Authors: James Hadley Chase
re Lonely When You
James Hadley Chase
n a nice sunny morning in mid-March, around eleven o’clock, I drove over to the Santa Rosa Estate where the owner, Jay Franklin Cerf, was expecting me.
I had been out when he had called the office, but Paula Bensinger, who runs the business and me too if I don’t watch out, had told him I would be over within the hour. He hadn’t volunteered any information except the matter was urgent and confidential, but the fact that he owned the Santa Rosa Estate was enough for her. You had to have money to run a place that size and money always got Paula steamed up.
By the time I arrived at the office she had dug up some dope about Cerf, and while I made myself presentable she rattled off the facts from news clippings we keep on all the big shots in Orchid City. Cerf was the President of the Red Star Navigation Company, a gigantic wholesale lumber and shipping business operating along the Pacific Coast. He had been a widower for the past two years — his wife had been killed in a car accident and up to now, his private life had been a lot less exciting than the mummy-room of the Park-Livingstone Museum. Recently he had married a mannequin, and that, Paula thought, was probably why he wanted to see me. When a man of his age and wealth falls for a mannequin, she went on cynically, and is sucker enough to marry her, the writing goes up on the wall.
But if it wasn’t his wife troubling him, she continued - she always liked to have an alternative theory then it was probably his daughter, Natalia, a forbidding piece in her early twenties, crippled in the same car accident that had killed her mother, and who made enemies as easily as her father made dollars.
‘The guy’s made of money,’ she concluded, with that wistful look in her eyes the thought of vast wealth always brings. ‘Don’t let him think we’re anything but expensive, and get over there quick. We don’t want him to change his mind about hiring us.’
‘To hear you talk,’ I said bitterly, moving to the door, ‘anyone would think you owned this joint, not me. Thread a new ribbon in your Remington and leave this to me.’
‘I’ll have you know I’m the only one who does any work around here,’ Paula said heatedly. ‘If it wasn’t for me…’
But by then I was halfway down the stairs.
The Santa Rosa Estate was a hundred-acre paradise that embraced the raced lawns, formal gardens, a swimming pool and fountains. It was a pretty lush spot if you like lush spots: I don’t. Whenever I happen on one of these gold-plated, millionaire’s caravanserais my bank balance pokes up its head and jeers at me.
The drive up to the house was along a winding avenue of trees, and on the way I caught a glimpse of a distant lawn, big enough to play polo on, and flowerbeds that were packed with colour bright enough to hurt your eyes. The avenue opened out on to a vast stretch of tarmac on which were parked five or six cars. The smallest of them was a Rolls-Royce convertible in cream and sky blue. Two Filipino chauffeurs were flicking it over with feather dusters, and sneering to themselves as if what they were doing was against their religion.
To the right of the parking lot was the house, a modest little affair of about twenty-four bedrooms, a front door through which you could drive a ten-ton truck and a terrace of french windows overlooking an esplanade broad enough to use as a runway for a B25.
On my way to the front door I came upon a concealed loggia before which stood two big tubs of red and yellow begonias. I paused to admire the flowers as an excuse to get my breath back, and found myself gaping at a girl in a wheel chair, sunning herself in the loggia. She showed no surprise at my sudden appearance, and her deep-set eyes regarded me so searchingly I had an uneasy feeling she could read the letters in my wallet and count the small change in my pockets.
She was about twenty-four or five, small and as hard as an uncut diamond. She had that pale, pinched look cripples have, and her thin, neat mouth drooped a little at the corners, hinting at a sneer that might or might not be in her thoughts Her dark, glossy hair was shoulder length and curled inwards at the bottom, and she wore a pair of fawn-coloured slacks and a blue Cashmere sweater which was too loose to show off her figure, if she had a figure, which I doubted.
I took off my hat and gave her a polite grin to show her I was a friendly sort of guy if that was what she was looking for, but apparently she wasn’t. There was no answering smile, no bonhomie, just a plain, straightforward freeze.
‘Are you from Universal Services?’ she asked in a voice you could slice bread on. A book lay in her trousered lap, and one thin finger held down a word as if she was scared it would slip off the page.
‘Lady,’ I said, ‘I am Universal Services.’
‘Then you shouldn’t come to the front entrance,’ she told me. ‘The tradesmen’s entrance is to the right and at the back.’
I thanked her, and then as she lowered her eyes to the book I started off again towards the front door.
‘Where are you going?’ she demanded, looking up sharply and raising her voice. ‘I said the tradesmen’s entrance…’
‘Is to the right and at the back,’ I broke in. ‘I know. I heard you the first time. Between you and me and the begonias Miss Cerf, it could be to the left and in the front. It could be on the roof or under a fountain. I’m not particularly interested. One of these days, when I have time, I’ll have a look at it. Maybe it’s worth seeing. I’ll put it in my duty book for a wet afternoon. Thanks for the suggestion.’
But by now she was bending over her book again, apparently not listening. Her long dark tresses fell forward in her face. A pity. I bet she looked as if she had swallowed a bee.
There seemed no point in staying. So far as she was concerned I just wasn’t there anymore, so I continued the long trek to the front door, a shade hotter under the collar than I had been before I met her, thinking she was definitely not the type of girl you took to a gin palace in the hope she’d snap a garter at you.
The butler who opened the door was a tall, regal-looking person with the face of a retired statesman and the manners of a bishop. When I told him my name he said Mr. Cerf was expecting me. He led me through a hall that was smaller than the Pennsylvania station but not much, along a passage lined on either side with suits of armour and crossed swords, down a flight of stairs, past a billiard room to an elevator that whisked us up two floors. From the elevator I followed his stiff back along another mile of corridor to a room overlooking the front lawn and the distant ocean, and which was obviously the great man’s study.
‘I will tell Mr. Cerf you are here, sir,’ he said with a formal bow. ‘He is unlikely to keep you very long,’ and he went away with no more commotion than a snowflake makes to settle on your hat.
ay Franklin Cerf looked what he was: the President of a six-million dollar Navigation Company. There was an arrogant and authoritative air about him that brooked no non-sense, and it was pretty obvious he had been expensively fed from the time he had got on to solids. He was tall and massive. His complexion was just the right blend of mauve and suntan, and his eyes were as blue as forget-me-nots and as impersonal. He was, at a guess, on the wrong side of fifty, but hard still in mind and body. From the crown of his thinning hair to the welts of his glossy shoes he was a blueprint of the boy who made good.
He came briskly into the room, closed the door and looked me over the way millionaires look over any proposition that might cost them money.
‘Are you Malloy?’ he barked abruptly, and I could imagine anyone who depended on him for a living would buckle at the knees at the sound of that voice.
I said I was and waited, for I have done enough business with millionaires to know if there’s one thing they hate more than being bitten by a dog it’s to listen to any other voice except their own.
‘From the Universal Services?’ he went on, making sure of his facts.
‘That’s right, Mr. Cerf.’
He gave a little grunt and stared doubtfully at me. He began to say something, but changed his mind, and instead went over to the window and peered out for no reason at all so far as I could see unless maybe he had paid for the view and wanted value for money.
Then suddenly he said without turning, ‘About this organization of yours. I have some idea what you do, but I have had it only second-hand. I’d like details.’
‘Sure,’ I said, wishing I had ten dollars for every time I’d run through this spiel. ‘Maybe it’ll interest you to hear how the organization began. Someone once told me millionaires want service: The richer you are the more dependent you are on other people, this guy said, and he was right. When I came out of the army I had no prospects and no money but I remembered what this guy had told me. I decided to give the millionaires a service to end all services. The result is Universal Services that celebrates its third birthday next week. I’m not pretending the idea has turned out to be a ball of fire. It hasn’t, but it’s made me a little money and it’s been a lot of fun.
‘My organization will take on any job any client wants done. It doesn’t matter what the job is so long as it’s legal and ethical: from arranging a divorce to procuring a white elephant. Since we’ve started, I and my staff have handled blackmailers, watched drug addicts, taken a bunch of college kids on a world tour, fanned out illegitimate babies, bagged a grizzly bear for a client who wanted to boast he had shot one, and ironed out a little trouble for a young woman who walked in her sleep once too often. Those are the kind of things we do because they are the kind of things people want done and can’t do themselves. Once I accept a client I protect him. Once the fee is paid, and it’s a big one, there are no other expenses and no other payments. It’s a millionaire’s service, and every job we do carries with it a guarantee of secrecy.’
While I was pausing for breath, he said impatiently, ‘Yes, I heard it was something like that.’ He came away from the window. ‘Sit down. What will you drink?’
I sat down and said I wouldn’t drink anything, but maybe he knew I was kidding because he went over to a well-equipped cocktail cabinet and mixed two highballs with the ease and speed of constant practice. One of these he put within my reach. The other he held in his hand and stared at as if he wasn’t sure what he was to do with it.
‘If there’s anything I can handle for you,’ I said to get him going, ‘I’ll be glad to do it, and you can be sure of a confidential and efficient service.’
He looked up, frowning.
‘I wouldn’t have sent for you if I hadn’t been sure of that,’ he said curtly. ‘I have a job for you. It is nothing out of the way. At least, nothing out of the way to you. It is to me, I’m afraid.’
While he went off into another long, brooding silence, I sampled the highball. It was strong enough to knock over a fair-sized mule.
‘But before I go into details I would like your reactions to an odd discovery I have made,’ he said suddenly. ‘Come with me. I want to show you something.’
He took me into a big airy bedroom, halfway along the corridor: a woman’s room I guessed from the elaborate toilet-set on the dressing table and the various feminine bric-a-brac lying around.
He went to one of the big built-in cupboards, an impressive affair of walnut and bevelled glass, opened the door and dragged out a pigskin suitcase. This he dumped on the floor at my feet and then stood away.
‘Open it,’ he said abruptly, ‘and take a look at the contents.’
I squatted down on my heels, slid back the two catches and opened the case. It was half-full of the oddest collection of articles I have ever seen in one throw. There were cigarette-cases, a number of leather wallets, a couple of diamond rings, three shoes that didn’t match, a collection of spoons with the names of a number of swank restaurants embossed on them, a half a dozen cigarette-lighters, some of them bearing initials, several pairs of silk stockings with the price tags still attached, a pair of scissors, a couple of pocket-knives, one with a gold handle, three fountain-pens and a statuette of a naked woman in jade.
I pawed over this odd collection, and then as Cerf didn’t volunteer any information I put the stuff back and returned the suitcase to the cupboard.
‘That was what I wanted you to see,’ he said in a flat voice. ‘We may as well return to the other room.’ When we were back in the study, and had sat down, he asked, ‘Well, what do you make of it?’
‘If it wasn’t for the odd shoes and the spoons I wouldn’t make anything of it,’ I said. ‘But as it is, it could be a kleptomaniac’s hoard. I don’t say it is, but it could be.’
‘Yes, that’s what it looks like to me,’ he said, and drew in a deep breath.
‘Unless, of course, it’s some kind of joke,’ I suggested.
‘It’s no joke.’ His voice went acid. ‘My wife and I have had numerous invitations to private houses since our marriage. Most of those articles come from people we know. The statuette in jade belongs to Mrs. Sydney Clegg. I remember seeing it in one of her rooms. The gold penknife is the property of Wilbur Rhyskind, the novelist. The spoons come from some of the restaurants we have visited. No, I’m afraid it’s no joke.’
‘Is this what you want me to work on?’
Before replying he took out a cigar, pierced and lit it with a hand that was noticeably unsteady.
‘Yes, I want you to work on it,’ he said at last.
There was a long pause.
‘This is a very unsettling and unpleasant discovery,’ he went on, frowning at his cigar. ‘The fact is I don’t know a great deal about my wife.’ The words came slowly and the harsh voice was deliberate and impersonal. ‘She was a mannequin at Simeon’s in San Francisco. I met her at a dress show.’ He paused to smooth down his already smooth hair.
“We were married within three weeks of our meeting, about four months ago. The wedding was a quiet one: secret if you like. The news is only just beginning to leak out.’
‘Why was the wedding secret?’
He sat forward and stubbed out his cigar. It was an expressive movement and told me he was in the mood to crack skulls.
‘My daughter is a highly strung, neurotic sort of girl. Her mother was devoted to her. It was a great shock to Natalie when she died. Anita - that’s my present wife — and I decided for Natalie’s sake to have a quiet wedding.’
I chewed this over.
‘I take it your daughter and Mrs. Cerf don’t exactly get along together?’
‘No, they don’t get along together,’ he returned, and the corners of his mouth turned down. ‘But that’s neither here nor there. What I want to find out is whether my wife is a kleptomaniac.’
‘Have you asked Mrs. Cerf for an explanation?’
It was pretty obvious by the blank way he stared at me the idea hadn’t occurred to him.
‘Certainly not, and I don’t intend to. She’s not a particularly easy person to handle.’
‘This might be an attempt to discredit Mrs. Cerf. I don’t know if you have considered that angle. It would be easy to plant that stuff in her cupboard.’
