Authors: Richard S. Prather
I was looking right out through the huge picture windows in the lobby's far wall at the Olympic-size figure-eight swimming pool being used by more women than you could shake at. On my left was the desk, and beyond it the hallway to the downstairs rooms and the stairway up to the second floor front, and straight ahead was the Cactus Room, and humming and buzzing on my right beyond the stairs to the Sky Room Cocktail Lounge was the twenty-four-hour-a-day casino. The whole inside of the hotel and the area around the pool was boiling with people.
Here in this mass of men and women there wasn't too much trouble that could come my way, but no matter if eighteen torpedoes were after me, the noise and life and gaiety looked so good to me that from here on out the Shell Scott motto was "Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead."
And now, for the first time, I could really look at a little part of Las Vegas again. I was in the land of sunshine and desert and quickie divorces and gambling fever and nine thousand beautiful women and more. Now I could look at it and smell it and hear it. And now I could really tell it was Helldorado. Maybe I'd been too preoccupied up till this moment to notice, but here inside the doors of the most beautiful luxury hotel in Las Vegasâand one of the most beautiful anywhere, for my moneyâI couldn't miss it.
Helldorado: when a whole town goes pleasantly berserk for four days and uncounted thousands of people crowd into Las Vegas and jam together in the side-by-side gambling halls downtown or rub shoulders out here in the luxury hotels and casinos on the Strip; when a whole town stands on its head and does a Western can-can complete with brass bands and parades, beauty contests and world-championship rodeos, cowboys and real Indians, and beards and babes and bottles. It's a robust pioneer town, model 1951, with all the yahoo and yippee and red-eyed hallelujah of resurrected Tombstone and the Comstock and Custer's Last Stand, and thousands of crazy people live for four days with their boots on.
It's what they call the "Mardi Gras with pistols," a wild and wonderful town with, all day long and all night long, guns going off. . . Guns going off?
I wished I were back in Los Angeles.
But I was here, so I went on in. I pushed through the crowd in the lobby, about two out of ten of the people in some kind of Western costume, and right in front of me a cute little gal in a black-and-white cowgirl outfit of calfskin jacket and skirt stamped a little white boot and put another nickel in a slot machine. She looked up and smiled brightly at me, apparently for no other reason than that she felt good. I smiled back at her for no reason at all. I squeezed past her and into the lush casino. Till now all I'd heard was voices and the whir of slot machines, but in the big gaming room I could hear the dealers at roulette and dice tables calling the points and the numbers. On my right as I went in was the Lady Luck Bar, the "longest bar in Nevada," and behind it on the wall light was still flickering from number to number around the oversize roulette wheel, which meant that somebody seated at one of the matching numbers at the bar would wind up with a free silver dollar.
The place was so jammed that I didn't see Freddy right away, but I walked around the table of hot hors d'oeuvres and then between the cocktail tables on my left and the bar on my right, till almost at the end I spotted him.
I should have known. He was completely oblivious of all the hubbub around him, and was leaning forward talking to a woman seated at the far end of the Lady Luck Bar. I couldn't tell much about her except that she had a whole mass of hair piled high on top of her head. Even for me, that was almost too much hair. But if Freddy was all wrapped up in a fast conversation with her, she was probably choice enough. As I walked closer to them I noticed a young guy pounding on the bar with a silver dollar, trying to get a drink out of Freddy. Freddy kept on talking.
He said something to the girl and she laughed, throwing back her head. It was a nice, healthy, honest laugh and I liked it. I was feeling better. I got clear up to the end and stopped about a foot from the girl, between her stool and the next one, which was also occupied. Freddy was going along a mile a minute, his blue eyes merry under straight, thick eyebrows as black as his crinkly hair. He had good strong teeth and you saw a lot of them because he was a happy kind of guy. And a damned good-looking guy.
I just stood there, and I hadn't paid much attention to the girl, but I looked at her as she took a cigarette out of her mouth, stuck out her tongue, and brushed at a stray bit of tobacco with the tip of a long red fingernail. Just as she flicked it away, she slanted her eyes over toward me. I was gawking at her, and her lips curved a little and her eyes wrinkled with the start of a smile.
