(with suitable apologies and homage to John Le Carre)
(Author’s Note: The main character of George Smallie should be imagined as Colin Hutchinson, Alec Guinness and perhaps a dash of Alan Bennett thrown in the blender and given a quick whizz. Whether you then imagine Delia or Nigella doing the blending is your own private hell for which I have no remedy.)
George Smallie, bespectacled, lost in thought, stared out of the first floor study window, quietly interrogating the grey London day. The grip on his whisky tumbler tightened imperceptibly, anticipating the question.
“And Eve, George, how is she?”
“Oh happy enough, Peter. She’s away down in the Chilterns at the moment. A friend from university days wanted some help starting an antiques business… Um you know…”
Good manners had dictated the enquiry, but aware of the pain it engendered I moved, perhaps too quickly, to the purpose of my visit.
“Do you know why I’m here, George?”
“I know it is not a purely social call. How long has it been?”
It was as needling as George would ever get, but since he had missed my wedding, while off pursuing Eve in the vague hope of rescuing her from the consequences of another reckless entanglement, I had not had an opportunity to call on him. And truth to tell, the inner emptiness, touching on despair that he exhibited after those painful episodes with Eve, had not encouraged me to remedy the oversight. This did not however assuage my sense of guilt.
“Longer than was really decent on my part, if I’m honest, George.”
“Honest? Well that was always one of your salient characteristics wasn’t it, Peter?”
A wry smile wanes and is replaced by the inscrutable mask.
“But go on, explain the haste, or should I say, unseemly desperation?”
A flicker of the hooded lids betrayed his eyes. He was enjoying himself.
“Well, George, no-one knows I’m here talking to you and it’s vital it stays that way. As I’m sure you’re aware there is another upheaval at the Motel.”
“Well they do come round as regularly as Christmas after all, don’t they?”
George blinked owlishly, but his laconic delivery could not fully disguise an imperceptible change in attitude, a quickening of interest.
“Yes, but this time I suspect there’s more than a little internal, departmental blood-letting. I sense a tipping point has been reached. You have the nose for this don’t you, George?”
I knew George would understand my veiled reference to his last days in Chelsea Station, when Control had finally overstretched. The Cousins probing untraceable contacts that petered out in Hong Kong and asking difficult questions about how particular operations were being financed.
“It didn’t smell right did it? You knew where the bodies were buried and helped put a few of them there yourself, but you sensed there was something else going on, something deeper. Isn’t that why you got out and left Roy Ash to watch Control’s back until Percy parachuted in?”
The sigh had just a trace of impatience.
“I’d had enough of trying to placate Eve. Sitting by a pool in some God forsaken oven with a telex chuntering, purely because I couldn’t trust the Motel not to leak like a rusting tug. Too many moles Peter. That was the problem. Running operations in those circumstances became too trying. It was for a younger man. I couldn’t have survived under Percy, with all those attack dogs of his. And yes I worried about Control. I still worry. The loose ends. I hate loose ends.”
We both knew that while Control had supposedly gone rogue after leaving the Motel, George had maintained contact with him. Some assumed Control’s presence in the Leeds Bureau was a long game they’d cooked up to finish off one of the Motel’s old and bitterest adversaries, while others wondered if George was just keeping the channels open to ensure he could anticipate any damage that might come his way should Control finally slip up.
But more than that I guessed he was fretting about Trafford Centre and its spy-master, Kargie. It was Kargie who stood as the implacable reminder of the days when the Circus (as the FA was known) battled to hold back the ever growing threat from Scotland. Like Reivers they rolled South, capturing not just Trafford Centre but Anfield or the “Ghost Hole”, as it has been recently re-christened by the agents of the Motel. But back then under the fearsome Shankski and his successors it was the “Boot Room”.
They had even got as far as the “Library”, when George Gentleman lay siege on our very doorstep with his impeccably drilled cohort. Indeed in the days before Control, Chelsea Station was infiltrated by the “Doc” who when flushed out eventually re-appeared in Trafford Centre to where, many suspected, he had been recruited some years before.
It was only down to a combination of the skills of men like George, who ensured that the Motel and other agencies of the Circus became a bulwark against these enemy sleepers by recruiting heavily from Europe, allied to the inexorable erosion of Scottish finances by the glacier of macro economics that an identifiably English game had survived.
More irksome still for George was that he had very nearly succeeded in curtailing Kargie’s career, but would forever regret hesitating to apply the coup de grace. A palpable empathy with his fellow dwellers in the shadowlands, a core of decency, of humanity, was tangible in his dealings even with the most depraved of operators. And it had cost him dear with the Scottish spy-master.
