The Hangman in the Fog
Suddenly, chillingly, Gilhooley knew why his seat on the Barcelona plane had been snatched, why a non-existent cousin had visited his flat, why his news service chief had warned him to watch himself. Now he and Celia waited while the executioner groped his way toward them
A MACLEAN’S NOVELETTE COMPLETE IN THIS ISSUE
THE TWO newspapermen stood at a window and looked down on Fleet Street. It was a dour, chill day, as what day isn’t in London in February. There wasn’t much to look at, only a low and foreboding sky and a few muffled people hurrying along the famous street.
They stood there for a time without speaking. Finally the older of the two, a bald, overstuñed man named Harry Woodruff, shook his head slowly. His heavy jowls moved like loose pontoons against his neck.
“It’s no use, Gil. You’d better start for the airport.” His pudgy finger pointed out patches of fog spilling over the rooftops across the street like a ghostly army over a city’s ramparts. “You’ll be lucky if you take off.”
The other nodded reflectively. “I’ll give it another minute or two. I’d like to know what happened.” He cocked his head as if to listen to the headlong clatter of the teletype machines in the next room. He said, “I wouldn’t like to be three hours in a plane without knowing what happened.”
His name was Jacobus Gilhooley. He was a tall, well-built man of thirtyfive and with a little sartorial care he might have been rated as handsome. But in the community of foreign correspondents he was considered a rough cut. His thick brown hair never seemed properly combed nor his tie properly knotted and he carried his shoulders at a peculiar slope as if perpetually straining forward to hear and to observe. His colleagues often joked about his intensity but never about his work.
His deeply-set eyes studied the thickening fog once more. Then he turned about suddenly and faced the interior of the office. *
“Celia,” he called out, “did the airport say two o’clock exactly?”
Celia Long, a blond English girl who was cool as the weather but a lot prettier, looked up from her desk. “They said the fog is closing in, and as they’ve got a very short list for the Barcelona flight they’re trying to gather up the passengers for a take-off ahead of schedule. By two o’clock if possible.” Gilhooley glanced at his watch. It was four minutes to one.
“You called a car?”
“It’s downstairs, waiting.”
“You’d better not wait,” Woodruff said. “If I had a chance to get to Barcelona instead of sitting in this lousy climate, I wouldn’t gamble on missing my plane. Besides, the story will be in the Barcelona papers. You can read it on arrival—”
A bell on a teletype sounded five times in breathless staccato.
The two men exchanged a grim glance and Gilhooley darted through to the wire room. Woodruff followed at a more leisurely pace. After thirty years as a bureau chief for World News Service, a flash signal no longer raised his blood pressure.
Aroused by the bell, an operator was already at the machine. The two men leaned over him.
“Flash . . . Palvan guilty . . . Sentenced death ...”
The operator ripped the page out of the machine and handed it to the New York wire. The teletype clattered on.
“ . . . Bulletin lead . . . Vienna ... A state radio announcement monitored here today declared that the Peoples’ Court has found Laszlo Palvan, the former foreign minister, guilty of treason and has sentenced him to death by hanging. The verdict was fully expected after Palvan’s impassioned ‘confession’ yesterday that seven years ago, in 1946, he treasonably handed over the famous Steckanow documents to an American secret agent . . . para . . . more ...”
A deep furrow cut across Gilhooley’s forehead and his lips twisted belligerently. He had covered purge trials in the Balkans; he knew the worthlessness of peoples’ court confessions. But this one was too incredible. The Steckanow story was his biggest postwar scoop. He himself had unearthed the documents, alone and without help; and here a man he had never known had been made to confess to it.
He remembered the horror of the one hanging he had seen in the Balkans —the short rope, the slow strangulation, and the gasp of the witnesses as the executioner mounted a stepladder and twisted the victim’s head around until the neck cracked.
Gregor Palvan stared at the mist-dimmed window, clutching the noose in his trembling hands. A gun would have been easier, but . . .
Continued on page 54
CONTINUED FROM PAGE 10
He said bitterly, “How do they do it, Woody?”
The bureau chief gave a short laugh. “Not with two fingers of Scotch— that’s for sure. Come on, you’d better get going.”
Gilhooley went back to the office, picked up his hat and trench coat, and looked around frowning. “I didn’t figure when I dug up the documents someone would hang for it seven years later.”
“What’s the difference?” Woody said wearily. “They’d have made him confess to anything.” He eyed the newsman. “For Pete’s sake, go get your plane. Barcelona! New York sure picks ’em for you. And Gil—”
The newsman paused at the door.
“—Gil, watch yourself. Steckanow happened a long time ago but—well, you know what I mean. Just watch yourself.”
Gilhooley nodded. “Don’t worry. I’ll be on the wire tomorrow.”
He was down the hall when Celia called out after him, “I’ll ring your hall porter about your baggage. And a happy trip, Mr. Gilhooley!”
He mused on the girl as he hurried down the stairs. She had been working in the office for five years and still called him Mr. Gilhooley. That was the English for you.
THE DRIVER swung into the stream of traffic, and at the first red light he turned and said, “It’s 823 Grosvenor and then Northolt airport. Is that correct, sir?”
Gilhooley thought how wonderfully efficient Celia was. He said, “That’s it and make it fast as you can.”
“Do my best, sir. Depends on the fog.”
The car darted in and out among fogblind vehicles feeling their way along the Strand, and leaped ahead through the yellowing mist that lay heavy on Trafalgar Square. The driver was a thick man who seemed barely able to fit his frame into the small car but his shoulders were relaxed, his fingers loose on the wheel, and he seemed to have a phenomenal instinct for beating a traffic light.
It was six minutes after one when the car pulled up before an old mansion rebuilt into small apartments at 823 Grosvenor Street. The hall porter, a frail, elderly, rather sad man stood at the curb with Gilhooley’s baggage.
“I hope you have a smooth flight, sir,” he said as he placed a suitcase and a portable typewriter next to the driver.
“Thanks, Middleton. See you next week.”
The porter hovered uneasily at the car window. He said, “By the way, sir, a gentleman was enquiring for you not an hour ago.”
“Leave his name?”
“Well—no sir. I told him you were flying to Spain this afternoon and he seemed quite disappointed.”
“Didn’t you ask for his name?” “Naturally, sir, but he was quite sharp with me. He said he was a cousin and—and he simply walked out.”
Gilhooley’s head shot up. The grim enquiry on his face seemed to set the old man’s eyes twitching.
“Was it important, sir? I’m sorry—” Gilhooley said, “Never mind. Let’s go, driver.”
The car sped past Grosvenor Square and into the fog thickening over Hyde Park. Angry gusts leaped and swirled against the windshield but the driver was imperturbable. He was holding it
at better than forty. Gilhooley leaned back and lit a cigarette.
Suddenly he sat up.
He didn't have a cousin. He had no cousin he had ever heard of either here or back home in Montreal. The man who had enquired at his apartment was lying; he was lying or—well, it could have been a case of mistaken identity. Woody’s warning swarmed freshly into his mind. He thought on it a moment and settled back in his seat and tried to rationalize his own forebodings. The man, whoever he was, must have been mistaken.
THEY WERE on Western Avenue.
In the open residential area the fog was somewhat lighter and they were rolling along faster.
“How far to Northolt, driver?” “About nine miles, sir.”
He watched the fog fly past the window and his mind fell once more to Laszlo Palvan, poor devil, who had allowed himself to be drugged or pummeled into confessing a crime he didn’t commit and which wasn’t a crime in the first place. It was a great story, the Steckanow story. His best.
He thought of the guile and nerve and restless energy he applied to digging out the documents. But that was seven years ago; he was a real newspaperman then. Would he have the guts to do it today, now that he was top dog of the European staff with a fat salary and expense account? He didn’t need to wonder. He knew the answer. He was like a Victoria Cross winner, or Lindbergh seven years after the event, coasting easily, letting the kids try to fight their way up.
In retrospect it seemed foolhardy, but it was easy then—seven years ago in Berlin in that drunken first winter of peace when American correspondents chased around in a mad goldrush for news that lay everywhere, when a carton of cigarettes was a good month’s eating to a hungry German, and a bottle of cheap cognac got you past any Soviet-guarded frontier with a finely-sung chorus of the Volga boatmen’s song tossed in for free.
That’s how it happened with the Steckanow scoop. A broken German colonel had succumbed to a carton of cigarettes and had drawn him a plan of the shattered warehouse in Steckanow where he buried the reichsprotektor's archives the day before the Russians swept into the city. Two bottles of cognac had been potent enough to pass him and his jeep across two frontiers deep inside the occupied Balkans. He remembered a happy day of dodging the secret police—it was like a good crap game then—and an eerie, sweaty night of digging in the cellar of the warehouse until his shovel struck the box and just missed striking a Teller mine which lay on top of it. And then the thrill of long-hidden secrets—the atrocity orders, the names of native collaborators, the Hitler papers . . .
