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by Ross Macdonald
Description: Lew Archer was out for a little target practice. Just a deserted old estate in the canyon where Archer could get away from the Hollywood rat race and sharpen his shooting skills down in the meadow. But he found two things there he wasn't expecting. One was a crazy old vagrant that had set up in dilapidated gatehouse. And two was a glittering red object on the ground. It was a red enameled fingernail that just happens to still be attached to its owner. A young blonde who was strangled, buried and very much dead. Now Lew Archer's chance to get away from it all, just got away. And the wild old vagrant has decided to runaway too!
eBook Publisher: Wonder Audiobooks, LLC/Wonder eBooks, 1960 Ed McBain's Mystery Magazine
eBookwise Release Date: May 2010
15 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [51 KB]
Reading time: 29-41 min.
It had rained in the canyon during the night. The world had the colored freshness of a butterfly just emerged from the chrysalis stage and trembling in the sun. Actual butterflies danced in flight across free spaces of air or played a game of tag without any rules among the tree branches. At this height there were giant pines among the eucalyptus trees.
I parked my car where I usually parked it, in the shadow of the stone building just inside the gates of the old estate. Just inside the posts, that is--the gates had long since fallen from their rusted hinges. The owner of the country house had died in Europe, and the place had stood empty since the war. It was one reason I came here on the occasional Sunday when I wanted to get away from the Hollywood rat race. Nobody lived within two miles.
Until now, anyway. The window of the gatehouse overlooking the drive had been broken the last time that I'd noticed it. Now it was patched up with a piece of cardboard. Through a hole punched in the middle of the cardboard, bright emptiness watched me--human eye's bright emptiness.
"Hello," I said.
A grudging voice answered: "Hello."
The gatehouse door creaked open, and a white-haired man came out. A smile sat strangely on his ravaged face. He walked mechanically, shuffling in the leaves, as if his body was not at home in the world. He wore faded denims through which his clumsy muscles bulged like animals in a sack. His feet were bare.
I saw when he came up to me that he was a huge old man, a head taller than I was and a foot wider. His smile was not a greeting or any kind of a smile that I could respond to. It was the stretched, blind grimace of a man who lived in a world of his own, a world that didn't include me.
"Get out of here. I don't want trouble. I don't want nobody messing around."
"No trouble," I said. "I came up to do a little target shooting. I probably have as much right here as you have."
His eyes widened. They were as blue and empty as holes in his head through which I could see the sky.
"Nobody has the rights here that I have. I lifted up mine eyes unto the hills and the voice spoke and I found sanctuary. Nobody's going to force me out of my sanctuary."
I could feel the short hairs bristling on the back of my neck. Though my instincts didn't say so, he was probably a harmless nut. I tried to keep my instincts out of my voice.
"I won't bother you. You don't bother me. That should be fair enough."
"You bother me just being here. I can't stand people. I can't stand cars. And this is twice in two days you come up harrying me and harassing me."
"I haven't been here for a month."
"You're an Ananias liar." His voice whined like a rising wind. He clenched his knobbed fists and shuddered on the verge of violence.
"Calm down, old man," I said. "There's room in the world for both of us."
He looked around at the high green world as if my words had snapped him out of a dream.
"You're right," he said in a different voice. "I have been blessed, and I must remember to be joyful. Joyful. Creation belongs to all of us poor creatures." His smiling teeth were as long and yellow as an old horse's. His roving glance fell on my car. "And it wasn't you who come up here last night. It was a different automobile. I remember."
He turned away, muttering something about washing his socks, and dragged his horny feet back into the gatehouse. I got my targets, pistol, and ammunition out of the trunk, and locked the car up tight. The old man watched me through his peephole, but he didn't come out again.
Below the road, in the wild canyon, there was an open meadow backed by a sheer bank which was topped by the crumbling wall of the estate. It was my shooting gallery. I slid down the wet grass of the bank and tacked a target to an oak tree, using the butt of my heavy-framed twenty-two as a hammer.
While I was loading it, something caught my eye--something that glinted red, like a ruby among the leaves. I stooped to pick it up and found that it was attached. It was a red-enameled fingernail at the tip of a white hand. The hand was cold and stiff.