The Venetian AffairHelen Macinnes
ALSO BY HELEN MacINNES
AND AVAILABLE FROM TITAN BOOKS
Pray for a Brave Heart
Assignment in Brittany
North From Rome
Decision at Delphi
The Salzburg Connection
The Venetian Affair
Print edition ISBN: 9781781163306
E-book edition ISBN: 9781781164440
Published by Titan Books
A division of Titan Publishing Group Ltd
144 Southwark Street, London SE1 0UP
First edition: October 2012
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© 1963, 2012 by the Estate of Helen MacInnes. All rights reserved.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means without the prior written permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this title is available from the British Library.
Printed and bound in Great Britain by CPI Group Ltd.
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To Eliot and Keith with love
Table of Contents
About the Author
Two men sat in a darkened room. Outside was the blare of traffic grinding its way through the brilliant heat of the last day of August. But here in this room, the closed window, the drawn Venetian blinds kept noise and glare to the street. Here in this room, guarded by two locked doors, New York was forgotten.
The two men ignored the spasmodic screech of the dentist’s drill from his adjoining room: it was only a jagged part of the blurred background of sound; an annoyance, like the still, stifling air within these four safe walls. One man was talking, the other listening, both concentrating on every spoken word. They had exactly fifteen minutes to conclude their business.
Then the one who was talking would leave by the door that would take him to the service stairs: although he was the one in command, he was dressed in grey shirt and trousers appropriately soiled and wrinkled from a day’s work, his electrician’s toolbox lying beside a silent electric fan on the bogus mahogany of the dentist’s cheap desk. The other looked like a business-man, not affluent but eminently respectable; he had removed his grey jacket, hung it carefully over the back of his chair, slackened his dark-blue tie, loosened his white collar. When he left, tightened and buttoned up once more, he would unlock the door into the next room, pass the empty dentist’s chair, not even glancing at the white-coated man who would be staring blankly out of his window, enter the waiting-room, with its huddle of patients concentrating on their own problems. As he closed the front door behind him, he would leave the white-clad receptionist saying “Next please!” with the same crisp boredom she had dealt him only twenty minutes before.
The man who was dressed as an electrician was middle-aged, thin-faced, and angular. He had a voice as smooth as the palms of his hands. It was an educated voice, cool, deliberate, held low, but stressed by urgency. “This evening, you will leave from Idlewild. Your destination is Paris, as you learned from the plane reservation that Thelma delivered to you at noon. There was no difficulty when you met Thelma? No one interested in your movements; in hers?”
The other shook his head. He spoke for the first time. He was a man in his late fifties, thickset, short, with muscles running to fat. Either he found it cooler to sit on the edge of his chair or he was exceedingly deferential. His voice, too, was low, a little hoarsened by the tension of this meeting. “I followed instructions. I walked in to the Zoo from Central Park South. I reached the seal pond fifteen minutes before noon. No one followed me. I went into the cafeteria, quickly got a cup of coffee and a sandwich, paid for them with the exact money I had ready. I carried my tray out to the terrace. Thelma was sitting at a table, finishing her lunch. She left, and I took her table. I pushed aside her tray to make way for my own. Under the tray was the envelope with the reservation. I spent half an hour on the terrace. No one was interested in me. No one followed Thelma.”
“And no one followed you?”
“I saw no one.”
The cool voice sharpened. “Not even the man we call Bruno? He was watching you.”
The thickset man moistened his lips.
The other relented. “He kept at a distance. He reports that no one followed you.”
The thickset man smiled weakly, dabbed his brow gently with a folded handkerchief, felt his stomach muscles relax again. If they had kept an eye on him when he picked up his flight reservation today, they must also have had someone guarding him when he was collecting his passport yesterday from Bruno in the Museum of Modern Art. So he was in the clear, ready to leave as soon as he got back to his hotel and changed his clothes. He looked at his watch. Half-past three. No time to waste.
“This is what you take to Paris,” the grey-uniformed man said. He had opened his toolbox and drawn out an envelope. It was a medium-sized opaque envelope, unaddressed, sealed, not much bulkier than if it contained a three-page airmail letter. He threw it across the desk.
The thickset man picked it up, weighing it automatically in his hand, and frowned.
“Unfortunately,” the cool quiet voice continued, “its contents cannot be made into a film or a micro-dot.” There was a thin smile on the thin face. “And so we must use you.”
The thickset man lifted his jacket and inserted the envelope carefully into a zippered inside pocket. He made no remark.
“You are wondering why we did not use diplomatic channels?” The cool voice had sharpened. It was on the defensive. It disliked even unspoken criticism.
“It would have been simpler.”
“On the contrary. This whole operation must not be connected in any way with our embassies in Washington and Paris. Or with any of the consulates. Or with the Mission to the United Nations. No connection whatsoever. That is of highest importance, only second to the importance of the envelope itself. It has taken us four months to prepare that envelope. Only three people besides myself know what it contains.”
