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The Dark Crusader


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Доступ к книге ограничен фрагменом по требованию правообладателя.

To Douglas and Violet


Prologue

A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That's how I always thought of him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.

No cleaning woman was ever allowed to enter that office with its soot-stained heavily curtained windows overlooking Birdcage Walk: and no person, cleaner or not, was ever allowed inside unless Colonel Raine himself were there.

And no one could ever have accused the colonel of being allergic to dust.

It lay everywhere. It lay on the oak-stained polished floor surrounds that flanked the threadbare carpet. It filmed the tops of bookcases, filing cabinets, radiators, chair-arms and telephones: it lay smeared streakily across the top of the scuffed knee-hole desk, the dust-free patches marking where papers or books had recently been pushed to one side: motes danced busily in a sunbeam that slanted through an uncurtained crack in the middle of a window: and, trick of the light or not, it needed no imagination at all to see a patina of dust on the thin brushed-back hair of the man behind the desk, to see it embedded in the deeply trenched lines on the grey sunken cheeks, the high receding forehead.

And then you saw the eyes below the heavy wrinkled lids and you forgot all about the dust; eyes with the hard jewelled glitter of a peridot stone, eyes of the clear washed-out aquamarine of a Greenland glacier, but not so warm.

He rose to greet me as I crossed the room, offered me a cold hard bony hand like a gardening tool, waved me to a chair directly opposite the light-coloured veneered panel so incongruously let into the front of his mahogany desk, and seated himself, sitting very straight, hands clasped lightly on the dusty desk before him.

"Welcome home, Bentall." The voice matched the eyes, you could almost hear the far-off crackling of dried ice. "You made fast time. Pleasant trip?"

"No, sir. Some Midlands textile tycoon put off the plane to make room for me at Ankara wasn't happy. I'm to hear from his lawyers and as a sideline he's going to drive the B.E.A. off the European airways. Other passengers sent me to Coventry, the stewardesses ignored me completely and it was as bumpy as hell. Apart from that, it was a fine trip."

"Such things happen," he said precisely. An almost imperceptible tic at the left-hand corner of the thin mouth might have been interpreted as a smile, all you needed was a strong imagination, but it was hard to say, twenty-five years of minding other people's business in the Far East seemed to have atrophied the colonel's cheek muscles. "Sleep?" I shook my head. "Not a wink."

"Pity." He hid his distress well and cleared his throat delicately. "Well, I'm afraid you're off on your travels again, Bentall. Tonight. 11 p.m., London Airport."

I let a few seconds pass to let him know I wasn't saying all the things I felt like saying, then shrugged in resignation. "Back to Iran?"

"If I were transferring you from Turkey to Iran I wouldn't have risked the wrath of the Midlands textile industry by summoning you all the way back to London to tell you so." Again the faint suggestion of a tic at the corner of the mouth. "Considerably further away, Bentall. Sydney, Australia. Fresh territory for you, I believe?"

"Australia?" I was on my feet without realising I had risen. "Australia! Look, sir, didn't you get my cable last week? Eight months' work, everything tied up except the last button, all I needed was another week, two at the most-"

"Sit down!" A tone of voice to match the eyes, it was like having a bucket of ice-water poured over me. He looked at me consideringly and his voice warmed up a little to just under freezing point. "Your concern is appreciated, but needless. Let us hope for your own sake that you do not underestimate our-ah-antagonists as much as you appear to underestimate those who employ you. You have done an excellent job, Bentall. I am quite certain that in any other government department less forthcoming than ours you would have been in line for at least an O.B.E., or some such trinket, but your part in the job is over. I do not choose that my personal investigators shall also double in the role of executioners."

"I'm sorry, sir," I said lamely. "I don't have the overall-"

"To continue in your own metaphor, the last button is about to be tied." It was exactly as if he hadn't heard me. "This leak-this near disastrous leak, I should say-from our Hepworth Ordnance and Fuel Research Establishment is about to be sealed. Completely and permanently sealed." He glanced at the electric clock on the wall. "In about four hours' time, I should say. We may consider it as being in the past. There are those in the cabinet who will sleep well tonight."

