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The more some things change, as the saying goes, the more they stay the same. For example — just for fun — take sex.
Here I was, standing near the swimming pool clutching a bourbon-and-water highball, and over by the snack bar were Adam and Eve.
This Eve was a long-legged, voluptuous-looking, slinky, busty, hippy bomb, an Adam bomb, and the very male male was Adam Preston, and this was the twentieth century — so it was the twentieth century: he still looked like a man gnashing fig leaves and it was eight to five she was giving him that old Garden-of-Eden applesauce. The way they were carrying on you just knew those original sinners must have had a pretty good idea in the first place. At least, I'd say so.
But I'd say so anyway; I'm Shell Scott.
I'm a private detective, but for a change I wasn't detecting much of anything, except what was going on over by the snack bar, which even a blind non-detective couldn't very easily have missed. Instead, on this balmy Saturday night, the fifteenth of June, I was sixty miles from Sheldon Scott, Investigations — my one-man office in downtown Los Angeles — enjoying myself in Laguna Beach at the newest and jazziest land development on the explosively booming Southern California coast: 1500 acres stretching from the sea up into the low Laguna hills, complete with paved roads, underground utilities, an eighteen-hole golf course, subdivisions containing hundreds of king-size lots, and two dozen model homes ready and waiting for anybody with lots of money.
The whole thing was the joint project and promotion of the aforementioned Adam Preston, and my long-time friend, drinking partner, and lively companion, Jim Paradise. Since Jim, who had invited me down here tonight, was the prime mover and major investor in the project, it was called, appropriately enough, Laguna Paradise.
Jim and I were standing among fifty people or so on the cement deck of a blue-lighted swimming pool before one of the luxurious model homes, and three or four hundred more citizens were milling about on the grounds nearby. Two hundred yards west was the ocean, and midway between the crashing surf and the spot where Jim and I stood was the main sales office of Laguna Paradise.
Atop the office was a large plastic map of the entire development, illuminated from inside, and whenever a home or lot was sold the corresponding section of the map lighted up brilliantly — while at the same time head salesman Wally West cried joyously over a public address system that "Lot number sixteen has just been sold to DANIEL GRAYMOUNT, the well-known movie producer," or named whoever had made the purchase, repeating the person's name loudly numerous times, much to the delight of said person, who sometimes became so delighted he went back to buy another lot.
Both before and after such exciting comments a five-piece combo played everything from Dixieland to the Twist and its successor, the Grump, which is a combination of bumps and grinds and almost total capitulation. Down on Coast Boulevard three arc lights swept the sky, telling everybody for miles around that something jazzy was going on in the Laguna area.
In addition to all that razzle-dazzle, Jim Paradise and Adam Preston had employed, cleverly I thought, a half-dozen models from Hollywood's top emporium of feminine pulchritude, Alexandria's. These six — one of whom was Eve, tall, busty Eve Angers — suitably briefed and clad in suitably brief outfits, were available to answer the questions of potential customers. Since the outfits were high-heeled shoes, net "showgirl" hose, snug white shorts and fuzzy white sweaters, a lot of people asked questions, and a couple of guys even got their faces slapped.
A minute ago Jim had left to get us a couple more bourbon-and-waters. Now he headed back from the bar, nodding to people, waving, flashing his quick grin at others. Jim Paradise was so crammed with energy and male hormones and vital juices you half expected him to glow in the dark, a tall handsome man who looked half pirate and half Apollo. Several people watched him as he walked back, and there had been some eyeballing from the citizens earlier when Jim and I had been standing together. Probably because we're both pretty big, but also because of the contrast between us.
I'm six-two and weigh two hundred and six pounds after three bourbon highballs — which I'd just had — and Jim was twenty pounds lighter but an inch taller. My short-cropped hair is as white as the angle-iron brows which shoot up and out over my gray eyes and then slant sharply down like the contrails of pooped rockets, while Jim's hair was coal black and his eyes were the blue-green of deep water.
Both of us got a lot of sun, but Jim was even more bronzed than I. He looked like a tall, civilized devil, burned brown by those flames down where they toast people. There was even a kind of satanic cast to his features, the dark eyes bold, nose straight and a little sharp, a mouth I'd heard women describe as "reckless," and a go-to-hell grin.
He handed me my drink, gulped a slug of his own and said cheerfully, "Shell, this sure as hell looks like success. What does a guy do with a million dollars?"
"Why, he saves it," I said. "What else?"
He scowled. "I never thought of that."
"You wouldn't want to spend it on riotous living —"
"Wine, women and song —"
"The hell I —"
"— or such foolishness." I grinned. "After all, a million saved is a million earned."
Jim nodded vigorously. "That makes no sense at all. By God, you're right! I'll save it!"
"And live a sane, sober life."
