Barry Phillips, aged forty five and divorced, was thoroughly tired of his boring job as a real estate agent. Nothing ever happened! Day in and day out, he organised the buying and selling of homes and apartments in Paris, and nothing exciting ever happened to him. No wonder his favourite activity (after washing and polishing his bright red vintage Austin 7) was reading crime stories. It never occurred to him, as his boss called him into his office, that his life was about to change. And how!
Thaddeus Driver had a problem. Until two nights previously, he hadn’t had a care in the world. He ran a smallish real estate agency – himself and one employee – based in an outer suburb of Paris and lived with his elderly father. He had never been in trouble, had no police record and belonged to no political party; neither did his father, although the old man had been a member of the Communist Party very briefly during the 1960s. However, Thaddeus Driver was a sleeper; a spy waiting to be told what to do and when to act. His father was aware of this fact and had connived at getting his son into this position.
It came as a shock when the phone rang and he heard the single sentence; ‘The kraken wakens.’ Many years before he had been trained for such an occasion; he did not panic, but made the correct response ‘We exist only to serve.’ He was then given a place and a time and told what to wear and then the caller hung up, without even waiting to hear Thaddeus’s reply. Obviously, he was expected to keep the rendezvous, whether or not it was convenient.
When Thaddeus went to the Louvre the following day and stood obediently in the long line of tourists waiting to enter, he wore the dark suit with a red carnation in the lapel as he had been instructed. On his head he wore a jaunty black hat with a red feather.
Precisely one minute after the time he had been told, a nondescript middle aged man walked up to him and greeted him cheerfully.
“Ah, Jean! Mon ami! I am delighted to see you here! Come, let us walk and drink a cup of coffee together.”
Thaddeus sighed and followed him. Away from the crowd, the other man lost his jovial manner and became brisk and businesslike.
“We require you to trace a woman in Paris for us. She has something we want. It’s preferable that you acquire it without harming her, but if it becomes necessary – “ The man shrugged and Thaddeus frowned. He really didn’t like the sound of this one little bit.
“Ah, what is it we’re after?” he asked.
“A key. And a list.”
“A key? What sort of key?”
“We believe it may belong to a bank deposit box. Roscovy was rambling a bit before he died – senile dementia unfortunately, but he was in a very secure institution, and every word he said was recorded. He didn’t mention a name, unfortunately, but we do know he was involved with an English woman, long ago.”
“So is she the one we’re looking for?” asked Thaddeus.
“We know only that we are looking for an elderly English woman, living in Paris in a house she herself owns. However, we have ten possibilities.”
“Um, what do you want me to do?” Thaddeus asked dubiously. Maybe being a sleeper agent wasn’t going to be all he had thought.
“You’re going to find her for us. You’re an estate agent, man. You can get into the houses of any number of people, just by asking! So do something useful for us and go visiting these elderly English ladies. One of them has what we want.”
“Are there any other clues?” Thaddeus asked cautiously.
“Only one. Roscovy said ‘Silver ghost’. That was all.” The man clapped Thaddeus on the back. “You have seventy two hours, comrade. Don’t disappoint us.”
“Silver ghost?” Thaddeus looked bewildered. “What does that mean?”
“You had better find out.” The man handed him a package. “There’s a gun in there. Just in case.”
Thaddeus yelped, almost dropping the package.
“We’ll be in touch.” With that, the other man walked off.
The children who passed her house on the way home from school rattled the railings and called her Crazy Daisy. She had become used to it, and the name was marginally better than Daisy la Folle, but it still hurt. She wasn’t really crazy – well, maybe a little eccentric perhaps, but at her age that should be allowed. After all, as her own grandmother used to say ‘Old age must have its liberties!’ and, at eight-four, Daisy Maple wanted her liberties.
