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I WAS LOOKING at the lovely blonde in the one-and-one-half-piece swimsuit, thinking that if she got any curvier she'd be banned, and then, just as if she knew exactly what I was thinking, she got up and started walking toward me. Possibly to slap me.
I'd been soaking up hot afternoon sun alongside the amoeba-shaped pool at the Hotel de las Américas in Acapulco, wearing a pair of violet trunks decorated with big red passionflowers, which were fine for starting conversations that might lead to almost anything, and sipping a coco fizz from half a huge coconut while I wished I'd ordered a plain bourbon and water and feeling somewhat silly, what with passionflowers and coco fizzes.
It was one of Acapulco's beautiful days; sun splashed from the bright yellow hibiscus and red bougainvillea around the pool and filtered down through the limbs of the royal poinciana trees. It was hot, with only a little breeze, and I could feel rivulets of sweat trickling down my bare chest. A few people were in the pool, more around the sides and in the shaded open-air bar a few feet beyond the pool's shallow end. There was a lot of garish, exotic color and a constant buzz of conversation laced with sudden laughter. It was peaceful and beautiful, but over it all the shabby dark vultures, which are as much a trademark of Acapulco as the plush hotels along Las Playas, dipped and soared with an ugly grace.
My Los Angeles office with "Sheldon Scott, Investigations" lettered on the window seemed as far away from Mexico as Mars, but the blonde might have stepped right off Wilshire Boulevard or out of Earl Carroll's. And she was still stepping.
She came toward me with a walk that wouldn't have been allowed back home on Hollywood Boulevard. And even if it had been allowed, I doubt that anybody else could have duplicated it. She went this way, and then she went that way, and most important of all, she kept coming my way. All she did was put one foot forward, then the other foot forward, but at the same time there were about a dozen other lovely little movements that it was difficult to watch at the same time, and all of it barely concealed by the wisp of bandanna floating on her breasts and the equally wispy piece of printed fog that did its inadequate chore around her hips, if that could be called a chore. She had long blonde hair that brushed her shoulders and a nice smooth tan that you wanted to touch, and she stopped right in front of me.
She smiled. "Hello, there." In a way her voice seemed tanned, too; warm and smoky.
She looked so good from the angle I had on her that I hated to stand up and change it. But I did. "Hello. Care to share my sidewalk?"
"Thank you." She sat down gracefully, curling her smooth legs under her, and beamed at me when I sat down beside her.
I didn't get it. I'm a shade less than six-two and weigh 206 full of tacos, but there were a number of better-looking guys around the pool. My nearly white, inch-long hair sticks up in the air like a white cowlick, and the white eyebrows like toppled L's that slant up over my gray eyes and fall down at the outer ends don't add up to Cesar Romero. The slightly bent nose doesn't enhance my beauty, either. It couldn't have been simply that she liked them big. There were more big, beefy guys around the pool this afternoon than I'd ever seen at one pool in my life before. I'd been wondering—and worrying—about those hard-looking characters before I noticed the blonde; it was peculiar. Usually around the pool at any luxury hotel like this one you see so many fat old pappys and shriveled dowagers that the place looks like a museum, or nauseum, with pool. But these big boys were built like weight lifters.
The lady was still looking at me, so I said, "Down for the fishing? Or just a vacation?"
"Vacation mostly. Wish that were the only reason." She paused. "And you?"
"Just ... loafing." I wasn't loafing. I was on probably my most important case in more than six years of private detective work. I wasn't about to mention the case, and I hoped this lovely's question was idle conversation. "Nice place to loaf," I said. "You staying here at Las Américas?"
"No, but my husband's business keeps him here most of the time, so I use the pool. Rest up and get a tan, get back in shape."
Get back in shape. That was a kick. If her shape got any better it wouldn't do her any good; nobody would believe it. It was the other remark that jarred me, though. That "husband" bit. But I should have guessed. With her chassis she should have had about eight of them; one for each day of the week, and—you know about Sunday.
"Your husband, huh?" I said brilliantly. "You've got a husband, huh?"
"Not for long if I can help it. That's what I wanted to see you about, Mr. Scott."
I blinked. I'd never seen this gal before, yet she knew my name; also she wanted to see me about her husband. Usually it's the other way around.
"Lady," I said, "how did you know my name? And I'm pretty sure I don't know your husband. It's a good guess that I don't care to know your husband."
She laughed merrily, waving her eyelashes at me like fans. "You're just like they said you were," she gurgled. "Only you're meaner-looking." Her voice dropped lower. "Now, Mr.
Scott. Did you actually think I came over here just because I like your muscles?"
"I, uh ..."
She smiled. "I do like your muscles—the ones I can see." She laughed. "But that wasn't the only reason. It wasn't even the main reason. I want to hire you."