“It behoves a man to consider the finality of his actions, Peter. There is always a need for consideration. It is a virtue. But when does it become needless hesitation, vacillation? Unfortunately my choices on that particular day have given me some insight into the moment of transition.”
Since he was not an obviously vainglorious man or given to extended periods of self-criticism, I had never forgotten this conversation or its context. The words were spoken in the early morning hours as we headed away from Moscow by rail, having witnessed a particularly bitter and soul destroying triumph for Kargie, which had left George in a strangely reflective state of mind.
He had enlisted my assistance in what he said was a spot of “consultancy work” for the Circus, which he airily referred to as some effort to uncover the latest machinations at UEFA. Yet strangely, after a week’s inconsequential touring of the minor cities of Mittle Europa, he conspired to have us arrive in Moscow just in time to see the Motel’s finest field agents rolled up by a Kargie inspired team from Trafford Centre.
It was then that I came to suspect that George’s “freelancing” and “consultancy” might have closer ties to the Motel than he cared to reveal. But given the disdain he had for Percy and his manner of conducting operations, I found this knowledge rather unsettling. And how did this co-exist with ongoing contact with Control, the irascible grey beard, whose unspoken surname, synonymous with one of Hitchcock’s most famous villains, gave rise to the jocular nickname for the Chelsea Station?
George was far from retired then. His requests for excerpts from files, confirmation of dates and other small enquiries, along with providing a companion on a few road trips or “sojourns”, as he referred to them when a lighter mood was on him, had told me that much over time. But obscuring the nature of his “projects” while requiring my trust, so that he would not imperil what was left of my career at the Motel, was his way of protecting me and yet keeping me within his ambit.
I had become convinced that it was his sure-footed sense of Kargie’s weaknesses and his careful prompting from the shadows that enabled the Motel to successfully turn Peter Kane and bring him into Chelsea Station. And equally his prolonged absence from London while tracking down his errant wife to a backstreet souk in a small Algerian town a few years back, meant there was no-one to prevent what I, but few others, could clearly see was a Kargie counter stroke, the employment of Ray Gourmet.
Percy had always protected himself with the same team of ruthless figures. The urbane American-trained lawyer Brice Buick, the dead-eyed Eastern European enforcer Eustace Baumgartner and the glacial Russian arch communicator Marta Dontaslipova. But they had their limitations. The bright new world of 164-bit encryption, algorithms, facial recognition software, drones and the other facets of modern intelligence might be their strengths but they evidently lacked the tradecraft that a man like George Smallie brought to negotiating the murky waters of espionage.
Otherwise they would have refrained from seeing Gourmet replacing Kane as yet another coup for the organisation. They would have been looking to stage left, looking for subtleties, changes in tone, in temperature and most importantly taking the long view, three, four, five steps ahead.
“Anticipation, Peter, anticipation. It all comes to nothing if you are not looking beyond the horizon, making sure the sun is going to rise tomorrow.”
George had uttered what at the time seemed merely a pointless aphorism when we were discussing whether the Cousins taking over Anfield was a good thing. Only now, with the very recent events at the Motel fresh in my mind, was I was starting to appreciate how carefully chosen those words were. I now had reason to believe that George was already deeply embedded in one of those opaque, subtle, strategic ploys for which he was legendary.
Convincing evidence of this emerged during the past summer when Bernard Roper, one of George’s proteges was taken on by our “friends over the water” to run the field operations for Anfield, now finally purged of the Shankski Boot Room idealogues. All the better to keep an eye on Dennis Mores and his team across the Stanley Park divide as well. Mores, a steely-eyed Pict was very much in the Kargie mould and George was obviously concerned as to his future movements along with suspecting there was a reason his stairwell had seen the termination of Calvino’s Motel career.
Placing sleepers and active agents had always been part of the game and the Motel was no exception. This summer had all the hallmarks of George working below the radar. For not only was there now a key man in the Ghost Hole but Three Point Lane was graced by a recent graduate of the Motel’s tough training regime as well. Coupled with operations in Madrid and Paris already up and running (the re-emergence of Calvino), it was obvious that George had been backing more than one horse these last few years. For this work was too, too subtle for Percy and his colleagues to have managed alone.
Having wittingly, or otherwise, played some role in these machinations, I was expecting ever more regular work with George as projects gained traction. But the opposite had been the case. And while I had hesitated to call on him and had indeed apologised, the ball had really been in his court.
