Authors: John le Carré
‘I was wondering,’ he muses grudgingly, unaware that I had left the room and have now returned. ‘Well, you know.
Only if you’re up for it, sort of thing. Maybe we could do a meal somewhere. Not at the bar. Laura doesn’t like it. Out somewhere. The four of us. On me.’
‘Yeah. If you’re up for it. Why not?’
‘I said. Us four.’
‘How do you know she’s free?’
‘She is. I asked her. She said yes.’
Quick think, then, yes, I’m up for it. And the moment I get a chance – preferably
before the meal rather than after – I’ll find out what the devil’s got into her head.
‘There’s the Golden Moon up the road,’ I suggest. ‘Chinese. They stay open late. You could give them a try.’
I have barely finished saying this when my encrypted Office mobile phone lets out its hee-haw. Florence after all, I think. Thank God. One minute she’s not playing Office rules any more, the next we’re
all off to dinner.
Muttering something about Prue needing me, I step back into the corridor. But it’s not Prue and it’s not Florence. It’s Ilya, tonight’s duty officer at the Haven, and I’m assuming he’s about to give me the overdue news that we’ve got the sub-committee’s say-so on Rosebud and high bloody time too.
Except that’s not why Ilya has called.
‘Flash incoming, Nat. Your farmer friend.
For ‘farmer friend’ read Pitchfork, Russian research student, York University, inherited from Giles. For Peter, read Nat.
‘Saying what?’ I demand.
‘You’re please to pay him a visit at your earliest possible. You personally, nobody else. Plus it’s top urgent.’
‘His own words?’
‘I can send them to you if you want.’
I return to the changing room. It’s a no-brainer, as Steff would
say. Sometimes we’re bastards, sometimes we’re Samaritans and sometimes we get it plain wrong. But fail an agent in his hour of need and you fail him for ever, as my mentor Bryn Jordan liked to say. Ed is still sitting on the slatted bench, head slumped forward. He has his knees spread and is staring downwards between them while I’m checking railway timetables on my mobile. Last train for York leaves
King’s Cross in fifty-eight minutes.
‘Got to love you and leave you, I’m afraid, Ed,’ I say. ‘No Chinese for me after all. Bit of business to attend to before it goes sour on me.’
‘Tough,’ Ed remarks, without lifting his head.
I make for the door.
‘What is it?’
‘Thanks, okay? Very nice of you, that was. Florence too. I told her. Made Laura’s day. Just sorry you can’t do the Chinese.’
‘Me too. Go for the Peking Duck. It comes with pancakes and jam. What the hell’s the matter with you?’
Ed has opened his hands in theatrical display, and is rolling his head around as if in despair.
‘Want to know something?’
‘If it’s quick.’
‘Either Europe’s fucked or somebody with balls has to find an antidote to Trump.’
‘And who might that be?’ I enquire.
No answer. He has slumped back
into his thoughts, and I am on my way to York.
I am doing the decent thing. I am answering the cry that every agent-runner the world over takes to his grave. The tunes vary, the lines vary, but in the end it’s the same
song every time: I can’t live with myself, Peter, the stress is killing me, Peter, the burden of my treachery is too great for me, my mistress has left me, my wife is deceiving me, my neighbours suspect me, my dog’s been run over and you my trusted handler are the one person in the world who can persuade me not to cut my wrists.
Why do we agent-runners come running every time? Because we owe.
But I don’t feel I owe much to the notably quiescent agent Pitchfork, neither is he my first concern as I take my seat on a delayed train to York in a carriage crammed with screaming kids returning from a London outing. I am thinking about Florence’s refusal to join me in a cover story that is as natural to our secret lives as brushing our teeth. I am thinking about the go-ahead for Operation Rosebud
that still refuses to materialize. I am thinking of Prue’s reply when I called her to tell her I wouldn’t be home tonight and asked her whether she has news of Steff:
‘Only that she’s moved into posh new digs in Clifton and doesn’t say who with.’
. Whatever’s the rent?’
‘Not ours to ask, I’m afraid. An email. One-way traffic only’ – unable for once to hide the note of desperation in
And when Prue’s sad voice isn’t sounding in my ear, I have Florence’s to regale me:
I don’t feel like fucking lying any more. Not to him or anybody else. Got that?
Which in turn leads me back to a question that has been gnawing at me ever since Dom’s unctuous phone call with his offer of the chauffeur-driven car, because Dom never does anything without a reason, however twisted. I
try Florence on her Office mobile a couple more times, get the same electronic howl. But my mind is still on Dom: why did you want me out of your way today? And are you by any chance the reason why Florence has decided not to lie for her country, which is a pretty massive decision if lying for your country is your chosen profession?
