'You’ve got a telegram ...'
Latimer tossed the yellow envelope onto the table in front of me, only narrowly missing the dish of marmalade, and continued his search for the butter that the knock on the door had interrupted. Doris was out and we were fending for ourselves.
‘You’ve probably got your wish,’ added Latimer, his head poked inside the ancient sideboard.
I grunted. I doubted it. Burgess was not the sort to accept requests for transfers. He wasn’t even the sort to give such requests any more than a cursory glance before he tossed it into the waste-paper basket. I knew this before I’d sent it in. But I sent it anyway. I’d had it up to the proverbial with Burgess’s assassination squad. Latimer was in the same frame of mind. But Latimer lacks my sense of fairplay. He’ll go on rubbing people out until some bod gives him a taste of his own medicine. Him and E.L. have some sort of love-hate relationship going for them. I did, too. Once.
Not any more. I wanted out. The Prague fiasco had shot me. Mentally as well as bodily. That’s why me and Latimer were on rest-and-recuperation in the St. Mary’s safe house. That’s one of the Scilly Isles. Bloody apt, if you ask me. And isolated, too. Which was fine. Except that, for a thousand reasons—none of which I could fathom—the place didn’t have a phone. There was just this guy who delivered the occasional telegram when the big brass decided that enough was enough on the R. and R. front.
Latimer wasn’t on the Prague deal with me. He’d been up to his ears in death somewhere else. God knows where. But he was as shot as I was. Except that, as I’ve said, he wasn’t ready to throw in the towel yet. Give it time.
The telegram contained a single word: “Palette”. In layman’s language that means: come home, all is forgiven. In my case, though, I guess it meant: Get your arse up here. Fast!
Latimer gave up his search for the butter and he came back and sat at the table. He smeared the marmalade onto the dry toast and held his hand out for the telegram. I passed it over. He read it then let it fall to the table. Then he said: ‘I don’t think it’s connected.’
I didn’t either. I’m good at my job, despite the fact that I’ve gone off it. But I’m not twit enough to run away with the notion that Burgess is going to foam at the mouth and give me an instant recall just because I send him a wingeing letter.
Latimer nodded down at the telegram. ‘.That’s not from Burgess. That’s from the colonel.’
Just so’s you’ll know who he was referring to I’ll tell you that the colonel is Colonel George Sturrock. And Sturrock is Burgess’s boss. And that makes him my boss, once removed. The colonel was on the Prague job with me. He was no bloody help then, and I had the .feeling that he was going to be even less help now, that is as far as the transfer was concerned.
Latimer went on: ‘There’s a mainland flight from Tresco this evening. . I nodded. ‘I hope it enjoys itself.’
Latimer grinned humourlessly. ‘You’re not going?’
The thought had crossed my mind. But only for an instant. If the recall was indeed from the colonel then there might be something else in the wind aside from a directive to skewer some poor bleeder who never did anyone any harm. That’s not the way it happens, of course. But I was looking at the world through jaundiced eyes, remember. Actually I’ve only ever killed baddies. Real baddies, that is. The sort of baddy who’ll eat up a good guy for breakfast and not even burp. I’m not defending my job, you understand, I’m only hinting at the level of it. And my decision to take the mail boat to Penzance as opposed to the plane was nothing more than a momentary fit of pique.
Latimer walked down to the dock with me. There were no goodbyes. Just a nod or two. The mailboat chugged out of the break-water at twelve-thirty precisely, no more than an hour late off the mark. When we finally tied up in Penzance it was six o’clock next morning, and a watery sun was struggling to rise to the occasion. I made my way to the station and got the nine o’clock train up to Newquay. Two hours later I was on the flight to Heathrow.
London bores me rigid. I have a flat there but I don’t get to use it very often, which bothers me not at all. It’s only a pokey little two-roomed thing in a back street off the Brompton Road. I took a taxi there from the airport and showered, shaved, and shoved on a change of clothes. I also had half a glass of breakfast. I left a note for the cleaning lady just to say that I’d been, then I took another cab over to St. James’s Park.
