ONE:



Only two things really matter in my business. One is the ability to spot a lie, because on that your life could depend. The other is the ability to spot the truth, because on that – sure as eggs are eggs – will one day balance the life of some other poor innocent. The latter, probably because it is such a rare commodity, is the more difficult. In any event, I find it so. Whereas a lie I can spot standing on my head in a bog.

Donald Burgess is full of lies. He eats, drinks and sleeps them. But I know his kind of lie intimately. So I just watch for the tell-take signs: the tightening of his weedy lips, the too-casual veiling of uneasy grey eyes, or the sincere, wide-eyed innocence as the truth-gobblers roll glibly, near-convincingly, from his tongue.

Yes, I can deal with Burgess and his lies. I even enjoy the game, despite that I sometimes lose.

Truth is something else again. Because even an innocent man’s lips can tighten, or his eyes cloud, or his cheeks colour, as he protests his innocence. So that you can never be sure. Not really sure. And that makes it difficult at times. Even for a hard-hearted, cold-blooded – reportedly - bastard like me.

This is probably why I prefer the company of liars and cheats. With these people I know where the hell I am.

I know where I am with Burgess.

Most of the time.

In the matter of David Fleming, however, I freely admit to an inability to classify him in those few hours.

Fleming was an exceptionally tall man. And I only mention his height because I’m pushing six-one myself, and it’s a failing I have that I suspect anyone I have to look up to. But I did try not to make too hasty a judgement on him, because I liked his eyes. Clear-blue, they were. Almost startlingly so. They were shrewd and intelligent and they didn’t flit about as he spoke. That did not mean I was going to trust him. I was simply reserving judgement. After all, it had been Burgess who had engineered the meeting. And anything touched by Burgess has to be regarded with circumspection.

Fleming had been waiting for me when I finally made it through customs at Milan airport. After he had introduced himself to me he had led me off to a quiet corner and shoved a piece of paper under my nose. It was not officiousness on his part, I knew that. It was routine. It was the way things were done in his segment of the business; the way the book says it has to be done. So I bore him no grudge because of it, despite the fact that under normal conditions I might have stuffed the paper where all papers of that ilk should be stuffed. I played along. Because that was what I was there for. To play along.

The paper was a Class-A Movement and Restriction Order. It was signed by the colonel – you’ll get to know more about the colonel in good time – and some fictitious section-head called Ainsley. And it carried my name and field number in the “Transferred Personnel” box. Plus it bore the stamp “For the duration of operation”. It also carried a Most Secret tag. All of which, from the official angle, meant that Fleming could do with me what he would, for as long as he would. From my own angle, of course, it meant absolutely sod all. But Fleming was not to know that.

After an uninterested, “How was the flight?” he led me out to his car. As I climbed in the passenger seat I remembered Burgess’s words when he had called me yesterday.

“Did you enjoy your leave?” he had asked.

As it happened, I had not. In fact I was glad to have been back on the register. But Burgess was the last person I’d tell that to. I said that I had.

“Good,” said Burgess “There’s a job for you.”

“Yes, sir. What kind of a job?” My use of the word Sir is, was, and always has been nothing more than an automatic formality. A hangover from my days in uniform where, generally, the higher the rank, the greater the idiot. There are Sirs out there, and there are Sirs…

“The colonel has agreed to a loan-deal. With a man called Fleming. David Fleming. Runs the Milan station. Know him?”

I said: “No, sir, I don’t. And I don’t do loan-deals.”

In my bailiwick, EL, loan-deals are something of a rarity. I can only remember a couple of times when we’d used them. I think we’d needed a fresh face, temporarily, for something or other. But both of those times the arrangement had been in EL’s favour. Certainly I’d never heard of an EL field man being loaned out to a common-or-garden mail-drop. As I reminded Burgess, we don’t do that kind of thing.

Burgess hurried on, “It’ll only be a loan on paper, of course. But you’d better get over to the office and I’ll give you the gen.”

I was not exactly agog with curiosity, but, like I said, I was glad to be back in the reins. The leave had been a disaster as, I was beginning to realise, were all my leaves. And I was also aware of another curious fact about myself. I do not like holidays. I like the build-up, the planning, and the expectant waiting - I doubt I could survive without these things. But the leave itself? Forget it! So I made it to the office inside an hour. Burgess was waiting for me. He had my ticket in his hand.

“So what’s the brief, sir?” I asked, pocketing the ticket.

Burgess walked over to the coffee machine and poured himself a cup. I noted that the plate was hot, and the coffee already brewed. And since there was no one else in the office - it was only eight in the morning, after all - he must have been there for some time. All night, probably. This amazing piece of deduction led me to the conclusion that the job in hand was important. All I had to do was set this against the way Burgess presented the job to me and I’d have another big clue.

Burgess absently sipped the drink, then seemed to remember that he hadn’t offered me any.

“Sorry, Jackie. Rude of me. You want a cup?”

Two clues there. First, he’d used my first name, and he didn’t do that unless it was a prelude to a smokescreen. And second, he’d admitted that he could be rude, which meant that it was on the cards that he was going to be even ruder before long. I filed these things in my brain for later evaluation, and accepted the coffee. Then I waited patiently.

Burgess walked to his desk and started to finger a piece of paper. At last he said: “I’ve booked you on the noon flight. Commercial, of course. We don’t want this going through any official channels.“ He passed me the paper he’d been fiddling with. “I’ve jotted the details here. There’s a stopover, I’m afraid. In Munich. Couldn’t wangle it any other way at short notice.“ He lit a cigarette and blew a fan of smoke at the ceiling.

“Tell me about Fleming, sir” I slipped Burgess’s paper into my pocket.

Burgess took another deep drag on his cigarette. “David Fleming runs the Milan mail-drop. They handle the Czech courier run, amongst others. Nothing highly classified though, so I believe. Normal stuff.”

I nodded and slurped the coffee. Then I reminded Burgess that he hadn’t answered my first question. “So, what’s the job?”

Burgess pinned his favourite it’s-almost-too-paltry- to-mention look on his mush. “A courier run. Milan to Prague.“ Then, as if to answer a question he knew I’d ask: “The colonel thinks that one of his sources has switched allegiance. I don’t know the full story, because he didn’t tell it to me. But it’s my guess that they want you to get instructions to their man in Prague.“ He shrugged expansively. “But it could be anywhere in Czechoslovakia. You’ll get the rundown from Fleming.”

I knew damn well that there was something Burgess wasn’t telling me. It was in his eyes. Perhaps what he was saying was the truth, but in my book the greater part of truth lies in what is left unsaid. But I knew that if Burgess had it in his mind not to tell me, there was no way I was going to prise it out of him. So I tried another tack.

“Fine, sir. But why EL? I can think of at least a dozen sections they can call on. Specialised sections.”

Which was true enough.

