The Cheim Manuscript
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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.
THE CHEIM MANUSCRIPT
A Shell Scott Mystery
Wilfred Jefferson Jellicoe is nowhere to be found. And the person missing him most, his ex-wife, hires Shell Scott to find him. Though alimony payments may be her motive to pursue his trail, Hollywood producer, Gideon Cheim, has another reason for calling on Scott to track this man down. For Cheim has entrusted Jellicoe with his autobiography, only to be published post-mortem. Is it coincidental that the Cheim manuscript has disappeared with the man responsible for it while Cheim lies in his hospital bed nearing death? Scott doubts that--and is determined to discover what it is that his clients are really in search of--the man, or...
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, 1969 ereads
eBookwise Release Date: December 2002
4 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [328 KB]
Reading time: 214-300 min.
They say time will tell, and on Mrs. Gladys Jellicoe it had spilled everything. She was about fifty years old and quite well preserved: she looked like a mummy. Her eyes were the color of coffee with the grounds still in it, and her hair was the same interesting shade as her eyes; she had a face to unwind cuckoo clocks and a shape like an old girdle.
She didn't exactly turn me on, since it is my habit to dally whenever possible in the company of lasses crammed with zip and sizzle, gals with flashing eyes and flaming hair, lovelies who pooch and pout and sway and wiggle. Among other things.
So what was I -- healthy, hot-blooded Shell Scott -- doing here in the Hollywood Hills with my hot blood cooling, conversing with Mrs. Jellicoe, becoming slightly nauseous with Mrs. Jellicoe?
Well, it was business.
No, I am not a mortician. Or the world's most optimistic beautician. I'm a private detective.
The business is Sheldon Scott, Investigations -- office up one floor in the Hamilton Building on Broadway in downtown LA -- and the investigations are of burglary, robbery, blackmail, murder, missing persons, assault, battery, you name it. I've handled half the crimes listed in the California Penal Code, including 578 P.C. (Issuing Fictitious Warehouse Receipts) and 653 P.C. (Tattooing of a Minor), and nine times out of ten, merely by considering the way a case begins -- from its opening notes, so to speak: notes sweet or sour, dulcet or discordant -- I can tell what the rest of the case will be like, how it will develop, how it will end.
This time, I presumed, after further nausea and excruciating pain, I would get crushed to death between two garbage trucks. If, of course, I took the case. Which didn't seem likely -- unless it was something very, very simple, that is. This time I had no intention of becoming involved with the hoodlums and thieves and killers that ordinarily seem to be my lot.
There were three reasons for this very sensible attitude. First, on the previous evening I had been with a gorgeous blonde until 4 a.m., and had thus managed to get less than three hours of sleep. Second, my last case had been simply lousy with hoods and thugs and various bad eggs, most of them members of the so-called Jimmy Violet Gang. True, there was no longer any Jimmy Violet Gang, but I had not escaped unscathed. In fact, I'd wound up in the clink myself. Third, there seemed to be trouble of a more than mild nature beginning between two of LA's remaining collections of thugs and heavies.
The two most significant such groups now active in the area were headed, in one case, by a cold-eyed creep named Eddy Lash, and, in the other, by a more pleasant-looking but no less cold-blooded killer named Mac Kiffer. And only yesterday, Sunday, somebody had sent three slugs whistling past Mac Kiffer's head. The wire -- that is, the underworld "wireless," which is almost as speedy and sometimes as accurate as Western Union -- had it that one of Eddy Lash's torpedoes had tossed the pills at Mac.
With such shenanigans commencing, and the feel in my bones of much more soon to come, I felt I would be content for a while to concentrate on nothing more wearing than, say, 578 P.C. or 653 P.C.
Mrs. Gladys Jellicoe had phoned me at my apartment, in Hollywood's Spartan Apartment Hotel, just before I left for the office at 8 a.m. on this already warm September morning. She had asked me to come to her home on Spring Oak Drive up in the hills north of Hollywood, and her voice, which was faintly reminiscent of a toothless musical saw, was the first small warning that, perhaps, this case might not turn out to be one of those real fun ones.
