In late April, 1929, Cyrus Skeen, private detective in San
Francisco, is visited by a teenager, William Yeager, who asks him to find his
missing girl friend, Darla Rampling. Skeen is startled by the request, and is reluctant
to take on the case, but what the boy says intrigues him. The girl, living with
adoptive parents, seems to have run away. Yeager does not quite believe it. Skeen
interviews the girl’s parents, and his suspicions about the status of the girl
are aroused. He discovers more than he had ever bargained for on any of his
previous cases.

First Things is the 16th Skeen adventure. 
Chapter 4: More
First Things
Skeen drove directly
from the Coyles’ to the Marina police station at Bay Street and Van Ness
Avenue. After identifying himself he managed to track down the officer who had
taken the call from the Coyles about Darla Rampling’s disappearance. This
officer was still on duty, Lieutenant Brandt Noiles. “You’ve worked with Dolan
and Donovan down at headquarters, right?”

Skeen nodded.
“Have a seat,
shamus,” said Noiles, nodding to a chair beside his desk. “Ain’t this a
come-down for you Skeen?” asked the officer. “Gone from beating up bruisers to
looking for missing school girls? Hard times, eh?”
The detectives’
room at the station was a smaller version of the one at the Hall of Justice. Noiles
– noisy, smoky, and filled with tired-looking men in plainclothes and in
uniform.
Skeen shook his
head. “No. I’m doing this as a favor to a love-struck kid. He wants to know why
the girl ran away.”
Noiles, a stocky
man in his forties, chewed gum but invited Skeen to smoke. Skeen lit an Old
Gold.
“Don’t we all?”
replied Noiles. “Who’s the kid?”
“Her next door
neighbor, William Yeager. He saw her and went out with her on dates when he
came home from school back East. That was two weeks ago. Then he and he parents
took a road trip. When they got back a week or so later, she was gone. The
girl’s adoptive parents said she’d just left, about a day or two after Yeager
went on that trip. Left them a note.”
“We didn’t talk to
the kid,” said Noiles. “Just to the Coyles when they reported her missing. Some
people from the Missing Persons Bureau downtown also showed up the same time we
did. The Coyles had called them, too.” Noiles shrugged. “This case ain’t going
anywhere, not unless you can put some gas in it.”
‘Did you see the
note she left behind?”
“Yeah. There wasn’t
much to it, was there?”
“What did you think
of the Coyles?” asked Skeen.
“Why should I think
of them? I think of them and they’re a blank. Probably nice people in their own
way.”
Skeen said, “William
Yeager told me the girl had bruises on her legs. Around the calves, as though
someone had walloped them with a belt or a strap. They disappeared, but they
shouldn’t have been there at all.”
“That’s news to me.
The Coyles said nothing about it.”
“They wouldn’t if
they were the ones responsible.”
“So, you’re
thinking the girl took a powder because the folks were using a strap on her,
and maybe not just on her legs? It’s usually a kid’s bum that gets the
walloping.”
“That’s the long
and short of my thinking.”
“Good luck with
that,” said Noiles. “It’s the girl who’s got to make the complaint, and then it
ain’t a police matter. Might be for the Children’s Resettlement Society, or
some social worker. We’d only be called in if there was something really nasty
happening, or if a kid had to be put in a hospital.”
Skeen suggested,
more to himself than to Noiles, “There’s the California Children’s Rescue
Bureau in Sacramento.”
“Yeah, there’s
them. Not that I speak from experience, but I heard that if those people get involved, the foster
parents really don’t want to deal with them. They’d better duck for cover. They
can be pretty brutal.”
Skeen rose from his
seat at Noiles’s desk. “Here’s hoping Darla Rampling returns home soon and
safe.”
“You and me both, Mr.
Skeen.”
Skeen turned and
left the detectives’ room. He drove back to Carmel Towers. It was nearly six
o’clock.
§
Cyrus Skeen had no
opinion of children. He neither liked them nor hated them. They existed on the
periphery of his active consciousness. They were, to him, just little people
who had not yet developed into independent men and women, able to think and act
without much perilous error.
His only point of
reference was himself. He was the measure of what a child should become, or at
least become a version of. Was that vanity? No, he thought. It was pride. And
pride was not a deadly sin in his scheme of things. Nor was greed or lust.
Skeen was sitting
in his study. On impulse, he took out the sheet of paper on which he had
written his metaphysical importance notes and wrote on it the standard seven
deadly sins and appended a short note after each. He was smiling. The exercise
amused him.
Pride: If one has achieved
something formerly thought impossible, or accomplished something one set out to
do and it required extraordinary effort and it made one happy, why not be proud
of it? The antonym for it would be humility, which is absurd.
Greed: If one wants
something, one wants it. There can’t be a selfless greed. If an evangelist
preacher tells his flock that they should give up their vices, isn’t that a
form of greed? What would motivate him to preach such a thing if not some
“greedy” satisfaction of seeing his flock deny themselves things? Is there such
a thing as selfless greed? Perhaps there is, in preachers, priests, and
politicians who keep harping on the virtue of sacrifice. Aren’t they expressing
their own form of “greed”? They “need” people to give up things they enjoy.
Why? This subject needs to be explored.
Lust: If lust were such
a capital vice, the human race would be extinct. There’s no such thing as
selfless sex, except perhaps among animals and insects.
Envy: If one wishes to
have what someone else has, it’s not a failing of one’s character. Things
exist, and other people have them.
Gluttony: An irrational
obsession with food. Can be controlled.
Wrath: Anger. Outrage.
An injustice must provoke wrath. Something must be threatened or destroyed,
something one places a value on. It can be a rational value or an irrational
one.
Sloth: There’s nothing
inherently wrong with being lazy, except when one habitually expects another
person to do what should be done by oneself. I have often felt lazy or
slothful, and felt no pangs of guilt about it.
Each of those
subjects, thought Skeen, deserved a book-length treatment. He thought that
perhaps he could write a book, Metaphysical
Importance
, and discuss those “sins” in separate chapters. What a project
that would be!
Dora Crammer, the
cook and maid, had fixed him a late dinner and had gone home. He told her he
would not need her in the evenings until Dilys returned in about a week and a
half; he would dine out. “I may be in and out at unpredictable times, Doris,
especially in the evenings. So there’d be no point in your waiting for me.”

