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A Perfect Spy
John le Carré
A Perfect Spy 7
“I’m Georgie from Head Office,” said the girl on the doorstep. “This is Fergus. We’re so sorry, Mary.”
They had luggage and she showed them to the foot of the stairs. They seemed to know the way. Georgie was tall and sharp-edged, with straight, sensible hair. Fergus was not quite Georgie’s class, which was the way the Office worked these days.
“Sorry about this, Mary,” Fergus echoed as he followed Georgie up the stairs. “Don’t mind if we take a look round, do you?”
In the drawing-room Brotherhood had switched out the lights and wrenched open the curtains to the French windows. “I need the key for this thing. The Chubb. The whatever they have here.”
Mary hastened to the mantelpiece and groped for the silver rose bowl where she kept the security key. “Where is he?”
“He’s anywhere in the world or out of it. He’s using trade-craft. Ours. Who does he know in Edinburgh?”
“No one.” The rose bowl was full of pot-pourri she had made with Tom. But no key.
“They think they’ve traced him there,” said Brotherhood. “They think he took the five-o’clock shuttle from Heathrow. Tall man with a heavy briefcase. On the other hand, knowing our Magnus as we do, he might just be in Timbuctoo.”
Looking for the key was like looking for Magnus. She didn’t know where to begin. She seized the tea-caddy and shook it. She was getting sick with panic. She grabbed the silver Achievement Cup that Tom had won at school and heard something metal skid inside it. Taking the key to him, she barked her shin so hard her eyes blurred. That bloody piano stool.
“The Lederers ring?”
“No. I told you. No one did. I didn’t get back from the airport till eleven.”
“Where’s the holes?”
She located the top keyhole for him and guided his hand to it. I should have done it myself then I wouldn’t have had to touch him. She knelt and began fumbling for the lower one. I’m practically kissing his feet.
“Has he ever vanished before and you not told me?” Brotherhood demanded while she continued to grope.
“I want it level, Mary. I’ve got the whole of London at my throat. Bo’s having the vapours and Nigel’s cloistered with the Ambassador now. The RAF doesn’t fly us out in the middle of the night for nothing.”
Nigel is Bo Brammel’s hangman, Magnus had said. Bo says three-bags-full to everyone and Nigel pads behind him chopping off their heads.
“Never. No. I swear,” she said.
“Did he have a favourite place anywhere? Some hideaway he talked of going to?”
“He said once Ireland. He’d buy a croft overlooking the sea and write.”
“North or south?”
“I don’t know. South, I suppose. As long as it was sea. Then suddenly the Bahamas. That was more recent.”
“Who does he have there?”
“Nobody. Not as far as I know.”
“Did he ever talk of going over to the other side? Little dacha on the Black Sea?”
“Don’t be a fool.”
“So Ireland, then the Bahamas. When did he say the Bahamas?”
“He didn’t. He just marked the property advertisements in The Times and left them for me to see.”
“As a sign?”
“As a reproach, as a come-on, as a signal that he wanted to be somewhere else. Magnus has a lot of ways of talking.”
“Has he ever talked about doing away with himself? They’ll ask you, Mary. I might as well do it first.”
“No. No, he hasn’t.”
“You don’t sound sure.”
“I’m not. I’ll have to think.”
“Has he ever been physically frightened for himself?”
“I can’t answer it all at once, Jack! He’s a complicated man—I’ve got to think!” She steadied herself. “In principle, no. No to all of it. It’s all a total shock.”
“But you still rang very fast from the airport. As soon as he wasn’t on that plane, you were on the phone: ‘Jack, Jack, where’s Magnus?’ You were right, he’d vanished.”
“I saw his suitcase going round the bloody apron, didn’t I? He’d checked himself in! Why wasn’t he on the plane?”
“How about his drinking?”
“Less than before.”
“Less than Lesbos?”
“What about his headaches?”
