Brett Halliday

Guilty as Hell


Hal Begley, president and sole owner of Hal Begley Associates, buzzed his secretary.

“Ask Miss Morse to come in, please.”

He did a quick isometric exercise while he waited. A big, well-tailored man in his middle thirties, Begley had the look of a former college athlete. In his business, the facade was important. As a matter of cold fact, he had lasted a single semester at a second-rate college, and he was totally uninterested in athletics. He was doing well. Two years earlier his taxable income had passed $100,000. His firm occupied a suite of offices in a high-rent building on North Miami Avenue, and Begley himself owned an oceanfront property in Coconut Grove. His manner was crisp, genial and self-assured, and it concealed the fact that he was beginning to lose his nerve.

Candida Morse, his executive assistant, came in from an adjoining office. She was younger than Begley, a blonde in a pink suit that had originated in the workrooms of a famous New York designer. She wore it well. She was a slender girl with delicately carved features. She looked smart and ambitious, and in her case it was more than a facade. She was very smart and very ambitious, as her employer had reason to know.

Begley also knew he was lucky to have her. When she first came to work for him, he had been operating out of a two-desk office in a less desirable building in a scruffier section of Miami. He had owed money all over town. At that time he had called himself a “management consultant.” His main job had been investigating applicants for executive openings. Candida shifted the firm immediately into recruitment and went on from there. Begley had the greatest respect for his assistant, but sometimes he was also a little scared of her.

“Isn’t that a new jacket?” she said pleasantly. “Nice.”

“For the Georgia weekend,” he said, “to shore up the old morale. Did you get the guest list?”

She dropped a paper on his desk, which was a thick slab of walnut with the knotholes left in, and came around beside him so they could read it together. Begley had various pressing things on his mind, but his hand automatically slid up her leg beneath the pink skirt.

“From my good friend Walter Langhorne,” Candida said. “There may be some last-minute additions, but as of last night, this is it. I’m meeting him for lunch. He’ll pass on any developments.”

“Candida baby, how would we ever get anything done around here without you?”

His hand stopped as it reached the coarse weave of her stocking top. His eye had skipped down the list to pick up the final name. For an instant he felt trapped, as though his tall leather chair had snapped shut on him.

“Michael Shayne? They didn’t tell me Shayne was going to be there.”

Candida bent down, took his face between her competent hands and kissed him. After a moment he felt himself beginning to relax. His hand slid on up to the cool flesh of her thigh. Completing the kiss, she looked at his face critically and wiped lipstick from his mouth.

“This explains a few things. A quiet duck-shooting weekend away from the telephone, to talk to a group of Despard executives about their high-level personnel problems? I never believed it for a minute, Hal, and neither did you. They want to talk to you quietly, all right-about how the T-239 report got out of the E. J. Despard safe into the hands of United States Chemical. And we don’t know a thing about that, do we, darling?”

“You’re talking a foreign language,” Begley said, with the beginnings of a grin. “I’m a poor misunderstood head-hunter, and I wouldn’t know an industrial secret if it came up and bit me on the ankle. Scout’s honor. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it even if they put lighted matches under my fingernails. If it was just a bunch of third- class vice-presidents, I wouldn’t worry. The only thing is, Mike Shayne.”

Candida went to the other side of the desk and dropped into a sling chair. She lit a cigarette which she took from a box on Begley’s desk, using a tall desk lighter.

“Hal, having Shayne there only makes it official. We’ve known you were in for a grilling. I think the tactic we decided to follow is still perfectly sound. United States Chemical is moving up the announcement of the new paint to next Tuesday morning. I’m sorry the Despard people found out, but we expected it, after all. How can they hurt us, Hal, seriously?”

“You did a great job on it, baby. Great all the way. But there’s four days between now and Tuesday. We can be hurt, believe me.”

“I really don’t see how.” She frowned at the toe of her shoe, which was swinging in a short arc. “I’m not trying to be superoptimistic. If we get past the Tuesday announcement without publicity, United States owes us an extra thirty thousand. Conceivably we might lose that. But in the long run there’s no such thing as bad publicity for us. There may be some tut-tutting. We may draw a couple of disapproving editorials. But the next time some company needs a piece of trade information and can’t get hold of it through regular channels, they’ll think of us.”

“Not if Despard gets out an injunction.”

“Hal, be reasonable. United States changed the formula enough so there can’t be an action for infringement. Two companies were simply working on parallel lines. They both came up with a new kind of house paint that won’t peel or blister, and United States, which is faster-moving, more aggressive and less conservative, got its product on the market first. It’s that simple. Everybody in the paint business will know where they got their information. Proving it in court is another matter entirely.”

“I hope you’re right,” Begley said. “But what if some clever bastard like Shayne gets our man to sign a confession?”

She smiled and shook her head. “We’re covered there.”

He knocked on the walnut desktop to take the curse off her flat statement. She could spot him fifty points on a comparative IQ, but he’d been around the business long enough to know that sometimes people didn’t behave logically or predictably, especially if they happened to be a little eccentric to start with.

She went on, “Mike Shayne-now there’s a paper tiger if I ever saw one. We didn’t come off too badly the last time we tangled with him.”

“I’m glad you think so, baby,” Begley said sourly. “We came out with our skin. Barely. Three people retired early, one company paid a ten-thousand-buck fine, and Shayne knocked down a large fee.”

“And the word-of-mouth got us the United States account. And dear God, was he lucky. That sort of a run can’t go on forever. Stop thinking about last time, Hal. You can handle this man with one thumb and one forefinger. I want to brief you on the rest of the guests. Forbes Hallam, the president. He probably won’t impress you, but bear in mind that E. J. Despard was doing an annual business of less than half a million dollars when he took over, and you know where they are now. Forbes Hallam, Jr.-he has a literary act. Commerce is beneath him and Henry James is his favorite writer. You might try to remember that. Walter Langhorne-the point to bear in mind there is that he and Mr. Hallam have come up together through the company, but they’re very different types. There are all sorts of undercurrents. Jose Despard-Hallam’s wife was his sister. Head of Research and Development, apparently not much between the ears. It’s his family’s old firm and he has a sizeable stock position. Richardson and Hall are two more vice-presidents. Richardson-”

Begley, on the other side of the desk, tried to concentrate on what she was saying as she continued down the list. It was hard to do because of his rising panic.

Coming out of his office, Jose Despard found his secretary, Miss Mainwaring, bending over a file drawer. Viewed from the front, Miss Mainwaring was tight-lipped and flat-chested, the everlasting spinster. But from this angle, her personality seemed to offer certain possibilities. What if Despard should favor her with a small, innocent tweak, purely as a sporting proposition? She would be startled at first. She would straighten so abruptly that she would give her pelvis a painful knock against the file. But after that, who could tell? Perhaps she would turn slowly, remove her glasses and remark in that sultry tone that had aroused Mrs. Despard’s suspicions the first time she heard it on the phone, “I never knew you thought of me in that light, Mr. Despard.”

He thrust both hands deep in his pockets to keep them out of harm’s way. “Going to lunch. Don’t forget to

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