"Hire me? For what? And how come you know so much about me?"
"I don't, really. My husband and I were in the bar last night when you came in. He told me who you were, and then I remembered seeing your picture in the papers. I'm from Beverly Hills." She shrugged and her face got serious. I noticed her eyes were green, wide-set under arched, tawny eyebrows. She said, "You're about the only man around here that I know isn't some kind of hoodlum."
That puzzled me a little, but I looked around the pool again and her meaning got clearer. I'd thought quite a bit about those beefy boys ever since yesterday afternoon, when I'd checked into the hotel and recognized a couple of big-time racketeers out front. And there'd been several other faces that looked familiar, but hadn't rung any bells. Across the pool from me was a white-skinned guy in brown trunks, with a bald head and a face like a carved mushroom. All of a sudden, looking at him, I remembered who he was: Mushy Ostrowski, head of gambling and protection in the San Francisco area. I started feeling a little nervous.
"OK," I said. "So I'm not a hoodlum. It's pretty obvious you know I'm a private detective. Why do you want a detective?"
She grinned. "Maybe I like your muscles." Then the cheerful look went away and she said, "Seriously, I do need some help. I want to leave my husband."
"You don't need a detective for that. Pack up and go." I grinned at her. "Go to Los Angeles."
"I'm afraid if I leave, he'll ... kill me."
I almost wanted to watch her walk again. Away from me. I said, "Lady—and what do I call you besides Lady?"
"I'm enjoying a vacation, Gloria. And I can't take on a client just because she doesn't like her hubby."
"It's not that; it's a lot more than that. I'm afraid all the time—not just of him, but of his friends, too."
"What'd you do? Use an ax on somebody?"
"I haven't done anything. Except maybe listen to people who talk too much. Including my husband. All I want you to do is keep an eye on me till I can get away. Be sort of a bodyguard."
I grinned at her. "Honey, there's nothing I'd rather keep an eye on, and no body I'd rather guard. But I can't take on a job now."
She frowned, then looked up at a guy in green trunks who'd strolled alongside us. "Hello, George."
I craned my neck around and looked at George. I hadn't seen him before, but I noticed he went up quite a distance. He was a hell of a good-looking guy, except that he looked nearly as intelligent as Goofy.
"Oh, George, this is Shell Scott," Gloria said.
I got to my feet and stuck my hand out. "Hi, George."
He looked at my hand, but kept his own paws down at his sides. There are few things that make a man feel sillier, and I could feel a little burn starting inside me.
"Shell Scott," he said. "Ain't you that lousy April-fool copper from L.A?"
"I'm Shell Scott," I said. "Just like the lady told you. Want me to tell you again?"
His face looked sullen for a moment, then he grew a big grin on it. He was nearly my size and about thirty, my age, with sandy-colored wavy hair, a perfectly straight nose, a big square chin. He was smiling at me. He had good teeth, too, so far.
Still smiling, he said, "A man after my own heart. Shake."
He stuck out his hand and I grabbed it in that peculiar convention men observe, and grinned back at him. So we'd let bygones be bygones. Maybe he had an ulcer.
One thing was sure. He had a damn strong grip. He was making up for missing my hand the first time. He kept grinning at me.
"Shell Scott?" he asked me pleasantly. "That what you said?" His grin got wider.
I relaxed my grip, but he just turned on more pressure. I felt pain grinding into the bones of my hand and tightened my grip again.
"Look," I said tightly. "Isn't this a little silly? Now let the hell go."
Then he really poured it on. He wasn't any stronger than I was, but he'd got my knuckles pinched together when I relaxed my grip, and very soon he was going to break something. It was obvious that was what he had in mind.
So I waited a couple of seconds longer, then said, "OK," and swung my hand up high and to my left, pulling his arm up with it. I stepped forward, ducked under his arm, then sidestepped behind him and grabbed his left shoulder with my left hand. His right arm was twisted behind him, and if he wanted to play break-bones, we'd play. If I hadn't been so hot I might not have done it, but he'd let himself in for it, so I jerked his hand up behind his back and a big "Aaargh!" ripped out of his lips just as I let go of him, put my bare foot on his fanny, and shoved him toward the pool. He took three stumbling steps, the first two on cement and the third on water, then he went splashing down out of sight. That was fine; I hoped he stayed down there.
In a couple of seconds, though, his head bobbed up again and he started paddling back toward me, using only one hand. He'd continue using only one for a while because the other one would be sore for a while. So would he, from the looks of things.
He got to the edge of the pool and started swearing at me, clinging to the pool's edge with one hand. I knelt near him and said softly, "Keep a civil tongue in your head or I'll jump in there and drown you. Now beat it—and keep out of my way. I don't like the games you play."
