Bespoke Assassins (Part 2)
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.
Today we offer Part 2 (picking up where we left off from in Part 1).
PAN EUROPE BANK, BERLIN
Two days later – Approximately 10 p.m.
Oliver walks in, wheeling a suitcase behind him, and carrying an attaché case and overcoat. He is pleasantly surprised to find Emma waiting for him.
“Oh good. You’re here. I thought I’d check to see whether you’d left any messages.”
She smiles politely and replies, “I knew what flight you were on. We want you to call Feint tonight. He’ll be at work by now. Here’s the script.”
He looks pleased as he takes the sheets of paper from her and asks, “So I’m in. You’ve decided I might be okay after all.”
But her response is matter-of-fact, “Only for this, as far as I’m concerned. We want to see what Feint does after you’ve spoken to him.”
Oliver reads the script Emma has written for him and speaks while still looking at it. “Did you write this, by yourself, no one helped you?”
Her response intimates that she is tired and will be pleased when this last task for the day is completed. “Feel free to make any changes, as long as you cover all of the points I’ve highlighted. You should emphasize those to make sure he . . .”
He interrupts, “Okay.” Then he pauses, a wry smile slowly broadening as he begins to read Emma’s script aloud in the manner of a bad amateur actor: “Oh hallo Peter. How are things going? They’re going really well for us over here! I’ve just flown in from London to some really good news. Emma has been beavering away to good effect.” He repeats “to good effect” under his breath then smiles and continues, “She’s very dedicated and a nice person to boot. I’m sure we’re going to get on like a house on fire.”
Emma, looking a little defensive, attempts to clarify: “I wanted him to know that you have confidence in this information and you intend to act upon it.”
Oliver responds, deadpan: “I see your point.”, then resumes reading aloud: “Well, are you sitting down, Peter? We think we know who the last person was who Phillip met with before he disappeared. Wait for his reaction.” He breaks off reading from the script to say to Emma: “Oh, that’s in parenthesis. I don’t say ‘Wait for . . .’ to Feint do I. It’s a kind of stage direction.” With some difficulty he is able to conceal his amusement as he resumes reading aloud from the script: “Yes Peter, good news, eh! It was due to some clever questioning on Emma’s part that we have been able to strike it lucky.” Temptation gets the better of him and he breaks off reading from the script to editorialize again: “You’ve definitely got an ear for Australian argot, Emma. ‘strike it lucky’ – that’s commonly used by many Australians in every-day speech, yes indeed. Chips Rafferty springs to mind. We’re a pretty classless, nostalgic lot, we Aussies. We love old Aussie movies about drovers and good blokes. Perhaps, though, if I may suggest, the ring of verisimilitude might be even further enhanced by a small modification to the last sentence, vis: Um . . . ‘A bit of fossicking around and, strike me lucky if she hasn’t come up trumps. What a bonza sheila!’. He smiles good naturedly at Emma and continues, “The use of the rhetorical ‘if she hasn’t’ references the Irish influence upon Australian usage – a lot of early settlers were Irish.”
Emma responds even more defensively, “You’re being silly. It’s the way you’re reading it, deliberately stilted. Use your own words, mention Chips Rafferty, whoever he is, if you want, as long as you get those points across.”
Though not proud of himself for taking advantage of Emma’s obvious vulnerability, the temptation is again too strong, “Ah, yes, the late, great, Chips Rafferty, iconically Australian, rough diamond, mate in the city or the bush – mainly in the bush: a thespian of the Australian silver screen without peer – sadly no longer with us for these past twenty something years.” But then, Oliver falls into a trap of his own making when parody becomes recollection and he begins to wander off the point, once again: “I remember as a child . . .”
He really does have trouble keeping focus, she thinks to herself as she takes this opportunity to restore the power balance between them: “Can we please focus upon the phone call!”
Oliver attempts to cover his embarrassment with a chirpy, “Bonza with me.” then continues as requested: “Incidentally, the last communication we received from Phillip was that he would be following up a lead which might provide a breakthrough, but he wasn’t very hopeful. That was it, wasn’t it?”
“Well, something important and unexpected – yes.”
“Do we know what that lead was about?”
“No, but I couldn’t tell you even if I did, not yet at least.”
“How long after did people begin to think he was missing?”
