"Another drink, Mister Ryderbeet?"
The girl looked pretty enough but she had just committed the cardinal sin and I crossed her off my list of possible future activities, I didn’t even speak. I can be as petulant as the next man when it comes to having one’s surname mispronounced. Any fool knows that Ryderbeit is pronounced RyderBATE. And as a globe-trotting airline stewardess she, if anyone, should have known better. I’m nobody’s vegetable!
Then I remembered that Burgess was still making that same mistake after over four years of prompting. But he does it out of spite. Come to think of it almost everyone makes that mistake. Could that be why I don’t have an abundance of close friends?
The girl smiled primly - stupid bitch - and wafted back down the aisle. She did have a lovely backside however. And nobody’s perfect, are they? But Burgess was something else again. Plenty on the negative side, probably nothing on the plus side. His most recent nasty was to con me into this job. What was it he had said? A few days holiday in the sun? I let my thoughts wander back a touch.
Burgess had telephoned me about four in the morning. Yesterday it was. Still deep in my thoughts I felt the drink being placed in my hand. I took a slurp. Yesterday. Christ! Seemed like a year. Call it a small party he’d said. Impromptu. That should have given me a clue. Burgess never threw parties. Even small ones. And it was good and small. Just Burgess, me, and this military-looking gent with the problem that Burgess had slipped into my court before I’d realized it.
I was tired. Burgess knew this and took advantage of the fact. Casual, he was. Another uncharacteristic hint that I failed to pick up. A couple of undernourished whiskies, some inane small-talk and then the slammer. At five-a-bloody-clock in the morning.
“George has got this double agent swanning about one of his stations.”
I’d nodded politely, sympatherically, as befits a man of my dubious temperament.
“Yes,“ went on Burgess returning my nod, “and we’ve been asked to sort it out…Let me top you up.”
I remember holding out my glass and saying something like, “Oh, really? All agog with disinterest.
“Mmm…“ said Burgess clinking his glass chummily on mine and lapsing into a momentary spasm of deep thought. “Our fame spreads!“ Then he shoots a warm smile over at the military gent on the couch. “The higher echelon seems to think that it’s important enough to warrant a Class-A operation. I have to send my best man…You’re looking tired. Still, you’ll be off the register for a bit, won’t you? Holiday or something?”
I slurped my drink and made a few affirmative noises. Burgess had hit the nail on the head. I thought about the cottage in Devon. It was the damn drink that scotched me. That and the tiredness. As I was conjuring up images of a gently lapping river full of fat, accommodating trout, Burgess was pumping me full of stories of double-agents and how much nicer the weather would be in Greece at that time of year. And I, in my stupor, was agreeing with him hook, line, sinker, trout and all, Then I was bundled out his door with an, “I’ll call you in an hour or so with the details. In the meantime get your head down. You look a bit peaky.”
I was back in my poky flat before it all clicked into place. Too late then, of course. Some party! And I hadn’t exchanged two words with the military gent. The rest is history. Burgess had spoken, may he rot in hell-fire. I looked up. It wasn’t Burgess doing the talking any more. It was the nice-bottomed stewardess.
“We’re starting our descent into Athens, sir. Would you like another drink before I close the bar?”
I looked down at the empty glass in my hand. Empty, for Christ’s sake! I couldn’t remember drinking the stuff. I handed her the glass as if it were made of frozen nitro and shook my head. Then I heard Burgess’s voice again. We were in the office this time.
“There are two very good reasons why it has to be you. The first is that you came to us from INTERNAL. And since it was never made public that you changed horses that will be your cover.“
“You can be shot for that!“ I said.
Burgess frowned. “For what?”
“Going behind the lines dressed as someone else.”
Burgess tutted. But he didn’t rise to my attempt at humour. He went on: “It’ll be something like Bangkok, except that here we don’t know who it is. But there’s not many of them to screen. It’s only a mail-drop, after all.”
“Hang on a bit,“ I said, doing some frowning of my own, “Are you saying that I’ve got to do the sniffing too?”
Burgess nodded. My frown deepened. I could feel it. I said, “You do have a few pointers though…”
He shook his head and dashed on. “Roberts will be your trigger-man again. He’s out there already. He’ll contact you at the airport.”
I grunted. Roberts again. Roberts was bad news. He’d cracked up in Bangkok. He’d used his gun right enough and his aim was as good as ever. But I had had to lead him to the job. Literally. And afterwards he had cried like a baby and told me that he was through. I should have put that in the report. I should have done a lot of things. But I hadn’t. And now, down there, was an unknown double-agent and, God help me, Roberts!
Here was Burgess again. “You’ve got a choice from perhaps five men. Can’t be more specific about the numbers because I don’t know. And we don’t require an arrest. When you find him, kill him! The big man wants this mail-drop cleared post-haste. But keep your INTERNAL cover. That’s important. Let Roberts do the dirty work. That’s what he’s paid for. And no frills. If Roberts has got to do it in broad daylight and leave the body in the gutter, then so shall it be.”
