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Authors: Anthony Price

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Espionage, #Crime

The Alamut Ambush

BOOK: The Alamut Ambush
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To Katherine, James and Simon
PROLOGUE

JENKINS WALKED SLOWLY
round the Princess, fumbling with the buttons of his overalls.

It was late – he had heard the chimes of midnight on his way in from Blackheath – and he was dog-tired. And it was also an imposition to be called out during what were at least technically the last hours of his leave, which he had purposed to spend getting some order into his new flat.

Yet he knew that it was neither the hour nor the imposition which were sapping his concentration, but the suppressed excitement of the day’s events. For a year now he’d felt ambition stirring, and for the
last
three months he’d sensed the faint scent of promotion trailing him like after-shave. Tonight it was strong in his nostrils: he had the feeling that life hadn’t let him down after all.

The trick was to do things right, and there he had Hugh Roskill to help him. Hugh could be trusted to advise him without trying to steal any of the credit – although it wasn’t like the old days, Hugh was still almost family.

He ran his finger idly along the thin buff-gold line that ran the whole length of the Princess, just below the meeting place of the black and the grey, the line that was the last lingering memory of the great days when there was coachwork to car bodies.

He’d never quite been able to make his mind up about Hugh. Up on the Eighth Floor they all had some sort of fagade, and Hugh’s was the familiar, nonchalant R.A.F. one that he’d long grown accustomed to during his childhood, when Hugh and poor old Harry had been inseparable. Yet Harry had been no great brain, and it was certain that nonchalance alone never got anyone to the Eighth – which was where he himself intended to go. So there had to be a lot more to Hugh somewhere, as Aunt Mary had always maintained there was …

He shrugged, running the finger down from the line into the mud splashes.

The mud was the most obviously interesting thing about the Princess. No rain for ten days, and the gale tonight blowing miniature dust devils in the dry gutters, but nevertheless the lower half of the car was thickly coated with mud, and undeniably recent mud.

It might be this that had alerted someone, even though it was the oldest and crudest cover-up trick in the book. But the Special Branch man who’d delivered the Princess had been uncommunicative. It was far more likely that the unknown but influential owner of the car had delusions of grandeur…

Jenkins yawned, rubbed his eyes and looked down at the red rexine-covered handbook, with its gold lettering – another subtle touch of class there. It reminded him that he’d never had a Princess through his hands before — a few months ago that would have been a challenge in itself, to prove that no matter what came along, he was the best. But now it was just another car to be cleared, just routine, and he was mildly niggled that Maitland had found himself some other pressing engagement while McClure and Bennett were still snarled up in Northern Ireland.

Abstractedly, his mmd still half on Roskill, he plugged in the tape recorder and began to unwind the flex … It was true that Hugh did seem more serious these days, almost preoccupied, on the occasions they had met. But that wouldn’t make any difference now; It was serious advice he wanted.

He shook his head. Best to get the matter in hand over quickly, to salvage some horns from the night. For tomorrow he’d need to be on top form…

He picked up the little microphone.

‘Vanden Plas Princess 4-litre-R, black and grey, registration number…’

I

THE RATTLE OF
the chain was much louder than the bell itself: after one dull clunk the bell had jammed, but the chain went on rasping and clattering against the stonework.

It was, thought Roskill, almost the last bit of Audley’s old house that hadn’t yet been transformed by his new wife. The carpets were new and the curtains were new, and the new central heating roared away in the distance. The splendid old furniture was still in place, but now it shone with polish in the candlelight. The house even smelt different, with the mustiness of age overlaid by an amalgam of odours suggesting female efficiency. And there didn’t seem to be any back-teasing draughts any more – the place was almost cosy.

But the bell was a genuine piece of Audley before the Age of Faith, as eloquent as a ‘Do not disturb’ sign.

The only other unchanged object was – surprisingly – Audley himself, for the evening had so far revealed exactly the same confusing mixture of arrogant humility and courtly rudeness which had first fascinated Roskill years before the famous Mirage briefing, when the big man had casually forecast Israeli intentions with such uncanny accuracy.

Roskill had marked him then as an acquired taste worth cultivating for the future and possibly one day the man who’d take Sir Frederick’s job. It was only when he had come to know him better that the doubts had been born: the ruthlessness was there, and the brains, but the singleminded drive was lacking. At heart Audley was an amateur.

Yet out of this insight had come a curious, almost masochistic affection. He didn’t really trust Audley, but he
liked
him.

‘That frightful bell!’ Faith grinned at Roskill as she rose from the table. ‘I must get it fixed so that David can’t just sit there ignoring it. You know, Hugh, I sometimes think he’s got — what do you call it? – xenophobia, is that it?’

Audley regarded his young wife tolerantly.

‘Xenophobia? Perhaps I have. But then it’s an ancient and very sensible disease, love. The xenophobes survive long after the xenophils have been knocked on the head during the night by the strangers they’ve let into their homes.’

Roskill gestured to the table in front of him. ‘And the law of hospitality? Isn’t that ancient too?’

‘A simple extension of the laws of self-preservation, Hugh. And a fiction more often than not: “The raven is hoarse that croaks the fatal entrance of Duncan under my battlements”. That’s the true face of hospitality. And the other face shows the guests quietly opening the back door for their friends outside after lights out.’

The bell chain rattled again and the clapper briefly un-jammed itself.

‘And I suppose I should say “the bell invites me” now!’ Faith started for the dining room door. ‘I wish I could tell you that he doesn’t believe what he’s saying, Hugh, but I’m afraid he does believe it. Only I’m miscast as Lady Macbeth, hopelessly.’

