She still had all her clothes on and was standing in the blue light from a baby spot when I came in, but I knew it wasn't going to last because the way she was moving I could tell it was that kind of dance. I was glad it was that kind of dance.
It was a few minutes before one o'clock in the morning and I'd just run in under the tan awning of the Pelican Club in downtown Gardena, twelve miles south of Los Angeles, found the headwaiter I'd called earlier, and told him I was Shell Scott. I gave him his damned ten dollars and followed him toward the little ringside table I'd just paid for. Nobody looked at me.
The MC or owner or some other idiot must have had a microphone offstage somewhere, because he was still talking and saying that all fire regulations had been complied with and that men were standing by with extinguishers so that there was nothing, absolutely nothing, to be afraid of. If I hadn't come here specifically to talk to the lovely getting ready to dance a few feet from me, I might have turned around, asked for my ten back, and left. I was thinking that if the gags were that old and tired, the dance would probably be a minuet, but then I heard the idiot say something about a fire dance and scream happily, "...and here she is!"
Hell, she'd been there for half a minute. But now I understood that what I'd thought was a corny gag wasn't a gag at all, and that the anonymous voice had merely been trying in a feeble way to build suspense with the old show-business hyperbole. There was some fire, but it was nothing to call the department about.
Even though the waiter brought my bourbon and water in a hurry -- probably because he wanted to watch, too -- I barely had time to ease my six foot two inches into my chair, look the place over, and take one swallow of my drink before the shapely lady out there really went into her routine and I lost interest in everything else. I thought I needed a drink then; I was going to need it more before she finished dancing.
This was the feature act of the last show and the elaborate props had already been set up. My table was right at one of the corners of the dance floor and I could look straight back to the stand where the orchestra was playing. I couldn't see the orchestra, though, because one of the props was a big cloth or paper screen about fifteen feet square that had already been placed in front of the musicians. The screen was crudely painted in bright reds and greens and yellows with the figure of a great and obscene Buddha-like idol sitting cross-legged with his fleshy hands folded over his distended abdomen. Just this side of the painted background, rising two or three feet up from the floor, was some kind of wall, indistinct in the blue spotlight, and from behind it and extending almost all the way across the floor from my left to my right, twenty or thirty tiny fingers of fire wavered unsteadily. Probably natural gas or some inflammable liquid was piped in, but the thing was putting out about as much flame as a handful of matches. Even so, the whole thing, with the girl swaying in the blue light of the spot before the gross idol towering above her, and the little flames glowing between her and the idol, was pretty effective.
She was gliding across the polished dance floor toward my table now, so I took a good look at her. All I knew about her was that she was billed as "Sweet Lorraine" and that she did some kind of dancing and that this was the delightful young woman I'd come here to talk to, and that at no time in the history of "Sheldon Scott, Investigations," had a case started in a more interesting fashion. Because Lorraine certainly was making it interesting.
She was wide-hipped and full-breasted like a Ben Stahl illustration for a wanton dancing in hell, and if she'd done this dance in hell, the devil himself would have flipped. She was about five-six or five-seven, and so close to me now that I could easily see she was wearing an abbreviated cloth affair like a sarong cut off at the thighs. She had a lot of thick, black hair hanging loose down her back, and her lips pouted and her breasts pouted and her hips crowded the sarong, and I like crowds.
The orchestra played softly in the background, lowdown dirty rhythm with muted brass and brushes on the snare drum, and suddenly I recognized the number. I hadn't recognized it till now because I'd never heard it played like this before, but I'd always thought it was sensual as hell, particularly at the end. And it went well with the act, because it was Manuel de Falla's "Ritual Fire Dance."
Now I could hear Lorraine's bare feet slithering and slapping on the floor. She slipped out of the sarong, twisting and writhing, her shoulders shaking, and I don't know how I happened to notice, but she was smiling as if she were having a hell of a good time. Then she raised up on her toes with her arms stretched over her head and stood like that for a moment, wearing nothing but a heavy cloth brassiere and a wispy, flesh-colored G string, and the orchestra muttered in the background as the spotlight went out.
I thought, What the bloody hell? That was good, but was it all? The dance seemed awfully short, and the props had looked like a lot of trouble for so brief a number. Besides, that heavy bra hadn't seemed to go with the wispy G string.
