Authors: Jack Higgins
She grinned. 'Flattery will get you nowhere.'
'One thing does puzzle me. What's a County Cork girl doing mixed up in a thing like this?'
'Wexford,' she said. 'And if you're interested, my father served ten years in an English prison for daring to fight for what he believed in.'
'Oh, no,' Chavasse groaned. 'Not that again.'
At that moment, an unearthly scream sounded from some lower floor and someone started to kick a door repeatedly.
He smiled brightly. 'What
this, a zoo?'
'It depends on your point of view,' she said. 'Most people come here for a rest cure.'
'Who for, their relatives?'
'Something like that. You could scream the place down and nobody would take the slightest notice.'
'Isn't that nice? This plane we're waiting for? Where's it taking me?'
'To visit some old friends of yours. They seem to think you may be able to help them in your retirement.'
'So from your point of view this is a strictly commercial proposition?'
'Exactly.' She got to her feet as Karl came back into the room with a tray. 'I must say I'm glad I was paid in advance. You don't strike me as being much of a bargain, Mr. Chavasse.'
Karl moved back to the door and she poured coffee into a blue mug. 'Would you like cream?'
'No, better make it black.'
She handed the mug to him and turned to Karl. 'You can take the tray away.'
In that single brief moment in which neither of them was looking at him, Chavasse poured his coffee into the space between the edge of the bed and the wall. When the girl turned to face him again, he was holding the empty mug to his mouth.
There was a sudden glint of amusement in her eyes that told him he had been right to be cautious. He pretended to drain the mug and leaned back, shaking his head from side to side as if suddenly drowsy.
As he closed his eyes, she chuckled. 'That's right, Mr. Chavasse. Just drift with the tide.'
Chavasse pushed himself up, allowing the mug to roll off the bed on to the floor, then fell back, head lolling to one side. He was aware of her cautious approach to the bed and schooled himself to take the sudden heavy slap across the face without flinching.
A step sounded in the doorway and the Russian spoke, sounding a little out of breath as if he had climbed the stairs too quickly. 'Karl told me he was awake.'
'Not any more,' Peggy said. 'He's just had a cup of black coffee laced with chloral hydrate. He'll be out for hours.'
'You're sure he'll be all right? He's of no use to us dead, you know.'
'You worry too much. Personally, I feel like an early breakfast. It's been a long night.'
They moved to the door. It closed and Chavasse heard two bolts rammed home and then a key turned in the lock. He swung his legs to the floor, sat there for a moment and then got to his feet.
The strange thing was that he felt no ill-effects at all except for a fierce hunger that gnawed at his empty belly as he moved to the door and listened. The voices faded away as though the two of them were descending a flight of stairs and then there was silence.
There was little point in wasting time on the door and he moved across to the window and pulled back the curtains. It was of the old-fashioned sash type and heavily barred. Rain drummed against the dirty glass and fifty or sixty feet below, a stone courtyard and outbuildings gleamed palely through the grey dawn. Beyond, rolling parkland was shrouded in a heavy, clinging mist.
He turned away and from somewhere in the depths of the building, a patient cried aloud, drumming on the door of his room and the sound was taken up by another and yet another, ugly and menacing.
The door was out and so was the window which left the floor or the roof. One thing was certain. Whatever he did had to be done quickly. He would certainly get no second chance.
He moved back to the window, crouched down and looked up and could just see a heavy iron gutter which at least proved that the false roof of the house was directly above the room or perhaps an attic. There was only one way of finding out. He dragged the table into the corner by the window, placed the chair on top of it and climbed up carefully.
The plaster of the ceiling was old and covered with a network of fine lines, so soft that when he raised his elbow into it sharply, a large piece fell away, a waterfall of white dust cascading after it. The noise being made by the inmates in the other part of the house was even louder now and Chavasse clawed at the edges of the hole, enlarging it quickly, tearing the wooden lathing away in great pieces. His fist went through and he could see into the false roof, light gleaming between chinks in the slates.
A couple of minutes later he was pulling himself up between two beams to crouch in the half darkness, covered in white dust. The false roof was extensive and obviously covered the whole house, a rabbit warren of strangely shaped eaves and half walls. He moved forward cautiously, walking on the beams and came to a trapdoor which had obviously been designed to give a more conventional access. He opened it carefully and looked down on to a tiny landing and below it, a narrow staircase, obviously leading from servants' quarters or something very much like them.
