This is the first chapter of the first Paul Dark novel, Free Agent.
Sunday, 23 March 1969, Hampshire
As I edged the car onto the gravel, the front door of the house swung open and Chief's steely grey eyes stared down at me.
"What the hell took you so long?" he hissed as I made my way up the steps. But before I could answer, he had turned on his heels.
I followed the sound of his slippers gently slapping against the floorboards, down the dark oak-lined corridor. I knew from years of working for him that the best thing to do when he was in this sort of mood was not to react - his gruff tone usually gave way quite quickly, and more often than not he ended our sessions treating me like the son he'd never had. So I resisted the temptation to tell him I had driven up in record time, and instead hung my coat on one of the hooks in the hallway. Then I walked into the living room and seated myself in the nearest armchair.
It had been a while since I'd last visited Chief out here, but little had changed. There were a couple of porcelain birds I didn't remember, and a new bois clair bookcase that looked similar to the one he had in his office. But the framed photographs on the piano, the portrait of his father above the mantelpiece and the golf bag propped against the fireplace were all still in place. A selection of books and papers were spread across a garish Turkish carpet at the foot of one of the armchairs, and a sideboard within easy reach was home to a telephone, an inkwell and what looked like a half–eaten egg sandwich. He still hadn't learned to cook since Joan's death, it seemed.
I imagined him nibbling the sandwich as he had barked down the telephone at me less than two hours earlier. He had refused to give any hints as to what he wanted to discuss, and I was naturally intrigued. What could be so urgent that it couldn't wait for tomorrow's nine o'clock meeting? One possibility that had nagged at me all the way from London was that he had somehow found out I was seeing Vanessa and was so furious he wanted to sack me on the spot.
I thought back over the day. Had I been careless somewhere? We had visited a small art gallery in Hampstead in the morning but there hadn't been another soul in the place apart from the owner, and after that we had spent the entire afternoon at her flat, pushing the sheets to the bottom of the bed. Then I'd headed to mine for a quick shave and change of clothes. We had arranged to meet at Ronnie Scott's at midnight: there was a hot young group from the States she wanted to see. But then the call had come through, with the request to come and see him at my "earliest convenience".
It wasn't convenient at all, of course. Vanessa and I rarely had a whole weekend together, and it had taken careful planning – perhaps not careful enough, though.
"Something to drink?" Chief called over his shoulder from the sideboard. "I have some Becherovka, which I remember you used to enjoy."
What was going on? A few moments ago he had been furious; now he was buttering me up. When he'd been Head of Station in Czechoslovakia in '62, we had often shared a few glasses of this local liqueur in his office.
"Good times," I said. "Have you kept some back since then? I can't imagine anyone stocks it in the village shop."
He poured a few glugs of the stuff into a tumbler and passed it over. "Barnes finds it for me," he said.
Barnes was a Mau Mau veteran he had reluctantly taken on as a minder when he had been appointed Chief. He had resisted all entreaties for Barnes to be allowed to move into the house, claiming that the place had been his weekend retreat for years and he wasn't about to have it invaded by a stranger. So Barnes rented a cottage in the neighbouring village, and popped his head in as regularly as he could without annoying the old bugger too much. Apparently, he also made sure he never ran out of booze.
Chief settled back into his armchair and raised his glass solemnly towards me, seemingly in toast. As I lifted mine in return, I was surprised to catch the scent of Vanessa's sex still on my fingertips. I breathed it in, and its rawness overcame me for a moment.
"One never quite gets used to it," he said softly, "does one?"
I looked at him blankly. "I'm sorry, sir?"
He pointed at his glass. "My Prague poison, Joan used to call it. Do you remember?"
He gave a short uncharacteristic laugh, which I did my best to imitate.
"Yes," I said. "I do remember."
I was relieved, but also, I realized, a little disappointed that he apparently wasn't about to sack me, after all. I'd become so bloody soft I had actually been looking forward to a bit of drama.
