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Trouble Follows Me
By Ross Macdonald
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA Copyright © 1946 Kenneth Millar
All rights reserved.
IN FEBRUARY, 1945, HONOLULU WAS a small blend of Los Angeles and prewar Shanghai, shaken up with the carnival end of a county fair, and poured out carelessly at the edge of the sea. Men in uniform, white, tan, khaki, grey, green, pullulated in the streets, looking for a place like home and not finding any.
We drove through town in Eric's jeep from the Pearl Harbor side, past miles of gift and curio shops, bars and lunchrooms, Turkish baths, photographers' studios, peepshows. Be Photographed with a Hula Girl. Dispenser General of Alcoholic Beverages. Real American Hot Dogs. Dance of the Seven Veils Only Five Cents.
I had seen it before and it hadn't changed, except that my year in the forward area made it seem more interesting and metropolitan. Still it was no substitute for Detroit.
"Where's the drink you promised me?" I said to Eric.
The traffic ahead of us had been temporarily jammed by a Navy Yard bus taking on a load of sailors. Eric was scowling over the wheel. He was a fair-haired man of thirty, with the leanness and boyish quick gestures of twenty, and almost all of its hair. Since I had last seen him his collar had sprouted the double silver bars of a full lieutenant. I had noticed when I first met him in the Administration Building that afternoon that his mouth and eyes were still undecided between cynicism and sensibility.
The bus finally moved, like the key log in a log-jam, and the stream of traffic flowed on with our jeep nosing into the middle of it.
"I said how about that drink you promised me."
"Hold your horses," Eric said. "What are you, a dipsomaniac or something?"
"I haven't had a drink since we left Guam. Before that I didn't have one for three months. Does that make me a dipsomaniac?"
"Apparently. Don't worry, there'll be plenty left for you."
"Doesn't the bar in Honolulu House close at six?"
"Theoretically it does. But we've all got bottles. If the drinking stopped at six, what would be the use of a ship's party?"
Honolulu House was a decaying mansion standing in its own grounds on the eastern outskirts of the city. A rich planter built it there between the mountains and the sea at the end of the nineteenth century, in the hope that his descendants would live there from generation to generation. When he died his sons and daughters moved back to the mainland, and the house degenerated by degrees into a club of uncertain membership.
It was a three-story frame structure with a wide verandah on four sides. When we arrived the garden of flowers which surrounded it was smouldering in a thin smoke of early twilight.
We parked the jeep at the rear and went into the basement bar. There was a blaze of light, noise and women. Two long tables ran half the length of the narrow brick-walled room to hold the whiskey bottles. We found two unoccupied chairs, and I took one while Eric started off to the bar for ice.
Before he got there he joined a group that was standing near the door. There was a small dark girl with curly black hair, a naval officer with a brown moustache and a Vandyke two shades lighter, a tall heavy man wearing a war correspondent's insignia, and a blonde with her profile to me, five feet seven inches of it. When I saw her the room came into focus and began to revolve about her like a shining wheel.
Eric had his head close to the dark girl's, and made no move to break away. I got up and joined the group, and Eric introduced me. The bearded man was Dr. Savo, surgeon of Eric's destroyer. The brunette with the keen pert face was Sue Sholto. The war correspondent was Gene Halford. His thick jowls and the bald half of his head were darkened by a tan which only the tropics could have given him.
"You've heard of Mr. Halford," Eric said. "He writes for two magazines, and ninety-seven newspapers, isn't it, Gene?"
I hadn't heard of him, but I politely said I had.
"Sam used to be a newspaperman in Detroit himself."
"Is that a fact?" Halford said. I didn't like the faintly patronizing note in his voice, and I didn't like the fact that his left shoulder was behind the blonde girl's right shoulder, like a Reserved sign.
Her name was Mary Thompson. Their shoulders disengaged when she moved to give me her hand. When she smiled her eyes changed from blue to aquamarine. "I'm glad to meet you, Mr. Drake."
She was a tall blonde, but not the cornfed type. Her body was sleek and disciplined, so well made that she didn't look big. There was in her face a fascinating combination of things I liked and things I didn't understand. I wondered what I could do about it. A man like Halford with a million readers, even though he was forty and balding, had glamor. Gene Halford looked at her as if he knew it.
While I was groping for a gambit he ended the game. "Let's go out and get leis," he said to her. "There's an old woman selling them on the corner."
As they moved away, Mary Thompson gave me a smiling look which seemed to imply that she'd see me later. I got some ice at the bar and went back to the table where the bottles were. I made a little celibate ceremony out of mixing and drinking a double highball. I concentrated on the good sharp clean taste of the whiskey and soda, the feel of the ice against my teeth, the cold wet glass in the circle of my fingers. Then the small expanding glow in my stomach, spreading from there through my body like a blob of dye in a beaker of water, finally working into my brain, warming and coloring my perceptions.
