Malloy drove the Alvis to Prince Leopold Park. As they arrived, Vickery turned and placed a hand on Malloy’s shoulder.
“Stay in the car, there’s a good man,” Vickery said.
Malloy didn’t like this, but wasn’t really in any position to argue: he was employed in the role of ‘associate’ and Vickery was the boss.
The place chosen for the meeting was remarkable in that it was an absence of location. It was an overcast morning, and there was a heavy mist – the kind that causes beads of moisture to form on the wool of an overcoat. Through the windscreen, all Malloy could see were soft grey shapes, like a blurred photograph. He watched Vickery walk away from the car, his outline gradually fading. Another faded shadow appeared, a stout figure in a long overcoat and bowler hat: he and Vickery shook hands like old friends, and then they were both lost in a swirl of vapour.
The lack of any firm landmark was disconcerting, making it feel like he was at the edge of the world with nothing beyond it, even though Malloy knew the park lay in front of him. His own breath had fogged the inside of the windscreen and he wiped it with a gloved hand. As the mist shifted, he would occasionally catch a glimpse of the dome of the bandstand or the silhouette of a tree, but aside from that, he saw nothing.
Malloy glanced at his wristwatch: twenty minutes had passed since Vickery left the car. He would wait another ten minutes, then he would go in search of Vickery. The second hand swept around the dial at an agonisingly slow pace. He opened the door and climbed out, hoping that visibility would be better outside the car. He looked around him, and couldn’t even discern the outlines of nearby trees. He thought about walking in the direction of the bandstand, but then a sound caught his attention. A light cough.
“Do close the door, Jamie, you’re letting in the damp.”
Malloy ducked his head inside the Alvis: Vickery was sitting in the passenger seat pulling off his gloves. Malloy had not heard him return. He slid back behind the wheel and closed the door. He might have asked Vickery how he had re-entered the car unobserved, but he knew what the answer would be: Magic, my dear fellow. He started the engine and cleared the windscreen with the back of his gloved hand.
“Who was the fat bloke in the bowler hat?” Malloy asked, not expecting a straight answer.
“Fat?” Vickery said. “Yes, I suppose he is now. Freddie Fairburne. He was Foreign Office when I knew him. He is secret service now – though he didn’t tell me that, of course.”
Malloy glanced across and saw Vickery was watching him – and smiling. They were driving away from the park, up the hill and away from the mist that had settled in the valley. The sky was still grey, but it looked as though the sun would burn away the clouds before the morning was over.
“Was he offering you a job?” Malloy asked, smiling.
“You don’t think I could be a spy?” Vickery asked, pretending to be offended.
“I think you have been,” Malloy said. “Not that you’ve told me that, of course.”
“There is a lot I haven’t told you, Jamie. But if I remain tight-lipped, it’s not because I don’t trust you.”
“I know that,” Malloy said, and part of him believed it.
“Freddie did ask me if I’d do something for him. And I told him I’d do it. I shall need to go away for a few days. Three or four at most.”
“Very good, sir,” Malloy said, keeping his eyes on the road. He only called Vickery ‘sir’ when he was mocking him, or when he was annoyed with him. Vickery was aware of this. Malloy knew that Vickery owed him nothing and that he owed Vickery everything – his life and reputation included. He had been saved from the hangman’s noose and would be ever grateful. But that couldn’t stop him feeling disappointed about being excluded from this new adventure.
They drove on in silence for a time, Vickery glancing out at the early morning traffic on the roads and pavements. “Freddie shall have three days of my time, and no more,” he said. “After that, I think you and I should get away for a while.”
“A week at the seaside?” Malloy asked. He couldn’t quite imagine the Great Vicari doing sandcastles and a portion of chips.
“Me in a bathing suit? Good lord, no,” Vickery said. “I had in mind a stay in the country. A couple of days with your aunt, perhaps, and then on to somewhere a little more rugged?”
