Authors: Deadly Travellers
The Deadly Travellers
HE HOUSE WAS ON
the outskirts of Rome, in a rather mean street which turned off the via Appia. There was a group of dusty cypresses on the corner, and then the row of shabby houses with their peeling paint and faded colours. Some children were playing in the dust. A woman flung open a shutter and leaned out to call something shrilly to them, and they scattered like disturbed sparrows.
In the other direction, towards the via Appia, the Street of the Dead, with its crumbling tombs and catacombs, there was a stream of traffic, fast cars, buses laden with sightseers, and noisy, impatient motor-scooters. It was no longer a way of peace for the sleepers in the tombs on the roadside, but then it never had been. Long ago it had rung to the marching feet of legions, or the shouts of the persecutors, and the weak cries of the crucified. In comparison, the screech of klaxons and the ear-splitting roar of the motor-scooters seemed harmless and innocent.
Perhaps the taxicab that was drawn up outside the house in this shabby street was also going about perfectly innocent business. The man watching in the shade of the cypresses would not have paid any especial attention to it if it had not seemed an unusual thing for a taxi to come to this kind of street. And to that particular house. So instead of strolling past casually he had drawn back to the slight cover of the cypresses and, with his hat pulled well down over his eyes, watched.
It was only a few minutes before the door of the house opened and a young woman came out. Tall, slim and attractive, she was the most unexpected sight of all, so far. For what would a fashionable young woman whose camel-hair coat might have been bought in one of the better Paris or London stores, and whose dark hair had a casual, expensive cut, be doing in this locality?
She was talking to someone out of sight. Presently a rather stout little girl dressed in a white frock, with a large blue bow in her hair, appeared and climbed into the waiting taxi. Behind her darted a thin, dark woman with a suitcase. The suitcase was placed in the taxi, the girl held out her hand to shake hands with the thin, dark woman, who, dressed in a faded cotton dress and scuffed-looking slippers, was the only person in this small scene who appeared to be in character, the only one who could have been expected to emerge from the shabby house in the rather furtive little street.
Then the tall girl climbed into the taxi, too, and the door banged. The watcher made an involuntary step forward, but he was too far off to hear the instructions given to the driver. He swore under his breath, then strolled studiously and casually in the other direction as the taxi whirled around and proceeded towards the city. As it passed him he caught only a glimpse of its two occupants, the fluttering butterfly bow in the child’s hair, and the girl’s dark head turned towards her young companion. But he heard the child’s voice, shrill with excitement, “
So there was no more time to investigate the shabby house. Now perhaps there was no need to. Fingering the worn covers of the notebook in his pocket, remembering the scribbled address of this house in this street, and the cryptic added note
“might be using a child,”
he hurried to the busy highway and impatiently waited for a taxi.
It was impossible to be certain where the previous taxi had gone, but by the child’s luggage, and the girl’s air of haste, one assumption could be made.
When at last he was able to secure a car, he gave the driver his destination,
“La stazione, pronto!”
The driver nodded his head, grinning with wicked pleasure at being given a free hand to mow down as much of the traffic as possible. At his destination the man cursed again, this time at Mussolini and his grandiose schemes for building such a superb railway station that made one cross acres of floor-space before reaching the train.
As he had expected, it was the Milan train just due to depart. Indeed, it was at that moment pulling out. He had to elbow people out of his way, and run for his life to get on the last carriage.
“Bravo! Bravo!” called a porter, white teeth gleaming, dark eyes ashine.
But the man was not amused. Did the Italians consider all contests with speed and danger, so long as they themselves remained onlookers, a pleasant diversion? Did that explain a great deal of their mentality?
Perhaps it did. Perhaps that was why he was here.
A good-looking young woman, probably English, and a child… And that other face that it was not possible to forget, for a drowned face, even had it been that of a stranger, was not an easily forgettable sight. And this had not been a stranger’s face…
HAT MORNING TWO DAYS
ago in London, Kate did not see Miss Squires, as usual. The girl at the desk of the little employment office with its provocative title “Job-a-Day,” and in smaller letters “Also Objets d’Art procured,” said in a slightly awed voice that Mrs. Dix herself had asked for Kate when she came in. Would Kate wait while she found out whether she could go up now?
It had been William who had first suggested Kate going to Mrs. Dix. William, who was as practical as Kate was impractical, said that if Kate planned going on living in London (as she certainly did) she would have to supplement her very precarious employment as a commercial artist. So why not do the odd jobs, such as taking out old ladies, or poodles, meeting trains at melancholy stations like Liverpool Street, doing Christmas shopping for the bedridden, or even baby-sitting, providing the brat wasn’t too spoilt and loathsome.
This suggestion of William’s had turned out excellently. It provided Kate with three or four days’ employment a week, which, added to the earnings she made from her drawings, enabled her to keep the basement flat in West Kensington. She was attached to this flat chiefly because of her landlady, Mrs. Peebles, who was as endearing as a poised tomahawk and just as stimulating. With Mrs. Peebles lurking about the house, life was as full of surprises as Kate liked it to be. In addition to the satisfaction of earning extra money, she found the work with Mrs. Dix interesting and enjoyably unpredictable. Also, she had got several excellent sketches of strange old-lady faces, Rembrandt style, and had some rather enchanting drawings of dogs skipping about Kensington Gardens, among the blowing autumn leaves and the chrysanthemums. These she hoped to sell.
