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Authors: Helen Nielsen

Darkest Hour

BOOK: Darkest Hour
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DARKEST HOUR
HELEN NIELSEN

a division of F+W Media, Inc.

FOR
J
UDY AND
B
UD

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

A Note About the Author

Also Available

Copyright

CHAPTER ONE

By five o’clock on that Monday afternoon the winter sun had paled to an amber cutout in the curtain of fog that sealed ocean to sky, and a narrow ribbon of reflected light pointed directly to the wide window of a hotel room facing the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica. Monte Monterey stood at that window. From this vantage point he could see the sunset, the sea, the highway and, more important, the entrance to the parking lot of the hotel. He was watching for an automobile. He didn’t know the make or the model, but he did know that it would be high-powered, low-slung and distinctive because it would be driven by one who traveled unbeaten paths at unrestricted speeds.

Monterey was a slightly built man who used his body as a master musician uses his instrument. Standing just under six feet, with the assistance of the lifts in his black suede shoes, he weighed not an ounce more at fifty-six than he had weighed at twenty-six. His thick, black hair, lightly salted with gray, was carefully groomed. His skin was a deep health-club tan, his eyes were olive brown, his features unbelievably regular due to the expert craft of plastic surgery. Only a few barely visible scars marred the illusion of perpetual youth. He dressed tastefully: steel-gray two-button suit, steel-gray silk tie, white shirt and ebony cuff links. He wore contact lenses for reading and dark Italian-style sport glasses for driving—day or night. He lived by his physical attractiveness, charm and wits. It was sometimes a good life, sometimes a wretched life, but it was never dull and he had confidence that it would continue for many exciting years to come if the caller for whom he now watched kept his appointment.

In the event that he did not, Monterey had an alternative plan.

At ten minutes past five he glanced at the wafer-thin gold watch on his left wrist. Time was running out. He abandoned the window and hastily checked a stack of airline schedules on the desk. They were useless now. If anything had gone wrong and Max Berlin was alerted to his whereabouts, the air terminal would be the first place sealed. Monterey found the telephone directory and put through a call to a small, independent car-rental agency in the neighborhood.

“My name is Montgomery,” Monterey stated. “I’m staying at the Palms Hotel. What will it cost me to rent a good sedan for a week? … No, not a Cadillac. A Ford will be fine, but don’t deliver it to the hotel. If I decide to take it, I’ll pick it up at your office within the hour.”

Step one of the alternate plan had been taken. Monterey didn’t realize how his hand was trembling until he tried to replace the telephone in the cradle. Fear. It was always there, hovering in the background. Max Berlin had seen to that on the deck of a deep-water motor launch off the Lower California coast a year ago. One of the crew had been uncovered as a Treasury agent, and the way he died—in slow, sun- and salt-drenched agony—wasn’t executed so much to satisfy Berlin’s sadism as to impress on every man aboard what he could expect if his loyalty deviated. From that day forward a cold horror lodged deep inside Monterey’s memory bank, and he would never be free again unless he could break the fear barrier. There had been an explosive reaction in San Diego a few hours ago, but fury wasn’t courage. Only love was a strong enough catalyst to destroy fear, and it had been a long time since Monte Monterey loved anyone—especially himself.

He got the telephone back in place and checked his wallet. In addition to almost two thousand dollars in cash, it contained one of the two things he possessed that still gave him mobility: an international driver’s license issued to Martin Montgomery. The second possession was a one-pound package in his suitcase that could be his passport to freedom or death.

A smart rap at the door brought Monterey to a swift alert. He listened.

“Sam?” he called. “Sam Goddard?”

The answer was another rap and a churlish, “Bellboy. You asked for a freeway map in room two-twelve—”

Monterey relaxed and went to open the door. The bellboy was a little man of about sixty who stared at Monterey. “Say, ain’t you what’s-his-name, the actor?” he queried. “No, you can’t be him. I think he’s dead.”

