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CHAPTER 1:The house was in Santa Monica on a cross street between the boulevards, within earshot of the coast highway and rifleshot of the sea. The street was the kind that people had once been proud to live on, but in the last few years it had lost its claim to pride. The houses had too many stories, too few windows, not enough paint. Their history was easy to guess: they were one-family residences broken up into apartments and light-housekeeping rooms, or converted into tourist homes. Even the palms that lined the street looked as if they had seen their best days and were starting to lose their hair.I parked in front of the number I had been given and leaned sideways in the seat to have a look at the house. The numerals, 1348, were made of rusted metal and tacked diagonally across one of the round porch pillars. A showcard above, printed black on white, offered ROOMS FOR TOURISTS. There were several rattan chairs and a faded green glider on the porch, which covered the width of the house. A second-story porch, with more rattan, was surrounded by a wooden railing that looked unsafe. The third story had Gothic-looking towers at each corner, fake battlements that time had taken and made ridiculous. The roller blinds were low over the windows on all three levels, so they stared at me sleepy-eyed.The house didn't look as if it had money in it, or ever would have again. I went in anyway, because I'd liked the woman's voice on the telephone.She came to the door in a hurry when I knocked. A tall woman in her fifties with worried vague dark eyes in a worried long face, a black crepe dress over a thick corseted body. A detective was an occasion in her life. Her iron-gray hair was set in a sharp new wave that smelt of the curling-iron, her nose and cheeks and chin were stark with powder. The light fell through the purple glass in the fanlight over the door and made her complexion livid.The woman's voice was her best feature, gentle and carefully modulated, in a low register: "I'm Mrs. Samuel Lawrence. You're Mr. Archer, of course? You got here in no time at all.""The traffic's not so bad between nine and ten.""Come in, Mr. Archer. Let me make you a cup of tea. I'm just having a midmorning snack myself. Since I've been doing all my own work, I find I need a bite between meals to sustain me."I stepped inside, and the screen door swung to languidly behind me. The hall was still and cool and smelt of wax. The floor was old parquetry, and its polished patterns glowed like jewels. A carpeted stairway climbed to the high dim ceiling. An ancient oak hatstand with polished brass hangers stood at the foot of the stairs. The contrast with the traffic I'd been fighting gave me a queer feeling, as if I'd stepped backward in time, or out of it entirely.She led me to an open door at the rear. "This is my own little sitting-room, if you please. I reserve the front parlor for guests, though I must say they haven't been using it lately. Of course it's the off-season, I only have the three just now, my regular, and a lovely young couple from Oregon, honeymooners! If only Galley had married a man like that--but sit down, Mr. Archer."She pulled out a chair from the heavy refectory table in the middle of the room. It was a small room, and it was as crowded with coffee- and end-tables, chairs and hassocks and bookcases, as a second-hand furniture store. The horizontal surfaces were littered with gewgaws, shells and framed photographs, vases and pincushions and doilies. If the lady had come down in the world, she'd brought a lot down with her. My sensation of stepping into the past was getting too strong for comfort. The half-armed chair closed on me like a hand.I took the present by the tail and dragged it into the room: "Galley," I said. "Is she the daughter you mentioned?"The question struck her like an accusation, disorganizing her charm. She didn't like the look of the present at all. She faced it when she had to, with a face clouded by bewilderment and shame. "Yes. My daughter Galatea. It's why I phoned you, as I said." Her gaze wandered, and lighted on the teapot that stood on the table. "You must let me pour you some tea before we get down to business. It's freshly made."Her hand on the teapot was cracked and grained by dirty work, but she poured with an air. I said I took mine straight. The tea tasted like a clear dark dripping from the past. My grandmother came back with it, in crisp black funeral silks, and I looked out of the window to dispel her. I could see the Santa Monica pier from where I sat, and beyond it the sea and the sky like the two curved halves