CHAPTER 1: The Ingredients
It doesn't matter where they come from—sulphur from the hot springs below Vesuvius, saltpetre from Taltal on the Chilean coast and carbon from a charcoal-burner's hut in the Pyrenees; but mix them well, drop in a match and you know for certain what you'll get. A big bang.
With people you don't know—not until you bring them together—and that is what this story is about: three people, unwitting ingredients of an explosive mixture.
And it was pure chance that mixed them together and laid the fuse, and touched it off with a careless finger.
* * *
In Oxford it was a chilly evening in early spring, but fine, and the man who was known there as Miloslav Janek wrapped his scholar's gown around him and walked bare-headed from his lodgings towards the Bodleian. To his own disgust he had decided to let his fair, wiry hair grow rather long since his arrival in England, and it softened the puritanical appearance of his low broad forehead and pale, neat features. His eyes, too, over the wide Slavic cheekbones, were the palest of pale blue, and there was indeed very little colour in the smooth open face. And this was surprising, since the match in which he had just beaten the captain of his college squash team had been hard and protracted.
He was due to dine at the High Table of St Luke's later on, but first there was a small chore to be done, as on every Tuesday and Friday evening. It had always been an abortive exercise, but it was an order, and he had been well trained.
He ran briskly up the steps of the Bodleian, working out in his mind, from the day and month of the current date, exactly what he had to do. He showed his reader's ticket and entered the reference library, where he took a number of books from the shelves and went over to a table. Only one of them, the first volume of the Dictionary of National Biography, was of any interest for this exercise and the page would be—he calculated—a hundred and thirty-six. He turned to it idly and then forced himself to study the page carefully, line by line.
He had reached half-way down when his face stiffened momentarily. There was a faint pencil dot under one of the letters.
He checked back quickly to see if he had missed anything—but no, this was the first mark on the page. It was a 'g', which meant, in his individual code, that the message that followed would consist of five letters. He found them one by one and memorized them swiftly, and then went on as if he were looking up other references in other parts of the book. Then he closed it and sat back, de-cyphering the message in his mind.
After the 'g' came 'p', which meant URGENT. (Not so bad, he thought. If the priority symbol had been 'w' he would have had to ditch his dinner appointment and go up to London by the first train to report at his accommodation address. But this was a lower grade of priority: action within a week. Time for him to fabricate a cover story.)
The rest of the message was 's' for TRAVEL, 'f'—REPORT IN PERSON TO..., 'y'—ILLEGAL RESIDENT and 'e' (Oh God, it couldn't be that again!) for LISBON. He picked up another book
and began to make some notes in pencil on the life of a Turkish law-maker—genuine notes written carefully in a hand which showed no sign of the rising worry in his mind. When he had finished he reached out for the DNB again, found page 136 and appeared to read, tapping with his pencil. When he closed the book he had left a faint mark under the last letter on the page—MESSAGE RECEIVED AND UNDERSTOOD.
It was a clever little code, he thought, as he left the library and crossed' the Broad towards the great gates of St Luke's. Clever and safe. Custom-built for each agent, only twenty-six meanings to memorize and so seldom used that there was never enough 'depth' to give even a computerized cryptographer the ghost of a chance. And in any case the other man—he had no idea who it was—who came into the Bodleian later, to note the acknowledgement of the message, would rub out the pencil marks.
He passed through the gates into the Outer Quad. Oddly enough, as it might seem to those in his own Service who didn't know about the ambience of ceremony and tradition in which he had been brought up, he was a man with a strong sense of history and a veneration for things and customs matured by age, and his eye lingered lovingly on the lichened Cotswold stone of the roofs and mullioned windows of the Quad, and the hallowed green turf. The message he had received would return to nag at him afterwards; for the moment his mind was at peace.
The staircase that led to the Senior Common Room was under the Gothic archway at the corner of the Quad. When he reached the top the oak door was open. He opened the inner door and stood inside waiting, smiling with a proper humility as his glance took in the scene in the ancient oak-panelled room. How typical, he thought with affectionate contempt, of this out-of-date society to which he had been so unexpectedly directed, this creaking dialectic of old and new ideas, this witches' brew of brilliant intellects bubbling away haphazard, with no sense of dedication to the State!
In the group of men toasting their behinds before the blazing coal fire or lolling in the deep leather armchairs he recognized several dons of international repute—the radio astronomer, the young mathematician who had his hair waved before every television appearance, the shaggy old philosopher whose message to the young on his eightieth birthday had been a rousing call to anarchy, a lawyer, a surgeon—and in the centre, holding court with effortless charm and complete authority, the Warden, with an alphabet of letters after his name, seventy-one years old and as straight as a tall pine.
