Read XPD Online

Authors: Len Deighton

Tags: #Action & Adventure, #Espionage, #Fiction, #Historical, #Mystery, #Spies, #Suspense, #Thriller, #World War II

XPD (8 page)

BOOK: XPD
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Stein laughed. He liked Erich Loden, who had been the colonel’s driver, servant and general factotum for over twenty years and remained devoted to him.

Stein got into the back seat of the Rolls and twiddled with the knobs of the radio, but reception was blocked by the steel-framed airport buildings. He pulled a cassette from the box and plugged it into the player. The music of Django Reinhardt filled the car. He turned the volume down.

The driver slid behind the wheel and started the engine. ‘Any calls downtown, Mr Stein? You want me to go past the cake shop?’

‘Well,’ said Stein as if considering the suggestion for the first time, ‘why don’t I just stop by for a cup of coffee at Madame Mauring’s.’

‘Yes, sir,’ said the driver. It was a joke that both men understood. Stein rarely took the trip from the airport to Colonel Pitman’s house without stopping at the well-known Mauring’s Tea Room & Confiserie near the cathedral.

The decision made, Stein leant back and watched the world go by. The modern factories gave way to expensive apartment blocks and tidy lawns, then came the shopping streets, displays of carefully arranged cheeses and sausages, and the scaly glitter of wristwatches, swimming through the windows in endless shoals.

Madame Mauring was an elderly woman with tight, permanently waved grey hair and a ruddy complexion. She made many of the cream cakes herself, as well as some marzipan slices of which Stein was especially fond.

‘I’ve brought you a present,’ said Stein, producing from his flight bag some perfume he had bought on the plane ‘For my favourite girlfriend. “Infini”.’

‘You are a nice man, Mr Stein,’ she said and gave him a swift decorous peck on the cheek. Stein smiled with pleasure. ‘And now I bring for you the new almond cake. It’s still warm but never mind, I will cut it.’ This was a considerable concession. Madame Mauring did not approve of any of her creations being sliced before they were quite cold.

Stein sat down in the little tea room and looked round the bright wallpaper and the old-fashioned cast-iron tables with something of a personal pride. Charles Stein had financed Madame Mauring’s little business venture after tasting the cakes she supplied to a large restaurant on the Rue du Rhône. That was eighteen years ago, and last year he had allowed Madame Mauring to buy him out.

‘Next year, or the year after, I am giving the team room to my daughter. Her husband works at a good restaurant in Zurich. They will both come back here to live.’

‘That will be nice for you, Madame Mauring. But I can’t imagine this place without you. What about all your regular customers?’

‘I will keep my apartment upstairs,’ she said. ‘And your room, too – that will be untouched.’

‘Thank you, Madame Mauring. This is where we began, you know.’

‘Yes,’ she said. She had heard many times the story of how the Americans had started their merchant bank in these rooms above a jewellery shop in the narrow street which wound uphill to the cathedral. Prosperous trading in the immediate post-war period had enabled them to move the bank to more appropriate premises facing the lake on the Quai des Bergues. Every nook and cranny of this place brought back memories to Stein. He had been back and forth across the Atlantic frequently in those days, learning quickly how deals were made in Switzerland, giving the colonel courage enough to fight the competition and calming down irate clients when things went wrong. Madame Mauring had always insisted that one room upstairs was his but Stein had almost forgotten the last time he had used it.

‘Take the rest of the almond cake with you,’ she said. ‘I have a box all ready.’ Stein did not resist the idea. He found it very reassuring to have some food with him, even in such a well-organized house as that of Colonel Pitman.

‘She’s a good woman,’ he told the driver as he settled back into the leather seat of the Rolls and brushed from his lips the last crumbs.

‘The colonel never goes there now,’ said the driver. ‘He says that the cakes and coffee are not good for his digestion. The “nut house” he calls it, did you know that?’

Stein grunted. The truth was that Colonel Pitman was not interested in food. One look at him would tell you that: thin, finickety and abstemious. Most of the West Point officers seemed to be the same. The colonel was always boasting of how he could still fit into his wartime uniform. It was not an achievement by which Stein set large store.

‘There will be a traffic jam downtown. It’s rush hour and with the bottlenecks at the bridges there is just no way to avoid it.’

The car was halted by traffic when the driver spoke again. ‘I wouldn’t want to step out of line, Mr Stein …’ he began hesitantly.

‘What is it?’

