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When I went through the front door of the Jazz Pad, Lilli Lorraine was singing in a voice filled with fever and the words hung in the smoky air like heat.
She stood in the center of the small dance floor in the blue beam from a baby spot, her head thrown back, eyes closed, lips kissing consonants and nibbling at husky vowels. She was a torch singer, an acetylene-torch singer, and when Lilli came on with "Love Me Or Leave Me," nobody left. I figured if she ever sang "The Star-Spangled Banner," the U. S. of A. would need a new anthem.
It was a Sunday night in the middle of March. Spring was still a few days away for the rest of Los Angeles, but here in the Jazz Pad it was sultry summer. Lilli was pouring "or leave me for somebody else ..." into the ears and glands and secret places of the customers, especially the male customers, as I found a seat at the bar.
I recognized Domino from his mug shots.
He was at a ringside table with three other guys, a tall handsome lady-killer, and man-killer, with the kind of healthy black wavy hair women love to run their hands or even feet through—so they tell me. My own hair is only an inch long, when I let it grow, and you could hardly get your little toe in that. Besides, it's white and kind of bristly, and ... well, back to Domino.
Nickie Domano, known to the boys on the turf as Domino, was eyeballing Lilli with the expression of a man getting her message and sending back, "You and me both, baby!" He didn't look like a hood. But the three other hoods with him looked like hoods.
I didn't know them. I didn't know Domino, for that matter; that is, we hadn't met—yet. But I knew about him. For example, I knew he'd probably had one guy killed already today. I wasn't sure, but it seemed probable. The victim was more than probably dead; he'd gone down with four slugs in him.
"Bourbon and water, Shell?"
Shell, that's me. Shell Scott.
I glanced around at the bartender. "Yeah, same as usual. Thanks."
He knew what I drank; I'd been here before. For pleasure. This trip wasn't for pleasure, it was business. My business is guys like Nickie Domano, and the three apes with him, scratching their fur.
I'm a private detective, office on Broadway in downtown L.A., three-room-and-bath bachelor apartment in Hollywood. I'm six feet, two inches tall and weigh two hundred and six pounds between meals. I'm tanned the shade of a slightly used holster, and you know about the hair—the color of winter, springy as spring, and approximately as long as a little toe. As for the rest: gray eyes beneath white, peaked brows, a negligible scar over the right eye, a little hunk shot from the tip of my left ear—which sort of balances things out, I tell myself—and a nose I thought quite a nice nose before it got broken. Ah, but I was telling you about Nickie Domano.
He was wearing a black suit for which he had paid perhaps two hundred and fifty bucks of somebody else's money, a white shirt with a collar that did not quite cover his ears, and a white silk tie that glittered a little. He had the look of a cat who would wear monogrammed shorts. Or even silk underwear with his whole name printed on it. And maybe his picture. A picture of him in his shorts.
You've guessed it. Nickie Domano wasn't my type.
But, more, this simply wasn't the most joyous moment of my week. I had been anticipating an evening of madness with an Irish-Egyptian belly dancer named Sivana, who had promised to tell me all about the most appropriate jewels for navels, and exciting things like that. She had even promised to bring along her jewel. But I was here instead.
Here because of a sweet-faced, lush-bodied, warped-minded little teen-aged tomato named Zazu, a child as improbable as her name. I was the victim of juvenile extortion. I had been stabbed. Stabbed and extorted and vastly unnerved by Zazu.
But, to business. Lilli opened her big eyes and looked around, saw me, and bent her head to one side and then the other in a casual hello as I lifted my glass to her. I pointed toward her dressing room in the back of the club, and she nodded slightly as she finished her song, spread her arms wide, and then crossed them over her remarkable bosom, as though to hug and hold the sudden applause that washed over her—or maybe just because she liked to hug her remarkable bosom, which seemed a hell of a fine idea to me. And, surely, to all the other males here with glittering eyes and flaring nostrils.
One of the men with Domino, however, was staring not at Lilli but at me. He turned away and then back in a slow double-take. As I said, I hadn't met any of those boys yet, but I'm fairly well known in Los Angeles and the surrounding area, particularly among the hoodlum element. And I am not difficult to recognize, even on a dark, foggy night.
This guy was a thick one, thick of body and of head, the face too wide for its height, as if it had been repeatedly pounded upon and squashed, and his expression was that of a man recalling, without fondness, the squashing. Finally he turned away and spoke to the man on his right, a slim gray-haired citizen about twenty years older than the flathead, close to fifty, say. The thick guy appeared about thirty years old, my age.
In the next few seconds all four of the guys at that table had eyeballed me, apparently with interest. But nobody waved. I finished my drink, eased off the stool, and walked to the rear of the club. Lilli's small, cluttered room was at the end of a dark, narrow hall, and yellow light splashed past her open door into the hallway.
