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He'd missed a pin. Charlie Muffin had been sure he'd got every one as he unpacked the new shirt but now he knew he hadn't because something sharp and pointed kept jabbing into his neck, particularly if he swallowed heavily. And he'd done that a few times since entering the bank manager's office.
'An overdraft?' echoed the man. His name was Roberts and he was newly appointed, so it was the first time they'd met.
'Just the facility,' said Charlie. The pin didn't hurt so much if he kept his head twisted to one side but if he did that it appeared he was furtively trying to avoid the man's eyes.
The bank manager, who was bespectacled and sparse haired, gazed down at some papers on his desk, running a pen down several lines of figures. It seemed a long time before he looked up. There was no expression on his face. He said: 'There were numerous occasions under my predecessor when you went into overdraft without any formal arrangement having been agreed.'
'Never a lot,' said Charlie, defensively.
'Two hundred pounds, last November,' said Roberts.
The last time Harkness put him on suspension for fiddling his expenses, remembered Charlie. Why were accountants and bank managers always the same, parsimonious buggers acting as if the money they handled was personally theirs. He said: 'There was a delay, in the accounts department. Industrial action.'
The man frowned down at Charlie's file and then up again, failing to find what he was seeking. He said: 'What exactly is it that you do, Mr Muffin?'
I'm an agent who spends too much time getting my balls caught in the vice while you go safely home every night on the six-ten, thought Charlie. Slipping easily into the prepared legend, he said: 'I work for the government.'
'Doing what?' persisted Roberts.
'Department of Health and Social Security,' said Charlie. 'Personnel.' It even sounded like the lie it was.
'I suppose that could be regarded as protected employment,' said the bank manager, in apparent concession.
'Very safe,' assured Charlie. There had to be six occasions when he'd almost been killed, once when his own people had set him up. And then there'd been two years in jail and the time in Russia, when he'd been bait, hooked by his own side again. Bastards.
'How much?' demanded Roberts.
'Ten thousand would be nice,' suggested Charlie.
The other man stared in continued blankness across the desk. There was complete silence in the room, apart from the sound of the London traffic muted by the double glazing. At last Roberts said: 'Ten thousand pounds is always nice, Mr Muffin.'
Awkward sod, judged Charlie. If he'd called himself the chairman of some hole-in-the wall company with a posh name and asked for ten million there would have been lunches at the Savoy and hospitality marquees at Henley and Wimbledon. So far he hadn't even been offered a glass of supermarket sherry and didn't reckon he was going to be. 'Just the facility, like I said,' he reminded. 'I doubt it would ever go that high.'
Roberts made another unsuccessful search of Charlie's file and then said: 'I don't see anything here about your owning your own house?'
'I live in a rented flat,' said Charlie. Box would be a better description: poxy box at that.
It would be easier to get cover on the life of a depressed kamikaze pilot with a death wish than upon himself, Charlie guessed. He said: 'There's a department scheme.'
'It's customary – indeed, it's a bank regulation – for overdrafts to be secured,' lectured Roberts.
'The company scheme is index-linked, to allow for inflation,' offered Charlie, hopefully.
'What exactly do you want an overdraft for?' asked the man.
There was a major reason and a lot of small ones. Harkness putting him back on the expenses stop list for not having identifiable meal receipts for one. And because taxis were safer but more expensive after the pubs and the drinking clubs closed and all the street lights blurred together in a linked line. And then there was the fact he had not had a winner in weeks and the bookmaker was jumping up and down. And because he'd already tried to get cards from American Express and Diners and Access and Mastercharge and they'd all turned him down. Searching for an acceptable reason, Charlie said: 'I thought about a small car. Second-hand, of course. Maybe a new refrigerator.'
'Perhaps some clothes?' suggested the man.
Cheeky bugger, thought Charlie. He'd had the suit cleaned and worked for a good thirty minutes with one of those wire brush things buffing the Hush Puppies to look better than they had for years. He knew he looked better than he had for years! Christ that pin was making his neck sore. Eager to please, he said: 'That sounds like a good idea.'
'I'll need a reference, of course.'
Of course you will, sunshine, thought Charlie. The procedure automatically meant Harkness learning about it. He offered the security-screened address and the supposed works number that routed any correspondence involving him to the Westminster Bridge Road headquarters and said: 'There are a lot of divisions in the department, of course. This is the address you'll want for me.'
'Thank you,' said the bank manager. 'I've enjoyed our meeting; I always like to try to establish some sort of personal relationship with my clients.'
What about establishing it with a glass of sherry then! Charlie said: 'How long will it take, for the overdraft to be arranged?'
The manager held up his hand in a halting gesture: 'It would be wrong to anticipate any agreement, Mr Muffin. First we'll need a lot of supporting documentation from your department.'
