Author's Note: This is probably the most researched story I've ever written…that'll teach me to write in a 'realistic' universe, about a real historical period (aka the Cold War). I'm sure I made some mistakes about espionage, country geography, etc., but I really did try and one of the reasons I've not done the sequel is a healthy respect for the amount of work the research would take.
Anyway, for those of you who know The Sandbaggers, this story is set during the last few minutes of and directly after, "Special Relationship." For those of you who don't know the show, I tried to put in enough background that it's understandable…I don't know if I've succeeded or not. For everyone: Yeah, this ends on a sort of cliffhanger, and no, I don't know if I'll ever finish the sequel. Sorry about that.
by Pat Nussman and Another Lady
Shoved roughly ahead, Laura Dickens stumbled on the cracked sidewalk. Disoriented, dizzy ... just as her East German captors intended.
Well, she'd expected that, as she had predicted every step in the course of her interrogation. Field School had taught her that much. But they had never told her how the pounding blood would deafen her hearing or how her body would sweat with humiliating, nauseating fear.
She tasted a lungful of rank air, suffocating, not unlike the cell she had just left ... East Berlin air, the poison of an open-air prison. But it was perhaps the last air she would breathe outside a KGB compound, or before facing a stolid line of armed men.
Unless Neil ...
The guard sent her reeling once more, staggering along the shadowed sidewalk, Laura's brief glimpse of the city shrouded by rain clouds, crowded by dingy brick tenements. A uniformed driver appeared, opening the door to a sedan with darkened windows, redolent of stale cigars and the cabbage her SSD captors had eaten for dinner.
Her own stomach was empty. She could no more choke down the cabbage than she could cease hoping for some miracle from Neil that would return her to the familiar dinginess of his small flat, the warmth of his firm, controlled embrace.
Miracle it would have to be. She had seen the files, knew the options.
She shivered again. The shabby wool coat, her useless camouflage of Berlin citizenship, proved small protection against the East European chill that pervaded the closed car. Laura forced her lips to move, conversation a shield against the blackness of fear. "We gehen wir?"
"Still! Schweigen Sie!" The younger of the two SSD officers nudged her sharply. Pressing against her on either side, they felt like sacks of stone. Obediently, she fell silent, trying desperately not to think, to feel.
The Audi threaded a labyrinth of streets for perhaps a half-hour, until it at last came to an abrupt stop that flung Laura forward against the window separating them from the driver. What now? The questioning so far had been a mere softening. The next session —
No, her training would hold. She would make it through the next go, and perhaps even the one that followed that. But eventually she would break. Break wide open, babbling every detail of the Hungarian resistance, the subject of her most recent briefing.
Unless Neil ... The words became a useless litany.
The glow of arc lights, a hellish imitation of the sun, brightened the darkness surrounding the car. The driver held open the door, and the right-hand guard slid out to make room for her. "Bitte." Gingerly, she slid over the cracked leather and into the open.
And stopped, staring. In front of her and to either side was the Wall, a hideous human construction of blocks and strands of barbed wire, lit with the harsh glow of yellow light. Yet across the expanse of guardrails and checkpoints lay West Berlin.
A hint of sweetness hung in the air now, blowing from the West. She took a deep breath, held it in, hardly daring to hope. It could be just another step in the interrogation, a hope that would lead to humiliation, a glimpse of paradise to be snatched cruelly away.
Even so, her lips formed soundlessly around a name. The only name that mattered now.
Her guard's voice brought her back to reality. "Gluckwundsche." The note of disappointment that flavored Heinrich's voice convinced her more than mere words. "Sie gehen nach Hause."
Going home. Neil. Going home. She felt numb, caught between doubt and joy. Going home to Neil.
"Wurden Sie bitte mit mir kommen?"
"Ja." She stood like an obedient child as Heinrich tied a scarf about her hair and took one arm, with Dieter anchoring the other. The pitiless arc light half-blinded her as her guards steered her toward the center of the pavement.
On the Western side stood a similar group: A middle-aged man with thinning hair and the stocky build typical of the Soviet bureaucrat class, flanked by his own guard. And to one side, as if disassociating themselves from the proceedings, another cluster of men: Willie Caine, Jeff Ross ... Neil Burnside.
In the distance, a town clock ponderously rang its way toward the eleventh hour. The Soviet walked forward with his cortege. She started forward with her own guards, straining her eyes to see Neil through the glare of lights, her lips curving into a tentative, incredulous welcome.
A welcome not returned.
No happiness lit the cold, hard eyes, no hint of the sudden grin that could so swiftly return his face to boyhood. Neil's face was as brittle glass, ready to shatter at a touch.
Confused, frightened, Laura continued to hurry forward, the smile plastered to her face, a death's head grimace. No coherent thought touched her mind except the vision of death reflected in Neil's eyes. The formless intuition that his sleepless dreams, already peopled well enough, would be populated by one more face.
That she would sleep under the earth, rather than in his arms.
Her breath came shorter. She could not unfreeze her lips from their ghastly smile, could not slow her pace toward whatever fate lay in the darkness beyond the yellow arcs.
Neil was closer now and she heard him issue some sharp order, counterpointed by Willie's confused reply. Neil's face showed nothing.
Time ran its fleeting course. From the east, she felt a gust of frigid air, a reflection of the despair in Neil's bleak eyes. She kept her head turned forward, shifting her body to meet her fate more easily. Her last service.
Facing West, she walked toward Neil, her final compass to a destination she'd never reach.
Her body jerked with a sudden impact and a second later she heard the shot that had already torn open her body. The pavement came up to meet her, the fall small competition against the greater pain that pierced her chest. She seemed to breathe liquid; her own blood.
For one last time Laura Dickens fought for one more word to pass her lips. Sight narrowed to a tunnel of light and dark sky. "Neil." She could feel his footsteps echoing down the pavement. Too late. But then, their timing had never been ideal. "Neil."
But Neil couldn't hear. Sandbagger Two went down into the darkness alone.
Jeff Ross waited on the Western side of Checkpoint Charlie, the damp night air plastering blond hair against his forehead. His body ached and his soul —if he still had one —felt as wrinkled as his London Fog.
Sandbagger One sagged against the black BMW the British Berlin station had sent to the airport for them. "Have the French gone?" He looked sick, but then Willie Caine was a decent guy. For the life of him, Ross couldn't figure how he'd gotten into the game.
"Took off like bats out of hell. Bet they burned rubber halfway down the Suhr Allee." Jeff mangled the German; he'd never quite mastered the language bit, one reason the CIA had blessed him with London Station.
"Saved themselves a tradepiece." Willie stared into the darkness, back turned to the garish checkpoint lights.
"Yeah." Jeff wiped the wet hair from his face. But the cost —When that came out, there'd be hell to pay with Caine.
If Caine hadn't begun to figure it out already. Jeff grimaced.
At least the damned Special Relationship was secure. Maybe in the morning, he'd even care. Jeff tapped a cigarette out of his pack, watching the checkpoint, a still figure standing on the far edge of the crossing.
Suddenly, Willie struck the BMW's hood with a clenched fist, denting the metal. "She was good for him, damnit!"
Jeff paused in the act of striking a match. "Yeah." He felt more than a bit sick himself "She was good for him," he said quietly. But that new Neil Burnside, created by Laura, had been swiftly and ruthlessly killed by Bumside's own word. And by Ross'.
He found the matchbook shaking in his hand. Thank God he'd made Jenny quit when they'd married or he'd be ... The match flared and he hurriedly lit the cigarette, inhaling deeply, trying not to think.
"Hey," Ross looked up as Willie stumbled around the hood of the black sedan. "Where are you going?" No telling what Caine might do, once the whole story came out.
Willie's smile was crooked, not quite real. "To borrow a phrase from you Yanks, I'm about to toss my cookies."
He disappeared behind the BMW. Jeff heard him retch just as Neil came down from the crossing.
Bill Hadley wasn't the CIA's favorite guy. But then the Company's bigwigs weren't exactly on Hadley's Top Ten list, either.
He shrugged; eighteen years in the business was enough to make any guy a cynic about his employers. Not to mention jumpy as hell.
Especially about this run. Shooting at the KGB he could live with —after all, they'd plug him full of holes fast enough, given half a chance. But blowing away an SIS officer seemed like a pretty stinking kettle of fish to him.
Ordinarily, Hadley was methodical, a trait that had given him a longer life expectancy than many field agents. He knew the drill. Ditch the gun, then get the hell out. Except that this op was different. In fact, this op warranted more than ordinary hesitation.
The lady had fallen, right enough. Looked like your typical glassy-eyed corpse. Everyone at the checkpoint looked satisfied that she was a goner.
Trouble was, Hadley hadn't fired a shot.
He had damned sure been ready. Extra careful, in fact. After all, he wasn't as young as he used to be ... not that anyone at Langley seemed ready to believe him. Plus, it was a hell of a tricky shot, what with distance, angle and lighting. And that slight twist of her body, near the end, had made him pause to adjust his aim.
Giving someone else time enough to take the shot.
Hadley hadn't made it to forty trusting another guy's shooting. Maybe it had gone down right and maybe it hadn't. But Hadley'd be the one who'd be called on the carpet by the DDO if the broad turned up at a Ruskie show trial, alive and babbling her pretty little brains out. Just because some dumb hired gun from God-knew-where was off his aim.
Hadley decided on a closer look.
The Russian stood by the window, a slight smile curving his lips as he watched the headlamps of the automobiles —few in this place, at this deep hour of the night —wash the street below with alternate slashes of light and dark. In the distance, a clock chimed the quarter-hour.
He held a glass, half-filled with vodka. Ordinarily a sparing drinker, he allowed himself a generous portion in celebration of this night. Alcohol mixed with a sense of savage exhilaration. Of the operation's success he had no doubt; he had little experience with failure.
But the confirmation would be pleasant.
As if on cue, the sterile telephone on the nightstand rang once, twice. Only one person had that number. His exultation crested to new heights. Forcing a seeming serenity, he crossed the room and lifted the receiver. "Da?"
"Da." With that affirmative, the caller rang off. The Russian closed his eyes for a long moment, clutching the receiver to his chest. He had planned, waited for this for how many years? At last, Yelena, at last.
Very slowly, he replaced the receiver and returned to his post at the window.
Beyond the broken skyline of East Berlin lay the shimmering night lights of the West. He raised his glass to the man there whom he had just made to suffer, as the Russian himself had suffered, so long ago.
"Long life." He drank deeply of the vodka. Long life to the Englishman, with no happiness at all.
The length of a football field separated Bill Hadley from Laura Dickens.
The Germans dragged her off the bridge on the Eastern German side and left her in a heap of wool and bloodied flesh on the far side of the Audi, face down on the pavement. They stood now in a clump near the checkpoint office, their agitated conversation obvious even from this distance.
Which pretty well meant the SSD weren't responsible and that left a narrowing field of contenders. He'd spotted a figure leaving the darkened building next to his own only minutes before. While the man hadn't stuck around to show his ID, Hadley thought he smelled Russian.
He swung the rifle around until he could get a clear view. Yeah, there she was,, all right, lying broken on the pavement. But he could've sworn he'd seen her move, before.
Hadley caught his breath. Shit. She was moving. The glassy paralysis of shock had dissipated. Slowly, painfully, she raised herself on her elbows and began to drag herself along toward the row of buildings a football field away. Toward Bill Hadley, who knew damned well what Langley would expect of him. His finger slid along the trigger.
She staggered to her feet.
Hadley cursed soundlessly. For a miracle, no one had spotted her. Every guard in eyesight was gawking at the SSD officers, who still chattered amongst themselves. One pulled out a flask to facilitate debate.
The woman reeled forward, blood from her mouth dribbling a dull scarlet path down the beige coat. Could've nicked her lung, but more likely she'd bitten her tongue falling and concussed herself in the bargain. The Russian had definitely been off his mark, but not by much. Not by damned much.
Should've gone for a head shot, though. Much surer.
She fell on her knees and Hadley found himself silently urging her to rise, damnit, get on her feet before the SSD broke up their little party. He must be nuts. And yet ...
Slowly, painfully, almost as though she had felt his desperate urging, she scrambled up from her knees, staggering drunkenly over the rubble that covered the barren zone between Wall and city. Not at a racer's speed, but faster than Hadley would've expected.
And still no one had spotted her. She could make it, Hadley told himself. She really could.
Except that Hadley had been tasked to kill her, not rescue her. He bit his lip, lowering the distorting lens. He could see her clearly enough without aid now, a dim figure with a pale, bloodied face, stumbling forward like a blind woman. Probably didn't even know what she was doing. Running on sheer adrenaline.
She'd made it three-quarters across.
For a moment, Hadley hesitated still, fingering the rifle. He knew his job, never deviated from his tasking. Well, not enough to count, anyway. All these years ...
Hell with it. Hadley locked the safety on the rifle. He'd wanted to retire for three, four years now, but Langley had always wanted "one more job." After this stunt, he'd not only be thrown out of Langley, he'd be lucky if he could get near Bethesda.
"Hurry up, lady," he murmured, "or I'll lose my big chance at getting canned."
She was ten feet away when he stepped from the shadows and grabbed her. No point in waiting for the SSD to finish their shop talk and finally notice that their dead-as-a-doornail prisoner had walked.
"Come on." They still had to make it to his car, or he'd be dead as well as unemployed. She stared at him blankly. "I'm an American, CIA."
