Read Strictly For Cash Online

Authors: James Hadley Chase

Strictly For Cash







          WE hit Pelotta around nine-thirty at night, after a four-hour run from Kern City. Packed with stores, souvenir stands, cafes and filling-stations, it was like any of the other small towns along the Florida coast.
The trucker, whose name was Sam Williams, pointed out the places of interest as we drove along the main street.
"That's the Ocean Hotel," he said, jerking his thumb at a gaudy affair of chromium, neon lights and bottle-green awnings that stood at the intersection that led across the town and to the sea. "Petelli owns every brick of it. Come to that, he owns pretty well the whole town. He owns the stadium too. That's it up there."
I peered through the windshield of the truck. Aloof on a hill, overlooking the town, was a circular concrete building, open to the sky in the centre, and roofed in on the rear stands. Above the roof were vast batteries of lights strung together on big steel frames, and which could be focused down on the ring.
"There must be a pile of jack coming out of that joint," Williams went on. He wiped his red, fleshy face with the back of his hand and spat out of the window. "Petelli promotes a fight programme there every Saturday night."
He swung the truck to the right, away from the bright lights of the main street, and drove down a narrow road, flanked on either side by wooden buildings. At the far end I could see the waterfront: the ocean glittered in the moonlight like a sheet of silver paper.
"Tom Roche's place is on the corner, facing the sea," Williams said, slowing down. "I'm behind schedule or I'd come in with you. Tell him I sent you. He'll fix you a ride to Miami. If he won't play, talk to his wife: she's a good kid."
He pulled up, the nose of the truck facing the dimly lit waterfront. I opened the cabin door and slid to the ground.
"Well, thanks for the ride," I said. "I hope we meet again."
"I'll look for you. So long, pal, and good luck."
I stepped back and watched the truck move off along the water-front, then I turned and walked over to Roche's Cafe.
It was a two-storey building made of salvaged lumber and painted white. The double swing-doors stood open, and music from a juke-box ground out into the night.
I mounted the three wooden steps and paused to look in. There were tables dotted around a fair-sized room, a counter on which stood three steaming urns, half a dozen wooden stools up at the counter, and a big electric fan in the ceiling that churned up the hot air.
Two men in singlets and dirty canvas trousers sat at a table by the door. Near the juke-box to the right of the counter at another table was a big, heavily built man in a white tropical suit and a yellow and red hand-painted tie. Seated opposite him a short, fat man in a brown suit and a panama hat gazed emptily into space. A truck driver, in a leather wind-breaker and breeches, sat on a stool at the counter, his head in his hands. Behind the counter a slim, whitefaced girl, I guessed was Alice Roche, was putting two cups of coffee on a tray. At the far end of the counter, polishing an um, was Tom Roche, a dark, skinny little guy with a hard, bitter mouth and a shock of wiry black hair.
For a few seconds I stood in the darkness, watching. No one noticed me.
I watched the girl take the cups of coffee across the room to the big man and his fat companion. She put the cups on the table, and as she did so the big man grinned up at her and his hand gripped her leg below the knee.
She stiffened, nearly dropped the cup, and tried to back away, but his thick fingers retained their grip while he continued to grin up at her. I expected her to slap him or scream, but she didn't do either. Instead, she looked hurriedly over her shoulder at Tom Roche who was concentrating on the urn and not noticing what was going on. The look on her face told me she was scared to make a scene because she'd be pulling Roche into something he wasn't big enough to handle, and I felt a sudden cold knot form inside my chest. But I didn't move. It would have been simple to have walked in there and socked the big fellow, but that wouldn't have taken care of Tom Roche's pride. No man likes another to protect his wife when he's there to do it himself.
She leaned down and tried to prise the big fellow's fingers off her leg, but she hadn't the strength.
His companion, the fat man in the brown suit, tapped him on the arm and whispered to him imploringly, nodding at Roche who was standing back to admire the shine on the urn. The big fellow gave the fat man a shove with his free hand; the kind of shove you'd get from a steam-roller if you walked into it without looking where you were going. It left the fat man gasping.
The hand slid up above the knee, and the girl in a kind of desperate frenzy hit the big fellow on the bridge of his nose with her clenched fist.
The big fellow cursed her. Then Roche looked their way, and his pale face went the colour of mutton fat. He took four lopsided strides that brought him out from behind the counter. He had on a surgical boot that built up his shortened right leg, but it still gave him a limp like he had stepped into a hole every time he took a stride with his right foot.
The big fellow let go of the girl and shoved her aside, sending her reeling across the room into the arms of the trucker who had slid off his stool and was gaping, without making any move to help.
Roche reached the table. The big fellow didn't bother to get up. He was grinning. Roche's right fist swung up and round towards the big fellow's head. The big fellow weaved inside the swing and Roche's fist hit space. He lost balance and came forward, and the big fellow gave him a dig in the belly. Roche was flung across the room and thudded into the counter. He slid to the floor, and lay gasping.
The big fellow stood up.
"Let's get out of here," he said to the fat man. "I'm sick of this joint."
He walked over to where Roche was struggling to get up.
"Take a swing at me again, you little rat, and I'll smash you," he said, and drew back his foot to kick Roche.
I was across the room in three strides and pulled him away from Roche. I spun him around and smacked his face, hard enough for the smack to sound like a .22 going off at close range.
That smack hurt, as I meant it to hurt, and water spurted out of his eyes as he staggered back.
"If you must kick someone," I said, "kick me. I'm a better target."
If he hadn't been half crazy with rage he wouldn't have thrown the punch he did. It was a round house swing that started from his ankles and telegraphed itself all the way. The kind of punch you'd throw at someone who didn't know the first thing about fighting. The kind of punch that would have flattened an elephant if it had landed, but it didn't land.
I moved inside it and socked him with my special right hook that travelled about four inches and had my whole weight behind it. It exploded on his jaw with a devastating impact and he went down as if he'd been pole-axed. I didn't wait to see if he were going to get up. I knew he wouldn't. When they go down like that, they stay down.
I stepped back and looked at the fat man.
"Get this hunk of garbage out of here before I really go to town on him."
The fat man was staring at the big fellow, spread out on the floor, as if he couldn't believe his eyes. As he knelt beside him I went over to Roche and helped him to his feet. He was breathless, but he could stand, and he had still a lot of fight left in him. He made a move towards the big fellow as if he were set on hitting him again, but I held him back.
"He's had enough," I said. "You don't want to break your hands on a lump like him. Take it easy."
The girl came over and put her arms round him. I left him to her and joined the two men in singlets and the trucker who were staring down at the big fellow.
The fat man was trying to bring him round without much success.
"Bust his jaw," the trucker said, and drew in an excited hiss of breath. "I've never seen a punch like it! Didn't travel an inch–and socko! Well, the bum certainly asked for it."
"Get him out of here," I said. "Come on, boys, hoist him up and get him outside."
The fat man looked up. He had eyes like pools of beer, and from his expression I thought he was going to burst into tears.
"You've broken my boy's jaw," he said, "and he's righting on Saturday."
"I should have broken his neck," I said. "Get him out of here before I change my mind and finish the job."
The big fellow opened his eyes, groaned and sat up. The lower part of his jaw sagged hideously, and an ugly red patch showed on his right cheek where I had slapped him.
The two guys in singlets hauled him to his feet and supported him. He went with them without looking at me, his head on his chest, his eyes glazed and his legs like rubber. The fat man brought up the rear. He looked as if he were following behind his mother's hearse.
The trucker turned to gape at me as if I were the miracle boy come down from the sky on a cloud of fire.
"Well, for crying out loud!" he exclaimed. "Do you know who that was - the guy you socked? That's Joe MacCready, the local champ. He's fighting the Miami Kid on Saturday, and there's a load of dough spread on the fight. Take my tip, brother, and get out of town. When Petelli hears what you've done to MacCready, he'll blow his top. I'm not kidding. Petelli's as dangerous as a rattlesnake. Get your skates on and beat it!"


