Authors: Patricia Wentworth
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Pursuit of a Parcel
An Ernest Lamb Mystery
In October 1940 two interviews took place, one in Berlin and one in London. As a result, some lives were risked and some were lost. Inconsiderable against the mass wastage of war, but of interest to the persons concerned. There were also large issues.
The first interview took place in Berlin.
Cornelius Rossiter, sometimes called Cornelis Roos, walked into the inner office and swung up his hand in the universal salute. “Heil Hitler!”
The door closed at his back.
“Heil Hitler!” said the man behind the deskâa small man hunched in his chair, thin and sallow of cheek, with deep eye-sockets under brows as symmetrically arched as a woman's. The hands were like those of a woman tooâa woman or an artistâlong, and white, and finely kept. The eyes beneath the arched brows were of a dark intensity beyond belief. They were as powerful and impersonal as an arc-light, and a good deal more intelligent. They rested for a moment upon Cornelius, whilst the right hand moved amongst a pile of papers. Then a smooth voice said,
“At your orders, sir.”
He watched the moving hand. It picked up one paper and rejected another. It was as if the fingertips could see. The eyes had not left his face. The voice said, honey-smooth, “I wonderâ”
Cornelius said nothing. He stood a yard inside the door. A big man, heavily built, with a large pale face, light eyes, and colourless hair. There was no grey in it yet, though his forty years had provided him with plenty of excuses for going grey. His expression of simple stolidity had served him well in the past. It served him now. He took refuge behind it, and waited for the other man to break the silence left by that “I wonderâ”
The silence was a long one. Some men crack under a silence like that. The eyes which looked at Cornelius had seen many men break.
Cornelius stood there, respectful and stolid. The trouble was that if he had really been as stolid as he looked, the man behind the desk would have had no use for him, and he would not have been here to reportâor to be reported on.
The voice said at last, low and quietly, entering the silence rather than breaking it, “I wonder whether you are at my ordersâor at those of someone else.” On the last words there was hardly any sound at all.
Cornelius said, “I am at your orders.”
At once a liveliness leapt into the voice, the features, the hands. There was flashing gesticulation, a jerk of anger. “Two masters, and I'm one of themâis that what you are going to say? Something for each of us, and pay from both? It's done, you know, and it's been done with meâbut not for long.” The hand with the paper was thrust forward as if it held a weapon. “Do you think I use people and don't check up on them? This information has been tested, and it is false. Do you think you can get away with it?”
Cornelius moved for the first time. He came forward in a lounging manner and stretched out his hand for the paper. After a glance he laid it down.
“To the best of my knowledge and belief it was accurateâat the time.”
“What was your source of information?”
“Confidential of course. If I give it away I shall have killed the goose that lays the golden eggs.”
The white womanish hand came out and took the paper again.
“You've played a game with me. Nobody gets away with that. You're done.”
The paper was dropped, as if to illustrate the point. The hand went out towards an electric bell.
Cornelius went back and stood against the door.
“Stop!” he said.
The hand remained poised, the eyes watchful. The voice said, “Why?”
“Because you'd better,” said Cornelius grimly. “No, I'm not armed. I'm not a fool, to come in here with arms on me. But I've got something to say, and it's going to be worth your while to listen. I know as well as you that I can't get out of here alive unless you say so. But it's going to be worth your while to say soâI only want you to listen. I'll put my hands up and keep them up if you like.”
The hand that had played with the paper now held a little pistol like a toyâsmall, ornate, deadly. The smooth voice said, “It will not be necessary. What have you to say?”
Cornelius squared his shoulders against the door.
“Just this. I served you well, believe it or not. That makes no difference nowâyou've wiped it off. You don't trust anyoneâdo you? You never use the same man long. I've had a longer run than most, and not being a fool, I've taken my precautions. If anything happens to me, then something will happen to you. If I'm for the high jump, you'll be for it too.”
The sallow face showed anger, not by movement, but by a sort of carved stillness. The eye-sockets appeared to be more deeply cut. The features sharpened and whitened. The eyes veiled their power.
