Authors: Margaret Millar
Tags: #Crime Fiction
HOW LIKE AN ANGEL
Text Copyright Â© 1962 by Margaret Millar.
Introduction copyright Â© 1982 by Margaret Millar and Kenneth Millar 1981 Trusts.
This edition published in 2016 by
This book is dedicated, with love, to Betty Masterson Norton
More than twenty years ago George Hammond, a young friend of mine who liked to explore the wild mountainous back country of Santa Barbara County, came across an area he wanted me to see.
We drove up a white-knuckle one-lane road, through streams and around precipitous curves to the top of a ridge of the Santa Ynez mountains. The view was inÂ¬credible, the Pacific Ocean, the Santa Ynez valley, Lake Cachuma and the river and streams that fed it, and finÂ¬ally the San Rafael mountains where the last of the conÂ¬dors was fighting for survival. Here was Shangri-La, and it was not surprising to learn that a mystic had last occupied the place.
The buildings on the property had been ruined by vandals, the main lodge, the out-buildings, and finally the most unique, the tower. Picking our way through shattered glass and the other dÃ©bris of sick minds we reached the top of the tower. It was here that my friend suggested I use the setting in a book about California cults.
“I know very little about such cults,” I told him.
“So start your own,” George said.
I did. And here it is.
A nearby property on the same ridge is unlikely ever to be turned into a cult or vandalized. Heavily guarded by secret service men and Sheriff's officers, it is called not Shangri-La, but the Western White House.
Santa Barbara, Ca.
What a piece of work is a man!
. . . in action, how like an angel! in
apprehension, how like a god! . . . And yet,
to me, what is this quintessence of dust?
man delights not me;
no, nor woman neither . . .
HOW LIKE AN ANGEL
All night and
most of the day they had been driving, through mountains, and desert, and now mountains again. The old car was beginning to act skittish, the driver was getting
irritable, and Quinn, to escape both, had gone to sleep in the back seat. He was awakened by the sudden shriek of brakes and Newhouser's voice, hoarse from exhaustion and the heat and the knowledge that once more he'd made a fool of himself at the tables.
“This is it, Quinn. The end of the line.”
Quinn stirred and turned his head, expecting to find himself on one of the tree-lined streets of San Felice, with the ocean glittering in the distance like a jewel not to be touched or sold. Even before he opened his eyes he knew something was wrong. No city street was so quiet, no sea air so dry.
“Hey, Quinn. You awake?”
“Well, flake off, will you? I'm in a hurry.”
Quinn looked out of the window. The scenery hadn't changed since he'd gone to sleep. There were mountains and more mountains and still more, all covered with the same scrub oak and chaparral, manzanita and wild holly, and a few pines growing meagerly from the parched earth.
“This is nowhere,” he said. “You told me you were going to San Felice.”
“How far is near?”
“For the love ofâ”
“You must be from the East,” Newhouser said. “In CaliÂfornia forty-five miles is near.”
“You might have told me that before I got in the car.”
“I did. You weren't listening. You seemed pretty anxious to get out of Reno. So now you're out. Be grateful.”
“Oh, I am,” Quinn said dryly. “You've satisfied my curiÂosity. I've always wondered where nowhere was.”
“Before you start beefing, listen. My turn-off to the ranch is half a mile down the road. I'm a day late getting back to work, my wife's a hothead, I lost seven hundred in Reno and I haven't slept for two days. Now, you want to be glad you got a ride this far or you want to put up a squawk?”
“You might have dropped me off at a truck stop where food was available.”
“You said you had no money.”
“I was figuring on a small loan, say five bucks.”
“If I had five bucks I'd still be in Reno. You know that. You got the disease same as I have.”
Quinn didn't deny it. “O.K., forget about money. I have another idea. Maybe that wife of yours isn't such a hothead after all. Maybe she wouldn't object to a temporary guestâall right, all right, it was just a suggestion. Do you have a better one?”
“Naturally, or I wouldn't have stopped here. See that dirt road down the line?”
When Quinn got out of the car he saw a narrow lane that meandered off into a grove of young eucalyptus trees. “It doesn't look like much of a road.”
“It's not supposed to. The people who live at the end of it don't like to advertise the fact. Let's just say they're peculiar.”
“Let's just ask how peculiar?”
