The High Wire (6)

By: William Haggard
December 6, 2014

the-high-wire

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!

ALL INSTALLMENTS

***

Chapter 6

Earlier that evening Russell had been dining with Sir William Banner, though he had made the appointment with a certain reluctance. He could be very tough indeed when it was necessary, but he had a strong sense of justice and he was a considerate man; he hadn’t seen it as his duty to volunteer to an industrialist that one of his executives had been talking in a fashion which might lead to trouble. Might lead to trouble. Charles Russell had taken a familiar decision. He was paid to run security or at least the most delicate part of it, but he wasn’t paid to be a busybody, to prejudice other men, probably lose them their jobs, merely to play safe himself. He took pride that he wasn’t a civil servant. But now it was certain that trouble had really broken Russell hadn’t hesitated; he had contacted Sir William promptly.

They weren’t close friends but they had met before, and they had been eating together comfortably. They were civilized men and they hadn’t talked business at table, but now they were in Russell’s casual room in the Security Executive. Russell was crisp and grey, the model of the soldier turned civilian, Sir William was bald and affable, looking more like a prosperous pawnbroker than the topflight tycoon he was. When they were settled over a formidable decanter, Russell passed Banner a half sheet of foolscap. He never explained for it wasted time; he wrote down the facts and let his man read them. Then he waited for comment
Sir William read the half sheet twice. He was looking entirely miserable, the unhappy child he wasn’t. Then he said slowly: ‘It’s bad — I can see it’s bad. I give Hadley this Project A, and I don’t have to say what that is. Then I send him away on the first leg of a holiday, and he celebrates it by talking too much. About Project A, and to the military attaché of another Power. From our point of view the worst but one. Who then neatly tapes the indiscretion and uses it to blackmail Hadley.’ Sir William looked at Russell. ‘I suppose I mustn’t ask it but maybe it would help. I suppose I mustn’t ask you how you know.’

‘You can ask it by all means. Moreover I’ll tell you since it’s a necessary part of the story. We’ve been watching de Fleury for weeks, his contacts and most things about him. I knew you’d sent Hadley to Maldington though I didn’t know you’d pushed him away on holiday.’ Russell smiled blandly. ‘You were a little too quick for us. In any case we weren’t watching Hadley but de Fleury. De Fleury is a military attaché but he’s also a common spy. The latter is his profession, the former his cover. And his protection too, since of course he’s a diplomat.’

‘Then surely you could chuck him out. Have him recalled if that sounds better.’

‘Perhaps. And at a pinch. But it isn’t so easy. Having a diplomat blacked, made persona non grata, isn’t so simple. Diplomatists hang together. The usual theory favours a plain conceit — their depreciated profession against the vulgar world outside it. But I don’t think it’s as slick as that.’ Russell crossed his legs, tilting his chair. ‘Are you interested?’

‘Very.’

‘Then I think it’s more practical, more reputable in a sense. Consider. It’s a very small world, diplomatists’, in London or anywhere else. They know what the other man does, and they know who does what in the Foreign Office. So you’re sitting in the Foreign Office, a pretty senior man; you’re looking at the final plums but so are a lot of others. Moreover there aren’t so many, or not the really juicy ones. And a blacking case comes up to you, somebody whom those tiresome fellows in the Security Executive, or maybe M.I.5, would like to see the back of. They’ve a plateful of evidence or they wouldn’t be putting it up, though it’s unlikely to be conclusive. Now you don’t take the final decision, but your opinion is well thought of. There won’t be a recall, even a discreetly arranged transfer, unless you recommend it to the top. So what do you do?’

‘Your duty, I hope.’

‘Oh quite. But you’re also human. It’s perfectly well known in your own absurd world that this sort of case comes up across your desk. So you black Mr X of country Y, or rather you recommend it. Country Y won’t be pleased with you. They won’t complain, they can’t, but they’ve a dozen ways of showing it. And one of them can be serious, for six months later Her Majesty’s ambassador to Y gets knifed in a snooty brothel. But you won’t be in the running for the job. And suppose you’ve had an unlucky spell; suppose I’ve been tiresome or my colleagues have; suppose you’ve had a string of cases, six, say, or seven, and done your strict duty in all of them. That’s six jobs or seven in six or seven countries — gone. You’re not even a starter for any of them. Remember you’ve a career to nurse. They’ve got the jobs; you want them.’

