Frank Pembroke sat behind the desk of his shabby little office over Lemark’s Liquors in downtown Los Angeles and waited for his first customer. He had been in business for a week and as yet had had no callers. Therefore, it was with a mingled sense of excitement and satisfaction that he greeted the tall, dark, smooth-faced figure that came up the stairs and into the office shortly before noon.
“Good day, sir,” said Pembroke with an amiable smile. “I see my advertisement has interested you. Please stand in that corner for just a moment.”
Opening the desk drawer, which was almost empty, Pembroke removed an automatic pistol fitted with a silencer. Pointing it at the amazed customer, he fired four .22 caliber longs into the narrow chest. Then he made a telephone call and sat down to wait. He wondered how long it would be before his next client would arrive.
The series of events leading up to Pembroke’s present occupation had commenced on a dismal, overcast evening in the South Pacific a year earlier. Bound for Sydney, two days out of Valparaiso, the Colombian tramp steamer Elena Mia had encountered a dense greenish fog which seemed vaguely redolent of citrus trees. Standing on the forward deck, Pembroke was one of the first to perceive the peculiar odor and to spot the immense gray hulk wallowing in the murky distance.
Then the explosion had come, from far below the waterline, and the decks were awash with frantic crewmen, officers, and the handful of passengers. Only two lifeboats were launched before the Elena Mia went down. Pembroke was in the second. The roar of the sinking ship was the last thing he heard for some time.
Pembroke came as close to being a professional adventurer as one can in these days of regimented travel, organized peril, and political restriction. He had made for himself a substantial fortune through speculation in a great variety of properties, real and otherwise. Life had given him much and demanded little, which was perhaps the reason for his restiveness.
Loyalty to person or to people was a trait Pembroke had never recognized in himself, nor had it ever been expected of him. And yet he greatly envied those staunch patriots and lovers who could find it in themselves to elevate the glory and safety of others above that of themselves.
Lacking such loyalties, Pembroke adapted quickly to the situation in which he found himself when he regained consciousness. He awoke in a small room in what appeared to be a typical modern American hotel. The wallet in his pocket contained exactly what it should, approximately three hundred dollars. His next thought was of food. He left the room and descended via the elevator to the restaurant. Here he observed that it was early afternoon. Ordering a full dinner, for he was unusually hungry, he began to study the others in the restaurant.
Many of the faces seemed familiar; the crew of the ship, probably. He also recognized several of the passengers. However, he made no attempt to speak to them. After his meal, he bought a good corona and went for a walk. His situation could have been any small western American seacoast city. He heard the hiss of the ocean in the direction the afternoon sun was taking. In his full-gaited walk, he was soon approaching the beach.
On the sand he saw a number of sun bathers. One in particular, an attractive woman of about thirty, tossed back her long, chestnut locks and gazed up intently at Pembroke as he passed. Seldom had he enjoyed so ingenuous an invitation. He halted and stared down at her for a few moments.
“You are looking for someone?” she inquired.
“Much of the time,” said the man.
“Could it be me?”
“It could be.”
“Yet you seem unsure,” she said.
Pembroke smiled, uneasily. There was something not entirely normal about her conversation. Though the rest of her compensated for that.
“Tell me what’s wrong with me,” she went on urgently. “I’m not good enough, am I? I mean, there’s something wrong with the way I look or act. Isn’t there? Please help me, please!”
“You’re not casual enough, for one thing,” said Pembroke, deciding to play along with her for the moment. “You’re too tense. Also you’re a bit knock-kneed, not that it matters. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“Yes, yes--I mean, I suppose so. I can try to be more casual. But I don’t know what to do about my knees,” she said wistfully, staring across at the smooth, tan limbs. “Do you think I’m okay otherwise? I mean, as a whole I’m not so bad, am I? Oh, please tell me.”
“How about talking it over at supper tonight?” Pembroke proposed. “Maybe with less distraction I’ll have a better picture of you--as a whole.”