“Oh, they're harmless, don't worry about that. And they're always good for a handout to the poor.” Newhouser pushed his ten-gallon hat back, revealing a strip of pure white forehead that looked painted across the top of his brown leathery face. “Listen, Quinn, I hate like the devil to leave you here but I have no choice and I know you'll make out all right. You're young and healthy.”
“Also hungry and thirsty.”
“You can pick up something to eat and drink at the Tower and then hitch another ride right into San Felice.”
“The Tower,” Quinn repeated. “Is that what's at the end of the quote road unquote?”
“Is it a ranch?”
“They do some ranching,” Newhouser said cautiously. “It's aâwell, sort of a self-contained little community. So I've heard. I've never seen it personally.”
“They don't encourage visitors.”
“Then how come you're so sure I'll get a big welcome?”
“You're a poor sinner.”
“You mean it's a religious outfit?”
Newhouser moved his head but Quinn wasn't sure whether he was indicating affirmation or denial. “I tell you, I never saw the place, I just heard things about it. Some rich old dame who was afraid she was going to die built a five-story tower. Maybe she thought she'd have a shorter hitch to heaven when her time came, a head start, like. Well, I've got to be on my way now, Quinn.”
“Wait,” Quinn said urgently. “Be reasonable. I'm on my way to San Felice to collect three hundred bucks a friend of mine owes me. I promise to give you fifty if you'll drive me toâ”
“That's more than a buck a mile.”
Quinn stood on the side of the road and watched Newhouser's car disappear around a curve. When the sound of its engine died out, there was absolute silence. Not a bird chirped, not a branch swished in the wind. It was an experience Quinn had never had before and he wondered for a minute if he'd suddenly gone deaf from hunger and lack of sleep and the heat of the sun.
He had never much liked the sound of his own voice but it seemed very good to him then, he wanted to hear more, to spread it out and fill the silence.
“My name is Joe Quinn. Joseph Rudyard Quinn, but I don't tell anyone about the Rudyard. Yesterday I was in Reno. I had a job, a car, clothes, a girlfriend. Today I'm in the middle of nowhere with nothing and nobody.”
He'd been in jams before but they'd always involved people, friends to confide in, strangers to persuade. He prided himself on being a glib talker. Now it no longer mattered, there wasn't anyone around to listen. He could talk himself to death in that wilderness without causing a leaf to stir or an insect to scurry out of range.
He took out a handkerchief and dabbed at the sweat that was trickling down behind his ears. Although he'd often visÂited the city of San Felice, he knew nothing about this bleak mountainous back country, seared by the sun in summer, eroded by the winter rains. It was summer now. In the river beds dust lay, and the bones of small animals which had come to find water.
The silence, more than the heat and desolation, bothered Quinn. It seemed unnatural not even to hear a bird call, and he wondered whether all the birds had died in the long drought or whether they'd moved on to be nearer a water supply, to the ranch where Newhouser worked, or perhaps to the Tower. He glanced across the road at the narrow lane that seemed to end suddenly in the grove of eucalyptus.
“Hell, a little religion's not going to kill me,” he said, and crossed the road, squinting against the sun.
Beyond the eucalyptus trees the path started to climb, and signs of life became evident as he followed it. He passed a small herd of cows grazing, some sheep enclosed in a pen made of logs, a couple of goats tethered in the shade of a wild holly tree, an irrigation ditch with a little sluggish water at the botÂtom. All the animals looked well-fed and well-tended.
The ascent became steeper as he walked, and the trees denser and taller, pines and live oaks, madrones and cotoneaster. He had almost reached the top of a knoll when he came across the first building. It was so skillfully constructed that he was only fifteen or twenty yards away before he realÂized it was there, a long low structure made of logs and native stone. It bore no resemblance to a tower and he thought NewÂhouser might have made a mistake about the place, had been taken in by local rumors and exaggerations.
There was no one in sight, and no smoke coming out of the wide stone chimney. Crude half-log shutters were fastened over the windows on the outside as if the builder's idea had been to keep people in rather than to protect the place against intruders. With the huge sugar pines filtering the sunlight, the air seemed to Quinn suddenly cool and damp. Pine needles and orange-colored flakes of madrone bark muffled the sound of his footsteps as he approached.
Through a chink between the half-logs Brother Tongue of Prophets saw the stranger coming and began making small animal noises of distress.
