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The third turning would mean he would be going back the way he had come. He took it as a test and when they kept in step Charlie Muffin knew they were following.
The fear belched up, sour in the back of his throat, like the brandy sickness every morning.
'Oh, Christ,' he said, desperately.
So it was to be disguised as a backstreet brawl. Scuffling, grunting men, fighting expertly. Back against a slimy wall. No escape. Clawing for the knife-hand, stomach bunched and tight against the first searing burst of pain. No sound. Not words, anyway. Only in the end, perhaps. Before they fled. Traitor, they'd say. So he would know they'd got him. At last.
The road was narrow, hardly more than an alley, leading back towards the Sacré Cur he could see outlined blackly on top of the Montmartre hill. High, anonymous buildings either side. No people. And dark. Jesus, it was dark.
He'd actually made it easy for them. Careless again. Like Edith kept saying.
Behind, the footsteps quickened, as they recognised the opportunity.
He tried to move faster, too, but it was difficult. The road had begun to steepen, with the final gradient before the steps up to the massive Paris landmark; hand-rails were set into the walls for support. He snatched out, hauling himself along. Shoulders heaving, he stopped, winded and panting, looking back. About fifty yards, he guessed. Surprised they were so far away. Moving steadily, though. Sure of themselves. No hurry now. After all these months, they'd found him.
The break in the wall actually alarmed him, so that he pulled away from it, whimpering. If it led into an enclosed courtyard, he would be trapped. Charlie could hear them now, much closer. More noise than he would have expected.
He pushed into the opening, the relief moaning from him when he saw the narrow rectangle of light at the far end from a parallel road. It was one that the tourists climbed to the cathedral, lined with bars and souvenir shops. And with people.
At last the neglected training, so deeply instilled it was almost instinct, began to take over from the initial terror. So he didn't run.
Why the fifty-yard gap? And the unnecessary noise? And this, a passageway to safety?
It meant they weren't professionals. And that he'd panicked. So he wasn't professional. Not any more.
At the entry to the broader street he paused, letting himself be silhouetted, then went right, at the sound of their suddenly scurrying footsteps. He was already inside the bar when they thrust out, looking wildly in both directions. Itinerant North Africans, he identified immediately. Knitted headpieces, pulled down over their ears, second-hand westernised clothes, threadbare and greasy. Muggers, he guessed. Frightened, nervous illiterates trying to catch an unsuspecting tourist in a back alley and grab enough money for a cockroach-infested blanket or maybe a roll of kif.
And Charlie Muffin, who had fought and defeated the intelligence systems of England and America, had collapsed. No, he certainly wasn't professional any more.
Angrily he swilled the rest of the cognac into his mouth, gagging slightly as it caught at the back of his throat. He could still taste the sourness of his fear.
Outside, the two men shrugged, looked around uncertainly and finally moved into an opposite bar.
Charlie gestured and when the waiter came, asked for a jeton for the telephone. He waited until his glass was refilled and then moved to the corner booth, jiggling the coin between his fingers.
He'd already started on his third drink by the time the police responded to his anonymous call and swept into the cafe' opposite. He'd reported the men as drug pedlars, guessing one of them would be carrying kif. If not, then it was a reasonable bet their papers wouldn't be in order. Either way, it didn't matter. By the time they were released, they would have been as frightened as he had been an hour earlier.
He snorted at his own reflection in the mirror behind the zinc-topped bar. Some victory. But it had been even more instinctive than the training. Anyone who attacked Charlie Muffin had to be attacked in response. And hurt more.
It was time to move on, he decided abruptly. Edith wouldn't mind leaving Paris. Welcome it, in fact. She had always preferred Zürich.
'Another cognac?' enquired the barman.
'Why not?' said Charlie.
Because he got drunk and made mistakes, he answered himself. It didn't seem to matter. Whatever he did, it wouldn't be as disastrous as the mistake he'd already made. And from which he could never recover.
It was a rotten existence, thought Charlie.CHAPTER 2
Alexei Berenkov preferred the dacha in the autumn evenings, about an hour before it got truly dark. Then he could look down from the Moscow hills and see the Soviet capital swaddled in its smoky, protective mist, like a Matisse painting. He wondered what had happened to the one he had had in the lounge of the Belgravia house. Sold, probably. The British government would have made money, he knew. It had been a bargain when he bought it. The furniture would have gone up in value, too. Certainly the French Empire.
He heard movement and turned expectantly, smiling at Valentina. His wife was a plump, comfortable woman, warm to be next to on a winter's night. Wouldn't have been quite the same near the Mediterranean. Or in Africa, perhaps. But then, he thought, he wasn't near the Mediterranean. Or Africa. Nor would he be, ever again.
'Happy?' she asked.
'I never thought it would end like this. So perfectly, I mean.'