Cyrus Skeen’s office building

“Yes, Mr. Skeen. Thank
you, and good night.”
Skeen put the notes
aside and concentrated on the matter of Darla Rampling. What interested him now
were the “spots” William Yeager said he had noticed on the girl’s legs. Skeen’s
first thought, independent of what Yeager thought of them, was that they were
the result of beatings with a belt or a leather strap.
But there were
other possible explanations for them. He took out one of his encyclopedias and
found some of them.
Under “rashes,” he
saw that there were four or five different kinds of rashes or inflammations on
the skin that could occur as natural but abnormal phenomena: rosacea,
psoriasis, lichen planus, granuloma annulare, and eczema. And if
any one of these occurred on the girl’s legs, they could just as well erupt
elsewhere on her body.
Presumably William
Yeager had not gotten that far in his courtship of the girl to observe one of
those conditions above her calves.
What Yeager saw as
bruises or welts just may be the visible manifestations of those conditions.
And if they were any one of those conditions, then the Coyles were blameless
concerning any kind of abuse they may have subjected the girl to.
But, then again,
thought Skeen, he did not particularly like the Coyles. They had seemed to him
a little too bright and chipper about the disappearance of their adopted
daughter. He did not get a sense of trepidation from either the father or the
mother. It was almost as though their dog had run away, and were concerned
about it. But a dog is a dog, not a human being, and can’t have the same value
placed on it as one would place on a supposed loved one, no matter how attached
one might become to a pet.
He knew there were
men and women and even children who did treat a pet as though it were another
person. He regarded that as an aberration, not as a measure of normalcy.
Tomorrow, he
thought, he would call on the Yeagers. And perhaps even the Coyles again.
There was something
not quite right about the girl’s disappearance. He could not put his finger on
it.
End of Chapter