chapter 1THERE WAS LIGHT early morning traffic on Sepulveda. As I drove over the low pass, the sun came up glaring behind the blue crags on the far side of the valley. For a minute or two, before regular day set in, everything looked fresh and new and awesome as creation.I left the freeway at Canoga Park and stopped at a drive-in for a ninety-nine-cent breakfast. Then I went on up to the Sebastians' place in Woodland Hills.Keith Sebastian had given me detailed instructions on how to find his house. It was an angular contemporary house cantilevered out over a slope. The slope ran steeply down to the edge of a golf course, green from the first of the winter rains.Keith Sebastian came out of the house in shirt sleeves. He was a handsome man of forty or so, with thick curly brown hair frosted at the sides. He hadn't shaved yet, and his growth of beard looked like fibrous dirt that his lower face had been rubbed in."It's good of you to come right out," he said when I had introduced myself. "I realize it's an ungodly hour--""You didn't pick it, and I don't mind. I gather she hasn't come home yet.""No, she hasn't. Since I called you I've found out something else is missing. My shotgun, and a box of shells.""You think your daughter took them?""I'm afraid she must have. The gun cabinet wasn't broken, and nobody else knew where the key to it was. Except my wife, of course."Mrs. Sebastian had appeared as if on cue at the open front door. She was thin and dark and rather beautiful in a haggard sort of way, and she was wearing fresh lipstick and a fresh yellow linen dress."Come in," she said to both of us. "It's cold out."She made a shivery self-hugging gesture which didn't end when it should have. She went on shivering."This is Mr. Lew Archer," Sebastian was saying. "The private detective I called." He spoke as if he was presenting me to her as a kind of peace offering.She answered him impatiently: "I guessed that. Come in, I've made some coffee."I sat between them at the kitchen counter and drank the bitter brew from a thin cup. The place seemed very clean and very empty. The light pouring in through the window had a cruel clarity."Can Alexandria fire a shotgun?" I asked them. "Anybody can," Sebastian said glumly. "All you have to do is pull the trigger."His wife cut in. "Actually Sandy's a fair shot. The Hacketts took her quail hunting earlier this year. Much against my wishes, I might add.""You might and did," Sebastian said. "I'm sure the experience was good for her.""She hated it. She said so in her diary. She hates to kill things.""She'll get over it. And I know it gave pleasure to Mr. and Mrs. Hackett.""Here we go again."But before they did, I said: "Who in hell are Mr. and Mrs. Hackett?"Sebastian gave me a self-revealing look, partly offended, partly patronizing."Mr. Stephen Hackett is my boss. That is, he controls the holding company that controls the savings and loan company I work for. He owns quite a few other things, too.""Including you," his wife said. "But not my daughter.""That's unfair, Bernice. I never said--""It's what you do that counts."I got up and walked around to the other side of the counter and stood facing them. They both looked a little startled and ashamed."All this is very interesting," I said. "But I didn't get out of bed at five o'clock in the morning to referee a family argument. Let's concentrate on your daughter Sandy. How old is she, Mrs. Sebastian?""Seventeen. She's in her senior year."Doing well?""She was until the last few months. Then her grades started slipping, quite badly.""Why?"She looked down into her coffee cup. "I don't really know why." She sounded evasive, unwilling even to give herself an answer."Of course you know why," her husband said. "All this has happened since she took up with that wild man. Davy what's-his-name.""He isn't a man. He's a nineteen-year-old boy and we handled the whole thing abominably.""What whole thing, Mrs. Sebastian?"She held out her arms as if she was trying to encompass the situation, then dropped them in despair. "The business of the boy. We mishandled it.""She means I did, as usual," Sebastian said. "But I only did what I had to do. Sandy was starting to run wild. Skipping school to have afternoon dates with this fellow. Spending her nights on the Strip and God knows where else. Last night I went out and hunted them down—"His wife interrupted him. "It wasn't last night. It was the night before last.""Whenever it was." His voice seemed to be weakening under the steady cold force of her disapproval. It shifted gears, to a kind of chanting