I was dead.
She was beautiful, out of this world, wonderful. It hit me all in a rush, with no details right away, but only the first total impression of her, and I just stood there and looked. The wide-eyed innocence of a brand new Eve bloomed on her face, but it was on a body that had been improved through two billion years: a body that was sex boiled and distilled till only the essence was left. She had rust-red hair and soft brown eyes, and lips that were mobile and full and smooth, but I had to get back to that incredible body.
She was Woman, that's all, just sex on wheels in high gear and going downhill; no brakes and a hand on the horn. She wasn't in Western costume; she was dressed for afternoon cocktails in a black skirt and a wine-colored faille jacket worn outside the skirt and held with a wide golden belt. The collar of the jacket stood up behind her neck, with two little points like wings at each side of her head, and the front slanted down in a wide V, and her white breasts peeked out of the V as if anxious to get a good look, which also described me at the moment.
And she couldn't have been wearing a brassiere because there just wasn't room for it. She might have been wearing two Band-aids, but nothing much bigger than that. And right at those points in my pleasant conjectures she leaned way over, way to hell over, and stubbed out her cigarette, and in the wine-tinted shadow cast by her jacket as it fell forward away from her body I caught a curving flash of creamy white blending into a rosy sphere and I knew for sure she wasn't wearing Band-aids.
I was being rude and lecherous and not at all the little gentleman, and my only excuse was that I didn't even know it: I simply stood there like a dying man who had only that moment discovered that women were different. I just stood there and stood there and looked and looked.
She didn't seem to mind. She didn't seem to mind a bit. But finally she turned her head and looked at me and said in a soft, crackly voice that would take the sting out of anything and that went with the face, "Darn you, mister, you're making me nervous." But she didn't mean it, because her misty brown eyes didn't mean it and her lips were smiling, and because she took a deep breath and held it. It was just a sentence, a conversational gambit, and I said, "Hello, you're wonderful," and hoped that if I got killed on this trip it would wait at least till this night was over, wait at least till tomorrow, because she wasn't getting away from me, not this one.
I'd forgotten about Freddy, but then he yelped, "Shell!! Why, you old satyr, you. When'd you get in?"
I didn't look at him right away because I winced a little and kept watching the girl's face to see what that "satyr" would do to it. It didn't do anything. She didn't seem to have noticed.
Then I turned and grinned at Freddy. "Hello, you bum. Watch your language." I stuck out my hand and he grabbed it and pumped it up and down while I said I'd just got into town, and how's it going?
He shook his head. "The town's starting to roar. They been keeping me busy." Then he frowned. "Shell, I couldn't get a place for you. The whole Strip's jammed."
"It's O.K. Uh, learn anything else?"
"That Carter guy? Nothing. Blank. I guess I didn't do you much good, huh?"
I winced again, but this time because I wasn't anxious to
have the name Carter bandied around too freely till I knew for sure what had happened to him. But I said, "Hell, it's good just to see you. You can make us even. Introduce me."
"Huh?" He tried to look puzzled. With that happy face he didn't make it. I didn't add anything.
So he frowned and looked at me and then at the lovely and then back at me. "I'm damned if I will," he said, and he grinned all over his face.
I looked at the girl again. "You're Irish," I said. "Eight to five you're Irish."
She smiled, and that all by itself made me feel good. She said, "You win. I'm Colleen Shawn. Pay me."
That little crackle in her voice made it sound almost as if she were catching a cold, but it wasn't at all unpleasant to my ears. It was fun to listen to her speak, but it didn't make you want to laugh at her; it was just attractive.
Colleen looked across the bar. "Freddy, do what the horrible man says. Introduce us."
He said frantically, "You don't know him. He's got a diseased mind. He's got a club brain. He's demented. He's a Communist. He's a super-spy.
He's just an old spy failure. He sits in attics and eats cobwebs and thinks evil, evilâ"
She was laughing with that same crackle in her laughter, but she waved her hand at him and said, "Oh, stop it. Come on, Freddy. Be sweet."
