Ross Macdonald - Lew Archer 01 - The Moving Target(aka Harper)(1949)

 

Ross Macdonald

 

Ross Macdonald ~ The
Moving Target (aka Harper)

 
          
 

 
1

 
          
The
cab turned off U.S. 101 in the direction of the sea. The road looped round the
base of a brown hill into a canyon lined with scrub oak.

 
          
“This
is Cabrillo Canyon,” the driver said.

 
          
There
weren’t any houses in sight. “The people live in caves?”

 
          
“Not
on your life. The estates are down by the ocean.”

 
          
A
minute later I started to smell the sea. We rounded another curve and entered
its zone of coolness. A sign beside the road said: “Private Property:
Permission to pass over revocable at any time.”

 
          
The
scrub oak gave place to ordered palms and Monterey cypress hedges. I caught
glimpses of lawns effervescent with sprinklers, deep white porches, roofs of
red tile and green copper.
A Rolls
with a doll at the
wheel went by us like a gust of wind, and I felt unreal.

 
          
The
light-blue haze in the lower canyon was like a thin smoke from slowly burning
money. Even the sea looked precious through it, a solid wedge held in the
canyon’s mouth, bright blue and polished like a stone. Private property: color
guaranteed fast; will not shrink egos. I had never seen the Pacific look so
small.

 
          
We
turned up a drive between sentinel yews, cruised round in a private highway
network for a while, and came out above the sea stretching deep and wide to
Hawaii. The house stood part way down the shoulder of the bluff, with its back
to the canyon. It was long and low. Its wings met at an obtuse angle pointed at
the sea like a massive white arrowhead. Through screens of shrubbery I caught
the white glare of tennis courts, the blue-green shimmer of a pool.

 
          
The
driver turned on the fan-shaped drive and stopped beside the garages. “This is
where the cavemen live. You want the service entrance?”

 
          
“I’m
not proud.”

 
          
“You
want me to wait?”

 
          
“I
guess so.”

 
          
A
heavy woman in a blue linen smock came out on the service porch and watched me
climb out of the cab. “Mr. Archer?”

 
          
“Yes.
Mrs. Sampson?”

 
          
“Mrs.
Kromberg
. I’m the housekeeper.” A smile passed over
her lined face like sunlight on a plowed field. “You can let your taxi go.
Felix can drive you back to town when you’re ready.”

 
          
I
paid off the driver and got my bag out of the back. I felt a little embarrassed
with it in my hand. I didn’t know whether the job would last an hour or a
month.

 
          
“I’ll
put your bag in the storeroom,” the housekeeper said. “I don’t think you’ll
be needing
it.”

 
          
She
led me through a chromium-and-porcelain kitchen, down a hall that was cool and
vaulted like a cloister, into a cubicle that rose to the second floor when she
pressed a button.

 
          
“All
the modern conveniences,” I said to her back.

 
          
“They
had to put it in when Mrs. Sampson hurt her legs. It cost seven thousand five
hundred dollars.”

 
          
If
that was supposed to silence me, it did. She knocked on a door across the hall
from the elevator. Nobody answered. After knocking again, she opened the door
on a high white room too big and bare to be feminine. Above the massive bed
there was a painting of a clock, a map, and a woman’s hat arranged on a
dressing-table.
Time, space, and sex.
It looked like a
Kuniyoshi
.

 
          
The
bed was rumpled but empty. “Mrs. Sampson!” the housekeeper called.

 
          
A
cool voice answered her: “I’m on the sun deck. What do you want?”

 
          
“Mr.
Archer’s here - the man you sent the wire to.”

 
          
“Tell
him to come out. And bring me some more coffee.”

 
          
“You
go out through the French windows,” the housekeeper said, and went away.

 
          
Mrs.
Sampson looked up from her book when I stepped out. She was half lying on a
chaise longue with her back to the late morning sun, a towel draped over her
body. There was a wheelchair standing beside her, but she didn’t look like an
invalid. She was very lean and brown, tanned so dark that her flesh seemed
hard. Her hair was bleached, curled tightly on her narrow head like blobs of
whipped cream. Her age was as hard to tell as the age of a figure carved from
mahogany.

 
          
She
dropped the book on her stomach and offered me her hand. “I’ve heard about you.
When Millicent Drew broke with Clyde, she said you were helpful. She didn’t
exactly say how.”

 
          
“It’s
a long story,” I said.
“And a sordid one.”

 
          
“Millicent
and Clyde are dreadfully sordid, don’t you think? These aesthetic men! I’ve
always suspected his mistress wasn’t a woman.”

 
          
“I
never think about my clients.” With that I offered her my boyish grin, a little
the worse for wear.

 
          
“Or
talk about them?”

