Authors: Richard S. Prather
I put a call through to the Desert Inn and gave the number of Colleen's room. While the phone buzzed I felt the tenseness growing in me, and I remembered how innocent and at the same time sensual Colleen had looked when I'd first seen her sitting at the Lady Luck Bar. And for the first time in a long, long time I felt a little remorse for the night I'd just passed. Not that I was thinking about Lorraine, but that I was remembering Colleen and her wide-eyed, smiling face, and the full woman's curves of her magnificent body.
And then that crackly voice said in my ear, "Hello. . . hello."
"Colleen? Colleen, is that you? Are you all right?"
"Yeah, honey. Are you O.K.?"
"Oh, yes. Where are you, Shell? What happened to you?"
"I'm at Chloe's. I was just going to ask you where you disappeared to."
"Are you all right?"
"I'm alive. Where you been?"
"Right here. In my room. I kept calling your room and calling it, but there wasn't any answer. I was afraid. . . "
"Honey, I couldn't go back to my room. That's where those three goons picked me up. I'll explain about it. And I'll never be able to thank you enough for getting me out of that mess last night, Colleen. They really would have killed me if it hadn't been for you."
"Never mind that now, Shell. Want me to pick you up?"
"Wellâit might not be a good idea for you to wander around. After last night, maybeâ"
"Oh, nonsense. Nobody knows I had anything to do with youâor with that. Those two men with me were too drunk to remember, and I had breakfast in the Cactus Room this morning and nobody even noticed me. That's where I. . . got the knife. So I'll be right down. You be out in front of Chloe's in two minutes." She hung up.
I walked out in front of the club and waited. In about two minutes I saw Colleen's Mercury wheel in at the drive and pull up in front of the club. She went right past me, stopped the car, and started looking around, a worried look on her face.
I'd forgotten about my damned outfit. I said, "Hey, here I am. I'm uh, disguised."
I walked up to the car and she got one good look at me and almost busted laughing. I climbed in beside her and she took my hand and squeezed it. I explained briefly why I was in the flashy getup. She kept laughing and finally she said, "I don't know whether it's because I'm so glad to see you, or because you look so silly. But I couldn't help laughing."
"I am kind of a mess, I suppose."
"You are." She put the car in gear and asked me, "Where to?"
"Down to Fremont. My clothes are there."
She shook her head, but drove downtown. When we got to the store she wouldn't let me go in, "They'd throw you in jail," she said. She came back with the box of my clothes and we headed back to Fifth and out toward the Strip again.
Then she asked, "Where now?"
"Damned if I know, Colleen. I've got to get some food and think a few things out."
She said, "If you can't go back to your own room, you can use mine. Where did you spend the night?"
That was a nice one to throw at me. I could either tell her the truth or lie to her, and somehow I didn't feel like lying to Colleen. So I told her. "I went to a spot on the Strip last night to talk to a woman. She had information about the case I'm on, information that I needed. That's the truth about why I went to see her. She had a room in the hotel and I stayed there."
She didn't say anything for several seconds, then she said, "Thanks for telling me. You didn't have to. But I wish you'd called me."
"I did. I called you half a dozen times before I left the Desert Inn, but there wasn't any answer. After that IâI got drunk. I got drunk and went to sleep."
Finally she looked at me and smiled slightly. "Well, you can still use my room. For your food and thinking."
We were at the Desert Inn by now. I said, "You'd better go on in by yourself, Colleen. I'll follow you in a few minutes. No sense our walking around together in broad daylight."
"You don't want to be seen with me?" She was smiling.
"Just the opposite. I don't want you seen with me. Not, at least, while I'm so unpopular. Go on."
She parked over at the left of the main entrance, got out, and went inside. I waited three or four minutes, then went inside all stooped over, a very simple position for me to assume right then. Nobody bothered me and I got to Colleen's room without any trouble. Probably a few sympathetic people looked at the poor, sick old caballero creeping across the lobby, but that was all. I knocked and Colleen let me in, then locked the door.
