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A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy

A Perfect Spy 61

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  Certainly he took to wearing liver-coloured spectacles like Aunt Nell. And when he fell foul of the law in Denver, the prison doctor was so impressed by him that he was released the moment Pym had paid the medical fees.

  And after Denver you decided you were already dead, didn’t you, and set out to haunt me with your smallness? Every town I went to, I walked in fear of your pathetic ghost. Every safe house I entered, I expected to see you waiting at the gate, parading your willed, deliberate littleness. You knew where I would be before I got there. You would con a ticket and travel five thousand miles just to show me how small you had become. And off we’d go to the best restaurant in town, and I would buy you your treat and boast to you about my diplomatic doings and listen to your boastings in return. I would shower you with all the money I could afford, praying that it would enable you to add a few more Wentworths to the green cabinet. But even while I fawned on you and exchanged radiant smiles with you and held hands with you and bolstered you in your idiotic schemes, I knew that you had pulled the best con of them all. You were nothing any more. Your mantle had passed to me, leaving you a naked little man, and myself the biggest con I knew.

  “Why don’t those fellows give you your knighthood, then, old son? They tell me you ought to be Permanent Under Secretary by now. Got a skeleton in your cupboard, have you? Maybe I should slip over to London and have a word with those Personnel boys of yours.”

  How did he find me? How could it be that his systems of intelligence were better than those of the Agency’s leash dogs who were fast becoming my regular, unwelcome companions? At first I thought he was using private detectives. I began collecting the numbers of suspicious cars, noting the times of dead-end phone calls, trying to distinguish them from Langley’s. I bearded my secretary: has someone calling himself my sick father been pestering you for information? Eventually I discovered that the Embassy travel clerk had an addiction to playing English snooker at some Masonic hostel in the dirty part of town. Rick had found him there and pitched him a fatuous cover story: “I’ve got this dicky heart,” he’d said to the fool. “It could get me any time, you see, but don’t you go telling my boy. I don’t like to bother him when he’s got enough on his plate as it is. What you’re to do, you’re to get on the blower to me and give me the wink whenever that boy of mine leaves town, so that I know where to find him when the end comes.” And no doubt there was a gold watch in it somewhere. And tickets for next year’s Cup Final. And seeing the boy’s dear old mother right next time Rick slipped home for a drop of English air.

  But my discovery had come too late. We had had San Francisco by then, and Denver, and Seattle, and Rick had homed on every one of them, weeping and shrinking before my very eyes, until all that was left of Rick was what he owned of Pym; and all that was left of Pym, it seemed to me, as I wove my lies and blandished, and perjured myself before one kangaroo court after another, was a failing con man tottering on the last legs of his credibility.

  And that’s how it was, Tom. Betrayal is a repetitious trade and I will not bother you with more of it. We have reached the end, though it seems from here to look quite like the beginning. The Firm pulled Pym out of Washington and sent him to Vienna so that he could take back his networks and so that his growing army of accusers could draw its wretched computer pattern tighter round his neck. There was no saving him. Not in the end. Poppy knew that. So did Pym, though he would never admit it, even to himself. Just one more con, Pym kept saying to himself; one more con will see me right. Poppy pressed him, begged him, threatened him. Pym was adamant: Leave me in place, I’ll win through, they love me, I’ve given my life to them.

  But the truth is, Tom, that Pym preferred to test the limits of the tolerance of those he loved. He preferred to sit here in Miss Dubber’s upper room and wait for God to come, while he looked down the gardens to the beach where the best pals ever had kicked a football from one end of the world to the other, and ridden their Harrods bicycles across the sea.

  18

  It’s fireworks night at Plush, thought Mary, staring into the darkness of the square. It’s an unlit bonfire waiting for Tom. Through the windscreen of their parked car she gazed at the empty bandstand and pretended she saw the last of her family and retainers crammed into the old cricket pavilion. The muffled footsteps were the footsteps of the gamekeepers as they gathered to her brother Sam, back for his last leave. She pretended she could hear her brother’s voice, a little too parade-ground for her liking, still scratchy from the strain of Ireland. “Tom?” he calls. “Where’s old Tom?” ... Not a move. Tom is stuck inside Mary’s sheepskin coat, his head jammed against her thigh and nothing short of Christmas is going to lure him out. “Come on, Tom Pym, you’re the youngest!” cries Sam. “Where is he? ... You’ll be too old next year, you know, Tom.” Then his brutal dismissal. “Fuck it. Let’s have someone else.” Tom is shamed, the Pyms are disgraced, Sam as usual is angry that Tom has no taste for blowing up the universe. A braver child puts the match and the world ignites. Her brother’s military rockets race over it in perfect salvoes. Everyone is small, looking at the night sky.

