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FOR A LONG MOMENT, she clung to me, whispering, her lips soft against my throat. They were not words of love, but obscenities, for she was not much given to words of love.
Then the last ripple of emotion shuddered through her flesh and she relaxed, moved away from me and lay quietly with her dark hair tangled against the pillow, her long body nearly as pale as the white sheet beneath it.
She lay on her back without the slightest trace of modesty or shame in her nakedness and stared at me from dark eyes. She didn't speak. We rarely had much to say. Her eyes closed, and in a few moments she was asleep.
A week ago we had met in a bar on Wilshire Boulevard here in Los Angeles. After the first intimate glances and tentative words, all of them charged with meaning as pointed and naked as an unsheathed sword, we had talked for a while. Then, almost automatically, we had come here to my apartment. That was the first time—it was afternoon then, too—and now, a week later, I still knew almost nothing about her.
Her name was Gladys, she was about thirty years old, and she was a married woman. That was nearly all of it—except that from the very beginning she had seemed not quite a stranger to me, as if I had known her or seen her before. She wouldn't talk about her home, her family, her life. It sometimes seemed that there was only one thing she wanted to talk about.
It was another late afternoon, and yellow sunlight slanted through the venetian blinds in the bedroom of my Wilshire Boulevard apartment, splashing alternate fuzzy bands of yellow and warm shadow across her full woman's body. I looked at her nakedness almost with disinterest, and with the slight distaste one sometimes feels for the object of passion when the passion has been satisfied. Perhaps it was more than that, because I didn't like her. She stirred and excited me, but I didn't really like her.
She lay quietly now, her only movement the regular breathing that stirred the lush, heavy curves of maturity, the warm yielding breasts barely moving and the gentle female roundness of her stomach rising and falling slightly with each slow breath. Gladys seemed voracious and predatory even in sleep; she made me think of those cannibal plants that capture live things and devour them.
I had showered and was almost dressed when she awakened. She stretched languorously, catlike.
"Shell," she said, "I die every time. I can't help it."
"You've told me. You'd better get dressed."
She laughed softly. "What a waste of time. Come here."
"Not that late."
I looped the knot in my tie and slid it up under my collar, then strapped on my gun harness and the Magnum and shrugged into my coat.
"What's the matter, Shell?"
"I told you. It's late." I looked at my watch. "It's after six. You've never stayed this late before."
"There has to be a first time."
"No, there doesn't." I walked over and sat on the edge of the bed. "Listen, Gladys, you know what's the matter. I don't like this. I don't like it at all."
She raised her left hand and slowly traced a line down between her breasts and over the white mound of her stomach. Smiling, she said, "You don't?"
"I don't like this sneaking around, hiding, not knowing who you are or where you live. I've told you before, I feel ... I don't feel right about it."
She laughed. "We're adults. We're not in love with each other, and we both know it. But we—we like each other."
"I'm not sure, Gladys. I'm not sure I like you at all."
It didn't bother her. She laughed again, propped herself up on one elbow and looked at me. "You don't have to like me." Her eyes swept down the length of my body, then back to my face. "I don't even know for sure what I see in you," she said. "Six feet of something. Black curly hair, brown eyes, a very nice nose, even a Cary Grant dimple in that square chin. You should be handsome, Shell, but you're not. I don't even think you're good-looking." She put her hand on my knee, then grinned and said through her teeth, "I just don't know what I see in you."
I grinned back at her. "I know damned well what you see in me. Now get up, baby, and put on your pants." She got up, but slid over and sat on my lap. I shook my head. "I mean it, Gladys. It's time you got out."
"I think I'll stay."
"Let me ask you something just once more. You've got a husband, maybe nine kids for all I know. Isn't your husband in love with you? Don't you feel a little rotten sometimes?"
"Good God, Shell. Can't you forget the old goat for an hour? For a private detective, and a bachelor, you lug around some damned infantile notions. Can't you drop that silly Victorian conscience somewhere? We'll go to church on Sunday, if it'll make you feel better." She paused, a small smile on her lips, her arms going around my neck. "Now, Shell, let's not talk any more."
"Oh, for Christ's sake, Gladys." I pushed her away from me.
She was quiet for a few seconds, then she asked softly, "Tomorrow, Shell?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. Even private detectives have to work some time."
"Tomorrow night." It was a whisper. "I can get away."
"You mean you can sneak out."
She moved closer to me, lifted my hand and brushed it over her breast. "Tomorrow night, Shell?"
I hesitated, felt her move against me.
"We'll have the night, and the darkness, Shell," she said.
And finally, as she undoubtedly felt sure I would, I told her yes.
After she had gone I got the bottle of light Bacardi from the kitchen, poured a healthy splash into a tall glass and filled the glass with soda. Then I sat in the living room and thought about Gladys.
