I, said the Spyder

By Larry Johns

Crime & mystery

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30 mins


“…Innocence? What the hell is innocence?...”
Andrew Teviner, MI6 field agent 1975 – 1997


I was screwed.
In less than twenty seconds they would be in my face and there was nothing I could do to avoid it.
I was wedged between a tree trunk and the Embankment railings some fifty metres east of the Hungerford footbridge, which was where Edward Lewis’s mystery tour of night-time London had led me, and there was no escape. There was also no escaping the conclusion that Lewis - damn him to hell and back - was bent; that Donald Burgess was right, and that I had been wrong. Woefully wrong. And this, control-freak that I was, stung most of all.
The breeze had dissipated and the rain had turned into a seemingly weightless vapour that clung to the lamp standards like impossibly localised mist. The river itself was invisible, whilst the lights of the south bank were little more than yellow-grey smudges in a muddy nothingness. The skyline towards Westminster would have made the perfect backdrop over which to superimpose the opening credits of one of the old Hammer horror films. There was even soundtrack music. I can't remember what it was or who was playing it. But it was probably coming from a parked car on the far bank. Muffled and tinny. Coming and going. Weird. London was a dank, dark, dreary and hopeless place where things that a moment before had been going exactly right, were suddenly going exactly wrong.
I was everywhere cold and damp. In places I was drenched. The surface moisture from the spread of branches above my hiding place; a hiding place that was now an inescapable cell - fell in large exploding droplets all around and over me. My hair clung to my scalp like a wet towel and the collar of my shirt was a sodden rag about my neck. I doubt I have ever felt so useless. I had turned my raincoat collar well up when I had abandoned the TR near the Festival Hall in favour of continuing the surveillance on foot, but in no way was that impeding the continual trickle of water that was finding its way down my neck and spine to soak, now, the waistband of my underpants.
Lewis and the stranger from whom he had accepted the envelope were now walking slowly yet inexorably down the rain-slicked pavement towards me. I could hear the soft mumble of their voices and the echoing clicking of their feet on the flag-stones above the muted sounds of a city already half asleep. The source of the soundtrack music seemed to have gone. The two conspirators had decided to pass the time of night and, whatever else it was to me personally, Lewis’s part in that decision was his second mistake of the day; his first being a diversion from the well-established routine that had underscored my previous conviction that he was totally innocent; nothing more than a victim of Burgess's twisted imagination.
Had the transaction been executed, say, on Kensington High Street, where Lewis did his almost daily shopping then I might have missed it completely. A brief brush with a stranger amongst a hundred other strangers. Furthermore, had they done it now but gone their separate ways, instead of placing me in the impossible position of having no retreat, then neither of them would be dead now. Up to their armpits in custody, maybe. But not dead.
My position was hopeless because I just could not move without being seen doing so. I had followed Lewis up that street at what had been a safe distance and there had been several other pedestrians amongst whom I had managed to lose myself to good effect. And I had felt reasonably happy about the situation when I had slipped in behind that tree to allow Lewis a slightly longer lead. I gave it about thirty seconds before venturing a look out around the trunk. But in those thirty seconds; exactly according to Sod's Law, it had all changed. The other pedestrians had vanished - God alone knew how or to where - thereby robbing me of their cover and, worse, Lewis had been joined by the stranger, who must have been waiting for him in the shadows near the steps rising to the footbridge. The pair of them had then started to walk back along the street towards me.
I saw the envelope changing hands as I snatched a glance around the tree.
And that was that. Confrontation, despite what I still maintain was a well-managed tail under the worst possible conditions.
I did, for an instant, consider a leap out over the railings and into the Thames. It would have been a radically drastic remedy. But had I been certain of continued anonymity I would have done it, and to hell with the soaking. To hell with the danger to life and limb also. But I knew I would have been seen, so I remained where I was; my stomach contracting in spasms not totally disassociated from a kind of fear and my mouth drying fast, as it usually did with the prospect of impending violence.
My next consideration was a philosophical one. If, whatever I did or did not do, the cat was definitely out of the bag, then why not try for second best? Second best ended the whole matter there and then, but at the very least the stranger, plus whatever the envelope contained, would constitute some kind of a lead; a concrete base for a continued operation. I did not like the notion but there seemed no other way to go. The power that dictates our fate had done its thing. So I swallowed my disappointment and reached for the gun under my belt.


“Watch his every move,” Burgess had instructed me, “Check everything he does, everywhere he goes and everyone he meets against his entries in the computer P.D.B. (Personal Day Book). If, nay, when you find the discrepancy, prise it open. Dig into it. The worms that'll crawl out will be bait for a month. You mark my words.” He aimed a manicured finger at the file case he had just handed me. “Run the same checks on that load of garbage. It's a compendium of his Immediate and General files. Run it all through the computer. And keep at it until you find the flaw.”
“The, ah, the flaw is in here then, is it, sir?” I flipped a thumbnail over the wad of pages. “More than in something the man is likely to get up to in the future?”
Burgess clucked his tongue, his face a nice mixture of agitation, annoyance and impatience. “The flaw,” he growled darkly, “is in his character. I want you to supply the nuts and bolts evidence.”
Unusually, we were not in Burgess's office next to St. James’ Park. We were in a top floor bedroom of an S.A.S. safe-house in Willesden. Outside, the weather was overcast and dull with sporadic spatters of heavy rain. Inside, it was positively depressing. The furnishings could not have been more sparse or ill-matching and the wallpaper had grey ducks on it. There were no carpets, anywhere in the house, just bare boards. Gloom.
Burgess had on a black overcoat and a Homburg that he wore well down over his forehead. He fitted the surroundings perfectly.
I had switched on one of the bedside lamps but whoever took care of the place must have been on an economy drive because the bulb, I took pains to note, was 25 watts; barely enough light to cast shadows; certainly not enough to illuminate the subtleties of Burgess's expression, and I wonder now if he had not planned it that way. If the bulb had been more powerful I might, even then, have noticed the faint glimmer, the first beginnings of the very real fear and confusion his eyes were to display so obviously later on. I might have noticed these things, but I doubt very much I would have recognised them for what they were.