I’d said that I understood. But I’d lied. I did not understand at all. Burgess normally insisted on every frill that was available. Here was something new. Though I’ve never done a job for the section that had not involved a corpse or two they have always, without exception, had to be nice corpses. Accidental-death type corpses. Or corpses that are never found. That’s what E.L. trades in. Corpses.
E.L. is our designation by the way. And E.L. is not about detective work (see above); it is about rubbing out agents who have become unstable for one reason or another. We get handed a name and are left to get on with it. The donkey work would have already been done, either by the section involved or INTERNAL. E.L., I think, is the big man’s condensation of the word Elimination. But I could be wrong. And the big man I refer to is Burgess’s boss, who could be anyone. To put us in a nutshell; we are what happens when something gets too dirty for INTERNAL to risk dealing with. As socially acceptable as the plague but, to Burgess’s growing happiness, a number in the little black books of almost every department of Military Intelligence.
Just by-the-by; I was respectable myself once, believe it or not. A happy, hard-working field man for C.I.6. Then some bright spark - not to dwell too long on a boring subject - thought that I would be of more use to INTERNAL. We killed people there, too. Sometimes. But mostly we just had to prise the baddy out of his burrow and hand him over for trial. I was good at that. Prising, I mean. Then, to end this short biography, one fine spring morning I get sent to Burgess’s warren and, without so much as a by-your-leave, I’m up to my armpits in E.L. That was four years ago. Lesson over.
I looked out of the window. Nothing down there yet but parched-looking hills. But it was beautiful weather.
Burgess was saying: “Roberts will have the lie of the land sussed out by the time you get there and he’ll leave instructions on the airport notice board.”
“Information.” I said dully, “Roberts will leave information on the notice board. Roberts does not give me instructions! There’s a subtle difference.”
Burgess hadn’t liked that. He doesn’t like to think that his boys don’t love each other madly. Burgess can get stuffed. Roberts had already got off lightly in my book. If he thought that he had authority to dish out instructions he would really fall apart. These played-out trigger-men are all the same. Played out! Then I tried again to convince Burgess that I was no longer a priser of baddies out of holes. But he would have none of it. Pedantic git!
We were landing at last. I shoved Burgess to the back of my mind.
Athens Airport was hot. And it was dusty. I’d been through before, doing things for C.I., but I’d never caught the summer. It was a bit of a shock to the old system. The weather had only looked beautiful. Two minutes after leaving the plane I was sweating like a porker
Roberts was there all right. I saw him hovering about outside the wire as I entered the terminal building. I tell you now that he did not look like everyman’s idea of the cold-blooded killer. He is - was, rather (poor sod’s not with us anymore) - a wan little chap who always managed to look half dressed. Too many bones and not enough skin. But I can’t talk. I’m an ugly sod myself. But I’m a long way from the scrap-heap.
When I finally made it through the red tape, Roberts was nowhere to be seen. Then a taxi draws up. He’s in it. And there was only the one. This seemed odd. Perhaps I should have looked at the notice board. We shouldn’t really travel together. Not done, and all that. I dropped my suitcase on the ground and lit up a fag whilst having a cagey peek up and down the road. Definitely just the one taxi. I glanced over and saw Roberts jerk his head. So, not wishing to over-dramatize the situation, I walked over.
“Shoot.” I said as I slid in beside him, “Only try not to take me literally!“ Quite funny, I thought, all things considered.
Was that a smile? Probably not.
“I wanna thank you, Jackie.” Roberts muttered as the taxi pulled away. Jackie - Jackson, for my sins - is my first name, so there was no reason why Roberts shouldn’t use it. I forget his first name. When I’m not calling him Roberts, I just call him chum.
“What for, chum?”
He looked down at his spindly hands. He was embarrassed. I have to admit it, though I shouldn’t, I felt sorry for the old blighter. “Oh, that!“ I said magnanimously “Forget it.”
Roberts shook his head. “I won’t forget it.” He kept his eyes on his hands. “I might have been beached.”
“And for that you thank me?” The man’s a fool, I thought. I’d give my back teeth to get my demob papers all legal. That’s another trouble with this business; you never get to resign when you feel like it. But Roberts was not thinking straight. If I’d reported the Bangkok thing the way it happened he would not just have been beached; Burgess would have had another of his two-man teams give him the old heave-ho. Goodnight, nurse! It’s an odd business, this. Best left alone if the choice is there. While Roberts was studying his thumbnails Burgess was droning on in my mind.
“I’ll tell you why Athens is so important…“ I’d asked him, just for something to say. “…it’s because everyone has got a mail-drop there. It’s a beehive now that the Lebanon is closed. All the big outfits go through there and all the little ones are chasing after them. Devil of a job to keep a finger on every pulse. And that, so I gather, is what the colonel (remember the colonel?) needs to do. And he can’t do it if he’s got a spanner in his works.”
