THE SOFTWARE TRAP
(Nor was this a radio story, but a competition entry for a spy story in 2,000 words – not a length I would personally recommend for a short story, which is difficult enough at twice the length, and all but impossible at the length demanded on this occasion. There is always the danger that in reducing the length in this way one might end with a ‘short short‘ story, like the previous one, and not a true short story at all. Incidentally, the following story didn‘t win one of the prizes, but was ‘Highly Commended‘. Ah well, you can‘t win ‘em all).
I closed the door of the study behind me, but even before my hand reached the light-switch I noticed the greenish glow from the monitor of the computer. I switched on the light and crossed the room to turn off the computer.
I can‘t recall what it was that stopped me. It may have been the unfamiliar shape of the text on the screen. It wasn‘t any page-format I‘d be likely to use. Me write verse in a computer ? Hardly.
Any proper noun may have
Albert and Victoria
Might be people, might be faces;
And every kind of scent may leave
A dozen different traces;
But only one will lead you to
Solutions in both cases.
And, after that:
15.15 tomorrow, and carry a bottle of Veuve Clicquot.
I went to the door and called Helen. She came, wiping her hands on her apron.
‘Yes, dear ?‘
‘Look, love, I thought I made it clear that Simon was to use his own computer and leave mine alone ?‘
Her eyebrows knitted with what looked dangerously like annoyance.
‘Is that all you called me for ?‘
‘He‘s been messing about with my computer again.‘
‘He‘s been doing nothing of the kind,‘ she replied. ‘You forget. He‘s playing chess over at Fareham.‘
‘Are you sure no one else has been in here ?‘
‘Not to my knowledge. Correction. I nearly forgot. Jim Cartwright dropped in to return the book he borrowed from you. He said he‘d leave it in here.‘
I went back to the screen and read the verse again. It didn‘t make any more sense this time than the first.
And then the ‘phone rang and put an end to my rumination.
‘Oh, Jim ! I got the book, thanks.‘
‘Oh - ah, yes. Well - ‘
‘Come on, Jim. What is it ? Cryptic messages now ? Seems you didn‘t call in just to return a book.‘
‘Well, no. Look, Andy, I could do with a spot of help, that‘s all.‘
‘All right, all right. What‘s the problem ?‘
‘No problem. Just a question. Am I right in thinking you knew Magda Ferenczy ?‘
‘That‘s right. Studied piano with her. She got out of Hungary just before the Russkys arrived, and came to London. Only I didn‘t turn out to be concert-pianist standard, and we lost touch.‘
‘Did you know her husband ?‘
‘Not well. Met him a couple of times, that‘s all. Why ?‘
‘Well, it seems he lives on my patch. He‘s got a flat in Albany Road.‘
‘And – ?‘
‘He‘s gone missing !‘
‘Oh, come on !‘ I said. ‘I know the Old Bill. You don‘t lose sleep over a guy that goes missing. Did she report it ?‘
‘Magda ? No. They‘re not living together any more, it seems. No, this came from – well, let‘s say higher up.‘
I couldn‘t see what possible help I could be, I said. After all, I hadn‘t seen Magda in over twenty years and I never really knew the guy she married. I couldn‘t even remember his name.
He rang off at that. He didn‘t seem too well pleased.
I put the whole thing out of my mind, and spent an idle few minutes puzzling over the words on the screen without getting anywhere. But before I cleared the screen I saved the verse to disc, so that I could have a copy later if I wanted it.
But if I thought I could dismiss it as easily as that, I was much mistaken, Time and again I would catch my thoughts wandering from the novel I was writing and back to Victoria and Albert. Albert Hall ? Victoria Station ? The V and A ?
But – could be people ? As I pondered that, the solution came straight from the subconscious. Of course ! Of course ! Albert. Magda‘s husband. Former husband anyway. His name was Albert.
The next clue was easier. 15.15. Continental time ? And Victoria – could that be Victoria Station ? A train from or into Victoria at 3.15 ?
I‘ve learned over the years to pay attention to the wilder flights of fancy from the subconscious mind. Writers have to, because in the final analysis it‘s all they‘ve got. Disregard them, and what are you left with ?
I reached for the ‘phone and dialled British Rail Passenger Enquiries. After a seeming eternity I got an answer. There was a train, apparently, that arrived at Victoria at 3.15. No train leaving at that time. My spine prickled for a moment, until common sense pointed out that it was hardly astonishing.
I made up my mind then and there that the following afternoon would find me on the appropriate platform to meet that train, and to await whatever might transpire. I almost opted out of the bottle of champagne, but at the last minute I thought what the hell, we could always find an occasion for it.
So there I was at three o‘clock the next day, cradling a bottle of Veuve Clicquot, telling myself I was every kind of idiot to waste time and money on a wild-goose chase, and wondering what on earth the 3.15 would bring.
What it brought was Magda Ferenczy, and a curious feeling that, after the crazy events of the past twenty-four hours, it was almost predictable. I knew her on the instant, and wondered whether she would find me as little changed. She wasn‘t quite a slim as she had been, but that blonde head was still capable of turning every male head in sight, and she still had that quality of stillness that I remembered. And, though she appeared to be alone, and making no apparent effort to organize her effects, I noticed that she had managed to enlist the services of a porter.
Then she caught sight of me. The lovely mouth opened in surprise, and for a moment the look in her eyes was hesitant, almost fearful. Then she smiled again and ran forward, and the next moment her arms were round me and I was enveloped in fur and perfume.
‘Andy ! Darling ! It is you ! But how – how did you know ?‘
I didn‘t, I told her. It was pure chance.