Chief was leaning down, running his hand through the papers at his feet. Then he gave a triumphant snort and edged a manila folder out from beneath a copy of The Sunday Telegraph. He fished it up and placed it on his knees. It was a file from the office — a new one, by the look of it.
"Bad news, I'm afraid," he said, handing it to me. "Traitor country."
The folder had been sent by diplomatic bag from our station in Nigeria and concerned one Vladimir Mikhailovich Slavin, a cultural attaché at the Soviet Embassy in Lagos. He had turned up at our High Commission there on Friday evening and announced that he wanted to defect.
It was a slim folder: as well as a transcript of the interview with Slavin in Russian and an English translation of the same, it contained a page of notes by the Chief of Station, Manning, and two grainy, passport–sized photographs that had been taken at some point in the previous two years as part of the station's routine surveillance of foreign diplomatic staff. It had a very restricted distribution: just Chief and Heads of Section.
It took me a good ten minutes to get through it. I found that I desperately wanted a cigarette, but as there was nothing more certain to get Chief's dander up than that, I made do with drumming my hands on the arm of the chair.
"High stakes," he muttered, tapping his glass with his fingers.
That was an understatement. Slavin claimed to be a colonel in the KGB and was asking to be smuggled out of Nigeria to a new home in England. In return, he was promising to reveal information about a British agent who had been recruited by Moscow in 1945.
Since Burgess and Maclean had fled to Moscow in '51, several Soviet agents had been uncovered in the Service, Five and elsewhere. Philby had been the biggest blow — he had been tipped by many for the top. In the six years since his disappearance, the Service had become almost paralysed by the fear that other traitors remained undetected. I'd lost count of the number of officers whose pasts had been put under the microscope; I had even faced questioning myself.
"Has Henry seen this yet, sir?" I asked. Henry Pritchard headed up Africa Section; as Slavin was in Nigeria, he would be heavily involved.
Chief nodded. "I had it hand–delivered to the homes of all Heads of Section a few hours ago, apart from Edmund, who's still away — his went to Smale instead. Because you and Henry will be taking the lead on this, I attached invitations to your copies asking you to come round this evening. Station 12 told me you'd been out when they called round, which is why I rang you up myself."
Station 12 was the messenger service. "I see," I said. "Sorry about that — I was at a concert for most of the afternoon. Was Henry not in either, then?"
He shook his head briskly. "No, he got it. I scheduled him for a bit later, though, because I wanted to talk it through with you first. See what you made of it."
I stood up and walked over to the fireplace, trying to think of a suitable answer.
"Could Slavin be a plant?" I asked, but when I turned round I saw he was already shaking his head. It surprised me he felt so certain: several recent defectors were suspected of being Trojan horses, sent over by Moscow to make outrageous allegations so the Service would chase its own tail.
"It's something Slavin said in his interview," he explained, seeing my confusion. "'In 1945, we recruited a British agent… '" He waved at the dossier impatiently. I walked back to my armchair, picked up the papers and scanned them until I found the place.
"'…We recruited a British agent in Germany and gave him the code-name Radnya.'" I thought for a moment, trying to see what he was getting at. "Radnya is Russian for 'kindred', or 'related'. They go in for clever code-names, don't they — perhaps this means he's related to the Cambridge gang? Recruited later, but part of the same network?"
He shook his head. "Nothing to do with the code-name. Have a look at that part in the original, and see if you can spot anything."
I sat down again and searched for the line in the Cyrillic. "What am I looking for?"
"I think that sentence has been mistranslated."
"Deliberately, sir?" Had he called me out to deepest Hampshire for a rant about the quality of staff in the colonies?
"I"m not sure," he said. "It's possible, but I think it's more likely to have been a slip-up. I wanted to hear your view. It's the phrase 'tajnaya sekretnaya sluzhba'. How would you translate that?"
"Secret service," I said. "Only… "
He leaned forward slightly. "Yes?"