of a blue Easter egg."Nice view you have from here."She smiled over her teacup. "Yes. I bought it for the view. I shouldn't really say I've bought it. It's mortgaged, after all."I finished my tea and set the thin white cup in the thin white saucer. "Well, Mrs. Lawrence, let's have it. What happened to your daughter?""I don't know," she said. "That's what upsets me so. She simply disappeared a couple of months ago--""From here?""No, not from here. Galley hasn't lived at home in recent years, though she always came to visit me at least once a month. She was working in Pacific Point, a special-duty nurse in the hospital there. I always hoped for something better for Galley--my husband Dr. Lawrence was a medical man, and a very well respected one, too--but she wanted to be a nurse and she seemed to be very happy in the work--"She was veering away from the present fact again. "When did she disappear?""Last December, a few days before Christmas." This was the middle of March, which made it about three months. "Galley always came home for Christmas. We never failed to decorate a tree. Last Christmas for the first time I spent Christmas by myself. Even her card came a day late." And the vague eyes swam with self-pity."If you've heard from her, I wouldn't call it a disappearance. Can I have a look at the card?""Of course." She took a black leather volume of Swedenborg out of the bookcase, opened it, and drew out a large square envelope which she handed to me as if it contained a check. "But she has disappeared, Mr. Archer. I haven't seen her since early in December. None of her friends has seen her since the first of the year.""How old is she?""Twenty-four. She'll be twenty-five next month, April the 9th, if she's alive." She bowed her face in her hands, having brought herself to tears."She'll probably have many happy returns," I said. "A twenty-five-year-old registered nurse can look after herself.""You don't know Galley," the damp voice said from the hidden face. "She's always been so fascinating to men, and she's never realized how evil men can be. I've tried to unknow the error, but it does no good. I keep thinking of the Black Dahlia, all the young girls that have been stolen away and destroyed by evil men." The wide gold wedding band on the hand over her face gleamed dully like a despairing hope.I took out the card, which was large and expensive, decorated with a sparkling mica snow scene. Inside it said:TO MOTHER ON CHRISTMAS DAYThough my boat has left the harborIn the sea of life so wide,I think with cheer of Mother DearEach joyous Christmastide.It was subscribed in green ink by a bold and passionate hand: "Much love, Galley." The envelope had been mailed in San Francisco on December 24."Did--does your daughter have friends in San Francisco?""Not that I know of." The woman showed me her face, with tear-tracks in the powder. She blew her nose discreetly in a piece of pink Kleenex. "The last few years, since she graduated, I didn't really know her friends.""Do you think she's in San Francisco?""I don't know. She came back from there, you see. She didn't come to me, but the man who runs the apartments down there, a Mr. Raisch, saw her. She had a small furnished apartment in Pacific Point, and about the end of December she turned up there and moved out, took away all her things. There was a man with her.""What sort of a man?""Mr. Raisch didn't say. There seemed to be some kind of secret about the man--something sinister.""Is that a fact, or only your impression?""My impression. I suppose I've been too open to impression, lately. I can't tell you what my life has been these last few weeks. I've gone down to Pacific Point on the bus half a dozen times, whenever I could get away. I've talked to the nurses that knew her at the hospital. She hasn't been near the hospital since before Christmas, when she finished her last case. It was a man named Speed who had been shot in the stomach. The police came to question him, and he nearly died. The people at the hospital seemed to think that this Speed person was a gangster. That's one of the things that frightens me. I've hardly slept a wink for weeks and weeks." There were deep bluish hollows under her eyes, pitiable and ugly in the morning light from the window."Actually, though," I said, "You've got nothing concrete to be afraid about.""My only daughter is gone--""Girls leave home all the time. It tears the hearts out of their mothers, but they don't know it. They don't find out till their own kids grow up and do it to them. She probably ran off and married this man that was with her at the apartment.""That's what Mr. Raisch thought. Still Galley wouldn't