Authors: Richard S. Prather
Freddy saw me looking at the bed. "Flop," he said. "I'll fix you something for your corpuscles."
I tossed my coat over a chair and flopped, and noticed that he had a paper sack under his arm. He pulled out a fifth of Old Taylor and a plastic sack full of those ice cubes with holes in their middles. He held up the bottle. "This is now your private stock, Shell. Welcome to the party. Now, what's your situation?"
I relaxed while he mixed the drinks in tall highball glasses he'd filched from the bar, and said, "Just what I told you on the phone, chum. Looking for a gal named Ellis who might be somewhere up hereâor might be in Wisconsin, for all I know. This Carter came up here after her. You didn't get anything on him, huh?"
He grinned as he came over and handed me a drink. "Tell you the truth, I barely made it to work this morning, so I didn't have much time to nose. Been working all day. But I asked around the hotel people here. Nothing. Like you saidâregistered, but nobody's seen him since."
"Yeah. There's something damned screwy. I was warned in no uncertain terms to stay the hell away from here. And I think I got a welcome." I gave him the story of the robin's-egg-blue Chrysler and finished, "So I don't know whether I made an ass of myself or prevented a hole in my head."
He laughed. "You got holes in your head already, working at a time like this. Your car still at the airport?"
"Good enough. I'll pick it up and bring it in while you relax."
I sat up on the bed. "The hell you will, Freddy! That car stays there till dark. I'll pick it up myself when I get a line on what's cooking. If I pick it up at all. The guys hate my guts up here, whoever they are, and they must know the car by now, even if they don't know where it is."
"O.K., O.K." He grinned. "What you want me to do?"
I was getting so tired and dopey lying on that soft bed with two pillows behind my head that I almost wanted him to do nothing but leave me in peace for an hour or two. Then a thought struck me.
"One thing, Freddy. This Angel of the phone. That wouldn't have been Colleen Shawn?"
He shook his head. "Nope. The Angel flew this morning. Just a tomato. Wish to hell it had been Colleen. You like that, huh?"
"I like that. Know anything about her?"
"Just that she shivers my timbers. I've only talked to her a couple of times at the bar. She's been around for a week or so. That's about all I know so farâbut I'm gonna give you competition."
"Good enough. Say, Fred, I've got a call on a guy named Dante on my schedule. You know him?"
"Sure. Victor Dante. Runs the Inferno. Owns another club or two. Not in Vegas, though."
"I'm going to see him later tonightâif I can get off this bed. What can you tell me about him?"
Freddy scratched his black hair. "Gamblerâa smart one. Understand he came up from L.A. One thing, Shell, you don't want any trouble with him. He's got a lot of influence around here now. And that influence, they tell me, is not only political but police. Let's see, they opened the Inferno about three months ago. February, I think it was. He was around a while before that, but he's a real big man now he runs the Inferno. Moved right in. Tell you something else: He'll bet on anything, but from the dope I've picked up behind the bar, he's a sure-thing, boy. Doesn't like to lose. Don't even bet him the sun will come up in the east tomorrow, because he'd win if he had to put in a fix with some angels."
"Like that, huh?" I thought a minute. "The last thing I heard about this Carter guy was that he was going to call on Dante. That's the main reason I want to see him."
Freddy lit a cigarette and frowned at it for a while before saying anything else. Then he looked at me. "You watch yourself. It might interest you to know that the Inferno wasn't originally supposed to be called the Inferno. When they first started building the place it was going to be the Sundown Club. Most people know that, but not so many know a guy named Big Jim White was behind it then."
"Then? Why not now?"
He grinned. "That's a funny thing. Dante was interested in the place all along, but the story goes he didn't have enough cash to handle it. This Big Jim was on the insideâhad the backing and moneyâbut he got taken suddenly dead about a month before the club opened. Then there were some legal powwows, and now the place is Dante's Inferno."
"How do you mean, taken dead?"
"Accident. Apparently Big Jim was walking around on the highway out beyond the Flamingo and a car hit him. The sheriff wondered what the guy was doing thereânot a damn thing out thereâand he asked a lot of people, including Dante, about it. Wound up an accident, though."
"Interesting," I said. "Sounds like a convenient accident. For Dante."
