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The evening started out in a horrible welter of confusion and for a while I didn't know what was coming off. To tell you the truth, I didn't care.
When a luscious, wild-looking, toothsomely-torsoed tomato starts running at you, and when she has very few clothes on indeed, and when this is in a night club on Beverly Boulevard in Hollywood and she is not part of the floor show, you do not stop to wonder what else is coming off. You leap to your feet and open your eyes wide. At least you do if your name is Shell Scott.
It happened soon after I hit the Starlight Room on Beverly, a small club of the type called "intimate." It was six p.m., too early for the dinner crowd, and only about a dozen customers were present. State Senator Paul Hershey, the guy I was supposed to meet here, wasn't one of them, so I got a ringside table, ordered a bourbon and water and waited, wondering what was up.
For two months Paul Hershey had been my client. He was finishing his first two-year term in the California State Legislature, running for re-election in the general elections now only three weeks off, but he had powerful opposition, most of it named Joe Blake. Blake wasn't on the ballot, but his hand-picked candidate was. Blake didn't run for office; he owned a lot of guys who did run, most of whom were elected.
Hershey, a man who took his job seriously, had consistently fought Blake's men in the legislature for two years, and as a result it looked as if his political goose were cooked. There'd been an increasingly vicious campaign against Hershey since he'd got his party's nomination in the primary, complete with smear and innuendo, most of the slimy barrage financed by Joe Blake. Which figured.
Because Blake was about as big a crook as L.A. had yet produced. Knowing it was one thing; proving it was another. Hershey wanted to prove it and put Blake out of circulation, not only because that would virtually guarantee his own re-election, but because he strongly felt Joe Blake should be in the clink. He was right. So Hershey had hired a private investigator, which was where I'd come in.
Working together we'd come up with quite a bit. The big item consisted of three signed statements citing Blake's bribery of public officials, subornation of perjury, even evidence that he'd profited from local narcotics pushing. One of the statements was from a lovely little Mexican tomato who told us she'd gone with Blake for several weeks and then had been unceremoniously dropped by him four months ago—and you have never seen a "woman scorned" until you've seen a peppery little black-eyed Mexican doll who has been unceremoniously dropped. Even after four months she'd sizzled like frying tortillas while giving us her info.
The two other statements were from local hoods who'd been associated for a time with the big man. All three statements, plus other information we'd gathered, were at Hershey's home, but some supporting documents and copies of my reports to Hershey were at my hotel, the Spartan, where the desk clerk was holding them for me.
All of it, we thought, and hoped, was enough to present to a grand jury with a good chance of getting an indictment voted. Hershey and I had been careful to keep our investigation quiet, because crossing Joe Blake was usually Russian roulette with no empty chambers and you first, but we'd always known there was the chance of a leak. And twenty minutes ago Hershey had phoned me and said we were in trouble, and asked me to meet him here.
Halfway through my highball I glanced at the front door as it opened and a blonde babe wearing a strapless tan dress came inside. All I noticed about the guy behind her was that he was tall, because the woman demanded all a man's attention. She was in her middle twenties, maybe five-four, and shaped to drive women into hysterics.
I snatched a fast peek at her face when she gyrated past my table, and saw arched brows over soft eyes, red lips parted over sparkling white teeth, and the clear skin of face and neck and bare shoulders whiter than sea foam in sunlight. But soon, of course, I was looking elsewhere. The jersey dress swept down smoothly over the elsewhere.
She walked, with the tall guy still following her, naturally, across the dance floor and paused beside a small table as the headwaiter bent over and swept the "Reserved" sign away with a flourish like a matador doing a veronica. Had he really been a matador, however, and she a bull, he would have been gored in the chops for sure. I noted half a dozen other male heads turned to stare at the blonde, and at least twelve male eyes opened wide, and you would have thought every guy in this joint was named Shell Scott.
I waved at a waiter, drained my drink and ordered another. And then I noticed that the tall guy was Paul Hershey. This was trouble? Either he'd been so preoccupied with the blonde that he hadn't seen me, which was possible, or else he'd purposely refrained from stopping at my table. I stayed in my seat and tried to catch his eye. Catch his eye; that was a laugh.
The Starlight Room has a four-piece combo that plays nightly, and I heard a few toots and trills on my right where the musicians were in place and ready to play. As they swung into their theme, "Stardust," the waiter returned with my drink. At the same moment the blonde grabbed Hershey's hand and hauled him onto the dance floor. They started dancing and after eight bars I was ready to pour the highball, ice cubes and all, over my head.