The second hint of jollity undone occurred when I parked my robin's-egg-blue Cad convertible on Spring Oak, climbed out and headed for the two-story white house. As I walked toward the front door I noticed the ripple of green curtains as someone inside peered out at me. The someone was Mrs. Jellicoe, for before I rang she flung the door open and gawked at me like Dracula's mother taking her first peek into the crib.
Well, I am six feet, two inches tall and weigh two hundred and five pounds, and often people who know nothing of my years in the service have been able to guess, correctly, that I am an ex-Marine. Some have even guessed, incorrectly, that I was hit in the face by a dud mortar shell.
While it is true that my nose has been slightly fractured a couple of times and made good as new once, I have through the years come to feel merely that it has more character than most noses. Also, there is a fine scar over my right eye, and a little bit of a piece gone from the tip of my left ear, and a few hardly noticeable indentations and lines of character upon my face, but they are practically invisible in a dim light.
Of course, I was standing in the glare of the morning sun, which undoubtedly caused my short-cropped springing-into-the-air hair and up-and-down-slanting brows to appear even more startlingly white against the deep tan of my face than they would have in a less unflattering light, like moonlight.
Possibly germane, upon arising, and while still asleep, I had chosen to dress in one of my favorite outfits: bright-blue blazer with the interesting silver-nugget buttons, pale-pink silk shirt and pink socks to match, sky-blue trousers the color of my Cadillac, and dandy white Italian shoes, which all but completed the dashing cavalier air I hoped to convey. The final touch was a tie, rather bright, with red seahorses embroidered upon it.
While it is not an ensemble I'd choose to wear should I be tailing a keen-eyed crook, for a warm summer morning after a hot summer night it had struck me as just the thing.
It seemed not to strike Mrs. Jellicoe thus. Whatever the reason, she gazed upon me with apparent dismay. I was scrutinizing her rather closely myself.
Finally she said, "Are you. . .?"
"I'm Shell Scott. You're Mrs. Jellicoe?"
"You're. . . the detective?"
"Well, I'm a detective. I'm the one you called. Not more than half an hour ago, remember?"
"Are you. . . successful?"
What a dumb question, I thought. Then I ran a hand over my face, pinched my nose, fondled my ear, thinking back. "Well, you win a few, you lose a few," I said. "But on the whole I've a pretty good record."
After a while I said, "Did you want to see me about anything in particular?"
"Oh, do forgive me. Please come in, Mr. Scott."
She led me through the house, toward the back, and on the way mumbled a partial explanation of why she'd called me. I gathered that Mrs. Jellicoe's problem was her husband. It figured. Or, rather, her ex-husband. It figured. As she led me outside and behind the house into what she called the "garden" -- about forty square feet of crabgrass bordered by a few despairing peonies -- she said that he "seemed to be" missing, and she was vastly concerned about him. Then she looked around at the peonies and a couple of scraggly rosebushes and mumbled, "I don't know why it is, but I just can't seem to get flowers to grow for me."
I knew why. Flowers are little people. And she horrified them. I know lots of things I usually don't even mention. We sat in low wicker chairs, which brought my knees up to just a fraction of an inch under my chin, and I said, "Missing?"
"Yes. At least, I haven't heard from Jelly in well over a month. He must be dead. He never fails to write me at least once a month. He has to write me at least once a month."
I cocked my head on one side. "Jelly?"
"My ex. My former husband."
She stopped. So I said, "Well, that -- ah -- I don't suppose that's his, full name?"
She gave me a dull look. "Of course not. His full name is Wilfred Jefferson Jellicoe. Jelly is just what I always called him. It was a -- you know -- a pet name."
He must have loved it, I thought. "You say he has to write you?"
"Yes. Every month. That's when he sends me my check. You see, we've been divorced for over a year, and in accordance with the judgment of the court Jelly must mail me a check for three thousand dollars on or before the first day of every month."
"Well. . . I don't like the word, but yes. It's merely what he owes me."