He stopped sputtering, but tried to haul himself over the edge at me. He couldn't make it with one hand, and finally he edged along to the cement steps at the shallow end of the pool and climbed out. On the cement again, he stood for a moment facing me and started to raise his right hand, then winced. Still staring at me with hate in his eyes, he lifted his left hand and started pawing at his left shoulder.
I thought, What on earth is the moron trying to do? Pull off his chest and throw it at me? And then, all of a cold, clammy sudden, I figured it out. The Las Américas management doesn't approve of people who wear guns to their pool, but George had apparently forgotten that in his anger. He stopped pawing finally, then wheeled around and walked to the far edge of the pool and turned to his right.
I looked around. I'd forgotten the mess of people out here taking the sun, but not too many had noticed what was going on. It hadn't been noisy, and it had been fast. But there were some looks coming my way I didn't like. One look was from Mushy Ostrowski. He lamped me good, then got up and walked toward George, standing now at the far corner of the pool diagonally across from me. I got a little shock when I saw George again.
He wasn't alone any more. Two of the big beefy characters I'd been wondering about earlier were talking to him now, and right after Mushy joined the crowd two more Gargantuas got there. Pretty soon it looked like half the L.A. Rams grouped in the corner, taking turns looking at me. I didn't like a bit of this. Perhaps I'd been a wee bit hasty.
I sat down by Gloria again, but kept taking peeks at the football huddle in the corner. I said, "The nasty man seems to have some nasty friends, Gloria. Who is the slob?"
She stopped nibbling on her lower lip. "George?" she asked me wide-eyed. "Why, that slob is my husband."CHAPTER 2
I STARED AT HER for a moment, not feeling good at all. "Lady—Gloria. What's the rest of your name?"
"Madison. Gloria Madison."
Madison ... George. No, it couldn't be. "Gloria," I said, "your husband couldn't possibly be little Georgie Madison? The George Madison?"
"Yes. How did you know?"
"Well, ha, ha," I said. "Old Sudden Death Madison." I looked at the giants grouped around Georgie. "Gloria," I said, "I can't be your bodyguard until I get a bodyguard."
I knew who George Madison was, all right. From what I'd heard about him, his boyhood idol was Dracula. He'd killed several men. Nobody knew how many except George, and he probably couldn't count that high. He'd been triggerman for a couple of the top men of the U.S. crime syndicate, and was noted for his efficiency and stupidity. He was possibly the only man alive who walked, talked, and pulled a trigger without a brain.
"Excuse me," I said. "I think I need a glass of water. Or bourbon. Or poison." I started to get up. I know when I'm outnumbered. Just George outnumbered me.
Gloria put a hand on my arm. It was the first time she'd touched me, and even in the state I was in it sent an electric tingle running up my arm and down into my spine, and elsewhere. I looked at her face and it was twisted, pleading.
"Mr. Scott," she said tightly. "Please. Somebody's got to help me. You're the only man around here who might be able to. I was serious all the time; I just didn't quite know how to ask you. And ... you can see now why I'm frightened, Mr. Scott."
I hesitated. "Yeah. I can see that with no trouble. And, honey, you might as well call me Shell while I last."
"Will you help me? I'd be so grateful."
This was one lovely who looked as if she could be grateful to excess. And some excesses I'm excessively fond of. But I honestly didn't know what to tell her.
Right now I already had as a client one of the most important men in the entire United States. If I mentioned his name, you'd know him, so from here on in he's just plain Joe. That was one of the conditions imposed when he hired me: that I forget his name. Even in our first conversation, I called him Joe. That's how important the case was, and he was. Joe is one of the top labor leaders in the States. I can't even tell you what union he heads; that would be the same as shouting his name.
I couldn't tell Gloria I was on a case, because Joe had set it up so that it would look as if I'd come to Mexico on a different case entirely, a jewel theft now allegedly wrapped up, and I was supposed to be on vacation, in case anybody was curious. And then I got the inkling of an idea. Just before I'd come to Acapulco yesterday I'd found one of the people I was after. I'd found him dead, a bullet in his brain, but he'd been headed for Acapulco. Then I hadn't known why, but now, with all the hoods who seemed to be in town, I was getting that inkling. I mulled it over a bit, then turned to face Gloria.
I hadn't been sure exactly what I'd say to her, but when I saw the pose she'd taken I finished making up my mind. Her legs were under her, and she was sitting on her heels, leaning forward a bit and looking earnestly into my face. The little wisp of cloth over her full breasts had slipped more than it was supposed to, and the bright sun was golden on the tanned skin, dazzling against the strip of white that was usually hidden from the sun.
Looking at that, I said, "OK, Gloria. I'll do what I can."
She sighed. She sighed so heavily that I became actually eager to help her. "Oh, Shell," she said, "I ..." She let the words trail off.
Excerpted from Darling, It's Death by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1952 Richard Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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