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It was the kind of summery Southern California morning when kids play hooky and lie on green-softened hillsides watching clouds make friendly faces. A day when men are stronger and more bold than they were yesterday, when lissome ladies are lovelier, more wanton, more willing.
It was a day when I felt as though one more deep breath of L.A.'s for-a-change-smog-free air would let me float right up off the pavement; when, no matter what might come my way, I could handle it in a breeze. On a morning like this, when the very air was laden with Fortune, Luck, Invincibility, and even Oxygen—and I was breathing in more than my share of those good things—no matter what came down the pike it would be a piece of cake, it would be a lark.
Or so I thought.
So I thought then ...
* * *
I'm Shell Scott.
My six feet two inches and two hundred plus a few pounds were not floating above the pavement this splendid Monday morning in October. Instead, I was striding energetically up Broadway in downtown Los Angeles, toward the Hamilton Building where, up one flight and a hop down the hall, is Sheldon Scott, Investigations. It was not yet nine o'clock in the a.m., at least an hour, maybe two, earlier than I usually reported to myself for work, if indeed I reported at all.
Hazel would be surprised. She would be astonished.
Hazel is the cute and curvy, also bright, bubbly, efficient, indispensable, invaluable, and sometimes very-damn-smart-mouthed little lovely who mans, or womans—or, in this day of idiot language, persons—the PBX switchboard and computer corner at the end of the hallway outside my one-man office door.
I zipped through the Hamilton's lobby, disdained the elevators, took the stairs three at a time, and thundered down the hallway to Hazel's cubicle.
"Hello, hello, and good morning, and great morning to you," I cried, beaming at Hazel's back. "Isn't it grand?"
She was rapidly punching instructions into the IBM PC's keyboard before her, while rows of letters formed dancing word-graph patterns on the monitor's amber face, her compact but dandy derriere planted on the padded leather seat of a four-wheeled stool.
"Isn't what grand?"
She spun around on the stool's swivel seat, patted both hands on the tops of her thighs, looked intently at me. "For a moment I thought the raucous individual yelling at the top of his lungs behind me might be an acquaintance of mine named Shell Scott. But, no, this can't be he."
"This be him."
"Not a chance. Him, it, is home asleep." She moved her legs, pulling with one foot and then the other to scoot her stool closer to me. "It is groaning as it awakens, smacking its gummy lips, suffering the terrible but well-deserved effects of all that womanizing and carousing last night—"
"—preparing to get up and then go back to bed—"
"—and what carou—"
"—until tomorrow, or the next day, or whenever his hibernation ends." She peered up at me. "That coarse springy white hair, cut nearly as short as the Buddha's; those strange badly bent brows like cotton from vitamin bottles; that brutally savaged face, ravished and burned by the noonday sun ... You do look a little like him even in this good light. But you cannot be the absentee owner of Sheldon Scott, Sometime Investigations. Not at ..." She glanced at a tiny and glittery watch on her slender wrist. "... eight fifty-eight in the morning."
"I'm all of those guys," I growled, disgruntled. "And then some. At least, I was until you started destroying my self-image again. How come you never fling yourself at me and bite my ears?"
She smiled. "There's an interesting letter waiting for you, Shell."
"Must be important. It was delivered by special messenger half an hour ago. I put it on your desk—maybe it's a bomb."
"Bomb? What happened to our fight?"
"Time to get to work. Go! Get cracking!"
She spun, pulling with her legs and digging in her heels, scooting back to the humming PC.
"OK, boss," I said. And got cracking.
I saw the letter, centered on the top of my solid-mahogany desk, as soon as I stepped inside my office. The letter, more accurately a large padded manila envelope, was from Bentley X. Worthington, Esquire, Attorney-at-Law, senior partner in the law firm of Worthington, Kamen, Fisher, Wu, & Hugh, of Phoenix, Arizona.
Interesting indeed. Bentley was a high-powered and very high-priced attorney heading one of the most prestigious law firms in Arizona. Short in stature but tall in spirit and integrity, he was a hair-splitter and i-dotter, but warm and likable nonetheless. I had worked for him twice in the past, first on a missing-person case and later on a missing-million job. I found the missing person in a little town called Quartzsite, which is almost indistinguishable from all of the unpopulated desert surrounding it that isn't called Quartzsite, and shortly thereafter recovered the eighty-seven dollars—all that was left of the embezzled thousand grand. I worked diligently, but also got lucky in both cases, and wrapped them up with such speed that Bentley bestowed seldom-given praise for "jobs well done, old boy."