Burgess was a hundred complex things, most of them distasteful, but a man capable of being confused, of experiencing fear, he most definitely was not. These were things he cultivated in others. Besides, Burgess never, but never, allowed the truth as he saw it that kind of an outlet. The truth was for him alone and let the rest of the world take care of itself.
Donald Burgess was cast-iron. Cold, diamond-hard and, for my money, totally depersonalised cast-iron. His displays of emotion were never anything but a facade. And too many years of my standing in front of his desk, watching his face go through its motions as he instructed me to finalise agent-A, or compromise agent-B, or bring about the public ruination, by whatever means, of agent-C or public figure-D, had taught me to accept such displays of emotion in the spirit in which they had been perpetrated. Namely, with the proverbial pinch of salt.
A team of dedicated men would have scoured the grey world of Intelligence for just such a man as Burgess. A man who could sense deceit, see through the lie, who could find the obvious in the not-so-obvious. A man who would devote himself, body and soul, to the allotted task. For such men are needed; mandatory even.
Burgess, as well as running a viable 'cover' section, excelled in all these things.
To my mind his single concession to human frailty was a capacity to dislike an individual for no apparent reason. And this, it seemed to me, he did more and more often as the years ate into him. And God help you if you were unlucky enough to find yourself on the receiving end of his dislike. At which point, a few minutes later, I was to assume Edward Lewis had arrived.
''But you must have something on him already,'' I said, ''Something to indicate a suspicion. A starting point?'' I added hopefully.
Burgess stepped over to the window and stared out at the glowering sky. ''Now look, Ryderbeit,'' he said conversationally, using my given name instead of my code name for once. Burgess never called me Jackie. Or even Jackson, which was my first name. Didi, being someone rather closer to me than anyone else in the service. called me Jay. I called her Dee, or Didi, depending upon prevailing circumstances. “…I’m putting you on this case because I can think of no-one more suited to it. Nothing else concerns you." He grunted as if satisfied that he’d used the right phrase, then continued, “You have the file, get on with it. Use the computer as much as you need. Scour the records departments; you have all the authority you require. For the round-town work you may use C-11 as back-up. I have already cleared that with the appropriate authority. All you have to remember is that this is classified 'Eyes-only'” A Pause. “Yours.'' He turned abruptly, ''And mine.'' His tone was no longer conversational. ''No-one, absolutely no-one must come into contact with the fine details of it. For the record you are lnternal Security. This also has been cleared. And the restrictions, if you need be reminded, include other members of the section. Especially them!” He stared at me for a moment. ''And,'' he added, his eyelids falling like roll-down doors, “Miss Dianne Seabrook.”
“Ah,” I said weakly. I was not surprised that Burgess had found out that Didi was now living with me on the boat, but I was disappointed. I had found a great deal of perverse satisfaction in that little secret. But before I could dwell further on the possible ramifications of Burgess's not-so-minor bombshell, he went on, “Dig and watch, Ryderbeit. Dig and watch. You'll find your own starting point, I feel sure.”
It was at that moment of confusion on my part that several of my more latent instincts joined force, sinking like dirty water to the natural level - the level where it became a pleasure, if not a duty, to take the opposing stance to the one Burgess was taking. His face was now bland as he stepped forward into the arcing beam of the 25 watter and he refused to meet my eye. And a refusal to meet the eye meant that lies were in the air somewhere. Couple this with the fact that he appeared, by his very abstinence from the subject, to be actually condoning my living with a member of M.I.5 – “Five”, as it is known - then add the fact that he failed for the very first time to supply me with any kind of a reason why he would want, in this case, a member of the Covert Activities Administration of M.I.6 – “Six”, - placed under close surveillance, and you have the reason why I slipped all too easily into the role of Champion Of The Underdog. Burgess, I reasoned, was out to get this man, and for purely personal reasons. It had happened before. Some relatively innocent skeleton - and let's face it, we all have one or more of those buried somewhere - and Bob's your uncle. One otherwise patriotic and innocent field officer bites the dust at Burgess's heels, simply because the man's face did not fit into his scheme of things, or because he had made a pass at his current office floozy, or something equally as ridiculous.
Yes, there was definitely a touch of McCarthyism in Burgess. A surfeit of near unbridled power can put that into the strongest of men. Take Hitler as a prime example. Or Nero. Or Saddam Hussein. Any one of these, or a hundred others throughout history, may well have started life as very nice people.
So it was that when I began the brief a lot of me was already cheering for Lewis. I was determined to give it my very best shot in the sincere, if spur-of-the-moment belief that nothing worthwhile was going to turn up. And I was looking forward to the moment when I could rub Burgess's thickening nose in Lewis’s clean bill of health.
I got together with the C-11 coordinator, a weaselly man with a bony forehead and a permanent grouse, and we hammered out a path to some kind of an understanding whereby I had instant and unquestioned access to any one or all of six operatives at any given moment. But it was no walkover.
"Stretching us bloody thin,'' the man complained, as if the whole thing had been my idea. “We’ve already got every available man out searching the shadows for Al Qaeda sympathisers.''
I nodded. “It never rains but it pours.'' A pedestrian remark for a pedestrian man.
"Plus," he went on urgently, “There's a - ' Hesitation.’ - a major event to be catered for.”
He was referring to King Hussein of Jordan's stopover, which was one of the big secrets of the day. For global consumption it wasn't even taking place. But, as generally happens, the extent of common knowledge is directly proportionate to the size of the secret. And that one was a monster. I shrugged. ''That's all we seem to have these days.''
The Weasel frowned a puzzled frown at me.
''Major events. '' I qualified.
He hmmm’d, looked at me sideways for a moment, then returned to the list. ''And do you know how much all this will cost the taxpayer?'' he suddenly digressed, pinching the bridge of his nose with Meccano fingers and closing his eyes tightly as if all the troubles of the world were being heaped on his overworked shoulders. ''A small fortune…A..bloody...small...''
''Fortune,'' I finished for him. ''Yes. I know. I’ll need your guys’ mobile numbers, just in case. But I won’t be using mobiles as a first option on this one.” Burgess did not allow cell phone communications for sharp-end business. Certainly not on ops. Such was too prone to global, even random, interception. “So we’ll use radios. Short wave. That okay?”