Aunt Flossie was the closest thing to a parent Malloy had. She had wanted to be introduced to Benjamin Vickery since she had learned that he and Malloy had been reacquainted, but Vickery had refused. Until now.
“You and I spend so much of our time having adventures that we barely have time to talk to one another,” Vickery said. “As soon as I’ve dealt with Freddie’s little problem, we’ll get away from it all – the adventures, the city, everything.”
This was a promise of ‘jam tomorrow’ intended to stop Malloy dwelling on the fact that he was currently ‘not wanted on voyage.’ This escape to the country would almost certainly never take place, and he knew he would be a fool to let his hopes be raised. Vickery would go off on his secret errand, no matter what, and Malloy could either sulk about it until he returned, or he could make the best of his situation.
“How about breakfast?” he asked.
“Excellent idea!” Vickery said.
“Good evening,” Malloy said.
“Mr. Vickery isn’t here,” Betty said. She stood on the doorstep looking down at him, blocking his way.
“I’m to pick him up at seven o’clock and drive him to the railway station,” Malloy said.
“I don’t know anything about that,” Betty said. “I do know that Mr. Vickery is gone. He left an hour ago.” She stepped back and started to close the door.
“But…” Malloy said.
“Good day,” she said firmly and banged the door shut.
Malloy stared at the closed door. Vickery’s housekeeper was twenty-three years old and took her role very seriously. She had taken a dislike to him the first time they met and remained cold to him despite his best efforts to charm her. If she had her way, he was sure, Malloy would never set foot in the house again. And today her master was not available to overrule her.
He turned, aware now that the Alvis Speed 20 was not at the kerbside where he had left it earlier. It was entirely possible that a sudden change in Vickery’s plans had required him to make an earlier start. It was even more likely that he had never intended for Malloy to drive him anywhere, and the false seven o’clock start was meant to ensure he could make no attempt to join the secret mission or to follow Vickery.
Malloy pushed his hands into his coat pockets and walked back down the hill.
The first Malloy knew that something was wrong was when his landlady knocked and said he had a visitor. He never had visitors. No one knew where he lived.
Vickery had been absent for eight days at that point. Malloy had resolved to stay at home until Vickery sent a message to say that he had returned. He made this resolution because, on the fourth day of his absence, Malloy had called round to Mallowan Crescent.
“If Mr. Vickery wished you to know his whereabouts, I’m sure he would inform you,” Betty had said.
Malloy took that to mean he wasn’t at home.
“Is this where you live?” Betty asked. She was wearing a hat and coat that looked like they were borrowed from her mother, and that made her look even younger than usual. She looked around the dingy room, trying to keep her expression neutral.
“You don’t like it?” Malloy asked.
Colour rose in her cheeks and that made Malloy feel guilty. Betty was obviously uncomfortable, and he was only making it worse. She wouldn’t have come all the way down there without good reason.
Malloy lived in a single room in Mrs. Ribot’s boarding house. It had a small gas fire and a dusty single-ring stove was hooked up to the same gas tap by an ancient bit of rubber hose. The bathroom down the hall was shared with three other boarders. The landlady had left Malloy’s door open – not because she thought it inappropriate for a man to have a young lady in his room, but because she wanted to loiter out on the landing and listen to their conversation.
Betty stood in the middle of the floor, clutching her handbag in front of her. She looked like she wanted to avoid touching anything in the room, so Malloy decided against asking her to sit down. Instead, he reached for his overcoat.
“Let’s walk down the street,” he said, “I want to get a newspaper from the corner.”
“Let’s do that,” Betty said, obviously relieved.
“You haven’t heard from him?” Malloy asked.
Betty bit her lower lip and shook her head.
It was mid-morning and the pavements were almost empty as they walked slowly in the direction of the tobacconist’s at the end of the street.
“I’m worried about him,” Betty said.
“Has he ever gone away like this before?” Malloy asked.