“In his last official communication he said that it would be a few days before he could confirm whether or not his lead was genuine – he had to wait for a phone call – but he was in the habit or calling me each evening Australian time.” She pauses before continuing, now speaking more softly with a note of sad reflection in her voice: “Before he left on this mission we had agreed to separate when he returned, but he was having second thoughts and I think he thought he could wear me down. He phoned every night without fail, and he would say at the end: ‘I’ll call you tomorrow night.’ I received two more evening calls from him after his last formal communication with Feint and 6, and on the last of those he said he had received the phone call and had arranged a meeting. He said he would call the next night to tell me how it went. That phone call was never made and the next morning my car was sabotaged.”
Whether or not it was her intention, he is chastened by the sadness that has come upon her; he responds in a soft voice: “I’d better make that phone call.”
Oliver takes off his coat and throws it onto a chair, undoes his collar, sits on the edge of his desk and picks up the phone. As he waits for the connection, he looks off into the distance and then smiles at Emma when it is made.
“Peter . . . Fine . . . Yes, settling in. I’m calling with good news. We think we know who Phillip last met with before he disappeared. Emma’s been setting up meetings for me with the people on Phillip’s list, and a P A . . . can’t remember . . . no, I don’t have the list with me . . . no, I left it in another office, but the P A remembered that the purpose of the meeting Emma wanted to arrange for me with her boss was the same as that given by a gentleman who came to a meeting earlier this year. She checked her diary and it was a Mr. Clements – Phillip’s cover, right? And the reason she remembered that meeting was because of the way it ended. It had just begun when she received a phone call from someone wishing to speak to him – Mr. Clements. She told the caller that he was in a meeting with her boss and took a message. She wrote it down and then took it straight into the meeting and gave it to Phillip/Clements because the caller said it was urgent. Phillip read the message and immediately excused himself and left abruptly. The date ties in with Phillip’s disappearance and – are you sitting down – she uses one of those message pads which make carbon copies and she’s agreed to retrieve it from their archives. And, she remembers it had an address because Phillip asked for directions on his way out and he seemed very preoccupied, by which Emma said she meant a bit pushy. Anyway, thank god for German efficiency! I have an appointment with her boss next Tuesday . . . no, couldn’t make it any earlier . . . so this looks like the beginning of an interesting story. I’ll call you on Tuesday evening our time. Yes . . . well I’m not celebrating yet, but it does seem like a strong lead . . . yes . . . bye Peter.
Oliver puts the phone down and smiles at Emma.
“I used your ‘are you sitting down’ line.”
She ignores his attempt at ribbing and replies, “Now we wait and see.”
“What’s for dinner – tomorrow night?”
“Risotto. Antipasti to begin and tiramisu to finish.” She decides not to let him get away scot-free with that dig. “The wine will be your responsibility. I’m sure I couldn’t afford anything you would find acceptable.”
Oliver is standing at the front door of Emma’s apartment waiting for admittance. As she opens the door he holds up an insulated wine cooler.
“Champagne for now, pinot grigio for the risotto, and a Barsac for the tiramisu.”
“Fabulously expensive, no doubt.”
“From my cellar.”
“Could you open the Champagne, please.”
Emma turns and walks along the corridor to the kitchen/dining/sitting room of the apartment with Oliver following. On her way, she opens an overhead cupboard to reveal where the wine glasses are kept. He takes her cue and juggles with the wine cooler so that he can bring two wine glasses with him.
“I hope you’ve gone to a lot of trouble. This meal represents the best you can do, right?”
“The best I could do in the time available. You wouldn’t want me to send you away without taking some trouble over your farewell dinner. That’s what you meant.”
He opens the fridge and finds places for the two still wines then opens the Champagne, pours a glass for each of them and hands one to Emma. As he does she offers him the plate of antipasti. He takes one and pauses then speaks before he tries it.
“I’d like us to be friends, whatever we decide tonight. There is more that binds us than divides us.”
They click glasses, smile and, with an easing of tensions sensed by both of them, relax. She leads the way to the sofa and places the tray of antipasti on the coffee table and as they sit, she turns to face Oliver to emphasise the sincerity of her response to his toast.
“I want that too. And whatever impression I may have given, it’s not that I do or don’t like you. . . . That’s not the reason.”
“So perhaps now”, she reflects, “we can stop dancing around one another like wary combatants”; this is the kind of beginning to the evening she had hoped for, the kind of script that she had run though in her mind while she was cooking.
