The High Wire (8)

By: William Haggard
December 20, 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 8

Rex Hadley slipped downstairs. It was bitterly cold. He took his car from its garage quietly, anxious not to wake George Perkins. He didn’t fancy company and he wasn’t going to London. He drove away slowly, warming the engine, skirting Maldington’s perimeter fence. The arc lamps on their latticed towers glared savagely, throwing no shadow where they fell direct, enormous misshapen hulks at the penumbra. Under its mild native moon Maldington had been mysterious; under this inhuman light the establishment was terrifying. It looked quite deserted: Rex knew that it was not. Take a liberty and within seconds the lighting would double; switches would click ominously, completing circuits it was better not to know about; in the three little guardhouses a buzzer would hum insistently, and men would awake from sleep, and dogs. The feral thing had stirred.

And inside the wire the same. The laboratories looked abandoned, and again Rex knew better. The night shift would be working its accustomed stint — the routine, this — and there would always be Rudolf Walther. Which wouldn’t be routine at all. Rudi Walther was a night bird. Other scientists didn’t like him for it was possible he was a genius. More difficult to live with still, he never joined their quarrels. Rex’s smile was affectionate. Project A was a gamble and nothing might emerge from it. Rex wasn’t a scientist but he believed he could assess them. It was his unspoken hunch that if anything came out of Project A then Rudi would have fathered it.

Rex pointed the car north-east and, two miles from Maldington, another slipped behind him. It wasn’t the Lagonda and it was a different crew, but their instructions were identical. Rex didn’t see it for it was discreetly done, and he was driving deliberately, staring ahead. There had been a light fall of snow and he didn’t want an accident. He had given himself ample time. Breakfast in Edgbaston was at eight o’clock sharp, and it wasn’t good policy to spoil a man’s breakfast, particularly when you were asking a favour of him. Rex’s decision had been a simple one: he’d tell Sir Bill everything; he’d then take his medicine but he’d ask for help too.

He pulled up a little early before a formidable Victorian mansion. It made him smile again. Sir William Banner’s father had lived in this alarming house, his great-grandfather had built it. A succession of Lady Banners had fought a running but inconclusive battle with the interior decorating, but none had even dared engage the architecture. There were turrets and glass verandas, and a portico which made you blink. There were also modern central heating, superlative beds and a good deal of well-trained service. It was a brandy-and-soda house. Rex looked at his watch, waiting for half-past eight; then he drove into the crescent drive and rang.

Sir William had finished breakfast but at once offered Rex some. Rex declined but accepted coffee. Sir William had plenty of time, or if he hadn’t, concealed it. He stood before an open fire, his hands behind his coat-tails. It was an antiquated attitude and with most men would have been absurd. It perfectly became Sir Bill, and Rex Hadley it reassured. Sir Bill waved at a leather armchair, then stood unmoving, his bald head slightly shiny; he looked at Rex, said evenly: ‘I can see you’re in trouble.’

Rex began to talk quickly, omitting nothing, finally passing Sir Bill the letter. He watched his face but it didn’t change. When he had finished reading Banner asked simply: ‘And that’s the lot?’

‘I think it’s about enough.’

‘Ye-es.’ There was a reflective pause. ‘It’s this divorce-thing that matters.’

‘That tape could be pretty serious. For me.’

Surprisingly Sir William shook his head. ‘Did you ever play Snakes and Ladders? It’s a childish affair but not without its lesson. So I see this as a game of it. The threat to block your divorce — that part of what’s clearly a plan — I see as Square Two. The business at Sestriere was Square One. Take a reprimand for that and then forget it. Because if we can knock this de Fleury off Square Two it isn’t any good to him that he was once on Square One. He goes back to the start again, and I doubt if there can be one. That’s the way blackmail goes.’

Rex thought it over. ‘Then what should I do?’

‘Who were your solicitors?’

Rex Hadley told him.

‘I’ve never heard of them — not that it matters. It wouldn’t help you to go back to them. I know about lawyers, and your own would be frightened stiff. They’d think first of themselves, their own position. They wouldn’t lift a finger.’

‘I might go to others.’

‘You might, but I don’t advise it.’

Rex asked again: “Then what should I do?’

‘Nothing. Go back to Maldington. I’ll settle this, or try.’ Sir William looked at the elaborate ormolu clock. ‘Lend me that letter, please.’ He walked to the door, and at it Rex said awkwardly: ‘I don’t know why you should help me, sir.’