He treated me to an old fashioned look. “Naturally.” He curled up the corners of his mouth. “Bloody mobile phones!”
I let that remark lie. “Now, about protocol…”
We rambled on and finally had all the daylight hours more or less covered. For the role of night watchman he gave me the names of a couple of ex-C11 men who were now variously employed in the private security field. These men, he explained, were specialists in night work and noted for their blank memories. I knew one of the men, as it happened; or rather I had known him some years before, so was not averse to the suggestion. Diversification always helps when you need a smokescreen operation. Then we got onto the subject of radio codes and responses. That was a hoot. The man loved codes. Eventually I had a list of silly things to say over the radio, when to say them, and what I might expect to hear by way of reply. The idea was that no-one ever knew who he was speaking to, or why. Except me.
“This way'' said the Weasel with commendable neutrality, as he scanned his own copies, “they’ll be totally in the dark the whole time. Frustrated as hell, of course.'' He chuckled. “But these things can't be helped. Can they?''
“Nope,” I replied, ''They can't.''
We tied it all up and parted on amicable enough terms.
Almost two leeks later, to the minute, I was staring at my reflection in a wall mirror in the Festival Hall restaurant, groaning silently, and trying to persuade myself that I did not look ridiculous.
The man in the mirror was wearing thick horn-rimmed spectacles and a moustache that I hoped only I knew was false. His hair was parted high on his head and held in place courtesy of Didi’s hair spray. Below all this was a baggy roll-neck sweater that an old flame with a bad eye for measurement had knitted me some ten years before and that we had both once inhabited for a giggle, and which now covered a perfectly respectable business suit complete with button-down collar and grey tie. On top of all this was a threadbare duffel coat, circa '83, that I had picked up in some Oxfam shop. Not seen in the mirror was a pair of even older vintage galoshes over my shoes. God alone knows where Didi had dragged them up from. I used to make jokes about people who perpetrated this kind of comic opera stuff on the profession. Which was one in the eye for me, because it was actually working.
I had been on Lewis's tail for nigh on two weeks, mornings to late evenings; weekends notwithstanding, in an assortment of odd guises - most of them creations of Didi’s over-fertile imagination - and he was still oblivious to the fact. But this was no real surprise. Despite the pantomime trappings I was still harbouring the conviction; the steadily deepening conviction, that Lewis was totally innocent. For only an innocent man could have failed to sense such close and determined surveillance.
Intuition; a sixth sense. Call it what you will. But a man with something to hide will always look behind him; over and over again. And hard, in a case such as Lewis's might have been. But Edward Lewis was not looking behind him. I was rock-bottom certain of that. And it made me feel very happy indeed.
Right now he was sitting four tables away from me, picking a steady path through a plate of cottage pie and chips. I had settled for coffee and a sticky bun. I took another despairing glance at the apparition in the mirror then returned to a careful knife and fork dissection of the bun, which oozed strawberry jam like something on a vivisectionist's bench.
They were playing an old Mantovani track over the Muzak system; cascading strings and clattering utensils. It was the kind of unobtrusive, subliminally-soothing background music you might hear in a hotel lobby or a supermarket not yet managed by a growing number of eternal teenagers. What drew my attention to it now was that it did not sound right. The reason being that a middle aged man dressed in an evening suit and bow tie was crooning a soft, somewhat embarrassed ‘Happy Birthday’ to the woman sitting opposite him at the corner table. He and Mantovani were at loggerheads over the key- and time-signature. The woman, also in evening wear, was apparently revelling in the attention. Both had to be something to do with the current performance in the Festival Hall itself; a break in dress rehearsals, or something. Lewis glanced over his shoulder at them, smiled the way you might, then continued eating. I was reminded of Dorothy Burgess. She had a birthday coming up soon. I knew this because Pete Yance had been bemoaning Burgess' instruction to ''dash out and buy her something appropriate.'' Pete was Burgess's whipping boy for such last minute gift purchases. He, Pete, called Dorothy Burgess The Dragon. I knew little of her, except that she and Burgess were almost the same age - 54 and 53 respectively. I could not see Burgess as a family man. And perhaps he was not. There were no children that I knew of and Burgess certainly spent more time roaming the various Intelligence offices than he did at home.
I forgot about Dorothy Burgess and glanced at my watch.
It registered 1-05. So Lewis had 25 minutes of his self- imposed, self-selected lunch hour remaining. Then, if true to form, it would be back to Century House - the ''Six'' H.Q. in Battersea - and I could relax a little; if ploughing through a file in the driving seat of a car can be termed relaxing.
A few minutes later I paid my bill and stepped outside, totally ignoring the stranger who appeared in every reflective surface I passed.
It was unusual weather for October. The sun cut a gaping white hole out of an ice-blue sky and people were smiling at each other. Had it not been for the fact that in the shadows it was cold - bitter even - then I would have felt even more out of place in my multi-layered get-up. But it was good to see the sun and a clear sky after the prolonged spell of grey and dismal London and the Home Counties had just dragged muddy feet through. Except for the ice-box of the shadowed areas and that the trees along the Embankment were shedding brown leaves by the sack-full it might have been a spring morning instead of an autumn afternoon.
I sucked in a lungful of air and glanced in the window of the restaurant, where I could just see Lewis counting change into the cashier's hand. I strode out to where I had parked the motor pool Volvo; one of three cars I had dotted about in west London. By the time I reached it the spectacles were in the duffle coat pocket and the duffel coat was over my arm. The moustache, supplied by a highly amused but a carefully un-smiling J-Division officer, was in my pants pocket and I was ready to shrug out of the roll neck sweater; which I did the moment I was behind the wheel. Some hefty comb-work took care of the hair style. Lewis, I could see, was by now unlocking the door of his Audi which was parked on its usual spot on the corner of Belvedere Road. There being no pedestrians nearby who might see what I was doing, I lifted the microphone of The Weasel's S/W transceiver and pressed the transmit button.
''Passer By...passer By...You there, Charlie-one?''
