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An Ace up my Sleeve

by James Hadley Chase

Helga Rolfe crossed the lobby of the Konigshof Hotel, her mink coat draped over her shoulders, aware that two stout German businessmen were eyeing her, their eyes taking in the coat, the black two-piece suit, the red blouse and the mink trimmed hat. The eyes approved, but by now, she was used to approving male eyes. Approval no longer interested her: she needed more than approval.

She dropped her room key on the desk and the Hall Porter, bowing, gathered it up as if it were a
thing of value. “You need your car, Madame?”

His guttural English irritated her. She spoke German, French and Italian fluently, but he knew her to be an American and to him, all Americans spoke only English.
“No … I’m shopping.” She spoke in German. “I am leaving tomorrow at eight o’clock. Please have my car serviced and ready.”

The Hall Porter’s fat fingers closed on a pencil and he made a note.
“Yes, Madame.” He persisted in his English. “Then at eight. I will have your account ready. Is there anything else?”

She shook her head as she slid her arms into the coat before a page could move to help her. Giving the disappointed boy a smile, she left the hotel. The sky above Bonn was the colour of lead, and it was cold. Already flakes of snow were falling to disappear on the sidewalk, making it wet and slippery. Helga hated the cold. Her body cringed inside the comfort of her expensive coat and she walked briskly, trying to stir her blood, pampered by the excessive heating of the hotel.

She walked under the arch of the University, paused to let a stream of fast moving cars go by, then crossing the street, she headed towards the shopping centre where cars are forbidden.

The time was 11.35. She had slept late. She had gone to her room the previous evening immediately after dinner. What could a woman do on her own in any big city after –dinner except go to bed? She knew the Maître d’hôtel regarded her as a nuisance when she came into the restaurant on her own, but he was impressed by her mink stole and her diamonds. He gave her service because he knew he would be well tipped. She had eaten quickly, enduring the steady stares from the fat German businessmen, eating alone and wondering about her. As soon as the meal was finished, she had left and taken the elevator to her room. The sleeping pills were on the bedside table. Sleep was her antidote to loneliness.

Now, walking briskly, she plunged into the crowds moving along the traffic empty streets, aware that women were eyeing her coat with envy. It was a beautiful coat, chosen by her husband when he had had one of his infrequent moods to please her. She knew that mink was now old hat, but to her, it was still luxury and still elegant. At her age, what did it matter? Her age? She paused to look in a mirror at the back of a shop window. Forty? Or was it forty–three? Why bother about three years?

She studied her slim figure, the carefully made–up face with its high cheekbones, its large violet coloured eyes, the short, rather beautiful nose. Forty–three? She looked thirty, even with the east wind like an icy shroud around her.

Her eyes shifted from her own reflection to the reflection of a tall man standing across the way, apparently looking at her. The peaked baseball cap, the black leather jerkin, the faded blue jeans and the red cowboy shirt told her as nothing else could he was a compatriot. He was young – probably under twenty years and he was chewing gum. Bonn was full of Americans: soldiers on furlough, young people thumbing a ride through Europe and the inevitable tourists. Helga had lived long enough in Europe to despise most Americans abroad. This gum–chewing habit revolted her. She turned and walked into one of the big stores. She wanted tights, but she paused before a counter displaying woollen pants and she looked enviously at them. Her body was cold, but she resisted the appeal of promised warmth in this Victorian garment. Suppose she had an accident? It would be shaming to be undressed, even by a nurse, to reveal she was swarthed in wool.

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