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Authors: James Hadley Chase

1971 - Want to Stay Alive

BOOK: 1971 - Want to Stay Alive
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Want to Stay Alive?

James Hadley Chase

Copyright © 1971





hey hadn’t been asleep for more than an hour when Meg woke with a start. She lifted her head from the rucksack that served as a pillow and peered uneasily around the unfurnished moonlit room. Cobwebs hung in thick festoons and a giant spider moved across the ceiling.

“A spooky place,” she had said to Chuck when they had broken in. “A place for ghosts.”

But Chuck had no imagination. He had sneered at her.

“Okay . . . so we keep them company. Anything’s better than these mosquitoes.”

They had come on the derelict house as they had left Highway 4 to look for somewhere to sleep. Their money had run out soon after leaving Goulds, a citron and potato town. Chuck had tried to get a job at one of the packing plants but they had turned him away. His shoulder length hair, his beard and his smell that had built up on him since leaving Jacksonville where he had had his last wash made him a non-starter.

This deserted house stood in a jungle of stunted palms, palmettos and flowering shrubs. It was a Southern colonial two-storey building with six square porch columns reaching to the roof: a rich man’s house that must have been impressive in its day.

Meg had stared curiously at the building and had wondered who the owner had been and why no one wanted to buy it.

“Who cares?” Chuck had said when she had expressed her thoughts and going up to the entrance doors, he had aimed a kick at the heavy iron lock.

The doors sagged open. One of them came away from its hinges and fell with a clatter, raising choking dust.

Meg had drawn back.

“I don’t want to sleep in there . . . it’s spooky.”

“Oh, shut up!” Chuck was in no mood to listen to her talk. He was hungry, tired and depressed. He caught hold of her arm and pulled her into the dusty darkness.

They decided to sleep on the upper floor as the lower windows were boarded up. The moonlight, coming through the dirty windowpanes up there was strong enough for them to see to unpack. The wide staircase was impressive. Meg imagined someone like Scarlet O’Hara descending the stairs in all her finery, watched by a group of admirers, waiting for her in the big hall. She didn’t pass this thought on to Chuck. She knew he would only jeer at her. Chuck lived essentially in the present. Even the future was a blank wall to him.

Now, suddenly awake, her heart beginning to beat unevenly, she listened.

The house seemed alive. The wind coming off Biscayne Bay moaned softly in the eaves. The shredding wallpaper made soft rattling noises. The woodwork creaked, and somewhere below a door swung in the wind, its rusty hinges squeaking.

Meg listened for some moments, then reluctantly settled to sleep again.

She looked over at Chuck who lay on his back, his mouth half open, a strand of his long, dirty hair lying across his face. Even from where she lay she could smell him, but that didn’t bother her. She probably smelt herself. They would fix that up when they reached the sea and could have a bath.

She looked up at the ceiling, spreading her long legs and cupping her full breasts, covered by a thin, dirty sweater.

By now she had got used to living rough. It had many advantages: at least she was free to go where she liked and to live how she liked, and this was important to her.

She thought of her father working for peanuts as an insurance salesman and her dreary mother. Until she was seventeen years of age she had gone along with them, but even at the age of fourteen, she had made up her mind that the moment she was sure enough of herself to quit, she would quit. This middle-class, suffocating life was not for her. It wasn’t until Chuck met her that she had made the break.

The movie turned out to be a drag and she left half way through it. As soon as she got into the hot night air and realised it was only 21.00 she regretted leaving the movie house. She now had nothing to do except go home, and the thought of watching TV with her parents filled her with dismay.

“Are you looking for company?”

Chuck had moved out of the shadows and stood before her. She regarded him appraisingly. Meg had done everything a teenager will do with men except surrender her virginity. She liked the struggles in cars when she kept her legs tightly crossed and submitted to everything except that one thing.

She had been warned so often by her mother to have nothing to do with strangers that the warning was now a bore and a challenge.

Chuck had a certain appeal. He was short, stocky and powerfully built. His long reddish hair and beard pleased her. His face was attractive in its carefree ugliness. He had a virility that stirred her.

She recalled how they had gone down to the beach and had swum naked.

Chuck was so natural about his nakedness that he killed any shyness that Meg had to strip off.

When they reached the sea, he had said, “Let’s swim.” He had taken off his clothes before Meg realised what was happening and naked, he had run into the sea. After a moment’s hesitation, she had followed his example and later had submitted to his urgency.

Her first sexual experience had been explosive. Although Chuck had many failings, he knew how to handle a woman.

“I like you, Meg,” he had said as they lay side by side, drained and relaxed. “Have you any money?”

She was to learn that money and sex were the only two things in which Chuck was interested. She had saved three hundred dollars from presents given her from wealthy relations over the years, saved against a ‘rainy day’ as her mother had put it. This wasn’t a rainy day, but why should she care?

Chuck told her he planned to go to Florida. He wanted the sun. No, he didn’t do anything. When he ran out of money, he got a job — any job — and when he had saved enough, he quit. It was a good way to live and Meg thought so too. With three hundred dollars they could live forever, Chuck had said. How about going with him?

This was the moment Meg had been waiting for. She had found an exciting man whose thinking was the same as hers.

Chuck was four years older than she. She had been to a movie on her own: something she seldom did for she always had lots of friends. This particular night she wanted to be alone. She had told her parents she was meeting Shirly and they were going to a movie downtown. She always had to tell her parents who she was meeting and she always lied, knowing they were too dumb to check. She lied even when she went with Shirly, telling them she was going with Edna. She got a kick out of lying to her parents.

