Slowly, slowly, like a hophead on dolls, I began to come out of it. The inky blackness faded, leaving the flotsam of a cheap rye hangover wrapped in the nauseating eddy of alcohol vertigo. The back of my head felt as if the special teams of the Chicago Bears had performed Le Sacre du Printemps on my subdural membrane. With two-inch cleats.

I swung my legs over the side of the couch and tried to find the floor. The furniture looked like lumps of clay in the predawn gray. The room swam. My senses rode a roller coaster of too little sleep, too much cheap rye and too much time spent slapping the pavement with cardboard soles.

That's my job. Some people say I do it well. Maybe I do. But I've got a bank account thinner than a Del Mar railbird's wallet, and a rented two-slice toaster and a cranial profile like the silhouette of Dresden at twilight in late 1945 that all say somehwere along the line I got into the wrong business.

But it was a couple hours too early for thinking. A time of day fit for the dead, if anyone. I took a deep breath. My heart may have started up. My head still throbbed like a junior high school band rehearsing "Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean," heavy on the tubas. The taste of whiskey lounged on my tonsils like a fat house cat.

The doorbell rang with a shrill whine. The sound cut through the cotton in my head like a buzzsaw laying into a tweed jacket. I jumped like a ferret on an electrified cattle fence. I stood up and knocked over the empty bottle at my feet like Dick Weber picking up the tenpin and groped my way to the front door.

In my business, nothing is surprising, not even a slick redhead carrying a briefcase and a sidekick who looked like he invented the three-piece suit knocking at my door when the rest of the world is in dreamtown.

The words slipped out of her lacquered lips like pearls, one by one.

"Thurlow Marlow?"

"Maybe I am and maybe I'm . . ."

Sidekick's open hand hit my chest like a wrecking ball. Suddenly I was looking up at the two of them from a fine vantage point on the floor.I was comfortable down there. The light bulb was missing from the hall ceiling socket.

"Mind if we come in?" A cuffed gray flannel trouser leg riding a brown wingtip so polished it reflected the morning fog passed in front of my face, followed by another set of the same. Red's stiletto heels beat "St. James' Infirmary" into my hardwood floor as she followed her tailor into the living room.

"Come right in," I said, sitting up. "What's it about?" An eyeball factor analysis revealed a conspicuous bulge under Three-Piece's left arm, a .38-caliber type of bulge. Red's briefcase was narrow, but not too narrow to house a couple of the blackjacks Moran and the rest of his LAPD culture squad like to carry. My gat, per usual, was in the breadbox in that area of the house that the want ads had generously referred to as the kitchen.

I pulled myself to my feet. My head followed a moment later.

Three-Piece reached inside his jacket. I froze. He pulled out a wallet and flashed an ID.

"Language patrol," he said, his weasel eyes casing the joint like a health inspector in an Encino taco house.

I shook my head once, hard. "What?"

Red took a seat on the couch and flipped the briefcase open. I tensed like a deer caught in a set of high beams on the Ocean Highway. She pulled out Bloom's Anxiety of Influence.

"Language patrol, Mr. Marlow." The words weren't syrupy this time. More like bites of a radish. Her eyes met mine from behind a couple of lashes like waterfalls. "We're talking about style."

"Words, Mr. Marlow," said the Tailor, reaching into his inside pocket and pulling out Strunk and White's Elements of Style. "You're butchering them. It's a crime."

"I'll handle it, Lou," said Red. For once, my gray stuff was coming up with nothing but blanks. Vacuum time. My instincts pointed toward that breadbox, but a voice in the back of my left hemisphere -- or maybe it was my right -- said to wait for an opening.

"It's your use of the language, Mr. Marlow," Red said. "It's indulgent and its ethically irresponsible. And you're terribly in need of editing."

"'Badly,'" said Three-Piece. "Not 'terribly.'"

She threw him a glance that would've wilted a plastic tulip, then flashed the lashes back in my direction. "And you use similes like a bad chef uses spices. Such excess may have been tolerated in the infant days of the genre, Mr. Marlow, but since the onset of Structuralism, and the French Freudians, I think you'll agree . . . well, at any rate, we're going to have to revoke your license to practice bad detective fiction."

"Zat so?" I stuck a Chesterfield into the corner of my mouth and waited for Three-Piece to make his mistake. I figured a card-carrying member of the literait would be a cinch for etiquette, so when he lit his lighter I grabbed his wrist and twisted his arm back in a hold that Bruno Sammartino's grandfather may have brought over in steerage. Meanwhile, I did a half-turn and kicked Red's briefcase shut, slamming it down on her hands like a bear trap catching a couple of field mice. With a firm hold on the Suit, I stuffed Red under my other arm, took two steps and launched them both through the front door like a garbageman hefting the morning's last load.

"And next time," I said, "bring the heavy artillery."

I slammed the door, poured myself a rum and a half and settled into a leather wingchair in the study with the OED.