Authors: Nancy Buckingham
Tags: #Romantic Suspense/Gothic
That Tuesday evening in September brought me two letters. The first one I found waiting on the table in the narrow hallway when I arrived back from work. It bore an Austrian postage stamp.
The crisp white envelope, neatly die-stamped in black
British Electronics Ltd.,
was painfully familiar to me. And the sight of Steve Elliott’s bold handwriting gave me no pleasure. It was just one more knife-thrust reminder of my few brief months of happiness with Max.
The two long flights of stairs seemed endless, and then at last I could close my own door upon the world. I dumped my handbag and the small brown loaf I’d bought at lunchtime, and slipped out of my coat. But I made no move to open the letter from Steve. It scared me somehow, like any threat to the fragile cocoon I’d spun around myself. To postpone the inevitable moment, I decided I must first have my usual cup of tea.
A lonely cup of tea in a shabby bedsitter just off the Kings Cross Road! How very different from the life I had known in Vienna! At this time of day Max and I would have been enjoying a glass of bubbly golden
in our luxurious apartment in the Kohlmarkt, before preparing for guests or an evening out.
I made the tea slipshodly with a bag straight into the cup, and took it over to the table. Sipping it, I gazed around at this bleak refuge of mine, one cheaply furnished room with an alcove kitchen and use of the primitive bathroom across the landing.
The loose-covered armchair, the round table I was at with its two upright chairs, were arranged stiffly on a square of rose-patterned carpet. Against the wall was a wardrobe with a long mirror, and a curious piece of furniture that was half bureau and half chest of drawers. The divan bed was narrow, but wide enough for someone who slept alone.
Outside the window was London, a muddle of ramshackle roofs, slate gray. Gray brick walls, gray sky. A slant of evening sunshine that filtered through the limp net curtains was gray with floating dust.
A sudden harsh buzzing made me jump, jerking my arm and rocking the cup in its saucer. My doorbell rang so rarely that I was still unused to the sound of it.
I was puzzled. Who would come to call on me at six o’clock in the evening of a working day—or any other time, for that matter? My friends of the old days, I had kept at arm’s length; my neighbors here, I hardly knew.
There was no second ring. The caller was being patient, or perhaps had already given up and gone away. I glanced quickly around the room to see that it was tidy, but of course nothing had been touched since Td left for work this morning. From sheer habit I checked my hair in the wardrobe mirror, but avoided meeting the reflection of my own eyes. Then I made my way downstairs to answer the door.
A man in a belted trench coat stood on the steps, leaning against the area railings. He was tall, with a long lean face and dark hair brushed back from his forehead. He smiled at me, not seeming in the least put out by having been kept waiting for so long.
“Good evening. Is it Mrs. Varley?”
“My name is Richard Wilson. I was wondering if I could have a word with you.” When I made no move to let him in, he added quietly, “It concerns your husband.”
For a moment I just went on staring at him. Then I said dully: “My husband is dead.”
“Yes, I know.” The man glanced from side to side along the street, making the point that he was anxious not to be overheard. “It was about that, actually....”
“You had better come in, then, Mr. Wilson.”
As he followed me upstairs, he made the usual impersonal comments on the weather. Inside my room I indicated the armchair, and he hovered beside it politely, waiting for me to sit down first. I was thankful to. The arrival of this unexpected visitor had shaken me badly.
Giving me a shrewd testing look, he began, “My name appears to mean nothing to you, Mrs. Varley.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t seem to recall...”
“Please don’t apologize. In fact, it’s a relief to learn that Max didn’t talk to you about me.”
“I ... I don’t understand,” I stammered. “Are you . .
you a business associate of my husband’s?”
He smiled at me kindly. “You could say that.”
I looked at him, bewildered, trying to find something about the man that would strike a chord. But there was nothing that gave any clue to his connection with my husband.
“I wish you would explain,” I said unhappily.
He nodded, taking his time. “You know what your husband’s job was, Mrs. Varley?”
“Of course I do.”
“Perhaps you would tell me.”
I showed a spark of the irritation I was beginning to feel. “Mr. Wilson, I think you should be answering questions rather than asking them.”
“Please.” He held up a pacific hand. “Your husband was manager of the British Electronics office in Vienna—isn’t that so?”
“But what else was it he did? His . . . sideline, so to speak?”
“Nothing else,” I said indignantly. “Are you trying to make out that Max was up to something underhand?”
he put in quickly. “Undercover. There’s a very big difference.”
My indignation was instantly swept away, replaced by an aching desolation. I closed my eyes.
“Do you understand me, Mrs. Varley?”
I did. Or I thought I did. But it couldn’t possibly be true.
“Spying?” I said in a voice so small it was almost drowned by the muted evening drone of London through the closed window. “Are you suggesting that.... ?”
“ ‘Spying’ is a word we don’t like to use, Mrs. Varley—at least, only about the other side. Max was an intelligence agent, working for the British government.”
“But ... but ...” My protest died for want of substance.
“I’m sorry, Mrs. Varley. I realize that I’ve given you a nasty shock, but I assure you it’s perfectly true. He and I had been working together for some time on a special mission.”
“I can’t believe it,” I managed at last. “I mean, I’d have known....”
Richard Wilson’s smile was gentle but a little pitying. “You aren’t alone in thinking that. If you stop to consider, you’ll realize there must be a lot of wives who haven’t the least idea that their husbands are engaged on intelligence work. From the security angle, it cuts down the risks. And from the wives’ point of view, too, it’s best that they should be kept in the dark. It’s safer for them that way.”
