Authors: James Hadley Chase
Table of Contents
There’s Always a Price Tag
James Hadley Chase
n a hot night in June I happened to be lounging outside one of those lush Hollywood niteries that have no free table unless you have a five-figure income, when a tall man in a tuxedo came through the revolving doors as if shot out of a gun.
I could see by his rigid stare and the stiffness of his facial muscles that he was plastered to the hairline.
He was a middle-aged bird with a complexion like an overripe plum, raven black hair with a white streak in it and a moustache not much bigger than a well-fed caterpillar. Before his complexion had turned sour on him, he must have been handsome, but that raw mauve skin spoilt any claim he might now have had to a Hollywood Adonis.
He came down the six shallow steps that led from the nightclub as if they didn't exist, and headed towards the main street that was loaded with fast-moving traffic.
I should have minded my own business and let him walk to his death. If I had done so I should have kept out of a lot of trouble, but instead, just as he reached the kerb, still going fast, and just as a big Packard, going a lot faster, would have nailed him if he had taken another step forward, I reached out, grabbed his arm and jerked him back.
The Packard went past with a swish of tyres. The driver, a dark, fat man with sideboards and Latin eyes, showed by the way he bared his teeth and by the way his eyes popped out that he knew how close he had been to a manslaughter rap, but he didn't stop.
The drunk leaned against me, his knees buckling.
'Gee, kid!' he said, 'that was too damned close. Where did that jerk spring from?'
I shoved him off, steadied him and got ready to move on, then I paused. I was impressed by the cut of his tuxedo, his gold wristwatch and the rest of his trappings that reeked of money. If there's one thing that has an irresistible fascination for me besides a lovely woman, it's the reek of money.
So I paused, and as he swayed towards me, I put out a hand and steadied him.
'You saved my life,' he said. 'That car would have had me if you hadn't been so quick. It's something I won't forget.'
'Do you know where you are going?' I asked, taking most of his weight on my outstretched arm.
'Of course I know where I am going. I'm going home if I can find my car.'
'Are you driving?'
'Certainly I'm driving.' He blinked at me, then grinned. 'Okay, so I'm a little high, but who cares?'
'You can't drive the way you are,' I said.
'Maybe you've got something, but I can't walk, can I? So what do I do?' He drew away from me, swayed uncertainly, caught his balance and gave me a wide, charming smile. 'Now look, kid, see this thing through. Be a pal. You saved my life. Now help me find my car. It's a cream-and-blue Rolls: a convertible and hand built, and I'm not kidding.'
I looked up and down the street, but there was no cream-and-blue convertible Rolls in sight.
'Where is it?'
'Somewhere around the back. Let's steady each other and go and look for it.'
I gave him my arm, and we went around to the parking lot at the back of the nightclub in short, jerky rushes. He nearly had me over once, and he did fall himself, but we finally reached the car.
The Rolls, cream-and-blue, its hood down, looked very, very lush. It took the colour out of my bile just to look at it. For what it was, for the care and loving attention the builders had lavished on it, whatever it cost was a give-away price.
'Come home with me,' the drunk said, moving like a sleepwalker around to the driving seat. 'Come and have a drink. It's the least I can do for a guy who saved my life.'
'I'll come with you,' I said, 'but you're not driving. You're not going to knock the gloss off this beauty.'
There was something in my voice that made him stare, then he laughed.
'You think she's sweet, don't you? Well, so do I. Can you handle her?'
I told him I could handle her.
'Okay, kid, then take me home.' He weaved his way around to the off-side door, opened it and poured himself into the seat. '256 Hill Crest Avenue: second on the left off Sunset Boulevard.'
I opened the heavy coach-built door and eased myself on to what felt like a small, suspended cloud. By the time I had started the engine, he had passed out. As soon as his head touched the padded headrest, his eyes snapped shut and life ceased to exist for him.
There was a licence tag on the wheel. I took a look at it. I learned his name was Erle Dester and that he did live at 256 Hill Crest Avenue: one of the plushiest residential districts in Hollywood. You couldn't live on that avenue unless you had a lot of folding money.
As I edged the Rolls through the parking lot exit, I had the half-formed thought that I wasn't wasting my time.
The Rolls drove itself. We went up Sunset Boulevard with no more noise nor commotion than a leaf driven before a wind. I took the second turning on the left as directed and swept up the steep avenue for a couple of miles while I watched the number plates outside the various plush estates clicking up to the two hundreds.
'The gate by that street lamp,' Dester said, lifting his head. The short drive in the warm night air seemed to have done him some good.
I slowed down, swung the car through the gateway, up a long twisting drive, lined with French poplars and on to an open tarmac by the side of an ornate Spanish-style house with an overhung balcony and wrought-iron lanterns at the front door. It was too dark to see much of the house, but what I could see of it told me it was in keeping.
I cut the engine and waited, my hands on the steering wheel, while I looked at the lighted lanterns and wondered what the next move was going to be.
Dester heaved himself upright, opened the car door and got out. I got out too.
'Well, here we are, kid,' he said, propping himself up against the car. 'Who did you say you were?'
'My name's Glyn Nash,' I said.
'Glyn Nash? I reckon to know most people in Hollywood, but that's a new one on me. Never mind, I know it now. I'm Erle Dester. Maybe it's a new name to you. Well, come on in, Mr. Nash. This should be lots of fun. When I tell my wife that but for you she'd be a widow now, she'll be all over you.' He laughed, throwing back his head. 'This should be something.'
