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Authors: Michael Gilbert

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BOOK: The 92nd Tiger
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‘Quite right,’ said the man. ‘Bob’s being very formal this morning. He usually introduces me to people as Bertie. I think he wanted to impress you.’

‘He’s succeeded.’

‘Have you known Bob long?’

‘For exactly five minutes.’

‘He’s a good chap. Right on his toes. I imagine it’s something to do with the Gulf. That’s his particular interest.’

‘Do you know that part of the world ?’

‘Fairly well. I was Political Agent at Abu Dhabi for two years, and then I was a sort of dogsbody in the Residency at Bahrain.’

‘Bertie,’ said Ringbolt, returning to the table, ‘is in the Secret Service. So don’t say anything you shouldn’t.’

‘Absolute nonsense,’ said Lord Twinley. ‘Like all Americans Bob has got romantic notions about the British Secret Service. Actually, being in the racket himself, he knows perfectly well that all consular and foreign service officials are supposed to keep their eyes open and their ears flapping. If that makes me a spy, it makes him one too.’

‘To espionage,’ said Bob. ‘We’ll drink to that.’

The martinis which they were drinking must have had a lot of gin in them. After the third one, Hugo felt that his entrails were becoming anaesthetised and began to wonder about lunch.

Ringbolt appeared to read his thoughts. He said, ‘If you’re prepared to walk a few steps, we’ll be moving.’

When they got out into Piccadilly, Hugo, in whom the pale spring sunlight and the gin were combining to produce a mood of euphoria, began betting with himself. The Ritz? The Caprice? No. Passed the turning. The Berkeley? Missed that one, too.

What possibilities lay ahead ?

‘We turn left here,’ said Ringbolt

Albany, by God.

The porter said, ‘Good afternoon, Mr. Ringbolt,’ and then, ‘Nice to see you again, Mr. Greest.’

‘Would he be one of your fans, too ?’

‘No,’ said Hugo. ‘Actually, I used to live here myself once.’

‘It certainly gives me a kick occupying an apartment which once belonged to Lord Byron. I expect, in years to come, they’ll be putting up a plaque for you too, Hugo.’

 

Colonel Rex had left his flat at eleven o’clock that morning. He had a number of business calls to make, and none of the business lent itself to discussion on the telephone. It all had to be done personally.

He walked down the stairs, avoiding the lift.

(He had once had a very unpleasant experience in Mexico City. The lift which was meant to take him non-stop from the twentieth to the ground floor had stopped unexpectedly at the tenth floor and a man had got in and tried to knife him. The Colonel who was an expert at knife fighting had deflected the thrust at some cost to himself and replied in kind. When the lift arrived at the foyer, and the doors had opened to reveal the shambles inside, a middle-aged lady, who had been waiting for it, had had hysterics. A great many explanations had been called for.)

As he walked downstairs and out into the courtyard at the back he was thinking about his conversation on the previous evening and trying to come to some conclusion about Hugo Greest.

Was he a fool? Or was he a crafty man who preferred to behave like a fool? Or was he a knave? Or was he possibly a simple, honest man? The Colonel was experienced in dealing with the foolish, and the crafty, and the dishonest. It was the final category that he found disconcerting. Their reactions were difficult to anticipate. They followed no predictable course.

He came out into the courtyard, and sniffed the morning air with approval. It was a day of premature spring weather. The Colonel had never been able to understand why the English complained about their weather. It was variable, but almost entirely temperate and agreeable.

He unlocked the garage door, and the door of his car. As he was about to get in, he checked. It was such a brief pause, such a tiny cessation of movement, that a watcher would hardly have noticed it. At one moment he was getting into his car. At the next he was leaning over the back of the driving seat, picking up the light overcoat from the back seat.

Then he backed out of the car, shut the door very gently, and locked it. He locked up the garage again, pocketed the keys, and put on the overcoat. It was such a nice day that he had evidently decided to walk or use public transport.

A sensible decision, one might have felt, in view of the congested streets of central London and the near impossibility of parking.

 

‘So that’s the position,’ said Ringbolt. ‘Bertie will tell you if I’m painting with too broad a brush.’

An extremely pleasant luncheon, served by a middle-aged housekeeper, had been followed by coffee and brandy. Hugo lit the cigar which was offered to him and tried to keep his defensive mechanisms in trim. It was not easy.

