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Authors: Brett Halliday

Tags: #detective, #mystery, #murder, #private eye, #crime, #suspense, #hardboiled

Counterfeit Wife

BOOK: Counterfeit Wife
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Brett Halliday

Counterfeit Wife

 

Chapter One

A COUPLE OF C-NOTES

 

MICHAEL SHAYNE SAID GOOD-BY to Leslie and Christine Hudson outside the 36th Street air terminal at Miami. “Don’t bother to come in,” he insisted, as he got out of the Hudson car. “I’ve got only a few minutes to check in and catch that plane.”

Christine’s gray eyes were pensive when she turned them upon the tall, redheaded detective standing beside the open car window. She said, “Good-by, Michael,” and put her dark head out, her red lips puckered. Shayne bent to kiss them lightly. “And thanks again,” she added softly.

“Yes, thanks a million,” said Leslie Hudson, leaning across his wife to take Shayne’s hand in a hearty grip. “You realize, of course, how much Christine and I appreciate what you’ve done for us. Anything we can ever do for you—”

“I know.” Shayne’s left hand touched the square jewel box in his outer coat pocket and he grinned crookedly at the couple. “If I can sell a certain girl the idea that these pearls are the real thing, I may be bringing her back here for your inspection.” He turned away hastily, waving a big hand in their direction as the car slid forward.

Inside the crowded terminal, he pushed his way up to the National Airlines counter in front of a lighted sign that read
Immediate Departures.

There was a brown-haired girl behind the counter who had freckles across the bridge of her nose and a nice smile. He said, “Shayne. For the midnight flight to New Orleans. I’ve a reservation, but no ticket yet.”

The girl ran her index finger down a typewritten list. “You’re the one who has been causing us so much trouble with cancellations. Michael Shayne?” She looked up for corroboration, pencil poised to check a name near the bottom of the list. “Flight Sixty-two?”

Shayne nodded. “The midnight flight to New Orleans.” He glanced at a clock above her head; the time was eleven-fifty. “The plane must be loading now.”

“It is.” She lifted a telephone and tucked it under her ear while she drew a ticket blank in front of her and began filling in the spaces. Into the mouthpiece she said, “Sixty-two. Michael Shayne. That’s right. He’s ticketing now.” She waited a moment, then replaced the receiver. “Have you any baggage, Mr. Shayne?”

“One bag. It has been checked here at the airport since yesterday noon.” He took the check from his pocket. The girl lifted her brows to a uniformed Negro porter who came forward and took it from Shayne’s hand.

“Sixty-two,” she informed the porter, and he hurried away while she continued filling out the ticket.

Shayne took out his billfold. The girl said, “That will be forty-five seventy-seven, Mr. Shayne. That is, if your bag doesn’t weigh more than forty pounds.”

“It doesn’t,” he assured her, sliding a fifty across the counter.

The porter came up with Shayne’s Gladstone while she was making change. He set it on the weighing platform beside the desk, glanced at the weight, and affixed a New Orleans tag, writing the number 62 on it.

He handed the detective the stub, grinned and said, “Thank you, boss,” when Shayne gave him a half dollar.

The girl laid his change and ticket on the counter, saying, “Gate Three. I hope you have a pleasant trip.”

“Thanks.” Shayne glanced at the clock again. There were still seven minutes before departure time. He strolled back to the men’s room, and a couple of minutes later was walking toward Gate 3 when the loud-speaker stopped him in mid-stride.

“Passenger Michael Shayne for New Orleans. A telephone call at the National ticket counter for Michael Shayne.”

He hesitated, glancing over his shoulder and frowning bleakly. It was less than five minutes before midnight. Lucy Hamilton had been stalling an impatient client in New Orleans for twenty-four hours, and he was determined not to miss this plane.

Stalking to the counter, he said, “Shayne,” to a young man who was pensively cleaning his nails with a penknife but who quickly became very businesslike and said, “Oh, yes. We just had you paged, Mr. Shayne. It’s a long-distance call. You can take it on this phone.”

Shayne picked up the receiver and said gruffly, “Shayne speaking.”

“Michael!”

He recognized Lucy Hamilton’s voice at once, though he had never heard his secretary sound exactly like that before.

“I’ve been trying to reach you for the last half hour.”

“What for? My plane leaves in a few minutes.”

“What plane? For where?” Her voice was husky, and he didn’t know whether the huskiness came from tears or anger.