“Okay. But what’s the colonel’s speciality?” I thought I’d ask. It would have been out of character for me not to ask those kind of questions.
Burgess replied in his usual manner. “None of your damned business! None of mine either, come to that. We’re just the janitors, remember?”
That’s us. Muck-shovellers extraordinary. Everybody’s plaything and nobody’s friend. Ask anyone about us and they’ll spit on the ground, if not on you. Justice? You’re joking.
“It’seems,“ went on Burgess, without waiting for a reaction, “that the colonel has lost track of a couple of his top men. Queer goings-on, and all that. And all roads lead to his Athens drop.”
I thought about this. Then, after due consideration, I said, “So there’ve been some queer goings-on. Fascinating stuff. But hardly grounds for yelling double-agent. If – “
Burgess raised a hand and sighed hugely. “No ‘ifs’! We’ve been given the brief and that’s that. Besides, the conclusion is theirs. You make your own mind up when you get there.”
I shrugged. “Message received, Chief. So where is the drop? I mean a little more precisely than ‘Athens’. Or do I have to guess at that, too?”
Burgess, showing a remarkable turn of patience, ignored my gibe. “The front is a paper shop in the Astoria Hotel. The top man there is called Hadley.”
“What’s his security clearance?”
“A damn sight higher than yours.”
Why did I bother asking? “Fair enough. Others?”
“Here is the second reason why it’s you going and not someone else. Remember Teague? Pat Teague?”
Groan. I sure as hell remembered Patrick Teague. Another in the Roberts’s mould. He’d dropped me in it somewhere. Beirut, I think it was. Back in the C.11 days. The details escaped me for the moment. But it had been a nasty business. Perhaps, I thought, I could get to even the score. “What’s he doing there?” I asked, straight-faced.
“Communications number. Runs his transmitter up in the mountains. Place called Pretmia. You’ll have clearance to use that radio to report back direct to me. Every day! Use the Class-A scramble code. Make today day-one in the sequence. Got it?”
Silly boy. “Anyone else I might know?”
“The only other name I have is of the runner. Man called Peters. Glean more from Hadley. Now listen, Hadley will be under the impression that you are nothing more than an INTERNAL ferret. Don’t disappoint him.”
“Perish the thought.” I said, with a silly grin on my face.
Burgess had not liked that either. Flippant, he’d called it. Stupid beggar.
“I’ve got a room in a pensione a couple of doors up from the hotel. I can fix you up there too if you like.”
This was not Burgess. This was Roberts woken from reverie. I told him that I’d heard what he’d said and added, “Since I don’t have to hide in the woodwork on this one I reckon I’ll go for a room in the hotel. Live it up a bit.”
Roberts shook his head. “Full! I checked for you.”
Somehow I thought at the time that he should not have done that. We weren’t supposed to know each other. And we were already riding in the same cab. But it was too blasted hot for an inquest. I just sighed.
Correction. It was not just hot, it was scalding. The road ahead was palpitating and little whirlpools of dust flared up in whatever sea-breezes managed to drag themselves bodily over the sand to the road, It was about this time that I became aware of this funny feeling. Right down in the depths of my belly. Nothing that I could put a finger on. Just this odd feeling that I’d overlooked something. Perhaps it was just that we were not being as furtive as we should have been.
I said, “What else have you got for me?”
Roberts seemed to drag himself out of the doldrums, “Funny business,“ he began.
“Queer goings-on.“ I put in.
Roberts looked at me sideways before continuing. “There’s this bird. She and Teague have got something going between them. I was up giving Teague’s place the once-over and she visits him. Stays for a bit, then leaves. Didn’t think much about it then. Then she turns up again opposite the hotel. Just standing there under the trees. She’s tailing Hadley, I’m sure. Twice she was there. Each time Hadley shows up she shows up. And she’s always got a camera in her hand.”
It could be something. I said: “What’s she like?”
Roberts pursed his lips. “All right, I suppose. Greek, I think. You want me to check her out for form?”
I sighed. “Answer to your question: No. I’ll do the checking from here on in, not that I’m ungrateful for your efforts. And the answer I would have preferred for my question might have gone along the lines of: dark, shoulder-length hair, swarthy features with a mole on the end of her nose, or what-have.you. Snap out of it, chum. It’s too hot to start a stud farm!”
Roberts’s eyebrows joined hands. Then the penny dropped. “Oh, sorry. Well, just about the way you described her except for the mole. About twenty, I guess. Well built. You couldn’t miss her in a crowd. And too bloody young for Teague. You’ll get a surprise when you see him.”
“And you’re sure she was tailing Hadley?”
At least it gave me a starting point. I said: “Where are we going?”
