Authors: Richard S. Prather
He didn't say who would kill me, but that seemed relatively unimportant. But, also, he hadn't once mentioned any Isabel Ellis, and I thought that neglect might someday be important if I lived. And, right at this moment especially, I wanted to live. I wanted to live to be an old, old man.
"Go on, move," he said. "Out that way. Straight ahead."
Straight ahead was the end of the hallway. The hallway ran parallel to the street that fronted the club, so that open door ahead of me probably led into the darkness of an alley. I didn't like going out there, but the guy with the gun behind me was just far enough away so I couldn't get close to him, and close enough so he couldn't miss. I started walking, moving as slowly as I could, while the bushy-haired boy behind me talked and told me positively and definitely all over again what I was not supposed to do.
Then he said, "Just to make sure you don't forget, Scott, I'm going to give you something to remember it by." He said it all in the same patter, but the tone of his voice wasn't light at all and I knew if ever anybody meant what he said, this boy did.
I had a reasonably clear idea of what he meant by now, but that last bit hadn't sounded as if he intended to put a bullet in me, and I was getting ready to take off as soon as I hit that open door. My head was still buzzing with what had happened in this last half hour and I was wondering where the frozen-faced guy had gone. I didn't really expect to find out, but just as I tensed my muscles to jump and stepped through the door into the darkness beyond, I did find out. The hard way.
Light glinted on something in the alley on my left, and by the time I saw it was reflection on a car's chrome it was too late and I'd swung my head to the left. Wrong way.
Whatever it was that slammed against the back of my skull was solid, and it was heavy, but it didn't put me completely out. Right from the beginning I wished it had, because then I wouldn't have felt the asphalt paving slam into my face, or the shoes in my ribs, or the next crashing blow on the side of my skull, and the darkness would have swallowed me up even sooner than it finally did.
But at least I found out there were two of them for sure, because no one guy could have slugged and kicked me in so many different places in so short a time.
I SAT in the darkness of the alley, with the stench of garbage clogging my nostrils, and held my head while anger simmered inside me and grew bigger and hotter. Finally, though, I squeezed it down inside me out of the way for now. But I know it was still there, ready to flare up when the time came.
After a few minutes or half an hour I felt better. I thought that if I worked real hard at it I could move. Another case was starting out with bumps and bangs, and the bumps had been O.K. but the bangs had been on the top of my head. I pulled myself over toward the wall and my hand sank into something squishy on the asphalt, and for one horrible moment I thought it was part of me. That's how I found out the bastards had not only left me lying unconscious and half dead, but had turned the garbage barrel upside down over me. Even without that I'd have remembered them.
When the ringing died down inside my head I slid over to the wall and eased up against the rough brick, remembering that all the time I'd talked to J. Harrison Bing earlier this evening I'd had the feeling he wasn't telling me all he should or could. I'd even mentioned it to him, but he'd sworn he'd told me everything of the slightest importance.
That's what the man had said. But now I sat in this goddamned alley with my head spinning because I didn't know what the hell the score was and also because my head had been severely pounded, and I didn't know a thing for sure except that already in this screwy case something smelled even worse than the stinking garbage.
I looked at my watch and saw it was already after two a.m. and the club was closed. I hobbled around, though, and banged on the doors to get in, but it was no soap. I didn't know where Lorraine was or where I could find her tonight, so I headed back toward my apartment thinking that I'd see about Sweet Lorraine in the morning even though the way I felt now I didn't know if I'd last that long. As I tooled my antique yellow Cadillac back toward Hollywood I couldn't help thinking that I was the boy who'd wanted to live to be an old, old man. Well, now I'd made it.
Dr. Paul Anson, whose apartment is two doors from my three rooms and bath on the second floor of the Spartan Apartment Hotel, said, "Next time get killed; I've got an operation tomorrow," grinned at me, and shut the door in my face. He'd just finished looking me over and it appeared that I was relatively whole and would live after all. I walked down to my apartment and let myself in.
Inside I stopped long enough to feed the tropical fish I keep in two aquariums just inside the door, then I went into the kitchenette and mixed a stiff drink, poured half of it down my throat, and went back into the front room. I lay down flat on my back on the oversized chocolate-brown divan, grabbed the phone, and plopped it down on my stomach.