No response. It looked like the transportation was up to him. He supported her with one arm, the other still clasping the rifle. Have to ditch it on the way to the car.
Once in Berlin, Hadley had rented a small, ugly car appropriately named a Wartburg, parking it near the Interhotel den Linden while he made his stroll toward the Wall. Convenient enough, except when lugging a half-dead body. Fortunately, few people were on the streets and hopefully they would think his companion had simply lifted a few glasses too many. And, if he were really lucky, people would mistake the blood for red wine.
Without a doubt, this was the stupidest stunt he'd ever pulled. And there was plenty of room for comparison.
Somehow, they got to the car before he died of heart failure. He shoved her into the back seat and closed the door, every nerve in his body feeling like it'd gone through a world war. Calling on luck again, Hadley prayed that stray pedestrians would take them for lovers intent on a few back-seat pleasures.
Not that she was in any shape for it. Hadley rolled her over, the tight quarters making movement awkward. Her scarf had fallen off, letting the rich, dark hair spill over the upholstery like liquid ebony. He swept it out of the way, unfastening the heavy woolen coat and ripping the neck of her blouse to get at the wound on her back.
Hadley was no M.D., but in his profession a working knowledge of field medicine ranked as a necessity. The dim illumination of street lights showed only a sluggish flow from the wound —the blood had begun to clot. So far, so good.
Except than whenever she took a breath, he heard the sound of air being pulled painfully through the opening with an ominous whistling sound, like a rotted tea kettle. And if he didn't work fast, that air in her chest would collapse her lung into so much worthless tissue and Bill Hadley would've blown a perfectly good career for nothing.
He groped through his pockets for something, anything, to cut off that deadly flow of air. He found the remains of a packet of cheap German cigarettes in the back pocket of his pants. Cellophane. Not perfect, but a damned sight better than nothing.
Leaning over into the front seat, he fumbled through the odds and ends of the glove compartment, coming up at last with a old roll of packing tape. The cellophane went over the wound, with tape fastening it down on three sides. Now, for a pressure dressing
He laughed, shortly and mirthlessly. An emergency room might be nice, too. He smiled grimly, imagining the SSD welcoming party they'd find at any East German hospital. No luck, lady.
Hadley ripped off the remains of her blouse, mentally promising her the best J.C. Penney's could offer if they made it through, and fashioned one sleeve into a makeshift pad. The rest went to bind her arm firmly to her torso, so she couldn't undo his work.
She groaned, turning her face to one side. Her profile shone in the lamplight, as lovely and delicate as the porcelain figurines kept in his grandmother's cupboard. She murmured incoherently.
"What's that?" He fastened off his handiwork into a serviceable knot, testing its strength.
She moved again, restless. A strand of fine, watered-silk hair fell over his hand. "Neil?" Like a child, lost in an unfathomable darkness.
"Yeah, it's me. Neil." He didn't sound much like a Brit, but he figured in her state, she'd hardly notice. He also figured this Neil guy was one lucky son of a bitch.
That is, would be lucky. If he could get the lady out of East Berlin alive. Carefully, he inched his way from the cramped back seat, malting sure the street was clear before propping her against the seat, just below eye level, and climbing over to take the steering wheel. He was tempted to load her into the trunk, but he needed to keep an eye on the dressing and she'd breathe better half-seated.
Breathing a half-forgotten prayer from his childhood, Hadley turned the ignition and steered the Wartburg toward the southern edge of the city.
The hotel bar resembled a small-scale Tower of Babel, with the smell of cigarettes and alcohol thrown in as a modern bonus. Businessmen of all persuasions sat elbow to elbow at inconveniently small tables, spewing forth a democratic mixture of German, Italian, French and English. A smattering of Turkish added the exotic touch.
Several businesswomen of the more traditional sort leaned or sat at the bar, nursing watered drinks. Willie Caine ignored the murmured invitations, searching through the haze of smoke for a vacant table. If he had a shred of sense, he'd be in bed. But if he had sense, he wouldn't be in Berlin, would never have joined the Special Section ...
Besides, he didn't think sleep was on for tonight.
"You can join me if you promise not to bite my head off." Jeff Ross sat to the right of the bar, a half-empty glass and half-filled ashtray sharing the table with him.
"Okay." Willie dropped to the chair opposite. He was empty of invective and, besides, any companion not Neil Burnside seemed good enough company tonight. "What are you drinking?"
"Brandy." Jeff drained off the glass, motioning to the waitress. "A lot of brandy. You want lager?"
"Nope." His usual was nowhere near strong enough. Not for tonight. Not for the night Neil Burnside had killed a damned fine Sandbagger —and proven himself the inhuman son of a bitch others had claimed him to be. "Give me the same." He accepted a cigarette and light from Jeff. The American already looked half-drunk, a blessed state he hoped to achieve shortly.
The drinks arrived. Willie's empty stomach twisted from the smell of liquor, but he picked up the brandy resolutely. "To ..." His voice faltered, not able to give Laura Dickens even that much of a memorial.
"Hell of a thing," Jeff said quietly.
"Yeah." So they drank to that, instead. Willie upended his glass. Amber beads dripped down the sides of the glass onto the polished wooden table. "Another?"
"Sure." Jeff beckoned the waitress again. Three rounds later, the world began to recede into blurred nothingness. Willie emptied his glass again and motioned toward the bar.
It was a start.
Neil sat on the window ledge in his hotel room, staring blankly down at the night streets. Below him, Berlin brooded in bleak darkness, temporarily sated with blood.
Caine had left, the silence following his harsh accusations leaving the shabby room abnormally quiet. Neil felt ... nothing. Numbly, he watched hands —hands that hardly seemed his own —tremble as he shook out another cigarette and lit it on the smoldering stub of the last. His mouth was foul with a surfeit of nicotine, a minor penance.
Discipline. With an effort, Neil unfolded his long body from the ledge, moving quickly over to the bed where his suitcase lay open, heavy with packs not so classified they could not travel. He sorted them out on the coverlet, careless of his choice. What did it matter what happened in Iraq or Singapore? Berlin had become his last cynosure.
If he started thinking like that ...
At random, he snatched up a pack on station manning standards and flipped through. A thin, leather-bound book fell from between its pages, Laura's gift from just days before, a volume of poetry by Eliot, her favorite. The pages separated naturally between his fingers.
Is it like this
In death's other kingdom
At the hour when we are
Trembling with tenderness
Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone.
A sob wracked his lean form —violent, singular and unaccustomed. Turning sharply, he flung the book against the wardrobe, and left it where it fell, face down upon the blameless threadbare rug. And put his hands before his face so that not even the blank walls would see his unpracticed tears.
Bill Hadley pulled the Wartburg up at the door of an isolated farmhouse outside Cottbus. In the back of the house, a dog barked frantically. Very softly, he honked the horn, twice.
The dog redoubled its efforts and, inside, a light flickered on. "You're crazy, Hadley," he muttered to himself.
But he'd known that the last hour and more.
"Was ist —?" The door slammed open, revealing a skinny man of middle age, dressed in old-fashioned round spectacles and a shabby bathrobe. "Hadley, what the hell are you doing here?"
A veterinarian, Hadley had decided on the way out of Berlin, was better than no physician at all. Especially since Dr. Erik Lehmann was also a contract employee for the CIA, and located just off his route out of Germany. "Emergency." Hurriedly, he got out of the car and circled around to open the back door. Endangering the vet's cover was practically a hanging offense, but unless he wanted to haul a corpse around in his back seat, he didn't see too damned much choice.
Lehmann shone his flashlight into the car. The light wavered suddenly as it struck the bloody form. "Get her inside and your car out of sight," he said tersely. He disappeared into the house. Abruptly, the barking ceased.
Hadley followed, putting her on a table designed for large animals, then driving his car slowly around the building. He found a likely space behind an old barn and returned.
Reentering the house, he found his makeshift bandage dismantled, lying in bloody shreds of cloth around the examining table. Tubing snaked from an antique-looking tank anesthesia machine to a mask covering her face. An IV hung from a gurney beside the table, dribbling unknown liquid into the woman's arm. Hadley only hoped it agreed with humans, as well as with their four-legged companions.
Lehmann looked up as Hadley came in, the overhead lamp glinting off his spectacles. "This woman is lucky to be alive."
True. Even truer than Lehmann could guess. "So, how soon can you get her patched up?"
The vet's fingers froze mid-movement. "Hadley, she's looking at several months of convalescence."
"All three of us are looking at a Russian gulag if I don't get us both out of here by dawn." He'd risked his career without much regret, but risking all their lives by remaining here went way beyond the boundaries of good sense or good tradecraft.
Lehmann hesitated, CIA and medical training warring on his thin, lined face. Finally, he nodded. "Go to the kitchen and fix yourself something to eat. I won't need you for awhile." He went to an old, but recognizable x-ray machine in one comer of the examining room, rummaging through a nearby cabinet for film.
Hadley went. He put a kettle to boil, then took a map out of his pocket, studying his route. If he left at dawn, he could be in Budapest in fourteen or fifteen hours -sometime before midnight, if he were lucky.
He frowned over the map, wondering if his passenger could last that long.
"You admire him."
"Yes. That is why I must destroy him." Georgi Kuskerov looked disconcertingly like a younger version of the party leaders one saw in the morning newspapers. Major Bueller had the frightening idea that any moment he might look around to find Kuskerov magically flowered into portliness and thinning gray hair.
Bueller disliked fancies almost as much as he disliked unexpected visits from officers of the KGB's First Directorate. "But a priority operation?" He shrugged. "He's not terribly senior, after all."
"Nor am I terribly senior at the First Directorate. Yet." The younger man smiled benignly at a group of shabbily dressed students milling about the Altest Palais, waiting for morning classes to begin. "But one must think of the future."
Bueller shivered inside his thick woolen coat, Western luxury. His comfortable flat, his few capitalist luxuries, his entire future depended on the goodwill of the KGB. Kuskerov was quite senior enough to affect that and more.
He pretended interest in the architecture of the Deutsche Staatsoper, though he cared little for opera or neoclassical architecture. The Russian had appeared suddenly, demanding a "secure" meeting along the Unter den Linden. Bueller was in no position to protest, but he longed for the bad coffee and warmth of his office at SSD headquarters.
"You've seen the file," Kuskerov continued. "Officer in the Royal Marines, brilliant covert operations officer, now possibly the best Director of Operations SIS has possessed since the war."
Something odd in Kuskerov's voice ...
"Also a maverick. Constantly twisting the rules to his own ends." Bueller's mouth pursed disapprovingly. The man's file showed a long history of unreliable behavior that offended his German blood. "He's disliked and distrusted by his own Deputy Chief, possibly by his own 'C'."
"Yes. We are much alike." Kuskerov had recovered his joviality, seemingly amused at Bueller's censure.
Bueller frowned. A direct reply would not be prudent, but he wondered if the Politburo approved of Kuskerov any more than Whitehall applauded the irregularities of the Englishman. If not, a difficult road lay ahead. "If we discredit him, surely another will take his place."
"A man less keen of mind, more willing to lick the boots of his political masters. Easier to oppose."
"Perhaps." Bueller recalled the color photograph on file. The man was no more attractive than Colonel Kuskerov, but in a way completely British —a queerly shaped, narrow face with rather prominent ears, made more so by close-clipped brown hair. "He looks rather ordinary."
"You Germans. No imagination." Kuskerov strolled closer to the Brandenburg Gate, examining it with interest. "You must look to the eyes, the mirrors of the soul." He stirred a patch of gravel with the toe of his shoe; good leather, Bueller noted enviously. "That is why his Sandbagger Two loved him so desperately. That hidden drive, that passion that makes him so useful to our enemies and so dangerous to us."
His Sandbagger Two ... Bueller's head jerked up.
The other man nodded. "From the beginning, this operation was mine. I did not wish to wait for your mysteriously delayed reports to Dzerzhinsky Square."
The German let out a slow breath. So. Dickens had never been his prisoner, after all. "And her death?" Or did the Russian know of that, as well?
"My officer fired the shot." A spasm of emotion —almost satisfaction —crossed Kuskerov's face, too swiftly to be properly read. "I could not entrust so delicate an assignment to the SSD, you understand."
Bueller began to sweat under his heavy woolen coat, the commonplace insult to his service flying by like a leaf on the wind. It was nothing to compare to the disaster so narrowly averted. If Kuskerov had gone to headquarters, where all talk centered around the escaped Englishwoman ...
"Why are you telling me this? Uncle is not usually so forthcoming." Bueller used the disparaging term for the Russian service deliberately. If he were to be set up, there was no need to be polite.
Kuskerov shrugged. "You are rumored to be one of the more intelligent officers of the SSD. I thought it best if your men did not spend the next six months chasing a nonexistent assassin."
Uncle did not know of Dickens, Bueller thought suddenly, nor were they intended to see any stray SSD report. Kuskerov was acting independently, following some mysterious plan of his own. Bueller smiled grimly at the cracked sidewalk. Maverick or not, Kuskerov could well succeed and there would be much good in having a friend in the First Directorate. "Why then did you stay silent, allow me to make the trade?"
"I knew Burnside would come." Kuskerov's voice went quiet, with a softness the more terrifying for its gentle tone. "And I wanted him to see his beloved die."
Bueller bit his lip. Kuskerov was by no means telling all, but that was one path he would tread no further. He chose a safer route. "But how did you know they were lovers? Or that she would be sent to Berlin?"
