Double in Trouble
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by Richard Prather
Description: "As far as I'm concerned, Richard S. Prather was the King of the paperback P.I writers of the 60s. Shell Scott should be in the Top Ten of any readers list of favorite private eyes."
--Robert J. Randisi
For four decades, Richard S. Prather published over 40 works of detective fiction, most featuring his clever, cad-about-town hero, Shell Scott. Known for their arched humor, punchy dialogue, and sunny Southern California locale, the Shell Scott books represent one of the greatest private eye collections ever produced.
DOUBLE IN TROUBLE
A Shell Scott Mystery
"I'm Shell Scott, the Private Eye. Well, at least I have a private eye when blondes, brunettes or redhead babes are involved, and I can always spot a hot tamale. You can see why I love my work, and when I heard that Chester Drum was operating my own game on the East Coast, I was in for some ride. There's only room enough for one and Drum was working on my turf."
Honored with the Life Achievement Award by the Private Eye Writers of America!
"(Shell Scott is) as amusingly blithe a figure as the field has seen since the Saint."
eBook Publisher: E-Reads, 1959
eBookwise Release Date: December 2001
11 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [414 KB]
Reading time: 280-392 min.
Me? I'm -- Shell Scott HOLLYWOOD, 3:00 A.M., MONDAY, DECEMBER 14
I'M A PRIVATE EYE.
Most of you know me. You know I work out of Los Angeles and my cases are usually in the L.A.-Hollywood menagerie, that I'm six-two and two-hundred and five pounds, with inch-long white hair sprouting cropped-wheat fashion over my head and upside-down white V's I call eyebrows, that I like bourbon-and-water and rare prime ribs, that I'm happy-go-lookie and my favorite hangouts are women.
You've gone along with me while I got slugged on the head -- and the heart. While I met unbelievably lovely women and believably unlovely men, chased and got chased, shot and got shot, invaded nudist camps, and even flew through trees like Tarzan and dangled from airborne balloons.
There was much of the same this time. Much of the same -- plus something more. This time I met Chet Drum.
Most of you know Chet Drum, too, the private eye who works out of Washington, D.C., with the world his beat. We didn't just meet; we collided. And when Chet Drum and I collided, blood flowed like bourbon, guys died like flies, and we set off the wildest gang war this side of the Syndicate assassinating the Mafia -- with us in the middle.
But it all started when that beautiful blonde rang the chimes at the door of my Hollywood apartment.
The chimes going off bonged me slightly awake. I crawled out of bed and staggered around, grumbling, got my bearings and clumped in darkness over the bedroom's black carpet, over the living room's yellow-gold carpet with the thick shag nap that tickles feet -- and has tickled lots of feet -- and up to the front door. I flicked on the light, leaned against the door and closed my eyes.
Maybe if I didn't say anything, it would go away.
The chimes bonged again.
"Okay, okay," I said, cracked the door and peeked around it, trying to focus the one peeking eye.
"Mr. Scott? Are you Sheldon Scott?"
It was a woman's voice. I could see her sort of blurrily, and she was a tall one, ample, curving, protruding, projecting, sweeping and swooping -- in a word, stacked. All that, I could see from one sleep-doped half-lidded eye.
She watched the eye as if it fascinated her. Then she blurted, "It's dreadfully important, let me in." She even got off a word or two like "kidnaped ... awful ... ghastly." I got the fuzzy impression she was talking about her father. She sounded badly frightened.
But I wasn't about to let her in, not immediately. First I had to at least put some pants on. I sleep in nothing at all -- I'm a sleep faddist -- and I had tottered out there without even grabbing a robe. So I said, "Yeah. Just a minute." I shook my head. "What time is it?"
"Three o'clock in the morning."
"There's no such hour as three o'clock in the morning."
Silence. Then, "You're the detective, aren't you?"
"Yeah, but --"
"Please let me in."
"Just a minute."