He dropped down and paused to listen. There was still a considerable disturbance going on elsewhere in the building, but fainter somehow and he started down the stairs quickly, stepping lightly on bare feet.
He paused on the next landing, peering over the rail for a moment before starting down and then a door on his left opened and Karl walked out, his mouth gaping in a wide yawn. In the same moment, he saw Chavasse and his eyes widened in alarm. Chavasse moved in fast, slamming his right fist into the man's stomach, lifting his knee into Karl's unprotected face as he keeled over, sending him backwards into the small room to sprawl across the bed.
He followed him in quickly, closing the door. Karl slid from the bed and rolled on the floor, moaning softly. Chavasse could find no gun on him and a quick search of the dressing-table drawers proved equally unsuccessful. He helped himself to a pair of rubber tennis shoes that were half a size too large for him, laced them up quickly and left.
At the bottom of the stairs he came to a narrow stone-flagged passage. A stale smell of cooking rose to meet him and somewhere to the left he could hear voices and the clatter of pans. He moved to the door at the end of the passage, opened it cautiously and looked out into the courtyard. It was quite deserted in the heavy rain except for an old green jeep parked a few yards away. He climbed inside quickly, pulled out the choke and pressed the starter. The engine turned over at once and a moment later, he was driving away.
Beyond the cobbled yard and the outhouses, a bridge took the road over a small stream, joining what was obviously the main drive very quickly. It was flanked by poplar trees, woodland fading into the grey morning on either side and he drove on, his eyes straining into the mist anxiously. There was a narrow turning to the left that disappeared into the trees and then he rounded a corner and braked suddenly.
Some twenty yards in front of him, the way was barred by iron gates, a steel mesh fence running into the mist on either side of it. The man who lounged beside the sentry box wore a peaked cap and semi-military uniform in dark blue, a black oilskin coat draped over his shoulders. He looked up quickly, flicking his cigarette away as the jeep braked to a halt. Chavasse hesitated, debating his chances of ramming the gate and then the man took an automatic rifle out of the sentry box and cocked it quickly.
As he raised it to his shoulders, Chavasse reversed round the corner quickly and from the direction of the house, the strange, unearthly wailing of a siren echoed through the morning in a dying fall.
He turned into the side track that he had noticed earlier and drove through trees as quickly as he dared, wheels bumping over the deep ruts and then the track simply petered out into a footpath, the undergrowth closing in on either side. He switched off the engine, jumped out and plunged into the trees running in the general direction of the fence.
He was soaked to the skin before he had gone twenty yards but didn't slacken his headlong course, one arm raised before him to protect his face from the flailing branches. He came out of the trees and paused on the edge of a strip of open parkland, the fence no more than ten yards away.
It was perhaps fifteen feet in height and angled over sharply at the top, but presented no particular problem to any reasonably active man, which was strange--and stranger still was the absence of even a single strand of barbed wire along the upper edge.
He picked up a large branch, moved forward and touched the fence gingerly. There was an immediate flash, a puff of blue smoke and the end of the branch burst into flame. He dropped it with a curse and somewhere behind him the hollow baying of a dog sounded on the morning air.
At least the heavy rain would kill his scent which solved one problem and he turned back into the wood and moved rapidly through the trees in the direction of the house. In the distance he could hear voices and the sound of a car on the main drive, but the siren had stopped.
He emerged on to a narrow path and ran along it quickly, swerving suddenly as the outbuildings at the back of the house loomed out of the mist. He crossed the small stream on foot, wading knee-deep, scrambled up the bank on the far side and peered round the corner of an old stable into the courtyard. There was no sign of life and he hurried across, opened the back door and went inside.
As he went back up the stairs he could still hear voices from the kitchen and the clatter of pans as someone prepared breakfast. Karl's door was closed. He stood listening outside for a moment, then turned the knob carefully and moved inside in one smooth movement.
Karl lay on the bed and Peggy leaned over him wiping blood from his face with a damp flannel. She turned with a frown and in the same moment threw the flannel at him, her hand diving into the pocket of her suede jacket.
Chavasse was too quick for her. As her hand came out, he grabbed for the wrist, twisting it so cruelly that she screamed with pain, dropping the Walther to the floor. He picked it up and backed away and she stood there, nursing her wrist, strangely calm.
