Back from the highway at the bottom of Sepulveda Canyon were two square yellow gateposts. A five-barred gate hung open from one of them. Over the entrance was a sign hung on wire: PRIVATE ROAD. No ADMITTANCE. The air was warm and quiet and full of the tomcat smell of eucalyptus trees.
I turned in and followed a graveled road around the shoulder of a hill, up a gentle slope, over a ridge and down the other side into a shallow valley. It was hot in the valley, ten or fifteen degrees hotter than on the highway. I could see now that the graveled road ended in a loop around some grass edged with stones that had been limewashed. Off to my left there was an empty swimming pool, and nothing ever looks emptier than an empty swimming pooL Around three sides of it there was what remained of a lawn dotted with redwood lounging chairs with badly faded pads on them. The pads had been of many colors, blue, green, yellow, orange, rust red. Their edge bindings had come loose in spots, the buttons had popped, and the pads were bloated where this had happened. On the fourth side there was the high wire fence of a tennis court. The diving board over the empty pool looked knee-sprung and tired. Its matting covering hung in shreds and its metal fittings were flaked with rust.
I came to the turning loop and stopped in front of a redwood building with a shake roof and a wide front porch. The entrance had double screen doors. Large black flies dozed on the screens. Paths led off among the ever green and always dusty California oaks and among the oaks there were rustic cabins scattered loosely over the side of the hill, some almost completely hidden. Those I could see had that desolate out-of-season look. Their doors were shut, their windows were blanked by drawn curtains of monk's cloth or something on that order. You could almost feel the thick dust on their sills.
I switched off the ignition and sat there with my hands on the wheel listening. There was no sound. The place seemed to be as dead as Pharaoh, except that the doors behind the double screens were open and something moved in the dimness of the room beyond. -Then I heard a light accurate whistling and a man's figure showed against the screen, pushed it open and strolled down the steps. He was something to see.
He wore a flat black gaucho hat with the woven strap under his thin. He wore a white silk shirt, spotlessly dean, open at the throat, with tight wristlets and loose puffed sleeves above. Around his neck a black fringed scarf was knotted unevenly so that one end was short and the other dropped almost to his waist. He wore a wide black sash and black pants, skin-tight at the hips, coal black, and stitched with gold thread down the side to where they were slashed and belied out loosely with gold buttons along both sides of the slash. On his feet he wore patent-leather dancing pumps,
He stopped at the foot of the steps and looked at me, still whistling, He was as lithe as a whip. He had the largest and emptiest smoke-colored eyes I had ever seen, under long silky lashes. His features were delicate and perfect without being weak. His nose was straight and almost but not quite thin, his mouth was a handsome pout, there was a dimple in his chin, and his small ears nestled gracefully against his head. His skin had that heavy pallor which the sun never touches.
He struck an attitude with his left hand on a hip and his right made a graceful curve in the air.
"Greetings," he said. "Lovely day, isn't it?"
"Pretty hot in here for me."
"I like it hot." The statement was flat and final and closed the discussion, What I liked was beneath his notice. He sat down on a step, produced a long file from somewhere, and began to file his fingernails. "You from the bank?" he asked without looking up.
"I'm looking for Dr. Verringer."
He stopped working with the file and looked off into the warm distance. "Who's he?" he asked with no possible interest.
"He owns the place. Laconic as hell, aren't you? As if you didn't know."
He went back to his file and fingernails. "You got told wrong, sweetie The bank owns the place. They done foredosed it or it's in escrow or something. I forget the details,"
He looked up at me with the expression of a man to whom details mean nothing. I got out of the Olds and leaned against the hot door, then I moved away from that to where there was some air.
"Which bank would that be?"
"You don't know, you don't come from there. You don't come from there, you don't have any business here. Hit the trail, sweetie. Buzz off but fast,"
"I have to find Dr. Verringer."
"The joint's not operating, sweetie. Like it says on the sign, this is a private road. Some gopher forgot to lock the gate."
"You the caretaker?"
"Sort of. Don't ask any more questions, sweetie. My temper's not reliable."
"What do you do when you get mad-dance a tango with a ground squirrel?"
He stood up suddenly and gracefully. He smiled a minute, an empty smile. "Looks like I got to toss you back in your little old convertible," he said.
"Later. Where would I find Dr. Verringer about now?"
He pocketed his file in his shirt and something else took its place in his right hand. A brief motion and he had a fist with shining brass knuckles on it. The skin over his cheekbones was tighter and there was a flame deep in his large smoky eyes.