The response was immediate. ''Vanity Fair...vanity Fair...Charlie One responding. In position and ready to move.”
Conscientious, this one, by the tone of his voice. Also in his tone, I read anticipation of an exciting cat and mouse game. He would be disappointed; as they all had been so far.
“Grey Audi,'' I said, keeping my own tone flat and bored-sounding, ''Licence KVM 377 W...Male Caucasian at the wheel...No passengers at the moment. It’ll be a milk run, Charlie- One. Belvedere Road heading west in a few minutes. No panic at all.”
“Oh,” said the voice resignedly, and it repeated the relevant part of my instruction word perfectly, adding, “Wilco.”
I dropped the mic onto the passenger seat and fired up the engine. Lewis's Audi was already on the move. Three minutes later I saw the unmarked Rover of Charlie-one slide in behind Lewis, but holding back and allowing a couple of motors to fill the gap. Copy book.
“Got it, control.'' said the radio.
“Okay,” I replied, ''Sorry it's nothing interesting. Maybe next time, eh?''
The voice said, ''Story my life. Oh, if you’re somewhere behind us I'd better warn you there's an accident on Carlisle Lane. Just heard about it. Snarling things up. If you want to get in front I'd do it pretty sharpish.''
I said, “No, thanks all the same, Charlie-one. I’ll just kick around back here. Rushing gives me heartburn.''
''Fair enough'' replied the voice, “I’ll keep you informed if I hear any more. They say sixteen year old virgins are good for heartburn.''
I smiled. I did not stay behind. I crossed the river via Westminster Bridge and dodgemed my way around the Houses and onto St.Margaret's Road. Then I powered along Abingdon Road, teeing people off left right and centre, and very nearly coming a cropper in a four wheel drift that was becoming a regular feature of my driving lately, and onto Millbank after sneaking a highly illegal passage through the build-up of southbound traffic at the bridge intersection, eventually recrossing the river via Vauxhall Bridge. A spit later I was pulling onto Nine Elms Lane where I teed even more people off with some driving that only a late-night drunk might purvey. The radio remained predictably silent.
I parked the Volvo in Cringle Street, removing only the radio and my 35mm camera, locked up and dashed to my own TR3 which I had left in the adjoining Kirtling Street that morning. Snatching the parking tickets from under the screen wiper blades was an art I had off pat. “Fixing” them was someone else's headache. I was back on the road inside two minutes. I had reached Wandsworth Road roundabout when the radio squawked, “Control…Charlie-one calling.”
I put the mic to my mouth, at the same time prising off and kicking to one side the galoshes I had forgotten about in the Volvo. You can’t get it all right all of the time. Which was one of the reasons why my disguises were never exactly the way Didi envisaged them. Without raising my tone to the question, I said, “Yes, Charlie-one. Wandsworth Road headed east. Right?”
“Correct,'' came the terse reply. Human curiosity being what it is, even in seasoned C11 operators, the man would have had one eye glued to his own rear view mirror in the hope of catching a glimpse of this nameless, faceless entity - me - that had the power to disrupt, apparently unilaterally, the smooth-running of the C11 world and everything in it, and at a time when, according to The Weasel, they were already stretched bloody thin. He would have been sure that no-one had stayed visibly behind him, and equally sure that no-one was lurking up ahead - these people are experts in spotting tails in any direction - and he would be wondering how the hell the voice on the other end of the frequency could possibly know where they were at that moment. But what the man could not add to his equation was that this was Wednesday – Lewis’s Wednesday. His day for picking up his fishing magazine from his favourite Smith's on Wandsworth Road. The voice continued, “Subject is pulling over...stopping.”
“Right” I said evenly, ''Stay back.''
A few moments silence. “Entering Smith’s bookshop, opposite – “
“The Red Lion pub” I slipped in as I heard his mic click off, probably as he was leaning over to take a look.
“As you remark.” the said the voice dryly.
I put my foot down and positively zoomed along York Road, taking the corner of Fairfield Street almost on two wheels. I pulled up close to the traffic lights of East Hill and waited, collecting a justly deserved share of horn blasts from other road users who felt they were also entitled to utilise the facility of the lights. I very nearly gave one of them the two’s up, but stopped myself in time; instead I mouthed him a contrite ''Sorry.'' And I meant it. I like to kid myself that I dislike people who misuse their power, and it is a salutary lesson for me to learn that, if I let myself go, I can be as bad as the next man. Provided, of course that the next man is not Donald Burgess. Then again, who really knows how far they are capable of letting themselves go, if the situation allows it.
I stayed where I was, weathering the angry glances as the half dozen or so motors sneaked past me as best they could.
“Subject on the move again.”
“Fine.” I said flatly, which probably irritated the man even more, though I had not meant it to. The radio did not respond.
And here came Lewis’s Audi. The mic was already in my hand. “Okay, Charlie-one. Break off. And thanks very much for your cooperation. I have the con.''
''Break off?” spluttered the voice incredulously.
''That's a Roger,” I grinned tightly. ''Break off. He's mine now. Go have a coffee or something.''
I did not hear the man's sigh, but I sensed it. Then, in a now totally bored voice, he said, ''Very well, Control. Breaking off. Out.”
Lewis's Audi crossed diagonally in front of me, followed shortly afterward by the Rover, which actually turned down the road I was on and I caught a glimpse of a very sour faced man behind the wheel. I lifted my foot from the clutch pedal and burned rubber to make the lights, which had just flicked to amber and red. The time was 1-30 precisely and Lewis would be late back at his section office. Not that that mattered a damn to anyone but Lewis himself, and why it mattered to him I will never know. Edward Lewis could come and go as he pleased. All that was required of him was that he recorded his movements; date, time and venues, on the computer. Otherwise he was his own man.
Whatever else he may have been, Lewis was fastidious in his self-imposed habits and a damn sight too conscientious for him to be really popular in a business that, despite the rules, thrives on corner-cutting and rule-bending.
None of which, however, made him a traitor. And, besides, now that there was no iron curtain to complicate matters, I could not imagine who a man like him would possibly find to sell his services to in any case. On the surface anyway the old enemies were dead. There would be others, no doubt about that. But who? And when?
