Somebody in Pacific Point is guilty of a kidnapping, but what probation officer Howard Cross wants to find most is innocence: in an ex-war hero who has taken a tough manslaughter rap, in a wealthy woman with a heart full of secrets, and in a blue-eyed beauty who has lost her way. The trouble is that the abduction has already turned to murder, and the more Cross pries into the case the further he slips into a pool of violence and evil. Somewhere in the California desert the whole scheme may come down on the wrong man. Somewhere Cross is going to find the last piece of a bloody puzzle--a mystery of blackmail, passion, and hidden identities that might be better left unsolved.
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December 06, 2010
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Excerpt from Meet Me at the Morgue by Ross Macdonald
I met the boy on the morning of the kidnapping. It was a Bright and blowing day. The wind was fresh from the sea, and the piled white cubes of the city sparkled under a swept blue sky. I had to force myself to go to work.
A bronze-painted sports car with a long foreign nose was standing at the curb in front of the County Annex building. I parked in my regular space, a few yards behind it. So far as I knew, there was only one bronze Jaguar in town. It belonged to Abel Johnson. I wasn't surprised when Fred Miner, Johnson's driver, emerged from my second-floor office and started down the outside steps to the street.
Fred reached the sidewalk and turned in my direction, a stocky man in his middle thirties who walked with a peculiar stiff-backed roll. The faded Navy suntans he always wore had darker patches on the sleeve, where his Chief's stripes and hash-mark had been removed. His only concession to his civilian occupation was a black, peaked chauffeur's cap, which shadowed his eyes. He passed my car without seeing me, his face closed in thought.
There was a yelp and a Hurry of movement from the sports car. A small boy with a head of bright red hair scrambled over the door and launched himself like a missile at Fred's legs. The man's face opened in a laugh of pure delight. Taking the boy under the arms, he swung him upside down in the air and set him back on his feet:
"Knock it off now, swabbie. This is no time for games. Come to attention."
"Okay, Fred," the boy chirped. "Aye, aye, sir, I mean." He brought his feet together and arched his back.
"Now wipe that smile off your face or I'll break you down to apprentice seaman and take away your privileges for fifteen years."
"Aye, aye, sir."
The boy giggled. Fred tried to repress a snort of mirth, and couldn't. They stood on the sidewalk laughing into each other's faces. Passers-by smiled at them.
I stepped out of my car. When Fred saw me his face changed. "Moming, Mr. Cross," he said without enthusiasm.
"Hello, Fred. Looking for me?"
"I came in to see Mr. Linebarge."
"He's on his vacation."
"Yeah, the little lady told me. I was up to your office already."
"I thought you didn't have to report until next week."
'lt wasn't that. I didn't come in to report. It was just a couple of questions I wanted to take up with Mr. Linebarge."
"About your probation?"
He looked sheepish, and shifted his weight from one leg to the other and back again. Being on probation embarrassed Fred. "More or less. It wasn't anything important."
"Can I help?"
He backed away a step. "No, I wouldn't want to bother you, Mr. Cross. I'll be seeing Mr. Linebarge next Saturday, anyway. He'll be back next Saturday, won't he?"
"He will if he doesn't drown. He's gone on a fishing-trip."
The boy reached up and tugged at Fred's belt. "ls something the matter? Can't we go on our trip?"
"Sure we can, Jamie." He brushed the cropped red head with his hand. "Remember now, no talking in the ranks."
"Is this the Johnson boy?" I said.
"Yessir, this is Jamie Johnson. Jamie, meet Mr. Cross." He added with a trace of irony: "Mr. Cross is a very good friend of mine."
The boy gave me a sticky hand. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Cross. Any friend of Fred's is a friend of mine."
Fred's face lit up, but he said in a quarterdeck voice: "You hustle back aboard now, before you talk yourself to death."
The boy scampered back to the Jaguar and dove head first over the low door. The last I saw of him was a thin denim behind and a pair of kicking moccasins.
"He's a bright youngster," I said. "How old is he?"