“Safer?” I burst out. “But I didn’t want to be kept safe. I wanted to share things with Max. . . .” I dried up, quite unable to express what I felt at this incredible news. I didn’t really know, myself, what I felt. I hadn’t yet had time to sort out my feelings, to separate these new reactions from the grief that still overwhelmed me.
“Take it easy,” he said. “You’ll get used to the idea after a bit and see things more in perspective. Max was doing a great job. He was in an almost unique, position to serve his country, and he did so unhesitatingly, regardless of the dangers. You can feel very proud of him, you know. Of his memory.”
“Oh I am, I am,” I insisted, and felt the tears welling up in my eyes.
I’d always been proud of Max, and fiercely proud to be his wife. Often I’d marveled at my extraordinary luck that he had chosen me, that he’d so much as noticed me on that whirlwind trip to the head office in London last September.
Last September? Was it really just one short year ago? It seemed crazy that so much could have happened in those twelve months.
When I met Max I’d been with British Electronics only a few weeks and was working as an assistant in the technical library. Like many other girls of eighteen, I’d come to London to strike out for myself, to escape the overprotective cushioning of life in my parents’ comfortable home in Exeter. London was as hard as rock by comparison, but stimulating and exciting. Girl friends to share a madly expensive “borders-of-Chelsea” flat with, and a doughnut for lunch to balance my budget; the gallery at Covent Garden for ballet such as I’d never seen before, and the sublife of cellar discotheques. And boyfriends, lots of swinging boyfriends.
It had seemed like real living, until suddenly Max had burst into my life.
Richard Wilson chimed in upon these drifting thoughts almost as if I’d been speaking them aloud. “Max was a fantastic man, always so full of life. He had such stacks of energy that I felt like an old square beside him.” Giving me an apologetic little grin, he added, “It was quite a surprise when Max suddenly went and got married. I don’t mind telling you that he was a bit of a bore on the subject of his Jessica—listing all your virtues, raving on about your looks. Though now I’ve met you, I can see what he meant.”
Whatever surprise Richard Wilson might have felt was nothing beside my own delighted amazement when Max asked me to marry him. Or possessively demanded that I marry him! I doubt if there was any girl at British Electronics who wouldn’t gladly have grabbed him, and many a married woman too would have been ready to cut loose for his sake. He was that sort of man—fatally magnetic to women. I could no more have resisted Max Varley than I could have stopped eating.
And now, without him, it hardly seemed to matter whether I ate or not.
I looked up at Richard Wilson. “Why have you come here?”
He stood up and walked over to the window, as if now that we’d got to the crunch, he was suddenly nervous. With his back to me, he studied the evening dinginess of Burton Square.
“I need your help.”
A car went by outside, emphasizing the quiet of the room. I waited for him to go on, because I felt too scared to ask questions. One part of me wanted to send this man away, to shut my ears to whatever he had to tell me. My few months with Max was an image of perfection in my memory. I didn’t want to hear about a side of him—a vitally important side— that he had kept secret from me.
But of course I had to know. After a time—it seemed like immeasurable hours—I said helplessly, “You had better explain, Mr. Wilson.”
He turned toward me and smiled faintly with relief, as if a hurdle had been cleared. But before speaking again, he walked back to his chair and sat down without hurrying himself.
“It all started because Max’s job constantly took him through the Iron Curtain. The transistors and things British Electronics make are in big demand in eastern Europe, so his movements were comparatively unrestricted. Someone back here in London realized how useful he could be to us, and I was given the job of recruiting him.”
“When . . . when was this?”
Richard Wilson rubbed his eyebrows with a thumb and forefinger. “About two years ago. I’d been in the Middle East, but they recalled me and sent me to Vienna.”
Chokingly I whispered, “What, exactly, was Max doing?”
“I’m afraid I can’t tell you that, any more than Max himself could have done. He was engaged on a highly delicate mission that required long-term planning. I know he was close to success—I talked to him just before the two of you set off on your holiday. The next thing I knew, I was reading the report of the accident in the newspapers.”
I nodded dully. It was too raw a memory to dwell upon. I remembered a morning of glorious June sunshine on the road back to Vienna. The man beside me at the wheel, bronzed by two weeks in the open air, and incredibly, excitingly handsome, was my husband, Max.
In the little town of Langenlois, driving through the Stadtplatz, he had slowed the car because I wanted to look at the white marble Trinity Column. Max was just making an amused comment to the effect that you darned well had to like baroque statuary if you lived in Austria, when . . . I seemed to remember a loud roaring noise, but beyond that, nothing, until I awoke in a hard narrow bed with a calm-faced nun bending over me.
They were kind. They broke it to me gently that a heavy truck had run into our car and that my husband had been badly injured. That my husband, it slowly emerged, was dead—killed instantly. And I was lucky to be alive. Lucky?
When Richard Wilson spoke again, his voice was quiet, full of compassion. “I know it must be hard for you to talk about Max, but try to think of it this way—all his work will have been for nothing if we aren’t able to pick up the threads where he left off. You’ve got to help us, Jessica, for the sake of his memory.”
I stood up and went over to the curtained alcove that was my kitchen. Running the tap for a few moments to get the water really cold, I filled a tumbler and drank thirstily. But even that didn’t wash away the dry, rough taste in my mouth.
“I’ll help you if I can,” I said huskily. “What is it you want me to do?”
He said nothing for a moment, as if he were sorting out his own mind. Then quite suddenly he asked;
“That holiday—what did you do, exactly?”
“We just toured around—nothing special.” Nothing special, I’d said! A whole fortnight spent alone with Max, exploring the lakes and mountains of the Austrian Salzkammergut. And exploring one another, too, for we had been married only six short months, and there was still so much to discover. Long days of idleness in the clear warm sunshine, and blissful nights together in a tiny
lost in its secluded valley. Nothing special....