Two days later I was standing very quietly in the shadows of the darkest corner of a third-floor landing in a respectable rooming house in Zurich, making ready to ruin an innocent man’s life.
Zurich stretches along one end of a great lake ringed by mountains - from the little sailing dock at the mouth of the river, you walk back into the town towards the Hochschule on its hill through winding cobbled streets, lined with coffee houses and bakeries and shops each as brightly lit and clean as a jewel case.
Everywhere you heard Swiss German spoken - which is a dialect, true, but no more different than is the German of Bavaria from that of Prussia - and the crowds of students in caps and burghers in loden coats seem to have stepped straight from any South German or Austrian town square.
“This is how our grandfathers thought of Germany,” was his reply. “Comic peasants drinking beer, goat-herds springing up mountains, absent-minded philosophers walking into walls… little chocolate-box towns and churches and universities, and a hundred and fifty Grand Dukes and sovereign princes within a ten-mile radius. It’s why I like Switzerland, actually, sir - it’s the last surviving bit of Germany as it was, before the Prussians tied the whole parcel together and turned it into a support base for an imperial army a million strong. When they’re beaten, perhaps they’ll go back the same way.”
One of the native tribes in the copper country - I worked with one of their men on a mine when I was starting out - considers it bad luck to use a man’s name in his absence. I could address this man as “Koso” to his face (his name was Koso), but if I talked about him by name when he wasn’t around, I would run the risk of attracting the attention of sorcerers, who are naturally always hovering invisible on the wind listening for the names of their next victims - your name has power, you see, which is why you should never let someone use yours unless you are there to keep an eye on it. (I daresay that this also had a chilling effect on the propensity of the tribe to gossip, which benefit may have been the origin of the superstition in the first place.) Every man in the tribe has an epithet as well as the name, so if you’re talking about Koso in his absence you will refer to him instead as “the tall man” or “the son of the farmer on the hill with the thorn bushes”. And when the white man arrived in Koso’s country, some forty years back, and introduced the idea of written records, it actually started a minor war - having your name not only spoken in your absence but written down and perhaps sent halfway round the world was grotesquely foolhardy, unless you were the sort of lunatic who didn’t take the threat of sorcery seriously. (The war, Koso told me, was resolved by a forceful argument, backed by a couple of companies of mounted infantry up from Natal, that their spiritual security had not been jeopardised, as the names were only being written down in the white man’s language, which sorcerers of course didn’t speak. The surviving tribesmen, among whom was Koso’s father, were mostly of a disposition to agree with this line of reasoning.)
I mention this because the Swiss, in their business dealings, seemed to be very much of the same opinion as Koso and his friends and relations. The shops and offices we passed kept their true names to themselves assiduously; only very occasionally was there even a brass plate. The dark green door into which Calloway and I turned was marked, in a small and wary script, “HAERTLAND MATHIEU”. What Haertland and Mathieu might do with their time was left unsaid.
The man we met on the first floor was my age, but with a face as smooth and unlined as a new-laid egg poking out of the collar of his unworn black suit, and he didn’t seem to have a real name. “You may call me - Max, sir,” he said, placing the words in a neat line with the caution and precision of a man building a card house. “I am responsible for your superior’s office and affairs here in Zurich. Welcome to Switzerland.”
Two days later, Max and I roused ourselves as we heard the footsteps on the landing below us. The Swiss winter had set in, not with the picture-postcard blue skies and snow, but with a filthy freezing rain and grey clouds that had darkened the sky and brought an early dusk. And the landlord had frugally refrained from lighting the rooms until the evening - meaning that the staircase was heavily shadowed, though it was barely four in the afternoon. The dark-blue-clad figure rounded the corner of the stairs without seeing us, passed by and turned to mount the next staircase and we took him down hard. I took three quick strides and hit him with the thick of my forearm squarely between the shoulder blades with my weight behind it, and he went flying forward into the door in front of him, which swung open and let him through to tumble on to the floor of the unfurnished room behind it. I went straight in after him and put my knee in his back and twisted his arm the wrong way to keep him down - though I barely needed to, as he was winded and gasping with a combination of shock, pain and outrage. Police captains are rarely the subject of assault in the orderly town of Zurich. Max followed at his own pace, reaching into his pocket as he came for the real threat.
