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Authors: Jack-Higgins

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The tunnel was no more than four feet high and Chavasse paused at the entrance and reached out to Liri. “Are you all right?”

“Fine.” She chuckled. “The swamps stink worse than this lot in the summer.”

They bent double and went after Father Shedu, who was now several yards ahead. A few moments later he stopped. Light filtered down through some sort of grille and a short tunnel sloped up toward the surface.

“If I am right,” the priest said, “we should be in a cell of the old cloisters behind the square containing the guardhouse.”

The tunnel was a good fifty feet in length, the stonework smooth and slippery, making it difficult to climb. The priest went first, Liri next and Chavasse brought up the rear. He jammed himself between the narrow walls, working his way up foot by foot. Once, Liri slipped, falling back against him, but he managed to hold her and they continued.

Above them, Father Shedu was already at the entrance, a large slab that had been carved by some master craftsman into a stone grille. He put his shoulder to it and it slid back easily. He climbed out and turned to give Liri a hand.

Chavasse clambered up after them and found himself in a small crumbling cell with a gaping doorway that opened into half-ruined cloisters, broken pillars lifting into the sky, grass growing between great, cracked stone slabs.

“Through the cloisters and you will come to the square,” Father Shedu said. “The guardroom is a small flat-roofed building of brick and concrete.” A slight smile touched his mouth. “From here, you are on your own. There is nothing more I can do for you. As I said earlier, I must not play any active part in this affair. I will wait here.” He turned to Liri. “You will stay with me?”

She shook her head stubbornly. “There may be something I can do. Something to help.”

“Father Shedu’s right,” Chavasse said. “You stay.”

“If you want my gun, then you take me.” She patted the stock of the old hunting rifle. “That’s my final word.”

Chavasse looked at the priest, who sighed heavily. “A will of iron, I’m afraid, and she hates the Reds.”

Chavasse said to Liri, “You can come as far as the edge of the square. You watch from there while I go in. If anything goes wrong, you’ll have plenty of time to join Father Shedu and get clear. All right?”

He moved out across the ruined courtyard and through the cloisters to the crumbling wall on the far side. The square stretched before him, quiet and still. The guardhouse was built against the wall halfway along the other side, just as Father Shedu had described, a difficult place to come at from the front. In the far wall, great double gates leading to the outer square were closed.

Chavasse turned to Liri. “You stay here, I’m going to work my way round the wall so that I come in from the other side where there’s no windows. If anything happens, get out of it fast and back to Father Shedu.” She started to protest, but he pulled the rifle firmly from her grasp. “Now be a good girl and do as you’re told.”

He moved along behind the ruined wall to the point where it joined the other, stepped into the open and ran, half crouching, until he reached the side of the guardhouse. He paused, conscious of the sweat soaking his shirt, and started forward. At that moment the guardhouse door opened and someone stepped out.

Chavasse heard voices, two men talking. One of them laughed and a match was struck. He was trapped with no place to run. If one of them took a step to the corner of the building, he was certain to be discovered.

A fresh young voice called, “Heh, you there! Yes, you, you great ox. Come here!”

Liri Kupi strolled calmly across the square, her hands in her pockets. Her intention was obviously to attract the attention of the guards and she succeeded perfectly. As Chavasse went along the side of the guardhouse, two soldiers moved out to meet Liri.

They weren’t even armed, and one of them was stripped to the waist as if he had been having a wash. Chavasse ran forward, raised the rifle and rammed it down hard against an exposed neck. As the soldier crumpled with a groan, the other swung round. Chavasse swung the barrel into the man’s stomach. He keeled over, and the butt of the rifle smashed his skull.

Chavasse was already moving toward the door when Liri arrived on the run, her face flushed. “There can’t be anyone else. They’d have come out when I called.”

“Let’s hope you’re right.”

The outer office was quiet, papers scattering across the desk in the wind that blew in through the doorway. Keys hung on a board on the far wall. Chavasse moved across quickly and opened the inner door. There were only six cells. The first four were empty. Guilio Orsini was in the fifth, sprawled on a narrow bunk, head on hands.

“Now then, you old bastard,” Chavasse said amiably.

The Italian sat up, an expression of astonishment on his face. He jumped on his feet and crossed to the grille. “Paul, by all that’s holy! You go in for miracles now?”

“Ask and ye shall receive,” Chavasse said. “You’ll never know just how apt that quotation is. Where’s Francesca?”

“Next door. We’ve been here ever since we arrived. Kapo took off again in something of a hurry. Presumably to chase you.”

“He’s out of luck.”

Liri was beside him with the keys. As she released Orsini, Chavasse was already at the next grille. Francesca Minetti stood there, eyes like dark holes in the white face.

