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Authors: Hammond Innes

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BOOK: The Angry Mountain
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He was looking at me hard as though I were responsible.

“Why come to me?” I asked.

“I thought you might know something,” he said.

“Look,” I answered wearily. “I know nothing about this business.”

“You saw Maxwell in Pilsen.”

“Yes. And he gave me a message to deliver to you.”

“Was that before or after your interview with the police?”

“After.” Then I saw what he was driving at and I could have hit him. He thought I might have got out of the clutches of the Czech security police by giving information to them. I got to my feet. “I see no point in continuing this discussion,” I said. “I'm glad to know Jan Tu
č
ek didn't crash. As to where he is now, I can't help you.”

“For God's sake sit down,” he said. “I'm not suggesting you had anything to do with it. But I must find him. It's vitally important. Sit down—please.” I hesitated. He pushed his fingers through his fair hair. He looked damnably tired.

“All right,” I said, resuming my seat. “Now, what do you want to know?”

“Just tell me everything that happened to you in Pilsen— everything, however unimportant. It may help,”

So I told him the whole story. When I had finished he said, “Why was Tu
č
ek so anxious for you to see him when you got to Milan?”

“I've no idea.”

He frowned. “And he came to your hotel that night?” He looked across at me. “Has anybody tried to contact you since you've been in Milan?”

“Yes,” I said. I told him then about the telephone conversation I'd just had. Somehow the sense of menace I'd attached to it seemed to recede as I told it to Reece.

When I'd finished he didn't say anything for a moment, but sat lost in thought, toying with the drink the waiter had brought him. At length he murmured the name Sismondi, rolling it over his tongue as though by repeating it aloud he could make contact with something hidden away in his memory. But then he shook his head. “The name means nothing to me.” He swilled the pale liquor of his cognac round and round in the glass as though he couldn't make up his mind what line to take. “I wish to God Maxwell was here,” he said. Then he suddenly knocked back the drink. “I want you to do something,” he said quietly, leaning across the table towards me. “You probably won't like it, but—” He shrugged his shoulders.

“What is it?” I asked.

“I want you to go and see Sismondi.”

“No,” I said quickly. “I don't want anything to do with it. It's none of my business and—”

“I know it's none of your business. But Tu
č
ek was a friend of yours, wasn't he? You were in the Battle of Britain together.”

I thought again of that shattered windshield with the black oil smoke pouring through it, the flames fanning out from the engine cowling and a voice in the headphones saying:
Okay
,
I get him for you, Dick
. Jan had probably saved my life that day. “Yes,” I said.

“Very well then. You can't just abandon the poor devil because you're afraid of getting involved in something unpleasant. All I want you to do is go and see Sismondi. Find out what he knows. Evidentally he thinks you've got something he wants. Play on that.”

I remembered the silky tone in which Sismondi had offered me that bribe. Hell! It wasn't my pigeon. “I'm sorry,” I said. “I don't want to get mixed up—”

“Damn it, Farrell, don't you realise Tu
č
ek's life may be in danger. Listen! This is the second time in two months that somebody important has come through from the other side and then disappeared here in Italy. There have been others, too. Our people have been offered information that could only have been brought through by people who have completely disappeared. They've had to pay through the nose for it. Now do you understand? The man's life is at stake.”

“That's your affair,” I answered. “You and Maxwell were organising the thing. It's up to you to see that he's safe.”

“All right,” he answered in a tone of sudden anger. “I've slipped up. I admit it. Now I've come to you. I'm asking you to help me.” He was forcing his voice under control, suppressing his anger, trying desperately to assume humility

“I've given you all the help I can,” I answered. “I've told you everything that's happened. I've given you a complete account of my telephone conversation with Sismondi. It's up to you now. Go and see him. Batter the truth out of him.”

But he shook his head. “I've thought of that. It wouldn't work. Sismondi won't be the man we're looking for. He probably knows very little. But if you were to suggest that you had the papers they're after—”

“No,” I said. “I'm through with that sort of game. You should know that better than any one,” I added in a tone of sudden bitterness.

