The High Wire (15)

By: William Haggard
February 9, 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

***

Chapter 15

Victor’s plan had had a precise simplicity which he would have approved in the proposals of a subordinate. He had left Sestriere for a variety of reasons all of which seemed good to him, but he intended to return on Friday.

He had told the second porter at the Vallata, his face expressionless, that unexpected family business was obliging him to leave much earlier than he had intended. He wanted his bill and he wanted a car. Yes, he’d go down through the Montgenèvre to Briançon and there he would hire again. He’d pay the night rate without question. And it was all very urgent.

In his bedroom he packed with the speed of experience. This was a break indeed. He laughed aloud. They had handed it up on a platter.

And there had been other problems too — all solved. He knew he was being watched, and if he’d been in Maraldi’s place he wouldn’t have left it at watching. Maraldi would be trying to get rid of him, reporting to Turin, to Rome perhaps. In a day or two, when the administrative penny dropped, there would be a polite little visit from the carabinieri. Some irregularity in his papers….

They’d escort him to the frontier.

All right, he’d beat them to it. He could do nothing till Friday evening, and time spent in Sestriere could be dangerous time. The heat was on him so he’d take it off. That was sound in principle and in this case it paid him twice. For he knew what Maraldi would think. Maraldi would quietly preen himself…. The formidable Victor had conceded best. He had come to Sestriere with God knew what foolish plan; had seen that if was stacked against him; left.

Maraldi would relax and that was fine.

Victor telephoned to the desk, and the second porter came up himself. Victor told him to shut the door and began to talk quickly. His instructions were precise. The porter was to contact a man in the transformer station and he wasn’t to be seen doing so. The man was an Italian now, but there was an extraditable offence still. He’d do as he was told all right. So at any moment after seven-fifteen on the evening of Friday next….

Understood?

The porter had understood; he had thought it absurd but he had understood. And he had information of his own which he had decided he wouldn’t now pass. He had a brother in the telephone exchange and the families lived together. His brother was a chatterer, and a very important official in Rome had been telephoning to Signor Maraldi at the Conte — special line, special clearance. It seemed that there was a wealthy foreigner at the Vallata, and later this evening the carabinieri….

The porter had shut him up. The Vallata was full of foreigners. All of them were rich, and it wasn’t extraordinary if one of them was of interest to some senior Roman official This was 1963, and some very odd people had money. In any case he didn’t want details. He wanted to keep his job.

He wanted to keep both of them and he didn’t want trouble in either. Victor had had a tip-off, so why tell him something he knew already? The porter took Victor’s bag down, putting it in the waiting car. He accepted his tip and went back to his desk. He was pleased to see Victor’s back. He was a conscientious hotel servant as well as a minor agent, and he wanted no embarrassment for the more important of his employers. Victor was a potential liability; Victor could land him in serious trouble. But his money was useful, and it would certainly be stopped if he failed to deliver an urgent message. Very well then, he’d deliver it.

The porter shrugged. The message was crazy anyway.

In the car Victor lit a black cheroot. He knew what Maraldi would think…. Poor Victor, he was getting old; he wasn’t the man he was, he’d had it really. Coming to Sestriere, looking around, seeing he could do nothing, slinking away with his tail down….

The car slid down the mountain road and Victor smoked contentedly. At seven-fifteen next Friday. Rex Hadley had fixed it precisely. Rex Hadley and a woman — Hadley’s woman.

Victor would be there — at ten minutes past seven; ten minutes past seven for seven-fifteen precisely. It shouldn’t be impossible at all, indeed an occasional optimism worried him, for a lifetime of experience had taught him that in the byways of violence it was what looked easy which so often failed. That was sometimes bad luck, but the art of his profession was to eliminate the chances.

Victor had done everything possible towards that end. He knew that he was a marked man, but in a sense that was an advantage. A marked man was, by definition, marked by something: remove the something and it was unlikely that people would look too closely for the minor identifications which would have been circulated to them when a man lacked major. Victor’s major identifications were one arm, grey hair cut en brosse and a characteristically solid peasant figure. He could do nothing about the last, but it wasn’t decisive; plenty of men had powerful square figures. The first two he could change.