The thickset man used his folded handkerchief again. Patches of sweat were spreading over his white shirt.
“Actually,” the cool voice went on, “we could have sent this envelope by mail. It contains nothing illegal. But we could not risk having the envelope open
ed by mistake, or being delayed. Its value, incalculable, lies in its surprise. So we send it by safe hand.”
“I will take care, great care.”
“That is why I chose you,” the electrician said sharply. “Because—although there should be no difficulties at Orly; they pay little attention to anyone’s baggage—it must be hidden. No risk of discovery, I repeat. You understand?”
The man nodded. He eased his collar open still more. “And after Customs?”
“You will hand the envelope over at once to an intermediary. He will be waiting for you just outside the arrival hall at Orly.”
“We have made that as simple as possible for you. And certain. He met you three years ago, when you arrived in Zurich. Remember him?”
There was a nod. “The meeting will be easy. There won’t be any—any delay.”
“There won’t be any mistake.” The thin man uttered the word the other had hesitated over and left unused. “You know each other. You know the method to follow.”
“As at Zurich?”
“Why not? It was successful.”
Again there was a feeling of hesitation.
“Yes?” The quiet voice was impatient. It didn’t even wait for the answer. “It is perfectly safe to let you work together once more. He has been kept out of sight, inactive, for almost two years. Just as you have been kept inactive for the last fourteen months. Both of you have changed your names, your occupations, your countries, your lives. Two different men; except you know each other by sight. To help your eye find him quickly, he will wear a blue shirt and a yellow tie. His hair has become white, and slightly longer. We have told him that your suit will be brown, your tie green, and that you have begun to wear glasses. Is that adequate enough?”
The thickset man ignored the hint of sarcasm. He nodded, rose, put on his jacket. “Thelma—and Bruno—you are sure of them?” He was looking at his watch again. The room was suffocating him.
“Quite sure. They know nothing except that they were asked to help you escape to Europe. Tell an American comrade that he is saving a hero of the revolution, and he will come to the rescue at full gallop on his white horse.”
And now they both smiled. On Americans, they agreed completely. They were professionals, with only contempt for the amateurs.
“You leave first,” the electrician said. “I have this fan to fix.” He pushed its socket into an outlet. Its slow whirr began, and mounted into an overwhelming whine. “I make a good electrician,” he added, but there was no one left to enjoy his heavy humour. The door into the dentist’s workroom had closed noiselessly: nothing less than a crash or a shout could be heard over the high falsetto of that damnable contraption. Still, he was grateful for the current of air even if it was stale, even if the sudden coolness was only an illusion made by motion. He waited for five minutes, thinking of the man who had left him. A reliable man, instincts excellent, senses alive, quick wits. Today he had seemed less at ease, overcautious. It could have been the heat: he had felt it badly.
The five minutes were over. The electrician lit a cigarette, caught up the toolbox under his arm, and opened the door into the back corridor. By the time he sauntered into the street, his friend was already in a cab heading south to Pennsylvania Station. There he would take another taxi, then another, and drive to his hotel, the third hotel he had used in the three nights he had spent in New York.
The electrician stopped, almost at the corner of street and avenue, to look at the window of a small delicatessen. Parked cars, moving trucks, bareheaded women with groceries in their arms, screaming children gathered around a fire hydrant hopefully, a bulldozer ending its day’s work on the site of some old brownstone houses, workmen in sleeveless singlets and helmets, a pneumatic drill, glare, heat, noise, total confusion. But he was almost sure that no one was following him. He lit another cigarette, timing the traffic lights at the corner. At the last possible second, he turned away from the overcrowded window with its red neon sign, loped swiftly across the avenue just before a four-lane stream of traffic came rushing down on him. No one could follow him now.
He hurried along the crowded sidewalk to the subway entrance. A good operation, he thought with some satisfaction, and it would succeed for one simple reason: the enemy did not know it even existed. Success always lay in surprise.
And failure, too. Although at that moment, surrounded and protected by a sweltering mass of the enemy, he gave it little thought.
Bill Fenner settled himself comfortably in the plane. There was plenty of space on this flight. It was almost the end of summer, the last day in August, when most people’s vacations were over. But it was also the end of summer in a year, 1961, that had produced its crop of alarms. The Wall in Berlin was nearly three weeks old, voices from Eastern Europe were alternating from cold to hot, memories of shoe-thumping and outshouting at the United Nations were still alive. So the average tourist must have decided that life was simpler at home, this year, where he didn’t have to depend on strangers or cope with a foreign language if a real emergency blew up in his face. There had been a lot of quiet cancellations. And the plane, ready to take off from Idlewild, was less than half filled.
