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The dark crusader, p.1
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       The Dark Crusader, p.1

           Alistair MacLean
 
The Dark Crusader


  ALISTAIR MACLEAN

  Alistair MacLean, the son of a Scots minister, was born in 1922 and brought up in the Scottish Highlands. In 1941 at the age of eighteen he joined the Royal Navy; two-and-a-half years spent aboard a cruiser was later to give him the background for HMS Ulysses, his first novel, the outstanding documentary novel on the war at sea. After the war, he gained an English Honours degree at Glasgow University, and became a school master. In 1983 he was awarded a D.Litt from the same university.

  He is now recognized as one of the outstanding popular writers of the 20th century. By the early 1970s he was one of the top 10 bestselling authors in the world, and the biggest-selling Briton. He wrote twenty-nine worldwide bestsellers that have sold more than 30 million copies, and many of which have been filmed, including The Guns of Navarone, Where Eagles Dare, Fear is the Key and Ice Station Zebra. Alistair MacLean died in 1987 at his home in Switzerland.

  By Alistair MacLean

  HMS Ulysses

  The Guns of Navarone

  South by Java Head

  The Last Frontier

  Night Without End

  Fear is the Key

  The Dark Crusader

  The Satan Bug

  The Golden Rendezvous

  Ice Station Zebra

  When Eight Bells Toll

  Where Eagles Dare

  Force 10 from Navarone

  Puppet on a Chain

  Caravan to Vaccarès

  Bear Island

  The Way to Dusty Death

  Breakheart Pass

  Circus

  The Golden Gate

  Seawitch

  Goodbye California

  Athabasca

  River of Death

  Partisans

  Floodgate

  San Andreas

  The Lonely Sea (stories)

  Santorini

  ALISTAIR MACLEAN

  The Dark Crusader

  STERLING and the distinctive Sterling logo are registered trademarks of Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.

  First Sterling edition 2012

  First published in Great Britain by William Collins Sons & Co. Ltd. 1961 then in paperback by Fontana 1963

  Copyright © Devoran Trustees Ltd 1961

  Alistair MacLean asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work.

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the publisher.

  ISBN 978-1-4027-9346-2

  For information about custom editions, special sales, and premium and corporate purchases, please contact

  Sterling Special Sales at 800-805-5489 or [email protected]

  2 4 6 8 10 9 7 5 3 1

  www.sterlingpublishing.com

  This novel is entirely a work of fiction. The names, characters and incidents portrayed in it are the work of the author’s imagination. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or localities is entirely coincidental.

  To Douglas and Violet

  Contents

  Prologue

  I Tuesday 3 a.m.–5.30 a.m.

  II Tuesday 8.30 a.m.–7 p.m.

  III Tuesday 7 p.m.–Wednesday 9 a.m.

  IV Wednesday 3 p.m.–10 p.m.

  V Wednesday 10 p.m.–Thursday 5 a.m.

  VI Thursday noon–Friday 1.30 a.m.

  VII Friday 1.30 a.m.–3.30 a.m.

  VIII Friday 3.30 a.m.–6 a.m.

  IX Friday 6 a.m.–8 a.m.

  X Friday 10 a.m.–1p.m.

  XI Friday 1 p.m.–6 p.m.

  XII Saturday 3 a.m.–8 a.m.

  Epilogue

  PROLOGUE

  A small dusty man in a small dusty room. That’s how I always thought of him, just a small dusty man in a small dusty room.

  No cleaning woman was ever allowed to enter that office with its soot-stained heavily curtained windows overlooking Birdcage Walk: and no person, cleaner or not, was ever allowed inside unless Colonel Raine himself were there.

  And no one could ever have accused the colonel of being allergic to dust.

  It lay everywhere. It lay on the oak-stained polished floor surrounds that flanked the threadbare carpet. It filmed the tops of bookcases, filing cabinets, radiators, chair-arms and telephones: it lay smeared streakily across the top of the scuffed knee-hole desk, the dust-free patches marking where the papers or books had recently been pushed to one side: motes danced busily in a sunbeam that slanted through an uncurtained crack in the middle of a window: and, trick of the light or not, it needed no imagination at all to see a patina of dust on the thin brushed-back grey hair of the man behind the desk, to see it embedded in deeply trenched lines on the grey sunken cheeks, the high receding forehead.

