The High Wire (5)
November 29, 2014
HiLoBooks is pleased to serialize William Haggard’s 1963 novel The High Wire, the fifth title in his acclaimed Col. Charles Russell espionage adventure series — which, at the time, was considered by critics (if not the general public) superior to Ian Fleming’s Bond series. “Haggard lacked Fleming’s snooty dilettantism, and was better at creating subtle layers of political intrigue,” Christopher Fowler has written. “Haggard treats his women with more respect, too. They are investigators and heroines with lives of their own. As for exoticism, try Haggard’s character Miss Borrodaile, the elegant, black-clad, former French Resistance fighter with a steel foot.” Under the editorship of HILOBROW’s Joshua Glenn, the Save the Adventure book club will reissue The High Wire as an e-book for the first time ever. Enjoy!
In his agreeably untidy room in the Security Executive Colonel Charles Russell was recapitulating to Mortimer. ‘So Cohn is dead and he didn’t talk.’
‘I doubt if it much matters, sir. Though of course I can’t prove it I’m morally sure they killed him.’ Robert Mortimer was remembering Macdonald’s ‘Good hunting’. It had been an irony verging on sarcasm. There would be, there could be, no hunting, good or bad. If the police couldn’t solve an ordinary hit-and-run then Mortimer would be equally helpless in a very unordinary hit-and-run committed by what he believed was a very unordinary foreigner now safely returned to his own country. For all the guesses pointed at planned and deliberate action. So ring up a colleague across the Channel, invoke the Old Friends’ Act, and your colleague would be charming. He’d promise co-operation and that would be the end of it.
One didn’t betray one’s own employees.
Russell said reflectively: ‘All right, they killed him. Who did and why? I know, of course. I just want to hear your mind work.’
‘I don’t think it was de Fleury — killing isn’t his style at all. I doubt if he was even told. It was Victor who had motive since what was basically at risk was the fact that Victor was interested in Project A. De Fleury was only an agent, but if somebody blew the agent he would blow the intention too. And Cohn looked like blowing it. Cohn was a man of the far, far left, and Victor would know it too. So here’s a way-out journalist tagging de Fleury at Sestriere, listening to him twisting Hadley, refusing to be shaken off. I dare say Victor simply thought that Cohn was a rival agent, one working for east Europe, or he may have found out that he had made an appointment with me. We’ll never know now what Cohn was going to tell me but it may have been the truth. That wouldn’t be inconsistent with extreme left wing views because if there’s one country which a man of the left wouldn’t trust with Project A it’s Victor’s. They think of it as fascist. But on either assumption Cohn could have been dangerous to Victor. Not would be — could. Victor thinks in probabilities, percentages of risk. I don’t suppose he cares about de Fleury. De Fleury is an agent and expendable: what would matter to Victor would be somebody else discovering that he was actively after Project A. And something of the how. I mean that de Fleury had begun to work on Hadley.’
Russell nodded approvingly. ‘Very clear thinking. So the hypothesis at bottom is that Victor means business. Killing a man who you think can fix one of your agents is worth it only in two cases: that you value the agent exceptionally highly or — more likely, this — that breaking the agent will somehow break you too. You and your intention. Otherwise it’s easier simply to switch agents. To commit yourself to killing and in another country — that’s putting the biggest chips down. Victor wouldn’t do that for nothing but he would for Project A.’
“Then what about de Fleury, sir?’
‘We can’t act for the moment and I don’t think we need to. De Fleury has a plan, a typical blackmailer’s plan. Miss Francom, you tell me, has just confirmed it. That was very smooth work indeed. So de Fleury’s on the squeeze-game and Rex Hadley’s in the pincers.’ Russell rubbed his chin. ‘Pressure,’ he said, ‘increasing pressure.’
‘But what sort of increase?’
‘How do you see it yourself?’
