CHAPTER 1:I found her waiting at the door of my office. She was a stocky woman of less than medium height, wearing a blue slack suit over a blue turtleneck sweater, and a blue mink stole that failed to soften her outlines. Her face was squarish and deeply tanned, its boyish quality confirmed by dark hair cut short at the nape. She wasn't the type you'd expect to be up and about at eight thirty in the morning, unless she'd been up all night.As I unlocked the door she stood back and looked up at me with the air of an early bird surveying an outsize worm. I said: "Good morning.""Mr. Archer?"Without waiting for an answer, she offered me a stubby brown hand. Her grip, armed with rings, was as hard as a man's. Releasing her hand, she placed it behind my elbow, ushered me into my own office, and closed the door behind her."I'm very glad to see you, Mr. Archer."She had begun to irritate me already. "Why?""Why what?""Why are you glad to see me?""Because. Let's sit down and be comfortable so we can talk." Without charm, her petite willfulness was disquieting."About anything in particular?"She seated herself in an armchair by the door and looked around the waiting-room. It was neither large nor expensively furnished, and she seemed to be registering those circumstances. Her only comment was to click her ringed fists together in front of her. There were three rings on each hand. They had good-sized diamonds in them, which looked real."I have a job for you," she said to the sagging green imitation-leather davenport against the opposite wall. Her manner had changed from girlish vivacity to boyish earnestness. "It's not what you'd consider a big job, but I'm willing to pay well. Fifty a day?""And expenses. Who sent you to me?""But nobody. Do sit down. I've known your name for ages, simply ages.""You have the advantage of me."Her gaze returned to me, tireder and older after its little slumming excursion around my antechamber. There were olive drab thumbprints under her eyes. Maybe she had been up all night, after all. In any case she looked fifty, in spite of the girlishness and the boyishness. Americans never grew old: they died; and her eyes had guilty knowledge of it."Call me Una," she said."Do you live in Los Angeles?""Not exactly. Where I live doesn't matter. I'll tell you what does, if you want me to be blunt.""I couldn't bear it if you weren't."Her hard dry glance went over me almost tangibly and rested on my mouth. "You look all right. But you sound kind of Hollywood to me."I was in no mood to swap compliments. The ragged edge on her voice, and her alternation of fair and bad manners bothered me. It was like talking to several persons at once, none of them quite complete."Protective coloration." I caught her glance and held it. "I meet a lot of different types."She didn't flush. All that happened was that her face looked a little congested for a moment. It passed, and the incomplete boy in her came to the point:"I mean, do you make a habit of cutting your clients' throats? I've had some pretty discouraging experiences.""With detectives?""With people. Detectives are people.""You're full of compliments this morning, Mrs. --" "I said just call me Una. I'm not proud. Can I trust you to do what I want you to do and stop? Take your money and go about your business?""Money?""Here." She produced a crumpled bill from a blue leather pouch and tossed it to me as if it were an old piece of Kleenex and I were a wastebasket. I caught it. It was a hundred-dollar bill, but I didn't put it away."A retainer always helps to establish a bond of loyalty," I said. "I'll still cut your throat, of course, but I'll give you sodium pentothal first."She addressed the ceiling, darkly: "Why does everybody in these parts work so hard for laughs? You haven't answered my question.""I'll do what you want me to do so long as it's not illegal and makes some kind of sense."I'm not suggesting anything illegal," she said sharply. "And I promise you it makes sense.""All the better." I tucked the bill into the bill compartment of my wallet, where it looked rather lonely, and opened the door to the inner office.There were three chairs in it, and no room for a fourth. After I had opened the Venetian blinds, I took the swivel chair behind the desk. The armchair I pointed out for her faced me across the desk. Instead, she sat down in a straight chair against the partition, away from the window and the light.Crossing her trousered legs, she pushed a cigarette into a short gold holder and lit it with a squat gold lighter."About this job I mentioned. I want you to locate a certain person, a colored girl who used to work for me. She left my house two weeks ago, on the first of September to be exact. It was good riddance of bad rubbish as far as I was concerned, only