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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 42


  Frankel was already giving orders to the taller boy. “Send them ‘Your signal garbled.’ Do it immediately. Tell them we want a rerun. Tell them if they can’t transmit now we’ll remain on standby till they can. Tell them we want a roll-call of all members of the network. You got set phrases for that or you want I draft something?”

  “Tell them damn all,” Brotherhood ordered very loud. “And stop crying, everybody. No one’s hurt.”

  He had thrust his hands into his raincoat pockets. He was halfway down the aisle. Nigel and Lorimer were still on stage, a pair of choirboys clutching their hymn sheet between them. Brammel sat stoically upright in the auditorium. Kate was staring at him, not stoical at all.

  “You can tell them you want a roll-call or a rerun, you can tell them to abort, you can tell them to jump in the Vistula. It doesn’t make a dime of difference,” said Brotherhood.

  “Poor man,” said Nigel to Lorimer. “They’re his Joes, you see. It’s the strain.”

  “They’re not my Joes and they never were. You can have them with my blessing.” He looked around him for men with sense. “Frankel. For Christ’s sake. Lorimer. When this service catches someone else’s Joe, if it ever does these days, what does it do? If he’s willing to be played, we play him back. If he’s not we send him to the Tower. Is it different now? I wouldn’t know.”

  “So?” said Nigel, humouring him.

  “If we decide to play him back, we do it as naturally and as fast as we can. Why? Because we want to show the opposition that nothing has changed. We want it seamless. We don’t hide his car and close his house. We don’t let him or his daughter or anybody else vanish into thin air. We don’t ignore dead letter boxes or invent fatuous stories about people eating bad mushrooms. We don’t sandbag radio operators in the middle of their high-speed transmissions. That is the last, the very last thing we do. Unless.”

  “I don’t read you, Jack, old boy,” Nigel said, whom Brotherhood had deliberately ignored. “I don’t think anybody does, to be truthful. I think you are very naturally upset and you are getting a bit metaphysical, if you don’t mind my saying.”

  “Unless what, Jack?” said Frankel.

  “Unless we want the opposition to know we’re rolling up their network.”

  “But why would anybody want that, Jack?” Frankel asked earnestly. “Explain to us. Please.”

  “Why not explain it another time?” said Nigel.

  “There never was a bloody network. They owned those networks from day one. They paid the actors, wrote the script. They owned Pym and near enough they owned me. They owned all of you as well. You just haven’t woken up to it.”

  “Then why do they bother to tell us anything at all?” Frankel objected. “Why send us a fake interrupted signal? Why rig the disappearance of the Joes?”

  Brotherhood smiled. Not kindly, not with humour. But he did turn to Frankel and he did smile at him. “Because, old boy, they want us to think they’ve got Pym when they haven’t,” he said. “That is the only lie they’ve got left to sell us. They want us to call off the hunt and go home to our high tea. They want to find him for themselves. That’s the good news of the day. Pym is still on the run and they want him as much as we do.”

  They watched him turn and stride down the aisle and slide the locks back on the padded door. Poor old Jack, they said to each other with their eyes as the light went up: his life’s work. Lost all his Joes and can’t face it. Dreadful to see him so cut up. Only Frankel seemed to wish he hadn’t gone.

  “Have you ordered the rerun yet?” said Nigel. “I said have you ordered a rerun?”

  “I’ll do it now,” said Frankel.

  “Good man,” said Bo appreciatively from the stalls.

  In the corridor, Brotherhood paused to light himself a cigarette. The door opened and closed again. It was Kate.

  “I can’t go on,” she said. “It’s mad.”

  “Well it’s going to get a damn sight madder,” snapped Brotherhood, still angry. “That was just the trailer.”