Mrs. Jellicoe waved a hand, on which a diamond of at least five carats glittered like an idol's eye. "You see, Mr. Scott, this is already the fourth of September, and I've not received the monthly letter. Nor did I receive my letter last month. I discussed the matter with Jelly by phone on the first of August. He told me he had suffered financial reverses, but would send both checks to me, without fail, by the first of September. He has not done so."
Light was dawning. "I presume you want me to run Mr. Jellicoe down and shake the six G's out of him--"
"Not exactly," she replied with some chill, her eyes momentarily glittering like the ring. "I'm quite concerned about him. He has been living at the Cavendish House in Hollywood. I have phoned there every day since the first of this month, but have not been able to reach him. He hasn't checked out; he just hasn't been seen there since Friday."
"His key's at the desk?"
"Have you checked with the police, hospitals, morgue?"
I watched her closely when I mentioned hospitals and the morgue, but she didn't clutch at her heart, or get pale and sticky. She merely replied, "No. I thought perhaps you could do that if it becomes necessary."
"Uh-huh. Well, do you have any reason to suspect foul play? That is, do you know of anyone who might have wished him harm, might have injured him?"
She smiled. "Hurt Jelly? Why would anybody want to do that?"
"Jelly simply isn't the type to make enemies. He's very mee -- easygoing. Quiet, retiring, very conservative." She smiled again, not quite so happily. "Unless he's changed during the last year. I've seen him only twice since the divorce."
"Where does he work, Mrs. Jellicoe? Have you tried there?"
"For many years Jelly was an assistant to Mr. Gideon Cheim. Perhaps he still is, but I don't know what he's been doing for the past year. And, of course, Mr. Cheim has been so ill I haven't been able to get in touch with him."
I nodded. The reason for Mrs. Jellicoe's "of course" was that all of Hollywood -- half the world, for that matter -- knew who Gideon Cheim was, and that he had recently come close to kicking the bucket. One of the old-timers of the movie industry, Cheim had been a major figure in the business long before television became a dirty word among producers; he'd made a score of moneymaking films and a couple of Oscar winners, later produced a few films for TV and put together a couple of now defunct television series.
But he was sixty-odd years old now and no longer very active in the business. A couple of years back he'd been maneuvered out of his position as production head of Premiere Studios in Culver City. Since then, as an independent producer, he had put together a couple of second-rate spy-in-the-cold-war type films and was now producing a Western, his former forte; but little else had been heard of him. In his day, however -- which had lasted until very recently -- Cheim had been one of the most powerful, and feared, men in Hollywood.
"I did try to phone Mr. Cheim at the hospital," she went on. "That was two -- three days ago. But he was still recovering from his heart attack and they wouldn't let me talk to him."
I lowered my chin a quarter of an inch, to my knees, thinking. It appeared that what Mrs. Jellicoe wanted was not so much a detective as a bill collector. And I'm not a bill collector. I didn't tell Mrs. Jellicoe that, however, for fear she might turn into a bat and bite my neck. Still, it certainly appeared to be a simple, straightforward job.
So I said, "Well, I could nose around and see if I can locate Mr. Jellicoe -- if you want me to try, that is. But merely his absence from the hotel where he's been living doesn't mean much. Especially if his boss is in the hospital."
"Oh, there's something else," she said.
I raised my head a little. A small pain darted over my lower vertebrae. These chairs were a bit too cute for a guy my size. "What else?"
"I received a strange phone call early Friday morning. From some kind of nightclub, or restaurant, called the Panther Room. Have you heard of it?"
"Yeah. I've been there a couple times."
"Indeed. Well, I received a call from a bartender there. He said he had a wallet belonging to Mr. Jellicoe -- Wilfred Jefferson Jellicoe -- which had apparently been lost there the night before. The bartender had been unable to locate him, and this address, my address, was still shown on Jelly's driver's license. So the man phoned me."
"Uh-huh. So you know Mr. Jellicoe was OK Thursday night, then."
"No, no; someone must have stolen Jelly's wallet. That's another reason I'm so worried. Jelly wouldn't have gone to a place like that."
"It's -- Why, they have waitresses and cigarette girls, that sort of thing, who go around practically naked."
"Yeah, it's a swell place."