‘I’m afraid pretty dimly. De Fleury has a tape of an indiscretion of Hadley’s which could be highly compromising. That puts it at the minimum. But his demand was for immediate information about Project A and for continuing information as the thing progresses. Hadley, in fact, would be simply de Fleury’s spy. There’s a weapon of course, but it doesn’t seem big enough.’
‘De Fleury may think that too.’
‘He’s timing it — he can afford to. Nothing remarkable has happened yet at Maldington, so why should he rush things? It’s a question of technique, and he hasn’t always been a military attaché, far less a colonel. So first comes the shock, the outrageous demand. De Fleury has made it. According to Miss Francom he told Hadley to report to him on Thursday, but I doubt if he really expects him to. But when he doesn’t de Fleury won’t leave it there. He’s an experienced hand and a shrewd judge of men; he has enough on Rex Hadley to lose him his job, but that would scarcely guarantee an instant treason. No, he’ll build up the squeeze on Hadley, we don’t yet know how, but de Fleury will aim to weaken him, to scare him too if he thinks that line’s worth trying, and he’ll hope that when the break comes at Maldington he’ll have Hadley broken too. It’s a competent, professional ploy. It does need time, though.’ Charles Russell knocked his pipe out. ‘De Fleury,’ he said, ‘is much cleverer than his master. I suspect Victor knows it.’
‘I hope he does.’
‘He had Cohn killed — I’m sure of it. De Fleury would never have risked it.’
Charles Russell frowned. Cohn’s murder had annoyed him. Of course Cohn had had it coming: sometime and somewhere the Julian Cohns were killed. They never seemed to know it, though. It would never have occurred to Julian Cohn that if and when the system he supported came to power he would be messily liquidated rather before the chairman of the Conservative Party. The left wing intellectuals bought it first: all revolutions proved that. Still, he’d been a citizen and he’d been murdered in Russell’s bailiwick. Victor had been impertinent before, but this was something more. Charles Russell wasn’t pleased and his cool voice showed it.
‘So Victor stepped in across de Fleury; he had Cohn killed. All right. But why should he kill Hadley?’
‘I wasn’t suggesting killing, sir, or not as an end in itself.’
‘Then what were you suggesting?’
‘Well…. Suppose there were an unexpected breakthrough at Maldington, and in that sort of fusing of science and engineering it’s always a possibility. And suppose it came before de Fleury was ready, before he felt certain he had Hadley softened for the final kill. That would be a new situation, wouldn’t it? What you called the timing would have changed. De Fleury’s timing. Victor might be tempted again.’
‘He might. Go on.’
‘I was thinking about Dortmund.’
Charles Russell sat immobile. The affair at Dortmund had shocked him and he wasn’t easily shocked. It hadn’t happened in his territory, he wasn’t personally involved, but it had given him for Victor an emotion he wasn’t used to. He felt for professional rivals either respect or contempt, assessing them impersonally according to their competence. Provided, that is, they weren’t quite savages. But Dortmund had been detestable, a barbarism. Four of Victor’s men had crossed the frontier and beaten to pulp an elderly research worker. He’d been found in his car at night with injuries wholly disgusting. He’d died next day and it wasn’t quite certain whether he had talked or not: all that was certain was that six months later the army which had begotten Victor was flaunting an automatic mortar which the research worker had been developing. Suspicion of Victor had been equally automatic; there’d been an international outcry but nothing had been proved.
Nothing had been proved and nothing would be. Nothing had been proved of Julian Cohn.
Russell said: ‘Dortmund — yes, I follow you.’ His voice was one which Mortimer seldom heard. ‘If Maldington made a breakthrough we’d be back on familiar ground. There’d be a secret, in fact — an orthodox, transmissible secret. A handful of men would know it and all would be targets. The boss would be the best of all.’
‘You put it pretty crisply, sir.’
‘I meant to put it crisply. What’s the present position at Maldington?’
‘Nothing definite yet. But there’s an Indian, a mathematician, and they’ve sent him to talk to Moltesen in Denmark. And one of the top physicists has been flown to Zurich. You know who lives at Zurich.’
