Authors: Ross Macdonald
First Vintage Crime/Black Lizard Edition, December 1996
Copyright © 1964 by Ross Macdonald
Copyright renewed 1992 by Margaret Millar
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York, and simultaneously in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto. Originally published in hardcover by Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., New York, in 1964.
A condensed version of this novel appeared in
under the title “The Far Side.”
The Library of Congress has cataloged the Knopf edition as follows:
Library of Congress catalog card number: 65-10103
Random House Web address:
The people and events in this novel are all imaginary, and do not refer to any actual people or events.
, 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 I
“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.”
“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?”
“I don’t mean this.” Irritably, he jiggled the sluggish liquid in his glass. “I can have something hot sent over from dining commons. Veal scallopini is on the menu today.”
“No thanks. I’d rather you gave me the information I need and let me get to work. Why did you call me in to pick up a runaway? You must have a lot of runaways.”
“Not as many as you might think. Most of our boys become quite school-centered in time. We have a rich and varied program for them. But Thomas Hillman had been here less than a week, and he showed very little promise of becoming group-oriented. He’s quite a difficult young man.”
“And that’s what makes him special?”
“I’ll be frank with you, Mr. Archer,” he said, and hesitated. “This is rather a prickly situation for the school. I accepted Tom Hillman against my better judgment, actually without full knowledge of his history, simply because his father insisted upon it. And now Ralph Hillman blames us for his son’s esca—that is, his surreptitious leavetaking. Hillman has threatened to sue if any harm comes to the boy. The suit wouldn’t stand up in court—we’ve had such lawsuits before—but it could do us a great deal of public harm.” He added, almost to himself: “Patch really was at fault.”
“What did Patch do?”
“I’m afraid he was unnecessarily violent. Not that I blame him as man to man. But you’d better talk to Mr. Patch yourself. He can give you all the details of Tom’s—ah—departure.”
“Later, I’d like to talk to him. But you can tell me more about the boy’s background.”
“Not as much as I’d like. We ask the families, or their doctors, to give us a detailed history of our entering students. Mr.
Hillman promised to write one, but he hasn’t as yet. And I’ve had great difficulty in getting any facts out of him. He’s a very proud and very angry man.”
“And a wealthy one?”
“I don’t know his Dun and Bradstreet rating. Most of our parents are comfortably fixed,” he added with a quick little smug smile.
“I’d like to see Hillman. Does he live in town?”
“Yes, but please don’t try to see him, at least not today. He’s just been on the phone to me again, and it would only stir him up further.”
Sponti rose from his desk and moved to the window that overlooked the parking lot I followed him. The fine rain outside hung like a visible depression in the air.
“I still need a detailed description of the boy, and everything I can find out about his habits.”
“Patch can give you that, better than I. He’s been in daily contact with him. And you can talk to his housemother, Mrs. Mallow. She’s a trained observer.”
“Let’s hope somebody is.” I was getting impatient with Sponti. He seemed to feel that the less he told me about the missing boy, the less real his disappearance was. “How old is he, or is that classified material?”
Sponti’s eyes crossed slightly, and his rather pendulous cheeks became faintly mottled. “I object to your tone.”
“That’s your privilege. How old is Tom Hillman?”
“Do you have a picture of him?”
“None was provided by the family, though we ask for one as a matter of routine. I can tell you briefly what he looks like. He’s quite a decent-looking young chap, if you overlook the sullen expression he wears habitually. He’s quite big, around six feet, he looks older than his age.”
“Dark blue, I think. His hair is dark blond. He has what might be called aquiline features, like his father.”
He shrugged his shoulders. “I know of none.”
“Why was he brought here?”
“For treatment, of course. But he didn’t stay long enough to benefit.”
“Exactly what’s the matter with him? You said he was difficult, but that’s a pretty general description.”
“It was meant to be. It’s hard to tell what ails these boys in adolescent storm. Often we help them without knowing how or why. I’m not a medical doctor, in any case.”
“I thought you were.”
“No. We have medical doctors associated with our staff, of course, both physicians and psychiatrists. There wouldn’t be much point in talking to them. I doubt if Tom was here long enough even to meet his therapist. But there’s no doubt he was high.”
“Emotionally high, running out of control. He was in a bad way when his father brought him here. We gave him tranquillizers, but they don’t always work in the same way on different subjects.”
“Did he cause you a lot of trouble?”
“He did indeed. Frankly, I doubt if we’ll readmit him even if he does come back.”
“But you’re hiring me to find him.”
“I have no choice.”
We discussed money matters, and he gave me a check. Then I walked down the road to East Hall. Before I went in to see Mr. Patch, I turned and looked at the mountains on the far side of the valley. They loomed like half-forgotten faces through the overcast. The lonely blue heron rose from the edge of the slough and sailed toward them.
was a sprawling one-story stucco building which somehow didn’t belong on that expansive landscape. Its mean and unprepossessing air had something to do with the high little windows, all of them heavily screened. Or
with the related fact that it was a kind of prison which pretended not to be. The spiky pyracantha shrubs bordering the lawn in front of the building were more like barriers than ornaments. The grass looked dispirited even in the rain.
So did the line of boys who were marching in the front door as I came up. Boys of all ages from twelve to twenty, boys of all shapes and sizes, with only one thing in common: they marched like members of a defeated army. They reminded me of the very young soldiers we captured on the Rhine in the last stages of the last war.
Two student leaders kept them in some sort of line. I followed them, into a big lounge furnished with rather dilapidated furniture. The two leaders went straight to a ping-pong table that stood in one corner, picked up paddles, and began to play a rapid intense game with a ball that one of them produced from his windbreaker pocket. Six or seven boys began to watch them. Four or five settled down with comic books. Most of the rest of them stood around and watched me.