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Pattern for Panic
A Shell Scott Mystery
By Richard S. Prather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1982 Richard S. Prather
All rights reserved.
I rested what seemed to be left of my head against the comparatively cool steel door of my cell and cursed Mexico, Mexico City jails, Mexico City cops, and a sad old horse's behind named Shell Scott—me. My hair is blond, almost white, and usually sticks up in the air about an inch; now it seemed likely the cops had pounded it down into my skull. I felt again to make sure I still had it. It was there, among my bumps.
There is very little to be said for jails in any part of the world, but the charitable thing to say about Mexican jails is that they leave much to be desired. What I actually desired was to get out, but from all the signs this might be my home from now on—one hell of a home for a Los Angeles private detective. I couldn't even explain that I wanted a lawyer, or a writ, or a gun, because I talked in English and everybody listened in Spanish.
My cell was dark and damp, exactly three paces long and three paces wide, made homey by a rickety cot—complete with blanket and some odd little bugs—placed near one cement wall, a comfort corner that was about the most uncomfortable corner I'd ever seen, and one small round window six feet over my head in the back wall. I was lucky; I had a cot. The cell door wasn't barred; it was of solid steel with a foot-square opening in it through which I could look. I could hear evening traffic outside on Calle Londres; a newsboy was selling his copies of El Universal; a man laughed, then shouted something in boisterous Spanish. It was Saturday night, and happy people were out on the town.
I cursed everything some more, and about the time I got around to one particular cop, he came walking down the corridor that led from the front office and open-air patio outside back to the cell block here. He stopped before my cell and grinned in at me through my steel window. In the dim light from the one unshaded bulb in the corridor, I could see the empty space in his mouth where I had knocked out two of his teeth. Even with all his teeth he'd been no prize: tall and thin, with protruding eyes, the skin too tight over his cheekbones, and an expression that said more plainly than words that this boy was not bright.
"Hello, you stoop," I said. "I hope you swallowed those teeth and they bite hell out of you. I hope you get the Tourist Disease and bleed to death. Come a little closer. I like to hit cops." He couldn't understand English, so it was O.K.
"Gringo bastard," he said. "Keep it up. I kill you."
I blinked at him. "How come nobody speaks English till now? And where in hell is the other guy, that slick-looking slob who started the whole thing? And how about letting me use the phone?"
He stared at me blankly and slapped a long wooden billy against the palm of his hand. I should have known better, after what had already happened, but I had one hand curled around the edge of my little window. I saw his eyes flick toward my fingers, but I was too slow. He swung the billy in a short arc and cracked it against the knuckles of my left hand. It felt like he'd busted something.
I stepped away from the cell door and said, "Friend, I won't be in here forever."
He moved closer, still grinning. "Yes," he said, "you be in here forever. I make sure. You be here forever." He wiggled his billy at me and walked back down the corridor leading to the front office.
I didn't like the confident way he'd said it, but I didn't like much of anything right now, including me. I should have known that not even six feet two inches and 206 pounds of ex-Marine was a match for seven cops and one civilian. That miserable civilian was going to be a dead miserable civilian if I ever got out of here. My head hurt and it was hard to think straight, but I still had the impression that those other six cops had thundered up in a surprising hurry. There was something screwy about it, about the whole mess.
I rubbed my sore hand and head, sat down on the cot and thought about Amador Montalba, wondering if he even knew I was in the can. Amador Montalba: licensed Mexico City guide, good friend, fun to be with, and a guy with more angles than a geometry professor. He could get you a date—with a man, woman, both, or neither—find a roulette wheel, cheap silver, expensive nightclubs or dim dives, dirty movies or clean food, and so on and on.
I'd met him here several months ago, after finishing a case which had taken me to Acapulco. With the case wrapped up, I'd stopped in Mexico City for a few days of rest and relaxation, but instead of rest and relaxation I'd met Amador and we'd had a ball for a week. He was half a foot shorter than my six-two and three years under my thirty, with a round young face, a black mustache over gleaming white teeth, and a bland, honest, dissipated expression. With a highball in his hand he looked like a slightly plastered cherub.
Since then I'd seen Amador once, when he'd made a trip to Southern California. Two days ago, Thursday, he'd phoned Sheldon Scott, Investigations, my Los Angeles office, and asked me to fly down and meet him here Sunday afternoon. He had a client for me—maybe. Amador left half of it unexplained, and his somewhat scrambled English disguised the other half, but I gathered that a wealthy woman named Mrs. Lopez was in trouble and wanted me to get her out of it. Apparently Amador had convinced her I was the guy for the job, rather than a local investigator, but I was to get the whole story when Amador and I met her tomorrow.