While she was cooking and sipping wine and waiting for Oliver to arrive, the script that had actually been unfolding was not quite as structured as she now told herself that it had been. In fact it was more like the script of ‘Waiting for Godot’, but written by Virginia Woolf – but more a stream of confusion without the requisite consciousness. Even with the greatest exertion of will, she was having considerable difficulty calming herself. It was the thought of having Oliver in her own apartment, alone with her. She didn’t know why she felt so ill at ease. Well, perhaps she did in a way, with the baggage-full of memories that he would bring with him. It was very sad. They both had reason to be very sad and couldn’t help reminding each other why they were sad, just because of who they were. But they had to move on. They just had to! You can’t live in the past. And she had been the target and it wasn’t her fault that anyone died.
But then it pained her that she had been quite cruel to him. Perhaps that was why she felt as she did. She decided to explore self-recrimination, getting all the bad stuff she had done so far out in the open and admit it to herself; and that would give her a positive, calm way forward. “I’ve been just a guilty as he has”, she had reflected, “parries and thrusts, using banter as a shield. We’ll never get anywhere if we can’t openly and honestly tell each other what we think. I’m sure he’ll see sense when I lay it all out before him.”
“But, then again”, she reflects, “it’s a common human failing not to be able to see ourselves objectively – more commonly found in the male of the species. But even he must see that he is not right for this mission, any mission, given all of the traumatic experiences he’s had. They must have left their marks upon his personality, his emotional reflexes, his character. Perhaps he has learnt how to keep them in check in the normal course of a normal life, but how would they manifest themselves in the kinds of stressful situations we could experience in the field? And he seems such a complex man, behind that urbane facade. He’s incredibly intelligent, he’s achieved remarkable success in a relatively short space of time, and he is incredibly wealthy – yet there is a sadness behind those dark eyes. When he looks at you, they seem to smile and even sparkle when laughs. He seems naturally relaxed and affable, yet I sense that he is never far from bringing matters under control should he feel the need. Perhaps he is even more complex than he seems – what if he is calculating, even devious. I wonder if that habit he has – drifting off like an absentminded professor into his own private world of Proustian memory – I wonder if that isn’t an act he just puts on, like the foppery of the Scarlet Pimpernel – something to conceal the laser-beam intensity of his observations.”
She takes strength from this train of thought before continuing: “And I’m sure he is used to getting his own way and having everyone tell him he is right, even when he’s not. Well, that’s not the kind of mindset that I want my fellow field operative to have. Imagine if we get into some kind of situation where I say we have to do X and he agrees – a tricky situation where I have to know he will stick to what we agreed. What happens if he sees a ‘better’ solution? Logic might lead him to do something else, but then his logic may not be informed by my level of experience. His logic may not really be logical at all but he wouldn’t know that and he is so used to being right – he’s so conditioned into believing in his own bloody infallibility – oh, he must be right because he’s so bloody rich – how could he possibly accept me as the one in charge of the mission when and he’s so bloody used to being in charge? He would just say to himself: ‘oh, she’s a sweet, attractive, even beautiful woman, and she may be extremely intelligent, but I think I know better.’ That’s exactly what he would think and exactly what he would do. I might have been using aggression for effect the other night, but I was right, he really is a pompous chauvinistic . . . .”
She pauses to take stock. “And now that I come to think of it, he makes me feel awkward sometimes, and I’m sure that’s deliberate. He has deliberately developed the skill of making people think that ‘butter wouldn’t melt’, that he is completely sincere. But . . . how could he not be, with those beautiful dark eyes that connect with you like that and the way he smiles at you and how, in unguarded moments, you can see how sensitive he really is? Oh! – what an utter bastard! He has reduced all of that, all those signals he deliberately sends out, to a fine art. That must be the technique he routinely uses to get what he wants. He must have charmed his way to success. Well, you can’t use charm on a hit man who has you in his sights from one hundred yards away – perhaps that’s not a good example since I’m not sure what you could use in that kind of circumstance – but in principle I’m right.”
She pauses before making up her mind: “So to tonight – what I’ll do tonight is simply lay out before him the history of his life, thanks to my detailed research, and even his ego will not be able to stand against the logical proposition that a person with his life history is not the kind of person who is naturally suited to working as a field operative. Yes that will sort the matter out. He is a nice person, I actually like him, and I couldn’t bear the thought of him coming to harm because I just let things drift along. The poor man has lost so much already . . . ‘oh, shut up you stupid bitch!’; I can’t think about that now. If he looks at me when I’m pointing out his unsuitability and I start thinking about that sort of thing, and then he says something nice . . . he’ll make me cry – and that’s just the kind of thing he would do! He really is a bastard, but even so, ‘just do what you set out to do, Emma, and get him on his way back to merchant banking or writing his book back in Australia or whatever else he wants to do as long as it’s not intelligence gathering for MI6 or ASIS!’ Oh, f*ck! What kind of malevolent god has dropped this person into my life!”
Oliver has been sampling the antipasti and sipping Champagne. Emma has been sipping Champagne without eating. She gets up and walks to the fridge to bring the bottle to the table and refill their glasses. Oliver sits back and relaxes into the sofa as would an old friend who is completely at home in her apartment. He is encouraged by the way she responded to his toast and decides to keep the spirit of bonhomie alive by asking her about herself.
“Have you been on any missions like this before, I mean where you know, going in, there’s this kind of risk involved?”
“My time as a freelance photojournalist was riskier than any of the missions I’ve undertaken for 6 so far. My field work has been intelligence gathering – it was possible that dangerous situations might arise but none did.”
“And what kind of qualifications and experience make one suitable for the job of spook?”
“Oh, in my case it was my experiences as a journalist and then photojournalist, and I speak German – my mother was German – and French, Italian, Russian, and Spanish. I have a first in modern languages – Cambridge.”
“So Plan B – if I withdraw, would that lower your level of risk?”
“Theoretically, no. And theoretically you look like the ideal person for Plan A.” She pauses to give gravitas to what she says next. “My final report on you, after I had completed my research, recommended against your recruitment. The case I argued was specious, at best. If I’d included my real concerns, you would probably have been arrested.”
She is pleased to observe, for the first time since they met, that she has been able to throw Oliver off balance. “It is beginning to work as planned”, she reflects. “As I progressively reveal what my research has uncovered, he will see that it would be beyond reason for him – a person with his history – to participate in this mission with the new potential threats that have come to light. He could not have succeeded as he has in life without the capacity to make sound judgements – including the ability to objectively asses when it is time to make a strategic withdrawal. So let’s see how he handles this.” She responds with slow deliberation.
“Freddy . . Fitton.”
“How in the name of god does she come to know about Freddy”, he wonders. “God knows what else she has up her sleeve. No doubt she’s dying to tell me. I’d better kid willing.”
“What about Freddy Fitton – and how in the name of god did you find Freddy?”
“I’ve never been fly fishing, but I’m beginning to understand its attraction”, she muses to herself. “Another cast with a bit more jiggling of the bait, I think.”
“Freddy had quite a tale to tell – Mary, Lilly, the Blue Orchid.” She pauses for effect. “The way I found Freddy, Freddy the rubber planter and Malayan Emergency intelligence source, is a story for another time.”
Her sense of predominance grows, and she relishes the thought of her next move in a game she expects to win: “Now I’ll wait before casting again. And when I cast again it will be with an irresistible fly. This is so much fun.”
“Don’t keep me in suspense.”
“So now he’s actually asking to be hooked.”, but this thought is tinged with a tremor of guilt as she realises that she is beginning, inwardly at least, to gloat over her ability to twitch him this way that that. Guilt, however, can be quickly assuaged with a large dose of vindication, delivered with the thought: “Hah! And he has it coming to him!”, and so she has no compunction about delivering her coup de grâce with a note of ‘well, don’t pretend you don’t know’.
“You killed a British soldier.”
“How did Freddy find out?”, he wonders, “and why did they recruit me if she thinks that?”
“If you believe that, why didn’t you have me arrested?”
“Because it clearly wasn’t your fault . . . and that’s why I have no intention of reporting what I know to anyone . . . and why Freddy didn’t either.”
“Then if you believe I was innocent, why are you concerned?”
“Oh Oliver”, she thinks to herself, “I hope you go gently into this night. The male ego – perhaps, if I make more of my inadequacy for the role I have to play, he’ll be more receptive.”
“There are two, perhaps three, incidents which add up to the profile of a person who is altogether the wrong person for me to be put in charge of.”
Then it occurs to her that she has been neglecting her kitchen duties.
Emma hurries to the kitchen, tastes the risotto, smiles and begins serving. She hands a bowl of risotto to Oliver who has followed her. He then walks to the dinner table followed by Emma. He leaves his bowl there and returns to the kitchen and returns with two more wine glasses and the bottle of pinot grigio. He pours the wine. They both sit and begin their meal. Oliver proposes a toast.
“To an outcome you’re happy with.”
She conceals her hope that this toast might presage a softening of his position and responds matter-of-factly.
They sip the wine and resume eating; then Emma gets up and returns to the kitchen again, explaining why as she goes.
“Forgot the parmigiano.”
She returns to the table and hands the parmigiano to Oliver. They settle down to their meal and Emma senses that, in spite of the accusation that he had killed a British soldier and the revelations that ‘Freddy Fitton’ was her source and she also knows about ‘the Blue Orchid’, he seems quite calm and self-possessed. She decides to rattle his cage again but before she has the chance, Oliver resumes their earlier conversation.
“Your research should show that I would be more of an asset than a liability, particularly for you.”
She is a little annoyed by this, thinking to herself: “so in typical male fashion, he’s going to make me spell it out for him.”
“Tell me whether this is the profile of person I, with my profile, should chose as my support:
Number one: you’re a serious risk-taker. You were a conscript, so not a soldier by profession. You were a Malay language interpreter with no actual combat experience. You had been assigned to a recognizance section, and during one of your recognizance patrols you were fired upon. When you saw a way of outflanking the enemy you took it. You, by yourself, in spite of the risk, initiated a counterattack. As a result of your action the enemy retreated and there were no casualties.” She pauses and smiles ironically. “Hero of the day! Not exactly risk-aversion therapy for a risk-taker.”
“Well, I can’t let her get away with that.”, he decides.
“Army records must have hundreds of reports of more daring, more protracted enemy contacts than that one. There must have been thousands of soldiers who would have reacted as I did in similar circumstances.”
She decides not to be distracted by any defence he may try to raise and presses on.
“Number two: desire for revenge. You must feel passionate hatred for the people who murdered your family and mine, as I do. That’s only natural. But very few people have your combat experience and your familiarity with dead bodies – and your experience in dealing with dead bodies.”
“The dead soldier.”
“Not only the dead soldier. Your parents!”
He realises that she is about to venture into territory that he would rather not have to revisit, and not as a topic of conversation during which judgements will inevitably be made, and they will be wrong, and he reflects: “I’ll have to set the record straight. In other circumstances I could just shut the whole subject down and move on, but not now if I am going to get her to take me on as her partner in the mission.” But he is not able to conceal the deflating effect her words have had upon him.
He wants to say more, but she continues before he can.
“You survived a car crash in which both of your parents died. How old were you? Nine? You were observed by a woman who was driving behind your parents’ car. She was so traumatized it was all she could do to stop her car. She watched you crawl out of the car, which had crashed into a telegraph pole. You scratched yourself getting out but otherwise apparently unharmed. You then walked over to your mother’s dead body. Your mother had been thrown from the car – severe trauma to the head, a lot of blood. You looked calmly at her for a moment, then walked back to the car where your father’s head was wedged – I’m sorry but this was how the report described it – wedged half way through the windscreen, his neck obviously broken. Another calm observation by you, then you walked over to the still-traumatised woman in her car and asked her if she could drive you to a phone box so you could call your uncle! Everyone assumed you were in shock. You were placed under medical observation, referred to a psychiatrist, but from that day to this, no observable psychological damage. On the contrary, you thrived both academically and on the sporting field.”
“I assume you got this from Claire, so you may also know why I reacted that way.” He pauses before deciding that she may as well know how screwed up he was at the time. “A couple of years before, I might have screamed at my dead mother’s body and punched my dead father. That’s how much I hated them.”
He pauses again and notices that Emma is about to speak, obviously intending to tell him that he need not go over all of the details. He shakes his head, deciding that she may as well have the full story – as much of it as she needs to know to understand that his reaction to the death of his parents was rational in the circumstances. He continues before she has time to speak.