shout. "I hunted them down in a weird joint in West Hollywood. They were sitting there in public with their arms around each other. I told him if he didn't stay away from my daughter I'd take my shotgun and blow his bloody head off.""My husband watches a good deal of television," Mrs. Sebastian said dryly."Make fun of me if you want to, Bernice. Somebody had to do what I did. My daughter was running wild with a criminal. I brought her home and locked her in her room. What else could a man do?"His wife was silent for once. She moved her fine dark head slowly from side to side.I said: "Do you know the young man is a criminal?""He served time in the county jail for auto theft.""Joy riding," she said."Call it what you like. It wasn't a first offense, either.""How do you know?""Bernice read it in her diary."I'd like to see this famous diary.""No," Mrs. Sebastian said. "It was bad enough for me to have read it. I shouldn't have." She took a deep breath. "We haven't been very good parents, I'm afraid. I'm just as much to blame as my husband is, in subtler ways. But you don't want to go into that.""Not now." I was weary of the war of the generations, the charges and countercharges, the escalations and negotiations, the endless talk across the bargaining table. "How long has your daughter been gone?"Sebastian looked at his wrist watch. "Nearly twenty-three hours. I let her out of her room yesterday morning. She seemed to have calmed down—""She was furious," her mother said. "But I never thought when she started out for school that she had no intention of going there. We didn't really catch on until about six o'clock last night when she didn't come home for dinner. Then I got in touch with her homeroom teacher and found out she'd been playing hooky all day. By that time it was dark already."She looked at the window as if it was still dark, now and forever. I followed her glance. Two people were striding along the fairway, a man and a woman, both white-haired, as if they'd grown old in the quest for their small white ball."One thing I don't understand," I said. "If you thought she was going to school yesterday morning, what about the gun?""She must have put it in the trunk of her car," Sebastian said."I see. She's driving a car.""That's one of the reasons we're so concerned." Sebastian pushed his face forward across the counter. I felt like a bartender being consulted by a drunk. But it was fear he was drunk on. "You've had some experience in these matters. Why would she take my shotgun, for heaven's sake?""I can think of one possible reason, Mr. Sebastian. You told her you'd blow her friend's head off with it.""But she couldn't have taken me seriously.""I do.""So do I," his wife said.Sebastian hung his head like a prisoner in the dock. But he said under his breath: "By God, I will kill him if he doesn't bring her back.""Good thinking, Keith," his wife said.chapter 2THE FRICTION BETWEEN the two was starting to rasp on my nerves. I asked Sebastian to show me his gun cabinet. He took me into a small study which was partly library and partly gun room.There were light and heavy rifles standing upright behind glass in the mahogany gun cabinet, and an empty slot where a double-barreled shotgun had fitted. The bookshelves held a collection of best sellers and book-club editions, and one drab row of textbooks in economics and advertising psychology."Are you in advertising?""Public relations. I'm chief PR officer for Centennial Savings and Loan. Actually I should be there this morning. We're deciding on our program for next year.""It can wait one day, can't it?""I don't know."He turned to the gun cabinet, opening it and the drawer under it where he kept his shells. They unlocked with the same brass key."Where was the key?""In the top drawer of my desk." He opened the drawer and showed me. "Sandy knew where I kept it, of course.""But anybody else could easily have found it.""That's true. But I'm sure she took it.""Why?""I just have a feeling.""Is she gun-happy?""Certainly not. When you're properly trained in the use of guns, you don't become gun-happy, as you call it.""Who trained her?""I did, naturally. I'm her father."He went to the gun cabinet and touched the barrel of the heavy rifle. Carefully he closed the glass door and locked it. He must have caught his reflection in the glass. He backed away from it, scouring his bearded chin with his cupped palm."I look terrible. No wonder Bernice has been picking at me. My face is coming apart."He excused himself and went away to put his face together. I took a peek at my own