The blonde wasn't dancing, she was surrendering; it was seduction to "Stardust," a five-foot-four-inch caress. She was molded to Paul like soft plastic. Paul's eyes fell on me with no recognition in them whatsoever. Then they apparently focused and he half-grinned and opened his mouth as if to say "Hi!" But his expression changed and I had a hunch his eyes were glazing.
I finished my drink, and just as if they knew what I was thinking the combo swung into a rumba. At that most crucial moment a pair of big shoulders blocked my view of all that movement. I knew what must be going on out there, but I wanted to see it, and I was just about to tell the guy to move or drop dead when I noticed how big those shoulders were.
The man was medium height, legs and hips normal, but the size of his chest and disturbingly wide shoulders made him look deformed. He was five or six feet from me and I could see only his back, but that was enough. The guy was Ed Garr, ex-pug, ex-stevedore, ex-con, and according to many reports, ex-human. He was a tough, dirty, stupid monster employed as gun and right arm—of Joe Blake.
A small electric tingle brushed hairs on the back of my neck. Not that I was afraid of Super Chief, either. But Garr was not the type who frequented "intimate" clubs. If he bathed it must have been infrequently and by accident. I could smell him. I could see the ring of dirt on the back of his neck, the soiled collar of his wilted sports shirt. Coincidence, I told myself; he's just here for a shot of straight gin, he likes music, he's lost. But I didn't believe it.
He was standing very still, shoulders hunched slightly forward as he stared out at the dance floor. He was blocking my view, but I didn't ask him to move. Aside from his not being bright, he wasn't completely sane, and it was impossible to predict his reactions. If I asked him to move, he might; or he might move me, depending on what the pixies told him.
Garr wiggled his shoulders, turned to the side a little, a big dismal-looking hunk of ape-like man with a face like a Quasimodo who'd just been clunked on the head by his bell. His mouth was open and his big floppy lips hung down unglamorously from stained teeth. He seemed worked up, angry about something. His mouth closed. His brow pulled down and his jaw muscles bulged out. He looked back at the dancers and I could see his jaw muscles wiggling; then he walked to his right along the edge of the dance floor and stopped, as if undecided about just where he was going. He looked at the dance floor again.
So did I, and decided that maybe Garr hadn't been angry after all; maybe that dance was what he'd been seeing, and his jaw muscles had been bulging in passion. The blonde would give anybody bulges, and the combo was now in the stretch on that rumba. So was she.
That did it. Here was a woman I wanted to dance with. I'm crazy about dancing anyway, and I was wondering how I'd go about asking her, and even what I should ask for, since "May I have the next dance?" wouldn't describe what she was doing, but something else came up suddenly.
I didn't see Garr walking across the dance floor, didn't see him until he grabbed Paul Hershey's tie in his big right hand. His fist couldn't have moved more than six inches, because he never let go of the tie, but he clipped Hershey on the chin and let him dangle at the tie's end for a moment, then dropped him and swung toward the blonde.
She stood straight and still, shocked into immobility, one hand pressed against each side of her white face and her mouth open, lips pulled back. Garr wrapped his hand in the cloth of her dress and jerked it down, ripping it. The music stopped. The room was completely silent.
In that silence she stood motionless, frozen into a kind of sculptured marble, hands still pressed against her face. Garr stared at her, mumbling, big chest heaving; Hershey lay sprawled at their feet. I got out of my chair and started forward just as the blonde moved.
The door was behind me and she started running out the same way she'd come in, straight toward me. Her face was twisted, lips stretched against her teeth, and she was making choking sounds in her throat. I don't think she even saw me. She banged right into me, forcing me back a step, and I could see the pain and anger and embarrassment on her face.
Hardly thinking about what I was doing, I jerked off my coat and tossed it over her shoulders. Still making those choking sounds she grabbed the coat with one hand and slapped me with the other. She slapped me so hard that my ears were still ringing when I looked around and saw her going out the door onto Beverly Boulevard.
Even under these not exactly normal circumstances, and even after being repaid for my aid with a sock in the chops, she was a lovely sight to see. I'm six-two and a shade over two hundred pounds so my coat covered the vital areas, which on that gal were really vital, but it was eight to five that many pedestrians outside there on Beverly were crying out hoarsely.
There was a loud crash behind me and I jerked around to see Garr leaving the dance floor and heading for the swinging doors leading into the kitchen. A table he'd banged into or flipped over rolled on the floor and the crash still echoed in the Starlight Room, incongruous and completely out of place here, like a burp between sweet nothings. I ran toward the kitchen, hit the swinging doors and skidded to a stop inside.
A fat cook with his white chef's cap on awry was pressed back against a wall, looking toward an open door leading to an alley in the rear. A shiny metal bowl and green hunks of lettuce were spilled on the floor. Another door was open on my left.
