Authors: Louis Trimble
HAVING THE DEVIL’S OWN GOOD TIME …
Larry Flynn was a special investigator for hotels. And though the swanky Surfside Lodge was not in his bailiwick, he was willing to answer the call for help from the pretty widow that ran it.
He’d owed her husband a personal debt, and it looked like a good opportunity to repay it. Besides, there was something mighty strange about her sudden telegram.
Now, as he pushed his fast sports car towards the plush resort, he tried to think of what that mystery might be. When a truck came along, rammed him, and tried to force him off the mountain road at the cliff’s edge, Flynn had at least one part of the answer. It was murder, and it looked as if instead of resting at the Surfside that night, he’d be taking the long sleep at the cliffside bottom.
He hated getting stung but he found a hornet’s nest in his hotel room.
Everytime her past caught up with her, she had a ball.
The more women he employed, the more women he destroyed.
This wealthy flower-grower sent roses to his widow.
He was in love with the woman who tormented him.
The small-town cop who let the VIP’est citizen do the talking.
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trying to make time on California Highway One north of San Francisco. The narrow road kinked back and forth sharply, sometimes running tight against the ocean, sometimes a few miles inland. I wanted to make the Surfside Lodge early enough to get my business started before evening, but the slow road threatened to beat me.
The summer sun was sliding toward the ocean when I made the turnoff onto an unmarked road that would take me over a range of hills and down to the Lodge. This road was even narrower than the highway. I forced myself to put a curb on my temper and on the throttle of the Porsche. Letting them run loose would put me in a ditch instead of in the sixty-a-day cottage I had waiting for me.
The Qantas jet from Australia had landed me an hour late at the San Francisco airport. I had used up two more hours getting the Porsche out of dead storage and ready for the road.
The dust formed a fine film on the Porsche’s windshield. When I made the turnoff west, the sun slanted into the glass at just the right angle to blind me.
I swallowed another piece of my temper and pulled onto the narrow gravel shoulder of the road. I climbed out of the Porsche to wipe the windshield.
A car came rattling down the blacktop toward me. It was a fairly late model half-ton pick-up and it was doing fifty on a road where thirty-five was enough speed to give anyone his kicks.
I couldn’t see much but sunglare until the truck drew abreast of me. It was taking up more than its share of the middle of the narrow road. I yelled and plastered myself against the side of the Porsche. Air hammered the seat of my slacks as the pick-up whooshed past.
I didn’t even get a good look until the truck took a curve a short distance beyond me. Then the driver braked sharply. I had a quick glimpse of a man in denim work clothes and a billed cap. I had a longer look at the truck. It was pale gray with
MILO CRAYBAUGH, WHOLESALE FLORIST, RIO POLLO, CALIFORNIA,
on the side in bright red letters. It was riding empty.
I told Milo Craybaugh what I thought of him and climbed back into the Porsche. Then I forgot everything but the job of driving. The road was burrowing into the hills in a series of sharp, flat kinks. The bare brown hills were giving way to sand pines, a few madronas, and an occasional redwood. I could smell the encroaching forest and finally the heady, clean odor of salt water.
The grade steepened as the road wound to the left around a high hill. The dropoff on my right was a good two hundred feet by the time I reached the summit and started down. A sign at the top read “Rio Pollo City Limits.” There was nothing in sight but thickening timber.
I was starting down when I heard a familiar rattling behind me. I squinted into the rearview mirror. The same truck was topping the rise behind me. It was coming too fast again for the kind of road we were on. It rode right up to my tail. I started into a sharp left curve. The truck moved forward and inside. Its bumper hit mine a quick nudge as I went into the belly of the curve.
I swore and picked up speed, moving away. The truck stayed on my tail. We rolled down a short straightaway and hit another curve. I watched in the rear view mirror. The truck started moving inside and went for my bumper again.
I finally got the idea. The driver was trying to put me over the edge, to drop me into the valley still better than a hundred feet below.
He made one mistake. He obviously had the idea that he was dealing with an ordinary car. He wasn’t. A Porsche is balanced like a Swiss movement. It’s made for tight curves and close, fast driving.
It can walk away from a truck too. Only I was too bugged to just leave the guy sitting in my exhaust fumes. He wanted to play games. Okay, we’d play games. And by his rules.
I tromped on the throttle and finished out the curve twenty miles an hour faster than he dared take it. I heard his brakes screech. I risked a glance in the rearview mirror. He was slowing, fighting for control. He got it and came after me, but slower now.
