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She had eyes that sizzled and lips like flaming puckers, and a body flaunting the vital statistics you'd expect on a gal with such facial sizzle and smack, but she was not so bright she would give a dummy an inferiority complex. That was the kick in the pants — my pants, of course, since I was with her.
O.K., so she was not an intellectual giant. But when a lovely is medium tall and not medium in curve and flow and swoop and zip of thigh and waist and breast and all that, and when she has long thick rust-blond hair the color of falling leaves in autumn, and a walk that can sprain male eyeballs at twenty paces, and her hand is resting gently on your knee taking the press out of your trousers, do you go around looking for intellectual giants?
Not if you're Shell Scott, you don't. And I'm Shell Scott.
I'm a private detective. I am the president, vice-president, secretary, janitor, legman — yeah, I'm that, all right — of Sheldon Scott, Investigations; and, believe it or not, friends, I was working.
Yes, it was at least conceivable that at any moment murder might strike, blood might splatter, mayhem of some sort commence, but with Doody — that was her dopey name, Doody — snuggling chummily next to my right hip, the one in which I'd been shot last night, it was the kind of work that could make play pall on a man.
We, Doody and I, were at the races — along with fifty thousand other Southern California citizens.
Specifically, we were at Hollywood Park in Inglewood, near my stamping ground, Los Angeles, this being the thirteenth racing day of Hollypark's current fifty-five-day meeting. It was Saturday, the twenty-fifth day of a balmy May, a gorgeous afternoon, with just a little crispness in the air but the sun bright and sky clear.
Down on the furrowed track the bugler, resplendent in scarlet jacket and straw hat, raised his long silver trumpet and tooted, and the horses filed onto the track for the first race. As the horses began the parade to the post, the talk and laughter around us, like a constant hum of pleasant electricity in the air, increased a little, rose and fell like a surf of breath and voices.
Well, with all that — and with the jockeys' bright silks adding even more brilliant color to the green of the infield, the massed banks of purple and gold and white flowers, the graceful palms and lakes rippled by slowly swimming white and black swans — and with Doody so close, I would have been enjoying myself immensely except for the nearness of that "work" I mentioned.
Doody and I were on the second floor of the Clubhouse, seated in the block of reserved or loge seats to the right of Aisle 2, past the finish line. Below us and also to our left were the choice boxes overlooking the saddling paddock and walking ring, most of them occupied by well-to-do racegoers, a few owners and officials, well-dressed men and women, most of them very nice people. But I was interested in some not-very-nice people.
They were seated to our left, closer to the finish line, and in the back row of boxes. Three of them: a large lump of beef and muscle named Axel Scalzo; plus his solid shadow, Hale, a sleepy-eyed, slow-moving killer, slow-moving, that is, unless moving a gun or sap; and a second gun-toting friend and bodyguard of Scalzo's known to me only as Deke. Scalzo was the reason I was here at the track — Scalzo and another man, who hadn't yet shown up.
I didn't think the three slobs had spotted me yet. Which probably meant they hadn't looked this way very often or carefully, since there are two hundred and six pounds of me, and with my six-foot-two topped by inch-long white hair stabbing skyward like solid shafts of static electricity, and the equally white and obtrusive brows below that hairline as if a couple chunks of the static had slipped down over my gray eyes, those apes would not, once having seen me before, be likely to confuse me with ten other people.
And they had, all of them, seen me before. We had, as the phrase goes, laid hands on each other, and not in the fashion of old buddies. We were not old buddies. In fact, I would have given a C-note to a sawbuck that as soon as they did spot me, if there were any way to manage it, any one of them or even all of them at once would take keen delight in killing hell out of me. However, there were a lot of other people around us, so I felt fairly safe — but only half safe, as those stinking ads say.
You wouldn't think a guy surrounded by forty or fifty thousand other people enjoying the races could pull off a killing and get away with it. Not in broad daylight. And not with a noisy gun. You wouldn't think so, maybe, but somebody had done just that. Two days ago, on Thursday afternoon, less than fifty yards from where I now sat, a man had been killed. Murdered. It had happened sometime around the end of the seventh race.
I didn't know who'd done the job — not for sure — but I was interested. I was really interested. Because the dead man had been a private detective. Like me. And he'd been working on a case at the time. Like me. The case, in fact, on which I was now working.
Doody wiggled a bit next to me, wrecking my thoughts, and said, "Black Velvet. Oh, that's a pretty name, such a pretty name."
She talked like that, sort of scattered, in a too-high voice with lots of blinking and wiggling. But, hell, you can't have everything. "Yeah," I said, "he's a so-so three-year-old. By Black Prince out of Velvet Dream," I added somewhat smugly.
