Authors: James Hadley Chase
e remembered Crew saying, ‘I keep thinking they’re going to kill me. I can’t help putting myself in their place. What else can they do?’ and wringing his hands.
Corridon was thrown out of his stride, and for a long moment he didn’t know what to say. A cold prickle ran up his spine, and again the thought flashed through his mind: Have I underestimated these three or is she lying?
She was lighting a cigarette when he said sharply, ‘Why should I give a damn whether he’s alive or dead? He’s nothing to me.’
She lay back against the settee, watching him, a finger tap-ping her cigarette, flicking ash on to the threadbare carpet.
‘You are not being very clever,’ she said. ‘Think a moment. Crew may have meant nothing to you alive, but he does - now he’s dead. Work it out for yourself.’
‘What are you driving at?’ Corridon demanded, sitting forward.
‘Crew was shot five minutes after you left,’ she returned, her face expressionless. ‘Can’t you see? Work it out for yourself.’
He realized suddenly that somehow these three had been too clever for him. But even now he couldn’t understand what had gone wrong. Only the cool, triumphant look in her eyes warned him that they had outwitted him.
‘He’s nothing to me - alive or dead.’
‘They won’t believe that.’
‘Why, the police, of course.’
Then he saw how they had done it, and he went hot with rage. His fingerprints would be on the gun. He remembered now that Jan had worn gloves. The IOU he had signed would supply the motive. He had been seen leaving Crew’s flat. The window dresser would remember and identify him. The police had been waiting years to get their hands on him. They wouldn’t look too closely at the evidence.
‘You’re lying,’ he said sharply. ‘None of you would have the guts to shoot Crew.’
She looked steadily at him, but said nothing as if his outburst didn’t merit an answer. He lit another cigarette, crossed his legs, uncrossed them, made an impatient movement and stood up.
‘If you try to pin this on me, I’ll drag you three into it,’ he warned her.
‘I don’t think you’ll succeed,’ she said quietly. One slim hand pushed back her dark hair from her face. ‘No one knows we stayed at Crew’s place. We were very careful not to be seen. We shall drop out of sight. There’s nothing to connect us with Crew - nothing at all.’
Corridon rubbed his jaw as he stared at her, then turned and mixed another drink. While he was doing this, his mind picked over the problem, trying to find a way out.
‘You don’t think you’re going to leave here after what you’ve said? All I have to do is to send for the police, get my story in first and hand you over. Perhaps you haven’t thought of that?’
‘That wouldn’t be very clever, would it?’ she said and smiled.
‘You’ll have to do something better than that. It would be your word against mine. Your reputation is against you. The worst that could happen to me would be a few months in prison; but I’d probably be deported. I could always come back.’
She was right. He wasn’t being very clever about this, but he admitted for the moment he was rattled. He sipped his drink and brooded. In a way it was inevitable. You couldn’t always expect to win at this game. He had known sooner or later he was bound to slip up. The best way out now would be to admit defeat. He might still outsmart them if they were off their guard.
‘All right,’ he said and managed to laugh. ‘It looks as if you’ve pulled a fast one on me. I’ll give you the money back. That’s what you want, isn’t it?’
‘No, we don’t want the money. You accepted payment you must finish the job. You are to find Mallory.’
‘To hell with Mallory,’ he burst out. ‘I’ve better things to do than waste my time on a wild goose chase. Find him yourself. I’ll return the money tomorrow.’
‘You’ll find Mallory or we’ll send the gun and the IOU to the police. You can please yourself.’
His face set in hard lines.
‘Don’t push your luck too far.’
‘There’s no luck about it. We knew what you intended to do and we took precautions. You have no alternative. You would be wise to realize that.’
He sat down again. He was caught and he knew it. If they were coldblooded enough to kill Crew they would have no compunction in saddling him with the crime.
‘It looks as if you’re going to get your own way, doesn’t it?’ he said lightly.
‘You played into our hands,’ she said, stubbing out her cigarette.
‘And Crew? You killed him in cold blood - one of you did. He had done nothing to you.’