‘I thought you should know that the colonel takes a rest every afternoon. That’s why he didn’t come out to the airport. You may not see him until you go down for drinks.’

‘How long has this been?’

‘Some three weeks,’ said the driver. ‘The doctor brought a heart specialist from Lausanne and gave him a check-up last month. He told him he’s got to slow down.’

‘I see.’

‘That didn’t go over well with the colonel, you can probably imagine what he said, but he took the advice just the same.’

‘He’s quite a man, the colonel,’ said Stein.

‘You’ve known him a long time, Mr Stein. It’s just wonderful the way all you men from the same battalion kept up your friendships and put together enough money to finance a business together. It was some idea, Mr Stein! A little private bank, here in Geneva. How did you think of it?’

‘I don’t know,’ said Stein. ‘One of the boys suggested it in fun, and then we considered it seriously.’

Stein remembered that night when they realized how much gold they had stolen. There were all sort of crackpot ideas about what to do with it. Burying it in the ground was the most popular suggestion, as he recalled. Only Stein came up with anything sophisticated: start a private bank. It was the one kind of business where the gross overprovision of capital would not be too conspicuous. Stein had little trouble getting the colonel to agree. Ever since that day when Lieutenant Pitman had arrived at battalion headquarters he had always looked to Stein for advice. But it was Colonel John Elroy Pitman the Third who had turned on enough charm to get a retired US army general and an impoverished English knight to take seats on the bank’s board. Thus equipped with names on the letterhead, the rest was relatively easy. The Swiss authorities had been very co-operative with British and US nationals in those days: they’d even opened up Swiss banks to Anglo-American teams searching for Nazi loot.

‘How long have you known the colonel, Mr Stein? If you don’t mind my asking.’

‘I first met the colonel in 1943,’ said Stein. ‘He was only a lieutenant in those days but he was the toughest son of a bitch in the regiment, I tell you. He took the regimental boxing championship in middleweight three times in a row. For a middleweight he was heavy, see. He was one hundred and fifty pounds and having trouble staying under the prescribed one hundred and sixty, on account of all the drinking he was doing in the officers’ club. Yes, quite a man.’

‘We never see any of his family over here,’ said the driver. He moved in his seat to see Charles Stein in the mirror and hesitated before saying, ‘It’s a shame the colonel never got married. He loves children, you know. He should have had a family of his own.’

‘The battalion was his family,’ said Stein. ‘He loved those men, Erich. For some of those dogfaces he was the only father they ever knew. Don’t get me wrong, now, there was nothing unnatural about it; the colonel just has a heart bigger than any man I ever knew.’

The guitar music came to an end and Stein pushed the cassette back to repeat it. ‘How long since the colonel was stateside?’ Stein asked.

‘Not since he got out of the army.’

‘That would be about 1948,’ said Stein. ‘It’s a long time.’ He watched the scenery. The Alps loomed large above them by now, and lost in the mist and cloud there were the Juras on the far side of the lake. It was cold near the water without the sunshine. Such a place would not suit Charles Stein; he found the surrounding mountains oppressive and the inhabitants cold and formal. They were near to the French frontier here but there could be no mistaking the Swiss orderliness as they passed through villages where the dogs were securely chained and the logs sorted by size before being stacked outside the houses.

The Rolls turned in as soon as the gates swung open. The gravel crunched under the tyres and the Rolls moved slowly past the well-tended lawns and the summer house where Colonel Pitman sometimes took afternoon tea. The gravel drive ended in a circle round an ornate fountain. It provided an appropriate setting for the grand mansion that faced rolling lawns and shrubs as far as the trees that lined the lake shore. It was a sinister old place, thought Stein. The sort of large property that unscrupulous Geneva property salesmen are likely to say belonged once to Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward or the ex-Shah of Iran. On the steps there was a servant in a green baize apron ready to help the driver with the guest’s baggage.

The house was a cheerless assembly of turrets and towers, looking like a scaled-down version of some neo-Gothic town hall. Inside, Stein’s footsteps clattered on the decorative stone. Even now, in May, it was chilly. The furniture was massive – shiny red mahogany sideboards and tall, glass-fronted cupboards filled with forgotten crockery. Four suits of armour were guarding the hallway, only the shine of their metal distinguishable in the gloom. On the hall table, under a large bowl of fresh flowers, were the day’s newspapers and some magazines and letters, all unopened and unexamined.

