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The Best Motive
The cab dropped me off on the outskirts of Silver Beach and I looked around before I walked through darkness down the narrow alley. I didn't see anybody who looked like Bruno, the guy Ellen had told me was due for a stretch at the cackle factory. Any guy who'd try twice to kill a sex-charged hunk of dreamy tomato like Ellen had to be one step removed from the net. The crazy guy was probably still around here somewhere; he had been when Ellen phoned me, fright twisting the words in her throat.
I was eighty miles from the Los Angeles office of "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," and I didn't think Bruno had ever seen me. But I'm damned easy to describe: six-two, short-cropped hair, almost white, the same color as my goofy eyebrows, and the face you might expect on an ex-Marine. I didn't see anybody eyeballing me, so I walked to the alley entrance of The Haunt, a gruesome Silver Beach nightclub with lively corpses and a hot orchestra.
Knowing that Ellen was inside made my throat dryer, my pulse faster. She had a shape like a mating pretzel, and the normal expression in her dark eyes always made me think she was about to tell a pleasantly dirty story. I walked past the grinning Death's head and a luminous skeleton and on into the club, banged against a table and spilled somebody's drink, barked my shin on a chair and got a perfect barrage of highly uncomplimentary language. Man, it was dark.
When my eyes were used to the gloom I saw dark blurs, presumably people drinking or feeling or whispering in ears, or whatever. Almost anything could have been happening in some of those corners, absolutely anything. Strike a match and you're dead. The orchestra was just beginning a number. I expected a funeral march or "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You," but it was the bright and bouncy "Love Me."
It was bright and bouncy like Ellen. I'd known the gal only a week, but she was already under my skin. And I felt sorry for her, though it's hard to be sorry for a twenty-three-year-old beauty with a million bucks. But she'd had it tough otherwise: both parents killed when she was nineteen, and the man she loved, her husband Ron, had been killed in a train wreck six months ago.
I found her at one of the small tables on the edge of the dance floor. I took a chance and lit a cigarette, and it was Ellen, strikingly lovely, the warm light melting on her high cheekbones, caressing her red, parted lips, and showing me fright in her dark eyes before the match went out.
"Oh, Shell," she said. "Shell, I'm glad you're here." Her hand slid across the table and found mine, held it. My spine wiggled to "Love Me." "This is a horrid place," she added. "Ghastly. I'm half out of my wits."
This wasn't the cheeriest spot for a gal who expected to have her throat cut by a crazy man. I squeezed her hand, thinking that no matter how dark it was, this had better be the extent of my squeezing. Ellen Benson was a Reno, Nevada, gal vacationing at California's Laguna Beach a few miles from here—with Joe Benson. Uh-huh, honeymooning with the new husband. What the hell; I squeezed Mrs. Joe Benson's hand some more.
"The Haunt," I said. "Our motto is 'We scare you to death.' O.K., honey. What's with Bruno?"
Bruno was the crux. Apparently the nut had tried to murder her twice. She and hubby Joe had seen Bruno get off the bus in Laguna Beach yesterday afternoon; last night the trouble had started. She'd been visiting friends in San Clemente; driving back to Laguna, the brakes on her big Caddie went out, but luckily she wasn't hurt. Then, walking from the car to a service station nearby, where she could phone, she'd been shot at. She'd screamed, run to the station, been lucky once more. Tonight, just half an hour ago, she'd seen Bruno again and phoned me. Because she could reach it easily, and because it was dark enough to hide her—or anybody—I'd told her to meet me here at The Haunt.
She said, "He must have followed me. Shell. Again. It's driving me crazy. Joe and I are going to a party tonight—same friends I visited last night—and we were shopping here for gifts for them. I saw Bruno in front of the shop and told Joe. He told me to get out of sight quick, then went out front to talk to Bruno. I was so terrified I just ran out the back way and phoned you."
I had talked the mess over with both Ellen and hubby Joe last night at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach, where we were all staying. We'd got fairly chummy, and they knew I was from L. A., a private detective vacationing. So when Ellen had got back to the hotel, ready to split at the seams because of the kill attempts, and told Joe what had happened, they'd given me the story. Joe had seemed ready to go to pieces himself. I didn't exactly cotton to the guy, though he seemed nice enough and Ellen had told me he knew everybody in Reno from shoeshine boys to judges, and ex-cons to preachers and they all liked him—probably it's just that I seldom cotton to husbands. A tall, quiet, good-looking man, he'd seemed an odd choice for Ellen. She was hot, sexy, bubbling with life, while Joe impressed me as a guy whose idea of living dangerously was to pick his nose.