Audley watched her out of the room. ‘And I’ll tell you something else. Bells that ring after ten at night are alarm bells.’

Roskill frowned across the candlelight towards the grandfather clock which ticked away heavily in the shadows. The front door banged and there was a murmur of voices.

‘So now it’s only a question of whether the trouble is yours or mine. Probably mine, but I can still hope it’s yours. In fact it puts me in mind of the old tale of the Rake and the Hounds – do you know it?’

Roskill shook his head. He had heard and disbelieved that there was an irrational side to Audley, and now here it was. Perhaps the flicker of the candles brought it out.

‘It’s a Hebridean tale. The rake was coming home over the hills early one morning after a night’s debauch when he saw a
man running in
the valley below, looking over his shoulder all the while. And although there was nothing else to be seen the rake knew at once that the man was being pursued by the hounds of Hell.

‘Then the man looked up the hillside and saw the rake, and he turned and ran straight towards him. And when he reached the brow of the hill he stopped to catch his breath, looked at the rake, and then staggered on past. And the rake knew very well what he had been thinking: “He’s a black sinner too – maybe the hounds will stop and take him instead of me”.’

The door opened behind Roskill.

‘It’s Major Butler, David,’ said Faith. ‘He wants an urgent word with Hugh.’

Roskill swung round. Butler loomed solidly in the doorway, silhouetted against the brighter hall behind him. There was a glitter of raindrops on his head – the weather had broken at last.

‘For Hugh?’ Audley didn’t look at Roskill. ‘Well, Butler – we’ve just reached the brandy stage – allow us to finish that before you take him away. And join us in the meantime – sit down. Your ill tidings can wait a few minutes.’

‘No need to take him away, Dr. Audley.’ Butler dabbed at the damp red stubble on his head as he sat down. ‘A brandy would be acceptable though. As to the ill tidings – your leave’s up tomorrow anyway, Hugh. What other sort of tidings can there be?’

Roskill knew then with certainty that he was about to be double-crossed – knew it and was filled with gladness. All that remained was to act out a convincing role: should he struggle in the snare or submit with cold dignity? Which would be more in character?

‘Jack, you know darned well when my leave ends.’ Struggle, then – even a rabbit struggled. ‘At eight a.m. tomorrow I shall shave off this beard. At ten I’ll pick up my mail at the office, and by three I’ll be at R.A.F. Snettisham. There’s not one thing you can do about it – it was all settled months ago. I belong to the R.A.F. for the next ten weeks. Not to Sir Frederick, and certainly not to you.’

He looked round the table for moral support. Faith radiated honest sympathy, but Audley’s sympathy was tinged with relief: the hounds had passed him by…

‘Ten week’s refresher, Jack – that’s the agreement. Ten weeks to keep me up to the mark so I’ll still have a career when Sir Frederick puts me out to grass. They wouldn’t be thinking of breaking that, would they, Jack?’

Go on – break it, Jack.

‘The beard.’ The suggestion of a perverse smile passed across Butler’s mouth. Butler had been due for some leave when Roskill returned, but then the best press gangs were always made up of pressed men. ‘That’s one reason why I’m here. They’d like you to keep it, even if it does make you look like a pirate.’

‘I’m not going to Snettisham with a beard.’

‘You’re not going to Snettisham at all, Hugh. Not for the time being, anyway.’

‘The beard’s coming off and I’m going to Snettisham.’ Struggle harder and feel the wire tighten.

Butler looked pained. ‘Don’t be childish, man. If you put your pretty uniform on again tomorrow you’ll stay in it. And not at a nice lively place like Snettisham. More likely somewhere like Benbecula – or wherever they send the awkward ones nowadays. On the ground, certainly. There’d be no more flying.’

They had to want him very badly to spell it out as crudely as that, with what they took to be the ultimate threat. Or so they thought. That might well be the only thing they didn’t know about him – that one big, secret ace in the hole. And as long as they didn’t know it, it was his strength, not his weakness.

One final protest should be enough for the record..

‘They might as well ground me anyway. If they won’t let me keep up with my flying they’re as good as doing that already. Is this Sir Frederick’s idea of a gentleman’s agreement?’

Faith pushed her chair back from the table and stood up. ‘I think I’ll go and make a lot of strong coffee – before I’m sent packing.’

Butler turned towards her hastily. ‘Don’t go, Mrs. Audley. The brandy’s fine – please don’t leave us.’

Audley grunted angrily. ‘I don’t think she likes watching Hugh blackmailed any more than I do. It’s too much like old times for both of us.’

‘At least hear me out,’ Butler looked at Roskill. ‘I think you may not want to go back to the R. A.F. quite so quickly then – I mean that, Hugh. And it really is perfectly in order for you to listen, Mrs. Audley. You may even have something to contribute.’

Faith sat down again willingly enough, and Roskill felt a pang of disquiet. It was like her to be curious, but it wasn’t like Butler – solid, security-conscious Butler, who mistrusted women and hated amateurs.

And of all women, Faith. For Butler had deplored Audley’s original involvement with her – ‘that over-bred, under-sexed schoolteacher with foam-rubber tits.’ It was an uncharacteristically facile assessment, except possibly as regards the foam rubber, but what mattered was that it didn’t fit this sudden partiality: Faith wouldn’t hold her tongue, and Butler would know it.

BOOK: The Alamut Ambush
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