Raymond Chandler
The Lady in the Lake
[story]
(1939)


© R.Chandler, The Lady in the Lake, 1939

Source: R.Chandler. Trouble Is My Business (collection)

E-Text: Greylib .


Contents

1. NOT FOR MISSING PERSONS

2. THE SILENT HOUSE

3. THE MAN WITH THE PEG LEG

4. THE LADY IN THE LAKE

5. THE GOLDEN ANKLET

6. MELTON UPS THE ANTE

7. A PAIR OF FALL GUYS

8. KEEP TINCHFIELD CONSTABLE


 

ONE

NOT FOR MISSING PERSONS

I was breaking a new pair of shoes in on my desk that morning when Violets M'Gee called me up. It was a dull, hot, damp August day and you couldn't keep your neck dry with a bath towel.

"How's the boy?" Violets began, as usual. "No business in a week, huh? There's a guy named Howard Melton over in the Avenant Building lost track of his wife. He's district manager for the Doreme Cosmetic Company. He don't want to give it to Missing Persons for some reason. The boss knows him a little. Better get over there, and take your shoes off before you go in. It's a pretty snooty outfit."

Violets M'Gee is a homicide dick in the sheriff's office, and if it wasn't for all the charity jobs he gives mc, I might be able to make a living. This looked a little different, so I put my feet on the floor and swabbed the back of my neck again and went oven there.

The Avenant Building is on Olive near Sixth and has a blackand-white rubber sidewalk out in front. The elevator girls wear gray silk Russian blouses and the kind of flop-over berets artists used to wear to keep the paint out of their hair. The Doncme Cosmetic Company was on the seventh floor and had a good piece of it. There was a big glass-walled reception room with flowers and Persian rugs and bits of nutty sculpture in glazed wane. A neat little blonde sat in a built-in switchboard at a big desk with flowers on it and a tilted sign reading: MISS VAN DE GRAAF. She wore Harold Lloyd cheaters and her hair was dragged back to where her forehead looked high enough to have snow on it.

She said Mr. Howard Melton was in conference, but she would take my card in to him when she had an opportunity, and what was my business, please? I said I didn't have a card, but the name was John Dalmas, from Mr. West.

"Who is Mn. West?" she inquired coldly. "Does Mr. Melton know him?"

"That's past me, sister. Not knowing Mr. Melton I would not know his friends."

"What is the nature of your business?"

"Personal."

"I see." She initialed three papers on her desk quickly, to keep from throwing her pen set at mc. I went and sat in a blue leather chair with chromium arms. It felt, looked and smelled very much like a barber's chair.

In about half an hour a door opened beyond a bronze railing and two men came out backwards laughing. A third man held the door and echoed their laughter. They shook hands and the two men went away and the third man wiped the grin off his face in nothing flat and looked at Miss Van De Graaf. "Any calls?" he asked in a bossy voice.

She fluttered papers and said: "No, sir. A Mr. -Dalmas to see you-from a Mr-West. His business is personal."

"Don't know him," the man barked. "I've got more insurance than I can pay for." He gave me a swift, hard look and went into his room and slammed the door. Miss Van De Gnaaf smiled at me with delicate regret. I lit a cigarette and crossed my legs the other way. In another five minutes the door beyond the railing opened again and he came out with his hat on and sneered that he was going out for half an hour.

He came through a gate in the railing and started for the entrance and then did a nice cutback and came striding over to mc. He stood looking down at me-a big man, two inches over six feet and built to proportion. He had a well-massaged face that didn't hide the lines of dissipation. His eyes were black, hard, and tricky.

"You want to see mc?"

I stood up, got out my billfold and gave him a card. He stared at the card and palmed it. His eyes became thoughtful.

"Who's Mr. West?"

"Search me."

He gave mc a hard, direct, interested look. "You have the right idea," he said. "Let's go into my office."

The receptionist was so mad she was trying to initial three papers at once when we went past her through the railing.

The office beyond was long, dim and quiet, but not cool. There was a large photo on the wall of a tough-looking old bird who had held lots of noses to lots of grindstones in his time. The big man went behind about eight hundred dollars' worth of desk and tilted himself back in a padded high-backed director's chair. He pushed a cigar humidor at mc. I lit a cigar and he watched mc light it with cool, steady eyes.

"This is very confidential," he said.

"Uh-huh."

He read my card again and put it away in a gold-plated wallet. "Who sent you?"

"A friend in the sheriff's office."

"I'd have to know a little more about you than that."

I gave him a couple of names and numbers. He reached for his phone, asked for a line and dialed them himself. He got both the parties I had mentioned and talked. In four minutes he had hung up and tilted his chair again. We both wiped the backs of our necks.

"So far, so good," he said. "Now show me you're the man you say you arc."

I got my billfold out and showed him a small photostat of my license. He seemed pleased. "How much do you charge?"

"Twenty-five bucks a day and expenses."

"That's too much. What is the nature of the expenses?"

"Gas and oil, maybe a bribe or two, meals and whisky. Mostly whisky."

"Don't you cat when you're not working?"

"Yeah-but not so well."

He grinned. His grin like his eyes had a stony cast to it. "I think maybe we'll get along," he said.

He opened a drawer and brought out a Scotch bottle. We had a drink. He put the bottle on the floor, wiped his lips, lit a monogrammed cigarette and inhaled comfortably. "Better make it fifteen a day," he said. "In times like these. And go easy on the liquor."

"I was just kidding you," I said. "A man you can't kid is a man you can't trust."

He grinned again. "It's a deal. First off though, your promise that in no circumstances you have anything to do with any cop friends you may happen to have."

"As long as you haven't murdered anybody, it suits me."

He laughed. "Not yet. But I'm a pretty tough guy still. I want you to trace my wife and find out where she is and what she's doing, and without her knowing it.

"She disappeared eleven days ago-August twelfth-from a cabin we have at Little Fawn Lake. That's a small lake owned by myself and two other men. It's three miles from Puma Point. Of course you know where that is."

"In the San Bernardino Mountains, about forty miles from San Bernardino."

"Yes." He flicked ash from his cigarette on the desk top and leaned over to blow it off. "Little Fawn Lake is only about three-eighths of a mile long. It has a small dam we built for real estate development-just at the wrong time. There arc four cabins up there. Mine, two belonging to my friends, neither of them occupied this summer, and a fourth on the near side of the lake as you come in. That one is occupied by a man named William Haines and his wife. He's a disabled veteran with a pension. He lives there rent free and looks after the place. My wife has been spending the summer up there and was to leave on the twelfth to come in to town for some social activity over the weekend. She never came."

I nodded. He opened a locked drawer and took out an envelope. He took a photo and a telegram from the envelope, and passed the telegram across the desk. It had been sent from El Paso, Texas, on August 15th at 9:18 AM. It was addressed to Howard Melton, 715 Avenant Building, Los Angeles. It read: Am crossing to get Mexican divorce. Will marry Lance. Good luck and goodbye. Julia.

I put the yellow form down on the desk. "Julia is my wife's name," Melton said.

"Who's Lance?"

"Lancelot Goodwin. He used to be my confidential secretary up to a year ago. Then he came into some money and quit. I have known for a long time that Julia and he were a bit soft on each other, if I may put it that way."

"It's all right with me," I said.

He pushed the photo across the desk. It was a snapshot On glazed paper showing a slim, small blonde and a tall, lean, dark, handsome guy, 'about thirty-five, a shade too handsome. The blonde could have been anything from eighteen to forty. She was that type. She had a figure and didn't act stingy with it. She wore a swimsuit which didn't strain the imagination and the man wore trunks. They sat against a striped beach umbrella on the sand. I put the snapshot down on top of the telegram.

"That's all the exhibits," Melton said, "but not all the facts. Another drink?" He poured it and we drank it. He put the bottle dowm on the floor again and his telephone rang. He talked a moment, then juggled the hood and told the operator to hold his calls for a while.

"So far there would be nothing much to it," he said. "But I met Lance Goodwin on the street last Friday. He said he hadn't seen Julia in months. I believed him, because Lance is a fellow without many inhibitions, and he doesn't scare. He'd be apt to tell me the truth about a thing like that. And I think he'll keep his mouth shut."

"Were there other fellows you thought of?"

"No. If there are any, I don't know them. My hunch is, Julia has been arrested and is in jail somewhere and has managed, by bribery or otherwise, to hide her identity."

"In jail for what?"

He hesitated a moment and then said very quietly: "Julia is a kleptomaniac. Not bad, and not all the time. Mostly when she is drinking too much. She has spells of that, too. Most of her tricks have been here in Los Angeles in the big stores where we have accounts. She's been caught a few times and been able to bluff out and have the stuff put on the bill. No scandal so far that I couldn't take care of. But in a strange town-" He stopped and frowned hard. "I have my job with the Doreme people to worry about," he said.

"She ever been printed?"

"How?"

"Had her fingerprints taken and filed?"

"Not that I know of." He looked worried at that.

"This Goodwin know about the sideline she worked?"

"I couldn't say. I hope not. He's never mentioned it, of course."

"I'd like his address."

"He's in the book. Has a bungalow over in the Chevy Chase district, near Glendale. Very secluded place. I've a hunch Lance is quite a chaser."

It looked like a very nice setup, but I didn't say so out loud. I could see a little honest money coming my way for a change. "You've been up to this Little Fawn Lake since your wife disappeared, of course."

He looked surprised. "Well, no. I've had no reason to. Until I met Lance in front of the Athletic Club I supposed he and Julia were together somewhere-perhaps even married already. Mexican divorces are quick."

"How about money? She have much with her?"

"I dont know. She has quite a lot of money of her own, inherited from her father. I guess she can get plenty of money."

"I see. How was she dressed-or would you know?"

He shook his head. "I hadnt seen her in two weeks. She wore rather dark clothes as a rule. Haines might be able to tell you. I suppose he'll have to know she disappeared. I think he can be trusted to keep his mouth shut." Melton smiled wryly. "She had a small octagonal platinum wrist watch with a chain of large links. A birthday present. It had her name inside. She had a diamond and emerald ring and a platinum wedding ring engraved inside: Howard and Julia Melton. July 27th, 1926."

"But you don't suspect foul play, do you?"

"No." His large cheekbones reddened a little. "I told you what I suspected."

"If she's in somebody's jailhouse, what do I do? Just report back and wait?"

"Of course. If she's not, keep her in sight until I can get there, wherever it is. I think I can handle the situation,"

"Uh-huh. You look big enough. You said she left Little Fawn Lake on August twelfth. But you haven't been up there. You mean she did-or she was just supposed to-or you guess it from the date of the telegram?'