Whatever maggots would crawl out of the future woodwork Edward Lewis was not a candidate. I was certain of that.
At six-o-clock I tailed him back to his Holland Park Road flat and at ten-thirty I handed him over to the night watchman. Situation exactly normal.
Then I went home.


The thing about my boat was that I'd done 90% of the structural conversion work myself and was proud of the fact. I had paid a little over £6,000 for her as she sat; and she sat as a fishing lugger, sixty feet stem to stern and close to twenty midships. Which made her a ''beamy'' boat. I had bought her up in Great Yarmouth and sailed her down to the Thames myself; which feat, I now realise, was a stupid and foolhardy thing to tackle, me being a total novice at that time. Her previous owners, two brothers whose father and grandfather before them had been North Sea fishermen, had named her ''Our Emily”. Their father had simply used the fleet number - F1O2.
Out of respect for something I could not put my finger on I decided to retain the name. Only a fear of being thought pretentious stopped me from putting the number on the shore-side mail box. “River people”, I learned quickly, have pretensions ordinary people – the “straights” - would not believe.
The other thing about “Our Emily'' was that if you pricked the two-inch-thick Carvel planking in the galley, which was the only section of the hull I had yet to insulate and face off, you could catch a definite whiff of fish; if only momentarily. Didi used to pin things, notes and recipes and such, to the galley ''wall”.and would be absolutely adamant that she experienced visitations from some long-dead fisherman protesting at the new and frivolous use his old method of livelihood was being subjected to. I gave up trying to persuade her that that passing whiff of the sea was actually emanating from the wood itself. But she no longer pinned things to the original hull.
Her wheelhouse - the boat's, that is - was still just that; a wheelhouse. And a working one to boot. But the below-decks cabins and hold had been transformed into my idea of the lap of luxury. Everything was varnished teak and mahogany and brass fittings; cushions and original seascapes and sunsets; sturdy carpeting throughout. Most of the furnishings I had bought from a company that used to run elegant river steamers but that had decided that mass-produced plastic was more a proposition than the employment of skilled ship-wrights who loved to spend time and effort on keeping wooden things in pristine condition. Such is progress. I, however, loved to do just that in my spare time. I'm no skilled shipwright, of course, and things tended to take that much longer. But I am a quick learner and, where wood is concerned, careful attention to detail plus a surfeit of patience, will win every time. Also, I knew an old shipwright, name of Joe Crocker who lived up in Windsor. Joe not only loved to spend time with wood he also loved the extra beer money it afforded him. It has to be said, though, that Joe and I have spent many an hour propping up the bar of my local and I never once saw him dip his hand into his pocket. That also was an art in which he was skilled. Didi used to call us The Odd Couple.
''He's not what?'' Didi called from the shower.
''Guilty,'' I clarified from the saloon, where I was trying to find my way around the remote control of the new DVD player that also recorded stuff. My old video machine was still aboard someplace, maybe in the old chain locker, and I was seriously considering dragging it back into service. That, I knew my way around. This damned DVD with its Jodrell Bank control box was a mess of seemingly unrelated symbols and abbreviations that meant absolutely nothing to me. I was hoping that Didi had had more success that I was currently experiencing, and had hit the right buttons at the right time, which would enable me to see The Great Escape four hours after the BBC had put it out over the air.
The saloon - Didi’s ''lounge'' - was like an impressionist's painting. The longer you looked, the more you saw. I had boaty knickknacks everywhere and overflowing bookshelves every where. Whilst Didi’s contribution to the ordered mess was a million furry animals, and things with place names on them. She loved to collect what I saw as tat.
''What makes you think that?'' said Didi, her voice almost drowned by the noise of rushing water and the pump that was forcing it through the pipes.
''Oh, you know,'' I said vaguely, pressing the button with “Function” embossed on it. The TV screen flickered and displayed a DVD sign in its lower left hand corner. I kept hitting it until the word was “Recorder”, then I settled back into the cushions of the wrap-around lounger me and Joe had built into the bow of Our Emily, and hovered my thumb over what I knew to be the Play button.
''You going to watch it?'' I called.
The noise of the shower stopped abruptly. ''Watch what?”
“The film.”
“I've seen it'' said Didi. Her voice shuddered and I guessed she was towelling her hair. There was a thump on the deck head above me. I grabbed the length of 2x2 I kept handy for the purpose and jabbed it at the planking. There was an annoyed QUAACK! and a flutter of wings. The deck up there was gleaming-white paintwork - with dirty smudges. ''Three times, as a matter of fact,'' Didi went on, “Including tonight.''
“I thought you were working,'' I said. I could see an untidy pile of 1Ox8s on the desk over by the galley partition, plus an open notebook and two different size magnifying glasses. Didi worked for Section-W of “Five” and that section is largely about identification. Didi studied snapshots by the bucketful. Her current classification was the same as mine was ten years before, and if Burgess knew that I had discussed any part of the Lewis business with her he would have skinned me alive.
“I was,” said Didi, stepping into the saloon still towelling her hair, but otherwise naked. ''What do you mean, not guilty? How can you possibly know that after...what? Less than two weeks?'' Didi was 28 years old and not merely happy in her work; she was ecstatic about it. She stood five-eight in bare feet and her legs went all the way up. To my mind she was a stunner. Before we had sort of slipped into cohabitation, Jimmy Adler, another of Burgess's rats, had once described her as “...okay, I suppose...'' Adler's taste was in his boots. Didi had long red hair and hazel eyes. Plus a smile, when she decided to use it, that could melt steel. It was her smile that had hooked me. Luckily the rest did too, when I got to know it. She also had a memory which, though not exactly photographic, was almost so. This was one of the reasons why she had ended up in such a section.
I said, “I just know it.''
She stopped punishing her hair and gave me an old fashioned look. “You know it,'' she said flatly.
I nodded. ''So, d'you want to see the film?''
She glanced at the TV set then back at me, and she started towelling her hair again. “It's your business, of course,'' she said, her head held forward as she pat-dried the split ends she would always bemoan. I never worked out what she meant by ''split-ends”. I once used her most powerful microscope on a couple of strands and was still no further forward.
