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Authors: James Hadley Chase

1951 - But a Short Time to Live

BOOK: 1951 - But a Short Time to Live
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Table of Contents

chapter one

chapter two

chapter three

chapter four

chapter five

chapter six

chapter seven

chapter eight

chapter nine

chapter ten

chapter eleven

chapter twelve

chapter thirteen

chapter fourteen

chapter fifteen

chapter sixteen

chapter seventeen

chapter eighteen

chapter nineteen

chapter twenty

chapter twenty-one

chapter twenty-two

chapter twenty-three

chapter twenty-four

chapter twenty-five

chapter twenty-six

chapter twenty-seven

chapter twenty-eight

chapter twenty-nine

chapter thirty

chapter thirty-one

But a Short Time to Live

James Hadley Chase




chapter one


he fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought, that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn't suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal. But she seemed pleased that Harry had photographed her, and she read the card carefully before putting it in her bag.

"And to think I didn't see you," she said as she closed the bag. "I bet I'll look a proper fright."

"No, you won't," Harry returned. "People always look their best when they don't know they're being photographed. It will be ready by tomorrow afternoon. There's no obligation to buy, only I hope you'll go along and see it."

"Oh, I'll go," the woman said. "Link Street's somewhere near the Palace Theatre, isn't it?"

"That's right. First turning on the left as you go up Old Compton Street."

She thanked Harry and gave him a smile. Some of the lost prettiness came back like a transparency you hold up to the light, and as she walked away, she tucked up the strands of hair that escaped from under her hat.

That was the last photograph for the day. Thank goodness for that, Harry thought as he wound off the film, slipped the spool into its metal case and put the case in his pocket. He felt chilly and tired. To be on your feet for four hours at a stretch wasn't so bad if the sun shone and people were pleased to be photographed, but today heavy clouds had hung over the West End and there had been a cold East wind.

The crowds moving in a steady stream up and down Regent Street weren't in the mood to be photographed, and some of them had scowled at Harry and his camera, refusing to take his cards, or if they did, threw them away after an indifferent glance. He had taken over a hundred photographs and considered he would be lucky if twenty-five of them found buyers.

He put the camera in its case, slung the case over his shoulder and as always at this time found he had nothing particular to do. He could return to his bed sitting room in Lannock Street, off Sloane Square or return to the studio and listen to Mooney's moans and groans about how bad business was or he could go to a pub and read the evening paper. He decided to go to a pub. He liked pubs. He liked to get in a corner with a pint of beer and watch and listen. It was surprising what he heard and saw in the West End pubs. He overheard the most extraordinary scraps of conversation, and it amused him to try and place the speakers, to guess what they did for a living, whether they were married, whether they lived as he did in a boarding house or whether they owned their own homes. He found that if he sat long enough, listened hard enough and kept his eyes open wide enough he could learn a lot about the people around him, and he liked to know about people. Besides, there wasn't much else for him to do: not on six pounds a week with forty shillings of that going out on bed and breakfast.

He paused on the edge of the kerb for the traffic lights to turn red. There was nothing about him to attract attention. He wore a shabby tweed sports coat, a pair of old flannel trousers and a dark blue shirt.

He was twenty-four, and had a thickset, strong, broad shouldered figure. His eyes were big and grey and friendly, and his mouth wide and generous. His hair, cut short and inclined to curl, was fair, and his complexion, exposed to all kinds of weather, was the colour of old mahogany. He could have been mistaken for a medical student, and the people whom he photographed often looked at him curiously as if wondering why a young fellow of his stamp hadn't found himself something better to do than to stand at street corners and take photographs for a living.

When the traffic stopped, he crossed Regent Street and walked slowly up Glasshouse Street where he bought an evening paper. He went on, moving more slowly as he scanned the front page, indifferent to the threats of another war, disinterested in the worsening of the dock strike, held for a moment by a smash and grab raid in Shaftesbury Avenue, and then giving his undivided attention to the latest sensational murder trial which covered two pages of the paper. He was still reading as he pushed open the swing doors of the Duke of Wellington's public house in Brewer Street. He liked the Duke of Wellington: it had a pleasant homely atmosphere and its beer was good: quite the best beer in London.

He ordered a pint of bitter, pulled up a stool and sat down, still reading. This chap hadn't a hope, he thought. What jury would believe a yam like that? Why even a kid wouldn't believe it!

He read to the end, turned to the stop-press to see if there was any more of it, and then reached for his tankard. The beer went down well and he gave a sigh of satisfaction as he savoured its taste and stretched his tired legs.

The bar was crowded; voices blended in one continual sound, punctuated by the shrill bell of the cash register, the banging of tankards on the counter and the continual shuffling of feet Harry folded his paper and leaned his shoulders against the wall, tilting back his stool at a precarious angle. He surveyed the crowd hopefully. The usual faces were there. The three men in black homburg hats and overcoats huddled together in a comer, drinking whiskies and whispering. They were there every evening about this time: mystery men. Harry had never been able to pick up one word of their conversation, and had no idea what they did or who they were. The grey-faced man and his perky, shabby wife were sitting at a table close by, drinking port. Harry knew something about them. They were caretakers of a block of offices in Regent Street, and the woman was always trying to cheer the man up.