So, even as I surveyed successful Motel field operations in London and Munich during May, I was uneasy. He had trained me well and I had a heightened sense of anticipation for what might presage disaster.
“You have to always be conscious of absence, Peter. Sense that pieces are missing from the jigsaw even before you lay them out.”
And throughout the autumn an awareness of something being deficient had gnawed at me. As is always the case when a major crisis starts to unfold, events were now verifying those concerns but also moving almost too fast.
“George, I think Kargie is making a significant move. I know you’ve suspected he’s got someone high up in the Circus, well I’m now sure he’s also got a placeman in the Motel. It’s the only way I can explain these recent events.”
George was motionless for some time. I sensed he was weighing options, preparing to offer a deeper insight into a situation of which he feared the consequences. Then slowly he eased the curtain with the forefinger of his free hand. The classic side step.
“You said no-one knew you were here? Are you sure about that?”
His gaze was fixed on the road below.
“Seven cars back. Other side of the street. Been there for at least 20 minutes. Seems vaguely familiar.”
“He’s one of my “groundsmen”.”
“Ah, one of those quaint euphemisms they’re so fond of down at the “Pitchowners”. How are you doing there by the way?”
As if I needed to tell George what I felt about being farmed out to a remote station away from the Motel, with a brief to run interference and throw up sufficient chaff to jam the radars of the trustees and overseers, while Percy and his team went about their business.
“Oh I’m tickety-boo, George, just tickety-boo.”
I paused, waiting a response. A silence sat between us.
“And the reason you recognise the man watching my back is that he’s Jim Sutton.”
“The scalphunter from Hackney?”
“And you trust him?”
“With my life.”
“Yes, I see. You may need him sooner than you think.”
“But he can be a little… explosive can’t he? I seem to remember a rumpus with two of Langley’s finest in that rather dingy bar in Budapest, something about the pronunciation of Uipest Dozsa wasn’t it?”
“Something minor like that. But they’d all had a lot to drink.”
“Do you know, Peter, to this day I still have no idea what he meant by shouting at the two Americans, “And you can pair-up if you like. And you can fucking pick someone else to help you and you can bring your fucking dinner”.”
I smiled. George’s well modulated suburban delivery couldn’t convey the tone of senseless violence and extreme menace that phrase carried when uttered by a man like Jim Sutton.
“I’m not overly familiar with the argot of the Hackney native either I’m afraid, George.”
“I seem to remember that their dinner was an ever present part of their vocabulary when I worked for a short time in the “Mystic East”. And it wasn’t only our people. There was someone in the Flying Squad down the road in Walthamstow. Regan I think his name was. He always threatened suspects with the fact he hadn’t eaten his dinner. Don’t you find it rather curious how different meals are culturally significant to different groups of people? Americans seem obsessed with breakfast, the professional middle class always talk of “doing lunch” yet over in East London they have a show on the television called “In Bed With Me Dinner” fronted by a comedian who supported Leyton Orient.”
“Anthropology isn’t my strong suit. But it’s important to note that for the natives, Leyton, Walthamstow and Hackney are all really North East London, George. I’m not sure how far the “dinner” thing extends into East London proper, which starts somewhere around Stepney or Plaistow, I’m told.”
It was difficult to resist the opportunity to subtly correct a man as fastidious as George in matters of geography.
“Yes well, back to business. Perhaps you’d like to go through some of the details of the last few days. I’ve been out of town. Is that “off the grid” or “under the radar”? Technology moves so quickly. Anyway, I have rather fallen behind events…”
The manner in which his voice tailed off as he moved from the window to the comfort of an armchair alerted me to the possibility that while Eve might be in the Chilterns, it wasn’t for antiques. And if George had taken his eye of the ball, it could only mean that his trip involved considerable heartache, which was a worry, as I needed the full focus of his forensic mind.
Starting with the difficulties of the West Bromwich and Turin operations, pausing only to reflect on how George interpreted the presence of a former Motel Scotsman in the Midlands, I laid out how Swiss Rob, the head of Field Operations had paid the price. I then took him through what I knew of the hurried meetings, night flights and encrypted communications which left the wranglers in a state of high agitation as they worked on them. And more importantly, how often conversations stopped when you entered a room, suspicious looks across meeting tables, hurriedly scribbled notes. I was careful to covey the febrile atmosphere.
“And then in walked Ibanez. Calm as you like, George. Now how could that be?”
