Authors: Richard S. Prather
“I have to eat.”
“Eat Cream of Wheat all day if you have to. But don't go outside this room. Look, they're onto you now. And this L.A. Police Department is one of the best in the country. I think it's number one of them all. When those guys get on you, they'll find you. I
tell them where you are, but they'll find you here, eventually. All they want is the info you have about your brother's death; but once your whereabouts is widely known, those hoods will find out where you are, too.”
“Doâyou really think they'd kill me? I didn't even see them.”
“They don't know that. And, yes, I think they'd kill you. What did they do to your brother?”
Before leaving, I switched on the room TV and we caught the
News of the Hour.
Elaine Emerson was the big item in the local coverage. The telecast revealed everything Sam had mentioned about her, and more. The announcer stated that the missing Miss Emerson had been seen, on the previous nightâthe night following her brother's murderâin the company of Sheldon Scott, Los Angeles private detective.
Elaine looked at me, her deep dark eyes troubled, but didn't say anything more as I left.
Sam sat behind his desk in his office and chewed savagely on his unlighted cigar. We were alone, and I gave him the whole story of what I knew about Elaine Emerson, including everything she had told me and that she was my clientâbut I said nothing about whether or not I knew where she was now. Instead of saying I did or didn't know, I simply left that part out.
When I finished he said, “Okay, where is she?”
“What makes you think I'd know?”
“Here go the word games again. Okay. We'll let it lay there for now.”
It wasn't like Sam to drop it so easily. I had a hunch he didn't intend to drop it. But as long as there weren't any immediate fireworks, I changed the subject. “This pressure you mentioned, Sam, all the new heat on me. It should be clear by now that this isn't some ordinary hood trying to get me. This is organized, plannedâdesperate in a way. There're so many torpedoes trying to knock me off, guys after me in so many different ways, that somebody with a lot of pull and money has to be behind it.”
He found one of his wooden matches and fiddled with it, shaking his head. “I got to admit they been keeping you busy.”
“Yeah, and the guy calling the shots is either Robert Goss, or Robert Silverman. Oneâor bothâof the two Bobs.”
He rubbed his nose with a thick index finger. “Goss, maybe. But I wish you'd forget the goofy ideas about Silverman. You sound like you're looking for stuff that
point to him, instead of the factsâno matter where they point.”
“Not exactly, Sam. Look, I told you I went to see him, but I didn't give you the whole story.”
He got a pained look on his pink face and said, “You might as well tell me what all went on. At least you didn't sock him, like the other one.”
“I managed not to. Well, I got out there about three a.m.â”
“Three...” Samson was agitated. He actually lit his cigar and sent a couple puffs of the fuming poison into the air around us. “Go on,” he said.
I told him the whole story, in detail. Somehow, in the telling, it got weaker and weaker. As I went back over it, the events seemed innocuous, and certainly not incriminating. In fact, Silverman's words seemed logical, almost the normal things that a man in his position would say under the circumstances. And it was obvious that Samson felt I was clear off base, even thrown out at first on this one.
He said, “That's why you think this guy is the head of the Mafia or something, huh?”
“Knock it off, Sam. I think he's just what he seems to beâexcept that maybe he's
as crooked as a rattlesnake's spine, and trying to murder me. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if he had Belden chilled.”
“Oh, Belden too now. When did he shoot McKinley?”
“Okay, skip it.” I started to get up.
“Sit down,” he growled. “What makes you think he's such a Jack the Ripper?”
“First of all, the fact that he
on the yacht with Belden and the others. And secondly, the way he acted when I saw him last night.”
Sam's tone was patient. “All right, he was on the yacht. But it sounds like he explained that to youâand it makes sense. If it was just an innocent visit, the headlines and news stories wouldn't do him any good. Right?”
he's innocent. But the way heâ”
“Now let me finish. How about that talk last night? You just take it on yourself to go calling on Robert C. Silverman, who is merely one of the richest, most important, least menacing men in the whole state of California. And at three a.m.âin Bel Air, yet. You say he asks you inside, into his home, gives you a drink of that expensive stuff, talks nice to you, even shows you his libraryâ”
“Sam, for Pete's sake. He didn't show me his library so I'd dance joyously around the room. He was warning me.”
