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Authors: Richard S. Prather

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BOOK: Find This Woman
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We billowed out of the Devil's mouth and spilled over the lawn and past the statue of Satan into the street. And the crowd grew. I was like a man standing on a busy street in New York or Los Angeles and pointing up and yelling, "Look! Look up there!" and all of a sudden finding hundreds of people around him stopping and looking. We were a magnet; people attracted by the noise and excitement joined us, came running, and the crowd mushroomed, doubled in five minutes, tripled in ten.

I had me a goddamned parade.

We were headed south up the middle of the street, headed toward the Flamingo, I guess, for it was the only big club south of the Inferno, but we were close to a hundred strong by now and hardly anyone knew or cared any longer what had started this; they just knew it was here and hopped on for the ride. It had started with me, but I was only the spark, and it had nothing to do with me any more, and all I wanted to do, myself, was just roll along, laughing and yelling with that fever growing in me as it grew in all the rest, and I felt as if I could walk forever, with somebody behind me hanging onto the tail of my coat.

I'd long ago lost track of the little doll from the left stool at the bar, but I didn't care, I didn't care at all, because I had all sizes and shapes and textures, and somewhere along in this I'd lost my drink and put my gun back in its holster and wrapped my arms around the two closest women, and one of them was the woman I'd really been looking for ever since we poured through the Devil's mouth: the luscious, lascivious Lorraine with the big, soft, beautiful everythings—and
she
was the one who'd been hanging onto my coattail so I wouldn't get away.

She said something, but I couldn't hear her because we were jammed into the middle of the crowd and there was a constant roar in my ears, but she pulled my arm down from her bare shoulders and put it around her, way around her, and I pressed my hand to her breast and held it there. Lorraine laughed, her white teeth gleaming and her tongue tracing a moist shine across her lower lip, then she said something else I couldn't hear.

The whole crowd staggered along like a drunken man—and most of us were drunk—weaving from one side of the street to the other, and we flowed around cars and I heard horns honking and blaring. Over at the left of the road I saw, sticking up into the air, the graceful red neon flamingo at the top of the club, and I knew we were going past the Flamingo, going clear the hell past it, and I remembered something about heading for there but I didn't care.

We roared past the Flamingo, the last club on the Strip, and nobody knew where the hell we were going because there was nothing ahead of us now except desert, but we kept on going. So help me Christ, we kept on going. I squeezed Lorraine and the other woman to me, though I didn't have the faintest idea what the other one looked like, and with Lorraine pressed close against me I was fast losing interest in anybody else, and suddenly we were at the edge of the crowd in the darkness and neither of us had to say anything.

I'm not sure whether Lorraine pulled me or whether I pulled her; I don't remember and I'll never remember, but we left the crowd and ran alone off into the desert, both of us laughing like crazy people, and I guess we were a little crazy, but finally we stopped and dropped to the ground, feverish and panting. I reached for Lorraine and pulled her to me, seeing her upturned face dim and pale in the faint light, and I could see the shine of her teeth gleaming whitely under her pulled-back lips.

It was suddenly quiet, with no sound from those we'd left far behind us. Our rapid breathing was loud in the quiet of the desert and the rush of my blood was a drum sound in my ears. I was dizzy, as much from the feel of Lorraine's body pressed against me as from anything else, and it seemed for a moment as if we were the only two people anywhere in this night and this darkness. Just the two of us pressed close, looking at each other with our faces inches apart, and then her face moved closer to mine and her lips softened and parted as I pulled her even tighter against me and pressed my mouth harshly to hers. Her lips were hungry and almost violent on mine as she wriggled on her back, pulling me close against her, heavy above her. Her tongue slid smoothly into my mouth, caressing my lips and tongue, and I wound my fingers into the top of her strapless gown and pulled it down to her waist, feeling the cloth slide between our bodies as it bared her heavy breasts. Then my hand was on the warm, taut swell of her breasts as she pressed her teeth into my throat and said tightly, "Damn you, damn you, Shell."