He lifted a bedraggled shoulder and the mask dropped a centimetre. “You’re right, of course. Why us indeed? Putting two and two together would seem to indicate something more than at first meets the eye. Perhaps that’s why the colonel has asked for you personally. Maybe he just can’t tell us what it is but he knows that, in your own inimitable fashion, you’re bound to find out, and act accordingly.“ He jerked his head and flashed his eyes chummily at me. “The colonel has a lot of faith in your abilities, y’know.” After dropping that pearl he stubbed out his cigarette and stepped over to the window and glanced out at the early morning Frith Street traffic. It was dull and dismal out there, uniformly slate-grey cloud cover as far as the eye could see. With his back to me he said: “If all that sounds a trifle ambiguous, then you’ll just have to live with it. Because that’s all the brief I can give you!”

All very convincing. To someone who didn’t know Burgess. But I did know him. I hate to let him think that he’s getting one over on me, but because I did know him so well I also knew that there are occasions when arguing with him is just not worth a light. I shook my head. If only he knew just how bloody transparent he was when he was hiding something. I dropped the subject. There was no point.

“Oh,” he added as if it had just sprung to mind, “The new W4 number is 0885322, plus your destination and ETA.” He gave me an old fashioned look. “Use it sparingly, Ryderbeit, eh? It’s a concessionary facility, and I’d rather like it to be there when we really need it.”

The W4 system is a direct result of 9-11, before which we in the Intelligence business could carry weapons on flights if we possessed the appropriate authority. Such is still possible, to a degree; certainly on long-established routes. But, for the itinerant traveller, it is a minefield that is best avoided where possible. The W4 system, though unwieldy in certain respects, does ensure that agents who need weapons in foreign countries can still obtain them on arrival. But it is not a simple process, and it ties up operatives who might otherwise have better things to do than secrete guns in various pre-designated hideyholes on the Arrivals floor of whichever airport you use to enter the country. The people who carry out the W4 are usually rank-and-file field men on the bottom rungs of their ladder, and they know absolutely nothing about anything.

Four hours later I was on the plane.

And three hours after that, as I was twiddling my thumbs in Munich airport, waiting for the connection, I noticed that I had a tail, a tail that remained with me until I was met by Fleming at Milan. But since this dark-featured chap was my tail, and not Fleming’s, I kept the fact to myself.

At this point, before we get bogged down in something that had yet to become unravelled, I’m going to supply a little background, because, unlike Burgess, I do not subscribe to the theory that the less you know the better it will be for you.

My name is Jackson F. Ryderbeit, pronounced RyderBATE as opposed to the vegetable. My friends call me Jackie. So does Burgess, when he wants something but is too proud to come right out and ask for it. It doesn’t matter a damn what the ‘F’ stands for. I’m forty-two years old, but I’ll answer to a lot less. And I was born of Dutch parentage, hence the name. I was recruited direct from the military, under whose blanket I served for the best part of sixteen years. I had paid my dues and deserved to be where I was.

Burgess is - or he likes to think he is - my boss. And he is a lying bastard! But you know that already. He heads a unit known throughout the service as EL - which are a couple more initials for you to conjure with, if you’ve got time to waste. EL fits somewhere in the swollen gut of C16. That’s a section of Counter Intelligence. But we are none of us desperately intelligent. If we were we’d be doing something else.

C16 does things, in its daily routine, that would be frowned upon in polite circles. While we of EL do things, as part of life, that are positively illegal. Because killing people who would otherwise remain alive, however dutifully it is done, is illegal. You know this. And I know this. Burgess, mostly, forgets it.

The thin end of EL comprises me, and a half a dozen others of my ilk. Burgess is at the thick end - and he can take that whichever-the-hell way he likes! Burgess gets his instructions - as I’ve hinted - from a man called George Sturrock. The colonel. Sturrock holds the reins of an indeterminate number of sections within C16. While C16 as a whole comes under the hammer of Sir Harry Sedgemoor. Sedgemoor thinks he is God, which, if his instincts are to be believed, should mean that the buck stops there. I say ‘should’ because somehow I doubt it. I also doubt that the arcane structure of the Intelligence world is actually known to any individual. Or, I would hazard a guess, to any group of individuals. Anonymity is the name of our game. And we fight hard to retain that anonymity. Both from the world at large and, significantly, from each other.

We don’t actually exist. None of us.

And that, ignoring the bits I know sod all about in any case, is the tree into which I crawled some twelve years ago.

But, back to the business at hand. It was a quiet trip. The car, a carpet-slippered, gas-guzzling Daimler was as quiet as we were. Fleming did utter a vowel or two. But it never got anywhere. And I didn’t bother to ask for translations.

I looked at the dashboard clock. It was registering 4.30 by that time. And ! was bloody knackered. So it was up to my jet-lagged system to pinpoint it as the 4.30 that happened just before the milkman, as opposed to the one that let kids out of school. It was also dark which, jet-lag or not, should have been another clue. But the Sherlock Holmes part of me was still in the air.

My tail was no longer with me. I’d seen the lights of a car pull out of the airport car-park behind us. And they’d stayed behind us the forty-odd miles of the autobahn. They’d even followed us off the autobahn at Bergamo. They’d dropped back a bit then, as one would expect, as Fleming drove north on Route 41 to a place called Lovere. Somewhere between there and Brenoi they’d dropped out of sight. And it was with an effort that my tired brain computed the significance of this with the fact that, shortly after that, Fleming pulled off the 42 and on to a very minor road that, I rightly assumed, heralded the end of the trip.

My conclusion was that whoever it was behind us knew Fleming, and where he was headed. And that they would then have settled down somewhere close by to await further movement.

Just in case you are wondering about it, I do not place any great significance in tails. In this business they are as much a part of travel as tickets and backache. And a tail could be anyone: friend or foe. Their identities usually remain unresolved until the last reel. If then!

So I was glad to see the trip finally shovelled under when, some three hours later, Fleming pulled onto a wooded side road and a pair of security floodlights burst into life, illuminating a heavily-barred gate, set in high walls topped with razor-wire. The lights were atop the pillars either side of the gate. He pulled up outside the gate and loosely aimed a control box out the windscreen. The gates immediately started to swing open. He drove through the gates, which closed behind us. There was a small building just inside the gates that might have been a gatehouse at some stage. Whatever it was, or had been, it was in darkness. He drove on up the drive through the trees.

The villa was large and the vine-draped, colonnaded porch could’ve taken my flat in Chelsea twice over. And there would still have been room to hold orgies. And the half-dozen or so steps leading up to it gave it a classical Italian look. A stupid simile since we were in Italy anyway. But, despite what the uninformed might be thinking, I do have my deeper moments.

We climbed out of the car and Fleming waved me on up the steps as he fiddled with a bunch of keys. The interior more than matched the exterior, and I was prompted to think that perhaps I was working for the wrong section. An expansive staircase led up from the hail directly opposite the door, dividing at the top to serve two balconies that ringed the hail at first-floor level. The brilliant white walls were tastefully covered with paintings and the floor was inches deep in carpet. The light was being supplied by a multi-faceted chandelier - crystal, yet! All in all a nice place. And jealousy normally leads me to understate this kind of opulent living.