He had an ulcer, and seemed in need of a great deal of cheering up. There was an elderly couple who wrangled good-naturedly about dog racing. There was a heavily built man who bored his two companions with his political theories. There was a young couple who drank brandy and sat in a comer and who never paid any attention to anyone except themselves. The girl was flat chested and plain and held the man's hand with fierce possessiveness and scarcely said a word while the man talked in low continuous murmur, and kept waving his free hand at her as if he were trying to persuade her to do something against her will.

Harry regarded all these faces without enthusiasm. He thought it was high time he found someone new to interest him. Hopefully he stood on the rungs of his stool and looked over the heads of the crowd before the bar and surveyed the little group of tables against the far wall. And then he saw her: the most attractive-looking girl he had ever seen in his life.

She had a mass of blue-black hair which fell in a heavy wave to her shoulders. She seemed to him to be prettier than any film star, and as bright and glittering as a diamond. She wore no hat. Her sky blue blouse with its high collar looked as immaculate as if she had only this second put it on, while her black full-pleated skirt was neither too short nor too long as if it had made up its mind to strike a compromise between the Old and the New Looks and succeeded uncommonly well.

He stood on the rungs of the stool, gaping at her, thinking how marvellous she was: just the kind of girl he would like to take out if he had plenty of money. He knew a girl with her looks and her way of dressing was certain to cost a packet of money if he did take her out. It would be unthinkable as well as unreasonable to expect her to go to any old restaurant or to travel by bus or go in the three and sixpenny seats at a movie. Obviously only the best of everything would do for her. It would be unreasonable too to expect her to take any interest in a fellow who stood at street comers and took photographs for a living, and Harry sighed.

But what was she doing in a pub like the Duke of Wellington? he wondered. Not that there was anything wrong with the Duke, but after all it wasn't quite the kind of place — pleasant as it was — in which you'd expect to find a girl who dressed so smartly and was so bright and glittering. Then he saw she was drinking whisky, and that rather shocked him. He looked to see who she was with and received a second shock. Her companion wasn't the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

Here, Harry thought, sitting down on his stool again, was a problem worthy of his undivided attention. Who was the man? Who was the girl? Were they related? What were they doing here? And as he began to puzzle how best he could get within earshot of these two and overhear a word or two of their conversation that might supply a clue to these questions someone suddenly lurched violently up against him and upset his tankard of beer.

Startled, Harry turned and found himself face to face with the fat, elderly man he had been thinking about.

"My dear sir," the fat man said, clutching Harry's arm. "I offer you my profound apologies. I really am very sorry indeed."

"That's all right," Harry said cheerfully. "Accidents will happen. There was only a drop left, so there's no harm done."

"It's very nice of you to take it like this," the fat man said, breathing heavily. "But you must allow me to buy you another drink. It's the least I can do. What will you have?"

"No, it's all right, thank you," Harry said hastily. "As a matter of fact I wasn't going to finish what I was drinking anyway. It's really all right."

The fat man looked hurt. He screwed up his bloodshot eyes and peered closely at Harry.

"You mustn't fob me off you know," he said. "Can't go knocking people's drinks over. I wouldn't like it if it happened to me. Have a whisky. Nothing like a whisky to cement friendship," and he thumped on the counter to attract the barman's attention. "A large Scotch and soda for this gentleman," he went on as the barman raised his eyebrows at him.

"Well, thanks," Harry said, and tried to wriggle his arm out of the hot, clutching hand. "You needn't have bothered. It was an accident. Anyone could have seen that."

"It wasn't," the fat man said, and lowering his voice, went on, "Just between you and me, would you say I'm a little tight?"

Harry hesitated. He didn't want to hurt the fat man's feelings, nor did he want him to fly into a rage. You never knew with drunks just what they were going to do.

"Oh, I don't know," he said cautiously. "Perhaps you've had enough. Let's put it that way."

The fat man seemed quite pleased as if he had formed this opinion for himself and was glad to learn he hadn't been exaggerating his condition.

"You're right," he said and patted Harry's arm. "I like a chap who tells the truth when he's asked. But the trouble is she hasn't had enough," and he jerked his head in the direction of the table against the wall. "These modem girls can put it away," he went on, lowering his voice. "Mind you I had a good few before I met her. Now look here, why don't you join us? That'll give me a chance to drop out for a round or so. You wouldn't mind doing that, would you?"

Harry said he wouldn't mind at all

"But she might," he pointed out "She mightn't like me to barge in on your party."

"Don't you believe it," the fat man said. "She's a nice girl. She'll like you. You bring your whisky and come over. S'matter of fact I'll be glad of your arm. I'm not as steady as I ought to be."

Harry picked up his drink and grasped the fat man's arm.

"How's that?" he asked, excited at the thought of meeting this girl.

"Very good," the fat man said and blinked up at him. "My name's Wingate. Sam Wingate. What's yours?"

Harry told him.

"Now we know what's what," Wingate announced gravely. Wicks, eh? All right, Wicks, let's go."

"Ricks," Harry said. "Harry Ricks."

"That's it — Wicks. Now, come on. Best leg forward. Steady does it. Off we go."

And they set off on the short but precarious journey from the bar to the table against the wall where the girl was sitting.

BOOK: 1951 - But a Short Time to Live
12.16Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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