Authors: James Hadley Chase
lthough he had no description of her, Corridon recognized Rita Allen the moment he saw her. There were three women serving behind the stocking counter of Mastins and Roberts’ Regent Street store, and of these three only one could possibly be Mallory’s girlfriend. The other two women were elderly, tired-looking and dowdy. There was nothing tired-looking or dowdy about Rita Allen. She was as smart as burnished copper and as hard, and you could tell by the way the other two looked at her that they thought she was no better than she should be. And you could tell, too, that Rita Allen thought they were dowdy old frumps, and the less she had to do with them the better.
Even before he noticed the two elderly assistants, Corridon guessed this tall girl with the peroxide blonde hair and scarlet fingernails was Rita Allen. He came into the spacious department as out of place as a guardsman at a pacifist’s tea party, and stood for a moment looking at Rita, his fiery head and massive shoulders outlined against a built-up display stand of pink silk underwear. He met her quick, calculating look of interest, and because he had a lot of experience with women, he sensed her immediate reaction to his bulk and appearance, and knew it was going to be easy.
There were a few women customers in the department, but only one of them was being served. She was a thin, sour-faced, middle-aged woman who flushed angrily when she saw Corridon and moved quickly to hide the garment of ribbons and bows and lace one of the dowdy assistants was showing her. Then Rita Allen came from behind the counter, a bright smile on her large, carefully painted mouth, her tapering fingers touching her blonde hair as she walked towards him.
‘Is there something I can show you?’ she asked when she reached him, and he was immediately aware of her bold, strong body under the black silk dress.
She was, he supposed, about twenty-nine or maybe thirty.
At close quarters she was sensual; a woman, you felt, who had a lot of experience; whose sophistication and ultra-smartness diverted your attention from the fact that her features were actually plain when you looked closely at her. But there was nothing plain about her figure nor in the trim elegance of her appearance.
Corridon gave her a wide, friendly grin, and she instantly responded, smiling brightly at him, showing white even teeth.
‘I guess you can,’ he said. ‘I was wanting some stockings. Can I get them here or am I going to be snarled up with coupons and things like that?’
He was aware of her searching scrutiny, and had a feeling that she was estimating the cost of his suit, the value of his gold wristwatch; missing nothing down to his Cordovan calf shoes.
‘I’m afraid you are,’ she said, and laughed. She had a nice, merry laugh and he laughed with her. ‘You’ll have to find three coupons for every pair.’
‘Well, darn it, that lets me out,’ Corridon said with a rueful grimace. ‘I thought I’d sweeten the setup by giving the wife of the guy I’m doing business with a few pairs of stockings. It was just an idea, but if I have to part with coupons it’s got to stay an idea. I haven’t any coupons.’
‘What a shame,’ Rita Allen said sympathetically. She had the knack of making you believe she really cared. ‘You’ll have to think of something else, but it’s not easy to give a present these days.’
‘I should have brought something with me, but the idea didn’t occur to me until I was on the boat.’ He glanced at the underwear displayed around him and grinned. ‘Well, it’s a darned shame, I had to screw up my courage to come into this holy of holies, and now it’s all for nothing.’
‘Why don’t you give her a handbag or something like that?’ she asked, and he was quick to see that she would be sorry to see him go.
‘Sure; I’ll find something.’ He twirled his hat in his hands and eyed her with unconcealed admiration. ‘Anyway, if I hadn’t come in here I wouldn’t have met you. Where I come from we like to tell a girl she’s good to look at; that is, if she is good to look at. Would you mind if I put it on record that you look good enough to eat?’
She lifted one beautifully arched eyebrow.
‘No, I don’t mind, but it’s unusual, isn’t it?’
‘Maybe I’m an unusual sort of guy, and another thing, while we’re on the subject, would you be dated up tonight? Would there be any hope for me if I were hanging around the back entrance of this store when it closes?’
