Authors: Eric Ambler
FIRST VINTAGE CRIME/BLACK LIZARD EBOOKS EDITION, DECEMBER 2012
Copyright © Firman S. A., 1969
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Vintage Books, a division of Random House, Inc., New York. Originally published in Great Britain by George Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, London, in 1970.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Vintage is a registered trademark and Vintage Crime/Black Lizard and colophon are trademarks of Random House, Inc.
Cover design by Peter Quach
It was on May 31 of last year, at Geneva’s Cointrin airport, that the man who called himself Charles Latimer disappeared. All efforts to trace him have so far failed.
Through a combination of circumstances the disappearance went unreported for two weeks.
Much has been made of this long delay and of the difficulties it is said to have created for the police and security authorities concerned. In fact it was of little importance. All the evidence we now have suggests that a delay of a single day would have had the same effect. Within a few hours of his leaving the airport Charles Latimer became permanently untraceable.
Though his home was in Majorca, he had spent most of the three months prior to his disappearance in Switzerland. He had gone there to do research for a book commissioned by his American publisher and to work on the manuscript of it. To assist him in Geneva he had employed a secretary, Mlle Deladoey.
It was she who eventually sounded the alarm.
That she did not do so earlier is understandable. Latimer had told her that he was going to Evere in Belgium to interview a senior officer on the staff of NATO. There was nothing remarkable about that. It was not the first trip he had taken from his Geneva base in connection with the book he was writing; he had previously interviewed persons in Munich, Bonn, Bâle, Bern and Luxembourg. Evere is near Brussels. Mlle Deladoey made the airline and Brussels hotel reservations through a travel agency.
He did not tell her how long he expected to be gone and she did not ask him. Nor did anyone else. He always retained his Geneva hotel room when he went on these trips and left most of his luggage there. On this occasion he took only a single piece with him. Mlle Deladoey assumed that he would be away for no more than two or three days. The amount of retyping work he had given her to do in his absence supported that assumption.
When eight days had elapsed without word from him, she became sufficiently uneasy to send a telegram to Brussels asking when he would be back. She received no reply. Six more days passed. By then her concern had been deepened by the fact that she was owed two weeks’ wages. She sought the advice of the senior receptionist at Latimer’s Geneva hotel.
He shared her concern, though for different reasons. He was the cashier as well as the receptionist and he judged guests who lived for extended periods in the hotel by the way they paid their weekly bills. Latimer had always paid promptly, by Credit Suisse cheque, on the same day that the bill was presented. It was, the cashier thought, quite out of character for so punctilious a man to behave with such lack of consideration. Only illness or accident could explain it, and, of the two, illness seemed the more likely; Latimer was not a young man. After consulting the manager, the cashier authorised Mlle Deladoey to put in a telephone call to Brussels.
It took only a few minutes to discover that Latimer was not, and had not been, staying at the Brussels hotel.
Thinking that there might have been some mistake over the name of the hotel, she checked with the travel agency. She was told that there had been no mistake. Persisting in her inquiries, she now found that Latimer had not after all taken the Sabena airline flight to Brussels on which he had been booked. His name had been on the passenger list, but he had not shown up for the flight. Had he perhaps taken a later flight on Sabena or another airline? Or to some destination other than Brussels? Those questions took some hours to answer, but the answers when they came were all negative.
She told the cashier. He again consulted the manager. On the morning of the fifteenth day after the disappearance the police were informed of the situation.
In the canton of Geneva the police procedure for dealing with missing-person reports is comprehensive and thorough. A form of particulars is filled out, hospitals and morgues are checked, relatives are interviewed, teletype reports go out to adjacent police
areas and other cantonal police departments, inquiries are made at the place where the missing person was last seen, and, if the person is a foreigner, the appropriate consulate is informed.
In Latimer’s case there were no relatives immediately available for interview. He was unmarried and his only surviving blood relative, an elder brother, proved to be on a cruise ship somewhere in the Caribbean. However, once it was established that the last place at which he had been seen was the airport, a number of persons there were questioned. As a result, the press picked up the story almost immediately.