Banner was staring at Colonel Charles Russell. Russell had the reputation of considerable means; he wasn’t ambitious and honours he despised; he could afford to indulge a sardonic humour.

The trouble with that one was that Russell looked wholly serious. On an inflexion of inquiry Sir William said: ‘A most interesting theory.’

But Russell wasn’t rising. ‘I’m glad I haven’t bored you.’

‘It would explain a great deal. Recent cases, the F.O. scandals —’

‘It was meant to explain why de Fleury is here still. We’d have been watching him in any case. On principle.’

‘And I gather you have. Discovering that Hadley talked to him, discovering that de Fleury made a highly compromising tape of it.’ Sir William sighed softly for he liked and respected Rex Hadley. ‘And now I suppose you’ll be asking me to sack him.’

‘What a damned fool idea.’

Sir William wasn’t offended. His giggle was of pure relief. Russell had heard it before and it had ceased to astonish him. Banner asked quickly: ‘Why?’

‘Why on earth should you sack him?’

‘It’s the orthodox reaction.’

‘Fiddle, my dear chap. And reaction’s a dreadful word. There would be just two reasons to get rid of him: first that you thought he’d leaked on purpose and second that you thought him hopelessly insecure. Psychologically and permanently.’

‘I don’t think either of them.’

‘Good. Because there’s a third excellent reason not to sack him. On my side, that is. We know our opponent and we know what he wants. That’s information about Project A — confirmation of what it is, and with luck how it’s developing. Later there might be more, something technical perhaps, something commonly called a secret. So you’ll see what I’m getting at. We know about de Fleury and we know what he wants, but our special advantage is that we also know the immediate means he’s chosen. In military language, which isn’t always as woolly as you imagine, we know his first objective. Which is a man called Rex Hadley. So sack him and we’re in the dark again. Knowing what he does about Hadley, de Fleury is going to think it distinctly suspicious if he suddenly disappears without explanation. That would warn de Fleury — warn him that we knew something. He’d be very unlikely to attack again in a position he knows is strongly held. Forgive me the jargon. So he’d try somewhere else and we’d be guessing at it.’ Russell rose, pouring from the decanter. ‘Sack Hadley and you do me a disservice.’

Banner considered it, lighting one of the twenty-five. There had been a cigar after dinner but that didn’t count. At last he said: ‘But that makes Hadley a sort of bait. A stalking horse.’

‘You’d sack him then — for safety’s sake? You think he’d approve of that?’

‘I’ve a feeling you’re too quick for me. I’m glad I don’t trade with you.’

‘A compliment. I thank you.’

‘Then how do you see it developing?’

‘Blackmail — you used the word yourself. The classic pattern.’

‘What pattern is that?’

‘Pressure — increasing pressure.’ Russell was conscious that he had employed the phrase before, but he wasn’t a man who paid much attention to what grammarians called elegant variation. When words were useful he used them for their usefulness. He said again: ‘Increasing pressure.’

‘But Hadley could end it at any time he chose. Hadley could tell me everything.’

‘And lose his job?’

‘We’ve just decided otherwise.’

‘He wouldn’t know that.’

Sir William nodded, thinking it over. When he had done so he said deliberately: ‘I suppose Hadley could still tell me — throw himself on my mercy if the cliché doesn’t offend you. But I don’t think he will. As it happens I would have fought for him tooth and nail. I’d have had to report it, to you I mean, but I’d have done my best to save him. But he wouldn’t guess that. He’s a quiet sort of man, not the type to assume that an employer is going to do him favours which he hasn’t the right to ask for. He was born before the welfare state was thought of.’

‘So you’ll think he’ll say nothing? He’ll stick it alone?’

‘I think he’ll try, at any rate for the present. He’s pleasant and easy to like but there’s a mighty hard core to him. He’s half an Ulsterman. There’s a protestant streak which a catholic can respect.’

‘That’s my impression too.’