'You didn't get very far, did you?'
'Unfortunately not,' Chavasse said. 'The man on the gate had an automatic rifle and the fence was hot enough to fry eggs on. There are other ways, however.'
He pulled her close, his fingers hooking into her arm so that she winced. 'You and I are going to take a little walk. I'd like you to introduce me to that friend of yours, the agitated gentleman who's supposed to be in charge round here. I'm sure we can come to some arrangement.'
She opened her mouth as if to protest and then seemed to change her mind. 'It won't get you very far.'
'I wouldn't be too sure about that,' Chavasse told her and he held open the door with a slight, mocking bow.
She led the way up the stairs to the next landing and turned along a narrow corridor which finally emerged on to a great circular landing beneath a domed roof, what was obviously the entrance hall of the house below them.
He peered over cautiously as someone crossed the black and white tiled floor below and disappeared. 'Where to now?' he whispered.
'The next landing,' she said and they started down the curving Regency staircase.
It was so quiet that he could hear the ticking of a grandfather clock standing in a corner and when they paused outside the door she indicated, he could hear nothing.
'Open it,' he said. 'Very, very quietly and remember I'm right behind you.'
The door swung in smoothly without a sound and he gave her a slight push forward. The walls of the room were lined with books, logs burning brightly in an Adam fireplace to the left.
The man who stood at the open window listening to the sounds of the chase in the park beyond, seemed strangely familiar. For a moment, Chavasse thought he was going mad and then a door clicked open on his right.
An amused, familiar voice said, 'Good morning, Paul,' and he swung to find Jean Frazer standing there, a tray in her hands.
Chavasse glanced back at the window and Graham Mallory turned and smiled. 'Ah, there you are, Paul. Well, this is famous. You really must allow me to congratulate you.'
When Chavasse turned, Peggy had withdrawn, closing the door behind her. Jean Frazer put down the tray on a small coffee table beside the fire.
'Better have a cup of tea, Paul,' she said calmly. 'You look as if you could do with one.'
Chavasse tossed the Walther on to the desk. 'Are you trying to tell me this whole thing was a put-up job?' he said to Mallory.
'A test, Paul. A practical test which I decided might save me a great deal of time and indicate just how true the reports I've been getting on you were. I must say you're looking remarkably fit.'
'And the girl?' Chavasse said. 'Peggy or whatever she calls herself. She's one of your people?'
'Margaret Ryan,' Mallory said. 'Nice girl. Not been with us long. A trainee on the special course. They all are here. A new place we opened a couple of months back. I think everyone put up a rather convincing show, don't you?'
'So did I, I'm afraid I've made rather a mess of one of your boys.'
'All in the game. Mind you, Peggy was beginning to have her doubts about the great Paul Chavasse, especially when you appeared to drink the coffee.'
'She missed out on that,' Chavasse said. 'And another thing. Her Russian wouldn't stand up for five minutes anywhere east of Berlin, not with that Dublin accent of hers.'
'Oh, I don't know,' Mallory said. 'She's an Irish citizen which can be rather useful. They don't even need a visa for Red China. An unusual virtue in this day and age.'
Chavasse stood in front of the fire, steam curling from the wet tracksuit and accepted the tea Jean handed to him gratefully.
'I'll run you a bath, Paul,' she said and went through into the bedroom.
'Yes, I really must congratulate you,' Mallory went on. 'You're quite your old self again, only more so. What would you like for breakfast?'
'Two of everything,' Chavasse said. 'And lots of strong black coffee, Turkish for preference. And would you mind telling me what this is all about?'
'Later, Paul,' Mallory said. 'You'll find some of your own clothes in the bedroom. I thought you might be needing them. Don't be long. We've got a lot to discuss.'
'I bet we have,' Chavasse said sourly, but as he went through into the bedroom, he was smiling and excitement moved inside him like a cold sword.
His favourite grey flannel suit was neatly laid out on the bed together with shirt and underclothes. As he paused to examine them, Jean Frazer came out of the bathroom.
'You think of everything, don't you?' he said.
She smiled and there was a touch of colour in her cheeks. 'It's good to have you back, Paul.'
She started to move away and he caught her hand. 'What's it all about, Jean? Something big?'
