Authors: James Hadley Chase
Table of Contents
In a Vain Shadow
James Hadley Chase
odyguard required. Ex-Commando preferred. Must be under thirty; strong and active. Good prospects and pay for the right man. Apply in own handwriting, giving details of past and present employment and war record. First-class references essential. Box 1411.
Netta said, ‘I would like another gin if you could drag yourself away from that paper for a moment.’
‘I can’t. Be a good girt and help yourself. It’s your gin anyway. Make yourself at home with it, and don’t bother me just now. I’m busy.’
And I was too. I was wondering what the good prospects and pay meant. I was wondering who wanted a bodyguard, and why. Not the kind of ad you’d see in a London paper once in a lifetime.
Good pay and prospects. Well, I could do with some good prospects for a change, and I could do with some money.
It’s a funny thing, but now I came to think of it, I couldn’t remember when I didn’t want money. With me, money sticks the way water sticks in a muslin bag.
A month ago I won two hundred pounds: a hundred to one shot on a white-nosed beauty that had left the rest of the field standing. But that was thirty days ago. I now had five pounds, a few shillings and my health and strength between me and the poorhouse. Thirty days. That’s spending at the rate of six pounds a day. It makes you feel good. It makes you feel on top of the world, and that’s the way I like to feel.
Since I came out of the Army I had been on the switchback. Down one month; up the next. After tomorrow I’d be broke again. I hadn’t told Netta. She’d find that out for herself fast enough. She had a nose for calamities, and I knew what she would do when she found out. She would open her purse and pour the contents into my lap; chequebook and all.
I’ve done some pretty rum things in my life, but so far I haven’t lived on a woman: and I didn’t intend to start now.
The trouble with Netta was she wanted me to live on her.
She was dimwitted enough to think she would be throwing a hook into me if I were dependent on her for money. It gave her sleepless nights every time I rustled a pound note. She imagined I was going to walk out on her. She didn’t understand the less money I had the less chance she had of keeping me with her. That was something she couldn’t get into her lovely, thick skull.
A nice girl. Netta, but not subtle. She thinks the way to a man’s heart is through the bedroom door. She’s nice to look at, dresses well, and owns a luxury flat in Lannox Street, off Piccadilly. She makes thirty pounds a week modelling dresses for Livinsky, the photographer. She’s tall and blonde and gentle, and crazy about animals. But she fusses. She wants to get married: preferably to me. She keeps telling me she loves me; not once a day, but every other minute, and do I love her? She thinks I play around with other girls, and she sulks at the wrong moment. She wants to give me money, to buy me shirts, shoes, ties and cigarettes. I’ve lived in her flat for three months now; two months and thirty days too long.
So this ad looked like a chance to move out. I had a feeling about it. I had a hunch I had only to write a letter and the job would be mine. I would be creating a record too. I had never applied for a job in my life. The jobs I have had were either offered to me or fell into my lap; like the time I was admiring a Rolls-Royce in Bond Street, and the owner told me she’d pay me five pounds a week and all just to drive it. She didn’t say what else went with the job, and when I found out I quit. Making a fuss of a woman of fifty-five who looks like something Epstein thought up isn’t my idea of fun.
Then there was the tune a School of Motoring instructor asked me to deputize for him. It wasn’t until I had an hour with a long-legged blonde, driving around the park that I discovered the possibilities of such a job. I might have been still at it now if I hadn’t misjudged a pupil with a Jane Russell outline who raised Cain about me with the company.
I’ve done a lot of odd things in my life. In the four years following my discharge from the Army I’ve been a bookmaker’s clerk, a motorcar salesman, and an all-in wrestler. For two nightmare weeks I was the guy who walks behind the dogs at the White City with a dustpan and brush. I’ve been a starter at the speedway, a marker in a billiard saloon and a lot of other things, but I have never been a bodyguard. Thinking about it, it seemed to me I had missed my vocation. If there is one thing I’m better at than another it’s guarding bodies, especially if it’s a body like Netta’s.
I have all the qualifications for a bodyguard. I am big and tough. I have had a Commando training. I have a right hand punch that can knock down a horse; I know; I’ve done it. And I’m quick on my feet. Besides, in this country, I didn’t imagine a bodyguard would be overworked. People don’t go around shooting and stabbing at the drop of a hat. Even some of our worst politicians have bodyguards who haven’t had a moment’s excitement in years. If the pay was my idea of good pay it might be worth the effort to write that letter ‘Frankie, darling, what are you thinking about? You haven’t said a word for hours.’
‘I’m giving you a chance. I’m being considerate. Isn’t that what you said I should be? Isn’t that the word?’
‘But, darling, you don’t have to sit silent all the evening, do you? Something’s worrying you. It’s no good saying it isn’t. I know the signs.’
‘Well, you’re scowling for one thing, and you’re biting your nails. I do wish you wouldn’t bite your nails. I don’t want to nag, Frankie, but it isn’t a very nice habit, and it spoils the look of your hands.’
‘So because I’m scowling and spoiling the look of my hands you think I’m worried. Is that it?’
‘I know you’re worried, darling.’
‘Woman’s instinct as well, huh?’
‘You don’t have to be cynical, Frankie. I don’t know what’s the matter with you these past days. You haven’t been a bit kind to me. You’ve snapped me up whenever I’ve made a remark. You don’t do things for me as you used to. I love you so much, darling. You know that, don’t you?’
For the nine hundred and ninety-ninth time this day she tells me she loves me.