Then, suddenly and with an audible hissing roar, those little flames behind her became torches that leaped up into the air and flared and flickered redly over the great painted idol and the body of the girl. Sweet Lorraine was still there, and now I knew: That heavy brassiere didn't go with the wispy G string.
She was still in the same position as when the spotlight had winked out, up on her toes and with her arms stretched above her head, but she'd traded that heavy cloth for a negligible sprinkling of some flecks of metallic powder that glistened on the jutting tips of her breasts like golden dust. She was motionless for only a moment, with the sound of the pulse-quickening music swelling up behind her and the torches' red flames leaping upward and sending shadows rippling over her white flesh, and then she swayed her shoulders gently from side to side and her breasts gleamed dully as they moved through the red glow that was the only illumination.
I don't know if she was still smiling or not; that's not where I was looking. And I wasn't smiling. I was jamming my teeth together. Then she really went into her dance and I forgot I was in the Pelican Club on the outskirts of Los Angeles, forgot I was starting a new case, forgot everything except the wild woman on the dance floor a few feet from me.
Because she was a wild woman: a wild, wild woman who twisted and turned and arched her body in a dance that gradually lost its gracefulness and became a savage, naked blending of throbbing music and writhing flesh and licking tongues of flame. It was no longer a graceful succession of movements liquidly flowing one into the other, but a frantic, frenetic series of shocks, each more violent than the last, an assault upon the flesh and a rape of the senses. This was a gift of woman, not a surrender, and the flames followed her as she sank slowly to the floor, straining her body, quivering, her breasts shaking. Then she was lying on her back, her arms pressed flat against the polished wood, palms down, hips thrust into the air above her, writhing and jerking spasmodically. Suddenly the flames spurted higher into the air behind her and the music shrieked a minor discord as she tensed and held her rounded body motionless for long seconds, her hips thrust high off the floor. Then slowly she sank down, relaxed, as if exhausted. She lay still in the perfect quiet of the night club as the instruments of the orchestra sighed and gasped into silence, then the flames were suddenly snuffed out and the room was dark.
The darkness was complete for a moment, and there wasn't much applause. Probably everybody was too weak to use up that much more energy. I'm six-two and 205 pounds with practically no fat, and I was too weak. When the lights came back on the props were gone and the dancer was gone. I was gone, too, but I still sat gripping my highball glass. It was practically full. I emptied it.
So this, I was thinking, was Lorraine, the woman I'd come here to make conversation with. I was also thinking that I shouldn't have any trouble getting the information I wanted from her. Because Lorraine had already impressed me as a gal who, if she had any secrets, didn't want to keep them.
I sighed. All this had started because J. Harrison Bing wanted me to find his daughter, and if the case stayed as pleasant as this I was going to hate taking his money. I'd be willing to work for nothing except expenses, but Lorraine looked pretty expensive.
The place was starting to come to life again now that the floor show was over. The Pelican seated about two hundred customers, and almost all of the tables were occupied. People were dressed every which way, because this was Southern California, the early morning of May 10, 1951, and it was fairly warm. I noticed that most of the ringside tables were filled with older parties, and of the four men split two and two at tables on each side of me, three were bald. I felt a little out of place. First of all, I'm not old, I'm thirty; and I'm not bald in the slightest, though my inch-long hair is so nearly white that it has on at least one occasion fooled people into thinking so. It's real hair, though, and it's my own, as are the eyebrows that slant up at an angle over my gray eyes and then flop down at the corners in such a peculiar fashion that I've been accused of buying them in a joke shop.
The orchestra started playing "Be My Love," and a few couples drifted onto the dance floor. Their sedate swoops looked mighty dull after Lorraine's gyrations -- and that reminded me. I caught the waiter's eye and he came over. I got out one of my cards that have "Sheldon Scott, Investigations" printed on them with the address of my office in the Hamilton Building in downtown Los Angeles. On the back of it I wrote, "I'd like to talk to you about Isabel Ellis and William Carter for a few minutes. O.K.? Incidentally, would you care to go dancing?" I signed it "Shell Scott," wrapped the card in two one-dollar bills, and handed it to the waiter. I asked him if he'd give the card to the dancer and bring me her reply.
He looked at the two dollars and raised an eyebrow.
"Give her the card," I said.
"Yes, sir. To Miss Lorraine."
"Uh-huh. That's her real name?"