“No. I don’t know. I suppose he did go away, but he wasn’t on his own then. There was always…”
“Terry,” Malloy said. Betty looked at him and nodded. He knew what she was thinking: Why couldn’t he be more like Terry?
“Why didn’t you go with him?” Betty asked.
“He didn’t want me to,” Malloy said.
“Couldn’t you have tried harder to persuade him?”
“Perhaps I could have,” Malloy said.
They had reached the corner now, but instead of going into the shop, Malloy kept walking.
“What should we do?” Betty asked.
Malloy wasn’t sure what they could do. But at the same time, he didn’t want to wait around and do nothing. “Do you have any idea where he might have gone?” he asked.
Betty shook her head. “He packed a small suitcase. Said he wasn’t going for long.”
“Did he take his passport?”
“He took at least one of them,” Betty said. “I saw him go into the safe for it.”
If Vickery had more than one passport, it was possible that he had more than one identity. There was no telling what name he was travelling under. The only person who knew where Vickery was going was the fat man from the secret service.
“Freddie something,” Malloy said.
“The man Mr. Vickery met with before he left. Foreign Office chap called Freddie. Frampton or Fairclough or something like that.”
“Can’t you remember?”
“I’m trying,” Malloy said.
“I am – can’t you see the steam?”
They were standing still now, Betty staring up at him expectantly. The gears in Malloy’s head were grinding as he tried to recall Vickery’s exact words following the meeting in the mist. Malloy had said he was fat. Fat? Vickery had said. Yes, I suppose he is now. He was Foreign Office when I knew him. All those words beginning with ‘F’ and his name was…
“Freddie Fairburne,” Malloy said.
“Yes. Don’t make me doubt myself. I’ll send a telegram asking Fairburne to contact me.”
“What if he doesn’t?” Betty asked.
“Then I’ll go down and hammer on the door at the Foreign Office until he answers,” Malloy said.
Something about that mental image made Betty smile. Perhaps it was the thought of Malloy being carted away by a couple of bobbies for causing a public nuisance.
“Have you got a shilling for the telegram?” she asked, her fingers moving to the clasp of her handbag.
Malloy assured her that a shilling was within his means. Betty made him promise that he’d contact her as soon as he had news of any kind, and then said that she ought to get back. The English always seek to maintain their daily routines, Malloy thought, no matter what the circumstances. He watched her hurry away, then headed back to the tobacconist’s. For some reason, he felt that a newspaper might give him some clue to Vickery’s recent activities.
Of course, the disappearance of Benjamin Vickery, alias The Great Vicari, wasn’t reported in the newspaper. If he had been working as some sort of secret agent, no one was going to report him missing. And besides, Magician Vanishes wasn’t actually much of a headline.
As he walked, Malloy tried to compose the telegram in his head. It was a while since he’d faced the challenge of creating an intelligible message in twelve words or less. Not that he minded paying a penny for each extra word, but he wanted the words he chose to be clear but circumspect: if Freddie Fairburne really was with the secret service, Malloy couldn’t risk referring to Vickery or his mission directly.
MUST SPEAK RE VICARIOUS ACTIONS (STOP) DRIVER TO HELP
He thought that was suitably cryptic. Fairburne would know Vickery’s on-stage alias and would have been aware that he employed a driver. He didn’t think he needed to give his own name: they would be able to trace him easily enough. He sent the telegram from the local post office and then went home to read the day’s news. And to await a response.
Malloy had lived in the City of Walsingham for almost six years. He’d moved there as a temporary measure. It wasn’t quite in the middle of England, but it was close enough to seem like a sensible choice until he decided where to go next. He hadn’t stayed because he’d grown to like the place – he just couldn’t think of anywhere else that seemed preferable. He’d chosen to board with Mrs. Ribot for similar reasons: the rent was cheap, and it didn’t matter that the facilities were lacking because he didn’t plan to stay long. That’s how it happens, he thought, before you know it you’ll be middle-aged.
