The Wailing Frail
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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 WAILING FRAIL
A Shell Scott Mystery
Shell Scott. He's a guy with a pistol in his pocket and murder on his mind. The crime world's public enemy number one, this Casanova is a sucker for a damsel in distress. When a pair of lovely legs saunters into his office, he can't help but to take the job, even when the case is a killer. As usual, the beautiful women are always the mysterious ones. Following the goddess-like façade of a major player in the California senate investigation, Shell Scott, P.I., must compose himself and get on the case before things get violent. Sadly, he can't take his eyes off this enchanting girl. As things erupt into a cyclone of violence, Shell's got to rush to solve this case before he gets caught in the cross fire.
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, 1956
eBookwise Release Date: September 2001
8 Reader Ratings:
Available eBook Formats: OEBFF Format (IMP) [250 KB]
Reading time: 171-239 min.
She yanked the door open with a crash and said, "Gran--" but then she stopped and stared at me. She was nude as a noodle.
I stared right back at her.
"Oh!" she squealed. "You're not Grandma!"
"No," I said, "I'm Shell Scott, and you're not Grandma, either."
She slammed the door in my face.
Yep, I thought, this is the right house.
My brain was reeling. Now that I had time to consider it, that had been a gorgeous babe. Even dressed in a Father Hubbard she would have been gorgeous. But wearing only a doorway, she had looked like the next step in the evolution of women.
I rang the doorbell again and waited.
When the lovely reappeared she wore a thin blue robe and a pink blush, and she really looked me over carefully, maybe to get even. She ran big eyes over the short hair that springs up all over my head like healthy white grass, recently mowed, the whitish miniature-boomerang eyebrows over my gray eyes, the slightly broken nose. She appeared a bit startled, which was no enormous surprise to me. It seemed to take her quite a while, but I didn't mind; it was a real thin blue robe.
She was about my size. However, since I am pushing six-two and two hundred five pounds, that means she was a big girl. She had reddish hair and her large eyes were green, like a Go signal.
She blinked the green eyes. "I'm sorry. I really thought you were Grandma."
"It's quite all right, believe me--"
"You see, she rings the doorbell and then pops away. It's a game. She's skulking near here somewhere."
"Skulking, eh?" I looked around. "There she is," I said. "She's down there in the bushes."
This was Elm Street, a pleasant, tree-lined street in east Los Angeles, and this particular house was at 844 Elm. At either side of the doorway grew thick green bushes. And Grandma was, in fact, down there in the bushes.
It didn't surprise me. Already this afternoon I had talked to the man with a glass skull, and another chap who'd said the world was coining to an end in six minutes. We'd waited six minutes. Then he'd looked at me and yelled, "See? What did I tell you!"
It was part of the job. The office of "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," is in downtown L.A.; I'm a private detective. I was conducting a legitimate, and conceivably important investigation for a committee of the California senate. For the last two months, "the committee had been investigating lobbying activities and related matters in the state of California, and had recently concluded hearings in San Francisco. Hearings were scheduled to begin soon at the Civic Building, and I had been hired a week ago.
The committee had naturally received a lot of publicity in the local newspapers. The San Francisco hearings had been noisy at times, and uncovered some evidence of corruption, bribery of public officials, even a little mild blackmail. But nothing of staggering importance had developed. There were rumors that the men able to bring the most pressure on legislators hadn't been bothered enough -- or at all. One of the Los Angeles newspapers rode almost to death the idea of a "Secret Boss," or a powerful behind-the-scenes puppet master, pulling strings while senators and other men of some importance jumped. The series had been titled, "Who Is Mr. Big?"
The committee had received a large number of communications from Los Angeles citizens. Some were helpful, some abusive, and a few were plainly goofy. In L.A., that was inevitable. Even the crackpot letters and phone calls had to be checked, though, on the chance that the man with the glass skull, say, might conceivably have information that would help. Part of my job was to follow up all the possible leads received from Los Angeles citizens. I had set aside this afternoon for the wildest of the lot. One afternoon wasn't going to be enough.
What had brought me to 844 Elm Street was a letter signed "Zeldy Beware." It had been addressed to "Lobby Committee" and said simply, "I know all about Mr. Big." I'd put it in the file with four other "hopeless" cases; but even so there'd been just a little hope that maybe this one was on the level.