Berenkov didn't reply immediately.
'Were you very frightened?' he asked.
'Always,' she replied. 'I expected it to get better, when you'd established yourself with a good cover. But it didn't. It got worse. When I heard you'd been arrested, it was almost a relief ... the news I'd expected for so long.'
'I was getting very nervous, too, towards the end,' he admitted.
'Was prison very bad?'
He nodded again.
'I knew I'd never serve the full sentence, of course,' he said. 'I thought, in the beginning, that I would be able to withstand it easily enough, waiting for the exchange that we always arrange ... but it had a strange, destructive effect ...'
Valentina looked at the man she had seen so rarely in the past twenty years. The furtive, cowed look had gone at last, she realised. Now the only legacy was the hair, completely white. Once it had been so black, she remembered nostalgically. My Georgian bear, she had called him. She reached out, feeling for his arm, looking down with him over the faraway city.
'What was Charlie Muffin like?' she asked unexpectedly.
He considered her question.
'A very unusual man,' he said firmly. 'Very unusual indeed.'
'I owe him so much,' said the woman. 'And I'll never be able to thank him.'
'Neither will I,' said Berenkov.
'It would be nice to show my gratitude.'
'Yes,' agreed the man.
'Did you like him?'
'Very much,' he said, distantly. Then he added: 'And now I feel sorry for him.'
'He was very clever, doing what he did. But I'm sure he never completely realised what it would be like afterwards.'
He shivered, a man suddenly exposed to the cold.
'... more terrible than prison,' he said. 'Far more terrible.'
It had been stupid to begin the conversation, she decided, irritated with herself. It had led to needless reminiscence and they had been getting away from that in the last few months.
'It's all over now,' she said briskly. 'And we can forget about it.'
'I'll never be able to do that,' he said. 'Nor want to.'
'Just prison, then,' she accepted. 'The worst part.'
He looked down at the woman, smiling at her misunderstanding.
'Prison wasn't the worst part,' he said.
She frowned up into his face.
'Not knowing was the worst part,' he tried to explain, with difficulty. 'Being aware, as I was, for almost a year that I was being hunted yet not knowing what they were doing or how to fight back ...'
He paused, back among the memories.
'Not knowing is like being aware that you're dying and unable to do anything about it,' he said.
For several moments, neither spoke. Then Berenkov said: 'And Charlie's got to live like that forever.'
'Unless he's caught,' she reminded him.
'Unless he becomes careless and is caught,' he agreed.CHAPTER 3
It was an unfortunate coincidence, each event detracting from the other. On balance, there was far more ceremony and pomp about the inauguration of the American President so the coverage from Washington unquestionably overshadowed the election victory of the British Premier.
Comparison was inevitable, of course. Radio and television commentators maintained a constant interchange of fact and fallacy to make their points and from the grave that provided complete surveillance of the cemetery the man sighed irritably, knowing there would be no other subject covered that day.
He had never before switched the softly tuned transistor lodged against the headstone to anything but continuous news coverage or talk programmes. He looked around and saw some genuine mourners only yards away; they'd be bound to hear any pop music. Damn it.
Still, remembered the man, it had been worse in the early days. He hadn't thought of bringing the radio then, even for boring current affairs debates. Or evolved the method he now employed to pass the time. Other shifts had copied him and there wasn't a better-kept burial spot in the graveyard. He felt quite proud. No one had said anything officially, though. Hadn't really expected them to; civil servants were a miserable lot.
His jacket lay neatly folded and far enough away to avoid it being splashed by water from his bucket or scrubbing brushes. He knelt on a specially padded piece of blanket and cleaned to a slow rhythm, a regular metronome movement, forward and back, forward and back.
'... bright new future from the gloom of the past ...' intoned the American President, Henry Austin, and the undertaking was relayed instantly by satellite from the podium on Pennsylvania Avenue to the churchyard in Sussex.
What sort of future did he have? wondered the grave-cleaner. Damn all, he decided. His gloom of the past would be the gloom of the future.
Some clumsy so-and-so had chipped the bordering granite near the headstone, he saw.
'Sorry, love,' he said.
He frequently wondered about Harriet Jamieson, spinster, who had died on the 13th of October, 1932, aged 61 years and been buried in the hope of eternal peace. Probably a relation of someone in the department, he had decided. Otherwise there might have been a query about all the care being expended on the grave.
'Bet you didn't have so many men sweating over you when you were alive, Harriet my girl,' he said.
The radio programme switched to the B.B.C.'s Westminster studio. The new Premier had made a brief Commons appearance, said the reporter, his voice urgent to make the event sound more exciting than it had really been.
'... time to bind our wounds ...' said the commentator, quoting Arthur Smallwood's message verbatim.
'Good grief,' quietly muttered the man in the cemetery.
