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Authors: Richard S. Prather

The Case of the Vanishing Beauty

BOOK: The Case of the Vanishing Beauty
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Case of the Vanishing Beauty
A Shell Scott Mystery

Richard S. Prather

 

Chapter One

 

SHE LOOKED HOTTER than a welder's torch and much, much more interesting.

Up till now the floor show had been getting less attention than the rest- rooms—a Mexican hat dance, some Mexican troubadors gnashing their teeth through "La Cucaracha" and "Cielito Lindo," and a swarthy comic who wasn't comic—but as soon as she walked onto the little dance floor and stood in the spotlight everybody went nuts. Guys were applauding as if their hands were shot full of novocain, and yelling things that sounded to me like "Olé!" and "Bravo, Lina!" and "Hot damn!"

They liked her.

I didn't blame them. She was in her early twenties, and tall. About five feet nine, and every inch of it loaded. Her lips were the dangerous red of a stop light and her eyes were the same black as the masses of black hair piled high on top of her head. She was slim, but with hips that were amply ample and high, full breasts that she was careless about but nobody else ever would be. Plus a flat stomach, a slim waist, and golden skin as smooth as melting ice cream.

She stood in the spotlight against a painted set or background made of heavy wood, wearing high-heeled black shoes, dark hose, black, form-fitting shorts that looked as if they'd been melted on, and a scarlet bolero that didn't quite conceal what it was meant to not quite conceal. I could have taken my pulse and tried for the record.

I gathered from the yelling still going on that this was Lina.

I stopped poking foolishly at the ice in my highball and looked across the table at Miss Georgia Martin. "Hi," I said.

"Hi, yourself," she answered in her husky, educated voice. "I thought you might have forgotten I was with you, Mr. Scott."

I grinned at her. "You know better. I was just wondering what caused all the ruckus."

"Now you know, Mr. Scott."

"Yeah. And what's with this Mr. Scott business? A minute ago you were calling me Shell. Incidentally, you could take my mind clear off the floor show. No trouble at all. Just break down and give me half an idea what the devil I'm supposed to be doing."

She shook her blonde head. "No can do, Shell. Sorry."

"What the hell, Georgia? I feel like a gigolo. Dime-a-Dance boy. I take you out—on the expense account. I buy you dinner—on the expense account. That any way for me to earn a fee? Give me something I can sink my teeth into."

"Patience." She looked at me levelly from blue eyes that seemed a little emptier all of a sudden. "You'll earn your fee. More than you get, probably. Believe me, just being seen around with you is worth something to me. Georgia Martin with a private detective. Besides, Shell, this is only the beginning. There'll probably be enough fireworks before you're through."

"O.K. I'll hang on a little while, sweetheart. What'll it be? Tacos? Enchiladas? Or the special combination plate number three?"

We were at a candle-lit table just off the dance floor in a little Mexican dive on Bernard Street in Los Angeles. It was small, as colorful as the flag square at the United Nations Headquarters, and jammed to the rafters with a Saturday-night crowd about twice as big as it should have been for comfort. Outside, flickering nervously in the fine, cold drizzle of rain, was a neon sign that laboriously spelled out "El Cuchillo," which, translated, means "The Knife." I was taking my client out to dinner—at her request, and on the expense account. Great, huh? Only as you may have gathered, I knew what the score was like I know how high is up. Miss Georgia Martin, my attractive client across the little table from me, just said, "I can't tell you any more than I have," and that was practically nothing.

I gargled the last of my bourbon and water and looked over the menu. There were a couple of dozen kinds of Mexican foods, but I didn't see any prime ribs or steaks. A note at the bottom of the menu said that no imitation or adulterated materials were used in the preparation of their foods. Their chili powder and spices were of the finest quality and all imported from Mexico, and only the finest domestically raised ground beef was used in their tacos and enchiladas. Ground beef; still no prime ribs. I settled for two tacos, fried beans, and some of the chili with imported powder, hoping it mixed O.K. with bourbon. Georgia ordered a combination plate.

The yelling and yipping had been slowly simmering down, but all of a sudden it stopped as if there'd been a signal. The place got so quiet I could hear the rain, heavier now, splatting on the sidewalk outside.

I jerked my head around and took in the picture on the dance floor. A tall, dark Mexican, thin and taut as a bowstring, had joined the girl the crowd had called Lina. He stood with her in the spotlight, his white teeth gleaming in a smile. Above the smile a thin mustache clung precariously, looking as if it was made out of tired hairs, spittle and eyebrow pencil. His black hair was carefully combed and pushed into beautiful waves. Even in back.

In his right hand he held a thin-handled, gleaming knife over a foot long. A whole fistful of knives was stuck somehow into his left hand. He walked a few paces to his right, then turned to face Lina.

She stood against the wooden set about ten feet from him, with her arms over her head, her breasts high, her stomach pulled in, looking beautiful as an angel in hell, waiting, a half-smile on her red lips.

The damn fool was going to throw knives at that luscious tomato!

I understood why everybody was keeping quiet. I felt like holding my breath. One mistake—a few inches too far to the left or the right—and the lovely, lovely Lina would have a long, pointed knife quivering in her beautiful body.