"A sober life," he said solemnly. "I'll drink to that." He had another belt of his bourbon and went on dully, "Here's to sobriety, piety, chastity, insanity, stupidity —"
I didn't hear the rest of whatever he was drinking to. I wasn't listening. I was looking — at something which would cure diplopia at thirty paces, at a woman who had just come to the top of steps which led up here from a landscaped patio below, a woman who was now walking toward Jim and me. She was wearing the Alexandria's outfit, obviously one of the models, and obviously one of the two or three I hadn't met. But I was going to meet her, if I had to walk barefoot through snapping crocodiles.
"Jim," I said, "who is she? Some pal — why didn't you tell me? Who —"
Ignoring my question he said sadly, "And so we drink to chastity. Yes, we'll have a chastity belt; then a snort to —"
"The hell with that noise. I've given up all that. Jim, dammit, who is she?"
A quick rough guess at those smooth curves, the color and sizzling impact, would have been: About five feet, five inches tall; an incredible 37-22-36 that was much more than the sum of its parts; a puff of blonde hair, impish red lips, sparkling eyes — evolution's end, no matter which end you were looking at.
"You refer, I presume, to Laurie," Jim said.
"Laurie? Ah...." It was the face of a wise warm angel, plus a body that was the ultimate in feminine voluptuousness, a combination to turn idle glances into double-takes and double-takes into stares.
"Laurie Lee," Jim went on. "I guess you noticed she's a girl. I guess you want to meet her." Without waiting for my answer he called, "Laurie!"
She stopped, turned her head, smiled and stepped toward us. "Hi, Jim," she said. "Going great tonight, isn't it?"
Up close she was even better. She glanced at me from light honey-brown eyes, then looked back at Jim, but that quick glance went into me like a knife into soup. It was a face to stop a heart, a body to make vegetarians eat meatballs.
"Hello!" I said. "Hello there. How do you do? I'm delighted —"
"I haven't introduced you yet," Jim interrupted. Then he bowed slightly and said, "Laurie, this ape is Sheldon Scott. Shell, Laurie Lee. He's a private detective, and you should stay away —"
"What do you mean, ape?" I said. "You selfish —"
"How do you do, Sheldon?" Laurie said, and smiled. The voice was sweet and warm and the glance she gave me could have roasted weenies.
"Hot dog!" I said. "I mean, that's not what I meant. My mind was, uh — call me Shell, please. Nobody calls me Sheldon. Not even my enemies."
"I'll bet," she said, as if she didn't, "you've got simply ferocious enemies."
"Don't kid yourself," Jim broke in again. "That's what happened to his face. The broken nose, that fine scar over his eye, the small piece missing from his left ear, that's how ferocious. Well, now 'that you've seen the havoc wrought by saps, brass knuckles, husbands, turn your pretty head away —"
But Laurie had stepped close to me, was leaning even closer. "Why, you do," she said. "You do have a bit gone from your ear." She sounded delighted.
"If it will make you any happier I'll snatch the rest of it off, like Gauguin —"
"Van Gogh," said Jim.
"— like that nut," I continued. She was very close, looking up at me, breath warm on my cheek.
"How did it happen?" she asked, then suddenly said, "But that's none of my business, is it?"
"Of course it is," I said, friendly as could be. "Anything, everything —"
"Then how did it happen?"
"Oh, that. A little gunman took a shot at me and missed — almost missed, that is. He nipped my ear."
She laughed merrily. "Oh, you men! You're worse than Jim."
I'm not exactly the haughty headwaiter type, and probably she thought I'd caught my ear in some gears while working in the corner gas station. The funny thing was that a little hood did shoot it off. And it was the last ear he ever shot off.
Right then a strange thing happened. At least it was strange that I should see the guy when I was casually thinking about guns and gunmen. I'd turned my head the other way for some reason — actually, if you want to know, so Laurie could see my good ear — and a not unfamiliar face came into view.
It was a thin face, on a short, thin guy who was standing about where Eve had been earlier. He was leaning against the snack bar, talking to Adam Preston and stuffing bitesize sandwiches into his mouth. I couldn't remember where it had been, but I knew I'd seen him before.
And a nerve in my noodle wiggled: Trouble.CHAPTER 2
This guy had the mobster look, anyway. Dark blue suit, expensive, but a little more extreme than was currently fashionable, cut a bit wide in the shoulders, snug in the middle. Pointed black shoes polished to a high gloss. A black snap-brim hat on his head. He turned, glanced this way, and I saw the pinched features, the coldly uncommunicative eyes. Trouble, all right, some kind of trouble. But I couldn't make him, and it bothered me.
Laurie was saying something. I turned toward her.
"Got to run," she said. "If I goof any more, the boss might fire me."
"Fat chance," said Jim.
As she started off I said, "Laurie, since quitting time is ten, maybe we could continue the conversation then. I'll tell you about the time the Mafia stuck me in cement and dropped me in the ocean."
"Did they really do that?"
"Not really, but it's a whale of a story."
Jim said, "Why not? Maybe we could make it a foursome." Laurie seemed agreeable to the idea and he continued, "In Hollywood, maybe? You girls all live there, don't you?"
Laurie nodded, and said she lived at the Claymore, which was only a block from Alexandria's. Jim asked, "Any of the other girls live there?"
