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Authors: Richard S. Prather

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BOOK: Find This Woman
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My waiter had been gone for no more than half a minute, and now he came back and walked up to my table. I couldn't think of any reason for it, but I got the impression he was nervous. Or maybe scared about something. He said, "I'm sorry, sir. She doesn't care to see you."

I frowned. "You gave her the card?"

"Why—yes, sir, of course."

Maybe I'd been a little too heavy-handed on that request to go dancing. Possibly her sense of humor was less elastic than she was. I asked the waiter, "She give you any reason?"

"None, sir."

This wasn't so good. I got out my wallet again. "How about trying once more, if you will. Tell her it's—"

He was already shaking his head, and his hand was palm out toward the wallet. First time I'd ever seen a waiter make that gesture. He said, "No, I. . . should rather not." Then he turned around and beat it.

I blinked after him. He hadn't even asked me if I cared for another drink. Well, the hell with him. I had only two leads to Isabel Ellis, my client's missing daughter, and Lorraine was one of them. While I was here I was at least going to make an honest effort to see her. I've been private-eyeing in and around Los Angeles for five years—ever since my discharge from the Marines after one of the wars—and I knew it was no time to give up when the gal herself hadn't yet told me to get lost. And that waiter had acted like no ordinary waiter.

I got up and walked past the bandstand and through the drapes my waiter had gone through a minute ago. Beyond them was a hall running left and right across the back of the Pelican, dimly illuminated by small, naked light bulbs. Three or four doors were set into the opposite wall, and a tall guy in a brown gabardine sports jacket was leaning against one of the doors.

I walked up to him and he grinned at me. He had white, too large teeth behind full lips, and deep brown eyes that were staring at me now.

I asked him, "This Lorraine's dressing room?"

He nodded, waving a mass of dry brown hair that needed some oil. It stuck up in the air like weeds and swelled out above each temple as if his brain were bulging out. I felt pretty sure that wasn't the reason. He leaned directly back against the door, facing me, and his heavy shoulders almost covered the entrance from one side to the other.

I said, pleasantly, "How about moving?"

He grunted and said, "I. . . don't think so," holding the "I" softly for three seconds, then squirting the rest out.

The silly grin on his face, and the wrong answer, and the
way
he'd answered started griping me a little. "Look, friend," I said. "I'd like to knock on the door. I'd hate to knock right through you."

He chuckled and moved aside. He walked a little way down the hall and looked back at me. "Come here," he said, as if he were going to tell me a secret. "Come on." He walked toward the entrance into the club and waved his hand for me to follow. I didn't get this guy. He paused in the doorway, waved again, and said, "Come on. I'll tell you something. You'll love this."

I walked up behind him and followed him into the club. He was a big guy, about an inch shorter than I, but his shoulders were even wider than mine. I was sizing him up, but it didn't seem necessary. He was acting like a man who had played with his brain too long. That's the impression I got then, which shows how wrong I can be.

Just inside the main room of the club he stopped and asked me, "You're Scott?"

"Yeah. How the hell did you know?" I'm easy to pick out because of my hair and eyebrows and size, and because of a slightly bent nose, but it seemed obvious that he must have seen the card I'd sent back with the waiter. He proved that deduction was correct by pulling the card out of the breast pocket of his coat, tearing the card in two, and handing me the pieces. He didn't explain that, just kept grinning and asked, "Where's your table, Scott?"

I didn't cotton to this boy, but I went along. I'll always go along so far. We weren't yet up to the point where I quit. I nodded toward the little table and he went over and climbed into the extra chair. I walked up and he pointed to my chair. "Sit down, Scott."

"The hell you say, mister. What kind of an act is this? What do you think you're pulling?"

"Not your leg, Scott," he said jovially. "Oh, come on. Sit down for a minute. Want to talk to you."

I sat down. I still couldn't figure the guy. He pushed the ash tray away from in front of him and leaned forward with his elbows on the table. I noticed a big vein that ran down the center of his forehead under the skin, bulging where the skin should have been smooth. I'm pretty brown from the sun, myself, but this guy was a deep bronze. He spent a lot of time in the sunshine.

