A Comet Passes

Robert Leslie Bellem

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Dan Turner—Hollywood Detective, January, 1942

 

Why should a lovely movie star want to quit her career, hide out from everybody— including the man who loved her? Dan Turner found more than one mystery when death visited the lonely ranch house and offered an astonishing solution.

I GOT out of my jalopy and stepped toward the closed gate of the ranch-house grounds. Then this greasy-looking Mex went for his knife.

I don't like guys who pull knives on me. So I said, “Listen, Pedro—or Felipe, or Jose, or whatever your name might be. I don't like the color of your teeth, and I'd just as soon pop you as look at you. Get to hell out of my way.”

He just stood there, glowering at me. “I have told you, Señor,” he spat, “that you cannot enter thees place.”

I said, “Yeah. And I've told you that I'm going in. Now run along before an accident happens to you. A bad accident.”

The desert's afternoon sun was hotter than a bake-oven in hell, and my disposition felt like a fried egg. Moreover, I'd spent nearly a month of damned hard investigation work to get this far; and I wasn't in the mood to have any sweating Mex ranch-hand try to stop me now.

I took another step forward. He backed up; rested his shoulders against the closed gate leading into the ranch yard. His knife glittered in the sun, and his lips peeled away from his white teeth in a wolfish snarl.

Señor, I warn you!” he half-whispered.

I didn't want to pull my roscoe on him unless I had to. I said, “Listen, Latin. My name is Dan Turner. I'm a private dick from Hollywood. A detective. Comprez?”

“Eet makes no difference who or what you are, Señor. My orders are to keep everyone out of thees ranch. Including,” he added venomously, “detectives!”

I said, “Nuts, brother! I want to see Nalia Kenton. And I intend to see her— right now!”

“There ees no Nalia Kenton here, Señor.”

I said, “You lie, and you know it.”

I knew I was right; knew the Mex was lying. Nalia Kenton was in that ranch house. I'd put in more than three weeks tracing her, ever since she'd mysteriously vanished from Hollywood. Finally, by a lucky break, I'd screwed some information out of a real estate agent in San Berdoo. Nalia Kenton had bought this secluded ranch in a hidden valley one hour east of Victorville. Why? Only God knew. And I wasn't particularly interested. I just had a job to do, and I was doing it.

NALIA KENTON hadn't been a star in Hollywood. She'd been a comet. She'd made just two pictures—and the public went nuts over her. Went crazy over her slim figure, her wide, innocent blue eyes, her tawny golden hair. And then— zip! For no apparent reason, she disappeared.

That's where I entered the plot. Jake Morrison, executive head of Century Productions, had come to me and hired me to find Nalia Kenton for him. Jake had two good reasons for wanting her back in Hollywood. First, because she was the biggest box-office smash he'd ever had. Second, because he was dippy in love with her.

And so, there I was in front of the ranch where Nalia was hiding out. And this greaser was trying to run a bluff on me.

As I say, I didn't want to pull my roscoe on him. As far as I know, there was no call for gunplay. No crime had been committed. I'd been engaged to find Nalia Kenton for Jake Morrison. I'd found her. Now I just wanted to see her for a minute; then I'd report to Jake Morrison and let him do the rest. In fact, I'd already wired Morrison from Victorville that I'd practically completed my job.

So I grinned now and said, “I'll give you one more chance to drop that knife and open the gate. Will or you or won't you?”

“I will not, Señor.” “This,” I told him, “is going to hurt you worse than it does me.” And I made a dive for him.

He did what I expected. He tried to slice my windpipe with his chiv. But hell— he was slower than coal-tar. I ducked his thrust; closed my fingers around his knife-wrist. I twisted. The knife went flying through the air, landed in the dust of the road. Then I doubled my right fist and fed a load of knuckles to the Mexican's kisser.

He staggered, spitting blood. I'll say this for him: he could take it. Usually, when I hit a guy he goes down—the first time. And stays down. But this one fooled me. He ate that first punch of mine as though it had been breakfast-food. And he came back for more.

He brought up his left, buried it in my belly. That made me sore. I feinted him wide open, and then I let him have four straight bashes on the jaw. Two would have been plenty.

He sagged. His knees buckled out from under him. I caught him as he fell.