"Hi, Lilli," I said. "You were great tonight. As usual."
She'd been looking into the mirror over her dressing table, and turned with a smile. "How would you know? You only caught half of one number, Shell."
"I could hear the guys breathing. I could see the veins popping in their eyes. I could feel ... I won't tell you what I felt."
She laughed. "You're good for me, Shell. I don't believe a word of it, but I love to hear it. But I'll bet you didn't come back here to tell me that."
"No, sad to relate. Here on business. Wanted to ask you some questions about a few steady customers. O.K.?"
Her big blue eyes closed just a little, the shadowed lids drooping. I guessed she had a hunch who I wanted to ask about, but she said, "O.K."
This Lilli Lorraine was a tall, hot-looking tomato with "Grrr" in her eyes and lips that helped explain the heat in her jazzy harmonies. She was about five-nine and not a lightweight, but even those who might have thought she carried a few extra pounds around—I wasn't one of them—would have had to agree that every ounce was superbly healthy, in exactly the right place, and maybe worth its weight in uranium.
She was on the honest side of thirty, say twenty-eight, with skin like cream and hair the color of peaches, long legs, provocatively feminine hips, the provocation accented by the kind of in-slanting waist you see on gals who wear those waist-cincher contraptions, only Lilli didn't wear any such contraption. She had on a blue-sequined dress the color of her eyes, cut low enough in front to make it apparent she didn't wear one of those bosom contraptions, either—like lifters, expanders, separators, elevators, pushers, poochers, upmashers, tiptilters, squeezers, and aprilfoolers—that have come along since plain old brassieres went out of style, and that are so adorable you almost want to leave the gal home and take her contraption out dancing.
Yes, Lilli and I might have clicked like wow except for one thing: She was hot for hoods, which cooled me; and, since I'm known to be a kind of antihoodlumist, that made me not her type. We were friendly, had several times enjoyed drinks and talk, but that was as far as it went. Lilli was one of that odd breed of lovelies who get warped kicks from mingling with the warped, who get a gutty thrill from thugs. There are more of them than you might think; there's one for nearly every hood, and there are a lot of hoods.
I said, "When the Alexander gang stopped hanging out here a couple months ago, I thought maybe—"
"I wish you wouldn't call them a gang."
"—all the crooks were going to steer clear of the Jaz—Pad—"
"Do you have to call them crooks?"
"Dear, Alexander and his boys comprise a cohesive group of crooks, which is, by simple definition, a gang. And they are indubitably crooks. So why shouldn't I call them a gang of crooks?"
I went on. "Anyhow, I understand that for the last week or so there's been another gang of crooks practically in permanent residence here."
"I suppose you mean Domino."
"You suppose on the nose. And, since you are a gal who catches male eyes like a sharp hook, I figure it's eight to five you could, if you would, tell me more than a little about Domino and his gang of crooks."
She shrugged again, looking at the ceiling, and I wondered if I could think of something else to make her shrug. I wasn't looking at the ceiling. I was even wondering if I could think of two things in quick succession, but then Lilli said, "Well, they've been hanging out here for a week or ten days. They're kind of nice."
"I get a bang out of talking to them."
"Hell, I'd get a bang out of—"
"They're going to be real big in this town, they tell me."
"Well, they haven't exactly been small potatoes at any time in my recollec—They tell you?"
"Sure. And apparently not just me. They've told a lot of people."
"I guess there's no secret about it."
"I guess not."
"They don't make any bones about it. They say they're going to take over the whole Los Angeles area."
"Go a little slower. I don't quite see—"
"I think they're serious, too."
"You ought to know. I guess."
"And let me tell you something else about them. Shell."
"They're not only serious; they just might be able to do it. They're the toughest customers I've had anything do with in a long time. They're really tough."
"I don't believe it."
"You'd better. I think if you got in their way they'd shoot you."
"Wait a minute. I'm losing my mind, I think. Yeah, that's what's happening. It's not so bad, either. In fact it's fascinating. Go ahead. I've always lived dangerously. Why? Why would they shoot me?"
"They just want the whole town, that's all. And they say nothing and nobody is going to stop them."
"Why are you so interested?"
"I've always been interested. Since I was a little fellow."
"I mean, in them, in particular."
"Well, they're very outstanding. What the hell kind of question is that?"
"Well, they've only been here a little over a week. Maybe ten days. They flew in from out of town."
"From Pittsburgh or someplace. I think it was Pittsburgh. But I suppose you knew that already."
"No, I didn't. And I think you're pulling my leg."
"Oh, Shell! Why would I do that?"
"Beats me. Something's pulling my leg. And if it isn't you ... No, it couldn't be."
"I'm only telling you what I've heard them saying, right out in the open."
"No kidding. You don't suppose they'd talk to me, do you?"
"I don't see why not. But be careful how you approach them."
