Authors: James Hadley Chase
n the following morning, a few minutes after ten o’clock, Corridon arrived at Crew’s flat.
Corridon had spent the night at the Amethyst Club, dozing in a chair, his feet on the table, ignoring Zani’s growling insistence that he should go home. At daybreak he had again climbed to the projection on the roof but saw no sign of the man in the black beret. Taking no risks, he had left the club by climbing a wall at the back of the building to an alley that led eventually into Dean Street. From there he took a taxi to Charing Cross Road where he had a shave and breakfast at a nearby cafe. He took his time over his breakfast, drank several cups of coffee, read the newspaper and smoked innumerable cigarettes.
He sat at a table by the muslin-covered window and watched continually for the man in the black beret, but he didn’t see him. When he finally left the cafe he wandered around the back streets of the West End for an hour or so until he was sure no one was following him, then he set off to see Crew.
Crew had a four-room flat over a tobacconist’s shop in a dirty little street off Drury Lane. To reach the flat you had to pass two smelly dustbins that blocked the entrance to a flight of uncarpeted stairs leading to a dimly lit landing. At the far end of the landing was Crew’s front door.
To see Crew moving purposely about the West End you might have mistaken him for a member of the Diplomatic Service or even perhaps a Harley Street specialist - specializing, of course, in women’s diseases. There was an air of distinction and authority about him; a bedside manner that deceived people into thinking he was a man of substance, culture and importance.
It irked Crew to have to live in such a sordid district, but it was essential for him to be near the West End at a reasonable rent, and this little flat was the best he could afford. For he was by no means a man of substance. Although always well dressed, his aristocratic appearance and his nimble fingers were his only assets. By profession - if you could call it a profession - he was a pickpocket; a secret he shared with no one, and of which he was slightly ashamed. Even Corridon, whose knowledge of the West End and the activities of its underworld members was encyclopaedic, had no idea what he did.
Crew had been picking pockets for years. He had a horror of the police and of being arrested, and selected his victims with the utmost care, making sure that what he got from them always justified the risk he ran. His fingers were incredibly nimble. He could steal a watch off a wrist, a wallet protected by an overcoat and a pair of links out of shirt cuffs without his victim being aware of what was happening. To remove a necklace or brooch, to open a handbag on a woman’s arm and take the money in it was child’s play to him. No one suspected him; least of all the police who were well aware that a brilliant pickpocket was working the West End, and had been trying to trap him for years.
By the time Corridon reached Crew’s flat, the rain had given place to thin, watery sunshine that emphasized the dirt and decay of the houses lining the street. He was surprised that Crew should live in such a district, remembering him from the past, freshly shaved, well dressed, fastidious in his appearance, and he paused outside the tobacconist’s shop, wondering if Zani had given the correct address. No one paid him any attention. A long line of cars and trucks were parked along the kerb, and men carrying boxes of flowers piled high on their heads jostled him as they loaded their vehicles.
Zani had said the flat was over a tobacconist’s shop and this was the only tobacconist’s shop in the street. Dodging a driver who bore down on him with a sack of potatoes on his back, Corridon mounted the uncarpeted stairs, moving silently on crepe-soled shoes. He paused at the top of the stairs to listen, but the street was alive with noises as lorries manoeuvred to pass the line of trucks and cars, and drivers shouted to each other as they drove up on the pavement, reversing and roaring their engines, blanketing all other sounds. Walking softly to Crew’s front door, Corridon rapped sharply and put his ear against the door panel and listened. There was a long pause, then he heard a movement on the other side of the door, then a bolt slid back and the door eased open. Crew appeared.
Although Corridon hadn’t seen him for four years he recognized Crew immediately. Time had dealt lightly with him. He had perhaps grown a little thinner and his hair had receded slightly from his high forehead. There were lines now running from his nose to his mouth and a network of faint wrinkles under his eyes, but otherwise he was the same immaculate, distinguished-looking Crew whom Corridon had once hit over the head with a beer bottle.
