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Bespoke Assassins

Image from bu.edu

Image from bu.edu

Paul Dellit has written some excellent political articles for The AIMN, so it came as some surprise that he is better known for his screenplay writing. Thomas Keneally, in a recent review of one of Paul’s screenplays I wrote: “I liked your screenplay and plot very much” and went on to describe it as “a very interesting and well-wrought script”. This particular screenplay – a spy thriller set in 1992 involving a MI5 mission directed at uncovering the source of stolen Russian radioactive material – has been turned into a novella (with input from Mr Keneally) and prior to publishing in hard copy has been offered to The AIMN.

We are pleased to ‘publish’ Paul’s novella. Being over 40,000 words, it will need be published in weekly installments.

1993

Hawkesbury River, Sydney Australia

I

A heavy, early morning fog hangs low above the still, glassy surface of the Hawkesbury River. A restored antique wooden river cruiser grumbles awake and settles into a relaxed base rhythm, slowly arcing away from its private jetty mooring to make for the private jetty of the neighbouring riverside home. A woman and her preschool daughter are waiting there, rugged up against the chill air. They hear the familiar sound of the boat approaching and strain to see it through the mist. The little girl waves as it emerges into plain sight. A preschool girl, leaning out from the cabin of the boat, waves back. The boat, with motor now disengaged, glides towards the jetty and then engages reverse to slow it to a stop alongside. The little girl on board hands a rope to the woman on the jetty who ties it to a bollard.

The woman on the jetty, Emma, says as she lifts her daughter across to the woman on the boat, Claire: “The plumber is supposed to be on his way. The laundry is flooded.”
Claire offers to help: “If Old Bill’s plumber isn’t here by lunchtime, call me on my mobile phone and I’ll call the one I used when we were building. I think I could twist his arm to get someone here today.” And watching her daughter Danielle take little Kate by the hand, she adds with a wry smile, “The joys of living where we do! Do you have your shopping list?” She wants to add how much she hopes Oliver will love ‘living where we do’ as much as she does, but she knows that will start a conversation and the girls will be even later for preschool than they are already. It’s slow going in this blessed fog.
Emma hands her shopping list to Claire and warmly responds, “I owe you one – one and a half.”

“If we keep score, Emm, I’m afraid I will never catch up.”
Emma releases the rope from the bollard into the water and the two little girls pull it on board, giggling as some water splashes on them. As the boat pulls away from the jetty, they all wave to Emma who waves back. The boat disappears into the mist long before the solitary, echoing sound of its motor fades.

II

The Bobbin Head boatshed, where Claire and Emma garage their cars, is owned and managed by a local character known to all as ‘Old Bill’ – a goodhearted soul, very knowledgeable about the history of the Hawkesbury, and a willing assistant to any of his regulars who find themselves in difficulties. He is implicitly trusted by them all, and sometimes shares their confidences, some confidences that they would never consider for a moment sharing with friends or family.
Old Bill is sitting at his office desk when Claire bustles in. She looks stressed but in command of the situation. She is a little distracted by the girls and their bags and hers as she looks up to attract Old Bill’s attention.
“Oh Bill. Good morning.” And then, after a big sigh, she continues in a rush, “My car has died. We’re running very late. I’ll need Emma’s keys. How are you going with her plumber? Do your best. Flooded laundry. We’re both in the wars today: Emma’s turn to drive the girls and she has leaking pipes; I was supposed to meet the Telstra man to get some extra lines installed for Oliver’s computers – that’s had to be reschedule to some time around the next ice age – and now my car is on the blink.”
Old Bill rummages around in his desk drawer for the spare keys to Emma’s station wagon. He wants to settle Claire’s nerves, so he asks a question he is sure will evoke pleasant thoughts. “When’s he arrive?”
She sighs again, then smiles. “Week after next. You met Oliver when he was here last, didn’t you Bill, and brought him out to the building site, and then, when he had to fly out, you . . .”
Old Bill doesn’t look up from the desk drawer as he cuts in to respond. “Yes, picked him up again because you were tied up with the builders. He must have spent more time on the water than he did at the site. Hope he can stay more than one day this time! That was over six months ago.”
Claire adjusts her hold on the bags and looks at the girls as she continues. “Did he say anything to you, Bill? Did he say anything about the place – any clue whether he liked the thought of living there? You men tell one another things.”
Old Bill’s expression transforms from concern to relief as he lifts the keys from the drawer. “Here they are!” And, as he hands Emma’s car keys to Claire, he replies, “Oh, I think he was just saying how proud he was of what you were doing. That’s right. He said you were one of the brightest architects in Sydney. I remember that – ‘brightest architects in Sydney’. Then, with the sly, wizened smile of an old salt, he asks, “Is that true Claire?”
Claire smiles, and with that kind of ironic smugness she knew would amuse Old Bill, she snaps back, “Of course!”
But their brief moment of banter ends abruptly as she looks at her watch then back at Bill to ask, “Can you call Emma and tell her I had to take her car?” Old Bill nods and replies, “You head off.”
Claire gathers bags and children together and, as she hurries out of the boatshed office, calls back to Old Bill, “Tell her I’ll call after I’ve dropped the girls off.” Old Bill reaches for the phone and calls back, “Will do.”
Emma’s station wagon, steam pluming from its exhaust pipe, pulls away from the boatshed garage and begins its ascent of the road along the steep ridge which rises from the river bank of that part of the Hawkesbury River. Old Bill is talking on the phone to Emma when he hears what sounds like a car backfire then a dull metallic thud. He stands up from his desk to look out of the office window. He sees Emma’s station wagon, having crashed through a safety rail, on fire and careening down the steep ridge, loudly smashing its way through scrub as it goes. Its descent is stopped when it slams into a large boulder. Flames envelop the station wagon until suddenly it explodes so loudly the sound echoes across the river gorge. The station wagon is now barely visible at the centre of a large ball of flames. Old Bill is transfixed, speechless.

Emma is puzzled by the sudden break in his communication with her and the strange sound she heard in the background. She is anxious to regain Old Bill’s attention and begins speaking loudly into her phone. His continued lack of response begins to transform her puzzlement into rising concern.

“Bill? . . . Bill? . . . BILL! What was that loud bang? Bill! Are you there?”

Still unable to fully comprehend what has happened, he replies distractedly, “An accident. An accident, Emma. I’ll have to call . . . I’ll call you back.”
“What kind of accident? My car? . . .”

“I’ll call you straight back.” And with that, Old Bill hangs up and dials Emergency Services.
Too many coincidences, she thinks to herself, pacing up and down, phone still in hand. That did sound like an explosion. Phillip didn’t call last night. He promised to call. He calls every night, but he especially promised to call last night. He was going to tell me about some meeting he was going to have – some kind of outlandish intelligence he was promised. He was going to let me know what it was and whether it had ‘any legs’. Then he didn’t call. That could have been the sound of my car in some kind of serious accident. Bill said Claire had taken my car. The accident could have been sabotage meant for me. Oh god! I’ll call them.

“Yes. . . . it could well be my car. . . . Yes, I was supposed to be driving. It sounded like a loud explosion. My daughter was being driven in my car! You need to get someone there to make sure she’s alright – all of them. It’ll take me too long. The boatshed owner is calling – I don’t know who . . . . I don’t know – that’s all I know. You need to get someone there NOW – that fellow who lives in Turramurra – and armed . . . . No! All I know is that my very capable neighbour was driving my car with her daughter and mine on board. There’s been some kind of accident. She doesn’t have accidents. . . . I told you, it sounded like an explosion. . . . No, I don’t want to leave it to the local police. I haven’t heard from Phillip. He was supposed to call last night but he didn’t and he never misses. He had something important to tell me. No! Don’t call London. He would have called me before he called London. No! SHUT – UP! PLEASE!! STOP TALKING TO ME AND GET SOMEONE THERE NOW – MAKE SURE MY DAUGHTER IS SAFE – AND TAKE CONTROL OF THINGS. PLEASE! And then get someone here to check this place and my boat. NOW GET OFF THE F*CKING PHONE SO I CAN CALL THE BOATSHED.”
Emma slams the phone down, picks it up, and begins rapidly hitting the buttons.