She sat on the front verandah of her house, one of the few remaining privately owned middle class residences in this area of Paris. By her feet her ancient Alsatian dog, Arabinda, sprawled, snoring and occasionally polluting the air with a doggy aroma. Further along the verandah Daisy’s three cats sat, balefully watching Arabinda. From time to time one would stroll along elegantly, and sideswipe the poor sleeping dog with a claw to the nose or ear. Daisy would aim a swift kick at whichever cat it was, deliberately missing; she loved both her ancient dog and her felines.
She loved her house too. Which made her increasingly angry whenever some slimeball of a real estate agent dared come along and try to persuade her to sell up and move out. Move into seniors’ housing was generally the implication, although on one occasion a bad mannered lout had suggested she would be better off in care, and the community would be safer. Just because she had threatened him with her long disused world war two pistol, and had implied his parents had never bothered with a marriage certificate. Some people had no sense of humour!
Today, however, she was more relaxed, probably due to the glass of champagne in her hand, and the half a bottle she had already drunk.
So when Barry Phillips carefully parked and locked his car on the roadway, opened and closed her front gate and walked up to the front steps, she merely regarded him frigidly and politely and didn’t order him to leave.
“Madame – “ he started, his hat in his hand.
“Madamoiselle, si’l vous plaît,” she corrected him. “And what brings you to my house, M’sieur?”
“Ah, well.” He appeared a little embarrassed. “It’s like this, you see. This is a beautiful house. Almost a mansion. Maybe even a little large for one person?”
She laughed and drank her champagne.
“And you would like to sell it for me, I presume?”
“Ah, yes. If you wish, our agency can handle every aspect of the sale, and we can also assist in finding you a new residence. Perhaps in the south of France, where the summer skies are blue and the weather is gloriously sunny – “
“Oh, good grief, do shut up! You sound like a travelogue. And I hate hot weather! If I ever move anyway, it’s far more likely to be to one of the Scandinavian countries, where they have proper winter weather.” She scowled. “In any case, I have no interest in selling my house. Whatever made you think I did?”
“Oh dear!” Barry looked embarrassed. “I was sure this was the right address. My boss told me to call in here and give you any help or information you required.” He consulted the folder in his hand. “Madame, er, Mamselle Daisy Maple, rue Youri Gagarine, Malakoff, Paris. That is all correct, is it not?”
She smiled at his delightfully French pronunciation of her surname. At that, it did sound like that of a famous fictional lady. She had long since given up trying to emphasise the correct long ‘ai’ sound. In a way, it amused her.
She was the last on his list of ten ladies. Thaddeus had presented him with the list first thing that morning, along with instructions to keep his eyes open for anything on any of the properties that might be connected in some way with the term ‘silver ghost’. Barry had looked bewildered at that latter, but his boss had snarled at him bad temperedly and stomped into his inner office, slamming the door behind him.
Barry had shrugged, taken the list and visited each in turn. One or two had displayed interest in selling, one had offered him home made biscuits and wine, and one had threatened to set her half dozen yapping poodles on him.
There had been absolutely no connection whatsoever with ‘silver ghost’ anywhere he had called. He had even mentioned the words in casual conversation, with no reactions.
He was hoping this old lady wouldn’t be too aggressive. The sight of a solid mahogany walking stick by her chair wasn’t inspiring. But she didn’t seem too bad, so far.
She frowned. “Except for the fact that I do not wish to sell. However,” she went on, “I am curious as to how much this place might be worth, if ever I did consider selling. But, M’sieur Phillips – “
“Oh, please do call me Barry.”
“Very well, Barry. I wonder who it was who contacted your business and said I wanted to sell?”
“To be honest, I have no idea. My boss gave me your name and details. I presumed you had contacted him.”
“Hmm.” She considered, then carefully put down her glass and stood up and dusted down the pantsuit she was wearing. A very fashionable and elegant one it was too, he observed. She was elderly, certainly sharp-eyed and probably sharp-witted too. Her grey eyes sparkled and her white hair was braided on top of her head. She reached for her stick. “Well, I suggest you come inside and examine the property. You can ignore the dog. He doesn’t bite. The cats, however, are another matter.”
