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Authors: James Hadley Chase

Fast Buck

BOOK: Fast Buck
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THE FAST BUCK
James Hadley Chase
1952
PART ONE
I

Rico opened his office door and peered cautiously into the dimly lit restaurant. The long, narrow room with its tables already set for dinner, its small, rectangular dance floor, the band dais decorated with flowers, was empty and silent. He listened intently, then stepped back into the office and shut the door.

‘Be another half-hour before anyone shows up,’ he said. ‘What are you nervous about?’

Seated by the flat, ornate desk in a red-leather lounging chair was a blond giant of a man, whose thick, lumpy shoulders dwarfed the back of the chair. His clothes were creased and dusty. His slouch hat had an oil stain on the front, and the ribbon was frayed. His big, granite-hard face was yellowish white, and his eyes were pale grey: the colour of ice.

Rico watched him with uneasy excitement. He was always nervous and unsure of himself when he was with Baird. He knew Baird was dangerous, and yet he was fascinated by him as some people are fascinated by a snake.

Baird pulled out a dirty, screwed-up handkerchief and tossed what it contained on the desk.

Rico peered intently at the emerald and diamond bracelet. A little pang of greed ran through him. He had never seen anything so beautiful. Then caution edged the greed out of his mind. The bracelet was beyond his class: to attempt to handle it would be as dangerous and futile as a midget attempting to fight Joe Louis.

‘Don’t I keep tel ing you to leave this kind of stuff alone?’ he said furiously; furious because he was forced to recognise his own shortcomings. ‘It’s no good to me. It’s too dangerous. Al these stones match. The value of the piece is as it is now. Break it up, and it ain’t worth a goddam!’

‘Don’t feed me that crap,’ Baird said. His voice was surprisingly soft for a man of his size. ‘It’s worth a couple of grand even if you have to break it up.’

Rico shook his head. He wouldn’t admit to Baird that he knew of no one to whom he could sel a piece of this value. Ever since he had first met Baird he had tried to impress the big man with his importance.

‘I don’t want it,’ he said. ‘It’s too dangerous.’

Baird looked at Rico, his pale eyes probing.

‘All the same you’ve got to take it, Rico,’ he said. ‘I’m in a jam. The twist might die.’

Rico stiffened. His heart skipped a beat and then began to race madly.

‘What was that? What do you mean?’

Baird reached for a cigarette from a box on Rico’s desk. He smiled jeeringly at Rico. The sudden fear in Rico’s eyes amused him.

‘The bitch tried to scream. There was a prowl car not more than ten yards away. I had to hit her.’

Rico looked as if he were going to faint. He clung to the edge of the desk, his face turning white.

‘Why, you crazy bastard!’ he snarled furiously. ‘Get out of here! Don’t you know this’ll be the first place the cops will come to? They know you’re always here. What are you thinking of? Get out and stay out!’

Baird eased his powerful muscles. All along he had known Rico was a cowardly little rat. He had chosen him because of his cowardice. There were plenty of other fences in town he could have gone to, but none of them would be so easy to handle as Rico in a crisis. He knew, too, he had a fatal fascination for Rico. He was everything Rico wanted to be: big, strong, ruthless, and a killer; he was the out-of-reach fantasy of Rico’s private dreams.

‘I want some dough,’ he said. He lit the cigarette and flicked the match across the room. ‘Give me five Cs.’

Rico was frightened. Baird wouldn’t have said the woman might die unless he had a good reason for saying so. Murder! This was something he hadn’t bargained for when he had told Baird he could handle anything Baird brought to him.

He swept the bracelet across the desk towards Baird.

‘Not a dime! Take it and get out! Think I want to be caught on an accessory rap? Maybe you’re crazy, but I’m not!’

A muscle high up near Baird’s right eye began to twitch. He opened his coat so Rico could see the butt of the .45 Colt he carried in a holster under his arm.

‘Five Cs, Rico,’ he said, and Rico could read the threat in the pale eyes.

‘No!’ Rico said violently. His pock-marked face began to glisten with sweat. ‘You can’t do this to me, Baird! You’re not going to hold me up for something I don’t want! You and me have worked together…’

‘Five Cs,’ Baird repeated, ‘and snap it up. I want to get out of town before the heat’s on.’

