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Too Many Crooks
A Shell Scott Mystery
By Richard S. Prather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1953 Richard S. Prather
All rights reserved.
I awoke in darkness, dull pain throbbing in my head, my side aching with each breath, and I lay quietly for a minute trying to remember where I was. A faint, slightly sickening odor of ether and disinfectants recalled the white-uniformed nurse, the too cheerful doctor. Now I remembered: Manning Memorial Hospital in Seacliff. Room 48. Patient, me, Shell Scott, private detective, somewhat disabled.
The anger that had been growing when I went to sleep was still with me, even bigger and hotter than it had been then. I thought for a moment of the grinning face of the hoodlum who had been the last guy I'd seen before he and his chums worked me over, and I wondered if I'd wind up killing little Jim Norris, who had sicced them onto me. Then I reached for the bedside lamp, switched it on, and rang impatiently for the nurse.
Instead of a nurse I got the doctor, a laughing, black-haired sadist named Greeley. We had already met, Greeley and I, some time after I regained consciousness here, and he had poked me. And poked and poked. There is a bit less than six feet, two inches of me, and a bit more than two hundred pounds, but this guy couldn't locate a single pound or inch without a bruise. That seemed to please him.
Now he came in through the door, a big anticipatory smile on his face. "Well, well, how are we this evening, Mr. Scott?"
"I haven't the faintest idea how we are, but I'm terrible."
He laughed, the way some doctors laugh. "Heh, heh. Well, you're luckier than I first suspected. Just a simple concussion and one fractured rib." He chortled again. "We don't—heh, heh—count the bruises."
I said, "Well, don't go to pieces. Where are my clothes?"
He pursed his lips. "You won't need your clothes for another three or four days, Mr. Scott. You need rest."
"I need a lot of other things more. I'm getting out of here."
He was frowning. "I still don't quite understand the accident."
"I told you it wasn't an accident. Some hoodlums gave me a going over. They hit me with things, including a car."
"We don't have hoodlums in Seacliff."
"You'd be surprised how many you've got. As a matter of fact, you'll soon have a few in your hospital. Business is going to start booming. Incidentally, how long have I been in here? I'm hazy about the time."
"You were found unconscious in your car, right outside the hospital here, late Monday evening. This is Wednesday evening." He glanced at his watch. "7 p.m. Your car is in the hospital parking area now."
Two days. A lot could have happened while I'd been here. There might even have been another murder.
"I'd like my clothes, Doctor."
He rubbed his chin. "I can't force you to stay, Mr. Scott, but it is my professional duty to tell you that it would be exceedingly unwise for you to leave now. I've taped your chest, of course, but any severe blow on that rib might cause it to break and puncture your lung. You know what that would mean. For that matter, a blow on your skull, at the point where you suffered the concussion, could very easily kill you. We don't want that to happen, do we?"
"No, we certainly don't. I'd like my clothes, Doctor."
He shrugged. "Well—heh, heh—it's your funeral."
A few minutes later, I was dressed in my gray gabardine suit, with cordovans on my feet and a new white bandage, almost the same color as my light-blond hair, on my head, but I wasn't quite ready to go.
"Dr. Greeley," I said, "I seem to have everything, clothes, car keys, wallet, and so forth. But no gun."
"A thirty-eight Colt Special. And a holster."
"Ah ... yes. I had forgotten. We can pick up the firearm on your way past the cashier."
That was what we did. When I paid the bill, a young nurse brought me the box containing my gun and harness. I strapped the shoulder holster on, then checked the gun. Five cartridges still in it and an empty chamber under the hammer. There hadn't been time for me to use my gun on the thugs, but I figured we'd be meeting again. As a matter of fact, I knew we would.
I went through the hospital's front door and paused at the top of wide cement steps and looked out at Walnut Street for a while. Street lamps were on, and I could see a man leaning against one of the light posts halfway down the block. He wasn't reading a paper or anything, just leaning. A blue Chrysler was parked at the curb straight ahead of me, at the end of the cement path leading to the sidewalk. There was somebody inside it but I couldn't tell from here if it was a man or woman.
Probably he was only a guy waiting for somebody visiting a sick patient. Probably. But I loosened the .38 in my holster, then lit a cigarette and stood at the side of the hospital's door for a few minutes, looking around and thinking. I thought about the one very busy day I'd spent here in this seashore town; of the hard-faced men and women I'd met; of the soft face of Betty and the soft body of Lilith. I thought of Emmett Dane and Clyde Baron, and of how it had started ...CHAPTER 2
The card from Emmett Dane came in the mail that morning and, naturally, I grabbed it before I looked at anything else. I was in my office on the Hamilton Building's second floor in Los Angeles, sober, alert, clearheaded, and clientless, when the mail arrived. After I read the postcard I still wasn't sure that I had a client, but I knew I was going to Seacliff, and I was looking forward not only to seeing that lovely beach city again, but to seeing and talking to Emmett Dane.
