* * *The improbable blonde behind the reception desk gave me the electronic eye. She seemed to see the gun in my shoulder-holster, the label on the inside breast pocket of my jacket, the pair of lonely tens keeping each other company in my wallet, the place where the laundry had torn my undershirt, even the bent rib where a goon had stamped me back in 1938 on a San Pedro dock. It was a long way, in time and space and social attitude, from the San Pedro docks to the Channel Club.
“Are you a member?” The question was rhetorical.
“Mrs. Casswell asked me to meet her here.”
She underwent a personality change which almost cracked her makeup. “Oh. Excuse me, sir. If you’ll sign the register--I believe Mrs. Casswell is in the bar.”
I signed the piece of foolscap she pushed towards me. She pressed a buzzer which opened the inner door. I stepped through into shimmering blue-green light. It fell from the noon sky and was reflected by the oval pool. A few old people, brown and still as lizards, lay in long chairs along one side of the pool. An Olympic diving tower stood unused at the far end. On the other side, white-coated waiters were setting umbrella tables in preparation for lunch. I could smell ham and chlorine and Roquefort dressing and money.
The bar was dim and cool like a ceremonial grotto. The bartender could have been a surpliced Italian priest performing a ritual. He was pouring a gin-and-tonic for a dark-headed woman. She wore sunglasses and a sleeveless white linen sundress with a scarlet and white straw belt. I went up to her. She had a beautiful back, with the deep glowing tone of hand-rubbed mahogany.
“Mr. Archer?” she said tentatively.
She looked at the wafer-thin watch on her brown wrist. “You’re very punctual. No doubt you’re thirsty after your drive. What would you like to drink? Or don’t you drink before lunch?”
“I guess I can handle a beer.”
The bartender poured me a bottle of Löwenbräu. I tried to pay him for it. He informed me in a soft religious voice that money was no good here. Everything had to be signed for.
Mrs. Casswell rose, almost as tall as I in her high heels. “We’ll take our drinks out to the terrace if you don’t mind the sun.” She said over her shoulder to the bartender: “Tell Ferdy to bring us a menu.”
“Yes, Mrs. Casswell.” He made a pass with his hand like a benediction.
We passed through a court with a half-drawn canvas roof. A shaft of sunlight fell on cubist furniture and semi-abstract murals. A couple of men with vein-webbed noses were sitting in a corner over empty glasses, encouraging each other to have another drink. They nodded to Mrs. Casswell and looked at me from a great alcoholic distance. I hadn’t been born with a silver cocktail-shaker in my hands.
The flagstone terrace overlooked a golf course. At the bottom of its green slopes lay a dazzling band of sea. Twenty or thirty miles out, a string of brown hunchbacked islands lay on the bright horizon like basking tortoises. The woman looked at the Pacific and its islands as if they belonged to her. I found out later that one of them did.
She arranged herself in a padded metal chaise and made a sign for me to sit near her. “Smoke if you like. I’ve given it up. It’s so morale-building to have given up one of the vices. Of course I’d never have done it without that cancer scare to help me. Sheer terror can be awfully useful, don’t you think?”
She sounded slightly disorganized. Her voice hummed with unspoken feelings like cello overtones. Her gaze swung towards me across the small table holding our drinks like a searchlight occulted by the dark glasses:
“It’s good of you to come like this, without any explanation.”
“I know your name. I read the society pages when there’s nothing better to do. I saw the account of your wedding last year. Who recommended me to you, by the way?”
“Ralph Sandoe. He’s my lawyer. I didn’t tell you anything over the telephone. I don’t trust these long-distance operators. In a matter like this, I hate to trust anyone.”
I waited, sipping my beer and trying to guess her trouble. Her head, dark and small with its Italian cut, had a kind of smooth glaze that seemed impermeable. But she was one of the women who always had trouble. Too handsome and too rich, they wandered from marriage to marriage and continent to continent, searching for something worth finding.
She looked up at the sun as if it was spying on her.
“Well. There’s no point in beating around the bush, is there? I’m worried about Frankie. My son. I have no idea what’s happening to him, but something terrible is. He didn’t come home last night. It isn’t the first time he’s stayed out all night. I found out yesterday that he hasn’t been at school this week. The headmaster talked of expelling him--not that that’s the important thing.”
“How old is your son?”