“Ah, quite.” He fiddled with his hat, obviously uncertain what to do with it, until she took it and tossed it onto an empty chair, where one of the cats immediately batted it onto the floor. Barry shrugged and followed Daisy inside.
She watched as he walked through the house, making notes as he did so. He produced a tape measure from one pocket and a small digital camera from another. Before using it, he looked at her courteously.
“You permit me to take photographs?” he asked courteously.
She shrugged. “You may. But do be assured, I have no interest in selling.”
“We do this all the time. For every ten we look at, we may end up trying to sell only three or four. But it’s part of the job.”
“Hmm. And you enjoy this work?”
“No. truth to be told, I hate it. But it’s a job and better than nothing.”
At first Daisy was wary and suspicious, but his obvious admiration for her house softened her attitude. He raised an eyebrow at the collection of movie posters gracing the walls of one bedroom.
“You enjoy your movies, I see.”
“James Bond. Of course. What’s not to enjoy?” She smiled. “They are – nostalgic.”
“I am English, Barry. Although I have lived in Paris for many years, since I retired. But I enjoy all English movies. And long ago, I knew someone, a lot of people actually, very like him.”
“Hmm.” Barry grinned. “Don’t tell me you were a spy, Mamselle Maple?”
She laughed. “No, alas. I was an office worker. James Bond is a fictitious character, but there were people like him, during the Cold War era. A lot of people in the movies were based on real people. There was a real Q, you know, for example. I worked in his department. That was a long time ago, though, so I don’t think I’m breaking any rules by talking to you. I never was involved in anything particularly secretive. I was nothing more than a glorified secretary. I typed letters and used the photocopy machine and made the tea.”
“I’m impressed.” Then Barry caught sight of the collection of four model cars in a cabinet, and completely forgot everything else. “Wow! They are brilliant.”
“They were a retirement gift. Very pretty, but very useless.” She smiled.
“Also very valuable, I would suggest.”
“Oh, I doubt it. They have sentimental value to me.” She pointed. “The red and cream one is the Saint’s car – “
“Is that what it is?”
“There never was a Hirondel, Mamselle. Lesley Charteris made it up. May I look at it?” He examined the model and nodded. “Very well done. This is unique, you know. Someone actually made this. It’s not a mass produced object.”
“Probably Quentin. He was good at that sort of thing. So you know about vintage cars?”
“Mamselle Maple, I own a vintage car. A real one.” He looked back at the model cars. “Hmm, there aren’t many of those around, those Buick Marquettes. I had a friend who owned one once, a yellow one. He sold it for a packet and bought a mini minor. Awful.”
“Ah, I don’t know one from another, I’m afraid. I only know Quentin told me to hang onto them. He said the whole department had put in for them, but he chose them and they were special.”
“They certainly are. They are brilliant. There’s a Bugatti. A very famous racing car. And a Rolls Royce.” A Silver Ghost! He looked at her. “Would you mind if I took a photo of them, for my own pleasure? “
“They are beautiful vehicles. I’d almost forgotten I had them.” She opened the cabinet, glad she hadn’t sent him away with a flea in his ear, as her original impulse had been. “What does your wife think of your car?”
“No wife, I’m afraid. There was once. But we went our separate ways a long time ago. She never did like the Austin. It’s only a little car. She thought I should trade it in on a BMW.” They both laughed.
“Come and have a glass of champagne before you go. You deserve it, after all the work you’ve done, and for nothing, really. I don’t want to sell my model cars and I certainly don’t want to sell my house.”
“That’s kind of you. But I don’t have anything when I’m driving.”
“A cup of coffee then?” she suggested and he was happy to agree. He sat on the front verandah and rescued his hat from the cats. It was rather the worse for wear and covered with multi coloured cat hairs. Barry looked at it but without too much dismay. He disliked wearing a hat anyway.