"Right. There's one more thing I forgot. She did leave on the twelfth. She never drove at night, so she drove down the mountain in the afternoon and stopped at the Olympia Hotel until train time. I know that because they called me up a week later and said her car was in their garage and did I want to call for it. I said I'd be over and get it when I had time."

"Okay, Mr. Mellon. I think I'll run around and check over this Lancelot Goodwin a little first, He might happen not to have told you the truth."

He handed me the Other Cities phone book and I looked it up. Lancelot Goodwin lived at 3416 Chester Lane. I didn't know where that was, but I had a map in the car.

I said: "I'm going out there and snoop around. I'd better have a little money on account. Say a hundred bucks."

"Fifty should do to start," he said. He took out his gold-plated wallet and gave me two twenties and a ten. "I'll get you to sign a receipt-just as a matter of form."

He had a receipt book in his desk and wrote out what he wanted and I signed it. I put the two exhibits in my pocket and stood up. We shook hands.

I left him with the feeling that he was a guy who would not make many small mistakes, especially about money. As I went out the receptionist gave me the nasty eye. I worried about it almost as far as the elevator.

 

TWO

THE SILENT HOUSE

My car was in a lot across the street, so I took it north to Fifth and west to Flower and from there down to Glendale Boulevard and so on into Glendale. That made it about lunch time, so I stopped and ate a sandwich.

Chevy Chase is a deep canyon in the foothills that separate Glendale from Pasadena. It is heavily wooded, and the streets branching off the main drag are apt to be pretty shut-in and dark. Chester Lane was one of them, and was dark enough to be in the middle of a redwood forest. Goodwin's house was at the deep end, a small English bungalow with a peaked roof and leaded windowpanes that wouldn't have let much light in, even if there had been any to let in. The house was set back in a fold of the hills, with a big oak tree practically on the front porch. It was a nice little place to have fun.

The garage at the side was shut up. I walked along a twisted path made of steppingstones and pushed the bell. I could hear it ring somewhere in the rear with that sound bells seem to have in an empty house. I rang it twice more. Nobody came to the door. A mockingbird flew down on the small, neat front lawn and poked a worm out of the sod and went away with it. Somebody started a car out of sight down the curve of the street. There was a brand-new house across the street with a For Sale sign stuck into the manure and grass seed in front of it. No other house was in sight.

I tried the bell one more time and did a snappy tattoo with the knocker, which was a ring held in the mouth of a lion. Then I left the front door and put an eye to the crack between the garage doors. There was a car in there, shining dimly in the faint light. I prowled around to the back yard and saw two more oak trees and a rubbish burner and three chairs around a green garden table under one of the trees. It looked so shady and cool and pleasant back there, I would have liked to stay. I went to the back door, which was half glass but had a spring lock. I tried turning the knob, which was silly. It opened and I took a deep breath and walked in.

This Lancelot Goodwin ought to be willing to listen to a little reason, if he caught me. If he didn't, I wanted to glance around his effects. There was something about him maybe just his first name-that worried me.

The back door opened on a porch with high, narrow screens. From that another unlocked door, also with a spring lock, opened into a kitchen with gaudy tiles and an enclosed gas stove. There were a lot of empty bottles on the sink. There were two swing doors. I pushed the one towards the front of the house. It gave on an alcove dining room with a buffet on which there were more liquor bottles but not empty.

The living room was to my right under an arch. It was dark even in the middle of the day. It was nicely furnished, with built-in bookshelves and books that hadn't been bought in sets. There was a highboy radio in the corner, with a half-empty glass of amber fluid on top of it. And there was ice in the amber fluid. The radio made a faint humming sound and light glowed behind the dial. It was on, but the volume was down to nothing.

That was funny. I turned around and looked at the back corner of the room and saw something funnier.

A man was sitting in a deep brocade chair with slippered feet on a footstool that matched the chair. He wore an open-neck polo shirt and ice-cream pants and a white belt. His left hand rested easily on the wide arm of the chair and his right hand drooped languidly outside the other arm to the carpet, which was a solid dull rose. He was a lean, dark, handsome guy, rangily built. One of those lads who move fast and are much stronger than they look. His mouth was slightly open showing the edges of his teeth. His head was a little sideways, as though he had dozed off as he sat there, having himself a few drinks and listening to the radio.

There was a gun on the floor beside his right hand and there was a scorched red hole in the middle of his forehead.

Blood dripped very quietly from the end of his chin and fell on his white polo shirt.

For all of a minute-which in a spot like that can be as long as a chiropractor's thumb-I didn't move a muscle. If I drew a full breath, it was a secret. I just hung there, empty as a busted flush, and watched Mr. Lancelot Goodwin's blood form small pear-shaped globules on the end of his chin and then very slowly and casually drop and add themselves to the large patch of crimson that changed the whiteness of his polo shirt. It seemed to me that even in that time the blood dripped slower. I lifted a foot at last, dragged it out of the cement it was stuck in, took a step, and then hauled the other foot after it like a ball and chain. I moved across the dark and silent room.

His eyes glittered as I got close. I bent over to stare into them, to try and meet their look. It couldn't be done. It never can, with dead eyes. They are always pointed a little to one side or up or down. I touched his face. It was warm and slightly moist. That would be from his drink. He hadn't been dead more than twenty minutes.

I swung around hard, as if somebody were trying to sneak up behind me with a blackjack, but nobody was. The silence held. The room was full of it, brimming over with it. A bird chirped outdoors in a tree, but that only made the silence thicker. You could have cut slices of it and buttered them.

I started looking at other things in the room. There was a silver-framed photo lying on the floor, back up, in front of the plaster mantel. I went over and lifted it with a handkerchief and turned it. The glass was cracked neatly from corner to corner. The photo showed a slim, light-haired lady with a dangerous smile. I took out the snapshot Howard Melton had given me and held it beside the photo. I was sure it was the same face, but the expression was different, and it was a very common type of face.

I took the photograph carefully into a nicely furnished bedroom and opened a drawer in a long-legged chest. I removed the photo from the frame, polished the frame off nicely with my handkerchief and tucked it under some shirts. Not very clever, but as clever as I felt.

Nothing seemed very pressing now. If the shot had been heard, and recognized as a shot, radio cops would have been there long ago. I took my photo into the bathroom and trimmed it close with my pocketknife and flushed the scraps down the toilet. I added the photo to what I had in my breast pocket, and went back to the living room.

There was an empty glass on the low table beside the dead man's left hand. It would have his prints. On the other hand somebody else might have taken a sip out of it and left other prints. A woman, of course. She would have been sitting on the arm of the chair, with a soft, sweet smile on her face, and the gun down behind her back. It had to be a woman. A man couldn't have shot him in just that perfectly relaxed position. I gave a guess what woman it was-but I didn't like her leaving her photo on the floor. That was bad publicity.

I couldn't risk the glass. I wiped it off and did something I didn't enjoy. I made his hand hold it again, then put it back on the table. I did the same thing with the gun. When I let his hand fall-the trailing hand this time-it swung and swung, like a pendulum on a grandfather's clock. I went to the glass on the radio and wiped it off. That would make them think she was pretty wise, a different kind of woman altogether-if there are different kinds. I collected four cigarette stubs with lipstick about the shade called "Carmen," a blond shade. I took them to the bathroom and gave them to the city. I wiped off a few shiny fixtures with a towel, did the same for the front doorknob, and called it a day. I couldn't wipe over the whole damn house.

I stood and looked at Lancelot Goodwin a moment longer. The blood had stopped flowing. The last drop on his chin wasn't going to fall. It was going to hang there and get dark and shiny and as permanent as a wart.

I went back through the kitchen and porch, wiping a couple more doorknobs as I went, strolled around the side of the house and took a quick gander up and down the street. Nobody being in sight, I tied the job up with ribbon by ringing the front doorbell again and smearing the button and knob well while I did it. I went to my car, got in and drove away. This had all taken less than half an hour. I felt as if I had fought all the way through the Civil War.

Two-thirds of the way back to town I stopped at the foot of Alesandro Street and tucked myself into a drugstore phone booth. I dialed Howard Mellon's office number.

A chirpy voice said: "Doreme Cosmetic Company. Good afternoowun."

"Mr. Melton."

"I'll connect you with his secretary," sang the voice of the little blonde who had been off in the corner, out of harm's way.

"Miss Van De Graaf speaking." It was a nice drawl that could get charming or snooty with the change of a quartertone. "Who is calling Mr. Melton, please?"

"John Dalmas."

"Ah-does Mr. Melton know you, Mr.-ah-Dalmas?"

"Don't start that again," I said. "Ask him, girlie. I can get all the ritzing I need at the stamp window."

Her intaken breath almost hurt my eardrum.

There was a wait, a click, and Melton's burly businesslike voice said: "Yes? Melton talking. Yes?"

"I have to see you quick."

"What's that?" he barked.

"I said what you heard. There have been what the boys call developments. You know who you're talking to, don't you?"

"Oh-yes. Yes. Well, let me see. Let me look at my desk calendar."

"To hell with your desk calendar," I said. "This is serious. I have enough sense not to break in on your day, if it wasn't."

"Athletic Club-ten minutes," he said crisply. "Have me paged in the reading room."

"I'll be a little longer than that." I hung up before he could argue.

I was twenty minutes as a matter of fact.

The hop in the lobby of the Athletic Club scooted neatly into one of the old open-cage elevators they have there and was back in no time at all with a nod. He took me up to the fourth floor and showed me the reading room.

"Around to the left, sir."

The reading room was not built principally for reading. There were papers and magazines on a long mahogany table and leather bindings behind glass on the walls and a portrait of the club's founder in oil, with a hooded light over it. But mostly the place was little nooks and corners with enormous sloping high-backed leather chairs, and old boys snoozing in them peacefully, their faces violet with old age and high blood pressure.

I sneaked quietly around to the left. Melton sat there, in a private nook between shelves, with his back to the room, and the chair, high as it was, not high enough to hide his big dark head. He had another chair drawn up beside him. I slipped into it and gave him the eye.

"Keep your voice down," he said. "This place is for afterluncheon naps. Now, what is it? When I employed you, it was to save me bother, not to add bother to what I already have."

"Yeah," I said, and put my face close to his. He smelled of highballs, but nicely. "She shot him."

His stiff eyebrows went up a little. His eyes got the stony look. His teeth clamped. He breathed softly and twisted one large hand on his knee and looked down at it.

"Go on," he said, in a voice the size of a marble.

I craned back over the top of the chair. The nearest old geezer was snoozling lightly and blowing the fuzz in his nostrils back and forth with each breath.

"I went out there to Goodwin's place. No answer. Tried the back door. Open. Walked in. Radio turned on, but muted. Two glasses with drinks. Smashed photo on floor below mantel. Goodwin in chair shot dead at close range. Contact wound. Gun on floor by his right hand. Twenty-five automatic-a woman's gun. He sat there as if he had never known it. I wiped glasses, gun, doorknobs, put his prints where they should be, left."

