Eric Ambler

Cause for Alarm



The man standing in the shadow of the doorway turned up the collar of his overcoat and stamped his numb feet gently on the damp stones.

In the distance he could hear the sound of a train pulling out of the Stazione Centrale, and wished he was riding in it, lounging back in a first-class compartment on his way to Palermo. Perhaps after this job was done he would be able to take a holiday in the sun. That was, of course, if They would let him. It never seemed to occur to Them that a man might like to go back to his home occasionally. Milan was no good. Too dry and dusty in the summer; in the winter these damnable fogs rolled in from the plains and ricefields, damp and cold and bringing the smoke from the factories with them. It was getting misty already. In another hour you wouldn’t be able to see your hand in front of your face, let alone anything else. That meant that Buonometti and Orlano wouldn’t be able to see what they were doing. There would have to be another night of watching and waiting in the cold. He had no patience with it. If this Englishman had to be killed, let him be killed easily, quickly. A dark stretch of pavement, a knife under the ribs, a slight twist of the wrist to let the air inside the wound, and it was done. No fuss, no trouble, practically no noise. Whereas this…

His gaze travelled up the dark facade of the office building across the street to the single lighted window on the fourth floor. He shrugged resignedly and leaned against the wall. One hour or two, what difference did it make? What did They care if he got pneumonia?

Only once during the next twenty-five minutes did he move. The footsteps of a stray pedestrian echoing along this deserted business street caused him to shrink back into the shadow. But of a passing policeman he took no notice, and grinned to himself when the uniformed man seemed deliberately to avoid looking his way. That was one advantage in working for Them. You didn’t have to worry about the police. You were safe.

He straightened his back suddenly. The solitary light had gone out. He stretched his cramped muscles, adjusted the brim of his hat and walked quietly away towards the telephone booth at the end of the street. Two minutes later his work for the night was finished.

The door of the office building opened and two men came out. One of them turned to shut the door behind him. The other did not wait. With a muttered “ a rivederci ” he crossed the road and disappeared in the direction of the station. The man who had shut the door turned and stood there watching him out of sight.

He was a stoutish, middle-aged man with rounded shoulders and a way of holding his arms slightly in front of his body, as though he were trying perpetually to squeeze through a very narrow opening. That posture had been his life. He had squeezed his way by, rigid yet without dignity; an ineffectual, apprehensive man who had fed his self-respect on dreams and always satisfied it.

He felt in his jacket pocket, lit a cigarette, rebuttoned his overcoat and started to walk in the opposite direction. At the first corner he hesitated. On his right a little way down the main thoroughfare the words C AFFE F ARAGLIO in neon tubing glowed through the fog. His hesitation was only momentary. He turned right and crossed to the caffe.

He found a table near one of the heating stoves and ordered a caffe latte and a Strega. The spirit he drank at a gulp. Then he took an envelope from his pocket, dropped his hands below the level of the table top and drew a thick roll of one hundred lire notes from it. He counted them carefully-there were twenty-five-and transferred them to a wallet. Then he drank his coffee, paid the waiter and went.

The fog was thickening. Now it lay in patches so that at one moment he picked his way cautiously along the side of the pavement, while at the next he was able to step out briskly. A crowd pouring out of a cinema jostled him, and he turned down a side street to avoid them.

He was going in the direction of the Monte di Pieta quarter in which he lived. As, at last, he crossed the Corso Venezia to turn down the Via Monte Napoleone he saw a black limousine drawn up by the kerb. But there were other cars about and he took no notice of it. It was not until he was threading his way through the net-work of streets behind the public gardens that he noticed that the car seemed to be following him. He could hear it whining along in low gear just behind him and see the yellow glare of its headlights through the fog. He walked on, telling himself that the driver had probably missed the way. Then it happened.

The fog had lifted for a few yards ahead. He stepped into the road to cut off a corner. A fraction of a second later the car accelerated violently. Jerking round quickly, he saw it swing over towards him. The headlights grew suddenly larger, blinding him. He shouted and tried to jump clear. The next moment the car hit him.

He felt a terrible pain shoot through his legs up to his waist and a second shock as he hit the ground. For a moment he lay still. He was dimly aware that he was lying across the kerb. He tried to raise himself. Then the pain surged up to his chest and there was a thin, high singing noise in his head. He knew that he was losing consciousness and he put up a hand to grasp the wallet in his pocket. It was his last conscious movement.

The car had stopped several yards farther on. A man got out of the seat next to the driver, walked back and, bending down, thumbed back one of the injured man’s eyelids. Then he returned to the car.

“ Sta bene? ” said the driver.

“ No. He is still alive. Go back and make certain.”

The driver shifted the gear into reverse, peered through the rear window and the car moved back to the corner.

“Now!” said the man beside him.

The car jerked forward. The wheels bumped twice and came to rest against the kerb. The man in front got out again and again walked back. When he returned to the car he was wiping his fingers on his handkerchief.

“ Sta bene? ” said the driver.

“ Bene.” He got back into his seat and slammed the door. “As soon as we have reported to headquarters,” he said as the car moved slowly across the tram-lines along the main road, “I shall drink half a bottle of cognac. This fog gets on to my chest.”

It was twenty minutes before a child ran screaming to its mother that there was a man lying bleeding in the street.



One thing is certain. I would not even have considered the job if I had not been desperate.

Early in January, the Barnton Heath Engineering Company decided to close down the greater part of its works.

It was the day after I had asked Claire to marry me that the first blow fell. I had walked into my office that morning feeling very pleased with life. Not that, strictly speaking, I had any cause to feel pleased. She had promised to “think about it carefully” and let me know. Still, I felt pleased. A girl like Claire would, I assured myself, have made up her mind immediately if she were going to refuse. She was probably terrified that, if she didn’t strengthen her position by reducing me to a state of jittering suspense, I might be tempted to play the dominant male and expect her to give up being a very promising surgeon in order to become a second-rate housekeeper. She has a dangerous theory that, when two persons get married, a court of inquiry ought to sit in order to determine from the available evidence which of the two is better fitted to assume responsibility for the housework-the husband or the wife. I had, however, not the slightest intention of asking her to give up her work. Quite apart from the fact that I

Вы читаете Cause for Alarm
Добавить отзыв


Вы можете отметить интересные вам фрагменты текста, которые будут доступны по уникальной ссылке в адресной строке браузера.

Отметить Добавить цитату