It was late summer, 1929, and the money was shoaled up all around us, warm and seemingly infinite as sand on Venice Beach. Old man Dabney’s luck with the drill and talent for cultivating friends in local government and the courts had given everyone at Dabney Oil space to breathe. The world was generous, and we were her favored sons. Most of my fellow executives followed the same loose schedule: newspapers read over the desk, a little dictation, a steam and then lunch across the street at the Athletic Club, bridge after.
I played bridge, too, but just for an hour, when the stakes were reasonable. Games ended, my colleagues might move upstairs for a massage, or a swim if they were feeling frisky. My pleasure was to take the air.
Los Angeles had grown up around me into a loose-limbed teenager, tall and jittery. To the sleepy, slightly sleazy grove- man’s village that I’d settled in fresh from failing to find an English foothold had come oil and real estate speculation, motion pictures and tourism, dream makers and sharpies.
And people—so many new faces every year. Swinging my stick above the lurid terrazzo cartoons that stood in for sidewalks along Broadway, I passed shop windows bursting with bright fashions, while the prettiest women in the world strolled by with that peculiarly brisk gait that I’d never seen anywhere else.
The Art Deco was in fashion, and everywhere the eye was caught by zigzagging chevrons of gold, silver, crimson or black. They were pressed into clay panels being applied to the new buildings along Hill Street, crystalline structures with sharp crests that blocked the sun. You saw them beneath the knees of the women, bright bands of color against the plain crepe of their day dresses, or printed on the shop- ping bags heaped in the backs of open cars where hulking drivers sat and smoked in the sun. The style denoted energy and action, abstraction, haste. Ours was a city on fire with becoming, the suburbs reaching farther from the core by the week.
I had friends all over Los Angeles. My barber was Castilian, a real Catholic gentleman. He talked about the impossibility of women while he scraped the morning’s film from my cheeks, then bundled me up mute in hot towels scented with orange water. My feet on metal stirrups made me feel very small and young, just so long as the towels stayed on.
Inside the Alexandria, the boy at the coffee counter would slop a little gin in the cup if you left two dimes on top of your paper napkin, and I did on days when the stale darkness of a speak was more than I could bear. Blind Mario mixed up my tobacco behind a tall wooden stand, so I would hear but not see the different leaves blending together on the scale before he packed the pouch. Sometimes I’d close my eyes in his shop, and wonder how it would be to navigate one’s life without so essential a sense. I imagined that the smells of his small shop and those brought in on his customers’ bodies told him everything he needed to know about the world.
I liked to make new friends. The hotels, bus and train stations were good places to look for the signs. Nervously tapping feet in little slippers too pale for our dirty streets. Fingers twisting together over a pair of gloves. Eyes that found the clock too often, but never seemed to note the time.
Some of these fair creatures would be swept up by their people as I watched, but if ten minutes passed after I first noticed a stray, I considered it my English duty to inquire as to the state of her constitution. For if I didn’t help her, some wolf surely would.
Today’s rescue was a near child from Colorado Springs, a high colored blonde with an overbite and a dress two inches the wrong side of à la mode, who was sitting right at the edge of the longest bench at the bus station. She wanted, of course, to go to Hollywood and make big eyes in motion pictures. As we spoke I saw she had a chance, so I shelved the secretarial school line which sometimes applied.
I had a pretty good lecture on what a smart girl might expect from the nascent industry, the proper ways to go about supporting herself as she awaited discovery, how the Central Casting office functioned, where to find smart shoes at last season’s prices.
I played down the warnings, since playing them up seemed to scare these hopefuls into sullen silence. More effective was a throwaway suggestion that she was, of course, sophisticated enough to recognize that there were, as in any business, certain self-important boobs who would waste her time. But only, of course, if she let them.
When I put her on a streetcar bound for a reasonably priced women’s-only residence in Crown Hill, she rewarded me with a smile too big and too sincere to last long in Los Angeles, and I set off for the office with renewed energy. I might get a bit of work done yet.
The old man’s nephew came into the office around 3 p.m. Such an arrival wasn’t especially unusual. Five or six days a month, he’d roll in dressed in that ridiculous après- tennis wardrobe and hole up in the big suite they kept for him at the back of the floor. Years on, I still wasn’t clear on what he did there. Sometimes you’d hear the thwack of a golf club against a fresh ball, and there were afternoons when he kept the switchboard operator busy connecting calls and the prettier secretaries took dictation. Dabney Oil pumped on regardless of his shallow efforts, pouring money into the firm so I could spend my own afternoons in idle wanderings around the neighborhood and he could never wear the same socks twice.
