He lay there in the silk-lined casket looking very waxy, but it was eight to five that he looked no more waxy than I.
His waxiness was due to the fact that he had been shot three times, including once in the head, and then embalmed -- which would have been enough all by itself. Mine was due to the enormous possibility that -- at any moment now -- I might join him.
Well, since this was McGannon's Funeral Parlor in Los Angeles, this was the place for it.
The dead man had been one of the two biggest and most successful mobsters in this, the city of the "angles." And behind me here in the chapel were about four dozen of his "boys," forty-eight -- give or take a slob -- of the toughest, roughest, ugliest, most bloodthirsty hoodlums and stick-up men and gangsters and thieves and trigger-happy gunmen in California for sure, and maybe in the world and beyond.
All of them were anxious as could be to kill the man who had killed the guy in the casket. All of them were just waiting until the services were over and they could find Shell Scott, and get their hands on him, and murder him in several different ways. All of them were practically eaten up with the desire to corner Shell Scott and mangle him, to open his veins and let his blood run hot -- and then cold; to beat him and shoot him and jump up and down on him. It looked like a bad year, a bad day, even a bad moment for Shell Scott.
You guessed it: That's me. I'm Shell Scott.
The organ was playing something soft and tremulous and depressing, but it should have been I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You! -- and I was the rascal. The blood those bloodthirsty hoods were thirsty for was mine. The arms and legs they wanted to break were my arms and legs. The head they wanted to shoot bullets into was my fat head.
If you think I was nuts to be present at the funeral of the egg in the casket when all around me were muggs dying to kill me for the job, then you are at least partly right. But it really was necessary for me to be here -- though of course I hadn't planned it quite like this -- and I was disguised. Well, sort of disguised.
That is to say I didn't look much like Shell Scott, private detective. Not on first glance, anyway. But at any moment one of these gunmen might do a double take which would mean a double funeral. Consequently I couldn't afford to make any unusual movements or do anything which would draw special attention to me, so I kept on walking toward the casket.
We were at the moment participating in the barbaric rite commonly known as "viewing the remains." This masochistic procedure might have made some sense in the case of the dead man's family and close friends -- but he had no family, and only one close friend, at most. There was no heartache here, no sadness, no sobbing or tears. Nobody mourned this mugg, this mobster, thug and murderer. Nevertheless, everybody was filing past the coffin and looking at the dead man's body, and now it was my turn.
I moved down the center aisle in complete silence except for the organ music, and I felt about as conspicuous as I had ever felt in my thirty years. Normally I am a six-foot-two, two-hundred-and-six-pound chap who looks like an ex-Marine, which I am. Normally I have inch-long white hair that sticks up into the atmosphere like a magnetized crew cut, goofily slanting white eyebrows over gray eyes, a "slightly broken" nose, and clothing combining most of the visible spectrum.
But today was not a normal day and I didn't look like that at all. I didn't even look like an ex-Marine. My hair and eyebrows were darkened, and in my cheeks were rolls of cotton which made my face puffy, as if I'd been beaten up. Besides which, I had been beaten up. Twice. I was a mess.
I took another step toward the coffin, oozing perspiration, and more of the dead man came into view. I could see his white hands folded across his thick middle. I still hadn't seen what I'd come here to see, and I wasn't even sure that I would be able to see it when I stood right next to the coffin. But if it was there, I had to get it somehow. At least, I had to try.
I couldn't afford to stop as I walked by the casket. But I stepped close to it and slowed enough so that I could look carefully into it while pretending to gaze at the dead man's face. And I saw what I'd come here to see.
On this side of the casket, shoved down between the dead man and the white silk were the edges of some white papers. If I hadn't been looking for them I wouldn't have seen them against the silk, but there they were; so there was still hope. In this case, where there was death there was hope. I let out my breath with a sigh that must have been heard in the back row of the chapel, and then I walked on by. It was like leaving my teeth to leave those papers there, but it couldn't be helped.
I walked from the chapel into the adjoining room, stopped and glanced around. Several men had preceded me here, but only two of them were in sight, the others having apparently gone on out front. I racked my brain, trying to think of some way I could get my hands on those papers before the funeral procession started. The two men stared at me curiously, it seemed. I swallowed, bent my head and, fumbling for a cigarette, lit it. The men went out the front door.