I moved my eye away from the door-crack, fully intending to go put some pants on and splash water on my face and heat the coffee pot -- maybe even shave and shower. I really didn't know exactly what the hell I was going to do at that point, but as I moved back half a step the gal clunked into the door and leaped in very rapidly.
She eyeballed me with eyes I noticed in a flash were bright blue and lovely and extremely wide, getting extremely wider and wider, and then she let out a great shout and spun around clapping both hands over her eyes, and leaped out of the apartment even more rapidly than she'd leaped in. Crash, went the door.
Well, my eyes were pretty wide, too, by that time. I raced to the bedroom and grabbed a robe, trotted to the front door again. I opened it a bit and looked out. She was still there. And this time, awakening, and using both eyes, I got the message: long healthy blonde hair hanging full and loose behind her head, a stray loop brushing the clean whiteness of her face; skin the smooth ivory of rich whipped cream; lips that were full, well shaped, and looked warm. And now I noticed the marks of strain and fear in her face, the knitted brows, hands clasping and unclasping. She had bitten her lipstick off, too. It didn't make her lips seem pale, though; they just looked nude.
I threw the door wide. "Hello, hello. Good morning. Good three o'clock in the morning. Come in, miss. Miss?"
She didn't smile. She didn't do anything except walk inside. She blinked at my white hair, my slightly broken nose, on down to my big bare feet -- they're too big, really, especially bare -- and then up to my face again. Not however, as if discovering something gay and modern and exciting, but rather as if studying a crumbling old statue in a museum.
"You really are Sheldon Scott, aren't you? You really are the detective?"
"Yeah, I really am. Is that ... so horrible?" She had lit the fire, but was starting to put it out. I am not crazy to have well-stacked blondes study me like crumbling old statues.
"I ... just didn't know what you looked like. You're, well, not exactly what I expected."
I'm usually not, worse luck. Well, now she knew what I looked like. Thinking about it, I had to stifle a grin. She must have been thinking there with me, because she was also suppressing a smile.
With her nude lips curving up at the corners, she said, "For one thing, you're so tall, so --" she smothered a chuckle -- "so big. I rather expected a little short man."
"Well, I ... have elevator feet. I suppose I should cover them up with socks, or old gunnysacks --"
"No, it's all right. I don't mind ... feet."
It sounded sort of weird. And she was still looking me up and down. There must be something, I said to myself, uneasily. So I looked me up and down. Of course. It was the robe. I had grabbed it in the dark, and it is the robe I wear only on intimate occasions -- when the two of you sit on the floor drinking gin out of Martini glasses, or Martinis out of gin glasses, playing wild Oriental-type music over the big Altec-Lansing speakers, and playing the kind of games two play when you sit on the floor drinking, and so on.
It was red and white and had a purple green-eyed dragon on it, and the dragon was breathing fire on fleeing Oriental tomatoes, whose wispy garments were not of asbestos. "I can't seem to do anything right this morning," I said. "I didn't know I had this robe on."
She started to smile again.
"I mean," I said, "I didn't know I had this robe on. I would never have worn it. Ah ... I usually only wear it in the dark. I mean, ah."
"It's all right. I rather like it."
"You do? Well, now that you've admitted it, I'll tell you the truth. I'm crazy about it. It was a gift, anyhow. You know what they say, give a man enough robe.... Little French-Chinese gal named Fou-Fou gave it to me. Bought it in Hong Kong for me. Never did know her last name. Just called her Fou-Fou Manchu. I don't know why I'm telling you all this. Perhaps I can get out of this mire if you'll tell me what to call you."
"Oh." She seemed to come back from somewhere. "I'm Alexis Frost." She paused. For a little while there she'd been more relaxed, the worry lines in her face had smoothed. But suddenly they came back. She looked frightened again. "I ... almost forgot, for a moment, why I came here, Mr. Scott."
"It's my father. I think something's happened to him. Something awful. He's not at his home. I'm afraid he's been killed, or --"
She was getting all wound up again, her voice rising. I said quietly, "Please sit down. Miss Frost. Is it Miss or Mrs.?"