"It's one of those topless--" She gave me another, of those dull looks. Then she went on, "I know what it's like. I've made inquiries. The Panther Room is one of those clubs frequented by. . . riffraff, low types, who go there and drink, and inflame their animal natures."
I nodded. I guessed that was true, all right.
"Jelly would never have gone to a place like that."
"He hasn't got an. . . animal nature?"
"He wouldn't think, of. . . Besides, it's inconceivable that he'd get drunk and lose his wallet, with almost a thousand dollars in it."
I whistled. "Good thing that's an honest bartender."
"There is another factor," Mrs. Jellicoe continued. "The bartender remembered the man who lost the wallet. He became quite drunk, was extremely lavish with his money, and was escorting a notorious actress. My husband never became drunk, and he was very sensible about money. So it simply couldn't have been Jelly."
"Yes, this television actress, Sylvia Ardent. Why, it's ridiculous even to think Jelly could have been with her. . ."
She went on for a bit longer, but I wasn't concentrating on her words. Before my eyes rose a vision of Sylvia Ardent. And in my language -- or in any other man's language -- she was a vision; because as far as the feminine face and figure were concerned, she was a kind of aphrodisiacal Esperanto.
Sylvia, or Miss Ardent, or the ardent Miss Ardent, as she was variously spoken of, was the super-shapely star of TV's currently number-three series, Girls' Dorm, which was out-Nielsened only by the popular game show Free! and the top-ranked educational-Americana series The Wild West -- Like It Really Was.
I had watched Girls' Dorm myself more than once, and the sight of Sylvia -- I thought of her as Sylvia -- in a pink baby doll swatting another "coed" with a feather pillow was not a hard pillow to swallow. Sylvia was a gal of creamy skin and emerald-green eyes, of jungle-lush red hair, of voluptuous --
"Were you listening to me?"
"Go on. This is fascinating."
"At any rate, you can see why I'm so concerned about Jelly."
"I sure can."
"It isn't just the money -- though six thousand dollars isn't something a woman in my position can simply ignore. But you can take my word for it, if Jelly were able to pay me what he owes me, he'd do it."
"I'll take your word for it."
"Do you think you can find him, then?"
"Sure. If he's findable, I can do it. Am I hired?"
"What do you charge?"
"A hundred a day, and I pay my own expenses unless something very unusual comes up. Of course, I should warn you that something unusual generally does--"
"A hundred dollars? A day?"
"But isn't that rather. . . expensive?"
I smiled. I like to think I earn every penny I get. Merely being clunked on the head with the butt of a .45-caliber automatic, which is a very heavy pistol, should be worth more than a hundred bucks. Of course, this wasn't one of those cases, thank heaven. But I was also smiling because it was exactly the amount she was charging her ex, Mr. Jellicoe.
Finally she said, "Well, all right. But I do hope it doesn't take you long."
"Is there anything else you want?"
"A little more information about Mr. Jellicoe. And a clear fairly recent photograph of him if you have one."
She found a two-year-old four-by-five studio photograph for me, and I asked her the routine questions, the answers to none of which were of any immediate help. But the photo might be enough all by itself; there wouldn't be many guys on the loose who looked like Wilfred Jefferson Jellicoe.
In the photo he was standing, leaning against the mantel of a prop fireplace, and he looked as relaxed and comfortable as if a taxidermist had just stuffed him alive without making an incision. A cigarette jutted from between two rigid fingers, and his lips were held apart as if he were saying, "Smile!"
Tall and thin, dressed in black, he had the sparkle and dash of a disinherited undertaker at his daddy's funeral. The face was somber, sorrowful, drawn and drained. All the lines slanted downward -- from the corners of his eyes, from his nose, at the edges of his mouth. He looked like a man going down for the third time in despair.
I put the picture in my coat pocket, looked at Mrs. Jellicoe. We gazed at each other. Soon I'd had enough of that, and leaned forward, got my feet under me, then put a hand at the base of my spine and slowly straightened up.
"Cute little chairs you've got here in the garden," I said.
"I'm glad you like them, Mr. Scott."
Copyright © 1969 by Richard S. Prather