Dane is unique among all the people I know, a kind of misfit, a freak in a world of average men. Somewhere between fifty and sixty years old, with a monumental curiosity about everything, he has more energy than I do at thirty, and more sheer zest for and enjoyment of living than a teenager. I'd met him in '47, when he'd been my client in one of my first murder investigations. A man had been murdered and robbed on Seacliff Drive near Dane's home. Dane and half a dozen other people had been questioned, though the idea of Dane's killing and robbing anybody was idiotic. But he'd hired me to help clean the case up and I'd been lucky. With the help of the local cops I got the guy, a hoodlum named William Yorty with a past record of muggings. He'd fallen for life, but he'd been lucky not to get the gas chamber.
The case itself wasn't important except that because of it I met Dane, got to know him and like him. Dane is a real-estate broker in Seacliff, and worth upward of a half million, but you'd never know it to look at him. Half the time he knocks around town in jeans and T-shirt, and the rest of the time he sits on the beach.
The guy had, so far as I know, never written a letter in his life, but hardly a week went by that I didn't get a postcard from him. Maybe just "Hello. You dead?" when I hadn't dropped him a line for a month or so.
I read this morning's card again. "There's beer in the refrigerator, bourbon in the ice trays, and a blonde for defrosting. Come on down and have a highball. There's crooks all over the landscape. Uglier than you are. Red Cross needs blood, and we've got a drive on, so bring your gat."
I stuck the card in my coat pocket, swept the rest of the mail, still sealed, into a desk drawer, then opened the bottom drawer and took out my "gat" and harness and strapped them on. Dane's card was like a fresh breeze from the sea, and I was anxious to get away. Outside and one floor below on Broadway, streetcars clanged, cars honked; a million people were rushing around frantically, hurrying to appointments, bolting down quick lunches, doing a million unimportant things. I could almost feel tension unwind inside me as I thought of Seacliff, nestled in the arc of a natural bay with the blue stretching out beyond it to the horizon, and of Dane, who right now was probably sitting on his sun porch drinking a cold beer.
I got up and headed for the door. The phone rang. Automatically I started back, then stopped. "Nuts to you, you mechanical monster," I said, and went out, locking the door behind me.
At the end of the hall outside my office, a cute little gal named Hazel sits at the PBX switchboard, handling incoming and outgoing calls. Now she waved at me and said, "Shell, you've got a call."
I stopped. "Ain't no detectives here, sweetie. All gone to the beach for beer and sunshine."
"But this is from the beach, from Seacliff."
"Seacliff? I'll take it here."
I said hello and a man said, "Shell? This is Emmett. Can you get down here right away?"
"Sure, Em. I'd already started. You almost missed me."
"Can you get here by two this afternoon?"
I looked at my watch. "Sure. What's up? Your card didn't make things sound like hell was popping."
"Wasn't when I wrote it. But it is now, I think. Shell, remember what we talked about last time you were down? Mobsters investing big money in legitimate operations? Well, I think that's happening here. And something else just came up. You remember Ed Whist?"
"I met him at your place, didn't I? Dinner?"
"Yes. He drowned a couple days ago, but I just now found out about it. I don't think he drowned accidentally. That's the main reason I'm calling. I'll explain everything when you get here. Bring your popgun."
"I've got it on. And I'm practically there." I said so long, told Hazel to expect me when I got back, and left.
Driving toward the beach in my convertible Cad with the top down, I thought about what Dane had said. He wasn't the excitable type, usually took things easy, but there hadn't even been any of our usual banter on the phone. Something pretty big had to be going on from the way he'd talked and sounded.
The last time I'd seen him was six months ago, and the conversation he'd mentioned had been about the syndicate, that not so loosely knit organization of criminals and murderers the existence of which is so vigorously denied—by the syndicate. Dane had been around enough so that I didn't have to argue with him, as I'd had to argue futilely with others who couldn't believe such a criminal network could exist in the U.S.A., but even he didn't realize the extent of gangster infiltration into political and union circles, public and private life, and legitimate industry the way I did.
Just before 2 p.m. I turned off Highway 101 and in a few more minutes got my first glimpse of Seacliff below me, white and neat at the edge of the ocean. Dane lived in a big white house on Seacliff Drive, the wide road that follows the natural curve of the bay. Most of the houses there have their backs to the street and living rooms facing the ocean, but Dane had switched his around so that the living room was next to the street, and his bedroom and den were on the far side, built right out over the stretch of smooth sand that came up under the sun porch. He liked to sleep with the breakers pounding practically in his ear.