“The field’s just ahead, sir. About a mile.”
“Swell, driver. You’ve done fine.” “At your service, sir.”
He felt more cheerful now. He would be in Barcelona by nightfall, and starting tomorrow the Spaniards had laid on a series of interviews with generals and cabinet ministers. It was all too easy, too comfortable. He missed the digging and the risk and the thrill.
“Here we are, sir,” the driver said as he braked the car smoothly at an entrance marked “Continental Departures.”
The scream of a four-engined plane straining to the take-off thundered across their ears. All they could see on the field was a dim, graceful shadow racing through the mist.
The driver eased himself from behind
the wheel and reached in for the baggage. “Not much to see out there. It’s a miracle they’re taking off.”
The main waiting room was unusually empty of passengers. Behind a counter a uniformed clerk thumbed a packet of flight coupons like a bank teller counting money.
The newsman stepped up. “Gilhooley —for the Barcelona flight.”
“I’m afraid, sir, you’re too late,” the clerk said pleasantly and continued bis counting.
Gilhooley’s mouth tightened and be slapped his ticket down hard on the counter.
“It’s not two o’clock. What do you mean—too late?”
The clerk said amiably, “Well sir, the last of our confirmed reservations got here about fifteen minutes ago and we sent the plane off. Had to beat the fog, you understand. Touch and go sort of thing—” He shied from Gilhooley’s angry face, glanced at the ticket, and used it to trace down names on a yellow sheet. “Here we are— Jacobus Gilhooley, 823 Grosvenor ...” He shook his head with mingled incredulity and amusement. “According to our records, you are on the plane, if you get what I mean, sir.”
Gilhooley leaned far over the counter, speared the man’s eyes, and said very slowly, “I don’t get what you mean.” The clerk blinked.
“Well, sir—it is a mystery . . . Unless of course there were two Mr. Gilhooleys who booked for Barcelona and we mistakenly handled it as a single reservation. It’s a rather uncommon name, you must admit, sir.” “You mean someone came here and picked up my reservation?”
The clerk looked painfully abstract. “I couldn’t say exactly. All I know is that I handled the flight myself and I distinctly remember Mr. Gilhooley. Rather large man, very much on the stout side. He asked me when the flight was taking off and I said just as soon as he checked through as he was the last passenger to report. Then he bought a ticket and—well, that’s about all, sir. We sent the plane off. I’m afraid sir, you will find the fault at the Regent Street booking office. They failed to inform us there were two Mr. Gilhooleys on the flight. I’m most frightfully sorry.”
Gilhooley kept his eyes fixed on the clerk. He said, “Two Mr. Gilhooleys. You’re sure that’s the explanation.” “It must be, sir. I can’t think of any other. You quite definitely had a reservation. So, apparently, did the other Mr. Gilhooley. Otherwise he wouldn’t have claimed it. There was lots of room on the aircraft.”
“All right. When does the next plane go?”
“That’s the trouble, sir. The field is closed down. Weather tells us it quite definitely won’t open until tomorrow— if then. But if you’re pressed, you might consider taking tonight’s train ferry to Paris and fly out from there tomorrow morning. We’ll be most pleased to look after the arrangements.”
Gilhooley stared at the man. He hated him for his precious solicitude. He turned his head sharply and looked out at the fog rolling ponderously across the airfield.
The clerk said, “Also sir, I’ll certainly signal the field at Barcelona to check on the other Mr. Gilhooley—just to make sure. Don’t you feel well, sir?” Gilhooley didn’t reply. He was concerned with an evil and terrifying thought that skewered at his brain. Out of a corner of his eye he could see his driver standing patiently beside the baggage. He pictured the plane high above the fog, racing south across the sun. He didn’t want to go back into
the fog. For reasons he dared not allow himself to fathom he didn’t want to be in London on this night.
But he had no choice. The driver stepped up.
“Begging your pardon, sir. If you want to get back we’d better start. Fog’s coming in good and heavy.”
THEY HAD driven not more than a mile toward London when they were enveloped in sudden darkness as if some supernatural hand had flung a cloak over the helpless land. The driver turned on his headlights. His shoulders were tense and his narrowing eyes sought to pierce the fog that lay beyond the beam of the lights.
He chuckled, “I’ll be needing a compass, sir. Mind if I smoke?”
Gilhooley said spiritlessly, “Smoke all you like.” He had run out of spleen against the fog and the airways and his wretched luck.
“Much obliged. I been thinking, sir, it was an odd thing about the other gentleman named Mr. Gilhooley and he
taking your seat on the plane. Rum luck on a day like this.”
It ivas an odd thing. Gilhooley pondered the circumstances and it occurred to him that this was the second odd thing that had happened. There was the man who said he was a cousin— Gilhooleys suddenly all over the place. He tried to figure it as dispassionately as be could from the point of view of sheer coincidence and he found it possible, even reasonable. But there was no escaping the thought: the two odd things happened the same day Laszlo Palvan was sentenced to hang for the Steckanow incident.
They rolled along in second gear, the driver following the line of pavement separation that lay under his headlights. Suddenly he braked the car as they almost collided with the enormous rear end of a red London bus.
The driver said, “Bit o’ luck, sir. It’s a Kensington bus. I can follow it right up to Hyde Park Corner.”
They moved on at walking pace. Gilhooley settled back. At this rate it would be hours before he reached home. The car had become a small murky cell in a grey, endless world and it served to awaken his memory. He had seen occasional pictures of Laszlo Palvan in the newspapers—a heavy, scholarly man usually smoking a pipe—and he was sure he had never met the map. Perhaps it was as Woody had said— they’d have made Palvan confess to anything. Perhaps they picked the Steckanow incident out of a hat—perhaps. He looked out into the foreboding fog and wished he could be sure.
The car had stopped. Visibility was down to less than three yards. Above a rumble of motors slowly turning over a voice was heard: “I say, officer, this is Hyde Park Corner, I take it. Turn me south, will you? That’s a good chap.”
They were marooned a long time. Presently a policeman came by with a powerful flashlight and guided the car around a corner and ordered it abandoned at the curb. The driver helped Gilhooley with the luggage and they walked the last half mile. It was a few minutes before six o’clock when they reached 823 Grosvenor. If he’d caught
the plane, Gilhooley reflected glumly, he’d have been in Barcelona by now.
Inside the stately lobby of the old mansion the fog was transparent beneath bright ceiling lights. Middleton ambled from behind his counter, took the newsman’s luggage and carried it up a snort flight of stairs to the first-floor front apartment.
T didn’t think you’d get away, sir,” he said.
Gilhooley jerked his head around.
' Why not?”
‘The fog, sir.”
"Of course, Middleton.” He felt ashamed of his edginess.
He unlocked his door which opened on a small foyer and turned on the lights. The fog had already penetrated the bolted windows. It had a coal-dust smell. Middleton coughed and said, “I’d better get the fire going right aw.iy, sir. There’s nothing like fire to bum up fog,” and he busied himself at the fireplace of the large oak-paneled room which must have been a library in the old mansion.
Gilhooley hung his coat inthe foyer and went into his bedroom to call the office, but the phone beat him to it. It began to ring.
The airways was on the line.
"We have a first-class compartment on the train ferry,” the man said. “It leaves from Victoria Station at nine tonight, but you’ll require lots of time to get there. Nothing’s moving on the streets, you know.”
Gilhooley said, “I can feel my way to the underground. It’s running, I hope.” “Indeed, sir—and I’m also instructed to tell you that the airways will be pleased to reimburse you for the extra cost of the train ferry.”
“That’s decent of you.”
“And so we should, sir. That was a pretty poor show by our people out at Northolt this afternoon. There’ll be a proper ticking-off over it. But you’ll be pleased to know that the chap who claimed he was Mr. Gilhooley is very unhappy at the moment. Very unhappy.”
“Then you’ve heard from Barcelona ...”
“Indeed we have, not a half hour ago. It seems the Spanish immigration officials didn’t like the looks of his visa—it was a palpable forgery—and they called in the police—”
Gilhooley cut in. “Who is he?”
“His name turns out to be Kressman —not much like Gilhooley, is it, sir? What’s more, the Spanish claim he’s a professional smuggler with a long record. Must have been an awfully nervy person; he presented his own passport on arrival after telling us he was you.”
“How did he get my reservation? Did you find out?”
“Not exactly, sir. He was obviously in a terrible hurry to get away, and he must have found out somehow that the plane was being held up for your arrival, so he simply purloined your name in order to speed the take-off.”
“Is that what he says?”
“Oh no, Mr. Gilhooley. He’s apparently spouting the most absurd story—”
“What absurd story?”