“I’ll drop you off near the hotel. Perhaps you can - ”
I held up my hand. “Never mind, batman. I’ll drop you off then cut along up into the mountains.“ I figured that I might as well hold the reins from the word go. Provided of course that we hadn’t already passed the word go.
Roberts did not seem to be put out. He just said, “Teague?”
“Right. Anything else I should know before we split up?”
He shook his head. “Only the girl.”
“Okay. What’s the address of your pensione for when I need you?”
“Number forty-three. First floor. Same street as - ’
“As the hotel. I know.” Then I heard Burgess’s voice.
“Your man could be any of them. When you have him nailed down, don’t wait for contact with me. Just give Roberts his orders. If you’re wrong, there won’t be too much harm done!
You see? Every rule in the book was being broken on this one. But then, are there really any hard and fast rules in this game?
Pat Teague handed me the glass. I took it and, foolishly, put it to my lips. The smell should have been enough. But after the gruelling climb from where I had left the taxi I needed something. I could well have done without the drink. It tasted like horse-liniment and it burned like acid. But it was a logical follow-on to the surroundings.
The village of Pretmia, several miles from Athens and perched like a wart on the slopes of the scruffiest mountain I’d ever come across, was squalid. What people I’d seen in the village were squalid. Teague’s hut, just outside the village in the donkey-droppings belt, was squalid. And, you’ve guessed it, Teague was squalid. Roberts had been right. Teague was a changed man. He had never been a suave character but a decline like that in so few years was eerie.
When the drink finally hit the bottom after a hot trip down I cast a watery eye around the interior of the hut. It was little more than a hovel with windows. A dirt floor. Though the thing on the ground could once have been a reed mat. A couple of dusty pictures on the (chortle) walls. And a ladder leading up to what I supposed was the bedroom. I took another pull at the drink and looked at Teague.
He was a bent man. The shock of jet-black hair was no more. In its place was a sunburned bowling-ball. And his face. Jesus, the face! He was old, like old old. Yet he was no more than ten years my senior, give or take a year or two. And his hands shook. Though I guessed that most of the shake was due to a surfeit of the liniment. It was no wonder that I hadn’t seen any horses. Plenty of donkeys. But no horses. They probably didn’t live that long.
Teague sat on this assortment of nailed together slats of wood that masqueraded as a chair and patted himself with a dirty, sweat-sodden handkerchief. I’d decided to keep the matter of the girl under my belt until later so there were not many preliminaries. Teague came right out and said:
“I know why you’re here, Jackie.“
“You do?” Something in his voice told me that he was discounting the INTERNAL front. I hoped not.
“I’m not that far gone,” he said, “I’ve been expecting it, hoping for it, for a long time. But Hadley doesn’t know who you are with.”
“Who am I with?” This was not good.
The hands shook faster. “You’re on the E.L. squad.” Poor old Teague. He’d just sealed his appointment with Roberts. “Am I?” I said harshly.
He did not speak for a while. He just sat there dabbing himself with that filthy rag. I was wondering if there was any point in denying it when he went on:
“It’s been a while hasn’t it, Jackie. Remember the old days? They were good times. Plenty of money. Good living. Not like now. Not like this.“ He jerked his head vaguely.
Let’s get to it slowly, I thought. I waved a holier-than hand at nothing in particular and he seemed relieved that I’d dropped the other subject, which. I hadn’t. He went on:
“Oh, it’s not as bad as it looks. Close. But not quite. This is the way that bastard Hadley wants it. It’s supposed to be all part of his new station image.”
On impulse I said: “Are you bad, Pat?”
He licked his lips and looked as if he’d been expecting the question. Then he burst forth like a broken dam. “I’m clean, Jackie. I swear that I am. It’s Hadley! You’ve got to believe that! Hell, I wouldn’t have told you that I knew about you if I was not clean.”
Strangely enough I believed him. He sat there snivelling and looking as if he was going to die. I waited for him to calm down a bit. For the time being I was going to ignore his little bit of finger pointing, I would find out soon enough what Hadley was or was not. I said:
“What makes you think I’m E.L,, Pat. And make it good. I still haven’t forgotten the Beirut fiasco.”
I should have stopped him after his next few words, because he went off the important point altogether. But once he’d dived into it I didn’t have the heart to.
“That wasn’t my fault, Jackie,” he said urgently. “I had the goods on me don’t forget. I figured it was better for the group if I split with the stuff intact. That’s exactly how it was, Jackie. I swear it. I thought I was doing the right thing.” He played with the rag a bit more then went on. “You dropped out of sight after that and we all thought you’d bought it. I felt bad about that. I really did. But then I heard that you’d moved to INTERNAL.