 
          
“Or
talk about them.
Even with my clients.”

 
          
Her
voice was clear and fresh, but the sickness was there in her laugh, a little
clatter of bitterness under the trill. I looked down into her eyes, the eyes of
something frightened and sick hiding in the fine brown body. She lowered the
lids.

 
          
“Sit
down, Mr. Archer. You must be wondering why I sent for you. Or don’t you wonder
either?”

 
          
I
sat on a deck chair beside the chaise. “I wonder. I even conjecture. Most of my
work is divorce. I’m a jackal, you see.”

 
          
“You
slander yourself, Mr. Archer. And you don’t talk like a detective, do you? I’m
glad you mentioned divorce. I want to make it clear at the start that divorce
is not what I want. I want my marriage to last. You see, I intend to outlive my
husband.”

 
          
I
said nothing, waiting for more. When I looked more closely, her brown skin was
slightly roughened, slightly withered. The sun was hammering her copper legs,
hammering down on my head. Her toenails and her fingernails were painted the
same blood color.

 
          
“It
mayn’t be survival of the fittest. You probably know I can’t use my legs any
more. But I’m twenty years younger than he is, and I’m going to survive him.”
The bitterness had come through into her voice, buzzing like a wasp.

 
          
She
heard it and swallowed it at a gulp. “It’s like a furnace out here, isn’t it?
It’s not fair that men should have to wear coats. Please take yours off.”

 
          
“No, thanks.”

 
          
“You’re
very gentlemanly.”

 
          
“I’m
wearing a shoulder holster.
And still wondering.
You
mentioned Albert Graves in your telegram.”

 
          
“He
recommended you. He’s one of Ralph’s lawyers. You can talk to him after lunch
about your pay.”

 
          
“He
isn’t D. A. anymore?”

 
          
“Not
since the war.”

 
          
“I
did some work for him in ‘40 and ‘41. I haven’t seen him since.”

 
          
“He
told me. He told me you were good at finding people.” She smiled a white smile,
carnivorous and startling in her dark face. “Are you good at finding people,
Mr. Archer?”

 
          

‘Missing Persons’ is better. Your husband’s missing?”

 
          
“Not
missing, exactly.
Just gone off by himself, or in company.
He’d be frantically angry if I went to the Missing Persons Bureau.”

 
          
“I
see. You want me to find him if possible and identify the company.
And what then?”

 
          
“Just
tell me where he is, and with whom. I’ll do the rest myself.” Sick as I am,
said the little whining undertone, legless though I
be
.

 
          
“When
did he go away?”

 
          
“Yesterday
afternoon.”

 
          
“Where?”

 
          
“Los
Angeles. He was in Las Vegas - we have a desert place near there - but he flew
to Los Angeles yesterday afternoon with Alan. Alan’s his pilot. Ralph gave him
the slip at the airport and went off by himself.”

 
          
“Why?”

 
          
“I
suppose because he was drunk.” Her red mouth curved contemptuously. “Alan said
he’d been drinking.”

 
          
“You
think he’s gone off on a binge. Does he often?”

 
          
“Not
often, but totally. He loses his inhibitions when he drinks.”

 
          
“About sex?”

 
          
“All
men do, don’t they? But that isn’t what concerns me. He loses his inhibitions
about money. He tied one on a few months ago and gave away a mountain.”

 
          
“A mountain?”

 
          
“Complete
with hunting-lodge.”

 
          
“Did
he give it to a woman?”

 
          
“I
almost wish he had. He gave it to a man, but it’s not what you’re thinking.
A Los Angeles holy man with a long gray beard.”

 
          
“He
sounds like a soft touch.”

 
          
“Ralph?
He’d go stark staring mad if you called him that to his face. He started out as
a wildcat oil operator. You know the type, half man, half alligator,
half
bear trap, with a piggy bank where his heart should be.
That’s when he’s sober. But alcohol softens him
up,
at
least it has the last few years. A few drinks, and he wants to be a little boy
again. He goes looking for a mother type or a father type to blow his nose and
dry away his tears and spank him when he’s naughty. Do I sound cruel? I’m
simply being objective.”

 
          
“Yes,”
I said. “You want me to find him before he gives away another mountain.” Dead
or alive, I thought; but I wasn’t her analyst.

 
          
“And
if he’s with a woman, naturally I’ll be interested. I’ll want to know all about
her, because I couldn’t afford to give away an advantage like that.”

 
          
I
wondered who her analyst was.

 
          
“Have
you any particular woman in mind?”

 
          
“Ralph
doesn’t confide in me - he’s much closer to Miranda than he is to me - and I’m
not equipped to spy on him. That’s why I’m hiring you.”

 
          
“To
put it bluntly,” I said.

 
          
“I
always put things bluntly.”

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