She smiled, but without much warmth this time. "Miss. I'm not married." She silently worried her lip.
I left her briefly, threw on some clothes. When I went back into the living room Alexis was looking around. She examined the two tanks of colorful tropical fish to the left of the door, and the gaudy yard-square nude of "Amelia" on the opposite wall above my fake fireplace. She reacted normally for a woman. Audibly, with approval of the pretty little fishes; inaudibly, but with eloquently disapproving eyes and mouth for Amelia. She glanced around a moment more, then walked to the monstrous chocolate-brown divan and sat down. I joined her, tried to size her up. She wore a knitted wool dress, and knitted wool on a well-shaped woman does perhaps more than any other cloth to emphasize the charming hills and valleys, the provocations and undulations, of the well-shaped woman. This Alexis had the landscape, but there was something missing. Something -- I didn't know what.
She was a big, healthy tomato with plenty of tomato juice in her, but somehow without all the usual seasoning. It was as if the bold promise in Alexis' curves was given with Alexis' fingers crossed; as if she were a gal who would surely wear gauzy and frilly and enticing wisps -- but that the fact would remain a matter for conjecture. And there was a hint of chill in her blue eyes, just a hint. They weren't the blue of spring skies, but of thin winter ice. The beauty was there, but it was a kind of unthawed beauty. Or maybe I was goofy. Maybe she merely required defrosting, like a refrigerator.
I said, "Now, what's the trouble. Miss Frost?"
"I went to see my father tonight. He lives near here, on Harvard Boulevard. When I arrived, he wasn't there. We had something to discuss, something important. He would have been there if he possibly could." She paused. "But he's gone. And his house has been searched."
"Why would anybody search your father's house? Who is he, anyway?"
She turned the blue eyes on me and said, "It isn't just that his house was searched. There's more to it than that. Do you know anything about the Hartsell Committee?"
"Sure. Quite a bit, in fact."
Technically the committee Alexis had referred to was composed of members from both the Labor and Welfare Committee and the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations of the U.S. Senate, but the popular name was "Hartsell Committee" after its chairman. Senator Blair Hartsell. For two years or so the Committee had been turning up corruption in labor-management relations, and another series of hearings was scheduled to begin in Washington, D.C., on Monday, December 21. This was Sunday night -- actually early Monday morning now, the 14th of December -- so those hearings would begin a week from today.
The target this time was the National Brotherhood of Truckers, the biggest and, for my money, most corrupt union in the national picture, headed by a tough, hard-boiled union boss named Mike Sand.
Although I'd never had anything to do with Sand or the Brotherhood's headquarters in Washington, D.C., I had banged against the muggs who ran the local here in L.A. There were so many crooks in Local 280, the Los Angeles Truckers local, that in my job I'd tangled with the officials or their goons on several occasions.
Another of the personal reasons for my interest in the Truckers, and what Hartsell might turn up, was that one of my best friends, a red-haired Irishman named Braun Thorn, was a dues-paying member of the Truckers L.A. local. But he paid the dues -- because he had to pay them or lose his job -- under loud and continuing protest. He was perhaps the most vocal of the rank-and-filers actively opposed to the corrupt local leadership, and had thus become, literally, a Thorn in the union's side here.
Twice in the last two years, following up leads Braun had given me, I'd tangled -- inconclusively -- with the local's leadership, and its president, an ex-con named Ragen. John Ragen. And he and his fellow officials were almost as much fun as a knife in the back.
I mentioned some of that to Alexis, ending it with, "So I know quite a lot about the local boys, and a little about the national operation."
"That makes it easier to explain. You probably know then, that Senator Hartsell announced he would produce a surprise witness when the hearings begin again."
"Uh-huh. Got a little play in the newspapers. Supposed to be bad news for the Truckers, something like that."
"Yes. The surprise witness is -- or was -- to be Dr. Gideon Frost. He's my father."