“Very interesting. And how do you propose to bring this about?”
Cornelius looked at him across the room.
“That is just what I was going to tell you. There are people who would like to see you take that high jumpâwe both know that. There have been times when you haven't been so far from it either. There's just one thing that keeps you where you areâ
belief that you're necessary.” He waved a casual hand in the direction of a large framed photograph of the FÃ¼hrer hanging lonely on the cinnamon-coloured wall. “If
didn't hold you up, how long would it be before Goering got you down? And how long would
hold you up if he knew what you said about himâlet me seeâeight months ago? March the fifteenth is the dateâit's just as well to be accurate. Of course
isn't quite the right word to use, because he'll be able to hear what you said, which will make it so much more convincing. There's a bit where you laugh in the middle of a sentence just before you come to his nameâwell, it's quite irresistibleâI joined in myself the first time I heard it.”
Cornelius went on looking stolid. Even if he was going to die, here in this room, he was enjoying himself. This man was a quintessence of power, and he, Cornelius, at this moment was in control of this power. He held it on a leash of fear. The sensation was worth while, even if he died for it. But he did not think that he was going to die. He went on explaining quite pleasantly.
“March the fifteenthâthat is where we were. You were out of favour with
âthat casual wave of the hand againâ“and things weren't looking too rosy. You had a rendezvousâI wouldn't dream of mentioning the lady's nameâand you drank a little too much champagne and got going about your grievances. The lady did her best to stop you, but you would talk. She was frightened, even if she didn't know there was a dicta-phone on the premises. But you can't ever be sure these days, and I don't wonder she was scared stiff. Reallyâthe things you said! I'm afraid once
heard that record you won't ever be able to explain them away. Just between ourselves, I shouldn't think you'd get the chance. There's one bit in particularâ” He paused for a moment as if ruminating, and then shook his head. “NoâI shouldn't think he'd see you after that. Andâagain between ourselvesâhe's never really liked you. Nor has Goering.” His voice dropped to a friendly, conversational note. “You're cleverer than he is, and that's a thing that never gets forgiven.”
The man behind the table said, “Enough!” Just the one word, cold and acid. The smoothness was all gone from his voice. It struck with a cutting edge.
Cornelius nodded. “Yes, it's enoughâfor a man of your brains.”
The eyes focussed themselves upon him, sharp and bright as a snake's.
“And youâhave you no brains? How long does a man live who talks to me as you have talkedâand how does he die?”
Cornelius stood easily against the door.
“Oh, yesâI was coming to that. If I die, Goering will get that record at onceâwell, let us say within three days. If you think I'm bluffing you've only to call my bluffâkill me and see what happens. I'm afraid you won't like it, and the game isn't really worth the candle. The same thing applies to my disappearing into a concentration camp or anything like thatâGoering will get the record. You know best whether he'll be pleased to have it, and what he'll set about doing with it. I may say at once that any funny business like torture or third degree to try and find out where the cylinder is and what arrangements I've made for it to reach Goering will defeat itself, because any doctor you like to put on to me will tell you I'm liable to buckle up at any moment. That's really why I'm talking to you like this. I want to get away to America and lead a quiet life there. It doesn't seem possible this side of the Atlantic. I'm good for another forty years or so if I don't have any shocks, but I'm afraid anything like third degree would leave you with a corpse on your hands, and then Goering would get that cylinder.”
There was a pause. The man leaned forward, propping his chin with one of those white womanish hands.
“What do you want?” he said.
“To go to America.”
“And what guarantee should I have if I let you go?”
For the first time, Cornelius smiled.
“Guarantees are so diffcult to arrange, besides being a bit flyblown nowadays. I was thinking of a gentleman's agreement. As soon as I'm across the Atlantic I cable my instructions, and the cylinder will be delivered to you instead of to Goering.”
The man's hand covered his lips for a moment. When he withdrew it they were smiling. He put a finger on the bell in front of him. The door behind Cornelius opened. He turned, and heard the voice restored to smoothness.