Charles Latimer Lewison described himself in
as an historian; and an historian he undoubtedly was. He had written books about the Hanseatic League, about the growth of banking in the seventeenth century and about the Gotha Programme of 1875, for example. He had been a university lecturer in England. He was the author of a biography of the eighteenth-century economist John Law considered by some to be the best work on that subject. Yet his reputation, outside a small segment of the academic world, rested on none of those achievements; it rested on the detective stories he wrote under the pseudonym of Charles Latimer. There were over twenty of these, and at least three –
A Bloody Shovel, Murder’s Arms and No Doornail This
– had come to be regarded as classics in the genre. His work as an historian could only be read in English and had a limited appeal. His detective stories had been translated into many languages and had a worldwide appeal. They made not only his reputation as an entertainer but also the income on which he lived so comfortably in Majorca. When he disappeared they also made him news. As every reporter and most editorial writers hastened to point out, his disappearance was as mysterious and bizarre as one of his own novels.
Had he disappeared intentionally? If so, why and how?
Had he been abducted? If so, how and why?
Was he alive or dead?
Dead or alive,
Those were the questions the newspapers asked. Those, too, were the questions the police asked.
Some answers were forthcoming; but, since they only raised more questions, they gave little satisfaction.
It was, for instance, established that Latimer had had no appointment to interview a senior NATO officer in Evere. He had, then, lied to Mlle Deladoey; he had not wanted her to know where he was really going.
Why not? What was it that had to be kept so secret from a temporary secretary? What would her knowledge of his true destination have told her? And why, if he had hoped to keep his mysterious journey secret, had he not returned as unobtrusively as he had departed? There was every indication that he had intended to return. What could have happened to make him change his plans? Had his plans perhaps been changed for him?
It was Mlle Deladoey herself, wearied by hours of police interrogation, who suggested that the answers might possibly be found in the unfinished book the missing man had been writing. Why, she asked, did they not read the typed manuscript which was on his desk at the hotel?
The police were at first inclined to dismiss the suggestion. Not unnaturally, they assumed that the work in question was a detective story. When they learned that it was not, however, and had been persuaded to read it, they reacted sharply. Mlle Deladoey was subjected to further and more searching interrogations and not only by the police; representatives of the Swiss federal security service had moved in by then. On June 25, ten days after the disappearance had been reported, she was visited by a security official who wanted to know if she had any more copies of the Latimer manuscript in her possession. She gave him the two carbons she had made and he gave her a receipt for them.
She did not ask why he wanted the copies. If she had done so, she would have been told that the manuscript had been given a security classification and that orders had been issued to impound all copies of the document. As it was, she assumed that
they wanted additional copies because it had been found inconvenient to have only one.
It did not occur to her, therefore, to mention the draft manuscripts that existed. Nor did she mention the box of tape recordings in her stationery drawer. Those things, after all, were Mr Latimer’s property.
Or were they now, perhaps,
Later that day she wrote to Latimer’s publishers telling them about the tapes and about the draft manuscripts in her and Mr Theodore Carter’s possession. She also informed them that there were now three weeks’ wages due to her.
It is possible, I think, that she had an idea that possession of the tape recordings placed her in some sort of bargaining position. If so, she was very soon disabused of the notion. By that time the publishers had established direct contact with Theodore Carter. As Mr Carter had been a party to Latimer’s contract with them for the book, he was the logical person for them to turn to. Along with her three weeks’ wages Mlle Deladoey doubtless received a brief lecture on the laws of copyright.
Publication of the Latimer manuscript, unedited and unabridged, was at first strongly opposed by Mr Carter.
It is impossible not to sympathise with his objections. Charles Latimer sometimes gave his rather malicious sense of humour too free a rein, and his deliberate inclusion, verbatim in the original text, of many of Mr Carter’s off-the-record asides and comments, as well as personal communications not intended for publication, is hard to defend. Clearly, Latimer had been amusing himself privately at Mr Carter’s expense.
Mr Carter’s decision to withdraw his objections to the inclusion of the offending passages is wholly to his credit. An appeal was made to his professional judgment and he responded to it in a thoroughly professional way. The argument upon which the appeal was based was, I feel, a compelling one.
The two-part manuscript which the police and the security people read, and promptly classified, was a second draft. The manuscript which Mlle Deladoey so reluctantly surrendered was
a very rough first draft. It was organised in chapters, but very unevenly. A few chapters, the ‘narrative reconstructions’ principally, were fairly well polished; the rest were assemblages of material – letters, transcribed tape recordings, interviews and statements – strung together in chronological order and extensively blue-pencilled by Latimer. It was by noting the passages that Latimer, for his own private security reasons, had deleted from the first draft that Mr Carter obtained in the end the evidence needed, not only to solve the mystery of the disappearance but also to tell the rest of the story.