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I WAS as uncomfortable as the defendant in a rape case. It wasn't physical discomfort; it was just the idea playing around in my mind that if the thing went off, it could blow a hole from one side of me to the other and I probably wouldn't even feel the powder burns. I hoped the guy pressing the muzzle of his .45 automatic into the curve of my spine wasn't as nervous as I was.
Besides the mental uneasiness, my head hurt. And I was mad.
It was a big, almost empty room. Empty of furniture, not people. The door was to my back and directly across the room was a brown pine desk with a swivel chair empty behind it. Two straight-backed wooden chairs in the same drab brown as the desk sat in front of it and on the left side of the desk was a low, yellow couch that seemed out of place alongside the dull, wooden office furniture.
The girl seemed out of place, too. She sat on the yellow couch with her legs drawn up under her and watched it all with a kind of twisted pleasure in her green eyes. She was getting a kick.
I watched it, too, but I didn't get any kick out of it. I could feel the trickle of blood now, oozing down the side of my head. It had to be blood. After a bright play like this I knew it couldn't be brains; it was either blood or sawdust.
"Nice party," I said.
He turned with an easy grace and dabbed at his knuckles with a white silk handkerchief; a tall, bony man with a strange, booming name. Fleming Dragoon. He was slightly stooped as if his pendulous arms weighed down his narrow shoulders, yet, even so, he was majestically tall, three or four inches over six feet in height. His eyes glared at me from sunken sockets like two circles of polished coal.
Behind him, in one of the brown, straight-backed chairs in front of the desk, a little guy slumped and moaned through mashed lips. Just a little guy that had got in Dragoon's hair. A little guy with no name and, now, practically no face.
Dragoon didn't say anything to me. He looked past me to the two muggs at my back: one, big, red-faced, with the gun prodding my spine; the other, a smaller copy with no gun in sight, but an equally red face.
"You damn fools," Dragoon growled. "What the hell did you bring him in here for?"
The big boy with the gun said, "He was hangin' outside the door, boss. Listenin'. We figured he shouldn't be listenin' and you said you didn't wanna be disturbed—"
"Yeah. I don't want to be disturbed. So you bring him in." He glared at the two punks and snarled. "Get out of here." He jerked a long, bony thumb at the little guy slumped in the chair behind him, "And take Zerkle with you."
"Beat it. Now."
The pressure of the gun eased away from my back. The big goon walked over to the little guy with the bloody face and jerked him up out of the chair. Zerkle stood unsteadily, swaying, his head down on his chest. The little creep got on the other side of him and they half carried him from the room, his feet shuffling along the floor.
Dragoon looked at me. "Okay, Shell. What you snooping around my place for?"
"I wasn't snooping. I'm on a case and came back to see you. I heard the guy in here yelling bloody murder. I stopped and waited to see what the hell was coming off and then your bodyguards sapped me."
"Sorry they roughed you up. The boys are just a little anxious, I guess."
"Sure. Impetuous. Don't worry about the boys; I'll take care of those two characters myself.
"No rough stuff, Shell. I mean it."
I stared at him. "No rough stuff, huh? What the hell do you call this bloody damned part in my hair?" Just then I saw the girl out of the corner of my eye. She hadn't moved. "Sorry, miss," I said. "I forgot you were here."
"It's all right." She smiled at me, a funny smile. Her lips lifted back slowly, exposing both rows of small, even, white teeth pressed together in front as if she were biting on something. Strange, peculiar, it was but not unattractive. A little vicious, maybe; a little wild.
"Sara," Dragoon said to me, "my sister." He turned to her, "This is Sheldon Scott, Sara. A no-good private dick. Don't have nothing to do with no private dicks."
She looked at her brother slantwise from the green eyes draped with incredibly long black lashes, then she swung her head back to me and gave me another one of those funny smiles. "Shouldn't I have anything to do with private dicks, Mr. Scott?" Her voice was a throaty, musical purr like contentment out of a tiger.
"Call me Shell."
"All right, Shell." She said it like, "Yes, father," but her green eyes laughed with me. Or at me. She uncurled her legs from the couch and stretched them out in front of her on the floor in one easy, silken movement.
I looked at her legs. I have a fondness for legs. Particularly legs like hers. They were well worth a second look, or as many looks as I could sneak in without seeming lecherous. The rest of her was nice like the legs. She was little, maybe five-feet-two, and about a hundred and five or ten pounds. Long-lashed green eyes, partly hidden under half-lowered lids, a pert nose, a small red mouth with sullen lips, and those small, even, white teeth. Her hair was cut short, fluffy around her small head, and as black as the bottom of the sea.
She said, "You didn't answer my question."
"About whether or not I should associate with private detectives."
