Authors: Alistair MacLean
To Juan Ignacio
About the Author
By Alistair Maclean
About the Publisher
âIf you were a genuine army colonel,' Pilgrim said, âinstead of one of the most bogus and unconvincing frauds I've ever seen, you'd rate three stars for this. Excellently done, my dear Fawcett, excellently done.'
Pilgrim was the great-grandson of an English peer of the realm and it showed. Both in dress and in speech he was slightly foppish and distinctly Edwardian: subconsciously, almost, one looked for the missing monocle, the Old Etonian tie. His exquisitely cut suits came from Savile Row, his shirts from Turnbull and Asser and his pair of matched shotguns, which at 4000 dollars he regarded as being cheap at the price, came, inevitably, from Purdeys of the West End. The shoes, regrettably, were hand-made in Rome. To have him auditioned for the screen part of Sherlock Holmes would have been superfluous.
Fawcett did not react to the criticism, the praise or the understated sartorial splendour. His facial
muscles seldom reacted to anything â which may have been due to the fact that his unlined face was so plump it was almost moon-shaped. His bucolic expression verged upon the bemused: large numbers of people languishing behind federal bars had been heard to testify, frequently and with understandable bitterness, that the impression Fawcett conveyed was deceptive to the point of downright immorality.
Half-hooded eyes deep-sunk in the puffy flesh, Fawcett's gaze traversed the leather-lined library and came to rest on the sparking pine fire. His voice wistful, he said, âOne would wish that promotion were so spectacular and rapid in the CIA.'
âDead men's shoes, my boy.' Pilgrim was at least five years younger than Fawcett. âDead men's shoes.' He regarded his own Roman foot briefly and with some satisfaction, then transferred his attention to the splendid collection of ribbons on Fawcett's chest. âI see you have awarded yourself the Congressional Medal of Honour.'
âI felt it was in keeping with my character.'
âQuite. This paragon you have unearthed. Bruno. How did you come across him?'
âI didn't. Smithers did, when I was in Europe. Smithers is a great circus fan.'
âQuite.' Pilgrim seemed fond of the word. âBruno. One would assume that he has another name.'
âWildermann. But he never uses it â professionally or privately.'
âI don't know. I've never met him. Presumably Smithers never asked him either. Would you ask Pele or Callas or Liberace what their other names are?'
âYou class his name with those?'
âIt's my understanding that the circus world would hesitate to class those names with his.'
Pilgrim picked up some sheets of paper. âSpeaks the language like a native.'
âHe is a native.'
âBilled as the world's greatest aerialist.' Pilgrim was a hard man to knock off his stride. âDaring young man on the flying trapeze? That sort of thing?'
âThat, too. But he's primarily a high-wire specialist.'
âThe best in the world?'
âHis fellow professionals are in no doubt about it.'
âIf our information about Crau is correct, he'd better be. I see he claims to be an expert in karate and judo.'
âHe has never claimed anything of the kind. I claim it for him â rather, Smithers does, and as you know Smithers is very much an expert in those matters. He watched Bruno having a work-out down-town this morning in the Samurai club. The instructor there is a black belt â they don't come any higher in judo. By the time Bruno had finished with him â well, I understand the instructor
disappeared with the general air of a man about to write out his resignation on the spot. Smithers said he hadn't seen Bruno chopping people around in karate: he has the feeling he wouldn't like to, either.'
âAnd this dossier claims that he is a mentalist.' Pilgrim steepled his fingers in the best Holmes fashion. âWell, good for Bruno. What the devil is a mentalist?'
âChap that does mental things.'
Pilgrim exercised a massive restraint. âYou have to be an intellectual to be an aerialist?'
âI don't even know whether you have to be an intellectual â or even intelligent â in order to be an aerialist. It's beside the point. Practically every circus performer doubles up and does one, sometimes even two jobs in addition to his speciality in the actual arena. Some act as labourers â they have mountains of equipment to move around. Some are entertainers. Bruno doubles as an entertainer. Just outside the circus proper they have a showground, fairground, call it what you will, which is used to separate the arriving customers from their spare cash. Bruno performs in a small theatre, just a collapsible plywood job. He reads minds, tells you the first name of your great-grandfather, the numbers of the dollar bills in your pockets, what's written or drawn inside any sealed envelope. Things like that.'