‘There’s a certain activity?’
‘Yes. And not the sort you can hide. You can’t send eminent scientists travelling round Europe in disguise. If you try you just make it more noticeable.’
Russell said slowly: ‘I don’t much like it. It’s the sort of situation made for a man like Victor. He might find it irresistible. Like Cohn. Poor Cohn was a precedent, a warning too. We know our Victor.’
‘Should I warn Rivers-Legge?.’ Lieutenant-Commander Rivers-Legge was something called Security Officer at Maldington. The capitals defined him perfectly. He wasn’t important to real security.
‘Good heavens, no. He’s adequate for his job, which is passes and those frightful dogs, and which paper you read on Sunday. But for this sort of thing he’d be quite outgunned. Who else have we there — the proper ones?’
‘Twenty at least. It’s quite a list.’
‘Anyone good for rough stuff?’
‘They weren’t picked for that.’
“There’s that manservant of Hadley’s — Perkins. I planted him there myself. He’s been trained. What have you told him?’
‘Nothing about the blackmail, sir. I didn’t think he needed it. So nothing about that tape.’
‘Continue to tell him nothing about the tape. But see that he’s alerted for his job.’
Major Mortimer made a note.
‘And Hadley, now — does he go out much? Does he go driving alone?’
‘He goes golfing on Sundays, and sometimes he drives to London.’
‘He doesn’t bring her back with him. Not yet.’
‘He comes back alone in the dark then?’
Robert Mortimer nodded.
‘See that the practice ceases.’
Mortimer went back to his room. He telephoned to Maldington, and he made another call. The voice at the other end said finally: ‘I get it — a standing patrol. Starting tomorrow night.’
‘I’ll join you myself the first time out.’
Robert Mortimer rang back to Russell. He had expected approval and he received it. Then he grinned. A senior desk man, he adored cloak and dagger.
In a room on the other side of the Channel the man they called Victor was talking to a subordinate.
‘Anything from de Fleury?’
‘Yes, sir.’ The subordinate held a report out.
Victor read it carefully. ‘I don’t think too much of that.’
‘It follows the plan as agreed. It’s an excellent start. But excellent.’
‘Start! We’re in a hurry, man.’
Victor’s opinion of de Fleury was that he was a well-bred softie. He was an adequate working spy in circles where most of Victor’s agents — Victor himself — would hardly have been at ease, and he therefore had his uses; but when it came to the crunch de Fleury wasn’t to be relied on. It was an instinct rooted in the mistrust of the self-made man for anyone who wasn’t, and if was quite unjustified. De Fleury in his different way was ruthless.
De Fleury’s opinion of Victor, long gestating, was that he was without finesse, a hothead and, in the pinches, simply a barbarian.
Victor asked now: ‘What’s happening at Maldington?’
‘Nothing in particular. There’s a scientist visiting Denmark arid another gone to Switzerland.’
‘You call that nothing?’
‘I call it nothing definite.’
‘I do. Hadley wouldn’t send top-flight scientists padding round Europe for nothing. I don’t say he’s got a breakthrough yet; I say he’s got something, enough for our people to work on.’ Parodying the tall man at their earlier meeting Victor said precisely: ‘We’ve got to have this English thing, we’ve got to have it too.’ He returned to his normal manner. ‘Never mind the Marshal, though. The point at the moment is that Hadley will know something. Hadley will have knowledge and I want it. We’ve got Jacques and Pierre and the man they call Smithy. They’re not paid for nothing. They’re not retained to decorate de Fleury’s little parties, which is how he seems to use them, nor even to hint at the possibility of violence. They’re paid to do the rough work and the sooner the better. I say again: Hadley must have knowledge. Get it.’
‘There’s a considerable risk. Those three are valuable men, and it would be a once-for-all commitment.’
