Authors: James Hadley Chase
anleigh came into the room, his hand in his pocket. He glanced quickly at Corridon, then wandered up to Jeanne and stood by her side.
‘How are you two getting on?’ he asked and smiled encouragingly. He reminded Corridon of a Welfare Officer trying to make the Camp concert go with a swing. ‘We’ve dug up a lot of information about you, haven’t we?’ His hand rested lightly on the back of Jeanne’s chair.
‘If you have the time to waste you can dig up as much about anyone,’ Corridon returned shortly. He slid his hand into his pocket. Instantly Jan jerked up the Mauser.
‘Bring your hand out very slowly please,’ he said softly but with menace.
‘It’s all right,’ Ranleigh said quickly. ‘He’s not going to make trouble. Put the gun away.’
‘That’s right,’ Corridon said and brought out his cigarettes.
‘I never make trouble,’ and he laughed.
‘I do not put the gun away,’ Jan said to Ranleigh. ‘I do not trust him. You may, but I do not.’
‘There’s one more thing we want to ask before we tell you about the job,’ Jeanne said, paying no attention to what was being said.
‘I tell you I do not trust him—’ Jan began when Jeanne screamed at him, ‘Be quiet! I’m talking! Be quiet!’
‘And that, fatty, is telling you,’ Corridon said.
‘I have to ask you one more question,’ Jeanne said, turning back to Corridon, her black eyes glittering.
‘All right; what is it?’
She hesitated, then looked over her shoulder at Ranleigh.
‘Ask him.’ She waved her hand towards Corridon.
‘Oh, yes,’ Ranleigh. ‘Yes - I wonder if you’d mind letting us see your chest and back? You can guess why, can’t you? You see, it’s like this: we’re not absolutely sure you are Corridon. We’ve checked up on you as best we can. We have your official record, but it doesn’t contain your photograph. We do know about the scars on your chest and back, and we have to be absolutely sure you are Corridon.’
Corridon uncrossed his legs and made to get up. He had had enough of this. There was a frosty look in his eyes and his mouth was set in an angry line.
‘Sit still,’ Jan said. The gun threatened Corridon. ‘If you move I will shoot. I am a very good shot. I could take off a finger. I mean it’
Corridon relaxed back into the chair again.
‘I’m not putting on a show for anyone,’ he said. He wanted to hit Jan and damage him. ‘You can go to hell - the three of you.’
There was a moment’s surprised silence, then Jan took a step forward, his shoulders hunched. But Ranleigh’s hand closed over his wrist.
‘Cut it out!’ he cried. ‘We’re doing this all wrong. Go and look after Crew. Go on, get out of here!’
Jan wrenched away.
‘We’re wasting time,’ he exploded excitedly. ‘Leave him to me.’ There was a vicious snap in his voice now. ‘He sits there, sneering at us. Leave him to me for three minutes. He’ll sneer the other side of his face.’
‘You fool!’ Jeanne cried, jumping to her feet. ‘You? You think you can made him talk? After what the Gestapo did to him. You?’ Her lips curled scornfully.
Jan flew round on her, his mouth working.
‘There’s too much talk . . .’ he began, his voice high-pitched, when Corridon suddenly shot out of his chair. He had caught Jan’s wrist, snatched the gun out of his hand and clubbed him on the side of his head before any of them realized he had moved. Jan went staggering across the room, dazed. He bounced against the wall, then slid to the floor and lay there.
Jeanne and Ranleigh stood motionless, staring at Corridon who held the Mauser, pointing at them.
‘He’s right. There’s been too much talk! I’ve had enough of it and I’m going.’ Then he suddenly grinned, pushed the Mauser into his coat pocket and bent to pick up his hat. ‘I guess I nearly lost my temper that time,’ he went on. ‘I’ll be running along. You’d better keep clear of me in the future. If this happens again I shan’t behave so nicely.’
‘That was pretty neatly done,’ Ranleigh said admiringly. He turned to Jan who was crawling to his feet, his hand to the side of his head, still dazed. ‘Go and look after Crew. You’ve done enough damage for today.’
