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Always Leave 'em Dying
A Shell Scott Mystery
By Richard S. Prather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Richard S. Prather
All rights reserved.
Let me out of this thing!" I yelled.
The shapely psychiatrist, the two doctors, both burly guards—everybody ignored me. The strait jacket's canvas held my arms tight. My wrenched shoulder ached. My head ached. My back ached. Hell, I ached all over.
My six-two was horizontal on a stretcher and the two bruisers carried it and my 205 pounds easily down the long corridor. I was as confused as modern art, and being in this stupid insane asylum didn't help.
Consciousness had just returned and my eyes wouldn't yet focus properly, but I could see the two doctors, Wolfe and Yancey, walking at the left side of the stretcher. I shouted at them, "What the hell is this? Are you damn fools part of the staff, or patients? I'm Shell Scott, a private detective. And I'm not crazy. Do I look crazy?"
They didn't even glance around. Maybe that was the wrong thing to ask them, anyway. Inch-long white hair sticking up in the air like a scalp-sized cowlick, peculiarly angled whitish eyebrows, and a slightly bent nose may not be glamour, but they're no indication of cackling gray matter.
I turned my head to the right side of the stretcher and there, in her starched white uniform, was the lovely little psychiatrist with the shape that should have unstarched her uniform, and my eyes suddenly focused improperly. The stretcher veered left. I was carried into a room, lights blazed, and I was dumped unceremoniously onto a narrow bed, yelling like a fiend.
Dr. Wolfe stared down at me, light glancing from rimless glasses perched on his bulbous nose. He looked like a silver-eyed owl as he said, "He's getting violent again." He left, returned shortly with a gleaming hypodermic syringe in one hand. I felt a stinging sensation as the needle entered my neck.
Seconds later the light flicked out and all of them left the room. The door slammed shut and I was alone in darkness. All those characters thought I was goofy. Either that, I groaned to myself, or the inmates had taken over the asylum. The drug had started taking effect almost at once and I fought to keep from going to sleep; but, finally, I let my eyelids close. There was a soft, sharp clicking sound and I forced my eyes open. Somebody stepped inside my room, then pushed the door shut again. A thin beam of light shot from a small flashlight held in the person's hand. Reflections sparkled from a large diamond ring on one finger of the other hand—and on something that was gripped in those fingers, some kind of blade, long, sharp-edged, like a knife or scalpel.
"Hey," I said thickly, my voice sounding muffled. "What the hell—"
There was a muttered curse, and light flashed upon my face. The blade moved upward through the beam of light. And suddenly I was wide-awake, thinking: This idiot is about to stab me.
The rest of it was just sound and movement. The yelling I had done before was nothing compared to this; everybody in the cackle factory must have heard me. I jerked my body aside, the jacket binding me, got my heels hooked over the bed's edge, and rolled. The blade sliced across my back as I strained my leg muscles and felt myself slide, then fall to the floor. I rolled onto my back and drew up my legs to kick at the figure above me, but the flashlight winked out and the figure jumped past me. I heard a scraping sound like that of a window being raised.
Rapid footsteps slapped in the corridor outside. The door opened again and lights blazed. A strange nurse stood in the doorway, blinking. Feet pounded in the hall and one of the guards came inside, then the little psychiatrist and another doctor. Hands lifted me to the bed again as Dr. Yancey came in, followed by Dr. Wolfe and another man. People were babbling at me. I babbled right back at them, much louder than they: "You've got a nut running around loose. Tried to stab me. Get this goddamned jacket off me."
Dr. Yancey said slowly, soothingly, "We don't have any homicidal cases here."
"That's what you think." My thoughts were blurred, my muscles leaden from the drug. "I tell you, somebody tried to kill me. Went out the window."
The psychiatrist pressed a cool hand on my forehead. "Don't get excited," she said. "You must have dreamed it."
"The hell I dreamed it!"
They all moved away from my bed and the light went out. The door closed and I was alone again, warm wetness beneath me from blood draining through the cut in my back.
The pulse beat heavily in my temples. I knew I could yell my head off now and nobody would come. And I knew that too many crazy things had happened too quickly here tonight. It might not have been a maniac at all that had tried to kill me. Maybe this had happened because of the case I was on, because of something I'd done earlier today. Maybe somebody very sane, and frightened, wanted me dead. I thought back to this morning, when it had begun. I felt my eyes closing and forced them open, kept them stretched wide in the darkness.CHAPTER 2
It was one of those rare, completely smog-free days when you can see Los Angeles from Los Angeles. Often you can't find City Hall unless you're in it, but this was one of those mornings when you spring out of bed nearly overwhelmed by oxygen.
I sprang all over my three-rooms-and-bath in Hollywood's Spartan Apartment Hotel. I felt so good that I didn't even mind when the phone rang and I wound up with a client, despite the fact that this was the early a.m. of a Sunday, my downtown L.A. office was closed, and I was supposed to be gathering strength to face Monday.
