Authors: James Hadley Chase
eanne Persigny pushed open the double swing doors of the Endfield Hotel and mounted the brass-bound stairs. She moved slowly, her face thoughtful. Under her arm she carried a number of newspapers. She pushed aside the bead curtain as the old man who had spoken to Jan was about to rap on the glass panel of the reception desk. But when he saw Jeanne he paused. He had caught a glimpse of her when she had first arrived at the hotel and had immediately wondered who she was. He had lived many years at the Endfield Hotel and hated the place. It was the best he could afford on an Indian Army captain’s pension. His name was Henry Meadows; he was seventy-three and lonely. During the time he had stayed in the hotel he had never seen a young, attractive woman visitor.
Jeanne, in her black sweater and slacks, seemed to him to be someone from another world.
‘Good morning,’ he said in his thin shaky voice and bowed ‘You’ve been out early this morning. Ah! The papers, I see. I was looking for “The Times.” Now, I wonder...’
After a moment’s pause to look at him with blank, unfriendly eyes she went past him down the passage without a word. Her utter disregard and rudeness reacted on him like a physical blow. He turned to stare after her, muttering under his breath, feeling suddenly very old, as if, in that moment of cruel disregard, what remained to him of life had been snatched away from him.
Jeanne entered the residents’ lounge and shut the door.
‘The police have found Crew,’ she said quietly, speaking in French.
Jan started violently and turned to look at her.
‘I didn’t hear you come in,’ he said to explain his sudden movement. ‘It is in the papers?’
She threw the newspapers on the table and sat down in one of the dusty armchairs standing in a dark corner away from him.
‘It’s on the front page.’
Jan read the account in each of the papers, taking his time, his smooth, fat face expressionless.
‘The description of Corridon is too good,’ he said when he had finished. ‘They’ll catch him.’
‘I don’t think so. He can look after himself. It’ll make him all the more anxious to find Mallory.’
Jan threw the paper on the floor. He looked at Jeanne searchingly.
‘But if they do catch him he’ll tell them about us. It was a mistake to meddle with such a man. We should have kept this affair to ourselves.’
‘Oh, stop grumbling,’ she exclaimed irritably. ‘If there is one person who can find Mallory it’s Corridon. Look at his record. He knows this country far better than we do, and besides, Mallory doesn’t know him.’
‘I say it is a mistake,’ Jan said obstinately. ‘I was against it in the first place. You should never have listened to Ranleigh.’
‘You are an uneducated fool,’ Jeanne said, raising her voice. ‘You do nothing but criticize. Because you are obstinate and a fool you wouldn’t care if you went the same way as Harris and Lubish. Well, I would. You want to get Mallory yourself, but you’re not clever enough, nor am I, nor is Ranleigh. But Corridon is. How many more times must I tell you this? How many more times must I tell you it doesn’t matter who settles Mallory so long as he is settled?’
‘That’s what you say,’ Jan said harshly, his eyes burning with suppressed fury. ‘I wish to have the satisfaction of killing him with my own hands, and that I shall do.’
‘Then do it!’ Jeanne flared. ‘I shan’t stop you. Go and find him and do it - if you can.’
‘I shall do it, but in my own time,’ Jan returned. ‘I have waited for over a year for this. I am not going to be cheated out of it because of a woman’s whim.’
‘What a stupid fool you are,’ she returned contemptuously. ‘Up to now I have done everything. I got you into this country. I made all the plans. I got the necessary ration cards so we could stay here. I found Corridon. All you have done is to grumble and shoot Crew. And we may yet be sorry you did that. And you talk about whims.’
‘We shall see,’ he said, turning back to the window. ‘I wouldn’t have waited so long to settle with Mallory. You may be content to wait but I am not. If we are to remain together there must be action soon. Otherwise I want some money and I shall look for him on my own.’
‘Ask Corridon for the money,’ she said and smiled jeeringly. ‘He has it now, and if you think . . .’ She broke off as the lounge door opened Ranleigh came in.