When Crew saw Corridon he gave a convulsive start and sprang back, trying to slam the door, but Corridon’s foot was in the way.
‘Hello, Crew,’ Corridon said gently. ‘Weren’t you expecting me?’
Crew peered round the door, leaning his weight against it, imprisoning Corridon’s foot. He breathed heavily, his mouth hanging open, a vacant look of fear in his eyes.
‘You can’t come in,’ he said in a shaky, breathless voice. ‘Not now. It’s inconvenient.’
Corridon smiled jeeringly and put his hand on the door and gave it a sudden hard shove, sending Crew staggering back. He had entered the little hall and closed the door.
‘Remember me?’ he asked, and looked pointedly at the jagged white scar that ran across Crew’s forehead and disappeared into the thinning fair hair.
‘It’s Corridon, isn’t it?’ Crew said, backing away. ‘You can’t come in. I was just going out.’ His smile flickered on and off like an electric light with a faulty connection. ‘I’m sorry, but I’m late as it is.’ He looked into the deepset, cold grey eyes and began to wring his hands, then suddenly conscious of what he was doing, hurriedly thrust them into his trouser pockets. ‘I – I shall have to turn you out. Perhaps some other time, old boy.’
He grimaced at Corridon, trying to appear at ease, but succeeding only in showing an abject fear.
Corridon glanced round the hall. A vase of Keizer Kroom tulips on a table, their red and yellow petals a little full-blown, surprised him. He hadn’t imagined flowers and Crew going together.
‘I see you’ve still got that scar,’ he said and pointed. ‘There’s a reasonable chance you’ll get another.’
Crew backed against the wall. He looked at Corridon in horror.
‘What do you want?’ He stopped trying to smile, and his air of authority and importance fell from him, leaving only his effeminacy and sham.
‘Are you alone?’ Corridon asked.
‘Yes . . . but you’d better not touch me.’ Little beads of perspiration gathered at Crew’s temples. ‘My solicitor . . .’ He broke off, realizing the futility of talking of solicitors to a man like Corridon. He repeated weakly, ‘You’d better not touch me . . .’
‘Go in there,’ Corridon said, pointing to a door. ‘I want to talk to you.’
Crew went into the room. He walked slowly, his legs dragging. Corridon followed him, closed the door and surveyed the room with raised eyebrows. It wasn’t the kind of room he expected Crew to live in. It was restful and pleasant; painstakingly furnished to give comfort and tranquillity, and it achieved its purpose. Wherever he looked there were vases of tulips and narcissi, filling the room with their sweet, cloying scent.
‘You know how to make yourself comfortable, don’t you?’ he said as he sat on the arm of a big, easy chair. ‘Very pretty, and flowers too. Yes, very pretty indeed.’
Crew hung on to the back of the settee. He looked as if he were going to faint.
Corridon studied him. He couldn’t understand why Crew was so frightened. He wasn’t the type who scared easily. Corridon remembered his bland manner when he had caught him cheating. It had been his smug confidence, making a joke of it, that had incited Corridon to hit him.
‘What’s the matter with you?’ he demanded sharply. What’s scaring you?’
Crew made a gulping noise in his throat. He muttered something, moved uneasily from one foot to the other, finally managed to say, ‘Nothing... nothing’s the matter.’
‘Well, you’re certainly acting as if you were scared,’ Corridon said, watching him. ‘But if there’s nothing - there’s nothing.’ He suddenly barked: ‘Who’s Jeanne?’
Silence hung in the room, broken only by the sharp busy tick of the clock on the mantel and the sudden uneasy rasp of Crew’s breathing.
‘I asked you who Jeanne is - the girl you took to the Amethyst Club three nights ago,’ Corridon said through the silence.
Crew’s mouth worked convulsively. He said: ‘Go away. If you don’t leave me alone I’ll call the police.’