Now that I'd had time to relax and slow down a bit I realized that although I had a score to settle with the frozen-faced guy and a singsonging jerk, that part was personal and should come after the job. And my one and only job was to find Isabel Ellis, so I dialed the operator and put in a long-distance call to Wilbur Clark's Desert Inn in Las Vegas. Before this went any further I wanted to be sure Detective William Carter wasn't up there getting sloppy at the bar.
I got the room clerk at the desk of the Desert Inn. Even over the phone I could sense the color and lights and gaiety that I remembered from two previous trips to Las Vegas, and I could almost hear the ivory ball rolling around the rims of the roulette wheels, and the whir of the slot machines. Just imagining it was so pleasant that the anger still with me faded a bit and I felt better.
But that was the only part that made me feel better. I learned that Carter hadn't used his room at all and couldn't be reached. After futilely having him paged I asked the clerk, "He hasn't checked out, then?"
"No. We're holding his bill. He came in on the eighth, as you said, for an indefinite stay."
That was about as much as I could get on the phone. "O.K., thanks a lot. Now, I'll be in Las Vegas tomorrowâor, rather, later todayâprobably in the afternoon. I'd like to make a reservation for aboutâ"
He cut in, "I'm sorry, sir. There are no vacancies."
"Huh? This is Thursday morning, isn't it? I thoughtâ"
"I'm afraid that almost everything in town will be taken, sir. This is the beginning of Helldorado Week. May tenth through May thirteenth, sir. Thursday through Sunday, inclusive."
That was all he needed to say. Helldorado. The wildest, shootingest, rooting-tootingest ruckus since the West was really wild; the biggest thing since MacArthur's arrival in New York. Four days when Las Vegas, which jumps plenty all the year around, jumps clear up into the air and clicks its spurred heels. I had as much chance of getting a good room as I had of waking up in the morning with no bruises.
I thought a minute, remembering the guys I knew in Vegas. I'd bumped into plenty, but there was only one I could think of right away who was actually a good friend. I said, "Say, you still got a young bartender there named Freddy Powell?"
The clerk's voice got less impersonal right away. "Sure. You know Freddy?" Then he must have remembered the foolish dictum not to get chummy with customers, and added, "However, he works days, sir. He's been off since six o'clock."
"Any chance he's still around? If I remember Freddy, he might still be at the bar."
I heard him chuckle. "Yes, indeed, sir. I'll have him paged. Even if he is here, it may take a while."
"Yeah," I said, "I know." I gave the clerk my number and asked him to have Freddy phone me if he was present and conscious. I added, "Tell him it's Shell Scott," then I put the phone on the carpet and relaxed. Freddy Powell might not be at the Desert Inn, but wherever he was, I'd have made book he was doing one of three things: sitting somewhere with a highball or a bottle, in bed with a woman, or bending some blonde's ear. He was a bastard, but he was sure an interesting bastard.
I met him on my first trip to Las Vegas, where I'd wound up after locating a witness in Boulder City. Freddy was tending bar downtown then and we got to talking across the mahogany. He gave me a couple of drinks on the house, then I bought him a drink and he gave me another on the house. We took off together when his shift ended, two hours later, and from then on things got a bit fuzzy. But we'd had such a rip-roaring time together that my next trip to Vegas was a vacation trip motivated as much by a desire to see Freddy again as by the fact that Vegas is a hell of a town. I was still thinking about that second tripâfuzzier even than the first oneâwhen the phone rang. I picked it up.
"Hello, Shell? That you, Shell? Hi, you old satyr, you. What's up, and don't answer that. Say hello to Shell, Angel. Hey, Shell, this is Angel."
I hadn't got a word in yet For all he knew, he was talking to the janitor. Then another voice, a low, soft, feminine voice, rustled over the phone, "Hello, Shell," it said, and all of a sudden I wanted to go to Vegas whether I was on a job or not.
I said, "Well, hello. Tell me, are you a blonde?"
And Freddy said, "You think she's listening? Think I'm gonna let you at her? No, sir. How are you?"
"Freddy," I said, "you've been drinking." It was five minutes before we got around to my reason for calling him, but finally I told him, "Look, chum, since I'm coming up sometime today, I'll need a room. I forgot about Helldorado starting. Can you fix me up with a place to sleep?"