‘They mustn’t be caught and Hadley mustn’t be killed. Better if he isn’t. Just made to talk — but quickly. Some journey in a car at night.’ Victor rose irritably, striding his room. ‘The merest routine,’ he said.
‘Suppose they’re not caught but recognized?’
‘They know the quick-escape route. It’s always kept open.’
‘I suggest we hold Smithy back. He’s English and specially useful. Two should be plenty.’
‘Very well.’ Victor shrugged. He was a dedicated man with the over-simplified ideas of dedication and its instant decisions. He began to write quickly, passing what he had written to his subordinate.
The subordinate read It. ‘Don’t you really think, sir… so early in the developments? Couldn’t it be a little crude, a little too risky too soon. In England —’
‘Do as you’re told and send it.’
The other read the message again, noting the address and frowning.
It wasn’t Francis de Fleury’s.
Robert Mortimer was enjoying himself. He escaped from his papers seldom, but when he could make the least excuse he did so. His excuse tonight was that they hadn’t thought Perkins adequate — not by himself, not quite alone against the resources of a man like Victor. So the Executive had made its own arrangements. He was conscious that they were good ones, conscious too that that was anything but a reason for his own intrusion. The crew of the old Lagonda were extremely expert.
They had picked up the black saloon a mile or two after the junction of the minor road to Maldington with the main to London. They had nothing against it but instinct. There were a driver and another man and certainly they weren’t hurrying. At one in the morning on an empty road most people did.
The open Lagonda had an old-fashioned tonneau cover, and what was underneath it was surprising. There was an elaborate short-wave radio and a man at its dials, delicately searching. Robert picked up a microphone.
Robert changed gear. He didn’t intend to get too close behind the black saloon.
They had driven another mile perhaps when a light on the dashboard went red. Robert picked up the microphone again, and a calm but urgent voice said:
‘Got it. There’s an operator with a two-way somewhere near the junction. I’m picking up his message.’
‘What was the message?’
‘A Rapier had just gone past him. It turned off for Maldington along this road. He gave the number — Hadley’s. There were two men aboard.’
‘Was there an answer?’
‘Only a thank you. Not in English.’
‘You can’t say where it came from?’
‘Of course I can’t. It’s cramped enough in here without D.F. But it came to me loud and clear.’
Robert looked at the black saloon. It was slowing rather quickly, waving him to pass, then, as he didn’t, accelerating fiercely.
Robert said to the man beside him: ‘Searchlight.’
The black saloon was in a formidable beam.
Across the rear window somebody pulled a curtain. The saloon didn’t slow.
Robert looked at his speedometer. ‘There’s something in hand but not on this road.’
‘That goes for them too. At least we’re not losing them.’
The curtain of the black saloon was suddenly torn aside. Above the whine of the slipstream there was a crash as the glass was broken. It fell on the road but Mortimer didn’t swerve. There was a hand at the gaping window, half a face, and the outline of a gun. In the searchlight’s glare the flash was near-invisible.
Robert Mortimer nodded and his passenger bent down. He came up with an automatic rifle, pointing it through the open windscreen.
Robert said: ‘Yes,’ and the other fired.
Jacques wasn’t frightened, only impressed. He had noticed the Lagonda for some time…. Two men in cloth caps and scarves, the windscreen open…. Lunatics. The English sporting motorist, an almost vintage car. They couldn’t be police and far less agents. They simply didn’t smell of it.
And now it was clear they were. They knew their business too, the man with the rifle notably. He was shooting in sparing bursts, controlled, professional. There was a tiny wipe of flame, then pause, then a deliberate burst again. Jacques wasn’t scared for this was England. They wouldn’t be shooting at him but he knew what they were shooting for. And they were bound to get one. Some form of armour-piercing possibly. Not that it mattered.
He felt the nearside tyre go suddenly, shouted at Pierre. Pierre braked, fought his wheel. The black saloon rolled ominously, hesitating almost humanly. Finally it slid into the ditch.