"If you say so."
"I think they may have killed one man already."
"I suppose it could happen."
"Were you planning to do something about them tonight, Shell? Is that why you're here?"
"Well ... I'm just a little confused. You say they flew in from Pittsburgh?"
"That's what I understand."
"Don't you mean you had them flown in?"
"Of course not. I didn't know them before. It was their own idea."
"You can't possibly be telling me that now they've invented contraptions ... No, it can't be. I won't believe it. Not even if we send robots to Venus will I believe it Lilli, you don't really know what you're doing. You're mining one of my fondest joys, one of the things that keeps me—Good Lord, can you imagine a thousand or so flying through the air, coming in for a landing.... You're pulling my leg."
"Why do you keep saying that? You're—different tonight, Shell. You aren't yourself."
"That must be it. I know I wouldn't be sitting here listening to this rubbish."
"Call it rubbish if you want to. But most of it I got straight from Nickie himself. That is, from Domino. And he's the top man of—well, you'd call it his gang, I suppose."
"Domino. Ah. Don't say anything for a minute. I'm getting it. Ah. Sure, it's my old trouble, that old Achilles' foot of mine."
"Yeah. It was your shrugging that did it. Gave me a hotfoot clear up to my kneecap. But I'm back now. I'm me again." I paused, thinking. "In a way, I'm almost sorry. I was looking forward to a long conversation—"
She interrupted me. "What got you interested in Nickie?" she asked me. "Was it the police? Or your friend the captain?"
She knew Phil Samson, Captain of Central Homicide, was my best friend, and that he and the other boys downtown had on numerous occasions helped me when I was on a case. I said, "No, it wasn't the police, Lilli. A client has, well ... retained me, you might say, to mop up on the Domino gang, if possible. Anyhow, I'm going to do my damndest to get enough on them to send at least some of them to the slammer, if possible. Or at least make this area uncomfortable enough for them so they'll leave." I grinned. "And maybe fly back to Pittsburgh."
But then I stopped grinning, wondering if maybe I'd said a little too much. It was possible Lilli had been running Domino down merely in the hope I'd spill something—which she could then pass on to "Nickie." I doubted it, but that was certainly a possibility. I wasn't her type; perhaps Nickie however, despite her derogatory comments about him, was.
I was trying to sort out in my mind precisely what she had said about him. I figured it was going to take a little while.
But then Lilli said, "Shell, I thought you closed the door when you came in."
"I di—" I jerked my head around.
I had closed the door. But it was open about an inch. A minute or two ago I might have wondered if the door was listening, but not now. No, if something was—or had been—bending an ear, out there in the hallway, it was something I might want to hit on the nose.
I'd already started tensing my leg muscles to get up when the door opened. Nickie Domano eased his head in, nodded pleasantly at me, then said to Lilli, "Could I see you for a moment, honey?" He sounded sweeter than sugar pie.
She hesitated, then said, "Sure, Nickie," and got up.
I got up, too.
Domino held the door open for her, and she went out.
In about ten seconds he came back in. Two other guys walked in behind him. One was the thick-bodied, thick-faced flathead with the joyless expression. The other was the fourth guy from Domino's table, a tall, thin-hipped, and broad-shouldered man who'd been seated at Domino's right. He had a pale face and a small mole on his left cheek, but it was just an ordinary face, except for the eyes.
I hadn't seen those eyes before, but I'd seen their brothers. They were deep, empty as space, and cold as the center of hell—I figure hell must be cold. Fire energy, enthusiasm, power, warmth, and there was none of that in those eyes, certainly no warmth. They looked as if they'd been stolen from a corpse.
He was a young guy, too. Not more than twenty-five or so. I wondered what, in twenty-five years, had made his eyes so cold. Death, the knowledge of death, familiarity with death, could have made his eyes that cold.
Domino said, his voice still sugary and ingratiating, "You're Shell Scott, aren't you?"
"That's right." I'd moved back a step so I could see all of them at once. Domino was about a yard away on my right, the flathead near him in front of me, and the cold fish a yard or so to my left, arms folded across his chest.
"Well, I know about you, Scott. We're—I might as well say it—on opposite sides of the fence."
"Uh-huh. I got the word."
"And I happened to hear what you were saying to Lilli just before I came in."
"You happened to."
"That's it. Came back to see Lilli. Didn't know anybody was with her. Anyway, I just caught a little of the conversation, and I'm a man who believes talking's a lot better than muscle, or shooting, right?"
"Makes sense so far."
"As long as you're talking, you're not shooting, right?"
"Yeah, that's what the UN's for. So?"
"So I don't want trouble with you, Scott. You've got quite a rep. Even where I come from. I just want everything happy, friendly, live and let live."
Excerpted from The Meandering Corpse by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1993 Richard Scott Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted December 30, 2008
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