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This was a party that Cholly Knickerbocker, in tomorrow's Los Angeles Examiner, would describe as "a gathering of the Smart Set," and if this was the Smart Set, I was glad I belonged to the Stupid Set.
Not many of the fifty or so guests here—none of them, I hoped—could know I was a private detective named Shell Scott, but few could have avoided the impression that I might have sneaked in here by mistake. I was the only man not in a dinner jacket, and there were even some diplomat-type characters wearing tails.
And here I was in brown slacks and a tweed jacket over a sports shirt called, according to the salesman, "Hot Hula." At least there were no wild Balinese babes doing things on the shirt; it was just colorful. Anyway, this was a warm summer evening, the last day in June, and even if I'd known I was to crash the Four Hundred tonight, I wouldn't have had time to change clothes.
Less than half an hour earlier, a Mrs. Redstone, the gal who was tossing the ball, had phoned me and said that she needed the services of a private investigator, and none other than Captain Phil Samson of Los Angeles Homicide had recommended me. Sam is my best friend—male friend—in town, so I'd told Mrs. Redstone that I'd buzz right out to her home in the Wilshire district. She would recognize me, she'd said, from Samson's description.
That was all I knew; until Mrs. Redstone latched onto me and made further explanations, I was merely to mingle "unobtrusively" with the guests. That was going to be loads of fun. It was also going to be impossible.
I'm six-two and weigh 205 pounds, have short white hair that sticks up into the air as if a small bleached porcupine were curled up on my scalp, whitish eyebrows, plus a very slightly bent nose. There's a nick in my left ear, a souvenir from a dead hood. He wasn't, of course, dead until right after he shot at me. Anyway, I was pretty unique in this plush gathering, so, without trying to hide, I leaned against a wall, eyeballing people and listening.
One of the biddies near me was yakking about some gal who was "coming out," and I looked around eagerly, thinking maybe this tomato would bust out of a paper-covered cake and the party would get livelier, but no such luck. She was talking about her daughter, who had reached the age of consent—probably about eight years after first consenting—and was having a party so she could be stared at over champagne glasses.
I'll tell you one thing: Neither that party nor this one would be my kind of party. I drink bourbon and water, and I like to stare at women over women. There was one woman here worth staring at. A bunch of us solid citizens were scattered around an enormous, drafty room in the enormous, drafty Redstone house, and I leaned against my wall, clutching a bourbon highball I'd lifted from the tray of a thin-lipped waiter, who had sneered at me as if I were the waiters' waiter, and the interesting woman was sitting on a low gold divan a few feet from me.
She was animated, laughing, talking to a guy who sprawled next to her. The guy was completely relaxed, legs crossed, balancing a half-full highball glass on the toe of one black leather shoe, which was even more pointed than his head. He was looking around the room, and he glanced at me momentarily. He frowned slightly, then his gaze passed on. But he kept frowning.
The girl fluffed short blonde hair and said, "Poopy, pay some attention to me."
Obviously the guy was a real blue blood, because a man with even half a dozen red corpuscles would have been paying so much attention to her that she'd have been screaming or surrendering. Her lips were bright red in a milky-white face, and light brows arched over blue eyes. She had a nice body, too, though a trifle slim for my taste, but what she had was all hers for sure. When it comes to clothes, sometimes the more money women have, the more they spend for less, and this gal was wearing so little that she must have been a billionaire. The dress was dark green, strapless, clinging, and almost off. She finally got the blue blood's attention, and while they chatted I looked over the gathering some more.
I didn't know what Mrs. Redstone looked like, but I did know she was pushing sixty and worth about fifteen million dollars. Plenty of millions more were undoubtedly scattered among the guests, but there were some others who weren't high society, just high.
I recognized a male juvenile from one of the studios, so drunk he had his toupee on backward. Next to him was an ex-Miss America. She had a thirty-six-inch bust of which thirty-five inches was back, the sweet, sad expression of a molting angel, and little else—but she was six feet tall and could tap-dance like a fiend. In the same group with them was a guy even bigger than I, a heavy, thick-bodied man I'd never seen before, but he was talking to another character I did recognize. And I started wondering what was going on here.
The guy I recognized was wearing a tux, and he looked peaceable enough, but I knew he wasn't the peaceful type. I didn't know his real name, but in hoodlumland his moniker was simply Garlic. Garlic and the other man glanced at me, then went on talking. Garlic's friend was a stolid, unsmiling type, his face kind of marked up and the coat of his dinner jacket tight over his shoulders. Most coats would be tight on him. He was a vital-type egg, with power seeming to ooze out of him, and I got an impression of a man full of iron and wires and cold-rolled steel bars. Garlic glanced at me again, and I was brooding about what a Folsom graduate was doing here with the well-scrubbed rich when somebody said:
It was a soft, husky voice alongside me. Not a female voice, though. While I'd been looking elsewhere, the blonde's friend from the gold divan had walked up to me.
"Hello," I said.