He grinned and said, "You stay right here, now."

"What?"

"You heard me." His voice was pleasant. "You don't want to see Lorraine."

"Who the hell are you? I intend to see her as soon as you finish this conversation."

"Shut your face, Scott. And keep it shut." He said it casually, but my mouth dropped open.

I stared at him for five seconds. "You can't possibly be serious."

"Sure I'm serious." He went on in a singsong patter that was as light and frothy as soapsuds, but the words weren't light. "She doesn't want to see you, Scott. She's tired. You stay here, or better, you run along home. So you're Scott? Well. I've heard a little about you. Not much. Nothing good. Private eye, huh? That's funny. That's sure a laugh, pal. Yes, sir, you stay away from Lorraine. Otherwise I'll have to beat the water out of you, beat you half to death. I might even half kill you, Scott. No, that's wrong. Might kill you."

He kept going like that in a soft voice that must have sounded like droning conversation or a monologue to people at the next table, but he kept building it up and telling me with a kind of relish what he'd do to me if I didn't go home like a nice little boy. Finally he said a couple of things about my sexual habits that made up my mind fast while I looked around the club to see how many people would notice if I killed this bastard right here.

I said, "Hold it, pal. Just quiet down a minute." I stood up fast and started back toward the dressing room. The orchestra was having a short intermission, so I went straight across the dance floor and was halfway across before he scrambled out of the chair. I stopped and waited for him.

He came up beside me and the smile was gone for the first time. "Don't get excited," I said. "You've got the wrong idea." I grinned at him. He started to reach for me, then looked around, and I went on ahead through the black drapes. He was a little confused now, just as I'd been, and two yards inside the hallway I stopped and turned around and said to him as he came up close, "Look, you don't understand. I'm sorry as hell about all this—" and cut it off while he was staring at me. I was looking right at him as pleasantly as I could with all that burn in me, and I reached up fast with both hands crossed at the wrist, my right hand going to my left and grabbing the lapel of his gabardine jacket while my left hand crossed over and got the lapel on the other side, my thumbs out and my fingers on the inside of his coat, and before he could even get his hands up I tightened my grip and scissored my arms outward hard, and my wrists ground into his neck

He didn't have a chance. He'd barely started to grab my wrists, but he couldn't do a damn thing about it because he was unconscious in no more than two short seconds, and I gave him a final squeeze as he sagged, then I dropped him.

I left him there and turned around and walked to the door of the dressing room. I was still so damned mad I didn't even knock, just slammed open the door and went in.

Chapter Two

I DON'T know what I expected to find in there after the warning old unconscious had just given me. Maybe I expected a dead body.

There was a body, all right, but it was about the least dead body I'd seen lately: Lorraine, Sweet Lorraine, and she looked up in surprise as I came bursting in.

She was sitting before a dressing table ringed with open light bulbs, wearing a yellow dressing gown that was too old for so young a lady, and she should have thrown it away, and she could throw it away any time she felt like it as far as I was concerned. And I was getting concerned. Close up, her face was cuter than it had appeared on the dance floor. She had impudent eyes and lips and a little button of a nose that wasn't quite big enough for the full lips that looked willing and big blue eyes that looked wise. I would have enjoyed talking to her immensely, only she wasn't alone.

In a chair on her left was a man who also looked up when I came in. There wasn't surprise on his face so much as a cold kind of fury, and in the few seconds while we all said nothing, I looked him over good.

He was somewhere in his middle thirties. He looked prosperous and well fed, though he wasn't tall, but he also looked as if he'd come up in the world the hard way and got tougher with every inch of the climb. There weren't any marks on his face that didn't look as if they'd been stamped there by time and ambition and maybe greed, but his face looked frozen, as if it had been dipped in liquid oxygen, and I got the crazy impression that if he smiled his face would crack and splinter like the animated-cartoon characters that jump into empty swimming pools.

