Authors: James Hadley Chase
James Hadley Chase
t was long past midnight and a cold drizzle was falling from a black spongy sky as Corridon walked along Old Compton Street, his hands thrust into the big pockets of his trench coat, his wide-brimmed slouch hat pulled down over his eyes.
In this small section of Soho the streets were deserted; the usual loafers driven indoors by the rain that had been falling since early dusk.
At the corner of Old Compton Street and Frith Street Corridon paused to light a cigarette. As he shielded the match flame from the rain-soaked wind he listened for the pursuing footfalls, but heard nothing, and when he glanced over his shoulder there was only the street stretching away from him into wet, empty darkness. He flicked the match into the gutter and increasing his pace began to walk along Frith Street.
For the past twenty-four hours he had been aware that two or three people, suddenly and for no apparent reason, had been I oil owing him wherever he went.
It wasn’t a new experience. In the past, the police had shadowed him. During the war, when he had been one of the ‘in-and-out’ boys, the Gestapo had hunted him. By now he had acquired an unerring instinct for knowing when he was being shadowed. He could think of no reason why anyone should be interested enough in him to follow him about like this. Admittedly he made enemies easily. Already there were a few who wanted to get even with him, but he made no secret of where he lived, and they could get at him easily enough without stalking him like this hour after hour. The situation puzzled and intrigued him.
Now that he was certain his imagination wasn’t playing him tricks, he had come out on this wet night with the intention of cornering one of them and finding out what they were playing at, but so far he hadn’t succeeded. It was getting on for one o’clock; he had turned and doubled back, hidden and waited, hoping to wear them down, to catch them off guard, but they had remained as elusive and as invisible as ghosts. But he had infinite patience. Sooner or later one of them would make a slip.
The Amethyst Club was nearby; down an alley off Frith Street. He decided to go there and let them wait for him in the rain. He might catch a glimpse of one of them from an upper window of the club. Anyway, a wait in the rain might blunt their enthusiasm.
he Amethyst Club, typical of the many shady clubs in Soho that offered sanctuary when there were too many policemen in the district and where you could get a drink at any hour of the day or night, was situated at the end of a dark cul-de-sac. At one time the premises had been used for storing wine, but now it was decorated in strident yellow and red distemper, furnished with glass-topped tables and basket chairs and the walls hung with dusty mirrors. At the far end of the room, behind an S-shaped bar, stood Zani: dark, immense, oily and cruel.
Zani owned the Amethyst Club. He had also a finger in most of the crooked pies manufactured in Soho. Nearly as broad as he was tall, with dark negroid features, he reminded Corridon of some horror from a freak show. His Savile Row suit, the immaculate white shirt, the hand-painted tie, and the big diamond ring on the little finger of his left hand, were as out of place on him as a top hat on a baboon.
There were about a score of men and women in the club.
They looked up sharply as Corridon came down the stairs that led from the entrance hall to the main room and bar, peering at him suspiciously through the haze of tobacco smoke, their loud hum of talk dying down. The military cut of his trench coat, his massive shoulders and the way he held himself made them uneasy. They saw at a glance that he wasn’t one of themselves, nor was he of the police, and they stared at him with furtive curiosity, trying to place him.
Corridon ignored the mild sensation caused by his entrance and went over to the bar.
‘I heard you were back,’ Zani said, extending a fat, damp hand, ‘but I didn’t believe it. What do you want to come back for? If I could get out of this lousy country I’d get out and stay out.’
‘That’d be no loss,’ Corridon said, ignoring the outstretched hand. ‘I’ll have a Scotch if it won’t poison me.’ He pulled up a stool and sat down.
Away in a corner a skinny little man in a red and white check shirt, and a pair of dirty grey flannels, was playing the piano with impressive skill.
‘You won’t be poisoned by any stuff you drink here,’ Zani said, his smile stiffening. ‘Nothing but the best. Here, try that,’ and he pushed a bottle and glass across the counter.
While Corridon was pouring a drink, Zani went on, ‘I heard you were in the States.’
‘That’s right, but the food was too rich so I quit.’
Zani dropped one eyelid and smiled knowingly.
‘I heard different. They have some pretty tough coppers over there, haven’t they?’
Corridon stared at his whisky, then glanced up, his eyes hard.
‘One of these days someone’s going to shut that big trap of yours with a broken bottle - it could be me.’
Zani’s smile vanished.
‘I was only kidding. Your trip hasn’t sweetened your temper, has it?’
‘There’s nothing wrong with my temper. Keep your jokes for the mugs who like them. I don’t.’
There was an uneasy pause, then Zani said, ‘Well, how are things? Busy?’
