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She yanked the door open with a crash and said, "Gran—" but then she stopped and stared at me. She was nude as a noodle.
I stared right back at her.
"Oh!" she squealed. "You're not Grandma!"
"No," I said, "I'm Shell Scott, and you're not Grandma, either."
She slammed the door in my face.
Yep, I thought, this is the right house.
My brain was reeling. Now that I had time to consider it, that had been a gorgeous babe. Even dressed in a Father Hubbard she would have been gorgeous. But wearing only a doorway, she had looked like the next step in the evolution of women.
I rang the doorbell again and waited.
When the lovely reappeared she wore a thin blue robe and a pink blush, and she really looked me over carefully, maybe to get even. She ran big eyes over the short hair that springs up all over my head like healthy white grass, recently mowed, the whitish miniature-boomerang eyebrows over my gray eyes, the slightly broken nose. She appeared a bit startled, which was no enormous surprise to me. It seemed to take her quite a while, but I didn't mind; it was a real thin blue robe.
She was about my size. However, since I am pushing six-two and two hundred five pounds, that means she was a big girl. She had reddish hair and her large eyes were green, like a Go signal.
She blinked the green eyes. "I'm sorry. I really thought you were Grandma."
"It's quite all right, believe me—"
"You see, she rings the doorbell and then pops away. It's a game. She's skulking near here somewhere."
"Skulking, eh?" I looked around. "There she is," I said. "She's down there in the bushes."
This was Elm Street, a pleasant, tree-lined street in east Los Angeles, and this particular house was at 844 Elm. At either side of the doorway grew thick green bushes. And Grandma was, in fact, down there in the bushes.
It didn't surprise me. Already this afternoon I had talked to the man with a glass skull, and another chap who'd said the world was coining to an end in six minutes. We'd waited six minutes. Then he'd looked at me and yelled, "See? What did I tell you!"
It was part of the job. The office of "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," is in downtown L.A.; I'm a private detective. I was conducting a legitimate, and conceivably important investigation for a committee of the California senate. For the last two months, "the committee had been investigating lobbying activities and related matters in the state of California, and had recently concluded hearings in San Francisco. Hearings were scheduled to begin soon at the Civic Building, and I had been hired a week ago.
The committee had naturally received a lot of publicity in the local newspapers. The San Francisco hearings had been noisy at times, and uncovered some evidence of corruption, bribery of public officials, even a little mild blackmail. But nothing of staggering importance had developed. There were rumors that the men able to bring the most pressure on legislators hadn't been bothered enough—or at all. One of the Los Angeles newspapers rode almost to death the idea of a "Secret Boss," or a powerful behind-the-scenes puppet master, pulling strings while senators and other men of some importance jumped. The series had been titled, "Who Is Mr. Big?"
The committee had received a large number of communications from Los Angeles citizens. Some were helpful, some abusive, and a few were plainly goofy. In L.A., that was inevitable. Even the crackpot letters and phone calls had to be checked, though, on the chance that the man with the glass skull, say, might conceivably have information that would help. Part of my job was to follow up all the possible leads received from Los Angeles citizens. I had set aside this afternoon for the wildest of the lot. One afternoon wasn't going to be enough.
What had brought me to 844 Elm Street was a letter signed "Zeldy Beware." It had been addressed to "Lobby Committee" and said simply, "I know all about Mr. Big." I'd put it in the file with four other "hopeless" cases; but even so there'd been just a little hope that maybe this one was on the level.
Now, however, I had lost hope. This one was down there in the bushes.
The girl had stepped closer to me and was peering along the house.
"Grandma," she said sharply. "I see you. You might as well come out."
The bushes wiggled and a little woman stood up and marched through them. She was a real cute old lady, with pink face and somewhat scraggly gray hair. She wore rimless glasses and had on a plain black dress. She was five feet tall, or less, and might have weighed ninety pounds, counting the leaves in her hair.
"Hello," I said.
"Ha." She peered at me. "Are you one of them?"
"Well, I'm one of us right now. Now, which one of us is Zeldy Beware?"
The lovely gal in the doorway said, "Who?"
She hugged the blue robe tighter around her. "I'm Zelma," she said. "And Grandma's Zeldy. But her last name's Morris."
I reached into my coat pocket and took out the letter.
Grandma Zeldy said, "That's mine."
I showed her the signature, "Zeldy Beware."
She said, "Just signed my first name. Zeldy. That last isn't my name. It's beware. Like look out! On guard!"
I looked at the young girl. She smiled. This was lots of fun. She said, "What's this letter you're talking about?"
I handed it to her, and explained why I was here.
She nodded. "The committee investigating lobbying and like that?"