He had told the truth to the Vallata’s porter, for at Briançon he had hired another car, driving fast through the rest of the night, arriving at his headquarters a little before lunchtime next day. He had been received with consideration and with authority unimpaired. Victor had smiled sardonically. The tall man was a mystic but he wasn’t a fool.

There had been an immediate burst of action and a notable absence of questions, since Victor wasn’t a man who took kindly to questions from his juniors. And the action had been effective. There hadn’t been time to grow his hair long, but Victor’s close-cropped grey was now jet black, his jet black eyebrows a frosty grey. The simple swap was startling. He decided that his mother wouldn’t have known him, smiling again grimly, remembering that she seldom had.

The arm had been more difficult, but Victor hadn’t asked the impossible. What was important was to let his pinned-up sleeve down, somehow to fill it. He could always wear gloves, and in the bitter winter of North Italy it would be natural to do so. He had an inch or two of arm below the shoulder still, and the rest which they brought him was very well made. It was useless to work with (or fight, he thought privately) but he could move it a little and not too unnaturally. He tried it now before a looking-glass. Not challenged to use it, keeping one hand in a pocket as this distinguished-looking stranger was entitled to do, it had an excellent chance of not being noticed. It wouldn’t help driving a car, and now he must drive alone. But that didn’t worry Victor. He could drive a car with one arm better than most men with two.

On Friday at noon he caught a plane to Turin. His passport said that he was Maître de Vence, the photograph supported it. For a moment he had been sourly amused. A lawyer and a de to his name at that….

He was going up in the world.

They had arranged a hired car for him and it had met him at the airport. There had been a tricky moment as he had taken it over — a paper to sign on delivery and the fear that the driver might ask a lift back into the town. Victor didn’t want it noticed that he drove one-handed. But the driver had been indifferent. Victor, one hand elegantly in his pocket still, had tipped him generously and asked for the car keys; then he had said that he was going back to the bar for a drink. The driver had agreed at once.

When Victor came back he had gone.

Now he was driving the Seicento deliberately, for he had looked at his watch. He had plenty of time, and to arrive in Sestriere too early would unnecessarily increase the risk of recognition. His plan was to arrive at ten past seven exactly and to leave his car in the square by the ski club. Then he would walk into it, turn left for the Banchetta cableway….

If he ever got there.

Victor frowned, annoyed with himself. Of course he was going to get there. All the odds were that the check-points had been taken off, and if by some misfortune they had not, if he were challenged and Maître de Vence somehow recognized, then Maître de Vence was also Victor. He’d shoot if he had to, but as a final gambler’s throw. And Victor detested gambling — all his instincts were to shorten the betting. For of course they’d shoot back and they’d be three or four to one. And they could telephone up the road, blocking it where they chose to and with disciplined and forewarned men. Victor’s frown lifted slowly. He was here, was he not? and that was nine-tenths of it. At the airport nobody had given him a glance. His passport was a printed lie but they had stamped it without question; his bag was full of skiing clothes, for he was careful of detail. The Customs Officer had nodded approvingly, giving him a friendly smile, wishing him good sport. The snow, he had said, was splendid.

Victor drove on steadily, looking at his watch again, timing it. He even stopped for coffee.

At nine minutes past seven he parked his car outside the ski club. He took the keys but left the door open. That might be important though he didn’t really think so. In the inevitable confusion there was a chance that he could reach his car again — say a hundred to one. Another hundred to one that he could make one of two frontiers in a Seicento before they caught him in a police car. Then a thousand to one that he could still get across it. A hundred by a hundred by a thousand. That was an accumulator often million to one. That wasn’t one of Victor’s bets.

It didn’t matter. They’d take him of course and that would mean a lifer. But they couldn’t prevent his consul talking to him, and the consul would send back again what Victor would tell him.

What Victor had come to get. From Hadley.

By the door of the ski club he paused. Within it was warm and light but outside almost dark. There was the hint of a moon, a presence still unrevealed. For a moment Victor looked back at the little car; then his shrug was as small. All that was irrelevant, an affair of ten million to one. It wasn’t at bottom a part of his plan. Victor smiled almost happily for he had an advantage he recognized. He had sixty-four years and he wasn’t ashamed of them. His own life didn’t matter now, and when a man could say that and mean it a man could do almost anything.