I parked in the driveway and walked alongside the house to its front, the breeze from the sea cool on my face. I figured Dane would be sitting on the sun porch with a beer in his hand. He was.
When he saw me his sun-browned face lit up and he said, "Hide your wives, the marines have landed."
"The ex-marines. How are you, Em?"
He leaned over the porch railing to shake my hand, a big man, gray-haired, his hawklike face deeply lined, but still a fine, powerful figure of a man. "Good to see you, Shell. What'll it be, beer or bourbon?"
"You mentioned something about a blonde?" I climbed over the rail, to show him I was as spry as he was, and sat down in a wicker chair alongside the table in front of him.
"That was just a come-on," he said. "I drove her mad and sent her away to be psychoanalyzed."
He took a can of beer from an ice-filled pail beside him, opened it, handed it to me, then said, "Shell, listen to me for a minute and I'll tell you what I was talking about on the phone, what I think is happening." He glanced at his watch. "We've got about half an hour."
"We're going to have an unpleasant visitor." His face sobered and he said, "You remember what you said last time you were here about how crooks operate when they move in—move in on anything?"
Dane referred to a point I'd made that hoodlums, when they look around for a legitimate place to put their illegally earned dough, still know only the hoodlums' methods: threats and extortion, beatings and pressure and muscle, even murder when it became necessary. I nodded and Dane went on.
"I think we've got something like that here. They've been so damned clever about it that I can't be positive even now. But a group called Seaco—short for Seacliff Development Company—has bought a lot of property here. The way it looks, these guys started out easy—everything perfectly legal, nothing to get a man suspicious. First they bought all the properties along the coast that were listed for sale. Then they took the next step, looked up owners, bought more, even paying more than some places were worth. They got a pile of it. Hell, there was no reason they shouldn't have. These were just ordinary, everyday business deals."
"Still sounds OK to me."
"Seemed all right to me, too, until just a few days ago. Up till then everything was normal, except that Seaco was investing an awful lot of money here. The men doing the actual negotiating were likable, seemed decent. I met a couple of them and they could have been the local doctor and banker, settled businessmen. But finally they got all they could that way. They reached a point where the only places left were owned either by people who damn well didn't intend to sell for any price—small, individual owners—or else by the three of us in town who own big amounts of property."
"And you're one of the three."
"Yes. Other two are Clyde Baron and Lilith Manning. You'll meet both of them later today. The three of us are about all that's left to fight this Seaco bunch. Plus you. Anyway, Seaco representatives talked to Baron and me and didn't get anywhere. Miss Manning wasn't in Seacliff then. After that, a new man came around alone, talked with Baron, and spent several hours out here with me. He was the most persuasive one of the whole bunch. Clean-looking, pleasant, personable sort of guy named Zimmerman, and if I'd even half felt like selling, he would probably have talked me into it. Even offered me a hundred thousand more than I think the property's worth."
"How come you didn't sell?"
Dane shrugged, swallowed some beer. "I'm comfortable, happy. I've got good property and a good income from it. If I sold, taxes would take a lot of the profit. Besides, if I ever kick off I'd like to leave my holdings here to Eleanor and Janie. The important thing is that I finally gave this guy a flat no the last time I saw him. He was a young, good-looking man, but he got a little ugly-looking after that. I remember the last thing he said to me. He said, 'All right, Dane. You asked for it.' The way he looked and sounded gave me the creeps."
"What did you say his name was?"
"Zimmerman. And right after that the Seaco Company changed its methods. Few days ago, a helluva big, tough-acting man came to see me and made me a flat offer for all my real estate. All of it. I've got maybe six hundred thousand dollars' worth of property here and he offered a quarter million. I laughed at him and he got belligerent. Said it wasn't anything to laugh at, and I'd laugh out of the other side of my mouth if I didn't wise up. That's about the way he put it. And he mentioned that he wasn't as easygoing a guy as Zimmerman."
"He didn't actually get rough, did he?"
"Not physically. Just talked rough. Well, so did I. Told him to get out or I'd kick him into the ocean." Em grinned. "Don't think I could, though. Actually, that's what got me riled up. I'd started wondering what was going on, after that last talk with Zimmerman, but then I did a lot of checking on my own." He leaned forward, elbows on his knees, sharply lined face serious. "Shell, up till then I didn't have the faintest idea what was going on, didn't know about even a tenth of these other sales—and I'll bet nobody else in town did either. But it's plain now." He got up and went into the house.
He came back with a yard-square map, which he spread out on the table before us. "That's what I got," he said. "Take a look."
Excerpted from Too Many Crooks by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1953 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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