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Authors: James Hadley Chase

An Ace Up My Sleeve

BOOK: An Ace Up My Sleeve
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AN ACE UP MY SLEEVE

JAMES

HADLEY

CHASE

COPYRIGHT © 1971

CHAPTER ONE

HELGA ROLFE crossed the lobby of the Konigshof Hotel, her mink coat draped over her shoulders, aware that two stout German business men were eyeing her, their eyes taking in the coat, the black two piece suit, the red blouse and the mink trimmed hat. The eyes approved, but by now, she was used to approving male eyes. Approval no longer interested her: she needed more than approval.
She dropped her room key on the desk and the Hall Porter, bowing, gathered it up as if it were a thing of value.
"You need your car, madame?"
His guttural English irritated her. She spoke German, French and Italian fluently, but he knew her to be an American and to him, all Americans spoke only English.
"No ... I'm shopping." She spoke in German. "I am leaving tomorrow at eight o'clock. Please have my car serviced and ready."
The Hall Porter's fat fingers closed on a pencil and he made a note.
"Yes, madame." He persisted in his English. "Then at eight. I will have your account ready. Is there anything else?"
She shook her head as she slid her arms into the coat before a page could move to help her. Giving the disappointed boy a smile, she left the hotel. The sky above Bonn was the colour of lead, and it was cold. Already flakes of snow were falling to disappear on the. sidewalk, making it wet and slippery. Helga hated the cold. Her body cringed inside the comfort of her expensive coat and she walked briskly, trying to stir her blood, pampered by the excessive heating of the hotel.
She walked under the arch of the University, paused to let a stream of fast moving cars go by, then crossing the street, she headed towards the shopping centre where cars are forbidden.
The time was 11.35. She had slept late. She had gone to her room the previous evening immediately after dinner. What could a woman do on her own in any big city after –dinner except go to bed? She knew the Maitre d'hotel regarded her as a nuisance when she came into the restaurant on her own, but he was impressed by her mink stole and her diamonds. He gave her service because he knew he would be well tipped. She had eaten quickly, enduring the steady stares from the fat German business men, eating alone and wondering about her. As soon as the meal was finished, she had left and taken the elevator to her room. The sleeping pills were on the bedside table. Sleep was her antidote to loneliness.
Now, walking briskly, she plunged into the crowds moving along the traffic empty streets, aware that women were eyeing her coat with envy. It was a beautiful coat, chosen by her husband when he had had one of his infrequent moods to please her. She knew that mink was now old hat, but to her, it was still luxury and still elegant. At her age, what did it matter? Her age? She paused to look in a mirror at the back of a shop window. Forty? Or was it forty–three? Why bother about three years? She stuthed her slim figure, the carefully made–up face with its high cheek bones, its large violet coloured eyes, the short, rather beautiful nose. Forty–three? She looked thirty, even with the east wind like an icy shroud around her.
Her eyes shifted from her own reflection to the reflection of a tall man standing across the way, apparently looking at her. The peaked baseball cap, the black leather jerkin, the faded blue jeans and the red cowboy shirt told her as nothing else could he was a compatriot. He was young – probably under twenty years and he was chewing gum. Bonn was full of Americans: solthers on furlough, young people thumbing a ride through Europe and the inevitable tourists. Helga had lived long enough in Europe to despise most Americans abroad. This gum–chewing habit revolted her. She turned and walked into one of the big stores. She wanted tights, but she paused before a counter displaying woollen pants and she looked enviously at them. Her body was cold, but she resisted the appeal of promised warmth in this Victorian garment. Suppose she had an accident? It would be shaming to be undressed, even by a nurse, to reveal she was swarthed in wool.
Having made her purchase, she loitered in the warmth of the store, idly looking at the merchandise, then aware time was moving, she braced herself and walked out into the east wind.
The gum–chewing American was lolling against a lamp post, his hands dirust into the pockets of his jeans. She looked more closely at him, and she felt a sudden sexual desire stab through her. He was quite magnificent, she thought. There was a virility like a plasma coming from him. He had Slav features: a square–shaped face; large, widely spaced eyes and a short, blunt nose. He had immediate boyish charm.
She shifted her eyes and walked on. What was she thinking of? she asked herself. He was young enough to be her son, and she was angry with herself to feel so sexually moved.
She turned down another shopping street, making an effort not to look around to see if he were following her. Why should he? A kid ... young enough to be her son. She paused to look at a display of shoes. The display had no interest as her shoes were hand made, but it gave her the excuse to examine the mirror at the back of the window. She was in time to see he had followed her and was waiting, his broad shoulders finding another lamp post. Her hands turned into fists as she felt a surge of hot blood go down to her loins. She was now unaware of the wind and the cold and, as if in flight, she began to walk away from him. Could he be interested in her? she asked herself. She passed a young, blonde girl, wearing stretch pants, so tight across her buttocks, she could have been naked. She had the knowing face of a woman who knows everything and yet is young enough still to remain enthusiastic. Helga looked enviously at her, thinking: "When he sees this httle tart, he'll forget to follow me."
She entered a coffee shop and sat down, away from the window. As she stripped off her gloves and took off her coat, the waitress came over and Helga asked for a coffee. She would not allow herself to look out of the window. With unsteady fingers, she lit a cigarette. She spent a disciplined half hour over her coffee, determined to be sure. If he was still waiting, then she would speak to him. She suddenly found herself muttering a prayer that he would be waiting.
At exactly 12.30, she crushed out her cigarette, paid her check, put on her coat and walked out into the street.
