Authors: Philip McCutchan
The summons had come by telephone, early, just as Shaw was finishing breakfast in his West Kensington flat, and he’d known what it was before he’d picked up the receiver. This was partly because he had slept badly the night before, and had dreamed that the bullet had come for him out of the dark, with a flash and a hint of a woman’s laughter and the tail-end of a well-remembered scent; and partly because the only person other than Carberry likely to ring him so early was Debonnair, and she’d had to hop across to Paris on business on behalf of Eastern Petroleum for a couple of days, so almost certainly it wasn’t her. The sudden ring had made him start, and afterwards he’d had to mop up the coffee which had split all over the bachelor-bare table, with its marmalade-pot all sticky, the Demerara sugar in the blue packet, damply clinging, the butter still in its wrapper on a dish. . . . Shaw wasn’t lazy, but he had too much on his mind, and he just couldn’t be bothered with the prosaic details of looking after himself properly.
He answered the phone quickly, to stop the strident ring which seemed in some way to bring the essence of danger into the quiet flat. “Hullo?” he said cautiously. “Shaw here.”
Button A was pressed. There was a clatter of metal, and a voice said, “Morning, Esmonde, morning! I say—you doing anything this morning, old man?”
Shaw ran a hand over his long chin. His glance wandered round the room, and there was a strained look in his eye as he answered, “Nothing that can’t wait.”
“Oh, good—fine! I just thought we might have a natter over a noggin—might be able to put a spot of business in your way, old boy!” Carberry always seemed to speak expansively and in exclamation marks, which was why he was known as The Voice in the outfit, and many of his expressions had firm war-time roots even now. “If you’d care to come along at, let’s say, eleven-thirty?”
The voice, which held a perpetual and rather childish note of eagerness, was so cheery that it often struck Shaw as being almost inane. Its owner wasn’t in the least inane— except on the surface. Shaw knew that Carberry was clever enough to disguise his brilliance, and to hide the fact that he knew he was tipped to succeed the Old Man one of these days. And there was something else which Shaw knew: an invitation to a natter over a noggin with The Voice really meant a command to report to the Old Man in person at the time specified and not a minute later, and the spot of business meant pretty well what it implied, so he just said:
“All right, I’ll look forward to that. Be along at eleven-thirty.”
“Good—fine!” boomed The Voice, sounding fat and jovial—Carberry in the flesh was actually thin, ascetic, dried-up. Shaw sometimes thought the voice had been acquired by way of compensation for its owner’s physique. “Bye-bye till then, old boy!”
There was a click. Frowning, Shaw jerked the hand-set back on to its cradle, grey-blue eyes gazing unseeingly across the untidy room into the road and a cloud-filled sky. He was seeing something very different, and he didn’t like what he saw. He didn’t want any more of those experiences; he hated the killings, necessary though they might be at times, hated the betrayals and the subterfuges and the lies he was forced to tell to decent, kindly folk . . . this time, he promised himself, I’m really going to have it out with the Old Man and tell him I’m packing it in.
He dealt with the spilt coffee, and then, sitting down, he made himself finish a piece of dry toast. He poured out another cup of coffee. After that, compressing his lips a little, he reached into a pocket and put a couple of Dr Jenner’s tablets in his mouth, for the pain was coming on again as it always did on these occasions. A moment later he got up, chucked the breakfast things together on a tray which he carried into the tiny kitchen. Then he went out into the little hall, and because it was a coldish day for summer and looked like rain he pulled on a navy blue raincoat; shoving a dark green pork-pie hat on the crisp brown hair, he let himself out of the flat into Gliddon Road. It was early, but it was a long walk and he liked walking, preferred it to Tube or bus or taxi, liked the hurrying, everyday crowds in Kensington High Street, the children being wheeled out into Kensington Gardens, the sense of normality all round him. It was a long way, but it would do him good, maybe settle his nerves so he could really talk to the Old Man and get all this over and done with for good, and go back to sea. He examined the lowering clouds with a weather-wise eye; the rain would come before he got there, sure enough, but he could always hop on a taxi en route.
The Dr Jenner’s began to wither in his mouth, and he felt a little better. He cursed his nerves, the way they played him up like this. Surely they were a good enough excuse to get him out of this racket, he thought. But he knew that wouldn’t wash, really, because the Old Man was only too damn well aware that his nerves never let him down once things got moving.
Walking briskly, he turned down Gunterstone Road.