Our quarry was a captain of the Zurich cantonal police - for the little circus of dreamers and revolutionaries that the Swiss had collected here, he was the ringmaster, charged with making sure that none of the exotic animals jumped the barrier and started worrying the honest citizens. Calloway, in a fast and reckless move earlier that afternoon, had taken a day’s worth of the incoming post to the German Mission in Zurich - a whisper from inside the Mission had informed us that the chief, a creature of habit, liked his confidential agents to report weekly by the first post on Monday morning. Our policeman’s handwriting had been on one of the letters, a very compromising letter, full of information that he really should not have been sharing with anyone, and, unforgivably, his signature had been at the bottom - and the confirmation that his latest payment for services rendered had reached his account in the Cantonalbank.
A Haertland Mathieu agent inside the Cantonalbank, old and poker-backed and bookish, contacted by Max and myself in a hurry barely before his office closed its doors for the day, had confirmed the other side of the deal - a regular and inexplicable payment, shuffled from an account linked indirectly but inextricably to the Mission, all the way to our erring captain of police.
Closing his notebook with the account details written down neatly: “Some men say ‘money isn’t everything’. They’re wrong. Money is everything. Or at any rate it can be everything. It can be anything you want. That’s what makes it money.” He sighed: “And for some reason, men are always ready to trust those who have money. The Germans, for example, trust me implicitly. In another country, no doubt, they would pay their agents in gold, but here in Zurich it is perfectly secure to handle them through a bank. Mine in particular. My discretion is legendary and I would never betray the confidence of a customer. I am one of the most trusted agents of the Imperial Mission.”
“He’s been letting us see every secret instruction the Mission sends him for the last ten months,” Max had interjected, smiling very slightly. The banker had nodded politely and straightened his cuffs.
I gripped the policeman by the hair and wrenched his head back until he was looking up at Max, now kneeling cautiously, trousers hitched up to preserve the crease, straight in his line of view. You could open some doors quietly and slowly, Max had said. Others you had to break down. The trick was knowing which was which.
If Max was wrong about the captain, we’d have shown our hand and the city would be no fit place for us as soon as the sun rose the next day. But then if we couldn’t turn him, Calloway’s theft would tip off the Mission soon enough anyway and our situation would be, at least, thoroughly complicated. Even if we succeeded, we would be leaving the staff of Haertland Mathieu with the devil of a mess to clean up in our absence. Their whole delicate game of bluff and countermove would have been smashed into chaos - we weren’t so much bulls in a china shop as hold-up artists bursting into a bridge tournament. Time, however, pressed, and allowed us no other options.
“We can leave this room, now,” Max said. “You will be disturbed no longer. But then this document would go straight to your superiors; and your position would be very difficult. Or you can simply provide us with the same information on the foreign residents which you have already provided to the Mission; you will have betrayed no further confidences, and you will hear no more from us. Ten seconds to decide, Captain.”
Inside the captain’s rooms on the floor above, a locked cabinet; within it, a (highly irregular) copy of his official lists of foreign and stateless resident persons under observation as potential irritations to the peace, order and good government of the Canton of Zurich - kept by our corrupted captain for the convenient reference of his German employers. Max removed a vest-pocket Kodak from his overcoat, unfolded it and started to photograph the list, two exposures per page, stopping after each shot to scratch notes on to the margin of the negative with a stylus.
“Too many Russians,” I muttered a little later as we raced through the list. “There must be four hundred here suspected of political activity - Socialists, Social Democrats, Revolutionaries, Syndicalists, whatever those are... We have to find some way to trim the list down.”