Now, however, I had lost hope. This one was down there in the bushes.
The girl had stepped closer to me and was peering along the house.
"Grandma," she said sharply. "I see you. You might as well come out."
The bushes wiggled and a little woman stood up and marched through them. She was a real cute old lady, with pink face and somewhat scraggly gray hair. She wore rimless glasses and had on a plain black dress. She was five feet tall, or less, and might have weighed ninety pounds, counting the leaves in her hair.
"Hello," I said.
"Ha." She peered at me. "Are you one of them?"
"Well, I'm one of us right now. Now, which one of us is Zeldy Beware?"
The lovely gal in the doorway said, "Who?"
She hugged the blue robe tighter around her. "I'm Zelma," she said. "And Grandma's Zeldy. But her last name's Morris."
I reached into my coat pocket and took out the letter.
Grandma Zeldy said, "That's mine."
I showed her the signature, "Zeldy Beware."
She said, "Just signed my first name. Zeldy. That last isn't my name. It's beware. Like look out! On guard!"
I looked at the young girl. She smiled. This was lots of fun. She said, "What's this letter you're talking about?"
I handed it to her, and explained why I was here.
She nodded. "The committee investigating lobbying and like that?"
"I read about it. Grandma did, too. We wondered why you'd be investigating lobbies. At first we thought it was theater lobbies and hotel lobbies and like that."
"No, ma'am." I smiled at her. "You're a little off there."
She laughed and went on to say that she knew what it was all about now. She and Grandma. Ordinarily I'd have tried a little harder to get down to the crucial facts faster, but Zelma had those big green eyes and red hair and that thin blue robe. And she had stopped blushing.
I asked Zeldy about her letter, and who Mr. Big was.
She brushed a leaf out of her hair and looked at a palm tree.
I asked her again. She went back into the bushes.
This time she got almost out of sight. "Grandma!" Zelma shouted, "you come out of there this minute."
I said, "Ma'am, you did write the letter. Now if you'll--"
"I just wanted to have some fun with you."
I grinned through clenched teeth. "Fun, hey?"
"Sure. I get tired of crossword puzzles. I don't know who Mr. Big is. I just read about it in the papers."
"Uh-huh." I was starting to hope that nobody would pass by on the street and see me talking to bushes. There are people in this town who would consider that proof of what they've been claiming for years.
"I wrote lots of letters. Not just to you. About all kinds of things. You're not mad, are you?"
"Not -- well, no. But don't write any more letters, huh?"
"I won't. Can I have my letter back?"
"I'm afraid not. It has to be kept in the committee files."
"Don't want it anyway."
Zelma stood in the doorway, the blue robe held loosely around her. I said, "Thanks. Guess that's all I can do here."
"You might ring the doorbell again."
I walked toward my Cad parked at the curb, then stopped and looked back at the house. Ring the doorbell again? What could she have meant by that? But the door was closed. Zelma was gone. Maybe a little too far gone. Ah, well. I got into the car and headed downtown. Zelma was nice, yes; but Paula was even nicer, and I hadn't met Paula's grandmother.
Paula was the first person I saw when I got back to the Civic Building. That's because she was the one I looked for. She did some of the committee's secretarial work, and I'd met her when I'd first started working for them myself. She was in the big conference room with three of the senators, taking dictation from Beasley, when I walked in.
She glanced around and gave me a big smile, then continued making pothooks on a pad. They must all have been about ready to go home; it was long after dark. All four of them were seated at a large mahogany table.
Beasley finished his dictation and looked at me. "Scott. You get anything?"
"Yeah. A man who said we were tuning in on him, another who watched the world come to an end with me, and an old lady living in some bushes."
"Scott," Beasley said, "how many times do I have to tell you this is serious business?"
He was reprimanding me. The hell with him. I said, "And a man with a glass skull. Not much help, though. He was pretty lightheaded."
Beasley looked as if he were going to draw. Not really; it was just that I thought of him as carrying two strapped-down Colts. His exact title was Chairman, Senate Fact-Finding Committee On Lobbying Activities, and he was a lean hard guy who made me think of an old-time Western sheriff relaxing after cleaning up on all the outlaws in town. By shooting them in the back. He was competent enough, and in a way I admired his let's-get-the-job-done-and-start-another-one attitude. But he had no sense of humor.