She'd hooked me. The big labor racketeers look with a bloodshot eye -- often their shot, your blood -- upon people who can accurately testify that they are, in fact, big labor racketeers. I'd heard Frost's name, but knew only that he was an authority on labor-management relations, some kind of economist or professor who had made a massive study of the labor movement.
I looked at Alexis. "You said he was to be a surprise witness. The way I got it, nobody except Hartsell and a few others knew who the surprise was going to be."
Alexis said slowly, "Yes. It wasn't supposed to be known until he appeared before the Committee and actually testified. Partly to -- for his own protection. But, well, these things leak out sometimes." She paused, turned those blue eyes on me again. "I don't even know yet if you'll help me, Mr. Scott."
"Shell, Sure, I'll do all I can." I told Alexis she'd hired a private investigator and we settled my fee. Then I asked her if she'd gone to the police. She hadn't.
"If you have to talk to the police," she said, "try to avoid connecting Dad's disappearance, if that's what it is, with the Hartsell Committee's work. And you must give me your word to keep my name entirely out of your investigation. Don't tell anybody that I came to see you, or hired you. I mustn't be involved at all."
"Want to tell me why?"
"I've good reasons. They have nothing to do with your investigation, Mr. Scott."
I let it ride. "You're pretty sure that if your father's in trouble, it's because he was going to testify against the Truckers, right?"
She nodded. "And there's no question in my mind. He is in terrible danger -- if he isn't already dead."
"I don't know much about Dr. Frost except that he was going to hack at the union boys. Could he have drawn blood?"
"Okay. I'll check out the Truckers. Any specific suggestions?"
"Only the obvious one, Mike Sand." She moistened her lips. "Not only my father's testimony, but the whole Hartsell Committee Hearings, are aiming at him, because he's the president. Him specifically, the union generally. Others, too, but mainly Mike Sand."
Alexis told me what she could about her father: his address, description, habits and so on. Then she stood up to go.
"Where can I get in touch with you. Miss Frost?" Usually by this time it would have been Shell and Alexis. But to her I was still Mr. Scott, and that thin ice in her eyes kept me calling her Miss Frost.
"I'm registered at the Ambassador Hotel, Mr. Scott."
"Shell?" It didn't work this time, either.
She went to the door and I let her out.
I stood there thinking about it all for a minute, then shrugged, stepped into the hall and locked the apartment door behind me.
The Spartan Apartment Hotel is on North Rossmore in Hollywood, a couple of minutes' drive from Hollywood and Vine. My late model Cadillac, a sky-blue convertible coupe, was parked a short distance down Rossmore. As I walked out of the Spartan, Alexis was just leaving in her taxi. A block down Rossmore to my right a car pulled away from the curb, moving in shadow. Something was odd about the car, but it didn't register right away. I was wondering about Alexis. After years of talking to people, interrogating witnesses, sifting the truth from lies, a guy develops a sort of invisible nostril, which sniffs the fishy exclusively. And mine was now twitching. There'd been something fishy about Alexis, or her story. But I didn't have any idea what it was.
I walked toward the Cad, and the car I'd noticed seconds before passed me on the street, continued on in the direction Alexis' cab had taken. And then I figured out what had seemed odd about it. The car was a new gray Buick sedan -- and its lights were out. As Alexis' cab disappeared around a turn in the road, the Buick's lights went on and it jumped forward as the driver stepped on the gas. I'd noticed two men in the car, but that was all, just two forms.
I sprinted to the Cad, jumped in and whipped it around in a U-turn, jammed down the gas pedal. Half a minute later I spotted both cars, the cab at a stop sign, the Buick half a block back. I pulled up close behind the Buick as it slowed for a sign, tried to read the license number. I couldn't. The plate was smeared with mud. Mud. It hadn't rained in L.A. for three weeks.