“For New Orleans, of course. Didn’t you get my last wire telling you to keep stalling Belton?”

“Oh, sure, I got your wire. I got all of them. If it’s so hard for you to tear yourself away from Miami, I thought I’d tell you you needn’t bother. I’m sure you’re having much too good a time to worry about a little thing like business.”

Shayne was positive now that the tone of Lucy’s voice indicated both tears and anger. He said, “Look, darling, I’ve just cleaned up a case here. I didn’t clear a cent on it if that pleases you; and we need the Belton retainer. Tell him—”

“I’m telling you,” Lucy Hamilton cut in sharply from New Orleans. “There isn’t any Belton case, so you needn’t rush back here. Captain Denton got a confession from the murderer an hour ago.”

“That’s all right,” Shayne soothed her. “There’ll be other cases. I’ll see you in the morning.”

“You won’t see
me,
Mr. Shayne.” Lucy’s voice was no longer husky. It was clipped and icy calm. “I’m quitting as of tonight. I’m tired of lying to people and stalling clients and sitting here in an empty office with nothing to do while I chew my fingernails to the bone. I’ve left the key with the building superintendent, and—”

“Wait a minute, Lucy.” Shayne’s face was gaunt as he turned his head to look at the clock. “My plane leaves for New Orleans in about two minutes. You know I’ll never go back to that office if you run out on me. It’s too late to refund my ticket. We’ll talk things over in the morning and I—Damn it, Lucy, I’m bringing you a present.” His left hand touched the jewel box in his pocket.

“I don’t want any present from you, Michael Shayne. I’m leaving town myself for a long vacation.” There was a solid and definite click at the other end of the wire.

Shayne held the instrument to his ear as though he feared to remove it, as though he feared the mere physical act of cutting the connection at his end would make the break more decisive than Lucy had already made it. There were deep trenches in his gaunt cheeks and his shaggy red brows were drawn low over his gray eyes as he gently cradled the receiver and pushed the instrument toward the young man behind the counter.

Then, as he turned away, an eager hand was laid on his arm, and he was conscious of a rush of low-spoken words in his ear.

“I couldn’t help overhearing part of your conversation, brother. I gathered you’ve a ticket on Flight Sixty-two to New Orleans and you won’t be needing it now.”

Shayne turned his red head slowly and looked down into the face of the man who had hold of his arm. It was a good-natured, doughy sort of face, as though the dough had been taken from the oven before it had begun to brown. The man was bareheaded, neatly dressed in a gray business suit and white shirt with a black bow tie. The hand on Shayne’s arm trembled with eagerness and the soft brown eyes beneath bleached brows looked at him as supplicatingly as those of a hound puppy about to be fed a scrap of meat.

But there was something more than fawning supplication in the damp eyes. There was terror and a desperate and despairing urgency.

Shayne shook the tight fingers from his arm and started purposefully toward Gate 3, saying, “I don’t believe it’s any of your business.”

The smaller man trotted beside him, again clutching at Shayne’s arm. “But you don’t understand,” he said. The low murmur of his voice became a whisper. “It’s terribly urgent that I get a seat on that plane. There’s not a single vacancy. I’ve been pleading with the girl at the desk. When I heard your telephone conversation—”

Shayne stopped suddenly and again forced the man’s hand from his arm.

The man sighed and set his suitcase down, wiped sweat from his pallid brow, and went on rapidly: “It’d be a tremendous favor, brother, if I could have your seat. Pressing business, you understand.” He drew in a deep breath and tried to calm the shakiness of his voice. “I simply
must
be in New Orleans tomorrow morning. This is my only possible chance.”

Shayne shook his head, glancing at the clock. “There isn’t time to exchange tickets now. The plane leaves—”

“We needn’t bother about formalities,” the man broke in. “To avoid explanations and delays I’ll simply take your ticket and say nothing. Your girl turned you down flat, didn’t she? I heard enough to get that. You don’t want to go running after her. Show her you’re independent. That’s the way to handle ’em, brother.” His trembling hand dug into his pocket and came out clutching a roll of bills. Under Shayne’s bleak and angry gaze he peeled a C-note from the outside of the roll, hesitated briefly, then peeled off another. “I’m glad to pay—well,” he whimpered. “You can get another plane tomorrow. That’ll be too late for me.” He ended on a note of despair.