E.L., as such, has no official designation. We work, in a loose sort of way, out of a department that shows upon the books as: I.F.2/42b. The colonel, for reasons of his own, bundles the whole thing together under the title of Room 1044 - ten-forty-four. It’s my guess that he calls it that because that’s where it all started. Room 1044 in the War Office, back in World War Two. The colonel is that old. So is Burgess. I am not. The building overlooks the passport office in Petty France. The sign over the door reads: CONSULATE SECTION - IMMIGRATION. Burgess was not at home. His secretary, an evil-looking party who never had a sense of humour in any case, directed me on up to Sturrock’s office on the third floor. I sat in Sturrock’s outer office for a few minutes, until his secretary - same description - saw fit to use her intercom to tell him I was there.
Sturrock looked about the same as the last time I’d seen him. That had been on the flight back from Prague. Except that now he was sober. Perhaps his hair was a shade or two greyer, but that was it.
‘On no account are we to be disturbed for the next hour,’ he said into his intercom. Then he turned to me. ‘Well, young Ryderbeit. Are we well rested?’
That’s something I haven’t told you, isn’t it? My name. It’s as Sturrock pronounced it. RyderBATE. Jackson Ryderbeit. Jackie to my friends, though I have been called worse.
I grunted deferentially at Sturrock’s kind enquiry after the state of my health. My grunts are fairly non-committal things and you’ve got to get up early in the morning to pin them down. But the colonel seemed to get it right. He nodded, smiling. Then he came right out with it.
‘I understand that you want a transfer.‘
For reasons that I’ve already explained that was the last thing I’d been expecting Sturrock to say. Not to put too fine a point on it I was perplexed. And I obviously looked it. Sturrock dipped a hand into his pocket and took out his silver cigarette case and held it out to me. I took one with a brief nod, still trying to get some kind of a reaction together. When we were both alight and puffing Sturrock waved the case vaguely in the air.
‘Nonsense!’ he said. ‘You were tired. That’s all. I’m right, am I not?’
It took another few moments, but I finally got it together. I said: ‘I’m past all that hero stuff, Colonel. Too long in the tooth.’
Sturrock was still grinning. ‘You do yourself an in justice, Ryderbeit. I know. I was with you, remember?’
Typical. Bloody typical! The Prague thing is the only job that, to my knowledge, he’s ever been on. Actually in the field, I mean. And he only opted into that one because he got a sudden attack of the shiny-pants from too much sitting down. I’ve been out in the cold for the best part of six years. And that is one helluva long time for an E.L. field man.
I shrugged. ‘It’s cumulative, Colonel.’
The grin slackened slightly. ‘Your staying power is not in question. Never has been. And as long as I’m sitting behind this desk it never will be.’
He couldn’t have underlined his rejection of my request any firmer if he’d jabbed me in the eye with a toasting fork. He rose to his feet.
‘However, that is not why you are here.‘ He walked over to the window and gazed out of it for a spell. At length, and without turning from the window, he said:
‘How closely have you been following events in the Middle East?’
I had to be truthful. Besides which I could feel a petulant mood coming on. ‘I haven’t been following them at all, Colonel.’
Sturrock nodded to himself as if he had been expecting no other answer, then he turned.
‘All to the good. The media have got hold of the wrong end of the stick, in any case.’
Marvellous, isn’t it? Both Sturrock and Burgess are blessed with the facility for turning a negative, stone walling statement into something positive. Only when it suits them, of course. And I knew that I would have to watch my words from then on. Sturrock might have dismissed my transfer request as unimportant, but I sure as hell hadn’t.
At this stage I may as well point out that the only reason my request had been for a transfer as opposed to a complete heave-ho was that no one has ever resigned from E.L. and lived to tell the tale. E.L. is for life, or until the brass decide that you would be better suited elsewhere. I’d requested a transfer in the hope that someone, somewhere, might have been harbouring “suited-elsewhere” thoughts and not realized it. A vain hope, to be sure, but one that I thought had to be pursued.
Sturrock returned to the desk, unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of paper. The last thing I wanted was to appear interested, so I fiddled idly with a handy paperclip. The paper floated across the desk and landed centimetres from the clip. I couldn’t help but glance at it.
What caught my immediate attention was the postbox red “DESTROY” stamp. My experience in the business has taught me that pieces of paper with that stamped on them should only be seen by two people: the person who penned it, and the man who was supposed to receive the information. The latter should then do just what the stamp dictates. He should destroy it. He sure as hell should not show it to an itinerant field man whose one desire is to show the world just what the word itinerant really means. I flipped the paper over onto its face.