The controlled anger melted from the Russian's face, caution taking its place. "We have nashi in the SIS."
And a highly placed 'friend,' Bueller thought, to have access to such personal details. He must step carefully if the Russian asked about the girl's body. No, best to forestall him. Or this friendship of convenience might quickly cool to Siberian temperatures. "Perhaps we should have returned her body to England, after all, if Burnside is as you say. Pity we destroyed it already."
It was not, after all, so very far from the truth. she had been badly wounded and by now could well be dead. In any case, soon the SSD would find her and fiction would be transformed into truth. Kuskerov need never know.
Kuskerov pursed his lips, then shrugged. "Perhaps it is as well. Now she is taken from him utterly."
They stopped at the edge of the square. Kuskerov glanced east, toward the KarlLiebknecht-Strasse, tapping his foot impatiently. The interview had plainly drawn to an end. Still, Bueller was curious. "Colonel, will the death of one woman truly achieve your ends? Surely there are other beautiful women to warm Bumside's bed."
"But not for him." The Russian looked away for a long moment. "I know him ... as I know myself There will be no others."
A Mercedes pulled up to the edge of the square, drawing stares from the few pedestrians. A chauffeur sat at the wheel, the shadowy figure of a woman occupying the rear. Mentally, Bueller shrugged. The luxuries would increase as Kuskerov's ranks rose. And, if Bueller were both fortunate and careful, his own life would improve with the other man's patronage.
"Tell me." If he were to cultivate the Colonel, knowledge of his motives would be useful. "Why do you want so badly to destroy this Neil Burnside?" He might get the stock answer, as before. He might not.
The uniformed driver held open the car door. Kuskerov paused, one foot already poised on the thick carpeting. "Perhaps because he is so much like myself." He cocked his head, a bleak smile more of melancholy than of pleasure distorting his lips. "Yes, I fear that is the case." He looked at Bueller pityingly. "But you are not of the Rodina. You would not understand."
Impassively, Major Bueller watched the Mercedes roll smoothly down the empty street. One did not need to understand Russians, after all. One needed simply to be silent and to survive.
" —Already wasted too much time."
Erik Lehmann shook his head. Wasted! If Hadley only knew what a close race he had run against the sucking death in her chest —not to mention the damage done by shock and concussion ... "Bill, I know the risks. But if I can keep her here another day or two, keep on eye on her —"
"You've done your part." Lehmann knew the stubborn look on Hadley's face; they'd worked together before. He was already calculating how best to move her and how to keep her hidden during the next phase of the journey.
Lehmann swallowed a sigh, realizing it was futile to argue. Still, he felt a proprietary interest in his patient's well-being. It wasn't often that his skills were put to the test they'd received during the past night; he was proud of what he had accomplished, given the severity of the young woman's injury.
Having kept her alive, he didn't think he could be faulted for wanting to see that she stayed that way.
Besides which, Hadley hadn't slept more than a couple of hours. If the woman survived the rigors of transport, she would most likely meet her Maker as a result of Hadley running the Wartburg into a ditch or pole.
"If you move her now," he warned, "you could kill her."
"Then I'll have a corpse to dispose of," Hadley shrugged. He turned to the door. "I'm going to bring the car around."
Lehmann crouched by the still figure of the woman, waiting for Hadley. He took the limitations of his second profession without regret ... usually. But it seemed hard that he'd never know this woman's name or even if she survived the journey ahead. He frowned as the Wartburg swung around the house and halted in front of the porch. "Bill
Hadley gathered the woman in his arms carefully enough, carrying her toward the open trunk of the Wartburg. "Erik, I didn't bring her all this way to kill her." Between them, they made her as comfortable as they could in the cramped space. "I'll do my best." He slipped the preferred package of antibiotics into his pocket.
With that, Lehmann had to be content. Still clad in his shabby bathrobe, he hugged his arms around him, warding off the chilly morning air, and watched the Wartburg disappear down the dusty road from his farm to the main road that led to Dresden and beyond.
"Would you like a pillow, sir?"
At the American's grunted assent, Fee scurried away after the desired object. If she didn't look sharp, the head stewardess had warned, Fee Lambert's debut in First Class would also be her swan song.
Besides, the American gentleman —and he was rather handsome, wasn't he, despite those craggy features? —seemed like he could use some looking after. His travelling companion certainly wasn't offering so much as an inch of sympathy. A hard sort, she judged him, with a face cut from stone and gray eyes fit to freeze your toes off.
She hurried back to the American, armed with the pillow and a foil-wrapped packet of aspirin. Felt sorry for him, she did, flying out of Berlin this time of morning, with a hangover and all. Another man, just in the same shape, was flying back in Coach, so she had heard. Such a shame. "Coffee?"
He nodded, accepting the pillow with a faint, appreciative smile not altogether addressed to her services. Gingerly, he slid the pillow behind his tousled blond head, tearing at the foil packet with his teeth.
Fee congratulated herself as she hurried toward the galley. One found a better grade of passengers in luxury class, without a doubt. Except for the American's friend, if you could call him that. Cold to the core, that one, anyone with half an eye could see that. She wouldn't touch him with a barge pole, for all him being English.
Hesitating over the cups, she reluctantly picked up a pair, grabbed a coffee pot and returned to her charges.
The Englishman had lowered his tray table, half covering the surface with a lined pad, so she had only just space enough for the cup. Not that she expected any better from the likes of him. She splashed in the minimum of coffee.
Her American gentleman revived slightly as she tenderly unhooked his tray, centering the cup and carefully pouring out a generous portion. He smiled his thanks, then frowned as the unpleasant Englishman uncapped his pen. "Neil, what the hell you doing?"
She thought those frozen gray eyes could get no worse, but this new expression frightened her beyond reason. Suddenly, she longed for the safety of the despised Coach section. "Writing my report."
Fee went quickly for a clean cloth. The American had spilt his coffee.
Once, as a child in Stalingrad, the woman sitting in Kuskerov's Mercedes had possessed a name, a Russian diminutive her mother shouted out despairingly as German planes flew overhead, scattering their cargo of destruction.
But that had been long ago. Her mother died in that German attack, her father months later in an exploded tank near the Polish border. She had since grown to possess many names and to speak the languages of many lands; presently she answered to the alias of Margit Sandor and she called herself Hungarian.
She had yet to learn why, but patience was a virtue she had learned early in life.
"He's hiding something." She spoke in Magyar purely to annoy Kuskerov, who understood little of the Hungarian tongue, but also knowing he would comprehend the tone, if not the words. Not many years ago, when she'd spoken Deutsch like any Berliner, Margit likewise absorbed their distinctive body language of truth and deceit.
"Speak Russian," Kuskerov replied sharply, more for form than from any real irritation. He knew. His reputation at Dzerzhinsy Square came as much from brilliance as from his renowned impatience.
She pulled a flask from the side pocket, taking a drink herself before handing it to Kuskerov. Far better vodka than any she'd get in Budapest. "The woman's alive." Margit glanced indifferently out the window, watching the drab suburbs of Berlin give way to open roadway leading south to Dresden and beyond. She'd never agreed with this operation, but trusted to Kuskerov's judgement.
"Assassination is always a gamble." He took a sparing sip from the flask, his customary restraint puzzling her, as always. "But she must be found."
Margit nodded, taking another pull at the vodka. Soon they would stop, discreet phone calls made ... though surely, even the incompetents of the SSD could find a badly wounded foreigner. She mentally reviewed Dickens' file. No, she'd call in their own people. "And killed?"
Kuskerov leaned back against the plush upholstery, shaking his head at the preferred flask. "No." He stared at the driver's head, screened by the thick glass. "Perhaps I was hasty."
Such admissions rarely came from Kuskerov's lips. But emotion had clouded the normally sharp intellect. She shrugged. "I told you. Alive, she can be used against Burnside." His professional reasons for targeting Burnside impressed her not at all —she knew the outlines of what had happened in Prague so many years ago, if not the details accounting for his hatred of the Englishman.
She had no need for details. The relationships between men and women were strange —no, distasteful —to her. Her interests lay elsewhere. That rumormongers in Moscow thought her Kuskerov's lover amused and delighted her, since it disguised a truth bound to be unpalatable to the old men who made up the Politburo.
As for Kuskerov ... he cared little, so long as she did her job and kept the knowledge of his private vendetta to herself She tapped on the glass, signaling the driver to stop at the next telephone. Soon, they would leave the southern route, turning east into Czechoslovakia, then ...
"When we reach Budapest?" She tucked the vodka back into the side pocket. Briefing would require a clear head.
"Yes." Kuskerov's face cleared of the brooding darkness that thoughts of Burnside seemed always to summon. Again, he became a man of efficiency, a man who would go far in defense of the Rodina. A man whom a nameless woman would follow to her death. "Margit," he said playfully, "would you care to run Janos Ilku?"
Margit shook her head ruefully. And here she had believed all thought of Burnside dismissed. Kuskerov's grudges were never forgotten, only postponed. "The Englishman's contact."
"Former contact." Her companion's gray eyes rested thoughtfully on the horizon. "Ilku just became our newest nashi. You must remember to welcome him."
"I must, indeed." Margit sank back into her seat, smiling. Her thoughts shifted into Magyar, creating memories of a past that never was, looking forward to going home.
"So I get to lift Ilku." Willie's cup hit the desk violently, a defiant rattle of cheap china. Several packs went flying, scattering Diane's neat pile. "In from Berlin this morning, out to Budapest tomorrow afternoon. Is that it?"
"That's the idea." Neil leaned his forehead against the window, the tattered net curtains no grayer than his face. He could hardly demand forbearance from Willie ... forgiving himself was inconceivable enough. "No one else in the hutch."
No one else in the hutch ... again.
"Hardly my fault, is it?"
Neil fumbled in his pocket for a cigarette. He felt too fagged out to fight with Willie, the effort to keep his eyes open almost too much to sustain. But the alternative, to return to his flat, to look at his empty bed .... Slowly, he shook his head.
"I didn't task the CIA to shoot Laura." Willie's voice echoed the endless litany that played through his own brain, so continual as to lose all meaning.
He rubbed his burning eyes. "Leave it, Willie." The cigarette dropped from his hands, smoldering sullenly on the threadbare carpet. He made no move to retrieve it, but lit another, willing his hands not to shake. "It's possible the SSD used drugs on Laura. Put together the details on la and the Hungarians before He paused, took a shuddering breath. "Before we worked the trade."
"If so, the KGB will have snatched him already." Willie sounded as tired as himself, in no shape for an important lift.
No choice. "Even so, you have to make the effort. If the Hungarians have been compromised, we'd better know." He kept himself orientated to the window, not wanting Willie to see his red-rimmed eyes. Diane's pity, undeserved and unwanted, had been unwelcome enough without inviting similar treatment from Willie.
He preferred anger to sympathy; the former, at least, he had earned.
"All right. Anything to save being cooped up with you." Willie's chair scraped back. "I'll go down and get briefed."
"Right." Neil's shoulders drooped as Caine slammed into the outer office. Slowly, like an old man, he ground out the remains of the fallen cigarette and walked around the desk to pick up the scattered packs. He returned to his chair, opening the file from the School.
Tom Elliott. Tiredly, Neil skimmed the marks for the various classes, the words hardly seeming to make sense. He rubbed his eyes, forcing himself to go back again and read more carefully. Yes, here was something. He noted the areas of special training and the psychological profile. Field School had been holding back on him again, denying him a possible Sandbagger until pressed to the wall. Elliott was no Laura Dickens, but . .
The words in front of him blurred. Neil blinked rapidly, forcing his attention back to the file. Of course, there could be no comparison.
There had been but one Laura Dickens. And she'd been murdered by the man who loved her.
Hadley kept glancing in the rear view mirror, imagining the shapes of official vehicles overtaking them in the driving snow.
Occupational hazard, paranoia.
It had gone almost too smoothly, for a time. Crossing the border between East Germany and Czechoslovakia had entailed the customary delays, with frowning examinations of documents and much suspicious squinting. The usual crap, nothing more. Maybe that's what worried him, that it had seemed almost too usual, too easy.
Especially considering that the SSD should've been hot on the trail of his unconscious passenger. Incompetent goons. At least their area of jurisdiction lay far behind him.
An hour past the border, luck had deserted Hadley. A snowstorm had hit suddenly, blanketing the highway with a blinding white whirlwind, slowing the Wartburg to a crawl. At this rate, he'd be lucky to reach Budapest the next morning.
Luckier if his passenger lived to see Hungary.
He stopped as often as he dared, pulling off on the verge when he came across some deserted stretch of roadway. Last time he looked, her labored breathing had hit him almost like a physical blow; he'd wanted to rev up the Wartburg to whatever speed its inadequate engine could manage, regardless of weather.
For the fifth time in as many minutes he glanced at his watch. Not good. He should be nearing the border by now. As it was, many more hours would pass before he reached home ground.
Hadley's first trip into Hungary was out of his mother's womb. His first trip away taken as an eleven-year-old, stumbling wearily in the track set by his father, who took the lead, testing the rough ground for the land mines the Russians had thoughtfully buried all over the Western frontier. His mother, his grandmother and a half-dozen siblings had followed. Hadley remembered little of the actual crossing, except that it involved bribing a local to take them into Austria in a covered farm cart.
