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Charlie Muffin was surprised to feel as uncomfortable as he did. The need for self-preservation normally overcame all scruples and Charlie was convinced he needed all the self-protection he could get, or manipulate from wherever he could get it. Since when had he been bothered by scruples anyway? He reckoned he'd lost them around the same time as he'd lost his tonsils, when he was about eleven. Too late to back off now: he was committed. Necessarily committed.
'Lovely place,' said Laura.
'Got a great write-up in one of the Sunday food sections,' smiled Charlie. How much had the proprietor slipped the lying bugger to write that this was the most exciting eatery in London? On the standard so far he'd probably had to throw his virgin sister in, to swing it. It was a place of pinewood, checked table-cloths and waiters who wore earrings, jammed with yelling, table-swopping people all of whom seemed to know each other but be unable to speak at any sound level less than a hundred decibels. And the food was crap: Charlie was currently undecided whether his salmon had died from decaying old age or from botulism with a distinctive mercury flavour. The botulism was favourite.
'I read it,' said the girl. 'Never guessed I'd get here. Or be with you when I did.'
Charlie searched for a gallant reply. 'I'm glad you're enjoying it,' he said, which wasn't it. She didn't seem to notice. If they waited for the wine waiter to do his job they'd both die from dehydration, providing the fish didn't get them first. Charlie finished off the bottle of Puligny Montrachet between them and returned the bottle neck-down in the cooler, as a hopeful distress signal. Maybe he should have attached a white flag.
'Do you want to know a secret?'
'If you like,' accepted Charlie. It was to hear any secrets she might have – and to feed back as much disinformation as he could plant in her mind – that Charlie was spending an arm and a leg on a disgusting meal in a place where he could hardly hear himself think. He pushed the fish away, halfeaten. Definitely mercury-tasting botulism. He remembered hearing from someone in the Technical Sections where they actually invented assassination methods that the most virulent killer toxins were still made from fish.
'The girls at the office were jealous when I told them where we were going!' announced Laura.
He knew he was expected to flatter her back, like he would be expected to do others things, later. Survival time, sunshine, he told himself: everything's allowed, to survive. He said: 'I can't understand why they should be!' and thought: Oh Christ! It sounded like he was enjoying it and wanted more: like he was an absolute prick, in fact.
'Can't you?' she said, even more coquettish. 'No one seems to understand you, Charlie. And there are stories! Intriguing ones.'
Like what the hell was he doing in intelligence at all, the uninvited interloper who wouldn't take the hint that he wasn't wanted. It had been all right under a couple of Directors General but since Sir Alistair Wilson's collapse he didn't have the protection at the top any more. Rather, he had the complete reverse. Charlie paraded the rehearsed response, even to someone who worked in the department and was a signatory to the Official Secrets Act, although he hoped Laura wouldn't let that get in the way too much tonight. He said: 'Fairy-tale stuff. We're all just clerks.'
She grinned knowingly. 'Clerks don't break spy rings and go in and out of the Eastern bloc on false passports and have a biography in Records labelled "Director General Eyes Only".'
The turn in Charlie's stomach might just have been the fish but he didn't think so. Encouragingly he said: 'Sounds as if you've been checking.'
'Maybe someone has,' said Laura. She was secretary to Richard Harkness, who hated his guts more than the lousy fish appeared to do and who'd been acting Director General since Wilson's illness.
'How many guesses do I get?'
'I don't think you'd need a lot,' said the girl. 'Why does Harkness shit on you so much?'
'Face doesn't fit, I guess,' said Charlie, casually, not wanting her to guess what the evening was all about because that would be cruel. He said: 'You think that's what he does, shits on me?'
'Come on, darling!' said Laura. 'You've been assigned nothing but Dog Watch stuff since Harkness has been in charge! I frankly don't know how you've put up with it like you have!'
Charlie noted he had become darling to Laura. He said: 'Someone's got to do the menial jobs.'
Laura cocked her head to one side, smiling quizzically. 'I'm not buying that, Charlie Muffin. That's not your style.'
'Maybe that's the problem,' said Charlie. 'I haven't got any style.'
'I think he's trying to make life so unpleasant that you'll quit,' declared Laura. 'Either that or get you fired.'
Then Harkness would need to try a bloody sight harder, thought Charlie. He'd endured four months so far: four months as nothing more than the clerk he'd just told Laura he was, checking long-ago and out-of-date records for revelations the trained analysts might have missed, poring over airport and port immigrant entries for false passport trails that would have been cold anyway, reading the translations – when translations had been necessary – of Eastern bloc publications to detect policy changes which the Foreign Office had an entire division to work on. Charlie felt he was atrophying, gradually turning into a fossil, like something in a natural history museum, a frozen-in-stone example of something that had roamed the earth a million years before. But if it meant defeating Richard St John Harkness, Charlie knew he'd go on for another four months or four years or for ever: he'd been fucked over by experts and Harkness certainly wasn't an expert. Charlie said: 'I guess there might be a way but I don't think Harkness knows where to find it.'