My mind performed a sort of double-take on her “of course'', and I waited to hear more. It had been her suspended-fourth “of course” - musical term - and there would always be more; you sensed it. This time, however, she remained silent. But it was the wrong tone to end a sentence on. Something was on her mind. But Didi was Didi. I allowed my gaze to fall below the level of her navel and wondered if perhaps there weren't better things to do than watch an old film. ”And?'' I said, still waiting for the other shoe to drop.
She looked up and shrugged. 'Nothing.”
Like my aunt Fanny, I thought. I tossed the remote control box onto the small but elegantly carved coffee table that once was a large but elegantly carved coffee table. Joe's work, that. A truly brilliant piece of extemporisation. You would never have known. I said, ''The man whose tail I am presently sitting on...” I had never mentioned Lewis's name, and we both knew why. “...is conscientious at his work; sober as a judge; punctual to a fault - well, almost - and, within the accepted bounds of the Service - Six and bloody Five, totally normal. Not a solitary sign of skulduggery, nor a hint of either the will or the aptitude to engage in it. Pelican is wrong,'' I concluded positively, referring to the fictitious committee I had made up. It was odd, but Burgess' cover story about my working for Internal Security on this on was prophetic; I had told Didi, right from the very start of our relationship, that I worked for I.S.(Six); that department being the closest it was possible to get to our own portfolio. Burgess's title for his small army of villains is E.L. Though what those initials stand for is anyone's guess. We are down on Home- and Foreign-office records as ''A.M.20b/f”. For what that is worth. We were not an equivalent to the American “black ops” types. But in a handful of respects we only just weren’t.
I reached forward and retrieved the control box. ''Now, how about the film?”
Didi finished with her hair and disappeared back into the shower cubicle opposite the galley that had cost an arm and both legs, re-emerging clad in the dressing gown her father had given her last Christmas. Whether she had heard me I don't know, but she said, ''Have you seen the hair dryer?” As she was saying this she opened the cupboard over the desk and found it. ''Ah.'' She glanced around the room vacantly and I wondered what strange light I could detect in her eyes.
''Where do I plug it in now?” Her slight emphasis on that last word, with the accusation it contained, did jar a bit. I had been having problems with the electrics; some of the sockets worked, some didn't and probably never would.
'”There,'' I said, indicating the socket on the galley partition. I aimed the control box at the player and pressed the button. Didi seemed to be in one of her obtuse moods. The screen displayed a man reading the news. Behind him was a map of the Middle East with captions about who was currently doing what and to whom. Since I already knew all about the situation there, and since our section was in no way involved in any case, I did not turn the sound up. This was simply to get her sitting and looking. I hated to watch recorded stuff on my own; it was never the same. Certainly not since Didi had arrived on my scene.
She did at least sit, cross-legged on the end of the lounger, shaking her head at the whining dryer. Above the noise of it she said, '”I've got to be up early in any case. We've a flap on.''
I felt a yawn shelling up in my throat, tried to stifle it, failed. “What's early?” I said, smacking my lips and trying not to lose my earlier enthusiasm for the film. Not that I hadn't also seen it before, and more times than Didi had. But watching something on the box after a hard day's work was a sort of tradition for me. Wound me down. And The Great Escape was as comfortable as an old sock. As was The Towering Inferno. Old friends, tried and trusted.
I looked at her. ''You mean the six-o-clock that happens with the milkman?'' She nodded and was silent for a moment. Then she flicked off the hair dryer and sat with it cradled in her lap. She seemed to be studying a leg of the coffee table. Then I felt the atmosphere. It had been there all the time, of course, but I had refused to really take note. ''What?” I said, hesitantly. I felt hesitant. Something was very definitely amiss. And I wondered what the hell it was I was supposed to have done.
Didi kept her eyes on the coffee table. '”Jay...” she said in a voice I recognised instantly as her this-is-really-serious one. I was not sure I was up to really serious.
“Oh,Oh.” I breathed.
As well as hazel eyes and legs that go all the way up Didi also has full lips and a dimple that only shows itself when her lips are clamped tightly together. I could not see her eyes from that angle and a wayward swathe of hair was hiding her lips. But I could see the dimple. ''Your father?” I asked quietly.
Trevor Seabrook, himself an ex-Five man from way, way back, had had trouble with his heart since he had lost Irene Seabrook, his wife, to a drunk driver several years before I had really got to know Didi . He was currently undergoing a series of by-pass operations at Harefield hospital.
Didi shook her head and I relaxed slightly, if only for an instant . Because she came back with, ''No. Daddy's fine.” Hesitation. Then, “It's you.”
I sucked in a breath. Here was a Didi I had not seen before. ”What’s me?” Didi’s memory had its drawbacks from my own point of view. She was always picking up on some passing know-it-all remark I'd made yonks ago, and which I had subsequently forgotten about, and contradicted.
“Is it true,” she said, in a voice that was barely above a whisper, ''that you work for Donald Burgess?”
So that was it. I'd been wondering if someday she wasn't going to realise the truth. Though we discussed the non-classified edges of each others' work, we neither of us pried too deeply in conversation. I did not have to, of course. I knew everything there was to know about her; about who she worked for; what she did and what she hoped to be doing in the future. I also knew all there was to know about her pre-Service life. I knew, for example, that she had read philosophy at Balliol college, Oxford; that she had married another undergraduate in a fit of pique (Trevor Seabrook had done some prying and learned that the boy had extreme socialist leanings, which could have made him a possible future “mark” for K.G.B. recruiters and had forbad the relationship - and Didi tends to over-react to sanction. It actually says that in her personal profile dossier); that the marriage, a disaster from the start, had lasted all of two months, and that the divorce, with not a little aid from a well-placed and -connected father, had been finalised in double quick time. Didi herself had never broached this subject with me. But what I did not know about her I could have found out in as much time as it takes to punch a number into the computer.
Didi, on the other hand, knew precious little about me. And what she did know was mostly untrue; necessarily twisted. Except, that was, for my early childhood years, which period of my life I tended to fall back on in some detail in successful efforts to divert conversations in which I might have had to tell more lies. It was an unfair advantage at the start, and it remained so. I for one had never known how to alter the situation. And I was not sure I wanted to.
