Authors: James Hadley Chase
Table of Contents
A Can of Worms
James Hadley Chase
picked up the mug shot and looked at it. It showed a blonde woman of around twenty-four or twenty-five who stared at me from the photograph with hard, vicious eyes.
I felt an explosive shock run through me. If this woman hadn’t been blonde, I would have sworn she was Nancy Hamel.
With unsteady fingers, I picked up a felt pen and inked the hair black. Again I stared at the mug shot.
I had no doubt now.
This woman, wanted on two murder
charges and married to one of the most
dangerous Italian terrorists was Nancy
he offices of the Parnell Detective Agency were situated on the top floor of the Trueman building on Paradise Avenue. Founded and run by Colonel Victor Parnell, the Agency was head and shoulders above the other agencies on the Atlantic coast.
After leaving the army, Parnell had been smart to start the Agency in Paradise City, the playground of billionaires. The Agency was strictly for the rich, and there were more rich in Paradise City than in any other city in the United States of America.
Parnell was from Texas. He had inherited his father’s oil fortune, and had all the capital he needed to set up the Agency in the lush-plush style expected by the citizens of the city. He employed twenty operators, ten typists, an accountant, Charles Edwards, and Glenda Kerry, his personal assistant.
The twenty operators, all ex-cops and ex-M.P.s, worked in pairs. Each pair had an office, and unless there was an emergency, they knew nothing about the work being done by their colleagues. This system prevented leaks to the press. Should there be a leak, and it happened just once, both operators, working on the case, got the gate.
I paired with Chick Barley, who, like me, had served during the Vietnam War as Lieutenant (Military Police) under Parnell. We were both thirty-eight years of age and unmarried. We had been working as a pair for the past three years, and we had earned the reputation of being the best pair of operators under Parnell’s direction.
The Agency handled divorce, parents’ problems, blackmail, extortion, hotel swindles, wife or husband watching, and pretty near everything, short of murder.
The Agency worked closely with the Paradise City police. Should an operator trip over a criminal case, Parnell would hand the operator’s report to Chief of Police Terrell, and we would duck out of the scene. In this way, the Agency didn’t tread on any toes. But the Agency reserved the right to protect a client until Parnell was satisfied that the case was police business, and only police business.
On this bright, summer morning, Chick and I were at our desks, temporarily unemployed. We had just buttoned up a kleptomania case, and were waiting for a new assignment.
His feet on his desk, Chick was reading a girlie mag. He was tall and massively built with sandy-coloured hair and a flattened nose of a boxer. From time to time, he would release a long, low whistle, indicating that he had reached a photograph that made him horny.
Across the room, at my desk, I was doing sums on a scratch pad, and was coming to the inevitable conclusion that I would be in the red once again before the end of the month when I got paid. Money never seemed to stay with me. Every week, before payday, I had to borrow. When I got paid, I returned what I had borrowed, and was short again. It wasn’t that I was badly paid. Parnell’s salary scale was much higher than the other agencies. Money just refused to stay with me.
I pushed aside my scratch pad in disgust and regarded Chick hopefully.
“Old timer,” I said, using my begging-bowl face, “how are you fixed with the green stuff?”
Chick lowered the magazine and sighed.
“It’s about time you kicked this habit, Bart,” he said.
“What’s the matter with you? What do you do with your money?”
“That’s a good question. I wish I knew. It comes and it vanishes, and I have damn all to show for it.”
“I know,” he said, looking smug. “I’m a detective, remember? If you stopped taking that expensive chick around, if you gave up living in that expensive apartment, if you made do with a reasonable car instead of that beat-up Maserati that eats gas, if you let up on the booze, if you stopped dressing like a movie actor, then, and only then, would you stop borrowing off me.”
“A good point. In fact, good points, old timer.” I smiled at him. “So how about a hundred bucks until payday?”
“To hear you talk, anyone would imagine I was a goddamn banker. I can manage fifty, and not a dime more.”
He took out his wallet, eased out a fifty bill and held it up.
“It’ll have to be.” I left my chair, crossed over to him and snapped up the bill. “Thanks, Chick. I’ll let you have it back payday . . . boy scout’s honour.”
“Yeah, until next time. Seriously, Bart, you had better do something about your spending. If the Colonel knew you were in hock every third week of the month, he wouldn’t like it.”
“Then he should pay me better.”
“What good would that do? You’d only spend it and still be in hock.”
“You have another good point,” I said. “You’re stuffed with good points this morning.” I wandered over to the big window and looked way down at the sea, glittering in the sun, the miles of sand and palm trees, and the bodies, half concealed by beach umbrellas.
“Brother! How I would like to be down there with those sexy dolls,” I said. “We’ve just finished a job, haven’t we? Why doesn’t the Colonel give us a day off as a reward for good work done? Why doesn’t he?”
“You ask him,” Chick said without dragging his eyes from the mag.
I lit a cigarette, and moving behind him, peered over his shoulder. He turned a page, and we both whistled.
“Now that’s what I call a bishop’s temptation,” Chick said. “Wouldn’t I like to spend a week on a desert island with this babe.”
“And it needn’t be a desert island.”
“How wrong can you be! On a desert island, you don’t have to buy her a thing.”
The intercom buzzed. Chick thumbed down the switch.
“The Colonel wants Bart,” Glenda Kerry said and clicked off. Glenda never wasted words nor time.
“Here we go,” I said. “More work. What’s it this time?”
“Some old trout has lost her dog,” Chick said indifferently and settled back with his mag.
I went along to Parnell’s office, tapped and entered.