‘I’ll give you one good reason, Rex. You’ve never asked a thing.’

Sir William went to his study and began to telephone. He telephoned to his office, saying he wouldn’t be in. He telephoned to his solicitors, making a date for luncheon. He telephoned to Russell, arranging an appointment for three o’clock. Then he sent for his car.

*

At one o’clock precisely he arrived at van Omnigens and was shown with some ceremony to Beatrix Agar’s room. He produced with a flourish, half deprecatory half deliberate, a large bunch of roses. He had spent a good deal of time in Europe and he had remembered to take the paper off.

‘Why, Sir William!’

‘Stop calling me Sir William.’

Beatrix Agar was pleased. Sir William Banner was an important client, but not every eminent client brought her flowers. He was a shrewd old boy and a bit of an old charmer in his throwaway style. Moreover he spoke his mind; he said what he had to say shortly and certainly, and to a busy solicitor that was important. He told the truth and so could you.

He took her away to luncheon, glancing at the menu, raising an eyebrow. Beatrix nodded and smiled, and Sir William ordered quickly. They had eaten together before, and Banner was known for an excellent memory. When they were settled he said: ‘Do you mind if we talk shop? Then a friend of mine is in the middle of a divorce suit. The usual thing. He took a woman to the Jezebel at Brighton, where he registered in his proper name. Then the floor-waiter saw them in bed next morning and was called to court to say so. There’s a nisi but it’s not yet absolute.’

‘Old hat,’ she said. She was thinking that this was interesting. Francis de Fleury had been asking her about divorce. Francis was a bachelor, so Francis must have a friend. Sir William Banner was already divorced — van Omnigens had handled it — and Sir William had many friends. Just possibly….

Her handsome face showed nothing. Both men were clients.

Sir William dissected a trout with astonishing neatness. Beatrix Agar watched his hands. He was a stout little man but his hands were beautiful. He pushed the backbone aside and answered her.

‘Old hat up to a point.’ Sir Bill ate some fish. ‘But my friend has an enemy, and this enemy is offering the floor-waiter what I imagine is a considerable sum to say it was a put-up job. It was, of course. Unless, that is, my friend does something for this other man.’

Beatrix Agar said sharply: ‘Blackmail.’

‘A good stiff sentence?’

‘A five year stretch at least. If proved.’

Sir William shook his head again. ‘It wouldn’t help my friend. He won’t do what this other man is asking, that I’m quite sure of, but he does want his divorce.’ He handed Beatrix Agar the typed and unsigned letter.

She read it twice carefully, and whistled.

‘As bad as that?’

‘Not quite. There’s an element of bluff, of course — in blackmail there mostly is. And some rather sketchy law. It reads as though this blackmailer were well-informed and shrewd, but he isn’t a practising lawyer.’ Beatrix nodded at the letter. ‘Let’s take this to pieces professionally…. So the waiter goes to what are absurdly called the appropriate authorities and tells them he’s seen this woman in bed with other men. So what? That proves she’s a wicked woman, but it doesn’t prove that your friend didn’t commit adultery with her on the occasion the waiter said he did. He can even say he believes she’s a professional co-respondent. So what again? The facts, the original evidence, haven’t been shaken. I spend a good deal of time hiring counsel to stroke a judge’s whiskers, and I needn’t tell you that British courts are notoriously sensitive about their dignity. They don’t like to be made fools of. Your blackmailer seems to know that too, but it’s a knife that cuts both ways. Before a court will admit that it’s been deceived it needs something pretty definite to go on. It’s a serious thing to rescind a decree nisi.’

‘You’re telling me that this is bluff? You’re telling me we can ride it?’

‘I didn’t quite say that. Because this waiter is a foreigner, an uneducated man.’ Beatrix Agar leant forward. ‘I’m not worried by what this blackmailer says that the waiter will say; I’m worried about what he might. If he makes any statement at all he’ll be questioned by men who know their business. Here’s an ill-educated Italian who went to court and swore he had seen something. If he volunteers further comment he’s bound to be asked about the original occurrence. So here’s a simple and frightened foreigner getting in deeper and deeper. He won’t understand our legal attitudes, he’ll certainly assume that any sort of questioning means that somebody’s against him. He’ll think in terms of his native police, though the police won’t be in it at all. He’ll start wondering what he ought to say, what will extract him from the mess he’s landed in. He’ll ask himself what do they want of me? and it could occur to him that if he simply repudiated his original story —’

‘That would be serious?’

‘Very.’