“I knew you’d come, Paul.”

He took the keys from Liri and unlocked the cell. Francesca came straight into his arms. He held her close for a moment, then pushed her away.

“We’ve got to get moving.”

Orsini was already ahead of them, following Liri, and Chavasse picked up the rifle and pushed Francesca along the passage. The Italian paused in the doorway and looked out into the square.

“Seems quiet enough.”

The noise of the siren rising through the still air was like a physical blow, numbing the senses. Chavasse swung round and saw Francesca on the other side of the room. She had opened a small metal box on the wall and her thumb was pressed firmly against a scarlet button.

He pulled her away so violently that she staggered back against the desk. “What the hell are you playing at?”

She spat in his face and slapped him heavily across the left cheek, and in an instinctive reflex action he returned the blow with his clenched fist, knocking her to the floor.

She lay there moaning softly and Orsini grabbed Chavasse by the sleeve, pulling him round. “For God’s sake, what’s going on?”

A single shot echoed across the square, splintering the doorpost, and Orsini ducked, pulling Liri to the floor. Chavasse looked out through the window and saw a movement on the wall above the great gates. Another rifle shot was followed by the rapid stutter of a submachine gun, and a line of bullets kicked a cloud of dust into the air in a brown curtain.

He smashed the window with the butt end of the hunting rifle, aimed quickly and fired. There was a faint cry and a soldier pitched over the parapet and fell, still clutching his rifle.

One of the two guards lying in the square pushed himself onto his knees, an expression of bewilderment on his face. Chavasse shot him through the head and ducked out of sight as the man’s comrades started to concentrate on the window.

He moved to the doorway and crouched beside Orsini and the girl. “There must be half a dozen of them up there now and more on the way. I’m going to draw their fire. It might give you and Liri a chance. She knows the way. Just do as she says.”

Orsini opened his mouth to protest, but Chavasse was already running into the square. He flung himself down beside the body of the guard he had shot, took aim and started to fire at the men on the wall.

Behind him, Orsini and the girl emerged from the guardhouse and started to run. It was at precisely that moment that the great double doors on the far side of the square swung open. An engine burst into life and a Jeep roared through in a cloud of dust. A light machine gun was mounted on a swivel in the rear and Colonel Tashko swung it in a half arc, a line of bullets churning the dust into fountains beside Orsini and the girl, bringing them to a halt, hands held high.

Chavasse, the heart freezing inside him, saw a detail of soldiers come through the gate, rifles at the port. In the moment that the Jeep braked, slewing broadside on, Francesca staggered past him and lurched toward it. Chavasse jumped to his feet and fired the hunting rifle from the hip as he ran.

His first shot kicked up dirt a foot to one side of her and then something punched him in the left arm, spinning him round, the rifle flying from his grasp. He crouched like an animal, holding his arm tightly, blood oozing between the fingers, and heard boots crunch through the dirt in the sudden silence.

When he raised his eyes, Adem Kapo looked down at him, a slight smile fixed to the small mouth.

TWELVE

R
AIN DRIFTED IN THROUGH THE BARS
of the window and Chavasse pulled himself up and looked out across the monastery walls toward the river. He was immediately aware of the pain in his left arm and dropped with a curse.

The bullet had passed through cleanly, a flesh wound, and the only treatment he had so far received was to have it bandaged. They were in some sort of storeroom on the second floor of the main building. Liri Kupi slept in the corner, a blanket hitched over her shoulders.

Orsini crouched beside her to straighten the blanket. When he rose to his feet there was a strange expression on his face. “Quite a girl. A pity she had to get mixed up in a thing like this.”

“As I’ve already explained, she wasn’t supposed to.” Chavasse walked to the door, peered through the grille at the guard outside. “God, what a fool I’ve been and I never saw it.”

“Francesca?” Orsini shook his head. “I still can’t believe it.”

“She said the Madonna was in the forward cabin and it wasn’t, and remember we had to blast our way in. How do you get round that?” He kicked a packing case savagely. “The little bitch. That night outside the Tabu when she was attacked. They must have been waiting for me to show. The whole thing was laid on for my benefit.”

“But why?” Orsini demanded. “It doesn’t make sense. And what happened to the Madonna?”

“That’s one thing I’d like to know myself. That part of the story was genuine enough, because Father Shedu confirmed it. At least they don’t seem to have laid hands on him, which is a good thing.”

A key rattled in the lock and the door was flung open. Liri came awake and scrambled to her feet as two soldiers moved into the room followed by Tashko. He examined the girl and smiled.

“I’ll come to you later.”