He sat very still, looking at me.
‘And who do you suggest would do such a thing?’ he asked in a voice like the splintering of ice.
‘You would know that better than I. It’s my job to point out the angles. You and Mrs. Cerf and your daughter didn’t get on. It’s an angle.’
His face took on a deeper hue and an ugly glitter came into his eyes.
‘You’ll leave my daughter out of this!’ he said angrily.
‘I’ll do that, certainly,’ I said. ‘If that’s the way you feel about it.’ I gave him a moment or so to cool down, then asked, ‘What made you go to Mrs. Cerf’s cupboard in the first place? Were you expecting to find that suitcase or did you happen on it by accident?’
‘I believe my wife is being blackmailed,’ he said, steadying his voice with an effort. ‘I went through her things in the hope of finding some sort of proof and I came across the suitcase.’
‘What makes you think she’s being blackmailed?’
‘I give her a monthly allowance,’ he said as if each word stuck in his throat. ‘Far more than she needs. She isn’t used to money, and I took the precaution to arrange with her bank to send me a duplicate of her passbook. I felt I should keep a check on her expenditure, anyway for the first year or so of our married life. She has drawn out three very large sums of money during the past month.’
‘How large?’ I asked, thinking it couldn’t be much fun to be married to a man like this.
‘Five, ten and fifteen thousand dollars.’
‘Made out to anyone in particular?’
He shook his head.
‘And you think someone may have found out that Mrs. Cerf has stolen these articles and is blackmailing her?’
‘I think it’s possible.’ He scowled out of the window. ‘I want you to keep track of Mrs. Cerf when she goes shopping. I don’t want a scandal. If she has a tendency to pilfer I want you to see she isn’t arrested. I want her watched night and day, and her movements reported to me. I want to know who she meets: particularly who she meets.’
‘I can do that all right. I have a girl who’s been trained for just this kind of work. Her name is Dana Lewis. She can be on the job this afternoon. Is that what you want?’
He said it was.
‘You’ll get an estimate for the work we intend to do by tomorrow morning. In the meantime I’ll tell Miss Lewis to report to you at three o’clock this afternoon if that’ll suit you. She had better not come here, had she? Where should she meet you?’
‘At the Athletic Club. Tell her I’ll be in the ladies’ lounge.’
I got up.
‘I’ll do that. There’s just one more thing,’ I said as he pressed the bellpush. ‘I take it you’re anxious that no one, including Mrs. Cerf and your daughter, should know you are hiring me for this work.’
He stared at me.
‘Of course. What do you mean?’
‘When you telephoned my office this morning did you use the phone in this room?’
He nodded, frowning.
‘And there are extensions in other parts of the house?’
‘I’d be careful what you say on the phone, Mr. Cerf. I ran into your daughter on my way up here. She knew I was from Universal Services.’
A wary look came into his eyes.
‘All right, Malloy. You get on with your job. I’ll look after this end of it,’ he said evenly.
‘Just so long as you know,’ I said and turned to the door as the butler came in.
I made the long trek down to the front door in silence, and when the butler gave me my hat and a bow I said, ‘Is Mrs. Cerf around?’
He looked sharply at me, a frosty expression in his eyes.
‘I believe she is in the swimming pool, sir,’ he said distantly. ‘Did you wish to see her?’
‘No. I was just wondering. Big place for three people to get lost in, isn’t it?’
He didn’t seem to think that called for an answer. He opened the door.
‘Good day, sir,’ he said.
‘So long,’ I said and set off along the esplanade wondering if Natalie Cerf was still sunning herself in the loggia. But she wasn’t. There was no sign of her.
As I was descending the broad flight of stone steps to the parking lot a girl in a bathing wrap came briskly along a path that led away to the back of the house. She was tall and ash-blonde, and there was a sultry, don’t-give-a-damn expression on her face that had too much character to be labelled pretty. At a guess she was twenty-seven or thirty, not more, and she had beautiful, wide-set grey eyes.
I looked at her and she looked at me. A half-smile came to her full red lips, but I wasn’t sure if she were smiling at me or at something she was thinking about: a difficult kind of smile to classify.
As she ran up the steps towards me she let her wrap swing open. She had a shape under that wrap to set a man crazy, and the two emerald-green handkerchiefs that served as a sun-suit were just a shade too small for the job.
She went past me, and I pivoted around on my heels.