Melton opened and shut his mouth. His teeth made a grating noise. He made fists of both hands. Then he looked steadily at me with hard black eyes.

"Photo," he said thickly.

I reached it out of my pocket and showed it to him, but I held on to it.

"Julia," he said. His breath made a queer, sharp keening sound and his hand went limp. I slipped the photo back into my pocket. "What then?" he whispered.

"All. I may have been seen, but not going in or coming out. Trees in back. The place is well shaded. She have a gun like that?"

His head drooped and he held it in his hands. He held still for a while, then pushed it up and spread his fingers on his face and spoke through them at the wall we were facing.

"Yes. But I never knew her to carry it. I suppose he ditched her, the dirty rat." He said it quietly without heat.

"You're quite a guy," he said. "It's a suicide now, eh?"

"Can't tell. Without a suspect they're apt to handle it that way. They'll test his hand with paraffin to see if he fired the gun. That's routine now. But it sometimes doesn't work, and without a suspect they may let it ride anyway. I don't get the photo angle."

"I don't either," he whispered, still talking between his fingers. "She must have got panicked up very suddenly."

"Uh-huh. You realize I've put my head in a bag, don't you? It's my licence if I'm caught. Of course there's a bare chance it was suicide. But he doesn't seem the type. You've got to play ball, Melton."

He laughed grimly. Then he turned his head enough to look at me, but still kept his hands on his face. The gleam of his eyes shot through his fingers.

"Why did you fix it up?" he asked quietly.

"Damned if I know. I guess I took a dislike to him-from that photo. He didn't look worth what they'd do to her-and to you."

"Five hundred, as a bonus," he said.

I leaned back and gave him a stony stare. "I'm not trying to pressure you. I'm a fairly tough guy-but not in spots like this. Did you give me everything you had?"

He said nothing for a long minute. He stood up and looked along the room, put his hands in his pockets, jingled something, and sat down again.

"That's the wrong approach-both ways," he said. "I wasn't thinking of blackmail-or offering to pay it. It isn't enough money. These are hard times. You take an extra risk, I offer you an extra compensation. Suppose Julia had nothing to do with it. That might explain the photo being left. There were plenty of other women in Goodwin's life. But if the story comes out and I'm connected with it at all, the home offices will bounce me. I'm in a sensitive business, and it hasn't been doing too well. They might be glad of the excuse."

"That's different," I said. "I asked you, did you give me everything you had."

He looked at the floor. "No. I suppressed something. It didn't seem important then. And it hurts the position badly now. A few days ago, just after I met Goodwin downtown, the bank called me and said a Mr. Lancelot Goodwin was there to cash a check for one thousand dollars made out to cash by Julia Melton. I told them Mrs. Melton was out of town, but that I knew Mr. Goodwin very well and I saw no objection to cashing the check, if it was in order and he was properly identified. I couldn't say anything else-in the circumstances. I suppose they cashed it. I don't know."

"I thought Goodwin had dough."

Melton shrugged stiffly.

"A blackmailer of women, huh? And a sappy one at that, to be taking checks. I think I'll play with you on it, Melton. I hate like hell to see these newspaper ghouls go to town on a yam like that. But if they get to you, I'm out-if I can get out."

He smiled for the first time. "I'll give you the five hundred right now," he said.

"Nothing doing. I'm hired to find her. If I find her I get five hundred flat-all other bets off."

"You'll find me a good man to trust," he said.

"I want a note to this Haines up at your place at Little Fawn Lake. I want into your cabin. My only way to go at it is as if I'd never been to Chevy Chase."

He nodded and stood up. He went over to a desk and came back with a note on the club stationery.

 

Mr. William Haines,

Little Fawn Lake.

 

Dear Bill- Please allow bearer, Mr. John Dalmas, to

view mycabin and assist him in all ways to look over

the property.

Sincerely,

HOWARD MELTON

 

I folded the note and put it away with my other gatherings from the day. Melton put a hand on my shoulder. "I'll never forget this," he said. "Are you going up there now?"

"I think so."

"What do you expect to find?"

"Nothing. But I'd be a sap not to start where the trail starts."

"Of course. Haines is a good fellow, but a little surly. He has a pretty blond wife that rides him a lot. Good luck."

We shook hands. His hand felt clammy as a pickled fish.

 

THREE

THE MAN WITH THE PEG LEG

I made San Bernardino in less than two hours and for once in its life it was almost as cool as Los Angeles, and not nearly as sticky. I took on a cup of coffee and bought a pint of rye and gassed up and started up the grade. It was overcast all the way to Bubbling Springs. Then it suddenly got dry and bright and cool air blew down the gorges, and I finally came to the big dam and looked along the level blue reaches of Puma Lake. Canoes paddled on it, and rowboats with outboard motors and speedhoats churned up the water and made a lot of fuss over nothing. Jounced around in their wake, people who had paid two dollars for a fishing license wasted their time trying to catch a dime's worth of fish.

The road turned two ways from the dam. My way was the south shore. It skimmed along high among piled-up masses of granite. Hundred-foot yellow pines probed at the clear blue sky. In the open spaces grew bright green manzanita and what was left of the wild irises and white and purple lupine and bugle flowers and desert paintbrush. The road dropped to the lake level and I began to pass flocks of camps and flocks of girls in shorts on bicycles, on motor scooters, walking all over the highway, or just sitting under trees showing off their legs. I saw enough beef on the hoof to stock a cattle ranch.

Howard Melton had said to turn away from the lake at the old Redlands road, a mile short of Puma Point. It was a frayed asphalt ribbon that climbed into the surrounding mountains. Cabins were perched here and there on the slopes. The asphalt gave out and after a while a small, narrow dirt road sneaked off to my right. A sign at its entrance said: Private Road to Little Fawn Lake. No Trespassing. I took it and crawled around big bare stones and past a little waterfall and through yellow pines and black oaks and silence. A squirrel sat on a branch and tore a fresh pine cone to pieces and sent the pieces fluttering down like confetti. He scolded at me and beat one paw angrily on the cone.

The narrow road swerved sharply around a big tree trunk and then there was a five-barred gate across it with another sign. This one said: Private-No Admittance.

I got out and opened the gate and drove through and closed it again. I wound through trees for another couple of hundred yards. Suddenly below me was a small oval lake that lay deep in trees and rocks and wild grass, like a drop of dew caught in a furled leaf. At the near end there was a yellow concrete dam with a rope handrail across the top and an old mill wheel at the side. Near that stood a small cabin of native wood covered with rough bark. It had two sheet-metal chimneys and smoke lisped from one of them. Somewhere an axe thudded.

Across the lake, a long way by the road and the short way over the dam, there was a large cabin close to the water and two others not so large, spaced at wide intervals. At the far end, opposite the dam, was what looked like a small pier and band pavilion. A warped wooden sign on it read: Camp Kilkare. I couldn't see any sense in that, so I walked down a path to the bark-covered cabin and pounded on the door.

The sound of the axe stopped. A man's voice yelled from somewhere behind. I sat down on a big stone and rolled an unlit cigarette around in my fingers. The owner of the cabin came around its side with an axe in his hands. He was a thickbodied man, not very tall, with a dark, rough, unshaven chin, steady brown eyes and grizzled hair that curled. He wore blue denim pants and a blue shirt open on a muscular brown neck. When he walked he seemed to give his right foot a little kick outwards with each step. It swung out from his body in a shallow arc. He walked slowly and came up to me, a cigarette dangling from his thick lips. He had a city voice.

"Yeah?"

"Mr. Haines?"

"That's me."

"I have a note for you." I took it out and gave it to him. He threw the axe to one side and looked squintingly at the note, then turned and went into the cabin. He came out wearing glasses, reading the note as he came.

"Oh, yeah," he said, "From the boss." He studied the note again. "Mr. John Dalmas, huh? I'm Bill Haines. Glad to know you." We shook hands. He had a hand like a steel trap.

"You want to look around and see Melton's cabin, huh? What's the matter? He ain't selling, for God's sake?"

I lit my cigarette and flipped the match into the lake. "He has more than he needs here," I said.

"Land sure. But it says the cabin-"

"He wanted me to look it over. It's a pretty nice cabin, he says."

He pointed. "That one over there, the big one. Milled redwood walls, celarex lined and then knotty pine inside. Composition shingle roof, stone foundations and porches, bathroom, shower and toilet. He's got a spring-filled reservoir back in the hill behind. I'll say it's a nice cabin."

I looked at the cabin, but I looked at Bill Haines more. His eyes had a glitter and there were pouches under his eyes, for all his weathered look.

"You wanta go over now? I'll get the keys."

"I'm kind of tired after that long drive up. I sure could use a drink, Haines."

He looked interested, but shook his head. "I'm sorry, Mr. Dalmas, I just finished up a quart." He licked his broad lips and smiled at me.

"What's the mill wheel for?"

"Movie stuff. They make a picture up here once in a while. That's another set down at the end. They made Love Among the Pines with that. The rest of the sets are tore down. I heard the picture flopped."

"Is that so? Would you join me in a drink?" I brought out my pint of rye.

"Never been heard to say no. Wait'll I get some glasses."

"Mrs. Haines away?"

He stared at me with sudden coldness. "Yeah," he said very slowly. "Why?"

"On account of the liquor."

He relaxed, but kept an eye on me for a moment longer. Then he turned and walked his stiff-legged walk back into the cabin. He came out with a couple of the little glasses they pack fancy cheese in. I opened my bottle and poured a couple of stiff ones and we sat holding them, Haines with his right leg almost straight out in front of him, the foot twisted a little outwards.

"I copped that in France," he said, and drank. "Old Peg-leg Haines. Well, it got me a pension and it ain't hurt me with the ladies. Here's to crime." He finished his drink.

We set our glasses down and watched a bluejay go up a big pine, hopping from branch to branch without pausing to balance, like a man running upstairs.

"Cold and nice here, but lonely," Haines said. "Too damn lonely." He watched me with the corners of his eyes. He had something on his mind.

"Some people like that." I reached for the glasses and did my duty with them.

"Gets me. I been drinkin' too much account of it gets me. It gets me at night."

I didn't say anything. He put his second drink down in a swift, hard gulp. I passed the bottle to him silently. He sipped his third drink, cocked his head on one side, and licked at his lip.

"Kind of funny what you said there-about Mrs. Haines bein' away."

"I just thought maybe we ought to take our bottle out of sight of the cabin."

"Uh-huh. You a friend of Melton's?"

"I know him. Not intimately."

Haines looked across at the big cabin.

"That damn floozie!" he snarled suddenly, his face twisted.