“About six months after that they moved me to Istanbul. Desk job mostly. Usual story. Sifting the stuff that made it through the curtain. Small fry to the Embassy for the pouch and the hot stuff along the line to here. I made the trip myself a few times when we didn’t have a runner available. Then when I hear on the grapevine that they’re thinking of moving me to Athens permanently, I’m chuffed. I was here in the war remember. I know a lot of people. I think that was what clinched it in the end. Anyway, I get here. And everything’s fine until mister-bloody Hadley turns up. He doesn’t take long to – “
I cut in there. “Leave Hadley out of it! Now I’ve had the grace to listen to the story of your life, so you have the grace to answer my question which, in case you’ve forgotten, is: why the hell would you assume that I’m with E.L.?”
The eyes widened a bit and he dragged a hand over his stubbly face. “There’s a lot of talk in the sections about E.L., Jackie.’
I knew that. Hell, I’d done enough back-biting about them during my time in the field. But I was getting impatient with Teague. And he saw that I was. He started gushing.
“There were a hundred things, Jackie. Things that had your hallmark on them. I know you. I know the way you operate. And you know yourself that the drops hear everything that’s going around.”
If this were true I’d have to watch myself in future. Teague saw that I’d accepted a certain amount of his statement. He nodded to himself and the world in general. “That’s how, Jackie,“ he said. “Nothing else.”
The funny thing was that I believed that too. Was Ibecoming too predictable in my old age? I said: “But how did you know that I was coming here?”
Teague didn’t answer. I prompted him. “Cough!”
He rose up and slopped dismally across the floor. Then he spoke softly. So softly that I had to incline my head in his direction.
“Hadley has a file on E.L.”
“Has he, by Christ!” This was one file that Hadley, if Teague were to be believed, should not be compiling.
“Yes.” said Teague. He plodded back and stood over me reeking of the horse liniment. “I recognized Roberts down town this morning. I was coming out of the drop. He was at the reception desk.”
Is nothing sacred! “And how in hell’s name do you know about Roberts?” This was ridiculous. I couldn’t help wondering if Teague knew what colour underpants I had on. He seemed to know everything else.
He shrugged lightly. “There’s a bio of him in Hadley’s file. The works. Pictures, the lot. And not just Roberts. Half a dozen others too. Nothing on you though. But I knew that you worked together in Bangkok a while ago. I just put two and two together.”
I was silent. It seemed that every man and his horse-trough knew about E. L. and its operations. That gut feeling I mentioned earlier made itself felt again. Teague went on:
“It wasn’t hard, Jackie. Not when you’ve been in the business as long as I have. I smell things.“
I passed up the obvious comment because I was too concerned about my fight against gut-feelings. I tried a new tack.
“Okay, Pat. I’ll assume for the time that you aren’t pulling my plonker. Now answer this, what makes you think that Hadley is the bad boy here?”
Teague looked pleased at the question. “I don’t have to think on that one, Jackie. I know. Hadley is working for the other side. You don’t just have to take my word on that. I…“
He averted his eyes then. I could see his brainbox mechanism churning over but nothing was coming out of his mouth. He looked like Pandora about to open the box. Then he gulped a bit like a dying fish and took another swig at the liniment. At last he breathed life into his voice box.
“He has meetings in his villa.”
I waited for the rest of it. But he. looked at me through those watery eyes. “So?” I rasped tetchily. “He has meetings. What kind of meetings, for Christ’s sake! Revival meetings? Committee meetings? What?”
“Jackie…“ His voice wobbled. He was shaking again. I was suddenly annoyed. The whole damn job was falling apart. A fact made worse because it had never really been together. What with an over-the-hill trigger-man and a booze-sodden ex-courier. I succumbed to an irresistible urge and smashed the bottle from his grasp. It shattered noisily against the wall. Teague jumped up as if bitten by a snake. His red-rimmed eyes shot open wide and his mouth worked madly. I stood up, grabbed him by his shoulders and pushed him back down in his seat. The heavy hand was needed. For an E.L. man I had already been far too lenient. I drew back my arm and he cringed away like a lap-dog. I held the position for a moment, then relented, let him go and sat down. Whatever Teague really was, at that moment he was just a scared lush. More gently, I said:
“Look, Pat. I just want to get to the truth. You tell me that you’re not my man, I believe you.“ Lying swine I was “Now let’s cut out the histrionics and get down to brass tacks. What about Hadley and his meetings?”
It took a while. But he eventually got around to speaking to me again.
“For God’s sake, Jackie. This is the killer. Those couriers? The ones that are supposed to have gone missing?”
I nodded. “I hope this is relevant.”
He went on as if he hadn’t heard me. “I’m almost certain, Jackie. I’m almost one hundred per cent bloody certain that they didn’t go missing at all. They’re here. In Athens. Hadley sees both of them in his villa. Regular!”
I felt like a quick frown. “Come again.”
Teague swallowed hard. “It’s been tearing me up, Jackie. And I couldn’t do a damned thing about it. Who the hell would have believed me?”
I said, for the moment totally discounting the possibility that Teague could be right; which would throw everything down the drain: “You said you were not fully certain. So what is it? Supposition? What?”
