Sir Charles Wyndham made the call at close to midnight. The ring signal was broken on the third cycle. A sleepy voice demanded, “This better be good.”
“If the bald man has a chain through his tongue, how can he sing?” Sir Charles said, careful to enunciate every syllable clearly. It was a stupid opening gambit. Anyone monitoring the line would be immediately curious.
“Say that again,” the man on the other end of the line said. The old man could almost hear the sleep slipping from his effeminate voice.
“If the bald man has a chain through his tongue, how can he sing?”
“Oh, for pity’s sake, do you have any idea what time it is?”
Sir Charles had no sympathy for the man. He had become safe, comfortable in his life. Like so many others in the upper echelons of the trade he’d come to think that the nine-to-five daily grind was his right. Late night calls, safe words and clandestine meets were for the grunts doing the leg work.
“We need to talk,” he said.
“We are talking.”
“The line isn’t secure. Meet me at Fagus sylvatica. First light. There are things we need to discuss that can only be said face to face.”
He hung up before the other man could object.
Max, the old man’s butler, pushed his chair through the soft wood chippings of the bridal path known locally as Rotten Row. The name was more colorful than the reality of the path. The birds were up, the dawn chorus breaking out all over the city of London. The neatly trimmed grass of Hyde Park still glistened with diamonds of dew. The air was crisp and clean. It was one of the few hours of the day when London didn’t feel like it was suffocating under the smog of pollution.
A little way ahead riders from the Household Cavalry were giving their mounts a run out. The drum of horse’s hooves shivered through the ground beneath them. Sir Charles felt it through the steel frame of his wheelchair. He had a blanket folded over his lap and a newspaper folded over the blanket. A few early morning joggers crisscrossed the path-Brownian Random Motion made flesh. A woman with a short-clipped, black bob walked beside them for a hundred yards, a miniature black poodle skipping along beside her. It always struck the old man as amusing how a certain type of dog owner seemed to subconsciously model themselves on their pets. It was almost as though they were breeding little versions of themselves. Two legs good, four legs bad, he thought to himself wryly as he watched the seductive sway of her hips as she moved away.
Sir Charles liked the park in the morning. It teamed with all sorts of life, not just joggers or birds, flying squirrels and red foxes. It was a microcosm of the city itself. In the distance he saw a tall man in a pin-striped suit and bowler hat walk through what had once been the Tyburn Gate down by Speakers Corner. Even from this distance he was instantly recognizable. He walked with what could only be described as an old school, jaunty bounce to his stride. He looked preposterous as he twirled the silver-tipped cane he held in his right hand. Even from where he sat, Sir Charles could hear the faintest strains of his whistling. All the old man could think as he watched this caricature of British gentry stroll through the park was how on earth had Quentin Carruthers ever survived out in the field. Of course when he was a younger man he had been quite the dapper bon vivant, a dandy, happy to work, rest and play hard with the boys. The boys back then had included Kim Philby, Burgess and McClean. The Cambridge crew. It still fascinated the old man that Quentin had managed to come out of that fiasco clean while all those around him were busy losing their heads or defecting. For all his affected effeminacy, the old queen had always had a well-honed sense of self-preservation. Somehow though, as the ’60s became the ’70s and the ’70s the ’80s, he had become a parody of himself. In the new millennium he was nothing short of a relic.
The man cut toward the bench beside the old upside-down tree, Fagus sylvatica ‘Pendula,’ and sat himself down. He opened his case and took grease-proof-paper-wrapped triangles of tuna sandwiches out. He didn’t eat them. He used them to feed the birds while he waited for the old man to join him. It was their familiar meeting point. It had been six months since Sir Charles had last visited the old tree. Fagus was really quite something, a weeping beech. It looked like children had gathered a huge stack of fallen branches and built a cave out of them. He liked to think that only a few yards away the wretched villainy of old London had hung by their necks while the crows fed on them, and it amused him that the new city was so eager to hide from the old that it renamed Tyburn Marble Arch. It was probably one of the earliest examples of spin doctoring he had ever come across. It seemed a fitting place for two old spies to sit and share the early morning.
Maxwell pushed the old man’s wheelchair alongside the bench and made his excuses to leave him alone for a few minutes. Sir Charles took the folded broadsheet from his lap and made an elaborate show of opening it up and turning to the financial pages. Time had not been kind to the man sitting beside him.
