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Authors: John le Carré

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BOOK: Agent Running in the Field
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(Ed wearily intones a number. Gamma makes a show of writing it in her diary.)

Are you permitted to take your smartphone into your work area?
No way. Check it in at the door. All metal objects. Keys, pens, small change. A couple of days ago they made me take my bloody shoes off.
Because they suspected
Because it was clerks’ week. The week before it was line managers.
Maybe we can provide you with an inconspicuous device that takes pictures but is not metallic and doesn’t look like a smartphone. Would you like that?
That’s spy stuff. I’m not into that. I’m helping the cause when I feel like it. That’s all I’m doing.
You also gave Maria
other incoming materials from your embassies in Europe that were not codeword-protected.
Yeah, well, that was just so that she knew I wasn’t some sort of conman.
But classified ‘secret’ nonetheless.
Yeah, well, it had to be, didn’t it? Otherwise I could have been anybody.
And have you brought us material of the same sort today? Is that what you are carrying in your
disgraceful briefcase?
Willi said bring whatever you can get, so I did.

(Long silence before Ed with apparent reluctance unfastens the buckles of his briefcase, extracts a plain buff folder, opens it on his lap then passes it to her.)

[While Gamma reads] If it’s not useful, I’m not going for it. You can tell them that too.
Obviously the priority for all of us is codeword
Jericho material. For these additional possibilities, I shall have to consult my colleagues.
Well, just don’t tell them where you got it from, that’s all.
And material of
classification – plain secret, no codeword – you can bring us copies without too much problem?
Yeah. Well. Over lunch hour’s best.

(She extracts a mobile phone from her bag, photographs twelve pages.)

Did Willi tell you who I am?
He said you were high up in the pecking order. Some sort of top cat.
Willi is right. I am a top cat. However, to you I am Anette, I am a Danish teacher of English language to secondary level, resident in Copenhagen. We met when you were studying in Tübingen. We were both on the same summer foundation course for German culture. I am your older
woman, I am married, you are my secret lover. From time to time I visit England and this is where we make love. It is a flat that I borrow from my journalist friend,
. You are listening?
’Course I am. Jesus.
You do not need to know Markus personally. He is a tenant here. That is all. However, when we cannot meet this will be where we hope you will post your documents or letters
to me as you pass by on your bicycle, and Markus as a good friend will make sure our correspondence remains completely private. This is what we call a
. You are happy with this legend or do you wish to discuss a different one?
Sounds all right. Yeah. Go for it.
We would like to reward you, Ed. We would like to express our appreciation. Financially or in any other way you wish.
Maybe we make a nest egg for you in another country and one day you claim it. Yes?
I’m all right, thanks. Yeah. They pay me pretty decently. Plus I’ve got a bit put by. [Awkward grin] Curtains cost a bit. New bath. Good of you all the same, but no thanks. All right? So that’s settled. Don’t ask again, actually.
Do you have a nice girlfriend?
What’s that got to do with anything?
Does she share your sympathies?
Most of them. Sometimes.
Does she know you are in touch with us?
Shouldn’t think so.
Perhaps she could help you. Act as your intermediary. Where does she think you are now?
On my way home, I suppose. She’s got her own life, same as me.
Is she engaged in similar work to yours?
No. Not. Definitely not. Wouldn’t
think of it, ever.
What kind of work is she engaged in?
Actually, shut up about her, d’you mind?
Of course. And you have not called attention to yourself?
How am I supposed to have done that?
You haven’t stolen your employer’s money; you are not conducting a forbidden love affair like ours? [Waits for Ed to get the joke. Eventually he does and manages a stiff
grin] You have not argued with your senior staff, they do not regard you as subversive or undisciplined, you are not the subject of an internal investigation as a result of some act you have committed or failed to commit? They are not aware that you object to their policies? No? Yes?

(Ed has again withdrawn into himself. His face is set in a dark frown. If Gamma knew him better she would wait
patiently until he emerges.)

[Playful] Are you concealing something embarrassing from me? We are tolerant people, Ed. We have a long tradition of humanism.
[After further reflection] I’m just
, right? There’s not many of us about, if you want my personal opinion. Everyone else sits with the fence halfway up his arse waiting for someone to do something. I’m doing it. That’s


The pottery Staffordshire dog is the safety signal, she is telling him – or I think she is, because my ears are blurring. If there’s no doggie in the window, it means abort, she’s telling him. Or maybe she’s saying it means come on in. This ‘No Nukes’ poster means
we have a vital message for you
. Or maybe it says we will
have one next time you pass, or alternatively: never pass this
way again. Sound tradecraft requires that the agent leaves first. Ed and Valentina stand facing each other. Ed looks dazed, very tired and hangdog, the way he used to look when I was still able to beat him in a do-or-die best of seven games before we settled to our lagers. Valentina takes his hand in both of hers, draws him to her and awards a purposeful kiss to each cheek but abstains from the third
Russian kiss. Ed churlishly submits. An exterior camera picks him up as he climbs the iron staircase, briefcase in hand. An aerial camera watches him unchain his bicycle, fit the briefcase into the front basket and ride off in the direction of Hoxton.