  She sat at Brotherhood’s side and he was holding her wrist the way the doctor held it when she was about to bear her little coward. To reassure her. To steady her. To say “I am in charge here.” The car was parked in a side street and behind them stood the police van and behind the police van stood a caravan of about six hundred parked police cars and radio vans and ambulances and bomb lorries, all occupied by Sam’s familiars who spoke soundlessly to one another without moving their eyes. Beside her was a shop called Sugar Novelties with a neon-lit window and a plastic gnome pushing a wheelbarrow laden with dusty sweets, and next to it a granite workhouse with “Public Library” engraved over a funereal door. Across the street stood a hideous Baptist church that told you God was no fun either. Beyond the church lay God’s square and His bandstand and His monkey-puzzle trees, and between the fourth and fifth tree from the left, as she had counted twenty times, and three-quarters of the way up, hung an arched lighted window with the orange curtains drawn, which my officers advise me is where your husband’s room is situated, madam, though our enquiries indicate that he is known locally by the name of Canterbury and is well liked in the community.

  “He’s always liked,” Mary snapped.

  But the superintendent was saying this to Brotherhood. He was speaking through Brotherhood’s window and deferring to Brotherhood as her keeper. And Mary knew that the superintendent had been ordered to speak to her as little as possible, which came hard to him. And that Brotherhood had given himself the job of answering for her, which the superintendent seemed to accept was as near to godliness as he was likely to get without having his ears blasted off. The superintendent was a Devon man, and ponderously traditional. I’m so frightfully glad he’s being arrested by a Devon man, she thought cruelly, in Caroline Lumsden’s Sloane-Ranger twitter. I always think it’s so much nicer to be taken prisoner by a man of the soil.

  “Are you quite sure you wouldn’t like to come into the Church Hall, madam?” the superintendent was saying for the hundredth time. “It’s much warmer in the Church Hall and there’s some quite fine company. Cosmopolitan, counting the Americans.”

  “She’s best here,” Brotherhood murmured in reply.

  “Only we can’t allow the gentleman to switch on the engine, you see, to be truthful, madam. And if he can’t switch on the engine, well you can’t have the heating, if you see what I mean.”

  “I’d like you to go away,” Mary said.

  “She’s all right as she is,” said Brotherhood.

  “Only it could be all night, you see, madam. Could be all tomorrow too. If our friend decides to stick it out, kind of thing, to be truthful.”

  “We’ll play it as it comes,” Brotherhood said. “When you need her, this is where she’ll be.”

  “Well I’m afraid she won’t, sir, to be truthful, not when we go in, if we have to. I’m afraid she’ll have to withdra
w to a somewhat safer position, to be truthful, same as you. Only the rest of them are back in the Church Hall, if you follow me, sir, and the chief constable says that’s where all non-combatants have got to be at that stage in the proceedings, including the Americans.”

  “She doesn’t want to be with the rest of them,” said Mary before Brotherhood could speak. “And she’s not American. She’s his wife.”

  The superintendent went away and came back almost immediately. He’s the go-between. They’ve chosen him for his bedside manner.

  “Message from the roof, sir,” he began apologetically, crouching yet again to Brotherhood’s window. “Do you happen to know, please, the precise type and calibre of the weapon our friend is alleged to have in his possession?”

  “Standard Browning three-eight automatic. An old one. Shouldn’t think it’s been cleaned for years.”

  “Any theories regarding the type of ammunition at all, sir? Only it would be nice for them to know the carry, you see.”

  “Short nose, I should think.”

  “But not a stopper, for instance, or a dumdum?”

  “Why the hell should he want a dumdum?”

  “I don’t know, sir, do I? Information is gold dust on this one, the way it’s being passed around, if I may say so. I haven’t seen so many tight lips in one room for, oh, a long time. How many rounds has our friend got, do you think?”

  “One magazine. Maybe a spare.”

  Mary was suddenly furious. “For God’s sake. He’s not a maniac! He’s not going to start a—”

  “Start a what?” said the superintendent, whose country manners had a way of slipping when he wasn’t spoken to respectfully.

  “Just assume it’s one magazine and one spare,” Brotherhood said.

  “Well, then, perhaps you can tell us how our friend’s marksmanship is,” the superintendent suggested as if stepping on to safer ground. “You can’t blame them for asking that, can you?”

  “He’s been trained and topped up all his life,” said Brotherhood.

  “He’s good,” Mary said.

  “Now how do you know that, madam, if I may be allowed to ask a simple question?”

  “He shoots Tom’s air pistol with him.”

  “Rats and that? Or something larger?”

  “Paper targets.”

  “Does he now? And gets a high score then, does he, madam?”

  “Tom says so.”

  She glanced at Brotherhood and knew what he was thinking. Just let me go in and get him, gun or no. She was thinking much the same herself: Magnus, come out of there and stop making yourself so bloody ridiculous. The superintendent was speaking again, this time to Brotherhood directly.

  “Now there’s a query from our disposal people this time, sir,” he said, as if it were all a little bit unreasonable but we must humour them. “Regarding this box device our friend is carrying with him. I’ve tried them in the Church Hall but they’re all a bit above the technicalities like, and they said to ask you. Our boys do appreciate they’re not allowed to know too much about it, but they would like the benefit of your wisdom regarding the charge it contains.”