She was lovely enough, with a ripe and exciting dark beauty, but I'd have felt fewer twinges of what Gladys called a Victorian conscience if there'd been more honesty between us, less secrecy. And it was a one-sided secrecy. Gladys knew almost all there was to know about me. She knew I was Shell Scott, twenty-nine years old, a private detective, an ex-G.I. who had once worked up to sergeant but was three times a private. She knew I liked pork chops and Southern fried chicken, rum and soda, red lips and rumba music. And I didn't even know her last name. It was difficult to tell what she did or didn't like—except in one thing. The hell with it; she was an expert in that.
I tossed off the last of my drink and said the hell with it again. Tomorrow was another day and I had an appointment at my one-room office in the Farnsworth Building on Spring Street in downtown L.A. An old friend, Jay Weather, was in some kind of trouble.
I didn't know it yet, but so was I—at least it was starting.CHAPTER 2
JAY KEPT LOOKING at his watch as if something important were going to happen any second. It was one minute till noon.
He glanced at me, blinking his bright blue eyes. The guy was frightened of something, and he was making me nervous. I'd known Jay Weather for a good many years, and I'd never seen him like this. I'd never seen his thin face so drawn and worried. He couldn't keep still; his hands fluttered in his lap and he kept shifting in the leather chair across from my desk. A man in his fifties, he looked ten years older now.
"Jay," I said, "you look as if you're ready to explode. What's eating you?"
He kept his eyes on his wristwatch. "Just a minute, Shell. Half a minute." His voice was tight.
I didn't say any more. He'd called me half an hour earlier, to make sure I remembered the appointment he'd made yesterday, and had said he'd be up at ten minutes to twelve. He'd come in looking worried and had talked about everything except whatever it was he really wanted to discuss with me—and now this.
Finally he took his eyes off his watch and looked at his left shoulder. "God damn," he said softly. "Damn, damn, damn."
"What's the matter?"
"Shell," he said. "You see it, Shell?"
He'd got me jittery enough to see almost anything he wanted me to, but I didn't know what he was talking about.
"See what?" I asked him.
He'd been holding his breath. Now he let it out between his lips in a small explosion that was almost a sob. "Don't you see it? Don't you see anything at all?"
I've seen people near hysteria before, and unless I was completely off base I was about to have a hysterical man in my office. I didn't say anything right away. I could see Jay across from me, even his reflection in the top of the desk I'd just finished polishing. I could see the rest of my office, the leather chairs, filing cabinets, divan, and it was all as it should be; I couldn't see anything that hadn't been there a minute before.
I said, "Take it easy, Jay. Relax, for Pete's sake. What am I supposed to see?"
"Parrot, Shell. Don't you see it?" His face was twisted and he looked ready to crack. "Don't lie to me, Shell."
"Look, Jay," I said softly. "We've been friends a long time. Don't flip on me. What about this parrot?"
"There's one on my shoulder. There's a big, green parrot on my shoulder."
I suppose, under different circumstances, it would have been funny. It was the kind of thing you talk about later and laugh about as you recall it. But right then there wasn't a single thing about it that was funny. It's never laughable to look at a man you've known for years, a man you like and respect, and see him almost going to pieces.
No more than a week or two ago I'd talked to Jay at the men's clothing store he owned here in Los Angeles, and he'd been as normal and sane as I am. Something was wrong now. I knew one thing—Jay wasn't pulling my leg. He was serious.
I got a little feathery trickle down the nerves of my spine and I said cautiously, "Should I see this parrot, Jay?"
He sighed, his thin shoulders rising and falling. "I guess not. I guess not, Shell. I must be crazy."
"Don't be stupid," I said. "Tell me about it."
"All right." He lit a cigarette with a hand that shook a little, dragged deep, glanced at his left shoulder and away quickly. Then he blew out smoke and said, "I guess you think I'm crazy, even if I'm not. Maybe I am. But, Shell, a parrot is there—" He jerked his head a little to the left, his eyes averted. "And I can see it. I can see it and feel it there. You—you can't?"
I shook my head slowly. "No. But don't let it get you, Jay. I don't understand—"
He broke in, "I don't understand either. If I'm not insane I will be before long. Every damn noon, right on the dot."
"All the time?"
"No. At noon. For an hour. Never fails. Right on the dot, at noon ..." His voice trailed off and he dragged on the cigarette.
"How long's it been going on?"
"Since Monday. Every day."
This was Thursday. That meant Jay had been going around for three days with this thing, whatever it was, digging at him. I said, "You talk to anybody else about this?"
He shook his head. "When it happened the first time—Monday—I was in the shop. Damn thing was just—just there all of a sudden. I went home. All of a sudden, at one o'clock it disappeared." He shook his head, his face lined and puzzled. "It just disappeared."