The smell had been atrocious. But Hadley reckoned the result worth both the price and the smell. Even before the '56 uprising, Hungary had been one hell of a good place to leave, especially if one's sympathies were not with the Marxist state.
A road sign appeared, half-covered with snow, counting off the kilometers to the nearest town. Still hours from the border.
Once in America, Hadley's father hurriedly changed family names to something a mite more pronounceable for the natives and settled into the working district of Milwaukee, where a small, but thriving, group of exiles labored hard and adjured their children to study equally as hard. A college degree became the Hadley children's aim, one impressed upon them by ambitious parents. A college degree and the way of life that degree represented.
But Hadley had received more than a degree from the University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee. He got a job offer from the Central Intelligence Agency. A natural recruit, he knew now, with his fluent Magyar and Deutsch, not to mention his inbred dislike of the Communist system.
Nor had the Company treated him badly. Idiots abounded at Langley, of course, but he hadn't noticed any lack of them anywhere else, either. In D.C., you could hardly turn around without stumbling over some incompetent hack, and he figured maybe the CIA actually had a few less than most government agencies. As for here in Eastern Europe . .
Hadley shrugged, mentally applauding his dad's decision.
A blast of wind buffeted the small car, sending it spinning across the road. Abruptly, Hadley returned his attention to the present, to the treacherous pavement and the desperate need for haste.
He steadied the car and, automatically, as he had every few minutes since leaving Lehmann's farm, checked his pocket for the faked identification proclaiming him a Hungarian machinery representative, just returning from a consulting trip in East Germany. Good documentation; probably good enough to keep the guards from poking into his trunk.
One step at a time. Hadley concentrated on the road ahead. Mostly because, once he reached Budapest, he'd have to decide what to do with his passenger.
At the moment, he hadn't the shred of an idea.
"Bastard." Willie wished he'd slammed the door harder. He was exhausted and hung over, and felt in the mood for a good, loud row. "Bloody, insensitive bastard."
Diane barely glanced up from the typewriter, her fingers flying over the keys with natural efficiency and distinctly unnatural silence. Odd. Willie reached over the desk to snatch a cigarette from her pack, earning not even a reproachful glance. Distinctly odd.
He examined her worriedly over the flame of his lighter. "Better ring travel, love. Bumside's booked me for a holiday in Budapest."
The keys fell silent. "All right." She reached for the telephone, but her air of abstraction lingered. Willie's hand closed over hers, preventing her from lifting the receiver.
Diane frowned. "Something a bit strange. Boss isn't going to like it."
"What is it, then?"
"You know the request he put in," her voice faltered slightly, "for the return of Laura's body?"
Willie winced at the mention of Laura's name. "What about it?" Nothing extraordinary in the request. The half-truth of détente made 'civilized' gestures like the return of an officer's body quite usual. Both sides knew the rules and, when it suited, followed them.
"Bumside's been pushing for a quick return, quite naturally. All the official channels. Rung the Foreign Office four times this past hour."
"And?" Some of Willie's anger faded. The facade of indifference was just that, then. A facade. Typical Burnside, but Willie's grief had been too fresh to take note.
"No go. The East German Embassy refuses to cooperate."
"That's peculiar." Willie ground the half-smoked cigarette into the ashtray on Diane's desk. The purloined nicotine had lost its savor. "Not the usual thing at all."
"No." Diane fiddled nervously with a pencil. "Can't think what to make of it."
"Probably nothing." Willie shrugged. "Decided to be difficult, keep us off balance."
Just the same, he puzzled over it all the way to the Ops Room, where relearning more than he ever wanted to know about Hungary drove the matter clean out of his head.
In 1956, Janos Ilku was young ... reckless ... heroic.
Now ... he covered his eyes with a shaking hand. Now he was middle-aged ... and a traitor. Ilku wandered the cramped, untidy drawing room as if searching for an answer, tramping mud on the faded flowers of the carpet. Abruptly, as if his legs would no longer hold him, he sat down at a wooden table, fumbling for a glass and a bottle of barack.
In '56, life seemed simple and splendid. He rode in a captured Russian tank, a student who had defied the soldiers, and heard the roar of crowds in his cars. Even after, when the MiGs flew overhead, spewing forth the death of Hungary's dream of liberation, his own vision lived, unchanged.
Yes, of course, he'd gone underground, but even that had seemed, in its way, splendid. One of the few remaining freedom fighters still in Hungary, still working to revive the dream. Why, not more than five years ago, he had saved that English officer's life, sent him and his defector and all the valuable knowledge that entailed to the West.
A brave man, Burnside had called him. A brave man.
The smooth apricot flavor of the barack turned bitter on his tongue. He should not have signaled Burnside. Now he must concoct an excuse ...
The change had begun so simply, so innocently. After all the terror, all the hiding, he felt he had the right to indulge himself, just a little. Assuming a new, safer identity, he had treated himself to a night out once a week, then twice, then more often, going to the Bathing Terri, with its view of all the beauty of Bud and Pest and the shining Danube between, or other restaurants in the older parts of Bud.
Just a little porkolt, a little barack. That's all. Surely a hero of Hungary deserved that. A few forints here and there. Not much.
But revolutionaries had little money. He found himself going to moneylenders. Underground, of course, black market. Until, frightened, he began selling the few family possessions he had left, just to pay the interest.
He still remembered the day —a cool, overcast day, dripping desperation —when there had been nothing left to sell. And Kuskerov had appeared. Kuskerov, who held him in the palm of his hand, offering a choice that was no choice at all.
Made clumsy with barack, Ilku rose to stumble around the table, searching for a handkerchief to wipe away the sweat that threatened to blind him. And yet the room was cold ...
No choice. He wiped the wet cloth over his face again. No choice. He would accept Kuskerov's instructions and his deputy, as once he had accepted the Russian's money.
The signal to Burnside had been a mad impulse to escape, when there could be no escape from the web of evidence the clever Soviet had spun.
No, Kuskerov had won himself —what did they call it? —a nashi.
Ilku poured himself another glass of barack. It tasted smooth again, smooth and sweet as the fruit from which it came.
Perhaps, in a day or two, he would take the forints the KGB would provide and take a walk up the hillside and have a meal at the Batthany Ter once again, just at sunset, when the Danube shone with all its beauty and his city seemed like a thing of magic.
Maybe there he could come to terms with what he'd become.
"Better hurry if you're to meet Wellingham." Briskly, Diane thrust a bundle of packs into his briefcase, locking it with the key that hung from her belt.
"Sorry?" Neil glanced up, dull-eyed, from the lines of meaningless words that marched in front of his gaze.
"The Permanent Under-secretary at the Foreign Office. Your ex-father-in-law." She peered at him worriedly, with the mother-hen expression he detested. "Six o'clock, Journeyman's Club. His office called a few hours ago, remember?"
He snapped, automatically. "I remember." He pushed away the pack. Nothing operational there; it would keep. "Just trying to clear away the rubbish you keep piling on my desk." Hurriedly donning his overcoat, he hefted the satchel, grimaced. "More rubbish."
"And good night to you, too."
Neil shouldered past her, deliberately avoiding the appearance of haste.
Once he left the building he lengthened his stride, dodging fellow prisoners of Westminster, on temporary release from shabby, overheated offices. The Journeyman's Club was only a few streets away, but his watch showed few minutes until the appointed time. Wellingham liked him to be punctual, even though the older man didn't always return the favor. He managed to pass the threshold just as the club clock struck the hour. Wellingham met him in the main hall.
"Neil ... my God." Wellingham took him by the elbow in a rare gesture of concern.
"You look…" He guided Neil to the bar, securing them a secluded comer, apart from the muted chatter of fellow civil servants. A waiter materialized, as waiters generally did in Sir Geoffrey's presence. "Something stronger than a Coke, Neil?"
Neil shook his head mutely. He hadn't realized how badly his face betrayed him. No wonder Diane had hovered near his elbow every moment since his return.
"Scotch and soda. And a Coke." Wellingham waited until the waiter passed out of earshot. He leaned back in the easy chair, smooth and silver-haired, his craggy face returned from sympathy to its more natural expression of concealed cunning.
For the moment, just the moment, Neil wished him dead, erased from the earth with the remainder of Westminster.
"Just wanted to clear up a few details about the Berlin affair." The older man offered Neil a cigarette from a silver case. "I saw the report, of course."
No. He couldn't stand a session like this with Wellingham. Not now. Not the half-questions, nor the evasions and veiled accusations. Not now, please God, not now. But Neil knew he had no choice. Former relatives they might be and friends of a sort, but that wouldn't save him.
"Yes?" Neil might well be hanged, but damned if he'd supply Wellingham with the rope.
Sir James Greenley had just shrugged on his overcoat when his Deputy Chief tapped tentatively at the half-opened door. Only a lifetime of diplomacy enabled him to summon a smile and a cordial tone. "Do come in, Matthew."
"Won't keep you, sir." Peele, too, wore his overcoat and clasped a bulging leather satchel. "Just that I'm a bit worried, sir. About Burnside." He glanced to one side, clearly embarrassed ... a bit like a school bully caught escorting a pensioner through a crossing. "He's taking this Berlin matter too hard. After all, it's not the first time he's lost a Sandbagger."
"Not quite the same circumstances, Matthew." Greenley took a penknife and pipe from his desk, mechanically digging out the bowl, a physical substitute for the proverbial count to ten. The man meant well, after all.
"They were engaged to be married."
"Oh." He went silent for a moment or two, then brightened marginally, apparently satisfied by the mere fact of solving the puzzle. "I knew they were seeing one another, of course, but ... " He frowned thoughtfully, nodding to himself "Still, I expect he'll get over it eventually. Time heals and all that."
Greenley's eyes took on a tinge of steel. "Matthew, he had her shot."
"What?" Peele was too simple for this game, his mind too engaged with his garden or his wine list or his next holiday. Instinctively, his fastidious taste flinched from the inevitabilities of the job he had —rather mysteriously, in Greenley's view —chosen. But it was past time the Deputy Chief knew the truth and he'd certainly never find it in any report.
"Nothing I say goes beyond this room, Matthew." He removed his overcoat and reseated himself, motioning the other man to do the same.
"No, of course not."
"You know why Dickens had to be extracted from East Germany?" Greenley filled his pipe from the tin on his desk. He didn't like to tell the story, but then he hadn't much enjoyed hearing it, either, or the suppressed agony in Bumside's voice as he'd recited the whole sorry business.
"Of course. She'd just been briefed on Ilku and the whole Hungarian network. If she'd been interrogated…."
"But Burnside set up a trade," Peele protested.
"Not precisely." Greenley tamped down the tobacco with unnecessary violence. "Our French colleagues possessed the only tradepiece, but it came with quite a nasty price tag attached: A right to see all U.S./U.K. eyes-only information."
"But that would have ruined the Special Relationship! We couldn't operate without our cooperation with the Americans."
"True." The pipe refused to draw properly. Greenley put it aside. "Bumside's solution was quite clever, everything considered. He pretended to go along with the SDECE's representative, Baumel. When she was halfway across the bridge ... " Greenley's voice trailed off. Matthew knew that part of the story and he felt no desire the describe the details of Laura Dickens' assassination.
"Who shot her?" Peele looked as sick as Greenley felt.
"A CIA officer positioned on the eastern side of the border. It was the only way Neil could convince the Americans that we weren't selling them out." Greenley looked down at the litter on his desk. "Neil had absolutely no choice, but naturally he feels responsible ... "
Peele nodded slowly. "May I ask why you're telling me this, sir?"
"Because I might not be here forever. And I think someone inside this building should know the truth." Greenley checked his pocket, but decided not to remove the packet before the Deputy Chief left.
"Who else knows?"
"Jeff Ross. Sandbagger One, most probably." He ignored the unpleasant tightness in his chest. "And if I know Wellingham, he'll gave gotten it out of Neil by now."
"Just as well to keep it quiet. Thank you for telling me, sir." The Deputy Chief stood, looking thoughtful. "Tough on Neil. Still, it's all for the good of the Service." He seemed to derive consolation from the thought.
"Quite. Good night, Matthew."
"Good night, sir."
Good of the Service. Greenley pulled the packet of pills from his pocket just as the door closed behind his subordinate. Finding a bit of cold tea left on a tray beside the desk, he managed to swallow a tablet. His physician had warned him about the effects of stress.
In a moment or two, the pressure eased and Greenley was able to put on his coat again. He looked forward to being home, where nothing more threatening than his wife, his dinner and a recording of the Brandenburg Concertos awaited him.
Good of the Service.
Greenley sighed and slowly made his way to the door. Not for the first time, he wished he'd never left the diplomatic corps.
Wellingham ordered another scotch ... a large one, without soda, feeling every one of his fifty-eight years and more. "Neil, what are you telling me'?"
"Must I repeat myself, sir?" A single ice cube rattled in the empty Coke glass and Neil hurriedly set it down. His son-in-law's —no, ex-son-in-law's —face was as a glacier, revealing neither warmth nor emotion.
"No." Sir Geoffrey accepted the scotch, then did nothing more than stare into the amber depths of his glass, only half-heeding the muted chatter of voices, the smell of cigars and wood smoke. He didn't understand any of it —a few days before, Neil had begged for the girl's life, forced him into action that could have destroyed the PUS's career. And now ...
He looked up again, his faded blue eyes sharp. He had to know the truth of it. If he were ever to work with Burnside again, he had to know whether this were one of his half-lies and evasions or ... "But did you really love her?"
