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He entered my doorway sideways, a man in a very conservative dark grey suit, carrying a dark grey Homburg in his hand. Across the bald top of his head, long black strands of hair were brushed demurely. His face was long and dark. Only his tie had color: it lay on his chest like a slumbering purple passion.
His sharp black gaze darted around my office, then back into the corridor. Though his face was composed, he was as taut as a wire. I could practically hear him hum.
I said: "What's the trouble? Somebody following you?"
"Certainly not." His tone was so icy it clinked.
I had my coat off and my shirt unbuttoned. It was a hot spring morning. He looked at me in a certain way that reminded me of school. "Might you be Archer?"
"It's a reasonable hypothesis. Name's on the door."
"I can read, thank you."
"Congratulations, but this is no talent agency."
Without moving his feet, he seemed to jump backward. He clutched his blue chin between thumb and forefinger and gave me a long sad hostile stare. Then he shrugged awkwardly, as if there was no help for it.
"Come in," I said. "Close it behind you. Don't mind me; I get snappy in the springtime."
He closed the door violently, almost breaking the expensive one-way glass panel. "I'm sorry. I'm under quite a strain."
"You're in trouble, then."
"Not I. My sister." His mouth snapped like a trap, and he looked at me some more. I assumed an air of bored discretion garnished with a sprig of innocence.
But all I felt was the boredom. "Your sister," I reminded him after a while. "Did she do something, or get something done to her?"
A narrow edge of white teeth showed in afussy little smile. "Both, I fear. We maintain a school for girls in--the middle west. I can't emphasize too much the utter importance of keeping this matter profoundly secret."
"You're doing your part. Sit down, Mr.--"
He produced a card from a thin black wallet and hesitated with it in his hand.
"Don't tell me," I said. "Let me guess. Does it begin with a consonant or a vowel?"
He sat down with great caution, as if the chair had electrodes, and handed me his card. J. Reginald Harlan, M.A.
"Your sister is in a spot, Mr. Harlan. You run a girls' school--"
"She's headmistress. I'm registrar and bursar."
"--so you're vulnerable to scandal. Is it sexual trouble she's in?"
"You're quite acute."
"Some of my best friends are sisters. Is she older or younger than you?"
"She's considerably younger. You might say I've been in loco parentis to her since Father died. Maude's still in her early twenties." He didn't mention his own age. He was the kind who would keep it a secret.
"And she ran away with a man?"
"A man, yes." He heaved a spinsterly sigh. "How she could have become infatuated with that dreadful creature--I fail to understand it! Maude's always been such a sensible girl, mature for her age, a great scholar. That's what makes this whole affair so incredible. And disgusting. For a woman of her class, in her position, with a hundred young minds in her charge, suddenly to run mad over a man!" A faint, attractive doubt softened his eyes for a moment. He was wondering if some long overdue lightning might blast and illuminate him. "I'd always supposed the teens were the dangerous age. Perhaps after all it can happen at any age." One hand crawled up his chest like a thin white crab and fondled the purple tie.
"Tell me about him," I said.
He told me that the man was a painter named Leonard Clark. At least the lecture bureau that sent him to the Harlan School claimed that he was a painter. Clark regarded himself as a universal genius, in his cups. Yes, he drank a good deal. In spite of that, he spoke well. His lectures on modern art were the hit of the spring semester. Some of the girls actually begged him for snippets of his beard.... Yes, he wore a beard, and a different-colored beret for every occasion. On Friday, when he arrived, he wore a white beret. On Saturday at the intramural hockey game, he wore a bright red one. On Sunday, when he and Maude slipped away from chapel to go for a long walk in the country, he wore a dark blue one. On Monday, the day he left, his headgear was a brash and shameless orange. Maude left with him.
"I followed them to the airport," Harlan said. "I remonstrated and pleaded with her. She was adamant. The school meant nothing to her, suddenly. I meant nothing to her. The memory of our father, who founded the school, meant nothing. Over a single weekend, that devil of a Clark had bewitched her. She said that marriage was all she'd ever wanted, and she was going to have it. Her entire system of values has been subverted!" He gave a cruel yank to the purple tie, and subsided.