The Lagonda drew alongside and three men sprang out. One had the automatic rifle, the second a pistol. Both carried their weapons with the air of men who knew them. It was something Jacques recognized at once. Further shooting would be suicide. The third man was unarmed. He said politely: ‘First put your guns down.’
Two pistols dropped together.
‘Jacques and Pierre?’
They didn’t answer.
‘I’m quite sure you must be. My name’s Robert Mortimer.’ Robert went to the back of the black saloon, walking behind the firearms. Their owners stood perfectly still, intent and watchful.
Robert returned. ‘It’s not badly ditched at all. You can probably get her out alone and we’ll help you if we have to. There’s a tyre you won’t get much for, but we haven’t touched the spare.’
Jacques looked at Pierre. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘You don’t have to understand. I don’t want a fuss, that’s all. I’ve standing instructions to avoid political complications.’ Mortimer’s voice changed sharply. ‘Just get the car out and the spare fixed — fast. There’s a friend of ours in a Rapier fifteen miles behind us. You know that too, but I want to keep this private.’
Pierre asked: ‘And then?’
‘Then beat it for Lymington. That’s where you go from, isn’t it? It’s a nice little river and you’ve a nice little craft. We know all about your arrangements. We’ve even checked up for you, and they seem to be ready.’
‘It’s a trick. We’ll move and you’ll shoot us down. Escaping.’
Robert said patiently: ‘I’d shoot you down now if I wanted to and make excuses later.’ He was suddenly exasperated. ‘Can’t you fools see it? Putting it bluntly your room is much less awkward than your company. If you force it on us, well….’ Unexpectedly he was Major Mortimer again. ‘I hope I don’t sound rude.’
Six minutes later they were watching the tail-light of the black saloon. Robert looked at his watch. ‘Get the car under cover.’
They drove the Lagonda into a farm track, backing it to face the road, lighting up contentedly. Ninety seconds later a Rapier went by smoothly.
‘Awkward if he’d seen it all. Pretty close timing.’ It was the man with the rifle.
The man with the gun had another angle. ‘George Perkins was with him. Poor George. He’d be mad if he knew. He hates missing parties.’
Robert said grimly: ‘I dare say he’ll still come in for one.’
RADIUM AGE SCIENCE FICTION: “Radium Age” is HILOBROW’s name for the 1904–33 era, which saw the discovery of radioactivity, the revelation that matter itself is constantly in movement — a fitting metaphor for the first decades of the 20th century, during which old scientific, religious, political, and social certainties were shattered. This era also saw the publication of genre-shattering writing by Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sax Rohmer, E.E. “Doc” Smith, Jack London, Arthur Conan Doyle, Aldous Huxley, Olaf Stapledon, Karel Čapek, H.P. Lovecraft, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Yevgeny Zamyatin, Philip Gordon Wylie, and other pioneers of post-Verne/Wells, pre-Golden Age “science fiction.” More info here.
READ GORGEOUS PAPERBACKS: HiLoBooks has reissued the following 10 obscure but amazing Radium Age science fiction novels in beautiful print editions: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague, Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”), Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt, H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook, Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins, William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land, J.D. Beresford’s Goslings, E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man, Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage, and Muriel Jaeger’s The Man with Six Senses. For more information, visit the HiLoBooks homepage.
