Spell of Magic – Part 4
by Harry Harrison (c) 1963 and 2008
The Story So Far: Stage magician Merlo is also an agent for Interpol. He has joined a gang of smugglers to collect evidence. The gang have ordered him to smuggle ashore a package from a liner on which he is traveling to Cannes…
The two-day trip from Naples to Cannes should have been a holiday – but Merlo, could not shake off a nagging fear. Soon after the ship had cast off, the second mate slipped into Merlo’s cabin, handed him a paper-backed German thriller – and vanished.
The pages of the book were glued together. Merlo cut them apart, and took a handful of glittering cut diamonds from the hollowed-out inside.
Then he threw the book out of the porthole. Merlo would have relaxed then, but for the feeling that things were going too easily… that he was walking into the open jaws of a trap. When the ship dropped anchor at Cannes, he was glad that he did not have to walk ashore with the smuggled diamonds. In a matter of seconds, the mysterious torpedo-like device he had brought with him was unpacked and checked. The concealed motor spun the tiny propeller and the guiding vanes flipped up and down. Merlo opened its pointed nose and slipped the diamonds inside.
From the top of the machine sprang a length of insulated wire that vanished into a piece of bleached driftwood. A crooked piece of rusty wire stuck above the wood.
Merlo opened his porthole and looked out. There was no one at the rail above nor were there any boats in sight. Everyone would be at the other side of the ship watching the small boats come out from the shore for the passengers. It was only a moment’s work to let the little machine down into the sea on its length of wire – then throw the wood after it. Immediately, the torpedo-like device vanished, and only the innocent-looking piece of driftwood floated on the surface. It was weighted so that the rusty wire stuck straight into the air. Merlo, walked up to the deck. The shore boat was already loading with disembarking passengers. He stepped aboard, and a minute later was heading towards shore with the other passengers who were also landing at Cannes.
“Will you step in here, please?” an officer asked, waving to an office, as Merlo walked into the Customs shed.
Merlo’s eyebrows rose. “Why?” he asked. “All the other passengers are going right through.”
“A routine matter,” the officer murmured, touching his arm.
They had been speaking English, so the officer was caught off-balance when Merlo snapped a question at him in his own tongue, Provençal-accented French. Merlo’s voice was low.
“You have been tipped off about me?”
Looking at the man out of the corner of his eyes, Merlo saw him start as the barb sunk home. This, then, was the trap. The Customs had been tipped off that he might be smuggling.
The Customs men were experienced and complete, and the only reason they found no contraband was because Merlo was carrying none. They searched him and they searched his bag. They prised open the heels of his shoes, and even opened his transistor radio. Finally they offered polite apologies for the delay and called a cab to take him to the Hotel Majestic where he had reserved a room. Only when the cab had started and he was safely on his way did Merlo allow himself a small smile of victory. He had expected trouble and had found it. And he was sure he could look forward to more.
It arrived a moment after the pageboy had pocketed his tip and left the room. As Merlo locked the door, a man stepped from the bathroom and said: “I’ll take those diamonds now.”
Merlo did not answer or even look at the intruder until he had put his radio on the table and had walked across the room and opened the blinds.
“I have no idea what you are talking about,” he said, turning to face the man.
“The diamonds you just smuggled into this country. Give them to me.” The stranger raised a large automatic that was almost hidden in one great, meaty hand. He was fat and he was tall, and he bulged like a pear in the middle. Yet there was nothing of the funny fat man about him: the icy-blue eyes were as cold as death.
“Get out!” Merlo snapped.
“Only with the diamonds. You have ten seconds to hand them over. Then I shoot!”
“You do make it difficult,” Merlo sighed. “What would you do if I told you there was someone standing behind you with a gun pointed at your spine?”
“I’d laugh. That trick is so old it has whiskers!”
“Really?” Merlo, asked, raising his eyebrows. “Then we had better have a demonstration.” He clapped his hands together twice, sharply.
“Just freeze, or you’re dead,” a voice snapped behind the intruder. “Now raise your hands over your head… slowly!”
The fat man’s eyes bulged and his mouth gaped open. As he raised his hands over his head, Merlo reached out and took the gun from his limp, trembling fingers.
“Tell him not to shoot!” the man begged, his skin damp with sudden sweat. “I’m your contact man. Petritz is my name. The code word is blue summer. I was told to do this… to try to frighten you. Orders from upstairs. They wanted to see how well you would take care of the shipment.”
“I thought as much,” Merlo laughed. “You can relax. There’s no one here.”
“B… but the voice – I heard it behind me!” Petritz gasped, looking around at the empty room.
“Magic. Call it ventriloquism, if you like.”
Merlo had no intention of telling how the trick had been done. He had turned on the transistor radio when Petritz had first appeared… then deliberately stood on the other side of the room so the man would have his back to it. The two sharp hand-claps had been his signal, picked up by a sensitive microphone in the radio. This had turned on a tiny tape-recorder, hidden there, which had spoken the recorded speech. It was a useful gadget that had saved his life more than once.
“Can I have the diamonds now?” Petritz asked weakly, mopping at his damp face.
“Tomorrow. They are in a place where even the Customs guards could not find them when they searched me. Do you know anything about that? Someone must have told them.”
“No… but I’ll look into it. It sounds like they were tipped off. And that could only have been done by someone inside the organisation. This is bad. Will you have the diamonds in the morning?”
“Join me here for breakfast and I’ll turn them over to you,” Merlo replied.
Petritz, satisfied, hurried out. After unpacking, Merlo went down to the hotel restaurant and enjoyed a leisurely dinner. He was one step closer to his goal.
It was near midnight when he left the hotel, carrying his portable radio that contained so many secrets. After making sure that he was not being followed, he walked far out on La Croisette, the street that runs along the shore, until he came to one of the dark and deserted beaches. Standing at the water’s edge, Merlo raised the whip antenna on the radio, turned on the power and waited. A powerful signal beamed out from the little transmitter, and out in the bay his miniature submarine stirred to life. The rusty wire on the driftwood was really an excellent aerial, and it picked up his broadcast signal. The electric motor started, the screw turned, steering rudders flipped and the machine headed towards the shore.
It landed almost at Merlo’s feet and he had only to remove his sandals and wade out to get it. He wrapped it in paper he had brought for this purpose, so that it looked like a package bought in some tourist store.
“Now, I’ll just take those diamonds!” a voice gloated from the darkness, and the hulking form of Tonio appeared. The blade of the knife in his hand glittered viciously.
Merlo turned to escape the knife… and too late realised that he had been tricked. An iron bar in Tonio’s other hand crashed against Merlo’s head, knocking him to the sand. The package was torn from his hands and the knife plunged into his side like a finger of fire. Merlo groaned with agony.
“You kill my friend!” Tonio cried. “Now I kill you!”
To be continued…