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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 33
“Perfect,” says Brammel under his breath.
“Birthdates are of course approximations in these cases,” Lederer continues undaunted. “It is our experience that alias passports have the tendency to give the bearer a year or two.”
The signal is hardly on Lederer’s desk, he says, before he is typing in the dates and destinations of Herr Zaworski’s visits to America. And then it was—says Lederer, though not in as many words—that with one touch of the button everything came together, continents merged, three journalists in their late fifties became a single Czech spy of uncertain age, and Grant Lederer III, thanks to the flawless insulation of the signals room, was able to scream “Hallelujah!” and “Bee, I love you!” to the padded walls.
“Every American city visited by Petz-Hampel-Zaworski in 1981 and 1982 was visited by Pym on the same dates,” Lederer intones. “During those dates the relevant clandestine transmissions from the Czech Embassy roof were discontinued, the reason in our estimation being that a personal encounter was occurring between the agent in the field and his visiting controller. Radio transmissions were accordingly superfluous.”
“It’s beautiful,” says Brammel. “I’d like to find the Czech intelligence officer who thought this one up and give him my private Oscar immediately.”
With a pained discretion Mick Carver lifts a briefcase gently to the table and extracts a bunch of folders.
“This is Langley’s profile as of now on Petz-Hampel-Zaworski, Pym’s presumed controller,” he explains in the patient manner of a salesman bent on showing off a new technology, despite the obstruction of the older element. “We expect a couple more updates in the next immediate while, maybe even tonight. Bo, when does Magnus return to Vienna, do you mind telling us, please?”
Brammel like all the rest of them is peering into his folder, so it is natural he should not reply at once. “When we tell him to, I suppose,” he says carelessly, turning a page. “Not before, that’s for certain. As you say, his father’s death was rather providential. Old man left quite a mess, I gather. Magnus has a lot to sort out.”
“Where is he now?” says Wexler.
Brammel looks at his watch. “Having dinner, I should imagine. Nearly time, isn’t it?”
“Where’s he staying?” Wexler insists.
Brammel smiles. “Now Harry, I don’t think I’m going to tell you that. We do have some rights in our own country, you know, and your chaps have been a bit overeager on the surveillance stakes.”
Wexler is nothing if not stubborn. “Last we heard of him, he was at London Airport checking in to his flight to Vienna. Our information is he’d wrapped up his affairs over here and was heading back to his post. What the hell happened?”
Nigel has clasped his hands together. He sets them, still clasped, on the table to indicate that, small or not, he is speaking. “You haven’t been following him over here too, have you? That really would be going it.”
Wexler rubs his chin. His expression is rueful but undefeated. He turns again to Brammel. “Bo, we need a piece of this. If this is a Czech deception operation it’s the damnedest, most ingenious case I ever heard of.”
“Pym is a most ingenious officer,” Brammel countered. “He’s been a thorn in the Czechs’ side for thirty years. He’s worth a lot of trouble on their part.”
“Bo, you’ve got to pull Pym in and you’ve got to interrogate the living shit out of him. If you don’t, we’re going to go around and around this thing till we’ve all got grey hairs and some of us are in our graves. Those are our secrets he’s been fooling with as well as yours. We have some very heavy questions to put to him and some fine people trained to put them.”
“Harry, you have my word that when the moment is ripe, you and your people shall have as much of him as you want.”
“Maybe the moment’s right now,” Wexler says, sticking out his jaw. “Maybe we should be there from when he starts to sing. Hit him while he’s soft.”
“And maybe you should trust sufficiently in our judgment to bide your time,” Nigel purrs sleekly in reply, and casts Wexler a very reassuring glance over the top of his reading spectacles.
A most strange impulse, meanwhile, is taking hold of Lederer. He feels it rising in him and can no more check himself than if it were an urge to vomit. In this self-renewing cycle of compromise and double-think he needs to externalise the secret affinity between himself and Magnus. To assert his monopoly of understanding of the man and underline the personal nature of his triumph. To be at the centre still, and not shoved out to the bleachers where he came from.