I dragged him to the shade of a stunted tree, unfastened his galluses and used them to tie him up. Then, when I was sure he was nice and comfortable, I left him.

I opened the ranch-yard gate and strolled up to the house. I knocked on the door.

Everything was quiet and peaceful. Except for the tinkle of running water somewhere, I couldn't hear a sound. And then the door opened. .

I said, “Kitty Kenton! For God's sake!” The girl who stood before me was tall and husky—a Viking goddess with flaxen hair, broad hips, Junoesque breasts. She was the missing Nalia Kenton's half-sister; and she was a knockout in any man's language. I hadn't suspected that she might be here, too.

Kitty Kenton didn't seem particularly surprised to see me. She just said “Well, Dan Turner. Snooping again—as usual!” Then she said: “How the hell did you get past Jaime Lopez?”

“You mean the gate-keeper? I fed him some sleeping medicine,” I grinned.

“Sleeping medicine?”

I said, “Yeah. These.” I held up my fists.

Kitty smiled faintly. “I might have known,” she said resignedly.

I looked her over. She was dressed in a thin, summery cotton dress; and as far as I could see, she wasn't wearing a hell of a lot under it. I could see the firm mounds of her generous breasts straining at the dress; the frock's skirt was plenty abbreviated, too, and Kitty didn't have stockings on. Her legs were hefty but shapely; and they were nice and smooth.

I said, “Aren't you going to invite me in for a drink?”

Kitty shrugged. “I suppose there's nothing else to do,” she answered me ruefully. “Come on in. I'll call Nalia.”

SHE led me into a big, comfortable living room. It wasn't ranch-house style. It looked as if it might have been picked up bodily in Hollywood and transported here. It was modernistic and up to the minute.

I sat down on a divan. Kitty said, “Wait here. I'll get Nalia for you.” Then she went out.

I fished out a gasper and set fire to it. After a while, I heard footsteps coming. I looked up.

There stood Kitty Kenton and her half-sister, Nalia, the dame I'd come to find. They entered the room arm in arm.

Nalia Kenton's prettiness took my breath away. Lord, she was lovely! She was a wee little thing, all cuddly curves and slim contours. She had tawny hair and the biggest, bluest, widest eyes you ever saw.

She was dressed in linen shorts and a bandanna brassiere. Her skin was the color and texture of cream. Her hips were slender, and her breasts were small, like cupcakes. She was delicious. I felt like grabbing her and eating her.

She wasn't smiling. She seemed to be looking straight past me; and I could tell she wasn't pleased to see me. She said, “Well, Mr. Turner?” in a flat, expressionless voice.

I said, “Nalia Kenton, gosh, you're looking swell!”

“Thank you,” she answered tartly. She moved slowly toward a chair, with Kitty still arm-in-arm with her. Then she sat down; but Kitty remained standing.

Kitty said, “I suppose somebody hired you to trace Nalia, eh, Dan Turner? You've got the reputation of never working just for the fun of it.”

I grinned and said, “Right-ho. Jake Morrison of Century Pictures hired me. He's been worried to death ever since Nalia pulled the vanishing act.”

“Jake Morrison sent you?” Nalia Kenton asked coldly. Once more I got the impression that she was looking straight through me, as if trying to probe my soul.

I said, “Yes. He wants you to come back to Hollywood.”

Nalia shook her head. She fumbled on the table alongside her, found a cigarette. Her half-sister, Kitty, lighted it for her. Then Nalia said, “I'm never going back, Mr. Turner. Never.”

“Never's a hell of a long time.” “Eternity!” Nalia Kenton agreed bitterly. Then she leaned forward, flipping ashes on the floor. “Listen, Dan Turner!” she almost sobbed. “I want you to do me a favor. Go back and tell Jake Morrison you couldn't find me. Tell him you lost my trail. Tell him—tell him anything! But don't let him know where I am! Don't let anybody know!”

She sounded frantic, almost hysterical. I didn't get it. I said so. “This all sounds screwy to me,” I told her.

Nalia Kenton bit her lips; closed her blue eyes wearily. “I—I'm through with Hollywood and Jake Morrison and—and the outside world!” she whispered. “I'm never going back. I want the pub1ic to forget me. I want to be alone—alone, do you understand?” Her voice rose shrilly.

