She was the only client who ever hired Sheldon Scott, Investigations -- that's me -- before a word was spoken. She didn't know it, but I had taken her case, no matter what it was, before she opened her mouth -- and it was my mouth that opened first, anyway.
She came into my suddenly drab office like a Spring breeze visiting Winter, and closed the frosted glass door gently behind her. Then she walked up to my mahogany desk and I got a really good look at her.
And it was really good.
She had red hair like combed fire, lips that looked soft as whispers, and a figure that made other women seem two-dimensional.
She was a tall girl. I'm just a shade under six-two, and when I stood up behind my desk those lips were only about five inches below mine, which was five inches too far. But her blue eyes somehow seemed wrong in her oval face -- a little too cold and brittle, and out of place, like ice in a just-right martini.
Maybe that should have warned me. It didn't.
"You must be Mr. Scott. I hope you're free to help me. I do need help."
The voice wrapped me in a cocoon of warm words. It was like perfume made audible. It was a velvety, vibrant voice filled with promises I wanted to help her keep. My stand-up hair is white, yes; but not from old age.
"I'm Shell Scott. And I'm free. I just decided."
I grinned at her as I walked around the desk and moved the deep leather chair closer to it, then went back to my swivel chair as she sat down. But she wasn't in a smiling mood.
"I'm Doris Miller," she said.
I was glad to know her name, but it didn't ring any bells.
"Ross Miller is my brother. You probably recall his name -- he's in San Quentin now."
That got a tinkle. This was the early afternoon of Saturday, October 28; nearly a year ago, here in Los Angeles, one K. C. "Casey" Flagg had been murdered. He'd been a partner in the law firm of Tomkins, Borch, and Flagg, and he'd had, I understood, rather a wide acquaintance among numerous city officials and local VIP's. Flagg was shot to death early one evening in his penthouse suite in the Whitestone. The police arrived soon after, in response to a phone call -- apparently from somebody who'd heard the shot but didn't want to give his name -- and found a young lawyer, recently employed in Flagg's office, standing over the body. The suspect had, only two days before, been in a violent quarrel with the victim and had been fired as a consequence. It seemed an open and shut case of premeditated murder. And unless my memory failed me, the convicted murderer's name was Ross Miller.
I said, "Was your brother involved in the investigation into Casey Flagg's mur -- death?"
She nodded. "They said Ross killed him, and I know all the evidence made it look bad -- but he didn't do it. Mr. Flagg didn't want to hire Ross in the first place, he wanted another man, but his partners chose Ross. Ross thought Flagg was dishonest, practically a crook of some kind, and he said so to his face. That's what they had the big argument about. Some other people heard them, and they just used that quarrel to help convict him. But he didn't kill that man!"
She had half risen from the leather chair. She sat back in it and went on slowly, "Ross was convicted entirely on circumstantial evidence, and the most damaging testimony against him was given by that elevator operator, Weiss. Do you remember, Mr. Scott?"
"Uh-huh." Chester Weiss was a middle-aged man who'd been an important prosecution witness at the trial. He operated the elevator in the Whitestone. His testimony had been that Ross Miller was the only man who had gone up to the penthouse suite that night, at least within an hour or more of the time when Flagg had been killed. Which pretty well stuck Miller with the job.
The lovely went on, "Mr. Weiss came to see me yesterday. He said he'd been forced to lie at the trial, and that my brother was probably innocent. Mr. Weiss wanted to tell me the truth, get the weight off his conscience, he said, but he wouldn't agree to go with me to tell the police his story. He was awfully afraid of going to jail."
"Confessed perjurers usually do go to jail."
She nodded, light glinting on the red hair. "He did promise, though, that he would come back early this morning and give me the whole story in writing, signed by him."
"And he didn't come back," I said.
"You haven't heard from him at all since yesterday?"
"No. I called his hotel -- he's still in the Whitestone -- but he wasn't there. And I can't wait long. I've got to at least get his statement today if I can."
I squinted at her. "I can understand why you're anxious, Miss... it is Miss?"
She nodded abstractedly.
"But why wouldn't tomorrow do as well?" I was curious to know why she seemed in such a rush. She told me.
"Today's Saturday," she said. "On Wednesday Ross goes into the gas chamber."
"Oh. I see."
