The Far Side of the Dollar

 by Ross MacDonald


IT WAS AUGUST, and it shouldn't have been raining. Perhaps rain was too strong a word for the drizzle that blurred the landscape and kept my windshield wipers going. I was driving south, about halfway between Los Angeles and San Diego.

The school lay off the highway to my right, in large grounds of its own which stretched along the seashore. Toward the sea I caught the dull sheen of the slough that gave the place its name, Laguna Perdida. A blue heron, tiny in the distance, stood like a figurine at the edge of the ruffled water.

I entered the grounds through automatic gates, which lifted when my car passed over a treadle. A gray- headed man in a blue serge uniform came out of a kiosk and limped in my direction.

`You got a pass?'

`Dr Sponti wants to see me. My name is Archer.'

`That's right, I got your name here.'

He took a typewritten list out of the inside breast pocket of his jacket and brandished it as if he was proud of his literacy. `You can park in the lot in front of the administration building. Sponti's office is right inside.'

He gestured toward a stucco building a hundred yards down the road.

I thanked him. He started to limp back to his kiosk, then paused and turned and struck himself on the leg. `Bad knee. World War 1'

'You don't look that old.'

`I'm not. I was fifteen when I enlisted; told them I was eighteen. Some of the boys in here,' he said with a sudden flashing look around him, `could do with a taste of fire.'

There were no boys anywhere in sight. The buildings of the school, widely distributed among bare fields and dripping eucalyptus groves, lay under the gray sky like scattered components of an unbuilt city.

`Do you know the Hillman boy?'

I said to the guard.

`I heard about him. He's a troublemaker. He had East Hall all stirred up before he took off: Patch was fit to be tied.'

`Who's Patch?'

`Mr. Patch,' he said without affection, `is the supervisor for East Hall. He lives in with the boys, and it plays hell with his nerves.'

`What did the Hillman boy do?'

`Tried to start a rebellion, according to Patch. Said the boys in the school had civil rights like anybody else. Which ain't so. They're all minors, and most of them are crazy in the head, besides. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've seen in my fourteen years on this gate.'

`Did Tommy Hillman go out through the gate?'

`Naw. He went over the fence. Cut a screen in the boys' dorm and sneaked out in the middle of the night.'

`Night before last?'

`That's right. He's probably home by now.'

He wasn't or I wouldn't have been there.

Dr Sponti must have seen me parking my car. He was waiting for me in the secretary's enclosure outside the door of his office. He had a glass of buttermilk in his left hand and a dietetic wafer in his right. He popped the wafer into his mouth and shook my hand, munching, `I'm glad to see you.'

He was dark and florid and stout, with the slightly desperate look of a man who had to lose weight. I guessed that he was an emotional man-he had that liquid tremor of the eye-but one who had learned to keep his feelings under control. He was expensively and conservatively dressed in a dark-pinstripe suit which hung on him a little loosely. His hand was soft and chilly.

Dr Sponti reminded me of undertakers I had known. Even his office, with its dark mahogany furniture and the gray light at the window, had a funereal look, as if the school and its director were in continuous mourning for its students.

`Sit down,' he said with a melancholy flourish. `We have a little problem, as I told you on the long-distance telephone. Ordinarily we don't employ private detectives to-ah-persuade our lost boys to come home. But this is a rather special case, I'm afraid.'

`What makes it special?'

Sponti sipped his buttermilk, and licked his upper lip with the tip of his tongue. `Forgive me. Can I offer you some lunch?'

`No thanks.'

`I don't mean this.'

Irritably, he jiggled the sluggish liquid in his glass. `I can have something hot sent over from dining

Вы читаете The Far Side of the Dollar
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату