Read an Excerpt
By Brian Freemantle
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1993 Brian Freemantle
All rights reserved.
This title was more pompous than most – today's Foreign Office offering was 'The New Reality of the Future' – but the contents were the same, just reconstituted and served up differently: mincemeat from previously left-over scraps.
Charlie Muffin preferred his own title. Bullshit. Which was how he'd judged every other analysis and thesis interpreting the dissolution of the Soviet Union into its uncertain Commonwealth of suspicious republics which was supposed to lead to a New World Order. All bullshit. He'd said it, too, although in language more acceptable to civil servants in the response arguments he'd had to make, to every woolly-minded exposition. He'd say it again, of course, about this effort. And be ignored, as he appeared permanently to be ignored these days.
Charlie sat in his favourite launch position, chair tilted back, legs splayed over withdrawn bottom drawers to support awkward feet, the waste basket propped in the far corner of his rabbit hutch office. He sighted, minutely adjusted the trajectory, and fired the dart carefully crafted from the last page of what he'd just read. Lift-off looked good, all systems go, but then abruptly the missile dipped, early impetus gone, to crash among the other failures already littering the heel-chipped floor largely uncovered by the minimal square of frayed, Ministry grade III carpet. It put the final score at three in, seven out. Bad. Or was it? On the recognized scale for intelligence operations three out of ten was a bloody good success rate: remarkable even, considering the cock-ups that inevitably occurred along the way and usually, and more importantly, to him. But then he wasn't assessing an intelligence operation. Just the hit rate of a paper dart made from yet another document circulated throughout Britain's clandestine agencies, setting out guidelines for intelligence gathering after the momentous political adjustments and realignments in Europe and what once had been, but was no longer, the Soviet Union.
Charlie sighed, lifting his feet to bring his chair more upright. Charlie realized that on a scale of ten he'd so far awarded zero to every assessment he'd been called upon to review. Which would upset people, particularly those whose assessments he'd dismissed as a load of crap. But then he often seemed to upset people, even when it wasn't intentional. Which it wasn't here: he was just being honest.
Charlie rose and scuffed around the desk, the spread-apart Hush Puppies even more spread apart by his having loosened the laces for additional comfort: launch directors don't need tight shoes. Charlie carried the waste basket to the shredder first, before collecting the darts which had run out of impetus.
What about his own impetus? What was the New Reality for the Future for Charlie Muffin? He wished he knew: was almost desperate to know.
The personal upheavals and uncertainties exceeded all those international changes he'd been professionally commenting upon, for all these months. And been a bloody sight more difficult to assess. Impossible, in fact. Some still remained so: always would, he supposed. The familiar – almost daily – recriminations came and he accepted them, the remorse still sharp.
Where was she? Alive? Dead? Happy? Sad? Hating him? He stopped the run of questions at the one he thought he could answer, the one he always answered. Natalia had to hate him, if she'd survived. She had every reason. He'd been insane to let her go. However dangerous it had appeared – however dangerous it had undoubtedly been – he should have kept her with him. Found a way. Instead of like this, in a permanent vacuum.
He didn't have any doubt – there couldn't be any doubt – that she'd been allowed out of Moscow under those now long-ago emerging freedoms to be the bait, personally to trap him. But she hadn't been part of it: not known the purpose or the direction of whatever had been set up against him. He was sure of that, after so much mental examination. More convinced than he'd ever been of anything he couldn't positively prove in a professional life where so much had lacked proof. She couldn't have been part because she wouldn't have been part. Because she loved him. Or had done, then. What about pressure upon Eduard? The freedoms had only just begun and Eduard was in the Russian army, vulnerable to every threat and pressure. Charlie supposed she would have compromised to protect her son, even though during their brief reunion in London she'd despaired at how the army had coarsened and brutalized the boy, turning him into the mirror image of the womanizing, drunken husband who had abandoned her.
So OK, she might have been part. Just. And reluctantly, if she'd been forced to cooperate. But she would have warned him. There had been opportunities, difficult though it had all been, and she would have taken one of them to sound an alarm, if she had known what it had all been about.
What about himself? Charlie demanded. Simple. He'd failed her. He'd been unable to go the last mile – the last inch! – to ignore the instinctive self-preservation to keep the rendezvous: an escape rendezvous he'd seen her keep, but not left his concealment to complete.
Not just failed her. Lost her.
For what? The job? Charlie slumped back behind the desk, snorting the derision. What fucking job? Rejecting ill-considered, naïve assessments from analysts who'd got Double Firsts at Cambridge in International Political Science and never crossed the English Channel? Waiting for month after month for the summons and the briefing for a proper, active operation that never came? Folding paper darts instead and playing kids' games, even awarding himself points!