"What are you doing here?" he asked me.
Only he said it like "Fetch me my spats, boy," with a very nasty inflection. He was a little younger than I, under thirty, dark and good-looking enough in a weak-sisterish way, despite fairly rugged features. He stood about five-ten and glared up at me insolently, lids lowered in boredom over black eyes. His black hair lay close to his head in tight waves.
"Just ... mingling," I said agreeably. "Nice party."
"How the hell did you get in?"
"I shot the butler," I said. "What makes it your business?"
The corner of his heavy lips pulled down. "I'm Andon Poupelle," he said.
"That's nice. Glad to meet you, Poopy."
A slow flush crept up under his tan. "You make a lot of noise with your mouth," he said. "And you smell like cop to me."
I straightened up, wound my right hand into a fist, and then loosened the fingers again. "Listen, friend. I can make just as much noise with your mouth if you want it that way. You can relax on purpose or accidentally, but if you've got something on your mind, tell me nice."
I got a surprise. Poupelle's belligerence left him suddenly. He swallowed and ran his tongue over his teeth. They were beautiful teeth, even and regular as a row of small sugar cubes, porcelain-capped, a translucent white. He glanced at my right hand, still slightly raised, then spun on his heel and walked away from me.
The blonde was alone on the divan now, so I walked over to her. If she was Andon's date, he'd made me mad enough to try moving in. Hell, I'd been planning that even before he'd made me mad. Out of all the women tottering around in here, she looked like the only one who wouldn't go to the Blue Cross when there was a blood drive on, and there was a chance she wasn't social register, just social.
"Hi," I said. "Can I get you a drink, or a mink coat or something?"
She smiled. Nice. Teeth almost as pretty as Poupelle's. And it was easy to see, from where I was standing to where I was looking, that she had things much prettier than anything of Poupelle's. "No, thanks," she said. "You can sit down, though. You didn't look very comfortable there on the wall."
"Ah, then you noticed me."
"I thought somebody had hung a modern painting over there." She grinned, not stuffily at all. "I prefer the old masters, myself."
"How do you know I'm not an old master?"
"Oh, you're not an old anything."
"Sweet. I'll admit these rags are a little resplendent, but I'm trying to set a style. The Hollywood Boulevard fashion plate, that's me."
She shook her head. "Really, did you do this on purpose, or didn't anybody tell you to come dressed for dinner?"
"I'm not going to eat with my clothes. As a matter of fact, I may not eat at all." It was true enough, especially since in my wanderings I had scouted the enormously long dinner table, set with place cards and everything, including printed menus. The menus were in French.
I went on, "I'm afraid to eat. I can't read the food."
She laughed. "I'll read it to you."
"Show-off. You know, one of these days I'll throw a ball for the Smart Set and the menus will be printed in Abyssinian. We'll see how smart they are."
She gurgled a little and we made extremely small talk for another minute. Then she said, "You know Poopy, do you?"
"Not well," I told her. "Well enough."
Either she failed to get my message or else she didn't adore Poupelle either. Anyway, she kept smiling, so I proceeded on the assumption that we were agreed.
"He's so much fun," she said. "So interesting to talk to, isn't he?"
I went along with the gag. "Yeah. Of course, I've had better conversations with parakeets."
She frowned a little. "You mean you don't think he's ... clever? Intelligent?"
Oh, she was marvelous, completely deadpan, almost as if she were serious. I grinned at her. "That boy could be drowning and he might know he was wet. Otherwise, though, his brain cell is probably—"
Suddenly I discovered I'd been going along with the gag all by myself. The blonde had been serious. Her tone was frigid when she said, "Go back to your wall."
"Wait a minute. I—"
"OK, miss." I got up. "Miss what? I should know who I've insulted. Whom. Have I insult—"
She said icily, "I'm Miss Redstone. Vera Redstone." Then she shook her head vigorously. "Oh, damn! That's twice tonight. I'm not Miss Redstone. I'm Mrs. Poupelle. Andon's my husband. We've only been married two weeks, and I keep getting my name— What am I telling you this for?"
I sat down again. "You mean you're Mrs. Redstone's daughter? And—his wife?"
"Well," I said. "Him. You must have been talking about Andon. Why, he's—he's a prince!"
It wasn't any good. "Go back to your wall," she said.
Well, what the hell, I don't mess around with guys' wives, anyway. At least, not when they've only been married a couple of weeks. I got up again, and somebody tapped me gently on the shoulder.
I looked around at Garlic's face. Looking at Garlic's face, all of a sudden and up close like this, was a very unpleasant experience. In naming this lad, his underworld chums had shown a complete lack of ingenuity. Nobody would ever forget why Garlic was called Garlic, not if they ever got this close to him. I almost suffocated.
"Hello there," he said gently.
I exhaled, put my index finger against his chest, and pushed gently. He stepped back a little and said, "There's a fellow would like to talk with you outside."
"Go on out and wait."
"Uh-uh. Come on."