I stared at him. "Lost me Beryl, the damn tart," he said bitterly. "Had to have even one-legged guys like me. Had to get me drunk and make me forget I had as cute a little wife as ever a guy had."

I waited, nerves taut.

"The hell with him, too! Leavin' that tramp up here all alone. I don't have to live in his goddam cabin. I can live anywheres I like. I got a pension. War pension."

"It's a nice place to live," I said. "Have a drink."

He did that, turned angry eyes on me. "It's a lousy place to live," he snarled. "When a guy's wife moves out on him and he don't know where she's at-maybe with some other guy." He clenched an iron left fist.

After a moment he unclenched it slowly and poured his glass half full. The bottle was looking pretty peaked by this time. He put his big drink down in a lump.

"I don't know you from a mule's hind leg," he growled, "but what the hell! I'm sick of bein' alone. I been a sucker-but I ain't just human. She has looks-like Beryl. Same size, same hair, same walk as Beryl. Hell, they coulda been sisters. Only just enough different-if you get what I mean." He leered at me, a little drunk now.

I looked sympathetic.

"I'm over there to burn trash," he scowled, waving an arm. "She comes out on the back porch in pajamas like they was made of cellophane. With two drinks in her hands. Smiling at me, with them bedroom eyes. 'Have a drink, Bill.' Yeah. I had a drink. I had nineteen drinks. I guess you know what happened."

"It's happened to a lot of good men."

"Leaves her alone up here, the! While he plays around in L.A. And Beryl walks out on me-two weeks come Friday."

I stiffened. I stiffened so hard that I could feel my muscles strain all over my body. Two weeks come Friday would be a week ago last Friday. That would be August twelfth-the day Mrs. Julia Melton was supposed to have left for El Paso, the day she had stopped over at the Olympia Hotel down at the foot of the mountains.

Haines put his empty glass down and reached into his buttoned shirt pocket. He passed me a dog-eared piece of paper. I unfolded it carefully. It was written in pencil.

I'd rather be dead than live with you any longer, you lousy cheater-Beryl. That was what it said.

"Wasn't the first time," Haines said, with a rough chuckle. "Just the first time I got caught." He laughed. Then he scowled again. I gave him back his note and he buttoned it up in the pocket. "What the hell am I tellin' you for?" he growled at me.

A bluejay scolded at a big speckled woodpecker and the woodpecker said "Cr-racker!" just like a parrot.

"You're lonely," I said. "You need to get it off your chest. Have another drink. I've had my share. You were away that afternoon-when she left you?"

He nodded moodily and sat holding the bottle between his legs. "We had a spat and I drove on over to the north shore to a guy I know. I felt meaner than flea dirt. I had to get good and soused. I done that. I got home maybe two AM-plenty stinko. But I drive slow account of this trick pin. She's gone. Just the note left."

"That was a week ago last Friday, huh? And you haven't heard from her since?"

I was being a little too exact. He gave me a hard questioning glance, but it went away. He lifted the bottle and drank moodily and held it against the sun. "Boy, this is damn near a dead soldier," he said. "She scrammed too." He jerked a thumb towards the other side of the lake.

"Maybe they had a fight."

"Maybe they went together."

He laughed raucously. "Mister, you don't know my little Beryl. She's a hell cat when she starts."

"Sounds as if they both are. Did Mrs. Haines have a car? I mean, you drove yours that day, didn't you?"

"We got two Fords. Mine has to have the foot throttle and brake pedal over on the left, under the good leg. She took her own."

I stood up and walked to the water and threw my cigarette stub into it. The water was dark blue and looked deep. The level was high from the spring flood and in a couple of places the water licked across the top of the dam.

I went back to Haines. He was draining the last of my whisky down his throat. "Gotta get some more hooch," he said quickly. "Owe you a pint. You ain't drunk nothing."

"Plenty more where it came from," I said. "When you feel like it I'll go over and look at that cabin."

"Sure. We'll walk around the lake. You don't mind me soundin' off that way at you-about Beryl?"

"A guy sometimes has to talk his troubles to somebody," I said. "We could go across the dam. You wouldn't have to walk so far."

'Hell, no. I walk good, even if it don't look good. I ain't been around the lake in a month." He stood up and went into the cabin and came out with some keys. "Let's go."

We started towards the little wooden pier and pavilion at the far end of the lake. There was a path close to the water, winding in and out among big rough granite boulders. The dirt road was farther back and higher up. Haines walked slowly, kicking his right foot. He was moody, just drunk enough to be living in his own world. He hardly spoke. We reached the little pier and I walked out on it. Haines followed me, his foot thumping heavily on the planks. We reached the end, beyond the little open band pavilion, and leaned against a weathered dark green railing.

"Any fish in here?" I asked.

"Sure. Rainbow trout, black bass. I ain't no fish-eater myself. I guess there's too many of them."

I leaned out and looked down into the deep still water. There was swirl down there and a greenish form moved under the pier. Haines leaned beside me. His eyes stared down into the depths of the water. The pier was solidly built and had an underwater flooring-wider than the pier itself-as if the lake had once been at a much lower level, and this underwater flooring had been a boat landing. A flat-bottomed boat dangled in the water on a frayed rope.

Haines took hold of my arm. I almost yelled. His fingers bit into my muscles like iron claws. I looked at him. He was bent over, staring like a loon, his face suddenly white and glistening. I looked down into the water.

Languidly, at the edge of the underwater flooring, something that looked vaguely like a human arm and hand in a dark sleeve waved out from under the submerged boarding, hesitated, waved back out of sight.

Haines straightened his body slowly and his eyes were suddenly sober and frightful. He turned from me without a word and walked back along the pier. He went to a pile of rocks and bent down and heaved. His panting breath came to me. He got a rock loose and his thick back straightened. He lifted the rock breast high. It must have weighed a hundred pounds. He walked steadily back out on the pier with it, game leg and all, reached the end railing and lifted the rock high above his head. He stood there a moment holding it, his neck muscles bulging above his blue shirt. His mouth made some vague distressful sound. Then his whole body gave a hard lurch and the big stone smashed down into the water.

It made a huge splash that went over both of us. It fell straight and true through the water and crashed on the edge of the submerged planking. The ripples widened swiftly and the water boiled. There was a dim sound of boards breaking underwater. Waves rippled off into the distance and the water down there under our eyes began to clear. An old rotten plank suddenly popped up above the surface and sank back with a flat slap and floated off.

The depths cleared still more. In them something moved. It rose slowly, a long, dark, twisted something that rolled as it came up. It broke surface. I saw wool, sodden black now-a sweater, a pair of slacks. I saw shoes, and something that bulged shapeless and swollen over the edges of the shoes. I saw a wave of blond hair straighten out in the water and lie still for an instant.

The thing rolled then and an arm flapped in the water and the hand at the end of the arm was no decent human hand. The face came rolling up. A swollen, pulpy, gray-white mass of bloated flesh, without features, without eyes, without mouth. A thing that had once been a face. Haines looked down at it. Green stones showed below the neck that belonged to the face. Haines' right hand took hold of the railing and his knuckles went as white as snow under the hard brown skin.

"Beryl!" His voice seemed to come to me from a long way off, over a hill, through a thick growth of trees.

 

FOUR

THE LADY IN THE LAKE

A large white card in the window, printed in heavy block capitals, said: KEEP TINCHFLELD CONSTABLE. Behind the window was a narrow counter with piles of dusty folders on it. The door was glass and lettered in black paint: Chief of Police. Fire Chief. Town Constable. Chamber of Commerce. Enter.

I entered and was in what was nothing but a small one-room pineboard shack with a potbellied stove in the corner, a littered rolltop desk, two hard chairs, and the counter. On the wall hung a large blueprint map of the district, a calendar, a thermometer. Beside the desk telephone numbers had been written laboriously on the wood in large deeply bitten figures.

A man sat tilted back at the desk in an antique swivel chair, with a flat-brimmed Stetson on the back of his head and a huge spittoon beside his right foot. His large hairless hands were clasped comfortably on his stomach. He wore a pair of brown pants held by suspenders, a faded and much washed tan shirt buttoned tight to his fat neck, no tie. What I could see of his hair was mousy-brown except the temples, which were snow-white. On his left breast there was a star. He sat more on his left hip than his right, because he wore a leather hip holster with a big black gun in it down inside his hip pocket.

I leaned on the counter and looked at him. He had large ears and friendly gray eyes and he looked as if a child could pick his pocket.

"Are you Mr. Tinchfleld?"

"Yep. What law we got to have, I'm it-come election anyways. There's a couple good boys running against me and they might up and whip me." He sighed.

"Does your jurisdiction extend to Little Fawn Lake?"

"What was that, son?"

"Little Fawn Lake, back in the mountains. You cover that?"

"Yep. Guess I do. I'm deppity sheriff. Wasn't no more room on the door." He eyed the door, without displeasure. "I'm all them things there. Melton's place, eh? Something botherin' there, son?"

"There's a dead woman in the lake."

"Well, I swan." He unclasped his hands and scratched his ear and stood up heavily. Standing up he was a big, powerful man. His fat was just cheerfulness. "Dead, you said? Who is it?"

"Bill Haines' wife, Beryl. Looks like suicide. She's been in the water a long time, Sheriff. Not nice to look at. She left him ten days ago, he said. I guess that's when she did it."

Tinchfleld bent over the spittoon and discharged a tangled mass of brown fiber into it. It fell with a soft plop. He worked his lips and wiped them with the back of his hand.

"Who are you, son?"

"My name is John Dalmas. I came up from Los Angeles with a note to Haines from Mr. Melton-to look at the property. Haines and I were walking around the lake and we went out on the little pier the movie people built there once. We saw something down in the water underneath. Haines threw a large rock in and the body came up. It's not nice to look at, Sheriff."

"Haines up there?"

"Yeah. I came down because he's pretty badly shaken."

"Ain't surprised at that, son." Tinchfleld opened a drawer in his desk and took out a full pint of whisky. He slipped it inside his shirt and buttoned the shirt again. "We'll get Doc Menzies," he said. "And Paul Loomis." He moved calmly around the end of the counter. The situation seemed to bother him slightly less than a fly.

We went out. Before going out he adjusted a clock card hanging inside the glass to read-Back at 6 p.m. He locked the door and got into a car that had a siren on it, two red spotlights, two amber foglights, a red-and-white fire plate, and various legends on the side which I didn't bother to read.

"You wait here, son. I'll be back in a frog squawk."

He swirled the car around in the street and went off down the road towards the lake and pulled up at a frame building opposite the stage depot. He went into this and came out with a tall, thin man. The car came slowly swirling back and I fell in behind it. We went through the village, dodging girls in shorts and men in trunks, shorts and pants, most of them naked and brown from the waist up. Tinchfield stood on his horn, but didn't use his siren. That would have started a mob of cars after him. We went up a dusty hill and stopped at a cabin. Tinchfleld honked his horn and yelled. A man in blue overalls opened the door.