I followed the two cars as they swung left and then turned into a side street. I started to close in on the Buick again -- and it turned right. The parade was suddenly two cars, just the cab and me. I shook my head and grinned. Me and my invisible nostril. So the Buick's owner hadn't washed his car in months. Of such acorn items are oakish clues made.
I suppose I was still chuckling sheepishly when lights splashed my rear-view mirror. The lights loomed bright and quickly got much closer. I pulled over a little. Alexis' cab was about two blocks ahead, nearly to Olympic.
The lights behind me left the mirror as the car swung out, and I heard the whine of its engine. And then I started getting it. My hands tightened on the wheel -- and there was the high harsh screech of tires skidding on the street. The car loomed on my left, swerving slightly. Movement was a blur in the window nearest me. I ducked, jerking the steering wheel, slapping my foot toward the brake pedal. Two shots cracked in the night, hard flat blasts; flame flared in the other car's window.
I threw myself sideways, hanging onto the wheel with my left hand, right hand slapping my chest. The gun wasn't there. Usually I carry it when I'm away from the apartment, but this time I'd left without it. My foot was jamming the brake pedal and the Cad was slowing, swerving. I straightened up, gripped the wheel with both hands and put my foot on the gas pedal again. If that car was still close, I meant to ram it. But they were gunning ahead, not waiting around. In the glare of my headlights I got a quick look at the car. Its right-front fender was crumpled. But it was a gray Buick sedan. I couldn't see the license plate, but I knew there'd be mud on it.
Not until then did I notice the Cad was pulling, angling toward the left side of the street. There was a grinding thumping noise. They'd shot out a front tire with those two shots. I pulled on the wheel, stopped at the right side of the street next to the curb.
Far ahead, the cab carrying Alexis turned left into Olympic Boulevard, followed seconds later by the Buick. Then they were gone. I swore, got out and looked at the flat.
Looking at it didn't help. I opened the luggage compartment, hauled out the spare. I only swore a little more while changing the tire.
After putting in a call to the police complaint board and reporting what had happened, I drove to Dr. Frost's home on Harvard Boulevard. The house was obviously Dr. Frost's -- letters, his books on the wall, a framed portrait told me that. Alexis had said he was fifty-one years old, over six feet tall, and quite heavy; the face in the portrait was heavy, almost handsome, with straggly eyebrows and bushy gray hair. The place had been thoroughly searched, cushions out of place, drawers open. Alexis had told me her father owned a black Volkswagen. It wasn't around, and the garage was empty, its doors open.
I was beginning to feel more and more uncomfortable without my gun, so shortly after four A.M. I drove back to the Spartan. I had strapped on the gun harness, complete with snub-nosed .38 Colt Special, and was putting on my coat when the apartment phone rang. Alexis, maybe? I thought. I reached it, picked it up and said hello.
"Shell?" It was a man's voice.
"Braun. I ..."
"Braun? That's funny, I was just thinking about --" I cut it off. He'd sounded strange. It hadn't even resembled Braun's brisk, pleasant voice.
"I'm ... hurt, Shell. Finley gas station. Mile or two ... up Spring Can -- Canyon." He groaned.
"What's the matter? Braun, what happened?"
"Shot. I --" Noise clattered in my ear. It sounded as if he'd dropped the receiver. I heard a soft thump, scraping noises, then nothing.
I didn't even hang up the phone. I dropped it and ran to the door, slammed through it. I leaped down the stairs, stumbled and almost fell. When I reached my Cad I was cold all over, and sweat was slick on my forehead. I went straight up Rossmore to Sunset and across it moments after the light turned red.
Spring Canyon Road runs from Hollywood Boulevard up toward the Hollywood hills, winding, a quiet residential district for about half a mile, then only a few houses scattered in open brush-filled land. I slid into Spring Canyon and pushed the gas pedal to the floorboards.
