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Authors: Jack-Higgins

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“And where is this man Ramiz now?” Chavasse asked.

“Somewhere in Matano. He telephoned me in Rome yesterday and told me to meet him at a hotel on the waterfront. You see, he’s managed to get hold of a launch.”

Chavasse stared at her, an incredulous frown on his face. “Are you trying to tell me you intend to go back into those damned marshes?”

“That was the general idea.”

“Just the two of you, you and Ramiz?” He shook his head. “You wouldn’t last five minutes.”

“Perhaps not, but it’s worth a try.” He started to protest but she raised a hand. “I’m not going to spend the rest of my life living with the thought that my brother died for nothing when I could at least have tried to do something about it. The Minettis are a proud family, Paul. We take care of our dead. I know what Marco would have done and I am the only one left to do it.”

She sat there, her face very pale in the lamplight. Chavasse took her hands, reached across and kissed her gently on the mouth.

“This lagoon where the launch sank, you know where it is?”

She nodded, frowning slightly. “Why?”

He grinned. “You surely didn’t think I’d let you go in on your own?”

There was a look of complete bewilderment on her face. “But why, Paul? Give me one good reason why you should risk your life for me?”

“Let’s just say I’m bored stiff after a week of lazing around on the beach and leave it at that. This man Ramiz, you’ve got his address?”

She took a scrap of paper from her handbag and handed it to him. “I don’t think it’s far from here.”

He slipped it into his pocket. “Right, let’s get going.”

“To see Ramiz?”

He shook his head. “That comes later. First we’ll call on a good friend of mine, the kind of friend you need for a job like this. Someone with no scruples, who knows the Albanian coast like the back of his hand and runs the fastest boat in the Adriatic.”

At the door, she turned, looked up at him searchingly. Something glowed in her eyes and color flooded her cheeks. Quite suddenly, she seemed confident, sure of herself again.

“It’s going to be all right, angel. I promise you.”

He raised her hand briefly to his lips, opened the door and gently pushed her into the corridor.

FIVE

T
HE AIR IN THE ROOM WAS STILL HEAVILY
tainted by cigarette smoke, but the card players had gone. In the light of the shaded lamp, a British Admiralty chart of the Drin Gulf area of the Albanian coast was unfolded across the table. Chavasse and Orsini leaned over it and Francesca sat beside them.

“The Buene River runs down to the coast from Lake Scutari, or Shkoder, as they call it these days,” Orsini said.

“What about these coastal marshes? Are they as bad as Francesca says?”

Orsini nodded. “One hell of a place. A maze of narrow channels, saltwater lagoons and malaria-infested swamps. Unless you knew where to look, you could search for a year for that launch and never find it.”

“Anyone living there?”

“A few fishermen and wildfowlers, mainly geghs. The Reds haven’t done too well in those parts. The whole area’s always been a sort of refuge for people on the run.”

“You know it well?”

Orsini grinned. “I’d say I’ve made the run into those marshes at least half a dozen times this year. Penicillin, sulphonamide, guns, nylons. There’s a lot of money to be made and the Albanian navy can’t do much to stop it.”

“Still a risky business, though.”

“For amateurs, anything is risky.” Orsini turned to Francesca. “This man Ramiz, what did he do for a living?”

“He was an artist. I believe he did most of his sailing at weekends.”

Orsini looked at the ceiling and raised his hands helplessly. “My God, what a setup. That he got you back safely to Italy is a miracle, signorina.”

The door opened and Carlo came in carrying cups on a tray. He handed them round and Chavasse sipped hot coffee. He frowned down at the map, following the main channel, then turned to Francesca.

“You say you know where the launch went down. How can you be sure? These lagoons all look the same.”

“Marco took a cross bearing just before we sank,” she said. “I memorized it.”

Orsini pushed a piece of paper and a pencil across and she quickly wrote the figures down. He examined them with a slight frown and then calculated the position. He drew a circle round the central point.

“X marks the spot.”