Paula, however, had a delightful sense of humor. And everything else. She grinned at me and murmured, "Set a thief to catch a thief."
I winked at her and rolled my eyes horribly. She pretended she was going to faint. Beasley was ready to draw both those guns. I said, "Well, let's get down to business. Let's knock off and go home."
Beasley's mouth was working, but he didn't say anything.
Wise said, "Shell, that's the best idea you've had since you started to work for us."
"That's the only idea I've had," I told him. "But tomorrow is a new day. Anything may happen."
Sebastian Wise. An improbable name, a probable man. He was the only one of the three state senators who looked the part. He looked it, talked it, and acted it as if it were the lead in a play. He was good-looking, with gray hair in loose waves, an executive jaw, and a trained voice, the kind of man the boys in the back room like to run for governor. Two minutes after we'd met, he'd started calling me Shell.
Beasley called me Scott, or Mr. Scott. If he had a daughter, and I were to marry his daughter -- which isn't likely, since I'm still a bachelor at thirty, and since I can guess what his daughter would look like anyway -- he would undoubtedly continue to call me Mr. Scott.
Senator Carter wouldn't call me anything unless he had to. Andrew Carter. Andy. Only you'd expect to see it written andy carter. He was definitely a lower-case kind of guy. The sort of man who, when completely still and quiet, becomes invisible. Where Sebastian Wise was big and expansive, and Lester Beasley was thin and hard, Andy Carter was little and soft and seemed constantly to be shrinking.
He had the blank, washed-out look of an underdeveloped photograph -- but he was brilliant. He was probably brainier than the chairman and Wise and me put together. And that explained why he was a senator. It wasn't personality. It was his brain -- and his beautiful voice. That voice seemed incongruous coming out of him; like the dog's bark with the flea's bite. It could range from the boom of ocean waves to the whisper of a hummingbird's wings. On radio he'd be a king, on TV a peasant. I understood he was responsible for introducing several of the most important bills now before the house. He was quite well thought of by his fellow senators. He was married to a former model, and had six children. You never know.
The three senators began talking together, discussing a witness they wanted subpoenaed, and other details about the upcoming hearings. Paula walked up to me and said, softly, "Hi, you nine ball."
"What's a nine ball, my sweet?"
"That's one worse than an eight ball. Ah, I have it. You're a section-eight ball."
"Want to drive me home?"
"I'd like to drive you mad."
"In your car, I mean."
"In the car -- anywhere--"
"Oh, shut up. I'm serious."
"Me, too -- and I'd love to drive you home. We could play cootch, what?"
"Oh, Shell. I wish you'd settle -- what's cootch?"
"Well, first we get a bottle of hootch--"
"No, we don't."
"Then we go to my place and put some nice cootch records on the gramaphone--"
"Enough? We aren't even dancing."
"That's the way I planned it. Now, are you going to drive me home?"
"Sure, if Jesse James over there is through with you."
"He said I could go."
Paula was looking up at me, her lips slightly parted, a moist shine on the lower one.
We'd known each other a week and had two dates. She was twenty-four, single, fun, and she lived alone and liked it. On both our dates I had suggested, at what I thought the psychological moment -- which proves I am a detective, and not a psychologist -- that we go to my Hollywood apartment and watch radio, or do something creative like making spaghetti, I had wound up taking her home, failing even to see the inside of her apartment, and going to bed hungry. Paula was delightful, nonetheless.
I said, "What does your apartment look like?"
"All reds and greens and bright things thrown about."
It sounded like a good setting for her, because she was dark. Tall, long-limbed, languorous, with black hair and long black lashes, exceptionally high cheekbones, and deep dark eyes with moonlight in them. Her conversation was peppy enough, not quite what you'd expect from the soft, low voice. And she was deliberate in her speech, in her movements. Everything about her was soft and dark. "Let's get out of here," she said.
A phone rang. It was one of two against the far wall, and Paula turned and walked to it slowly, deliberately. She lifted the phone and listened a moment, then put one hand over the mouthpiece. "Somebody named Hazel," she told me. "Says you're to call a George Stone at the Melody Club. Want to talk to her?"
"Yeah." Hazel is the gal at the switchboard in the Hamilton Building, where I have my office. She was working late. As I walked to Paula and took the phone, all three men at the long table stopped their conversation and looked at me. Hazel told me that a man had called my office and given his name as George Stone. He wanted to talk to me and said it was important. Hazel had told him I'd call him back and he'd given her the number of a phone booth at the Melody Club.