Then a door leading off the hall opened. A woman stepped out. She had a smile on her face until she saw that Fleming was not alone. The smile vanished and an expression that I couldn’t fathom took its place.

She wore a lightweight pants-suit, and her jet-black hair had a refined, carefully brushed appearance. And despite the fact that she seemed to have been alone in the house she wore artfully applied make-up around her eyes and on her cheeks. The smile, as I said, had disappeared, but she looked poised and assured. I put her age at around a steady thirty-five. I couldn’t make up my mind whether she was Italian or what, and I wasn’t really pondering the point. And it seemed that I was not to know her name because Fleming did not bother with introductions.

“Who’s on duty?”

“Only Simon, sir. In the comms room. Leone and Fabiano are walking the perimeter” She had an accent, but it was not Italian. And reading between the lines of that brief reply I came to the disinterested conclusion that she was a minion around there. Wherever there was.

Fleming cursed, “Damn! Where the hell is Innes? And Partridge?”

A little of the woman’s poise dropped away, due, I thought, to the fact that she gathered from Fleming’s manner that all was not as well in his world as it could’ve been. She looked quickly from him to me then back again. She said, “Innes left before midnight, sir. Partridge has not reported in yet.”

Fleming’s eyes blazed momentarily and he clucked his tongue. I looked at him. And I got the impression that I was looking at an inordinately harassed man who’d got that way because two people weren’t where they should have been, or where he would have liked them to be.

“Find them and get them here!” he said tersely, “Did you manage to contact all the staff?”

“The house staff, yes, sir. I’m still trying to get hold of the ground staff.”

“Good. I don’t want any spare bodies wandering the grounds today. You can leave Leone and Fabiano on the perimeter. Is Simon on the graveyard shift?”

“Yes, sir. Midnight to eight.”

“Get rid of him.”

The woman looked taken aback. “What shall I tell him?”

“Tell him?” Fleming queried, as if it was a stupid question. “Just tell him he’s not required.”

The woman again glanced between the two of us. Then she mumbled something and turned on her heel.

At her departing back, he called, “And make sure we were not followed from the airport! Warn the perimeter.”

Well, I could’ve answered that one myself, and I was not a little surprised that he hadn’t noticed the tail in any case. But since he was ignoring me I saw no reason to help him out. And the realisation that I was being ignored was beginning to annoy me. And my brain had at last caught up with my body. Had Fleming known me better he would have realised that the combination of these three things: being annoyed, waking up and feeling superfluous, placed me on the borderline between docile and downright dangerous. And it was as well for all concerned that he at last decided to acknowledge my existence.

As the woman walked off to do his bidding he turned to me and raised his eyes to the roof. “Damn people!” he said, waving an arm at nothing in particular “Never around when you want them!”

Really? I lifted a non-committal shoulder and he ushered me into the room the woman had come out of. It was a lounge. And it was furnished like nothing I’d seen before: a fireplace that took up almost an entire wall, a suite that screamed money, carpet that sucked at your feet like a bog, and a bar that looked inviting. I planted myself in one of the planet-eating armchairs and waited to see what Fleming had to offer.

It was whisky.

“How much has Sturrock told you? “ he asked, as he relieved a bottle of a good measure of its content and handed me the glass.

I looked him slap between his blue eyes and said nothing.

“Ice?“ he said, those eyes for the first time showing signs of unrest.

Sticking to my guns, I just grunted, just to see if he was paying due attention to my mood. He wasn’t far off. Because he rightly translated the grunt as being an affirmative. He went up a couple of notches in my book, because I know me. I know just how non committal my grunts can be. He dropped a couple of ice cubes into my glass. He promptly forgot that he’d asked me the first question, and he asked another.

“Do you carry a weapon?”

“Currently? Or generally?”

He cracked a thin smile. “Currently.”

I shook my head and took a sip of the grog. It was a toss-up whether Fleming was aware of the W4 system. Each station had its own way of dealing with the weapons issue. W4, I thought, was a C16 thing. Exclusively.

Fleming nodded. “No problem.”

I laid another grunt on him. I wanted to know a whole lot more before I gave my vocal chords full rein.

He filled himself a glass and in, I assumed, an attempt to break the ice, he clinked it on mine. Burgess does that sometimes, when he’s up to no good. So I was even more wary of the stranger with the blue eyes. Then he took a pinky-finger-in-the-air sip of the critter. Poofs do that. Even big ones. And some of you will know my feelings about poofs. Fleming dropped back those two notch gains, and then some. But he was direct, I’ll give him that.

“I’m going to have to send you to prison!” he said. A deathly hush descended on the room. I assumed he was waiting for me to fall about on the floor. I disappointed him with a get-on-with-it-for-Christ’s- sake sigh, and downed another mouthful of the hard stuff. He took the hint.

“As you know,“ he said, “I have the authority to use you as I see fit.”

Actually I couldn’t figure out what lay at the core of that remark, because his voice rose to the question in what should have been pure statement. But it did throw a little light on the subject. He was angling for a reaction, probably to see if I was giving the written orders as much credence as he was. This, in my book, meant that he knew damn well that what he had in mind for me went beyond written orders. Either way I decided to bring my non-committal period to an end.

“I don’t know any damn thing of the sort,” I said.

He coloured a bit, but held his ground. “Well, that’s the way it is!“ Then, somewhat less positively, he went on: “Look, these loan arrangements are never easy on the operators. I know that. But we have a problem that can only be got around by the employment of a non-station man. D’follow?”

“I gathered that.” I said “Go on.”

Fleming took another pull at the drink, then he unwound himself to his full height. “Two things,” he began, at his new altitude, “First: one of our intelligence sources has been careless. He’s got himself pulled in on a smuggling charge.”

He checked again for reaction. I gave him none.

“We need him out.”

I nodded. “And second?”

“And second…“ The eyebrows joined hands. “Well, if we can’t get him out, no one must! In fact he must never get out! Certainly he must never be brought to trail, on any charge!”

So that was it. A kill-or-cure mission. I didn’t mind that. It’d be different. And a change is as good as a rest; not that I needed one. Well, perhaps I could’ve done with a short one. But I had the feeling that there was more. I said:

“Where is he?”

His reply, whatever it was, got all mixed up in a sudden bout of throat-clearing.

“Come again?” I said.

He got rid of the dregs of the cough and mumbled tightly, “Czechoslovakia.”

No surprises there. “Where in Czechoslovakia? Precisely!”

Fleming turned his back on me in favour of the drinks bar, where he did things with the bottle. “Place called Jáblonec. Near the Polish border.”

“M-hmm,“ I said, finding myself something less than taken by storm. “And?

He turned, his glass now topped up. He shrugged. “That’s it.“ He tipped the glass to his mouth.