“I...“ He clenched his hands tightly together and rocked back and forth on the chair a few times. He was having a fight with himself. Then, suddenly, he looked up at me. “I’ve only seen them from a distance. But it’s them. I’m…“
He hesitated. And he was lying. The fact stood out from his face like a beacon. “I know,“ I said sarcastically, “You’re almost certain.”
He did a bit more waffling then shrugged. My gut-feeling dissipated. This was lush-talk. It was a stupid idea in the first place. Yet I’d almost believed him. I shook my head.
“C’mon, Pat. You know better than that!”
“But, Jackie…“ He was pleading now.
I tutted. “If you don’t stick to the facts and not what you bleedin’-well think, I’ll put a couple on you. I’m not in the mood!”
He repeated the helpless shrug. I waved the subject aside, cavalier-like, and took out a cigarette and lit up. Teague says, petulantly: “You’ll bloody-well find out, Jackie. And I tell you this; I’m glad you’re here. You don’t believe me now, I know that. But you will. And I’ll be in the clear.”
“What do you mean? in the clear?”
Some water flopped over the dam. “Hadley’s bad. I know that for sure. And it wouldn’t have been impossible for him to pass the buck over to me. Who’d believe my word against his? He’s got a Triple-Crown clearance. What’ve I got? A. V.H.F. radio and sodding little else.”
He was acting like a kid. I said: “They don’t give that kind of clearance to people who are likely to turn into double-agents. You’ve been at the hard stuff too long.”
He looked me in the eyes, defiant. “You’ll see.”
I nodded. “One way or the other. And since we’re on the subject of finding things out, what about this file you say Hadley’s got. Is that supposition as well?”
More defiance. “I saw it. With my own eyes.”
I nodded disinterestedly. “Yeah . . . he left it lying about for the world to see. Right?”
“No!” His eyes blazed for an instant. Then he seemed to withdraw into himself again.
Actually the look on his face was hard to pin down. He looked mixed up, for sure. But he was strangely genuine. Then I thought that I had him pegged. “You did a job on his safe. Right?”
He hesitated, then nodded guiltily. “I had to do something. I felt like I was working for the other side half the time. It’s not easy taking orders from a double-agent.“ The sentence trailed off into obscurity and there was an uneasy silence during which I decided that I really had nothing. And still I kept the question of the girl up my sleeve. I said:
“Let’s move on to greener pastures. How many men does Hadley have on the official payroll?”
Teague looked at me bleakly. Then he sighed deeply, all hard-done-by. “There’s just me and Peters. We use a guy from Corfu for the occasional ferry job. A man called Dino Ferrantis. I knew him in the war.
But he knows nothing from nothing.”
“Okay. How about this Peters. What’s his form?”
Teague shrugged. “Peters is a fairy!”
I sighed. “Apart from his being a fairy what’s his form?”
“I hardly know him. He’s just out. Weeks only. Ex Special Branch I think. Civvy. He may be in with Hadley, I don’t know. But I’d keep Roberts out of his way.”
We seemed to have dropped out of the realms of fantasy, which felt pleasant. I said, “You don’t think he saw him this morning?”
Teague shook his head. “Don’t think so. Peters was in the office and Hadley was out of town today.” Then he perked up a bit. “I’ll give you a guarantee, Jackie, and perhaps you’ll believe me. Neither of them knows about you - who you are with - so if they find out before you want them to, provided Roberts doesn’t get recognized, then you’ll know where to come looking, won’t you?”
Pretty blatant stuff. And true. On this one Teague received, tacitly, my full marks. Then he said: “Is it all right if I have another drink now?” His eyes were on the soggy patch of liniment and broken glass.
“If you’re brave enough.”
He crossed the room to a tatty cupboard and took out another bottle. As he put the uncorked neck to his lips his hands were shaking madly. His swallow would have done justice to a suction pump. Then he came back and sat down, offering the bottle to me. Wiser now, I waved it away. Teague shrugged and started to get outside of my share. Then we both heard the car drive up outside. Teague stiffened and the neck of the bottle cemented itself in the drinking position. The car door slammed and a girl’s voice called out in Greek. Teague almost swallowed the bottle. His eyes bulged in panic, and still the bottle was stuck to his lips.
The girl was not diabolically beautiful but she would have done me. And she had a gorgeous body. I’m partial to long-haired women and this one had the longest I’d ever seen. Half of it sprung like some black-watered fountain from the top of her head, joining the rest of it around the almost bare shoulders. There was no bra. Just this tight-fitting denim top that pushed and jostled her breasts out over the top.
She came in the door with a smile on her face, saw me, and the smile wiped itself clean leaving her face with nothing on it but hate. For me. Which was unkind, because I didn’t know her from the proverbial, apart from Roberts’ description of her. And one should only hate someone you’ve at least spoken to for some time.
