The girl with the Maroon lipstick (excerpt from Eagles Hunt Wolves) PART 2
Gageby doubled back and boarded, through the course of the morning, two trams heading in different directions. The jaunty feather in his trilby was now deflated and he buried the travel guide deeper into his pocket. Alighting and walking briskly along the Talstrasse, he crumpled up the hat and stuffed it into his raincoat. From the other pocket he pulled out a tweed flat cap and dipped it low over his eyes. He spotted the hotel where the drop had to be made. His stride took on a greater purpose. Once in the lobby, he handed the guide book to the courier; another young woman. She looked a studious type; as serene as a nun. She finished her coffee and folded the guide into her newspaper. He watched her leave through the lobby doors; a sudden downpour drove pedestrians to the shelter of the cafes and shops.
Gageby couldn’t shake the feeling that suddenly, everything was out of control. His years in Hong Kong before the war had honed his instincts; something was off, didn’t smell quite right. He had the sudden overwhelming urge to hear an English voice. He found a booth and fed it with coins. It was well positioned in the lobby; he could see who was coming in and out of the reception. He dialled the number to the Bern desk.
It rang. It kept on ringing.
The operator came on speaking high German,
“I’m sorry?” said Gageby
“There is no reply,” crackled the telephone exchange operator in guttural English.
“Please try again,” said Gageby.
The number kept ringing.
“There is no reply,” said the operator.
The coins ran out, the line went dead. Turning to reach into his pockets, Gageby failed to notice the tall woman and the two men enter the lobby. A coin slipped from his fingers and started to roll between his feet. It was then he realised that in a city of black, uniform, bureaucratic Swiss shoes, a pair of spit-shine tan Oxfords would stand out.
He dialled again, checking the number this time, scrawled on a slip of paper. The number rang.
“There is no reply,” said the operator`s voice.
Gageby felt only a slight prick to the nape of his neck and before his death, all he could hear was the interminable ringing of the telephone.
The man was in the garden when the telephone rang. He let the telephone ring. He refused to answer the phone when he was working in the grounds. He swept the dead leaves, pulled the dead plants to make room for the new.
The train to Honiton clattered across the southern English countryside, a thick plume of smoke streaming like a bilious pennant. He shaded his eyes in the bright spring glare. Sunlight splintered off the carriages windows.
The telephone rang again. Insistent.
Kneading his tired back muscles through the heavy knitted jumper, he walked through his brutally-pruned rose bushes to the simple rosewood telephone stand.
As he reached it, it stopped ringing. After a beat, it started again.
“Hello?” he said.
“Halidane, Edgar Aloys Halidane?”
He didn’t recognise the voice.
“Edgar Halidane of Elm Wood, Honiton?”
“How did you get this number may I ask?”
The voice sounded cold, formal, and bureaucratic; a male voice of indeterminate age; it had the trace of a foreign accent; bohemian.
“Ann Chambrel is dead?” said Halidane.
“I see.” Said Halidane.
“Natural causes. Heart failure. It’s in the Swiss morning papers.” Said the voice.
“I avoid reading newspapers.” Said Halidane.
“I will post you a copy.”
“Please don’t – save the postage.” Replied Halidane.
“She may have managed to get the information to foreign interests.”
“Foreign interests?” said Halidane.
“Intelligence services, MI6, O.S.S.” Said the voice.
Edgar Halidane’s heart tightened in his chest.
“That is most unfortunate, most unfortunate. I was led to believe that this situation would be put under control?” he said.
“It is.” Came the reply.
The voice carried a seed of doubt. The coolness faltered.
“Make sure there are no loose ends.” Said Halidane.
The caller hung up.
Edgar Halidane wasn’t used to being cut off. Beside his phone was a large box-shaped device, it was metal with a series of switches. He flicked a switch, he listened through the hiss of the atmosphere as the phone dialled the number back.
He steadied himself, and then stared at the phone, willing the return call to be answered.
A ticker tape spat out the number including prefix. He committed it to memory, it was a Swiss prefix; numbers were his passion; his ‘Bread and butter’ he would joke when he felt in the mood. Reaching into his breeches he produced a creased matchbook and looked at the cover. It read ‘Eden Au Lac’; the last time he had seen Ann Chambrel was on the dance floor of this hotel. He struck a match, it took several attempts and lit the ticker tape. Dangling from his forefinger and thumb, it blazed like the holy fire.
He dialled up his offices in Zürich, and repeated the number to the secretary there,
“Please ensure this time, its handled discreetly. A fact-finding mission only.” He said. He repeated it three times for emphasis.
Edgar Halidane strode through the low-ceiling rooms, past his tidy desk and tall shelves of sedate leather-bound books. In the living room, he reached for a crystal decanter and poured a generous measure of vermouth.
“Dead.” He whispered.
He lowered himself into his leather sofa.
He began to sip the smoky alcohol slowly. The plan would have to be expedited.
Rising, glass in hand, he walked through the large, dusty, living room, past the empty mantelpiece with its unlit hearth and ornate cornices to the cool kitchen. His footfall echoed across the chequered tiles and he opened the half-door that overlooked a newly swept patio and quilted wicker chair. At the doorway, he checked the three wall-mounted brass barometers hanging side-by-side. The glass was pulsing a faint green, the mercury separating and lolling around in small globules. Under a fading arboretum of holly, he walked to the greenhouse.
The green house was a sprawling white Victorian wrought-iron affair. The glass hung perilously from tendrils of ornate metal, the ancient glass shimmering in the early evening light pulsed a deep vermillion.
Edgar Halidane walked through the ferns and exotic orchids that he prized so dearly and at a cluttered work table at the centre of the conservatory. He pressed down on a foot pedal. The table slid quietly aside, revealing a stairwell. Along a smooth concrete tunnel, he came to a metal pressure door.