Rico snarled at him. He looked like a cornered rat as he crouched over the desk, his teeth showing and sweat running down his face.

‘Get out!’ he said. ‘Take that bracelet with you! I wouldn’t touch it if you gave it to me!’

Baird’s hand shot out and gripped Rico’s shirt front. He hauled him out of his chair, dragged him across the desk, sweeping papers, the cigarette-box, the rack of fountain pens and the telephone to the floor. He stood up, lifting Rico off his feet. Rico hung in Baird’s grip like a sawdust dol , staring with protruding eyes at Baird’s expressionless face.

‘I said five Cs,’ Baird said softly.

He slapped Rico’s face with his left hand. He slapped it four times, very hard, knocking Rico’s head from one side to the other. The sound of the slaps was like the bursting of a paper bag. Then he let go of Rico, who staggered against his desk, his knees buckling.

‘Snap it up,’ Baird said, ‘or you’l get some more.’

Rico staggered to his desk and sat down. His hand went to his cheek, which had puffed up and had turned the colour of port wine. He opened a drawer, took out a bundle of bills and counted out five of them. With a shaking hand he pushed the bills across the desk.

Baird picked them up, tossed the bracelet into Rico’s lap and pocketed the bil s.

‘Why do you have to do it the hard way?’ he asked. ‘When I want anything, I damn wel get it. You should know that by now.’

Rico didn’t say anything. His fingers caressed his burning face, but he picked up the bracelet and dropped it into his pocket.

‘I’ll let you know where I get to,’ Baird went on as if nothing had happened. ‘I’l be back in a week if she doesn’t croak. I’ve another lit le job lined up that might be something. If you hear of anything that’d fit me, keep it on ice until you hear from me? Okay?’

Rico licked his dry lips.

‘Sure,’ he said hoarsely, his hand stil on his cheek.

‘Well, so long for now. Take a look outside. I don’t want to walk into any trouble.’

Rico made the effort and went to the door. He peered into the restaurant, listened, stepped back.

‘Okay,’ he said. ‘Go through the kitchens. Don’t let any-one see you.’

‘So long,’ Baird said again, and moved through the dimly lit restaurant, skirting the tables, moving softly, his hands in his pockets, without looking back.

Rico returned to his office and straightened his desk. When he had picked up the various articles that had fallen to the floor, he sat down limply. He took out a mirror from a drawer and examined his reflection. His eyes were hot and intent as he stared at the livid bruise across the side of his face. He put the mirror away, got up and crossed over to a cellarette standing in a corner. He mixed himself a stiff whisky and soda, sat down again, and took the bracelet from his pocket. He studied it for some time. It was a beautiful piece. At a guess it’d be worth five or six grand. But who would buy it? He frowned at the bracelet. It was the best piece he had ever had through his hands; the best and the most dangerous.

He got up and locked the bracelet in a concealed wall safe. He would have to wait and see if the woman died. If she didn’t die it might not be so difficult to find a buyer. But if she did… He grimaced and took a long pull at his glass.

He went into the bathroom, leading off his office. He spent some time holding a sponge of cold water against his burning face, his eyes still hot and intent, his mind busy.

What a guy that Baird was, he thought. Not a nerve in his body! ‘If I want anything I damn well get it,’ he had said, and it was true. Working with a fel a like Baird meant big-time, Rico told himself. It was dangerous, but look what he stood to gain! He gently patted his face dry. He felt no anger or animosity against Baird for hitting him. It was just another proof of his strength of purpose. Baird was like no other crook who came to Rico. No one else would have dared to touch Rico.

Rico adjusted his tie, smoothed down his thinning hair and went back to the office.

He came to a standstill just inside the door, fear clutching at his heart.

Seated in the red leather chair, chewing a dead cigar, was a short, thickset man with a red, freckled face, sandy hair and wide-set, cold, green eyes. He had on a grey suit, a little baggy at the knees and shiny at the elbows; a nigger brown hat rested far to the back of his head.