  It was night once more and Mary had got through another day without throwing herself politely from a top-floor window or scrawling filthy words on the dining-room walls. Seated on her bed still moderately sober, she stared at the book and then at the phone. The phone had a second wire fed into it. The wire led to a grey box and seemed to stop. Since my time, she thought. Can’t be doing with these modern gadgets. She poured another generous tot of whisky and set the glass on the table at her elbow in order to end the argument she had been having with herself for the last ten minutes. There you are, damn you. If you want one, have one. If you don’t, leave the bloody thing where it is. She was fully dressed. She was supposed to have a headache but the headache was a lie to escape the excruciating company of Fergus and the girl Georgie who had begun to treat her with the deference of warders before her hanging. “How about a nice game of Scrabble, Mary? . . . Not in the mood are we? Never mind.... I say, that shepherd’s pie did go down a treat, didn’t it, Georgie? I haven’t had a shepherd’s pie like that since my nan went. Do you think it’s the freezing that does it? Sort of ripens it, does it, the freezing?” At eleven o’clock, screaming inside, she had left them to the washing-up and brought herself up here to the book and to the note that had accompanied it. A deckled card. Silver-edged, my wedding anniversary. In a deckled envelope. Vile cherub blowing trumpet top left.

  “Dear Mary,

  “So sorry to hear about M’s calamity. Picked this up for pennies this morning and wondered whether you would like to bind it for me, same as all the others, full hide, buckram and the title printed in gold capitals between the first and second band on the spine. The end-papers look kind of new to me, maybe just rip them out? Grant’s away too so I guess I know how you feel. Could you do it quickly, as a surprise for him? Usual fee, of course!

  “My love, darling,

  Bee”

  Keeping her hand away from the whisky and her mind clear of thoughts of a certain moustached phantom, Mary applied her training to the note. The handwriting was not Bee Lederer’s. It was a forgery and to anyone who knew the game a dismal one. The writer had paid lip-service to Bee’s all-American copperplate but the Germanic influence was clear in the spiky “u”s and “n”s and the “t”s without tails. “Whether” instead of “if,” she thought: when did an American write “whether”? The spelling wasn’t Bee’s either: a word like “calamity.” Bee couldn’t spell for toffee. She doubled every consonant on sight. Her letters to Mary in Greece, penned on similar stationery, had contained such family gems as menipullate and phallassy. As to “full hide”: Mary had bound just three books for Bee, and Bee hadn’t known from green apples how she wanted them, except she thought they looked great on Grant’s shelf, just like the old libraries you have in England. Full hide, buckram, the placing of the lettering: these were the writer talking, not Bee. And if Bee suspected that the end-papers might not be original—well bully for Bee because a month ago she had asked Mary wherever had she bought that cute wallpaper stuff she stuck on the inside of her covers?

  The note was so bad, Mary concluded—and so unlike Bee—that it was almost deliberately bad: good enough to fool Fergus when it was delivered to the door this afternoon, bad enough to be a signal to Mary that it meant something different.

  Something she had been warned of, for instance.

  She had read the clues from the moment she opened the door to the vanman, while Fergus the idiot lurked in the coat cupboard with a bloody great Howitzer in his hand in case the vanman turned out to be a Russian in disguise—which perhaps on reflection he was, because Bee had never used a private delivery service in her life. Bee would have dropped the book in herself on the way back from Becky’s school, coo-eeing through the letter box. Bee would have buttonholed Mary at the International Ladies on Tuesday, leaving her to hump the damn thing home as best she could.

  “Mind if I read the card, Mary?” Fergus had said. “It’s just routine, only you know what they’
re like in London. Bee. That’ll be Mrs. Lederer, wife of the American gentleman?”

  “That’s who it will be,” Mary had confirmed.

  “Well it’s a nice book, I will say. In English too. Looks really old, it does.” He was turning through it with practised fingers, pausing at pencil marks, holding occasional pages to the light.

  “It’s 1698,” Mary had said, pointing to the Roman numerals.

  “My goodness, you can read that stuff.”

  “Can I have it back now, please?”

  The grandfather clock in the hall was striking twelve. Fergus and Georgie were by now no doubt lying blissfully in each other’s arms. Over the interminable days of her secret imprisonment Mary had watched their romance ripen. Tonight when she came down to dinner Georgie had the indisguisable glow of someone who had been screwing minutes before. In a year’s time the two of them would become yet another his-and-hers couple in one of the resources sections where the Other Ranks held sway: surveillance, microphone installation, sweeping, steaming mail. A year later when they had pooled their fiddled overtime and their cooked-up mileage and inflated their out-of-town subsistence they would make a down payment on a house in East Sheen, have two children and become eligible for the Firm’s subsidised education scheme. I’m being a jealous bitch, thought Mary, unrepentant. Right now, I wouldn’t mind an hour with Fergus myself. She picked up the receiver and waited.

