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Behind me on the yacht, gayety swirled like audible confetti. I leaned on the rail up near the bow, smoking a cigarette and finishing another bourbon-and-water, as music from the small combo drifted past me, muted and velvety.
By leaning over the rail and looking back toward the stern, I could see the tall yellow-haired gal in the blood-colored strapless swinging her chummy hips in a shocking rumba. It looked almost as if she were waving to me. Dancing like that, I thought, she'd use up several partners a night. I also thought about going back there again and letting her use me up, but I stayed where I was, waiting for something to happen.
This was the Srinagar, 160 feet of honest-to-goodness, diesel-powered, ocean-going yacht, freshly painted a gleaming white, anchored in Newport Harbor, Southern California. And while my stamping grounds are Southern California—specifically Los Angeles and Hollywood, an hour's drive away, where the office of Sheldon Scott, Investigations, is located—my stamping grounds do not usually include yachts.
In fact, I don't even look much like a man accustomed to leaning casually on yacht rails. I look more like a guy who sells hot dogs—and even tonight, in a well-tailored white tux, maroon bow tie and scarlet cummerbund, I might easily have been mistaken for one of the crew mingling briefly with real people.
The agency above-mentioned is mine. I'm Shell Scott, six foot two, loaded with 206 pounds of mostly muscle, and right at the moment half loaded with bourbon. And, at the moment, waiting for my client to put in an appearance. I'd been hired, and even my fee had been settled, but who my client was I didn't yet know. Our only contact so far had been by phone, and all I knew about her was that she was frightened, was named Elaine Emerson, and had a throbbingly beautiful voice.
Of course, sometimes voices can fool you, but I'm a confirmed optimist and thus my hopes were even higher than I was. Elaine Emerson had asked me to describe myself, and I'd gotten only about half through what I considered the vital points when she'd stopped me, saying she thought she would have little difficulty in finding me, either on the Srinagar or in the L. A. Coliseum.
Besides the fact that I'm fairly big, my hair is about an inch long, sticks up into the air as if trying to escape all at once from my head, and is, though I'm only a young, healthy and—I like to think—virile thirty, white. My eyebrows are white, too, and slant sharply up and then down as if somebody had pounded on them and broken them. They have been pounded on, in fact, but not broken; that is just the way they grew, as if springing savagely at my hairline. I didn't even get to tell Miss Elaine Emerson about my very slightly broken nose, gray eyes, the thin slice shot from my left ear, the fine scar over my left eyebrow. I barely got started. But she'd said she would find me. So far, she hadn't.
I sucked in the last drag from my cigarette and nipped the butt into black water below. It arced through the air and winked out. Near it, something white swirled in the water. Unless my eyes were still unfocusing from the waving hips back aft, and I'd merely imagined that whiteness. But I thought I'd noticed it before. There wasn't any further sign of it, though, so I turned toward the dancers again.
From here I could see only the outer slice of the small square of deck being used for the dance floor, but it was perhaps the most interesting slice. The combo was playing Siboney with liquid abandon, and those same hips were frantically attacking the air and anything else within range, which seemed virtually everything else. The red dress stood out like a flame in the light from hanging lanterns. Then she sort of catapulted herself out of sight, and it was as though the engines had stopped. A couple came into view, pressed close together in their modern version of a Polynesian mating dance, and then they too disappeared from that slice of deck. I started walking down the narrow alleyway toward the dance floor.
On my right, beyond the dark waters of the bay dotted with small craft, some anchored and some under way from one end of the harbor toward the other, the lights on the Balboa peninsula glittered like jewels. Not more than a hundred yards from me was a small sandy beach, a few feet beyond it the color and movement of the Balboa Fun Zone. Occasionally the sound of a merry-go-round there mingled raucously with the combo's more delicate harmonies, and lights from the Ferris wheel spun slowly over the amusement booths below it.
As I passed the dance area, the music stopped. I walked to the portable bar farther back on the stern and asked the uniformed bartender for another bourbon highball. I got it, went back near the dancers and leaned against the rail, looking them over. The combo swung into Manhattan, and half a dozen couples started dancing.
The gal in the red dress was sitting in a deck chair sipping from a Martini glass, her yellow hair somewhat tousled. A few minutes ago, before going up forward, I'd stood where I was now for several minutes, and we had practically become acquainted through glances. But at the moment she was talking to a heavy-set guy with a cigar waggling in the corner of his mouth, and I couldn't get a glance in. A short distance behind her, leaning against a metal beam which supported an overhead canopy, stood another tall girl. This one was dark-haired, wearing a white dress, and I recognized her, too, from my last inspection tour. This one I would recognize any time, any place, from now on.