"Get in, Paul."

The man in overalls nodded and ducked back into the cabin and came out with a dirty lion hunter's hat on his head. We went back to the highway and along to the branch road and so over to the gate on the private road. The man in overalls got out and opened it and closed it after our cars had gone through.

When we came to the lake, smoke was no longer rising from the small cabin. We got out.

Doc Menzies was an angular yellow-faced man with bug eyes and nicotine-stained fingers. The man in blue overalls and the lion hunter's hat was about thirty, dark, swarthy, lithe, and looked underfed.

We went to the edge of the lake and looked towards the pier. Bill Haines was sitting on the floor of the pier, stark naked, with his head in his hands. There was something beside him on the pier.

"We can ride a ways more," Tinchfleld said. We got back into the cars and went on, stopped again, and all trooped down to the pier.

The thing that had been a woman lay on its face on the pier with a rope under the arms. Haines' clothes lay to one side. His artificial leg, gleaming with leather and metal, lay beside them. Without a word spoken Tinchfleld slipped the bottle of whisky out of his shirt and uncorked it and handed it to Haines.

"Drink hearty, Bill," he said casually. There was a sickening, horrible smell on the air. Haines didn't seem to notice it, nor Tinchfleld and Menzies. Loomis got a blanket from the car and threw it over the body, then he and I backed away from it.

Haines drank from the bottle and looked up with dead eyes. He held the bottle down between his bare knee and his stump and began to talk. He spoke in a dead voice, without looking at anybody or anything. He spoke slowly and told everything he had told me. He said that after I went he had got the rope and stripped and gone into the water and got the thing out. When he had finished he stared at the wooden plank and became as motionless as a statue.

Tinchfleld put a cut of tobacco in his mouth and chewed on it for a moment. Then he shut his teeth tight and leaned down and turned the body over carefully, as if he was afraid it would come apart in his hands. The late sun shone on the loose necklace of green stones I had noticed in the water. They were roughly carved and lustreless, like soapstone. A gilt chain joined them. Tinchfleld straightened his broad back and blew his nose hard on a tan handkerchief.

"What you say, Doe?"

Menzies spoke in a tight, high, irritable voice. "What the hell do you want me to say?"

"Cause and time of death," Tinchfleld said mildly.

"Don't be a damn fool, Jim," the doctor said nastily.

"Can't tell nothing, eh?"

"By looking at that? Good God!"

Tinchfleld sighed and turned to me. "Where was it when you first seen it?"

I told him. He listened with his mouth motionless and his eyes blank. Then he began to chew again. "Funny place to be. No current here. If there was any, 'twould be towards the dam."

Bill Haines got to his foot, hopped over to his clothes and strapped his leg on. He dressed slowly, awkwardly; dragging his shirt over his wet skin. He spoke again without looking at anybody.

"She done it herself. Had to. Swum under the boards there and breathed water in. Maybe got stuck. Had to. No other way."

"One other way, Bill," Tinchfleld said mildly, looking at the sky.

Haines rummaged in his shirt and got out his dog-eared note. He gave it to Tinchfleld. By mutual consent everybody moved some distance away from the body. Then Tinchfleld went back to get his bottle of whisky and put it away under his shirt. He joined us and read the note over and over.

"It don't have a date. You say this was a couple of weeks ago?"

"Two weeks come Friday."

"She left you once before, didn't she?"

"Yeah," Haines didn't look at him. "Two years ago. I got drunk and stayed with a chippy." He laughed wildly.

The sheriff calmly read the note once more. "Note left that time?" he inquired.

"I get it," Haines snarled. "I get it. You don't have to draw me pictures."

"Note looks middlin' old," Tinchfleld said gently.

"I had it in my shirt ten days," Haines yelled. He laughed wildly again.

"What's amusing you, Bill?"

"You ever try to drag a person six feet under water?"

"Never did, Bill."

"I swim pretty good-for a guy with one leg. I don't swim that good."

Tinchfleld sighed. "Now that don't mean anything, Bill. Could have been a rope used. She could have been weighted down with a stone, maybe two stones, head and foot. Then after she's under them boards the rope could be cut loose. Could be done, son."

"Sure. I done it," Haines said and roared laughing. "Me- I done it to Beryl. Take me in, you- s -!"

"I aim to," Tinchfleld said mildly. "For investigation. No charges yet, Bill. You could have done it. Don't tell me different. I ain't saying you did, though. I'm just sayin' you could."

Haines sobered as quickly as he had gone to pieces.

"Any insurance?" Tinchfield asked, looking at the sky.

Haines started. "Five thousand. That does it. That hangs me. Okay. Let's go."

Tinchfleld turned slowly to Loomis. "Go back there in the cabin, Paul, and get a couple of blankets. Then we better all get some whisky inside our nose."

Loomis turned and walked back along the path that skirted the lake towards the Haines' cabin. The rest of us just stood. Haines looked down at his hard brown hands and clenched them. Without a word he swept his right fist up and hit himself a terrible blow in the face.

"You!" he said in a harsh whisper.

His nose began to bleed. He stood lax. The blood ran down his lip, down the side of his mouth to the point of his chin. It began to drip off his chin.

That reminded me of something I had almost forgotten.

 

FIVE

THE GOLDEN ANKLET

I telephoned Howard Melton at his Beverly Hills home an hour after dark. I called from the telephone company's little logcabin office half a block from the main street of Puma Point, almost out of hearing of the .22's at the shooting gallery, the rattle of the ski balls, the tooting of fancy auto horns, and the whine of hillbilly music from the dining room of the Indian Head Hotel.

When the operator got him she told me to take the call in the manager's office. I went in and shut the door and sat down at a small desk and answered the phone.

"Find anything up there?" Melton's voice asked. It had a thickish edge to it, a three-highball edge.

"Nothing I expected. But something has happened up here you won't like. Want it straight-or wrapped in Christmas paper?"

I could hear him cough. I didn't hear any other sounds from the room in which he was talking. "I'll take it straight," he said steadily.

"Bill Haines claims your wife made passes at him-and they scored. They got drunk together the very morning of the day she went away. Haines had a row with his wife about it afterwards, and then he went over to the north shore of Puma Lake to get drunk some more. He was gone until two A.M. I'm just telling you what he says, you understand."

I waited. Melton's voice said finally: "I heard you. Go on, Dalmas." It was a toneless voice, as flat as a piece of slate.

"When he got home both the women had gone. His wife Beryl had left a note saying she'd rather be dead than live with a lousy cheater any more. He hasn't seen her since-until today."

Melton coughed again. The sound made a sharp noise in my ear. There were buzzes and crackles on the wire. An operator broke in and I asked her to go brush her hair. After the interruption Melton said: "Haines told all this to you, a complete stranger?"

"I brought some liquor with me. He likes to drink and he was aching to talk to somebody. The liquor broke down the barriers. There's more. I said he didn't see his wife again until today. Today she came up out of your little lake. I'll let you guess what she looked like."

"Good God!" Melton cried.

"She was stuck down under the underwater boarding below the pier the movie people built. The constable here, Jim Tinchfield, didn't like it too well. He's taken Haines in. I think they've gone down to see the D.A. in San Bernardino and have an autopsy and so on."

"Tinchfleld thinks Haines killed her?"

"He thinks it could have happened that way. He's not saying everything he thinks. Haines put on a swell broken-hearted act, but this Tinchfleld is no fool. He may know a lot of things around Haines that I don't know."

"Did they search Haines' cabin?"

"Not while I was around. Maybe later."

"I see." He sounded tired now, spent.

"It's a nice dish for a county prosecutor close to election time," I said. "But it's not a nice dish for us. If I have to appear at an inquest, I'll have to state my business, on oath. That means telling what I was doing up there, to some extent, at least. And that means pulling you in."

"It seems," Melton's voice said flatly, "that I'm pulled in already. If my wife-" He broke off and swore. He didn't speak again for a long time. Wire noises came to me and a sharper crackling, thunder somewhere in the mountains along the lines.

I said at last: "Beryl Haines had a Ford of her own. Not Bill's. His was fixed up for his left leg to do the heavy work. The car is gone. And that note didn't sound like a suicide note to me."

"What do you plan to do now?"

"It looks as though I'm always being sidetracked on this job. I may come down tonight. Can I call you at your home?"

"Any time," he said. "I'll be home all evening and all night. Call me any time. I didn't think Haines was that sort of a guy at all."

"But you knew your wife had drinking spells and you left her up here alone."

"My God," he said, as if he hadn't heard me. "A man with a wooden-"

"Oh let's skip that part of it," I growled. "It's dirty enough without. Goodbye."

I hung up and went back to the outer office and paid the girl for the call. Then I walked back to the main street and got into my car parked in front of the drugstore. The street was full of gaudy neon signs and noise and glitter. On the dry mountain air every sound seemed to carry a mile. I could hear people talking a block away. I got out of my car again and bought another pint at the drugstore and drove away from there.

When I got to the place back along the highway where the road turned off to Little Fawn Lake, I pulled over to the side and thought. Then I started up the road into the mountains towards Melton's place.

The gate across the private road was shut and padlocked now. I tucked my car off to the side in some bushes and climbed over the gate and pussyfooted along the side of the road until the starlit glimmer of the lake suddenly bloomed at my feet. Haines' cabin was dark. The cabins on the other side of the lake were vague shadows against the slope. The old mill wheel beside the dam looked funny as hell up there all alone. I listened-didn't hear a sound. There are no night birds in the mountains.

I padded along to Haines' cabin and tried the door-locked. I went around to the back and found another locked door. I prowled around the cabin walking like a cat on a wet floor. I pushed on the one screenless window. That was locked also. I stopped and listened some more. The window was not very tight. Wood dries out in that air and shrinks. I tried my knife between the two sashes, which opened inward, like small cottage windows. No dice. I leaned against the wall and looked at the hard shimmer of the lake and took a drink from my pint. That made me tough. I put the bottle away and picked up a big stone and smacked the window frame in without breaking the glass. I heaved up on the sill and climbed into the cabin.

A flash hit me in the face.

A calm voice said: "I'd rest right there, son. You must be all tired out."

The flash pinned me against the wall for a moment and then a light switch clicked and a lamp went on. The flash died. Tinchfield sat there peacefully in a leather Morris chair beside a table over the edge of which a brown-fringed shawl dangled foolishly. Tinchfield wore the same clothes as he had worn that afternoon, and the addition of a brown wool windbreaker over his shirt. His jaws moved quietly.

"That movie outfit strung two miles of wire up here," he said reflectively. "Kind of nice for the folks. Well, what's on your mind, son-besides breakin' and enterin'?"