He said, "As you know, old pal, this is Mrs. Colleen Shawn. Mrs. Shawn, this ugly, broken-nosed neurotic is Shell Scott. He is a private detective and will probably lock you up."
I choked, because for a moment there I'd misunderstood him. "I'd like to," I told her. Then I asked, "Mrs.?"
"Not any more," she said, and damned if she didn't lift up her hand and dangle it before me like in days of old when people went around grabbing hands and kissing them. I'd be happy to kiss her hand, I'd be happy indeed, but I knew what I
she'd dangled before me.
I took her hand in mine and said elaborately, "Mrs. Shawn," and feeling quite silly, I put her hand against my mouth and kissed the backs of her fingers.
She kept looking at me and said softly, "Mr. Satyr."
I twitched involuntarily, and she pressed her cool fingers tighter against my lips, and with her thumb and index finger she gently squeezed the corner of my mouth. And what happened to that wide-eyed innocent face was like eight ounces of adrenalin squirted into my blood stream. Her lips moved only slightly, and her eyes narrowed just a trifle, and she raised an eyebrow no more than a fraction of an inch, but I thought my vertebrae were going to go
like thirty-three castanets and shiver into little pieces.
Then she took her hand away and said, "How do you do, Mr. Scott?"
"How does he do," groaned Freddy. Then, "All right, all right, I'm coming," and he walked down to get a very thirsty man a drink.
"Colleen," I said, "or is it Mrs. Shawn?"
"I'm not a Mrs. any more; I've had the six-week salvation here. And, anyway, it's Colleen."
"Tell me all about yourself," I said. "Everything."
She smiled slightly at that, and gave me a trace of the previous look, but she said, "You tell me something about you."
Usually men like to talk about themselves, and she undoubtedly knew that, because I was getting convinced that this was a wise woman indeed, but right now I was more interested in her. But so that we didn't go through one of those horrible you-tell-me-no-you-tell-me deals, I said, "Not much about me. I'm thirty, a bachelor, a private detective. Office in Los Angeles and an apartment in Hollywood. I think you're lovely and I'd like to monopolize you, only. . . " I stopped. I'd actually forgotten, for these last few minutes, what I was up here for.
She asked, "Only what?"
"OnlyâI think I may be pretty busy."
"That's not what I meant."
"âor private detecting?"
"Well, both, if
going to be around town and if I don't get all wound up detecting." I almost added, "Or wounded up."
She smiled. "I'll be around through Helldorado, I guess. I'm just enjoying myself."
Somebody tapped me on the shoulder. It was Freddy. "What are you doing on this side of the bar?" I asked him. He picked up my left arm, pulled back my sleeve, and tapped my watch. "Where you been? It's after six. Come on up to the room and I'll give you the scoop on the housing situation."
"O.K." I turned to Colleen. "You staying at the hotel?"
"I might give you a ring. O.K.?"
"I'm in One-o-seven. Or I'll be down here somewhere."
"Good enough. I'll find you." I turned and followed Freddy toward his room. On the way I stopped at the desk and Freddy waited while I checked on William Carter again. I was hoping to hell that he'd strolled in with mission accomplished, because this place was getting into my blood and Colleen was much on my mind, and I could think of any number of things I'd rather do during Helldorado Week than look for Isabel Ellis.
But it looked as though I might also wind up looking for William Carter, because the guy was still among the missing. At least Lorraine wasn't missing any more; not that that was good. The clerk on duty knew nothing at all about Mr. Carter except that he wasn't present or accounted for. I found out that the clerk who'd checked him in wouldn't be around again till tomorrow, then followed Freddy to his room.
Ordinarily Freddy lived in a rooming house farther downtown, but he was in Room 209 at the front of the hotel on the second floor for Helldorado Week. He was keeping it as a "base of operations," he said, and he didn't explain that. He didn't need to explain. When we got inside the room the first thing my eyes lit on was the bed, and I was surprised at how good it looked. Now that the noise and excitement weren't bubbling around me I could feel the fatigue sticky inside my body. All the running around I'd done this morning, and the long drive up here, added to the beating that had given aches and twinges of pain that were still with me, suddenly ganged up on me. I needed some rest. Even my brain was dulled with fatigue.