The yellow-haired tomato was very attractive, smooth and shapely, almost too top-heavy and almost too vital and bubbling. But the tall dark lovely turned that "almost" into too much. Simply because she was in the same group with them, she made the blonde and all the rest of the women here appear to be less than they really were, as if she somehow dimmed their luster by the superabundance of her own.
But it wasn't a fiery, blazing luster—rather it was the beautiful coolness of fire imprisoned in thin ice, a controlled and graceful manner and movement, the soft shock of her deep dark eyes. She hadn't danced with anyone during the minutes I'd watched her; she had been alone most of the time. And whenever my eyes had caught her dark ones, she had looked away. Leaning back against that metal beam, the white dress hugged her fine full body in clean sweeping lines. Her hair was dark, but refulgent, a thick chestnut-colored mass behind her oval face. She was slim enough, but with almost reckless curves, lush deep breasts bursting with life, sharply incurving waist above smoothly arching hips.
She turned slightly and saw me looking at her. For a long moment she stared at me, then straightened up; I thought she was going to walk toward me. But she looked away, reached into a bag she was holding and took out a cigarette, lit it. She didn't look at me again.
This was a kind of goofy situation. The gal I'd talked to on the phone had emphasized the fact that it was imperative nobody know she was hiring a detective. That was the main reason for describing myself to her. She had said that she would locate me on the yacht and then approach me when I was alone so that we'd be unobserved by others. That was why I'd twice ogled the dancers, and wandered around a bit, and been sort of skulking in dark corners.
I was about to go off and skulk some more when I noticed the yellow-haired tomato in the red dress walking across the dance floor toward me. She caught my eye and smiled, and I grinned back at her in the most encouraging manner I could muster, which is pretty encouraging. This red-clad lovely was not only good to look upon, and shaped sensationally, but she could dance.
She stopped alongside me, rested one hand on the rail and fluttered big green eyes at me.
"You've been watching me, haven't you?" she said.
"Sure. I'm no fool."
She smiled. "I saw you here a while ago, but you didn't dance with anybody. Don't you dance?"
"Not quite as much as you. But I enjoy dancing. All sorts of dancing. And I'll try practically anything."
"Good. I do all sorts, too."
"Yeah. All at once." I grinned at her, hoping she wouldn't mind. She didn't.
"You're fun already," she said. "I'll bet we'd have swell fun together."
"I'll bet we would," I agreed. "We are. And we haven't even started dancing yet."
"We will, though. You just bet we will. What's your name?"
"Sh —" I cut it off. There were surely some people aboard who had by now recognized my chops, but an even greater number of the citizens in Southern California know my name; and, until I was sure who my client was, and what she wanted me to do, it was perhaps discreet just to be a guy named Scott.
"Scott," I said.
"I'll call you Scotty."
"Fine. What do I call you?"
For a moment I thought she'd said Elaine, and I let out a small whoop.
"What did you say?" she asked me.
"Nothing. I just let out a small whoop. Did you say Elaine?"
"No. Arline. Arline, like in ... well, like Arline."
"Have we chatted before? Recently? About anything?"
"No." She shook her head, yellow hair shimmering. "I'd have remembered." She still had the Martini glass, now empty, in her hand. She held it up and said, "Would you get me another Martini, Scotty?"
"Right away. Or I could get you shots of gin, vermouth, and an olive, and just let you mix them in you. During a rumba, say?"
"I'd rather have the bartender do them. They're wonderful—practically choke you. I think he uses gin, vermouth, and fallout. Why don't you have one with me?"
"Ah ... I'll stick to bourbon, Arline. Back in a minute."
While I waited for the drinks I looked around a little more. I was beginning to feel marvelously buoyant, possibly buoyed up a little extra by the bourbon already in me. And I decided that if my client didn't show up for a while I wouldn't worry about it but would simply enjoy myself—rushing up on the darkened bow every ten minutes or so, and then back to where the life was.
A cute and curvy little blonde was on one of the bar stools, sipping a tall drink with fruit on top of it, and keeping time to the combo on the bar's edge. There were a number of juicy gals aboard, and she was one of the juicy ones.
"Hi," the little one said. "Who're you?"
"I'm ... Scotty."
"Hi, Scotty. I'm Jo. And I'm woozy!"
That answer made me feel happy and sad at the same time. This one was Jo. Well, you can't have everything. I picked up my freshly prepared drinks, said, "See you later, Jo," and walked away as she called sweetly after me, "That's a promise!"
Arline thanked me for the drink, sipped about a third of her Martini and shook her head rapidly back and forth. "Wow. That's it, all right. Now I'm radioactive." She blinked the big green eyes at me, smiling. "Isn't this fun?"
"I mean, the yacht and all."
"Yeah. It's great. Everybody should have a yacht."
She frowned slightly, sipped again at the Martini, and said slowly, thinking hard, "But ... that's—that's socialistic, isn't it?"