“Then you won't help?”

“No.” I felt obstinate. Maxwell could probably have persuaded me. But not Reece. There was a personal barrier. I finished my drink and got to my feet.

Reece got up also and came round the table. He didn't make any further attempt to play on my friendship with Tu
č
ek. He didn't even try to tell me it was my duty as an Englishman to help him. He just said, “All right. I was afraid you might feel like that so I brought someone with me. I think you'll find it more difficult to say No to her.”

For an awful moment I thought he'd got Alice with him. But he must have realised what was in my mind, for he said quickly, “It's someone you've never met before. Let's go through into the lounge.” He had hold of my arm then and I had no option but to go with him.

She was sitting in the far corner—a small, red-haired girl with her head bent over a newspaper. As we approached she looked up, and I knew her at once. She was Jan Tu
č
ek's daughter. Reece introduced us. “I have heard of you from my father,” she said. The grip of her hand was firm. The set of the chin was as determined as her father's, and her eyes, set rather wide on either side of the small upturned nose, looked straight at me. “He often used to speak of his friends in the R.A.F.” She glanced down at my leg and then pulled up a chair for me. “Mr. Reece said you might be able to help us.” Her voice was rather husky and she spoke English with a queer mixture of accents.

I sat down, comparing the girl in front of me with the memory of the photograph in Tu
č
ek's office. Some trick of
the light caused her hair to gleam just the way it had gleamed in the photograph. It was beautiful hair—a reddish gold, the real Venetian Titian. And she had freckles just as Tu
č
ek had said. They mottled the pale golden skin of her face in a way that gave it a gamin quality. But the face wasn't quite the same as the face in the photograph—it was older, more set, as though she had had to come to grips with life since the photograph had been taken. I remembered how I'd last seen that photograph, smiling up at me from the floor of Tu
č
ek's ransacked office. She wasn't smiling now and there was no laughter in her eyes. Her face looked small and pinched and there were dark rings under her eyes. And yet, as I met the level gaze of her eyes, I was conscious again of that sense of something personal in her face. It suddenly became important to me that she should smile again as she'd been smiling in the photograph. “I'll do anything I can,” I murmured.

“Thank you.” She turned to Reece. “Is there any news please?”

He shook his head. “Not much I'm afraid. Farrell saw your father only once.” He hesitated, and then said, “Does the name Sismondi mean anything to you, Hilda?”

She shook her head.

“Your father never hinted that he might be forming a business partnership with Sismondi?”

“No.”

“He wasn't planning to form a company here in Milan?”

Again she shook her head. “No. We were to have a holiday here, and then we were going to England.” Her voice sounded puzzled. “Why all these questions?”

Reece gave her the gist of what I'd told him. When he had finished she turned to me. “You will go and see this Sismondi?” I think she knew at once that I didn't want to. “Please,” she added. “He may know where my father is.” She reached out and caught hold of my hand. Her fingers were cold and their grip was hard and urgent. “This is our
last hope, I think.” Her eyes were fixed on my face. “Can you imagine what it has been like for him in Czechoslovakia all these months since they take over? It has been terrible— always living on the edge of catastrophe. And it had happened before, you see—with the Germans. My mother was murdered. And his father. To have to leave Czechoslovakia twice—that is very hard, I think. We plan to build a new life in England. And now—” She shrugged her shoulders. I thought,
if she breaks down now it will be horrible.
But she didn't. Somehow she kept control of herself and in a small, tight voice, she said, “So you must help me, please.”

“I'll do anything I can,” I said. I was completely under the spell of her urgency.

“And you will go to speak with this Sismondi?”

“Yes.”

“Thank you. As soon as I hear you are the Dick Farrell who is a friend of my father's I know you will help.” She leaned suddenly closer. “Where do you think he is? What do you think has happened?”

I didn't say anything and when she saw I had nothing to tell her she bit her lip. Then she got quickly to her feet. “I would like a drink please. Alec.”

They went through into the bar. She didn't say anything to me as she left. She kept her face turned away. I think she didn't want me to see how near she was to breaking point.