From a window a little way along Gunterstone Road a typist watched from behind net curtains. The typist was young, she was pretty, and she was going to play truant from that beastly old office again. Mum, protesting as usual in her weak and fussy way, would ring up Mr Silvers to say Joy was poorly and wouldn’t be coming in to-day. The typist would hear Mr Silvers’s loud voice snapping down the phone: “What, again?” Mum would look distressed, as though Mr Silvers knew she knew he knew she was telling a lie, but she wouldn’t say anything, and Mr Silvers would bang the phone down, and that would be that. . . . The reckoning would come to-morrow, but meanwhile the typist watched from the window as she had so often done before, because she’d seen the interesting-looking man coming down the road. He nearly always went out about this time, though there were unexplained absences, sometimes quite lengthy ones, when he didn’t appear at all. She’d followed him one morning when she’d been ‘poorly’; it was ever so romantic, she’d thought at first, but all he’d done was to walk to the Round Pond and sit and watch the kiddies for a while and then he’d walked back home. He’d caught her eye and had given her a tired, shy smile, and somehow she’d felt he knew he was being followed. She wondered what he did for a living . . . by his appearance, he might have been almost anything, she decided, though had she been more observant (and a little closer) she might possibly have noticed something about the deep-set eyes which spoke of a man who’d spent a few years looking out over blue water from a ship’s bridge. Having no experience of the sea, nothing of this sort occurred to the typist, and now, as Shaw came towards her window, all she saw was a tall, angular, very slightly stooped man with a long chin and with directness and determination in a thin, keen face—a face brown and rather deeply lined; the mouth large and firm but looking as though it could smile a lot, though there was something about the face which made her somehow aware that this man hadn’t often very much to smile about. Beneath the navy blue raincoat his body seemed thin, though probably wiry and tough, and somehow he looked as though he didn’t eat enough.
The typist’s scarcely awakened maternal instincts stirred . . . she’d never seen him with a woman, and so she assumed he was a bachelor, and that made her feel sorry for him, sorry and warm and tender. He was so much nicer to look at than Mr Silvers, who was short and fat and undistinguished and bald (was the man bald under that hat? she wondered. She didn’t think so, because he was greying ever so slightly over and in front of the ears). Mr Silvers was soft and white and irritable, with well-kept pudgy hands which looked as though they were perpetually restraining themselves from pinching her bottom.
The typist turned as Mum bustled into the room, thickening body rigid with the effort of carrying the Hoover. Mum frowned and said, “You snooping on that man again?” She looked worried. “I don’t know, dear, really I don’t. What’s he to you, anyway?” Mum put down the Hoover and pushed nervily at a grip in the wiry hair, smoothed the flower-patterned overall across thick hips. She repeated, “What’s he to you, Joy dear?”
“Oh, nothing, Mum.” The typist had turned back to the window, and Mum came and breathed over her shoulder, steaming up the window so that the man’s back became hazy through the glass. “Wonder what he is, Mum?”
on’t know.” Mum too stared after Shaw, swinging along angularly. She screwed up the flesh round her eyes. “Looks like one of those musicians, if you ask me, dear . . . in a band somewhere.”
The way she said it wasn’t complimentary, but professionally speaking Shaw would have been quite pleased.
As Shaw walked past he never noticed the typist and wouldn’t have had eyes for her if he had, though if she’d ever summoned up courage enough actually to speak to him on some pretext or other he would have treated her as politely and considerately as he treated all decent men and women. He was, in fact, thinking of a woman and wishing he understood her better so that he could feel easier about leaving her—he knew he’d have to leave her for a while again, unless (unlikely thought) this was a London job he’d been marked down for by the Old Man. And with Debonnair you never knew, never knew just where you stood ... he thought a lot about Debonnair and about his appointment as he walked down the North End Road, with the paper and refuse blown along from the market swirling around his ankles. He turned up at the end past Olympia and did the whole long stretch of the High Street away beyond Barker’s to Knightsbridge Barracks before the rain started and he had to hail a taxi.
“Cockspur Street, please,” he told the driver. Shaw’s friendly smile touched the corners of his eyes. “Could you drop me by the Sun Life of Canada offices, please?”
As always, the smile brought the response. The driver swung the door open, grinned back. “Anywhere you like, sir, and it’s a pleasure.”
Shaw got in, bending awkwardly through the door and contorting to slam it after him.
When they got there Shaw paid the driver, tipping him neither too much nor too little. Just right.
