Back from the highway at the bottom of Sepulveda Canyon were two square yellow gateposts. A five-barred gate hung open from one of them. Over the entrance was a sign hung on wire: PRIVATE ROAD. NO ADMITTANCE. The air was warm and quiet and full of the tomcat smell of eucalyptus trees.
I turned in and followed a graveled road around the shoulder of a hill, up a gentle slope, over a ridge and down the other side into a shallow valley. It was hot in the valley, ten or fifteen degrees hotter than on the highway. I could see now that the graveled road ended in a loop around some grass edged with stones that had been lime-washed. Off to my left there was an empty swimming pool, and nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pool. Around three sides of it there was what remained of a lawn dotted with redwood lounging chairs with badly faded pads on them. The pads had been of many colors, blue, green, yellow, orange, rust red. Their edge bindings had come loose in spots, the buttons had popped, and the pads were bloated where this had happened. On the fourth side there was the high wire fence of a tennis court. The diving board over the empty pool looked knee-sprung and tired. Its matting covering hung in shreds and its metal fittings were flaked with rust.
I came to the turning loop and stopped in front of a redwood building with a shake roof and a wide front porch. The entrance had double screen doors. Large black flies dozed on the screens. Paths led off among the ever green and always dusty California oaks and among the oaks there were rustic cabins scattered loosely over the side of the hill, some almost completely hidden. Those I could see had that desolate out-of-season look. Their doors were shut, their windows were blanked by drawn curtains of monk’s cloth or something on that order. You could almost feel the thick dust on their sills.
I switched off the ignition and sat there with my hands on the wheel listening. There was no sound. The place seemed to be as dead as Pharaoh, except that the doors behind the double screens were open and something moved in the dimness of the room beyond. Then I heard a light accurate whistling and a man’s figure showed against the screen, pushed it open and strolled down the steps. He was something to see.
He wore a flat black gaucho hat with the woven strap under his chin. He wore a white silk shirt, spotlessly clean, open at the throat, with tight wristlets and loose puffed sleeves above. Around his neck a black fringed scarf was knotted unevenly so that one end was short and the other dropped almost to his waist. He wore a wide black sash and black pants, skin-tight at the hips, coal black, and stitched with gold thread down the side to where they were slashed and belied out loosely with gold buttons along both sides of the slash. On his feet he wore patent-leather dancing pumps.
He stopped at the foot of the steps and looked at me, still whistling. He was as lithe as a whip. He had the largest and emptiest smoke-colored eyes I had ever seen, under long silky lashes. His features were delicate and perfect without being weak. His nose was straight and almost but not quite thin, his mouth was a handsome pout, there was a dimple in his chin, and his small ears nestled gracefully against his head. His skin had that heavy pallor which the sun never touches.
He struck an attitude with his left hand on a hip and his right made a graceful curve in the air.
“Greetings,” he said. “Lovely day, isn’t it?”
“Pretty hot in here for me.”
“I like it hot.” The statement was flat and final and closed the discussion. What I liked was beneath his notice. He sat down on a step, produced a long file from somewhere, and began to file his fingernails. “You from the bank?” he asked without looking up.
“I’m looking for Dr. Verringer.”
He stopped working with the file and looked off into the warm distance. “Who’s he?” he asked with no possible interest.
“He owns the place. Laconic as hell, aren’t you? As if you didn’t know.”
He went back to his file and fingernails. “You got told wrong, sweetie. The bank owns the place. They done foreclosed it or it’s in escrow or something. I forget the details.”
He looked up at me with the expression of a man to whom details mean nothing. I got out of the Olds and leaned against the hot door, then I moved away from that to where there was some air.
“Which bank would that be?”
“You don’t know, you don’t come from there. You don’t come from there, you don’t have any business here. Hit the trail, sweetie. Buzz off but fast.”
“I have to find Dr. Verringer.”
“The joint’s not operating, sweetie. Like it says on the sign, this is a private road. Some gopher forgot to lock the gate.”
“You the caretaker?”
“Sort of. Don’t ask any more questions, sweetie. My temper’s not reliable.”
“What do you do when you get mad—dance a tango with a ground squirrel?”
He stood up suddenly and gracefully. He smiled a minute, an empty smile. “Looks like I got to toss you back in your little old convertible,” he said.
“Later. Where would I find Dr. Verringer about now?”
