All this being true, or imagined, the wise man lives as far inland as possible. The Venice police jurisdiction ends as does the fog at about Lincoln Avenue.
There, at the very rim of official and bad weather territory, was a garden I had seen only once or twice.
If there was a house in the garden it was not visible. It was so surrounded by bushes, trees, tropical shrubs, palm fronds, bulrushes, and papyrus that you had to cut your way in with a reaper. There was no sidewalk, only a beaten path. A bungalow was in there, all right, sinking into a chin-high field of uncut grass, but so far away from the street it looked like an elephant foundering in a tar pit, soon to be gone forever. There was no mailbox out front. The mailman must have just tossed the mail in and beat it before something sprang out of the jungle to get him.
From this green place came the smell of oranges and apricots in season. And what wasn’t orange or apricot was cactus or epiphyllum or night-blooming jasmine. No lawnmower ever sounded here. No scythe ever whispered. No fog ever came. On the boundary of Venice’s damp eternal twilight, the bungalow survived amid lemons that glowed like Christmas tree lights all winter long.
And on occasion, walking by, you thought you heard okapi rushing and thumping a Serengeti Plain in there, or great sunset clouds of flamingos startled up and wheeling in pure fire.
And in that place, wise about the weather, and dedicated to the preservation of his eternally sunburned soul, lived a man some forty-four years old, with a balding head and a raspy voice, whose business, when he moved toward the sea and breathed the fog, was bruised customs, broken laws, and the occasional death that could be murder.
And I found him and his house because a series of people had listened to my queries, nodded, and pointed directions.
Everyone agreed that every late afternoon, the short detective ambled into that green jungle territory and disappeared amid the sounds of hippos rising and flamingos in descent.
What should I do? I thought. Stand on the edge of his wild country and shout his name?
But Crumley shouted first.
“Jesus Christ, is that you?”
He was coming out of his jungle compound and trekking along the weedpath, just as I arrived at his front gate.
As the detective trailblazed his own uncut path, I thought I heard the sounds I had always imagined as I passed: Thompson’s gazelles on the leap, crossword-puzzle zebras panicked just beyond me, plus a smell of golden pee on the wind, lions.
“Seems to me,” groused Crumley, “we played this scene yesterday. You come to apologize? You got stuff to say that’s louder and funnier?”
“If you’d stop moving and listen,” I said.
“Your voice carries, I’ll say that. Lady I know, three blocks from where you found the body, said because of your yell that night, her cats still haven’t come home. Okay, I’m standing here. And?”
With every one of his words, my fists had jammed deeper into my sports jacket pockets. Somehow, I couldn’t pull them out. Head ducked, eyes averted, I tried to get my breath.
Crumley glanced at his wristwatch.
“There was a man behind me on the train that night,” I cried, suddenly. “He was the one stuffed the old gentleman in the lion cage.”
“Keep your voice down. How do you know?”
My fists worked in my pockets, squeezing. “I could feel his hands stretched out behind me. I could feel his fingers working, pleading. He wanted me to turn and see him! Don’t all killers want to be found out?”
“That’s what dime-store psychologists say. Why didn’t you look at him?”
“You don’t make eye contact with drunks. They come sit and breathe on you.”
“Right.” Crumley allowed himself a touch of curiosity. He took out a tobacco pouch and paper and started rolling a cigarette, deliberately not looking at me. “And?”
“You should’ve heard his voice. You’d believe if you’d heard. My God, it was like Hamlet’s father’s ghost, from the bottom of the grave, crying out, remember me! But more than that, see me, know me, arrest me!”
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