I let him pull up on the next straightaway. The dropoff on the right was still close to a hundred feet when we hit the next curve. A sign warned that safe speed for the curve was twenty-five miles an hour. I was doing forty and he was hanging tight.
I took a deep breath. I held my throttle foot tense. I had shifted to fourth and now I dropped back to third. I entered the curve. He started to gun, swinging inside again. I picked up speed, moving my speedometer needle toward fifty. He kept after me. The curve began to kink sharply. I gave the Porsche more throttle. The road was flat. I felt my stomach rise and slide as the Porsche threatened a skid. I moved the wheel lightly, into the skid, beating it. I rode the curve around and then snapped back straight.
I didn’t have to look in the mirror. I knew what was happening behind me. The truck had been moving too fast when we hit the curve. He needed time and space to slow down. And he didn’t have them.
I heard the grinding screech of metal tearing itself apart on rocks and small trees. I fanned the brakes and eased to a stop.
I backed up to the end of the curve. I climbed out of the Porsche and walked to the edge of the dropoff. Tire marks showed that the truck had lost the game halfway through the bend. Two large gouges were ripped in the low ridge of soft dirt marking the edge of the blacktop. I glanced downward, along an ugly path the truck had cut through the brush and stunted trees clinging to the steep slope. The truck hadn’t quite made the canyon floor. It was wrapped like a horseshoe around a fat-boled redwood about eighty feet below me.
I located the nearest thing to a path and started down it. The pitch was too steep for walking. I ran to keep my legs from getting behind and spilling me on my face.
I smelled gas. I slowed down and moved in cautiously. The chassis of the truck was upright, all four wheels planted firmly in dirt mixed with forest duff. The driver was sitting upright, both hands on the wheel. He almost looked as if he had driven here.
I reached his door. I saw how the steering post had curved down, jamming the wheel into his belly. The redwood had pushed the right hand door over so that one corner was rammed into the steering column, keeping the wheel tight against the driver’s body. He was clamped into the seat as if he had been squeezed in a vise.
The motor was still ticking over. The smell of gas grew sharper. I reached through the open window and snapped off the ignition. The low ticking of the motor died.
Now I could hear him breathe. I took a close look at him. He was medium-sized, in his thirties, a man with a long face grooved by hard living. I had never seen him before.
I opened his door. I put both hands on the steering wheel and tried to lever it away from his body. The pressure of the right hand door jammed down on the steering column beat me.
I felt his pulse. It was surprisingly strong. I said, “Craybaugh?”
His breathing changed. His eyes came open with heavy reluctance. He said thickly, painfully, “Flynn?”
I said, “That’s right. What’s the idea of trying to run me off the road?”
He grunted out, “Get me … doctor.”
I said, “Sure, coming up. As soon as you level with me.” It was brutal, forcing information out of him this way. But he wasn’t close to dying. Not with his pulse beating as strongly as it was.
His lips twisted and fell slack. He summoned effort from somewhere and said slowly, “Not my idea. Hired.” His body arched up against the pressure of the steering wheel. “Get me out of here …”
He sagged back. The glaze of shock thickened over his eyes. I said urgently, “Who hired you? Was it Jacob Dolphin?”
I didn’t even get a flicker at the mention of the name. I tried again. “Annette Lofgren?”
His eyelids dropped down. His breathing slowed. He was out cold and he was going to stay that way.
I turned away and started up the hill at a trot. I reached the road with my clothes stuck to me by sweat and dotted with dirt and leaves. I ran for the Porsche.
• • •
The road forked at the bottom of the grade. A sign pointing to the right read “Rio Pollo City Center. Three miles.” The road straight ahead was marked with a discreet sign set on a stone pillar: “Private Road. Surfside Lodge. One-half mile.”
I had been planning to drive into town for the cops. I decided to go straight ahead and report by telephone. A half-mile takes a lot less time to drive than three miles.
The shock of the crash was beginning to wear off. My mind started functioning again. I thought of a stranger named Craybaugh risking his life to kill me and make it look like an accident.
He had said that someone hired him. I thought of the two names I had tossed his way: Jacob Dolphin and Annette Lofgren. They were the only people I could possibly imagine knowing that I was coming to the Surfside.
But neither of them had any reason to want me dead. Annette was my friend. She was Mrs. Nils Lofgren, owner-manager of the Surfside Lodge and the widow of the man to whom I owed an unpayable debt. I had heard of Nil’s death ten months earlier, when I was in South America. I wasn’t surprised; he’d had a coronary history for years. The Surfside had just opened and Annette wrote frequently to ask for my advice on little problems plaguing her. Then, suddenly, her letters stopped coming. When I went to Australia for Global Hotels, I assumed she had her troubles worked out, so I didn’t worry about her.
