Read The Follower Online

Authors: Patrick Quentin

Tags: #Crime

The Follower (9 page)

BOOK: The Follower
6.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Since it was safer to cover every possibility, he tried to decide whether or not it was specifically to deceive this man that the girl was pretending to be Ellie. Having listened to their conversation through the brief decline and fall of three more bulls, he convinced himself that the man was not important (unless they were both playing an immensely cautious game). They had met casually perhaps at the Hotel Reforma and the resident American had offered to take the tourist to the bulls.

After the mules had pranced out with the cadaver of the fourth bull, Mr Riley said:

‘There are two more to go, Mrs Liddon. Want to stay?’

The girl shrugged. ‘I guess that’s enough blood for this Miss Dracula.’

Mr Riley laughed. He seemed almost fawningly eager to appreciate his companion’s ‘great little sense of humor’. He said ‘Well, let’s get out before the rush starts.’

He rose. The girl turned to follow Mr Riley past the gauntlet of knees, she glanced back at Mark over her shoulder. She waved her hand in a gesture of farewell.

‘Keep your eye on the bulls, chum. Let us know who wins.’

She pushed after Mr Riley to the aisle. Together they started up the steep steps to the exit door. In a small but steady trickle other customers were starting to leave. Mark waited until half a dozen people had passed. Then he rose too and climbed the steep ramp to the exit.

Passing through it was like walking across the lip of a huge sea-shell. Below stretched the gleaming tops of the automobiles in the car park. It was easy to pick out the girl’s red handbag and her escort’s burly figure in the handful of departing fans. Mark moved down the steps after them. They passed through a gate and hailed one of the taxis waiting at the curb. Mark slipped into another and indicated with signs that the driver was to follow them. The driver beamed with the tolerant understanding of someone who was used to the eccentricities of gringos.

Speed, like the bullfights, seemed to be one of the outlets for the caged violence of the Mexican temperament. The two taxis hurtled insanely after each other through the sprawling city like entertainment cars in some giant carnival sideshow. They reached the hectic center of the town again and the first taxi swerved to a stop in front of an elegant green-and-white awning. Mark’s driver, with a flair for conspiracy, shot past it, turned a corner and swung to the curb. Mark paid a double fare and hurried back around the corner. On a balcony above him a flamboyant red-and-blue macaw was screaming. He was just in time to see the girl and Mr Riley pass under the awning and through a door.

He moved down the sidewalk until he reached the building. It was a kind of glorified snack bar with large plate-glass windows stretching its whole length. Inside he could see fashionably dressed Mexicans chattering at tables. It was apparently ‘tea hour’ in a south-of-the-border Schrafft. A flurry of women with expensive hats and white Spanish skins pushed past him to the door. Through the window he caught a glimpse of the girl and Mr Riley moving to a table.

He crossed the street and stood outside a fashionable dress-shop. When a taxi came by he stopped it, indicating once again with gestures that the driver was to wait. In about half an hour the girl and Mr Riley emerged from the tea-shop and hailed a taxi. The girl waved to Mr Riley and climbed in. Mr Riley started to walk away. With Mark following, the girl’s taxi drove her straight to the Hotel Reforma.

Mark paid off his own driver and climbed the steep steps. The lobby was more crowded than it had been when he first entered it, but he saw the girl immediately. She was standing at the desk and a clerk was handing her a large package. He moved behind the Christmas tree and watched her through its heavy, decorated branches. The clerk was making her sign for the package. He was, Mark saw, a different boy from the one to whom he had spoken. It was just possible that he would not tell the girl that her ‘husband’ had arrived.

It didn’t particularly matter whether he did or not. But Mark was almost sure that he had said nothing because, after the girl had signed, she merely smiled, waved away a bellhop who offered to carry the package and moved with it to the elevator.

He followed. She did not notice him until he had entered the elevator with her and the doors were closing. When she did, she showed no surprise. She looked at him from her cool, enigmatic eyes and said:

‘So we share the same rat-hole.’

Apart from the operator, they were the only people in the elevator.

The operator asked ‘What floor, please?’

‘Three,’ said the girl.

Mark said nothing. He was looking at the package in her arms. It was wrapped in elegant white paper and tied with black cord. One of its sides was jaggedly broken where it had been opened, probably by the Customs. From the angle at which she carried it he could not see the address, but he made out in large black capitals the letters DERA…

He said ‘Let me carry that for you.’