Not that there was anything Donald Duckish about him. If he looked like any kind of animal other than man, it was like a predatory bird: a hawk. Primarily because of his eyes and nose. The nose was pinched in at the nostrils, making him look like a man with a head cold sucking for air, and his eyes were small and dark. But the small eyes were set far apart in his face so that the proportions didn't seem exactly right. It was almost as if he were looking at me from opposite sides of his brain, sizing me up.

And I guess he was sizing me up, but he did it fast, because shortly after I stepped into the dressing room he swore at me like a man who'd decided my ancestry in five seconds. It took him about that long; he stared at me when I came in the door, and that hard face seemed to congeal for a breath, then he pulled his mouth open like a man doing it from memory and said, "You son of a bitch."

What the hell was everybody so mad at me for? I thought about choking this one, too, for a minute, but though I was still so griped I could hardly think straight, I ignored him for the moment and turned to the girl.

She said, "What are you doing in here?" She sounded just as she looked: surprised.

I said, "I sent you a note saying I wanted to talk to you. Didn't you get it?"

She shook her head. "No. What note? What for?"

"It was on my card. You worked with Isabel Ellis. I want to talk to you about her. Privately, if you don't mind." I calmed down a bit, remembering this was her dressing room and that I'd just barged in. I said, "I'm sorry about busting in this way, but I had a little trouble outside. I—got steamed up."

She shook her head. "But I don't even know any Isabel Ellis."

That stopped me. I said, "Huh?" I started to add some more, then looked at the frozen-faced guy who was still glaring at me. He glanced at the girl, and she said to me, "It's all right. Go on."

My head was still spinning. I said, "You don't know her? Maybe you knew her as Isabel Bing; that was her maiden name." She looked blank, and I asked her, "You know a detective named William Carter, though, don't you?"

She shook her head again. I was going around in circles. I asked her, "Can we go over this in private? It won't take more than a few minutes."

She didn't need to answer. The hawk-faced guy got up and gave me one last glare, looking as if he were ready to split down the middle, then stalked out. I wondered who he was and what he was doing here, but then I stopped wondering because I remembered my singsong friend lying in the hall right where he could step on him as he walked out. And I remembered that this call was supposed to be such a simple thing that I hadn't carried along my revolver. Perhaps I should have checked the fellow I'd choked and made sure he didn't have a gun. People hardly ever carry guns, at least nice people don't, but then, he hadn't been a nice person.

I said to Lorraine, "Look, I apologize for throwing my weight around your room, but I've got to get some information. And I—can't stay long. How about this Isabel?"

"I told you I don't know her."

"She worked with you here a few months ago. Cigarette girl."

She just looked blank some more. Then she said, "I don't even know who
you
are."

She was right. "I forgot you didn't get my card," I said. "My name's Shell Scott. I'm a private detective. Look, I'll make this fast. A couple of nights ago another private detective, a guy named William Carter, came here and talked to you. He wanted the same information I do. What you know about Isabel Ellis, and where she went from here. It was my impression that you told him and that he followed whatever lead you gave him—and he went from here straight to Las Vegas, Nevada. What about that?"

"Nothing about it. There's nothing to it. I don't know what you're talking about."

"You are Lorraine Mandel, aren't you?"

"Yes."

And that was the end of the conversation. That was very nearly the end of everything. Because behind me a voice said, "That's enough for now, Scott, so shut your face and let's go," and it was said in a singsong and I knew he had a gun before I even turned around. I was right.

I went peacefully into the hall and the guy pulled the door shut, making sure I wasn't close to him when he did it. He was wearing his big-toothed smile, but it looked tired. He said, "I told you what I'd do to you, Scott."

"I could have choked you a little longer, friend."

"Might be you should have. You better listen to me good this time, Scott. You stand right there for a minute, then you do what I say, and you listen good now." He paused a second or two, then said slowly, no singsong, "Stay clear the hell away from Vegas. You got that? You don't, and you'll get killed. Killed for sure, all the way dead. And forget this Carter crap. Forget Carter, forget Vegas, forget Lorraine, forget me. It's a promise: If you don't forget good, you'll get killed by somebody."

BOOK: Find This Woman
5.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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