*

Rex Hadley and Mary had walked down to the ski club. Rex was in very good spirits and Mary had caught them. The expedition intrigued her. Perhaps it was mildly foolish but it was undeniably romantic, and her life hadn’t been so full of romance as to make her shudder at an occasional romanticism. Rex was as gay as a boy. Privately Mary doubted whether he could complete the run; he didn’t ski really well yet — not well enough to guarantee the piste they intended — but she didn’t mind that. At the worst they could walk down again, and there would still be the moon. Rex Hadley was happy and that was what mattered.

They were sitting in the cable-car waiting for it to start when the attendant came back to them. His manner was sheepish. A gentleman had arrived unexpectedly, asking if he might accompany them, a most distinguished signore. It seemed that the run to Banchetta by moonlight had certain associations for him. He would return in the car of course; he wouldn’t interfere. If the lady and gentleman would be so kind….

The attendant was sheepish but he had also been startled. Victor had startled him. He had recognized the voice at once but not the man. Victor had thought of that and hadn’t fluffed it. He was a very good judge of men and he had handled the attendant perfectly…. The attendant was wondering who this stranger was, this stranger with the familiar voice who had spoken of joining the Englishman? But of course. And he hadn’t yet fixed it with the Englishman because he hadn’t been able to. He had been away — his wife had sent him. That explained everything, the white hair dyed, the phoney arm (Victor had shifted it, smiling deprecatorily), the general air of, well….

Victor’s manner had changed subtly. Now they were men, their sex in common against another. Victor had done it beautifully. They were men in their sixties and the attendant would be married. Yes? Then his wife would be fifty, and at something past fifty the sanest women…. Victor’s smile had been an equal’s, an equal conspirator’s. It was extraordinary, he had said. You thought all that nonsense was over, and suddenly — suddenly they had you dying your hair and eyebrows, buying yourself false arms when for twenty years they hadn’t noticed that you lacked one. Still, you had to live with them. The phase was tiresome but it passed. One made it pass. Once, many years ago, he had gone up Banchetta by moonlight. With his wife. There hadn’t then been a cable-car but there had been a moon. So one recaptured a mood perhaps, one did one’s duty. The same wife now awaited him, and if the English couple could be persuaded to be obliging….

The attendant had been flattered — Victor had intended it. He said none of all this to Rex and Mary: instead he repeated that a distinguished gentleman, a banker, he thought, perhaps a diplomat….

Mary looked at Rex. For a moment he hesitated, but finally he nodded. The attendant went away.

Almost at once Victor walked on to the platform. At the door of the car he stopped, bowing with formality, saying in excellent English: ‘This is really very kind of you.’

‘A pleasure.’

Victor sat down and the car began to move. They swung across the nursery slopes, six hundred yards without much climb, but at the foot of the mountain the cabin lifted sharply against the rise. An unexpected gully opened below them and at once they seemed very high. The moon was behind the mountains still, its light in the plains but its reflection in the mountain sky. Victor rose quickly. ‘I wish we could see more.’

‘You will in a minute.’

Victor walked to the side of the car, staring at the lights below them. In the frosty air they shivered delicately. Incomprehensibly he pulled a torch out, flashing it on and off. To Rex it seemed senseless. In a minute there would be a moon, and at a hundred and sixty feet a torch was useless. He walked to the window by Victor, puzzled.

Suddenly there was an orange glare, an explosion half heard, half seen. Every light in the valley went out as one. The cable-car shuddered; ran on six feet on its own momentum; stopped. They swayed for an instant, then settled.

Both men sat down and the moon cleared the mountains. In the eerie light Victor said conversationally: ‘That was the power-house. It’s blown.’

Rex didn’t answer — he was thinking. He had read about this. Some idiot French pilot had been fooling with a Mystère where he hadn’t the right to be flying at all, and he’d smashed into a cableway. He’d cut the traction-cable and the cars had run back on the bearer. That had been bad enough, but eighteen inches difference and he’d have cut the bearer itself. But neither had happened here. The power had failed and that was all, but there was an auxiliary diesel engine — Rex had noticed it — and they could wind them back on it. Or if that were too chancy at night, there was always the relief car. It ran on the bearer like the others but had its own third wire to pull it. The Banchetta cableway wasn’t one of those antiquated affairs which the provident Swiss were rumoured to sell to the Italians when they became too dangerous for their own safe use; it was a modern, highly efficient piece of engineering. Above all it was safe: great trouble had been taken to make it so. Instinctively Rex looked upwards. All three cables were intact. He took Mary’s hand, said quietly: ‘They’ll soon get us out.’