‘So, so,’ Corridon returned guardedly. ‘Anyone been asking for me?’
‘No; you’ve been away a long time. People forget easily.’
Zani regarded Corridon with sly curiosity. ‘What are you going to do now you’re back?’
‘That’s my business. The less you know about me the less you can tell your copper pals. Rawlins hasn’t been in, has he? Asking about me, I mean?’
‘He’s always in and out,’ Zani said, lifting his fat shoulders apologetically. ‘But he hasn’t mentioned you. He’s been promoted since you’ve been away. Detective-Sergeant now, and lets you know it.’
So it wasn’t the police who were shadowing him. If they had been interested in his movements they would have questioned Zani. Zani ran with the hare and hunted with the hounds.
Few knew he gave information to the police. Corridon knew.
He made it his business to know things like that. It was the surest way of avoiding trouble.
‘Someone’s interested in me,’ he said casually. ‘They’ve been shadowing me all day.’
‘That shouldn’t worry you. From what I’ve heard the Gestapo hunted you for two years. They never caught up with you, did they?’
‘Once,’ Corridon said, and his face set. ‘But this is different. I want to know what it’s all about. Any ideas?’
‘Me? Why should I? I hear nothing these days.’
Corridon studied the dark negroid face, then shrugged.
‘All right; forget it. I’ll find out.’ He finished his whisky, paid for it and pushed away from the bar. ‘I’ll sit around for a while. It’s raining like hell.’
‘Suit yourself. You know you can stay as long as you like. Want a girl?’
‘I’ve outgrown women,’ Corridon returned with a cynical smile. ‘Besides, I’ve seen your girls . . . not for me, thanks.’ He wandered away from the bar and paused beside the piano, aware that most of the men and women at the tables continued to watch him with furtive curiosity.
‘Hello, Max,’ he said to the pianist.
The pianist continued to play. Without moving his lips, he said, ‘Hello.’
Corridon stared at the flying fingers, an interested, polite expression on his blunt-featured face. To those watching he appeared to be fascinated by the performer’s technique.
‘What do you know, Max?’
Max began to play ‘Night and Day’. His thin face twisted as if the melody had painful memories.
‘There’s been a girl asking about you,’ he said, still without moving his lips. ‘Came in three nights ago with Crew.’
Corridon flicked ash from his cigarette and continued to watch the flying fingers.
‘Who was she?’
‘I dunno. She hasn’t been in before. Foreign looking: young, dark, big eyes, in a black sweater and slacks. Her name’s Jeanne. Crew seemed scared of her.’
‘What did she want?’
‘Asked me if I knew where you lived, and if you’d been in here recently. I said I didn’t know and hadn’t seen you.’
Corridon nodded absently.
‘Said if I told Crew when you came in it was worth a fiver to me.’
‘A fiver?’ Corridon raised his eyebrows. ‘I’d better see Crew.’
‘Keep me out of it.’
‘Yes. Well, thanks, Max. You won’t lose by it.’
‘I’m not worrying,’ Max returned, and pushed back his chair at an angle. ‘Thought you had gone for good. Effie will be pleased to see you again.’
‘How is she, Max?’
‘She’s come on. If it wasn’t for her mouth I’d have ideas about her. She’s got a figure like Grable now. Marvellous how she’s come on.’
Corridon fished out a five-pound note, concealed it in his hand and dropped it into the open piano.
‘Go on keeping your trap shut, Max,’ he said, and moved away.
As Max switched from ‘Night and Day’ to ‘The Man I Love’ he sent a whistling sigh down his thin nostrils.
rew . . . Corridon had forgotten Crew. He hadn’t seen Crew for four years. His mind went back into the past and he conjured up a picture of tall, effeminate Crew with his sleek fair hair and the red carnation in the buttonhole of his faultlessly cut suit. Crew had always been a bit of a mystery. No one knew where his money came from. Some said he lived on women, others that he was a police informer, the less unkind that he had a private income. He never did any work, and was usually to be found after dark hanging around Piccadilly or propping up a bar in the better-class pubs around Leicester Square. He wasn’t popular; a man no one trusted.
Although he knew Crew well by sight, Corridon had only met him once to speak to. It was during a game of poker.
Corridon had been winning steadily until Crew joined in, then the cards turned against him. After the third deal he had caught Crew cheating and had promptly hit him over the head with a beer bottle inflicting a four-inch gash across his forehead. It was possible, Corridon thought, that Crew harboured a grudge against him. It seemed odd to Corridon, who never nursed a grievance, that anyone should remember something against him for four years; but some men were like that. If Crew intended to square accounts he could be dangerous. He had a peculiar talent for prying into other people’s affairs.