So it’s not until Peterborough that, sheltered by a giveaway
copy of the
, I touch in an endless string of digits and apply myself to agent Pitchfork’s unsatisfactory case history.
His name is Sergei Borisovich Kusnetsev, and henceforth against all known rules of my trade I will call him plain Sergei. He is the Petersburg-born son and grandson of Chekists, his grandfather an honoured general of the NKVD buried in the Kremlin walls, his
father an ex-KGB colonel who died of multiple wounds sustained in Chechnya. So far so good. But whether Sergei is the true heir to this noble lineage remains uncertain.
The known facts argue in his favour. But there are a lot of them, some would say too many. At sixteen he was sent to a special school near Perm, which in addition to physics taught ‘political strategy’, a euphemism for conspiracy
At nineteen he entered Moscow State University. On graduating
magna cum laude
in Physics and English he was selected for
further training at a special school for sleeper agents. From the first day of his two-year course, according to his testimony, he determined to defect to whichever Western country he was assigned to, which explains why upon arrival at Edinburgh airport at ten
at night he asked politely to speak to a ‘high officer of British Intelligence’.
His ostensible reasons for doing this were unimpeachable. From an early age he claimed to have secretly worshipped at the feet of such luminaries of physics and humanism as Andrei Sakharov, Niels Bohr, Richard Feynman and our own Stephen Hawking. Always he had dreamed of liberty for all, science for all, humanism
for all. How then could he not hate the barbarian autocrat Vladimir Putin and his wicked works?
Sergei was also by his own admission homosexual. This fact of itself, had it become known to his fellow students or instructors, would have had him instantly chucked off the course. But according to Sergei this never happened. Somehow he preserved a heterosexual front, flirting with the girls on the
course and even going to bed with a couple – according to himself, purely for cover purposes.
And in substantiation of all the above, just look at the unexpected treasure chest sitting on the table in front of his bemused debriefers: two suitcases and one backpack containing between them an entire toolkit of the authentic spy: carbons for secret writing impregnated with the nearly latest compounds;
a fictional girlfriend to write to in Denmark, the covert message to be written in invisible carbon between the lines; a subminiature camera built into a fob for a key ring; three thousand pounds of start-up money in tens and twenties hidden in the base of one suitcase; a wad of one-time pads and for a
the phone number in Paris that may be called in emergency only.
tallied, right down to his pen portraits of his
pseudonymous trainers and fellow trainees, the tricks of the trade he has been taught, the training gigs he has undertaken and his holy mission as a loyal Russian sleeper agent, which he reeled off like a mantra: study hard, earn the respect of your scientific colleagues, espouse their values and philosophy, write papers for their learned journals.
In emergency, never under any pretext attempt to contact the depleted
at the Russian Embassy in London because nobody will have heard of you and anyway
don’t service sleeper agents, who are an elite to themselves, hand-raised practically from birth and controlled by their own exclusive team at Moscow Centre. Rise with the tide, contact us every month and dream of Mother
Russia every night.
The only point of curiosity – and for his debriefers something more than curiosity – was that there was not one grain of new or marketable intelligence in any of it. Every nugget he revealed had been revealed by previous defectors: the personalities, the teaching methods, the tradecraft, even the spies’ toys, two of which were duplicated in the black museum in the distinguished
visitors’ suite on the ground floor of Head Office.
The debriefers’ reservations notwithstanding, Russia department under the now absent Bryn Jordan awarded Pitchfork the full defectors’ welcome, taking him out to dinners and football matches, co-drafting his monthly reports to his fictional girlfriend in Denmark about the doings of his scientific colleagues, bugging his rooms, hacking his
communications and intermittently placing him under covert surveillance. And waiting.
But for what? For six, eight, twelve costly months came not one spark of life from his Moscow Centre handlers: not a letter
with or without its secret under-text, not an email, phone call or magic phrase spoken on a predetermined commercial radio broadcast at a predetermined hour. Have they given him up? Have
they rumbled him? Have they woken to his covert homosexuality and drawn their conclusions?
As each barren month succeeded the last, Russia department’s patience evaporated until a day when Pitchfork was turned over to the Haven for ‘maintenance and non-active development’ – or, as Giles had it, ‘to be handled with a thick pair of rubber gloves and a very long pair of asbestos tongs, because if
ever I smelt
, this boy has all the markings and then some’.
The markings maybe, but if so they were yesterday’s. Today, if experience told me anything, Sergei Borisovich was just one more poor player in the endless cycle of Russian double-double games who has had his hour and been tossed away. And now he has decided it’s time to press his help button.