Hazel went on, "I guess he thought you were still in your office and I was your secretary, because he certainly was insistent about talking to you right that minute. I didn't tell him where you were."
"George Stone, huh? Never heard of him. He say what it was about?"
"No. Said you'd want to talk to him, though."
I thanked Hazel, hung up and put a call through to the Melody Club. After the first ring of the phone, I heard the receiver at the other end of the line go up and a gruff voice said, "Yeah?" "This is Shell Scott."
"About time. This is Stone. George Stone. You know who I am?"
"No. Should I?"
"You will, brother, you will. Scott, you're investigator for that committee on lobbying, right?"
"One of them." There were actually three local investigators doing work for the committee. A bright young kid named Joe Rule worked with me part of the time. Stone coughed into the phone. His voice had sounded a little slurred, as if he'd had a couple drinks too many. "What about it?" I asked.
"I'm the boy that can give you everything you want, brother. The works. A to Z."
"I hear the words. I've heard them before."
"Not like this. I've put in seven years work for the biggest crook in the state of California. I can hang him. But I got to get home free. You follow me?"
I followed him well enough. He sounded to me like another crackpot, but if he did have anything to spill, this was the old story of a man wanting to get out from under; wrap up somebody else tight enough that he'd escape prosecution himself. I said, "Immunity, huh?"
"That's it. Hundred per cent."
"That doesn't sound likely -- but it isn't up to me."
"You can help, though. And you're the only one I'll talk to. You comin' out to the Melody Club?"
"I'll be there. How'll I find you?"
"I'll find you. And, Scott. This is gonna knock your ears off. This will make the news wires from here to New York. No detours -- come straight here. Don't talk to nobody about it. Right?"
"And make it quick. There's some people don't like me, and ain't gonna like me any better now."
He hung up.
I could believe the last part of what he'd said. He hadn't sounded lovable. Chairman Beasley said; "What was that all about, Mr. Scott?"
"Another guy with all the answers for us. If he's on the level, he sounds long overdue for the clink. Just in case he does have something, can we do him any good?"
Beasley said, "If he's a criminal, you know we can't allow him to avoid prosecution." He paused. "We, ah, might be able to help him a little, of course. Depends on what he knows, how much help he is, how deeply he's involved. What did he have to say on the phone?"
"Nothing specific. I'm going out to see him now. If he wasn't kidding, he could be the man we've been looking for."
Senator Carter spoke for the first time since I'd come in this evening. "Perhaps we should wait here until Mr. Scott can report on what he learns. This might be important." With that voice, it sounded as if he were singing "Old Black Joe."
Beasley shrugged, but Sebastian Wise got to his feet. "You can call me at home if anything important comes up. I'm rather tired." He looked at me and grinned. "But I shall continue to hope he's not one of those we've been tuning in on." He went out.
After a little more conversation I was ready to leave. Paula stopped by me a moment at the door. "I'll wait till you come back -- if you hurry."
I told her I'd be back in no time, and she gave me a smile that would last me at least an hour. Then I left.
The Melody Club was out on Olympic, a small spot with low-key lighting and high prices. I turned my Cadillac over to the parking attendant and went in. Just inside the door was a big poster which declared that Paul Dutton's band was being held over for another month, and that the highlight of the three floor shows was something called Satan and Satin. I got a brief glimpse of a color photograph, something red and white. It looked like a guy in devil costume and a babe in very little.
The velvet rope was already stretched before the three steps leading down into the main room. I could hear the clink of silverware on dishes, the soft babble of conversation. A tuxedoed waiter stood, arms folded across his chest, in front of the rope. Things got off to an early start here at the Melody.
Before speaking to the waiter, who was straight in front of me, I looked around. The checkroom was on my right. Directly behind me was the men's room, and a couple yards from it was the ladies'. At least I assumed that was the order. On the one door was nothing; on the other one behind me was a painted red devil. I've got a hunch that designers of nightclub restrooms are the same people who paint those modern paintings that get hung upside down, the way the painters should be hung, at galleries.
I stepped up to the headwaiter, who looked at me stonily.
"You have a reservation?"
"No. I'm meeting a gentleman at his table."