A brief chuckle sounded on the line. “He says a stranger with a foreign accent rushed him out to Northolt and paid him well to pick up a reservation in the name of Jacobus Gilhooley. The Spanish police don’t believe a word of it of course, nor do we . . . Hello, hello —are you there?”
Gilhooley stiffened at the phone. His idle fears and reflections suddenly struck fire and were paralyzing his brain. He made an effort to break the panic, a strong, desperate effort to break it. Gradually his rigid fingers
loosened their grip on the phone and his brain began to function.
Now he knew. Now it was a certainty. He was living proof that their big propaganda trial was a fake, a travesty . . . They were after him. The living proof had to be killed off . . . The process was in motion . . . They had already succeeded in keeping him in London in the fog . . . Killing was easy in the fog . . . They . . . They . . . He knew who they were. They had an embassy in London ... It was fully staffed . . . Even to political executioners . . .
The man on the line said, “Hello, hello. Are you there, Mr. Gilhooley?” He stared blankly into the telephone. It was no use running away. The showdown had to come sooner or later, here or on the continent. One thing was certain: He couldn’t escape it.
His precise mind, working with the speed of desperation, decided it was better to face the showdown here and now.
He said, “Hello, airways. I’ve decided not to go. Cancel the train ferry. That’s all.”
HE PUT down the phone and took a deep breath and held it. The secret nightmare of every foreign correspondent was actually in process of happening to him. For a moment it seemed so unreal he felt he was viewing it from a distance as if it were happening to someone else. And then the bitter reality came pounding back into his brain. This was no post mortem he was covering. It was happening. It was happening to him.
He heard the snap and sputter of kindling and he walked quickly to the living room. Middleton stood before the fire, his thin back swaying slightly as if he were invoking some kind of mumbo-jumbo to encourage the crackling flames.
The frail man turned around, his head at an inquisitive angle.
“The man who enquired for me today —has he been back?”
“Any strangers at all been in the building this afternoon?”
“Why, no sir—unlesswell, Mrs. Jackson on the second floor had a visitor—the regular young man. Is anything wrong?”
Gilhooley said, “This man who enquired—my alleged cousin—what did he look like?”
The porter’s thin face went a little whiter. He turned his head a trifle, his eyes blinking.
“It’s hard to say, sir. 1 was here at the grate and he stood over me and his
coat was well up over his chin ...”
“Why didn’t you tell me he got into this flat?”
“I didn’t think of it as anything, sir. I was doing your ashes and I heard someone behind me—it gave me a start —and there he was like he’d found the door open. If there’s anything missing .. .
“How old was he?”
“Forty or fifty. And on the smallish side. But a gentleman, sir, no question of that. He talked very sharply indeed. I remember thinking I hadn’t heard that manner of talking to servants for forty years.”
“How about his clothes? His accent?”
The old man shook his head helplessly. “I just can’t recall, sir. He wasn’t English, but being a cousin of yours I thought it was Canadian he was speaking. But he was a gentleman stylish, if you know what I mean.”
He looked nervously at the fire. “I think it’s caught all right,” he said and ambled to the door as if eager to be rid of the problem.
Gilhooley let him out, locked the
door and pushed the inside bolt all the way. He walked through to the bedroom and made sure the antiquated window frames were locked. In the bathroom he pushed aside the shower curtain. He glanced into the kitchenette and checked the service door. This left only the living room. He surveyed the archaic oak paneling, punched at the heavy velvet drapes that bulged on each side of the huge window, and looked out into the dirty yellow fog that should have heen Grosvenor Street. Pie went to his massive oak desk and turned on the table radio for the BBC news at six. Then he pushed his fireside chair around so he could watch the foyer without losing the fire’s warmth.
He was cold and he wondered how much of it was fear. All of it was fear. He was in London, in safe, solid, lawabiding London, and yet he was afraid; he had to cheekrein his panic so he could think this out rationally. He had gone soft. He thought of himself in Steckanow, sweating it out in a warehouse cellar in the dead of night. Seven years ago a threat like this would have been a story, a challenge; he would have chased it down, thrilling to every minute of it. Now he was afraid. He had certainly gone soft.
He was aware that radio news was filtering into the room, news about the fog and Iran and Korea which did not intrude on the desperate nature of his reflections. Then his mind opened wide to a new item:
“ . . . tonight announced the latest and possibly the last news of the treason trial of Laszlo Palvan. The state prosecutor has expressed himself satisfied with the sentence of death handed down on the former foreign minister. As it is customary for the sentence to be carried out within a few hours of the state prosecutor’s approval, this probably means that Laszlo Palvan’s career will end on the gallows before morning ... In Parliament today the House of Lords debated at some length on the substantial number of seagulls that have perished ...”
He snapped off the radio. He tried to rally his brain against the shock and confusion that beset it, tried sternly to come to grips with the problem. The thought kept pounding at him that time was urgent. Something had to be done quickly . . . done quickly . . . quickly . . .
He clapped his hands over his eyes and dug his thumbs into his temples. A fact popped up out of the welter of his mind. Whatever they planned to do to him would be attempted in London; otherwise they would not have taken such pains to have him miss his plane. And it would be attempted between now and nine o’clock, because they doubtless knew he could leave London by the nine o’clock train ferry for Paris. He took his hands away from his face and looked at his watch. It was eight minutes after six.
It occurred to him that he held a temporary advantage over his adversaries. They didn’t know he was on his guard. He had found out sooner than they had intended him to find out.
He darted through the foyer into the bedroom and called the office. Woody had gone home for the night but Celia was still on duty. Her cool clear voice was a welcome sound out of a normal world.
“What happened, Mr. Gilhooley? I checked with the airways and they told me the plane took off.”
He told her crisply, as if he were dictating a bulletin, what had happened.
In her exasperatingly calm English manner she raid, “There’s only one thing to do, Mr. Gilhooley-—call Scotland Yard.”
“What would I tell them?” he demanded. “I can’t ask them to go arrest the whole embassy staff of a sovereign country. I haven’t been threatened. I haven’t got a scrap of evidence-—not until this smuggler is brought back from Spain. They’d tell me to lay off the whisky and get some sleep.”
“Then what are you going to do?” “Don’t you see, Celia? One way or another I’ve got to spot the man or men who are doing this to me. I’ve got to spot them and identify them, and if 1 can connect them up with the embassy, then I’ve got something to work on. Scotland Yard and probably M.I.5 would be interested.”
“What about the fog? You couldn’t spot a Churchill tank on a night like this.”
“I’ve got an idea. Who’s on the desk tonight—Ralph or Ross?”
“Ross. What have you in mind, Mr. Gilhooley?”
He wished she would stop calling him
Mr. Gilhooley. He said, “Listen carefully and see what you think of the idea. There’s a strong light over the front door of this apartment house. In about ten minutes I’m going to walk out of this place carrying my luggage. Whoever’s watching the building will see me for a quick second before I disappear in the fog. Do you follow?” “Go on, Mr. Gilhooley.”
“When they see my luggage they’ll guess I’m on my way to Victoria Station to catch the train ferry but they’ll want to make sure. Is that reasonable?”
“Now there aren’t any taxis or buses running tonight so I’ll have to walk to the nearest subway which is at Bond Street. From there to Victoria Station I’ve got to change subways twice—at Oxford Street and Charing Cross. There won’t be many people in the subways on a night like this, so . . .”
“I understand perfectly, Mr. Gilhooley,” Celia interrupted with annoying efficiency. “You’re going to play the innocent and you want Ross to get down to the Bond Street subway and keep you under observation all the way to Victoria Station to see if anyone follows you.”
“You’re a wonder, Celia.”
She said, “It’s not difficult to guess you can’t see out of the back of your head. Have you any idea what these people might look like?”
“I only know about the man who enquired for me at noon, and not much
about him. He’s forty or fifty, not very tall, but well-dressed. That’s about all.”
“That’s quite good, Mr. Gilhooley. Why can’t I do it instead of Ross?”
“We need Ross on the desk,” she replied. “And besides, I’d like to do my bit. We can’t let anything like this happen in England, certainly not to a visitor.”
Gilhooley said, “Better send Ross.”
“I’ve already got my hat on. It sounds like an awfully good party. Good-by now.”
HE CHECKED his watch. It was twelve minutes past six. He walked slowly about the room, wondering on the events that would transpire in the next hour, wondering if he would meet the test. He paused at a full-length mirror and looked critically at himself. It seemed to him he was the same man he was seven years ago; a trifle greyer at the temples, but just as lean, his jaw just as firm.