âIt's been done. Audience plants and the hocus-pocus of any skilled stage magician.'
âPossibly, although the word is that he can do things for which there is no rational accounting and which professional conjurers have failed to reproduce. But what interests us most is that he has a totally photographic memory. Give him an opened double-spread of, say,
magazine. He'll look at it for a couple of seconds, hand it back, then offer to identify the word in any location you select. You say to him that you'd like to know what the third word in the third line in the third column on the right-hand page is and if he says it's, say, “Congress” then you can lay your life it is “Congress”. And he can do this in any language â he doesn't have to understand it.'
âThis I have to see.
, if he's such a genius, why doesn't he concentrate exclusively on stage work? Surely he could make a fortune out of that, much more than by risking his life turning somersaults up there in the low cloud?'
âPerhaps. I don't know. According to Smithers, he's not exactly paid in pennies. He's the outstanding star in the outstanding circus on earth. But that wouldn't be his real reason. He's the lead member of a trio of aerialists called “The Blind Eagles”, and without him they'd be lost. I gather they are not mentalists.'
âI wonder. We can't afford excessive sentiment and loyalty in our business.'
âSentiment, no. Loyalty â to us â yes. To others, yes also. If they are your two younger brothers.'
âA family trio?'
âI thought you knew.'
Pilgrim shook his head. âYou called them The Blind Eagles?'
âNo undue hyperbole, Smithers tells me. Not when you've seen their act. They may not quite be up in the wild blue yonder or hanging about, as you suggest, in the low cloud, but they're not exactly earthbound either. On the upswing of the trapeze they're eighty feet above terra firma. Whether you fall from eighty feet or eight hundred, the chances of breaking your neck â not to mention most of the two hundred-odd bones in your body â are roughly the same. Especially if you're blindfolded and can't tell up from down, while your body can't tell you exactly where up is and most certainly can't locate down.'
âYou're trying to tell me â '
âThey wear those black silk cotton gloves when they take off from one trapeze to another. People think there may be some advanced electronic quirk in those gloves, like negative poles attracting positive poles, but there isn't. Just for better adhesion, that's all. They have no guidance system at all. Their hoods are entirely opaque but they never miss â well, obviously they never miss or they would be one Blind Eagle short by this time. Some form of extra-sensory perception, I suppose â whatever that may mean. Only Bruno has it, which is why he is the catcher.'
âThis I have to see. And the great mentalist at work.'
âNo problem. On the way in.' Fawcett consulted his watch. âWe could leave now. Mr Wrinfield is expecting us?' Pilgrim nodded in silence. A corner of Fawcett's mouth twitched: he could have been smiling. He said: âCome now, John, all circusgoers are happy children at heart. You don't look very happy to me.'
âI'm not. There are twenty-five different nationalities working for this circus, at least eight of them mid-or eastern European. How am I to know that someone out there might not love me, might be carrying a picture of me in his back pocket? Or half a dozen of them carrying pictures of me?'
âThe price of fame. You want to try disguising yourself.' Fawcett surveyed his own colonel's uniform complacently. âAs a lieutenant-colonel, perhaps?'Â
Â Â Â
They travelled to down-town Washington in an official but unidentifiable car, Pilgrim and Fawcett in the back, the driver and a fourth man in the front. The fourth man was a grey, balding anonymity of a person, raincoated, with a totally forgettable face. Pilgrim spoke to him.
âNow, don't forget, Masters, you better be sure that you're the first man on that stage.'
âI'll be the first man, sir.'
âPicked your word?'
âYes, sir. “Canada.”'
Dusk had already fallen and ahead, through a slight drizzle of rain, loomed an oval, high-domed
building festooned with hundreds of coloured lights that had been programmed to flicker on and off in a pre-set pattern. Fawcett spoke to the driver, the car stopped and, wordlessly and carrying a magazine rolled up in one hand, Masters got out and seemed to melt into the gathering crowd. He had been born to melt into crowds. The car moved on and stopped again only when it had reached as close to the building entrance as possible. Pilgrim and Fawcett got out and passed inside.