‘Hel o, Rico,’ he said, eyeing Rico’s face with his bleak, green eyes. ‘Who’s been knocking you around?’

Rico smiled stiffly; his mouth felt frozen.

‘How did you get in here, Lieutenant?’ he asked, coming to the desk. ‘I haven’t seen you in weeks.’

Lieutenant George Olin of the Homicide Bureau crossed one thick leg over the other, took the cigar out of his mouth and stared at it with an expression of disgust. He tossed it into Rico’s trash basket, produced a cigar-case, selected another cigar and put the case back in his pocket.

‘I sneaked in,’ he said, staring at Rico. ‘I hoped to catch you on the wrong foot. Have I?’

Rico tried to laugh. The croaking sound he made deceived neither himself nor Olin.

‘I’m very careful where I put my feet,’ he said, and sat down. ‘What’s on your mind, Lieutenant?’

‘Suppose you tel me,’ Olin said. ‘Had any visitors within the past half-hour?’

Rico poured himself another drink while his mind worked swiftly. Had there been a patrolman watching the club? He didn’t want to admit Verne Baird had just left, but if the club was being watched, and Baird had been seen leaving, it would be awkward to be caught in a lie. But as lying came more naturally to him than telling the truth, he decided to lie.

‘I haven’t had anyone in here,’ he said careful y. ‘The club doesn’t open until eight.’ He glanced at the desk clock. The time was twenty minutes past seven. ‘I’ve been working. Of course, anyone could have come into the restaurant without me knowing: like you did.’

Olin grinned sourly. He knew all about Rico. He knew he was itching to move out of small-time into big-time. He had been watching Rico for months now, waiting for a false move.

‘Stil playing it close to your chest, Rico? One of these days you’re going to lie yourself into the gas chamber. I hope I’m there to spit in your eye before they close the door.’

Rico continued to smile, but his eyes shifted uneasily. Even when spoken about in jest, death had a horror for him.

‘What’s biting you, Lieutenant? You sound a lit le sour tonight. Have a drink?’

Olin shifted his squat figure to make himself more comfortable.

‘I don’t drink on duty,’ he said, rubbing his fleshy jaw. ‘Who hit you – Baird?’

Rico was expecting something like that, but although he was prepared he couldn’t conceal a lit le start that told Olin all he wanted to know.

‘One of the girls,’ Rico said, and lifted his shoulders. ‘I thought she was a pushover, but I made a mistake. The little devil hit me with a hair-brush.’

‘Good for her,’ Olin said. ‘Where is she? Maybe I could persuade her to make a charge against you.’

Rico laughed.

‘She went home. There was nothing to it, Lieutenant. It happens every day. But why bring Baird into this?’

‘Has he been here tonight?’

‘I haven’t seen him,’ Rico said, shaking his head. ‘I haven’t seen anyone but you tonight.’

‘And your pushover friend,’ Olin said.

‘Well, yes…’

Olin lit his cigar, puffed contentedly for a moment, took the cigar from between his teeth and blew gently at the glowing end.

‘About a couple of hours ago,’ he said, looking at Rico, ‘Jean Bruce, the actress, in case you don’t know, left her house to attend some shindig at the Martineau Galleries. Between her house and the end of the drive, she was held up and robbed. An emerald and diamond bracelet worth five grand was stolen.

From the way the stick-up was staged, it’s my bet Baird did it. There was a prowl car within twenty yards of the robbery, and the officers didn’t see or hear a thing in spite of the fact it was done in broad daylight. Baird specialises in that kind of recklessness. He’s been hanging around this club for the past few months, so I thought I’d drop in and see if you and he were dividing the spoils.’

Rico sipped his whisky, patted his thin lips with a stiff linen handkerchief and stared back at Olin, his eyes intent and sick looking. At this moment he wished he had never had anything to do with Baird.

‘Couldn’t she identify him?’ he asked. ‘He’s big enough. I don’t like that last remark of yours, Lieutenant. You can’t talk that way to me.’

Olin tapped ash on to the carpet. He showed his teeth in a mirthless smile.

‘Can’t I? Who’s going to stop me? The reason why she can’t identify Baird is because he murdered her!’

BOOK: Fast Buck
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