‘Oh, but he had. He should have left us alone,’ she said stonily. ‘No one is going to stand in our way now we have got so far. We couldn’t trust him; but we wouldn’t have killed him if you had played straight with us. He had to go then. It was the obvious way of getting a hold on you.’
He wondered suddenly if this was a bluff. He couldn’t accept the fact that Crew was dead: shot down in cold blood. Suppose they had hidden Crew somewhere? Suppose he wasn’t dead?
She went on, ‘You are to find Mallory. You have the clues and his description. We shan’t interfere with you. You can go about finding him as you think best, only you must find him. We will give you three weeks.’
‘If you haven’t found him by then we must decide whether you have tried or whether you have cheated us. We have taken every precaution. The gun and the IOU are with a firm of solicitors who have been instructed to forward them to the police unless they hear from one of us once a week.’ She rose to her feet. Her silky dark head reached to his shoulder. She looked up at him, serious, quiet and without fear.
‘Why didn’t Ranleigh come?’ he asked. ‘Or Jan?’
She made an impatient movement as if such a question was immaterial; a waste of time.
‘Ranleigh doesn’t know about Crew. Jan is too quick-tempered. Besides, I do my own jobs.’
‘So Ranleigh doesn’t know? Murder would shock him, is that it?’
‘Perhaps. It doesn’t matter.’ She moved past him to the door. ‘I think that’s all. We shall be keeping in touch with you. You have three weeks. Don’t underestimate Mallory. He is very dangerous.’
‘Let me go first,’ he said, ‘And I’ll turn on the light.’ He was holding himself in like a tightly clenched fist.
He went down the stairs, turned on the hall light and opened the front door. The mews was dark, and a cold wind blew against his face. The light from the hall lit up the damp cobblestones; his shadow looked immense against the doors of the opposite garage.
She stood by his side, looking out into the darkness.
‘We’ll keep our side of the bargain,’ she said. ‘Find Mallory and we’ll pay you the rest of the money.’
‘Don’t think you’ll get it all your own way,’ he said, no longer able to conceal his anger. ‘I’m a damned unhealthy subject to blackmail, and you’ll find that out before long.’
His words had an instantaneous effect on her; like a spark in a powder barrel. He had felt all along that her quiet and calm had been a mask, hiding her real feelings, but he hadn’t suspected the savage ferocity his words now released in her.
She sprang away from him, faced him, the hall light falling directly on her. She seemed to grow in stature, the muscles in her face became rigid, giving her a bony, scrapped look, her eyes shone like those of an enraged cat, even her hair seemed to stiffen, and she held her hands before her, the fingers hooked into claws and shook them at him.
‘And you’ll find I am a bad subject to cheat!’ she cried in a hoarse, croaking voice. ‘I want Mallory. I’m going to have him. And you are going to find him for me! You! Yes, you - you cheap crook! You - you petty-minded hero!’ She spat the words at him. ‘I knew all along what your game was. But there are no means too dirty to use so long as I find Mallory; that’s why I’m using you! And find him!’ Her voice rose. She screamed at him, ‘Do you hear? Find him! I’ll have no mercy on you if you don’t. I’ll see you hang!’ She backed away, her face working, her eyes twin conflagrations.
Corridon stared at her, feeling a chill run through him. She looked mad, dangerous, somehow not of this earth.
‘Find Mallory!’ she screamed again, and then she was gone; her black clothes making her instantly invisible as she stepped back into the darkness.
s Corridon fastened the belt of his coat, he hummed softly under his breath, his eyes cold and his face set. First, he must make sure that Crew was dead. If Crew had been murdered there was no doubt that this girl would carry out her threat; unless, of course, he succeeded in finding Mallory. From the first he had suspected she was dangerous; now he began to think she wasn’t in her right mind. He remembered that Crew had called her inhuman. He had said she was cracked, and seeing her when she had screamed at him, Corridon wondered now if Crew hadn’t been right.