She wondered if they even heard what she told them. Often she wondered if they would say anything different from the usual ‘have a good time, honey, and don’t be late’ while they stared at the TV screen if she said she was going out with Frank Sinatra.

He was strong, tough, reckless and his love making terrific. She didn’t hesitate.

They arranged to meet at the Greyhound bus station the following day and they would go together to Florida.

The following morning, when her mother was out shopping, she had packed her camping outfit, written a note to say she wasn’t coming back, helped herself to fifty dollars her father kept in the house also for a rainy day and left home for good.

Her three hundred dollars and her father’s fifty dollars didn’t last forever as Chuck had predicted. Among his many weaknesses was a compulsive urge to gamble. Meg sat with a hammering heart as Chuck cheerfully rolled dice with two youths who they had picked up on their way down to Jacksonville. When Chuck was down to their last fifty dollars, Meg had said in a trembling voice that it was time to stop.

The two youths had looked at Chuck. The elder had said, “Do you take that kind of crap from your woman?”

Chuck had put his broad, short-fingered hand over Meg’s face and had given her a shove that sent her flying to land on the uneven ground with a jar that shook the breath out of her. By the time she had recovered, Chuck had lost the rest of their money and the two youths had faded away into the darkness.

“So what’s money for?” Chuck had snarled at her when she had screamed at him. “Shut up! We’ll get more . . . there’s always money!”

They had got jobs as orange pickers and had toiled in the heat for a week until they had scraped together thirty dollars, then they quit and started once more towards Miami.

The money didn’t last long after paying the fares and buying food. Now they had nothing and Meg was hungry. They hadn’t eaten for twelve hours: the last meal had been a greasy hamburger, and yet she still had no regrets.

This kind of life: being dirty, hungry, homeless was a lot better than living in that dreary prison ruled by her parents.

Well, something will turn up tomorrow, she thought. She had faith in Chuck. She again settled herself to sleep, then again she started up.

Someone was moving around in the hall below!

She distinctly heard the scrape of shoe leather and her heart began to race. She shifted silently over to Chuck and taking hold of his arm, she gently shook it.


He moaned, threw off her hand and began to turn over, but she shook his arm again.


“Oh, for God’s sake!” He came awake and half sat up. His smell of dirt even at this moment made her wrinkle her nose. “What’s the matter?”

“There’s someone moving around downstairs.”

As she gripped his arm, she felt his steel muscles tighten and she was reassured. His physical strength made a tremendous impression on her.

“Listen!” she whispered.

He shook off her hand and got to his feet. Moving silently, he went to the door and gently opened it. She looked at his broad back. His crouch and steadiness helped to diminish her fear. He listened for a long moment, then shut the door and came over to her.

“Yeah . . . you’re right. There is someone down there . . . could be a cop.”

She stared at him.

“A cop?”

“We’re trespassing. If some nosey cop . . .” He chewed on his lower up. “We could get knocked off for vagrancy.”

“We’re not doing any harm . . . vagrancy?”

Chuck wasn’t listening. He took an object from his hip pocket and pushed it into Meg’s hand.

“Put it down your pants. If it’s a cop he mustn’t find it on me.”

“What is it?”

“A knife, stupid!” He went to the door and opened it softly. Meg watched him walk out and pause at the head of the stairs. She stared at the bone handle of the knife with its chrome button and her finger touched the button. She flinched as three inches of gleaming steel snapped into sight.

She had no idea how to return the blade into the handle and getting to her feet, she crossed the room and hid the knife, under a pile of mildewing shreds of wallpaper. Then she joined Chuck. He waved her to be silent. They both stood motionless, listening. All Meg could hear was the rapid beating of her heart.

“I’m going down,” Chuck whispered.

She caught hold of his arm.


He didn’t seem to need any further persuasion. She had the idea he was as scared as she was and she was faintly disappointed in him. They stood there listening for several more moments, then they heard someone walking in the room to the left of the hall. Then a shadowy figure came into the hall. They could see the red glow of a cigarette and Chuck relaxed. He was sure whoever the intruder was, he wasn’t a cop. Cops don’t smoke on duty.

“Who’s that?” he demanded, and to Meg his voice sounded harsh and tough.

There was a moment’s pause. They could see the shadowy figure standing motionless, then the beam of a powerful flashlight hit them, making them start back. The beam remained on them for a second or so, then it went out, leaving them blind.

“Get me the knife,” Chuck whispered.

Meg stumbled into the room, ran over to the heap of wallpaper and found the knife.

“I saw the door was open,” a man was saying from below as she joined Chuck, “so I walked in.”

Chuck’s hot, sweaty fingers closed around the handle of the knife.

“Then walk out again,” he snarled. “We have first claim. Scram!”

“It’s big enough for all of us, isn’t it? I have food. I don’t like eating alone.”

Meg heard her stomach rumble. The thought of eating made saliva fill her mouth. She gripped Chuck’s arm. He got the message. He was starving too.

“I thought you were a cop,” he said. “Come on up.”

They watched the man below move into the room off the hall and return, carrying a rucksack. He started up the stairs, using his flashlight.

Keeping his knife in his hand, Chuck waited for him, pushing Meg back towards the room they had just left. She paused in the doorway, her heart beating uneasily as the man reached the head of the stairs.

Chuck peered at him. All he could see was a tall outline: a man a head taller than himself, but slimly built and without his shoulder spread. Not much strength, Chuck decided and relaxed a little.

BOOK: 1971 - Want to Stay Alive
3.55Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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