“Sir, you mentioned Pym’s father,” he bursts out, talking straight at Brammel. “Sir, I know about that father. I have a father who is not in certain ways dissimilar, only in degree. Mine’s a small-time iffy lawyer and honesty is not his strong suit. No, sir. But that father of Pym’s was a total crook. A con artist. Our psychiatrists have assembled a really disturbing profile of that man. Do you know that when Richard T. Pym was in New York he faked a whole empire of bogus companies? Borrowed money from the most unlikely people, really some important people? I mean listed. There’s a serious strain of controlled instability here. We have a paper on this.” He was overrunning himself but couldn’t stop. “I mean Jesus, do you know Magnus made the most wild pass at my own wife? I don’t grudge him that. She’s an attractive woman. What I mean is the guy’s everywhere. He’s all over the place. That English cool of his is just veneer.”
Not for the first time Lederer has just committed suicide. Nobody hears him, nobody shouts “Wow, you don’t say!” And when Brammel speaks, his voice is as cold as charity and as late in arriving.
“Yes, well, I always assume that businessmen are crooks, don’t you, Harry? I’m sure we all do.” He glances round the table at everyone but Lederer and comes back to Wexler. “Harry, why don’t you and I get our heads together for an hour, shall we? If there’s to be a hostile interrogation at some stage, I’m sure we should agree on some guidelines in advance. Nigel, why don’t you come along to see fair play? The rest of us—” His gaze falls on Brotherhood and he awards him a particularly confiding smile. “Well, we’ll simply say see you all later. You will leave in pairs, won’t you, when you’ve done your reading? Not all at once, it scares the local peasants. Thank you.”
Brammel leaves, Wexler waddles boldly after him, a man who has made his point and doesn’t care who knows it. Nigel waits till they have all left, then like a busy undertaker hastens round the table and takes Brotherhood’s arm in a fraternal gesture.
“Jack,” he whispers. “Well put, well played. We absolutely stymied them. A word in your ear away from the microphones, yes?”
It was early afternoon. The safe house where they had met was a pseudo-Regency villa with jewellers’ screens across the windows. A warm fog hung over the gravel drive and Lederer loitered in it like a murderer waiting for Brotherhood’s hulk to fill the lighted porch. Mountjoy and Dorney passed by him without a word. Carver, accompanied by Artelli and his briefcase, was more explicit. “I have to live here, Lederer. I just hope that this time either you make it stick or they post the hell out of you.”
Bastard, thought Lederer.
At last Jack Brotherhood emerged, speaking cryptically to Nigel. Lederer watched them jealously. Nigel turned and went back inside. Brotherhood walked forward.
“Mr. Brotherhood, sir? Jack? It’s me. Lederer.”
Brotherhood came slowly to a halt. He was wearing his usual grimy raincoat and a muffler, and he had lit one of his yellow cigarettes.
“What do you want?”
“Jack. I want to tell you that whatever happens, and whatever he’s done or not done, I’m sorry it’s him and I’m sorry it’s you.”
“Probably hasn’t done anything at all. Probably recruited one of the other side and hasn’t told us, knowing him. My guess is you’ve got the story inside out.”
“Would he do that, Magnus? Play a lone hand with the enemy and not tell anybody? Jesus, that’s
dynamite! If I ever tried that, Langley would skin me.”
Unbidden, he fell in beside Brotherhood. A policeman stood at the gate. They passed the Royal Horse Artillery Barracks. The sound of hoofs clattered at them from the parade ground but the horses were hidden in the fog. Brotherhood was striding fast. Lederer had difficulty keeping up.
“I feel really bad, Jack,” Lederer confessed. “Nobody seems to understand what it’s been like for me to have to do this to a friend. It’s not just Magnus. It’s Bee and Mary and the kids and everybody. Becky and Tom are real sweethearts. It kind of made all of us consider ourselves in many ways. There’s a pub right here. Can I buy you a drink?”
“Got to see a man about a dog, I’m afraid.”
“Can I drop you somewhere? I have a car and driver right here around the corner.”
