The Rand Brothers Mortuary was so beautiful it almost made you want to die.
Lustrous in the afternoon sunshine, it was low and graceful and white, like a squashed Taj Mahal or a tomb for Greek gods. It was located a few miles north of Los Angeles, directly across the street from the Rand Brothers Cemetery, a lavishly-landscaped twenty acres which included a gemlike lake and two small streams winding among the headstones like silver veins feeding the dead marble nymphs and fauns, and the shells of departed people.
I am a Shell, too, but not that kind. That's my name: Shell Scott. And I am ordinarily found around people with much more wiggle in them. But this wasn't a social call, it was business.
Business: I'm a private detective, detecting from the L.A.-Hollywood madhouse, and this balmy Thursday afternoon in May a bit of imminent skulduggery had brought me here. Imminent, indeed; less than five minutes remained before the wild noises would start. The loaded .38 Colt Special was under my coat, my pulse was as normal as it was likely to get, and the time was now. So I took a last look at the graveyard, then turned, went up smooth steps between wide, fluted columns and through the Rand Brothers Mortuary's front doors -- maybe to get shot and processed.
As I walked inside, hidden speakers poured soft music over me like thin embalming fluid. The melody was "I Love You Truly," but it had a faintly cold and hollow sound, as if Death were humming it. My heels clicked on marble tiles, and the scent of lilies crept into my nostrils and clung there. My shoes squeaked. They squeaked abominably for ten paces down a cool, dim hall, then the hallway broadened into a large room. Dark red carpeting, oil paintings on the walls, gilt chairs, a black vase containing gladioli on a white marble table.
To my right was a small desk, on the desk a triangular wooden plaque bearing the name "Mr. Truepenny," in gilt letters. Behind the plaque sat a long thin man with a long thin face and the morose, saintly, weak expression of a starving gazelle.
He stood up, stepped without haste around the side of his desk. He was so thin he could have been hung up in anatomy classrooms, a very tall egg with large luminous eyes.
"Ye-es?" he said, the deep voice soaring slowly upwards like the soft swoop of a dove's wings. "May I help you?"
It was spooky. He sounded too eager to help me, and I didn't want the kind of help he was used to giving to people, anyway. He advanced toward me with the slow and measured tread of a pallbearer carrying an invisible casket. The large eyes roamed over me, as if measuring me for size.
Maybe, I thought, he recognized me. I'd never seen this guy before, and didn't think he'd ever seen me, but there was a chance my two friends -- I use the word loosely, since last night they had beaten hell out of me -- had described me to Truepenny. I'm easy enough to recognize, from even a garbled description: six-two, two hundred and five pounds, short blond hair sticking up in the air as if turned white overnight and still suffering from the shock, sharply angled eyebrows obtrusively white against the deep tan of my ex-Marine chops. It is well known, too, that I like a little color in my apparel, and he was now staring, eyebrows rising, at my tie, which resembled red and blue boa constrictors fighting to the death in a tub of milk.
I said, "Are you Mr. Truepenny?"
"I am. What is your name, sir? And how may I be of service?"
"My name is Sheldon, Mr. Truepenny." It was true; that's my first name. "I understand those awaiting burial here are placed in a separate room -- one set aside for that purpose."
"Yes, Mr. Sheldon." Slowly he moved a long arm, extended a bony finger. "The morgue. At the end of the hall. Next to the Silver Chapel." He smiled gently. "Only one of the departed is there now -- we seldom perform more than two or three interments a week."
"Would it be possible for me to examine--? I hope I'm wrong, but--"
"I understand. Please follow me." Truepenny turned and began creeping down the marble-tiled hallway.
I followed him, wishing he'd hurry. Tension was starting to build in me. I glanced at my watch; only two minutes left. Halfway to the hall's end we passed a small room as its door opened and somebody came out. Before the door was closed again I caught a glimpse of a desk and chairs inside the room, a metal safe -- and filing cabinets. That was probably the room I wanted.
Then came the eye-searing impact. The delightful and -- especially here -- completely unexpected impact. I had been so intent on looking into the room that I'd paid little attention to what had come out of it. And what had come out was a girl. There was, however, enough girl in this one to make two girls.
She glanced at me and her eyebrows went up the way Truepenny's had; then she trotted to Truepenny who was still a few feet ahead of me. I forgot all about the time, the seconds tick-tick-ticking away. I stopped and I blinked and I looked.
She was a tall, firm, abundantly curvaceous lovely with pollen-gold hair and a shape to make corpses kick open caskets. I'd gotten only a glimpse of her face -- enough, however, to last me until the next glimpse -- but I had also watched her scurry to Truepenny, and I liked the way she scurried. She moved with the coiled-spring tension of a tiger between meals, a man-eating tiger, and in a day when most babes feel undressed unless crammed into corsets or squeezed into girdles, usually fat girdles, and thus walk with all the poetry of a packing case rolling downhill, this gal's walk was not merely functional but also sensational, complete with natural little flesh ripples and flurries, ungirdled, uncrushed, uninhibited. She said something to Truepenny, but I didn't catch it. I just stood there, the seconds tick-tick-ticking away.
