Authors: Jack Higgins
MIDNIGHT NEVER COMES
Open Road Integrated Media
The moment he pushed open the door and paused on the edge of darkness, Chavasse knew that he had made a bad mistake. Somewhere deep inside, a primitive instinct, that slightly mystical element common to all ancient races and inherited from his Breton ancestors, combined with the experience that came from ten hard years of working for the Bureau and touched him coldly, sending a wave of greyness moving through him.
As he took a hesitant step forward, the darkness was filled with a hideous, frightening clamour and a red light flashed on above his head reaching into the four corners of the small room.
Jorgensen was standing by the window, immaculate in the beautifully-cut dinner jacket he had worn earlier, the rose still fresh in his lapel. He stood there, legs slightly apart, a .38 Smith & Wesson magnum in his right hand, barrel pointing to the floor.
Chavasse slid a hand inside his jacket, reaching for the Walther automatic in its special pocket, knowing he hadn't a chance and Jorgensen grinned almost apologetically.
'Too late, Paul. About a thousand years too late.'
As the red light went out, he fired and the flash picked him out of the darkness for one brief second, the last thing Chavasse saw before the heavy bullet smashed into him just below the breastbone, lifting him off his feet and back through the open door into the corridor.
He hit the wall hard and slid to the floor, struggling for air, aware of voices near at hand, of running feet in the darkness and then the corridor light came on and Jorgensen appeared in the doorway.
Chavasse still held the Walther in his right hand. He started to raise it and Jorgensen stood there waiting, the Smith & Wesson held against his thigh, something close to pity on his face. The Walther fired, the bullet kicking plaster from the wall at least three feet to one side of him, then it seemed to jump out of Chavasse's hand. He gave a strange choking cry and pitched forward on to his face.
Hammond went up the curving Regency staircase and passed along the corridor. It was strangely quiet up there, somehow remote and cut off from the world outside, the only sound the slight persistent hum from the dynamos in the main radio room. He mounted two steps into another corridor, opened a large white-painted door and went in.
The room was small and plainly furnished, lined with green filing cabinets, its only occupant the woman who sat at the desk by the far door typing busily on an electric machine. She was perhaps thirty, plump and rather attractive in spite of the heavy library spectacles she wore. She stopped typing and looked up anxiously.
'Have you heard?' Hammond said.
She nodded. 'How is he?'
'He didn't look too good when I left. They've got him in the medical room now.'
She nodded at the canvas grip he was carrying. 'Is that what he was wearing?'
Hammond nodded. 'Yes, the Chief wanted to see it. Is he in?'
She flicked the switch on the intercom and the dry, remote voice joined them at once. 'What is it?'
'Colonel Hammond is here, Mr. Mallory.'
'Send him in.'
Hammond moved to the door, opened it and went in. He closed it softly behind him and waited. The man who sat at the desk reading a sheaf of typewritten documents by the light of a shaded desk lamp might have been any high Civil Service executive at first glance. Everything about him seemed part of a familiar pattern. The well-cut dark-blue suit that could only have come from Savile Row, the Old Etonian tie, the silvering hair. And then he glanced up and Hammond was aware of the sudden shock that contact with those cold grey eyes always gave and that strange irrational feeling that he was once again a young subaltern fresh out of Sandhurst, meeting his commanding officer for the first time.
'Let's have a look at it then.'
Hammond moved forward quickly, opened the canvas grip and took out a sleeveless jerkin whose nylon surface gleamed in the lamplight.
'This is the bullet-proof waistcoat he was wearing?' Mallory asked.
'That's right, sir. Manufactured by the Wilkinson Sword Co. I believe they prefer to refer to them as flexible body armour.'
Mallory weighed it in his two hands. 'It's heavier than I had imagined.'
'Sixteen pounds. Nylon and titanium. Capable of stopping a .44 magnum bullet at point-blank range.'
'Was that what Paul was hit with?'
Hammond shook his head. 'Smith & Wesson .38.'
'And he's all right?'
'Badly winded. He'll have a nasty bruise for a week or two, but that's all.'
'I understand he lost consciousness.'
Hammond nodded gravely. 'I'm afraid so. If you want my honest opinion, I'd say he was in a pretty poor state of health generally and his nerves seem shot to pieces. Jorgensen said he didn't think he'd last five minutes in the field.'
Mallory gave a sudden exclamation of anger and jumped to his feet. He lit a cigarette, moved to the window and stood staring out into the night.
'It can happen to the best of us, sir,' Hammond said. 'And from what I've been told, he did rather ask for it. I understand this Albanian affair he got mixed up in wasn't even official business.'
Mallory nodded. 'That's true, although the outcome was important from our point of view.'
'What happened, sir?'
'I sent Chavasse to Albania last year to make contact with what's left of the Freedom Party there. He had a rough time. Only just got out by the skin of his teeth so I gave him some leave. We had a girl working in our S2 organisation in Rome--a Francesca Minetti. Italian father, Albanian mother. She persuaded Chavasse and a friend of his to run her across to Albania from a small Italian port called Matano. Her story isn't important now, but Chavasse fell for it.'
'He must have been mad.'
'No reason to doubt her. She'd worked for the Bureau for several years remember. I appointed her myself. She took us all in.'
'A double agent, presumably?'
'That's right. The whole thing was simply a rather clever ruse to enable the Albanians to get their hands on Chavasse and it nearly succeeded.'
'What happened to the girl?'
'Oh, she got what was coming to her, but not before she'd stuck a knife into Paul. Nearly finished him off. In fact you could say that she's succeeded in the final analysis.'
'Was there an enquiry?'