That was not bloody well it! He was doing a Burgess on me! And that was his first real mistake. I slopped back my drink and stood up. I was very much awake then and firing on all cylinders. Did the whole bloody world take me for an idiot? I walked over to the bar and very deliberately placed the empty glass on the bar top. The bell - the one that had started to ring back with Burgess in the office - was no longer just ringing. It was being hammered by some demented maniac right behind my eyes.

I waited while Fleming refilled my glass. He was looking at me oddly as he did so. But when he caught me looking at him he averted his eyes. Jesus! He was a worse liar than Burgess. But I think that that was what warmed me to him all of a sudden. He did not like what he was doing. I walked my glass over to the French windows and stood looking out at the dark shapes of the hills.

I chuckled a bit. Burgess had known at least as much as I now knew, possibly more. If he’d come clean and told me the lot, including the wart-ridden bit that I knew was still to come, I might not have questioned what was going down. In the greater scheme of things I was, after all, little more than flotsam. They did have a perfect right to chuck me where the hell they wanted to chuck me. They also had a right to withhold their reasons. I also knew that very often situations arose that required service above and beyond the proverbial. In EL such situations had an incidence rate of about four in five. And on such jobs Burgess was pushed to his limit to cajole, browbeat or bribe a performance out of us. Obviously he thought that this little nasty - whatever it was going to turn out to be - fell outside the scope of either of those three things.

Of course, by having agreed to the written orders being cut in the first place, he had placed Fleming in my firing-line. Because there was no way that he, Fleming, could know that those orders meant little or nothing to me. Also there was no reason to suppose that Fleming would feel anything other than completely justified if he put a bullet between my eyes if I refused to obey his instructions.

I put the glass to my lips.

Then again there was the possibility - an almost non-existent possibility, it’s true, but a possibility none the less - that the job was no more than was being laid on me.

No sooner had that thought crossed my mind than I discarded it. If that was the case, Burgess would certainly have been in possession of even the minutest detail, and, what’s more, he would have had no reason to withhold anything. Because Burgess, whatever he was or was not, had less time for ‘The Book’ than I did.

So I was going to see it through. For the time being. I turned.

“So there’s no catch?”

Fleming, though he obviously tried hard, could not hide a look of relief. “Catch?” he said, the eyes widening. “Of course not!.“ Then he caught himself on and what could have been the makings of a smile vanished. “It is not going to be a pushover, however. In fact it could get very sticky. But there’s no catch.”

Perish the thought!

He shook his head minutely as if trying to convey the message that I was barmy to think such a thing. So I let it drop.

“Okay,“ I said, “So give me the gen.”



TWO:


Six-thirty in the morning, and I had slipped from tired to knackered in the space of a few minutes. It was the atmosphere in that place. Draft-excluded up to the eyeballs and air-conditioning that kept the temperature constant. Also, of course, it was the whisky. If there was one thing I never seemed to get right, it was the balance between solid food and the intake of liquid alcohol. Too little of one and too much of the other took its toll on my system. I was far from being drunk, but such was a distant possibility. Certainly, unless I ate something pretty damned quick. And I was on my third whisky.

Whatever Fleming was, he was no host. There was a screw-top bottle of peanuts on the bar, a large one, which might have taken care of the blood-sugar level, and he had not offered them round.

It was still dark outside, but there was an indistinct hint of approaching dawn in that darkness.

“You’ll do the trip in three legs, “he was saying, his index-finger hovering over Italy. “Milan down to Brindisi. “The finger traced the route. “Brindisi across to Tehran. And from Tehran on up to Prague, where you will be met by a man who will introduce himself as Bronislav. The man does have a first name, but it’s unpronounceable. He doesn’t use it anyway. Nor does anyone else. So it’ll just be Bronislav. He’ll drive you up to an address in Jablonec, where - “

“That’s four, “I cut in, just to show that I was paying attention.

“Eh?”

“That’s four legs.”

Fleming looked back at the map blankly for a second, then he realised what I meant. He jerked his head impatiently and flapped a hand in the air. “Yes, four.”

He was on edge. He had been for the past hour. And I couldn’t figure out why. Like I said, I was the height of attentiveness, so it couldn’t have been me. And he kept glancing at his watch. So I figured that it must’ve been because none of his boys had turned up. Not that I was desperately concerned. I was about to ask the reason for the many-legged trip when he told me.

“I’ve sent you the long way round because I’m afraid you can expect some opposition.”

I grunted. Naturally.

“My man Innes will be behind you at least until Tehran. If there’s trouble he will sort it out, while you continue as per the schedule.”

I nodded. Then I said, “Who is this…opposition?”

He looked at me sideways, his fingers drumming a tattoo on the map. At length he said: “We don’t know. Not exactly”

Shit! I thought. Not more of that garbage! Some of what I was thinking must have shown up on my face, because he went on, “That sounds odd, doesn’t it?”

I nodded. “Some.”

He pulled a hand across his chin. “It could be any number of people. Innes knows most of the faces. That’s why he’ll go as back-up. And if he gets the chance he will lead them off elsewhere. So that, should they take his bait, you’ll have a clear run.”

I said, “I don’t want to appear pedantic, but you keep saying ‘they’. It would be nice just to have a vague clue.” 

He threw me a glance from under overhanging brows. Then, when he had satisfied himself that I wasn’t being facetious, he said, “Naturally I refer, in the main, to the Soviets.”

“In the main?”

“Yes.” He had a small skirmish with himself, and then went on. “You see, the man you’re after is a mercenary. He sells his information to anyone who’ll pay his price. And he doesn’t care whose information it is. Or who gets it.”

I nodded. “A true neutral.”

“Perhaps,” he said, nodding his head slightly. “Certainly he did not appear to be biased, one way or the other.”

“That sounds a bit like you’re talking in the past tense.”

He didn’t seem to have heard that. He rolled a mouthful of undiluted whisky around his tongue, swallowed it noisily, and then went on: “We paid him good money, on the understanding that he remained neutral. So did the yanks. And the Soviets.“ He shook his head. “And we know for a fact that he was heavily committed to trade between the Arabs and Israel.”

“Free enterprise is a wonderful thing,“ I said. The story did not surprise me one bit. That sort of thing was universal among the more respectable sections of the ‘Corps’, where a certain rogue’s law prevailed. “So why the kill-or-cure?”

He looked thoughtful again. Trying, I thought, to sift what he should, or could, tell me, and what he should, or could not. When he’d got it straight in his

mind, he said, “He did a special job for us a while back. Nothing to do with the Soviets. We wanted something the Yanks had. He got it for us and he got his pound of flesh. Then he – “

I put in. “Then he sold the same info, or whatever it was, to the Soviets?”

Fleming nodded. “Exactly. But we didn’t mind that. We’d expected it, in fact.”

“So?”