Her forget-me-not blue eyes sparkled, and smilingly she shook her head.
‘Absolutely no hope,’ she said. ‘I don’t go out with strange men.’
‘I guess that’s right. And you couldn’t make an exception for a lonely guy who’s looking for a good time with a pocketful of money to burn?’
Again she shook her head, but this time she wasn’t nearly so convincing.
‘I’m afraid not.’
‘That’s tough,’ Corridon said gloomily. ‘Maybe you have a boyfriend all dated up? I might have guessed it.’
‘Oh, but I haven’t.’ For a moment her smile flickered and he saw a hard expression jump into her eyes, but it was instantly gone, and if he hadn’t been watching her closely he wouldn’t have noticed it. ‘Nothing like that. After all, you can’t expect me to go out with someone I’ve never met before, can you?’
‘Why not? We’ll have to make a start sometime. If you haven’t anything to do tonight I can’t see any objection why you and me shouldn’t keep each other company. It’s the civilized thing to do. My name’s Steve Henley. What’s yours?’
‘Rita Allen, and I really don’t think...’
‘Well, all right, let’s forget it. I’m sorry if I spoke out of turn. It’s just seeing you, feeling kind of lonely, being at a loose end. You know how it is. But if you won’t, you won’t.’
She said quickly as if she were afraid he was going to take her seriously, ‘You do sound in a bad way. I’m sorry you’re lonely. I suppose I could make an exception. I don’t do this as a rule I - I’m particular who I go out with.’
He grinned at her and she smiled back. Now that she had lodged her claim to respectability she wasn’t going to put any more obstacles in his way.
‘So you’ll come?’
‘You’re not the first American I’ve been out with at short notice. You boys certainly know how to hustle.’
‘That’s right. Suppose we meet at the Savoy bar at eight o’clock. Can you make it?’
‘I’ll make it,’ she said, and he had no doubt that she would.
It had been easier than he had anticipated, and he wondered, as he walked towards Piccadilly Circus, whether Harris, who had been found in a pond, had succeeded in taking her out. If he had, then obviously the experience hadn’t done him any good. But Corridon believed in learning from the mistakes of others. He wouldn’t end up in a pond on Wimbledon Common.
He was sure of that.
ome back to my place,’ Rita Allen said, holding Corridon’s hand in hers and pressing it against her side. ‘I don’t want this to end - not ever. It’s been a lovely, lovely night.’
‘That goes with me too,’ Corridon said, steadying her. ‘O.K. Let’s go to your place. Where is it, anyway?’
‘Wimbledon. It’s not far. We’ll get a taxi.’ She leaned heavily against him. ‘I think I’m a bit tight. Am I? Do you think I’m just a little bit tight?’
‘You could be,’ Corridon said gravely, thinking if she wasn’t she should be. She had swallowed innumerable cocktails, a bottle of champagne and three double brandies. ‘I’m not all that sober myself.’
‘Nice Steve,’ she said, resting her head on his shoulder. ‘I’m glad I came out with you. You’re quite the nicest man I’ve met this year.’ She squeezed his hand. ‘And I do love a spender. Most men are so mean. We’ve had a lovely time, haven’t we?’
‘We certainly have,’ he said and waved to a passing taxi. As the taxi, ignoring the oncoming traffic, made a half-circle to reach them, he thought back on the evening. She had been gay and frivolous and anxious to please. Men had looked at her, envying him, and would have willingly changed places with him for she was quite the best-dressed and most sexy-looking woman in the Savoy grill. But Corridon had ached with boredom. The sustained effort to match her enjoyment, to compete with her empty chatter, left him apathetic and tired.
Well, he was going to her home, and there, he planned, somehow, to pump her about Mallory. She might or might not talk about Mallory. It was a toss-up. At this moment he was so bored he didn’t care whether he got the information or not. All he hoped for was that she wouldn’t expect him to make love to her.