"I read about it. Grandma did, too. We wondered why you'd be investigating lobbies. At first we thought it was theater lobbies and hotel lobbies and like that."
"No, ma'am." I smiled at her. "You're a little off there."
She laughed and went on to say that she knew what it was all about now. She and Grandma. Ordinarily I'd have tried a little harder to get down to the crucial facts faster, but Zelma had those big green eyes and red hair and that thin blue robe. And she had stopped blushing.
I asked Zeldy about her letter, and who Mr. Big was.
She brushed a leaf out of her hair and looked at a palm tree.
I asked her again. She went back into the bushes.
This time she got almost out of sight. "Grandma!" Zelma shouted, "you come out of there this minute."
I said, "Ma'am, you did write the letter. Now if you'll—"
"I just wanted to have some fun with you."
I grinned through clenched teeth. "Fun, hey?"
"Sure. I get tired of crossword puzzles. I don't know who Mr. Big is. I just read about it in the papers."
"Uh-huh." I was starting to hope that nobody would pass by on the street and see me talking to bushes. There are people in this town who would consider that proof of what they've been claiming for years.
"I wrote lots of letters. Not just to you. About all kinds of things. You're not mad, are you?"
"Not—well, no. But don't write any more letters, huh?"
"I won't. Can I have my letter back?"
"I'm afraid not. It has to be kept in the committee files."
"Don't want it anyway."
Zelma stood in the doorway, the blue robe held loosely around her. I said, "Thanks. Guess that's all I can do here."
"You might ring the doorbell again."
I walked toward my Cad parked at the curb, then stopped and looked back at the house. Ring the doorbell again? What could she have meant by that? But the door was closed. Zelma was gone. Maybe a little too far gone. Ah, well. I got into the car and headed downtown. Zelma was nice, yes; but Paula was even nicer, and I hadn't met Paula's grandmother.
Paula was the first person I saw when I got back to the Civic Building. That's because she was the one I looked for. She did some of the committee's secretarial work, and I'd met her when I'd first started working for them myself. She was in the big conference room with three of the senators, taking dictation from Beasley, when I walked in.
She glanced around and gave me a big smile, then continued making pothooks on a pad. They must all have been about ready to go home; it was long after dark. All four of them were seated at a large mahogany table.
Beasley finished his dictation and looked at me. "Scott. You get anything?"
"Yeah. A man who said we were tuning in on him, another who watched the world come to an end with me, and an old lady living in some bushes."
"Scott," Beasley said, "how many times do I have to tell you this is serious business?"
He was reprimanding me. The hell with him. I said, "And a man with a glass skull. Not much help, though. He was pretty lightheaded."
Beasley looked as if he were going to draw. Not really; it was just that I thought of him as carrying two strapped-down Colts. His exact title was Chairman, Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Lobbying Activities, and he was a lean hard guy who made me think of an old-time Western sheriff relaxing after cleaning up on all the outlaws in town. By shooting them in the back. He was competent enough, and in a way I admired his let's-get-the-job-done-and-start-another-one attitude. But he had no sense of humor.
Paula, however, had a delightful sense of humor. And everything else. She grinned at me and murmured, "Set a thief to catch a thief."
I winked at her and rolled my eyes horribly. She pretended she was going to faint. Beasley was ready to draw both those guns. I said, "Well, let's get down to business. Let's knock off and go home."
Beasley's mouth was working, but he didn't say anything.
Wise said, "Shell, that's the best idea you've had since you started to work for us."
"That's the only idea I've had," I told him. "But tomorrow is a new day. Anything may happen."
Sebastian Wise. An improbable name, a probable man. He was the only one of the three state senators who looked the part. He looked it, talked it, and acted it as if it were the lead in a play. He was good-looking, with gray hair in loose waves, an executive jaw, and a trained voice, the kind of man the boys in the back room like to run for governor. Two minutes after we'd met, he'd started calling me Shell.
Beasley called me Scott, or Mr. Scott. If he had a daughter, and I were to marry his daughter—which isn't likely, since I'm still a bachelor at thirty, and since I can guess what his daughter would look like anyway—he would undoubtedly continue to call me Mr. Scott.
Senator Carter wouldn't call me anything unless he had to. Andrew Carter. Andy. Only you'd expect to see it written andy carter. He was definitely a lower-case kind of guy. The sort of man who, when completely still and quiet, becomes invisible. Where Sebastian Wise was big and expansive, and Lester Beasley was thin and hard, Andy Carter was little and soft and seemed constantly to be shrinking.