  And then you saw the eyes below the heavy wrinkled lids and you forgot all about the dust: eyes with the hard jewelled glitter of a peridot stone, eyes of the clear washed-out aquamarine of a Greenland glacier, but not so warm.

  He rose to greet me as I crossed the room, offered me a cold hard bony hand like a gardening tool, waved me to a chair directly opposite the light-coloured veneered panel so incongruously let into the front of his mahogany desk, and seated himself, sitting very straight, hands clasped lightly on the dusty desk before him.

  ‘Welcome home, Bentall.’ The voice matched the eyes, you could almost hear the far-off crackling of dried ice. ‘You made fast time. Pleasant trip?’

  ‘No, sir. Some Midlands textile tycoon put off the plane to make room for me at Ankara wasn’t happy. I’m to hear from his lawyers and as a sideline he’s going to drive the B.E.A. off the European airways. Other passengers sent me to Coventry, the stewardesses ignored me completely and it was as bumpy as hell. Apart from that, it was a fine trip.’

  ‘Such things happen,’ he said precisely. An almost imperceptible tic at the left-hand corner of the thin mouth might have been interpreted as a smile, all you needed was a strong imagination, but it was hard to say, twenty-five years of minding other people’s business in the Far East seemed to have atrophied the colonel’s cheek muscles. ‘Sleep?’

  I shook my head. ‘Not a wink.’

  ‘Pity.’ He hid his distress well and cleared his throat delicately. ‘Well, I’m afraid you’re off on your travels again, Bentall. Tonight. Eleven p.m., London Airport.’

  I let a few seconds pass to let him know I wasn’t saying all the things I felt like saying, then shrugged in resignation. ‘Back to Iran?’

  ‘If I were transferring you from Turkey to Iran I wouldn’t have risked the wrath of the Midlands textile industry by summoning you all the way back to London to tell you so.’ Again the faint suggestion of a tic at the corner of the mouth. ‘Considerably farther away, Bentall. Sydney, Australia. Fresh territory for you, I believe?’

  ‘Australia?’ I was on my feet without realizing I had risen. ‘Australia! Look, sir, didn’t you get my cable last week? Eight months’ work, everything tied up except the last button, all I needed was another week, two at the most –’

  ‘Sit down!’ A tone of voice to match the eyes, it was like having a bucket of iced water poured over me. He looked at me consideringly and his voice warmed up a little to just under freezing point. ‘Your concern is appreciated, but needless. Let us hope for your own sake that you do not underestimate our – ah – antagonists as much as you appear to underestimate those who employ you. You have done an excellent job, Bentall, I am quite certain that in any other government department less forthcoming than ours you would have been in line for at least an O.B.E., or some such trinket, but your part in the job is over. I do not choose that my personal investigato
rs shall also double in the role of executioners.’

  ‘I’m sorry, sir,’ I said lamely. ‘I don’t have the overall –'

  ‘To continue in your own metaphor, the last button is about to be tied.’ It was exactly as if he hadn’t heard me. ‘This leak – this near disastrous leak, I should say – from our Hepworth Ordinance and Fuel Research Establishment is about to be sealed. Completely and permanently sealed.’ He glanced at the electric clock on the wall. ‘In about four hours’ time, I should say. We may consider it as being in the past. There are those in the cabinet who will sleep well tonight.’

  He paused, unclasped his hands, leaned his elbows on the desk and looked at me over steepled fingers.

  ‘That is to say, they should have been sleeping well tonight.’ He sighed, a faint dry sound. ‘But in these security-ridden days the sources of ministerial insomnia are almost infinite. Hence your recall. Other men, I admit, were available: but, apart from the fact that there is no one else with your precise and, in this case, very necessary qualifications, I have a faint – a very faint – and uneasy feeling that this may not be entirely unconnected with your last assignment.’ He unsteepled his fingers, reached for a pink polythene folder and slid it across the desk to me. ‘Take a look at these, will you?’