‘And we’re going to have a lovelier time when we get home,’ she was saying as if she could read his thoughts, and pressed herself against him to reassure him that he wasn’t spending his money for nothing. ‘We are, aren’t we?’
‘You bet,’ he said flatly, jerked open the taxi doors. ‘Where shall I tell him?’
She gave him an address in Wimbledon and sank down on the taxi seat with a sigh of content.
‘I love riding in taxis, don’t you?’ she said as the taxi rattled along Piccadilly. ‘Put your arm round me and hold me tight.’
She ran her fingers through his hair, then pulled his head down, her lips searching for his.
With his mouth on hers, he stared blankly at an advertisement screwed to the panel behind the driver’s back. It was an advertisement for a holiday camp, and pictured a man and a girl in swimsuits on a raft, clasped in each other’s arms. The caption of the picture read: ‘YOU MUST HAVE FUN!’ The blonde woman in his arms moaned softly and pressed against him. Was this what was called fun? he wondered. She meant nothing to him. He had no feeling of desire, and realized with a sense of satisfaction that sometime between the time he had escaped from the Gestapo and now he had grown out of the habit of promiscuity. But he had a part to play and he held her firmly, careful that she should be the first to draw away.
‘Nice,’ she said with a little sigh. ‘Nice Steve,’ and she closed her eyes. ‘Hold me like that,’ she went on. ‘I’m sleepy.’
‘Go to sleep then,’ he said, and furtively wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. ‘I won’t run away,’ wishing that he could.
To his relief she did go to sleep, her head on his shoulder, her fine blonde hair against his face, and he stared out of the window, thinking of Harris, wondering if he too had taken her in a taxi to Wimbledon, and whether she had called him nice and had pulled his head down to kiss him.
Well, Harris was dead. He was probably killed when he left her place. Corridon pressed his hand to his side. The .38 automatic, slung in a shoulder holster under his coat, had a reassuring bulk. Mallory wouldn’t find him as easy as Harris.
It was after one o’clock when the taxi pulled up outside a small detached villa on the edge of Wimbledon Common.
Rita Allen sat up as the driver opened the door, and touched her hair with quick, smoothing fingers.
‘All right?’ Corridon asked, helping her out.
‘Yes. That last brandy was just a bit too much for me.’ She giggled, holding his hand possessively. ‘But I’m all right now.’
As Corridon paid the driver the gleam of water in the moonlight attracted his attention. Not more than two hundred yards from Rita Allen’s house was a large pond surrounded by willow trees. He stared at it, startled, wondering if that was the pond in which Harris had been found and was tempted to ask her.
‘Let’s get inside,’ she said, tugging at his arm. ‘I could do with another drink.’
He followed her up the steps and stood behind her while she unlocked the front door. In the moonlight her hair looked like spun silk.
‘Do you live here alone?’ he asked, following her into a dark little hall.
‘Oh yes, quite alone,’ she returned and laughed. ‘Are you surprised?’
‘A little.’ He blinked in the shaded light she had turned on. ‘I should have thought an apartment would have been more convenient.’
‘Come in and have a drink,’ she said, and led the way into the front room.
He thought cynically that it was a typical love nest. A big divan dominated the room. Facing the door was a massive mahogany cocktail cabinet, packed with bottles and expensive cut-glass tumblers and wine glasses, and a big easy chair stood near the electric stove that hid the empty grate. A fine Chinese rug covered the floor and two standard lamps reflected an amber light on to the ceiling.
‘Some style,’ he said, tossing his hat on the divan.
‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Some style.’ There was a sudden bitter note in her voice that made him look sharply at her. She stood by the cocktail cabinet, staring at the divan, her face hard. ‘Well, what are you going to drink?’ she went on abruptly, added, ‘You mustn’t think the rest of the house is furnished like this. It isn’t; this is a special room.’
‘Scotch. Let me fix it. What’s so special about it?’