He hesitated, then apparently decided that this might be included for the paltry two dollars. "The dancer is Lorraine Mandel, sir. She is known professionally as Sweet Lorraine." And that was all of my money's worth because he wheeled around and marched off past the bandstand and through black draperies covering a doorway in the wall.
While I waited impatiently for my reply, I put my cards back into my wallet, together with the card my client had given me. It was a business card like my own, except that it was printed with "J. Harrison Bing," and Bing had crossed out the printed phone number with pencil and written in another number where he'd said I could reach him. I almost went to the phone and called him just to thank him for sending me to the Pelican. Imagine. He was paying me for this. And paying rather well, at that: $50 a day plus $1,000 bonus if I was successful in finding one Isabel Mary Ellis, his daughter, who had mysteriously disappeared.
I'd been settled down in my Hollywood apartment with a highball and Henry Miller's "Air-Conditioned Nightmare" when he'd shown up about ten P.M., three hours or so back, and introduced himself. He was a short, thin man who blinked mild blue eyes at me from under sparse eyebrows as he talked, and I guessed his age at close to sixty, though he could have been anywhere from around fifty on up. He explained that although he didn't hear from his daughter regularly, he'd had no word from her since before the first of the year, and letters he'd recently written her had come back unopened. Worried, he went from his Inglewood home to Isabel's home in L.A., only to find that she'd not only sold the house but disappeared bag and baggage, leaving no trace. Bing had made this discovery on May 3, less than a week ago. Really worried, he had on the following day retained a Los Angeles private detective named William Carter to find his daughter. Three nights later Carter phoned Bing and told him he'd got a good lead from a dancer named Lorraine at the Pelican Club, where Bing said Isabel had last worked as a cigarette girl. The next day Carter phoned Bing from the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Nevada, and said the case was about wrapped up and that he was going to see a guy named Dante that night and would phone Bing again on the following day. Bing, on edge and worried sick, made Carter promise positively to phone no matter what developed -- and there'd been not a peep since out of Carter. It hadn't sounded especially serious to me, but Bing had been ready to throw a fit and had come to see me. So here I was, getting ready to talk to what Bing had described as "some kind of a dancer."
My waiter had been gone for no more than half a minute, and now he came back and walked up to my table. I couldn't think of any reason for it, but I got the impression he was nervous. Or maybe scared about something. He said, "I'm sorry, sir. She doesn't care to see you."
I frowned. "You gave her the card?"
"Why -- yes, sir, of course."
Maybe I'd been a little too heavy-handed on that request to go dancing. Possibly her sense of humor was less elastic than she was. I asked the waiter, "She give you any reason?"
This wasn't so good. I got out my wallet again. "How about trying once more, if you will. Tell her it's--"
He was already shaking his head, and his hand was palm out toward the wallet. First time I'd ever seen a waiter make that gesture. He said, "No, I... should rather not." Then he turned around and beat it.
I blinked after him. He hadn't even asked me if I cared for another drink. Well, the hell with him. I had only two leads to Isabel Ellis, my client's missing daughter, and Lorraine was one of them. While I was here I was at least going to make an honest effort to see her. I've been private-eyeing in and around Los Angeles for five years -- ever since my discharge from the Marines after one of the wars -- and I knew it was no time to give up when the gal herself hadn't yet told me to get lost. And that waiter had acted like no ordinary waiter.
I got up and walked past the bandstand and through the drapes my waiter had gone through a minute ago. Beyond them was a hall running left and right across the back of the Pelican, dimly illuminated by small, naked light bulbs. Three or four doors were set into the opposite wall, and a tall guy in a brown gabardine sports jacket was leaning against one of the doors.
I walked up to him and he grinned at me. He had white, too large teeth behind full lips, and deep brown eyes that were staring at me now.
I asked him, "This Lorraine's dressing room?"
He nodded, waving a mass of dry brown hair that needed some oil. It stuck up in the air like weeds and swelled out above each temple as if his brain were bulging out. I felt pretty sure that wasn't the reason. He leaned directly back against the door, facing me, and his heavy shoulders almost covered the entrance from one side to the other.
I said, pleasantly, "How about moving?"
He grunted and said, "I... don't think so," holding the "I" softly for three seconds, then squirting the rest out.
The silly grin on his face, and the wrong answer, and the way he'd answered started griping me a little. "Look, friend," I said. "I'd like to knock on the door. I'd hate to knock right through you."