Then she turned and walked toward me, paused briefly and looked up at my face. "Hello," she said.
She wore a black skirt and black blouse, but the blouse's neckline was a V from a newer and more generous alphabet, and the skirt -- though it was not -- gave the impression of being slit up the sides. Her lips were smooth, a fire-engine red, like soft cushions for hot kisses, and her cheekbones were high with little hollows beneath them. Only her eyes, the cool sad blue of frozen tears, seemed alien to the hidden fire burning in the rest of her.
The rest of her -- ah-h. There the black cloth clung and clung, but in a sexy serial, surely to drop off between installments; and I got the dizzy impression that she would always wear clothes in just that way, like a nudist on quick trip between camps.
"Hello," I said.
And off she went to that door again, in her splendid hurry, as if going to a fire. Well, with lips like that and a shape like that and a walk like that -- and men in her future -- she would always be going to a fire. Especially dressed like that.
"Hello," she'd said, and "Hello," I'd said. Two words. A full, meaty, satisfying conversation.
Not until then did I think: What in hell is she doing in a mortuary?
And then it began.
Outside, from somewhere in the cemetery -- I knew exactly where in the cemetery, of course, since I'd put the items behind the marble bulk of a rather hefty naiad -- came the noise. Softly, at first, a low whistle slowly gaining in volume. And then the full treatment, the gobble and toot and whistle and screech, getting louder and louder -- and then bang!
By that time the second one had started -- I'd placed six of them out there -- and as the second bang! sounded high in the air, new noises began, blending marvelously with the first's hooting and tooting and bang -- pop-bang!
The door to the nearby office crashed open and the lovely said in a high voice, "What's that?" and from behind me Truepenny cried, "What's that?" and I chimed in, "What's that, what's that?"
Then there were seconds of stunned silence -- here. Out there, it sounded as if the cemetery were erupting, tossing bones and skulls and ankles and tibias every which way. Suddenly both Truepenny and the lovely raced down the hall toward the squeal of hell's unoiled hinges blending with elephants hiccuping and toots of last trumpets. It was even more than I'd hoped for, a rack for eardrums, a sound to send everybody outside the mortuary, except the corpses -- a sound nearly loud enough to wake the dead.
And that, of course, was the whole idea.
I waited a moment longer. The tigerish lovely had far outdistanced Mr. Truepenny. She was outside now, trotting across the street. But Truepenny summoned up a burst of speed that was either going to get him there soon or kill him on the way.
I jumped to the door left open by the blonde, went inside in a hurry and stepped to the filing cabinets. I found one labeled, "Fe-Ho," yanked it open. Inside were Manila folders, tabbed with names. I riffled them, found Foo -- Fub -- Gah--
Outside: pow -- bang! Then silence.
The Fourth of July was nearly six weeks away, but soon Truepenny and the girl would be gazing at the smoking remains of this season's first celebration. They were called super Whiz-Bang-Pows, according to the wholesaler who'd sold them to me, and I'd lit a five-minute fuse attached to six of the large uneconomical size designed for lighting at the ends of piers or in the middle of coliseums. In coliseums they are loud, in cemeteries you wouldn't believe it. I had a minute or two left, no more. My hands were sweating.
Geh -- Gib -- Gra -- and there it was.
I grinned, relaxed a little. Inside the folder was a single white sheet of bond paper. On it were several typed lines, names, an address on Greenfield Avenue, a lot of numbers, additions, a total. There were a few more notations and at the bottom a scribbled paid in full.
Outside, silence. But inside me, thumping and bumping. The sore spots on my head, where I'd been sapped last night, throbbed painfully. I studied the information on the sheet of paper, making sure I'd remember enough of it. Then I put the folder back in place, closed the file drawer, stepped to the door and cracked it open. The hallway was clear. I stepped into it, left the door ajar and walked across the marble tiles. I'd purposely put my noisemakers far into the cemetery's grounds, and I got clear to the mortuary's entrance before either of the two people out there glanced my way.
I was leaning against one of the white Grecian columns when Mr. Truepenny looked at me. He kneeled down, fingered something on the ground, then straightened up. He spoke to the girl, then turned and walked back toward the mortuary building.
I stayed where I was. When Truepenny got close to me I said, "What was all that?"
The expression on his face was sour. "Fireworks. Some kind of firecrackers. I can't understand it."
"Firecrackers?" I said.