But who was the girl? Corridon wondered as he sat at a corner table, a whisky before him, aware that Zani was looking across the smoke-filled room at him and that the men and women at the other tables were still talking about him. Who was she? Foreign looking; young, dark and big eyed. Corridon groped into the past, but none of the many women he had known fitted the description. There had been a time when women had been essential to him, but he had got over that now. After his experiences during the war nothing was essential to him and nothing interested him.
Getting up abruptly he returned to the bar.
‘Is there a room upstairs that overlooks the street?’ he asked, leaning his bulk against the bar.
‘What if there is?’ Zani asked suspiciously.
‘I want to go up there to look out of the window.’
‘Well, all right,’ Zani said after hesitating. ‘There’s Effie’s room. She’s not in bed yet. I’ll get her.’ He went to the door at the end of the bar, opened it and gave a shrill whistle. ‘Hey, Effie! Come up here a moment.’ He turned back to Corridon. ‘What do you want to look out of the window for?’
‘Mind your own business,’ Corridon said shortly. ‘One of these days, Zani, you’re going to poke your snout into my affairs once too often.’
‘Can’t a man ask a question...?’
‘Shut up!’ Corridon said sharply. ‘I’m sick of the sound of your voice.’
The door behind the bar opened and Effie appeared. She had been fifteen when Corridon had last seen her; an awkward, shy little creature with a skinny undeveloped body. Max was right.
The last three years had brought her on, Corridon thought, startled. If it hadn’t been for her deformity - a double harelip - she would have been a beauty.
When she saw him blood mounted to her face and her eyes brightened.
‘Hello, Effie, have you forgotten me?’ he asked casually. He knew she worshipped him. He had won her forever by offering her a kind of jeering friendship that had cost him nothing.
Zani had found her outside the club six years ago. He had guessed she had run away from home because she refused to tell him about her parents, her background or where she lived.
She had been a hideous little creature, half-starved and dirty with two big teeth showing through the divided lip. But Zani wasn’t fussy. He needed help in the kitchen, and since no one claimed her, he had given her a home and worked her as ruthlessly as he worked the rest of his staff.
‘Hello, Mr. Corridon,’ she said and backed away.
Zani watched her embarrassment with a sneering smile. He thought it was comic that Effie should be in love with Corridon.
‘Take him upstairs to your room. He wants to look out of the window or something. Look sharp about it.’
Corridon followed Effie behind the bar and through the doorway into a dimly lit passage. When he had closed the door, shutting out the sound of music and whispering voices, he caught hold of her arms and pulled her to him.
‘Well, aren’t you pleased to see me, Effie?’ he asked, smiling at her. ‘I bet you have forgotten all about me, although you pretend you haven’t.’
‘Oh no, I haven’t,’ she protested breathlessly. ‘Honest, I haven’t. I’d never do that. But I didn’t think you were ever coming back.’
‘Well, you’re wrong. I’ve missed you, Effie,’ and holding her at arm’s length, he was surprised to find that he had missed her. ‘You’ve grown up overnight. Why, you’re beautiful.’
Her hand went to her mouth.
‘You shouldn’t say that. It isn’t true.’
‘That’s nothing. You know, it’s time it was fixed.’ A sudden idea jumped into his mind, and without considering the consequences, he went on; ‘I know a bloke who could do it. You’d like that, wouldn’t you? When I get enough money we’ll have it fixed. It won’t be long. A month, maybe.’
But as soon as he had voiced the idea he knew he hadn’t meant it. He was always getting these crazy impulses. Only last week he had given an old woman selling white heather a five-pound note just to see the expression on her face when it dawned on her how much he had given her. Then the same evening he had noticed a young, shabbily dressed couple standing outside a theatre in the Strand looking longingly at the photographs of the ballet, and he had brought two dress-circle seats and had given the tickets to the couple and had gone off grinning at the sight of their dumb-founded faces.
But this time he wasn’t going to get off so cheaply and he was dismayed to see by the expression on Effie’s face that she believed him. He remembered now that her trust in anything he said had been terrifying. During the war, when he had been stationed in London, he had spent much of his spare time at the Amethyst Club, and, to Zani’s annoyance, visited the kitchen regularly and talked to Effie while he helped wash the dishes. At first he had done this because he was sorry for her, and it pleased him to feel he was being kind. But it was by no means one-sided. He found to his surprise that she meant a lot to him, or rather her adoration meant a lot to him. She had once told him that she had prayed for him every night, and he had laughed at her. But it was extraordinary how the thought of those nightly prayers had helped him when he was in the hands of the Gestapo. She was the only person he knew who gave a damn what happened to him, and you needed someone like that. It was all very well to sneer at prayer and to stand on your own feet, but sooner or later you needed some kind of anchor.