‘Don’t be a fool.’ Corridon took out a packet of cigarettes, lit one and tossed the match into the hearth. ‘You took this girl to the club and she asked Max about me. I’m interested. Who is she?’
‘That’s a lie,’ Crew said in a whisper. ‘She doesn’t even know you. She’s never seen you.’ His finger hooked into his collar and he pulled at the collar as if it were strangling him. ‘Why should she ask Max about you? It’s a lie.’
‘All right, it’s a lie. But who is she?’
Crew hesitated. He puzzled Corridon. He could see Crew was frightened, but it was beginning to dawn on him that Crew wasn’t frightened of him. He had been frightened before Corridon had knocked on the door.
‘No one you know,’ Crew said sullenly. ‘A friend. What’s it to you who she is?’
Corridon blew a smoke ring and stabbed at it with his finger.
‘Do you want me to hit you?’ he asked, his expression polite and interested. He watched the smoke ring dissolve, added. ‘I will if you don’t talk.’
Crew stiffened. He was expecting this. He had a horror of violence, and already he could feel Corridon’s massive fist smash into his face. He remained still, his eyes darting this way and that, tense as if trying to make up his mind what to do. Then he glanced over his shoulder to another door at the far end of the room. He looked from the door to Corridon as if he were trying to convey a message.
‘You’d better not touch me,’ he said, his mouth twitching.
Again he looked at the door.
Was he trying to tell him they weren’t alone in the flat?
Corridon wondered. He too looked from Crew to the door and back and raised his eyebrows inquiringly. Crew nodded eagerly, like a man in a foreign country who has at last succeeded in making himself understood by gestures. He put his finger to his lips, reminding Corridon of a third-rate actor in a melodrama, and Corridon felt an inclination to laugh.
‘Tell me about Jeanne,’ he said, getting quietly to his feet.
‘There’s nothing to tell.’ Again the frightened eyes strayed to the door. ‘She’s just a girl I know.’
Corridon moved silently up to Crew.
‘Who’s in there?’ he whispered, his face close to Crew’s. He could see the tiny sweat beads on Crew’s face and smelt the brilliantine on his hair. Aloud, he went on, ‘What does she do? Where does she come from?’
Grew raised three fingers and motioned to the door.
‘I don’t know anything about her. She was a pickup.’ He tried desperately to be jaunty. The flickering smile came and went. ‘You know how it is. She was a pretty little thing. I haven’t seen her since.’
‘Three of them?’ Corridon whispered.
Crew nodded. He was recovering slightly. Returning confidence crept over him like a second skin.
Raising his voice, Corridon asked, ‘Do you know a little fella in a black beret?’
The returning colour and confidence drained out of Crew’s face. He sagged at the knees. It was as if Corridon had hit him suddenly and viciously in the belly.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ he gasped, then screwing himself into a frenzy of courage, shouted: ‘Get out! I’ve had enough of this. You’ve no right to force your way in here. Get out! I won’t have you here!’
Corridon laughed at him.
‘Your pals must be pretty sick of you by now,’ he said contemptuously, then raising his voice, he called, ‘Come on out, the three of you. He’s told me you’re in there.’
Crew gave a gasp and slumped into a chair. He seemed to stop breathing in the pause that followed, then as the door of the far room opened he drew a quick intake of breath that whistled through his teeth. The man in the black beret came quietly into the room, a Mauser pistol in his gloved hand.
everal times during his life Corridon had been held up by a gun. It was an experience that made him nervous and angry. It made him nervous because he knew how easily any fool could let off a gun; whether they meant to or not. There were people who held you up with a gun who didn’t mean to shoot, and there were people who held you up with a gun who did. Corridon decided that the man in the black beret would shoot if he were given the slightest opportunity. Corridon could tell this by looking into his dark protruding eyes. Life, to this little man, was of no more importance than the dirt on his shabby trenchcoat or that grimed the finger curling round the trigger.