“It’s okay. You need to hear this to understand why I reacted that way. By the age of nine, I had developed a strategy of detachment. I’d learned how to observe myself being beaten by them – in a way . . . ‘thinking’ my way through the experience, focussing upon each blow, examining its effect upon me in minute detail. The screaming-point-blank-in-my-face and the grabbing-me-by-the-shoulders-and-shaking-me were happening to someone else. Somehow it seemed to lessen the pain. The more I learned how to observe myself with that kind of detachment, the more I came to view them as nothing more than agents of pain. And the more I really pissed them off – they called it dumb insolence – the more I sensed that I was able to win small victories over them. And when I could see I had made them angry or guilty, I marked it down as another one for me. They didn’t exist as real people, let alone ‘parents’. I didn’t have ‘parents’ as that word is usually meant.” He pauses, relaxing a little as he continues: “After their deaths, I had a privileged upbringing, thanks to my uncle and aunt. I spent most of my time at boarding school – holidays on their farm. Boarding school wasn’t an alienating experience for me as it was for some kids. It was like a welcome dream: I knew what the rules were; life was predictable and fair. I felt secure. And I loved farm life. My uncle and aunt were great . . .”
He pauses again to consider whether she needs to know any more, whether providing details of any of the more spiteful stuff they engaged in and the strategies they had for hiding the bruises might improve his case for inclusion in the mission. And concluding that no useful purpose was to be served, he ends it there.
“You’re right. I thrived.”
She is moved by his explanation, and wonders whether she should tell him that Claire hadn’t gone into the detail of his childhood. But then she might have to tell him what Claire had actually said: that she had simply said that his childhood was far from ideal and it had been alienating for him, that he found it difficult to open up to her when they were first dating, and that she later discovered that he had no more than a superficial understanding of how families work and what his role should be. Emma looks at him sympathetically and wants him to know that she is on his side.
“I remember my father saying to my younger brother once: ‘The strongest steel is cured in the hottest flame.’ . . .”
He appreciates her sympathy but the last thing he wants is her feeling sorry for him. All he wants is for her to understand that there was a rational explanation for his reaction when he witnessed the death of his parents.
“Compared to a lot of kids, I was dammed lucky.” He pauses to draw her attention to what he says next. “However . . . number two on your list: no evidence of a revengeful nature, and a quite reasonable or at least explicable reaction to the dead bodies in question, I think, under the circumstances. So let’s deal with the dead soldier.”
But it occurs to Emma that, even though his parents’ cruelty was unconscionable, perhaps he was an innately troubled child and their physical abuse was their extreme reaction to a problem that began with his behaviour.
“I don’t want to dwell on this; don’t answer if it’s too awful . . . why would your parents . . . ?”
He is happy to respond. “It’ll provide her with the answers to questions he had asked himself in later life.”, he reflects. He knows it will enhance her confidence in him.
“No. It’s a fair enough question, in these circumstances. I’ve obviously given it some thought. It took a while to put all the pieces together. My uncle, usually a man of very few words, was happy to fill in the gaps. My parents were both from socially prominent, devoutly Catholic families. Both were very spoilt by their parents. My mother was very pretty and popular. My father was very charismatic, a school sporting hero, and extremely indolent. His indolence led to our family being constantly in financial difficulties. My mother grew to hate him for not giving her the life she had expected – and she was an expert in the art of humiliation. They were both extremely self-centred; both had violent tempers with low thresholds. They expressed their unhappiness in violent ways, and you might say psychologically traumatising as well for the only issue of their marriage. And so it went on until one day my mother slapped my father’s face while he was driving down a steep hill in the rain.”
“I’m sorry to put you through this. If you’ve had enough for one sitting . . .”
“No. All in a good cause. Let’s get it done tonight.”
“You’re being very open. Men are typically very reluctant to talk about such deeply personal aspects of their lives.”
“As am I, typically. This mission – I know I won’t remain part of it unless you’re happy. This seems to be the only way to persuade you.”
“We could continue tomorrow, if you like.”
“No. Happy to stick with it.”
“Okay, so now the dead soldier: you saved the life of a young girl who was being attacked by a drunken British Military Policeman in a bordello! And he was shot dead while you were struggling with him.” She pauses to give herself time to properly frame the case she wishes to make. “It doesn’t concern me that that the soldier died. . . . Well of course it does concern me. I mean the death was explicable and you couldn’t really be held responsible under the circumstances. No, my concerns with this incident were the same as they were about the death of your parents: your, in a way, bloodless reaction to dead bodies. That was my concern. But now . . . what you went through as a child . . . perhaps that has allowed you to dissociate the post mortem body from the living person. Does that make any sense?”