A servant showed Stein up to a bedroom on the first floor. Alongside a big mahogany bed with a cream silk duvet cover there was an antique table with fresh fruit in a bowl and a coffee-table book on vintage cars. Over the bed hung a painting by some Dutch eighteenth-century artist: sepia sailing barges, sepia water, sepia sky. The servant opened the windows to reveal a wrought-iron balcony just large enough to permit the window shutters to fold back fully and provide a view of the garden and the lake, colourless in the grey afternoon light.

‘Would you like me to unpack now, sir?’

‘No, I’m going to climb into a hot tub and get some of that travel dust out of my wrinkles.’

‘Very good, sir. You’ll find everything you need, I think.’ The servant opened the cabinet alongside the window. There were tumblers and wine glasses with some bottles of claret in a rack and an unopened bottle of Jack Daniel’s bourbon.

‘And in the ice box there’ll be branch water,’ said Stein delightedly. ‘The colonel never forgets a thing.’

‘That’s right, sir,’ said the servant. He paused respectfully and then said, ‘Dinner will be served at 7.30, sir. The colonel will have a drink in the study about seven. He would like you to join him there.’

‘I sure will,’ said Stein.

‘The bell is by the door should you require tea or coffee or anything to eat.’ He always said the same thing, but Stein did not interrupt, knowing that he preferred it this way: he was Swiss.

‘No, I’m just fine. I’ll see the colonel at seven, in the study.’

With a short bow, the servant departed. Stein opened the bottle of Jack Daniel’s and poured some down the sink. He had long since lost his taste for bourbon, but there was no point in hurting anyone’s feelings. After flushing some bottled water after it, Stein held the whisky to his nose. That sweet smell brought the memories flooding back upon him. He marvelled at the silence and stood for a moment or two in the sunless light, holding the whisky and looking out across the mauve rippling surface of the lake. From the hall below there came the soft chimes of the colonel’s favourite clock. He remembered his mother quoting the old Polish proverb, ‘In a house of gold, the hours are lead.’

Stein’s arrival at short notice meant that there were other guests for dinner. They were all casual acquaintances, people whom Pitman had met by way of business. A commodity broker from Paris on vacation with his wife and teenage daughter, and a French couple who owned a car-leasing agency in Zurich. The conversation was confined to polite banalities. So although Stein was able to outline the MacIver episode before the guests arrived, it was not until dinner was finished that Stein and Pitman were alone.

‘You’re looking well, Stein.’

‘You too, Colonel.’

‘What about a nightcap? Shall we see what we have in the cellar?’

It was always the same ritual. They went downstairs into the neatly arranged basement, passing the coal storage and the gleaming racks of logs to enter the long corridor where the wine was stored. ‘Claret or burgundy?’ the colonel asked.

‘The wine we drank at dinner was delicious.’

‘We might be able to do better than that,’ promised the colonel, searching carefully through the ranks of dusty bottles. ‘For an old army buddy we serve only the best.’

Behind the wine there was a storage area where old suitcases were piled. There were some stags’ heads and other hunting trophies there too, tusks and antlers grimy and cobwebbed. Stein remembered when they were the colonel’s pride and joy, but some of the boys from the battalion had made jokes about them at a party back in the late sixties, and the colonel had changed his mind about them. Colonel Pitman set great store by the opinion of his men. Perhaps sometimes he overdid this tendency.

‘Hermitage!’ said the colonel. ‘You’ll enjoy this one, I’m sure. It has the real flavour of the north Rhône and will make an interesting comparison with that Châteauneuf-du-Pape we had at dinner.’ The decision made, Pitman led the way upstairs to his study, negotiating the cellar steps with a care that made Stein concerned for him. ‘I get a little giddy sometimes,’ he explained.

‘Let me take that bottle, Colonel.’

Colonel Pitman held tight to the rail and picked his way up the steep steps. ‘I’ve never fallen,’ he explained, ‘but the light here is deceptive.’

‘All these wine cellars are the same,’ said Stein. ‘The steps wobble as you go out. You’ll have to cut back on the Evian water, Colonel.’

BOOK: XPD
10Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

Here There Be Tigers by Kat Simons
Poor Little Bitch Girl by Jackie Collins
A Question of Murder by Jessica Fletcher
Alpha Dog by Jennifer Ziegler
Evil in Hockley by William Buckel
On Looking: Essays by Lia Purpura
Torched by Bella Love-Wins