Until I picked up a rumor from a Stateside pipeline that she was having a lot of trouble; that she might even have to sell the Surfside.
I shot her a fast letter. I said that I was ready to wind up the assignment in Australia. And could she use some on-the-spot help? My answer was a wire: “Please come as soon as you can.”
I had to wait five days for seating space on the jet. I wired Ingrid Calhoun at the Global Hotel travel bureau to get me a cottage at the Surfside. I wound up the last threads of the job, helping Global straighten out the security force in their new Sydney hotel.
Three days before the jet took off I had a letter from Jacob Dolphin. It came plastered with airmail stamps. It needed them. It was heavy with ten one-hundred-dollar bills and a brief note.
The note read: “This is for a meet at the Surfside Lodge the day you arrive. No strings. You get the grand just for listening. More if you do a job for me. Don’t look me up. I’ll find you.”
My first impulse was to shoot the thousand back by return mail. I had known Dolphin since my bellhop days fifteen years ago. I hadn’t taken his kind of money then; I wasn’t ready to start now.
I make a good living trouble-shooting for hotels. I work mostly for the Global chain, on retainer. But I’m still a free agent, so nothing prevented me from working for Dolphin.
Except that I do well financially because I’ve built a reputation that can stand up under examination. I didn’t make that reputation by taking jobs from men like Dolphin.
But I hadn’t made it by making wrong moves, either. And I was fairly certain that to send the money back without meeting Dolphin would be a wrong move right now. Annette Lofgren was having trouble at the Surfside Lodge. And Dolphin was going to be there. I didn’t need an electronic computer to solve that problem in addition. It would be a sucker play not to hear Dolphin out. A move like that would only cut off any chance I might have of finding out his possible connection with Annette and the Surfside.
I had learned one thing after fifteen years in the hotel business: Dolphin was just another way of spelling
And, I thought, I might keep the thousand anyway. It was worth that much just to have to breathe the same air Jacob Dolphin did.
I rounded a final curve and there was the Surfside Lodge. I had seen it shortly before it opened. I had been impressed then. I was more impressed now.
The setting was magnificent; a forest of redwoods and madrona and pine, a sweep of bright-blue bay and of brighter blue ocean. The Lodge itself was a two-story building of mellow California mission architecture. A cool, shadowy colonnade along the south side formed a drive-in lobby. It was the end of the road. A stand of trees hid it from the wide sweeping lawns, the swimming pool and golf course, the individual cottages each in its own piece of forest.
Nils Lofgren had wanted to achieve the perfect lodge. He had come close to succeeding. The Surfside was a monument to his lifetime as a hotelman. Everywhere was seclusion, peace and beauty.
I had watched his idea for the Surfside take form in the days when I worked for him, when he’d taken the time and effort to mold a tough kid into a man. I had watched him plan and scheme and save to get the money. Later, I got a chance to pay back a little of the debt I owed him.
Jacob Dolphin wanted to buy Nils’ chain of small hotels. So did the Global outfit. Dolphin was hard to fight when he made up his mind that he wanted something. And he had a lot of cash to offer. But Nils felt the way I did: Global’s money was clean, Dolphin’s wasn’t. Even though Dolphin’s offer meant an extra hundred thousand toward financing his dream into a reality, Nils turned it down.
Dolphin got pushy. I stepped between them and did a little pushing on my own. I was more lucky than smart in those days. I won. Later I learned just how rough Dolphin could be.
So Nils made his dream come true. And I knew that even though he was dead now, Annette had worked hard to keep the Surfside as he had planned it. She was younger by twenty years but she had been raised in the hotel business. She knew exactly what Nils wanted.
I ran the Porsche under a colonnade. A doorman in a gold-trimmed bright-green uniform appeared. A bellhop came right behind him. A parking lot attendant appeared to take the Porsche away to the garage area hidden behind a high screen of trees. The bellhop grabbed my bag. The doorman steered me into the lobby smoothly.
I said, “Find me a phone. I have to report an accident.”
The doorman showed me a public booth near the switchboard girl. He said something to her. She plugged me into the Rio Pollo police.
I said, “I want to report an accident. Milo Craybaugh’s truck went off the road just this side of the summit. The driver’s still alive but he’s jammed into the cab. You’ll need a doctor and a wrecker with better than a hundred feet of cable.”