The servants and security people were almost never intrusive, and as a rule kept their distance from the guests as much as possible. But they were rarely entirely out of sight for longer than a minute at a stretch. And for another, Esther seemed to have her worries on some other subject, maybe her career, so continually on her mind that it was hard to imagine her putting them aside for five minutes.
Late Saturday afternoon, when Jubal left his room intending to scout the grounds before dinner, he listened briefly at the door of his parents’ room. All was quiet, and he thought they had probably already reported for the evening social in the Assembly Hall.
In a way he was beginning by now to feel almost at home at San Simeon. Locked doors seemed to be the exception, and he never had the feeling of being closely watched. Of course the servants and maintenance workers were generally around somewhere, and sometimes the security people. They all tended to keep their distance from the guests, unless they had some immediate business to take care of. But Jubal was willing to bet that if in the middle of the night someone dived into the pool with a big splash, there’d be three or four guards on the scene inside a minute. And that whenever anyone slipped in for a quiet swim, no matter what hour of the day or night, someone would have the assigned job of keeping a casual eye on the swimmer from a distance. The pool stayed brightly lighted dusk to dawn. There were going to be no accidental drownings here, and no midnight orgies or drunken parties, either.
Not while Mr. W. R. Hearst was in charge of things on his estate, as he most definitely was. Jubal’s mother had been vaguely worried about taking her baby into a Hollywood atmosphere, when she’d heard who they were likely to encounter at the Ranch, but Jubal’s dad had done his best to reassure her. Old W.R., as everyone seemed to call him, might be in a long-term sinful relationship with a movie star thirty years his junior, but he had no taste or even tolerance for wild parties or even dirty jokes.
And W.R. was reportedly proud of his cellar of fine wine, as part of what seemed to be his lifelong private campaign to own the world’s best of everything. But Jubal’s parents had been diplomatically cautioned against expecting to enjoy more than one drink before dinner.
Jubal had not been exploring the grounds for very long before he was joined by Esther.
They strolled along chatting for a little while, discussed the way the sunset was shaping up, and then heard someone crashing through the bushes.
Jubal immediately assumed that the racket was being made by some drunken guest, and this assumption was quickly justified when the unmistakably handsome features of Errol Flynn appeared. His youthful face was somewhat mottled and puffy, and he swayed slightly on his feet, being somewhat the worse for drink.
“Greetings, children. I am in search of the Northwest Frontier of India. Does it lie somewhere in this vicinity?”
Esther only sniffed and moved on. Jubal, still somewhat awestruck despite himself by the living presence of Captain Blood, murmured something, the words sounding so stupid in his own ears that he immediately tried to forget what he had said.
The bushes rustled again, and presently the face of David Niven appeared, calling after Flynn in urgent whispers that somehow conveyed his British accent.
“Errol? Where the bloody hell have you got to? Errol?”
“What is it, sport?”
Niven was not quite as handsome as Flynn but at the moment considerably more sober. He, too, had the little penciled mustache cultivated to perfection. Leaving Flynn and Niven whispering, giving off the sounds of some feverish unsober plot, Jubal hurried to catch up with Esther, and they walked on together.
After they’d gone a few steps she said, “I guess we know now who was making all the strange noises.”
“I guess we do,” Jubal agreed. He didn’t want to argue, but in feet he was not convinced. What he’d heard earlier had not sounded like any kind of a Hollywood sound, or even a human sound. Whether Errol Flynn was acting or just raising hell, he could not have made a noise like that.
* * *
« ^ »
Later in the afternoon, Esther had retreated to her room, saying she wanted to change from sports clothes to an evening dress for dinner. Jubal would be expected to change also, but it wouldn’t take him long. He decided to continue for a few minutes in his attempt to scout out the grounds.
He was being as methodical as he could about a very uncertain plan, still nursing his vague and so far utterly vain hopes of locating some spot where he and Esther might manage to be alone and unobserved for half an hour—even just ten minutes would be something. Not that Esther had yet given him any reason to think that she would really go very far with him, especially with her career being somewhat on the line. And not that he, with his father’s business future hanging in the balance, had as yet actually tried to persuade her to do anything of the kind. But, all the same—just suppose.
Right now the plan was no more than a half-serious game in the back of Jubal’s mind. He told himself that as soon as he had demonstrated the idea’s utter impossibility to his own satisfaction, he’d be able to relax and forget about it.
This time around, as Jubal passed the place where the black stone images of Sekhmet stood clustered round their fountain pool, he noted with slight interest that one statue was still missing from its carved stone chair. It looked like the workers might have decided to wait until the weekend was over and the guests had all gone home, before beginning any disruptive project. And he wondered how in hell the thing had ever got down where they had found it. Someone playing jokes. But only in a movie could anyone, even Errol Flynn, drag around a chunk of rock that size.
Looking past nearby vegetation as best he could, down over the adjoining hillsides, he observed that Casa Grande and its cluster of associated buildings were enclosed not merely by one fence but by several, in a widespread, irregular, concentric array. The outer defenses were hundreds of yards distant, and most of them were fairly inconspicuous. How effective they might be was hard to say. Some of the Hearst security people were no doubt out there, patrolling at some distance from the house, but others were always nearby. With a little ingenuity it ought to be possible to figure out where those watchdogs were concentrating their attention at the moment. And then to look around for interesting territory to explore in another direction, somewhere off the brightly lighted walkways…
Now. A quick glance around assured Jubal that at the moment he was almost certainly unobserved. If, the next time he went walking with Esther, they just left the regular walk right about here, and then went stepping carefully through this flower bed, taking care not to break or crush anything more than was absolutely necessary… then it should be possible, on reaching this point on the far side of the flower bed, to slide between these bushes…
Having penetrated the screen of bushes on this trial run, Jubal stopped to look around again. He had now attained a position where he was almost screened from anyone who might happen to be passing on the nearby walk, or looking this way from any of the houses. But almost wasn’t going to be good enough. He would have to move on, a little farther from the houses.
Another point, to keep in mind was that at night it was probably going to be pitch black in here among this vegetation: good thing he had borrowed the flashlight.
He moved on, enjoying his exploration. The thing to do was to look the place over carefully, now while he still had daylight.
The next screen of bushes proved not to be as thick as it had looked at first glance. On its far side, a slope of California’s long, golden-toasty coastal grass went down fairly steeply, folding with other slopes into a snug ravine containing still more bushes and a small grove of trees. Beyond that, again, were large but unspectacular outbuildings: probably the stables, Jubal thought, and there must be workers’ housing somewhere, besides dog kennels and whatever buildings were needed for the private zoo.
But when he came to the place where the men had been struggling with the stone weight under morning sunshine, the men were gone and so was the wandering image of Sekhmet. Maybe it had been hauled away somewhere, to be repaired or refinished, or—