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Chapter 1THE Channel Club lay on a shelf of rock overlooking the sea, toward the southern end of the beach called Malibu. Above its long brown buildings, terraced gardens climbed like a richly carpeted stairway to the highway. The grounds were surrounded by a high wire fence topped with three barbed strands and masked with oleanders.I stopped in front of the gate and sounded my horn. A man wearing a blue uniform and an official-looking peaked cap came out of the stone gatehouse. His hair was black and bushy below the cap, sprinkled with gray like iron filings. In spite of his frayed ears and hammered-in nose, his head had the combination of softness and strength you see in old Indian faces. His skin was dark."I seen you coming," he said amiably. "You didden have to honk, it hurts the ears.""Sorry.""It's all right." He shuffled forward, his belly overhanging the belt that supported his holster, and leaned a confidential arm on the car door. "What's your business, mister?""Mr. Bassett called me. He didn't state his business. The name is Archer.""Yah, sure, he is expecting you. You can drive right on down. He's in his office."He turned to the reinforced wire gate, jangling his keyring. A man came out of the oleanders and ran past my car. He was a big young man in a blue suit, hatless, with flying pink hair. He ran almost noiselessly on his toes toward the opening gate.The guard moved quickly for a man of his age. He whirled and got an arm around the young man's middle. The young man struggled in his grip, forcing the guard back against the gatepost. He said something guttural and inarticulate. His shoulder jerked, and he knocked the guard's cap off.The guard leaned against the gatepost and fumbled for his gun. His eyes were small and dirty like the eyes of a potato. Blood began to drip from the end of his nose and spotted his blue shirt where it curved out over his belly. His revolver came up in his hand. I got out of my car.The young man stood where he was, his head turned sideways, halfway through the gate. His profile was like something chopped out of raw planking, with a glaring blue eye set in its corner. He said:"I'm going to see Bassett. You can't stop me.""A slug in the guts will stop you," the guard said in a reasonable way. "You move, I shoot. This is private property.""Tell Bassett I want to see him.""I already told him. He don't want to see you." The guard shuffled forward, his left shoulder leading, the gun riding steady in his right hand. "Now pick up my hat and hand it to me and git."The young man stood still for a while. Then he stooped and picked up the cap and brushed at it ineffectually before he handed it back."I'm sorry. I didn't mean to hit you. I've nothing against you.""I got something against you, boy." The guard snatched the cap out of his hands. "Now beat it before I knock your block off."I touched the young man's shoulder, which was broad and packed with muscle. "You better do what he says."He turned to me, running his hand along the side of his jaw. His jaw was heavy and pugnacious. In spite of this, his light eyebrows and uncertain mouth made his face seem formless. He sneered at me very youngly:"Are you another one of Bassett's muscle boys?""I don't know Bassett.""I heard you ask for him.""I do know this. Run around calling people names and pushing in where you're not wanted, and you'll end up with a flat profile. Or worse."He closed his right fist and looked from it to my face. I shifted my weight a little, ready to block and counter."Is that supposed to be a threat?" he said."It's a friendly warning. I don't know what's eating you. My advice is go away and forget it--""Not without seeing Bassett.""And, for God's sake, keep your hands off old men.""I apologized for that." But he flushed guiltily. The guard came up behind him and poked him with the revolver. "Apology not accepted. I used to could handle two like you with one arm tied behind me. Now are you going to git or do I have to show you?""I'll go," the young man said over his shoulder. "Only, you can't keep me off the public highway. And sooner or later he has to come out.""What's your beef with Bassett?" I said."I don't care to discuss it with a stranger. I'll discuss it with him." He looked at me for a long moment, biting his lower lip. "Would you tell him I've got to see him? That it's very important to me?""I guess I can tell him that. Who do I say the message is from?""George Wall. I'm from Toronto." He paused. "It's