The High Wire (10)
January 4, 2015
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!
The pilot of the single-engined military aircraft had very precise instructions and some beautiful cameras. His instructions were that he should get into some trouble on a routine patrol over the Channel. He wasn’t to try to master a failing engine, indeed he was to radio to the nearest military airfield, which would happen to be in England, seeking permission to make an emergency landing; he was even to be seen attempting it. At the last minute his engine would mysteriously come in again and he would find that he could stagger back to base. His superiors would see to the rest. They would apologize handsomely to their esteemed English colleagues: the pilot had been inexperienced and had been suitably reprimanded; the whole affair was most regrettable, an unnecessary alarm of the sort which was alas unavoidable with a pilot on his first flight in a high-performance aircraft of the type in question. It was particularly unfortunate that it seemed possible that the aircraft had crossed an English prohibited area.
Now Victor was looking at the excellent air photographs which the automatic cameras had brought back. An expert was interpreting them. ‘No extension to Maldington,’ he was saying. ‘No further building. There’s been a change, though.’
The expert told him.
‘And what do you make of that?’
The expert shrugged. ‘You should ask an engineer, sir. I can only report the facts. Maldington has been working for some time, and it’s been working on three power lines. Now there are clearly four.’ He put a pointer on one of the photographs. ‘Perfectly clear — no doubt of it. It would have been simple to put in four originally, so perhaps they didn’t need them. The inference would be that now they do. And from that you could infer again, and plenty. But I leave that to you,
Victor said coolly: ‘You may,’ dismissing him. He smoked most of a black cheroot before he picked up the telephone. He asked for an urgent interview with the tall man. He sought of him neither advice nor help, but he had decided to report a recent failure. Victor didn’t always report his successes but he sometimes reported his failures; he thought nothing of the tall man’s praise but his anger could be useful. When the tall man was angry he would authorize almost anything. Victor smiled grimly. What he was considering needed a top authority.
Presently the telephone rang back. The earliest appointment possible, and this was a favour, would be at eleven o’clock that evening. Victor at once confirmed it. He looked at his watch — eight hours. He could use eight hours.
He sent for the man he trusted best and they began to talk quietly. The other said doubtfully: ‘I dare say it’s on in theory. That is, as a staff exercise.’
‘It’s on all right.’
‘And suppose we’re captured?’
‘That mustn’t happen.’
Francis de Fleury had answered the doorbell. He wasn’t easily surprised but now he was astonished. He had been expecting a visitor, probably some thug, but he hadn’t been expecting this one. He was looking at Victor himself.
Victor came in and they went into the living-room. He accepted a drink but hardly touched it. For the moment he was polite and even formal. ‘I expect you know why I’m here,’ he said.
‘I’m rather afraid I do.’
Victor’s expression did not change. He sat quite still, very sure of himself, a heavily-built man in his sixties. His grey hair was cut en brosse and an empty arm sleeve, neatly folded, was pinned against his coat. He carried his head on shoulders which were powerful still, a little forward, like a wicked old bull, de Fleury thought, an animal. A formidable animal. He said at length: ‘Naturally we have a plan.’ He began to explain it and de Fleury listened carefully. He was indeed obliged to. Victor was from the south-west coast and years of service hadn’t civilized his accent. To Francis de Fleury his speech was almost a foreign language.
…A savage, almost an alien, speaking too carefully, a dangerous and dedicated man. Perhaps they were the same.
When he had finished de Fleury said: ‘Absurd.’
‘You wish to suggest some local modification?’ The manner was less formal now, verging on open arrogance.
‘I wish to suggest that we start from the beginning. There isn’t the slightest evidence of a genuine breakthrough at Maldington.’
‘You may be right. But there is evidence of progress —knowledge. We have scientists ourselves, and given the proper lead -’
‘But the risk, man.’
Victor didn’t answer. He lit one of his own cigarettes. De Fleury hadn’t used them for years. The smell was nostalgic but the smoke made him cough. When he had recovered he said again: ‘The risks.’
‘I have calculated the risks.’
‘And I think you have done the sum wrong. Reflect. Suppose you succeed, and I don’t think you will. Diplomatic relations, already delicate, will drop to zero.’
Victor said indifferently: ‘Nothing could be proved if we succeed.’ It was evident that a fluttering in the international dovecotes wouldn’t be a matter to disturb him.
‘And if you fail?’
‘If we fail it will be embarrassing.’ Victor unexpectedly stood up, adding in open menace now: ‘For all of us.’
‘What you mean is that you’ve strings on me.’ De Fleury wasn’t a coward and now he was angry. ‘We’re in this together and you want my help.’
‘Nothing active, I assure you. Your distaste for action is well known.’ Now Victor wasn’t hiding his contempt. ‘But there are details which you could confirm for us, timings and movements. They are not essential — do not delude yourself that you can block this plan — but equally they would be useful.’