III

A helicopter lands on the water adjacent to Emma’s private jetty. Men in overalls manoeuvre the helicopter with a paddle until they are able to moor it hard against the end of the jetty. A man in casual clothes steps onto the jetty and walks over to Emma who is waiting for him. Men in overalls hurry past the two of them towards Emma’s house and another man in overalls begins inspecting a small cabin cruiser moored at the jetty. Emma and the man begin walking side by side along the jetty. The man begins talking to Emma who stops suddenly and turns to face him. She begins shaking her head and crying and grabbing at his jacket with both hands. Then she drops to her knees with her head in her hands, crying. The man in casual clothes crouches down beside her and attempts to comfort her.
“No! No!” she cries out, the anguish in her voice giving the lie to her denial. And then, crying, she begins pleading, “Not Katie. Please! Please not Katie. Not Katie. Not Katie.” Her voice trails off to silence and she remains kneeling, hands covering her face, bent over, sobbing noiselessly. Then she lifts her head slowly and catches her breath. Tears stream down her cheeks. She catches her breath again. A single sigh expresses the depth of sadness and sense of hopelessness that possess her. All signs of life have drained from her face and she appears trancelike and about to faint. Then she looks up and whispers, “Oh Claire . . . what have we done to you . . .”

Chapter 2

EIGHT MONTHS LATER
ENGLAND

I

Oliver Pymm is standing in an alcove garden beside a large English country house. He is inspecting an expensive looking shotgun, broken open, holding it up at an angle so that he can examine its features in the watery afternoon sun. Sir Jolyon Lamb appears at the French windows of the house which open onto the alcove garden. He walks across the lawn, unheard by Oliver and, as he approaches, greets Oliver with a broad jovial smile, hand extended. “Mr Pymm!”

Oliver turns to find standing behind him a man wearing a town suit which bears traces of a long and eventful life, a bright blue-striped shirt and an Old Harrovian bowtie slightly askew. For all that his attire would have been a bit on the shabby side for the city, and is out of place in the country, he is an imposing presence, tall with a shock of dishevelled grey hair and a large frame amply provisioned by a hearty appetite. He is carrying an age-worn soft leather briefcase under his arm. Though this is their first meeting, he continues with the familiarity of an old friend.

“Julian Lamb. Let’s wander along to the library for our chat.” And as they walk, he adds: “Looks like a Purdey.” “Yes. So you know your shotguns.”

“My father had a matched pair of Purdeys. Beautiful objects. He left them to me in his will. I gave them to my sister. She’s huntin’ and shootin’ and I’m books and music, but he always made out it was the other way around.” He laughs at this reminiscence.
Oliver smiles and begins to warm to his unexpectedly avuncular mission controller, responding in a similarly relaxed vein, “I was told your name is Jolyon Lamb, with a ‘Sir’ in front of it.”

“All true, yes . . . mother was very fond of Galsworthy, unfortunately. The boys in my dorm called me Joly-on, by which they meant the autoerotic act. Fortunately my father told me that Julian is an earlier form of Jolyon. Lots of other ‘Julians’ at school – safety in numbers.” He laughs again.

When they reach the library, a woman is waiting for them. She is slender, a little above average height, short cropped blond hair, and with the kind of healthy look and complexion of someone who exercises regularly. She appears to be in her late thirties. Oliver notices her as he places the gun with its twin in the gun case on a side table by the French windows. Julian performs the introductions.

“Fraulein Alys Frohlich, this is Oliver Pymm. Of course, Oliver, as you will have suspected, this is Mrs. Emma Plessey.”

They had begun to shake hands before Julian spoke the words ‘Emma Plessey’. Oliver had already noticed that tears had begun to form at the corners of her eyes and that her hand was limp in his. He stops shaking her hand and holds it with both of his. They are transfixed by each other, unable to speak or move. Then her lips begin to tremble almost imperceptibly and her eyes seem to plead for help. She speaks in a very soft voice. “I’m so sorry.”

But Emma quickly recovers her composure and as Oliver gently draws her to him, he is unaware of her unwillingness to prolong the moment and then surprised when she seems to prematurely draw away from him. Julian looks on sympathetically but he is anxious to bring them back to the reason for their meeting. He clears his throat.

“I don’t wish to seem insensitive, but I must speak to you both before I return to London, and I must leave within the hour.”

Oliver had expected to meet Emma at the Pan Europe Bank in Berlin, in his office, where she would introduce herself as his new personal assistant. Her presence at the English country house of one of the Bank’s most important clients, the sudden revival of emotionally crippling imaginings which their meeting evokes, and that his mental picture of Emma Plessey is so much at odds with her actual appearance – all combine to unsettle him. He raises the least disturbing of these surprises with Emma as a way of forcing himself back to equanimity.

“I didn’t recognise you. Claire’s photos . . .”

Emma seemingly ignores Oliver’s comment as Julian leads them to the sofa and armchairs surrounding a low table in the corner of the library. Julian begins before they are seated. “Peter Feint. Did you form any impressions of him, Oliver?” “Do you know him? I mean have you met him?”

“No.”

“He’s a funny, rotund little fellow, cardigans and slippers brigade, a desk jockey, a bit hard to keep to the point. He didn’t provide an inspiring first impression of ASIS. When he phoned, out of the blue, to invite me to meet him . . . very odd fellow. I suppose I spent no more than three hours with him all up. Of course, it didn’t take much to persuade me to ‘join up’ . . . once he told me that Claire and Danni, and Katie, had been murdered.”

“What did he tell you about Phillip Plessey?”

“What’s this about?”

Julian turns to Emma. “Could you make sure that Feint has given Oliver the proper briefing. Run through the formal brief with him. I noticed some of it assumes a level of background knowledge.”

Emma nods ascent and Julian turns back to Oliver.

“There is a problem with your Mr. Feint. He has gone astray – working for the other team or, or perhaps on his own account. Either way, he’s pretty chummy with a couple of CIA intelligence officers he has no official reason to know. He has been exchanging email messages with them, encrypted email messages. He has his own computer server at a secret location. ASIS hasn’t been able to locate the server nor crack the encryption – probably CIA. We suspect that these CIA fellows are either in league with Mr. Feint in an unofficial enterprise . . . or, the CIA is playing Mr. Feint for their own nefarious purpose, though that seems unlikely.

Oliver emphasises his surprise. “When did this come to light?”

“You were winging your way here when Andrew called me. You know Andrew, of course.”

“Yes. Feint took me to meet him. I gathered it was to get his big boss’s final sign-off on my recruitment.”

Oliver pauses to consider the implications of this news before continuing, “So when I report in to Feint I suppose you will have to . . . I should take my cues from you. How will that work?”

“You’d better hear that from Andrew. He wants to talk to you because you are nominally working for ASIS and on secondment to us; you’re his man in the first instance and he wants to give you your formal riding instructions.”

“The race hasn’t even started, and there’s a protest.”

“When you find a rat in the ranks, Oliver, you have to consider the possibility that he has been working against all of our interests. It may be that Feint and his CIA chums were involved in the disappearance of Phillip and the sabotaging Emma’s car. Then again, they may have other interests entirely . . . And of course, a CIA involvement, although unlikely, cannot be completely ruled out. ASIS rule it out but we tend to cast a more analytical eye over the CIA than our Australian cousins do. Plainly, we have too many plausible alternatives. And it might be all of the above.

Julian stands up, pauses, looks into the distance, slowly shakes his head, then continues with an air of exasperation, “It’s a bloody mess! Anyway, let’s make that call to Andrew.”

Oliver and Emma follow Julian to the study and Emma closes the door behind them. Julian makes a phone call then replaces the receiver. They wait without speaking. The phone rings and Julian picks up the receiver.

“Andrew. I have Oliver for you.”

Julian hands the receiver to Oliver. “Hello Andrew. . . . Yes. . . . When was that? . . . Well, of course I want to continue. . .”

When Oliver hangs up, Julian leads them across to the armchairs which are assembled around a coffee table in a corner of the study. Oliver reports on his phone discussion with Andrew, addressing Julian first.

“Andrew confirmed your advice about Feint. The only changes to our modus operandi, as I understand it, are that (he turns to Emma) you tell me what to say to Feint when I report in. (Now he addresses both Julian and Emma) Our objective will be to feed him with stuff designed to flush him out, find out what we can about what he’s up to and then you work out what to do from there. And our mission continues as originally planned. Feint-flushing is an added extra.”

Julian looks directly at Oliver. He speaks in tones that could be considered challenging, his demeanour now unexpectedly serious.

“I heard you say to Andrew that you wanted to continue in your role. You said ‘of course’, I think. With respect, Oliver, there is no ‘of course’ about it. When you were recruited, your job description placed you at no greater risk than crossing the street. If our worst suspicions about Feint and Co. prove correct, they will be motivated to deal with you and Emma as they appear to have dealt with your families. It wasn’t Feint, not even ASIS, who put you forward for this mission. I don’t know whether you knew that. We approached ASIS to recruit you. You and Emma replacing Phillip may seem to Feint and his American friends like a most unwelcome turn of events.”

Julian pauses for effect before continuing, “Oliver, I would like you to take some time to think it over. No recriminations, no embarrassment of any kind if you say it’s not for you.”
Emma turns to Oliver to engage his attention, her expression serious, her voice betraying genuine concern as she seeks to reinforce Julian’s advice.

“I agree with Julian. I’m trained to work in the field in risky situations. It is what I do. I’m sure you are as brave and resourceful as the next man, but what you do is merchant banking. Please take time to think about it before giving your final answer. If you decide you want to go ahead, I will be pleased to work with you, but . . . it could be awkward if you decide to pull out once we’re in the field.

Oliver responds to these comments with a restrained note of exasperation in his voice. “Okay.” He pauses reflectively before continuing, “I appreciate your concerns. I look at it this way.” He turns to Emma, pausing again before continuing to emphasise his seriousness of purpose, “This mission has cost us our families, Emma, so I take it you’re involved because you believe in it, not simply because it’s your job. I understand that as an outsider and foreigner to boot, I’m not permitted to know the purpose of the mission. All I know is that Claire thought very highly of you, and she was a great judge of character. If you think this mission is important, so do I. Apparently I’m uniquely placed to obtain the kind of information you need. You’ve researched my background so you know I have some experience in dealing with dangerous situations, and without losing my nerve. . . . You already have my answer.”

Julian nods and replies with a good-natured smile, “But I will leave the door open for the next day or two. If you have the slightest doubt . . .”

Thinking that their discussions are about to end, Oliver begins to stand when Julian continues, once again in a more serious vein, “And there is another dimension to your involvement – another edge to this sword that I would like you to consider. In your position, I might be attracted to this mission . . . because . . . perhaps, I may encounter individuals associated with the murder of my family. As you say, Oliver, you are not unfamiliar with the notion, indeed the experience, of mortal combat. . . .”

Oliver begins to respond, “Julian, I . . .”

But Julian interrupts him to continue, “I must say this to you both.” He turns to Emma. “Please don’t take it amiss when I include you.” He pauses reflectively before continuing to both of them in a stern voice, “I must underline in indelible ink that, for the purposes of this mission, you are both intelligence officers under my direct control. My instructions are that you gather information in the manner described in your formal briefings. Nothing more! In the current circumstances we will have to issue a firearm to each of you.” He turns to Oliver. “I know that ASIS gave you basic training in the use of a handgun, whether you needed it or not. Emma will be provided with some extra kit, but I must emphasize (addressing both of them again) that you are not permitted to use anything issued to you for other than your personal protection – and not to be used except in extreme circumstances when there is no alternative. Feint is now under constant surveillance, and we have people in the US keeping track of the two CIA fellows, and digging up what they can which might link them to this mission. We will implement other protective measures for you should the need arise. No need for our security people to be holding your hands just yet. We don’t want to risk you two being identified as people who are important to 6.”
Oliver decides that Julian is taking things far too seriously and, smiling, hopes that a humorous aside might lessen the tension.

“So no Aston Martin, no box of tricks from Q?”

And when this falls flat, he decides to pour oil on what might otherwise become troubled waters.

“I can assure you, Julian, that I am not here for revenge. I’m sure Claire would not have wanted that, as sure as I am that she would have wanted me to assist with this mission, without taking risks.”

Oliver is relieved when Julian smiles and his expression becomes relaxed and the tone of his response becomes more that of an esteemed uncle in need of a favour than a bureaucrat demanding obeisance.

“They are very fine sentiments, Oliver. Could almost have been rehearsed, but I accept them at face value. I am relying on both of you to hold to them, not only as servants of Her Majesty but for my own, very important, personal reasons.”

Julian sits back in his chair and continues in a reflective, almost contemplative vein. “I retire in nine months – to a small villa in the south of France. And I think I can say, without conceit, that my wife and I have earned a peaceful retirement – my wife probably has the greater claim. Your commitment to this mission runs for twelve months, and if there is more to do after that, there will be others to take your places – others for whom I will have had no responsibility.”

Obviously warming to his subject, Julian pauses and looks off into the distance before continuing.

“That leaves a period of three months, following my retirement, when any crisis that arises will have to be managed by my successor,” adding with irony, “conveniently coinciding with his initial three months’ trial period. His appointment, it seems, was arranged in malodorous Shakespearean Denmark . . .”

Oliver’s artlessly propensity for wandering off topic to explore sidetracks becomes apparent.

“Ah! As in: ‘there’s something rotten in the state of . . . I always find it refreshing to work with people who have had a classical education. Remarkably few people, even in the upper echelons of banking . . .”

Emma is both surprised and amused, but immediately reads the situation. She touches Oliver’s arm and whispers to him.

“We need to keep focus, Oliver.”

Oliver is mortified by the realisation that he has done it again. “Sorry, Julian. Continue, please.”

Ignoring his lapse, Julian sits forward to continue with the clear intention of providing exposition for Oliver’s benefit, rather than reproach. “My putative replacement has connections within the Minister’s office. His father is very well connected – chums with the Minister.”

This recollection seems to rub salt into an old wound, and he continues with forlorn resignation.

“He is very inexperienced but with all the untempered enthusiasm and self-confident ambition of youth . . . and not even from our Section – not even a nodding acquaintance with this mission. I think we can rely upon young Glasely to panic in a crisis, and in a crisis to get on the blower to me. I plan to spend my retirement in the South of France doing irreparable damage to my liver, further expanding my girth and dozing in the afternoon sun, after my grand dejeuner, under an umbrella. I do not want to have to speak to an agitated young Glasely on the telephone because either or both of you have decided to go off piste.”
Julian seems relieved to have completed this declaration of personal interest, and with the disposition of a man who has just regained his rightful place at the head of the table, clears his throat, stands up, and addresses Oliver while intimating his intention to leave.

“Right-oh then. Emma will go over the rest.”

As Emma and Oliver stand up in preparation for the ritual of saying goodbye, Julian takes the initiative.

“Good luck, both of you. Back to London.”

He nods affectionately to Emma, shakes hands with Oliver, adding, “We probably won’t see one another again for some time, Oliver. When this mission ends, Emma has promised to spend some time with Millie and me at our French villa. I hope you will do the same.”

As he turns to leave, he turns back to add, “Oh, Oliver, would you please say goodbye to John for me, and apologise. Running late.”

II

Oliver is standing with a group of obviously affluent Public School men gathered around a large open fire in the sitting room of the same country house. They have been invited by their host, John Flaye Lord Collingridge, to shoot pheasant on his estate the following morning. John Flaye speaks in confidential tones to Oliver, the two of them standing aside from the group.

“It’s good to see you back, Oliver. I believe your partners have been looking after me well in your absence. As far as the arcane business of investment structures is concerned, I have to believe what they tell me. Confidentially, Oliver, I would appreciate it if you could have a look to see how things are travelling. Don’t mean to speak out of turn, but you seem to be the one with the, ah, street-wise savvy. They tell me you’ll be out of the loop for the next twelve months or so, writing the definitive work on where one can make a lot of dosh investing in emerging Eastern Bloc industries. Have I got it right? Anyway, if you could just cast your eye over things every so often . . .”

And at this point, Flaye turns to the rest of the group and continues, “Do you realize that I was one of Pan Europe’s first customers, thanks to Oliver’s astute sales pitch? Well, out of earshot of the Taxman, I can say that Oliver’s Bank has considerably added to my sense of wellbeing.” He laughs and turns to Oliver again, speaking now in lowered tones. “I’m pleased you were able to spend a little time with us on the way through . . .”. He pauses, then continues in a softer voice, “. . . especially to . . . about your loss . . . I met Claire only once . . . She made an immediate impression . . .”

Oliver’s expression softens as he replies, “That’s okay, John. And thank you . . . And I’ll have a look at your position when I get back. There shouldn’t be any need to change what we had set up. If there is I will contact you but otherwise you can take it that your investments are being managed within the parameters we established.” He pauses briefly before continuing, “I meant to thank you for letting Ms. Frohlich meet me here and stay over.”

Flaye smiles. “Anything for Julian, and you of course. Time we went in to dinner. Apparently Ms. Frohlich has asked for her dinner to be sent to her in the library. Working! It seems they’re not going to let you retreat to a secluded cabin by a lake to write your book.

Meetings arranged for you as soon as you arrive and a new research assistant to break in before you start.” He laughs at the thought.

Oliver responds with raised eyebrows, “George has kept you in the loop! She has briefing notes to complete before she returns to Berlin in the morning. And I’m afraid I will have to bow out before port and cigars. Oh, and Julian asked me to say goodbye. He had to rush off. How do you know him?”

Flaye replies, “Harrow. I know not to ask how you know him. He must think highly of you. Those Purdeys belonged to his father.”

III

Oliver enters the library where Emma is alone and half reclining on a large sofa set before a large fireplace, shoes kicked off and legs drawn up close beside her. She is gazing trancelike into the crackling fire, an almost drained wine glass, an empty wine bottle, and book on the small side table next to her.

He sits at the other end the sofa, sighs, begins gazing at the fire, and pauses for a moment before speaking softly, still gazing into the fire. “Claire took a lot of photos. I’ve had copies made for you.”

Emma doesn’t look up but continues to gaze into the fire as she replies, “You’ll have to keep them for now. If my apartment is searched . . . I’d have no reason to have them . . . Feint knows who I am but we can’t be sure who we’re up against.”

Oliver turns to Emma, half smiling as he comments, “I wouldn’t have recognized you. In your photos you looked so . .”

Emma interrupts him in a mildly challenging voice, still gazing into the fire: “Pleasantly plump?”

“You had brown hair, quite long . .”

She swings around to look directly at him and widens her eyes to illustrate the point of her next interruption, “Brown eyes and glasses – blue contacts, my hair is naturally blond and I prefer to wear it short, and with the benefit of a fitness regime and healthy diet, I am back to my normal weight and shape, before I had Katie.”

There is little more than the flicker of a grimace to betray her determined efforts to internalize her grief as she continues: “You seem to be in good shape for someone who’d dropped their bundle.”

“Exercise is good for depression. How long have you been back, working for 6?”

“As soon as I got back to England. I wouldn’t have coped very well without work.”

“Yes. Having something worthwhile to do – I sat around feeling sad and useless for months.”

“Today it will be eight months and three days. We’ve been sitting on our hands waiting for you to rejoin the world.”

Oliver pauses reflectively before speaking, “The aching sadness won’t ever leave, will it. You just find a way of pushing it into the background . . .”

She interrupts again, her demeanour now politely direct, “Why are you here?”

He makes no attempt to conceal his surprise, “What do you mean?”

Her tone is now more straightforward and a little impatient, “Why are you here? Not the answer you gave Julian. I’m sure that’s what you like to tell yourself, but I suspect there is another impulse driving you to be part of this.”

He is put out by her tone and is happy to let her know it: “Does there have to be? The mission is clearly very important – I don’t have anyone depending upon me anymore – no one to lose sleep over my wellbeing. Why wouldn’t I sign up?”

“I thought as much. You’re ready for anything, no matter what the odds, ready to risk your life at the drop of a hat.”

“Well, I’m not looking for hats to drop but, in a way, ‘yes’.”

“The answer I was afraid of. Look, I know you mean well and have all the right attributes, except the sine qua non for this mission: sufficient respect for your own life – and mine if it comes to that, and for the mission. At the back of your mind there is the notion that an heroic death would be quite an okay way to go. You think that after the death of your wife and child your life has lost its meaning. So you’re ready to give everything you’ve got to this mission, take risks you would never have contemplated before your great tragedy, and if you die in the process, well, so be it. Well, you’re no good to the mission with that kind of ‘boys own’ attitude, and I’m certainly not prepared to go into the field with anyone who thinks the way you do. Julian gave you the option of an honourable withdrawal and you should take it. Write a letter advising him that you have given the matter further thought and you’ve decided to pull out. You needn’t feel you will be letting anyone down. We have a Plan B. Write it now and I can contact Julian immediately to rearrange things.”

Oliver turns to face her more directly, his tone now expressing rising irritation: “Steady on. You seem to be in quite a hurry to send me packing. How about we actually discuss this rather than make a snap decision based upon a trick question. I was recruited less than a fortnight ago, it seems at your suggestion, and frankly I’m still coming to terms with the whole idea. I suppose I have fewer inhibitions about taking risks than a family man would, but that doesn’t mean that I’m prepared to take stupid risks. I’ll happily spend some time with a shrink if you want to get a professional view of my mental state.”

He relaxes side on against the back or the sofa before continuing, “But that’s not what this is all about, is it?”

A little concerned that he has responded to her challenge in this way, she asks: “What do you mean?”

Warming to the thought that he may have wrong-footed her, he presses on with his attack, confidently, with the off-handed appraisal: “Wearing my amateur psychologist’s hat, I’d say it seemed like a good idea to recruit me, on paper, but now you’ve met me, well, your emotions have become involved, and well, you’re afraid that you might lose someone else you care about. And that empty bottle of wine might also have something to do with it.”
Initially thrown off balance by his tone, she sees through his strategy in an instant, quickly regroups, and then resumes her challenge: “What makes you think that I . . . how typically, presumptuously male of you. How could you possibly, in the space of a few minutes, come to the conclusion that I have some kind of emotional attachment to you?”

He senses an opening. “Well, I wasn’t going to put it as strongly as an ‘emotional attachment’, not yet, but given time . . .”

How dare he, she thinks, and laughs sarcastically before launching a volley of invective which she hopes will bring him up short. “I did, initially, suggest you for the mission, tentatively, subject to further research of your background. At the end of that, I had you marked down as someone so shallow that they would believe their own press, someone with an ego readily seduced by personal success, someone with the emotional intelligence of a gnat! And here you are not only confirming my assessment but demonstrating that it was a gross underestimate!”

But he is undeterred and noting that her emotions are now engaged, he speaks in a soft, confidential manner to give greater effect to his sarcastic intent. “You know, you should be grateful that we don’t live in Dickensian times. Education was typically unavailable to girls in those days. And, I have to say, I’m grateful too. How else would we be able to share such lively intercourse? Of course it’s one thing to absorb facts, as you have, but quite another to know how to apply logic to them. But have no fear. For the duration of this mission, at least, you won’t have to feel out of your depth, again. I will be here to point you in the right direction.”

‘Well if he wants to go down that path’, she thinks to herself, ‘let’s see how he handles this broadside’, which she delivers with self-assured, cold rage. “Claire once told me that you were a ‘work in progress’. She must have been blinded by love to believe there was even the slightest prospect of progress. You’re damaged goods, Oliver.”

He recognises a familiar pattern in their exchanges, one that would have emotion replacing reason resulting in an argument which could drag on forever. He decides to respond with a calm analysis of her arguments, replacing heat with light and hopefully bringing the end within sight. “I see. Well, we are taking it to another level. Only an egotistical person, I suppose, would claim to be free of egotism. But I hope I’m not too bigheaded. ‘Damaged goods’ seems a bit strong. I know I have a problem with – there’s a cliché I’m sure you’re familiar with – ‘trust issues’! I don’t have a problem with ‘trust issues’ though, do I. In your pop-psychology world, I would be said to have ‘trust issues’, wouldn’t I.” The temptation to score points and lapse into sarcasm had become too strong. “I don’t form close relationships easily, except with kids, I’m fine with kids, but with women in particular – now that is true. Perhaps I’m afraid of intimacy. Perhaps I’m overly sensitive. Perhaps I’m too much of a New Age male. I’m getting on far too well with my ‘inner female’. I’m seeing the world through her eyes.” Pausing for effect, he continues: “Ah, but then we run into a female testosterone deficit – simply not enough to fuel an out-of-control emotional wreck on a suicide mission.” And though he knows it will irritate her and is therefore even more counterproductive, he concludes with a note of smugness, “Frankly, I don’t think you’ve made your case, Emma.”

But she had had no intention of making a case at all. She had not intended to pursue a strategy of logic, but rather of emotion. Realising that it hasn’t worked, she speaks calmly in a soft, sincere voice. “I’m sorry. I’ve gone about this in quite the wrong way. I used aggression to make you angry in the hope you would . . .”

She has annoyed him and he interrupts her with: “Well it didn’t work!” But he senses her change in mood and adds, half smiling, “You obviously have a bee in your bonnet about something. But at this stage of the evening . . . let’s call it a night. It’s been a long day for both of us. I think we’ve both said things we didn’t mean. Berlin, your choice of restaurant, somewhere quiet where we can talk over dinner without everyone listening in – how does that sound?”

She is pleased he is taking it in that spirit and replies, “My apartment. I’ll cook. I want to persuade you that you’re not right for the mission, so let’s make it as soon as we can.”
Relieved to find that there is another side to her nature, he asks in good humour, “Are you a good cook? I’m fussy. A bad meal and I could be really unreceptive.”

She senses that she may be able to build a rapport with him and, with a smile in her voice, replies, “I forgot how stinking rich you are.”

Her sense of humour makes him smile and, with a sigh of resignation, he says: “Well, I score our little getting-to-know-you talk a nil-all draw.”

They smile at each other as they leave to go to their respective bedrooms.

To be continued . . .

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