Sir William thought fast and silently; at last he said: ‘I can see there’s a risk and I don’t like risks. I’d much rather play it safe.’

‘You’re asking for advice on that? I doubt if a lawyer should give it.’

‘I’m not asking my lawyer — not now.’

‘You’re an understanding man.’ Beatrix laughed, demolishing a meringue. She had a splendid figure but she needed to watch it; she shouldn’t have been eating a meringue. ‘A delicious lunch, and I’ve very much enjoyed it. A lunch between friends.’

Sir Bill said: ‘Understood.’

‘This floor-waiter then.’

‘He’s a wop, as you know. The bait is a place of his own in Italy — the money to set up in it.’

‘Have you any idea how much?’

‘How much would you think yourself? Two hundred? Three? He has considerable resources, my poor friend’s enemy.’

‘I’d put it rather higher to be safe. Call it five hundred.’

‘I’ll call it five hundred.’

‘That won’t be enough.’

There was a silence while both drank their coffee. Beatrix said obliquely: ‘There’s something called exchange control.’

‘I know how to fiddle that.’

‘And don’t give it all at once. Scare him to begin with. Talk about lawyers but don’t mention me. Then give him something generous to start with, the rest to be paid monthly over the next six months. Provided he stays in Italy.’ She collected her bag and gloves. ‘Would you drive me back, please? In office hours I’m a respected and respectable solicitor.’

He drove her back, asking in her room if he could use the telephone.

‘Of course.’

He rang up his bank.

When he had finished she said a little wistfully: ‘It must be nice to be very rich.’

‘Sometimes — not often. Just occasionally you can buy things. Satisfaction, for instance, or Italian waiters. You can outbid an enemy.’ For the first time that morning Sir William Banner giggled. ‘Two thousand, I thought — there’s no point in cheeseparing. That’s three and a half million lire. It sounds better in lire.’ He picked up his hat.

‘You’re going down to Brighton now?’

‘Good heavens, no. This wouldn’t be my meat at all. I’d muddle the thing for certain.’ He looked at her reflectively. ‘Just between ourselves again, I’ve an appointment at the Security Executive.’

‘It’s helpful to know the right people.’

He took her hand. ‘I’d rather have competent friends.’ His bow was old-fashioned but Beatrix approved it. ‘Friends I can lunch with.’

*

Charles Russell had listened in total silence. When Banner had finished he said: ‘You want us to help?’

‘I think it’s more your line than mine.’

‘I’m inclined to agree.’ Russell picked up a telephone. ‘Ask Major Mortimer to see me, please.’

He explained to Robert Mortimer with classic brevity. ‘You think we can help?’

‘Of course, sir. I’ll go myself.’

‘You speak enough Italian?’

‘I haven’t quite forgotten it.’

‘Good. Take my car.’

When Mortimer had gone Sir William said: ‘You’re a most co-operative man.’

‘And you’re a very generous one.’

‘I like Rex Hadley and I loathe extortioners.’

Mortimer told Russell’s driver to go to Brighton fast. Half an hour behind him another car would be following. It would be half an hour behind because it had made a stop. It had stopped in Lower Regent Street for an air ticket to Naples.

*

Francis de Fleury had never hedged his bets, but when he wasn’t gambling he was careful. He had sent Smithy to Brighton. His instructions had been clear but far from onerous. Smithy needn’t keep nudging Giorgio, he needn’t even meet him, since if everything went to plan Giorgio wouldn’t in fact be asked to do a thing. Giorgio was a threat of action, not an essential actor. Nevertheless they couldn’t afford to take a chance with him: he mustn’t, for instance, be permitted to change his mind. For one thing he’d accepted a substantial payment on account. So Smithy was to take a room at the Jezebel and there he was to keep an eye on Giorgio.

Smithy had nodded. It didn’t sound difficult and he was fond of Brighton.

But this evening he was telephoning to de Fleury, reporting in unmistakable urgency, saying resentfully: ‘That damned waiter is packing.’

‘You mean he intends to leave?’

‘He’s given in his notice. I had to ask outright and they didn’t like it.’

Francis de Fleury considered it. ‘You think he’s just lost his nerve? Or has somebody got at him?’

‘Maybe. But he does fifteen or twenty rooms and it might be any one of them. Or even somebody outside. Should I check?’

‘There isn’t time.’ De Fleury thought again. ‘He’s actually packed his bags?’

‘He has.’

“There’s the evening train from Liverpool Street — the Hook of Holland, then by the Rhinegold or the Lorelei through Basle.’