He pocketed his file in his shirt and something else took its place in his right hand. A brief motion and he had a fist with shining brass knuckles on it. The skin over his cheekbones was tighter and there was a flame deep in his large smoky eyes.
He strolled towards me. I stepped back to get more room. He went on whistling but the whistle was high and shrill.
“We don’t have to fight,” I told him. “We don’t have anything to fight about. And you might split those lovely britches.”
He was as quick as a flash. He came at me with a smooth leap and his left hand snaked out very fast. I expected a jab and moved my head well enough but what he wanted was my right wrist and he got it. He had a grip too. He jerked me off balance and the hand with the brass knucks came, around in a looping bolo punch. A crack on the back of the head with those and I would be a sick man. If I pulled he would catch me on the side of the face or on the upper arm below the point of the shoulder it would have been a dead arm or a dead face; whichever it happened to be. In a spot like that there is only one thing to do.
I went with the pull. In passing I blocked his left foot from behind, grabbed his shirt and heard it tear. Some thing hit me on the back of the neck, but it wasn’t the metal. I spun to the left and he went over sideways and landed catlike and was on his feet again before I had any kind of balance. He was grinning now. He was delighted with everything. He loved his work. He came for me fast.
A strong beefy voice yelled from somewhere: “Earl! Stop that at once! At once, do you hear me?”
The gaucho boy stopped. There was a sort of sick grin on his face. He made a quick motion and the brass knucks disappeared into the wide sash around the top of his pants.
I turned and looked at a solid chunk of man in a Hawaiian shirt hurrying towards us down one of the paths waving his arms. He came up breathing a little fast
“Are you crazy, Earl?”
“Don’t ever say that, Doc,” Earl said softly. Then he smiled, turned away, and went to sit on the steps of the house. He took off the flat-crowned hat, produced a comb, and began to comb his thick dark hair with an absent expression. In a second or two he started to whistle softly.
The heavy man in the loud shirt stood and looked at me. I stood and looked at him.
“What’s going on here?” he growled. “Who are you, sir?”
“Name’s Marlowe. I was asking for Dr. Verringer. The lad you call Earl wanted to play games. I figure it’s too hot.”
“I am Dr. Verringer,” he said with dignity. He turned his head. “Go in the house, Earl. ”
Earl stood up slowly. He gave Dr. Verringer a thoughtful studying look, his large smoky eyes blank of expression. Then he went up the steps and pulled the screen door open. A cloud of flies buzzed angrily and then settled on the screen again as the door closed.
“Marlowe?” Dr. Verringer gave me his attention again, “And what can I do for you, Mr. Marlowe?”
“Earl says you are out of business here.”
“That is correct. I am just waiting for certain legal formalities before moving out. Earl and I are alone here.”
“I’m disappointed,” I said, looking disappointed. “I thought you had a man named Wade staying with you.”
He hoisted a couple of eyebrows that would have interested a Fuller Brush man. “Wade? I might possibly know somebody of that name—it’s a common enough name—but why should he be staying with me?”
“Taking the cure.”
He frowned. When a guy has eyebrows like that he can really do you a frown, “I am a medical man, sir, but no longer in practice. What sort of cure did you have in mind?”
“The guy’s a wino. He goes off his rocker from time to time and disappears. Sometimes he comes home under his own power, sometimes he gets brought home, and sometimes he takes a bit of finding.” I got a business card out and handed it to him.
He read it with no pleasure.
“What goes with Earl?” I asked him. “He think he’s Valentino or something?”
He made with the eyebrows again. They fascinated me. Parts of them curled off all by themselves as much as an inch and a half. He shrugged his meaty shoulders.
“Earl is quite harmless, Mr. Marlowe. He is—at times—a little dreamy. Lives in a play world, shall we say?”
“You say it, Doc. From where I stand he plays rough.”
“Tut, tut, Mr. Marlowe. You exaggerate surely. Earl likes to dress himself up. He is childlike in that respect,”
“You mean he’s a nut,” I said. “This place some kind of sanitarium, isn’t it? Or was?”
“Certainly not. When it was in operation it was an artists’ colony. I provided meals, lodging, facilities for exercise and entertainment, and above all seclusion. And for moderate fees. Artists, as you probably know, are seldom wealthy people. In the term artists I of course include writers, musicians, and so on. It was a rewarding occupation for me—while it lasted.”
He looked sad when he said this. The eyebrows drooped at the outer corners to match his mouth. Give them a little more growth and they would be in his mouth.