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Charles, dear boy. Do we need to go through this charade every time? It’s all well and good to play at being spies when you are seventeen, but when you are pushing the wrong side of seventy, well it is getting to be something of a chore, I must confess. The fun has quite gone out of the game.”
“You always were a spoilsport, weren’t you, old boy?” Sir Charles smiled.
“If by that you mean I was one for propriety, I think you must have me mistaken for someone much more interesting. Well, I assume you have a terribly good reason for dragging me out here?”
“Grace Weller. One of yours?” the old man said without any preamble. He folded the top of the newspaper over so the masthead disappeared.
“I couldn’t possibly-” Quentin began to offer the standard deflection of secrecy, protection and the good of the State when Sir Charles cut him off.
“Of course you could. You can pretend to be retired all you like. The truth is you can take the boy out of Vauxhall, but you can’t take Vauxhall out of the boy. You can’t be Control for twenty-five years and just give it up, old boy,” Sir Charles said, mimicking his companion’s affected tones. “Now I am willing to bet a pound to a penny you know what’s going on with your people better than anyone, even the poor sap who’s trying to fill your glorious patent leather shoes. Now, I might be getting on, but you can’t fool me, old friend; you’re still connected.” His tone changed. “This is serious, Quentin. I need your help.” What he wasn’t saying was it was serious enough to drag the man who had given him the mandate to go off the books with Ogmios in the first place out of retirement.
“I assumed as much when you woke me so rudely at midnight, with that nonsense about Ogmios. There has to be a certain amount of decorum in life, dear heart. When you start making midnight calls and you aren’t either Bela Lugosi or a particularly striking cabana boy bearing fruit there, is something terribly wrong with the world. Now, how on earth is this old queen supposed to help you, bearing in mind I’ve already got one foot in the grave? I’m not really sure I am up for the excitement of illicit rendezvous anymore, more’s the pity.”
“Grace Weller,” the old man said again.
“You’re getting tiresome. I can neither confirm nor deny whether the lovely Grace is fighting for the side of righteousness.”
“Which means she is,” Sir Charles said. It was always wordplay and games with Quentin Carruthers. But then, Control had never been the sort of man you’d expect a straight answer from.
“Well if she is, you can understand I can hardly go blathering willy-nilly about what she is doing for Her Majesty, now can I?”
“Was,” Sir Charles said. He took a facsimile copy of Grace Weller’s last letter from his inside pocket and handed it to Quentin Carruthers.
“Well that’s just a damned tragedy,” the ex-spymaster said, seemingly genuinely shocked by the news.
“What was she involved in, Quentin?”
“By which you mean, what was she doing in Germany that would get her killed?”
“A rose by any other name,” Sir Charles said softly, dipping his head in acknowledgement.
“I really don’t know the ins and outs of-”
“Don’t be coy, Quentin. Her mission notes date back to 2004,” the old man lied, playing a hunch. “That puts you back in the chair as Control when she was sent out into the world. Don’t try to tell me you don’t know exactly what you wanted her to do. I won’t believe you for a minute.”
“Your suspicion cuts deep, old friend. If you prick me, do I not grin and say more?” Quentin Carruthers laughed at his own inglorious jest. “Yes, yes, very well, Grace was my pride and joy. Is that what you wanted to hear?”
“What she was doing in Berlin?”
Quentin Carruthers half-snorted, his entire body trembling. It took a moment for the old man to realize he was stifling a sob. He twisted his face. “Is that where she was? It’s been a long time since I last heard from her.”
“So what was she doing out there?” Sir Charles pressed. He wasn’t about to let this go.
“It was a bad business, Charles. Dreadful. Are you aware of a corporation, Humanity Capital?”
“I’ve come across the name,” he said, giving nothing away.
“They insure soldiers in combat zones. It’s all above board. They profit by our boys managing not to get themselves killed; they pay out when things go wrong. They’re parasites essentially, but then what insurers aren’t? Anyway, we believed Humanity Capital a front for other less savory businesses. The usual exploitation stuff. You go into a new area, ingratiate yourself with the general populace, take a little bakshish for doing a few favors. That sort of thing. Then it escalates, and soon you are moving medical supplies and food to places they shouldn’t be. Then it’s guns and ammunition. Then it’s a sidewinder missile. Then, like the name says on the tin, it’s human capital. It’s all about escalation-grease the right palm and you get things done. You know how it goes. Supply and Demand.”