‘Then where do we go from here? You don’t yourself want Hadley sacked and I can follow the reason. For different reasons nor do I. But what are we going to say to him? I assume we’ll have to tell him that we know.’

‘I’d rather not tell him anything.’

Sir William said sharply, suddenly the tycoon: “That means you suspect him. You’re going to have him watched.’

‘I am not.’

Charles Russell went silent. He had a horror of secret police and a vast knowledge of them. Whilst he lived the Executive would never be that. Contemporary treason bred contemporary security. Russell regretted the birth but at least he could control the child. So never a secret police — never whilst he lived. A secret police, self-begotten and self-perpetuating, inhuman by definition since its end was not the state it was supposed to serve but in practice its own survival. The Executive snooped — spied if you preferred the word. It was obliged to. It painstakingly built up dossiers on hundreds of innocent people. But that was the essence: they were innocent people. Russell insisted on it tirelessly. He had an officeful of paper on people who were innocent till somebody proved them guilty; he snooped only when obliged to and then with reluctance. Charles Russell was sixty and more, old-fashioned and not ashamed of it: he wouldn’t have been flattered to be called a fair-minded man but nor would he have been offended to be thought one.

He said firmly: ‘I don’t suspect Hadley and we’re already watching de Fleury. That is enough.’

‘I’m delighted to hear it, but it still leaves the question. What do we say to Hadley?’

‘Nothing. Nothing at all.’

‘I don’t think I follow. Aren’t you going to tell him that we know?’

Charles Russell shook his head.

‘Why not?’

‘Call it experience. Haifa lifetime in security.’

‘That isn’t an answer.’

‘Perhaps…. May I ask you a question?’

‘If it helps to answer mine.’

It was becoming a little clearer why Sir William was a tycoon.

‘Then suppose you were Hadley and suppose the Executive spoke to you. Could you put it behind you? Could you behave quite normally?’

‘Probably not.’

‘Wouldn’t you look over your shoulder? Wouldn’t you, well, inhibit things? Developments in fact. It’s those that interest me.’

Sir William exploded suddenly. ‘You’re a damned unscrupulous man.’

Charles Russell didn’t flinch but he suppressed a sigh. It struck him as very unfair but he was used to unfairness; in a sense he was paid to accept it; he said evenly: ‘But you’re entitled to know the position. You are.’

‘On that we can agree at least.’ Sir William was rather cool.

‘I’m glad of that. So I’ve an agent covering de Fleury, a woman. She was with him when Hadley talked foolishly and she contrived to be present again when he played the tape back at him. Hadley met her at Sestriere when she was under de Fleury’s protection but he seems to have taken a considerable fancy to her. Be that as it may, they’ve been meeting since they both returned from holiday — holiday, that is, for Hadley. The lady was on a job for us. But Hadley doesn’t know that, nor will she tell him since she’s a trained and professional agent. So we’ve an agent covering de Fleury and an agent privately meeting Hadley.’ Russell smiled urbanely. ‘It’s extremely convenient they’re the same woman agent.’

Sir William said softly: ‘Christ.’ He looked at Charles Russell with a very odd expression. It wasn’t contempt but it might almost have been pity. He lit a cigarette again though he was running ahead of ration; he picked up Russell’s précis, rereading it methodically. When he had finished he spoke again. ‘A man has been killed lest he compromise de Fleury. I gather you can’t prove it but I accept it myself. And there were some very queer guests at de Fleury’s flat. Your agent noticed them. I dare say you’ve a word for them though it might not be mine. And all this is covered by a single woman. You talked about developments and it’s not a word I liked. If it goes beyond blackmail you’re solely responsible. If it moves into violence, danger….’

‘You’re thinking about protection?’

‘It’s a word like another. You know what I’m thinking.’

‘Rex Hadley has an important job. It was important, interesting to the Executive, quite apart from what happened at Sestriere.’

Sir William looked up quickly, but Russell was pouring the last of the decanter. He held the wine against the light, admiring it, then he smiled at Sir William Banner. ‘You remember Rex Hadley’s couple? You were thoughtful about that. You interviewed them first, I think.’

‘And how did you know that?’

‘They came from a London agency. They also came from me. You mustn’t press me for detail but I’ll tell you that’s the least of it.’

