The High Wire (12)

By: William Haggard
January 18, 2015

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

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Chapter 12

Robert Mortimer came in tired, grateful for the whisky which Russell at once offered. Russell had had more than one, and he began to talk comfortably. ‘I expect you’ve had a day — I know I have. But there’s one small thing still. Victor has had two failures, the first little outrage nipped in the bud by your patrol car and the success of the second prevented by that very brave man George Perkins. And Rex Hadley was the target in both, alone the first time, the second with Doctor Walther. That doesn’t mean he will remain so, indeed if I were Victor I should feel it was better to try something else. But then I’m not Victor. We still ought to keep an eye on Hadley.’

Mortimer at once agreed: ‘On the face of it Victor would lie low for a bit, but with a man like that you can never be sure. Still, in the ordinary way I’d have been happy enough about Hadley. For one thing he now knows everything. He obviously knows about the second attempt, so I told him about the first. It wouldn’t now be embarrassing to attach to him a perfectly open bodyguard, and in the ordinary way I’d do it.’

‘Then what’s un-ordinary?’

‘Did you know he was going abroad tonight?’

Russell sat up sharply. ‘You didn’t tell me that.’

‘I didn’t know till half an hour ago, sir. Rex Hadley rang me. It’s something to do with Sir William Banner.’

‘I like Bill Banner. He’s loyal and generous, but he’s apt to be quick on the trigger.’

‘I gather he’s been all three. When Hadley originally took over at Maldington Banner insisted on his taking a holiday. It wasn’t convenient to take it all at once, but he went on the first leg to Sestriere. That, as you know, is where de Fleury started working on him. De Fleury doesn’t matter now, but there was the rest of that holiday to come, and Banner has decided that this is the moment for it. Decision is the word, I think: Banner insisted again — put it as an order. Not that that was stupid. That affair at Maldington would have been a shock to any man, and going abroad does get Hadley away from the reporters. I don’t think we should have objected in principle if Banner had consulted us, but what we might have thought twice about is where Hadley has chosen to go. You won’t be surprised that he’s taking Miss Francom with him.’

‘I’m not surprised. And where are they going?’

“They’re going back to Sestriere.’

Charles Russell rose; he strode to the wall and back again,
said with his back to Mortimer: “That’s uncomfortably near
 the frontier.’

‘You really think that Victor… after two failures… in another foreign country…?’

‘I said Sestriere was uncomfortably near the frontier. That’s a geographical fact, not guesswork about Victor.’ Russell was unusually terse. ‘What have you done?’

‘Made use of a bit of luck, sir. I could send a man after Hadley and I will if you think it necessary, but the bit of luck is that I’ve a very good friend in the Italian service. He’s pretty senior by now and he’s based at Turin. Naturally I’ve been telephoning.’

‘And?’

‘And they’ve had trouble with Victor themselves. Not on the scale of Maldington, but trouble. They love him no better than we do, and they’ll co-operate with gusto. Maraldi himself has already left for Sestriere.’

‘You think I should ring his chief?’

‘Maraldi’s already done so — I told you he was senior. The whole story will be in Rome by now, and all the implications. If indeed there are any. If we’re not simply fussing.’

‘I don’t think we’re fussing.’ Russell considered. ‘You trust this Maraldi?’

Robert Mortimer said carefully: ‘I’ve good reason to think well of him — personal reason. And sending men into foreign countries means butting in on a colleague’s territory. That’s always delicate.’

‘It is indeed.’ Russell sat down again. ‘You know,’ he said reflectively, ‘ten minutes ago I was feeling rather good. You could call it self-satisfied if you wanted to be unkind. A good many difficulties, some official, some rather less so, had cleared themselves up or seemed to have. And now there’s a doubt again, something to nag me.’ He picked up his glass, turning it in his hand, staring at what was left in it. ‘To Rex Hadley and Mary. To your friend Maraldi. To our continuing good fortune.’

‘To all of them.’

*

The room that morning had been very hot, even for a nation which detested to be cold. The furniture was public property, grand and very ugly. The heat had long since spoiled the marqueterie.

In it Victor was having a very bad quarter of an hour with the tall man. He had expected a bad quarter of an hour, a reprimand at least, and that he would have accepted since he was a soldier and disciplined. But he had hoped that the Marshal would for once be explicit: instead he was in really dreadful form, saying almost anything but what Victor needed to hear. The direct question he deliberately ducked. It was a very simple one: was Victor or was he not still in charge of the Bureau which he had previously commanded? Was he, to put it bluntly, sacked?

But the tall man had talked on. Country, he said, and honour. The motherland. Glory. Victor had heard it before, and it had ceased even to amuse him. He was a brave and dedicated man but with the mistrust of words of the decent bourgeois. The tall man hadn’t made it easier for him by not allowing himself even a hint of recrimination, and Victor knew that if their positions had been reversed he would himself have been both rude and angry. He resented that the tall man’s technique was precisely calculated to put him at a disadvantage. Somehow they could always do that — the tall men and the de Fleury’s; somehow they could always wrong-foot you. Where he himself would have ranted and raved the tall man was polite and even generous. And they made you listen absurdly carefully. It wasn’t what they said but what they didn’t.

Victor had been listening absurdly carefully, and it had tired him. He was an irascible man, and anger he could have understood. If the Marshal had struck him….

He hadn’t been within a mile of it; he hadn’t mentioned failure, only the steps which failure had now made necessary. The tall man, it seemed, was confident that he could take them. His country had something which the English wanted badly: without his co-operation they wouldn’t obtain it easily and, if he really opposed the plan, probably not at all. So they wouldn’t press the Maldington affair too rigorously. There was an ugly crack in the diplomatic wall but a strong mutual interest in papering it over. The tame cat diplomatists were kept for exactly that.