Chavasse examined it quickly. “About five miles in. Another three or four to this place Tama. What’s it like there?”

“Used to be quite a thriving little river port years ago, but it’s gone down the slot in a big way since the trouble started between Albania and the satellite countries.” Orsini traced a finger along the line of the river. “The Buene forms part of the boundary between Albania and Yugoslavia. Most of the main stream’s been allowed to silt up. That means you have to know the estuary and delta region well to get as far inland as Tama.”

“But could you get us there?”

Orsini turned to Carlo. “What do you think?”

“We’ve never had any trouble before. Why should we now?”

“The pitcher can go to the well too often,” Francesca observed softly.

Orsini shrugged. “For all men, death makes the last appointment. He chooses his own time.”

“That only leaves the question of the price to be settled,” Chavasse said.

“No problem there,” Francesca put in quickly.

“Signorina, please.” Orsini took her hand and touched it to his lips. “This thing I will do because I want to and for no other reason.”

She seemed close to tears and Chavasse interrupted quickly. “One thing I’m not happy about is Ramiz. Are you sure it was his voice on the telephone?”

She nodded. “He came from the province of Vlore. They have a distinctive accent. I’m sure it was him.”

Chavasse decided that it didn’t look too good for Ramiz. Quite obviously the sigurmi had traced them with no difficulty. Maybe they’d recovered Marco Minetti’s body, or what was more probable, had got their hands on the people who had passed on the Madonna in Albania itself. Each man had his limits, his specific tolerance to pain. Once past that point, most would babble all they knew before dying.

And it was natural that the Albanians should go to so much trouble to trace the Madonna. Its disappearance must have meant a big loss of prestige politically and the knowledge that it must still be in their own territory would be an added spur to recover it.

“If Ramiz did make that phone call it was probably because he was made to. Either that or he was known to have made it.” He produced the slip of paper Francesca had given him at the hotel. “Do you know this place?”

Orsini nodded. “It’s not far from here. The sort of fleabag where whores rent rooms by the hour and no questions asked.” He turned to Francesca. “No place for a lady.”

She started to protest, but Chavasse cut in quickly. “Guilio’s right. In any case, you’re out on your feet. What you need is about eight hours’ solid sleep. You can use my room at the hotel.” He turned to Carlo. “See she gets there safely.”

He pulled on his reefer jacket and she stood up. “You’ll be careful?”

“Aren’t I always?” He gave her a little push. “Lock yourself in the room and get some sleep. I’ll be along later.”

She went reluctantly and Carlo followed her out. When Chavasse turned, Orsini was grinning hugely. “Ah, to be young and handsome.”

“Something you never were,” Chavasse said. “Let’s get moving.”

 

I
T WAS STILL RAINING
,
A THIN DRIZZLE THAT
beaded the iron railings of the harbor wall like silver as they walked along the pavement. The old stuccoed houses floated out of the fog, unreal and insubstantial, and each street lamp was a yellow oasis of light in a dark world.

The hotel was no more than five minutes from the Tabu, a seedy tenement, plaster peeling from the brickwork beside the open door. They entered a dark and gloomy hall. There was no one behind the wooden desk and no response to Orsini’s impatient push on the bell.

“Did she give you the room number?”

Chavasse nodded. “Twenty-six.”

The Italian moved behind the desk and examined the board. He came back, shaking his head. “The key isn’t there. He must still be in his room.”

They went up a flight of rickety wooden stairs to the first floor. There was an unpleasant musty smell compounded of cooking odors and stale urine and a strange brooding quiet. They moved along the passage, checking the numbers on the doors, and Chavasse became aware of music and high brittle laughter. He paused outside the room from which it came and Orsini turned from the door opposite.

“This is it.”

The door swung open to his touch and he stepped inside and reached for the light switch. Nothing happened. He struck a match and Chavasse moved in beside him.

The room was almost bare. There was a rush mat on the floor, an iron bed and a washstand. A wooden chair lay on its side beside the mat.