‘Colonel,’ I said, ‘About my transfer…I wouldn’t say no to a desk job. I can type fairly quick and - ‘
‘No transfer, Ryderbeit!’ snapped Sturrock. Then, after a brief pause: ‘At least, not yet awhile.’
‘You mean,‘ I said, ‘that there is a possibility?’
‘Anything is possible in this business, Ryderbeit. You should know that by now. And after the way you hand led Prague I would be prepared to discuss your future.’
His slight emphasis on the word “would” escaped me at the moment.
Then I remembered what he’d said about my “staying power”. ‘But you said…’
He cut in, ‘I said that your stamina is not, and will not be, questioned. There is a difference. And if you handle this next assignment as efficiently as you handled Prague I’d say that your chances at getting what you want will be doubled.’
I said: ‘I’ll keep you to that, Colonel.’
Sturrock shrugged hugely. ‘This is a heartless business, Ryderbeit, as you well know. But there is no good reason why we should resort to the methods of our adversaries. I know your record. And I know how long you have been doing your job. The effect of which, as you rightly pointed out, cannot help but be a cumulative drain on a man’s faculties. Yes, Ryderbeit, at the completion of this assignment we will talk most seriously about that transfer. Now I want you to read, and inwardly digest, the report in front of you.’
I fell like Nelson. A lamb to the slaughter. I know that now, but I certainly did not know it then. The only thought in my mind as I lifted that paper was one centred around the looming possibility that just over the horizon my demob papers were waiting for me. Free and clear, hair intact. Maybe not free of the service, but definitely free of the E.L. killing ground. It was something worth waiting a while longer for.
It turned out that the paper was actually a photostat copy of an original report. Only the “D” stamp was fresh. And the text had been reclassified down to my level by the simple expedient of someone having blanked out several of the key words on the original before it had gone through the machine. This had a soothing effect on my system, because bitter experience has taught me that the degree of job-danger has always kept pace with the level of the information handed me.
The report read:
“Despite the employment of your agent … (blank) this station is still unable to open a constructive file on subject … (blank). Conditions in area 23/725 are worsening rapidly. Also we have yet to make personal contact with blue file operative C.Two/b. The red file operative as specified in your 18/468/ BEL communication has failed to report. The scant information we have to hand, plus reports from your agent … (blank) would seem to indicate opposition involvement, and I would therefore like to involve more deeply our 23/725 FIRESTONE. It would also be very helpful to this station if FIRESTONE could be removed from his present status. Local rumour regarding subject … (blank) is still very mixed and, in my opinion, totally unreliable.”
There was no signature, and nothing to indicate which part of the world it referred to.
‘Confused?’ said Sturrock, having been watching me closely.
I shrugged. ‘Telepathic I’m not, Colonel.’
Sturrock pursed his lips and ‘H’mm’d’ thoughtfully. ‘Read it again, then, and tell me who you think is the central character.’
I didn’t need to read it again. I’m good at remembering things when they’ve been shoved under my nose. But I did have quick think.
‘The guy who wrote it?’ I ventured.
‘How many guesses do I get?’
But I was tiring fast of the game, especially since I knew that there would be no prize at the end of it. Sturrock turned sharply to face me.
‘Come on, Ryderbeit! You can do better than that!’
I sighed inwardly. ‘Colonel,‘ I said patiently. ‘The words, I can read. I can even understand one of them. Firestone means Fixer, doesn’t it?’
Sturrock nodded briefly.
I shrugged. ‘That’s it, Colonel. If you fill in the blanks I might be able to tell you what you want to know.’
Sturrock more than matched my air of long-suffering. ‘An impression. Give me your impression of who you think is the main character in the report. And that includes the man who sent it in.’
I figured that it would harm my case if I upset him too much, so I did take a serious stab at it. ‘It does seem to me,’ I began, after a suitably long pause, ‘that that station - and I assume it’s somewhere in the Middle East - is heavily reliant upon information from your agent Blank.’
Sturrock grunted and a thin smile appeared around his mouth. ‘Just so, Ryderbeit,‘ he said, nodding, ‘Just so. And that is the only blank I can fill in for you. That agent’s name is Hagstrom. Pol Hagstrom. And you are right. As far as the operation in question is concerned he has been the sole source of information. And the only reason I give you that name is because Hagstrom is the subject of your assignment.’