The group turned like one man, with the in-built curiosity of dons, towards the shy figure at the door. Then the Senior University Lecturer in Roman Law came loping forward and took him by the hand.
'Warden,' he said as he brought him towards the tall old man by the fire, 'may I introduce my guest? Mr Miloslav Janek, of the University of Brno.' As the Warden held out his hand he went on:
'Like many of his colleagues, Janek had to leave his country in 1968, and St John's were happy to find a place and award him a research scholarship. So he is completing his thesis here, to our great pleasure and profit.'
They made the young man welcome and someone put a glass of madeira in his hand. The shaggy old philosopher put on his glasses and peered at him. Then he slapped his hand on the leather arm of his chair. 'I bet you fellers don't know who he is,' he cried in his gravelly voice. 'But I do.' He snorted triumphantly.
The stranger turned towards him slowly, the shy smile gone, the pale eyes half dosed but hard and implacable as crystal.
'Yes,' went on the old man, 'of course I know him, but you lot wouldn't. He's the feller who beat young Chetwynd last week. I saw him.' He added solemnly, 'He's a dead snip for his half-blue if he goes on playing squash like that.' With his skinny arm he tried to demonstrate a squash back-hand and dropped his glass of madeira.
* * *
Amanda Harcourt was lying in a wickerwork chaise-longue on the terrace of her parents' flat in Lisbon, listening to a telephone voice pleading in eloquent Portuguese. It was a pleasant spot, in the slanting evening sunlight, the waxed dark red tiles of the floor contrasting with the blue and yellow glazed azulejos on the walls and the green awning overhead. The house had been built on the Estrela hill—Lisbon is all hills and valleys—in the eighteenth century for a rich merchant with many children and slaves, and the terrace had been made ample and solid so that people could take their ease and entertain their friends in the cool of summer evenings. Through the brass railings there was a view, over the red roofs, of the broad bosom of the Tagus, and the girl's eye wandered idly from the ships and ferry-boats to the pile of books on the table at her side and then lingered with a certain satisfaction on the long brown legs stretched out in front of her. Then she looked at the student's notebook on her lap and gave the telephone an impatient little shake.
It had to be stopped, she thought. If it went on it could even be dangerous, and she was amused to find that the thought of danger gave her a perceptible sensual thrill. She spoke firmly and fluently, in the same language.
'Now listen, darling. I told you last week that we can't go on like this. Yes, I know. We had fun. Yes, you idiot, fun. I'm very fond of you, Joãozinho, and you made love with all the stops pulled out and I loved that and it was fun. But I don't want to marry you and you'll just have to accept it. Believe me, it's much better for both of us—I really mean this—if we don't see each other again. I mean alone. As it is, nobody knows, and I shan't ever tell anyone. And you mustn't either. Will you swear that, please, Joãozinho querido?' The other voice was raised angrily and at length. Suddenly she sat up.
'No! You must not call on my father. He doesn't know and by God he's not going to know. I won't have it, and anyway it wouldn't be the slightest use...Oh, don't be silly, darling. I know your blood is the bluest in Portugal—it isn't that. Oh, it's too complicated to explain on the telephone.' The other voice rose triumphantly. 'Oh well, all right, if you swear you'll stop telephoning me. It can't be this week because I'm going to stay with the Da Silvas tomorrow. Next Monday, then, after the Tissiers' party. I'll walk along the road towards the river just after half past twelve, and you can pick me up. OK, then. You can take me home—no, to my home, you goon—and we can talk in the car. But listen, querido. It really must be the last time. No...no, Joãozinho. Darling, I'm going to hang up now and if you ring me again I won't meet you.' She rang off and lay back in the chair thinking.
It was tough on João, because she had been rather in love with him, and perhaps she'd led him on a bit. Quite a lot, come to think of it. But it had got to stop. He could be very persuasive when he got her to himself and she knew how easy and—oh hell!—what fun it would be to start all over again. And then all her plans would go for a Burton.
She walked slowly towards the door and then stopped, with a sudden thrill of amusement and fear. If only, she thought, she could tell him the truth. That would turn him off like a tap. But for Pete's sake, that was the one thing she couldn't do. Or could she? She turned to look at the river, and her face was brooding and very serious. As a last resort? If he went on refusing to be sensible? It was after all one way of shutting him up. And tight.
* * *
MV Claudia, Italian Line, was four days out of Rio and the equatorial heat was tempered a little by the Trade. But not much. Everybody was in or around the three swimming-pools and Peter Craig, lying by the topmost pool, was reluctant to leave it. It was a very comfortable ship, he thought, although there had been more vibration the previous night than he had noticed before. Until then there had scarcely been a tremor from the twenty-four enormous diesel cylinders which the Chief had shown off so proudly. Built for an aircraft-carrier, he had explained, and sweet as mother's love.