Her teeth pressed almost painfully into my throat as I traced my fingers over the smooth dim whiteness of her skin, caressed the soft satin texture of her thigh, and then her lips were on mine once more, moving against my mouth as she said again and again, "Now, Shell, now. . . "

The sky was flushing in the east when I walked through the Desert Inn lobby and stood at the foot of the stairs for a while, shaking my head. I sure was some detective. I'd left Lorraine a block from the Inferno because she said she wanted it that way and that there was no sense in my going back inside the club after what had happened there. She didn't know it, but I hadn't intended to go inside. Then there'd been a somewhat strained moment in the cold, horrible illumination of the beginning day during which we'd looked at each other and murmured nothing-phrases. I walked back to the Desert Inn and little happened except that I saw a lanky brunette walking down the road in her stocking feet with her high-heeled shoes in her hand. I didn't remember seeing her at the Inferno, but she must have recognized the ring-tailed billionaire, because she said something unintelligible and threw a shoe at me.

No guns had been aimed my way, but I was shot. Those stairs certainly looked steep. I was Shell Scott, the Cactus Kid: a worn-out, world-weary Atlas with fallen arches and noodles for muscles. But at least I was away from Victor Dante and I was half alive.

I contemplated getting down on my hands and knees and crawling inch by inch up those stairs, but it didn't seem like the thing to do. Not that I cared a damn about conforming to the approved and socially acceptable stair-climbing routine; I was just afraid if I once got down there I'd never get back up.

I went up to the second floor and down the hall and stopped. Suddenly I felt sick, and it had nothing to do with the liquor or anything else. I'd gone, without thinking, back up to Freddy's room, as if nothing had happened and he'd be glad to see me. But finally I went on in. There was no other place for me to stay, and the room was no good now to Freddy.

Some of his things were still scattered around the room. I went on into the bathroom and showered, then turned out the lights and went to bed. I didn't go to sleep right away, even as tired as I was. There were too many things on my mind, too many unexplained angles. I'd come up here to look for Isabel Ellis but it didn't look as though I'd accomplished a thing. I was on a treadmill, running and running and running, and not getting anywhere. From the moment I'd hit town until now, somebody had been after me, pushing me, rushing me, and that meant something all by itself. But I hadn't even had time to do the simple, beginning things, the groundwork. I hadn't even unpacked my bag, and the picture of Isabel was in there still. I wanted to show that around; I wanted to go to the police, check with them on both Isabel and William Carter; and I wanted to check the funeral homes, because the more I thought about it, the likelier it seemed to me that there was where I'd find them.

At least I knew a few things and could add them together for something. I knew now that Victor Dante was the man who'd been talking to Lorraine at the Pelican-just the night before she'd shown up in Las Vegas—and that is was he and his sidekick who had beaten hell out of me simply to convince me I should
not
talk to Lorraine,
not
look for Carter, and
not
come to Las Vegas.

And Dante was acting like other men I've run across in other cases: like a man covering up his tracks, or a trail. And it appeared, now that I was hounding him, that he wanted me covered up, too.

Thinking drowsily, with the thoughts threading lazily among other pictures and memories in my mind, as they will when you're resting on the soft edge of sleep, I thought: Wouldn't it be funny if Dante had, for some reason or other, murdered Isabel—who had suddenly disappeared and wasn't being heard from these days—and then a detective hired by Isabel's father had stumbled onto proof of the murder and been killed because he had stumbled? It didn't fully explain what Dante had been doing at the Pelican Club, but that
was
where Carter had apparently picked up the trail, and if that was the answer, or part of it, Dante would be almost sure to resent my snooping around.

My thoughts were sluggish and circling and elusive, but almost the last thing I considered was that I had busted in on Dante at the Pelican and, right after that, started asking questions about Carter and Isabel, and that now Dante knew I was aware of his identity since we'd met at his Inferno. I was thinking that it looked as though Dante would have no other choice but to kill me, when I fell asleep.

I wouldn't know it until later in the day, but they'd already found Carter's body.

Chapter Ten

I WOKE UP about two in the afternoon and lay in bed for five minutes, clearing the fog from my brain and remembering the thoughts that had been in my mind when I'd fallen asleep. After that I groaned out of bed and spent five minutes more in a hot shower, soaping my bruises. I was going to be sure I was awake before I started charging around this day.