Without a word, Jan went into the other room. He closed the door with a sharp, venomous click.
Corridon moved to the door as Ranleigh said, ‘I’m sorry about this. We’ve handled you badly. Can’t we discuss this as a business proposition?’
Corridon glanced over his shoulder and paused.
‘I don’t think so,’ he said, looked from Ranleigh to Jeanne.
She was watching him intently, but he couldn’t read anything in the blank expression on her face.
‘I wish you would,’ Ranleigh went on. ‘We want your help, and we’re prepared to pay for it. We’re serious about the thousand pounds. Won’t you meet us halfway? Give us a hearing. Jan is a fool. He thinks a gun will get him anything he wants. I was against the gun from the start. Can’t I persuade you?’
Corridon suddenly grinned.
‘I think you have.’ He sat down on the arm of the chair holding his hat in his hand, ready to walk out, but also ready to listen. ‘What’s the job?’
‘We must know if he’s Corridon,’ Jeanne said quickly. ‘We must know that first.’
‘Yes,’ Ranleigh said. ‘You see if we’ve slipped up,’ he went on to Corridon, ‘And we talk, we’d be in a mess. The job’s confidential. We’ve already made one mistake. That chap Crew is a pickpocket. He stole my wallet and found papers that gave our game away. We had a hell of a time finding him. Then he tried to blackmail us. So we moved in here and kept him prisoner. We’re still trying to make up our minds what to do with him. So, you can see, we can’t afford to make another mistake. If you are Corridon, then you’ll have scars on your back and chest where the Gestapo left their trademark. We’re not really doubting Thomases, but we just have to be sure.’
Corridon released a thin cloud of tobacco smoke down his nostrils. He brooded for a moment, then with an impatient shrug, pulled back a coat sleeve, undid a shirt cuff and bared his muscular arm. A few inches above his wrist was a broad white scar. It bit into his flesh like a tight bandage, sharp-edged and shiny.
‘They put handcuffs on me every night,’ he explained and smiled mirthlessly. ‘They made them hot so I wouldn’t feel the cold. Does that satisfy you?’
Both of them looked at the scar with cold detachment. There was not pity or horror on either of the faces, only a kind of professional interest.
‘They had bright ideas, didn’t they?’ Ranleigh said. He touched the scar on his face. ‘They did that with a red hot bayonet.’
Corridon looked sharply at him.
‘So you’ve had a dose too?’
‘Oh yes, and so has Jeanne,’ Ranleigh came forward and examined Corridon’s scar closely. ‘It’s all right,’ he went on to Jeanne. ‘It’s Corridon all right. The dossier mentions the handcuff scars.’
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘All right - then tell him.’
Ranleigh moved away from Corridon, took a cigarette from a box on the mantel and lit it.
‘It’s an odd sort of job,’ he said, looking intently at the glowing tip of the cigarette. ‘It’s dangerous too. I can’t think of anyone who could do it better than you. We have tried and failed. If you can’t do it, I don’t think anyone can, and it’s a job that’s got to be done.’
Corridon swung his leg and waited, aware that both of them were watching him closely.
‘Well, what is it?’ he asked abruptly.
Ranleigh said, ‘A man is to be executed. We want you to do it.’
he girl had said, ‘We would pay a thousand pounds. Half now and half when the job is done.’
The words moved at the back of Corridon’s mind as he sat in the armchair and listened to Ranleigh’s voice. ‘Half down and half when the job is done.’ He had grown accustomed to listening to such a proposition. Whenever there was an off-coloured job to be done they always began like that. It had been astonishingly easy for him to acquire a reputation for doing such jobs successfully. His war record, his appearance and the exaggeration of others had led to the belief that he would undertake any kind of shady job. Men who were afraid to risk their own skins came to him: fat, dark men; thin nervous men; tall and short, but all with a bundle of dirty five-pound notes in their pockets and greed in their bright, beady eyes.