Mallory shook his head. 'No, we can put our own house in order. There won't be any more Francesca Minettis, I can promise you that.' He sighed heavily and dropped the end of his cigarette into the ashtray on the desk. 'Pity about Chavasse though. The most successful agent this department has employed in the fifteen years I've been in charge. I'd even nourished some kind of vague hope that he might survive long enough to take my place when it's time for me to go.'
'I'm sorry, sir,' Hammond said, 'I hadn't realised that.'
Mallory moved across to the sideboard and poured himself a whisky. 'I first came across him in 1955. He was a university lecturer at that time--Ph.D. in modern languages. A friend of his had a sister who'd married a Czech. After the war her husband died. She wanted to return to England but the Communists wouldn't let her go.'
'So Chavasse decided to get her out?'
Mallory walked back to his desk. 'The Government couldn't help and as Chavasse spoke the language, he decided to do something unofficially.'
'It must have been difficult, especially for an amateur.'
'How he managed I'll never know, but he did. He was in hospital in Vienna recuperating from a slight injury when I decided to have a look at him. Perhaps the most interesting thing about him was what he calls his language kink. You know how some people can work out cube roots in their heads and others never forget anything they've ever read? Well, Chavasse has the same sort of gift for languages. Soaks them up like a sponge--no effort.'
'So he joined the Bureau?'
'Not right away. At first he wasn't interested. He went back to his university post the following term. It was during the Christmas vacation that he came to see if my offer was still open.'
'Did he say why he'd changed his mind?'
'He didn't need to.' Mallory took a Turkish cigarette from an ivory box and inserted it carefully into a jade holder, his one affectation. 'Paul Chavasse has everything a good agent needs. Flair, ingenuity, a superb intelligence plus common sense--and those two don't always go together. Added to these he has the willingness to kill, something most human beings hesitate over, even in a difficult situation.'
'So he decided he wanted a more active life?'
'Something like that. I think the Czechoslovakian affair had made him discover things about himself that he never knew before. That he liked taking a calculated risk and pitting his wits against the opposition. Teaching French and German in a red-brick university must have seemed pretty tame after that.'
'And this was what--ten years ago?'
Mallory nodded. 'I'll tell you one thing, Hammond. I'll be lucky to replace him.'
There was a discreet knock on the door and Jean Frazer came in with a large buff envelope which she placed on the desk. 'The medical reports on Paul Chavasse, Mr. Mallory. The Medical Room says they'll be sending him up in about fifteen minutes.'
Mallory looked down at the envelope and sighed. 'All right, I'll see him as soon as he arrives.' She turned to the door and he added softly: 'And, Miss Frazer. I don't want us to be disturbed--not on any account. Is that understood?'
She went out and Hammond got to his feet. 'Anything more I can do, sir?'
Mallory shook his head. 'This is my baby, Hammond. I'll see you in the morning.'
The door closed and a small trapped wind whistled softly around the room and died in a corner. Mallory looked down at the envelope, remembering many things and pulled himself up hard. That sort of sentimentality never did anyone any good. He put on his spectacles, took out the medical reports and started working through them.
Chavasse lay on his back on the operating table and stared up at his image multiplied again and again in the reflectors on the low ceiling. The bruise was already beginning to show beneath his breastbone, dark with blood, but he could feel no pain.
The very flesh on his body seemed to have shrunk, emphasising the ugly puckered scar of the old gunshot wound in his left shoulder, and the great angry weal of the knife scar that had gutted him like a herring from just above his hip to a point an inch or two below his left nipple.
Ten years. Ten hard, bloody years and this was all he had to show for it. He pushed himself up and as he swung his legs to the floor, the door opened and Dr. Lovatt came in, pipe clamped firmly between his teeth. He ran one hand through the untidy shock of white hair that fell across his forehead and grinned.
'How do you feel, Paul?'
'Terrible. My mouth's like a sandpit.'
Lovatt nodded. 'I gave you a quarter grain of morphine to kill the pain.'
'That's a little old fashioned, isn't it?'
'Still nothing like it as far as I'm concerned,' Lovatt said. 'I'm not going to change my ways just because some drug company sends me a flashy prospectus.'
He leaned forward to examine the knife scar, tracing its course gently with the end of a finger and Chavasse said calmly, 'What do you think?'
'Time, Paul. That's all it needs.'
Chavasse laughed harshly. 'Why pretend? It's taken the sap out of me and you know it. Have you finished the tests?'
'We have. You can get dressed.'
'And what's the verdict?'
'Mallory's got the reports now. He'll see you as soon as you're ready.'
'It's like that, is it?'
'A long rest, that's all you need, but he'll have all that in hand I'm sure.' He moved quickly to the door before Chavasse could reply. 'I'll probably see you again before you go.'
Chavasse dressed slowly, a slight frown on his face. The tests hadn't gone too well, he was certain of that, especially the ones which had followed the fiasco with Jorgensen, but what would the Chief do, that was the point? Put him out to pasture for two or three months perhaps and then give him a job on the inside? It would be nice to be in from the field for a while, or would it?
He was too tired to think straight and the morphia was really beginning to take effect so that he even found difficulty in knotting his tie properly. The Walther automatic was lying on the table together with his wallet and loose change. He weighed it in his hand for a moment, frowning, then slipped it into its special pocket inside his jacket and left. When he went out into the corridor, the building seemed unnaturally quiet and he glanced at his watch. Half-ten. They'd all be away now except for the Duty Officer and the night-shift men in the radio room.
But he was wrong for when he opened the door to Mallory's outer office, Jean Frazer was sitting at her desk. She removed her spectacles, got to her feet and came to meet him, concern on her face.
'How are you, Paul?'
He held her hands briefly. 'Never felt better, Jean. Is he in?'