“They were providing mercenaries to fight our own boys?” Sir Charles said, following the old spymaster’s wandering chain of cause and effect to its natural conclusion. “But surely that makes no sense? If their mercenaries were successful, they’d have to pay out on the combat insurance policies.”
“You would think, wouldn’t you? But you would be surprised at just how wriggly these chaps can be when it comes to holding on to their pennies.”
“Right, so you sent her to work for Humanity Capital?”
Quentin Carruthers nodded. “I did indeed. She was a star, dear boy, a star. Within a month she was Fraiser Devere’s girl in more ways than one. Humanity Capital was Fraiser Devere’s baby. You know Devere right? The Devere dynasty. Old money. Inbreds. It’s all uncle marries third cousin twice removed with the blue bloods. You know me, Charles, I never explicitly tell my people how far they have to go when they’re under, but the good ones get it, they make it real. Grace made it real. It was a hot steamy affair. And then, for no reason, he broke it off.”
“He got suspicious?”
“I doubt it, but something spooked him. Maybe he was afraid of love. Plenty of people are, when it comes right down to it. Maybe he just got tired and wanted a new plaything. You know how the rich are. Whatever the reason, he cut her off completely. We’ve got the transcripts of her debriefing, but there was nothing in there as far as I could tell. Then she met the son, Miles. He was off on some building project in Israel, trying to prove to daddy just how independent he was. Grace found a way to get herself on the project. Like father like son, I suppose. They became lovers, but unlike Devere senior, junior was completely infatuated. He kept trying to impress our girl with how much he knew about the old man’s dirty secrets. Needless to say, as far as these things go, it was really rather useful.”
“Quite,” Sir Charles said.
“She went with him when he started Devere Holdings, and for a number of years she was party to the ins and outs of every deal they struck. She began to notice anomalies in the corporate accounts, not just hiding pennies from the tax man, you understand, but some rather large offshore deposits. There were meetings. At first she assumed it was the usual corporate espionage kind of thing, but Grace was nothing if not thorough. Turns out Miles Devere wasn’t just mixed up with some bad people, he was the bad person others were mixed up with, if you catch my meaning. His money brought a lot of pain to the world. Everywhere daddy’s corporations spread war, junior came in their wake, snapping up contracts to rebuild the infrastructure, the buildings and the schools. He liked to open the school himself, great photo opportunities for the benevolent capitalist and all that. No mention of all that blood on his hands, of course. That didn’t make for good copy.”
Sir Charles nodded. He was getting a picture of Devere now, and an understanding of how it all hinged together. Some aspects still didn’t make sense, not completely, but as ever it seemed that money, money, money-and the things in life that money could buy-were at the root of it all. Wasn’t that always the way?
“The last time Grace checked in, and it was quite some time ago, more than a year in fact, she left a rather enigmatic message for her handler. She had found patient zero. You’re aware of patient zero-that first disease carrier who walks around, blissfully infecting others, without ever exhibiting symptoms of the sickness himself? Grace had found him, in Berlin it seems, if that is where this sad story of hers finally played itself out. Poor girl. I don’t mind saying I was really rather fond of her. She played the game as well as any of us old boys ever used to. She was prettier too, if that was your sort of thing.”
The old man had a very good idea who patient zero was in this c Grey Metzger. How he linked Devere, war profiteering and clean-up with the Akim Caspi impostor, who may or may not be Mabus the terror-master, he wasn’t sure, but he would find out. There was something, one last piece of the puzzle to drop into place. He would find it.
It’s what he did.
He found things out.
“Are we finished here, then? Because as much as I am enjoying our little reunion I can think of a lot prettier faces I’d like to be looking at, no offense.”
“She didn’t die well,” the old man said. “I thought you ought to know. It wasn’t clean, but even at the last she was professional enough to get a message out. We found all of her journals. Everything she had dug up, the entire paper trail. My boy is going through it right now.”
“Do you know who did it?”
“I have my suspicions.”
“Now who’s being coy. You’ve had my tit, you owe me your tat. Who killed her, Charles? Who killed my brilliant little girl?”
“One of two men: an Israeli who calls himself Mabus or Miles Devere.”
Quentin nodded. “Will you promise this old man something, Charles?”
The old man raised an eyebrow. “I would say it rather depends on what it is you want me to promise, my friend.”
“When you know which one it is, don’t wait for justice to take its course. Kill them for me. No one kills one of my people and lives to tell the tale. I’m old fashioned like that.”