As Chavasse reached down to pick it up, the match Orsini was holding burned his fingers and he dropped it with a curse. Chavasse rested on one knee, waiting for him to strike another, and was aware of a sudden dampness soaking through the knee of his slacks. As the match flared, he raised his hand, the fingers sticky and glutinous with half-dried blood.

“So much for Ramiz.”

They examined the room quickly but there was nothing to be found, not even a suitcase, and they went back into the passage. High-pitched laughter sounded from opposite and Orsini raised his eyebrows enquiringly.

“Nothing to lose,” Chavasse said.

The big Italian knocked on the door. There was a sudden silence and then a woman’s voice called, “Come back later. I’m busy.”

Orsini knocked even harder. There was a quick angry movement inside and the door was jerked open. The woman who faced them was small with flaming red hair. The black nylon robe she wore did little to conceal her ample charms. She recognized Orsini immediately and the look of anger on her face was replaced by a ready smile.

“Eh, Guilio, it’s been a long time.”

“Too long, cara,” he said, patting her face. “You still look as good as ever. My friend and I wanted a word with the man opposite, but he doesn’t appear to be at home.”

“Oh, that one,” she said in disgust. “Sitting around his room like that. Wouldn’t even give a girl the time of day.”

“He must have been blind,” Orsini said gallantly.

“A couple of men came looking for him earlier,” she said. “I think there was some trouble. When I looked out, they were taking him away between them. He didn’t look good.”

“You didn’t think of calling the police?” Chavasse asked.

“I wouldn’t cut that bastard of a sergeant down if he were hanging.” There was an angry call from inside the room and she grinned. “Some of them get really impatient.”

“I bet they do,” Chavasse said.

She smiled. “You, I definitely like. Bring him round sometime, Guilio. We’ll have ourselves a party.”

“Maybe I’ll do that,” Orsini told her.

There was another impatient cry from inside and she raised her eyebrows despairingly and closed the door.

Orsini and Chavasse went back downstairs and out into the street. The Italian paused to light a cheroot and flicked the match into the darkness.

“What now?”

Chavasse shrugged. “There isn’t really much we can do. I know one thing. I could do with some sleep.”

Orsini nodded. “Go back to your hotel. Stay with the girl and behave yourself. We’ll sort something out in the morning.” He punched Chavasse lightly on the shoulder. “Don’t worry, Paul. You’re in the hands of experts.”

He turned away into the fog, and as Chavasse watched him go tiredness seemed to wash over him in a great wave. He walked along the pavement, footsteps echoing between narrow stone walls, and paused on a corner, fumbling for a cigarette.

As the match flared in his hands, something needle-sharp sliced through his jacket to touch his spine. A voice said quietly, “Please to stand very still, Mr. Chavasse.”

He waited while the expert hands passed over his body, checking for the weapon that wasn’t there.

“Now walk straight ahead and don’t look round. And do exactly as you are told. It would desolate me to have to kill you.”

It was only as he started walking that Chavasse realized the voice had spoken in Albanian.

SIX

T
HERE WERE TWO OF THEM
,
HE COULD
tell that much from their footfalls echoing between the walls of the narrow alleys as they moved through the old quarter of the town. The harsh voice of the man who had first spoken occasionally broke the silence to tell him to turn right or left, but otherwise there was no conversation and they stayed well behind him.

Fifteen minutes later, they emerged from an alley onto the sea wall on the far side of the harbor from the jetty. A house several floors high reared into the night, and beside it a flight of stone steps led down to a landing stage.

An old naval patrol boat was moored there, shabby and neglected, paint peeling from her hull. Across her stern ran the faded inscription
Stromboli—Taranto
.

The landing stage was deserted in the light of a solitary lamp and there was no one to help him. He turned slowly and faced the two men. One of them was small and rather nondescript. He wore a heavy jersey and a knitted cap was pulled over his eyes.

The other was a different proposition, a big, dangerous-looking man badly in need of a shave. He had a scarred, brutal face, cropped hair, and wore a reefer coat and seaboots.