marry without letting me know. Besides, I've checked the registrations in Pacific Point, and Los Angeles as well, and there is no record of a marriage.""That doesn't prove a thing. You can fly to New York or Hawaii in a day." I took a cigarette from a pack in my pocket and automatically asked her: "Mind if I smoke?"Her face froze, as if I had suggested an obscenity. "Smoke if you must, sir. I know what a hold the nicotine habit has on its victims. Dr. Lawrence was a smoker for years, until he finally broke free, with God's help."I replaced the cigarette in my pocket and stood up to leave. Even with a million dollars, she wouldn't have been the kind of woman I wanted to work for. And she probably didn't have two nickels to rub against each other. As for the daughter, ten to one she'd simply decided to have a life of her own.I put it less bluntly to her: "I think you should take it to Missing Persons, Mrs. Lawrence. I don't think you have anything to worry about, but if you have, they can do more for you than I can. It would be a waste of money to hire me. I charge fifty a day and expenses. The police do everything free."Her answer surprised me: "I expected to pay you well. And I am not going to go to the police.""Why not? Missing daughters are their specialty. They've got a national system set up to find them."Grim bony lines came out in her face, and her eyes weren't vague any more. "If Galley is living in sin with some man, it's nobody's business but my own.""Aren't you jumping to conclusions?""I tell you you don't know Galley. Men have been after her since high school, like flies to honey. She's a good girl, Mr. Archer, I know how good. But I was a handsome girl myself when I was young, and I've seen the pitfalls of the flesh. I want to know what has happened to my daughter."I stood by the table and lit my cigarette and dropped the match on the tea tray. She didn't say a word. After a stretching moment of silence, she reached from her chair and took a framed photograph from the top of the bookcase. "Look at her, you'll understand what I mean."I took the picture from her hand. There was something slightly shady about the transaction, a faint implication that she was offering her daughter's beauty as part payment on my services. Or maybe I was having impressions. I had one when I looked at the girl's face. It was passionate and bold like her handwriting. Even in a white nurse's cap and a high chaste collar she was a girl you saw once and never forgot."It was her graduation picture, taken three years ago, but she still looks exactly the same. Isn't she pretty?"Pretty was hardly the word. With her fierce curled lips, black eyes and clean angry bones she must have stood out in her graduating class like a chicken hawk in a flock of pullets."If you want to spend fifty dollars," I said, "I'll go down to Pacific Point today and see what I can find out. Write down her last address and the name of whoever you talked to at the hospital."With the caution of a pheasant hen returning to her nest, she went to an old-fashioned sewing machine by the window, lifted the closed top and removed a worn black purse from its hiding place. Opening the tarnished clasp, she rummaged in the purse and counted five reluctant tens onto the table.Dropping my ashes in my empty teacup, I noticed the arrangement of the leaves. My grandmother would have said it meant money and a dark stranger. The stranger could have been male or female, vertical or horizontal, depending on how you looked at the bottom of the cup.CHAPTER 2:I drove south through Long Beach to Pacific Point. Crossing the mesa that flanked it to the northwest, you could see the town spread out, from the natural harbor half-enclosed by the curving finger of land that gave the place its name, to the houses on the ridge above the fogline. It rose from sea level in a gentle slope, divided neatly into social tiers, like something a sociologist had built to prove a theory. Tourists and transients lived in hotels and motels along the waterfront. Behind them a belt of slums lay ten blocks deep, where the darker half of the population lived and died. On the other side of the tracks--the tracks were there--the business section wore its old Spanish facades like icing on a stale cake. The people who worked in the stores and offices inhabited the grid of fifty-foot lots that covered the next ten blocks. On the slopes above them the owners and managers enjoyed their patios and barbecue pits. And along the top of the ridge lived the really wealthy, who had bought their pieds-a-terre in Pacific Point because it reminded them of Juan-les-Pins.
From the Trade Paperback edition.