I opened my bag, got out the shaving tools, and scraped the stubble off my chin, then got dressed in a tan tropic-weight suit, clean white shirt, and dark brown tie. I included the .38 as part of my outfit, then went down to the Cactus Room, just off the lobby, for breakfast.

The hotel was jumping like crazy and I remembered that this was still the four-day Helldorado, and this was only the second day. But by the time I'd forced myself to eat a good breakfast, because I might not get a chance to eat more than my nails for a while, I felt pretty good. The aftereffects of the L.A. working-over I'd received were still with me, but not as much as I'd expected. All that exercise last night must have loosened my muscles.

After two cups of black coffee I went to the desk, used up some more money, and slyly asked the clerk if there were a room available and if I could get a peek into Carter's room for a quick look around. I learned there wasn't any room empty yet, but all wasn't lost because I could look at Carter's stuff. It was a waste of time and money. All I learned was that Carter still hadn't shown up, and that he had a lot of clean white shirts he hadn't used. There was nothing in his room that helped.

I got the eight-by-ten photo of Isabel from my bag, called a taxi from the hotel, had another cup of black coffee while I waited, then climbed into the cab and went directly to Second Street between Carson and Bridger in downtown Vegas, and got out in front of the courthouse. I went up the steps and inside, then down to the sheriff's department on the main floor and identified myself to the man behind the counter. He squinted at me for five seconds, then sent me into an office on the other side of the counter to see one Arthur Hawkins. Hawkins was a big man sitting relaxed behind a pine desk, and he was a lieutenant. He hunched the coat of his dark gray single-breasted suit forward on his thick shoulders and glanced at me when I came in.

I said, "How do you do, Mr. Hawkins? I'm Shell Scott, an investigator from Los Angeles. I figured I'd better—"

He swung his head up, and I saw he was about forty, with wrinkles around dark eyes and deep creases at each side of his nose.

He said, "Where the hell have
you
been?"

"Huh?" Then I got it. "You mean the car?"

"I mean that miserable Cadillac. That yours?"

Naturally the deputies would have found the registration slip or what was left of it in the Cad, and would have checked on it. I said, "Yes, sir. That is, it was."

"Sit down. Right there. What do you know about that?" He clipped the words out fast, in little spurts like bullets. "We've been looking for you. Sarah!"

He had yelled out the door and halfway downtown. A girl flew in from the next room. She sat down in a chair in the corner, with an open steno's pad in her left hand. Hawkins nodded to her and she said, "Yes, sir."

"Hey!" I yelped. "Whoa, slow this up. You're all—"

"Siddown. Sid
down!
" The guy wasn't brutal or shoving me around; he was just nine yards of authority. He was overpowering. I stood still for a moment, just so he wouldn't think I overpowered easy, but I sat down.

Hawkins looked at me. "All right."

I deliberated a moment, wondering what the hell I should say, and he said rapidly, "Come on, come
on!
"

Well, damn him, damn him to hell. I stood up, and he could scream at me to sit down till he was hoarse. "All right, damnit," I said. I took out my wallet and tossed it on the desk. "There's my license; I'm a private detective from Los Angeles and you must already know that by now. You must also bloody well know I'm clean and I don't go around blowing up my own cars or spitting on sidewalks." I'd been getting nothing but lumps and shoving around up here, and now this razor-voiced lieutenant was slicing at me, and little red spots were getting ready to pop in front of my eyes. I leaned on the desk. "This is one lousy welcome to your lousy town. I'll tell you what the hell happened to that Cad of mine. I drive up here peaceably on legal business and a son named Victor Dante blows up my car, that's what happens. And I wouldn't be a damn bit surprised if he murdered a couple of other people up here—one Isabel Ellis and one William Carter—and murders me before he's through."

Boy, I sure put my foot in it that time.

He sort of shook when I said William Carter, and right then I knew Carter was dead. I stopped.

Hawkins looked over at the girl. The girl was getting it all down. She was getting every pearl that spilled from my big loud mouth.

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