The big Mauser pistol wasn’t a threat: it was harnessed death to be released without pity by the squeezing of a finger against metal.
‘Keep very still, my friend,’ the man in the black beret said.
His accent was scarcely perceptible, but it was there, and Corridon recognized it. He was a Pole. ‘No tricks, please or you will be sorry.’ The gun-sight centred on Corridon’s chest.
Corridon looked beyond the threatening gun to the door.
She was standing in the doorway, her arms folded across her chest. Her black sweater and black slacks looked funereal in the bright, colourful room. Her features were small and finely made. Her sallow complexion and big black eyes emphasized her painted lips. Her hair was fine and dark, and fell to her shoulders, the fringe lying across her forehead in a neat, hard line. She was a few inches taller than the man in the black beret, and her chest was high and arching; her hips narrow.
She was unusually long in the leg, giving her a boyish figure until you came to the high, arching chest. There was nothing boyish about that. Her eyes held Corridon’s attention. The whites were extraordinarily clear, like new porcelain. They were steady, hard eyes; old in suffering and suspicion, in distrust and bitterness.
‘Hello, Jeanne,’ he said and grinned. ‘What’s the idea of the gun?’
‘Will you please sit down and keep your hands where we can see them?’ she said in a cold flat voice. ‘We want to talk to you.’
Corridon continued to smile, but his lips felt stiff. He glanced at Crew, who had risen to his feet and had moved away from him. He was staring at the gun in horror.
‘Is that the reason why you’ve been following me about for so long?’ Corridon asked, ‘Were you shy or couldn’t you make up your mind?’
‘Will you please sit down?’ she repeated.
The man in the black beret pointed with the gun to an armchair facing the bay window.
‘There,’ he said.
Corridon shrugged and sat down.
‘What’s the idea of the gun?’ he repeated.
Another man looked into the room from the far doorway. He was tall and thin and blond. He had only one arm and a scar ran down the side of his face, blotting out his right eye that was hidden under an eyeshade.
‘All right?’ he asked the girl. ‘I’d like to get on if you can manage.’
There was no doubt about him. He was English. Good breeding, a good school, a university background, the ability to command were all his, making Crew’s carefully cultivated appearance as false as a counterfeit coin. The shabby but well-cut tweed suit, the fair, neatly clipped moustache, the handkerchief in the cuff were worn as a uniform of his class.
‘It’s all right,’ the girl said, ‘but you might take him with you.’ Her hand indicated Crew. ‘He’ll be in the way.’
‘Oh, yes.’ The one-armed man beckoned to Crew. ‘Come along.’ He spoke as if he were used to being obeyed. As Crew crossed the room, the one-armed man looked over to Corridon and smiled. There was charm in the ravished face when he smiled. ‘Perhaps we’d better introduce ourselves,’ he said. ‘This is Jeanne Persigny.’ He waved to the girl. ‘Jan holds the gun. I can’t pronounce his other name. You’d better call him Jan as I do. I’m Ranleigh - Nigel Ranleigh. Please listen to what she says. We wouldn’t be doing this unless we had to. I’m sorry about the gun, but you have a reputation for violence, haven’t you? Jan isn’t quite up to your weight, and I’m afraid I couldn’t do much if you felt like starting a rough house.’ He smiled again. ‘Well, I have some work to do so I’ll get on. She’ll talk to you.’ He motioned to Crew. ‘Our friend here isn’t one of us. He happened to get mixed up with us. I don’t know who is more sorry. Probably we are.’ He smiled and went into the other room, closing the door.
Corridon took off his hat and ran thick fingers through his shock of red-brown hair. They used to call him Bricktop in the Commandos. Women found him attractive. His strength and force of character rather than his looks were his assets. He had a heavy, blunt-featured face with a square chin, a firm mouth and a slightly crooked, flattish nose. His eyes were grey and cold and deepset. His complexion was beefy and red. He had a reckless, jeering smile that infuriated people easily as he intended it to do, but he also had moments of kindness amounting to sentimentality that often made him uneasy.
