Authors: James Hadley Chase
Table of Contents
You Can Say That Again
James Hadley Chase
or the past week, I had been sitting, alone, in my walkup apartment, staring into space and waiting. I had run out of cash, and even worse, out of credit. My lifeline, right at this moment, was the telephone.
When the bell rang — the first time in seven, gruesome days — I nearly broke a leg getting to the receiver.
‘This is Lu Prentz’s secretary.’
‘Hi, Liz!’ I wasn’t a bit-part actor for nothing. I instilled into my voice sincere pleasure: not a desperate screech for help, but smooth, no panic, completely at ease. ‘You just caught me. I was on my way out.’
I knew this crummy dialogue wouldn’t jell with Liz Martin, but I knew she would go along with it. She had had enough experience, working with Lu Prentz, to know all his clients were desperate for work.
‘Mr. Prentz wants to see you urgently, Mr. Stevens,’ she told me. ‘May he expect you?’
‘What does that mean — urgently?’
‘After lunch. Three o’clock?’
There was a time when Lu Prentz talked business with me over a lush-plush lunch, but that was in the dim past. The only time he wanted to see me now was to remind me I owed him five hundred and three dollars.
‘Is he worrying about what I owe him, Liz?’ I asked in my bored voice. ‘Is that what he wants to see me about?’
‘It’s a job, Mr. Stevens.’
‘I’ll be there at three o’clock.’
As I hung up, I took in a long, deep breath. Man! Could I use a job! Any goddam job!
A few years ago, I had been a big success, playing the baddie in Western movies. Then I moved onto the friend who never got the girl: strictly second role parts, then the guy who got shot early in the movie, then the character who sat around looking menacing for a fifty second take, then nothing much: a few bit parts, then a bigger part in a TV serial, and now, I was, what is known in the trade, resting.
I was pushing forty: tall, handsome, dark and divorced. My wardrobe, carefully cherished, was beginning to show signs of wear. I had been waiting and waiting. I was so far down the tunnel, I didn’t go out, scared to leave the telephone, didn’t eat more than a hamburger a day which was sent in, but still hoping for the big break.
Lu Prentz was known as the last line of retreat for the unsuccessful and aging actors and actresses. When all the big agencies, the not-so-big agencies, the minor agencies were no longer interested, Lu was willing to try. He often said with his oily smile: Who knows? Some sucker could buy you, and it’s dollars in my bank.
To give Lu his due, he had, over the past six months, staked me when the wolves were gnawing at my door. He had explained, when handing over the loot to me, that he had faith in me. He felt convinced he would get his money back, plus twenty-five percent interest. Taking his money, I was happy to agree with him, but I felt he was taking a risk. I had even sold my car.
But if Liz said there was a job, she meant just that.
Liz Martin was a worldly eighteen year old. She had been working for Lu for the past three years. If anyone had a heart of gold, she had. I’ve seen her cry when some skinny, aged actress had been given the bum’s rush out of Lu’s shabby office.
Liz was typing like crazy when I walked into the tiny room that served as an outer-office. I gave her my wide, friendly smile.
Liz was a thin, tiny blonde with big blue eyes and the kind of appeal spaniels have: a little doleful, but longing to be loved.
‘Hi, Liz,’ I said, closing the door. ‘Is the alligator back from crunching bones?’
She nodded and pointed to Lu’s door.
‘Go right on in, Mr. Stevens, and good luck.’
Lu Prentz sat behind his desk, his pudgy hands resting on the grubby blotter, his eyes closed. From the heavy flush on his face, he had been reducing the level in a Scotch bottle at someone else’s expense.
Lu was short, squat and over-fat. Balding and clean-shaven, when he remembered to shave, he gave the appearance of a no-good uncle returning to the homestead in search of a dollar. He always wore the same shiny blue suit. He went in for hand-painted floral ties and bottle green shirts. It was only when he opened his eyes and looked at me, I recalled he was not only sharp, not only shrewd, but as hard as tungsten steel.
‘Sit down, Jerry,’ he said, waving to the client’s chair. ‘I think something’s come up that could be useful to you.’
I sat down carefully knowing from experience, this chair was as comfortable as the Iron Maiden, designed to get rid of Lu’s clients in the shortest possible time.
‘You’re looking well, Lu,’ I said. ‘Long time, no see.’
‘Never mind the B movie dialogue,’ he said, releasing a gentle burp. ‘Just listen.’ He screwed up his little eyes as he contemplated me. ‘You owe me five hundred and three bucks.’
‘Don’t let’s go over past history, Lu. What’s come up?’
‘I’m just reminding you because if you land this job, the first thing you do is to repay me.’
‘What job? TV?’
‘I don’t know what the job is, but my instincts tell me there could be money in it.’ He tapped his beaky nose. ‘Always providing you get the job.’
‘You’ve eaten too much for lunch. You’re rambling.’
‘Stop wasting my time! Just listen!’
So I listened.
This morning, at ten o’clock he told me, a man, calling himself Joseph Durant, had come to the office. This man made a big impact on Lu. He was around forty—five years of age, well fed, swarthy and smooth. He was immaculately dressed in a suit that only big money could buy. He wore black lizard skin shoes and a Cardin tie. These points registered with Lu. The look of this man gave off a strong aroma of wealth. Mr. Durant said he was interested in hiring an out-of-work actor. He understood, by asking around, that Mr. Prentz specialized in out-of-work actors.
Lu, giving his oily smile, said he also had many other clients who were earning big money in movies and TV
Mr. Durant had waved this obvious lie aside. Did Mr. Prentz have photographs of these actors who were out-of-work and were looking for an assignment?
Lu said he had some four hundred photographs of excellent actors who were, unfortunately, resting at this moment.