He used the gas ring in his room to boil water for a shave and a cup of tea, but he never cooked anything on it. Often, he would drop into the Bull’s Head for a cheese and onion sandwich and a couple of glasses of beer. More recently he had been dining out with Mr. Vickery who seemed to know all the places where good food was served at fair prices, and where a dinner jacket was not required. Malloy thought about heading over to Giancarlo’s, where he was sure he’d be made welcome, but he didn’t feel comfortable going alone. No, he’d feel much better tucking into steak and kidney pie and lumpy mashed potato, all smothered in thick brown gravy that looked almost black and washed down by a big mug of stewed tea. There was a place half an hour’s walk from his digs where a wizened old man with a Jewish-cockney accent served pies with crisp golden pastry and tea that was scalding hot, and he felt himself being drawn towards it as he turned onto the main street.
When he got back to the boarding house, Malloy discovered he had another visitor, but Mrs. Ribot did not announce this one.
“Don’t turn the light on,” a voice said as he entered.
Malloy blinked and, as his eyes adjusted to the gloom, he could make out a figure sitting in his armchair. The man wore a long overcoat and his bowler hat was resting on his lap.
“Close the door, there’s a good fellow,” the man said.
“Mr. Fairburne, I presume,” Malloy said, pushing the door shut.
“And you are The Driver,” Fairburne said. As he turned his head, Malloy could see the man had an impressive moustache.
“You got my message?” Malloy said. He sat on the bed facing the visitor.
Fairburne seemed amused by this. “Vickery told me about you, Mr. Malloy. He wanted you along as his right-hand man, but I forbade it. In retrospect, I think that was a mistake. But you will understand my caution, given the situation with the Irish at present.”
“I’m Irish, am I?” Malloy said.
“You have an Irish name and an Irish accent,” Fairburne said.
“I can change both, if you’d prefer.”
This brought another chuckle. “I dare say you could. Vickery said you had it in you. I should have trusted his judgment, I suppose.”
“But we are where we are,” Malloy said. “Where do we go from here?”
“Forget ‘officially’ – we’re sitting here in the dark because this meeting isn’t really taking place,” Malloy said.
“Quite right. I can’t – I won’t – tell you what I asked Vickery to do.”
“Because you never asked him to do anything. You were just two old friends having a nice walk in the fog.”
Fairburne made a noise somewhere between a cough and a harrumph. He wanted to tell Malloy not to be impertinent, but he couldn’t because he really had no authority here.
“What do you want me to do?” Malloy asked.
“I don’t want you to do anything, Mr. Malloy. My advice to you would be to stay at home and leave this to others who are better placed to deal with the situation.”
“Your people haven’t had much success, though, have they?”
“I couldn’t possibly comment on that,” Fairburne said.
“I’m not going to just sit and do nothing, you know that. And you knew that before you let yourself into my room. Why did you come here?”
“You must understand that anything you do, you do alone. I cannot provide you with resources, and I will not come to your rescue if you get into trouble.”
“But you can provide me with information,” Malloy said. “Unless you want me to go blundering in and ruin whatever your own agents are planning.”
Fairburne sucked his teeth as he thought about this. He leaned forward. “I’m not going to reveal anything to you about what we are doing. But, if you keep me informed of your plans, I may be able to offer some guidance – steer you towards answers, and away from danger. In return, you will share with me anything that you learn.”
Malloy got to his feet and went to the window, looking out at the night sky. Fairburne was offering him almost nothing and yet wanted to be able to track his every move. But without his help, the chances of locating Vickery were slim at best. “How do I contact you?” he asked.
Fairburne leaned back and took a card from his waistcoat pocket; he passed it to Malloy. There was a single word printed on it: Excubitor.
“Send a message to that telegraphic address. You will receive by return details of a meeting place. You will identify the agent you are to meet by the fact that he is carrying a tartan dog leash, even though he has no dog. You will say nothing to him except the word Georgius. You should only proceed with the meeting if he replies Vivat Rex!”
“How terribly British,” Malloy said.
