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Authors: Ross Macdonald

Find a Victim

BOOK: Find a Victim
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FIRST VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD EDITION, AUGUST 2001

Copyright © 1954, copyright renewed 1982 by John Ross Macdonald

All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover in the United States by Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, in 1954.

Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.

The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Macdonald, John Ross.
Find a victim [by] John Ross Macdonald [pseud.]
New York, Knopf, 1954.
p. cm.
PZ3.M59942 Fi
1381659
CIP

eISBN: 978-0-307-77333-3

www.vintagebooks.com

v3.1

To Ivan von Auw, Jr.

A man feared that he might find an assassin;

Another that he might find a victim

One was more wise than the other.

STEPHEN CRANE

 

CHAPTER
1
:
He was the ghastliest hitchhiker who
ever thumbed me. He rose on his knees in the ditch. His eyes were black holes in his yellow face, his mouth a bright smear of red like a clown’s painted grin. The arm he raised overbalanced him. He fell forward on his face again.

I stamped the brake-pedal and backed a hundred yards to where he lay, a dark-headed man in jeans and a gray workshirt, prone among the jimson. He was as still as death now. But when I squatted down beside him I could hear the sigh and gurgle of his breathing.

Supporting his hip on my knee and his loose head with my arm, I turned him onto his back. The blood at his mouth was breaking in tiny bubbles. The breast of his gray shirt was dark and wet. Unbuttoning it, I saw the round hole among the sodden hairs on his chest, still pumping little bright spurts.

I removed my jacket and tore off my own shirt. Wadding it over the bullet hole, I fixed it in place with my tie. The wounded man stirred and sighed. The eyelids quivered over the dusty-black eyes. He was a young man, and he was dying.

I looked back to the south and then to the north. No cars, no houses, no anything. I had passed one clot of traffic somewhere north of Bakersfield and failed to catch another. It was one of those lulls in time when you can hear your heart ticking your life away, and nothing else. The sun had fallen behind the coastal range, and the valley was filling with twilight. A flight of blackbirds crossed the sky like visible wind, blowing and whiplashing.

I lifted him, his head lolling on my chest, and carried him to the car. He was hard to handle, neither big nor heavy but terribly lax. I got him onto the back seat with his head propped up on my overnight bag so that he wouldn’t smother, and covered him with the car blanket.

He rode six or seven miles in that position. I turned down my rear-view mirror to keep an eye on him. As the twilight faded, his face in the mirror faded almost out.

I passed a sign:
CAMP FREMONT, U.S. MARINE CORPS BASE
. Cyclone fence sprang up along the highway. Beyond it streets of weathered barracks marched across the valley to the humpbacked horizon. There wasn’t a trace of life. The Quonset hangars of the attached airbase could have been barrows built by a lost race of giants.

Then there were lights at the roadside, a city of lights beyond them. Neons stained the thickening air green and yellow:
KERRIGAN’S COURT—DELUXE MOTOR HOTEL
. Its lobby and pueblos were brilliantly floodlit. I stopped in front of the lobby and went inside.

It was all blond plywood and green imitation leather furniture. The woman behind the registration desk was also blonde. Her long blue eyes surveyed me, making me conscious of my naked chest. I buttoned my jacket as I crossed the room.

“Can I help you?” she said in a distant way.

“A man in my car needs help, badly. I’ll bring him in while you call a doctor.”

Her eyebrows moved downward, a worried cleft between them. “Is he sick?”

“With lead poisoning. He’s been shot.”

She rose in nervous haste and opened a door behind her. “Don, come here a minute.”

“He needs a doctor now,” I said. “There’s no time to talk it over.”

“Talk what over?” A big man filled the doorway. He was
heavy-shouldered in a light gabardine suit, and he moved like an ex-athlete gone to seed. “What in hell is it now? Can’t you handle anything by yourself?”

Her slim hands wrenched at each other. “I won’t permit you to speak to me that way.”

He smiled at her without showing his teeth. Under clipped sandy hair, his face was fiery with alcohol or anger. “I talk the way I want to in my own place.”

“You’re tight, Don.”

“You’ve never seen me tight.”

They were standing close to each other in the space behind the desk, face to face in furious intimacy.

I said: “There’s a man bleeding to death outside. If you won’t let him come in here, at least you can call an ambulance.”

He turned to me, his eyes gray triangles under folded lids. “Bleeding to death? Who is he?”

“I don’t know. Are you going to get some help for him or not?”

“Yes, of course,” the woman said.

She lifted a telephone book out of the desk, found a number, and dialed. The man went out, slamming the door behind him.

“Kerrigan’s Motor Court,” she said, “Mrs. Kerrigan speaking. We have an injured man here.—No. They say he’s been shot.—Yes, it seems to be serious, an emergency.”