“Sixteen.” Her white teeth flashed between her lips, unsmiling. “You seem surprised.”
She was very young to have a son that age. Her skin was as smooth as a girl’s, her body sleek and slender. She crossed her ankles under my stare, pointing her toes like a ballet-dancer.
“I’m thirty-four,” she said. “Entre nous. I’ll soon be thirty-five. I don’t mind telling my age as long as I look younger than I am. It’s the other way around that hurts.” She took off her glasses and swung them. Her eyes were blue, and older than the rest of her, a little hard, a little dazed by the unfiltered light or by undiluted experience. She put the glasses on again, turning her profile towards me. The straight nose met the brow without an indentation. It was the profile that Greek sculptors loved, that spread along the Mediterranean to Sicily, to Spain, and crossed the Atlantic when Spain raped Mexico.
“I was married when I was sixteen,” she said, “the year I came out.”
“That was Ben Gunderson.”
“Yes. You know a great deal about me.”
I knew more about Ben Gunderson. I kept it to myself.
“My husband--my first husband was killed last year. You probably know that, too. It was one of those dreadful ordinary accidents. He was cleaning a gun. It was loaded, and it went off. He’d been handling firearms for years, all kinds of guns. Even elephant guns. But he forgot this time. He took the clip out of his automatic, but he forgot to remove the shell in the breech. It killed him.”
Her voice was shaky. I wondered why she was dwelling on Gunderson’s death. She said:
“But all that is irrelevant and immaterial, as Ralph Sandoe would say. Except that it may have been the start of Frankie’s trouble. He was never close to his father, he was always closer to me. But he couldn’t accept Ben’s death. I saw the change in him. I believed he needed a father. I’d never have married Cass if it hadn’t been for Frankie. Certainly not so soon.”
She plucked at the skin on the back of one hand with the red-tipped nails of the other.
“Wait a minute, Mrs. Casswell. You say he’s been gone all night. Do you know where?”
“No. It’s why I called you--”
“Is there any possibility that he’s been kidnapped?”
She gave me a short hot look and looked away. She raised her active hand and stroked her bronze unchanging profile from hairline to mouth. She said through her fingers: “No, I’m sure it’s nothing like that. I wish you hadn’t said it, though.”
“I like to start with the worst and work up.”
“I have no reason to suspect kidnapping, or any kind of foul play. I told you Frankie’s done this before. It’s himself I’m worried about, not other people.” Her voice was cold with pain. “I’m afraid he’s in a bad way, mentally. He’s at the age when schizophrenia strikes so many young people.”
“Maybe he needs a psychiatrist. I’m not one.”
“I know what you are, Mr. Archer. A private detective, with the accent on the private. I have to trust someone, and that’s why you’re here. You can find out where he is and what he’s doing. When I know what I have to deal with, then perhaps it will be time for the psychiatrists. Not that they ever did me any good.”
I thought and didn’t say that she seemed moderately sane for a woman of her age and class. One thing besides her money made me a little nervous, though. Her thought revolved in obsessive circles around herself, returning to the beloved subject like a hawk to a wrist.
“Of course you’ve been in touch with his friends,” I said with some impatience.
“He has no friends, no really close friends, at least not that I know of. It’s one of the things that concern me. There are the boys at school, naturally, but Frankie never fitted into any group too well. I was his only confidante, until this last year or so. He used to tell me everything. Not any more. When he does come home, he keeps himself to himself. He looks at me as if I didn’t exist, literally. When I try to speak to him--to question him--he gets violently angry and rushes out of the house. Or he locks himself in his room and plays music for hours on end. All night, sometimes.”
“Bach or bop?”
“Anything. He plays the same record over and over. Ravel’s Bolero is one. He sits in his room and won’t come down for meals. No wonder he’s losing weight. I’ve gone to his room to try to persuade him--he won’t let me past the door. It’s as if he’s trying to cut himself off entirely. I don’t believe he’s addressed me once in the last two weeks, except to ask for money.”
“He’s spending money?”
“Quite a great deal. I made him an allowance of fifty dollars a week, which is supposed to include the upkeep of his car. But it hasn’t been nearly enough lately. I must have given him an extra three or four hundred in the last month. And he keeps asking for more.”
“Maybe he’s got himself a girl.”