Whether Lord Twinley was in the Secret Service or not, he had certainly been in the Gulf, and he knew what he was talking about. Bob seemed to have done his homework too.

‘When you decided to withdraw from the Gulf,’ he said. ‘And I’m not criticising the decision – it was pretty inevitable I guess – you left a vacuum. And nature, as I was taught at school, abhors a vacuum. Moreover, there was no shortage of people waiting to fill it. The United States has got more money invested in those parts than they’d care to see threatened. Our main ally in Saudi Arabia. The Russians are pressing down on Iran. They’re pretty unwilling partners in some ways, but a competitive situation makes strange bedfellows, and I happen to know that Kedried, their Minister for Oil and Fuel, has been in Teheran these last few months. And last, but by no means least—’ Ringbolt tapped off the ash of his cigar with a composed gesture which suddenly made Hugo realise that he was a lot older than he looked— ‘last but not least, the Chinese are moving north from their first outpost, Aden, and getting their feet under the table in Iraq. The Ba’ath party are just natural colleagues for them. The smaller states line up with the bigger ones. Bahrain with Saudi, Qatar with Iran, and so on.’

‘And Umran?’

‘If I was a cartoonist,’ said Lord Twinley, ‘I’d draw the whole thing for you in a picture. Tiny little Umran, wearing a mini-skirt, and a bashful smile. Three enormous suitors, pressing forward to demand her hand in marriage. Each of them with a bunch of flowers in one fist and a sub-machine gun in the other.’

Hugo said, ‘That hardly fits in with my impression of Sheik Ahmed bin Rashid bin Abdullah al Ferini. I don’t see him in a mini-skirt somehow.’

‘He’s quite a boy,’ said Ringbolt. ‘But he’s still only got half a division of troops.’

‘His idea seems to be that a small army that’s prepared to fight is better than a large one sitting on a pile of atomic weapons it daren’t use.’

‘Something in that,’ said Lord Twinley. ‘And he’s certainly got them at the spot where it counts. Have you ever worked out what would happen if someone did blockade the mouth of the Gulf. Suez would be peanuts to it. The oil companies got round that one by building big tankers and routing their oil round the Cape. There’s no alternative route out of the Gulf. Except by pipe-line across the desert. Which could be blown up half a dozen times a week.’

It was at this moment that the telephone rang. Ringbolt lifted the receiver, listened for a moment, and said, ‘It’s for you Hugo.’

‘Can’t be,’ said Hugo. ‘Who is it?’

‘Mrs. Geest,’ she said.

It was his mother. She said, ‘I’m so sorry to chase you like this, darling. But I rang up that American Club and they gave me this number. They were terribly sticky about it, but when I told them how urgent it was—’

‘What’s happened?’

‘It’s this terrible American. I can’t make him go away.’

‘What American?’

‘He said, Mr. Ringbolt—’

‘I’m with Mr. Ringbolt now.’

‘No, no. He isn’t Mr. Ringbolt. He mentioned Mr. Ringbolt’s name, and I knew you were having lunch with him, so I let him in. Now I can’t get rid of him. Hugo, you’ve got to come back and cope.’

When his mother spoke in that tone of voice, the discipline of the nursery reasserted itself. He said, ‘All right. I’ll be back.’

 

When he got back to Richmond he went straight in by the front door on his mother’s side of the house. His mother was waiting in the hall. She said, in a whisper, ‘I couldn’t sit there just looking at him. In the end I
had
to come out. Do get rid of him.’

‘Who is he?’

‘He gave me this.’

The card, which was twice the size of an ordinary visiting card, said, ‘Urban L. Nussbaum’, in large letters and in smaller letters at the bottom right-hand corner, ‘Suite 1005, Grand Central Building, Topeka, Kansas, U.S.A.’

‘All right,’ said Hugo. ‘I’ll deal with him.’

He strode into the drawing room and Mr. Nussbaum rose to greet him. Rose was the appropriate word. He came imperceptibly upward, like a balloon from its moorings. He was such an odd shape that Hugo got the impression that he was smaller when standing up than when sitting down. His bulk was encased in a grey suit and he was wearing a tie which put Sayyed Nawaf’s in the shade.

His face, nut-brown shading to grey black round the jowls, broke into a warm smile at the sight of Hugo.

‘I certainly am glad to meet you, Mr. Greest.’

‘I can’t say the same until I know what it’s all about.’