she took along a few little knickknacks of mine. A pair of ruby earrings, a gold necklace.""Insured?""No. Actually they're not very valuable. Their value is sentimental--you know? They mean a lot to me, sentimentally." She tried to look sentimental and failed."It sounds like a matter for the police.""I don't think so." Her face closed up solid like brown wood. "You make your living tracing people, don't you? Are you trying to talk yourself out of a living?"I took the hundred-dollar bill out of my wallet and dropped it on the desk in front of me. "Apparently.""Don't be so touchy." She forced her grim little mouth into a smile. "The truth is, Mr. Archer, I'm a fool about people. Anybody that ever worked for me, even if they took advantage of me--well, I feel responsible for them. I had a very genuine affection for Lucy, and I guess I still have. I don't wish to make any trouble for her, nothing like that. I wouldn't dream of sicking the police on Lucy. All I really want is a chance to talk to her, and get my things back. And I was so hoping that you would be able to help me?"She lowered her short bristling lashes over her hard black eyes. Maybe she could hear the music of distant violins. All I could hear was the pushing and hooting of traffic on the Boulevard one story down."I think you said she was a Negro.""I have no race prejudice--""I don't mean that. Black girls are unfindable in this city. I've tried.""Lucy isn't in Los Angeles. I know where she is.""Why don't you simply go and talk to her?""I intend to. First I'd like to get some idea of her movements. I want to know who she sees, before I talk to her, and after.""That's a pretty elaborate way to go about recovering some jewelry. What's the purpose?""It's none of your business." She tried to say it gaily and girlishly, but the hostility showed through."I believe you're right." I pushed the bill across the desk towards her, and stood up. "In fact, it sounds like a wildgoose chase. Why don't you try the classified ads in the Times? There are plenty of investigators who live on a steady diet of wild goose.""By God, I think the man's honest." She spoke to one side as if her alter ego was standing there. "All right, Mr. Archer, you have me, I guess."The image didn't excite me, and I registered a suitable apathy."I mean I'm in a hurry. I haven't got time to shop around. I'll even admit that I'm in a spot of trouble.""Which has nothing to do with petty theft or costume jewelry. You could have thought of a better story. But please don't try.""I'm not. This is straight. When Lucy was working in my house she naturally got to know my family affairs. Well, there was bad feeling when she left, not on my side, on hers. There are one or two things that could embarrass me if she decided to spread them. So I want to know who she's seeing. From that I can draw my own conclusions.""If I knew a little more about these embarrassing facts--""I'm not going to tell you, that's definite. My whole idea in coming to you is to keep them from getting out. Now what could be franker than that?"I still didn't like her story, but the second version was an improvement over the first. I sat down again. "What sort of work did she do for you?"She hesitated briefly. "General housework. She's a maid. Her full name is Lucy Champion.""And where did she work for you?""In my house, naturally. There's no reason for you to know where it is."I swallowed my irritation. "Where is she now, or is that another secret?""I know I seem unreasonable and suspicious," she said. "Believe me, I've been burned. I take it you'll do this job for me?""I might as well.""She's in Bella City, up the Valley. You'll have to hurry to make it before noon. It's a good two hours from here.""I know where it is.""Good. A friend of mine saw her there yesterday, in a restaurant on Main Street near the corner of Hidalgo. My friend talked to the waiter and found out that Lucy eats her lunch there every day between twelve and one. It's a cornbination cafe and liquor store called Tom's. You can't miss it.""A picture of Lucy would help.""I'm sorry." She spread her hands in an automatic gesture that placed her ancestry on the north shore of the Mediterranean. "The best I can do is a description. She's a handsome girl, and so light she could pass for South American or California Spanish. She has nice big brown eyes, and not too much of a mouth, like some of them. A nice little figure, too, if she wasn't so skinny.""How old?""Not old. Younger than me--than I." I noticed the self-correction, as well as the self-flattery in the comparison. "In her early twenties, I'd say.""Hair?""Black, in a straight bob. She keeps it straight with oil.""Height?""A couple of inches taller than I. I'm five foot two.""Distinguishing characteristics?""Her