Authors: Ross Macdonald
Ross Macdonald’s real name was Kenneth Millar. Born near San Francisco in 1915 and raised in Vancouver, British Columbia, Millar returned to the U.S. as a young man and published his first novel in 1944. He served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America and was awarded their Grand Master Award, as well as the Mystery Writers of Great Britain’s Silver Dagger Award. He died in 1983.
The Dark Tunnel
Trouble Follows Me
The Three Roads
The Moving Target
The Drowning Pool
The Way Some People Die
The Ivory Grin
Meet Me at the Morgue
Find a Victim
The Name Is Archer
The Barbarous Coast
The Galton Case
The Ferguson Affair
The Wycherly Woman
The Zebra-Striped Hearse
The Far Side of the Dollar
The Instant Enemy
The Goodbye Look
The Underground Man
The Blue Hammer
for John E. Smith, bookman
law offices of Wellesley and Sable were over a savings bank on the main street of Santa Teresa. Their private elevator lifted you from a bare little lobby into an atmosphere of elegant simplicity. It created the impression that after years of struggle you were rising effortlessly to your natural level, one of the chosen.
Facing the elevator, a woman with carefully dyed red hair was toying with the keyboard of an electric typewriter. A bowl full of floating begonias sat on the desk in front of her. Audubon prints picked up the colors and tossed them discreetly around the oak walls. A Harvard chair stood casually in one corner.
I sat down on it, in the interests of self-improvement, and picked up a fresh copy of the
Wall Street Journal.
Apparently this was the right thing to do. The red-headed secretary stopped typing and condescended to notice me.
“Do you wish to see anyone?”
“I have an appointment with Mr. Sable.”
“Would you be Mr. Archer?”
She relaxed her formal manner: I wasn’t one of the chosen after all. “I’m Mrs. Haines. Mr. Sable didn’t come into the office today, but he asked me to give you a message when you got here. Would you mind going out to his house?”
“I guess not.” I got up out of the Harvard chair. It was like being expelled.
“I realize it’s a nuisance,” she said sympathetically. “Do you know how to reach his place?”
“Is he still in his beach cottage?”
“No, he gave that up when he got married. They built a house in the country.”
“I didn’t know he was married.”
“Mr. Sable’s been married for nearly two years now. Very much so.”
The feline note in her voice made me wonder if she was married. Though she called herself Mrs. Haines, she had the air of a woman who had lost her husband to death or divorce and was looking for a successor. She leaned toward me in sudden intimacy:
“You’re the detective, aren’t you?”
I acknowledged that I was.
“Is Mr. Sable hiring you personally, on his own hook? I mean, the reason I asked, he didn’t say anything to me about it.”
The reason for that was obvious. “Me, either,” I said. “How do I get to his house?”
“It’s out in Arroyo Park. Maybe I better show you on the map.”
We had a brief session of map-reading. “You turn off the highway just before you get to the wye,” she said, “and then you turn right here at the Arroyo Country Day School. You curve around the lake for about a half a mile, and you’ll see the Sables’ mailbox.”
I found the mailbox twenty minutes later. It stood under an oak tree at the foot of a private road. The road climbed a wooded hill and ended at a house with many windows set under the overhang of a flat green gravel roof.
The front door opened before I got to it. A man with streaked gray hair growing low on his forehead came across the lawn to meet me. He wore the white jacket of domestic service, but even with this protective coloration he didn’t fit
into the expensive suburb. He carried his heavy shoulders jauntily, as if he was taking his body for a well-deserved walk.
“Looking for somebody, mister?”
“Mr. Sable sent for me.”
“If he didn’t tell you,” I said, “the chances are that he doesn’t want you to know.”
The houseman came up closer to me and smiled. His smile was wide and raw, like a dog’s grin, and meaningless, except that it meant trouble. His face was seamed with the marks of the trouble-prone. He invited violence, as certain other people invite friendship.
Gordon Sable called from the doorway: “It’s all right, Peter. I’m expecting this chap.” He trotted down the flagstone path and gave me his hand. “Good to see you, Lew. It’s been several years, hasn’t it?”
Sable didn’t look any older. The contrast of his tanned face with his wavy white hair somehow supported an illusion of youth. He had on a Madras shirt cinched in by form-fitting English flannels which called attention to his tennis-player’s waistline.
“I hear you got married,” I said.
“Yes. I took the plunge.” His happy expression seemed a little forced. He turned to the houseman, who was standing there listening: “You’d better see if Mrs. Sable needs anything. And then come out to my study. Mr. Archer’s had a long drive, and he’ll be wanting a drink.”
“Yaas, massuh,” the houseman said broadly.