  I quelled the impulse to wave away the approaching tidal wave of dust, picked up the folder and took out the half-dozen stapled slips of paper inside.

  They were cuttings from the overseas vacancy columns of the Daily Telegraph. Each column had the date heavily pencilled in red at the top, the earliest not more than eight months ago: and each of the columns had an advertisement ringed in the same heavy red except for the first column which had three advertisements so marked.

  The advertisers were all technical, engineering, chemical or research firms in Australia and New Zealand. The types of people for whom they were advertising were, as would have been expected, specialists in the more advanced fields of modern technology. I had seen such adverts before, from countries all over the world. Experts in aerodynamics, micro-miniaturization, hypersonics, electronics, physics, radar and advanced fuel technologies were at a premium these days. But what made those advertisements different, apart from their common source, was the fact that all those jobs were being offered in a top administrative and directorial capacity, carrying with them what I could only regard as astronomical salaries. I whistled softly and glanced at Colonel Raine, but those ice-green eyes were contemplating some spot in the ceiling about a thousand miles away, so I looked through the columns again, put them back in the folder and slid them across the desk. Compared to the colonel I made a noticeable ripple across the dustpond of the table-top.

  ‘Eight advertisements,’ the colonel said in his dry quiet voice. ‘Each over a hundred words in length, but you could reproduce them all word for word, if need be. Right, Bentall?’

  ‘I think I might, sir.’

  ‘An extraordinary gift,’ he murmured. ‘I envy you. Your comments, Bentall?’

  ‘That rather delicately worded advertisement for a thrust and propellant specialist to work on aero engines designed for speeds in excess of Mach 10. Properly speaking, there are no such aero engines. Only rocket engines, on which the metallurgical problems have already been solved. They’re after a top-flight fuel boffin, and apart from a handful at some of the major aircraft firms and at a couple of universities every worthwhile fuel specialist in the country works at the Hepworth Research Establishment.’

  ‘And there may lie the tie-in with your last job.’

  He nodded. ‘Just a guess and it could far more easily be wrong than right. Probably a straw from another haystack altogether.’ He doodled in the dust with the tip of his forefinger. 'What else?’

  ‘All advertisements from a more or less common source.’ I went on. ‘New Zealand or the Eastern Australian seaboard. All jobs to be filled in a hurry. All offering free and furnished accommodation, house to become the property of the successful applicant, together with salaries at least three times higher than the best of them could expect in this country. They’re obviously after the best brains we have. All specify that the applicants be married but say they’re unable to accommodate children.’

  ‘Doesn’t that strike you as a trifle unusual?’ Colonel Raine asked idly.

  ‘No, sir. Quite common for foreign firms to prefer married men. People are often unsettled at first in strange countries and there’s less chance of their packing up and taking the next boat home if they have their families to consider. Those advertisers are paying single fare only. With the money a man could save in the first weeks or months it would be quite impossible to transport his family home.’

  ‘But there are no families, ’ the colonel persisted. ‘Only wives.’

  ‘Perhaps they’re afraid the patter of tiny feet may distract the highly-paid minds.’ I shrugged. ’Or limited accommodation. Or the kids to follow later. All it says is “No accommodation for children.”

  ‘Nothing in all of this strikes you as being in any way sinister?’

  ‘Superficially, no. With all respect, I question whether it would strike you either, sir. Scores of our best men have been lured overseas in the past years. But if you were to provide me with the information you’re obviously withholding, I might very well begin to see it your way.’

  Another momentary tic at the left-hand corner of the mouth, he was really letting himself go today, then he fished out a small dark pipe and started scraping the bowl with a penknife. Without looking up he said: ‘There was a further coincidence that I should have mentioned. All the scientists who accepted those jobs – and their wives – have disappeared. Completely.’