Next day, almost as soon as he got to work and opened the office, he was surprised to receive an irate telephone call from Daisy.
“You stupid man! What was the idea, trying to burgle my house? Were you that keen to get your hands on my cars?”
“What?” He held the phone away from his ear for fully a minute and a half until she ran out of invective, and then cautiously spoke. “Mamselle Maple, truly, I have no idea what you are talking about –”
“You had nothing to do with it? You swear?”
“No, of course not. Please calm down and tell me what happened.”
“Who did you tell then, about my model cars?”
“Only my boss, when I got back here. I told him you didn’t have any interest in selling, and he looked at the pics on my camera. But – ”
“Your boss? What’s his name then?” she demanded.
“Driver. Thaddeus Driver. I left you my card, remember, with Driver’s Real Estate Agency on it.”
“Of course I remember you leaving your card, you fool. I am holding it in my hand. How else do you think I knew the telephone number?”
She was still furious, he could tell. Better calm her down; rage was not good for elderly ladies and he didn’t want her to drop dead from a coronary or suchlike.
“Please, Mamselle Maple, I am really distressed about this. Would you like me to come and see you? Have you reported this to the gendarmerie?”
“Of course I haven’t! It would be embarrassing. Besides, I really do not think the burglar will try again. I threw a hockey ball after him and I think I hit him, fair and square, as he was running away. In the dark, he looked to be about the same height and build as you.”
“I assure you it wasn’t me.”
She was silent for a moment Then she spoke more calmly.
“Maybe after you have finished work today, you might come to visit me again. I could cook you a meal, if you wanted. To apologise for abusing you.”
“That would be very kind. Thank you. Are you sure you are all right? I shall get the photos printed for you today.”
“I shall expect you this evening then.” She hung up and he smiled. A home cooked meal would be a very welcome change from his normal diet of takeaway food and hamburgers. He looked up in concern as Thaddeus entered the office. Normally the man walked briskly; today he moved with extreme caution, and sat down carefully.
“Backache,” he explained at Barry’s worried expression. “I think I must be developing arthritis.”
“That’s not good. Maybe you should consult an orthopaedic specialist.”
Thaddeus grunted. “Maybe so.” He levered himself up and slowly made his way into his inner office. Barry worked in silence for a while, then got up and went to the door. Thaddeus was knocking back a large tumbler of cognac as he entered.
“Mamselle Maple rang me a little while ago. Someone tried to burgle her place last night.” He was puzzled. “She seemed to think the burglar was after her collection of model cars.”
Thaddeus said nothing, but scowled. Barry continued.
“She thought at first it could have been me. I was admiring them. But you are the only other person I mentioned them to.”
Thaddeus grunted but didn’t look at Barry.
“She said she threw a hockey ball at the would-be thief. Hit him right in the middle of the back, I think.”
Silence. Barry shrugged and went back to work. He and Thaddeus didn’t exchange another word unconnected to business for the rest of the day. He didn’t tell his boss he was going to Mamselle Maple’s place after work.
While he and Daisy were eating, there was a ring at the doorbell. She excused herself. When she returned to the dining room her face was white with rage, and behind her a masked man held a pistol to her head.
“I want the cars, that’s all. Give them to me and I’ll leave without harming either of you. Get them!” His voice was muffled. Daisy shook herself free of the intruder.
“You’d better get them for him, Barry.” As the intruder’s attention switched to him, she raised and swung her walking stick forcefully. It hit the man’s wrist and knocked the pistol to the floor. She hit him again and he gave a muffled curse. Barry kicked the gun under a cupboard, while Daisy whipped the man’s mask from his face.
“You know him?”
“Ah, yes. He’s my boss.”
“Is that so?” Daisy was furious. “You and he are working together? What is it you want from me – my model cars? What sort of idiots are you?”