“You’re not a patriot, Mr. Malloy?”
“I’m not an Englishman, Mr. Fairburne.”
“That can’t be helped, I suppose,” Fairburne said. “If you find yourself out of the country, send a telegram with that one word to the British embassy or our local envoy.” He nodded towards the card.
“All right,” Malloy said. “Tell me where to start. Where did you send Mr. Vickery?”
Fairburne leaned back and the armchair creaked loudly. “You know that accent of his?”
“I know it’s fake,” Malloy said.
Fairburne nodded slowly. “Yes and no,” he said. “He got it from his grandfather. Learned the language too.”
“Hungarian?” Malloy asked.
“Not Hungarian, no. But close.” Fairburne shifted in the chair and pushed himself to his feet.
Malloy stood and moved towards the door. “Do you know what name he was travelling under?” he asked.
“Good lord, no,” Fairburne said. “The whole point of engaging private agents is that we don’t ask questions. The less we know the better.”
“And you don’t know what aliases he’s used in the past?”
“Did I say that? I’m sure I didn’t say that,” Fairburne said.
He was giving the impression of being a bloated old duffer. But Malloy felt sure he was supposed to see beneath this façade and catch a glimpse of the wily fox beneath. Or perhaps Malloy just needed to convince himself that the security of the nation couldn’t possibly rely on the sort of man Fairburne appeared to be. He opened the door for him.
“No need to come down, I’ll see myself out,” Fairburne said.
Next morning, Betty didn’t keep him standing on the doorstep: she had the door open before he’d even finished knocking. She led him down the corridor to the kitchen. The house was empty, but he supposed this was the place where she felt most in control.
“You spoke to the man from the Foreign Office?” she asked.
“Fairburne. Yes, I did.”
“What did he tell you?”
“He wouldn’t tell me anything. All he would do is drop vague hints.”
“That’s civil servants for you,” Betty said. “Tell me what he said – perhaps we can make sense of it between us. I’ll put the kettle on.”
“What do you know about Mr. Vickery’s family?” Malloy asked.
Betty turned, the kettle in one hand and its lid in the other. “His family? I’m sure this isn’t the time for idle gossip,” she said, giving him a blast of her previous coldness.
“Fairburne mentioned Mr. Vickery’s grandfather. Said Vickery’s accent came from the old man.”
“I still don’t see what…”
“I think the accent is a clue to where Mr. Vickery went,” Malloy said.
“It’s Hungarian, isn’t it? Like the chap who played Dracula?”
“Fairburne said not Hungarian, but somewhere close.”
“What’s close to Hungary?” Betty asked.
“Haven’t a clue,” Malloy said, “I’ve never been further east than Great Yarmouth.”
“The study,” Betty said, “there’s an atlas in there. Come on.” She set down the kettle and led him upstairs.
Malloy had been in Vickery’s study before. It was a combination of office and library, and was the one place Betty was not permitted to tidy. When the fire was lit, the room had a cosy, timeless feel to it. Sherlock Holmes would have felt comfortable there. But in the grey morning light, it looked abandoned.
“This might do,” Malloy said, going over to a large globe in a polished wooden stand in the corner.
“Trust you,” Betty said, “that’s where the drink is kept.” She went over to the bookcase and retrieved a large volume bound in blue cloth – The Times Handy Atlas. She placed it on Mr. Vickery’s desk and opened it at random. “Where do we start?”
“Try and find Poland or Austria,” Malloy said. He joined her at the desk.
Betty flipped through the pages until she found a double-page spread that showed the major countries of the world. “There’s Germany and Austria – and here’s Hungary. It’s quite a small country,” she said.
“It used to be bigger,” Malloy said. He joined her at the desk and looked down at the map. “What countries are around it?”
“Romania, Poland, Serbia,” she read. “What’s this narrow orange one that disappears into the fold?”
Malloy peered more closely at where she was pointing. Was it another country? He went back to the globe and spun it to look at the same part of the map. There was no fold in the middle of it. “Rathbania,” he said.
