavy cotton--I understood the attraction. Fragments of equally fine cars appeared in some shots.
“I get the picture,” I said, putting the sheaf down. “He’s dead but he’s still living. If he’s dead, maybe I should go meet his ghost. It’ll be extra if I do.”
“All right,” Kalb said with his glacial grin.