"Was that all? It sounded like an armed resurrection." I paused. "Well, I just waited around to tell you that, uh, the deceased was not the one. Thank you, Mr. Truepenny."
The lovely blonde was starting toward us now.
Mr. Truepenny said, "Oh? What was your interest in the deceased, Mr. Scott?"
"It's not important now. Thanks again." I walked down the steps and stopped. The blonde was scurrying my way. I had to watch. Just for a little.
She walked up to me. "Hello. Wasn't that odd?"
"Indeed. Mr. Truepenny says it was firecrackers."
"Yes. Juvenile delinquents must have begun invading cemeteries."
"If only they'd stay," I said. "But I suppose we shouldn't be bitter. After all, there are no bad children. Only bad parents. And their bad parents. And their bad parents. And--"
She laughed. Her teeth were even and white, but they looked sharp.
"Are you a bad parent?" She could say something simple like that and make it sound as if she were biting your jugular vein.
I said, "No, only a bad bachelor. Or a good bachelor. I'm not sure."
"A bad bachelor is a good bachelor." She smiled.
I smiled. "May the customers ask your name?"
"Your kind of customer can. I'm June Corey. Miss Corey. 'Bye." And up the steps she went.
Even in moments of extreme danger I will watch something like that. Then I turned, walked along the cement path to the street bordering the cemetery. I'd parked my sky-blue Cadillac convertible in shade off the road before skulking into the grounds to plant my screech bombs. I walked the half-block back to it and was reaching for the door handle before the thought exploded.
I had told Mr. Truepenny my name was Sheldon. He had called me Mr. Sheldon, too -- the first time. But after returning, understandably a bit shaken from investigating my noises, he had called me -- correctly -- Mr. Scott.
A goose-bumpy chill prickled my spine, climbed over my scalp like frozen dandruff. I started to look around. Too late.
He must have been lying flat on the seat of my Cad, waiting for me. Suddenly he was there, sitting straight, grinning, the big gun in his right hand pointed at my chest. Even so, I started to duck aside, slapping my hand toward the Colt Special under my coat -- because I knew the slob, Jake Luther, and when he'd been hitting me joyously with that sap last, he and his pal had promised to kill me the next time.
But as my fingers slapped the revolver's butt, Jake said, "Easy. Pot's right behind you."
I believed him. I craned my head around, let my hand fall to my side again. Pot was there, eight or ten feet away and walking toward me. You couldn't miss him. Even a hundred yards away you couldn't miss him.
Pot was the handle by which Vince Potter was known among his fellow thieves and gunmen, musclemen and killers, the easy-money boys on the heavy, as the phrase goes in their jargon. He was five-nine or so, about two hundred and fifty ghastly pounds, square, solid, appallingly broad. Once he had been a circus strong man and he still worked out with weights and barbells, maybe elephants. He had the thick, overmuscled body of weightlifters who don't know when to stop -- grotesque lumps of muscle all over him, almost no visible neck, huge slumped-forward shoulders growing into his head.
He had a black eye. I'd given it to him last night; but he'd won the fight. That is, he and Jake and a sap had won the fight. I looked at Jake and his big .45 automatic again as he said, "I told you, Scott. You should of listened."
"Go to hell."
He laughed. There wasn't any mirth in it, though. There wasn't any mirth in Jake. He was tall and thin and mean, had a small square head and a narrow smudge of mustache on his short upper lip. Jake Luther, quiet and cold. A professional killer. On his way to work.
"Get in," he said.
Behind me, Pot laid a heavy thick-fingered hand on my back and shoved. I smacked into the side of my car, almost hard enough to dent it. Jake slid along the seat to the Cad's far door, the bore of his automatic wavering slightly, say from solar plexus to liver to gall bladder, which isn't very encouraging wavering.
Pot grabbed my wrists, quickly taped them behind my back. A minute later I was in the middle of the seat, Jake on my right. Pot behind the wheel of the Cad. Jake took the Colt Special from my shoulder clip, emptied my pockets, then put his gun away. Pot started the engine and we drove down the tree-lined street, passing their own sleek black Buick Electra a block from where I'd parked.
"How'd you guys find me?" I said.
"Where are we going?"
"Listen, you miserable -- ahck!"
Jake had taken out his gun again. Briefly. Just long enough to pop me on the head with it. Not hard enough to knock me out but, as luck would have it, the blow landed right on top of an already aching lump. I wondered dizzily if you could get lumps on lumps, and determined to find out by experimenting on Jake's skull -- if the opportunity arose. Which didn't seem likely.
I strained my wrists against the tape. No soap. There wasn't a chance I could jump out of the car, even if there'd been any place to go then. Only one good thing about this: We were going away from the cemetery.
But if I knew these guys -- and I did know these guys -- we would be coming back.
Copyright © 1989 by Richard S. Prather