He looked quickly at them as he shut the door, then came uneasily to the fireplace.
‘Why have you come back?’ Jeanne asked, sitting forward.
‘I don’t know,’ Ranleigh returned. ‘I lost him.’
There was a long pause, then Jan swung round and shook his finger at Jeanne.
‘You see. Muddle the whole time. He’s lost him now, and the money too. And you call me a fool.’
‘Be quiet!’ Jeanne said with restrained fury. She jumped to her feet and went up to Ranleigh. Her black eyes glittered in her white, tense face. ‘How did you lose him? I told you not to take your eyes off him. What happened?’
Ranleigh said curtly, ‘He went to his flat. I kept watch until he put out the lights and I assumed he had gone to bed. I had nothing to eat so I went to a coffee stall not far away. I was only gone a quarter of an hour. The rest of the night I spent outside his door, but he didn’t come out in the morning. He must have slipped out while I was at the coffee stall.’
She made a furious gesture with her hands.
‘Why didn’t you telephone here? Jan would have relieved you. Must I tell you everything you should do? Can’t you use your own brains once in a while?’
‘It’s as well for him he did leave last night,’ Ranleigh said through tight lips. While I was waiting this morning the police arrived. They were outside still when I came away.’
Both Jeanne and Jan stiffened. Jan got to his feet.
‘The police?’ Jeanne said.
‘Yes. I was lucky not to walk into them myself. I spotted the police car outside the mews.’
‘You see,’ Jan cried in triumph. ‘I said they would know who it was. I said they would capture him.’
‘They haven’t captured him yet,’ Jeanne returned, but she looked worried.
‘There’s nothing more I can do,’ Ranleigh said, anxious to get away from them. ‘I’m going to bed. I’ve been up all night. You two had better work out what our next move is to be.’
‘We won’t find Corridon again.’ Jan said bitterly. ‘He’s gone, and with our money. Now the police are after him he won’t give a damn about us. This is just another of our muddles.’ He shot a baleful look at Jeanne. ‘We must do what we should have done a week ago - find Mallory ourselves. I will see Rita Allen myself today.’
‘It’s no use bothering about her,’ Ranleigh said without thinking. ‘She’s dead.’ As soon as he had spoken he realized he had made a slip and changed colour, furious with himself.
‘Dead?’ Jeanne repeated and stared at him. ‘How do you know she’s dead?’
‘Corridon told me,’ Ranleigh said, knowing it would be dangerous to lie.
‘Corridon?’ Jeanne and Jan exchanged glances. ‘When did he tell you this?’
Ranleigh moved away, took out his cigarette case and selected a cigarette. The pause gave him time to think, but he was obviously flustered.
‘Last night. I -I met him for a moment in the street. He told me he’d been out to her place.’
‘Now wait a minute,’ Jan said, his eyes hard. ‘Why didn’t you tell us this at once?’
Ranleigh nervously lit the cigarette. His hand was unsteady.
‘Give me a chance to speak,’ he said sharply. ‘I was just going to tell you.’
‘Were you? It didn’t seem like it to me. You say she’s dead. How did she die? What happened?’
‘Corridon thinks Mallory killed her.’
The two reacted to this.
‘Why does he think that?’ Jeanne demanded, her hand going to her throat.
By now Ranleigh had recovered his nerve. He said quietly, ‘He went back to Rita Allen’s place, and Mallory, so he thinks, was hiding in the house. Corridon persuaded Rita to talk about Mallory. He thinks Mallory overheard what was said. She went upstairs for something. Corridon heard her scream and found her lying in the hall with a broken neck. He thinks Mallory silenced her. It looks like it, doesn’t it? Who else could it have been?’
Jan went up to him.
‘What else do you know, Ranleigh? What are you keeping back?’
Ranleigh flinched away from the hard, piercing eyes.
‘I’m not keeping anything back,’ he said lamely.