I didn't know what to say to him. We'd been friends for a long time. Not really close, but good enough friends. We hadn't seen a lot of each other lately, but I liked him and I knew he liked me.
Jay and I talked a while longer and he seemed to calm down as the minutes went by. As far as he could tell, he said, there was no reason at all for him to suddenly start having hallucinations; no shocks, no warning of any kind, no idea why it had started.
I got up and went to the big window behind my desk and looked down at Spring Street. It was crowded now with people going to lunch, cars creeping slowly up the street. Bright sunshine slanted down and glanced off the streetcar tracks. It seemed strange that everything should be going on outside as usual while we were having a conversation about an invisible parrot here in the Farnsworth Building. It was the wrong kind of day for it. The air was too bland and clear, the sun too bright outside my office window. Even the smog that usually blurs the streets of Los Angeles was high and thin. It should have been a day of whimpering winds, or fog curling around the buildings.
I turned. Jay was looking at his left shoulder. He said softly, "You know, I can see him. I can see him just as plain. He's there, I tell you. I can feel him." He cocked his head on the side. "I don't know what's real—Shell, you think I'm crazy?"
"You're not crazy, Jay. Get that out of your head." There was a chance he was, but I'd have been a fool to tell him so. He looked at me as I went back and sat down in the swivel chair behind my desk.
Then he reached into his inside coat pocket, took out a long envelope and put it on the desk. I glanced at the name stamped in the upper left corner: "Cohen and Fisk, Attorneys at Law." Jay took some papers out of the envelope and handed them to me.
"Look at this," he said. "Here's why I came up. The other reason, anyway. I came up to see you as a friend, Shell, not just because you're a detective. Main reason is I can trust you."
"Sure, Jay. Anything I can do," I said. He seemed fairly calm now. Still nervous, but a lot better than he had been. I picked up the top paper and looked at it. For a minute I thought I was reading the thing wrong. It said: I hereby assign, transfer, and sell all my rights, title, and interest in and to the following described property ...
I looked up. "What the devil is this, Jay? This is a bill of sale. It doesn't make sense."
"Yes it does. I'm selling out."
It was a bill of sale, all right, and the description was of Jay's store on Ninth Street. It must have been worth a mint.
"I don't get it," I said. "Why?"
He took a deep breath and his cheeks puffed out as he exhaled. "I've got some trouble. Some kind of trouble—unless I'm imagining it, too." His lips twisted in a wry grin. "Don't know what's real and what isn't since this—Anyway, there's a couple guys come in every night at closing time. Trying to buy the place."
"You don't want to sell, do you?"
He hesitated. "Funny thing, I do, sort of. They want me to sell for twenty-five thousand."
"Twenty-five—why, the business must be worth four or five times that, Jay."
"Closer to a quarter of a million. I carry a big stock, you know. Thing is, I ... I want to sell to them. I can hardly keep from doing it when they come in. I'm so mixed up, it's as if I had to. I'm afraid maybe I will sell."
"You're afraid? Then what're these papers? Why—"
"I'm going to sell it to you, Shell."
"To me? Hell, Jay, I haven't got—"
"For a dollar."
I looked at him. Maybe the guy was crazy.
He said, "It's a favor to me, if you want to go through with it. You won't have to do anything about the business; I'll be around. This is just on paper." He paused, then went on, "These two men who've been after me—they scare me. I'm afraid they'll get rough. One of them carries a gun."
This was getting closer to the kind of thing I'm used to. Tough boys. I was starting to understand. Part of this was getting clearer.
Jay went on. "This is too much for me, Shell. I'm afraid maybe there's something wrong with me, anyway. And now this deal about the business." He licked his lips. "And they're rough. Shoved me around a little last night. Said I'd have to make up my mind soon. Tonight, maybe."
I let that sink in. "You mean shoved you around physically? Actually roughed you up, Jay?"
"Uh-huh. They're big guys. About your size. Said if I didn't sell they'd take care of me."
I was starting to burn. Jay was all of five-seven, and fifty-eight years old. He carried around a little potbelly and was as mild as anybody I knew.
I asked him, "Want some help there?"
He nodded. "That's the deal with those papers. If things work out you can sign back the shop to me. If things don't work out for me, you can see that Ann gets the place. Look at me. Do I look as if I can handle this mess? Hell, I can hardly sell a pair of pants the way I am. There's a check in the mail for you no matter what."
"Knock that off, Jay. You don't need to pay me. And what do you mean, if things don't work out?"
"You know. Anything might happen."
"Nothing's going to happen. I think I get the deal, though. I'll be the new owner as far as the tough boys are concerned, and I'll be able to prove it. I'll have a talk with these guys, and as soon as things calm down a little you step back in. Right?"
He nodded. "If you'll do it."
Excerpted from Dagger Of Flesh by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1956 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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