That left me alone in here, and I made up my mind, heading for the rear of the funeral home. I walked down a dim ball, past a long narrow table in the center of which was a large vase of fleshy white calla lilies, on to the back door. The organ music was fainter here, throbbing on the air like a soft pulse, and the air seemed wonderfully clear and fresh as I stepped into the shaded rear yard of McGannon's.
An enormous pepper tree shaded the green grass, and a few of the small narrow leaves dotted the white driveway bisecting the lawn. A gray cement walk led from the back door to the wide white driveway ten feet away, and on that drive, its rear toward me and the twin doors already opened wide, waited the hearse.
It was a gleaming black Cadillac, as clean and shiny as a general's boots. In a few minutes the coffin and its burden would be placed in it for the ten-minute drive to Woodstream Cemetery, a small and expensive graveyard "laved by the breath of orange blossoms" -- according to the local radio and TV commercials -- from the extensive Dimondsen groves which bordered it on three sides. My throat was dry. It had been dry for half an hour or more now, thirty minutes that seemed to have been fashioned from a longer time, the kind you knew as a kid when a day lasted half of forever.
The driver of the hearse leaned against the front fender of the Cadillac, smoking a cigar. Two other men, both large and very unpleasant to look upon, stood several yards to my right, where the driveway entered Forest Street. That was where the hearse would go, to Forest and then left to the cemetery. Nobody else was in sight; most of the men would be already in their cars out front, waiting for the procession to start.
The hearse driver was staring at me. I ducked my head down as I dragged on my cigarette, watching the man from under my artificially darkened eyebrows. He looked familiar, and in a second I placed him -- Zipper Gray, so called because of the way he zipped around dirt tracks in stock car races and through traffic driving getaway cars for members of the mob. He had probably been recruited specially for today's five-mile trek; nothing was too good for the boss.
Zipper was frowning a little, his mouth half open as he eyeballed me. There was no question about it; that look on his chops was the look of a man saying, "Who's that ape? I know I seen that ape before." No doubt words to that effect were passing through Zipper's little brain. At least they would be moving slowly; Zipper's IQ was about equal to the average daily temperature -- in Siberia.
Zipper raised a hand and pointed a finger at me, his mouth dropping even farther open. My heart gave a great thud and squirted blood everywhere through me. I dropped my cigarette and started to reach for the .38 Colt Special under my coat. Zipper began to say something -- and then there was a noise behind me. I swung around, and stopped the motion toward my gun in time. Six men were carrying out the casket.
I looked back toward Zipper, but his attention was focused on the activity now. My knees were starting to feel like toasted marshmallows. The men slid the coffin into the hearse, shut the two doors in the Cad's rear, then went back into the building. That made the odds a little better. If the two large guys near the street would only leave now, I could handle Zipper -- maybe even manage to do it without fuss and actually take off with what I'd come after.
A minute passed. All of a sudden I thought: I'm going to get away with it. I'm really going to make it. In that dizzy moment I even imagined myself reaching into the coffin, grabbing those papers, and dancing away with them to the Police Building.
And then Zipper yelled, "Hey!"
The two big guys jerked their heads around toward us. Zipper had that finger pointing at me again, waving it up and down a bit now. His face reflected wild astonishment. "Hey!" he yelled again, higher and louder. "It's--"
By that time I was going toward him. In a hurry.
Zipper's brain struggled with the problem. "It's -- whatchamacallit! Whosit! Oh, murder, it's--"
I'd reached him, fist cocked, and that murder he was yelling about was in my heart. Zipper never did think of my name. But he squawked, "He blasted the boss!" just as I launched my fist at him.
At the same moment he leaped toward me like a bird. His sudden movement spoiled my aim enough so I missed his chin. My fist banged against his ear and then he landed on me -- and at the same moment I heard one of those guys near the street shout in a booming voice that sounded at least as audible as nine cannons: "Shell Scott!"
Well, maybe Zipper hadn't managed it all by himself, but he had sure been a contributing factor, like the man who may not pull the switch but wires the chair. I'd had it. The fathead was really in the fire now.
Zipper was all over me, like a guy with five arms and several legs, not doing any damage but getting much in my way. I could hear feet slapping on the drive, and I knew they would be big feet. I swore under my breath, got my right hand and arm free, pulled it back and threw my fist forward like a hammer, driving Zipper's nose into his face like a tack. He flew away from me, and I jerked my head toward the two burly boys.
