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Authors: James Hadley Chase

Just Another Sucker

BOOK: Just Another Sucker
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JUST ANOTHER SUCKER
JAMES HADLEY CHASE
CHAPTER ONE

I

When they released me at eight o’clock on a July morning, it was raining fit to drown a duck.

It was a pretty odd sensation to walk out into the world that, for me, had stood still for three and a half long years. I approached it warily, walking a few yards from the iron studded doors, then pausing to get the feel of freedom.

There would be a Greyhound bus at the corner to take me home, but for the moment, I didn’t feel like going home. I just wanted to stand on the edge of the sidewalk, to feel the rain against my face and to let the fact sink in that I was now free, that I wouldn’t have to spend another night in a cell and I wouldn’t any longer have to share my life with thugs, criminals and sex perverts as I had been doing for all these months.

The rain made puddles in the road. It beat down on my four year old hat and my five year old raincoat: warm rain, coming from a cloud-swollen sky as dark and as bitter as myself.

A glittering Buick Century slid up beside me and the electrically driven off-side window rolled down.

‘Harry!’

The car door swung open as I bent to stare in at the driver.

John Renick grinned at me.

‘Come on in – you’re getting wet,’ he said.

I hesitated, then I got into the car and slammed the door shut. Renick grabbed my hand and squeezed it. His dark lean face showed as nothing else could how pleased he was to see me.

‘How are you, you old sonofagun?’ he asked. ‘How does it feel to be out?’

‘I’m all right,’ I said, disentangling my hand from his. ‘Don’t tell me I’m getting a police escort back home.’

His smile slipped a little at my tone: his grey shrewd eyes searched my face.

‘You didn’t imagine I wasn’t coming, did you? I’ve been counting the days.’

‘I didn’t imagine anything.’ I looked at the ornate dashboard of the car. ‘Is this yours?’

‘You bet. I bought it a couple of months ago. She’s a honey, isn’t she?’

‘So the Palm City cops are still keeping themselves well heeled. Congratulations.’

His mouth tightened and there was a sudden flash of anger in his eyes.

‘Look, Harry, if any other guy but you had made that crack, I would have taken a poke at him.’

I shrugged.

‘Go ahead if you feel that way. I’m used to cops taking pokes at me.’

He drew in a deep breath, then he said: ‘Just for the record, I’m the D.A.’s Special officer now, and I have had a pretty substantial rise. I’ve been off the regular Force for more than two years.’

I was irritated to feel the blood rise to my face.

‘I see… I’m sorry… I didn’t know.’

‘How could you?’ He grinned and shifted into gear. The Buick drifted away from the kerb. ‘A lot of things have changed, Harry, since you’ve been inside. The old gang has gone. We have a new D.A. –

he’s a good man.’

I didn’t say anything.

‘What are your plans?’ he asked abruptly.

‘I haven’t any. I want to look around. You know the
Herald’s
washed me up?’

‘I heard.’ There was a pause, then he went on: ‘It’s going to be a little rough for you at first. You know that, don’t you?’

‘Oh sure. When a guy kills a cop even accidentally, he’s not allowed to forget it. I know how rough it is going to be.’

‘You won’t have any trouble with the police. I didn’t mean that, but you may have to look around for a new career. Cubitt carries a lot of weight. He has his knife in you. If he can stop you, you’re not getting back into the newspaper world.’

‘You let me worry about that.’

‘I might be able to help.’

‘I don’t want any help.’

‘Oh sure, but there’s Nina…’

‘And I can take care of Nina.’

There was a long pause while he stared through the rain-soaked windshield, then he said: ‘Look, Harry, you and I are friends. We’ve known each other a heck of a long time. I know how you are feeling, but don’t treat me as if I were one of your enemies. I’ve talked to Meadows about you. He’s the new D.A. There’s nothing fixed yet, but there’s a chance we can use you in the office.’

I looked at him.

‘I wouldn’t work for the Palm City Administration if it was the last job left on earth.’

