Brett Halliday

A Taste for Violence


Midnight brought a faint coolness to Centerville, Kentucky. The afternoon and early evening had been suffocatingly hot, and even the whirring ceiling fan in Charles Roche’s study did little more than stir up the somnolent, heat-laden air.

It was a pleasant, pine-paneled study, in a modern nine-room house set on a hillside overlooking the mining town. Windows on the south and west usually caught an evening breeze, though the inhabitants of the village below were sweltering. The location had been selected for that reason, just a little to the north and some fifty-odd feet above the old Roche mansion, built in 1897, where Charles was born and reared.

John Roche, Charles’ father, built the nine-room house for him while the young man was away at war, and at a time when building materials were practically impossible to get, and when men were demanding fantastic sums for their labor. Thus, the house had cost a great deal of money. But nothing, so John Roche had said, was too good or too costly for his eldest son. He knew that Charles and his bride wouldn’t want to move into the gloomy old mansion where he lived alone. Young married folks needed a home of their own.

At least, that’s what John Roche was fond of saying.

So, the old tyrant built the house just up the slope, within easy earshot of his own, and there the young couple had lived since Charles returned from North Africa in 1945.

From the study window, Charles could look down past the dark hulk of his father’s house to the palely glimmering lights of the village at midnight. A macadam road twisted downward through lush mountain shrubbery to join the wide, paved highway below.

Tonight, Charles Roche was working on some accounts spread out on his desk, but was unable to concentrate upon them. Frequently he arose from his chair, walked to the window and looked out, his ears attuned for the sound of an automobile laboring up the slope in second gear. But there was no such sound.

A few minutes past midnight, he impatiently pushed the papers aside and lit a cigarette. Tossing the match into an overflowing ash tray beside him, he went again to the window and stood staring at the dark and silent road.

Presently he compressed his lips, took a final drag on his cigarette, walked slowly back to the desk and picked up a newspaper. It was a week-old copy of the Miami Herald, and there was a front-page story captioned MICHAEL SHAYNE SCORES AGAIN, by-lined by Timothy Rourke, relating an incredible tale of murder and counterfeit rubies. He sighed deeply and settled back to reread the story for perhaps the twentieth time.

Charles Roche was tall and blond, with warm blue eyes and a stubborn jaw. His high forehead was plastered now with small ringlets of damp hair. His fingers were long and sensitive, and they gripped the paper tightly as he read. He wore a white shirt, open at the throat, the sleeves rolled above his elbows. He looked less than his thirty years, but there were lines of worry in his mobile face, and his lips twitched nervously. He finished the story, studied the photograph of the Miami detective for a long time, then sat staring moodily into space.

Laying the paper aside with Michael Shayne’s picture looking up at him quizzically, he drew a pad of notepaper before him. It was engraved at the top, Charles Roche, Mountaincrest Drive, Centerville, Kentucky.

He unscrewed the cap from a fountain pen, hesitated momentarily, his eyes turning toward the window. No sound disturbed the stillness. No glow of headlights shone through the darkness. The warmth in his eyes was gone, his mouth grim, as he began to write:

Mr. Michael Shayne, c/o Timothy Rourke,

The Miami Herald,

Miami, Florida.

Dear Mr. Shayne:

I don’t expect you to remember me, but I met you once in Miami, about five years ago. I have just finished reading about one of your recent cases…

Roche stopped suddenly, his pen poised, and listened. The sound of a laboring automobile came faintly through the open window to the left of the desk. The sound came closer, then faded as the driver shifted into high gear. He narrowed his eyes and shook his head slightly. That would be Tom Grer and his wife turning off Mountaincrest Drive to their home a quarter of a mile down the slope.

Turning back to the letter, he reread what he had written, and his upper lip curled derisively. It sounded sophomoric. He crumpled the sheet of paper and started again:

Dear Michael Shayne:

I need your help desperately. I’m afraid I’m going to be murdered, and I don’t know where to turn. I’ve been reading about you in the Miami Herald and I wonder if you would be interested in a case this far from your home base. I don’t want to put my suspicions down on paper, because…

He paused, frowning. Why didn’t he put his suspicions down on paper? How could he expect a man like Shayne to be interested in the plight of a man who didn’t dare confide in him? By God, the letter sounded like the yapping of a kid afraid of the dark. The thing should be calm and factual, not melodramatic. He crumpled up the second sheet of paper and started in again:

Dear Sir:

I hope you will remember having met me at a party in Miami about five years ago. I have been married a little over three years, and my wife…

Charles Roche sat back and stared with only faintly disguised horror at the four lines of his third attempt. Good God in heaven! What had he been about to say? That Elsa was…? No. He couldn’t. Not even to a private detective who might save his life. It was too monstrous, too utterly tenuous. It wasn’t the right sort of approach to Shayne.

He frowned, recalling vaguely some of the tales he had heard about the red-headed detective. Shayne was reputed to refuse any sort of domestic cases. He was a violent man, and violence appealed to him. Also money. From somewhere in his memory Roche recalled a phrase which had been quoted as coming from Shayne: “Murder is my business.”

That was the angle, he decided calmly. Violence, and the promise of money. He had it now. He started a fresh letter:

Dear Mr. Shayne:

I enclose my personal check for $5,000.00 as a retainer if you are in a position to come here immediately. Three men have been killed in Centerville in the past ten days, and I am slated to be the fourth, unless you can prevent it. I do not trust the people close to me, and the entire police force is stupid, brutal, and corrupt.

If you find it possible to come at once, I suggest you take a room at the Moderne Hotel, Route 90 coming in from the south. It’s cool there, and outside the city limits.

Telephone me at my home, Centerville 340, immediately upon your arrival, and speak to no one except me. Do not leave a message with your name with anyone else who may answer the phone, but keep on trying at intervals. Do not attempt to communicate with me in any other way.

I met you five years ago at a party at Patrick Elder’s home in Miami Shores. You were drinking cognac, and I mixed some of it with my champagne at your suggestion. Perhaps you recall the incident. I have been following your career in the newspapers with interest ever since.

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