“I know that,” I said. “It’s in the file. Also the suicide you had here a while back. A dope case, wasn’t it?”
He stopped drooping and bristled. “What file?” he asked sharply.
“We’ve got a file on what we call the barred-window boys, Doctor. Places where you can’t jump out of when the French fits take over. Small private sanitariums or what have you that treat alcoholics and dopers and mild cases of mania.”
“Such places must be licensed by law,” Dr. Verringer said harshly.
“Yeah. In theory anyway. Sometimes they kind of forget about that.”
He drew himself up stiffly. The guy had a kind of dignity, at that. “The suggestion is insulting, Mr. Marlowe. I have no knowledge of why my name should be on any such list as you mention. I must ask you to leave.”
“Let’s get back to Wade. Could he be here under another name, maybe?”
“There is no one here but Earl and myself. We are quite alone. Now if you will excuse me—”
“I’d like to look around.”
Sometimes you can get them mad enough to say something off key. But not Dr. Verringer. He remained dignified. His eyebrows went all the way with him. I looked towards the house. From inside there came a sound of music, dance music. And very faintly the snapping of fingers.
“I bet he’s in there dancing,” I said. “That’s a tango. I bet you he’s dancing all by himself in there. Some kid.”
“Are, you going to leave, Mr. Marlowe? Or shall I have to ask Earl to assist me in putting you off my property?”
“Okay, I’ll leave. No hard feelings, Doctor. There were only three names beginning with V and you seemed the most promising of them. That’s the only real clue we had—Dr. V. He scrawled it on a piece of paper before he left: Dr. V.”
“There must be dozens,” Dr. Verringer said evenly.
“Oh sure. But not dozens in our file of the barred-window boys. Thanks for the time, Doctor. Earl bothers me a little.”
I turned and went over to my car and got into it. By the time I had the door shut Dr. Verringer was beside me. He leaned in with a pleasant expression.
“We need not quarrel, Mr. Marlowe. I realize that in your occupation you often have to be rather intrusive. Just what bothers you about Earl?”
“He’s so obviously a phony. Where you find one thing phony you’re apt to expect others. The guy’s a manic-depressive, isn’t he? Right now he’s on the upswing.”
He stared at me in silence. He looked grave and polite. “Many interesting and talented people have stayed with me, Mr. Marlowe. Not all of them were as levelheaded as you may be. Talented people are often neurotic. But I have no facilities for the care of lunatics or alcoholics, even if I had the taste for that sort of work. I have no staff except Earl, and he is hardly the type to care for the sick.”
“Just what would you say he is the type for, Doctor? Apart from bubble-dancing and stuff?”
He leaned on the door. His voice got low and confidential. “Earl’s parents were dear friends of mine, Mr. Marlowe. Someone has to look after Earl and they are no longer with us, Earl has to live a quiet life, away from the noise and temptations of the city. He is unstable but fundamentally harmless. I control him with absolute ease, as you saw.”
“You’ve got a lot of courage,” I said.
He sighed. His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect. “It has been a sacrifice,” he said. “A rather heavy one. I thought Earl could help me with my work here. He plays beautiful tennis, swims and dives like a champion, and can dance all night. Almost always he is amiability itself. But from time to time there were—incidents.” He waved a broad hand as if pushing painful memories into the background. “In the end it was either give up Earl or give up my place here.”
He held both hands palms up, spread them apart, turned them over and let them fall to his sides. His eyes looked moist with unshed tears.
“I sold out,” he said. “This peaceful little valley will become a real estate development. There will be sidewalks and lampposts and children with scooters and blatting radios. There will even”—he heaved a forlorn sigh—”be Television.” He waved his hand in a sweeping gesture. “I hope they will spare the trees,” he said, “but I’m afraid they won’t. Along the ridges there will be television aerials instead. But Earl and I will be far away, I trust.”
“Goodbye, Doctor. My heart bleeds for you.”
He put out his hand. It was moist but very firm. “I appreciate your sympathy and understanding, Mr. Marlowe. And I regret I am unable to help you in your quest for Mr. Slade.”
“Wade,” I said.
“Pardon me, Wade, of course. Goodbye and good luck, sir.”
I started up and drove back along the graveled road by the way I had come. I felt sad, but not quite as sad as Dr. Verringer would have liked me to feel.