  “Who are you ringing, Mary?” said Fergus’s voice immediately.

  Wherever he was in his love-life just then, Fergus was very awake indeed when it came to cutting in on Mary’s outgoing phone calls.

  “I’m lonely,” Mary replied. “I want to have a chat with Bee Lederer. Anything wrong with that?”

  “Magnus is still in London, Mary. He’s been delayed.”

  “I know where he is. I know the story. I am also grown up.”

  “He’s been contacting you regular by phone, you’ve had nice chats with him, he’ll be back in a day or two. Head Office has nabbed him for a briefing while he’s over there. That’s all that happened.”

  “I’m all right, Fergus. I’m word perfect.”

  “Would you normally ring her as late as this?”

  “If both Magnus and Grant are away, yes I would.”

  Mary heard a click and then the dialling tone. She dialled the number and Bee started moaning at once. She was having her damned period, she said, a real bastard, cramps, the bends, you name it. It always grabbed her this way in winter, specially when Grant wasn’t there to service her. Giggle. “Oh shit, Mary, I really miss it. Does that make me a whore?”

  “I’ve had a lovely long letter from Tom,” said Mary. A lie. It was a letter and it was long but it was not lovely. It was an account of the great time Tom had had with Uncle Jack last Sunday and it had made Mary’s flesh creep.

  Bee declared that Becky just adored Tom so much it was indecent. “Can you imagine what is going to happen the day those kids wake up and discover la différence?”

  Yes, I can, thought Mary. They’re going to hate each other’s guts. She took Bee through her day. Hell, just screwing around, said Bee. She’d had a squash date with Cathie Krane from the Canadian Embassy but they’d agreed on a coffee instead because of Bee’s condition. Salad at the Club, and Jesus somebody really ought to teach these damned Austrians how to make a decent salad. This afternoon a cruddy Bring and Buy at the Embassy in aid of the Contras in Nicaragua and who gives a fly’s elbow about the Contras in Nicaragua?

  “You should go out and buy yourself something,” Mary suggested. “A dress or an antique or something.”

  “Listen, I can’t even move. You know what he did, the little runt? He turned the Audi in for servicing on his way to the airport. I don’t get the car, I don’t get a lay.”

  “I’d better ring off,” Mary said. “I’ve got a feeling Magnus is going to pull one of his dead-of-night calls and there’ll be all hell if the number is engaged.”

  “Yeah, how’s he taken it?” said Bee vaguely. “Is he all weepy or is he sort of reconciled? Some men, I think they really want to castrate their fathers all their lives. You should hear Grant sometimes.”

  “I’ll know when he’s back,” said Mary. “Before he left he hardly spoke a word.”

  “Too cut up, huh? Grant never gets cut up about anything, the creep.”

  “It hit him badly at first,” Mary confessed. “He sounds much better now.” She had scarcely rung off before the phone gave its in-house buzz.

  “Why didn’t you mention the beautiful book she sent you, Mary?” Fergus complained. “I thought that was why you’d be ringing.”

  “I told you why I was ringing. I was ringing because I was lonely. Bee Lederer sends me about fifteen books a week. Why should I talk to her about a bloody book to please you?”

  “I wasn’t meaning to offend, Mary.”

  “She didn’t mention the book so why should I? She gave me all the necessary instructions in her bloody note.” I’m protesting too much, she thought, cursing herself. I’m putting questions in his mind. “Listen, Fergus. I’m tired and liable to bite, okay? Leave me alone and go back to what you both do best.”