I said, "Give me that first Bruno bit again, Ellen." She said quietly, "After Ron died I was pretty mixed up. This Bruno kept hanging around, but I only went out with him once. He's terribly stupid, and he's some sort of criminal. I think he was in prison for a while. I couldn't stand him, but I was nice to him—too nice, I guess. When I told him I wouldn't see him any more he went into an awful rage. Said he loved me, he'd follow me everywhere. He did, too. Then just before Joe and I married a month ago, Bruno caught me on the street in Reno. He sliced the dull edge of a knife across my throat and said if he couldn't have me nobody else could either, he'd kill me. He's crazy, insane." Her voice got tighter. "He kept following me around. Joe and I didn't tell anyone where we were going on our honeymoon, so I didn't think I'd have to worry about Bruno—and now he's here, he's even come down here!"
"Relax, honey, unwind. What say we have a drink?"
We got two highballs as the orchestra began another number and what I call the gook lights came on. The management was putting on its fluorescent act, and in gook light even Marilyn Monroe would look sexless. Ellen's eyes glowed like blue coals. I peeled my lips back and my teeth glowed horribly.
"Oh, my God," she said. "Don't do that."
"Sad, huh? You look pretty gruesome yourself."
She smiled and her teeth seemed to leap at me. It was disgusting. "Haven't you been here before?"
"No," she said. "Do people come twice?"
"Sure. It's fun. Look at all the hilarious people."
Dim bodies were wiggling on the dance floor in a whole sea of appalling eyes and teeth that floated in the air. "You ain't seen nothin' yet; pretty quick the skeletons come out." I grinned horribly some more. "But first let's figure what—" I stopped. Somebody was breathing on my neck. In The Haunt you can almost believe it's a ghost's fanny brushing you as it floats by, but this breath was warm, scented with garlic.
I turned around and almost banged into a head angled toward our table. The guy was scrunched over right behind me with his ear practically flapping.
"Hey," I said. "The ear, friend. Do you like the ear? If you do, take it some place else before I remove it."
He jumped back at my first words, his eyes glowing at me. He was alone. I stepped to his table, bent my face down close to his and peered at him. "You get it? Vanish. Get lost."
He didn't say anything. I could see his lips move in an attempt at a smile, but his teeth didn't glow. False teeth wouldn't glow in this light. I sat down with Ellen again and said softly, "This egg looks like nobody I ever saw, what I can see of him. Does Bruno have false teeth?"
"No. Big and crooked, but they aren't false."
"O.K." I looked back at the man behind me. "The ear, friend. I'll take it." He left, and I asked Ellen, "Any chance Bruno could have followed you here?"
"I ... don't think so. I don't think he could have seen me go out and down the alley. It was dark."
I kept thinking about that guy at the next table. The loony Bruno would hardly have anybody else teamed up with him. He sounded like an insanely jealous crackpot, and the crack didn't make him less dangerous. Jealousy is one of the best murder motives I've run across, but the crime of passion is usually swift, vicious. I wanted to know more about Bruno—and I was starting to want out of this creep-joint.
"Maybe we'd better take off, Ellen. Anybody wants trouble, I'm all set." After Ellen had phoned and before I'd left Laguna Beach, I'd strapped on my .38 Colt Special.
"Let me finish my drink first, Shell, I'm not scared when you're around. You're ... good to be with." Her hand tightened on mine, squeezed gently. "Anyway, you'll have to dance with me once. Maybe it'll calm me down some more."
"Ha," I said, "it won't calm me down." I knew what would happen if she laid that long curved body up against me on that dark dance floor. But she was already standing by the table, pulling my hand. I got up.
She sort of oozed into my arms, and into my blood, her free hand restless on the back of my neck. She pressed close against me, following easily, her body soft and warm, even bold. After about a minute of that I said, "Look. This is lovely, ecstatic, but I, uh, it's too—"
She interrupted. "Shhh. What's the matter?"
"You know damn well what's the matter. What I mean is, hell's bells, after all, you're on your honeymoon—"
"Just a minute." She stopped dancing, put both arms around my neck. "Let me tell you something. Joe wanted me to marry him even before I met Ron, but I just wasn't in love with him. Joe was around all the time, came to the house to see Ron and me while we were married, and after the accident he was wonderful to me, sweet, somebody I could lean on. He was Old Faithful, always there, and good to me—and I thought maybe that was enough. But it wasn't, Shell, and it never will be. A fast honeymoon and a fast divorce, that's it. So there's the sad story of Ellen Benson."
"Joe know how you feel, Ellen?"
"He knows, but he thinks maybe it'll work out. After last night he swore he wouldn't let me out of his sight, and he never did until he went out to see Bruno. He's sweet, Shell; it's just not enough. Now, let's dance."
There was no more conversation until the music ended. We went back to our table and I finished my drink. The gook lighting was still on and I could see two glowing skeletons, or rather waiters dressed in fluorescent skeleton suits with skull hoods, moving around at the far side of the dance floor.