He strolled towards me. I stepped back to get more room. He went on whistling but the whistle was high and shrill.
"We don't have to fight," I told him. "We don't have anything to fight about. And you might split those lovely britches."
He was as quick as a flash. He came at me with a smooth leap and his left hand snaked out very fast. I expected a jab and moved my head well enough but what he wanted was my right wrist and he got it. He had a grip too. He jerked me off balance and the hand with the brass knucks came, around in a looping bolo punch. A crack on the back of the head with those and I would be a sick man. If I pulled he would catch me on the side of the face or on the upper arm below the point of the shoulder, It would have been a dead arm or a dead face; whichever it happened to be. In a spot like that there is only one thing to do.
I went with the pull. In passing I blocked his left foot from behind, grabbed his -shirt and heard it tear. Some thing hit me on the back of the neck, but it wasn't the metal. I spun to the left and he Went over sideways and landed catlike and was on his feet again before I had any kind of balance. He was grinning now. He was delighted with everything. He loved his work. He came for me fast.
A strong beefy voice yelled from somewhere: "Earl! Stop that at once! At once, do you hear me?"
The gaucho boy stopped, There was a sort of sick grin on his face. He made a quick motion and the brass knucks disappeared into the wide sash around the top of his pants.
I turned and looked at a solid chunk of man in a Hawaiian shirt hurrying towards us down one of the paths waving his arms. He came up breathing a little fast
"Are you crazy, Earl?"
"Don't ever say that, Doc," Earl said softly. Then he smiled, turned away, and went to sit on the steps of the house. He took off the flat-crowned hat, produced a comb, and began to comb his thick dark hair with an absent expression. In, a second or two he started to whistle softly.
The heavy man in the loud shirt stood and looked at me. I stood and looked at hini.
"What's going on here?" he growled. "Who are you, sir?"
"Name's Marlowe. I was asking for Dr. Verringer. The lad you call Earl wanted to play games. I figure it's too hot."
"I am Dr. Verringer," he said with dignity. He turned his head. "Go in the house, Earl."
Earl stood up slowly. He gave Dr. Verringer a thoughtful studying look, his large smoky eyes blank of expression. Then he went up the steps and pulled the screen door open. A cloud of flies buzzed angrily and then settled on the screen again as the door closed.
"Marlowe?" Dr. Verringer gave me his attention again, "And what can I do for you, Mr. Marlowe?"
"Earl says you are out of business here."
"That is correct. I am just waiting for certain legal formalities before moving out. Earl and I are alone here."
"I'm disappointed," I said, looking disappointed. "I thought you had a man named Wade staying with you."
He hoisted a couple of eyebrows that would have interested a Fuller Brush man. "Wade? I might possibly know somebody of that name-it's a common enough name-but why should he be staying with me?"
"Taking the cure."
He frowned. When a guy has eyebrows like that he can really do you a frown, "I am a medical man, sir, but no longer in practice. What sort of cure did you have in mind?"
"The guy's a wino. He goes off his rocker from time to time and disappears. Sometimes he comes home under his own power, sometimes he gets brought home, and sometimes he takes a bit of finding." I got a business card out and handed it to him.
He read it with no pleasure.
"What goes with Earl?" I asked him. "He think he's Valentino or something?"
He made with the eyebrows again, They fascinated me. Parts of them curled off all by themselves as much as an inch and a ball. He shrugged his meaty shoulders.
"Earl is quite harmless, Mr. Marlowe. He is-at times-a little dreamy. Lives in a play world, shall we say?"
"You say it, Doc. From where I stand he plays rough."
"Tut, tut, Mr. Marlowe. You exaggerate surely. Earl likes to dress himself up. He is childlike in that respect,"
"You mean he's a nut," I said. "This place some kind of sanitarium, isn't it? Or was?"
"Certainly not, When it was in operation it was an artists' colony. I provided meals, lodging, facilities for exercise and entertainment, and above all seclusion. And for moderate fees, Artists, as you probably know, are seldom wealthy people. In the term artists I of course include writers, musicians, and so on. It was a rewarding occupation for me-while it lasted."
He looked sad when he said this. The eyebrows drooped at the outer corners to match his mouth. Give them a little more growth and they would be in his mouth.
"I know that," I said. "It's in the file. Also the suicide you had here a while back. A dope case, wasn't it?"
He stopped drooping and bristled. "What file?" he asked sharply.
"We've got a file on what we call the barred-window boys, Doctor. Places where you can't jump out of when the French fits take over. Small private sanitariums or what have you that treat alcoholics and dopers and mild cases of mania."