‘So you don’t know what’s the matter with me? You’re smart enough to know I’m worried, but you don’t know why I’m cynical, unkind and snappy? You’re slipping, baby. You’re a sign reader, aren’t you? Well, the sign’s on the wall big enough for someone a lot dumber than you to read.’
She put her gin and Dubonnet down on the table and lit a cigarette. Her long, slim fingers were unsteady.
‘Don’t let’s quarrel, Frankie. We’re always quarrelling these days. All right, I’m sorry. I’m sorry I mentioned it. I’ll get you some supper. I managed to get a steak for you. You’ll like that, won’t you?’
‘I’m not quarrelling, and thank you for the steak. Don’t think I don’t appreciate what you do for me. I do. I think you’re a pretty nice girl. I think you’re a lovely girl.’
She was watching me the way you watch a strange dog that stands in your path and snarls at you.
‘You want to know what’s worrying me? I’ll tell you. I’ve been meaning to tell you ever since this morning. I’m broke again. What do you think of that? I’ve got five quid and a few shillings, and that’s the lot. So I’m going to get me a job. This job...here; in the paper.’
I handed her the paper.
‘The one with a cross against it. I’ll read it to you if the words are too difficult for you.’
She read the ad with her hips resting against the table and one finger fiddling with a curl at the back of her neck.
I waited for her reaction. It was a long time coming. She put the paper down on the table and stared at her shoes in a surprised sort of way as if she were startled to find she was wearing shoes and not a pair of elastic-sided boots.
‘Well, say something,’ I said impatiently. ‘Don’t you think that’s right up my alley?’
‘Don’t answer it, Frankie. It might be dangerous. It’s silly too. If it’s not dangerous who wants a bodyguard?’
‘Well, it might be a movie star. Imagine guarding someone like Betty Grable.’
‘Betty Grable is in Hollywood.’
‘All right, Margaret Lockwood then. I’m not fussy. Or Anna Neagle. Or Valli. I’d take a cut in salary to guard Valli.’
‘You’re just being nasty. I know. You want me to be jealous. You know as well as I do it’s nothing to do with a movie star. It’s something crooked. It must be.’
Every so often that tiny white cell she calls her brain startles me.
‘What makes you think it’s crooked?’
‘Why should anyone want a private bodyguard? What are the police for?’
‘You know sometimes I am forced to the conclusion that you’re a lot smarter than you look. Give me a drink, and sit down. I want to talk to you.’
‘Frankie, darling, must you be so unkind? Must you say such hurtful things?’
‘Give me a drink and shut up. And don’t tell me you love me again. I’m sick to death of hearing that phrase. Just give me a drink and sit down.’
She gave me a gin and Dubonnet and sat down; ‘But don’t you want your supper, Frankie? It’s nearly half-past eight.’
‘I don’t care if it’s half past twelve. Will you just sit quiet and listen? I know it’s a lot to ask, but if you take hold of yourself and exert some will-power, you should be able to keep quiet for five minutes.’
She sat still, looking at me the way a child looks after you’ve boxed its ears.
‘That was a very smart thing you said just now. Whoever this is advertising for a bodyguard is a crook. That’s the way I see it too. That’s why I want the job. It’s time I made some money. Not a hundred here and a hundred there. Not that kind of money. But big money, I could point out to you men who are walking up and down Piccadilly worth tens of thousands. Men who have been smart enough to think up a racket and play it for all it’s worth. Men who don’t bother about income tax. Men who have more ready money in their pockets than I have ever seen, let alone handled. That’s the kind of money I’m going after, and I have a hunch this ad. will take me to it.’
‘I know. There’s nothing you can say I haven’t heard before. There’s nothing anyone can say. I’ve kicked around and have been kicked around long enough. Half whatever I’ve earned has been taken away to pay for a lot of mistakes made by this lousy Government. Every pound I’ve earned I’ve had to cough up nine shillings tax. The only way I’ve ever made solid money is by backing a horse or a dog, and over four years I’ve lost more than I’ve made. Unless I get out on the springboard, the only way to make money is to win it in a football pool, and I’m not such a sucker as to grow old trying to win money on a long chance like that.
‘Do you know what sticks in my throat? That makes me want to throw up every time I open a newspaper? I’ll tell you. It’s reading every damned day of the week of some Jew or Dago who’s come to this country and made a fortune out of us. Look at that fella who lived in Park Lane. There wasn’t a damned thing he wanted he didn’t have. Even the boys who take the money and run this country were fawning over him. And when he skipped he owed over twenty thousand pounds to the tax collector but if I’m a month late sending in my returns, they send me a threatening letter.
‘And that other fella who skipped with two hundred and fifty thousand. What about him? You wouldn’t think anyone could make all that money out of a hen; but he did. He was smart! Well, all right, from now on I’m going to be smart too. All I want is an in, and something tells me that ad will give me an in. Don’t think you’re the only one who can read signs.’
‘Frankie. dear, please listen to me. This is silly. You know it’s silly. You don’t want to get muddled up with the police. You’re just being reckless. I know you’ve had a bad time, but’s it’s going to be a lot worse for you if you’re going to do something silly and reckless. A racketeer never gets anywhere. They may have a run for their money, and then in the end they get caught. Frankie...please...’
‘Did those two guys I was telling you about get caught? Do you think they are smarter than I am? All right, suppose I do have to skip? What’s wrong with Tel Aviv? What’s wrong with Paris or New York or Moscow? What’s wrong with any of those places if you have two hundred and fifty thousand tucked up your stays? Answer that one! And let me tell you something, baby, I’ve got such an itch for that kind of money, I’d stop at nothing to get it. Do you hear? Nothing! I’d even take murder in my stride for money like that!’