I LIGHTED a fresh fag. I said, “Listen, Nalia. You're asking me to do something impossible. I've got a professional rep to maintain. If I tell Jake Morrison I wasn't able to find you, it'll get whispered around that Dan Turner has lost his grip—hasn't got anything on the ball any more.”

“I—I'll pay you a thousand dollars for just one lie, Dan Turner. A thousand dollars to keep my hiding-place a secret from the world—and from Jake Morrison,” Nalia said.

I frowned. I was thoughtful. I was beginning to wonder what was behind Nalia Kenton's desire to become a recluse from the world at large and Jake Morrison in particular. Here Nalia was: young, beautiful as all hell, on the verge of a meteorically-successful career in pictures. Jake Morrison, one of Hollywood's biggest cinema shots, was batty over her. Nalia had everything—and she wanted to toss it away.

Why?

Could it be that something out of her past had bounced up to give her the jitters? I tried to piece together what I'd heard of her history.

Two or three years before, she'd been a non-professional; had been the wife of Steve Parker, the big star of silent films. You remember Steve Parker, perhaps—the guy who made such a hell of a name for himself playing Spanish roles. The talkies had killed him off; his voice didn't register properly, or something. Anyhow, he had faded from sight. Then Nalia had divorced him, and that was that. Later, Nalia got into pictures; became an overnight smash success.

Could it be that Steve Parker had popped back from oblivion to reappear in Nalia's life? Could it be that Parker was jealous of Jake Morrison? Had Parker shown up and threatened Nalia—threatened to kill her? That might be one angle. It might be the reason why Nalia was hiding out. She might be scared.

Anyhow, she was offering me one thousand skins, cash, to lay off her. I grinned and said, “Listen, Nalia, darling. Give me a day or so to think things over.”

Nervously, she ground out the stub of her cigarette against the expensive polished top of a mahogany end table. “You mean— you won't betray me? At least for a little while?”

“Not for a little while,” I agreed. “And I don't want your dough. At least, not yet.”

“Thank you, Dan Turner,” she said. Then she got up. “And now if you'll excuse me, I'll go for my afternoon swim. You'll be returning to Victorville immediately?”

There was dismissal in her voice. She was inviting me to leave. I took the hint. I said, “Okay. Yeah. I'm going.”

Nalia walked out of the room, slowly, like a person in a trance—or in deep trouble of some sort.

I STARTED for the front door. But Kitty Kenton, Nalia's Junoesque half-sister, stopped me. “Don't go yet, Dan,” she whispered. “God knows I get lonesome in this hell-hole! A good-looking man is like a gift from heaven. Stick around a while.”

I looked at Kitty. There was a peculiar flicker in her eyes—a flicker of invitation, maybe. She drew a deep breath, and her gorgeous breasts strained at the front of her dress until I thought something was going to pop. I hoped it would.

Kitty drew me into the kitchen of the house. “I'll fix a highball,” she grinned. “What do you like—Scotch or rye?”

“Scotch, by all means,” I told her.

She poured two tall ones, filled them with cracked ice and fizzwater. She fumbled with a switch near the electric icebox, and then we went back into the living room.

We sat down together on the divan. We drank. Then I slipped a tentative arm about Kitty's hefty waist. She didn't seem to mind. In fact, she seemed to expect it.

She was big; but she didn't have an ounce of surplus fat on her anywhere. Just hard, firm flesh—nice to touch. She leaned against me, and stretched her arms up over her head.

I can't stand that. Never could. It brings a girl's breasts forward, taut, inviting. Kitty quivered and sighed. “Like me, Dan?” she whispered.

“Like you? Don't be nuts, Kitty!” I grinned.

She was an eye-full, no fooling. I never saw anything so tempting. I grabbed her. . .

Kitty began to pant a little. So did I. I kissed her on the mouth. She opened her crimson lips. A thousand-candlepower shock tingled past my tonsels. I began to lose control. After all, I'm human. What the hell?

I kissed the hollow of her throat. She put her arms around my neck and strained my head against her, hard. I got a hell of a thump out of that. And then . . .

Well, the next time I looked at the ticker on my wrist, almost a full hour had passed. Under certain conditions, time certainly does fly, doesn't it?

Kitty adjusted her dress. She was smiling. “Now I know why you've got such a reputation as a lady-killer, Dan,” she murmured. I started to make a flip crack. But before I could get my mouth open, I heard something.