The Captain had provided more than just a list of names - each foreigner had a page to himself, doubtless the summary of a long and painstakingly accurate file somewhere in the bowels of the cantonal police offices. Instead of photographs, ink drawings of each one stared up from the corner of each page, the work of some anonymous police sketch artist - bookish faces, bald heads, faces roughened by wind or toil, faces wreathed in a chaos of beard and hair, men - and a few women - who could have passed unnoticed in a London drawing room, others who looked as though they had come straight from a Don peasant hut, others still with the narrow eyes of the eastern territories. Which one had the Light of Sar meant to bring back with him through the passes - “only open one month of the year” and surely choked by now with ice and drifted snow, to that strange fortress-abbey in the Tolong La? Surely not this one, well-fed and well-groomed and even in his sketch with the pop-eyed expression of a man close to heart failure...
Begeisterter Bergsteiger. “Enthusiastic mountaineer”. The words jumped up at me out of the photographed typewritten summary of yet another bird of passage, beside the sketch of a high-cheekboned face, neatly-trimmed imperial and cropped hair, and I stood up fast and without meaning to and waved it at Max. “This is it!” I cried. “It has to be… the Germans are no fools, they wouldn’t send some middle-aged café-lover over the passes in the Himalaya with winter coming on. You’d need to be a genius on rock and ice to even try it. And look at him. Spent three months of the summer in the Alps, same last year, climbed peaks in the High Tatra, in the Carpathians...This is our man, he’s the only one of the whole crew with a prayer of making it to the monastery. Ilya Volkoff. Find him, bring him in and crack him open and we’ll roll this whole business up in a day!”
We found Volkoff’s lodgings within the hour - up the hill towards the Hofschule, surprisingly well-appointed, more the rooms of a junior professor with private means than a fugitive socialist revolutionary. The file said that he spent his days in a private library nearby, or in the Café Hirsch where the students gathered – Max and a couple of his Haertland Mathieu clerks went to cover both places. Calloway tricked open the lock without even breaking stride and he and Max went straight for the desk sitting under the window; I stood back and tried to look for what they had missed.
Volkoff, or his landlady, kept the rooms in good order; bed made, a perilous stack of journals and newspapers on the table neatly squared off, the floor showing only a day’s dust and the faint swirling lines of recent cleaning, the hearth clean but some ash left in the fireplace. On a stand by the door, the day’s post – a single envelope. I held it in my fingertips, uncertain what to do – “open it,” Calloway called, “no point pretending we haven’t been here, if he comes back to his rooms we’ll have him anyway,” and I slit the envelope with my folding knife and felt my heart drop into Mr Kormann’s boots.
The top of the sheet read “COPY 1 of 3, URGENT” and that was the only line that made any sense at all. Marching down the page, dressing to the left in blocks of five, were blind, senseless ranks of block-printed letters – AFEMR DDXGT AFDVQ ILLOD and so on, none of them in any language known to man.
Max and the clerks came up the stairs in a rush, the first time I had seen Max hurry – “The fox has bolted, sir,” he said. “He was gone by the time we got there; this is from a waiter on duty. Got to the Café late this morning and there was a letter waiting for him; he went into a private booth for an hour and worked away with his papers, and then he left and he hasn’t been back. Burned some paper in the stove before he left, though - and we found this in the ashes.” Max pulled out a little unburned triangle, browned by the heat but with a few letters still visible, and handed it over to Calloway.
V W X
V W X Y
“Keep searching,” Calloway said thoughtfully, “but I am afraid that our friend may have already put his affairs in order. He got Copy 2 of the message you’re holding – Copy 3 no doubt went to the library – and he deciphered it, and then off he went, no doubt following the instructions. This is a letter from his handler at the Mission, I’d bet the Bank of England on it. He’s six hours or more ahead of us, and no doubt he’s left town by now. We’ll not get on his trail; but, with this, we know where he’s going – if we could only read it.”