‘Of course, of course.’

‘And I don’t usually talk business in my mother’s drawing room.’

‘Naturally not, and I wouldn’t have intruded if I hadn’t assumed this was all your residence. I had no idea that part of it belonged to your mother. A fine old lady. I hope she soon recovers.’

‘Recovers?’

‘I detected that she was not quite herself. She informed me that she was suffering from a migraine.’

‘It comes and goes,’ said Hugo. ‘Suppose we move to my side of the house.’ He led the way up the stairs, through a door and into his quarters. ‘You are from Target, I take it?’

Mr. Nussbaum’s eyes twinkled in the depths of his cheeks. He said, ‘I must congratulate you on your intelligence system. You know of our little organisation.’

‘I heard the name for the first time yesterday. I’m afraid you’re too late.’

‘I’m never too late,’ said Mr. Nussbaum genially. ‘If I miss one train, I catch the next. If I miss that one, I hire a special. You haven’t signed any papers I hope.’

Hugo admitted that he had not signed anything. It was apparently a mistake in the arms business to sign papers.

‘In that case, I’m not too late. Any offer Abacus made you, I can cut five per cent off it. Maybe ten.’

‘Not Abacus. A gentleman called Colonel Leroy Delmaison.’

In so far as it was possible to read any expression in the involuted surface of his visitor’s face, Hugo thought he detected the beginnings of a thoughtful look. It was as though a cloud had passed across an upland valley, removing the warmth, bringing with it a hint of snow.

‘The gentleman you have mentioned is a very able operator. Fast off the mark too. But you have to appreciate, Mr. Greest, that he is only a middleman. He has no sources of supply himself.’

‘He seemed to think that he would be able to organise them. We had a long talk last night.’

‘Colonel Rex can certainly talk. But talk won’t produce articles which he hasn’t got. Did he mention anti-aircraft guns? Or medium guns on mobile mountings?’

‘Not specifically, no.’

‘Did he think to tell you that these particular items were only obtainable from one firm in Sweden? And that Target had exclusive distribution rights in all the products of that firm?’

‘No,’ said Hugo slowly. ‘No, he didn’t tell me that. Is it a fact?’

‘Why should I lie to you, when you can check on it so easily? You can ask him yourself.’

‘I could do that.’

‘Now, I’m not saying anything against Colonel Rex, you understand. He’s a smart operator. He’s entitled to make you a proposition. I’m entitled to make you a proposition. You select the one which suits you best. Right?’

‘The only thing is, I did give him a sort of option—’

‘Not in writing?’

‘No, not in writing. But I don’t like going back on my word.’

‘It does you credit,’ said Mr. Nussbaum heartily. ‘Here’s an idea to play around with. Why don’t you do business with
both
of us?’

 

Colonel Rex was turning into Riverside Avenue, Richmond, when he stopped. Parked opposite No. 17 was a red American Studebaker saloon. It was a distinctive sort of car. Not only was it twice as long as the average English car, but it seemed to bulge in unexpected places. The Colonel examined it with interest for some seconds, and then walked back the way he had come, retired down a side-turning, and settled down to wait.

 

Chapter Six

 

Urban L. Nussbaum

 

When Hugo woke next morning, the weather had broken. The first days of false spring had flattered to deceive. The pale sunlight was gone. The winds of March were blowing bleakly, and they had brought rain with them.

‘What an extraordinary man!’ said his mother.

Hugo, as was his habit when he was not working, had walked down to spend the half-hour after breakfast with her.

‘I’m sorry you got lumbered with him.’

‘It was an experience. He wasn’t offensive, you know. Quite the contrary He was very polite. But it all went on rather long.’

‘Did you notice his tie?’

‘It was very striking. He told me about it. It was based on a painting by Picasso. He told me about everything. It was like the Poles during the war. Of course you were too young to remember them.
They
told you about everything, too. The most terrible things had happened to all of them.’

‘I hope Mr. Nussbaum didn’t tell you anything terrible.’

‘On the contrary. He seems to have had a very happy life. Both his children are at a university. Can you imagine?’

‘In America everyone goes to university.’

‘He started in the army in the ranks and rose to be a Master Sergeant Gunner. Or it might have been Sergeant Master Gunner. Then, after the war, he sold vacuum cleaners for a bit, and then he started selling other things.’

‘Did he tell you what things?’

BOOK: The 92nd Tiger
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