“Maybe he has, but I doubt it. He’s never shown much interest in girls. I almost wish he had. That I could cope with.” Her body stretched and expanded, more or less on its own. “But this isn’t the way a boy behaves when he’s fallen in love. I know what I’m talking about.”
I didn’t doubt it. “Has Mr. Casswell talked to him?”
“Cass has tried. He can’t get through to him, any better than I can. I’m afraid talking is useless. We have to find out where he goes and what he’s doing--do you have any notions, from what I’ve told you?”
I had. I said I hadn’t. I didn’t even want to think about it. “Can I have a look at his room?”
“He keeps it locked when he isn’t there.”
“You must have a master key.”
“Yes, but he changed the lock, six months ago. I know how that sounds,” she said, bowing her head. “As if he’s running completely out of control. And that’s true. I’m afraid, not of Frankie. Just afraid.”
She pondered her answer. Before it came, there were quick light footsteps on the flagstones behind us. It was a man in morning clothes, carrying a menu. He was small and neat-looking, with crisply waved grey hair. He looked at me with surprise and recognition, but waited for me to speak.
“Ferdy Jerome,” I said.
Mrs. Casswell looked at me suspiciously. “Do you know Ferdy?”
He nodded blandly, to her and then to me. He was a Swiss with a heart of German silver and a politician’s brain. He spoke six languages, including Romantsch, and also understood the uses of silence. I got up to shake hands with him.
“Nice to see you, Ferdy.”
“Thank you, Mr. Archer.” He owned several apartment houses in Los Angeles, and could have bought me out without noticing it. “I haven’t seen you since 1950. March, the first week in March.”
“Correct. Did you get tired of Las Vegas?”
“I wouldn’t say so. But I always have this yearning for the ocean. I’ve been working here for nearly two years.”
“You still are, Ferdy,” Mrs. Casswell drawled. “Give me the menu, please.”
“Excuse me, Mrs. Casswell. I didn’t mean to keep you waiting.” He bent over her solicitously. “And how is Mr. Casswell? And how is Francis?”
She didn’t answer him.
After a lunch which Mrs. Casswell hardly touched, I followed her Lincoln home. Her estate lay along the sea between the club and the city. We entered through iron gates and drove for several hundred yards along a gravel drive. There were polo grounds on one side, which looked disused; on the other a landing-strip for light planes, and a bright new metal hangar.
The house belonged to the hashish school of Spanish architecture. Probably early nineteen-twenties and imitation Mizener, which made it the imitation of an imitation which wasn’t worth imitating. It was a ponderous monstrosity with thick walls, meager windows, insane turrets. Somebody with a hidalgo complex had tried to jail a dream of happiness. The prisoner had probably died, or lost its mind.
I watched Mrs. Casswell leave her car and mount the low front steps. Her movements seemed unwilling. She waited for me under the Moorish arch which hung over the front door. She opened the door like a mourner making a duty call at a mausoleum.
The air in the living room was chilly and stale. There was dust on the heavy dark furniture, dirty glasses on the closed top of the grand piano, tarnish on the gilt scrollwork of the picture frames, cobwebs in the angles of the beams. She looked around the giant room as if she was seeing it through my eyes.
“I lost my housekeeping couple. They had some trouble with Frankie. I’ll have to do something about that, too.”
“What did Frankie do?”
“Nothing, really. There was some disagreement. Dohi claimed he threatened him with a knife. He didn’t, of course. It’s perfectly preposterous. These Japs are awful liars.”
“So are these Caucasians. Why did he threaten Dohi with a knife? If he did.”
“He didn’t, I tell you. Frankie’s incapable of anything like that.”
“All right. May I look at his room?”
“I don’t like this,” she said uncertainly. “It’s like breaking faith with him. What do you expect to find there?”
“Some clues to his habits. So far I haven’t much to go on.”
(Written circa 1952 to 1965 but not previously published. “Heyday in the Blood,” by Ross Macdonald. From the just-published book, The Archer Files: The Complete Short Stories of Lew Archer, Private Investigator, Crippen & Landru, June 2007. By permission of Harold Ober Associates Incorporated. Copyright 2007 by The Margaret Millar Charitable Remainder Unitrust, u/a 4/12/82.)
* * *If you’d like to learn more about the handsome front cover of The Archer Files, check out Duane Swierczynski’s interview with artist-designer Jeff Wong at The Secret Dead Blog.