‘Aren’t you? Why did this woman go upstairs?’
‘How do I know? Corridon didn’t go into details.’
‘And you did not ask? Is that it? Or did you, and you’re not telling us?’
‘Now, look here—’ Ranleigh began angrily, but Jeanne interrupted him.
‘All right, Ranleigh,’ she said quietly. ‘Go to bed. There’s nothing more to say.’
Jan said furiously, ‘But there is! He’s lying about Corridon. I do not trust him. I have never trusted him. He is keeping something back.’
‘What do you mean?’ Ranleigh demanded, alarmed. ‘You’d better be careful what you’re saying. I don’t know any more than you what Rita told him. You know what Corridon’s like.’
‘Let him go, Jan,’ Jeanne said.
‘No!’ Jan exclaimed furiously. ‘I’m getting to the bottom of this.’
‘Oh, go to hell,’ Ranleigh cried, turned and made for the door.
There was something in Jan’s voice that made Ranleigh look quickly over his shoulder. He found himself facing the ugly Mauser that Jan had jerked out.
‘Stay where you are,’ Jan went on. ‘I’m going to—’
‘Put that gun away, you fool!’ Jeanne cried. ‘Someone’s coming…’
The door opened and Henry Meadows came in. He had a copy of “The Times” in his hand and he waved it at the three before him like a delighted child.
‘Mrs. Coddistall had it all the time…’ he began, then broke off as he saw the pistol in Jan’s hand. He started, gaped, then stood petrified. His pale eyes under their shaggy white eyebrows opened wide as he looked from Jan to Ranleigh and then to Jeanne. He said in a croaking voice, ‘Is there something wrong? What’s happening?’
Jan hurriedly slipped the gun into its shoulder holster out of sight. He took a threatening step towards the old man.
‘Jan!’ Jeanne said sharply.
‘What - what - what...’ His voice trailed away as he met Jan’s hard, ruthless eyes; then he was gone, dropping “The Times” in the doorway. They could hear his feet shuffling in a stumbling run on the coconut matting.
For a long moment the three stood in silence, then Jeanne said in a low, explosive voice, ‘You’ve ruined everything, you crazy fool. He won’t keep this to himself. We must leave at once. Quick! Upstairs and pack.’
‘He won’t do anything,’ Jan muttered, shaken. ‘He’s old. He won’t know what to do.’
‘Upstairs and pack,’ Jeanne repeated. ‘If they call the police ...’ She pushed past him and went swiftly down the passage. There was no sign of Meadows. She ran up the stairs.
‘She’s right,’ Ranleigh said, his face twitching. ‘You are a crazy fool.’ He made for the door. ‘You’re too free with that gun.’ He went out into the passage. Jan followed him, muttering under his breath.
‘Come quickly!’ Jeanne said from the head of the stairs. ‘He’s gone. Quickly!’ She leaned over the banister rail and beckoned.
They ran up the stairs. None of them thought to look into the public telephone booth that stood by the reception desk.
Meadows crouched in the booth, hidden from sight, his old head pounding with excitement. A pistol! In the Endfield Hotel of all places. If he hadn’t walked in like that there might have been murder. That just showed you. These foreigners had no business to be in this country. Why, he might have been shot himself. He began to tremble, but an ex-Indian Army officer wasn’t to be frightened by a gun. He knew what to do, and he was going to do it. As soon as Ranleigh and Jan had disappeared up the stairs, he pulled himself upright. He was short of breath and a little faint, but he didn’t hesitate. He lifted off the receiver, peered shortsightedly at the numbers of the dial. There was no time to get his glasses. There wasn’t a moment to lose. He peered closer. Then with a shaky finger he dialled 999.
hey came out of their rooms simultaneously, each carrying their possessions crammed into leather suitcases. The three of them were wearing shabby olive-green trench coats and black berets they had worn in France, and standing at the head of the staircase, grouped together, there was a unity and strength in them that brought to Ranleigh the memory of the past dangers when they had worked together selflessly in a common cause against a common enemy. In spite of his uncertain position Ranleigh experienced a feeling of intense excitement and elation. The thought flashed through his mind that this was the kind of life to live. This was living adventure, not reading about it, and he realized with surprise that if he had his time over again he would still throw his lot in with these two foreigners, but for whom he would be living in a dreary suburb, anxious about holding down a job; probably married, one of a crowd.