"Just a minute," he said. "I'll ask Angel." He was gone for a moment, then, "No good. She's leaving in the morning. They'll sure as hell have her room rented, too. I'll do what I can, though. If I can't find something good you can have my room."
The unique thing about his last sentence was that he meant exactly what he'd said. He was that kind of guy. Whatever he could do for anybody he liked, he'd do without thinking twice about it. I told him not to wear himself out and added, "Something else. I'm coming up to look for a gal named Isabel Ellis, and I'll try to hunt up a private detective named William Carter. This Carter registered there at the Desert Inn but nobody can find the guy now. How about nosing around a little when you sober up? If he's there, maybe I can take a vacation and we'll hang another one on."
"Sure thing," he said. "Sounds good. See you tomorrow, huh?"
"Yeah. Say good-by to Angel for me."
He chuckled happily. "Sure, pal. I'll have one for you."
I hung up on him. If I hadn't had several things to check here in L.A. in the morning, I'd have leaped in the Cad and been on my way.
But instead I finished my drink and went to bed and dreamed of a little roulette wheel with a white ivory ball rolling around in the groove at the top, but when I looked closer I saw it wasn't a white ball at all but a tiny naked blonde, and she was running like hell because there, loping along behind her and right in the groove, was Freddy.
THE first thing I did in the morning after a hot shower, which didn't take enough of the ache out of my bones, and a quick toast-and-coffee breakfast was to stop at the desk on my way out. My new client hadn't had a picture of his daughter with him last night, but he'd assured me he'd bring me one or leave one at the desk. He had. I picked up the picture and looked at it, remembering Bing's description of his daughter: five-two, 110 pounds or so, twenty-nine years old, dark hair, blue eyes. It could have been a million women. In the photo, though, Isabel Ellis was a pretty little gal with big eyes and dark hair worn in an upsweep, a short upper lip, and a pleasant smile. The portrait, a black-and-white eight-by-ten, was clear and maybe it would help. I put it in my bag with the rest of my stuff and took off for the legwork I had to take care of before I started for Las Vegas.
Bing had also told me that his daughter had been married to one Harvey Ellis here in Los Angeles, and that though they weren't divorced, they were separated. Harvey Ellis had left Isabel, Bing told me, just up and deserted her, and he'd seemed so embarrassed by the intimate details that I didn't press it. He did tell me that he had no idea where Ellis was. I drove to 220 North Broadway and went into the Hall of Records, took a look at the file copies of the marriage application and certificate of Harvey Ellis and Isabel Bing, and put in a rush order for photostats. I learned by asking around that I was the second man to get the info in the past week. Carter's stock went up a little with me, because it's surprising how many private detectives themselves fail to realize how much information of benefit in a missing-persons investigation the marriage file contains.
While I was near the City Hall I paid a brief visit to Homicide, not because I had business there, but to ask help of my good friend Phil Samson, the Homicide captain. I gave him a cigar and the dope on Harvey Ellis I'd copied down at the Hall of Records, and promised him another cigar if he checked a little on Harvey and wired any information he got to me at the Desert Inn. For all I knew, wifey might have gone back to hubby. Luckily I've known Sam for years, worked with him and even broken some cases for himâwith his helpâso all he did was get blue in the face and swear at me as usual. But before I left he told me he'd check, and also check the morgue and Missing Persons, and it would cost me not a cigar, but a box of Corona Grandes.
I left City Hall and checked the house that Isabel had sold, and learned that it had been in her name and had been sold through a real-estate agency for cash on December 6, on which day Isabel had picked up the money and left. That was just before the first of the yearâand Bing hadn't heard from his daughter since the first of the year.
Next I checked William Carter in the phone book and went to his house, where I talked with Mrs. Carter. She was a pleasant little woman with a sweet voice, and she told me over the squalling of a baby in the background that she hadn't heard from Willie in a couple of days but that she wasn't worried because often he'd get tied up on a job for a week or so at a time. I did get a look at a hand-colored studio portrait of him, though: a red-haired guy about thirty-five, with a thick red mustache and an old jagged scar over his left eye.