Chapter III

I had all afternoon to think it over. And the more I thought about it, the less I liked it. What they'd asked me to do was to let Sismondi think I'd got whatever it was he wanted and by that means to find out what he knew about Tu
č
ek's disappearance. It doesn't sound much. But then remember, this was Italy, a country where real life crosses the footlights to merge with melodrama. Last time I'd been in Milan I'd seen the mutilated bodies of Mussolini and his mistress strung up by the heels for the public to jeer at. A bloodthirsty mob had cut the woman's heart out. And the farther south you get the cheaper life becomes. Moreover, it was very different from the war-time Italy. I'd been very conscious of that since I arrived. There was none of that sense of security induced by the constant sight of British and American uniforms.

I had dinner early and went to the bar. I thought if I had a few drinks I shouldn't feel so unhappy about the whole business. But somehow they seemed to have the reverse effect. By nine o'clock I knew I couldn't put it off any longer. I called a taxi and gave the driver Sismondi's address, which was Corso Venezia 22.

It was raining and a cold, damp smell hung over the streets. A tram was the only thing that moved in the whole of the Vittor Pisani. The atmosphere of the city was very different from the morning when I'd sat in the sun in the public gardens. I shivered. I could feel one of my fits of
depression settling on me. The stump of my leg ached and I wished I could go back to the hotel, have a hot bath and tumble into bed. But there was no turning back now.

In a few minutes the taxi had deposited me at Corso Venezia 22. It was a big, grey house, one of several that ran in a continuous line facing the Giardini Pubblici. There was a heavy, green-painted wooden door with a light showing through a fanlight. I watched the red tail light of the taxi disappear into the murk. The wind was from the north. It came straight off the frozen summits of the Alps and was bitterly cold. I climbed the half-dozen steps to the door. There were three bells and against the second was a small metal plate engraved with the name Sg. Riccardo Sismondi. Evidently the house was converted into flats. I rang the bell and almost immediately a man's voice said, “
Chi é, per favore?

The door had not opened. The voice seemed to come from somewhere up by the fanlight. I realised then that I was faced with one of those electrical contrivances so beloved by Italians. “Mr. Farrell,” I said. “I've come to see Signor Sismondi.”

There was a pause and then the same voice said, “Come in, please, Signor Farrell. The second floor.” There was a click and a crack of light showed down one side of the door. I pushed it open and went in to find myself in a big entrance hall with a hothouse temperature. The heavy door swung-to behind me and locked itself automatically. There was something final and irrevocable about the determined, well-oiled click of that lock. Additional lights came on in the narrow Venetian chandelier that hung from the ceiling. Thick pile carpets covered the tiled floor. There was a big grandfather clock in one corner and on a heavily carved table stood a beautiful model of an Italian field-piece in silver.

I climbed the stairs to the second floor. The air of the place was suffocatingly hot and faintly perfumed. The door of the flat was open and I was greeted by a leathery-faced
little man with dark, rather protruding eyes and a glassy smile. He gave me a thick, podgy hand. “Sismondi. I am so glad you can come.” The smile was automatic, entirely artificial. His almost bald head gleamed like polished bone in the light from the priceless glass chandelier behind him. “Come in, please, signore.” There was no warmth in his tone. I got the impression that he was upset at my unexpected arrival.

He shut the door and hovered round me as I removed my coat. “You like a drink, yes?” He stroked his hands as though smoothing down the coarse black hair that covered the backs of them.

“Thank you,” I said.

The lobby led into a heavily furnished lounge where my feet seemed to sink to the ankles in the thick pile of the carpets. Dark tapestries draped the walls and the furniture was ornate and carved. Then he pushed open a door and we went through into a softly-lit room full of very modern furnishings. The contrast was staggering. A fat pekinese got up from a silk-covered pouff and waddled towards me. It sniffed disdainfully at my trousers and returned to its couch. “My wife like those dogs very much,” Sismondi said. “You like dogs, signore?”

BOOK: The Angry Mountain
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