  She picked up the book. Nothing, not a book on earth, could have authenticated the sender so perfectly. “De Arte Graphica. The Art of Painting by C. A. DU FRESNOY with REMARKS. Translated into English together with an Original Preface containing a Parallel between Painting and Poetry. By Mr. DRYDEN.” She drained the glass of whisky. It was the same book. She had no doubt. The same book Magnus brought to me in Berlin when I still belonged to Jack. Came bounding up the stairs with it. Knocking on the steel door of Special Ordnance which was our cover while he clutched it in his hand. “Hey, Mary, open up!” It was before we had become lovers. Before he had started to call me Mabs. “Listen I want you to do a rush job for me. Can you put a CD into the binding of this? It’s to take one standard sheet of code cloth. Can you do it by tonight?” Then I staged a misunderstanding because we were already flirting. I pretended I hadn’t heard of CDs except on diplomatic cars, which allowed Magnus to explain to me in his earnest way that CD meant concealment device and Jack Brotherhood had told him Mary was the best person for the job. “We’re using a bookshop as a dead letter box,” Magnus explained. “I’ve got this Joe who’s an antiquarian-book fiend.” Case officers were not usually so generous about their operations.

  And I took off the end-paper, she remembered as she began gently prodding the covers. I scraped away a patch of cover board until I was nearly at the hide. Other people would have taken off the hide and gone under it from the front. Not our Mary. For Magnus nothing but perfection would do. Next night he gave me dinner. The night after that we went to bed together. Next morning I told Jack what had happened and he was gallant and sweet and said we were both very lucky, and that he’d withdraw from the field and let us get on with it, if that was what I wanted. I said it was. And I told Jack in my happiness that what had brought me and Magnus together was de Arte Graphica, a Parallel between Painting and Poetry, which was rather extraordinary when you remembered that I was mad about painting and Magnus was hell-bent on writing the great novel of his life.

  “Where are you going, Mary?” Fergus said, looming before Mary in the corridor. She had the book in her hand. She shoved it at him. “I can’t sleep. I’m going down to the cellar to fool around with this. Now go back to your nice lady and leave me alone.”

  Closing the cellar door she went quickly to the workbench. In minutes Georgie is going to saunter in with a nice cup of tea for me in order to make sure I haven’t defected or cut my wrists. Filling a bowl with warm water she damped a rag and set to work soaking off the end-paper. The writer of the note knew what he was talking about. On a book of that age the original glue was animal and would have crystallised. Mary, when she had doctored it for Magnus, had used animal glue too. But the new paper had been stuck on with flour paste which responded quickly to water. She was using a cloth and scrubbing. Normally s
he would have used blotting paper and a pressing tin. The end-paper came away. The board remained. Taking a scalpel she began scuffing it with the blade. If they’ve used rope board, I’ve had it. Rope board was made of real old rope taken from a man-of-war. It was tarred and twisted and packed solid. To scrape into it would take hours. She need not have worried. It was modern millboard and disintegrated like dry earth. She kept scuffing and suddenly the code cloth lay before her, flat against the inside of the hide, exactly where she had put it for Magnus. Except that this one had capital letters instead of figure groups. This one began “Dear Mary.” She stuffed it quickly down her front, retrieved the scalpel, and set about removing the rest of the end-paper as if she were going to rebind from the beginning, full hide as Bee had requested.

  “I just thought I had to come and see how you do it,” Georgie explained, sitting down beside her. “I really need a hobby like that myself, Mary. I just don’t ever seem able to relax.”

  “Poor you,” said Mary.

  It was night and Brotherhood was angry. Though he was out in the streets and away from the Firm and the Firm’s ken, though he had work to do and action to relieve him, he was angry. His anger had been mounting for two days. This morning’s outburst about the Joes was not the start of it. It had been kindled yesterday, like a slow-burning fuse, as he was leaving the conference room in St. John’s Wood after perjuring himself to save Brammel’s neck. It had stuck with him like a faithful friend through his meeting with Tom and his excursion to Reading station: Pym has broken the moral laws. He has outlawed himself by choice. It had touched flashpoint in the signals room this morning and gathered more heat with every pointless conference and frittered hour since. From his position of half-pitied and wholly blamed has-been, Brotherhood had listened to his own arguments being used against him and had looked on as, under his very eyes, his old defence of Pym had been adopted and updated into a policy of institutionalised inertia.