She spat in his face and he reached out, quick as a snake, and grabbed her shoulder. As Orsini and Chavasse started forward, the soldiers raised their machine pistols threateningly.

Tashko’s face was quite expressionless as his thumb expertly pressed a nerve against bone. Liri’s mouth opened in a cry and she crumpled to the floor. He turned to Chavasse, adjusting his leather gloves.


Karate
, my friend. Perhaps you’ve heard of it? You were lucky with the vodka bottle. Next time, all the luck will be mine—this I promise you.”

He nodded and one of the soldiers grabbed Chavasse by the shoulder and dragged him outside. He had a quick glimpse of Orsini dropping to one knee beside the girl and then the door closed.

They took him along the wide stone-flagged passage and up a narrow circular staircase at the far end. Tashko opened a door at the top and led the way into a comfortably furnished office.

Adem Kapo sat behind a desk, reading through some papers. He glanced up and a smile flashed across his face. “You’ll never know just how much of a pleasure this is. We’ve been most anxious to lay hands on you since that little affair in Tirana the other week.”

“Sigurmi?”

Kapo nodded. “My Italian front is only one of the numerous facets of my personality as I’m sure you’ll appreciate.”

“Oh, I do,” Chavasse said. “But what about a few answers? Only sporting and all that.”

“But of course.” Kapo smiled jovially. “The English side of your nature coming out, I presume?”

“The business in Matano? It was all a fix? No Ramiz? No Marco Minetti?”

“Ramiz was just a little blood on the floor and a substantial bribe to a young woman who lived just across the hall from his room. Minetti was a figment of the imagination.”

“Which explains why Francesca was so insistent that I didn’t disclose what was going on to Rome?”

Kapo nodded. “The story was genuine enough. It was played out by a rather high-minded young Italian named Carveggio who tried the same trick and got his head blown off for his pains.”

“And the statue?”

“We recovered it from the wreck almost immediately.”

He nodded to Tashko, who went to a cupboard, opened it and took out a shapeless bundle. He unwrapped a gray blanket and set the statue on the desk.

She was perhaps four feet high and carved from a single piece of ebony, her robes inlaid with gold. The features carried an expression of wonderful serenity and peace. A supreme achievement by some great artist.

“All right,” Chavasse said. “In all essential details, the story handed me by Francesca Minetti was true and it did what it was supposed to do—got me back into Albania. Which means you went to a hell of a lot of trouble—why?”

Kapo selected a cigarette from a wooden box on the desk and leaned back in his chair. “As you may know, relations between my own poor country and the USSR and its satellites have somewhat deteriorated over the past few years. In our trouble, only one friend came to our aid—China.”

“How touching.”

“We are a sentimental people, I assure you. We like to pay our debts. The report from our counterintelligence section, which contained the information that you intended to enter our country as a member of an Italian Workers’ Holiday group, was passed on to Chinese Intelligence headquarters in Tirana as a matter of courtesy. They expressed great interest. Apparently you did them some disservice in Tibet last year. Something to do with a Doctor Hoffner, I understand. We promised to let them have you.”

“And then I slipped through your fingers.”

“But not for long, you must agree, and thanks to only one person. An extremely able member of the counterintelligence section of the sigurmi. Perhaps you’d like to meet her?”

When Tashko opened the door she came in at once. She was still in the clothes she had worn on the boat, but looked different. Harder, more assured.

“Why, Francesca, why?” he said.

“I am as much Albanian as I am Italian,” she said calmly. “One can’t have a foot in both worlds. I chose mine long ago.”

“You mean you’ve been working for the other side ever since the Bureau took you on?”

“How else did you think our people in Tirana knew you were coming? I only transmitted that radio warning from Scutari because the night duty officer was present when it came in.”

And then it really hit him for the first time. At the very heart of things, with a top security rating, someone from the other side had been sitting for two years, passing on the information men had sweated and died for, perhaps even sending them to their deaths.

Something of this must have shown on his face and she smiled slightly. “Oh, yes, Paul, I have accomplished great things. Remember Matt Sorley and the Frenchman, Dumont? Neither of them lasted long, I saw to that. And there were others.”

“You lousy bitch.”

“You killed my husband, Paul,” she said calmly, and a cold hatred blazed from her eyes.

“Your husband?” He frowned slightly and shook his head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about. In any case, I’ve seen your personal file. There was no mention of any marriage.”

“Not a difficult thing to keep quiet about if one goes the right way about it. His name was Enrico Noci. You drowned him like a rat in a fishing net. No marks, no violence. Just an accident.”

“Which I must say was really damned ingenious of you,” Kapo put in.

There was obviously nothing more to say and Chavasse turned from her to the little man. “What happens now? A quick flight to Peking?”