The tall man’s manner had slightly but significantly changed…. Not that the appearances of diplomatic relations had anything to do with the realities of international politics. The tall man still wanted Project A. What, then, was Victor now proposing?

Victor had begun to talk in turn, but the tall man had maddeningly lost interest. With a flick of his hands he had stopped Victor dead. Victor felt himself flush and the Marshal had smiled aloofly. They had been at military school together, but that hadn’t bridged their difference. Then what, Victor had asked finally, were the Marshal’s instructions?

…Ah, instructions. But the tall man had no qualifications to give instructions in a matter which he didn’t understand in detail. (And by inescapable inference did not wish to.) He had stated his requirement, which was knowledge of Project A. The details were for the experts, and Victor was chief of experts.

Victor had drawn a deliberate breath. Then might he take it that he still had authority…?

…Ah, authority. It was a difficult word in a difficult situation. It rather depended. The experts, what you might call the working experts, had made rather a fiasco, hadn’t they? Perhaps a closer interest, a more personal approach…. For the first time the tall man had permitted himself a direct statement. Looking steadily at Victor he had said: ‘You’re not an old man yet.’

He had risen and shaken hands formally; then he had stalked from the room.

Victor took a taxi to his spartan flat. He lived alone, and he began to cook his midday meal. He cooked simply but well, deft and experienced. There was soup in a huge stock pot and he began to heat it. The bonne à tout faire was having her day off, but she had left him bread and salad. His steak he had bought himself. He put it under the grill, mixing his salad, pouring a glass of wine. He hadn’t a doubt what the tall man had meant. He, Victor Toit, of modest birth but with a lifetime of selfless service to the state, had been offered a final chance. Or rather it had been tossed at him. A final, a personal chance.

He stirred the soup reflectively, then, holding his wine, he walked to a mirror…. Sixty-four years and all of them had been hard ones. And so was he hard himself. He was putting on weight but he wasn’t flabby. He smiled at his empty sleeve: the other arm was good still…. Sixty-four years and a job which was his life. With any luck he’d die in it for there was nothing outside. Women had been concessions to a young man’s need: he’d never dared marry. He had a daughter and sometimes he sent her money, but they hadn’t met for years.

No, there was nothing outside.

Victor sat down to eat…. A final, a private chance. And Hadley and some woman intended to return to Sestriere. That snippet of information had just come in. Victor’s smile had been experienced and a little sad. Where there was a woman there were always possibilities.

*

Russell and Robert Mortimer drank to their continuing good luck, and both put their glasses down. One of four telephones on Russell’s desk rang stridently and Russell picked it up. He listened for a moment, frowning and puzzled, then he handed it to Mortimer. ‘Someone’s talking in Italian. He’s asking for you.’

Robert Mortimer listened in turn. ‘D’accordo,’ he said finally, hanging up. He looked at Russell, intent and serious. “That was Maraldi. Victor has just arrived in Sestriere.’

Mortimer had affection for Charles Russell and a real respect, and at the moment the respect was uppermost. Russell wasn’t exactly young and his day had been exhausting. But now he rose steadily, pouring more whisky. He returned with the two glasses, sitting at his desk again; he said almost casually: ‘And to think that five minutes ago I was talking about a certain doubt returning, a tiny sore to nag me.’ His manner changed abruptly. ‘You’re sure, of course?’

‘Maraldi’s sure — he’s seen Victor himself. Victor isn’t disguised or anything melodramatic. He’s staying there quite openly, using his own name. But he’s arrived in Sestriere. He must have flown south, then motored up. In any case he’s there.’

‘And what does Maraldi suggest?’

‘He’s too experienced to panic. He’s on his own ground and he’s recognized Victor. He’ll double-up on anything done already; he’ll take every precaution possible.’

Russell thought it over. ‘And we ourselves? It’s not our bailiwick, we’re not formally responsible — the safe game is simply to stay out of it.’ He smiled an Executive smile. ‘But I like Rex Hadley and I’m fond of Mary Francom. And I’m not a civil servant.’

Robert said slowly: ‘We were talking about sending a man of our own.’

‘All right, we’ll talk again. You’ll have to work fast, though.’

‘I shall.’

‘Can you get him away tonight?’

Major Mortimer stood up. ‘I only need to pack,’ he said.

*

Robert caught a plane to Milan in the small hours. It was by no means the quickest route, but he knew that Rex and Mary were flying to Turin and he didn’t want to risk them seeing him — their surprise and the need to explain himself. He arrived at Milan in the dark still, thinking himself lucky to find a taxi. There was a brief but explosive haggle, the inevitable and amiable agreement. They drove across the Lombard plain, the Fiat’s headlamps scything the almost deserted autostrada. Robert nodded dully for he was tired and dirty and he hated both. As they began to climb the cold woke him brutally. It was dark still as they stopped, and Robert paid off the taxi. He had refused a hotel but had accepted the name of a modest pensione. The car couldn’t reach it but he had instructions how to get there. He walked away with his bag, the tassista staring, shrugging…. A well-to-do gentleman and he was going to Aunt Anna’s. The English were verily mad.

The house had begun to stir, for these were mountain people, early risers. Robert Mortimer booked a room. Bed wasn’t worth considering, but he bathed and shaved; he opened the double window and the alpine air revived him; he rang for his coffee and drank it with pleasure.

Half an hour later he went down to the simple dining-room. The first man he saw was Francis de Fleury. De Fleury bowed politely, wishing him good morning in Italian…. The signore was here for long? He would find the snow excellent. There hadn’t been a flicker of recognition. De Fleury didn’t know him — didn’t want to.

NEXT INSTALLMENT | ALL INSTALLMENTS SO FAR

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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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