Quite possibly, then, this was another case Bentley wanted wrapped up in a jiffy, another quickie producing an embarrassingly fat fee for me. However, before opening the envelope to find out what might be cooking, besides cactus, in Arizona on this first day of October, I fed the guppies banging their noses at me on the glass front of their aquarium.
The ten-gallon tank is against the wall to the right of my office door; and guppies, less familiarly Poecilia reticulata, are marvelous little fishes about an inch to an inch and a half long, with spectacular gracefully flowing caudal and dorsal fins. They are among the most colorful little beasties in the world, displaying every kaleidoscopic color of a psychedelic rainbow, and after giving them the treat of some special ground crab meal, I watched them for a minute, delighting as always in their eye-dazzling friskiness.
Incidentally, if you were listening a little while ago, to Hazel, I feel it is important that we not get off on the wrong foot here. In weighing her slanders, I ask you to consider, first, that she is a woman, which explains many otherwise impenetrable mysteries. Second, that nothing she said about me was true. Third, even if a little bit of it was approximately true, Hazel practices exaggeration exceeding hyperbole and on occasion deliberately lies. And, finally, if you want to know the truth about someone, you would be wise to consult that individual best informed about the someone in question, aware not only of his faults but also of his virtues. And in this case, that's me, right? Listen to me, then:
I am a tall, well-muscled, bronzed fellow, one with the appearance of tremendous health and vitality, both of which virtues I in fact possess to a wondrous degree. I am thirty years old. And expect never to get much older, even if I live to be a hundred and fifty. While it is true that my hair is so blond and sun-bleached it might be called white, and tastefully barbered so it attains a length—measured straight up into the air—of only an inch, and the upslanting and then down-bending brows over my healthily sparkling, or piercing, or dynamic, or maybe steely gray eyes are white, and are maybe the approximate shade of cotton, they are not anything whatever like Hazel's dumb description.
True, my nose has been broken twice and set correctly the first time. And there is a fine scar over my right eye. And a little hunk was shot from the top of my left ear; but it was an insignificant hunk, from only one ear, and there was no real use for it so far as I can tell. Also true, I have been known to go out on the town and eat a bunch of rare prime ribs, and drink a bunch of bourbon, and hugely enjoy a bunch of girl; and I confess to a keen and appreciative eye for all the lovelinesses of the fair sex, and I have never pretended to be a monk or a hermit or eunuch. OK? So? What's wrong with that?
As for the faults—well, we all have some of those don't we?
I climbed into the big swivel chair behind my desk and opened the envelope from Bentley X. Worthington. Took out: a two-page letter on the law firm's stationery, neatly typed with carbon-paper ribbon and signed "Bentley" in a heavy flowing script; a single sheet of heavy white bond paper with some names and dates and other information typed on it; a newspaper clipping with the Arizona Republic and a date, six days ago, written in ink across its top above the bold-type heading "Alleged Ex-Gangster Shot"; and a faded three-by-four-inch photograph of a little kid. It was either a boy or a girl, I couldn't tell for sure, but whatever it was, the kid appeared to be about five or six years old, suffering some kind of anguish or severe pain, and preparing to fall into a swimming pool.
There was also a large pale green check with "Worthington, Kamen, Fisher, Wu, & Hugh" printed in little tiny thin letters, and in big fat letters the name "SHELDON SCOTT" and "$2,000.00." Attached to the check was a small piece of paper at the top of which was scribbled a message signed with a "B" trailing off into a long wavy line that presumably meant "entley." The scribbling was, "Retainer, to pique your interest, or greed. Whichever works. You are now morally obligated to find little—but now presumably bigger—Michelle by no later than, say, Monday (which, as you read this, will be today). So get cracking, old boy!"
Get cracking? Had Hazel, in addition to despoiling my wonderful day, been reading my mail?
I read my mail. The letter, dated Sunday, September 30, or yesterday, began:
Sheldon: On the afternoon of Monday, September 24 (one week ago as you read this), our client, Mr. Claude Romanelle, was shot (see newspaper clip), not fatally, by two assailants, identity and whereabouts unknown. Today I visited Mr. Romanelle in the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital, where he is recovering from his wounds. I there presented to him a document, prepared at his urgent request, providing for the transfer of substantial assets, until then the sole property of my client, into joint ownership with his daughter, born Michelle Esprit Romanelle (see enclosed snapshot).
I put the letter down for a moment, picked up the old and faded photograph. So the kid was a little girl. Apparently, little boys and girls are identical. She was wearing only a pair of baggy swim trunks, her legs angled in toward each other as if maybe she was knock-kneed, and her lips were pulled away from white teeth while at the same time her entire face was scrunched up sort of in a bunch at its center, as she either squinted into bright sunlight or chewed on some grapefruit sprinkled with alum. Rather an ugly little tot, I thought.
