Authors: Michael Gilbert
Tags: #The 92nd Tiger
When a signing session was called for it usually took place in Sam Maxfeldt’s office. Colonel Rex was no longer at Inverness Mansions. Apparently the destruction of their garage and the loss of most of the glass on one side, coupled with the attentions of the police, had been too much for the nerves of the management and the Colonel had been invited to leave. He had had two different addresses since then.
It was towards the end of the first week in April that the summons came. Sam telephoned him in the early evening and said, ‘Your Canadian boy-friend wants a session with you.’
‘At your office?’
‘Not this time.’
‘He’s got an idea this place is being watched. He says he’s seen some odd characters hanging round. I told him that Covent Garden was permanently full of odd characters, but he wasn’t convinced. He wants you to go to the Clydesmuir Hotel.’
‘Where on earth is that?’
‘It’s in a street off Little Russell Street.’
Hugo located the Clydesmuir Hotel, and was shown up to the Colonel’s room by an elderly lady in black with a nose which nearly touched her chin. The room had not been designed for business conferences, and contained not much more than a bed, a dressing table and a single chair. The air was heavy with cigar smoke, a fact which made the old lady sniff reprovingly.
‘Sit on the bed,’ said the Colonel, as soon as the door was shut. ‘We’re up against it.’
‘How do you mean?’
‘It’s those bloody Target people. I knew they’d blame Nussbaum’s accident on me. They’re moving heaven and earth to block our purchases. There’s not a lot they can do in this country, but they’ve got local agents in Belgium and Spain and they’re busy spreading a buzz that we’re not good for the money.’
‘But that’s nonsense.’
‘Of course it is. But the difficulty is that we can’t cash our first letter of credit until the stuff’s on ship at London Dock. Then we can pay the deposit. The English suppliers will accept that. They can have the ship stopped if the money isn’t forthcoming. The Italians could do the same when she calls at Bari. The Belgians and Spaniards aren’t so happy. They’ve got to let the stuff go out of their country on a promise.’
‘How much is involved?’
‘The artillery is the big item. It accounts for nearly a third of the deposit.’
Hugo thought about it. He said, ‘Then we need £40,000 cash on loan for a few days.’
‘Right. Have you got it?’
‘Certainly not. I thought you might have.’
‘Think again,’ said the Colonel, and lit a fresh cigar. For some seconds the two men stared at each other across the drifting clouds of smoke. ‘Have a drink. It may help you to think.’
It might have been the drink, or it might have been the desire to get out of the room before he was asphyxiated, but Hugo found and put forward a possible solution quite quickly.
The Colonel listened to it and said, ‘It might work. Only for God’s sake don’t waste any time. We want that money right away.’
‘I’m surely glad to see you,’ said Robert Ringbolt. ‘Let Tammy here take your overcoat. Sit yourself right down.’
The girl referred to as Tammy had been the first thing Hugo had noticed on coming into the office. His profession had made him a connoisseur of girls. This was one for the book. She had a trim but very clearly feminine figure, well-shaped legs which she was not ashamed to show, up to the Plimsoll line and even a fraction above, and red-gold hair which was cut short and fitted her head like a copper-coloured beretta, giving her at first sight a boyish look which was contradicted by the eyes and generous lips behind which, open in a half-smile, there showed a row of sharp little teeth. Her nose was not snub, but short and her skin was pale, with the few freckles or sun-spots that often went with that hair colour.
Take each separate ingredient, thought Hugo, mix together, simmer in a moderate oven and serve up hot, and you had every American boy’s ideal dish.
He handed her his coat absent-mindedly. Human nature being the incomplete thing it is there must be liabilities to go with all those lovely assets. What could they be? Unpleasant voice? Stupidity? Coldness?
He was rewarded for his coat with a warm smile. He immediately switched on the stuffy English upper-class look which had enraged ninety-one different villains. The girl said, just above her breath, ‘Catch that Tiger.’
‘Tammy,’ said Ringbolt. Try to behave like a secretary, even if you can’t type.’
‘Yes, sir,’ said Tammy. And at the door, ‘I can type, too.’
‘Sit down,’ said Ringbolt with a sigh. ‘And tell me what brings you along this fine morning. Not that I’m not glad to see you anyway.’