“So . . . we think that he made a deal with the Yanks while he was at it. Something a lot more permanent than usual. We think he’s fallen off the fence. On the American side. The Soviets think so too. At least that’s what our intelligence tells us. In any event, we can’t give him the benefit of the doubt. We have to act.”

I felt like telling him about the guy who played with fire. But, having put some thought to the problem, I said, “But only you know that he’s wangled himself into some hot water on the side.”

“That’s about it. Of course, we can’t be one hundred per cent sure, but the signs seem to indicate it. The Yanks have put extra men in the field, we know that for sure. Specialists. And the Germans are dashing about like blue-arsed flies. The KGB office in Prague have called in the GRU. So you see, it’s a messy business all round. No one knows what is happening for sure.”

I let go a sigh that had been wanting out. There is only so much that a tired brain can cope with. And my brain was getting woollier by the minute.

Then Fleming checked his watch again. And he tutted.

Not unkindly, I said, “Trouble?”

He looked at me squarely. “I hope to God not! Not at this stage.“ Then he turned on his heel and walked to one of the paintings on the wall and swung it to one side to reveal a hefty wall-safe. He fiddled with the combination, shielding the action with his back, opened it and took out a large envelope. Then he closed the safe, spun the dial, and squared the picture.

“Here are your papers. Everything is in order so you should have no problems with the authorities. At least, not until we want you to have trouble.“ A faint smile pulled at the corners of his mouth.

Since that bit sounded unhealthy I didn’t join him in the joke. He went on:

“Two passports. One in the name of Gregory. One in the name of Schmitt “I don’t speak German,” I said, helpfully.

He shook his head. “That doesn’t matter. The passport says that you haven’t been German for a couple of generations. It’s a fully-fledged Canadian passport, as you can see. You’d better give them the once before you leave.”

“Which is when?”

“Tonight at 9.20. We have a hire car in the garage. You’ll use that to get to the airport.“ He tossed the passports over to me. Then he dived back into the envelope. “Here are your permits and travel documents. Also the papers to back up the entry and exit visas. You’ll be using the Gregory passport on the way in. Oh, just a minute…“ He left the room for a couple of minutes and I was left to twiddle my thumbs. I did not feel like ferreting about to see if I could turn up something useful. These people would not leave gash evidence lying about. When he returned he had a small suitcase in his hand which he placed on the bar. “Use this. It’s got a false bottom. Nothing elaborate. I’m afraid. But it’ll pass muster. I’ve pinned explanatory tags on each set of papers, as you can see. Don’t get them mixed up. Keep the set you’re not using in the suitcase.”

I nodded. I was impressed with his thoroughness.

“Use the Schmitt passport for getting out. If you are using the Gregory passport you are an antique dealer. If your name is Schmitt, you’re a travel agent on the lookout for hotels to add to a package-exchange tour you are putting together. But don’t get confused by all this. Bronislav has all the details and he’ll make sure you are right. Just make certain you are Gregory when you arrive.”

I said: “Just how long have you been putting this operation together?” I wasn’t being nosey, I was just interested.

He inclined his head as he put his mind to the problem. Then his eyes narrowed, as if the answer posed new problems. At length he said, guardedly,

“Three days.”

My perception was dulled by the alcohol, but I could have sworn that he had had to shuffle that answer around in his mind before giving it to me, which, to my mind, pointed to a variance between the answer he gave and the actual time involved. I didn’t know what the hell that could mean. So I filed it away for later, more sober, evaluation.

Fleming eyed me for a while longer. Then he went on, “Here are $5,000 in Czech money. Plus a money order, open, for as much again. That’s in case something comes up that you can bribe your way out of.“ He stuffed all that back into the envelope and handed it over. “Also in there are theatre ticket stubs, bus tickets and the like. All self-explanatory. The usual stuff. Window-dressing. All dated from four days ago. They might come in handy. Now the important part. Bronislav will arrange for you to be involved in a fracas at your hotel. Nothing too drastic. Just enough to get you thrown into jail for a night. You will find yourself in the same cell as our man. You know the rest.“

Fleming conducted a mental recap with himself. Then he nodded, as if he was satisfied that he’d put it to me in the right order. “Have you any questions?”

I shook my head.

“And you’re clear on everything so far?”

Silly boy. “Yes. I’m clear

Fleming nodded. Then he lifted a sigh of his own from the depths before, yet again, bringing his arm up and checking his watch. This time he did more than cluck his tongue.

“Where the hell are they” he spat, mostly for his own benefit.

Since I could see troubles looming up on the horizon that would be all mine, I didn’t feel up to getting involved in his. I said, “Where should they be?” Not that I gave a damn. Which, as it turned out, was just as well. Because he totally ignored the query.

“You’re sure you’ve got it all?”

Jesus! “I told you, I’m clear!”

He nodded. “Okay. Now, then, if you find that you can’t lift our man, even with outside help that Bronislav will be able to supply, you’re to kill him! On that there is no question! Do you understand that?” It was more an accusation than a question.

My head was aching. And he wasn’t helping it. Very patiently I said: “Yes, I understand. If I can’t get him out, I kill him!”

He nodded. “Right. Whichever way it goes, Bronislav will be on hand to get both, or only you, out of there. And that is when you become Hans Schmitt.“ Towards the end of that last sentence he walked over to the window and peered out into the dawn. I guessed he was looking for the lights of an approaching car. But whatever it was he was looking for, it seemed that he didn’t find it. Because there was yet more watch-checking. He fidgeted about a bit. Then he seemed to come to a decision.

“Look,“ he said agitatedly “I’m going to have to leave you for a while. You should be okay. But just. in case . . .“ He reached in under his jacket and pulled out a .38 BSA Auto. He put it in my hand as he passed me on his way to the door.

“Danielle should be back shortly. Have her rustle you up some food. But for your own safety do not discuss the operation with her. In fact, do not discuss anything with her!”

“Who is she? Secretary?”

He smiled half-heartedly, as if he remembered some long-dead private joke. “Something like that.“ He opened the door and stepped through into the hall. I followed him. As he sorted through his keys, he said, “You’ll have the place to yourself for a while. Explore the house, by all means, but avoid going outside. The perimeter guards have dogs that don’t like strangers. If Innes comes in before I do, tell him that I’ve gone back into Milan to see Partridge. He’ll know what to do. He’ll also give you any more information you think you need.”

. I said, “And how will I know that it’s this Innes guy I’m talking to? As opposed to any other stranger!”

He stopped in his tracks. “Good grief!” he murmured, almost to himself. Then to me, “I’m not doing too well at the moment. Am I?”

I said, “When was the last time you closed your eyes?”

He curled up his mouth. “Yes, that must be it.” Wryly, he added, “let’s hope it’s that, eh?”

I nodded. “At least one of us ought to be on the ball. And I’m just about poleaxed!”