What new reality was there going to be for his future? Hard reality, he guessed. Maybe a very uncertain future: perhaps no future at all. Sir Alistair Wilson's retirement from the Director-Generalship, after the second heart attack, had been a foregone conclusion and with Sir Alistair had gone a special relationship, a very special understanding. Which hadn't been favouritism or sycophancy or even friendship. It had been a complete professional recognition between two men born at either extreme of the English social divide, each respecting the other, each benefiting from the other, each never quite trusting the other.
In addition to all of which, Sir Alistair had served a magnificent Islay single malt whisky.
There hadn't been even supermarket whisky with the new Director-General. Only two meetings since the appointment of Peter Miller: both very formal, both introductory, each man circling the other to mark and scent the other's territory.
Miller was a professional appointee, transferred from internal counter-intelligence and showing it to someone able to recognize the signs, as Charlie could. The one characteristic so far picked up by Charlie was a taciturn, word-measuring suspicion about everything and everybody inherent in someone whose job until now had been to seek enemies within. Was Miller's transfer to external operations another naïve assumption of new realities, a belief that they didn't have to bother any more about hostile activity inside the country? Some of the opinions Charlie had read recently didn't make that suggestion as absurd as it might otherwise have seemed.
Charlie was curious how this third meeting would unfold. More than curious. Hopeful, too, that it could finally be a briefing, on something positive for him to do. Christ, he hoped so! He'd had the memorandum fixing the appointment a week before, which wasn't how he'd been briefed in the past, but he wasn't attaching too much importance to that. Miller was new and new people arrived with new ways. Not all assignments were urgent: most weren't, in fact. This could be one of those that needed time: careful consideration and proper planning. It could be ... Charlie halted the speculation, recognizing another sort of kids' game, thinking himself into an optimism for which there was no justification. He was having his third meeting with the Director, that was all. Foolish, unprofessional, to clutter his mind with a lot of groundless hopes. Not the way to operate; certainly not the way he operated. Ever.
Charlie reluctantly refastened his laces, flexing his toes to ensure there was as much comfort as possible, and then straightened the clean shirt around his waist, where it had pulled out during the dart-throwing. He'd kept his freshly pressed suit jacket on a hanger, to prevent it becoming creased: couldn't remember the last time he'd dressed up so smartly.
The secretariat established on the ninth floor since his last visit was the most surprising innovation of all. There were outer office staff, but the inner sanctum was now controlled by just one woman. She was about thirty-five, guessed Charlie. Titian-haired, cut short. Nice tits. Not possible to see her legs beneath the desk, but probably good on the standard so far. Pity she was frowning so irritably at the internal telephone in her hand. She slammed down rather than replaced the unanswered receiver.
He smiled, brightly, and said: 'I've an appointment with the Director-General. Charlie Muffin.'
'I was trying to call you.' She didn't smile.
'Wanted to be early for a new boss! Make an impression!'
'He's not ready for you.' She nodded to a set of seats against the wall behind him. They were new, like everything else. 'You can wait there.'
'Rather stand,' said Charlie. 'How are you liking it here? Haven't had a chance to talk before.'
'I have been with the Director and deputy Director-General for some years.' She looked pointedly at the chairs she'd already indicated.
Director and deputy Director-General! 'Charlie Muffin,' he repeated, hopeful for a return introduction. He'd always made friends – sometimes even love – with Directors' personal assistants: insider knowledge was invaluable to someone who watched his back as carefully as Charlie. The long-time P.A. of the Director-General and his deputy would be an incredible ally to cultivate.
'I heard you the first time.' There was still no smile.
Awkward cow, thought Charlie, smiling broadly: if at first you don't succeed, try, try again until they fall on their back. 'Be happy to point the way if you need help in a new department.'
She sighed, heavily. 'My name is Julia Robb. During the time I have been with the Director and his deputy I have been chatted up by a large number of operatives, usually far better than you're doing now. And all for the same reason you're doing it now, although getting into my bed was sometimes an additional ambition. I don't, ever, talk about things I hear or see or know about. And I don't screw round with the staff, either. Have I left anything out?'
Charlie decided that qualified as a rejection. 'Don't think so.'
The delayed summons to the inner office was a grateful escape.
It had all been changed from the London Club ambience that Sir Alistair Wilson had installed: gone were the faded, leather-topped desk, the sagging, well used leather chairs, the tub-shaped liquor cabinet, usually open, and the proud display of roses which it had been the former Director-General's hobby to grow.