‘You want him rubbed out.’ I stated blandly.
Sturrock nodded. ‘Eventually, yes. But that is not your first task.’
‘I see,’ I said, ‘So what is my first task?’
‘You see in the report a reference to Blue File Operative C.Two -‘
‘Stroke-little-B,‘ I cut in. I had been paying attention.
‘Precisely. C.Two is a double agent, of a sort, and it is from him that Hagstrom receives his information.’
I nodded. ‘And what is this C.Two bod into?’
The smile, if it had been a smile, wiped itself from Sturrock’s face. ‘C.Two is our only door into an operation that you will henceforth refer to as Operation Decalogue. And Hagstrom is our only access to that door. And, conversely, Hagstrom is C.Two’s only route through to us.’
‘Do I get from that, Colonel, that you don’t have an I.D. on C.Two?’
Sturrock nodded. ‘That is correct. At this end of the line C.Two is just that: a code number.’
‘So why don’t you ask Hagstrom for an ident?’
Sturrock grunted. ‘He was asked. We found out recently however that the details he gave us were false. Purely as a precaution we sent in another man, referred to in the report as the “red file operative”. He was put in under his own cover and Hagstrom was not informed of the fact. The only piece of information we got back from this man was that Hagstrom’s details of C.Two were a total fabrication. Soon after that report he dropped out of sight.’
‘You think that Hagstrom found out that he was being bypassed and rubbed the man out.’
‘We do think that. We haven’t a clue why Hagstrom should give us a false identification but, since we now know that he did, it is obvious that he engineered the man’s demise.’
Sturrock held up a hand. ‘Before you ask any more questions I have to tell you that that is all I know. Hagstrom is not a C.I.Six operative. Neither was the back-up man. In fact Operation Decalogue, up until a few days ago, was a mystery to me. I knew that something was being done, but I didn’t know what. Well, now it is in my hands.’
‘Sounds reasonable, Colonel,’ I said. That is E.L. in a nutshell. We are rarely involved in the good stuff. We get called in when all else has failed. Or when someone, somewhere, needs some dirt shovelling. Sturrock went on:
‘Which leads me nicely to your first task.’
‘And that is?’
‘You must find out who C.Two is. And you must do it in such a way that Hagstrom does not find out. In fact Hagstrom must not know that you are within a hundred miles of him. It is estimated that we have up to five days to do the job . .
‘What happens after five days?’
Sturrock was silent for a moment. Then he said: ‘Hagstrom already knows that a bypass was attempted. He may, or he may not know, that the bypass attempt was purely a precaution. But, whatever he thinks on that score, he must realize that the fate of the red file operative will be questioned when he fails to send in any more reports. So we estimate that, at this moment, Hagstrom is frantically trying to bring whatever it was he was involved in to a close. And we are fairly certain that when he has covered his tracks he will get rid of C.Two. That must not happen. C.Two is our only way into Operation Decalogue.’
‘Just what is this Operation Decalogue, Colonel? Or am I not going to be told that?’
‘Not! And you do not need to know. The assignment should not take you as far as Decalogue.’
‘Should not, Colonel?’
‘That’s right. Should not. However, knowing your enquiring mind, as I do, you are very likely to find out somewhere along the way. If you do, fine. Except that you will not allow any knowledge you may gain to inter fere with your assignment. Is that understood?’
I nodded. ‘I do not allow it to interfere with the job.‘
Sturrock said; ‘The codename Decalogue is now known to only three people,’ ‘You, Hagstrom, and C.Two. And that fact is your key. You will pin a tail on Hagstrom. A tight one! See where he goes and who he contacts. We have some reason to believe that C.Two is a sheikh. So if Hagstrom rubs an intimate shoulder with a lot of money you’ll know you could be on the right track. When you’ve got some kind of a short-list you’ll go down it name-by-name. Talk to them. You will have a cover that will make this possible. In your conversations with them you will insert the word Decalogue. The only person - aside from Hagstrom - who will react to that word is C.Two.’
‘And that’s it, Colonel? That’s all I have to work on? A word?’