Wednesday. Four days from now. Less than that, actually. For many years California executions were on Fridays, but for more than a year now the courts had scheduled executions for Wednesdays at ten A.M. Which left little time.
I said, "Weiss admitted perjuring himself, huh?"
"Yes. He said he either had to lie or be killed."
"Who was threatening him? Did he say?"
"Quinn. Frank Quinn."
Involuntarily, I groaned. Frank Quinn was a slug-like, pasty-faced, flabby-bodied hoodlum grown big and powerful in the rackets. Oddly enough, four or five years ago hardly anyone had heard of the bum; he'd come out of nowhere, a nobody, and he quickly became a hoodlum Somebody in the City of the Angels. I'd bumped into Quinn on several occasions, and he was the only human being who'd ever made me wish I was a Martian. Or else he was the only Martian who'd ever made me glad I was a human.
Doris Miller looked inquiringly at me. "Do you know the man? His name was mentioned at the trial."
She made a face. "He's... a gangster, isn't he?"
Gangster. It sounded so quaint coming from those ripe, red lips. Those lips that looked as if they were always on the verge of puckering. Which is a good verge to be on. I said, "He is one of the behind-the-scenes lads you hear about occasionally. Oh, there's no doubt he shot and slugged his share of victims on the way up, but now that he's arrived he has twenty or thirty hoodlums to do his dirty work. He's a successful failure."
"He sounds dangerous enough."
"He is. Did Weiss say why Quinn forced him to perjure himself?"
"Yes. He told me that Quinn went up to the penthouse there in the Whitestone a little while before Ross. That would have been right at the time when the murder happened. Mr. Weiss said he felt sure Quinn killed the man himself and just made it look as if Ross did it."
"I see. And Quinn told Weiss to keep his mouth shut or he'd wind up dead, too, huh?"
She nodded. "That's about what he said."
One thing had been puzzling me, and I asked Doris, "How come Weiss just got around to spilling what he knew? If he was afraid of Quinn at the time of the trial, why isn't he now?"
"Mr. Weiss had a bad heart attack recently. He almost died, he said. He told me he'd spent a lot of time since then thinking about what he should do, and decided he'd have to tell the truth. He's still afraid of Quinn, he said, but more afraid of not telling what he knew... before Wednesday."
"Uh-huh. Makes sense. Anything else you can tell me?"
All she personally knew about the murder of Flagg was what her brother had told her, which was that he was innocent. Ross had told her he'd received a phone call that night, allegedly from K. C. Flagg, asking him to hurry right over to the Whitestone. Ross went there, took the elevator with Weiss to the penthouse apartment, and walked in to find Flagg dead. And then there were policemen all over him. It was the same story he'd told at the trial, and just simple enough to be true.
"Well," I said, "time's pretty short, I know. But if Weiss will just do a repeat on that story of his, with witnesses, we may have it made."
"You... but you haven't even said you'd help me, Mr. Scott."
"I haven't? I didn't? Well, I thought I had. I will, naturally."
She was smiling at last. But then she must have thought of her brother breathing cyanide, and her lovely face sobered.
We settled my fee, but there was so much promise in her velvety voice, in her lips, and perhaps even ears and elbows, that money hardly seemed worthwhile any more. She wanted me, specifically, to locate Weiss and at least get that signed statement from him, or else get him to talk to the law; also, generally, to do anything else that would help save her brother. I agreed to do everything humanly possible, and perhaps more.
Usually I let clients find their own way out of the office and down to Broadway, one floor below. But this client I escorted to the door, and I watched her walk down the hallway to the elevator. It seemed a shame that I hadn't seen her approaching.
Back in the office, I spent a little time brushing up on the facts of the case. K. C. Flagg had been shot to death on the night of November 24, last year. Miller was apprehended that same night, charged with the crime, pleaded innocent and went on trial in L.A. Superior Court in January; it was all over in two weeks. The verdict: guilty of murder in the first degree.
When the case was resubmitted to the jury for sentence, Ross Miller had had it. The judge, Thornwall Smith, set Wednesday, November 1, at ten A.M., the day and time when Miller would be put to death by the administration of a lethal gas. The automatic appeal, mandatory when the penalty is death, was made, and judgment was affirmed. So now Ross Miller was in the California State Prison at San Quentin, in Death Row, where the cells are much like any other cells -- except that they're large coffins for the living.
