Authors: James Hadley Chase
Table of Contents
My Laugh Comes Last
James Hadley Chase
ooking back, I can now see that the seeds of this nightmare that happened to me were sown some four years ago: seeds that finally produced blackmail, two murders and a suicide.
Four years ago, I was a badly paid service mechanic, working for Business Equipment & Electronics. My father, who was their head accountant, got me the job. When I left school, he had suggested I should study electronics, and sent me to the local university where I got a Master's degree.
While I was still at school, he also suggested I learned to play golf.
'More business is done on a golf course, Larry,' he said, 'than in a boardroom.'
I discovered I was a natural golfer, and later I became a fanatic about electronics.
All the week, including Saturdays, I humped a heavy tool bag, in the evenings I went to night school and studied electronics. Sundays, I played golf.
I had this arrangement with the golf pro at Creswell golf course that I could play a round for free every Sunday morning at 08.30, and in return, I would look after his shop until lunchtime. It was an arrangement that suited us both as I couldn't afford to become a member, and he could spend the morning out on the course.
On this hot June morning, I decided to concentrate on my putting, and not play a round. Looking back, this was an act of fate. If I hadn't decided to sharpen up my putting, I wouldn't have met Farrell Brannigan, and this nightmare wouldn't have happened to me.
I had just rolled in a twenty footer when a gravelly voice said, 'That's one hell of a putt.'
I turned round.
Standing on the edge of the green was a vast man around sixty years of age. He was over six feet tall, and nearly as wide. He had all the trappings of the very rich: his golfing outfit screamed money. His fleshy, suntanned face, his aggressive chin, his china-blue eyes told me he was important people.
'Can you repeat that, son?'
I stepped back, put another ball down, took a look at the cup, now thirty feet away, then giving the ball plenty of top spin, I sent it on its way. Knowing the lie of the green backwards, I knew the ball would drop, and it did.
'Jesus! Mind if I try?'
'Go ahead, sir.'
He fiddled around as most bad golfers do, then aiming at the cup, he stabbed, and was five feet short.
'I'm doing that all the time,' he moaned. 'There must be some trick in this.'
'There is, sir.'
He regarded me.
'Okay, you tell me. What do I do wrong?'
'For one thing, your putter is too short for you. For another, you looked up when you struck the ball. For another, you were standing all wrong.'
'My putter too short? Damn it! I've played . . . ' He paused, then went on. *What sort of putter should I use?'
'I can fix that for you, sir.'
'Go ahead and fix it.'
I took him to the pro's shop, opened up and sold him a putter that was right for his height. Then I took him back to the putting green and explained how to read the lie of the green. This was something he knew nothing about. After an hour, I was getting him to roll them in in three putts instead of five. He was delighted.
'I have another problem, son,' he said. 'You just might fix it. I have a hell of a hook.'
'Suppose we go over to the driving range, sir?'
We went. He teed up, and just as he was shaping for his swing, I stopped him. I got his feet right and his overlap grip turned. He drove a nice one down the middle.
'Just keep your feet like that, and your grip as you have it now, sir, and you'll be fine.'
He hit three balls down the middle, then he beamed at me.
'I appreciate this, son,' he said. 'I have a match on this morning. I guess you are a lifesaver.'
'Glad to be of help, sir. I'll get back to my putting.'
'Hold it. What's your name?'
'Glad to know you.' He thrust out his big hand. 'Farrell Brannigan.'
I did a double take. Farrell Brannigan's name was as well-known as Gerald Ford's. He was the President of the Californian National Bank with branches through the state.
'My privilege, sir,' I said, as we shook hands.
He grinned, obviously pleased his name had impressed me.
'What's your line, Larry?'
'I'm a service mechanic with B.E. & C.'
'Is that right?' He regarded me. 'What do you know about computers?'
'I have a Master's Degree.'
I told him the name of my university.
'Okay, Larry. Go back to your putting. Come and see me at the bank at ten tomorrow.' Then nodding, he picked up his driver and moved back to his tee.
Four years ago, this had been my great moment. I had a feeling that Brannigan was going to do something for me.
Now, looking back, I can see I was taking my first step into this nightmare.
On Monday morning at exactly 10.00, I was shown into a vast office with a vast desk between two vast windows with a panoramic view of the city.
Farrell Brannigan was rolling a golf ball along the floor, using the putter I had sold him.
'Come on in, Larry,' he said. 'I won that match, thanks to you.'
'This a fine putter you sold me.' Putting the putter down, he moved to his desk, waved me to a chair and sat down.
'How are you fixed for next Sunday? How about playing a round with me? I'd like your ideas about my approach shots. How about it?'
I could scarcely believe my ears: to play golf with Farrell Brannigan!
'That would be fine with me, sir.'
'Okay. The wife likes me home for lunch. Suppose we meet at the club at eight o'clock. Right?'
'I talked to your Dean this morning. What the hell are you doing wasting your time as a service mechanic? According to the Dean, you're a top-class computer and electronic engineer: the best student he's ever had.'
'My father wanted me to stay with B.E. & C. He had a theory that it was better to be a big fish in a small pond than a little fish in a big pond. My father died a few months ago. I am now making plans. I.B.M. have made me an offer.'
'How old are you?'
‘What do you earn?'
I told him.
'Forget I.B.M.,' he said. 'With your qualifications, son, you are handling your future career all wrong, but never mind. I'm going to fix that.' He paused to light a cigar, then went on. "You know something, Larry? When you get to my position, it's fun to play God. From time to time, I do it when someone does something for me. I haven't yet made a mistake, and I don't think I'm going to make a mistake with you. Ever heard of Sharnville?'