“Well,” he said, “If a bald-headed man with a scar under his right eye comes to the house, just ask him who Blindstone is. And if he tells you that Blindstone is our codeword for Hugo Kaplan, which is the name of the man currently residing in Jablonica prison, then you’ll know you are speaking to Peter Innes. If he says anything else, anything else at all, and that’s even if he is a bald man with a scar…” He tapped the .38 I still held in my hand, “…then shoot him!”

Before I could get another word in, he left, slamming the door behind him.



THREE:


I didn’t hear the woman come back. I didn’t hear a lot of anything.

I did not go exploring, and I certainly didn’t go looking for a spare room to crash in. In fact, I didn’t get further than the arm chair, with a stop-off at the bar. I sat there in the thundering silence, eating peanuts with one hand, sipping whisky from a glass in the other, and I pondered the situation. Or, I tried to. And Fleming’s bottle seemed to empty itself.

I don’t remember anything else until I felt a hand shaking my shoulder.

“Where is mister Fleming?”

I tried to open my eyes, but couldn’t. They seemed glued together. But I knew it was full daylight, because the view from inside my eyelids was milky white. The hand shook my shoulder again, more insistently.

“Mister Fleming! Where is he?”

My head felt like a war zone. I wanted the hand to go away. I wanted the woman to go away. But I knew that wasn’t going to happen. I tried again to open my eyes. And this time I made it. If only barely, the glue stretching like spider’s web between both lids. I knuckled my eyes as clear as I could and looked up at the anxious face of the woman, who suddenly seemed undecided, as if she realised that she was asking the wrong person. She straightened and moved a step away from me. I couldn’t blame her: I must have looked like death. I certainly felt that way. And I probably reeked of stale sweat. Worse, I had been dribbling. I moved my head and felt a bone in my neck click, like a charge of electricity. I must have fallen asleep at an awkward angle.

I croaked, “Where’s Innes?”

That question seemed to come from nowhere. But as soon as it passed my lips, full memory returned and, with something of a jolt, I knew who I was, where I was and what was the last thing that had happened. I looked for the gun. My head felt as if it was only loosely connected to my shoulders. I located the .38 down between my hip and the side of the chair.

The woman still looked uncertain. But she said, “He’s coming. Where is mister Fleming?”

I was on the verge of telling her, when I remembered what Fleming had instructed me. Answering her question hardly came into the category he’d outlined. But I said, “He went out,” and left it at that.

Then I felt the first constrictions of what I recognised well as the beginnings of a hangover headache.

I looked at my wristwatch as the woman stepped over to the window and peered outside. It was pushing ten-thirty. Fleming had been gone a little under four hours. The trip in from the airport had taken us about three. Which meant that if he was doing what he had told me he was doing, then there didn’t seem a need to start a flap yet. But the woman was obviously on the edge, and that got me on edge.

I heard heavy running footsteps on the stairs and a moment later this man stepped in the room. Bald, and with a livid scar under his right eye.

Peter Innes was about my size. Perhaps a shade thinner. And I’m not fat. I think the baldness was a self-inflicted thing. Razor cut. Maybe he just hadn’t liked the direction his hair was going. A couple of EL guys had done that at the first sign of thinning. The scar looked to be the result of an ancient knife wound. Unlike Fleming, Innes was wearing tourist-type casuals; colourful short-sleeved shirt and denims. And he asked the same question the woman had, only not couched in such polite terms.

“Where’s Fleming?” The words clipped through the air like bullets. But even in those two terse words the flat drawl of an American accent was obvious. I was still sitting down, but I was on top of the situation.

“You Innes?” I said.

He nodded. “And you’re Ryderbeit.”

“RyderBATE!”

“Okay…Ryderbate! Now, where’s Fleming?”

“Who’s Blindstone?”

He shot a quick glance at the woman, who was still peering out the wjndow. Quieter, he said, “Kaplan.”

“Who Kaplan?”

His lips twitched in a faint smile. “’H’ for Hugo.”

I lifted the gun and showed it to him. “Good,” I said, “Then I don’t have to shoot you. And Fleming’s gone into Milan. Looking for a guy called Partridge.”

The smile wiped itself from his face. “Well, he isn’t going to find him there!” He turned to the woman and called, “Let’s have some coffee, Danni.”

The woman turned from the window and walked out without a word. Innes said, “How much has Fleming told you?”

“Some, but I’d like to know more.” I held out the .38 “You want this back now?”

He grunted. “Keep it. It’s not mine.” He walked to the bar. “But, if I were you,” he added, over his shoulder, “I’d lose it before trying to board any bloody aeroplanes! Drink?”

“No, thanks. The coffee sounds better.”

As it happened, I don’t think Innes was referring to the hard stuff, because he opened a bottle of coke and swigged it by the neck. I wished that I had done the same thing earlier. When he’d drunk his fill, he said, “I don’t want to worry you, but I think we’ve got trouble.” He burped a coke burp.

Gently, my head still throbbing, I pushed myself to my feet. I thought about cracking the old EL joke: Who’s we? Got a mouse in your pocket? But I didn’t. “How’s that? Fleming only left a bit more than three hours ago. What’s the panic? He won’t have had time to – “

“That’s not it,” he snapped. “Well, it’s not all of it. It’s Partridge.”

“What’s Partridge.?”

He looked at me over the top of the bottle. “He’s gone.”

I said, “Who is this Partridge.”And what does he do besides go places?” It was as if I was fumbling about in the dark.

“Fleming didn’t tell you?”

“He told me of him. He didn’t tell me about him.”

He thought for a moment. “Then perhaps I shouldn’t.”

Which was fine by me. My head was pounding. “Suit yourself.”

Innes took a packet of chewing gum from his pocket, unwrapped a stick and folded it into his mouth. Between chews, he said, “We’ll have to move the timetable up a bit. Are you clear on your itinerary?”

I wondered. “I think so. But if you’re going to alter – “

He cut in. “I’m altering nothing but the start time. How about your paperwork?”

“What about it?”

He spread his arms. “Where is it?”

I nodded down at the case. “Here.”

He nodded. “Good. Are you ready to leave?”

I said, “I wouldn’t mind a shower and a change of clothes. Other than that I’m ready. But before I go charging off anywhere I need to know what the hell is happening here.”

For a moment it seemed as if he was going to baulk. Then he shrugged lightly. “From the flight angle I don’t think the problem is very great. Maybe none at all; because we’ll leave earlier than scheduled. But if Partridge has gone where I think he’s gone, then the problem will be at the other end. I’m supposed to leave you at Tehran, but if it’s all the same to you, I’m going to stick with you all the way.”

I said, “You people are in charge, I’m only the oily rag.”

He frowned. “Oily rag?”

But before I could reply he lifted a hand. “Oh, oily rag!” He chuckled. “The help! So, okay, mister Oily Rag, when we leave here I think you should just go on about your schedule as per. I’ll be hot on your heels. Just the way Fleming said. I suppose he did say?”

“He did.”

“Right. Well, whatever is supposed to happen up in Czechland is down to you, I’m only going along to cover your rear. Which actually makes me the oily rag!” He stopped smiling and added, “I hope you’re good!”