She nodded slowly, her face serious. 'Better let him tell you, Paul. You know what he's like.'
The door closed behind her and he stood staring into space, wondering what it was that Mallory had in store for him. But what the hell. Life began again. He went into the bathroom and stripped off the tracksuit.
'It really is remarkable,' Mallory said as Chavasse poured his third cup of coffee. 'If I hadn't seen it with my own eyes I don't think I could have believed it. This chap Yuan Tao must be quite something.'
Chavasse paused, the cup half way to his mouth. 'So you know about him?'
'You must have had me watched pretty closely. Now that's something I can't understand. I thought you'd written me off?'
'Let's just say I didn't like to see you go and then I started getting daily reports which were more than interesting. Your friend could make a fortune if he set himself up in business.'
'He wouldn't be interested,' Chavasse said. 'He has one already, together with three factories in Hong Kong and a half interest in one of the biggest shipping lines in the Far East.'
'Yes, I was aware of that.'
'I thought you might be.'
'His niece seems a very attractive girl.'
'She's returning to Hong Kong next week,' Chavasse said. 'I bet that's something you
'What a pity. We'll just have to find something else to fill your time.'
'I'm sure you won't have the slightest difficulty.' Chavasse lit a cigarette and blew out a cloud of smoke with a sigh of satisfaction. 'What's it all about?'
'To tell you the truth, I'm not sure.' Mallory went to the desk, unlocked a drawer and took out a buff file. 'Have you ever heard of a man called Max Donner?'
'The financier?' Chavasse nodded. 'You see him in the society columns all the time. Australian, isn't he?'
'That's right. Comes from a place called Rum Jungle, south of Darwin in the Northern Territory. There's a hell of a lot of development going on there now, but in Donner's day it was just a dot on the map.' Mallory opened the file and pushed it across. 'Have a look at the photos.'
Donner was a magnificent figure of a man, at least six feet three in height with a great breadth of shoulder, and dark hair swept back over his ears. The photos showed him in every possible aspect. Mingling with the stars at a film premiere, playing polo, shooting grouse, even shaking hands with Royalty at a Variety Club charity dinner and he was always smiling.
'How old is he?'
Chavasse was surprised. 'He doesn't look anywhere near that. He seems to live a full life.'
'He can afford to. At the last count he was worth at least a million and moving up fast. Not bad for an ex-Australian infantry sergeant with no formal education.'
The last photo showed Donner on his yacht in Cannes harbour, reclining in a deck chair, glass in hand, gazing up at the young girl who leaned against the rail beside him. She was perhaps sixteen and wore a bikini, long blonde hair to her shoulders, blowing in the breeze, half-obscuring her face.
'Who's this?' Chavasse said, holding up the photo.
'His step-daughter, Asta Svensson.'
'Right through to her pretty backbone. That was taken three years ago. She's nineteen now and very, very attractive.'
'I think Donner would agree with you to judge from the way he's looking at her on this picture.'
'What makes you say that?'
'He's smiling on all the others, but not on this one. It's as if he's saying, "You, I take seriously." Where does her mother fit in?'
'She died about three months before that picture was taken. She was drowned skin-diving off some Greek island or other, but you can read through the file later. I'll just give you an outline for the moment. It'll save time.'
He got to his feet, moved to the fire and started to fill his pipe. 'Max Donner is typical of a certain type of man who's rocketed to the top in this country since the war. Mostly they started with nothing and the boom in property and land values helped them along.'
'When did he arrive?'
'1948. Company Sergeant Major in an Australian infantry battalion when he was demobbed in '47. Good solid war record in the Western Desert, and New Guinea. He picked up the Military Medal there, by the way.'
'And how did he set about making a million from scratch in a strange land? I'd love to know.'
'Simple really, or at least he makes it look that way. The
did a feature on him the other year. "The Man from Rum Jungle," they called it. There's a copy in the file. First of all he took a job as a salesman. Reconditioned car engines, then textile machinery. Fifteen hundred a year and a company car--good money for the hungry forties. Most men would have been satisfied.'
'But not Donner?'
'Not Donner. He went into partnership with a man called Victor Wiseman. They bought an old Victorian house in Kensington in January, 1950, for three thousand pounds with the aid of a substantial mortgage and converted it into four flats which they sold separately over the next six months for a total of seven thousand, three hundred.'