"We were to be married."
Wellingham put down the glass with a sharp click and splash of liquid. "But you had her killed." It hardly made sense.
"Didn't Belinda always say," Neil's voice took on a brittle edge, "that I'd do anything for the Service?"
And that was it. As simple and as complicated as that. Neil once had accused Wellingham of being his mirror, but Sir Geoffrey now knew that to be untrue. For Neil wanted neither knighthood nor peerage. Neil Burnside would do anything for the SIS. Including the destruction of his own soul.
Belinda had misjudged the mettle of the man she'd so blithely divorced. And so, thought Wellingham, had he. So had he.
Gently, Wellingham put his hand on the younger man's arm, feeling the fine tremble that shook his entire frame. And seeing, for the first time, the slight sheen of tears that brightened the cold gray eyes. "Neil." He couldn't bring the Dickens girl back to life, but there might be something ... "I have some information you might find of interest."
"Oh?" Burnside looked up dutifully, but his face registered nothing but dull sorrow.
"About Algeria. And our French friend, Baumel."
For the first time, Neil's lanky body straightened. Wellingham nodded to himself and gestured to the waiter for another Coke. "Of course, it's only a rumor
The limousine sat, engine idling, beside a roadside telephone kiosk a short distance outside Prague. Beyond the warmth of the car, fields of ice-encrusted snow stretched into the distance, broken only by the moon-drenched highway and, eventually, by light spilling from the flats that crept outward from the city.
Kuskerov slid into the car beside Margit, eyelashes glistening with ice. His hard gray eyes, mirroring the dingy snow, glittered with arctic anger. So. Fifteen minutes in a freezing kiosk and still all was not well. "You'll have to handle Ilku on your own."
She looked down. Her ungloved hands lay still, pale against the coarse fabric of her Hungarian-made skirt, not a muscle moving in reaction to the insult.
But Kuskerov could always read her. "Margit." He laid a hand on her arm and from the touch of this man she did not flinch. "I intend to keep Comrade Ilku on a very short lead."
She had assumed that. In the usual situation, a case officer from the rezindentura in Hungary would run Ilku, communicating when necessary through dead-drops or use cutouts. An illegal resident —much less Kuskerov's prize chameleon —would not be needed.
"You will join Ilku's resistance cell in the Eighth District." A slight smile curved the narrow lips. He tilted his head, waiting.
"Georgi Nikolaivich," for the first time, she used his first name and patronymic, "you astonish me." Few officers worked so close to their agents, but then few KGB bureaucrats had Kuskerov's initiative. "My legend?"
"A resistance worker forced to flee by the AVH in Szeged. Our people, naturally, will confirm the story, as will llku."
Margit nodded approvingly. The distance from Budapest would also explain any slight difference in her accent. "Communications?"
"A safe house in the Fifth District." He handed her a slip of paper. She memorized the address and handed it back. "You'll find a secure telephone in the hidden compartment on the left-hand side of the kitchen cupboard. Do not communicate with the rezindentura. But check in at the safe house once a week; I will want to meet you there on occasion."
Margit nodded approvingly. Working through the Embassy rezindentura would be like telling secrets to a sieve. "And you?"
"To Dzerzhinsky Square." Again, Kuskerov's impatient anger revealed itself in the stiffening of his posture, the darkening of his eyes, and she wondered what awaited him there. His passion for the Rodina had drawn them together, but at times threatened to destroy him. "First, I will drop you at the train station in Prague."
The KGB papers would take her to Budapest, then she would destroy them, using the second set Kuskerov now handed her. Simple enough. "And the Englishwoman?"
"She will be found." Kuskerov signaled to the driver. The car shifted into drive, accelerating cautiously over the slippery pavement. "You concentrate on Hungary."
"Yes." Margit tucked the new papers into her thick coat, staring dreamily out the window as the lights of Prague grew nearer. Kuskerov's occasional muttered Russian drifted through her mind like the scattered snowflakes that fluttered to the windscreen and then away. His chameleon had turned again and her thoughts were far away.
Edward Tyler stared at the blank paper in front of him, wondering if he dared ask his P.A. for more coffee. She'd stared at him oddly as she'd delivered his fifth cup of the morning and more curiously yet when she'd spotted the open carton of Players half-hidden by a classified pack.
Keep to routine, his case officer constantly cautioned him. Avoid suspicion, at all costs.
Defiantly, he stuck a cigarette in his mouth, knowing that Annie would taste the smoke on his breath, leading to all the ensuing wifely scoldings such discoveries produced. He smiled, if wryly, to himself. Smoking, if Annie only knew, counted as the least of his sins. Pray God, she'd never know.
The red, internal, phone rang. He looked for an ashtray, found none, and used an extra cup, picking up the phone with his free hand. "D.Int.."
"D.Ops.." Blindly, Edward reached for the cigarette. Neil Burnside was the last man he wanted to talk to right now. "Do you have a moment?"
"Of course, Neil." He was glad —or was he? —that Burnside couldn't see his face. Or perhaps Neil did suspect. He almost wished ... "Shall I come around?"
"No need. Just wanted a rundown on the current situation in Algeria."
"Just a moment." Edward returned the cigarette to the cup, rummaging among the folders on his normally neat desk. The guilt receded from his mind as professional instinct took over. He flipped open a report. "According to the Head of Station in Algiers, all's quiet at the moment. A few whispers about President Boumedienne's health, but nothing really concrete."
"Any indication of French interest?"
The Director of Intelligence frowned. What was Neil's game this time? D.Ops. didn't indulge in vague curiosity. "French aren't too pleased with Boumedienne's socialization of the hydrocarbons industry, of course. Puts something of a crimp in French business interests."
"Any indication the French would like to change governments? Put in someone more sympathetic to denationalization
"Stage a coup?" Edward was shocked. "They wouldn't dare. Not with the Soviets supplying the FLN. Besides, who would take Boumedienne's place?"
"Well, it's just a rumor, but Colonel Bendjedid's name came up."
"That would make sense." Bendjedid was Boumedienne's obvious heir, a senior military official, in good standing with the Front de Liberation Nationale, but in favor of limited denationalization. "Is this official French policy, Neil?"
"No." For the first time, Neil's voice hesitated, then picked up confidence again. "All indicators are it's the French intelligence service, trying to improve their position with their masters."
"Oh." So that was the game. Not that D.Int. could blame him. It could even be true, given the SDECE's reputation. "Shall I pass the word to the Head of Station in Algiers?"
The line crackled with momentary silence. "If you like," Neil said at last, in a diffident tone. "I'll probably ring him up myself, though."
"All right." Edward felt a sudden impulse to prolong the conversation. Anything to keep him from his own, unpalatable thoughts. "Will we see you tonight?" The five SIS directors had dinner, every few weeks, at one of their clubs. It was as much a professional as a social occasion, keeping each in touch with the organization as a whole.
"No. Next time, Edward." The phone went spent and, quietly, D.Int. set it back in its cradle. No, of course Neil would not go out. Abruptly, he left his desk, with the cigarette still burning in the coffee cup, past his startled P.A, into the gentlemen's loo.
Thankfully, he found himself alone. He examined himself in the mirror, a slight figure of a man. Harmless-looking, really, with a friendly, open face, marred only by the lines every SIS director acquired early in his career. The apparent openness and, he admitted to himself, a talent for intelligence analysis, had boosted his career beyond what he had ever expected.
Of course, the intelligence fed to him by his other masters had not hurt. They, too, had more than a passing interest in advancing his career.
Edward turned on the tap, splashing water on his face, dampening his thinning brown hair in the process.
Rivulets ran down his shirt collar. His youthful affair in Moscow had seemed so harmless, and even when trapped by the KGB, he'd thought —for such a long time —that he could protect the Service and his colleagues from harm at his hands.
And he'd tried. God, he had tried.
Minor sources of information became minor sacrifices to his Russian masters, as when he'd blown Mittag years before. And the request for the names of Berlin-orientated SIS officers had seemed just as innocuous. Until Bonn Number Two became incapacitated by a mysterious hit-and-run, and baby Sandbagger Laura Dickens sent to retrieve documents from an agent long known to the KGB.
Edward didn't know the details. Didn't need to.
The death of Neil's lover had destroyed whatever appetite he had ever had for his treason. As did the knowledge that she was hardly the first —and might not be the last SIS officer to die for his sins.
Wearily, Edward Tyler left the loo to again face his cluttered desk. His Russian case officer expected a load of goodies to be deposited in their dead-drop at Victoria Station tonight and he'd been turning over his files, trying to find the least harmful intelligence that would satisfy his blackmailers.
His gaze wandered over his desk. Iran, Singapore, Bulgaria ... no, of course, Algeria. The news of a threat to the Soviet-backed government would more than pique his case officer's interest —it would serve Neil's purposes as well.
Edward pulled the blank pad in front of him and, hurriedly, began to scrawl down the gist of the rumor. It was but a small restitution for what he had done to Neil, but still, Edward thought D.Ops. would appreciate the irony.
Bill Hadley parked the Wartburg near to what passed as a curb in Budapest's Eighth District. Here, the medieval spires and romantic, winding river of the central city might be nothing but a fantastic dream. The grubby gray buildings, shattered windows and littered streets made D.C.'s worst drug districts seem —almost —a worker's paradise.
If his passenger didn't have sepsis already, he figured she probably would by the time they crossed the street. But neither of them had a hell of a lot of choice. Way he figured it, the HVD might just object to him hauling a bloodied SIS officer past customs and onto PanAm Flight 441. And he didn't much like the way their friends in the KGB would probably handle the situation.
Not a hospitable bunch, the Soviets.
Hadley struggled out of the cramped driver's seat, locking the car carefully behind him. Fortunately, most of the residents were already at work and the sole inhabitants of the street consisted of four or five small children playing among a group of trash cans he wouldn't let his dog near.
One or two looked up, then turned their attention back to their nameless games with an unchildlike lack of curiosity. Just as well.
He'd hauled the Englishwoman back from the trunk a few miles past the checkpoint and hurriedly tried to restore her to something resembling normalcy. Her coat he reckoned a dead loss, so he hid that and swarthed her torso with his own suit jacket. The citizens weren't so paranoid this side of the Hungarian border and he figured it would do well enough.
Time to test Hungarian hospitality.
Not that Ilku had any treaty with the CIA, but Langley had asked him to drop by on his way out of Hungary and test the waters, In other words, see if the guy could be wooed away from the Brits. Nice, but God knew he'd done worse in his time. And now, he was just as glad to be here with Headquarters blessings.
He figured if anyone would take in a wounded stray, it'd be one of his ex-countrymen, who'd suffered enough themselves in this senseless East-West war of wills. Of course, if llku was buddies with the Brits and the SIS wanted the woman dead ... He shrugged fatalistically. "Our best chance, lady."
Wrenching open the passenger door, he caught her limp body, making it look as if he were merely helping her from the car. He slipped an arm around her, taking her weight, hoping to hell no one watched their shuffling progress to the block of flats opposite them. He thought —or had the hours of suspense simply taken their toll? —that her breathing had harshened further.
Once inside, he gave up the fiction and openly carried her up the five flights of stairs. By the time he'd topped the fourth flight he was breathing heavily and the slender form felt like a half-ton truck, tugging against his tired arms. Definitely time to retire.
Finally, he made it up the fifth flight, turned left and checked a flat number against the memorized address. llku, or someone, had tried a hand at decorating. Every other door was dirt-brown and peeling, with paint dating to '56 or before. Unfortunately, the unknown artist had come up with a color Hadley promptly designated as puke green.
Hadley knocked, one-handed, hoping the color didn't rub off.
A pause ensued. Someone examined him with deliberate slowness through the smudged peephole; finally the door creaked open to reveal a stocky man of middle years, his dark hair streaked with gray, a fine network of lines starting to spread from his eyes and mouth. Hadley recognized the file photograph: Janos Ilku.
"Bill Hadley, CIA." Budapest Station had already provided Ilku with his name and description, but the niceties of introduction never hurt further acquaintance. "I'll introduce my friend later. You don't happen to have a doctor handy, do you?"
Brushing past the Hungarian, Hadley headed for the flowered sofa pushed up against one wall. His shoulders ached and he vowed this'd be the last time he'd haul a half-dead SIS officer across Eastern Europe. Too damned tiring by hall
"Neil, what the hell?" Automatically, Jeff reached for the pack of cigarettes on his desk. What he really wanted was a drink.
"Just plant the rumor with your Chief of Station in Algiers." Neil settled onto the black leather couch in Jeff's Grosvenor Square office, accepting the Marlboro the American tossed in his direction with an elaborate show of ease.
Too elaborate, especially considering this little courtesy visit was close enough to midnight as to make no difference. "For all I know, it might even be true," Neil continued. "Wellingham's sources are pretty decent."
"So what happens then?" Jeff leaned back in the leather chair behind his desk, eyes narrowed. If he didn't know a Burnside double-deal by now, he'd be a total idiot, instead of just halfway to the loony bin.
"Not sure." Neil watched the smoke from his cigarette through half-closed eyes. "But it's sure to cause a certain amount of excitement."
"Yeah, great. Just what we needed, a nice little war. With one of our allies right square in the middle." Neil had pulled some crazy stunts in the past, but this one had to be right near the top.
"The French aren't precisely our allies. Not since they pulled out of NATO."