I grunted. “I hope you’re better!”

He laughed gently. Then he stopped laughing. “Did Fleming seem okay when he left?”

“He was a bit pissed off that you hadn’t shown up,” I said .I pointed at the mobile phone he had in his shirt pocket. “Why don’t you call him?”

He shook his head. “We don’t have a comms satellite hovering over this place, which is one of the reason they put it here. It’s a dead zone. And I sure as shit aren’t going to use the landline, certainly not this one.” He indicated the handset on the end of the bar. “Besides, I tried his cell already, back in the hills. He’s not answering.” Then he appeared to think of something else. “How wide is your brief?”

“My brief from whom?”

His forehead furrowed. “Shit, I don’t know! From whoever it is you work for most of the time.”

“You don’t know?”

He shook his head. “No. Fleming only gave me your name. And I don’t have a clue how these mercenary deals operate from the admin point of view. Are you your own boss, or what?”

Mercenary?

I smiled inwardly. That was the first time anyone had mistaken me for one of them. In a way, I suppose, the notion did have a certain twisted logic. And it did no harm at all to allow him to continue thinking along those lines. Then I remembered a similar problem a few minutes ago. “Well, if you don’t know already…”

It took a second for that to sink in. When it did he smiled. “Touché.”

The door swung open and the woman walked in carrying two mugs, which she placed on the bar. She turned to Innes and, with a slight, but a noticeable tremor in her voice, said:

“What are we going to do?”

Innes said, “We go ahead, of course.”

“Without mister Fleming?” Her expression relayed the message that the idea horrified her.

Was it an act? I didn’t know. But I did have the first glimmerings of the reason why Burgess had sent me here. Which, if true, meant that he, at least, would nor have been surprised at what had happened.

Innes said, “Give him another call. Use the line in the comms room. If you still can’t get him, we go. There’s a flight out around 4:30. I checked. You’ll have to do Partridge’s stuff. Can you handle it?”

Gone without trace was the assured poise of the early hours. Now she was just a worried woman with the beginnings of panic in her eyes. She mumbled, “If I have to.”

When she was gone, Innes said, “She’s a creature of habit. Crises throw her all to hell.”

I nodded understandingly. She wouldn’t have lasted two minutes under Burgess’s wing. People were always disappearing there. Go with the flow, Ryderbeit, I told myself. I said, “Yes, I know how she feels. Now tell me what the hell kind of a reaction you are expecting from me. Up until a few hours ago Fleming was in charge, now, out of nowhere, you seem to have taken over. I know what Fleming said, and I hear what you say, but they’re just a lot of damned words.”

He studied me evenly, but he said nothing. He might have been wondering what right I had to question his authority.

I went on, “I’m not going to ask you what this place is…” I waved an arm around the room. “…who owns it, or who pays your wages. But from what you’re saying and the way you’re saying it, it seems that your whole organisation is collapsing onto its knees. So I’m going to need to know a hell of a lot more than I currently do. That’s if you’re wanting me to put one foot in front of the other.”

He chewed his gum and stared at me. “Yeah,” he said at length, “I can see where you might think you need that.” The gum moved from one side of his mouth to the other. Then he narrowed his eyes. Not suspiciously, but warily. “Okay, I’ll take the chance. You’re a neutral anyway.” With a final parradiddle of the jaw, he said, “Briefly, Alan Partridge is not an old hand. He joined this station two weeks ago. He’s supposed to be our new Movements Officer. But he’s a phoney; I’ll stake my reputation on it!” He hesitated. “Do you really want to know all this? There’s the little matter of pay-grades to consider. Not to mention security clearances and all that crap! And, as you hinted, you’re only the hired help. No disrespect intended.”

I shook my head. “None taken. And I really do want to know, because you’re going to have to convince me that I should do what you ask. My deal was with Fleming.” I shrugged. “He did imply that you were some kind of a 2i/c. But I’m going to need more than that now, pay-grade or no pay-grade!”

He hesitated. Then he seemed to deflate a little. “Well, I suppose you do have a certain qualification that none of us can match.”

“Oh? What’s that?”

“Fleming,” Innes said, as if that was supposed to explain it all.

I must have looked as dim as I was feeling, because Innes chose to elaborate without being asked. “Fleming didn’t fill us in until yesterday. About Kaplan, I mean. Oh, we knew he was up in Czechoslovakia, but we didn’t know where. Only Fleming knew that.” He spread his arm, jewish-style. “And he only tells us yesterday. Same time he told us about you. Except…”

“Except what?”

Innes smiled ruefully. “Except that the bastard threw us a curve.”

“How come?”

Innes wobbled his head. “Where did Fleming tell you they’ve got Kaplan?”

“Jablonica.”

Innes chuckled without humour. “Well, that isn’t it.”

“It isn’t?”

“No. That was a blind. Probably to coax a maggot out of the apple, which, apparently, it did. As far as I am aware only two people know the actual, the real, location. And those two people are Fleming, wherever he is, if he’s anywhere – breathing, that is! And Bronislav, your contact up north. And as Fleming will no doubt have told you, Bronislav is under instruction to come across with the goods to no-one but you. Get it? Whether I like it, or whether I fucking hate it – and between you, me and the gatepost, I don’t like it one little bit - you’re the key to it all now. So, yes, I guess you’re qualified to know what the score is.”

Innes walked his mug of coffee to the coffee table and sat in one of the armchairs. He put his feet up on the coffee table and took a quick look at his watch. “Okay, hotshot, you have the floor. Ask your questions. But do it quickly, we don’t have all fucking day!”

Put on the spot, I actually didn’t know what questions to ask. My priority, I thought, if I had any priorities at all, was to come to grips with Innes’ accusation about one of his own team. And this, only because Fleming appeared to have had no such doubts. “You say that this Partridge is a question mark. Why? Is it simply because you can’t get hold of him right now?

“It’s more than that.”

“Tell me.”

“Okay,” he went on, “but I’m backing up to the relevant bit. As soon as we got the word that Kaplan is out of circulation, our mister Partridge spends a lot of time on the phone. And he disappears at odd times. That may not be hard evidence, but it was enough for me. So I watched him like a hawk. But he didn’t step any further out of line. Not until yesterday. Which was when Fleming told us about you. The crafty bastard had fixed up your papers and stuff off his own bat. I don’t mind telling you that that pricked the old ego a bit.” He shrugged. “But Fleming was right to keep it to himself, of course. The cagey bastard is always right!”

“So what did Partridge do to that upset the cart?”

“I told you, he’s disappeared. Vanished into thin air. Done a bunk.” He lifted the mug and took a noisy slurp. “You can bet your bottom dollar that he’s on his way to Czechland as we speak.”

Was that a good answer? I didn’t know. It didn’t seem to stretch the distance. But I went with my instinct, and I believed him. “Okay. How about Fleming? What makes you think he’s out of it?”