He went to the window. Against the street lights the fog was a solid yellow mass. Visibility might be one yard, certainly no more. He tried to
picture the man or men who were awaiting him in the street. They were probably standing close against the building, their eyes glued to the front door. He weighed the risk of appearing under the light for a quick moment and decided it wasn’t too great a risk. They wouldn’t dare hold a naked pistol in a London street, not even in the fog.
He opened his suitcase, emptied its contents on the bed, and closed it. He removed his typewriter from its case. The luggage was light enough so he could move fast while carrying it. Then he put on his coat and hat, picked up
the empty cases and went out into the hall.
He felt suddenly strong. He was no longer the pursued; he was the pursuer.
When he reached the foot of the staircase, Middleton hurried toward him.
“You should have called me, sir,” he said in an agitated manner.
The newsman looked at him squarely. The hall porter was not usually so agitated.
“You carrying all that luggage, sir -—and I’m sure there isn’t a taxi in all of London. It’s blindness outside —sheer blindness.”
“I’m walking to the subway,” Gilhooley said.
“Are you taking the train ferry, sir?”
“Yes—if you’ll open the door for me.”
The porter ambled to the door and slowly pulled it open. A block of fog rolled ponderously into the hall. Gilhooley’s jaw tightened. He stood a moment under the light of the doorway, alert for the faintest sound. Then he plunged out into the fog.
He strode quickly toward Bond Street, holding his luggage loosely in his hands. His eai's strained for the sound of a pursuer. Only the scuff of his shoes echoed lifelessly on the pavement.
A faint glimmer of a bank’s nameplate told him he had reached the corner of Davies Street. He darted around the corner of the building and stopped dead.
A quiet sound of footsteps reached him. Someone was approaching behind him along Grosvenor Street. The footsteps came up quickly very close to him, then broke their stride hesitantly, then stopped. He strained his eyes for a shadow. His hands were rigid against the handles of his baggage. All was silence. He could see nothing. He was afraid.
A sound broke off his developing panic. The man had begun to move. It was a man. The shadowy figure of him passed by not more than two yards. He heard the uncertain steps move to the curb and then resume a full stride in some haste. He listened until the sound diminished and was swallowed in the grey silence. Then he tightened his grip on his luggage and moved quickly down the middle of the pavement toward Bond Street.
When he reached Bond Street it was alive with the sounds of blindness —quick breathless cries followed on stumbles, and gruff apologies mingled with plaintive queries from the lost and the frightened. He moved with a tide of perplexed shadows until a diffused light came into view and he descended the stairs of the Bond Street subway. At the first level a partial sense of sight returned to him.
His eyes swept the haze-ridden platform. It was thinly populated; not more than half a dozen assorted persons were passing through the gate to the escalator.
As he paid his fare he caught sight of Celia standing near a row of telephone booths. She looked at him and through him, giving no sign of recognition, tapping an impatient foot as if someone had stood her up on a date. She was pert and pretty in a flat feathered hat and a black coat which flared from her narrow belted waist; prettier than he had ever noticed at the office. It came to him he had never noticed anything about her at the office except her calculated efficiency.
He rode down on the escalator. The trains were running late and the lower platform held about thirty people. He put down his luggage, lit a cigarette, and glanced idly along the platform.
It seemed to him an extraordinary percentage of the men fell into the category Middleton would call gentle-
men. There were three who wore the narrow-brimmed homburg of civil servants and law clerks; another welldressed man was huge, florid and obviously drunk; beside him stood a neat little man with pinched, gentle features who carried a violin case.
He saw Celia push through to the lower end of the platform. There were two men close to her who might have fitted the description, one a short, well-made fellow with a too studied air of detachment, the other a little taller with the cut and stance of a military figure.
A train finally rolled in and he rode il. as far as Oxford Street. Looking straight ahead, he carried his luggage through a long, draughty passage to another platform. He was just in time to board a train for Charing Cross and he wondered whether Celia and his pursuers had made the same train. At Charing Cross he walked across a short passage and hopped on a train for Victoria Station. An idle glance told him there were about ten people boarding the same train. He had lost track of Celia. At Victoria he walked straightaway from the train to the escalator and ascended into the dim, dun-colored railway station.
The huge fogbound concourse seemed lifeless. A sonorous loudspeaker echoed lonesomely through empty space. Only a few silent commuters trudged toward the train gates. He proceeded directly to the parcel office where he checked his two pieces of luggage, then looked around for the continental ticket office. It. was a separate structure just off the south end of the concourse. To reach it he had to pass the length of the concourse and cross a cobblestoned truckway. He walked quickly toward it, and when he got there he found that he was really trapped in London for the night.
On the outer wall of the ticket office, a blackboard was illuminated by a single, powerful light and it bore the announcement: “Night ferry to Paris
canceled owing to fog on Channel.”
He reflected briefly on his bad break. F or now they would know he was marooned in London. His pursuers had the whole fogbound night to do the job their embassy had assigned them. But into his fear crept a note of exaltation; he had the whole fogbound night too. The momentary urge to flee had departed. He was ready for the showdown—now, more than that, he had to have the showdown—now.
He moved along the truckway until he was just beyond the area of light and leaned against a low retaining wall and waited. A few shadowy figures moved about the main concourse but none came toward the continental ticket office. He lit a cigarette and held it in the palm of his hand to shield its glow. Then he saw the figure of a man emerge from the grey haze of the concourse and come up slowly into the light of the sign on the wall of the hooking office.
rpH lí MAN was neatly-built and of
I. middle height. His dark brown coat was fitted at the waist and the shoulders were square as if inviting epaulettes. The turned-down brim of his fell hat cast a shadow over his eyes. His collar was well up against his chin. He paused at the sign, read it, then walked into the booking office.
Gilhooley looked around for Celia and at last he saw her neat, stylish figure hurrying across the concourse. As she approached the booking office he stepped into the light and beckoned to her. Together they moved back into the darkened truck way.
She whispered, “Did you see who just walked into the booking office?”
“I’m sure he’s your man. He came into the Bond Street underground a moment after you and hardly took his eyes off you until we reached Victoria. You’re quite clever, you know, Mr. Gilhooley.”
He looked for traces of excitement in her face, but all he saw was a calm alertness in her eyes as if she were ready to take dictation.
“What do you plan now, Mr. Gilhooley? Do you want me to call Scotland Yard or—” He put his hand on her arm.
The man had come out of the
booking office. He paused at the door and took a cigarette out of a case. He held it, Gilhooley noticed, in the eastern way—between his thumb and fourth finger. He struck a match against the blackboard and as his cigarette met the flame, his chin rbse above his coat collar.
The architecture of his face was striking. He was no more than forty but his cheeks were sunken and his olive skin tightly drawn back from a pair of full lips. His eyes were enormous and bulged extraordinarily as if with outrage.
He drew thoughtfully on his cigarette, turned to study the sign once more, then walked slowly across the truckway into the station concourse.
“What now?” Celia asked efficiently.
Gilhooley said, “I’ve got to find out who he is.” He kept his eyes glued to the receding figure of the man. “And thanks, Celia. You were wonderful.”
“But how are you going to find out, Mr. Gilhooley?”
“I can’t follow him in the fog. I’m going to knock him out, if I can, and search him for identification.”
“It’s not quite sporting, you know.”
“Not a bit.”
“You might be caught and put in jail. It’s robbery.”
“If he intends to kill me tonight, the last thing he wants is to see me safely in jail.”
He strode across the truckway into the concourse, moving quickly until he was less than ten paces behind the man. Celia trotted beside him.
He whispered to her, “You’d better go back to the office. This may be rough.”
“I won’t get in your way, Mr. Gilhooley,” she said with a certain neat irritation.
The man was walking faster now, as if he sensed he was being pursued. His head jerked agitatedly from side to side and by the time he reached a long Gothic passage that led to the street he was almost running. Gilhooley plunged after him.
Inside the passage he was close behind the man and the scuff of their hurrying feet echoed against the stonework. When the man reached the end of the passage he stopped and looked out into the impenetrable fog of the street. Then he turned abruptly around.
The two men glared at each other face to face. Only a faint light from the station marquee broke through the murky darkness.
“What do you want?” the man said slowly. His bulging eyes fixed the tall newsman with an unflinching stare.
“My name is Gilhooley. Does that answer your question?” His voice was a growl. “Tell me, damn it! Does it answer your question?”
There was no reaction except a slight defiant bulge of the man’s lower lip. He continued to look squarely at his questioner.
Finally he said, “You have the advantage of me. I do not know you.”
“The devil you don’t! You’ve been chasing me all day. Come on! Talk up!”
The man’s forehead creased momentarily and his outraged eyes flickered. His chin jerked up in a defiant gesture as if he were about to speak, then he turned silently and began to walk quickly into the fog.