“I don’t know. I wouldn’t know. How could I? If he says he’s out for the night, he’s out for the night. It could be a woman, it could be a Joe. It could be Bee Lederer. She’s always after him. Ask her.”
“I thought wives could always tell the difference,” said Brotherhood.
Not with Magnus they can’t, she thought, beginning to settle to his pace.
“Does he still bring papers back at night to work on?” Brotherhood asked, peering into the snow-clad garden.
“Now and then.”
“Any here now?”
“Not that I know of.”
“American papers? Liaison stuff?”
“I don’t read them, Jack, do I? So I don’t know.”
“Where does he keep them?”
“He brings them at night, takes them back in the morning. Just like everyone else.”
“And keeps them where, Mary?”
“By the bed. In the desk. Wherever he’s been working on them.”
“And Lederer hasn’t rung?”
“I told you. No.”
Brotherhood stood back. Two men, muffled against the night, tumbled into the room. She recognised Lumsden, the Ambassador’s private secretary. She had recently had a row with his wife, Caroline, about starting a bottle-bank in the Embassy forecourt as an example to the Viennese. Mary thought it essential. Caroline Lumsden thought it irrelevant and explained why in an angry outburst to an inner caucus of the Diplomatic Wives Association: Mary was not a real Wife, said Caroline. She was an Unmentionable, and the only reason she was accepted as a Wife at all was to protect her husband’s half-baked cover.
They must have soldiered up the bridlepath from the school, she thought. Waded through half a metre of snow in order to be discreet about Magnus.
“Hail, Mary,” Lumsden said brightly in his best scoutmaster’s voice. He was a Catholic but that was how he always greeted her, so he did it tonight. To be normal.
“Did he bring any papers back on the night of the party?” Brotherhood asked, closing the curtains once more.
“No.” She put on the light.
“Know what’s in this black briefcase of his that he’s carrying ?”
“He didn’t take it from here so he must have collected it at the Embassy. All he took from here was the suitcase that’s at Schwechat.”
“Was,” said Brotherhood.
The second man was tall and sickly-looking. He carried a bulging bag in each gloved hand. Enter the abortionist. It was practically a full plane, she thought stupidly; Head Office must have a permanent defection team on twenty-four-hour standby.
“Meet Harry,” Brotherhood said. “He’s going to put some clever boxes on your telephones. Use them normally. Don’t think of us. Any objection?”
“How can I?”
“You can’t, you’re right. I’m being polite, so why don’t you do the same? You’ve got two cars. Where are they?”
“The Rover’s outside, the Metro’s in the airport carpark waiting for him to pick it up.”
“Why did you go to the airport if he had a car there?”
“I just thought he might like me to be there so I took a taxi and went.”
“Why not take the Rover?”
“I wanted to ride back with him, not drive in convoy.”
“Where’s the Metro key?”
“In his pocket presumably.”
“Got a spare?”
She searched her handbag till she found it. He dropped it in his pocket.
“I’ll get it lost,”
he said. “If anybody asks, it’s gone for repair. I don’t want it kicking round the airport.”
She heard a heavy thud from upstairs.
She watched Harry pull off his gumboots and place them neatly on the mat beside the French windows.
“His father died Wednesday. What’s he been up to in London apart from burying him?” Brotherhood continued.
“I assumed he’d be dropping in at Head Office.”
“He never did. He didn’t ring, he didn’t visit.”
“Then probably he was busy.”
“Did he have any plans for London—anything he told you of?”
“He said he’d go and see Tom at school.”
“Well, he did that. He went. Anything else? Friends—dates—women?”
She was suddenly very tired of him. “He was burying his father and tidying up, Jack. The whole visit was one long date. If you’d had a father and he died, you’d know how it was.”
“Did he phone you from London?”
“Steady, Mary. Think now. That’s five days already.”
“No. He didn’t. Of course he didn’t.”
“Would he usually?”
“If he can use the Office phone, yes.”
“And if he can’t?”