As he sat staring at the girl and Jan, he admitted to himself that he had no idea what all this was about. The gun upset him.
He had a feeling the man in the black beret would shoot at the drop of a hat, and the girl wouldn’t turn a hair if he did. They reminded Corridon of the people he had worked with in France during the war: the fanatics belonging to the underground movement who sacrificed themselves without thought, killed without pity. These two were dangerous; but Ranleigh was different. He wasn’t their kind. Corridon couldn’t understand why Ranleigh was mixed up with these two. He liked Ranleigh. He had met so many of his kind in the army; dependable men of courage who did a job, won their medals without fuss and lost their lives.
The girl pulled up a straight-backed chair and sat down before a table, facing Corridon. Jan stood behind her, pointing the Mauser at Corridon’s chest, his eyes as expressionless as two oysters on their half-shells.
‘Will you answer some questions about yourself?’ the girl asked abruptly. She laced her fingers, her hands on the table and looked straight into Corridon’s eyes.
‘Why should I?’ he demanded, aware of the threat of the gun. ‘What’s the idea? Who the hell do you think you are?’
Her face-hardened. She wasn’t the type to be bullied or shouted at, but Corridon didn’t care. If he could make her angry so much the better. He knew how to deal with angry people.
‘We want a man for a certain - job,’ she said, hesitating over the word, frowning. She spoke fluent English with no accent, but at times she would grope for a word. ‘But first we want to know if you’re the right man. We cannot afford to make mistakes.’
‘I don’t want a job. You’re wasting my time.’
‘You want money, don’t you? We will pay well.’
He smiled jeeringly.
They looked at each other across the table, and he realized there was much more than the table separating them; a gulf that neither of them would bridge. He couldn’t say exactly why he felt that; it was an instinct rather than a feeling. There was about her a hardness that sealed off pity and love and kindness and made her a neuter object in spite of her figure and looks.
He couldn’t imagine making love to her. She was as sexless as a shop window dummy, and he wondered what could have happened to her to have made her like this. She had been beautiful. She had been small and soft-fleshed and big-eyed and blonde. She had slender white arms that were cool to the touch, and when they held you, made your blood hammer in your temples although you knew how rotten she was, and that her body was merely as finely adjusted mechanism for lust that she offered as a bribe if you would talk. He remembered how she had looked when she realized he was going to kill her. Her beauty had fallen from her, and the lies and the corruption and filth in her showed like nakedness.
He had shot her in the mouth, and the heavy bullet had torn off part of her skull and smashed her face so that the young men who had loved her and talked would have shuddered with horror to have seen her. Thinking back into the past made him sweat and his heartbeat more quickly and this annoyed him.
He moved uneasily, looking at the girl with angry eyes.
‘You were once caught by the Gestapo,’ she went on. ‘They tortured you, trying to make you tell who had been dropped with you and what your objective was. But you told them nothing in spite of everything they did to you. You escaped as the invading Allies entered Germany and you were sent home. You spent four months in a military hospital recovering from the brutalities of the Gestapo.’
‘Let’s make an end to this,’ Corridon said roughly. ‘What do you want? Come on, you’ve talked enough about me. What’s behind all this? What’s your racket?’
‘Am I right so far?’ she asked, unmoved by his outburst. ‘All this did happen to you, didn’t it?’
‘It happened all right. Now shut up about me or I’ll walk out of here.’
‘One more thing, please. And this is important. After the war you couldn’t find anything to do that interested you. You decided to go to America. You spent a year smuggling dollars into Canada. The American police suspected what you were doing, but you evaded them and returned to London. You have been here a week, and you are running short of money. You are not quite certain what you are going to do. It amuses you to extract money from racketeers, but even racketeers are protected by the police. You haven’t quite made up your mind, have you? We have a job for you. It’s a job that will suit you, and it’s worth a thousand pounds.’