I looked at Teague who still hadn’t managed to get the bottle away from his mouth. His bulbous eyes flashed over at me, and at last he lowered the bottle. He would have said something, I’m sure, if the girl hadn’t beaten him to it. She let go at me as if I was the very devil. It was in Greek so I didn’t understand a single word. But I didn’t have to. Her expression told the entire story. Teague shouted at her after a bit and she quieted down. And when she was down to a subdued growl he turned to me. I raised an eyebrow. He said:
“I can explain.”
I grunted. “I’m sure you can.“ My thoughts must have been mirrored in my face because he looked suddenly scared.
“It isn’t what you think,” he said.
I was about to ask him what he assumed I thought it was when the girl pipes up again. This time in English, bless her thoughtful heart.
“I am Ina. I am fren’ to Patrich. Patrich ‘as many fren in Aten’. An’ I know why you are ‘ere…“ She stopped abruptly when she saw Teague’s look of anguish.
What she had said, though, was already said, and it threw a vivid light on the picture. Roberts had been right in that Teague and the girl were in cahoots and, what was worse from my angle, not to mention Teague’s, she must have been told about E.L. by Teague. If that didn’t finish Teague nothing did.
“She doesn’t know!” said Teague breathlessly. “Not about…about you. Look, Jackie, it’s not like that at all!“ He was almost beside himself now. He lurched to his feet and stumbled over to the girl and grabbed her arm. He spoke to her the way a condemned man would speak to a vicar, for at least a minute, and in Greek. The girl’s expression went through several changes as he spoke, ending in a look of wide-eyed fright. She shot me a glance then breezed out as quick as she’d come in. The car engine roared, tyres screeched, and then there was quiet. Teague, panting, turned back to me.
“Let me explain
“You’ve already explained,” I said curtly. I was already getting my orders to Roberts formulated in my brain. Teague grabbed at the sideboard for support. He seemed close to collapse. And, God help me, I decided to give him his chance at an explanation.
“Okay, Teague,“ I said harshly, “You’ve got just this one chance before I set the hounds onto you!”
Teague steadied himself then took a deep breath. “It isn’t going to be easy to believe.”
“Nothing is these days,” I said, not completely unkindly. “But you’re going to have to do some fancy footwork to crawl out of this one. I suppose you do realize just what it is you’ve done. From what the girl said you’ve spread my name and number over half of Athens. I won’t sit still for that. You know damned well I won’t! And that’s not just a threat. It’s got sweet Fanny Adams to do with the group. This is my personal hide we’re talking about. And you’ve nailed it to the bloody wall!”
He shook his head vigorously. “Christ, Jackie! No! I wouldn’t do that. Look, these people she mentioned. They’re…they’re only smugglers. They don’t know anything about the group. I swear it. And they, she, don’t know about E.L. Nothing.”
I reached for my cigarettes. Smugglers, for God’s sake! It was bloody pathetic. I lit up and looked at Teague through slitted eyes. I’m looking at a dead man, I thought. But I let him go on because I was no longer in a hurry.
Teague did not have to search for words now. They came ninety to the dozen. And I was having another history lesson before I even realized it.
“I knew some of them in the war. I was stationed over on Patros. Ina was only a little girl then. But her father, Carlo, did a lot of work for us. They all did. And they’re all good people. So who else could I turn to? They’re friends from way back, and I’d trust them with my life!”
I took another puff at the cigarette. I was amazed at how genuine Teague could sound when he wanted to. He had to be an ace story teller whatever else he was.
“Like I told you, Jackie, Hadley is working for the other side. But who could I tell? I’m on my own here. A small cog in the wheel. And I’m not getting any younger. If I get booted from the group what am I going to do? So I did what I thought was best. For the group, for the service. I’m innocent, Jackie. I swear I am. Hell, I’d no more cross the colonel than I would fly!”
Once again I’d been decent enough to let him get the dirty water off his chest, but now I figured that time was wasting. I said, “I really am disappointed in you, Pat. I thought you had more gumption.”
Teague gulped and almost choked as he tried some more pleading. “Jackie! please!” Then he waved his head about a bit before planting himself back on the seat. He blubbered: “Jesus! How can I convince you?”
I allowed a couple of seconds to pulsate by. Then I said, “Convince me that you didn’t get your girlfriend to keep a tab on Hadley.”
Teague looked up sharply, caught out. He opened his mouth. But I held up my hand. “Save it!“ I rose to my feet. I was soaked with sweat and not particularly inclined to hear any more ramblings. “No more first names,“ I said. “No more Jackie this and Jackie that! I had some sympathy for you before. Now I’m sick enough to vomit. Good old Jackie is on the E.L. team now, or had you forgotten? I might have been able to forgive a few small slips, but when you lay my life on the line by breaking my cover to a bunch of smugglers I draw a very definite line. When I arrived in Athens it was with the sole intention of ending up with a dead body. And it’s going to be yours, you bloody lunatic, yours!”