“But you seem to think Kargie’s behind this? Now Ibanez is many things, but not a product or asset of Trafford Centre, of that we can be sure.”
“Oh give me some credit, George. It’s about who’s put him in there.”
“You know only Percy makes the final decision on the Head of Field Operations.”
“George, come on you’re being deliberately obtuse.”
I’d watched Smallie’s surgical interrogation technique carefully extract information without the target even knowing sometimes. Like leaving hospital only to realise days later that you no longer have a spleen. It was a layered, careful eliding of fact and supposition.
I sensed that I was now the subject of just such a procedure. What I had only seconds to decide was where George was already positioned, because while some of these small details were new to him, despite my previous concerns about his focus, he was exhibiting all the facets of a man ready to make his move.
“How do I put this? Percy is a man of singular mind. He has his objectives and is ruthless in achieving those, as we’ve observed. I think his being so focused on where he wants to be in a year’s time has enabled someone to convince him and the board that Ibanez is the man he currently needs. It’s the only rational explanation I can see. But you try and put a finger on who first tabled the name, and when, and you’re met by blank stares. But whoever that person is, they have a motive that can only come from Trafford Centre because the arrival of Ibanez will surely destroy everything we’ve worked for, George.”
“Perhaps that’s a little over dramatic, Peter, but the situation is serious. Gourmet of course is not our man, but merely there to confuse matters. That much you’ve worked out I take it?”
“Yes, George. That’s a given.”
“Well, there are no easy answers to this, particularly as we are on the outside looking in. We have to move quickly and get our hands on as much relevant material as possible.”
As always George’s first point of departure were the files. It was one of his earliest lectures.
“Research, Peter. You have to do your research. Detail is everything. Few can keep control of the detail. That’s the imprint in the sand, the shred of cloth on the branch, the hair on the pillow.”
I let the irony of the last observation hang heavy in the air, unsure how to take up the conversation.
Sitting back in the armchair, with his legs crossed, he slowly extracted a handkerchief from a trouser pocket, carefully removed his glasses and started to polish them in a distracted fashion.
“Do you still have your Registry access?”
“I do as a matter of fact. I’m on good terms with one of the archivists.”
A slow smile crossed Smallie’s lips.
“And charm was of course another of those salient features. Veracity and charm. Quite the winning combination with the fair sex.”
It seemed superfluous pointing out that the dynamic of male-female relations had changed somewhat from the days of quiet assignations in a Carnforth Station Tea Room.
“I’ll compile a list of the material we must have a sight of. We will definitely need a number of communications logs and I know of half a dozen files we must look at straight away, going back to before Percy took over. But I’m afraid there my memory fails me. But I know someone who can help us.”
“Yes. Dear old Connie. An almost photographic memory and the powers of recollection undimmed by a lifetime’s predilection for cheap sherry and Turkish cigarettes.”
He was momentarily lost in a private moment of memory. Then he was back to the business of the present.
“The problem as I see it is that Kargie has played a very subtle hand. I’ve thought for some time that he had penetrated the very highest echelons of Chelsea Station. I was sure of it under Control but thought that with the new regime he’d lost his foothold. Somehow, though, he has it back. And to think that an operator like Ibanez is within the walls.”
Little needed to be said between us about the Spanish former Inquisitor. His history spoke for itself. To succeed the Boot Room in the manner he did, said everything.
He put his glasses back on, sprang up and made for the hallway.
“Come on, Lewis, I need a pint to help me think this through.”
And there it was, the famous Smallie impersonation of a well known television detective. It was a signal that he had the appetite for the chase. His blood was up and he scented the chance of a result. The rumpled, careworn figure from a couple of hours ago, was suddenly moving lightly on his feet. The burden of an ever broken heart had been briefly put to one side. There was work to be done.
The character could vary and with it my association. It was always one of the more cerebral figures and his loyal attendant; Holmes and Watson, Morse and Lewis, Foyle and Milner. Famously he once arrived at the Motel as Poirot, addressed me as ‘Astings and claimed his moustache was real and grown for “Movember”. Despite the use of a pool car, when he was in a Sherlock frame of mind we often found ourselves getting suburban trains out of Marylebone rather than driving up the M40.
Well today it was Morse. Refreshment would be taken at his local around the corner and then we would be off to see Connie.
I signalled to Jim Sutton to stay in the car. I didn’t want some hapless Bayswater locals being informed that they could bring their dinner, should my loyal operative get out of shape on the sauce.
To be continued, possibly…