I looked at her and said nothing. You can't tell lies if you say nothing. But you can tell the truth by doing that at the wrong moment. Depending upon your point of view, that was exactly the wrong moment to say nothing; not if a denial is what you require. She stared back at me with doleful eyes. Then she shook her head minutely and made a clucking noise at the back of her throat. I knew I was sunk. Then she sighed, switched the dryer on and carried on with her hair. And that was how things stood. For several pulsating minutes.
But, eventually, enough was enough. I said, “There's no way I could have told you, Dee.''
No response. The dryer wheezed on and the coffee table suffered more examination. I did not know what more I could say. I did know, however, that there were a hundred things I would have liked to have said. Perhaps it was the order I couldn't get straight in my mind. Then the dryer went off again. I looked at her and waited, hoping she was about to explode. I felt I could deal with an exploding Didi. The silently suffering one was something else again. This time she fixed her attention on the bookshelf above the T.V.set. ''D'you know what they call Donald Burgess in Five?” There was no trace of anger in her voice, and that, perversely, smarted.
''Is that a question?'' I asked, realising too late how flippant that sounded.
“The Exterminator.” said Didi, in that same voice. It was as cold as an Arctic breeze.
I nodded. “Probably very apt, too.'' I replied, and wondered if I always sounded that flippant. I was learning something about myself. ''He's called something else in Six, and I believe C11 and Special Branch prefer not to discuss him at all.” Which was true enough.
''And do you know what they call whatever it is you have as a section?” I was a few seconds trying to work that one out. I tried to inject a little humour into a grunt. Humour, I thought, had to be the path.
''Something pretty diabolical, I guess.''
“Triggers.” She looked at me suddenly, her half-dry hair flicking in an arc. “You know? Like in the gangster films? Triggers!” Her eyes were now afire. But there were tears near the surface also. I lay the control box on the lounger beside me, trying desperately not to appear...well, something. I knew well that Didi only needed a catalyst and she'd crack. And this situation did not require a slanging match.
''What do you want me to say, Dee? I can't tell you how, or why, or when I started working for Burgess. And I don't mean I can't tell you; mean I can't tell you...” The tears were now in her eyes. I could see the glint, and I felt sick.
How in God's name was I going to explain it all away? I had always promised myself that if the job ever made me feel the way I was feeling then, I would jack it in. My problem was that I knew I had been fooling myself. Whatever I felt about Burgess and the job we did; and whatever I felt about Didi, I was not about to quit. And I did not have a clue as to why. I said, “But if it makes you feel any easier, we are not permanently running around shooting people, and we never do anything to innocent ones. We also make pretty damned certain we don't make mistakes. Just the way I'm making pretty damned certain about my current mark. In fact, do you know why I'm pulling all the stops out on this one? Do you?”
And I told her.
Strangely enough I did not have to even consider the rights and wrongs of what I was doing, nor did I consider Burgess and what he might do if he found out. And it was easier than I could have imagined. It just came out; one thing after the other. Easy as falling off a log. Plus, I had no regrets. No second thoughts along the way. No conscience. Easy.
And when it was over she went through to the galley and brewed two mugs of hot chocolate. She stood there in the archway Joe and I had sweated buckets over, a mug in each hand looking at me. I could not pin her expression down, but I hoped it was on the favourable side. I knew exactly how she was feeling, because I knew how I felt about Burgess and his obligatory lies. Then she spoke.
''Sorry, Jay,' she murmured, ''It's just that...that...''
I nodded. “I know. But I didn't lie to you, Dee. Not in the way lies are usually meant. It won't help much, but, for the record if nothing else, I am working under an I.S. cover. But I - “
She cut in, “You don't have to say any more, Jay. Really.” She smiled a little smile. “I know what you've done. By telling me, I mean. And I'm not sure I'm glad or...or not.”
''You'd better be, for Christ's sake!” I grinned, “I've probably made myself redundant.'' I chuckled. ''Or worse.''
She looked at me for a moment, her mind ticking over. Was I Joking, or what? Then she said a soft, ''Thank you.''
I shrugged and said a lame, “Better late than never”, which I don't think she heard.
“It was the way it came out, Jay; the way I found out. It…it just floored me.''
I sighed and steeled myself to ask the question I had to ask. Or did I want to ask it? I don't know. ''How did it come out, Dee?”
She lifted a shoulder and spilled some chocolate on the rug. ''0h, nothing verbal or involving anyone else.” Her brows fell. “So you can put that gun away'' She immediately repented that, and shrugged again, spilling more of the chocolate. ''Sorry, Jay. I didn't mean that. I really didn't.'' And that was yet another lesson for me ; her jibe , intended as such or not, had not hurt a bit. But Didi thought it should have done. Perhaps we had a lot to learn about, and from, each other. I pulled a face and said, “'Ouch!” But only because I figured she was expecting some such reaction.
There was a short pause and I think we were both experiencing some embarrassment. New experiences were coming thick and fast. I said, “Go on.”
She stepped over and handed me the mug with ''Skipper'' printed on it, then resumed her cross-legged position on the lounger. ''We're working on a profile of a Palestinian called Jabal Khan. He's a - ''
''A PLO Money-man.” I cut in, just to show her that even 'triggers' have a modicum of intelligence, “currently masquerading as a trade attaché with the Iraqi embassy.''
She nodded stiffly, not noticeably impressed by my off-the-cuff display of wisdom. ''Anyway…” she began.
Then I remembered. Khan, designated “untouchable'' in all the files I had seen on him, and for a reason known only to the committee that ''ran'' him - had been involved somewhere in the Harvey Grant case. And Grant, the then chief of the Beirut station, had been one of my half dozen or so ''final solution'' numbers. Didi and I had been living together for some months at that time and I had told her that I had to visit the States for a few days.
“...there was this photograph,'' Didi went on, ''Taken in Beirut the day Harvey Grant, the station head, had his accident,'' she stressed, “On the Corniche.You're in the photograph, Jay. Way in the background and barely recognizable, but there. And you said....'' Her voice tailed off as she took a messy slurp of the drinking chocolate. Then she looked at me crookedly. ''I'm sorry, Jay. Honestly. But it was a shock to...to...” Then, right out of the blue, and in a new tone altogether, she said, ''Shall we drop it now? I just wanted to know for certain who I am living with.'' She smiled. “And I don't mean that the way it sounds.”