He had the blank, washed-out look of an underdeveloped photograph—but he was brilliant. He was probably brainier than the chairman and Wise and me put together. And that explained why he was a senator. It wasn't personality. It was his brain—and his beautiful voice. That voice seemed incongruous coming out of him; like the dog's bark with the flea's bite. It could range from the boom of ocean waves to the whisper of a hummingbird's wings. On radio he'd be a king, on TV a peasant. I understood he was responsible for introducing several of the most important bills now before the house. He was quite well thought of by his fellow senators. He was married to a former model, and had six children. You never know.
The three senators began talking together, discussing a witness they wanted subpoenaed, and other details about the upcoming hearings. Paula walked up to me and said, softly, "Hi, you nine ball."
"What's a nine ball, my sweet?"
"That's one worse than an eight ball. Ah, I have it. You're a section-eight ball."
"Want to drive me home?"
"I'd like to drive you mad."
"In your car, I mean."
"In the car—anywhere—"
"Oh, shut up. I'm serious."
"Me, too—and I'd love to drive you home. We could play cootch, what?"
"Oh, Shell. I wish you'd settle—what's cootch?"
"Well, first we get a bottle of hootch—"
"No, we don't."
"Then we go to my place and put some nice cootch records on the gramaphone—"
"Enough? We aren't even dancing."
"That's the way I planned it. Now, are you going to drive me home?"
"Sure, if Jesse James over there is through with you."
"He said I could go."
Paula was looking up at me, her lips slightly parted, a moist shine on the lower one.
We'd known each other a week and had two dates. She was twenty-four, single, fun, and she lived alone and liked it. On both our dates I had suggested, at what I thought the psychological moment—which proves I am a detective, and not a psychologist—that we go to my Hollywood apartment and watch radio, or do something creative like making spaghetti, I had wound up taking her home, failing even to see the inside of her apartment, and going to bed hungry. Paula was delightful, nonetheless.
I said, "What does your apartment look like?"
"All reds and greens and bright things thrown about."
It sounded like a good setting for her, because she was dark. Tall, long-limbed, languorous, with black hair and long black lashes, exceptionally high cheekbones, and deep dark eyes with moonlight in them. Her conversation was peppy enough, not quite what you'd expect from the soft, low voice. And she was deliberate in her speech, in her movements. Everything about her was soft and dark. "Let's get out of here," she said.
A phone rang. It was one of two against the far wall, and Paula turned and walked to it slowly, deliberately. She lifted the phone and listened a moment, then put one hand over the mouthpiece. "Somebody named Hazel," she told me. "Says you're to call a George Stone at the Melody Club. Want to talk to her?"
"Yeah." Hazel is the gal at the switchboard in the Hamilton Building, where I have my office. She was working late. As I walked to Paula and took the phone, all three men at the long table stopped their conversation and looked at me. Hazel told me that a man had called my office and given his name as George Stone. He wanted to talk to me and said it was important. Hazel had told him I'd call him back and he'd given her the number of a phone booth at the Melody Club.
Hazel went on, "I guess he thought you were still in your office and I was your secretary, because he certainly was insistent about talking to you right that minute. I didn't tell him where you were."
"George Stone, huh? Never heard of him. He say what it was about?"
"No. Said you'd want to talk to him, though."
I thanked Hazel, hung up and put a call through to the Melody Club. After the first ring of the phone, I heard the receiver at the other end of the line go up and a gruff voice said, "Yeah?"
"This is Shell Scott."
"About time. This is Stone. George Stone. You know who I am?"
"No. Should I?"
"You will, brother, you will. Scott, you're investigator for that committee on lobbying, right?"
"One of them." There were actually three local investigators doing work for the committee. A bright young kid named Joe Rule worked with me part of the time. Stone coughed into the phone. His voice had sounded a little slurred, as if he'd had a couple drinks too many. "What about it?" I asked.
"I'm the boy that can give you everything you want, brother. The works. A to Z."
"I hear the words. I've heard them before."
"Not like this. I've put in seven years work for the biggest crook in the state of California. I can hang him. But I got to get home free. You follow me?"
I followed him well enough. He sounded to me like another crackpot, but if he did have anything to spill, this was the old story of a man wanting to get out from under; wrap up somebody else tight enough that he'd escape prosecution himself. I said, "Immunity, huh?"
"That's it. Hundred per cent."
"That doesn't sound likely—but it isn't up to me."
"You can help, though. And you're the only one I'll talk to. You comin' out to the Melody Club?"
"I'll be there. How'll I find you?"
"I'll find you. And, Scott. This is gonna knock your ears off. This will make the news wires from here to New York. No detours—come straight here. Don't talk to nobody about it. Right?"
"And make it quick. There's some people don't like me, and ain't gonna like me any better now."
He hung up.
I could believe the last part of what he'd said. He hadn't sounded lovable. Chairman Beasley said; "What was that all about, Mr. Scott?"
Excerpted from The Wailing Frail by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1956 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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