“No you don’t!” Gilhooley shouted and lunged after him. His left hand grabbed the man’s shoulder and swung him around, and in the same pivotal movement he brought up his right fist crashing against the man’s jaw. He hit him hard; the pent-up frustration and terror of the whole day spun out in the blow.
The man staggered back, lost his balance on the curbstone, and fell heavily on his back in the roadway. A muffled groan came from deep inside him as if he was fighting a spasm of pain. He breathed hard and his enormous eyes shone with fury.
Gilhooley bent low over him and plunged his hand inside the man’s coat, feeling for a wallet. The man, still breathing painfully, brought his elbow down hard on Gilhooley’s wrist. For a moment they remained locked in this position. The man raised his head and spat in Gilhooley’s face. Gilhooley hit him a glancing blow on the jaw. The man fell back and groaned loudly. Gilhooley’s hands once more moved searchingly over the man’s chest.
“Mr. Gilhooley! Quickly!” Celia pulled at his arm.
He came away from the man just in time to avoid a station porter who ran out of the darkness, shouting, “Here now! What’s going on here?”
Another porter joined him almost immediately and in a few moments a dozen excited people crowded around the man still writhing on the cobblestones. A tall policeman pushed through and beamed his storm lamp on the scene.
The man levered himself to a sitting position. His mouth worked feverishly and his eyes blinked against the light.
The policeman helped him to his feet. “A little space for the gentleman, please!” he ordered. “Now, sir, can you tell me what happened?”
“I am all right, officer.” The man straightened himself painfully. “I was hit from behind but nothing was taken. I will go now—”
The policeman said, “I wouldn’t move too much—not yet, sir. Did you see the assailant?”
“1 tell you I was hit from behind,” the man said with rough authority. “I am in a great hurry.”
The policeman was polite but firm. “It’s a serious business^ sir. If you will just come inside the station, I will take the particulars. Please make way!” he called out.
The small crowd of porters and commuters shuffled to one side and looked on deferentially as the shaken man was escorted into the station.
In the darkness beyond the crowd,
Celia whispered, “That was a most lovely blow, Mr. Gilhooley. It’s dreadful it didn’t work out.”
The newsman said, “What do you mean—it didn’t work out?”
“You still don’t know who he is.” He peered into her pretty face. “Celia, you disappoint me. For a minute I thought you were the brightest girl in the world.”
She intoned, “I’m sorry,” with such utter sincerity that an unaccustomed smile broke across Gilhooley’s face.
He said, “As soon as I finish with this bird I’m going to take you to the nearest bar and buy you all the doubles you can drink.”
“That will be lovely, Mr. Gilhooley, but the important thing is, what are you going to do now?”
He shook his head and wondered if he would ever break down her British reserve. He said, “Come on along and I’ll show you,” and they walked back into the station.
Gilhooley could see his adversary brushing off his coat under the light of a newspaper kiosk. The policeman stood beside him writing in a notebook. The two talked a moment, then the man hurried away through the nearest passage to the street.
The newsman strode across the hazy concourse to the policeman, showed his press card, and took out a pad and pencil.
“I understand, constable, there was a robbery here a few minutes ago.” The policeman, who was young and apple-cheeked, shook his head stolidly. “One of the muggers at work,” he said. “Nothing was stolen.”
“Who was the victim?”
The policeman smiled importantly. “Afraid I can’t tell you, old man. The gentleman was of the foreign diplomatic. He wants nothing said about it. Refused in fact to lay a complaint.” “Good heavens!” Gilhooley gasped with all the shock he could muster. “An ambassador?”
“Not quite, but rather an important chap. Senior military attache, as a matter of fact.”
Gilhooley thought about it a moment. “It’s a good story. Sure you can’t give me his name?”
“Afraid not, old man.”
Gilhooley knew better than to argue with a London policeman on matters of protocol and invasion of privacy. He
nodded his thanks and almost ran back to where Celia was standing.
“All right, Celia,” he ordered, “this is what I want you to do. On the shelf behind my desk at the office you’ll find a diplomatic register. It’s a thin booklet issued—”
“I know it, Mr. Gilhooley,” she said severely.
“Then get back to the office and look it up. Under their embassy heading you’ll find the name of their senior military attache. I’ll phone you in ten minutes.” A sense of exhilaration came into his voice. “I’ve got them, Celia! I’ve got them just where I want them!” “You’re dead on, Mr. Gilhooley,” she said and ran for the underground.
He went into the station restaurant and lingered over coffee and a cigarette. A tingle of excitement he hadn’t felt for years raced through his lean body. He felt a sense of strange delight that this had happened to him. It proved something. Perhaps he hadn’t gone soft after all. He lit a second cigarette, inhaled deeply, and after consulting his watch a dozen times he slipped into a telephone booth and dialed the office.
A breathless Celia came on the line. “I’ve just got in, just this second,” she panted. “Let me get hold of the diplomatic register. Won’t be a moment.” She was back on the line almost immediately. “Let me see now . . . Argentina, Australia, Belgium, Bolivia, British Guiana—I didn’t dream there were so many countries—oh, here it is—” He heard her gasp. “Oh Lord, Mr. Gilhooley, the name of their senior military attache is Major-General Gregor Palvan!”
‘ ‘Gregor Palvan!”
“Not Laszlo Palvan. It’s Gregor. He must be a relation of the man who’s going to hang—”
Gilhooley said, “One more thing, Celia. Look up the library file and see if we’ve got anything on Gregor Palvan. I’ll hold it.”
He drew deeply on his cigarette as he waited. Over the wire he could hear the high - speed teletypes clattering away. He liked the sound. It was the beat of his life. He waited what seemed to him an interminable time.
Finally Celia came back on the line. She said, “There’s only one clipping on him—from the Evening Standard three years ago. It’s a picture of him. The caption says, ‘Major-General Gregor Palvan is the newest member of London’s diplomatic corps. He is the younger brother of Laszlo Palvan, foreign minister of his country.’ What are you going to do, Mr. Gilhooley? He’s out to kill you! He must have asked for the assignment. You know how fanatic these Balkan people are about their families—”
Gilhooley said, “I know exactly what I’m going to do.”
“Go to Scotland Yard, please, Mr. Gilhooley.” The coolness had fled from Celia’s voice. “And after that come to the office. There’s a cot in the file room. Or go to some obscure hotel for the night. Or—well, I know it sounds dreadful but I’ve got a rather comfortable chesterfield in my living room . . .”
“Sweet of you, Celia, hut I’ve got a better idea. I don’t intend to hide out tonight or any other night. I’m going to settle this thing—now.”
“It’s not anything foolish, I hope.” “Don’t worry, I’m no jungle hunter. I’m going over to their embassy and toss this whole thing right into the kisser of the ambassador himself.”
HE CAME UP out of the subway at Sloane Street and headed into the fog toward Belgrave Square. He knew the location of the embassy which was housed in a Georgian mansion at the north end of the square. As he ap-
proached the embassy he caught sight of a small storm lamp jiggling in the fog. It was buckled to the belt of a police constable who was walking slowly on guard duty in front of the embassy.
As Gilhooley walked to the door, the constable focused the lamp on him and said, “Evening, sir. You one of the dinner guests?”
“No, officer. Not in the charmed circle.”
“Ah, you’re an American.”
“I happen to be a Canadian.”
“Not many of those pay a visit to his bleedin’ excellency.”
He showed his press card. The policeman examined it against the lamp and painstakingly wrote Gilhooley’s name and agency in his notebook. Then he pulled at a bell on the stone facing of the building and flashed his lamp on the steps which led to a portico.
The door was opened sweepingly by a butler who seemed to lose his sense of hospitality the moment he spied the newsman’s trench coat. Gilhooley was required to wait in a dim vestibule.
Eventually a delicate young man dressed in dinner clothes appeared on the scene. He examined the press card and remarked in a friendly fashion, “Your business with the ambassador must be very urgent for you to wander about on a night like this.”
Gilhooley said, “I think the ambassador will consider it urgent. I’m not looking for news. Would you tell him I have information to offer.”
There was no reaction. The young man nodded pleasantly and said, “I will inform him. Would you come this way.”
They passed through a hall of modest size and charming decor and entered an ante room. The young man waited until his visitor was seated at a long mahogany table strewn with British and foreign publications.
He said, “Naturally 1 cannot speak for the ambassador, but if he consents to see you he may be delayed a few minutes. He is entertaining guests at dinner,” and he departed with a gentle smile.
In his mind’s eye Gilhooley saw the ambassador’s concern, the hurried excuses to his guests, the conference with his press attache . . .
The door opened almost immediately and the ambassador came in. He was a big man with a red, rough and happy face, like a truck driver who had struck it rich. He wore dinner clothes which bulged and pulled at various points between his immense shoulders and his thick hips.
“Good evening, good evening,” he bellowed generously, extending both hands but walking to the opposite side of the table. He sat heavily in a chair much too frail for his huge posterior.