IT WAS a cry—a man's full-throated cry of sheer, panic-stricken horror. It came from somewhere behind the ranch house. It sounded like the moaning gibber of a tortured, tormented soul being fried in hellfires. It raised the hackles at the nape of my neck, and it brought a shiver down my spine. I suddenly smelled trouble—bad trouble.

Kitty Kenton threw herself at me. “Dan—for God's sake!” she whispered. “What was that?”

I said, “I don't know. But I sure as hell aim to find out!” Then I raced for the kitchen, with Kitty after me.

The cry sounded again. I yanked out the .32 automatic I always carry under my armpit, and lammed out into the rear yard. I stared. I said “What the hell—!”

There was a small swimming pool just behind the house, with a high spring-board at the far end. Standing at the brink of the pool was the Mex ranch-hand who had tried to knife me. His eyes were wide, and he looked demented, insane.

And small wonder!

Floating in the clear water of the pool, I saw a small, tawny-haired figure in a one-piece bathing-suit. It was floating face-downward, motionless, still. The tawny hair was pink with washed blood. . . .

I said, “God almighty!” and smashed forward. Before I could reach the pool, the Mex gathered his muscles and dived into the water. He reached that floating figure, grabbed it, started splashing frantically back to the pool's concrete edge.

I REACHED down; helped him. I dragged the limp figure out of the water; turned it over. I felt suddenly sick, nauseated.

It was Nalia Kenton—or rather, what was left of her. God what a sight! The whole damned front of her skull was bashed in, as if somebody had smashed into her forehead with a sledgehammer. Her entire face was obliterated. Her arms dangled crazily, in Z-shapes, the bones broken in three or four places. The one-piece swim suit was torn away from her tiny, cup-cake breasts; and there were hellish bruises on her white flesh. . . .

Of course she was dead. “Oh, my God!” Kitty Kenton wailed. Her face went corpse-white. She swayed on her feet. “Who could have—!”

I said, “This is the most brutal thing I've ever looked at! Somebody must have used a hammer on her and then thrown her into the water! Somebody plenty powerful!” Then, abruptly, I whirled at the dripping Mex who had brought Nalia Kenton's body out of the pool.

He licked his lips and said, “Listen, Mister—you don't think that I did this—”

I pointed my roscoe at him and said, “For the moment, I'm not thinking anything. But you were the only man out here!”

“But—but I just came to the pool!” he gasped. “I regained consciousness a moment ago, where you left me out front. I wormed my way to my knife, cut myself loose, came back here and . . . and saw . . . this!” He shuddered as he looked at Nalia Kenton's battered corpse.

I didn't believe him. I turned, handed my automatic to Kitty Kenton. I said, “Keep this hombre covered.”

Kitty said, “Wh-where are you going, Dan?”

“Into the house to phone the sheriff at Victorville!” I snapped.

“But we—we have no telephone!”

I said, “Then stay here anyhow. I'm going to search for the murder weapon. It's probably a big hammer of some sort. If I find it, it will have finger-prints on it.”

“There—there's a tool-shed behind the barn,” Kitty whimpered.

“Okay. I'll look that over!” I barked.

I made for the tool-shed. I slammed inside the place, stared around. I saw a big, heavy sledge-hammer standing in one corner. But it was clean; there was no blood on it. I went toward it, wrapped my hand with a clean handkerchief, hefted the hammer—

“Damn you!” a voice ripped out behind me. “You killed Nalia! Jake Morrison hired you to murder her!”

I whirled—and stared into the muzzle of my own automatic. The Mex ranch-hand was pointing it at my navel.

I noticed something queer about him. His swarthy color was all streaked, where he'd been in the swimming pool. And his hair was cockeyed. All of a sudden, I tabbed him.

He wasn't a greaser. He was a white man—in make-up. He was wearing a wig over his brown hair. Evidently he'd overpowered Kitty Kenton, taken my roscoe away from her. And now he was accusing me of murdering Nalia Kenton!

I looked at him. Then I said, “So you want two killings on your hands, eh, Steve Parker?”

Sure; that's who it was. He was Steve Parker, who'd played so many Mexican and Spanish roles in the old silent-film days. Nalia Kenton's ex-husband!