  “It’s self-consuming,” Brotherhood replied. “It’s not a weapon.”

  “Ah, but could it be used as a weapon, put it that way, if it got into the hands of one who might for instance have lost the balance of his mind?”

  “Not unless he put somebody inside it,” Brotherhood replied and the superintendent let out a mellow country laugh.

  “I’ll tell that one to the boys,” he promised. “They like a joke up there, the boys do, it gets the tension out of them.” His voice fell and he spoke to Brotherhood alone. “Has our friend ever fired his gun in anger, sir?”

  “It’s not his gun.”

  “Ah, now you didn’t quite answer the question there, sir, did you?

  “To my knowledge he’s never been in a shoot-out.”

  “Our friend doesn’t get angry,” Mary said.

  “Has he ever taken anybody prisoner, sir?”

  “Us,” Mary said.

  Pym had made the cocoa and Pym had put the new shawl over Miss Dubber’s shoulders although she said she didn’t feel the chill. Pym had chopped up the piece of chicken for Toby that he had bought at the supermarket as a treat for him, and if she had let him he would have cleaned out the canary’s cage as well; for the canary was his secret pride ever since a night when he had found it dead after Miss Dubber had gone to bed, and contrived, unknown to her, to exchange it for a live one with Mr. Loring of the pet shop. But Miss Dubber wanted no more fussing from him. She wanted him sitting beside her where she could keep an eye on him and listen to him reading Aunt Al’s latest letter from distant Sri Lanka, which came in yesterday, Mr. Canterbury, but you never had the interest.

  “Is that Ali the dhobi who stole her lace last year?” she enquired sharply, interrupting him. “Why does she go on employing him if he stole from her? I thought we’d seen the last of Ali long ago.”

  “I expect she forgave him,” said Pym. “He had all those wives, if you remember. She probably couldn’t bear to chuck him into the street.” His voice was very clear to him and beautiful. It was good to speak aloud.

  “I do wish she’d come home,” Miss Dubber said. “It can’t be good for her, the heat, after all these years.”

  “Ah but then she’d have to do her own washing, wouldn’t she, Miss D?” said Pym. And his smile warmed him as he knew it was warming her.

  “You’re better now, aren’t you, Mr. Canterbury? I’m so glad. It’s got out of you, whatever it is. You can have a nice rest now.”

  “What from?” said Pym gently, still smiling at her.

  “Whatever you’ve been doing all these years. You can let somebody else run the country for a while. Did he leave you a lot of work to do, the poor gentleman who died?”

  “I suppose he did really. It’s always difficult when you don’t have a proper handover.”

  “But you’ll be all right now, won’t you? I can see.”

  “I will when you say you’ll take that holiday, Miss D.”

  “Only if you come.”

  “I can’t do that. I told you! I’ve run out of leave!”

  His voice had lifted more than he intended. She looked at him and he saw the scare in her face, which was how he had caught her looking at him ever since the green cabinet had arrived, or when he had smiled and pampered her too much.

  “Well I’m not going,” she replied tartly. “I don’t like putting Toby into prison and Toby doesn’t like going to prison and we’re not going to do it just to please you, are we, Toby? You’re very kind but don’t mention it again. Is that all she says?”

  “The rest is about the race riots. She thinks there are more on the way. I didn’t think you’d like it.”

  “You’re quite right, I would not,” said Miss Dubber firmly and her eyes stayed on him as he crossed the room, folded the letter and put it in the ginger jar. “You can read it to me in the morning when I don’t mind so much. Why’s the square quiet? Why isn’t Mrs. Peel playing her television next door? She should be watching that announcer she’s in love with.”

  “Probably gone to bed,” said Pym. “More cocoa, Miss D?” he asked, taking the mugs to the scullery. The curtains were drawn, but beside the window was an extractor fan that Pym had built into the wooden wall and it was made of transparent plastic. Putting his eye to it he quickly surveyed the square but saw no sign of life.

  “Don’t be so silly, Mr. Canterbury,” Miss Dubber was saying. “You know I never have a second cup. Come back and watch the news.”

  At the far end of the square, in the shadow of the church, a small light went on and off.

  “Not tonight, Miss D, if you don’t mind,” he called to her. “I’ve had nothing but politics all week.” He ran the tap and waited till the Crimean War geyser caught before he rinsed the mugs. “I’m going to put myself to bed and give the world a rest, Miss D.”

  “Well you
’d better answer the telephone first,” she replied. “It’s for you.”

  She must have lifted the receiver at once for he had not heard it above the sobbing of the geyser. It had never rung for him before. He returned to the kitchen and she was holding the receiver out to him and he saw the scare in her face again, accusing him, as he reached out a steady hand to take it. He put the phone to his ear and said “Canterbury.” The line went dead but he kept the phone to his ear and gave a quick bright smile of recognition to the middle distance of Miss Dubber’s kitchen, somewhere between the picture of Pilgrim slogging up the hill past the hookers, and the picture of the little girl in bed with her hair brushed, about to eat her boiled egg.

 
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