He paused, unclasped his hands, leaned his elbows on the desk and looked at me over steepled fingers.

"That is to say, they should have been sleeping well tonight." He sighed, a faint dry sound. "But in these security-ridden days the sources of ministerial insomnia are almost infinite. Hence your recall. Other men, I admit, were available: but, apart from the fact that there is no one with your precise and, in this case, very necessary qualifications, I have a faint-a very faint-and uneasy feeling that this may not be entirely unconnected with your last assignment." He un-steepled his fingers, reached for a pink polythene folder and slid it across the desk to me. "Take a look at these, will you?"

I quelled the impulse to wave away the approaching tidal wave of dust, picked up the folder and took out the half-dozen stapled slips of paper inside.

They were cuttings from the overseas vacancy columns of the "Daily Telegraph". Each column had the date heavily pencilled in red at the top, the earliest not more than eight months ago: and each of the columns had an advertisement ringed in the same heavy red except for the first column which had three advertisements so marked.

The advertisers were all technical, engineering, chemical, or research firms in Australia and New Zealand. The types of people for whom they were advertising were as would have been expected, specialists in the more advanced fields of modern technology. I had seen such adverts before, from countries all over the world. Experts in aero-dynamics, micro-miniaturization, hypersonics, electronics, physics, radar and advanced fuel technologies were at a premium those days. But what made these advertisements different, apart from their common source, was the fact that all the jobs were being offered in top administrative and directorial capacity, carrying with them what I could only regard as astronomical salaries. I whistled softly and glanced at Colonel Raine, but those ice-green eyes were contemplating some spot in the ceiling about a thousand miles away, so I looked through the columns again, put them back in the folder and slid them across the desk. Compared to the colonel I made a hardly noticeable ripple across the dust-pond of the table-top.

"Eight advertisements," the colonel said in his dry quiet voice. "Each over a hundred words in length, but you could reproduce them all word for word if need be. Right, Bentall?"

"I think I might, sir."

"An extraordinary gift," he murmured. "I envy you. Your comments, Bentall?"

"That rather delicately worded advertisement for a thrust and propellant specialist to work on aero engines designed for speeds in excess of Mach. 10. Properly speaking, there are no such aero engines. Only rocket engines, on which the metallurgical problems have already been solved. They're after a top-flight fuel boffin, and apart from a handful at some of the major aircraft firms and at a couple of universities every worthwhile fuel specialist in the country works at the Hepworth Research Establishment."

"And there may lie the tie-in with your last job," he nodded. "Just a guess and it could be far more easily wrong than right. Probably a straw from another haystack altogether." He doodled in the dust with the tip of his forefinger. "What else?"

"All advertisements from a more or less common source," I went on. "New Zealand or the eastern Australian seaboard. All jobs to be filled in a hurry. All offering free and furnished accommodation, house to become the property of the successful applicant, together with salaries at least three times higher than the best of them could expect in this country. They're obviously after the best brains we have. AH specify that the applicants be married but say they're unable to accommodate children."

"Doesn't that strike you as a trifle unusual?" Colonel Raine asked idly.

"No, sir. Quite common for foreign firms to prefer married men. People are often unsettled at first in strange countries and there's less chance of their packing up and taking the next boat home if they have their families to consider. Those advertisers are paying single fare only. With the money a man could save in the first weeks or months it would be quite impossible to transport his family home."

"But there are no families," the colonel persisted. "Only wives."

"Perhaps they're afraid the patter of tiny feet may distract the highly-paid minds." I shrugged. "Or limited accommodation. Or the kids to follow later. All it says is 'No accommodation for children'."

"Nothing in all of this strikes you as being in any way sinister?"

"Superficially, no. With all respects, I question whether it would strike you either, sir. Scores of our best men have been lured overseas in the past years. But if you were to provide me with the information you're obviously withholding, I might very well begin to see it your way."

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