The gal on the phone was a Mrs. Gifford, she had a missing daughter and was greatly worried, and would I try to find the daughter? Sure, today I'd find anything. I felt swell clear out to East Los Angeles, but some of the bubbles went out of me when I found the address I wanted and parked. This was a run-down, kind of sleazy section of town, and even before I started up the walk, I could hear a TV set blaring from inside the house: "Stomach tied in knots? Try GUTBALM!" I rang the doorbell anyway.
Somebody yelled for me to come in. All the blinds were drawn and no lights were on in the front room, but by estimating direction and distance from a glowing TV set, I found Mrs. Gifford. She was sagging on a couch, fat spilling over the borders of a faded housecoat, worn slippers on her feet. Her face looked like something a baker might have made of dough: two fingers poked into it for eyes, a tweak in the middle for a nose, and the side of a hand slammed into it for a mouth; from there several chins were terraced toward a thick neck.
Despite the fact that half the time she was giving her attention to the TV set, I learned that Mrs. Gifford had divorced her husband when Felicity, their only child, was about a year old; she'd got custody of the girl, who was sixteen now. For a few minutes, she explained how fortunate it was that she'd got "my little girl" away from the eight kinds of fiend she claimed her husband had been. I gathered that hubby had been a lusty cat, perhaps not very honest, who'd chased around with some other women; Mrs. Gifford intimated that she'd caught him at it. While she suffered audibly, I wondered what I was doing here. Finally, she brought me up to date.
Saturday night about nine-thirty, Felicity had answered the phone, talked briefly, and scribbled on a writing pad, then had hung up and sat quietly for several minutes, doodling on the tablet. She'd then told her mother good night, gone to her room and, presumably, crawled into bed. But in the morning, Felicity had been gone. The bed hadn't been slept in, and Mrs. Gifford hadn't seen or heard from her daughter since.
I asked her, "Police know about this yet?"
"Yes. I talked to them already, the Missing People persons. But they got so many to look for and all, I phoned you."
"Uh-huh." Missing Persons would do most of the things I could do. And this deal sounded like a dozen cases I'd had in the past; gals get fed up or want a fling for any of a hundred reasons, and take off. Usually you find them in a couple of days—if they haven't already come back home, not much older but usually wiser.
I said, "Has Felicity ever run away before?"
"Oh, no. And she didn't run away, I know that. Felicity wouldn't run away. Something terrible must of happened."
"I mean, she apparently left under her own power. She could hardly have been forced out of her own bedroom."
Mrs. Gifford shook her head and said doggedly, "Something terrible must of happened."
"You know who called her last night?"
"No. I supposed it was one of her girlfriends. Don't know anybody else it could of been. You think that had anything to do with it?"
"I don't know." For all I knew, the gal might have eloped with the captain of the football team, but I didn't burden Mrs. Gifford with that thought. "If you'll give me a list of their names," I said, "I'll check with them. Better list any boyfriends who might have phoned."
"It wouldn't of been a boy, Mr. Scott."
"I mean, since it was Saturday night, maybe it was just some kid trying to make a date."
Mrs. Gifford rolled her eyes toward the ceiling and laughed softly. "Oh, my goodness," she said in a tone she might have reserved for idiots, "you don't suppose my little girl goes out with boys! She's just a child, you know."
I grinned. "Sorry. I thought you said she was sixteen."
The dough of Mrs. Gifford's face seemed to settle and harden. She said in a flat, quiet voice, "Felicity is sixteen, Mr. Scott. A child of that age can't possibly know how to protect herself against men. I'd be failing in my duty as a mother if I didn't protect her from being hurt."
She had spoken quietly, with the assurance of a settled and unarguable conviction. While she looked at me with a slight frown on her heavy face, I remembered what she'd told me about her ex-husband. Her violence when she'd spoken of him made me wonder if she hated him as much as she'd professed to, or resented him, or just felt mean this morning. Anyway, she'd been hurt; she was going to make very sure her daughter wasn't hurt. The hell of it was she probably thought she could do it.
For the first time I began to think of Felicity as something more than just another case. I wondered what she was like, where she was, and if she were OK.
I said. "Of course. You mentioned that Felicity wrote something on a pad by the phone. Could I take a look?"
Mrs. Gifford craned her head toward a small table, bare except for a French phone, then frowned and said, "I don't rightly remember, but I think maybe she took it to the bedroom with her." She was silent for several seconds, then sighed. "I better go look, I guess."
After she heaved herself off the couch, I followed her across a narrow hall, then into a small bedroom, which she said was Felicity's. While she hunted for the writing pad, I looked around. Everything was as neatly in place as a balding man's hairs, and it wasn't until I saw how neat and clean Felicity's room was that I became conscious of disarray and untidiness in the rest of the house. That comparison, though, was only preparation for what was something of a shock for me.
On an unpainted pine dresser were several brushes and combs, a pair of scissors, and a hand-tinted photographic portrait in a cardboard frame. The picture was of a young girl with a heart-shaped face, heavy dark brows arched above big, widely spaced eyes, lips curved slightly in a smile. It was the portrait of an attractive young girl on the verge of becoming a beautiful woman, and I suppose it was because I had been so little impressed by Mrs. Gifford that it didn't occur to me that the picture might be of Felicity.