I made it to a big easy chair, turned around, and sank down into it as Colleen walked across the room toward me. Even as beat-up as I was, I couldn't keep my eyes off those trim, shapely legs. Then Colleen was leaning forward over my chair, one hand on each chair arm, and I found it difficult to believe that a woman could have two such beautiful legs without their being her outstanding characteristics. But they weren't, because there, looking right back at me, were the two that were.
She was wearing brown pumps and sheer nylons, a tan skirt, and a light green blouse with a wide collar and only the top two buttons unbuttoned. The top two were enough, and almost one too many. I noticed again the rust-red hair piled high on top of her headâand I like a woman to have luxuriant hair; that is, I'm of the apparently outmoded school that believes a woman should look like a woman and not come out of a beauty shop looking as if she'd just had a man's haircut and, possibly, a shave.
She was still leaning forward, looking at me, and she said with a slight smile, "You look as if you need some more rest, Shell. Want to nap a while?"
I shook my head. Slowly. "I don't need any more sleep. Coffee and a few hours of breathing should fix me up."
"Want a big breakfast?"
She went to the phone, ordered orange juice, toast, and a pot of coffee, then sat down in another chair near me.
I said, "Let me tell you now, Colleen. I'm in your debt for last night. You really did save my life. Sure as fate those guys would have killed me, and I wantâ"
She stopped me. "That's enough, Shell. I didn't even think about it when it happened. I was already wondering why you were so late coming to the bar." She smiled. "It's supposed to be the woman who's always late."
I grinned at her. "Thank God you're a punctual woman. Want to bring me up to date on you?"
She told me she'd run and grabbed the knife, then picked up the two drunks and gone out the side entrance. After giving me the knife, she'd run to her car. "I was scared to death," she said. "It was pretty dark then and I don't know what happened. I must have sat there for half an hour or more. Police cars came up and some men were out there where you were. I didn't even know it wasn't you, Shell."
"It was a couple of those friends of mine. The third one beat it."
"Oh. Then I drove around for a while. I guess I was partly looking to see if you were around anywhere, and partly just driving and calming down."
I told her briefly what had happened to me. While I was talking the food came and I kept out of sight while she took the tray. I had the juice and toast while I finished, then started on the black coffee.
"What are you going to do now?" she asked me.
I shook my head. "I don't know, Colleen. I've got a lot of odds and ends, but I don't know where all of them fit. I'm pretty damn confused." I looked over at her. "
maiden name wouldn't have been Isabel Bing, would it?"
She laughed. "No, sir. Isabel Bing. What a name! Isn't that a horrible name, Shell? No, I was Colleen Shawn, just as I am now. When I got my divorce I asked for my maiden name back. From Mrs. Colleen Raymond back to Colleen Shawn."
She didn't want any coffee, so I poured another cup for myself and said, "Colleen Shawn.
a lovely name, and for a lovely woman. I think something like that was the first thing I said to you, wasn't it?"
She laughed. "Nope. You said, 'Hello, you're wonderful.' I remember. And you'd never even seen me before."
"Didn't have to. And I still don't know much about you. What are some of the details?"
She leaned back in her chair and crossed her legs. "What do you want to know?"
"You said that before, too. Well, I'm twenty-five. I'm from back East, Connecticut. Born there. Went to school in Connecticut with little-girl ambitions to be a fashion designer. My folks died when I was in college and I came out here to the West Coast and worked in clothing stores up in San Francisco till I met BobâRobert Raymond, that is. I guess I was tired of working every day, and being lonely a lot of the time. Anyway, we got married. It lasted eleven months, and it just wasn't right. So we reached an amicable parting and I came here to Las Vegas. That was a couple of months ago. I established the six weeks' residence required here for divorce, and now I'm Colleen Shawn again. Since I got my name back I've been relaxing here, because it's a nice place to relax."
I grinned at her. "Not lately it isn't."
She looked at me. "You certainly look silly," she said.
I'd forgotten my costume again. I said, "Time I did something about that. Mind if I change here?"
"Use the bathroom. And use the shower, too, if you want. Get rid of those black eyebrowsâI like them better the other way."
I finished my coffee, got up, and took my gabardine suit out of the box. I took everything out of the pockets and put it on the dresser. "Do you mind if I clutter the place up temporarily?" I asked Colleen.
"Go ahead. I'm used to masculine clutter, you know."
