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The Cockeyed Corpse
A Shell Scott Mystery
By Richard S. Prather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 Richard S. Prather
All rights reserved.
I left the office, Sheldon Scott, Investigations, walked down the one flight of stairs to Broadway, and stepped out of the Hamilton Building into L.A.s five oclock shadow.
I looked at it. Fooey, I said.
It was one of those days: smog thick enough to drop large birds on the wing, moist heat lying like sweat over the city, sun peering through the haze like a bloodshot eyeball. It looked as if Nature was dying.
I didn't feel as if I were dying, exactly. I didn't even feel like an old man, not at thirty. But I felt — well, nearly thirty-two. Moreover, my short-cropped hair which sticks up in the air as if each individual hair has a little spring attached to it, and my unfortunately bent-at-the-ends eyebrows, are ordinarily white, as if bleached by a mad hairdresser; but a few more hours in this stuff and I'd be prematurely gray, like the lungs of Los Angeles.
What I needed was a vacation from Los Angeles — in the Alps, say. Or Tahiti. Or Eastern Somaliland. Any place where there was some air. In this muck even a midget would have to breathe through open mouth and both nostrils just to keep on suffocating, and I am six feet two inches tall, and weigh two hundred and six pounds, and use lots and lots of oxygen even when I'm not thinking strenuously.
Ah, I dreamed, to be somewhere where the air is airy, and the sun is sunny, and the girls are girly. Yeah, breathing like crazy, surrounded by beautiful tomatoes ... But probably, I thought, that was asking too much.
I drove my Cadillac from L.A. to Hollywood and the Spartan Apartment Hotel, trotted up to my three-rooms-and-bath on the second floor. I'd just finished pouring some brine shrimp into the tropical fish tanks — the two just inside the front door — when my phone rang.
The guy calling was an old friend, Benjamin Z. Freedlander. Millionaire, bon vivant, Broadway angel, movie producer, driller of oil wells, all kinds of fun things. He said, Shell, how would you like to go to Arizona? Little job I'd like you to handle for me.
Arizona? Airy air? And —
I've got a movie crew up there, five beautiful girls —
Five? Five beautiful —
— but one of them got killed a few days ago. Fell off a horse. Might have been an accident, but I want to be sure. The rest of them — Ed Finch, my associate in Edben Productions, and the four girls —
There are still four left, huh?
— are shooting scenes on location at The Sun and Sage dude ranch. You know Russ Cordiner, the owner, dont you?
Yeah, I've known old Russ for years. Tell me about these gir — That's why I called you, Shell. You know Russ, and he can fill you in on any background you need. He doesnt think the girl's death was an accident. Besides, he tells me there are a lot of hard-boiled characters up there, maybe gangsters or something, I dont know.
You got me. Russ can fill you in. Now, what I want you to do is find out if Jeannes death — Jeanne Blair, that's the dead girls name — was an accident or not. If it was, just take a vacation at my expense. If not, get to the bottom of it. And if she was murdered, I dont want anything to happen to the other girls, got it?
You bet. I dont, either —
Besides, while this thing isnt a very big operation it's still costing me money. Jeannes death has fouled things up even more, but it was fouled up before then. Ed was a week over his shooting schedule even before they got to the Sun and Sage, and since I'm putting up all the money, a few days ago I told him to finish in a week or he's out. He's got till Sunday to finish The Wild West and this is Friday night so youll have to get a move on. Better get up there tomorrow.
Right. I'll grab a nap, and start up in the early A.M.
Fine. I've already talked to Russ. He'll fix you up in the best suite he's got, everything on the house — on me, that is. When you get back well figure out the rest of your fee, O.K.?
Sure, Ben. He'll, that sounds like enough fee, the mood I'm in. Whatd you call this movie? The Wild West?
One of those shoot-em-up ride-em-cowboy epics huh?
Well ... um, not exactly.
I wondered what that meant. But Ben was saying, I just got back in town, from Chicago, and learned about this, or I'd have given you a buzz sooner. Get the background from Russ, Shell. Well, give me a call from the ranch when youve got something. And have fun, kid.
Oh, sure — he'd hung up.
I went into the kitchenette and mixed a bourbon-and-water, then took my drink to the chocolate-brown divan in the front room, settled down by the phone and placed a call to the Sun and Sage in Arizona.
Russ Cordiner, now fifty-nine, had retired at fifty and built a two-story cabin at the top of a little isolated canyon in the Arizona desert, on the edge of several thousand empty acres he owned. The cabin was near a small stream, lovely and quiet, and it was all Russ and his wife had needed — until his wife died. After that, restless, and with plenty of money, Russ had bought more land and built the Sun and Sage. I'd spent a few weekends in the old cabin with Russ and his wife, and two years ago had stayed a week at the dude ranch, so Russ and I were good friends, even though I hadn't seen him in these past two years.
When he came on the line I said, Shell Scott, Russ. Got a room up there for an L.A. cowboy?