His lip twitched. That was a likely story.
"George Stone," I said. "You know him?"
His eyebrows went up a bit. "Oh, Mr. Stone. Of course."
"Why of course?"
He didn't reply, but waited until he was sure I wasn't going to tip him, then turned and unhooked the velvet rope and led me between tables to one at which a big black-haired guy was sitting, gulping a highball.
The big guy looked up at me. "Hello, Scott. Sit down."
I sat and he waved a white-jacketed waiter over, ordered a Scotch highball and asked me what I wanted. Stone looked as if he'd had plenty to drink already. I told the waiter bourbon and water. While waiting for the drinks, Stone and I sized each other up.
He was, I guessed, about five-ten and two hundred pounds. He looked strong and muscular, but white, like a toadstool, and he had a lot of teeth that showed when he talked, and a lot of black hair. Stone was somewhere between forty and fifty years old.
He said, "You took your time gettin' here."
"Let's get something straight. If you've got a story to tell, I'll listen, but not to any of your lip."
"Yeah," he said. "Yeah. I'm wound up a little. Big deal, this thing. You'll see what I mean in a minute."
"The way you talked on the phone, you had some high-powered stuff to spill. This seems like a funny place for it."
"It's safe," he said. "Nobody can get to me here. And there isn't anybody going to hear what we're talkin' about." He paused. "Besides, I didn't decide to call you till after I come here. Just tonight. There's -- trouble buildin' up. I can smell it. Time I pulled out of it."
"It's time you told me what you got me here for."
He took a cigarette from a pack before him, picked up his lighter from the table and lit the cigarette. Then he stared at the lighter flame for a couple of seconds before snapping the cap down and snuffing out the flame.
He took a deep drag and blew out smoke. "You want to know about lobbying. Pressure on the law boys. Blackmail. Bribery. Payoffs. I can give it to you till the middle of next week. You don't know me, do you? Don't know what my job is or anything?"
"Electronics, and radio. That's my racket. I can tap a phone, wire a house, listen to conversations anywhere, any time, with wires or without. That's another reason I met you here; nobody else'll be listening. I can get an ear into almost any place except the mint. And that's just what I've been doing for seven years."
I started getting interested. After the people I'd talked to earlier today, I was going to be pretty hard to convince; but although Stone was talking softly, so that people at other tables wouldn't hear us over the music, he talked like a man who had a lot more to say. And he sounded to me like a man who was telling the truth.
He seemed nervous, too. He kept looking around, like a man who expected trouble.
I said, "What's the rest of it, Stone? And how come you decided so suddenly that you wanted to talk to me?"
"I already told you. Enough, anyway. And here's my problem. I had to bend a few laws doing this job of mine. If I spill everything, that part's gonna come out, too." He paused and dragged on his cigarette, then stubbed it out. "But we can talk it over, and I can get an idea of where I stand. Just the two of us, it's your word against mine, see? And you don't know it yet, but you can do me some good."
"Let's start with you doing me some good. You claim to have been tapping wires for seven years. Who'd you do all this work for?"
"Oh, yeah. I meant to tell you that. Well, Scott, there is a Mr. Big." He grinned, and it was like a thick muscle splitting open. "Mr. Big. Just like that paper said."
"That'll wait a bit. I don't spill anything unless I get a free ticket."
"I haven't got any authority, Stone. I just work for the committee, and you know it."
"Yeah, I know it."
The orchestra had been playing steadily until now, and several people had been on the dance floor. But the music ended and Stone stopped speaking in the relative quiet. We had a good table, at the left side of the dance floor, and I noticed Stone was looking past me. I followed his gaze toward the floor and was just in time to get a healthy double wallop to my nervous system. The first one was a wild fanfare from the orchestra; the second was a woman, and twice as wild as the fanfare.
It was a willowy silver-blonde with ice-blue eyes and a shape that must have turned more heads than a dozen chiropractors. For a nerve-jangling second I thought that shape was clad only in skin like the lovely-in-the-doorway episode earlier today, but then I realized that she was the female half of the floor show, but I knew that for me she'd be the whole show.
What I had thought ivory skin was shimmering cloth that covered her from the neck down, that covered her arms and fingers, was molded to her breasts, flowed over a tiny waist and sharply swelling hips, then separated to cling like paint to her firm thighs and calves. She wore no shoes, and the white cloth covered even her feet.