The noisy kids have removed themselves
to the buffet car. Alone in my corner seat I call Sergei on the mobile phone we gave him and get the same orderly, expressionless voice I remember from the handover ceremony with Giles back in February. I tell him I am responding to his call. He thanks me. I ask him how he is. He is well, Peter. I say I won’t be arriving in York before eleven-thirty and does he need a meeting tonight or can
it wait till morning? He is tired, Peter, so maybe tomorrow will be better, thank you. So much for ‘top urgent’. I tell him we will be reverting to our ‘traditional arrangement’ and ask ‘Are you comfortable with that?’ because the agent in the field, however dubious, must always have the last word on matters of tradecraft. Thank you, Peter, he is comfortable with the traditional arrangement.
From my ill-smelling hotel bedroom I again try Florence’s Office mobile phone. It is by now after midnight. More electronic howl. Having no other number for her, I call Ilya at the Haven. Has he received any late word on Rosebud?
‘Sorry, Nat, not a dicky bird.’
‘Well, you don’t need to be so bloody flippant about it,’ I snap at him and ring off in a huff.
I might have asked him whether by any
chance he has heard from Florence, or happens to know why her Office mobile is cut off, but Ilya is young and volatile and I don’t want the whole Haven family in a ferment. It is incumbent on all serving members to provide a landline number where they can be contacted out of hours in case no mobile phone signal is available. The last landline number Florence registered was in Hampstead, where I
recall that she also likes to run. Nobody seems to have noticed that Hampstead didn’t exactly tally with her claim to live with her parents in Pimlico but then, as Florence assured me, there’s always the 24 bus.
I dial the Hampstead number, get the machine and say I am Peter from Customer Security and we have reason to believe her account has been hacked, so for her own protection please to call
this number soonest. I drink a lot of whisky and try to sleep.
The ‘traditional procedure’ I am enforcing on Sergei dated from the days when he was being treated as a live double agent with a serious prospect of development. The pick-up point was the forecourt to York city racecourse. He was to arrive by bus, armed with a copy of the previous day’s
while his case officer waited
in a lay-by in an Office car. Sergei would dawdle with the crowd long enough for Percy Price’s
surveillance team to decide whether the encounter was being covered by the opposition, a possibility not as far-fetched as it may sound. Once the home team gave the all-clear Sergei would saunter to the bus stop and examine the timetable. Newspaper in his left hand meant abort. Newspaper in his right
hand meant all systems go.
The procedure for our handover ceremony as masterminded by Giles had by contrast been rather less traditional. He had insisted it take place in Sergei’s own lodgings on the university campus, with smoked salmon sandwiches and a bottle of vodka to wash them down. Our wafer-thin cover if we should have to account for ourselves? Giles was a visiting professor from Oxford
on a headhunting expedition and I was his Nubian slave.
Well, now we are back to the traditional procedure, with no smoked salmon. I have hired a clapped-out Vauxhall, the best the rent-a-car company can offer me in the time. I drive with one eye for the mirror and no idea what I’m looking for, but looking all the same. The day is grey, fine rain is falling, more forecast. The road to the racecourse
is straight and flat. Perhaps the Romans raced here too. White railings flicker past on my left side. A beflagged gateway appears before me. At pedestrian speed I nose my way through shoppers and wet day pleasure-seekers.
And sure enough there at the bus stop stands Sergei amid a huddle of waiting passengers, examining a yellow timetable. He clutches a copy of the
in his right
hand and in his left a music case that isn’t in the script with a rolled umbrella threaded through the top. I pull up a few yards past the bus stop, lower the window and yell, ‘Hey, Jack! Remember me? Peter!’
At first he pretends not to hear me. It’s copybook stuff and so it should be after two years of sleeper school. He turns
his head in puzzlement, discovers me, does amazement and delight.
‘Peter! My friend! It is you. I truly don’t believe my eyes.’
Okay, that’s enough, get in the car. He does. We exchange an air-hug for the spectators. He’s wearing a new Burberry raincoat, fawn. He takes it off, folds it and lays it reverently on the back seat but keeps the music case between his knees. As we drive away, a man at the bus stop makes a rude face to the woman standing next to him.
See what I saw just then? Middle-aged poofter picks up pretty rent boy in broad daylight.
I’m watching for anyone pulling out behind us, car, van or motorbike. Nothing catches the eye. Under the traditional procedure Sergei isn’t told in advance where he’s going to be taken, and he isn’t being told now. He’s skinnier and more haunted than I remember him from our handover. He has a tousled mop
of black hair and doleful bedroom eyes. His spindly fingers are playing a tattoo on the dashboard. In his rooms in college they played the same tattoo on the wooden arm of his chair. His new Harris Tweed sports jacket is too big for his shoulders.
‘What’s in the music case?’ I demand.
‘It is paper, Peter. For you.’