The broad passageway led directly to the main audience entrance of the big top itself â a misnomer, as the days of the great canvas structures, at least as far as the big circuses were concerned, had gone. Instead they relied exclusively on exhibition halls and auditoriums, few of which seated less than ten thousand people, and many considerably more: a circus such as this had to have at least seven thousand spectators just to break even.
To the right of the passageway glimpses could be caught of the true back-stage of the circus itself, the snarling big cats in their cages, the restlessly hobbled elephants, the horses and ponies and chimpanzees, a scattering of jugglers engaged in honing up their performances â a top-flight juggler requires as much and as constant practice as a concert pianist â and, above all, the unmistakable and unforgettable smell. To the rear of the area were prefabricated offices and, beyond those, the rows of changing booths for the performers. Opposite those, in the far corner and discreetly
curved so as to minimize the audience's view of what was taking place back-stage, was the wide entrance to the arena itself.
From the left of the passageway came the sound of music, and it wasn't the New York Philharmonic that was giving forth. The music â if it could be called that â was raucous, tinny, blaring, atonal, and in any other circumstances could have been fairly described as an assault on the eardrums: but in that fairground milieu any other kind of music, whether because of habituation or because it went so inevitably with its background, would have been unthinkable. Pilgrim and Fawcett passed through one of the several doors leading to the concourse that housed the side-show itself. It covered only a modest area but what it lacked in size it clearly compensated for in volume of trade. It differed little from a hundred other fairgrounds apart from the presence of a sixty-by-twenty, garishly-painted and obviously plywood-constructed structure in one corner. It was towards this, ignoring all the other dubious attractions, that Pilgrim and Fawcett headed.
Above the doorway was the intriguing legend: âThe Great Mentalist'. The two men paid their dollar apiece, went inside and took up discreet standing positions at the back. Discretion apart, there were no seats left â The Great Mentalist's fame had clearly travelled before him.
Bruno Wildermann was on the tiny stage. Of little more than average height, and of little more
than average width across the shoulders, he did not look a particularly impressive figure, which could have been due to the fact that he was swathed from neck to ankle in a voluminous and highly-coloured Chinese mandarin's gown, with huge, billowing sleeves. His aquiline, slightly swarthy face, crowned by long black hair, looked intelligent enough, but it was a face that was more pleasant than remarkable: if he passed you in the street you would not have turned to look after him.
: âLook at those sleeves. You could hide a hutchful of rabbits up them.'
But Bruno was not bent on performing any conjuring tricks. He was confining himself strictly to his advertised role as a mentalist. He had a deep carrying voice, not loud, with a trace of a foreign accent so slight as to make its source of origin unidentifiable.
He asked a woman in the audience to think of some object then whisper it to her neighbour: without hesitation Bruno announced what the object was and this was confirmed.
âPlant,' said Pilgrim.
Bruno called for three volunteers to come to the stage. After some hesitation three women did so. Bruno sat all three at a table, provided them with foot-square pieces of paper and envelopes to match and asked them to write or draw some simple symbol and enclose them in the envelopes. This they did while Bruno stood facing
the audience, his back to them. When they had finished he turned and examined the three envelopes lying on the table, his hands clasped behind his back. After only a few seconds he said: âThe first shows a swastika, the second a question mark, the third a square with two diagonals. Will you show them to the audience please?'
The three women extracted the cards and held them up. They were undeniably a swastika, a question mark and a square with two diagonals.
Fawcett leaned towards Pilgrim: âThree plants?' Pilgrim looked thoughtful and said nothing.
Bruno said: âIt may have occurred to some of you that I have accomplices among the audience. Well, you can't
be accomplices because then you wouldn't bother to come and see me, even if I could afford to pay you all, which I can't. But this should remove all doubt.' He picked up a paper plane and said: âI'm going to throw this among you and although I can do lots of things I can't control the flight of a paper plane. Nobody ever could. Perhaps the person it touches would be good enough to come to the stage.'