“I’m sure he’s dead and so I can’t be what’s-his-name, obviously,” Monterey said. He took the map and closed the door before the conversation could get any more involved. It was at least twenty years since a bellboy had recognized Monte Monterey in the States. The golden days were long gone—days of the chauffeur-driven Rollses, the Mediterranean-style mansions, the lavish parties and the screaming fans. Monterey had never been a big star. He made fifty-odd films and most of them were low budget, but he had lived in the fabulous era and enjoyed most of its fringe benefits. The long decline into oblivion had been delayed by a brief revival of his career in Mexico City and South America—being bilingual had its advantages—but even that cycle was finished now, and recognition was the last thing he wanted. He flipped open the freeway map and turned away from the door. Facing him on the opposite wall was a television set. A year ago, between planes at Kennedy airport, he had received the unpleasant shock of seeing one of his latter-day movies screened before a lounge full of travel-weary passengers. Reruns could be embarrassing, particularly when a man didn’t want to be recognized, and the inquiring bellboy probably spent a third of his life in front of the TV.

The freeway map was another symbol of change. The world moved faster now. There was less room for error and no time for retakes. Monterey checked his watch again. Five-thirty. By this time both sea and sky were mere backdrops for the glow of street lights along the boulevard, and the entrance to the parking lot was framed with stark neon light. It was much too late for the rendezvous. Something had gone wrong.

Monterey switched on the television. He needed the weather and highway information. If Goddard wasn’t coming, he would have to pick up that sedan at the rental agency and move fast. By this time Max Berlin was certain to know that he was being double-crossed.

“… early this afternoon on the Pacific Coast Highway north of Oceanside,”
the telecaster intoned,
“death came to Samuel Stevens Goddard, fifty-eight, flamboyant and fiery figure on the local scene for two decades. ‘Swinging Sam,’ as he was called by friend and foe, and both camps were legion, enjoyed a meteoric rise as editor and publisher of the outspoken and now defunct
Los Angeles Chronicle
and as a one-time candidate for governor. Widowed fifteen years ago, Goddard leaves no heirs. His only son, Lieutenant Samuel Stevens Goddard, Jr., was killed in action in Korea in 1953. A year later, facing bankruptcy, Goddard sold his newspaper and retired to a small ranch near San Diego. His car, a foreign sports model, apparently left the highway in the heavy fog that has lain on the coastal area all day…. Now, returning to the local scene—”

Monterey’s map fell to the floor, having slipped unnoticed from his fingers. And now the fear flooded in, as cold as the fog that hadn’t caused Sam Goddard’s death because Sam knew every twist and turn on that highway. Southern California was more than his beat; it was his mistress. He could have driven to Santa Monica blindfolded!

The newscast was no longer important. When Monterey could react sufficiently, he switched off the set. Motion broke the spell. He retrieved the map, stuffed it into his jacket pocket and crossed to the closet. He took out a white raincoat, put it on, and picked up a small black suitcase. Testing the weight of the case in his hand, he scanned the room one last time. Nothing was left behind, and there was no one to wait for any longer. He might have waited too long already.

• • •

There are two absolutes in life: money talks and all things eventually go home. As Martin Montgomery, with ready cash in his pocket, Monterey had no difficulty getting the Ford, and within twenty minutes after leaving the Palms he was southbound on a freeway. Once clear of the city, he angled eastward toward the desert. Traffic thinned. He could relax a little and try to imagine what had happened to Sam Goddard and his little sports car.

Sam wasn’t destined to die in bed. He was never there long enough, unless it was with his beloved Vera; but then, Monterey recalled, it was nearly nine years since he had seen Sam, and Vera might have moved out of his life. People changed. Things happened. Life’s casting was always fluid. Vera Raymond. Monterey seldom thought of women any more except as possible clients for Max Berlin’s subtle blackmail, but for just an instant he saw Vera in sharp detail: a slender, vital woman with short, dark hair and wide blue eyes—not pretty but lucid and straightforward. The ideal secretary, the efficient Girl Friday, the woman with a thousand VIP first names on the tip of her tongue, and the last female on earth one would suspect of leading a “back street” existence while Mrs. Sam Goddard bathed in the limelight. And Sam had never married her. Monterey wondered why. He didn’t have a gossip-column-oriented mind (he wasn’t a pro any more), but Sam and Vera had shared a deep relationship that was neither cheap nor transitory. A rare thing in a Barnum and Bailey world.

Twenty-four hours earlier Sam Goddard had been alive. He had answered the telephone on the third ring.

• • •

“Sam Goddard?” Monterey asked.

“Yes, this is Sam Goddard,” Sam said.

He sounded strong and cold sober.

“Do you remember a mediocre actor named Monte Monterey?”