She wants to be fair to him, acknowledge points on their merits: “It does seem as though he has been through quite a lot,”, she reflects, “weathered the storm quite bravely and repaired most of the damage done to the rigging. That’s why I hope I can persuade him to go away and have a safe life. Anyway, if I try to bias the case, he will see through it and that would be counterproductive. I’m sure he’ll agree with my ‘post mortem body’ interpretation, and if he does he might see me as more of an honest broker and ultimately accept that I am right. Let’s see.”
“Yes”, he agrees, “that makes sense. And when the car crash happened, I was also pretty angry at the time because they caused it and they could have killed me. So I suppose I had a right not to feel too upset at the time, given the context of my other feelings about them.”
She can tell that he is gathering his thoughts before continuing.
He senses that Emma is trying to be reasonable and is pursuing her case in good faith.
“What a remarkable person she is”, it now occurs to him, “and what kind of determination and courage does it take to embark upon this mission when you have lost your only child and your partner, whatever the state of the relationship. And she is extremely intelligent, and very beautiful, not just physically – she has a kind of inner sensitivity, a kind of vulnerability which she feels she has to protect with the occasional prickly exchange. She is trying not to let her guard down with me, I can see that. Takes one to know one. I’m an old hand at not letting people – women mostly – get too close to me. But if we’re going to work together, we don’t want to be tripping over banter and wondering what one another meant by that last remark. Every communication we have has to be clear, concise and reliable. We need to have complete confidence in one another. We need to trust one another completely. Perhaps I should begin the process of establishing that trust.”
While Oliver is preoccupied with these thoughts, Emma looks away, thinking that he may be dealing with these painful memories.
He begins again, reflectively, as if confiding in an old friend: “What I remember most clearly was the feeling of a knot in my stomach gradually unravelling – and I hadn’t even realised it was there. Then it occurred to me that my uncle and aunt would want me to live with them. I had to talk to them straightaway to ask them and hear them say yes. So that’s why I asked the lady in the car to take me to the nearest public phone so I could call my uncle – but she took me to the nearest hospital.”
He pauses briefly again before continuing: “It may sound a little facile, but when I realised the soldier was dead through nobody’s fault but his own, maybe at a subconscious level I saw his corpse simply as a problem that had to be solved – like making sure that my uncle and aunt would agree to have me.”
“He does seem like a really genuine fellow”, she reflects, “but I have to see this through. I have to know what there is to this man. Perhaps there is some flaw that I can use to convince him to just go away. I really can’t let him be put in harm’s way.”
She begins her new approach: “The soldier’s corpse was a very great problem indeed, which you did solve, very effectively. As Freddy described it, ‘an horrific, chaotic scene’: blood everywhere, the Blue Orchid girls screaming, the girl who had been attacked barely alive and unconscious – and you brought order out of this chaos. The soldier’s body was never found, and no one was ever charged in spite of investigations by the local police and the British Military Police. To quote Freddy: ‘It was like a bloody master class’ – he didn’t say in what – but I know what he meant: the disposal of the body; how you coached the Blue Orchid girls in what to say when questioned; how you instilled confidence in them by not changing the pattern of your visits, and so on. But Freddy didn’t hear any of this from you. There was no change in your demeanour whatsoever during the three months after the death of the soldier. He knew nothing about it until Mary told him after you had returned to Australia.”
She pauses and wonders to herself how he will respond to what she has to say next: “And he didn’t go into much detail about Mary and Lilly nor what you were doing at the Blue Orchid in the early hours of the morning.”
But Oliver simply finds it amusing and openly laughs before responding: “Didn’t he? Well, when I wasn’t playing soldiers, I was in residence with Lilly at the Blue Orchid. She and her sister, Mary, owned the place. Mary was Freddy’s mistress, as he liked to call her – and that’s how I met him. And I was there on the night in question because I was having one of my sleepovers with Lilly.”
“Cheeky and smug.”, she thinks to herself.
“A bit of a ‘Jack the Lad’ – and only twenty one and the product of a good Roman Catholic upbringing.” She allows herself a wry smile, continuing without pausing: “When you were shooting at people in the jungle and taking risks, were you afraid, or does your detached sangfroid extend to being shot at?”