Smithy looked at his watch. ‘He couldn’t make that.’

‘Or there’s a flight in the small hours direct to Naples.’

“That’s much more likely.’

‘Then I’ll meet you at London Airport.’

‘Right.’

*

Giorgio was waiting for the air-hostess to clear them finally. His flight to Naples had been announced, and he was sitting in a numbered bay with the other passengers. There weren’t very many for it wasn’t the season — a small party of tourists and an Italian or two returning to their families. Giorgio was delighted to be doing the same. He had a round little wife, a loving little wife in Naples, but he hadn’t seen her for a year. That was a long time to leave a woman in the mezzogiorno.

But though he was delighted he wasn’t quite at ease. It wasn’t his conscience which troubled him; he knew he was breaking a promise but it was instinct which insisted that the affair had been too easy to be wholly of good omen. He touched the medal he always wore. The bishop had blessed it himself, and normally it brought immediate reassurance. But this morning, in the hollow dawn, it wasn’t as potent as usual. Giorgio had cheated and knew it, and the signore who had spoken Italian so well hadn’t given the impression that he would take easily to being cheated. The so-elegant signore had known the world, and there had been something about him, an authority which Giorgio had recognized but could not name. But his proposition hadn’t seemed unreasonable, and certainly it had been tempting. Giorgio had pocketed a considerable retainer. But then the English signore, the military one, the gentleman who hadn’t spoken Italian quite so fluently, had been even more formidable and his proposition in turn more generous. Two thousand English pounds — a fortune! For doing nothing too — simply for going home and staying there. Five hundred on account — Giorgio had it hidden about his person for he didn’t trust banks — and the rest every month provided he stayed in Italy. The military signore had frightened him, but it hadn’t occurred to Giorgio to mistrust him. He could recognize a man who kept a bargain.

Now he sat on his bench uneasily, fingering his medal again, waiting for he knew not what. He wasn’t a courageous man — his wife had once reproached him. Giorgio hadn’t resented it since it was something he accepted. Mi manca il dono di coraggio, and there it was.

He saw that the hostess had come back to them, her business smile affixed and frightful. The door into Customs opened and Giorgio rose.

Two men walked up to him from nowhere. One was the first signore. They stood between him and the open door. The signore said gently: ‘You were thinking of leaving us?’

Giorgio was silent. He was an uneducated man and he feared irony worse than a beating.

The other said savagely: ‘You dirty, double-crossing little —’

‘Be quiet.’ It was the signore again. He took Giorgio’s arm, quietly but with authority. ‘I think you’d better come with us.’

Giorgio looked round but the hostess had disappeared. The others were almost through the door.

He was alone.

‘I… you… signore….’

A tall man across the waiting-room rose from behind a newspaper, walking towards them quickly. Giorgio began to tremble. It was the second, the military gentleman. He bowed briefly to the first.

‘Colonel de Fleury?’

‘How do you know my name?’

‘It isn’t important. Mine is Robert Mortimer. I’m not a policeman but there are police within call. Frankly I don’t want to call them — that would be awkward for both of us. But I must if you oblige me to.’

There was silence for perhaps ten seconds. Giorgio had begun to weep. De Fleury’s hand fell slowly from his arm and Robert Mortimer’s replaced it. He walked Giorgio to the open door, pushing him briefly through it. Somebody shut it behind him.

Robert returned to the other two, for the first time speaking to Smithy.

‘You call yourself Smith?’

“That’s my name.’ Smithy was facing it out.

‘It wasn’t the name in your last conviction, nor in any of the others. I wouldn’t risk another one. I’d take a good long holiday if I were you. And a change of employment.’

‘And if I don’t?’

‘I told you I wasn’t a policeman but I’ve excellent friends in the police. There was the matter of that jeweller in Prince’s Street. Nobody’s saying you did him yet but nobody’s sure you didn’t.’

The man they called Smithy thought it over. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘You win.’

He walked away decidedly, and Mortimer turned to de Fleury.

‘Naturally you’re more difficult.’

‘I am?’ De Fleury was entirely calm. He had lost a fortune gambling but not because his face betrayed him.

Robert Mortimer was as cool. ‘You are and you aren’t. Your principle strength is that we don’t want a scandal. That gives you rope but it isn’t unlimited.’ Mortimer hesitated, then said deliberately: ‘Do me a favour, will you? Don’t stretch the rope too far. Watch it, I beg you. All of you.’

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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