He'd sounded hurt, hurt bad. And he must have been in a bad way or he wouldn't even have called me. He was like that. He was like a lot of things, all of them good in my book. Not tall, but strong and husky, red-haired, with a kind of pleasant homeliness and a warmth that flowed out of him and wrapped itself around you. I'd been out on the town with him, had dinners at his home with Braun and his sweet-faced younger sister, Kelly. Six years now, we'd known each other. And during all those years he'd been a member of the L.A. local of the Truckers.
That thought came into my mind suddenly and stuck there. Stuck there with the thought of Alexis, the case I'd just been hired for. Why tonight? Why would Braun call me tonight of all nights?
Then, off on the road on my right, I saw movement. Something moving in the glare of my headlights. A square building, a small gas station, white in my headlights beam, and silhouetted against it the figure of a man. Bent, twisted; it looked like a sagging misshapen scarecrow. I hit the brakes, slid to a stop at the side of the road, went out of the car at a run.
The ground was lumpy, uneven, and as I neared the man I stumbled, staggered and caught myself. I came to a sudden stop a few yards from him, stayed motionless for seconds, looking at him.
It wasn't Braun. It couldn't be Braun. The face was lumpy, swollen, torn. The face was red and white ugliness, not a face at all. He moved toward me slowly, his body bent forward, twisted. He walked like a man moving through thick mud, awkwardly and stiffly like a man trying out artificial legs, like something in a nightmare. In the beam of my headlights his mouth hung slack, his eyes stared.
Then I snapped out of it, jumped toward him. When I reached for him he fell suddenly, as if a cord holding him up had been cut. He brushed my fingers and I grabbed his arms convulsively, grabbed them tight and hung on. He went down, pulling me to one knee, but I held him, tried to pull him toward me.
His head flopped back loosely as if his neck were flesh emptied of bone and muscle, almost as though it were a hollow tube of skin without strength or life in it. But he was still alive. I put one hand behind his head, lifted it And he stared at me, his eyes aware. It was Braun, all right, Braun Thorn. What was left of him.
His mouth was open. He was straining to speak. Sound sighed from his throat -- one clear word, ending in a whisper. Blood bubbled from his mouth. Still he tried to speak, strained to force out the words. He tried to smile. He actually tried to smile. He died like that.
He just stopped straining. His features smoothed a little. Only a little. And then he was dead. He sagged against my hands. I held his arms tight. I didn't want to let him go. I didn't want to let him down onto the earth. While I held him, it almost seemed in a crazy way that maybe he was still alive; but if I let him crumple on the ground he'd be gone. I held him until my arms started to ache. Then I put him down.
His face was bruised and cut, puffed, his lips mashed and split. There were cuts over both eyes. Two teeth had been broken, blood was on his face and mouth. One of his arms was broken, white bone sticking through the flesh like a snapped white stick. Something had torn through his neck. A bullet, probably. The flesh there lay peeled open in an ugly furrow, dark red in the dim light. A long strip of tape was sticking to one of his wrists.
I turned him over. He'd been shot in the back. There, and also through the neck. Powder burns peppered the neck wound. I stood up. Ten yards away a car raced past on Spring Canyon Road, headlights brushing us. I walked to the small gas station. A window in one of the metal walls was broken. Inside, bits of shattered glass lay on the top of a scarred desk. On the desk was a phone's base, cord leading from it through the window and to the receiver dangling outside. There was blood on the receiver.
At my feet the ground was furrowed, as if fingers had pulled at it. Braun lay, like a lump of earth on the ground, a few yards away. Between his body and where I stood there were other, deeper furrows in the ground, where he had fallen or crawled over it.
I looked at him, thought about him. About him -- and, for a moment, about Kelly Thorn. Braun's sister. Sweet, lovely Kelly. Somebody would have to tell her. I hoped I wouldn't have to be the one. I thought about Alexis Frost, and her missing father, Dr. Gideon Frost. And I thought about that one clear word Braun had forced from his torn mouth.
The word had been, "Frost."
Then I picked up the phone, Braun's blood sticky against my palm, and put in the call to Homicide.
Copyright © 1987 by Richard S. Prather