Teague looked up at me. The tears were streaming down his face. “I didn’t shop you,“ he sobbed pitifully. “I didn’t!”
As I stood looking down at him I felt my stomach muscles constrict. This was not it. It had been too bloody easy. And things just didn’t happen like that. Or, said my subconscious, was I just getting too bloody soft. Whichever way I found myself wanting to believe him. He was tearing his guts out. I flicked my butt end out of the open door and took a deep breath. I turned.
“Then tell rue how the girl knew who I was.”
Teague grasped the chance with both hands. He wiped his face with his grubby sleeve and rose shakily to his feet.
“Ina doesn’t know who you are. She thinks you’re one of Hadley’s men. You’re right about her tailing Hadley. I put her on to him because I couldn’t do it myself. But she was just doing me a favour. She doesn’t know about the group, or what his part is in it. She doesn’t even know what I do. I asked her to watch Hadley and she did it. Nothing more.“ It sounded ridiculous and Teague knew it. He came and leant on the door jamb and shook his head. “I can’t explain properly.”
“You’re telling me!”
Teague thumped the wall with his palm then went on: “It started back before those two couriers went missing – supposedly - it would take too long to go into it all, but Hadley wasn’t acting right. He’d get coded messages from God knows where, codes that I didn’t recognize, and I’m the comm. number! I can recognize every code the group uses. And he was always seeing strange people. Then, sometime later, he changes the whole system. I wish to God I could explain it properly. But you would have had to be on the spot to have picked up anything. Then Hadley changes the personnel. For no reason. But he must have thought that I was harmless enough to keep around.
“I felt that it was all wrong. I knew it was all wrong! You know how it is when you get a feeling like that. I found myself looking for things. And I found them. Not things that amounted to much by themselves. But all together, over the months, they added up…“ He looked down at his hands. “That’s when I asked Ina to watch him, where he goes and who he sees.“ He looked up at me sharply. “But I didn’t tell her why I wanted this. That’s gospel, Jackie! And she didn’t ask. She did it. And she took the pictures. One of the people on one of them looked like the first courier. It was the courier!”
It’s not easy to put into words how he looked as he stood there wringing his podgy hands together. He was sad, overburdened, beaten and God-knows-what else. All rolled into one overweight human being. He was about as far removed from a Counter Intelligence operative, than I was from a nun. And I haven’t the vaguest idea why I didn’t put a bullet into him right there and then - well, I have, I didn’t have a gun. Burgess’s doing again, only the trigger men are supposed to carry guns. But you know what I mean. In any event I said:
“But your little dolly bird said that she knew why I was here!”
Teague shook his head and grimaced. ‘Words, Jackie. They were just words. If you knew her and her father you’d understand. I’m…sort of…family myself. I…“ He waved this next bit away deprecatingly, if that the word I want; my off-the-cuff vocabulary doesn’t extend past words longer than marmalade. “I . . . I saved Carlo’s life during the war. I think they feel responsible for me. Anyway, you are a European.”
I think that that was supposed to explain it all. It damn well didn’t. I slapped the palm of my right hand a glancing blow on my forehead, the way I’ve seen several Jews do it. Speaks volumes, does that gesture. Teague enlarged.
“Europeans don’t come up here. Hell, no European wants to know me! So…when she saw you she jumped to the wrong conclusion.”
There was no fighting it. I was definitely yo-yoing again. But I said, ”You do realize that it’s going to take a giant effort on my part to believe all this.”
He nodded slowly. “I know, Jackie, I know.”
I lit up another cigarette and we stood there in the doorway, the sun burning down on us, like Tweedledee and his mate. Then a fairly pertinent point crossed my mind. It wasn’t a long journey for it, of course.
“You do realize that you could still have kissed yourself from the face of the earth.“ There was no malice there, just a statement of fact. “Even assuming that you acted with the very best of intentions did you ever stop to think that maybe, just maybe, you were wrong? And that you could have blown the cover of a viable operation? Just how long d’you think your precious colonel would have let you live if he knew that you had one of your cronies keeping tabs on the head of one of his stations? I’ll tell you. Just as long as it took him to pick up a phone!”
Teague dropped his head.
I went on: “You’ve put your life on the line now. Are you positive about Hadley? I mean abso-bloody-lutely one hundred per cent certain!”
Teague looked up at me, his face set like concrete now. “Hadley’s bad, Jackie! I don’t know how, why or with who, but he is bad!“ The resolve oozed out of him then and he dropped his head again. “But I’ve had it, Jackie, finished. I’ve done every damned thing I can do. There’s nothing left in me. It’s up to you now…You do it, Jackie. Nail the bastard!”
I looked at him for a moment wondering why I was feeling the way I was feeling. It’s not easy living with the fact that you feel like a ping-pong ball. Then I flicked the cigarette out onto the dirt.
“Okay, Pat, old son. You’ve just bought yourself a few more hours on this mortal plain.”