“No, no, no, you misunderstand!” Barry protested. “He runs the estate agency I work for. That’s all. Thaddeus, what are you trying to do? Why did you break in here – ”
“I knocked at the front door and she opened it for me. That’s not breaking in,” Thaddeus protested sullenly. “I didn’t know you were going to be here.”
“Ah, but last night, you broke in then,” Daisy said. “Didn’t you?”
“Yes. I must have those cars, Mamselle Maple.”
“You were interested in them from the minute I mentioned them to you. What’s going on?” Barry demanded.
“Oh, shut up, Barry! You’re an idiot! And you’re sacked!”
“Huh! I quit anyway. I don’t want to work for a thief.”
“Oh, I have the feeling he’s more than just a thief,” Daisy said. “I think he’s a spy.”
“No!” Thaddeus turned and fled. Arabinda, who had been snoozing under the table, leapt up and chased him. Barry made as if to follow him but Daisy put a hand on his arm. They listened as Thaddeus bolted, followed by a vengeful, if elderly, Alsatian … and three malevolent cats. Barry felt almost sorry for the man.
“No. Let him go. I’m sorry you’ve lost your job, though.”
“Oh, I’m not. I’m glad. I hated being an estate agent. Marginally better than being a used car salesman, I suppose. I can get another job easily enough.” He shrugged. “I’ll go in to the office tomorrow and return the phone and keys and all that.”
Then he realised what she had said.
“A spy? You think Thaddeus is a spy? Whatever makes you think that?”
“The model cars mean something to him. I’ve had them for a very long time. But there must be more to them, I believe.” She jerked her head at the cabinet. “Go and get them and bring them here, please.”
When he came back with them, he saw she had picked up Thaddeus’s pistol and placed it on the table. The dog and the cats had returned and were snoozing on the floor.
“Oh, hell.” Barry was worried. “What if you’d been here all alone when he came?”
She laughed. “I imagine pretty much about the same as what did happen. Except maybe you’d still have a job.”
“I mean – he might have hurt you.”
“You think so?” She raised an eyebrow.
“Um, well. Maybe not.”
“Let’s have a good look at the cars. You know, I said thank you very nicely when I was given them, and then when I moved here from London I put them in that cabinet and that’s where they’ve been ever since. Nearly twenty-five years and I’ve never examined them properly. Maybe it’s time I did so.”
He sat down opposite her. “I’ve got a feeling the Silver Ghost might be the important one.”
And so it was. The bonnet of the model lifted. Inside was a key and a rolled up piece of paper. Daisy unrolled it carefully and nodded at Barry.
“See if there’s anything tucked away inside any of the others. This looks like a bank safety deposit box key.”
“Nothing in this one.” He put the Bugatti down and fingered the Marquette. “Nor here. But in the Hirondel – “ He grinned at her. “This looks like an address, I think. Except that it’s in Cyrillic script and I can’t read it.”
“I can.” She held out her hand and fished out a pair of reading glasses. She read both pieces of paper carefully several times. Finally Daisy put the keys and the papers down. “All this time, and I never had any idea.” She became brisk. “I have to go to London.”
“Are you going to tell me what’s going on?”
She was suddenly very serious.
“No. But when I come back, I’ll tell you all about it then, okay.” She stood up. “Everything’s going to be all right. Goodnight, Barry. Go home.”
And despite all his questions, she bundled him out the door. Arabinda and the cats followed; he had the feeling they were making sure he left the house.
He slept badly, with wild dreams of cars and walking sticks and pistols. In the morning he decided he’d better go in to the office. When he pushed the door open, Barry cried out in horror at the sight that met his eyes.
Thaddeus Driver’s body was sprawled on the floor, and a long black handled knife was sticking out of his chest. Barry recoiled at the sight, then grabbed his phone to ring the police. But first, he rang Daisy’s house.
There was no answer, and no answering machine to take any message. He rang the police and walked cautiously over to look down at the body. There was a piece of paper pinned to the dead man’s shirt and he caught his breath as he read it.