‘Nina’s had a pretty rough time,’ Renick said awkwardly. ‘She…’

‘I’ve also had a pretty rough time, so that makes the two of us. I don’t want anyone’s help. That’s final!’

‘Well, okay,’ Renick said. He made a helpless gesture with his hands. ‘Don’t imagine I don’t understand, Harry. I guess I’d be bitter too if I had been framed the way you were, but what’s done’s done. You have your future to think of now – Nina’s future too.’

‘What else do you imagine I have been thinking about all the time I have been in a cell?’ I stared out of the car window at the sea, grey in the rain, pounding against the sea wall. ‘Yes, I’m bitter all right. I have had time to realise just what a goddam sucker I’ve been. I should have taken the ten thousand dollars the Police Commissioner offered me to keep my mouth shut. Well, one thing I have learned since I have been in jail: I’m not ever going to be a sucker again.’

‘You’re just sounding off,’ Renick said sharply. ‘You know you did the right thing. The cards were stacked against you. If you had taken that rat’s bribe, you would never have been able to live with yourself, and you know it.’

‘Think so? Don’t kid yourself it’s going to be all that pleasant to live with myself now. Three and a half years sharing a cell with a child rapist and two thugs with habits that would sicken a pig does something to you. At least if I had taken that bribe I wouldn’t be now an ex-jailbird without a job. I’d probably be owning a car like yours.’

Renick shifted uneasily.

‘That’s no way to talk, Harry. You’re getting me worried. For Pete’s sake, get hold of yourself before you see Nina.’

‘Suppose you mind your own business?’ I snarled at him. ‘Nina happens to be my wife. She’s taken me for better or worse. Well, okay. You let me worry about her.’

‘I think you were wrong, Harry, when you wouldn’t let her attend the trial or even visit you in jail or write to you. You know as well as I do, she wanted to share this thing with you, but you turned her into an outsider.’

My hands closed into fists as I continued to stare at the rain-soaked beach.

‘I knew what I was doing,’ I said. ‘Do you imagine I wanted her to be photographed by those vultures in the court room? Do you imagine I wanted her to see me in that prison rig behind wire and glass? Do you imagine I wanted that jerk of a Warden reading her letters before I got them? Just because I acted like a sucker, there was no need for her to be dragged into it.’

‘You were wrong, Harry. Didn’t it occur to you she wanted to be with you,’ Renick said impatiently.

‘It was as much as I could do to persuade her not to come with me this morning.’

We were approaching Palm Bay, the swank residential district of Palm City. The long line of de luxe bathing cabins looked forlorn in the driving rain. The beach was deserted. The Cadillacs, the Rolls and the Bentleys stood in their parking squares outside the luxury hotels.

At one time Palm Bay had been my hunting ground. It seemed a long time now since I had been the gossip columnist of the
Herald,
the newspaper with the biggest circulation in California. Then, my column had been syndicated to over a hundred minor newspapers. I had been earning good money. I had lived well and had enjoyed my work. After a while, I had married Nina and bought a bungalow just outside Palm Bay where we set up home. I was doing all right, and looked set for life; then one night, when I was in the bar of the Beach Hotel, I happened to overhear a snatch of conversation between two strangers who had been hitting the bottle and had become indiscreetly loud.

Those few words put me onto something that was as hot and as dangerous as an exploding volcano. It took me two months of secret and patient investigation before I got the complete story. It was a story that would hit the headlines of the
Herald
for weeks.

A Chicago mob planned to take over Palm City. They planned to install slot machines, to set up brothels and all the rest of the paraphernalia of organised vice. The monthly take was estimated to be two and a half million dollars.

When I had convinced myself of the facts, I thought at first this mob must be crazy. I couldn’t believe they could just walk in and take over this city how and when they liked. Then I got a hot tip that the Palm City Police Commissioner as well as half a dozen of the important administrators had been bought and had agreed to give the mob the protection it needed.

