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Authors: Richard S. Prather

Dead-Bang

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Dead-Bang

A Shell Scott Mystery

Richard S. Prather

Author's Dedication:

This one isn't dedicated to anybody.

1

When the chimes bonged I was watching
Mmmm!
commercials on television.

I had been relaxing, casually clad and shoeless in my three rooms and bath at Hollywood's Spartan Apartment Hotel, during the early
P
.
M
. hours of Saturday, August 14, the night before the culmination of those events—joyous or catastrophic, depending on your point of view—which changed the world.

The minute-long hot-sell television dramas were accompanied by the latest segment of a family-situation series, but it was lousy, so I read a book while the play was on and at frequent intervals paid attention to the exciting commercials.

They were exciting, all right.

In them, impossibly handsome men—I was pretty sure that's what they were—used
Mmmm!
shaving cream or aftershave or cologne, and got dumb looks on their faces. Then there were shots of beautiful gals with their eyes steaming and tongues going in and out, then all this dissolved into something you couldn't be quite sure of, but looked like it was probably lots of fun, and illegal.

The message was clear that if there lived a man so reckless as to use all
three
of the products, one right after the other, he would be so dangerously scented he was certain to be raped by a gorgeous movie star, though whether male or female the manufacturer did not say.

So when the chimes went
cling-clong
, dreaming impossible dreams—I had never used the stuff, myself—I thumped to the door and pulled it open.

She was a luscious lovely of perhaps twenty-five years, give or take a warm summer or two, wearing a lightweight white linen coat open over a clinging pale green dress worn daringly high on sleek shapely legs, and plunging from her throat to what impressed me as a new high in lows. She weighed possibly fifteen pounds more than half my weight—I'm six-feet-two-inches tall and load the scales with two hundred and six pounds—and the top of her head, crowned with red-gold or maybe gold-red hair the shade of honey and hazy sunlight, came just about up to my chin. She had lazy gray eyes and lips that could cook biscuits, and a voice that buzzed like little bees stuck in hot molasses when she said:

“Mr. Scott?”

“What?”

She seemed puzzled by my reply.

Later I would understand why her smooth goldish or reddish brows lifted over those eyes, the color of soft gray cooing pigeons, and why her parted radioactive-red lips pursed slightly as if preparing to blow a kiss into atoms, and why the gentle intake of her breath lifted marvelous breasts higher, higher, and slowly still higher, as though in offering to gods eyeing Earth for pleasures not found on Olympus; but at that moment I was content merely to watch it happen.

You may take it as a fact, however, that never before in my thirty years, when a girl asked me my name, had I replied in a manner indicating either that I didn't know, or that I didn't understand the question.

She was speaking again. “Are you Mr. Scott? The private investigator—Sheldon Scott?”

“Yes, ma'am.” I nodded. “I am. And you …?”

“You don't know? You've never seen me before?”

“I'm positive.”

She went on in the lilting bee-buzzing-lovely voice, “I'm sure my father is in very serious trouble, Mr. Scott. But I'd rather not tell you any more unless you're willing, and able, this very minute, to help me—and him. If it's still possible. If you can't, I'll have to go somewhere else—”

“Don't do anything rash like that. I'm available. Come in, please.”

I sat next to her on the chocolate-brown divan in my living room, and a minute later had convinced her, or at least felt reasonably confident I had convinced her, that I was not merely available, but should she seek from one end of Earth to the other for someone to get her out of whatever difficulty she was in, there was only faint hope that she would find anybody more capable of getting her out of it as quickly as I.

While I rattled on she gazed at the two tropical fish tanks in the living-room corner, but when I stopped and beamed at her expectantly, she let those soft gray eyes sort of drift lazily to my own eyes—also gray, but more of a “steely” or “thunderous” gray, I like to think—then lifted them to examine briefly my peaked white eyebrows and the short-cropped white, but very
healthy
white, hair sticking up atop my head, and finally let her eyes rest on mine again.

“Nonsense,” she said. “Nobody is that good. You don't even
look
like a detective.”

“Isn't that great? Just think of the advantage that gives me over dangerous hoodlums. If I looked like a detective, the moment they lamped me I'd lose the element of surprise which helps me to outwit the dummies. The fact that I resemble a vast wasteland puts them off guard instantly, which is one reason I am still alive and so many of them are dead, or doing ten to a hundred in various closely guarded places.” I paused. “Does this mean I'm fired?”

