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The Trojan Hearse
A Shell Scott Mystery
By Richard S. Prather
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1964 Richard S. Prather
All rights reserved.
They dug up Johnny Troy that day.
Buried him—then dug him up.
They rioted in the graveyard, a thousand of them or more. They tore at the still-soft earth with shovels and hands and clawing fingers. They lifted his coffin from the earth and rolled it over the grass.
Then they took his body out of the casket and tried to tear it limb from limb. They pounded him and hacked him, ripped his flesh, broke his bones and gouged out both his eyes. There was very little left to bury—or rebury—when they were through with Johnny Troy.
Then they went to the polls and voted.
Because they did all that to Johnny Troy on the Tuesday after the first Monday in November, in the year of our Supreme Court, 1968. That's right, 1968, the year and the day of the Presidential elections which were to zoom us out of the muddle ages into the Secure Seventies. Johnny had been dead for three days then, and thus was dead as hell, but that wasn't enough for the people. Because he had been their idol.
They had loved him "with a love that was more than love."
So, naturally, now they hated him with a hate that was more than hate.
Hell hath no fury like a nation screwed, and the nation had been screwed by Johnny Troy; at least, he was the symbol of the screwing. The people didn't know it, though, until that day when they hacked him into little pieces. They probably wouldn't know it yet if somebody hadn't told them.
Who told them?
I told them.CHAPTER 2
I'm Shell Scott.
I'm a private investigator. My office and home are, respectively, in Los Angeles and Hollywood—the very auricle and ventricle of the heart of Cuckooland—but, even so, it must have been an unhinged Fate that chose me as the instrument for rampant cuckooism in the City of the Angels. And the shocking treatment of Johnny Troy. But Fate did it.
I guess Dementia stalked the land in those three days. During them I ran into, or against, or away from: a Mafia boss and numerous of his hoodlums; the head of the most powerful talent agency in the country; several of the queerest ducks who ever quacked—artists, writers, sculptors, poets, and such; a pretty girl or two; the nation's foremost head-shrinker, a guy who had met Sigmund Freud in semantic battle for the public noodle and slugged Sigmund through the ropes. I even met both candidates for election to the Presidency of the United States of America. One of them shook my hand; the other called me a bastard. Yes he did.
There were others. Not least, the late Johnny Troy.
He wasn't, of course, late when I met him. He was almost too much alive, and perhaps the handsomest hunk of man I ever laid eyes on in my life. A big hunk. I'm six feet, two inches tall and two hundred and six pounds, solid enough, and I have mixed it up with some good ones. But I wouldn't have wanted to mix it up with Troy. He was about my weight, maybe five pounds more, and two inches taller. He was built like young Atlas. He was twenty-eight years old but he appealed to every female between the ages of thirteen and three figures. The old ones wanted to mother him, the younger ones wanted to smother him, and the youngest wanted him for a brother, at least.
I do not exaggerate. He was the greatest thing to soar over the hero-worshiper's horizon since, say, Rudolph Valentino. Or maybe a combination of Douglas Fairbanks, Enrico Caruso, Mahatma Gandhi, and Johnny Appleseed.
He was a singer.
That doesn't explain it, of course. But—well, for a start, take his voice. It was a voice you wouldn't believe. The superlatives applied. The critics were not critical. Teen-agers swooned and those over the hill twitched their middle-aged spreads, and grannies smiled gently, as peace spread over their chops.
Men, too. It wasn't just that he hit some nerve in women that males do not possess. He did that, yes, but he was liked and even admired by men as well. I own half a dozen Johnny Troy albums, myself. Including one that few other people possess. And I could listen for hours to the golden notes, the sweet sad sound, the richly magnificent tone and phrasing of the voice of Johnny Troy.
He was unquestionably America's most popular singer of songs, mostly pop songs, ballads, love and June and moon. But he did a few Negro-born spirituals, too, and they seemed to touch something deep and good in the people—in all the people, in case you wondered. He did one album of religious songs which sold 2,300,000 copies, and if you don't think that's just about impossible, check on the sale of religious vocal music in the U.S. of A. today.
Well, there's more about Johnny Troy; and there'll be more. But for me those three incredible days began with a visit from a little girl. Sylvia White. Sister of Charley White. Charley was a business associate of Johnny Troy, but more—he was the best friend, the closest buddy, the "psychic Siamese twin" as he'd been called, the inseparable companion of Johnny Troy. And Charley White was dead.
He had died Thursday.
His sister came to see me on Saturday.
That must have been the first diddle of diabolical Fate. That's when it began for me.
* * *
Saturday mornings I either go downtown to the office, or I don't. Depending on if I feel like it. This Saturday a.m. I didn't, so I didn't. I woke up wide awake—which for me was not merely unusual but almost unprecedented—and bounced out of bed. Man, I felt good. I felt like bouncing on the bed some more. Ah, Lydia! I thought. Lydia was the tomato I'd taken to dinner last night. My head bonged horribly; sure, we had boozed; I had several aches, in fact. I felt great.