He picked up his hat and made for the door leaving the light burning. If they were watching the flat it was as well for them to think he was still there. Going downstairs, he opened the front door and looked into the darkness. He saw nothing, and knew no one could see him. Heavy black clouds now blotted out the moon. There was a hint of rain in the wind and it had turned colder. He closed the front door silently behind him and moved towards the funnel-shaped exit that led into Grosvenor Square.
He reached Crew’s flat within a half an hour, satisfied that no one had followed him. The dingy street was empty and the tobacconist’s shop was closed for the night. Crew’s flat was in darkness.
He paused outside Crew’s front door and examined the lock with the small torch he had brought with him. He saw at once that the lock would offer no difficulties. He was expert in forcing any kind of lock, and fiddled for a moment or so with the thin strip of celluloid, forcing it against the tongue of the lock and levering gently. The door swung open. Darkness and the cloying scent of flowers met him as he stepped into the hall; and another smell too: the smell of gunpowder.
He stood in the hall, listening for a moment or so, then entered the sitting room. He sent the beam of the torch slowly round the room. There was no one there; the curtains were drawn and the floor by the window was covered with tulip petals. Moving silently he crossed the room to the far door, turned the handle and shone the beam of his torch into the darkness. Into the small, bright circle of light there appeared in turn a bed, an armchair, a dressing table, a wardrobe, a vase of jonquils and a red and blue silk dressing gown hanging from a hook on the wall. Corridon directed the circle of light to the floor. At the foot of the bed, lying on his side on a thick lamb’s wool rug was Crew.
Corridon gave a soft little grunt, walked across the room and stood within a few feet of Crew. He leaned forward and peered down at him. Crew had been shot through the head at close range. The small bore of the Mauser’s bullet had drilled a neat little hole through the centre of his forehead. Jan must have shot him suddenly and without warning for there was no fear or horror on Crew’s face. Apart from the waxen stiffness and the odd set of the jaw he might have been asleep.
Corridon turned away. There was no point in staying in the flat a second longer than he needed to. He was satisfied now that Crew was dead, and although he had seen many deaths from violence, Crew’s death shocked him. He wondered how long Crew would remain there on the lamb’s-wool rug; how long it would be before the police began their inquiries. Would the tobacconist remember him? There was a remote chance that he wouldn’t. It depended on the length of time that elapsed before Crew’s body was discovered. Anyway, he had been a fool to come here. He might have known she wasn’t the type to bluff, and if anyone saw him leaving....
Abruptly he snapped off the flashlight and stood motionless, holding his breath and listening intently. Had a board creaked outside or had he imagined it? He waited, but heard nothing.
Was there someone in the next room? Had that been a foot on a loose board he was almost sure he had heard?
He moved forward, paused to listen again, and this time a board did creak. If he hadn’t been straining to hear the slightest sound he would have missed it above the distant hum of traffic in the Strand.
The darkness pressed in on him, and he put out a groping hand to touch the door, but met no resistance. He groped for a moment into a void of darkness, and it came as a shock to realize that although he had shut the door when he had entered the room it was now standing open.
He was sure that someone was in the adjoining room, and he moved forward, holding his torch ready to snap on the light, his body tense, his movements without sound.
Then someone said out of the darkness, ‘Is that you Ranleigh?’
Corridon had no idea from where the voice was speaking.
The sound came out of the darkness like a vapour; like a spirit voice whispering through a trumpet at a séance. It had no body or direction, and had a certain ghostliness that sent a chill running up his spine.
‘Who’s that?’ he demanded sharply and instantly dropped down on one knee, an unconscious movement of self-preservation.
The darkness was lit up by a blinding flash of flame. The room vibrated and the windows rattled with the sharp crack of gunfire. Corridon jerked back as the bullet skinned the side of his face like the touch of a branding iron. He caught a glimpse of a figure facing him; a glimpse revealed by the gun flash and instantly gone. As he flattened out on the floor, expecting to feel another bullet smash into him, he heard the door slam and the soft pad of footsteps running down the uncarpeted stairs.
Slowly he got to his feet, his hand to his cheek, feeling blood running between his fingers. He guessed from the whispering voice and the accuracy of the blind shooting, that the man who had fired at him was Mallory.