Chavasse pursed his lips in a soundless whistle. 'And never looked back.'
'Donner certainly didn't. Wiseman dropped out with his half when they reached twenty thousand and bought himself a restaurant in Clapham. You've got to take chances in the property game and he just didn't have the stomach for it.'
'He must have been kicking himself ever since.'
'I expect so. Our friend was doing so well by 1952 that he was able to form the Donner Development Corporation. One of the first outfits to get in on multi-storey office block building in the city centres. Later, he formed his own finance company. Hire purchase for the millions. The biggest golden goose of all.'
'I should have thought he would have been worth rather more than your million by now?'
'You should see what he spends. He believes in living life to the full and he's made some enormous donations to some of the new universities.'
'When did he get married?'
'1955. To Gunilla Svensson, widow of a Swedish stockbroker who'd handled Donner's affairs in Stockholm.'
'A love match?'
Mallory shrugged. 'It certainly looked that way at the time, especially if you go by what the gossip columnists were saying. I should think it quite possible. She was a very beautiful woman.'
'And what about the daughter. Presumably Donner's her guardian?'
'That's right. She has relatives in the States, but none in Sweden or this country. She was at Heathfield till she was seventeen then did a year at finishing school in Paris. She's spent this last year at Stockholm University studying Sociology.'
'Doesn't she ever come home?'
'She's stayed with him frequently in London if that's what you mean and he usually flies across to see her once a month.'
Chavasse nodded. 'Takes his parental responsibilities seriously then?'
'It certainly looks that way. From all accounts there can be little doubt about the genuineness of his affection for her.'
'And what about her?'
'One can't be certain. On the other hand she doesn't have a great deal of choice in the matter. Her mother left her a sizeable fortune, but Donner holds it on trust for her until she's twenty-five.'
'An interesting situation,' Chavasse said. 'But where does it all lead?'
'I'm not really sure. That's where you come in. About six months ago, M.I.6 handled a very minor espionage affair. You may remember it. An Admiralty clerk called Simmons was caught passing classified information to a man called Ranevsky, a naval attache at the Russian Embassy.'
'He got five years, didn't he?'
'That's right. It was all very small beer.'
'Didn't the Russian claim diplomatic immunity?'
Mallory nodded. 'M.I.6. had him for a couple of hours and then he had to be handed over to his own people. They flew him out next morning. The really interesting thing proved to be the fifty one-pound notes he'd passed over to Simmons before they were arrested. They were new notes and M.I.6. managed to trace them to a Bond Street bank where a cashier not only recognised Ranevsky's photograph, but also remembered details of the cheque he'd cashed.'
'Are you saying it was one of Donner's?'
Mallory nodded. 'Genuine, too.'
'What did Donner have to say?'
'He wasn't asked anything, Paul. That side of things was never mentioned at Simmons's trial. It wasn't worth wasting on such an insignificant event. They simply dropped the whole thing fairly and squarely into my lap and told me to get on with it.'
'And you've been checking on Donner ever since?'
'That's right and the deeper we probe, the unhealthier it looks. From Burgess and Maclean onwards, everywhere we dig, we seem to find Max Donner hovering on the outer perimeter of things. And not only here. France, Germany, Canada--he has business interests all over the place.'
'But Donner's a highly successful business man, a respected public figure?' Chavasse shook his head. 'What would he stand to gain? It just doesn't make sense.'
'Neither did the Gordon Lonsdale affair at first.'
'But Lonsdale was a Russian, a professional agent.'
'Who was a Canadian to all intents and purposes. Even now there is some doubt about his real name.'
'Are you suggesting that Max Donner might be another Lonsdale?'
'I'm not sure,' Mallory said. 'It's a possibility: that's all we can say for certain at the moment. Donner's parents were Austrian. He was born in Vienna in 1916 while his father was fighting on the Italian front. After the war, things were difficult and then his father came into a small legacy and they emigrated to Australia in 1925.'
'How did they fetch up in a place like Rum Jungle?'
'Like plenty before him, Donner's father fell into the wrong hands. With what was left of his legacy he bought what he understood to be a thriving cattle station. When they got there, they found a mud hole in the wilderness, a broken down shack and a handful of starving cows. Mrs. Donner wasn't built for that kind of life. She died in 1930.'