“Hell, yes!” Sam bellowed. “I’d recognize that over-trained voice of yours anywhere, Monte. Where are you, and are you in the money? With you it’s always one extreme or the other.”

“Right now I’m worth at least a million dollars to a certain party,” Monte said, “but I’ll sell out cheap to the right newspaperman. Ten thousand dollars in cash and an appointment with the best criminal lawyer you know.”

“Who did you kill?” Sam asked.

“I’m not sure. Go to the Balboa Hotel in San Diego and ask for Dr. Kwan. He won’t be in. By this time he’s probably at the morgue. But you’ll get a story, if you’re still interested in that sort of thing. Then, if you want the follow-up, come to the Palms Hotel in Santa Monica tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock and ask for Martin Montgomery. I’ll give you the whole story and the evidence.”

Sam still had a fast reaction. “Wait! Where the hell are you?” he shouted. “If you really are in trouble it’ll be a lot worse if you run!”

“Not this time, Sam,” Monterey answered, and hung up.

• • •

Twenty-four hours. Monterey glanced at the clock on the instrument panel and was shocked to realize that he had been driving only two hours. He was exhausted. The stimulus of flight triggered by the news report was wearing off; he felt weak and lightheaded. The Ford swerved dangerously. He righted it and looked about to get his bearings. It was now completely dark and the freeway elevation obliterated landmarks, but he was overwhelmed by a strong sense of being in a familiar place. The senses had strange and mysterious powers. Once he had flown over La Verde in a plane and had been roused from a nap by the overpowering fragrance of orange blossoms in the sealed cabin. Looking down, he had seen the towers and turrets of the old Seville Inn rising from the orange groves and palm-lined streets. La Verde, the place of his birth. Now another kind of alchemy was working—no sweet fragrance of the past, but an intense longing to be home. He had been running from a dead man for twenty-four hours, and now Sam Goddard was dead, too. It was impossible to run any farther.

Monterey pulled onto the next off-ramp and followed it through a maze of streets that gradually became familiar. Intuition was right: the street led directly to the Seville Inn. It was an edifice of marvelous construction conceived in an age when elegance and charm outweighed computer mentalities that allotted X number of square feet for X percentage of profit. It was elegant, romantic and a little ridiculous now with its commercially-oriented guided tours through the old Spanish chapel and the crypts, but it was the last place anyone would expect a murderer to hide from vengeance. Monterey left the Ford in the parking lot and carried his own bag to the desk. He asked for a room on the top floor and declined the aid of a porter. He knew the way. A cranky old elevator ground him up four levels and opened into a lighted but quite empty corridor. The floor, as he expected, was virtually deserted. Tourists liked the lower rooms that were less expensive and afforded easier access to the swimming pool and parking lots. This elevation belonged to another era. The short corridor from the elevator led to a patio roofed by stars and walled by magnificent suites once occupied by illustrious and notorious guests of the past. Below, a candle-bearing tour group filed solemnly across the tile courtyard and into the old chapel that was a part of the inn’s charm. Monterey hesitated, torn by the desire to join them and light a candle for Sam Goddard. But that was nonsense. Monterey was no longer a believer, and Sam had been a dedicated agnostic. The impulse passed. He located his room at the far end of the patio just opposite an open staircase that spiraled down to the ground-floor shops. The shops were now closed and the stairway blocked by padlocked wrought-iron gates. Monterey unlocked a heavy plank door and switched on the lights in the only occupied room in the wing.

Waves of memories rose to meet him. Some places were like museums—never changing through the years. The room had monastic simplicity: white walls, high vaulted ceiling, open fireplace and a bare minimum of Spanish-style furniture. At the rear of the room a pair of steel-framed French doors opened onto a small balcony. The view from the balcony hadn’t changed. This was the one place in the world where time had stopped. Everything was exactly the way it had been the night of Joe’s marriage.

Private First Class Joe Morales was just twenty-two that night. Juanita, his bride, was as lovely as the Virgin of Guadalupe. They were married in the little chapel downstairs and then came up to this room for the one week of happiness they were to know before Joe left on a routine tour of duty in the Philippines. It was October 1941. Monterey’s career was active and the week at the Seville was a wedding gift to his only brother. But Joe never returned from that tour of duty.

BOOK: Darkest Hour
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