I finished my drink. "I suppose I'd better get with it. Don't feel a hell of a lot like it." I put the glass on the floor and let my arm dangle over the side of the bed. It would have taken too much energy to pull it back up.
Freddy scowled. "You should get with some sleep. You look beat. How you gonna sleuth if you're dead?"
He didn't mean a corpse, just beat, but he'd made two points without trying. I was so tired I wasn't sharp, and if I were literally dead. . .
"Maybe you're right," I said. "O.K. if I pop off here for a couple?"
"Make it three," he said. "I'll call you around nine or so."
"Good deal, Freddy. Thanks. Maybe we'll get a chance to hang one on." I was almost asleep before I finished talking.
The sirens woke me up. And from there on in it was hell in Helldorado.
I WOKE UP slowly, the way I always do, and I heard the siren scream without even wondering, at first, what had awakened me. Even when I realized what was making the racket I associated it with L.A. for a second or two, wondering from force of habit where the boys were going. Then I remembered where I was as the sound of the siren grew from its faint beginning and shrilled inside my head when it passed the Desert Inn, going south on U.S. 91 out of town.
I shook my head and blinked, remembering the stuff I had to do. Had to see Victor Dante. And I wanted into Carter's room, too, to check his stuff, see if there was anything in it that would help me. It might be best to ask Carter about that first, though, if I ever got the chance. And I had to start showing that picture around. Maybe Freddy could help me there. He met a hell of a lot of people across the bar, though most of them were just blanks, customers, guys rapping with silver dollars.
I looked at my watch. Eight-thirty. Might as well get going. The better than two hours' sleep had done me a lot of good. I was a little stiffer, but otherwise I felt better. I started to get up and noticed that Freddy had tossed a blanket over me, and my cordovans were side by side on the floor. I grinned and got into the shoes, then splashed cold water on my face and began to feel human.
Another siren was wailing, getting closer, and I began wondering what was causing all the commotion. I walked to the front of the room and stuck my head out the window as cars started pulling over to the side of the road to let a black radio car race by with its red spotlight blinking. I knew the city limits were the other side of Bingo's on the downtown side of the Strip, and that the Las Vegas police department has jurisdiction over only the four square miles of downtown Las Vegas. And we were out in county territory here, so those would be county cars: men from the sheriff's department I watched the bouncing taillight of the car as it went up toward the Flamingo and swung left at the curve and out of sight. They were sure in a hurry, but there wasn't anything beyond the Flamingo except desert and McCarran Field. That was right, the airport was out there.
I got a little tickling sensation along my back. Maybe it wouldn't hurt to go out there and take a look. I made sure I had my .38, put on my coat, and went out and down the stairs to the edge of the lobby. I stood there for a moment remembering that I didn't have my Cad handy and I couldn't just stroll out to the airport. Then I remembered Colleen had said she was in Room 107. That was just off the lobby, around to my left here on the main floor, so I swung around, walked to her door, and knocked.
She opened the door and smiled when she saw me.
God, she was beautiful. I stared at her till she said, "Hi. Didn't know you'd be here so soon. You look like you're walking in your sleep."
"Think I am. Hi."
"Come on in, Shell."
"I'd like to, but I come asking favors. Already. You mind?"
"Depends on the favor."
"You got a car?"
"Last year's Mercury. Want a ride?"
"I thought we might start getting better acquainted by following sirens. I'm curious. O.K.?"
"Sure. That'll be different, anyway. Let's go."
She was still dressed the same way she had been at the bar and she looked just as good or better, and I noticed that in addition to everything else she had the most beautiful legs in a long, long time. She got another point on the good side when all she had to do in order to leave was take three steps to the dresser, pick up her handbag, and come on out. She pulled the door shut and we started.
Before we got into the looby, I said, "Hey, I'm not quite awake, and I didn't think. There's, uh, some people who don't like me. Even a chance somebody might take pot shots at me. Maybe I shouldn't have asked you to come."
She blinked at me and stopped. "Are you serious?"
She shook her head, then shrugged and started walking again. That was all. I followed her to the car, a dark green club coupÃ©. She slid under the wheel and zoomed out of the curving drive with the tires screeching. She seemed to like getting things done in a hurry. I told her where the excitement seemed to be and she ripped out the highway getting there.