I picked out a chair and sat down and looked around the cabin. The room was a small square room with a double bed and a rag rug and a few modest pieces of furniture. An open door at the back showed the corner of a cookstove.

"I had an idea," I said. "From where I sit now it looks lousy."

Tinchfield nodded and his eyes studied me without rancor. "I heard your car," he said. "I knew you was on the private road and comin' this way. You walk right nice, though. I didn't hear you walk worth a darn. I've been mighty curious about you, son."

"Why?"

"Ain't you kind of heavy under the left arm, son?"

I grinned at him. "Maybe I better talk," I said.

"Well, you don't have to bother a lot about pushin' in that winder. I'm a tolerant man. I figure you got a proper right to carry that six-gun, eh?"

I reached into my pocket and laid my open billfold on his thick knee. He lifted it and held it carefully to the lamp-light, looking at the photostat license behind the celluloid window. He handed the billfold back to me.

"I kind of figured you was interested in Bill Haines," he said. "A private detective, eh? Well, you got a good hard build on you and your face don't tell a lot of stories. I'm kind of worried about Bill myself. You aim to search the cabin?"

"I did have the idea."

"It's all right by me, but there ain't really no necessity. I already pawed around considerable. Who hired you?"

"Howard Melton."

He chewed a moment in silence. "Might I ask to do what?"

"To find his wife. She skipped out on him a couple of weeks back."

Tinchfleld took his flat-crowned Stetson off and rumpled his mousy hair. He stood up and unlocked and opened the door. He sat down again and looked at me in silence.

"He's very anxious to avoid publicity," I said. "On account of a certain failing his wife has which might lose him his job." Tinchfleld eyed me unblinkingly. The yellow lamp-light made bronze out of one side of his face. "I don't mean liquor or Bill Haines," I added.

"None of that don't hardly explain your wantin' to search Bill's cabin," he said mildly.

"I'm just a great guy to poke around."

He didn't budge for a long minute, during which he was probably deciding whether or not I was kidding him, and if I was, whether he cared.

He said at length: "Would this interest you at all, son?" He took a folded piece of newspaper from the slanting pocket of his windbreaker and opened it up on the table under the lamp. I went over and looked. On the newspaper lay a thin gold chain with a tiny lock. The chain had been snipped through neatly by a pair of cutting pliers. The lock was not unlocked. The chain was short, not more than four or five inches long and the lock was tiny and hardly any larger around than the chain itself. There was a little white powder on both chain and newspaper.

"Where would you guess I found that?" Tinchfleld asked.

I moistened a finger and touched the white powder and tasted it. "In a sack of flour. That is, in the kitchen here. It's an anklet. Some women wear them and never take them off. Whoever took this one off didn't have the key."

Tinchfleld looked at me benignly. He leaned back and patted one knee with a large hand and smiled remotely at the pineboard ceiling. I rolled a cigarette around in my fingers and sat down again.

Tinchfleld refolded the piece of newspaper and put it back in his pocket. "Well, I guess that's all-unless you care to make a search in my presence."

"No," I said.

"It looks like me and you are goin' to do our thinkin' separate."

"Mrs. Haines had a car, Bill said. A Ford."

"Yep. A blue coupй. It's down the road a piece, hid in some rocks."

"That doesn't sound much like a planned murder."

"1 don't figure anything was planned, son. Just come over him sudden. Maybe choked her, and he has awful powerful hands. There he is-stuck with a body to dispose of. He done it the best way he could think of and for a pegleg he done pretty damn well."

"The car sounds more like a suicide," I said. "A planned suicide. People have been known to commit suicide in such a way as to make a murder case stick against somebody they were mad at. She wouldn't take the car far away, because he had to walk back."

Tinchfleld said: "Bill wouldn't neither. That car would be mighty awkward for him to drive, him being used to use his left foot."

"He showed me that note from Beryl before we found the body," I said. "And I was the one that walked out on the pier first."

"You and me could get along, son. Well, we'll see. Bill's a good feller at heart-except these veterans give themselves too many privileges in my opinion. Some of 'em did three weeks in a camp and act like they was wounded nine times. Bill must have been mighty sentimental about this piece of chain I found."

He got up and went to the open door. He spat his chaw out into the dark. "I'm a man sixty-two years of age," he said over his shoulder. "I've known folks to do all manner of funny things. I would say offhand that jumpin' into a cold lake with all your clothes on, and swimmin' hard to get down under that board, and then just dyin' there was a funny thing to do. On the other hand, since I'm tellin' you all my secrets and you ain't tellin' me nothing, I've had to speak to Bill a number of times for slapping his wife around when he was drunk. That ain't goin' to sound good to a jury. And if this here little chain come off Beryl Haines' leg, it's just about enough to set him in that nice new gas chamber they got up north. And you and me might as well mosey on home, son.,'

I stood up.

"And don't go smokin' that cigarette on the highway," he added. "It's contrary to the law up here."

I put the unlit cigarette back in my pocket and stepped out into the night. Tinchfleld switched the lamp off and locked up the cabin and put the key in his pocket. "Where at are you stain', son?"

"I'm going down to the Olympia in San Bernardino."

"It's a nice place, but they don't have the climate we have up here. Too hot."

"I like it hot," I said.

We walked back to the road and Tinchfleld turned to the right. "My car's up a piece towards the end of the lake. I'll say good night to you, son."

"Good night, Sheriff. I don't think he murdered her."

He was already walking off. He didn't turn. "Well, we'll see," he said quietly.

I went back to the gate and climbed it and found my car and started back down the narrow road past the waterfall. At the highway I turned west towards the dam and the grade to the valley.

On the way I decided that if the citizens around Puma Lake didn't keep Tinchfleld constable, they would be making a very bad mistake.

 

SIX

MELTON UPS THE ANTE

It was past ten-thirty when I got to the bottom of the grade and parked in one of the diagonal slots in front of the Hotel Olympia in San Bernardino. I pulled an overnight bag out of the back of my car and had taken about four steps with it when a bellhop in braided pants and a white shirt and black bow tie had it out of my hand.

The clerk on duty was an egg-headed man with no interest in me. I signed the register.

The hop and I rode a four-by-four elevator to the second floor and walked a couple of blocks around the corners. As we walked it got hotter and hotter. The hop unlocked a door into a boy's-size room with one window on an airshaft.

The hop, who was tall, thin, yellow, and as cool as a slice of chicken in aspic, moved his gum around in his face, put my bag on a chair, opened the window and stood looking at me. He had eyes the color of a drink of water.

"Bring us up some ginger ale and glasses and ice," I said.

"Us?"

"That is, if you happen to be a drinking man."

"After eleven I reckon I might take a chance."

"It's now ten thirty-nine," I said. "If I give you a dime, will you say 'I sho'ly do thank you'?"

He grinned and snapped his gum.

He went out, leaving the door open. I took off my coat and unstrapped my holster. It was wearing grooves in my hide. I removed my tie, shirt, undershirt and walked around the room in the draft from the open door. The draft smelled of hot iron. I went into the bathroom sideways-it was that kind of bathroom-doused myself with cold water and was breathing more freely, when the tall, languid hop returned with a tray. He shut the door and I brought out my bottle. He mixed a couple of drinks and we drank. The perspiration started from the back of my neck down my spine, but I felt better all the same. I sat on the bed holding my glass and looking at the hop.

"How long can you stay?"

"Doing what?"

"Remembering."

"I ain't a damn bit of use at it."

"I have money to spend," I said, "in my own peculiar way." I took my wallet from my coat and spread bills along the bed.

"I beg yore pardon," the hop said. "You're a copper?"

"Private."

"I'm interested. This likker makes my mind work."

I gave him a dollar bill. "Try that on your mind. Can I call you Tex?"

"You done guessed it," he drawled, tucking the bill neatly into the watch pocket of his pants.

"Where were you on Friday the twelfth of August, in the late afternoon?"

He sipped his drink and thought, shaking the ice very gently and drinking past his gum. "Here. Four-to-twelve shift," he answered finally.

"A lady named Mrs. George Atkins, a small, slim, pretty blonde, checked in and stayed until time for the night train east. She put her car in the hotel garage and I believe it is still there. I want the lad that checked her in. That wins another dollar." I separated it from my stake and laid it by itself on the bed.

"I sho'ly do thank you," the hop said, grinning. He finished his drink and left the room, closing the door quietly. I finished my drink and made another. Time passed. Finally the wall telephone rang. I wedged myself into a small space between the bathroom door and the bed and answered it.

"That was Sonny. Off at eight tonight. He can be reached, I reckon."

"How soon?"

"You want him over?"

"Yeah."

"Half an hour, if he's home. Another boy checked her out. A fellow we call Les. He's here."

"Okay. Shoot him up."

I finished my second drink and thought well enough of it to mix a third before the ice melted. I was stirring it when the knock came, and I opened to a small, wiry, carrot-headed, green-eyed rat with a tight little girlish mouth.

"Drink?"

"Sure," he said. He poured himself a large one and added a whisper of mixer. He put the mixture down in one swallow, tucked a cigarette between his lips and snapped a match alight while it was still coming up from his pocket. He blew smoke, fanned it with his hand, and stared at me coldly. I noticed, stitched over his pocket instead of a number, the word Captain.

"Thanks," I said. "That will be all."

"Huh?" His mouth twisted unpleasantly.

"Beat it."

"I thought you wanted to see me," he snarled.

"You're the night bell captain?"

"Check."

"I wanted to buy you a drink. I wanted to give you a buck. Here. Thanks for coming up."

He took the dollar and hung there, smoke trailing from his nose, his eyes beady and mean. He turned then with a swift, tight shrug and slipped out of the room soundlessly.

Ten minutes passed, then another knock, very light. When I opened the lanky lad stood there grinning. I walked away from him and he slipped inside and came over beside the bed. He was still grinning.

"You didn't take to Les, huh?"

"No. Is he satisfied?"

"I reckon so. You know what captains are. Have to have their cut. Maybe you better call me Les, Mr. Dalmas."

"So you checked her out."

"Not if Mrs. George Atkins was her name, I didn't."

I took the photo of Julia from my pocket and showed it to him. He looked at it carefully, for a long time. "She looked like that," he said. "She gave me four bits, and in this little town that gets you remembered. Mrs. Howard Melton was the name. There's been talk about her car. I guess we just don't have much to talk about here."

"Uh-huh. Where did she go from here."

"She took a hack to the depot. You use nice likker, Mr. Dalmas."

"Excuse me. Help yourself." When he had I said: "Remember anything about her? She have any visitors?"

"No, sir. But I do recall something. A tall, good-lookin' jasper. She didn't seem pleased to see him."

"Ah." I took another photo out of my pocket and showed it to him. He studied that carefully also.