Then I made my major mistake: I tried to carry on the investigation on my own. I wanted this to be a personal scoop, and it wasn’t until I had got the necessary evidence and an outline of the articles I intended to write exposing the conspiracy that I went to J. Matthew Cubitt, my boss and owner of the
Herald.

I told him what was cooking and he listened, his grey, thin face expressionless.

When I was through, he said he would want to check my facts. There was a coldness in his manner and an odd lack of enthusiasm that should have warned me. Although I had dug deep and had persuaded a lot of people to talk, I hadn’t dug deep enough. The mob had bought the
Herald
. That was something I had never thought possible. I learned later they had promised Cubitt a seat in the Senate if he played along with them and the bribe had been too much for this grasping, ambitious newspaper owner.

He asked me to turn over all my information to him to check. On my way back to the bungalow to get the dossier, I was stopped by a police car.

The Police Commissioner, I was told, wanted to see me. I was escorted to police headquarters where I had an interview with the Commissioner.

He was a hard, direct man and he didn’t attempt to hedge. He put on his desk ten thousand dollars in new crisp bills. He would trade the bills for the dossier and I could forget the investigation. How about it?

Apart from the fact I had never taken a bribe and didn’t intend to start now, I knew the story I was ready to write would put my name on the front page for weeks and would establish my reputation in the newspaper world as nothing else could. I got up and walked out, and I walked right into trouble.

I turned my dossier over to Cubitt and told him of the bribe offered me by the Police Commissioner.

He stared at me with his hooded eyes, nodded and told me to come to his house at half past ten that night. By then I would have had time to check on my findings and decide the best way to handle the set-up. I guessed he burned the dossier. I never saw it again.

Nina had been in on the investigation from the start. She was scared sick about it, realising, as I did, the kind of dynamite I was handling, but she also realised this was my big chance and she went along with me.

I left home just before ten for my date with Cubitt. I could see how scared she was as she went with me to the car. I had an uneasy feeling myself, but I trusted Cubitt.

His residence was in Palm Bay. To get there, I had to drive along a stretch of lonely road. On this road, I ran into trouble.

A police car, travelling fast, overtook me and sideswiped me. The idea maybe was to force my car off the road and into the sea, but it didn’t work out that way. There was a pretty bad smash and the police driver got his ribs shoved in by his steering wheel. His companion, apart from a shaking, wasn’t hurt. He arrested me for dangerous driving. I knew it was a frame-up, but there was nothing I could do about it. A couple of minutes later, another police car arrived with Sergeant Bayliss of the Homicide Squad at the wheel. What he was doing on this lonely road no one ever bothered to ask. He took charge. The injured cop was rushed to hospital and I was taken to headquarters.

On the way, Bayliss suddenly told the driver to stop. We were in a dark, deserted street. He told me to get out. The driver got out too and grabbed me from behind, locking my arms. Bayliss took a bottle of Scotch from the glove compartment, filled his mouth with whisky and sprayed the whisky in my face and over my shirt. Then he produced a blackjack and clubbed me over the head.

I came to in a cell, and from that moment, I was sunk. The injured cop died. They nailed me on a manslaughter rap and I drew four years. The attorney who defended me fought like a tiger, but he didn’t get anywhere. When he introduced the conspiracy evidence, it was promptly thrown out. Cubitt, on oath, said he never had my dossier, and that he was going to get rid of me anyway as I was not only an unreliable newspaper man, but a secret drunk.

All the time I was serving my sentence I kept thinking what a sucker I had been. I told myself I must have been crazy to have tried to buck the Administration on my own.

It didn’t help me when I heard the Police Commissioner had resigned under pressure, and that the Administration had had a complete shake up. There had been an inquiry after the hints my attorney had dropped around and the Chicago mob had decided to move in elsewhere, but that didn’t help me. I was stuck with a four year sentence for killing a cop while drunk in charge of a car, and there was nothing anyone could do about it.

BOOK: Just Another Sucker
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