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IT'S A FUNNY THING. If you were in the middle of the African veld and heard a couple of high notes from a hot trumpet, you'd undoubtedly think it was some animal sounding off. Or if there were a python hissing on one of the top floors of the Empire State Building, you'd probably think it was an office boy whistling through his teeth.
Maybe that's why, when the first bullet whizzed past my ear right in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, it didn't make sense right away, didn't mean anything to me.
I'd just finished forcing down my usual toast-and-coffee breakfast while reading the big black headlines about L.A.'s newest murder -- the killing of one Lobo Le Beau, which looked as if it might lead to violent complications. Then I'd driven up Broadway and parked my ancient yellow Cadillac convertible in front of the Hamilton Building. I sat there a second, blinking sleepily at a hazy world as gray as my gabardine suit.
It was one of those extremely dry, electric Mondays we get sometimes in Southern California after summer is over and before the rains begin, and an east wind had been blowing all morning. We'd had the wind off and on for days now, and everybody was tired of it. It was the kind of irritating breath that dries out the land and the trees, chaps lips, rubs nerves raw, and puts a sharp edge on tempers.
I blinked at Monday, got out of the car, and started angling across the wide sidewalk toward the Hamilton Building and my office, when that first whisper raced past my ear.
It didn't mean a thing. I heard it, wondered what the hell was flying around in the L.A. smog, and kept right on going.
Broadway at ten o'clockin the morning is pretty well filled with people hurrying to one of the big department store sales or stepping out of offices to get coffee, and one of the big orange and green streetcars was rumbling up toward Fourth Street clanging and making a lot of noise, so I didn't even notice the small crash and tinkle as the bullet bored through the plate-glass window of Pete's Bar, next door to the Hamilton Building.
But I took one more step and then I saw the little hole in the glass with the cracks radiating from it and all of a sudden I got it with a jolt that tingled every nerve in my body. My subconscious dredged up the memory of a hundred sounds like that nasty whisper, sounds that I'd heard when I was a Marine in the South Pacific, and I stopped thinking and let my reflexes take over. I dived for a crack in the sidewalk as if it were a foxhole, and I hit the cement rolling. This time I heard a crash as the second shot smacked into the big window over my head, and I scrambled on my hands and knees toward the alley at the left of the Hamilton Building.
It took a second or so, but it finally penetrated. Somebody was trying to turn Shell Scott, private detective, into a six-two corpse with stand-up blond hair and cold, cold blood.
I caught a glimpse of a couple of pedestrians staring open-mouthed at me as I reached the alley and slithered up against the brick wall at its edge. I got my feet under me, dug under my coat, and yanked out my .38 Special, and the guy nearest me stopped staring stupidly, let out a squawk, and disappeared. I could hear his feet slapping the pavement and a little yelp once in a while, getting fainter.
Everything had happened so fast that I hadn't had time to think about what was going on. I squeezed back against the rough brick of the wall behind me, revolver tight in my fist, and tried to look everywhere at once. A woman walking down toward Third stopped at the edge of the alley on my right and stared at me. She didn't scream or run, just stared bug-eyed at me and the gun in my hand as if she were paralyzed. The only thing that moved was her mouth. It dropped open and she pulled it shut, then it opened and shut again, as if she were chewing ten sticks of gum. I guess I looked pretty silly, but not as silly as she did. A man came up alongside her and strained his eyes at me, and I waved them both back with my left hand. He grabbed her by the arm and pulled her back out of sight.
I couldn't stand there all day. If somebody had taken a couple of shots at me, he was probably long gone by now. But it was time I started finding out what the score was. My Cad was parked just across the sidewalk, and if I leaned out I could see the front fender. It looked like a hundred-yard dash to get there, but I bent over and leaped toward the side of the car.
Nothing happened. I slammed into the door and huddled down behind the car, facing the window of Pete's Bar. I could see the two holes, one high up, the other near the bottom of the glass. I could see, too, where the bullets had hit Pete's display inside. He had an off-sale license, and bottles of whisky were arranged inside the window. One of them, over at the left of the bullet holes, was shattered, and the liquor had spread out over the shelf that the bottles were on. That meant that the shots must have come from the northeast somewhere, farther down Broadway and up high. Probably from one of the office buildings along the street. I slid on my fanny back toward the rear of the car, far enough so I could get the door open, reached up, and pulled on the handle, wondering if there'd be any more bullets flying my way. As the door swung open I glanced up the sidewalk.