The hotel was hushed. The lounge at the foot of the stairs was deserted. Even the bead curtain hung motionless as if petrified at the sight of them. And yet the three felt they were being watched, and that during the ten minutes they had taken to throw their things into their suitcases an enormous activity had taken place to trap them. This atmosphere of pending disaster affected them in different ways. It excited Ranleigh. It gave him a feeling of bravado, the kind of feeling a schoolboy experiences after seeing a film hero smash his way single-handed through a horde of enemies, helpless against superman tactics.
It frightened Jan. Up to now they had managed so well that it was inconceivable anything could go wrong. And yet he realized by his own stupidity he had endangered their undertaking. Before long, if not immediately, someone in authority would be told that he owned a gun. There would be an investigation by the police. He feared the police more than he feared losing his life. If the police caught up with him they would imprison him. He could think of no worse fate than to be locked in a cell, knowing that Mallory was at large; his chance of revenge ruined by his own irresponsible action. He was prepared therefore for any emergency; determined not to be captured. To him this was a continuation of war. He was in an enemy country. He didn’t flinch from death, nor was he going to flinch from committing another murder, if, by doing so, he could avoid capture.
And Jeanne sensed this. She realized how dangerous he was in his present mood. She knew it would be useless to try to get the gun away from him. He had always been ruthless. If she attempted to curb him in any way he might turn on her. Her only hope was that their luck would hold, and they would be able to leave the hotel before anything happened.
She led the way down the stairs. Jan came next; Ranleigh brought up the rear. They moved quietly and without haste, a little unsure of themselves, not knowing if the trap had already been sprung. Glancing behind him Ranleigh caught a glimpse of a woman’s head peering over the upper floor banister; a momentary glimpse for the woman jerked back out of sight Jeanne was halfway down the stairs when she saw a movement that made her hesitate. Meadows was standing in the doorway of the residents’ lounge. He too, jerked back as they came down the stairs. She saw only his long, thin foot, encased in a worn, highly polished boot. But he was there. So too was the manager’s wife, hidden behind the glass opening in the reception desk, peeping anxiously at the stairs.
In those short ten minutes Meadows had been busy. He had telephoned the police and had warned the manager of the hotel. A pistol in the hands of such foreigners had spread panic through the dingy hotel. Even the elderly hall porter whose duty it was to see the visitors did not leave before paying their bill had refused to remain at his post, and had hidden himself in the gentleman’s cloakroom.
At first the manager had refused to believe what Meadows had told him. He had been on the point of going upstairs to see for himself, but on reflection, had changed his mind. Admittedly Meadows was a bore and senile, but he was, none the less, an ex-Army officer, and the Indian Army did not breed liars nor men who panicked easily. There was no point, the manager decided, in running risks. The police had been sent for. They could deal with it. He had remained in his office and had taken the precaution of locking himself in.
The three reached the public lounge.
‘Come,’ Jeanne said, feeling now that after all their luck would hold. She went to the head of the stairs leading to the main entrance and pushed back the bead curtain. Then she came to an abrupt halt. Two policemen in flat caps had just come through the swing doors. They looked up at her, and one of them said sharply, ‘Just a minute, miss.’ He began to run up the stairs towards her.
It flashed through her mind that this was the end of her plans and work for the past four years. Panic seized her. She wanted to turn and run, and would have done so had there been anywhere to run to, but there wasn’t The policeman, a tall, fair man with young, determined-looking eyes was almost within reach of her when the shattering report of Jan’s Mauser vibrated through the hotel.