She thought for him. She really tried. She had been thinking for so long. “Yes,” she conceded. “He’d phone. He likes to know we’re all right, all the time. He’s a worrier. I suppose that’s why I went off with such a bang when he didn’t show up. I think I was worried already.”
Lumsden was stalking round the room in his stockinged feet, pretending to admire Mary’s water-colours of Greece.
“You’re so, so talented,” he marvelled, his face pressed against a view of Plomari. “Did you go to art school or simply do it?”
She ignored him. So did Brotherhood. It was a tacit bond between them. The only decent diplomat is a deaf Trappist, Jack liked to say. Mary was beginning to agree.
“Where’s the servant?” said Brotherhood.
“You told me to get rid of her. On the phone. When I rang.”
“She smell a rat?”
“I don’t think so.”
“It mustn’t get out, Mary. We’ve got to sit on it as long as we possibly can. You know that, don’t you?”
“There’s his Joes to think of, there’s everything to think of. Far more than you can know. London’s stiff with theories and begging for time. You quite sure Lederer hasn’t phoned?”
“Jesus,” she said.
His eye fell on Harry, who was unpacking his clever boxes. They were grey-green and possessed no apparent controls. “You can tell the servant they’re transformers,” he said.
“Umformer,” Lumsden piped helpfully from the wings. “Transformer is Umformer. ‘Die kleinen Büchsen sind Umformer.’”
Once again they ignored him. Jack’s German was almost as good as Magnus’s, and about three hundred times better than Lumsden’s.
“When’s she due back?” Brotherhood asked.
“Your servant, for God’s sake.”
“Be a good girl and see if you can get her to stay away a couple more days.”
She went to the kitchen and phoned Frau Bauer’s mother in Salzburg. Sorry about the outrageous hour but with a death that’s how it goes, she said. Herr Pym is remaining in London for a few days, she said. Why don’t you take advantage of Herr Pym’s absence and have a nice rest? she said. When she came back it was Lumsden’s turn to say his piece. She got his drift immediately and after that she deliberately stopped hearing him. “Just to fill in any awkward blanks, Mary . . . So that we’re all speaking the same language, Mary . . . While Nigel is still closeted with Ambass . . . In case, which God forbid, the odious press gets on to it before it’s all cleared up, Mary . . .” Lumsden had a cliché for every occasion and a reputation for being nimble-minded. “Anyway, that’s the route Ambass would like us all to go,” he ended, using the very latest in daring jargon. “Not unless we’re asked, naturally. But if we are. And Mary he sends terrific love. He’s with you all the way. And with Magnus too naturally. Terrific condolences, all that.”
“Just nothing to Lederer’s crowd,” said Brotherhood. “Nothing to anyone but for God’s sake nothing to Lederer. There’s no disappearance, nothing abnormal. He’s gone back to London to bury his father, he’s staying on for talks at Head Office. End of message.”
“It’s the same route I’ve been going already,” Mary said, appealing to Brotherhood as if Lumsden didn’t exist. “It’s just that Magnus didn’t apply for compassionate leave before taking it.”
“Yes, well now I think that’s the part Ambass wants us not to say, if you don’t mind,” said Lumsden, showing the steel. “So I think we won’t, please.”
Brotherhood squared to him. Mary was family. Nobody messed her around in front of Brotherhood, least of all some overeducated flunkey from the Foreign Office.
“You’ve done your job,” said Brotherhood. “Fade away, will you? Now.”
Lumsden left the way he had come, but faster.
Brotherhood turned back to Mary. They were alone. He was as broad as an old blockhouse and, when he wanted to be, as rough. His white forelock had fallen across his brow. He put his hands on her hips the way he used to, and drew her into him. “God damn it, Mary,” he said as he held her. “Magnus is my best boy. What the devil have you done with him?”
From upstairs she heard the squeak of castors and another loud thud. It’s the bow-fronted chest of drawers. No, it’s our bed. Georgie and Fergus are taking a look round.