, was the order in the outfit;
never let yourself look conspicuous in ordinary surroundings by the tiniest word or ac
t. Shaw felt wry amusement as he went into the doors of the Sun Life building. He went right through and came out on to the pavement the other side, wormed his way through traffic, and got into the Mall by a side-alley between the shipping offices. It was roundabout, but it was orders. It was orders—not to be cloak-and-dagger, of course, but at least to use every opportunity of throwing people off the track. People like taxi-drivers, for instance, because you never knew who might be driving a taxi. It was a good habit to get into, and orders had to be obeyed. Shaw knew that there was a reason for everything in the outfit, just as there was a reason for the appraising up-and-down look which the Whitehall watchdog gave him as he came into the old Admiralty building. His face wasn’t all that well-known there.
The man came for him, squarely reliable in a neat, dark-blue uniform, friendly but wary. “Good morning, sir. Can I help you?”
Shaw smiled, a smile which seemed to tilt his eyebrows into an appealingly crooked zigzag. He said, “I’ve an appointment in Room 12.”
He held up his hand, and in the palm was a small, thin, folded card embossed with the naval anchor on a bisected red-and-green panel. It wasn’t quite an ordinary naval identity card, and that red-and-green panel meant something to the initiate, but the watchdog wasn’t among the elite. He just glanced at it, noticed as Shaw opened it that it bore the name and rank of Commander Esmonde Shaw, D.S.O., D.S.C. and bar, Royal Navy, and sniffed a little. Commanders were two a penny these days, but the officer had a right of admittance, and the watchdog knew that all sorts of people came and went from Room 12, so he got the Commander to sign in, and then he beckoned up a messenger.
He said, “Take the officer to 12.”
Shaw followed behind a portly man with a solitary wisp of hair breaking the shining monotony of his scalp. As Shaw followed this man up a broad staircase he had a nasty attack of heartburn, and he felt like death as the messenger stopped outside a door which bore a small white card with the name in black lettering:
Mr G. E. D. Latymer
Mr George Edward Dalrymple-Latymer always, when in conversation with people outside the tight closed circle which constituted the department within a department, liked to let it slip out—quite casually, of course—that his was really a hyphenated name. He managed to add, without precisely saying so, that, being a democratic kind of man, he preferred to be known to simple sailors as just plain Latymer and no nonsense. In many respects Latymer was the opposite of his Number Two—The Voice, or Captain Carberry, R.N.
Latymer’s body was not thin, it was plump from lack of exercise; his voice was quiet—authoritative, and not always genial—and its quiet decisiveness seemed in some way at odds with the full, round, almost self-indulged body, the important manner, the pink, expressionless oval mask of his face—until you looked at the eyes. Like his voice, the eyes were steady and reliable, and they, even more than Shaw’s, held that echo of the seas and of foreign lands and sun and storm. They were coloured a greenish steel, and they seemed to look right through a man into his innermost thought-processes, and those eyes and the voice saved him from appearing just another fussy, old-maidish bachelor of settled habits and prim outlook. Shaw often thought he’d have done well in Russia—there was, at times, a certain quality of grim ruthlessness—not, of course, that he could have done better than he had in England, and
England too. Shaw knew a lot about Mr Latymer, and that was why he never paid any attention whatever to the ‘Dalrymple’ business, which, like the pompous manner, was nothing but propaganda.
At this moment Mr Latymer was looking thoughtfully at Shaw, as he sat opposite him on the other side of the big desk, a desk so vast that the three telephones seemed almost lost in its wide expanse of sumptuous leather top, so vast that even the big panelled room, with its long windows and carved ceiling, didn’t dwarf it, while it almost hid the steel-lined filing cabinet with its elaborate card-index system at the back of the room. It was a beauty of a desk, finely finished and with beautifully contrived secret hiding-places in it for documents—or other things, such as a small automatic which Mr Latymer prized. Mr Latymer also prized the desk itself very highly, for it represented youth and dare-devilry—Mr Latymer had in fact looted it from the Admiral’s day-cabin in a Turkish cruiser during the closing stages of the First World War, and had embarked it in a crate heavily labelled Superintending Naval Store Officer, Devonport. On arrival in Plymouth Sound he had deleted this designation and had substituted the address of his own home, removing the crate, from the battleship in which he was then a very junior watchkeeper, by means of subterfuge, a ginned-up Customs Officer, a crane, a working-party borrowed from the battleship’s commander, and a Pickford’s pantechnicon. Even in those days Mr Latymer had been able to get away with things like that, and the experiences which he had suffered during and after the Second World War had not altered that—though they had altered his personal appearance quite a lot.