He pulled a face. “Hunch, mostly. But it’s an educated hunch. Fleming never allows himself to be out of touch, regardless! Not for an instant. And suddenly he’s off the grid. And if I’m right, that’ll be down to Partridge covering his tracks. As soon as he knew that Fleming had given you your instructions, Fleming, as far as he was concerned, would have been dead weight. Excess to his requirements, if not a bloody liability!”

Again, his answer hadn’t convinced me of anything. But I was fairly certain that it was my grasp of the situation that was at fault, not his explanations. “Who is Partridge doing all this stuff for?”

He shrugged hugely. “Who the fuck knows! The French, maybe. They have some interest in Kaplan.”

I wasn’t really making a good fist of this Q-and-A business. Meaningful questions are just as compelling as meaningful answers. And I just couldn’t come up with the right questions. Besides, I realised, I had already decided just to go with the flow, regardless. There seemed only one more thread I could explore. “So who is Hugo Kaplan?”

He studied me seriously. Then he chuckled. “The only reason you are still alive, pal, is that you do not know who Kaplan is. I told you, you’re a neutral.” He added, “And, as such, the less you know, the safer you are going to be. And right at this moment that’s all you’ve got going for you. So my advice is, leave it there. Ostensibly nothing has changed. You had your instructions from Fleming. And you are correct, I am his second in command, and I’m calling the shots now. It’s all waiting for you up in Prague. And you are going to arrive there. Whatever the fuck it takes. And that’s with or without Fleming!”

The door opened. The woman’s eyes told it all. “It’s no good! The operator cannot raise him.”

Innes flashed me a look that said: “Oh, well. That’s that!” and he said “Right, then. We go!“ He looked at his watch. “Get the keys, Danni.” Then to me “You’re driving the Volks. Did Fleming – “

I cut in. “He told me about it!” A thread that had been running through my mind was on the verge of bearing fruit.

Innes nodded. “Okay. I’ll be behind you every inch of the way. No one knows your face, I think, so if you keep yourself detached from anything that goes down you should get by. One thing you can rely on, no one is going to get the chance to crawl up your exhaust pipe.”

I smiled and nodded. “And when we get there?”

“Then I’d start to walk backwards if I were you!” He put a foot forward to walk to the door. I lifted a finger.

“Hold it!“

The time was right. I said: “Are we even now?”

He frowned. “Eh?”

“On the information front. Do I now know as much as you do?”

He thought about it. “I guess.”

“Okay. Then here is the gospel according to Ryderbeit. If, as you seem to think, Fleming has had his light snuffed out, then, from an official point of view, my part in the whole damnded mess has reached its natural conclusion.”

His eyes clouded. Then he opened his mouth to say something. I held up a hand. “The deal was with Fleming. Not - and I mean no disrespect - with his field man.”

The mouth opened again. I hurried on.

“Give me one good reason why I should go to Prague on your say-so. I don’t even know who you are. Not for certain. Sure, you got Fleming’s password right, but that’s not enough for me to go off half-cocked.“ I jerked my head at the woman. “For all I know you could both be impostors

The woman sucked in a breath and held it, and the look of panic spread from her eyes to the rest of her face. Innes shot her a glance, then came back to me, his face a nice mixture of concern and suspicion.

“What the hell do you mean?“ he said. His right hand, having replaced the mug on the bar, was currently edging towards the buttons of his sweater, under which I assumed he kept his gun.

“Don’t bother flashing the hardware!” I said, in my best lone-ranger voice “I think we are still on the same side!” I left it at that and stepped back a pace.

Innes’s hand ceased to roam, but it remained where it had left off. “I repeat,“ he said softly “what the hell do you mean?”

“Just what I said. The deal was with Fleming, not the station en masse.” I was trying hard to keep my voice even, because I meant just what I was saying. And there was absolutely nothing personal in it. But facts are facts. I enlarged a bit. “Look, Innes. I came out here under orders. And I picked up my brief from Fleming. Now you tell me that Fleming is dead. You also say that your buddy is a bad boy. Well, fair enough. All you say could be true. And in time I’ll find out one way or the other. But you are very wrong on one point.”

Innes had relaxed a little, but his eyes were more slitted. “What’s that?”

“Someone knows my face. They know where I am, probably they know what I’m doing here. It’s even more probable that they know where Fleming is right now. And Partridge, too.”

Innes’s forehead creased. “How come?”

“I picked up a tail at Munich. He was behind me until Fleming turned off the 41.“ What I wasn’t saying was that Burgess, unless I missed my guess, knew very well that I would pick up the tail in Munich. He had probably arranged it that way. I couldn’t even begin to guess why. But that was Burgess’s style. And even if it were true, it still didn’t give me a hint as to the tail’s identity. Because, with the game having progressed this far, it could mean that either the shadow was one of the colonel’s men. Or, equally as possible, it was of the other side. Though in this case “the other side” was at least a five-pronged spear. None of which was extremely helpful, given the present set of circumstances.

Innes’s eyebrows knitted.

I went on, “So I would be a prize fool if I took things at their face value, wouldn’t I? Would you?”

The light dawned slowly. But dawn it did. Then his face cleared and he nodded. “Yeah, you’re right. Why should you? On my say so alone.”

“Quite.”

He shook his head. “Well, that just about rips it! If they knew about you before we did - Partridge and me - then I could be wrong about him.”

I said, “Right. But we do have one hard fact to work with.”

“What’s that?”

“If Partridge is moonlighting, then he isn’t doing it with whoever it was who followed me here.“ As Innes’s mouth opened I held up a hand. “But right now I’m not prepared to undertake any more flights of fancy. We’re going to find out. One way or the other.”

Innes deflated. “How do you propose to do that?’

“A process of elimination. But here’s something that might interest you. You mentioned pay-grades and allied security clearances earlier. Well, my own clearance out-strips yours by some margin, believe it, or believe it not.” I shrugged. “I don’t actually give a shit what you believe. But, think about it. What would London do if it felt uneasy about something that was happening here…” I flapped a vague arm in the air, and allowed the words to do their work.

Innes straightened, and his face moved through several expressions, finally settling on one of grudging understanding. He breathed, “They’d send someone.”

I said, “Yep. They would do that very thing.”

He lifted a shoulder. “So?”

I said, “So, I’m calling the shots from here on in. Do you agree to that?”

He looked uncertain for a while. Then he said, “This works both ways, you know.”

I knew where his mind was. But I gave him the floor. “Go on.”

“You say you can’t be sure about us. Well, fair enough. But we can’t be sure about you either.”

I nodded. “True. So we’re all going to have to be twice as careful. How does that sound?”

Innes let a couple of seconds elapse before he grabbed a look at his watch. Then he said: “I don’t reckon we’ve got a lot of choice. And I sure as hell aren’t going to stand around here arguing the toss! So, okay, boss. Which way do you want to play it?”



Larry Johns