Shower, shave, coffee, puttering about—I fed the tropical fish, winked at wicked Amelia on the wall—always avoiding the thought of breakfast. Then, bong! That was the chimes at the front door of my apartment, 212, in Hollywood's Spartan Apartment Hotel.
I went to the door and opened it.
She looked like a little porcelain doll. At first I thought she was a kid—you know, nine or ten years old—but then I got a better look at the sweet face, the small but gorgeously curved figure. She was maybe twenty, twenty-one, I guessed, but she couldn't have been more than five feet tall. Maybe an inch or two less.
"Yes, ma'am," I said. "Shell Scott. Come on in."
She came inside, almost hesitantly. "I called your office. I hope you don't—"
"All's well. Apparently you know I'm a detective?"
"Yes. That's why ... why I'm here."
We sat down on the big chocolate-brown divan and looked at each other. She seemed a bit startled by me. In the first place, I was about eight times her size. Then there's my white hair, cropped about an inch long and sticking straight up in the air—it's very springy; if I let it grow I'd probably look like a terrified symphony conductor in an electrical storm—and the equally white but fortunately not so springy white eyebrows over gray eyes in what I like to think isn't really a frightening face. True, my nose has been broken a couple of times, but it was put back in exactly the right place once; and a dying hoodlum shot off a small piece of my left ear just before he started dying; and things have happened to my face that shouldn't happen to automobile bumpers. But I've still got good strong teeth, and a strong unbroken jaw, and I'm very tanned ... Well, at least I look healthy. But enough about me.
She had oddly blue, almost violet eyes with ridiculously long lashes and smooth black hair pulled back from her forehead. Her skin was pale, almost luminous; somebody wrote of Shelley, I think it was, that he had skin like alabaster illumined from within; if true, he must have had a complexion like this little gal's. She had neat, delicate features, small red lips, and a voice like Chinese bells tinkling—those thin glass strips that dangle and make ting-ting sounds when stirred by the wind.
She smoothed the front of her brightly colored dress, lots of reds and blues and yellows in it, ran a hand over her black hair, and talked. She was Sylvia White. Her brother was Charley White, Johnny Troy's friend; until a few months ago she hadn't seen Charley for several years. They'd been born in Illinois, in Springfield, and lived there until she was eleven years old; Charley was six years older. Then there was a family breakup; she went with her mother after the divorce, Charley stayed in Illinois with the father. Her mother had remarried and they'd moved to South America, then returned to the States, California, about six months ago.
"Charley and I had written each other from time to time and I knew he was in California. So last July I looked him up. It seemed silly to be so near and not get together. Brother and sister." She smiled for the first time, relaxing a little more.
"Uh-huh. You met in July, then? First time in—I'd guess about ten years?"
She smiled again. "Yes. I'm twenty-one. We were almost like strangers at first, but after a while it was like it used to be. He was doing wonderfully well, living in that suite in the Royalcrest ..."
She let it trail off. Charley White had fallen from the balcony of his suite this past Thursday. At least I guessed he'd fallen. Anyway, he'd gone down eight floors to the sidewalk.
Sylvia went on, "He liked to come over to the house and have dinner with Mom and me two or three times a month. But the last month or so he was awfully nervous. On edge. Something was bothering him, worrying him."
"He tell you what it was?"
"No. I asked him, but he just said it was something he had to work out for himself. A big decision of some kind, but I don't know what it was. I knew he was under a lot of strain, so it didn't surprise me when he told me he was undergoing analysis."
"Analysis? You mean, uh, lying on a couch and—"
"Yes. He started seeing Dr. Mordecai Withers two or three weeks ago."
That was interesting. I said, "If he was, well, mentally upset, do you think maybe his death wasn't an accident?"
"If you mean suicide, no. I thought of that. Just before—before it happened, he'd been much more relaxed. I talked to him on the phone an hour or so before he died and he was in a wonderful mood, happy, laughing. I even mentioned it and Charley told me he'd made up his mind—come to that big decision. He was going to be—be free, he said. And he felt wonderful, it was something he should have done a long time ago. It was as if a big weight had been lifted from him. So if he was feeling that wonderful, he couldn't have killed himself right after talking to me."
I didn't tell her so, but that didn't prove a thing. Often depressed people, contemplating suicide, get relaxed and almost euphoric as soon as they make up their minds—to kill themselves. And "free" can mean "dead."
"The police list the death as an accident. I assume you don't, or you wouldn't be here. Right?"
"Well, it's—I don't know whether he was serious or not. He was laughing so much."
"Yes. He was coming over to our house that night, for dinner, and he said he'd tell me all about it." She stopped. "And then's when he said the funny thing. He said he'd tell me all about it if somebody hadn't killed him first."