There must have been twenty damn-fool people standing there milling around and looking at me as if I were nuts. If I had been off my rocker I could have blasted hell out of them with the gun in my hand, but there they were. All of a sudden I wondered if maybe I was nuts.
Goofy or not, I slid up into the car, then hunched over, and with the back of my neck tingling I got the car started and wheeled it around in a U turn, headed north on Broadway. I stuffed the Colt revolver back in its clamshell holster and looked down the street. There were several buildings on my right where a guy could have planted himself with a rifle or pistol and had a beautiful view of the sidewalk where I'd just been -- or even where I was now. There were too many places to check, but I was going to do some prowling anyway.
Forty-five minutes later I'd done a lot of running around and asked a lot of questions and got a lot of nothing. It was hopeless to try to find an empty office or a room overlooking the street from which somebody could have sniped at me. There must have been a million places the guy could have been. I gave up.
When I got back to the Hamilton Building there was a gray police radio car parked in front. I pulled in behind it and sat in the car. A uniformed patrolman was talking to a woman in the Hamilton entrance, and a plain-clothes sergeant I knew, Danny Russo, was looking at the bullet holes in Pete's window. Pete was inside looking out, examining the damage and shaking his head. Danny turned around and saw me.
"Hi, Shell," he said. "Better watch yourself today. Some screwball's running around loose."
"Yeah." He walked over to the car and leaned in the window. "Some guy's running around waving a gun and shooting things up."
"Huh?" He stared at me. I was getting used to it.
"Probably me," I said. "Those holes in the window." I nodded toward the plate glass. "Somebody used me for a target. I climbed into the alley and yanked out my gun and scared a lot of people."
He kept staring, then his lean face relaxed and he grinned. "Sure. What you smoking nowadays?"
"Damn it, Danny, I'm serious. I tell you somebody took two shots at me. I've just been trying to find out where the guy could've been. With no luck."
"Fact. So help me."
Danny opened the car door and slid in beside me. He pushed back his brown hat and scratched his head. "Wouldn't you know," he groaned. "They tell me this guy came panting into headquarters and said a guy had a fit down here and flopped on the sidewalk, then yanked out a gun and started shooting up the town. Guy was all out of breath -- ran all the way, he said."
That must have been the character who ran away yelping. My office is between Third and Fourth Streets on Broadway, and the City Hall is a long four blocks away. Farther than I'd like to run, and I'm in condition.
Danny was grinning at me. "Get this. We got a good description of the guy who threw the fit. According to the man that ran down to tell us about it, this madman had tape over both eyes and was about five feet tall, fat, and completely bald."
I was insulted. I'm just a fraction under six-two and weigh 205 pounds right now. There's no tape over my eyes -- that's my eyebrows. They slant up from the middle and then angle down at the ends of my gray eyes, and they're almost white, like my hair. Tape! And I am not bald at a mere thirty years of age. My hair's blondish and it sticks up over my head about an inch long. But it sticks up all over my head.
I said, "Well, it was me, no matter what the guy says. I was stooped over. Just don't let that description of his get around."
Danny grinned and asked me, "Who shot at you?"
"Dunno. Haven't got any idea."
"Come on, boy. Who you think it was?"
"Don't you get it? I tell you I don't know. It just happened. I damn near fell on my face when that slug whistled by my ear." I grinned. "Matter of fact, I did fall on my face."
He kept looking at me and whistled softly. "Tell me all about it," he said finally.
I told him what little there was to tell, but it didn't satisfy him. That was nothing; it didn't satisfy me, either.
He said, "You must have some idea who'd be mad at you. Don't be dumb, Shell. If somebody's after your hide, you'll need all the help you can get."
I shook my head. "That's it, Danny. That's all of it. If I knew any more, I'd give it to you. Hell, you don't think I like this?"