Apart from the money angle, she found it made life pleasantly interesting, not knowing, each time she visited Miss Squires, solid and placid in her little dark office under the stairs which led up to the so far unseen apartments of Mrs. Dix, what strange task awaited her, whether it were catching a train to Southampton to meet an elderly American couple, or to go to the Portobello Road market to search for a specified piece of junk required by a client.
Mrs. Dix, until this morning, had remained a mystery. Miss Squires hinted at a Tragedy. Fifteen years ago Mrs. Dix’s husband had been missing on a secret mission, some hush-hush task that could only be mentioned in the sacred precincts of M.I.5, and the poor lady still refused to believe that he was dead. She got up every morning with the renewed optimistic conviction that this would be the day he returned home. She kept his bed aired, a plentiful supply of food and drink, and contrived, Miss Squires said pityingly, to infuse into her cluttered rooms an air of excited expectancy. It was very sad, because after fifteen years there was really no hope. There had been that body washed up on the coast of Portugal that had never been positively identified, but there was little doubt that it had been that of Major Dix. If it hadn’t, then there was the Iron Curtain, and no one was likely to survive fifteen years of that. Anyway, there had been not a word, not even a rumour of an unidentified Englishman in some Siberian prison. Not even a question in the House. So it seemed that Mrs. Dix, poor soul, would go on living in her fool’s paradise.
But until this day, Mrs. Dix, who had infused her special brand of eagerness and eccentricity that was almost genius into her business, had remained as invisible as her husband. At least, to Kate, one of her minor employees. No doubt she gave audience to the important people, the ones entrusted with special jobs such as shopping for the Prime Minister’s wife, or the ones who requested, not a warming-pan to be turned into some kind of barbecue business, or an umbrella stand that would adequately hold flower arrangements, but the Faberge chess set last heard of in Alexandria, or the late duchess’ diamond and ruby tiara which one had heard was being sold…
Admittedly, these last were rare requests. Miss Squires, who liked Kate, sometimes became a little less reserved and imparted a breathless rush of information, about acquiring skeletons for medical students, and other macabre objects. It was tragic that although Mrs. Dix could acquire white camels from Arabia, or pearls from the Great Barrier Reef, she could not find her missing husband. But she still refused to admit that he lay in an unnamed grave somewhere along the banks of the River Tagus.
Reflecting on all this, Kate was a little nervous about at last meeting the fabulous lady. Passing Miss Squires’ room on her way to the narrow stairway, she heard Miss Squires call, “Is that you, Kate? Special mission for you today. It’ll be a nice jaunt.”
Kate stuck her head around the door of the dark little office, “Where am I to go?”
“None of my business, dear. But you’ll enjoy it. Lucky girl.”
The room in which Mrs. Dix sat was a quite ordinary living-room, a little over-furnished and with an extravagant number of bowls of flowers. It did not in any way resemble an office. Mrs. Dix sat on a faded, green velvet couch.
She was a very plump lady with prematurely white or bleached hair, in, perhaps, her early fifties, though her extreme plumpness and her white hair may have added an unnecessary ten years to her age.
She wore brown velvet, with a little ruching of lace at the throat. She was, Kate thought, like a chocolate meringue.
Her smile was winning. She waved a dimpled hand towards a chair. “Sit down, my dear. Forgive my not getting up. My heart, you know. The doctor forbids any exertion. You’re Kate Tempest, aren’t you?”
“Yes, Mrs. Dix.” Kate obediently sat down and refused the proffered box of chocolates.
“Oh, not just a little one, dear?” Mrs. Dix cried, disappointed. “Try this knobbly one. It’ll have a nut. Not so bad for the figure. Though really, I do assure you, you have
need to worry. You’re a sylph, positively. Now me, I’m past redemption. But I do so adore chocolates.”
She beamed at Kate. Her cheeks were delicately pink, her eyes a faded blue, benign, a little far-off, as if her visitor were not quite real to her, but that instead she was looking beyond, to the door, which might open at any moment to the one she wanted to see above all.
“Now, you’re wondering why I’ve sent for you, of course. Miss Squires has told me about you. She says you’re reliable, sensible, sophisticated, not likely to lose your head in a crisis.”
“Thank you,” Kate murmured bewilderedly. William had always said exasperatedly that reliability was her least obvious quality, but neither Mrs. Dix nor Miss Squires knew her as William did, and it was her business to see that they never completely achieved this knowledge.
“Most important, those qualities,” Mrs. Dix emphasized. “Now tell me a little more about yourself. You live alone?”
“Yes.” Though one could hardly call it living alone, with Mrs. Peebles’ watchful eye and attentive ear, overhead.
“Only a stepmother who lives in the country.”
“How do you get on with her?”