I came out through the gates and drove far enough around the curve of the highway to park out of sight of the entrance. I got out and walked back along the edge of the paving to where I could just see the gates from the barbed-wire boundary fence. I stood there under a eucalyptus and waited.
Five minutes or so passed. Then a car came down the private road churning gravel. It stopped out of sight from where I was. I pulled back still farther into the brush. I heard a creaking noise, then the click of a heavy catch and the rattle of a chain. The car motor revved up and the car went back up the road.
When the sound of it had died I went back to my Olds and did a U turn to face back towards town. As I drove past the entrance to Dr. Verringer’s private road I saw that the gate was fastened with a padlocked chain. No more visitors today, thank you.
I drove the twenty-odd miles back to town and ate lunch. While I ate I felt more and more silly over the whole deal. You just don’t find people the way I was going about it. You meet interesting characters like Earl and Dr. Verringer, but you don’t meet the man you are looking for. You waste tires, gasoline, words, and nervous energy in a game with no pay-off. You’re not even betting table limit four ways on Black 28. With three names that started with V. I had as much chance of paging my man as I had of breaking Nick the Greek in a crap game.
Anyway the first one is always wrong, a dead end, a promising lead that blows up in your face with no music. But he shouldn’t have said Slade instead of Wade. He was an intelligent man. He wouldn’t forget that easy, and if he did he would just forget.
Maybe, and maybe not. It had not been a long acquaintance. Over my coffee I thought about Drs. Vukanich and Varley. Yes or no? They would kill most of the afternoon. By then I could call the Wade mansion in Idle Valley and be told the head of the household had returned to his domicile and all was gleaming bright for the time being.
Dr. Vukanich was easy. He was only half a dozen blocks down the line. But Dr. Varley was away to hell and gone in the Altadena hills, a long, hot, boring drive. Yes or no?
The final answer was yes. For three good reasons. One was that you can never know too much about the shadow line and the people who walk it. The second was that anything I could add to the file Peters had got out for me was just that much thanks and goodwill. The third reason was that I didn’t have anything else to do.
I paid my check, left my car where it was, and walked the north side of the street to the Stockwell Building. It was an antique with a cigar counter in the entrance and a manually operated elevator that lurched and hated to level off. The corridor of the sixth floor was narrow and the doors had frosted glass panels. It was older and much dirtier than my own building. It was loaded with doctors, dentists, Christian Science practitioners not doing too good, the kind of lawyers you hope the other fellow has, the kind of doctors and dentists who just scrape along. Not too skillful, not too clean, not too much on the ball, three dollars and please pay the nurse; tired, discouraged men who know just exactly where they stand, what kind of patients they can get and how much money they can be squeezed into paying. Please Do Not Ask For Credit. Doctor is In, Doctor is Out. That’s a pretty shaky molar you have there, Mrs. Kazinski. Now if you want this new acrylic filling, every bit as good as a gold inlay, I can do it for you for $14. Novocain will be two dollars extra, if you wish it. Doctor is In, Doctor is Out. That will be Three Dollars. Please Pay the Nurse.
In a building like that there will always be a few guys making real money, but they don’t look it. They fit into the shabby background, which is protective coloring for them. Shyster lawyers who are partners in a bail-bond racket on the side (only about two per cent of all forfeited bail bonds are ever collected). Abortionists posing as anything you like that explains their furnishings. Dope pushers posing as urologists, dermatologists, or any branch of medicine in which the treatment can be frequent, and the regular use of local anesthetics is normal.
Dr. Lester Vukanich had a small and ill-furnished waiting room in which there were a dozen people, all uncomfortable. They looked like anybody else. They had no signs on them. Anyway you can’t tell a doper well under control from a vegetarian bookkeeper. I had to wait three quarters of an hour. The patients went in through two doors. An active ear, nose, and throat man can handle four sufferers at once, if he has enough room.
Finally I got in. I got to sit in a brown leather chair beside a table covered with a white towel on which was a set of tools. A sterilizing cabinet bubbled against the wall. Dr. Vukanich came in briskly with his white smock and his round mirror strapped to his forehead. He sat down in front of me on a stool.
“A sinus headache, is it? Very severe?” He looked at a folder the nurse had given him.
I said it was awful. Blinding. Especially when I first got up in the morning. He nodded sagely.
“Characteristic,” he said, and fitted a glass cap over a thing that looked like a fountain pen.