“Some warning. So he tore a book. It's his book, isn't it?”
“It wasn't a book, it was a palm-leaf manuscript, hand written by some old Hindu orâ”
“Hindu! I don't care if it was by Hemingway!” Sam dragged on his cigar and said quietly, “Look, Shell. Maybe you've got something, maybe not. I think you're having another fit in that noodle of yours. But I'm just showing you how silly you're going to look if you tell
story to anybody. Anybody but me, that is.”
I had to admit he was right. And a kind of depression began sinking into my bones. If there was anything at all to my suspicions, then I sure had to go faster and farther in proving them than I had so far. Even the way he'd acted last night, Silverman came out looking like the Queen of the May, and I was the villain. Goss, too, had wound up a charming chap unjustly assaulted by a wild detective.
Samson rolled the black cigar between thumb and finger, looking at me. “Besides his being on the boat that night, what makes you think he'd have had a job done on Belden?”
I squirmed a little. “Well, I haven't actually got anything you can pin down. Not the kind of info you'd take to court, anyhow. It'sâwell, I guess it's mainly a feeling that heâ”
“So you got a feeling.” Sam wasn't being sarcastic now. He just thought I was wrong. “That's not enough, Shell. And you know it. As far as him being on the yacht, Goss is rich, even if we don't know yet all about where he makes his pile. And so is Silverman. Well, rich guys like to chew the fat with rich guys. You know, birds of a feather.”
“A couple of vultures.”
Sam bit down on his cigar. “Maybe. But so far, this Silverman hasn't even spit on the sidewalk.” He paused. “Another angle. Just supposing he's everything you say. Until you damn well know it and can prove it, you'll just get in trouble messing around with a guy like him. Especially now. You know I can't even stand behind you in a situation like this. Nobody can. You're on your own.”
“Yeah. I know. I'll make out.”
He looked at his cigar ash. “Maybe. It's a little more than usual this time, Shell.” He looked at me, and his face was sober. “All right. I've told you all I could. And I wanted to hear anything you had to say. So now we get down to business. The Emerson woman. We want her. We'll find her. If you can help us, you'd better do it.”
“I've told you all she knows.”
“All she says she knows.”
“What does that mean?” I couldn't recall seeing him this serious before, at least not for a long time. It worried me.
He said, “A private operator like youâwell, you can work on intuition or telepathy or whatever the hell it is. But we're stuck with facts. The facts are that two men beat it from the Belden house. And then Elaine Emerson beat it. But what happened in the house isn't real clear.”
“What are you getting at, Sam?”
“She isn't just a material witness. She's a suspect. How do we know she didn't kill him?”
I hadn't even thought of that angle, and as far as I was concerned it was impossible. I told Sam so, but his expression didn't change, didn't get any happier.
There was a blue-covered book on his desk, open. I'd noticed it when I'd come in. He picked the book up. “You know what this is?”
“Looks like the California Penal Code.”
“That's what it is. You've read the Appendix, haven't you?” His voice was hard.
“I've read it.” In the Appendix is the Private Investigator and Adjuster Act. I had a good hunch I knew what Sam was going to tell me.
He bit halfway through his cigar. “Article 5. Disciplinary Proceedings. Section 7551. âThe director may suspend or revoke a license issued under this chapter if he determines that the licensee' and so forth âhasââ” Samson fixed his sharp brown eyes on me. “Then there's thirteen subdivisions. Let's try the next to the last one on for size.” He looked back at the page. “'Been convicted of a violation of Section 148 of the Penal Code.'”
“I've never been convicted of any violation.”
“You know what 148 PC is, don't you?”
“Yeah. I know what it is.”