'What's that mean?'
'That I'm not going to make it easy for him.'
'You know how many new Conduct Rules and Regulations he's introduced since he's been in charge? Every one of which I've had to write up and get legally phrased!' demanded Laura, outraged.
'No,' said Charlie, who'd memorized every one because failure to observe some bloody absurd dictum or other was precisely the sort of thing that Harkness would try to invoke against him.
'Fifteen!' said Laura. 'The man should have been a lawyer!'
'He is,' disclosed Charlie, whose personal rules insisted that he always know everything about his enemies. 'He studied finance law at Oxford: that's why he's so good at cutting expenses.'
'Which you don't get any more,' reminded Laura, painfully.
'It'll pass,' said Charlie unconvincingly.
'Would it really hurt so much to show some respect, to his face at least?' urged Laura. 'He is the Director General now.'
'Acting,' qualified Charlie instantly. And it would hurt to show respect to an asshole like Harkness: hurt like hell.
'He's out to get you, Charlie. He's going to invent so much red tape he'll strangle you with it.'
'He's the boss, for Christ's sake! He can make the rules. Change the goalposts whenever he wants to.'
The metaphors were becoming mixed, Charlie decided. He said: 'I've got one or two things in mind.' He looked desperately around for their waiter. The man was several tables away but looking in their direction. Charlie grabbed the dead bottle and waved it at the man. The waiter twiddled his fingers in an answering wave. One thing he'd never lacked before was bar-presence, reflected Charlie; he seemed to be losing everything these days.
'Try to do something,' said Laura. 'I don't like to see you being constantly bullied.'
Was that what was happening to him? Charlie supposed it was but he'd never thought of it as being bullied. 'I'll live,' he said flippantly. There'd been quite a few occasions, too many, when he hadn't believed he would: at least now he was safe from physical harm.
The waiter arrived with another bottle of Montrachet and said: 'Bet you thought I hadn't understood!'
'I had every faith,' assured Charlie. 'You've got that way of inspiring confidence.'
'The coffee mousse with coulis is the house speciality and it's divine,' recommended the man, collecting up the discarded fish.
'I've got to think of my figure!' said Laura clumsily.
'Let me do that,' parroted Charlie on cue. There! He'd done it! Casanova wouldn't have been much impressed but it was his best shot so far and Laura seemed to appreciate it. She was a very pretty girl, with good legs and tits where they should have been and innocent-wide eyes and striking red hair that moved when she did, constantly shifting about her shoulders. Altogether too nice to be tricked, like he was tricking her. Or was he? She was a grown-up girl, he tried to reassure himself. He'd done far worse – cheated and tricked and manipulated – in the past and knew damned well, if the need arose, that he'd do it all over again in the future. So why the hell didn't he stop all this conscience-stirred posturing? It didn't suit him.
'What's it going to be, folks?' asked the returning waiter.
'Mousse for the lady,' said Charlie. 'I don't want to spoil the experience of the fish.'
'Unusual, wasn't it?' said the unsuspecting waiter.
'Unique!' said Charlie. 'Positively unique!'
'You are a bastard!' Laura giggled when the man had gone.
'Never ever!' denied Charlie in mock outrage. To avoid the purpose of the evening becoming too obvious he led the conversation on to Laura herself. The account was the role model for department entry at female personal assistant rank: private school education, finished off in Switzerland, Daddy with an army chum who'd moved on into the government, a word here, a word there and wasn't it super, look where she was now!
'Super,' agreed Charlie.
The waiter swooped up in an exaggerated glide, pudding dishes balanced along his arm like a conjuring display, and plopped Laura's mousse in front of her. It really looked like something that had plopped down from the sky and Charlie was glad he hadn't ordered it. Time to get back to the business in hand, he decided. He said: 'Is there much gossip about personnel among you girls?'
'This and that,' conceded Laura.
'What's this and that?'
She smiled, passingly embarrassed. 'Comparing people ... imagining what some are like, against others ... would be like ...' She paused, biting her lower lip, half provocative, half uncertain. 'That surprise you ... shock you?'
'Not particularly,' said Charlie. Edith had always said he wouldn't believe what was written on the walls of ladies' lavatories. 'You don't have to access Records for that, do you?'
'Harkness tried to call your biog up a couple of weeks ago: that's how I knew. Raised a fuss because it wasn't released to him as he was only acting Director General,' disclosed the girl.
He'd done this sort of thing once before, a long time ago, remembered Charlie. Cultivated a relationship with a personal secretary as well placed as Laura and for the same reason, to find out just where the knives were coming from. He tried to remember the other girl's name but couldn't. Better, he thought: how it should be. He was too old to develop a conscience now. Charlie said: 'What's happened about it?'