"Oh," I said. "Depends on whether or not they're what your brother calls no-good."
"I'll bet you're good," she said. "Did they hurt you?"
"Those two strong-arm boys?" She nodded and I said, "They did their best."
"Let me see."
"It isn't anything. Skip it."
"Let me see." She pulled one of the wooden chairs out a little way in front of the desk. I sat down straddling the chair and leaned on the back and Sara came over and peered down at my head, then went out the door behind me. Dragoon walked over and folded his long frame down into the swivel chair and sat facing me.
I said, "Why the party? What's the occasion?"
He leaned over the desk and frowned. "I was having me a little spelling bee with the crumb. He gets real wise and starts lifting my hard-earned cabbage."
"Hard-earned," I laughed. "With you paying off eighty-to-one tops on a two-horse parlay, and fifteen, six, and three across the board, I wouldn't exactly call it hard-earned."
"Okay. So I'm out a bundle anyway. A twelve-grand bundle."
"Not exactly hay," I agreed. "What was the gimmick?"
"The finks get their heads together in advance, then when a nice juicy long one gallops in they rig the payoff on a phony slip and split the take. Even at fifteen-to-one it adds up to a lot of fish."
Dragoon bent his coal black eyes on me. "What for you're so interested? Tell me that, Scott. You still haven't spilled what you're after and every time I see you you're after something. What's it this time?"
"Just curious. I came down to check on one of your boys. Joe Brooks: five-ten, hundred and sixty pounds, light straw-colored hair, blue eyes, little scar on the right side of his chin. He worked the horses for you out front; as a matter of fact, he handled the bets. Took the cash and markers, made some of the payoffs." I grinned at him. "Coincidence."
"What about him?" Dragoon growled.
"Joe was a hit-and-run two nights back. You know that, naturally. I've got a client wants to know more about it."
"What more about it? He gets hit by a car. Bang, he's dead. Simple."
"Maybe. The way you tell it. My client wants a little more. Like maybe it wasn't an accident. Like maybe it was convenient for somebody to have an accident arranged just for Joe. Preferably fatal. Like who might know more about the job."
"You come to the wrong place, Shell." He ran long, bony fingers through black hair matted on his head like boiled spinach. "You know," he said, "a lot of guys wouldn't like you comin' around making noises like you're making. But I'm an easygoing guy myself, so I pay it no never mind. As far as Joe's concerned, he just gets hit by a car and that's his funeral. Outside of that, I know from nothin'."
While we talked, Sara had hunted up a basin of water and a clean rag. She came in the door carrying them, moving easily with a casual grace. Little and dark, kittenish—like a black panther cub. She wet the rag and started jabbing away at my scalp. Not patting, jabbing.
"For the love of Pete, woman," I said, "take it easy."
"Just cleaning it."
"Leave some hair."
"I like blonds," she said. "You'd have awfully pretty blond hair if you'd let it grow. It's too short. It sticks up like hair on an angry dog's neck."
"Thanks. I like it short." She jabbed some more with the wet rag. I winced. "Lady," I asked, "you trying to get a look at my brain?"
"Hold still. What happened to your nose?"
"It got banged into and I woke up with it busted. I didn't have time to get it fixed."
She jabbed at my brain some more.
I turned to Dragoon. "Got any ideas about who might want Joe Brooks dead? Anything I might be able to start working on? I'm starting from scratch on this thing. I came here first because he worked for you quite a while."
He said again, deliberately, "I know from nothin'."
Sara said, "I liked Joe. I like you better."
"I do. Really. I like big mean-looking men best. You're sort of cute, too."
She finished playing with my head and leaned back against the desk in front of me. She was wearing a black silk dress and it pulled tight against the curves of her small body. There were numerous curves, I noticed, properly distributed and surprisingly generous.
She said, "There. No one would ever know you got hurt."
Her eyes widened as she looked at me and she exclaimed, "How interesting! You're all banged up, aren't you? What happened to your ear? Your left ear? It looks like the top of it's gone."
She thought that was wonderful.
"Miss Dragoon," I said wearily, "I used to be in the Marines and got tangled up with a mortar shell that went off and tossed something into my nose. Broken nose explained. After I started my agency, a hoodlum, now deceased, took a shot at me, missed, and clipped off the top of the ear you're admiring. Ear explained. My hair is blond because that's how it grew and it's short because I like it short. How's that?"
There was no shutting this babe up. She squinted her green eyes together and said softly, "You killed him, didn't you?"
"The man who shot at you."
"Yeah. I aimed at his ear and missed."