The double doors to the Operations room open. Marion and her spear-carriers return. Doors close, lights please. Behind the soundproofed glass
walls of his eagle’s nest Percy Price is apportioning his troops in ways not hard to guess: one team stays on Gamma, another stays on Ed and houses him, remote surveillance only. A female voice from space advises us that subject Gamma has been ‘successfully marked’, we may only guess what with. So also apparently have Ed and his bicycle. Percy is well satisfied.

The screens flicker and go blank.
No Lake Windermere in autumn. Marion stands upright as a Guardsman at the end of the long table. She is wearing spectacles. Her dark-suited spear-carriers stand either side of her. She takes a breath, raises a document from her right side and reads aloud to us in a slow deliberate voice.

‘We regret to inform you that the man identified as
in the surveillance footage you have just witnessed
is a full-time member of my Service. His name is Edward Stanley Shannon and
he is a qualified Category A clerical officer with clearance to top secret and above. He has a second-class honours degree in Computer Sciences. He is a Grade 1 digital specialist currently earning a basic annual salary of £32,000 with incentive bonuses available to him for overtime, weekends and language skills. He is
a Class 3 German linguist on assignment to the European element of a highly classified inter-services department under Whitehall’s aegis. From 2015 to 2017 he served in Berlin in his department’s liaison office. He is not and never was considered suitable for operational duties. His present duties include the weeding or sanitizing of top-secret materials destined for our European partners. In effect
this entails excising, under advisement, intelligence material destined exclusively for the United States. Some of this material may also be construed as contrary to European interests. As Shannon correctly stated in the footage you have just seen, he is one of only two Grade 1 specialists entrusted with the task of copying documents of exceptional sensitivity. Shannon has successfully undergone
developed vetting and one subsequent top-up.’

Her lips have stuck. She purses them, discreetly moistens them, and continues:

‘In Berlin Shannon was the subject of an episode attributed to drink and the unwanted termination, on his side, of a love affair with a German woman. He received counselling and was judged to have made a full recovery to his mental and physical health. There is no further
example of ill-discipline, dissident or suspect behaviour recorded against him. In the workplace he is regarded as a loner. His line manager describes him as “friendless”. He is unmarried and listed as heterosexual with no known current partner. He has no known political affiliations.’

Another moistening of the lips.

‘An immediate damage assessment is under way, as is an
enquiry into Shannon’s
past and present contacts. Pending the outcome of such enquiries, Shannon will not, repeat not, be made aware that he is under observation. Given the background and evolving nature of the case I am authorized to state that my Service is amenable to the formation of a joint task force. Thank you.’

‘Can I just add a word to that?’

To my surprise I am standing, and Dom is staring up at me as if
I’ve gone mad. I am also speaking in what I firmly believe is a confident and relaxed tone:

‘I happen to know this man personally. Ed. We play badminton together most Monday evenings. In Battersea, actually. Close to where I live. At our club. The Athleticus. And we usually have a couple of beers together after the game. Obviously I’m happy to help in any way I can.’

Then I must have sat down
too abruptly and lost my bearings in the process, because the next thing I remember is Guy Brammel suggesting we all take a short natural break.


I’ll never know how long they kept me waiting in that little room, but it can’t have been short of an hour with nothing to read and just a blank, pastel-painted yellow wall
to stare at because they had taken away my Office mobile. And to this day I can’t fathom whether I had been sitting or standing in the Operations room or just wandering around when a janitor touched my arm and said ‘If you’d kindly follow me, sir’ without completing the sentence.

But I do remember that there was a second janitor waiting at the door, and that it took the two of them to walk me
to the lift while we chatted about the shocking heat we were having to put up with and was it going to be like this every summer from now on? And I know the word
kept going through my mind like an accusation: not because I blamed myself for being Ed’s friend, but because it seemed I was the only one he had, which placed a larger responsibility on me – but for what? And of course with
those unmarked lifts your stomach never knows whether you’re going up or down, particularly when its churning away on its own account, which mine was now that I had been escorted from the confinement of the Operations room and released into captivity.

But call it an hour before the janitor who had been standing the other side of the glass door all this time – Andy, his name
was, fond of his cricket
– popped his head round and said ‘You’re on, Nat,’ then in the same cheery spirit led me to another much larger room, again with no windows, not even fake ones, and a ring of nice padded chairs with no distinction between them because we’re a Service of equals, and told me to sit in whichever chair I wanted because
the others
would be here in a jiffy.