They were almost on me. One of them had a gun in his hand, but he didn't use it. I leaped forward, out of their path a little, and took two long strides toward the black Cadillac, digging under my coat for the .38. At the car door I turned my head and flipped up the Colt, squeezing off a shot that missed both men but sent them diving to the ground. One man hit the white cement and let out a yell, but the other landed rolling on the lawn. I tossed two more shots into the grass to keep them rolling, then climbed into the Cad and got behind the wheel, looking frantically for the keys. If they were in Zipper's pocket. . . but they were in the ignition.
As the engine caught, a dozen simultaneous yells tore the air in front of the Funeral Home, and McGannon's back door slammed. I hit the gas. The next sixty seconds were a blur, a jarring screeching kaleidoscope of color and movement laced with wild shouts, confusion and bedlam like a circus exploding; but at least it was movement, and away from McGannon's. I kept the gas pedal down as I roared out of the drive and hit Forest Street, yanking the wheel left and sliding around in a turn that raked rubber off all four tires. Then the car straightened, and I tried to push my foot through the floorboards. Slowly the big buggy gained speed, and with the surge of power under its hood I got a new surge of hope in me.
I still couldn't quite believe it, but I had actually walked in among those more than forty thieves like a modern Ali Booby and gotten out again. What was more, I'd gotten out with what I had come after. I glanced at the casket in the middle of the hearse, behind me -- and my eyes fell on the dead man's white, heavy face. I had gotten out with quite a lot more than I'd come after.
And then I discovered that I had brought from McGannon's even more than I'd thought. I had come away from McGannon's with -- McGannon's. At least that is what it looked like. Behind me, as if it were a long metallic chain with which I was towing the building, was a line of cars stretching clear back to the funeral parlor.
It was a ragged line, strangely spaced and wobbling, but it was there. At least a dozen cars were already in the procession, and more were about to pull away from McGannon's to join the parade. They must all have dug out like boys in hot rods -- after this cold rod; and it looked as if this might become the speediest funeral procession in history. Anyone watching would think the dead guy's friends and relatives just hated him and couldn't wait to get him buried.
But the fastest part of this procession wasn't the hearse. All those cars were gaining on me now -- and my foot was jammed to the floorboards. This thing just wouldn't go any faster. And the popping sound I heard wasn't an exhaust, it was guns. The men in the nearest car were shooting at me.
Up ahead I could see the rolling green hills of Woodstream, the chosen cemetery, and it looked as if I were going to enter it appropriately, as a corpse. I could imagine all those hoods behind me dropping me into an open grave and then taking turns tossing in shovelfuls of dirt, like civic-minded cats planting a tree. I groaned aloud, and grabbed the .38 in my left hand, steering with my right.
That nearest car was almost up with me now, and as I leaned out and looked back the man next to the driver fired at me, and I heard the hearse's windshield crack and sliver as the slug tore through it. I fired twice, trying to aim while steering with my other hand, fired once more, and then the hammer fell on an empty cartridge case. That was all for me.
The car behind me wavered in the road and fell back several yards, but immediately it started gaining on me again. Another gunshot cracked out and the slug slapped the Cad's roof over my head. In the rear-view mirror I could see not only that car so close behind me, but also the long string of other hood-filled cars in hot pursuit. I pulled my eyes away from the mirror, stared ahead through the hearse's shattered windshield and waited. Just waited, my mind sharp and clear, thoughts racing through it.
Well, I thought, at least I was going out in style. I was going to die as I had lived: wildly.
For just a moment the vision of bright eyes and smiling lips, lush curves that almost asked for it, sweet soft voices like summer air, and all the color and excitement of the last few days rose up before my eyes. The Hollywood dolls and hoods and musclemen, the beauties and the uglies, the living that was really living and the living that was more like death. It had been a time, it had been quite a time.
As that nearest car began pulling up on my left again, and the green of the cemetery loomed on my right, I wondered if it had been worth it, wondered if I would do it over again, if I had the chance.
And in what appeared to be the last moments left to me, I decided I would. Yeah, I would do it over again. I don't think I'd have wanted to miss it. Not even the bad spots -- some of them anyway -- if they went with the good spots.
Uh-huh, I was sure. I'd do it over. . .
Copyright © 1986 by Richard S. Prather