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From where I lay in lazy ease on a poolside chaise longue, I could see a gaggle of Bikini-clad Hollywood houris squealing and splashing in the water. On the blue-tiled deck across the pool from me half a dozen bare-midriffed nautch girls wiggled, doing what comes nautchurally.
Flame from burning torches wavered in the soft, warm wind; thin, oddly melodic music swelled from strings and reeds and pipes, filling the desert air with an almost scented sound. It was music to my ears, balm in my eyes, perfume for my nose—something fun for practically all of me.
This, I thought, was how I hoped to live when I died. With luck, however, I wouldn't get killed tonight. Tomorrow, maybe.
I had been shot at already, earlier this evening, and I had seen sudden, brutally ugly death. But it was difficult to dwell on death in the midst of so much life; and there was really no reason, I told myself, why a man shouldn't enjoy his work.
This was the pre-opening party, the night before the grand opening of Palm Desert's newest and most luxurious hotel, the Kubla Khan: staggering millions of bucks' worth of cabanas, rooms, suites, a grand ballroom and dining rooms and a convention hall, swimming pools, cocktail lounges, domes and minarets and spires. It looked like something from the Arabian Nights, plucked from the East and plunked down in the Southern California desert.
At the moment it had more of a carnival air than it would after this upcoming weekend. Colorful silken streamers were laced overhead, hanging from poles, fluttering in the sageand-jasmine-scented breeze; and scattered about the lushly landscaped grounds were several booths, in most of which lovely ladies sold souvenirs and goodies, passed out promotional literature, or just looked gorgeous.
Nearly all of the two hundred guests were in costume, most with at least some flavor of the East—saris from India, fezzes from Turkey, robes from Morocco, even one gal wearing a Balinese dancer's headdress. I looked rather resplendent myself, I thought, with my six feet, two inches and two hundred and six pounds clad in a long scarlet jacket and keen white pants with little red stripes down their sides, on my chest lots of crackerjack medals and hero awards—also rented, of course—and, concealing my short-cropped and springy white hair, a wildly impressive white turban.
The effect of sheer beauty was perhaps marred only by the bent-down-at-the-ends inverted-V eyebrows over my gray eyes, since those brows were also obtrusively white and thus, in a bad light, might give rise to suspicion that part of the turban had fallen off and stuck on my forehead. And naturally, nothing could be done about my twice-broken and still bent nose, the bullet-clipped ear top, the fine scar over my right eye, and the general impression of recent catastrophe I've been told I sometimes present. But I felt, nonetheless, that I had done the best I could with myself; and I was enjoying the evening. So far.
Tonight's festivities were not open to the general public—which, ordinarily, would have left me out—but were exclusively for invited guests. Tomorrow the hoi polloi could get in but only after the official ceremonies and ribbon-cutting at noon—which ceremonies would be attended by Hollywood stars and TV celebrities, political personalities who would probably make speeches, numerous VIP's and potent people. There would be all kinds of reporters and columnists and such; the Mayor of Palm Springs would be present, and would make a speech; even the Governor of California would be in attendance if he could get here, and would make a speech.
All of that would be followed by booze in the six bars, buffets by the two swimming pools, dancing to three bands, and what might turn out to be the most stupendous beauty contest in the history of voluptuous statistics.
That was where I came in.
I was going to be one of the judges of that stupendous beauty contest.
At least that was my "cover."
It is known throughout most of Southern California that I am a private detective—the Shell Scott of Sheldon Scott, Investigations—but it is also known that Shell Scott would practically dislocate his jaw saying "Yes!" if asked to judge a stupendous beauty contest. It was thus the sly hope of my client—who was already in jail; I wasn't doing too well for him yet—that celebrants hereabouts would assume I was merely here for eyeing and not private-eyeing.
Naturally, then, I had to do a lot of eyeing. It was easy.
Most of the lovelies who would display their epidermis, charms and doodads in the contest tomorrow were already displaying not merely the hot hors d'oeuvres but practically the full course, and I'd been having lots of fun. For example, at two adjacent booths were a gal selling kisses and a gal selling cookies, and I wasn't going to buy any cookies.
If my client could just get sprung from the can before he had the cerebral hemorrhage which had presumably been creeping up on him earlier, and I could keep getting missed when guys shot at me, and solve two murders by noon tomorrow—yeah, I had nearly sixteen hours in which to do all that—I figured I could really enjoy this affair.
For a moment I thought of my client, and wondered if the local law really believed he'd been murdering people. I kind of wondered if he had, myself. It occurred to me that if he had killed two people, or even only one, maybe I shouldn't have taken the case.