I blinked. "He actually told you he thought somebody might kill him?"
"Yes. But—well, that's what he said, and then he started laughing again."
I didn't like all that laughing. Guys who talk about getting knocked off, then become wildly tickled at the thought, are usually in little rooms. With lots of bars. And padding. And —
"Then he said it was just a joke," she went on. "The biggest joke in the world. And nobody could really kill him—he had immunity. I don't know what he meant, but that's what he said. Immunity."
I had Charley figured now. The thought of getting knocked off was hilarious. Bullets went right through him. He could float off balconies. He could eat glass. He —
"I know this all sounds crazy," Sylvia said. "But Charley wasn't crazy, Mr. Scott. He was just as sane and well-balanced and normal as you are."
"Well, some people wouldn't—"
"And he'd never talked like that before, not ever. Besides, just before we hung up Charley calmed down and told me I'd understand when he explained everything that night. The whole world would understand. We'd all have a big laugh. So it must have been something important."
Yeah. If the whole world was going to laugh, it must have. It's wonderful, the faith of a sister in a brother. Like mother love: Lookit, everybody's out of step in the parade; except my boy.
I said, "Miss White, I'm not sure I agree completely with you—" I cut it off. No point in telling her this struck me as a splendid case history of lunacy. Instead I said, "Just what is it you want me to do?"
"Find out who killed him. I'll pay you fifty dollars."
It came out in a rush. At first I thought she was as big a kook as her brother, but slowly I understood and it kind of got to me.
Her hands were in tight little fists, and a pink flush—of embarrassment, I finally realized—colored her cheeks. She was going on, still rapidly, as if making sure she got it said. "I mean, try to find out. And I know it's probably not enough, but I'll have to owe you the rest. The money, I mean. If you'll do it—try, I mean. I'll have some more, but not right away, and I thought this could be the first part. Or retainer, I guess it is. And I know this all sounds just awful, and maybe silly. But Charley wasn't crazy, and ... I really did love him. I knew I wouldn't be able to say it right. But I had to try—"
Suddenly she was crying. Trying to smile and crying. The tinkling words stopped with a choked sound and the tears gushed out of her eyes. She sobbed as if she were going to die, her tiny face stretched with pain, lips pressed together and tears running down over them.
"Hey," I said. "Hey, now. Look, it's OK." I pulled out a handkerchief and shoved it at her, then got up and walked—toward the wall. Then I came back. "Hey," I said. Actually, I'm not very good with crying women.
She ducked behind my handkerchief for a few seconds, then uncovered her face. And just sat there.
"Well," I said, "I don't know what I'll find out, but I'll give it a whirl. Don't be surprised, though, if there's nothing, uh, diabolical to uncover. I mean, frankly, it doesn't seem likely there'll be evidence of homicide."
"You'll try to find out?"
"Yes. But as I just said, it's not likely—Hey. Oh. Don't do it again. Woman, dammit!"
"I'm all right."
"Look, tell me all you can about Charley. Did he get along all right with Johnny Troy?" Anything, I thought; just anything to get her talking again.
"I'm sure he did. They were together almost all the time, you know."
"Uh-huh. Do you know how they met? What brought them together in the first place?"
"Charley told me he practically discovered Johnny, that he was the first one to recognize his real talent. Charley wanted to be a singer himself, you know. When he was younger. Sang in a few clubs when he was twenty or twenty-one; he wrote me about it. But he, well, he flopped."
"I didn't know." I was glad she'd told me, though; it helped me understand why he might have attached himself to Troy. I can be wrong, too.
"He couldn't make it, but he really does know a lot about music. He wrote three of Johnny's biggest hits, did you know that?"
"Nope, I didn't know that, either."
"Anyway, he heard Johnny singing in a San Francisco nightclub six years ago and signed some kind of contract with him—I'm not sure just what it was. Then he took him to see Mr. Sebastian and I guess everybody knows the rest."
Just about everybody did. The Sebastian she referred to was Ulysses Sebastian, founder and president of the talent agency bearing his name, a man who represented several million—or maybe even billion—dollars' worth of talent. The Sebastian Agency was the biggest, with the most fabulous list of clients, and number one on his list was Johnny Troy.
Four years ago Ulysses Sebastian had announced that he was introducing a new star, Johnny Troy—called him a star even before anybody had heard him—and Sebastian was, as usual, right. Then came "The Magic of Love," followed by "Sing of Love," and "Let's Love" and dozens of others, and Johnny Troy was twelve corporations, and big business. Not only albums, but endorsements, personal appearances, two starring movies, Johnny Troy shirts and suits and shaving soap and golf clothes.
Excerpted from The Trojan Hearse by Richard S. Prather. Copyright © 1964 Richard S. Prather. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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