He got out cigarettes, stuck one in his mouth, and passed me the pack. While he lit one match after another from a book of paper matches, and while the wind swirling in the open windows of the Cad put out one match after another, he asked me casually, "Uh, Shell, you wouldn't know anything about Lobo, would you?"
The Lobo he referred to was Lobo Le Beau, the guy I'd been reading about while I had my morning coffee. He'd been found dead in a ditch a little way out of the city with three bullets in his head. There had been absolutely no love lost between Lobo and me, and as far as I was concerned, his head was a dandy place for three bullets to be.
I'd learned to dislike Lobo heartily about three months back. I was on a job for a man named Marty Sader, who wanted to know the weekly take of one of the horse parlors on Slauson Avenue. At the time I hadn't inquired into Sader's reasons for wanting that kind of info, but he informed me it wasn't information one could get by calling the place or asking the police, and he didn't want to get involved personally. He'd explained that he'd checked the local "talent," as he called it, and decided I was the best man he could hire. I said to myself, Flattery will get you nowhere, Mr. Sader, but when he blew me and some tomato -- whose name I've forgotten -- to an evening at his night club, the Pit, and explained there was a fat fee if I got what he wanted and kept his name out of the deal, I gave it a stab -- and learned nothing.
I did my best on the job, and nobody scared me off; I just couldn't figure out anything definite. But I met Lobo, who tried to scare me. I spent four days on that job, and on the second day Lobo Le Beau stopped me, said he'd heard I was snooping and asking leading questions, and for me to get the God-damn hell out of the way. I thanked him kindly for his interest and kept snooping. The next day Lobo wasn't so courteous. He threatened me some more, and when I told him it was a free country he grabbed me by my knit wool tie and started to yank me around, whereupon I broke his thumb and he let go of my tie.
The only violence after that was verbal, and Lobo told me if I didn't stop messing around I'd have to suffer the consequences. He never did tell me bluntly what the consequences might be, but he had said, as I recalled it, "Scott, you're too young." He didn't develop that, but we both knew what he meant. I hadn't liked the idea of dying that soon, but even though he'd bothered me I'd gone ahead with the investigation till it was obvious I wasn't going to get anything out of it and all my leads had dried up. I'd reported as much to Sader. I didn't get the fat fee, and Sader had intimated, not too subtly, that his feelings toward guys who let him down were not exactly cordial. Nothing I could say -- not even the evidence of Lobo's broken thumb -- could persuade Sader that I hadn't double-crossed him and got a fat fee for not getting the information he wanted. But he couldn't prove anything, so that was the end of it -- I thought. I couldn't help wondering, though, what might have happened if Lobo and I had run into each other a time or two more. Well, with three holes in his head, he wouldn't bother me.
Even before he got his holes, though, Lobo hadn't impressed me as the type of muscle who diagrams the plays, but rather as the kind who carries the ball for somebody else. And I knew one more thing about him. He was, or rather had been, right-hand man to Collier Breed, a big man in L.A. Breed was big around the middle, but he was also big in that he had his fat fingers in a lot of pies, legal and illegal, all up and down the West Coast. Some came right out and said Breed was the West Coast representative of a national "combination" that controlled most of the rackets. Breed had been up before the U.S. Senate Crime Investigating Committee, but he'd claimed he was simply an honest businessman and nobody had yet proved any different.
Lobo had been very close to Breed -- until this morning -- and thinking about that reminded me of what might yet be the most important result of my thumb-breaking altercation with Lobo. About a week after that, word had filtered down to me that Breed, the big man himself, wanted it impressed upon me that, and I quote, "If that ass Scott sticks his nose in my business just once more, he'll be the late Shell Scott." That told me two things: the business I'd been sticking my nose into was Breed's; and he didn't like me worth a damn.
Danny was on his fifth match so I said, "Here, let me light that damn cigarette for you. And, no, I wouldn't know anything about the job on Lobo." I dug into my coat pocket and hauled out my pride and joy: one Zippo "one-zip windproof lighter" that the winds of the last few days had forced me to buy. I guess the ads had sold me: "Why, zip, zip, zip... when one zip does it!"
I went zip and stuck the torch against Danny's cigarette, blackening half of the end of it, and added, "All I know is what I read in the papers, Danny. And all I know about Lobo is that somebody punctured him. Not much loss."