So I picked a chair and sat on it and cupped
the ends of the arms with my hands and fell to wondering who
the others
would be. And I believe I have a memory from somewhere at the start of my escorted passage out of the Operations room of a cluster of top-floor grandees murmuring in a corner and Dom Trench trying to get his nose under the wire as usual, and being told ‘No, not you, Dom’ rather firmly by Guy Brammel.

And sure enough when
chers collègues
filed in, Dom was not one of the party, which caused me briefly to speculate again about his concern that I should speak up for him regarding the chauffeured car he’d ordered for me. First into the room came Ghita Marsden who gave me a kindly smile and a ‘hullo again, Nat’ that was supposed to put me at my ease, but what did she mean by
, as if we’d been reborn? Then glowering
Marion from our sister Service and just one of her spear-carriers, the bigger, gloomier one, who said we hadn’t met and his name was Anthony, then held out his hand and nearly broke mine.

‘I like a game of badminton myself,’ he told me, as if that made everything all right. So I said, ‘Great, Anthony, where do you play?’ – but he didn’t seem to hear me.

Then Percy Price, keen churchman, rugged
face in lockdown. And that shook me, not so much because Percy cut me dead but because he must have handed over temporary command of Stardust to his many lieutenants so that he could be present for the meeting. Then, close on Percy’s heels, carrying a plastic cup of tea reminiscent of the one on Ed’s tray from the
self-service café, Guy Brammel, conspicuously at ease in the company of the diminutive
Joe Lavender, grey-man of the Office’s secretive internal security section. Joe was carrying a box file and I remember facetiously asking him, just for the human connection, whether the janitors had checked its contents at the door, and getting a dirty look in response.

While they trooped in I was also trying to work out what they all had in common apart from their grim expressions because groups
like these don’t form by accident. Ed, as we all now know, is a member of our sister Service, which means that in any hardball inter-Service shoot-out he’s our find and their mistake, so live with it. Therefore assume a lot of inter-Service haggling about who gets what part of the cake. And when all that’s been done and dusted, there will have been one of those last-minute rushes to make sure
the audiovisual system in the room we’re sitting in is up and running, because we don’t need another fuck-up like last time, whatever last time was.

Then, just as everyone is finally sitting down comfortably, enter my same two janitors bearing the same coffee urn, water jugs and sandwiches that nobody had got around to eating at the film show, and Andy the cricketing one winks at me. And when
they’ve gone, in drifts the spectral figure of Gloria Foxton, the Office’s
-shrink, looking as if she’s been hauled out of bed which she may well have been, and three paces behind her my own Moira of Human Resources bearing a thick green file that I suspect is about me, since she’s carrying it very deliberately blank side outward.

‘You haven’t heard from
, by any chance, have you,
Nat?’ she asks me in a worried way, pulling up beside me.

‘Not sight nor sound, alas, Moira,’ I reply boldly.

Why did I lie? To this day I can’t tell you. I wasn’t practising. I had not set out to lie. I had nothing to lie about. Then a second look at her tells me that she knew the answer before she asked
the question and she was testing my veracity, which made me feel an even bigger fool.

,’ says Gloria Foxton, with urgent psychotherapeutical sympathy, ‘how

‘Bloody awful, thanks, Gloria. How about
?’ I reply cheerfully, and get an icy smile to remind me that people in my position, whatever that is, don’t ask shrinks how they are.

‘And dear
?’ she enquires for extra fondness.

‘Marvellous. Firing on all cylinders. Got Big Pharma in her sights.’

But what I’m
really feeling is a surge of unjustified anger for certain hurtful wisdoms Gloria uttered five years back when I unwisely sought her free advice on matters Steff, such as ‘Might it just be
, Nat, that by throwing herself at every boy in her class, Stephanie is making a statement about her absent father?’ – her gravest offence being that she was probably right.

We are settled at last and
high time too. Gloria in the meantime has been joined by two
-shrinks, Leo and Franzeska, who both look about sixteen. In aggregate I therefore have a cool dozen of my
chers collègues
sitting in a half-circle, each with their unobstructed view of me, because somehow the formation of the chairs has reshaped itself and I’m stuck out on my own like the boy in the painting being asked when he
last saw his father, except it isn’t my poor father they’re here to ask about, it’s Ed.


Guy Brammel has decided to open the bowling, as he would say, which makes a certain sense because he is by training a barrister and at his stately home in St Albans he runs his own cricket team. Over the years he has frequently roped me in to play.

‘So, Nat,’ he begins, in his cheery port-and-pheasant
‘pretty bloody bad luck is what you’re telling us, I think. You play an honest game of badminton with a fellow and he turns out to be a member of our sister Service and a bloody Russian spy. Why don’t we take it from the top and go from there? How did the two of you meet, what did you get up to when, omitting no details however slight.’