The only other thing that stuck in my mind from the conversation was that Amador had mentioned the "comunistas." He knew I'd spent quite a bit of time investigating the activities of comunistas, or members of the Communist Party, in the States. After fighting a war as a U.S. Marine, I'd begun fighting hoodlums as a private detective; so it was natural enough that I had tangled with Communists. Amador knew all that, but had failed to clarify on the phone just what in hell comunistas had to do with his phoning me. Naturally I was curious. But I was even more curious to know if I'd ever get out of this Mexican Bastille.
There was a chance I could. A small one.
I'd flown in from L.A. Friday night, planning to get reacquainted with Mexico City before starting on the Lopez thing Sunday, and after checking in at the Hotel del Prado had headed for the beautiful Bar Nicte-Ha downstairs in the hotel. There I'd met three pleasant and entertaining people from the States, Dr. Jerrold Buffington, his lovely daughter Buff, and a tasty dish named Monique Durand. We'd hit it off well, and I'd invited them out for dinner tonight at the Hotel Monte Cassino. But after that dinner trouble had started, and I'd been hauled to jail. Just before being shoved back here to my cell, however, Monique had trotted in, and I'd yelled at her to get in touch with Amador Montalba, who was in the phone book.
If she'd heard me, and if Amador was available, and if he had about ten sticks of dynamite, maybe he could get me out of this can. A number of ifs and maybes, but it was Amador or nothing. There wasn't a thing I could do now but wait, so I lay down on the cot and let the bugs bite me.
Half an hour later, at seven p.m., Amador showed up. A strange cop brought him to the cell and Amador stopped outside and looked in at me curiously, shaking his head back and forth and making a clucking sound with his tongue. His black mustache wiggled as he smiled, entirely too happily, it seemed to me.
"Muy funny," Amador said. "I laugh, ja, ja. You on the wrong side, ain't you?"
"Pal," I said, "in spite of your perverted sense of humor, I'm glad to see you. Monique called you, huh?"
"Some gal phoned and yelped you were in the cárcel. I figure I have to see this." He grinned at me and stuck out his hand.
I shook it through the window while the cop watched us. Amador was a real nice guy—at least from my point of view. Some might say his morals needed patching, but I figured he was just more uninhibited than most of us.
I said, "What the hell have they got me charged with?"
"Just about everything. What happened?"
I told him about the brawl with the smart civilian bruiser, the cop, and then the seven cops, while Amador shook his head. He was frowning now.
He said, "You had to knock out his teeth? You know who he is? This is Emilio, the Captain of Police. No matter who is wrong, the Captain is right."
"Not so good?"
"Not so good? Man, is terrible. I can't do nothing for you. Maybe the President could, but not me."
He got out cigarettes and gave me one. Mine were up at the desk with all the rest of my stuff, including belt and shoestrings. I hadn't been wearing my gun, not for a pleasant dinner at Monte Cassino with Dr. Buffington and two gorgeous gals. But remembering my conversation with the doctor, and the funny business before the fight started, I could feel uneasiness growing in me.
"Do me a favor, Amador," I said. "Phone the Hotel del Prado and see if Doctor Buffington and his daughter are there. Tell them what happened to me, huh?"
"Sure," he said. "Un momentito."
It took him about five minutes. He looked sort of puzzled when he came back.
"You get them?" I asked.
"Got the girl. What's coming off here, Shell? This Susan—that's her name?"
I nodded. Her name was Susan, but she was called Buff, which fit her better. The doctor's daughter was a doll.
Amador went on, "She was about to go off in many directions—all excited. She doesn't know where the doctor is, said he hadn't showed up. Wanted to know if you were all right, and if her dad was with you."
I didn't like that at all. Finally I said, "I've got to get out of this stinking jail. Hell, man, don't you know somebody—A lawyer can spring me, can't he? Get me a lawyer."
He shook his head. "Not tonight. Maybe not for many nights. This is straight from Captain Emilio—and don't tell me he can't do it. He dislikes you. I don't know anyone with enough pull ..." He stopped. "Wait a minute. Maybe I do." He grabbed the right half of his mustache and played with it, squinting. "We haven't talked yet about why I bring you down here—"
"The hell with that, Amador. First things first. After I spring out of—"
"No, is important. Could you find a sexy movie, a real dirty movie film, here in Mexico City?"
"Sure, I'll hire a guide and tell him I want to see dirty movies—"
He lifted a hand. "I'm serious, amigo. And I mean one reel of movie, one specific film, of one specific woman."
"How do I know? Hell, I don't even speak the language."
He shrugged. "So you don't want out."
"O.K.," I said. "Get me clear of this trap and I'll find the missing link. You serious?"
"Sí. This gal has got the pull. Well, I go see the Countess." He turned on his heel and started walking back toward the desk.