It was hot out and I felt a little fuzzy. Muriel, ever anticipatory, had made up the daybed behind my desk. That meant my left ear was close to the old man’s wall when his nephew let out that weird howl, then commenced to sob.
The sound of a man crying hysterically is repulsive, and, I discovered, sobering. I was at my desk skimming the mail when the old man came in a few minutes later to ask me to join him next door, where his brother’s son was still audibly gulping.
The heavy door closed behind us like a jug, and although I kept my own office dim, it still took my eyes a moment to adjust to the symphony of brown velvet drapery, green leather, dark wood and hammered copper that made up the old man’s lair. I took my usual seat by the shrouded window, where I liked to play with the slick woven tassel that was only tugged late at night when the cleaning crew came in to swab other- wise untouched surfaces and empty the waste bin.
The nephew looked small in a wing chair facing the wide desk, and when he saw me he rammed his long, wet nose into a filmy hankie and pantomimed an abrupt nasal excavation. When he looked up again, he was pretty well presentable. I was impressed at how he’d pulled himself together, but then it wouldn’t do have the help see you flopping like a perch.
The big fish spoke. “Clifford, you know Ray Chandler. He’s one of my best men, and I want you to tell him every- thing that you’ve told me.”
“But, nothing. You want my help and you’ll take his, and be glad of it. So shut up!” He gurgled, with that peculiar noise that rich men made when briefly challenged. “Ray, it appears that my nephew has found himself in something of a cash shortage, via certain unorthodox investments. Nothing that you can’t untangle, my boy. Clifford is going to tell you all about it, and then you’re to spend the next—ah, let’s say week—locating as much of the missing assets as you’re able, and determining if any fraud has been perpetrated against this lad. I want to know what’s happened before I make good on any losses, and if there’s a crime that’s been perpetrated, perhaps District Attorney Fitts would like to know it.”
Clifford Dabney, hunched in the big green chair, looked himself a bit green at the direction his uncle’s instructions were taking, but said nothing. The old man was on a roll.
“This won’t be the first time and I fear it won’t be the last I have to bail young Dabney out, but I swore to his mother I’d see that he was ever safe and well. It’s not so very much money he’s lost, since I never give him much to lose. How much this time, boy?”
“$40,000, uncle. Over several years, though. Not all at once like that time in Vienna.”
“Ray will find it. Now tell him about this ugly old woman who swindled you like the idiot child you are.”
The nephew made a dive for his nose rag, and for a long moment the only sound in the room was the wheeze of sobs swallowed in his chest. He made me sick, but I had my position to think of. Today the old man was gnawing at Clifford’s manhood, but tomorrow it could easily be mine.
Standing, I suggested he follow me into my office, where he might find the air a little fresher, and we could get down to the business at hand. He came wordlessly, grateful for the chance to get away from his tormentor. Just before shut- ting the big door, I nodded briskly at the old man, and he returned the gesture. He liked to believe I had rare gifts of intuition and persuasion, and I saw no reason to dissuade him of these fantasies.
The first thing I did was to call for Muriel, without whom nothing of any consequence could be done. And when she came, I asked for coffee. Fifteen minutes later, the three of us were huddled round my desk like old friends, and young Dabney, who was well past thirty, fading fast and probably ought to ease the mauve slacks from his wardrobe, had tucked his slimy tissue out of sight. I later discovered it under the pillow on my daybed. We talked in loose circles about the Ventura wells—a safe topic of conversation since the collapse of old man Gosnell’s fraud suit some months before—and the new modernist chairs in the conference room, but when I got down to business and Muriel flipped open her stenographer’s pad, he turned vague.
“There really isn’t much I can tell you, Chandler. It was a publishing venture, and you know how tricky those things are.”
“Are they so tricky?”
“Well, this one was. For one thing, the work I was underwriting was a series, and the writers—well, let’s just say they had trouble keeping to a deadline. Then, too, it was all leading up to something quite special, which was not for public consumption. But we never quite got there, did we? And without that last volume, I’m afraid all I put into it is wasted.”