“You say you have news. For me? What news can you give me?”
The newsman said, “Do you know who I am, Mr. Ambassador?”
“Do I know who you are, Mr.
Gilhooley?” The big man chuckled. “How can I forget? 1 was in the foreign office at the time of the Steckanow incident. What, a headache you gave me!”
Gilhooley said, “Well, I’ve got another headache for you.”
“But you said you have information to offer me, Mr. Gilhooley.”
Gilhooley came to his feet.
“Yes, I have something you may or may not know.” A hard intensity pushed into his voice. “Your senior military attache has been threatening me since this morning’s news about Laszlo Palvan. I came to tell you that I don’t frighten easily. We're in London, Mr. Ambassador. You can’t get away with it.”
He sat down and glared across the table. The ambassador reached for a cigarette out of his case. It trembled perceptibly in his thick fingers.
“My senior military attache?” Gilhooley said viciously, “Yes, your senior military attache. He hired a man to steal my place on a plane for Barcelona this afternoon, he stole into my apartment, he’s been shadowing me all day, and not a half hour ago he followed me to Victoria Station—”
“A half hour ago?”
“He’s not as clever as lie thinks. I caught him cold.”
The ambassador mashed his unlighted cigarette into an ashtray. “You really mean tonight?”
’Ehe big man sighed.
“1 do not say my senior military attache has never kept anyone under observation. Possibly even you, Mr. Gilhooley. He has certain duties, you know very well. But tonight? You are not serious. An owl could not follow his own beak tonight.”
Gilhooley said, “I’m serious enough to go to the police and the foreign office. If you want to be declared non grata and tossed out of the country, I’m sure I can arrange it for you.”
The ambassador’s fleshy lower lip sagged.
“Extraordinary!” he muttered.
He got up and moved ponderously to a telephone in a far corner of the room. He contemplated the instrument a few moments, biting his lips, then lifted it, spoke rapidly in his native tongue, and slammed it down.
“This complication,” he said, returning to his chair, “will be resolved immediately. I can assure you.”
He leaned his elbows on the table and rubbed his forehead. The two men sat opposite each other as still as if studying a chess problem.
Presently the door opened to admit a small, neat man who had the air of a fashionable doctor but wore a dress uniform with wing collar and an array of miniature medals.
“General,” the ambassador said wearily without looking at the man, “Mr. Gilhooley here tells me you have been threatening him—”
Gilhooley interrupted. “That’s not the man!”
“I am merely going by what you tell me,” the ambassador sighed. His fingers still kneaded his brow. “The general is my senior military attache.” “The man who followed me,” Gilhooley burst out, “is Gregor Palvan!” A momentary silence followed. It was broken by an enormous burst of laughter from the ambassador.
“I beg you, Mr. Gilhooley—” He paused to release a few more guffaws from the pit of his stomach. “It is hardly possible that a clever man like yourself would believe that Palvan is still my military attache. Have you forgotten his own brother is an archtraitor who will be hanged, I am sure, before morning? I promise you his connection with my embassy ceased
more than three months ago when his wretched brother’s treason was discovered.”
He turned to the military attache. “We won’t need you any longer, General.”
The little man bowed. “As you wish, Excellency.” As he left the room, Gilhooley jumped to his feet and strained across the table.
He said tartly, “You will pardon me, Mr. Ambassador, if 1 remind you of your country’s reputation for manipulating the simple truth. When your government wanted to get rid of Laszlo Palvan it accused him of having given me the Steckanow documents. That was a lie! You know it, your government knows it, and Laszlo Palvan, the poor devil, knows it too—”
“My dear Mr. Gilhooley—”
“I’m not finished. And when you assigned Gregor Palvan to get rid of me, you cut him off your staff just in case he might get caught in the attempt and involve the embassy. According to the diplomatic register, which is issued by the British Foreign Office, your senior military attache is MajorGeneral Gregor Palvan. Where did you dig up this little joker you brought in here to show me? Out of a musical comedy? And when did you appoint him? This afternoon?”
The ambassador released a deep sigh and looked plaintively at the newsman.
He said, “You see, Mr. Gilhooley, you are a perfect example of those who jump to conclusions in order to think the worst of us. It so happens that the diplomatic register is published only once every six months. Gregor Palvan ceased to be my senior military attache three months ago. The next issue of the register will contain the name of Major-General Rudi Fadyal, the distinguished officer whom you saw here a moment ago . . .” His fat hand swept toward the telephone. “If you wish to call the Foreign Office, I’m sure they will corroborate what I have told you. Now, Mr. Gilhooley! What have you to say?”
The ambassador clasped his hands at the back of his neck, a manoeuvre which pushed out his already enormous stomach. He looked pleased with himself.
“Then I’ve got news for you,” Gilhooley said. “Gregor Palvan is still claiming diplomatic privileges as your senior military attache—”
“I tell you it’s not possible, Mr. Gilhooley.”
The newsman swept his hand toward the telephone in a broad mimicry of the ambassador’s gesture. “If you wish to call the police at Victoria Station,” he said, “I’m sure they’ll corroborate that Palvan claimed a diplomatic privilege within the last hour. Now, Mr. Ambassador, what have you to say?”
Gilhooley knew he had scored. The big man sat up in his chair, pulled at his lower lip, and his eyes blinked. He was thinking hard.
Finally he said, “I still tell you it’s not possible. Gregor Palvan is not in London. He is not in any part of Britain. Our own agents have been searching him out for three months and they know where he is but they cannot reach him. If they could have reached him, he would have been long since dead at the end of a rope. Like his wretched brother, he is also under sentence of death for the very same crime.”
Gilhooley gave a short laugh. “What crime? You know very well I dug up the Steckanow documents and I did it alone.”
“But I do not deny it,” the ambassador said quietly. “Of course you stole the documents which, incidentally, were the property of the state. However, there was a sequel to your
exploit which you do not know. When you revealed the contents of the documents you named the chief Hitlerite collaborators during the occupation of our country. Naturally, we sought to apprehend these traitors. The ringleader, whom we caught only four months ago, told us a fantasy—really a fantasy! He confessed that the Reichsprotektor’s most trusted collaborators were—you would not believe it! —the brothers Palvan, Laszlo and Gregor. Now . . .”
“Your confessions!” Gilhooley cut in. “Laszlo Palvan confessed he gave me the Steckanow documents. It was a lie!”
“My dear fellow,” the ambassador said indignantly, “you refuse to understand our system of justice.”
He looked at Gilhooley and sighed with infinite sadness. “But Gregor Palvan is a real problem. He disappeared on the day of his brother’s arrest. It is a bad mark against my security agents that they let him slip through their fingers—a very bad mark. And now you say he is still in London. Ha! It is impossible.”
Gilhooley came away from the table and fastened the belt of his trench coat.
He said, “Obviously, Mr. Ambassador, I’ve got to go to the police.”
“By all means,” the other agreed, walking slowly toward the door. “We shall be delighted if they help us trace Palvan. It happens that he is not only a condemned traitor, but when he disappeared he took with him the embassy’s entire military bank account —more than forty thousand pounds. There, Mr. Gilhooley! You see that your visit has not been wasted. I have given you a story, a scoop I believe you call it.”
Gilhooley paused at the door and glanced sharply at the ambassador. He wondered whether the ambassador was telling the truth about Palvan or whether this was a cleverly constructed plot to absolve the embassy of the political murder Palvan had been assigned to commit. One thing he was sure of: Gregor Palvan was somewhere in London, still bent on murder.
The newsman said, “Have it your way, Mr. Ambassador, and I’ll handle the matter in my own way. You might as well know I don’t believe everything I’ve been told here or even seen —and that includes the little joker you brought in to show me.”
The ambassador smiled an amiable smile.
“You shouldn’t, Mr. Gilhooley. Honestly, you shouldn’t,” he said as they walked through the hall. “You have been seeing Gregor Palvan and I venture to say it is an illusion of the fog or of your bad conscience. He has fled, according to our information, to Spain --where the visa is easy for traitors to the peoples’ democracy and extradition is almost impossible. Good evening, Mr. Gilhooley. Au plaisir.”
GILHOOLEY walked dejectedly through the fog toward the subway. His mission to the embassy had been a failure. He still didn’t know whether Palvan was an agent of the embassy or a fugitive from it. Either alternative seemed equally logical and equally dangerous.
By the time he reached the Sloane Street subway he had decided on a plan of action. He would go home, pack an overnight bag, visit Scotland Yard, then keep out of sight until the police could track down Palvan. If the ambassador was telling the truth, he had a case against Palvan which would interest the Yard.
The subway train was a long time coming. It finally pushed its nose out of the fog that obliterated the far end of the platform, stopped as if surprised
that it had found the station, then came on with a proud surge of speed.