It was, though, as Mrs. Gifford told me when I casually asked. I picked up the portrait and looked at it. The big eyes were dark, long-lashed, and she had boyishly short dark hair. Her front teeth were slightly crooked, but it didn't hurt her nice smile. She wore no makeup.
Mrs. Gifford closed a drawer behind me. "Here it is," she said. "Nothing on it."
I turned around and she handed me the pad. The top sheet was blank, but by holding the tablet so that light struck its surface at a shallow angle I could make out the indentations of three words, beneath which the paper was covered with marks of doodling, swirls, and circles.
I said, "Looks like she wrote down, 'Dixon—Birch and Ivy,' then tore off the top sheet. That mean anything to you?"
She shook her head, chins swaying, then frowned. "Oh, Birch and Ivy. That's an intersection a little ways from here. A block up"—she pointed—"and three down."
Mrs. Gifford looked over Felicity's belongings at my request. The girl had apparently taken nothing with her except her purse and the clothes she'd been wearing Friday night: white blouse, gray sweater and skirt, low-heeled black shoes.
Mrs. Gifford said. "You want anything else in here?" "I'd like to look around a little more, if it's OK."
"You go ahead, Mr. Scott." She nodded, went back into the front room.
I spent another ten minutes snooping, and it was oddly embarrassing to look at Felicity's intimate belongings, books and trinkets, souvenirs. But I wanted to know as much about her as I could. L.A. is big, and a little gal could easily lose herself in it. I wanted to know as much as possible about the way she lived.
The few things I'd learned about Mrs. Gifford had told me quite a bit about what her daughter might be like; the neat, clean room told me a little more. The clothing was all drab, mostly dark blues and grays; there was one pair of brown low-heeled shoes and a brown cloth coat. The only bright colors I found were two hair ribbons, one yellow, one red. There were four school textbooks, a Bible, a well-thumbed volume of hymns, and six movie magazines. I found an almost full bottle of bright-red nail polish, but it was in a peculiar place, in the dresser's bottom drawer under some handkerchiefs. After I'd thumbed through the few snapshots I found, Felicity by herself or with other young girls plus a couple of snaps of other girls alone, I went back into the front room.
Seated alongside Mrs. Gifford again, in front of the TV set, I asked, "Is there any chance Felicity might simply have stayed at a girlfriend's house?"
"She wouldn't of done that."
"Was there any indication that she might have been planning something like this? Could she have been thinking of running away? To friends out of town, anything?"
"Why would she run away?"
For a couple of seconds I felt like giving this gal a straight answer to that question, but I let it pass and said, "She seem happy, normal? Health good?"
Mrs. Gifford thought about it. "Oh, she seemed a little nervous-like lately. Skittery. And she wasn't feeling none too well, sickly most of the time, upset stomach." Stumick, she said.
"How long had she been like that?"
"Oh, two or three months, I guess. It's hard to say, exactly, I've been feeling so poorly myself."
"Uh-huh. Had she been to a doctor?"
"No. It wasn't nothing serious, just part of growing up."
"I see." I reached for cigarettes, then changed my mind. There weren't any ashtrays in the house, and it seemed a safe bet that Mrs. Gifford didn't smoke. "Just a thought," I said, "but is there any chance that Felicity was pregnant?" I barely got the last word out.
"What a terrible thing to say!" Mrs. Gifford gasped. Her eyes got wide and her mouth got small, and through almost closed lips she said, angrily, "Why, that's impossible. Felicity don't know the first thing about ... about sex. You shouldn't even suggest—"
"I'm sorry. I don't mean to be offensive, but I've got to ask any questions that might conceivably be important. Felicity's illness, and her—"
"Now, that's enough! She's not that kind of a girl at all. I've taken good care of her."
"Sure, Mrs. Gifford. Sorry I mentioned it. I get used to all sorts of angles in my job, and I thought maybe—"
"She's a good girl, Mr. Scott. Why, she's a Trammelite."
"She's a what?"
"A Trammelite. She goes and listens to Mr. Trammel 'most every night."
Those words rang a bell; a rather cracked bell, at that. And I didn't like the sound of it. Trammelites were devotees of Trammelism, a crackpot cult built on the mouthings of one Arthur Trammel. I knew quite a bit about Trammel, had met him, and I figured if he kept on the way he was going, he might eventually succeed in disorganizing as many minds as organized religion. Most of his followers were oddballs to begin with, and after listening to him a while, they usually wound up as warped as Trammel. If Felicity were mixed up with that bunch, I wanted to know all about it.
"Your daughter spent a lot of time at Trammelite meetings?"
"Oh, yes. She even sung in the choral group Mr. Trammel has. Only twenty of them, and she's one. They sing beautiful."
Excerpted from Always Leave 'em Dying by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1982 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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