  With the last word he gave me a quick up-from-under glance with those arctic eyes, to see how I was taking it. I don’t much like being played cat-and-mouse with, so I gave him back his wooden Indian stare and asked: ‘In this country, en route, or after arrival?’

  ‘I think maybe you are the right man for the job, Bentall,’ he said inconsequently. ‘All of them left this country. Four seem to have disappeared en route to Australia. From the immigration authorities in New Zealand and Australia we have learned that one landed in Wellington and three others in Sydney. And that’s all they know about them. That’s all any of the authorities in those countries know. They arrived. They vanished. Finished.’

  ‘Any idea why?’

  ‘None. Could be several alternatives. I never waste my time guessing, Bentall. All we know – hence, of course, the very great official anxiety – is that though all the men concerned were engaged in industrial research, their unique knowledge could all too easily be put to military uses.’

  ‘How thorough a search has been made for them, sir?’

  ‘You can imagine. And I’m led to believe that the police forces in the – ah – antipodes are as efficient as any in the world. But it’s hardly a job for a policeman, eh?’

  He leaned back in his chair, puffing dark clouds of foul-smelling smoke into the already overweighted air and looked at me expectantly. I felt tired, irritable and I didn’t like the turn the conversation was taking. He was waiting for me to be a bright boy. I supposed I’d better oblige.

  ‘What am I going out as? A nuclear physicist?’

  He patted the arm of his chair. ‘I’ll keep this seat warm for you, my boy. It may be yours some day.’ It’s not easy for an iceberg to sound jovial, but he almost made it. ‘No false colours for you, Bentall. You’re going out as precisely what you were in the days you worked at Hepworth and we discovered your unique gifts in another and slightly less academic field. You’re going out as a specialist in fuel research.’ He extracted a slip of paper from another folder and tossed it across to me. ‘Read all about it. The ninth advertisement. Appeared in the Telegraph a fortnight ago.’

  I let the paper lie where it had fallen. I didn’t even look at it.

  ‘The second application for a fuel specialist,’ I said. ’Who answered the first? I should know him.’
r />
  ‘Does that matter, Bentall?’ His voice had dropped a few degrees.

  ‘Certainly it matters.’ My tone matched his. ‘Perhaps they – whoever “they” may be – picked on a dud. Perhaps he didn’t know enough. But if it was one of the top boys – well, sir, the implication is pretty clear. Something’s happened to make them need a replacement.’

  ‘It was Dr Charles Fairfield.’

  ‘Fairfield? My old chief? The second-in-command at Hepworth?’

  ‘Who else?’

  I didn’t answer immediately. I knew Fairfield well, a brilliant scientist and a highly gifted amateur archaeologist. I liked this less and less and my expression should have told Colonel Raine so. But he was examining the ceiling with the minute scrutiny of a man who expected to see it all fall down any second.

  ‘And you’re asking me to –’ I began.

  ‘That’s all I’m doing,’ he interrupted. He sounded suddenly tired. It was impossible not to feel a quick sympathy for the man, for the heavy burden he had to carry. ‘I’m not ordering, my boy. I’m only asking.' His eyes were still on the ceiling.

  I pulled the paper towards me and looked at the red-ringed advertisement. It was almost but not quite the duplicate of one I’d read a few minutes earlier.

  ‘Our friends required an immediate cable answer,’ I said slowly. ‘I suppose they must be getting pushed for time. You answered by cable?’

  ‘In your name and from your home address. I trust you will pardon the liberty,’ he murmured dryly.

  ‘The Allison and Holden Engineering Company, Sydney,’ I went on. ‘A genuine and respected firm, of course?’

  ‘Of course. We checked. And the name is that of their personnel manager and an airmail letter that arrived four days ago confirming the appointment was on the genuine letterhead of the firm. Signed in the name of the personnel manager. Only, it wasn’t his signature.’

  ‘What else do you know, sir?’

  ‘Nothing. I’m sorry. Absolutely nothing. I wish to God I could help more.’

  There was a brief silence. Then I pushed the paper back to him and said: ‘Haven’t you rather overlooked the fact that this advert is like the rest – it calls for a married man?’

 
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