“No,” she said briskly. “You're hired.” She had opened a large leather bag and pulled a sheet of paper from it. “Tell me what you think of this.”

It was a handwritten note, covering half the page in a queerly jagged and tiny script that was nonetheless easy to read, the strokes clean and sharp, almost like an etching. It said:

“Drusilla, dear—I'll be involved in a very important project for several days, so don't worry if I fail to drop in ‘unexpectedly' before next weekend and let you force upon me your miraculous home-cooking (could you consider Teriyaki steak for Saturday?). Dear, the combination to the floor safe in my study is 85L 12R 51L. Please remove from it the sealed manila envelope (marked ERO) and bring it to the little white house on the corner of Pine and Fifty-seventh streets in Weilton. (I'd come and get it myself, but I'm held prisoner by a mad scientist—I've locked myself in the bathroom.) Seriously, I do need the papers tonight—as soon as you can get them to me here. Try to make it by nine at the latest? Until Teriyaki.…”

The note was signed, “Dad.”

I glanced back over it, then looked at the girl—Drusilla, I supposed. “Your father live in L.A.?”

“Monterey Park.”

“Well, it looks pretty much O.K.,” I said. “It's a little odd he'd be so wrapped up in any kind of project he couldn't go home and open his own safe. Particularly since Weilton's only a few minutes up the Santa Ana Freeway, not far from Monterey Park. Usually people give addresses, not street corners. That's all. The mad scientist line kind of gags me, but it doesn't bug me.”

“Very good. That's as much as I would have expected anybody else to notice.”

“O.K., so what's
really
wrong with the note? I imagine it's too much to assume the envelope is filled with thousand-dollar bills, and your father has been kidnapped and held for ransom, and … this is a ransom note that … isn't supposed to look like a …”

I let it trail off, because her face gave me the answer.

“The envelope contains something a great deal more valuable than thousand-dollar bills.” She took the note from my hand. “Here are the things only I would know—certainly not whoever is holding my father against his will, whoever
made
him write this note. Dad did a brilliant job, really, considering the pressure he must have been under.” She glanced at me. “You see, there's no question, they'll kill him if they get the envelope. Perhaps even if they don't.”

“They? Do you have some idea who—”

“No.” She shook her head rapidly. “But the note isn't dated—that's not like Dad. He's very precise, dating it would be automatic. My name is Drusilla Bruno, but nobody, not even my father, ever calls me anything except Dru.”

The name “Bruno” tickled my mind, but she was going on. “Dad loves my cooking, but hates Teriyaki steak. He intimates he'll see me when I deliver the envelope, but his last words are ‘Until Teriyaki,' which of course would be next Saturday. The most important thing though, is that I already know the combination to Dad's safe. And this isn't it.”

I leaned over and looked at the paper in her hand, got out my notebook and pen, jotted down 85L 12R 51L, and underneath it letters of the alphabet corresponding to the numbers. I wound up with HE AB EA. Then I crossed out AB and replaced it with L, for the twelfth letter of the alphabet.

“I've done all that,” she said. “Every which way. Nothing made sense.”

“Could he have been trying to say ‘Help,' or—”

“No, that's not the way Dad's mind works. He'd already said ‘Help' by writing the wrong combination, and half a dozen other things. I'm
sure
he's trying to tell me something, somewhere in that letter, but I just don't know what it is. Probably I'm … too upset.” She was silent a moment, then she went on, “Don't concentrate on the ‘mad scientist' thing. He
is
a scientist, but he isn't mad. Although lately enough people have been trying to say he is.”

I'd taken out a cigarette and was starting to put it between my lips when it hit me. I didn't realize I had suddenly tightened my fingers until bits of tobacco fell from the broken cigarette onto my trousers.

I looked at her. “Drusilla … Bruno. And your father's a scientist? He isn't—”

“Yes. Emmanuel Bruno.”

I let the crumpled cigarette drop. Just let it drop onto my yellow-gold carpet. Then I got out another one, lit it, stood up, walked over to the fish tanks, and looked at the brightly colored Neons and Raspboras and Guppies and the cornflower-blue Betta I'd raised from an egg. I glanced at my watch. Ten minutes after nine. And according to the note, Dru was supposed to “Try to make it by nine.” No way.

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