"Such places must be licensed by law,'! Dr. Verringer said harshly.
"Yeah. In theory anyway. Sometimes they kind of forget about that."
He drew himself up stiffly. The guy had a kind of dignity, at that. "The suggestion is insulting, Mr. Marlowe. I have no knowledge of why my name should be on any such list as you mention. I must ask you to leave."
"Let's get back to Wade. Could he be here under another name, maybe?"
"There is no one here but Earl and myself. We are quite alone. Now if you will excuse md-"
"I'd like to look around."
Sometimes you can get them mad enough to say something off key. But not Dr. Verringer. He remained dignified. His eyebrows went all the way with him. I looked towards the house. From inside there came a sound of music, dance music. And very faintly the snapping of fingers.
"I bet he's in there dancing," I said. "That's a tango. I bet you he's dancing all by himself in there. Some kid."
"Are, you going to leave, Mr. Marlowe? Or shall I have to ask Earl to assist me in putting you off my property?"
"Okay, I'll leave. No hard feelings, Doctor. There were only three names beginning with V and you seemed the most promising of them. That's the only real clue we had-Dr. V. He scrawled it on a piece of paper before he left: Dr. V."
"There must be dozens," Dr. Verringer said evenly.
"Oh sure. But not dozens in our file of the barredwindow boys. Thanks for the time, Doctor. Earl bothers me a little."
I turned and went over to my car and got into it. By the time I had the door shut Dr. Verringer was beside me. He leaned in with a pleasant expression.
"We need not quarrel, Mr. Marlowe. I realize that in your occupation you often have to be rather intrusive. Just what bothers you about Earl?"
"He's so obviously a phony. Where you find one thing phony you're apt to expect others. The guy's a manic-depressive, isn't he? Right now he's on the upswing."
He stared at me in silence. He looked grave and polite. "Many interesting and talented people have stayed with me, Mr. Marlowe. Not all of them were as level-headed as you may be. Talented people are often neurotic. But I have no facilities for the care of lunatics or alcoholics, even if I had the taste for that sort of work. I have no staff except Earl, and he is hardly the type to care for the sick."
"Just what would you say he is the type for, Doctor? Apart from bubble-dancing and stuff?"
He leaned on the door. His voice got low and confidential. "Earl's parents were dear friends of mine, Mr. Marlowe. Someone has to look alter Earl and they are no longer with us, Earl has to live a juiet life, away from the noise and temptations of the city. He is unstable but fundamentally harmless. I control him with absolute ease, as you saw."
"You've got a lot of courage," I said.
He sighed. His eyebrows waved gently, like the antennae of some suspicious insect. "It has been a sacrifice," he said. "A rather heavy one. I thought Earl could help me with my work here. He plays beautiful tennis, swims and dives like a champion, and can dance all night. Almost always he is amiability itself. But from time to time there were- incidents." He waved a broad hand as if pushing painful memories into the background. "In the end it was either give up Earl or give up my place here."
He held both hands palms up, spread them apart, turned them over and let them fall to his sides. His eyes looked moist with unshed tears.
"I sold out," he said. "This peaceful little valley will become a real estate development. There will be sidewalks and lampposts and children with scooters and blatting radios. There will even"-he heaved a forlorn sigh-"be Television." He waved his hand in a sweeping gesture. "I hope they will spare the trees," he said, "but I'm afraid they won't. Along the ridges there will be television aerials instead. But Earl and I will be far away, I trust."
"Goodbye, Doctor. My heart bleeds for you."
He put out his hand. It was moist but very firm. "I appreciate your sympathy and understanding, Mr. Marlowe. And I regret I am unable to help you in your quest for Mr. Slade."
"Wade," I said.
"Pardon me, Wade, of course. Goodbye and good luck, sir."
I started up and drove back along the graveled road by the way I had come. I felt sad, but not quite as sad as Dr. Verringer would have liked me to feel.
I came out through the gates and drove far enough around the curve of the highway to park out of sight of the entrance. I got out and walked back along the edge of the paving to where I could just see the gates from the barbed-wire boundary fence. I stood there under a eucalyptus and waited.
Five minutes or. so passed. Then a car came down the private road churning gravel. It stopped out of sight from where I was. I pulled back still farther into the brush. I heard a creaking noise, then the click of a heavy catch and the rattle of a chain. The car motor revved up and the car went back up the road.
When the sound of it had died I went back to my Olds and did a U turn to face back towards town. As I drove past the entrance to Dr. Verringer's private road I saw that the gate was fastened with a padlocked chain. No more visitors today, thank you.