“Prefer to walk if you don’t mind.”
“Magnus told me a lot about you, Jack. I guess he broke some of the rules but that’s how we were. We really shared. It was a great liaison. That’s the crazy thing. We really were the Special Relationship. And I believe in that. I believe in the Anglo-Saxon alliance, the Atlantic Pact, the whole bit. You remember that burglary you and Magnus did together in Warsaw?”
“Don’t think I do, I’m afraid.”
“Oh come on, Jack. How you lowered him through a skylight ? Like in the Bible? And you had these fake Polish cops downstairs on the doorstep in case the quarry came home unexpectedly? He said you were like a father to him. You know how he referred to you once? ‘Grant,’ he said to me. ‘Jack is the true champion of the great game.’ You know what I feel? I think if Magnus’s writing had ever worked for him, he’d have been okay. There’s just too much inside him. He has to put it somewhere.” He was breathing a little hastily between his words, but he insisted on keeping up; he had to get it right with Brotherhood. “You see, sir, I’ve read a great deal recently about the creativity of the criminal mind.”
“Oh he’s a criminal now, is he?”
“Please. Let me quote you something I read.” They had reached a crossing and were waiting for the lights. “‘ What is the difference, in morality, between the totally anarchic criminality of the artist, which is endemic in all fine creative minds, and the artistry of the criminal?’”
“Can’t do it, I’m afraid. Too many long words. Sorry about that.”
“Hell, Jack, we’re licensed crooks, that’s all I’m saying. What’s our racket? Know what our racket is? It is to place our larcenous natures at the service of the state. So I mean why should I feel different about Magnus just because maybe he got the mix a little wrong? I can’t. Magnus is still exactly the same man I spent these great times with! And I’m still the same man who had these times with Magnus. Nothing’s changed except we’ve landed on different sides of the net. You know we talked about defection once? Where we would go if we ever cut and run? Left our wives and kids and work, and just stepped into the blue? We were that close, Jack. We literally thought the unthinkable. We really did. We were amazing.”
They had entered St. John’s Wood High Street, and were heading towards Regent’s Park. Brotherhood’s pace had increased.
“Where did he say he’d go, then?” Brotherhood snapped. “Back to Washington? Moscow?”
“Home. He said there was only ever one place. Home. I mean this shows you. The man loves his country, Mr. Brotherhood. Magnus is no renegade.”
“Didn’t know he had a home,” said Brotherhood. “Vagrant childhood, he always told me.”
“Home is a little seaside town in Wales. It has a very ugly Victorian church. It has a very strict landlady who shuts him in at 10 p.m. And one of these days Magnus is going to lock himself in that upstairs room and write his ass off till he comes out with all twelve volumes of Pym’s answer to Proust.”
Brotherhood might not have heard. He strode faster.
“Home is childhood re-created, Mr. Brotherhood. If defection is a self-renewal, it requires also a rebirth.”
“That his stupid phrase or yours?”
“Mine and his equally. We discussed all this and we discussed much, much more. Know why so many defectors redefect? We had that one straight too. It’s in and out of the womb all the time. Have you ever noticed that about defectors—the one common factor in all that crazy band? They’re immature. Forgive me, they are literally motherfuckers.”
“Have a name, this place?”
“This Welsh paradise of his. What’s it called?”
“He never said a name. All he said was it was near the castle where he grew up with his mother, in an area with great houses, where he and his mother used to go to the hunts, dance at the Christmas balls and mix quite democratically with the servants.”
“Have you ever come across Czechs using back numbers of newspapers?” Brotherhood asked.
Momentarily thrown by the change of tack, Lederer was obliged to pause and consider.
“It’s a case a colleague of mine is running,” Brotherhood said. “He asked me. Czech agent always grubbing around for last week’s newspapers before he takes a walk up the road. Why would he do that?”
“I’ll tell you why. It’s a standard thing,” said Lederer, recovering. “Old hat, but standard. We had a Joe like that, a double. The Czechs trained him for days, just in how to roll exposed film into newspaper. Took him out into the streets at night, made him find a dark area. Poor bastard nearly froze his fingers off. It was twenty below.”