He pushed it into my mouth. “Close the lips but not the teeth, please.” While he said it he reached out and switched off the light. There was no window. A ventilating fan purred somewhere.
Dr. Vukanich withdrew his glass tube and put the lights back up. He looked at me carefully.
“No congestion at all, Mr. Marlowe. If you have a headache, it is not from a sinus condition. I’d hazard a guess that you never had sinus trouble in your life. You had a septum operation sometime in the past, I see.”
“Yes, Doctor. Got a kick playing football. ”
He nodded. “There is a slight shelf of bone which should have been cut away. Hardly enough to interfere with breathing, however.”
He leaned back on the stool and held his knee. “Just what did you expect me to do for you?” he asked. He was a thin-faced man with an uninteresting pallor. He looked like a tubercular white rat.
“I wanted to talk to you about a friend of mine. He’s in bad shape. He’s a writer. Plenty of dough, but bad nerves. Needs help. He lives on the sauce for days on end. He needs that little extra something. His own doctor won’t co-operate any more.”
“Exactly what do you mean by co-operate?” Dr Vukanich asked.
“All the guy needs is an occasional shot to calm him down. I thought maybe we could work something out. The money would be solid.”
“Sorry, Mr. Marlowe, It is not my sort of problem.” He stood up. “Rather a crude approach, if I may say so. Your friend may consult me, if he chooses. But he’d better have something wrong with him that requires treatment. That will be ten dollars, Mr. Marlowe.”
“Come off it, Doc. You’re on the list.”
Dr. Vukanich leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette. He was giving me time. He blew smoke and looked at it. I gave him one of my cards to look at instead. He looked at it.
“What list would that be?” he inquired.
“The barred-window boys. I figure you might know my friend already. His name’s Wade. I figure you might have him stashed away somewhere in little white room. The guy is missing from home.”
“You are an ass,” Dr. Vukanich told me. “I don’t go in for penny ante stuff like four-day liquor cures. They cure nothing in any case. I have no little white rooms and I am not acquainted with the friend you mention—even if he exists. That will be ten dollars—cash—right now. Or would you rather I called the police and make a complaint that you solicited me for narcotics?”
“That would be dandy,” I said. “Let’s.”
“Get out of here, you cheap grifter.”
I stood up off the chair. “I guess I made a mistake, Doctor. The last time the guy broke parole he holed up with a doctor whose name began with V. It was strictly an undercover operation. They fetched him late at night and brought him back the same way when he was over the jumps. Didn’t even wait long enough to see him go in the house. So when he hops the coop again and don’t come back for quite a piece, naturally we check over our files for a lead. We come up with three doctors whose names begin with V.”
“Interesting,” he said with a bleak smile. He was still giving me time. “What is the basis of your selection?”
I stared at him. His right hand was moving softly up and down the upper part of his left arm on the inside of it. His face was covered with a light sweat.
“Sorry, Doctor. We operate very confidential. ”
“Excuse me a moment. I have another patient that—”
He left the rest of it hanging in the air and went out. While he was gone a nurse poked her head through the doorway, looked at me briefly and withdrew.
Then Dr. Vukanich came back in strolling happily. He was smiling and relaxed. His eyes were bright.
“What? Are you still here?” He looked very surprised or pretended to. “I thought our little visit had been brought to an end.”
“I’m leaving. I thought you wanted me to wait.”
He chudded. “You know something, Mr. Marlowe? We live in extraordinary times. For a mere five hundred dollars I could have you put in the hospital with several broken bones. Comical, isn’t it?”
“Hilarious,” I said, “Shoot yourself in the vein, don’t you, Doc? Boy, do you brighten up!”
I started out. “Hasta luego, amigo,” he chirped. “Don’t forget my ten bucks. Pay the nurse.”
He moved to an intercom and was speaking into it as I left. In the waiting room the same twelve people or twelve just like them were being uncomfortable. The nurse was right on the job.
“That will be ten dollars, please, Mr. Marlowe. This office requires immediate cash payment.”
I stepped among the crowded feet to the door. She bounded out of her chair and ran around the desk. I pulled the door open.
“What happens when you don’t get it?” I asked her.
“You’ll find out what happens,” she said angrily.
“Sure. You’re just doing your job. So am I. Take a gander at the card I left and you’ll see what my job is.”
I went on out. The waiting patients looked at me with disapproving eyes. That was no way to treat Doctor.