I pointed toward the alley. "He go outside?"
I ran out behind the club as tires shrieked and a car motor roared. A light blue Packard sedan raced to the alley's end, across the street and on down the alley, turning left a block farther on.
I went back inside the club. The four-piece combo was trying to liven things up with another rumba, but it sounded like half of them were still playing "Stardust." Paul Hershey wasn't in sight.
Nobody was dancing. Two waiters and several customers stared at me. Or rather at my chest. I looked down. My shoulder harness and the butt of my .38 Colt Special were startling against the white of my shirt. At least I still had my gun. It seemed a good thing; I might be needing it.
Hershey groaned and his eyelids fluttered. We were alone in the manager's office and I sat on the edge of a straight-backed chair next to the couch he was on.
He opened his eyes wide, groaned, and asked the almost inevitable question. "What ... happened?"
"Ed Garr. He hung one on your chin."
Paul shuddered. "Feels like one's still hanging there." He closed his eyes; in about a minute he opened them again and peered around. Then he squinted at me and a look of utter disgust grew on his pleasantly bony face. "Well, Scott," he said, "I see you are out chasing down criminals as usual, shooting Ed Garr, protecting—"
"Wait a minute, Paul." I grinned at him. "Everything happened pretty fast, and that babe wasn't a great help to straight thinking."
"That tomato you were dancing with." I filled him in on what had happened after he lost interest, then asked, "Who was the gal? And where does Ed Garr fit in?"
Hershey was sitting up on the couch, gently rubbing his bruised chin. He was about an inch shorter than I and thin, the bones of his face prominent but not unpleasantly so. He was in his early forties and not handsome by any means, but TV wouldn't hurt his campaign. He moved his hand and ran it through thick, slightly wavy hair starting to gray.
"The gal was Lorry Weston," he said. "She was about as close as she could get to Blake until a week or two back."
"That would have been close."
He nodded. "And that's where Garr fits in. I guess."
He'd never seen the girl until about an hour ago. Earlier today she'd phoned him, said that one of Blake's men had told her about getting some stuff for Blake that would "ruin Hershey." That was about all she could tell, but it was enough to make Hershey immediately check the safe in his guest room, the safe where he'd kept our "Blake file."
"Not only was it gone," he said, "the whole damned safe was gone."
I stood up. Well, I knew what the trouble was now.
Paul went on, "I had my other important papers in there, too. A lot of private stuff I wouldn't want out. And that letter from Internal Revenue, for one thing."
"The hell with ..." I stopped, understanding what he meant. Paul had recently received from the tax boys a letter saying some deductions he'd claimed on his last income tax return weren't being allowed. It was an honest mistake, followed by an adverse interpretation of one of about a million tax laws, but the amount Paul owed was several hundred dollars. Ordinarily it would have been routine, but in Blake's hands that letter was good smear material; there wasn't much doubt what he'd do with it.
Paul swore quietly. "In a couple of days I'll be a tax-dodging miser chuckling over money I stole from the voters. You know as well as I do how Blake works."
"Yeah. But Blake's boy isn't elected yet—"
"The hell with that. Those three statements were signed, remember."
"Oh." I hadn't thought of that yet. Those statements were signed not only by Hershey and me but by the people who'd given us the info.
Paul said slowly, "If Blake didn't know for sure what we were up to before this, he sure as hell does now. And he knows the names of three people who spilled to us about him."
"We'd better check. Make sure they're ... all right."
"I've tried. Phoned them, couldn't reach any of them."
Two of the statements had been from hoods named Andy Nelson and Willie Fein, but I thought of Martita first. Not only because we'd got her statement most recently, three days ago, but because she was Martita. Martita Delgado, the little Mexican gal, with soft black hair and lips redder than hell.
I said slowly, "You don't suppose Blake ..." The manager's phone was on his desk; I grabbed it, dialed Martita's number in the Parker Hotel, let it ring a dozen times before I hung up. I called Willie Fein and drew another blank, then dialed Andy Nelson's number.
Nelson, the most nervous and jumpy of the three, had changed his address two or three times since giving us his info, keeping us informed but scared half to death that something would go wrong. The main reason he'd spilled was because I'd learned he'd violated parole and put the screws to him. He was a two-time loser.
Nelson was home. When I told him Blake knew by now that he'd spilled to us, he started swearing viciously.
"Slow down," I told him. "I'm sorry, but it's done. Go to City Hall and see Samson, Captain of Homicide. He's a friend of mine and I'll phone him, tell him the score. He'll see that you get someplace to hide out, protection if you want it."
Excerpted from Three's a Shroud by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1985 Richard Scott Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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