Barry snatched up the paper, for a moment tempted to scrunch it into a ball and dispose of it. But the arrival of the detective and assorted companions prevented that. He shoved it into his pocket where it remained. They were very polite, even sympathetic.
No, he had no idea who could have done this.
No, he didn’t know very much at all about Thaddeus’s private life.
And no, he had most certainly not been responsible for killing the man!
Fortunately, the police were satisfied with his information. He was asked to give his fingerprints, which he did quite happily, and a DNA sample, also.
He decided not to divulge the information that he was no longer an employee, and omitted all mention of Daisy Maple. They accepted his claim that he was too shocked and disturbed to work that day, and he drove home, where he again rang Daisy.
Again, no reply.
She could have had nothing to do with Thaddeus’s death, but bearing in mind all that had happened, chances were she was in danger. An elderly lady … and then he remembered the way she had arracked Thaddeus with her walking stick, and the fact that she had kept his pistol.
Barry stopped worrying about Daisy Maple and started to worry about anyone who might get in her way.
He heard nothing from her for three days. Every morning, afternoon and evening he rang her house. Nothing. He drove there every morning, spent the rest of the day looking for a job and dropped in again on the way home. He didn’t really care what was going to happen to the business with Thaddeus dead. But he did get one telephone call from the man’s elderly father. He asked Barry to calculate how much he was owed, in commissions, salary and entitlements. The total didn’t appear to faze him at all; he merely asked Barry for his bank details and told him the money would be deposited the following day. And indeed, it was.
He was watching television when he heard about an unfortunate passenger on board the Dover to Calais ferry. It appeared the poor man had suffered a heart attack and fallen into the water, where he had drowned before a rescue attempt could be mounted.
The third afternoon, Barry was having a cup of coffee when his phone rang.
“Daisy! Mamselle Maple! I am so pleased and relieved to hear from you. Is everything all right?”
“Yes, indeed. I am home, and I would like you to come around to see me.”
“Yes, certainly. When?”
“Is now convenient?”
“I’m on my way.”
Just like the first time he had visited her house, she was sitting on the front verandah, her cats and dog accompanying her, and a bottle of champagne on a table by her side. She raised the glass to him as he walked up the pathway.
“Bonsoir, Barry. Please, join me in a glass of champagne. I have something to celebrate.”
Seeing his reluctance, she shook her head. “One glass will do no harm, and if you are concerned about driving, there are plenty of spare bedrooms in this house. No one will be scandalised if you stay the night. I am old enough to be your mother, after all.”
She poured him a glass of the wine and went on. “I’m afraid I told you a few fibs. I said I was a typiste. Actually I was a British agent. I became very close to a Russian. His name was Roscovy. He went home, and we never saw or heard from each other again. He died just recently. But, when he heard I was retiring, he sent a letter to my boss. He said he wanted to send me a gift – that key. So Quentin concealed it and the details of the bank in the model cars, which he then gave to me. And the letter from him. I never knew, till we found it all the other night. The key was for a safe deposit box in a bank in London. The details were on one of the pieces of paper we found. These were in it.” She picked up a small velvet pouch and tipped the contents onto the table. The glitter of diamonds was brilliant and unmistakable.
“He left a note saying they were for me, and were totally legitimate.” She picked up the bottle and refilled their glasses. “There was also a list of names in the safe deposit box. They were sleeper agents due to be activated early in the twenty first century. They were written in a code only he and I knew.” She smiled. “I paid a visit to a certain government agency in London and gave them the list. They were – stunned at some of the names.”
Barry was relieved.
“All’s well that ends well then.” A sudden thought struck him. “Ah, I saw an item on the news about some poor fellow who fell from the ferry and drowned.”
Daisy picked up her glass again and drank the contents before she looked at him again.
“Very sad,” she said. “I was on that ferry. I’m an old lady, Barry. I would not have been able to dive in and rescue him.” She smiled. “Even if I had wanted to."