He slipped a cigarette into his mouth and struck a match on the seawall. “Down we go, Mr. Chavasse. Down we go.”

Chavasse descended the steps slowly. As he reached the landing stage, the little man moved past him and led the way to the far end, where he opened a door set in the thickness of the wall. A flight of stone stairs lifted into the gloom and Chavasse followed him, the big man a couple of paces behind.

They arrived on a stone landing and the little man opened another door and jerked his head. Chavasse moved past him and stood just inside the entrance. The room was plainly furnished with a wooden table and several chairs. A narrow iron bed stood against one wall.

The man who sat at the table writing a letter was small and dark and dressed in a suit of blue tropical worsted. His skin was the color of fine leather, the narrow fringe of beard combining to give him the look of a
conquistadore
.

Chavasse paused a couple of feet away, hands in pockets. Small, black, shining eyes had swivelled to a position from which they could observe him. The man half turned and smiled.

“Mr. Chavasse—a distinct pleasure, sir.”

His English was clipped and precise, hardly any accent at all. Chavasse decided that he didn’t like him. The eyes were cold and merciless in spite of the polite, birdlike expression, the eyes of a killer.

“I’m beginning to find all this rather a bore.”

The little man smiled. “Then we must try to make things more interesting. How would you like to earn ten thousand pounds?”

At the other end of the table was a tray containing a couple of bottles and several glasses. Chavasse walked to it calmly, aware of a slight movement from the big man over by the door.

One of the bottles contained Smirnoff, his favorite vodka. He half filled a glass and walked casually to the window, gazing forty feet down into the harbor as he drank, assessing the position of the
Stromboli
to the left, her outline showing dimly through the fog.

“Well?” the little man asked.

Chavasse turned. “How are things in Tirana these days?”

The little man smiled. “Very astute, but I haven’t seen Tirana in five years. A slight difference of opinion with the present regime.” He produced a white card and flicked it across. “My card, sir. I am Adem Kapo, agent for Alb-Tourist in Taranto.”

“Among other things, I’m sure.”

Kapo took out a case and extracted a cigarette, which he fitted into a holder. “You could describe me as a sort of middle-man. People come to me with their requirements and I try to satisfy them.”

“For a fee?”

“But of course.” He extended the case. “Cigarette?”

Chavasse took one. “Ten thousand pounds. That’s a lot of money. What makes you think I’d be interested?”

“Knowing who people are is part of my business and I know a great deal about you, my friend. More than you could dream of. Men like you are a gun that is for sale to the highest bidder. In any case, the money would be easily earned. My principals will pay such a sum in advance if you will agree to lead them to the position of a certain launch which recently sank in the marshes of the Buene River in Northern Albania. You are interested?”

“I could be if I knew what you were talking about.”

“I’m sure Signorina Minetti has already filled you in on the details. Come now, Mr. Chavasse, all is discovered, as they say in the English melodramas. According to the information supplied to me by my clients, the body of an Italian citizen, one Marco Minetti, was discovered on a mud bank at the mouth of the Buene recently after an attempt had been made to smuggle a priceless religious relic from the country.”

“You don’t say,” Chavasse said.

Kapo ignored the interruption. “A few hours earlier his launch had disappeared into the wastes of the Buene Marshes. Later, a priest and two men were taken into custody by the sigurmi at the town of Tama. Apparently, the priest was stubborn to the end, a bad habit they have, but the two men talked. They named Minetti, his sister and an Albanian refugee, an artist called Ramiz. I was offered what I must admit was a very handsome fee to trace them.”

“And did you?”

“We’ve been watching Ramiz for weeks, waiting for him to make his move. Incredible though it may seem, he apparently intended to go in again. You see, he was an intellectual—one of those rather irritating people who feel they have a mission in life.”

“You speak of him in the past tense?”

“Yes, it’s really quite sad.” Kapo sounded genuinely moved. “I decided to have a little chat with him earlier this evening. When Haji and Tasko were bringing him here, there was some sort of struggle. He fell from the seawall and broke his neck.”