“Now what are you making a fuss about?” Sister Blessing said briskly. “Here, let me see for myself.” She took his place at the chink. “It's only a man. Don't get excited. His car probably broke down, Brother Crown of Thorns will help him fix it, and that will end the incident. Unlessâ”
It was part of Sister Blessing's nature to look for silver linÂings, find them, point them out to other people, and then ruin the whole effect by adding
“âunless he's from the school board or one of the newsÂpapers. In which case I shall deal firmly with him and send him on his way, wrapped in his original ignorance. It seems a bit early, though, for the school board to start harassing us about the fall term.”
Brother Tongue nodded agreement and nervously stroked the neck of the parakeet perched on his forefinger.
“So he's probably a newspaperman. Unless he's another plain ordinary tramp. In which case I shall treat him with disÂpassionate kindness. There certainly isn't anything to get excited about, we've had tramps before, as you well know. Stop making those noises. You can talk if you want to, if you have to. Suppose the building caught on fire, you could yell âfire,' couldn't you?”
Brother Tongue shook his head.
“Nonsense, I know better. Fire. Say it. Go on. Fire.”
Brother Tongue stared mutely down at the floor. If the place caught on fire he wouldn't give the alarm, he wouldn't say a word. He'd just stand and watch it burn, making sure first that the parakeet was safe.
Quinn knocked on the unpainted wooden door. “Hello. Is anyone here? I've lost my way, I'm hungry and thirsty.”
The door opened slowly, with a squawk of unoiled hinges, and a woman stepped out on the threshold. She was about fifty, tall and strong-looking, with a round face and very shiny red cheeks. She was barefooted. The long loose robe she wore reminded Quinn of the muu-muus he'd seen on the women in Hawaii except that the muu-muus were bright with color and the woman's robe was made of coarse gray wool without ornament of any kind.
“Welcome, stranger,” she said, and though the words were kind, her tone was wary.
“I'm sorry to bother you, madam.”
“Sister, if you please. Sister Blessing of the Salvation. So you're hungry and thirsty and you've lost your way, is that it?”
“More or less. It's a long story.”
“Such stories usually are,” she said dryly. “Come inside. We never turn away the poor, being poor ourselves.”
“Just mind your manners, that's all we ask. How long since you've eaten?”
“I don't recall exactly.”
“So you've been on a bender, eh?”
“Not the kind you mean. But I guess you'd have to call it a bender. It bent me.”
She glanced sharply at the tweed jacket Quinn was carrying over his arm. “I know a fine piece of wool when I see it, since we weave all our own cloth. Where'd you get this?”
“I bought it.”
She seemed a little disappointed as if she had hoped he would say he had stolen it. “You don't look or act like a beggar to me.”
“I haven't been one very long. I don't have the knack of it yet.”
“Don't get sarcastic with me. I have to check up on our visitors, in self-protection. Every now and then some prying reporter comes along, or a member of the law bent on misÂchief.”
“I'm bent only on food and water.”
“Come in, then.”
Quinn followed her inside. It was a single room with a stone floor that looked as if it had just been scrubbed. The biggest skylight Quinn had ever seen provided the place with light.
Sister Blessing saw him staring up at it and said, “If light is to come from heaven, according to the Master, let it come directly, not slanting in through windows.”
A wooden table with benches along each side ran almost the entire length of the building. It was set with tin plates, stainÂless steel spoons, knives and forks, and several kerosene lamps, already cleaned and fueled for the night. At the far end of the room there was an old-fashioned icebox, a woodstove with a pile of neatly cut logs beside it, and a bird cage obviously made by an amateur. In front of the stove a man, middle-aged, thin and pale-faced, sat in a rocking chair with a bird on his shoulder. He wore the same kind of robe as Sister Blessing and he, too, was barefooted. His head was shaved and his scalp showed little nicks and scratches as if whoever had wielded the razor had bad eyes and a dull blade.
Sister Blessing closed the door. Her suspicions of Quinn seemed to be allayed for the time being and her manner now was more that of a hostess. “This is our communal eating room. And that is Brother Tongue of Prophets. The others are all at prayer in the Tower, but I'm the nurse, I must stay with Brother Tongue. He's been sickly, I keep him by the stove at night. How are you feeling now, Brother Tongue?”