Sir William rose swiftly and held out his hand. He walked to the door and at it he turned. ‘Good-bye,’ he said, ‘and thank you for dinner. That I enjoyed.’

Two hours later the telephone woke Russell noisily. He listened to Robert Mortimer, at length said decidedly: ‘You did well. We don’t want a scandal — politically it’s the worst possible moment for it — and in any case there’s more of this to come. Much more if I’m guessing rightly, and in our trade nothing’s worse than a premature showdown. In writing tomorrow, please, and meanwhile congratulations. Good night.’

Russell had gone peacefully to sleep again.

*

But Rex Hadley had not. He had reached his house at half-past one, both safely and in ignorance of danger, but he did not sleep. He lay quietly but miserably, thought chasing its tail round an evening in London which had distressed him.

It had begun with a surprise. He had been backing his car out when George Perkins had walked up to him. Perkins was an ex-Marine, though Rex didn’t know it, a fresh-faced man who held himself superbly. He was wearing his best suit and a hard white collar, and he asked a little sheepishly: ‘Were you going to London, sir? I was wondering if you’d give me a lift.’ Perkins looked at his shoes. ‘I’ve a pretty heavy date there.’

‘I’ll be coming back very late.’

“That suits me too, sir.’

They arranged where to meet and when.

An hour and a half later Rex had been dining again with Mary Francom. By now they had a table by prescription, and the waiter brought martinis without the order. Rex noticed that she had changed her hair. It made her look younger. A comma of smooth dark hair above one eyebrow, apparently careless, cunningly considered, was the cipher of a first-class hairdresser. Rex looked at her approvingly. He had a proposition to make to Mary Francom and he made it quite simply.

She took it as he had thought she would, coolly and without protest. But she didn’t accept. Instead she said calmly: ‘You know what I really want, Rex?’

‘No.’ It wasn’t quite true.

‘I want money and I’m saving it. I dare say that sounds middle-class, but I’m a middle-class woman. Then I want British nationality.’

‘That shouldn’t be difficult. You’ve been here six years. You’re a nurse and we’re short of them.’

She shook her head. ‘I’m a Hungarian.’

‘But we’re rather pro Hungarians.’

She looked at him sadly. ‘You were. But you soon got disillusioned. After the trouble there was a flood of us, and you couldn’t have been nicer. We were freedom-fighters, heroes — bah! What you got was a load of layabouts, people who saw an unexpected chance and took it. One in thirty had heard a shot fired.’ Her mouth moved sideways in a smile he hadn’t seen. ‘You soon saw through us.’

‘But you weren’t a layabout.’

‘Perhaps.’

He waited, lighting her cigarette. She had something else to say and it was his instinct that she would say it. This evening she needed to talk. Presently she went on.

‘We’re pretty shabby people, pretty feckless. We’ve always been pushed around, and mostly we’ve deserved it.’ She managed a normal smile. ‘I’ve German blood myself, so perhaps I’m not quite hopeless.’

‘I don’t think you’re hopeless at all.’

‘No, but I’m tainted, tarred.’

‘With what?’

She didn’t answer directly. ‘There was a man, another Hungarian. He was a writer, an exile. He says he’s a writer, though nobody seems quite certain what he’s written…. Writers! There’s something in Chelsea which spends a lot of time trying to get Hungarian authors out of prison. I can’t think why. Writing’s a job like another. The man who lives in a police state and chooses to write against it is a fool.’

‘And what would you do yourself?’

‘I’d write the party line. And eat.’

Rex wasn’t absurdly shocked. ‘You’re certainly a realist.’

‘I told you my mother was German.’

‘And about this writer?’

‘He gummed up my naturalization.’

‘But how?’

She shrugged. ‘It wasn’t so difficult. I told you you’d turned against us and I can’t say I blame you. Applications from Hungarians get looked at pretty carefully. Amongst other things they talk to the ex-Hungarians, the ones now British, and if you’re not in with the gang you don’t stand much chance. And I wasn’t in the clique at all. I’m not an intellectual, I’m not even what’s called a liberal. I don’t go to houses in Hampstead where it’s smart to know Hungarians. I’m a bit of a lone wolf.’