“I'm not so sure you do.” He flipped pages, read again, “'resisting public officers in the discharge of their duties. Every person who willfully resists, delays, or obstructs any public officer, in the discharge or attempt to discharge any duty of his office, when no other punishment is prescribed, is punishable by fine not exceeding five thousand dollars, and imprisonment in the county jail not exceeding five years.'”
He slammed the book shut and glared at me.
I'd read that paragraph several times before; but when Samson read it to me, teeth clamped in his cigar and the words coming out of his mouth like rivets, it made a new impression on me. Neither of us spoke for several seconds, but it seemed that his last words echoed and reechoed in the office: “Five years ... five years ... five years...”
I have previously mentioned that Phil Samson is my best friend in L.A. That's true, and I think it works both ways. But Sam is an honest, hard-working cop who came up from the ranks. He lived his job. And loved it. I knew he'd bend over backward until his head hit the floor for me; but past a point he wouldn't go. And I knew, too, that I was standing square on that point now; another inch, and he'd slap me down. But I just sat there and looked back at him.
Finally he spoke. “Shell. Don't make me do it the hard way. You got anything to tell me?”
“I'm sorry, Sam.”
His jaw muscles bulged. He said slowly, “I don't have any proof you know where the Emerson woman is. You haven't told me one way or the other. But if there is any, I'll find itâfast. So...” He paused, and then pushed the words out slowly, as if they hurt his throat. “So don't let me see you around, Shell. Not till this mess is settled. I'd hate like hell to put the arm on you.”
That was the way we left it.
I used a passkey to let myself into Belden's Wilshire Boulevard office on the third floor of the Witter Building. Most of the papers I examined in the next hour meant little to me; I'm no accountant. But I found a few things of interest, though I didn't know if any of it helped.
There seemed several complicated land deals which it would take a C.P.A. to figure out. Belden bad acted for several companies or corporations, but nowhere did I find any mention of Goss or Silverman. There wasn't anything for me in that angle, so after about half an hour I went back to the idea I'd tossed out to Samson when first discussing Silverman with him.
Sam had mentioned then, among other things, that Silverman was one of the State Highway Commissioners. Most men in high office are honest, capable, doing a hard and usually thankless job in the best way they can. But once in a while a crook works his way up; and the simple history of crooks in any high office is that they use their office in an illegal manner, for personal profit, if they can. Of that much I had no doubt, the only question was whether I was right or wrong in my opinion of Silvermanâspecifically, the man himself.
Craig Belden's business, for the last few years, had been exclusively in the field of real estate, lately including very large land purchases. Belden, Goss, Silverman, and Navarro had all been together a few hours before Belden's murder. All of that combined, plus Silverman's position as one of the members of the Highway Commission, seemed more than suspect; it was like an arrow pointing to some kind of crooked land deal. At least it was to me.
I found evidence of two or three big purchases, acreage and lots near or on the borders of highways currently in use. As I had said to Samson, it was public knowledge that the state was planning to spend billions of dollars building freeways which would cover California like a concrete web. It had even been proposed that wide freeways should connect every county seat, and every “population center” of more than 5,000 people, even though some of the multi-million-dollar projects would serve only a comparative handful of citizensâalmost like building stainless steel roads for horses and buggies. When a government, federal or state or local, spends millions and billions of dollars in tax loot, inevitably a hell of a lot of it is waste, or even crooked profits. Moreover, the largest chunk, well over three billion dollars of the freeway pile, was scheduled for spending in L. A. County.
And, let's face it, friendsâthis isn't Shangri-L.A.
If I knew Silverman, he'd be on top of the pile. That was the cruxâif I knew Silverman.
In the late Belden's papers were grant deeds to tracts of land which, if crossed by freeways, could be sold for hundreds of thousands of dollars more than they had cost Beldenâor rather cost Belden's unnamed client, for whom he had acted. The trouble was that I didn't have the faintest idea where the proposed freeways would eventually be built.
I almost said the hell with it, wondering what I could accomplish this way. Even if somehow I could show that Belden had illegally possessed such advance knowledge, there was still no connection between him and Silverman.