Parnell was a giant of a man with a fleshy, sun-tanned face, small piercing eyes and a mouth like a rattrap. He looked every inch a tough veteran, and I had to watch myself every time I came before him, not to salute.
He was behind his desk. In the client’s chair sat a portly man, balding, his complexion pink and white, his eyebrows shaggy and his eyes hidden behind green sunglasses.
“Bart Anderson,” Parnell said, waving to me. “Bart, this is Mr. Mel Palmer.”
The fat man struggled out of his chair to shake hands.
The top of his balding head just reached my shoulder. I was aware of keen, hard scrutiny behind the green sunglasses.
“Anderson is one of my best operators,” Parnell went on as the fat man sank back into his chair. “You can rely on his discretion.” He signalled to me to take a chair and as I sat, he went on, “Mr. Palmer is the agent and manager for Mr. Russ Hamel.” He paused to give me one of his stoney stares. “Russ Hamel mean anything to you?”
I don’t read novels, but I knew of Hamel. Only last week I had taken Bertha to see a movie based on one of his books. I don’t know about his books, but the movie stank.
“Sure,” I said, putting on my intelligent expression.
“Paperback sales must run into millions. I saw a movie of his only last week.”
Mel Palmer beamed.
“I would say Mr. Hamel is in the same stable as Robbins and Sheldon.”
I switched to my awe-stricken expression, but wiped it when I saw Parnell glaring at me. Then he looked at Palmer.
“Okay for me to brief Anderson? Have you made up your mind you want action, Mr. Palmer?”
“I don’t want action, but Mr. Hamel does. Yes, go ahead.”
Parnell turned to me.
“Mr. Hamel has been receiving poison pen letters about his wife. She is twenty-five and he is forty-eight. He is beginning to think he has made a mistake marrying a woman so young. When he is writing, he needs to be alone. She is left to amuse herself. These letters say she is amusing herself with a younger man. Hamel is in the middle of an important work.” He looked at Palmer. “That’s correct?”
Palmer rubbed his fat little hands together.
“It’s important if you call a movie deal worth ten million dollars, a paperback deal worth a million dollars and, of course, foreign rights. Mr. Hamel has signed all these contracts, and the book is promised to be delivered in four months’ time.”
I strangled a whistle. Eleven million dollars for writing a book! Man! I thought, are you in the wrong racket!
Talking to me, Parnell went on, “These letters have broken Mr. Hamel’s concentration.”
“He’s just stopped writing!” Palmer said, his voice shrill. “I’ve told him these letters are written by some sick crank and he should ignore them. If the book doesn’t make its dateline, the movie people might sue.” He waved his hands. “Mr. Hamel says he can’t continue to write until he is completely satisfied that there is no truth in this crank’s insinuations. He wants his wife watched.”
Another dreary wife-watching case, I thought. Hours of sitting in a car with nothing happening for days, then suddenly, something does happen, and if you’re lulled by the sun and boredom, you lose her. Wife watching was my least favourite assignment.
“No problem,” Parnell said. “That’s what we are here for, Mr. Palmer. I agree with you that Mr. Hamel’s wisest move would be to show these letters to his wife, but, you tell me, he is emphatically against this?”
“I’m afraid so. He thinks it would be insulting.” Palmer moved irritably. “There it is. He wants her watched, and a weekly report sent to him.”
“He doesn’t trust his wife?”
“He has had a previous, most unfortunate experience which has made him distrustful.” Palmer hesitated, then went on, “Nancy isn’t his first wife. Three years ago, he married a woman of Nancy’s present age. This woman felt neglected, and in my opinion, rightly so, and Hamel caught her with some young playboy, and there was a divorce.”
“Rightly so?” Parnell quizzed.
“When Mr. Hamel is writing, he cuts himself off from any social contact. His working hours are from nine to seven, and during that time, no one is permitted to approach him. He even has his lunch served in his workroom. For a young, newly married woman, this routine can be and, of course, with his first wife, was, a disaster.”
The telephone bell buzzed on Parnell’s desk. Frowning, he answered, said, “Okay, in ten minutes,” and hung up.
He looked at Palmer. “I suggest you go with Anderson and give him a description of Mrs. Hamel, who her friends are, what she does with herself during the day if that is known.” He stood up. “There is nothing to worry about, Mr. Palmer. Please tell Mr. Hamel he will receive our report, delivered by hand, in seven days’ time. When Anderson has all the information you can give him, would you be good enough to see Miss Kerry who will explain about our fees and the retainer.”
Palmer looked glum.
“I hope this isn’t going to be too expensive.”
Parnell’s fleshy face creased into a wintry smile.
“Nothing that Mr. Hamel can’t afford. I assure you of that.”
I led Palmer down the long corridor and into my office.
Chick hurriedly removed his feet from the desk and dropped the girlie mag into a desk drawer.
I introduced Palmer and Chick and they shook hands.
As I was thirsting for a drink, I said, “Make yourself at home, Mr. Palmer. Have a Scotch?”
I saw Chick’s face brighten, then fall as Palmer said, “No — no, thank you. Scotch I find a little heavy for me at this time of the day. Perhaps a pink gin?”
“Let’s have some drinks, huh?” I said to Chick.
While he was fixing two Scotches and a pink gin, I sat Palmer down in the client’s chair, then took my place behind my desk.
“I’d like to fill my colleague in,” I said. “He and I work together.”
Palmer nodded and accepted a double pink gin that Chick thrust at him.
Every office was equipped with a cocktail cabinet, but the operators weren’t supposed to drink, except with clients. We got around that problem by buying our own bottles of Scotch, and keeping them in our desk drawers.
I outlined to Chick what Parnell had told me.