He had listened to them as he was listening to Ranleigh, bargaining shrewdly, raising the price, explaining how he would do the job while they secretly envied him his confidence, his apparent disregard of danger and his strength; congratulating themselves on coming to him. The right man for the job, they said to themselves. Look at his record. If he can’t do it, no one can. And they were so carried away by his forthright manner and the simplicity and daring of his plan that they willingly parted with half the promised money, as a sign of their faith in him. Half down. Then the expectant wait, and the realization that they had been tricked. A day or so later, after the bargain had been made, he would wander into a pub where they happened to be, perhaps drinking to his success, and smile at them. The jeering smile sent a sudden cold shiver of apprehension up their spines. He had changed his mind, he told them, his broad-shouldered bulk resting against the bar, his foot on the brass rail, a cigarette between his hard, thin lips.
They’d have to find someone else for the job, or, better still, forget about it. Some had the courage to ask for their money back, making a joke of it as he surveyed them with his deepset, cold grey eyes. He always gave them the same answer: ‘You’d better sue for it!’ And he would stroll away, his hands in his pockets, his hat pulled down over his eyes, the bored, jeering expression in his eyes. ‘Half down and the rest when the job is done’ propositions made him a lot of easy money, and listening to Ranleigh he saw no reason why this shouldn’t be yet another gift from the gods.
But this job they wanted him to do wasn’t like the other jobs he had been offered. Nor were these three like the others who had come to him. He felt, however, that the principle was the same, and listening with a polite, interested expression on his face that he could so easily switch on, and that had deceived so many people.
Jeanne had left them. Ranleigh had said to her: ‘I think I can put this over better alone. But, of course, if you would rather stay . . .’
She had left the room without looking at Corridon, and he had been surprised to find that there was a certain emptiness in the room when she had gone.
Ranleigh produced from a cupboard a bottle of whisky and two glasses.
‘It’s a bit early for a drink,’ he said, ‘but you’ll have one, won’t you?’ He measured out two drinks, handed a glass to Corridon.
‘Now she’s gone I can talk more freely. The whole thing’s a bit rum.’ He raised his glass. ‘Well, cheerio.’
Corridon nodded to him and drank a little of the whisky. He was thinking that if he could persuade Ranleigh to part with five hundred pounds he could get Effie’s mouth fixed. The operation could be over and done within a couple of weeks. It pleased him to think of Effie’s delighted surprise. If he played his cards carefully there was no reason why he shouldn’t walk out of this room with the money in his pocket.
‘It’s the sort of thing you might read about in a novel,’ Ranleigh was saying. ‘You wouldn’t expect to run into it in real life. But she’s like that. She’s a bit incredible, isn’t she?’
‘You all are,’ Corridon said bluntly. ‘What are you? A secret society or something?’
‘You could call us that, I suppose. It’s something you will understand. You’ve been through it yourself. That’s why we decided to ask you to help. We know you wouldn’t give us away even if you didn’t take the job.’
‘I won’t give you away,’ Corridon returned. ‘But that doesn’t mean I’ll take the job. Are you serious about…?’ He stopped.
The word executioner was too melodramatic for him to use.
‘Oh yes,’ Ranleigh said. ‘It isn’t as cockeyed as it sounds. I’d better begin at the beginning.’ He paused for a moment, then went on, ‘We three are what is left of a small group of men and women working for the French Resistance Movement. Originally there were nine of us: two Frenchmen, Pierre Gourville and Georges; two Frenchwomen, Jeanne and Charlotte; two Poles, Lubish and Jan; three Englishmen, Harris, Mallory and myself.’
‘Yes,’ Corridon said. Such a combination of men and women was familiar to him. He had come across many of them in his work as a spy. He had found them useful. They were patriots; fanatics, and they did whatever he wanted them to do without question.
‘Our job was to derail trains,’ Ranleigh explained. ‘We moved about the country, hiding by day and operating by night. We did a damn good job.’ He brooded for a moment, his one eye alight with enthusiasm. ‘Pierre Gourville was the leader. He was a man of extraordinary courage and tenacity. He was a good man.’ He stared at Corridon. ‘An exceptional man. I don’t want to labour the point, but we would have done anything for him and were nothing without him. He had the knack of getting the best out of you. He inspired loyalty.’