She was impressed by my encyclopedic knowledge of horseflesh. And I was glad, since it wasn't exactly horseflesh I was interested in. I'll admit that, since I really was working, and since I figured at least two people had been killed already, one of them by me — not to mention the bullet brand on my fanny and the fresh lump on my skull — perhaps I should have been paying much less attention to Doody. But there is no point in concealing the widely known fact that tomatoes who look like Doody are my Achilles' heel, and that my Achilles' heel is the size of my foot.
So when Doody asked me would I please explain what that meant for little old her, I told her all about sires and dams and the naming of equine thoroughbreds.
"I see," she said brightly, "I see. And they usually sort of build the new horsie's name out of the mama and papa horsies' names?"
"Yeah, ugh," I said. "Yeah. That's how horsies — ahggh — how fillies and mares and geldings and such get their names. Not always, but often. This nag, though, hasn't got a prayer —"
"Then he could just as easily have been named, oh, Dream Prince, couldn't he? Dream Prince, out of those others, or what you said?"
"Well, I suppose so. Yeah, it could happen. But —"
"That settles it. That's my horsie. I'll bet on Dream Prince."
"Doody, for Pete's sake, that animal hasn't been in the money his last eighteen times out. He's a router running with older horses in a sprint. And Dream Prince isn't even his name —"
"Who cares? Don't you have any —"
"You're mad again."
She could tell when I was getting heated, I suppose, because I started scowling and glowering and raising my voice a bit, and shaking. Anyway, she looked up at me from those hot brown eyes and sort of squeezed them half shut, and wrinkled up her nose and wiggled her lips, and wiggled a bit elsewhere, and said, "I only want to bet on it because he reminds me of you, Shellie, See? Dream Prince? And you're —"
"Yeah. I remind you of a horse."
"You know what I intended to mean," she said.
"Yeah. Whatever that means." But the truth is, whether she intended to mean it or not, I was mollified. She could take the starch out of a man quicker than new Duz takes it out of an old shirt, even though all that wrinkling and wriggling was almost — not quite, but almost — nauseating. And of course she was built — well, you wouldn't believe it.
"So O.K.," I said. "Bet on the nag."
"You buy me a ticket, Shellie."
I bought her a two-dollar win ticket on whatever its name was — Prince Blackness or something. Then I bought a twenty-dollar win ticket on the solid horse in the race, Red Acorn.
I got back to our seats just as the bell rang and the track announcer cried, "Theeere they go!" and the horses sprang from the starting gate.
Then, very soon, the announcer was crying, "... and it's Black Velvet by three lengths, Red Acorn and Easy Time ..."
Doody was squealing and making happy noises next to me, then she stopped and looked at me. "You're mad again, aren't you?"
"Mad?" I said. "Me, mad? Are you nuts? Are you out of your stupid mind? Why would I be mad?"
"Well, you're all red in the face, and making fists out of your fists, and look like you're going to die or something."
It was ridiculous. I merely happen to have an encyclopedic knowledge of horseflesh. And had already doped the first few races utilizing the Daily Racing Form and a very scientific system I'd worked out, with emphasis on days since the last race, class, lengths gained or lost in the stretch, whether the horse finished in the money, and such vital factors as those.
And "... Black Velvet by three lengths ..."
"But, Shellie," she said, "we won, didn't we?"
"No. You won."
"How could — No. Simply, it is impossible for both of us to win, since we bet on different horses."
"No. No. No."
"Just because I didn't go into a fit or something with numbers and things and picked his pretty name instead. What's wrong with that?"
"Nothing. It's just not ... very scientific."
"Oh, scientific, pooh," she said. Then, softly, "Shellie, I'm sorry you lost. Really." She was taking the press out of my pants again.
"My horse came in second," I said.
"Well, that's better than nowhere, isn't it?"
"I'm not sure. I'm not even sure I know what that means."
She was looking at my ticket, all crumpled and sweaty, then at her own ticket. "Why did you spend twenty dollars on the one who was second, and only two dollars on my horsie?"
I said deliberately, "If you ... don't quit calling ... those animals 'horsies' I will —"
"Don't you yell at me!"
I closed my eyes, beat my clenched fists lightly on my head, and said nothing. Just once, I thought, I'd like to be a woman. I'd probably kill myself, but I would sure like to know what it's like.
"Dear," I said. "Dear Doody. Really, I've got work to do. Pretend I'm on the track of a gang of desperate criminals — which I really am, incredible as that may seem in the midst of all this gaiety — and that I must concentrate my undivided attention on clues and —"
"How much did I win?" she asked me.
I was afraid to look at the tote board. I looked. Black Velvet, at thirty-three to one, had paid sixty-eight dollars. "You won," I said in a voice like Death's rattle, "sixty-six dollars. Sixty-eight, counting my two bucks."