I asked Ellen, "You about ready to go?"
"One more glug," she said.
I looked out at all the teeth and things again. The two skeletons, looking amazingly lifeless-like, were walking toward our table. Probably something scary was about to happen.
I turned back to Ellen and said, "Glug your glug before we get into the act. Are you afraid of ske—"
It felt like a bony finger poking me in the ribs. For a brief moment light from a pencil flash gleamed on the long-barreled revolver in the man's cloth-covered hand, then flicked over my face and winked out. Ellen gasped, "Shell—"
"Take it easy, honey." I was taking it easy myself. They do some screwy things in The Haunt, but I'd never seen a gun in here before. Maybe it was a gag.
"Look, bony," I said, and that was all I said. I got the gun across my jaw, and a skeleton hand pulled my .38 from its holster, then jerked me out of my seat. The gun jabbed my spine and I was shoved toward the club's entrance.
This was no gag, for sure—and these guys weren't waiters. I stopped, but before I could even think about doing anything, something hard slammed into the back of my skull. I almost went down, and when the guy shoved me I staggered forward. We went out and started down the alley. My head cleared a little as we reached the back of a building, indented a few feet from the alley. The guy shoved me into its darkness. I stumbled and fell to the soft dirt, still confused, wondering what was coming off.
Then I heard a click as he cocked the hammer. I was still down on one knee, and as the knowledge that the guy was actually about to plug me jumped in my brain, I acted instinctively, scooping up a handful of soft earth and hurling it toward him, diving to the side and rolling. The gun roared and the bullet dug into earth as I slammed into his legs, grabbed them and yanked. He fell on top of me, and the gun thudded into my arm. Then I was all over him, slicing with the thick edge of my palm, unthinking, just trying to fix him before he fixed me. I felt my hand jar flesh; I saw his face before me and cut at it with all my strength. He went limp. I grabbed him and his head hung like a rag from his neck. I swore, felt for his pulse, jerked off his skull hood, traced my fingers over his split lips, then found the mashed-in bridge of his nose. He was dead.
I didn't know how many other unfriendly guys were back in the club, or what they looked like—but they'd flashed that light in my face and knew me. There was at least one other skeleton there, maybe waiting for this one to return. So two minutes later I walked inside the club wearing the dead man's skeleton suit over my clothes and the Death's mask over my head, peering out of the eye slits. Deep pockets in the black outfit's pants held my .38 and the dead man's gun. Some girls pointed at my glowing skeleton and giggled. I went to the table where Ellen had been. She was gone. The table top was wet where a drink had been spilled.
A voice behind me said softly, "All right?"
I turned. The scent of garlic filled my nostrils. The man smiled, his false teeth dark in his mouth. I nodded, and he seemed satisfied, walked toward the exit. I followed him outside, grabbed the big revolver by its barrel, and when he started to get into a new Buick parked in the alley, I helped him in, with the butt of the gun on the back of his head.
I got into the car with him, and in a minute he groaned, tried to sit up. I grabbed his coat and yanked him to me.
"Talk fast, you son! Where is she?"
He gasped and sputtered. "What ... what ..."
I'd yanked the hood off so he could see my face. He looked ready to pass out.
He babbled that he didn't know what I was talking about, so I swatted him alongside the jaw. His false teeth skidded half out of his mouth, and I kept slapping him with the gun until the choppers landed in his lap.
"You've got two seconds," I said. I cocked the gun, and as it clicked he yelped, the words distorted and almost unrecognizable, "All right, O.K. She's—stop!"
"Keep it going. All of it. And where is she?"
He fumbled for his teeth. "With Frank Gill. Just picked up her Cad and left. Please, man, watch that gun." He shoved his chipped teeth at his mouth, anxious now, trying to talk even while his teeth clicked in his shaking hands. "You don't want me, man, it's Bruno Karsh. He phoned Sammy Lighter in Reno last night. Sammy sent three of us for the job."
I broke in. "Where is she? I won't ask you again."
"Other side of Laguna Beach, that bad spot, curve and cliff. He'll knock her out and she's—she'll go over in her Cad. Frank's got a Ford out there to come back in."
He kept talking as sickness crawled in my stomach. The next time I laid the gun on him was the last time. I locked him in the Buick's trunk to keep him on ice, then I got behind the wheel and roared out of the alley. I hit seventy going up the winding road beyond Laguna, fear and sickness mingling inside me as I thought of that curve ahead. I knew the place; it was bad enough in the daytime, with a hundred-foot drop off the cliff at the road's edge to the sea below. I shoved the accelerator all the way down, thinking of the Cad tumbling end over end off the cliff, Ellen unconscious behind the steering wheel at the start, and at the end ... I shivered.
Excerpted from Shell Scott's Seven Slaughters by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1963 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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