He rode the train as far as Marble Arch. When he emerged he found himself alone on the long platform, and on the escalator and in the usually crowded station. The people of London, it seemed, bad imprisoned themselves in their homes to escape the coal-dust scourge suspended from the sky.
He approached Grosvenor Street from the south. He felt his way along Park Lane and cut up Brook Street. At Grosvenor Square he stopped short and listened for following footsteps. Only silence spun in his ears. He pushed his way through the bluegrey nothingness toward Grosvenor Street.
He was within ten yards of his apartment house when his mind sounded a warning, a telepathic signal. He stopped. Tensely, silently, he waited. Then he heard a sound of stealthy footsteps approaching him. There were two sets of footsteps—at least two persons were pursuing him. He tiptoed to the nearest wall and braced himself against it.
Then he saw the faint outlines of two men. As they brushed past him, he heard them whisper to each other in a foreign language he didn’t understand. Their footsteps carried on for a few paces, then stopped, but he could still hear their whispered conversation. They had paused at the entrance to his apartment house.
He listened to their conversation for only a few seconds, though it seemed an eternity. Then he heard them approach once more. Now they walked boldly, their heels clicking on the pavement. Their shadowy outlines moved past him as they strode briskly away from the apartment house. He listened until he figured they were at least fifty yards down the street. Then he made a dash for his apartment house.
The moment he pushed through the door at 823 Grosvenor he felt trapped. There were two other men in the hall. Middleton stared open-mouthed from behind his counter, his milky eyes working nervously, his thin back bent as if on a rack.
“Sir,” he whispered hoarsely, “there are two gentlemen waiting to see you-—”
He could see the two men dimly in the haze at the far end of the hall. They stood relaxed at the foot of the staircase and watched him casually. They made no move to come forward.
“Scotland Yard, sir,” Middleton whimpered. “They made me take them down to the storeroom and point out your trunks, but they didn’t force them, sir. I watched them carefully.”
Gilhooley approached the men slowly. He held his body loosely, every muscle flexed and eager to leap. He paused a safe distance from them.
“You looking for me?”
“Mr. Gilhooley? Mr. Jacobus Gilhooley?” The query came from the taller of the two. He had a common face and a brush mustache and was slim if one could judge by the sharpness of his jaw. He wore a loose raincoat which flared from his armpits.
“Who are you?” Gilhooley demanded .
“We’re from the C.I.D. My name is Skeff and this is Mr. Treehurst—” He indicated his squat, younger companion. “We would like . . .”
“How do I know you’re from the C.I.D.?”
The taller man reached into his pocket for a card. He waited for his companion, who was fumbling through his tweed topcoat, and handed both cards to Gilhooley.
The names were Gerald Skeff and Eric
Treehurst, Criminal Investigation Department, Metropolitan Branch. The likenesses were accurate and the celluloid which covered the cards bore evidence of much fingering.
“We would like to ask you some questions,” Skeff’said carefully. “Please understand you are not required to answer. I am not charging you, but if you agree . . .”
Gilhooley growled, “What is this all
Skeff glanced toward the hall porter. He said, “Would you care to continue our talk in your flat?”
“What’s wrong with right here?”
“As you wish.” He cleared his throat. “At about two o’clock this afternoon you ceded your place on a plane to Barcelona in favor of a certain Mr. Kressman—”
“You’re wrong. I didn’t cede my place. Somebody I don’t know grabbed it before l could get out to the airport.” The C.I.D. man nodded. “That may very well be, but according to our advices Mr. Kressman is a notorious smuggler.” He looked at the newsman expectantly.
Gilhooley said, “What has this got to do with me?”
“According to our advices, Mr. Kressman mentioned you as the person who commissioned him to make the trip to Spain.”
Gilhooley pushed up angrily and stared the man in the face.
“I don’t know Kressman and smuggling doesn’t happen to be my business—”
“But you admit you made the plane reservation.”
“Yes of course—
“Then why don’t you tell us about it?”
Gilhooley checked a sudden rise of exasperation and told the story of what happened at the airport. The men listened with infinite politeness, interrupting only to ask the name of the taxi service which supplied the car, a fact which the younger man jotted down in a notebook.
“Thank you, Mr. Gilhooley,” Skeff said. “Now, we understand from the airways that they called you at about three minutes to six and informed you that Mr. Kressman had been placed under arrest in Spain. Is this correct?” “It was about then—yes.”
“And you instructed the airways to cancel a compartment they had reserved for you on the train ferry. Is this correct?”
“But according to your hall porter, at about ten minutes after six you hurried out carrying two pieces of luggage—”
The detective paused to let the inference dangle.
“—Can you tell us what the two pieces of luggage contained and where you have concealed them?”
A tangle of tight emotions broke loose inside Gilhooley. He leaned against the wall and laughed uncon-
trollably. He laughed for himself because it made him feel indescribably fine, like being tickled by an ardent, mischievous girl, and he laughed at the sombrous, dutiful stupidity of the detectives. After the last eight hours his laughter boiled up from an inexhaustible fount of unwinding tension. The detectives waited patiently.
“I wonder now,” said Skeff, “if you would answer my question. There is no compulsion, mind you.”
“I’ll do better than that,” Gilhooley offered sweepingly. “I’ll give you the best case you’ve ever gumshoed!”
“Very good, Mr. Gilhooley. We’re all ears as they say.”
Skeff played with his scrubby mustache. His partner stood respectfully behind him, his pencil poised on his open notebook. They listened intently to a recounting which, much as he sought to condense it, seemed to Gilhooley long and exceedingly complicated. He observed that Treehurst hadn’t taken a note.
When he had finished, Skeff said, “It sounds very serious to me. You should tell it to the subversive division at the Yard.”
Gilhooley said, “I’m going to do exactly that.”
“Meanwhile you claim, I take it, that your baggage is in the parcel office at Victoria.”
“1 claim?” Gilhooley smiled a discouraged smile and handed over the baggage checks. “Sure, look ’em over. Full of hot gold bricks.”
The detective chuckled. “While we’re here, Mr. Gilhooley, you wouldn’t mind, would you, if we had a quick look around your flat?”
Gilhooley glared at the man.
Skeff said, “You’re quite within your
rights to refuse. We’ve no warrant, you know.”
“You’re being ridiculous. I do refuse.”
Skeff nodded amiably and pulled up his coat collar. “Well then, thank you, Mr. Gilhooley, and good night. Come along, Treehurst.”
They were halfway down the hall when Gilhooley called out to them: “You don’t believe a word I’ve told you.”
Skeff turned. “I didn’t say that. I advised you to ring the Yard.”
“I see. Ring the Yard.”
“Certainly. Ask for the subversive division. Meanwhile, with your permission, I’ll have the police constable on the beat look in now and again. Bright chap. Absolutely first class.”
HE WAS angry as he climbed the stairs, angry but easier of mind. The unimaginative men of the C.I.D. had annoyed him but they had brought him out of his shadowy, unreal world into law-abiding London where street thugs declined to take unfair advantage of fog and terror existed in every bedside omnibus.
He heard the phone ringing as he came along the corridor. He unlocked the door, switched on the foyer light and darted into the bedroom.
It was Celia. “I’ve been calling and calling,” she said. “What happened at the embassy and why aren’t you here?”
He was warmed by the note of anxiety in her voice. Apparently a crisis was a British prerequisite for a show of human feeling. He said, “You were right, Celia. I’ve got to go to Scotland Yard. I came back to put a few things in a bag because I’m not staying here tonight, and if that invitation of yours still holds, I’ll meet you at the office.”
“Oh splendid. See you later.”
He hung up, reached into a closet for a canvas flight bag, and packed it with pyjamas, a shirt, a pair of socks and a toothbrush. Then he switched off the light and returned to the foyer. He paused at the door. The two men he had seen in the fog outside might have returned; they might be awaiting him. He wondered if he should leave the apartment by the service entrance which led to a fire escape and into a side alley.
Then he heard a sound; a slight, unrecognizable sound something like a burning log shifting in the fireplace. In response to it he made the mistake of his life. He stepped into the living room.
In the darkened room he could see only fog floating toward the glowing fire. He switched on the light.
Gregor Palvan stood facing him at the desk, a gun in his hand.
Gilhooley froze. His sense of sight, hearing, feeling, everything froze. He couldn’t move. He was vividly conscious of his immobility and his mind sought to break it off. It was like trying to break out of a deep nightmare. Then suddenly muscular action
came to his neck and thought swarmed into his brain. He became wildly prescient.
He saw that he was two strides inside the room, that Palvan stood militantly at the desk. He saw a rope coiled along the floor. One end of it was bound to the massive desk. The other end was a noose lying near the window.