‘You sit down.’ She poured a stiff drink, opened a tiny refrigerator built into the cabinet and took out a bowl of ice. ‘Well, it is special, isn’t it? I call it my operating theatre.’ She shrugged indifferently, went on, ‘Oh, I know I’m no better than I should be. That’s what they say, isn’t it?’
‘What are you talking about?’ he asked, puzzled.
‘Nothing. It’s all right.’ She suddenly smiled. ‘You amuse yourself while I run up and change.’
How many times had he heard those words? he wondered, taking the drink. Most of the sophisticated women he had known had used those identical words at one time or another.
He watched her leave the room, knowing in a few minutes she would return and expect him to make love to her. The thought bothered him, and he paced up and down, frowning. There was nothing in the room to interest him. There were no cupboards or drawers to look into. No places where a clue might be hidden that’d lead him to Mallory.
He heard her moving about upstairs, and he went to the door. Across the hall was another room. He looked in, turned on the light and found it empty of furniture, and he could smell the dust that lay thickly on the bare floorboards. Well, she had admitted that all the rooms were not as grand as the one he had just left, and wondered how many more empty rooms there were in this house.
He was lolling in an armchair when she came in. She had on a scarlet wrap of heavy silk, and she posed in the doorway for him to admire her, but to him she was just an empty-faced doll, no more of flesh and blood than the image on the screen of a woman in Technicolor.
‘Very nice,’ he said as she dropped on to the divan and smiled at him. ‘Now let me mix you a drink.’
She stretched out, turning on her side so she could watch him. Her wrap fell back, showing her long, white, pumice stoned legs.
‘It doesn’t seem we’ve only known each other a few hours,’ she said. ‘It doesn’t, does it?’
He agreed gravely as he handed her a whisky and ice. ‘Tell me something,’ he went on, standing over her. ‘Why do you work in a store - with a set up like this?’
‘I’ve got to live,’ she said defensively.
‘Don’t tell me they pay this good.’ He took in the room with a wave of his hand.
‘Of course not, and don’t be so inquisitive. Anyway, I like to be independent. You never know, do you?’ She stretched out her hand. ‘Come and sit down; close to me.’
He decided to waste no more time. He had come to find out about Mallory; he would find out about him now.
‘Have a cigarette,’ he said, offering his case, and when she had taken one, and he could see she took it with surprise and reluctance, he produced a match from his pocket, and watching her closely, ignited it with a flick of his thumbnail. The trick was familiar to her for she gave a little start and looked swiftly at him.
‘Cute, isn’t it?’ he said as she lit her cigarette, holding his hand to steady the flame. ‘I met a fella in France during the war who taught me that trick. I’ve always wanted to do it.’
‘Oh?’ She released his hand and dropped back on the pillow again. The expression on her face was elaborately indifferent.
‘They do it on the movies, don’t they? Tough guys, like James Cagney.’
‘That’s right.’ He looked at the glowing tip of his cigarette. ‘Funny how something like that starts a train of thought. This guy for instance. He was in the Air Force. I met him after he’d escaped from a prison camp.’
‘Don’t let’s talk about the war,’ she said quickly. ‘Let’s talk about ourselves.’
‘He was a good-looking fella,’ Corridon went on as if he hadn’t heard. ‘I’ve often wondered where he got to. He’d been wounded in the throat, and could talk above a whisper. He did me a good turn once. I’d like to meet him again.’
She closed her eyes. Under her expert makeup she had turned pale, and he had an idea that she was holding herself in; making a desperate effort not to give herself away.
‘And I’ll tell you something else that’s funny,’ he went on relentlessly. ‘He once told me he was in love with a girl, and had furnished a room where they could meet. He talked about a cocktail cabinet with a refrigerator. It’s not often you run into a luxury like that.’ He paused, seeing her stiffen, then went on, ‘You wouldn’t know him, would you? His name was Brian Mallory.’