THE way I'd pierced his disguise set him back on his heels. The automatic wavered in his fist.

That's what I'd been waiting for.

I hurled myself full at his throat. I smashed the roscoe downward with one blow. Then I bopped him on the jaw with everything I had.

For the second time that day, he went down—and out.

I raced out of the tool-shed, with my .32 back in my own mitt where it belonged. I rounded the barn, dashed toward the swimming pool. Then I brought up short.

There was Kitty Kenton lying there alongside the corpse of her dead half-sister. And leaning over those two sprawled forms was a man. A man who turned when he heard me coming.

Jake Morrison, from Hollywood! The Century Pictures exec who had hired me to find Nalia Kenton!

He looked green around the gills— looked ready to heave his biscuits all over the place. “T-Turner . . .!” he choked.

I said, “How in hell did you get here? How long have you been here?”

“I—I just came. I got your wire from Victorville, and drove right up. I traced you here. I came in—and found—”

I stared into his eyes. Was he lying? Had he just arrived, or had he been here some while? I remembered something. Just when the disguised Steve Parker had cracked down on me in the toolshed, a minute ago, he had said, “You killed Nalia. Jake Morrison hired you to murder her!”

What was the meaning of that? Did Steve Parker know something that I didn't know? Did he know that Jake Morrison had a grudge against Nalia and wanted her killed?

Before I could collect my thoughts, Kitty Kenton stirred, moaned softly, and staggered to her feet. She had a welt on her jaw. “Dan—that Mex hit me and took away my gun—!” she whispered.

I said, “Yeah. I know. Then I hit him and took the gun back again. Only he isn't a Mexican. He's Steve Parker—Nalia's former husband!”

Jake Morrison said “What? Parker here? Oh, my God! Then he killed Nalia— !”

I looked at him. I said, “Yeah. Either he killed her—or you did!”

Morrison turned fish-belly white. “Turner—what are you saying . . .?” he gasped.

I said, “You and the disguised Steve Parker are the only two men around this joint, outside of myself. And I was in the house with Kitty, here, for the past hour.”

“But—but I just arrived—” “That's what Parker says, too!” I rapped out. Then I prodded him with my automatic, frisked him for any possible weapons. He didn't have any.

I turned to Kitty Kenton. I said, “Listen, baby. I'm going to give you my roscoe again. Keep Jake Morrison covered—take him into the living room and hold him there. And this, time, be on guard, for God's sake!”

“But—but what about the Mexican . . . I mean Steve Parker?”

“I'll lock him in the tool-shed,” I answered. Then I went to do just that.

I FOUND the former movie hero still unconscious. I locked the door of the tool-shed. Then I launched myself back toward the ranch house.

On the way, I stopped and took another look at the gruesome thing which had been Nalia Kenton. Abruptly, something struck me as damned queer.

Nalia's ex-husband, Steve Parker, had been working here on the ranch, disguised as a Mexican. Kitty Kenton hadn't recognized him, of course—because she'd never known him in the days when he'd been her half-sister's husband. But what about Nalia herself? Why hadn't she recognized her ex-mate?

Nalia had seen Steve Parker in makeup, a hundred times. It didn't seem reasonable, then, that she wouldn't have spotted him even though he wore Mexican disguise. Then why had she permitted him to stay there as a common laborer? It didn't add up right.

Unless—

I said “By God!” and made for the house. I sneaked in the back way. I was beginning to remember certain things. The way Nalia Kenton had stared past me with her wide blue eyes. The way she'd walked, as if in a trance. The way she'd crushed out her cigarette on the expensive, polished top of a mahogany end-table. . . .

Not making a sound, I started upstairs. I found Nalia's room; started pawing through the drawers of her bureau.

And I found what I'd hoped to find. It was a letter from a certain doctor in Hollywood—the biggest specialist in his particular field.

I read the letter; and suddenly, a wave of understanding and of pity surged through me. Pity—for the dead Nalia Kenton, who must have gone through hell before she died. . . .

I had the answer to my riddle now. I went back downstairs; and I approached the living room where I'd told Kitty to hold Jake Morrison prisoner.

I stopped dead in my tracks, at the doorway.