He heard the church clock strike and rose gratefully. There was a telephone just outside the lychgate and he was connected immediately.
'Nothing, as always,' he reported.
'Thank you,' replied the duty clerk.
'Someone's chipped the surround, near the headstone.'
'I'll make a note of it.'
'I don't want to be held responsible.'
'I said I'd record it.'
'How much longer are we going to keep this up, for Christ's sake?'
'Until we're instructed otherwise,' said the clerk.
Prissy bastard, thought the man, as he went off duty.
In Washington, Henry Austin gazed over the crowds that lined the avenue right up to the White House, happy in the politician's knowledge that the inaugural address had caught just the right note.
'I come to office,' said the new President, 'intending to honour the pledge I have made several times during this campaign to the American people. The mistakes of the past will be corrected ... when necessary with the utmost vigour. And I will do my best to ensure that fewer are committed in the future ...'
And from the specially equipped room at Downing Street, Arthur Smallwood stared into the television cameras and out at the watching British people, his face grave with sincerity.
'... overcome accepted and difficult problems,' he said, coming to the conclusion of his address to the nation. 'They are inherited from the past. My government and I are confident that we can do better than that which we succeed. We are determined in that resolve. And prepared to be judged by you, the people, on our efforts ...'
'My God!' protested the grave-cleaner in familiar exasperation, leaning forward to snap off the television set on which he'd watched both events. 'That's all I've heard, all day. Empty politicians making empty bloody promises. And they haven't a clue what's going on. Not a clue.'
'Chops,' announced his wife, through the kitchen hatch of their semi-detached house in Dulwich. 'I've got pork chops. Is that all right?'
The man didn't answer. He'd get the blame for that damaged grave, he knew. Charlie Muffin was a bloody nuisance.
Henry Austin enjoyed it all, the speech and the triumphal drive to the mansion that was to be his home for the next four years and the photographic session and the reception and the grand ball.
'Brilliant speech, Mr President,' Willard Keys, the Secretary of State, congratulated him.
'I meant what I said,' replied Austin seriously. They were in the corner of the ballroom, momentarily away from most of the guests.
'About mistakes. I want this administration squeaky clean. And I want everyone to understand that. Everyone.'
'I'll see to it.'
'I mean the past as well. I don't want any embarrassments that we're not prepared for. Make that clear, too. Everything tidied up ... no loose ends.'
'Why don't we make it the first policy memorandum from the Oval Office?'
'Yes,' agreed the President. 'Why don't we?'
Four thousand miles away, Arthur Smallwood stared across the first-floor study at Downing Street, inviting the Foreign Secretary's assessment.
'Good,' judged William Heyden. Feeling he should say more he added: 'Pity about the American inauguration.'
'Couldn't be helped,' said Smallwood, philosophically.
The two men sipped their whisky.
'It isn't going to be easy,' admitted Smallwood, suddenly. 'I made a number of promises because I had to. There will be a lot of people waiting for the first slip.'
'Yes,' agreed Heyden, who thought the Premier had over-committed them but didn't know the man well enough to suggest criticism. 'We'll have to watch ourselves.'
'We must let the departments and ministries know the new feeling,' said Smallwood. 'Particularly the permanent people who think they can ignore us and make their own policy.'
'A gentle hint?' said Heyden carelessly.
'No,' Smallwood corrected him immediately. 'A positive directive.'CHAPTER 4
The mid-Channel passport check was always the most dangerous part, the moment when, despite the previous occasions, there could be a sudden challenge and they would be trapped aboard the ship, unable to run.
They had learned to time the public announcement about the immigration office and in the last few minutes preceding it Edith became increasingly nervous, sitting tense and upright and abandoning any attempt at conversation. There were no outward signs from Charlie, except perhaps in the way he drank the habitual brandy, not in spaced-out, even sips, but in deep swallows, so that the barman had already recognised him as a drinker and was standing close at hand, waiting for the nod.
They made an odd couple, she restrained, carefully coiffured and with the discreet but expensively maintained elegance of a Continental woman unafraid of obvious middle age, he baggy and shapeless in a nondescript suit, like a dustcover thrown over a piece of anonymous furniture about which nobody cared very much.
Edith started up at the metallic-voice broadcast, coming immediately to Charlie for guidance. Unspeaking, he led the way out into the purser's square, then paused by the perfume and souvenir shop.
'Don't worry,' he encouraged her.
She appeared not to hear.
What he wanted appeared almost immediately and he smiled at Edith. She looked back, without expression.
The smaller child was already crying, overtired and demanding to be carried. The mother, face throbbing red and split by sunburn, tried to push it away and by mistake hit the other girl, who started crying too, and immediately an argument began between the woman and her husband.
Excerpted from Here Comes Charlie M by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1978 Innslodge Publications Ltd. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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