“No rush.” Kapo grinned. “We’ve all the time in the world and there’s so much you could tell me. How on earth you managed to get inside the monastery, for example. Of course that was the idea—that you should show up. We were quite certain that a man of your resource and energy wouldn’t leave his friends in the lurch, but to be perfectly honest, your sudden materialization out of thin air was even more than I’d reckoned on.”

“A trick I picked up from an old
fakir
in India years ago.”

“Fascinating. You can tell me all about it when I return. If you can’t, I’m sure Tashko can persuade the young lady you picked up on your travels to be more cooperative.”

Chavasse ignored the veiled threat and calmly helped himself to a cigarette from the box on the desk. “You’re going somewhere?”

“Didn’t I explain?” Kapo took another cigarette, lit it and tossed the matches across to Chavasse. They might have been good friends enjoying a pleasant conversation. “It’s really rather ingenious, though I do say it myself. At the moment, your young friend Arezzi is sitting on the
Buona Esperanza
awaiting your return.”

Which didn’t make sense at all. Chavasse was unable to suppress a slight frown and Kapo smiled. “Later tonight, I shall take Francesca in the motor boat to within a reasonable distance of the launch. In the gray light of dawn, she will float out of the mist in your dinghy, in a distressed condition, I might add.”

“And with an even more distressing story to tell.”

“But of course. They’ll be most upset back in Rome when they hear they’ve lost the gallant Chavasse and his friend Orsini.”

“And you think they’ll accept Francesca back into the fold without a question?” Chavasse shook his head. “My boss has a mind like a sewer. He’ll check every step she’s taken since she was six months old.”

“I wouldn’t be too sure.” Kapo smiled. “You see, she’ll have the Black Madonna with her, such a lovely stroke of propaganda against Albania. Everyone will be so pleased.”

And he was right. It was good. Kapo started to laugh and nodded to Tashko. “Take him back to his friends. I’ll deal with him when I return in the morning.”

Chavasse turned to face Francesca. She held his gaze for a moment, then looked away, and Tashko gave him a push toward the door. They went down the stairs and back along the corridor.

Just before they reached the storeroom again, Tashko paused to light a long Russian cigarette. The two soldiers waited respectfully a few paces away, obviously frightened to death of him, and he glared at Chavasse coldly.

“That one up there is a big man with words, but I have a different approach. Soon you will find this out.”

“Why don’t you take a running jump,” Chavasse said calmly.

Rage flared in the cold eyes. Tashko took a step forward and restrained himself with obvious difficulty. There was a door to another room to one side of Chavasse and, quite suddenly, the Albanian’s right fist shot forward in a straight line in that terrible basic karate blow known as the reverse punch. The inch-thick center plank of the door splintered and sagged inwards.

There was a little Japanese professor whose class Chavasse attended three times a week whenever he was in London, who could do the same thing to three planks at once, and he was half Tashko’s size. His words echoed faintly like an old tune:
Science, Chavasse San. Science, not force. God did not intend the brute to lord it over the earth.

“Try to imagine what that would have done to your face,” Tashko said.

“It’s certainly a thought.”

Chavasse moved on along the passage. One of the soldiers unlocked the door and they pushed him inside. As it closed, he looked through the grille into Tashko’s cold eyes.

The Albanian nodded. “I’ll be back.”

His footsteps died along the corridor and Chavasse turned to the others. Orsini was sitting by the window, an arm around Liri, and the blanket was draped over their shoulders. It was bitterly cold.

“What happened?” Orsini demanded.

Chavasse told him. When he had finished, Liri shook her head. “She must be a devil, that one.”

“No, cara, no devil,” Orsini said. “She is like all her kind, convinced that she alone knows the ultimate truth of things. To achieve it, she believes anything to be permissible.”

“Which doesn’t help any of us one little bit,” Chavasse said.

He went and sat on a packing case, turning up the collar of his jacket, and folded his arms to conserve what heat was left in his body, thinking about Francesca Minetti. So Enrico Noci had been her husband? Strange that a woman so obviously intelligent should fall for that sort of man.

Orsini and Liri were talking together in low voices, an intimacy between them. What was it someone had once said? A day told you as much about a person as ten years? Pity they’d had to meet under such circumstances.

How ironic that Guilio Orsini, the man who had penetrated the main harbor at Alexandria on one of the first underwater chariots, who had sunk two British destroyers, survivor of one desperate exploit after another through the years, should end like this because he had been touched by the apparent sorrow of a young girl. Life could be strangely puzzling. After a while, his head dropped forward on his breast and he slept.

BOOK: The Keys of Hell
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