“Well, the thwack of bullets hitting trees did take my mind off sex. Without putting too fine a point on it, I would say I was scared shitless. But that’s not a bad thing. You’re no good to anyone, yourself or any of your mates, unless you are frightened. ‘Detachment’ had nothing to do with it. We all learned very quickly that the most dangerous thing you can do in combat is to lose your head, or freeze with fear. The adrenalin can pump all it likes. Your job is to use it to sharpen your senses, focus your ability to process what’s happening around you.”
“I just happened to be in the right place to move around and outflank the people who were ambushing us. I had an automatic weapon. I fired from one place, then quickly moved to another place and fired another burst. It gave the impression that there was more than one man with an automatic weapon closing in on them. So they decided it was getting a bit too hot and buggered off. Any one of the others would have done the same in that position.”
She is at a bit of a loss to know how to respond. “He seems to have good answers for everything.” and with this thought, she pauses for a moment, her gaze fixed upon; then she decides upon another tack – perhaps her last throw of the dice.
“Well, all that you have said, Oliver, gives me a better idea of why you are the way you are, which is a relief in one way – but in another way, makes things worse. If I had had your life experiences, your capabilities, and I found the people who had murdered my family . . . but I’m not like you. I know I couldn’t kill them. However, if I were you, I think I might. I think I might wish to inflict considerable pain and then empty my magazine into them.”
She pauses reflectively for emphasis, hoping that Oliver will appreciate her sincerity. “My problem is . . . our acquaintance is so brief. . . . I’ve researched your background, we’ve spoken about the issues that concerned me, but . . . to me, you’re like a trained tiger on the end of a leash, trained by someone else, and I’m about to lead this tiger into unfamiliar territory, and I have no idea what he might do if he picks up the scent of game.”
“Play this right my man”, he thinks to himself, “and you’re in! Now just remain calm and matter-of-fact. The slightest hint of triumphalism now and . . . .” He looks down at the empty pasta bowl, pauses for an instant, then smiles.
“That was truly excellent. I hope I’ll be able to make a reservation at this restaurant again.”
He pauses then speaks frankly. “I can’t – no – I don’t want to deny that anything you’ve said is true. I can see why, from your point of view, I might be a risky proposition. Nevertheless, I believe I am right for this mission. I am ready to take orders from you and follow them. The only response I can make to you is that I give you my word that I won’t do anything without consulting you and without your agreement. So if the tiger is predictable and controllable, he could be a valuable asset rather than a risk.”
She realises that there probably is no way, realistically, of getting rid of this man, and so, with worried expression, she responds: “How can I be sure? How can I take that risk?” and shrugs.
“The one thing you can be sure of is that I have never surprised myself. Your research shows that I have demonstrated unerring self-control in stressful situations. So you can rely on that, and your research must also show that I deal from the top of the pack. If I give my word, if I commit myself to people or arrangements, I keep my word. In fact, I would say that my word is the least risky thing about the mission.”
She realises that all of her arguments have been reasonably answered and she will probably have to let him stay with the mission. “His head is big enough already”, she says to herself, “so I won’t let him think that he has won just yet.”
“I’ll sleep on it. Tiramisu?”
Emma is gathering the empty bowls and cutlery and in the process of standing up, when Oliver asks, “What made you think of a tiger?”
She sits down again, still holding the bowls and cutlery, and smiles, clearly happy that he has turned the conversation away from contention.
“Oh, that was my mother, my German mother – an old German saying she used to quote to me when I was a little girl: ‘It’s okay to ride a tiger, as long as you don’t have to dismount.’ I had an older brother and a younger brother. I could be a little outspoken at times, wishing to be noticed in spite of all the interesting ‘boys things’ my brothers were coming up with. It was my mother’s very gentle way of suggesting that I think carefully before I enter the fray.”
Emma remains seated, sighs, looks off into the distance, and is obviously reflecting upon her childhood. Oliver is taken by this glimpse into what he can see is her inherently gentle nature, and is smiling warmly at her when she brings her gaze back to meet his. There is the slightest flicker of vulnerability in her eyes, momentarily betraying her wish to respond to him in kind, before she quickly regains her professional composure. Oliver continues to smile warmly at her for a millisecond longer than politeness requires. She stands up, continuing to gather the empty bowls and cutlery. He recognises her wish to move on and, as if to signal his acquiescence, stands up and offers his assistance.
“I’ll get the dessert wine.”
To be continued . . .