"Maybe she's in love. Hell, maybe he's loveable."
"He's a lewd rascal. I know a lewd rascal when I see one. He's a sponge and a womanizer and a drinker."
I looked at my liquor cabinet. It was closed.
"Do they intend to get married?"
"It's already done. They were married before they left. The situation is desperate, Mr. Archer. You don't know my sister. She is a fine, proud woman, a woman of sensibility. This Clark will pulverize her spirit, brutalize her body, waste her money--"
"Of course money. Why else did he marry her? She exhausted our joint checking account the day she went away. That's nearly a thousand dollars gone already, and there's nothing to prevent her from drawing on our capital. She might even sell the school."
"She owns it?"
"Father left it to her. I--my administrative ability was a little slow in developing. Poor father didn't live to see me mature." He coughed. "The buildings alone are worth nearly two hundred thousand; the added value of our prestige is incalculable."
Harlan paused in a listening attitude. No doubt he could hear the unholy gurgle of money going down the drain. I put on my coat.
"You want them traced, is that it?"
"Oh, I know where they are. They've settled in his apartment in Westwood. I was out there last night, but Clark wouldn't let me see her. He had the gall to tell me that I had no business meddling in Maude's affairs. He even threatened me with physical violence. What do you think of that?"
I thought that Clark was doing the natural thing. I didn't say it, though. Harlan was hellbent for trouble, and if I strung along I might help to minimize it:
"And that's where I come in?"
"If you will. I deplore and detest violence of any kind. On the other hand, I intend to see my sister today if it's the last thing I ever do."
We had a short talk about money. Harlan endorsed a twenty-dollar travellers' check for me, and we went downstairs to my car. It wasn't far to Westwood, as distances go in Los Angeles. Clark's apartment was a studio built over an attached garage. A flight of concrete steps slanted up the outside wall to the studio door. I knocked.
"Imagine Maude being reduced to this," Harlan said at my elbow. "My sister is a woman of exquisite refinement."
"Uh-huh." I knocked again. There was no answer.
"Pick the lock," in an urgent whisper. "They're in there lying low, I'm sure of it. You must have skeleton keys?"
"I also have a license to lose."
Harlan reached past me and hammered on the door. His seal-ringed knuckle made little dents in the paint.
A man's voice said behind and below us: "Looking for someone?"
I laid a hand on Harlan's convulsive arm. A heavy-bodied man with unkempt hair was leaning on the railing at the foot of the stairs. "Clark's not here, if he's the one you want."
We went down. The man's face was disorganized by alcohol, and marked by grief. It had never launched any ships. Weak and over-fleshed, with a raw defenseless mouth, it drooped abjectly on its bones. So did his body. He was a soft-boiled egg without a shell.
"Where did Clark go?"
"I have no idea." He lifted the burden of his shoulders, and dropped it. "He drove away early this morning before I woke up. He cleaned out everything in the studio that belonged to him. Which, apart from his paintings, didn't amount to much."
"You're his landlord?"
He nodded. "Clark's been away, though, on a lecture tour in the east. He just got back yesterday. Now it looks as if he's gone for good."
"You must be Mr. Dolphine," Harlan said. "I spoke to your wife last evening. A charming girl indeed."
Dolphine leaned his back against the closed door of the garage, and looked at Harlan. His eyes were narrow and empty between puffed eyelids. "Who, may I ask, are you?"
Harlan opened his mouth to speak, glanced at me, and coughed against the back of his hand.
"Mr. Harlan sold Mrs. Clark a car," I said. "She's a little behind on her payments."
Harlan scowled in my direction, but Dolphine didn't notice:
"Clark really is married, eh?"
"Didn't you see his wife?"
"Sure, I saw her. I was outside here when they got in from the airport yesterday morning. He introduced her to me, but I had my doubts."
"About her being his wife." He noticed Harlan's stricken look, and said: "I mean, Clark isn't the marrying kind. He's kind of a louse where women are concerned. But I guess they're married if you say so."