Sure do, Shell. How you been, stranger?
And so on. After wed cut up a few old touches I said, Whats the trouble there, Russ? I just talked to Ben Freedlander and he said youd fill me in.
Uh-huh. Ben was on the phone about half an hour ago. About this Jeanne Blair who fell off a horse here and hit her head on a rock.
That's how she was killed?
Uh-huh. Sheriff's men decided it was an accident, but I'm not so sure, like I told Ben.
She was riding Vixen, the most peaceable mare on the ranch. Shes never thrown anybody, or even given a bit of trouble before. He'll, I've let six-year-old kids ride her, shes that dependable.
I see. Ben mentioned something about a few hard-looking characters. Whats the score there?
Well, it probably isnt important, Shell. It's just that for nearly a year thereve been three men staying here who — well, I simply dont like their looks. And in the last month several more have shown up. They all know each other, keep pretty much to themselves. At least one or two of them carry guns.
Guns? When I'd been at the Sun and Sage before, nearly everybody had dressed most of the time in Western costume, a few carrying big revolvers on their hips. I thought a lot of your weekend cowboys carried hardware.
Not like this. One of them carries a gun on a belt holster.
Could they be police officers?
I dont think so. Besides, Shell, when the deputies were here after the woman was killed, a couple of them talked to one of these men. Not in connection with the girls death, just talked; but later one of the deputies mentioned to me that the man had a criminal record. He's a man named Green, about thirty-five years old — a real quiet, creepy sort of person.
I had known a quiet, creepy monster named Green, and started to ask Russ if the muggs first name was Tay, then decided it must not be the same man. The Green I'd known wasn't likely to be living at a luxurious dude ranch; if he liked anything, it was the hustle and crowds of a big city, the smell of smog and sweat.
And then Russ said, He has an odd first name. Tay. That's not how he's registered here, but his real names Tay Green.
I sat up a little straighter. So it was Tay Green. The name brought back a lot of memories — ugly memories. Some concerned Tay himself, but most of them revolved around the man he — and several other miserable bastards — had worked for: their boss, a hard-as-rivets, sour, mean, belligerent sonofabitch named Jules Garbin. I knew Garbin was dead now, and maybe you shouldnt speak I'll of the dead, but I was glad the sonofabitch was dead. Few men in my not-uneventful years as an investigator had built a bigger or more painful boil in me, and seldom had any hood given me more trouble than Jules Garbin had while he'd been alive. I'd been responsible for sending him to the slammer, and providing much of the evidence which got him sentenced to the gas chamber, but I hadn't killed him, nor had the gas chamber. He'd killed himself. I'd seen him do it. And, believe it or not, looking at his mashed, bloody body after I'd seen him leap to his death, I had felt cheated.
I'd been quiet so long Russ said, Shell? You still there?
Yeah. Tay Green, huh? Any other hard-looking characters at the ranch? Anyone named Farmer? Or Hooper? Or Dodo, for example?
Not that I know of. But this Tay wasn't registered here under his real name. Calls himself Thad Gray. Who are the others you mentioned?
Some sub-humans I used to know. I thought a minute and added the most important name of the bunch. What about a guy named Hal? There's a Harold Calvin — he just might use his real name.
He does. A Harold Calvin checked in over a week ago.
Big handsome guy? Shoulders a couple yards wide, clever, jolly, wavy blond hair — sort of a golden boy with lots of muscles?
It was the damndest thing. After all this time of comparative peace and quiet, the old names, the old memories, were popping up again. Calvin had been Jules Garbin's right-hand man, and I'd been thinking about him for the last day or two — on Wednesday I'd read about the funeral of Hals wife, the former Mrs. Garbin. Last Monday, four days ago, shed died in an automobile accident, her car, in which she was driving alone, tumbling axle-over-headlights into a canyon, and she was D.O.A. at the bottom.
I said, I'll be up there about noon, Russ. I'll catch a nap, then head for the ranch in the early a.m.
Fine. Be good to see you, Shell.
We chatted another minute or so, then Russ told me he'd fill me in on anything else I wanted to know when I arrived, and we hung up.
It was a funny thing. I knew that Harold Calvin — known as Handsome Hal and sometimes called Hal the Bastard by his friends — would stab me with an icepick, shoot me with a tommygun, or drown me in sheep dip, should the necessity and opportunity arise. I knew he would do it cheerfully, without a twinge of remorse. But, still, he was the only member of the late Jules Garbin's heavies and hangers-on whom I didn't want to sock in the teeth on sight. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Hal was a hood, and I have no use for hoods. He was one of the expanding something-for-nothing segment of parasitical society, which segment I class with the viruses which chew on our livers or the amoebae which inhabit intestines. He was a thief and a thug and a liar. Even so, in paradoxical defiance of conditioning and logic, I liked the lousy bastard. Knowing who and what he was, I still responded affirmatively to the man's warmth, his magnetism, his eternal and buoyant optimism. But Hal was the exception that proved the rule; he was unique.