Everything now was functional. The furniture was far superior to that in his own office four floors below, but Charlie guessed it had all come from the same Ministry supply depot. There was a lot of hard-wearing metal and hard-wearing plastic and the wall decorations were mass-produced Ministry prints of scenes of Dickensian London. Charlie's impression was of an up-market doctor's waiting-room. Peter Miller looked a bit like an up-market doctor, too, although Charlie wasn't sure about a bedside manner. The hair was the reassuring grey of a man of experience. The glasses were heavily horn-rimmed, the left lens thicker than the right. A watch-chain looped across the waistcoat of a striped blue suit, which Charlie recognized to be well cut but not specially tailored. Harrods, ready-to-wear department, he guessed. Miller wore no rings, which mildly surprised Charlie: most of the other Directors under whom he'd worked had been able to wear a family crest. Whatever, Charlie didn't think Miller would be a grammar school boy, like himself.
Miller remained aloofly blank-faced behind the desk, gesturing towards a visitors' chair. Charlie took it, aware of another oddly placed to the side of the Director's desk. As he sat, Charlie realized the desk was sterile: there were not even framed personal photographs.
'I believe I've had sufficient time to settle in,' announced Miller.
The man had a flat, monotone delivery, the sort of voice that made public announcements in supermarkets about the bargain of the day. Charlie decided it went well with the metal furniture. He wondered what he was supposed to say. 'Bound to take time.'
'I have decided upon some operational and command changes,' said the Director-General, a continuing metallic announcement. 'My predecessor involved himself very closely in active operations, didn't he ...?' There was a flicker of what could have been a smile. Alternatively, Charlie thought, it could have been pain. '... What our American cousins call a "hands-on" Controller?'
Charlie listened to gossip, never imparted it. And he certainly didn't intend discussing Sir Alistair with this Mechanical Man. 'Everyone works in different ways.'
Miller nodded, seemingly unaware of the evasive cliché. 'Quite so. I see myself as responsible for the organization as a whole: I do not intend to become immersed ...' There was another grimaced smile. '... some might even say distracted, by one particular branch of the service, interesting – exciting even – though that branch might be.'
And as career-dangerous as those active operations might be, if they went wrong, mentally qualified Charlie. So Miller was a political jockey, riding a safe horse at prime ministerial briefings and Joint Intelligence Committee sessions. 'Always best to get the broadest picture.'
Miller nodded again. 'My recommendation for the post of deputy Director-General has been confirmed. I shall, of course, be ultimately responsible, but all decisions concerning you will be up to my deputy ...' The man turned his head slightly towards the intercom machine. Without making any obvious move to activate it, he said: 'I'll see the deputy Director-General now, Julia.'
Charlie turned at the noise of the door opening behind him and managed to get to his painful feet just slightly after Miller at the entry of a woman.
'Patricia Elder, the new Controller under whom you will be working,' introduced Miller.
Natalia Nikandrova Fedova heard the familiar sound at once, hurrying into her bedroom: the cot was close to her bed, for her to reach out during the night. The baby was awake but not truly distressed: she decided it was most probably a wind bubble. The baby smiled when Natalia caressed her face. Definitely a wind bubble: Alexandras was far too young for it to be a smile of recognition. Natalia turned her on her side, still caressing, and said: 'Shush, my darling. Shush. Sleep now.'
The baby did.
Now Natalia smiled but ruefully, thinking how much more obedient the baby was than its father.CHAPTER 2
The wind strong enough to bring the grey dust all the way to Beijing from the Gobi Desert hadn't been due for at least another two months. Jeremy Snow hoped it wouldn't go on too long. The grittiness was in his throat and making his eyes sore. Last year, when it properly came, it had affected his asthma, giving him a particularly bad attack. He could always wear a face mask, like the Chinese, but he was reluctant unless it became absolutely necessary. Snow was always very careful – because he was constantly warned to be careful – not to do anything that might offend. The previous year, when he'd worn one, he'd suspected some Chinese believed he was mocking them. A small point, perhaps: but during his time in China, Snow had learned the importance of observing small points. Observing things, large or small, was after all one of his functions, albeit unofficial, unrecognized and known by very few.
Snow hurried through the Beijing suburbs towards the former and now decaying Catholic church the authorities allowed to remain as an empty symbol of supposed religious tolerance, just as Father Robertson was retained as an even emptier symbol. Snow knew Father Robertson would have been terrified if he'd known of his second role, which he conceded was hardly surprising, considering how much the ageing priest had suffered during the five-year imprisonment through the final period of the Cultural Revolution. But Snow often found it difficult to curb his impatience at the old man's hand-wringing nervousness and constant warnings against offending the authorities.
Excerpted from Charlie's Apprentice by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1993 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.