Frank Quinn's name was brought into the trial proceedings by the defense, which attempted -- without any success at all -- to show that Quinn might himself have visited Flagg's suite on the night of the murder. It was known he'd been in the Whitestone that night, but at the time of the murder Quinn had, he claimed, been "discussing business" with a gal named Lolita Lopez, who lived on the second floor of the Whitestone. Miss Lopez corroborated that story, and the defense couldn't shake her testimony -- or Weiss's for that matter.
Other witnesses gave testimony about what Doris called the "argument" between Ross and Casey Flagg. It had developed into more than merely an argument, starting with words and proceeding to blows. Or, rather, blow. Ross had swung at Flagg and missed; Flagg had swung at Ross and not missed. Leaving, Miller had been heard to say that he would "even things with that s.o.b. Flagg" if it was the last thing he ever did.
The only other important witness against Miller was a sixty-two-year-old pawnbroker named Heigman. The murder weapon, found by the police near Flagg's body on the night of November 24, had been purchased on November 22, in Heigman's pawnshop. Tuesday, November 22, was the day when Flagg had knocked Ross Miller onto his fanny. And Heigman swore that the wild-eyed young man who had purchased the gun from him was the same Ross Miller. Ross claimed Heigman was lying, but the jury was out only two hours and twenty minutes, which is not long at all.
I made a few calls trying to locate Weiss without success, so at three o'clock in the afternoon I decided to take a look at his hotel, the Whitestone. A desk clerk there, with a hangover breath and sick eyes, told me Weiss had quit his job a few days ago, but had kept his room, number 39. He didn't seem to care if I went up, or down, or set fire to the hotel, so I went on upstairs.
The door was slightly ajar, and I knocked on it, then waited. Nothing happened. After a few seconds I knocked again, harder, and the door swung open silently.
"Weiss," I called quietly. "Anybody home?"
There wasn't any answer, and I stepped inside.
He was here, but nobody was home. He was lying on his back, fully dressed, on an unmade bed across the room, and I could tell by the way he lay there that he was dead.
I walked to the bed, leaned over and touched his skin, lifted one of his eyelids and looked at the relaxed pupil. He was dead, all right. There wasn't any blood, no bullet holes or knife wounds, nothing abnormal about his face or skin; it appeared he'd died a natural death, but I wouldn't buy that until the coroner had looked him over. Outside and inside. The timing of his demise was far too neat to suit me.
I gave the room a quick toss but found nothing of value to me, then I called Homicide. Twenty minutes later the police had finished checking the room, the crime lab boys were almost through with their job, and Weiss' body was being rolled on a four-wheeled stretcher through the hotel lobby.
I used a lobby phone to call Doris Miller's number. She answered almost immediately. "Yes?"
"This is Shell Scott."
"Oh, have you found out anything yet?"
"Yeah. You won't be seeing Weiss again. He's dead. I've got a strong hunch somebody helped him to get that way, and --"
"Dead!" she interrupted. "Oh, I knew it, I just knew something awful would... What will happen to Ross now? How can --"
"Hold it. The main reason I called you is this: We won't know for sure whether Weiss died a natural death or not until after the autopsy, but if he was murdered, the timing of his death -- right after he went to see you, Doris -- means he was probably tailed to your place. In which case, whoever followed Weiss and knocked him off may think you already know too much." I paused. "Which, in fact, you do. So be careful, understand?"
There was silence for several seconds. Then she said, "I'll be careful. But -- oh, dear. What is there left to do now?"
Her voice was twisted, as if those blue eyes were about to melt into tears, and I didn't want this lovely crying over anything. "Hey," I said. "You're a lot better off even now than before Weiss talked to you, aren't you?"
She sniffled. "Yes, that's true."
"So take it easy. I've only been on the case an hour."
"But what can you do? The only man who could have helped me and Ross is dead."
"Not quite. We assume your brother's innocent."
"Then there's still the guy who really shot Casey Flagg. So I think I'll pay a call on Frank Quinn."
I told Doris I'd see her later and we hung up. Then I walked through the Whitestone's entrance, climbed into my Cadillac convertible, and headed for Frank Quinn's out-of-town estate.
Copyright © 1987 by Richard S. Prather