"This don't look quite so much like her. But I'm sure it's the gentleman I spoke of."

 

He picked up both photos again and held them side by side. He looked a little puzzled. "Yes, sir. That's him all right," he said.

"You're an accommodating guy," I said. "You'd remember almost anything, wouldn't you?"

"I don't get you, sir."

"Take another drink. I owe you four bucks. That's five in all. It's not worth it. You hops are always trying to pull some gag."

He took a very small one and balanced it in his hand, his yellow face puckered. "I do the best I can," he said stiffly. He drank his drink, put the glass down silently and moved to the door. "You can keep your goddam money," he said. He took the dollar out of his watch pocket and threw it on the floor. "To hell with you, you-" he said softly.

He went out.

I picked up the two photos and held them side by side and scowled at them. After a long moment an icy finger touched my spine. It had touched it once before, very briefly, but I had shaken off the feeling. It came back now to stay.

I went to the tiny desk and got an envelope and put a fivedollar bill in it and sealed it and wrote "Les" on it. I put my clothes on and my bottle on my hip and picked up my overnight bag and left the room.

Down in the lobby the redhead jumped at me. Les stayed back by a pillar, his arms folded, silent. I went to the desk and asked for my bill.

"Anything wrong, sir?" The clerk looked troubled.

I paid the bill and walked out to my car and then turned and went back to the desk. I gave the clerk the envelope with the five in it. "Give this to the Texas boy, Les. He's mad at me, but he'll get over it."

I made Glendale before 2 a. m. and looked around for a place where I could phone. I found an all-night garage.

I got out dimes and nickels, and dialed the operator and got Melton's number in Beverly Hills. His voice, when it finally came over the wire, didn't sound very sleepy.

"Sorry to call at this hour," I said, "but you told me to. I traced Mrs. Melton to San Bernardino and to the depot there."

"We knew that already," he said crossly.

"Well, it pays to be sure. Haines' cabin has been searched. Nothing much found. If you thought he knew where Mrs. Melton-"

"I don't know what I thought," he broke in sharply. "After what you told me I thought the place ought to be searched. Is that all you have to report?"

"No." I hesitated a little. "I've had a bad dream. I dreamed there was a woman's bag in a chair in that Chester Lane house this morning. It was pretty dark in there from the trees and I forgot to remove it."

"What color bag?" His voice was as stiff as a clam shell.

"Dark blue-maybe black. The light was bad."

"You'd better go back and get it," he snapped.

"Why?"

"That's what I'm paying you five hundred dollars for-among other things."

"There's a limit to what I have to do for five hundred bucks-even if I had them."

He swore. "Listen, fella. I owe you a lot, but this is up to you and you can't let me down."

"Well, there might be a flock of cops on the front step. And then again the place might be quiet as a pet flea. Either way I don't like it. I've had enough of that house."

There was a deep silence from Melton's end. I took a long breath and gave him some more: "What's more, I think you know where you wife is, Melton. Goodwin ran into her in the hotel in San Bernardino. He had a check of hers a few days ago. You met Goodwin on the street. You helped him get the check cashed, indirectly. I think you know. I think you just hired me to backtrack over her trail and see that it was properly covered."

There was more heavy silence from him. When he spoke again it was in a small, chastened voice. "You win, Dalmas. Yeah-it was blackmail all right, on that check business. But I don't know where she is. That's straight. And that bag has to be got. How would seven hundred and fifty sound to you?"

"Better. When do I get it?"

"Tonight, if you'll take a check. I can't make better than eighty dollars in cash before tomorrow."

I hesitated again. I knew by the feel of my face that I was grinning. "Okay," I said at last. "It's a deal. I'll get the bag unless there's a flock of johns there."

"Where are you now?" He almost whistled with relief.

"Azusa. It'll take me about an hour to get there," I lied.

"Step on it," he said. "You'llfind me a good guy to play ball with. You're in this pretty deep yourself, fella."

"I'm used to jams," I said, and hung up.

 

SEVEN

A PAIR OF FALL GUYS

I drove back to Chevy Chase Boulevard and along it to the foot of Chester Lane where I dimmed my lights and turned in. I drove quickly up around the curve to the new house across from Goodwin's place. There was no sign of life around it, no cars in front, no sign of a stakeout that I could spot. That was a chance I had to take, like another and worse one I was taking.

I drove into the driveway of the house and got out and lifted up the unlocked swing-up garage door. I put my car inside, lowered the door and snaked back across the street as if Indians were after me. I used all the cover of Goodwin's trees to the back yard and put myself behind the biggest of them there. I sat down on the ground and allowed myself a sip from my pint of rye.

Time passed, with a deadly slowness. I expected company, but I didn't know how soon. It came sooner than I expected.

In about fifteen minutes a car came up Chester Lane and I caught a faint glisten of it between the trees, along the side of the house. It was running without lights. I liked that. A shadow moved without sound at the corner of the house. It was a small shadow, a foot shorter than Melton's would have been. He couldn't have driven from Beverly Hills in that time anyway.

Then the shadow was at the back door, the back door opened, and the shadow vanished through it into deeper darkness. The door closed silently. I got up on my feet and sneaked across the soft, moist grass. I stepped silently into Mr. Goodwin's porch and from there into his kitchen. I stood still, listening hard. There was no sound, no light beyond me. I took the gun out from under my arm and squeezed the butt down at my side. I breathed shallowly, from the top of my lungs. Then a funny thing happened. A crack of light appeared suddenly under the swing door to the dining room. The shadow had turned the lights up. Careless shadow! I walked across the kitchen and pushed the swing door open and left it that way. The light poured into the alcove dining room from beyond the living-room arch. I went that way, carelessly-much too carelessly. I stepped past the arch.

A voice at my elbow said: "Drop it-and keep on walking." I looked at her. She was small, pretty after a fashion, and her gun pointed at my side very steadily.

"You're not clever," she said. "Are you?"

I opened my hand and let the gun fall. I walked four steps beyond it and turned.

"No," I said.

The woman said nothing more. She moved away, circling a little, leaving the gun on the floor. She circled until she faced me. I looked past her at the corner chair with the footstool. White buck shoes still rested on the footstool. Mr. Lance Goodwin still sat negligently in the chair, with his left hand on the wide brocaded arm and his right trailing to the small gun on the floor. The last blood drop had frozen on his chin. It looked black and hard and permanent. His face had a waxy look now.

I looked at the woman again. She wore well-pressed blue slacks and a double-breasted jacket and a small tilted hat. Her hair was long and curled in at the ends and it was a dark red color with glints of blue in the shadows-dyed. Red spots of hastily applied rouge burned on her cheeks too high up. She pointed her gun and smiled at me. It wasn't the nicest smile I had ever seen.

I said: "Good evening, Mrs. Melton. What a lot of guns you must own."

"Sit down in the chair behind you and clasp your hands behind your neck and keep them there. That's important. Don't get careless about it." She showed me her teeth to her gums.

I did as she suggested. The smile dropped from her face- a hard little face, even though pretty in a conventional sort of way. "Just wait," she said. "That's important, too. Maybe you could guess how important that is."

"This room smells of death," I said. "I suppose that's important, too."

"Just wait, smart boy."

"They don't hang women any more in this state," I said. "But two cost more than one. A lot more. About fifteen years more. Think it over."

She said nothing. She stood firmly, pointing the gun. This was a heavier gun, but it didn't seem to bother her. Her ears were busy with the distance. She hardly heard me. The time passed, as it does, in spite of everything. My arms began to ache.

At last he came. Another car drifted quietly up the street outside and stopped and its door closed quietly. Silence for a moment, then the house door at the back opened. His steps were heavy. He came through the open swing door and into the lighted room. He stood silent, looking around it, a hard frown on his big face. He looked at the dead man in the chair, at the woman with her gun, last of all at me. He stooped and picked up my gun and dropped it into his side pocket. He came to me quietly, almost without recognition in his eyes, stepped behind me and felt my pockets. He took out the two photos and the telegram. He stepped away from me, near the woman. I put my arms down and rubbed them. They both stared at me quietly.

At last he said softly: "A gag, eh? First off I checked your call and found out it came from Glendale-not from Azusa. I don't know just why I did that, but I did. Then I made another call. The second call told me there wasn't any bag left in this room. Well?"

"What do you want me to say?"

"Why the trick-work? What's it all about?" His voice was heavy, cold, but more thougtful than menacing. The woman stood beside him, motionless, holding her gun.

"I took a chance," I said. "You took one too-coming here. I hardly thought it would work. The idea, such as it was, that you would call her quickly about the bag. She would know there wasn't one. You would both know then that I was trying to pull something. You'd be very anxious to know what it was. You'd be pretty sure I wasn't working with any law, because I knew where you were and you could have been jumped there without any trouble at all. I wanted to bring the lady out of hiding-that's all. I took a long chance. If it didn't work, I had to think up a better way."

The woman made a contemptuous sound and said: "I'd like to know why you hired this snooper in the first place, Howie."

He ignored her. He looked at me steadily out of stony black eyes. I turned my head and gave him a quick, hard wink. His mouth got rigid at once. The woman didn't see it. She was too far to the side.

"You need a fall guy, Melton," I said. "Bad."

He turned his body a little so that his back was partly to the woman. His eyes ate my face. He lifted his eyebrows a little and half nodded. He still thought I was for sale.

He did it nicely. He put a smile on his face and turned towards her and said, "How about getting out of here and talking it over in a safer place?" and while she was listening and her mind was on the question his big hand struck down sharply at her wrist. She yelped and the gun dropped. She reeled back and clenched both her fists and spat at him.

"Aw, go sit down and get wise to yourself," he said dryly.

He stooped and picked up her gun and dropped it into his other pocket. He smiled then, a large confident smile. He had forgotten something completely. I almost laughed-in spite of the spot I was in. The woman sat down in a chair behind him and leaned her head in her hands broodingly.

"You can tell me about it now," Melton said cheerfully. "Why I need a fall guy, as you say."

"I lied to you over the phone a little. About Haines' cabin. There's a wise old country cop up there who went through it with a sifter. He found a gold anklet in the flour bag, cut through with pliers."

The woman let out a queer yelp. Melton didn't even bother to look at her. She was staring at me with all her eyes now.

"He might figure it out," I said, "and he might not. He doesn't know Mrs. Melton stayed over at the Hotel Olympia, for one thing, and that she met Goodwin there. If he knew that, he'd be wise in a second. That is, if he had photos to show the bellhops, the way I had. The hop who checked Mrs. Melton out and remembered her on account of her leaving her car there without any instructions remembered Goodwin, remembered him speaking to her. He said she was startled. He wasn't so sure about Mrs. Mellon from the photos. He knew Mrs. Melton."