He sighed. “It’s funny. While we were working together it all seemed so important, but when I told May and Ruth that I didn’t have the money for the next-to-last pamphlet—” he trailed off and slumped.
“They didn’t have any further use for you?”
“That’s right. Nor me for them. I turned off the money, they turned off the charm, and it all seemed sort of dead, all at once. Listen, Chandler—you know this business. My uncle’s no great genius, but to hear him tell it you’d think he personally charted the paths of those oil fields and forged every under-reamer bit himself. He was born at the right time and had the right friends to make a killing—something he lords over all of us little mice who eat at his table.”
He looked to me for validation. I made a face that could be read as agreement, but that he could never quote me on.
He wasn’t finished. “Damn California! This state’s made monsters of mere merchants, smug little men from the middle west who think they’re kings. But I guess they are kings. All I wanted was to find my own way in the world, bring some wealth to my own table. But it seems like I just fell for a con game, like the idiot he thinks I am.”
“This May and Ruth were—?”
“The mother and the daughter. Very interesting women. Ruth is beautiful, but it’s May who can captivate. They’re spiritually enlightened, and I have to admit, some of their ideas do make sense, even now. My wife and I were drawn into the fold, and we enjoyed the sense of community, and the working together towards a greater good. My god, we spent five years with them. We thought they were our friends!”
“And the wealth you mentioned?”
“Oh, I expect it will sound crazy to you. But you see, the angel Gabriel spoke to them—about the sin of Noah, and the secret stolen by his son, Ham—Ham, who was made black by his sins. You know, of course, that there are a great many diamonds in Africa. That’s no coincidence. Ham knew where to settle, even if he lacked the technology to drill in Bible days. That was Noah’s secret, though: how to read the stars to find the mineral wealth within the earth. And that was what we were waiting for the angel Gabriel to reveal.”
He looked me straight on. “Do you think I’m foolish?”
I did, but I also found him sympathetic. I’d been on the wrong side of his uncle’s temper often enough to see how the fantasy of controlling wealth untold would be delicious.
“Maybe a bit foolish. But California doesn’t just make merchants into kings, it also makes criminals into artists. The best in the world work here, and if you fell for them, they must have been very good at what they do.”
“Hmmph. That doesn’t make me feel any less foolish, but maybe with time it will. In any case, I don’t expect you’ll find much, but humor the old man, and do try not to make me look like too much of a dolt. While you’re out shaking carpets, I think I’ll check in for a rest someplace nice. If you’ve got questions, call the house and Alice will know where to find me.”
“Hold on, old man. Give me something to go on. I don’t even know these ladies’ complete names.”
He excused himself and trotted off towards his office, leaving my door ajar. When he returned, he slid a slim, black hardbound case, embossed in gold capitals, The Branch: Headstone Of The Corner, across my desk.
“You’ll find enough to keep you busy in the corporation minutes. Anything not accounted for, well, just say we spent it on the iceman.” His laugh was a dry cough, then he was gone in a cottontail flash of linen.
So much for my own gentleman’s hours. It wasn’t often that the old man gave me something to do, but when he did there’d be no rest until I could slide a reasonably thorough report under his door.
I must have looked defeated, because Muriel pressed her cup into my hands and whispered, “Drink up, darling. Brain food.” The coffee was bitter, and I choked it down.
An hour later, having split the file into halves, we’d learned that the secretary of The Branch had a gift for taking notes which, while ostensibly written in the English language and broken into paragraphs, conveyed a bare minimum of factual information. We had a few surnames and first initials of officers in addition to our own Mr. Dabney and his wife Alice, a smudged notary stamp from an office in far rural Chatsworth, and headaches from skimming such incongruous gobbledygook as “Can a tree sin? There is no evil in your furniture.”
I slid down in my chair until my feet hit the stretcher on the far side.
Muriel said, “I could telephone Chatsworth, try to find this notary Jones, or Jakes, or Janes.”
I put my head down on the desk.
“Maybe this Mrs. M. O. Blackburn, President, is in the telephone book. M. is for May, of course. O. may be a maiden name, or a first husband.”
“Oh, come on, Ray. It can’t be that difficult to track the activities of an idiot like Dabney. He’s too stupid to cover his tracks, even if his partners did.”
“Easy for you to say. You’re used to working all day.”
But she was right. And I knew just the man to sniff out Dabney’s trail, along with any money that remained.
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