The drummer in the small orchestra started a roll on his drums that mounted in a slow crescendo as the thin guy raised his right hand and cocked it behind his head, his elbow pointing almost straight up in the air, his wrist rigid. Suddenly, and surprisingly, the drums stopped at the peak of their sound, the arm snapped forward, the shoulder dropped, and the knife flashed through the air. In the sudden quiet the knife thudded into the wood an inch from Lina's upraised right wrist with an impact that sounded abnormally loud in the silence.

I heard breaths let out all around me. I swallowed; he was just getting started and already I was nervous. Knives all by themselves make me nervous. I turned to Georgia. "Some fun."

She shook her head, then turned her attention back to the show. I looked at her profile in the flickering light from the candle and wondered what the hell we were doing here, what the score was, what I was supposed to do.

Georgia hadn't acted like a nut; she seemed levelheaded and intelligent enough. But so far it was a screwy case, an off-balance caper that made less sense than a C note to win on a forty-to-one plater.

 

Chapter
Two

 

SHE'D COME TO my office in the Hamilton Building downtown in L.A. about two o'clock in the afternoon. Six hours back, that was. It had been dismal all day, with the threat of rain in the air and once in a while the ominous roll of thunder. The scudding clouds combined with L.A.'s ever present smog to make Broadway, one floor down from my window, look as drab and dreary as a harlot on Sunday morning. The Town of the Queen of the Angels—it looked like one hell of a winter.

I turned on the office lights, then walked over to the bookcase. There wasn't even enough sunlight for the fish, so I switched on the lights on the aquarium on top of the bookcase and watched the male guppies make passes at the female guppies for a while. Guppies are tropical fish about as common as mongrel dogs, but they've got color. Name a color and they've got it. I keep about a dozen in the tank; brightens up the office.

I walked back to the window and looked down at Broadway again. Business was terrific.

I saw her when she pulled up and parked across the street, but I didn't pay much attention. I noticed her because she was driving a brand-new Cadillac convertible with the top down. Just like my buggy, except hers was a lot younger.

She had on a fur coat that looked like money, and she left the top down on the convertible, even though it looked as if rain would start pouring any minute. My office is between Third and Fourth Streets, about midway down the block, and she headed right across the street, jaywalking. She could have been headed for Arthur's liquor store.

She' wasn't. I was still looking out the window when she came in the door behind me. I turned around and got my first good look at her.

I'd had the steam heat on most of the day, and it was warm. She peeled off the fur coat and draped it carelessly over the chair in front of my desk. That was O.K. with me.

She was a long-haired and long-limbed blonde on the pleasant side of thirty—rather pleasantly on the pleasant side—and she was built to wear sweaters.

She was wearing a sweater, practically wearing it out, and the things she could do for a French bathing suit were worth mentioning. She seemed a little nervous, but that wasn't unusual. Generally the people who come calling on a private peeper nibble at their fingernails or in general act nervous or ashamed of something.

Her voice, though, was calm, matter-of-fact; a controlled, educated huskiness that went with the sweater. "You must be Mr. Sheldon Scott."

The tones were so softly liquid and well formed that I felt like answering, "I am he," but I didn't. I said, "Yeah."

"I'm Georgia Martin."

She said it as if she'd dropped a bomb, but it didn't mean a thing to me.

"Please sit down. What can I do for you?"

She sat and crossed one long, nylon-clad leg over another long, nylon-clad leg. "I want you to take me dancing and to dinner and be with me whenever I want you. I'll pay you one hundred dollars a day and whatever you need for expenses."

Bang. Like that.

Take a look at me, kids: a shade under six-two; weight, five or six pounds over two hundred; short-cut blond hair that sticks straight up like fresh stubble on a wheat field; gray eyes and nutty, almost white eyebrows that slant up from the middle and then down at the corners of my eyes; what has been referred to as a strong jaw; and the remnants of what was once a tan like Cary Grant's. I'm thirty years old; my nose was busted on Okinawa and didn't get set right; and a gun-happy Sam powdered off the top slice of my left ear with a .38 slug. Sound like a hundred dollars' worth a day? And expenses? I didn't think so either.

I sat down in the swivel chair behind my desk, opened the top left desk drawer, pulled out the little red book, and leafed through it till I found the number I wanted.

"Miss Martin," I said, "you call Angelus four-o-seven-eight-four and ask for Cholly. You're in the wrong room."

She shut her blue eyes for a moment, then opened them slowly while a faint flush crept up over her high cheekbones. That was
all. She said, "I'm serious, Mr. Scott. There's a good deal more to it than that. My sister's missing. I want you to find her."

I took a deep breath and looked at her. "Miss Martin…Georgia. Do you want to hire me to find your sister or to squire you around town?"

"Both. I'm worried about Tracy—that's my sister. She didn't come home last night and I'm, afraid something's happened to her. I think I know what is wrong, and that's why I want you to go with me where I'm going. To assist me in—well, an investigation."

"Assist you?"

"Yes. I know it sounds crazy, but I just can't tell you any more. I came to you because I've heard you know—to put it bluntly—how to keep your mouth shut. And because you've somehow got a reputation for honesty and intelligence and—well, bravery, I guess."

BOOK: The Case of the Vanishing Beauty
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