It seemed unlikely that Hals presence at the Sun and Sage, and the presence of Tay Green and possibly others of what I still thought of as the Garbin Gang, could have any connection with the death of a minor movie actress. Nonetheless I was pleased in a queer way that I was heading for the ranch. I was actually looking forward to seeing Hal Calvin again.
Besides, I thought, most likely this Jeanne Blair had simply plopped off her horse, and the sheriffs men were right in thinking her death an accident. If so, during these next few days I could probably loll waxlike in the sun and do nothing more strenuous than watch cactus growing. Except, of course, when I was interviewing the four beautiful women Ben had mentioned.
Yes, even when I'd crawled into bed and was dropping off to sleep, I was looking forward to the Sun and Sage, to fresh air and bright sunshine, and a restful, relaxing vacation....CHAPTER 2
When I saw the sign I eased my big cordovan down on the brake, started slowing the Cad. The sun was hot and I had the convertibles top up, so I leaned over to get a good look as I passed the sign.
SUN AND SAGE Dude Ranch Arizonas Finest
A line added that the turnoff was a mile ahead on the right, and the sign was decorated with pictures of a cowboy on a bucking bronc, people riding more cooperative horses, a coiled rope, and a pretty girl in a cowgal outfit.
I straightened up, stretched the kinks out of my spine. I'd driven straight from Los Angeles, except for a coffee-and-hamburger stop on the way, but I felt fresh and energetic. It was invigorating just to be out of the smog and breathing air, out of the rattle and bang of L.A. traffic, rolling through empty miles of Arizona desert. Soon I spotted a split-rail gate closed before the dirt road leading toward the Sun and Sage, turned in and parked in front of it. Already this looked like the Old West. A couple of cowboys were on the other side of the gate, galloping about on mean-looking horses. The cowboys seemed friendly, though. One of them waved in friendly fashion, trotted his horse to the gate and leaned over to open it for me.
I waved back, smiling. Friendly service, hot sunshine clean air — this was the life. I guessed Russ must have sent a couple of the hired hands — or were they called wranglers out here? — to meet me. But, no, wed decided it would be better if nobody knew in advance that a detective was coming up. Maybe these guys were out here wrangling cows, or whatever such people do.
The gate swung open and the mounted man turned his horse and got out of the way, then stopped and sat watching me. He was a real cowboy, all right: five-gallon hat on his tengallon head, colorful yellow shirt, jeans with black leather chaps over them. Even a toy gun in a well-worn holster at his hip.
I drove through the gate and waved my thanks to the cowboy. And he put his hand on the toy gun, and yanked it out of it's holster, and aimed it at me.
I just kept smiling.
Look, I have been shot at almost as often as those little ducks you see in shooting galleries. I have been shot practically everywhere there's room. And I have done my share of shooting back.
But a cowboy with a toy gun?
A friendly, helpful cowboy?
He would sure as He'll have shot me except for one thing. When he yanked his big revolver out and swept it up from his body, it must have loomed large and ugly in his horses right eye — and the horse rared back and skittered just a little. But suddenly. Just suddenly enough.
The gun boomed and the slug tore through the canvas top of my Cad — and I stopped smiling at the friendly cowboy. I stopped smiling and started moving. I didn't think about where I was going, I was just going, and I lunged to my right away from the man and toward the Cads door, slammed the handle and shoved with my feet as the door opened.
I flopped outside the car, hit the ground and rolled, stopped with a jarring thud on my back. But by that time I had my hand on the butt of the .38 Colt Special under my coat — the .38 always under my coat. The Cad, still in gear, kept rolling slowly forward. As it moved away from me I saw the cowboy again. Only a few seconds had passed since that sudden shot, and he didn't yet know I'd flopped out of the car. He'd spurred his horse and ridden close to the Cadillac, gun extended toward the cars interior. By the time he realized I wasn't in the car, and had jerked his head — and gun — toward me, I was on my knees, the .38 nestled in my right hand.
He fired once more before I got off a shot, but he was rushed and missed me by several feet. I held my revolver at arms length, looked over the short barrel at his chest, and squeezed the trigger. I knew I hit him; I could hear the slug smack, see the tiny dark hole in his yellow shirt. But I steadied the gun, fired again.
The other cowboy was coming toward us. He was a blurred movement in my eyes because I was watching the man close to me, but I heard a gunshot and saw the puff of dust on my left as he fired. The man I'd shot didn't fall right away. I saw his gun drop. He raised up in his stirrups, thrust his right hand out as if for support that wasn't there. Then he slumped forward, fell against the horses neck, slid sideways and flopped toward the ground.
I didn't see him hit. I snapped a shot at the other man and he reined his horse sharply, veered to his left. He fired once more at me, then was galloping away, toward the ranch. I aimed at his back, fired, and missed. Then he was out of range.
Excerpted from The Cockeyed Corpse by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1992 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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