Corridon sipped his whisky, an empty look in his eyes. He knew what Ranleigh meant. He had met men like that. A man who was entirely selfless puzzled him. He felt there must be a catch in it somewhere, but he had never been able to discover exactly what the catch was.
‘Jeanne and Gourville were lovers,’ Ranleigh went on, lowering his voice. ‘I want you to understand about Jeanne. It’s important. They were like one. I’ve never seen anything like it. Oh yes, they were in love, but not in the conventional way in which we think of love. It was much more than that: a fusion, if you like, of mind, body and spirit.’ He frowned at the whisky in his glass. ‘I’m bad at this, and it’s important. The whole of this affair hinges on their relationship. They lived for each other.’ He hesitated, groping for words and repeated, ‘I’m putting this badly,’ and looked up at Corridon, a little embarrassed. The ingrained reserve of his class was only at ease with an understatement. ‘They would have died for each other.’ He smiled apologetically. ‘That’s the best I can do.’
‘All right,’ Corridon said, concealing his impatience. ‘Then one of you betrayed him?’
Ranleigh looked fixedly at him.
‘It can’t mean anything to you,’ he said after a long pause.
‘You didn’t know Pierre. Without frills, that’s what happened.’
Corridon finished his whisky. It was plain enough to him now what it was all about. It wasn’t the first time such a thing had happened.
‘Well, it’s your show, isn’t it?’ he asked. ‘Why bring me into it?’
‘I’m coming to that,’ Ranleigh returned. ‘I’ll be as brief as I can. Jeanne and Mallory and myself were caught. We had gone out on a job, and we made a mess of it. I won’t bore you with details. We were caught and handed over to the Gestapo. They knew we were part of Pierre’s organization. We were questioned. They wanted Pierre badly. We didn’t count. He was the one at the back of it all. So long as he was free to operate, the derailing of trains would go on at the same damaging pace. Jeanne and Mallory were present when they worked on me.’
His hand went to his scar. ‘It must have been a pretty grim business for them.’ He looked at Corridon with a frank little grin. ‘I wasn’t particularly brave. They made me yell like hell once or twice.’
‘One is inclined to be noisy at that kind of party,’ Corridon said brutally, and laughed.
‘Yes. They wanted to know where Pierre was. I managed to keep my mouth shut, but only just. They grew tired of working on me after a while, and besides. I wasn’t in very good shape by then, so they turned their attention to Jeanne. I knew they wouldn’t get anything from her, but they tried hard enough. They couldn’t even make her cry out. Well, they gave up after an hour of it, and had another go at me. They smashed my arm. I passed out after that. Later, Jeanne told me what had happened.’ Ranleigh suddenly stood up and began to pace the floor. ‘It’s something I can never understand. Mallory talked. He didn’t even put up a show. As soon as they turned their attention to him, he said he would tell them what they wanted to know.’
The memory of what happened agitated him, and for a moment or so he moved restlessly about the room, a sick expression on his face. ‘They had blinded me in one eye and had smashed my arm so that it had to come off, and Jeanne - well, you can imagine what they’d done to her, so it was a bit of a jar to us both to realize we had gone through all that for nothing.’
He went to the window and stared down into the street. ‘We three were locked in a cell together after it was all over. I was half out of my mind with pain, and Jeanne was bleeding badly. Mallory kept away from us. He wasn’t touched. It was horrible to watch Jeanne trying to get at him; she was screaming and crying and calling him names, but she was too weak to reach him. It was the most awful night I have ever spent. He only spoke once. He said, “Can’t you see, you fools? They would have gone on and on. One of us would have talked eventually. Pierre will understand. It’s the fortunes of war”.’
Corridon only half listened. His thoughts were busy. Five hundred pounds! He might get more. He was good at bargaining. Yes, he might push up the price. He stared across at Ranleigh’s tense back. If he had only to deal with Ranleigh it should be easy.