face in the glass. I didn't look too happy. Early morning was not my best thinking time, but I formulated a vague unhappy thought: Sandy was middle girl in a tense marriage, and at the moment I was middle man.Mrs. Sebastian came softly into the room and stood beside me in front of the gun cabinet."I married a boy scout," she said."There are sorrier fates.""Name one. My mother warned me not to take up with a good-looking man. Marry brains, she told me. But I wouldn't listen. I should have stuck with my modeling career. At least I can depend on my own bones." She patted the hip nearest me."You have good bones. Also, you're very candid.""I got that way in the course of the night.""Show me your daughter's diary.""I will not.""Are you ashamed of her?""Of myself," she said. "What could the diary tell you that I can't tell you?""If she was sleeping with this boy, for instance.""Of course she wasn't," she said with a little flash of anger."Or anybody else.""That's absurd." But her face went sallow."Was she?""Of course not. Sandy's remarkably innocent for her age."Or was. Let's hope she still is."Bernice Sebastian retreated to higher ground. "I—we didn't hire you to pry into my daughter's morals.""You didn't hire me, period. In a chancy case like this, I need a retainer, Mrs. Sebastian.""What do you mean, chancy?""Your daughter could come home at any time. Or you and your husband could change your minds—"She stopped me with an impatient flick of her hand. "All right, how much do you want?""Two days' pay and expenses, say two hundred and fifty." She sat at the desk, got a checkbook out of the second drawer, and wrote me a check. "What else?""Some recent pictures of her.""Sit down, I'll get you some."When she was gone, I examined the checkbook stubs. After paying me my retainer, the Sebastians had less than two hundred dollars left in their bank account. Their smart new house cantilevered over a steep drop was an almost perfect image of their lives.Mrs. Sebastian came back with a handful of pictures. Sandy was a serious-looking girl who resembled her mother in her dark coloring. Most of the pictures showed her doing things: riding a horse, riding a bicycle, standing on a diving board ready to dive, pointing a gun. The gun looked like the same .22 rifle as the one in the gun cabinet. She held it as if she knew how to use it."What about this gun bit, Mrs. Sebastian? Was it Sandy's idea?""It was Keith's. His father brought him up to hunt. Keith passed on the great tradition to his daughter." Her voice was sardonic."Is she your only child?""That's right. We have no son."May I go through her room?"The woman hesitated. "What do you expect to find? Evidence of transvestitism? Narcotics?"She was still trying to be sardonic, but the questions came through literally to me. I'd found stranger things than those in young people's rooms.Sandy's room was full of sunlight and fresh sweet odors. I found pretty much what you'd expect to find in the bedroom of an innocent, serious high-school senior. A lot of sweaters and skirts and books, both high-school books and a few good novels like A High Wind in Jamaica. A menagerie of cloth animals. College pennants, mostly Ivy League. A pink-frilled vanity with cosmetics laid out on the top of it in geometrical patterns. The photograph of another young girl smiling from a silver frame on the wall."Who's that?""Sandy's best friend, Heidi Gensler.""I'd like to talk to her."Mrs. Sebastian hesitated. These hesitations of hers were brief but tense and somber, as if she was planning her moves far ahead in a high-stakes game."The Genslers don't know about this," she said."You can't look for your daughter and keep it a secret both at the same time. Are the Genslers friends of yours?""They're neighbors. The two girls are the real friends." She made her decision suddenly. "I'll ask Heidi to drop over before she goes to school.""Why not right away?"She left the room. I made a quick search of possible hiding places, under the pink oval lamb's-wool rug, between the mattress and springs, on the high dark shelf in the closet, behind and under the clothes in the chest of drawers. I shook out some of the books. From the center of Sonnets from the Portuguese a scrap of paper fluttered.I picked it up from the rug. It was part of a lined notebook page on which someone had written in precise black script:Listen, bird, you give me a painIn my blood swinging about.I think I better open a veinAnd let you bloody well out.
Copyright © 2008 by Ross Macdonald. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.