"Hey," I yelled. "Wait a minute." He stopped and I said, "What gal? What are you talking about? Countess? You feel all right, don't you? This is the jail, isn't it?"
He grinned. "It is the jail, all right. But I get you out—maybe." He squinted at me. "Hey, you know, this Countess, she's what you call a classy vegetable."
"Sí. She's a tomato." He curved his hands in the air and whistled through his teeth. "As you will observe—if she agrees to come to this dump." His grin widened. "Oh, she is Mrs. Lopez, the one I bring you down here to see—she is the tomato in the pictures."
Then he walked down the corridor and out of sight.
I reached up and felt my head. Maybe I'd been hit harder than I thought. After a while I stopped trying to figure it out and flopped on the cot, thinking how pleasant life had seemed a couple of hours ago and how dismal it appeared at the moment.
How in hell had I got from the charming lounge of the Monte Cassino to this most uncharming clink?CHAPTER 2
I remembered it had been about five p.m. and there was enough pulchritude at our table in the Monte Cassino Lounge so that my eyes shouldn't have wandered.
Buff sat opposite me next to her father, the Doc, and Monique was close on my right. Either one of the gals had plenty to occupy a man's attention for hours or years, but they were sitting still and I happened to see this cigarette girl in motion, which is an entirely inadequate word for the way she walked.
Instead of hip joints she apparently had ball bearings, and she oozed past the table calling softly, "Cigarettes? Cigarros? Cigarettes?" in a voice that could have sold hashish. The ball-bearing portion of her anatomy was only half of it, and it was a moot question which half was more interesting in motion, because the upper half was a staggering affair in a loose and extremely low-cut something which remotely resembled a blouse. She was carrying a cigarette tray in front of her, which seemed like a good thing, just in case.
Monique pinched my leg.
"Ah," I said, "hello. I think I'm out of cigarettes. Anybody want cigarettes? Monique? Buff? Doctor? Pack of Belmonts?"
Buff rested her chin in a cupped palm and leaned forward, a strand of blonde hair drooping over one gray eye. "Shell, you've got half a pack left," she said, smiling. "So pay attention. To us."
"Well ... I smoke fast," I said, and glanced at Monique. She had her tongue stuck into one cheek and her left eyebrow was raised a quarter of an inch.
There was quite a contrast between the two gals. Buff was fair, soft, mischievous, a young nineteen. White skin and ash-gray eyes with a smile in them, long blonde hair and a bright red mouth with laughter always behind it. She wasn't really beautiful, just fresh and healthy and happy looking—and with a body you'd never see in Vogue but which would be right at home in Playboy.
In a way I thought of Buff as "light" and Monique as "dark." It was more than Monique's short-cut, crisply waving black hair and the direct glance of her dark green eyes. It was a darkness and a kind of smoldering tension inside her, the droop of a heavy lower lip, the scarlet splash of those bruised-looking lips. And right now it was the way she looked at me, tongue moving against the inside of her cheek. If Buff made me think of spring, of young things swelling with life and growing, Monique made me think of summer, and all that heat. She just plain looked hotter than hell.
"You obscenity," she said. "What were you thinking?"
"You know when."
"Uh-huh. And you know what. Drink your milk like a good girl."
"It's Scotch. And I'm not a good girl."
I had a hunch she wasn't kidding, but I didn't know her well enough to be sure—yet. She'd come to Mexico with the Buffingtons, and though I knew she and Buff had met at a party in Glendale, California, and had known each other less then two months, they acted like sisters. Not, of course, my sisters.
The doctor, a biochemist and research worker specializing in the investigation of communicable diseases at the Southwest Medical Institute near my stamping grounds, Los Angeles, was short and thin, with a wrinkled face and stubby goatee that made him look older than his fifty years. He was bald, and the goatee made his face appear remarkably long and narrow, and as if all his hair had slipped down to his chin.
His wife had died two years earlier, of spinal paralytic polio, after receiving three shots of the Salk vaccine. Her death had had two effects on the doctor. He had concentrated all his efforts upon his own intensive investigation of poliomyelitis, and he had transferred all his love for his dead wife to their only child, Buff.
I grinned at her. "Hi, Buff. Where were we?"
"Oh, you and Dad were ignoring us, lunging at each other's throats."
She exaggerated. We had been arguing, but pleasantly. Doctor Buffington was well known in the States, not only as a man of science but as a peace-at-any-price pacifist, a modern "liberal" and egghead; and he was always shooting off his mouth on subjects he knew nothing about. Because he was a whiz at cooking gunk in test tubes, a whole gang of people assumed he was also a whiz in practically any other field—as though experts on the sex life of crocodiles automatically become experts on tapestry-weaving or bridge-building. But I once met an expert on the sex life of crocodiles, and he didn't even know beans about alligators.
Excerpted from Pattern for Panic by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1982 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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