Mellon opened his mouth a little in a queer grimace and grated the edges of his teeth together. The woman stood up noiselessly behind him and drifted back, inch by inch, into the dark back part of the room. I didn't look at her. Melton didn't seem to hear her move.

I said: "Goodwin trailed her into town. She must have come by bus or in a rent car, because she left the other in San Bernardino. He trailed her to her hideout without her knowing it, which was pretty smart, since she must have been on her guard, and then he jumped her. She stalled him for a while-I don't know with what story-and he must have had her watched every minute, because she didn't slip away from him. Then she couldn't stall him any longer and she gave him that check. That was just a retainer. He came back for more and she fixed him up permanently-over there in the chair. You didn't know that, or you would never have let me come out here this morning."

Melton smiled grimly. "Right, I didn't know that," he said. "Is that what I need a fall guy for?"

I shook my head. "You don't seem to want to understand me," I said. "I told you Goodwin knew Mrs. Melton personally. That's not news, is it? What would Goodwin have on Mrs. Melton to blackmail her for? Nothing. He wasn't blackmailing Mrs. Melton. Mrs. Melton is dead. She has been dead for eleven days. She came up out of Little Fawn Lake today-in Beryl Haines' clothes. That's what you need a fall guy for- and you have one, two of them, made to order."

The woman in the shadows of the room stooped and picked something up and rushed. She panted as she rushed. Mellon turned hard and his hands jerked at his pockets, but he hesitated just too long, looking at the gun she had snatched up from the floor beside Goodwin's dead hand, the gun that was the thing he had forgotten about.

"You!" she said.

He still wasn't very scared. He made placating movements with his empty hands. "Okay, honey, we'll play it your way," he said softly. He had a long arm. He could reach her now. He had done it already when she held a gun. He tried it once more. He leaned towards her quickly and swept his hand. I put my feet under me and dived for his legs. It was a long dive-too long.

"I'd make a swell fall guy, wouldn't I?" she said raspingly, and stepped back. The gun banged three times.

He jumped at her with the slugs in him, and fell hard against her and carried her to the floor. She ought to have thought of that too. They crashed together, his big body pinning her down. She wailed and an arm waved up towards me holding the gun. I smacked it out of her hand. I grabbed at his pockets and got my gun out and jumped away from them. I sat down. The back of my neck felt like a piece of ice. I sat down and held the gun on my knee and waited.

His big hand reached out and took hold of the clawshaped leg of a davenport and whitened on the wood. His body arched and rolled and the woman wailed again. His body rolled back and sagged and the hand let go of the davenport leg. The fingers uncurled quietly and lay limp on the nap of the carpet. There was a choking rattle-and silence.

She fought her way out from under him and got to her feet panting, glaring like an animal. She turned without a sound and ran. I didn't move. I just let her go.

I went over and bent down above the big, sprawled man and held a finger hard against the side of his neck. I stood there silently, leaning down, feeling for a pulse, and listening. I straightened up slowly and listened some more. No sirens, no car, no noise. Just the dead stillness of the room. I put my gun back under my arm and put the light out and opened the front door and walked down the path to the sidewalk. Nothing moved on the street. A big car stood at the curb, beside the fireplug, up at the dead-end beyond Goodwin's place. I crossed the street to the new house and got my car out of its garage and shut the garage up again and started for Puma Lake again.

 

EIGHT

KEEP TINCHFIELD CONSTABLE

The cabin stood in a hollow, in front of a growth of jackpines. A big barnlike garage with cordwood piled on one side was open to the morning sun and Tinchfield's car glistened inside it. There was a cleated walk down to the front door and smoke lisped from the chimney.

Tinchfleld opened the door himself. He wore an old gray roll-collar sweater and his khaki pants. He was fresh-shaved and as smooth as a baby.

"Well, step in, son," he said peacefully. "I see you go to work bright and early. So you didn't go down the hill last night, eh?"

I went past him into the cabin and sat in an old Boston rocker with a crocheted antimacassar over its back. I rocked in it and it gave out a homey squeak.

"Coffee's just about ready to pour," Tinchfleld said genially. "Emma'll lay a plate for you. You got a kind of tuckered-out look, son."

"I went back down the hill," I said. "I just came back up. That wasn't Beryl Haines in the lake yesterday."

Tinchfleld said: "Well, I swan."

"You don't seem a hell of a lot surprised," I growled.

"I don't surprise right easy, son. Particularly before breakfast."

"It was Julia Melton," I said. "She was murdered-by Howard Melton and Beryl Haines. She was dressed in Beryl's clothes and put down under those boards, six feet under water, so that she would stay long enough not to look like Julia Melton. Both the women were blondes, of the same size and general appearance. Bill said they were enough alike to be sisters. Not twin sisters, probably."

"They were some alike," Tinchfleld said, staring at me gravely. He raised his voice. "Emma!"

A stout woman in a print dress opened the inner door of the cabin. An enormous white apron was tied around what had once been her waist. A smell of coffee and frying bacon rushed out.

"Emma, this is Detective Dalmas from Los Angeles. Lay another plate and I'll pull the table out from the wall a ways. He's a mite tired and hungry."

The stout woman ducked her head and smiled and put silver on the table.

We sat down and ate bacon and eggs and hot cakes and drank coffee by the quart. Tinchfleld ate like four men and his wife ate like a bird and kept hopping up and down like a bird to get more food.

We finished at last and Mrs. Tinchfleld gathered up the dishes and shut herself in the kitchen. Tinchfleld cut a large slice of plug and tucked it carefully into his face and I sat down in the Boston rocker again.

"Well, son," he said, "I guess I'm ready for the word. I was a mite anxious about that piece of gold chain bein' hid where it was, what with the lake so handy. But I'm a slow thinker. What makes you think Mellon murdered his wife?"

"Because Beryl Haines is still alive, with her hair dyed red."

I told him my story, all of it, fact by fact, concealing nothing. He said nothing until I had finished.

"Well, son," he said then, "you done a mighty smart piece of detectin' work there-what with a little luck in a couple of places, like we all have to have. But you didn't have no business to be doin' it at all, did you?"

"No. But Mellon took me for a ride and played me for a sucker. I'm a stubborn sort of guy."

"What for do you reckon Melton hired you?"

"He had to. It was a necessary part of his plan to have the body correctly identified in the end, perhaps not for some time, perhaps not until after it had been buried and the case closed. But he had to have it identified in the end in order to get his wife's money. That or wait for years to have the courts declare her legally dead. When it was correctly identified, he would have to show that he had made an effort to find her. If his wife was a kleptomaniac, as he said, he had a good excuse for hiring a private dick instead of going to the police. But he had to do something. Also there was the menace of Goodwin. He might have planned to kill Goodwin and frame me for it. He certainly didn't know Beryl had beat him to it, or he wouldn't have let me go to Goodwin's house.

"After that-and I was foolish enough to come up here before I had reported Goodwin's death to the Glendale police-he probably thought I could be handled with money. The murder itself was fairly simple, and there was an angle to it that Beryl didn't know or think about. She was probably in love with him. An underprivileged woman like that, with a drunken husband, would be apt to go for a guy like Melton.

"Melton couldn't have known the body would be found yesterday, because that was pure accident, but he would have kept me on the job and kept hinting around until it was found. He knew Haines would be suspected of murdering his wife and the note she left was worded to sound a bit unlike a real suicide note. Melton knew his wife and Haines were getting tight together up here and playing games.

"He and Beryl just waited for the right time, when Haines had gone off to the north shore on a big drunk. Beryl must have telephoned him from somewhere. You'll be able to check that. He could make it up here in three hours' hard driving. Julia was probably still drinking. Melton knocked her out, dressed her in Beryl's clothes and put her down in the lake. He was a big man and could do it alone, without much trouble. Beryl would be acting as lookout down the only road into the property. That gave him a chance to plant the anklet in the Haines cabin. Then he rushed back to town and Beryl put on Julia's clothes and took Julia's car and luggage and went to the hotel in San Bernardino.

"There she was unlucky enough to be seen and spoken to by Goodwin, who must have known something was wrong, by her clothes or her bags or perhaps hearing her spoken to as Mrs. Melton. So he followed her into town and you know the rest. The fact that Melton had her lay this trail shows two things, as I see it. One, that he intended to wait some time before having the body properly identified. It would be almost certain to be accepted as the body of Beryl Haines on Bill's say-so, especially as that put Bill in a very bad spot.

"The other thing is that when the body was identified as Julia Melton, then the false trail laid by Beryl would make it look as though she and Bill had committed the murder to collect her insurance. I think Mellon made a bad mistake by planting that anklet where he did. He should have dropped it into the lake, tied to a bolt or something, and later on, accidentally on purpose, fished it out. Putting it in Haines' cabin and then asking me if Haines' cabin had been searched was a little too sloppy. But planned murders are always like that."

Tinchfleld switched his chaw to the other side of his face and went to the door to spit. He stood in the open door with his big hands clasped behind him.

"He couldn't have pinned nothing on Beryl," he said over his shoulder. "Not without her talkin' a great deal, son. Did you think of that?"

"Sure. Once the police were looking for her and the case broke wide open in the papers-I mean the real case-he would have had to bump Beryl off and make it look like a suicide. I think it might have worked."

"You hadn't ought to have let that there murderin' woman get away, son. There's other things you hadn't ought to have done, but that one was bad."

"Whose case is this?" I growled. "Yours-or the Glendale police's? Beryl will be caught all right. She's killed two men and she'll flop on the next trick she tries to pull. They always do. And there's collateral evidence to be dug up. That's police work-not mine. I thought you were running for re-election, against a couple of younger men. I didn't come back up here just for the mountain air."

He turned and looked at me slyly. "I kind of figured you thought old man Tinchfleld might be soft enough to keep you out of jail, son." Then he laughed and slapped his leg. "Keep Tinchfleld Constable," he boomed at the big outdoors. "You're darn right they will. They'd be dum fools not to-after this. Let's mosey on over to the office and call the 'cutor down in Berdoo." He sighed. "Just too dum smart that Melton was," he said. "I like simple folks."

"Me too," I said. "That's why I'm here."

They caught Beryl Haines on the California-Oregon line, doubling back south to Yreka in a rent car. The highway patrol stopped her for a routine border fruit inspection, but she didn't know that. She pulled another gun. She still had Julia Melton's luggage and Julia Melton's clothes and Julia Melton's checkbook, with nine blank checks in it traced from one of Julia Melton's genuine signatures. The check cashed by Goodwin proved to be another forgery.

Tinchfield and the county prosecutor went to bat for me with the Glendale police, but I got hell from them just the same. From Violets M'Gee I got the large and succulent razzberry, and from the late Howard Melton I got what was left of the fifty dollars he had advanced me. They kept Tinchfleld constable, by a landslide.

 


© Aerius, 2004


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