He started off unsteadily, climbed the steps to the front door more by luck than judgment and produced a key. After two unsuccessful attempts to find the keyhole, he handed the key to me.
'You try. I bet you're smarter at this than I am.'
I unlocked the door, pushed it open and followed him into a dimly lit hall. The modern wall clock told me it was five minutes after one o'clock a.m.
'My wife may have gone to bed,' Dester said. 'She reads in bed. Do you care for reading?'
'I can take it or leave it,' I said.
'Me - I leave it, but Helen reads all the time.' He led the way into a long, low-ceilinged lounge that was big enough to accommodate fifty or sixty people and still leave room for a few more. The decor was modern: the lounging chairs and sofas were in cream leather; the carpet and drapes were maroon. There was a television projection set; an elaborate radio and gramophone combination with a six-foot high corner horn, and a built-in bar before which stood a dozen high, cream-leather stools.
Dester headed for the bar like a homing pigeon, reached for a bottle of Vat 69, made two highballs and set them on the bar counter.
'Are you in the movie business, Mr. Nash?' he asked, cautiously climbing on a stool and resting his elbows on the bar.
'I'm in the advertising racket.'
'Is that right? I've often thought of going into that racket myself. I guess there's plenty of money to be made in commercial television these days. You in that?'
'I sell space.'
'That could be a tough job, couldn't it?'
I said it was a tough job.
He looked at me then. Maybe the whisky fumes were lifting from his brain. He certainly seemed to be sobering up. I could tell by his expression, he was seeing me for the first time. He was seeing the suit I had been wearing hard for the past three years; the shirt I had intended to wash yesterday, but hadn't got around to, the shoes that had taken me up and down hundreds of stairs and into hundreds of offices and out again, usually empty handed.
'You look as if you're having a rough time, kid; are you, or isn't it my business?'
I nearly told him it wasn't his business, but I remembered in time that this might be the opportunity I had been waiting for for three long years.
'Sure it's rough, but that's my funeral,' I said. I had long learned that the rich boys are always on their guard against the fast touch, and I didn't want to scare him so early in the game.
He took a small drink, set down the glass and blotted his mouth with a white silk handkerchief. There was a sudden faraway look in his eyes. He could have been going back into a coma or he could have been thinking: it was hard to tell.
'What do you earn a week if that's not being too personal?'
'Twenty bucks if I'm lucky. This is a paid-by-results job. I've had a bad week and didn't earn anything like that, but I'm still trying.'
He stared at me.
'Can anyone live on twenty bucks?' He produced a heavy gold cigarette-case, took out a fat cigarette with a tricky monogram on it, lit it and stared at me as if I were something out of a zoo. 'Look, I'd like to do something for you. After all you did save my life.'
He was coming to it faster than I had hoped.
'You don't have to do that. Anyone would have done what I did,' I said.
'I'd have been a dead duck by now if it hadn't been for you,' he said, frowning. 'That was a close thing. Besides, I like the look of you. I'm short of a chauffeur: a guy who can make himself useful around the house: throw a meal together, take me around, look after the Rolls. How would you like to help me out? I'll pay fifty a week and all found. Any good to you?'
I had hoped he was going to slip me some folding money with a nice speech about my bravery. I hadn't bargained for a job; especially a chauffeur-cum-handyman job where I'd be at his beck and call twenty-four hours of the day. I've seen how some rich men handle their chauffeurs. If I had to work I wanted to have set hours, not to be at the beck and call of a guy like Dester.
I opened my mouth to tell him no. I intended to be polite about it in the hope the folding money would come as a consolation prize, when a woman's voice said from behind me, 'Don't be absurd, Erle. We don't need a chauffeur.'
Have you ever fiddled with an electric fitment and got a shock up your arm? Of course you have; you know the kind of jolt it gives you: something you can't control; a jolt that hurts, but doesn't bruise; something that hits your muscles and leaves you a little breathless.
She was around twenty-six or seven, tall and slim with copper coloured hair and the cream-white complexion that goes with that coloured hair. Her eyes were large, and as green and as bright and as hard as emeralds. She wasn't beautiful in the accepted Hollywood standard of beauty. She had too much character, and her mouth was a shade too thin and firm for real beauty, but there was that thing about her that lifted her right out of the usual run of beautiful women and made her sensational.
She had on a simple white negligée that reached from her throat to her feet and covered her arms.
Around her slim waist was a gold chain, the only ornament she wore.
'Helen, my dear, I want you to meet Glyn Nash. You'll be happy to hear he saved my life. If he hadn't grabbed me as I was crossing the road, you would have been a widow right now. It was the quickest thing I've ever seen. I brought him back because I know you will want to thank him.'
She turned and looked at me. 'I'm sure my husband is exaggerating,' she said, her strangely pale face expressionless. 'Did you really save his life?'
'Go on, tell her, Nash. She won't believe me,' Dester said and laughed.
'Well, he certainly wasn't looking where he was going,' I said, feeling a tight band across my chest as I looked into those big emerald green eyes. 'I guess he would have been killed if I hadn't...' I stopped then because an expression of cold, ferocious hatred jumped into her eyes. It wasn't something I was imagining. It was there, and it sent a chill up my spine.
Then the green eyes went as expressionless as two bits of glass. She gave me a slow, cool smile.
'How clever of you,' she said.
'Don't you want to thank him?' Dester said, a sneer in his voice. 'Well, never mind. I'm grateful to him. I owe him something. He handles the car beautifully. Simmonds has quit, so he can have his job if he wants it.'