‘Oh, but how lucky for me ! Can you – are you free for a while ?‘
I nodded, and was again rewarded with that dazzling smile.
‘Good, good, good ! Now, where can we go - ?‘
She turned, caught sight of the porter with her two cases, and took my hands in hers.
‘Andy, darling, be an angel and put my cases in one of those lockers, will you ?‘
‘Sure !‘ I replied. Just hang on to this bottle, will you ?‘
I reached for the nearest case, but her hand on my arm restrained me. She said, quickly,
‘No, don‘t try to lift them ! They‘re much too heavy ! They have wheels on, though.‘
It wasn‘t the easiest thing in the world to steer two heavy cases at once in the direction of the left-luggage lockers. But it was child‘s play in comparison with the job of heaving them up into the lockers.
I took out the key, and turned to rejoin her. She was nowhere to be seen,
Presumably she‘s made use of my absence to visit the powder-room, I thought. Five minutes passed. Ten. Even Magda can‘t take this long, I told myself. I was just about to set off in search of her, or of the announcer to let her know where I was, when I caught sight of a familiar figure. Jim Cartwright.
It all fell into place. I ought to have remembered Jim‘s passion for verse; even at school they called him Wordsworth. I rushed over to him.
‘Look, what the hell‘s going on ?‘
‘Cool it, Andy ! I‘ll explain later ! Just give me that key !‘
‘Not bloody likely !‘ I said. ‘Not even for the Old Bill !‘
‘Suit yourself !‘ he said. ‘But one of us is going to have to open that locker. And if my guess is right, you might wish you‘d left it to me ! Come on !‘
When we‘d heaved both cases out, Jim looked all round him as if the ensure that he wasn‘t observed. Then he took a leather key-case from his pocket and I thought I detected a whiff of familiar perfume. Cautiously he raised the lid, shielding me from the sight of it with a broad back.
I pushed him roughly aside — and on the instant wished that I hadn‘t . . .
No corpse is the pleasantest of sights, but half a corpse . . . Especially when it‘s someone you recognize, someone you once knew, if only slightly. I wished someone would draw the eyelids down over those staring eyes.
Nothing on God‘s earth would have persuaded me to wait for the opening of the other case. I stumbled over to the wall, and threw up. When I had recovered a little I looked for Jim. He was still there, and regarding me with a look of concern.
‘I‘m truly sorry about that, Andy ! But I did try to prevent you, you know !‘
‘Yeah, yeah ! But just tell me – what the hell is all this ?‘
He made a signal to another sober-suited figure to take charge of the cases. Then he took my elbow in his hand and led me outside to a waiting car. When the door was safely closed behind us and we were moving off, he said,
‘You‘re entitled to some explanation, Andy. I‘ll give you as much as I think I‘ll be allowed to. But the Official Secrets Act applies, you understand. I must ask you to accept that this is between you and me. And, for the record, this conversation never took place !‘
He paused, as though choosing his words.
‘I expect you recognized Albert. A good guy, Albert. He deserved a better end.‘
He stopped, his face set more grimly than ever. Then he went on,
’Albert, I assume, was one of ours – ‘
‘One of ours ? I – I don‘t understand ! What about Magda ?‘
‘Oh, definitely one of theirs, old boy !‘
He clearly appreciated my entire stupefaction, and almost grinned.
‘She‘s what the people in the business call a sleeper, I understand. Someone trained and sent over to build a life on enemy territory, and to lie low until called upon. For years, if need be. I assume that this job was one that she was needed for. She could get to Albert, you see, without arousing his suspicions. I guess he dropped his guard, poor devil.‘
‘So where is she now ?‘
‘Oh, she‘s been picked up. Very discreetly. You won‘t hear anything more of Magda !‘
‘Oh, my God ! You don‘t mean – ?‘
‘Oh, I doubt that, Andy ! No, I guess she‘ll be kept on ice, perhaps until our boys need a quid pro quo to get one of ours out.‘
His mouth twisted.
‘Police work isn‘t always nice and clean, you know, but I‘m glad I don‘t have to do this sort of thing as my regular day job.‘
‘Then why – ?‘
‘Why did I get involved this time ? Simple. Seems the bloodhounds got wind of a big operation. Here, I mean. They knew the station would be crawling with the other side‘s people. And if they spotted one of ours they‘d have a pretty shrewd idea the job had been blown. Our blokes couldn‘t even be certain that Magda herself wouldn‘t be able to identify them. So they needed someone who wasn‘t known to the other side. Somebody that Magda wouldn‘t suspect. I‘d have done it like a shot, but it had to be someone she knew from way back.‘
‘So you used me !‘
‘Look, Andy – Good God, man, d‘you think I wanted that ? We had nobody else. Nobody who knew her and who‘d be above suspicion !‘
I was beginning to get the picture.
‘But why all this bloody charade with the word processor ?‘
‘Look, man, try to understand. I couldn‘t tell you what we wanted ! Don‘t you see ? I had to get you there somehow without you knowing what was going on.‘
‘So you gave them my name ?‘
‘I did no such thing. Magda‘s records, I gather, run to some length. They include quite a lot of people she knew back then. Understand ?‘
‘But, Jim – ! Solutions in both cases ? You knew about them ?‘
‘Good Lord, no ! The two cases I meant were Victoria and Albert ! Both clues !‘
He reached behind him and brought out a bottle of champagne that I hadn’t given a single thought for quite a long time.
‘Keep it, Andy ! You paid for it more than once. I‘ll see to it you‘re repaid for the first time. I only hope the powers that be will think the second time was worth the price !‘
I‘ve still got the bottle. I can‘t think what the hell to do with it. But one thing I‘m sure of. You couldn‘t pay me enough to drink the stuff after that.