“I said back numbers,” Brotherhood said.
“Sure. There’s two ways. One way they use the day of the month, the other way they use the day of the week. Day of the month is a nightmare: thirty-one standard messages to be learned by heart. It’s the eighteenth of the month so it’s ‘Meet me behind the gentleman’s convenience in Brno at nine-thirty and don’t be late.’ It’s the sixth so ‘W here the hell’s my monthly pay cheque?’” He giggled breathlessly but Brotherhood did not reciprocate. “The days of the week, that’s a shortened version of the same thing.”
“Thanks, I’ll pass it on,” said Brotherhood, drawing to a halt at last.
“Sir, I can imagine no greater honour than taking you out to dinner tonight,” Lederer said, now quite desperate for Brotherhood’s absolution. “I cast aspersions on one of your men, that’s duty. But if I were ever able to separate the personal and the official sides, I’d be a happy man, sir. Jack?”
The taxi was already drawing up.
“What is it?”
“Do you think you could give Magnus a message for me—a friendly one?”
“What is it?”
“Tell him any time—when it’s over—any place. I’ll be there as his friend.”
With a nod Brotherhood climbed into the taxi and rode away before Lederer could hear his destination.
What Lederer did next should go into history, if not into the larger history of the Pym affair then at least into his own exasperating personal chronicle of seeing everything with perfect vision and being repeatedly dismissed as an unwelcome prophet. Lederer struggled into a phone box intending to call Carver, only to discover he had no English coins. He dived into the Mulberry Arms, fought his way to the bar and bought a beer he did not want in order to have change. He returned to the phone box to find it didn’t work, so he pelted back down the road in search of his driver, who, having watched Lederer march by with Brotherhood, had assumed he was no longer required and had driven home to Battersea where he had a friend. At nine o’clock, Lederer burst in upon Carver at the U.S. Embassy, where Carver was drafting a signal on the day’s events.
“They’re lying!” Lederer shouted.
“The fucking Brits! Pym’s flown the coop. They don’t know where he is from the man in the fucking moon. I asked Brotherhood to pass him this totally subversive message and he sweet-mouthed me to keep me off the track. Pym jumped ship at London Airport and they’re looking for him the same way we are. Those Czech radio transmissions
are kosher. The Brits are looking for him, we’re looking for him. And the fucking Czechs are looking for him all over. Listen to me!”
Carver had listened. Carver continued to listen. He took Lederer through his conversation with Brotherhood and concluded it should not have taken place and that Lederer had exceeded his competence. He did not say this to Lederer but he made a note of it, and later that night in a separate telegram to the Agency’s personnel people he took care that this note was added to Lederer’s file. At the same time he accepted that Lederer might well have stumbled upon the truth, even if by the wrong route, and said this also. Thus Carver covered his back all ways, while at the same time knifing an unpleasing interloper. Never bad.
“The British are not playing this straight,” he confided to people he knew at the top. “I am going to have to watch this very carefully.”
The Headmaster’s study smelt of killing bottles. Mr. Caird, though he hated violence, was a passionate lepidopterist. A grim portrait of our founder G. F. Grimble glowered down on cracked leather chairs. In one of them sat Tom. Brotherhood sat opposite him. Tom was looking at the photograph from the Langley folder on Petz-Hampel-Zaworski. Brotherhood was looking at Tom. Mr. Caird had shaken Brotherhood’s hand and left them to it.
“That the one who walked your dad round the cricket ground in Corfu?” said Brotherhood, watching Tom.
“You weren’t far wrong with your description then, were you?”
“I thought you’d be amused.”
“He doesn’t limp in the photograph, so he doesn’t look so hobbly. Had any more letters from your dad? Phone calls?”
“Written to him?”
“Don’t know where to send it, sir.”
“Why don’t you give it to me?”
Tom delved inside his grey pullover and unearthed a sealed envelope with no name or address on it. Brotherhood took it from him, and took back the photograph too.