“Is that what it is? I’ve never heard of it.”
“That’s what Mr. Vickery’s accent is,” Malloy said.
“I thought he was from Halifax?”
“That’s what he tells people,” Malloy said, “when he’s not telling them he’s from Grimsby.”
“Do you think that’s where he is?” Betty asked.
“Rathbania, you idiot.”
“I think that’s what Fairburne was trying to tell me,” Malloy said.
“We’re making progress!” Betty said, obviously pleased.
“That we are. But we still need to find out about Mr. Vickery’s grandfather.”
“We do? But we know he was from Rathbania.”
“But what was his name?” Malloy asked.
“Grandpa Vickery?” Betty suggested.
“Does Vickery sound like a Rathbanian name to you?”
“I don’t know what a Rathbanian name sounds like,” she said.
Malloy admitted that he had no idea either, but he suspected it would sound like a Romanian or Hungarian name.
“Like Lugosi?” Betty suggested.
“Dracula?” she prompted.
Malloy had never seen it.
“What about Vicari?” Betty asked.
“I always thought that was Italian,” Malloy said.
“Perhaps that was what we were supposed to think,” she said.
“I don’t think he would be that obvious,” Malloy said. “I’m sure that Fairburne chap was suggesting Mr. Vickery’s grandfather was the clue. Do you think there are any family papers here?”
Betty looked around the cluttered room. “I don’t really like to look.”
“Not even if Mr. Vickery’s life depends on it?”
“Do you think it does?”
“I think we use that as an excuse for prying into his private papers,” Malloy said.
“I don’t know…”
“You take the bookcase, I’ll go through the desk,” he said. He pulled open the top drawer.
Malloy and Betty spent the rest of the morning and the early part of the afternoon searching. They found nothing of use. Taking a break in the kitchen, they ate cheese sandwiches and shared a pot of tea.
“The important papers could all be at the bank, I suppose,” Betty said.
“Or in the safe?” Malloy suggested. He’d been thinking about the safe – wondering if he’d be able to persuade her to let him open it.
Betty shook her head. She had to swallow a bite of sandwich before she could speak. “I’ve seen in the safe. There’s just money, passports, and some folders of coins. No papers. Mr. Vickery put my mother’s earrings in there – after I had them valued and heard how much they were worth. She would never wear them again.”
“Not in the safe, then,” Malloy said. “And we’d never be able to get access to his safety deposit box.”
“We’d never have been able to get into his safe either,” Betty said.
“No, of course not,” Malloy said quickly. He took another bite of sandwich. “All we need to know is his grandfather’s name.”
“Isn’t there anyone we can ask?”
“Do you know if he has any other family?” Malloy asked.
Betty shook her head and shrugged. “There must be someone. Perhaps if we looked in his photograph album?”
“Everyone has pictures of their family, don’t they? People dressed in their Sunday best, looking all serious and uncomfortable.”
“Did you see a photograph album in the study?” Malloy asked.
“No. But I wasn’t looking for one.”
They abandoned their teacups and went back upstairs.
“He’s a bit stern-looking, isn’t he?” Malloy said.
“They all look like that,” Betty said. “They had to sit still for ages so they didn’t get blurred.”
The old photograph album was open on Vickery’s desk, and they were looking down at a photograph that had been labelled by a neat copperplate hand.
“Ruslan Bendek László Valerikov, 1813,” Malloy read.
“Grandpa Vickery,” Betty said.
“He could be using any combination of the old man’s names on his passport, I suppose,” Malloy said.
“Bendek Valerikov,” Betty said.
“It’s the closest to his real name, I suppose,” Malloy said, not sounding convinced.
“He wouldn’t have to change the monogram on his luggage,” Betty said.
Malloy looked at her and smiled. “You’re good at this. Now we just have to hope that Bendek Valerikov isn’t the Rathbanian equivalent to John Smith, and we might just find him.”