I had taken it, however, so it was up to me to earn my hundred dollars. Or ten thousand dollars. It depended. Part of it depended on my getting up off my behind, leaving this dandy chaise longue, and doing something extremely clever—as soon as I thought of something. Part of it depended on Ormand Monaco.
Ormand Monaco was the owner of the Kubla Khan, the guy responsible for this Oriental saturnalia. He was the guy who very much wanted to be here greeting his guests, beaming upon assorted beauties, drinking his prize brandy and taking well-deserved bows. He was also the guy now languishing in the bastille, my apoplectic client.
He had not been apoplectic when he phoned me this afternoon. Not at all. He had been almost calm. Worried, yes; concerned; but not really in a sweat. Not then. Not when he'd hired me to bring peace and gladness into his life.
He'd called me from Palm Desert at 2 p.m. This afternoon, Friday, a zesty Friday in September. I'd finished reading a book and was intently watching, as is my custom when affairs are not pressing, the fish atop my office bookcase; Fish—guppies. I'm nuts about guppies.
The phone rang. I walked to the big beat-up mahogany desk and grabbed the receiver. "Hello," I said. "Shell Scott."
The voice was mellow, pleasant, almost drawling. "Mr. Scott. My name is Ormand Monaco...."CHAPTER 2
I knew the name Ormand Monaco.
Most people in this part of the world knew it. I guess people even in that part of the world knew it. Lately the name—and the name of his new hotel near Palm Springs, the Kubla Kahn—had been much in the news, especially in the society and movie-TV columns.
"How do you do, Mr. Monaco," I said, wondering what a guy who was supposed to have several million dollars, two Continentals and a Cadillac, three still-friendly ex-wives and numerous possibilities in the running for number four, plus a fantastic hotel in Palm Desert would want with me.
He told me. "I'll get right to the point," he said. "I presume you know I am about to open the Kubla Khan here in Palm Desert?"
"Yes, sir. I've seen a little more in the news about various wars, but except for—"
"The Khan will open to the public tomorrow, but I have invited approximately two hundred guests to a more intimate frolic tonight."
I liked that: "more intimate frolic." The more intimate frolics get, the better I like them. It was going to be quite a bash, undoubtedly. Stupendous beauty contest and everything. I was beginning to hope Mr. Monaco had called to invite me. Could it be?
"These guests will be primarily members of the fourth estate," he went on. "Newspaper men and women, columnists, television commentators. And personal friends of mine like the Palm Springs Mayor and the Governor of California."
"That's nice," I said glumly.
"And of course Mr. Simon Leaf and members of his entourage."
Simon Leaf—as all who can read the papers without wiggling their ears knew—was, in his own words, a dynamic, forceful, brilliant genius. He had produced several movies, among them the award-winning Rape!, and was now preparing to take over the television industry. At least he was scheduled to produce—in fact was in the act of producing—a television series already set for prime time later in the silly-Nielsen season. It was tentatively titled "Flesh," a subject which it was presumed would be of some interest to a number of citizens even though they might be possessed of less dynamism, force, brilliance, and genius than Simon Leaf. Which is not to imply that Simon Leaf was not himself interested in flesh. There had been rumors which I will not repeat, in case the kiddies are listening.
Oddly, I was remembering that the prime reason for the much-heralded Kubla Khan contest was to uncover wildly shapely and luscious tomatoes who would be rewarded with parts in the TV series, while perhaps in return Simon would be rewarded with parts of the wildly shapely and luscious tomatoes, when Mr. Monaco said, "I presume you are familiar with the talent search which will be concluded here tomorrow?"
Talent search, he called it; but I said, "I am indeed."
"It is to be the culmination of tomorrow's festivities. It is, therefore, of the utmost importance that the proceedings be conducted with dignity and efficiency, with all propriety, and without even the breath of scandal. Do you understand?"
"Yeah. I guess. On the other hand, I've seen some of Mr. Leaf's epics and got the impression he should rename Simon Leaf Productions and call it Fig—"
"Mr. Scott, levity is—"
"Maybe a little scan—"
"Mr. Scott, I have been informed of your ability, integrity, courage, and occasionally unorthodox methods of achieving results satisfactory to your clients. I am assured you fear neither God nor Devil, man nor beast. That is why I phoned you. However, I have also been informed that on occasion your tongue runs away with your mouth, and that you have been known to be blunt to the point of producing physical pain in the ears of individuals to whom you were not even speaking. I must, nonetheless, ask you to shut up, since when I speak, I do not enjoy hearing anybody else speaking."
I had to chuckle. This Monaco could get revved up and stop drawling after all, and I liked him better when he did. "I'll do my best, sir," I said.