She was standing in the cloth-draped archway through which performers would enter and leave the floor, just a couple of yards from our table, both arms raised at her sides to hold the dark curtains apart. She turned her head and winked, and for a happy moment I thought she'd winked at me, but then I noticed she was looking past me.
I glanced around to see George Stone grin and nod at her. But that was all I saw him do, because while I cursed under my breath I was swinging my head around to focus on the gal again. It was hard to focus, too, because there were so many places you wanted to look. If eye exercises improve vision, this gal's approximate thirty-six, twenty-one, and thirty-five would give a blind man twenty-twenty.
As the fanfare echoed in the club a voice spoke over a mike, introducing Satan and Satin for the first show of the evening. The woman, Satin, ran lightly forward, arms stretched behind her, as the lights in the club went out. A spotlight speared down from the ceiling and fell on her as she stopped and stood motionless, raised up on her toes, arms down and back, her stomach sucked in and her breasts high and prominent, gleaming in the white light.
It was easy to forget that every inch of her body was covered by the cloth; it fit without a wrinkle, followed every curve and undulation of her form, was thrust forward at the right places. It was obvious that she wore nothing except the satin covering.
There had been no sound, no music, but suddenly a chord crashed violently from the orchestra and the sound was held, sustained and growing louder as, simultaneously, a second spotlight flashed from overhead. It fell on another figure, the tall red-clothed devil, with his arms raised over his head, wrists bent down so that his fingers pointed to the floor. A black-lined cape hung from his shoulders, and his lips were spread apart in an expression that was half-grin, half-snarl, like the smile of a satisfied sex fiend.
For several seconds both the red form and the white were motionless, then the long-held chord flowed into another and Satin turned slowly. The scene was immensely effective, with the spotlights sharply outlining the two contrasting bodies, and darkness surrounding them. Satin looked at Satan, then reached her hands toward him -- not reaching for him, but with palms out, arms bent slightly at the elbows, as though she were trying desperately to keep from being drawn to him.
But her feet raced toward him, slowed suddenly, then advanced hesitantly; and all the while she pushed forward with her outthrust hands, squirmed the upper half of her body from side to side. It was almost possible to believe that she was really being drawn forward while she fought to keep away from Satan; as if she were powerless to prevent him from controlling her body.
The spotlights blended together as the two bodies touched, the white pressing against the red. For the first time the red Satan moved, his arms dropping and his hands encircling Satin's tiny waist. She pulled away from him, but her white legs flashed up to entwine about the devil's middle. Her legs linked tightly about him, and her arms were thrust above her head as she leaned completely away from him, her body twisting from the waist up, head back and the long silver-blonde hair brushing the floor.
Barely a minute had passed, but this was already about the most sensual and stimulating act I'd seen in a nightclub. If this got any better, there was only one thing they could do for an encore. Light flickered on my left as Stone spun his lighter wheel and puffed on another cigarette. Then there was a heavy thud and I looked toward him. It had been Stone's hand. He'd banged it hard against the table.
I couldn't blame him. I was beginning to feel like banging the table top, or even taking a bite out of it, myself. I'd merely glanced to my left at the sound of Stone's hand hitting the table, and then started to return my attention to the interesting area of the club. But I could see Stone's hand on the table, palm up -- and something else that was so incredible that it didn't penetrate my awareness for a second.
It was as though the sight registered, but couldn't bring forth any normal reaction. I just stared at his hand. Maybe part of it was that my mind was still on the dance floor with Satin, following the twists and curves of her smooth body. But that was only part of it.
Stone's cigarette lighter, which he'd used a couple of times before, was the kind that lights when the small wheel is spun, and remains lighted until the top is snapped down again. It lay now in the palm of Stone's hand where it rested on the table. And the lighter was still burning.
It was burning the flesh. As I watched I could see the skin of his curled fingers begin to blacken. A tiny fissure opened in one of them; it split for a fraction of an inch. Wetness bubbled in the fissure.
The orchestra was playing more softly, the music swelling and throbbing behind me. Somebody coughed. I heard a padded foot slap against the dance floor near me. And that lighter burned, searing the motionless hand in front of me. I could smell the burning flesh.
The thought crept into my mind, then. It was crazy. But it had to be true.
Stone was dead.
Copyright © 1984 by Richard S. Prather