“Oh, that’s very generous of you,” the woman told him. She scribbled a name and an address on a small piece of paper and handed it to him. “Any time after six,” she said.
Pembroke left the beach and walked through several small specialty shops. He tried to get the woman off his mind, but the oddness of her conversation continued to bother him. She was right about being different, but it was her concern about being different that made her so. How to explain that to her?
Then he saw the weird little glass statuette among the usual bric-a-brac. It rather resembled a ground hog, had seven fingers on each of its six limbs, and smiled up at him as he stared.
“Can I help you, sir?” a middle-aged saleswoman inquired. “Oh, good heavens, whatever is that thing doing here?”
Pembroke watched with lifted eyebrows as the clerk whisked the bizarre statuette underneath the counter.
“What the hell was that?” Pembroke demanded.
“Oh, you know--or don’t you? Oh, my,” she concluded, “are you one of the--strangers?”
“And if I were?”
“Well, I’d certainly appreciate it if you’d tell me how I walk.”
She came around in front of the counter and strutted back and forth a few times.
“They tell me I lean too far forward,” she confided. “But I should think you’d fall down if you didn’t.”
“Don’t try to go so fast and you won’t fall down,” suggested Pembroke. “You’re in too much of a hurry. Also those fake flowers on your blouse make you look frumpy.”
“Well, I’m supposed to look frumpy,” the woman retorted. “That’s the type of person I am. But you can look frumpy and still walk natural, can’t you? Everyone says you can.”
“Well, they’ve got a point,” said Pembroke. “Incidentally, just where are we, anyway? What city is this?”
“Puerto Pacifico,” she told him. “Isn’t that a lovely name? It means peaceful port. In Spanish.”
That was fine. At least he now knew where he was. But as he left the shop he began checking off every west coast state, city, town, and inlet. None, to the best of his knowledge, was called Puerto Pacifico.
He headed for the nearest service station and asked for a map. The attendant gave him one which showed the city, but nothing beyond.
“Which way is it to San Francisco?” asked Pembroke.
“That all depends on where you are,” the boy returned.
“Okay, then where am I?”
“Pardon me, there’s a customer,” the boy said. “This is Puerto Pacifico.”
Pembroke watched him hurry off to service a car with a sense of having been given the runaround. To his surprise, the boy came back a few minutes later after servicing the automobile.
“Say, I’ve just figured out who you are,” the youngster told him. “I’d sure appreciate it if you’d give me a little help on my lingo. Also, you gas up the car first, then try to sell ‘em the oil--right?”
“Right,” said Pembroke wearily. “What’s wrong with your lingo? Other than the fact that it’s not colloquial enough.”
“Not enough slang, huh? Well, I guess I’ll have to concentrate on that. How about the smile?”
“Perfect,” Pembroke told him.
“Yeah?” said the boy delightedly. “Say, come back again, huh? I sure appreciate the help. Keep the map.”
“Thanks. One more thing,” Pembroke said. “What’s over that way--outside the city?”
“How about that way?” he asked, pointing north. “And that way?” pointing south.
“More of the same.”
“That we ain’t got.”
The kid shook his head.
“Yeah, it’s kinda isolated. A lot of ships dock here, though.”
“All cargo ships, I’ll bet. No passengers,” said Pembroke.
“Right,” said the attendant, giving with his perfect smile.
“No getting out of here, is there?”
“That’s for sure,” the boy said, walking away to wait on another customer. “If you don’t like the place, you’ve had it.”
Pembroke returned to the hotel. Going to the bar, he recognized one of the Elena Mia’s paying passengers. He was a short, rectangular little man in his fifties named Spencer. He sat in a booth with three young women, all lovely, all effusive. The topic of the conversation turned out to be precisely what Pembroke had predicted.
“Well, Louisa, I’d say your only fault is the way you keep wigglin’ your shoulders up ‘n’ down. Why’n’sha try holdin’ ‘em straight?”
“I thought it made me look sexy,” the redhead said petulantly.