Craig got to his feet. Time for a shower and a drink before lunch, he thought, and then a long siesta. As he came out of the lift near his cabin someone called to him from the message centre and held out a radio envelope. He took it and went to his cabin, opening it as he walked.
It was signed 'Ferreira Policia Internacional' and had been dispatched in Lisbon. The text was couched in the leisurely style of a man who never paid for his own communications: 'Delighted to hear from you and look forward to meeting my distinguished colleague again with the greatest pleasure stop. Hope you can take luncheon with me on Tuesday 6th stop. Car will be at your disposal when Claudia docks.'
Very civil of Ferreira, thought Craig as he stripped off his bathing trunks and went into the shower cubicle in his cabin. He let the cold fresh water cascade over his body and wash away the sweat and the salt from the pool. They had met three years previously, when Craig was still in the Overseas Civil Service as Commissioner of Police in Bangasa, in West Africa.
There had been a lot of trouble on the Angolan border, with Free Angola Movement units using bases in Bangasa for re-grouping. The Bangasi leaders, already half-way towards independence, had undoubtedly been giving help to the Angolan rebels, and the Portuguese, knowing that nothing could prevent the British troops from being withdrawn within a year or two, had taken an understandably truculent line, while still preserving the fiction that the FAM, as such, did not exist—only bandits and 'Bangasi spies and infiltration units'. Their own spies were crossing into Bangasa in increasing numbers and Craig's Special Branch was heavily engaged. In the end, Ferreira, head of the PIDE in Luanda, had met Craig, with minimum publicity, on the frontier and in a series of hard-hitting discussions they had worked a modus vivendi which reduced the tension and preserved at least some of the decencies.
They had come to like and respect each other, and when a period of comparative peace followed they had exchanged visits. Craig could no more approve of the methods used by the Portuguese military and police forces in stamping out the Angolan freedom fighters than Ferreira could condone the British determination to leave Africa to the Africans, but each could admire the other's competence as an administrator.
That had been three years ago, and now Craig was an Overseas Police Adviser in the Diplomatic Service, and Ferreira head of a department of the PIDE—the much feared Policia Internacional para a Difesa do Estado—in Lisbon. Craig grinned. Poor Ferreira would be up to the eyes now in another kind of independence struggle, but this time in the heart of his own country.
He put on a pair of white shorts and a sports shirt and made his way to the first-class bar, a cheerful gallery with wide open windows facing forward. He had a few chapters of the proofs of his book on the Bangasi diamond smugglers to correct, and the little bar was usually empty at this time of day. Everybody else was enjoying the pandemonium around the buffet-lunch tables by the pool.
He settled down with a plate of olives and a planter's punch, tinkling with chopped ice, and took out his pen, but the effort of reading his own prose and trying to spot the small typographical and other errors he was supposed to correct became wearisome after a time. It was exciting stuff, in its way, but he knew it all by heart—the smuggling gangs, the escape routes though the bush to the Sierra Leone frontier, the secret caches, the court cases. And of course Graben, the man he had met again in Rio only a few weeks ago, and now dead. And Alcidia, too, the girl for whom, in that fight by the gold-mine, he had strangled a man to death with a steel chain.
It still worried him, used to regarding himself as a kindly, rational person who hated bloodshed as all policemen should, to recall how his feelings for that girl had led him from acts of sentimental recklessness to others where—he had to admit—he'd shown a ruthless ferocity which he'd never even known about.
He heard quiet voices behind him, and turning round saw the Captain and the Chief Engineer standing at the bar. They were too far away for him to overhear their low-voiced conversation, until the Captain called for more whisky and slapped his colleague on the back. 'Insomma, Alfredo,' he cried encouragingly, 'arriviamo a tempo a Lisbona?'
'Magari!' said the Chief cautiously. He swallowed his drink quickly and swore. 'Quel porco di cuscinetto!' He left the bar, and the Captain turned smiling to greet some passengers who had just come in.
Craig was relieved. If there was anything wrong with the engines at least it apparently wouldn't stop them from arriving in Lisbon on schedule, the night before his lunch with Ferreira. So he could send off his reply. He was looking forward to seeing him again.
There was no one else· he wanted to see in Lisbon and there would still be time to have a look at the town before Claudia sailed. He wondered idly what the 'little cushion' was that the Chief Engineer had disapproved of so vehemently. It was perhaps well, for his peace of mind during those last few days of floating luxury, that he didn't know that the cuscinetto would all but bring his earthly career to an end.
* * *
There they are. Three people, three ingredients. It was a week later that chance brought them together, on Tuesday, the sixth of April.