I looked down at Vera. At Mrs. Poupelle. Her nose was wrinkled in distaste. "Who invited this ape?" I asked her.
She looked briefly at me. "I don't know. Mother made out the guest list. So she made two mistakes."
I walked over to my wall again and leaned on it. I was tired of this party and I wished Mrs. Redstone would show up and claim me. Garlic tagged along. "You comin'?"
"Get lost, Garlic." We'd never met before, but I'd seen him around. Just as I knew his name, it was a foregone conclusion that he knew not only my name, but also that I was a detective. Most hoods in the L.A. Hollywood area know me because I've sent several of their circle to the poky or to Forest Lawn, which is a cemetery.
"I'll level with you, Scott. I must ask you to blow. You destroy the funeral tone of the establishment."
"Uh-uh. Funeral." He grinned and breathed at me. "Let's go." He latched onto my left arm.
Talk about funerals, this evening was beginning to pall on me. The empty highball glass was still in my right hand, so I lifted it up on a level with my chest and said, "Please let go of me fast, Garlic."
He had a lot of strength in his fingers, and he squeezed my biceps until it hurt. I took a fast look left and right. Nobody was eying us. Then, as Garlic increased the pressure to ease me toward the door, I dropped the highball glass, pointed all four fingers straight out, and jabbed them into his neck. My fingers hit his Adam's apple just as the glass bounced on the carpet. A funny squeak came out of his throat, and I knew not much else would be coming out for a little while. His face got red and he balled both hands into fists as I bent over and picked up the glass, keeping my eyes on him.
I cupped the glass in my hand and aimed it at Garlic's face like a small bazooka. He was just about to swing at me, so hot he'd undoubtedly forgotten where he was, when I wiggled the glass and said softly, "I'll carve up your chops like a Salisbury steak, Garlic. Maybe I can catch an eyeball with one swipe. I asked you please, Garlic, remember? But we can waltz around right here in the ballroom if you want to."
His face kept getting redder, but he didn't take a swing at me. He shook his head, squeezed some air out of his throat. "You sonofabitch," he said hoarsely. "I'll kill you, you son—"
Then he broke it off and walked a few yards away. He stopped and stood there, big paws opening and closing spasmodically. He reached up and rubbed his throat.
There hadn't been any noise louder than that of the glass thumping on the carpet, and very little movement, so I figured nobody had noticed. Vera was closest to where I stood, and she was still ignoring me. I looked around, though, to check, and discovered that the little byplay here had been observed after all.
In an arched doorway across the room on my left, maybe ten yards away, a woman stood looking straight at me. She was smiling. Still smiling, she nodded her head slightly, then waved a hand at me. It seemed likely that Mrs. Redstone had made an appearance. She was quite a surprise.CHAPTER 2
So far in this place, the only woman I'd seen who looked female was Vera, but this gal was a tall, white-haired, and damned fine-looking old party. I knew she was getting on toward sixty, but she must have got off somewhere along the way, because from this distance, except for the white hair, she didn't look forty.
She turned in the archway as I walked toward her, and when I got through it, she pulled drapes to close off the room. She said, "I'm sorry it took me so long to find you, Mr. Scott. Cook's drunk—appropriated a magnum of champagne—and I had to help straighten things out." She smiled. "Including the cook. I'm afraid everything's going to taste like champagne tonight. I'm Mrs. Redstone."
I said how-do-you-do, and she asked me, "Did you hurt the gentleman?"
"Yes, ma'am, only he's no gentleman. The bum—uh—" That, I realized, was a hell of a way to talk about one of Mrs. Redstone's guests.
But she said, frowning slightly, "I don't know who he is. Odd. There's usually a stranger or two at these dreadful affairs, but he's such a strange stranger." She smiled. "What was the difficulty?"
I told her all I knew, that Garlic had invited me outside for a chat and that I preferred not to go anywhere at all with Garlic. While I explained, I took a better look at her. Her face was somewhat lined, but she was sure a well-preserved gal, with high, prominent cheekbones and bright-blue, young-looking eyes.
She led the way to two leather chairs across the room, and when we were seated she said, "Let me explain why I phoned you, Mr. Scott. I don't know whether you've met my daughter, Vera, or her husband."
"Andon Poupelle?" She nodded and I said, "I met them both, I'm afraid." I explained briefly what had gone on out there and made it clear that I'd done a horrible job of ingratiating myself with her daughter and son-in-law.
Mrs. Redstone laughed. "We'll get along, I believe. I think Andon's an unutterable boor, myself." She paused. "Do you suppose any of the guests know you're a detective?"
Excerpted from Strip for Murder by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1983 Richard Scott Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted December 30, 2004
I first read this book while recovering from back surgery. I laughed so much the doctor took the book away from me because I kept breaking stitches. The doctor read it and loved it and gave it back to me when my stitches were removed and I could laugh without further injuring myself. Prather and his character, Shell Scott are the best medicine any reader can have.
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Posted September 11, 2010
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