'Yes, sir.' My heart was beginning to thump. 'It's an up and coming town half-way between here and 'Frisco.'
'Right. We are opening a bank there. This bank is going to be something special as Sharnville, in a few years, is going to come on the map in a big way. I want the latest computers, the latest business machines and calculators that money can buy. Do you think you could outfit the bank?'
My heart was now slamming against my ribs.
‘Yes, sir,' I said, trying to keep my voice steady.
'I'm going to give you the chance to do it. You have a little time. The bank doesn't open for six months. I'll give you three weeks to submit ideas and estimates. If they are not what I want, I'll try elsewhere. How about it?'
'That's fine with me, sir.'
He dug a big thumb into a press button and his secretary came in.
'Take Mr. Lucas to Bill,' Brannigan said. He looked at me. 'Bill Dixon is my architect. You and he will work together.' As I got to my feet, he went on, 'See you Sunday,' and with a wide grin, a wave of his hand, he dismissed me.
I liked Bill Dixon on sight. He was a short, heavily built man with a wide, easy smile. In spite of a few grey hairs, he didn't look more than a few years older than myself.
'I've heard all about you,' he said, as we shook hands. 'So F.B. is playing God again.'
'That's what it looks like.'
'He played God with me. He had a flat in the pouring rain, and I stopped and changed the wheel. Now, I'm here.'
He laughed. 'Do something for him, and he does something for y o u . . . a great guy.' He raised a finger. 'But make no mistake about it: he's as tough as he is great. If you don't deliver, or if you step out of turn, you're out.'
He then told me about the bank.
‘You'd better come with me to Sharnville and meet Alec Manson who is going to run the bank. Here's the blueprint. You'll see the setup. Your job will be to supply all the office equipment, and Manson will tell you what he wants. Suppose we meet at the Excelsior Hotel tomorrow at Sharnville?'
When I got back to my bedsitter, I studied the blueprints.
This wasn't going to be a small bank. This was going to be a big, imposing bank. It ran to four storeys with underground vaults and safe deposit boxes.
This, I told myself, was a chance in a lifetime. I felt completely confident I could handle it.
I remembered my father.
A big fish in a little pond or a small fish in a big pond. Why not a big fish in a big pond?
I made my decision.
I had some five thousand dollars in the bank. I could live on that for some months. If Brannigan turned down my suggestions, I could still make a living.
So I called B.E. & C. and told the staff manager I was quitting. I didn't bother to listen to what he was saying. I just hung up on him.
There was no doubt that Sharnville was an up and coming town. Buildings and office blocks were going up every-where.
I met Dixon at the Excelsior Hotel and he introduced me to Alec Manson, the future manager of the bank. He was in his early forties, tall, lean and remote, but we got along together. He seldom smiled, and didn't appear to have any other interest except banking.
‘The ball's now in your court, Mr. Lucas,' he concluded after explaining the bank's requirements, 'We want the best, and it is up to you to provide the best.'
For the next four days, I didn't move from my bedsitter.
I had all the data I needed. My landlady provided me with meals, and by Saturday night I had the estimates and my suggestions down on paper for Brannigan, and had worked out a possible future for myself, always providing Brannigan was satisfied.
The next morning I was waiting outside the golf pro s shop as Farrell Brannigan drove up in his Caddy, 'Hi, son,' he said, beaming at me. 'It's going to be a fine day.' He got his trolley and golf bag out of the trunk. 'Come on, let's get at it.'
The first nine holes developed into a golf lesson. Brannigan was eager to improve his game. He played off 18, His approach shots were pretty terrible as he was prone to under-club. I got that sorted out by the ninth hole. He was delighted with his driving and his putting certainly had sharpened up.
He suggested I gave him a stroke a hole, and we would play real golf.
I wanted him to win this match, so from time to time I deliberately fluffed shots, and as we approached the eighteenth we were level pegging. He had a four-footer to roll in and I a fifteen-footer. I could have made the putt, but again I deliberately fluffed it and over-ran by two feet.
'I think I've got you, son,' he said, beaming, then shaped up for his putt. He took his time, and I began to sweat he would miss but he didn't. The ball dropped, and he turned, grinning from ear to ear.
'The best goddamn game I've ever played. Let's go and get us a drink.'
I said all the right things, and he grinned even more.
Settled in a corner of the comfortable clubhouse bar, he ordered beers, lit a cigar, sat back and regarded me.
'How's it coming, Larry?'
'Subject to your approval, sir,' I said, 'I've got it tied. I have the estimates and the list of computers, machines, calculators and so on with me.'
'That's fast work. Let me see.'
I took out the typewritten sheets and handed them to him.
He went rapidly through the estimates, puffing at his cigar.
I waited, sweating, until he reached the final sheet which told him what it would all cost. He didn't bat an eyelid.
'This looks fine, son,' he said.
'I think I should tell you, sir, I quit B.E. & C. last Monday. I'm now working on my own,' I said.
He regarded me, looked at the estimates again, then grinned.
'What it amounts to, son, is you're planning to handle this deal yourself and collect commission on everything you sell us.'
'That is correct, sir.'
'A big fish in a big pond, huh?'
‘What you said about me wasting my time as a service mechanic struck a note.'
'I'll say.' He finished his beer and stood up. 'I've got to get back for lunch. Okay, Larry, leave this with me. We have a board tomorrow. I'll get my man to look this over, talk to Manson and then talk with my directors. Where can you be reached?'