The letter from Bentley went on:
This evening in my presence Mr. Romanelle signed the document, thereupon immediately transferring joint control of those substantial assets to his daughter. Said documents urgently—urgently—require her signature. You, Sheldon, are to ensure that this is accomplished expeditiously and discreetly. That is: Only you and I are to know the identity of our client. The name "Romanelle" is not to be revealed in your investigation, broadcast or bandied about. Neither is the name "Michelle Vetch" (see below).
On a separate enclosure, you will find the given name of my—our—client's daughter (which name, apparently, she no longer uses) together with the date when and place where she was born, the names of her parents, and such helpful information as her weight, length, and sex at birth. Mr. Romanelle states, upon information and belief, that one Michelle Vetch may have been living in Los Angeles at some time during the last several months and this person may—or may not—be the daughter he seeks. That is all we know. Except, of course, what she looked like twenty years ago (see snapshot).
I have, however, assured our generous client that the information supplied, meager though it might appear to some, will be more than ample to enable a man of your peculiar and exceptional abilities to successfully, discreetly, and speedily—speedily—conclude this investigation, discover the present whereabouts of Michelle, and deliver her to me in my offices at the Hall-Manchester Building (for her signature on the document aforementioned). After this is accomplished, you may then restore to Mr. Romanelle his long-lost daughter, and accept the $10,000 bonus I've wangled for you as a reward for a job well and speedily done.
There was a typed P.S. at the bottom of the page, with something else scribbled beneath it. The typed P.S. said, "I twice, above, used the word 'discreetly.' This is because Mr. Romanelle indicated to me that certain former associates of his might, should they become aware of what you are doing, attempt to dissuade you from doing it. These associates may—may—be the people who shot him."
I lifted my head and gazed at the guppy tank, gazed at a little spot on the wall, undoubtedly gazed with a distinctly sour and pained expression on my chops, much like that of the little tot in the faded photo atop my desk. Then I deciphered the scribble: "P.P.S. Call me if you have any questions, Sheldon."
I smiled. It was not a smile that would have gladdened the heart of Bentley X. Worthington, had he been seated across the desk from me. I examined the other material, starting with the six-day-old clip from the Arizona Republic headed, "Alleged Ex-Gangster Shot." Below that, in smaller boldface type, was the subhead, "Gunned Down in Hospital Parking Lot."
I read the story twice. Summed up, it reported that on the previous afternoon Claude Romanelle, who two decades before had allegedly been active in an Illinois criminal organization referred to, at that time, as "the Arabian Group," had been shot three times in the parking lot of the Arizona Medigenic Hospital on McDowell Drive in Scottsdale. The victim had been about to enter his new Mercedes-Benz sedan when two men drove up in another car, described only as "a dark gray sedan," and fired "a fusillade" of shots. The assailants then sped east on McDowell, headed toward the city of Mesa; they had not been apprehended.
The writer stated that Romanelle had been taken by ambulance to the Scottsdale Memorial Hospital where—at the time the story was written—he had been undergoing surgery. But then the writer went on, "Moments before arrival of the ambulance, Mr. Romanelle, who was fully conscious during our entire discussion, expressed the desire that he might once again see and speak to his daughter, his only child. 'I hope it is not too late,' Mr. Romanelle told this reporter. 'It has been twenty years now, but I hope I can still find her, and ...' He left the statement unfinished."
It occurred to me, on my second reading of the story, that Romanelle might have left the discussion unfinished because about then an ambulance skidded to a shrieking stop, attendants tore him from "this reporter's" grip, and bundled the possibly expiring citizen onto a stretcher. I couldn't help wondering if the inquiring reporter, while Romanelle was presumably sprawled flat on the parking lot's asphalt and perhaps spouting gobs of blood from several holes in him, had also inquired, "Any last words for our readers, Mr. Romanelle? How does it feel to be shot so many times? What are your thoughts about gun control, sir? Do you think any of those bullets pierced your heart or lungs or bladder?"
But I also wondered why, if Claude Romanelle had been gunned down in the parking lot of the Arizona Medigenic Hospital, he had been driven several miles to Scottsdale Memorial.
I jotted that note on a pad, plus bits of information from the rest of the story. Romanelle was fifty-eight years old, a resident of Scottsdale for twelve years. Since the dismissed indictments twenty years ago, he had not been in any trouble with the law. At the present time he was "a legitimate businessman," a vice-president of Cimarron Enterprises. The president of that company was a wealthy local resident named Alda Cimarron, active in real estate development, mining ventures, manufacturing (of restaurant equipment), and apparently well received philanthropy.
Excerpted from Shellshock by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1987 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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