He was standing across the way, still chewing gum, still with his hands thrust into his jeans' pockets. She made to approach him, then stopped. Although .she was now convinced he wanted to contact her, she was suddenly frightened of the possible result.
She turned abruptly and began walking towards her hotel. She had gone only a few yards when she stopped and turned. He was just behind her. They looked at each other and he touched the peak of his cap, a boyish, embarrassed grin lighting up his face. "What do you want?" she asked.
People moved impatiently around them. They were like two rocks in a rushing stream.
Now close to him, she could feel his animal, youthful magnetism so strongly it made her feel weak. 
His smile widened.
"Well, ma'am, you look kind of friendly," he said. His voice, was soft and he spoke carefully, making each word distinct. "You're the first kind looking American I've seen since hitting this town. Excuse me. If I'm bothering you, just say so and I'll scram."
"No ... you're not bothering me." She was furious with herself that her voice sounded so emotional.
A fat man, wearing a leather hat with a feather in it brushed against her, making her give ground. A girl in a mini skirt, her fat legs purple with the cold, stepped around her while looking at this big boy who chewed on his gum. Helga felt a thrill of pride that he didn't even look at this girl as she tossed her unwashed hair in passing him.
There was a pause, then Helga said, "I'm going to have lunch. Are you hungry?"
His grin widened.
"I sure am, ma'am. The fact is I'm broke and haven't eaten for two days."
She felt suddenly depressed. Clever boy! she thought. So you've found a lonely woman, old enough to be your mother, and you're putting on the bite. "Two's company ... I don't like eating alone," she said. "Eat with me."
She turned and walked along the street until she came to the first cheap restaurant. He walked behind her and she could hear him humming. Why not? He was going to get a free meal.
She pushed open the glass door of the restaurant and then paused. She had never been in this class of restaurant before. If she were going to feed him, he had to be fed here. She couldn't take him back to the hotel. She couldn't face the Maitre d'hotel if she took this boy into the luxury restaurant.
She looked around. Already, people were eating, and she saw with dismay, there were no tables for two. All the tables were set for six and all of them had people.
The boy seemed to know his way around. He touched her elbow and steered her to a table where two elderly Germans and their lumpy daughter were working through plates of boiled sausage and sauerkraut.
They stared up at Helga as she shed her coat. The boy took it from her and carefully hung it on a peg by the table. They sat down opposite each other. She found she was sitting too close to the German husband and she could feel his body heat. The boy opposite was sitting next to the daughter who squirmed away from him, then darted a smirking look at him. He didn't notice, his eyes searching for a waiter. The tightness of his face told Helga how hungry he was and she felt a pang of pity.
A waiter came, dropped two menus on the table, then went away to serve an order.
The boy looked at the handwritten menu and grimaced.
"Do you dig this, ma'am?" he asked anxiously. "This language throws me."
The waiter returned and looked first at Helga, then at the boy as if trying to make up his mind who should have his attention, then the tilt of Helga's head told him she was going to order.
"Bean soup, steak and chips for one and an omelette for myself," she said in German. "Two beers."
The waiter nodded and went away.
The three Germans at the table, hearing Helga's fluent German, looked curiously at her, then shifted their eyes.
"You speak the lingo, ma'am?" There was an admiring note in the boy's voice. "That sure saves a lot of headaches." He leaned forward, resting his big hands on the table. "I'm Larry Stevens."
She smiled. "Helga Rolfe."
"I'm from Nebraska."
"Florida."
There was a pause while he looked at her, his eyes admiring and she looked searchingly at him, her eyes hopeful.
"Wouldn't you be more comfortable if you took off your cap?" Immediately she said it, she regretted it. Americans seemed to live in their hats.
He flushed, then tore the cap off, shoving it out of sight under his thigh.
"Excuse me, ma'am. I guess I'm a hick. I forgot I'm wearing the goddamn thing."
She looked at his close cut, blond hair and then stuthed his face. Again she
felt hot blood move through her.
The beers arrived.
"You, me and the flag," Larry said, picking up his glass and saluting her. He drank thirstily. Setting down his half empty–glass with a sigh of content, he went on, "I'm sure grateful." He grinned at her: a warm, friendly grin that made her feel good. "I thought I was really fixed."
The food arrived. While she toyed with her omelette, she watched him eat. The three Germans at the table also watched. The soup disappeared. The big steak and the pile of potato chips went the same way. He ate with the concentration and the dedication of the starved. Every now and then, his mouth full, he looked up and grinned at her. The warmth of that grin was the nicest thing that had happened to her for a long time and she felt tears clouding her eyes. She frowned down at the remains of the omelette, not wanting him to see how moved she was.
The three Germans called for their bill and left the table. Larry laid down his fork.
"That was something, ma'am! That really was something!"
She saw the wistful look in his eyes as he regarded the empty plate and she signalled to the waiter.
"It was a success," she said as he came quickly to her side. "Please bring the order again."
The waiter looked at Larry, then at her and he nodded, a big smile lighting up his fat face. He whipped away the plate and hurried towards the kitchen. "What was that you said to him, ma'am?" Larry asked, peering at her.
"They always give double portions here," Helga said. "There's another steak coming."
His grin was even more boyish.
"I appreciate it." He leaned forward, looking directly at her. "I want you to know, ma'am, I really appreciate this." He shook his blond head. "It's a funny thing, but when things look really tough, you get a sudden break. Ron told me that and I found it hard to believe. People do help out. You've helped me." He sat back. "Could be ... I could help you and I'd be glad to."
BOOK: An Ace Up My Sleeve
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