He considered it, shaking his head.’I shouldn’t have thought that that would be enough to fix you. The Home Office is as stuffy as the next one, but it does have the reputation of being reasonably fair. No, I shouldn’t have thought that that alone would wreck your application.’

‘It wasn’t alone.’

He waited again whilst she drank her coffee. ‘You know,’ she said finally, ‘we’re really rather nasty. We can be charming when we try, which is mostly when it pays us, but we’re shamelessly unreliable. Unscrupulous too. This writer, for instance. I was alone in London and spoke his language, so he took it for granted I’d hop into bed with him. I didn’t want to and he didn’t like it. It hurt his pride, diminished him, and I could see he wouldn’t forget it. I was doing quite nicely too, at nursing and, well, at nursing, whereas all he could get was an occasional talk on the Third Programme. Otherwise those Chelsea people kept him.’ She sighed. ‘I don’t know exactly how he worked it, but he was being lionized at the time, the big boy in the precious little clan of expatriate authors. He wasn’t without English friends, and some of them, in their queer world, were influential too. I don’t imagine he went to the Home Office himself, but somebody did. I found that out later — never mind how.’

‘And what did the somebody say?’

She stared into her coffee cup, at last said shortly, deliberately brutal: ‘He said I was a whore.’

Rex Hadley was silent. The evening was dead and he knew it. He paid the bill and drove Mary Francom home. They hardly spoke at all.

And, back at Maldington, he couldn’t sleep. It was shameful — an outrage! She wanted naturalization and she’d done more than most to earn it. Justice apart… Rex turned in his bed. He had known that it wasn’t justice which was keeping him awake.

*

Next morning he sent for the Security Officer. He hadn’t much faith in Lieutenant-Commander Rivers-Legge, but he had once worked in the Security Executive. Not a job of importance, Rex imagined — probably just training — but at least he had been at headquarters. He might know the simpler ropes.

Rivers-Legge was a retired naval officer who took great pains that you should realize it. He walked with a quarter-deck roll; he drank pink gin and little else; his eyes were an improbable blue, his manner bluff. Rex had never been able to decide whether he was a deliberate caricature or simply an unconscious and stupid one. He was certainly very stupid. Rex didn’t object to that, for his sheer stupidity was in a sense an asset. Rex wanted to ask him a question, and it was the kind of question which he would rather ask of a wholly insensitive man.

Rivers-Legge came in now and sat down. Rex looked at him undecidedly. He knew exactly how to handle Legge in theory. You fixed him with an unflinching stare and barked out the questions. Legge understood that perfectly. The trouble was that you mightn’t be able to keep it up: sooner or later you smiled, not at poor Legge but at yourself. He wouldn’t know it, though; he’d think you were laughing at him and that would be fatal; he’d go into his shell at once, offended and unhelpful. Finally Rex said carefully: ‘Weren’t you once in the Security Executive?’

“They still employ me. I sincerely trust —’

‘In headquarters, I meant. I was wondering whether you could help me.’

“That’s what I’m here for.’

Rex had his reservations but he went on easily. “Then does the Executive have anything to do with applications for naturalization?’

‘I’m not sure I should tell you that.’ Legge was excessively stiff.

‘Oh come. I put it as a question, but I dare say I know the answer. Aliens would hardly be given British nationality if there was anything specific against them, and to check on that the Home Office would make inquiries. That would mean M.I.5 and no doubt the Executive too.’

Legge wriggled in his chair. ‘If you put it like that,’ he said.

‘That’s how I put it — so would anyone else. But I wanted to ask you a proper question too.’ Rex looked up suddenly, trying, but unconvincingly, for the authentic naval glare. ‘When you were at headquarters, did you ever work in the department concerned?’

‘I sat in it to watch for things. It was part of my training.’

‘It was a good department — competently run?’

‘I don’t think you should ask me that.’

‘I am.’

Rivers-Legge wasn’t liking it; he said gruffly, the fine old sea dog: “The old man kept an eye on it himself. He more or less ran it.’

‘Thank you. So that if advice were asked for it would be conscientiously given?’

‘You can bet your last shirt on that. Man, woman or child.’