I piled the stuff on the dresser. Last night I'd left everything except my wallet in my suit when I left the costume shop. That had sure been potent bourbon. Anyway, now I wanted to be sure my stuff was all here. In a little row, I strung out my wallet, J. Harrison Bing's card, a set of keys to my L.A. rooms and officeâa separate set from the keys to the bombed Cadillac; the police still had thoseâthe key to my room here at the Desert Inn, which I'd never turned in at the desk, change, handkerchief, and comb. Something about the collection stirred a bit in my mind but settled down and I went into the bathroom.
I hung up the clothes, undressed, and climbed into the shower, as hot as I could stand it. While I soaped up and groaned and scrubbed my hair and eyebrows I thought of the things that had happened so far on the case. Even though I'd been running around like a scared rabbit and most of the time been running from or into trouble, I'd managed to pick up quite a pile of information in the less than three days I'd been on the case. And I had the funny feeling I sometimes get on a job, the subconscious stirring as if to say the answer's down in there, all ready to be plucked out. It made my skin tingle a little, but I couldn't pin down what it was. I didn't push it.
Colleen yelled from the other room, "Shell, don't you sing in the shower?"
"Once in a while. Not this time, though. Want to harmonize a little?"
I heard her laugh, but she didn't answer. I rinsed soap off me, then scrubbed my hair some more while I thought about Colleen. Something she'd mentioned a few minutes ago had started me thinking, too. Little bits of information and conversation were ganging up in my brain.
I rinsed off, got out of the shower, and toweled down, then got into my clothes and went into the other room.
Colleen said, "Hi. Feel better?"
"Like a new man. Pretty soon I'll chew a steak and I'll be ready to take off."
"For where?" She tucked her skirt under her and swung her legs over the arm of the chair she was sitting in.
"Tell you the truth, I'm not sure yet. I've got to think it out a little more."
She looked down at my feet. "Barefoot boy. I'll bet you were always stubbing your toes when you were a kid."
"You're right. And stepping on pieces of glass and nails."
"City boy. Los Angeles. Born and raised there. Lived there all my life except when I was knocking around the country or learning the most effective ways to kill other people in wars."
She was quiet for a while, then she said, "Los Angeles. I've never been there. I'd like to see your City of Angels."
"A misnomer," I said. "Ain't no angels. But I'd love to show you the town. I know almost every inch of the place, and I've got some friends in Hollywood if you should want to hit the studios."
She smiled. "You've got yourself a date, Mr. Scott. Are you going straight back to L.A. when you're through up here?"
"I'd like to. If this winds up O.K."
"When, I mean. But, frankly, I may be in jail."
She looked puzzled, and I explained. "I may not have made it clear, Colleen, but one of the reasons I don't want to go back to my roomâbesides keeping away from some bruisersâis that I don't care to talk to the sheriff right now. Last night when I got away from those three musclemen, I killed one of them."
She swallowed and her eyes got wider, but she didn't say anything. I went on, "Maybe two of them."
"What'll they do, Shell? To you, I mean."
"Depends on a lot of things, including how the D. A. feels. He's the man who has to be satisfied. But the guy had a gun and was going to use it when I hit him."
"Hit him? With your hand?"
"Uh-huh. The other one got the knife, but the one I know is dead got the edge of my hand."
She frowned, staring at me. "I don't understand. You just hit him and it killed him?"
"That's one of the things I mentioned a few minutes ago, honey. About learning how to kill people when I went not so gaily off to war. There are a surprising number of ways to kill people with your bare hands, and in only part of a second. That's one of the things the services, especially the Marines, teach menâmainly so they can stay alive. But when you've taught a man how to kill quickly and efficiently so he can go fight your wars for you, you've done something you can't take back. That knowledge is in his brain and you can't wipe it out or pretend it isn't there simply by ignoring it. And if the man is well trained, like almost all Marines are, then a lot of that training becomes damn near a reflex action, automatic. I. . . probably didn't have to kill that man last night. If I hadn't, he might have killed me, but part of it was reflex, pure and simple. There was a man there, he intended to kill me, and I reacted the way I was trained a good many years ago to react. It's as simple as that. If I live to be a hundred, there'll still be part of that left in me."