"Only tajnaya and sekretnaya both mean secret. A literal translation would be more like 'Secret secret service'… "
"Exactly!" He beamed at me. "I suspect the translator thought that a British agent would by definition have been working for intelligence, so he dropped it. But that is precisely the point. What Slavin seems to have been suggesting is that this chap was a member of a secret intelligence agency. And as all intelligence is, by definition, secret, what could that mean?"
"I'm afraid I don't know, sir," I said. I had a feeling he was about to share his own theory. Sure enough, he immediately leaned forward and pinched the knees of his pinstripe trousers, revealing two strips of pale skin above his woollen socks.
"Back in '45," he said, "I was chief of the British army's headquarters in Lübeck. A couple of months after the war ended, I was walking out of the mess and ran straight into an old friend from my days in Cairo: your father, Lawrence."
"Father? You've never mentioned this before."
He coughed into his hand abruptly, which I knew meant he was extremely anxious. "No," he said. "And I"m sorry about that. I know how hard it's been for you, but I could never find a way to… It's very delicate, you see."
My father had last been seen in the bar of White's in May 1945, just a few days after victory in Europe. Nobody had ever discovered what had happened to him.
"Did you talk?" I asked, and Chief raised his head and looked me in the eye.
"Yes, we talked. He seemed extremely agitated. He asked me to take a walk outside with him, whereupon he told me that he was on a vitally important job — extremely hush–hush. He didn't divulge any more details, but said that the entire operation had been compromised by a Russian nurse who was working in the Red Cross hospital in Lübeck."
"He wanted your help?"
"Yes," he said after a few moments. "He asked if I could take some men round to the hospital under cover of darkness, detain the nurse, and have her transported to the War Office's interrogation centre over in Bad Nenndorf."
"That's quite a favour to ask," I said. "Did you oblige?"
Chief carefully placed his glass on the nearest side table. "Well, I tried. He provided me with a dossier containing her photograph and particulars - her name was Maleva - and I assembled a small team immediately. We took a jeep round to her quarters that same night. Unfortunately, when we arrived we discovered that she was already dead."
I paused for a moment to take this in.
He shook his head. "Shot through the chest. Quite messy. Of course, I got my men out of there as fast as I could. British officers kidnapping a Russian nurse would have been bad enough, but if we'd been caught with murder on our hands there would have been all manner of problems." He looked down at his drink a little mournfully. "And that was that. I never saw Larry again. I've often wondered whether I was the last person to see him."
"I"m glad you told me," I said. "And it sounds like this operation he was on may be the key to his disappearance. But I don't quite see how it relates to the situation in Nigeria."
"Oh," he said. "Didn't I mention? The nurse Slavin's claiming recruited the double — it's this same damned Maleva woman!"
I stared at him uncomprehendingly. "But how can that be?" I asked. "I mean, if she was shot in the chest… "
"I know," he said. "And it had me stumped for a bit. But SOE had a section for camouflage and make-up techniques — perhaps the Russians had similar expertise."
"Perhaps," I said. "But what about her pulse? Presumably she wasn't just lying there with her eyes closed, holding her breath."
Chief took another sip of liqueur. "That had me stumped for longer. In the end I rang Bill Merriweather and asked him how he would have done it." Merriweather was our man at Porton Down, the Ministry of Defence's chemical laboratory — back in '56, he'd developed a nerve gas to use on Nasser. It would have worked, too. "He told me about a discovery someone on his team made a few years ago. Using a very strong tranquilizer called haloperidol, they found a way to stimulate what he referred to as 'a temporary state of death'. The Russians have apparently been using the stuff on uncooperative prisoners for years, but if it's administered correctly, it can induce catalepsy, which looks like death even to a trained eye. Bill thought there might be other drugs that could produce the same effect."