The other passengers on the flight to Paris were either young enough to be unencumbered with wives and children or determined enough on pleasure—the kind of tourists who would be found climbing Vesuvius on the day that smoke was already forming over the crater; or they were business-men, soberly optimistic; or they were lone travellers, like Fenner himself, with a job of work to do. At least, he thought, as they waited for take-off, there will be no crying children on this flight, no nervous old ladies fretting about the weight of their luggage, no neighbour crowding my elbow.
Not that Fenner was an antisocial type. He had spent the afternoon over a long luncheon at the club with three of his old friends, who, like himself, had begun as journalists some thirteen years ago, but had since diverged into book publishing, magazine editing, politics. Bill Fenner had stayed with the New York Chronicle, and for the last six years he had been its drama critic. Which was exactly what he had wanted to be in the first place: it was the job that would keep him alive, mentally and physically, pay the rent and stimulate his mind and—in the great moments of theatre—stir his soul. And in a few years, he would reach his second objective: the play he intended to write.
It hadn’t altogether worked out that way though. Perhaps the critical mind was too analytical, too pragmatic, for the creative to be bold enough to assert itself. Here he was, on his way to France for a four-week vacation combined with a job of writing. A play? Not on your life. Two articles for the Chronicle’s Sunday edition on the French national theatre, a starter for a book on the European theatre, which might be ready by the year 1967. God help me, he thought, perhaps I’d better never begin those articles.
What’s delaying us, anyway?
It was hot on the waiting plane. The air conditioning wouldn’t start until they were two thousand feet up or more. He glanced at his watch. The man across the aisle was doing the same thing, only more intently. Like Fenner, he was travelling alone; a sturdy individual, with a solid chest expanding into fat under his heavy brown suit, and a red round face looking redder by the minute above his tightly knotted green tie. He was middle-aged. (Fenner, fully thirty-seven, was kinder about other people’s advancing years than he once had been.) And in no mood for any talk, thank heavens. For he had glanced across at Fenner, eyes sharp behind his horn-rimmed glasses, and looked quickly away. His fingers tapped on his arm. Nervous about flying? But who wasn’t?
Fenner glanced through the window. Two latecomers were joining the flight, looking as cool in their crisp white shirts and neat blue suits as if the hot sunset outside were only an evening mirage. Fenner concealed a smile: he knew the type well from his cub-reporting days, when he had been sent to haunt the law courts. They could give evidence as expertly as they had trailed a suspect. What was taking th
em to Paris—an extradition case, some federal offender who might now start wishing he had not jumped bail? Serious business, certainly, or the plane wouldn’t have waited. The delay had been only six minutes, but to those who were impatient to leave, each minute had seemed endless.
The smiling hostess was performing the usual ritual of take-off with a gentle prompting here, a helping hand there. The man across the aisle seemed adept at air travel, after all. He was already secure in his safety belt, and was setting his watch forward. He certainly wasn’t going to be caught unawares by a sunrise only a few hours away. He will eat a large dinner, Fenner surmised, go soundly to sleep, wake up looking efficient, while the rest of us, having had a nightcap or two, and read, and talked, will be just about thinking of bed by the time we arrive. With that he dismissed the man in the brown suit, a pretty dull and harmless fellow, and began to look through a copy of Réalités to get some French phrases rolling on his tongue again.
Across the aisle, the man in the brown suit (who considered no one harmless) studied Fenner quietly until dinner arrived. Despite the heat of the day and the tensions of waiting at Idlewild, he had recovered something of his normal appetite. He ate quickly, greedily. In his youth, he had starved often enough in Odessa to make him appreciate any free meal. (He was, his nicely faked passport said, Mr. Albert Goldsmith, naturalised citizen originally from Frankfurt, resident of Newark, New Jersey, and an importer of ladies’ handbags.) Just as he had finished his steak and was eyeing the blueberry pie appreciatively, one of the efficient-looking men whose late arrival had delayed the flight six long agonising minutes chose to walk through the cabin, glancing (an automatic habit) at his travelling companions as he passed. He only wanted to chat with someone he knew in the forward section of the plane. But he stopped Mr. Goldsmith’s appetite cold.
Mr. Goldsmith did not panic. He was too experienced for that. His mind stayed alert, his thoughts were quick-darting but intensely rational, his face remained as placid as ever. Only his digestion betrayed him: the food he had eaten coagulated into a heavy, solid lump in his chest. Even the return of the brisk stranger with the photographic eye to his own seat didn’t help Mr. Goldsmith. A false alarm? Yet no alarm in Mr. Goldsmith’s profession could be treated as false. He sat quite still, planning emergency countermoves, elaborating his new identity so that his Mr. Albert Goldsmith was more than a fake name. If there had been any suspicion about him, surely he would have been stopped as he entered this plane. No one knew of the contents of the envelope except the man who had given it to him that afternoon, and three others. And none of them, if they had been arrested, would talk. If they could have been interrogated by the Gestapo or the old NKVD, he might have good reason to fear. Logically, he was not afraid. Illogically, he was worried. His instincts would not be quietened. He felt threatened. By what?