I grinned. "Not quite, my sweet. Under socialism, the government gives everybody an oar. But there are no yachts."
"Oh, the hell with it," she said. "Why don't we dance?"
"Why don't we?"
We did. We put our drinks down on the teakwood deck, stepped onto the highly polished section before the combo and danced. But it was much more than just a dance. It was like doing a fox trot and getting your pants pressed at the same time. It was a sort of anatomy lesson in four-four time, a promise for three steps and madness on the fourth, it was—well, it was too much.
Halfway through Imagination, I stopped, sort of quivering. "I need a drink."
"But we haven't finished the dance."
"Maybe you haven't, baby, but I've finished."
"Oh, come on, Scotty. Just another minute."
"Another minute would do it, all right. No. Thank you, but no." I spoke firmly. If you can speak firmly while breathing through your mouth. "I really do need that drink."
While she argued with me, Imagination ended and the boys in the group took a short break. Arline and I finished our drinks, then she said, "You're fun, Scotty. But I want to dance. I'm just crazy about dancing."
"I'd guessed it."
"So I'm going to find somebody with—with stamina. With stick-to-it-iveness."
"Maybe if it hadn't been a fox trot ..." I began weakly. Then I changed my tune and defended myself, "I've got stamina. The thing is, I've got too much stamina. I've got so much ..." I paused. "Incidentally, exactly what do you mean by stick-to-it-iveness? And stamina, for that matter?"
"Oh, Scotty. Here we are arguing. Already."
"Oh, there's Zimmy," she cried.
"'Bye, Scotty. We'll get together later maybe. I've got to dance a Shiffle with Zimmy."
But she was gone. Maybe it was just as well. The conversation had become pretty disconnected. I stood there, feeling as if somebody had given me a hot transfusion and then taken it back. So I looked around, sort of sneering loftily at everybody, then walked toward the bow, having another healthy glug of my bourbon. If those glugs were really healthy, by now I would have been in perfect condition—I'd had no dinner, and I'd been pouring this healthy bourbon down quite rapidly since my arrival. And a dinner of bourbon is practically no dinner at all. Time to start taking it easy, no doubt. So I finished the last swallow, put my glass at the edge of the alleyway, and went on to the spot up forward where I'd been earlier.
No client had put in an appearance, after two or three minutes, so I lit a cigarette and looked out over the bay to the lights of the Balboa Fun Zone. The Ferris wheel was circling slowly, suspended carriages rocking to and fro as the wheel stopped for another pair of passengers. Above it the stars, distant suns sharp in the clear sky, seemed mere dim reflections of the lights below. Somewhere over on the starboard side of the yacht a gal was singing off-key, but pleasantly, happily off-key.
Then, below decks, somebody in one of the staterooms on this side switched on a light. The glow poured out of the portholes and onto the water below. And, for the second or third time tonight, I saw that swirl of white.
It looked almost like somebody swimming around down there. I shook my head. That didn't make good sense. Maybe it was a porpoise. An albino porpoise. Yeah—that made sense. I was squinting, leaning forward, and now my eyes not only focused but the vision got very clear indeed.
That was no porpoise. Or if it was, it had a beautiful bare fanny. Suddenly I didn't feel so crushed about being abandoned by Arline. Maybe the best party wasn't on this here yacht after all; maybe it was down there with the fish.
I shook my head again. This kind of thinking won't do at all, I thought. I must be drunk. I must be losing my mind. That can't be a porpoise. Porpoises simply don't have fannies like that.
And, by golly, that's what it wasn't.
As she straightened out, the contours of a shapely little gal became clearly visible just under the water's surface. She stroked toward the Srinagar. And I got a good look at it.
That's what it was, all right. I was convinced.
It was a bare fanny.CHAPTER 2
That's what it was, for sure. I knew. I may not know much about porpoises, but I know a little about bare fannies. It's hard to fool me with those.
I have seen them before. In fact, when I was Health Director of the Fairview Nudist Camp, I saw more bare fannies than you would think a man could stand. Some beautiful, some only moderately pleasing, and some that should have been filed under "Miscellaneous." For a while there I'd thought I might never want to look at one again.
But that feeling passed. And how it passed. The truth is, it just whetted my appetite. And down there was what looked like a veritable banquet. Even after Fairview, this was more than just a—well, a bottom. It was the tops in bottoms, a vision of water-kissed dandiness, sheer poetry, a fanny sonnet; all by itself, it was enough.
She had swung clear up to the side of the yacht by now, and she stopped, keeping almost motionless by dog-paddling. She raised one arm and waved.
I waved back.
Then a deliciously merry feminine voice called softly, "Hey, up there."
Excerpted from Over Her Dear Body by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1959 Richard Scott Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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