I'll give Doody this: she didn't make any further comment. She was already looking at the horses entered in the second race.
By the time the sixth race ended, nothing very important had happened. Nothing very good, that is. I'd kept looking for the man I expected to see here, but he hadn't shown up. Scalzo and his two buddy boys still hadn't spotted me, apparently.
The only noteworthy thing was that Doody, by the end of the sixth race, had won three hundred and eighty dollars. And I had lost three hundred and ninety dollars. It was almost perfect, I thought. It would have been perfect if I'd fallen down and broken a leg. And if I'd broken a leg, probably somebody would have come along and shot me. And if somebody had shot me, Doody would have won a bet on it.
Ah, but Doody was gay. Alive. Bright and bubbling. She sickened me. Horsies sickened me. Life sickened me.
Doody eyed me intently, her beautiful dopey face showing concern. "Ah, hon," she said, "you're just tired. Let me take you home, and fix you some food or a drink or some coffee, and put you to bed."
"The hell," I said, "with the food and the drink and the coffee." Wasn't it ever thus? The miserable truth, however, was that I couldn't leave the track. Not yet, anyway. I knew something was going to happen this day. Maybe not here at the track, but if not here, then very damned soon after the last race. Because, if nothing else, I was going to make it happen.
The track announcer's voice came over the public-address system, telling us of weight and equipment changes in the upcoming mile-and-a-sixteenth route, an allowance race. The bugler tooted his trumpet, the horses came onto the track. I'd lost six races in a row; maybe I'd have better luck with this one, the seventh.
The seventh — that was the race when my predecessor on this case had been killed, I realized. The seventh, on Thursday. It gave me a kind of creepy prickliness along my spine. But that's ridiculous, I thought. Ha-ha, I thought. That's being superstitious, and I'm not superstitious, I thought, crossing my fingers and looking for wood to knock on, and not finding any wood. Just in case, by some freak of circumstance, I did get killed, I hoped my horse won the race; I would hate to die a loser.
Something else bothered me. The man I'd expected to see here still hadn't shown up. Maybe I was wrong. And maybe Doody had been lying to me. I looked at her, wondering about her still, and thinking of how much had happened since we'd met, less than twenty-four hours ago.
Her name was really Nell Duden, she'd said, and she told me she loathed the name Nell. I'd thought that was pretty smart of her. That's how it started — with me thinking she was smart.
Actually, the ball had started rolling a few hours before I met Doody. Started Friday afternoon with a phone call from big, lusty Gabriel Rothstein, financial wizard, multi-zillionaire....CHAPTER 2
I'd hit my downtown L.A. office Friday afternoon just after 1 p.m. I clattered up a flight of stairs in the Hamilton Building, waved a hello to Hazel, the cute little gal at the switchboard, unlocked the door lettered sheldon scott, investigations, and went inside.
After opening a window and looking down at the citizens on Broadway, then up at the gathering smog while inhaling a few lungfuls of it through a long cigarette, equipped with a filter to remove some of the gasoline, I walked over to the bookcase and fed the fish. Busy, busy, the mad life of a private eye.
The fish are guppies, splendidly colorful and singularly amorous little creatures, which I have trapped in a ten-gallon tank atop the office bookcase. I sprinkled a bit of powdered salmon meal on the water's surface and movement in the tank became more frenzied, drab females and brightly colored males leaving their sport momentarily to gobble a small hunk of nourishment. Then with hunger pangs — or whatever pangs fish feel — temporarily assuaged, they returned to the attack, to the assuagement of other pangs.
The one gravid female, which last night had been heavy with young, I now noted was thin again. She'd given birth to a litter during the night, obviously; but none of the young were now in sight. You've got to keep a sharp eye on them, the sweet little things; they eat their babies.
Well, with all that accomplished, there wasn't a damn thing left to do. I'd wrapped up a peculiar insurance fraud three days ago — the culprit had returned the gross of glass eyes he'd stolen — and since then life had been a wild whirl of nothing.
I reached for the phone, thinking it wouldn't hurt a bit to call Carmen and try making a date for a late lunch or early dinner. Carmen was a hot five-foot, eight-inch tamale who performed a cha-cha like a Mexican revolution, and I figured we might have a belt or two and then a few tacos or something, like out in some isolated picnic grounds or sand dunes. Understand, I rarely drink when I'm working — though sometimes I'll knock off work for an hour or two — but since there was no fascinating case on the agenda, perhaps I could stir up a Mexican revolution.
I had my hand on the phone when it rang. Maybe it was a good omen, I thought. Maybe it was Carmen, calling me for a change. O.K., I'd give her a change. It wasn't Carmen.
Excerpted from Dead Heat by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1991 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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