"Okay, so we're not best buddies." Less than that, after the trick Baumel pulled in Berlin. "But that doesn't mean we set them up to be creamed."
Neil shrugged. "Shouldn't come to that." He hooked one leg over the arm of the couch. Neil Burnside was the only man Jeff knew who could make outrageously unconventional postures appear perfectly dignified.
"So what's the point of the exercise, then? Getting to the bottom of your in tray and looking for some excitement?" Jeff stared at Neil a long moment, then threw down his cigarette in disgust. "Hell, I should've guessed. This French official who supposedly wants Boumedienne canned ... wouldn't happen to be a SDECE type named Baumel, by any chance?"
Neil's gaze shifted to the tip of his cigarette. "Possibly."
"Fine. Just wonderful." Jeff loosened his tie with an impatient gesture. "SIS Director of Operations screws around in Algerian politics to avenge dead girlfriend. That ought to look great on the front page of the Times. Not to mention your annual report."
"With luck, it won't show up in any paper. Besides, I prefer to call it justice." For a moment, Neil's voice lost its coolness, caught on the ragged edges of emotion. "Or have you forgotten Berlin —already?"
"You know damned well I haven't. But if this causes some kind of coup d'etat…."
"No harm there. At worst, Boumedienne will remain in power and there'll be no change in policy. At best, Bendjedid will take command, perhaps with a more sympathetic attitude toward Western interests. In the meantime, Baumel —"
"Will be in a shitload of trouble with his Director General." Jeff crumpled up a discarded signal and aimed it at the trash. "De Marshenches' is pretty fed up with the SDECE screwing around in foreign policy."
"And rightly so. Time someone cleaned up the French service. The SDECE almost makes the KGB look good.". Neil leaned forward to grind out his cigarette. "Will you do it, Jeff"
Jeff grimaced. One of these days, soon, Neil would nail himself to the wall with these underhanded tactics ... he wondered if Neil had spent most of his youth watching cowboy movies. If Burnside ever had been a kid. "Yeah, all right, I'll do it. Suppose it won't do any harm."
"Thanks, Jeff." Neil stood, and Jeff pressed the intercom to summon the sleepy Marine guard. "Lunch tomorrow?"
"Okay." Jadedly, he examined the ashtray, looking over the smashed but smoldering remains of his discarded cigarette. "Whose turn?"
"Mine." Neil smiled for the first time. "I'll see you at McDonalds, at thirteen-fifteen."
"Can't wait." The remark bounced off Bumside's retreating back. Scowling, he tapped out another Marlboro, lit it, then stared blankly at the opposite wall, wondering if he'd have cause to regret his promise. Yeah, he decided, probably so.
Holding the cigarette in the comer of his mouth, he reached for the interoffice phone. "Get me a secure line to Algiers," he told the duty officer. "I need to talk to the Chief of Station."
Margit had money enough for a taxi, but caution enough to resist the temptation. Instead, she boarded the local bus, which jostled and bumped its way past the tourist attractions of Budapest into the less picturesque parts of the city. The only warmth was that of body heat and, despite the press of bodies, little enough of that.
In Moscow, the bus service was even worse. But in Moscow, she rode in heated limousines. Margit smiled wryly and shook her head, rejecting that other identity. Personal past and future were alike irrelevant, submerged into the present reality of Margit Sandor.
A small group elbowed their way from the bus in the heart of the Eighth District. Margit made herself part of the flock of drab citizenry, her arms clutching small bundles that might have held bread and cheese, but actually contained clothes and supplies. A inconspicuous pocket inside her coat held the key to the safe house, retrieved from a locker at the train station.
The group broke up, scattering amongst the various blocks of flats. Margit found her destination without difficulty, shouldered open the outside door to avoid dropping her bundles, and climbed the stairs. The hallway smelled faintly of garbage, stale urine and vomit.
She turned left at the top of the fifth flight, took a moment to catch her breath, then leaned forward, frowning. The sound of a pair of male voices leached out through the hollow wooden door, both speaking Magyar, but too quietly for her to make out more than a word or so. Something about a woman, medical help, problems in transportation.
Well. In her line, the unexpected occurred with regularity. Or at least often enough to keep her in practice.
She knocked, quietly, but with enough urgency to add conviction to her cover of hasty escape from the Hungarian secret police. Her trained hearing caught the hint of a hastily smothered curse from within, not in Magyar. English, she thought, reconstructing the syllables. American English.
A moment later, the door opened hastily, confusion and fear in the lined face of the older man. Of course, he expected Kuskerov. "My companion went to Debrecen, to draw off the HVD," she said in Magyar. "My own pursuers seem to have become lost. Still," her smile included the other man, "I would feel more comfortable if you closed the door."
"Yes, of course."
The room had the shabby yet comfortable feel associated with long use among friends, drinks by the fire, talks late into the night. The table and chair were mellowed wood from a past era of craftsman, and the faded flowers of the carpet clashed with, but did not swear at, the couch where the other man stood, his body half-hiding a prone figure.
"Excuse me." She brought charm from the bottom of her soul like a dress come out of winter storage. "I did not realize you had a guest ... guests."
The American smiled with equally feigned charm. Neither tall nor young, his medium frame nonetheless looked tough and fit and, when he spoke, his flawless Magyar held the flavor of Budapest. "No apology, please. If the HVD wants you, we must be friends."
Ah, but she liked him. Odd how much more she liked her enemies than the agents she ran. And how much more she respected the CIA than did the naive Americans who so reluctantly employed them. Agents such as Ilku merely served as willing or unwilling pawns, traitors to their own people. But men like this American were worthy of her respect —and her skills.
She glanced at Ilku, waiting for the required introduction. No help there. The hero of '56 had disappeared with the passing of the years, with the drinking of barack, or perhaps simply with the final surrender to Kuskerov. "I am Margit Sandor, from the Szeged resistance, come to help Janos."
Cautious brown eyes, incongruous in the calm, good-natured face, glanced to Ilku and, finding no reaction, turned back, as if dismissing the man from his mental equation. He made a slight movement of his shoulders, as a man might do when putting down a doubtful set of cards. "Bill Hadley."
They shook hands briefly, like the formal salute before battle. She longed to look past him, to whatever lay on the couch, but managed to keep her gaze fastened on Hadley's face.
"I was supposed to bring you greetings from the White House," he said laconically, still speaking Magyar, "but I'm afraid I've brought a casualty, instead. You don't happen to be a doctor, by any chance?"
He stepped aside, revealing the unconscious form of a woman. A motley array of blankets concealed the bulk of her form, but Margit glimpsed a porcelain-pale face and a tangle of long, dark hair. "Is she American?"
"British," Hadley replied briefly. "But I'm afraid she's not too popular with either side, right now."
British! She knelt beside the couch. The face was haggard and bruised, with only a trace of its former loveliness, but recognizable from the photograph Kuskerov had displayed before they arrived in Berlin. So much for Kuskerov's assassin. So much for the claims of the SSD.
Her bundles had fallen to the faded carpet. She selected a gray canvas pouch, tore it open. "Where is she wounded?" Fortunately, her medical kit was well-supplied. Illegal residents were expected to be their own physicians.
"Right shoulder." Hadley squatted beside her, sweeping back the piled blankets to expose a bandage. "Managed to patch her up some, but I think she's getting worse again."
Carefully, Margit unwound the strips of fabric that bound the woman's arm in place and peeled away the pad. "You are a good medic." But she was not fooled; this was professional work. The distinctive mark of the trained surgeon showed here, like a brand on tom flesh. So the Americans had their own illegals, but by the look of the wound, some distance away.
Hadley examined her kit with respect. "And you're not bad yourself Quite an outfit you have there."
Taking a cloth and some antiseptic, she began to re-clean the tom shoulder. "My access to socialized medicine is limited." Carefully, she filled a syringe with an antibiotic. "There is alcohol and cotton. Will you swab the skin for me?"
Almost reluctantly, he said: "She's all right there. I had a supply for the journey."
Calmly, she put the syringe aside, noting that he offered no further explanations, gave no excuses. Here was a fellow craftsman, used to thinking and acting quickly. In another woman, her admiration might have become attraction. For Margit, Hadley simply became a man worthy of respect. From her experience, there were few enough of those.
But that made him all the more dangerous, if she meant to keep this woman for Kuskerov. Of course, she could kill him, but that meant suspicions when he did not return to his headquarters at Langley and the possibility of an investigation which she could not afford.
Hadley selected a piece of occlusive material, followed by a length of clean, soft cloth and handed it to her, his mind clearly elsewhere. Absently, he picked up the bit of canvas that had fastened Margit's medical bag, twining it around and around through his fingers.
Margit worked slowly and deliberately, her mind at a pace with her fingers. "Both sides," she repeated to herself quietly, and stole another glance at the troubled face beside her. "Why were you to kill her?"
Surprise crossed Hadley's face, then admiration: professional to professional. "Not sure." He reached out to trace the line of the woman's cheekbone, as if wondering why she should be alive. "She's SIS. Had to do with a trade. Maybe someone the Brits didn't want to give up." He shrugged. "Crazy business."
Somewhat to her own surprise, Margit did not blame the man. Every officer came to this, if he lived or worked long enough, and this man was old enough to feel mortality and its sister, mercy. And human enough to dread the consequence of his act: the loss of job, friends, pension, a way of life.
Siberian exile, in its way, was kinder.
Margit touched his arm. It was not, she found, an empty gesture. "Then we'll keep her here." She forestalled his automatic protest. "Your superiors want her dead and even if she is innocent
"Yeah, I know."
"Here, we can use her expertise. A professional intelligence agent could be useful to us." She used all the gentle persuasion she had foresworn those years ago in Stalingrad. It was not entirely for Kuskerov's interests she pled. If she could help this man and yet forward her own interests, more than one end would be served.
"You seem pretty professional yourself." He looked at her admiringly. It was not, she thought, something that could be hidden from another such as herself.
"For Hungary, I do what I must." And, of course, it was for Hungary. For socialist Hungary. But he need not know that. "When is your flight?"
He looked at the woman again, for a long moment, as if memorizing her face. Then, reluctantly, at his watch. "At eleven. I'd better hurry, if I'm to get through customs." He got up, brushing off the knees to his trousers, the gesture itself an agreement. As he turned to the door, he produced a wry smile. "And here I didn't even get to my sales pitch."
"We know where the American Embassy is."
She received another warm handshake. His farewell to Ilku, standing forgotten by the door, was cordial, but cooler. Margit made certain the hallway was clear, then watched him down the stairs before returning to her patient.
llku followed her clumsily, kneeling beside the couch. "Why did you keep her?"
She took the limp hand, not answering, concentrating on counting the girl's wavering pulse. "Are you expecting any more capitalist visitors?"
The Hungarian shrugged. His breath reeked of apricot liquor. "Perhaps the SIS. I had sent a message that I might need a lift. Perhaps they'll wait for my signal, perhaps not."
After the American's cool competence, Ilku annoyed Margit all the more. Still, he was of importance to Kuskerov and thus to her. "Then we'd better move her," she snapped. "Do you have a spare bedroom?"
He nodded. "Yes. I often put up other members of the resistance." He studied the girl, then prepared to pick her up, blankets and all. Political weakling or not, he was a big man. "But why do you keep her? Who is she?"
Methodically, Margit began to reassemble her medical kit. She would have to brief Ilku eventually, but first she should get to the safe house, tell Kuskerov and get his advice. "Trade secret," she told him. And followed her patient into the bedroom.
First she must get the Dickens girl settled and the SIS visitor out of the way. Then she had a job for Comrade Ilku. His first job as nashi of the KGB.
A taxi cruised slowly down the street, searching out tourists with filthy capitalist forints to spend on inflated fares. Willie Caine scowled and turned up the collar of his jacket, looking studiously away from the lure of enclosed and well-heated temptation.
Taking a taxi into the Eighth District hardly constituted keeping a low profile. He grimaced as another icy gust pushed him along the roadway. No need to fiddle this expense report; this time he'd follow his tasking to the letter.
Leaving the tourist district, Willie paused, as if examining the goods in a grimy shop window, scanning his few fellow pedestrians. No tail. He hadn't really expected one.
Unlike other Eastern European countries, foreigners in Budapest were not automatically assigned a secret police shadow.
Still, he felt twitched.
He glanced in the shop window again, shrugged, then walked on. Middle-class shops and homes gradually degenerated into blocks of identical flats. At a deserted street corner he paused, dragging a knitted cap from his pocket and jamming it on. From then on, he kept his head down except for an occasional glance to orient himself, aware that he looked a little too smooth, a little too well fed, to match with his surroundings.
Lukas building felt only a few degrees warmer than the outside, but at least what passed as socialist masonry kept out the wind. The five flights of stairs made him wonder if Burnside had planned this as another training exercise.
Willie hesitated in front of the ill-painted door. If Ilku were blown, then he could be walking into the welcoming arms of the HVD or even a comrade from the KGB's First Directorate. Only one way to find out.
The door opened at the first knock. Janos Ilku, a little older and heavier than his file photograph, stood in the half-opened entrance, lips slightly parted, like an actor uncertain of his lines.
"I'm Caine. You're expecting me." The hall might not stay empty forever and he didn't care to be kept standing.
Finally, the other man moved. "Of course." He stood aside. As Willie stepped in, he caught sight of a bedroom with a woman at the door and .... The woman closed the door just as he managed to focus in on the room.