"Only Judith. Oh, Eve too, now — she joined the agency a day or two before we were sent out on this job and asked me if I knew a nice place to stay. I told her about the Claymore, so she moved in there, too. The other three girls," she added with a smile, "live with their husbands."
Jim winced, and said he'd seen Eve go into the model home behind us a few minutes before. He left and soon returned with her. He was, apparently, still trying to convince her, and she, apparently, remained unconvinced.
"It sounds fun," Eve said. "I can't, though. Really. I've got to ..." She paused for a few seconds, thinking, then said, "But maybe — can I tell you for sure in half an hour or so? There's something I have to, well, check on."
Probably, I thought, it was two or three other guys who'd asked her for dates. For nights in L. A. Or weekends in Bermuda. Or simply no telling. Because there was a lot of this Eve Angers and not a bit too much.
Laurie was maybe five feet, five inches tall and marvelously proportioned, but she looked almost diminutive next to Eve, a tall lass of five-nine or so, a big woman with soft, flowing curves, long lovely legs, and a superbly abundant bosom actually astonishing in the fuzzy white sweater.
Laurie was tanned, active, energetic, while Eve's skin was smooth and pale and she moved with a slow grace, deliberately, languorously. Eve's eyes were the pale green of a Burmese cat's, slanted, oriental, dangerous-looking eyes, and her hair was thick, loosely waved, a glossy black, with little-girl bangs in feathery arcs inky against the white of her forehead. The bangs seemed out of place on Eve, because there was nothing else little-girl about her. Her eyes and brows were heavily made up, and orange-red lipstick outlined her wide, sullen mouth. Salmon-colored polish glittered on her long fingernails. Except for the black hair she seemed a woman of pastels — pale eyes and mouth and nails and smooth white skin — but hot pastels.
Jim told Eve that was fine, but to let us know as soon as she could because the suspense was killing him. She nodded, smiled, and began slinking away. We watched the long lovely legs depart, hips swaying seductively above them, and it was a stimulating vista. Laurie said she'd check with us later, and followed Eve, and watching Laurie was even more stimulating.
I said to Jim, "Who's the cat talking to Adam?"
He looked, shook his head. "Nobody I ever saw before. Why?"
"Just curious. I've seen him somewhere."
Jim hied himself to the bar for more bourbon. I walked to the snack bar, loaded some of the little sandwiches, and hunks of cheese, turkey, lobster, onto a paper plate.
The little man was saying something about "Brea," I thought, and then he added, "You better change your mind, pally — tonight. Matter of fact, it's got to be tonight."
Adam laughed, as if vastly amused. "You give me a pain in the coccyx, my dear fellow.
There's really nothing further to discuss —"
"Don't give me that high-toned lip. You ain't dealing with no little old ladies from Pasadena. And this is goddamn important to my people —"
"The hell with your people." Adam's voice had changed, lost its light bantering tone, gotten lower and harder. "And the hell with you. They know my terms. They can take it or shove it."
The little creep started to speak, then shut up. Seconds later I felt a tap on my shoulder. I turned around and the creep was standing next to me.
He poked me with a stiff finger and said, "Do I know you, pally?"
"I kind of hope not."
"Lissen —" He started to poke me again.
"I'll break it," I said pleasantly.
"Huh? You'll what?"
"The finger. You poke me with it again and I'll break it off." I smiled at him.
He didn't smile back. But neither did he pursue the subject further. Instead he said flatly, "Next time. Next time, pally."
Then he turned, said to Adam, "That's it, huh?" and Adam said, "That's it." The unpleasant little man left.
"What was that all about?" I asked Adam.
He shrugged his wide, heavy shoulders. "Nothing I can't handle. It's not important." His tone said the subject was closed, so I left the lid on it, deposited my plate of food on the bar and followed the creep.
He walked to a blue Ford Galaxie parked in the street before an empty lot, climbed in and drove off. I saw his lights turn right on Coast Boulevard and he headed north. Nothing, maybe; but that Trouble nerve still wiggled.
Walking back I passed within a few feet of Eve. She was standing in front of a model home talking to one of the potential customers. Men and women, singly and in pairs, some with screeching children, moved in and out of the house. The man with Eve was a large chubby fellow who looked a bit like a beardless Santa Claus, a modern Santa in brown gabardine, smoking a cigarette in a short holder. They were silhouetted against a brightly lighted view window and Eve, in profile, was damn near unbelievable. I waved at her but she didn't notice me, and I went on back up by the pool.
Jim and I ate my plate of goodies, and Adam joined us for a drink. He seemed to have forgotten the peculiar altercation with Creepy and was laughing, high-spirited, his normal self again.
Adam was about my height, but even heavier than I, with big bones and big hands, a massive neck and deep chest. He was forty-one years old, his dark crew-cut flecked with gray at the temples, and with greenish-blue eyes much like Jim's. He was square-jawed, square-headed, with a face as open and honest as the plains of Texas from whence he hailed, and he looked strong enough to pick up a grown ox.
Excerpted from Joker In the Deck by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1992 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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