"Of course they're married," Harlan said dogmatically. "Isn't marriage a normal custom in Los Angeles? If only to support the divorce rate--"
I silenced him with a stiff look. As a Los Angeles car dealer, Harlan wasn't very convincing. "What about her car?"
"She didn't have one. They got here in a taxi, and Clark said they flew out from Cleveland. The only car between them was his old Buick, and it's gone. They must have left in it."
I got a description of the Buick, a blue prewar sedan on its second hundred thousand, but Dolphine didn't know the license number. Nor had Clark left a forwarding address.
"Do you know any friends of his?"
"I do not. I lead a very quiet life myself."
"Your wife might be able to help us," Harlan said. "She seemed to know Clark quite well."
Dolphine's grey head turned. "When were you talking to Stella?"
"Last night, about nine o'clock. Clark wouldn't let me in to see my--to see Mrs. Clark. J took the liberty of ringing your doorbell."
"I hardly know. I acted on impulse. Your wife didn't seem to mind."
"She didn't eh? What did you talk about?"
"About your tenant, naturally. I had the impression that she was a friend of his. She seemed interested in the fact of his marriage, though she was just as incredulous as you, at first."
"But you convinced her, huh?" Under the high sun, Dolphine's face was blotched white, as dead as the moon.
"I suppose I did."
"And you found her charming, huh?" His heavy tousled head came forward, dragging the shoulders after it.
The situation was turning ugly, but Harlan was impervious to it. "Why yes, you have a very lovely wife, Mr. Dolphine. Do you think we might ask her a few questions, if she's at home this morning, and not too busy--?"
Dolphine took Harlan by the throat. I knocked his hands up and away before they could do any damage. He staggered back against the garage door and stood shuddering, his arms outstretched in the attitude of crucifixion.
"By heaven," Harlan said. "I'll sue you for assault and battery."
"I'm sorry." Dolphine's mouth was trembling, as if he had given himself a terrible scare. An asthmatic wheeze twanged like a loose guitar string in the back passages of his head. "I'm not a well man. This excitement--" His hands came together, operatically clutching at his chest.
"Take it easy, Mr. Dolphine. Harlan didn't mean anything against your wife. We're simply trying to repossess an automobile, and we'll be grateful for any cooperation--"
"You're a pair of liars," he wheezed. "Who are you, anyway? What do you want?"
"Nothing at all from you. If we could ask your wife a couple of questions--"
"She isn't here."
"Where is she?"
His mouth was working. He put one hand up to hold it still, and said between the fingers: "Stella's left me."
Harlan pushed forward past me. "Don't you have any notion where she's gone?"
"No. I don't. Are you from the police?"
"I'm a private detective," I said.
Dolphine wheezed waspishly: "Ask Leonard Clark where she is, then. He can tell you."
He turned his back on us and walked uncertainly to the front door of his house.
Harlan started after him.
I held him. "Drop it for now. We've stirred up enough trouble. The guy's broken up."
The front door slammed, and a bolt clicked home. Harlan struggled in my grip. "He knows more than he's saying."
"Everybody does, except maybe you. You talk ahead of yourself."
"How dare you?" His hat fell off, and his meager hair came unstuck and fell over his ears. "Take your hands off me, do you hear?"
I left him wiping his hat with a handkerchief and got into my car, not caring whether he came along or not. He ran after me and climbed in:
"The least you can do for the money I paid you is drop me at my hotel. The cab fares are scandalous here."
"Worse than Cleveland?"
No answer. He sulked while I drove back to Sunset.
"Which way?" I asked him at the intersection.
"I'm staying at the Oceano Hotel, in Santa Monica. If you're going to do nothing further to find my sister, I expect a rebate of at least fifty percent."
I couldn't help laughing at him. "You'll get paid in services, Harlan. I'll spend the rest of the day on it, but I can't promise anything. This town was built for missing persons to lose themselves in."
"How do I know you'll spend the day on it?"
I wanted to ask him who had stolen his rattle in infancy. Instead I said: "Oh, shut up."
He sulked the rest of the way. I let him out at the curb without a word. On the light-washed ocean front, against the pale pink backdrop of the hotel, he looked like a displaced shadow from a dark dream. Not my dream, I congratulated myself.