Harkness was bound to jump backwards through the hoop, thought Charlie. He said: 'So I haven't got it yet?'
'There's a long way to go,' said the man.
There always seemed a long way to go, reflected Charlie, outside the bank. He undid his collar and with difficulty extracted the pin, sighing with relief. He explored his neck with his finger and then examined it, glad the damned thing hadn't actually made him bleed, to stain the collar. Stiff new shirt like this was good for at least two wearings, three if he were careful and rolled the cuffs back when he got to the office. Charlie sighed again, with resignation this time, at the prospect of returning there. He supposed he would have to confront Harkness and put up some cock-and-bull story about the expenses not having enough supporting bills, which they would both know to be precisely that, a load of bullshit, and sit straight-faced through the familiar lecture on financial honesty. What place did honesty – financial or otherwise – have in the world in which they existed? About as much as a condom dispenser in a convent lavatory.
Charlie was conscious of the security guard's awareness of what was for him an unusual appearance as he went through the regulation scrutiny check at the Westminster Bridge Road building. As the man handed him back the pass, nodding him through, he said: 'Hope it was a wedding and not a funeral.'
'More like a trial,' said Charlie. With a verdict that was going to be announced later. Charlie wondered how long it would take.
Charlie's office was at the rear of the building, overlooking a dusty neglected courtyard to which there appeared no obvious access and which was gradually filling, like a medieval rubbish pit, with the detritus from the dozen anonymous, curtained and unidentified cubicles which surrounded it. Where the wrappers and newspapers and plastic cups were most deeply piled was a pair of running shoes, arranged neatly side-by-side although upside down, which Charlie could not remember being there the previous day. He wondered if they were still attached to the feet of someone who'd made a suicide dive, unable any longer to stand the boredom of Whitehall bureaucracy: certainly they looked in too good a condition to have been discarded. Hardly worn in, not like his Hush Puppies were worn in. Mindful of how easily his feet became discomforted, Charlie eased them from his shoes to allow them the freedom they demanded. The socks were new, like the shirt: he'd made a bloody great effort and wanted very much to know it was going to be successful.
Charlie unnecessarily consulted his diary, blank as it had been for the past month, from the moment of his expenses suspension, and then looked through the opaque glass of his office door in the direction of Hubert Witherspoon's matching office. Witherspoon was Charlie's nemesis, the starch-knickered university entrant who knew by heart and obeyed by the letter all the regulations Charlie dismissed as irksome, particularly when he was reminded of them by the man, which he was constantly. Witherspoon's office had been empty for a month and Charlie wondered if his were the feet in the upside down training shoes. Unlikely. If Witherspoon decided upon suicide he'd probably choose to fall on his own knitting needles, Roman-style. At Cambridge the idiot had ponced about in a toga to attend some exclusive luncheon club: there was actually a photograph of the prick dressed like that at some graduation meal, on the man's desk. Nothing changed, thought Charlie: always boys trying to be men being boys.
He looked again at the diary, reluctantly accepting that unless he came up with some sort of story and bit the bullet with Harkness he was going to be kept in limbo for the foreseeable future. The spy who was kept on ice, he thought. He tried to remember the name of an espionage novel with a title something like that but couldn't: he'd enjoyed the book though.
Charlie imposed his own delay, confirming the Deputy Director's internal extension although he already knew it and was actually stretching out for the red telephone when it rang anyway.
'You're on,' said a voice he recognized at once to be that of the Director's secretary. Her name was Alison Bing and at the last Christmas party she'd said she thought he was cute in the public school tone he'd heard used to describe garden gnomes. He'd had an affair with a Director's secretary once, recalled Charlie. And not primarily for the sex, although that had been something of a revelation, in every meaning of the word. He'd correctly guessed he was being set up as a sacrifice and had needed the protection of an inside source. So he'd got what he wanted and she'd got what she wanted, a bit of rough. He strained to remember her name, but couldn't. It seemed impolite, not being able to remember the name of a girl he'd screwed, even though they'd both been objective about the relationship.
'I'm on suspension,' said Charlie.
'Not any more you're not.'
'There hasn't been a memorandum, rescinding it.'
'Since when have you been concerned with memoranda?'
Since not wanting to drop any deeper in the shit than I already am, thought Charlie. He said: 'Does Harkness know?'
'He's with the Director now.'
Charlie beamed to himself, alone in his office. So Harkness was being overruled; the day was improving by the minute. At once came the balancing caution: Sir Alistair Wilson would not be taking him off suspension to supervise the controlled crossing at the diplomatic school, would he? So what the hell was it this time?