"Not to L. A., maybe," Danny said, "but Breed won't be happy."
I lit my own cigarette, took a drag on it, and blew smoke out my nose like Bogart. "So what's that got to do with me? I didn't know anything about it till an hour or so ago."
"O.K. Seems funny you don't have any idea who shot at you."
"Yeah. I think it's funny, too. I'm in stitches." I thought about it a while and said truthfully, "Look, Danny. I've helped send a few local boys up for stretches, but they're all safely tucked away. That's straight. I honestly can't think of a single damned reason why anybody would shoot at me."
"Agreed," I said. "Somebody did." He didn't say anything, so I added, "About Lobo -- well, we had a run-in a while back, but it blew over."
"What kind of run-in?"
"Job I worked on. Nothing came of it. I couldn't get enough info to help my client. Lobo thought I should lay off. Seems I was tromping on his toes, or somebody's toes."
"I heard something rumored about that. You lay off?"
"You nuts, Danny? Hell, no. I couldn't find anything, is all. Anyway, I didn't knock off Lobo, so we're getting nowhere."
"You've got no idea at all who blasted at you?"
"None. That's all, period, Danny."
He looked at me a while. Then he said, "All right, Shell. You want some protection?"
"Uh-uh. Not till I know more about this thing. Maybe it was a backfire."
He looked over at the bullet holes in the window. "Sure. That's it. Why didn't I think of that?"
We grinned at each other, pretending we were happy, then got out of the car. I didn't stand around in front of the building, but waved to Danny and the patrolman, went inside, and took the self-service elevator to my office, on the second floor. I looked at the printed letters on the window of my office door, "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," wondering if somebody would be scraping the paint off in a few days for a new name and a new occupant. With that cheery thought I unlocked the door and went inside.
I peeked before I barged in, just to be sure there was nobody waiting for me, but the only life in the office was on top of the bookcase to the right of the door. That's where I keep the ten-gallon tank and the guppies. That's fish. Little lusty tropical fish with color like surrealist prints and rainbows and vegetable soup. I pushed the door shut behind me, walked over to the bookcase, and said, "Hi, guppies," which was just about as foolish as I could get, but I was still a bit unstrung. The guppies flipped their tails and ogled me, and a few of the more enterprising males seized the diversion to make sneak attacks on the females. Not that they needed a diversion. I checked the water temperature to make sure it was around seventy-four degrees, dropped a little crab meat into the feeding ring for the mammas and papas, and sprinkled some baby manna and grated shrimp on top of the green Riccia floating at the top of the water so the babies could sneak up and grab an occasional mouthful.
If you have guppies, you have baby guppies. Like people, guppies are always having babies like mad, but guppies, instead of holding wars, keep the population down by eating their babies. Hence the Riccia for the babies to hide in. If only people had Riccia; I could have used some myself.
I relaxed, watching the colorful little fish cavort around the tank for a while, then walked over to the big window that overlooks Broadway, and stood at the side of it eyeing the citizens and wondering about that whisper past my ear.
Violence is part of my trade and I've been shot at before. I've been a private detective in Los Angeles ever since shortly after the end of World War II and my discharge from the Marines, and I've had several slugs tossed my way. As a matter of fact, one slug snipped off a small slice from the top of my ear, causing many people since to ask stupid questions like "Wha hopen your ear?" I tell everybody that a girl bit it off. The ear, coupled with a nose that got busted on Okinawa and still slants a little -- a very little -- gives me a slightly menacing aspect that hasn't scared anybody yet, but that takes me out of the boy-model class.
Like I said, I've been shot at before, but almost invariably I either knew who was doing the shooting or had an idea who it was and why. This time I knew absolutely from nothing. L.A. has its share of murders, but as far as I was concerned, Lobo Le Beau was L.A.'s quota for the day.
There were some odd angles to that killing. Even the newspaper story describing Lobo's sudden demise had been concerned less with Lobo himself than with two other guys: Collier Breed, Lobo's fat boss, and Marty Sader, the boy who'd started me on the job that tangled me with Lobo -- and that, in itself, was interesting, now that I considered it. Since that job I'd done a little checking on Marty Sader, out of curiosity, and I'd heard from some of the characters I run into in my business that Sader was a citizen with big ideas and little principles. It seemed that the night club at which I'd spent that one bibulous evening was, though profitable, only part of Sader's money-making enterprises. It seemed, further, that the club was probably the only legal enterprise.
