The Best Motive
The cab dropped me off on the outskirts of Silver Beach and I looked around before I walked through darkness down the narrow alley. I didn't see anybody who looked like Bruno, the guy Ellen had told me was due for a stretch at the cackle factory. Any guy who'd try twice to kill a sex-charged hunk of dreamy tomato like Ellen had to be one step removed from the net. The crazy guy was probably still around here somewhere; he had been when Ellen phoned me, fright twisting the words in her throat.
I was eighty miles from the Los Angeles office of "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," and I didn't think Bruno had ever seen me. But I'm damned easy to describe: six-two, short-cropped hair, almost white, the same color as my goofy eyebrows, and the face you might expect on an ex-Marine. I didn't see anybody eyeballing me, so I walked to the alley entrance of The Haunt, a gruesome Silver Beach nightclub with lively corpses and a hot orchestra.
Knowing that Ellen was inside made my throat dryer, my pulse faster. She had a shape like a mating pretzel, and the normal expression in her dark eyes always made me think she was about to tell a pleasantly dirty story. I walked past the grinning Death's head and a luminous skeleton and on into the club, banged against a table and spilled somebody's drink, barked my shin on a chair and got a perfect barrage of highly uncomplimentary language. Man, it was dark.
When my eyes were used to the gloom I saw dark blurs, presumably people drinking or feeling or whispering in ears, or whatever. Almost anything could have been happening in some of those corners, absolutely anything. Strike a match and you're dead. The orchestra was just beginning a number. I expected a funeral march or "I'll Be Glad When You're Dead, You Rascal, You," but it was the bright and bouncy "Love Me."
It was bright and bouncy like Ellen. I'd known the gal only a week, but she was already under my skin. And I felt sorry for her, though it's hard to be sorry for a twenty-three-year-old beauty with a million bucks. But she'd had it tough otherwise: both parents killed when she was nineteen, and the man she loved, her husband Ron, had been killed in a train wreck six months ago.
I found her at one of the small tables on the edge of the dance floor. I took a chance and lit a cigarette, and it was Ellen, strikingly lovely, the warm light melting on her high cheekbones, caressing her red, parted lips, and showing me fright in her dark eyes before the match went out.
"Oh, Shell," she said. "Shell, I'm glad you're here." Her hand slid across the table and found mine, held it. My spine wiggled to "Love Me." "This is a horrid place," she added. "Ghastly. I'm half out of my wits."
This wasn't the cheeriest spot for a gal who expected to have her throat cut by a crazy man. I squeezed her hand, thinking that no matter how dark it was, this had better be the extent of my squeezing. Ellen Benson was a Reno, Nevada, gal vacationing at California's Laguna Beach a few miles from here -- with Joe Benson. Uh-huh, honeymooning with the new husband. What the hell; I squeezed Mrs. Joe Benson's hand some more.
"The Haunt," I said. "Our motto is 'We scare you to death.' O.K., honey. What's with Bruno?"
Bruno was the crux. Apparently the nut had tried to murder her twice. She and hubby Joe had seen Bruno get off the bus in Laguna Beach yesterday afternoon; last night the trouble had started. She'd been visiting friends in San Clemente; driving back to Laguna, the brakes on her big Caddie went out, but luckily she wasn't hurt. Then, walking from the car to a service station nearby, where she could phone, she'd been shot at. She'd screamed, run to the station, been lucky once more. Tonight, just half an hour ago, she'd seen Bruno again and phoned me. Because she could reach it easily, and because it was dark enough to hide her -- or anybody -- I'd told her to meet me here at The Haunt.
She said, "He must have followed me. Shell. Again. It's driving me crazy. Joe and I are going to a party tonight -- same friends I visited last night -- and we were shopping here for gifts for them. I saw Bruno in front of the shop and told Joe. He told me to get out of sight quick, then went out front to talk to Bruno. I was so terrified I just ran out the back way and phoned you."
I had talked the mess over with both Ellen and hubby Joe last night at the Surf and Sand Hotel in Laguna Beach, where we were all staying. We'd got fairly chummy, and they knew I was from L. A., a private detective vacationing. So when Ellen had got back to the hotel, ready to split at the seams because of the kill attempts, and told Joe what had happened, they'd given me the story. Joe had seemed ready to go to pieces himself. I didn't exactly cotton to the guy, though he seemed nice enough and Ellen had told me he knew everybody in Reno from shoeshine boys to judges, and ex-cons to preachers and they all liked him -- probably it's just that I seldom cotton to husbands. A tall, quiet, good-looking man, he'd seemed an odd choice for Ellen. She was hot, sexy, bubbling with life, while Joe impressed me as a guy whose idea of living dangerously was to pick his nose.
I said, "Give me that first Bruno bit again, Ellen." She said quietly, "After Ron died I was pretty mixed up. This Bruno kept hanging around, but I only went out with him once. He's terribly stupid, and he's some sort of criminal. I think he was in prison for a while. I couldn't stand him, but I was nice to him -- too nice, I guess. When I told him I wouldn't see him any more he went into an awful rage. Said he loved me, he'd follow me everywhere. He did, too. Then just before Joe and I married a month ago, Bruno caught me on the street in Reno. He sliced the dull edge of a knife across my throat and said if he couldn't have me nobody else could either, he'd kill me. He's crazy, insane." Her voice got tighter. "He kept following me around. Joe and I didn't tell anyone where we were going on our honeymoon, so I didn't think I'd have to worry about Bruno -- and now he's here, he's even come down here!"
"Relax, honey, unwind. What say we have a drink?"
We got two highballs as the orchestra began another number and what I call the gook lights came on. The management was putting on its fluorescent act, and in gook light even Marilyn Monroe would look sexless. Ellen's eyes glowed like blue coals. I peeled my lips back and my teeth glowed horribly.
"Oh, my God," she said. "Don't do that."
"Sad, huh? You look pretty gruesome yourself."
She smiled and her teeth seemed to leap at me. It was disgusting. "Haven't you been here before?"
"No," she said. "Do people come twice?"
"Sure. It's fun. Look at all the hilarious people."
Dim bodies were wiggling on the dance floor in a whole sea of appalling eyes and teeth that floated in the air. "You ain't seen nothin' yet; pretty quick the skeletons come out." I grinned horribly some more. "But first let's figure what --" I stopped. Somebody was breathing on my neck. In The Haunt you can almost believe it's a ghost's fanny brushing you as it floats by, but this breath was warm, scented with garlic.
I turned around and almost banged into a head angled toward our table. The guy was scrunched over right behind me with his ear practically flapping.
"Hey," I said. "The ear, friend. Do you like the ear? If you do, take it some place else before I remove it."
He jumped back at my first words, his eyes glowing at me. He was alone. I stepped to his table, bent my face down close to his and peered at him. "You get it? Vanish. Get lost."
Copyright © 1963 by Richard S. Prather