Sturrock inclined his head. ‘That’s it! Decalogue, literally, means ten-commandments. You can use it in that context if the opportunity presents itself.’
I nodded. ‘And I’m totally on my own, am I, Colonel?’
‘To all intents and purposes, yes. I don’t want the station there involved at all. However, you will be able to get some general aid and information from the Fixer.’
‘A man called Waring. He lives in the Inter-Continental Hotel.’
‘As a matter of passing interest, Colonel, which part of the Middle East are we talking about?’
‘And my cover?’
‘Your name is Peter Coppock. You are a representative of an international Drilling Fluids Company. Waring already has that information and he knows that you are on your way. But that is all he knows. Keep it that way. His room number is five-eighty. Telephone him when you get in and identify yourself using your field number. Apparently he has a recent run-down on Hag- strom’s movements and associates. He has been in structed to give you whatever you need. But I want you to be careful. He must not know that you are there after Hagstrom. So when you ask him anything about Hag- Strom bury it among some other names.’
‘What other names, Colonel?’
Sturrock came back to the desk and sat heavily in his chair. ‘It doesn’t matter what names. Make them up if you have to. Now, you can pick up your papers from Miss Fielding before you leave. Also she has some local money for you. An account has been opened in your name at the British Bank of the Middle East, in case you need more to grease some palms.’
I released a sigh that had been wanting out. The essentials had been covered, but there was still a gaping hole in the bones of the assignment. ‘I see,‘ I said. ‘It’s not a lot to go on, Colonel.’
‘You do not need a lot. All you have to do is find out who C.Two is. This can be confirmed by the method I’ve given you. Anyone - other than Hagstrom - who reacts to the word Decalogue, will be C.Two. That is all I need to know. When that time arrives you drop it! Get rid of Hagstrom by whatever means you think fit, get the infor mation to me - a phone call will do, using the once-only code - then get out of there. Your job will be over.’
‘Just like that?’
Sturrock grunted. ‘Just like that. Not too difficult for a man of your experience.’
I wished that I was as confident as he appeared to be. There were too many ifs and buts for my liking. The one bright spot was that there would at least be some brain work to do. I usually enjoy that kind of thing. Perhaps it was a step in the right direction. ‘And what if I can’t run C.Two to earth?’ I asked. ‘Do I just get rid of Hagstrom?’
Sturrock looked up sharply. ‘Hagstrom remains alive and kicking until we know who C.Two is. On that there is no question!’
I broached a lighter subject.
‘What about hardware, Colonel? That part of the world is alive with X-ray gadgets.’
‘Waring will be able to supply you with a gun, and, within reason, anything else you may need. He also has some local muscle up his sleeve. But I repeat, Waring must not know why you are there. This is a C.I.Six operation now.’
‘Fair enough, Colonel. How about a picture of Hagstrom? Just so’s I know what he looks like.’
‘There is a picture in the papers Miss Fielding will give you. But I do not want you to take it with you. Study it, then give it back to her. I do not want you to have anything relating to Hagstrom on you when you arrive in Dubai. As I told you, Waring has a file on him. Use that.’
‘Talking about Waring,’ I said, remembering the reference to him in the report, ‘What’s his involvement in Decalogue?’
‘I don’t know. I don’t think he is directly involved at all. I do know that he did some groundwork for Hagstrom, but it was only at a low level. Anyway, these things you can glean when you speak to him. The only directive I can give you there is that I want you to keep your personal contact with him to the barest minimum. I’m working on the need-to-know principle. There are things that you don’t need to know, and there are things that he doesn’t need to know. I would also prefer it if you used a different hotel from his. Waring himself will be able to help you there. Now, are there any more quest ions before you leave?’
I couldn’t think of a single one that Sturrock would’ve been willing to answer. I stood up. ‘I presume you’ve already booked my flight?’
‘Ten past midnight. Miss Fielding has your ticket. You get in to Dubai at o-nine-hundred hours local time. Call Waring from the airport.‘ He rose up and stepped from behind the desk. ‘Give this one all you’ve got, Ryderbeit. A great deal hangs on it.‘ He held out his hand. I shook it, feeling a bit stupid. Sturrock just wasn’t the sort to shake hands with his fieldman, least of all with an E.L. killer.
I didn’t like the new experience one bit.