Sir Alistair Wilson obviously had the best office in the building, high and on the outside, but the view was still that of the asshole of Lambeth. Wilson's fanatical hobby was growing roses at his Hampshire home and so at least their perfume pervaded the room: there were bowls of delicate Pink Parfait on a side table and the drop front of a bookcase and a vase of deep red Lilli Marlene on the desk. Wilson stood as Charlie entered, because a permanently stiffened leg from a polo accident made it uncomfortable for him to sit for any period. He wedged himself against a windowsill shiny from his use, nodding Charlie towards a chair already set beside the desk. Richard Harkness sat in another, directly opposite, a fussily neat, striped-suited man, pearl-coloured pocket handkerchief matching his pearl-coloured tie, pastel-pink socks co-ordinated with his pastel-pink shirt. Charlie was prepared to bet that Harkness could have negotiated a £10,000 overdraft in about five minutes flat. But not in the office of a manager who didn't serve even cheap sherry. Harkness's scene would have been the panelled dining room or library of one of those clubs in Pall Mall or St James's where all the servants were at least a hundred years old and your father put your name down for membership before announcing the birth in The Times.
'Your shirt collar is undone,' complained Harkness, at once.
'A pin stuck in my neck,' said Charlie, in poor explanation.
Before Charlie could respond, Wilson said impatiently: 'My collar's undone, too,' which it was. He went on: 'Got an unusual one for you this time, Charlie.'
Weren't they all? thought Charlie, wearily. He said: 'What is it?'
'For almost three years we've had a source directly inside the headquarters of the KGB itself, in Dzerzhinsky Square,' disclosed Wilson. 'Name's Vladimir Novikov. He was the senior supervisor in the cipher section: security cleared to handle things up to and including Politburo level.'
That wasn't unusual, acknowledged Charlie: that was sensational. 'Was?' he queried, isolating the operative word.
'He was getting jumpy, so we agreed to his defection,' nodded the Director. 'Then he became convinced he was under active investigation so he ran, crossing at the Finnish border. Seems he was right because there was certainly a chase.'
'When?' asked Charlie.
'Two months ago,' came in Harkness.
The timing meant other people were conducting the debriefing, realized Charlie, relieved. He had a special reason for not liking debriefings. 'How good is his information?' he said.
'That's why you're here,' said Wilson. 'I know it's early days, but so far everything he's said checks out absolutely one hundred per cent.'
'So?' queried Charlie, warily.
'Something was being organized, just before he came over. Something very big.'
'A major international, political assassination,' announced the Director, simply. 'It looks as if Britain is involved.'
'Who?' asked Charlie.
'He doesn't know.'
'He doesn't know.'
'He doesn't know.'
'He doesn't know.'
'Who's the assassin?'
'He doesn't know.'
'What do you expect me to do?'
Wilson looked at Charlie curiously, as if he were surprised by the reaction. 'Find out who is to be killed and stop it happening, of course.'
Fuck me, thought Charlie. But then people usually did. Or tried to, at least.
Characteristically, Alexei Berenkov was an ebullient, flamboyant man but he was subdued now because the defector had ultimately been his responsibility, as head of the KGB's First Chief Directorate. The demeanour of Mikhail Lvov was equally controlled but then the commander of Department 8 of Directorate S which plans and carries out ordered assassinations was by nature a reserved and controlled man, in addition to which the meeting was being held in the office of the KGB chairman himself, which had an intimidating effect.
It was the chairman, General Valery Kalenin, who opened the discussion.
'The decision is a simple one,' he said. 'Do we abort the assassination? Or do we let it proceed?'CHAPTER 2
General Valery Kalenin was a small, saturnine man whose life had been devoted to Soviet intelligence. He had controlled it through two major leadership upheavals in the Politburo, which now regarded him with the respect of people well aware – because he'd made sure they were aware – that he had embarrassing files upon all of them, like America's Edgar Hoover had retained unchallenged his control of the FBI with his tittle-tale dossiers upon US Congressmen and presidents. Kalenin had been a young and never-suspected overseas agent in Washington during the last year of Hoover's reign and had been unimpressed by the ability of the country's counter-intelligence service. He'd applauded the advantage of incriminating information, though, and followed Hoover's example when he had gained the ultimate promotion to Dzerzhinsky Square. Although he had taken the precaution Kalenin was unsure if he would ever use it as a defence, because he found the idea of blackmail distasteful, like he found assassination distasteful. The defection was a good enough excuse to abandon the idea but Kalenin, a forever cautious man, thought there might also be a good and protective reason to let it run.
Although the question had been put more to Berenkov than to the head of the assassination division, it was Lvov who responded. 'A great deal of planning and effort has gone into the operation,' he said, an ambitious man defending something personally his.
Excerpted from The Run Around by Brian Freemantle. Copyright © 1988 Brian Freemantle. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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