‘I doubt it.’ Unexpectedly it was Victor.

‘Why? If it’s only a power failure.’

Victor said again: ‘I doubt it.’

Rex Hadley was annoyed. ‘Of course they will. They could wind us back on the second motor or more likely they’ll put on the relief car and get us out in that. It hangs down a good way and you drop into it from the door at the back of this one.’ Rex nodded across the cabin. ‘It’s a pretty small contraption but it’s perfectly adequate. You’ll have seen it in any case. They keep it hanging on the platform.’

‘I’ve seen it — yes.’

‘Then they’ll have us out in no time.’

‘No.’

‘You mean they won’t try?’

‘I didn’t say that.’

Rex shrugged irritably, settling to silence, lighting a cigarette and Mary’s. In the frigid moonlight her face was calm. Presently he looked at his watch. Twenty minutes he had given them and ten had gone. He mustn’t be impatient.

The car moved almost imperceptibly as a weight came on the bearer-wire. Victor rose. He walked to the back of the cabin, letting down the window, looking out. Rex Hadley joined him. Victor said impersonally: ‘You were right — as far as you went. They’ve put on the relief car.’

Rex stared into the moonlight but he couldn’t see a thing. He was thinking that Victor had remarkable eyesight ‘You’re sure?’

‘I am. I have very good sight still though I’m-sixty-four.’ The voice changed unexpectedly. ‘I’ve often found that eyesight goes with general health. I should warn you that my own is excellent.’

Rex didn’t answer since he hadn’t one…. ‘Tell you’, ‘warn you’ — why warn? This elderly but powerful stranger spoke much too good English for an unintentional mistake in emphasis. Warn….

Rex shrugged, staring again into the moonlight. He could see that the third wire was moving, and presently he picked up the relief car. It was climbing deliberately, not risking a jamb or too heavy a load on the auxiliary motor. Rex watched it with anxiety, telling himself he hadn’t a reason. He found he had shivered but not with fear. Soon it would be very cold.

‘Shouldn’t we shut this window?’

‘No.’

Rex looked once more at the open relief car. Two men were standing up in it, holding the arm from which it hung. One seemed to be the attendant and, as the car came nearer, Rex recognized the other. It was a man he had met. It was Robert Mortimer. Now why in the world should Robert Mortimer…?

Suddenly he was sprawling, holding his plexus where Victor’s blow had caught him. He hadn’t even seen him move. But now Victor had turned and the gun was rock-steady. ‘Don’t move,’ he said. ‘Either of you. I must show you my back again but I warn you not to risk it. I can turn very quickly and my hearing’s good too.’

He swung, firing from the open window, completing his turn in a single smooth movement. The gun had come back on Mary.

In the relief car there was instant silence. Robert said ‘Victor’ and the attendant picked up a walkie-talkie. He looked up inquiringly but Robert shook his head. The attendant’s description of the other man in the cable-car had been that he was a well-built, middle-aged foreigner with black hair cut en brosse. Black hair, he had added, that had once been grey. Now, under gunfire, Robert’s last doubt had gone.

The relief car had moved on five yards and in the cabin Victor heard it. He swung again and there was another flash. The attendant staggered but Robert caught him. He picked up the walkie-talkie and barked at it furiously. A single word.

The relief car stopped and Robert began to shout. ‘Victor, we know it’s you.’ Swinging on a single wire in coolly ironical moonlight, Robert was aware of the banality. He tried again. ‘Come off it, man. Be sensible. You haven’t a hope in hell.’

Victor didn’t answer him.

The relief car began to move again, but backwards. Very slowly it retreated and again Victor heard it. For an instant he turned his head but not the gun. Then he looked back at Rex and Mary.

‘Now,’ he said grimly.

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”

What do you think?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.