He chuckled and moved aside. He walked a little way down the hall and looked back at me. "Come here," he said, as if he were going to tell me a secret. "Come on." He walked toward the entrance into the club and waved his hand for me to follow. I didn't get this guy. He paused in the doorway, waved again, and said, "Come on. I'll tell you something. You'll love this."
I walked up behind him and followed him into the club. He was a big guy, about an inch shorter than I, but his shoulders were even wider than mine. I was sizing him up, but it didn't seem necessary. He was acting like a man who had played with his brain too long. That's the impression I got then, which shows how wrong I can be.
Just inside the main room of the club he stopped and asked me, "You're Scott?"
"Yeah. How the hell did you know?" I'm easy to pick out because of my hair and eyebrows and size, and because of a slightly bent nose, but it seemed obvious that he must have seen the card I'd sent back with the waiter. He proved that deduction was correct by pulling the card out of the breast pocket of his coat, tearing the card in two, and handing me the pieces. He didn't explain that, just kept grinning and asked, "Where's your table, Scott?"
I didn't cotton to this boy, but I went along. I'll always go along so far. We weren't yet up to the point where I quit. I nodded toward the little table and he went over and climbed into the extra chair. I walked up and he pointed to my chair. "Sit down, Scott."
"The hell you say, mister. What kind of an act is this? What do you think you're pulling?"
"Not your leg, Scott," he said jovially. "Oh, come on. Sit down for a minute. Want to talk to you."
I sat down. I still couldn't figure the guy. He pushed the ash tray away from in front of him and leaned forward with his elbows on the table. I noticed a big vein that ran down the center of his forehead under the skin, bulging where the skin should have been smooth. I'm pretty brown from the sun, myself, but this guy was a deep bronze. He spent a lot of time in the sunshine.
He grinned and said, "You stay right here, now."
"You heard me." His voice was pleasant. "You don't want to see Lorraine."
"Who the hell are you? I intend to see her as soon as you finish this conversation."
"Shut your face, Scott. And keep it shut." He said it casually, but my mouth dropped open.
I stared at him for five seconds. "You can't possibly be serious."
"Sure I'm serious." He went on in a singsong patter that was as light and frothy as soapsuds, but the words weren't light. "She doesn't want to see you, Scott. She's tired. You stay here, or better, you run along home. So you're Scott? Well. I've heard a little about you. Not much. Nothing good. Private eye, huh? That's funny. That's sure a laugh, pal. Yes, sir, you stay away from Lorraine. Otherwise I'll have to beat the water out of you, beat you half to death. I might even half kill you, Scott. No, that's wrong. Might kill you."
He kept going like that in a soft voice that must have sounded like droning conversation or a monologue to people at the next table, but he kept building it up and telling me with a kind of relish what he'd do to me if I didn't go home like a nice little boy. Finally he said a couple of things about my sexual habits that made up my mind fast while I looked around the club to see how many people would notice if I killed this bastard right here.
I said, "Hold it, pal. Just quiet down a minute." I stood up fast and started back toward the dressing room. The orchestra was having a short intermission, so I went straight across the dance floor and was halfway across before he scrambled out of the chair. I stopped and waited for him.
He came up beside me and the smile was gone for the first time. "Don't get excited," I said. "You've got the wrong idea." I grinned at him. He started to reach for me, then looked around, and I went on ahead through the black drapes. He was a little confused now, just as I'd been, and two yards inside the hallway I stopped and turned around and said to him as he came up close, "Look, you don't understand. I'm sorry as hell about all this--" and cut it off while he was staring at me. I was looking right at him as pleasantly as I could with all that burn in me, and I reached up fast with both hands crossed at the wrist, my right hand going to my left and grabbing the lapel of his gabardine jacket while my left hand crossed over and got the lapel on the other side, my thumbs out and my fingers on the inside of his coat, and before he could even get his hands up I tightened my grip and scissored my arms outward hard, and my wrists ground into his neck
He didn't have a chance. He'd barely started to grab my wrists, but he couldn't do a damn thing about it because he was unconscious in no more than two short seconds, and I gave him a final squeeze as he sagged, then I dropped him.
I left him there and turned around and walked to the door of the dressing room. I was still so damned mad I didn't even knock, just slammed open the door and went in.
Copyright © 1951 by Richard Prather