SERIALIZED BY HILOBOOKS: Jack London’s The Scarlet Plague | Rudyard Kipling’s With the Night Mail (and “As Easy as A.B.C.”) | Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Poison Belt | H. Rider Haggard’s When the World Shook | Edward Shanks’ The People of the Ruins | William Hope Hodgson’s The Night Land | J.D. Beresford’s Goslings | E.V. Odle’s The Clockwork Man | Cicely Hamilton’s Theodore Savage | Muriel Jaeger’s The Man With Six Senses | Jack London’s “The Red One” | Philip Francis Nowlan’s Armageddon 2419 A.D. | Homer Eon Flint’s The Devolutionist | W.E.B. DuBois’s “The Comet” | Edgar Rice Burroughs’s The Moon Men | Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland | Sax Rohmer’s “The Zayat Kiss” | Eimar O’Duffy’s King Goshawk and the Birds | Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Lost Prince | Morley Roberts’s The Fugitives | Helen MacInnes’s The Unconquerable |
Geoffrey Household’s Watcher in the Shadows | William Haggard’s The High Wire | Hammond Innes’s Air Bridge | James Branch Cabell’s Jurgen | John Buchan’s “No Man’s Land” | John Russell’s “The Fourth Man” | E.M. Forster’s “The Machine Stops” | John Buchan’s Huntingtower | Arthur Conan Doyle’s When the World Screamed | Victor Bridges’ A Rogue By Compulsion | Jack London’s The Iron Heel | H. De Vere Stacpoole’s The Man Who Lost Himself | P.G. Wodehouse’s Leave It to Psmith | Richard Connell’s “The Most Dangerous Game” | Houdini and Lovecraft’s “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs” | Arthur Conan Doyle’s “The Sussex Vampire”.
ORIGINAL FICTION: HILOBROW has serialized three novels: James Parker’s The Ballad of Cocky The Fox (“a proof-of-concept that serialization can work on the Internet” — The Atlantic); Karinne Keithley Syers’s Linda Linda Linda (which includes original music); and Robert Waldron’s roman à clef The School on the Fens. We also publish original stories and comics. These include: Matthew Battles’s stories “Gita Nova“, “Makes the Man,” “Imago,” “Camera Lucida,” “A Simple Message”, “Children of the Volcano”, “The Gnomon”, “Billable Memories”, “For Provisional Description of Superficial Features”, “The Dogs in the Trees”, “The Sovereignties of Invention”, and “Survivor: The Island of Dr. Moreau”; several of these later appeared in the collection The Sovereignties of Invention | Peggy Nelson’s “Mood Indigo“, “Top Kill Fail“, and “Mercerism” | Annalee Newitz’s “The Great Oxygen Race” | Flourish Klink’s Star Trek fanfic “Conference Comms” | Charlie Mitchell’s “A Fantasy Land” | Charlie Mitchell’s “Sentinels” | Joshua Glenn’s “The Lawless One”, and the mashup story “Zarathustra vs. Swamp Thing” | Adam McGovern and Paolo Leandri’s Idoru Jones comics | John Holbo’s “Sugarplum Squeampunk” | “Another Corporate Death” (1) and “Another Corporate Death” (2) by Mike Fleisch | Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer and Frank Fiorentino’s graphic novel “The Song of Otto” (excerpt) | John Holbo’s graphic novel On Beyond Zarathustra (excerpt) | “Manoj” and “Josh” by Vijay Balakrishnan | “Verge” by Chris Rossi, and his audio novel Low Priority Hero | EPIC WINS: THE ILIAD (1.408-415) by Flourish Klink | EPIC WINS: THE KALEVALA (3.1-278) by James Parker | EPIC WINS: THE ARGONAUTICA (2.815-834) by Joshua Glenn | EPIC WINS: THE MYTH OF THE ELK by Matthew Battles | TROUBLED SUPERHUMAN CONTEST: Charles Pappas, “The Law” | CATASTROPHE CONTEST: Timothy Raymond, “Hem and the Flood” | TELEPATHY CONTEST: Rachel Ellis Adams, “Fatima, Can You Hear Me?” | OIL SPILL CONTEST: A.E. Smith, “Sound Thinking | LITTLE NEMO CAPTION CONTEST: Joe Lyons, “Necronomicon” | SPOOKY-KOOKY CONTEST: Tucker Cummings, “Well Marbled” | INVENT-A-HERO CONTEST: TG Gibbon, “The Firefly” | FANFICTION CONTEST: Lyette Mercier’s “Sex and the Single Superhero”