A man must have someone - even if it were only a drudge with a harelip. Her trust in him touched an almost forgotten self-respect.
She was looking at him with tense expectation. ‘A month?’ The way a dog looks at a bone just out of reach. ‘Oh no, it wouldn’t be right.’
‘Well, six weeks. I don’t know. It depends on the money. It shouldn’t be longer than a couple of months.’ He spoke sharply, annoyed with himself. The operation might cost a hundred; even two. He had no idea how much it would cost.
He must have been cracked to have made such a promise. Well, he had given his word now. You couldn’t go back on a promise to Effie.
She was quick to catch the sharpness in his voice.
‘But you need your money. It doesn’t matter. Honest, I don’t mind. It’s kind of you.’
‘Now, stop it, Effie,’ he said, and was suddenly glad he had made the promise. It was time he did something for her. He couldn’t expect to have her prayers for nothing. ‘Come on. Take me upstairs. We’ll talk about it some other time.’
She was glad to escape from his half-jeering smile and ran up the stairs. He followed her more slowly, thinking, ‘I’m getting soft. It’s time I did a job of work. But I’ll do it. She’s worth it in her funny way.’
He caught up with her on the top landing.
‘In here,’ she said, and opened a door.
He entered a small, dark room and stumbled against a bed.
‘Don’t put on a light,’ he said quickly, sensing that was what she was about to do. ‘There’s someone out there I want to see.’
‘Who is it?’ she asked, joining him at the window.
‘That’s what I want to find out.’ He could see the mouth of the cul-de-sac and part of Frith Street. A street light lit up the shadows, but there was no one in sight. He stood for some minutes peering down into the semi-darkness. ‘They’re there somewhere,’ he muttered to himself, then pushed up the window, and leaned out, feeling the rain cold against his face. Below was a sloping roof.
‘What are you doing?’ Effie asked nervously as he slid his leg over the sill.
‘I’m going to get a better look.’
‘But you’ll fall!’ She caught hold of his arm. ‘You mustn’t. You’ll fall!’
‘Of course I won’t,’ he said, controlling his impatience, and pulling free. ‘It’s all right, Effie. I’m used to this kind of thing.’
‘But you will... please don’t...’
‘Don’t fuss,’ he said sharply, and holding on to the sill with one hand, allowed his body to slide down the wet tiles until his feet reached the gutter.
From where she stood, safe and out of the rain, his position looked perilous, and unable to watch him, she turned away, hiding her face in her hands. It gave him an odd feeling of elation to see how much she cared for him.
The tiles were wet and greasy. If he slipped or if the gutter gave under his weight he would pitch head first into the cul-de-sac. But he wasn’t thinking of sudden death; it didn’t occur to him that he might slip. He made for the brick projection that separated the Amethyst Club from the adjacent building. From there, he guessed he would have an uninterrupted view of the whole of Frith Street.
The cold drizzle, falling now in a fine cloud, ran off the roof in rivulets. Once the gutter bent under his weight and he swore softly, but he reached the projection, gripped the stack pipe and hauled himself up so he could peer cautiously into the street below. As he had guessed he now had a clear view of the street, and began methodically to examine every dark doorway and passage, watching for a betraying movement or a shouldering cigarette end that Would give away the hiding place of the man he was looking for.
He remained motionless for some time, unaware of the cold and wet, but he saw nothing to attract his attention. Still he waited, obstinate and angry, his legs becoming cramped and his fingers stiffening on the cold stack pipe, his eyes never ceased their searching patrol of the street. Finally his patience was rewarded for he spotted a movement in a dark doorway some seventy yards or so from the mouth of the cul-de-sac. His eyes had grown accustomed to the darkness by now, and he could just make out a dim figure standing in the doorway.
At this moment a taxi passed and its headlight swept the doorway. Corridon had a brief glimpse of a short, thickset man in a shabby olive-green trench coat that was buttoned up to his chin and a black military beret pulled down over his dome-like head. Then darkness again closed down as the taxi went on, turning the corner into Old Compton Street.
Corridon had no doubt that this man was one of those who had been following him for the past twenty-four hours. He had never seen him before, had no idea who he was, could think of no reason why he should be waiting in the cold and wet to follow him as soon as he left the club. And Corridon was sure there were others. It seemed probable that the foreign-looking girl whom Crew had brought to the club was another of them.
As Corridon began to work his way back along the gutter towards Effie’s room he decided not to bother with the man in the black beret. Crew would know all about it. Zani could tell him where Crew was to be found. He’d find out from Crew.