The desk was in the old servants’ room next to the kitchen, a sprawling, spidery half-cellar to which no servant had been consigned for forty years. Near the window among Mary’s plant pots stood her easel and water-colours. Against the wall, the old black-and-white television and the agonising sofa for watching it. “There’s nothing like a little discomfort,” Magnus liked to say primly, “for deciding whether a programme is worth its salt.” In an alcove under lanes of piping stood the ping-pong table where Mary did her bookbinding and on it lay her hides and buckram and glues and clamps and threads and marbled end-papers and powering knives, and the bricks in Magnus’s old socks that she used instead of lead weights, and the wrecked volumes she had bought for a few schillings at the flea market. Beside it, next to the defunct boiler, stood the desk, the great, crazy Hapsburg desk bought for a song at a sale in Graz, sawn up to get it through the door and glued together again all by clever Magnus. Brotherhood pulled at the drawers.
“Magnus must have taken it.”
Brotherhood lifted his head. “Harry!”
Harry kept his lock picks on a chain the way other men keep keys, and held his breath to help him listen while he probed.
“Does he do all his homework here or is there somewhere else?”
“Daddy left him his old campaign table. Sometimes he uses that.”
“Where is it?”
“Keep his documents there too, does he? . . . Firm’s papers?”
“I don’t think so. I don’t know where.”
Harry walked out smiling with his head down. Brotherhood pulled open a drawer.
“That’s for the book he was writing,” she said as he extracted a meagre file. Magnus keeps everything inside something. Everything must wear a disguise in order to be real.
“Is it though?” He was pulling on his glasses, one red ear at a time. He knows about the novel too, she thought, watching him. He’s not even pretending to be surprised.
“Yes.” And you can put his bloody papers back where you got them from, she thought. She did not like how cold he had become, how hard.
“Gave up his sketching, did he? I thought you two were in that together.”
r /> “It didn’t satisfy him. He decided he preferred the written word.”
“Doesn’t seem to have written much here. When did he switch?”
“On Lesbos. On holiday. He’s not writing it yet. He’s preparing.”
“Oh.” He began another page.
“He calls it a matrix.”
“Does he though?”—still reading—“I must show some of this to Bo. He’s a literary man.”
“And when we retire—when he does—if he takes early retirement, he’ll write, I’ll paint and bookbind. That’s the plan.”
Brotherhood turned a page. “In Dorset?”
“At Plush. Yes.”
“Well, he’s taken early retirement all right,” he remarked not very nicely as he resumed his reading. “Wasn’t there sculpture, too, at some point?”
“It wasn’t practical.”
“I shouldn’t think it was.”
“You encourage those things, Jack. The Firm does. You’re always saying we should have hobbies and recreations.”
“What’s the book about, then? Anything special?”
“He’s still finding the line. He likes to keep it to himself.”
“Listen to this: ‘When the most horrible gloom was over the household; when Edward himself was in agony and behaving as prettily as he knew how.’ Not even a main verb, far as I can make out.”
“He didn’t write that.”
“It’s in his handwriting, Mary.”
“It’s from something he read. When he reads a book he underlines things in pencil. Then when he’s finished it he writes out his favourite bits.”
From upstairs she heard a sharp snap like the cracking of timber or the firing of a pistol back in the days when she had been taught.
“That’s Tom’s room,” she said. “They don’t need to go in there.”
“Get me a bag, dear,” Brotherhood said. “A bin bag will do. Will you find me one?”
She went to the kitchen. Why do I let him do this to me? Why do I let him march into my house, my marriage and my mind and help himself to everything he doesn’t like? Mary was not usually compliant. Tradesmen did not rob her twice. In the English school, the English church, in the Diplomatic Wives Association, she was regarded as quite the little shrew. Yet one hard stare of Jack Brotherhood’s pale eyes, one growl of his rich, careless voice, was enough to send her running to him.