The sonorous tone of the loud-speaker filled the room, calling, “National Airlines announces the immediate departure of Flight Sixty-two to Jacksonville and New Orleans from Gate Three. All aboard, please.”

Shayne shrugged his wide shoulders and his face relaxed a trifle. “I’ve missed planes before,” he admitted. “But my bag is already checked.”

“Take mine and check it instead,” the man said hurriedly. “Tell the porter there’s been a mixup and
this
is actually your bag. Have him bring yours back. You can get it at the gate.” He forced the two one-hundred dollar bills into Shayne’s big palm.

Michael Shayne was scarcely conscious of closing his knobby fingers over the two bills. His thoughts were wholly in New Orleans, occupied with a slim, brown-haired girl whose shining brown eyes were now probably cold with anger and full of tears. He visualized a deserted, locked-up office and the lonely emptiness of it without Lucy Hamilton behind the reception desk. He knew, now, that it had all been a mistake.

He had run away from Miami once to escape certain memories, and then he had run away from New Orleans to escape certain other things. Suddenly he knew Lucy was right. The whole thing had been wrong from the beginning. She deserved a vacation from him. He looked again at the clock, saw that the minute hand was covering the hour hand at twelve o’clock, and the smaller second hand was rapidly swinging past flight time. The loud-speaker was urgently announcing this fact.

“I’ve already given up my apartment,” he muttered aloud, “but it’s probably still vacant, and I can get it back.” He whirled and caught the arm of a passing porter.

“This gentleman and I have got our bags mixed,” he explained rapidly. “They’re both Gladstones and look a lot alike. Mine is loaded on Flight Sixty-two instead of his. Here—” He took a five-dollar bill and his baggage check from his pocket and thrust both into the porter’s hand. “If you can get my bag off the plane and his on in place of it there’ll be another five in it for you.”

“You bet!” The porter glanced through the window at the big airliner with the passenger loading platform still pushed up against the side of it. A couple of attendants stood at the foot of the stairs nervously looking at their watches and at a passenger list one of them carried. “I’ll fix it, boss,” the Negro said, snatching up the suitcase and sprinting away.

“Passenger Michael Shayne for New Orleans,” the voice of the loud-speaker called impatiently. “Flight Sixty-two is now ready to depart from Gate Three. Please go to Gate Three to board the plane.”

“That’s you,” Shayne told the smaller man. “Let’s go out and stall them long enough for the porter to exchange those bags.” He took his ticket from his pocket as he spoke, thrust it into the man’s pudgy hand, and they moved together toward the open gate.

The man gave a long sigh and mopped at his pasty face as they walked. With the ticket in his hand the stress left him; he suddenly became stiff and somewhat pompous. “I can’t tell you how much I appreciate this, Mr. Shayne. My name is Parson, sir. You’ve been most kind and obliging.”

“Think nothing of it,” Shayne told him. He stopped just inside the gate and watched Parson go toward the steps leading up to the cabin of the plane.

The baggage compartment behind the cabin was still open, and, as he watched, he saw the Negro porter hurrying across with Parson’s Gladstone in his hand.

Parson stopped at the foot of the wheeled loading platform and conferred briefly with the attendants while a blue-uniformed stewardess leaned out anxiously from the doorway above. Parson was showing his ticket, making some explanation. Shayne saw the porter step back from the baggage compartment with a suitcase in his hand. An attendant closed and locked the storage space. Parson then mounted the stairs nimbly and disappeared inside the cabin, followed by the two men who closed the cabin door from the outside and hurried down to wheel the loading platform away.

The four propellers of the huge airliner began to turn slowly, then two of them speeded up with a mighty roar to wheel the plane toward the runway.

The porter came up to Shayne with a wide grin on his face and, panting, handed him the Gladstone.

“I was mighty lucky, boss. Yours was loaded on last, right there where I could lay my hands on it.”

Shayne nodded absently and took the promised bill from his wallet for the Negro, his gray eyes riveted on the plane disappearing swiftly into the misty moonlight beyond the range of the floodlights atop the tower.

When the porter went away, Shayne stood very still, his bleak gaze still watching the plane. There was futile emptiness inside him as the colorful lights rose and climbed higher and higher toward the sky. It wasn’t so much the thought of Lucy running out on him, he thought morosely, as the fact that he had made a fool of himself. Standing in the Miami air terminal with no reason whatsoever for being there, he swore softly under his breath.

BOOK: Counterfeit Wife
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