She let him take the package without protest. He glanced down and saw the complete word: D ER AI N’ S . The address was: Mrs Mark Liddon, Hotel Granada, Madero, Mexico, D. F., Mexico. It had been sent airmail. There was a Customs declaration at the left-hand top corner. It said ‘One suit — value $350.00.’

If there had been any doubt that this girl was impersonating Ellie, it was gone now. Derain’s had sent the package airmail three days ago; it would have arrived the day before yesterday; the Customs would have sent a notice to the Hotel Granada, which would have sent it on to the Reforma, which would have sent a boy to clear the package. This was definitely Ellie’s suit and this girl had calmly accepted it as her own. She was compromised up to the neck.

The elevator stopped at the third floor. The girl gestured for the return of the package.

‘This is my floor, too,’ said Mark.

‘Well, well, what a coincidence.’

He followed her down the thickly carpeted corridor. She reached a door marked 332 and opened it with a key from her handbag.

She gestured again for the package. He pushed her through the open door into the room, stepped after her and closed the door behind him, standing squarely in front of it, the package in his arms.

She was remarkably calm. Her features, like a model’s features, seemed trained to express no other emotion than one of glamorous indifference.

‘If this is a seduction,’ she said, ‘I’m not in the mood. Come back tomorrow.’

His suitcase stood on the floor by the door where the bellhop must have left it. She did not seem to have noticed it. Curiosity and anger made him exceptionally observant. He saw that some of the red lacquer was chipped off one of her nails and that the blonde hair was dyed. He could just trace the natural uninteresting brown at the roots of her part.

She was still watching him flatly. ‘Well,’ she said, don’t just stand there. Say something. Or do you only bay at the full moon ?’

‘I’m Mark Liddon.’ He took out his tourist card and showed it to her.

If she were an ally of Ellie’s, this was the moment for her to welcome him. But she did no such thing. She glanced idly at the card and handed it back.

Without the slightest sign of discomposure, she turned and moved out of the foyer into a gay ‘modern’ living-room. He followed. She took a cigarette from an onyx box under a vase of pink sweet-peas. Lighting it, exhaling smoke, she picked up the receiver of a telephone by a couch. She gave him a bright smile over the instrument.

‘Oh, Mr Mark Liddon, what’s the Spanish for dangerous lunatic and sexual assault?’

He went to her and took the receiver from her hand. She did not resist. He put the receiver back on its stand. She was wearing the same perfume as Ellie. It distracted him.

He said ‘Where’s my wife?’

‘Haven’t you found her yet? How sloppy can you be?’

‘I’m Mark Liddon. I’ve followed my wife to Mexico. You’re impersonating her.’

The girl was watching him, dead pan. She pushed the loose blonde hair back from one shoulder. ‘I’m Mrs Mark Liddon. I’ve left my husband in Lincoln, Nebraska. You’re impersonating him.’

‘You mean there is more than one Mrs Mark Liddon in this hotel?’

‘For all I know there are ninety.’

‘My wife ordered a suit from Derain’s in New York. They sent it after her.’ He ripped the cord off the package, stripped away the wrapping paper, opened the box and tugged out a light-grey suit. ‘Explain this.’

The hours of frustrated hope and constant disappointment came rushing out as anger against this calm, impervious girl. He dropped the suit on the couch and, crossing to her, gripped her arms. Once again she made no effort to resist.

‘You’re going to tell me sooner or later. You might as well tell me now.’

Her face was only a few inches from his and her red lips parted in a little smile as if something secret was amusing her. ‘Such virility,’ she murmured. ‘Such hot breath on the neck.’

‘Where’s my wife?’

‘I don’t know where your wife is.’

His grip tightened on her arms. ‘Tell me.’

‘I don’t know.’

Abruptly he pushed her aside and crossed to the telephone. He glanced back at her over his shoulder. ‘Oh, Mrs Mark Liddon of Lincoln, Nebraska, what’s the Spanish for the police and the American Embassy?’

She took a step towards him. For the first time the blue eyes were clouded with anxiety.

‘You wouldn’t…’

‘Like hell I wouldn’t.’

Quite suddenly she collapsed. With a resigned shrug, she took the receiver from him and put it down on the stand.

‘All right. Since you ask so prettily, I’ll tell you what I know.’

‘That’s more like it.’

‘Sit down, Mr Mark Liddon. Relax. I’ll get you a drink and tell you the story of my life.’