Sable pretended not to notice. He led me into the house, along a black-and-white terrazzo corridor, across an enclosed court crowded with tropical plants whose massed colors were broken up and reflected by an oval pool in the center. Our destination was a sun-filled room remote from
the rest of the house and further insulated by the hundreds of books lining its walls.
Sable offered me a leather chair facing the desk and the windows. He adjusted the drapes to shut off some of the light.
“Peter should be along in a minute. I’m afraid I must apologize for his manners, or lack of them. It’s hard to get the right sort of help these days.”
“I have the same trouble. The squares want security, and the hipsters want a chance to push people around at fifty dollars a day. Neither of which I can give them. So I still do most of my own work.”
“I’m glad to hear that.” Sable sat on the edge of the desk and leaned toward me confidentially: “The matter that I’m thinking of entrusting to you is a rather delicate one. It’s essential, for reasons that will emerge, that there should be no publicity. Anything you find out, if you do find anything out, you report to me. Orally. I don’t want anything in writing. Is that understood?”
“You make it very clear. Is this your personal business, or for a client?”
“For a client, of course. Didn’t I say so on the telephone? She’s saddled me with a rather difficult assignment. Frankly, I see very little chance of satisfying her hopes.”
“What does she hope for?”
Sable lifted his eyes to the bleached beams of the ceiling. “The impossible, I’m afraid. When a man’s dropped out of sight for over twenty years, we have to assume that he’s dead and buried. Or, at the very least, that he doesn’t want to be found.”
“This is a missing-persons case, then?”
“A rather hopeless one, as I’ve tried to tell my client. On the other hand, I can’t refuse to make an attempt to carry out her wishes. She’s old, and ill, and used to having her own way.”
Sable frowned at my levity. He specialized in estate work, and moved in circles where money was seen but not heard.
“The lady’s husband left her excellently provided for.” He added, to put me in my place: “You’ll be well paid for your work, no matter how it turns out.”
The houseman came in behind me. I knew he was there by the change in the lighting. He wore old yachting sneakers, and moved without sound.
“You took your time,” Sable said.
“Martinis take time to mix.”
“I didn’t order Martinis.”
“The Mrs. did.”
“You shouldn’t be serving her Martinis before lunch, or any other time.”
“Tell her that.”
“I intend to. At the moment I’m telling you.”
Sable reddened under his tan. “That dialect bit isn’t funny, you know.”
The houseman made no reply. His green eyes were bold and restless. He looked down at me, as if for applause.
“Quite a servant problem you have,” I said, by way of supporting Sable.
“Oh, Peter means well, don’t you, old boy?” As if to foreclose an answer, he looked at me with a grin pasted on over his embarrassment. “What will you drink, Lew? I’m going to have a tonic.”
“That will do for me.”
The houseman retreated.
“What about this disappearance?” I said.
“Perhaps disappearance isn’t exactly the right word. My client’s son walked out on his family deliberately. They made no attempt to follow him up or bring him back, at least not for many years.”
“I gather they were just as dissatisfied with him as he was with them. They disapproved of the girl he’d married. ‘Disapproved’ is putting it mildly, and there were other bones of contention. You can see how serious the rift was from the fact that he sacrificed his right to inherit a large estate.”
“Does he have a name, or do we call him Mr. X?”
Sable looked pained. It hurt him physically to divulge information. “The family’s name is Galton. The son’s name is, or was, Anthony Galton. He dropped out of sight in 1936. He was twenty-two at the time, just out of Stanford.”
“That’s a long time ago.” From where I sat, it was like a previous century.
“I told you this thing was very nearly hopeless. However, Mrs. Galton wants her son looked for. She’s going to die any day herself, and she feels the need for some sort of reconciliation with the past.”
“Who says she’s going to die?”
“Her doctor. Dr. Howell says it could happen at any time.”
The houseman loped into the room with a clinking tray. He made a show of serviceability as he passed us our gin-and-tonics. I noticed the blue anchor tattoo on the back of his hand, and wondered if he was a sailor. Nobody would mistake him for a trained servant. A half-moon of old lipstick clung to the rim of the glass he handed me.
When he went away again, I said:
“Young Galton got married before he left?”
“Indeed he did. His wife was the immediate cause of the trouble in the family. She was going to have a child.”
“And all three of them dropped out of sight?”
“As if the earth had opened and swallowed them,” Sable said dramatically.
“Were there any indications of foul play?”
“Not so far as I know. I wasn’t associated with the Galton
family at the time. I’m going to ask Mrs. Galton herself to tell you about the circumstances of her son’s departure. I don’t know exactly how much of it she wants aired.”