‘I’m not sure that you’re going to be when you hear what I want.’
‘As long as you don’t want Tammy.’
‘I’m not aiming as high as that,’ said Hugo. ‘All I need is a loan of £40,000 for about ten days.”
‘That’s, say, a hundred thousand dollars, right?’
‘It sounds more when you put it that way.’
‘And seeing you’ve come to me, Hugo, I guess that means you want the loan from Uncle Sam.’
‘Not from you personally, certainly.’
‘I’m glad about that. Well now, let’s chew it over. It’s not going to be easy. Uncle Sam’s become something of a tight-wad lately. A few years ago, he’d have said “yes” before you’d finished asking. In fact, there was a time, just after the war, which we’re both too young to remember, when he went round Europe, Africa and Asia with his wallet wide open trying to dish out green backs to people who were too damned tired to stoop down and pick them up. Things are a bit different now.’
It occurred to Hugo that Bob was talking to give himself time to think. Anyway, he hadn’t said ‘no’ yet.
‘When I put it up to my masters, the first thing they’re going to say to me is, what sort of security can you offer?’
‘I can deposit with you a letter of credit for £120,000 on a London bank.’
‘If you’ve got all that money on tap, why would you need £40,000?’
Hugo explained why he needed £40,000. Bob said, ‘So what we’re betting on, is that your Colonel Rex produces all the shooting irons in good working order, at London docks by April 15th. That’s in ten days’ time. If he does, you get your money, and you can pay us back. If he doesn’t, we get nothing. I’m not being unfriendly, Hugo, I’m just trying to sort out the facts.’
‘That’s not quite true,’ said Hugo. ‘Because at that point we’d have got the heavy stuff over from Belgium, and the ammunition from Spain, and paid a cash deposit on both consignments. We’d be prepared to give you a bill of sale on all that stuff. I don’t know about the guns, but you could probably sell the .300 ammunition in this country at a profit. I’m told it’s in short supply.’
‘It sounds better than when you started. There’s just one more question. I know you won’t mind me asking it. O.K. we could do this. There’s a bit of risk in it. Not a lot, perhaps, if the deal’s set up properly. But if we did it, it’d be a favour. What do we get back in exchange?’
Hugo had noticed before, that when Americans talked business they abandoned, without embarrassment, all their preliminary civilities and came to the point with refreshing brutality.
He said, picking his words carefully, ‘What you get, Bob, is my help and co-operation.’
That could be worth quite a bit. I won’t conceal from you the fact that my masters are becoming more than a little interested in Umran. If the rest of the Smitherite trial drillings assay as well as the first samples, we could be very interested indeed. But you’d know more about that than I do.’
‘Not much more,’ said Hugo cautiously. He remembered now that Smitherite was the mineral that had been mentioned before. By Taverner or by the Ruler? Certainly he had heard it. He mustn’t forget it again.
Bob said, ‘We’ll have an opportunity to look into it when we meet out there.’
‘Out in Umran?’
‘I told you we were interested. Interested enough to send out a small trade mission. I’ve been nominated to head it.’
‘That’s good news.’
‘Good news for both of us. I gather that Umran’s a lively little place at this precise moment. You’ve heard the reports?’
‘The Foreign Office told me there’d been some trouble. They thought it was being stirred up by the Ruler’s brother.’
‘Sheik Hammuz. Quite a character.’
‘The Ruler flew back three days ago to attend to it.’
‘And he certainly has attended to it. There was some trouble the day after he got there. Something halfway between a large deputation and a small mob. The Ruler personally gave the orders to have it dispersed. His personal police force did the rest.’
‘Were there a lot of casualties?’
‘There’s nothing like a reliable report available yet. The first count was ten killed and thirty wounded.’
‘They don’t use water cannon and rubber bullets to disperse a mob in Umran.’
‘Evidently not,’ said Hugo, trying to keep the shock out of his voice. ‘I won’t keep you any longer. Will you be able to let me know soon?’
‘I’ll give you an answer tomorrow,’ said Bob. ‘Stay by your telephone around ten o’clock. If I was a betting man, I’d say you’d got an odds-on chance of pulling this off.’