“And?” I said, my mind still back a sentence.
“And what?''
''Do you know for certain?''
She straightened and some of the old Didi fire came back into her eyes. “Do I know what for certain?”
I said, “Dee, one side of this roundabout has no answer because it's not a question. I want the answer to the other side...''
We stared at each other. Then Didi gave that short, grunting chuckle she's so famous for within the hull of Our Emily. ''What I know is that you work for Donald Burgess.” She was smiling, then she stopped smiling. ''I'm not packing my bags, if that's what you mean.''
Not packing my bags was not exactly the answer I had been probing for. It was no problem that Didi knew who I was and what I did and for whom, because I knew Didi. It stopped there. I wanted to know about the other thing - us. I felt like asking if she might be packing her bags in the foreseeable future, or something equally inane, but was not given the opportunity. She broke in, “I'm a big girl now, Jay. I know we are neither of us working for organisations specializing in peace, love and goodwill - “
“Wrong,” I interrupted, a shade louder than I had intended. She had surprised me. I thought she knew. Her brows dropped. I went in with both feet. ''Those are exactly the things we specialise in.” I had fought this particular fight with myself countless times, always playing Devil's Advocate. The answer always came out the same. The odd thing was that I had never heard this argument broached in the sections. It was as if the problem did not exist. “Sweep the dirt off the floor” I went on, climbing up onto my soap box, “and what are you left with? A clean floor. Cut away the conflict, the hate, and the ill-will and you end up with the P.L. and G. you just mentioned. It'll never happen, of course, because the world is full of people. But what do you do? Stop sweeping? The fact that there will always be someone who'll walk in out of the mud and dirty your nice clean floor, is neither here nor there. It's human nature. Look at the Middle East. No sooner had the Iron Curtain come down than someone else shoves up another one somewhere else. It's what we're made of, Dee. There will always be someone like Osama bin Laden. Or Hitler. Or anyone you care to name. There'll always be divisions, different cultures, different views, different goals. And there will always be people like you and me. Like Burgess. Like The Angel Gabriel. And like Lewis. Take it or leave it.”
I rose up and placed the mug on the coffee table. ''Now,'' I said positively, ''Shall we engage in the continuing struggle towards the second of your three virtues, or what?'' I beamed a smile that Burgess would have been proud of.
Didi’s expression displayed amazement; then it displayed something that only Didi herself could have explained. And it finally settled into an expression of lost helplessness. She reached out to her handbag that was on the floor by the desk and flipped it open. ''Sorry, Jay,” she said, half withdrawing a blue and white cardboard box about the size of a bar of soap, and on which I could see the tail-end of the product's name: '...PAX'.
We were asleep inside half an hour.


My watch went BEEP BEEP BEEP and woke me up. I fumbled around until one hand found the other and switched it off. The sun was streaming in the starboard portholes like solid blocks of light. I prised my eyes open and focused them, with difficulty, on the watch. It registered 7-30. I don't know why I did that. Look at the watch, I mean. Because I always have the damned thing set to go off at seven-thirty in any case. But there it is. Old habits, like old movies, die hard.
Didi had long gone. We had gone to sleep on a good enough note but I did not feel normal. For certain I would have liked to talk some more. I tend to brood. Whilst Didi, at least outwardly, seems to forget quickly. I donned my dressing gown and squinted out at the day. I couldn't see much because of the surface mist. But, for the moment anyway, the sky was clear. I went through to the galley and made myself some toast and coffee, stopping half way through to answer the normal morning call. Didi says that regular bowel movements are a sign of good health. I tend to stay away from the subject. Then I took the breakfast up to the wheel-house. I always did that. Early mornings on the river are not things to be missed.
I had been lucky enough to secure a permanent residential mooring at the bottom of a garden on Ferry Road, Long Ditton. The garden, plus the rambling Georgian-style house at the top of it, belonged to an ex-R.N. commander called Markham. He was 67 years old and you could still see where the sea water used to get in. He once had a boat of his own, hence the small jetty, but he didn't any longer, because, he said, he was too long in the tooth for all that palaver. For the sake of the record, both public and service, I also held a commander's rank; which fact was an obvious plus in my securing the mooring in the first place.
Our Emily had electricity supplied via a separate meter ; a telephone supplied via a word or two in the right quarter ; and water supplied free from a stand-pipe in the garden - if anything could be termed free with a mooring fee of £85 per week. Also we had separate access via the garden gate which opened onto the public towpath that was once the upstream towpath. As river set-ups went, it was perfect.
The sun was nudging above the trees of Hampton Court Park; on the other side of the river and the sky was an inverted bowl of translucent yellow candy-floss. Over on the other towpath I could just make out a family of Brent geese. I wondered which one of the bastards was doing the job on my coach roof.
They totally ignored a man on a cycle who had to dismount and walk around them. It was like watching an ice show or a play where they're using dry ice for effect. The island of Raven's Ait, downstream towards Kingston, was barely visible through the wispy carpet, whilst Hampton Court Palace, upstream, had to be imagined. But this was early morning mist and would soon clear. It had been the same yesterday and the day had deteriorated into something out of a Sherlock Holmes movie. It's always best in the morning. I heaved myself onto the helms-man's stool and sipped the coffee, leaning forward over the brass and mahogany wheel. I thought about Didi and felt empty inside.
Then the telephone rang.
I trudged down to the saloon hoping it would be Didi. And it was.
“Jay?” she said.
“Who else?” I replied, feeling strangely stupid. ''Did you make it on time?''
''Oh, yes,” she said cheerily, ''You were dead to the world. I kissed you. Did you feel it?''
I smiled at the phone. “I can now.”
Didi has quite a passable singing voice and she used it then. “I just called...to say...I love you...''' she sang, and the line went dead.
The world was suddenly a better place to be.
Then I remembered Lewis and I thought: Sod this for a game of soldiers! I dialled Burgess's number.



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