11

HE sat down on the yellow and grey striped couch. She went to a tin credenza by the wall, took out a bottle of brandy and poured two jiggers. She brought them to the couch, handed one to Mark and sat down next to him. She had abandoned the sophisticated pose and seemed suddenly very young and friendly.

Too friendly, Mark thought.

‘I’m sorry, Mr Liddon.’ She smiled at him over her brandy. ‘It was dumb of me to try to bluff it out. You took me by surprise. No one told me she had a husband who would follow her.’

‘You know now.’

‘Yes, I know now.’ She reached past the sweet-peas for a cigarette. She was trying very hard to appear at her ease, but he could tell that behind the careful calm she was frightened or, if not frightened, wary. ‘You’re not going to like what I’m going to tell you, Mr Liddon.’ She lit a cigarette and looked straight at him. ‘I don’t know where your wife is. I don’t even know who she is or what’s happened to her.’

‘You don’t know anything about her. You just took over her identity on a girlish whim?’

‘You don’t believe me?’

‘Why should I?’

‘There’s no reason, I suppose.’

For the first time he noticed that her hand, holding the cigarette, was slightly roughened around the knuckles. It wasn’t the sort of hand that went with the luxury hotel and the insouciance. Almost certainly she wasn’t a model. Her glamour was as synthetic as her presence of being Ellie. What the hell was she? He felt momentarily the immense strangeness of another human being. They were sitting only a few inches apart, but what went on in her mind was as impossible to guess at as the dark side of the moon.

The faint perfume, trailing from her, plagued him with a desire for Ellie more poignant than he had yet felt in Mexico. But he was learning patience. He must hear what the girl had to say, and then decide what to do with her.

‘It’ll sound phony to you, Mr Liddon.’ The blue, steady eyes were still on his face. He neither believed nor disbelieved their candor. He had learned there was no rule for interpreting eyes. ‘Things always sound phony when you come in on the end of them. I’m pretending to be Mrs Mark Liddon because I don’t have the right papers.’

‘Papers?’

‘Passport, birth certificate, things to get back to the States with.’

‘What’s this got to do with my wife?’

‘Give me time. You see, I was born in Czechoslovakia. My father was a Czech. In 1938, when I was a kid, he sent me and my brother over to Brooklyn to live with an aunt. Seems I should have taken out papers or something when I was twenty-one, but I didn’t get around to finding that out. Apparently I’m still a Czech citizen.’

He sat watching her, saying nothing. Did foreign children, once they had been accepted in the States, have to take out papers to become citizens? He didn’t know. But the fact that she, like his own folks, came from Czechoslovakia, made an irrelevant bond.

She smiled again tentatively, to see whether he would smile back. He didn’t.

She said: ‘I sing in nightclubs. That’s how I make my living — if you call it a living. A couple of weeks ago I was out of work in San Diego. I drove across the border with some people to Tia Juana for the day. In a cantina I met up with a Mexican. He said he owned a nightclub here in Mexico City. He offered me a job. He had a car. I wasn’t believing in that nightclub until I saw it with my own eyes, but there didn’t seem to be much future to beating the sidewalks of San Diego. So I said okay. I never thought it would be hard to get back to the States. I guess I don’t have my finger on the pulse of history. Once an American, I thought, always an American. Little-did-I-know department.’

The steep angle of her cheekbones, the quality of her skin, brought Mark fleeting memories of photographs of his own Czech cousins. She didn’t look like them, but the same mold had been used. This fact somehow confused the issue, kept him from concentrating on the only thing that mattered — Ellie.

She went on: ‘I drove here from Tia Juana with the Mexican. I had underestimated him. He did own a nightclub, but it was a nightclub with rooms upstairs for private parties. I haven’t come to that yet. I kissed him goodbye. Since then I’ve been batting around Mexico City with no pesos and a nostalgia for Brooklyn as wide as De Kalb Avenue.’

He thought suddenly and without context that she was attractive. She might be an enemy; she might be a monster of deceit. But the easy-moving limbs, the young girl’s body, the fair, planed face aroused him. It made no difference, of course. She was just a strand in the thread which led to Ellie.

BOOK: The Follower
6.54Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Tiger Babies Strike Back by Kim Wong Keltner
Corpses at Indian Stone by Philip Wylie
Pulling Away by Shawn Lane
Between the Lives by Shirvington, Jessica
The Morning After by Kendra Norman-Bellamy
Murder on the Riviera by Anisa Claire West
A Touch of Passion by Bronwen Evans