“Just an unfortunate accident, I suppose?”

“But of course, and quite unnecessary. It’s surprising how easily one’s motives can be misunderstood. I’m afraid an earlier attempt to get in touch with Signorina Minetti also met with a conspicuous lack of success.”

“Which leaves you with me.”

“One can hardly be blamed for thinking it rather more than coincidental that Mr. Paul Chavasse of the British Secret Service just happened to be on the spot when the Signorina Minetti needed some assistance.”

Chavasse reached for the bottle of vodka and poured some more into his glass. “And what would you say if I told you I still don’t know what you’re talking about?”

“If you persisted, you would leave me no choice. I would have to apply to the signorina again, which would distress me greatly.” Kapo sighed. “On the other hand, women are so much easier to deal with. Don’t you agree, Tashko?”

The big man moved to the end of the table, a mirthless grin on his face, and Chavasse nodded thoughtfully. “Somehow I thought you’d say that.”

He reversed his grip on the bottle of vodka and struck sideways against Tashko’s skull. The Albanian cried out sharply as the bottle smashed into pieces, drawing blood, and Chavasse heaved the table over, sending Kapo backwards in his chair, pinning him to the floor.

Haji was already moving fast across the room, a knife in his right hand. As it started to come up, Chavasse warded off the blow with one arm, caught the small man by his left wrist and, with a sudden pull, sent him crashing into the wall.

Tashko was already on his feet, blood streaming down the side of his face. He threw a tremendous punch, and Chavasse ducked under his arm and moved toward the door. Kapo pushed out a foot and tripped him so that he fell heavily to the floor.

Tashko moved in quickly, kicking at his ribs and face, and Chavasse rolled away, avoiding most of the blows and scrambling up. He vaulted over the upturned table, picked up one of the chairs in both hands and hurled it through the window with all his force. The dried and rotting wood of the frame smashed easily and the window dissolved in a snowstorm of flying glass.

He was aware of Kapo’s warning cry, of Tashko lurching forward. He lashed out sideways, the edge of his hand catching the big man across the face, scrambled onto the sill and jumped into darkness.

The air rushed past his ears with a roar, the fog seemed to curl around him, then he hit the water with a solid forceful smack and went down.

When he surfaced, he gazed up at the dark bulk of the house, at the light filtering through the fog from the smashed window. There was a sudden call, Kapo’s voice drifting down, and another answered from the
Stromboli
, dimly seen in the fog to the right.

There was only one sensible way out of the situation and Chavasse took it. He turned and swam away from the landing stage, out into the harbor toward the jetty on the other side. It was perhaps a quarter of a mile, he knew that. No great distance and the water was warm.

He took his time, swimming steadily, and the voices faded into the fog behind him and he was alone in an enclosed world. Everything seemed to fade away and he felt curiously calm and at peace with himself. Time seemed to have no meaning and the riding lights of the fishing boats moored close to the jetty appeared through the fog in what seemed a remarkably short time.

He swam between them and landed at a flight of steps that led to the jetty. For a moment or two he sat there getting his breath and then went up quickly and moved along the jetty to the waterfront.

His first real need was obviously a change of clothes, and he hurried through the fog toward his hotel. After that, a visit to Orsini at the Tabu and perhaps a return match with Adem Kapo and his thugs, although it was more than probable that the
Stromboli
was already being prepared for a hasty exit.

The electric sign over the entrance to the hotel loomed out of the night and he opened the door and moved inside. The desk was vacant, no one apparently on duty, and he went up the stairs two at a time and turned along the corridor.

The door to his room stood open, panels smashed and splintered, and a light was still burning. A chair lay on its side in the middle of the floor and the blankets were scattered over the end of the bed as if there had been a struggle. He stood there for a moment, his stomach suddenly hollow, then turned and hurried back downstairs.

He noticed the foot protruding from behind the desk as he moved to the door and there was a slight, audible groan of pain. When he looked over the top, he saw the old proprietor lying on his face, blood matting the white hair at the back of the head.

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