'There are memos going back and forth about temporary authority and confirmed authority,' further disclosed the girl. 'Nothing's been resolved yet.'
Charlie was resolving a number of things, though. The most important was that for the moment at least Sir Alistair Wilson was expected to return and not be forced into permanent retirement by the heart attack, otherwise the access restrictions would not still be in force. But just how long would the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Prime Minister wait? Equally clearly Harkness' role could not continue for any length of time on such a temporary basis. Why, with Charlie being relegated to duties a monkey could be trained to perform, had Harkness wanted his personnel history? Charlie had often wished he could get hold of it himself. If Harkness got access and if Charlie romanced Laura then perhaps he could persuade her to ... No, stopped Charlie. Tempting though it was he wouldn't do that. Gossip was gossip, although still sufficient to get her dumped from the department. Photocopying personnel records, even for the man about whom they were compiled, was Official Secrets trials, the dock at the Old Bailey and ten years in those women's prisons where the girls got up to all sorts of hanky-panky. Bastard he might be but not that much of one, not yet: just close.
The waiter glided back and asked Laura: 'How was the mousse?'
'Wonderful,' she said.
'Some coffee and brandy?' suggested Charlie.
'I thought we might have that back at my place,' invited Laura.
Why hadn't he had offers like this from girls like this when he was eighteen and keen? Where would all those cinema usherettes and bus conductresses be now? 'That would be nice,' Charlie accepted.
The bill clearly stated that a fifteen per cent service charge had been added but the waiter frowned at the exact money Charlie counted out.
'Some people like to leave additional gratuities, you know!' the man sniffed.
'Life's a bitch and then you're dead,' said Charlie. He'd seen it inscribed on a T-shirt and thought it was rather good: he'd been waiting for an opportunity to use it. Upon reflection he was not sure that this had been the occasion.
The bistro was sufficiently trendy for taxis to queue outside, so they didn't have to wait. Laura snuggled very close to him in the back and said: 'That really was lovely.'
Charlie's stomach moved, as a reminder of what had been inflicted upon it, and his feet were aching but then they usually did this late at night, so he was used to that. He said: 'A little overrated, I thought.'
'Disappointing that there was no one famous there,' said Laura. 'They all go there, you know? Famous people?'
'I didn't know,' said Charlie. He really didn't want to go through the bed routine: that really would be tricking her. He said: 'You could always lie to the girls tomorrow: make somebody up. They wouldn't know, would they?'
'I don't suppose they would,' seized Laura eagerly.
She lived in the rich part of Chelsea, in a terraced house in a cobbled mews about which housing agents used words like exquisite and sought-after. She'd already gone ahead, leaving the door ajar, by the time Charlie turned around from paying the cab. Stairs inside led up to a first-floor, low-lighted drawing room. When he entered Laura was standing stone-faced but flushed by a telephone answering machine at the far side, beside the drinks tray.
'I don't believe it!' she said. 'I just don't bloody well believe it!'
'Believe what?' asked Charlie, bewildered.
Laura gestured towards the machine which Charlie realized was on rewind, after relaying its messages. 'Paul's on his way in from the airport. He wasn't due home for three or four days yet.'
Laura made another impatient hand movement, this time towards a studied portrait photograph of a pleasant-faced, kindly looking man. 'My husband. He's in Venezuela ... was in Venezuela. Shit!'
Charlie thought again of the T-shirt slogan and decided that sometimes, very rarely, life wasn't a bitch after all. Pitching the false regret perfectly in his voice, he said: 'I see. That's ... I'm sorry about that.'
Laura held out her hands to him and said: 'Darling, I'm sorry. I really am sorry.'
'So am I,' said Charlie, soft-voiced now. Careful, smart-ass, he thought: you're working towards an escape, not an Oscar nomination. 'If he's on his way in from the airport I'd better be going, hadn't I?'
'You'd better,' she agreed.
Laura came close, expecting to be kissed: she smelled very nice, perfumed and clean. Charlie kissed her, lightly, feeling backwards with a painful foot for the beginning of the stairway down into the mews.
'Charlie?' she said.
'I didn't get what I wanted,' said the woman. 'You got what you wanted, though, didn't you?'
Charlie laughed, glad that Laura did too. He said: 'You've made me feel a lot better.'
'I've still got to wait for the same feeling,' she said.
The mews was sealed off at one end but at the other still had the canopied brick entrance from when it had all been stables and artisans' cottages, although the original huge gate had long since been removed. As Charlie emerged he saw someone paying off a taxi and hurried to get it before it drove off. When he reached it he recognized the passenger as the man in Laura's photograph.
Excerpted from Comrade Charlie by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1989 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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