Palvan studied him as if bewitched by his mental struggle to release himself from the grip of terror.
“You are also going to hang,” Palvan said. It was a low, hard cry from the depths of a terrible hysteria inside the man.
Gilhooley spoke some words but they came to his ears as if from a long distance. “Nobody’s going to hang me.”
“I will hang you.”
Gilhooley took an instinctive step back. The other brought up his gun.
“With or without a bullet in you. The choice is yours.”
Gilhooley’s brain worked feverishly now. It observed, reasoned, computed; questions and answers tumbled madly about in his consciousness; conclusions came and went without leaving a trace of what had been concluded. Then an overpowering discovery took possession of his brain like a startling idea never before known. Time, time, time. He must play for time.
As if he had read the other’s mind, Palvan said, “There is no time. I must have your decision now, this moment. If you walk directly to the window, that will be a decision . . .” He raised the gun to sight level and his trigger finger tightened. “If you do not, that will also be a decision. Now!”
Time, time, time. It pounded inside him with muscular compulsion. He found himself moving slowly in a straight line toward the window.
He heard the man move swiftly behind him. Not close enough for the main chance, for contact, for struggle. The rope was being dragged on the floor. His ears picked up every footfall and his brain calculated the distance. The man was panting feverishly, like a fiend, a madman. He was not close enough for contact. But he would have to pinion his arms. That would be the moment, the only moment. His ears picked up another sound. It was the blood pounding at his temples. His muscles were tense. He braced himself for the fight of his life.
A thin squeak, scarcely audible came to his ears. The man behind him had stopped moving. The squeak rose in pitch. The man was moving furtively, farther away from him. Then the scuff of many shoes broke thunderously into the room.
He whirled around in time to catch Middleton who stumbled into him as if powerfully propelled. The porter was whimpering like a hurt dog.
At the entrance stood two men. They might have been twins for the breadth of their shoulders, the flat look to their eyes, the revolver each held loosely in the palm of his right hand. Palvan stood stiffly in the centre of the room
his gun in one hand, the noose swaying from the other.
The men nodded somewhat solemnly to Palvan, and one came forward and lifted the gun gently out of his hand. The rope dropped to the floor. The other man went back to the foyer, closed and bolted the door, returned into the room and pulled a chair from the desk. He addressed a few words to Palvan in a foreign tongue. The former attache sank into the chair. His lips twisted in a quizzical cast and his eyes narrowed.
Gilhooley watched them and a semblance of reality filtered into the galloping confusion of his mind. He took a single step forward and demanded, “Why don’t you take Palvan and get out of here?”
The men gave him only a curt glance as if this was a trivial challenge to the commanding sense of power with which they controlled the room and everyone in it.
They removed their overcoats, laid them carefully on a sofa which sat along a wall opposite the window. One of them pointed to Gilhooley.
“Here!” he ordered, indicating the sofa.
The newsman came slowly across the room. Middleton began to moan and the second man darted to him and cuffed him hard across the head. The moans faded to a mumble and Middleton was shoved to the sofa.
The men worked fast with their hard, powerful hands. They slapped strips of tape across Middleton’s mouth, then across Gilhooley’s, bound their hands and feet with wire and pushed them down on the sofa. Palvan watched the performance lifelessly, the same quizzical expression, the same narrowness of eyes frozen on his face.
One of the men walked quickly to the door, opened it a crack, then pulled it wide.
The room was suddenly filled with the ambassador.
HE DID a brisk turn about the place like a field commander examining new quarters. His bulky blue overcoat accentuated the immense spread of his starched shirtfront. He did another half-turn of the room, regarded the trussed-up Gilhooley with momentary curiosity, and said, “I must admit you were right. Palvan was indeed in London. He does seem to have had some dealings with the man who stole your seat on the plane. It was a very bad performance by my agents, extremely bad. When a man is right I always admit it. You were right.” Then he pulled up a chair and faced Palvan. The two gunmen took up a position behind him, their flat eyes relaxed and uninterested.
The ambassador began to speak in a foreign language, quietly but with distinct articulation and much fervor. He talked in this tone and mood for more than five minutes before he paused for a response. Palvan had been winding up his expressive lips and now he loosed a tirade of counter-argument. His voice swirled with anger and tears and he came to a climax on his feet, his arms outstretched. Then he sat down hard and glared at the ceiling.
The ambassador’s face, tweaking with chagrin, turned briefly to Gilhooley, then thrust its attention once more on Palvan.
The big man began again. This time he argued more vigorously, flicking his thick fingers against Palvan’s coat to drive home each point. The former attache interrupted to mumble a reply. This drove the ambassador into a frenzy of rebuttal. He walked around the back of his chair and gestured wildly with his arms and
suddenly stopped and looked down expectantly. The man in the chair uttered a single word in reply and fell to weeping.
The ambassador looked at his two henchmen and nodded solemnly but with a sense of confidence.
The telephone in the bedroom began to ring. The ambassador gripped Palvan’s shoulder and asked a sharp, short question. The former attache shook his head convulsively.
This seemed to propel the ambassador to new and more frantic heights of persuasion. He roamed the room like a bull elephant, twisting toward Palvan with each crescendo of words. The man in the chair sobbed a response which was apparently unsatisfactory. The ambassador leaped toward him and his words were fierce and fervent. He drowned out the insistent ring of the phone, and what he said drove Palvan’s head lower and lower until his chin buried itself in his shirtfront. When the ambassador finished, there was no response.
‘'Why are all traitors fools?” the ambassador grumbled in English, glancing toward Gilhooley. “Worse than fools! Cowards!” Then he glared at Palvan in disgust.
They remained silent a few moments. Then Palvan lifted his head and spoke a hesitant sentence. The ambassador slapped his thighs in sheer futility and gestured to the two gunmen.
They leaned over Palvan and talked to him, one supplementing the other in a continuous flow of words. The former attache’s mouth fell open as if he were about to scream and his enormous eyes searched the faces of his inquisitors. The men were now talking at the same time in a curious blend of prayerful tones. Suddenly Palvan clapped his hands over his ears and dug his chin deep into his chest. A great sob burst out of him. Sweat cascaded down his forehead.
The men stepped back.
Palvan lifted his head slowly. A wild sadness akin to terror and ecstasy poured out of his face. The three men ranged themselves along the fireplace and watched him.
The former attache stood up. His neat military figure in its tailored overcoat was rigid a moment, then flung itself into action. He snatched the noose and swung it over his head and his trembling arms tightened the knot at the back of his neck. He ran to the window and shoved it open. A cloud of dense yellow fog poured into the room. For a brief moment he was a ghostly figure on the sill. Then he pitched forward out of sight.
A low whine of hemp sliding over wood filled the silence. There was a dull thump as the rope went taut, and the massive desk creaked a response.
-—The three men eyed the rope with infinite sadness. Only Middleton’s muffled, sickly cough betrayed the solemn quiet.
The ambassador glanced at Gilhooley. He said, “It is not easy,” and there was admiration in his inflection.
One of the men went to the window and leaned out. He turned to the others ' and nodded. The ambassador put on his gloves.
“He was not a bad fellow,” he said, looking down at Gilhooley. “If I could have trusted him with a gun it might have been easier. But I tbink perhaps not. To suffer a little is not a bad thing when you are going to die . . .” He thought on it. “Of course, too much suffering is also not a good thing. We gave him his choice. We could have sent him back.”
He rubbed his chin. “It was a good night for it,” he added pensively, “and of course it gave him a sense of closeness with his brother. This also helped.
Definitely, 1 think in the circumstances I would have done exactly the same thing.”
He looked directly into Gilhooley’s incredulous eyes. “You do not understand it? Well, this is an old story. You Western people do not understand anything about life.”
He walked briskly to the foyer, followed by his henchmen. At the door he paused.
“To complain to the foreign office would make no difference,” he said to Gilhooley. They can expel me if they like. Actually I have no crime and
besides tonight 1 was celebrating my new appointment as foreign minister of the peoples’ republic.”
The phone was ringing as the last man carefully closed the door. A fresh wind blew a new gust of fog into the room. The rope creaked like a rusty pendulum and Middleton moaned pitifully beneath his gag.
Presently a single, hesitant knock sounded on the door. Gilhooley tried to call out but only an almost inaudible groan emerged. He dropped himself to the floor and wriggled toward the door.
Now there were two polite knocks. Gilhooley inhaled deeply and tried to push his voice through the gag.
A pleasant voice said, “Very sorry, but I was instructed to call by. It’s the police constable. Is everything all right, sir?”
Gilhooley shut his eyes. He allowed himself a delicious moment to wonder if what he felt could be recaptured in the despatch he would write as soon as he got free.
He wriggled closer to the door. The phone began to ring once more and he knew it was Celia. ★