I pushed back my chair and reached for a cigarette, but Roche beat me to it. Everything was on the house this night. I had just climbed outside the best meal I had eaten in years, and while I ate Roche and his wife, Alice, kept me company. I liked them. They were the kind of folk I could get along with, and we were on first-name terms before I had finished the meal.
They had done most of the talking while I was eating, and now I knew it was my turn.
"Maybe you're wondering what I'm doing here," I began, when Roche had lit my cigarette. "Well, I'm from Pittsburgh. My old man ran a cafe bang opposite the Carnegie Steelworks. You'd have thought a cafe situated outside the biggest steelworks in the world would have paid off, wouldn't you? But it didn't. Don't ask me why. I never got around to figuring it out myself. There was damn-all when he died. A good thing or I might be still there. As it is I had to sell up to pay what he owed, and that left me without a home. So I thought I'd take a look at Florida, and boy! am I glad I did."
Roche scratched the side of his jaw and squinted at me.
"What's so special about Florida?"
"Ever been to Pittsburgh? Soot, dirt, noise and fog - that's Pittsburgh. That's what's so special about Florida."
"Maybe you're right. I've lived here all my life. I get sick of the sum sometimes."
"Brother, you don't know when you're well off! I've had the finest three weeks of my life riding trucks this far. This country's terrific." I leaned forward. "And that reminds me. I got a ride off a guy named Williams. He told me to come here. You know him ?"
"Yeah: known him years."
"He said you could fix me a ride to Miami. Can you do it?"
"That's easy. Josh Bates is on the Miami run. I keep his mail for him. He'll be in tomorrow morning. I'll fix it for you. So you're going to Miami?"
"You bet."
"Hey, Alice, Roche said, "how about some more beer? Can't you see this fella's dying of thirst?" While she was in the kitchen getting the beer, he went on, "That's the finest hook I've seen outside anything Dempsey threw. You in the game? I guess you must be. That late shift of yours and the way . . ."
"I've been in it, but I'm through now. It's too much of a racket."
He eyed me over.
"With that build and that hook you could be sensational. Who have you fought ?"
"I had three rounds with Joe Louis when he ran out of sparring partners during his Army exhibition tour. Nice guy, Joe. He said I had a good right hand."
"Joe said that?" Roche seemed impressed.
"The best scrap I ever had was when I deputized for Abe Linsky. I put Jack Weiner away in the second."
Roche gaped at me.
"You mean - Ja
ck Weiner? The Ca
lifornian champ?"
"That's the fella. He wasn't champ then, but he was quite a scrapper. I was lucky to hang one on his jaw. I guess he was a shade too confident."
"Jeepers!" Roche said. "Well, that's something. What made you quit?"
"I guess I like to keep my face the shape it is, besides, I've got other ideas."
"Sounds like a waste of talent to me," Roche said, shaking his head. "If you could take Weiner . . ."
"That trucker told me to get out of town. He said Petelli would have something to say about MacCready."

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