"One of my group, Margit." llku ushered him quickly into a surprisingly cozy lounge. "She's nervous of visitors."
"I see." At Ilku's gesture, Willie sank down onto a flowered couch, watching the Hungarian pour out two drinks with an unsteady hand. Looked like Margit had company in the nerves department. He accepted the glass, filled with an amber liquor that smelled strongly of apricots. "I only brought the one set of papers."
Ilku sat on the edge of a wooden chair. "No need, Mr. Caine." His smile seemed forced. "I'm afraid I've brought you on what you call a wild-goose chase."
"I was, as you say, twitched." Ilku drank the liquor in quick, jerky sips. "I was in no danger, after all."
Willie felt more than twitched. He rested the glass against the worn fabric of the couch, frowning. Still, if Ilku didn't want to leave, he'd certainly be of more use to the SIS in Hungary than in London. "If you're sure ..."
"Yes." The other man went to the table, filled his glass again. "But I will give you a message for Burnside before you return to London." He put aside the tumbler, fumbling among some papers on the table. "Please, drink."
Manners. Willie raised his glass, then noticed that some red stain had transferred itself from the fabric of the sofa to his hand. He frowned again, squinting in the dim light filtering in from the half-closed blinds.
It almost looked like blood ...
"What are you doing here?"
"Nice to see you, too, old buddy." Jeff pushed by Neil into the narrow foyer. "Come on in? Thanks, don't mind if I do." He shrugged out of his trenchcoat and preceded his host in the flat's lounge, heading straight for the drinks table. "Looks like you're almost out of brandy." He shook the bottle over his glass to extract the last few drops. "If fact, I'd say you are definitely all out."
"Do you know what time it is?" Neil made no move to sit down or to invite his guest to do likewise.
"Sure." Casually, Jeff flung himself on the couch and took a healthy slug of the brandy. For a man who didn't drink, Burnside had good taste in liquor. "Made us learn to read a clock in training down at Camp Peary."
Jeff grinned, unimpressed by The Burnside Glare. "Let's see," he lifted his wrist to stare at his watch, feigning concentration. "If the big hand's on the twelve and the little hand's on the ten, that means Jenny's in West Hampstead, giving her bridge partner heartburn."
Jeff glanced quickly at the table. No packs, so he hadn't been working. No open books, nor any sign that the tiny black-and-white TV set had been switched on. And, though he had shed both jacket and vest, he bore no appearance of having been asleep. "So. Thought I'd keep you company. Drink your brandy." He raised his glass. "Tell you what's happening in Algiers."
Some of the tension left Neil's body. "Couldn't it wait until lunch tomorrow?"
"Yeah, sure. But I like your brandy better than McDonald's hamburgers."
Neil shook his head ruefully. "All right. Would you like some caffeine to go with your ethanol?"
"Okay." On the way to the kitchen, Neil casually kicked closed the door to his bedroom. Too casually. And, Jeff noted, the latch didn't quite catch. While Neil busied himself with the kettle, Jeff stepped quietly back through the passage and eased the door open.
A lamp was switched on, which for Neil denoted recent use, and an indentation on the bed told Jeff his friend had spent some time seated on the edge. His gaze hurriedly scanned the room. What the —The wardrobe door stood open, revealing the usual row of civil service suits ... alongside neatly-hung skirts, lace-trimmed blouses and feminine jumpers.
The nearby highboy told a similar tale: shaving gear set next to rows of makeup bottles and cold cream jars, plus a comb and brush set —a few vagrant strands of hair still attached —arranged beside the bottles. The soft glow of the lamp covered the room with a warm, golden light, like the stuff of memories.
Shaken, Jeff backed quietly out of the room, easing closed the door.
Back in the kitchen, Neil still fussed over the kettle, leaving the water running in the stacked sink. Keeping his face hidden, Jeff thought. Well, if Neil didn't look around for another minute or two, it'd be all right with him, as well.
Feeling in his pocket for a cigarette, he looked around for a place to perch. Sitting down seemed like a pretty good idea. Then he became aware of the state of his surroundings.
Cartons of last night's Chinese takeaway, half-eaten, sat on the counter along with a forgotten tin of something that gave off a suspiciously fishy smell. Some dirty teacups and a pair of unwashed pans added to the general clutter, while a small pool of a thick, gooey substance that had dripped onto the floor waited to make contact with an unsuspecting foot.
The place was a mess. "Neil, what the hell?"
Neil looked around, as if noticing the condition of the kitchen for the first time. A suggestion of a flush crept over his pale skin. "Sorry. Haven't been home much." He turned his back again, rummaging in a cabinet for a jar of instant coffee.
Bullshit. Jeff swept the contents of a chair onto the linoleum floor and sat down. Neil Burnside was never the world's greatest housekeeper, but a certain fastidiousness in his nature had always kept up some standards of cleanliness.
If this was a preview of what the future held ... Jeff frowned, not liking the thought. Just as Laura Dickens' presence had wrought an unprecedented change in Neil, her absence might cause a mutation just as dramatic and irreversible. And just as he had once given a part of himself to SIS, for the better or for the worse, so another piece of Neil lay in the embrace of his dead Sandbagger. Not a promising situation, Jeff thought worriedly. But what to do about it ...
At last, Neil managed to clear off the stove enough to set a kettle on it and light the gas. "You were going to tell me about Algiers?"
"Right." Jeff looked blankly at the cigarette in his hand, then returned it to his jacket pocket. "Well, we managed to stir up a hornet's nest already. Army on the alert, FLN loyalists running around like chickens with their heads cut off, official protests to the French embassy, you name it."
"Who knows? De Marshenches says he wants the SDECE cleaned up, but he doesn't hesitate to tell anyone who'll listen that the CIA isn't 'tough enough.' Maybe he likes thugs."
Neil measured coffee powder into the cups. Jeff hoped they'd be halfway clean. "SDECE thinks the CIA should run more covert operations."
"Yeah? Well, maybe he'd like to talk to Congress." Moodily, Jeff kicked at a carton on the floor. "Damned if we do and damned if we don't."
"Join the club." The kettle screamed. Neil turned off the gas and picked it up.
"Anything else for me?"
"Nah." Jeff accepted a cup and peered at it suspiciously. "Just that I got myself a new assistant. Covert action staff, no less."
Neil raised an eyebrow. "You planning an operation here?"
Jeff gave him an arrested look. Karen. Now that was an idea ...
"Yeah, well, maybe we'll take out your Deputy Chief for you." Jeff grinned, hoping the bantering reply would cover his momentary abstraction. "Nah, just someone Langley wants to kick upstairs."
Neil had leaned back against the kitchen counter, drinking his coffee. In repose, the lines of fatigue, so usual to him these few days as to be ignored, were thrown into sharp relief Jeff doubted that he was taking in more than one word in ten —and that just might be all to the good.
Keeping his expression carefully blank, Jeff sipped at his coffee. Knowing Neil, that damned bedroom would become a perpetual shrine, the same way his detested first wife's picture had stood in his lounge for years after their divorce, half in remembrance, half in repentance.
The man was going to need a distraction, something to take his mind off his grief. Not right away, of course —but later on, when the time was right ...
An operation here? Damned right there'd be an operation here. Operation Burnside.
With just a little luck, it could be the coup of his career.
Janos Ilku forced his small car down the length of Highway 5 as if hordes of demons followed his path.
In point of fact, the only demon he feared stayed behind in Budapest, her steady hands tending the wounded Englishwoman, while she sent him abroad with his cargo of death.
The road lay broad and straight through the Great Plain, like the path his grandmother —her knotted fingers laboriously turning the leaves of the oversized Bible - had warned a far-younger Janos would lead him swiftly to the fiery regions of Hell. Well, he had found the way, all too easily, but had neither the power nor the will to turn aside.
Now he could only do as he was bidden, however terrible the task. And as for Hell, he feared he'd already found that, too, a territory not of fire, but of all-encompassing fear and self-hatred.
South of Budapest, the scenery had taken on a wild, almost alien air, as different from the gray tenements of working-class Budapest as mind could imagine. Sprawling villages with comfortable one-story homes intermittently interrupted endless grassy prairies capped by a cloudless blue vault of sky. Occasionally, he spotted a few csldos, on horseback as always, tending herds of sleek gray longhorns.
God would curse any who brought violence into this peaceful eternal meeting of earth and heavens. Janos knew that, as he knew the dreadful intricacies of the package resting so peacefully on the seat beside him.
He passed through Kecskemet with scarcely a glance. Fruit trees hung about the outskirts of the town, barren now with winter, but in spring to bud and flower with the first signs of those apricots from which a fiery-smooth gift of forgetfulness would be distilled.
A bottle of that same barack nestled in his glovebox, ready to turn horror into blessed numbness. But not yet. In an hour or so, but not yet.
He sped past the gothic and baroque monuments to yesterday, again embraced by prairie and the endless string of highway, as straight and unyielding as the hangman's rope. If he kept up this speed, he'd be in Szeged well before dark, with time enough and more to carry out Margit's detailed instructions.
By the side of the road, a cskios dismounted from his sturdy Nonius horse and waved, the sheepdog at his side jumping about excitedly at the sight of the rare stranger. Janos waved back and managed a feeble smile before horseman, dog and herd became faint, anonymous specks in the rearview mirror.
Finally flat grassland gave way to the outer ring of Szeged. Here, in contrast to Budapest and Kecskemet, all the buildings were relatively new, rebuilt after the great flood of 1879. He parked beside an inconspicuous cafe, tucking the small brown paper parcel under his arm before entering.
The owner knew him, of course. In older, better days, Janos had kept in constant touch with other members of the resistance, in other towns. Istvan hurried around the counter, gently bloated with age and his own good cooking, the savory scent of bableves engulfing him like a culinary perfume. "You're early. The others won't be here for nearly an hour."
"I made good time." Janos tried to sound quite ordinary, but doubted his own acting. But then, why should they suspect him, after all these years? The thought was bitter.
"The back room?"
"As always," the other man confirmed. "But will you have some dinner?" He turned back to stir at the pot covering the gas range behind the counter.
The thick soup of broad beans and sausage called to Janos' empty stomach, deprived of breakfast and midday meal. "In a moment." Once in the small, plain back room where the Szeged resistance met, he quickly unwrapped the paper bundle and moved toward the long wooden table that stretched across one wall.
The plastic explosive Margit had given him looked like child's putty and proved just as malleable. He packed it into a hidden comer under the table and pushed the detonator into the midst. As Margit had promised, it was the work of only a moment, then he was back in the outer room, a large bowl of bableves before him.
Once all the Szeged members had assembled, he would find some excuse to leave the room, perhaps to follow the call of nature. He would follow his call far enough to safely activate the radio-linked detonator and, before horrified neighbors could reach the shattered ruin, would be well away on the road to Budapest.
No one would live who knew Margit Sandor to be no member of the Szeged resistance. All would be tom flesh lying in the smoldering rubble of a roadside cafe.
All except for Janos llku, who had taken the broad road his grandmother had warned him of, all those many years before.
Seventeen hours in his own bed and Hadley still felt like an earthquake victim. Pretty damned good comparison, really ... once he drove past the guard at Langley, the aftershocks of Berlin started hitting with a vengeance.
What the hell had he done?
The flight from Budapest to London and then on to Dulles Airport in Washington had passed without thought. He'd slept through drinks, dinners, movies, then stumbled through Customs like a walking corpse. The door to his Potomac, Maryland apartment had looked like the gates of paradise and his bed, better yet.
Days of oblivion ... but now he had to face reality.
Oh, yeah, he could doctor his report and would. No point in getting egg on his vest, as the saying went, without cause. And a true report would empty out the whole hen house. No, he'd write up some plausible fiction, get a pat on the head ... and get sent out on another operation.
Yeah, that was it, wasn't it?
He turned into his numbered parking slot, lolled the engine, then lit a cigarette. All around him, car doors slammed and government workers —a mixture of secretaries, analysis types and operational personnel on home leave —hurried toward the plain white building. Hadley didn't move.
The danger of future operations didn't bother him, just as the danger in East Berlin hadn't shaken him. The job itself had. He'd failed his tasking and, for the first time, gone beyond questioning his orders to disobeying them. And whatever the morals involved, whether he'd been right or wrong, that made him a damned bad officer. He'd never trust himself again.
And that was the bottom line, wasn't it?
Deliberately, Hadley ground out the half-smoked cigarette, got out of his Jeep Wagoneer and carefully locked the door. Walking slowly toward the main entrance, he looked around at the bare trees of this isolated patch of Virginia countryside, taking a rare moment to savor the view. He'd be late into the office, but what the hell?
No point in chewing out a guy who'd just resigned.
Margit stood guard over her sleeping patient, her tireless mind ranging far and wide, contemplating the possibilities of the situation.
How long, she wondered, how long could she keep this secret from Kuskerov? Once, she would never have dreamed of withholding such a piece of information from her mentor, but now ...
She should have reported at once; the fact that she had not almost puzzled her. Perhaps she, like the American Hadley, had been at the game too long. Or perhaps she felt the chill winds of the gulag sweeping down the path Kuskerov chose to tread.
Yes, Margit thought, that was the reason. She would follow Kuskerov to death and beyond —but not to Siberia. Small failures led inexorably to larger defeats, in her experience. And Kuskerov had grown careless of late.
A shuffle of footsteps drew her attention to the doorway. Janos, with the inevitable glass in his hand, eyes heavy-lidded with sleeplessness and drink. "How is she?"