The trouble was at the airport, all right. I told Colleen to pull in and she slowed down as we came to within a few feet of the center of activity. There was some confusion, and about twenty people were milling around over at the right of the airport building. The red spotlight on the top of one of the sheriff's black patrol cars pulsed bright and dim, bright and dim. I could hear harsh, impersonal voices barking orders and asking questions, and just then another car drove up with the siren muttering in its lowest register.
Always when I first awaken I go around in a sort of sleepwalker's trance for a few minutes. But I was awake now and I knew I'd wanted to come out here because I'd thrown airport-Cadillac-sheriff-excitement all together in my mind and got a fluttery shiver along my spine. I reached into my coat pocket to make sure the car keys were there and I couldn't find them. I sat up straight and went through all my pockets, but there weren't any keys.
And then I saw my car as some men moved away from the side of it, and at first, it's funny, but all I thought about was that my old ugly Cadillac was no good to me any more because the whole front end was ripped up, the metal of the hood twisted and gaping with holes and the windshield cracked and broken. It looked just as if a half-dozen sticks of dynamite had blown all to hell under the hood, and I started to grind my teeth together as anger boiled inside me and started to rise, and then it died out of me, died all the way out of me.
Because I saw why the men at the side of the Cad had moved away; saw the limp body they were placing on the ground; even saw them starting to cover him up; and I got cold all over, felt the cold brush over all my skin, and I said, "Oh, my God. My God. Oh, my God, Freddy."
Colleen said, "What's the matter? Shell, what's wrong?" But I couldn't answer her because my vision blurred all of a sudden and I couldn't do anything except put my forehead down in my hand and hold it and squeeze it as if somehow that could help take away the chill and the sickness. For a moment I didn't know what to say or even what to do, and then I got out of the car and walked over to the men gathered around the body on the ground.
He was already covered, but I got down on one knee and pulled back the cloth over him and it was Freddy, as I'd known it would be, and his face looked almost the same, what was left of it, but the worst was high on his chest.
I covered him up quickly because I just wanted to be positive, didn't really want to look at him at all. Then a uniformed deputy grabbed my arm.
"Who the hell you think you are, Mac? Get away from the body."
I squeezed my hands into fists, then stretched them open and turned away from him. He grabbed me again, his eyes squinting at me. "What you doing here, anyway?"
"Just. . . noticed the excitement. Somebody told me about it."
"You know the guy?"
"I knew him. From the Desert Inn." Then I added, and it was hard to say it, "He was a friend of mine, is all. Bartender at the hotel."
"We know who he is."
"How'd it happen?" I asked him.
He acted as if he weren't going to answer, then he looked at the front of the Cad. "You can see, can't you? It blew up."
"Not by itself, Officer."
He shrugged. I walked away, wondering if he'd stop me, but he didn't. As I turned around I saw a man watching me, a man with a familiar face that I'd seen once before when he'd been looking at me from the near side of a blue Chrysler. He was about fifteen feet away, partly in shadow, and there was another man with him that I didn't recognize. The one I did know, a short, husky guy with a big nose and a bald head, turned to the other man and said something I couldn't hear.
I turned away from them and started walking from the airport toward the street, far ahead of me. The highway was straight ahead and for about fifty yards there was some illumination, then there was darkness with the road out there invisible from here. I walked by the Mercury and Colleen looked out at me and said, "Shell, what is it? Tell me."
I said, "Beat it. Get out of here." Then I kept walking toward the darkness with the airport at my back and the two men at my back, and I thought they'd follow me because
was supposed to have been in the Cad, not Freddy, and I hoped to God they did follow me.
You know how something like that hits you? There's shock that numbs you for a while just as if you've been hurt physically. There are physical changes in your body, and maybe the backs of your knees feel like water and your skin gets cold and perspiration jumps out on your forehead. If it's bad enough you can get sick or faint or even have a heart attack. It had hit me hard and the shock had momentarily numbed me, but I was coming out of it enough already so that there was time and room for the anger to well up in me again. It was cold and brittle anger, and I knew it would stay with me for a long time.