The newspapers had hinted that Marty was muscling in on somebody else's "territory," and without actually saying so, they'd managed to put across in a couple of well-chosen paragraphs the idea that the territory was Breed's. There was beginning to be a pattern somewhere in all this, and now Breed's boy was killed off and I smelled trouble in the morning air.
Danny's asking me if I knew anything about Lobo's killing had started me along this line of speculation, but I shoved it out of my mind. At least I tried to. That trouble I smelled was one deal I wanted no part of. At first glance it didn't appear likely I'd get any: Boys like Breed and Sader have other methods of settling their differences than hiring private detectives. Such cute methods as bombs, cement, and sawed-off shotguns.
But the more I thought of that "muscling-in" rumble that was spreading, and the longer I considered how soon after Lobo's murder somebody had taken two near-lethal shots at me, the less I enjoyed the skittering flights of my morbid imagination. In that little altercation with Lobo three months back, I'd been squeezed a bit between Sader and Breed; and I couldn't help wondering if somehow I'd got squeezed into the middle again. Now I was getting morbid, and I told myself the hell with it.
I was standing at the side of the window, keeping fairly well out of sight in case people still wanted to shoot me, when I saw the girl. Or, rather the woman. By no stretch of an elastic imagination could she be honestly described as a girl I'd just about decided to shake my mood by going back to the bookcase and digging out a copy of Henry Miller's Tropic of Capricorn, given me by a guy named Garvey Mace to replace some Frank Harris books that a couple of Mace's goons ripped up a while back. I was going to settle down in my swivel chair, prop my Cordovans on my mahogany desk, and reread some of those liquidly flowing Miller passages. But when I saw the woman I forgot all about Miller, which may be some indication of the kind of woman she was.
The first thing I noticed was the way she was dressed. She had on a pair of boyish, dark blue slacks and a fuzzy, light blue half sweater, and she was wearing her tummy bare in the breeze. She was on the far side of the street in the doorway of a shop, but even from that distance she caught my eyes and tugged. Her face wasn't clear, but I could see she had red hair that was worn long the way it should be: the kind of hair a man means when he speaks of woman's crowning glory. And even from there I could see she was slim, but with bold breasts that had a happy tilt, and a woman's hips in her boyish slacks.
Even if she hadn't been such a lush gal I'd have watched her because she was acting funny. She kept looking up and down the sidewalk and keeping back in the doorway, where it would be hard for anyone on the street to see her. And at first I thought I was imagining it, but I got the impression she was looking up toward my window, toward where I was standing.
And then I was sure of it. She looked up toward the window, took a couple of hesitant steps as if she were going to cross the street, then went back to where she'd been standing and looked up at my window again. I got so interested I forgot about keeping pretty well out of sight, stepped out right in plain view, and stared down at the gal.
She spotted me and straightened up. Then damned if she didn't start waving at me and making gestures with her hand. My mouth must have dropped open like the people who'd gawked at me a while earlier, and it dropped even farther in the next second.
She kept looking up at me, left her spot in the shop doorway, and started running straight across the street, jiggling like crazy. Man, it was pretty.
Traffic was heavy, but she must either have forgotten about it or ignored it, because there was the squealing of brakes as a guy screeched to a stop barely short of her, and there was a bang as the car behind him slammed into his rear bumper.
The noise startled her and she stopped suddenly and put one hand up against her face and looked around. Guys in the cars were staring; this was the nicest thing they'd seen in a long time. One vulgar lout even stuck his head out a car window and gave the whistle. I couldn't blame him.
I might even have whistled myself, except that it suddenly occurred to me I made a beautiful target standing where I was. And it also occurred to me that just possibly I was looking in the wrong direction -- out the window instead of toward the unlocked door leading into my office.
Only I got both my bright ideas too late. I hadn't even started to turn around when trouble came in the door behind me.
Copyright © 1951 by Richard Prather