When Hugo recovered his coat from Tammy he gave her a smile and was answered by a lightning performance, in dumb-show, of a nice girl to whom an improper suggestion has been made.
He hoped she was coming out to Umran with the trade mission. Whatever her faults might turn out to be they were unlikely to include dullness.
Later, he telephoned Colonel Rex’s hotel, to give him the encouraging news. The aged retainer, when she had finally grasped who he was and what he wanted, said that Mr. Dell Mason had left the hotel the previous evening.
‘Did he leave a forwarding address?’
The aged retainer said, yes. He had left an address. She’d written it down, and if he’d hang on she’d get it for him. He hung on for a very long time indeed, and had almost given up hope when a gasping and wheezing heralded her return. As she spelled out Colonel Rex’s new address for him, word by word, he realised that it was Sam Maxfeldt’s office.
He thanked her politely and rang off.
The Colonel came through at nine o’clock the next morning. Hugo said, ‘You might have warned me if you were going to do another of your moonlight flits.’
‘I didn’t know myself until it happened.’
‘Nothing happened. But it might have done. The hotel was being watched.’
‘If I knew that, I’d be a lot happier about it.’
‘Where are you stopping now?’
‘I won’t mention it on the telephone if you don’t mind. I’m speaking from a call box.’
When Hugo started to tell him about his talk with Ringbolt he cut him short. ‘I’ve been on to Bob already,’ he said. ‘The money’s promised. You did a good job there, Hugo.’
‘The best plan will be for me to ring you every day at about this time. If we have to meet, we’ll make it the usual place.’
‘You mean at—’
‘I mean,’ said the Colonel quickly, and rather more loudly, ‘at the place we met before, to sign documents.’
‘Oh,’ said Hugo. ‘Yes. I see.’
‘And a word to the wise. If you go out, keep your eyes open. I think it’s very probable that you’re being followed, too.’
There was a click as he rang off. And – or was it Hugo’s imagination? – a second click immediately afterwards as though someone else had cleared the line.
He went downstairs to talk to his mother.
She said, ‘Your Uncle Howard had this complex too. He was followed all the time. In his case it was little brown men. Once, in an Indian restaurant, he got it into his head that the waiter was going to throttle him. He hit him in the stomach with a half-full bottle of hock. There was a terrible fuss.’
‘I’m not sure that this is all imagination.’
‘It must be. People don’t follow people round and listen on their telephones. Not in real life.’
‘There was no imagination about blowing up that car. And the two men who did it are still in England.’
‘How do you know?’
‘If they’d tried to get out, they’d have been caught.’
His mother sniffed.
The days that followed were uncomfortable. Hugo was unable to decide whether he was under observation or not. In a Tiger episode it had been easy. The camera had picked out the inconspicuous man in the raincoat doing nothing in a doorway and had tracked up on him with a single sinister note of music. Even the dullest viewer had grasped what was happening.
Without such assistance it was more difficult. In one way or another the conduct of almost everyone seemed to him suspicious. Might the dark complexes which had gripped his Uncle Howard have him in thrall?
It was almost a relief when, at the end of the second week in April, a week of high winds and lashing rain, on his way home after dark, he spotted an unmistakable movement in the bushes near the door on his side of the house. No doubt about it, a man was standing there.
The tensions of the past days were released in one tiger-like bound. The man half turned, stuck the point of his elbow into Hugo’s stomach winding him, and said. That’s no way to treat your partner, Mr. Greest.’
‘Sorry,’ said Hugo, who was still having difficulty with his breathing. ‘Didn’t recognise you.’
‘I thought I’d wait for you to turn up,’ said the Colonel. ‘I didn’t want to disturb your mother. I came to tell you that the stuff is all safely aboard. I’ve got the documents here. You can cash the first letter of credit as soon as the bank opens tomorrow.’
Hugo was dreaming.
He was in the engine-room of a liner. He had dressed for dinner in full evening dress, stiff shirt, white waistcoat, white tie and all, and he was beginning to feel the heat. He wondered if he could possibly take off his waistcoat but realised that this was going to be difficult. His hands were covered with oil. Or was it blood? As he woke up he was saying to himself, very seriously, ‘Is it blood?’