We take it from the top. Or I do. Saturday evening
at the Athleticus. I’m enjoying a post-match beer with my Indian opponent from across the river in Chelsea. Enter Alice with Ed. Ed challenges me to a game. Our first fixture. His unfriendly references to his employers, closely observed by Marion and her spear-carrier. Our first post-badminton pint at the
. Ed heaps scorn on Brexit and Donald Trump as components of a single evil.

you went along with that stuff, Nat?’ Brammel enquires amiably enough.

‘In moderation, yes, I did. He was anti-Brexit. So was I. Still am. Like most of the people in this room, I suspect,’ I retort stoutly.

‘And Trump?’ Brammel enquires. ‘You went along with him on Trump too?’

‘Well, Christ, Guy. Trump’s not exactly flavour of the month in this place, is he? Man’s a bloody wrecking ball.’

I look round for support. None is forthcoming, but I refuse to be ruffled. Never mind my misstep with Moira just now. I’m an old hand. I’ve been trained in this stuff. Taught it to my agents.

‘When Trump and Putin bond, it’s a devils’ pact as far as Shannon’s concerned,’ I go on boldly. ‘Everyone’s ganging up on Europe and he doesn’t like it. He’s got this German bee in his bonnet.’

‘So he challenges
you to a game,’ Guy Brammel persists, waving aside my blathering. ‘In plain sight of everyone. He’s gone to a lot of trouble to seek you out, and here he is.’

‘I happen to be Club singles champion. He’d heard about me and fancied his chances,’ I said, standing on my dignity.

‘Sought you out, ridden across London on his pushbike, studied your game?’

‘He may well have done.’

‘And he challenged
. He didn’t challenge anyone else. Not your Chelsea opponent that you’d just played, which he might have done. It had to be you.’

‘If my Chelsea opponent as you call him had beaten me, for all I know Shannon would have challenged him instead,’ I declare, not entirely truthfully, but there was something in Guy’s tone that I was beginning to dislike.

Marion hands him a piece of paper. He puts
on his reading spectacles and studies it at his leisure.

‘According to your receptionist at the Athleticus, from the day Shannon challenged you, he was the only chap you played. You became a couple. Fair description?’

, if you don’t mind.’

‘All right. Pair.’

‘We were well matched. He played fair and won or lost with grace. Decent players with manners are hard to find.’

‘I’m sure. You
also palled up with him. You were drinking partners.’

‘Overstated, Guy. We got a regular game going and had a beer afterwards.’

‘Every week, sometimes even twice a week, which is going it, even for an exercise freak like you. And you
, you say.’

‘I do.’

‘How long did you
for? Over your lagers?’

‘Half an hour. An hour maybe. Depends how we felt.’

‘Sixteen, eighteen hours, totted
up? Twenty? Or is twenty too many?’

‘It could have been twenty. What’s the difference?’

‘Self-educated sort of chap, is he?’

‘Not at all. Grammar school.’

‘Did you tell him what you do for a living?’

‘Don’t be bloody silly.’

you tell him?’

‘Fobbed him off. Businessman home from abroad, looking around for an opening.’

‘And he bought that, you reckon?’

‘Not curious, and equally
vague about his own job in return. Media stuff, didn’t elaborate. Neither of us did.’

‘Do you normally spend twenty hours talking politics with badminton partners half your age?’

‘If they play a good game and they’ve got something to say for themselves, why not?’

‘I said,
do you?
Not why. I’m trying to establish – simple question – whether in the past you have talked politics at length with
any other opponent of similar age?’

‘I’ve played them. And had a drink with them afterwards.’

‘But not with the regularity with which you played, drank and talked with Edward Shannon?’

‘Probably not.’

‘And you’ve no son of your own. Or not as far as we know, given your prolonged periods of foreign exile.’


‘And none off the record?’


‘Joe,’ says Brammel, turning to Joe Lavender,
star of internal security, ‘you had a couple of questions.’


Joe Lavender has to wait his turn. A Shakespearean messenger has popped up in the person of Marion’s second spear-carrier.
With Guy’s permission he would like to ask me a question that has just come in from his Service’s investigative team. It is inscribed on a thin strip of paper that he holds between the fingertips of each huge

‘Nat. Were you
or were you at any point
,’ he enquires with aggressive clarity, ‘during the course of your many
with Edward Stanley Shannon, that his mother Eliza is on record as a serial
, protester and
rights activist
on a wide range of
and similar

‘No, I was
not so aware
,’ I retort, feeling the bile rise in me despite my best intentions.

‘And your lady
, we are being told, is also a robust defender of our basic
human rights
, no disrespect. Am I correct?’

‘Yes. Very robust.’

‘Which I’m sure we would all agree is only to be applauded. May I then
, has there been to the best of your knowledge any
interaction or communication
between Eliza Mary Shannon and your lady wife?’

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