De Fleury had been fighting temper, now he lost it. ‘I’ll see you in hell, the lot of you. If you come through this affair without a killing you’ll be lucky. I’ve killed myself but I’m not an assassin.’
‘Colonel de Fleury, you are in a most delicate situation. You have failed yourself and I know everything about you. Now you are withholding co-operation.’
‘Co-operation — balls! Co-operation with a gang of murderers.’
‘No. With me.’
‘You’re going on this thing yourself?’
‘I am not. I shall be out of this country before it even starts. I came here to check it.’
De Fleury opened his mouth but shut it again. He had been about to make the obvious retort but his eye had caught Victor’s sleeve. He had been within distance of a gaucherie and it annoyed him. He walked to the door and held it. As Victor went past him he asked: ‘And for when is this idiot plan?’
In his room at the Executive Russell was saying to Robert Mortimer: ‘I’m not too happy.’
‘But it’s all in the open now, sir.’
‘They’re in the open — we’re not. One of the disadvantages of a free society is that you can’t just tell people to do things. Something is happening at Maldington, and our job would be a great deal easier if we could tell everybody of importance there simply to stay put. But go to the average scientist, suggest that he restrict his personal movements, and he’ll go screaming to his professional association with some hair-raising story about the wicked Executive playing Senator McCarthy. There’d be a question in Parliament before you could say knife. They’d all go crying to mother, every man jack of them. All except Rudi Walther, who wouldn’t run crying to anyone. He’d quietly go back to Cambridge.’
‘I agree, sir — I know the form. But as far as Hadley is concerned there’s been a known attempt against him. Known, that is, to us. We could tell him that in confidence; we could tell him that he’s an object of some interest. That puts it mildly.’
‘We could, but we decided not to. Would it help you if we changed our mind?’
‘Not significantly. Hadley is only one of several, and I don’t think we could accept a position where everybody of importance at Maldington was sweating on the possibility that Victor might make a violent pass at him. There’s Doctor Walther, for example. His reputation is international.’
‘So international that he gets asked to white tie banquets.’
‘I know, sir. Tonight. With Hadley.’
Russell asked briefly: ‘Then what are your arrangements?’
‘Perkins will be with them; Perkins is a limpet. And there’s a standing patrol round Maldington.’
‘The patrol has been compromised.’
‘You mean Victor knows of it?’
Charles Russell nodded.
‘True. But he also knows it’s armed. It shoots.’
Russell began to doodle on his pad. It was something he didn’t do often, and Mortimer watched him anxiously. Without looking up Russell said: ‘If a real breakthrough comes there’ll have to be restrictions for a time. That we could wear and will, but just for the moment we’re getting the worst of both worlds. Within the limits of the problem set us I think you’ve done everything possible, but I don’t pretend I’m easy in my mind. We’ve a reliable toughie who sticks close to Hadley, and there’s an armed patrol in the country besides the normal guards at Maldington. It sounds all right, it is all right against any ordinary villainy, for instance against another attempt at getting information by a quick beating-up. But there’s one thing that can’t be stopped — an operation of open war in peacetime. That cracks any security possible.’
‘I’m not quite sure what you’re suggesting, sir.’
‘Unfortunately nor am I. I only wish I were.’ Charles Russell stopped doodling; he said in the voice which Mortimer heard seldom: ‘Victor — I hate his guts.’
Mary had been obliged to plan carefully for a final evening with de Fleury. She was determined that it should in fact be final. There were obvious reasons, Francis the most immediate, and there was personal inclination too. She had been told she might disengage herself, and that had been welcome since, Rex apart, there had been something about Francis lately, a manner which had begun to trouble her. She hadn’t thought much about it for she wasn’t being paid to. Francis de Fleury had been part of a job: it wasn’t her business to analyse his emotions. The fact remained that recently he’d been extremely insistent. When she’d finally telephoned accepting for this evening she had heard him catch his breath, and later he had sent a car for her. Francis had always been considerate, but he’d never done that before.
…This evening — it had to be this evening. Rex was at some boiled shirt dinner; Rex wouldn’t ring her.
Mary took the car to Cheyne Walk. She carried no arms for she had other weapons.
She spent the next hours using them, not despising herself for she was too much a realist, but unaffectedly happy that this was finality. She was charming to de Fleury since he was still an assignment. It wouldn’t do to botch it, nor her private plan. De Fleury himself was drinking more than usual, and Mary didn’t try to stop him. He was under some strain but she didn’t question him. She watched the cigarettes he couldn’t finish, and she watched his glass. Brandy it was, and so much the better. The harder he slept the easier her task would be.
By three o’clock she judged he was sound asleep, not drunk, but he had brought the bottle with him. She slipped from the warm bed silently, not bothering with a dressing-gown. She knew where he kept the tape. In the living-room she opened the bureau quietly, pulling at an inside drawer.