"Splendid. Now, you can understand that with several score representatives of the press, television commentators, and a number of important personages present, anything untoward which might occur tonight or tomorrow would inevitably receive the widest publicity. Further, adverse publicity of any nature might well be damaging to the success of this enterprise—damaging and possibly fatal."
"Yes," I said.
"Thirty-six lovely girls arrived here at the Khan Wednesday and yesterday. They are the contestants selected from all over the country to participate in the finals of the talent search tomorrow. One of them seems to be missing."
He paused again.
"Seems?" I said.
"I spoke to her when she arrived Wednesday morning. She is an extremely beautiful girl. I have as yet found no one who has seen her since Thursday, yesterday. She did not sleep in her bed last night."
"Well, if she's such an extremely beautiful tomato, perhaps—"
"She has apparently not been seen today by anyone here so far as I can discover. Perhaps there is no need for concern. But I have several million dollars invested in the Kubla Khan and therefore am concerned. I want you to find out what has happened to the girl—if anything. Guests are already arriving. The private party begins at eight tonight. Tomorrow at noon the grand-opening ceremonies will be held here. Clearly time is of the essence. Will you come immediately?"
"Excellent. It is essential, of course, that there be no scandal or unpleasant publicity which can by any means be avoided, not even the hint of scandal. Therefore I do not wish it known that I have employed you, Mr. Scott—"
"Hey, wait a—"
"Or any other detective. Knowledge that I have employed an investigator would inevitably give rise to the conclusion that I wish something investigated. Is that clear?"
"Thus your alleged purpose in coming to the Kubla Khan will be to participate in the judging of tomorrow's talent search. Naturally you will thus be free to mingle with—"
"I'm going to be a judge?" I said.
"—all the guests, attend the party, the various ceremonies and functions, and should be able—"
"I'm going to be a judge," I said.
"—to ask certain questions without appearing to be conducting an inquiry. In your official capacity you would naturally be interested in the whereabouts of Miss Jax."
"Jeanne Jax. She is the missing girl"
"I'll find her."
"That's the spirit. I will be in my home, at the end of Yucca Road here in Palm Desert, until 5 p.m. When you arrive I will give you any other information you need, and we will discuss your fee."
"That's a good idea."
"I shall expect you, Mr. Scott?"
"I'll be there before five, Mr. Monaco."
He added a few bits, told me to bring a costume for the party tonight, impressed me with the essence of time and such. Then we hung up.
"I'm going to be a judge," I said.
Palm Desert is only a ninety-minute drive from Los Angeles, but before leaving town I had to stop at home, which is the Spartan Apartment Hotel on North Rossmore in Hollywood, where I packed some clothes and grabbed needed odds and ends such as razor blades and swim trunks. Then I stopped at a costume-rental shop on Sunset Boulevard, and was on my way.
By 4:30 p.m. I was zooming along Desert View Drive in my robin's-egg-blue Cadillac, with the top down and a hot wind like a sauna on my face. According to Monaco's directions, I figured I was six or seven miles from his home, and the Kubla Khan should be only about a mile ahead.
And then there it was.
I'd driven through Palm Springs and veered left, and for several miles had been traveling through a lot of nothing except gently rolling desert, sage and shrubs and sand, but suddenly on my left appeared the Kubla Khan.
First I saw the huge central dome, as smooth and sensually rounded as a woman's breast, then a few tall and subtly phallic spires almost but not quite like Indian minarets. And green all around it—green of grass, of trees, of feathery palm fronds and large-leafed plants.
It was truly a beautiful sight, but strangely jarring. After the modern streets of Palm Springs, the smart shops and almost futuristic buildings, this looked like something slipped from a warp in time, unreal in the California desert. As I drove past I could see the wide front of the main building facing east, wings at the north and south slanting slightly back toward shadowed mountains behind it. On left and right were a few scattered buildings, separate and small, shaped like little mosques. As that view faded behind me it left strange, exotic words floating in my mind, names like Srinagar, and Samarkand, and Xanadu.
Xanadu ... I remembered a girl in harlequin glasses, languorous on my living-room divan, quoting something like that to me. "In Xanadu did Kubla Khan a stately pleasure dome decree, where Alph the sacred river ran ..."
Whoosh! A guy went past me like a bat out of hell, going like sixty—no, more like ninety; I was going about sixty myself. I guess it was a guy. The dark-blue buggy was close on my left and then swinging in ahead, swaying a bit from side to side, so speedily that I didn't even see who was driving or recognize the make of car. Must have been a brand name, though; it was really going.
Excerpted from The Kubla Khan Caper by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1966 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted May 14, 2011
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