The first stages of drunkenness are delicate, illusive and altruistic, like the first stages of love. I became very pleased with the bright disorderly room, the merry drunken laughter, the sweet chiding clink of ice in glasses, the confusion of shop-talk and woman-talk, war and love. What pleased me most was the fact that the room didn't move back and forth, sideways and diagonally. It was the most lovably stable room I had sat in for a long time.
"How you doing, Sam?" Eric sat down beside me and poured himself a drink.
"I was just thinking that I like this room and everybody in it. Even the lieutenant commanders. Where's your girl-friend?"
"Went up to the powder-room to do her hair. But she's not my girl-friend."
"I'm not likely to tell Helen about it. That girl likes you pretty well."
"I know it," he said. His mood, which was evident in his face, was an uncomfortable mixture of vanity and shame. Vanity because he had a pretty girl in love with him. Shame because he had a wife in Michigan and should know better. "If you ever did tell Helen, it'd be just too bad."
"Why should I?"
"Anyway, there's nothing to tell." He shrugged his shoulders awkwardly, and his fair transparent skin showed a flush. "It seems funny that you'll be seeing Helen in a week or two. I haven't seen her for two years."
"I'll look her up when I get home. Anything special you want me to tell her?"
"Hell, tell her I'm healthy. And, of course, I love her. Tell her there's no danger when we're operating around Pearl like this. She never believes me when I write her that in letters."
He finished his drink, very quickly I thought. I poured him another and filled my own glass.
"They're at it again," Eric said. "Always talking about the war."
An ensign with wings, across the table from us, was telling a faded blonde how it felt to go in through ack-ack at five hundred feet. He said it didn't feel so bad because you didn't really believe it until afterwards. Now the real hell was night landings on a jeep carrier....
"It's on everybody's mind," I said.
"But we're not supposed to talk about it." He had once had a one-week course in Washington on security, and it left its mark on him. "Past operations aren't so bad, but when they talk about the big operation that's coming up—"
"Now you're doing it."
"The hell I am." But he colored. "If I was an enemy spy right here this afternoon—"
"You wouldn't have been born in Toledo and you'd have funny little slant eyes and people would point the finger of scorn at you."
"Don't kid yourself. The Japs are willing to spend money, and there are Caucasians who like money better than anything else."
"Say you were a spy and managed to crash an officers' party and picked up some information. You could gloat over it in private, but I don't see what else you could do with it. The leaks have been plugged since December 7 a long time ago."
Sue Sholto appeared at the foot of the stairs and came across the room toward us. The movements of her small perfect body were birdlike and precise. I had the impression that she came back to Eric like a hawk to a wrist. We stood up and she sat down between Eric and me. He poured her a drink, and another for himself. Her brilliant dark eyes followed the movements of his hands, but he didn't seem to notice.
He sipped his drink and said: "Maybe they have been plugged. But I'll bet a smart operative could find a way."
"What on earth are you talking about, Eric? You look silly when you get so solemn."
"Sam doesn't think there's any way an enemy agent could get information out of these islands. What do you think? You work in a radio station."
"That's a funny question to ask a girl. I never thought of it. In spy stories they always have a secret transmitter hidden in the mountains, don't they?"
"That's out," I said. "With the direction-finders we've got now, we'd put the finger on an illegal transmitter two hours after it opened up. The nearest Jap islands are a long way from here now. It takes a lot of power to reach them."
"You wouldn't have to reach the nearest Jap island," Eric said. "There are Jap subs in these waters. They can surface at night. They could pick up a weak broadcast and relay it to Tokyo."
"But we'd hear both broadcasts," I said. "And naturally we'd put a stop to them. There are plenty of Japs here, and no doubt some of them are secretly loyal to the old country. But I still don't see what they can do about it."
"Do about what?" a hard deep voice said behind me. It was Gene Halford. He and Mary Thompson had come back, wearing yellow leis.
Eric and I stood up and they sat down with us, Mary between me and Halford. Her yellow garland made her eyes as bright blue as cornflowers. Her hair was fragrant and shining, like pull-taffy. Her linen suit had a clean smell.
Sue Sholto's dark eyes were turned inward, looking at something behind drawn blinds in her mind. "We were talking about how the enemy could get secret information out of the islands." She spoke as if with an effort.
"I suppose you could send a letter to a neutral country," Mary said. "Using a code of course. You know, 'Uncle Harry has a cold' means 'The Americans have a new battleship at Pearl Harbor.'"
"That's pretty old hat," I said. "Don't forget we've got a pretty efficient censorship."
Eric spoke meditatively. "I wonder if a small boat could get out to a Jap sub."
"Not a chance," I said. "You know the restrictions on boating around here better than I do."
Halford's muddy green eyes had been watching us alertly. Now he spread his thick hands on the table with a slapping sound that made my nerves wince. He had the air of a man who habitually took possession of situations, then bestowed them on the original owners as his personal gift.