She replaced the receiver. “The county hospital is sending an ambulance.” She added in a low voice, hardly more than a whisper: “I’m sorry for what happened. In our family we don’t rise to an emergency. We sink beneath it.”

“It doesn’t matter.”

“It does to me. I’m
really
sorry.”

Her face slanted forward across the desk. Her pale smooth hair was drawn back severely from it, as if to emphasize its stark beauty.

“Isn’t there anything else I can do?” she said on a rising note. “Call the police?”

“The hospital will. They’re required to by law. Thanks for your trouble, Mrs. Kerrigan.”

She followed me to the door, a troubled woman who had missed her chance to react like a human being and couldn’t let it go. “This must be a terrible thing for you. Is he a friend of yours?”

“He’s nothing to me. I found him on the highway.”

She touched my arm, as if to establish contact with reality, and quickly withdrew her hand, as if the contact frightened her. Her eyes were focused on my chest. I looked down at the drying smear where the bloody face had rested.

“Are you hurt, too? Can I do anything for you?”

“Not a thing,” I said, and went outside.

Kerrigan was leaning in at the open back door of my car. He straightened sharply when he heard my feet in the gravel.

“Is he still breathing?”

“Yeah, he’s breathing.” The alcoholic blood had drained out of his face, leaving it blotched. “I don’t think we ought to move him, but we’ll take him inside if you say so.”

“He might dirty your carpet.”

“There’s no need to get unpleasant, fellow. You heard me offer to take him in.”

“Forget it.”

He moved up closer to me, his eyes opaque and stony gray in the floodlights. “Where did you find him?”

“A couple of miles south of the Marine Base, in the ditch.”

“How did you happen to bring him here, to my doorstep? If I may ask.”

“You may ask. This was the first place I came to. Next time I’ll keep going.”

“I don’t mean that. I merely wondered if it was a coincidence.”

“Why? Do you know him?”

“Yeah. He drives a truck for the Meyer line in town. Name’s Tony Aquista.”

“You know him well?”

“I wouldn’t say that. In my line of business I have a speaking acquaintance with most of the jerks in Las Cruces. But I don’t hobnob with Mexican truck-drivers.”

“Good for you. Any idea who shot him?”

“That’s kind of a silly question.”

“You could still answer it.”

“What gives you the right to ask questions, fellow?”

“Go on calling me fellow. It sends me.”

“You didn’t mention your name.”

“That’s right. I didn’t.”

“Maybe I ought to ask you a question or two,” he said. “You didn’t happen to shoot him yourself by any chance?”

“You’re very acute. Naturally I shot him. This is my getaway.”

“I was merely asking. I couldn’t help noticing the blood on you.”

He smiled with soft malice. His changeable mouth, both sensitive and brutal, tempted my fist the way a magnet tempts iron. He was big enough, and not too old, but he was a little ripe. I put my fist in my pocket and walked around to the other side of the car.

I switched on the dome light. Tony Aquista was still blowing his sad small bubbles. His eyes were completely closed now. He was blind and deaf with the effort to hold onto life. The ambulance sighed in the road.

I followed it on its return trip through the highway suburbs, past motels and cabins and trailer parks where soldiers and salesmen and tourists and migrant workers passed temporary nights with temporary bedmates. At a six-lane wye where two main roads converged, the ambulance turned off the highway to the left.

I missed the green arrow and had to wait. The hospital was visible in the distance, a long white box of a building pierced with lights. Nearer the highway, the lighted screen of an outdoor theater, on which two men were beating each other to the rhythm of passionate music, rose against the night like a giant dream of violence.

I found the ambulance entrance at the rear of the hospital. Its red electric sign spelled out
EMERGENCY
and cast a hellish glow on the oil-stained concrete driveway. Before I went in, I took a clean shirt out of my bag and put it on.

In the receiving-room half a dozen white-coated people were grouped around the table where Tony Aquista lay. Now even his lips were yellow. An inverted bottle of blood was dripping into a tube that was strapped to his arm.

A young doctor, resident or intern, leaned over the closed face and pressed his thumbs down into the eyes. Aquista didn’t stir. The room seemed to be holding its breath. I moved to the doctors side. He glanced at me sharply.

“Are you a patient?”

“A witness. I found this man.”

He shook his head from side to side. “You should have found him sooner.” He turned to one of the nurses: “Don’t waste any more blood on him.”

She closed off the rubber tube and disconnected the half-empty bottle. The hospital smell, the odor of dissolution, was keen in my nostrils.

“Is he going, doctor?”

“He’s gone. No pulse, no respiration. He must have been bleeding for some time, probably didn’t have a pint left in his system.”

BOOK: Find a Victim
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