‘Were there many women, then? Single women, I mean.’

Rivers-Legge looked at him. ‘Oh yes,’ he said.

Rex Hadley rose. Legge couldn’t help him further, that was evident, and Rex said amiably: ‘I’m very much obliged.’

Legge rolled back to his little room, frowning, muttering uneasily. He was a very stupid man but he was compulsively suspicious. For the routine of security that made him an excellent officer. Back in his office he thought, finally dialling a number on the scrambled line. A woman’s voice answered him.

‘Major Mortimer’s office.’

“This is Commander Rivers-Legge. At Maldington, you know.’

‘I’m afraid Major Mortimer’s out.’

‘When do you expect him?’

‘I’m sorry, he left no message.’

Rivers-Legge swore unnecessarily. ‘Could I speak to the old man, then?’

‘Colonel Russell, you mean?’ The secretary was distinctly cool. Charles Russell was sixty, but she had spent with him, more than once, evenings which had been memorable. She didn’t like to hear him called old man, and she had an official problem too. She knew perfectly well that Russell’s opinion of Rivers-Legge wasn’t a very high one.

But Legge was saying importantly: ‘It’s pretty urgent.’

‘Hold the line, please. I’ll go and see.’

She walked down a silent corridor, and Russell sighed resignedly. He waited for the call to be put through, and when it came said formally: ‘I understand it’s urgent.’

‘It’s about Mr Hadley, sir. He’s been asking some very queer questions.’

‘So?’

‘About naturalization, sir. How an applicant gets it, and what part we play in the inquiries.’

‘And why is that queer?’

There was a stuffy little pause, a gathering of Legge’s limited abilities. At last he said portentously: ‘He’s interested in a woman.’

‘Aren’t you?’

Rivers-Legge was offended. ‘Sir?’

‘Let it pass.’

‘Well, I was thinking….’ Legge wasn’t at ease. When it came to the point of simple statement he was always under handicap. Simple statements needed brains. Now he said elliptically: ‘We know what Rex Hadley does. If he’s mixed up with a woman, a foreigner….’ The Lieutenant-Commander disapproved of foreigners. I mean, if she’s an alien, somebody not yet naturalized —’

‘She is.’

‘I beg your pardon?’

Russell said precisely: ‘Mr Hadley has a woman friend and I wish them both well. I know her and approve. I vouch for her.’

‘Oh.’ There was an awkward little silence again. Rivers-Legge had never been quite comfortable with Colonel Charles Russell. He was the boss, Legge called him ‘sir’, but there was something about him, an assurance, as though he knew better. He was mostly polite, he treated you properly, but he looked at you with cool frank eyes, seeing right through you. It was decidedly embarrassing to a conscientious security officer. The man was a clever-cat: that was what he was — a clever-cat. Rivers-Legge drew a breath, at length said slowly: ‘I think you might have told me, sir.’

‘She’s never been down to Maldington but when she does I’ll brief you.’

‘Thank you very much, sir.’ The irony wasn’t effective and Russell ignored it.

‘Is there anything else, then?’

‘No. That was all.’

‘Well, thank you for letting me know.’

Russell put back the telephone but almost at once it rang again. This time it was Rex Hadley’s office. He had started for London ten minutes ago, coming to see Russell. He was without appointment but not without hope. He’d await Colonel Russell’s convenience.

Russell picked up a paper, reading it a second time. It was the report from Major Mortimer on events the night before, and Russell had again congratulated him. Mortimer hadn’t risen in the Executive on his ability to organize counter-violence — plenty could do that — but on his discretion in concealing the fact of it. They had decided to conceal it from Hadley too, at any rate for the present. What was to be gained by telling him? Nothing so far as protection went. Tell a man in his middle forties that hoodlums employed by a foreign Power had intended to seize his person, to beat from him a secret….

The complications were more evident than any advantage to the Executive.

Charles Russell smiled. He had met Rex Hadley but only casually. It would be particularly interesting to meet him again this morning.

Ninety minutes later Rex was shown in. Russell liked the look of him. He sat stolidly but without collapse, a quiet-looking man with the air of having something in reserve. In an age of stomach ulcers, or taut tense men, Russell approved him at once…. But he ought to be relaxed! He didn’t know, he couldn’t conveniently be told, that but for the Executive he would at this moment be in hospital at best. Rex said politely: ‘It’s kind of you to see me.’