"Watch it, he'll hear you." Fred crossed his lips with an oil-grained forefinger, and lowered his voice. "He shouldn't hear himself praised too much, it might give him a swell head. It's going to be tough enough on him with all the dough in the family. Jamie's four."
"He's doing all right for four. Who taught him his manners?"
"He'll get by. I make him toe the mark." Fred started to move away. "Well, so long, Mr. Cross. Nice seeing you."
"Hold it a minute. What's up?"
"There's nothing up," he answered woodenly.
"The boy said you were going on a trip. You're not leaving the county?"
"No, I'm not going anywhere." He was a long time answering.
I was almost sure he was lying. "You know the rules. You're not allowed to go out of the county without definite permission from our office."
"I know it." He colored uncomfortably. "I'm just taking Jamie for a ride. Is that illegal?"
"You're not supposed to drive except in line of work."
"I got my orders. That makes it work, doesn't it?" He glanced nervously towards the sports car. "I ought to be on my way now, Mr. Cross."
"Your way to where?"
His face had closed up completely again, into a mask of blank hostility. "I'm not supposed to tell anybody that."
"Are you in some kind of trouble?"
"No sir, I'm not. I haven't been in any trouble since February and I don't intend to get into any trouble." He said it with conviction.
"I'll take your word for it, Fred. You're all right as long as you don't leave the county, obey the traffic laws, and stay on the wagon. You know what happens if you break those conditions."
From the courthouse tower across the street, a bell began to sound the three-quarter hour. We both looked up at the tower clock. It was a quarter to nine.
"I know what happens," he said. "I've got to shove off now, Mr. Cross."
"What's the hurry?"
He didn't answer. The vibration of the bell still hung in the air above us like an echoing warning. He squinted up at the great iron-faced clock and shifted his feet impatiently.
"That's a fast car," I said. "What will it do?"
"A hundred and twenty, maybe. I never opened her up."
"Remember to hold it down to fifty-five."
"I'll remember. Can I go now?"
I watched him climb into the driver's seat of the Jaguar. It was a tight fit. Fred was thick in the chest and wide across the shoulders, and his back was stiff from being broken in the war. As he was maneuvering himself in under the low convertible top, I noticed the gun-shaped bulge in his hip pocket.
I wasn't sure it was a gun. I didn't know whether he had the legal right to carry one. Before I decided to stop him the bronze car leaped away from the curb and disappeared around the corner of the courthouse. The fading sound of its motor was like an ill wind.
Ann Devon looked up from her typewriter when I entered the outer office. She was one of my two assistant probation-officers, a mouse blonde with a recent degree in psychology and large untapped reserves of girlish fervor. Turned in her chair against the light from the window, she made a very pleasant silhouette.
"Good morning, Howie. There's something on your mind."
"Please don't be intuitive so early in the day. I find it wearing."
"You might as well tell me," she said. "You always get those nasty vertical wrinkles between the eyebrows."
"Maybe it wasn't such a bad idea."
"Come on now, Howie. Tell good gray Doctor Devon." She was twenty-four.
I sat on the corner of her desk. On the far corner she had set a bowl of multicolored sweet peas that contrasted prettily with the calcimined walls and scuffed office furniture.
"What was Fred Miner after, or wouldn't he tell you, either?"
"He wanted to see Alex. I told him Alex was away, and he seemed rather worried and disappointed."
"Did he say why?"
"He mumbled something obscure about wanting to go through channels, and do the right thing for every body."
"I think there's something up his sleeve," I said. "1 met him on the sidewalk just now, and he acted pretty evasive. I couldn't get him to open up."
"You won't be mad if I tell you something, Howie? I think he's afraid of you."
"Quite a few people are. When you put on that grim righteous look. I was scared myself for the first six months or so."
"I don't see why."
"You have a terrible lot of power over these people."
"I don't misuse it if I can help it." The conversation was beginning to irritate me.