Kitty Kenton was in Morrison's arms, loving hell out of him. “Take me away from here, Jake!” she was panting. “If you love me, take me away—”

Her lush breasts were pressing into Morrison's chest. Kitty had my automatic still in her hand; but it was pointing toward the floor.

“You damned fool!” I roared. Then I sprang.

At the same instant, Kitty and Jake lurched apart. I made for Kitty. “Give me that gun!” I rasped. “Unless you want your sister's murderer to get away clean!”

“You mean—” “I mean I know who killed Nalia!” I snarled; and I snatched my automatic from her fingers.

Then I jammed the gun into Kitty Kenton's ribs and said “Yeah. I know who killed Nalia. You did!”

Kitty went as white as a sheet. Fear leaped into her eyes. She tried to brazen it out. “You must be crazy!” she snarled.

I SAID, “Yeah. Sure. Crazy like a fox. And if you make one wrong move, I'm just crazy enough to jam this gat into your pretty ear and let you hear it going off. Only you won't hear anything after that. Not with a lead slug in your brain!”

“You—you're mad!” she whispered. “You—I—you and I were in this very room when Nalia was killed! You saw her go out of here alive. I didn't leave your side for a single minute after that. And you've already said that Nalia must have been murdered by a powerful man with a sledgehammer—”

“I was wrong!” I grunted. “You killed her while you were in this room with me!”

Her red, kiss-swollen lips curled. Her laugh wasn't pleasant to hear. “You damned chump!” she snapped at me.

I said, “Maybe I'm a chump. But I've got you dead to rights, baby. You want the whole story? Well, here it is!”

I set fire to a gasper, blew out a cloud of smoke. I cast a swift glance at Jake Morrison. I said, “Jake, you asked me to find Nalia Kenton for you—and to find out why she vanished from Hollywood. Well, this is the reason: Nalia Kenton had gone blind—stone blind!”

“Blind . . .? My God . . . !” “That's it. Blind. And being an actress, with an actress's peculiar psychology—or vanity—she couldn't stand the idea of having her public learn of her condition. She didn't want pity. She just wanted to hide away from the world. That's why she came here with her sister—her half-sister, rather.”

Kitty snarled at me.

I kept on talking. “Nalia came here to accustom herself to her new condition. She had enough money to live on. And she had the determination to make the best of things. She got so that she could move about this house with comparative ease. Blind people learn such things fast. Nalia had received a letter from her eye-specialist, telling her that her blindness was permanent. I've got the letter in my pocket. So Nalia started living her new, changed life. And meanwhile, her former husband, Steve Parker, somehow learned just how matters stood. He came here disguised as a Mex; got a job as a ranch-hand. Nalia didn't recognize him, because she couldn't see him! And Parker loved Nalia—just wanted to be close to her.”

“Then what?” Morrison whispered. “Well,” I said, “Nalia was determined to be as normal as possible. Even to the extent of taking a daily plunge in her private swimming pool outside.”

Kitty Kenton saw what was coming. “Damn you, Turner—!” she grated.

I slapped her across the mouth, hard. “Shut up!” I growled at her. Then I went on. “Today, Kitty decided to murder her sister. Why? Because Kitty was in love with you, Jake Morrison. She wanted you. And with Nalia out of the road, she might get you.”

“I . . . see . . .” Morrison said. “When I arrived at the ranch house this afternoon,” I kept on, “I heard water running. Do you know what it was? No? “Well, I'll tell you. Kitty was letting the water drain out of the swimming pool! A little later, Nalia—totally blind, mind you—went for her swim. She climbed up on that high springboard—and dived straight into the concrete bottom of the empty pool! That's what killed her!”

Jake Morrison's lips were white. “God in Heaven!” he moaned. “Nalia—my pretty Nalia—”

I said, “Then Kitty used her feminine tricks to keep me here, because I'd be an alibi for her. When we were in the kitchen getting a highball, she flipped a switch. I thought it was a switch to the electric icebox; but now I know it turned on the water-pump outside, and re-filled the swimming pool with water. Nalia's corpse floated to the surface. It looked as if she'd been killed with a hammer, and her body thrown into the pool. That's what Kitty wanted us to think. And she might have got away with it—if I hadn't accidentally figured out that Nalia had been blind.”

Kitty sank into a chair, and her eyes were bitter with defeat. “You've got me, Turner,” she whispered dully.