Margit shrugged. "No better. No worse."
Janos grunted and faded from the doorway.
Margit turned back to her patient, placing a hand against the pale forehead, cooler now than it had been. An odd mixture, this Laura Dickens, she reflected, equal parts strength and softness showing in her features. An appealing mixture. Perhaps it was the softness that had made her a —what was it the Christians said —lamb to the slaughter.
But a lamb in the shelter of a chameleon's shadow ... that would be a different thing altogether. Let Kuskerov's dogs chase their tails and howl at the bases of barren trees —not until there was no longer a choice would she reveal that the object of the hunt lay here, safely in her care.
Failure deserved punishment. Kuskerov deserved to wait.
Paris in springtime might be for lovers, but in winter it felt much like any other frozen European metropolis, windswept and unfriendly. In the hours just after dawn, a few early pedestrians hurried on their way to work, scarves and upturned collars holding at bay the bitter cold.
Ahmed took care to keep himself hidden in the scant shelter of an alleyway near the entrance to SDECE headquarters. Not that Arabic faces were unusual in France, but his .357 Magnum might cause an unwelcome stir.
Last night, in the hotel room rented for him by the local representatives of the FLN, he had tended to the weapon tenderly, like a mother caressing her babe, carefully feeding the Magnum a mercury load. A cautious man, Ahmed knew he might only have the one shot and the dot of mercury would multiply the bullet's penetration and damage.
The mercury load also increased the bullet's wobble, but Ahmed was a good shot and he would be at very close range.
A great-coated figure rounded a comer, walking briskly toward the SDECE entrance. Ahmed smiled. His colleagues had followed their quarry for several days —in fact, ever since the Russian report had surfaced —confirming his habit of walking, rather than driving, from his nearby flat, starting the workday well in advance of his colleagues.
An ambitious man, Baumel. Too ambitious to expect to preserve his health. That he expected to further his career at the expense of Algeria's future was unfortunate. For his career ... and for his life.
Stepping from his hiding place, Ahmed gave Baumel no time to speak or cry out for help. He shoved the Magnum into the other man's chest, pulling the trigger the next instant. Baumel had not even time to scream before his chest gaped bloodily and his mortal remains made a silent descent to the snow-dusted pavement.
Before the SDECE guard could duck his head out into the bitter wind, Ahmed disappeared into the alleyway, covering the blood on his clothes with the coat stashed away for just that purpose.
He hurried back to his hotel to wash; the plane to Algiers took off in an hour.
"Na zdorov." Georgi Nikoiavich Kuskerov toasted himself in the darkening window. His superiors at Dzerzhinsky Square had failed to wish him good health, so he performed the ceremony in solitude.
Pushing open the sliding glass, he stepped onto the balcony on the second story of his dacha at Susovo, set high above the steep bank of the Moskva River. Nearby, his chief had a similar retreat, with the same sweeping view over the birch and pine trees of the seemingly endless valley, a tribute to the beauty of their common soil.
Kuskerov feared it was the only view he shared with Yuri Andropov.
A light snow fell, glowing in the dusk and brushing fragile lines of white powder along the branches that surrounded the rustic structure. Despite the cold, a maid had placed a tray of zakuski in a sheltered comer, small plates of herring, sour cream, caviar and cold meats.
Closing the window, he perched on the railing, ignoring vodka and zakuski alike to stare at the rushing water below.
Yes, he told himself, the Caucasus operation had been a mistake. No fabricated charge of corruption could halt the career of Andropov's protege. His superior had as much as said it: Young Gorbachev would be appointed to the Politburo within a year. Along with other "reformers" approved by the KGB and military.
Reform, indeed. Economics was the true engine that drove this so-called reform. To save a few rubles, they would drain the Rodina of all strength, so that the West ...
Kuskerov's fist clenched on the wooden rail, then slowly relaxed. No more dangerous operations within the country. He would have to rely on external persuasions. Ilku would make a good start. Janos Kadar, Hungary's party chief, went back many years as Andropov's friend, and if somehow he could use that fact in conjunction with Ilku ... he would have a very powerful weapon.
But it would take time.
Darkness had fallen. Turning away from the railing, Kuskerov gathered up the glass and the tray, taking them inside. Lamps were alight on side tables and a blaze built in the stone fireplace on the wall facing the balcony. A cozy room, but a lonely one. Once, he had hoped to bring Yelena to such a refuge.
Setting down the tray, he began to eat. The memories were good and bad at the same time; revenge would be more satisfying. But there, too, he had been hasty. He took a small sip of vodka, staring thoughtfully at the fire. The search for Dickens continued, but whether she was alive or dead,, next time he must proceed more slowly, more carefully, both with his campaign against Burnside and his plans for Ilku.
Next time he would be patient. And successful.
Nice, very nice indeed.
Karen Milner crossed her legs, swallowing a bitter mouthful of what the locals commonly referred to as coffee, then took another long, slow survey of Willie Caine.
Nothing else to do while she waited to meet the ogre of SIS. Jeff had painted the
Director of Operations in glowing colors; gossip hastily gathered at the American
Embassy's watering hole suggested a darker hue. It had been pathetically amusing, in a way —Jeff thinking he was being so subtle ....A good thing Ross was station chief; he'd starve as a matchmaker.
Or maybe not, Karen thought wryly. After all, she was here, scouting out the territory, just as if she hadn't seen straight through Jeff's heavy-handed machinations.
"So," she tipped back the chair Diane Lawler had dragged in from an adjoining office, "how was Hungary?"
Lawler and Caine exchanged a startled glance.
"Ross keeps me informed. Says you got back a couple days ago." She granted Caine a warm, slow smile. Too bad Jeff's long-term strategy would place Willie Caine off-limits; the extravagantly thick, dark hair of Sandbagger One held definite appeal, as did the well-crafted collarbone glimpsed through the edges of his shirt. "So, how did it go?"
Caine shrugged. "Not really sure. Ilku refused to be lifted, said it'd been a false alarm; KGB didn't suspect him, after all. Put me up overnight, gave me some information for Burnside, then all but pushed me onto the return flight."
"Odd." It was a hell of a lot more than that. Jeff had forbidden her to utter Dickens' name, but she'd been fully briefed on Berlin ... and its aftermath. If memory served, and Karen's memory generally did, the woman died to protect both the U.S./U.K Special Relationship and information from a recent briefing on the Hungarian resistance.
If Ilku hadn't called for help, there would have been no briefing and no ....
No wonder Caine looked like hell.
"You can say that again." He leaned back, casually liberating a cigarette from the pack on Diane's desk and thus earning an annoyed look from the dark-haired P.A, "Still, I'm not surprised he got twitched. If the KGB stumbled onto him it'd be goodbye Budapest, hello gulag."
Karen nodded agreement. Janos Ilku was an asset no service could afford to lose. The man's position in the Hungarian resistance had caused more than passing interest back at Langley. But the SIS —or more precisely, the SIS Director of Operations —had the Hungarian firmly in his pocket.
Caine fished a lighter out of his jacket, applying it to his purloined Benson and Hedges. Karen watched him with interest, noting that Diane's irritation had become concern. The woman took his empty coffee cup, refilled it. "What else? You've been brooding ever since you got back."
They both seemed to have forgotten Karen's presence, which was fine with her. Milner possessed a sense of curiosity often held to pass the bounds of normalcy.
"I thought I saw her."
Caine looked away, the cigarette burning between his fingers unheeded. "Laura." He took a hasty sip of coffee, as if to wash away the name —or perhaps the memories it engendered.
"That's impossible." Karen tended to endorse Diane's assessment. From everything Jeff had told her, the former Sandbagger Two's death had been both spectacular and certain. On the other hand, Caine was reputedly the best intelligence officer currently operating anywhere in the world. Aside from herself of course.
"You don't think I know that?" Caine's savage words stood in stark contrast to his previous casual air. "Damnit, I saw her die."
"Willie ..." Diane came around the desk, placing a hand on Caine's shoulder. He let out a long sigh and relaxed, slumping down into his chair.
"I know. But I would've sworn ..." He closed his eyes and his forehead furrowed in an effort of memory. "I was in a set of flats in the Eighth District with llku when I saw an open bedroom door. Girl who's his assistant practically killed herself shutting it up, and Ilku said something about her being the nervous type. Just got a glimpse of the girl on the bed, but...... Caine shook his head, dismissing the thought. He smiled faintly. "Must be going daft in my old age."
"Did you tell the boss?"
He shook his head again. "Nah, what's the point? It couldn't possibly have been Laura." Suddenly, he seemed to recall Karen's presence. "Miss Milner ..."
"Hey, don't worry. I know how to keep my mouth shut, most days." She re-crossed her legs strategically. Nothing like a bit of scenery to keep a man's mind off his troubles. "And the name's Karen."
"Willie." He smiled suggestively and that wasn't at all bad, either.
Before she could reply, the intercom buzzed. Diane leaned over her desk to get it. "Mr. Burnside will see you now."
Shit. Not that she particularly wanted to get involved with any guy in London, whatever Jeff's broad suggestions for the future. She didn't want any guy but one.
And that guy was taken.
Neil Burnside snuck another look at the clock, grimaced, and opened a pack on "Religious Practices in ..." some country he didn't give a damn about. But, for a wonder, nothing else remained in his in tray, and if he showed his face in the Ops Room again during the next few hours, the night Duty Officer, Brian Milton, would have his unmentionables, D.Ops or no D.Ops.
Nor did he dare go home.
He got up and walked back to the window. Beyond the dingy net curtains, the first suggestions of dawn edged the buildings of Whitehall.
Worse yet would be another night of staring at Laura's clothing, her bottles and brushes, the small fragments of what, after all, had only been a fleeting dream, separating the grayness of his life with a single shaft of blinding light. Only a dream.
Better to be sleepless qt the office than sleepless at home, all because of a time that now hardly seemed real.
The door behind him opened. He spun around, annoyed, ready to snap. Willie stood in the doorway, looking angry, as if the tentative peace following his return from Hungary had never been tacitly declared.
"Came by because I thought you just might want some company," Willie said tightly. He held a slip of paper clenched in one hand. "But I suppose you're too busy gloating to chat."
Willie strode forward, slapping the paper onto the desk. "Signal from Paris Station; I thought you'd have seen it hours ago. About a SDECE official being gunned down in front of his headquarters. Front de Nationale Liberte claimed responsibility. Surprise, surprise."
Numbed, Neil took a step toward his desk, then another. He found the paper in his hands, turned the signal over. "Baumel." His voice was a mere shadow of speech.
"Baumel." Willie paced the length of the room, turning sharply. "I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Not at anything you do. Not now."
"I didn't...... Neil's voice faded. He stared at the signal, trying to make sense of it. "It was only to be a whisper. Who could've taken it so seriously?" Rumors of that sort went through African capitals every day. Few ended in shootings on European streets.
"Someone did." The door opened again, Willie silhouetted in the faint light leaching in from the passage. "In the unlikely event that you need me, I'll be in the hutch."
Neil scarcely heard him leave, all his attention on the scrap of paper in his hands. A fierce tide of gladness washed away the first numbness of surprise. If Willie expected him to be chief mourner at Baumel's funeral, he could just think again.
Crumbling the signal between his hands, Neil turned back to the window, gazing blindly at the early sunshine slanting between the high buildings. Regret was far from his mind, much less contrition for his part in the Frenchman's assassination.
With luck, death had not taken Baumel unawares. Fate could revenge Neil Burnside's grief that much, surely. So that Baumel, for one terrible moment, had known he would join Laura Dickens in the bleak silence of the grave and felt the terror Neil had seen reflected in Laura's eyes.
Neil had only one regret.
That he had not fired the shot himself.
The Fifth District, to Margit's complete lack of surprise, represented a step down from the squalor of the Eighth District. Many of the flats were vacant, the others supervised by half-drunk cleaners or no one at all.
Her safe house was located in one of the latter.
Here, even fewer flats showed sips of occupation. She hurried up the stairs, her footsteps hollow in the near-silence. Somewhere in the building, she heard a persistent, hacking cough, like that of a tubercular patient. Nothing else.
She found the number to her flat with a little difficulty ... it was at the end of a corridor, the door set off in an alcove next to a maintenance room. No one would come near except the non-existent cleaner and herself. Kuskerov had chosen well, but she expected nothing less. What madness had possessed her to think she could outwit such a man as he? Well, no matter; she had recovered from her unprecedented lapse now and no damage was done. For good or for ill, she was Kuskerov's creature, to rise or to fall with him. And perhaps this SIS officer would be the means by which he would advance yet higher.
The lock cost her a minute. Very seldom used, it clung to the key stubbornly. But finally she was in and quickly located the hidden cabinet with the telephone. She glanced at her watch, confirming the time in Moscow and hoping Kuskerov would be in his dacha. That the call would not be put through his office also caused her little surprise; she only wondered what her official assignment, registered with the First Directorate, was intended to be.
The telephone seemed to ring a very long time.
Kuskerov would wonder, she thought, why she had not called before. But the Englishwoman had been ill, very HI, with the wound and infection; the truth would suffice.
At last the connection went through and she heard Kuskerov's voice, a bit faint, as though diluted by the miles that separated them. "Yes?"
"Georgi Nikolaievich." She felt her breath quicken as it did at the end of an important mission. Or at the beginning. "I have her. I have Laura Dickens."
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