"I know you don't. I wonder if Fred Miner knows it, though. With his Navy experience, he must be aware of what official power can do to him if he makes the slightest slip. After all, he doesn't know you the way he does Alex. I told him you'd be in soon, but he wouldn't wait. Probably he came in to ask Alex's advice about some private problem."
"He didn't say anything about going away?"
"Not a word. I'm sure you don't have to be concerned about him. Alex told me he's adjusting wonderfully." Ann's blue eyes darkened with feeling. "Personally I think he's a sturdy character. If I killed a man with my car, I swear I'd never be able to drive again."
"You call it driving, what you do?"
"I'm serious. You mustn't make fun of me."
"You mustn't waste all your fine emotion on a hit-run driver and a married man to boot."
She colored slightly. "Don't be ridiculous. My feelings about our clients are quite impersonal. Anyway, he isn't a hit-run driver, morally speaking. Alex says he didn't know he'd run over anyone, so it wasn't his fault."
"When they've been drinking, it's always their fault. You can pin that in your hat. It's an axiom."
Her eyes widened. "Had he been drinking? Alex didn't tell me that."
"Alex doesn't talk about his cases any more than he has to. It's a good rule to follow."
She said with a flash of impudence: "You're very morallecturey this morning." But her curiosity overcame her pique. "How do you know Fred Miner was drinking that night?"
"I read the police report. They gave him an intoximeter test when they arrested him. He was heavily loaded, over two hundred milligrams."
"Poor man. I didn't realize he was that way. Perhaps we should run a Rorschach on him. Alcoholics always have deep-seated emotional problems--"
"He isn't alcoholic. He simply got drunk, as a lot of people do, and killed a man. Don't waste your sympathy on him, because he's been lucky. His wife stayed with him. His boss stood by him. If it wasn't for that, and his war record, Miner would be in jail."
"Well, I'm glad he isn't." She added irrationally: "Even if you're not."
She lowered her head and fired a machine-gun burst on the typewriter. Our conversations often ended like that. I liked to think that it was the ancient conflict between heart and head, with me representing head.
The courthouse clock had already struck nine, and I felt its delayed, guilty echo. Closing the door of the inner office rather sharply, I took off 'my jacket for work and spent the next two hours on the Dictaphone. I was doing a report on a prosperous matron who had been arrested for stealing several dresses from local shops. The dresses were invariably size nine. The lady was size eighteen, and had no children.
Between the paragraphs, my mind kept turning to Fred Miner. Though I wouldn't admit it to Ann, I felt a certain satisfaction in his case. Three months ago, in early February, it hadn't looked too promising.
According to the sheriff's office and the city police, Fred had got himself violently drunk on a Saturday night, had taken one of his employer's cars without permission, had run a man down in the road near Johnson's country house, and then driven on into town without stopping. The city police caught him steering in long sweeping arcs along the ocean boulevard, and booked him for drunken driving. The sheriff's men didn't find the body in the road until later that night, and then they were unable to identify the victim.
But one of the fog lamps was smashed on the Lincoln that Fred had been driving. Fragments of yellow glass from the fog lamp were scattered at the scene of the accident. One long shard of glass was found imbedded in the dead man's eye cavity.
The courthouse crowd predicted that Fred would be found guilty on a felony charge and sentenced to two to five years in state prison. Then Abel Johnson came back from his winter house in the desert. He found bail for Fred and put his personal lawyer on the case. The lawyer, a man named Seifel, pleaded him guilty to a reduced charge of involuntary manslaughter and applied for probation.
I assigned Alex Linebarge to do the report on Miner. Alex spent nearly a month going over his record with a fine-tooth comb. He came up with the conclusion that Fred Miner was a solid citizen who had made one grave mistake but wasn't very likely to make another. Fred was sentenced to one year in the county jail, suspended; he was fined three hundred dollars and put on five years' probation.
On the whole he had been lucky, as I said. His life had been salvaged, and my department had a stake in it. He'd fallen, been caught before he hit the bottom, and hoisted back to the moral tightrope that everyone has to walk every day.
But a man on probation walks his own high wire without a net. If he falls twice, he falls hard, into prison.