It was there and she put her hand out.
The light went on shatteringly and Mary swung. De Fleury was at the door. He was holding a gun. For a long time he stared at the tape. At last he said: ‘Please put that down.’
She put it down.
‘Now go and get dressed. No tricks.’
When she returned he was sitting on the sofa, covering the door along the corridor. He nodded at a chair and, when she sat down, put the gun on a table beside him.
‘And now?’ he asked.
She didn’t answer.
With a gesture she was quite unready for he dropped his head in his hands. ‘Oh, God,’ he said, ‘dear God.’
Mary was a warm-hearted woman and she said involuntarily: ‘Francis….’
His head came up slowly, his face a mask of grief. ‘Take it,’ he said, ‘take it. It isn’t any good to me.’
‘But I don’t understand.’
‘You’re an agent — just an agent.’
‘Aren’t you one too?’
‘Of course I am. I’m an agent but I’m also a man. A man you’ve betrayed.’
She didn’t believe her ears. ‘Betrayed you?’
‘Yes. I was going to marry you.’
She stared at him, wide-eyed but not incredulous. Francis de Fleury was presently a spy, and privately he was a rogue, but it didn’t occur to her that he would lie. She managed to say lightly: ‘Nonsense.’
‘You think so?’ There was a hint of asperity and Mary welcomed it. Francis was recovering and that was more comfortable. ‘You think so?’ he said again. ‘In any case I’m finished — through.’
‘I guessed you were in trouble.’
‘I was and I still am.’ His hands moved unexpectedly and Mary watched them. They didn’t go near the gun. ‘What do you know about me? What did they tell you?’
‘You’re not like the men you work for. You’re a man of position who lost his money gambling. Then you were a blackmailer, I gather a successful one. Then they sent you to England.’
‘You know most things about me.’
‘You said I was an agent. I’ve been briefed.’
‘Not quite completely. I’d like you to know it all. After I lost my patrimony I found work. It was a very good job for I had plenty of contacts. But I failed. I had honour of a sort but I could never be simply honest. Then I preyed on the world I told myself had destroyed me, the new rich men, the politicians much crookeder than I was. It was surprisingly easy and I became rather good at it. Then I overreached myself and suddenly it wasn’t easy. I might have gone to jail; I nearly did. Then the men you were talking about stepped in — I was just what they wanted. I had the background, languages, a certain skill, and above all things they held me. I would do what they told me. I must.’
Mary said softly: ‘Francis, I’m very sorry.’ Instinctively she had been talking for time, to calm him, a man with a gun, and now she wasn’t. She was a woman and fascinated. There was a word for the Francis de Fleurys but in England people sniggered if you used it. Which was a tiresome snobbery reversed. This was one sort of man, an unhappy man, a proud one, a survival.
‘Francis, why don’t you quit? They’ve got you while you work for them, but why don’t you simply run — ask for asylum… anything… I don’t know. But run.’
He dropped his head again and she heard him groan. When he raised it his face was ravaged. ‘I’m afraid to,’ he said. ‘Not physically — no. They’d probably go after me — I know too much, they’d have to — but it isn’t that and I’d like you to believe it.’
‘I do.’ It was the truth.
‘But it’s something at least as shameful. I need money as some men need drink. It’s in my blood.’
She said on a note of faint contempt: ‘The trouble with you, you’re an aristocrat.’
‘So? But they’re an unpredictable lot.’
She knew at once that she had blundered. The ravaged face was hard again. De Fleury said icily: ‘I’m sorry if I’ve bored you. To return to our business.’
He had picked up the gun again and Mary watched it. She wasn’t yet frightened, simply unbelieving.
‘If you mean about the tape —’
‘I do not. The tape is unimportant in itself. What matters is that you were stealing it.’
‘I’m an agent like you.’
He said with a shocking dignity: ‘You’re the woman I loved. You betrayed me.’
Mary was frightened now. She was utterly lost. She was a practical woman with a hard life behind her. This was a language she neither spoke nor wished to. De Fleury wasn’t drunk but nor was he quite sober. The threshold was lowered, and something had walked over it, something outside experience. Mary said what first came to her, urgently and in fear: ‘What century are you living in?’
It didn’t touch him. ‘Several too late, perhaps.’ For a second he lowered the gun.
…Jump for it? She couldn’t. She’d been shot at before and she’d been terrified. But that had been real. The men behind the guns had motive, evil perhaps but rational. This was a lunatic dream.
She stared at de Fleury, frozen. His face was a death’s-head now.
…But he was as horrified as she was, caught in some dreadful pride, a nightmare. She saw his lips move soundlessly, straining to catch his speech. It might have been a prayer.
The gun came up.
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”