about my wife. Tell him I won't leave until he sees me.""That's what you think," the guard said. "March now, take a walk."George Wall retreated up the road, moving slowly to show his independence. He dragged his long morning shadow around a curve and out of sight. The guard put his gun away and wiped his bloody nose with the back of his hand. Then he licked his hand, as though he couldn't afford to waste the protein."The guy's a cycle-path what they call them," he said. "Mr. Bassett don't know him, even.""Is he what Bassett wants to see me about?""Maybe, I dunno." His arms and shoulders moved in a sinuous shrug."How long has he been hanging around?""Ever since I come onto the gate. For all I know, he spent the night in the bushes. I ought to have him picked up, but Mr. Bassett says no. Mr. Bassett is too softhearted for his own good. Handle him yourself, he says, we don't want trouble with law.""You handled him.""You bet you. Time was, I could take on two like him, like I said." He flexed the muscle in his right arm and palpated it admiringly. He gave me a gentle smile. "I was a fighter one time--pretty good fighter. Tony Torres? You ever hear my name? The Fresno Gamecock?""I've heard it. You went six with Armstrong.""Yes." He nodded solemnly. "I was an old man already, thirty-five, thirty-six. My legs was gone. He cut my legs off from under me or I could of lasted ten. I felt fine, only my legs. You know that? You saw the fight?""I heard it on the radio. I was a kid in school, I couldn't make the price.""What do you know?" he said with dreamy pleasure. You heard it on the radio."chapter 2I LEFT my car on the asphalt parking-lot in front of the main building. A Christmas tree painted brilliant red hung upside-down over the entrance. It was a flat-roofed structure of fieldstone and wood. Its Neutraesque low lines and simplicity of design kept me from seeing how big it was until I was inside. Through the inner glass door of the vestibule I could see the fifty-yard swimming-pool contained in its U-shaped wings. The ocean end opened on bright blue space.The door was locked. The only human being in sight was a black boy bisected by narrow white trunks. He was sweeping the floor of the pool with a long-handled underwater vacuum. I tapped on the door with a coin.After a while he heard me and came trotting. His dark, intelligent eyes surveying me through the glass seemed to divide the world into two groups: the rich, and the not so rich. I qualified for the second group, it seemed. He said when he opened the door:"If you're selling, mister, the timing could be better. This is the off-season, anyway, and Mr. Bassett's in a rotten mood. He just got through chopping me out. It isn't my fault they threw the tropical fish in the swimming-pool.""Who did?""The people last night. The chlorine water killed them, poor little beggars, so I got to suck them out.""The people?""The tropical fish. They scooped 'em out of the aquarium and chunked 'em in the pool. People go out on a party and get drunk, they forget all the ordinary decencies of life. So Mr. Bassett takes it out on me.""Don't hold it against him. My clients are always in a rotten mood when they call me in.""You an undertaker or something?""Something.""I just wondered." A white smile lit his face. "I got an aunt in the undertaking business. I can't see it myself. Too creepy. But she enjoys it.""Good. Is Bassett the owner here?""Naw, just the manager. The way he talks, you'd think he owns it, but it belongs to the members."I followed his wedge-shaped lifeguard's back along the gallery, through shifting green lights reflected from the pool. He knocked on a gray door with a MANAGER sign. A high voice answered the knock. It creaked along my spine like chalk on a damp blackboard:"Who is it, please?""Archer," I said to the lifeguard."Mr. Archer to see you, sir.""Very well. One moment."The lifeguard winked at me and trotted away, his feet slapping the tiles. The lock snicked, and the door was opened slightly. A face appeared in the crack, just below the level of my own. Its eyes were pale and set too wide apart; they bulged a little like the eyes of a fish. The thin, spinsterly mouth emitted a sigh:"I am glad to see you. Do come in."He relocked the door behind me and waved me to a chair in front of his desk. The gesture was exaggerated by nerves. He sat down at the desk, opened a pigskin pouch, and began to stuff a big-pot briar with dark flakes of English tobacco. This and his Harris tweed jacket, his Oxford