"Aren't we being just a little indiscreet?" he said heavily. "Inasmuch as there is a leak of information from Pearl Harbor?"
"There is?" I repeated idiotically.
"You're in the Navy, men. I thought you knew. Public Relations and Censorship keep pounding into us correspondents that civilians mustn't be allowed to know what the Navy knows. I never thought it might be the other way around."
"Where did you get this information?" I asked.
"I have my sources. I know a good many things that I can't print. For God's sake keep your lips buttoned over that one."
"My lips are well-buttoned. There's a gap in yours where the wind blows through."
A dark flush, darker in contrast with the clear yellow of his lei, mounted from his neck through his jowls to his padded cheekbones. I wondered if I was going to have an opportunity to hit him. A year in the forward area sharpens your combative instincts and makes you want to hit people you don't like.
But all he said was: "The original indiscretion was not mine, I believe."
"Indiscretion, hell," Eric said. "We were talking hypothetically."
"Couldn't we just go on talking hypothetically?" Sue said in a little-girl tone. "There wasn't so much electricity in the air when it was hypothetical."
"Let's put it down as scuttlebutt," I said. "It's perfectly possible that Mr. Halford doesn't know what he's talking about."
Halford gave me a malevolent look. But if he argued he'd have to insist that he had made a bad break. He didn't argue. "It's getting terribly close in here," Mary said brightly. "They're serving supper at the buffet upstairs by now. I'm starved."
We decided to have supper. I picked up one of our bottles, which was two parts empty, and brought it along. The manager, rigid in his dusty tuxedo like a guard in uniform, was standing at the head of the stairs. There was a smile of strained affability on his sallow Eurasian face.
"Please don't handle the bottle quite so conspicuously, sir," he said to me. "It's after six, and we don't want any trouble."
"O.K., we'll foil the revenooers."
"I'll take it," Mary said. She put the bottle in her big straw handbag. Sue took Eric's.
We found an empty table on the verandah on the side away from the street. The sea was barely visible from there. While I watched it night took a giant step down from the mountains and sucked up the last grey light from its surface.
The blonde girl was standing beside me.
I said abruptly: "Are you with Halford? If you are I'll fade out."
"I'm not. I barely know him." She touched my arm lightly with her fingers. "Don't fade out."
Halford and Eric had gone to join the line at the buffet, and I followed them. Before Halford got there Mrs. Merriwell intercepted him and did me a service. Mrs. Merriwell was a lady of uncertain age, but not so very uncertain. Her hair was arranged in stiffly curled bangs which masked the wrinkles on her forehead. Nothing could mask the two harsh lines which drooped from her bleak nose to her brilliantly painted mouth. Her brown eyes were restless and shrill. The natural shrillness of her voice was softened by a South Carolina accent.
"Why, Gene Halford," she said in pleased surprise. "I've been looking for you all afternoon."
She looked expectantly at Eric and me, and Halford introduced us. Mrs. Merriwell was delighted, she was sure, and it certainly was a very authentic thrill for her to meet us all. We all lined up at the buffet where the wardroom stewards of Eric's destroyer were serving supper. Mrs. Merriwell thought she would have a teensy bit of chicken salad, and perhaps a mite of a sandwich.
There was a look of stultified protest on Halford's face, but he wasn't drunk enough to shake her off. The four of us went back to the table on the verandah together. I carried Mary's plate and sat beside her. We had a round of drinks which Eric poured under the table.
"Here's to the old Dog-Dog," Eric said. "How do you think the party's going?"
For him, the party seemed to be going well. His light blue eyes glittered damply. He was turned towards Sue Sholto so that their knees must have been touching under the table.
"I like it fine," I said, and looked at Mary.
Halford produced an appreciative grin from some reserve that Mrs. Merriwell had not yet touched.
"I think it's lovely, simply lovely," said Mrs. Merriwell. "All you handsome young men in your uniforms. The stewards in their white coats. You know, it reminds me of our old club, in the days before my dear deceased husband—But I mustn't talk of that: I mustn't even think of it."
She lowered her eyes, saw her highball, and took a long swallow. "It is a bit like the old South, isn't it?" Eric leaned forward slightly, his face serious. "I often wonder whether it's a good thing."
"Whether what's a good thing?" Sue said in her child's voice. "What's a good thing?"
"I have my doubts about our policy of concentrating Negroes in the menial jobs. This quarter I happen to be treasurer of our wardroom mess, and it's partly my responsibility to supervise the stewards. I often think their morale would be higher, and they'd be more useful into the bargain, if they didn't feel so darn limited."
"I agree with you," Mrs. Merriwell cried. "I thoroughly agree with you. Everyone should be given an equal chance, even niggers. Naturally they'll never reach the position in life of a white man. But I say, give all an equal opportunity, unless, of course, they show they don't deserve it."
Excerpted from Trouble Follows Me by Ross Macdonald. Copyright © 1946 Kenneth Millar. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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