“Just be yourself, gal,” Spencer drawled, jabbing her intimately with a fat elbow, “and you’ll qualify.”
“Me, me,” the blonde with a feather cut was insisting. “What is wrong with me?”
“You’re perfect, sweetheart,” he told her, taking her hand.
“Ah, come on,” she pleaded. “Everyone tells me I chew gum with my mouth open. Don’t you hate that?”
“Naw, that’s part of your charm,” Spencer assured her.
“How ‘bout me, sugar,” asked the girl with the coal black hair.
“Ah, you’re perfect, too. You are all perfect. I’ve never seen such a collection of dolls as parade around this here city. C’mon, kids--how ‘bout another round?”
But the dolls had apparently lost interest in him. They got up one by one and walked out of the bar. Pembroke took his rum and tonic and moved over to Spencer’s booth.
“Okay if I join you?”
“Sure,” said the fat man. “Wonder what the hell got into those babes?”
“You said they were perfect. They know they’re not. You’ve got to be rough with them in this town,” said Pembroke. “That’s all they want from us.”
“Mister, you’ve been doing some thinkin’, I can see,” said Spencer, peering at him suspiciously. “Maybe you’ve figured out where we are.”
“Your bet’s as good as mine,” said Pembroke. “It’s not Wellington, and it’s not Brisbane, and it’s not Long Beach, and it’s not Tahiti. There are a lot of places it’s not. But where the hell it is, you tell me.
“And, by the way,” he added, “I hope you like it in Puerto Pacifico. Because there isn’t any place to go from here and there isn’t any way to get there if there were.”
“Pardon me, gentlemen, but I’m Joe Valencia, manager of the hotel. I would be very grateful if you would give me a few minutes of honest criticism.”
“Ah, no, not you, too,” groaned Spencer. “Look, Joe, what’s the gag?”
“You are newcomers, Mr. Spencer,” Valencia explained. “You are therefore in an excellent position to point out our faults as you see them.”
“Well, so what?” demanded Spencer. “I’ve got more important things to do than to worry about your troubles. You look okay to me.”
“Mr. Valencia,” said Pembroke. “I’ve noticed that you walk with a very slight limp. If you have a bad leg, I should think you would do better to develop a more pronounced limp. Otherwise, you may appear to be self-conscious about it.”
Spencer opened his mouth to protest, but saw with amazement that it was exactly this that Valencia was seeking. Pembroke was amused at his companion’s reaction but observed that Spencer still failed to see the point.
“Also, there is a certain effeminateness in the way in which you speak,” said Pembroke. “Try to be a little more direct, a little more brusque. Speak in a monotone. It will make you more acceptable.”
“Thank you so much,” said the manager. “There is much food for thought in what you have said, Mr. Pembroke. However, Mr. Spencer, your value has failed to prove itself. You have only yourself to blame. Cooperation is all we require of you.”
Valencia left. Spencer ordered another martini. Neither he nor Pembroke spoke for several minutes.
“Somebody’s crazy around here,” the fat man muttered after a few moments. “Is it me, Frank?”
“No. You just don’t belong here, in this particular place,” said Pembroke thoughtfully. “You’re the wrong type. But they couldn’t know that ahead of time. The way they operate it’s a pretty hit-or-miss operation. But they don’t care one bit about us, Spencer. Consider the men who went down with the ship. That was just part of the game.”
“What the hell are you sayin’?” asked Spencer in disbelief. “You figure they sunk the ship? Valencia and the waitress and the three babes? Ah, come on.”
“It’s what you think that will determine what you do, Spencer. I suggest you change your attitude; play along with them for a few days till the picture becomes a little clearer to you. We’ll talk about it again then.”
Pembroke rose and started out of the bar. A policeman entered and walked directly to Spencer’s table. Loitering at the juke box, Pembroke overheard the conversation.
“That’s right,” said the fat man sullenly.
“What don’t you like about me? The truth, buddy.”
“Ah, hell! Nothin’ wrong with you at all, and nothin’ll make me say there is,” said Spencer.