slacks, his thick-soled brown brogues, his Eastern-seaboard accent, were all of a piece. In spite of the neat dye job on his brown hair, and the unnatural youth which high color lent his face, I placed his age close to sixty.I looked around the office. It was windowless, lit by hidden fluorescence and ventilated by an air-conditioning system. The furniture was dark and heavy. The walls were hung with photographs of yachts under full sail, divers in the air, tennis-players congratulating each other with forced smiles on their faces. There were several books on the desk, held upright between elephant bookends made of polished black stone.Bassett applied a jet lighter to his pipe and laid down a blue smoke screen, through which he said:"I understand, Mr. Archer, that you're a qualified bodyguard.""I suppose I'm qualified. I don't often take on that kind of work.""But I understood-- Why not?""It means living at close quarters with some of the damnedest jerks. They usually want a bodyguard because they can't get anybody to talk to them. Or else they have delusions."He smiled crookedly. "I can hardly take that as a compliment. Or perhaps I wasn't intended to?""You're in the market for a bodyguard?""I hardly know." He added carefully: "Until the situation shapes up more clearly, I really can't say what I need. Or why.""Who gave you my name?""One of our members mentioned you to me some time ago. Joshua Severn, the television producer. You'll be interested to know that he considers you quite a fireball.""Uh-huh." The trouble with flattery was that people expected to be paid for it in kind. "Why do you need a detective, Mr. Bassett?""I'll tell you. A certain young chap has threatened my--threatened my safety. You should have heard him on the telephone.""You've talked to him?""Just for a minute, last night. I was in the midst of a party--our annual post-Christmas party--and he called from Los Angeles. He said he was going to come over here and assault me unless I gave him certain information. It jarred me frightfully.""What kind of information?""Information which I simply don't possess. I believe he's outside now, lying in wait for me. The party didn't break up until very late and I spent the night here, what remained of it. This morning the gateman telephoned down that he had a young man there who wished to see me. I told him to keep the fellow out. Shortly after that, when I'd gathered my wits together, I telephoned you.""And what do you want me to do, exactly?""Get rid of him. You must have ways and means. I don't want any violence, of course, unless it should prove to be absolutely necessary." His eyes gleamed palely between new strata of smoke. "It may be necessary. Do you have a gun?""In my car. It's not for hire.""Of course not. You misinterpret my meaning, old boy. Perhaps I didn't express myself quite clearly. I yield to no man in my abhorrence of violence. I merely meant that you might have use for a pistol as an--ah--instrument of persuasion. Couldn't you simply escort him to the station, or the airfield, and put him aboard a plane?""No." I stood up.He followed me to the door and took hold of my arm. I disliked the coziness, and shook him off."Look here, Archer, I'm not a wealthy man, but I do have some savings. I'm willing to pay you three hundred dollars to dispose of this fellow for me.""Dispose of him?""Without violence, of course.""Sorry, no sale.""Five hundred dollars.""It can't be done. What you want me to do is merely kidnapping under California law.""Good Lord, I didn't mean that." He was genuinely shocked."Think about it. For a man in your position, you're pretty dim about law. Let the police take care of him, why don't you? You say he threatened you.""Yes. As a matter of fact, he mentioned horse-whipping. But you can't go to the police with that sort of thing.""Sure you can.""Not I. It's so ridiculously old-fashioned. I'd be the laughingstock of the entire Southland. You don't seem to grasp the personal aspects, old boy. I'm manager and secretary of a very, very exclusive club. The finest people on the coast confide their children, their young daughters, to my trust. I have to be clear of any breath of scandal--Calpurnia, you know.""Where does the scandal come in?"Calpurnia took his pipe out of his mouth and blew a wobbly smoke-ring. "I'd hoped to avoid going into it. I certainly didn't expect to be cross-questioned on the subject. However. Something has to be done, before the situation deteriorates irreparably."
From the Trade Paperback edition.