She just leaned against the desk and looked at me. It was peculiar. A lot of women have looked at me. I've got a strong jaw; gray eyes under screwy, nearly white eyebrows that slant up and out then change their minds and directions right at the end and swoop down at the corners of my eyes like a couple of truncated boomerangs; and I'm tanned the approximate color of a stiff bourbon-and-water. A lot of women have liked it and looked at me as if they liked it but never quite the way she was looking.
Her eyes bored into mine with a kind of hot awareness of me, but there was something else. Something half-hidden beneath the surface but alive there, like the pulse beating visibly in the hollow of her throat. She raised her right hand and let it rest against the curve of her neck. There was a small, moist smear of my blood on the back of her hand.
I jerked my gaze away from her and looked at Dragoon. "About Joe," I said. "How long had he worked for you? What kind of company did he keep?"
"Look, Shell," he said, "I know you for a couple years now, off and on. I see you around. I don't want no trouble with you, with no law. Not in my business. But the only reason I say anything at all about Joe now is because I don't know a damn thing. Why should I babble at the mouth when I know from nothin' about him?"
He leaned back in the swivel chair and it squeaked like cheap chalk on a blackboard. "Here's the whole picture," he said. "Joe breezes in here from somewhere out of state about five, maybe six months or so back. He noses around and finds out I'm making book so he looks me up. He's a likable kid and he's worked the beetles before somewhere back East. I don't know nothin' against him so I take him on. Who he runs with, his life history, I don't know about. And I don't care about it. He works out O.K. so I'm satisfied."
"Till you start losing a few grand on a screw-up?"
"Just thought I'd ask," I said casually. "You wouldn't polish a kid off just because a few grand turns up missing anyway. Would you, Dragoon?"
He didn't bat an eyelash. "No. I wouldn't polish a kid off. I can afford to drop a few grand; there's more where that came from. It's not the dough so much; it's the principle of the thing."
"Yeah, I hear you're a great guy for principle."
"Hell, you know what I mean. You let these punks get a half inch and soon they try to step on your face."
Not quite as clear as it might have been, but I got the idea. He leaned forward again and let narrowed eyes stare at me from the sunken sockets. "But, Scott," he said slowly, "you should be careful the kind of questions you ask. Some questions ain't healthy for you, a bit."
I grinned at him. Sara pushed away from the desk with a smooth rippling movement and came over close to me.
I looked up at her. "I didn't thank you for mopping up my head. Thanks."
"I didn't mind. I just wanted to run my fingers through your hair, anyway. What there is of it."
She put her wrist on my shoulder and let her fingernails stray back and forth at the base of my neck. Molecules in my spine started batting their brains out.
I asked, "You nervous?"
"Not a bit."
"Well, you're making me nervous."
She half smiled, slanting a green-eyed look at me.
I pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offered her one and she shook her head. I fired one up, took a big drag and said to Dragoon, "I guess that's all I get, huh?"
He nodded. "That's all I got to give you, Shell."
"O.K. Expect me back sometime."
I took another big drag and then Sara got cute.
She pinched me. I mean, she really gouged me. She dug her fingernails into my neck like a lobster's claws.
The smoke burned out through my throat as I yelled and jumped out of the chair. I turned around and glared.
She'd turned to face me, hands clasped in front of her, her mouth half open, the chin stuck out. Then her teeth pressed together in a tight smile.
I'm not sure whether I actually started out to spank that little hellcat, or whether it just happened that way. But I automatically took a step toward Sara and grabbed her wrist as I sat down in the chair again, yanking her toward me. She flopped over my thighs, apparently caught by surprise.
I held her with my left hand, raised my right in the air and then slammed it down with a satisfying thwack on her gently gyrating derriere, again and again.
I had never known Dragoon to laugh out loud at anything before, but when I glanced at him his mouth was stretched wide and a kind of happy snorting sound issued from it in strangled gusts while he banged the desk top gleefully with his open hand.
I hadn't cooled off much since Sara had gouged me with those long red nails, but my heat had undergone a change, so that now it would have to be measured on an entirely different kind of thermometer. I had started out to spank this gal, but by the fourth or fifth thwack there was some question about what I was really doing.
I finally admitted it to myself: I wasn't doing what I had started out to do, my heart wasn't in it, and this that I was doing was something clear the hell removed from spanking. I wasn't just getting even, either—I was way ahead and still gaining on her. It was time to stop.
I pushed Sara off my thighs and as she stood up she turned to face me. She didn't say anything. Her jaw moved almost imperceptibly sideways, back and forth, the front teeth rubbing easily together. She didn't look hurt, or angry, or embarrassed.
The corners of her small, sullen mouth curved up slightly. She was shaking as if she had St. Vitus' dance. The palm of her hand was hot and moist.
Dragoon was still chuckling as I went out and shut the door behind me.
Excerpted from The Scrambled Yeggs by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1958 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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