‘Not at all. I hope it won’t surprise you that I know a great deal about you, but we’ve only met once before, that was some time ago, and I remember I did the talking. That was a mistake. Security is nine-tenths paper, but the other tenth, knowing a man, is something I always miss.’ Russell poured sherry — not quite his best, for he was sparing of his very best, but it was admirable sherry. He asked with apparent innocence, thinking of the night before: ‘You drove yourself up to London?’

‘In point of fact my man drove. He’s a great one for coming to London. I imagine he’s found a girl here.’ Rex drank some wine. “That’s what I wanted to see you about.’

‘Your manservant’s girl friend?’

‘No, my own.’

‘There’s some trouble with a woman?’

‘No trouble at all. There’s one I’d like to help, though.’

‘I’m probably quite the wrong man.’

‘Do you mind if I tell you?’

‘They pay me to listen.’

‘Then I’m friendly with a Mary Francom. That isn’t her name and I don’t know her real one. I doubt if it matters. She’s a Hungarian — a nurse and a useful person. She wants to be naturalized and I’d like to help her.’

…An intelligent, a successful, engineer. And something as well, a man who would help a friend.

But Rex was repeating: ‘She wants British nationality and that would come to you.’

‘Just a minute. It might or it might not. It would go to the Home Office first, and if they knew nothing against your friend they’d ask for a check-up — here or with colleagues. But if they didn’t like the girl, if they had something against her themselves, I’d never see the papers. I wouldn’t have need to.’

‘I’m afraid that’s what happened in this case. Somebody in the Hungarian clique in London took against her. He went to the Home Office or had something conveyed there. He said she was undesirable.’ Rex hesitated, then said firmly: ‘I believe her that that’s what happened.’

‘If it helps you, so do I. Implicitly. I know something about Hungarians in London.’

‘But not about Miss Francom?’

Russell hated to lie: instead he said smoothly: ‘If I did, then I couldn’t tell you.’

‘I’m sorry if I’ve been tactless.’

‘No.’

‘Then can you help me — her?’

‘Frankly, I doubt it.’ Russell walked to the window, staring at a pigeon on the ledge. He was fond of birds but detested pigeons. They were rodents, not things of the air, a carpet of rats in Trafalgar Square, a sea of them in the Piazza di San Marco. He made an irritable gesture uncommon with him. He had been expecting a visit from Rex Hadley, sooner or later they had been bound to meet again, but he hadn’t been expecting this. Rex Hadley had fixed him. Russell would have given a great deal to be able to say that he knew Mary Francom, that she worked for him and was working now. With an interest, amongst others, in Rex Hadley himself. He shook his head impatiently. That was out of the question. And he would have liked to say he admired her. He knew her story, all of it, the Home Office fiasco too. It had infuriated him, but he knew his Home Office. It would be useless to appeal to them. Mary Francom wasn’t virginal. You could put that rather differently and somebody had. The brute facts supported him. The facts! A woman alone and penniless, a vivid and vital woman.

In the world of officialdom, of Chislehurst and Croydon, that wouldn’t mean a thing. There were rules and they wouldn’t dare stretch them. Not even for Russell. There was public opinion….

Hell.

Russell grimaced, his hands on the windowsill. The pigeon had flown, forgotten. He liked Mary Francom. She was his agent and a courageous woman. If he’d been rather younger….

And Hadley was a decent man.

It was a dreadful thing to give advice since people sometimes took it. It was an uncovenanted responsibility and God knew he had enough of them. He returned to his desk slowly. Rex Hadley hadn’t moved. Russell poured more sherry, drinking it rather faster than he normally drank good sherry. At last he asked deliberately: ‘You want to help Mary Francom?’

‘Yes.’

‘Who wants British nationality?’

‘She does.’

‘Forgive me if I’m impertinent — I’ve got to ask. You like her a lot?’

‘A lot.’

‘You’re British yourself?’

‘Of course.’

‘Then why don’t you marry her?’

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

***

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”

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