‘I’ll look at these photographs,’ Durant said.
‘Well, four hundred . . . maybe you can give me some idea of the kind of man you had in mind? I could then put the data through my computer (Liz Martin) and come up with a selection.’
‘I need a man between thirty-five and forty—five years of age. He must be at least six feet tall. His height is important. He should be slim: not more than a hundred and sixty pounds. He should be able to drive a car, ride a horse and swim well. He must have a placid temperament. I don’t want one of these showoff actors who think they are tin gods.’
Lu had only five out-of-work actors on his books who vaguely matched this description, and all of them considered themselves major gods. He made a big thing about producing the photographs. These Durant examined.
Lu gave me his oily smile.
‘He picked you, Jerry. He wants to see you before deciding to engage you.’
‘What is this?’ I asked. ‘Who is he? Is he a talent scout?’
‘I doubt it.’ Lu shrugged. ‘He was secretive. I do know he reeks of money, and that’s what we are both interested in . . . right?’
‘You can say that again,’ I said with feeling.
‘Okay. Now tonight, at exactly ten—thirty, you will walk into the lobby of the Plaza hotel. You will then go to the newsstand and buy a copy of Newsweek. You will then go to the main bar and order a dry martini. You will sit at the bar and look through Newsweek. You will have a few words with the barman, finish your drink and return to the lobby. You don’t rush any of this. You will be watched. Your manner, your movements and the way you conduct yourself are of interest to Mr. Durant. You will sit in the lobby. If you have satisfied Mr. Durant, he will approach you. If you have flopped, he won’t, and after waiting half an hour, you go home and forget it ever happened. That’s it. It’s up to you.’
‘You have no idea what he wants?’
‘No talk of money?’
‘No talk of money. This is an audition. It’s up to you.’
I thought about this. It seemed odd to me, but it could turn out to be a job.
‘He looks like money?’
‘He stinks of money.’
‘Well, okay. What have I to lose? I’ll be there.’
Lu switched on his oily smile.
‘Good. Now remember, a placid temperament. This guy means what he says.’
‘A placid temperament? That means a yes-man.’
‘Nice thinking, Jerry. That’s what it means.’
‘Suppose he hires me? How about the money? Do you handle that end of it?’
Lu’s little eyes turned cold.
‘If he talks money, refer him to me. I’m your agent, aren’t I?’
‘You must be. I don’t seem to have any other agent.’ I gave him my boyish smile, minus sincerity. ‘Well, okay, I’ll be there.’ I paused, then went on. ‘There’s one little thing, Lu, we should settle before I leave you to your hive of industry. I go to the Plaza. I buy Newsweek. I buy a dry martini . . . right?’
He regarded me suspiciously.
‘That’s what you do.’
I widened the boyish smile.
Lu stared at me.
‘I don’t follow you.’
‘Let’s face the sordid facts. I’m bust flat. I even had to walk to your crummy office. I’ve even sold my car.’
Lu reared back in his chair.
‘Impossible! I lent you . . .’
‘That was six months ago. Right now, I am worth one dollar and twenty cents.’
He closed his eyes and released a soft moan. I could see he was struggling with himself. Finally, he opened his eyes and produced a twenty-dollar note from a loaded wallet and placed the bill, as if it was Ming china, on his desk.
As I reached for the bill, he said, ‘You had better get this job, Jerry. This is the last handout you get from me. If you don’t get this job, never let me see your face in this office again. Is that understood?’
I stowed the bill into my empty wallet.
‘I always knew you had a heart of gold, Lu,’ I said. ‘I will tell my grandchildren of your generosity. The little bastards will cry their eyes out.’
‘You now owe me five hundred and twenty three dollars, plus twenty-five percent interest. Now, go away!’
I went into the outer office where two aged, shabby looking men leaned against the wall, waiting to see Lu. The sight of them depressed me, but I managed to give Liz a bright smile. I walked down to the street. As I set off to my dreary apartment, I hoped, as I have never hoped before, that tonight would produce the vital break I needed.
* * *
As I walked into the lobby of the Plaza hotel, the wall clock showed 22.30.
In my better days, I had often frequented this hotel, using the bar and the restaurant when dating some willing dolly bird. Then, the doorman would lift his cap, but this time, he merely glanced at me as he hurried down the steps to open the door of a Caddy from which spilled a fat man and a fatter woman.
The hotel lobby was fairly crowded with the usual mob who milled around, greeting each other: most of the men in tuxedos and the women in their war paint. No one paid any attention to me as I walked across the lobby to the newsstand. The old dear who had been behind the counter since the hotel had opened, smiled at me.
‘Why, hello, Mr. Stevens! I’ve missed you. Have you been away?’
Well, at least someone remembered me.
‘France,’ I lied. ‘How are you?’
‘Middling. None of us get any younger. And you, Mr. Stevens?’
‘Fine. Give me Newsweek, will you, baby?’
She simpered. It is easy to please those without money or fame. She gave me the magazine and I paid.
Then conscious I might be watched, I gave her my charming smile, said she looked younger than when I had last seen her, and leaving her dazed with joy, I walked slowly through the mob to the bar. I resisted the temptation to look around to see if I could spot Mr. Durant. I only hoped he was there, watching my performance.
The bar was crowded. I have to weave my way through and past the fat, scented women and the fat, potbellied men to the bar.
Jo-Jo, the negro barman, was serving cocktails. He had put on a lot of weight since I last had seen him. He gave me a quick glance, then a double take, then he beamed at me.
‘Hi, Mr. Stevens. Be with you in a second.’
I rested my elbows on the bar: another who remembered.
When Jo-Jo eventually reached me, I asked for a dry martini.
‘Long time no see, Mr. Stevens,’ he said, reaching for a shaker. ‘You’re quite a stranger.’