"I see," I said, although it all sounded a little fantastic. "But I don't understand why you think this is the same woman Slavin is referring to. He doesn't mention what name she was going under in 1945… " I picked up the folder again and found the place on the page. "'During and after the war, Irina Grigorieva, currently the assistant third secretary at the embassy here in Lagos, worked as a nurse in the British Zone of Germany. There she fell in love with a British officer, according to her the one true love of her life. She succeeded in recruiting this man into the NKVD… ' It doesn't say which hospital she worked at, and there must have been dozens in the Zone. Lagos Station's photograph of her is also a little blurred—what makes you so sure she's this Maleva?"
"Instinct," he said. "Instinct and experience. I've spent half the afternoon examining her photograph—I can't be one hundred per cent certain it's her until I check its counterpart in Registry tomorrow morning, but I'm fairly close to that. It has to be her."
He was looking at me expectantly. And that was when I saw what had been staring me in the face since he had answered the door. Why he'd called me out here tonight instead of leaving it until tomorrow morning. Why he was drinking more than usual. And why I had to act now.
"You needn't worry, sir," I said.
His broad face reddened immediately, and I knew I'd hit the mark. "Worry? What makes you think I should do that?"
"You're quite right about the interview," I said. "Whoever translated it got it wrong. In the original Russian, Slavin quite clearly states that the double was recruited while involved in some sort of black operation in Germany at the end of the war. It sounds like he might have been part of Father's junket and become entangled with this woman. Did Father give you any idea how many people he had out there with him, if any?"
Chief shook his head. "He didn't tell me anything at all about the operation — just that it was vital it continued."
"All right. Still, the fact that you were openly working at British headquarters clearly rules you out as the double. I'll explain the whole thing to Henry as soon as he gets here. When was it you said he was coming over, again?"
I glanced at my watch. It had just gone half eight. Pritchard might even be early, knowing him.
Chief was taking a congratulatory draught of Becherovka: he was in the clear now. He must have read the file this morning and panicked — not that another traitor on his watch would lead to calls for him to resign, but that his being stationed in the British Zone in '45 might bring him under suspicion of actually being the traitor. His position as head of the Service was no guarantee of protection: Five's deputy head had almost lost his mind after being investigated by other officers in '66. Even a Chief could be brought down. He had probably spotted the omission in the translation some time during the afternoon. It exonerated him, but he knew it would cut more ice if someone else pointed it out. Of the officers who would be hunting the double agent, I was the only one with good enough Russian to spot it — outside Soviet Section, 'Tolstoy' and 'Turgenev' were about all anyone could muster. Additionally, I would have good reason to protect him, as he was a family friend and my father had apparently asked for his help. So he had called me in to get his story straight before tomorrow's meeting. "It can't possibly be Chief," I'd tell them. "There's been a translation cock-up." Good old Darkie.
"Of course," I said, "Henry won't be the only one who will need convincing."
He looked up, alarmed. "What do you mean?"
"Osborne and Farraday," I said.
"Yes, yes, of course. I see that. But can't you explain it to them, too?"
"I thought you'd already discussed it with them," I said lightly, raising my glass. It was empty, and I made sure he noticed.
"What? No, not yet." He stood up and walked over to the drinks cabinet. "I thought it best to sound you and Henry out first."
"Very wise," I said, lifting my glass. He poured a generous measure, and as he stepped away I took out the Luger, disengaged the safety, aimed between his eyes and fired in almost the same moment. The kick pushed me into the armchair and I felt one of the springs dig into my back as the crystal shattered on the floor and his body slumped to the ground and the liqueur began to seep into the carpet.
It was very quiet then. I could hear the wind whipping against the trees outside and a joist creaking somewhere in the house. My head was pounding, the blood careering around it. There had been a moment, a fraction of a moment before I had fired, when he had stared into my face and I'd thought he might have understood what was about to happen to him — that he had realized who I was.
I replaced the Luger and stood up. Pritchard was due to arrive in twenty-eight minutes, and I had to clear up the mess and be well away before then.
I set to work.