legs are her best feature, as she well knows." Una couldn't pay another woman an unmixed compliment. "Her nose is sort of turned up--cute, if her nostrils didn't sort of stare at you.""What was she wearing when your friend saw her?""A black-and-white checkered sharkskin suit. That's how I know it was her. I gave her the suit a couple of months ago. She altered it for herself.""So you won't want the suit back."That seemed to strike a nerve. She removed the butt that had gone out in her holder and crushed it violently in the ashtray beside her chair. "I've taken quite a bit from you, mister.""We're about even now," I said. "I've been keeping score. I just wouldn't want you to think that you were buying very much for a hundred bucks. I have to watch that around here. You're suspicious. I'm touchy.""You talk as if you were bitten by a bear. Do you have an unhappy home life, by any chance?""I was just going to ask you about yours.""Don't start worrying about my home life. That's one thing--I don't want you talking to Lucy." She had a quick change of mood, or affected one. "Oh hell, it's my life and I live it. We're wasting time. Are you willing to do what I say, no more no less?""No more anyway. She mightn't turn up at the restaurant today. If she does, I tail her, keep a record of where she goes, who she sees. And report to you?""Yes. This afternoon if possible. I'll be registered at the Mission Hotel in Bella City. Ask for Mrs. Larkin." She glanced at the square gold watch on her right wrist. "You better get going. If she leaves town let me know immediately, and stay with her."She moved deliberately and quickly to the outer door. Her walk was the shortest distance between things she wanted. The back of her neck was heavy under the cropped hair, swollen with muscle as if she had often used it for buffing and rooting. Turning at the door to lift a flashing hand in good-bye, she hitched the mink stole higher. I wondered if she used it to conceal that telltale grossness.I went back to my desk and dialed the switchboard of my answering service. Standing by the window, I could see the sidewalk below through the slats of the Venetian blind. It swarmed with a bright young crowd of guys and girls buzzing and fluttering in pursuit of happiness and the dollar.Una emerged among them, dark and foreshortened by the height from which I was watching her. She turned uphill, her head thrust forward on her heavy neck, like an irresistible force searching for an irmnovable object. The switchboard answered in a youthful female gurgle on the fifth ring. I told it I was going out of town for the weekend.CHAPTER 2:From the top of the grade I could see the mountains on the other side of the valley, leaning like granite slabs against the blue tile sky. Below me the road meandered among brown September hills spattered with the ink-blot shadows of oaks. Between these hills and the further mountains the valley floor was covered with orchards like vivid green chenille, brown corduroy ploughed fields, the thrifty patchwork of truck gardens. Bella City stood among them, a sprawling dusty town miniatured and tidied by clear space. I drove down into it.The packing houses of the growers' associations stood like airship hangars on the edge of the green fields. Parched nurseries and suburban ranchos offered tomato plants and eggs and lima beans for sale. There was a roadside traffic of filling stations, drive-ins, motels slumping dejectedly under optimistic names. In the road the big trucks went by in both directions, trailing oil smoke and a long loud raspberry for Bella City.The highway was a rough social equator bisecting the community into lighter and darker hemispheres. Above it in the northern hemisphere lived the whites who owned and operated the banks and churches, clothing and grocery and liquor stores. In the smaller section below it, cramped and broken up by ice plants, warehouses, laundries, lived the darker ones, the Mexicans and Negroes who did most of the manual work in Bella City and its hinterland. I remembered that Hidalgo Street ran parallel to the highway and two blocks below it.It was fairly hot and very dry. The dryness ached in my sinuses. Main Street was loud and shiny with noon traffic moving bumper to bumper. I turned left on East Hidalgo Street and found a parking space in the first block. Housewives black, brown, and sallow were hugging parcels and pushing shopping carts on the sidewalk. Above them a ramshackle house, with paired front windows like eyes demented by earthquake memories, advertised Rooms for Transients on one side, Palm Reading on the other. A couple of Mexican children, boy and girl, strolled by hand in hand in a timeless noon on their way to an early marriage.
From the Trade Paperback edition.